On The Importance Of Communicating

We all know that it’s good to talk.  We hear it so often and actually, we know communication is vital.  I talk about it in my work. In the context of marriages, very often one of the biggest problems couples cite when they hit a wall, is that they’ve stopped talking.  People report of not feeling heard or understood or on the other side of the coin, they don’t feel able to speak about what’s going on inside.  In families, children can act out when they don’t feel heard and toddlers can have a tantrum because they simply cannot communicate how they are feeling.  They don’t know what it is they are feeling and they don’t have the vocabulary to articulate it. Screaming and shouting is their only way of letting their emotions out. Those emotions that they cannot even name are so important that they need to be expressed in whatever way they can.  The same can be said for many adults.

There are many reasons for not communicating. Culture, habit and safety are just three obvious ones. I grew up in family where feelings were not talked about. My mother drilled it into me that “people don’t want to hear about your problems or how you’re feeling. People like to be around cheerful people”. She preferred to maintain a facade that everything was ok.  That domestic culture soon became a habit so not talking became my default position. Instead, I internalised everything. Speaking about my feelings is still a challenge sometimes. And there’s safety. To open up about your feelings is make yourself vulnerable and you are risking so much. Once you’ve done that a few times and not received the response you’d hoped for, you again learn to keep quiet and be ‘strong’. It might be that the other person simply doesn’t know what to do what they’ve heard. They feel uncomfortable. It’s hard being a good listener sometimes. People  may think they have to provide a solution not realising that all that’s mostly needed is just quiet listening and empathy. Occasionally a shoulder to cry on.

These last few weeks in lockdown have been very difficult for us, as it has been for many. We are not unique in this.  I’m suffering from sciatica caused by a bulging disc which means I’ve been in pretty much constant pain for over 7 weeks.  My last form of exercise was a 20k marathon training run. I’ve been on a cocktail of medication and the pills I take at night makes me very groggy in the morning. Add to that, the fact that I am an introvert.  I love my own space and company but suddenly find myself with the house full. My husband is now working from home and the children are here full time as well. It’s busy, it’s noisy, I’m in pain, I’ve lost my space, my quiet and my running (which is therapy to me). I can’t work or write as I am in too much pain to sit for any length of time. I feel guilty. My husband has settled in to the study so I am ‘working’ in the kitchen. The kids go from adoring brotherly love to arguing and fighting in the blink of an eye, more often than not over something utterly trivial.

A week after lockdown, I get Covid19 (suspected), so we are all quarantined. Me for 7 days, the males for 14. They are like caged lions, the teenager with testosterone flooding him. Thank goodness for the garden but it’s really not much help. My physical pain means I am very limited in what I can do. I can’t sit or stand for more than about 15-20 minutes. So I lie down most of the time. My husband picks up much of the slack. I feel more guilt. I am intensely frustrated that I can’t be the wife and mother I need to and want to be. I am aware I am not fully present and I can’t really join in with whatever is going on. I feel useless as well as totally out of control. But I soldier on bravely.

Time marches on and tempers are fraying. No one is really talking. There’s a lot of sniping. The Teenager spends most of his time on his phone or ipad. More guilt. I am too tired to fight it the whole time. There are too many arguments. I know I should be talking more and I can feel the frustration building up inside.  I am not modelling healthy habits to my children.  Rather, it’s a really good example of how not to do life.

Finally, on Thursday night, weeks of unspoken frustration erupt in an argument with my husband.  I leave the room and I am so cross my heart is racing.  I’m angry with myself at some of the things I’ve said that I won’t be able to take back. It’s just been announced that we have another 3 weeks of lockdown and I seriously wonder how we will get through it. I ponder on whether we will come out of this in one piece and together. Or whether this will, in fact, break us.  My head is all over the place and I catastrophise. Despite my daily prayers for grace and strength, and a turnaround in my physical condition, nothing seems to change.

