Thursday, 16 November 2017

How Caitlin Doughty Changed My Life (And Death!)

Spiders.  Blood tests.  Vomit.  These are all things guaranteed to strike fear into my heart.  But the biggest fear I had was, for many years, the one thing that can never be avoided.  The one thing we will all eventually face: death.

My fear of death was so enormous that I would freeze in my seat, if I drove past a hearse.  I obsessively watched programmes about ghosts, in an effort to remind myself that death couldn't possibly be the end.  I was so utterly terrified of being buried alive, that I would tell my family that if anything happened to me and I was thought to be dead, I wanted to be buried in a huge crate, with enough room for a bed, several bottles of water, food, tools to aid my escape and a mobile phone and laptop.

Quite what use I thought a phone or a laptop would be underground, I'm not sure, but it eased my fears to imagine having them with me, so I kept on insisting.

There were nights - and I wish I was making this up - where I would lie in bed in the darkness and hold my breath for as long as I could, just to see if I could possibly imagine what death would feel like.

And then one day, I stumbled upon a YouTube page.

It happened entirely by accident.  I had been thinking - for reasons I can't even explain - about the Titanic.  I had decided to see if there were any good documentaries about it on YouTube, to placate my sudden fascination and, as is customary when you dive down a rabbit hole on YouTube, the search results eventually started to get stranger and stranger.  I watched the (awful) alternative ending to James Cameron's 1997 movie.  I saw a Lego version of the Titanic sunk in an outdoor pool.  I spotted - but did not watch - a video insisting that the Titanic was sunk on purpose.  And then a video came up with the title: What Happened To Titanic's Dead?

The thing with my death phobia was that whilst I was totally freaked out by death, I was also weirdly curious about it.  Things seem much scarier when you don't know much about them, after all.  I can vividly remember seeing a sign for a local crematorium, reading "Family Open Day" and being torn between feeling creeped out by such an event and - bizarrely - almost wanting to go along.  I never did nip down to the crematorium's open day, but I did click "play" on that video.

The channel - Ask A Mortician - was hosted by Caitlin Doughty, a real-life mortician, with her own funeral home in America, Undertaking LA.  Two hours later, I was still on the channel, glued to the screen as I watched videos on all kinds of subjects, from dressing a corpse to the decaying process and everything in between.

And a weird thing happened.

As the veil was lifted from this frightening subject, it started to lose its horror.  To my enormous surprise, the longer I watched these videos, the more I found myself considering my own mortality and not feeling the same fear I had always felt.  Instead, I realised that I was starting to see myself as a being made of organic matter, who therefore has a natural shelf-life, so to speak.  Death - that big, dreadful thing that made me so terribly afraid - was just the end of life.  And by shying away from it, we were not only making it more frightening than it needs to be, but we were stopping ourselves from taking a more active role in the process of caring for those who are dying or who have died.

Caitlin Doughty

Of course, it helps (a lot!) that Caitlin is enthusiastic, passionate about changing the way death is treated and very funny.  Her dark sense of humour appealed to mine immediately and her personality and easy way of discussing big and potentially scary subjects was a huge reason that I kept watching for so long.

But, once I had finally turned off my laptop and rejoined the land of the living, the memory of what I had seen remained firmly lodged in my brain.  I realised that I was thinking about death in a whole new way.  Yes, the unknown quality of it was still a little unnerving and of course I don't want to think about the deaths of any of my loved ones, but in terms of accepting my own mortality (and embracing the need for open conversations about the end of life), I realised I had turned a corner.

In fact, I hadn't so much turned a corner, as I'd crossed the street, walked round several corners and entered an entirely new part of town.

I wanted to lift the veil further.  I wanted to know what happened to the dead and what choices we have in terms of how much involvement we have when a family member or friend passes away, as well as what choices we have for ourselves.  The more I demystified the subject, the less frightening it was.  I even found myself using a new phrase: "I view death as just a really good lie-in."  And I found myself meaning it.

within a week or two of binge-watching Caitlin's YouTube videos, I had ordered her first book, too.

Reading it (and yes, I will be getting her latest book once Christmas is out of the way) opened my eyes even further.  I was completely captivated by Caitlin's vision of a world in which death is not some big, frightening prospect, but a natural fact of life which we embrace.  I was fascinated by her ideas about home funerals and the families of the deceased being more involved in the preparing of the body - if they wish to be.  After all, isn't that the last thing we can do for someone we love?  

But perhaps most importantly of all, Caitlin's frankness on the subject of death was what really stayed with me.  I had always been one of those people who, if asked if I'd like to live forever, had gleefully shrieked: "OF COURSE!"

It was a shock to my system to hear myself saying "actually, I'm not sure I would."

As Caitlin so rightly says, it's death that influences our lives more than anything.  The idea that some day we will be gone is often what gives us the kick up the backside we need in order to take a risk, do something life-changing or really try to make a difference to the world.  If we knew we'd all live forever, would we bother so much?  Isn't it the knowledge that we have a finite amount of time on this planet that encourages us to squeeze every last drop out of life that we can?!

It was a bizarre feeling to realise that in the space of just a few weeks, I had gone from someone who cringed at the word "coffin," to someone who was determined to add her voice to those campaigning for greater openness on the subject of death.  I'd gone from someone who looked the other way when passing my local funeral home, to someone who wondered how much involvement they allow families or friends to have, in the wake of a death.

