Spinal Tap and the Art of Survival

Another Spinal Tap week. You know the kind, when every time you manage to tweak your personal stress dial down to maybe a 6 or 7 (with autism in the house, it will never be below 5 unless several of us are unconscious), the Universe decides to crank it up to 11. So just as I was trying to build some order into our days, organising days out, insisting on chores and that Lily did some studying… a friend was hospitalised for almost a week. She has no family and is a single mother, which made her heavily dependent on friends to bring in changes of clothes, wash laundry as needed, bring her son in to see her. Most – almost all – of this fell to me, as it seemed very few were stepping up to help. It’s not possible to say NO to someone who is in hospital alone, scared and desperate, at least not for me. So my two have been left to their own devices – literally, computers and phones – while I’ve been driving to and from the hospital, dashing into the supermarket, collecting her son, cooking and houseworking, and still trying to squeeze in a couple of trips and activities for the summer holidays, all the time knowing that this wasn’t sustainable. Thankfully, as I write this, she’s now been released, but will still need a considerable amount of help at home; her home is half a mile away though and not fifteen miles, which makes it easier.

Several things emerge from all this. Firstly a documentary by Paul O’Grady about the working classes that I caught during the week in which he suggested that being working class was an attitude and set of values – the unspoken implication being that working class people had a stronger moral ethic about looking after each other. It had to be that way, helping each other out in times of illness and hardship, creating a web of kindness and loyalty that was the earliest version of the Welfare State. You helped each other, because you might be next in need. You helped each other, because you were up close with each other’s suffering, and one family going under could be any family going under. I’ve heard it argued that going wayyy back in history, the tribe’s hunters would share out the meat they’d caught – it wasn’t exactly easy to hoard it, pre-refrigeration. Stockpiling it or demanding that others paid a high price for it (pre-currency) just wasn’t feasible. Sharing it was not only generous, it boosted your social value to the tribe and created a debt of gratitude. If the hunter was injured or ill, it was then more likely that they would be looked after by the others. The anarchist creed; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Until relatively recently I’ve always believed that most people acted in this way, now I’m not so sure; a lot of people seem to be walking around wearing the attitudinal equivalent of Melania Trump’s I Really Don’t Care jacket. So; care. Help. Be kind. It’s revolutionary.

Second – thank God for the NHS. I’m trying to avoid politics on this blog, but it’s not as if politics are separate from real life. Things that our grandparents and older generations fought for are under attack again, as chunks of the NHS are sold off to private companies, workers’ rights are eroded through zero hours contracts and enforced “self-employment” for firms such as Uber, meaning that people lose the right to holidays, sick pay, pensions etc. Again, I thought that those battles had been won on the understanding that it was right and necessary to pay workers fairly, give them enough time off, look after them when they’re sick… but no, there are still too many bosses and CEOs who really Really Don’t Care and are more than willing to exploit others for wealth. I’m in despair at where our society is heading and that the fight – basically the fight to get everyone to treat each other with respect and fairness – is neverending. But in the meantime there’s a 10 year old boy who still has a mother, thanks to the NHS.

Third – if it were me that was ill, I’d be screwed. I don’t have any back up, no one to look after the kids, drive them to school etc. I really don’t know what I’d do and it’s terrifying. I will just have to add it to the list of things I’m not allowed to think about.

Fourth – I can’t change the circumstances. I can’t magic good health for my friend, a house with a parking space for me, or take away Lily’s epilepsy or ADHD. So it’s going to have to come down to changing my attitude – grrr, my hackles are up already at the thought of it – and developing better coping strategies. I’ve been complaining too much, which seems fair given the stupid amount of things I’m having to deal with, but which doesn’t actually help any. This creating a life worth living isn’t easy, particularly when the pressure keeps getting turned up, but I’m so aware of how my days have become about surviving rather than thriving, and wanting to change that. Better support systems are required – and let’s face it, we’re talking self-support here – somehow finding habits and actions that build positivity and peace of mind. I also need more downtime and mental space, particularly if I’m going to seriously start writing again; I can squeeze in the time, but my brain is too frazzled to do anything with it. Which makes it sound like I need to take up meditation. Bother. Perhaps I can transmute this into more gardening instead?

Fifth – I’ve been determined to keep up with my newfound exercise. I refuse to use the word regime. Still fitting in an early morning swim, a yoga class, a Pilates class before heading off to hospital or the To Do list. Before now I’ve had gym memberships that went entirely to waste – exercising was something I should do rather than wanted to do, and working out felt like punishment. Now, I’m treating it as me-time and approaching it gently, making it far more sustainable. I’ve still got absolutely no desire to head into the proper gym and attack the treadmill or cross-trainer, and so I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I might be the youngest in my exercise classes by a good 20 years, but hey – it’s working. Exercise is becoming my support rather than a bugbear, which is a lovely, positive shift. Along with intermittent fasting and a general reduction in snacking and comfort eating, I’ve been able to lose almost a stone over the past month. I guess this ties in with the previous point, creating support systems and positivity. Finally, I’m seeing some kind of recovery in action. Now I just need to expand that into the rest of my life…

On anger and housework.

