Take Care of Yourself

It’s something that we all say to each other, almost like a cliché, at the end of phone calls or when bidding each other adieu when meeting face-to-face: ‘Take care of yourself’. We say it because we care about the other person, and yet we don’t always follow our own advice.

Correction: that should read, I don’t follow my own advice.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always been crap at looking after myself. And before you go off ringing social services, this never has impacted on my ability to look after my daughter; she’s never gone without. But somewhere along the way I seem to acquired the message that my needs aren’t as important as the needs of others. Perhaps it’s a result of internalised oppression (something I’ve been researching lately for the novel I’m writing), the result of growing up in a world where disability is some sort of ‘other’, a deviation from the norm.

Perhaps I need to re-evaluate what I can realistically achieve. I say that I’m writing a novel, but in truth, I don’t know if I’ll ever get it finished. A friend read what I’ve done so far and gave some great constructive feedback, but warned me what I already knew: that it may be difficult to publish and even more difficult to sell. I’m starting to wonder whether I should’ve stuck to short stories, started small. I’m trying to decide whether I’m in over my head. (He didn’t criticise the story though, which gives me hope).

This feeling of tiredness coincides with the fact that I’m waiting for four new (solid this time) tyres for my wheelchair, as one is quite badly flat. And to be honest, reader, I feel very hard done by this. I like being able to whizz around town from this shop to that, and still have the energy to write rubbish blogs and do other work, and being housebound does not become me. As I said in an earlier blog, the wheelchair has been an invaluable addition to my life. It offers me independence with my daughter and enables me to be both a mother and a writer.

I’m writing this  blog to inform my loyal followers that I probably won’t be around for a few weeks as I’m off, with the help of some great friends, to try and reactivate the entire Independent Living Movement (although if I get the wheelchair back, I’ll have energy to spare!) And to say thank you all for being so amazingly supportive of my ‘writing career’ and for your lovely comments.

That’s it for now. See you soon! Until then, take care of yourselves. I’m off to veg in front of the telly before another hectic week of trying to make a difference, however small, in the world.

 

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D-Day

It’s the first day of the Leaving Cert exams, and I can’t stop thinking about my godchild, whose christening I remember as if it were yesterday, going in to sit what she’s been told are the most important exams of her life.

I was listening to the radio yesterday (not sure who – Matt Cooper, perhaps?) who was talking to students on air and generally saying listen – the Leaving Cert is important, but not that important. Study, but don’t stress. It’s not the end of the world. The Leaving Cert is not the be-all and end-all.

That’s certainly not the impression I somehow got when I did my Leaving Cert, fourteen years ago. I did Transition Year the year before, and I had been on a respite break with seven other friends with disabilities during that year (incidentally, that’s where I met my husband). The message I got from that week was that the best prospects for disabled people was in doing a computer course or going to the National Learning Network to do an endless string of courses in job preparation. Has my journey through mainstream education been a waste of time? I thought glumly. Now don’t misunderstand me, or interpret my reaction to be borderline snobbery, but I was afraid that society was trying to mould me into something I wasn’t. These courses are great, but I do think that students with disabilities should feel that anything is possible.

So, as a statement against the status quo, and because I wanted full control over my future, I decided that the only way I was ever going to do this was to get 500+ points in my Leaving Cert (yes, I am a little mentally unstable-how did you guess?) For nearly two years, I threw myself into my studies. I don’t know how I still had friends at the end of it because I never went out to the Harriers or the Bridge House. I don’t exaggerate when I say I spent a solid six hours after school, studying. Soon I became obsessed. If I was going to spend the time studying, I had to be the best. If I got 75% or less in a class test I would openly bawl my eyes out.

I remember my dad saying to me about a month before the exams that if I didn’t slow down, I would have a massive heart attack and be dead before the Leaving came around. He was so worried that he threatened to stop me sitting them altogether. I looked at him incredulously! What did he know? How could he possibly understand how it felt to be the only person in my year with a (visible) disability and so much to prove? Didn’t he know how important these exams were to my future?

No, and he didn’t care. Neither did mum. What they did care about was the fact that I had no friends apart from John Paul, about the fact that I couldn’t relax, or take an evening off study without having a massive panic attack, about the fact that at 12 o’clock they would walk past my room on the way to bed to find me still studying, my books sprawled all over my bed and me panicking because I couldn’t memorise that Irish poem or the ins and outs of the heart in spite of studying all evening, probably on little or no food and definitely no rest (food and rest is for the weak, yo.)

And yet, it paid off. I got enough points (bang-on enough) to get into Trinity to study English (the DARE scheme may have helped a little). The relief was immense; it took a long  time to get used to not stressing out over the Leaving. And just when I became accustomed to calmness, I had my dissertation and exams to worry about! I really wanted an Honours Degree, and I did study just as hard (albeit in the final few months!) and it paid off…

…and now I am a writer, spending day after day writing and researching, blogging and editing. Did I need a good Leaving Cert to do this? Was it worth the hardship? Personally, in spite of the hellish experience that was my Leaving Cert, I don’t think it’s fair or right at this point to be dismissive of its importance. How can teachers, parents, society think it’s okay to spend two years of a student’s life drumming into students that this is the most important exam they’ll ever sit, and then turn around afterwards and say that it wasn’t that important?

