Creating a life worth living, Self Care

How to Self Care

Articles on Self Care are nearly always accompanied with pictures of luxurious bubble baths, reinforcing the belief that Self Care is all about taking time to relax and pamper yourself. And sometimes it is, but it’s also so much more of that. It’s taken me a long time (until this long!) to realise that Self Care isn’t just about indulging yourself and doing things you enjoy, or treating yourself – a lot of Self Care is about making yourself do the things you need to do to stay healthy both mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Not all of that feels like fun or a pampering treat!

A healthy breakfast outside

(Sometimes Self Care looks like a healthy breakfast eaten in the garden!)

Self Care looks a lot like going to the gym, or for a run or even a daily walk, when you’d much rather stay on the sofa. It looks like making the doctor’s appointment, or arranging the blood test even though you’ve convinced yourself that it’s not important. It’s setting an alarm to remind yourself to meditate, or a bedtime reminder to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. It’s referring yourself to a counsellor or therapist instead of ignoring your problems and telling yourself that you’re fine. Investing in your ongoing education or personal development. Cleaning your house so that your environment doesn’t drag you down. Tackling the To Do list and avoiding procrastination on the tasks you’re anxious about – as the longer you leave it, the more anxiety you’ll have to deal with. Eating sensible meals instead of skipping them and grabbing snacks. Asking for help. Making time for hobbies, crafts or reading even though it means turning off the TV or stopping scrolling through Facebook.

None of this sounds much like fun, or luxurious pampering. It’s about creating healthy routines… then making yourself stick to them as much as possible. It’s not about beating yourself up, but supporting yourself to make better choices. We live in a culture that increasingly tells us not to bother, not to force ourselves into doing things we don’t like or don’t feel like. Yet we have to do things we don’t feel like every single day, otherwise dishes wouldn’t get washed and the laundry hamper would overflow while the wardrobe empties. When I remind Lily that it’s her turn to wash up, she crinkles her nose up at me. “But Mum, I really don’t feel like it.” As if somehow that’s going to get her off the hook. Oh, okay, if you really don’t want to wash up then you don’t have to.I understand. No, my answer is usually along the lines of Tough. It’s your turn, I do it every single day and I never feel like doing it either.

Increasingly I’m realising that Self Care looks a lot like a traditional English Nanny, who simply isn’t going to put up with any nonsense. It’s about telling yourself Tough, you need to do it, like it or not. Realising that as the day ends, you’re going to feel so much more positive if you’ve pushed yourself into doing what needed to be done, rather than convincing yourself that it was fine to take it easy because you didn’t feel like it. Of course, it’s not about beating yourself up, pushing too hard or being hard on yourself. It’s not about turning to productivity gurus and accounting for every single minute of the day. It’s about not giving in to yourself when you know you need to make a better choice. And maybe that looks a lot like Mary Poppins standing over you, arms folded, one eyebrow raised, reminding you that you’re worth taking care of.

  • Set an alarm to get you up on time – not too early, not too late.
  • Start your day with hot water and lemon, or a herbal tea.
  • Try a short meditation session such as the 10 minute Daily Calm (Calm App) to put you in a good frame of mind.
  • A few yoga stretches are a great idea first thing.
  • Take enough time for showering, washing, and dressing in a way that makes you feel good about yourself. If you feel better wearing make-up, take the time to put it on.
  • Avoid watching/listening to The News first thing – play some uplifting music instead.
  • Throw some laundry into the washing machine. You deserve clean clothes.
  • Don’t skip breakfast. Make yourself something nourishing to start the day off right.
  • If you can, sit outside in the early morning sunshine while you eat breakfast or sip your drink.
  • Plan your day. Take a few moments to remind yourself what your priorities need to be. Work out when you’re going to fit in some exercise or a daily walk.
  • Fill your water bottle. Do it in the morning rather than waiting until you get thirsty – if you’ve got it with you then it increases the chances that you’ll sip your water rather than opting for another coffee.
  • Tackle the work that you need to get done. Don’t procrastinate over difficult or unpleasant tasks as they’ll just be hanging over you for even longer, making you anxious and stressed. You’ll feel so much better when you can cross them off the list.
  • Limit your availability as necessary. Check emails a couple of times a day instead of constantly, switch your phone off if you don’t want to be interrupted.
  • Remember to take a break when you need to. Stretch your legs, refill your water.
  • Feed yourself. Make lunch nourishing. Try to sit outside, and read for a short while, preferably from a book or magazine. Don’t eat at your desk or while you’re trying to tackle emails etc.
  • Go for a short walk every day, preferably through a green space. Put your phone away and look around you, start appreciating the beauty of the sky, the trees, the plants and flowers. Take a moment to breathe deeply.
  • Dinner. With vegetables. Home cooked.
  • Take time to wash up and quickly clean up the house. It’s depressing to live in a mess and you’ll feel so much better in the morning if you wake to a clean house.
  • Unwind purposefully in the evenings. Choose how you’re going to spend your time rather than mindlessly watching TV. If your favourite show is on and you want to watch it – great! But don’t sit there watching any old thing – you’d be better off spending time doing a hobby or a craft project. Creativity is brilliant for mental health.
  • Turn screens off an hour before bed time. Avoid anything too mentally or physically taxing as bedtime approaches.
  • Get to bed at a sensible time, make sure you’re getting enough sleep or life starts to feel very difficult.
  • Jot down anything that’s on your mind before bed, anything you need to remember for the next day. Remember to schedule in any healthcare appointments, don’t put them off. Try to write down three things you feel grateful for.
Creating a life worth living, Home, parenting, Self Care

