2018 I have been so looking forward to you. Mainly because it means the epic flaming shitshow that was 2017 is finally over. Don’t get me wrong, there were many moments of grace, of wonder and a beauty. Watching A grow has been every bit as wonderful and knackering as I imagined it would be. But I don’t think I’m alone in being glad to close the chapter on this year and move into another one.
Long-term readers around this parts may remember that I like to write a year in review summing up the major events and lessons of the year. You can find previous yearly review posts here: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011. (With the exception of 2016 because sleep deprivation destroyed my brain.)
I am doing something different this time. Because if I have to look back at pictures of the last year I think I may curl into a ball and just cry and cry and cry. Some years are about thriving and some years are just about surviving. Finding a way despite the odds to grit it through. So instead of writing about what happened, I am going to talk about what I learned: what served me in 2017 and what I will be happy to leave behind.
7 things 2017 taught me
Perfectionism doesn’t make me better, it makes me weaker
Ah perfectionism, my slightly shitty old friend.
One of my longstanding myths is without perfectionism driving me, I would achieve nothing and be left worthless and unloved. At first when Lauren’s accident happened I was able to let myself off the hook and recognise that I was doing my best in an almost unbearable situation. But as the crisis passed I began to slip back into my old perfectionist ways. I often felt I was failing as a sister, as a daughter, mother, partner and friend. Trying to do everything right hurt me as I got increasingly drained, depressed and ill. But it also harmed my relationships most notably with A and HWSNBN (He Who Shall Not Be Named). I was often exhausted and short-tempered with A – a hollow shell of my former self. And when it came to being a loving and present partner to HWSNBN there was nothing left. By trying to be everything to everyone I ended up tearing myself to pieces in the process.
I wish I had been kinder to myself. I wish I could have offered myself the same love and support I tried to offer others. I wish I had put some boundaries in place before I began to drown. I wish it hadn’t taken almost collapsing with exhaustion to realise I needed to start taking care of myself. This year was never going to be easy but it would have been easier if I was less hard on myself. At the time ‘Only Human’ By Rag’n’Bone man was a big hit and I couldn’t get that song out of my head. As the year draws to a close I am happy to say that I am being a lot gentler on myself. One of the big lessons of this year has been that even though I would love to be perfect and untouchable, no matter what life threw at me – I am only human, after all.
Self-caring like my life depended on it (which, spoiler, it kinda did).
This year I finally mastered self-care. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit but at 35 years old I still struggled with the basics like making sure I was getting enough sleep, eating a vegetable, let alone making time for myself.
Because so much of what was happening this year was completely out of my control, it inspired me to finally put my attention where it mattered: on the little things I could do to make myself feel slightly better.
I am going to start with the biggest thing I did. Immediately after Lauren’s accident the hospital offered the family individual therapy with the Major Trauma team. In the past I would have hesitated but I said yes immediately. Having a space where I could go weekly and talk about everything that was happening was essential amidst the chaos. I will be forever grateful for Kara my therapist. I am also very proud of myself because week after week I put the work in.
When I found myself overwhelmed in the middle of this year and I realised how much my need to do it all was harming A, we enrolled him at nursery two days a week. It caused so much guilt and anguish at the time (especially as the first nursery was not right for him so we had to repeat the process all over again). But he loves it at his second nursery. He’s developed and grown in confidence so much. And it’s given me some essential time to think, to mourn and to sleep! The time we have together is richer and I have so much more to give now I’m not with him 24/7.
The time freed up meant in the latter half of this year I finally worked my way through a long list of nagging personal care tasks like seeing the hygienist or blood test. Self care isn’t a cure all. Booking a dentist’s appointment didn’t help me heal my broken heart. But it did mean I wasn’t distracted by a cavity and could focus on the things that mattered.
Watching A grow has helped a lot. As a strong-willed toddler I know that I need to make sure he’s fed, well rested, entertained but not overstimulated… I am slowly getting used to asking myself the same questions: am I fed, rested, what do I need?
