Challenge completed!

I’ve done it, I’ve bloody well done it! 365 days (well, 362 as I write this) without a drop of alcohol. Boom!

So, what now? Do I sail into 2019 on a wave of Champagne and sauvignon blanc, pouring as much sweet nectar down my throat as possible? Or perhaps I take it slowly in case a glass of wine sends my head spinning and I fall over, kicking off the new year in the same way I have so many others… The choice is mine now that I’ve completed my ‘one year no booze’ challenge and done what I set out to do: raise money for PAPYRUS and awareness of young people’s mental health, depression and suicide.

I hope you won’t be too disappointed, then, when I tell you that at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I plan to be snuggled up at home with David, toasting my achievement with a large cup of tea…

I don’t miss drinking and I don’t miss alcohol. Hell, I don’t even miss Marlborough sauvignon blanc (although I did spend some time sniffing an empty bottle of it at a team lunch a couple of weeks ago; I blame pre-Christmas stress). There’s really nothing about drinking that I miss or crave, so why would I start doing it again?

If you’d told me that at the start of the year, I would have questioned your sanity and my own, and wondered what on earth had possessed me over the course of 12 months.

unnamed-2
Pre-2018: wine glass surgically attached to hand

Drinking was such a big part of my life and I couldn’t imagine why I wouldn’t be getting straight back on it after a year of abstinence.

But I simply don’t want to. I’m so much happier without alcohol in my life. I always thought it relaxed me, but I was wrong. Alcohol fuelled my anxiety, not alleviated it. The glass, or four, of wine I ‘treated’ myself to on a Friday night (or any other night of the week, come to that) would so often make me arsey, sleepy, teary and grumpy – the not-so-fun dwarves – after the initial buzz had worn off.

The habitual nature of my drinking was making me unhappy, but it’s taken stopping drinking for me to realise that. I’d tried cutting back, tried a few nights in the week with no wine, but if I managed it, I was always so proud of myself that I’d drink even more at the weekend as a reward. And, so it went on…

I still have anxiety. Being sober hasn’t turned me into a completely worry-free Kit (that would take a re-working of my genetic code), but I’m generally far more calm and less prone to those 4am panics when I’d wake up, heart racing, feeling like the world was about to end. I now know that my body was reacting to the reducing levels of alcohol in my bloodstream as the evening’s sauvignon wore off. It probably took three months before I really started to notice this change but I when I did, it was a revelation. Now I know that when I’m feeling anxious it’s because of work, the kids, Brexit (for fuck’s sake), but it’s never because of alcohol, and that feels really good.

A lot has happened in the past 12 months: Claudia and Connor have moved back home; we had the first anniversary of Joe’s death and his inquest; I had to take a break when life got too much… And I’m confident that I wouldn’t have handled any of these things – or the million other challenges life throws at you when you’re grieving – in a remotely positive way if I’d been drinking alcohol.

One of my sober tribe on Instagram (Eve Bell, @seekingslow) wrote the other day: “Alcohol affects different people in different ways, but I have learnt it is not for me. Sober, by definition, means dull, solemn and plain. But this is exactly the opposite of the way I feel. I feel calm, joyful and firing on all cylinders.” YES, Eve! Exactly that! I genuinely don’t think alcohol is for me and I feel so much better now I’ve realised that.

One thing I always dreaded pre-2018 were visits to the doctor and the inevitable ‘how many units of alcohol do you drink?’ question. I was never entirely honest (is anyone?!) and did sometimes worry about the impact all that delicious sauvignon was having on my health, but I always pushed my worries aside. I would justify drinking wine because a) everyone else does it, b) so and so drinks more than me and they seem healthy enough, and c) I love wine. But it turns out that, a) no they don’t, b) you have no idea how much someone else is drinking or what it’s doing to them, and c) wine doesn’t love you.

So, this year, I’ve relished being asked the ‘number of units’ question. My dentist even asked me the other day and I could’ve hugged her – ‘NONE!’ I shouted. ‘ABSOLUTELY NONE!’ She didn’t seem quite as excited as me, but she did give my teeth an extra polish… I’ve also seen my doctor a lot this year as my body and mind adjust to life without Joe, and while he doesn’t need to ask me every time about how much I drink, he does because he knows I get a kick out of saying ‘nothing’. Bless him.

And that brings me onto all the support I’ve had from friends, family and strangers over the past 365 days. You guys have been incredible. The money you’ve helped raise for

unnamed-1
Nosecco or Noitdoesn’ttastelikeProsecco

PAPYRUS, the messages of love and encouragement – often from people I haven’t seen or spoken to for years – the non-alcoholic gifts (tea and Nosecco, Jem!), the random texts just to say ‘keep going!’, the understanding, and ultimately the love, have blown me away. I’ll be forever grateful and thankful to you all.

