Writing, Running, Habit and Obsession

I was once a fat kid obsessed with writing. Back then, real life was just about tolerable if I had my imaginary one to escape to. For I had discovered a magical and powerful thing. Writing could do anything. Writing could take me anywhere. And I was in control. I could have whatever fun I wanted; invent new friends adventures, create whole worlds if I wanted to. If I look back now I can see that need for control was a big factor. A shy fat kid in the middle of a dysfunctional family does not have much control, if any. A shy fat kid at school has even less. But in writing? The shy fat kid can do whatever the hell she wants, because she owns this! It’s liberating, I can tell you. And for many, many years after that, writing was my addiction and my obsession.

I’d endure school and then run home after, up to my room to write. I’d carry notebooks everywhere so that given the chance I could vanish into another world and write. I’d write past my bedtime and first thing in the morning.

Writing was all I ever wanted to do and anything else was just an annoyance and a distraction. Including exercise. I hated PE as a kid. I was chubby and awkward and shy and despised having people watch me fail at something. At least with other subjects at school you can thrive or fail in private, but PE is kind of cruel because your failures are obvious for all to see.

Chubby kids who like reading and writing and being alone shun exercise for obvious reasons and in return what happens? Yep, they get chubbier. Which makes them even less likely to exercise in front of anyone and even more likely to hide in their room with a notebook and pen for as long as they can get away with. What you have is a vicious circle that as a child, you have no idea how to break out from.

And self-loathing builds and builds. I’m not sure what finally made me embrace exercise. With no money, I was limited for choice, so running seemed the best option. I’d always hated running! Though to be honest, it was more the thought of anyone seeing me that was the problem. The estate I grew up on had a horseshoe sized ‘green’ enveloping one side of it. I could access this from the back gate and run around the backs of the houses in a loop. I think I set myself a goal of three times a week but when I started to notice the results, I soon upped that to daily. And I developed a habit, much like my writing one, that benefited my mental health as well as my physical.

They say that to form a habit you must do something every day for 30 days. What started as a habit with running soon became an obsession that I started to view the same way I viewed writing. I had to do it. If I didn’t do it, I didn’t feel good. It would ruin my day. I felt like bad things would happen. I’d lost a lot of weight, between that and some very silly eating habits at the time that haunted me into adulthood, and I really, really, really did not want to risk ever putting that weight back on. I’d been fat and life had been hell. I never ever wanted to be that girl again.

I sometimes wonder where I would have ended up had I not become a mother at the age of 24. I think my obsession with running and my growing fear of food would have got worse. I think I would have carried on writing and possibly would have got published a lot sooner than I did. I don’t think I would ever have let either of my obsessions go.

But motherhood changed everything and rightly so. I was now amazed at my body and in awe of what it had done. When one little girl became two, I had my hands full at a young age, and I also knew that I shouldered a huge responsibility here. I did not want my problems with food and weight and body image rubbing off on them. Writing fell by the wayside. Hard to believe that now, but it really did. I was far too exhausted, overwhelmed and obsessed with my new life as a mother. I was in love and there just wasn’t the time or the energy.

Over the next decade, I had a third child and I sporadically forced myself to run and write. I tried and failed and tried and failed to develop those habits again. I told myself I did not have the time or the energy for either. I told myself I was wary of getting obsessed with them both again, because that wouldn’t be good for my children. And this all went well for a while. I was too busy to consider anything else.

Writing came back to me, or I came back to writing, I’m never sure which way around it was, in the summer of 2011. My then youngest child was due to start school that September and at the time there was no plan to have any more. I suddenly felt horribly afraid and set adrift. I didn’t want him to go to school as not only was I losing my last baby, I was losing the identity I had spent the last decade carving out. Chantelle, the mother.

I hadn’t forgotten about the old me…I just didn’t think she was relevant anymore. I still remember the moment my writing whooshed back into my head, and it was kind of blunt, terrible and painful. I was reading a book and the young character in it reminded me of a character I had created and believed in when I was just 12. I’d written and rewritten his story many times over the years…could I do it again? Could I write again? Was I a writer? As a child and teen that was all I had identified as, but it had been gone so long, did I have any right to try to reclaim it?

