Lockdown Project

So, with all this extra time on your hands, have you been learning a new language or a musical instrument or finally getting down to reading War and Peace? No, me neither. I haven’t even bothered to download Tik Tok though I do enjoy watching other people’s silliness, and I’m now on Day 66 of my “jigsaw a day for 80 days challenge” on my iPad.

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To be honest, my daily jigsaw is probably the only thing I’ve done absolutely every day since this whole lockdown business started, and that includes getting up, going out for a walk and doing the washing up. Yes folks, I’ve had a day or two under the duvet, and I’ve even been known to leave the dishes overnight. Mind you I sometimes do that anyway, it doesn’t take being in lockdown…

On the whole though, I do get up, get dressed and go out every day – one has to keep up some kind of standard doesn’t one? And I’ve learned not to beat myself up for all the things I’m NOT doing. I got the ironing board out six days ago and it’s still sitting there beside a pile of crumpled clothes, and as to the novel I should be half way through by now, well… Trouble is when you have all the time in the world to do something, it tends to TAKE you all the time in the world, doesn’t it? I think I might have said that before somewhere. Is it starting to feel like groundhog day? Probably. Except that I’ll not be a concert pianist at the end of it…

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Way back in April I think it was, my crochet project started well, I even posted a picture every day on Instagram, even though I have only a very hazy idea what Instagram is actually for…

I really enjoyed watching the needlework grow day by day, stitch by stitch; seeing the colour gradation in the wool develop and gradually progress from light through to darker grey. I found myself fully absorbed in concentrating on the intricate pattern while listening to lots of BBC radio dramas and podcasts (You can’t do a project like this while watching telly!) But then something a little odd happened. Normally when you’re approaching the completion of a project you can’t wait for it to be finished so that you can admire the fruits of your labours. But this time, once I’d got through all the shades of grey and had started on the final purple section, I started to feel more and more reluctant to keep going. Thoughts came into my head such as “The size is all wrong”, “It’s not turning out like I thought”, “Who am I going to give it to, who’d want a shawl anyway?”

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I was in fact well and truly stalled. I started to get distracted by making little rainbows, finishing off a blanket, deciding to knit handwarmers I could sell on Ebay. The shawl got relegated to my work bag (newly acquired for the purpose from said Ebay when the sight of the unfinished work started making me feel guilty and uncomfortable).  At least, I thought, it has a lovely bag to languish in while it waits for the day when I feel the urge to get it out and finally finish it off.

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Thinking about it now, I suppose that the whole point of embarking upon the shawl project was just the project itself, the challenge of being engrossed in something intricate and absorbing. The closer I got to finishing it, the more resistance I felt. Because I hadn’t realised that I didn’t particularly want to have a shawl as much as I wanted to be making one.

It’s not just the lockdown. Many times in life you don’t really appreciate the purpose of an event or an undertaking until you look back and start to understand the effect it has had on you, or the inner resources you’ve had to discover or develop to get through to the other side. I’ve seen this time and time again as I’ve explored aspects of my family history in this blog, each time gaining new perspectives and insights from those I might have had as a child or when I was at a different stage in my life.

I’ve just read a post from a fellow blogger entitled “Let Life Change You”, which kind of sums up what I’m getting at. Getting though lockdown, or indeed life, isn’t about having a balance sheet of goals attained. It sounds like a cliche, but it IS all about the journey, the moment by moment engagement in the minutiae of our lives. And that’s true whether we are focused on some grand plan or just trying to get through until tomorrow.

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I know it’s a tiny, tiny example, but getting stuck on my shawl project represented a need for me to press my own pause button and refocus. And that meant overcoming the feeling that leaving something unfinished is some kind of failure, which in turn involved a shift in my perception of success. Such weighty notions from such a little incident!

The shawl can wait until I am in the right frame of mind to enjoy the task of finishing it off. In the meantime, there’s always the daily puzzle and the rainbows to keep me going. Oh, and by the way, since I starting writing this a couple of days ago I’ve actually got through that pile of ironing and put the ironing board away – hooray!