But then something does change. My heart softens. I quickly go back downstairs and, standing in the doorway, I apologise to my husband who is looking rather forlorn. Everything I had bottled up, kept to myself all comes flooding out. I cry, we talk, we voice our concerns and frustrations, our roles at home and so much more. A weight is lifted off both our shoulders and my heart feels a hundred times lighter. The burden of frustration and pain is eased. I am still in pain but it doesn’t consume me. We both feel a new sense of freedom and togetherness. I feel more understood and we feel united in going forward as opposed to feeling like I’m on my own (mostly in the area of disciplining the children, limiting screen time, enforcing reading times, and all the other domestic chores they have to do like tidying their rooms, picking up their dirty clothes and endless other equally mundane tasks). I said sorry to the children and asked for their forgiveness. I explained briefly what had happened. We ‘repaired’ and moved on together.

Without communicating, without talking we would never have broken out of that stalemate. The resentments would have grown, the frustration would have continued to build even further and slowly we would have all drifted further and further apart. The atmosphere at home would have become unbearable and two young people would have suffered as a result.

Whilst I felt huge relief at the end of that evening, I lamented that I had left it so long.  That I again reverted to old patterns of internalising and withdrawing. It’s too easy to get caught up with everything else that is going on. Too easy to put ourselves at the bottom of the list. Or to hide.

There’s a reason the adage “a problem shared is a problem halved” still stands. It really is good to talk.

x

On Challenging My Negative Creative Self

“I don’t have a creative bone in my body” is a lie I have repeated to myself and others more times than I can count over the last 30+ years.

It originates from when, aged 14, an art teacher at school said to me “the sooner you stop drawing [and painting] the better for everyone]”.  Right there, in that moment, those words were etched into my psyche.  I used to enjoy it but I wasn’t a natural and it didn’t come easily to me. Coupled with those fateful words, it became an area of life that I would neglect and would frustrate me forevermore.

By contrast, my youngest son has always enjoyed arts & crafts and it has been very hard for me to nurture that in him.  In part, because I hate the mess but also because it highlights my own inadequacies.  It means that I have to confront my perceived failure in the creative realm and all the frustration of looking at what is on the page and how poorly it resembles what I am actually trying to draw, bubbles up again.  It’s always easier to bury those feelings than to have to deal with them. So instead I would book him into holiday art camps where he could create freely (and make a mess).  At home he would be limited to drawing or colouring. But I wouldn’t get involved.

Conscious that I was somewhat stifling his creativity, when lockdown happened and various arts opportunities opened up, I decided this was the time to jump right in and face some fears. Together my son and I have been doing a free, twice weekly drawing tutorial with an illustrator online and I have made a point of not giving in to those feelings of frustration when it didn’t quite go to plan and encourage my son when he felt the same. We allowed ourselves the freedom of making mistakes.  We’ve drawn all sorts of funny characters and ignored the ones that didn’t really appeal.  It was fun even when they weren’t perfect.  We’d compare and contrast, have a giggle at our aliens and dinosaurs, colour them in and look forward to the next one.

A friend of a friend also started a 100 day art club but this is a whole different ball game.  It’s sketching, drawing, creating mood boards and colour palettes, pens and pencils of different varieties, watercolours, acrylics and more. There are some serious artists in this group and after several people shared their work over the first few days, those feeling of inadequacy and shame came flooding back.  I am way out of comfort zone here. This feels scary.  Compared to them I am feel utterly rubbish. We are encouraged to, though we don’t have to, post our work in the Facebook group.  I am in awe of what others are sharing and can but dream of ever reaching their standard.

A few days in and I seriously contemplate leaving the group altogether. My brain is screaming at me so I post a message saying I think I’m in the wrong group, this is brilliant but it’s for far more experienced artists, I’m not good enough, I’m off.  I should clarify that it was actually billed for every level of artist. From beginner to the more seasoned.  That negative voice was coming entirely from me (and that teacher). But people are kind and they don’t judge. They simply reply reminding me that each one of them were beginners at some point, that we are all here to learn and be inspired, that art is subjective. They are kind and encouraging and something within me tells me that I really do want to stay.  I may never become an artist who sells their work for a living or exhibit but there’s so much I want to learn and I would love to get better. And be content with what I produce. 

