Well fancy seeing you here...

Hello and welcome to the rambling rollercoaster of useless ponderings, strung together in what the internet calls a "blog," and the voices call a waste of everyone elses time.

Please check your sanity at the door (along with your dignity, logic, principles, good taste and prejudices against daftness.)

"I am here to seduce you into a love of life; to help you to become a little more poetic; to help you die to the mundane and to the ordinary so that the extraordinary explodes in your life." -Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

Friday, 11 September 2015

Signed, Sealed, and (Hopefully) Delivered

This week my thoughts, many of my conversations, and – most contentiously – my Facebook timeline, have been consumed by the unfolding refugee crisis. Simply the fact that I choose to use the term “refugee” there rather than ‘migrant’ will be enough to see some of you read no further, so discordant has the issue become. I don’t think British culture has been so divided on a matter of national identity since an American friend asked whether or not milk should be added first or last when making a proper cup of tea. (The answer was last, obviously.)

I’m not going to use this post to preach about to whom I feel we should provide shelter, or how. I have neither an exhaustive enough political education nor enough Neurofen to spend this evening trawling through the facts and figures to support my perspective, or refute those to which it is vehemently opposed.

The thing about which I do, passionately, feel we should remain united is helping people who are in desperate need. In recent years this has come in the form of the Rucksack Project, distributing kit to homeless people across the country to help them get through the winter, and before that it was Live Aid, Comic Relief, and every sponsored silence or Great South Run that we as a nation have thrown the full force of our support behind. So I was heartened when a group of local people, (the fabulous ‘Don’t Hate, Donate’) began collecting aid to distribute to those who have left behind their lives and belongings, and was keen to help out in the best way I knew how. Unfortunately, I swiftly realised that I’m not actually very useful. Until the day comes when a freshwater pearl demi parure is all that stands between life and death, I don’t really have the transferable skills required to pitch in and make a difference. (But if, in the inevitable zombie apocalypse, they discover that tiger’s eye really can soothe neurological ailments and lapis lazuli wards off the apocalyptic virus; I’m your girl.)

We made a few lists of things which would be useful for anyone who finds themselves displaced and without much assistance, and gratefully raided the various pound stores and charity shops for which our local High Street is so oft derided. Nineteen pairs of socks and thirty-three toothbrushes later, I could either help several refugees feel a bit more comfortable or keep just over a third of a monstrous, many-fanged centipede cosy-toed and minty-fresh. I was proud of how many boxes we’d filled with the basic necessities, but still didn’t feel as though I was really giving much of myself to the project. It didn’t feel personal, and it should.

Remembering back to the Boxing Day some years ago when I volunteered at a Christmas lunch for the homeless, elderly, and vulnerable, I recalled the difference it made to some of the guests when they were given one of the Christmas cards I’d spent the previous few days writing. For some of them, it was the only card they would get, and it seemed to matter to them to know that someone cared. That someone had thought of them, and taken a moment to show it. I decided to apply the same principle to those seeking shelter, asylum, and lives free from the chaos of conflict. So I reverted to doing the thing with which I am often most at ease, and started to write.

I wrote a handful of messages of support inside blank greetings cards. Nothing lengthy or exceptional, just a few lines of comfort to those for whom hope was proving hard to find. I asked my friends and family to contribute messages too, and slowly the pile began to grow. "Dear Friends, you have not been forgotten. Please keep going…"

Most were supportive, but a few were cynical. One asked why I was “writing to terrorists,” and how I felt about these missives being received by “our enemies”. As I began to answer that of course I didn’t want them to be read by murderous lunatics, I realised that – perhaps – I do. Whilst IS are unlikely to be thwarted by a postcard of a kitten and a sharpie-scrawled quote from Winnie the Pooh, they’re not the people who make up the majority of the refugees. (Whatever the Daily Mail may tell you.) Many of the people who are in those camps, however, are young men. Young men who are lost, and angry, and frightened, and being stripped of their dignity and humanity by successive nations who don’t want to help. If one, just one, of those vulnerable young people feels valued and supported for just a moment, then maybe that’s all it will take to help keep them on the right path as they complete their unimaginable journey in search of a better life. We’re all often just a heartbeat away from having our lives altered irrevocably, and sometimes it’s the smallest thing that tips the balance the right way.