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Suicide, Samaritans & Me – a guest post

Today’s post is a bit of a departure for me as this is the first time I’ve invited a contribution from a friend. Actually I’m probably taking shameless advantage of the fact that my friend hasn’t quite got around to setting up their own blog yet! Anyway, here it is in full, with kind permission …

Suicide, Samaritans & Me.

I think you can say that Samaritans saved my life – in fact I know you can.

Not in the conventional sense though, I wasn’t talked down from a bridge, or off a railway platform or away from an overdose of tablets. I think what saved my life was become a Samaritan.

In 2010, from the outside I had a made a success of my life and career. Happily married, two wonderful sons (one at public school), Director of a Travel Company, four bedroomed house with double garage – all the things one thinks one should aspire to – the trappings of success, all good.

Except I knew it wasn’t.

Following the financial meltdown of 2008/9, the company wasn’t making a profit, redundancies were looming. The huge house came with an equally huge mortgage and if the job went, the house went, the public school went, and everything would crumble to dust. As a husband I would have failed. As a father I would have failed.

And that’s the thing, when you can’t see a way out of the situation the only solution is to take yourself out of it. So, it was on March 15th 2010 (beware the Ides of March) that I was staring at a pile of paracetamol tablets I had acquired over recent weeks thinking, how many is enough…?

Now I had no idea and whatever I may have thought then, I realise now that a paracetamol overdose is not a “nice” way to go. The liver functions shut down slowly and death can be long, slow and painful. Still there I was in the house all alone about to try and end my life.

I’ve no memory of how many I took – all I can recall is going to bed and hoping, naively, that I would slip quietly, blissfully away from life. It didn’t happen though, I woke up later, possibly the following day with stomach pains but very much alive.

Killing yourself is harder than you think – time for Plan B (always good to have a Plan B).

If tablets weren’t going to do it, what about carbon monoxide poisoning? Looks so straightforward in films and on TV – hosepipe from the exhaust, engine running, slowly lose consciousness – that’s what I thought.

So off to Homebase to buy hose, what length? Does it come in exhaust pipe to passenger side window length? No? well 2 metres should be enough, oh and some gaffa tape too, we don’t want the hose slipping off the pipe do we?

Suicide attempt take two. It was a Sunday afternoon, 2nd May 2010 actually, (you never forget the dates you attempt to take your own life) – the house was quiet, I’ll just slip away unnoticed. One of the advantages of suicide attempts by carbon monoxide poisoning in East Kilbride is that the town has a number of light industrial estates that are empty on Sunday afternoons. So that’s where I drove, parked up, connected the hose, turned the engine on and waited to die.  But I didn’t, again – something to do with catalytic converters maybe? After a few hours of not dying I drove home.

And there I fell apart.

For the first time in my life I admitted to my wife that I needed help – I knew I couldn’t go on anymore.

She was wonderful, ringing 999 or 111, I have no idea which, and later that very night I found myself admitted to the psychiatric ward of Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride. And there over the next week, I talked, talked like I’d never talked before, to nurses, doctors, counsellors and, on one occasion I recall, the chaplain – talked about me, properly, about how I was feeling, what I was anxious about, my childhood, everything in fact – and you know what, it felt good. At last the mask we present to the world was lifted – I was opening my soul.

I came out on the Friday, not a changed person but at least a person able to talk – and when I saw my GP soon afterwards, he said, keep talking, find a Counsellor and talk to them – so I did.

First weekly, then twice a month, then monthly over a period of almost 3 years. And you know what? – it was good. We talked about everything, family, childhood, relationships, career, sexuality, aspirations, fears, the whole works. I was being stripped back to the factory setting and being rebooted – and it felt good.