The biggest shout out has to go to my long-suffering family – David, Connor and Claudia. They’ve had to put up with those four dwarves over the years – as well as fun and silly Kit (it wasn’t always awful) – so they’ve definitely seen the biggest change and are much happier living with wine-free Kit.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t give up years ago, so Joe could have had the benefit of a more present and calm Kit, because he deserved that. It breaks my heart that it’s only because of losing such a wonderful, hilarious, bright and sassy boy that I took on this challenge. Why only now, when it’s too late, do I want to be a better person? Everyone else is reaping the benefits, but Joe isn’t, and he never will.

A lot of people have been congratulating me on my achievement and I am really pleased and proud of what I’ve done – it hasn’t always been easy – but to me, it’s nothing compared to what Joe achieved every day as he battled depression. All I did was stop drinking alcohol; he lived with a debilitating illness that robbed him of himself.

I recently read Chase the Rainbow by Poorna Bell, about her husband Rob’s battle with addiction and depression, and his subsequent death by suicide. Poorna writes so beautifully – and often with such humour – about the man she loves and about life with and without him. There are many parts of the book that resonate, but I particularly want to share the following:

unnamed (1)“We call suicide weakness. We say it is selfish. We say it’s the easy way out. But people who have reached that point have been fighting the hardest of fights for a long time. They have often been doing it on their own, because we don’t respect or value people who are struggling inside their own heads. They are lost in their own battlefield and perhaps suicide is when it has become terminal.

“They cannot see the day when they won’t be fighting. They are so very tired of fighting. Whatever the outcome, we should be in awe of their life. We should get on our knees and honour the bravery and courage they had to stay in the world as long as they did, feeling as they did.”

Joe, my sweet boy, I honour your courage every day, and every day I regret not recognising your illness and the turmoil and pain you were in for so long. I hope that the money and awareness I’ve raised this year will help someone else, who’s being as brave as you were, to take a different path.

Thank you for your light and for the years of joy you brought us all. You are with me always, and I will try to be a better person every day, because of you.

The inevitable collapse…

I haven’t written anything for a while because life has been particularly overwhelming. After Joe’s inquest, I had a few days off and then went back to work, but couldn’t function. I managed to get up, get on the train and get into the office every day but it was as though just getting there sapped all my energy and I would sit at my desk, stare at my screen and do nothing. The physical symptoms of anxiety returned and I was breathless, my heart beating too quickly and my hands shaking. The smallest things felt overwhelming and it was taking all my strength not to curl up on the floor and tell everyone to fuck off.

My colleagues and doctor suggested I take a break from work for a while (please get out of the office!) and I was signed off with anxiety and depression. Admitting that I was struggling was hard but with the support of family, friends and work, I took a step back. The first thing I did was visit my parents. I stayed with them for 10 days, hardly left the house, slept more than I thought possible, ate home cooked food and read a lot, when I wasn’t asleep (which was most of the time; I’m very good at it).

My body needed the rest and I needed to be in a place where no one was relying on me or needing anything from me. That might sound selfish, but I’d kept going since the day Joe died and hadn’t once pulled the duvet over my head and shut the world out. The sadness, anger and guilt had been building up inside me – I’d kept pushing them down, but the buggers won in the end.

A dear friend explained it to me as fight, flight or freeze, and I was frozen. The part of your brain that deals with shock and trauma had basically caused me to react like the proverbial deer in the headlights and I was stuck, unable to move forward, unable to do the most basic of things. And it was scary because I couldn’t remember what being ‘normal’ felt like and I couldn’t see how I was going to get back to a point where I didn’t just want to sleep all the time and block the world out.

I’ve always been happy on my own and I’m a classic introvert, so I need to be on my own more often than not in order to re-energise and process my thoughts. But now my brain was taking this to a new level. I hated crowds and noise; I didn’t want to see people; I only wanted to be in my house or my parents’ house: it’s like I was scared of the world.

So, I took some time and was off work for about six weeks. Work, and my boss in particular, couldn’t have been more supportive and I’m very lucky to be part of such a brilliant team who pulled together and got shit done while I ran away and hid for a while.

My boss always says they knew what they were taking on (!) when they offered me a permanent role in the months after Joe died, and they’ve certainly proved that my somewhat unpredictable mental health issues aren’t going to phase them. And for that I am extremely grateful because there is definitely still a stigma around being off work because of your mental health rather than your physical health. It’s changing but as with all of these things, it takes time.

I’m back at work now after giving myself some time to try and fight the anxiety. It’s still hard and every day is a struggle to try and be ‘normal’, to smile, to be professional etc etc… But the routine of being back at work helps, my colleagues are incredibly supportive and I’m doing my best. I’m seeing a counsellor, I’m on medication and I’m trying to look after myself as best I can.

Life has changed so much in the past 18 months. Everything I once held true has been called into question, everything I felt so cockily certain of has been tested and it’s changed me – for the better, for the worse, I don’t really know – but I do know that Kit pre-9th June 2017 is gone and a different Kit is sitting here, writing this.

One of the most sobering realisations I’ve had is just how hard Joe must have struggled to keep going in the face of his illness and how much energy it must have taken to keep his depression hidden from us. The magnitude of his illness, how it consumed him and how he managed to live with it for as long as he did, is incredible to me. He was beyond brave and I’m proud of him every day.