Were it not for some happy accident of birth, I too could have been born into another culture in a less privileged land, and the chances are that if that were the case I wouldn’t still be here. My health, or lack thereof, has nearly bested me on several occasions during a lifetime that has only managed to continue this long because of the support systems which life in this country provide. On the 11th of September 2014 – one year ago today, on a date already significant for so many – I had the most recent in a series of operations that have saved my life. Had they not operated when they did, the extensive infection which had spread through to my bones would almost certainly have overwhelmed a system compromised by years of illness and immunosuppressants. I was lucky, and I’ve been just as lucky before. I’m aware, perhaps more than many my age, at how many points our fragile lives rest on a knife-edge, ready to fall one way or another. Many of the scientists I admire believe that those moments translate to infinite parallel universes within which all the alternative options are explored. Perhaps there is one where a version of me, someone a little Kate-like – but not much – is healthy. And perhaps there are others where I wasn’t as fortunate as I have been; where I didn’t receive the necessary help on time, or where I was raised in a place that just didn’t have the resources to try. Considering the nature of my life’s complexities, I have to accept that – if there are multiple worlds co-existing alongside this one – then in most of them I’m probably dead.

So, you see, it’s more important than ever to make this life count. To help others if and when I possibly can, and to recognise that even the smallest gesture can make a big difference if it happens to come at the right time. If that means writing a letter to a potential terrorist, then so be it. Maybe if we can all send out a little more love, and hope, and courage into the world there will be fewer people who feel that the only way to make an impact upon it is to spread hatred and violence. After all, Bin Laden wouldn’t have looked half as threatening in those videos if he’d accompanied the long beard and flowing robes with a bit more tie-dye and a bit less TNT...

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Tick Tock

On the first day of the new year, I was reminded how precious our time with the people we love is, and how privileged I am to share each and every moment with them. It's not something I had forgotten, as such, but I had perhaps become so caught up in thinking it that I'd forgotten to feel it properly.                                                 

I usually curl up away from the world on New Years Eve, agitated by the incessant reminders that as I journeyed in and out of hospital time was doing little more than pass. I could always hear it ticking long before the chimes.

This year, it was time for something completely different. After a slightly unsettling conversation with a GP who reminded me that the NHS IVF cut-off is closer in practical terms than I had previously considered, I was very aware of the implications of transitioning into another year. A year when I'll turn 29, (which I will continue to deny, favouring a fifth attempt at 25), which is a little too close to 30 when so many decisions must be made long before I'm 35.

So it was with a jumbling tumble of  anxiety and anticipation that I curled up in the warm, with tea and the telly, to see 2014 out, and 2015 in. There was one notable difference this time though; I wasn't alone. I got to spend my New Year's Eve with someone who has always tried to ensure that I'm not on my own for any of the big things, and, more recently, has been there for all the little things too. 

I wasn't in any doubt about how fortunate I was to begin this year feeling safe, warm, loved, and happy - which I'm afraid I still peer quizzically at on occasion, like a dog that hasn't understood a command, as all this contentment is quite new a thing. 

Although unremarkable by the standards of many, it was a particularly good night by my own. I appreciated just how much of the previous year I had enjoyed, despite it also being one of the toughest. As it neared twelve, my companion smiled and pointed out that he wouldn't see me again this year. I felt a moment of bereavement, realising that whatever happened next we'd never again get the same time back. Those months and weeks and days and hours and minutes and seconds of things that were good were being swept away alongside all the bad stuff I had been so keen to move away from. After all that has happened this year, the one thing I had not anticipated was being sad to see it end. But I was, as 2014 drew its final breaths, sorry it was ending there, as all the firsts became lasts. 

What made me so fortunate was that all those lasts; last smiles, last hugs, last kisses, would be reborn in the fireworks before the smoke had begun to clear. Despite the many hardships hovering just over the horizon, the new year brought with it lots of hope. The sense of beginning was just as strong as the pang of loss, and the fireworks beautifully embodied the feeling that there would be pockets of the purest, brightest light in the approaching darkness.