Bone weary. The house unravelling around me. A month ago I had the downstairs looking reasonably clean and tidy to the point where I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone called in. Now I’d have to barricade the door. The relentlessness of it is wearing me down, while frustration and resentment build up that the kids ignore the chores while I nag and nag until I’m screaming. When I finally crack and yell and get either of them to at long last do the thing I’ve spent days asking them to do – take a bath! Take your clean washing upstairs! Bring your laundry down to the basket! Please fetch the dirty glasses and plates from your room! – they look at me like I’m being entirely unreasonable.

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

Last weekend I had to drop everything to take a friend to hospital, about fifteen miles away. I sat with her for two hours, until they decided she needed to stay in for 24 hours. She didn’t have anything with her, so I drove back again to pack an overnight bag, making sure I washed the dishes sitting in her sink so she wouldn’t have to come home to them. I stopped off to buy a couple of drinks and snacks to make sure she didn’t go hungry if the NHS food wasn’t up to much, and because there’s not a lot of choice of drinks other than tea and coffee. Back to the hospital, keeping her company for another hour until visiting time was over and she was being taken away for an X-ray. It was about six hours all in all, and I didn’t mind any of it, I’m glad to be of use to her. “This is the closest thing I’ve had to a night out in a long time,” I told her. I wasn’t even joking.

What I minded was texting the kids at 9.15pm to let them know I was on my way home, only to be told that they hadn’t cooked enough food for me after all and I’d need to stop off and buy some dinner for myself. Thank God there was a Tesco Express close to the hospital. Getting home after 10 to discover that no one had thought to wash the dishes but had just piled up more, and that the laundry – my bed linen – was still hanging on the line in the damp evening air. Lily was still playing on the computer in the living room – despite having assured me in an argument earlier that day that she was perfectly capable of self-regulating her computer time, breaks, conduct etc.

“Lily, you’ve been playing on it for over seven hours straight.”

“No, I’ve taken some breaks, I was doing Wii Sports with Ivy.”

Taking a break from the computer to play on the Wii is not what I consider a legitimate break. It took another twenty minutes to chase her off it and into her bedroom, then I sat down with a sad-looking microwave carbonara that went against all of my dietary rules, in a living room full of computers, wires, papers and general detritus.

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

I wanted to flop down on my bed, exhausted, and go straight to sleep. I had to make it first, with slightly damp sheets. I tried to convince myself the dampness would be refreshing after another hot day.

Morning, and the messy kitchen still needs to be tackled, the dishes are still waiting to be washed. A mouldy glass of water appears overnight, brought down from someone’s bedroom. It takes some doing to create mouldy water. The garden needs watering, and the weeds need pulling before they take over. Another load to put in the washing machine, and when did Ivy last change her bedding? A meal plan needs putting together, a shopping list made and presumably shopped for. There are bricks to collect from a house around the corner, before the skip is taken away tomorrow, they’ve said I can have them for my garden to make paths with. I need to cancel my car insurance and hire a handyman and fill out the forms to reclaim the travel costs from Lily’s last appointment, and sort out a new password for my bank account. I’m still feeling angsty and agitated after a week in which several strangers saw fit to have a go at me over things that really didn’t warrant it – triggering as hell after 4 years of Simon blaming me for stuff that wasn’t my fault. Half of me wants to curl up under the sheets and not get up, the other half is screaming that I should just jump in my car and drive away, escape and leave it all behind. I’m going to have to have the talk with the kids again, the same one I keep having, the one that goes I need you to help me. You live here too. You know what jobs need doing. Please do some of them without me having to constantly nag and beg for help. I really can’t do everything on my own. I am so so sick of this one-sided conversation. I’ve left a sign saying No Computer on Lily’s computer, but I can hear her playing. When I go down, she’s on the Wii instead, no chores done, no studying done, wearing the same clothes she’s had on all week and when I try to remonstrate that she shouldn’t be playing games when there’s jobs to be done, she’s utterly unrepentant.

“Get off my ass,” I hear her muttering as I leave the room. I explode at her, pent up with all the jobs I’m trying to do at once.

Do I have to die? Do I have to actually die before someone helps me?

It’s the relentlessness of being a single parent that’s grinding me down. There’s no pause button, no support, no respite. Not a single day off. Not a single night off. I need a holiday from my life, basically. A week where the stress and struggle can stop. I may as well be asking to go to the Moon. And beneath all this – the hurt. The injustice. The anger burning a hole through my chest. Because this is what Simon has done to me. I’m struggling day after day after day with no hope of respite, no hope of any improvement, while he lords it up in their big house, with parking and garage, with holidays whenever they want, with absolutely no responsibilities, no kids to make a mess or interrupt their plans, while still claiming that he is the victim in all of this. I want to scream. I want to throw rocks at his windows and plenty of other stuff that for legal reasons I should definitely not admit to in a public forum. And I despair. Will I ever be healed of this? Of him?

