A love letter to the British countryside

Right now, we should be in Oregon, driving through forests and stopping off to admire the stunning lakes, heading for California. Instead, I’m sat in my dressing gown in my living room, with nothing I need to do. It made me sad on Saturday when I thought that we should have been on a plane to Seattle at that very moment, ready to start an epic road trip down the Pacific Coast, yet today, I don’t feel the same longing or sadness. Today, I feel achy and tired and rejuvenated, after a sweet little excursion to the British east coast yesterday.

In my mind, I had expected it to be a brisk, Autumnal day, yet it was more like mid-Summer with temperatures creeping up to 25 degrees Celsius and the sun still high in the sky. The drive was lovely; we listened to country music and watched as the endless fields, dotted with hay bales, flashed by. We were definitely not in America – the British countryside has a quality that can be found nowhere else in the world. I can’t describe it, only that you know it when you see it. America is so BIG. Everything is spread apart, sprawling, infinite, open, whereas in Britain we are closed in. The roads are narrow and wind in and out, the trees and houses are closer together, yet somehow this is what gives it its magic. Even the most open vista appears to be layered, somehow. They seem to echo the Yorkshire folk’s aesthetic of simplicity and humble foundations.

We got excited when we got our first glimpse of the sea. Of course, we were sat in traffic – it’s Britain – but we were in no hurry. The blue shadow on the horizon beckoned us forward, though at a crawling pace.

We got parked up okay – luckily – but had our usual fight with the ticket machine. First stop – toilets! Grimy and stinky but a seaside holiday staple. Well, when you gotta go, you gotta go.

We had our first stroll along the beach and took off our ill-advised jackets. There was no breeze (which was rather unsettling being on the east coast of Britain) and as it crept towards midday, it only got hotter and stuffier. There were already plenty of folks out sunbathing, cooking themselves alive.

Sat on the beach, we ate glorious fish and chips for dinner – drenched in salt and vinegar – with an icy slush to wash it down. With our sandy bums, we walked off our food by heading to the pier to have a look at the boats bobbing like seagulls in the bay, before heading back along the promenade to buy some fudge as a souvenir for our trip (a souvenir that would disappear within five minutes of getting back in the car and setting off on our next leg of the journey).

We were there, in total, little more than an hour – a whistle-stop tour of Scarborough, if you will. While I wanted a taste of the ‘standard’ seaside experience – the nostalgia of brightly-lit two-penny slots, the greasy food and the feel of wet sand beneath your feet – I craved the real British coast, far from the sweaty, red crowds and the smell of sun cream and hot dogs.

Next stop: Flamborough Head. Compared to Scarborough, it was quiet here. The car park was some gravel in a field and the breeze swept through me the minute I opened the car door. It felt fresh and alive.

First, we explored the cliffs. We sat and just enjoyed the views of the bays down below and the glistening sea stretching all the way out to the horizon, without the distraction of chatter and the sun bouncing off the bare flesh of passers-by. I forced myself to be present, ignoring the question of ‘what’s next?’ which always seems to nag at me, and just listened to the waves crashing on the shore below. What could I hear? Crickets buzzing in the grass, a dog barking nearby, the wind rushing over the cliff tops. I focused on what I could see, feel and hear and just enjoyed sitting there beside my husband in that magical place. There’s nothing like it. Oregon didn’t seem like such a melancholy thought right then.

After drinking in our fill of the scenery from above, we ate an ice cream on the grass and watched as a dog wearing an England hoodie scampered about, before taking the rickety stairway down to the shore. The tide was in so we couldn’t explore any caves, but we sat on the pebble-dashed, shingly shore and watched the waves crash, ebbing closer, threatening to wet our feet.

Although there were other people down there, it felt like it was just my husband and me. Everything looked bright and mystical, like our own dreamy little secret. The sun had hidden behind the cliffs at our backs, casting the cove in shadow, but the sand and rocks gleamed like diamonds, the water sparkled and the white cliffs rising out of the water on either side reflected the sunlight, dazzling us. The smell of salt and seaweed was strong but pleasant, and it kept me centred. My husband wrote our names on a large pebble and perched it on the knobbly cliff wall. Hopefully it stays there for a while, showing that we did indeed live and breathe and had been in that place, if only for a moment.

We took a different route back up and my husband took a moment to climb atop an old war bunker. I laughed as I watched him explore and play, like the child he once was – I adore his need to touch and hold history.

We set off home feeling thoroughly refreshed and satisfied, and I admit, for myself, a little achy. I haven’t done much for six months so I’m feeling the strain on my muscles today.

The drive back was just as peaceful and enjoyable; we passed by majestic stately homes and quaint, pretty cottages decorated with flora and fauna, looked out at the fields and forests, and the hills and valleys as they rolled by, all dappled with the golden sunlight of the approaching evening. We listened to Planet Rock on the radio and my favourite moment was getting stuck in a traffic jam at Stamford Bridge. Baba O’Riley came on the radio and the view was perfect, the warm wind blowing through the open windows and rippling through my hair was perfect, my husband sat beside me looking content was perfect. It was the perfect end to the perfect day and the best traffic jam I’ve ever been in.