I even opened up for the first time about my deepest concern, that there was something not quite right with me… something I’d known, or at least suspected since I was about nine years old. And she said so what, it’s who you are… and I felt like the biggest, heaviest weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Once you have added suicide to your list of options it never leaves you. In the years that followed occasionally the box would be opened and the idea considered, usually briefly, as life took a bad turn, before the lid was firmly shut.

And Samaritans I hear you cry? It’s in the title yet not mentioned so far….

Well by 2016 I knew who I was and I  knew that if I’d talked about everything over the years leading up to what I was now calling my “episode” I’d never have found myself buying hosepipe from Homebase.

And I got a notion in my head, if talking could have benefitted me, could it yet still benefit others and the idea of becoming volunteer counsellor started forming in my head. I looked about and by chance came across details of an Information Day for Samaritans – what have I got to lose I thought, so along I went.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but some part of me thought it was all about talking desperate people out of buying hosepipes or large amounts of paracetamol, and after a brief induction I’d be on the phone, talking and saving lives.

I came away from that Induction Day enlightened as to the aim of Samaritans, the methods and the potential benefits. If its possible to be hooked, I was.

I applied, was interviewed and accepted. I was now on the path to giving something back to people, people who in some cases would be going through some of the issues I was. (There’s one issue I’ve not mentioned yet!)

First day of training, eight other, possibly anxious, souls. And three trainers, who all seemed to be so kind, supportive, generous and non-judgemental people.

Share something about yourself with the Group they said – and so I did for probably only the third time ever, I said out loud, that I was Transgender (that’s the thing I hadn’t mentioned before).

And the reaction?? Total and utter disinterest. If it is no big deal to these people I thought, why am I making so much of it in my head?

It dawned on me on my way home, here was somewhere I could be the real me, for the first time in my life I had found unconditional acceptance. I knew this was where I wanted to be, this was an organisation I wanted to be part of. Because I also knew that I needed to be the real me. All the apparent reasons for my “episode” in 2010 masked one deeper reason – acceptance of who I really was.

That was in September 2016 and from that day I really felt that I could make my Gender Transition work – and Samaritans of Glasgow made that possible.

Since then I’ve talked to hundreds of people on the phone, and I hope in some small way I’ve been able to help them.

I’ve spoken at the Branch Conference on several occasions, run seminars, mentored new Samaritans and led training groups.  Prior to Transition the thought of addressing over one hundred people in a lecture theatre would have left me running for the hills. But now I do it, I enjoy it and I live my life as deep down I always knew it was meant to be lived.

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And that is down to all the wonderful people at Samaritans of Glasgow – you enabled me to take the first steps on the road to being the true me and for that I will always be so so grateful.

Helena R, April 2020.

I first met Helena when she joined the Samaritans back in 2016, and I was one of the “kind, supportive and non-judgemental” trainers (her words, not mine!) who were tasked with leading that group of nine anxious souls through the intensive process of becoming a Samaritan. I well remember that first session. “That’s a new one,” I thought. And it’s not true that we were disinterested, Helena, but, you’re right, it was no big deal to us. As a trainer, the most important thing about the group of people sitting in front of me isn’t their age or wealth or gender. It’s the fact that they want to be Samaritans. It’s the thing that binds us together. I know, I’ve been one for nearly 20 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Defines Us?

If I had made a New Year’s resolution to define myself as a weekly blogger, that definition would be in the bucket already as its been a month since my last post! Just as well I didn’t make any resolutions then.

I find myself quite hard to define – grandmother, mother, sister, babysitter, friend, part time administrator, volunteer, trainer, writer, environmentalist, knitter, member of an older generation…? Truth to tell there’s no easy one-size-fits-all word I can find that would sum me up to my own satisfaction. Choosing between those possibilities would ignore all the others and would seem inadequate as a definition. I suppose really I rebel against the idea of receiving a label and being put in a box.

