Be Gone, Black Dog.

I am sharing this post in the spirit of my Kindness Manifesto. In doing so I am reminding myself and others that it’s OK not to be OK sometimes. When I wrote the manifesto I emphasised that we need to be true and authentic and not pretend that all is perfect at all times.

Things have been far from perfect for me during the past week, I’m afraid. But I’m slowly feeling better again. I wrote this on Sunday and I think I’m ready to share it now. I am sharing this not for sympathy, but to stay true to what I’m trying to do with this blog. Sorry if it makes for uncomfortable reading. Please remember that anyone you come in to contact with today could well have written it. Let’s all be kind to each other. We’re all fighting our own battles and we can help each other.

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Black Dog Visiting

Looking back I could feel it coming.
Starting with a familiar sinking stomach feeling and slight panic for no apparent reason. Anxious.
Feeling like I want to be on my own. Like I need to escape. Like I just need some quiet. Like I just want to sleep for days until hopefully it passes.
Feeling like crying. But there’s nothing to cry about.
Feeling trapped in my head.
Such disappointment. So very disappointed with myself for finding myself here again.
I’d been doing so well.
Grateful for P keeping the kids busy so I can be by myself, but feeling incredibly guilty that he has to do this.
Feeling like I’m spoiling everyone’s weekend.
Thinking that surely he can’t wait to get to work to get away from me.
Bringing everyone down.
Trying to remind myself that this is an illness. That I can’t help it. That it’s chemical.
Makes no difference whatsoever.
Going to bed. P says the wrong thing.
Crying. So much crying. Can’t stop crying and can’t cry enough.
Can’t breathe.
Want to scream in to a pillow.
Can’t.
Considering going downstairs and literally screaming into a cushion.
Too exhausted to move.
Feeling like a total fraud.
Writing about kindness to ourselves and recovery from depression?
Sharing tips on how to be grateful and overcome negativity?
Bullshit. Hypocrisy.
I don’t want to be here again. I can’t be this person again. This burden.
Can’t stop crying. Trying to calm my breathing. Closing my eyes but the tears keep coming. Trying to sleep but the tears keep streaming.
So very disappointed.
Can’t turn these thoughts off. Where’s the off switch?
Will this ever go away?
Trying to remember: It’s always darkest before dawn.
It’s the cracks that let the light in.
Tomorrow is another day.
This too shall pass.
Sleep.

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*Black Dogs have been used as a symbol for depression since Celtic times. Winston Churchill famously used the metaphor to articulate his own struggles with mental illness. Black Dog image from Living With A Black Dog by Matthew and Ainsley Johnstone

If you need help and support, please click here for a list of support organisations. Please don’t suffer in silence.

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Having A Word With Myself.

For the past couple of weeks ours has been a sick-house. For one week P had can’t-get-out-of-bed flu, and for the following week both kids had bugs too. This is, of course, no different to thousands of other families across the country in January. The thing is, though, is that their illnesses knock me for six. I don’t just mean that they pass their germs on to me (although I am writing this through streaming eyes with scratchy throat). What I mean is, psychologically, it takes a while for me to recover from the fact that they have been ill. The obvious reason for this would be that of course, any parent worries when their child is ill, even if it’s just a nasty cold. Having sick kids is stressful and exhausting and generally pretty horrible. As mums, our own needs are usually pretty low down on the priority list and when your children are sick, this is more apparent than ever. For me, I can live without an uninterrupted wee and deal with not getting in the shower until 2pm. Their needs are more important, particularly when they’re sick. And as soon as they’re better, in theory, things go back to normal.

Or not.

I’ve mentioned before that I consider myself to be “in recovery” from my depression, in that it’s a constant work-in-process that I need to remain aware of. One day at a time. There are thought processes and strategies that I use to keep myself on the upward bounce as much as I can. But I find that in stressful times and particularly when there’s been illness in the house, I don’t get the chance to pay attention to my own emotional wellbeing and this can take me down a slippery slope.

So the purpose of this post is to have a word with myself in order to get back on track. Contradictions will follow, I’m afraid! That’s how my mind works.

When I was getting professional help with my depression and anxiety (which I highly recommend. Getting help, that is, not the depression or anxiety. That really sucks) One of the things the counsellor repeated regularly was this: “Rachel. It is what it is.”

Let me explain….

