Sunday, 21 August 2016

ENTRY FIFTY - FINAL BOW


It is mid August and the summers end looms like a late afternoon shadow. Despite some decent spells of sun recently it has not been a vintage year; a chilly start muddled with downpours, weeks of tedious humidity and bleak, grey-white skies. This has been a summer to take what you can when you can, snatching fine days for picnics and river swims, forging ahead with camping trips – dodgy forecast and all – and dreary mornings brightened by a visit to the rose garden at Hampton Court, where an embarrassment of velvety blooms hang heavy and rich with fragrance. Dinners of fish and chips on the beach, eaten straight from the paper and swaddled in hoodies; this is what British summertime means. In the last fortnight the blackberries have come into season, lustrous black jewels bursting with tart sweetness. Felix is in heaven, his face smeared with claret, berry stained hands testimony to rich pickings. 
 
When Felix was less than a year old, my cousin and her family visited from Poland. Being older, a doctor and mother of two, I have always considered her wiser and worthy of respect. During the course of an emotional conversation about birth and miscarriage, she said something that has stayed with me and which I think about during moments both tender and tricky. 'No matter hold old your child or children are, whether three months or two years or ten, you always come to believe that this is the best time. That they are now at their height of sweetnesss, their perfect ripeness. That this is the moment you will look back on in years to come and remember as the golden time'. How right she was and what a gift to a parent it is. It is this selective madness that makes parenting possible, that offers dollops of sweetness to mask the sour taste of tantrums, sleep regressions and food strikes. That burnishes reality; enhancing the good and making the bad fade as if it never were. Every parent believes the best of their child, seeing through to the core of gold that exists in every tiny person, glimpsing the limitless possibilities that surround them like an aurora. Being a mother to Felix has tested my spirit, my relationship, enhanced and pruned and strengthened, bringing out the truest, most resilient and resourceful parts whilst cutting out the deadwood. In turn I feed this energy, commitment and zeal for life back into him, one vessel endlessly refilling another. A miracle of infinite sustenance. 

I write this final entry just as everything changes again and a new routine is becoming established. The daytime nap is no more. After months of on/off napping, daily battles and spells of relapse, he has decided that he definitely does not wish to or need to nap any longer. This has changed the very landscape of our day, and therefore the equilibrium of life in general. Gone are my two hour slots of daily writing, replaced by a brief half hour of enforced ‘quiet time’, enough only for a cup of tea and a period of doing absolutely nothing at all. For the rest of the day, all twelve hours of it, he is on the move, a darting, dancing, questioning, playful robin with the short fuse of a tiger and the emotional fragility of a teenage girl. It’s quite a whirlwind, and evenings find me too strung out to compose my thoughts enough to write. It’s not the physical demands that tire me, but the almost constant need for attention, the eagle eye and elephant ear that notices everything and asks ‘What’s that mummy?’ 

Yet just as Mother Nature adds another burden she takes also something from the load, sensing that otherwise you may simply collapse. His ability to play alone and the development of imaginative play has suddenly and blessedly come to the fore. He can be left in a room by himself for some considerable minutes without the need for supervision. As parents of toddlers will understand this is a gigantic leap, and means you can sneak off for a quick glimpse at your phone, go to the toilet, or just sit looking into space for a few minutes. For non-parents-of-toddlers, imagine a meeting that lasted all day, from the moment you wake up, during breakfast and through lunch and dinner, having to take your toilet breaks with someone knocking on the door and saying ‘can I come in?’ and never being allowed to speak your mind, swear, be callous, impatient or give a bad example (lest it be instantly copied and magnified to the nth degree) In fact whilst being the best, kindest, most patient, encouraging, stimulating, loving and selfless person you can be, whilst the boss (or in this case your child) rushes about creating mess, wanting to simultaneously draw/play trains/brush the cat, needing regular snacks, meals, drinks, cleaning up, hand washes and bum wipes and trips to the toilet or corners of the playground to wee even though they only just did one ‘but it was only a tiny one and now there’s more’. Therefore these precious moments when they become lost in their world of play, that incredible space in their imagination where a little plastic house can be simultaneously a garage, a moving train that announces its destinations and, obviously, a house, are like tiny breathing holes, giving just enough air that you do not stifle. 

