A Magical Month

My second book, ‘Grace-Ella: Witch Camp’, published a little over a month ago. It has been a wonderfully magical month so I thought I would share some of the highlights…

The book launch for ‘Witch Camp’ was on the 28th of September at Waterstones, Aberystwyth. In the days leading up to the launch, I was a bundle of nerves and worries – What if no one turns up? What if no one buys the book? What if my anxiety gets the better of me and I can’t do a reading?

My wobbly worries were far worse with this launch than with my first book. I’m a perfectionist, my own worst critic. I constantly fear letting people down. I was afraid of letting my family and my publishers down.

My first book launch happened 6 months after I lost my little boy, Ned. I was on a huge amount of medication at the time and I felt disconnected to it all. When I think back to that day, it’s like I’m watching someone else. There was a huge crowd at my first launch, the signing queue snaked through the shop and out into the street. It was so very surreal but what grounded me that day was Dad standing close by, a quiet, settling presence in his red coat. I drew strength from knowing that he was there and that he was proud of me.

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I lost my dad suddenly on Easter Saturday, 2017, a year after losing Ned. His reassuring presence wouldn’t be at my second book launch.

(Book launch for ‘Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners’, September, 2016)

 

At 2pm on the day of my second book launch, the children’s section of the shop was bustling. I was touched that so many had come to support me. As I stood in the shop, reading a chapter from ‘Witch Camp’, I kept seeing flashes of red and my mind filled with Dad in his red coat. I stumbled over words, but I did it. I read to the end of the chapter.

And then it was book signing whilst everyone enjoyed cake and a chat. It was lovely. Really lovely. So I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who came – my family, friends and everyone else; you made a difficult day sparkle.

 

The official publication date for my book was the 30th of September. My publishers told me that it had been selected by the Books Council of Wales to be ‘Children’s Book of the Month’ for October. I was absolutely thrilled!

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Not only that, it was their number one best seller for September too!

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I couldn’t have wished for a more magical start. During October, I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of young Grace-Ella fans – at Ysgol Gymraeg, Aberystwyth, Aberystwyth Town Library and Aberaeron Book Festival. It is such a wonderful feeling to see children reading my books and telling me how much they enjoy them. This is why I write for children. There is nothing more magical than seeing that sparkle in a child’s eye and the smile on their face as they talk about my stories.

And there we have it, my magical month. It’s been a whirlwind and a rollercoaster of emotions. Thank you to everyone who has supported me and my book, both online and in ‘real life’. Thank you to my family for supporting me on this journey and my closest friends for picking me up, not giving up on me and for accepting me as I am. Thank you so much to my publishers, Firefly Press, for believing in me.

You all keep me going and keep me chasing my dream. Writing my stories is a lifeline for me and to see my books out there on shelves, being read and enjoyed by children is therapy to my soul.

So what’s in store for this month?

Finish writing ‘Grace-Ella: Book 3’…

 

Ned’s Jacket

I have been so overwhelmed by the response I’ve had to an online plea that I made at the weekend, I’ve decided to write a blog post about it because the experience has taught me something very special…

On Saturday, I was shopping in our local Marks&Spencers with my husband and two sons. I was carrying our coats over my arm. Just before leaving the store, I checked the coats and realised that the blue jacket that my youngest son, Cai wears wasn’t with me. I went into a panic. I couldn’t lose that jacket, it meant the world to me.

A jacket? Meaning the world to me? But it’s just a jacket, you might say.

Yes, a jacket, but not just a jacket. The blue jacket started life as my eldest son, Tomi’s jacket. It was passed down to his little brother Ned. It was worn to school by both and therefore had both names on the inside.

On Good Friday, 2016, Ned, who had just turned 5, died in a horrific car crash. Tomi was 8 years old at the time, and my youngest son, Cai, was 18 months old. Ned’s death has devastated us as a family. We live with a huge Ned-shaped hole in our lives. My husband and I have lost our beautiful, boisterous little boy. Tomi has lost his little brother, his best friend. Cai has lost a big brother that he will never remember.

It took me a very long time to be able to open Ned’s wardrobe and place his clothes into a plastic box. It was sheer anguish; pain so overwhelming that it took me hours. Most of his clothes I had to put away – the pain of seeing them was too raw. But I wanted Cai to have something of Ned’s to wear. I wanted there to be something that connected all 3 of my boys. So I kept the blue jacket out of the box.

A few months ago, Cai turned 5 and started to wear the jacket. I wrote his name inside, alongside Tomi’s and Ned’s. I told him that Ned had worn the jacket as well and he beamed at me. He said he loved the jacket and he loved reading out all their names. Every time I put the jacket on Cai, in my mind, it was Ned giving his little brother a hug. And just as Tomi had looked after his little brother Ned, when he had started school, in  my mind, the jacket came to represent Ned looking after Cai. This might not make any sense to others, but that is what the jacket means to me.

