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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Slipping Through My Fingers…

Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning
Waving goodbye with an absent-minded smile
I watch her go with a surge of that well known sadness
And I have to sit down for a while

I’d never even heard the song until I took my daughters to see Mamma Mia at the cinema. They were only little at the time, just four and five years old. And I don’t even like Abba, or any ‘pop’ music for that matter. But when that song came on, accompanied by the character of Donna helping her daughter get ready for her wedding day, well, the tears just flowed down my face. It was quite ridiculous and embarrassing. But it was just every word, you know? And I got this image in my head, of the first time I’d had those same emotions about my little girl. My eldest, two years old, running off ahead of me down an alley behind the flat we lived in at the time. I remembered watching the back of her, her long blonde hair swinging from side to side, and I had this sudden, startling image of her starting school, which up until that moment had always seemed an impossible thing. But I could suddenly see her, school uniform on, hair in neat plaits, school bag on her shoulder…

It hit me in the cinema, maybe twice as hard. They were both already at school by that point, and my third child was just a year old, and I already knew how fast it went, how the time, and the children, slipped through your fingers.

Well, my eldest turns sixteen this very week, so this song is back in my head again. And tomorrow, my fourth and youngest child starts school. Gulp. I had tears in my eyes for the duration of my dog walk this morning. And that bloody song going around and around and around…

The feeling that I’m losing her forever
And without really entering her world
I’m glad whenever I can share her laughter
That funny little girl

These words come back to taunt me now my little man is about to start school, and I can’t deny that’s exactly how it feels; like I’m losing him forever. Of course, I know I’m not and in many of my more rational moments, I imagine how much more work I’m going to get done now. And how he won’t have to be dragged out on so many dog walks, and I won’t always be saying; come on, come on, hurry up.

Slipping through my fingers all the time
I try to capture every minute
The feeling in it
Slipping through my fingers all the time
Do I really see what’s in her mind
Each time I think I’m close to knowing
She keeps on growing
Slipping through my fingers all the time

I’ve tried, since he was born, to capture every minute, to soak up every part of it, to live and exist in that one moment, that one speck of existence. I breastfed him much longer than the other kids…there was no hurry for any of it to pass…I carried him in a sling until he was too big, just clinging to that feeling, the weight of his little body against mine, the feel of his soft, fat cheek, the smell of his curly, wispy hair.

And it never feels possible or real that they will grow older and go to school. It just doesn’t. Because you live in the moment with small children. They are always just the age they are. Soon you can’t quite remember or grasp who they were last year, what they looked like, what they could do and not do, and in the same way, you can’t see too far forward. You can’t imagine them much older. You just can’t. They are always just sort of stuck.

So it hits you hard, I think. Letting them go. And I know, he will have so much fun, and he will learn so much more, and I understood a long time ago that motherhood is really just a long process of gradually letting go. From the moment they start to walk and talk, to the first moment they pull their hand out of yours, to that all-important milestone, the first day of school.

This week I have watched as countless Facebook mummies have posted back to school pictures of their children, and it gets to me every time. All those fresh, smiling faces. Polished shoes, neat hair, book bags waiting to be filled. You can see all their potential and hope and optimism and you hope they get to hang onto all of it for as long as possible. You want each and every one of them to feel excited, and curious and valued. You want them all to be okay. And I know, that behind every back to school photo, behind every beaming smile, is a tearful mother feeling a mixture of so many things.

Bewilderment that it all went so fast. Relief, that they are going to get some life and time back for themselves. Perhaps excitement as they start a new chapter in their own life, maybe a new job or another opportunity that had to be put on hold. Worry for the child. Will they fit in? Will they be able to cope? Will they have nice, understanding teachers? Will they make friends? Sadness that an era has come to an end. That you can’t ever go back. Can’t stride into those photos you took when they were just a baby, can’t scoop them back up and feel them rest their tiny head on your shoulder. It’s always onwards. To the future. The next part of life.

Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture
And save it from the funny tricks of time
Slipping through my fingers (Slipping through my fingers all the time)

With those words ringing in my head, I just ironed all the little name labels onto his uniform, and double checked his book bag, shoes and PE kit are all ready to go in the morning. He’s only doing three hours for Christ’s sake! It will be time to go back and get him before I know it! But the first day leads to the second, and eventually to full-time school, to years slipping through my fingers that I won’t be able to grasp onto no matter how much I want to slow it all down…

So, this mummy will try to be brave in the morning. I’ll have a mantra in my head, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry… I’ll have a great big smile on my face and I will have to absolutely refuse to let that song inside my head. Not even for one second. I’ll get him ready and I’ll see him off and I’ll do the hardest and most important thing you do as a mother.

I’ll let go.

Just for a bit.

