Back to blogging with a big, fat bang….

dv1554019I have been subject to a ‘blogging malaise’ over the past few weeks. Trying to think of a subject to cover; a poem to recommend; a book to discuss etc has seemed too much trouble. No more wriggling out of writing was the title I chose for this blog three and a half years ago now, before I could really call myself a professional writer. Now I am one. So why need I blog?

Well today I thought, at last, of a reason to get on here and say something and it struck me that perhaps I had forgotten how important it is, even as someone lucky enough to have commissions to work on, to simply WRITE. No wonder I am feeling low – I haven’t been writing much at all. I have been reading a lot, but as an escape and as procrastination. So I am grateful that Radio 4 and Any Questions actually got me sufficiently riled to put finger to keypad once more. Here is why.

2013 was not a good year for my insides. I started suffering acute stomach pains and was sent for all manner of scary tests at the hospital. Many of you will know that as someone who has been treated, successfully, for breast cancer, I find the words ‘because of your medical history we just need to check’ are words that strike the fear of the Almighty in me. I had a few of those moments in 2013, but eventually it was discovered that my gallbladder was as a bulging bag of lead shot, overflowing and requiring urgent removal. The stress here is on ‘urgent’ as I had narrowly avoided one hospitalisation and was fearing another at any moment. So the surgeon saying ‘we should have you in here in a month’ seemed like good news. Our local NHS hospital, Musgrove Park in Taunton, has always seen me right. Saved my life even. But as one month went to two, and then to three, I was getting worried. But a strict low-fat diet and regular, gentle exercise was seeing a weight loss of 2lb a week. By the time I was called in, I was two stone lighter and although still suffering from the shot in the gut, I felt much better for it.

As is so common, I have struggled with my weight for years. I have been slim, fat and somewhere in between. It IS hard for me to lose the flab; I have lymphoedema in my legs that makes them heavy and prone to serious swelling and I am on cancer and anti-depressant drugs that make it even more difficult to shed the pounds. But never was it more obvious to me that I had been using these things as an excuse than when I was waiting for my gall bladder op. I could do it if I tried, and I did because I knew my health could be seriously compromised if I didn’t. I took control.

Andy Burnham-of-the-lovely-brown-eyes - on the Any Questions panel
Andy Burnham-of-the-lovely-brown-eyes – on the Any Questions panel

Over the past few days, and on aforesaid Any Questions, the subject of the obesity epidemic in the UK came up again. Last week it was said that some 2 million people in the UK could be eligible for NHS gastric band operations in the next few years. Should we regulate the food industry? Teach kids what a vegetable is?

Now, at last, I get to the point. When I did at last get my appointment, after weeks of nice phone calls with helpful appointments staff, I found myself on the ‘gastric band’ list and was told that they often ‘squeezed’  a gall bladder removal (or choleocystectomy) on to that list. I was surprised, not least because I had no idea there was a ‘list’ for NHS gastric band surgery but also because those who were in the waiting room had not struck me as very different from your regular ‘Taunton tummy’ type, in which classification I would, two months before, have had to include myself. Overweight, possibly obese, but still a pretty common shape.

bandAs I slid down the day’s operating list to accommodate those with Type 2 diabetes who had to go before me to ensure their blood sugars didn’t spiral out of control, I had one of those wicked thoughts that creep up on us occasionally and cause us to judge others more harshly than we might otherwise do. Why had that woman just gone in front of me to have her gastric band, accompanied by her two sons who had had the same operation eight weeks before? She was no more overweight than I had been. Why couldn’t she, and her two sons, have done what I did and controlled their diet and exercised a bit more? Wasn’t that gastric band fitting a dangerous operation to control appetites that simply needed more self-control? If they needed it, then half the UK would qualify surely?

Perhaps. What worries me most is that since I had the gallbladder operation, for all my good intentions, the surgeons words ‘well you can go back to a normal diet now’ have inveigled themselves into my subconscious and eaten away at that very self-control I bemoaned the lack of in the woman and her family in the hospital. I must have put half a stone on since Christmas. Being overweight, for me, means a long hard road to fitness but it can be done. Surely I have no right to expect the NHS to sort me out just because I can’t pass a chocolate bar or a bun without cramming it in my mouth? Surely, if an NHS doctor can’t find it possible to tell me that, without my gall bladder, I still have to eat carefully, he is making work for himself and our cash-strapped health service?

