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…

 

 

 

 

 

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#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…

Bullied But Not Broken

This is my third and final blog post about the three goals that I set at the start of this year – goals that will help me function better on a day-to-day basis as I battle with mental illness and live with grief.

My three goals are:

  1. To get physically and mentally stronger through exercise (Blog Post: Running? Really?)
  2. To write for children again; to be the children’s author I’ve always wanted to be (Blog Post: Getting back in the writing seat)
  3. To no longer have the people in my life who have caused me emotional suffering.

 

This will be the most difficult of the three goals to write about, but it’s something I feel is important to share…

I have moments during the year when I decide that the house needs a good clear out – clothes, the children’s toys, stuff that I never needed in the first place. I have a clearing frenzy – bags piled high and shipped off to a charity shop. Done. Tidy house. Clear space.

It may be time consuming and half way through when I look at all the spilled out cupboards I regret my decision, but I plough on and it gives me a strange sense of satisfaction when I’m done. I like tidiness. I have been told by mental health professionals that I have mild OCD. I can’t relax around mess. I need the clear space.

I have reached a point in my life where, with the help of professionals, I have learnt that it’s not just my home I need to declutter, but also my life. That is, just as there are items of clothing in my wardrobe that I don’t need, I have people in my life that I don’t need.

What am I on about, you may be asking?

Clearing people out? How? Clearly they can’t be bagged up and shipped off! And not just how, but why?

I have had people in my life who have caused me much distress. They have been a stifling suffocating presence, slowly stripping away my sense of self, layer by layer, right down to my bare bones.

I’ll rewind and hopefully this will make sense…

As a teenager, I was bullied. I was bullied for being overweight and I was bullied for working hard in school and being ‘clever’. ‘Fatty’, ‘tree trunk legs’, ‘ugly’, ‘swot’, ‘teacher’s pet’ – these are just some of the names that taunted me throughout Secondary School.

The result of this bullying was that I developed unhealthy coping strategies. I binge-ate in secret after school until I felt sick. I would then have to sit down with my family and eat tea, my stomach churning.

I wouldn’t put my hand up in class to answer questions. I stayed quiet, blushing crimson when the teacher would often name me and I’d mutter the correct answer and be praised. But instead of feeling proud, my insides would be squirming, knowing that giving that correct answer and having my work praised would result in a kick in the back as I walked down the school driveway home, or having my pencil case thrown out of the class window in the next lesson, just before the teacher arrived. It meant being mocked and laughed at.

Luckily, I had lots of friends in school which balanced out the bullying. I just accepted it. I was being bullied. It was just how it was.

Once I left school and went to University, these spiteful bullies left my life. I never had to see them again. But our adult selves are shaped by early experiences and their cruel words will always echo in the back of my mind. I still hate the way I look, especially since starting taking mental health medication at the start of 2015, which has caused significant weight gain. I still resort to bouts of binge eating and making myself sick as a coping strategy when things get really bad.

I still get embarrassed by any success and tend to hide it, keep quiet about it. It’s hard for me to accept any form of praise, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

I got away from these teenage bullies, not unscathed, but I got away. I haven’t seen these people since my school days and am unlikely to see them ever again in my life.

Turning into an adult, I had escaped from bullying behaviour. I could put it behind me and try to move on.

Wrong.

I have been bullied as an adult. This is such a difficult sentence for me to write (I can’t speak it aloud).

Don’t be ridiculous. Adults don’t get bullied. You have the ability to walk away, answer back, ignore. You don’t have to be weak and just take it for goodness sake. Get a grip woman. Stand up for yourself. You’re a grown-up, not an awkward teenager. Stop being so sensitive. If you think you’re being treated badly then it’s your own fault. Don’t stand for it.

I have been bullied as an adult and these are the kind of things I have been told over the years. These are the phrases that I have believed. It’s just me – I’m weak and pathetic.

Four years ago, I drove off in the night in my pyjamas desperate for escape from the living hell that these people had created. I found myself standing on the harbour wall, watching the waves lash angrily below. And I cried. I cried like I’d never cried before. But I couldn’t do it. The love I have for my three boys pulled me back from the brink.

This is when I first went to ask for professional help. This is when I learnt that as a result of this bullying behaviour, I have been left battling with depression and social anxiety.