Everything is changing, and everything is about to change. In four weeks time Felix will celebrate his third birthday, and I can hardly believe that I have been writing these entries for three years. Soon, our extended period of intimacy and exclusivity will be challenged, for in January 2017 Felix will be at last be eligible for some free hours of preschool. Only for three mornings a week, and then only for three hours at a time, yet this will be the first time he has ever been left for more than a few minutes with a non family member or close friend. It’s a seismic shift in our relationship, and my primacy as mother, the chief carer, the main educator, the shaper of the dough that is Felix, will be in part handed over to others. What a very odd and disquieting prospect, after so much time being the centre of his world. Not that I’m saying it is not time, if anything it is long overdue, and yet the thought filled me with so many mixed emotions. For many kids and parents this enforced separation comes a lot younger, and whilst this is undoubtedly harder and often more harrowing, having been so long in harness with each other it seems utterly impossible that this will not always be so. 

Felix is about to fly a little way from the nest that I have so painstakingly built and feathered with my own down, the nest that has come to symbolise the unbreakable bond forged by our many years together as a couple, the nest built on love, laughter, art and music, and a deep well of mutual respect and admiration. He is strong, able, and confident, and the time is ripe to stretch those wings. It is a season of change, and as an unassailable sentimentalist I am already marking the time before he begins his tiny foray into the wider world. In part I am looking forward to it, thinking of the time I will have to myself, the mornings of freedom, the chance to write, organize my life, do whatever I choose, yet I am painfully aware that the singular time we have spent together, co-conspirators in the adventure of our own making, is drawing to a close, and at times the thought of that makes me weep. Oh, the passing of time, the growing up of the child. Never again can you have any of it back; that is why it is vital to fully appreciate and experience it as you go. 

Every morning as I open the back door so Felix and I can welcome the day a robin swoops down to greet us, red breast flashing against the green of the garden. I can no longer consider it coincidence, the perfection and regularity of this daily occurrence spurns chance. It is a small thing, and yet somehow it represents all that I am grateful for. Every humble pleasure, every speck of joy, every tiny miracle. Felix; my darling, brilliant, beautiful bird, it has all been about you. This whole book, this unfolding of myself, this journey of growth and improvement, this opening of the eyes and heightening of the senses, this marvelous, extraordinary escapade, it is you who have made this possible. I love you more than life itself, and I love life very dearly. It is time to end now. I cannot help but feel a keen sadness, and the tears run unchecked as I write these closing words. But comes a season to begin and a season to end; and it is only the wisdom of age and of experience that tells you which is which.  

“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun--which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so”.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

THE END

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

ENTRY FORTY NINE - NO FEAR



No Fear: surf speak for the moment one sallies forth, attempting the amazing feat of riding a moving body of water on a floating board. Catch the wave and hoist yourself upright, find your balance and enjoy the ride, fall off and get sucked under, remembering to keep the sun in your sights. Swim up to the surface, breathe. Repeat.  

Scary how quickly you can lose sight of which way is up and which way down, and it is only now - nearly three years later -  that I see just how far the current had pulled me under after Felix’s birth. For the first six months I was too busy tending his ever present needs to consider something as intangible as my own mental health. After the physical trauma of delivery I was so grateful that I would not be (oh horror) incontinent that I felt utterly fine. Emerging from the first stage and entering the arena of weaning, sleep training and ever shifting patterns of napping, I was too busy to worry about my feelings. What new mother can spare the energy? In fact, it was only in the run-up to his first birthday that the truth began to seep out. Until then I had assumed that my fears and anxieties were natural and normal, that the grief I felt in regards to my experience of labour and the fear that engulfed me whenever I let my mind slip towards the black abyss was simply a part of the healing process and that things would improve without the need for intervention. I let the tears flow freely and poured out my story to anyone who would listen, convinced that the telling would heal the hurt, the way it had always done in the past. Insomnia was submerged by night feeds, and the demands of new motherhood providing a perfect cover for the fact that a cohort of demons had invaded and were slowly taking over. It was only when Felix started sleeping through the night that the true damage was revealed, just as the low tide exposes all the detritus washed up on the beach.

I write this entry in order to try and help all those women who
have experienced complicated, traumatic, or tragic births, still births and miscarriages and other sufferings that have no name. You are not alone. Your grief and suffering is not impenetrable, you can and you should seek help. Among those who study postpartum afflictions, the profile of women exhibiting signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is on the rise. Two recent studies have found that approximately one-third of all postpartum women suffer some elements of PTSD, and three to seven percent suffer full-blown PTSD. “During childbirth, many women experience real threats regarding physical harm or death to themselves or their baby,” says Inbal Shlomi-Polchek, a psychiatrist and co-author of the Tel Aviv study. “During a painful birth, many women believe that their bodies are torn or destroyed irreversibly.” Such is the truth of giving birth, and whilst a lucky percentage sail through with a minimum of fuss or pain, for many others the agony and fear they undergo during those twilight hours when your baby goes from unborn to born and you go from woman to mother, are deeply scarring, both mentally and physically.



