Breaking Through

I have been sitting on this blog post for well over a year, prodding it every now and again and then running away. It’s something I want to write about, and most importantly feel like I need to write about, but something about it just hasn’t been quite right. It hasn’t flowed right, hasn’t really felt like my voice, and has been a bit flat. I’ve edited it over 20 times and haven’t been able to put my finger on what felt wrong. Then the other day, I listened to a podcast with Glennon Doyle, author of the amazing book ‘Untamed’. She talked about the first draft of her book not sitting quite right, and eventually figured out that she was trying to write this book about being untamed in a very tame way. I realised I have been doing a micro version of that with my own blog post. I have been trying to open up and write about my experiences with depression and learning how to be vulnerable in a very un-vulnerable way, and it just wasn’t working.  I was trying to talk about learning to care about myself (and, dare I say, love myself) from a place of looking back on something that has happened in the past and not something that is an ongoing process, and it’s just not true. I owe it to myself to be truthful after all these years of pretending to be fine at times when I wasn’t, and the truth is that the journey I have been on is very much an ongoing process and will probably always be part of the structure of my life. I am certainly in a much happier place than I have been in recent years and now feel able to put my words together, so here goes…

During the past two years I had my first official run-in with depression. I say ‘first official’ because it was the first time I was unable to continue powering through difficult times pretending I was ok, and eventually had no choice but to finally look it in the eye and give it a name. The past few years have brought a challenging combination of lifestyle stress, big changes, hidden emotional baggage and family health issues, all of which came together to become a load I just couldn’t carry anymore, and I broke down.

I was too scared to go to my GP and talk it through with someone I didn’t know very well, and who I didn’t know for certain didn’t think I was a useless human being (something I was already perfectly good at doing myself). Depression is a sneaky liar, whispering in your ear and telling you that you aren’t worthy of help at the time when you need it the most, in such a convincing voice that you have no alternative but to assume it must be true. I knew I needed help but didn’t feel like I deserved it, and managed to convince myself that I could handle being someone’s client by paying for private counselling more than I could handle the idea of asking for help. I feel unbelievably lucky to have already known a wonderful psychotherapist who ran a mother’s group I used to go to, and going to see her while I was crumbling felt safe. I fully appreciate how privileged I was to be able to scrape the money together to pay for a few sessions, and have no idea of knowing how long I would have struggled on before getting help if that hadn’t been an option. After stripping it down, layer by layer, I realised I had been feeling weird for a while, and agreed to go and see my GP as well. Sitting in that room, trying to articulate how I was feeling and wondering if I was making any sense, I was surprised by how quickly and easily he said ‘You sound like you’re depressed’. I didn’t want to believe it and insisted on blood tests to check for vitamin deficiencies which I thought could explain away most of my symptoms, but by the next week they had all come back normal. There was the answer right in front of me, which I had been avoiding for a long time – I was depressed. With that answer came another question… ‘If feeling like this equals being depressed, when have I felt like this in the past without knowing what it really was?’. There were probably times in my teens and early twenties that I’ll never know for sure about, but one answer came to me straight away, in a painful realisation. I was depressed a few years ago after my second child was born, but nobody (including myself) knew it at the time.

During that difficult time in my life, juggling a baby who didn’t sleep much at night with a toddler who bounced around during the day was my normal, and I was more physically and emotionally drained than I had ever been before. I remember sometimes feeling so utterly exhausted and empty that I felt like crying, except I was so numb nothing actually came out of my eyes. I did sometimes wonder if I might be depressed, but then told myself I was too tired to be able to tell. I would tell myself things like “When the baby starts sleeping and then I start sleeping then I’ll know whether I’m depressed or not”. The thought that I might be depressed was deeply uncomfortable and scary to me, and I judgementally saw it as a personal character flaw. Depression was something that unfortunately happened to other people, but not to me. However, it wasn’t nearly as scary as the thought that maybe I wasn’t depressed. My deepest darkest fear at that point was that there actually wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with me at all, that I didn’t deserve any special treatment or extra help because parenting is supposed to be hard, and that if I wasn’t coping it was because I wasn’t a good enough mother or a strong enough person and someone would notice and take my children away from me.

I have read and found comfort in many articles and blog posts in recent years, but especially Melanie Golding’s article for Stylist magazine. She talks about the symptoms of depression and the regular condition of being a new mother being almost identical. How it’s so hard for health visitors and doctors to tell if mothers are depressed or not and mothers feeling like they have to ‘pass’ for being ok in order to not be considered unfit parents.