As a teenager, I got to walk away. I went to University and left the bullies behind. This isn’t as easy as an adult. It’s harder to walk away from the workplace, from family members. How do you escape?

In 2015 (whilst I was still teaching), out of sheer desperation, I walked into my Union’s office and broke down. Everything came flooding out like a burst dam. My Union representative sat and listened. When I stopped and couldn’t lift my gaze up to meet his, he quietly said, ‘This is bullying.’

It shocked me, to hear him say it. Bullying? But adults don’t get bullied. I walked away from the bullies years ago. This was all my fault. This was me not able to cope with the teaching profession. This was simply me being a failure.

‘Bullying in the workplace is common,’ he said. ‘You need to make this stop.’

I went there weekly, where he made notes of everything I said. He was determined that I put a stop to it. He was adamant that things could change and that I could continue in the profession. But I was terrified of the consequences of speaking out and deep down I knew that I would never let my words leave his office. I wasn’t strong enough.

Then my escape came. I had to have a hysterectomy. Whilst on sick leave, I handed in my notice, knowing that I could never return to teaching for the sake of my mental health. The weight that lifted off my shoulders when I dropped my resignation letter into the postbox was immense. I had done it. I had got away.

What I had escaped from was only one bullying environment. I still had people in my life who belittled me, patronised me and made me feel worthless. There were still the family members who have ignored me and left me desperately searching for what I’ve done wrong. Family members who have manipulated and humiliated me. Family members who have asserted control over me.

This is where I was when I first met my therapist just over a year ago. She is one of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Once again, as soon as I started to open up, to speak of some of the things that have happened to me or have been said to me, she too said, ‘They’ve been bullying you.’

I felt such deep shame. All my life I have let people bully me. It must be my fault.

My therapist works so very patiently with me to help me challenge my thoughts and to see things from a different perspective. Yes, I’m a very sensitive person, but does this mean that I’m weak? Or does it mean that I can empathise with others and show compassion? Yes, I’m a quiet and introverted individual, but does this mean I’m pathetic? Or does it mean that I’m thoughtful and respectful of others?

With the help of my therapist I have slowly learnt that I can escape. I can move away from these people who have caused me so much distress over the years – not in the same sense that I did as a young adult when I physically moved away to University – but by making the conscious decision not to have these people in my life.

Since losing my little boy, Ned, I have learnt who are important to me and I have ended all contact with those who have bullied me. I am hurting deeply with grief. I don’t need their added hurt.

I don’t want to confront these people for the way they have treated me. They would never acknowledge that their behaviour was bullying. They would laugh and say I was talking nonsense, making things up, exaggerating, being ridiculous, over-sensitive. They’d get angry – how dare she call me a bully.

I’m not making it up, or exaggerating or mis-reading or being overly-sensitive. They are bullies (even if they can’t see it) and they have to live with that. I don’t.

So they may not be bagged up like my old clothes; they continue to live their lives, carrying on with their bullying behaviour, but not with me.

Yes, they have wounded me, but wounds heal. Wounds leave scars and I will always carry those scars because I can’t change the past. But if I leave those scars alone, over time they will fade. They’ll always be a part of me, but they won’t ever define me.

I surround myself now with people who I care about. People who bring me some happiness. People who I choose to have in my life. People who have been by my side since the day I lost Ned. People who are helping me to rebuild this new me, tiny piece by tiny piece.

It’s not easy to accept that you’re being bullied as an adult. You carry such a sense of shame, a sense of failure. It takes a lot of courage to accept that it’s happened and face up to it. I would never have been able to do this without the support and encouragement of my therapist. Without her, the wounds left by these people would still be raw and oozing with pain. Instead, they are now slowly healing.

I have a long way to go on my road to recovery with many mountains to climb and many stones that I’ll stumble over. But I know that I have the right people by my side, supporting me. These are the only people that matter to me.

Yes, I have been bullied, but they haven’t broken me.

 

 

 

 

Getting back in the writing seat…

This is the second blog post about my three goals for this year – goals that, if achieved, will help me function better on a day-to-day basis as I battle with mental illness and live with grief.

My three goals are:

  1. To write for children again; to be the children’s author I’ve always wanted to be.
  2. To get physically and mentally stronger through exercise.
  3. To no longer have the people in my life who have caused me emotional suffering.