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

I don’t want my life to be a constant reminder of the abuse that I was put through. But it’s hard, when every single day the house is still too small, and I don’t have anywhere to park, and I’m bent double under the weight of holding it all together and raising the kids single-handedly …and Simon’s got away scot-free. Without Legal Aid, there’s no way I could afford to take him back to court to get a fairer settlement, even if that was an actual legal possibility, which it probably isn’t. There should be a free tribunal, a couple of years after divorce, that you could go back to if it’s obvious that your ex lied about finances and circumstances and have any imbalances redressed. Too often divorce settlements are based on equal childcare that somehow disappears once he’s won himself a bigger house and more money than he’d have got if the judge knew the kids would end up with you full time. Sadly I’ve heard too many similar stories to mine and the injustice burns; what I went through, what so many other women have been put through, or are going through right now.

Every time I struggle to find a parking space for the night while I’m exhausted and having to carry shopping bags a quarter mile back to the house, I think of Simon with his garage and driveway. Every time the house feels cluttered and overwhelming and I despair of ever turning our too small house into a comfortable home, I think of Simon with his four bedrooms and two receptions. Every time I give up and close the holiday websites, knowing I just can’t afford to take us away during school vacations, I think of Simon, able to jet away with Astrid off-peak, whenever he wants. Every time I’m faced with Lily raging at me over school work, or being asked to take a bath, or refusing to get off her computer for a break, I think of Simon, who never has to bother with her behaviour. And so on, and so on. How do you heal when the very cornerstones of daily life are a trigger?

This might not be how I want life to look or feel, yet I have no idea of how to get from here to there. So many of us are in that same boat, trapped by financial circumstances that we have little chance of improving, certainly not when other factors are in play; children, disabilities, divorce, trauma, illness, family, lay-offs. If you have money, a solution is affordable for so many of the obstacles in life. If not, the obstacles seem insurmountable, blocking the path to earning the money that would ease the situation.

My friend texts me, she’s going to have to stay in for another 24 hours and needs me to bring more clothes. Here I am complaining about my life while a friend is fighting cancer. Another wake up call, but I’m getting angry at how it’s the good people who seem to suffer most. Prayer, Lottery ticket, a giant red button to just make things stop for a while; I don’t have the answers to how to make life better right now. I really wish I did. In the meantime; just keep breathing.

Building up and slimming down; weight and image post-abuse.

One of the exercises we did together on the domestic abuse recovery course was to create an image of a victim of domestic abuse, sketched out on the flip chart by the facilitator. Our cartoon woman wasn’t necessarily covered in bruises, after all not everyone is a victim of physical violence, it was more about capturing the effects of living with long term emotional and psychological abuse. She was, we decided, either underweight from chronic stress and not being able to eat, or overweight from comfort eating. Bags and dark circles under her eyes from stress-related insomnia. Her hair was a mess, her clothes frumpy as she couldn’t justify spending any money on herself – even if she had any money to spend. She might be missing a tooth after not taking care or herself, or maybe she was grinding her teeth at night. Her shoulders were constantly up around her ears, stiff with stress and anxiety, causing tension that gave her migraines. Her expression was a rigid mask of fear, always worrying about what was going to happen next, scanning the horizon for the next attack, or frowning as her mind replayed what had already happened. She might well have developed an ongoing health complaint; as well as migraines and insomnia there could be IBS, panic attacks, hypertension, eczema as well as even more serious issues. She wasn’t looking good, in other words.

At home the decluttering continues, and it seems to be time to tackle the photos. As well as boxes of unsorted prints, CDs, memory sticks and folder after folder of digital shots, there are now several albums of unwanted memories. What do you do with your wedding album now that you’re divorced? Burn it? Keep it for the kids? Going through the pictures I’m struck by how unbelievably pale I look – some kind of iron supplement intervention was surely required – and how thin I am, my dress being taken in to a UK size 10 for the big day. Happy too, so very happy. In those days I had no problem posing for photographs, could look in the mirror and smile at myself. Now I shy away from cameras and tend to avoid mirrors, my reflection usually making my heart sink. Who is that woman? I don’t recognise myself – the extra weight, the thinning, frizzy hair, dull eyes and resigned expression. She feels so heavy, this stranger in the mirror, not just her bloated belly and aching legs but her spirit too. Can she possibly be the same person as the beaming young woman in her wedding dress? It doesn’t seem likely. She’s the woman from the flip chart, self esteem eroded and replaced by self-neglect, health suffering, defeated.