How to Reset your Sanity

Why is it that bad habits are so easy to create and so hard to break, but good habits are hard to build and easily lost? Before Lockdown I had created a strong early morning routine; meditation, herbal tea, a five minute yoga session, journalling and a fresh celery and apple smoothie, before driving Ivy to school – and three days a week immediately hitting the gym. I know. Impressive, huh? But by this past weekend, I had started sleeping in (and staying up too late), reaching for my phone before I meditated, forgetting the yoga and journalling and skipping the smoothie in favour of a coffee and croissant. Dishes were hanging around too long, I was failing to make the most of the good weather, not going for my state-sanctioned daily walk, and Saturday chores didn’t happen. A stress-migraine wiped me out for much of the weekend, and the depressing reality of being a single parent is that it really is down to me to keep the ship afloat. If I’m not on at the kids to do their chores, it simply doesn’t happen – no matter that there’s a chores rota pinned to the wall, no matter that they’ve had years to get used to the idea; unless I specifically ask/nag/yell, then it won’t happen. It’s up to me to keep everyone on track, including myself, otherwise things fall apart with alarming speed.

The shock to my system last week, resulting in the stress migraine, was the rapidly-acting catalyst to everything falling apart. The warning signs started to ping red – staying up stupidly late to watch a film I wasn’t that interested in, then sleeping in the next day after a bout of insomnia. Waking up with a feeling of vague dread. Repetitive thoughts beginning to circle. Realising it had been too many days since I last took a shower. Not wanting to cook, or wash up. Outside feeling too bright, too overstimulating to deal with. Spending too long playing Candy Crush. Craving sweets, the healthy eating plan forgotten. Good habits abandoned, shadow comforts taking over. With it, my mood started deteriorating. It’s a vicious circle; low mood creates executive dysfunction, so the healthy habits and regular routines start to slide away, which means the unhealthy habits creep in to replace them, which lowers your mood even further, which means you’re even less likely to do the stuff you need to do… and so it falls apart.

Most days I still feel like a recalcitrant teenager. I marvel that the rest of the world seems to think that I’m a responsible adult – it doesn’t feel that way to me. A lot of it is ADHD, which can completely paralyse you and prevent you from doing what you should be doing – even what you want to be doing at times. There’s no actual explanation, you just can’t do it. Which is why it’s so important to create structure, to normalise routines and habits, so that they become as standard as brushing your teeth. After a year or more of trying, meditation has finally become a daily habit – my streak on Calm is now an unbroken 108 days; it would be almost double had I not had an overnight stay without WiFi last December. Yet for much of that time, I had to push myself to do it; create reminders so I wouldn’t forget, stick to the same time each day, as soon as I could after waking. It’s this aspect that I’m trying to explain to Ivy and Lily – that we all have to do things that we don’t want to do, and that we have to push ourselves to do things that will be healthy for us in the long run, even if we don’t feel like doing them in the moment. Like going for a run, or quitting sugar, or hoovering. I never feel like washing up, I tell them. But I hate coming downstairs to a dirty kitchen in the morning and it starts the day on a bad note.

Knowing I was slipping meant making a decision – to continue the downward spiral, or hit the reset button now. I reached for my journal, scribbled out what I’d been feeling and how I’d been struggling. Made a plan to pull myself out of the slump, listing what I needed to do each day to feel like I was progressing forward again… then realised it was ridiculously long and I was putting far too much pressure on myself. Separated out what was a daily must-do, and what could be spread out over the week. Woke up this morning and pushed on with re-installing the habits that I need to protect my mental health. Today that looked like writing an emergency letter to the CMS and then queueing outside the Post Office to send it by Recorded Delivery (letters have mysteriously vanished before now…) and then balancing that stress with a couple of hours spent in the garden, starting off seeds and then reading. I even paused to photograph the beautiful blossoms on a nearby tree on my way home, focusing now on the positive. Miraculously, with me feeling back on track and much calmer, both kids spontaneously appeared in the garden too, without me nagging them to come outside – they are refusing to set foot out of the house at the moment. It’s the Bagpuss effect. Washing was hung on the line, my bedlinen changed, a tasty dinner was cooked, the dishes washed, the floor mopped. Tomorrow I’ll wake feeling a bit more sorted, with a stronger impetus to carry on with the good stuff. It just took a good push to get me over the inertia.

So if Lockdown fever is starting to kick in and you’re losing track of the days, take a moment to reset yourself. Most things can be fixed by turning them off and back on again, including people. A journal or day planner is a must – think about what you want to achieve during Lockdown. This might look a lot like Just surviving it with as much of my sanity intact as possible, rather than Write a sequel to War and Peace, but that’s fine. Define what surviving it with your sanity intact looks like – does it mean showing up each day wearing full make-up and office-ready appearance, or going for a daily run, or getting through a whole day without yelling at the kids? Once you know what it looks like, brainstorm how you’re going to achieve it. What daily routines do you need to superglue in place? And when you find yourself slipping, it’s time to grip tighter rather than let go. So much trendy self-improvement talk is about the need to let go or go with the flow – but there are also times when we need to dig in our heels and grab a firm handhold to climb up on rather than plummeting into the abyss. When inertia takes hold ask yourself Do I want to spiral down or do I want to rise up? A little push can go a long way.