This post is about my first goal – to get back writing; more specifically, to get back writing for children.

So why choose writing as a goal? Why is writing so important to me? Because (and here comes the cliche) writing is me, it’s part of my identity. I can’t not write.

When I lost my little boy, Ned, on Good Friday, 2016, my whole world fell apart. I shattered into a million pieces. My life as it was ended with three words: He’s passed away.

I’ve been lost since that moment, merely existing in a world where others are living and where time ticks on. Yet in my head I’m standing on the doorstep on March the 25th, 2016, waving goodbye to my little boy. Days often pass by in a blur. I sometimes don’t remember what day it is. I often can’t remember what I did yesterday. I have a deep aching longing inside. Nothing I do feels right. I don’t know who I am anymore.

At the start of this year I had reached a point in my therapy where I could focus better and think about setting some goals. Goals to help me find who I am now – the inevitable before and after.

‘What’s the one thing, other than your boys, that could give you some happiness do you think? What’s the one thing that you want to do that’s for you, just you?’ asked my psychologist.

‘Write,’ I replied.

The change from dreaming about being a children’s author to actually sitting down and writing came in 2011. Ned had battled and recovered from meningitis – he was 6 weeks old. Something changed in me. I was floored by how precious life is; how it can be snatched away at any second. I wanted to write. It’s what I have always wanted to do. So why the hell wasn’t I?

I’m not going into much detail here about my writing journey as I have already blogged about this in the past. But to put it very simply, I started with writing short stories and had some competition success, which really spurred me on. I had to return to work, but continued writing short stories – snatching half hours here and there.

I was enjoying writing short stories but I knew that what I really wanted to do was to write for children. At the start of 2013, I started to write ‘Grace-Ella’. I wrote in the early hours before real life had to take over. I wasn’t thinking about being published, I was simply enjoying every second at my laptop as the story bubbled away in my head and tap-tapped onto the keyboard. It took a year for me to complete. I had done it. I had written a book for children.

‘Grace-Ella’ was sent off to Firefly Press … they loved it, they were going to publish it. I had achieved my dream of becoming a children’s author.

‘Grace-Ella’ was to publish in September, 2016 – and not only that, but my publishers wanted it to be the first in a series of ‘Grace-Ella’ books. It really was a dream come true. I had fallen in love with my characters and I had so many adventures for Grace-Ella that I wanted to write about.

In early 2016, I was off work following a hysterectomy and made the decision to give-up my teaching job due to my mental health (this will be written about in the third blog post). I began writing Book 2. My aim was to complete Book 2 by the Summer and hopefully have it publish in 2017. I was so happy. I was able to spend quality time with my boys and I was writing whilst they were at school/nursery. I had no money but my mental health was improving and I could see a future; a happy future. I was finally me – Mam and a children’s author.

Then the nightmare happened. This future and the happiness that I was feeling got snatched from me in the cruellest possible way. My little boy, Ned, died in a horrific car crash.

I have no memory of the first few months following the accident. But I wrote. I wrote blog posts and poems. I don’t remember writing them, but they’re here, published on my blog site. In the horror, I wrote.

September arrived and ‘Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners’ was published. There I was, at my book launch, signing copies of my book to a queue that snaked out through the shop door. When I think about that day I can remember it clearly but I feel detached from it. It’s like I’m watching someone else.

I desperately wanted to do it right. I didn’t want to let my editor and publisher down. I didn’t want to let myself down. I had achieved my dream and I wanted to keep it going. I wanted my book to be successful. I tried really hard during the first few weeks following publication to visit schools and do events. But I felt numb. I wanted it so much, but I wasn’t able to feel it.

It eventually got too much. I was at a particular event and the room began to spin. Sweat was dripping from me. I started to panic. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Thankfully, I had done a reading and the children were busy making broomstick bookmarks. I stared at the room. I fought back the tears. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be the children’s author that I’d dreamed of being. I had failed.

2017 passed – it is just snapshots of memory for me. I clung onto wanting to write another book. I would open my laptop, open the file for Book 2 then stare at the screen, tears trailing down my cheeks, my mind blank. Nothing. No words. I tried and I tried but there was nothing there. It had gone.