How I numb out
To get through this year (relatively) intact I’ve been numbing out. A lot. I’ve become very aware of how often I tap out of difficult moments. And why in my family that was such an essential skill to develop growing up.
This year I’ve bought all the things, I’ve scrolled endlessly through social media, and immersed myself in many fictional worlds. (I have not one iota of guilt about the last one). Thank god I’ve always had an inbuilt off switch when it comes to drinking and I’m too much of a control freak to enjoy drugs. Food, the least rock and roll of all addictions, is my weapon of choice. I eat when I’m sad, angry, frightened, bored and hurting. I eat to comfort or punish myself, to numb and to distract. And this year has been replete with all the feels.
Given everything that has happened a part of me just wants to surrender and dive head first into a bowl of salted caramel cookies. If it wasn’t for one thing – HWSNBN and I want another baby. As much as I would love to be one of those super-fertile women who decides they want another baby and just gets pregnant; it’s likely for me the journey will not be that simple. I have PCOS. To conceive A I had to undergo a complete lifestyle overhaul and lose three and half stone. Based on previous experience I am pretty certain I would be unable to conceive and carry to term at this weight. Losing weight is one of the key ways to manage my PCOS, help me start ovulating again and put me in a position to conceive.
I’ve been trying for six months to get pregnant and lose weight. I’ve tried the body coach (this worked last time), the slow carb diet and keto with some success. But after a month or so something will happen: A will get ill or my sister will go back into hospital or I will self-sabotage. And then I will eat and eat and eat. If I want A to have a sibling, I need to stop eating emotionally and find another healthier way to weather the storms. If anybody has any tips or wants to be a fitness or healthy eating buddy let me know in the comments. This is going to be one of my big challenges in 2018.
Envy. No other feeling makes me feel as monstrous, uncomfortable and wrong. But it has always worked as a beacon signalling me towards something I desperately want. Years ago a chance remark from a colleague that she was training to become a counsellor triggered a wave of envy so intense it nauseated me. I signed up for a beginners counselling course the next day. This summer I bumped into her again and she talked about becoming a writer. Envy felled me again. I love writing but I’ve barely written a thing since having A (oh hai, severely neglected blog). Committing to writing another novel feels too much. But I could try the morning pages that she mentioned.
That was six months ago and I’ve been writing my morning pages religiously ever since. It’s simple really. All you do is write three pages of whatever is in on your mind when you wake up. That weird dream you had about the mouse castle, the fact your best friend hasn’t messaged you back, the many ways you are screwing you’re child up… It can be as boring or a deep as you want. (A lot of my early pages where me droning on about how tired I was). All of those repetitive thoughts, moaning and worries of my monkey mind go down on paper and for some reason they don’t seem to bother me anymore.
Its very simple yet ridiculously effective for me. It works as a foundation practise. If I do this I know I’m likely to workout, to meditate, to tidy, to reach out and connect with somebody. Feeling like I’ve achieved something at 6am means I more likely to tackle hard things. Deliberately not writing my morning pages is often a sign to me that I trying to avoid some uncomfortable emotional revelation. And if I start skipping pages I notice a massive knock on effect on how I felt for the rest of the day. Next year I am definitely going to keep up with my morning pages practice.
I was due to go back to work in February. It’s December, as I write this, and I am still not working as a counsellor. I cannot absorb any more emotional pain. I am at capacity.
I know I am very lucky that we are in a position where HWSNBN can support me financially (something that would have been impossible a year and half ago when we were really broke). I am lucky I get to spend time with A, time that many of my friends who work full time would kill for. I am lucky to have a job I miss and love; rather than one where I lived for the weekend as I did for many years. But I don’t feel lucky, I feel bereft. I miss having purpose. I miss using my brain and my heart. I miss having a structure to my days. And the way I feel currently I am not sure I will ever be able to go back. I am trying to tell myself that for everything there is a season. That what happened to Lauren is so huge that it will take time to heal. But I feel adrift.