I am a greedy pig and I know it. But it seems I have long term medical conditions that could qualify me for this radical  surgery. Why should we offer gastric bands as apparently ‘preventative’ medicine? Diabetes may be a silent killer, but tell us about it, have us in to your office and tell us we will die if we don’t cut out the pies and walk round the block. Tell us we are neglecting our kids if we encourage them to eat in the same way. Take adverts for McDonalds and KFC off the telly and sod corporate anger. Anything, but DON’T fit us with something that could kill us and will certainly not teach us how to live our lives in a healthy way. Who knows, is it far-fetched to think that we may end up fitting young girls with gastric bands just to help them achieve some ridiculous idea of ‘body-image’ that the madness of the media and big business would have us believe is the only way to be?

Put the money into treating those with life-threatening illnesses unrelated to gluttony.

There, said it. And perhaps you wish I had kept this bile to my duct, where it belongs….

Starting as I mean to go on…

step-forwardNext week I am taking what is, for me anyway, a really significant step. I have to believe it is a step forward and although it is not exactly brave, it is taking all my courage to move further along a path that until now has seemed one which could only lead inexorably to anxiety and unhappiness. It is a path that is meant to lead in quite the opposite direction.

Forgive me for being a little obtuse. Even that word seems designed to obstruct and prevent clear understanding. I am certainly finding this hard to express. Or easier to avoid expressing directly.

Those who know me, or have read a little about me in Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, or on this blog, will know that I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44 in 2006. I had young children and was terrified but I came through chemotherapy and radiotherapy successfully and have just been told that I can now come off of all the medication that has been keeping the beast at bay. The worst of the risk is past, apparently. No-one will say ‘you are cured’. In Somerset they don’t even say you are ‘all clear’. It is a brave man they say that will claim to have cured cancer. It can still come back but I should, with luck, do well. Good news, move on. How much easier said than done that has been for me.

From a young age I have been faced with illness – not always my own but certainly my father’s. He was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s when I was just starting primary school and I don’t remember him physically well at all. As with many neurological disorders he had good days and bad days and our lives were ruled, understandably, by how he was feeling. But I now know that however ‘good’ the day and however well he felt he would always assume the worst. He had suffered grief and loss in a previous marriage and despite happiness with a new family he felt disaster was never far from his life. It stopped him opening up to us, to love us as he might for fear of losing us as he lost his first family. Who could be surprised at that?

Dad died almost exactly twenty years ago and until I started counselling two years ago I didn’t realise how quickly I had taken over his role; started reading from the same script. The breast cancer confirmed it for me – I was playing a part in a tragedy of my own making. A starring role in my own disaster movie. How could I be one of the lucky ones? After all I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, had breast-fed my children and had just got fit and healthy when I found the lump. I had all the protective factors but no, I wasn’t one of the 9 out of 10 for whom all is well. I was the 1 in 10. Cue song…

But it has gone on too long. Before Christmas I had a scare. Ultrasound and MRI scan eventually confirming that what was on my liver was not the worst it could be, but something benign. Something that is a nuisance but NOT cancer.

This post came to me when I was browsing the Poetry Archive site, as is my wont. I found this poem by Felix Dennis, which I dedicate to my dad. I wish he could have read it.

Not All Things Go Wrong…

by Felix Dennis

Not all things go wrong, and knowing
This, be wary of despair,
As you go through hell — keep going,
Make no brave oasis there.

Through the shadowlands of grieving,
Past the giants, Doubt and Fear,
Heartsick, stunned, and half believing —
Heed no whisper in your ear.

Not all things go wrong — and after
Winter’s famine comes the spring,
Kindness, beauty, children’s laughter —
Joy is ever on the wing.

This is such a simple poem but very real for me as I head into 2013.

