Dhal, happy tears and sequins

Yesterday was the last day of the girls’ summer holidays.  We planned an outdoor pool swim at Exeter University (Little One in her wetsuit!) and a vegetarian lunch in the city centre.

Sitting in Herbies cafe I felt a rush of emotion. I looked at my girls and blinked away the happy-sad tears. This was the space where I had begun to truly find my love for Little One three years ago. The space in which I became a mummy again.

Back in those days we would arrive early, after the “Jumping Beans” dance session at Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre. The same waitress would greet us with crayons, a colouring book and a smile. She would bring a red wooden booster seat which made Little One feel so special. I would have the lunch special: warm, comforting dhal spiked with ginger and chilli.

Yesterday we had other plans for the dhal. In our car park we had found a young girl curled up on flattened boxes, shrouded in a grubby white blanket.  My girls were very shocked and upset, so I suggested to Eldest that we could ask if she’d like us to bring her some food after our lunch. We took back a warm foil box, a paper bag of fluffy naan bread and chatted for a few brief moments.

I can’t even begin to imagine the circumstances that had brought her to sheltering in a car park.  On the way back to the shops, I held my girls’ hands that little bit tighter. When we returned we were relieved to see another stranger sitting down with her and talking about her appointment with a housing officer later in the week.

Shopping for an Autumn outfit for each of the girls, I smiled at their different personalities evident in their choices. A ‘Millenial pink’ batwing cropped jumper with shoulder studs for Eldest (when did pink re-enter her consciousness?) I didn’t tell her that batwing was a favourite of mine at her age!  A maroon sweater with gently gathered shoulders and a heart made out of reversible sequins for Little One. She spent a happy half an hour smoothing the sequins up and down with her hands. Deep, sparkly gold in one direction and muted, matte gold on the other.

On our way home I dropped a card at Herbie’s for the waitress we met three years ago. I wanted to thank her for being a special part of my recovery. For helping me to build memories of myself as a good mummy, not a depressed one.

Thank you, Herbie’s – we will be back.

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Sanctuary

Once again I find myself speaking through the lens of Nashville, but really – this says it all for me at the moment.

(In the spirit of avoiding plot spoilers I have chosen to share a cover version of this beautiful song.  If you’re in the UK and haven’t watched season 5 of Nashville, promise me you won’t Google it or follow any of the other YouTube links in the sidebar!)

As a mother, I’m finding myself in a season where I need to be a sanctuary for my girls, and especially for Eldest to be her safe place.  Being a sanctuary calls on me to shift my priorities, to seek the way of peace in my own life and to bring beauty to a very ugly situation.  Protection, justice, compassion.

I’ve cancelled work this week

I’ve bought mini-Oreo’s for the walk home from school this week

I’ve wept this week

I’ve taken Eldest with me to swim in the sea this week

 

I’m so thankful for the space to find my own way to be a refuge, and I guess I just wish that all kids had a safe place to fall.

 

 

Squiggly

Life sometimes feels very squiggly when you are in a period of remission.  You’re busy trying to rebuild life and pick up old threads but there is messiness in trying to find your equilibrium.

Recovery_reality

I used to feel quite scared of the scribble, the days when out of nowhere I don’t feel like getting up again or I find myself mind-busy and frazzled.  But as you look at the featured image for this blog don’t you think that in some ways that the messy line is actually quite beautiful?

Quite a few things have been squiggling me lately (but I’m learning to accept them as part of the beautiful tangle of life and recovery).  I was offered an ongoing role facilitating mums’ mental health courses from September this year.  In many ways it’s the role I have been dreaming of – but I knew I had to turn it down at this point in my own life journey.  I felt torn between guilt and relief as I sent off the email to say no.  No is a hard thing, but a precious thing too.

Little One has been providing us with some very tangly challenges.  The shift from winter to spring has really unsettled bedtimes and we have had more than a few nights of really screaming at the top of her voice “It’s day not night! I don’t go to bed in the day!” There have been moments of parenting genius like digging out the ‘Sunshine at Bedtime’ poem from Shirley Hughes Out and About collection. There have been many more moments of wondering what on earth to do and the pain of listening to an angry, crying child behind the bedroom door who is so very, very tired but doesn’t understand.

Eldest is going through her own messy time at the moment too and I’m there helping her to untangle some of it. There have been many cups of tea and slices of cheese on toast at the end of another upsetting day at school.  Friendships for pre-teen girls have always been challenging and fraught, but it doesn’t make it any easier knowing this when your precious girl is in tears as she tries to be her authentic self and gets knocked back.