Indeed, armed with my newly gained insider knowledge of the post-death process, I found myself considering what I actually wanted to happen in the event of my own death.  Gone was the longing for a large crate and a long list of supplies.  I told my parents I wanted a natural burial, with a tree or wild flowers marking my grave, rather than a headstone.  I wanted a biodegradable casket and I absolutely, in no uncertain terms, did not want to be embalmed.

Seriously, if anyone has me embalmed after my death, I will haunt the heck out of them.

A natural burial site.

I'm not going to sit here and say that I have absolutely zero fear of death, now.  I still worry that it will be painful.  I still don't know what - if anything - happens to my soul afterwards.  And I still can't bear the thought of anyone I love passing away.

But those fears are as natural as death itself is.  Grief is a natural thing.  The unknown is something that will always cause a little apprehension.  And nobody wants to think of themselves - or anyone they love - experiencing pain.

But death itself - the inescapable fact of it - is no longer something I am afraid of.  It's just a reminder to get out there and do things whilst I have the opportunity.  

What I want now, is to spread the word.  To encourage others to peek behind the curtain, the same way I did.  To remind people that it's important to know what we want for ourselves in the event of our passing and to make our wishes known to those we'll leave behind.  It might not be something we want to talk about, but it's going to happen and it's best that we have these conversations whilst we can.  To paraphrase Caitlin, only by communicating openly and honestly about what we want at the end of our life, can we try to ensure that we have a good death.  For ourselves and those we care for.

The fear is gone.  I want to live my life to the fullest, embracing my mortality and understanding that there will come a day when I'm not here, anymore.  I want to ensure that those I leave behind know what my wishes are for my final days and afterwards.  I want people who fear death to know that that fear can be overcome.  

I have overcome mine.

Life will one day go on without me.

And that's okay.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Bedtime Story (15/11/2017)

Readers of my "regular" blog posts might know that the last year has been rather tumultuous in terms of friendships.  But having come through the other side of all the heartache, I am strangely grateful for everything that happened.  It taught me many things - lessons I carry with me, every day.  One of those lessons was the realisation that I had other friends I never knew I could be so close to, and through those friends, I'm doing so much more than I ever did, before - from nights out and planning holidays, to joining exercise classes and singing groups, my life is full of rich experiences, made all the more special by the friends I'm having those experiences with.  Sometimes, we don't see what's right in front of our noses, until life forces us to take a closer look.  

This story is dedicated to each and every one of my wonderful mates.

As always, you can also listen to this story as a podcast.

Billy No-Mates

Billy didn't really have any friends.  He sat on a table with other kids at school, but they were just people who happened to be in his class.  They sometimes sat together at lunchtime, too, but Billy was sure that was only because he always shared his crisps with everyone.  

Billy didn't mind, at first.  He was very shy and talking to people - even his classmates - made him feel a bit nervous.  So, he kept himself to himself.  He helped Polly with her maths and he always shared his coloured pens with Timothy, because Timothy always forgot to bring any, but besides that, Billy was pretty quiet.

When it came to PE and the teacher asked everyone to get into pairs, Billy would simply wait to see who the last person without a partner was, then offer to join them.  He didn't have a friend to rush to right away, after all.

At playtime, Billy listened to everyone else planning what games they were going to play and he'd just slot right in, if there was a space for him.  He didn't like to take charge - besides, nobody would listen to someone as quiet as him, anyway.

Billy went on living his quiet life and he figured that was the way things would stay.

But after a while, Billy started to feel a bit sad about not having any friends.  He wondered what it would be like to to have lots of mates who wanted him around.  One Friday afternoon, after school, he started thinking about how he could make some friends.  He was watching a cartoon on TV, about some friends who hung out in a treehouse, when he had a brilliant idea.  There was a big tree in the back garden!  Maybe, he could build a treehouse of his own?  Surely, everyone would want to be his friend then, just like in the cartoon!

Billy grabbed some old blankets, a handful of twigs and some rope.  Then, very carefully, he climbed up the tree in the back garden.  The trouble was, Billy didn't have a clue what he was doing and it had been raining, meaning the branches were rather slippery.  He quickly gave up and began trying to climb down the tree again, but he couldn't quite find a safe way down and before he knew it, he'd slipped and... Crunch.  Billy's arm was broken.

Billy's mum rushed him to hospital, where a nice doctor x-rayed his arm and showed him a picture of the broken bone.  She put a plaster cast on Billy's arm and told him to be careful, from now on.

On Saturday morning, Mum and Billy went to the shops.  They saw Mum's workmate Sandra and told her all about what had happened.  Sandra told Mrs Green from the Post Office and she told Gregory Thompson from the bakery.  Before long, it seemed like everyone knew about poor Billy and his broken arm.

Billy and his mum went back home.  Billy was feeling rather sorry for himself, so he decided to go up to his room and try reading a comic book.  Mum tried to cheer him up by writing him a little message on his plaster cast.  "You can get all your friends to sign it, when you go back to school," she told him.  But that just made Billy even sadder.

Just then, the doorbell rang.  To Billy's surprise, it was Polly from school.  "I came to see how you are," she told Billy, when Mum brought her up to his room.  "Can I sign your plaster cast?"

Billy was puzzled, but he held out his arm for Polly to scribble her name.  "Why do you want to sign it?"  

Polly frowned at him.  "Because you're my friend, silly!"  She replied.  "You're always so kind and you never let me get stuck with my maths.  You always help!"