I wrote some articles about my journey with grief. I was approached and asked to write a piece for a Welsh-language book – an anthology about grief by the Welsh publisher Y Lolfa. I wrote my piece as a letter to Ned.

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This felt right. I wanted to write about what was happening to me – it helped me to try to make some sense of this nightmare I was trapped in. I also hoped that I could help someone else in the same horrifying situation, or help someone to understand what grief is.

During this time, I met with my lovely editor several times for a coffee and a chat. She has been truly wonderful. The whole Firefly Press team have been amazing. They have supported me 100%. After each meeting I would have a fleeting moment of positivity, but once back at the screen I was faced with that empty void. I was devastated. I was never going to be able to write for children again. It broke my already shattered heart.

I started to have weekly therapy with my psychologist in August, 2017. I was diagnosed with PTSD and Complex Grief Disorder (I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety in 2014). I also re-started Grief Counselling with a new counsellor – my first counsellor had left due to ill health.

Slowly, tiny piece by tiny piece, these two amazing ladies have started to put me back together again, or rather have started to help me find who I am now, who the new me is.

Somehow, with their incredible support, a little flicker of self-belief has returned. Maybe I can be the children’s author I’ve always wanted to be. I can’t put into words how wonderful having this tiny glimmer of hope is.

Since setting my three goals at the start of this year, I’ve been opening my laptop, opening up the file for Book 2 … and very slowly, the words have started to come back. Something has opened up inside me. That lost part of me is finding it’s way back. I’m writing. And not just any writing, I’m writing Book 2. I’m back in Grace-Ella’s world, a world I truly believed I would never be a part of again.

By now, I am close to finishing the first draft and I can’t believe it. Despite the horror of my life, despite the vast amount of medication I have to take, despite the various diagnoses of mental illness … despite all this, it’s still there. Writing for children is still inside me and this makes me so incredibly happy.

I’ve learnt to accept that how I write has changed. I can no longer get up at 4.30am to write. I’m unable to sit at my laptop and concentrate for long periods of time. But this is ok because the most important thing of all is that the stories are still inside me.

In a handful of weeks I’ll have the first draft of Book 2 written and in my editor’s hands … I’ll be holding my breath and hoping that she falls in love with it.

Once that manuscript has been sent off, I can’t wait to start on a new story because not only have the words for Book 2 come back, but Book 3 has also formed in my mind and is ready to be written (there are also a couple of other stories battling for attention too)!

I will never fill the emptiness in my heart, but it gives me small comfort that the big dark empty void in my mind is once again filling up with story ideas.

Sometimes life doesn’t happen how we hope. Our future doesn’t become the one we imagine. Sometimes life is beyond cruel. I have lost a child, the most precious thing in the world to me. I will never stop grieving for Ned, but I’m still here.

It’s almost two years since my debut book published. It has been a long and painful journey, but here’s hoping that I’ll have news about my second book to share with you very soon …

grace-ella-lowres final cover

 

 

Running … really?

At the start of the year, I wrote a blog post titled ‘Stepping Stones’, where I set out the three goals that I aim to achieve this year to help me function better on a day-to-day basis (following the loss of my little boy, Ned, in 2016).

My three goals are:

  1. To write for children again; to be the children’s author I’ve always wanted to be.
  2. To get physically and mentally stronger through exercise.
  3. To no longer have the people in my life who have caused/continue to cause me immense emotional suffering.

These may seem like small, trivial goals for some, but for me they are enormous and will mean a mountainous battle to achieve them.

I’ve decided to write about each goal individually to try to show how each one will impact on my life. I’m going to start with my second goal – exercise – as emotionally, it’s the easiest one for me to write about.

I’m not a person who dislikes exercise, I never have been. As a young child I played mostly outside – skipping, bat and ball, on my roller boots or skateboard, in the park. I loved PE at school and was proud to be in the netball team throughout my time in Secondary School. I represented the school with the javelin at county level athletics. I enjoyed sports.

I was bullied about my weight as a teenager but when I was lost in a netball match, or throwing my javelin, I could forget the cruel taunts and name-calling.

When I went to University, I immediately joined the netball society with enthusiastic intent … but never made it to the first meet-up. University became a wonderful three years of hard work and hard partying. The occasional aerobics class or quick swim were the only forms of exercise my body had … other than a daily walk to lectures and the nightly lifting of pint glasses.