Mothers and soldiers, we are kin, for it is these groups who suffer must from PTSD. I have come to perceive a very real stigma surrounding the experience of giving birth, and saying that you had an awful, potentially life changing time is frowned upon. ‘Don’t worry, it’s all over now’ and ‘But think how lucky you are to have a lovely, healthy baby’ is a sentiment I heard echoed more than once. Labour and birth are considered ‘natural’ and ‘wonderful’ and ‘life enhancing’, and no doubt that they can be, but they equally can be agonizing, terrifying, and dehumanizing. I’m guessing you wouldn’t tell a battle scarred soldier to chill out, it’s all over, and look, you're all in one piece, would you? Yet those are exactly the kind of platitudes that traumatized mothers are offered. Unfortunately - and to some incredibly - modern medicine and care does not always, or even often, deliver a civilised, well managed, 'good' birth. So what have a new mother and a soldier in common? The list includes long hours of pain and fear, exposure to the threat of death or serious injury - believe me that fear for your unborn child is terrifying beyond compare - a loss of dignity and control, the chilling feeling that a battle is underway and must inevitably come to a close, and an all-consuming sense of the presence of mortality and the terrifying fragility of life, all this whilst you are experiencing the worst pain of your life. Without any training. Without any briefing. Without any armour. Stripped, in fact, to the very essence of what you are. And when it is all over and your body has come through the ordeal, you may find, as I did, that your mind is caught in a web of grief, fear, anger and horror, and that you are unable to stop the endless replay of those bloody hours in which you were invaded, torn and mutilated, subject to fear and horror and a level of pain you have not previously imagined possible.

Dear mothers, hear my words; do not suffer in silence, covering up your heartbreak and anguish. Your pain and grief can be addressed, processed and ordered and stored correctly in your brain and in your heart, and you will find that an enormous, crushing weight has been lifted from your mind, your heart, and your spirit. You will rediscover your joy for life, enhance the love that you feel for your children, family, friends and self, feel once again free to contemplate becoming pregnant again without a sick fear invading your soul, scorching it like acid. When my panic attacks, bouts of weeping, progressive insomnia, horror of pregnancy, and bewildering surges of adrenalin become impossible to ignore or couch as ‘normal’ I thought, ‘OK, enough’. After a referral from my GP and an assessment from a clinical psychologist that diagnosed me as ‘probably suffering from post traumatic stress disorder brought on by a traumatic birth’ I finally had a name for what was happening to me. For me, part of the horror had been the feeling that a corrosive process had taken control of my psyche and was inexorably ruining what was good and healthy, blocking out the light and feeding on the darkness it created. A cancer of the spirit. What we know about cancer is that early diagnosis is vital in treatment, so too is early diagnosis and effective treatment in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I write this for all who have been through ordeals which have stolen something intrinsic from their spirit. If any of this rings bells with you, if you feel that, just perhaps, you are not ‘quite alright’, if you can’t sleep at night or wake trembling in the morning bathed in the slick sweat of fear, if you feel that birth was something you survived or endured, and want more than anything to forget but cannot, then contact your GP, or any of the organizations named below, and get help. After a course of trauma focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, a process that involves many hours of talking, re-living the experience, and then re-sculpting the irrational thoughts and fears that surround it, and finally letting my ‘updated cognitions’ take the place of those damaged and irrational demons, I have torn through the blackness and out of the abyss. I no longer feel broken and damaged, on the verge of tears, hyper alert and panicky, My sleep - blessed blessed sleep - is nearly what it was before. I can talk and write about my experience in a way that is positive and perhaps even helpful to others. I am no longer caught in the crossfire of my own mind, where ravaged memories seek endlessly to be laid to rest. I am free. Free to contemplate having another child. Free to enjoy motherhood and life. And let me tell you, that this is freedom indeed.

Friday, 10 June 2016

ENTRY FORTY EIGHT - POTTY MOUTH



Unpainted toe nails glow like pale shells against the lightly browned skin of my feet, and a very faint yet discernable tan line shows the ghost of flip flops. It is June 10th and it is finally summer, albeit a volatile summer peppered with abrupt drenching storms, rumbling claps of thunder and chilly days that call for coats and covered shoes. Solstice draws ever nearer, and on fine evenings an afterglow of day hovers in the sky till after ten. We have started taking breakfast in the garden whenever possible, and as I sit under the benevolent canopy of the ancient oak tree, watching as the sun rises over the roofs of the houses and pours honey-golden light into the garden, I can hardly believe a year has passed since we moved to Teddington. Robins and blue tits dart and chirrup and the movement of branches creates a kaleidoscope of greens, and I wonder how we survived so long without this blessed outdoor space. Not to mention a second bedroom.