Body positivity seems to be a new trend, with fashion models ranging from what can only be described as normal (rather than seriously underweight) to curvaceous to overweight now being called body activists. I’m all for a healthier depiction of female bodies rather than only young, skinny, flawless forms being shown in the media, but frankly? Fat is fat. Right now, I’m overweight. Fat. Not a body activist. I’ve gone up from a size 12-14 to a 16-18, perhaps even larger at times. Most of my clothes no longer fit. And while I could embrace body positivity and learn to love myself the way I am, that’s not going to help my arteries, or my pre-diabetic state. Being overweight isn’t healthy. Being underweight isn’t healthy either. And while we shouldn’t be shaming each other over our weight, let’s not pretend that being obese is good for you, no matter how lovely your Instagram posts look. I hate feeling this way, heavy and bloated and tired, no energy or enthusiasm, no shine in my eyes. While I will never be that skinny girl in the photos again, it’s time to change, both inside and out. I need to lose around 4 stone – 4! – to get down to a healthy weight. I want to wake up in the morning feeling energised rather than exhausted. Above all, I’d like to be able to look into the mirror and smile at myself again. The mission; building myself up inside, while slimming down the outside.

Progress is slow and it’s hard not to rely on sugar as an emotional crutch, particularly when Lily is is giving me a hard time – and generally Lily is always giving me a hard time. A couple of times previously I’ve tried to start losing the weight, only for life to crash and burn around me; out came the chocolate again. This time I’ve lost maybe two pounds, but the scales seem to already be stuck, not moving any further down. But I have to go gently, have to trust that this will work, that I’m capable of succeeding. After years of hauling myself through a marriage devoid of affection, after living with a husband who never reached for me, after enduring the emotional and psychological torment of the past few years, I’m not willing to put myself through more. No more abuse, no beating myself up, no blame, no shame. I reached for food rather than the bottle during a time of unbearable stress, even while knowing there would ultimately be a price to pay. But now it’s time. It has to be. My journey back to wellbeing has to come from self-kindness rather than a form of self-hatred. To make healthier choices out of love for myself, wanting to heal my body, rather than punishing myself or feeling deprived. And to do it while loving myself – or learning to love myself – rather than hiding from my own reflection.

The Summer Manifesto

“What on earth is that?” my friend asked, staring at the corkboard in my kitchen. On it, a piece of paper covered with writing and drawings, proudly bearing the title Summer Manifesto.

“Oh, it’s just a list of things we’d like to do this summer,” I answered, suddenly embarrassed by her tone. Was this yet another thing that normal people didn’t do? And if so, how did they keep track of all the different activities on offer, places to go, films to watch, stuff to try out?

That was a few years ago, but the Summer Manifesto has now become a tradition for us. Everyone is encouraged to come up with ideas, on the understanding that these are suggestions, and we might not be able to do all of them- it’s critical to manage expectations when dealing with Aspergers. Suggestions range from going to a particular park to swimming in the lake, having a picnic to going on holiday. The unlikelihood of being able to afford a holiday makes our Manifesto even more important when it comes to making our summers special. It means on days when there’s nothing planned we’ve got a ready made list of suggestions. It also lets me know what the kids’ priorities are, rather than me setting up activities they’re not that interested in, and that sometimes their wishes are remarkably simple. Plus it gives me a chance to look in advance for Groupon offers for things we might not otherwise try.

I’m a firm believer that kids need downtime, so I don’t pack every hour of every day with non-stop activities. In fact it’s vital to build in Decompression Days after a big day out to prevent everyone getting overtired and overstimulated and generally hellish. The flip side of that is that it’s easy to let the school holidays slip away without really having done much. Having a manifesto means I can make sure we’ve got at least one activity or outing planned for each week, rather than realising we’re into the final few days of the holidays and need to cram it all in at the last minute. It makes it more likely that I’ll have thought about things in advance and therefore have time to invite a friend to join us. The main benefit is that by the end of the summer, we’ll have had a bundle of good experiences as a family which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Given the nastiness of the divorce, I’m keen to pack as many positive experiences in as I can before the kids are grown in the hope of giving them at least some happy memories to look back on.

The Manifesto also lays out expectations around chores etc, making it clear that no electronic gadgets are to be used until chores have been done. When the kids were younger, the rule was they had to choose 2 out of 3 activities; something creative, something educational, or something helpful. Allowing them to make a choice made them feel more empowered, meaning it was more likely that they’d cooperate with what was basically an attempt to make sure that they didn’t spend all day every day watching TV or playing on the computer. This year, aged 13 and 15, I’m just laying down the law as to what needs doing around the house; if it doesn’t get done, the planned activity isn’t going to happen. I’d really like to encourage Lily to spend some time studying as she enters her final GCSE year – it’s unlikely that I’ll achieve this without a massive amount of conflict though.