I started writing again after finishing the book that had reminded me of my long lost character. I was so embarrassed at first, I wrote in a notepad and hid it if anyone walked in the room. I didn’t dare tell anyone what I was up to because I was suffering badly from imposter syndrome! And I wrote every day, without fail and that built the habit back up and the habit soon became an obsession again. It devoured me. I started writing every evening without fail and any other spare moment I had. I started this crazy, up and down writing and publishing journey and the arrival of a fourth child did nothing to slow me down and I have not looked back. I could never, ever stop writing now. I still can’t believe I let it go for so long…

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

— Franz Kafka

But what about running? Could I claim that obsession back too and was it healthy or sensible to even try? Over the last year or so I’ve noticed major fluctuations in my mood which I am now blaming on the perimenopause. If you’ve not heard of the perimenopause, don’t worry, neither had I, and I will be blogging about this another day. In short simple terms, its the period of time before the actual menopause and women start suffering from a variety of symptoms that for a while, they probably won’t attribute to anything other than life stress.

I don’t want to go into it too much in this post but the way I had been feeling for no real reason, was very, very similar to how I felt as a teenager. That intensity of mood and emotion that can shift at the slightest thing. Intrusive thoughts about how rubbish I am, cruel thoughts about how pointless my life is. Lovely stuff like that. Incredible anger. Deep sadness. And most of all? Just wanting to be alone. The worrying thing was the effect on my mental health, particularly before I did some research and found out about the perimenopause. I was feeling horrible, to put it mildly. I was crying a lot for no reason. I was focusing on body image more than I had done in a very long time, and given my past issues, this was not a good thing.

One night I was sat writing and crying when I suddenly felt the most powerful urge to move. To get up and run. It was like my mind telling me to get the hell out of there and move. It seemed stupid and my other mind tried to talk me out of it. I was too tired, it was nearly dark and so on. But I ignored that one and I did it.

Now, what normally happens with me and running since I became a mother almost 17 years ago, is I can keep it up for a bit and aim for 3 times a week, not be too hard on myself etc, but that’s not enough to build a habit. Inevitably I miss a few, and that turns into missing a few weeks and the weeks turn into months, just like what used to happen with writing.

This time? I have decided to run every single day without excuses. I do have the time. It’s 20 minutes usually. I have managed to stick at this for over a week now and the difference in my mood is astounding. I have not felt down, sad or angry once this week. I have felt more energetic, more motivated, more rational than I have in a long time. I feel proud of myself too. And we’re not very good at that are we? But I am proud of myself. It feels good. It feels right.

We all know that exercise is good for our mental health, and most of us know that writing is also good for it. Very good, I’d argue. If I can manage to hold onto both of these habits (yet try to stop them becoming obsessions) then I will be very happy indeed and heading in the right direction. I just might be able to get through this perimenopause thing unscathed and have the energy and mind power to deal with the actual menopause!

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The Lane of a Thousand Stories

It’s not just a lane. To those who don’t know. But then nothing is ever just something. Everything is much, much more than that. To us, the lane is alive with a thousand stories. Millions of lives. Endless possibilities.

For me and you, hand in hand, it’s not just a lane, is it? It’s an adventure waiting to happen. It’s Doctor Who and Clara. It’s sticks turned into sonic screwdrivers. It’s the Tardis waiting for us back home. It’s mud monsters that will drag you down. It’s Cybermen and Daleks and Zygons. It’s a stretch of concrete that twists and turns, and it’s me watching your little legs running down it as fast as you can, yelling over your shoulder to run from the monsters. It’s me, forever tensed that a car will round the corner too fast.

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They are not just puddles in the lane. They are wonders to explore with stones and sticks and welly boots that never quite manage to keep the water out. They are covered with ice to crack and slip on. They are deep with mud to squelch and squerch through. We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going on a bear hunt. They are not just puddles. They are portals to another world. Many worlds. Worlds with trees and telephone lines inside them. Worlds with a mystery face staring right back at yours.