abuse, Creating a life worth living, Home, parenting

Survival Instinct

 

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(From Pinterest, original author unknown)

I try to remember that long queues snaking outside the shop have been a normal part of everyday life for millions of people throughout time. The scene feels reminiscent of footage from the Soviet Union back in the 80s, when people didn’t even necessarily know what they were queueing for – you joined the queue and hoped that the food you needed would be there at the end of it. Which essentially was exactly the same situation that I was now in, queueing outside Tesco at 8.30pm, homemade face mask in place, anxiety levels rising and a handy stress-related migraine rapidly building. Trying to follow the newly installed one-way system without missing anything on the list, trying to find alternatives when what we needed wasn’t in stock – no pasta, no rice, no flour, no chicken flavour Super Noodles, trying to maintain the requisite 2m from everyone else… supermarket shopping was stressful enough before Covid19, but it turns out there was a whole new level of pain to overcome.

The stress migraine had largely formed beforehand, with a letter from CMS informing me that they had reversed their original decision and were now ruling in Simon’s favour, judging Lily to no longer be in full time education, so he no longer had to pay maintenance for her. This after he sent false information to the Child Benefits office, telling them that Lily was not in full time education after being expelled from college, ignoring the fact that I was legally home-educating her while she was attending her new college part-time. Having finally won the EHCP we needed to get Lily extra support, she should have now been able to attend full time… except that college was now closed due to the Coronavirus crisis. I had successfully appealed the Child Benefits decision, largely due to the fact that Lily had previously been home educated age 5-8. If that hadn’t been the case, Simon might have been able to get away with it, despite having thrown Lily out and refusing to honour the “equal shared care” Child Arrangements Order that he’d insisted on obtaining. Of course, he’d then tried to use that Order to claim that he retained shared care and shouldn’t have to pay maintenance, but thankfully the CMS ruled against him. Some men will do anything to support their children… others will do anything to get out of paying child support.

With everywhere closed for the Easter Bank Holiday, it was impossible to get any further advice or take action until the following Tuesday, at which point it would be the familiar half hour wait to get through to CMS and explain they’d made their new decision based on false and misleading information. Which meant an entire Bank Holiday weekend of anxiety – would I have to wait 6 months on reduced maintenance in order to put my case to appeal, missing out on almost £2000 of payments? Would Simon have to pay this money back, or would he yet again get away with deliberately misleading the authorities?

Every time you fill in an official form, it makes it clear in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS that deliberately sending false or misleading information is an offence and could result in a fine or even prison sentence. My experiences have shown this to be a lie. Simon has so far given false and misleading information to the Family Court (during 2 separate cases), CAFCASS, the police, Social Services, Child Maintenance Service (more times than I can count, but I think we’re onto 9 appeals now?) Child Benefits Agency and what would have been Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service had CMS not already reversed their decision. I’ve been left fighting false accusations and fire-fighting the consequences for six years, while the authorities do nothing to stop him. It’s exhausting and demoralising and has left me begging them to take action. The system simply doesn’t recognise the more insidious forms of domestic abuse and provides no protection. Abusers are able to exploit loopholes – for example the disgusting way that Child Benefit does not take into account the lack of educational provision for autistic teenagers at 16+. Or they refuse to follow court orders, knowing that without any jurisdiction for arrest, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it unless you have enough money to take them back to court.

Having just fought a battle over student loan repayments, and then Child Benefit payments, all under the shadow of Covid19 and lockdown, I really don’t need yet another battle. I’ve been battling for six years now, I’ve had enough. Simon and Astrid have repeatedly taunted me that I need to “move on” and “get over it” – yet they’re the ones making it impossible for me to do so. “Move on” and “get over it” in this context seem to mean “We want to ignore the court orders, refuse to look after Lily, pay absolutely no child maintenance and continue to abuse you as much as we like, while you just shut up and take it.” Without recourse to Legal Aid to take him back to court – Legal Aid is only paid out for cases of domestic violence in which it can be proved that you have called the police for your own protection, or have been hospitalised or required medical treatment, likely on more than one occasion – there seems to be nothing I can do to make him stop. And as I’ve already discovered, Court is useless when you’re up against someone willing to lie about absolutely everything, and a Court Order is a waste of paper if it doesn’t come with power of arrest.

I got through my shopping while fighting back tears and counting my breaths to avoid panic attacks. I bought myself a large bar of chocolate as some kind of solace; I will emerge from lockdown looking as if a Beluga whale had miraculously learned how to walk. Arriving home, I asked the kids to help unload and pack away, while I collapsed on the sofa with a couple of paracetamol and an emergency glass of Coke, clutching an icepack to my forehead. Naturally they started squabbling, then Lily refused to do the washing up that she should have tackled hours earlier, saying she was “too busy.” Doing what? I wondered, but it turned out to be playing Fortnite. Simon does not have to deal with any of this, I reminded myself. Simon is not having to keep both of us children alive, fed, happy, entertained and educated during this pandemic. Simon has not even bothered to get in touch to see how the kids are doing. People try to make it better by saying “Oh well, he’s the one missing out,” especially as neither of the kids want to see him any more – but the truth is that the kids are missing out, whether that’s missing out on the money they should be entitled to, or missing out on having a mum who isn’t ill or irritable with stress, or missing out on having a loving and supportive father. It sucks, frankly.

