Standing still to move on

Tea_bowl_fixed_in_the_Kintsugi_method

I was enquiring after a mutual friend, whose husband had just deserted and betrayed her.

“How is she?”

“Distraught. She was asking how long it lasts.”

“What? The pain?”

She nods.

“The ‘it-hurts-so-bad-I-don’t-want-to-live-any-more’ pain lasts, erm, well, for me it lasted about 6 months. All she can do is concentrate on getting through the days, and congratulate herself for it. Then it gets easier, but it takes time. Two years later and I’m only just beginning to feel like me again, as opposed to someone who is surviving something.”

And then I realised. That was the first time I’d said it out loud, that I was really ready to get on with being myself rather than having every thought and action overshadowed by what I used to be, and am no longer. That’s taken two years. Two years since my (ex-)husband told me he no longer loved me and wanted a divorce.

We all heal from grief, pain and tragedy at different rates, and those emotions specific to divorce are no different. My ex has already sold the former family home and moved out of the area to set up a new home with his fiancee; within a year of decree absolute, he will be married again. If he is the hare of divorce recovery, I am certainly more the tortoise.

I’ve lost track of the well-meaning mentions of the need to “move on” and “get over it”, even “forgive”, but this isn’t something I can rush. The aching void of pain began to close over some time ago, and the razor’s cut of rejection only clips me occasionally, when I am brave enough to again experiment with trust and take the risk of vulnerability. What has taken so much longer is working out who I am and how I live now I have lost my life partner, my family unit, my home, and in the process, my home church and many close friends and family members. I couldn’t move on because I didn’t know where I should move to. Aside from the blessed necessities of work and parenting and setting up home, I had no idea how to gather the fragments of who I once was and what I once had into a new identity, a new life. So I stood and waited. I paid attention to what was left and nurtured it as best I could. I let what had gone slip quietly away and wished it a silent farewell. I carried on, I continued, I coped as best I could. And I stood and waited.

Now, two years later, I am finally ready to kneel and gather the fragments into a cohesive whole, to sift through the remnants and decide again what goes and what stays, and to add to them the new, and the rediscovered. I am ready to let what has happened to me shrink into the distance in my rear-view mirror, to choose who I am now rather than be defined by losing who I was.

Again, this will take time. The assumptions on which I had founded my adult life now seem to have all the solidity of drifted sand. Even my faith in God feels threadbare, tenuous, forever stripped of the somewhat arrogant certainty of blessing and provision for those who believe. I feel like the blind man waiting for healing whilst Jesus plays with spit and dirt.

My “moving on” is consequently a hesitant shuffling over the threshold, rather than a purposeful stride. I weigh my decisions more cautiously now, trying to do the right thing, aspiring to wisdom. Each choice defines my new identity and shapes my new future and the future of those now dependent on me. Just me. If this all goes wrong, I have no-one to fall back on, no-one is on-hand to catch me if I fall and fail. Each day is a series of moment-by-moment choices, each day lays the foundation for a week, a month…another year. I live thankfully, carefully, tentatively. I rest as much as I can, and forgive myself often. There is no clearly-defined route to where I am going, there is no map and my compass isn’t what it was. I speak comfort to myself that it is hardly surprising if I feel and act “lost”.

I shuffle on. One day I trust I will be able to make another public admission – that my life is finally coherent, sensible, balanced, and that I feel fully at home in it.

I will have “moved on”.

But I will never “get over it”. The scars will fade but they will never vanish. I will never be the same woman I was 2 years ago. The intervening events can never be erased from my history and their effects on me and my circumstances are indelible. There is no going back, no possibility I will “get over it” and revert to who and how I was before. But if I am careful enough, prayerful enough, and brave – I may eventually become someone different, someone I can be proud of. I am hopeful that, like a kintsugi vessel, my ugly breaks will one day be rendered beautiful joins.