So on Day One of the school holidays we sat down together to work on this year’s Manifesto, complete with a Pinterest inspiration board to back it up with. This year’s suggestions vary from make smoothies to have a campfire to fix up the bikes and go for a ride, all the way up to hold a festival in our garden. Allrighty then, I’ll see if I can get The Killers booked in for next Thursday, and maybe a Portaloo or two. Like I said, it’s an ideas list so everything is allowed but not everything will happen. Alongside it is a weekly planner sheet to write on the day’s activities and chores, plus any reminders about appointments etc. It’s what works for us, another example of how ADHD requires us to be more organised in a way that has other people describe us as OCD or anal or asking What on earth is that? Whatever. On the second day of the holidays we were running round shooting each other at Laser Tag, which wouldn’t have happened without the Manifesto. Next week it’s Tubing at the nearby ski centre, courtesy of Groupon. We all want to think of ourselves as spontaneous but it’s worth planning for fun; the sands of time will keep on trickling through the hourglass of our days regardless of whether or not we’ve planned for them. Let’s try and make sure that some of life sparkles on its way past.

Not waving, drowning.

7.30am. The water feels deliciously cool as I walk down the steps into the pool. The kids have been dropped off at the bus stop, and I’ve realised that rather than turning around and going back home, I could keep on driving and get to the leisure centre for an early morning swim. I’ve registered with a local scheme that gives a free swim pass to children with a disability, and to their parent/carer- it’s time to make use of it. I’m not much of a swimmer, but it’s not so much the swimming itself, it’s the noise and splashing and kids jumping in over my head, and the wet floor that brings me out in an overwhelmed, hyper-stimulated anxiety attack. At this time in the morning though it’s quiet, just me and the pensioners. I desperately want to get back into shape, feel fitter and healthier but since my battle with plantar fasciitis last year I’m nervous about putting my feet under strain. This seems to be the right answer; quiet, calm, gentle. My old-lady breaststroke style of swimming is entirely fitting here, fast enough to still count as exercise, yet giving me the space to iron out my thoughts and ease into the day. I begin to get excited; I’ve found something that works for me, 20 minutes of respite, of precious and healthy self-care to start my day with. Can I keep this up during the holidays when I don’t have the school run? I ask myself, feeling that the answer is still a yes. I know I need this.

I swim on the Monday and Wednesday. Friday morning, I’m tired but push myself to pack my swim bag anyway – I want to make this a habit and I know I’ll feel better for it. My membership card scans on the way in and I head to the changing room, only to hear the shrieks of over-excited kids already in the pool. I peek in and see lots of children throwing a ball around in the pool. Evidently, it’s not the early morning session I was hoping for. Back to the desk; Sorry, I’ve only just started coming in the mornings, is it on at a different time? The receptionist explains that the swim session doesn’t start until 8am on Fridays. A 20 minute wait; I decide to head back to the car to retrieve a book to read, given that the cafe doesn’t open until 9 and there’s absolutely nothing to do but stare into space in the meantime.

7.55. I’ve been reading in the car, but now put the book away and head back in for a swim. This time however, my card doesn’t scan. “Can I take a look at your card?” the receptionist asks, scanning it at her desk. “Oh, there’s nothing on your account, you need to pay.” I explain that I’m a member of the free swimming scheme. “No, that’s only if you’ve got the young person with you.”

I leave.

There are tears in my eyes as I stop off at the 24 hour supermarket to pick up something for dinner. I’m struggling not to cry as I drive home. I check the website for the swim scheme. It’s badly worded, talks of free swimming for disabled children and their Carers, but says nothing about it being only when you’re accompanying your child. I even phone up to check.

“Is it possible for the organisation to ask for Carers to be able to swim for free, just to give us some respite?” I ask.

“No, the leisure centres are doing us a favour as it is,” she answers. As if the leisure centres weren’t raking it in already, and also receiving public funding.

“But the over 60s swim for free?” I’ve heard the chatter in the changing rooms – these are pensioners who are not struggling financially. I don’t understand why they can swim for free but Carers can’t.

There’s the bottom line; I can only swim for free if I’m taking Lily. Except of course, I can’t take Lily to the early morning sessions, even if it didn’t clash with the school run; she’s far too loud, too chaotic. There would be complaints. Similarly, it’s hell for me to swim during Lily-friendly sessions; I just can’t bear it when it’s so loud and crowded, that adds to my stress rather than relieving it. I desperately need respite, and I desperately need exercise – but I will have to pay for both. If I managed to get a concessionary swim price, it would be £2 per swim. £6 per week. Over £300 a year. Non-concession, it’s £3, £9 and over £450. Our much-longed-for holiday, in other words. So while I could bumble along paying £2 per swim, I would no longer be enjoying the sessions because I’d be thinking too much about what they cost. It would cease to be me-time and become something I was paying to do in order to get fit. No longer a treat. I should be able to move money around, do it anyway – yet mentally and emotionally something has shifted in a way that’s hard to explain. Perhaps it’s because the free swimming felt like a gift, an acknowledgement that caring for an autistic child is so difficult and here was somebody who wanted to help me in some way. Having to pay turns that into Tough. Get on with it. Perhaps I’ve just reached the end of my rope, can’t take any more knock backs. Perhaps it’s anger at how once again, the people at the bottom of the ladder miss out; if you’re struggling financially then exercise becomes a luxury. Realistically, even “free” activities require money; eg a decent pair of trainers if you’re taking up running, otherwise you’ll wreck your feet.