Life goes on. Next day, with a headache still hovering around the edges, I find the appeals form online and fill it out, ready to send if I can’t convince the CMS to reverse their decision again on Tuesday. I have stopped taking this personally, I realise. Simon’s shenanigans are now nothing more than an administrative and financial hassle. I’m the one who has actually moved on, while he still lashes out vindictively. Meanwhile Lily miraculously does the washing up without me having to nag her. They both fight over the dodgy flavoured Super Noodles. Ivy tells me about her hamster-related dream and I tell her about mine, involving dating a mysterious violinist captured by gangsters who threatened to cut off his fingers. I sow a few seeds and water the garden, admiring the daffodils I planted in the Autumn. There will be pizza for dinner and an at-home Movie Night. We will get through this. We’ve already been in lockdown for the past six years, we’ve gotten good at surviving.

Creating a life worth living, Home, Self Care

The new normal

Laundry and pasta

Several seasons into The Walking Dead the tattered bunch of survivors reach a community that has been sheltered from the zombie apocalypse. When talk turns to the need to head out on a supply run, one of the community women whines on and on about getting a pasta machine. Oh the pasta she could make if only she had a pasta machine. To a group that has been busy fighting for their lives in a dystopian nightmare, the notion of searching for a pasta machine is beyond trivial, it makes her seem incredibly trite, spoiled even.

Last week, with the supermarket shelves emptied of pasta, the thought of a pasta machine started to become an obsession. I’d been casually wondering whether to get one for a while, but I’m not keen on filling my kitchen with barely used gadgets. But if I bought one now, I could make pasta despite the shortages! The irony of becoming the crazy pasta machine lady from The Walking Dead did not escape me.

I recognised that I was fixating on something that wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. Buying a pasta machine would not reduce the risk from covid19. Perhaps it might allow me to feel a measure of control -the ability to make pasta- in the face of an uncontrollable pandemic.

A decision needed to be made; rein in my brain, accept my powerlessness and think about more practical matters. Or buy the damn pasta machine just so I could stop obsessing about it. Well reader, as the above picture shows, I bought the damn pasta machine. There was money in the bank account and it seemed like the easiest solution; the obsession immediately stopped. Tonight I made fresh pasta for the first time – it took over 2 hours and I scalded my hand, but it was delicious.

I know myself well enough to know that if I hadn’t bought it, I’d still be obsessing over it, turning the idea over repeatedly, should I or shouldn’t I…? Buying it has quieted my mind. Hopefully it will get enough use to be justified, if not there’s always eBay.

This may well sound as trite as Crazy Pasta Machine Lady did, but it runs far deeper. We’re strapped in for the long haul; potentially months of lockdown, maybe on and off for much of the year. Nobody knows how this will go, whether it will play out better or worse than the projections. Which means living with months of anxiety and I know from 6 years of toxic divorce how damaging that is.

We’re used to having a time limit on our disasters; two weeks and the News has moved on. We’re used to feeling relatively in control of our lives. Having control stripped away for who knows how long can feel unbearable. Our hearts race, our breath is shallow, we lay awake at night, we jump out of our skin at the slightest provocation. This is our new normal and new coping strategies are required to get through it. Although it might feel that we’re not doing much if we’re not battling it out on the frontlines as a key worker, it’s crucial not to underestimate the strain involved in keeping the home fires burning. Treat yourself with gentleness and compassion. And if a pasta machine is going to help, in whatever form that might mean for you, then buy the damn pasta machine.

Creating a life worth living, Home, parenting, Self Care

Ordinary miracles

The dishes are washed. Everyone has been fed. There are clean clothes, towels and bed linen tucked away in drawers and wardrobes.

Sometimes we forget how miraculous the basics can be. Hot water pouring out of a tap, or channelling through pipes to heat the house. I didn’t have to walk miles to fetch that water, nor send my children out to gather sticks to burn in order to heat it.

We forget too how many ordinary miracles we perform on a daily basis; the unappreciated wonders of maintaining a home, keeping everyone fed and clothed and as happy and healthy as we can manage. We have appliances our ancestors could only dream of, Hoovers, washing machines, cookers with controllable heat – yet such increased convenience has brought increased responsibilities. Laundry would once have taken all day, once a week- now it’s most days, fitted in around work, school runs, shopping, cooking. The number of tasks we accomplish each week can be astounding, yet we barely notice them. Most of them don’t count as accomplishments in a society focused only on financial success. Our minds are frazzled, our souls weary.

Perhaps this virus has shown us the value of the ordinary. Our heroes are not only the medical staff battling to save lives, the scientists searching for a vaccine or cure, but also the supermarket staff serving frightened customers and stocking the shelves, the delivery drivers keeping the nation going. People who were once considered too ordinary to admire, people making minimum wages- it turns out that they are the ones we really need.

Washing the dishes is the most hated job in the household. Nobody wants to do it, the kids complain loudly and do their utmost to get out of it when it’s their turn. Some nights I simply don’t have the energy after a day of running errands then cooking dinner, but it’s hateful coming downstairs next morning to a kitchen piled with dirty dishes. I would panic too that it was evidence I wasn’t coping, that my ex would find a way of using it against me to prove I was an unfit mother.