And guess what? During all of this – on the days when I wondered how we are supposed to carry on without Joe, on the days when I couldn’t face getting dressed and leaving the house, and on the days when the rest of my life seemed too joyless to contemplate, I DIDN’T HAVE A DRINK. Not one. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

292 days and counting…

A High Court win and August memories

Let’s start with the something positive shall we? Last month, the High Court ruled that the civil standard of proof – not the criminal standard of proof – should now be used by coroners when reaching a conclusion of suicide.

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 10.11.53

I wrote back in March – and also in PAPYRUS’ annual review – about the difficulties that using the criminal standard of proof raised, ultimately resulting in more deaths being recorded as ‘narrative; or ‘accidental’ when the families and friends of the deceased know that their loved one had intended to take their life.

Samaritans CEO Ruth Jones sums it up well: “Until now, before a death can be clearly recorded as suicide, the burden of proof has had to be on a par with that of a crime – it’s almost as if there must be enough evidence to ‘convict’ someone of the act of suicide.”

You can read Ruth Jones’ article on the impact of the High Court ruling here.

Annual review
PAPYRUS’ annual review

This requirement placed on coroners meant that the already shockingly high suicide statistics weren’t reflecting the actual number of men, women, boys and girls who die by suicide every week. PAPYRUS, the Samaritans, and others have been campaigning for this change for years, so it’s testament to their hard work and tenacity that the law has finally been changed. We will now begin to get a truer picture of suicide in the UK and grieving families can get the support they often desperately need.

It may sound odd, but when we went to Joe’s inquest in July, we wanted suicide to be the verdict. Joe intended to take his life; it was the only way he could see out of the pain that consumed him, and for someone who didn’t know him to decide that hadn’t been his intention would have felt wrong and disrespectful. So it was a mixture of relief and incredible sadness that flooded over me when the coroner did indeed record a verdict of suicide. After 13 months, the formal and legal inquiry into Joe’s death was over, but for his family and friends the heartache continues and the memories still floor us every day… 

I’m not a huge fan of summer and the heat this year has made me want to move into my freezer. I love September, with its promise of new beginnings, a new term and a shiny new pencil case, but summer can do one. And for the past few years in the Rees-Anderson household, August has also been the month of dreaded exam results…

Joe
The face of someone who’s nailed their A-levels

In 2015, it was Joe’s turn to collect his A-level results and find out whether he’d got his place at Exeter. We were up early and I was waiting to take him to school when I heard him yelling from upstairs: “I’ve got in! Exeter have emailed me!” There was much jumping around and hugging and we headed off to pick up his certificates.

He was so excited. All that hard work had paid off. Joe only went to Roundwood for sixth form so as well as tackling four A-levels, he had the added challenge of meeting a whole heap of new people and teachers. He rose to it, of course, and from reading all the messages in his yearbook, it was his sense of humour and sassiness that he’ll be most remembered for.

I’d promised him a champagne breakfast so we headed to the Slug and ordered two full English breakfasts and two glasses of champagne as soon as the doors opened at 9.30am. Joe loved that.

It was such an exciting time for him – and for Claudia who’d taken a gap year so was starting uni at the same time. Over the next few weeks, we took them to IKEA to stock up on uni bits (no Joe, you don’t need a bizarrely shaped shoe horn* and a set of six measuring jugs), introduced them to the joy of a live performance at Ronnie Scott’s and helped them to prepare for their uni adventures.

IMAG0489
Celebrating Joe’s results before a visit to Ronnie Scott’s

Looking back, I wish I’d spent more time talking to him about how he was feeling and whether he was still happy to move such a long way away, now that it was really happening. He was only just 18 and we assumed he was excited about what lay ahead. But as we now know, his self-destructive behaviour began only a few weeks into his first term at Exeter, so perhaps he wasn’t ready? If we’d been told about his problems by the university then we could have tried to help but we were told nothing, and when he came home in the holidays, he was full of laughter and stories of uni life. Even when he was taken to hospital twice in his first term we weren’t contacted, but that’s a whole other story…

There had never really been any question that Joe would go to university. He was super bright and wanted desperately to study Physics, a subject he loved. David and I had told all three children that there was no expectation from us about going to university and that they should do whatever they wanted; try an apprenticeship, go to college, get a job – whatever would make them happy. But Joe was adamant, and after touring around several universities with David, he settled on Exeter.

I think there’s often a lot of pressure on young people to go to university – from schools, from peers and from families – and I don’t think they are are given enough support or information about the alternatives. A bugbear of mine is when schools – Joe’s included – refer to the ‘destinations’ of their leavers. It’s so final, like they’ve gone to university and that’s it; it’s not just a small step in their life journey but the final destination. You get into uni and you’ve arrived, you’ve made it, end of! And for so many young people, university is a disappointing, frustrating, difficult experience, and not at all what they expected.