When I woke today, still comforted by the hope and light and happiness that sent wisps of itself out into the future with tantalising clarity, its focus was even more keenly illustrated.

During the night, as I had mourned our lasts and sought solace in our nascent firsts, a neighbouring household could take comfort from neither.

At this stage I don't know who died - if it was the husband of the older couple, or his wife. Simply that yards away from my happiness someone elses lasts were much more final, and their firsts so much more sad. Someone, somewhere very close, had smiled with, and hugged, and kissed the one they loved for the last time. The very last. Their firsts would be so opposite to mine that it was almost impossible to think of them being played out simultaneously. All of my hopeful togethers are to be their desperate alones. All the love and support that carried me into the new year was stolen away for them as the joyous strains of Auld Lang Syne faded too. 

I will begin this new year so very thankful for the people with whom I will share the rest of it, and - I hope - will do my very best to appreciate the strength and depth with which we each love, and are loved, by things whose ties to the world are so frail.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Wishing on a Star

This year, just before Christmas, with nothing wrapped and some things still unmade, I did something I'd never normally do at such a time: I bought myself a present. It seems a little selfish when it's a season dedicated to thinking of others, but there are some moments which call out to be marked and this was one of them.

Around this time last year, as we left 2013 behind and stepped cautiously into a fresh annum, I posted Neil Gaiman's New Year Wish. It was perfect, and summed up many of my hopes for my friends and family. I knew my year was going to be tumultuous to say the least, but adored this little wish and dared to claim its sentiments for myself, and for you.
The post was from his blog, here

"May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself."

He added:

"I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you'll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think
there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind."


"I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.

So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't
good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever." 

As I have already detailed in previous posts, one of Gaiman's books had  become particularly important to me during difficult times that year, so it seemed very fitting that I welcome the next with words of his instead of any other. Of course, I then forgot about them almost immediately as living took over from dreaming and was quite unrelenting in its dominance. 

That's not to say that 2014 was, for me, a bad one, just that it required an awful lot more determination than usual to think of it as good. It has been a year of extremes, and all that brings with it. Each moment of pain was matched with laughter, and for everything that came to an end something new began to grow and change. I had to learn to accept help and embrace the vulnerability that had made itself so unavoidable and left me unmasked and unsure.

And yet, in doing so I rediscovered my strength, and reconnected with who I am and  how I became what I think of as my self. I spent much of this year not feeling - or indeed looking - much like myself at all because of side affects from the medical treatment, but in many ways am more connected with my body than I have ever been before. As the fresh scars heal and I feel myself begin to re-emerge from the pudgier, pastier form in which I felt trapped for so long, I am much more aware of how I feel and how I move. I appreciate the battles - some won, others lost - which it has held fast throughout, and have a much deeper understanding of the ones yet to come. We are no longer enemies, my broken body and I. We are allies, brothers (or sisters) in arms, in a war that has ravaged us both.

As I wished you all a happy and healthy new year, I knew not to hope for the same things myself. Disappointment is not easily conquered, and I did not anticipate having the necessary time or energy to sulk properly. 

Then, one perfectly ordinary day, I spotted this on Facebook. The website Neverwear had collaborated with artist David Mack to produce a series of prints, bringing Neil's New Year's Wish to life. Re-reading and remembering it for the first time in nearly twelve months brought to my attention a quite magical and unexpected thing.

Despite all the twists and turns and darker days I, too, had managed all of the things on the lists of hopes and dreams I had for you. Many of them were only accomplished with the help of the people around me, and others I'd had to find it in myself to create or pursue.

At that moment, as the warm thrill of the realisation fluttered in my head and my heart, I cemented the final wish. I had, indeed, surprised myself.             

Several of the people dearest to me in the world already know their coming year will be a complicated one, and aren't sure how to greet so much uncertainty, or how they will begin to untangle it without unravelling themselves. Much as I would like to, I can't shield then from the tumult that awaits, but I can pledge to face it with them, and I do, so very faithfully. 

