I had my first shot of the vaccine today, which feels momentous. Are we allowed to acknowledge that light at the end of the tunnel yet? Are we allowed to feel a tiny moment of relief? I bought myself a very sugary treat of a donut to mark the occasion. I breathed out for what felt like the first time in a long, long time. We need a new storyline.
For the last year, I have grounded myself with daily rituals to keep me on an even keel – yoga (badly) walking (slowly), and journaling (daily, mainly about how badly I am sleeping) – the usual. The term self-care makes me want to punch someone, mainly because it’s used to sell you something or make you feel guilty for not doing it enough, so I won’t use it – but lockdown forced me into it.
I found a community of people online hosting women’s circles, offering photography courses, sharing creative journeys. I carved out time to pick up The Artist’s Way again, once on my own and the second time hosting a creative cluster, and the coming together online, WhatsApp, social media has been life affirming.
Storytelling has been my touchstone throughout
I have been a story teller my whole life, writing short stories as an eight year old, making up vast imaginary epics, with a propensity for being the Bad Witch. You could have so much more fun when no longer constrained by Being Good. I knew this at eight
By my teen years, I had switched up the story telling into Very Bad Poetry, vastly misunderstood, furious at everyone and trying to figure out what story captured me best. Around this time, as girls’ bodies’ stop being their own, our stories started being told for us. To teachers, older brothers of friends, random men on the street I was; lazy, troublemaker, slut, mall rat, druggy, stoner, cock-tease, smart mouth – all before I was 16. While the Bad Girl story line felt so much more freeing than the alternative, it started to take on a more sinister side, which I know now, had nothing to do with me at all.
In my twenties, I had a slightly better sense of who I was, but warped by some catastrophic relationships, my self-confidence was smashed to bits as I attempted adulthood. I had moved countries, thinking I could really start my own story now, with a blank canvas to play with. Predictably, I slipped into many of the old tropes and by the time I was 26 found myself with a new story line to add to the mix –hitting rock bottom and getting sober – and, not having a clue which story made sense anymore, I threw them all in the bin.
By thirty-six, I had woven myself a new clean and tidy narrative. A thread that included ten years of hard won sobriety, a husband, a small son, a mortgage and a cherished career in my dream field. A thread that had very little room for messiness. Or misbehaviour. But I had done it. This is where all the fairy tales end right? The stories you hear about turning your life around. From the Gutter to the Stars. Rounds of applause, closing credits… and then?
Sitting in amongst the detritus of a family home punished by an Actual Plague, the battered backdrop of The Perfect Ending, I am trying to answer that question. What next? It’s very much not the end. I am not even forty.
If the last year has shown us anything it’s that life is precious. And short. We are all going to die. Plague, or climate change or old age (if we are lucky). I can’t keep straining to keep with one worn out story. While I could do without the soul-destroying co-dependency and the brain itch of addiction, I miss my Bad Witch, my Trickster, my Bold Adventurer, my will-try-anything-twice-fuck-it-why-not mantra.
I want to reclaim that something lost, our stories matter, and we get define who we are in them. And this couldn’t be more important than now, staring into a very possible future where our rights begin to be stripped away.
I have been exploring this in self-portraits, which is hard. To be confronted with my unfiltered face and the reality of my body, has undone me – which is kind of what I wanted – but also totally terrifying. A call to challenge myself, what I have accepted as ‘normal’ and to be confronted with the things I usually try to hide. I figure I am onto something
As we all come out of this cluster-fuck of a year, I am experimenting with that storytelling, through portraits. I want to mark this transitional moment as we slowly, tentatively come out of lockdown. What story are we telling ourselves? What are we emerging as? How have we changed? What have we lost? What have we gained? What has kept us tethered? What are we leaving behind, and what are we hoping for?
I’ve had a few brave volunteers to join me on this trip, if you want your portrait taken, and are happy to explore these questions, let me know – I’d love to have you along for the ride
I have been waking up at 3:30am most mornings now for the last four years or so. I hear a bell, clear as you like, and its the reverberation, a low hum, that gets me out of bed. I used to reach for my phone and scroll through the recent updates pouring in from Oz or the West Coast of the US. Long ago, almost forgotten acquaintances in their lively early afternoon vibrancy, the artfully curated feeds of people I no longer know well enough to call, but could tell you where they are on their weaning journey, broccoli splattered over their children’s gummy smiles, in 35mm hash-tagged glory. It kept me awake at night, digging through twitter trying to dissect the latest outrage, or meme. I have managed to put that to one side in those deep dark hours, but the ticker tape persists.
Do we have enough milk in the freezer? How can I have a more balanced life? How are we going to get our son to eat vegetables, or a vegetable? What if I don’t find my purpose? Is that a fox or a woman being murdered? Please be a fox. Yes it’s a fox. Have I booked swimming lessons for next months? Does Tier 2 mean I can leave London? Define London?