So back to Saturday …

We looked everywhere in the store for the jacket, but couldn’t find it. We asked members of staff on each floor if it had been handed in. Nothing. We left and returned after a couple of hours to ask again if it had been handed in. Still nothing. We searched all over, every rail, under rails, toilets, changing rooms, everywhere we could think of, but there was no sign of the jacket. A member of staff wrote down the details and took my phone number, saying she would phone me if it turned up.

That evening I kept checking my phone – no call. I wrote a post on Facebook and Twitter in the desperate hope that someone local would say that they had found the jacket and had handed it in.

What actually happened is utterly overwhelming…

The post began to be shared hundreds of times. On Twitter, messages started to flood in – strangers showing empathy and understanding and expressing their hope that the jacket would be returned to us. On Sunday morning, we had a message on Facebook to say that a jacket had been handed in at the cafe in M&S.

Before the store opened, Tomi was running a race. During that time a photo of the found jacket was sent to us. My heart sank. It was a different colour – it was pale blue whereas Ned’s jacket was royal blue. It wasn’t the jacket. But we returned to the store at lunch time, as soon as Tomi’s running event had finished, just hoping that it would miraculously be there.

A lovely member of staff told us about the jacket in the cafe. We followed her up to the next floor. We waited whilst she went to the back. She came out of the cafe carrying Ned’s jacket! Cai’s face lit up and he jumped up and down. Tomi smiled. My husband smiled. I smiled. My heart slowed down and my breathing felt easier. I had been so tense all morning. I took a photo of Cai with the jacket to post online and to say thank you to everyone who had shown their support. Cai put the hood on, leaving the arms hanging and said, ‘I’m a superhero in my jacket.’

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Throughout the day, more and more messages had been posted on Twitter. Welsh actor Michael Sheen had tweeted about the jacket, hoping for its safe return. Carol Vorderman tweeted to ask if it had been returned. But not just two famous names, but hundreds of strangers, as well as local people who know us, had taken the story to their hearts. Once I posted that the jacket was back where it belonged, the messages continued to pour in.

A journalist from Wales Online contacted me and asked if he could write a piece about what happened.

I have been completely overwhelmed by the response we’ve had. To see such empathy, kindness, compassion and understanding has been wonderful. The jacket is special to us as a family, and yet the story touched the hearts of so many. It has been truly amazing. It has shown me that there are wonderful people out there; people who took the time to send a message to a stranger; people who took the time to understand why the jacket means so much to us. It has been so very heart-warming.

I still don’t know who found the jacket and handed it in, but I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

As I put the jacket on Cai yesterday morning for school, I imagined him having the biggest hug from the big brother that will never be able to hug him.

 

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From one word to publication … my way.

As writers, we’re all different. There is no one step-by-step guide to writing to fit all. I’m stating the obvious I know. And yet (and I believe I’m speaking for more than just myself here), there is still a tendency amongst writers to compare themselves to others.

I used to do it a lot. I would read tweets from authors celebrating completing their daily 1000 words, or completing a full manuscript in a month, publishing more than one book a year … and I would feel very inadequate and a very large dollop of despair.

Then I learnt to stop. I stopped comparing my way of writing to others and I found what works for me. This is not a ‘how to write a book’ blog, but I wanted to show how learning to not compare myself to other writers has allowed me a refreshing freedom to be the writer that’s me.

We all have a time of day that we know we’re at our best creatively. For me, it’s morning. I can no longer do the really early morning writing that I used to do, but I’m still a morning writer. Once I’ve dropped my boys off at school, I come home and do a quick tidy-up. This is important to me; I can’t settle if I know that the breakfast dishes are still on the table and that there’s a load to go into the washing machine. These little jobs niggle at me so I know I have to get them done first if I want my focus to be solely on my writing. I aim to be at my laptop and ready to go by 10am (that includes having checked emails etc).

Just as I have a preferred time to write, I have a preferred place to write. If I want to get some ‘real’ writing done, I have to be by my desk, in my office, alone in the house, with no noise. I have decorated my office so that it feels like my writing space; a space I enjoy and feel relaxed in.

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Once I’m at my desk with a coffee next to me, I’m ready to go. I don’t set myself daily word count goals. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me. The pressure made my mind go blank and I would stare at a blank screen. The only goal I set is to write – that may be a few words or a few hundred words. Some days there will be no words added to my manuscript. And that’s ok. I can usually tell fairly quickly when it’s going to be a ‘no words written today day’. I don’t berate myself; I settle on the sofa to read, with a notebook next to me for jotting down things as they come to me. For me, it’s all part of the process.

I don’t plot my work in detail. I have a rough idea of what the plot will be and I just get going. I find that the story builds by itself. As I am currently working on a series of books, I do have to revisit the previous books to check on some details, but in general, I let the words spill out and the story to grow and take shape as I go along.