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Why I went all quiet all of a sudden

On 26th September 2014, my marriage ended. My husband, father of my two sons, divorced me. It wasn’t what I wanted but there’s not a lot you can do when the person you’ve been with for 15 years decides they don’t love you any more. We’d been separated for 14 months.
I’ve been thinking for some time about what to say, if anything, in public about this biggest crisis of my personal life. I’ve tried not to use social media as an outlet, the cauldron of high emotion (on both sides) really didn’t need me to stir it. Neither did I want my children to find mounds of ill-considered seething vitriol if they explored my online history in years to come.
I also don’t feel the need to share my story. That’s a degree of revelation and vulnerability too far, even for me. Also, everyone’s experience of divorce is probably as unique as their marriage, and the people in it. For example, I imagine mine would have been a very different experience if we didn’t have children or if either of us had been unfaithful. There are common strands to those individual stories but there are plenty of those stories online already (I know, I’ve read a lot of them) for someone to perform that analysis…what do I have to add?
One of the things I wasn’t expecting in the process of divorce was how many people I would lose. I’m very sociable and well-connected, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference between a close connection and a genuine friend. Until you go through something like a divorce, that is. Some took sides against me, but most honestly didn’t know what to say, so ignored me. I can understand both, but that doesn’t make it easier. Through these mechanisms, I have lost touch with many of those I once called my family and friends.
A few responded to my dramatic change in circumstances and status by trying to correct it, like my picture on their wall was suddenly out of line and needed straightening. I know they meant well, but some responded by telling me what I had done to cause my marriage to fail and others gave me dubious advice on how to fix it. I know these people were largely just thinking aloud, trying to make sense of something that had totally blind-sided them, but those thoughts would have been so much better staying inside their heads. I couldn’t change the situation I was in, or the things I’d done which had contributed to it, so these kinds of discussions only served to make me feel more wretched and powerless.
The most helpful response was to be quietly present. I kept going because I had to, I had two small boys depending on me, and (way down in distant second place) my colleagues at work and within ScienceGrrl. But there were many days where I dragged myself out of bed, in tears, to do that…and ended the day in a similar state. On those days an e-mail to say ‘stay strong’ or a text saying ‘thinking of you’ was the chink of light in the dark that gave me hope. I’m so grateful for those who kept that link, who gave in a way I could receive when I couldn’t talk about it and was stumbling, numb, through the days. On the whole, they were the ones I later invited in, who hugged me and held my hand, who listened over tea and wine, who took me out to show me the good things that existed beyond my current experience and even – surprisingly – in it, who I felt able to turn to for practical help with cooking meals, childcare, DIY, buying a car, and moving house three times. These people came from all corners of my life, male and female, old and young, of all faiths and none, family or not, friends for decades or months. What they all have in common is that they couldn’t let me go through this on my own, and I’m eternally grateful for them.
I guess this is what I wanted to share, out of it all. If you want to help a friend in crisis, let them know you’re there. And don’t let them forget it.

Postscript:
That said, there did come a point where what I was going through became too big for all but my very closest friends to bear, and even too much for me to comprehend and process. I got to a stage where my thoughts and emotions were so fragmented and tangled and frayed that I knew I needed professional help, and I found my mental health A&E in Elli Keavey. She has been my counsellor for over a year and has helped me understand what I’ve been through and my response to it. With her help I have arrived at a place where I know who I am, and what I need, and can look at the future with tentative hope rather than grim determination. If you’re going through a crisis and feeling like you’re really not coping, please, don’t go under – get help. Coming out of it sane is worth every penny.

Living with Lupus

This is my best friend Beth. She has Lupus. Despite this, she brings a lot of love and laughter into my life, tells it like it is, encourages and prays for me, and bakes the most amazing cakes. I love Beth and am so grateful for her. This is her story, of life with Lupus, in her own words – although I take the credit for the grammar and punctuation!