Before Billy could answer, the doorbell rang again and, seconds later, Timothy arrived in his room.  "Hey mate,"  Timothy called.  "I was so worried when I heard you'd broken your arm!  Are you okay?"

"Am I really your mate?!" Billy exclaimed.

Timothy burst out laughing.  "You're so funny," he chuckled.  "You always share your pens with me at school.  Of course you're my mate!"

Within seconds, the doorbell rang again and, when it opened, Harvey and Leon, the twins from Billy's class, headed straight up to Billy's room.  "How are you feeling?"  Harvey asked.

"Um..."  Billy began.  "A bit surprised to see you all, to be honest..."

"Well, we couldn't not come over," Leon replied.  "You have to be there for your friends.  You know, like you always are.  I never get picked first for PE, because I'm just not very sporty, but you always come and offer to be my partner."

"And you're always so great when we're playing games, too," Harvey added.  "You're really good at slotting in exactly where we need someone.  We don't even have to ask.  It's like you just know.  You're a great friend to us, so we wanted to come and be here for you."

Billy opened his mouth to reply, but the doorbell rang yet again and the next thing he knew, Rhiannon, who always sat with him at lunch, had arrived.  "I bought you some crisps," she said with a smile.  "Since you're always such a kind friend, sharing yours with everyone at lunchtime.  I figured it was the least I could do!"

Billy gazed in stunned silence at the people stood around his bed.  Polly, Timothy, Harvey, Leon and Rhiannon.  He thought he had always been so quiet and shy, they must have barely noticed him.  And yet, here they all were, telling him that he was their friend.  Billy didn't know what to say.  "Thank you..."  He whispered.  "Thank you all so much for being here."

"What are friends for?" Rhiannon smiled.

Billy grinned back at her.  "I thought I was just sort of... Well, just there," he confessed.  "I didn't think I had any friends."

"Are you kidding?!"  Leon laughed.  "I'd be lost without you.  We all would!"

"Just because you're quiet, it doesn't mean nobody notices you," Polly added.  "You've been a friend to us all without even realising it.  But it's about time we all told you how much you mean to us."

They scribbled their names on Billy's plaster cast and they all talked and laughed, until it was time for everyone to go home.

Later, when the sky was dark and it was time to sleep, Billy lay in his bed, staring at the cast on his arm.  He smiled at the names scrawled on it.  

The names of all his friends.


Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Bedtime Story (8/11/2017)

I've been thinking, recently, about how we all tend to rush around, trying to get everything done and never really stopping to take in the world around us.  So, this week's story is my way of saying perhaps we should try to slow down, every now and then...

If you'd like to listen to this story being read, click for the podcast.

"I Don't Have Time For That!"

I'm a very busy person.  I like to be; it's great!
Life is full of exciting things, especially when you're eight.
There's always a new toy to check out, or a new cartoon on TV.
There's always somewhere to explore, or friends to go and see.
Mum tells me to calm down: "You're like a skittish cat!"
But calm down?!  ME?!  I don't have time for THAT!

I'm always on the go, you see, as soon as I get up.
I gulp down my breakfast and quickly drain my cup.
I don't sit still for very long; sitting's not what I do!
If you had the chance to run and play, wouldn't you choose that, too?!
Sometimes, I even slide downstairs, on our front door mat!
So, really?  Calming down?!  I don't have time for THAT!

I run round and round the garden, until I'm feeling dizzy.
I climb up trees, ride my bike... I'm really VERY busy!
I hate missing out on anything, so I need to do it all.
I say "yes" to absolutely everything, from den-building to football!
If my friends suggest a trip to the park, I'm there in ten seconds flat.
Taking it easy?  Resting at all?  I don't have time for THAT!

Of course, all of this action does sometimes wear me out.
It's tiring to be constantly having to run and jump and shout.
But surely sitting quietly would just be really boring?
So, I get my rest when I'm in bed, tucked up safe and snoring.
I'm certain if I just stopped still, my battery would run flat.
And I don't want that to happen; I don't have time for THAT!

But today, in the garden, as I sat on the branch of a tree,
I saw a family of small, black ants, carrying a leaf for their tea.
I watched them marching for so long, the sun began to set.
I saw the clouds give way to streaks of pink and gold and red.
And as I sat there, very still, I was joined by my neighbour's cat.
He purred and let me stroke him: I DO have time for THAT.

The world seemed rather quiet, yet wide awake as well.
And as I hugged the tree branch close, I sniffed a teatime smell.
I knew I'd have to go inside and eat my dinner, soon.
But I stayed and watched the stars come out to greet the silvery moon.
I noticed a bird fly across the sky - or it might have been a bat?!
Finding out would have been nice.  I did have time for THAT.

As I climbed down from the tree, rough bark brushed my fingers.
I noticed the smell of the plants around me and hoped that it would linger.
Walking away, I listened to the crunch of the stones beneath my feet,
And I smiled at the warm glow of the house as I went inside to eat.
To my surprise, as I took off my coat and removed my wooly hat,
I realised that being peaceful was nice and I wanted MORE of THAT.

Sitting still and noticing things had felt quite nice; in fact,
I think I'll take a little time each day to do just THAT.


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Let's Talk About Projecting...

It's been something of a weird week.

You know how every now and then (daily, if you're really "lucky"), you encounter someone on social media, who is clearly intent on doing nothing of note with their lives, beyond attacking anyone whose views differ to theirs and who takes their trolling to weird, obsessive levels?  Well, I "met" one of those people, this week.