And somehow, around 4am or thereabouts, the white noise subsides enough to let sleep take me again, usually to dream about not being able to remember my husband’s mobile number in an emergency. The numbers just escaping my memory as I try to find the right buttons on the phone. I wake up most mornings feeling furious with myself.
‘It’s the patriarchy’ a very stylish and wise friend says to me over the phone. I can hear her smoking while we are talking and for the first time in years I crave a Marlborough Light above all things. The silver paper, the flick and catch of the lighter, the first sharp intake of pure unadulterated relief. The patriarchy has a bell? I wonder this while spraying anti-bacterial cleaning product on every surface in the flat we live in. I’m not sure it’s the right brand but it smells astringent and lemony and makes me feel better. I am not convinced. ‘I think its hormones’ I say definitively. She laughs, she is just that much older than me that her laugh can make me feel about 12, with ease. ‘Don’t be daft, you’re not even forty. You’ll know all about it when you hit that change, and that fucking bell won’t wake you up any more because you’ll stop giving a fuck’.
I am trying to give less of a fuck.
I stopped shaving my legs sometime around lockdown in March. I am setting firm boundaries (I think? Right?). I am being frivolous and fanciful and buying things that give me joy (but not the Malboroughs) and writing endless endless endless journals that chart my inner world and my to do list with excellent precision. I am carving out time, increments, a minute here, an hour there. To be myself, with no fucks given. And in that time I am spraying anti-bac on the bin. Throwing out old underwear and sourcing the right kind of cheese for my son. The hour, the minute is interrupted – the dentist appointment needs to be moved and I still can’t find any plimsolls for my son’s PE lesson. Nowhere. Not even at the big Tesco.
‘Can’t blame the plimsolls on the patriarchy’ I say to my true and manicured friend. ‘No my love, that capitalism – it probably has a big bastard bell too.’ I want to throw the phone out the window.
I try to give less of a fuck and send my son to his PE lesson in his normal day to day trainers. The world does not end. I rejoice. I do not spray anti-bac on the bin that day. I read a book I have been meaning to, I buy some more film for my camera. I begin to dream of a quiet night, velvet and midnight and heavy. That is until we forget to pick up the trainers up from school and have a weekend of NO DINOSAUR SHOES. Which is the same as being in hell for my son.
No good not-giving-a fuck goes unpunished.
I am standing by the garden door at 3:25am watching the blue night. There is expectant silence that settles around this time, into which a glass might break or an alarm may sound, the door slightly ajar. But tonight, with Tier 2 locked in and sanctioned there is little to hear other than the clock ticking in the kitchen. A dog bark a few streets away. There are no fucks to be given at this time of night. Perhaps that’s why I am up. Wrapped in a hangover of white noise and notifications. To be silent at 3.25am, and awake.
I try to explain this to my well read, sharp witted friend. The quiet, the sinking moon, a hushed expectation. Jesus, she says, just stay the fuck in bed.
When COVID 19 hit Asia we were paying it very little attention from our cottage in the Cape, in the middle of our annual escape to the southern hemisphere. It was very much, just the flu, far away, not a cause for concern, even when we saw passengers wearing masks in the airport, we rolled our eyes, an overreaction, performative. We are now nearly 8 weeks into lockdown in London, watching our friends don the very same masks and head to the frontlines. Lose family. Go stir crazy in the goldfish bowl of quarantine. Revel in the slowness of the day to day. Drown in the anxiety of what’s to come.
A family emergency unfolds, as they do daily, but this crisis is hitting mine and I am not there. I am in London, they are in South Africa. There is no way I could even get there if I wanted to. This global lock down in full effect. No ruby slippered passport to wing me there in under 12 hours. There is no way home.
Home is now a tenuous thing. It should be a centred thing, a tethering. A feeling of being on course. The people there are the blood and bone roots of the place, and we branch out, explore, but ultimately stay entwined. Now I feel the distance more keenly when we are forced apart. We watch the whatsapp light up with typing… and wait for the response. A beat behind, an hour ahead. We are all at home, sheltering in place, but not anchored.
Where would I rather be? Here or there? Between the places we are born and or where we bore our children? Post COVID this ability to skip shores and try on cities for size feels dangerous, deadly even. Careless.
Right now, without hesitation I would be back in the Cape. I would hire a car and head out towards to Whale Coast. Most tourists when venturing east of Cape Town head towards Hermanus, (for the whales) or for the very wild at heart out to Gaansbaai (for the shark diving). Most will take the scenic Sir Lowry’s pass over the mountains, and save a chunk of time rushing out to see the beasts of the sea.
But I would take the R44 past Gordon’s Bay, and into Rooiels, along Clarence Drive one of the most spectacular peninsula drives in the world. Featured in luxury car ads, movies and photoshoots, Clarence Drive has it all – unrivalled ocean views, hairpin turns, the occasional rowdy baboon troop and on the very rare occasion, the reclusive Cape Leopard.
