Valentines Day…Love it or hate it that bad boy is going nowhere.

Before I start waffling on about the beauty of Valentines Day, how it ignites and fuels the love struck but reminds the unlucky in love that life does indeed suck; that for one day and one day only, you are allowed to wallow in your own self pity and isolated despair, because remember…you are the only person on the planet that feels your level of broken hearted turmoil…

Did I just do exactly what I said was not going to do?  Well, whatever you feel about Valentines Day, it’s all relative and it’s all valid.  Not convinced?  Let me tell you a story.

I spent thirty-one years surrounded by people who worshipped the very concept of Valentines Day.  I didn’t.  Year after year the concept of that day became increasingly difficult to navigate and if I managed to come out of the other side somewhat unscathed, it was an improvement on the previous year.

From birth (I guess), I believed that it was the guy who was supposed to express his affection for the girl.  I believed that if a boy sent me a Valentines card with a terrible…

“Roses are red…”

…poem inside, then it was the real thing.

All the way through primary school the same kids were kissing the same kids regardless of the fact they probably couldn’t actually spell the word “Valentines”.

The girls got roses, the boys got a Wispa chocolate bar and I got…well, nothing.

Taking in to consideration my chronic constipation was in action from a very young age, I got my first spot on my chin when I was ten and back in the 80’s kids didn’t really mess around with concealer like they seem to these days, so there was no disguising the monstrous volcano that went from red to yellow to just plain gross!  So I understood why a boy didn’t want to send me a card or write me a poem.

In 1993 when I started high school, that’s when the fun really started.  I got more constipation so I got more acne.  I know it sounds strange and I only gained this knowledge just before I had surgery and got my stoma in 2017.  When you poo you’re getting rid of all the toxins and bad bacteria that your body needs to get rid of.  If you can’t poo, those toxins have to go somewhere, so for me; they came out in my face!  This was no good for a teenage girl my friends, no good at all.

In my high school years when my friends were experimenting with make-up and clothes and were allowed to go into town shopping on a Saturday afternoon; I was in my bedroom, ploughing through my homework with my cassette player next to me listening to Kula Shaker and Ocean Colour Scene.  As soon as my homework was done I pulled out my notebook and took inspiration from those voices and the lyrics in the songs they were singing to make a world with words that only I had access to.  A world where I could create the same characters in school that I spent every single day with and I could choose to take away their Valentines cards, their chocolates and their roses and just give them…

…THORNS!

As every year passed it became more and more imperative that you had to kiss a boy! You had to have a boy want to kiss you and every single year, neither of those things happened.

I became the gopher.  The friend people would send to another group of friends to break the news that one person fancied the other and they wanted to go out with them.  To this day I still don’t know where they wanted to go out to, it’s a mystery.

It was a known fact, that some of the people I went to school with were the lucky recipients of multiple Valentine’s Day paraphernalia but I was always empty handed.  I was the girl who never wrote a card and was never the recipient of one but every year people would ask me…

“How many Valentines cards did you get Katerini?”

I started off by hanging my spotty head in shame and saying very quietly…

“None.”

I remember one year I had a triangle of acne spots on my forehead with one sitting extremely uncomfortably in the space between my eyebrows and a boy laughed and said…

“I’m not surprised, Cyclops.”

I don’t know exactly where that boy is now but I’m pretty certain he’s not a comedian.

I lived my life through music.  I believed that listening to one song first thing in the morning as I put my school uniform, on would dictate how I lived the hours of my day until I could take it off again. 

I must have been about fourteen when I discovered a band called Ruth.  They did one album, Harrison, I was madly in love with the lead singer, of course, and when I heard their song “Valentines Day” where the latter of the lyrics were…

Ruth

“Stay out of my way, on Valentines Day.

Stay out of my way, and you’ll be okay…”

Well, it became my anthem.  Every year I would play that song and throughout the day I would sing those words in my head, strongly believing that the more I sang them, the more I believed them to be true.

I was bullied pretty much all year round, not just on this sacred day and I had to work out a version of self-protection that would make other people smile and keep the bullies at arm’s length.

14th February 1994…

“How many Valentines cards did you get Katerini?”

“Oh the ship’s not come in yet.  There were too many to load on to it so it’s due tomorrow along with all of my flowers and chocolates.”

Happy Valentines Day Katerini

Believe it or not that bought me freedom from the bullies, some of them didn’t know what to do with it to such an extent they backed off and I had the rest of the day to work out what to say next year.

From that moment on I used my creative mind to come up with the most ridiculous romantic scenarios as I could in the hope that people would think I didn’t care about the 14th February.

14th February 1995

“Oh, Crispian’s on tour at the minute with his band, Kula Shaker.  He called me last night and said he’s got me a card and a present but the post in Japan is really slow.”

Crispian Mills

14th February 1996

“Crispian’s on tour again.  He called me last night and asked my mum if I can go on tour and he’ll pay for everything because he really likes me.”

14th February 1997

“Yeah me and Crisp split, we’re still friends but I’ve got a new boyfriend now.  His name’s Scott James, he’s the lead singer in The Montrose Avenue.”

Scott James

14th February 1998

“Simon (lead singer from Ocean Colour Scene) sent me something in the post but it’s still on the way.  It’s coming by carrier pigeon but he said it’s really special.”

Simon Fowler

Silly stories made me feel better.  They made life feel easier, as if there was another world out there for me, an alternative existence where I was accepted as myself by the most creative and alternative people.

As I got older it was more difficult to pass those humorous stories off and I just looked strange.  I became a twenty-something trying to put myself in a world that didn’t exist.  I became the twenty-something whose mental illness spiralled when on the 14th February my letter box produced nothing but a hospital appointment or a writer’s magazine containing articles on how to write a successful love story!

I went through all of my teens with no sign of a love poem.  Even in my twenties the very short-lived relationships I had didn’t fall on Valentines Day so there were no chocolates and definitely no flowers on my doorstep.

I spent so long grieving over why I wasn’t the recipient of a ginormous heart shaped red card and a box of cheap chocolates that I never actually asked myself what Valentines Day looked like for me?  What did I want?  Did I want chocolates?  Did I want rose petals and candles?  Was I prepared for someone to write a writer a poem?  Could I even write one myself when I still struggle with the definition of a Limerick never mind harbour the ability to create one. 

The truth is, I had no idea what I wanted because I’d always been so focused on the things I didn’t have. 

When I met Matt I was thirty-one.  I’d given up on Valentines anything so ten years ago when he asked what I wanted to do for Valentines Day I said…

“All I really want is a card, because I’ve never had one.”

Two spring chickens

Well, I got my card, and I got chocolates that he still points out I didn’t eat, but in my defence, I can’t eat something that is in the shape of a heart and says “I love you” on it.  If I ate that, there’s no evidence of that ever being true.

Ten years later, every year I get my card.  Every year I get a little present. And every year people ask…

“What did you do for Valentines Day Katerini?”

And every year I say…

“Not much, I just wanted a card.”

This year I had a really rotten start to the week.  For three and a half months I have managed to swerve a Diversion Colitis flare up.  I have been able to serve up a Christmas dinner, do three presentations and make the journey up to Dundee without it getting a look in.  Until now…

Diversion Colitis is a nasty infection in your colon that around 90% of people who have an Ostomy and keep their colon will be the lucky sufferers of.  It’s a grim process and I cannot express how painful this one has been, but I’ll try.

It’s been agony.  To the point where the pain made me vomit, and I haven’t been sick for seven years so this was not a pleasant experience.  At one point I was lying on my bathroom floor, wiping my vomit-stained mouth with coconut scented toilet paper thinking…

“I’m never eating another Peparami ever again.”

And also…

“This might need a trip to A&E…but I have no idea how to move from my bathroom floor.”

Rest assured people, there was no visit to A&E this time, it was a close call but we managed to swerve that too.

I had three days in bed and went back to work on Valentines Day.  To cheer me up Matt gave me my Valentines card the night before.  Now Matt’s known in his family for his inappropriate card choosing skills and he’s not cottoned on to the fact that when he laughs at the cards he buys, he laughs alone.  Ten years ago I said to him…

“If you ever get me a stupid card, we’re done.”

Ten years later that threat still stands, and I have not received a stupid card.

Valentines Day night I had to go to Manchester to co-facilitate the Bipolar group, because just like romance, Bipolar can be unpredictable.  I felt rubbish, all I’d eaten in twenty-four hours was a chicken Cup a Soup and a tin of chocolate Nurishment, but, while being stuck in traffic with mum I got a text message from Matt that said…

“Keep yourself free Friday night.  I’ve booked that wrestling thing you fancied.”