So my son and I have stuck with it. It’s day 15 now and I can honestly say it’s been incredibly positive. My work isn’t amazing but that’s ok. What’s been interesting is that I’m much less fearful. Fearful of failing, fearful of what others might think, fearful of my own inner critic. I am really enjoying discovering art and painting and mixing colours and seeing what can happen.  

These past few weeks have taught me that to break beyond the fear and move forward in an area that you find hard or frightening, you invariably have to push through that barrier that would ordinarily stop you. You have actually got to feel the fear and do it anyway. Rarely do we learn a new skill which doesn’t require practice and exploration.  It’s only when we get over the fence that we can explore the green fields that lie on the other side. 

I’m off to paint… x

On choosing to look on the bright side of lockdown

‪At the end of 14 days of self isolation, as we reach breaking point here at home and we all bite each other’s heads off for the smallest of annoyances let alone proper misdemeanours, I choose to remind myself of how blessed we are. Yes I’m an introvert, largely used to deciding how and where I carve up my time between work and leisure. Suddenly living in a full and noisy house with no time or space to myself. Yes we are unused to being in each other’s company 24/7. Yes the children are missing their friends and their usual daily structure, yes they have wildly different abilities, needs, temperaments and interests. Yes lockdown is very difficult and there’s much more besides BUT…

I know too that we have much more to be grateful for.

We can cobble a meal together with whatever we have (despite protestations from aforementioned children and who knows what we’ll have on Easter Day). So far, those of us who’ve, probably, had covid19 have pulled through and the rest of the extended family seems well and healthy. 3 out of the 4 of us are able to exercise outside once a day. We are not having to hide from the enemy like our predecessors were 80 odd years ago. We have activities a plenty as well as technology to keep us in touch and occupied. We have some space where we can each retreat to should we need to and are fortunate to have a garden. It’s spring, there is beauty outside to be appreciated, it’s warm and we can get some vitamin D on our faces. It’s not freezing cold in the middle of winter with icy pavements, frozen pipes and broken boilers. There’s more though.

We have each other. In all our natural glory, with all our imperfections and limitations. And whilst these may feel magnified, and on occasions even suffocating in the current conditions, we have the time and space to get to know one another even better, build each other up, learn from each other, “repair” when we’ve got it wrong, practice repentance and forgiveness, engage, relate, have fun, laugh and cry. In a world where isolation and loneliness is rife, we must never take each other for granted.

So yes my mental health might be taking a bit of a hit right now in different ways and to varying degrees but today, now, I choose to be grateful. I choose to look up and out. I choose to look to Him who made me and watches over me. He who knows everything about me. He who knows me even better than I know myself. He who strengthens me and pours out His love and grace upon me.

I do, however, recognise that I couldn’t do very much of that 3 days ago. The black cloud was too thick and too heavy, weighing me down like a blanket crafted from bricks. But I knew it would pass. And it has.

Just enough for me to be able to exert my will & choose to look at this in the most positive way I can‬. It WILL be ok.

And the cloud will lift for you too x

On Post Natal Depression (PND)

6 years after our first child was born, our second one arrived by C-section. Our miracle IVF / ICSI baby was finally here. He was perfect and our family was finally complete. The tears, dreams, broken hearts, disappointments, frustrations, hopes and many many prayers that characterised those intervening years could at last be laid down (well not the prayers; those will always continue). Our eldest prayed regularly for 3 years for a sibling. It was both heartwarming and heartbreaking to watch a 3 yr old learn about persistence in prayer and have to discuss why God, seemingly, answers some prayers and not others.

And so here he was. Our much wanted, hugely loved, long awaited second baby. He was an absolute joy. He ate and slept well; we really couldn’t have asked for more. We had an amazing post natal doula, Gillie who blessed us beyond words. She schlepped over from West London through hideous rush hour traffic, to get to me early. She looked after me and our baby, cooked us incredible meals, helped with our eldest after school and so much more. Gillie is wise, caring, kind, discerning, utterly hilarious and compassionate. She shared some of her own experiences of motherhood, passing on some valuable lessons and I loved spending time with her.

