Please, Ask Me What It’s Like to Be Me

This is written from a place of emotion. CBT tells me that I shouldn’t always listen to my emotional voice. It’s loud and often angry. Mental equilibrium is achieved by letting the rational voice in, to quieten the emotional voice and calm the mind.

But, what I have realised is, my mind cannot be calmed if it cannot believe it is in charge of my body. It doesn’t. I don’t. So, this comes from a place of struggling, of raw pain. Of wishing there could be just a little more understanding.

I offered some insight into my life to a hard-at-work author today, who wants to portray someone, like me, with mild CP in his book. I haven’t seen many such characters (though maybe that’s on me to widen my reading, I get that). But talking to him, telling him my truth was strangely cathartic. I was glad I did it.

See, a lot of my historic experiences have shown me that society believes (and the media often expects) that one disabled person can speak for us all. For me, that figurehead seems to be Tanni Grey Thompson. A very accomplished woman. I will not insult either of us by calling her inspiring. To me, she is just a woman living her life as best she can. After all, that’s all any of us can be right? But to the media, she is the person to (literally!) roll out to explain any disabled related issue to the rest of us. I got sick of the sight of her on TV to be honest and the poor woman has done nothing wrong. But the point is, she does not speak for me, even on the occassions when our opinions align. For starters, we have very different conditions. Tanni has spina bifida. I do not. She uses a wheelchair. I do not. Not all the same see?

I cannot speak to the life experiences of every disabled person, or even every person with the exact same condition as me (spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, in case you wondered). Cerebral palsy has many types, on many spectrums and effects each life differently.

I spent my teenage years, my physically better years pretending it wasn’t there. I’d cry everytime I caught sight of my scissor pattern staggering in shop windows, because that wasn’t the person I was in my mind’s eye. To me, so long as I cou;dn’t see it, I was the same as everybody else.

Except, now, I know this is the wrong approach. The physical toll has worsened. I live in a body worn to an age about 20 years above my documented age. Now, I live in fear of aging. I will not die any sooner as a result of my condition. But at 60 years old, I will likely feel as most people do physically towards the end of their lives. I will be facing, statistically, another 15-20 years, a gift I’m sure. Except, what does 20 years past the end of life feel like? No-one can know can they? I am terrified.

And that’s not what people want to hear. People want to tell me I’m strong and brave and quite frankly, I’m sick of it. Those are token words, they are not what I feel, not by a long shot. I’m not living this life because I’m strong or brave, or (shudder!) an inspiration. I am living this life because I have a family and dreams to live for. Because to not live this life takes away the pride I feel at belonging to them all. I live this life simply because there are people too important to not be here to love and enjoy.

I suppose the argument I have with myself, rightly or wrongly, is that people hide in these platitudes because they cannot know what it is like to be me. I get that. But please, please don’t be afraid to ask. If I’m having a good day, I’ll say it is what it is, that my husband, my daughter are all the reason I need to be OK with being me. If I’m having a bad day, I will probably cry. I will tell you I’m sick of being constantly sore and I’m too tired to do this anymore.

I realise how awkward it might make you feel. No-one really knows how to fix another do they? And I know I cannot be fixed. I long for it and I will not apologise for it. But I know in my heart that it is not a realistic expectation and am moving to take positive steps in self-acceptance, because I feel this is something I really need in my life when the prospect of living a long life has the power to frighten me so much. I have a lot to live for, but that doesn’t make the act of living any less hard.

So, if I’m in tears, if I can’t do this anymore, please don’t shy away. These limitations can be incredibly lonely. I don’t expect the world to fix me. I just need someone to ask, to wear an empathetic/sympathetic face. You don’t need to tell me I do “so well”. I need you to recognise that this is hard, to tell me that the constant struggles are rubbish and unfair. Everyone understands how hard life can be? How unfair?

Please don’t be afraid to ask. To hear. I will always fight on another day. I have things to fight for.

But sometimes, I just need someone to join me in a beaten heap on the floor, someone to help me get ready for the fight again.

Did I make you uncomfortable?

I’ve written before about earning the nickname of The Part Time Part Timer at work.

I made a flexible working request with my boss, who was brilliant and let me work from home as much as I deemed necessary without another word, so long as I was taking good care of my body and managing my pain.

It means I’ve been out of the office a lot more, seeing a lot less of even my colleagues on the field.

My boss tells me I should care about me and not what anyone else thinks of me, because my life is no-one’s business. He’s right of course, but I’m a born worrier.