People ask me all the time when I am going back to work. Unwittingly it triggers a shame spiral. Because if I was stronger, better than surely I’d be ready by now. We derive so much of our purpose from work and without it – am I enough? I know I cannot work as a counsellor now. So I wait. But what if I never feel mentally resilient enough to go back. What am I going to do instead? Now A is settled at nursery, my goal is to figure out what I want to do with my one and precious life. No pressure.
Sleep is everything
I always find it amusing that when it comes to our children we had bedtimes and set routines to help lull them to sleep. But when it comes to our adult selves… anything goes. A’s sleep has always been variable but he went through a really unsettled patch this autumn. I noticed that after spending all day being used as a human trampoline I was staying up later and later trying to desperately eek out some ‘me time’. But I was too tired to do anything except scroll on my phone and try and fail to not fall asleep in front of the TV. I’d sit there knowing I should take out my contact lenses and brush my teeth but felt too exhausted to move. With A still not sleeping through the night the sleep I was getting was fractured. And during the day the tiredness built and built and affected everything my mood, my diet and my relationships. Something has to give.
I decided to set a ‘go the fuck to sleep alarm’ for 10.30pm each night. But I found it didn’t work. I resented the alarm. I always felt rushed and not ready. And in a weird in between state of exhausted and too wired. I realised I needed more of a run-up to get to sleep. There’s significant evidence that the blue light from devices can affect our melatonin. So installed a blue light blocker on my devices and starting wearing these weird orange glasses when watching TV. I also realised if I wanted to go to sleep at 10.30pm I needed to get ready for bed at 9.30pm. So I started changing into my pyjamas, brushing my teeth and taking my contacts out as soon as A had gone to sleep. Then at 10pm, I’d switch off all devices (phone and tv) and read before falling asleep at 10.30pm.
At first it made me feel a little like a grandma. I had a bedtime? Seriously? But within a week I was noticing how much better I felt and how getting enough sleep before A decided it was time to wake up made everything easier. I could write pages and pages about sleep especially the importance of vitamin D so I might write a separate post about this at some point.
That within me there is an invincible summer
In the books, they call it resilience. I personally labelled it as my ‘Fuck you’ instinct. But I prefer Camus who perfectly expresses what I discovered this year.
‘In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
‘And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.’
This year, it seemed like the world threw everything it could at me and my family. It was, without a doubt, the worst of times. But even drowning in darkness, and friends it was dark, I still found a glimmer of light within me. There was something within me that made me get up, go to therapy, play with my baby, cry with my husband, go to the hospital but also to the beach and keep living. Some ‘fuck you’ part I found within me that wasn’t going to let the bad things win. The key part of those sentences is that I found it within me. Often well-meaning friends would try and offer hope or cheer me up because they found it too unbearable. It had the opposite effect of making me aware of how alone I was. I had to find the hope for myself and it often meant sitting in some dark places emotionally and accepting that this was where I needed to be. Only then would the glimmers of light show themselves. I still have to do that. What happened earlier this year is life-changing and the ripples for my sister, my family and me are still being felt and will be for the rest of our lives.
Even bruised and broken there is still within me an invincible summer. A ‘fuck you’ instinct that will not give up.
There’s a moment in Buffy at the end of season 2 which I’ve always loved. She’s fighting Angelus and she’s losing. He knocks her to the floor, her weapon is out of reach. And he stands over his sword raised for a killing blow, taunting her.
‘That’s everything huh? No weapons… no friends… no hope. Take all that away and what’s left?’ She closes her eyes as if anticipating the blow to come. And as he raises the sword to strike, she says ‘Me.’ And begins to fight back.
What’s left after last year took so many things away? Me. And as long as I am I will keep keeping on. And despite 2017 knocking me down again, and again and again – still I rose.
What did 2017 teach you? Let me know what your taking forward into 2018 in the comments