Since moving house there’s been more time, more space, perhaps even more energy. The dishes are getting washed every night, the kitchen floor swept and mopped. Remembering the times when it felt so hard to make it through the day, when the dishes piling up felt so overwhelming, I’m aware of the ordinary miracle that a clean kitchen represents. Fear, stress, uncertainty, and anxiety are so draining when we’re dealing with them on a daily basis, exhausting when there’s no end in sight. And that’s where we are right now as a global community, facing the unknown as the pandemic continues. The rhythm of our daily routines can provide reassurance, if we’re paying attention to them, if we learn to appreciate how much effort it really takes to keep calm and carry on. So at the end of the day, take a moment to appreciate what you have and what you’ve managed, especially if it feels like not very much. These are testing times and we are all miraculous.

A Year to Heal, abuse, Creating a life worth living, parenting

The Big Shift; reclaiming power after abuse

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Having no contact with my Ex for about a year had helped me to heal… and now he was emailing again. His name suddenly appearing on my phone made me feel sick – I couldn’t bear the thought of being dragged back into the lies, taunts, insults, and gaslighting. I’d moved on from all that, hadn’t I?

As anxiety swept through me, I realised what I was really scared of. Losing my power. For a while now I’d been aware that I wasn’t standing in my power – others had even pointed it out to me. Yeah, thanks. So reclaiming my power had been a huge issue – and I wasn’t about to let my Ex steal it away again. That was what was at stake now.

Time for a quick ritual, candles lit, mantra created. Chanting over and over I call back my power, I am grounded in power, they have no power over me, not now, not ever, all fears begone! See, it doesn’t have to be poetry, it just has to work for you. Chanting until I felt the power rising through me, solid in my core, hurling a final begone! with such force I could feel it leaving my body.

I replied to him in my own time – I have learned a lot about dealing with an abusive Ex, and the number one rule is to never reply immediately, take your time and think it over. I said what I wanted to say, making sure there was nothing that could be interpreted as an insult or provocation. Having sent it, I left it at that. When he emailed again, with the usual barrage of insults – telling me I was immature, unreasonable, wrong about everything – I simply didn’t respond. Lesson two: only respond when there is a direct factual need to do so, eg to confirm a time/place to pick up the kids etc.

He has emailed several times now, and my power remains intact. He has only riled me once, when he (illegally) threatened to withhold child maintenance unless I gave him the information he wanted (information he does not legally require.) My response was strongly worded, but didn’t descend into insults and name-calling. For the most part, I’m ignoring him unless there’s a factual question that I have to respond to; this isn’t about playing games or giving him the silent treatment – if you have been a victim of narcissistic/sociopathic abuse then going no contact is a life-saver. Once upon a time I would have spent ages writing heartfelt emails pointing out all the lies, explaining yet again what actually happened, begging him to act with decency. No more.

You can’t reason with someone who is determined to be unreasonable.

I’m not going to waste my time on him any more.

I’ve been fighting a 6 month battle over child maintenance in which I’ve had to deal with his constant flow of appeals to the CMS as to why he shouldn’t have to pay maintenance, each one then followed by a mandatory reconsideration. I’ve tried to point out that he doesn’t have the right to throw Lily out, forcing me to look after her full time (against the terms of the court order) and then refuse to pay maintenance. I’ve also offered to drive Lily down to his place every weekend so that he can resume the “equal shared care” that he’s claimed to the CMS that he wants. Turns out he doesn’t want it after all! Now this week I’ve been informed that he’s taking me to a tribunal – effectively the third time he’s dragged me through the courts.

Yes, I’m angry. Furious. Frustrated. Scared. Above all, I resent having to spend several months preparing and worrying over it. But I am not going to let him steal my power. The chant has brought a lasting shift. And with it, the desire for change. I’m so tired of the pattern I’ve been living – that every time I get back on my feet I get knocked down again. I don’t know how to break it. Yet I’m determined to make that change. And so there are changes coming to this space too… I want to shift more to the positive, focusing on what works rather than merely charting the difficulties I’m facing. I’m tired of surviving. It’s time to thrive.

Creating a life worth living, Reading, Self Care

2019 Reading

My goal for 2019 was to read 40 books; a modest sum for an avid reader, but probably far more than the vast majority of the population! I’ve always devoured books and as a child would permanently have a novel glued to my hand, propped open in front of me as I ate breakfast or curled up in a chair, my mind in a faraway place. For most of my adult life there’s been a book taking up residency in my handbag – for which reason I’ve never been a fan of the slimline clutch – and then a whole-hearted embracing of the Kindle, and now the Kindle app on my iPad mini, as it enables me to carry an entire library wherever I go. Yet at some point the novels were switched out for non-fiction and the urge to educate myself further about a variety of topics; autism, home education, entrepreneurship, self improvement. Reading became a stick to beat myself with rather than a pleasure. No wonder that my ability to read tailed off during the stress of the divorce and abuse; I found I just wasn’t capable of taking in and retaining the information, having to repeatedly turn back and re-read the page I’d just read as I couldn’t remember any of it. Then one day I found a Jenny Colgan novel in a charity shop and remembered laughing out loud at her debut novel years before… that book proved to be the perfect, gentle re-introduction into reading purely for pleasure once again. Three years on, the book count has been creeping upwards, this time a blend of fiction and non-fiction – and that goal of 40 books has been smashed according to my Goodreads account, with 58 books read at the time of writing this (and a new goal of 60 in the final few days of the year.) And if one of your resolutions next year is to read more, scroll down for tips on how to achieve it.