I decided to try and take control of how rubbish the ill-informed jest made me feel. I know no harm is meant but that still doesn’t give such words the right to make me feel so bad.

So I decided to be honest. To share the details that would otherwise be missing from colleagues understanding about my absences from the office.

Someone asked me for some paperwork I hadn’t seen. I couldn’t find what they asked for. They said it was time sensitive and asked “Do you mind if I have a look? You might not have seen it…”

I moved back and started to say: “Of course not!” when they finished “…because you’re never here.”

My defense tightened in my chest. I knew they meant it in a light-hearted way but enough. I had the right to speak a truth they might not be aware of.

“Actually, I’ve had to work from home a lot more because I’m finding I’m in more and more pain.”

But they were talking again before I’d even finished the sentence.

“Oh, I shouldn’t have said that.”

That told me they weren’t really listening, batting my words away.

And why would they do that? I can only surmise it’s because the truth made them uncomfortable. I wonder if I’m supposed to feel apologetic. Because I don’t. My life, its ever increasing limitations make me uncomfortable every damn day. It’s only right to let that be the truth. I have to deal with it, it’s not my problem if others cannot.

Facing Fears

The pain I have been in and how useless it has made me feel these last couple of weeks came to a head on Friday night. When Kev arrived home at 6pm to bathe Squidge and put her to bed, I couldn’t speak, sinking into my sadness.

As Squidge requested that “Daddy read” her bedtime story, I ran a hot, hot bath hoping my muscles might relax. I climbed in and burst into tears.

I fell into an exhausted sleep at some point that evening but even then… the tears and the sadness didn’t stop. In truth, I think I cried for 18 hours straight.

I think I was grieving. Grieving for the mum I wasn’t capable of being, for the support and experiences my beautiful girl couldn’t have because of me.

Having no choice but to accept that I will always be sore. Maybe not quite this much, but always some. That the levels of pain will always have some level of control on what I am able to do. And that didn’t seem like much at all.

We had a wedding reception to go to. But I couldn’t face it. Told Kev I couldn’t face the crowds, the small talk, the exhaustion and feeling like an eternal party pooper.

And Kev was as understanding as he could possibly be and told me that was fine. Said Squidge should go to his parents as planned and I should take care of me. But I just cried harder, I felt lost. If I wasn’t going to go, then I wanted to spend the weekend giving my time and energy to our little girl because the pain had let me fail her.

But Kev was right when he said I had no energy left to give, that to try when I was running on empty would be to everyone’s detriment. And I felt awful. Because more choices were being taken from me, because I couldn’t be the mum I so want to be.

Feeling like that though, how on earth was I supposed to go and have a nice, relaxing day to myself? When, not only would I be letting my daughter down, but also friends who were expecting me to celebrate their most special day with them? The prospect felt hollow and oh so lonely. I knew that if I was left alone, the horrible grieving tears had no chance of stopping. I didn’t know who to reach out to, because who can understand all the facets of this life?

The lessons of my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy course were also ringing loudly in my ears.

Face. Your. Fears.

Avoidance only offers temporary relief.

So, I took baby steps. My breathing wasn’t quite regular even when I got in the car with Kev, London bound. I didn’t know at that point whether I could talk myself into going to the reception. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to be alone.

And I went. I went into a room in a dress that made me feel pretty, in shoes that didn’t make me wince (Calla are literal lifesavers… I never thought shoes could make me happy) and I enjoyed the small talk, I enjoyed seeing so many happy people in one room. There was always a glass of Prosecco in my hand and it took hours of propping up the bar before my feet started to ache. I tried desperately not to pay attention to the time, to not bring myself down by feeling like a let down.

As it was, I admitted defeat just before 10pm – a solid effort for me. Kev was equally triumphant on my behalf and came back to the hotel with me without a word of complaint. I was a warm and happy drunk and felt accomplished with it.

I’d listened to the CBT advice and accomplished something for me, faced my fear of social situations, feeling like I couldn’t fit in a roomful of energetic happy people.

And I went to bed and slept for a good long time.

Exactly what I needed. Well done me.

I wish I didn’t have to tell you how much Mummy hurts

You’re still my baby. For all your confidence and independence, you are my baby and I am the mummy. It is my job and my privilege to take care of you.

My heart is happiest when we have days like this in the park… I wish you could know how beautiful you are my little sunshine.

But we haven’t made it to the park today. As I write, you’re napping on the sofa beside me, Freddie tucked up under your head. You’re so peaceful.

I’m not. Working from home without all the trappings of adjustable screen risers and chairs is taking its toll… one I didn’t even think to expect. That happens to me a lot now and I’m getting more and more frustrated. It’s horrible having no understanding of your own body. It’s so unfair.