Months have passed since I last composed an entry, and this self imposed silence has been a fertile time during which I have worked hard to reestablish my ailing career and allowed much needed time for reflection. And yet in recent weeks the urge to write has built steadily like a slowly worsening itch, and I have found myself scribbling thoughts on scraps of paper and in iphone notes. Rust never sleeps, and a writer can never really stop writing. Time then for another, belated entry, for I feel I have earned the right to bugle from the treetops. Felix is potty trained! The tyranny of nappies is over, naps and nighttimes aside for the time being, and I feel like a grave burden has been lifted. After months of procrastination and a failed attempt in the miserly dregs of winter – snowsuits and multiple layers proving an insurmountable barrier - suddenly 48 hours has changed everything. This only serves to mark how effortless teaching your child can be when they are naturally ready to receive the lesson, like a flower turned up to receive the morning dew. One evening a fortnight ago, Felix expressed clearly his wish to be rid of nappies, so the very next day out we stepped over the threshold, pants and jeans the only thing between his nethers and the outside world.


I’ve heard the rhetoric about keeping them in for a few days while you’re
training but that was never going to work for us. A wild horse cannot be stabled, so off we trotted to playgroup as usual, with firm entreaties not to wee in the bike seat and the potty lodged snugly in the bike basket. ‘Do you need to wee?’ I asked as we cycled off. ‘No’ he replied. Two hours and no wees later, I put him back in the bike seat. ‘Right, I have to go to the bank, tell me if you need to wee’. Queuing up to cash a cheque I noticed his face had assumed a charged expression, ‘Do you need to wee?’ I asked, ‘Yes mummy’ he replied, looking helpless. Quick as a flash I whisked him round the corner into the private banking section, thankfully empty, and whipped out the potty. At first he sat rigid and alert but then his body relaxed and an endless stream of wee poured forth. ‘I’ve weed mummy’ he cried in delight as I smuggled the slopping potty outside and slung its contents into the gutter. ‘Well done my boy!’ I felt as proud as a hen that has laid its first egg, and as we re-entered the bank I stifled a laugh. Lucky them, I thought to myself, that I didn’t sling the whole lot over them while screaming ‘This is what I think of your policies you bunch of scoundrels!’ The story has since done the rounds of friends and acquaintances, with some thinking me insane and others a hero.


I think a lack of shame and inhibition is just the ticket when you’re potty training; and I’m more than happy to pop him on his chamber pot on the train platform, high street or playground. As far as I’m concerned it’s a vital learning process that modern society has lost sight of in our obsession with cleanliness and the disguising of the natural functions of the body. How on earth are our children meant to learn when we spend all our time and energies shielding them from what is innate and essential? Maybe it is just that I’m not really British, at least not by blood, and therefore fundamentally uncultured and primitive, but my defiant Polish nature considers it an essential human right to piss when I need to. I must confess I am inordinately fond of weeing out of doors and sans toilet. Why waste water and paper when you can crouch and let nature take its course? Seen in this light, al fresco weeing is in fact the most environmentally friendly course of action, and one we should all adopt more of. I’m certain that having such an uncouth mother has done Felix the world of good, and allowed him to unleash his stream lot more easily than if I had been a buttoned up type who runs the tap when she’s whizzing just to disguise the shameful tinkling . He has now become so fond of his potty that he insists on carting it about in his plastic wheelbarrow wherever we go, eliciting fond smiles and occasional guffaws from those we pass. ‘Free The Wee’ I say, its time to piss and be proud.







Friday, 19 February 2016

ENTRY FORTY SEVEN - CURTAIN CALL


For some time I have thought I should wrap up this blog; that perhaps I have written all that I can about motherhood, about Felix, about the all consuming, relentlessly mercurial nature of the baby - toddler - child. This force of nature that endlessly reinvents itself, developing new habits, skills and words seemingly overnight, shimmering in transformation like a mirage. And then something happens; something so significant, so wonderful, or so terrible, and I rush to put it into words and communicate it in the hopes that my words may reach others who understand, who also struggle with the immensity of parenthood and marvel at the complexity of the child. I see now that my urge to write has been underscored by the fact that I had my own journey to undergo, not only the incredible voyage of motherhood but also the journey through the darkness that began with Felix's traumatic birth. A year after his birth I wrote an entry entitled 'Dark Side of the Moon' that explored the possibility that I would never be ready to have another child. A lot has changed in that time; I have fought and won the dread battle with my demons, and thus I find myself in the astonishing position of seriously contemplating another baby. Not even in an abstract way but in a concrete, when shall we do this kind of way. 