I had read - with horror - someone calling themselves a "Christian" on Twitter, thanking Kevin Spacey for conflating his coming out as gay with his being accused of preying on a minor.  The "Christian" was thanking Spacey because, in their words, he had "proved that all gays are paedos."

Now, I had quite a visceral reaction to that tweet.  So, I wrote about it, reminding anyone who might read my response that equating gayness with a predilection for assaulting the under-aged is enormously harmful and is nothing more than an outdated, homophobic stereotype.

When you use social media to try to make a serious point about something that polarises people (and, sadly, we still live in a world in which there are plenty of vile, homophobic people around, who genuinely view anything that even comes close to equality for the LGBT+ community as some kind of personal attack on them), it's no surprise that you'll end up with pretty drastically different responses from both sides of the argument.  And so it came to be that the following morning, I awoke to various tweets of agreement with what I'd said, as well as several angry "religious" people, telling me that being gay is unnatural and that therefore I shouldn't be defending "people who are often child molesters."

It was your average case of "like" the supporters, "block" the haters.

And then I encountered someone else.  This was a person who'd set themselves up as Kevin Spacey's chief cheerleader.  Their profile was littered with "TEAMSPACEY" nonsense and their tweets were largely attacks on Anthony Rapp's version of events, combined with effusive praise for Kevin Spacey's acting abilities (which have no real bearing on his personality outside of film sets, but hey, those straws are just too pretty not to clutch at, right?!).  I entered into a very brief debate with this person, but quickly realised that this was either a troll who'd set up a fan page purely to annoy or upset anyone who believes Anthony Rapp's story (truly pathetic, if so), or a genuinely obsessive fan who either can't or won't listen to both sides of the matter (truly sad, if so).

I thought I'd blocked them, but I guess I didn't, because a couple of days later, when I retweeted someone else's comment regarding the enormous problem Hollywood seems to have with sexual harassment and abusive behaviour, the weird fan/troll reappeared in my mentions.

I'm going to cut a very long story short here and just say: After I blocked the account, this freak decided to set up a Twitter page pretending to be me, fill it with homophobia and racism and tried to discredit me as a children's author.  It took several days and multiple reports to Twitter as well as a conversation with the police to finally get it taken down.  All that palava, simply because one seriously messed up person was angry that I had spoken out against Kevin Spacey's "I don't remember assaulting a minor, oh and by the way, I now choose to live as a gay man" pathetic excuse for an "apology."

The thing is, the freakish troll/obsessive fan did get me thinking about something.  They got me thinking about the way we project ourselves and our flaws onto other people when we're feeling cornered.  The way too often, people can't acknowledge their own mistakes, so apply them to someone else, instead.

See, there were multiple other fake accounts this troll was using to attempt to harass and attack me (giving her/him/itself away in the process, because we all know trolls are incredibly stupid).  One such account accused me of writing vile homophobic things and said they were going to report me for it.  But by this point, having done some digging and discovered that the homophobic and racist tweets this weirdo was trying to attribute to me on the Twitter page they'd set up in my name, were actually written years ago under a different name, possibly by the troll themselves, I realised that all they were really doing was projecting their own grossness onto me.  And as one of my lovely friends put it, anyone from Twitter HQ could scroll through my tweets right back to the very first one I ever posted and they would never, ever find a single instance of homophobia or racism, because that's the exact opposite of what I am.  But if they checked that troll's various fake persona accounts?  They'd find it in spades. 

In short, they couldn't attack me with anything, because I was talking sense and I hadn't done anything wrong.  They only thing they could use against me was their own vile opinions, rewritten as though I had said them.  They had to take their own inner ugliness and try to force it onto me, to make me the bad guy in the situation.

It's exceptionally common to come across someone who does this in an argument.  Sometimes, it's someone who doesn't know you (like the freak from Twitter), who believes they can drag down your character by projecting their own vile opinions onto you, despite those views being the polar opposite of your own.  In fact, that form of projection happens a lot on social media, when strangers who are losing a debate suddenly decide that attack is the best form of defence (never works, when what you're trying to defend is indefensible, but it's the last measly weapon they have, so they sling it your way, just the same).

But sometimes, it's people who do know you.  People who know what your weak spots are and can therefore hit that little bit harder (or at least try to).

From the friend who is always late, who might moan at you for arranging get-togethers at awkward times (thus making their tardiness somehow your fault), to the person who has dropped you like a stone and yet claims it's the other way around, most of us have experienced some form of projection at least once in our lives.

Prior to Kevin Spacey's most deluded fan, the last time someone projected themselves onto me was actually right here on this blog.  I received a comment from someone telling me that I "have never once acknowledged (my) own behaviour" in the argument I had with a friend, almost exactly a year ago.  I copied that line and sent it to various family members and friends, because it was honestly hilarious, as were the responses from said family and friends when they read it.  It was hilarious because not only was it not true of me (I've opened up about the mistakes I made so many times, it would be pointless to rehash all that again, now), it would definitely be fair to say that the person leaving the comment had never really considered the consequences of their own behaviour. 

So, yes.  Projecting is something that most of us have encountered and to be honest, it's probably something that most of us have also done, whether we want to admit it or not.  And since my encounter on Twitter this week, I've been thinking about it a lot.

The thing about projecting is that it's very easy.  It's much, much harder to look at our own behaviour critically than it is to just shrug our shoulders and paint someone else as the baddie.  