They are not just bushes! Not just a hedgerow to hurl rubbish into. They are blackberries in the summer. Your little hands reaching in to pluck juicy berries from between the thorns. Your sleeve getting snagged on brambles. Your face smeared with red. They are alive, teeming with small unseen lives that run adjacent to ours, unknown. They are buzzing with bees and birds and butterflies, who go about their private lives without fuss or blunder. Who live never to question or worry. Me and you know they are there. And there is not a bush we don’t walk by without knowing or thinking.

Hello Mr Robin. Mr Blackbird. Mrs Blackbird. The shy Heron who takes off should you get too close. The noisy geese. The silent swans. The otters we have never seen. The rabbits in the fields and the buzzards on the telephone poles. The woodpecker drumming. Swifts and starlings and magpies and our favourite, the mighty crow. The crow rules the world, or so we secretly believe. With his knowing caaw and his murder of companions, they could take us all on, should they want to.

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It’s not just a bridge, is it? It’s poo sticks and science. It’s sygnets and ducklings. It’s where we collect conkers in the Autumn. And it’s not just a river, it’s a ford, a fork, an expanse of water fit for paddling. Your favourite place. Your tree dragon and the swing and sitting on the fallen tree, trying to catch tiddlers in a jar. Mucky feet and cold toes. Snacks in the pushchair. Summer. Shady spot, dragonflies and damselflies. Kicking the water. Us and the dogs and me lost in time, caught between now and us, this life and an old one. Me and my sister, stood in the river, captured in a moment that has lasted forever, the sunlight perfect, illuminating our small lives, fishing nets in hand, shadows dancing. At the river, I am full of a thousand memories and with you, I am making a thousand more.

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The lane seems so long when you walk so slow. It’s me saying hurry up, walk faster, come on, come on then, can you at least walk in the right direction? It’s you, picking up stones and sticks and conkers and leaves, staring at bugs, helping them cross the road, saying ‘that’s sad’ when you spot something dead because the lane is not just full of life, it’s full of death and we see it daily. Creatures too slow for the cars. It’s me in a hurry. Urging you on. Rolling my eyes. Come on, come on I’ve got stuff to do. Hurry up and I’ll get you a hot chocolate when we get in.

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It’s not just a lane. It’s songs and silliness and passing the time. It’s make-believe and storytelling and laughter and tears. Death and life and why? Why Mum? Why?

It’s not just a lane. It’s Nature, who was here first with the blackberries and the hawthorn and the Oaks and the Hazel and the dandelions, bluebells and daisies. It’s all the things that exist despite us and will go on after us. But for now, for a moment, it is our lane. Not just a lane, but our world and a thousand stories and lives.

Nothing is ever just something.

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Where Is My Mind?? On End Of Term Brain Fog

I feel like I’ve done a lot of stupid things lately. You know, how we all have days when our brain just isn’t functioning properly? You go upstairs to get something, then come back down empty handed? You tell people the same thing more than once? You go the shop to buy something and come out with something else entirely? This is all annoying stuff, but what it if gets worse? What if you forget people’s birthdays or special events? What if you make arrangements and then totally forget about them? You start to feel like you are losing your mind.

Last Saturday I had an event to go to. It was a bit of a weird one that came about due to a conversation via Twitter months ago. Another author tagged me in a Tweet from Waterstones asking if there were any YA authors in the Bournemouth area. I replied yes, someone took my email address, and that was that for a while. It later transpired that they wanted someone local to interview two YA authors (proper ones, with actual books in actual Waterstones.) I thought why the hell not? It will be an experience. These past few years I’ve been saying yes to a lot of stuff I once would have said no to, and the results have been quite fun. So I looked up the authors, did my research, purchased some books and put some questions together.

I sorted out childcare and turned up on Saturday afternoon fully prepared and intrigued. Only to be told it was the wrong day.

I wanted the floor to open up and pull me in.

I felt my face catch on fire, mumbled something about it being fine for me to come again tomorrow and hurried out of the shop.

I felt so pissed off with myself after that. I had been utterly convinced it was Saturday. But they were quite right. I checked all the emails later that night. 16th July. Sunday. How could I possibly have got it so wrong? Why on earth was I so convinced the 16th was a Saturday? Why did I not double check? What the hell is wrong with me?