My husband gets vertigo driving this particular stretch of the road, even as a professional driver he finds the view to distracting, the twists too intense, the imagined drop into the breakers too close. Although I don’t have nearly the same experience behind the wheel, I have driven this road countless times over the years and feel at home nudging its curves and shifting gears as the road opens up towards the mountains and closes again towards to sea.
This drive then has always given me that beginning of the summer feeling. It feels like freedom, and lightness and ease. The sense of peace and connection and, more recently a sense of rootedness, of history, of home. Which is complicated.
I left South Africa at the very beginning of 2003, a freshly minted BAHons in my hand, and a casual idea of pulling pints, picking strawberries and waiting tables in London. For a year. Just a year. I was 21, blissfully naïve and filled with all the courage that being so cavalier brings. That was seventeen years ago now, and here I am very nearly 39 a woman, dreaming of driving this road with my husband and 4 year old napping in the back seat of our rental.
Home is now London. That too is complicated. It has been for all of those years. I have had ten addresses in various postcodes over that time. A heady mix of sofa surfing (NW9), co-habiting (E14, SW19) house sharing (SW19, SW11, SW2), cohabiting (again W10, NW2) and finally purchasing our first home in 2017. Our mortgage has us here for the foreseeable, our borough caters well for the needs of our autistic son. I feel settled. I drive through our neighbourhood and I know the locals. I’m on first name basis with the wonderful owners of the café in the local park, we have found a great school. We are involved in the community, which under lockdown has been invaluable. Counting rainbows in the windows, waving to the kids at a distance, dropping off shopping for those that can’t leave their front doors. Lockdown is definitely bedding us in, like it or not.
But there is something missing. I get a taste of that something when I am negotiating the bends on Clarence drive, mentally checking off the points until we hit Betty’s Bay and I can breathe again. Over the years I have learned to make peace with this missing piece. This part of me that is inaccessible here in the UK and that opens up exponentially when looking out at the ocean from our cottage by the sea.
I get catches of it in the UK, the whiff of gas when I light the hob, the woomph of the catch. I remember my father lighting the gas lights in the bedrooms, while we waited to see if the 9’ oclock moths would flutters against the windows, or better yet the curtains, desparate for the light. Their wings soft and dusty. The flutter both horrorific (what if it got into your hair!) and exquisite. I catch it for a moment. Its safety and warmth and an irrevocable belonging. A foundation.
Some of my earliest memories are in this place, and my most precious. Collecting shells with my beloved gran – who would point out the rare ones, and talk me through their names (cowry with the crinkled curves, baby toes all pink and white and almost good enough to eat, fan shells intricate and in every colour of the rainbow), carefully folded into palms, pockets, skirts – rinsed with sea water, and taken back to the cottage to dry and varnish for safe keeping. I still have a collection. Faded and chipped, in my small bathroom next to a picture of the beach where they were found.
Fishing for ‘klipvissies’ (rock fish) next to the old lighthouse in Hangklip, with fishing wire and sticks and periwinkles skewered on hooks. My Gran very diligently showing us how to gut them and cook them, even though there was very little meat to find between their spiny bones
Swimming across the lake (a rite of passage at 8), being doused with sand by my endless array of cousins, hiking with bleeding knees and sunburned shoulders, sunning ourselves on the rocks in Palmiet river, weeks of eating fresh bread from the tiny village shop, biltong from the town, and endless tea and cake with aunts and uncles and our parents friends visiting.
And later, heading to the beach on the full moon, sneaking out a bottle of wine or a few beers, trying to get our lighters to work in the howling south easter. Making friends with the local surfers, heading to town to play pool, figuring out what constituted as easy or fast and that the Joburg rules differed massively to those in the Cape. Wearing too much make up to ever blend in, being so self conscious that I might fade away. Later still bringing friends and boyfriends to visit to reclaim some sanity, some calm, and a place to be.
For the past 12 years, my husband has come out with me once every 18 months or so, and he’s fallen in love with it too. We briefly entertained the idea of buying some property here, selling up in the UK and opening a B&B, and in fact it still a conversation we like to revisit, a comforting idea. So we explore it and build our perfect house with lovely Western Cape furnishings and dream it, with the freedom of those who know they won’t have to commit.
Unless we did.
I have been toying with the idea for years and have since put it on hold while our son was being assessed for Autism. South Africa has yet to embrace the neurodivergent community so that has been a huge consideration. Would my search for belonging mean he wouldn’t? Returning is a privilege, not often without price, and this feels too high to contemplate. This is the reality.
Like most immigrants will tell you, when you go home you bring the world with you. And the world is changed, home is changed. You are changed. I am not who I was 17 years ago. I left blindly optimistic and overwhelmingly sure of what I was leaving and going towards. I return feeling sure of very little. I don’t recognise street names, understand the local vernacular as effortlessly. This is the reality.
South Africa is conflicted, complicated and unsettling. So while there are these pickets of calm, shored up in my nostalgia, my history, the reality of my position there is not clear cut. Being descended from colonialists and voortrekkers, and brought up in the violent death throes of Apartheid, before the country birthed itself anew. State of emergency was declared as I was heading to nursery, and civil war threatening around the time I was finishing Grade 7.