And obviously, I know I'm not innocent.  I've had moments when I've thought "pah, that person is being really selfish/lazy/obsessive" or whatever else, when in fact it's me that's in the wrong and doing the exact thing I'm accusing them of, but I've not been able to see it, either because I've been too angry or upset to recognise it, or because I've refused to look at all.

Analysing our own behaviour isn't always pleasant.  It leads us to realise that we're sometimes guilty of things we know we shouldn't have done.  Accepting that is hard.  But it's vital that we do, otherwise we don't learn anything.  

Looking at a situation from another person's viewpoint isn't always easy, either.  We live in our own heads - we are the lead character in our own life stories.  It's hard to place yourself in someone else's shoes, especially when you're angry or hurt with them.  But it's important to try.  People's words and actions often make far more sense when you've tried to analyse what they must have been feeling at the time and why.  I can remember being really mad about something someone said to me for ages, until I thought about the emotional place she was in at the time and the way she was probably perceiving things and I realised that her words had come from a place of hurt, rather than vindictiveness.  Once I'd acknowledged that, the words that had hurt me so much, just didn't seem to sting like they had, before.  

At the end of the day, projecting is lazy.  It's a way of absolving ourselves of any guilt we carry in a situation.  It's a way of avoiding looking at ourselves, for fear of finding something we don't like.  Rather than tell ourselves "wow, I was really dishonest in that situation," why not call someone else a liar?  Instead of admitting "I'm being so selfish right now," we can just throw that out at someone else and never look inwardly.  

But when we project, all we're doing is throwing objects at a rubber wall.  And deep down, we know they'll all eventually come back and hit us in the face.

So, I'm making a vow to look inward, however much I might dislike some of the things I see about myself.  I'm making a promise to continue to acknowledge my mistakes and try to learn from them.  And to that troll on Twitter: I suggest you do, too.  Because the mirror you're holding up and trying to imply shows me, is actually just a big reflection of yourself.  And if you don't like what it shows, only you can change it.  Trying to cast that reflection onto other people is like trying to squeeze someone into clothes that don't fit.

They fit you.  And that makes you uncomfortable, maybe it's time to think about your own behaviour and stop projecting it onto other people.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Bedtime Story (1/11/2017)

By the time this story goes life, Bonfire Night will be just a few days away!  I figured, in that case: why not write a topical story?!

The podcast version of this story can be found here.

Fireworks For Felicity

Every year, once Halloween was over and done with, all of Felicity's friends started to get really excited about Christmas.  But not Felicity.  Felicity had something very important to get excited about way before she could start thinking about tinsel, presents or any of the other good things about Christmas.  

Felicity absolutely loved Bonfire Night.

Every November, there would be a bonfire in the field on the outskirts of town.  Mum and Dad would dress Felicity and her little sister Lily in their warmest coats, hats, scarves and gloves and they'd bundle into the car to drive down.  Once they arrived, Mum would lead them through the growing crowd and lay a big, wooly blanket on the ground, whilst Dad would head to a waiting food van, to buy everyone a hot dog.  They would all sit together on the blanket, eating their food as the bonfire was lit.  If it was really cold, they'd take a flask of hot chocolate and sip it slowly to warm themselves up.  Once they'd eaten, Mum would buy the girls some sparklers and show them how to hold them safely in their gloved hands and wave them around, so that bright yellow patterns appeared in the air.  The sparklers would burn down and fizzle out, leaving a smoky trail, disappearing up towards the stars.  Sometimes, they'd have a toffee apple as they waited for Felicity's favourite part of the night: the fireworks.

BANG!  The fireworks would whizz into the air and explode into beautiful colours and patterns, lighting up the night sky.  Mum would gently place her hands over Lily's ears, but Felicity loved the noise.  She loved watching the colours burst out of the blackness and fizzle out as they tumbled to the ground.  She liked to look around at the excited faces of the crowd, all pointing and shrieking as the sky lit up again and again.  

When it was all over, Felicity would be lost in daydreams, watching the plumes of smoke breeze slowly away, until the night was normal, again.  She and Lily would climb back into the car and were always fast asleep by the time they got home.

Yes, every year, Felicity looked forward to Bonfire Night and this year was no exception.  But, on the morning of the fireworks display, a terrible thing happened...

Felicity woke up with her head pounding, her throat sore and her nose in need of a tissue.  Mum came into her room and gasped.  "You look awful!"  She took Felicity's temperature and shook her head.  "You're not well," she confirmed.  "You'll have to stay home from school today.  And I don't think you're well enough to go out tonight, either."

Felicity begged and pleaded, but it was no use.  Devastated, she sulked in her room, all day long.  She refused to eat any breakfast or lunch.  She stayed in bed, not wanting to talk to a single soul.  She barely even spoke to Lily, when she got home from school.

When Dad got home from work, Felicity rushed downstairs, with all the energy she could muster.  "I'm - achoo - feeling lots - sniff - better, now," she lied.  But it was no use.  Dad agreed with Mum; Felicity was too poorly to go out for Bonfire Night.  They'd all have to stay home, that year.  Felicity's face fell and her eyes brimmed with tears.  

"It'll still be special," Mum promised.  She looked at Dad and, without saying a word, they came up with a plan.  

"Come on, Lily," Dad called.  "You and I have to pop out for a minute."

Felicity was furious.  Why was Lily going out somewhere, whilst she was stuck indoors?  In despair, she hurried back up to her room and threw herself onto the bed.