Yes, it’s true, no-one ever asks how many points you got twelve months later or (unless you’re an Irish teacher) you’re never asked about the main themes of A Thig Na Tit Orm. And yes, many of us do want our children to have a strong work ethic, but at what cost? Why are we still sending out the message that your worth as a person is based on one set of examinations, and lying to our young people, saying that it could shape your future for the worst or the best?

Because I’ll let you in on a dirty secret: your worth is not how many points you get. It’s how you use your talents to shape the future, be that through medicine, teaching or volunteering to help others. And guess what? Learning is fun – it’s true! I don’t mean school – I mean the learning you choose to do. I’ve done three correspondence courses so far and it wasn’t about the marks, it was about accomplishing little challenges. I loved them and can’t wait to do more.

So do your best in your exams, and spend the summer doing some proper learning. Learn how to cook, how to use the washing machine, how to budget. How to get a week’s worth of groceries for €25 so you can go out on a Thursday night. Meet new people and learn how to tolerate their quirks and annoying habits.

There are no grades, but these are lessons you won’t forget.

And Caoimhe, best of luck. No matter how these exams go, never forget that you are a kind and wonderful person and we all love you so, so much xx

1-7 May: Maternal Mental Health Week

I was just scrolling through Facebook this evening, you know, doing some important web-based research, when I saw a post saying that it was Maternal Mental Health Week this week (May 1-7). According to talkingmums.com, up to one in five women experience mental health issues either during pregnancy or in the year following birth. Yet, out of these women, only 7% of them are typically referred for specialist help.

How many of you, like me, have suffered from PND, yet never admitted it to a doctor or health professional? How many of you out there are still suffering?

I’ll never forget the moment I knew for sure I was suffering from PND. Alison was only three months old and we had just discovered (or rather, the Public health nurse finally believed me) that she had a cow’s milk allergy. We had Ali put on special formula. She started gaining weight and became the happiest baby ever, sleeping through the night and everything.

I should’ve been happy, but I wasn’t. Relieved, yes. Happy? No.

All I wanted to do is disappear. I was just waiting for the right time.

I had this vision of having PND as standing over your baby’s cot with a pillow in your hand or wanting to throw your baby down a flight of stairs. While I appreciate that some women feel like that (and this doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re unwell and need help), I didn’t. I felt that my daughter was the most perfect person in the world and that she must have done something truly horrible in life to end up with a mother like me.

I didn’t know that PND meant looking in the mirror and being repulsed by the pathetic specimen staring back.

I didn’t realise that ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away. I ended up in the doctor with chest pains, shoulder pains, stomach aches and yet the doctor couldn’t find physiological reasons for any of them. She prescribed painkillers which didn’t seem to help. I always denied feeling down or depressed. Big smile on my face. Sure what would I have to be depressed about?

By May 2014, I could barely get out of bed. I wasn’t eating properly. I was crying all the time; it was all  I seemed to want to do. In order to get from one end of the day to the other, I had to measure my time in hourly units. Then half-hourly, and towards the end, minute by minute. If I can hold myself together for ten more minutes I’ll be grand, I would think to myself. But of course, I wasn’t grand – far from it.

When I took time off work, I considered my treatment options. I know it sounds ridiculous and shallow, but the thought of going on antidepressants filled me with dread. I wasn’t too keen on counselling either as my previous experiences were quite negative. But I knew I had to do something, so I started writing. Writing how I felt. Writing about my flaws. Writing about my talents. Suddenly, I felt liberated. I’m not recommending this course of action over medication or counselling, but writing was my saviour. It’s something I enjoy, am (reasonably) good at and writing my thoughts and feelings down helped me to own them, and then let them go.

Postnatal Depression has changed me into someone different to who I used to be. I am more sensitive now, and I hate myself for it. I’m still conscious of how people perceive me as a mother. In addition, I now have to make a conscious effort to look after my mental health, to recognise the signs of feeling sad or overwhelmed and act on them before they take over. I also have to be careful. I love helping people, but I have a tendency to internalise their problems to the point where they become my own problems. Sometimes I need to step back, say no and this is hard. I hate doing it.  But I have to remind myself that if I don’t mind myself, I can’t help others.

This week is National Maternal Mental Health Week, and while it’s great to have a platform to write about PND and mental health, the issue of maternal health shouldn’t be confined to a mere seven days of the year. We need to open up the conversation to all mothers, make them feel supported and not feel alone. When I published my long preamble about my experience with PND, I was convinced that either no-one would read it or that it would be dismissed as being a tad melodramatic. What I didn’t expect was the hordes of girlfriends, as well as women I’d never met, emailing me their stories and reminding me that I was not alone. Thanks to those women for validating my story and for making me feel that my depression was completely normal.

And if you are reading this, and you are silently suffering from pre- or post-natal depression, you are not alone either. Look after yourself and get the help you need. Trust me – even mothers who appear to be perfect can suffer silently.

You are worth the help. And after the fog lifts, life becomes so much simpler.

You are wonderful. You are beautiful. You are everything to your children, and they deserve you just as much as you deserve them.

But you can’t pour from an empty cup, so look after yourself.

The Secret Agony of Postnatal Depression

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(Me and my little princess)

Sometimes the hardest thing about being a writer is writing about real feelings, about your reality. Once the words are out there, you’re opening yourself up to merciless scrutiny and possible criticism. But I’ve decided that in order to be free of the most horrible experience of my life, I have to write about it and share it with you. And I’m so happy that I’m finally in a good enough place to do it.