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 10.30.55

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 10.44.52

Connor and Claudia both went to uni, decided it wasn’t right for them and are both now starting careers in London with companies who want them for their attitude, enthusiasm and potential, not their academic qualifications. I’m not at all suggesting that for thousands of students, uni isn’t the right option – it was for me and I loved every minute of it – but I also went at a time when I paid no tuition fees and there was no social media. It’s completely different now and we need to recognise that.**

As adults, we forget how it actually feels when exams are looming, results are imminent and life decisions need to be made. We advise, counsel and guide from a place of hindsight, life lessons, experience and perspective, none of which our young people have. Yes, we can tell them not to worry and that exam results don’t matter in the grand scheme of things but this is, in all likelihood, the biggest thing to have ever happened to them; this is their grand scheme.

Young people don’t have the benefit of our years of experience, our knowledge of failure and our certainty that you can pick yourself up and learn from all the stumbles and questionable decisions you make along the way. Their perspective is so completely different to our own and we must be mindful of that and not downplay the importance of these major life events for the young people who are living them.

New job
Boom! New jobs all round

As we celebrate Connor’s and Claudia’s new jobs and the next chapter in their lives, there is such sadness that we won’t ever celebrate the milestones in Joe’s life. His Exeter friends all graduated in July and it was incredibly hard to look at the photos. He’d always talked about doing his Master’s and a PhD, at the same time as earning a ‘shed load of money’, so he had plans, albeit potentially unrealistic ones!

Having Connor and Claudia back home so they can save up for their own homes is lovely, but it does make Joe’s empty bedroom feel even more empty now it’s the only one not being used. I cleaned it today and put new bedding on his bed – I don’t really know why.

I love having these memories of Joe from 2015, as painful as they now are, but I wish I’d taken more photographs and more video because now that’s all we have. It still doesn’t feel real that he’s gone and that we’ll never see his face or hear his voice again. Most days it’s incomprehensible and it hits me over and over again like the proverbial ton of bricks. All that love, life, laughter, intelligence, sassiness and potential…

unnamed-1I’m currently reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig and so much of it speaks to me about what Joe must have been going through and what I wish I’d known, at the time, about his illness.

I’ll leave you with one of Matt’s many reasons to stay alive: “You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet, you will be able to look at a view from a high place and not assess the likelihood of dying from falling. There are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversations and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.”

_____________________________________

unnamed
Joe’s must-have shoe horn

* Joe could be very stubborn and insisted that he needed the shoe horn. It’s now hanging on the back of his bedroom door.

** Check out this programme on Radio 4 where Emma Kennedy looks at how there needs to be far more insight and support for young people at school and beyond to help them make informed choices about their future careers.

Tea is the new wine

The past couple of months have been tough. We’ve been through the anniversary of Joe’s death on what would have been his 21st birthday, as well as the inquest into his death. It’s been overwhelming and I don’t feel ready to write about it all yet, so I’m going to focus on something positive…

On 1st July I reached my six months no booze milestone! Get in! And I couldn’t let it pass by without reflecting on a few things I’ve learned…

  1. I don’t need alcohol to relax

For years, I associated having a glass of wine with unwinding and relaxing. I always thought that I deserved a glass at the end of a busy day or that I’d earned one by making it through to the weekend. A colleague recently looked aghast and asked “But how on earth do you unwind?!” when I told him I don’t drink. And the answer is, I’m fundamentally more chilled, more relaxed and more content in my own skin than I ever was when I was drinking, so I just don’t need it anymore.

IMG_5059.jpg
Pre-2018, even a bubble bath wasn’t relaxing enough on its own; champagne was required

I didn’t realise just how stressed and anxious drinking made me until I stopped, so now the thought of drinking to unwind is completely alien. It’s staggering that I feel this way after only six months when I was always the first to reach for the wine, but there you go. We can surprise ourselves sometimes.

If I’d given up alcohol at a time when I wasn’t also experiencing the life-changing loss of Joe, I may well have found myself grinning at strangers and banging on about sobriety at every opportunity, such is the joy (and that’s not too strong a word) of not drinking. As it is, I simply embrace the calm that it brings me and wonder how I would ever have got through the past six months if wine had still been a part of my life.

And yet… having said all of this, there are still certain triggers that make me want to drink (see 3) – the brain is a complex thing!

2. Life without hangovers is AWESOME

‘Nuff said.

3. I can do all the things I did when I drank, and actually enjoy them more

Well, not all the things. I do find going to dedicated drinking establishments quite difficult. I can go to pubs and have a meal without alcohol, enjoy plane journeys without all the cabin crew knowing my white wine preference by the end of the flight, and have fun at a work awards do without necking champagne. But I did struggle a bit with going to bars when we visited New York…

Walking in Central Park on the first full day of our trip, we heard jazz music wafting towards us. Following it like the good jazz fans we are, we found ourselves at Tavern on the Green – the garden full of Sunday brunchers and a delightful band playing some old school jazz loveliness. We grabbed a table and I made my way to the bar.