For you, as for them, I hope that 2015 brings each and every one of you the love and support I have been so fortunate to surround myself with when I needed it most. 

And I hope that you, too, manage to surprise yourself, by being kinder, stronger, happier, and braver than you believe you can be. Let's do it together.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Of Mortal Fears and Mermaid's Tears

As the sun sets on the last of May, the
significance of knowing that it will rise next on something quite new feels more poignant than it usually would. Quite the opposite, in fact, of the view I would normally take. This year seems to have flown by thus far, and I would typically bemoan the swiftness with which the time were lost. Tonight, however, it's oddly exciting to think of that new dawn and all the possibilities contained within it. It feels like a new book, or a fresh bed; clean and crisp and aching to be explored. Full of the most vivid dreams and the grandest adventures.

The theme of the last month, and I expect the next, seems to have been "change". Not just for me, but for so many of the people whose lives share spaces with mine. Usually all the uncertainty would be exhausting, and admittedly there are times when it still threatens to overwhelm. I've never been one to embrace change, instead clinging stubbornly to familiarity long beyond the point where I know if I still want the things to which I steadfastly adhere. So many of us fear change, yet conversely it's one of the few things that can be depended upon with any certainty, and we never escape it for long. The inconsistency of life is one of the most reliable aspects of living. When I first had to admit the extent to which the associated anxiety had become an issue, it was because I wasn't sure what frightened me more; that everything could change, or that nothing ever would.

Alongside the apprehension, there's a kind of peace to knowing that some of the changes I face are inevitable. It's less fatalistic than resignation, and more an acceptance that things cannot remain the same. That they should not. It's not the way of things to be too fixed, but that doesn't mean that every change has to be a shock. Some differences are so gradual that their scale and their beauty is only apparent upon looking back. This week a very kind friend sent me a surprise gift, and in the parcel was a pendant made from sea glass, which I have always loved. Little shattered pieces of another life, wending their way through turbulent waters to become something precious. There's something quite lovely about knowing that its beauty begins with irreparable brokenness, and develops not from repair but with more scarring and scratching. Its journey through the world is slowly etched into its surface, as is ours, each just as surely shaped by our travels as the other, and often neither any more aware of it at the time.

From my current vantage point overlooking the city, it's hard to imagine life ever standing still, or stagnating. There's such a buzzing and bustling to the nascent nighttime, with Portsmouth looking rather pretty from such a distance in the dark. (The same has been said of me on occasion.) So much life unfolds between those twinkling spots and dazzling stars, showering sparks into the darkness until their glow is matched by another day.

When the sun rises on that next tomorrow, it will introduce us to June. I don't quite know what her plans are for me yet, and despite acknowledging that change is unavoidable, it's still difficult to confront it courageously. As I prepare to welcome the new day and new month that hover just over the horizon, I know I must greet the approaching challenges and opportunities it presents with the tried and tested blend of acceptance, curiosity, and fortitude that helped me survive those past. The only thing of which I can currently be certain is that I can be certain of very little. The voyage ahead is likely to be quite a rough one, but I know that by the end of it a few of life's sharpest edges will have smoothed, and that is something rather precious.

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Ties That Bind

Sometimes perspective is subtly gained, and other times it crashes into view and simply obliterates the previous mode of thinking. The hospital which has been its stage - and my home - for the last week is a master of shifting attitudes; an arena so cacophonous with extremes of emotion that few are seldom fixed.

Being quite experienced in pain and complexity, I've struggled much less with the physical reality of this current unwellness than I have with some of the wider questions it has thrown into my path. The now-unavoidable gastric surgery carries with it substantial risks to fertility, the extent of which I am only just beginning to explore with the help of relevant specialists from the field.

Suddenly finding myself asking very big questions about my future has been made particularly jarring because I had never given much thought to it before. My mother was in her late 30s when she became a parent, and even as a child I had always presumed that the same would be true of me. As ever greater numbers of my peers have begun to have families of their own, and the quantity of nieces and nephews I've amassed threatens to overwhelm the world supply of Jelly Tots, I still felt under no pressure to consider my own reproductive responsibilities. It was a question for another time, another decade. Something that seemed so abstract and far away, and felt almost ridiculous to ruminate upon seriously when it was so far from being relevant.

