Editors note: This is the second in a monthly series of guest posts on the subject of mental health. For November we are lucky to have award-winning blogger Jo Middleton of slummysinglemummy writing for us of her experiences. She looks at mental health issues from the perspective of someone living with and caring for family members with anxiety and depression.
When I first talked to Suzie about writing a guest post, she asked me to come up with ‘something hysterical’. Well, obviously my natural tendency is to strive to be witty and amusing at all times, but that can get rather tiring. I wondered instead if I would take the opportunity to write something a little more thoughtful. I’m always so impressed by how interesting and inspiring Suzie’s posts are – much more so than my usual flippant, sarcastic style. I wanted to try to fit in.
Suzie has written a fair bit about mental health, and I know she often feels like the ‘mad’ one in a family of down to earth, sport obsessed, straightforward people, so I thought it might be interesting to turn that around, and write about how I sometimes feel being the ‘sensible’ one in a family of less emotionally stable people.
Mental ill-health has always been a defining part of my family. Perhaps not in an extreme way, more as background music. My Gran experienced depression and anxiety, but of course you didn’t call it that then, you just got on with things, and suppressed any difficult feelings with plenty of strict routines and good honest hard work.
My mother inherited her mother’s depressive tendencies, and was quite profoundly affected by an incident with a bee when she was about 15. My Gran was stung, had a reaction, and I think had to be taken to hospital. My mother became terrified of the same thing happening to her, of her throat closing up and of not being able to breathe, and began to have panic attacks.
Unable to talk about her feelings with a mother whose answer to everything was to produce a large meal with a high fat content, she has struggled with her anxiety ever since. The panic attacks continued, and many a night as a child I was woken up by my mum pleading with me to call her an ambulance as she couldn’t breathe, and was sure she was dying.
My sister, who is four years younger than me, also has the family anxiety gene, and spent much of her early childhood at home with my mum, unwilling or unable to go to school, certain that the local nuclear power station was about to explode at any moment.
I have just been checking through my photographic record of our already well-documented two week break in Suffolk, and apart from the fact that I want to go back and take some decent pictures instead of the rather random ones I have ended up with, I have come to the disturbing conclusion that I am wearing the wrong, or too much, or just bad make-up. This horrific discovery has left me wondering whether a do-it yourself face lift using elastic bands and safety pins isn’t such a bad idea after all.
At what age should one decide to stop trying to paper over the cracks? When should you start using putty instead of a light skim? Why don’t they put a ‘Use before 45’ on the side of a black kohl pencil? When does blusher look more like rosacea?
Help! Panic stations! My sister is slimmer than me!
Pathetic isn’t it? But sometimes small things are important. Jane and I have been yo-yo dieting for years. One of us usually loses some weight, which when it becomes obvious sparks the other on to some sort of healthy eating regime. By the time that has worked and a few pounds have come off, the other one has put the weight back on again, and so on and so on, ad infinitum.
Now it must be said that both of us have inherited a family tendency to large rear ends, which we have found has put something of a dampener on our plans for careers as catwalk models. As we have got older, bits have got wobblier and harder to get rid of until recently we both decided that for the sake of our knees, and indeed our floorboards, we would make a joint effort to lose weight. We would not go to a slimming club as neither of us is very good at clapping and cheering when other people have done better than us. Neither can we, with enthusiasm, go ‘ooooh yum’ when we are shown how to make a fatless cheesecake, so we pledged to put £3 a week each aside to spend (probably on a slap up feed) when we had reached our targets.
Now this all seemed a very good idea, especially for the first couple of weeks when our respective losses were moderate and roughly similar. Then I started to slow down and Jane just kept going, and going and going, until today, when I am stuck for the third week at a total loss of 10 pounds, she has hit her quarter century – 25lbs and counting.
Right – my sister says my blog posts are rather melancholy and nostalgic, so instead of the piece on retro sweets I had in mind to write, I thought I would try to show a more humorous and less wistful side to my nature. However, I have been hampered in my attempts at frivolity, as this weekend is the last before we swap houses with my brother-in-law Chris and his family for a two week holiday. Time has therefore been set aside to do some cleaning. The house is filthy. When Chris said ‘Don’t worry, we will take it as we find it’ we know he didn’t actually mean he was OK to turn up after a 6 hour drive from Suffolk and scrape the fat out of the bottom of the grill pan, or pull all Evie’s long brown hair out of the bath plughole. He probably wouldn’t want us to leave all those crumbs in the cutlery draw or be happy to solve one of those endless puzzles to untangle the jumble of saucepans in the big draw that never quite closes properly. Why does our kitchen get in such a mess, when what little housework done in our home revolves around cleaning it?