I had something of an epiphany in the midst of the tangles.  I’ve been searching so long for that time I go “back to work” and I’m healed, whole, a functioning member of society again.  That time when I’ll have the career success I imagined when I headed off to University back in 1994.  But the thing is I already have a career.  The most important, draining, fabulous, meaningful work I could have imagined.  I’m a mother to Little One and Eldest.  The paid work is going to have to continue to take a back seat, as much for my wholeness and well-being as theirs.

Glorious mess

Zen and the art of losing it

I guess there was a certain inevitability.  Mindfulness as a parent is hard work, it’s discipline, it’s continual practice.

It all started with the trees.  I tend to drive in some kind of reverie – caught up in lists, planning, evaluating, daydreaming.  In the spirit of everyday mindfulness I kept trying to bring myself back to the present, to notice the different shapes and shades of the trees along the journey.  Trying, trying, trying.  It wasn’t gentle and it certainly wasn’t very peaceful.  I found myself increasingly frustrated with my flighty mind and its insistence on fleeing back to the future or the past.

As best you can.  It’s a mantra often repeated during mindfulness-based therapy and I see it written down a lot in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books.  Cultivating a compassionate mind towards myself, can I accept that in each passing moment I will bring my attention to the present as best I can?

Moment by moment parenting.  Now there’s a challenge.  In the ‘spaces’ before and after school there is time pressure, competing demands, a structure and a schedule needed. Little One has a completely different schedule to mine. It consists of “play babies until it’s time to leave for school”.  Breakfast, getting dressed, phonics – mere distractions, taking mummy away from the important business of pretend play.  In contrast my mind is ticking over – lists, lists, what next, what time is it, has Eldest done her homework, how can I give her some time and attention before she skips out of the door to meet her friends?

I held it together before and after school yesterday.  I made a conscious decision to set aside time to be absorbed alongside Little One in ‘baby world’.  It wasn’t very long, perhaps ten minutes in the morning and half an hour after school, but still trying, trying, trying to be present and not planning the dinner or the work e-mail or the blog post.

I’m going to be honest, I felt proud of myself but also depleted.  It takes energy and commitment to shut out the world and play.  I think it takes practice too, and wisdom.  For me, the sensory world of playdough is better at the end of the day than the demands of the imaginary ‘baby world’.  Little One has learning difficulties, and so she likes quite routinized scenarios for playing babies yet often flits from one topic to another.  One minute we’ll be feeding baby in the high chair and I’m taking on the role of granny, the next minute Little One is ‘Jan Vann’ the paramedic rushing the baby to hospital.  It can be at the same moment boring, repetitive and difficult to keep up.

The rupture

Things reached boiling point after dinner.  You know those moments where it all feels perfect and delicious and then you’re suddenly plunged into a power struggle?  Eldest and Little One were sharing a bath, which doesn’t happen very often nowadays.  I was just looking at their beautiful bodies, enjoying their sisterly love and simply feeling grateful for them.  Time for a hair wash.  Trying to imagine my best mindful parent I gave Little One the choice, “shall we wet your hair with the pot or the shower?”  She chose the pot.  Wriggled away, climbed over her sister, resisted the water at all costs.  Patience, patience.  “This isn’t working love, I’m going to use the shower OK?  Put a cloth over your eyes and tip your head up”.

More wriggling, arching her back, standing up, turning around.  Absolutely no looking up or sitting still. Lather up, with help from Eldest.  “It’s time to sit really still now OK?  We need to wash the bubbles out of your hair”.  Climb over sister, arch back, wriggle away, stand up, repeat.  After imploring her three times to sit down with a cloth on her eyes I just lost it, spraying water directly above her head and down her face.  Shampoo in her eyes, stinging, shock and crying.  I felt so guilty and drained.  Too late after the event I tried to ask her why she didn’t sit still for the shower.

Children need to experience this, too, namely that their parents are human, that at times we can be insensitive, misattuned, even unempathic – that we can get upset and angry.  Much can be learned from such moments of stress and disconnection, and from the important process of repair and recovery… the strength of the parent-child relationship… is based as much on this tumultuous process of rupture followed by repair as it is in feelings of closeness and safety

Everyday Blessings, p.73

The repair

Little One dried her own hair with the hairdryer.  I gently toweled her body and told her I was sorry.  She said she didn’t like the shower, so I asked her if she would like to play with it a bit while brushing her teeth, to get the feel of the water.  We shared a story, a song, a goodnight kiss, an “I love you”.