A little while later, just as Felicity was lying in bed, reading her favourite book in an effort to cheer herself up, she heard footsteps coming up the stairs.  Her bedroom door opened and in strolled her mum, wearing - to Felicity's surprise - a thick dressing gown and warm slippers.

Felicity sat up.  "Are you poorly, too?"

Mum shook her head and ushered Lily into the room.  She was wearing a dressing gown and slippers, too!  Mum smiled at Felicity.  "Come on," she said.  "Out of bed!  We've got to wrap up warm and if we're not wearing coats and hats, it'll have to be dressing gowns and slippers, instead."

Felicity frowned as she clambered out of bed.  "What's going on?"

"You'll see!"  Lily giggled, as Mum disappeared and came back with the large, wooly blanket they used each year.  She spread it out on Felicity's floor.   Lily pulled two, perfectly wrapped toffee apples out of her dressing gown pocket.  "We're not allowed to eat these until we've finished our hotdogs," she explained.

"Hotdogs?!"  Felicity gasped.  Suddenly, Dad came into the room, carrying a plate full of hotdogs in one hand and a flask of hot chocolate in the other.

"If you're too poorly to go out for Bonfire Night, then we'll just do it right here, instead," he smiled.  He flicked off Felicity's bedroom light, leaving the door open just enough to let in some light from the hallway.  "I know it's not quite the same," he admitted.  "But it's the best we can do."

Just then, Lily pointed to the window, as colourful bursts of light went whizzing into the sky.  "Mum doesn't even have to cover my ears," she grinned.  "It's not so loud, from in here!"

Felicity snuggled up next to her Mum.  She ate her hotdog and her toffee apple, all the while, watching the bright display through her bedroom window.  It wasn't quite the same.  But all the best bits were there.

"Thank you," she whispered, as the last firework fizzled into smoke.  "This was really lovely."

Mum and Dad turned to look at her, but Felicity - just like every year - had fallen fast asleep, with a smile on her face.


Sunday, 29 October 2017

I'm A Liddle Enraged...

Every morning, almost as soon as my alarm goes off, I find myself browsing social media, as a way of joining the ranks of the already-awake.  There's something about scrolling through posts about anything from someone's breakfast to their hectic school run each morning, that forces me to shake off sleep and wrench myself from beneath the duvet, in order to be a part of the world, again.

Some mornings, I stumble upon a funny article, or a really witty tweet that ensures that my day starts with a laugh.  And then, other mornings, I'll find myself reading something that raises my blood pressure and means that, once I get up, I'm stomping about like a bear with a sore everything.

Today was one of those days.

Now, there are people in this world whose sole existence is to court controversy, because they have no other discernible talent.  Katie Hopkins, for example.  And whilst I don't ascribe to the "don't feed the trolls" mentality that others have regarding these people (because I believe we should call out things that are wrong or harmful), I also don't like to give them too much of the attention they crave.  So, I'm kind of annoyed with myself for the fact that I'm sitting here, writing a blog in response to an article that was blatantly written with the intention of whipping up a frenzy of "liberal leftie" anger.  But then again, the article is full of genuinely problematic material that has the potential to do more harm than good, so...

This is the article I stumbled upon as I browsed Twitter, this morning.  Written by Boris Johnson's uglier brother from another mother, Rodd Liddle, the piece begins by bemoaning the fact that Scotland has outlawed smacking children.  Liddle refers to smacking kids as "one of life's harmless little pleasures."  And again, I'm really mad with myself for letting that despicable line enrage me as much as it did, seeing as I'm sensible enough to know Liddle wrote it purely to have that effect, but here's the thing: I work with children.  I'm trained in safeguarding and behaviour management.  So, not only do I know how to discipline a child without ever resorting to hitting, I also know what the effects of frequent physical punishment on a child can be.  I know personally, having been raised in an era where smacking was still relatively commonplace, that it doesn't bloody work.  It doesn't build respect, it instills fear.  It instills shame, when you're trying to cover up a mark the next day in your PE lesson.  Maybe a smack stops a child from doing the thing you're punishing them for, but they don't really learn why they shouldn't do whatever it is they did wrong, which makes it pointless.

In the 17 years I've worked in childcare, I've dealt with cases of bruising from "physical discipline" in the home - although thankfully, not for many years.  I've heard firsthand accounts that would make your hair stand on end.  I've counselled teenagers who have been smacked all their lives, for the most minor misdemeanours, and have not only lost respect for their parents as a result, but have never been talked to about right and wrong, so end up confused and scared.  And for that reason, hearing someone describe smacking a child as "one of life's harmless little pleasures" makes me feel physically sick.  

The point of disciplining a child is not to gain some kind of sick enjoyment from "hearing them howl in pain," as the article claims.  It's to teach them to grow into decent adults.  You don't do that by giving them "a nasty pinch to the upper arm."  All that does is make them associate whatever they're being punished for with pain.  Sure, that might stop them doing it again, but as I said earlier, it won't teach them why.  And that why?  Is important.  That's what makes a child stop and think about their actions, in future.  It's what encourages a child to consider others and make decisions that ultimately make them better people.  Because they understand why they shouldn't steal someone else's toy, or bully a kid in the playground.  At each stage of life, a child is learning the right and wrong ways to behave.  It's the jobs of parents, care-givers, teachers etc to reaffirm the right way and explain what's wrong with the alternative.  Can that be done purely by giving them a slap every time they make the wrong choice?

