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regular lunchtime walks around St James’ Park have taken a hit and the crappy weather has meant that weekend walks have been replaced by fireside reading; not at all unpleasant but I do feel as though my skin is crying out for some vitamin D.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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

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The ripple effect

There’s been a lot of talk on social media this week about mental health and suicide thanks to Zoe Ball’s Sport Relief challenge in memory of her partner Billy Yates. Hardest Road Home was difficult to watch but also incredibly inspiring and the money donated will go a huge way to supporting those at risk of suicide. Good job Zoe.

One of the things mentioned in the programme was the ripple effect of suicide and the impact it has on so many people. In the days, weeks and months after Joe died, this effect was palpable. Family, friends and strangers all impacted by the loss of our brilliant boy, visited, called, wrote and texted; we had a house full of people sharing stories, grieving, supporting… And now, nine months on when the visitors have gone and life ploughs on, the impact on those closest to Joe continues.unnamed

Grief can often lead to depression and it breaks my heart that this cruel, shitty, bastard of an illness has now taken hold of Claudia. My sweet, bright, hilarious, and determined girl is struggling and I desperately want to take the pain away. I couldn’t help Joe because he kept his illness to himself, although in his last week of life when we did know something was wrong, we didn’t take it seriously enough. The regret of not driving to Exeter, forcing him into the car and bringing him home, haunts me every day.

But I can do something to help Claudia. I understand depression much better now. I understand what it can do and that it can lead to feelings of such darkness and despair that death seems like the only answer.

The dynamic of Claudia’s life has shifted. She misses Joe so much and sometimes can’t see the point of a life without him in it. She was the middle child and had two brothers; now she’s the youngest and has lost her partner in crime, despite still being close to Connor. Their shared history, their childhood, school, university, their whole lives are intertwined. The stories that only Joe and Claudia knew, the memories only they shared, the love that only they had for each other has gone, and she’s really struggling to make sense of it.

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The two of them fought like cat and dog when they were younger but in the past few years, since they’d both moved away to university, they’d become incredibly close. Joe was often the first person Claudia would turn to when she needed to talk. He was always her baby brother and the smart arse who knew the answer to everything, but their relationship was maturing, and it was lovely to see.

19029314_10209755559389108_2162738293857643448_nThe stories they used to tell were hilarious: Joe standing in the ladies’ toilet of a bar with a drunk Claudia who needed to go home, telling all the girls – “Back off bitches, this is my sister” with a phone in each hand trying to get hold of David on one of them and me on the other; the two of them owning the dancefloor at a club; the hours spent at Top Golf; the car journeys; the Facetime chats…

And so, our girl is back home. Maybe for good and maybe just until she gets better and can finish her degree. She’s done all the right things – she’s gone to her GP, she’s talked about how she’s feeling and she’s been referred to the mental health crisis team in Nottingham. She has given her consent for them to talk to me and David about the things she finds difficult to say, and we’re in contact with them until we can get her moved to the outpatient care of our local mental health trust.

It’s hard, it’s shit and I’m scared. But she’s talking to us, to her friends – who are amazing – to her GP and to the mental health team. And talking about it has meant the difference between struggling in silence and having us put our arms around her, bring her home, listen and try to help. She’s worried because coming home and taking a break from uni wasn’t in her plan. I’ve told her we just need a new plan.19030767_10209755558909096_506762968273621912_n

Everything changed on that day in June when Joe decided that enough was enough, and Claudia’s plan now needs to be focused on getting better and not thinking too far ahead. My plan, David’s plan, our plan for this family changes every day so we’ve learned not to think about next month, the next six months, the next year… We just think about today, tomorrow, the manageable, the achievable, the here and now.

Amidst all the anxiety, the stress and the worry of the past couple of weeks, our family’s dark humour continues to shine through. Claudia found it hilarious that, while waiting for an appointment at the mental health hospital, this was the song they had blaring across the waiting room…

I’ll leave you on that note and carry on bobbing about in the ripples…

Cravings, triggers and weight loss

It’s 76 days since I had alcohol, so what’s changed?

Well I’m definitely lighter. The scales tell me I’ve lost 11 lbs, which I love them for. I can get back into a beloved pair of jeans that last year I’d put in a pile of random purchases or outgrown items that I mourn and then give to charity. But I’ve resurrected them and they’re now back in the wardrobe where they belong.

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Hello, you beauties

I’ve also had to buy some new clothes to fit my booze-free frame and while some people probably jump for the joy at the thought of shopping, I’m not one of them. I hate it and resolutely do 99% of it online so I don’t have to deal with other shoppers, irritating sales assistants and changing rooms. Our dear retired neighbours have set up a collection office in their living room for all my deliveries and I pop round after work to pick up my parcels and have a chat by their roaring fire. So great, I needed to shift a few pounds and if it was all Sauvignon Blanc-related heft then I’m glad to be shot of it.

My eating habits have changed for the better as well. I always knew that wine was chock full of calories so I’d justify drinking it by reducing the amount of food I consumed. Boom! Forego nutrients for a hangover, nice one Kit. It’s amazing what dependence on something can make you rationalise. I consider myself to be a relatively intelligent individual so why would I choose wine over food? It seems crazy now but after a couple of glasses, my appetite would vanish and in my head it made sense to finish the bottle instead of having a meal.