I’m also not a writer who can ‘just get the words down’ so that a first draft is complete. I have to be pretty happy with a chapter before I move on to write the next. Maybe this is a personality trait? I don’t know. I’ve always been a perfectionist and incredibly critical of myself, and just like I can’t settle to write if there are tidying up jobs that need doing in the house, I can’t move on in my draft until I’ve tidied up what I’ve already written. You may be sighing or groaning that you just need to get a first draft written and then start tidying up … like I said at the start, we’re all different and that method doesn’t work for me. Just like an untidy house makes me anxious and fidgety, so too does an untidy manuscript. I’m not talking about polishing to a gleam at this stage, just a wipe over to remove the cobwebs before I feel settled and ready to move on.

And so day by day, word by word, chapter by chapter, I write my story; I write it my way. And I absolutely love it. I wake up looking forward to 10am. I’m relaxed and I enjoy what I’m doing. Of course I have to have some sort of deadline to work towards – what works for me is an estimated deadline to complete a first draft. I take into account school holidays etc and take that pressure away from myself. I keep it realistic for me otherwise I know will buckle and get nothing done.

I’m certain that if I tried to write by following another writer’s rules – setting myself strict word counts; focusing on just getting a first draft written in any way, shape or form and then starting the tidying up, I wouldn’t get to the finish line any quicker. In fact, I don’t think I would get to the finish line at all!

So that’s me. It’s what works for me. It took me a while to discover and work out who me the writer is.

Writing is my lifeline. It’s something I have to do to feel like me. And most important of all, writing makes me happy.

So my simple piece of advice: only you know what works for you so give yourself the freedom to find your own writing you and enjoy!

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Moving Forward…

This week has seen me reach a new milestone in my writing: the cover for my second book, ‘Grace-Ella: Witch Camp’ was revealed. It will publish on the 30th of September this year.

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It has been a long and difficult journey getting to this point; not the journey I had envisaged when I signed the contract for my first book, back in 2015. I don’t want to dwell too much on this, as my aim is to try to write a positive blog post; a post that shows hope.

My first book, ‘Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners’ published in 2016 with Firefly Press. When I signed that very first publishing contract in 2015, I had finally achieved my dream. I had written a book, and not only that, it was going to be published and my book would be standing on shelves in shops and held in the hands of children. I had done it and I couldn’t have been happier.

For me, the character comes before the plot, and once Grace-Ella had appeared in my imagination, I knew that I would have lots of adventures for her. So it was a double dream for my publishers to tell me that they could see its potential to develop as a series of books. I was beyond excited.

At the time, I had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was seeing my GP regularly as well as being on antidepressants. Writing became my lifeline. I began writing ‘Witch Camp’ at the start of 2016. I was off work on sick leave following a hysterectomy and I had made the decision to leave my teaching position for the sake of my mental health. I was starting a new and exciting phase in my life. My depression was lifting. A future as an author beckoned and I was ready to embrace it and determined to hold on to it.

As I said at the start, I’m not going to write in detail about what happened next. But for anyone reading who doesn’t know, my little boy, Ned, died in a car crash on Good Friday, 2016. He was 5 years old.

That new beginning was taken from me. My world crumbled. I was broken.

A year later, on Easter Saturday, 2017, my dad died.

I was living in darkness with absolutely no hope for any kind of future. I was just about clinging on to life for the sake of my sons and my husband.

The turning point came at the start of 2018, six months after I had started to have weekly psychology sessions. For the first time in two years, I opened up the file ‘Witch Camp’ and my mind started to fill with words. Slowly, the words made their way onto the page. It was very much stop-start for a few months but I knew that it was coming back … my  imagination and creativity was re-awakening. I had truly believed that I had lost this part of me for good.

Once again, writing became my lifeline. It gave me purpose, but more than anything, it gave me an escape. Whilst I was writing, I could escape into my imagination and be cocooned from the dark reality of my life.

Towards the end of that year, I had finally finished my story and was able to send it to my editor. I want to say here how truly wonderful my publishers, Firefly Press, have been over the past three years. I have had their continuous support, encouragement and belief. They have kept my dream of writing further adventures for Grace-Ella alive. I’m so very grateful to them, especially my wonderful editor, Janet, who has met up with me on several occasions and shown me such support and kindness – I will never find the right words to convey my gratitude.

And so here I am – my second book only a couple of months away from being published, and starting to write my third.

I appreciate the smallest of things these days. I don’t compare myself to other authors; everyone’s success is unique to them. I know what’s important to me – that my boys see me continue to pursue my dream and not give up; that I can sit at my desk and write; that very soon, there will be two books with my name on them out in the real world, being read by children.

I think it’s so important to remember the real reasons why we do whatever it is we do. I write because I want to escape into my imagination and I want to see children reading my stories. I write because I love to write. It’s important not to lose sight of that and to appreciate and feel proud of every small achievement. I’m guessing it can be easy to continuously move the goalpost and never feel quite satisfied. Yes, it’s good to have drive and ambition but sometimes it’s worth stepping back and thinking why am I really doing this?