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The title of this post has been borrowed from a book I just read, “What Defines Me” by Amy Kingham (daughter of a friend of mine). The story (among other things) concerns a young woman who is diagnosed as bipolar, which becomes an all-consuming definition of who and what she is, and how her family and friends engage with her and she with them. In the end she comes to the realisation that who you are isn’t to do with what label society has given you, but more about what you do, the actions you take. Because, no matter what your label is, it’s what you do that defines you, reveals who you are, what you feel, what you believe.

I think this was brought home to me very strongly when I was exploring the lives of my parents earlier in this blog. The idea that the people who, as children, we relate to as Mummy and Daddy have a whole other life apart from us, a history that we only really glimpse in old photographs, or in the – highly edited! – stories they choose to tell us. Perhaps when we grow up we can come to see them as fellow adults, get a different perspective and start to understand better how they relate to the world as people in their own right. Perhaps we never really reach that point.

Take my mum. I couldn’t say that I ever had that kind of easy relationship some people describe where their mum is their best friend. No matter how much I tried (and perhaps I didn’t try hard enough) we never reached a way of connecting with each other on an equal footing; it was always that parent and child dynamic. Even when I was decades in to my adult life and had children and grandchildren of my own, visiting her at home always felt like stepping back into the past. It was as if she couldn’t escape from the definition of herself as “Mummy” and couldn’t resist judging me, telling me what to do, approving or disapproving of my actions. And of course I would mentally slip into rebellious teenager mode and so the unacknowledged cycle would continue.

I’ve just noticed that I didn’t include the word “daughter” in my list at the top of this. On the one hand I’m not a daughter any more as my parents are no longer with us. But it’s problematical, that one. For me it contains a whole world of expectations that for large parts of my life I found myself unconsciously resisting. This was because I felt I was part of a kind of family conspiracy where we had to present a front to the rest of the world about what kind of family we were. Things like “don’t mention your father is a bus driver” or “you are as good as anyone else”.

Of course the other side of that coin is that you don’t feel free to just be yourself, warts and all. You can’t do anything that would reflect badly on your mum and dad. Most of all, you don’t share things with your parents, or anyone else, because you are frightened of their disapproval. And that carries on until well in to your adult life.

I may not have actually rebelled as a teenager, but I did eventually come to a – rather wonderful – realisation. Which was that whatever the failings of my relationship with my mother (my dad had by this time passed away), I could choose the kind of daughter I wanted to be rather than just re-treading the old well worn path. I’m not saying it transformed the family visits, but it did enable me to have a more honest conversation with myself and my sisters.

In the end, I always believed that my mum did love me, and I loved her, however problematical that was. I never felt that love more strongly than in her last days when she lay quietly in her hospital bed with life gradually slipping away from her. We’d all come to visit in her final weeks, to say goodbye. You could always see that, even if she could no longer bring your name to mind, she always knew who you were. I felt that, stripped back to the bare essence of herself, what remained was her love for her family and her trust in our love for her.

How surprising that I should have alighted on the word “daughter” quite so conclusively – I wasn’t expecting that at all when I started. And equally startling is the lack of mention of the word “wife” or “ex-wife”. There was a time, many moons ago, when I was defined as the wife of someone, or when I felt defined by the whole getting-over-it process. Today, a week after my 66th birthday, it’s but a faded memory, though I remain friends (at last!) with Peter, the ex.

It occurs to me that how you define yourself depends largely on the context, doesn’t it? In a casual conversation you tend to fit in with what the other person is expecting – “Maggie’s mum”, “Charlie’s granny”, “Brian’s office manager”. You don’t break out and reveal that thing which is actually obsessing you, despite outward appearances. For me at the moment, I’m in trainer mode for the workshop I’m going to be giving at this weekend’s Samaritans conference – should I make some final tweaks to the script; are my props and handouts ready; what am I going to wear? In the couple of months before Christmas I was frantically knitting during every spare moment in order to fulfill my eBay orders for hand knitted mittens – “eBay entrepreneur” perhaps? Right now, this moment, I’m a blogger (hooray!)