Okay, so hold that thought…

As a teen, I was a lot of things.  I was a geek, a nerd, a swot, an indie kid, a music lover, an actress, and a writer.  I was not a wrestler.  But… I did like watching it.  I liked watching the crazy characters dressed in anything from spandex and tutu’s to chains and hooded capes. 

I would watch WWE and WWF and make up the stories of who those characters were and how they came to be fighting in a ring.  I even created my own wrestling club where I was the ringleader and the peacekeeper of all involved.  My members were troubled kids who needed guidance and I was the only person who could give it.  Sorry reader, but it never made it to the page.

I had never heard of Bolton Town Wrestling until Matt spotted a poster outside his work and joked about taking me.  Little did he know that he’d married a wrestling fan!  I am just so full of surprises!

At work I opened up every single conversation I had with people with the words…

“Ask me what I got for Valentines Day.”

“What did you get for Valentines Day?”

“Tickets!”

“Tickets for what?”

“WRESTLING!!”

To say people were a little bit surprised is an understatement.  A couple of people even said…

“Oh I’m so sorry.  Why would your husband take you somewhere like that for Valentines Day?”

Imagine those expressions when I told them it was the best Valentines present that I have ever had.  Seriously, Bolton Town Wrestling!  Guys! I am forty-one years old, where were you when I was fourteen?!

Bolton Town Wrestling – Love Hurts

I smiled as soon as we walked through the doors of the recreation centre.  There were families, there were couples, there were community groups, a raffle!  There was a merchandise stall and massive ring in the centre of the room, Tyson Fury eat your heart out mate, Bolton Town Wrestling is where it’s at!

I am not a violent person, for me it’s about the stories.  It’s about the atmosphere, it’s about a group of people forgetting who they are for a few minutes and becoming someone else entirely and making people smile.

As I watched the people bouncing around the ring covered in face paint wearing tiny shorts, I finally realised what Valentines Day looks like for me.

It’s not about chocolates and rose petals.  I don’t want a posh meal in a snazzy restaurant.  I don’t need violins or teddy bears holding heart shaped “I love you” pillows.

No thank you…

I want a card, that goes without saying.  I want to be in a room with the person I love looking at something that makes us both smile. I want to laugh, and I want to close my eyes at night and feel grateful for someone who knows me and does something for me that no matter how big or small it might be, they do that thing because they are happy and proud to be with me, not just because they feel they have to.  That’s what I want and I am thankful that this is what I have.

Okay so I may not be gorgeous, but at least I’m not a Cyclops anymore…

I have never been normal and even now, at the age of forty-one I am still discovering who I am and realising that there is no shame in being different.  There is nothing wrong with liking music no one else does.  It doesn’t matter if you have to make up stories to keep yourself safe because trust me…

Valentines Day 2024 may not have been your average Valentines Day, but…

…some things are worth the wait…

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Reading time: 13 min

When you have an illness, of any kind; it can be a lonely and isolating world.  You’re trapped inside your body and your mind and there’s very little you can do to separate yourself from that.

When you have an illness you’re reminded every time you look into the mirror that there’s something wrong with you.

When you have a mental illness, every time you look into the mirror it’s an introduction to how you’re doing that day.

It’s been ten years since I made the decision to try my hand at public speaking.  In 2014 I couldn’t even read a menu out loud never mind stand up in front of a group of people and talk about my mental health journey. 

Most people I talk to say the thought of public speaking terrifies them, and once upon a time, I would have agreed with them.

Over the years people have asked me…

“…Why? Why would you do such a scary thing to yourself…by choice?!”

My answer is simple…

“Why not?”

When I’m asked why I wanted to become a public speaker, I don’t struggle to find my words.

I got tired of people saying “no” to the things I wanted to do.  I got bored of medical professionals putting the mentally ill into a box and saying…

“This person can’t do this because they’re mentally ill.”

I got frustrated with the world for allowing people to perceive the “mentally ill” as a group of people who can’t function in a society that is far from functional in the first place!

My life today is very simple.  I have not travelled the whole of the world, I have not experienced a tornado of heartache and heartbreak and throughout my 20’s and 30’s I was never ambitious when it came to my working life.  Some say I settled for a basic way of living and I probably did.  But what I would say about that is…

“At least I’m alive.”

A friend once said I should aim higher and look for a proper career.  They said…

“If someone asks you where you see yourself in five years, what would you say?”

I said…

“Alive, hopefully.”

I don’t measure success according to the five, ten, fifteen year plan others set for themselves.  I try to be grateful for what I have and if I am happy with the things that come my way, then I count that as a success.

When I started public speaking I didn’t really know where I wanted to take it or how far I could go with it.  When people ask me what I talk about and my answer is “myself” I always answer with caution because all I can see in their eyes is them thinking…

“What could you possibly have to say about yourself that anyone would want to listen to?”

Well, as it turns out, I have quite a bit to say and people seem to want to listen to it.

Before Covid I was doing multiple talks per month but after lockdown everything didn’t just slow, it came to a halt altogether.  I went from one job where people knew I had a public speaking side show, to a job where no one knew anything about me and any mention of public speaking was most probably seen as either a lie, or not worth registering because there was no current proof. 

Well now there’s proof.  This year I have gone from doing three talks in four years to three talks in one month; and it feels good to be back on that horse.

Every year since 2019 Abertay University have asked me to speak to some of their students. During Covid I spoke over MSTeams, which if you’ve used it, you’ll know it’s a better version of Zoom but still problematic.  Last year the doors of in-person speaking reopened and I had the chance to go up to Dundee again, stay in a hotel and have a little adventure.

I had three rules!  My rules were as follows…

  1. Do not get an ear infection.
  2. Do not get fibre induced acne on face.
  3. Do not have Colitis flare up.

What happened?  I hear you ask…

All flippin three! Every single one of them!  I managed to curb the ear infection and found an anti-biotic spray I’d kept since my last one, so that was that taken care of.

I imagine you’re wondering what fibre induced acne might be.  Well, I can’t digest anything with fibre in it, which is basically anything healthy.  So what did I eat prior to going to Dundee?  A lot of fibre, which then causes my face to break out into a collection of volcanoes that take days to fully erupt and weeks to clear.  I got three of them on my face!

To complete the triangle, of course my colon decided it wanted to shed the insides of itself and have me writhing in agony the night before I left for Dundee, and skating on the edge of a cliff with no toilet insight.  And trust me, when you have no working muscles to hold in the delights of a stagnant organ that never worked in the first place, needing to go to the toilet is the last thing you want to be thinking about.

Picture this… I’d paid for a first class train ticket and as I was feeling like a tired and deflated whoopie cushion, I was beyond relieved to discover I could sit next to a toilet.  That is until they cancelled the train and we were stranded at Preston to then be ushered in to a strange taxi that would take a couple of us to Glasgow.  I was fine.  I was absolutely fine… until I needed the toilet. 

I have never used Tena Lady, but at that moment I would have snatched an old lady’s hand off just for the protection.

I remember finally arriving in Dundee and waiting for my hotel room to be ready and I sat looking out at the busy streets thinking…

“I’m not having a nice time.  I’m not, I’m not having a nice time.”

Sad penguins, not having a nice time…

Rest assured, after that things did get better, and I managed to get the rest I needed before I stood in front of fifty+ people and told them a story I wasn’t sure even I wanted to listen to, never mind tell.

Fast forward a year and I received an email from the course tutor at Abertay University asking me if I would speak for a fifth time.  My immediate response was yes, obviously, but then I thought…

“Are they not bored of hearing the same story by now?”

For some reason negativity is drilled into human nature, particularly me.  Whenever something good happens I don’t just accept it and be grateful for it, I have to find something to counteract that euphoric feeling and question my right to happiness.

When you’ve had people in the past who have said…

“Why you? What makes you so special? I could do that; anyone could do that.  What do people want you for?”

It hurts, and hurt is hard to shake off when it’s easier to add fuel to the feeling of inadequacy.

It’s funny though, I never say no to a speaking opportunity; even with the memory of being stuck in a taxi for four hours with an impending explosion of brain matter that could rival the stench of a million babies nappies in a confined space, still at the forefront of my mind; I did get quite excited about going to Dundee again.

I had three rules!  My rules were as follows…

  1. Do not get an ear infection.
  2. Do not get fibre induced acne on face.
  3. Do not have a Colitis flare up.

What happened? I hear you ask…

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  I had no ear infection.  I haven’t eaten anything fibrous in about three months so my face is clear; and my colon has decided to take a break from torturing me – although I did look into the possibility of grabbing a pack of Tena Lady, just in case.

