And it feels wonderful. I’m part of a group delving into folklore and witchery as part of The Corn Dolly Speaks it’s a course which sparks my imagination and sends me off on merry research missions that spark it even more. I’m reading some amazing poetry, working with amazing people and feel excited by writing for the first time in a while.
I’ve been looking forward to this so much. I’d set my mind that I wanted to refocus on my work this autumn and this first week has proved positive. I have a schedule for going through my notebooks, planned time to explore submissions and I’m saving hard to afford some mentoring for what may be a new pamphlet next year. This feels like new year for me.
And perhaps it is. Working on Dust has taken more from me than perhaps I realised. Not so much the writing, but the fund raising, self promotion (thank you so much to everyone who’s joined my FB and Instagram campaigns) which never sits well has taken quite a lot from this old introverted psyche.
On the other hand working on this project has given me a huge amount. The sense of “I’ve done this” is hard to ignore. Realizing that I can collaborate with others to come up with something that really does what we hoped it would is fantastic. Reading the words of people who’ve got in touch to say that the work has moved them and even helped them with their own experience of grief, or the people who’ve just got in touch to say “well done”has had a huge impact on how I feel about putting my work (and by default my self) out into the world.
I’m reading a lot about Anglo Saxon tradition and understanding of the wheel of the year, how summer finishes so quickly, with winter coming in fast behind. There is something grounding about realising that our response to the seasons has barely changed and reading Eleanor Parker’s stunning book is a real joy. I’ve started reading a section each morning and the things I learn before even my first cup of tea are wonderful.
I usually dread this period just before Christmas – it’s been a grim countdown to the worst anniversaries for several years. I feel different this year. More understanding. More accepting. Peaceful, despite the absolute chaos going on in the outside world. I’m writing again and somehow that makes things feel alright. Bearable. Hopeful, even.
I’m almost a week in to my crowdfunding project and things are going well. Funding is coming in slowly and it seems like there will be enough interest in the book for it to go to press.
I’ll be honest, this is hard. It’s so much more than a book of poems I suppose. It’s a stage of grief – I won’t say final because I suspect it never ends. It’s part of my goodbye to my brother and part of my learning to live with the jumble of shame, sadness, anger and guilt that weaves through the very real fact that I don’t have a brother any more.
I have spent the last week wondering if I’m doing the right thing, if I should just do a sponsored run (!) whether that would get more money. It probably would. But this isn’t just about money. .
Until we start talking about suicide, about the impact on those left and the things that lead people to decide the world will be better without them then this will keep happening. The work I’ve written is honest, brutal and suffused with love. These are poems that will start conversations. Framing this work as a fundraiser places this work firmly in the poetry with purpose category. And I suppose this is another way of absolving the never ending “if onlys” that pepper my thoughts each day. It’s difficult to revisit all those feelings, but the support and care I’m getting is so helpful. Thank you.
Over the next few days I’ll be writing more about the charities, and about the look and feel of the book. In the meantime to find out how to support the project financially head over to my crowdfunding page.
I’ve had so many kind responses to my last post – it’s very much appreciated and heartening to know how many people want me to keep writing. The critical voice is strong (does that sound a bit Star Wars?) and the downside of increased socialising means she has so many more things to pick to belittle me about. Tools and tricks are there to be used though and I’m going back to basics in terms of managing my mental health. One of these days I’ll learn to take care before it reaches this point.
Writing is a big part of this of course. Other than gardening and cooking it’s the only thing I know – the only thing I feel right doing. I wish I felt more certain about my skills, but I guess, unlike gardening and cooking, writing is incredibly subjective. I know if I’ve cared for a plant well, because it blooms, sets seed and continues its life. I know if I’ve cooked a meal well because it pleases my taste buds – and hopefully those of others. I deal with failures in gardening by learning how to do it right next time, I deal with failure in cooking by learning how to do it right next time. I don’t feel torn up, distraught or as though I never want to cook or garden again. Why so?
The simple fact is that it’s really hard to know if my failures are because I’ve made a colossal mistake, or just because I’ve not tickled the metaphorical tastebuds of the editors or competition judges. There’s no-one saying – “oh it’s so close but a bit under seasoned” or “what the blazes made you put chilli oil in the rice pudding?”. It’s a simple thanks but no thanks and on you go. This, of course, is no fault of the many long-suffering lit mag editors. Many decline work in the kindest, fullest way possible. A few give what reads as a very formulaic response, but hey, these are busy, unpaid people wading through a colossal amount of work to find the perfect fit for their magazine.