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A Writer’s Confession To Her Family…

Dear Family,

There’s not a day goes by that I don’t feel the guilt for one reason or another. I love what I do and I will never stop doing it, but it does make me feel bad at times, to the extent I feel I need to apologise to you all. I also feel the need to make several confessions, so here goes…

 

  • A lot of the time, I’d rather be writing… I’m so sorry, this makes me sound like a monster and maybe I am one! This doesn’t mean I don’t love and treasure our moments together. Whether it’s mucking about down at the river, cuddling up for storytime, watching a DVD together or simply laughing. I do treasure those times, and I do savour and soak up every single precious moment whenever I can…But some of the other stuff? You know, helping with homework, doing the washing, making the dinner, playing certain tedious games, answering endless questions, going to the park…well, some of the time, but not all of the time, you understand, I sort of wish I was writing. I can’t really help it, so please don’t misunderstand. It’s not that I don’t love you all and adore being with you, it’s just that the writing has somewhat possessed me and taken over my mind.
  • A lot of the time, I can’t concentrate on this family stuff…Ugh, it’s true, and today was a fine example, forgetting my son’s sports day entirely until it was too late! But I did sit through two hours of clapping at Achievement evening for one of you last night and that will occur again for another next week…But I admit it is true, my head is not always where it should be. I know you all get fed up of me drifting off, not listening to you, forgetting things, being a bit dreamy and out of it. Truth, is I’ve always been that way! Now I’ve got to muddle along with the whole parenting thing as well, and sometimes it gets messy! I try my best. I’ve got my to-do lists and my calendar and my little notes scrawled on paper and stuck to the wall! I try and stay on top of things and most of the time I do pretty well! It’s not easy though. These stories and characters are living in my brain, demanding of me and I suppose it’s a bit like they hold me hostage, sometimes?drink-coffee-meme

 

  • Sometimes when you’re talking to me, I’m not really listening… Shameful to admit, but true! I think you guys are good at recognising the signs by now. My eyes glaze over. I get a dreamy look on my face. Sometimes you get cross and accuse me of not listening. Sometimes you make the most of it and get your revenge by administering your evil jump scares. I’m so easy to scare and scream like a baby which you all find hilarious, but the reason I’m so easy to startle is how far away I have drifted…It’s not deliberate, please believe me. It’s just some part of a plot or a character’s personality has clicked into place at the very moment I should be paying attention to you! I’m sorry!
  • Sometimes I use you in my writing and my books… Eek, sorry. Again,  not deliberate! A lot of the time it’s accidental and subconscious! I don’t always notice it until later. But I feel I can get away with this somewhat, as hardly any of you read my books!
  • You inspire me in ways you will never know… True. Two of you have inspired a new novel idea I really didn’t want! Thanks for that. But you will never know. Some of you have been weaved into my characters personalities, some of the things you’ve done or said over the years, some of the complex relationships and insecurities have helped shape characters. Sometimes one of you will tell me something or sing a song, or play some music, and bam. I’ve got an idea.
  • I wish I could talk to you more about my writing… Some of you are quite good at listening. Some of you even ask! Some of you try really hard not to sigh or roll your eyes when I’m repeating something about a storyline or a rewrite that I’ve probably bored you with a million times…Some of you never ask about any of it…Some of you hear way more than your fair share, but the thing is, I love talking about writing, which is one of the reasons I set up my writing group. I can at least offload on them and vice versa! Writers may be quiet folk but they love talking about writing!
  • Sometimes I count the minutes down to bedtime… Not every day, mind you! Just some of them! Confession, sometimes I start looking forward to bedtime in the morning! Usually, when there is a lot going on, I’ve started a shiny new project, or I’m dashing towards the finish line of novel writing, or I’m launching a book and it’s occupying my every thought…
  • Sometimes I wish you would leave me alone when I’m trying to write… Ugh, one time I even stuck a sign on the door; do not disturb! But none of you seem to get it. Writing time is precious to me and hard-won. Often it’s just the evenings, me trying to squeeze as many words in as I can before exhaustion wins. And then the tapping at the door starts. You traipse in and out constantly with various demands. Other relatives are just as bad at other times. I have one precious day a week when I can write almost all day, and I really, really don’t like to be disturbed!
  • I couldn’t do it without you… It’s true. I love you all really. Wouldn’t be without you in a million years. And with you all growing and changing so fast, becoming so grown up and independent, I’m reminded daily how ridiculously fast this life goes by. So I’ll hang onto you as hard and as long as I can…Just hope you can forgive me when my mind wanders away from you, or when the characters drown you out, or when the urge to write is like an itch I just need to scratch. I hide in my room and I tap away at the keyboard, feeding my addiction. I just hope I make it up to you the rest of the times!

dirt

 

Hello Forties!…I’m Ready For You

I normally love my birthday. I’m one of those people who likes to spread it out over a few days, maybe with a barbeque on one day, a family outing to the pub or another, meeting with friends and so on. I mean, why not? It’s a crazy world and a short life and I’ve always thought you should celebrate what and when you can!