When I arrived in Dundee I had most of the afternoon and the evening to occupy myself.  The very nice man on the reception desk asked me where I’d travelled from and what I was doing and then said…

“Oh you’re here for the uni.  Are you a teacher or a professor?”

I laughed, I did, I laughed and I said…

“No but I’m doing a talk.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Mental health.” 

“So you’re teaching something then, let’s see if I can find you a nice room.”

He wasn’t kidding.  I went up to my room and opened the curtains to see the Dundee skyline and the soft waves of the sea.  That evening I pulled the armchair in the corner of the room to the window and watched the faraway lights twinkle and I thought…

“After last year, I deserve this.”

A room with a view…

The next day when I stood in front of the 45+ people doing their final year of their counselling masters degree, I thought,

“I must be doing something right.”

When they nodded their heads, when they laughed, when they looked sad or disappointed, thought,

“I must be saying something right.”

When they gave me the applause I always shy away from I thought,

“I must have done something right.”

When the class ended a few of the students queued to talk to me, to hug me and say thank you, I admit part of me was still reluctant to accept their kindness and their emotional generosity. 

Death by hot chocolate…

That afternoon as I killed time until my I had to catch my train home, I found a pancake house and had the biggest, most calorie filled, fattiest hot chocolate I could find and I thought…

Isn’t this what I wanted?  Isn’t this what I set out to do?  When I took the steps to become a public speaker, isn’t everything I have achieved over the last ten years exactly what I wanted to achieve.

I wanted to make an impact.  I wanted to prove a point.  My point being, that I could achieve something if I put my mind to it. 

As I write, this I still hear that negative voice inside my head saying…

“People will think you’re full of yourself.  They’ll think you shouldn’t be given these opportunities.  There’s someone out there who is better than you.”

And maybe that’s true.  But I don’t give into my ailments just because something uncomfortable has the potential to happen, so I won’t give up on trying to better myself because something inside me says I might not be good enough. 

The truth is, will any of us be good enough for ourselves?

Over the last few days, maybe even just the last few hours; I have learned that the only thing that really holds me back in life is myself.   It’s me who tells me I am not good enough so it’s me who is responsible for my actions.

My kind of sunset…

The morning of my talk in Dundee I sat in my hotel window with a cup tea and I looked out at the red and orange sky as it reflected off the water.  All I could hear were my slurps, but knowing how hard I have worked to get to where I am in life, despite everything that has been against me, I couldn’t help but think, I can’t teach anyone anything…

…but I can tell a story.

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Reading time: 10 min
The pretty scarf out of its cellophane

Today is Saturday 20th January 2024.

As I write this blog I am in my pyjamas, in my living room with my cat by my
side warming herself on a heated blanket.  I know, party like a rockstar
right?  Well, today I partied like a different kind of rock star.

Ten years ago, someone once said…

“Never say no to any kind of public
speaking opportunity.”

I listened to that advice, and I have never said no to any kind of speaking
opportunity.

Two years ago, the hospital chaplain walked onto the ward where I
work.  It was a week after I lost my friend to suicide and we could not
have been more different.  Ade is a Reverand and Minister of an
Evangelical church in Manchester and I have always struggled with the concept
of religion.  I am not a believer in God but I have always been a firm
believer in fate.  I believe everything happens for a reason; it’s not
always good and it’s not always fair but I also believe that people meet for a
reason.

Ade took me under his wing.  He looked after my wellbeing at a time
when I wasn’t sure what my wellbeing was supposed to look like.  Fast
forward two and a half years and last week Ade asked me to tell my story to a
hundred people at the annual conference at his church.

He said…

“It’s short notice, you can think
about it, you can say no…”

I said…

“I’ll do it.  Thank you.  If
you think I can do this, I will do it.”

He said…

“It’s an African church and 90% of the
people will be black and we wear white.”

Well, the only thing I have that’s white is my wedding dress and a scarf a
friend bought me that never made it out of the cellophane because it’s too
pretty.  I figured my wedding dress might not be appropriate so my pretty
scarf made it out of the cellophane to cover my hair.

Now I am not experienced when it comes to church attendance.  I can
probably count on one hand how many times I’ve been to a Greek church and any
other kind of church was probably for someone else’s wedding.  You can
probably imagine I was a little fish flapping away outside of the bowl
containing the water I needed to be in.

I had no idea what to expect.  Two of my favourite people came with me
in the form of mum and Matt and as I write this I have to tell you, I have
never been more grateful to them for being there than I was today, not simply
because I had people there, but trust me, when I walked through the doors of
that church I was instantly emotional.  I kid you not, the welcome we
received gave a whole new meaning to the word…

“…wholesome.”

We were embraced, we were greeted with smiles and warmth and it was
beautiful!

No one looked at us strangely.  We were the only three people who
weren’t African, and you know what?  It didn’t matter. 

We took our shoes off, the men were seated to the right and women to the
left.  I felt so sorry for Matt, this was probably not his most
comfortable moment and he was now separated from everything that was
familiar.  But you know what?  Matt’s a trooper.  He gets a lot
of stick in life and I am guilty for some of that, but I have never been as
proud and grateful to my husband as I was today.

There was music, there was dancing; there was joy.  I wish I could say
I lost myself in the atmosphere but my ridiculous inability to “let go” stopped
me from doing that and if I could go back, I would dance around that floor and
celebrate life with the rest of them.

I am always cold.  I wear between two and three pairs of socks all
years round.  I have the heater on underneath my desk all day at work and
whoever turns it off, they turn it off  at their own risk.  A cold
Kat is not a happy Kat.  I have three hot water bottles in bed with me and
I have never been to a church and not been cold…

Well, today I was warm.  I’m not sure if it was warm because the room
was small, or that we were all sat very close together?  Or maybe it was
the people that made the room warm? 

I sometimes say certain things warm my heart, like someone making a kind
gesture for another person, or kind words, so maybe that’s what it was, maybe
it was the hearts of the people and their kindness and compassion that made the
room warm. 

People I have never met before who had no idea who I was, came to us and
asked us if we were having a good time.  They encouraged us to dance, gave
us water and food and I sat in my seat, trying really hard not to cry because
the whole thing just felt out of this world.

As I watched each speaker I was in total awe of their energy and I couldn’t
help but wonder…

“How on earth am I gonna follow that?!”

I’ve never kept a count of how many talks I’ve done.  I’ve always been
grateful for any opportunity to tell my story but sometimes I’ve left the room
feeling like it was a really bad job interview.  I always put a lot of
work in to my PowerPoints and I have always denied being a perfectionist and
claimed…

“…I just like things being done right.”

But I admit it here, right now I admit that I am the biggest perfectionist
going. 

I felt really strongly about getting today’s talk right.  I wanted to
get it right for Ade and I wanted to get it right for the people who were
watching.  With their warm embrace around my heart I wanted to give them
something that they might think about, because being in that room, just sitting
amongst the ladies, is something I will always remember.

When it came to my moment, as I walked up to the front of the stage I told
myself…

“…I can do this!  These people are
beautiful, I can do it.”

I can’t explain it, there was something in that room that just had me. 
I looked out at the audience as Ade gave me such a beautiful introduction and I
thought…

“…I can’t not tell these people how
special this man is and how much of an impact he’s had on my life.”

You know what I did?  I cried, I did.  My emotion got the better
of me, telling people the circumstances of meeting Ade and being invited into a
part of his life which other ward clerks at Bolton Hospital might not get, made
me grateful, and I guess my tears took the place of my verbal gratitude.

I’ve only ever cried once before in front of an audience and I felt like I’d
failed.  I’d let myself down and embarrassed myself.  Today I didn’t
feel embarrassed because today the people I was with didn’t allow me to feel
that way.

I kept looking at mum and I kept looking at Matt, both of them trying to
calm my panic; but they weren’t the only ones.  The entire room was on my
side, ushering me to get through my pain; men and women offering comfort in a
moment that I hadn’t expected. 

Once I had a grip on myself I got down to it and I told my story in a way
I’ve probably never told it before.  I think I managed to let go a
little.  I made people laugh, they joined in with my humour, they were
saddened by my misfortune but they celebrated my achievements.  They made
Matt stand up when I pointed to the only white guy in the room and said he was
my husband.  He was mortified but it was a moment where I got to tell an
entire room full of people that I adore him.

I know I’m a perfectionist but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I
do know I put a lot of pressure on myself to get things right and I don’t
always achieve my expectations.  I have a tendency to overanalyse and
overthink my actions, especially when it comes to public speaking.  I
wasn’t trained to accept my short falls so I go into everything I do with the
intention of it being flawless.