It turns out that watching glass after glass of champagne being poured in front of me, in one of my favourite cities, with my favourite people, on a gloriously sunny day, with live jazz in the background makes me really, really want a drink. And while the barman indulged my request for a ‘delicious-not-too-sweet-no-strawberry-or-mango-and-quite-sharp-with-as-much-of-a-kick-as-you-can-make-a-drink-with-no-actual-alcohol-in-it’ mocktail, I really wanted some fizz. And there’s nothing I can do in those situations except ride it out and avoid looking at the wine list.

IMG_0429
Mocktail. Sigh.

We went to another bar a few nights later – Gallow Green at the McKittrick Hotel (lovely, recommended). After the surprise and delight of being asked for ID – and the subsequent dismay of discovering they have to ask everyone for safety reasons (fuck it) – we found our rooftop table. I watched as groups of friends enjoyed delicious-looking cocktails and ice-cold glasses of rose, laughing and chatting away as the sun disappeared over the Hudson. The atmosphere was intoxicating, pardon the pun.

After one mocktail I was ready to leave; I was feeling antsy and just wanted to get out. Old Kit would no doubt have polished off a few glasses of Sauvignon before bowling off for dinner, eating very little and ordering more wine. Luckily, David and the kids are supportive of my alcohol-free challenge, so we left and made our way to our favourite upper east side restaurant, UVA. I ate plenty, sipped an alcohol-free lager, talked, laughed, and generally had a much better night than I would ever have done if Mr Sauvignon had been involved.

So, bars are tricky, but luckily my 40-something social life doesn’t require me to visit many, so it’s all good…

4. Tea is the new wine

I’ve become addicted to tea. Seriously addicted. I’ve always liked tea, even more so since developing an aversion to coffee at some point in my 30s, but like has definitely developed into love. I now get panicky if there isn’t enough tea in the house and I worry when I go anywhere in case the tea is shit. Because it’s not just that I love tea, it’s that I love tea EXACTLY THE WAY I LOVE IT.

Anyone who has ever lived or worked with me will know my very particular tea requirements; strong, with a tiny amount of milk. If there’s too much milk, I won’t drink it. I don’t care if you’ve spent time lovingly brewing individually hand-picked leaves of India’s finest in my favourite mug, if you’ve put too much milk in you can take it away and start again. I’m quite ruthless about this

unnamed
Left = hurrah! Right = WTF?

I recently found my dear friend and colleague, Lizzie, in the kitchen at work, very carefully pouring semi-skimmed into the lid of the milk carton after discovering it’s the perfect amount for my exacting tea standards. It really is a joy working with me…

So tea and I are definitely now an item. English breakfast, decaf, loose leaf, in a bag; I don’t mind as long as you get the milk right. Capeesh?

5. I’m less arsey (although clearly not where milky tea is concerned)

I was often incredibly irritable and argumentative after a couple of glasses of wine. I’ve been brought up to enjoy a good debate, but wine always fuelled any anger or discontent inside me; I was ‘wangry’…

As an introvert living with and raising three teenagers, I was often frustrated, stressed and bemused, and I now realise that drinking wine didn’t help me deal with those feelings. I would sometimes react to situations in ways that I look back on now with shame and sadness; I turned door slamming into an art form.

IMG_8215.jpg
My bible

Anyone raising teenagers knows how confusing and challenging it can be. Throw in being a stepmum with no children of my own who’s only 17 years older than the eldest, as well as the teens having a largely absent biological mother who made a pitiful emotional, practical and financial contribution to her children’s upbringing, and you have a situation that I defy anyone to handle with grace and serenity at all times.

I found some comfort in Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do by Wednesday Martinwhich should be required reading for stepmums the world over. To know that the way I was feeling wasn’t wrong or abnormal, and that other women were feeling the same way, was incredibly reassuring.

I can’t talk to Joe about any of this now or explain how hard I found it being a stepmum. I also can’t tell him how much I loved him and how I persevered every day to try and figure out my role in the absence of his own mum, and to make our weird little blended family work.

It breaks my heart that I’ll never develop an adult relationship with Joe, a relationship that I know would have been full of debate, discussion, laughter and fun, once we’d overcome the inevitable challenges of our teenager/stepmum relationship.

I genuinely believed that wine was helping me deal with these difficult situations and that I needed it to get through the crap, when in fact it was the complete opposite. I wish I could go back, knowing what I know now, and change so many things. But I can’t. All I can do is make sure I learn from my mistakes and become a less arsey, a less ‘wangry’, Kit.

6. I’ve ‘met’ some brilliantly inspiring sober bods

I now follow a whole host of people on Instagram and Twitter who’ve chosen sobriety for a variety of reasons, and are loving it. I thank each and every one of them for their stories, support and encouragement. It’s a brilliant tribe to be a part of.

7. Sobriety doesn’t fix everything

As great as being alcohol-free is, it’s not a miracle worker. The stress, anxiety and grief of the past year have built up to such a point that I’m finding it difficult to move beyond them at the moment. I’m not coping with even the simplest things and I’m not functioning at work, so I’m taking a break.