I graduated and became a Primary School teacher. I got married. I had children. As the years passed, I became the person that says, ‘I haven’t got time to exercise.’ Overworked. Overtired. Overweight.

After returning to work at the end of my first maternity leave, the dark claws of depression began to take a grip on me (I was unaware at the time that I was ill). I won’t go into detail here but I sunk deeper and deeper into the hell that is depression and the anxiety I had lived with as a child and teenager wrapped itself around me like a creeping vine, squeezing ever tighter.

I reached December 2014 – blessed with three beautiful sons – but being eaten alive by depression and anxiety. I wanted to end my life and a particularly frightening incident, which is too painful for me to write about, made me muster up every last bit of strength I had, and walk through my GP’s door.

‘You’re ill,’ she said whilst holding my hand. ‘You have depression. It isn’t you. It’s an illness. A very real illness. But you can get better and I’m going to be here with you every step of the way.’

I’ll never forget that moment. I’ll never forget her words for as long as I live. For years I had thought it was ‘just me’. I was being told to ‘snap out of it’, that ‘everyone gets miserable sometimes’, that I ‘had nothing to be depressed about.’

With the support of my GP, I slowly started to feel stronger and more like myself. A very close friend finally persuaded me to join a local running group, towards the summer of 2015 (she had been trying her best for a long time to convince me that I would enjoy running). I read about the benefits of running on mental health, but I was very sceptical. Running … really? Other than the obligatory running with school, I had never chosen to run as a hobby and couldn’t see myself as a runner.

I almost did a u-turn in the car park when I went to my first session and saw a group of women dressed in ‘proper’ running gear, chatting happily. I was in an old baggy t-shirt and leggings. Somehow, I fought the panic attack, got out of the car and shuffled to the periphery of the group.

I stuck with the running group but found it incredibly difficult. I have social anxiety so being amongst a group of chatty women felt extremely uncomfortable.

I had to stop attending the running group when I had a hysterectomy in December, 2015. My operation was a complicated one and I was told that my recovery would be slow. It was likely to be about nine months before I would have the strength to start any physical activity again.

But three months after my hysterectomy, my whole world came crashing down. My little boy, Ned, died.

I’m not going to write about that time here as I have already written blog posts about that day and my continuing journey with grief.

I’m going to fast-forward to January, 2018, when I set myself my three goals. With the constant support and encouragement from my truly wonderful psychologist, I had started to feel that maybe I could have some kind of future. Maybe.

She was very encouraging about me taking up running again, but once more, I had the running … really? attitude. Despite this, I have complete faith and trust in her, and having reached a point where I had to try to do something to be able to function better for my sons, I agreed to give it a go.

I had become increasingly isolated. My anxiety was making it almost impossible for me to leave the house. I was spending much of my time curled up crying under my duvet. I wasn’t living, I was simply existing.

I didn’t re-join the running group. I really couldn’t face it, so I started going out for a run by myself whilst the boys were in school. My aim was to go out for a run three times a week.

And so my running journey began.

It hasn’t been easy. Very far from it. I’ve been in tears on many days as I tie the laces of my trainers, wanting to just crawl back under the duvet. But I have forced myself out through the front door and off for a run.

I started at two miles, with a two minute recovery break after a mile. This was my limit for several weeks and I honestly didn’t believe that I would ever be able to run any further. Running is hard work. It challenges your body and mind. You swallow flies. It hurts.

Not really selling it am I?

Stay with me…

I persevered and I began to run a little bit further. Week by week, I have steadily increased my distance. And dare I say it, I actually look forward to my run.

I’ve now been running three times a week for five months. I had set myself a target of being able to run 10k (6.2 miles) by the end of the year. Mission impossible it felt like, but I ran that distance for the first time in my life about a month ago.