I’m no life coach but I do believe in these 5 simple statements:

  • Live in the moment, no one knows what lies around the corner.
  • Do what you want to do today and do it for the right reasons.
  • Find your dream and follow it.
  • Be proud of your achievements, big and small.
  • Most importantly, don’t give up, keep believing in yourself.

 

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Grace-Ella: Book 3…

 

I Run

‘You could give running a go. Don’t put any pressure on yourself, just go outside for a short run. I’m not saying it just because exercise improves mental health, but you might find that you enjoy it. You don’t need to join a running club. It’ll be something you do that’s just for you.’

I tie the laces of my trainers, tears blurring my vision. The waist of my new running leggings digs into the generous folds of my stomach. I stand and tug down my t-shirt self-consciously as the spiteful words from my teenage years fill my head – ‘fatty’, ‘tree trunk legs’, ‘ugly’…

I take deep breaths to slow my breathing, to stop the panic from crashing like a wave over me. I can do this. It’s just a jog, by myself. No one will see me. No one will laugh. No one will call me names.

I open the front door and step outside. I take a few more deep breaths then set off slowly. One mile, I say to myself, and then I’ll stop and get my breath back before returning home. The mile feels endless. I jog, head bowed, watching the never-ending tarmac beneath my feet, willing the one mile beep on my watch to sound…

I stop and hold onto my aching sides. My breathing comes short and sharp. My face burns. Sweat trickles down my spine. My legs feel weak and wobbly. Who am I trying to fool? I’ll never be a runner. I’m overweight and unfit. I think of the women I see from the local running club jogging jauntily, smiling and chatting. How stupid am I. As if I could ever be a runner. As if I could ever be one of them.

My breathing slows enough for me to start back and the stitch in my side eases. I keep going, eyes on the ground, knowing that each step is taking me closer to home where I can wrench these ridiculous clothes off and crawl back under the duvet and let the tears fall.

……………………….

‘It will take time. It’s not easy. Try not to give up. Pace, distance – none of that matters. What matters is that you keep putting your trainers on and going out, just for a little while. Try to trust me on this. It’s about getting you out of the house for a bit and releasing some of those endorphins.’

I tie the laces of my trainers for the second time this week. I open the front door and step outside. I set my running watch; it helps to glance at it, seeing the distance increase. I get to my regular one-mile turning point but don’t stop. I push myself to go to the next telegraph pole, then turn back for home.

The water from the shower soothes. I did it. I actually ran a little bit further today. I never thought I would. I thought that two miles was always going to be my limit.

………………………..

‘5K, that’s fantastic. And you’re enjoying it, in that strange way that we runners enjoy running. It never gets easy, where would be the challenge in that? And we all have our ‘running through treacle’ days. But it does give a bit of a buzz afterwards, even on the ‘bad run’ days.’

I tie the laces of my trainers three times a week. I set my watch and I run.

5k… 10k… 10 miles.

I’ve stuck with it. I set myself a challenge and I’ve done it.

………………………

‘You should try a different route. In fact, I think you should get off the tarmac. Try a trail run, something different. It’s just a suggestion. Have a think about it.’

I tie the laces of my trainers and glance at the clock. I have half an hour. It will take me ten minutes to get there. I fidget nervously and nibble my nails. I haven’t run with anyone before. I won’t be able to speak, I’m too breathless, too much huffing and puffing. I’m going to look ridiculous. I haven’t lost weight. I’m still fat. I’m not a proper runner. Those voices punch again – ‘fat girls don’t do PE’, ‘don’t try for the relay team, we don’t want you picked.’

Why have I agreed to this? I’m ok, running by myself along the same tarmac route. It’s safe, it’s comfortable. A trail run? What if I stumble and make a fool of myself? I know I can run a distance of 10 miles now, but I’m really slow, it’s more of a plod than a run. I shouldn’t have spoken so enthusiastically about running in my therapy sessions. She thinks I’m a better runner than I am. She’s going to be so disappointed. She’ll regret ever suggesting that she come with me on a trail run.

I sit in the car park, the anxiety building. I try to breathe it out before it consumes me. I can apologise when she arrives and say I can’t do it. She’ll understand.

‘Ready? We’ll just run/walk ok? It’ll be fine.’

She sets her watch and starts. There’s no time to explain that I can’t do it. I just follow.

‘Look at him,’ she says, bending down to pick up a little furry caterpillar from the path. ‘Isn’t he lovely.’ She sets him down gently in the grass verge. We keep going – running, walking, chatting a little, taking in the scenery, feeling the autumn sun on my face.

When we get back to the car park I’m breathless and sweating. It was tough, much tougher on my legs than my usual run, but I’ve done it – I’ve run my first ever trail run and I ran alongside another person, a person who I see as a ‘real runner’.

‘You smiled the whole way round you know,’ she says.

………………………………..

My feet beat a steady rhythm, my heart pumps in time with my legs. My mind empties. No crippling flashbacks of the car crash that took my little boy. No unbearable pain making me pull at my hair and bang my head against the wall. No rising panic suffocating me. No taunting voices making me withdraw into my shell. No darkness.