Perhaps that is why it is time to stop writing Yellow Wellies, or at least to keep an end in sight. Not because the journey is over, not because Felix has stopped doing things deserving of recording and treasuring, not because I have simply run out of ideas, but because a new journey is beginning and it needs space to grow. In order for spring to bloom winter must first have its time. To strip the branches of old leaves, to wither the flowers and freeze the sap and aggressively clear the ground so that new growth may follow. The field must have its fallow period, its time of brown and empty ground when it appears sterile, when in fact the very earth itself is incubating life. Yellow Wellies has been a platform for sharing my experiences but also an outlet for the unspeakable pain inside, the void that opened up in those life changing hours between pregnancy and motherhood. That pain is now dealt with, not in a perfect, orderly way, but in a way that makes progress not just possible but necessary. Suddenly I feel like the time is coming, that within bare branches tiny buds are forming. I am preparing myself, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, to undergo the journey into the unknown where the ghosts of my demons lurk, and yet where a light shines so bright that it beckons me near like a lighhouse to a stricken boat. To once again carry life and give birth.


Who knows if it will even happen? Too many people I know try for a second child only to be confounded. Sad stories of miscarriage abound, unexplained infertility, months of hope followed by months of worry and frustration. I used to think that if you could have one child you could certainly have many more, but this is not the case. Nature, ever contrary, has her own ideas, and it may be that we only ever make this one beautiful, perfect, shining child. If so, I’m forever glad that child is Felix. A lifetime ago, before Felix really existed, I was convinced that I wanted a girl. I knew nothing then of the soul of the baby you carry within you, this innately unique person who emerges from the vessel of the mother fully formed, complete with its own personality, abilities, and passions. This entity that will follow its own course and increasingly display its will and desires to you as it learns to communicate. This creature that becomes more and more amazing every day that you spend undertaking the thousand seemingly mundane, workaday tasks that keep it alive, fed, amused, safe. That in fact this one remarkable child will take you on a ride through the undiscovered, untrammeled paradises of the universe. 

In having a child you become intimately conscious of your own place in the circle of life. The miraculous growth before you makes your own slow demise, your gradual, daily descent towards decrepitude and death bearable, meaningful, and essential. I can only imagine the heights of vanity, self indulgence and ultimately self destructiveness I may have achieved had I not been grounded by this anchor, a rock in the ever flowing river of life. In him I see the folly of eternity and the wisdom of mortality.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

ENTRY FORTY SIX - GLAD TIDINGS WE BRING





On the last day of 2015, Felix and I crouched in the damp earth and planted a bag of bulbs. A bright picture of spring idyll adorned the packet; ‘Blooms Bees and Butterflies’ it proclaimed proudly ‘Plant these and help combat the worldwide decline in the bee population’. Who could refuse such an entreaty, for the plight of our essential pollinators is an agricultural and environmental crisis of gargantuan proportions. ‘One bulb at a time’ should be the motto of us all.

2015 has been a year of epic change; Felix has metamorphosised from a speechless, newly walking baby to a chattering, dancing, fully fledged little boy. Over recent months I have worried that he was slow to start speaking, and his frustration at not being able to communicate his increasingly complex thoughts and desires mounted and created a barrier between us. And then, like a river bursting its banks, the words started to
pour forth in a glittering stream. His delight at being able to express himself has made a huge difference to our lives and daily his vocabulary grows in richness and diversity. He can request songs, ask for meals, make little jokes like ‘Knock knock, who's there? Felix!’ His passions and fears finally have a voice, and we begin see the person that he is becoming ever more clearly, like an oil painting taking shape layer after layer. First the background, then the shadows and highlights, and now the finer forms and figures become more defined with every brushstroke. I am sure that every parent believes their child to be a masterpiece that they have had a hand in creating, and after all I am simply a doting and pathetic mother. In his eyes the entire world is being fashioned as if from scratch, and I am in thrall to its splendour. This is not to say that he is not at times a wheedling, whining, tantrumming, insanely irritating and rude little toddler, for this he most certainly is. And yet his bounteous smiles streak across the surface of my heart like searing stars, and his voice melts any icicle of anger that forms. Mispronounced words become my own catchphrases, and every new sentence thrills me like the finest poetry.

