In the Now: 2013 365 Challenge #295

And it rained...

And it rained…

We’re always hearing about the importance of ‘Living in the now’. Children and dogs do it really well: they forgive mistakes, don’t hold grudges, are rarely judgemental and can be distracted from misery to happiness in a heartbeat.

Grown-ups; not so much. We live in the past, dwelling on mistakes, re-living better days, yearning for the time when we had a decent job, a lunch break and enough money to buy stuff without feeling guilty (or maybe that’s just the mums!). Or we live for the future: the weekend, the promotion, the new car, the holiday, Christmas, retirement. Even when we are in the now, we moan about it.

“It’s raining.”

“I’m bored.”

“God, I’m ill/tired/stressed.”

We don’t look around and see the beauty in the world. We don’t look at the rain and think, That means the grass is going to grow for another season. That’s topping up the rivers so I can turn on my tap and have a nice cool drink of water. Our minds are like skittish kittens, darting from one shiny thought to the next.

Mindfulness (as I understand it) teaches about living in the now: about being present in the moment without judging it. I don’t know a lot about Mindfulness as a theory, because I have little patience for self-help books. Not that I don’t believe in them, just I don’t seem to be able to read them without looking at myself with loathing and thus spiralling down into darkness. That’s just me. But I understand the principle. Life doesn’t fly by so fast if we can concentrate on the present rather than worrying about the past or future. We enjoy life more if we can give each moment our full attention without judging or criticising ourselves or others or the situation.

Remembering sunny days

Remembering sunny days

However, there are times when I wonder if it is dangerous to live always in the now. Human beings are very good at forgetting: Mothers would never have more than one child if they couldn’t forget the pain of childbirth. We’d never fall in love more than once if the brain didn’t soften the pain of rejection in our memories. Those are good things.

But it’s also easy to look at the rain and think “It’s been raining for weeks! It always rains. When did the sun last shine? I’m so sick of it.” When, actually, the sun shone yesterday. The summer was amazing.

It has rained more or less nonstop here for two weeks (My poor sister, they had the worst of the year’s weather during their visit) but that doesn’t mean it’s been raining forever.

The same happens when we’re ill. A cold, viewed from the outside, is pretty trivial. I joke with my hubbie that I’m only ever sympathetic when I succumb to the same virus. Because, on the inside, it feels like it’s going to last forever; that I never felt well before and my head has ached since the dawn of time. Then it goes, and slowly wellness creeps up, and we take it for granted, until we’re ill again.

Depression can be like that. Down in the pit of despair, it can feel like there is absolutely nothing in the world to live for. That the world will be dark forever and ever. Those who suffer from long-term depression have it the worst because they know that beyond the rise of the next hill is another dark valley. But at the point in which you’re sitting in that pit; that is definitely not the time to live in the now. That’s the time to remember past happiness and look forward to future joy.

One of the bloggers I follow, Michelle Holland of Mummylovestowrite, is currently in one of those deep dips. I want to reach in and pull her out, even though her recent post could have described the inside of my mind two weeks ago (not to the same extremity, as I don’t have chronic depression or anxiety, but close enough). I want to tell her she will laugh again, that she will find something to live for. Except she already knows. She is a strong person. She writes “The real me likes to read, write, enjoy music and interact with others.”

The real me.

Sometimes in the now, especially in a dark now of exhaustion or depression or calamity, we forget who the real us is. That’s when it’s important to look to the past, to remind us, and to concentrate on a brighter future. It’s important not to let the now define us.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire pulled out her phone and glanced at the screen to see who was calling. A smile spread across her face and she looked around for somewhere to sit before selecting answer.

“Hi, Conor.” Her voice rang out into the afternoon sunshine, and she blushed as two passers-by turned to stare.

“Good afternoon, Claire, how’re things?”

Claire looked down the high street and wondered whether to be honest. “Great, they’re great. I’m in Torquay.”

“How’s Kim?” Conor’s voice held a hint of wariness.

“Good, I hope. She’s with her parents.” Claire chose not to reveal that she’d taken a day off to drive her friend home.

“Oh.” She waited while Conor processed the information. “For the best, I suspect. I wish her a speedy recovery.”

The business-like tone of his voice caused the smile on Claire’s face to falter. Just when she felt she knew him, he said or did something that reminded her he was her boss.