With my hand on my heart, I can say that running has changed something in me. I’m not going to talk about the physical benefits of running, but the benefits of running to my own personal battle with mental illness and grief. This is how running has impacted on my life:

  1. When I run, my mind empties. The constant thoughts, images and flashbacks  that haunt and overwhelm me, vanish. I don’t think about anything at all.
  2. When I run, I don’t think about tomorrow. I don’t think about yesterday. It puts me in the moment; the right-this-very-second moment.
  3. I’m outside breathing in fresh air… sometimes in the sunshine, sometimes in the rain. I’m lucky to be surrounded by stunning countryside where I live.
  4. It has given me determination. I became determined to run 10k and I have.
  5. It relaxes me. My anxiety doesn’t feel as gripping. My panic attacks are less frequent.
  6. On the days when I’ve been out for a run, I sleep better at night. 
  7. It has become a safe coping mechanism for when I become overwhelmed with pain and emotion at losing Ned.
  8. It’s something I chat about with my eldest son, who loves running. He gives me his running tips e.g. what to do when I get a stitch, how best to run uphill/downhill. He loves being my ‘personal trainer’. He’s a true inspiration.
  9. My concentration level has improved dramatically.
  10. I talk to sheep, cows and horses – I’m not sure if this can be classed as a benefit, but it makes me smile! 

So, running … really?

YES.

Running has had a massive positive impact on my life. No, it isn’t a miracle cure. I still have days when I’m under the duvet, but these days are far less frequent. It isn’t a cure for grief because grief isn’t an illness. But by easing the symptoms of my mental illness, I have more space to grieve for my little boy.

I have no interest at present in entering running events and I can’t think of joining a running group. Running is something I’m doing alone. It’s my own personal challenge. This is how I like it.

I have promised Tomi (my personal trainer) that I’ll run one race – the Aberystwyth 10k this December. I know that I can run this distance (very slowly!) The challenge for me will be to put myself in that social environment at the start of the race – to stand amongst others at the start line. I feel the panic rising just thinking about it. I will need to find a tremendous amount of courage to do this. But running has proven to me that I can be determined and that I can face a challenge. And I want to make my boys proud of me.

That leaves only one last challenge, and it’s the biggest challenge of all for me – to be proud of myself. To feel proud of myself for having the determination to force myself out of the house for a run. To feel proud of myself for reaching my target of being able to run 10k. And hopefully to feel proud of myself for running that race at the end of this year.

With such low self-esteem and confidence, I’m not there yet, but I’ll keep on running until I can say, ‘Yes, I’m proud of myself.’ (Forrest Gump now springs to mind!)

 

 

 

 

Where are you, Ned?

Today would have been your 7th birthday. But you’re not here. The house is quiet. There is no laughter or singing, or doing the conga. There was no bouncing on our bed at 7am with shouts of ‘Happy birthday to meeee!’

Where are you, Ned?

It’s been snowing here, snow like you never got to see. Enough to build a snowman in the garden – one of the things you always wanted to do. School is closed; no school on your birthday. You would have been happy with that, I think. What would you have asked for this year? I don’t know. You would have wanted a party, and a friend for a sleepover in your new bunkbed that you never got to sleep in.

Where are you, Ned?

On your 5th birthday, you told me about all of the things that you were going to do now that you were 5 years old. You would have lost some teeth and the tooth fairy would have been. You would have learnt to ride your bike without your stabilisers. You wanted to have ‘chicken spots’ and I think you probably would have because Cai caught them last year. How simple was your list, but how precious. Important milestones in the life of a 5 year old. But you never got to do any of them.

Where are you, Ned?

This question haunts me every day and at night when I cry myself to sleep.

People say that you’re in my heart – yes, you’ve been in my heart since the second you were born, but that’s my love for you, it isn’t you.

Some say that you’re right beside me, but I don’t feel you. I don’t feel your small hand in mine, or your arms wrapped around my neck at bedtime. I carry your memory with me, but it’s not you.

You’re buried in the ground. I watched in anguished pain as they lowered you encased in a white box. But that was your beautiful outside shell. You had already left. I sit beside your graveside, but you’re not there.

I visit the roadside to place flowers; I sit in the spot where I’ve been told you took your last breath. But you’re not there.

Some say that you’re in Heaven, but I don’t know what I believe because taking you away from us so cruelly makes no sense.

Where are you, Ned?

Are you waiting for me? Are you reaching out and I just can’t see you? Are you shouting, ‘I’m here’ and I just can’t hear you?

Where are you, Ned?

If I knew then I would be right there with you. I’d wrap you tightly in my arms and never let go of you again. I’d tell you I’m sorry and whisper I love you for eternity.

