Old Haunts

I hated this city to start with. Long before the streets became a second home, they were a maze of old buildings and dead ends. Everything seemed so spread out and unreachable, and it all reminded me of one thing; that I was no longer at home. I came here as a child, an awkward eighteen year old, naive and immature, not ready to face the world alone. After months, years, of believing that a new start would offer freedom from childhood anxiety, a move only added to the weight I’d carried around since infancy. The university, which would eventually become safe and familiar, was a mass of corridors, tall, face-less buildings, and echoing lecture halls. The first weekend, a bag of nerves and a shell of the woman I’d become, I booked a train ticket home, desperate to see my family. Only a mother-who-knew-best convinced me to stay it out, driving the two hour trip to take me out for a restorative Sunday lunch.

Thirteen years, several local postcode changes. and an eventual international move later, and the city that scared me now holds part of my heart and always will. Just seeing the sky line, the old, the new, and the ugly, brings a smile to my face. Half the shops have moved or closed forever. There is newness all around, with a plush shopping mall dominating the centre with its high-street stores, a noisy, over-styled food court, and restaurant chains. There are modern additions slotted into spaces you’d never noticed existed. These structures are all angles and metal, gleaming in the sun, some with grace and some awkwardly against the old city backdrop.

On a sunny winter’s day, as sale shoppers scurry about scrabbling for bargains that don’t exist, we (for not long after that almost trip home, I became part of a we) are an oddity, ignoring the bright sale posters and heading north, out of the city and back to campus, back in time.

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The Parkinson Building

Old Parkinson is visible from afar on the sloped approach from the centre. To get there, old haunts look as fusty and unappealing as I remember them. Friday night’s watering hole is open but empty, as much in need of a coat of paint as ever. There’s a new library, a new car park, and a whole lot of new coffee outlets. Much is the same though. Buildings whose names I’d long forgotten come rushing back on approach, named after famous academics or local heroes.

 

Walking around the deserted campus, there are memories everywhere. Our social lives played out in the unions and bars where we spent more than we should of on fun and hangovers. From the vast lecture theatres where everyone was a nameless cog in the machine to the converted houses where old-school lectures quizzed you on reading that you may or may not have done, snippets of knowledge creep back, reminding me of the breadth of information gained and long forgotten.

From the campus back to the city, the town hall stands out against the sun. For years it was just a landmark until eventually it to became part of the narrative. Under a similarly cold winter light, we lined up with family and friends four years before, having signed a promise into law, husband and wife, married in the city that brought us together. That huge clock face forever became more than just a useful reference point.

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On a day like today, it’s easy to remember all the good days; the fun, the new experiences, the first flats, first jobs, and successes. There were plenty such days and plenty to remember. But, the ghost of that first weekend hovers in each corner. It reminds me of that girl who was intimidated by the busy bars, lost in those lecture theatres that all looked the same, and who was a fish out of water in those seminars where everyone else seemed so much wiser and learned. It’s okay that the ghost is there, though, in all those little corners; she’s a reminder that first impressions aren’t alway right, that people can change, and things tend to have a way of working out for the best.

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12 Words

As the bells rang and I ate my twelve grapes, my stomach fluttered with anticipation. The fluttering was not all figurative; seven months of baby bump visibly moved as the life inside reacted to the noise and excitement. 2017 would see a great change, but those first few moments offered no clue to the size of difference I’d see.

2017 was the year that showed me what it meant to be truly, bone-deep tired. It was a relentless year of new challenges, unbelievable strain, and a fear – one that’s not entirely gone – that the tough things won’t get better. But it was also a magical year. A miraculous one. Said miracle arrived on a clear day in March, shaping the rest of the year and making sure these twelve mouths contained ten of the happiest months I’ve had.

It was a frustrating year, where every day brought forth a new political happening that left me feeling more and more at a loss. Frustration peeked at home too, as the promised future when “it would get easier” never came.

The joy of spring’s addition, as hard as it was, expanded as summer rolled in. Watching a tiny baby become a little human, every day contained some wondrous moment, insignificant to anyone but me, but such that pride burst through every grin.  Autumn travels and a working winter offered more of the same: challenge, but a challenge I’ll never resent. Because, despite it all, the ups and the downs, 2017 was the best one yet, and as the final days tick by in a blur of tiredness and illness, I’ll always looks back on these twelve months as the year when it all changed, when it all got harder, and it all got better.

Back… For Now

There’s no limit to the metaphors that could be thrown at this feeling.

It’s the sunshine after the rain.

It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.

The chains are broken.

The wings are no longer clipped.

After weeks of spiralling, finally there is stability. Everything is a little clearer, calmer. Problems seems smaller, the past accepted and the future less scary.

It’s time to go out, to mix, to rejoin the wider world. 

Will it last? Dunno. It doesn’t matter. I feel back to someone I recognise, someone I like, and I’ll enjoy it while I can.