It is a theme repeated, I suppose, by couples everywhere who find themselves actually having to think about fertility. It's an aspect of our health we take for granted in a more absolute, evolutionary sense than we might any other, and do not test until it fails us. I had been as naive as anyone, never questioning my ability to have a child of my own, and indeed focused more on the rights and responsibilities afforded me not to get pregnant than anything else.

Much as I adore the cheeky, sticky, noisy, lovable riot of children to whom I am Auntie, I have been perfectly content to postpone any thought of adding to that brood myself. I'm not the type who coos and clucks over other people's babies, and don't have much experience entertaining children. This awkwardness led to a general assumption that I am not a very natural mother and a much more intuitive Wicked Queen. (It may also have something to do with the tiara, but I still deny responsibility for those poisoned apples.)

Despite the teasing, I don't think I had really given the concept of motherhood much thought at all until I was twenty. When my grandfather died it was earth-shattering, but somewhere amidst the shock and the grief and the pain was a strange kinship and familiarity. That moment of devastation linked me to the past in a way nothing could have done before. The loss of that great man and all that he was to us, and the staggering realisation that from that point on he could be only a memory, was when it all fell into place. I have referred to it since as my "circle of life moment", because I knew, there and then, that our lives have power and purpose simply because we share them. As I felt both the privilege and the loss of having been loved so much by someone I so admired, I recognised my place in the order of things in a way I had not done before. I wasn't just a daughter, or a granddaughter, I was a link in a chain that stretched back generation after generation, and - most startlingly - would reach out just as far into the future too.

I've touched on the significance of that moment before, but have found myself remembering it so much more acutely in the shadow of this latest news. As I indulged the self-pity and allowed myself to sink a little deeper into what was becoming quite a comfortable sulk,  my whinge was interrupted by a whisper.

"Please let me go. Tell the children that I love them, but they must let me go."

An elderly lady in a bed across the ward is receiving only palliative care, and her lucidy drifts somwhere between remarkably keen and hopelessly lost, never certain which is cruellest. Tonight she has called alternately for her children, and her parents, earnestly seeking the comfort of those greatest loves as her life begins its end.

Her family is large and caring, guilty only in their eagerness to cherish the moments of respite from distress, despite - and because of - their rarity. It is impossible to watch life unfolding and untangling itself at such close hand without realising how small a part we each play. How insignificant the knots are in which we find ourselves tied, time and again, until there is no time. No "again". It isn't blood she calls to, or to which they cling, it's bond. A bond formed by loving as deeply, resolutely, and fearlessly as family demands, but which is not exclusive to genetics. It's the quality of the relationships that surround her which have brought the greatest joy to know, and are causing the most pain to leave, not their heritage.

As the spectre of their loss calls to the ghosts of mine, I find myself so very grateful for those in my life whom I would be most loathe to leave, family and friends, and equilibrium begins to restore. It's hard to be too dedicatedly self-pitying in the face of so much love, and life, and potential for more of the same. I may not know what shape my future will take, or how far it may deviate from the course I'd expected, but in this moment it is enough to possess the luxury of time to find out.

As the last of the ward lights are dimmed and the day's visitors reduced to a cluster of empty chairs, so she whimpers to the night and asks it to take her; eased of the pain her illness delivers but wracked with the agony she knows awaits them. She quietly asks the nurse if she can have something to cuddle, and they give her a pillow. As she falls asleep with it cradled tightly to her chest my heart breaks for far worthier tragedies than my own, but this single bed has never felt quite so vast.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Keep Kalms and Carry On

This blog began its life as a repository for all the nonsense burbling through my brain during a prolonged bout of insomnia. I've revisited it on occasion since, but never with the same committment. Some of that was because it became a victim of its own success; as more people confessed to having read it, the less about my life I could actually share for fear of upsetting or alienating those I am much fonder of than it might appear in print.

I find myself back here now not because I have anything more to say, but because I once again appreciate having a place to say it. Somewhere to unburden my mind of some of its turbulent tangle of thoughts and tangents. (Beginning with the excess of letter T's it seems.)