“Well, how do I describe the disease that has caused the biggest change to my life plans and dreams than I could ever have imagined? It’s been a bit like a very slow motion but painful train crash. For me, it’s been like having the worst job in the world, but you don’t get to quit and rarely get a holiday. I used to be independent, travel the world, hike up mountains… Heather wrote in one of her Christmas letters that I made her tired just watching me.

Lupus is an auto-immune disease so I am my own worst enemy. My body’s own immune system – instead of coming to my defence – attacks me in all sorts of places: lungs, heart, joints and fatigue like you wouldn’t believe… I can sleep all day and night and it doesn’t seem to be any better. It has improved a bit with treatment but there have been times I have been so tired I could sleep round the clock and had to set my alarm to wake up for meals and tablets. Then there’s the hair loss, mouth ulcers, sores on my feet. You go back to bed after the shower because it felt like climbing a mountain. I’m also particularly sensitive to the sun and it makes the Lupus I have worse, so sun-block, hats, long sleeves and window film so the UV doesn’t get through the windows. And when everyone else runs outside I’m legging it as fast as possible in the other direction. But this means picnics, barbecues… all the summer social stuff… is incredibly hard and reminds me I’m not quite “average”.

But the treatment side effects have sometimes been worse than the disease: one medication caused me to lose over 10kg and only weigh 45kg, and most of that was muscle.

I have learnt who are my true friends and I have some of the most fantastic friends. Some people sadly struggle with me being ill and drifted away. It’s meant I have had to give up my career and my job as a nurse and I have had to swallow humble pie as I have gone from helper to needing lots of help even for the small stuff, like preparing meals and shopping.

But my hopes of a normal life died too, that of a family, house, children… all gone.

The thing is I often look well yet can feel so dreadfully ill. But it’s not all down-side. I’m lucky enough to have the most fantastic GP, Dr Baxter, who has saved my life on more than one occasion. He never doubted me in the 18 months it took to get a diagnosis. I have a pretty amazing set of consultants too. I have had 12 different consultants in 12 specialities in 12 years. With all the tests and blood tests that go with them. Occasionally communication is not what I would always like it to be in the cash-strapped NHS, but I don’t always do a good job at it either. I can get to be impatient at times. I’m on over 200 pills and am currently facing the prospect of learning to give myself intra-muscular injections for emergences for a condition related to side-effects of one of the medications I’ve been on long term.

Yet the other challenge was to learn to let God love me for being a human being, not what I could do for others or for Him. It’s challenged my faith and I have more questions than answers, but so far an undying belief that there is a God who cares about me. I know other people’s prayers have saved my life. But I hope I am also less judgemental, wondering why someone is the way they are if having a bad day, and know there are so many reasons we behave or act the way we do. I have learnt to try to enjoy the small stuff (watch the birds!), and there is nothing as good as saying today is a good day. They are rare but oh so wonderful.

Beth.”

Social networking: it gives, it takes, and it messes with your head

I love social networking. I’m on facebook, and love the way that allows me to keep tabs on important events in my friends’ lives, when otherwise we would completely lose touch. If you’re someone’s facebook ‘friend’, a connection has been retained, and it feels easier to arrange to meet up when you get the chance and have a place to start the conversation. I’m also a recent addition to Twitter, where I tweet mainly about my work and sciencey/techy stuff in general – that move was provoked by a seminar at the University about improving your digital footprint, leaving a professional trail on the internet that will be picked up when future employers Google you. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time updating my pages on academia.edu (which is linked to Twitter) this week for that reason.

And then there’s this blog, where I share the cool stuff I find on the internet, but increasingly work through what I’m thinking about with the aid of Google… and post it in case anyone else finds my mental meanderings helpful.

I’m used to communicating in typed messages – my working life is pretty much organised via e-mail, I can send in excess of 40 every day, and always check my work e-mail if I’m at home for the day. Over the years I have pefected the art of crafting e-mail carefully, of making my point and getting a response without offending. Those who know me well can read an e-mail I’ve written, look between the lines, and know what I am really saying.