As best you can.  It’s all we can ask of ourselves.

Mushrooms, mindfulness and multitasking

I took down my copy of Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef from the shelf this evening. When it was printed back in 1999, Jamie was a fresh-faced TV chef fond of sliding down the banisters of his trendy London flat and zooming around on his moped.  I was a newlywed girl with a kitchen full of beautiful new stainless steel cooking equipment and Denby crockery carefully unpacked from our wedding gift boxes.  Nothing gave me greater pleasure in those days (and still does) than leafing through my recipe books and planning something delicious to cook for my husband.

I wanted to make risotto today.  The cold air has returned and a bowl of something rich, warming and simple seemed fitting.  I chose mushrooms, thyme, parsley and garlic to flavour the creamy arborio rice.

The real secret of a good risotto, I’m afraid, is that you have to stand over it and give it your loving and undivided attention for about 17 minutes, but it’s worth it. (The Naked Chef p.170)

Undivided attention.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently as I read about mindfulness practice and mindful parenting.  I’m part way through Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings and am finding myself really challenged to give my full attention to my daughters in our everyday moments together.

Back to the risotto – how did I get on with the ‘loving and undivided attention’ it needed? The recipe calls on the cook to add the stock ladle by ladle over 17-20 minutes. Each time a ladleful is added, you stir smoothly and continuously until the stock is absorbed. Over time this gently and slowly swells the rice giving the risotto its creamy texture.  Here is what actually happened after each addition of stock…  I clearly still have some way to go in practising everyday mindfulness!

Ladle 1 – stir, clear up the vegetable peelings, realise the food waste bin has a gross blob of Weetabix inside the lid, take off the lid and wash it, tie up the food bin bag (in between nipping to and from the hob to stir)

Ladle 2 – stir, turn the heat down, kiss husband hello, look at Little One’s picture, ask Eldest to put some TV on for Little One and please set the table

Ladle 3 – stir, shove cardboard for recycling into the cupboard, stir for a little while and enjoy the waft of white wine and celery rising from the pan, congratulate myself on a moment of mindful attention (!)

Ladle 4 – stir, think about this blog (!) and make a mental list for the grocery shop tomorrow

Ladle 5 – stir, wipe the table and kitchen surfaces, look at Little One’s house-point certificate from school

Ladle 6 – stir, chop parsley in a cup with scissors, taste the rice to see if it’s cooked, wish that I was better at just staying still and paying attention to the risotto

Ladle 7 – stir, think about what I’m going to cook for the rest of the week, grate cheese and put it on the table, shout the family to tell them dinner’s ready

Although in many ways this is a funny example, it really got me thinking about how my modus operandi is multitasking.  I have this idea brewing…  What about using a 17-minute ‘risotto space’ to practise just stopping for a while to give what I’m doing my full and undivided attention?  Little One loves to play ‘babies’ – but we often need to set a timer to help her understand when the game has finished and mummy needs to do the next thing. Why not set a timer for 17 minutes and be fully present, holding a baby doll and changing its clothes, watching my Little One smile up at me, listening to her little names for the dolls, being grateful that she loves to nurture?  Could I manage a 17-minute cup of peppermint tea with no smartphone, no agenda? How about 17 minutes to sit down with Eldest and hear about her day, or look through our baking recipes together?

I do want to make a risotto without multitasking.  I want to create and enjoy moments where I am fully present with my girls and my husband.  Life means that there won’t always be 17 minutes of uninterrupted bliss, but maybe there will be 17 minutes to live just that bit slower and more purposefully.

Dreams resurrected

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:18

Yesterday I signed a form to become an employee of the NHS for the first time in 19 years. At the age of 23, my dreams were in tatters as I quit my job as a Speech & Language Therapist.  My mental health had deteriorated so badly that I had been off sick for two months and I knew I couldn’t go back.  I had only lasted nine months after qualification. All that work for my degree, all the striving towards the four A grades at A-level to get into Newcastle University – it felt utterly wasted.