As if in confirmation, Conor continued in a brisk tone. “How is the report coming along? I know it’s only been a week, but three months will fly by.” He didn’t need to add that his neck was on the line alongside hers.

A week?

Claire was startled to realise she had been home from New Zealand for so long. It felt like only a day or two since Conor had collected her from the airport.

“Er, yeah, good. Spending time in the English Riviera has helped to frame things.”

“It’s a nice part of the country,” Conor said without inflection.

Claire wondered if he thought all places inferior to the Isle of Purbeck or whether he was disappointed that she hadn’t travelled further in the few days she’d been on the road. With a flush she realised she’d spent half her time dealing with Kim and the rest buying and getting used to her new car.

If I’m not careful I’m going to get sacked before I receive my first pay cheque.

She vowed to spend the next twenty-four hours writing something up before Conor called her bluff and asked for an initial report.

“It occurred to me that we haven’t provided you with the means to compile your findings or send regular updates. I’m in the area tomorrow evening, ready for a meeting first thing Monday. I’ll bring a laptop with me, and you can update me on your first impressions.”

Claire’s heart plummeted and the bacon and brie Panini she’d just eaten sat heavy in her stomach.

Crap.

“Where are you heading tomorrow?” Conor continued. “My meeting is in Plymouth so I’ll be staying in the town overnight. I can recommend the hostel at Salacombe for tonight, if they have space. It’s about an hour from Plymouth but I won’t be in town until the evening anyway. The views are amazing. It’s closing down later in the year as they haven’t been able to renew their lease with the National Trust. It would be a shame to miss out.”

The casual way Conor demonstrated his thorough knowledge of the local area made Claire’s ears buzz with fear.

I am so out of my depth. I thought this would be an easy assignment – a jaunt around a few more hostels and a quick presentation at the end of it. There is so much I have no idea about.

Conscious of how much needed to be done in the next twenty-four hours; Claire took note of where Conor wanted to meet up, and made her excuses.

Time to get to work.

***

World Mental Health Day: 2013 365 Challenge #283

logo2As part of the Claire instalment for yesterday, I needed to research the aftermath of a suicide attempt.

I wanted to know the practical things, like how long someone would have to stay in hospital, would they automatically be moved to a secure ward, would they be discharged etc. It’s a difficult thing to research; the NHS doesn’t have a page on ‘so you’ve taken an overdose’. I’m fortunate that no one I know has taken their own life, or tried to (to my knowledge). I hadn’t intended for one of my characters to do so, but sometimes the story writes itself.

The difficulty as an author is how much you delve into the research, what it takes out of you, and how much of the dark detail to share (what is appropriate for the story genre)? Writing about Claire’s depression hasn’t been too hard, because I periodically suffer from depression myself, albeit mild in the grand scheme of things.

I also follow some amazing blogs written by people who suffer from depression or anxiety; courageous bloggers who offer up their story and share the hardest moments (Mummy Loves to Write, The Belle Jar to name just two). It is important to write about it, for me: to de-stigmatise mental health issues. But I do worry that my writing ends up too realistic, too dark and depressing, particularly the Two-Hundred Steps Home instalments, where I can’t go back through and edit some humour in to lighten the dark patches.

FoggyFieldBaby Blues and Wedding Shoes grew out of a need to be honest about the hard parts of being a parent, after finding myself surrounded by people putting on a brave face and telling me that I had to do the same (I had my mother, health visitors and doctors all tell me I was too honest. Thank goodness for blogging.) I did try and put in the funny stuff too, (Helen dropping her breast pad in the coffee shop was one of my experiences that I look back on and laugh) but the ‘baby blues’ part of the title is important.

As part of my research into suicide, I came across this on Reddit: Survivors of Suicide, what happens after you find yourself still alive? This was posted 20 days ago and there are 1857 comments.

Just reading through for an hour left me shaken and teary. My post ended up being three hours late because I became immersed in the lives of the people who had poured out their darkness onto the site. I deliberately skimmed through: I was emotional enough without getting dragged into the trolls and people who thought it was funny to be flippant. However I read enough to come away with a determination that, one day, I will write something about this awful subject. It won’t be chick lit. It might not even be publishable. But what I read left me so horrified I feel a need to tell somebody.