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I really didn’t want to go back the next day, but I did. I didn’t see the shop girl I had blushed in front of the day before, so I decided to play it cool and pretend it never happened. The lady who organised the event introduced me to the authors, we all had a drink in the cafe and then I interviewed them while the organiser filmed us. Scary stuff, and totally new to me, but I did it. Plus, I’d developed a heavy cold overnight and was feeling terrible. I don’t think I want to watch it when it ends up on Twitter. But I did it.

That mistake was embarrassing, but there have been loads of instances like this lately and I think I have a good old fashioned case of ‘end of term brain fog’. I see the other mums in the morning on the school run, and I know from the brief snatches of conversation we get between shoving kids into school, that we are all running on empty, and counting the minutes down to the summer holiday.

Of course, entertaining kids for six weeks and juggling commitments brings its own anxieties, but at least there is less structure, less of a time scale to keep to. We can do stuff or we can laze about. We can book some busy days and we can have stay at home days. We don’t have to get up early or make lunch boxes or iron the school clothes. We can all take our time and just breathe…

Brain fog is horrible. Forgetting stuff and getting in a muddle is really frustrating, especially when you are trying so damn hard to look like you’ve got your shit together! All the mums I know work bloody hard. They all have jobs, many of them self-employed so they can work it around the kids, and they all do the bulk of the housework as well. They spend their days shaking kids out of bed, shovelling breakfast into them, dealing with fussiness and dragging feet, checking the time, finding the car keys, getting stuck in traffic, and all the time your mind is already on all the other things you’ve got to do that day…so much so that on some days you actually can’t wait for the day to be over.

These last few months have been pretty full on. I’ve been preparing The Tree Of Rebels for release (11th August!!!) and I was working for many weeks on a workshop I ran on living the Indie Life. (I ran this the weekend before last and managed NOT to screw anything up!!) I am also in the process of turning my Chasing Driftwood Writing Group into a Community Interest Company. This is taking up a lot of my time. And then have have been all the things I’ve said yes to…

Maybe I need a few months of slowing down…

Perhaps my brain is trying to tell me something. I’ve had so many ‘oh my god, what is wrong with me’ moments lately, I’ve genuinely started to worry if I’ve got some sort of early dementia.

Hopefully not. For now, I will blame it on that frazzled end-of-school-year feeling and look forward to a lovely six weeks with my kids!

Over to you! Do you suffer from brain fog? Is it worse at certain times of the year? Have you done anything really embarrassing lately? Do let me know and feel free to comment and share!

I see you, single white eyebrow hair!

Yes, I see you. There’s no hiding from me. Not that you were trying to hide that much anyway. I mean, how could I not notice you? One bright white hair sticking up in the middle of all the black ones? You weren’t exactly trying to be anonymous, were you? No, in fact, I rather feel your flamboyant combination of stark white colour and blatant lack of respect for the order hairs lay in, was more of a giant fuck you, to be honest!

But that’s okay. I can take it! I’m a big girl. And you know that already don’t you? And anyway, I hate to piss on your party parade, little white eyebrow hair, but you were beaten to it by a couple of head hair a few years ago! So there! And there have been a few more since then, believe me. So you weren’t such a shock, I’m sorry to say. You looked sort of weird and out of place though, so I plucked you out and examined you, and I expect you’ll be glad to hear your brief existence as part of my body did encourage me to stand and consider the passing of my time.

But the white hairs on my head was a bigger deal. Because those little bastards crept up on me. They took me by surprise, unlike you. Those hairs got me in a right little spin. They had me thinking about age and death for weeks! But you, I’m not so sure. I feel like I will just shrug you off. You see, back then, I was a few years into my thirties. And let me tell you, shocking white eyebrow hair, your early thirties are a time of massive denial and self-delusion.