So here’s an idea… What if we instead treated all parents as if they could be depressed, and lovingly encouraged them to put looking after their mental health above anything else? Imagine what it would be like for emotional support to be given as standard as a preventative measure, rather than waiting for parents to hit rock bottom first. What if looking after yourself was the top priority, because when the people looking after the children are ok, the children are almost guaranteed to be ok as a happy side effect? If you go into almost any doctors surgery or hospital waiting room you will see posters telling you that if you’re a carer for someone with a health issue it’s vitally important that you look after yourself and have your own support. What if mothers didn’t expect to love every single second of mothering, and stopped feeling guilty about saying they needed a break to reset and recharge? Where do you expect a weary sleep-deprived mum to draw the line between struggling and struggling, and realise she needs some help? My heart aches with love and sadness for that sleep deprived and over-stretched version of myself, who was working so hard and struggling so much but thought she didn’t deserve any help. For thinking that she shouldn’t have been allowed to have two children if she couldn’t look after them all by herself without looking after herself. For thinking people would see asking for help as a sign of weakness and deem her an unfit mother. For not telling the whole truth about how she was feeling, because she didn’t want to bother anyone.

Back in the present day I found myself simultaneously trying to heal from two separate rounds of depression, focusing on getting better in the here and now whilst also reflecting and trying to retrospectively heal the damage from the last time around. I was offered medication, and was referred to the Gloucestershire ‘Let’s Talk’ service who assessed my situation and offered me some telephone sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy. It felt like it wasn’t doing any harm, but it also felt really impersonal and like it was treating my symptoms instead of getting to the root of the problem. I threw myself into the self-help approach instead, and put myself on my list of people to look after. I read books, I read articles, I started running, journalling, cold water swimming, and continued to build friendships and practice talking openly to make real life connections with real people. While doing all of this and learning how to be my true authentic self was doing me an enormous amount of  good and making me feel significantly better, I was doing it all myself and still felt lonely and worn out. I needed a bit more help and finally realised that I deserved it, which is one of the most liberating things I have ever felt. I referred myself back to the ‘Let’s Talk’ team at the suggestion of my GP, and pushed for face-to-face high intensity CBT in the hopes that it might help get to the root of the problem. I found this second round and type of CBT much more effective, and it really helped to shift a lot of very old and limiting beliefs about myself that I was holding onto. I had an especially interesting experience with my therapist a month or two ago, where she asked me to examine the idea of ‘not being good enough’ more closely. She asked me to list all the qualities of a person who isn’t good enough, and I offered up suggestions such as someone who doesn’t show up for their children, breaks promises, doesn’t respect or care for others, is violent towards other people, etc. Then she asked me to describe a ‘good enough’ person, and I was surprised to find that much more difficult. Apart from things like being kind and compassionate, I couldn’t think of specific things that make people good enough. I believe that all human beings are worthy of love and support, and by simply existing, by being born and by living and breathing, you are automatically good enough. By my own argument it isn’t even possible for me to be such a useless human being that I am unworthy of help. Sometimes my behaviour isn’t good enough, which is uncomfortable to admit, but I am enough and I am worthy of the love and care I need (from myself just as importantly as from others) in order to be the best version of myself as a person and as a parent. My best parenting is great, my good enough parenting is in fact good enough, and my worst parenting comes out when I am over-stretched, under-resourced and am not looking after myself. All of my most awful parenting moments have happened when I was striving to be what I thought was a ‘perfect’ mother, trying to do everything at once whilst not having any of my own needs met. It has taken me such a long time to realise that bringing children into the world and caring for them doesn’t mean you have to become an empty shell of a person. No one will give you a medal for working yourself into the ground and having a breakdown, all in the pursuit of a completely unrealistic idea of perfection.

So, how do we get from breakdown to breakthrough? I’m still procrastinating about finishing this post, and keep adding to this bit and then deleting it, when really there might not be that much more to say. Maybe ‘finished’ is more important that ‘perfect’ right now (and if you’re a creative person that hasn’t read ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert yet, go put it on your reading list). Speaking of reading lists, there are a couple more that really changed the way I think about a lot of things and are comparable in price to a prescription. I’ve prescribed myself a lot of books recently, alongside physical activity to get myself out of my own head, and some of them have been enormously helpful. If you’re anxious or depressed or interested in finding out why so many people are these days, I recommend ‘Lost Connections’ by Johann Hari. If you’re feeling a bit lost or disappointed or have lost touch with yourself and feel trapped in a lifestyle that doesn’t really suit you please read ‘Untamed’ by Glennon Doyle. If you have any other recommendations please get in touch and let me know, because as I’ve said at the beginning this is still something I’m working on.