It doesn’t come naturally to me to admit that I’m struggling but I’m learning the importance of self-care, and that’s it’s ok to say “I’m really not ok.” Family, friends and colleagues have been amazing, and I have everyone’s blessing to step off the treadmill for a while.

img_5331
My peaceful place

I’ve escaped to the peace and tranquility of North Yorkshire to give myself time and space to try and compute the incalculable shock and loss of Joe’s death, and to hopefully come back stronger and more able to cope.

And of course I’m doing it all with gallons of non-milky tea…

“Maybe this year will be better than the last…”

Would you Adam and Eve it?! I’ve done a full five months with no alcohol and I have to say that giving it up is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not leaping around, grinning like an eegit and embracing small children – I’m sober, not insane. It’s more of a quiet sense of calm and an absolute freedom from thinking about alcohol. Well, I say absolute freedom – I do still think about it every now and then, like a couple of weeks ago when I went for a meal with work colleagues.

Ginger swizzle
A swizzle it ain’t

We arrived at the lovely Hawksmoor and I ordered a Cucumber and Ginger Swizzle (heads up to drinks menu writers, please don’t try and pretend that my non-alcoholic drink is a cocktail by calling it a swizzle, thank you). So far, so good, and it was actually rather delicious.

The challenge came as I watched my boss peruse the wine list and select the Sancerre. THE SANCERRE. I had to sit on my hands for fear of accosting the waiter and demanding he pour me a glass… But I didn’t cave, I left the waiter alone and I demurely sipped my swizzly drink while giving side-eye to the Sancerre drinkers…

Plane3
Champagne – 2016

And then there was a flight to Montreal for work last week. For as long as I can remember, I’ve drunk champagne and wine on flights, so I was curious about what I’d be like flying for the first time since giving up. Would I be tempted by the clinking of those little bottles being pushed down the aisle towards me or swayed by that old romantic notion of sipping a glass of fizz above the clouds?

Yes, the thought of a glass of champagne was definitely appealing, but the thought of decent sleep and a clear head was infinitely more appealing, so when the tray was proffered, I grabbed some water, ordered a peppermint tea and cracked on with some work.

Tea on plane
Water and tea – 2018

Pre-2018 Kit would have taken all the champagne on offer, moved onto wine with dinner and then had more wine with dessert, or instead of dessert. I wouldn’t have slept properly and would have arrived feeling dehydrated and jaded. I’ll take the water and tea, thanks.

What I did do on the flight was listen to some Desert Island Discs podcasts. I love that show but rarely get to listen to it ‘live’ so always download some and listen to them on holiday. In our previous life, David would often look over at me as I quietly sobbed on my sun lounger, shake his head and pretend not to know me.

I love the intimacy of the two voices, especially through headphones, and the memories the music evokes for people; the stories of childhood, regret and love. I’d downloaded a batch before my trip and each and every one I listened to resonated with me.

I knew that listening to Sheryl Sandberg’s would be difficult. She speaks so eloquently about the sudden loss of her husband and her emotion is still so raw. One of her song choices was Long December by Counting Crows, a band who were a real favourite of mine in my late teens and twenties. Apart from it being a great song, she chose it for the opening line: “A long December and there’s reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last.”

As we head towards 9th June and a year without Joe, that line for me is all about hope and trying to find the strength to believe that life will get better. We can’t have another year like this one, can we? Things will get better, won’t they?

Abi
A typical exchange between me and Joe

Claudia and I were talking the other day about just how much our lives have changed in 12 short months. Our family of 7 (we ALWAYS include the cats) has become a family of 5 with no Joe and no Luka. Whole parts of our world simply don’t exist anymore.

We’re all so different and even Abigail is a different cat, so much more clingy and in constant need of cuddles. Cats sense emotions and they feel loss. Abi has lost her favourite human – she and Joe adored each other – and the only other cat she ever knew. She’s as lost as we are…

Another Desert Island Discs I listened to was Anne-Marie Duff (who I might be a little bit in love with). She talked about the sudden loss of her friend, Alison: “As time goes on I think of her more and more. Grief is an interesting thing because it comes visiting when it wants; it’s servant to no man and it absolutely forces you to confront its presence. ‘I am here, you will deal with me now.’ And I find that the gentle grieving of her is something that I just carry with me.”

I like that phrase ‘gentle grieving’. Gone are the wracking sobs and the wailing that engulfed me in the days after Joe’s death. Gone is the feeling of a great weight pushing into my chest, making it almost impossible to breathe. But in their place is the dull, constant ache of sadness, regret and loss; the weariness of yet another day without Joe in the world.

Joel front cover picBut we plod on. We get up every day and we go to work. We interact with people, we smile, we laugh, we shop, we cook meals, we pay bills and we see friends. But we do it all knowing that we’ll never see Joe or hear his voice again, and most days that’s still too hard, too unfathomable, to comprehend.

So we have to have hope. We have to believe that this year will be better than the last. And we have to hope that when grief comes visiting to do its worst, we have the strength to hold each other up until it passes for another day.