 

 

Stepping Stones

This is my first blog post in a while. Christmas was an immense battle which left me exhausted and broken. But very slowly, piece by piece, tiny step by tiny step, I’m getting stronger.

Next month will be the two year anniversary of Ned’s death. He also would have been celebrating his 7th birthday. Two years? It feels like yesterday.

April will bring the one year anniversary of Dad’s sudden death.

I have had people say that it’s time for me to accept what’s happened now and move on with my life. I don’t bother to reply to these comments. They don’t deserve a reply.

So, where am I at? I still have the same diagnoses: Complex Grief Disorder, PTSD, Depression and Anxiety. I still cry myself to sleep every night as I have done every night since I lost my little boy. I still have panic attacks and become fearful of leaving the house. I still have suicidal feelings. I am still on very strong, very high dosages of medication.

But, and it’s a huge BUT, I am slowly learning safer coping strategies to deal with my grief and my mental illness. I have learnt and now accept that some of my coping behaviours in the past have been harmful and ended up leaving me in a worse state than I already was.

With the amazing and endless support and care of three wonderful professionals – my GP, my psychologist and my bereavement counsellor – my behaviour patterns are changing. There are three main changes that I have made over the last month:

  1. I have stood up to certain people who have intimidated and bullied me for years, simply by telling them that they are no longer a part of my life.
  2. I have started to write for children again. Being a children’s author was always my dream and I have realised that I’m not ready to give it up.
  3. I have started running three times a week – no music, no running buddy, just me and the world around me.

Three small stepping stones on a very long road to recovery. They may seem like nothing to some people, but believe me, it has taken a tremendous amount of grit, determination and energy for me to get here. It has been a huge battle.

I will never recover from losing Ned. I’m not the same person as I was two years ago. That person died the second the police officer told me that Ned had passed away. But there is a new me forming. A very different me. My view on life is very different. What I want from life is very different.

I will never stop grieving for Ned. The tears I cry at night will never dry up. I will never forgive myself for letting him go on that horrific day. But I know that I have to be here for my two other sons. And I want to see them grow up. I love my three boys equally with every beat of my heart.

There will always be bad days and I may not be ready to step onto the next stepping stone for a very long time. But as long as I can keep both feet steady on the stone I’m standing on and not fall into the deep water below, then I’ll be ok.

To a grieving parent at Christmas …

This is my second Christmas without my little boy, Ned, who died in a car crash on Good Friday last year. He was 5-years-old. That day shattered my heart, destroyed me. Grief is the cruellest infliction on a human.

Grief never goes away. It has often been described as the ocean. Calm and breaking gently on the shoreline on some days. Angry and vicious, battering waves threatening to drown you on others.

There are always triggers that make days, even parts of the day more difficult. After losing a child, Christmas is definitely one of the most difficult times of the year.

How are you expected to get through this time of the year that’s meant to be filled with magic and merriment, when the pain is sharper and the sadness deeper?

I don’t have the answer, but I thought I’d share some ideas that have been offered to me by the professionals who help me on how to get through this horrendous time …

 

1) I’ve created #NedAdvent this year, to help me look through photos of Ned. It has been painful, but with a purpose, I’ve been able to lose myself in my memories. I see it as a gift to Ned. I can’t leave a present under the tree for him, so I’m sharing to keep his memory alive.

2) To get through the Christmas holidays I have to have a plan in place. I have to know what we’ll be doing every day, otherwise I feel like I’m drowning. For Christmas Day, the plan will be hour by hour. I will focus on each hour and feel relief at the end of each one.

3) I will fill the time with close friends and family. Even if you don’t have the energy to make much of a conversation, just having them there is enough, especially if you have other children. They can distract your other children and help keep things as ‘normal’ as possible.

4) Accept the sadness. It can’t be avoided. Cry with your family and friends – they shouldn’t be afraid of your tears.

5) Find time to have some space and peace by yourself. For me, this will be at Ned’s graveside where I will let the sadness flow out of me. I will allow myself to feel the emotions that threaten to overwhelm me and release them. Cry, scream, punch a pillow. Whatever helps.

6) Talk about your child. Share in the memories. Your child may not be there as a physical presence, but they are there in your hearts and deserve to be spoken about.

