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lunchtime walks around St James’ Park have taken a hit and the crappy weather has meant that weekend walks have been replaced by fireside reading; not at all unpleasant but I do feel as though my skin is crying out for some vitamin D.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

Life lessons from my Mama

Today I’m celebrating being 69 days alcohol-free (get in!) but more importantly, I’m celebrating my mum. We don’t usually go in for the ‘Hallmark holidays’ (something about being northern, I reckon) but this year, I hope she’ll forgive me if I jump on the Mother’s Day bandwagon…

Kate Anderson, Titch, Katie-noodle, Mama. My mum grew up in the north of England and escaped down south as soon as her independent streak kicked in and my Gran would let her. She lived in London and worked at the BBC before meeting my dad – a fellow northerner – at a party where he was drinking beer from a vase (legend). They were married 6 months later and are celebrating 50 years of marriage in October. Boom!

My mum has been a strong and loving constant for me, and my brother, through our best and worst times. My dad travelled a lot for work when we were growing up so mum was often on her own – a long way from her own mum and family – with two young children who could turn arguing into an art form. She made the best chocolate crispy cakes and created a safe, warm, happy home that I’ll always treasure.

My parents have never been judgmental or placed any expectations on my brother and I, aside from wanting us to do our best and be happy. There’s been no pressure on either of us to have children (phew) and we’ve been raised to be independent and to live the lives we choose. I saw a mug the other day that said: “The best mothers are promoted to grandmothers” WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? The best mothers nurture their children and don’t place emotional pressure on them to procreate just so they can call themselves Grandma. In my humble opinion…

In the past 6 years – since David, the children and I moved in together – I’ve apologised to my mum and thanked her A LOT. Living with teenagers is hard, really effing hard, and I know I didn’t navigate my stepchildren’s teenage years with half as much grace, understanding and patience as my own mum did with me and my brother.

The looks of pure disdain, the frequent requests for money, the endless lifts, the hormones, the mess (teens) and of course the crying, the slamming of doors and the gallons of wine (me). So again, mum, thank you for the teenage years and for so much more…

My mum and dad once did an 8-hour round trip from their home in North Yorkshire to give me a hug when I’d had my heart broken. They celebrated with me when I got married at 26 – and picked up the pieces when I got divorced two years later. They pretended not to mind when I flew to Australia instead of going to my graduation. They listened patiently as I questioned their choice of education for me through a haze of cigarette smoke when I was 19; a choice I now thank and respect them for enormously.

And I’ll never forget the day, after years of pestering, that mum gave in as I announced, once and for all, that I was giving up meat. I was 12. She cooked more lentils during those years than anyone should have to. She also didn’t remove any of the photos of dying battery hens I used to pin to our fridge in an attempt to shame my parents and brother into going veggie…

And she’s done all of this at the same time as losing her parents and her brother, helping to look after her often cantankerous father-in-law, studying for a degree and graduating in her 50s, living alone when my dad moved to the States for work and supporting my brother through years of addiction.

And I’m sure there are a whole heap of things I don’t know about because she’s protected me from them. I remember being a bit taken aback once when she told me, “I’m not your friend, I’m your mum”, but now I know exactly what she meant; she protects me, not burdens me. Plus we don’t talk about sex. EVER.

Our shared love of New Zealand Sauvignon (gosh, I miss it), Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and reading have characterised our relationship more recently and I love doing mix CDs for mum of my latest music finds. When life gets too much, my parents’ house is the first place I want to escape to and I’m heading up in a few weeks for some much needed mum (and dad) cooking and hugs.

I’ve been unlucky enough to experience some incredibly unpleasant and bizarre behaviour from my stepchildren’s mother over the past few years – which I know isn’t normal or typical – but I suspect isn’t unique either, and that breaks my heart. My experience of motherhood – having the mum I have and watching my friends as mothers – is positive, warm, loving, caring, selfless and strong. Yes there are frustrations and irritations but that protectiveness and love is always there.

I hate that Connor and Claudia don’t have that, especially now, when they need it most as they grieve for Joe. Their mother’s frequent absences, incessant dishonesty and brazen self-centredness were confusing for them when they were younger, but as they grow up, they realise it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with her. They are safe in the knowledge that David and I will always give them unconditional love, emotional support and as much time as we possibly can.

I’ve learned the importance of that from my mum and while some may say it’s different when the children aren’t biologically you’re own, for me it’s no different at all. Love is love.