After a few months she thought the time was right to move on. The days were long and the traffic too much. I totally understood. But I panicked and didn’t want to let her go. I felt deeply unsettled, my stomach lurched and my heart started racing. That should have been my first clue that all wasn’t well but I thought it was normal. I had gotten so used Gillie’s company and her help so I felt it was just me being selfish, and guilt made its appearance. We agreed reduced hours and whilst hugely comforting, I was already dreading the day the inevitable would happen. One day she would have to leave. And she did.

The ensuing months passed in a haze of tiredness and busy-ness. We lived off pasta & pesto, a stark contrast to the Gillie months, and regularly ran out of bread, milk and other basics. I just couldn’t keep on top of it. I was finding life so hard, parenting seemed impossible, nothing I did was right, I reacted badly to everything, I lost interest in life, everything was my fault and I was making the family miserable.

I remember I used to sleep and cry a lot (in secret) and in February 2013 my world came crashing down. Our eldest was just shy of 7 and our youngest had just turned 1. It was 10 pm on Sunday night and I was lying on my bed, crying in a darkened room. How come I couldn’t do this? Why wasn’t I happy? Wasn’t this what we’d longed for for so many years? None of it made sense. How come other mums could cope with more children (some even had pets!) and I could barely function? Clearly I was rubbish at motherhood. Not cut out for this. Obviously I’m in the wrong job and who knows what the Lord was doing when He gave us this second baby. I felt utterly wretched and truly believed they would all be better off without me in their lives. They deserved better. My husband deserved a proper wife and the boys a proper mother. There was only one way out of this nightmare.

We were due to go skiing a week later and I already knew that only three people would be going on holiday, not four. In my head, I had written them each a letter explaining why I couldn’t go on and apologising for letting them down. I assured them their life would be infinitely better without me in it, that daddy would find a much better person to be with and their new mummy would be amazing. I was then going to go downstairs, tell my husband I was off to buy milk, bread etc but instead go the train station.

And wait for the next train.

And step in front of it.

I was going to do it properly this time. I’d ‘failed’ at suicide twice before (long before we were ever married) and I wasn’t going to get it wrong this time.

In a rare moment of clarity, I realised there was something very very wrong. I was scared at how close I came again to ending it all and in the following moments, secretly, acknowledged I needed help. I then silently cried myself to sleep so as not to draw attention to myself when my husband came to bed, and clung to what shreds of faith I had left, as I had done so many times before.

In the morning I phoned the surgery and two weeks later I was diagnosed with delayed onset PND. I was told it’s very common to struggle when you have multiple children under five but I only had one under five. Cue more guilt. Back I went on fluoextine, but I reacted badly. Tried another, reacted badly. Great, now I’m old and reacting against drugs that used to work for me. Cue more self loathing. Finally one type of medication worked.

The following months were still hard. I felt very low. I would still need to sleep a lot; how much was the side effects of the meds and how much was the depression was hard to tell. I saw no point in going out. Didn’t want to go for walks, play games, engage with anything or anyone. I could do little more than get through the day really. My husband was exhausted having to work all day and then pick up the pieces when he got home plus more or less take over completely at the weekends. No rest for him. He just knew I wasn’t well but didn’t understand. How could he? I couldn’t communicate what was going on inside of me. I didn’t have the words. An impenetrable wall had set itself up between us and we couldn’t see over the top nor speak through it. I felt achingly guilty and hated myself for what I was putting him and the boys through.

In all of this, I could talk to very very few people about how I felt. The shame was immense. The distinct feeling that my faith should be enough, that prayer should suffice was enough to make me feel condemned. Something else to add to my never-ending list of failures. In the midst of that darkness, however, deep down, in the innermost part of my being I knew I wasn’t alone. Jesus was right there by my side and somehow He was going to pull me through this and out the other side. I just had to hang on in there. One day at a time.

One small whispered prayer at a time.

It took about a year for me to be able to tell someone the truth about what was going on. A dear friend, Tessa who runs parenting courses, walked some of the journey with me generously meeting up over the course of several months and was just there for me. She had faith in and for me, when I had none. Prayed for me, when I couldn’t. She was, kind, totally accepting and safe. That season did more to heal my soul than anything else I can remember. I could be me. I could say how things really were and not pretend. I could articulate some very difficult feelings about how motherhood felt without the judgment that I feared from most other people.