My back has been in constant spasm. I didn’t even understand that I suffered muscle spasms at all until recently. My back has been constantly tense, my muscles feel solid and useless. Every little movement hurts today and it has made me feel a terrible mummy.

I couldn’t lift you up… even when you asked so politely with your please and thank you. You couldn’t understand why because you’re so small and you’re still learning. But the pressure of you asking continually made me burst into tears.

You understand what it means to cry now and tried to distract me with songs and games and shouts of “Mummy!” You have such a big heart, darling girl. I tried very hard to stop crying… for you.

But it breaks my heart that I will have to explain to you so many times and in so many ways as you get older all the things that Mummy finds hard… and harder.

I don’t want you to hate my differences. And the only way I can expect that to be what you learn is if I teach you. So I have to learn not to hate them either. But oh, when they sneak up on me like this, a nasty little reminder that I am not in control of my own body, it gets so hard.

So I’m so sorry if I shouted Squidge, or if I made you feel sad. Mummy is struggling today. Because I so wish I didn’t have to share this pain with you. Today I could not hide it.

I’m sorry we couldn’t go to the park.

“Mummy, I’m alright!”

This is Freddie. Freddie is the most loved Fox there ever was.

Freddie came into Squidge’s life when she was just a few weeks old, my own best friend introducing my baby girl to her own best friend. I love that. I love that Squidge loves someone else so much.

He comes with her everywhere at the moment. He came with us to the playground opposite our house. She pushed him lovingly back and forth on the swing until, inevitably “Freddie glide!” (Slide, of course!)

Squidge has always been so confident physically, very rarely is she willing to accept help. And I love that confidence, I want her to have it always.

But because she was so determined that beloved Freddie should enjoy the experience too and she would not let him go, she lost her previously confident footing on the suspended stepping stones.

I know every parent experiences the horror of slow motion. I saw her fall before she did and cursed my body for not reacting in time as she sobbed in shock.

I bundled her into my arms and checked her over, horror and tears coarsing through me. I had never seen her actually hurt herself before. I called Kev instinctively as I soothed her, convinced we’d be going to A&E.

As it rang, I asked Squidge where she hurt. She’d fallen forwards about three feet and I was terrified she’d say “head” or worse, nothing at all because I’d allowed her to be so damaged she couldn’t remember.

“Chiiiiin!” She wailed. I personally have split my own chin open twice so was terrified to look where she pointed. But there wasn’t so much as a graze. The sobbing subsided (from Squidge at least!) and Kev, thank God, was calm.

“I can’t even hear her crying.”

“She is!” I insisted as she wriggled out of my arms.

“What’s she doing right now?”

As I remained a tearful, guilty wreck on the floor, I dared to look up. And not only had our beautiful, brave, confident girl climbed back up onto the slide; when she saw me looking, she called out reassuringly “Mummy, I’m alright.”

And so Squidge and Freddie played on until she could be tempted away with an offer of tea and an episode of “Money” (aka Tipping Point) and I was amazed and humbled by the utter resilience in someone so small.

The guilt made my stomach wrench as my baby cried but that baby, she consoled me. Never have I been so reassured of the good job I am doing as a parent.

Mummy sees you’re alright Squidge. I think you’ve got this, baby one.

What does it mean to be a grown up?

I am *gulp* 30 this spring.

I have always been someone that thought those 5-10 years older were the coolest and totally had their lives and identities figured out. As it is, I’m not even sure it’s cool to label someone as “cool” anymore. But the point is, when I was 7, I thought 11 year olds were the best. When I was 11, 15 year olds were all I could ever want to be. When I was 21, 25 year olds around me seemed to have picked out their careers, loving partners and beautiful houses. They knew what they were doing.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that age is simply that. The wisdom that the older generation informed us came with age is distinctly lacking with my fellow millennials. We’re all frantically paddling underwater, as it were. No-one has a bloody clue.

As far as my own identity goes, that’s always been a bit of a muddle too. I was very forunate to meet my husband at a very young age, to know I’d met someone that so wanted to understand everything I am, to support me in discovering everything I could be. Being with Kev has given me experiences I couldn’t have dreamt of had I not left my hometown. Before the big 30, I have a collection of Very Important Papers – our marriage certificate, Squidge’s birth certificate, the titles to our home and my driving licence. In just those few, I realise I have more than some people ever do.

Equally however, some of those people have something I am still grappling with: self assurance.

