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…

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 …

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