I have held myself back, been the big scary person standing in my own way telling me ‘Don’t go ahead, it’s too dangerous, stay as invisible as possible because then you’ll be safe’. That version of myself had such authority and such a powerful voice that the rest of me has obeyed and stayed in the safe zone. If I don’t ever do anything scary or hard or put myself out there then I can’t fail or get hurt, right? That may be true, but it’s also not really living. But imagine the things I could do, the beautiful art and connections I could go out into the world and make, if I channeled all the energy I used for beating myself up and holding myself back, into building myself up and being part of my own support crew? Imagine if I was on my own side? What if there really is another way? Back in the midst of undiagnosed postnatal depression and hiding behind my children, I felt like a house that had been completely gutted. I felt like I’d been stripped right back to the bare framework of myself and have slowly been rebuilding, piece by piece, over the past five years. I am still doing a huge amount of personal work and the better I get, the further I have to fall on a bad day. But I am learning how to challenge my unhelpful negative thoughts, and have been working hard to develop new more constructive habits. I can often catch myself heading into a downward spiral and pull myself out before I get sucked in too far, or recognise that I can’t get out of a funk straight away and the best thing to do is consult my list and either do one of the things on it or go to bed as soon as possible to sleep it off. I’m on my own side now and know that I am worth taking care of and standing up for, because there is only one of me and I will be living with me for the rest of my life. If I can have a loving and kind ally whispering in my ear instead of a mean and critical bully, I know which one I’d choose any day. I’m ready to start doing instead of hiding, even if that means I don’t always get things right, and I guess that is my big breakthrough. I am finally willing to be myself and allow myself to be seen.

 

 

This Is Me

I‘ve just stumbled upon my very first original draft of a blog post, written late one night about six months before my ‘official’ first blog post, and then forgotten about entirely. I feel like I should share it now, in all its vulnerable authentic glory (although I have corrected a couple of grammatical errors that just didn’t make sense), so you can see a glimpse into the mind of a mother who should have been asleep hours before, but who was staying up late starting a blog in an attempt to feel like herself again.

Here it is:

HERE WE GO A BLOGGING

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a blog for a little while now, maybe 6 months or so, but I keep putting myself off and talking myself out of it, telling myself I just don’t have the time, that I’ve got two small children at home with me full-time and don’t need to make more work and stress for myself and so on… It’s always ‘Not now, maybe later…’.

But then I happened to come across an article entitled ‘You Can Write Your Way Out of an Emotional Funk. Here’s How’. I thought “This sounds interesting”, and just about managed to read it before I was called away by another toddler tantrum. This article really made me think about my general emotional wellbeing and mental health, and the importance of writing/talking to other people. Before reading it I wouldn’t have thought of myself as being in an emotional funk, but I guess there’s hardly any way I couldn’t be. You see, I am the proud mother of two very small humans, ages three and one-and-a-half. Ever since having children it’s like my emotional filter has been cracked right open, and I find myself laughing, crying, getting frustrated with life and overflowing with love and joy all in the same day. Sometimes all in the same morning! So here I am, not necessarily trying to write my way out of an emotional funk, but to write my way through it, embracing all the craziness along the way. Maybe this is the right time to start writing a blog after all…

So without further ado, let’s crack on with the introduction…

My name is Sarah, and I live in Gloucestershire, England, with my husband and my two young children. I’m American by nationality, and British by nature. I’m a creative person with a love of textiles and natural materials, and I love throwing myself into projects and getting my hands dirty. I have a love of the outdoors and a great sense of adventure, but I also love being at home, growing vegetables in my garden and knitting and embroidering by the fire (I’m 26 by the way, not 100, in case some of you were wondering). I’m excellently enthusiastic about starting new projects, but less so about finishing them (let’s see how this whole blog thing pans out, shall we?). I am easily overwhelmed by clutter, but really good at creating it. I love Marmite. I hate scary movies. My favourite film is Amelie. My favourite song is (probably) Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits.

I haven’t talked about myself this much in a long time, and it feels a little strange.  Kind of like a first date or something… Maybe I’m reintroducing myself to myself here, is that weird? Am I totally nuts? This all feels rather self-indulgent, going on about me, me, me…

The thing is, over the past 3 years I have really let myself go. What I mean by that is that I have let my SELF go. While surviving on broken sleep and a diet of toast crust and a LOT of coffee may make me feel a bit hard core, the real challenge is that when your whole world suddenly starts revolving around a tiny and very needy human (shortly followed by a second tiny and very needy human in my case) you can end up turning into a caregiving machine, forgetting what it’s like to feel like an actual person sometimes. Every now and then I catch sight of myself in the mirror and think “Who the hell are you?” followed by “How long have the bags under my eyes been there?”.