I’ve realised I need to wean myself off the dopamine rush of having work accepted. I love the thrill of opening that email, expecting rejection and reading that my work will be published. I love shouting about it all over the socials and getting the flurry of interest and interaction. It feels nice. It feels like I’m worth something. And it’s as addictive as all the other addictive things.
I planned today as a poetry day. This is a luxury I rarely afford, and something I usually crave, like a warm bath, or a hot buttered toast. A poetry day usually makes me feel better. Today – oh how I wanted to roll over and ignore the alarm, How I wanted there to be some ad hoc freelance work that was just too good to miss. I felt scared. I felt as though I was setting myself up for more failure and more sadness. Today I sat and looked at my work and wondered why the heck I actually do this? Is it to make people like me? Is it to give myself status? Is it to justify my place in the world? Yes. Of course it is. But writing can’t only be about these things. It can’t only be about making myself feel better about not being who I feel I should be. For me, writing has to be about making a difference. It has to be about forging a connection and showing a way for people to feel less alone. It has to have a purpose beyond my personal vanity.
So this feels like a point of maturity. I intend to step away from the submissions treadmill for a while and work with the work I have produced over the last few years. I’ve spent time today looking at the themes in my work (sadly there isn’t a strong theme of fluffy bunnies) and intend to spend a little more time with the poems, redrafting and wrestling them into a series of pamphlets, before approaching some of the people who showed interest in being a mentor to me and my work. Above all, I’ll spend more time reading and listening to poetry, more time absorbing and enjoying, and less time listening to that critical voice. Honest.
The last few months have been hard. Several things have combined to remove many of the anchors that keep me grounded and help me manage my anxiety. Loss of routine, plus a sense of impending threat to home, which I’ve been lucky enough to have as a safe space means many of my coping mechanisms have been challenged. The small routines and rituals that help me manage both physical and mental health have been thrown into disarray by various levels of disruption that more than a little too close to home.
So what’s been happening? You may remember we were facing the prospect of a house being built on the opposite – which would mean having the owners garden and living areas just feet from our bedroom windows, as well as a big increase in noise and light pollution on a day to day basis. We found out in June that planning permission has been given. This has left many of us in our little community at best perplexed and at worst dealing with an unsettling feeling of betrayal and hurt. I managed to be pretty chilled and philosophical about it al at first, but recent weeks have seen me feeling rattled by the injustice, and lack of understanding. Managing these emotions is hard and takes an enormous amount of energy – that is often in short supply.
We’ve also been doing a bit of renovation, with a view to moving, or a view to making things nice if we stay. Old houses always need more doing than is anticipated, and we’ve come up against various delays that have meant a long old time with a house full of boxes and dust. Add in a huge upturn in my paid work and you have the prefect recipe for a significant spike in mental distress. No time means no writing, no writing means no release and no release means no peace. Neglecting the things that allow me to make sense of what’s happening, and to grow as a person, rather than be constrained by the poor behaviour of others, is foolish. I am turning over yet another new leaf.
Hope is emerging. The work on the house is coming to an end, I’m working hard to move on from the hurt and anger to a place of reflection and understanding (we’ll see how that goes once the diggers and concrete move in) and I’m finally feeling the words come back.
Despite all this turmoil and challenge, I’ve lots of lovely poetry news this month. I’ve put together a small exhibition of poetry and photographs that’s on display locally, had several poems accepted for publication including an absolute favourite Whilst you were doing that Adria was jumping rope for three hours published in the fabulous Sledgehammer Lit. I’m particularly fond of this poem because both technique and content are more “me” if that makes sense. The poem is a cut-up poem ( a technique which brings me a real spark of excitement) based on an article about the reality of being a Victoria’s Secret model, which naturally leads to questions about body image and our response to the ideals placed upon us.
The other good thing is that my second column has been published in Spelt magazine, and I’ve managed to do my first ever live reading as part of the magazine launch. I was nervous, obviously, but I do really like the column I’ve written for this issue and the gentle support of everyone involved including editor Wendy Pratt made me feel safe enough to enjoy the experience.