We may not be on our epic road trip, exploring places we’ve never been, but we’re still on an adventure, and this place is our home, which somehow makes it all the more magical. No matter how many times you visit these places, there is always something new to be found, always a new discovery to make. Whether it transports you back to a childhood memory or a happier time in your life, or whether it plants you firmly in the here and now, how your life has brought you to this point, nature, especially in a place that is dear to your heart, can always surprise you. It keeps me grounded and reminds me that, no matter where we are, I’m always on an adventure with my soul mate by my side.

29 life lessons: A list in progress

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I’m in the final year of my twenties – which automatically puts me in a reflective sort of mood – and I have a lot of spare time on my hands at the moment. So, I decided to create a list of things I’ve learnt in my 29 colourful years on this planet. It’s an open-ended, ongoing list, and there’s plenty of other lessons I’ve learnt that I haven’t included, but here are the ones that rank high on my ‘most important’ list, in no particular order.

  1. Don’t hold grudges. Life’s too short. Decide whether you want to keep that person in your life, then either way, let it go. Don’t linger in-between, building up resentment and bitterness. Chances are, they haven’t given you a second thought.
  2. Don’t give up on your passion. If you want it, love it and are good at it; do it.
  3. Be grateful for life. Every year I celebrate my birthday, not because I love being spoilt by my family and eating cake – though I do – but because I’m truly excited and grateful to have lived another year. A lot of people haven’t made it to my age.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Bleurgh! Sounds so sickly, and the phrase is overused, but it’s true. When giving yourself advice, talk to yourself the way you would your best friend. You’re not as bad as you think you are.
  5. Be patient. Things take time. Our modern culture of technology allows us to have pretty much everything we want the minute we want it. Worse, it tells us that we should be able to have everything immediately. It’s a bad, bad thing to become accustomed to. The best things I’ve ever received in life have come to me over time.
  6. Be accepting and understanding of other points of view. Whether you agree or not, everyone has a right to their opinion. The world would be a tedious place if we all liked and agreed on the same things.
  7. Live in the present.  I’m still learning how to master this one, but it’s something I strive for daily.
  8. Don’t change for anyone else. If you need to change, change for yourself. Otherwise just keep on being uniquely, completely, unapologetically you.
  9. You learn the most from the most awful experiences. These are what shape us as people. Having fun and being happy all the time never taught anyone anything. You have to wade through dark waters to realise what’s really important.
  10. Work hard and give everything your best shot, no matter how menial the job. Your heart might not be in it, but it’s about your moral compass, your ethics and taking pride in yourself.
  11. Celebrate small successes. There are more small wins in life than huge ones. Take the time to appreciate how far you’ve come, even if you only took baby steps to get there.
  12. Love is beautiful. All of it, every kind, everywhere. The more love in the world, the better. And don’t be afraid to say it and show it.
  13. Change is a part of life, whether you like it or not. You don’t have to drive it, or even embrace it, but you will have to learn to accept it at some point.
  14. Never stop dreaming. Realists will probably disagree with this one, but I believe it’s vitally important. It gives us pleasure and hope. Your dreams will shift and change, but never stop dreaming them.
  15. Keep things in perspective. This is a great one for reducing stress. Most of our day-to-day worries and concerns are unnecessarily blown out of proportion. Focus on the things that matter and that are within your control to fix.
  16. Say yes: to the things you’ll enjoy and be open to new experiences.
  17. Say no: to the things you don’t want to do. Don’t be a people-pleaser at the expense of your own wellbeing and happiness.
  18. Be sympathetic. To me, this is one of the most valued traits I look for in others. Don’t be nasty just because you don’t understand what someone is going through.
  19. Don’t let anyone take your power or intimidate you. It’s yours, and yours alone, and never apologise for something you haven’t done!
  20. Everyone’s going through something. You’re not alone, the universe isn’t out to get you personally. Everyone has their own crap to deal with, it’s just that some people are vocal about it, while others keep quiet and carry on truckin’.
  21. People make mistakes. It’s called being human. If you’ve been a d***head, own up to it and apologise then learn from it. It’s ok.
  22. Be honest with yourself and others. A life lived dealing in lies will only leave you short-changed.
  23. Your gut instinct is important. Trust your instincts – if something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t. But admit that sometimes you’re just plain crazy. Ask the advice of people you trust if you think you may, just possibly, be overreacting a teeny, tiny bit.
  24. Once in a lifetime experiences are best enjoyed once in a lifetime.  Don’t wish your life away waiting for your next holiday, your dream home, the perfect career. Everything can become mundane and, as humans, we always want more. Enjoy your life as it is, right now.
  25. Recognise your flaws. Flaws can be good (AKA eccentricities and unique traits) and bad. If you’re hurting other people, take steps to learn new behaviour and be better. If you’re not and people just don’t get you, f*** ‘em!
  26. There is light and dark in everyone. Sometimes, you can’t help but succumb to the darkness. Try to learn what brings you out of it. Always keep seeking out the light.
  27. Talk about your feelings – don’t bottle them up. I tell people this all the time, but every now and then, I forget to take my own advice then wonder why I feel like I’m drowning in my own emotions.
  28. There’s no such thing as normal. Not in any part of life is there a ‘normal’ way of being and doing. Once you realise this, it’s a game changer, and you’ll wonder why you’ve been trying so hard to do and be things you never wanted your whole life.
  29. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have a sense of humour. It will make you happier, and the people around you will be less likely to want to strangle you.

