Decluttering for the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed

Minimalism is trending; every other YouTube video or Pinterest post promises to help you declutter your way to clarity, space and a new, improved you. I think I’ve clicked on just about all of them. Even though I’ll never be a minimalist, I’m drawn to the idea of living more simply, streamlining our possessions and having a calmer, clutter-free space.

But.

And it’s a rather big but, to be honest. Just between you and me, I’ve always been messy. At this point I’m going to jump right in and blame it on ADHD, but maintaining a tidy, organised space has always been beyond me. Most of my possessions spent their lives spread across my bedroom floor when I was a child, and yet I knew where everything was. What looked like an atrocious mess to everyone else – particularly my horrified Mum – was to me a structured series of themed islands with clear stepping points in between.

I’ve always been stunned by people who have perfect kitchens, with empty, gleaming counter-tops and not an appliance nor wooden spoon in sight. I’ve gazed around in amazement in friend’s real-life Perfect Homes, literally unable to comprehend how they’ve achieved it. One thing is for sure; they don’t have as many books as I do.

Let’s see if any of the following sounds familiar;

There are so many things you’d rather be doing than tidying, and you run out of energy long before getting round to it. You’re sure you’ll put it away later, deal with it later, sort it out later… but later never comes and the mess begins to build. You can think of 101 uses for every single item you pick up, from used wine corks (stamp-carving, anyone?) to battered old books (could be re-purposed as an art journal, maybe I could even start selling them on Etsy?) – the Creative in you sees the potential in everything. Once you’ve put an item down somewhere, it’s like it ceases to exist and you don’t really see it as clutter any more, oh that’s just the old radiator that I need to take to the tip, I don’t need to worry about it. Clutter attracts clutter, more mess quickly joins the original out-of-place item and breeds until an unruly pile is formed. Nobody around you is pulling their weight and helping. You don’t have enough storage. So Much Paper, (seriously, having a child with special needs involves entire rainforests of paperwork,) what are you supposed to do with it? Sentimentality forbids you from throwing out anything the kids have ever made for you, you save every drawing they’ve ever done, keep the outgrown clothes and toys, because to get rid of any of it feels like you’re throwing away parts of your children. You just can’t be bothered, it’s so hard to get started. You feel completely overwhelmed and don’t know where to start or how to organise any of it. You have plans for all of it, eventually. You can’t get rid of things in case they come in handy – if you throw them out and then realise you need them, you’ll regret it. It seems so wasteful to get rid of things, and you can’t bear the thought of things ending up in landfill. You could probably sell some of it, but you’re not sure where – eBay, car boot sale? – and it’s such a faff to organise, but you don’t want to just give it away.

Maybe you’ve also studied the endless posts and videos about decluttering, quickly realising that they all pretty much say the same thing; get a box for Donate, one for Sell, one for Trash, one for Keep. Anything you’re unsure about, put it in a box, seal it up and leave it in the garage, and if you haven’t used it in a year then take it to the charity shop without opening it. Get a friend to help you. Stay hydrated. Tackle one small area at a time.

If you’re anything like me, none of this advice is particularly helpful. It sounds great in theory, but when you’re confronted with stacks of paper and assorted miscellany, all of which seems to have a purpose, it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps if I really did have three sets of wedding china, several coffee makers and a novelty monkey lamp, decluttering would be easy. Ah yes, we’ll keep the Limoges, junk the Nespresso on environmental grounds, and give Aunt Susan’s lamp the ceremonial burning it truly deserves. Instead I’m left wading through piles of papers about benefits claims, hospital appointments and divorce, not knowing whether it needs to stay or go; I’ve already learned that you really don’t know what you might need in the future, especially where Court is involved. Throw in brain fog, stress, time and energy constraints and it becomes easier to live with the mess.

Yet ultimately, a clearer home is so much nicer to live in. Mess breeds stress and adds to the chaotic stew of busyness and not ever feeling on top of things. A tidy home feels so much calmer and frees up the space for better things, whether that’s a creative hobby or family board games. I’m now moving into my fifth home as an adult, and I’m aware of how much nicer it was to live in those homes once they were done up, tidy, clean and buyer-ready. Unfortunately, they didn’t much look like that when we were actually living in them! Having to frantically tackle my current home to get it ready for selling has made me aware of how much can be achieved in a short time – and determined to undertake this work as soon as possible in the new place so that we get to enjoy living there from the outset, rather than once we’ve decided to sell. With that in mind, here are my top tips for decluttering for the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed.