(written Wednesday 22 June 2016)

It is one o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. All is quiet, now. We’ve spent the whole morning talking to a lovely woman who is interested in our story of how we, two parents with various degrees of Cerebral Palsy, found the whole experience of having Alison and whether we would have any advice for the so-called medical professionals if they ever come across a case like ours again.

We are not a ‘case’, of course. We are people. Real people with real feelings. Talking about how we were doubted when we had Alison and when we brought her home first is always draining. As a person who loves to bottle things up and have that bottle explode at the most inopportune times, talking openly and honestly about what is going on in my head is something I hate to do.

So why now? Well, maybe it’s because no matter how hard I try to deny it, the fact that I had postnatal depression will always be part of my identity. I will never forget how I was made to be so afraid that I had to go through it alone, even though I know that some friends tried to help me. They couldn’t of course. I had to help myself.

I was nine weeks pregnant when I self-referred to a physiotherapist and an occupational therapist. I wanted to be the best for my baby, I wanted to improve. I wanted to show people that I was capable. Deep down, I wasn’t sure if I would be. The last time I’d cared for a baby was when my little sister Alex, six years younger than me, was born. Dressing and feeding a doll wasn’t going to be the same thing, I knew that.

Anxiety lingered where excitement should’ve resided. Our Public Health Nurse started visiting when I was twelve weeks pregnant, asking questions that I didn’t know the answer to. How are you going to feed the baby? Change it? Carry it? (Apparently my plan to wheel the child around the house in a buggy was inappropriate; a sling was more suitable. How was I going to get the baby in and out of a sling?) It didn’t really matter – they had come up with a solution, they knew best. Sure what did I know? I wasn’t a medical expert, like they were.

But if they were medical experts, then I was treated like a medical marvel. We’ve never come across this sort of situation, I was told countless times. What did they mean, this ‘sort of situation?’ Surely I was just a normal woman, having a baby? I was told that I’d have to be under general anaesthetic to be sectioned, and it was only the week before the section when we discussed our concerns with the anaesthetist that a spinal was considered. Then there was the apparent issue of me being  left alone with the baby. I spent months trying to illustrate how, if I got help with basic tasks such as bottle making, washing and cooking, being alone would not be a big deal. I later heard about how everybody was apprehensive, watching me with bated breath, expecting me to fail.

Alison Mary Fitzgerald was born on the 9th February 2012 at 11.52am, weighing a sizeable 8lbs 4oz. She was, and remains, the most beautiful person I’d ever met. As I held her in my arms I was blown away by her huge blue eyes, her physical strength and her flawless, unblemished skin. Immediately after the birth the lactation consultant showed me how to breastfeed. I hadn’t really considered breastfeeding, nor had I any interest in it, but Alison took to it easily and I watched her ‘help herself’ it occurred to me that if I could do it, then I would always be useful. Even with my horrible, mangled body I would still be useful.  Even if I couldn’t do anything else for her, I could do this. And if I  was her main source of food, then no-one could take her away from me.

Warped thinking, yes, I know. But I wasn’t thinking straight at this stage anyway.

I was a fog of hormones, crying from hormones and  tiredness. But finally, everything was in place. We became claustrophobic in that small hospital room, the three of us, and by Monday, all I wanted to do was go home. There was no medical reason why this couldn’t happen. John Paul was staying with a friend and that morning, it was just me and Alison in the hospital room. I looked into the little cot and sang ‘Baby, now that I’ve found you’ to her, studying her little hands, her thick head of hair. I promised her there and then that I’d always do my best by her, that I’d always love her. just as I was doing this the anaesthesist came in, grinning.

‘Do you remember calling me a legend last Thursday?’ he asked. ‘I recorded it in case you don’t!’ He checked my stitches, which were healing  nicely. ‘So are you off today? There’s no reason why you can’t. You’re recovering well.’ My heart soared. The ward manager agreed.

‘You’re doing really well,’ she said, ‘and we need your bed. What time is your husband coming in?’

‘Ah, soon,’ I said, packing my belongings. ‘Can’t wait to go home!’ But I was nervous too. I’d never handled a newborn baby before, and here I was, her primary caregiver, and like so many first-time mums I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

The trouble was that I wasn’t like other first time mums.

I was just after feeding Ali when the head midwife came in. ‘I’m going home today, aren’t I?’ I said excitedly, gesturing at the half –packed suitcases on my bed. The midwife smiled, her lips pursed and shook her head.

‘Not today,’ she said. ‘You see, we have… concerns that you might be a danger to your baby, that you might drop or hurt her. What we’ll have to do is ring your social worker, your public health nurse and the Centre for Independent Living again and just verify what supports you’ll be getting, see if they think you’re ready to go home.’

‘But I’ve already done all that,’ I cried, my words an indecipherable screech. ‘Everything’s organised. I spent my whole pregnancy getting everything ready. How can you say we’re not ready? I can’t believe this is happening…’

The midwife shook her head. ‘I can’t understand what you are saying,’ she said. ‘Can you take out your phone and text out what you’re saying, like we agreed last week?’

Tears fell out of my eyes as I looked at the perfect sleeping baby beside me. I could hurt you, I thought to myself. I shook my head dismissively and instead rang John Paul, not letting Alison out of my sight for a second.