Life is a constant learning curve. I don’t know everything and I never will, but it’s important to me that I strive to learn and understand myself and the world around me. I vow to stay eternally curious and interested, and be the best person I can be. I’m super excited to see what the next decade of my life brings and keep adding to my list, and I sincerely hope you all are too.

The meaning of life

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What is the meaning of life? It’s the age-old question. People say that nobody knows the answer, or that you don’t know until you come to the end of it, but I think that we do know, and the answer is staring us in the face.

Now, it depends on how you look at the question. I’m not talking about the meaning of all life, of life on Earth; how and why we came to be. I don’t want to get that deep into it on a Monday. But, the meaning of my life is something that I know unequivocally. And while for each person the meaning is unique to them, it all comes down to the same thing: love.

I’m not just talking about romance here so don’t start spewing just yet. Love runs through everything and can encompass the deep and emotional side of us, but it also runs through the more frivolous side of human nature.

Love is the meaning of my life; it’s the reason I’m here, the reason I get up every morning, and the reason why, for the most part, I’m happy. It’s the reason I live, breathe and keep driving forward every single day, and really, nothing else matters.

The meaning of one’s life is personal to them, but it all stems from love. Whether it’s the love for your partner and your plans for your future; the love for your parents or any other members of your family; the love for your children, and their future and wellbeing; love for your friends and the memories you make together; the love of your craft, your passion in life (for me, this is stories – writing, reading, sharing, hearing and reading them); the love of the small things that make you happy, such as long walks, music, good food, a sports team that you support, or movies; the love of nature and the world around you; or even the love for a pet. All the things that give our lives meaning, that excite us and connect us to everything around us, all have a common denominator.

So, what is the meaning of your life? What or who do you love? The fact is, we’re tiny little organisms living on a relatively miniscule ball of rock, orbiting a star in the infinity of space. You could argue that we’re too small to have any significance. But we’re not. To us, our lives are huge. We grieve and hold ceremonies when one of us dies. We celebrate significant milestones with each other and some of us spend our lives helping other people find the best way to live theirs. Being small does not equate to insignificance. While what one human being does on this planet has zero effect on the universe, it may hugely impact the lives of hundreds or thousands of millions of people, or it may only impact the life of one other – either way, it is no small thing.

Really, the meaning of life is not actually important. Once you know what it is you love, which is something we all already know, and you use those things to drive you, then you already have it figured it out. Then, we realise that all our decisions, all our actions, should come from a place of love. With each hard decision, each gut-wrenching trial, each thing that you have to do or choose or act upon, ask yourself, am I doing this out of love or is it coming from a bad place, such as out of hate or fear? If you always choose the path that comes from love then you can continue on your way knowing that you’re on the right path, and that’s the best that any of us can do. All that is left to do then, is live.

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What do you love about yourself? Change the way you think and talk about your body.

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I was looking in the mirror the other day and criticising what I saw; my backfat that won’t shift; the cellulite on the backs of my thighs; my ludicrously small hands and feet; my little pot-belly and muffin top; my super-fine hair that won’t do anything; and so on. It’s so easy to criticise but terribly hard to praise yourself. I’m not obsessed with slimming or a particularly self-conscious person. I think I’m fairly normal for a woman of my age in the sense that I look at my body in a negative light more often than not – but doing this is exhausting and toxic, and it helps nobody, especially me.

I’m trying to change the way I think about these things. I don’t want to be skinny – been there, done that, and it was not fun. I was gangly, flat-chested and bony for most of my life and I hated it. Everyone thinks they have a right to comment on you when you’re thin. They probably thought that they were giving me a compliment because thin is good, right? For some people, yes, but not for everyone. Those comments only highlighted the fact that I not only thought I was skinny, which I didn’t want to be, but that everyone else thought that too. I wanted people to think I was womanly and feminine, not twiggy. Some people like and suit that look, and that’s great, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be.

On my wedding day, I was around 8 stone. At 5 foot 8, 8 stone just made me look too angular and severe. I look back at my wedding pictures and although I looked really happy (it was the best day of my life, after all) I still wish I’d had a bit more meat on me.

Then, I got ill and piled on the pounds. Once again, people commented on it. Some said they didn’t notice a difference and others said I looked good heavier. Again, they all had good intentions and were probably trying to make me feel better because I’d been through such an ordeal, but all it did was make me aware that people were judging me and the way I looked, when all I wanted to do was hide. I wasn’t the same as I was before; nowhere near. I looked bloated and unhappy after going through a traumatic change in my life. My body had been overhauled from head to toe and I no longer felt like myself.

Now, I’m healthy, somewhere in between and it appears that I’m still not happy! So, what the hell do I do?! Everyone has their own unique body shape. No matter how big or small you get, you’re still going to have an individual structure that you just can’t change (without plastic surgery). My boobs have been the same size since I was a teenager no matter how much the rest of me fluctuates, my ankles are always tiny in comparison to the rest of my legs (to go with my baby-sized feet, I suppose) and I’ve never ‘lost’ my bum. Being older now, I put weight on around my middle more than I’d like.

But in order to achieve what I would perceive as perfection for myself, I’d have to work my arse off and eat all the healthy stuff 24/7 and that’s just not me. I need to strike a balance and change the way I look at and talk about myself.