Sheep lift their heads from grazing as I pass and I say hello. A white horse trots to the fence and bows his head regally and I say thank you. Bluebells burst in clusters on the grass verge. The gentle swish of leaves soothes. Birdsong and chirrups echo in the air. The light breeze cools my flushed cheeks.

A Red Kite swoops and glides above me. I think of my little lost Ned and his pet Kite that still lives in the tree at the bottom of our garden, and I finally feel a moment of peace flow through me.

I smile.

I run.

 

To Dad…

It has been two years since you left us. Two years since a huge hole was left in our family.

Mam phoned at 8am on Easter Saturday, 2017.

‘We’ve lost him. He died in his sleep a few hours ago.’

I didn’t understand. You had only been in hospital for a week. I had texted you every night and you had told me that they were getting you sorted out.

I was coming to visit you on Sunday. I couldn’t come during the week. I was too unwell myself. I was trying to get through the week. I was really trying. But the darkness was closing in on me, suffocating me. I was in so much pain and I wanted it to stop. I was ill, Dad, so I couldn’t visit you. I was under the care of the mental health Crisis Team. On Good Friday they called a mental health assessment on me. The psychiatrist and social worker were in the house all day, debating whether or not to section me. They decided to let me stay at home. They knew I needed to be with my boys. I needed to be close to Ned.

I didn’t know how unwell you were. I phoned Mam every day. No one said you were dying. I didn’t know, Dad. I was coming on Sunday but I was too late and I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that I didn’t see you that week. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t there, to show you that I was holding on, to tell you that you didn’t have to worry about me.

 

I can’t remember much of the year following my little Ned’s death. I have flashes of images in my head, unordered, jumbled.

I remember that every time you visited in the months that followed you went to the cemetery with your strimmer to ‘tidy the grave and have a little chat with Ned.’ That meant so much to me, but I never told you. I didn’t have the words.

Ned was your little grandson who sat in the little wicker chair next to you when we visited, eating Jaffa Cakes before bedtime. Ned was your little grandson who climbed onto your lap and rummaged in your shirt pocket for the remote for the garage door, ‘the zapper’. Ned was your little grandson who performed his shows for you. Ned was your little grandson who adored you, his Taid.

I wish I had sat down with you and spoken about Ned. I wish we had shared memories of him. I wish I had told you how broken I was. But that was our relationship – a quiet one. No lengthy conversations, but a calm quietness. An understanding with no need for words.

I think of my childhood often lately. I remember our Sunday evening walks to the park, playing mini golf and watching people playing on the bowling green. I remember holidays in the caravan, the evenings spent on the ‘teddy machines’ in the arcades. I remember helping you to build a hutch for my pet rabbits, first Snowy and then Smoky. I remember passing your office every day on my way home from Primary School and waving at you through the window and you waving back. I remember following you to the bedroom when you came home from work. You would empty the loose change from your pockets and I would scrabble about for the half pennies and you would laugh. I remember watching scary films with you, thrilling and terrifying.

In every memory I’m smiling. I was a shy child, painfully so. But when I was with you, just you and me, I didn’t need to worry about having to talk. I didn’t need to worry about anything because when I was with you I was safe and I was happy.

That’s how our relationship continued as I became an adult. You never made demands of me. You were just there.

On Good Friday, 2016, the policewoman uttered three words that destroyed me – ‘He’s passed away.’ I remember being on the ground then suddenly scrambling up, searching for my phone. I phoned you. All I could say was, ‘Dad, please come. Ned’s dead.’

A couple of weeks ago I finally opened up a wound that I’ve been carrying around with me since the day you died. I was with my therapist and I finally said the words that have been torturing me:

‘I made my dad ill. He couldn’t deal with the mental illness and grief that have destroyed me. I didn’t visit him in hospital that last week. Dad died because of me.’

‘NO,’ she answered. ‘NO.’

The tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t look at her but her words filled the room.

‘No. You have to listen to me and you have to believe what I say. Your dad died suddenly of secondary cancer. Yes, he may well have been struggling emotionally – he had lost his precious grandson and he knew that his daughter was suffering the most indescribable pain – but it was the cancer that took your dad. Your dad loved you. Your dad cared deeply for you. But the cancer didn’t. The cancer would have taken your dad even if that horrific accident hadn’t happened and you were 100% well and sitting at his bedside.’

And I finally believe her words, Dad. I’m sorry I couldn’t see you during that week when you were in hospital. But none of us knew how quickly you would leave us. You didn’t suffer. You died peacefully in your sleep and I believe that you have gone to look after Ned for me. Wherever you both are, I know that you’re together.

I know because you’ve always been there for me, Dad. Always.

 

 

 

Battling Bulimia – The Beginning

I have bulimia. I have suffered with this illness for years but only admitted it and asked for help two months ago. No one in my life has ever known that I’ve been suffering with this illness until I told them last month.