You see, what I came away with, from post after post, was how badly these people were treated. Either by the ambulance crew, who laughed at them or treated them roughly, or the hospital and psych ward staff, who treated them like animals. The friends who felt betrayed because they’d kept their depression a secret until it was too late. The people who said that suicide is the coward’s way out, or a cry for attention. So many stories of society’s failure to understand mental health illnesses and their repercussions.

BlueThere were uplifting stories too. One person wrote [sic]:

“The thing is.. if you talk about suicide people want to help you and talk you out of it. If you succeed they will talk about you as if you were the greatest guy on earth and they would’ve done anything to help you. If you try and fail… you’re nothing. A loser with a wish for attention. Or an ungrateful bastard wasting their time. Almost as if everybody’s angry for you failing to die.

I remember waking up the day after my half hearted attempt at roadkillness and realising that this would not have happened if I had died. That day I saw a nice show on TV. Later a movie came out that I really loved watching. I had sex, I stopped doing drugs, a girl told me I had a nice smile.. those little things did it for me. And still do.

I still think of ending it. Just end my meaningless speck of existence in a vast universe that will never know we were ever here after it all ends. Everytime that happens I try to think about something to do the next day. My boys waking me up, my wife hugging me naked before she hits the shower. Sometimes I look forward to a morning cup of coffee or a nice dinner. Weather forecasts are great, tell me the sun will shine and I want to see it.

I try to grasp those little things, because if I had succeeded that day, if I had tried harder, timed better or had less luck… I wouldn’t have lived those moments.

And God Dammit I love those moments more than I hate life.”

TheInvitation (2)How powerful is that? There’s a whole life there, in a comment on a forum. There were hundreds of stories like his. Other stories, too, about abusive relationships or ongoing problems. The physicality of taking charcoal to empty the stomach and the other things that are done when someone has taken an overdose. Or the difficulty of living with a mental illness when you are afraid the people around you can’t cope and so you don’t share it with them. Or having the people around you cut you off completely because they don’t know the right thing to say or do.

One commenter wrote:

“If you really love someone, don’t cut the cord. Go to NAMI support groups for people who love someone with mental illness. Read books. Go to therapy yourself if you have to. If you love them, don’t give up on them. And remember–no matter what a person is capable of, contentment with life is more important than any potential they’ve “squandered” by suffering from a mental illness.”

Today is World Mental Health Day. Last year’s focus was on raising awareness around depression and seeking to de-stigmatise mental illness.  This year’s theme is the positive aspects of mental health in later life. It was noticeable to me, reading the comments on the reddit forum above, that many of the people talking of having attempted suicide were young – teens and twenties. It comes as no surprise to me therefore that it says on the mental health website, “on average people aged 55 and over have greater life satisfaction than people aged 25-54”.

I’ve noticed as I get older that my ability to find perspective, to find the positive, and to be confident enough to enjoy life, is growing. Maybe if I do write a book on suicide, it will be a young adult one. Does anybody know of any books that have covered this subject? Sorry, this has turned into a rambling post. Thanks for listening.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire strode across the car park, muttering prayers under her breath. She could see Kim still slumped forward on the picnic bench and thanked the gods that at least she hadn’t run off or stepped in front of a lorry.

Pulling on her last reserves, Claire hitched on a smile and forced herself to walk slowly for the last few paces to her friend.

“Here you go,” she said brightly, hoping Kim couldn’t hear the fake smile in her voice. Kim glanced up to see what was being offered.

“I can’t drink caffeine,” she said, the words falling like autumn apples to smash on the floor.

Claire inhaled deeply. “It’s not coffee, it’s a hug in a mug.” She sat next to Kim and pushed the paper cup towards her. “Go on, you know you want to.”

Kim turned and stared suspiciously at the cup. Then the frown lifted and her lips turned up slightly at the edges.

“Hot chocolate? I haven’t had one in years. Hot chocolate is for kids.” But she took the offered cup and wrapped her hands around it, as if they were in the grips of winter rather than basking in a pleasant summer’s morning.

“It’s full of sugar and warmth and memories. It will make you feel better.” Claire took a gulp of her latte, burning her mouth.

Serves me right for suggesting depression can be fixed with a hot drink. Idiot.

The girls sat without talking. Claire saw from the corner of her eye that Kim took a sip of her drink and then another. The green pallor in her cheeks faded as the warmth and the sugar got to work. Claire felt one knot of tension unravel: it wasn’t much, but it was a start.