A Gift Too Precious To Use

Time is an antique cut-glass vase resting perilously close to the edge of the coffee table. A distant door banging would send it tumbling to its demise. It is in short supply, too. There are forty something minutes, an hour perhaps, to turn away from everything and everyone else. There are thousands of seconds to be selfish and indulgent. To spend doing whatever the heart desires.

It’s so delicate, the peace, so fragile. Every second that the house remains quiet is a second closer to when it will be loud. The tension courses through every vein, every nerve, every cell. Desperation for the quiet to last a little longer fills the space with a deafening drumming that beats just inside the ears and the chest.

The pressure builds and the gift is too precious to use. Fear of breaking it or wasting it take away any chance of enjoying it. There are too many things that could be done, too many chores that should be done, too many treats that would be enjoyed if only the seconds of quiet wouldn’t tick-tock past so loudly, if only the hour or so for yourself wasn’t consumed by thoughts of others and otherness. So the time slips away once more in a whirlwind of indecision. By trying to do everything, nothing gets done. By expecting great things when a warm drink and a good book would be the greatest of treats, nothing gets enjoyed.

By treating the time so reverently it becomes that worthless, priceless vase, collecting dust in the cabinet, looking nice but serving no purpose.

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The Art of Going Backwards

In the last few days, my son has started pushing himself backwards in his many, many attempts to crawl. His aim is always the shiny toy lying just out of reach in front of him, but, inevitably, he ends up a metre or two further away after straining and grunting to retrieve the giant plastic keys or tasty-looking book. Given how frustrating it is to watch, I can only imagine the annoyance his little brain must feel. Yet, he doesn’t seem all that bothered, often becoming distracted by the table he finds himself under or the fluff that got missed when the floor was last cleaned.

It got me thinking though, and I realised that much of having a baby, and in fact, much of life, involves a lot of going backwards. When he was born, for example, he did nothing but sleep. He slept through the first night of his life on Earth (whilst I stared both in awe and fear at his tiny body lying next to me). Come night two, he’d been given the inside track on How To Baby and was dutifully waking up every three hours, something he still does now on occasion. From a pleasant starting point, we went backwards and are now, slowly, slowly, edging ourselves back to that starting point in the distant hope that we might get a full night’s sleep sometime before he turns eighteen.

So much of the last eight months have worked like this. From the initially overwhelming happiness came the baby blues. After the first few weeks with the whole family at home, taking it easy and finding our way, came all the hundreds of hurdles we hadn’t foreseen, constantly sending us back to where we started, just as we thought we’d got this parenting thing sussed.

As I look back on my life, this going backwards to go forwards is a reoccurring theme. Take university: it was going to be a fresh start and a moment of liberation. I didn’t foresee feeling so anxious that I couldn’t do anything, or being overwhelmed by the idea of being me completely on my own, away from family. Rather than feeling older and freer, I felt vulnerable and trapped, for a while at least.

Entering the job world was no different. Getting my first teaching job was a big step forward, the momentum from which came to an abrupt halt the first day I walked in and was faced with thirty hostile teenagers who could find weaknesses faster than a hound sniffing out blood. It took moving to another country and getting paid peanuts to teach English in corporate offices before I landed any further on than where I’d started three years earlier.

All that said, I am quite optimistic about the future. I guess life isn’t just one continuous journey forward. Sometimes things have to get worse before then can get better; the backward steps act as a catalyst for change.  That’s never been more true that in the last few weeks. You see, a very nice professional has been listening to me talk through some of my issues. Yet, never could I have imagined that seeking help would make me feel so much worse. The thing is, she has made me so aware of all the times my charming brain is firing off unhelpful thoughts and all the ways in which I’ve developed thinking habits that are absolutely no use to anyone, least of all me, that initially it is like realising the bottom of the well you think you’re at the bottom of is just the staging area, and the floor is actually a trap door down to deeper depths of not-goodness.  Like my darling son, I am reaching out for the shiny rattle only to end up wedged under the sofa.

But, that’s okay. It’s okay because I know where I want to go. From experience, I can see that going backwards is often the first step to going forwards. The only thing to do is to keep working at it, keep shuffling backwards with gritted teeth and a perplexed expression as the goal gets further away until one day I find myself a step or two further forward than where I started. What’s more, I like learning new things, so the next few months are squarely focussed on mastering the art of going backwards. If my eight month old can do it with (mostly) good grace and the occasional meltdown, I am sure I can too.

Decision Time
Forwards/Backwards

Nesting

What a privilege it is to wake up and not have to be anywhere. What a luxury to know that no one expects you, needs you, or is waiting for you.

We could get on a train, be in Paris by lunchtime, and back in time for supper. We could visit a museum, see friends, go shopping, or take a long  and expensive lunch. We could travel, explore and indulge.

But we don’t have to. 

We can just get up slowly, let old-school TV shows run in the background, and have a second breakfast. We can eat homemade toasties washed down with a gallon of tea and enjoy home cooked meals on the sofa. We can stroll about the neighbourhood, mooch around the shops, and stop for the occasional coffee. We can stay home, read books, slowly do the jobs that got missed through summer. We can take a walk or a bath or a snooze.