I struggle with overcoming the notion that I have no justification in feeling depressed; I have two beautiful children, an amazing husband and the support of my family and friends. There is a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food on the table and countless other blessings. What right do I have to be depressed?

I have a strong tendency to compare my circumstances with others who I feel have far more reason to feel low. I have friends who have recently suffered through bereavement, infidelity, miscarriage, divorce and serious illness. And that’s just people I know. Don’t start me on the pain and suffering out there in the wider world.

Drawing these comparisons can leave me feeling self absorbed, selfish, ungrateful and ridiculous. None of these feel good, let me tell you. So I remind myself that my own struggles are no less valid because others have suffered more. Telling yourself you can’t feel sad or upset about certain things because others have it worse is like saying you can’t be happy because others have it better than you.

Depression is chemical. My brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin to keep me on an even keel. This is simply not something I can control. (More on the subject of control on future posts). The same way that a diabetic can’t control their body’s insulin production, I can’t control the fact that primarily, the cause of my depression is chemical and physical. It “Is What It Is”. All I can do is be aware of it, “own” it, recognise what triggers it (like sickness in the house and letting myself get tired and run down) and use the tools at my disposal to manage it.

Luckily for me, on the whole, the good days far outweigh the bad and there is one quite simple tactic that I use which really helps me keep things in perspective, and that is practicing gratitude whenever I can. Because I really am grateful for what I’ve got.

In writing this I’m concerned that it’s going to come across as a bit sugary or cheesy. But It Is What It Is, it helps me be a happier person and maybe it’ll help someone reading this too. So I make no apologies.

Here’s an example;
A few minutes ago, I surveyed my living room. There are toy bricks EVERYWHERE. There are play-doh crumbs under the table. There are very small handprints all over the patio doors. A half-built train track lies abandoned in the kitchen waiting to trip someone over. A little pile of clothes shows me where my strip-o-gram of an eighteen month old daughter has stood and removed all of her clothes. Just because she can. She doesn’t care that it’s snowing out and she’s recovering from a nasty cold. My house looks like a bomb has hit it.

I can look at this situation in one of two ways; I can grumble and moan about the mess or I can smile, thinking of Madam’s excitement and pride at the big tower she built by herself, hence the bricks everywhere. I can be grateful for the toys we have that keep the children busy whilst I jot a few ideas down for this article. I can be grateful for the children themselves, that they’re better now. That they’re up to their usual mischief. That they’re well enough to climb the walls.

Another example, and one that I cringe a little bit about sharing, but I’m going to anyway, is the ironing. Boring subject I know. I LOATHE ironing. But at least once a week (ideally, but rarely, more often) I stand and I work through the enormous pile of ironing. I often huff and puff and complain about this. It’s categorically the dullest activity ever. But what I try to do, whilst I’m ironing, is be a tiny bit grateful. Grateful for the little ones who bring the clothes to life. Grateful for the fun times they spend wearing their clothes. Grateful for the job my husband has that requires him to wear a shirt each day. Despite the ironing it necessitates.

Similarly, when washing floors and cleaning mucky little handprints off a surprisingly varied array of surfaces, I try to be grateful for those little hands and feet. I try to remind myself that whilst raising (and especially cleaning up after) little ones is hard, one day they’ll be grown and gone. And I’ll look back on the days of smeary windows and crayon wall graffiti with nostalgia. And I’ll probably wish that I’d spent more time enjoying them and less time worrying about cleaning up after them.

And every so often, when they wake in the night, I might sit and hold them for a few extra minutes, and be grateful for them. I’ll hold them a few extra minutes after they’ve fallen back to sleep. I’ll drink in their sleepiness. I’ll try to forget and forgive myself for those dark early days and nights where I wanted to be somewhere or someone else and I’ll remind myself that they won’t remember. I’ll be grateful for the fact that I am able to be grateful. Because if I’m feeling grateful, then I’m feeling better. And now that I’ve finished writing this, I’m feeling a bit teary, but I’m feeling better. And I’m grateful for that, too.

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Picture credit: http://www.bravegirlsclub.com

The Evolution of Shirley

Wow. What a journey this new blog is taking me on. Again, I’d like to thank everyone who has taken the time to leave comments here on the blog and also on the facebook pages where I’ve invited discussion on the topics I’ve looked at here.