Examining the freezer I find it holds sufficient ice to maintain a whole family of polar bears, and there are bits of frozen stuff embedded in it. They may at one time have been blackberries, peas or oven chips, but now they more closely resemble frostbitten body parts. I know Chris’s children – all under ten – are fond of the occasional fish finger and I can hardly tape the door shut, so a full-scale defrost is called for. Get the sandbags out.
My sister Jane is a proper gardener. She works with plants all day; knows Latin names for things and has won awards. Her skill has even resulted in her kissing Mark Ramprakash so I was a little surprised about 18 months ago when she rang me in something of a panic.
She had come to the top of the waiting list for an allotment and with her own garden and a very sceptical husband to deal with she took the only course left open to her – she asked her plant-killing horticultural ignoramus of a sister to take it on with her.
My husband was equally dismissive of the whole idea, so I quickly said ‘yes’ – after all, hadn’t I always wanted to feed my family on my own organic veg and fruit? Didn’t I want to lead a healthy outdoor lifestyle? Hadn’t I always managed to kill every plant ever given to me and dried my pots of herbs whilst they were still but seedlings? My sister was either very brave or she simply wanted to enjoy playing the tyrant and watching her sibling suffer. I will give her the benefit of the doubt for the moment.
Now we are in our second season and I can honestly say I am almost getting the hang of it. OK, so I pulled up the parsnips thinking they were weeds and a little while ago managed to trample all over the onions and ruin half the crop of beetroot. And yesterday I put the fork through the best potato of the bunch. But compared to last year I am a regular Alan Titchmarsh.
In our first 6 months my sister could dine out on my inability to understand planting one onion just to grow just one, slightly bigger onion (I thought they grew like potatoes) or my belief that carrots grow in bunches in large fields in East Anglia. ‘What’s that?’ I would innocently ask as we planted something green (a lot of it is green actually – so unhelpful..) ‘Spring cabbage’ would come the reply. ‘Oh’ I say, ‘when will we harvest that then?’
And how can you guess what to do with a globe artichoke?
However, progress is progress. I know how to tie bean canes together, I can plant leeks (they are so cute when you put them in the ground!) and we have had a monster crop of butternut squash. Sweet peas have been almost literally coming out of our ears (we haven’t got much space left in the ground you understand), and I am world-class at strimming grass and shovelling s**t.
Obviously, the exercise is great and being outdoors is mentally therapeutic – our plot is next to fields so it is really like our own little piece of the countryside – but the end product is the best bit. Harvesting your own beans, courgettes, potatoes, cabbage or sweetcorn (we even had four bits of asparagus, although I am sure that is not the technical term) and taking them home for dinner is a fabulous feeling. My daughter now eats peas, beans and mange tout. A year ago the only green on her plate was the same size portion of broccoli she ate as a toddler.
We will have autumn raspberries soon, bucket loads of them and I will make jam and tarts and we will be pulling little pips out of our teeth till Christmas.
I don’t yet have the confidence to do much on my own up there. I am too scared to do much more than dig or water without instruction. My sister has actually been remarkably patient considering she has in the dim and distant past clearly been tempted to physical violence when coping with a dithery sister who likes to have her head in a book and paint her fingernails. So I want to thank her publicly for introducing me to the wonderful world of organic grow your own, she is a star and I really do appreciate it.
I read through this post nostalgically this morning. We love the allotment, and are in our third year now. The enthusiasm is as keen as ever but this year nature has tested our determination to be organic and wildlife friendly to the limits. Rabbits and blackfly have decimated seedlings and eaten onion tops to such a disheartening extent that at times it has felt a little as if a famine has come upon us.
We had only enough broad beans to decorate the edge of a scallop starter after black fly settled in great drifts almost overnight. We saw just one ladybird and despite it seeming like coccinellid heaven I swear even that poor thing was looking sick of the sight of the bloody pests.
And then we got downy mildew on our onions.
To add insult to the proverbial injury, our plot borders onto open countryside and a wooded bank that is basically a high class bunny hotel. Keeping our crops safe is like the Battle of Rorke’s Drift each year. Apparently other allotmenteers use ferrets to keep numbers down and one woman arms herself with an air rifle after a particularly barren year on her little piece of land. It seems they are a crop like any other and my sister and I feel like daft townies as we ask about ‘humane’ methods. Wallace & Grommit presumably…
So we have decided that this winter we are going to remodel the whole plot. There will be a small polytunnel, more netting and better use of space, including a bed for cut flowers. We will plant new fruit bushes to replace the old ones we inherited and order a range of disease resistant seeds to combat the mildews, the little black fly things that burrow into carrots and club root. And better fencing to keep Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny at bay.
The investment must be worth it. My sister has no fondness for babies and small children but she nurtures her seedlings as if they have a soul. My saying ‘oh we can plant some more’ has seen her wave sharpened secateurs threateningly in my direction. Seriously, it is sad to see her so disheartened and anything I can do to get us productive again for 2012 will be worthwhile.
Remind me I said that on a bitter day in January won’t you?