‘You have to take her,’ I sobbed down the phone. ‘There’s no point. They won’t let me take her home. You take her, you look after her. I’m obviously the problem, so you take her.’

A startled and breathless John Paul burst into the hospital room fifteen minutes later. ‘All right?’ he said casually, looking at the nurse. ‘Sarah said that you won’t let us home with Alison…’

‘Oh no, that’s not what we said at all,’ the midwife gushed. ‘We merely wanted to make sure that you two would be fully supported when you got home. So the Public Health Nurse will be out to ye every morning…’ I waited for John  Paul to protest angrily, but he remained calm. ‘And she’ll be a great help, no doubt. We’ve also ordered Sarah a cloth sling which she can use to carry Alison in her wheelchair. It’s sixty euro, so…’

‘I’ll get that,’ John Paul said confidently, although I knew by his reaction  he’d no idea where it’d come from. ‘And all going well, we’re going home tomorrow?’

‘Of course,’ the midwife said, although I felt like a royal idiot at this stage.

Getting home, away from the maternity hospital, felt surreal. We arrived at our house where my P.A. had decorated the house with ‘It’s a girl’ signs. Our family was waiting inside, armed with presents for me and Alison. There was even lasagne, and cake from friends. It was lovely. But I still felt like crap, as if I’d escaped from prison and that at any minute the midwife would come and try to take me back.

And so I began the journey of motherhood constantly feeling like an imposter. As those early days wore on, I began to feel tired. The physical effort of breastfeeding took its toll, but I persevered nonetheless, determined to do it. It took me forty-five minutes to do a nappy change and outfit change, and the fact that Alison had reflux and spewed during each nappy change didn’t make the process any faster.

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My aunt informed me that now that Ali was born, I would always chart life events through the life of my child.

Alison was eight weeks old when I started to feel odd. I wouldn’t say miserable, and I didn’t think I was depressed. But I definitely didn’t feel like myself. I put it down to exhaustion, physical and emotional, as well as recovering from, as my aunt put it, major surgery.

One night, when John Paul was at work, I sat looking at  Alison in her buggy. She was crying frantically and I was bent over her, ready to pick her up. Suddenly I felt light-headed and the room started spinning. All I could see was Alison’s head smashing against the floor, blood splattering everywhere. They were right, I thought with trepidation, I can’t do this. I’m going to hurt her. I phoned my friend, and when she arrived I was holding Alison in my arms, shaking with the relief that she was okay, and that I hadn’t hurt her.

But one day I will, I thought, and they will take her off me for sure. It’s only a matter of time.

I say ‘one night,’ but in truth, there were many, many nights like this. And if it weren’t for this friend, I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog right now. She saved me from myself more times than I can count.

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As part of my bail conditions, the Public Health Nurse came nearly every day, for nearly six months. We would try to look together, calm, pretend to know what we were doing. However, Alison had severe reflux which gave the Public Health Nurse the perfect excuse to drop by, sometimes twice a day, often unexpectedly, to weigh her. The house could be a tip. I could be wrapped in my purple and white bathrobe, curdled milk encrusted in my hair. To this day I firmly believe that Ali picked up on my nervousness, which in turn exacerbated her reflux to the point where she was throwing up whole feeds. She also had colic, but that was nothing compared to the pressure I felt to show people that I was able, capable.

‘Do you think it’s a cow’s milk allergy?’ I asked one day, as my heart ripped in two watching Ali spew another feed over yet another newly changed outfit. The Public Health Nurse smiled and waved her hand dismissively.

‘I doubt it,’ she said. ‘Do you know how rare that is?’

By Friday of that week, I’d had enough of this shit and brought Ali to the doctor, demanding a letter for the A&E in Mullingar, that I wasn’t going to be fobbed off any longer. It was the June Bank Holiday of 2012 and the hottest weekend of the year. We spent it in Mullingar hospital where the doctor finally prescribed Ali Nutramigen, a soya-based formula. I felt like kissing his feet in gratitude. Between the Saturday and the Monday Ali gained four hundred grammes and the heart-wrenching colic dissipated instantly. The colour came back to her face  and she became a happy baby, full of chat and smiles.

‘You see?’ my husband said as we came home from the hospital. ‘You are a good mother. You know exactly what you’re doing.’

I closed my eyes tightly and desperately wished it were true.

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I went back to work in August 2012, for fifteen hours a week. Fifteen hours a week filled with anxiety, wondering how she was. Fifteen hours a week that I had to hand her over to someone else. Some days I would look forward to the break, until Alison left the office with the childminder. I knew I couldn’t have it both ways, but it was still so hard. It’s something I still struggle with, but I suppose every mother does, to some degree.

It was around this time that a horrible, mean voice moved into my headspace, and I was feeling too low and vulnerable to tell it to fuck off. Whoever this voice was, he/she/it was intent on destroying me. It was the voice that told me that I was going to drop Alison whenever I picked her up. The same voice told me that Alison was not safe in my care, that she would resent me as she got older because I wasn’t a normal mum. If I spilled something or knocked something over, the voice would never fail to criticise.

Alison turned one on 9th February 2013, and I’ve never felt relief like it before or since. Relief that I hadn’t caused her any serious harm or injury. Relief that she was home with us, celebrating her birthday in the company of friends and family. Relief that the first year was over. But I also felt anger. Angry that I had lost so much enjoyment with her because I was constantly worried about what others thought of me and my parenting skills. Angry that I would never be good enough for this little girl, no matter how hard I tried.

