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.

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.

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, 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.

Creating a life worth living, parenting, Self Care

Fire-fighting and the Magic Button

“I’d like this year to have less fire-fighting,” I tell my counsellor. “I want things to be a bit calmer.”

She looks at me. “Is that realistic, given Lily’s difficulties?”

The impact of her words hits my chest like a punch. As ridiculous as it might seem to an outsider, I hadn’t actually considered that. I’d merely assumed that I was doing something wrong and that the stresses and emotional turmoil we endured over the last year could hopefully begin to fade away if I just tried harder, worked on myself, operated from a place of stronger mental health. Maybe meditating, drinking green smoothies, reading the right book; somehow there had to be a way of finding normality, of making everything okay. The Magic Button, in other words.

When you have a child with difficulties such as autism and ADHD, people look to you for the Magic Button. Teachers, grandparents, even going way back to kindergarten and crèche workers will all at some point sit you down and inform you that your child isn’t responding to them the way he/she should be, and is misbehaving (“making poor choices” in modern day teacher-speak) and so could you please give them the Magic Button? You know, the one key phrase or action that means your child will suddenly switch off their challenging behaviour and behave perfectly for them.

Over and over you explain that there’s no quick fix, no instant solution, no Magic Button. That you really have nothing to offer other than the general advice to try and keep a sense of humour, patience, very clear instructions etc, and that some days none of it will work. That Lily is genuinely not capable of holding it together 100% of the time, that 80% is pretty good and she just can’t manage that final 20%. They won’t accept that though. If she’s capable of “making the right choices” 80% of the time, surely she can do this 100% of the time? She just needs to make better choices, that’s all. So if you can give them the Magic Button, they can get her to 100%, tick all the boxes and go home happy.

“There is no Magic Button,” you find yourself explaining yet again. My God, you wish there was.

I hadn’t realised that I’d got into that same mindset myself. Expecting myself, or an as yet unknown professional to suddenly come up with the Magic Button that would “fix” Lily’s behaviour. If I found the right supplement, or therapist, or managed to explain things to her in the right way, it would all click into place and life would begin to flow more smoothly. It’s very hard to accept that this isn’t an option. Weirdly, it’s hard to accept that maybe I’m not actually doing anything wrong.

Of course, it’s impossible to tell how capable Lily really is. It seems that she can be intelligent and relatively capable when she wants to be, but demand avoidance and Oppositional Defiance Disorder combined with ADHD mean that it’s virtually impossible to motivate her when she’s not interested. Given that she still refuses to do any studying, despite her GCSEs rapidly approaching this year, it’s evident that her grades could be improved if she put even a tiny amount of effort in. But she won’t. And there’s the issue – do I accept that refusal as part of her condition, or do I continually fight against it? Similarly, should she accept that part of her make-up that leads her into stubborn refusals and defiance, or should she work to change it? Can it be changed, or even improved a little? I don’t have any answers, see-sawing between feeling sure that Lily needs pushing to do better, or wondering whether in fact she’s more disabled than anyone gives her credit for.

“It’s like trying to push a double decker bus up a hill,” I explained to the counsellor, describing how it felt to battle to support Lily every day. “Exhausting, demoralising and you can’t make any progress upwards, all you’re doing most of the time is trying to stop her from sliding back down the hill into the swamp.” The swamp – my fear for Lily, borne out by too many of the ASD/ADHD families we’ve met – of a child/teenager/adult who never comes out of their bedroom and spends their entire life playing computer games, rather than existing out in the real world in any meaningful way. So what? some people might say, the kind of just let them do what they want and keep them happy philosophy that I’ve learned doesn’t work with Lily. A life spent playing computer games in the bedroom is a life only half-lived – and when you know your child has more to offer than that, it’s heartbreaking to see their gifts go to waste. Lily could achieve a lot with her music, if she could manage to stay on track and put some effort in, particularly if this was backed up with the right educational support. And there goes the next major issue, the total lack of provision for autistic kids, which warrants an entire post in itself. Every single day brings the same battles over the basics; getting up on time, cleaning teeth, studying, bathing, chores, homework, getting off the computer, bedtime… “What happens if you just don’t?” one mother asked me. Then she won’t do them. She simply doesn’t get out of bed, misses school, smells bad and the mouldy dishes pile up in her bedroom while she builds her Minecraft empire late into the night. There’s choosing your battles and there’s what if all of it’s a battle? Because if you ease off, even a fraction, the bus starts to roll downhill, likely flattening you in the process. And then there’s the phone calls from school…