And it's not as if we live in an age where smacking is the only choice a parent or care-giver has.  Ground the kid.  Stop them going to the park after school.  Take their iPad or mobile phone away from them for 24 hours.  Discipline should exist and it's important (believe me, I've seen the consequences of not disciplining a child at all), but it doesn't have to be solely physical for it to work.

Liddle immediately goes on to prove himself full of manure, when he suggests that nowadays, we're "expected to smile indulgently" at "unruly brats" in restaurants, explaining that they're probably only "screaming their little lungs out" because they "shouldn't be there in the first place."

I was taken to restaurants from a young age.  I was also raised in a family that recognised the importance of eating together.  There weren't multiple meals cooked, because I kicked off and refused to eat my greens (actually, it was mushrooms I refused to touch and I still do, but that's besides the point).  Mum made one meal and we all ate it.  Together.  My parents modelled the right way to hold a knife and fork and my sister and I learned to copy.  We'd sit around the table and talk as we ate - we still do.  There is absolutely no reason why kids can't be taken to restaurants and to suggest as much is stupid.  Sure, I've been to restaurants where parents are letting their kids run between tables, screaming their heads off and in those circumstances, yes I've bitten my lip.  But I've had many more meals out where children are sitting at the table perfectly nicely, talking to their families, or colouring in books to entertain themselves before their dinner arrives.  When we start saying things like "kids shouldn't be in restaurants," we may as well revert back to "children should be seen and not heard," which is just utterly backwards.  Kids need a variety of experiences in order to learn how to behave in different situations and why should they miss out on a dinner at a restaurant, just because some middle-class twonk who enjoys hitting children says so?!

But, perhaps shockingly, it wasn't just the "smacking kids brings me such joy" stuff that solely caused my ire, in this particular pile of garbage.  Because Liddle goes on to talk about mental health issues in a way that made that funny vein in my head start throbbing...

Liddle describes a rise in mental illnesses amongst children and young people as evidence that "we're not bringing our children up terribly well."  But I would almost go as far as to argue the opposite.  Hear me out...

Back in the "glory days" of acceptable racism, the British stiff-upper lip and disregard for public safety, nobody talked about their feelings.  Parents with a teenager who expressed hormonal angst would almost certainly have told them to "man up," or simply said "we don't talk about things like that."  It wasn't that mental illnesses didn't exist back then - possibly in similar numbers to these days - it was that we didn't speak about it.  We repressed it.  We forced those suffering to shut up about it, because it wasn't the "done thing" to discuss depression, back then.

Thankfully, we don't live in a world like that, anymore.  Dinosaurs like Liddle might pine for those times, but mercifully, they are gone.  Teenagers today are far more aware of social issues.  They can be more open about their sexuality and they are arguably more politically aware.  Most importantly, these days, if a child or young person expresses anxiety or depression, we don't try to sweep it under the carpet.  We let them talk.  We encourage them to work through their emotions.  It's medically proven that bottling things up can cause all manner of physical and mental problems, so why are certain people like Liddle so desperately keen on forcing our young people back into silence?!

Indeed, Liddle refers to "safe-spaces" and the "terror of encountering an opinion which differs from their own" as evidence of a "profound derangement."  Yet, most of the teenagers I know thrive in debates.  They enjoy thrashing out their views with someone who holds the opposite opinion.  Why?  Because young people these days are given the freedom to express themselves and they have far more on hand to help them form their opinions than my generation or any generation before have had.  The internet, social media, societal awareness growing constantly... All of those things help people of all generations - but perhaps the young in particular - to form their views and to read up on those who oppose them.  And as for "safe spaces," if you're someone who genuinely scoffs at the idea of places where a person can speak freely, without judgement, then you must be lucky enough to have never needed one.  Those of us who have encountered abuse, sexual harassment or anything else that means we might want to be somewhere we know will be free from trolls mocking our experiences, know how vital safe spaces can be.  It was a particular Twitter page that advertised itself as a "safe space for abuse survivors" that was the first place I was able to truly talk about what happened to me, without fear of reprisal.  That was a vital step towards putting my life back together and if someone wants to mock safe spaces, I can only say that that person must have no idea how important safe spaces have the potential to be, for those who really need them.  I won't listen to people insult the idea of a safe space without standing up for them, in return.  Too often, critics believe a "safe space" refers to wrapping someone in cotton wool, protecting them from differing opinions and treating them as though everything they say must be right.  That's not my experience at all and I don't like seeing safe spaces reduced to that overly simplistic and unhelpful stereotype.

Liddle goes on to suggest that "mental illness and gender stuff" aren't stigmatised the way they once were (as though that's a bad thing) and instead insists that they now have a "very potent cachet."  He describes young people as "revelling in their victimhood" and it's at this point in the article that I want to reach through the screen and smack Rodd Liddle, so that he howls in pain.

When I was a teenager, I was horrifically bullied, because I wasn't as pretty as the other girls in my class.  I tried to hang myself with my school tie when I was twelve, maybe thirteen years old.  This was something you just didn't talk about, so I kept it largely to myself.  I didn't talk about how depressed I had become, because I was embarrassed and ashamed.  Instead, I would take the badges off the backpack I wore and run the pins along my arms, creating ugly, raised, red lines.  If I couldn't let the pain out by talking openly, I had to let it out some other way.