During my time off sick, I took a retreat to Parcevall Hall in the Yorkshire Dales.  It was early Spring and the gentleness of nature soothed my soul.  I vented to God – this didn’t make sense.  What on earth was I going to do with my future?  I have the carefully scripted pages of my retreat journal in front of me today. It’s a plain red exercise book with lined pages faded to yellow, but it is one of my most treasured possessions.  During the retreat I kept coming back to the book With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen.  I began to realise that letting go of my career was an important step.  It was going to require radical trust.  I believe God spoke during that retreat and here is what I heard:

Allow me to meet your needs

Love, security, value, purpose, worth, significance, dependence

Nothing else will satisfy your longings – allow me, precious one

Allow me, dear child

snowdrop

As I drove away from the interview yesterday having been offered my bank post as a Peer Trainer, it felt like my dream of working to support people in their recovery is slowly coming back to life.  Like a snowdrop emerging from its dormancy, heralding the hope of Spring.

I didn’t know at 23 that I would go on to struggle with my mental health for another twenty years (and will probably continue to struggle).  I didn’t know that my dream of motherhood would be tested to its absolute limits through the haze of psychosis and the dark, relentless agony of depression.  I still don’t understand this path, but I know there is the capacity for immense beauty in it.  My daughters are pure joy in human form!  My husband has been utterly faithful to his vow to love me “in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health”.

I feel like I am allowed to dream again.  I am still learning to be dependent on God, but I get this feeling that he is smiling too at the beauty of a snowdrop.

Pacing

VERB

  • 1  Walk at a steady speed, especially without a particular destination and as an expression of anxiety or annoyance:

    ‘we paced up and down in exasperation’
    ‘she had been pacing the room’
  •  2  Move or develop (something) at a particular rate or speed:
‘our fast-paced daily lives’

2.1 Lead (another runner in a race) in order to establish a competitive speed:

‘McKenna paced us for four miles’

2.2 pace oneself Do something at a slow and steady rate in order to avoid overexertion:

‘Frank was pacing himself for the long night ahead’

Origin

Middle English: from Old French pas, from Latin passus stretch (of the leg), from pandere to stretch.

Oxford Living Dictionary

Way back in 2006 when Eldest was a baby, my care coordinator’s favourite phrase was “you need to pace yourself”.  I found this intensely frustrating as the mother of a beautiful tiny human who needed me to shake off this depression and ‘get back with the program’.  I wanted to play and bond with her;  I wanted to have a tidy home; I wanted to take her out to baby groups and meet other mums.  But I was so afraid.  I was paralysed by the list of things I needed to do to feel like I was back in control of my life and functioning as I should as a new mother.

I mentally paced the floor, worrying about how my poor mental health was going to have a disastrous impact on her development.  I wept and wept at the psychologist’s office.  All I could say was “I’m so sorry”.

Fast forward to 2016 and I’m in my psychotherapist’s sitting room, looking out over the garden.  I’m using photographs to talk about Little One.  I’m in her trusting gaze, transported right back to the moment that I lay with her on the floor as she clutched her brightly coloured mermaid toy.  All I can say is “I’m so sorry darling”.

Now I’m really learning the hard lessons of pacing myself.  I’m regularly fine-tuning that delicate balance between motherhood and occupation.  I am learning to lay things down, to journal about my future aspirations but to caution myself not to run before I can walk.  I’m learning to be aware of the clamour of thoughts and ideas within me and to spend time over a cup of tea without multi-tasking.  My race pacers come in many forms, from the CPN to the employment support worker; from friends to mindfulness posts on Facebook.  I am learning not to feel so guilty, and to say “I’m so sorry” to myself when I push life too hard.  This is the work of Recovery.

Looking in to my baby’s eyes

Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul

James, 1993

Sun faded photograph

Can’t hide the depth, the knowing of your inky blue eyes

Your focus is unwavering

You know our hearts are eternally intertwined

You know I am your shelter

But did you sense my sorrow?

Did you feel my heart ache to be the mother you needed?

I look deeper into your eyes

Tell you I’m sorry, tell you you’re beautiful

Tell you I’m here, tell you thank you for being the Reason

Your gaze fixes on me from the photograph

Whispers to me “everything’s going to be OK”

 

 

The first day

The first day you curled your fingers around mine

I knew I would go to the ends of the earth for you

Instead I glimpsed heaven

Before descending to the bottom of the sea

The dark salty water pressed in, shipwrecks beckoned

But your fingers still curled around mine

Your blue eyes told me that the sky was above

I saw a flash of mermaid’s tail

Kicked the tangled seaweed from my feet

And swam with all my strength towards the sun

We stood together on the shore

You curled your fingers around mine and took your first step