So I keep moving, even when everything feels impossible and all I really want to do is run away to the sea. I’ve a few new projects coming up, plus a new group course which is proving to be just the right balance of challenge and interest. Autumn is coming, the wheel keeps turning and hope is always somewhere to be found.
A difficult ten days or so here. Ten days of intermittent anxiety attacks, feelings of absolute hopelessness and all the jolly symptoms that go hand in hand with an anxiety disorder. I’m on the other side (more of that later) and can trace back to the triggers, but I’d forgotten how frightening it is to be in the midst of it all.
What is an anxiety attack?
I think they’re different for everyone. For me the symptoms build up over several days. I know it’s coming when I start becoming fixated on the possibility of loved ones dying, as well as becoming obsessed by detail of any task. I lose the ability to cope with change, and can crack without obvious warning. The attacks peak with symptoms that are similar to a panic attack – rapid uncontrollable breathing, rapid heartbeat. It’s scary.
As well as these peaks, I experience an intense malaise, feelings of worthlessness, and feel profoundly ashamed that I can’t control my mind. I finished a year of EMDR therapy just 12 months ago, and genuinely thought I was “over it”.
What are the triggers?
A combination of exhaustion from taking on too much as well as a couple of things on TV that tapped some past incidents are what I trace back to. I think being over-stretched meant my brain hadn’t got the resources to rationalise and reason. I couldn’t remember any of the techniques I’d been taught, and couldn’t seem to talk myself down. It’s like being on a train that you know is going the wrong way but you can’t stop it. Being busy meant I let much of my good habits (I keep a gratitude diary and practice tapping therapy) lapse. Like forgetting to exercise I suppose.
What happened to stop the anxiety?
Things peaked a few days ago. It wasn’t great. On Thursday I happened on this tweet from Matt Haig
It resonated, and somehow landed, and I think started the path back.
Thursday also saw the start of NaPoWriMo – a month of writing poems. I’m part of an online group, Wendy Pratt’s April Write-a-thon, writing, reading and feeding back. Thursday’s challenge was to write a sestina, using six set words – nothing specifically to do with anxiety – and out it all came. The discipline of the sestina seemed to calm me. It was a poem that came from the dark place where I was living – and yes, “getting it out” genuinely helped. It created clarity, and perhaps distance. It’s not a bad poem either.
I’m not out of the woods, and a bunch of physical M.E. symptoms has clustered (dealing with the huge amounts of adrenaline created by anxiety takes its toll) but I am less trapped by it. I feel like myself for the first time in what feels like an age.
I rarely post about this these days, but today this feels right . I feel like celebrating feeling better, and feel chastened that I stopped taking the care I should.
Have a happy day, take care, wash your hands, wear a mask and pick up your litter.
has been a difficult month. Various events have conspired to create a wave of minor panic attacks and underlying swell of anxiety that I’ve been free of for some time. These patches will come and go, and I’m better equipped to meet them head on and use all those techniques like counting things and managed breathing to jerk my brain from its doom-filled track. These techniques don’t always work, and it’s fair to say that living with this kind of intense anxiety is exhausting (and scary).
I’ve also been more active socially – by which I mean I’ve been to my mom’s for socially distanced egg and chips – and I’ve realised that this takes a lot more energy than I think. When we were in full lockdown my days felt more my own. As soon as I began to see other people, or to venture out of the house ( a slightly disappointing trip to Ellesmere) I get trapped in a cycle of preparation and recovery that means where I once had seven days in a week, I’m suddenly down to three. Being of a perfectionist persuasion, I’ve been trying to maintain seven days’ worth of activity, so where day to day things like cooking and cleaning were nicely spread out, I’ve ended up exhausted and unable to take on any freelance work, and certainly unable to write.
This is the reality I suppose. M.E. doesn’t go away and I feel like I’ve got to learn my baseline all over again. Combine this with leaden skies and the general terror of the times and it’s no wonder my brain has been on high alert. I haven’t written a single thing this month and I’ve missed it terribly. Even my journal is patchy, just scraps of thoughts and the odd drawing.
Wallowing is not my style though (I prefer tear-filled rage) so as August begins, so does another set of resolutions – to make time, to ease up on the cleaning obsession, to ask for help and to write. I’ll see how I get on.