As Ali bent over her birthday cake and grabbed the flame, burning her little hand, I burst into floods of tears in front of my friends and family.

‘Don’t worry,’ my dad said, hugging me tightly. ‘Her hand is fine. She didn’t burn it too badly.’ I looked up at him and smiled, relieved that he didn’t know the real reason for my tears. Ali hadn’t been afraid to grasp that candle; she’d been strong and fearless. I’d felt that way too when I was pregnant. Now, all I felt was constantly afraid and so, so useless.

And my biggest fear was that somebody would guess how I was feeling, and threaten to take my little girl away from me. So I stayed silent, plastered on a smile and threw myself into the monotony of work and my daily routine.

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I started to have thoughts of suicide, as they say, when Ali was eighteen months.

I’d no intentions of going through with anything, but I had it all carefully plotted out in my head, just as a back-up plan. Knowing it was there made me feel safe, happy even. (Don’t worry, there is no backup plan now. If there was there would be no way that I would even mention it on a blog).

John Paul and I would have a row, and I would storm out of the house, vowing never to come back. Sometimes I would take pills with me. Sometimes I would storm out and walk around for hours. I would come back. John Paul would say that I needed help, but we would both agree that we could not live under the scrutiny of nurses and social workers again.

He was tired, as was I. tired, and alone. So, so alone.

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We moved house in 2014, to a bigger house with a lovely garden and lots of storage. And, it seemed, mirrors everywhere. We had no mirrors in the last house we’d rented and I found it difficult to deal with seeing my inadequate self everywhere I looked.

It was a tough year. My nephew died at thirty-four weeks gestation, which really affected me, having had my own baby just two years beforehand. I was grateful that Ali’s birth had been so straightforward, but also felt guilty because Kaleb’s should have been too.

Ali started crèche, which meant she was sick every week with one thing or another. It was an exhausting, sleep-deprived time. John Paul and I would stay up with Ali at night, then head into work the next day, frustrated when we weren’t able to function properly. And the voices spoke louder than ever, telling me I was useless, inadequate, nothing but a waste of space. I was constantly tired to the point where I myself was sick all the time.

One day I went to the doctor’s with swollen glands. I had had a tummy bug the week before, which had wiped me out completely. I sat in her surgery, answering the routine questions.

‘I can’t go on like this,’ I said. ‘I’m sick nearly every week, and I’m constantly tired.  I’m taking my iron. What the hell is wrong with me?’

‘That’s what having a baby does to you, I’m afraid,’ the doctor smiled. ‘Unless – well, how are you feeling in yourself?’

I stiffened. ‘I feel grand, great. Why?’

‘Sometimes physical symptoms can point to an underlying emotional problem,’ she said. ‘Has anything particularly stressful happened over the last while?’

‘Well, we moved house, and my nephew died this year,’ I explained. The doctor nodded.

‘That’s probably what’s causing it,’ she said. ‘Just try and take it easy.’

As I left the surgery, I thought of how one of my college friends had recently sought help for postnatal depression and how she had bravely posted about the whole experience on Facebook. And I remember reading it and thinking oh, if only I could be so brave. So strong. So honest with others, and with myself.

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By July 2014, I was exhausted. I was ringing in sick at least once a week, and producing no work whatsoever in the office. All I could do was stare mindlessly at the screen, scrolling through random Independent Living sites, taking nothing in.

And I hated myself for this lack of productivity. (You’re nothing but a waste of space)

I would come home in the evenings, and spend time with my lovely daughter, playing on the floor with her, silent tears running down my face from the pains that radiated from every fibre of my body. (You will never be good enough for her)

I wanted my house to be perfect, my daughter to be perfect. But how could that be when I wasn’t perfect? When I looked in the mirror, all that I saw was a deformed nobody, an imposter waiting to be exposed. I was a terrible wife and mother, and I was convinced that the two people I loved more than anything in the world deserved better.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ my husband asked, his face shocked. It was half one in the morning, at the end of July and I had been in bed. Now I was awake, looking at him from the doorframe of the sitting room, fully dressed under my bathrobe. And all I saw was mess. In reality, it was a couple of dirty dishes, but it might as well have been thousands of dirty dishes; I hadn’t the energy to deal with them. If only someone had given me the memo that a couple of dishes wouldn’t signal the end of the world, but there and then, I couldn’t deal with it.

I couldn’t deal with anything.

‘I’m off,’ I screamed, jumping into my wheelchair. ‘And you can go and fuck yourself for all I care. I won’t be back. I mean it this time.’ John Paul tried to stop me but I tore out past him and headed out into the darkness. I didn’t know where to go so I wandered around aimlessly for hours, watching the cloudy sky gradually become brighter. The grey haze enveloped me as I sat beside the canal, and cried, and cried and cried.

Later that morning, I went into work, sitting mindlessly in front of my laptop. After about an hour two of my colleagues collared me.

‘You look dreadful,’ said one, surveying my dark circles. ‘Something has to give. You can’t go on like this.’

‘You need a break,’ agreed the other. ‘Before you crack up.’

My initial reaction was oh shit, I’m going to lose my job, but they were right. I couldn’t go on like that. We agreed that two months off work should help me to feel like my normal self.