So far, in the four days since I started this adventure, mummykindness.com has had over two thousand views. That just blows my mind. I say this not to toot my own horn but to illustrate the point that maybe, just maybe, I’m on to something here. Maybe my ideas and thoughts are echoed by others. Maybe I can make a difference to people by being open and honest about my own struggles, and helping others to think about being kinder to themselves and to one another.

The Shirley post struck a chord with lots of people and I received some really heartfelt messages from women who have put up with some incredibly hurtful comments from their fellow mums. In fact, the topics they shared with me will undoubtedly be the subject of future posts.

Other comments offered suggestions as to things I might like to consider writing about. This is one of them:

“Rachel – I just wanted to say I love your blog! I am not a mummy – I am a baby care consultant who meets lots of wonderful mummies who have suffered at the hands of Shirley. I have also met lots of Shirleys! What I would like you to consider writing – if you are able to get your head round it – is something from Shirleys point of view. In my experience Shirley is often the most insecure mother out there who is really struggling and life often isn’t how she is portraying it. The only way she can make herself feel adequate is to make those around her feel inadequate. Now I am not saying that is right or even that it’s OK but it might be a perspective you would like to explore. I would be most interested to see what you make of that thought. Bless you! You are raising such an important awareness.”

This really interested me. Several of the comments via Facebook had been from women honest enough to admit to being Shirley at one time or another. I wanted to look in to this further. I was hoping to get some insight into what makes Shirley tick so I posted on two mum forums where I knew I’d get full and frank answers. I asked women to tell me about instances where they’ve been made to feel inferior by another mum, or explain situations where their inner Shirley may have come out.

One mum had a newborn baby so intolerant to lactose that she couldn’t even tolerate breast milk. She was devastated to have to formula feed her baby but genuinely had no choice in the matter. You can only imagine how she must have felt, whilst giving the baby her bottle in public, when a nearby mother loudly voiced the opinion “Look at that poor newborn with rubber in her mouth! I get so angry when I see that! She can’t even be a month old!”. My mind boggles as to how any woman could so openly criticise a fellow mother, especially within earshot, but this actually happened. Of course the poor mother ended up in tears. This goes beyond unintentionally triggering someone else’s insecurities by a country mile.

I was a bit unprepared for one of the first comments I got, though….

“Rachel, with regards to ‘Shirley’, every mother is one. Including you. If a mother tells you her child walked at 15 months and your child walked sooner than that, unless you lie about when your child started walking, you too are being a ‘Shirley'”.

Whaaaat?!! I thought. She has completely missed the point, did she even read the blog post in the first place? I was just about to send her a message highlighting these points when I started thinking about it. Could there be some truth in what she was saying? Whilst I was pondering this, she added to her original point by saying that we are entitled to feel “smug” about our kids from time-to-time. Now this raises something really interesting. Of course a parent is entitled to feel proud of and to discuss their children’s progress. If the fact that someone else’s child walked before mine made me feel bad, that would be my issue and not their responsibility for bringing it up. If we all walked on eggshells around one another for fear of offending the parent whose baby doesn’t walk yet when ours does, play dates would be pretty tricky and conversation would be stifled to say the least. In short, articulating your pride in your children does not a Shirley make.

(I highly recommend you check out this fantastic blog if you’re interested in why it is that we may feel it’s inappropriate to sing our childrens praises).

Another astute mama (I’ll call her Laura) expressed how proud she is of the routine she’s managed to get her daughter in to and the fact that her baby has slept through the night from an early age. Laura worked very hard to do this but worries that she may come across as a Shirley to other mothers for discussing this with them and potentially making them feel inadequate for not having accomplished what she has. I’d say that this is a really good example of how our insecurities (and sleep deprivation, in this case) could easily find us comparing with Laura and finding ourselves to be lacking. But Laura isn’t intentionally trying to make anyone feel bad, far from it. I’m sure if asked she would gladly offer advice and tips to her sleep deprived friends. The issue here is in the mind of the beholder. Another example of how we may read unintended meanings into our conversations, assuming that we’re terrible mothers because our children still wake regularly and someone else’s slept through from eight weeks.

Even as I write this, more and more brave mamas are sending me messages about situations where they’re unsure if they’re being a bit “Shirley”. Kate makes a really interesting point. Her son has been very easy when it comes to sleeping, eating and discipline. But Kate feels like he has to bite her tongue, she feels judged for having it too easy, like she isn’t entitled to contribute advice to her friends because she worries that they’ll think her “smug”. Not having a common complaint makes her feel alientated from her friends.