  • Reduce, reduce, reduce. Long before you’ve reached the bottom of the box of stuff, you’ve created a pile of things you don’t know what to do with. Stuff that feels vaguely useful, important, or that you can picture using in several projects. All too soon you reach the point of overwhelm, shove everything back into the box and give up on the whole idea. For the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed, the idea of completely emptying a box of stuff and either throwing it away or finding it all a rightful place is simply too much. So don’t start out with the idea that you’re going to clear away box after box. Your goal is to reduce; focus on reducing the overall number of boxes, clearing out enough stuff so that three box’s worth now fits into two, and two eventually go into one. Or streamline it so that the contents now fit a much smaller box. This allows you to begin honing your skills in deciding what to keep, and creates a more gradual, gentler process. Yes, you’ll end up having to go through your boxes several times, but it will get easier each time. For “box” you might need to substitute “closet,” “cupboard,” “drawer,” etc. Just have the aim of overall reduction rather than panicking over getting it perfect first time around.
  • Identify the big jobs and get on with hiring. Getting someone in to do the work can feel daunting – what if they turn out to be a cowboy, make the mess worse and rip you off? What about having to live with all the mess while the work is carried out? Websites such as CheckATrade can help take some of the guesswork out of hiring, but I’d still advise asking around. If you ask enough people, you’ll be able to get a personal recommendation for a reliable plumber, electrician, builder etc. Knock on doors when you see a nearby house has had work done, ask if they’re happy with it. If the job needs doing, then do it as soon as you can. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in the position of having to put up with it for years, then paying to have it fixed so that the new family who are buying your home can enjoy it. Do you deserve it less than they do?
  • Know yourself. Would it be useful to have someone helping you, or do you already know that you’ll feel panicky and defensive if someone else starts going through your possessions and pressuring you to make quick decisions? If you’re going to ask for help, choose the person carefully and make sure they realise that you find it emotionally challenging. The last thing you need is someone getting frustrated with you for dithering over whether or not to keep every. single. book.
  • Give yourself enough time. If you’re decluttering for a move then start as early as you can – yesterday isn’t too soon. Don’t pull out more than you can deal with in one sitting, you’ll overwhelm yourself and end up in a worse mess. I’m a fan of Marie Kondo while understanding that it’s simply not practical for me to gather every single item in one go. Take breaks when you need to, but set a timer on your phone so you’ll get back to it. Last Minute Panic can motivate you like nothing else, but you’re always going to regret not starting sooner.
  • If you’re hoping to sell stuff, especially on eBay, you really do need to start early as it won’t necessarily sell straight away. eBay isn’t great for books, but there’s a roaring trade in secondhand Sylvanian Families and Lego so you might be able to persuade older kids to sell their outgrown toys; try to get them to take responsibility for photographing and describing their items so that they’re really earning their money. I’ve even managed to sell bundles of magazines but this works best with specialist titles such as sewing/craft, or foreign imports. Make sure you charge enough for postage as the standard eBay rates are a little low, and don’t forget to set a minimum price so that it’s going to be worth the bother of packing and posting it. Local Facebook groups (or Craigslist in US) might be better than eBay if you have large items and furniture to get rid of. If you’ve got a sizeable number of books, DVDs or computer games websites/apps such as WeBuyBooks might buy some of them; it’s worked out at around £30 per box for me so far – not a fraction of what the books were “worth” but better than getting nothing. Look for voucher codes offering an extra 10-15% profit. You generally need over £25 of sales to make it worthwhile, then the boxes can be taken to your nearest Hermes collection point (or equivalent) so there’s no postage charge – if you have a large amount you might also be able to get them picked up at your home by a courier for no extra cost. Knowing that you’ll get financial compensation for decluttering can really help with the process!