Today I was not flawless.  I made mistakes, I cried for starters! 
That is not in the public speaking handbook!  I talked too fast in places,
I may have gone a bit too fast with some of my slides.  But when you’ve
got a roomful of people nodding and talking along with you, shaking their heads
and laughing with you; when you’ve got men and women unafraid of eye contact
and surprising you with spontaneous applauses; those flaws, those mistakes,
well they don’t matter.  They don’t count.  What counts is the moment
where an entire room full of people stand to their feet and they give you the
biggest, the most profound, the warmest and kindest applause I have ever had.

I am not flawless.  Life is not flawless and human beings make
mistakes.  We might expect perfection but at the end of the day if we
achieve perfection, how do we learn from our actions?

Sometimes it’s the things we do that makes a difference.  Sometimes
it’s what we say that counts and sometimes it’s the people around you that
bring out the best in you. 

Today it was the people in the room who brought all of those things to the
forefront.  Maybe it was their enthusiasm or their laughter?  Maybe
it was their caring nature?  Maybe it was their faith?

Or maybe it was simply their warm hearts…

Dedicated to Ade and everyone at the Salvation-Ark Parish who made my
Saturday truly special.

 

 

 

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Reading time: 8 min
headphones and iphone

Exactly three years ago in 2020 I was obsessed with Panic! At the Disco.  I was convinced Brendon Urie was communicating with me through the lyrics in his songs. Every single song had a personal meaning meant for me and together we would conquer the fate of the universe.  Only trouble was, it wasn’t real … I was having a Bipolar episode.

See that’s the trouble with Bipolar, it’s a tricky little customer.  It disguises itself as something enjoyable, something innocent and ten out of ten times the onset of mine is a fascination with music. 

It starts off as a song, and in 2020 it was…

“High Hopes”

…I looked on iTunes and over the course of two months I downloaded every song, every album, every collaboration Brendon Urie had ever done on to my iPod and listened to Panic! at the Disco and Panic! at the Disco only.  I’m serious, every bus journey, train journey, lunch break; even the working day was consumed by Brendon Urie’s voice and his disjointed lyrics that I made sense of in my head to suit my purpose…my mission.

Panic at the Disco release gravity defying video for 'High Hopes' |  OUTInPerth | LGBTQIA+ News and Culture

I know it sounds crazy.  I know it’s impossible to comprehend and I’m not sure I can even explain it; but this isn’t the first time and it certainly wasn’t the last.

I have always been addicted to music.  When I write stories I have music in my ears that helps me to set the scene and create the personalities and sometimes the appearances of my characters.  When I was at school I would sit in my bedroom and listen to the Top 40 just waiting for a song by Ocean Colour Scene or Kula Shaker to place.  I went to sleep listening to Meat Loaf through my headphones and in PE I would internally sing the words to…

“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”

…to help get me through the bleep test (remember those?).

Music has always been there, it’s something constant, something dependable that never failed to pull me out of the holes I was sucked into. 

When I was bullied I’d close my eyes and picture Crispian Mills knocking on the door of my house and saying to parents…

“I’ve come for your daughter and I’m going to take her away and make life wonderful.”

When I listened to Simon Fowler sing…

“The Riverboat Song”

…I wasn’t the spotty swot people picked last for their hockey team.  I was clever and popular with perfect skin.

The music I listened to made me feel everything I wanted to be and as a result played into the hands of Bernard the Bipolar brain.

When I was fifteen my GCSE English teacher gave the class a piece of homework.  He said…

“I want you all to go home tonight and pick a song, look at the lyrics and tomorrow I want you tell the rest of the class what they mean.”

…Well I had a whole cheerleading squad in my head shaking their pom poms because this! This was my idea of homework.  I didn’t care about Shakespeare, MacBeth was grim and as for The Lord of the Flies, well, William Golding badly needed to up his game if he was going to compete with my entire cassette tape collection of Indie and Rock music!

Meat Loaf Music Cassettes for sale | eBay

I must have sat with my Walkman for hours, listening to every Meat Loaf song word for word, writing down the lyrics, reading them, thinking about them and pondering what they meant.  In the end I couldn’t choose just one song, so the next day I went to my English lesson which of course was the last lesson of the day; the only lesson I’d been looking forward to all day!  I sat in my seat next to my friend with three A4 pages completely covered in Meat Loaf Lyrics. 

I was ready!

But the rest of the class were not so ready.  It turned out there was only a handful of us who had done our homework.  Not only that but I happened to be the only kid in the class who had more than just one lyric going spare.

“Katerini, how many songs have you got?”

“Give us a song Kat, you’ve got loads there.”

“Kat, can I have one of your songs?”

Out of the kindness of my heart and probably revelling in my sudden albeit temporary popularity, I ended up dishing out five or six of my songs thinking…

“It doesn’t matter, I’ll definitely get asked for a one.”

…purposely I saved the best one for myself because I’d had every single word under the microscope the night before and by now I was…

A musical genius.

….so there I sat, all smug and excited; pleased with myself that not only had I done my homework to the best of my ability, but as my teacher asked everyone in the class I’d donated a song to, to then dissect their chosen lyric, I very quickly realised that I had done everyone else’s homework to the best of my ability too.

I have never forgotten my disappointment.  The disappointment that no one in the class said…

“Actually Sir, this is Katerini’s work.  I didn’t do my homework so I stole part of hers.”

I was disappointed that I didn’t get picked, again, only this time instead of being on a hockey field, it was in a field where I saw myself as an expert. 

Back in 1998 I could not have foreseen my Bipolar diagnosis and I would never have imagined that the one thing I’d always loved and believed kept me safe, would sometimes play out to my detriment.

Sometimes the noise of my own thoughts is too loud to bear so I put my headphones on and drown out the chaos with the voices of…

Four Norwegian singers (Kurt Nilsen, Espen Lind, Alejandro Fuentes, Askil Holm) who I later imagined were talking to me through their live albums…

“Hallelujah Vol 1” and “Hallelujah Vol2”

…together the five of us were going to save the world.

I would listen to the same song constantly, memorising the lyrics, writing them down, translating them into meaning that was only visible to me.

I wrote stories where Alex Band (The Calling) was the definition of my lead character and his music was the soundtrack to the plot.

In my late teens and early twenties Puressence was the cure to my depression.  When I closed my eyes and listened to…

“Standing in Your Shadow”

…I would feel less invisible.

At that age of twenty-two I had a second try at the third year of my degree and I stayed up until four in the morning putting songs on a tape that I would listen to while I tried my best to write an essay.

At seventeen Buffalo Tom were the only band I listened to for a month because I only knew one other person who knew who they were.

In 2014 I hugged every single member of The Overtones after their concert and they had no idea who much that meant because I was in a really dark place and their smiles made my cold heart feel warm again.

“Seahorse Perfect”

…by Astrid – a band I’d loved in my sixth form days and became part of the soundtrack to my first year at university made sense of the grief I had for a friend I’d lost.

City and Colour were my go-to in days of confusion because Dallas Green’s voice was like a whisper of comfort over a bed of rain filled clouds.

I have a rational reason for every single musical obsession I have ever had…

…until now.

About four years ago Luke Bryan popped up on my YouTube feed with his song…

Luke Bryan sings 'Drink a Beer' with two fans at Hartford concert

“Crash My Party”

…a few days later I downloaded every single song, album and music video he had ever done on to my iPod and I created a playlist that I added to and amended and over the course of two months I didn’t listen to anything other than Luke Bryan.

I’ve never been a big fan of country music, in all honesty it irritated me.  All that talk of dirt, whiskey and riding bulls called Fumanchu, I didn’t get it.  I couldn’t relate to it and I’ve never liked the look of cowboy boots; they’re really not my style.  But I have to admit, country music itself, it’s actually a grower and Luke Bryan became my guilty pleasure.

In January I bought a digital radio and stumbled on Smooth Country.  Well that was it, it was like a switch!

Ping!

My little office at work was filled with an array of joy and misery combined.  My world was consumed by husky male country voices all singing about Whiskey and God and ploughing fields of corn; and suddenly it wasn’t annoying.  Suddenly country music was the best thing I had ever heard…

…and then it became the slippery slope of a musical Bipolar decline.

I fell in love with the voices of…

Florida Georgia Line

Chris Stapleton

Thomas Rhett

Randy Houser

Nate Smith

Randy Travis

…and then I heard…

“God’s Country” by Blake Shelton

Blake Shelton Takes 2019 CMA Awards to 'God's Country' [WATCH]

…an hour later I had downloaded every single song, album, collaboration he has ever done.