For the first time in a life that has grown steadily less ordinary, I've been unable to wend my way through that troublesome tangle of inner turmoil on my own. The blitz spirit indoctrinated by the grandparents who raised me failed in its robustness, and the moment came when I couldn't keep calm, and had no idea how to carry on.

That sounds terribly melodramatic but, momentarily, it was. I have long counseled others that we each have a point at which we break, but I had never expected to find mine. It's conceited of me, I suppose, to think myself immune to the stresses and psychological hardships that afflict others. I observed patterns of distress and depression in friends, family, and in my capacity as a peer counsellor. I have always believed that no one should be ashamed of asking for help, and that it is normal to feel overwhelmed sometimes. I offered support to others in the fullest sincerity of that belief, and have tried to learn from, and better comprehend, the processes involved with recovering and moving forward. As I write this, a University prospectus sits beside me with a page folded down to a counselling course I had hoped to pursue, while a leaflet for MIND volunteering opportunities is pinned to the noticeboard. I've championed the services available and actively sought to help others access them because I believe in the real, tangible value they offer to those who are struggling.

Yet, despite my vainly assured tolerance and experience, I not only failed to recognise the approach of my own crisis, but have reacted very reluctantly to the idea of treating it with medication and therapy. I have had to accept that not only am I human, but also a hypocrite. In a rather roundabout way, however, that admission may just be what gets me through it.

After fifteen years of ill health and disability, I first began to struggle when the prospect of further surgery was raised. I have, very fortunately, never been one to suffer from depression, but recall returning from hospital that day utterly exhausted and dejected. Defeated by a battle against my own body that I had thought was coming to an end. I lay in the garden as the disconcertingly beautiful sunshine slowly dimmed and the blaze dipped below the skyline. As I rested, I listened to Neil Gaiman's "Ocean At The End Of The Lane" audiobook, escaping into benign fantasy and letting the words swirl and cleanse as I railed against the bitterness and self-pity that kept trembling through my stiff-upper-lip. I will always be grateful to Gaiman for sending me a friend like Lettie when I needed her - almost as much as his ponderous protagonist did.

Over the following days I did what I always do, and 'got on with it'. Having been a sickly child I've come to be defined by the ability to cope. "She's a trouper!" "She's always so strong." "She never let's it get to her." How much of it I can claim was true I don't know, but it has become an important part of how I saw myself. It gave some sense of achievement and purpose to all the suffering I suppose, thinking that it was character building, and made the struggle less distressing for those around me who were helpless to improve my circumstances.

So as time moved on and other distractions presented themselves, I brushed the growing anxiety aside. It wasn't my way to indulge it, and I'm not sure I would even have known how to express it, or to whom. Then a spate of issues with uncertain consequences for my future left me feeling very anxious about the direction my life might take. I noticed it properly for the first time, like something moving from the corner of my eye into sharper focus. Yet still I dismissed the persistent, niggling, fear and busied myself with other things, and almost a year after the initial conversation about further surgery my consultant raised it as a much more immediate concern.

Suddenly I was forced to confront even more unsettling decisions about my future, including having to answer queries about my practical and emotional support networks, the stability of my relationship, and whether or not I wanted children. Contemplating the various alternate realities left me reeling and rudderless in an unforseen storm.

A series of fractures began to appear in the days preceding my first meeting with the surgeons, and instead of greeting the new challenges with the required patience and determination, I just...broke. The anxiety finally peaked, and the calamitous clash of thoughts and feelings that had been growing into a tight ball in my stomach welled up and out in incessant waves of anguish that I could neither hide nor prevent. I couldn't eat, or sleep. Couldn't stop crying, and was beset by a nervous shaking that would put Michael J Fox to shame. All the while the measured, logical voice in my head was curtly urging me to stop making such a fuss and pull myself together, but I failed to maintain my composure for more than a few minutes before the panic would take hold once more. Deciding whether I wanted toast or cereal felt like my whole life hinged upon the answer, which is entirely illogical for anyone who doesn't live in a low-budget, Serendipitous romantic comedy, or a medieval village plagued by ergotism.