Most people will be aware that bulimia is an eating disorder, characterised by overeating/binge eating and then ‘purging’ – for me, by making myself sick.

Bulimia started during my teenage years. I had always been a little overweight and bigger than my friends, but it was in my early teens that I became really conscious of this. From the start of Secondary School I started to hate my body and the way I looked. I was fat and ugly. Something that made this feeling stronger was that my periods started when I was 11 years old and they were awful. I would be bloated and had severe period pain. They were so heavy they would soak through my clothes. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I learnt that I had polycystic ovaries and large fibroids which was the cause of my monthly suffering, and which was also contributing to me being overweight.

I had always loved school. I had a group of close friends and I loved the academic side – I had never struggled academically and was often ‘top of the class’. I loved learning. I gave 100% in all my work. I wanted the highest marks I could possibly get. I was, and still am, a perfectionist.

But with this positive attitude towards my school work came the bullying – ‘teacher’s pet’, ‘swot’, ‘boring’, ‘straight’… names hurled at me for answering correctly in class or having my work read out as a good example. I would have my pencil case thrown out of the class window just before the teacher would arrive so that I would race outside to retrieve it and walk in late. A foot would be stuck out to trip me up when a teacher asked me to hand books out. I would be kicked repeatedly in my back as I walked down the school drive at the end of the day – ‘You think you’re better than everyone don’t you?’ ‘You think you’re so clever.’

It wasn’t just my academic ability that was a target for the bullying during my teens, but my weight – ‘tree trunk legs’, ‘ugly’, ‘no one will ever fancy you’, ‘fatty’, sniggering at me and whispering…

During the school day, I managed to ignore the bullying. I had plenty of friends which helped me close myself off from the name-calling. During lessons I was lost in my work. It was after school, once I was at home, that the names and the taunts would hit me like a punch in the stomach. It was at home that I would finally allow the tears to fall. I was fat and ugly. I would never have a boyfriend. Who would ever look twice at me?

To stop the mental torment, I turned to food. I began to stuff myself with food, having no control at all over what I was doing. I would binge on crisps, biscuits and slices of bread till my stomach ached; always in secret, hidden away in my bedroom. Then when tea was ready I would sit at the table with my family and eat the meal before me, despite my stomach churning from the after-school binge.

It didn’t take long for me to start making myself sick. I would binge then close myself in the bathroom, my fingers down my throat and make myself sick. Afterwards I would wipe the tears away, rinse my mouth, wash my hands and walk downstairs to sit with my oblivious family.

I would hide food wrappers in various places in my bedroom – in drawers, my jewellery box, behind books, under my bed. I didn’t tell anyone. Why would I want to tell someone how disgusting I was? I wasn’t ill, I was just fat and ugly. I was such a disappointment. I hated myself.

Despite being overweight, I loved PE and was good at it. I was chosen to be in the school netball team and was selected to represent the school with the javelin at County level athletics. During an early hockey lesson at the start of Secondary School, my teacher told me that I had a hidden talent for hockey. But the ‘sporty’ girls heard too, and the looks that they gave me was enough to stop me from joining hockey practise at lunch times and so I never had the chance to be in the hockey team.

I knew that when it came to the time of choosing subjects for GCSEs, I wouldn’t choose PE. I didn’t look like a PE pupil – not like the clique of sporty, thin girls who represented the school with running, the ones who went to after-school dance classes and swimming lessons.

One of my best friends was in the netball team so I was never alone during matches and had someone to sit with on the bus for away games. The athletics was different. It was the sporty, thin clique and me – the fat odd-one-out who sat by myself at the front of the bus and was told not to walk around with them when we arrived. I stuck with it for three years and then couldn’t take it any more. That one day a year of travelling to the County Athletics, I felt humiliated and alone. I gave up the javelin. I didn’t choose PE as a GCSE subject. Fat girls didn’t do PE.

And as the years passed, the bingeing and purging continued. I had no control over eating. Once I started bingeing I couldn’t stop, even when I would be sweating and nauseas, I would keep stuffing junk into my mouth. I hated myself. I was disgusted with myself. It was my fault that I was fat and ugly. I was ashamed of myself.

Bulimia had taken a hold of me. It became part of my life. It was just me. I didn’t understand that I had an illness. I didn’t understand that I needed help.

Bulimia has been a strong presence in my life from my teenage years throughout my adult life. I have had quieter periods, when the bingeing and purging hasn’t happened as often, but it has always been there, controlling me. It has been the disgusting secret that I have kept for nearly thirty years, but now I’m ready to battle it. I don’t want it to be a part of me any longer. I don’t want to be overwhelmed with feelings of self-loathing and shame anymore.

Bulimia is a huge beast to battle but by speaking out about it, by asking for help, I have taken the first step. I will blog about my battle with bulimia in the hope that someone else suffering with this eating disorder may stumble across my words and feel less alone.