I want to be strong, not thin. I want to feel powerful, not fragile. I want to eat what I want but be healthy. So, I exercise every day and for 6 days a week, I eat well and count calories, though I don’t have a limit; I’m just mindful of what I’m putting in my body. The other day of the week, usually a Saturday, I allow myself to eat absolutely anything I want. And you know what? I do feel good. I am strong and there are things I like about myself. So now, I need to change my attitude.

I may never shift my backfat or cellulite as they’re one of the hardest places to lose weight and I just don’t have the patience. I may never have the waist I once did. But I have muscle and it makes me feel bad-ass.

Next time I look in the mirror, instead of picking apart the things I dislike, I’m going to focus on what I do like. And maybe eventually, I’ll learn to accept the things that I don’t. The fact is that our bodies are amazing and deserve to be appreciated. Vanity is not important, what you look like is not important; it’s how you feel and how your body works.

Think, what has your body done for you? It may be that you have a big belly post-pregnancy that you wish would just go away. Don’t; it carried and fed your child for 9 months. It’s amazing and you should look at yourself in awe. For me, it’s my skin. I love my skin more than any other part of me. I look at it and touch it all the time, almost worried that it’s not real and I’ll wake up one day and it’ll be awful again. I look after it and care for it and tell it how beautiful it is, so why can’t I do the same for every other part of me?

Here goes: I love my bony nose as it adds character to my face and is uniquely mine; I love my wonky teeth (hey, if wonky teeth are ok with Tom Hardy, then they’re ok with me); I love my shoulders and arms as I work really hard on them; I love the fact that I no longer have back pain or an immobilised shoulder blade from being contorted into an unnatural position for months like I was when I was ill; I love my tattoos (not natural but still a part of me); I love my hair because it’s super long; I love my little podgy belly because it means that I can still eat pizza, plus my husband says it’s cute; I love my bum because it’s rock solid and got a good shape (it’s also great for sitting on); I love my legs because they’re long and strong; and, ok, I suppose I can stretch to like my tiny hands and feet. My backfat and cellulite – I’m working on loving those too.

The most important thing in this world is love, but people forget this encompasses yourself as well as those around you. Really, the most important thing in this world is to love yourself. People come and go but you have to live with yourself every single day of your life. We should be our own best friends – treating ourselves right, being kind to ourselves and showing ourselves affection. So instead of filling your head with nonsense ‘I wishes’, putting yourself down and tormenting yourself, take a look in the mirror and think ‘What do I love about myself?’ Life is too short to worry about backfat, grey hairs, knobbly knees. One day, our bodies will fail us – nobody is exempt – so until then, appreciate every single moment that your body keeps you alive and active and able to do all the things you love. Your body is amazing, so give yourself a break.

Insomnia

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In the dreadful dark depths of the night, when the mind awakens and sleep is ripped from your grasp, it seems that anything can happen. Every shadow conceals a monster, every worry is magnified beneath a glass of unreality, every demon creeps inside your mind to twist and distort the most natural of thoughts. The frustration, the angst, the sweating, and the sleep-deprived sickness writhes inside every nerve, every cell. Ah, the fog and anaesthesia of slumber, how sweet you would taste, if only you would let me have you. Let this mind rest, let this soul revive, let this body mend.

The new day breaks: the birds twitter obliviously as the blue-hued light slinks beneath my curtains and the shadows are dispersed by the stark illumination of reality. Whispers of the night still echo but are soon lost as the world comes back into focus with the rising of the sun. My grasp on all that tormented me hours before is tenuous, yet I find that my imagination is now ablaze!  Fleeting glimpses of stories, creatures and characters imagined pass through my mind. I scribble these fragments down in a frenzy, like an addict trying to hold onto the last remnants of a high, willing it to never end. Though I know it will end, so I must exhaust every last ounce of inspiration before it’s lost to me forever.

The blank page is now chaotic, painted with the fragmented dreams, images and stories that can only come when you’re trapped in the void between night and day. This other world, where only the insomniacs roam, is both grievous and a gift.

And now, I climb into my bed, exhausted and fragile. Fresh, cold sheets extend their welcoming arms and embrace me as an old friend. Sleep washes over me in a tide of hushed calm. I am dead to the world, floating down… down… down…

A lesson in patience

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Patience is a virtue… I do not possess. I never realised just how little patience I have. I’m so used to being in control of everything; I make list upon list upon list to make sure that everything in my life runs smoothly. When all the major, important things are dealt with, this allows me to relax and be my usual laid-back self.

The current pandemic is teaching me a lot about myself. I’ve always known I was a bit of a control freak; I like most things to be done right away and when I get something in my head that I need to do, I do it, I don’t mess about. For example, paying bills, booking trips, ordering goods. Until now, that’s not negatively impacted me in any way. I pride myself on my organisational skills and the ability to just get stuff done. If anything, I actually enjoy being organised. It sounds mad – or maybe boring – but I love sitting down, making plans and setting myself tasks for the week ahead. But now, there’s things that I can’t get done, things I have no control over, things I would ordinarily have sorted months ago. And I’m freaking out.