Out of that list of not-quite 60, these have stood out as my favourites;

Sarah Wilson – first we make the beast beautiful

An unusual book that describes the author’s experiences of living with high anxiety and her attempts to reframe it. A must-read if you or a loved one suffer from anxiety. Some readers were put off by its unusual style, there are full chapters and then short random bursts, but as my brain works that way, it was fine by me.

Raynor Winn – The Salt Path

A memoir written as a journey, the heartbreaking account of how Winn and her husband lost their beloved home (her account of the nastiness and unfairness of the British court system was achingly accurate and familiar), received a devastating diagnosis and then set out to walk the South West Coastal path to find purpose and healing, becoming hikers rather than homeless. This won awards and was shortlisted for several others and it’s not hard to see why, it’s beautifully written and moving without ever becoming bitter or sentimental.

Margaret Atwood – The Testaments

I read The Handmaid’s Tale as a student in the 90s, when its nightmarish dystopian future still seemed to be fiction, I then studied the film adaptation starring Natasha Redgrave as part of my University dissertation. The current TV adaptation is one of my few must watch programmes, while women’s rights in the US are undermined and reversed by a Far Right Regime that seems to inch closer to the Atwood’s fictional Gilead on a daily basis. To underscore this, Atwood made sure that everything in her original novel referenced events that had actually happened at some point in history. Wanting to read it before any spoilers emerged, I bought this on the day it was released and devoured the whole thing before the day was over. I was not disappointed, although it took me a few chapters to realise that there were several narrators… and then get very excited when I worked out who those narrators were…

Janet Fitch – White Oleander

This one’s been around for a long time now, both as a novel and as a copy of that novel lurking on my bookshelves but I finally got around to reading it this year, taking it on holiday where Lily began reading it as soon as I’d finished it (Lily doesn’t generally read novels so this is a big endorsement!) I remember Oprah raving about it on her book club years ago, and it lives up to the hype, a twisted coming of age, mother-daughter story as a young girl is left navigating a life in social care. Gripping.

Sarah Vallance – Prognosis: A Memoir of My Brain

Another memoir, and one relating to brain/mind health as well as Sarah Wilson’s, surprising as I wouldn’t have said that was a topic I’d be searching for! I can’t remember how I came across this (perhaps as it’s free to read on Kindle Unlimited?) but I was glad I did. It details her life following a traumatic brain injury after falling from a horse (for the love of god if you knock your head, get to a hospital fast to be checked over as brain injuries can occur without any initial symptoms, only later showing up as they worsen and the damage is already done.) The very act of her going on to write this book took huge strength and resilience, the fact that the book is so good proves her talent and how hard she has fought to recover. It gave me a much better understanding about brain injury and the devastating impact it can have – and yet the tone isn’t at all self-pitying or grim. After reading this you will likely want to wear a crash helmet at all times to protect your most precious asset, or perhaps that’s just me.

  • Keep a book by your bedside, preferably an easy read for bedtime. Go to bed ten minutes early and read.
  • Read for a few minutes in the morning from a book that will inspire you for the day ahead (or your bedtime novel!) Create a small window of time for reading before you get out of bed, you can literally bookend your day.
  • There’s always the book in the bathroom option.
  • Breakfast is a good opportunity to prop a book open, as is lunch. Dinner books are generally reserved for the most serious of reading addicts.
  • Keep a book or e-reader in your bag, wherever you go. Choose this in preference to the magazines at the doctors, dentists etc. I fit in a lot of reading time while waiting for appointments for the kids.
  • Audio books totally count – play one while driving, at the gym or while doing chores. I got through two books while painting the bathroom earlier this year. Consider getting an Audible subscription, particularly if you do a lot of driving, or look for free audio books on YouTube if you’re on a tight budget.
  • Limit your time on social media and choose to read instead.
  • Turn the TV off and open a book. I frequently read while the kids are watching TV, the background noise doesn’t bother me.
  • Set yourself a reading target on Goodreads, and promise yourself a reward if you reach it. You can join up with friends for their annual reading challenge.
  • Keep a record of the books you’ve read, either in your journal, a reading log, or on Goodreads. Goodreads will also give you recommendations once you’ve finished a book.
  • Be choosy about what you read, especially if you’re trying to build up your habit. Now is not the time for War and Peace. If you hate a book, don’t plod on until the bitter end – put it down and choose another one. Pick books that you know you’re going to enjoy and you’ll end up reading them a lot more quickly!
  • Not every book has to be an Important Read – sometimes your brain needs a chicklit, trashy romance or grisly murder.
  • Spend more time in bookshops and libraries, especially with your kids. Get inspired, browse different sections, pick up their recommended choices to find authors similar to your favourites, or totally new styles and themes. Try to support your local bookseller, especially if they’re independent.
  • An obvious one but get a library ticket. You can also use their search facility to order books you liked the look of in the bookshop but can’t afford…
  • Choose a classic to read to the children – this often works better if it’s done separately from bedtime reading, as kids tend to have particular favourites they want to hear at bedtime. We spent months reading The Hobbit when the kids were younger and they loved it.
  • Set yourself the challenge of reading the books you already own before buying new ones.
  • Join a book group, or create a book circle with friends, where you swap and discuss favourite reads; you don’t necessarily all have to read the same book at once, but can keep swapping around until you’ve all read them.
  • Use a habit tracker and then mark off each day that you manage to spend time reading – this is a surprisingly easy and effective way of motivating yourself.
  • Declutter your bookshelves, getting rid of anything you know you’re not going to read or unlikely to read again. This will make it easier to see and reach for old favourites, as well as making space for new reads. You could even make money by selling your old books to one of the book-buying websites/apps such as WeBuyBooks.co.uk
  • Enjoying a book is far more important than racing through it to reach your target – take your time and relish it.
  • It might be worth trialling a Kindle Unlimited subscription if you’re determined to up your reading game as it will give you access to thousands of free titles for £7.99 a month. Prime members have access to the more limited Prime Reading scheme and at least one free title a month.
  • Would you enjoy specialising in a particular genre, author or era? Consider dedicating a whole year or several months working your way through a specific type of book/theme/genre/culture eg Russian novels, Agatha Christie, Victorian era (either written in Victorian times, or set in that epoch.)
  • Choose a book for each month and you’ll have read at least 12 by this time next year.
  • Ask friends and family to buy you a copy of their favourite book for your birthday and to inscribe it with a greeting and their reason for choosing it.
  • Is there a particular time of day that’s perfect for 10 or more minutes of reading? Set an alarm on your phone to remind you.
  • Go on a reading date, taking your book to a local cafe. Go by yourself if you’re craving me-time, or take the kids if you’re trying to encourage them to read (this might be nice to do one-on-one, taking turns between the children.) You could even do this as a gentle date with your partner, or with a friend who also wants to read more, agreeing on how much time you’ll spend reading vs chatting. Book + coffee + cake = heaven!
Creating a life worth living, Home