Joe, as we crawl towards the day that we lost you a year ago, we’ll raise a glass on your 21st as we soar closer to your beloved stars, on our first trip as a family of four. And while we may be four, you, our shining star, are always with us in our hearts.

P.S. You’re going to love New York xxxx

 

 

 

The semantics of suicide

I’d been doing quite well with the whole anxiety thing, but recently it’s returned with a vengeance. So that means breathlessness, shakiness and being in a permanent state of worry, overthinking pretty much everything. David is thrilled.

But then the past couple of months have been particularly challenging (see The ripple effect), so it’s hardly surprising. Knowing your child is struggling to the point of ending their life makes every moment seem like an eternity and every sound a hundred times louder. All your senses are heightened and the constant stream of adrenalin means you’re on perpetual high alert, even when they’re sitting safely next to you.

Claudia is through the worst of it, for now, and the brilliant mental health crisis teams in Nottingham and Hertfordshire – thank you, NHS – have discharged her from their acute care. And yet the anxiety remains. I think the combination of Claudia’s depression, a busy job, grief, tiredness and the imminent anniversary of Joe’s death are likely to be the reasons – you think?! – so I’m self-medicating with beta-blockers and cake…*

Joe

I’ve been thinking a lot about this time last year, and how Joe must have been feeling while we were carrying on our lives in blissful ignorance, believing him when he told us he was ok. A typical text exchange:

Me: How are you doing?

Joe: I’m doing alright, a lot of work but I’m managing.

Me: Good lad. Love you.

Good lad? Is that it?! Why didn’t I ask if he needed some help? “I’m doing alright” doesn’t exactly allude to an overwhelmingly positive state of mind, so why didn’t I probe further?

When Joe was doing his GCSEs and struggling with English (the only subject our scientific genius found challenging – “It’s not logical!”), I was straight on the case and sorted out Skype tutoring from the best in the business, my darling friend Erica. He loved those sessions, printing out all the exercises she sent him and shutting himself away in our study for his Skype lessons. It helped enormously because Erica taught him in a way that he understood and he sailed through his exam.

So what was I thinking? Just because he was 19, not 15, did I expect him to be able to manage his life without our support? I honestly don’t know what was going through my head, but I can’t stop running those conversations over and over, wishing I’d responded differently…

(I’m listening to Laura Mvula as I write this and Sing to the Moon** has just floored me.)

I may be feeling overwhelming anxiety at the moment but it doesn’t stop anger and frustration bubbling up as well. Before Joe died, I admit to being as ignorant as the next person about the terminology around suicide and depression. But now I know a lot more and there’s one thing that continues to annoy me, so much so that I tweeted about it the other day.

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 05.34.22

The media have a responsibility to report suicide accurately and sensitively, and by continuing to allude to it being a crime, no matter whether they intend to or not, they simply aren’t doing that. There would, quite rightly, be an outcry if the media wrote about ‘committing a homosexual act’ and yet suicide was decriminalised 6 years earlier than homosexuality, so why does ‘committing suicide’ still make it into so many headlines and articles?

I did a quick Google search and found articles by OK! and The Hollywood Gossip (to name just a couple) that referred to the DJ Avicii having committed suicide.

But, he didn’t! He may have died by suicide – that is yet to be officially confirmed – but regardless, he didn’t commit a crime in the UK or the US where these two sites are published (although suicide is considered a crime in Oman, where he died). And while OK! and The Hollywood Gossip aren’t necessarily known for their journalistic excellence, they still have a duty to report responsibly. Papyrus have a set of Media Guidelines, for anyone who’s interested.

JoelJoe died from depression. Depression took him over and depression killed him. It’s an illness and he didn’t have a choice. He wasn’t a ‘bit sad’ or ‘feeling a bit low’. His body and mind were consumed by a shitty, insidious and debilitating clinical illness; he didn’t commit a crime by succumbing to it.

Claudia showed me a Facebook post by a chap called Will Katz recently and for me, it sums up how much we need to change when it comes to talking about, not just suicide, but mental illness generally. Here’s an excerpt: “What we need to understand is that the brain is just an organ. It may be the most complicated organ in the body, but it is still just a mass of biological stuff that is susceptible to disease just like a liver or a lung or a pancreas.

“The fact that our culture offers sympathy to a patient with a damaged heart but wags its collective head at a patient with a damaged brain suggests that we really never left the dark ages when it comes to our understanding of mental illness.”

You can read the full post here.

So… let’s talk about mental illness, suicide and depression but please let’s do it sensitively, responsibly and above all, accurately.

 

*but not wine! 119 days and counting…

**check out this brilliant version with Snarky Puppy

Springtime, sunshine and the Big Apple

Is it just me, or has spring felt like it’s been a long time coming this year? The oppressively dark days of winter seem to have dragged as I’ve moved from house to car to train to office and back again, rarely glimpsing daylight. Work has been so busy that my regular lunchtime walks around St James’ Park have taken a hit and the crappy weather has meant that weekend walks have been replaced by fireside reading; not at all unpleasant but I do feel as though my skin is crying out for some vitamin D.