I have no patience for dawdlers, no patience for wafflers, no patience for talking about something instead of doing it. When there’s something on my to do list, I do it as soon as I possibly can. If I don’t, it festers inside me like an infected wound, giving me anxiety and sleepless nights. Because of the current state of the world, I have a lot of festering worries. I still don’t know what’s happening with our £3500 American road trip; I have a half-built cross-trainer I’m still waiting for parts for; I have orders that still haven’t been delivered; I don’t know when I’ll be expected to go back to work after working from the safety of my home for what feels like forever (hopefully no time soon); I have a tattoo booking and a dentist appointment that are still yet to be re-arranged, among other things. All of them will get sorted eventually, I know that, but it doesn’t keep me from feeling generally uneasy every minute of the day. I want them all sorted now so that I can relax, but they won’t be any time soon. So, what do I do? I can’t keep worrying about things that I have no control over; I’ll make myself ill. As hard as it is, I need to take my own advice.

I’ve said before that I only worry about things I can control. If it’s something I have no power over, I live by the rule that you just have to let it be – whatever will be, will be. But, until now, I’ve always had control over these sorts of things. The pandemic is causing delays with everything, things I would normally get sorted instantly. So now it’s time to truly put my own rules into practice.

My holiday? The absolute worst-case scenario is it gets cancelled and we’ll lose our deposit, and that’s unlikely to happen. But if it did, yes we’d lose money and we’d have to re-book next year, but I’m still going to get to our destination eventually and it’s not like that money is all we have in the entire world.

My cross-trainer and the orders I’m still waiting for; is it really life or death? So I have to wait longer than normal – will it really kill me?

Whatever happens with work, at least I have a job, and I feel very lucky and grateful for that. I’ve adapted to so many changes so far, there’s no reason I won’t be able to adapt again.

The appointments will be rescheduled in time; my tattoo artist and dentist aren’t going anywhere.

One day, all will be ‘back to normal’. I’ll be able to get back on top of things and my world will feel less chaotic. But I’m hoping this will teach me how to be patient and worry less in the future.

I’ve learnt to appreciate calm, quiet and solitude. I’ve learnt to be more present in my daily life. I’ve learnt to take more time for the things that stimulate my brain and get my creative juices flowing. I’ve learnt the importance of family and friends and to not take them for granted. I’ve learnt how to let myself go and enjoy eating comfort food to get me through uncertain times without beating myself up about how I look, and on the flipside, I’ve learnt that what I put in my body has an effect on everything from my digestive system to my skin to my mood, and with that I’ve learnt to motivate myself into eating better and getting strong, after a lovely hiatus of eating whatever the hell I want. And now, I hope to add patience to this list of life lessons.

There’s so much change happening in the world right now – some good, some bad. It’s tangible, both exciting and scary at times. I can make positive changes, and grow and learn and improve as a person, or I can get left behind, worrying about things that, in the grand scheme of things, really don’t matter. I know which I’d prefer. So, while I’m waiting (patiently) for everything to right itself, I’m going to try to just chill out and focus on the positives. Whatever will be, will be.

The weightlessness of honesty

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Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, the hardest part of writing is being honest, and I mean, really, truly honest, opening yourself up to criticism and embarrassment. There’s an innate fear of being perceived as imperfect inbuilt into our society, which makes us scared of revealing too much of ourselves. However, people can tell when what you’re saying is being filtered and you run the risk of coming across as inauthentic.

To be a believable and compelling writer you have to be truthful. It comes with the territory. Our job is to write about important – sometimes taboo – subjects and to give our own versions of events. Being 100% truthful can be terrifying for the author and shocking for the reader, but it creates a bond between them, allowing them to engage and relate with one another. Unfortunately, honesty doesn’t always appear to be a trait that the media value, therefore, it’s up to the rest of us to a) make sure we can spot lies when we’re fed them and b) spread the truth.

Arguably, truth is the most important part of storytelling, writing and journaling. It’s easy to go out into the world and report back what you see, learn and experience when you’re only giving cold, hard facts, but when you write from a personal perspective you have to be open and honest. You can’t lie about this stuff – it’s transparent – and you will be criticised if you’re being false.

From writing about my own experiences and being brutally honest, I’ve received nothing but support and encouragement. I’ve entered into debates with people about certain views, but all have been healthy and constructive, and nobody has disputed my credibility. As hard as it is sometimes to put yourself out there, it can be the most praise-worthy and rewarding thing you can do.

Sharing knowledge and emotional experience is a basic human way of bonding; it’s how we learn and grow. Whatever you’re going through in life, no matter how great or terrible, there will be countless others out there going through the same thing. It’s easy to forget that when you only see snapshots of people’s supposedly perfect lives. Remember, these are just snapshots and don’t reflect the whole picture. Some people don’t want to invite other’s into their truth, and that’s fine – I’m a private person myself – but the more we share honest accounts of our struggles, the more other people will be reminded that they’re not alone.

Honesty is also important in daily life, as well as in writing. I only have time for people in my life who will be open and truthful with me. But, there’s a fine line between being honest and being rude. There’s a difference between directly insulting someone and giving constructive criticism, and sometimes, depending on how sensitive the subject is, you need to choose your words carefully.

For example, how do you tell a friend that you don’t agree with a life choice that they’ve made? First of all, ask yourself, is it in their best interest, or are you projecting your own opinions when they’re not necessarily needed? Would it be wrong not to tell them how you feel? If you feel that they need help and honest advice, you need to tell them, then they’re free to make their own choice with another perspective to guide them. Being a good friend or family member, you have to get straight to the point sometimes. It doesn’t do anyone any good if you’re an ‘enabler’. Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given has hurt me, but it also led me to make the right choices.