I’m left feeling like I can’t have nice things. That the Universe has some kind of personal grudge against me, that this has been a pattern for over 10 years now; any time that I find something that makes my life easier or happier, it’s taken off me again. Just a taste, just enough to get excited, then – poof! Gone. That I want to be happy, grateful and generous in this life – but events keep conspiring against me to a point where by rights anger and bitterness should surely be the default emotions. It’s so much work to try and reverse this negative spiral – yet it’s like pushing a washing machine up the helter skelter; crazy, difficult and the minute you try to rest for a minute, it’s going to slide back down and crush you.

A few days pass. I talk to Mum, who does her best to talk sense into me. “That’s only what you’d spend on coffee and cake in a cafe, and it would be doing you good,” she reminds me.

“Yeah, it’s just I’ve taken out gym memberships before and just wasted them, haven’t gone in.” Being surrounded by no-neck muscle-grunters and perky gym bunnies is not my idea of fun.

In the meantime, my blood results come back from the GP; surprisingly my thyroid is working just fine and for once I’m not anaemic – my constant tiredness is a medical mystery. However, I’m now officially in the pre-diabetic stage. If I don’t get my weight, blood sugar etc under control then I’ll likely develop Type 2 Diabetes within the next 5 years. I’ve been wanting to improve my general state of health – the blood results are the final kick in the pants that I need. It’s back to the 5:2 plan, to cutting my emotional dependency on sugar and comfort food and to getting back into shape. Perhaps the lesson that I need to learn is not that the Universe doesn’t want me to have good things, but that it’s time to start looking after myself properly, which means being willing to invest in my health . I call the Leisure Centre.

Hi. I want to take out membership.

Grand Day Out

(My Nan would have called this a “Knicky Knacky Noo Shop,” but I’m sure they’d prefer “Antique” or “Vintage”, Notting Hill.)

Lily has regular clinic appointments in London, which on the whole we tend to treat as a Grand Day Out, catching the first off-peak train and waiting until the afternoon rush hour is over before making our way home. A couple of times I’ve tried to fit in taking Lily to London while also getting Ivy to school but it caused to much chaos and stress. When the last trip meant an hour and a half’s delay on the train while Ivy was home alone, I decided enough was enough – Ivy comes too. Both children being off at the same time inevitably makes school suspicious, as if I’m determined to sabotage their education by secretly nipping off to the Seychelles for the day. But no – it’s a genuine hospital appointment, and I’m doing the best I can to balance everyone’s needs including my own. The trip is educational in its own way – as a former home schooler I recognise that everything has educational potential – and we usually end up in one of the museums, or exploring somewhere new. School holiday appointments bring their own problems – yes, we’re not missing school, but London is far more busy and crowded, proving too much for Lily’s Aspergers. Lily also refuses to use the Tube when it’s crowded, resulting in some epic walks across London to make it back to Paddington on time for the train home – this was especially difficult when I was hobbling along with plantar fasciitis, having to practise Lamaze breathing techniques to get me through each step of a three mile walk from Camden, having already been on my feet for most of the day.

(Sculpture or alien invasion, we couldn’t quite decide, River Thames.)

It’s hard to believe that I once wanted to live in London. I was all set on a career in The Media, without really knowing what that would look like, just that I’d be heading off to London to do exciting things in film and television or magazines. Instead I fell in love with Simon and moved to a tiny town where Media careers simply weren’t a thing. Now when I look back I’m not sure whether that was a wasted opportunity or a lucky escape – I’m not sure that I’d like the person that I’d have to become to succeed in that game. Certainly I quit my on-the-job training as a features journalist when I was being asked to phone an elderly woman who I knew was sitting in a hospital holding hands with her second husband as he was slowly dying from a brain tumour, to ask her whether her previous fiance had actually died in her arms or just on the floor. I couldn’t believe that anyone would think it was okay to do that, but the young woman on the other end of the phone didn’t seem to register that we were dealing with people’s very real lives and emotions and that there was a duty of care not to traumatise an innocent person for the sake of a single sentence of the story. I’d struggle to live in London now; the 24 hr hectic, non-stop pace, the busyness, the crowds, the glazed, unconnected look on people’s faces as they ignore each other in a bid to find personal space. It’s an entirely artificial lifestyle in a hard, artificial environment, something that I seem to struggle with more and more as I get older.