  • Car boot sales – oh Lordy. They can be a great idea at the start of the decluttering process, when you’ve got the most to sell, including some “big ticket” items that will generate enough interest and cash to make it worthwhile. Make sure to get there early, take drinks and snacks and have a very strict moratorium on buying from other stalls because if you’re buying burgers and drinks and forking out cash to the kids to buy more junk, it entirely defeats the purpose of being there and you won’t turn a profit. It’s worth leaving the kids at home unless one of them is older and sensible enough to be actually helpful – otherwise you’re better off using the extra space in the car to load up more stuff for selling; it sounds harsh but younger kids are going to get in your way, get bored, and want to buy up everyone’s cast-off toys. Don’t be too hard-nosed about prices, bear in mind that it’s going to be more profitable to sell it than end up donating to a charity shop, but don’t be bullied by the professional dealers offering you a pittance. Take a helper so that you can nip to the loo without your stuff getting nicked (warning – put anything valuable in a “safe” display spot where you can easily keep an eye on it!). You don’t necessarily have to price everything in advance, the “Make me an offer” approach can work well, and be prepared to haggle. However once you’ve already got rid of a fair amount of stuff, you’ll reach a point where car boot sales aren’t really worth the effort, bearing in mind it costs you for your pitch; consider whether it’s going to be easier and less stressful to just donate the rest. Also – it’s only worth doing it in decent weather, pack the car the night before, and don’t forget your sunscreen.
  • Kids. Leaving aside the hellpit that is a child’s bedroom, kids seem to generate a whole new set of clutter and paperwork, particularly if they have any kind of disability or SEN. Gather up all the random paperwork, get a box file or lever arch file per child and put it all in there. It will look better in a file than it does spread all over the house, and much easier to retrieve at a later date. If you want to be particularly organised, put the oldest stuff in at the bottom and add it in chronological order with the newest stuff at the top – this makes it easier to add in new papers as they arrive.
  • Buy one large scrapbook per child – the old-fashioned kind with large, thin cardboard covers that you can pick up in places like The Works, often with black pages designed for gluing things into. Use this as a repository for their early art work and tape/glue in your favourites. If it’s not favourite enough to be in a frame and hanging on a wall, nor stuck into their Art Scrapbook, get rid of it. Get a couple of cheap frames from IKEA and have at least one picture per child up on the wall, it looks a lot better than Blu-tack, and makes your kid feel super-important.
  • Watch relevant shows/YouTube videos to inspire yourself (do this during breaks rather than using it for procrastination!) – from episodes of Hoarders/How Clean is Your House? to videos about Tiny Homes, or one of the many YouTubers who focus on cleaning and decluttering. Watching Hoarders etc makes me realise I’m not actually that bad, plus it can be inspiring to see how much can be achieved in a very short space of time. Tiny Homes show how little we really need to get by, and help you to prioritise what you’d keep if you were moving into such a small space. Cleaning videos can be played in the background while you’re working to keep you motivated, and can also inspire you by showing how nice your home could look when the job is done.
  • Make a list of everything you’ve decluttered, this helps to keep you motivated when the going gets tough as you can see how much progress you’ve made. You don’t have to specifically list every book/DVD for example, just a general note of how much you’ve let go of. Some people like to weigh the total amount they’ve got rid of, or you might want to photograph it before it leaves. Taking pictures of sentimental items can also help you to then declutter them as you now have a record of it; I’ve found this can really help kids to let go of things they’ve outgrown. It helps to document your progress in some way, find what works for you so you can take pride in how much you’ve done.
  • I’ve spent a surprising amount of time talking about decluttering with my counsellor (who I went to for entirely different reasons.) During one session we realised I’d put myself in a lose-lose situation with a lot of my “stuff,” particularly with potential projects and crafts. If I kept the items then I felt the over-bearing pressure of things I should be doing every time I saw them, from weaving a basket to sewing new clothes. If I got rid of them then I was admitting defeat, I’d failed to achieve my potential and there was an element of grief and regret over not having managed to do it. This Lose-Lose mentality literally meant I couldn’t win and that decluttering was agonising for me – no wonder I was procrastinating and going round in circles. Realising this helped me a lot, and I was able to let go of projects I knew I wasn’t going to undertake or that were perpetually half-finished, as well as saying goodbye to items I’d previously used but was realistically unlikely to use again, such as a paper-making kit. You might have a similar mindset about clothes, for example if you’ve been trying to lose weight to fit some of your old favourites, or books you haven’t got round to reading, or sports equipment that’s been gathering dust for a long time.
  • Donating is much easier if you’re able to find the right homes for your stuff. I knew I was ready to part with my collection of Selvedge magazines, but with a face value of over £200, I wasn’t going to chuck them into the recycling. When I discovered that a woman at my art class loved textile art, it was lovely to hand them on to her in the knowledge that they would be greatly appreciated. Check first though – not everyone wants your cast offs!