That week, the same quote keeps appearing in different guises. You can’t calm the storm, you can only calm yourself. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to ride them. A sense of acceptance is beginning to form, the tiniest seed of realisation that needs to be nurtured; I need to detach. I can’t stop the storm, but I don’t need to hurl myself into the raging waters. If life is never going to be smooth or easy – if the firefighting is going to be endless – then I need to take a step back and find my anchors, develop the self care practices that are going to keep me calmer and help me cope better. I’m never going to be able to stop the stress from arriving, but perhaps I can try to create the space in my life to help me deal with it. A combination of detaching emotionally so that I’m not getting hurt on a personal level by whatever’s happening, while also vastly improving my own self care and support systems so as to be able to stand stronger and not crumble each time the storm hits. The image I have is of being able to watch the storm through a window, rather than battling to survive the elements in a tiny boat as I’m battered by wave after angry wave. That’s the idea, yet turning it into a reality remains an unknown quantity. Still, it feels that I’m sitting with the right questions at least, even if I don’t yet have the answers, nor the Magic Button. Perhaps the Magic Button was always the individual’s coping mechanisms, and not about the SEN child at all.

A Year to Heal, Self Care

Foraging

Foraging apples, blackberries, elderberries, rosehips

Buoyed up by intention, I grabbed my basket and took a quick detour on the way to drop Ivy off at a sleepover. Down the road from The House in the Sky was a small park with a few large elder shrubs that I relied on when foraging elderflowers and berries, so we headed to it. Bittersweet feelings and memories bubbled up with each step, so many times we’d traced that path on walks or trips to the playground – this was our old stamping ground, no longer ours. As if to underline that, the bushes had been chopped down to the ground earlier this year, young green stems growing out of thick stubby trunks, but no hope of any berries. We took a different route back to the car, finding another elder growing up next to a garage – most of the berries were already shrivelled, but between us we managed to pick a handful. Evidently the plans I’d made for cooking up some elderberry cordial to see us through Winter’s coughs and colds, plus a bottle of elderberry liqueur, would not be happening this year. That’s the downfall of foraging; if you get out there too late, it’s gone. It’s frustrating as I know how effective elderberries can be in staving off colds – one year I made a flask full of hot elderberry cordial to take to a work event with me, needing to be at my best when I could feel myself coming down with a bad cold – after a day of sipping cup after cup, my symptoms vanished. Having been stuck with this current cold for almost two months, I could do with a few good cups of it now!

We headed over to the canal in the hope of finding an elder cloaked in shade and brimming with berries, but no such luck. Instead a box of apples on a cottage wall, free to take. We took a few, and found some late blackberries further up the path as well as a rose that was bursting with hips. Rose hips are also full of vitamin C and good medicine for Winter, I remember taking rosehip syrup as a child, bought at the local chemist rather than foraged. Once upon a time they would have been a vital source of vitamins, given that the UK didn’t have the climate for citrus fruit; Nature provides fruit and berries in the Autumn, allowing us to take in the vitamins we need to build ourselves up for Winter, while Spring brings the tonic herbs for detoxing and enlivening. The difficulty with rosehips is that the fine hairs surrounding the seeds are an irritant and used to be used in itching powder – not something that you want to ingest. As it looks like this year I’m going to be relying on rosehips instead of elderberries, I’ll have to do a bit of research into the most efficient/easy ways of using them. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to learn about herbalism and foraging and know how empowering it feels to make your own medicine; there’s a belief among herbalists that medicine you prepare yourself is the most effective. Similarly, foodstuffs that you plant and grow will become tailored to your needs, a medicine in itself. I’m in need of good medicine, of building myself up and empowering myself to move forward.