The gentle art of leaf wine

Calm. Not just the popular app but a quality of life I’ve been craving. Gentleness. Quietness. Appreciation. Kindness. I’ve found myself seeking out tranquil videos on YouTube, the likes of Li Ziqi and Dianxi Xiaoge. It doesn’t matter that I can’t understand a word – in fact it seems to soothe my jangling nerves to not have to listen as someone endlessly rabbits on from the usual script; Hi guys, welcome to my channel, today we’re going to be looking at filling every available moment with meaningless chatter, don’t forget to like and subscribe!

I realise I’m trying to create a gentler life. I’ve always been drawn to bright colours and bohemian styling, but increasingly I’m replacing this with a more soothing, harmonious palette. Minimalism might be a step too far, but I’m drawn to the calm aesthetics and tranquil spaces that it espouses. I keep paring back, decluttering, discovering that the only thing I want more of is plants.

For a while now I’ve wondered about making my own videos as a form of appreciation for the gentle moments in life. I don’t have any specialist equipment or experience and I have no desire to appear on camera – yet my video watching has shown that there can be another way. Whether it’s Colette at Bealtaine Cottage talking to camera as she films her beautiful permaculture garden, or one of the many minimalist living vlogs that focus on food, design or gardening, I’ve found so much inspiration from videos that people have been brave enough to share. And it does seem like an act of bravery, given the number of trolls, haters and critics, people who don’t seem to care whether their words hurt or crush someone. Although there are a lot of people hoping to become famous YouTubers, not everyone shares that ambition. Some just want to create, or inspire, or share their knowledge.

It’s in that spirit that I’ve created my first video, about making hedgerow wine, a hobby I’ve had for several years now. So many people have asked me how to make wine that it seemed worthwhile to make a video on the subject. Not wanting to point a camera at my face while I jabber on about sterilising demijohns and the rules of foraging, I’ve aimed for the peaceful aesthetic that I’ve admired in others.

If you are tempted to try making leaf wine it needs to happen in Spring, while the leaves are soft and fresh, before they are too full of tannins. Most of the equipment can be found secondhand, or on Freecycle or similar, while Wilkinson’s/Wilko seem to be one of the few high street chains that carry wine and beer making equipment, such as yeast, citric acid etc. Leaf wines are one of the easiest and most reliable to make, and should be ready before Christmas – just please make sure you know which tree you’re taking the leaves from, use a reliable tree guide or ask a more experienced forager for help.

Creating a life worth living, Home

Moving on

Struggling, falling, crashing and breaking. Gluing the pieces of our fractured lives back together and carrying on somehow. Crawling back to the starting line, trying to rise, then inevitably getting knocked back down again. Each time thinking I’ve found my feet, can begin to build things up, only to be hit with another setback that brings everything crashing down again. This has been the debilitating pattern of the past five years, each fresh round feeling harder, bringing me down further. The last few months have seen another mental health crisis, the worst yet, this time brought on by struggling to deal with events at school. The Head of Pastoral lied on Lily’s school record in order to cover up his own failings, in a way that makes me look like the world’s scummiest mother – but the school insisted that they weren’t going to change it. Despite having to fight so hard for my children over the past five years, having struggled (and largely failed) to get the school to provide both the academic and pastoral support they both need, school are essentially saying “We think you’re scum.” The last straw, anyone?

Knowing that this teacher is deliberately lying and misrepresenting our conversation took me back emotionally to having to fight Simon’s lies and accusations in court, the ongoing struggle to clear my name, to have someone, anyone, actually look at the evidence and believe me. In these situations you’re not only left fighting the abuse, or the failings of the school in this case, you’re then left fighting the ensuing lies about the situation. It re-triggered the PTSD that I thought I was largely getting over; back to severe depression, anxiety attacks, insomnia, daily life slipping through my fingers as I was left unable to catch onto the threads that hold us together.