The difficulty with social networks is that there isn’t necessarily that pre-existing connection. The vast majority of my facebook friends are people I know and have spent considerable time with at some point in my life. Hence, I’m able to bear my soul a bit or kick off about something (usually politics) and they know I’m not a wierdo angry ranter but someone who cares passionately about certain things.

Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s dream that we should all be wonderfully open and interconnected via facebook, even with people we’ve never physically met, my experience is that a relationship which pretty much starts and has been sustained via facebook can go spectacularly pear-shaped. Be careless in phrasing your messages and you can give completely the wrong impression, sometimes it’s simply the difference between an exclamation mark and a full stop; chatting away in a string of hundreds of messages can give the impression of genuine interest, when actually you’re bored and just looking for distraction; pay attention to what your new ‘friend’ is doing, be a bit too enthusiastic in ‘liking’ and commenting on their status updates, and you look like a stalker. And once you start looking like a stalker, it’s hard to get involved in their lives without strengthening this impression…

My advice would be, if you meet someone you get on with on facebook, meet up as soon as you can or at the very least talk to them on the phone, then ease off the facebook contact. I didn’t, and I deeply regret it. I fear that friendship will never recover.

Twitter is another thing altogether, as everyone else on Twitter can potentially read everything you say – and you only have 140 characters to say it in. It’s easy to become completely inane, share too much, or start a campaign against something without even trying. And that’s when you’re stone cold sober. Public figures can face calls for resignation over what they tweet, when it is actually really hard to tweet well and very easy to say something stupid in front of hundreds of thousands of people (or 16, in my case). I guess I can come across as a bit self-important on Twitter as I am very aware it is a public forum and tweet as if my boss was listening: I tend to focus on the good stuff in my working life, I don’t gossip and try not to go all ranty… although sometimes, I confess, I do succumb to Ben Goldacre’s provocation.

I suppose I could give it all up and walk away, and never tweet or blog or post a facebook status ever again. What stops me is that there are so many people I would never hear from again if I did. I would miss those snippets of information, the unfolding of our stories and the possibility of pulling our storylines together again, the rejoicing over success and sympathising over tragedy. I’m also aware of the connections I would miss out on forming because so many of us are now linked in this way, both personally and professionally.

However, it does make you wonder how genuine, how robust, these online connections really are. I am coming to realise that the friends who really make a difference to me, who I carry in my heart, are the ones who don’t rely on a status update to know who I am and what’s going on in my life. They are the ones I see in person, the ones I talk to face-to-face, the ones who read me completely and like what they find.

The World of Good

I was clearing out a cupboard today and found a load of cassettes. I no longer have a tape player, so they will be divided between my parents (who are visiting at the weekend) and the local charity shop.

Amongst them I found this, a Saw Doctors EP entitled World of Good. It was given to me by my first real boyfriend – Simon Glancy – just before I left for university in Nottingham. We’d been together for 2 years. It’s a fantastic track and very fitting… except for the last lines:

“And I know you’d take me with you, if you only thought you could, but if you up and go alone I only wish for you the world of good… I love you girl and I always will, you know you’re part of my life still, but times have changed, it’s understood – I wish for you the world of good.”

That turned out to be rather fateful – our relationship limped through my first year and finally died a death in the October of my second year. I was relieved, but not a little resentful that Simon had pulled the plug when he started his first year but I had stuck by him through mine and been unavailable whilst meeting so many eligible, intelligent and handsome men.

After my finals, emotionally shredded and feeling nostalgic, I went to visit him in Birmingham. We toyed with resurrecting our romance, but when I left I realised that starting over felt like a sizeable step backwards, and I decided against it.

We kind-of kept in touch and our paths crossed a few more times. Simon, myself and Alex (by then my fiancé) once ended up on the same stewarding team… which was, um, interesting. He also turned up uninvited to our wedding and stood right next to me in some of the pictures. Shortly after that, Simon went quiet, and I never heard from him again.