August also brings a new publication, which is a bit of a big deal to me – Popshot magazine is notoriously hard to get into (I only discovered this after I submitted or I’d never have tried) so having a poem published as part of their Freedom issue is incredible. I’ll do a proper post about it next week, but if you are venturing into the shops you’ll be able to buy a copy in WHSmith – if anyone does please take a photo of it and send it to me – it’s my first piece of print out in the wild as it were.
That’s it for now – here’s to a better August for all of us. Stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask and be lovely.
I was very poorly at the start of the year, which meant I spent most of January trapped at home, and a couple of weeks in one room. My biggest mistake was forgetting to pay attention to my mental state. This kind of isolation is something we’re all likely to face over the coming weeks, with added elements of fear and uncertainty to make things just that little bit tougher. Therapy last year has made me mentally more resilient, and I’ve been able to identify what I’d do differently next time so I thought it might be useful to people in the same situation. I didn’t think I’d have chance to test it quite so soon….
Create a routine
This is the most important thing, not so much if I’m really ill and all my body wants is to sleep, but for the times when I feel a bit better but can’t do loads. Over the last seven years I’ve learnt that having a rhythm to my life keeps me balanced. In an ideal week I get up as I would if I was going out to work and keep set hours. I can’t “work” for a full eight hour day, but I can do a couple of hours of something (writing/reading/gardening etc.) over the course of the day. I have a lunch break, and I “finish” in the evening. I try to keep my weekends as some semblance of a weekend, so that’s the time for lolling on the sofa, or eating a fancy dinner. A routine helps me feel in control and keep a leash on the panic, so I can cope when things don’t go to plan
Treat yourself well
The worst thing about being so poorly is not being able to wash and be clean. Other than my scheduled rest days or if I’m crashed, I always try to get up, shower and dress. I have work clothes (thankfully not orange owl printed crimplene anymore), and I have nicer clothes that I wear at the weekend. I’m not swishing about the house in a ballgown (often) but I’ll put on some make-up and perfume if I fancy. It all makes me feel a bit more like me, if that makes sense.
Do different things
If there’s anything good about all this, it’s the raft of online resources that are popping up. There’s ways to visit a gallery, take a trip to the zoo and loads of online courses available for free. At the moment social distancing feels like a great time to do nothing but watch box sets and eat pizza. This is a wonderful activity, but it gets dull really quickly, and dullness leads to boredom which leads to apathy and suddenly getting off the sofa is a lot harder than it should be.
Talk to people
This is a biggie, and the single most important change I’ve made in the last year. Some weeks I see my partner for about ten minutes a day – his having to work late and me being ill in bed makes communication hard, and it often gets to the point where the sound of my own voice is alien to me – like listening to a recording. This makes me nervous to speak, which feeds social anxiety and becomes self-perpetuating. I hated talking on the phone and relied almost exclusively on text and social media to talk to anyone outside my own four walls. Since about September, I’ve been having regular phones calls with my dear friend, and this has made so much difference. We schedule a time, so I don’t have the panic that usually accompanies an unexpected call and spend about half an hour just chatting about everything and nothing. I’d really recommend doing this, even if you’re not usually a phone person, there’s something about the twists and turns of conversation that can’t be replicated by typing.
Being well enough to cook is tricky, and it’s easy to slip into eating nothing but toast. I’m not going to repeat all the stuff about fruit and veg (but yes, eat fruit and veg), especially when these things are hard to get. I tend to keep “easy” foods in for ill times, so for me that’s ready to eat rice, chickpeas, tuna and eggs. It’s all stuff that takes minutes to open and eat as gives me good quality nutrition. I also fail completely and trough the packet of biscuits I was saving for if I have visitors, which feels wonderful for about six minutes and six minutes only.
All those Italians on their balconies have the right idea. Even if I’m not up to walking, I try to feel fresh air on my face as often as I can, even if that’s as tiny as putting my head out of the window. Being outside takes me out of my own head somehow too. I’m lucky enough to have a small garden, and even a short time sitting watching a bunch of ants doing ant things or listening to blackbirds showing off about who’s the best blackbird ever, helps me put distance between myself and my thoughts.
Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it. Reality is that our culture of repressing emotions, the much adored stiff upper lip, is bad for my mental health. Squashing stuff down gives it power, and sometimes that power becomes too much to cope with – cue tough times for my mind. It’s hard to ask for help, but harder to live without it. If you’ve got a friend you can trust to listen, then get in touch. At the end of January, I sent dear friend a scared email saying how I was feeling, and the impact of hearing someone say “it’s ok, I’ll help” was huge. It’s taken me years to get to this point, but I’m glad I have.
I know not everyone has their own “dear friend”, but there is still help – Samaritans and Mind are invaluable resources with trained listeners who will help you work out what you need.
That’s it for now, I hope it’s helpful. I’m hoping my brain will have stepped out of panic mode soon so I can write creatively again. If you’re lucky (?!) my next post might be called Odes to Corona.
Stay safe, wash your hands and if you can, please stay home xxx
I did it. I went to the workshop, I participated, wrote two poems and …read them out. I’ve not been in this sort of environment since becoming ill, and I felt incredibly awkward, shy and slightly foolish (what the hell am I doing here?). Three things happened. Firstly, the fellow running the workshop Steve Pottinger had the kind of relaxed manner that instantly made me feel at ease, he asked questions and listened to my answers, which is always a winner with shy folk like me. Secondly, EMDR therapy has vastly reduced the symptoms of anxiety. I felt nervous, but the breathlessness, twitchiness and feeling of blind panic were nowhere to be seen, considering these used to happen just going to the co-op, I was amazed and delighted. Finally, my sheer joy at being out, being focused on a subject that fascinates and moves me and being encouraged to write about it was irresistible.
It wasn’t plain sailing – I mumbled my way through reading my work, struggled to contribute sensibly and by the end brain fog had pretty much taken over so I ended up going full-on Moose Allan by the time I said goodbye. I lost the evening, and I suspect I’ll struggle with stamina this week, but I am so glad I’ve done this. I feel more positive about my work, and more joy in it than I felt for the whole of last year. If you’re interested to see what came out of the workshop, I’ve put my drafts on my work in progress page and I’d love it if you’d have a read.
But what about the tigers? Aha – the prompt for Mslexia’s themed writing is wildlife. Oddly, this has spawned two pieces of work about being in tiger disguise. One of these is a sestina, a delightfully complicated way of constructing a poem, which I thoroughly enjoyed creating. More revision and work is needed for both before (if) I submit, but again, the overwhelming feeling is that I am enjoying writing. The need for validation is still huge (and always will be I suspect) but that magic feeling of almost tasting the words as I write them is back.
The knife angel is in Southwater until the end of March, and there are poetry workshops for young people running this week at Southwater. It’s brilliant to have this on my doorstep, and I hope there will be more to come.
I’m at the start of my third year of writing “seriously” and my seventh year of having M.E.. I feel less than terrific about both of these things. If I compare to this time last year, when I was merrily writing travel pages, and confidently submitting here, there and everywhere, things feel considerably less buoyant. I feel considerably less buoyant. Sinkable, in fact.
I’m trying to muster positivity, but the bare fact is M.E. is limiting my life. It feels kind of good to say that out loud.And kind of awful. I try to downplay the impact and try to “be positive” but my reality is that I have about four useful hours each day. I frequently go over those, sometimes deliberately, sometimes through guilt, and very occasionally because I’m having too much fun to stop. Then my body makes me. No option. I’m on day five of my post Christmas crash. This year’s festive period was particularly tricky, and I’m not surprised I’m so ill. I’m just sick of being sick. There’s so much I want to do, and so much that needs to be done to try to make things better, lying at home feels both privileged and pathetic.
How to regain hope then? I’m struggling to find the answer. I’ve a nagging feeling that I need to calm down, stop pushing and start enjoying the minutes of wellness that I have. Ha. It’s impossible. I love the ups and downs and adrenaline. Recognising what is important is the hardest thing. Perfection is subjective, and my lens changes every five minutes. Mostly I need to rest, but while body has a way of just “stopping” my mind won’t quit, and I can’t even divert myself by reading or watching a good film. Or a terrible film. Even Gone with the Wind has failed to distract.
I usually end these moany posts with a flash of perkiness, but in all honesty I haven’t got one. I am writing again. I just need to regrow my skin.
Thanks for reading, and any hints and tips are gratefully received x