The tightest relationships and friendships are created when you open up and tell the truth – whether that’s telling someone your view on their actions, or admitting to something you’ve been hiding. Being up front and telling each other what you really think opens up discussions; maybe you’ll change their way of thinking, or maybe you’ll be surprised by their point of view and learn something yourself?

Being agreeable is something that has been programmed into us, especially women. Don’t be confrontational, don’t ‘take up too much space’, don’t be ‘bitchy’, don’t be ‘bossy’, or too forthright. There is a time and place – for example, don’t discuss your friend’s poor career decision on her wedding day! – but generally, just say what you’re thinking! Don’t beat around the bush, don’t hold it in; just say what you’re thinking. Let it out and see what happens.

I used to hide my true thoughts and be ‘agreeable’ (a people-pleaser, if you will), and I ended up feeling resentful and full of suppressed rage. I remember the first time I thought, you know what, I’m not happy about this and I’m going to speak up. I forced the words out of my mouth, fighting against every instinct, and afterwards, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It made it easier to do it again in the future, and now I truly feel weightless, like I have broken down a wall that had been preventing me from being my true self. I’ve learnt that you can’t keep everyone happy all of the time, and that realisation has freed me.

Whether you’re a writer or not, truth is always the best way forward. Sure, it can make you vulnerable, but it also makes you stronger, establishes trust and frees you from the restraints of artificial bonds.

Honesty is the best policy. If I lose mine honour, I lose myself” – William Shakespeare.

Scribbling #3: Down the road…

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Down the road I wandered. I didn’t know what I was searching for, where I was going, what was ahead, but I knew that I had to keep going forward. Behind me lay only a desolate wasteland, littered with broken down memories and rusty, jagged feelings; the junkyard of my past.

The road was stony, nothing more than a worn-down track. Either side, I was fenced in by ominous trees, towering over me. I was walled in; the road a channel, directing me onwards.

Ahead I saw a gap in the trees. Only a sliver of light peeked through, as overhead dark storm clouds pressed down on me. The heavy atmosphere reflected the suffocation I felt inside.

Down the road I wandered, putting one foot in front of the other, carrying on because there was nothing else to do.

Soon, the rain fell. Pitter patter, pitter patter. I realised the road beneath my feet was now dark, shiny tarmac, flowing ahead of me like a black river. It eased the pain in my feet and my head. The rainwater glistened on its surface and, for a moment, I thought I might sink into it. Were the droplets on my face rain or tears?

It didn’t matter, really. I could only go forward, so I continued to wander down the road.

I felt lighter as the clouds dispersed and a ray of sunshine peeked through. My heart leapt at the sight of that golden beam, and my step quickened. I finally broke through the trees and saw my road winding up through hills in the near distance. I wondered what was over that hill, and if it would bring me joy or more misery.

Down the road I wandered, and I started to feel hope for the first time. Here and there, animals peeked their curious faces out of the brush to see who was passing by. The sounds of wildlife reminded me that I wasn’t alone.

My hope soon faded with the day’s light. The shadows lengthened, the sky shifted from pale grey to deep purple, and the ghosts of my past appeared. I could hear their voices inside my head, taunting me, reminding me.

It was dark now; I could wander no more. I laid down on the road, feeling the cold, hard ground beneath me. I could still hear those ghosts, like echoes of misery all around me. I was an empty vessel yet so full of everything. I scrunched my eyes tight shut in fear of what I would see.

Then, when the pain became too great, a miracle happened. I opened my eyes tentatively, looked up from the flat of my back, and instead of seeing a black void of despair, I saw a galaxy of light and wonder and hope. Stars scattered the muddy sky, the detritus of the universe in its rawest, most angelic form. Nebulous mists of startling colour dyed the heavens. My sobs turned to laughter and I laid there, paralysed with joy at its sight.

I slept, the deepest sleep of blackest night. No dreams or terrors disturbed me. When I awoke, my mercurial companion had finally returned. The sunlight blinded me as I opened my dry, tired eyes, still stinging from my historical tears.

I was at the top of the hill, looking down on the world below. Everything was alive and in motion. Ahead, lay green, lush fields, promising trust and love. The road twisted and turned, climbed up, and over and down but it always kept going, as far as the horizon and beyond.

I forced myself to turn back, to face what I’d left behind. Instead of chaos and pain, I saw an unending plain of white sand, dazzling in its brightness and stark beauty. All those memories had turned to ash. I scooped up a handful and let it filter between my fingers, blowing away in the breeze. I felt a sting of sadness, a faint echo of grief, before it too blew away on the breeze.

I turned my back on the past, leaving it all behind. Down the road I wandered no more – now, I had purpose. Now, I could enjoy the journey. With the sun on my face and the earth at my heels, I followed my road into the new day.

A true friend

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I’m one of those people who has very few true friends. I know a lot of people; I have friends who I know will make me laugh, I know there are certain people I can count out on for a good night out, I have work colleagues whom I trust and I enjoy the company of, I have certain people to turn to for a deep discussion or philosophical debate, and I do count them all as friends, but ‘true’ friends? Friends I know I can count on for absolutely anything at any time? I can count them on one hand.