I was not blind, but I was protected from the sheer brute force of it. My white skin afforded me, my family, my ancestors access to better housing, education, healthcare, security over generations – and while not being explicitly taught my entitlement by my left wing parents, it was implied and insinuated in our schooling and our socialisation. It is the cultural air you breathe, in the media consumed, in the in jokes in the playground. Hate and fear, like an accent, tainting everything. The reality is that it remains, quieter, different – but there. I hear it here too.
As Guante said, in his magnificent spoken word poem How to explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist – ‘Remember : white supremacy is not the shark, it’s the water’
Confronting this privilege is deeply uncomfortable, vital – and I will be unpicking and unlearning for the rest of my life. With this comes my interrogation of ‘a home’, the idea that there is a place where you are welcomed without question. The very idea feels impossible now, almost an affront. How dare we even dream it?
London has given me back to myself time and time again. Sucker punched, disco danced its way into my heart and broken it. Served up my fragility in a church hall in Portobello, let me run through it streets with hundreds more, under the cover of night, chasing time. Let me weep on benches at 4am without a soul to witness it, made me laugh, mouth wide and careless, falling down stairs, into the arms of friends I will have for a lifetime. London delivered me a tattooed husband and a son more beautiful than we are ever able to express. This whirlwind carousel, I can’t help but think it’s time to give someone else needs a turn.
Perhaps those of us who had the privilege to choose where to be, get to ride that carousel, sacrifice that idea of home entirely. That is the price.
Would I pay it again?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop asking that question.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, remembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning; At the source of the longest river The voice of the hidden waterfall And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea.”
‘Remember: white supremacy is not a shark; it is the water. It is how we talk about racism as white hoods and confederate flags, knowing that you own those things, and we don’t… as if we didn’t own this history too, this system—we tread water’ Gaunte
I have to call time on a great love of mine. After almost exactly 10 years it’s time to call it quits, and let go. I am extraordinarily bad at this and will dither about for years avoiding the obvious. In this case I have ended up with the professionals weighing in and suggesting I move on. ‘Literally to anything else’ said one, ‘and there’s plenty of choice.’ Right?
Running has been my go to for 10 years. I ran the whole of West London solo while finding my stride on C25K, and then commuting from Ealing, running Holland Park, discovering The Scrubs. I joined Run Dem Crew and ran the whole of East London, scores of us in black & white shirts shouting ‘BOLLARD’ as we dodged revellers on Brick Lane. I ran in South Africa while on holiday, beach runs and quiet coastal roads. New York while working, joining the Bridge Runners in the height of the summer and Berlin for fun (my half-marathon PB). I ran on treadmills in Dubai when it was 50 degrees out. I ran in Thailand, I ran and ran and ran. I wrote a blog about it. I bored my friends to death about it. I forced my husband to run a half marathon in Brighton on no training. I started a running group for new mums on maternity leave. I ran with my son in the buggy, I ran with new colleagues. I mapped out new cities on strava.
Discovering running was a huge part in rebuilding my health. But more importantly, what running gave me back was my mind and the will to get re-acquainted with what my body was capable of. This much neglected, battered up and hugely underrated vessel that recovered slowly at first and then bounced back , was actually pretty spectacular. My legs could go for long walks in winter and not get tired, cycle through mountains in France, run around the streets of Berlin. They could still dance until way past stupid o’clock in Spain. This body that responded immediately to good food, that developed actual muscles, that got faster. Like magic.
It changed my life.
I have learned more about what I am capable of both physically and mentally through this one sport, this simple act of lacing up trainers and putting one foot in front of another than just about anything else in my 39 years. And then I ran out of steam
My left hip started to act up about a year after I had my son. Juggling full time work, a family and my travel schedule meant my haphazard approach to fitness and general self care got worse and I have since had to have surgery to repair the joint to get me walking without a limp. I am currently recovering while on crutches and seething at my life choices.
While I am heartbroken, there’s also an element of relief. Like at the end of most relationships, I had tried and tried to get it to work around my new life as a mum with a myriad of priorities. I couldn’t get it to work. We just weren’t going to get back to our heady days of running races in Berlin and casually signing up for half marathons without a training schedule as the base line was solid. No more of that. Now 2 miles brought tears and pain. The back played up. The trainers weren’t quite right. The hard cold fact was my heart wasn’t in it any more.
Not all is lost. I have made lifelong friends, collected a decade’s worth of memories and medals, found a love and respect for exercise in all of its forms and I’m excited about what will be next. I have already committed to a cycling challenge in August (more news to follow) and everyone is raving about Boxing. An old flame of mine…. ! As I approach my 5th decade, its exciting to know I can start something new and have the time to make it count.
Support. The comfort of knowing you are held up, and that your decisions are validated. That someone has your back. That you will not be let down. That there is someone to help you when you need it. That you are not alone.
