Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Teenage breakdown

On Saturday, we were a normal, albeit divorced, family. My boys, now 16 and 13, were staying with their Dad. I was having a lovely time with my partner kicking leaves about in the Autumn sunshine. All was well.

On Sunday, the police arrived at my husband's house and all hell broke loose.

They arrived because a mental health worker had contacted them, fearful for my oldest son's safety. He had been in touch with the school nurse, and threatened to throw himself under a train.

What has unravelled since is a thread of self harm and bleakness that my son has been wrapped in for months, that neither me or my ex knew anything about. This A* student, this brighter than bright boy who has never quite fitted the mold, but has always seemed just about ok, had been slipping away from us. He has been suffocating, and we were unaware.

As your children grow older, it's natural for them to pull on the elastic ties that bind them to you. As a parent, you don't need to know everything that your children do. But you'd think that you'd know if they were self harming, or if they were threatening to commit suicide. Or simply that they were very sad.

Looking back, the clues were there. His appetite had been lessening for a while -  not even the lure of a bag of Skittles could raise a hungry smile. And the arguments about the WiFi - the fact that I switch it off at night - had increased. He had begun to sneak down at night to turn it back on again, which I was incensed by. He has mocks in two weeks and the pressure has been mounting all term. And socially, he is struggling. He has always struggled.

After the police had gone, we were left wondering, if things had played out slightly differently, whether we would now have just one son. The idea is too painful to think about for longer than just an instant; if I start to imagine what could have been, I feel like I'm throwing myself into an abyss. So for now, we are concentrating on getting to know him again. CAMHs - the Children and Adolescent Mental Health people - have already given us emergency counselling, and he is lined up with some CBT. I want to talk and talk and talk to him, but of course I can't; partly because he doesn't want to, and partly because he doesn't know what to say.

In those first 48 hours, the threat that he might still take his own life was very real. I was told to remove the knives from the kitchen drawers, hide any headache tablets, take away his dressing gown cord. Watch him. Watch him.

I found it very difficult to cope. Perhaps it was the shock. The realisation that my boy had been living in so much pain for so long, with no help. And he had just snapped right under our noses.

Ten days on, and he is no longer on suicide watch - for now, at least. But his anxiety is overwhelming; he is not sleeping until 3 or 4 am most nights. He can't get up in the mornings and so school is sporadic. His teachers have been wonderful, though; mock exams have now been re-framed as a 'maybe' rather than a 'must'. His health comes first, by a long chalk, they have said.

We have another therapy session lined up in a couple of days, which I'm told we're lucky to have. But I feel like we're living in no man's land, and that ideally, he'd be seeing someone every 2-3 days. Until mental health climbs to the top of the political agenda AND the NHS gets a huge influx of money, that will never happen, of course. For anybody.

And so, for now, we talk to him. We treat him completely normally. I've bought him books about tanks, and the teenage brain, and a new duvet cover. We check on him in the night. Sometimes he wakes me up at 1am to talk.  I try not to over-ask, but occasionally he will open up a bit and I feel like we make some headway. He feels alone and different and just wants to fit in. It's how every teenager feels - but I guess if life isn't going your way, it can feel like a piece of utter shit.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Dear boys

Dear boys,

You are 13 and 15. You fill the house with Lynx, consume the Xbox, eat your body weight in carbs and strawberry pencils every day. You grunt at me one day, speak eloquently the next. You are taller, stronger, fitter than me. You have hair in places I don't want to think about.

In short, you are becoming men.

As men, it's important that you understand women. Women are a bit different to you. I'd hoped that you'd have a sister to learn from, but after I'd had you two, frankly I would have rather boiled my head than have another baby.

So you're stuck with me, I'm afraid. Now, I know that I'm your mum, but surprisingly, I'm also a woman. I've got woman's bits, I was once a girl your age. And I remember that age vividly, because the hormonal years remain seared into your mind as you grow older, like a huge, colourful, vibrant, monstrous painting.