I have always wanted to be one of those millennial lifestyle bloggers; you know the type – work hard, play hard, has had a favourite wine picked out since their early 20’s that they can drink by the gallon on a Saturday night, chased up with flaming Sambuccas as they happily get to know a dozen new people in a heaving bar, probably somewhere in London where said wine costs £15 a glass.

I waste so much of my waning energy berating myself for not being that person. Except, what with the journey of self acceptance I am on thanks to the support of the Mental Health team, I have to realise I cannot hope to be who I am not. I have to realise that I am OK.

Admittedly, I feel very out of place sometimes, like I haven’t managed to learn things about myself that other people have by my age. I don’t wear make up for example, because at 29 years old, I physically can’t apply it. I don’t have a signature lip culour or a go to perfume, or a protective face I can paint on to make myself feel safe or beautiful. I am just me.

I can’t style my hair. This one I am looking to tackle because I’d like to look a little different. But I really don’t think I could be bothered to waste time on ever-changing make-up trends when I could in fact be sleeping. Sleep is very important to me, to my abilities and my sanity. My Sleepstar eye mask has been one of the best purchases I’ve made so far this year. No flaming Sambuccas over here!

I think it is safe to say I am not living the life of my peers. I work from home more and more now, to manage my need for sleep and increasing hospital appointments for physical pains and mental struggles. There are no grand plans for travelling or holidays. Instead, there are savings to enable us to renovate our house into our forever home, for us to eventually become a one income family. I feel such a responsibility to contribute to all of these things before I am unable to contribute at all.

To me, being an adult is about having a pension plan, pension contribtions, shoes that don’t make me want to cry in pain. My sense of fun has waned in their favour as my energies and capabilities have left me. But I feel positive, for the first time in a long, long time. The Mental Health courses, in the first instances are allowing me to identify what the struggles are and what strategies are best employed to confront them.

I suppose, being a grown up is accepting that not being like everybody else is a good thing, that uniqueness should be appreciated and celebrated. Knowing that I don’t have to like gin, or avocado, or hot yoga (genuinely do not understand any of these concepts. I do like (cheap, sweet) rosé and sitting around surfing eBay and enjoying terrible 80’s films. (Grease 2 is on in the backgound as I write this and people, I’m not even sorry. It’s so awful that it’s brilliant). That to take advice late is better than taking none at all. (I’ve only just started using skin cream this year and I’ve switched from regular to camomile tea to better manage my anxiety.)

It’s being able to utilise good advice and routines. I recently began using Headspace as a tool to calm me down through guided meditation and breathing exercises. I can’t recommend it enough. It gives me somewhere to go when I need to destress, something I am doing to help myself. And I feel the benefits in my sleep alone.

There is a long way to go on this journey, as there is for all of us. But if there’s one thing we all need, it is hope. Hopefully some kind of aceptance comes along with that eventually, but for now, it feels good to be hopeful. I think I am ready to be a grown up.

Just in time right?

Facing up to the reality of stress

Months ago, I took myself to the GP and told her that I was overwhelmed and sad. She referred me to the Mental Health team who have in turn, given me the opportunity to attend some Stress Controll and Fulfilment classes.

I went to the very first session of the Stress Control Group yesterday. I was anxious about it all day, nerves writhing in my tummy. I couldn’t concentrate and got very little work done. So a stress course was essentially stressing me out, making me feel guilty for not applying myself to my paid work. Ironic isn’t it? But I walked to the venue, I walked through the door. Three people in the queue ahead of me asked to be directed to the same place, so I didn’t even need to feel daft and just walking into that room felt like such a big achievement. I was after all, there to help myself.

There were so many people in that room. It was amazing. You always think that you are the only one, when in fact, stress is as common as can be, causing so many related issues for us all, like constant physical pains. Who knew, right?

I felt quite panicky just being sat there and could feel myself losing my sense of “being in the room”, spiralling off into my own panic. I wanted to cry for all the struggling people they talked about in the case studies, I wanted to get up and run. It was hard to listen, though I laughed to myself when the course leader said exactly that – that concentration is always poor when we’re stressed and anxious. But she also kept saying that I was in the right place and it made me feel braver, safer.

I can’t pretend I listened well for the whole two hours because I know I didn’t. But some snippets really resonated with me.

We all have stress in our lives.

None of us can change what has gone before, so why waste emotional energy overthinking what you cannot change? What’s ridiculous is, I of course, know this, but hearing someone, a professional, say it out loud, the little monster that lives in my ear unclenched a little bit and stopped dead. Because it’s so true. You have to go on. And in spite of everything I have told myself I am not capable of, the one thing I know I am capable of is going on – nothing has killed me yet.

