Spinal Tap and the Art of Survival

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

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

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

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

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

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

On anger and housework.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not waving, drowning.

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

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

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

I leave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi. I want to take out membership.

Resilience

Advice on how to plant trees has changed in recent years; instead of being lashed to a stake that stands parallel to the trunk, it’s now thought best to put in a lower, diagonal stake that allows the growing tree to move with the wind. This way it will strengthen and gain more resilience, better able to withstand future storms.

I feel I have precious little resilience left. Looking at the storms I’ve had to weather in the past few years, some might say I’ve demonstrated incredible resilience – after all, I’m still standing. My answer is this: barely. In tree-speak, I’m like one of those wind-blasted thorn trees, gnarly and bent by Cornish winds, leaning at an alarming angle. Nothing is as it should be. Each setback seems to extract a higher and higher price on my mental health – and recently, the setbacks have been piling in on top of each other until breaking point has been well and truly passed. In truth, I don’t know how I’m still standing; my body seems to haul herself automatically through the days while my spirit remains curled up in the foetal position. Recent events brought me to a near-suicidal low after an argument with the children; apparently my attempts to get them into school on time and wearing the correct uniform make me unreasonable.

It was Ivy’s insistence that I was being ridiculous that somehow broke me, something she had no idea would trigger such a catastrophic state of mind. Of course, that was the word that Simon used almost non-stop during our disastrous mediation sessions, shouting me down with Ridiculous! Ridiculous! whenever I tried to speak the truth. I left that final session shaking and traumatised; the mediator should never have allowed it. Instead she seemed shocked that I had become upset and angry, that I wasn’t holding it together in the calm, rational manner that Simon was capable of, that so many abusers are capable of, smug in the knowledge that they are winning. There are so many aspects to domestic abuse that professionals need more awareness of, the subtle and insidious ways that abusers use to manipulate and control their victims. Simon’s ability to stay calm should never have been interpreted as proof that he was reasonable, nor that he was right – it’s only much later, with hindsight, that I can see the extent to which he was already lying, plotting and manipulating. You can’t win against someone who is willing to lie about absolutely everything, who will literally stop at nothing in order to get what they want (namely to destroy you) and all of the professionals involved were entirely taken in.

It wasn’t Ivy’s fault, she had no way of knowing the impact her words would have. To be triggered has become such an over-used buzzword, the millennial generation throwing it around for seemingly the slightest upset, the least bit of offence. To be triggered shouldn’t be equated to being over-sensitive, a special snowflake – realistically it means that you are unexpectedly floored by your reaction to what should be a non-event. It’s sudden, overwhelming panic, or shutdown or crisis. I should not have been upset by Ivy’s usage of one simple, inoffensive word, bad-mannered though it was. Instead, I spent the next few days feeling worthless, unable to carry on as normal in what seemed like an utterly pointless life. Feeling this low is exhausting and terrifying, and at times it’s only been the knowledge that I have kids to look after that’s carried me through it. None of this is a big red flag, a crisis call for help; I’ve gotten through it. Again. Resilience, I guess.

The garden is saving my life. Each time I go out there, I feel better. Gardening is a form of hope that the future will be better, we plant for the future. Having cleared the new flower bed for planting, I sorted through the plants I’d rescued from The House in the Sky to see what could go in along with the few new plants I’d bought. A lot of the old pots contained shrivelled up specimens of what used to be plants, or were overcrowded with weeds, and so I decided to take them down to the far end of the garden to get them out of the way. But as I picked up one pot and pulled out the weeds, I noticed a leaf. One single leaf poking through the dry soil that looked remarkably like a peony.

Back in the city years ago I’d tried to grow peonies without much success. They’re not keen on being moved and the plants I’d bought just wouldn’t settle in. When we moved to the House in the Sky though, there was a beautiful red peony near the front door, with gorgeous blowsy blooms. For seven years, I smiled at its flowers, not even wanting to pick them and bring them inside – they were too beautiful to cut. Once the decision to sell had been made, I had to agree to Simon sending in “gardeners” to tame the garden that we’d never fully taken control of, so overgrown was it by the time we bought the place from its elderly owners. Knowing that Astrid considered herself to be “good at gardening,” I had to specifically name her in the court agreement, that she was “not to attend the property” – otherwise Simon would bring her there each day so that they could get the house on the market as quickly as possible in order to buy their new home together. This woman who had been stalking me, spying on me, attacking me on social media, entering my home without permission, going through my belongings and papers – yes, Simon really was that tactless as to bring her to the house against my will. Even with the court agreement in place she still turned up at the house at least three times in the following week, at one point standing right outside the garden wall, shouting abuse at me in front of my children – You’re mad! You’re crazy! while Simon told the kids “Your mother is psychotic.” This because I objected to them breaking the court order, because I was upset and angry about being lied to and betrayed yet again, particularly as I had gritted my teeth and tried to be friendly towards Simon as he turned up at the house each day.

He hired “gardeners” to clear the garden, which they did using petrol-fuelled hedge-trimmers, slashing everything in sight. In desperation I tried to explain to them what should stay and what should go, otherwise they would literally have cut everything down to a stump, the old apple tree included. But they were Czech and barely spoke English, and my NO, don’t cut that was generally interpreted as No, I don’t want that. Meanwhile Yes, I want to keep this became Yes, please cut this down. I simply couldn’t win. I googled Czech phrases, we tied ribbons to the plants we wanted to keep and the kids hung signs on the apple tree, but it was too little too late. I sobbed indoors, hands around my head to block out the noise as they cut their way through the entire garden, then ran for my car and got the hell out of the destruction, unable to stop it, unable to cope with Simon strutting around the devastation like the Lord of the Manor, not even able to stop Astrid from constantly turning up. I stroked the leaves of my peony, trying to get them to understand, to save it. It was flowering, surely they could see how beautiful it was? When I came back, it was gone.