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Better than a burger

We get free breakfast and lunch at work (utterly spoiled, I know) and I would always go for toast and butter in the mornings and, more often than not, the stodgy, comforting option at lunchtime, bypassing the healthy choices to dive straight into the cheese-laden lasagne or legendary curly fries. But since January, I’ve had porridge every morning and made friends with the salad bar because my body isn’t craving carbs in the way it was. And I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself or dieting, I’m just reacting to what my body wants and without alcohol, it wants salad. Who knew?! It also seems to want more chocolate and cake, but you can’t have everything…

So, I’m physically lighter without alcohol, but I’m psychologically lighter as well. I realise how much time I spent thinking about alcohol. Is there enough wine in the fridge? Will I miss my train if I pop into the shop to pick up some wine? Drinking had become habitual. Get home from work, pour a glass of wine. Did I even really want a glass? Not always, but it was what I did and I felt like I deserved it as a reward for a day at work. Really? You need to reward yourself for getting up, going to work and coming home again? Well done Kit, you’re an incredible human being! You did all that by yourself, have a gallon of the finest Sauvignon!

I also justified wine if there was something to celebrate, which meant I turned everyday activities into occasions: It’s Saturday, best have some wine! I’m having a bath, ooh, wine! I’m cooking, come here Mr Sauvignon!

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Who knew?

I could find a reason to drink wine when I did pretty much anything. So what do I do now? Is it all Elderflower cordial and cups of tea? Yes and no. My trusty Torres de-alcoholised Muscat and the perfectly palatable Bitburger 0% lager are playing a role when I want to feel as though I’m still partaking in a ‘proper’ drink, but I’m also drinking more tea and loads of water. I’m not mad keen on squashes and cordials – I’d rather get my sugar from cake – but I’ve found a couple that I quite like. And I tend to put whatever I drink into a wine glass or a proper lager glass (apart from tea because that would be silly) so I still have the sensation of drinking booze.

And I do get cravings. Just yesterday David and I went to visit Claudia in Nottingham because she needed a hug and, quite frankly, we needed one too. We went for lunch at a French bistro we like and I was overwhelmed with the desire for a glass of wine. It’s not because Claudia drives me to drink – it was the jazz, the wonderfully atmospheric trumpet jazz they were playing. It was the lighting, the dark skies and snow falling outside, the delicious hum of fellow diners chatting away, the chalkboard that so beautifully described the Picpoul Sauvignon. It was heady – we could have been in Paris or New York – and the only thing missing for me was a glass of wine.

Don’t panic, reader! I had a Becks Blue. I didn’t succumb and I won’t succumb, but sometimes the desire is very real and it’s interesting to understand what my triggers are. French bistros and jazz apparently…

Another positive of giving up alcohol is the effect it’s had on the people around me. David often now opts for a non-alcoholic beer over a regular one and several people have told me they’re trying to cut down after seeing the change in me, which is brilliant. My mission when doing this challenge was never to become preachy or holier than thou about alcohol. It was only ever to honour Joe’s memory and to raise awareness and support for the prevention of young suicide, but if it also makes people stop and think about their relationship with alcohol, that’s a bonus.

And if you’re really serious about taking a break from the booze, then now is the perfect time. The brilliant writer, Catherine Gray, whose book The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober is an honest, painful and hilarious read about her relationship with alcohol, is setting up Sober Spring. From March 20th to June 21st you basically don’t drink alcohol. Simples. 93 days without booze. An entire season. I’m doing it (obvs) and I reckon you could do it too.

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Follow Catherine on Twitter @cathgraywrites and on Instagram @unexpectedjoyof and @cathgraywrites

So you now have two days to drink every drop of alcohol in your house – you’d best get going.

#SoberSpring

#I’mOnlyKiddingYouDon’tHaveTo

Don’t order the wine!

41 days with no alcohol. Hurrah!

I think I may have finally broken the habit that characterised my relationship with white wine. My stepdaughter, Claudia, was home from uni last weekend and we drove to Reading to meet up with my stepson, Connor, and have a family lunch. Sunday lunches for me would always – without fail – include as many large glasses of Sauvignon as I could justify, but I now realise I was on auto-pilot. I drank wine, it’s what I did. Everyone would expect Kit to go straight to the wine menu, find the New Zealand Sauvignon, complain if there wasn’t one, and then proceed to drink the best part of a bottle.

But now I’m THINKING. So effing simple but something I just hadn’t beunnameden doing where alcohol was concerned. I ordered wine, I bought wine, I drank wine. And now I don’t. I order sparkling water, alcohol free lager or tea. Yup, instead of my usual glass of wine for dessert, I now have tea (pictured, vying for attention with Claudia’s picture-hogging G&T). And I drive home so my partner can rest his eyes and not spend the weekend driving his tipsy girlfriend around when he drives so much during the week.

Do I find it hard? Sure I do. I miss the taste of a good white wine and that lovely fuzzy feeling you get after a glass or two. But I don’t miss the bad sleep, the alcohol-fuelled anxiety and the lethargy. The only time I felt like reaching for a bottle during lunch was when the children (24 and 21, but still children to me) started pestering David and I to get married…

Grief is different without alcohol as well. Oddly, I’m feeling more emotional despite being calmer and less anxious. The calmness is probably down to the fact that my anti-depressants are working more effectively without having to battle for bloodstream space with a very pushy Sauv Blanc, but I had thought giving up the booze might help me control my emotions. Apparently not. I suppose it was a big ask and that my grief wasn’t going to disappear along with my hangovers, but not being able to numb the emptiness, the loss, the regret and the despair with a few drinks is definitely one of the things I miss. Reality, sober, is a bitch.

On the flipside, I’m able to be more present for David, Connor and Claudia who all need sober Kit to help them navigate their grief. A lot of people tell us we’re coping really well but I think we’ve just learned how to keep the mask up for longer at work or when we’re going about our days. What people don’t see is the sadness that envelops us so often. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still able to laugh and joke, but we just need to be together – a lot – talking, hugging, crying and remembering.

Anyhoo, 41 days with no booze and I’m more than a little chuffed with myself.

I’m pretty sure Joe would be too.