Bulimia is a mental illness. It is real and it is controlling, but I am going to beat it.

A ‘New’ Year

‘New’ – three letters, one syllable.

A simple word that carries so much meaning, so much weight.

‘New’ – anticipation, excitement, shining, scintillating, untarnished, looking forward, leaving behind, starting again, change…

This one simple word fills me with dread.

It’s the first day of a new year and I should be feeling all of the sentiments that the word ‘new’ encapsulates. Instead I feel panicked. I want to shout, ‘Wait! Stop! I’m not ready for new. I’m not ready to leave behind.’

But time won’t stop. It won’t wait. I sit and take deep breaths to control the panic before it overwhelms me. And it strikes me … time doesn’t stop … it doesn’t even pause … it’s that simple. So even though it’s a ‘new’ year, it doesn’t mean leaving behind and being excited for all things new. It means continuing: moving forward.

As I continue life into this new year, I will continue to battle with mental illness – depression, anxiety, PTSD, bulimia (I have only very recently admitted to being bulimic and will write about this illness when I feel ready). I will continue to grieve for my little boy, Ned, who died in a car crash on Good Friday, 2016. I will continue to grieve for my dad, who died suddenly on Easter Saturday, 2017.

But I will also continue to write. I’ll continue to run. I’ll continue to spend time during the week doing something just for me. I’ll continue to set small goals.

That’s what a ‘new year’ means for me – continuing. Continuing to battle on and continuing to find and nurture what I now call my ‘smile times’.

So a quick look back at what gave me those smile times last year:

  1. Finishing writing my second book and sending it off to my editor.
  2. Taking up running.
  3. A family holiday in Crete.
  4. A day at the Hay Festival with one of my closest friends, where I met and chatted with the lovely Eve Myles and Mathew Hall.
  5. My first school visit in a year and a half.
  6. My first ever trail run/walk.
  7. Finding moments of peace during the week – sitting in a cafe drinking coffee and reading.
  8. Spending time with friends.

I won’t be making New Year Resolutions but I’ll be continuing to find smile times.

  1. Writing – a new book.
  2. Running – a lot more trail running.
  3. A family holiday.
  4. A day at the Hay Festival.
  5. Arranging more school visits.
  6. My moments of peace.
  7. Spending time in the garden (my dad was a keen gardener and I want to learn about his hobby – at least learn which plants are weeds and which aren’t!)
  8. Spending more time with the friends who are always there for me.

 

I’m not leaving behind.

I’m not facing a new empty landscape that fills me with dread.

I’m simply continuing on my own personal journey…

 

 

 

 

 

#SmileAdvent

It’s here. December. The countdown to Christmas really begins. My two sons are already bursting with excitement – ‘When are we getting the tree?’ ‘When can we decorate?’ ‘Santa’s taking ages!’ ‘Can we get our stockings out?’

There are three stockings … one will forever remain empty.

It’s my third Christmas without my little boy, Ned, who died in a car crash on Good Friday, 2016. It doesn’t feel real. How can it possibly be the third Christmas without him?

I remember, I feel, our last Christmas together like it was only yesterday. Tomi, always the first awake, asking if we could get up now and shooing him back to bed for a bit longer … giving in at 6am and telling him to go and wake Ned up. Giggling and running feet to our bedroom. Sitting on our bed opening their stockings whilst Ned told us about seeing Santa in the night, ‘… and he spoke to me.’

Tomi, ‘What did he say?’

Ned, ‘He said …’

Tomi, eyes wide, ‘What? What did he say?’

Ned, looking very serious, ‘Wait, Tomi … he said … hello Ned.’

Laughing.

Racing to the living room. Tomi, 8 years old, tearing open his presents in a frenzy of whoops and a swirling storm of wrapping paper. Cai, 15 months old, sitting on the rug watching his brothers in wonder. Ned, 4 years old, carefully opening each present, delighting in each one whilst Tomi (his presents all opened) hopped from foot to foot saying, ‘Open another one, Ned. Come on!’ My husband filming the scene. Me, sitting on the sofa, cradling a coffee, smiling a from the pit of my stomach smile, watching my three boys, my whole world, lost in the magic of Christmas.

I don’t remember the Christmas that followed. I have vague memories of last Christmas. I remember the quiet. I remember the empty stocking on Ned’s bed. I remember the empty space on the living room floor where Santa always left Ned’s presents. I remember the lost look in Tomi’s eyes as he opened his presents slowly. I remember the empty space at the table. I remember the emptiness.

There will forever be that empty space that was once filled with our beautiful, bouncing, boisterous little Ned. And yet time cruelly ticks on even though my head screams, ‘Wait. Stop. No more.’

But time doesn’t stop or slow down and so I face yet another Christmas. How can I get through it? How can I be happy and smiley for my two sons who truly deserve a happy Christmas? How can I feel Christmas again? I don’t know. I have no magic answer. The only certainty I have is that I have to try.