So, with only a handful of elderberries to play with, I did what I could, simmering them up in a bit of boiling water with a good dollop of raw honey and a smashed cardamom pod (cloves are usually recommended but I’d run out.) Pouring it into a mug, I added a healthy splash of last year’s rose brandy to turn it into my own take on a hot toddy. It was delicious, plus I’d enjoyed fresh air, sunshine and a walk with Ivy in order to gather it, all of which are part of the medicine.

I’ve found a recipe for rosehip syrup at www.laundryetc.co.uk and a rosehip liqueur at www.craftinvaders.co.uk, I’ll let you know how it goes!

A Year to Heal, Creating a life worth living, Self Care

On World Mental Health Day

Crashing, over and over. Fighting to pick myself up, keep going, trying to make things better. Getting knocked back over again, each time the fall coming harder, the pain deeper, the resilience less. A good weekend is followed by a clash with Lily’s therapist, who alarmingly manages to actually make things worse. Over the past two months, this woman has left me feeling suicidal no less than four times, steamrollering me with her procedures and rules and now forcing me into the role of Bad Cop with Lily while she gets to play the Good Fairy; not even the Good Cop. Another post for another time, but I was left curled up on my bed, sobbing, unable to function. Not able to leave the house to drive into town to pick the kids up off the school bus, not able to cook dinner, locking myself in my room because I couldn’t face dealing with the kids and I didn’t want them to see me in that state either. Literally wanting to die and feeling trapped because suicide isn’t an option when you’re a single parent. Fighting the urge to gulp down most of a bottle of whisky as the next best option. Discovering a whole new level below rock bottom, one in which suicidal is something to aim for, something better than you’re currently feeling. There is nothing of me left, I died a long time ago. This empty shell should have crumbled into dust, but is forced to keep moving so that the kids have food, clothes and a ride to school. The small voice in my head becoming a scream I can’t go on like this any more, day after day after day I can’t go on, but with no way of making it stop.

Casual plans had been put in place to head north last weekend to visit my parents and see the final outing of Royal de Luxe’s giants in Liverpool. Exhausted, I realised there was no way I could drive 150 miles on Friday evening after school, spend a hectic two days giant-watching and then drive 150 miles home again on Sunday evening. I figured we’d head up on Thursday evening, then by Wednesday night, broken, realised that it was still too much to manage. I wasn’t coping, was barely functioning. So we took Thursday off school as well, packed a bag each and set out on the journey North, having left an early message on the school’s answering machine that Ivy and Lily were both ill. In the end, we took not only the Thursday and Friday but also the Monday off school, knowing that after a full-on day watching the finale in a massive crowd, I was too tired to drive home safely (due to roadworks as the motorways are upgraded, the three hour journey takes five hours or more.) Three illicit days off school, two struggling kids, one mother who was an emotional wreck. I told school that the kids were ill, intending to use the excuse of food poisoning if questioned further, developing this into full blown Noro virus if pushed – knowing that school were unlikely to want us back until fully recovered if this were the case. Because what am I supposed to say? Sorry, I’m feeling suicidal so my kids aren’t coming in for the next few days as I need to be with my family, I don’t feel safe on my own.

To Liverpool then, for 3 days of Giant-watching. Trains, buses, huge crowds. Wishing that my Dad was more inclined to take tea-and-cake breaks, or that chairs had been provided along the route. No matter though. The spectacle was enough, the magic of a mass of people caught up in a game of make-believe. I’d seen pictures of the Diver and Little Girl from years before and wished I’d been able to see it then. This time around, I was determined that we’d catch it – and now having discovered that this is the last outing of the Giants, I’m so glad that we did. It’s yet another example of an extra-curricular activity that the kids will remember for the rest of their lives, whereas it’s unlikely they’d remember what they did in school that day. We were all captivated as the huge puppets moved, walked, and danced along the streets, while red frockcoat-wearing Lilliputians dangled from ropes, climbed alarmingly tall frameworks, pulled, hauled and best of all hurled themselves from moving trucks to make the giants move, all to the music blasting out of speakers and the cheers of the crowd.

