Grand Day Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Pocket Park, Notting Hill.)

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

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

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

(Giant bubbles outside the Science Museum, London.)

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

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

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

What’s working now…

Pukka Lean Matcha Green Tea. I’ve long been suspicious of the bitter taste of a lot of green teas, but this one has a light, sweet taste that doesn’t go acrid if brewed too long, for people like me who tend to forget to take the teabag out. I’ve switched to a cup of this first thing instead of my usual builder’s tea and it feels like a cleaner, brighter start to the morning. Potentially a better source of caffeine than regular tea or coffee in my search to self-medicate for ADHD.

Sunshine. Good weather really makes a difference, especially in terms of getting out of bed for the school run. I try to compensate in the Winter with one of those alarm clocks that gradually starts to get light half an hour before you need to wake up. It helps. The weather has been uncharacteristically gorgeous in the past couple of weeks and so I’ve been trying to make the most of it.

Gardening. I always always feel better after working in the garden. It’s worth dashing outside even if it’s just to water the pots for five minutes. A decent session in the garden has a dramatic improvement on my mood, plus the bonus of being able to see my progress also lifts my spirits even if I’m just glancing out of the window.

Water. Drinking more of it, swimming in it (although I really hate public swimming baths), bathing in it, being next to it whether a little pond, a stream or the sea. Is it something to do with negative ions? I’ve decided my garden definitely needs a pond, plus it would be worth finding a little local spot where I can sit in relative privacy and enjoy the river.

Menu planning. At my worst I couldn’t think five minutes beyond my nose. I literally couldn’t manage to decide what we’d have for dinner a day in advance and so we ended up in the supermarket every single day after school, picking out a ready meal. A HelloFresh subscription got me cooking properly again, and made it easier for the kids to also help out with preparing meals – I’d definitely recommend them, although due to Ivy developing gluten and dairy intolerances, we’ve needed to switch back to our own meals. I’ve realised that even if I don’t have the brainpower to come up with a menu that covers the whole week, I can split the week into two (Mon-Thurs, Fri-Sun) and just make sure that the next 3-4 days are sorted. Cue better, healthier meals and a lower grocery bill. Current favourite cookbooks; The Happy Kitchen, and Jamie’s Five Ingredient Cookbook.

Magnesium Flakes. I’m not sure what peculiar sorcery is going on here, but a handful of these in my bath has transformed my skin from reptilian to baby soft. I’m hoping that the same magic is working somewhere on the inside too; magnesium is apparently an essential mineral for overall wellbeing. It’s apparently also good for plants, so I’m reusing the bath water in the garden whenever possible.

Massage. Wrongly seen as a luxury, this has been a lifesaver for both my physical and mental/emotional health. Stress leads to muscle tension which builds up into pain and headaches and ultimately looking like Quasimodo. Hot stone massage by a good therapist really helps to unwind me and keep me grounded; whenever I skip a few weeks because of budget or busyness, I end up regretting it.

Lifesum. A food tracker app, available on subscription. I used it for a while, then stopped when my comfort eating was getting out of control, but am now going back to it while I attempt the 5:2 plan. Lifesum has several different programmes you can follow with recipe suggestions, but mainly it makes it easy to record what you’re eating and keep an eye on the balance of carbs, protein, fats etc as well as counting calories. I’ve found that even just the act of recording what I eat means I make healthier decisions. I’ve not even been trying very hard, but week one and I’ve lost two pounds – not life-changing but the first time in four years that the scales have moved downwards.

Think Small. Book by Owain Service. A relatively short, easy read about goal-setting and making small, manageable tweaks to your daily routine in order to achieve the desired result. There’s plenty of stuff out there already, but this one really brought it home about how to schedule in new habits so that things actually happen.

The Durrells. Ivy and I have been watching since the first series, now Lily has finally joined in and discovered this essential Sunday evening drama series. Funny, heartwarming and touching without being saccharine, we’ve absolutely loved it; please make another series very soon as we’re already feeling bereft now it’s finished. I’m secretly looking forward to the second series of The Handmaid’s Tale – rather less gentle and not at all comedic but very gripping, one for me rather than the kids. In general there’s a need to be picky about what I watch, The News tips me over the edge into panicked, hopeless depression, and I can’t much cope with depressing documentaries at the moment, no matter how worthy. I’m wishing they’d show The Gilmore Girls again, heartwarming, cosy dramas are a must.