A few days ago I took my sons to choose their Advent Calendars after school, and we bought an Advent Candle for Ned.

Standing in the supermarket, watching Tomi explain to Cai that there’s a chocolate behind every little door and when he opens the last door it will be Christmas, I smiled. A smile I felt on the inside, not one of the ones I’ve become so good at pasting on my face. A smile that allowed me to be in that moment – no past, no future, just that exact moment in time.

It was later that night as I relived that precious moment (so simple and so forgettable for others) that I thought of a smile advent. One real smile every day leading up to Christmas. Could I do that? Could I find that one special moment every day?

It has given me a focus. I’ll search each day for that something that will make me smile; something that will allow me to simply exist in that precise moment in time. A smile that I’ll feel. And I’ll share my smile moments on Twitter because maybe my smile moment will make someone else smile. Maybe someone will share their smile moment from that day. And then maybe someone else will share their moment.

Grief is lonely and isolating. It is pain and anguish. It is tears and unbearable sadness. It is overwhelming and crushing.

Grief isn’t contagious but (and there is scientific research to prove this) smiling is.

Help to pass on a smile with my #SmileAdvent.

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Grief and Goals

I’m facing a third Christmas without Ned in a few weeks time and it doesn’t seem possible. How can so much time have passed? It still feels like only yesterday when I stood on the doorstep and waved him off, never to see him alive again. This is how grief works. Your world is no longer the world it once was. Time speeds by, yet somehow doesn’t move.

The pain of losing my little boy hasn’t lessened. It’s as physically and emotionally raw as the day he left. I still cry myself to sleep every night. I’m still struggling as I battle with flashbacks of the car crash. I’m still on large amounts of medication. I’m still having weekly psychology sessions.

But there is a tiny change in me; a small shift. I am able to function slightly better on a day-to-day basis. It has been and continues to be a very slow journey and the path never leads straight on. I relapse often. The positive is that the relapses now last a shorter amount of time.

How have I got here? How do I get myself back on life’s path after I’ve stumbled and fallen?

I don’t have the answer for how to navigate through grief. Grief affects us all differently. I have been diagnosed with Complex Grief Disorder and PTSD (with pre-existing depression and anxiety). I began to have psychological therapy in August, 2017 and have been having weekly sessions ever since. It is this therapy that’s helping me take those small steps forward.

I am having to learn how to live with my grief. Most days I want to stay under the duvet and not have to face another day. Some nights I lie in bed crying and beg not to wake up in the morning. But then I have my two beautiful boys physically in my life, and the memory of my precious little Ned to keep alive.

One thing that is helping me the most at the moment is setting myself small goals. They give me some focus when I feel engulfed by sadness and like I’m drowning in darkness. They’re something to cling onto, something that helps me to feel grounded.

I’ve written about the three significant goals I set at the start of this year which have helped my recovery immensely.

  1. I am writing for children again and have just finished writing my second book. This feels truly wonderful.
  2. I run regularly which is having a real positive impact on me physically and mentally.
  3. I’ve faced past experiences that caused me incredible emotional pain, with my therapist. I no longer have the people who caused this suffering in my life.

These three goals have been my main focus this year, but I also set small goals for myself for the week ahead. A day can feel never-ending when you’re grieving. This is how setting myself small weekly goals help. On a Sunday evening, I write my goals in a notebook, ready to be ticked.

These goals can be as simple as ‘have a coffee with a friend.’ Some days, leaving the house is incredibly difficult for me. At home I feel safe. I can manage my anxiety attacks. I can lie on the bed and curl up into a tight ball when a flashback strikes. So for me, making myself leave the house, drive to town and meet a friend in a public place is a challenge.

I set a goal of spending time alone away from the house – a small amount of ‘me time’ to switch off from everything, even if it’s just for half an hour. This could be going for a walk, browsing in a bookshop, sitting reading.

I set myself a weekly running goal as I can’t emphasise enough the positive impact running has had on me. I can now run a distance of 10 miles – something I never believed I would be able to do.

I try to set three goals per week. Some weeks they’re unplanned and happen slightly more spontaneously, but I always feel better ready to face a new week if I have something to aim for.

Grief is all-consuming. It is soul-deep anguish and despair. Time doesn’t heal. I will never recover from losing Ned. Never.

With the help of my therapist (one of the loveliest people I have ever met), I’ve accepted that I’m a different person now. Most days it’s simply about getting through the day – existing. But recently, I’ve had glimmers of ‘living not existing’ as my therapist calls it. Nothing earth-shattering. Just small positive moments. This week that moment was my first ever trail run on a glorious sunny day. I was outdoors, I was smiling, I was living in the moment, I was enjoying.

There is no cure for grief. When grief strikes it becomes a part of your very being. You have no choice but to live with it. Everyone grieves in their own way and will develop their own ways of coping. Goal setting is a strategy that works for me. If you’re held in grief’s vice-tight grip, maybe it could work for you too.

Now I’m off to have a think about my goals for next week…