Having worked in theatre, I’m well-versed in criticism, in development during which an idea is thrashed about and re-worked to the point where it no longer resembles itself, of too many voices demanding that the piece needs to be more this, less that, must say a different message… and yet I’ve known that often the audience doesn’t make the same demands. Or at least the audience – if it were composed of ordinary people rather than the theatre in-crowd – isn’t necessarily making the same demands as those within the industry claiming to speak on their behalf. That sometimes people want to be heard, want to see their lives reflected back to them in a way that gives them grace and dignity, and above all, hope. Most people are happy with a simple story told well rather than a piece that defies convention or experiments with form and style. With what we saw of the giants this time around, I couldn’t pick up on any notion of a story that was unfolding in front of me. It didn’t matter though. What we watched was a celebration, a spectacle. Hundreds of people had poured countless hours of effort into planning, building, rehearsing, and now performing- from the frock-coated Lilliputians tasked with operating the giant puppets, to the volunteers walking alongside them to maintain a safety cordon, to the transport workers ensuring that people could travel there and back as swiftly as possible, to the guys sweeping up the litter afterwards – all ultimately tasked with a single aim; to bring delight. I could infer any meaning I wanted about Liverpool’s Dream, from the history of migration from the city, people travelling to the New World chasing their dreams of a better life, to the tragic history of slavery and a city built on the backs of the exploited. Perhaps it sounds crass to say it didn’t matter. What mattered was bringing people together to watch it, to share in a communal experience of childlike wonder, of awe, of joy.

I imagine that there’s people I’ve worked with previously who would turn their noses up at the naivety of the whole thing, who would claim it had nothing to offer artistically, that it was mere spectacle. I think perhaps they don’t understand the meaning of the word spectacle – like watching a grand fireworks display which may not have anything to say about white working class reaction to Brexit, but which fills you with a delicious joy for the wonders of human existence. This is something we need more of, these moments of connection, of awe, of delight. Of hope, rather than yet another young woman brutally murdered in yet another crime drama, or witless reality show, or on-point, right-on stylistically innovative but depressing as fuck piece of new writing. Under Tory cuts, arts budgets have been slashed nationwide – it’s hard to justify spending on the arts when there’s no money for meals on wheels or road maintenance. Yet Royal de Luxe have been instrumental in regenerating the city of Nantes, their home base, not only culturally but economically. Liverpool is one of the few cities that insists on investing in the arts, the number of visitors last weekend proving that it makes economic sense. The Golden Age of cinema occurred alongside the Great Depression. Art Saves, as the T-shirt has it; financially, emotionally, intellectually and also spiritually. When you run out of hope, there’s nothing left to live for. I had reached that point last week. And although the weekend was tiring due to the long hours of standing, waiting and walking, it left me feeling renewed and refreshed in a way that I haven’t felt for years. The Giants ultimately brought me the gift I most needed; hope.

A Year to Heal, Creating a life worth living, Garden, Home, parenting, Self Care

Mary Poppins Syndrome

I got sick. Again. This time around it was supposedly just a cold, picked up from my Mum while we were visiting. But while Mum and the kids were under the weather for a few days, I’ve been ill for over a month with no sign of improvement. It’s a measure of how run down I am, I suppose. There simply aren’t any reserves left to fight with. So; long blog break.

In the last couple of weeks we’ve started our appointments with CYPS. So far Lily’s psychologist seems more concerned about me than Lily – at least, there’s the recognition that I’m too exhausted to start implementing new domestic routines to help with Lily’s behaviour. I’ve more than a sneaking suspicion that the Psych believes that everything will be fine if only I could be a bit more patient with Lily, and that a marvellous transformation will occur if I’m able to face every situation with calmness and positivity. There should be a law stating that no one can make that kind of judgement until they’ve lived with Lily for at least a week, and then multiply their stress by a total of fifteen years. Like yesterday, when the kids had agreed to make their own way to the school bus stop so that I could have a lie in, I then had to intervene over the phone as Lily was refusing to give Ivy her spare bus ticket – Ivy was crying, thinking she’d be left at the bus stop with no way to get to school and yes, Lily was quite happy for that to be the outcome. It wasn’t even 7.30 am, so goodbye lie-in and hello more stress. Still at least the Psych realised that I’m traumatised from the abuse during the divorce, and that the day to day demands that I’m facing are just too much to deal with. When I ran through the stresses I was facing, the psychologist looked at me in horror “But no one could cope with all that,” she told me.