I don't say any of that in order to revel in my victimhood.  I say it because I know I'm not alone.  And I know how vital it is to realise that others are either going through the same thing, or even better, that they went through it and came out the other side.  Because when I was a teenager, it didn't feel as though there even was another side.

I was far from alone.  When I finally did open up about my experiences, I was stunned to discover how many people had gone through similar things.  These days, we know how common depression, stress and anxiety are in teenagers.  Their bodies are going through physical changes, they have hormones raging through their veins and they're trying to work out who they are and what they want to do with their lives.  It's an enormously stressful time and it's not in the least bit surprising to me that now that we're more open about mental health, more and more young people are talking openly about their experiences.

Liddle - frankly disgustingly -  describes mental illnesses as "the new, exciting activities of our young people," which is dismissive and ignorant.  Anyone who has ever dealt with depression on any level will tell you how un-exciting it is.  There's no glory in it and anyone who does "revel" in depression is almost certainly not actually suffering from it.  The fact is, when you're depressed, rather than "revel" in your "exciting new activity," you would do almost anything to stop feeling as hopeless as you do.  I know that even now, at the ripe old age of 35, I often feel as though my entire teens were robbed by depression.  I should have been out having fun and making stupid mistakes.  But I spent much more of that time inside, hating myself and feeling embarrassed for not being a "proper" teenager.

The fact that mental illness is so openly discussed now and that there is much more acceptance of it is not a damning indictment of our terrible, modern world.  It's an endorsement of our ability to learn to drop our stigmatised, negative attitudes.  Rodd Liddle's reduction of mental illness to some kind of badge of honour, worn by attention-seeking teens, is the kind of harmful bullsh!t that too often stops young people from speaking out.  And not speaking out and getting help can lead to suicide.  So, in my view, it's highly important that young people continue to talk openly about mental health.  It's Rodd Liddle - and those who harbour similarly damaging views - who need to shut up.

Call me a liberal leftie.  Tell me I'm too PC.  I genuinely don't care.  But when I see someone firstly gleefully claiming to take great pleasure from causing physical pain to a child, I'm going to call that person out as, frankly, abusive.  And when that same person then reduces mental illness to some kind of weak, attention-seeking and seems to want to hark back to a problematic age when mental health was stigmatised and swept under the carpet, I will also call that person out as a clueless, potentially harmful idiot.

If you're feeling depressed, stressed or anxious, please talk to someone.  Please be open about your mental health and if you need a safe space, free from idiots like Rodd Liddle who choose to mock you and make accusations that cause you to feel unable to speak out, this blog can be one, if you need it to be.

And Rodd?  I hope your daughter continues to grow up in a world where she can talk openly about emotional wellbeing and mental health if she ever needs to.   And as for your enjoyment of causing her physical pain, I'm going to end this with a quote from my Dad:

"I'd say if someone is actually getting pleasure out of hitting their child, then they must be sick in the head."

I'm inclined to agree.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Let's Make Plans!

Earlier this week, I went for a drink with one of my dearest friends and we sat in a bar, making a list of the things we want to do together in 2018.  It was - and this is not hyperbole - one of the loveliest moments I've had this year.  

Some people hate making plans.  There are endless memes to be found in all corners of the internet, equating plans to "obligations" which people then feel a sudden need to wriggle out of.  I have rarely been someone who feels constricted by having a plan to stick to.  I'm ridiculously organised.  For me, a plan is bloody marvellous.  

But it was more than just my love of organisation that made me so happy, that afternoon in the pub.  It was the knowledge that I was sitting with someone who wants to make plans to hang out with me many times over.  It was the excitement of thinking about the fun things we both wanted to do in the coming weeks and months.  It was a way of ensuring that I have the kick up the bum I need to keep on getting out there and doing things.

We all have times in our lives when we just don't feel like doing much.  When depression, stress or anxiety causes us to dread venturing any further from our duvets than is absolutely necessary.  When the black dog has you firmly in its grip, the last thing you might be inclined to do is go out and take part in any kind of social activity.  Those are the times when pre-arranged plans feel like millstones around your neck.  The thought of having to force a smile onto your face and somehow muster up the energy to do more than binge-watch a TV show can be difficult to contemplate.

But, on the other hand, looking forward to something can be a way of lifting yourself out of the doldrums.  Having a reason to get up and out of the house can have a hugely positive impact on your mental wellbeing.  Just taking your mind off whatever's getting you down can be incredibly helpful.  After all, if we constantly dwell on the same thing for long enough, we start making it bigger than it needs to be and before long, it starts to harm us.  Taking some time out can even clear your mind just enough for you to be able to find a practical solution to the problem when you come back to it, later.

For me, sitting with my friend and making plans for the last few weeks of 2017 and well into 2018 made me realise how much I have to look forward to.  A day out with another couple of friends yesterday, in which we also made some pretty major plans for next year, had the same effect.

When I think back to the start of this year, when I was depressed, struggling to make plans for something I'd been really excited about, only to have it cancelled, it's hard to imagine a more different place from where I am, now.  I may not end up doing everything I talked about with friends, next year.  But even if I do half of it, I know that I have a whole lot to be excited about.

For me, making plans has been that last little step I needed to take, in order to get my mental health back on track.  Something as simple as "hey, do you fancy doing  *insert thing here* next weekend?" was, as it turned out, all I needed to make me realise that my world is full of amazing people, good friends and positive experiences.  And making plans for more of that can only be a good thing.

So, here's to making plans and having things to look forward to.  Life is short, after all.  Let's go out there and live it.