I am obsessed with support. Writing out endless forms to get my son into the appropriate preschool, and to secure funding for said preschool. There is support available. But there are hoops first, a veritable cornucopia of obstacles. May the odds be ever in your favour.
Anyone who has crossed paths with the local authorities knows what these forms are like. DESCRIBE THE WAY(S) IN WHICH YOU NEED THIS SUPPORT, they shout at you in thick bold letters, on inscrutable PDF formats that don’t format correctly when amended. GIVE EXAMPLES OF THE SUPPORT REQUIRED & THE TIME IN MINUTES EACH TASK WILL TAKE.
I do my best to list and correlate and describe in intense detail exactly what support he needs, in which areas of his development, and at which time of day and how frequently per week. Forty pages at the last count. NOW PLEASE GO TO PAGE 72 and DETAIL ALL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS (and their national insurance numbers in birth date order). I would do it. Because we need the support.
In a flurry of weeks ahead of a looming deadline, we do the work. We jump the hoops, we wait. We wring our hands and chase up on the phone. We leave polite but anxious messages. We fill in more forms. We wait. And then….We get the place. JOY! We do tiny dances in kitchens and whoop with the key workers and write effusive thank you letters to the people that have helped proof read, add supporting documents and counter signatures. We kick start the next round of logistical planning. We almost remember to take a breath and then forget.
Three days later I sit in the humid front room of my counselor’s house with my head in my hands and breathe. The windows are all flung open onto a very smart street in Hampstead, but the curtains are closed to keep the strength of the afternoon sun at bay. It gives the room a strange illicit feeling. Like she should be burning joss sticks and smoking opium. Maybe she does. I don’t know this woman well. We have had a few sessions. She mainly listens and asks pointed but relevant questions. She frowns far too much. I think it might just be her face. This is my chosen support. Cobbled together fairly last minute when I found myself crying on the tube and unable to sleep. I’m unsure about it at this point.
During this session, I have been waffling on a bit, not really sure what I am getting at and feeling irritated with her quiet nodding. Exasperated, and probably a bit on the dramatic side, I sigh
‘I just feel like I need more support’
She frowns from her wicker chair in the corner where she sits like a sphinx, both arms perfectly still on either arm of the chair. She cocks her head to one side,
‘What support do you feel you need?’
And there it is.
I have no fucking idea.
Outside of that room, I am at a loss. A friend of mine who manages large teams in a high profile job, and a big family, puts a question to me. Its the same one she puts to her employees who say they are finding it hard to get the work life balance to make sense, she asks, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’
Not in an aggressive or defensive tone, but as a real question. What do you need from me to help you? What does your unique set of circumstances require?
I realized, while sitting on this very worn sofa in semi darkness somewhere in NW3 that I needed to to know the answers to these questions. What support do I need? What does it look like? How often will I require it? Does it require input from a different department (family) or additional funding (HA)? If I were applying for support for myself – what would I say on the forms? As a grown woman approaching 40 I need to get better as knowing the answers to these questions, and when someone offers to help, to say YES and explain where it would be needed.
If I have learned anything this year its that you need a team around you. We have a brilliant one in place for our son now, its flexible but has a solid foundation in the right health professionals, independent third parties and outsourced advice, so I don’t feel if one had to go we’d be bereft. I’m looking at building something similar for myself. Starting with family and working my way out. Looping in new connections, making sure there’s a good mix of advice, and time to be on my own. For me support is equated with finding time not to be a mother/wife/boss/general of life admin. Support is getting help with those things, asking for specifics. And letting go of the rest.
2018 is nearly done! There were a few big mile stones this year but the one that hit home was the 20th High School Reunion. I had mixed feelings about acknowledging this. Two decades have passed, I live in a different country, and the friendships that have lasted are the ones I have invested in. Why dig up all the old acquaintances? But my friend Kat drew me out with an infographic on Facebook with a Happy House soundtrack. It didn’t take much.
Kat was our head-girl, diminutive in stature (we had to get her to stand on a box so we could see her above the podium) but larger than life, characterised by her generosity and kindness – and not a jot of that effervescent energy has diminished over the years. Together with a few other alumni she set up a fundraiser to raise school fees for pupils who need the financial support.
Kat had tagged the event ‘Our Reunion, Our Stories, Our Legacy’. A reunion with a difference, less awkward posturing and more investing in the next generation.
I found myself in the whatsapp group sharing in the intense flurry of messages – emojis from Hong Kong and Amsterdam and lots of updates on families, careers and lives lived – reminiscing on all the wonderful, uncomfortable, cringe-worthy high school stuff. Most of it pretty standard. Except the stuff that wasn’t said.
Into this emotional upheaval I threw Nanette , which if you haven’t seen I recommend you stop reading this, and watch that. Coupled with end of the year reflection, it got me thinking about how we use our stories to define our legacy, and more importantly, what do we leave out? I won’t spoil Hannah Gadsby’s show for you, but there’s a very key point she makes about omission, and its been on my mind for months.