They told us that stress feeds itself on all your other stressors. So if you spend a long time feeling stressed and overwhelmed, chances are the thing that stressed you this week is not the thing that set off the stress of last week. You have to find ways of cutting the little monster off. And hopefully, that’s what these courses will enable me to do, to find happiness in the little things and to feel real pride for all my achievements.

And here’s my first one:

Our homework was to draw out our “vicious circle of stress” – all the things that stress us and how they manage to keep themselves going, so that we could try and work out ways of starving the stress. Now, I didn’t get that far, because honestly, my circle was far too busy to be a circle. A list of stressors came pouring out of me. And when I read it back, I realised that for years now, I have been dealing with a lot!

I haven’t necessarily dealt with these things well, these are things I am looking to learn, to help myself. But nevertheless, I am constantly dealing with a lot, even outside the standard “marriage, child, house” that it’s likely everyone else in that room was dealing with. I have pain, I have limitations, which in themselves need a lot of work on acceptance before the anger wins. I have uni, I have long-distance relationships to maintain and a lot of memories to process that have hindered my sense of independence and self-confidence.

And suddenly, I felt proud of myself for being able to carry on. I’m going to give myself less of a hard time. I never feel proud of myself. Me, myself & I have pretty much always struggled to get on, so honestly, this was a great start.

The mantra of the stress control course is something like “Face your fears. Be more active. Watch what you drink.”

Avoidance is a huge crutch of mine and the course already recognises that avoidance does work to control stress in the shor term. But avoiding your fears just builds them up into a more deep rooted problem longer-term and to be honest, I think therein lie a lot of my problems. They’ve gone unfaced for too long and have become a horrible, stubborn part of me that I hate, but that really has quite a grip on me.

So I’m trying to take the mantra to heart already, even without realising it.

The day before the course, I walked Squidge to playgroup. She needs constant bribing to get in the pram now because she’d rather walk, but we did OK.

She was patient, she listened (she even collected the Deep Heat lotion for me that morning when I was on the floor complaining that my “neck ow!” She handed me the container saying “Mummy medicine neck ow!” I was so blummin’ touched. She went into playgroup without a backward glance when previously she’s refused to go in without clinging to me. Well done Squidge, my big, brave, grown up girl.

Enjoying her soup before Wednesday’s playdate

I pottered round town, buying all the bits we needed and then I went back for me. She wolfed down some soup and went for a nap in preparation for a park playdate we had with a friend. But she wasn’t ready for me to wake her an hour later and howled like I was beating her whenever I made moves to get her dressed. She clung to me, sobbing, only comforted when I rocked her like I did when she was newborn. I felt awful, that my baby was so upset, that I couldn’t dress her, that we’d be late, what my friend would think.

As it was, we were only ten minutes late and my friend couldn’t have been kinder – and Squidge couldn’t have been more delightful, cooing over her baby boy and guzzling her babyccino like a pro.

Face your fears – I didn’t allow myself to cry off and let a friend down, or let myself feel terrible for doing so, like I didn’t deserve friends. I told myself (and Squidge!) that she was getting dressed because I knew we’d (both!) appreciate the experience much more when we were there.

Be more active – Two walking trips to town and back. Well done me!

Watch what you drink – I got a 12 bottle box of wine at cost price from work for Christmas, so I’m not gonna lie, I have been caning the rosé (which for a lightweight like me means 1x large glass, so only just topping my 14 units/week (maybe?) I’m probably not drinking to medical excess even now, but I know it’s still more than I really should. So yesterday, I had a small one.

See? Wins all round!

And today, I met up with another friend and her little girl at mine & Squidge’s favourite soft play and then they came up to play at the playground by our house for some outdoor time. They ran off to the basketball court together to run about and when they came back out, they were holding hands like the best of friends. My heart felt so huge with love in that second, I felt so happy.

Playing with her lovely friend on the “tee-taw” today – and absolutely not looking at Mummy’s camera!

The lovely mobile hairdresser came round too to check how I’d gotten on with the ponytail tuition and would you believe – I actually did it! Even with my weak hand, I got my hair up higher than I ever have before, so I have the skills there now. Just more practise and then I can learn a messy bun to go with my messy ponytail. (So relieved these are in fashion because these are what comes naturally to my wonky hands too!)

I am very proud of me. Because in these last 3 days, I have done a lot to benefit myself, which in the end can only mean the best of all things for Squidge. A little less avoidance from now on. Let’s see what the best of me looks like!