I think the real point here is our definition of “Shirley”. She clearly represents different things to different mums. Everyone who read the original Shirley post seems to have their own mental picture of who she is, and what she means to them. She is voicing our inner insecurities. Often literally.

My friend H works full time. She doesn’t want to but she has no choice. A stay-at-home mum recently told H that she was damaging her daughter by going out to work each day. H was understandably left feeling devastated and more guilty than ever. But the stay-at-home mum has barely enough money to put petrol in her car. She is struggling to make ends meet. Could it be that her comment to H came from a place of envy? Could it be that she wishes she had a way to contribute financially to her family? This does not excuse the mean and thoughtless thing she said but it does illustrate that her unkind words probably came from the place where her own self-doubt lives. Her Inner Shirley was speaking.

The point I’m making is this. What if we ARE all a bit Shirley? What if Shirley was all in our minds, all along? A bit like Fight Club?! What if she is the devil on your shoulder, causing you to doubt your parenting skills? Making you read judgements where actually none were intended? What if by having more faith in our skills as mummies, we could silence our inner Shirleys? Or to take this logic one step further, what if we harnessed the power of our inner Shirley to ask for help?

Here’s an example.

It’s playdate time again. You turn up at Shirley’s house, and you’re dreading it. You’ve been up all night, pacing the floor with a screaming almost-toddler in your arms. You’re exhausted, emotional and by your own admission you look like you’ve just survived a natural disaster. In a way, you have. You’re asking yourself why you didn’t just cancel the arrangement, but in a toss-up between an afternoon with Shirley and an afternoon listening to the ironing pile calling you, Shirley wins by a narrow margin. Let’s look at how this conversation might go and the meanings that you may very well be reading in to the conversation that weren’t actually even there.

Shirley says: Hello! Crikey! You Look tired!
You hear: Oh God, I look even worse than I thought. She can see right through me. How on earth has she managed to get mascara on both of her eyes? She hasn’t got porridge in her hair either! And look, her socks are matching! How does she do it? I’d sell a little bit of my soul right now for some sleep. Did she REALLY need to point out how rough I look?!!I

This is a prime example of how one comment from Shirley can be like the starting pistol on your very own mental marathon of self doubt. Pointing out that someone looks tired is never the most tactful thing to say. But what if, actually, Shirley was coming from a place of care and concern? What if she doesn’t feel comfortable offering unsolicited advice to you, for fear that you might think her “smug” or a show-off? Or what if she worries you’ll-think-that-she-thinks-that-you’re-doing-it-all-wrong? What if, actually, what we’re all doing is paying too much attention to our Inner Shirley and second guessing each other all the time?

Think about it. Shirley here could have said “Sweetie, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you look shattered, is there anything I can do to help? We’ve all been there. I know exactly what it’s like to feel so utterly exhausted that you look at childless friends with envy, knowing that they’ll have no-one to interrupt them just as they get comfy tonight. What can I do to help you?”. Now this could open up floodgates. Shirley could stop being someone you feel is judging you and start to be the person who directs you to the one sleep-training technique that saves your sanity. (For me it was the Baby Whisperer’s Pick-Up/Put-Down technique but I’ll go into that another time).

By listening to our Inner Shirley and paying attention to what she has to say, we can ask for help and guidance. Equally, by thinking a little bit more about the words we use with others, we can affect change. We can be more confident in our own abilities, both as parents as friends.

Most of what we hear when other people speak comes from our own Inner Shirley. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. That I do know. The woman you think of as “Shirley” has undoubtedly got her own issues and most of the battles we’re fighting are with ourselves.

So, in answer the the question posed in my last post: “Are You Shirley” the answer, in all of us, is actually Yes! But some of us are more capable of keeping her in check than others. She is the voice inside us that makes us sometimes doubt ourselves. We (read: I) need to learn to ignore her when she is in our heads causing us to doubt ourselves, or recognise that we need support in certain areas and ask for it.

I was asked to look at Shirley through her own eyes. Turns out her eyes are brown, like mine.

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(Picture credit: Pinterest)

PS.. I’m going to paste some of the Facebook comments below, where is says “what do you think?” as to put them all in the blog would’ve been a bit of a lengthy read.

PPS.. as always, please do leave your thoughts here and share via Facebook if you think a friend would like what’s going on here.