Here we had this reunion whatsapp group sharing stories of the beautiful babies, and loving partners and glittering careers. Add Instagram filtering out the dried on weetabix or the mummy blogs that glamorise the dirt as a paid for promotion for #fairyliquidcleans. The lifestyle influencers culturally appropriating everything at a whim #soblessed. The fake news. The truth is obfuscated. Or photoshopped. Or rewritten. Or forgotten.
I’ve looked back at my patchy diaries, my half-finished blog posts and my email updates to family over the years. Highlighting the good stuff and down playing the harder stuff. Leaving gaping holes in the narrative. By toning everything down, and airbrushing the detail what have I forgotten in the process? So many things unsaid, along with all the grime and the shame, the mundane day-to-day. The head splitting hangovers, the prescriptions, the tears in the bathrooms, the mind-numbing commuting. Not all of it warrants high-definition recall, and a lot can and should remain private. But some of this bears remembering.
My rock-bottom was scribbled down on a piece of paper in my wallet. I tried to find it the other day, but 11 years after the fact it has since been swept off my desk or lost on a plane, or crumbled up by the toddler while posting my credit cards through the floor boards.
It served a very important purpose. A tangible and real artefact that I could access at any point. A talisman against the madness that for a very long time felt incredibly close and extremely violent. Perhaps because I had it written down I have been lazy about remembering it. Today I panicked because all I have is a crystallised segment in my memory, a shard of it, dull from lack of use. Will that be enough to ward off the furies when they come for their due?
My rock-bottom wasn’t gritty. Or horrific. There have been toothpaste commercials with more implied menace. Because my journey to rock-bottom wasn’t linear I had been near there before and in much, much worse places but not felt that gut wrenching sickness. That day I did. I made a phone call. And because this was not new, there were one or two people who knew what was going on behind the layers of denial. The beaten to bits, arrogant, fuck-you-I am-fine me. The part of me that was tired. The part of me that wanted help but couldn’t ask. I called the people who would tell me the truth when I asked for it. One was a friend. The other was my psychiatrist. It was pure luck one answered the phone. I don’t know what prompted me to dial that number that day. But I did. And here we are.
The darkness feels different today. The chaotic urgency of before has been replaced with a soporific distraction. Having rebuilt myself and then a life, I am very proud of what I have achieved in those 11 years since. I set out to fulfil some of that potential I had when I finished school. And now 20 years on, I have managed to meet some of those goals and while I have failed at many more, I am still here.
I’ve built up enough distance from the unmanageability of my past that I am less in danger of stumbling back. But I am in much more danger of harming myself through straight forward neglect. And I’m not sure which is worse. One is damning and explosive, the other slower, more insidious, and – lets face it – more likely to win.
Like any classic story, the counter to the darkness then, is the truth. And telling the truth. Not just sitting with it as a mind-experiment, letting it roll over your tongue until it dissolves and you’re left with nothing to say. The truth. Your truth. So I wrote it this as a starting point. A buffer, a stab at self-care. An acknowledgement that with that little bit of luck you need a ton of hard work to keep on keeping on, and I owe it to myself to keep well. And maybe, this helps prompt you to tell yours, to pick up the phone. And if we do that we have a chance at shaping our legacies, and get given the chance to give back.
August is done, after a riot of road trips, picnics and suncream (on everything) so are we. We cannot complain about the weather. I have developed an enviable pram tan that is better than any colour that I caught in Spain. Albeit, just on my arms, face and feet, if I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt I look like I’ve been lazing around in Menorca for weeks. My pale legs and midriff would give me awat. While I will miss the bright mornings, and weaning alfresco, I am looking forward to the evenings drawing in (we can get rid of the blackout blinds!), cosy jumpers and enjoying the autumnal sunshine without fretting about sunburn, over heating and dehydration.
I have spent this summer treading the tarmac between Willesden, Queen’s Park and West Hampstead daily, in search of shade as quickly as possible. We’ve visited Kew, the Heath, chased a few deer in Richmond, braved the wilds of Shoreditch and even ventured out of London down to the actual beach in Cornwall.
But while we were outdoors, the term ‘lazy summer’ does not apply to those with small children. Things get sticky
A day outdoors involves sticky weaning spoons, and wet wipes, suncream and wet wipes, sticky bra straps from sticky fingers (and not in a fun way), half finished Ella’s pouches leaking in sticky lunch boxes and sticky pram straps. Plus, I insist of eating all the cake and glugging all the coffee, as I’m fighting sleep deprivation, so the general mood is highly strung and skittish at best.
Thankfully, I am not alone. I’ve met some truly amazing women while going through entire packs of wet wipes, bonding over nap strategies, and coping on 3 hours sleep a night. There are whatsapp groups that have saved my sanity at 2am and kept me calm when teething/ family politics/ unknown rashes appear out of nowhere.