Yes, I know, I wanted to scream. Here I am, not coping. There’s talk of what support will be put into place, referral to this and that, but I know better than to hold my breath. Too many times we’ve been promised support and none has arrived, so I’ll believe it when I see it. Either the support doesn’t exist, has sadly just been de-funded, the people delivering it are too flaky to make it consistent and sustainable, or the support on offer isn’t the support you actually need. Frankly, I want someone to look after the kids for a week while I get sent on an all-inclusive holiday – that’s the kind of rest I need. Or for someone to come round and cook dinner, wash up and hoover for a couple of weeks. Or drive the kids to school and back for me. Something tells me that these options won’t be included in the support package. When you’re this burned out, what you want is for someone to say Honey, go to bed. I got this.

Being so ill and drained all the time is incredibly frustrating. The pallets I’ve been collecting for months are laying around in the garden, ready to be turned into a shed – if only I had the energy to tackle it. There are plants and bulbs waiting to go into the ground. The decking attached to the garden cabin has rotted, because whoever built it didn’t think to put gutters on it, so that all needs redoing – as well as the roof finishing off properly (People, do not half-tile an already felted roof. Tile it all or don’t bother.) I keep forgetting to tackle the jobs on my list, such as getting home insurance quotes before it automatically renews, calling one lot of builders to see if they’re booked in to fix my shower, and calling the other builder to see about replacing the rotting doors. And oh – the dishes, the endless stack of washing up piling up in the kitchen. So I’m flunking at all the stuff that needs doing, never mind the additional stuff that I want to do on the house and garden. Right now, trying to make sure the kids get to school, we have food in the house and clean plates to eat it off is pretty much all that I’m managing. It sucks.

It sucks doubly because the kids are getting older. Which means two things; one, they should be old enough to help and take responsibility for themselves instead of me having to do everything for them. Two, they won’t be kids for much longer. And there’s the heartbreaking reality – I want them to be able to look back on their childhoods and remember the good times, not the living with an irritable, burned-out exhausted mother in a cluttered home where everything needs fixing. It’s like the bulbs for the garden – if they don’t get planted now, they won’t bloom in Spring. It’s too late. If I don’t start building the shed, the wood I’ve gathered will start to rot. If I can’t somehow pull together our lives and our home into something more harmonious, the kids will have grown up and left. As much as I want to heal and go gently on myself, there’s a timeline here. I can’t press a magical pause button so that the world will wait until I’ve caught up.

It’s Mary Poppins Syndrome, the desire to click my fingers and have everything fall nicely into place, preferably with the aid of a magical helper. Living – the real life we should be living – is deferred until the future when everything is in order. I have the firm belief that if I could just catch up with myself, get to a place where the house is in order, then life will begin to run smoothly and everything will be less overwhelming. I’ll be on top of things, instead of constantly skidding down the avalanche of chores and responsibilities as they pile up on top of me. No doubt life would feel more pleasant if I lived in a home that was always Instagram-ready, but I have no idea of how I’d reach that mystical stage without Ms Poppins’ intervention. The inbox is never empty though – even if by some miracle the house was “done,” it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Sustaining it requires energy, and that’s exactly what I’m lacking.

Clearly my healing and recovery needs to include my physical wellbeing and it’s fast becoming a priority. Doubtless the physical is also affected by the emotional/psychological, and vice versa; it’s hard to be upbeat if you’re constantly ill and exhausted, and stress/trauma will likely create ill health. Healing needs to take place across all areas, and apparently at the same time. So tomorrow I’m heading out to forage some elderberries, if any are still around, and maybe some rosehips too to make an immune-boosting syrup, on top of the supplements that I’ve begun taking. Time too to think about therapy, to start looking for help rather than struggling on alone, to make plans for recovery rather than waiting for Mary Poppins.