I made him his own playlist, in fact I made him three.  I put the same songs on the same playlist six times so I didn’t have to wait too long to hear “God’s Country” again.

Then I made playlists for all of the country singers I’d downloaded.  I had a…

A full list

A quick list

A short list

And a…

Cherrypicked list.

At work I waited for the same songs to come on my radio.  It’s an obsession, a compulsion, it’s an addiction.  It’s a feeling that leaves me empty and on edge if I don’t hear the voices of those singers singing the lyrics that I have to make sense of.

That’s when Bernard stepped in and took away every little bit of enjoyment of listening to music and gave me a mission that I had to complete but every time this happens I am never told what that mission is until I find it in the lyrics.

What Bernard doesn’t realise is, country music is fairly self-explanatory.  You can’t find much more meaning in drinking beer in bars and picking up girls in pick-up trucks.  Country music is about country life, it’s fun and it’s sad all at the same time.

People like to ask…

“What caused the episode?”

My answer is simple…

“Nothing.” 

Maybe my brain wanted to get my attention. Maybe it was bored of being sensible and something to get its teeth stuck into something different.  Maybe this time it was in the shape of a…

Cowboy Hat Illustrations, Royalty-Free Vector Graphics & Clip Art - iStock

…cowboy hat.

In the middle of my episode when I was desperately trying to find the meaning in Blake Shelton’s song…

“I’ll name the dogs”

…someone said…

“There are meanings in every song you’re listening to, just not the meanings you’re looking for.”

Three months after my fascination with country music started, I’m still downloading songs and making playlists but I don’t feel that Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton are trying to communicate with me anymore.  But if I’m honest, that’s both a relief and disappointing.

My happy place is music. My version of serenity is relating to a singer’s words and finding comfort and distraction in their songs.  My iPod is my journal, it bears my soul; it’s something that can put me at risk but more often than not it keeps me safe.

When everything around me is a maze of chaos and noise I can immerse myself in the idea of ploughing maize and catching crayfish.  In my head I can dance in a barn and drink whiskey with farmers, drive pickup trucks and chew on straw.  I can have faith, be comfortable in a checked shirt and not worry about the accidental holes in my old jeans.

I can drink beer out of dixy cups and party in a field of corn and as I sit here now, I find absolutely nothing wrong in any of that!

So now that my Bipolar episode is passing and my head is becoming clearer; now I can look at myself in the mirror and not wonder who is staring back at me because now all I am is a listener. I am a country music fan and I am proud to just be Katerini and…

…addicted to Blake Shelton.

Dedicated to everyone who helped me through this latest episode. Thank you for the late night messages, checking in, indulging my obsession and keeping me safe. If it wasn’t for all of you we could be looking at a very different picture xx

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Reading time: 11 min

I had a little blog break.  I’ve been busying myself with my fictional project and turning my cat’s life into the life of an Instagram and Facebook superstar.

I also acquired Covid for the very first time which has left me isolating like a hermit but giving me the option of whether to wear a bra or not. I have immersed myself into countless hours of terrible television and hot sweats in the midst of this ridiculous heat wave…

…since when did this country do summer???

God dammit!

When the little red line came up on my covid test last week I wondered how I would spend my five days of isolation.  The first two days I was more or less bed ridden anyway but when the cold sweats and the aches that made even my eyeballs ache disappeared; I did wonder how I would spend the rest of my time.

So, I cleaned the house.  Then I packed my suitcase for my holiday in October, and now, seven days into isolation – because three covid tests later, it’s still in there playing footsie with my lungs – I have watched nearly three seasons of 90210 on Amazon Prime, one too many benefits documentaries on YouTube, far too many crime drama’s on ITV and BBC and today I pimped a notebook with fairies from a sticker collection my friend gave me for my fortieth birthday back in June.

Pimped my notebook

Tonight I decided to eat my dinner in my back yard; the sun had more or less disappeared and even though there was no breeze I wasn’t about to break a sweat.  So I sat on my garden furniture, put my feet up and popped my headphones on and listened to City and Colour while Winifred pottered about the yard around my feet chasing flies she couldn’t catch. 

I’ve spent this last week on my own for about 99% of the time – don’t get me wrong Matt is in the house but he’s negative so we’re trying to keep it that way. 

Believe it or not I haven’t done much thinking, until today.  When I did the third test I phoned mum and I whinged and I whined and I complained and I kept saying…

“I’m fed up.”

“I’ve had enough.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“It’s like furlough all over again but without the redundancy.”

“I haven’t had a hug for a week!!!”

That was the biggest one for me.  Not having a hug.  Because I love a hug.  A hug is comfort, it’s validation, it’s congratulation and it’s something that says…

…everything will be just fine.

Tonight, as I sat outside in my back yard, watching Winifred have a chat with the gnomes, I had an epiphany.

The girl loves an audience

I acknowledge I have more than the potential to be a drama queen and today I fulfilled that potential.  This morning my complaints were all about me.  I’ve been stuck in the house, I couldn’t to go work, I’ve had to cancel on friends, I couldn’t co-facilitate the Bipolar support group, I haven’t seen my mum properly in days! All of that is valid and true and I do believe I have a right to be fed up…

…but only to a point. 

In the midst of my whinging and whining I forgot Covid-19’s rap sheet and I forgot about the last two years.  I forgot that people have lost their jobs and their livelihoods.  People lost their homes…

…they lost their lives! 

So I reminded myself how horrible 2020 was for the entire world; but this time I put myself in someone else’s shoes and told myself that I was lucky I lived with someone.  I was lucky that I got to spend those seven months on furlough with my elderly cat because at the time I didn’t know those would be the final months that we would have together…

…if a cat could be a soulmate, I swear that Milly was mine.

No photo description available.
Milly 2000 – 2020

I reminded myself that despite redundancy I came out better off with a better job than I thought I would ever have and despite my reluctance to turn forty I have, when I know of others my age who haven’t made it.

Most of all I looked at myself – well, I looked at my slippers – and I said…

“What exactly has Covid done to me?”

Apart from the isolation all I have to show from the actual illness itself is a croaky voice and a cough that only occurs when I talk – some might not necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Whenever I get that negative result I know I’m walking away from Covid with nothing sinister.  I still have my taste and smell – Mum had it back in October and she still can’t smell my bag when I empty it in her toilet.  Now that is bad! 

I may have a heavy chest right now but I’m not struggling to breathe.  The cold I had lasted twenty-four hours, the skin on my fingers and eyeballs isn’t sensitive anymore and the aches are long gone.  If Covid comes back to bite me then I’ll hold up my hands I’ll say it was worse than I thought but at this point I’m one of the lucky ones…

I haven’t had a hug for a week; but I know I’ll get one soon…

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Reading time: 4 min
My face says it all…

The other day someone had an iffy tummy – I can’t drop names because they would never forgive me for outing their unpredictable bowel movements but please note, it wasn’t me…

When I checked to see if Anonymous person was feeling better I said…

“…you’ve got such a funny tum.  What’s going on in there?”

They replied with…

“Turmoil.”

I have to admit, despite having a degree in English literature and linguistics my vocabulary is not as extensive as it probably should be because I am not the shiniest button in the sewing tin, so shamefully I had to look up the definition of “turmoil” which is:

A state of great commotion, confusion, or disturbance; tumult; agitation; disquiet: mental turmoil caused by difficult decisions.”

Now before you all jump ship and close your browsers, this is not an English lesson.  I could never subject you to that especially when I’ve spent all of my writing life breaking every grammar and punctuation rule in the book.  I don’t care if my writing reads wrong because I don’t use my commas and my semicolons appropriately.  I know it annoys the hell out of every single literary expert but you know what?  I like starting a sentence with “but” and “and” because I’m not at school anymore and no one can stop me.  And if my writing reads wrong it’s because I’m writing the way I would speak in a conversation not the way a GCSE English textbook tells me I should.

At university I remember studying the poems of e.e. cummings.  While I was never any good at interpreting his poetry I was fascinated by the fact that he refused to use capital letters in his work.  I didn’t really care what he wrote about or how ground-breaking his words were, I just remember wishing that I had the balls to do something as revolutionary and exciting as he did and have the means to get away with it.

Breaking the rules of the written word.

I don’t know why but I kept thinking about the word turmoil and I tried to think of things in my life that relate to it.

For example, if turmoil is having to make difficult decisions then last weekend when I had to choose between a Bakewell tart or half a raspberry cheesecake it was really difficult because, what if I ate one but still wanted the other?  Would the waistband of my jeans still be slightly slack or would I have to take a trip to H&M for a larger size?