When I was a teenager, and continuing into my early twenties, quantity was hugely important to me. I was always out and surrounded by a lot of people who I thought were close friends. I thought myself lucky to know so many people and to always have someone to join me in my quest for ‘a good night’. But, I got married, grew up, moved to Edinburgh and never saw most of those people again.

At first, this saddened me. I was always nostalgically reminiscing about all the ‘friends I used to have.’ But the truth is, people grow apart. What once united us was no longer important. It was a flimsy bond, broken easily. I realised that nothing we ever did or had could ever be taken away – they are fond memories and will always be a part of my journey – but fond memories don’t build strong foundations. Time, experience, shared emotions, and hard times forge life-long bonds.

At the most difficult times in my life, I’ve had a handful of people to turn to; my parents, my husband, my best friend, and a couple of close friends, and they’ve always been enough. My closest friend is my husband, but that’s a completely different type of friendship.

My best friend and I had a rocky start. She thought I was trying to muscle in on her then-boyfriend, and I thought she was aloof and rude. Then, one night, both fairly drunk, we were left alone dancing and accidentally head-butted each other. That head-butt turned into a life-long love. Maybe it knocked some sense into us? Since then, we’ve lived together, lived far apart, and supported each other through poor health, break-ups and difficult life events.

When I got married and moved to Edinburgh, we didn’t see each other for up to a year at a time. We were both so busy with our separate lives, we sometimes went months without even talking to each other. But, every now and then, I’d get a random text asking for advice, or I’d check in on her, or she’d come visit for my birthday, and each time was like we’d never spent a moment apart. Day or night, no matter the length of time that had passed since our last contact, we knew the other was there when needed.

That, to me, is what friendship is all about. It doesn’t matter how often you speak or see each other, it’s just the intrinsic knowledge that they’re there, and if you needed it, they would drop everything to help you. They know you better than you know yourself, and they offer honest, sometimes even blunt, but always non-judgemental, sound advice. They make you laugh when you want to cry. They stay quiet when you need space. They share with you their joy, wisdom and strength, and you love them so much, you’ll do it all for them too.

I’m only 29, but I know already that the quantity of friendships is irrelevant – it’s the quality of the bonds. I’d take my few friends and my close family over a huge group of tenuous links any day. No matter what my problem, where my life takes me, I know I have someone there to offer me unconditional support and open, honest advice. We also, without fail, know whether the other needs to talk, stay quiet or be distracted. We know how to make each other laugh, how to tell each other to get over it, when to be serious and when to make light of a situation. And that comes from a lot of years of being able to focus on that one relationship. If I’d had a hundred other people to maintain relationships with at the same time, that friendship wouldn’t have been nurtured and grown in the way it did.

And you know what? In the ten years we’ve known each other (apart from our initial impressions of each other) we’ve never once fallen out. We’ve disagreed, sure, but we don’t fall out. We communicate openly, support one another, and know each other inside out. I hope everyone has at least one friend like that. It’s what life is all about; shared experience, shared pain and shared joy. The most important friendships are those that enrich your life and make you the best version of yourself. As my old, wise friend Winnie-the-Pooh once said, “a day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside.”

Life after trauma

Following on from my previous post, I want to talk about the effect of trauma on your mind. I don’t want to rake over old ground; I covered a lot of it in my last post. I was in two minds about whether to write this but after people reached out to me to tell me how much my post had meant to them, I knew I had to. And not just to help others, but to help myself. Really, this post has been a long time coming. This is for the TSW sufferers and all those who have experienced trauma in their lives. Let’s get straight to it then…

For a bit of background, I will start with what happened directly after leaving hospital. My condition came back full-force and I was sick to the stomach knowing what was coming, and knowing full well there was nothing I could do stop it (bar continuing on Topical Steroids – hereafter known as TS). After days and nights and days of reading material on the subject, I knew my only option was to come off them, and so I did.

You know the physical effects this condition had, but I want to press that the mental effects were just as bad, at times worse, than the physical. While I was in the thick of it, I had only two emotions – numbness and hysteria. There was no in-between, ever. There were no happy moments, moments of relief, not one. My mum came to visit a couple of times, and my heart did lift at the sight of her. It also lifted when my husband would bring me cake, or help me in some small way, or give me a tentative hug; I would force a small smile for them and say thank you (I was eternally grateful), but it didn’t sink in, not completely. That pain, man. The physical pain in my skin and muscles, the mental pain, and that ITCH; they were all-consuming. They would not let you forget, not for a second. I would smile and genuinely feel grateful for their efforts and their presence, but I was emotionally numb. I couldn’t feel anything. Except when I was hysterical. Then, I would feel it all. I made noises I didn’t even know I was capable of; animalistic even. I was begging, pleading for it to end, and it would last hours. I was in a pit of absolute despair. Then, eventually it would pass, and I would feel numb again. And so, it continued, day in, day out for months and months and months.

The sleep deprivation didn’t help. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that. The ONLY thing I wanted to do was sleep so that I could escape that living hell. I literally dreamed of going to sleep and not waking up until it was all over, but it eluded me, constantly. I dreaded the nights; they were worse than the days. Alone in the dark quiet, the pain and the itch intensified and drove me to the brink of insanity. Now, this is dark, but I often laid awake scratching, dreaming of skinning myself alive. In some weird, twisted corner of my mind, I thought how amazing it would be to start from scratch and just get rid of it all.