So with the thoughts of Felix Dennis in mind, where does it leave my script? My soap opera of a life of anxiety? Well it actually changes nothing. I could think ‘well those good results were this time, there will be others’ and carry on in the same way, crucifying myself with anxiety. Or I could do what I have done and at least take steps to try to break the cycle; write a new ending to the story. Give myself some funny lines and be kind to myself. Write myself the equivalent of a retreat; not from the world but from the knotted workings of my own mind.

logoI have booked myself onto a Living Well with the Impact of Cancer two-day residential course offered by Penny Brohn Cancer Care in Bristol. I know many men and women go shortly after diagnosis or just after treatment has ended. It has taken me six years to take advantage of the charity’s support and I hope it will make the difference to me that it has to so many others; exploring the meaning of cancer in my life with people who understand the impact of the proverbial ‘journey’. I know now I have become almost phobic about cancer, avoiding friendships with those travelling the same tough road for fear of losing them, being unable to offer the support they need or assuming their experience would be mine. I barely talk about it; hardly ever write about it which is bizarre when one’s every experience could inform one’s writing. Perhaps when I come back I will open up; I will certainly tell you how I get on.

I know it will take commitment and leaving behind all the excuses I have made to myself in the past. I must want to learn how to take care of my mind and body so that instead of taking the path that meanders without purpose to the one thing certain in our lives (death, not taxes – I paid £12 this year) I will work to choose the path that might be new and scary but which offers me not a poor shadow of my old life but a new one. I will try to come to terms with the anger and disappointment and move on.

I will tear up my father’s script and write myself a new one.

‘Health anxiety’ or ‘hypochondria’? Fear or phobia, it’s a killer…

healthanxietyPerhaps my title exaggerates; perhaps it doesn’t. All I know is that whether you worry at every possible sign of illness and go to the doctors, or worry about illness and avoid the medical profession until a crisis occurs, these are not issues to be sneered at.

‘Hypochondriacs’ are much maligned. In books, on tv and in the media anyone who seems to seat themselves in the doctor’s waiting room at every opportunity is a figure of fun or of derision. Admittedly, there are some who seem to enjoy a good old natter about their ailments and for whom a neighbour or friend’s misfortune is the subject of much hushed talk and gossip. But this is not about those people. This is about people – and I count myself one of them – for whom health anxiety is a horribly debilitating, restrictive and obsessive condition.

Often considered to be on the  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) spectrum, many of those affected by health anxiety have ‘an obsessional preoccupation with the idea or the thought that they are currently (or will be) experiencing a physical illness.’ (Anxiety UK). The most common health anxieties tend to centre on conditions such as cancer,but the anxiety or phobia may fixate on any type of illness. Continue reading “‘Health anxiety’ or ‘hypochondria’? Fear or phobia, it’s a killer…”

My Most Beautiful Thing…

How to choose ‘My Most Beautiful Thing’? How do I meet a challenge set by writer Fiona Robyn for her Blogspash over at Writing Our Way Home today? Is it actually possible to have just one thing that you count beautiful above all others? I have two children – must I choose just one? My husband is wonderful – but beautiful? Hmmmm.

So my choice cannot be human; and in any event no other human is truly ‘mine’.

I am not a great one for buying beautiful ‘things’ either, although there are some wonderful books I would be lost without. My sister and daughter covet beautiful shoes and handbags, but they aren’t something I can get too enthusiastic about. It isn’t a money thing, although I can’t afford them, it is because I just can’t carry them off. I trip in high heels and I need a small sack to carry all my paraphernalia about. TKMaxx don’t seem to do pretty, small sacks as yet.

Continue reading “My Most Beautiful Thing…”

‘A Walk After John Keats’ by Nelson Bushnell 1936 – History, hindsight & a hike with Hitler Youth?

In 2008 I organised and undertook a charity walk in the Lake District (see my short trek blog here) to follow in the footsteps of the poet John Keats. He walked through the Lakes and Scotland in 1818 with his friend Charles Brown and although his tour was cut short by his own ill-health and that of his brother Tom at home in London, imagery in his subsequent work highlights how much the walk added to his experience.