I approached my 40th birthday with a different mindset though. This one, I have to admit, was one I’d been dreading from afar for a long time. And then suddenly it was upon me. The worst thing about my 39th year was watching loads of other people turn 40 before me. Partly, I was shocked that they were hitting the big 4-0, and partly I was worn out by all the many exciting ways they planned to celebrate it!

These people were really up for it! I’m talking about trips abroad, weekends away, big family get-togethers and barbeques, surprise parties, meals with friends and so on. I was impressed and exhausted! The closer I got to my birthday month, the more I felt like rejecting the entire, inevitable thing. I wanted to hide from my 40th birthday. I wanted to run from it!

I mean, it all went too fast! Look, I was a little newborn baby once!? How is it possible I am about to become truly middle-aged??

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I don’t think I’m really that bothered about looking older, getting wrinkles or grey hair or things like that. I’m not overly vain and have never really been into looks, mine or anyone else’s. I think it was just the speed with which I reached this milestone that bothers me!

I can remember being a little dreamy kid, my head in the clouds the whole time. Shy and awkward, I just wanted to be left alone to make up stories in my head. At that age, even becoming a teenager seemed impossible. Something that would never happen! And now I look at these old photos and feel rather emotional about how fast it all went. How is that little girl me??

me as a kid

Hitting 40 certainly makes you feel a tad nostalgic, I’ve found. I’ve been looking back at old photos and wandering through the memories and feelings they evoke. They mostly remind me of a simpler time and they also make me feel fortunate. I was happy then, and I’m still happy now. Funnily enough, I couldn’t find any pictures of me as a teenager! I think I may have burnt them all!?

But even in my 20’s, I didn’t feel like an adult. I don’t think I had adult thought processes or reactions. I was still in a bit of a dream, I guess. I became a mum in my early 20’s and motherhood dominated my next two decades. I threw myself into motherhood with gusto and passion, because it was the best thing to have ever happened to me. I truly loved every minute of those first few years as a young mum with two small girls. They were magnificent times.

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I remember feeling a bit freaked out as my 30’s approached though. Turning 30 seemed huge at the time. Like I had to suddenly grow up and stop being silly. Get a real job and my arse into gear! I had three children in my 20’s and worked as a childminder, where every day was a fun filled blur of playdough, Lego, building dens, dressing up and making mess! I remember looking at women older than me when I was approaching 30 because I thought I probably better start dressing differently. I genuinely thought that! I’d been wearing the same scruffy student type clothes for years and thought, I’m too old for this no. I need to wear women’s clothes! Well, I never managed to figure out what that was and I’m still dressing the same now!

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In the end, I quite liked being in my 30’s. I was far more confident. I started writing again and publishing my books. I had my much longed-for fourth child. It’s been a truly memorable decade. Your 30’s are nice, really. You’re still young, you still look young, but you’re an adult, with a settled home-life and responsibilities. Middle age and old age still felt a long way away!

But then suddenly, you know what? 40 is here. Everyone else has had their turn, and now it’s yours. No running. No hiding. Just shoulders back, head up and look it in the eye. Because it’s arrived. It’s knocking on the door.

It’s a bit scary, I guess. Your mortality feels more real. Your aging is not something you can escape. It’s going to stare you in the face every time you look in the mirror. I admit I was starting to freak out about it a bit…But the other night I met up with friends, as we do from time to time, to sit in the pub, eat chips and talk about anything and everything. I adore these meet-ups with these particular women because I find them all very impressive. They all have a fairly similar mindset to me, but all come from different backgrounds. We’ll talk about politics, society, what’s happening to the NHS and education in our country, we’ll moan about our other half’s and express concerns about our children. We’ll talk and laugh and the entire evening always goes far quicker than I wish it to. So, we got to talking about our 40’s, and one of the ladies who has already had hers told me that she quite embraced turning 40. She said she saw her 30’s as mostly about raising kids and running a home and dashing around after everyone, but that she looked forward to her 40’s when it would begin to be a bit more about her, and what she wants. I thought how right she was. And with my youngest starting school this September, it reminded me that my 40’s, are also going to become more about me and what I want to achieve. I felt quite liberated hearing this, as I really hadn’t looked at it that way. I’d been approaching it from a very negative mindset. I don’t want to be 40! I don’t want to get old! But I feel better about it now…

So, come on then 40. I’m ready for you. I’m not running anywhere. We’re in this thing together and what would a life be if you could choose to stand still, or turn back? My next decade will be full of ups and downs, surprises and opportunities. I’m looking forward to it. I’m even starting to like the sound of the number…40. Forty. I’m Chantelle and I’m forty years old. Nice. It’s all right!

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