Another difficult thing to deal with was people making suggestions, trying to help. I appreciated that they cared, I really did, but a lot of people didn’t understand my condition. They asked if I could bathe in certain things or apply different moisturisers, as if that would magically cure me. I was one of the sufferers who could not put ANYTHING on my skin. Nothing could help me, except time. Luckily, my husband was on hand to explain this to people, as I didn’t have the stomach for it. Even worse, however, were those who didn’t believe it was real. Imagine having an horrific, life-changing condition and people not believing you, telling you you’re causing it yourself by not using the very thing that caused it (TS). One basically told me that I deserved what I got, and it was all my own fault for stopping using TS.

It made me angry, unbelievably angry, but it was also a driving force. I knew when I was eventually healed, I could tell them, “I told you so.”

My relationship with my body was utterly ruined. I couldn’t look at it, I couldn’t touch it, I couldn’t even be reminded of it without retching, sometimes actually vomiting. My body was alien to me. It wasn’t mine. It was a disgusting, ugly cage that I was trapped inside. After it was all over, it took a lot to rebuild that relationship. I would involuntarily cringe and flinch constantly for years after, at the thought of what it once was. Anything that looked remotely like flakes of skin, such as dust, made me anxious and sick.

I watched a lot of TV in an effort to occupy my mind, but instead found myself fixating on other people’s beautiful skin. It made me feel sick and angry. I knew that one day I’d look like them, but for now, I was seething with jealousy. I hated them all. For this reason, I stayed away from social media completely. Seeing other people living their lives happily while mine was at a complete standstill was too much.

This condition is up and down and up and down. One day, an area would look like it was healing, and a little glimmer of hope would appear, then the next day you’re back to square one. It was crushing. Then, eventually, very slowly, I realised that it was getting better! I began wearing make-up again, wearing clothes that weren’t pyjamas, going out for short walks. But it was nowhere near over.

I always thought when I was going through all that, that as soon as I was better, I would never complain or be unhappy about anything ever again. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as that when it comes to trauma. It has a profound, long-lasting effect on your life. You can’t just switch it off and forget about it. It lurks.

At first, I was happy to be out and about, seeing the world outside my four walls, doing every-day things, but I was now a nervous, anxious, shy shell of my former self. I hated people looking at me – though I probably looked normal to them by this point – and would shrink back, wanting to hide. I got tired easily, as my body was incapable of doing seemingly easy things after being forced into one position for such a long time. I felt like a blob of nothing, physically and mentally. That was when I realised that I’d changed, completely and utterly. I’d shed my skin in more ways than one.

I was quick-tempered, anxious, bitter. I no longer felt like me. I had moments of joy, of relief that I was better, but they were only fleeting. I wondered what was wrong with me – I knew I should have been ecstatic to be getting better, but I felt like an alien on another planet. I felt lost and scared, terrified even, that I’d never get my old self back. Somehow, I also felt more alone than I had throughout the entire journey. How could anybody understand how I felt? I felt like a horrible person for not being okay. People expected me to be happy, so I put on a mask and pretended I was, while inwardly crumbling. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere with anyone.

Outwardly, I appeared to be healed. The main uncovered areas of my body were, but there were areas that weren’t even close. It was still excruciating to walk, for example. My ankles didn’t heal until two years after my face had. It was an evil lasting effect, just there to remind me, refusing to let me forget and move on.

I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone because I didn’t want it to be perceived as attention-seeking, or ‘bring the mood down’, but it was always on my mind so I felt isolated, wanting to share but unable to bring myself to. I was hiding and bottling up all this emotional pain. Luckily, my husband, my best friend and my parents knew. I didn’t have to tell them. They were the only people I could truly be myself around. Once again, I don’t know what I’d have done without them.

I felt very bitter. I wrote in my diary:

People ask me if I’m okay, and I tell them I am because I know they don’t want to hear the truth. I’m not okay, and I feel like I’ll never be okay again. They don’t want to hear that; they want me to tell them I’m fine, so I do. They’re only asking out of courtesy.

I know now that that’s not true. It was self-pity, pure and simple. It was anger, and bitterness – anger because I’d had years of my life stolen from me, bitterness that I’d been in that situation in the first place – and it was toxic.

It took me a long time to get over that, and I did, but my condition has always been an elephant in the room. There have been conversations I’ve been part of where I’ve wanted to share at least part of my story, where it’s even been relevant to share it, but I held back, again for fear that I would be seen as attention-seeking. Now, I realise how unhealthy that is! I didn’t know how much control it had over me.

When I wrote my post earlier in the week, I finally realised. When I was writing it and when I posted it, I had extreme palpitations to the point where I could hear my heartbeat hammering in my chest. I was short of breath and sweating profusely, having to go sit and cool down for a while afterwards. Reliving it was hell, but when that passed, I felt free, like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I knew then that I had to write this too. I needed to get it all out and now I can move on. I can use my experience to help people, rather than letting it continue to haunt me.

My condition did change me, and my life, but for the better. I am different – I have little time for bullshit, I’m not afraid to speak my mind and I have a profound respect for my body, to name a few changes. Now I’m nearly 30, I’m ready to leave that part of my life behind me, and enjoy the rest of my life, free from the shackles of that awful condition.

Thank you for reading, and for those of you still suffering, keep fighting, stay strong and don’t bottle it up. We all deserve to have our voices heard.