Every day needn’t be an adventure. There  needn’t be headline events or photo-worthy visits to make a time memorable. Sometimes we need to nest, taking the days one at a time, and finding happiness in the everyday.

Down and Up and Down Again

Two and a half weeks ago, I sat down and wrote this:

I don’t want sympathy and I don’t want pity. I don’t really want anything from you, except for you to know that this is really, really hard sometimes. I want you to know so you understand when I cancel plans, so you understand when I am full of rage about the empty cereal packet left lying on the fridge, and so you don’t feel alone if you are feeling this too.

My life is pretty great. Amazing, actually. I was born fortunate and have had every chance in life. Now, I have a family and they are the most important things in my world. Two people in equal first place. However, I am desperately sad sometimes. My insides feel pulled towards an unforgiving centre as if there is a stone at my core, just above my bellybutton that sucks every good feeling from me and turns happiness into frustration, unhappiness, and guilt.

My lovely boy is a wonder. He is a joy to be around so much of the time. He laughs and smiles. He is developing just fine. He doesn’t sleep that well, but is not a bad sleeper by many people’s experiences. He’s a baby, after all, and babies don’t often sleep that well. I am no more challenged than most mums, I am supported by a husband who adores his son, and I have a midwife, a doctor, and family and friends to prop me up. 

The thing is, I still can’t do it, but I can’t give up either. And it’s killing me.

Some days I just function, going through the motions to ensure my baby’s basic needs are met, that we have something for dinner, and the house doesn’t look like a disaster zone. On these days, it’s a plus if I find the inclination to shower. I can’t play with my child for more than a few minutes. I spend nap times staring at a screen, taking nothing in. Sometimes I sleep too, but it’s a tortured sleep, full of dreams that could be reality, filled with crying babies and household chores, so that I wake unrefreshed and cheated. 

Some days I cry and cry, sobbing being the only way to release the tension that mounts inside. My nails are chewed and my skin raw from where I’ve tried to scratch away the tension. 

I can’t do it, but I can’t give up either. 

My mind never stops. It counts the hours, planning the day: wake, eat, play, sleep, wake, eat, play sleep. Every minute is accounted for, yet the minutes drag and drag. When the basic needs are met, then there’s the extras: cook meals, sort out winter clothes, fill the baby bag so we can go out, clean the high chair, pack for trips, work out the best time to meet friends around wake, eat, play, sleep. These things shouldn’t weigh a lot, yet my brain feels unbalanced on my shoulders and ready to explode under the burden.

The post stops there. O. probably woke up and life went on. Wake. Eat. Play. Sleep.

I returned to this piece several times, but I found that I couldn’t finish it in the same tone. I tried to pick up that voice again, tried to capture how terrible I’d been feeling, but nothing came. You see, these lows, these deep, deep lows come out of nowhere and vanish as quickly. A lot of the time, sitting in the peace of my house, playing with my son, or pottering about doing the laundry,  I don’t recognise the person who wrote the above. I don’t feel capable of feeling that awful. In fact, I feel like a fraud, an attention seeker who shouted at her husband, punched the sofa in frustration at something silly, and sobbed about not being able to cope.

Then there is the accompanying guilt. There are at least three woman in my immediate family with several kids and full-time jobs who hold it together. I have a good income, stability, a great social welfare system, and an incredible support system as well as a relatively easy baby and no post-birth complications or traumas. Compared to so many people, what right do I have to feel bad? I have so many luck stars that I might lose count.

Thus, I am living in a vicious circle of emotions that squeeze me tighter and tighter: Unexplained sadness, frustration and anxiety, a return to feeling well, guilt and shame over previous feelings, unexplained sadness, frustration, and anxiety, and so on. Each stage lasts different periods of time. Sometimes I cycle through the set multiple times a day; other times I go days and days before there’s a change. There is little rhyme or reason, no predictability, and no hints as to when the changes will come.

And now, 19 days after I first started writing, this post is no closer to being finished. There are two reasons, I guess. Firstly, because it’s scary to share things like this. Will people think it’s oversharing or will they think I am crazy or stupid? ? Maybe, maybe not, but I am damn sure I am not alone in these feelings and know that every time I read someone else’s tale, it helps me feel less alone. Thus I am willing to share because it might be good for just one other person and that’s good enough for me.

Secondly and crucially though, it’s been so hard to conclude because there is no conclusion. I wasn’t feeling bad one day, and now I am fine. There’s not a pill to fix it instantly or an obvious answer. And, as the original piece said, I don’t want sympathy or anyone to do anything. I just want to get these feelings out of me. So yes, things are up and down and everywhere in between. I feel ashamed and guilty about that sometimes, and other times I am forgiving of myself and accept that it is part of who I am at this current stage in my life. I am up and down and up again. I am everywhere in between. I am a new mum having a hard time of it, and I am both sorry and not sorry.  There’s no conclusion, only now, and right now I am somewhere in between. Tomorrow I might be the woman from 19 days ago or I might the woman below, enjoying the sunshine with her beautiful boy. I guess I can’t keep looking for a conclusion; I just have to keep on going.

 

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