You will encounter a lot of women over the years. From girls at school to work colleagues to, perhaps, a long-term partner. So it's important that you know how they tick. Here's my advice to you.

1. Girls are just as scared as you. 

That age between 12-16. Arguably, a completely wanky age. Most people are pretending to be something they're not. If you're not pretending, you're weird. You're worried about friendships, the opposite sex, your changing body. Your moods are on the floor, then on the ceiling. And on top of that, you've got sodding exams at the end of it all.  Well - here's a nugget of hope. EVERYONE is feeling it - including girls. Everyone feels like they haven't got a clue what they're doing; some are just better at hiding it. You might think that girls are confident, sexual creatures who seem to have it all going on. But underneath, they are scared about all sorts of things; clothes, make up, friends, and yes - boys. There is a huge pressure on girls to appear attractive to boys (which is rubbish, of course - I know now that all boys look for in girls is a pair of boobs and a willingness to fumble). Girls portray themselves on snapchat and instagram as sexual creatures when, actually, they haven't got a bleedin' clue what they are doing. Like you, they are finding their way in the dark.

And like you, they won't find where they're going until they reach their 40s. Whereupon they'll realise they missed a trick by pretending to be someone else for years.

So my top tip is: be yourself as much as you can. Be aware that girls are afraid. Be nice to girls who are having a hard time. They will love you for it.

2. Don't dismiss them because they have different skills.

You are both clever boys. School suits you, because you are academic; you love Maths, and are both good at it. Science is a breeze. In fact, you are good at everything, you lucky bastards, but I can see that you think Maths and Science is the way forward in life.

This is fine, if it works for you. But don't be too smug about it; be aware that there are other skills in this world that are equally cherished. And women are extremely good at some of them. I worry that you don't see creativity as a talent, as something to be respected. Being creative, writing from your imagination, painting from feelings, music, the Arts...if your female friend or colleague or partner thinks outside the box, then shower her with respect. The Government and society in general rewards scientific, numerate people - in other words, they earn more - but taking a creative path in life is brave. I mean, properly brave.

Learn from creative women. (And men.)

The other thing that women do really well - and yes, I'm broad brushing it now - is the social stuff. The multi-tasking. The organising. Women's brains work differently (can't remember why but it's bound to have something to do with having babies). You are great at thinking of an idea, being focused on it, and following it through. Women have multiple ideas going on in their heads and are trying to keep tabs on them all. Occasionally this can be overwhelming to them, and to you.  Women will take stuff on because they feel it's their role, but really, it's not anymore. So here's some advice for when you're older, and in a relationship:

- Take on your share of the responsibilities at home.
- Communicate. Don't hide and hope it will all go away.
- Try and put yourself in her shoes.
- Don't let her organise everything. It might be scary for you, but be brave and take the reins once in a while.

Which leads me on too...

3. Be gentle but be a man.

This bit is so hard. I've just told you to share the responsibilities at home (and by that, boys, I meant do the washing up and all that shit regularly), and now I'm telling you to be strong and assertive and...manly. I'm on dodgy ground here, but I believe that women still want men to be men. You'll ask me what the eff that means. Well, I can tell you what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean don't cry. It doesn't mean don't ask for help. It doesn't mean bottle things up. It just means be there, be a shoulder to cry on, be assertive when the situation calls for it, be a place of comfort and advice when all else is up the swanny.

Oh, and it means please put the bins out on a Thursday night.

4. Periods are shit.

You probably think that periods are just excuses for women to moan a lot. But listen, sunshine - they can really hurt. Think about what is happening for a minute; at the start of the period, a woman's womb is shedding its lining. The action of the lining pulling away from the womb can be EXCRUCIATING. I know! Who thought that up? It's bollocks!

And PMT is really a thing. Mood swings, aggression,'s all part of being a woman. It's a temporary madness, a blip. You may be on the receiving end of some PMT-stoked nonsense from us. Be kind - we don't really know what we're saying. Imagine that we're some enormous escaped chimpanzee. Feed us chocolate, or crisps, of whatever we want. It will soon pass.