There are gangs of us bouncing from coffee shop to park to train, wrangling an over tired baby in an unwieldy buggy, while sporting a ‘Lip Smackin’ Spag Bol!’ stain on their Mother t-shirt and smelling of Ambre Solaire factor 50. Or dangling toys in front of car seats while singing ‘Say Hello to the Sun’ in the style of Eddie Vedder, Anthony Kiedis and/or Kurt Cobain to stave off the next epic meltdown (baby) and spectacular boredom while the long suffering husband drives to the coast being very kind about the terrible singing voice (ok that may just be me).
This next season sees a few of my friends going back to work, babies starting nursery and we start planning our epic 6 week trip to South Africa. That back to school feeling hit with a vengence when I was packing Sam’s clothes that are now way to small (sob). New chapters, new beginnings, and please please please new sleeping patterns
And for me? BROGUES. And my favourite coat that I haven’t worn since pre-pregnancy. Roll on September. Thank god you don’t require suncream
One invaluable lesson I have learned over the past decade or so masquerading as an adult, is that you cannot do this life shit on your own. Finding your tribe is, at different stages of your life, is imperative to staying sane. This goes for moving countries, learning a new skill, or entering motherhood. There are many many ways to skin a cat, and many many people who probably do it just the way you’d like to and can show you how.
There have been a few pivotal periods in my life where this has come to bear, the first when I quit drinking (finding mates that are awake on a Sunday morning is a good place to start), the second when I took up running and found the inimitable Run Dem Crew and the third when I became a Mother. Thankfully there were a few awesome people in both sets of previous tribes that by the time mamadom hit, I had a pretty great collection of babes and their bubs to add to my village.
But as with all good things, you have to keep at it, your priorities and abilities change, you may find yourself in a different place, your kids get bigger, your circumstances change (for better, for worse) and as such the tribe needs to evolve to include more people, maybe a few drop by the wayside, some grow with you some grow out of you (and you them).
I find myself at one of these crossroads, with a three month old son, creaking hips and a desperate need to let off steam. As mentioned, any hitting of any bottles (even tiny ones) is a no-go, there’s only so much Netflix any one mushy brain can take, and the lethal combination of caffeine and sugar, while it got me through the first foggy months, is a sure fire cocktail to whip up my anxiety levels, screw with my sleep and my waistline. So I need something else, and Baby Yoga ain’t going to cut it.
My go-to quick fix for the past 5 years or so has been a run. A quick one, a long one, a run with mates, the solo run, the ‘I’m just taking the dog around the park’ run, the training in the rain run, the run that has random obstacles in it, the ‘why-the-fuck-am-I-doing-this’ run and the ‘thank god I went for a run’ run.
I am no speedster, my race times are not enviable, but that was never the point. I run to keep sane. I have met some of the best people through running, it’s opened doors in other areas of my life creatively – I started writing again, took up photography – it’s taken me travelling to run in mad cities with mad people, got me fit, made me brave, and ultimately saved my ass on more occasions that I can count. It’s the thing I do on a Sunday morning when I would have been nursing a hangover in bed. It’s built my confidence and shown me the heroic in others. Putting on a pair of running shoes for me was as transformative as alchemy.
But my pregnancy and running didn’t really get on, with the aforementioned creaking hips, and a core that is still recovering from accommodating a baby, I have not run more than 3 miles in the best part of a year.
I’m basically back to being a newbie. No fitness to speak of, and a deep seated fear that I won’t bounce back, given walking a mile has me wishing I was being pushed in the pram.
Now I know that’s unfounded. I will bounce back. In what form is still yet to be seen. But in the spirit of reaching out, if I have any hope of reclaiming my nikes, and my beating my 10K PB, I’ll need help. I’ll need a new tribe. Or a patchwork venn diagram of the tribes that have gone before. Mates that run and happen to have kids. Or freelance mates who don’t run but would like to give it a bash and don’t mind a few babies tagging along
So I have downloaded my trusty Couch to 5K app from days of yore, dug out the lycra and I’ll be hitting the parks of London, building up the all important base line, with pram and changing bag to boot.
Here’s the ask, I’d love company, its motivating and makes schlepping a sleep deprived body and niggly baby around all that much easier to manage. If you’re new to running, haven’t run for ages and you’re free on a week day morning, or just fancy a (slow) jaunt around some of the best parks in the world, drop me a line here. I don’t bite, I won’t (can’t!) run fast so please don’t be intimidated and it should be a great way of getting out and about, blowing off the cobwebs and seeing more of the brilliant city. Hopefully getting the babies to sleep too.
And nothing beats a banging brunch post run. I need brunch back in my life
I have begun to string full sentences together again as we approach the end of the fourth trimester. But, last week I forgot the word for ‘sausage’ an interesting item to articulate, so we’re not out of the woods yet. And as I’ve taken to documenting his every waking moment with my camera, I thought it was about time I got some of it down in writing too. I want to get as much down before it recedes back into the fog which descends frequently and makes me put cutlery in the fridge, forget words for processed meat and, on more than one occasion, my name.