Places that might appreciate donations include;

  • Schools/colleges – art and craft materials, including fabric and textiles, plus magazines to cut up and use in sketchbooks or collage (make sure they’re age appropriate!). Books. DVDs, especially adaptations of set texts such as Macbeth etc.
  • Playgroups, children’s charities – toys in good condition, books, colouring books, children’s plates, cups etc. Be aware that it can be very difficult to pass on baby items such as high chairs and cots due to safety fears, and you can’t donate child car seats anywhere, at least in the UK – unfortunately I ended up taking mine to the tip. Sometimes grandparents-to-be will welcome high chairs, changing mats, car seats etc.
  • Doctor/dental surgeries, hospital waiting rooms – coloured pencils/pens, pads of paper, colouring books, toys such as small cars, magazines.
  • Community groups, ranging from youth clubs, Scouts and Guides to the Women’s Institute – will sometimes take furniture such as a sofa or chairs if they have a space they need to furnish – we once donated a sofa to a local Scout troop who wanted to create a hang-out space for their teenagers.
  • Charity shops – as well as the obvious clothes, furniture and bric-a-brac IN GOOD CONDITION, many charity shops also welcome “rag bags” – donations of old clothes/textiles that are not in a fit enough condition to be sold in store, but which they can sell on for textile recycling. Check before as not all shops do it, and make it clear that it’s for their rag bag so there isn’t a volunteer trawling with despair through your holey sweatpants and odd socks. Some charity shops accept electrical items, and some will also take furniture for repair/upcycling as part of their on-going training schemes – again, check with them in advance. Many charity shops will collect bulky furniture from your home, but it needs to be in good saleable condition and you need to set this up in plenty of time as their vans have limited space and might only be in the area once a week.
  • Charities – as well as charity shops there can be local charities who will accept specific items. When the kids’ old bikes failed to sell on our local Facebook group, we were able to donate them to a nearby bike project that taught young people to repair and maintain bicycles. When the charity shop wasn’t able to collect Lily’s old bed in time for the move, another charity that specialised in offering furniture to low-income families was able to take it instead. Women’s refuges are often in need of furniture and clothes. Not all charities have high street shops, so do a bit of research as to what’s available in your area and what they’re looking for.
  • Freecycle – one of the easiest ways of donating, as people will generally come and collect it from your house. There will generally always be someone who is very grateful for your cast-offs; an old mattress is better than no mattress. After moving I was able to pass on our empty cardboard boxes to other people planning a house move, and even have someone collect the large cardboard sheets that had contained Lily’s new IKEA bed (great for mulching a new garden bed.)

I hope this has helped. For me, one of the things that makes decluttering easier is knowing that the items I’m getting rid of will be helping someone else out. Yet even with the worst case scenario – taking stuff to the tip – it always feels so much better to have gotten rid of the extra clutter, you feel palpably lighter on the way home. And with all the stuff I’ve gotten rid of, there are only 2 small items that I regret letting go of – a tiny baby cardigan I knitted for Lily, and an especially lovely birthday card from when I was little, neither of which is that important in the grand scheme of things. It shows that most of the stuff I really can live without and that it’s only the truly personal, sentimental items that I’m likely to miss in the long run – everything else can be replaced.

Transformation

I’m ashamed to say that this was the landing not so long ago. A plastic crate of toiletries that landed here soon after the move, a chandelier that came with us from The House in the Sky but which needs an electrician to install, a bag of Christmas gifts that hadn’t found a home, a soft toy that Ivy was throwing out, a bag of old toy cars that Lily had finally agreed to get rid of, and several large samples of wallpaper purloined from B&Q for future use. A mess, in other words – but a mess that I had gotten so used to that I’d stopped actually seeing it. Is it just an ADHD thing? My mind is very capable of cataloguing clutter and then completely ignoring it, as if it weren’t there at all, particularly if the items are destined for elsewhere like the tip or charity shop. It’s only when something else intrudes into the domestic chaos, like knowing a visitor is about to descend, or -god forbid- deciding to put the house on the market, that suddenly the mess reveals itself through fresh eyes.

Panic.

The timescale of getting the house onto the market and selling it was pretty tight. Having only made my mind up in early March, it was clear that the house would have to be sold before June in order to complete all the legalities and move in to our new home before the September term started and Ivy begins her GCSE courses. Of course, we couldn’t move out before mid-June either, as Lily would be taking her GCSEs. The house would have to be on the market by early April to stand any chance of making the deadline.

More Panic.