5. So is labour.

Some women say that being in labour is one of the best feelings of their lives. They are lying. It hurts more than being trampled by a cow. The only good thing is that you know it won't last forever (although it feels like it will). If your partner is in labour, don't

- complain
- fall asleep
- say 'God it's hot in here'
- get so lost in your book that you have to be tapped on the shoulder when it's time to push.

(I speak from experience.)

Do offer massage, snacks, sick bowls, calming words and tell your partner how beautiful she is - even if she looks like she's suffering from the plague.

You're about to share a most miraculous moment.

6. Be funny.

Women love a man who makes them laugh, and here's the proof: Peter Sellers. Peter Sellers was Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther, and he was the guy singing Bangers and Mash - the song we used to listen to in the car that I played on loop. Here he is:

Nice looking guy, right? Looks a bit like Grandpa used to. Bookish. English. Well, he married (amongst others) this lady:

I know, right? I'm not sure he treated her well but my point is this - women love funny men. And it's obvious why; they make us laugh, feel better, feel happy.

You are both funny boys; humour is like magic - use it to make men like you, and women fall in love with you. If you can make a woman laugh so much that she does a small wee, the Magna Carta says she has to marry you and give you all of her money. Or something.

7. Don't assume that staying at home to look after the children is the woman's responsibility.

You may have children at some point down the road. Having children is, I think, a wonderful thing. I have never, for an instant, regretted having either of you. You make my life complete. Still though, it was tough looking after you when you were little.

When you have a job and you go out to work, you feel like you're learning and accomplishing and achieving. When you stay at home to look after children, you give yourselves to them and you achieve - or you feel like you achieve - little. Obviously bringing up children is the most important job in the world, but sometimes it doesn't feel like it; it can be isolating and tiring and frustrating. I felt like a terrible mother, because it didn't come naturally to me. I felt lonely, and got a bit depressed. This was absolutely nothing to do with you, you gorgeous boys - it's just that I wasn't very good at handling it. I'm not sure why.

So don't just assume that your partner will give up her job to look after your children; talk to her about it. Share the childcare if you can. Don't make it all dependent on who earns the most. Money really isn't everything. It is something, but not everything.

8. Tell your partner she is beautiful. Tell her you love her.

Now this is me talking from my own experience. It may not apply to all women, and you might think that what I'm about to say is sexist. You might think I'm describing a weakness, and perhaps I am. In a nutshell, I don't have a great view of myself, and I suspect it's pretty common amongst women. We are surrounded by photos of perfect, photoshopped women; we see them in adverts, on social media, magazines, newspapers TV... and we are brainwashed into believing that this is how we are meant to be. And if we are not like that, then perhaps we are ugly. I think younger women feel it much more painfully than us oldies.

It's not quite as simple as that, but my point is this; some of us like to be regularly reassured that we are, in fact, lovely. And lovable.

For God's sake don't start telling all your female friends that you like the way they look, though. You'll come across as some creepy stalker. Keep those comments in reserve for your girlfriend. She'll love you for it.

9. Gender equality

A hundred years ago, women were seen as underlings to men, the weaker sex. We had very little independence, weren't allowed to vote, get a job, go into higher education. Can you imagine? It seems like utter nonsense now. But gender inequality stills exists; women are often paid less for doing the same job, for example. And women are generally the ones who give up their careers to look after the children. There are all sorts of other things too; I've had comments from men about my cycling (a stranger once told me what I should be wearing once!) which a man would simply not be subjected to. Some men still feel that they are in charge of women.

If you see a man belittle a woman, I would like you to support her. Men might be physically stronger (though not always), but women have skills that men do not. There is something called 'The Glass Ceiling' which is a term used in the working world; it's when women progress so far in their careers, but can't break through to the top ranks, because something, some bias - unseen - stops them. To try to combat this, some companies 'positively discriminate' which means that they recruit women even if they're no the best person for the role. I don't think this is the way forward.