(We’ll take this one please, Notting Hill.)

The 2pm appointment cut into the day, leaving not quite enough time before or after to really do much. We decided to explore Notting Hill, finding brightly painted townhouses and a vibe on the chichi side of boho. One of the streets was unbelievably picturesque, each painted house seemingly trying to compete with the next, all with lovingly tended tiny front gardens that showed that even the smallest space can be transformed into a personal haven. We decided the house with roses spilling around the door and windows was our favourite. Neither of the kids have seen the eponymous film, but I pointed out some of the landmarks nonetheless; the Travel Bookshop, now a tacky tourist souvenir shop, the blue door that was supposedly Hugh Grant’s house, the cafe where he buys the drink he spills over Julia Roberts. The kids just asked who Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were, and I felt ancient. We found a small public park in one of the squares, and sat to eat our sandwiches. There are countless such pocket parks around London, some public, some private, providing small sanctuaries of green to counteract the hectic pace of the city; more and more I find myself drawn to and appreciating such spaces.

(Pocket Park, Notting Hill.)

On the spur of the moment, we decided to take the bus to the hospital rather than disappearing back underground; remarkably I managed to work out which bus to catch from which bus stop. The drawback of the Tube is that you never build up a sense of London, how the areas connect and interact, the flavour of each district – each location is an isolated dot centred around the nearest Tube station. From the bus we could get a sense of people’s everyday lives, from the blocks of flats and corner shops, to the hidden Mews and gold Maserati. Plant pots balanced on windowsills, balconies dressed up with tiny gardens, a table and chair, or a washing line; little glimpses of lives being lived, of people claiming their spaces and dressing them up.

(Matching planters extends the wall height, creating a private courtyard, Notting Hill.)

After the rather intense appointment, we headed to South Kensington – Lily into the Science Museum while Ivy and I went into the V&A, relieved that Lily is of an age where I can let her wander on her own, mobile phone in hand. We’d intended to go look at an exhibition, but by that point we were both too hot and frazzled. Instead, we took our shoes and socks off and sat in the courtyard garden, dipping our feet into the water, instantly feeling calmer and cooler. A group of men in suits sat behind us, remarking to themselves that the toddlers had the right idea, going paddling, isn’t that what we all want to do, take our shoes and socks off and get in the water? I wondered what was stopping them. There were no signs up telling you not to put your feet in the water, no members of staff patrolling the perimeter. It was a very hot day. On some days I might have turned round and asked them directly, my own feet firmly in the water; what’s stopping you? Not on this day though. Too hot. Too overstimulated. I let them stew in their business suits. When we were ready to go, we rescued the fallen leaves from the succulents that had been planted beneath two tall trees. It was clear that these beds were not the right environment for succulents, and from the looks of it they hadn’t even been planted properly. Ivy picked up the fallen, plump leaves and stored them in her packed lunch box, hoping to bring them home and replant them.

(Giant bubbles outside the Science Museum, London.)

We came out of the V&A by the new side entrance, all gleaming white tiles and stone. The sun bounced off the white steps, dazzling us. I wish they’d planted a couple of trees instead. I’m not a fan of sleek, minimalist modernism, not when everything in sight is manmade, unnatural. Put a few trees in, a couple of raised beds, and I’d be happy. Instead, they’d made a sun trap even brighter, even hotter, to the point where it was uncomfortable for our eyes. I thought of the YouTube video I’d watched in the bath that morning, a couple in Mexico who transformed a wall in their house with re-used, repurposed plastic bottles, turning them into chains of planters, each one dripping down into the one beneath, the water caught in a reservoir bottle at the bottom and poured back into the watering can. A refreshing wall of green. I thought of the tiny balcony and basement gardens we’d spotted from the bus, of the smart front yards in Notting Hill, all cramming as much greenery as they could into tiny spaces. It seems a human instinct to bring nature into our living spaces, to prettify and green up our personal environments. Yet too often nature is simply missed out of the equation when it comes to public spaces. I’m with Hundertwasser and his tree tenants and grass-roofed buildings. The city is an alien enough environment; we’re simply not designed for such high-density, fast-paced living – there are even video adverts on the side of London bin lorries, for goodness sake. If we venerate design as being entirely man-made, if we exclude plants and trees as being too messy for our sleek, hip, spaces, we create more artificiality. We contribute to the chaos of the city. Sitting around the courtyard pond, an environment with grass, trees and cloud-trimmed bushes, everyone was relaxed. On crowded tubes, busy pavements and visually over-stimulating unnatural environments – adverts crowded in to every space, people are frazzled.

(Wild strawberries growing in public park, Notting Hill.)