Truth be told, every corner of the house contained a scene like the one above. We were still adjusting to living in a house less than half the size of our previous home, a house bought on the understanding that the kids would only be spending half of the week here, with half of their possessions stored at Simon’s place. Home-making had fallen victim to a court case in the first year here, to stress and mental health challenges, to Lily’s increasingly worrying behaviour and Ivy’s depression and anxiety. At times, I would beat myself up for not having managed to create the lovely home that I wanted, for failing to give my children the home they deserved. And yet, it was all too easy to forget the progress that I’d already made, despite the obstacles in my way. When we moved in, every single room was piled high with packing boxes. I joked with the kids that we’d be renaming the place Box Cottage. The washing machine didn’t fit under the counter and sat in the middle of the kitchen, boxes piled on top of it. A wardrobe wouldn’t fit up the narrow stairs and had to be abandoned in the garden, where it stood slowly rotting. We didn’t have a sofa, or beds, or wardrobes or any storage at all. Oh, and I had clearly underestimated the amount of space that the piano would take up in the living room, or wildly overestimated how big the living room actually was.

Panic Overload.

Single-handedly I chiselled out enough counter-top to fit the washing machine beneath, planned and built large IKEA wardrobes, found a secondhand sofa in a charity shop that would fit our tiny living room. The piles of boxes were gradually unpacked, even though some of them sat untouched for a full year before I was ready for them. A log-burner was paid for by instalments and fitted that first Summer, paying me back in the next Winter when the boiler broke and we had no heating. A ridiculous amount of flat-pack furniture was hauled up the stairs and assembled, our existing furniture heaved into different rooms. A new home was found for the piano with a local family. Pictures were hung on walls. A garden began to take shape, a log store was built from pallets. A rudimentary cabinet was built for a gap in the kitchen, shelves and hooks put up where needed, power tools and DIY gear beginning to overflow from the box I was keeping them in. If I stopped and assessed the situation, I had made so much progress from how things were when we moved in. Overwhelmed by how much still needed to be done, it was all too easy to forget how far I’d already come.

So much needed doing before the house could go on the market – the shower needed replacing, the back porch needed a leak fixing and a new ceiling, the render on the front extension needed some patches filling and repainting, the hall needed decorating, the broken decking out in the garden needed fixing or demolishing… not to mention the vast amount of decluttering, tidying and general prettifying that was desperately required. Nothing focuses the mind quite like a deadline though, and so suddenly workmen were hired to do the jobs that had been lurking for ages, while I scrambled to tackle the rest; trips to the tip, painting, tidying, cleaning, painting some more, weeding and strimming, buying light fittings and plants, taking bag after bag of donations to the charity shop or listing things on eBay. A month of sheer hard work and the house has been transformed.

Part of me couldn’t quite believe how capable I was proving to be, having only just turned the corner from severe depression. There was just no other option than to crack on with it, so that’s what I was doing – while also handling simultaneous EHCP and PIP applications for Lily. The other part of me couldn’t believe how much of a transformation was possible in such a short space of time. The house has begun to look and feel completely different. For the first time since we’d moved in, it feels like our home, comforting and sweet. Yes it’s small, but it does the job. We have all begun to appreciate it in a new way, enjoying the calmer, nicer atmosphere. Even the smallness feels cosy rather than cramped, with an awareness that living in such proximity has brought us closer. But it wasn’t just the house that has transformed. Many people have pointed out the link between our external spaces and our state of minds; a cluttered house is a sign of a cluttered mind. The hard work I’ve been putting in is rebuilding my confidence and strength; I’m proving to myself that I was capable, despite the lingering voice of abuse telling me that I’m useless, a failure. Decluttering is bringing a fresh clarity to my mind. Even just having made the decision to move has brought with it a newfound sense of hope and purpose rather than the fear and stagnation that I was stuck in. Can’t has become Can. And while it’s terrifying to leap into the unknown, leaving the lives we’ve created here behind in order to start over, I’ve already proven the basic fact to myself; I can do this.

The gentle art of leaf wine

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The Grand Plan

Garden design starts with a plan. Usually. Except, as I’ve mentioned, the dimensions of my garden simply don’t make sense on paper, it’s absurdly long and narrow. I’ve tried sketching out ideas, but the garden refuses to be pinned down. Instead, I’ve found myself feeling my way into it, having a rough idea of what I want and kind of where that might end up, but working it out as I go. Building from the ground up and seeing where it takes me, rather than imposing any artificial design that’s been sketched out from the comfort of my living room.

Here’s the starting point, from the estate agent’s pictures before I moved in. Sadly, that’s not my bench.