Leaning heavily on the family whom I would usually endeavour to spare such distress, I ended up crawling into bed with my grandmother in the middle of the night, like a toddler hoping to shake off the monsters that have followed her out of a nightmare. I knew then that I had to give in and ask for the help I had so earnestly recommend to others. I made an appointment to speak to whichever doctor was on call and sat in the surgery fighting not to make a scene, lest anyone be more inconvenienced by my dismay than their own coughs, colds, or ingrowing toenails.

The young GP who eventually saw me was one of the few at our practice with whom I am not familiar. It relieved me greatly as it released me from feeling like I may be disappointing the others; those who had treated me for years and praised my fortitude for making all our lives that little bit easier.

She listened patiently as I explained what had brought me blubbering before her. I candidly confessed to the various triggers for my state - between profuse apologes for making such an abnormal fuss - and heard the reassurances it is usually my job to supply reflected gently back at me. I told her that my main objective was to regain some stability, as I had a lot of big decisions coming up - personally and medically - and needed to know that I was not letting them be governed by fear. She was far less surprised than I had been that the accumulative stress had reached an unmanageable peak, and recommended an antidepressant for the anxiety and counselling to try and better identify, and manage, its causes.

It has been a very odd experience, being suddenly so unfamiliar with myself, and one with which I am still coming to terms. A lot of time recouperating had previously allowed plenty of time for introspection, and as such I always felt quite satisfactorily attuned to my sense of the world and my responses to it. Now, taking pills to help dull the panic and awaiting a referral for therapy, I find myself overreacting to change and needing clear, stable plans and structures to avoid the lingering anxiety. It felt a little like going blind, in some respects. All of a sudden I could no longer rely on my brain to process information in the way it always had, and was left stumbling around in the dark trying to relearn how to function. How to interact with a world full of new obstacles that would have been much more easily negotiated before. (Blindness is probably far too extreme a parallel, but it was at least comparable to the helplessness of going on holiday and realising in the middle of the night that you need a wee and haven't got a torch.)

One of the driving factors in my resolution to pursue the prescribed counselling is the incredible strength in the face of adversity that has been demonstrated by those I myself have counseled. The people who bravely took the steps I directed them towards, despite being just as dogged by self-doubt, embarrassment, reticence, and reluctance as I am now. I owe it to them to practice what I preach, and perhaps owe it to myself to accept some of my own advice.

I want to better understand the process, and understand this new, fractured facet of myself better too. So I'll start by being more honest with the people around me for whom I have maintained the expected facade. Now that the tablets are kicking in and I have begun to regain a much healthier perspective, it is easy to pretend everything is fine simply because I'm uncomfortable with making a fuss about the fact that it isn't. I know I need to work on not viewing my own vulnerability as weakness, and trust the people closest to me to be strong enough to cope with the truth, even if it isn't pretty. Life will continue to present difficulties, and test the limits of my tolerance, but I believe absolutely - as I did even at my lowest - that things will improve. This will pass, and I will be "ok". As I take the first steps towards being truly, positively, content again, I'm very grateful to be so certain that it shall come to pass. I know how many others have to find a way through their darkest nights without the certainty that they will soon feel the warmth of the day. It is for those people whom I write this and offer some company in the darkness, as they find a way back to the light. (As long as none of them piss in the wardrobe again.) 

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Caller ID

Today was the 1st of March, and the welcome sunshine heralded the forthcoming spring. There was a freshness to the world, promising to breathe the colour and life back into all those too-long warmed by radiators and thermal socks. The trees have begun to bud, daffodils have started pushing golden trumpets skyward through the slowly thawing ground, and birdsong’s returning to hedgerows as the hardy winter species take advantage of insects enlivened by the unexpected sun. It was a day of beginnings.

Once home, as buoyed by the fresh air and sense of optimism as any good cliché expects, I smiled at the shrill ring of the house-phone and made sure to grab the mug of freshly-brewed tea on-route to answer. There are only a few who’d call the landline at that time of day, and I assumed it would be my friend Chris, wanting to catch up after a few weeks of radio silence from us both. A good cuppa and comfortable seat are a necessity when such a lengthy chat’s anticipated, and as I picked up the receiver and settled down with both, I’ll admit to being unprepared for the female voice on the other end. As soon as she introduced herself as his mother, I knew I wouldn’t touch the tea.