Ma and Pa

I know how hard it is for my mum and dad to see me, David and the children in so much pain since losing Joe. I know they wish they were closer and could see us all more often and I know mum lies awake worrying about us. All I can say, mum, is that you raised me, so stop worrying. You and dad made me the strong, independent and resilient woman I am, along with the whacking great dollop of cynicism, sarcasm, anxiety and humour you threw in there for good measure.

I’ll be fine, and I’ll make sure my family are fine as well. Better than fine, in fact, it’ll just take some time. The axes of our lives have permanently shifted, but we’ll find new paths and Joe will be with us, laughing at our choices, along the way.

So today, and every day, I raise a glass of non-alcoholic fizz to my mama, and to all the incredible women in my life. Thank you.

Regret, tolerance and porridge

It’s been a crazy busy couple of weeks at work so this is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and write something that isn’t related to net debt, EBITDA and share prices. Praise the lord. It’s early on Saturday morning, Abigail (cat) and I are in the study. She’s washing after a particularly satisfying chicken breakfast and I’m mainlining tea. This is my favourite time of day, when David and Claudia are sleeping upstairs, the house is quiet, the sun is coming up and, for a short time, life seems calm and manageable.

Most of the time it feels as though losing Joe has sucked all the joy out of life and replaced it with dull, sad, monotony. But on mornings like this, and increasingly at random times throughout the day, a chink of light gets through and I remember there’s much to be grateful for. It’s the simple things that strike me; the things that money can’t buy. Yesterday, I was grateful for the trains that ran on time, my fabulously supportive colleagues, the hug I got from Claudia when I met her at the station, and porridge. You’ve gotta love porridge.

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The difference now is that I stop to appreciate these things instead of bowling through my day at a million miles an hour, head down, always thinking about the next thing, the next thing, the next thing… Now I don’t care what ‘stuff’ I have because I know I’d give it all up in an instant to have Joe back, so it becomes insignificant. (I can almost hear my friends yelling – “I bet you couldn’t give up candles!”)

I’m also more tolerant. On my commute, I used to be quick to get cross with people who invaded my space, had the nerve to sit next to me or played their music too loud. But now I think: ‘I don’t know what you’re going through’. If you saw me on the train, you wouldn’t know I was grieving – except maybe when I’m having a quiet cry – so by the same token, I don’t know what anyone else is going through.

Maybe they’re playing their music loud because they’re trying to block something out, maybe they’re sitting next to me, despite there being lots of empty seats, because they need the silent companionship of a stranger. And maybe they’re sniffing repeatedly because…no! That’s the one thing I still can’t abide – I don’t care what you’re going through, get a tissue!

Still a little way to go on the tolerance thing perhaps…

I wish I could turn back time (cue Cher) to when Joe was here so I could be more tolerant with him. I talk to him all the time, telling him how sorry I am for all the nagging and the arguments. Telling him that if I’d known how much he was suffering, I would have driven to Exeter, manhandled him into the car, brought him home and looked after him for as long as he needed me to. But I can’t, and it breaks my heart every single day.

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I miss Joe. I miss his voice, his laugh, and the perfect ability only he had to wind me up. I miss his joy in messing with my very ordered, slightly OCD brain, by subtly moving something and watching with glee until I noticed it. I miss his crazy mind, so full of ideas and thoughts and questions.

I miss the times we used to spend on our own together, when we weren’t stepmum and stepson, we were just Joe and Kit. We’d watch Masterchef, cook, discuss the universe and yell ‘Fish Skin!’ at each other (don’t ask). I miss hearing him play the flute. I miss his smile, his frown, his unfailing generosity and his joy at spending hours fussing a purring and dribbling Abigail. And I miss his future. I miss seeing what he would have done with his life; all that potential…

I read a tweet from Alison Moyet that really struck me: “People. Stop dying before your time. Don’t opt out. Your world will change its shape so many times. What is bleak today becomes wondrous and stupid and brilliant. All these things. Wait and see.”

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The problem with depression is that it can give you such a warped sense of reality that you just don’t believe this. You don’t believe that life can ever get better. Feeling suicidal is considered a medical emergency. Not a cry for help, an emotion or a feeling – A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Depression kills people, it robs them of their light and their hope. It killed Joe, the brightest of them all, and we have to do everything we can to stop it killing more people, young and old, male and female.

Gosh, I’ve just realised that in a blog about giving up alcohol, I haven’t mentioned it once. I’m 54 days sans booze and feeling pretty good about it. I was given a bottle of wine at work this week and promptly gave it to a colleague, I shared a lift with a drunk person on Wednesday night and felt very smug that I could walk in a straight line, and I helped to deliver a cracking set of financial results at work without the need to self-medicate with Sauvignon Blanc.

As I said, it’s the simple things…