Half a cheesecake and a Bakewell tart

On Monday I looked out of the window when I was getting ready for work, the sky was a bit grey and even though my weather app said it was going to be a dry day, I wasn’t 100% convinced.  The difficult decision was, do I wear boots in case it rains so my feet don’t get wet?  Or do I risk it for a biscuit and wear the new Converse Matt bought me for my birthday?  I also wanted to wear my denim jacket but I worried about it not being warm enough; I get cranky when I’m cold and that’s not fun for anyone.

When I’m deciding what to cook for tea I sometimes look at my freezer and I see the three bags of stir-fry veg calling my name…

“…eat meeeeee.  Eat meeeee Kateriiiinnnniiiii!”

Do I do what they’re telling me and bung a bunch of frozen veg in the pan?  Or do I remind myself that Wilomena does not digest healthy ingredients and I should look in the mirror at the remnants of the fibre induced acne and remind myself of the repercussions of what fibre does to my face.

Back in 2015 before I got married, I remember sitting in the examination room with the surgeon.  She asked me if I had children and did I plan to because the operation could affect that possibility.  I’d been in pain and misery for far too long a time for me to consider what she was saying so I chose Wilomena over children.  Whilst this might be a tumultuous decision for most, I didn’t register it at the time.

A few weeks ago I was in a bad mood.  I went into Bolton for a mooch and popped into Hotel Chocolat.  Usually I’d buy a bar of dairy milk but I was feeling a bit rich so I went into the most expensive chocolate shop in the town and spent, probably 10 – 15 minutes looking at chocolate that I probably wouldn’t like and probably wasn’t worth the amount on the price tag.  But there was an offer on and it was £10 for 3x strips of 6 truffles and the hardest part was deciding which to buy because what if I bought one of them and it wasn’t very nice because then I’d have wished I’d bought a different one?

The dictionary says turmoil is…

a state of great commotion…

…but what’s the definition of commotion?  Sometimes I make a playlist on my Ipod and I have to have a song on there a certain amount of times otherwise I get agitated if I don’t hear it. 

When I’m writing a novel I picture it running like a film and I pick out songs that would appear on the soundtrack so I listen to them as loud as they will go so that nothing but the action between my characters creeps into my head.

When Matt plays stupid shooting games on his Xbox I have to leave the room because the awful noise of guns makes me panic and I don’t understand what the appeal is.

I can’t stand at a concert because the thought of getting embroiled into a mass of drunken moshers is not my idea of fun anymore.

I’m dreading the work’s night out on the 24th July because I’m terrified that I will turn back into STA Kat who was boring and lifeless and never went on any nights out because I couldn’t relate my sense of fun to the people I was with.  So do I step back and just stick to who I am on the ward or do I take the plunge and make an attempt at stopping history from repeating itself? 

If I make my life out to be an illusion, will that work well for me?

Maybe turmoil doesn’t have to be to the letter of what the dictionary says.  Maybe turmoil can be defined in all sorts of different ways.  Turmoil can be the toss-up between a cheesecake and a Bakewell tart.  It could be making a life changing decision where someone always loses.  Maybe turmoil is swapping one loud noise for another so that peace can be restored?

When you look at the definition of Turmoil we’re given an abundance of other words that all have their own meaning attached to them…

…commotion

 confusion

disturbance

tumult

agitation

disquiet…

If those words are the definition of “turmoil” then in my own personal dictionary, all the word turmoil amounts to is…life.

Because in life we’re faced with tough decisions that dictate how we live in the future.  We’re surrounded by people who try our patience and we allow them to mould us into shapes we never wanted to be. 

We find ourselves in situations that are beyond our control.  I would never choose to be “mentally ill”, that choice was taken out of my hands. 

I take medication that has botched up my thyroid and corrupted my kidneys because I value my sanity too much to risk losing it.

Some days are a blessing, some days the only thing I have to worry about is which pair of Converse to put on my feet. 

Sorrento, somewhere in the sky…

Just like I always say, we are all different and one person’s turmoil will always be different to that of another’s. For some it might be chipping a newly applied gel nail at the start of a night out. Or it could be debating on whether it’s safe enough to donate a kidney to a loved one.

Sometimes the best part of the day is sweating over the small stuff because it’s a break from dealing with something bigger…

And as I’m writing this my washing machine is on the go.  I’ve just looked at the weather app on my phone, it’s 19 degrees and mostly cloudy but when I look out of the window the sun is shining…

British weather…

…should I hang out my washing?  Or should I keep it in doors?

…now that’s turmoil.

Dedicated to the person who had the iffy tummy….

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Reading time: 7 min
I’m putting this image here now because even though this blog is hard to write, there is light at the end of it…

It’s June, it’s summer, it’s 22 degrees outside and it’s hot!  For most people it’s the time to whip off your top and slap on that suntan cream and bask in the glory of that big fat ball of fire in the sky.  

Summer makes people smile, it brings them together and it’s a chance to get our legs out of our jeans and give our arms the ability to break free of the sleeves of our woolly jumpers because nothing beats the feeling of the sun on your skin.  It’s glorious…

…unless you’re a self-harmer…

I’ve never written about this subject.  I’ve never documented it in a journal or gone into the intricacies in one of my presentations.  It’s a section of my life that I’m not proud of but it’s a part of me that I can’t hide.

I’m not looking for sympathy or even understanding, especially when it’s something that I don’t fully understand myself and I can’t pinpoint a reason or event or a pivotal moment where I…

“…made the decision to hurt myself…”

…but I can say that when your life is consumed by self-hatred and confusion and you have no concept of mental illness or what it even looks like; when all you want is to be able to feel something, then pain is sometimes the only thing that makes sense because how can you feel joy when all you feel inside is pain?

I know very little about self-harm.  I barely know anything about my own variation of it, except that in the moment, in those few minutes, I felt relief.  I was relieved because I could see something that hurt and I was also relieved because the pain I felt echoed the pain in my soul.

In my early to mid-twenties I would dip in and out of the self-harm habit, just like I would dip in and out of hospital.  When Bernard the Bipolar brain was medicated and caged within the realms of sanity I didn’t feel the need to hurt myself.

When I look back on my self- harm history I can only describe it as moments of madness that made sense at the time.  It was desperation, it was like drowning in a lake of cement and it was the one thing that pulled me out.  It was a few minutes of blind self-inflicted rage, self-pity and a way of pleading with life to just stop! Stop what it was doing and just make sense again.

In the moment I didn’t think of the future.  I didn’t think to myself…

“What do I do when its sunny outside and everyone is taking their tops off?”

“What do I do when I want to roll my sleeves up to wash my hands and there’s someone stood next to me who doesn’t know I struggle?”

“What do I do when I meet a boy and he sees these hideous scars?”

In the moment I didn’t think…

“What do I do when I get a job and there’s no aircon in the office and I’m frying like an egg.”

I didn’t think…

“What do I do in eighteen years’ time when I get another job and I’m working with patients who have done the same thing but they have no idea that I am anything other than Admin Kat?”

In that moment, at the age of twenty I didn’t think of the future; I didn’t think of the future because I didn’t think I had one. 

Contrary to popular belief self-harm was not a form of attention seeking for me; how could it be when I had to go to incredible measures to hide what I have done to myself because no-one really understood it.

It’s been long sleeves at social gatherings so people don’t stare.  I put my arm behind my back when I’ve been at the end of a row of people and a photographer makes a spontaneous appearance.  I make up elaborate and ridiculous lies like…

“I used to be a Piranha fish tamer.”

“I had an altercation with a seriously angry cat.”

“It’s an unusual birthmark.”

“It’s a new form of tattoo art.”

(No one believed any of them, can you believe?)

Mr Piranha Fish

It took me years to find the courage to roll up my sleeve at my last job.  In the end the defining moment was the office was just to damn hot and I couldn’t take the heat.  People stared, they whispered, some even stopped speaking to me for a while; one person refused to make me a cup of tea because they didn’t want to touch my self-harm infected mug.

I had a friend once who told me I was in the running for being her bridesmaid but she had to make a decision on what would look better on her wedding pictures.  Unfortunately the dress she’d picked out for the bridesmaids didn’t accommodate a hideously scarred arm.  I had another friend who told me it would be better if I could cover my arm so that she wouldn’t have to explain the state of it when we were supposed to be having a nice evening out with her friends.

Once I tried to explain to someone how difficult it is to keep up the act of normality when life is constantly throwing curveballs in your way to make it less normal.  They said…

“Well you made that choice, now you have to live with it.”

They are of course right.  Whatever spin I put on this, eighteen years ago I made a decision to hurt myself and that decision has affected my life ever since….