Within two weeks of being off work, I felt more like myself again. which was odd, because I thought that I would hate it. I absolutely loved being home with Alison, and getting to know her better.

And then, I started writing again.

It began as a few words here and there in an empty Word document. As the weeks wore on, I began to write out the thoughts in my head, and they didn’t look as stupid as they sounded in my mind. I wrote exactly how I felt, staring at the words until I smiled. This was how I felt. And as I explained in a previous blog, I began to understand why I’d felt so shit; so many things had happened that I’d repressed, including the death of my mother and the way I’d been treated after Ali was born. I started to blog about them and it made me feel happy and peaceful in a way I hadn’t felt in years.

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I didn’t write this very long preamble because I want sympathy. I wrote it so that I can say that that horrible part of my life is over. I’ve never been happier, although loving myself is going to take a bit longer. I still have bad days, but everyone has; none of us are perfect. The main reason I’ve written this, however, is because it breaks my heart to think that there might be other women out there, suffering as I did, afraid as I was to speak out and ask for help. I know it’s easy to say this now, but there is no shame in having PND. It’s an illness, a horrible, horrible illness, and nobody should have to wrestle with it alone. And if you’re reading this and can relate to any of the above,  please ask for help. I’ve heard that there are so many great counselling services out there and I’ve read and heard so many success stories. Don’t hold off – just do it. You are worth so much to so many people.

Most of all, you owe it to yourself. Because despite what those head demons are constantly trying to tell you, you’re actually pretty damn fantastic. You really are.

How writing saved my life

It’s on days like today, when the house is quiet except for the squeaking of my swivel chair and the hum of the washing machine that I wonder whether it was such a marvellous idea after all to hand in my notice and quit a job where, if I’m honest, would’ve kept me forever as long as I did my job and didn’t cause too much trouble.

And, to be fair, it wasn’t a bad auld job either. I did a bimonthly newsletter. I loved working directly with our clients. I did booklets, a film documentary, a fashion show, even a twenty year celebration event. By the end  of it I was left wondering what else I could do. I was out of ideas, and I didn’t want to waste their time and my own plundering along with nothing to show for it. Not good for the company, or my ego.

Indeed, they say that a lot of the reason that people write is for a good ego massage, and being honest that’s true. There’s nothing that makes me smile more (apart from my husband and daughter, of course) than seeing nice comments under my blog or the likes flying in on Facebook and Twitter. (Yes, everyone,  there’s a subtle hint in there somewhere – can you find it? I need your approval as much as I need oxygen)

But writing can also be therapeutic. It can help a writer make sense of himself/herself and his place in the world. It’s often a medium through which thoughts can be transferred through the safety of a piece of paper or computer screen, without having to face people, without the (immediate in my case) fear of being misunderstood.

I wrote here before in a blog called ‘Facing my Demons’ (9 December 2014) about the agonising time we had after having Alison, about how we were closely scrutinised, how we felt alone  and how we could tell no-one how we felt or what we were going through. Unfortunately, this contributed to me developing Post-Natal Depression. Feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, hopelessness? Definite signs of PND. Did I go to the doctor? No. Tell anyone the full truth of how I was feeling? No. That would’ve been the sensible thing to do, wouldn’t it? The fact was that I didn’t know how exactly to describe these feelings when I didn’t understand them myself. After flying off the handle one night, and leaving home, vowing never to come home again, I realised that I needed help. But I’d had counselling before, several times, and the experiences were largely negative. I didn’t feel I could go and tell a stranger my innermost fears. They would judge me, maybe think that I was an unfit parent.

Instead, I took two months off work, and within a week I was already starting to get bored. So I took out my laptop and starting typing out the first thing that popped into my head, much the same as I did when I started writing at the age of seven. No filters, no censoring myself. The words just flew out, like long-term imprisoned dragons celebrating their freedom. Seeing how I felt in black-and-white in front of me made me feel complete. This was me, and how I felt. It wasn’t disgusting, it wasn’t abnormal – in fact it was normal and understandable. Taking ownership of those words made me feel like myself again. When I started the exercise, I thought that I had reached thirty without achieving anything much, but when I read back how I’d been to college, held down a job, got married, had a daughter, lost my mum, been terrorised out of Portlaoise, a lot of things began to make sense, and I started to truly understand who I was and how much I meant to my daughter and husband, and my family and friends.

I’ve been out of ‘official’ work for a year now, and like every mother up and down the country I’m racked with guilt. You feel guilty if you are working, and feel guilty if you aren’t – you can’t bloody win, can you? (Well, I am working, I’m writing a novel. If you’ve seen the Family Guy sketches where Stewie asks Brian how his novel is going, you might appreciate how it feels to be me on a daily basis.) But I am happy. I’m determined to make a writing career for myself. And I have to stop comparing myself to others and instead remind myself that I’ll get there in my own time, and also tell myself that I’ll get another job, at some stage.

For now, however, my main job is to stay well and to be the best mum I can be to that beautiful rascal of mine. And it’s a job that I love and that I take more seriously than any other job I’ve ever had.

Enough is enough

I’ve decided to take a career break from work. Six months, to be exact. It’s something that I’d been toying with for a while but couldn’t quite bring myself to do. I work in the area of Independent Living and I’m passionate about the rights of people with disabilities. I love working with my fellow leaders. But I also love writing, and I want to have more time with my daughter, so I’m off. And it is blooming scary, I tell you. Not only because I’m not bringing in a wage, but because I’ve always worked, it’s a crucial part of my identity.