During this year I have undertaken my own voyage, away from pain and fear and towards hope and the wish to one day have another child. Late last year, over a year after giving birth to Felix, I realised that rather than the horror of that event receding it was beginning to possess me. On the surface all was well; the physical effects of a complicated birth had healed but the psychological and emotional scars were burrowing ever deeper into my psyche. I was experiencing chronic insomnia, long after Felix was sleeping the whole night through. Words like labour, delivery and maternity lurked like giant spiders under every bed, always ready to wrap me in their terrifying embrace, invading my dreams and increasingly my waking hours. I suffered from palpitations, surges of unexplained adrenalin and unprovoked panics and bouts of weeping. I realised that the time had come to face my demons or risk being consumed by them gradually, like a death of a thousand cuts, and so I went to my GP, herself a mother of three, and confessed my fears. Rather than thinking them foolish or inconsequential she listened with grave attention and swiftly referred me for counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder brought on by a traumatic birth.

I was lucky. I found a therapist whose natural sense of empathy and professional skill twined with my urgent need for a sympathetic and trained ear into which to pour my poisoned story, and so began a dance that would last several months and at times leave me as flayed and stricken as a victim of unspeakable torture. Together we relived and discussed the burning black details of those hours in which I hovered above the abyss, a gaping void of pain and dread poised to swallow me whole. I voiced fears that I thought had no name, regurgitated memories so twisted and grotesque that my mind had thrown them into the scrapheap, where the vile things survived like filthy maggots. Post traumatic stress was something I had associated with soldiers and survivors of genocides, not normal, healthy women like myself who had entered a hospital to perform that most ‘natural’ of acts, childbirth, and come out the other side damaged and disturbed. And yet, after consulting the scale of stress under which trauma is graded, it turned out that my experience ticked a lot of boxes. Long hours of pain, helplessness, fear that the worst might happen, and critically an extended period of time in which my body was under siege and therefore releasing a constant supply of the ‘fight or flight’ hormone adrenalin, which as it turns out blocks the brains ability to process memories as they are happening. This creates a situation where the memory is incorrectly stored and instead filed in its raw state; therefore repeatedly exposing the sufferer to the original trauma whenever it is triggered. I was living within a minefield, and the only way out was to find and name every hidden bomb. 

Nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, depression, intense anxiety and insomnia are some of the symptoms of PTSD, as well as an inability to control emotions. Sweating, shortness of breath, a racing heart, hypervigilance (looking for signs of danger constantly = my giant spiders) and eventually acute mental breakdown if the original trauma is not dealt with. Make no mistake, PTSD is no walk in the park, and increasingly traumatic labour and birth are considered amongst the most common causes. Somehow, it’s OK for a soldier who has seen all manner of death and dismemberment to admit to these symptoms, and yet every day women suffer the most acute pain, fear, and loss of control of their lives and it is considered completely normal. It is time for this conspiracy of silence to end. Everyone who has have gone through any kind of complicated or traumatic birth experience should seek help, for I promise you, the visceral ghosts that stalk you can be exorcised.

Three months after completing my course of CBT, I feel I am cured. To me this is a miracle, and one that I know will alter the course of my whole life. I am able to discuss labour and birth, even my own, with dry eyes, not because the memories are blocked but because they are filed correctly under ‘past’. I am no longer under siege; I am free to go forth and consider the possibility of having another child. My giant spiders have been slain, each and every one, but only through sheer hard work and many hours of intense pain. The reliving of an acute trauma is something that you will never forget; if you do it properly it is literally like going through the event again; all the pain, fear and helplessness threatening to submerge you. You must then update it with more accurate cognitions, for example ‘I am dying’, but lo and behold, you didn’t die. ‘I cannot cope with the pain’. But look, you did, are you not here as hard proof of the fact? ‘I will be incontinent’. Nope, wrong again. You must face down each and every one of your fears, look them in the eye and realise they are in fact sordid phantasms. CBT helps to unblock the trapped memories and steer them into the right part of the brain, until you can look back and think; I survived. I did not die. I am here, and I am OK. Early on in my therapy, my wonderful, gifted, candid therapist, said to me ‘This will always be the worst thing that ever happened to you. We are not seeking to change or deny that. You have to learn to own this as part of you. What we can do is put this memory, for that is what it is, in the place where it belongs. We can close Pandora’s box, after looking deep inside it, and seal it up forever, knowing that what is in there did not in fact conquer or kill you. This is freedom; this is what can be achieved. But it can only be done by you, I will help you look into the abyss and yet not fall in, for the abyss is only in your mind and only you can reject it and live in the light. I am delighted, proud, and honoured to say that am living in the light once more, a survivor of a terrible trauma that produced the best thing in the entire world, and edging ever closer to doing it all over again.