Simon Glancy appears to have vanished from the face of the earth – Google and facebook have drawn a blank. He was a keen climber, so I try not to fear the worst. I have come to accept that he is one of those loose ends from my past that I am never going to be able to tie up.

Wherever you are, Si – I wish for you the world of good.

Phases of parenting

Often when you stop and look at your life, instead of hurtling through it at 110 mph, you realise that something has changed. It was changing all the time, of course, but changing oh-so-slowly that you never noticed a genuine transition sneaking up on you.

I had a revelation the other day when my youngest son, who is 4 next month, announced to me that the phone was ringing, brought it to me, took it back it’s usual place when I’d taken the call, and skipped away with an air of satisfaction in a job well done. I called after him in thanks, and he responded “That’s ok, Mummy” and carried on finding something else to do.

He’s a proper boy now, independent of me in so many ways, which is a good thing as he will be joining his brother at school in September. I have worked part-time (Monday-Wednesday) since the boys were 6 months’ old, and will be increasing my hours (adding 10-2 on Thursdays and Fridays) from August. The end of an era is upon me, and I barely saw it coming.

Of course, it is wonderful that he is growing up into such a gorgeous little man. I am tempted to congratulate myself on the excellent mothering that has obviously led to this result, but any sense of pride is tempered by the realisation that things could so easily have been different. I am overwhelmingly grateful to have two bright, confident, healthy little boys who are developing as they should; the alternative would be tragic.

But this transition also causes me to reflect on how the needs of my children are changing as they age. As soon as we teach them to do anything for themselves, we teach them to be a little more independent of Mum and Dad, until they are ready to take on the world without us. My thoughts on this eventuality, this end objective, came into sharp focus when Nadine (our cleaner) gave me the bird’s nest shown in the picture above. She had found it, empty and blown out of a tree in the high winds, and wondered if my boys would be interested to see it (they were, as were the oldest’s classmates). It is exquisite, delicate and yet strong, designed to protect and comfort, constructed from many tiny pieces with skill and devotion. It is also empty. The chicks have flown, it has served its purpose.

As our children’s abilities develop, their needs change and so our parenting must adapt; but how, exactly? How do we build the nest our family needs? I searched for a framework to hang my thoughts on and found this article by Focus on the Family, which divides parenting into four phases: Commander, Coach, Counsellor and Consultant. Provided we acknowledge that this describes the dominant approach suitable for the corresponding stage of development, rather than a series of step-wise changes (which would be rather artificial and completely confuse the poor child), I think this framework broadly holds true…with one sizeable exception. This framework infers that parenting starts at the age when children can take instruction, when I have certainly been a mother from age 0, if not before.

I therefore propose an additional 0th stage, of Child-Commanded Constant Carer. When children are very small, there is no option but to put yourself at their beck and call, providing food, comfort, and cleaning (of the child, their clothes, and environs) as required. As they grow and settle into a routine, you still need to do a great many things for them, and help them safely develop the ability to feed, sleep, learn, and get clean over several years. I am only just coming out of this phase, a phase in which my needs – by very necessity – ranked below theirs. I had no comprehension of how intense the pre-school years were until now, when I am looking at them in nostalgic retrospect. The rose-tinted glasses are certainly off, though: I smile as I remember cuddling and breastfeeding them as small babies, counting their new teeth, seeing them learn to walk and hearing their first words… but I am also very glad to be rid of the extreme fatigue (and having to learn what to do with a baby whilst being so tired), the difficulties of finding good childcare, the challenge of redefining my own priorities and even my identity, the frustrations of potty training.

I am ready for new adventures, and so are the boys. It’s time to move away from being a Child-Commanded Constant Carer to a Commander, with a dash of Coach; time to keep on weaving that nest, until it isn’t needed any more.