What does all this mean for you? I've no doubt that you will both be successful in whatever you choose to do. But just be aware that, as a man, you will get more opportunities than a woman. The path will be easier. So if you see a female colleague who you think is talented and should be progressing more quickly, support her. Champion her, if you can. We need more women in senior positions in all walks of life.

10. Communication

Women talk more than men. We like communicating. It's LITERALLY hard-wired into our brains. There will be times when a woman is talking to you and it will sound like this:


You will think: why is she talking so much? How can she possibly have so much to say? I ran out of words at 9.38 this morning.

You probably think that I talk too much but listen - I am an introvert. For a woman, I hardly talk at all. Some women will say something, will say it again, and then will say it again in a slightly different way. By which time you've switched off and are looking at the small spider on the ceiling.

I think the difference between men and women here is that women use talking as a way to connect with people - not just as a method of transmitting information. And if you're not familiar with what's going on, it will just come at you like a wall of (irritating at times) sound.

It's really important that you don't just switch off. Don't, whatever you do, think that everything that woman is saying is irrelevant, and therefore you don't have to listen - particularly if it's your partner. Cutting off communication is the death knell to a marriage. Besides, it's incredibly arrogant to assume that what someone else is saying is a load of tripe; they are just trying to connect with you. And what might appear to be a tsunami of unintelligableness to you, might be their way of trying to tell you something incredibly important. My advice is:

1. Listen. Really listen. It will hurt your brain, but it might save your relationship.
2. Be patient. Try to sift through the padding and think about what the person is really trying to say. (It is hard.)
3. Don't be dismissive. Please. It's really important.
4. Reflect back to her what you've understood. Something like, "Ok, what I've understood from the last 38 minutes is that you'd like me to make you a slightly weaker cup of tea in the mornings. Is that right?"
5. Tell her she is beautiful. It makes an awful lot of things right.

So that's it, boys. Ten top tips for understanding women. And if you remember only one of them, oh goldfish memory boys, just remember the last. Good communication really is the key that unlocks opportunities, it's the medicine that helps mental illness, it's the understanding that keep two people together.

And I'm shutting up now because I know you stopped listening when I started talking about periods.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Medication Time

I feel like a sparkler that's been lit at both ends.

Four days ago, I came off the mini pill. I'd been on it for about nine months and, of course, it's been handy to stop me from getting up the duff - but the primary reason for taking it was to try and stem my hideous migraines, which we thought might be caused at least in part by my lady functions.

I was prescribed with Cezarette for the first three months. Initially everything was fine; its 12 hour window was perfect for me, allowing those 'FUCK!' moments when I realised at tea time, yet again, I hadn't taken it with my porridge that morning. I still had light bleeding at around my period times, and my headaches seemed to improve. Menstru-tastic.

The GP happily scribbled off another prescription and I skipped off to collect my little green boxes of contraceptives. But the pharmacist gave me something different; not Cezarette, but just the name of the active ingredient - Desogestrel. Why? I said. It's just the same, he said. (It's cheaper. He didn't say this.)

I felt uncomfortable, but not enough to challenge him. Surely if my GP has prescribed a certain type of drug, then that's what I should get? Not its cheaper, slightly chavvy cousin?

Of course, being a twat, I just started taking it. And over the course of six months, some bloody weird stuff started happening. Caveat: I realise that this might have happened anyway, and that it may all be coincidence. But I'm going to say it anyway and infer some sort of link between the two.

1. I got lumps on my tit. Did the scary mammogram and ultrasound. Got all ready for a biopsy when some chap with lots of pens in his pocket said 'eff off, you don't need it, you're all clear', and I had a little weep and ran out as fast as I could. I've still got my lumps. Fuck knows what they are.

2. My headaches came back with a vengeance. My last one lasted FIVE DAYS. I take horse tablets to keep them at bay so that I can at least attempt to work. They're so painful that I cry. I am not that sort of crier.