And then yesterday we woke up to sunshine! Sunshine, blue sky and birdsong. It wasn’t the deceptive British sunshine that has you hurriedly donning your flip flops only to step outside to find you have to de-ice the car…it was actually warm. So of course Claudia and I did what all good British people do in that situation and spent an hour in a pub garden, with soft drinks, obvs. And while we were there, it dawned on us just how challenging spring is going to be.

P1030558
Joe, 2010

Joe died in June. The day of his death, the days after his death, the day of his funeral, and the day we buried his ashes were all warm and sunny, and the feelings that simply sitting outside in the sunshine yesterday provoked were visceral.

I think about Joe every day, hour, minute – it’s like there’s a part of my brain that’s been hardwired just to him. He creeps into my dreams at night, often so vividly that I’m discombobulated for days. So the sunshine isn’t making me think of him more, but it is taking me back to that weird, surreal time of visiting churches, making arrangements, standing in his empty bedroom, sitting in his car for the first time, choosing his coffin… I feel like I floated through those months in a dreamlike state and so spring, with all its wonder and beauty and hope, is going to be especially tough this year.

That said, I do want to focus on some positives.

I’ll start with the fact that I’ve now got through 105 days sans booze. Hurrah! It’s beginning to feel normal now, which I guess is good. A colleague was talking about alcohol the other day and without even thinking I said: “Oh, I don’t drink” – and it felt fine. Actually, it felt really bloody good.

I visited my parents at Easter for the first time since I stopped drinking, and was a tad anxious as we always crack open the wine at lunchtime, and again in the evening, the three of us setting the world to rights over a few glasses (or bottles). But it was fine. No cravings at all. It helped that they’d stocked up on de-alcoholised wine which I sipped as they enjoyed the proper stuff. But even a cheeky sniff (oh alright, a long, slow inhale) of my Mum’s New Zealand Sauvignon wasn’t enough to make me cave.

Claudia and I have also had a really good couple of weeks commuting into London together where she’s been doing work experience. I’m so proud of her for pressing ahead with the commitment she made and not letting her state of mind discourage her from doing what has turned out to be 2 weeks of real positivity and confidence-building. Hearing her talk about what she’s been doing every day has been brilliant, especially given the very difficult and upsetting conversations we’ve been having over the past few weeks.

Commuters
Commuting!

She’s joined editorial meetings, been to her first conference (free pastries!), written a blog, met all sorts of new people and learned a huge amount about working life. I’ve always imagined Claudia living and working in London, enjoying everything it has to offer, and it’s so good to hear her talking about her future. A huge shout out to my dear friend Joanna for helping her out.  Fingers crossed the positivity continues…

I must also mention the brilliant mental health team from the Herts Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust who have been coming to talk to Claudia – as well as David and I – on an almost daily basis since she came home from Nottingham. Knowing they are available 24 hours if Claudia wants to talk or if we have concerns about her, is a real comfort.

Sadly, there do seem to be some discrepancies between the fantastic level of care Claudia is receiving and the care that Joe received from the equivalent team in Exeter, particularly around the issue of confidentiality. There was an interesting article in the Guardian last week that asks “Is confidentiality more important than helping someone at risk to stay alive?” as well as a shocking story from the BBC around student suicide stats. We simply have to do more to keep our young people safe.

Back to the positivity. We’ve booked a family holiday! For the past few years, David and I have made an annual trip to our favourite resort in Greece for a couple of weeks of serious relaxation and awesome cocktails, but that seems like a lifetime ago now and I can’t imagine a holiday like it again. In fact we haven’t wanted to go abroad at all since Joe died. I was trying to pinpoint what it was about going away that felt wrong and realised that it was being so far away from Connor and Claudia. The thought of putting thousands of miles between us, and not being able to be with them quickly if they needed us, wasn’t right, so we’re taking them on their first trip to New York.

NYC books
Rees-Anderson mantra: avoid the tourist traps

For years, I promised to take Claudia when she was 21 so we could have cocktails together, and of course the irony is that I’ll be having all the prohibition ones while she tucks into the gin… Holidaying without alcohol will definitely be a challenge and I’m interested to see how I manage the cravings, and whether listening to live jazz in New York with a mocktail will tip me over the edge… But of course it’s holidaying without Joe that will be the strangest thing of all.

I’ll leave you with a passage from an incredible a book I’ve just finished – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara:

“Or maybe he is closer still; maybe he is that grey cat that has begun to sit outside our neighbour’s house, purring when I reach out my hand to it; maybe he is that new puppy I see tugging at the end of my other neighbour’s leash; maybe he is that toddler I saw running through the square a few months ago, shrieking with joy, his parents huffing after him; maybe he is that flower that suddenly bloomed on the rhododendron bush I thought had died long ago; maybe he is that cloud, that wave, that rain, that mist. It isn’t only that he died, or how he died; it is what he died believing. And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”