For help and advice on recognizing the symptoms of PTSD visit http://www.ptsduk.org/.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

ENTRY FORTY FIVE - A VERY MINDFUL CHRISTMAS



In the depths of winter it is impossible to imagine summer. T shirts and bare legs, picnic blankets and long warm days. Winter holds a beauty all of its own; more subdued and sombre but just as striking, you just have to know where to look and how to see. Witness the copper haze of bare willow branches against a grey sky, the translucent eggshell of a frozen puddle, just waiting for a foot to crack its brittle surface. The welcoming glow of lights from within when all is dark and gloomy without, and above all the scintillating, sparkling, twinkling festival of lights that is the run up to Christmas.

Mindfulness; how very current and fashionable a concept, and something that small children understand instinctively. Without effort they live fully in the present, and it is up to us to learn from them so that we too may become mindful and content once more. This most essential and noble of abilities, forgotten somehow in the clamour and confusion of growing up and growing old. What we need to do is grow down to the child’s level, for if you want to see something afresh, see it through the eyes of a child. The first step is to make sure you actually have your eyes open; so many people live like sleepwalkers, wandering with eyes fixed blindly ahead and never sparing a glance at all the wonders that surround us. And anything can be a wonder in the eyes of a toddler; a fallen feather, a shiny sequin, the plume of smoke from a lit chimney. Even the bleak and barren charms of winter are beautiful to the innocent eye; the newly bare branches of a tree, now a superhighway of activity for squirrels and birds laying down their winter supplies. Rubbish caught in a fence that looks just like a jackdaw, a pile of rotting leaves to kick and a puddle to stamp in.

It is unfortunate that those of us with children may feel more than most that every day is a rush to get things done, an endless struggle to get them dressed, potty trained, fed, to school, nursery or whatever else, but alongside all these tasks and responsibilities - within all the mad rush - lies a margin in which we can find mindfulness. It's time to get on your child’s wavelength and take pleasure in the small things, to marvel at a bus or a train as it rushes by, to feel the weight of wooden bricks in your hand as you help them to build a tower, to make a special trip to pick some holly, so gaily festooned with berries and thrillingly prickly. I promise if you do, and do it wholeheartedly, you too will find the magic that lives inside the everyday. 

Of course children need to fit in with your day, and in fact they enjoy the chores and tasks that we can find so dull; filling the shopping trolley, putting on a wash, even sweeping the hallway. Felix loves a broom and insists on helping me to push it about. But if you wonder why your kid is bored and resentful when all you've done is drag them around the shops looking for gifts for people you hate, then forced them into a high chair while you drink lattes and send texts, then shoved them back in the car to race home so you can make them a dinner they don’t seem to want in front of the telly they don't in all honesty need, then you might need to think again. Sprinkle some fun and adventure into their day and you might find that you too have your mojo back, as well as a child who eats better, sleeps better and I dare say behaves better. Children need fresh air and mud, they need to stamp and kick and touch. They need the park, the beach, the forest and the river. They need the wind in their hair and the cold on their cheeks. Not just the safe environs of the playground, not just the airless vacuum of the shopping centre. Too busy? Stop for ten minutes on the school run home and feed the ducks, no one will starve to death if you do. Or take the bus; children find public transport more exciting than you could ever imagine. There's a reason the wheels on the bus is still a nursery favourite after so many years. 

As Christmas approaches and the world is all glitter and gold and flashing gaudy snowmen, the time of the child draws near. The baby Jesus lies peaceful in countless nativities, whilst children act out the timeless tale of an urgent search for an inn by the guiding light of the Christmas star, with the three wise men and a poor woman in advanced labour forced to give birth in a stable. Spare a thought for her when you're complaining about secret santa. As gifts are bought and wrapped and hidden away, it is the children who really bring the magic to the day, and anyone who is lucky enough to be spending any part of Christmas with a child should start to count their blessings. We are the lucky ones, and in the choas and crassness that surrounds the modern Christmas our children are the guiding light by which we can all see more clearly. And so I wish you, and your kin, a very merry and a very mindful Christmas. Ho Ho Ho...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

ENTRY FORTY FOUR - NORTHMOOR HOUSE



“Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia. But don't go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don't try to get there at all. It'll happen when you're not looking for it.”

C.S Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.



I have always been captivated by the work of CS Lewis, and never completely given up hope that I might stumble upon the door to another world. Thus while looking for an appropriate venue to host our wedding party, we discovered Nothmoor House; a manor so splendidly Victorian, rambling and remote and ever so slightly down at heel, I felt I may finally be close to finding that elusive magical wardrobe.