That said, I will never regret all of the time I’m enjoying with my daughter, who is now three-and-a-half and great fun to be around. She’s energetic, imaginative, cheeky, and growing up all too fast. I admit that there was a time when depression clouded my time with Ali; everything seemed hard, an effort; I didn’t think that I was enough for her. But now that I feel more like my old bubbly self again I intend to enjoy every second with her.

Since Alison was born, I’d always been afraid that I’d never be good enough for her. I was overly conscious of how I was perceived as a parent with a disability. I worried that Ali would resent me for having her, that I would become a burden on her. I’m not at all afraid of this now. Today, Ali and I walked to the shop alone together for the first time, me in the wheelchair holding her hand, her on the inside of the path. It was the best feeling in the world, because heretofore I wouldn’t have trusted myself to do this. I am finally starting to see myself through my own eyes again, not through the eyes of others.

It’s amazing how we expect so much of ourselves, but we never step back to admire what we have done. We don’t have time, we are too busy, it’s not enough. For example, I told myself that I would be an established journalist with my first novel written by the time I was thirty. I wanted to be fit and able to walk everywhere unaided so that I could keep up with Ali. Since turning thirty, I’ve been bitterly disappointed in myself that I’ve done neither of these things. It was more than disappointment, it was pure disgust, self-abhorrence. It sounds dramatic, but for months I could barely look at myself in the mirror without this disappointment washing over me.

Recently, however, something changed. And for all the things I teach my daughter on a daily basis, a month ago, she taught me the most important lesson of all.

It was evening-time. Ali and I were watching telly and I said to her, ‘I love you,’ to which she replied, ‘ I love you too mummy’. I thought for a moment. Lately, I’d been feeling grossly inadequate: I’d been in too much pain to play football, too tired to play chasing and I’d say she would have baulked at the sight of another defrosted spag-bol, cooked in bulk about a week before. ‘Ali,’ I said, ‘how would you like a new mummy?’

Ali was intrigued. ‘A new mummy? Is she nice? Who is it?’

I replied, ‘I don’t know yet. But this mummy would be super cool and play football and basketball and chasing and tie up your hair and do your buttons and go for walks. Well, what do you think?’

Ali shook her head and looked at me, placing her small hand gently on my shoulder. ‘I don’t want a new mummy. I just want you.’

Pathetic that I should need such reassurance from a three year old, but little does she know that those four words, ‘I just want you’, have changed my life so dramatically. Physically, the aches and pains seem to have faded significantly. I have more energy and a new positive outlook on life. I feel I can do anything because this little person looks up to me. I just want you.

And being so happy has made me realise that my fantastic husband is still my best friend. He has been incredibly supportive and just wants to see me happy. He is more than happy to see me tapping away on the laptop, trying to come up with literary masterpieces. He never tells me that I am crazy or deluded, though I am probably both!

From an early age, we are encouraged to compete against each other. In school, we are encouraged to study hard in order to be the best. Even under-tens partake in handwriting competitions, poetry competitions and art competitions, we have sports competitions. When we are eighteen, we sit the most competitive exam invented, the Leaving Cert, in order to get high points, to be accepted into a course so that we can pursue a challenging career. We push ourselves to be the best employees, the best friends, the best partners, the best parents, often to the detriment of our physical and emotional health.

And now, I’m saying enough, or more specifically, that I believe that I am enough. I will still give my all to everything I do, but I won’t be beating myself up if I don’t succeed. Today, at least, I feel happy and free, and if my daughter and husband still love me in spite of the self-berating and toing and froing I’ve been doing over the last few years, then I must be doing something right.

Just a date

It’s funny how the human mind can make associations, how a chill in the air or a familiar smell can wash over you and bring you back to a time and place that you thought you’d never have the good fortune/grave misfortune of experiencing again. For example, when I see my own breath fog up against the black sky for the first time every October, I know that Halloween is just around the corner, with Christmas nipping furiously at its heels. I know as I chomp on a contraband Easter egg after Alison has gone to bed at night that the slight red tinge in the sky is signalling the arrival of summer. I smell the barbecues, the freshly mown grass, the faint titter of laughter wafting gently through our windows.

And despite the improvement in the weather (well, normally. At the moment it is freeeeezing), I begin to feel cold, heavy, wary. Sometimes I feel sick with restlessness and anxiety as memories, good and bad, swoop in and strangle me until I can’t breathe. May used to be my favourite month of the year, and in many ways, it still is. For me, May signifies the beginning of the end of school and college. It reminds me of a photo that was taken of my brother and I when I was five, celebrating my brother’s ninth birthday on 18 May, just me and him, with an icecream log. Mum wasn’t there because she was recovering from her c-section; my sister had been born almost a fortnight beforehand, on 7 May 1989.

Exactly twenty years later mum closed her eyes for the last time.

I’m sure that it’s an absolute bitch for my sister to have to share her special day so selflessly. I’m sure that no-one wants to sit around moping on their birthday, getting all maudlin about the past. Birthdays should be happy days. Personally, though, I’ve always found birthdays to be a bit of an anti-climax (apart from my 21st when John Paul proposed in front of my family and friends. That was an awesome birthday), to the point where I would actually rather if the day came and went without being marked or acknowledged at all.