Chris and I met seven years ago through his wife, Elaine, when we found ourselves thrown together on a hospital ward full of elderly ladies. We shared a sense of humour, and quickly formed a friendship forged through long days spent in opposite beds, with little else to entertain us but each other. On her way back through the foyer having been out for a cigarette, she’d passed the charity stall and bought me a squishy little elephant that was full of beans. Someone had told her many years ago that because elephants never forget, if you give someone an elephant, it means they’ll never forget you. We laughed about it and stood it on the windowsill with a little grey cat visiting family had brought her, and which she’d named after me. One day after a trip out on “day release” I returned so tired that I could do little more than curl up on the bed fully dressed. Without a word she padded over and unbuckled my shoes, doing the only thing she could think of to make me a little bit more comfortable, hoping I’d relax enough to sleep despite the increased pain and nausea that I’d been admitted for in the first place.

Elaine's gift.

We were all surprised when her condition deteriorated overnight, and though she clung to life for a few more days, when I saw her in the private room she’d been moved into there was little left of the vibrant, giggling woman I’d bonded with on the ward. Her husband kept in touch because he thought it was what she would have wanted, and over the years we became friends.

Although my only contact with Chris has been through regular phone-calls, he’s always been interested in what I’ve been up to, and always cared very much that I remain healthy and happy. His career in the forces left him with scars deeper than those which had previously hospitalised me, and occasionally he’d recount some of the nightmares which had outlasted his service. Those tales weren’t always easy to hear, but were tempered with anecdotes about his time in Germany, the antics of the five cats he’d raised from kittens, and his enduring passion for science and astronomy.

Several attempts have been made throughout the years, by me and by his friends and family, to dissuade him from drinking as heavily as he began to following Elaine’s death. But he never slept soundly without her, and couldn’t imagine spending his life with anyone else. Until today I’d never spoken to his mother directly, simply heard him speak of her, often mentioning how robust she was for a woman of eighty who had still cared for her own mother until recently. I can’t count the number of times Chris joked about the longevity in his family, and talked about outliving me despite being thirty years my senior. Thirty years to the day, as the same date in April birthed us both, and made the annual well-wishes much easier to remember!

As the very last of the sun streamed through the window, warming the seat I’d curled up in to chat with him, his mother quietly explained how her son had been found dead. It was a strangely civilised and emotionless call; her supplying the details, me offering the condolences, us both agreeing that the news wasn’t entirely unexpected. I felt sorrier for her than for him in many ways, because he’d been very philosophical about his lack of desire to live without Elaine. He’d lost a life he no longer wanted, but she’d lost a son she’d never given up hope would learn to cope on his own. The tears that followed the click of the receiver flowed for so many things. The shock of the news after expecting his cheery refrain to greet me, the familiarity of the hurt I knew his family would be feeling, and the uncompromising contrast between the afternoon’s positivity and the sadness that was creeping in with the evening shade.

Long ago I’d had to accept that I couldn’t “fix” Chris. That none of the people who cared for him could do that. The best I could offer was to be his “little friend,” as he always referred to me, mainly to wind me up. I listened to him, laughed with him, and let him cry when he needed to. In return he cared, and repeatedly reassured me that he’d always be there if I needed him. Despite his flaws and failings, and all the people he had let down over the years – including himself – he really meant it. In a funny sort of way I always knew I could rely on him. He was determined to do right by me because of Elaine, and never went very long without giving me a ring to check that all was right with my world.

The only wobble during today’s call came when his mother asked me if she could phone me from time to time, to keep in touch, because she thought it would be what Chris would have wanted. I assured her that she was welcome to ring at any time, and I was always here if there was anything she needed. I’ll do my best to listen. I’m sure we’ll laugh sometimes. And I’m sure there will be times she’ll need to cry.

The weather report for tomorrow says it’s turning colder. Spring isn’t beginning yet after all. First, winter must end.