7) Do something different to what you used to do – form a new tradition. This could be anything from when you usually open presents to where you spend Christmas. I don’t know what ours will be yet, but we’ll choose something.

8) If you have other children, make sure that they know that it’s ok for them to be happy. It’s ok for them to laugh. This doesn’t mean that they’re not thinking of your lost child. Allow them to enjoy Christmas. Children need this.

9) If possible, get out of the house as a family on Christmas Day. Go for a walk somewhere just to get some fresh air.

10) Don’t put pressure on yourself. If things don’t go as you planned, that’s ok. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Christmas will be painful, it will be sad and you will feel an overwhelming emptiness. Go with this, don’t try to fight it. You will get through it.

 

I am filled with dread, sadness and a suffocating emptiness when I think about Christmas Day. But I have to get through it for my two other boys. I’m not strong. I’m in a very dark place, but somehow I’ll do it. And so can you.

 

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Dear Ned

I can’t believe it’s coming up to Christmas again. A second Christmas without you. How can that be possible? I don’t remember much about last Christmas, but the Christmas before? 2015? I remember it well, but I should have memorised every second.

I do remember Tomi insisted on waking you up at 6am. You always liked your sleep and a little lie-in. I loved the way you would come from your room all bleary-eyed with sticky-up hair and wrap yourself around me to say good morning.

Tomi, he was the opposite wasn’t he? But you never complained. And certainly not on that morning when Tomi brought your stocking to you from the end of the bed. You both came to our room to open your stockings on our bed, managing to wake Cai up in the process. But hey, he didn’t mind either.

Do you remember opening the living room door and seeing the mountain of presents Santa had left you? Tomi tore through his at record speed. The first thing you did was check that Rudolph had eaten his carrot. You then opened each present carefully, treasuring each gift, whilst Tomi eagerly passed them to you. You had Woody and Buzz Lightyear, a keyboard and drums.

You and Tomi set up your own band – you on keyboard and Tomi on drums. You wanted a lead singer and decided that you’d ask Uncle Mark on Boxing Day. I texted him to warn him! Your music was … loud.

After lunch, you gave us a performance – a story about the lonely Christmas tree. You stood in the middle of the kitchen and made it up as you went along, but it was beautiful. You took a well-deserved bow at the end. You loved stories and were looking forward so much to my book being published the following September. Can you remember us practising our signatures?

Three months later, you were gone.

Your drum set sat silently in your room. Your keyboard leaned tuneless against your wardrobe. Buzz and Woody sat on the shelf waiting for you.

…………………………………………

This morning I forced myself to open the Christmas box that Dad has brought down from the attic. I pulled out your stocking and held it close. It will forever be empty of gifts but forever filled with love. I carefully took out the decorations you made in school, ready to put them up. I haven’t managed to do that yet.

I left the box and took out the Christmas placemats and coasters from the cupboard in the kitchen. I’ve set them on the table. I’ve set a space for you. I’ve given you the Rudolph coaster because I know that one’s your favourite.

I sat at the table crying. What would you have asked Santa for this year, Ned? I’ve tried to imagine. But I don’t know. I don’t what you’d like now. Would you still be a performer? I think you would. I think we would have had another of your lovely stories. But I don’t know for certain. I never will.

But I do know that you’d want a big cwtch when you woke up, just like you wanted every morning. And I know that you’d want to make sure that Rudolph is ok; that the other reindeer aren’t being mean to him. And I know that our home would have been filled with noise and laughter and music if you were here.

I don’t want to walk into the living room on Christmas morning, Ned. I don’t want to see the empty space where your presents should be. I don’t want to sit at the table staring at the empty space opposite me where you should be sitting.

I want to feel your warm little body wrapped in my arms. I want to see your dimpled smile. I want to hear your laughter. I want you here, where you belong. But that’s a gift I can never be granted. Not even Santa can bring me what I wish for most in the world.

So I’ll sit at your graveside and I’ll close my eyes tight. I’ll let the tears fall because I’ll see you. I’ll see you standing in your pyjamas your arms outstretched, your dimpled smile crinkling up your eyes. And I’ll gather you up and hold you and tell you that I love you, Ned, more than you could ever possibly know.

Mam