3. I've developed a very minor head tremor. Only a little bit at the moment, but I can feel my head get wobbly at times when I'm at rest. Boyf takes the piss out of me (helpful). My doctor said it's stress (equally helpful) and gave me that look that I used to give my children. The look that says, 'are you just looking for attention?' I'm not.

4. I'm slow and miserable. Yes, I know it's been a shit, rainy winter and everyone feels a bit 'meh'. But I feel a bit...depressed. I don't want to go out in the evening, I'm always, always exhausted, I've no spark. Everything feels just a little bit crap.

So, I thought, the only benefit of me being on this sodding pill is to allow my to have sex when I want. I think I'd rather have a bit of a life and the possibility of a steady head. And the outside chance of a de-lumpy tit.

And I stopped taking the little shit of a thing. And now all the built-up lady juices of the last nine months are making themselves known. From one end, the most massive period of all time. And on the other, spots so huge that I have become a multi-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox. But brilliantly, ever so brilliantly, I can feel a veil lifting. I am writing again. It may be utter balls, but I am writing again. And last night, I slept through for the first time in months.

The moral of this story? Don't be an eejit and just accept drugs willingly, unquestionably. It's your body. Take control.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Tween becomes Teen. And we go to a shoe shop.

Bugger and arses. I'm back.

Truth is, I hadn't really recognised why I was closing the blog down in the first place. After a few weeks of pen-down, I can now tell you exactly why it was.

I had run out of words.

I guess this must happen, at some point, to all writers. Everything has been said. Half-tempting avenues lead to dead ends. All that comes out has already been said by someone else. And so you think you're done; you pack your laptop away and resign yourself to a lifetime of office work drudgery.

And yet. The green shoots of spring are poking through. I seem to have the bug again, with more thoughts and ideas rumbling round my head that I can shake a stick at. My boys are growing up and changing, providing me with some brilliant thoughts for the day. And more than that - I want to write. It's creative and gives me purpose. It's good for my mental well-being.

So here goes. My first post for a while. (It's a short one.)

Tween became Teen during my time away. Now 13, he has grown to the dizzy heights of over six foot. His brain injury seems to have all but healed, with him now getting only the occasional headache. He is back at school. The accident seems like a very distant, troubling, memory.

Sometimes I worry that he will never stop growing, Roald Dahl style. That in a year's time, we will have to knock through the ceiling of the kitchen just so that he can stand straight. That he'll be too big to sleep in his bedroom and will have to lie down on sacks in the shed. That he'll be carted off to the circus.

Shoe shopping does nothing to allay my fears. In Clarks, the poor assistant measuring his sweaty, odd-socked feet, and looking askance. "That one," pointing at the right foot, "is coming up as a twelve, but this one," pointing at the left, "is a twelve-and-a-half."

I sigh. "What have you got?"

She sighs. "Probably nothing he'll like. But I'll go and look."

Teen looks at his socks, non-plussed, while she's away. I try not to embarrass him by just being, and make myself small.

She comes back, looking smug. "Found a pair!" she said, brightly. But then bends down to me, saying in hushed tones, "they are slip-ons, though."

I try not to show my disgust, as Teen tentatively takes them out of the box and looks at them, all over. "No laces," he grunts, and shoves them on. He stands up, walks about, comes back. The shop assistant and I don't dare to breathe. I catch his eye, and after a short pause he says, "They're fine."

Shocked but delighted, I scoop the shoes off his feet and up to the counter before he changes his mind. They are rung through the till so quickly by the assistant that she even forgets to try to sell us shoe protector. And then we are out, in the fresh air, feeling like winners.

I tentatively approach him about the slip-on issue. "It's okay, mum," he says. "It's like the three stages of man." I think -  what the actual fuck? Is this boy 13 or did I fall asleep for five years and miss a chunk out? - but I tell him to go on. "It's the three stages of shoes. First, velcro, when you're too young for laces. Then, laces, when you need that little bit of extra help keep your shoes on. But now, I just don't need laces anymore, mum."

"I'm almost a man, mum. And I'm ready for slip-ons."