This whole parenting journey has been such a rollercoaster, such an unpredictable and exciting ride, with so many ups and downs. Some days I’m whooshing along and I feel like Mary Poppins, other days I feel like a Dragon Lady and then feel so bad I wish the ride would stop so I can get off because actually I’m a bit scared and I really want my mummy. Talk about emotional funk!

Anyway, welcome to my blog! Hopefully you’ll enjoy bouncing around from one thing to the next with me, as I share with you my love of many things and try to make time to be me a little more often.

So, there you have it…this is me.

Finding this blog post has brought up a number of things for me, not least of them realising how long I struggled through the early years of parenting before I figured out I needed to look after myself. I threw myself into mothering with such enthusiasm and committment, and I gave it everything I had. I was determined to do the best job I could, and thought the only way to do that was by putting my children above everything else, all of the time. I put my own needs at the bottom of the list, and hoped I might eventually find time to look after myself if I ever finished everything else on my list first. I never got to the bottom of my list, I felt like I wasn’t achieving enough most of the time, and consequently hardly ever got round to looking after myself until I was completely burnt out. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world when you’re rested and have had time to think (which I do sometimes get to do these days), but so hard to recognise when you’re sleep deprived and trying to do all of the things all of the time. It’s impossible to give from an empty tank, and you cannot possibly look after other people without first looking after yourself. I wish I had found that out a lot sooner.

Finding this forgotten post also sparked my enthusiasm to follow through with other abandoned or forgotten projects, and I recently spent some time FINISHING something that is now in a frame and (almost) on the wall. For years I have been saving little scraps of paper, pictures from magazines, inspiring quotes from the little paper tags on Yogi Tea teabags (not kidding!), interesting stamps, etc, to eventually turn into a large collage. Inspired by the idea I saw somewhere of an ‘identity collage’, it is essentially a little collection of things that I like, put together purely for the joy of looking at them and making me smile. It even made me happy setting aside time to sit down and make it! If only I could travel back in time and hang it on the wall for three-years-ago me to see, I’m sure it would have helped.

 

Here’s to looking after yourself and giving yourself the love and care you deserve, whether you spend much of your time looking after others or not.

Sarah x

I’m Back!

Hello, and welcome back to my blog. It has taken quite a bit longer to write my second post than I had originally planned (over a year in fact) but I have finally scraped together the time to put fingers to keypad and here it is.

The reason it has taken so long is that almost a year ago we spontaneously leapt into a new project, one which has shaken up our lives and taken all our spare attention and energy up until now – we took over a business! Allow me to explain…

There was once a very lovely sewing shop called Herringbone in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. It had beautiful fabrics, sewing patterns and haberdashery, and just the right colour blue paint on the windows and doors. I haven’t done much fabric buying or pattern following since my children were born, but I used to go in from time to time with one or both of them in tow to swoon over the beautiful fabrics and buy a bit of ribbon or something. Earlier last year I saw that the business was up for sale, and for about half a second I thought that in an alternate life perhaps that might be fun. At this point my nearly 2-year-old wasn’t sleeping through the night, life with two small children was pretty crazy and there was no chance of me even considering the idea of running a business.

Fast forward to 6 months later, and the right buyer still hadn’t come forward. An advert was placed on our local Facebook selling page (oh, the power of Facebook!) and my husband saw it. He emailed me immediately to tell me the news, with lots of capital letters and exclamation points, to which I said something along the lines of “Yeah, I already knew the business was for sale”. His reply was “Well, you could do that!”. Oh…could I? Instead of feeling excited about the idea, my initial reaction was one of absolute terror, alongside a large dose of not feeling good enough. I had a small freak-out, but decided it probably wouldn’t hurt to get in touch with the owner and find out a bit more, and we scheduled a meeting for the next day. I expected to spend a while weighing up the pros and cons, but as soon as we walked out of the meeting I looked at him and said “I think we should go for it!”. At some point in those 24 hours something had shifted, and I had somehow found my way from feeling scared to feeling excited. A lot of it is down to my husband Luke. Besides being very handsome and clever (he didn’t even pay me to write that!) he is practical, good at fixing things, thinks about things logically and generally has sound judgement. I trust him, and usually if he has faith in something, it ends up turning out ok. This time, what he had faith in was me, and it finally dawned on me that if he believed in me, perhaps I should believe in me too. Once I thought about it that way it was like a switch had been flipped, and I was being proactive, making important phone calls that I would normally be too scared to make, and starting to sort out childcare logistics. It was a whilrwind two weeks between deciding to take on the shop and opening the doors to customers as the new owners, and I still can’t quite believe it actually happened!