Often on the train home, I head into the corridor long before our stop, knowing that once we’ve passed the final station before our own, we head through wooded valleys where the river winds through. The window open, I breath in the cool air, smelling the damp earth, calming my hyper-stimulated senses with the greenness of it all. There’s still the drive home, the kids to be put to bed, jobs to be done – and then hopefully the first sip of a much-awaited cup of tea before falling exhausted into bed. Wondering how on earth people manage to live full-time in cities like London, so cut off from nature, knowing that I’m glad I’ve opted for a quieter life. Knowing too that we all need more green – in our homes, our gardens and in our public and work environments. And if anyone could work out how to cover a tube train in moss and ferns, we should give them the horticultural equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

The gift of an ordinary life

I think I might just have got the very thing I’ve been asking for for a long time; a week where nothing happened. Granted, it was preceded by a mental health crisis that I could have done without, but then there was definitely almost a week where there were no new problems to deal with. I cracked on with the garden, the housework, trying to catch up in general. It was bliss. This is what normal must feel like, I told myself. With the weather being so beautiful I’d persuaded the kids to catch the bus to and from school, which meant a much earlier start in the morning but resulted in so much more time and energy for me.

Of course, it couldn’t last. I made every effort to let the Universe know how much I appreciated the gift of a quiet, ordinary week in the hope that I would continue to be so fortunate, but no. Normality resumed. The quote for the shower came in around £500 more than expected. A phone call from school to let me know that other parents were expressing concern about Lily’s behaviour in class, given that she spent the whole time talking about being a vampire, seeing demons and being in possession of a Deathbook, all of which caused too much disruption in class to be tolerated. The CYPS crisis team had been contacted and were expressing concern that Lily’s epilepsy medicine might be behind what appeared to be some kind of delusional psychotic crisis, and the teacher urged me to contact them myself. Why? I found myself thinking. This is just normal for us. None of it is actually real, it’s more that Lily is now play-acting to an absolute extreme. A second call the next day to say that Lily had spent her IT lesson refusing to do any work, insisting instead that she needed to use the internet to help solve a murder in Utah. Thank God it was the last day of term, although the pastoral teacher didn’t think I was going to survive half term looking after Lily on my own and ordered me to make an appointment with the GP as soon as possible. All of this happened while I was in the middle of a meeting with a local charitable organisation in the hope that they could help me get back into work. Frankly, it did nothing but prove that a job would be impossible to handle right now.

The plan was to head up north to spend a few days with my family and celebrate my Dad’s birthday. We set out over an hour later than I’d hoped, because of course Lily had decided to get the late bus home from school so she could do her music, despite knowing we were heading out on a long drive. Similarly Ivy hadn’t bothered to pack the night before as requested, and the minutes slipped by later and later while I despaired of ever leaving, knowing how tired I was going to feel with a five hour drive ahead of me. Almost as soon as we set out though, the car started flashing up error messages; faulty brake light. Error; Anti pollution faulty. The car was struggling to get up to speed, feeling sluggish and juddery. I pulled into a garage to double check my air pressure, in the hope that this would magically transform the performance of the entire vehicle. No such luck. By the time we got onto the motorway, it was clear that the car wasn’t going to make it. Instead, we came off at the first junction and headed for home. This is after the car breaking down on the motorway in February, after paying to get through the MOT in January and after replacing the clutch last Autumn, plus repairs to the radiator. I did my best to get the car fixed on the following day, but the garage weren’t able to solve it in time before closing for the bank holiday, leaving me with a car that wasn’t behaving well enough to undertake any serious driving. Half term, bank holiday and we were stuck. The trip north was cancelled and neither could I risk any of our usual day trips.

Meanwhile Ivy has been falling apart over being placed in a new teaching group without any of her friends. She’s had such a hard time in the last couple of years that I’ve contacted school to ask if she can move classes – of course, all I’m getting back is the tired old we can’t make exceptions for one child or we’d have to do it for everyone. Oh really? So if she had hearing or sight difficulties they wouldn’t arrange for her to sit at the front of the class? Ivy has severe anxiety, probably ASD-related, and is still recovering from depression. I’m doing my best to explain to school that this grouping means putting her through further stress and anxiety, including IBS and nausea, so loss of appetite and skipping meals, insomnia and fear about going to bed, plus inability to concentrate in class, inability to raise her hand or answer questions, inability to contribute to group learning and projects, while struggling to control her breathing and fight off panic attacks. It’s taken so long to build up her confidence after all the trauma, and I’m tired of having her knocked down again by either Simon or school. But schools nowadays just close ranks; it’s all about conformity and saving face, there’s never an admission that they’ve made a mistake, there’s no compassion or flexibility. She spent most of today in tears and I’m tired of being fobbed off. So; yet another battle. And now Lily is intent on being “L” from Deathnote, at home, at the supermarket, at school… and now the Tax Credits form needs to be filled out, and so on and so on.

Please stop, I beg the Universe. Please, no more. Give me the gift of an ordinary life, just long enough for us all to recover. Outside, the roses are blooming; can’t we just stop for a while, long enough to smell them?