Over the next couple of years, the blackness seemed a little less black. I started going out again. Seeing people. I even laughed. My faith was strengthened and my hope slowly returned. Black turned to shades of grey and eventually I saw life in colour again. I found a new joy and purpose in my family. As an added bonus, I discovered two new hobbies which to this day are a part of my life – running and knitting. You’ve never met a less likely runner and I don’t have a creative bone in my body…just goes to show. Three months after starting running I came off medication. You always hear people say exercise helps the mind but when you’re in that dark pit, you can’t hear it. However, the Lord provided a chink of light; a tiny window opened just at the time that someone uttered those words to me and I was able to give it a go.

More on running another time but for now, all I’ll say is I have never looked back.

I am eternally grateful to my husband who never, visibly, faltered. Faithful, strong and long suffering. Patient beyond description. To Tessa who stood by me. But forever, to my heavenly Father who held me then, and forever will, in the palm of His hands and never let me go.

Note: If you have been affected by anything in this article, I would urge you to speak to your GP or someone else that you trust and reach out for help.

On Exercise and Eating Disorders

In the same way that “clean eating” has been used by some, increasingly, as a pretext for eating disorders, so exercise can be misused and abused. People ask me about the value of exercise, addiction to exercise, exercising whilst still in the throes of an ED and generally the huge scope there is for abuse. Really the same could be said about many things – sex, shopping, drinking. So here’s what I think.

In the words of the Wombles, “exercise is good for you, laziness is not”. You need food to be healthy and you need exercise to be healthy. Both can be abused but we need to learn to incorporate them into our lives again in a balanced way. We all know we need exercise to keep our hearts, lungs, muscles, bones and minds healthy and strong, and hopefully carry us into a long and fulfilling life. But how do we achieve this without becoming addicted whilst maintaining a healthy perspective?

My last relapse into anorexia was 17 years ago, in my twenties, and I’ve learnt a few things along the way. Namely, you have to be totally honest with yourself and stop pretending. Not easy when we’ve become masters of our own deception. Stop hiding, take a deep breath and recognise that you may need help. Be it from a trusted friend or family member, or a professional. Deep down I’ve known when I’ve over compensated on a Monday for “over indulging” at the weekend. I’ve known when I’ve punished myself on a run or at the track, gym or pool. I’ve known when I’ve supposedly cared so much about the environment that I stopped using the car and walked or cycled everywhere. Yes exercise is good for you but there are three crucial questions that need to be answered to ensure a healthy relationship with exercise.

Firstly, what is your true motivation? If you are doing it for the wrong reasons then you can be pretty sure it still has a hold on you and it will torture you. Yes you will feel great because of the rush of endorphins, that’s mere physiology, but your mind will remain captive to the negative thoughts of the eating disorder and the addiction to exercise.

Secondly, how much headspace does it take up? If you find you’re constantly thinking about it at the expense of other things in life that require your attention, there’s your clue that it’s becoming an unhealthy habit or even an obsession.

Finally, how do you feel when you cannot participate in your chosen sport? When you’re injured, do you get frustrated because you’re in pain? Because you can’t do what you love? Because being out running, or doing your exercise of choice, frees your mind and it’s where and how you process stuff? There are all valid and understandable reasons. Or, are you willing to consider the possibility that you’re frustrated because you’re not burning calories? You’re not offsetting what you’ve eaten? Are you really just worrying about loss of fitness or will you recognise that there are some deeper fears about your identity and image with others? We must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. If we catch these thoughts early enough, we can reset and reposition ourselves, with the right help. If we leave them unchecked, we run the risk of spiralling downward, maybe in 3 months maybe in 3 years.

In my own journey, with the help of faithful friends and competent professionals bound in with my Christian faith, I can now rejoice at what my body is able to do and with the right perspective. I’ve run and swum distances I never in my wildest dreams thought I could. We only get one life and having spent so long cursing and despising my body I’ve finally gained a whole new appreciation for it and I’m grateful for every day that it can function as it is intended to. I do what I do, to look after it and care for it. Not to punish it. Out of love, not loathing.

It IS possible.

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