I’d dug up a few plants before the gardeners came, but wanted to rescue more plants to bring with me when I moved. I was too ill by then, bed-ridden with severe flu. Moving had become a disaster, Simon hadn’t even bothered to let the solicitor know that the money from the sale was supposed to fund my ongoing purchase. I could barely stand by that point, but was having to repeatedly haul myself off to the tip and charity shops. A last minute shout out to friends brought much needed help with clearing furniture that wasn’t going to fit into the much smaller new house. A friend offered to dig up any of the plants I wanted to bring – a few roses and a hazelnut were all I managed to remember; I didn’t even have the energy to make a proper list. But then, almost on the day of the move, I spotted something where the peony had once been. A small offshoot, a baby plant pushing through the soil where its parent had once sheltered it. A young seedling that probably would have been choked out by the dominance of the mother plant, if it had still been there. Carefully, I dug it out and into a pot. It was this same tiny peony that I found now, as I pulled the weeds out of its pot. One leaf poked up through the soil, so easily overlooked or thrown into the compost by mistake. I planted it in the new bed, whispered words of encouragement to it, watered it and crossed my fingers. Live. Please live.

Resilience.

Cat and resilient peony. I'm not sure how resilient it is to being sat on though.

On Imperfection, Barrels and Buddha

May has brought a very unBritish heatwave, followed by its very own monsoon season, sometimes in the space of a single day and most usually when I’ve hung the washing out to dry. After over a week of scorching hot weather, the ground was too hard to dig and so I’ve shifted to other jobs; painting the fence and bench, revamping the patio area as well as trying to keep everything watered. Watering is tricky as there’s no tap at the back of the house and so watering cans have to be filled up in the kitchen or bathroom, carried dripping through the house and out into the garden. I’ve now managed to install a water butt, almost correctly, and so there’s some water available at the back, as well as a large barrel further down the garden, although this isn’t connected to any gutters and so only fills from rain falling directly in it. I’ve been setting out as many containers as I can to catch rainwater and manually refill the barrel – my garden looks like an episode of Bear Gryll’s The Island at times. It’s only when you don’t have water that you appreciate how sacred it really is. I will say nothing of the constant hiss of hosepipes in neighbouring gardens as I’m slogging down the path carrying watering cans of my recycled bath water. I’m so glad I mulched the new flower bed after planting, it’s done a lot to help my precious new plants to get through the hot weather.

Unable to make much more progress while the ground was so hard, I turned my attention to the patio. Oh dear. A large pile of thorny trimmings from the overgrown rosebush and trellis that needed shredding, bags of compost and mulch, plants awaiting a home, pots that once were plants and now were weeds, random bits of wood and pallets and much general debris. Not exactly a space that cried out to be sat in and enjoyed. After a good tidy up and sweep, the trellis repainted and the table and chairs reinstated, it’s now a lovely little patio where we can sit outside and chill, read on the bench, or have a meal. One of those jobs that feels overwhelming but doesn’t take all that long once you get down to it. It was all so much better… except for the barrel.

Yep. Not great. The barrel was left behind by previous occupants, and judging from the state of it, I imagine they inherited it from their predecessors. It was now a sad accumulation of weeds and building rubble, too heavy to even move. With the blazing hot weather still preventing me from digging elsewhere, it was time to tackle the barrel. Once I’d started digging out the soil, I discovered why it was so hard to move – the bottom of the barrel was full of bricks. I’m not sure if someone thought it needed bricks for drainage, or whether they just wanted to get rid of them or were hoping to use less compost, but it was as much brick as it was soil. It all came out, then fresh compost went in and I was ready to plant.

Back at The House in the Sky, I had bought half-barrel planters for Lily and Ivy, let them choose their own plants from the garden centre to create their own mini-gardens. It’s a lovely idea for kids, as it’s more manageable than a patch of ground and way cuter – the main issue is to make sure they get enough water. Lily chose a strawberry plant amongst others, and would proudly give Ivy the one, precious strawberry that it grew each year. There should have been others, I don’t know why it only generally managed one, probably slugs, snails and woodlice were to blame. But still, a moment of cuteness and generosity, a very rare thing to be treasured. By the time we moved, the barrels were falling apart and we left them behind along with so much else, so many hopes and dreams. All this was running through my mind as I planted, along with the interruption of a phone call from Ivy as the school bus had broken down yet again in the hot weather and could I come and pick them up?

I’m just in the middle of something, give me ten minutes and let’s see if they get a new bus out to you quickly.

Because sometimes you need to finish what you’ve started. The barrel was going to be something beautiful, a contemplative spot, somewhere for me to sit and enjoy. If I ran off now and left it unfinished, everything would likely sit there for several more days until I could get back to it, plants drying out in the heat, weed seeds blowing into the fresh compost, resolve dwindling in the face of new chores. So I planted, and put down a layer of cardboard between the plants and piled up cobbles and placed the centrepiece I’d haggled over in the garden centre…

Ta da! My new garden meditation spot. Not that I do any kind of proper meditation, but sometimes sitting peacefully outside is as Zen as it gets. My little Buddha is there to remind me to do just that, to take a moment and rest and breathe while enjoying the quiet, the birds, the flowers. To contemplate beauty and stillness, rather than the To Do list. The bus brought the kids home okay after all; Lily noticed the difference straight away and declared it to be our Japanese garden, while it took Ivy a week to notice, by which time the slugs were attacking the hostas with primordial vigour. No matter. My garden will never be perfect, neither will life be. I’m learning to try to make the most of it anyway.

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.