As I get older, I’m not really that interested in labels. I know what the truth is – I’m me, and as I said in my New Year blog, my greatest desire is to be as true to myself as I can at each and every moment of each and every day. Sometimes I may be defined by overwhelming sorrow, or concern for a friend or the harassment of a work deadline. But as George Harrison said “all things must pass” and I know that sadness or wisdom or joy will be embraced and absorbed into my being and become part of that definition of self that is constantly shifting and evolving as I journey through my life.

I suppose I’m a fairly private person, but I’d like to think that the people who matter most in the world to me can see beyond any easy labels and know that for all my shortcomings the definition I’d be happiest with is this:

Someone who is capable of love.

 

My non-resolutions for 2020

I don’t like making New Year resolutions, they just seem like a list of ways to fail in the coming 12 months. Or, more accurately, by the 3rd of January! Apparently just 8% of people keep their resolutions, did you know that?

Anyway, I already don’t smoke or drink (never have, never wanted to); I walk or use public transport to get about (don’t own a car); I recycle everything I can, always have. As you can see, I’m perfect already! Ha ha ha, excuse me while I roll about the floor laughing at this ludicrous notion.

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Anyhoo. I can’t get away from the fact that the turn of the year is nevertheless a time to take stock and re-evaluate your life, to clear the decks for the new year to come. And if you’re like me, to berate yourself for projects left undone or never started, time wasted, clutter collected, all my best intentions lying in ruins at my feet.

Really? Well that’s what it feels like. Never mind that I did a big clear out before Christmas, took a whole pile of stuff down to the charity shop, caught up with my to-do lists, wrapped up and sent home made gifts to my family… That’s all very well I tell myself, but what about all the stuff I didn’t do? The blog left untouched since last October, the workshop I should have written by the beginning of December, the friends I meant to have lunch with and didn’t… Now that list literally is endless!

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It’s not all doom and gloom, well it is, but not because of the undone stuff. As I went to bed on Hogmanay (way before the bells by the way), I did allow myself to resolve (as I have for several years now) that in 2020 I would carry on striving to be more true to myself, not to be diverted by irrelevant stuff, whether of a physical, mental or spiritual nature. And therein lies the potential for the doom and gloom. Because of course the question then arises “Who AM I anyway???” Aargh!!!

But, dear reader, there is a small candle of hope in the midst of all this endless introspection. It comes in the shape of a Prayer for the Day which caught me unawares as I was texting/messaging New Year greetings to all and sundry while Radio 4’s Today program played in the background.

This bishop chap started telling us how during a new year retreat years back, he’d been given the task as a spiritual exercise of writing his own obituary. Once he’d got over the thought that it was a rather macabre thing to do, he discovered it was a really helpful way of forcing him to reflect on what it’s worth spending time on and what it’s not. What he really cared about and what he didn’t. What’s worth fighting for and what’s not. What, in short, he’d want to be remembered for.

And just like that, I had suddenly found the right questions to ask, a helpful perspective. So, I can do no worse than finish by repeating Bishop John Inge’s New Year prayer, in the hope that it will inspire me (and perhaps you?) all the way through 2020 and beyond:

Loving God, give me the grace to make good use of the time given to me here on earth. In the coming year, give me the wisdom to know how best to use my time, my talents, my energy and my resources. Help me to discern what it’s worth spending time on and what is not; what I really care about and what I don’t; what it’s worth fighting for and what is not.

Amen.

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Reality Shift

I’d brought flowers, a card, a marker pen to sign the stookie.

A nurse asked me to wait a minute. “Just sit there,” she said. I watched her walk the length of the ward to the duty station, indicate me as she spoke to the ward sister. I lowered my gaze as they both turned to look at me, not wanting them to see me watching.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the sister approaching. She looked at her fob watch, smoothed down her apron, composed her face. I turned towards her. I knew that what she was going to say would turn my world upside down.