Of course, it’s not just dealing with school that’s brought this on. It’s the ongoing battle to heal the PTSD caused by Simon’s abuse. The daily 24/7 difficulties of having a teenager with autism, ADHD, epilepsy and gender issues. The realisation that likely myself and my younger daughter are also on the spectrum, struggling day to day in our own way. The relentless battle of being a single mother, coping alone with the responsibilities. The same reluctant mantra playing through my head: It’s just too much.

My GP urged me to challenge the school, make a formal complaint, but I simply didn’t have the energy – my own survival was of more importance. Nor do I have any faith in the school’s ability to respond with objectivity. As I fought to recover, the realisation grew that I’m just too tired. Life here is too hard – trying to heal from trauma, cope with illness after illness, handle two incredibly challenging teenagers while struggling on with the daily demands, no support, no back up plan. When I get sick, whether that’s my physical or mental health, it all falls apart. And realistically, there’s nothing I can do to change it – we can’t afford to move house here unless it’s to a worse area, even further from school. Unless, that is, I opt for something more radical; shifting us over 150 miles North, to be nearer family, in hopefully a better house (heck, I’m just hoping for a parking space somewhere near my front door!), a school for Ivy within walking distance – or at least closer than 11 miles away, and the chance for Lily to attend a specialist music course. I’ve ummed and ahhed and agonised, but ultimately it seems the best option; the fresh start I was planning when we moved from The House in the Sky over two years ago, but never got the chance to have. For several weeks I found myself saying “I think it’s for the best, but I can’t quite decide…” before realising that the decision had already been made, deep down, and just need to be spoken out loud.

We’re going to move.

Creating a life worth living, Fitness, Self Care

The Accidental Runner

I’ve taken up running, entirely by accident. I’m not even sure how it happened. One minute I was a fervent anti-runner, would never have put the words fun and run in the same sentence… then quietly over Christmas, my body started whispering that maybe she might quite like to start running, much in the same way that she’d whispered earlier last year that she thought she’d really rather enjoy swimming. The swimming has been going -ahem- swimmingly, my face spontaneously breaking out into a grin when I enter the water and begin my old-lady-breaststroke 15 lap minimum. But running? Surely not. Running involved getting hot, sweaty, red-faced and out of breath, putting undue pressure on feet that had only just recovered from plantar fasciitis, and being seen in public wearing dodgy Lycra outfits. Yet my body remained quietly insistent that yes, running was what was required, and I know by now that it’s generally worth paying attention to what my body says she wants. It’s only taken me 46 years to understand this.

Apart from a brief spell of jogging in my teens, which was as much about wanting to get as close to Nature as I could in urban Liverpool as it was about actual exercise, I’ve never been running. Plus this time around it was Christmas, I was at my parents’ home in Liverpool without so much as a T-shirt or pair of trainers and with a large pile of chocolate to work my way through. As actual running was clearly not an option, I did the next best thing – reading about it. Firstly Anna McNuff’s The Pants of Perspective, an account of her solo run through New Zealand- literally all of New Zealand, from South to North. Crazy Lady. While impressive and inspiring in its own way – and kinda funny in that McNuff clearly isn’t a planner and the trip was alarmingly and refreshingly ad hoc rather than having been thrashed out in military detail beforehand – it didn’t have much relevance for a couch potato like me who’s not in the habit of tackling a mere 40k before breakfast. Bring on Bryony Gordon’s Eat, Drink, Run. Overweight and struggling with severe mental health issues, Gordon found herself running as a way of dealing with her depression… then, in her role as a journalist and mental health advocate, ended up chatting over-enthusiastically to several members of the Royal Family, and accidentally putting herself forward to run the London Marathon. Which meant that she really did have to take up running. Much more relatable. Not that McNuff’s book wasn’t enjoyable, just that it’s far easier for me to relate to someone who is completely unfit and falling apart and then takes up running by accident.

A Proper Running Shop was required to buy myself a decent pair of running shoes, realising that my “good” trainers were over twenty years old. The very nice man had me running on a treadmill to check my gait and found shoes with as much support as possible, given my previous injuries. Testing several pairs out in this way showed me that there really is a difference; with some of the shoes I felt flat-footed and landed heavily, while others felt much lighter and bouncy. Although blimey, they don’t come cheap. Terrified that I’d wasted a ridiculous amount of money on trainers that I’d never wear again, I signed myself up to the aptly named NHS Couch to 5k app, and the Red January programme run in association with Mind, the mental health charity, with the aim of exercising every day in January. Then on the 2nd January, I crept out into the grey light of dawn and with Sarah Millican’s reassuring voice in my ears, began my first run along the nearby cycle track. Or rather, my first walk. Week One had me walking for 90 seconds, running for 60 for repeated intervals. My Aldi fitness leggings began sliding down with every step, leaving me clutching the waistband so as not to get arrested for public decency offences. My other hand juggled my phone and water bottle. It was freezing out and I was nervous that I wouldn’t even manage Day One as I was so out of condition. But I made it, with an imaginary orchestra playing a triumphant Thus Spake Zarathustra behind me as the final seconds counted down (that one from 2001, A Space Odyssey.)

I’ve just completed Week 3 of the Couch to 5k app, now up to running three minutes at a time. My body is loving it, craving it even. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a rubbish runner, just as I’m a rubbish swimmer; I have no intention of entering any kind of 5k race or timing my personal bests. I’m just doing this for me. What I’ve realised is, it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m any good at it. Doing it anyway is what counts.