But…

Had I not made that particular decision, the only one I was left with would have been a whole lot worse because…

…I would not be here to tell the tale.

Twelve years ago I may have braved the office with my naked arm but when I started public speaking in 2014 everything I did to every single audience was done in long sleeves.  I would sweat, my skin would itch and I would stand in front of the crowd and tell my story but I would never bear my arm. 

Long sleeves

I was ashamed.  When you’ve spent so many years being made to feel like a leper because of the things you’ve been through and the decisions you’ve made, it’s difficult to get out of that habit.

On the 5th May 2019 I went to see Rose McGowan do a reading and interview about her book Brave.  There’s something about Rose McGowan that I’ve always admired.  When she was in Charmed I wanted her hair.  When she became a voice for all genders in the Me Too movement I admired her bravery and her courage.  She’s someone who has suffered but she’s never given up and that’s what I admire the most.  She uses her pain to give others the courage to carry on.

The Lowry – Salford

Anyone who worked with me at the Edinburgh fringe festival will tell you that I can talk to anyone, actually everyone who knows me will tell you that, but my Edinburgh friends will tell you that when it comes to talking to celebrities I shrivel up and die and I turn into a ridiculous gibbering idiot who can’t form sentences… and for a public speaker it’s not a good look.  But in 2019 I was not going home without my copy of Brave being signed by Rose McGowan.

So I stood in a queue for 45 minutes, which didn’t feel like 45 minutes because I spent the entire time texting my mum asking her…

“What the hell do I say?”

It was a warm day and I’d walked into the Lowry dressed in a woolly jumper and my winter coat, so coupled with the fact that I was nervous I was also getting that jittery sweaty look…but let’s cut to the chase…

I got to the front of the queue and this beautiful person was sat in front of me and she asks me what my name is and we start talking about Greece and where my family is from because she’s just been to Greece and then…she clocks my arm!  She clocks it because in my Sweaty Betty panic I rolled up my sleeve for some temporary bare skin relief but I forgot to roll it back down before I was stood in front of her.

In that moment I had two choices, tell her the piranha fish story or…

…just tell her the truth.

So I said…

“I have Bipolar but I’m a public speaker now.”

She said…

“Do you show your scars when you speak?”

I said…

“Never.”

And I will always remember her reply because it was a lightbulb moment.  It was like a rough sea becoming calm or the clouds parting after a storm.  It was peace resting on a troubled soul.

“You should show them because you survived them, you should be brave.”


With tears in my eyes I nodded and I said…

“I will, I’ll be brave.”

And she said…

“I’m proud of you, I’m so proud of you.”

I wish I had a picture of myself being wrapped in Rose McGowan’s arms when she said those words, but even photographic evidence can’t explain what I felt in that moment.

It was validation from a complete stranger.  It was permission to stop being ashamed of my behaviour and a reason to move on from it. 

I look at my arm sometimes and… guys it’s a mess, so some days I am still ashamed but other days I think to myself…

“Damn right Rose, I survived them!”

So now in my presentations I talk about it and no matter how cold it is in the room I whip my top off or I roll up my sleeve and I strut that stage and do what I’ve always tried to do, I try to make people proud.  I try to make Rose proud.

Short sleeves

I’m not saying any of this is easy and sometimes when life is really difficult and things don’t make sense, the urge is still there and I’m not proud of that; but I am proud of the fact that I manage to resist that urge.

These days I try to write it out.  I try to write blogs or I rant in my designated “bedtime rant” notebook.  I write stupid fiction where I make the lives of innocent characters miserable because it makes me feel better, it’s a release.  I have an abundance of notebooks in my little library that are filled with the deaths’ of the most beautiful people of my own creation but they die because they are part of me, parts of myself that I couldn’t save at the time.

At work I was chatting with the drama therapy student and he asked me what write I about, was it romance or sci fi or crime? That kind of thing.  But I couldn’t give him an answer, not properly.  I couldn’t give him a simple answer because there’s more to my words than just a genre.

Since the age of eleven my words have only ever been a way for me to cope with the world.  They give me air by suffocating my pages.  My characters represent the parts of me that are still here and the parts that are gone.

As I’ve got older and hopefully wiser, I’ve found ways to channel those feelings of self-loathing, sometimes I’m not always successful but writing this particular piece right now has helped me understand the way I’ve been feeling. 

I’ve spent the last four hours writing this – believe it or not – and now I know exactly what I write about…

I write about darkness and I write about light, because…

…in order to survive, I write about pain.

Now I am brave…or try to be.

Dedicated to Rose McGowan, although you may never see this you gave me the courage to be brave.

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Reading time: 10 min
The doorway to a different world

For years I believed you could only truly be a writer if your work was published.  Whether you spend ten minutes on a poem or dedicate ten years to writing that one novel everyone is supposed to have within them – the work only pays off if the end result is on a shelf in Waterstones.

The minute I learned how to use the alphabet I knew I wanted to be a writer.  All the way through primary school I was writing stories taken from the characters I was reading about in the books I loved.  I was the funky kid in The Babysitters Club, I was just like Jo in Little Women, I was Kat instead of Katie in What Katie Did and I wanted to be Darrell in the Mallory Towers books because boarding school looked so much more exciting than the school I was at.

High school was a mine field of actions and emotions and it was at this point that I realised just how different I was from the other kids. My life at home was different, I didn’t understand myself, I didn’t understand the world and I read a hell of a lot of Point Horror books.  I was inspired by the writers who could incorporate the lives of kids at college with romance and at the same time make stalking and the supernatural cool.

At the age of eleven I stopped writing about fluffy clouds and rainbows and making everything in the world appear pretty and I brought out the big guns and I wrote my first novel, The College Fears.  Was it as bad as it sounds? Oh yes, it was terrible, but I dedicated my life to that story and I wholeheartedly believed that I was going to be discovered and thrown into the writing limelight and I would be the next big thing before I turned thirteen!

The College Fears

The College Fears was the culmination of a group of kids embarking on a brand-new journey at university, discovering new friendships and being completely independent, no family, no ties to their past, just the freedom to be who they wanted to be.

In 1993 I was beginning to realise that my mind was a messed-up circuit board where nothing was connected the way it should be.  I struggled with body image and the perception of who I wanted to be compared to who I really was.  I couldn’t make sense of anything so I threw all that I had into that one story.  I gave my characters the biggest egos, the worst luck in love, I made them beautiful on the outside but hideous within.  I made them tactile, I gave them eating disorders, I made them appear a whole lot older than they actually were.  They were everything I wasn’t but everything I wanted to be.

When I finished my first novel I was proud.  I felt I had achieved something big.  Who else had spent every night, every weekend thrashing out words and sentences?  I would send myself to sleep at night by creating conversations between my characters.  When I did this I wasn’t in my own head anymore, I was somewhere else, with other people; I was every single character I had created and I was the bees knees! In the real world I was anything but cool but in my head I was a successful writer, wise beyond her years with an advanced and complicated rare talent.

In 1994 I started to write my second novel.  I called it Life.  It was about a girl who went to university and she was addicted to suicide.  She’d tried to kill herself thirteen times in five years.  That poor girl, I gave her hell in that story.  I gave her misery and self-loathing, I gave her scars and an internal battle that she could never make sense of and never shake off.  But I also made her beautiful.  I made her appealing to boys, I made her intelligent and successful.  I made her popular and I gave her a singing voice any X-Factor contestant would crawl across hot coals to have come out of their oesophagus.  But hell, that poor girl was tortured, she was miserable.

Life

When I look back at my early writing I can tell you straight off why my stories were written the way they were.  I was miserable and tortured and struggling but every word I wrote was a release from all of that.  On a blank piece of paper I could be whoever I wanted to be, I could do whatever the hell I liked and no one could stop me.  That’s the power of the written word, you can dress it up and dress it down and it doesn’t matter what the end product looks like because you can call it art!

As the years went by I swam in writing circles with real writers who were published and successful and they saw the world from angles that I never even knew were possible.  I loved those people, I still love those people with all of my heart and even though I didn’t fully fit in; I was accepted as a human being and when I was with those people, listening to them read, watching them sign their work I would sit in awe and think,

“That, is what I want. That is who I want to be.”

They taught me everything I needed to know at that time, how to be a critic, how to deliver your best work, how to get a backbone because the writing world was just as tough as the real one. 

I once wrote a screenplay about a man whose entire family hated the fact that he was a writer. I was sixteen and obsessed with the book Trainspotting and by the end of watching the film I already believed Danny Boyle was going to direct my masterpiece with Robert Carlyle cast as the lead role.  I pictured myself at the BAFTAs, the Oscars, I’d pick out a dress from Hello magazine and when I went to bed at night, I’d fall asleep to the sound of my acceptance speech for Best Screenplay.