All very clean and tidy – but there’s nothing there. An old rose bush and the plum tree, plus straggly grass with trip-holes for the unwary dug by the previous owner’s dog. No flowers, no herbs, no soul. A fence halfway down to contain said dog, and the garden office/cabin beyond. A blank canvas, in other words.

The first idea was to have three circles cut into the grass – I marked out the first couple last year, but ran out of time and energy to properly cut them out. To get rid of the unwanted grass and cut down on weeds in the meantime, I put sheets of cardboard down – it looked hideous but helped to get the job done.

Phase one, the first circle with a large new flower bed between it and the patio is pretty much complete. More plants could be fitted in, but planting will be an ongoing process according to finances and hopefully the ability to raise some from seed – at the moment the priority is to mark out the bones of the garden. My instinct has been to create at least one small area that feels like a garden in the meantime, and seeing the flowers from my bedroom window always brings a smile to my face.

Phase two is to cut out the remaining two circles of grass, edge them and weed the newly created planting beds surrounding them. Both circles have been cut, and one has been edged, albeit wonkily, with timber edging that I managed to get on sale. The weeding wasn’t completed, and as a result both circles are being invaded by an eye-watering amount of convolvulus – bindweed. Nightmare. I want to garden organically, but have started to fantasise about a large dose of Weed n Feed, as there’s no real way I can beat the bindweed, especially as it’s burying its pernicious roots into the “lawn.”. Even if I miraculously beat it back to the fenceline, it will just keep creeping back in from next door’s garden as Mike isn’t much of a gardener.

Phase three; my much-wanted herb garden, just beyond the now-removed centre fence. Based on a mandala design, a circular area of path that buds into the surrounding planting area, giving a larger reach. This has been marked out for over a month, the edges outlined and cut halfway – until the weather became so hot and the ground baked solid. So progress has halted until we get at least one decent rainfall to soften the ground. Plus it’s just too hot to start digging, even if I didn’t have to use a pickaxe to get through the soil. It’s been left, as Lily said, looking like I’m marking out some kind of satanic ritual. This picture was taken a few weeks ago – the grass is like dried straw by now.

With these areas marked out, it’s easy to see that a little potting shed would be perfect in between the grass circles and the herb garden. A strip of decking outside the shed could double up as both a path and a place to sit, and the little space left is where the pond should go. It’s easy to see all of this, in the bliss of my imagination. Creating it though is another story. I need a new car and my shower is still broken. Three doors need the attention of a handyman, for three different reasons. While there are sheds at B&Q that seem fairly cheap, by the time delivery costs have been factored in, never mind assembly costs, it’s just too expensive. Realistically I need to build the shed myself, from pallets and scraps. Rather more realistically – I have zero building experience, and as Ivy would say, have obviously been spending far too much time on Pinterest. Ah, Pinterest – the mythical realm where inspiration triumphs over actual ability. A pond? That seems doable, until I likely unearth a large sunken concrete bunker, or fail to drive the spade in more than six inches deep. Oh, and of course I can’t handle the electric pump installation, neither can I afford to hire someone… and so it would be a stagnant swamp rather than pleasant pond. What should be phases four and five are fast becoming a personal Everest, the litmus test that decides whether I can manage to seriously push myself into new skills or whether in fact I’m just seriously deluded. More pallets are required before I can think about starting the shed though – and it’s far too hot to be trying to lug pallets up the street, or so I’m telling myself.

Phase six – and by now I’m probably fortune-telling rather than planning – would be to build a covered pergola adjoining the cabin to create a social space that’s further away from the house. See, my head figures that by now I’ve already managed to build a shed from scratch, so a pergola should be a breeze, right? This would be the perfect place for an outdoor sofa, I’ve always wanted somewhere comfy to sit outside. There’s a gap between the herb garden and the pergola area, that the kids are asking to keep as long grass, although eventually this could become a veggie patch. And finally phase seven or eight would be to spruce up the hidden orchard area that lies beyond the cabin, pop in some woodland plants and tame some of the tangled undergrowth. Oh, and if I could, I’d also pop in a covered porch along the back of the house; we built these in our last two houses and it’s soooo useful to have a little rain-proof area outside your back door, whether that’s to have a clothes airer standing outside, or to nip out to the firewood pile without getting wet.

That’s the plan then – technically more of a dream than a plan, given the issue of my having no idea how to construct it all. But a dream is a starting point, right? And until then… there’s always Pinterest.