Following my own period of ill-health as I recovered from breast cancer I wanted to get fit and raise some money for causes dear to me. Re-tracing Keats’ steps over 100 miles in my favourite part of the world seemed an obvious choice. So I researched his route (much of which is now buried beneath the busy A596) and discovered that a number of people had gone before me. Thus I was introduced to Mr Nelson Bushnell, an American who came to follow Charles Brown’s itinerary as closely as possible and who documented the many miles he covered in the book ‘A Walk After John Keats’ published in the US in 1936. The wonderful AbeBooks found me a copy and I have returned to it many times since using it as the basis of my own route, although my fitness prevented me from heading into Scotland.

Continue reading “‘A Walk After John Keats’ by Nelson Bushnell 1936 – History, hindsight & a hike with Hitler Youth?”

Reasons to be cheerful…..

It is hard for anyone to be cheerful at the moment, although the Conservative party attempt to rival the Chuckle Brothers, David Cameron and George Osborne, always look as if they are not trying quite hard enough to suppress a smirk. Britain strikes me as an angry country and the anger is frequently directed at people who have no voice to challenge it. ‘Divide and rule’ is a phrase that hit the headlines this week but instead of denying it is happening politicians and the media  should admit it is what they do all the time. They enjoy setting us against one another, blaming everyone but themselves. It is corrosive and I have sensed myself being drained by it.

So I thought I would think of ways to cheer myself up. My blog is a random one, I admit. Posting on John Keats, poetry, family and social history, mental health and anything that gets my proverbial I am lucky that I have readers prepared, in the words of a legendary Swedish SuperGroup, to ‘take a chance on me’.

So as the new year gets underway  I can no longer blame a lack of motivation and low mood on the end of the festive season.  I have decided to take a very heavy hint from certain quarters and write a blog post that celebrates fun, thankfulness and all those things that I should cling to in order to chase away the black dog depression  that snaps at my heels. Instead of making resolutions I will find hard to maintain I will start the year off with a list I can come back to when I need reminding of my good fortune. It won’t stop me feeling that the world we live in is a harsh one at present but a moment’s respite won’t hurt.

Continue reading “Reasons to be cheerful…..”

In which I avoid a difficult subject with a poem about snow

Julia Copus

I have mentioned before that I attend a Royal Literary Fund ‘Reading Matters’ group every week. It is a wonderful idea; led by fabulous poet Julia Copus we listen to her read a short story and a poem each week, taking time to comment and express our thoughts about each in a friendly and supportive environment. It has been an inspiration to me – introducing me to short story writers and poets I might never have discovered for myself and teaching me so much about the short story form that I am experimenting with my own.

But this week, Julia inspired me in another area of writing that I have so far held back from. She encouraged us to listen to her Radio 3 piece ‘Ghostlines’ broadcast last week. In it she recounts in verse and her own personal testimony the experience of IVF. It is an intense emotional experience – frank and open about the disappointments, the pain and the actual process of treatment and it made me think very hard about a subject I could write on, but have so far avoided in any emotional sense. My breast cancer.

Continue reading “In which I avoid a difficult subject with a poem about snow”

Breasts are best, or two’s company…..

As a freelance writer it is always good news to be commissioned to write an article on a subject close to your heart. And my boobs are definitely that, literally and figuratively, so I am happily researching and writing for an online magazine on the subject of breast reconstruction. Those who have read my blogs before may recall that I was diagnosed with breast cancer 4 years ago, came through treatment successfully, but waited 3 years before I made the decision to put myself back under the knife and be ‘rebuilt’. I am now at the stage where as a 40 something mum of two teenagers I am getting my first tattoo (albeit with little choice about where it is sited and what design to have… see my previous post The Incredible Tattooed Woman) .

Continue reading “Breasts are best, or two’s company…..”

Mental illness, motherhood and finding the real me

My name is Suzie and I have experienced mental illness. There I have said it. Not so difficult really was it? Actually, this was a difficult post to publish and for many people it is practically impossible to come out and express how mental or emotional distress has affected their lives. There is a real fear of the stigma attached to mental health issues and for me, as a wife and mother, professional woman and yes, a person in my own right it is only now that I can truly sense how destructive any such perceived discrimination can be. For the past two years I have worked for the local mental health charity Mind in Taunton & West Somerset and have seen at first hand how people struggle to re-engage with whatever passes for a normal life in the 21st century.