After a long drive from London Felix was desperate to explore, racing along echoing corridors and peeping into rooms which telescoped on infinitely. At one end of the ground floor a grandfather clock presided over the main staircase, at the other an old fashioned kitchen led to a network of rooms unchanged since the reign of Queen Victoria. Larders, pantries, cellars, billiard rooms and priests holes, every doorway revealed a new delight. Staircases multiplied as we roamed the house, trying to establish the order of rooms for guests who would soon arrive. At the very top of the house, tucked under the eaves, a small second floor beckoned. Taking Felix by the hand we climbed the steep stairs to find ourselves in a room of powder blue. Nauticalia dominated; a fine oil of a boat sailed over the mantelpiece, whilst a miniature galleon thrust triumphantly forth on the dresser. This was to be our room, a refuge from the celebrations that would spill merriment over the time worn bricks. ‘Bluey’ Felix remarked approvingly, ‘Bleuey bluey bleuy’.



We couldn’t afford a big wedding, yet fourteen years together called for a
decent show. Thus we decided on a two point plan to alleviate costs. Step one; tie the knot legally in a simple and cost effective registry do. Step two; host a debaucherous weekend of celebrations in a remarbable setting that would weave its own spell on our party, whilst doing all the catering, decorating and everything else ourselves. A triumphant team of toilers produced a sausage and mash that would shame a chef, and at a table laid by my nearest and dearest thirty seven candles shimmered in glass holders - one for every guest plus a few for absent friends - we savoured a repast prepared by loving hands, listened to heartfelt words spoken by those who know us best, and later danced to an ever changing band of musicians, one drummer succeeding another in an orgiastic blur of jamming. I wore a dress that belonged on a ballet stage; a hundred layers of tremulous tulle floating to the knee; on my head a crown of multicoloured flowers. Yellow, pink and blue blooms, red berry, green leaf and whispering white gypsomilia;
a nod to every season. In the garden a group had assembled around the firepit; clustering around the flickering orange glow as people have done since time immaterial.  Stars untroubled by city lights shone with bright cold clarity in a sky of black velvet, gazing down indulgently as we tried in vain to set off the heart shaped sky lanterns until at last one lit and flew trembling into the night sky. 



The next day a hungover group of survivors decamped to the beach, driving across an Exmoor aflame with autumn colour. Low mist hovered over the heather and gorse, painting the undulating wilds in a wash of watercolour hues. Lynmouth was as quaint and picturesque as could be, Felix chasing waves and throwing stones while we watched a striking sunset streak the sky with peach and rose. Back at the house, our numbers depleted but still great in spirit, we embarked upon an unforgettable game of Sardines. I have never played this other version of Hide and Seek and doubt I will ever play it as memorably as this. The endless rooms and stairways, innumerable bathrooms and uncountable nooks and crannies made for an epic game, culminating in a spooky final round. Just as we were getting tired of searching the house a peal from the servants bells rang through the silence, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. As we raced downstairs we saw a bell still slightly swinging but no one to be found, and when at long last we found the elusive seven, tucked behind pieces of furniture in the TV room like forgotten umbrellas, we raised a great cheer. 

That night, as I crept up to bed on the creaky staircase, feeling the half emptiness of the house yawning around me, I felt how keenly places like these need laughter and light and revelry. They need children and grandmothers and all in between to fill their echoing spaces and give them purpose once more. These stately homes that Britain has in such abundance, these crumbling and forgotten grand piles, these other Narnia’s waiting to be discovered. For one enchanted, unforgettable weekend I was both a bride and a memory of all the brides this house has seen. Every floorboard has been stepped upon ten thousand times, every bed seen its fair share of passion and anger, love and betrayal. Our wedding party joined a succession of events grand and humble, joyful and melancholy, that Northmoor has hosted. As I luxuriated in the giant clawfoot bathtub, the Victorian proportions of which have never been bettered, I felt the ethereal substance of history tangible about me. A princess for a weekend, just as every bride dreams of being.

On our final morning, as Felix and I wandered the grounds in the warm October sunshine, pilfering raspberries from the kitchen garden and watching the chickens peck about idly, I felt myself firmly rooted in the moment. This was me now; blessed with a beautiful boy as fair as the morning sun and a husband with whom I laugh every day, surrounded by friends from many corners of the globe, and cocooned in the warmth of love and festivity. ‘Damn it to hell' I exclaimed out loud, startling Felix and the hens, ‘We should get married more often’.