After half an hour, Kim sat up straight and looked around, as if surprised to find herself in a service station car park.

“Where are we?”

“Toddington Services.”

Kim managed a laugh. “I’m none the wiser.”

“Sorry. We’re on the M1, about a third of the way to Dorset. What do you want to do? Are you okay to go on, or do you want to go home?”

Kim released a pent-up sigh; puffing the air out from her cheeks as if she were trying to blow away the dark clouds.

“Fuck knows.”

The emptiness in her voice made Claire flinch. Without thinking, she put her arm around Kim’s shoulder, gripping her tightly and ignoring the unusual feel of bone under her hand. The shoulders began to shake, and she realised Kim was crying.

“Shhh. It will be okay, I promise. We’ll figure it out.”

“How?” Kim’s voice shot out through the tears. “How will it ever be okay? I can’t have kids. You don’t want children: you can have no idea what that means.” And she pulled away from Claire’s embrace.

“I’m trying to understand, Kim. And I don’t know about the kids anymore. A lot has changed for me, too.” She wanted to continue, but managed to hold the words in. Instead she tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t fan the flames of Kim’s grief.

“There are other ways. You could adopt: there are babies all over the world who would love to have you for their mummy.”

“But they wouldn’t be my babies.” Kim’s sobs grew stronger, her slender body shaking like a leaf in the wind.

“What about surrogacy, then?” Claire had no idea whether it was possible, but she wanted Kim’s tears to stop. They made her feel helpless.

“Jeff and I don’t have the money for something like that; we’re not rich like you.”

Claire laughed bitterly. “I was never rich. And now; now I don’t even know how I’m going to pay back the credit card company, before they try and find something to repossess. I’m broke.”

Kim looked over, one eyebrow raised in disbelief and Claire bit back the sudden desire to yell at her friend that she wasn’t the only one with problems. Her financial predicament was of her own making and paled into significance next to Kim’s woes.

“I’m serious,” was all she said. “I’d barely cleared my debts by the time I decided to pack in my job and fly to New Zealand. Those weeks as a gullible tourist, spending money left and right, has maxed out both my credit cards. If I don’t start work for Conor this week I’m totally in the shit.”

Kim’s eyes narrowed, as if she found the concept of a poor Claire too hard to fathom. Then she wrapped her arm around Claire’s waist and squeezed.

“Then we’re both in the shit together. We’d best get shovelling.” And she smiled.

It’s true, Claire thought wryly, as she returned the embrace, misery does love company.

***

Breaking Point: 2013 365 Challenge #262

Daddy saves the day

Daddy saves the day

Attempting to plait my daughter’s hair this morning was the proverbial last straw. Her hair was shiny from washing and she has a double crown. It’s had me swearing most days since she started school as she’s never worn her hair tied back before and I’m rubbish at plaiting someone else’s hair (especially a wriggly child).

Today I lost it. Full on panic attack, sobbing, hysterics the works. Bless my amazing family: hubbie did the plait, son gave pats and leg cuddles and daughter said repeatedly, “It’s okay Mummy.” However much I worry about the impact my hormonal instability has on my children, there’s no doubt it’s taught them empathy.

It’s also taught them blindness to difference, in a way. Mummy’s behaviour is normal to them, so if they encounter anyone having an episode, be it panic attack, asthma attack or emotional breakdown, they’re likely to remain calm. That counts for something, right?

Given that they’re likely to inherit an element of serotonin imbalance from their parents, hopefully they’ve also learned to give themselves a break: to let it pass and get on with their day as I had to do, with hubbie off to an interview, two kids to drop off and pick up from different places and a birthday party to prepare for.

Self awareness is a blessing and a curse and I’m not entirely sure my kids will thank me for introducing them to it early. But there’s no doubt it’s easier dealing with a toddler tantrum when it comes with “Mummy, I’m sad because…” rather than just screaming rage.

Only time will tell whether that helps in the teenage years. I try not to think about the future too much. So far parenting has got harder rather than easier and nothing I’ve read lets me believe for a minute that that pattern is going to change. Although, maybe at least one day I’ll learn to plait hair. ________________________________________________________________________________

Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:  ________________________________________________________________________________

“Are you okay, Claire?”

Claire opened her eyes and looked at Bethan, before closing them tight again.

“No.”