I can’t remember when I experienced my first real bout of depression. I was an anxious child, terrified teenager and after I had my children was diagnosed with a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). All parents are anxious, but I took it to extremes, convinced that if I didn’t follow certain rituals (such as making the beds properly, or laying the table with matching cutlery) some terrible accident would befall my family. I developed an eating disorder as a means of introducing some control into my life and was eventually desperate enough to approach my GP. I was lucky to be offered CBT and the OCD became manageable, but the lingering thought that something I did, or failed to do, would bring some disaster on us all remained. Unluckily for me this feeling seemed to be confirmed by my diagnosis with breast cancer 4 years ago. All my fears having come true, and despite coming through all the treatment successfully, I became swallowed up with anxiety about my health and I felt terrified of everything the future held for me. However now, at last, I feel there is light at the end of the tunnel, but (as I suspect many others who have experienced anxiety and depression would agree) even saying that phrase can fill you with dread at what you may bring down upon yourself. It is an ongoing struggle.

Continue reading “Mental illness, motherhood and finding the real me”

Happy Hair Day – how follicles and cuticles can make our mood…

How much hairspray does it take....

I am sitting in front of my laptop as I write this finding any excuse to fling my head round quickly to get the full benefit of ‘the bounce’.  It’s that lovely feeling you get when you come back from the hairdresser all pampered and preened with a head of hair you really get only once every eight weeks,when someone who knows exactly what they are doing washes your hair with something gorgeous like Moroccan Oil and gets to grip with the volumising brush and you really feel ‘you’re worth it’. It has got me thinking about the impact our hair has on our mood, and how we decide to wear it reflects our personality.

Why is our hair so important? It is after all simply strands of a dead protein. Culturally it reflects faith and fashion, violence and aggression, sexuality and self-acceptance  – growing it long, covering it up, shaving it off, coiling it, plucking it – its social significance should not be underestimated. We have ‘bad hair days’ second only to premenstrual tension as a reason to avoid confrontation with someone, and as it advertises the aging process so vividly both men and women try various ways to turn back the clock, with greater or lesser success. We also respond in various ways to how our children choose to wear their hair. The moment we lose the option to trim that fringe it seems anything goes. Especially it seems in Evie’s case,  cans of hairspray.

Obviously, times and fashions change. I don’t think for example that my generation of women are going to suddenly look in the People’s Friend magazine and think ‘Oooh time for a blue rinse I think’, or get to an age where hat hair is de rigueur. We will watch carefully the route taken by women our age in the media and continue to take advice from someone who has been trained beyond curlers and perms. (Actually, I sneaked a peep in the mirror at someone having something new used on their hair this morning, the OPod a type of self-heating roller. A proper girlie gadget). Or an option I like the sound of  – getting very old, letting it grow really long and white and then take to wearing it in a bun a la Doris Lessing. When I become a real writer I want a real writers hair do.

I have my hair cut and styled by the lovely Ali at The Mount Hair Salon in Wellington. I feel completely confident under her expert scissors and actually enjoy the whole experience. I have a cut I love and that suits me. This is a great step forward for me. When I was younger I would always say I preferred the dentist’s chair to the stylist’s. I was so conscious of my hair being one of my few redeeming features that with each snip of the scissors I felt my personality potentially falling to the floor. I regularly hated what was done to me, but felt unable to do anything other than smile, pay and leave a tip. ‘I like it better when I have done it myself’ was a regular cry.

I think the change may have first started when I lost my hair following chemotherapy. I had long hair cut short, then got fed up with running my fingers through it only to find it drifting to the carpet in handfuls and had it shaved off. When the treatment was over I looked as if I should be wearing 10 hole Doc Martens and carrying a cosh but after three months the mass of dodgy grey curls that grew back could almost be called a style and I looked worryingly like my mother. I quickly decided that whether it suited me or not I would grow it long, just to show I could. The first time I looked in the mirror and a blonde woman a bit like my pre-cancer self stared back at me was a genuinely moving moment. Then with Ali’s guidance it became a little shorter, it suited me better and I am where I am today. My hair is bouncy and happy, and I am getting there.

So, think for a moment about your hair and the way it affects your mood and reflects your personality. It may not be a living and breathing part of you but it’s value may be more profound than you imagine…