Quest for Fun

Fun. I puzzle the word over, chewing on it. There is precious little fun in my life and I’m trying to figure out why. Oftentimes during the marriage we’d set out to have fun, but somehow miss it – I’d always put this down to having to deal with Lily’s demands and outbursts, leaving us tetchy and exhausted. Now I wonder whether there was more going on, whether the dynamics of our relationship were skewed against any positive outcome. Certainly after the split my happiness quota went through the roof; suddenly I had friends, a social life, I held gatherings at The House in the Sky full of laughter, shared food, homemade wine and kids running amok in the lanes. My overriding feeling was of being me again, after years of losing touch with myself. But gradually Simon’s abuse began to curtail this newfound happiness; I was soon lost, confused, exhausted, fighting for my survival. I stopped having people over – I didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with others, there wasn’t enough of me left over to give out to anyone else. More than that, I’d raised the drawbridge. With Simon bringing Astrid into the home behind my back to spy on me, I no longer felt safe. I didn’t want to go out, nor did I want anyone else in my home. As soon as anyone arrived, I’d feel edgy and anxious until they’d gone again; sadly that’s still the case. If I went out, I’d worry that Simon or Astrid had snuck into my home again, were going through my papers – I took to storing all the divorce documents in the boot of my car. I felt like I was being watched wherever I went; Mum sent me Starbucks vouchers to go out for coffee, but I worried that someone was recording each bite of cake, that being able to afford a latte would be used in court as evidence that I had too much money to spend. In reality, it was a generous gift from my Mum, doing what she could from a distance to help with my increasing social anxiety. Paranoia began to take over – but is it really paranoia when you’re actually being stalked?

Abuse is isolating. It’s insidious, creeping up on you without you realising what’s happened – by the time you wake up and realise what’s going on, your confidence and wellbeing have already been deeply eroded. By the time you’re able to find the right labels for the confusing mess you’ve found yourself in, your life has already fallen apart. Stress – by which I mean full blown panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, insomnia, severe anxiety and palpitations – meant I had to sign off work. Although that was over two years ago, it’s only just this week that I’ve begun to realise the full implications. It’s not just the loss of my career, I’ve lost the social side that came with my particular line of work. Previously, most weeks I’d have some kind of event to attend – a reading of someone’s work, a workshop, a networking event. Now – nothing. I’ve lost touch with my former peers and colleagues, most people have no idea about what’s been going on. Before, I had something that was purely for myself, something that I was passionate about, something that bolstered my self esteem, that gave me purpose. Something that was ultimately fun, if at times demanding. To have all that systematically destroyed by Simon has been devastating. So; social life destroyed, career destroyed, confidence and self-esteem destroyed, home gone. It’s only now that I’m beginning to add up the full cost of Simon’s abuse and realising just how much I’ve lost; fun seems to be one of the many casualties. I’m no longer able to do a lot of the things that used to bring me joy, plus my now precarious mental health means it’s harder to find enjoyment in whatever I try.

Not much fun then. There are moments when the kids and I will be in hysterics over our own daft jokes, yet these are counterbalanced plenty by the number of arguments and conflict. I’m doing my best to appreciate the good moments, to count my blessings. Next minute I’m triggered and having to walk out of the Stress and Anxiety course session, breaking down in tears. Near constant conflict with Lily means that the good mood I’ve tried so hard to achieve is wiped out in seconds. The rest of it is the daily grind, the struggle to keep up with the endless round of chores and duties.

This is no good. The realisation of how much I’ve lost was a bitter blow, bringing further feelings of what’s the point? The feeling that I don’t have anything in my life that’s just for me. Wondering whether I will ever find happiness again, whether I can rescue my sense of fun. A Quest for Fun is in order, and so I’ve nominated Fridays as Fun Fridays – the one day of the week that I’m reclaiming for myself, with the sole purpose of doing something that I enjoy. As they say, if you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. If you want something to change – ie to enjoy life more – then you have to change something. It won’t happen on its own. So Fridays are now dedicated to rebuilding my long lost sense of fun, which actually requires some planning in order to make sure that this happens – at the moment I’m thinking I’ll attempt to visit some of the many gardens, stately homes etc that are in the area, as well as art exhibitions. Taking a camera is key – I don’t know much about photography, but I know that having to literally focus on taking a picture means that my mind isn’t focused on my problems but on something beautiful instead. One small shift at a time in the journey towards creating a life worth living, one small step towards self care: I matter, I have the right to take the steps necessary to heal, I have the right to a full life, I have the right to be happy.