The last 10 weeks have been, without a doubt, the steepest learning curve of my life and we’re still only in the foot hills. Nothing prepares you for caring for a tiny human. Nine months is about enough time to get used to the fact you need someone to help you put on your tights and that you really (really really) should be doing your pelvic floor exercises. And to get your head around what you need to pack in your hospital bag.
Our son entered the world in late January at 9:53am in the birthing pool as per my birth plan, so immediately I thought I had this mothering thing licked. You just write a plan and follow it. Simples.
We were discharged 12 hours later, our son feeding like a champ, with gold stars from the midwives. Clever Us. Just like that we were sent home to be a family. We spent the first few days awe struck by the impossibly beautiful baby we’ve made. Everything is amazing and shiny and new. Thank you Oxytocin.
Three days later the pain killers were running low, and the fact none of us had slept since Saturday was beginning to show. Blisters from a particularly poor latch meant hourly excruciating pain even when the latch was corrected by week two. Hormones were not my friend and I wept pretty much every day over everything and nothing and what had started in a golden haze of gas and air and adrenalin slowly gave way to relentless reality.
I realised with shattering clarity that this tiny person, while 100% totally reliant on me, was also kicking my ass. But as my team of amazingly supportive friends remind me daily – that was fine, I’m supposed to have my ass kicked. I am reminded constantly that I am not the boss anymore, there is a teeny dictator hollering the shots and resistance is futile. But through the fog of early parenthood there have been a few realisations which are helping even out the odds.
Make Peace with your Crazy
Sleep deprivation makes everything awful. Unbelievably and irrevocably shitty. Combine that with postnatal hormone comedown and you have a heady cocktail of emotional instability ready to be unleashed on your nearest and dearest. On any given Tuesday I am an irrational crazy person, sobbing into my third bowl of Cheerios while watching endless ads for Sun Life Insurance and reruns of Cold Case.
It’s all good. Cheeios have 15% of my iron RDA and I’m now pretty much qualified to be a detective in LA.
I remind my other half of the Crazy after I have sent him hideous passive aggressive text messages about how much sleep he is getting vs me (I have a tally in my head) and when I lose my shit over the vacuuming. I am just crazy. It’s not forever.
The crazy has really come into its own now our boy is responding to us. Stupid faces, horrendous noises, made up songs, ridiculous nonsense conversations. He LOVES all of it. Crazier the better. Currently he loves hearing me say Mushroom Ragu. Over and over. Who knew?
Embrace the Joy
There have been moments of unadulterated, sheer bolt from the blue, joy. The really good stuff that makes your heart expand into unchartered territory. Seeing him smile for the first time, I knew there and then that I would do anything to see that smile, and it never gets old. Listening to my husband make up lullabies for him, watching our friends hold him, and seeing each other in his changing features – it’s wonderful, and terrifying and brilliant.
Our son experiences happiness with every fibre of his being. When his Dad walks into the room his whole body starts jiggling about with glee, when he laughs he curls his toes, and waves his arms about as if to literally wind himself up to take off with the sheer brilliance of being here. The same is true when he’s furious. So there’s that.
I am constantly shocked by his very existence. It astounds me that he’s even here, and grabbing my hair and cooing at the dog. This tiny human that was only a few months ago, tucked away inside me, kicking my ribs and giving me reflux. It makes my head spin. And when I’m sobbing into my Cheerios its these moments that make it easier
Become the Early Bird
Pre baby I was not a morning person. Earliest I’d emerge from under the duvet on the weekends was about 11am, only ever seeing 6am if racing or catching a flight. This has obviously changed dramatically. Babies don’t do lie-ins.
Our little guy is beside himself happy when he wakes up. Even if I have had 45 minutes of sleep in a 36 hour period, seeing him light up when he sees me in the morning is magic. Perhaps the novelty will wear off (and I bet you anything now that I have said it out loud I’m probably tempting the sleep gods) but for now, its brought me a new found pleasure in getting up while the world still feels new.
It also means he’s happy to chat to his toys a little longer than usual while I shower/ order shite off Etsy/ stalk mum-crushes on Instagram
Take Nothing for Granted
What once was easy is now hard and, thankfully, the reverse is now true too
Feeding came easily the first 4 weeks and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Having seen many friends really battle with breast feeding I was very anxious about how we’d get on, so when it seemed to be going ok I started to relax with it. But then out of nowhere, the champion feeder started screaming every time he fed, coughing, spluttering and generally having a terrible time.
A hungry, cross baby is hugely stressful and very, very loud. After many tears and tantrums (both of us) it turns out I have a fast let down reflex (imagine trying to drink from a hosepipe turned on at full strength – thank you Kelly Mom) and there’s not a huge amount you can do to change it, other than both learn to manage it.
We’re figuring it out. And the plus side is he’s finally sleeping for more than 2 hours. So the cutlery has found its way back to the drawer, and I’m remembering my name more often than not.