Around them, the aircraft vibrated as it climbed into the clouds. The man behind Claire kept checking an altimeter in his hand and providing a running commentary.

“Ten thousand feet … eleven thousand feet …twelve thousand feet …”

Claire wished he would stop.

“Remind me why I let you talk me into this?” She yelled above the noise of the engines.

“So you could impress your new boss.” Bethan yelled back.

“Maybe I could just buy him a beer?” Claire thought about it some more. “I’ve already done grade five water rafting, hiked across a glacier and kayaked with seals. This probably wasn’t necessary.”

“But just think how cool you’ll look. It was this or the bungee jump.”

Claire’s stomach lurched at the idea. For some reason jumping out of a plane at fifteen thousand feet seemed an easier option than throwing herself off a bridge with a piece of elastic tied to her ankles. This way, at least it wouldn’t actually be her doing the jumping. She was pretty certain the burly blonde man designated her tandem partner would make sure she didn’t chicken out.

“Fifteen thousand feet,” the man announced on cue. “Time to get ready, ladies.”

Claire looked around the cabin at the other passengers. She seemed to be the only one not grinning. Even the seventy-year-old grannie was peering through the open doorway with interest. Maybe you worried less about dying when you’d lived more of your life.

It was the grannie that had swung it, in the end. Bethan’s entreaties had fallen on deaf ears. She’d let herself be talked into the heli-hike and, although it had been beautiful, she wasn’t sure it had been worth the money. This was equally expensive, especially with the extra for the photographic evidence, and Claire was pretty certain she was going to enjoy it a lot less. Then the old lady had turned up, and shame had taken over.

Claire felt numb as she followed the burly man’s instructions, listening intently as he ran though again how she had to hold her arms and what she needed to do on landing.

Then, before she knew what was happening, a body plummeted from the plane. Claire’s heart skipped and her instinct was to reach out and grab at the disappearing figure. Then another person fell, and she realised they had started to jump. Her stomach knotted tight and she thought she might be sick.

One by one the passengers disappeared from view at incredible speed until she was the last one left.

“Let me go back down in the aircraft, I’ve changed my mind.” She could feel the blood draining from her face and wondered if the man would still jump if she passed out.

“Sorry, chick, there’s only one way down. You’ll be fine, no worries.”

He shoved her towards the gaping hole, and Claire just had time to register the blue of the lake and the blend of green and white of mountains before air was rushing past her and she was falling.

Shock pushed all the air from her lungs and she gasped, unable to breathe. The wind pulled at her cheeks and the cold burned her skin. Claire barely registered the ground leaping up to meet her or the other skydivers around them, until her host tapped her on the arm and she looked over to where he pointed.

Falling alongside them was the camera girl. She waved and gave a thumbs up. Claire tried to smile but her face was frozen in a mask of fear.

The camera girl circled them, taking pictures, before changing her body position so she could dive to the next person and photograph them. Part of Claire’s brain marvelled at her casual ease, as if she were walking across a garden rather than plummeting at 200km an hour through the sky.

A sudden jolt told Claire the parachute had opened. She watched as other chutes opened beneath her. She could see some of the people swinging from side to side, spinning in spirals down to the lake. It looked like fun. She waited for her host to do the same, but he didn’t.

Still breathless and panting, she was unable to ask him why they were falling so sedately. Disappointment clouded her vision and she looked at the view below through jaded eyes. Her host clearly thought she was having a panic attack and wanted to get her to the ground quickly and gently.

She wanted to explain she was fine, that it was only the shock of the jump that had stopped her breathing, but there wasn’t time. The land once more rushed up to meet them, and before she knew what was happening, it was time to lift her feet up and let the man land.

Sadness fought with exhilaration and, eventually, elation won.

“That was amazing! I want to go again, now!” Claire looked around for someone to hug, and saw Bethan running towards her.

“Aren’t you glad you did it? How awesome was that? Especially the spinning at the end.”

Claire’s face fell. “I didn’t get to do that, I think Muscles over there thought I was too scared.” She saw Bethan frown, and realised she was being a killjoy. “But, oh my goodness, it was brilliant. Thank you so much for convincing me to do it.”

They walked arm in arm to return their kit and watch the video. Claire wondered how she would drop it into conversation with Conor that she had jumped from an aircraft at fifteen thousand feet. She wondered if he would be impressed.

 ***