You’ve just come out of your twenties and you can’t quite believe you’ve actually crossed the threshold into your thirties. It doesn’t seem real. Or fair. Twenties sounds so nice, doesn’t it? No one really wants to be a teenager forever, not with all the angst and insecurity, but your twenties are fantastic. You’re still young. You look young! You feel young. Old age feels a million years away; something that can never touch you. Then you roll on into your third decade, and it feels like quite a beating if I’m honest.  Quite a shock to the system.

I remember when I was heading out of my twenties. Being thirtysomething distressed and confused me. As that big 3-0 approached, I started looking around at other women of that age. How was I supposed to dress? How should I act? I felt like I had to leave my old scruffy, student style clothes behind me and try to appear a bit more polished. I genuinely thought this!

Early thirties is a strange time. You tell yourself you are still young, and of course, you still feel exactly the same. We never really change much on the inside. But you are suddenly confronted with one hard, cold fact. Entering your third decade is the beginning of the end of being young. Of course, it doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t suddenly wake up with crows feet and saggy arms, thank God. You don’t suddenly turn grey or develop arthritis. But it’s the start…or the end.

And towards the end of your thirties? There is no denying it. You’re a woman now, not a girl. You’re approaching middle-age, something you never, ever, ever thought would happen to you. You see, we witness the changes of the seasons. We watch leaves turn yellow and brown. We see them twist and twirl in the air as they fall to the ground. We kick through them and watch them turn to mulch. We see their decay but not our own. The new buds start the process again. Another season. Another Spring. Followed by another Summer, and Autumn, and so on.

Realising the world sees you as an adult, is weird. I still don’t feel like one. I always think people are older than me and feel genuinely shocked when I find out they are my age. I mean, they’re old…I’m not? 

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Those first white hairs were amusing to me. I pulled them out and looked them over. I was pleased by them, oddly. I liked that they were bright white, not grey. And I feel the same way about you, white eyebrow hair. So funny how things go full circle! I was so blonde when I was a toddler, my hair was almost white. To think one day I will have white hair and white eyebrows and eyelashes is really sort of exciting. I can just about see myself if I stare hard enough.

When I stop to think about it, and yes, okay, I admit the appearance of white hairs like yourself, does inevitably cause me to ponder…I really think I am okay with getting older.

There’s something I always think about and that’s how lucky I am to be here in the first place. You know, out of all those eggs and all those sperms, and all those opportunities for life to exist or not, I made it through. I saw a video this week where a guy was saying you have more chance of winning the lottery 10 times than you do of getting a life in the first place. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I agree with the sentiment. It’s mind-boggling if you think about it.

Getting older, spotting wrinkles and white hairs, it does make you feel a little sad, a little bit nostalgic. Of course, I stare at my face in the mirror and try to see the younger me. I hear songs that take me back, I experience memories out of the blue, ones I had forgotten. I think, how nice it would be to go back to that time. To do that again. But I would never really want to go back. To go back would be to lose who I am now. The years that have passed have shaped and moulded me into who I am now, someone I mostly quite like!

I think the whole fucking thing is amazing. This life. Getting up every morning and placing your feet down on the floor. Feeling the rain on your face. Facing the dark. Watching the shadows. Catching the light. Feeling the endless earthy beat of the world beneath your feet. Knowing love. Holding tight. Inhaling embraces. Star gazing. Paddling. Holding hands. It’s beautiful and amazing that we have the gift to look back, to remember and feel the emotions of the past. And it’s exciting and enthralling that we have the vision to look forward, to dream and imagine and hope. And it’s breathtaking when you think about it, that we have this same, one moment that we live in perpetually. Just us. Inside our skull. Looking out. What do you see?

For me, life is full of small, perfect moments. Of bare feet on warm concrete. Sitting on the doorstep with a hot cup of coffee. Watching birds fly in and out of the hedgerow. Finger nails filled with dirt. The sun setting and rising. Listening to the rain at night. Getting lost in a good book. Falling asleep beside your child. Smelling their hair. Knowing that nothing lasts forever, least of all you. But you can wake and walk and sleep and dream and live and love, day after beautiful day, until it ends.

So, you don’t scare me little white eyebrow hair. You don’t worry me. In fact, you make me smile. There will be more of you along, I know. One day I will give up plucking you out and I will let the white takeover. And that will be okay.

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