And for years I felt the same about my mum’s anniversary, which I try in vain to separate from my beloved sister’s birthday. Can the two be separated? It’s a struggle every year to experience such happiness and sadness at once. How have I managed it? Trying to pretend that the anniversary didn’t bother me, that’s how! Oh so it’s mum’s anniversary today? Well, she was dead yesterday and she’ll still be dead tomorrow, so what difference does a date make? It’s Laura’s birthday, let’s not forget that!

Trying to deny the sadness didn’t work for me in the long run, and last year five years of suppressed emotions hit me suddenly like a freight train. I had to take a considerable length of time off work to feel normal again. Note to the readers: don’t bottle up your emotions. They will come back when you least expect and bite you on the ass. Hard.

For the first couple of years after mum died, I went through the motions. For the first anniversary, I insisted on holding lunch in our house after the anniversary mass for all my relatives so that I didn’t have to face my emotions. It worked; I was so busy in the lead up to the event that I barely had time to think. The second anniversary, I stood beside the grave with my aunt, husband, sisters and brother, then proceeded to go out that night and get wasted (in the name of celebrating Laura’s birthday of course). By the third anniversary, I had an almost three month old baby with terrible reflux and I spent the whole day crying because I felt like an inadequate mother. I had been so hard on my mother and yet, she managed to raise four of us. At that stage, I was seriously debating whether I had it in me to raise one.

Yet somehow mum was there, guiding me. Some days, it just wasn’t enough. I needed to hear her voice. I longed for the opportunity to ridicule her childraising advice. I wanted her to tell me I was doing something wrong, nagging me to the point where I’d lose it and ban her from seeing her only grandchild. I needed her to remind me that I was not alone. And she did, in her own way. I managed to push past the fear and the preconceptions I had of myself, and do the very best for my child, the way my mum did for me.

This year, I will try to embrace the date and try not to suppress my emotions. I promise to allow myself to feel the dread, the sadness, the emptiness. I will grieve for what we lost, as well as what we could’ve had. Most importantly, I will remember that the 7 May is a day of happiness and celebration, and acknowledge that people enter and leave our lives in the strangest of ways. And even though this day is tough, simply because of a date on a calendar, I will be thankful for the fact that I had such a wonderful mother who gave us a sibling who is intelligent, beautiful and loving. (Laura, I can hear your head exploding from here).

For me personally, 7 May will always be a strong reminder that good things happen, and bad things happen, and after they do, all that is left are memories, both beautiful and terrifying.

Rest in peace Mum, and thank you for bringing Laura into all of our lives. I think of you and miss you every single day. And happy birthday sis, make sure you fill your special day with lots of wonderful memories. xxxx

Why I’m writing again

It would be incredibly pretentious of me, having started writing again only four months ago, to say that I would love to write full time. I’m certainly no JK Rowling or Marian Keyes or Cecelia Ahern. Yet, the more time I spend with my ridiculous thoughts, the more I find myself leaking them onto this page and, more specifically, this blog. And the more I feel that, Yes, this is what I want to do.

From a very early age, I have been acquainted with the written word. My mother, fearing that I would not be accepted into the local mainstream school, taught me to read at the age of three. I was reading before I was potty-trained at the ripe old age of five. When I was in Junior Infants, I had already read all of the class readers. I was bored, which the teacher was not expecting.

I have always been encouraged to write. At a basic level, I was given an electric typewriter at school, and it was through using it that I communicated my basic human needs, such as the need to go to the toilet. I had to type out all the answers to the teacher’s questions, as my speech was on a par with someone who was heavily inebriated. I remember, even at this age, thinking how degrading it was. As far as I was (and still am) concerned, I can talk, I do my best to be understood. It’s up to those to whom I’m talking to, to make an effort to listen.

Even now, however, this doesn’t always work in practice.

When we were making the RTE Documentary, ‘Somebody to Love’, I made it quite clear that my speech was the only part of my disability that I would change, because I feel that people tend to link my slurred, incoherent speech with my cognitive ability. For example, if I have to make a phone call to someone I don’t know, they tend to ask me to put my parents on the phone, or they hang up on me. ‘Call back when you’re sober’, ‘Is there anyone there with you’? ‘Listen, I’m hanging up because I don’t understand what you’re saying,’ are pretty standard responses when I call somebody who doesn’t know me. I dread phone calls, and firmly believe that every single person on the planet should have email or text. So. Much. Easier.

It’s been twenty-five years since I started primary school, and a lot has changed since then. I use a laptop instead of a typewriter, and I can make myself understood when needs be. I’m a wife and a mother; instead of being a dependent, I’m heavily depended upon. I’ve a degree in Trinity and relatively good experience of the working world. Yet, I’m still perceived by (some) people who don’t know me as a victim of unfortunate circumstances, who will never enjoy a decent quality of life; who is in some way inferior or lacking.  I endure the staring, the tutting, the ‘isn’t it terrible, the poor pet’, because to verbally object would be futile, like throwing petrol on a roaring fire.

And this is why I’ve started writing again. Admittedly, it would be a bonus if, one day, it became a way for me to put food on the table. For now, I’m just happy that the writer’s block is gone and I’m able to write once more, knowing that at least my words will be understood, even if I’ve nothing of importance to say.