Here we are nearly a full year on from making that exciting and life-changing decision, and I’m sad to say that we are going through the final motions of closing the business down. We took it on knowing that it wasn’t making huge piles of money, but had great potential for growth. I was all-in with the ideas and the enthusiasm, and got stuck into the challenge of helping the business grow and evolve. Unfortunately the reality of juggling running a business with parenting two young children was a far greater challenge than we ever could have imagined, and we eventually came to the realisation that something had to shift. We didn’t have the time or energy to make the business do anything other than break even, and in the end we decided it just wasn’t worth breaking our family over. It was such a hard decision to make, even though it felt like the right thing to do. I felt so at home in the shop, surrounded by beautiful fabrics, inspiring patterns and all kinds of trimmings and equipment, and it really was like a dream come true.

At other times though, it did feel like a complete nightmare. We didn’t have the budget for our youngest to go to childcare every day of the week, nor did I want to give up looking after him myself all the time, so I brought him to the shop with me. I was determined to have it all and to do it all. We had some great times there together, my little boy and I, and in the mornings as we would park the car and walk hand in hand to open up the shop I would think to myself “How lucky am I, to be able to do all of this?”. We happened to have a bakery two doors down, and it became traditional to pop in and buy an iced bun as a treat/bribe to keep the peace for as long as possible, and I would watch him happily munching and think “I can do this!”. Towards the end of the day however, after meltdowns and tantrums and feeling like I wasn’t able to run a shop or be a good mother all at the same time, my thoughts would change to “Why am I trying to do all of this at once?” and ”I CAN’T DO THIS!”…

I think the ultimate truth is that before taking on the shop I never fully appreciated the role I already had. I was the primary caregiver to two small children; I was full-time, full-on mothering, and I really had more than enough to be getting on with. I think the reason the idea of running a fabric shop seemed so attractive at the time was because it offered me some variety, and time to focus on my own interests again. I jumped at the chance! It seems like quite a dramatic way to come to this realisation, but on reflection I think a regular day off or working one or two days a week somewhere where I wasn’t in charge of the whole show would have done the trick. What I needed was a break, not a second full-time job!

“What will you do now?” is a question I have been asked more times than I can count over the past few weeks, and the truthful answer is “I don’t know”. I am kind of enjoying this ‘not knowing’ though, and feel confident that I’ll soon figure it out. Right now I’m busy closing down a business, getting my children settled at school/playgroup and tying up loose ends. I am on a mission to finish off abandoned sewing projects and clear out stuff I no longer need, to give myself a clean slate and some available headspace. I do know that once I’m no longer pulled in so many different directions and trying to do so many things at once, I’ll be able to focus again and think clearly. I do know that I’m looking forward to working on my own projects again, and I do know that I’m really excited to be able to pick my children up from school/playgroup again. I also know that regardless of the debt, the stress and everything else that went with it, I’m still glad I took on Herringbone. I have met so many creative and lovely people, learned so much and challenged and surprised myself along the way. Before we jumped onto the rollercoaster this past year has been, I wasn’t completely convinced I could actually do it. Now I know that I can do it – I just can’t do it right now.

So to all of you who have supported Herringbone over the years, and to all of you who have supported our family and made this crazy juggling act work for as long as it did, thank you. We absolutely could not have done it without your help!

Challenge Accepted

Wise words indeed, but certainly difficult to muster up the courage to put into action. I’ve been sitting on a bunch of different creative ideas for a number of years now, waiting to feel like I was ready, or to feel like I knew which direction to take, before putting myself out there and laying out my work for everyone to see. I wanted to feel in control, to feel like I knew what I was doing, to have a well thought-out and cohesive collection to unveil to the world with a big flourish, as if to say ”Here I am, I am experienced and confident and I’ve got it all figured out”.  I wanted to play it like a game of poker, keeping my cards close to my chest, not giving anything away until I had a winning hand and could confidently slap it down on the table, sure of victory.  If I carry on like that I may never be ready, and I could end up spending my life hiding from the world. I’ve only just started to learn that there’s no shame in being a work-in-progress (personally or professionally) because if you’re not progressing or changing or growing in some way, then what is the point?

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