Wordsworth

Growing up I kept a diary.  It was the usual angsty teenage…

“I hate the world but I love this boy in my English class…”

…kind of stuff and my brother would joke about breaking into the locked tin I kept it in and reading all my deepest darkest secrets but really, my real secrets, my true diary was in the stories I wrote.

I confessed my undying love for the kid in Year 10 English by aging him and making him rescue a girl with no true friends in her life.  I took out my anger on the bullies that wouldn’t give me a break by creating a twenty-something year old character called Doug Fairchild and I made every other word a hideous swear word. I made him a violent moron with a conscience that didn’t make an appearance until the last page of the book.  I killed off pointless adult figures because in fiction it was so easy to do.  I gave girls eating disorders because it was easier to carry off than doing it myself.  I made my characters stars!  I made them humble singers, guitar geniuses, famous, adventurous and admirable and I full on believed that every story, every character, every single page I covered with my barely legible handwriting was going to be printed!  It was going to be real!  As far as I was concerned, every written word that fell from my pen to the page, made me a true writer in every sense of the word.

But it’s like public speaking.  In the eyes of the world unless you’re charging a fee to be heard, you’re not really a speaker.  Unless your work is printed, you’re not really a writer.

Last year in lockdown I had time on my hands and a room in my house that was a disaster zone.  I was spending hours editing a novel that I wrote twenty years ago and my mind was consumed by the ridiculous amount of notebooks that were littered with ideas, plots and synopsis. 

(Bear in mind this was smack bang in the middle of a massively prolonged and never-ending Bipolar episode so I had a lot of energy and an incredibly obsessive imagination)

At the time I couldn’t read books.  I tried everything from Jilly Cooper to Bret Easton Ellis and everything in between but the only thing I wanted to read was my own work.  My overactive Bernard the Bipolar brain convinced me the best thing to do with my furloughed time was to build myself a library.  

The disaster zone

It took me three whole days.  I lifted, I carried, I sorted and I got a chance to look at 38 years of an unstoppable imagination that I never gave enough credit. 

My library

I looked at the two novels I wrote back in the 90’s and the reams of short stories and countless other novels I had forgotten I’d ever written because they were the backing singers to something bigger.  I picked up the tattered notebooks I used to carry with me before mobile phones had memos.  I relived the memories of where those initial ideas came from and for the first time, instead of giving myself a hard time over what should have been and my lack of effort to get my work published, I actually shrugged my shoulders and I thought,

“This not about being published.  This is how I stayed alive.”

Before phones had memos

Standing on the shelves in my “office” are notebooks and folders that contain my own version of therapy.  I have hundreds of stories and pieces that contained my sadness and exposed my madness.  I have countless pages that are just daft scenarios I created simply to exercise my imagination.  They were childish expressions of a life I wanted but one I knew I would never live. 

So does it really matter that I’m not on a shelf in Waterstones?  Does it matter that the only eyes that will ever see my work are my own?  It might be a shame with some things but trust me, most of that stuff should probably never have left the pen in the first place.  I am not always consistent, I may not be very good.  I’m probably lazy and sometimes I have far too many ideas I want to write and these days I hardly ever finish the stories I start. 

I once had a vision of a life full of artsy friends and intelligent conversation and cultured weekends but really?  Let’s be honest now, I’m a kid from Bolton who got a raw deal and the only escape I had was to dream of a life where I wasn’t me and the most gratifying part of it was that I could make the lives of others miserable without hurting anyone real.

I am not what I thought I would become.  I haven’t grown into the writer I longed to be but now, when I look at my shelves I don’t see failure; I actually see someone who achieved something because I have more than just a couple of books, I have many books; I have my very own library.

The collection

Being a writer is not about being in print.  Being a writer is about having an imagination, its about putting the alphabet together, it’s about sentences, setting a scene, creating characters and becoming so immersed in something that it takes away the pain of what’s really going on in the world and making it that little bit easier to live with. 

When people tell me…

“I didn’t know what to get you, so I just got you a notebook.”

How is that not the most perfect present?  For Christmas Matt bought me a Paperchase voucher.  The other day he asked me what I’d bought and I said…

“A shit tonne of pens.”

…because being a writer is about enjoyment, it’s about opening a new notebook and trying not to cross out any words so your first page looks perfect.  It’s about clicking your new rollerball pen and setting it to work or flicking off that weird gluey ball at the tip of a fresh gel pen and watching the ink slide across the paper.  Writing is about working all day and riding the bus home reading what you wrote the night before.  It’s about sitting on the floor by the fire when is flippin freezing outside and writing about somewhere hot.  It’s about shoving a bunch of characters in a coffee shop with no social distancing rules, no masks and no Covid app asking you to track and trace where you’ve been; they can just drink coffee and if you’re really creative they can have a party without the rule of six!

I have never pretended to be something I am not.  My fiction is dreadful. I know it is!  With my hand on my heart I declare it now that I am no J.K Rowling and I wouldn’t want to be.  I am not Shakespeare, heck, I couldn’t handle the public attention.  I don’t know the difference between a novel and a novella, I barely know the difference between a noun and a verb and the worst part of it all?  Doing a degree in English literature has completely ruined my love for literature!  Now I can’t open a book without trying to see where the Oedipus Complex fits in to a Mills and Boon or if the concept of the Menage a Trois fits in with a teen fiction book I picked up in a charity shop. 

In the last two years I have educated myself on my writing.  My writing isn’t about publication…

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to turn Penguin away if they come knocking at my door…)

…it’s about survival, it’s about escapism, it always has been.  I’ve learnt that I can do whatever the hell I want with words because it doesn’t matter, they’re mine and I take ownership of everything that doesn’t make sense because at the time of writing it, I knew exactly what I meant. 

Sometimes the best advice has come from a character of my own creation and maybe this is the only way I can learn to take my own advice? 

Being Bipolar sucks.  Sometimes having a stoma is really annoying, but the worst thing that could ever happen to me is my imagination being taken away.  How would I keep myself entertained?  What would I spend my money on?  WHSmith’s would go out of business if it wasn’t for me buying Pukka pads and gel pens.  My friends and family would have to think of something else to buy me, God help them with that one.  What would I do with the shelves in my office? I’d have to read books again.  What would I do on holiday? Part of my whole holiday experience is tramping round the shops looking for cool notebooks with lines in them.

I’ve taught myself that a finished story doesn’t have to be finished.  You can resurrect your characters and give them a makeover. You can backtrack, move forward, there doesn’t have to be a realistic timeline because its all fiction, time doesn’t exist.

Resurrected characters

I don’t care that I’m not in print.  My terrible fiction gives me air, it’s my release, it’s a distraction from a world that everyone wants to get away from.  It’s not real life and that’s the beauty of being a writer, that ability to transport yourself from one place to another without leaving your house.

That’s writing…

…that’s the writer in me.

Dedicated to Milly. I wasn’t sure I could pull a blog off without you, but now that it’s written, this is for you. Be a good girl xx

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Reading time: 13 min

We all say things we don’t mean.  We say things that we think are funny but no one else does.  We might be that unfortunate soul who doesn’t realise that the person we’ve said something to isn’t laughing because they’re crying on the inside. 

It sounds like every time I write one of these I’m complaining about life.  I’m giving airtime to the troubles I should have put to bed a long time ago.  Maybe that’s true, perhaps I am dwelling on the past and I’m being a pessimist about the future and maybe I’m reading too much into the present.  Whatever your thoughts are, if you stick around then I appreciate your patience and I am thankful to you for giving up your time to read another one of my “whinges.”

I was in my last job for 11 years.  I walked into that office thinking this was my first full time permanent job, I was a commuter and back in 2009 the sardine can train was worth it because I was on my way to being the adult I never thought I would be.

It’s no secret and I’ve said it often enough in the last 5 years that back in 2002 a social worker told me my mental illness was too serious for me to finish my degree.  They said I would never work, not part time or full time and I would never have a romantic relationship because a girl with Bipolar was not good marriage material.  Well I don’t like being told what I can and can’t do and everyone should know by now that even though I took those words to heart and I initially abided by the suggestion of a solitary life, I didn’t do it for long.

I’d never been in an office environment where I wasn’t a temp or I wasn’t covering someone or the temporary hands on deck person that was tossed to the side when the Christmas period was over.  I wanted to make this work, I wanted to be the best version of myself and shine!

That’s what I wanted.  What I did was a very different story.  I walked into the office and I shrivelled up like a flippin prune.  I was a fish out of water.  I went all shy, I retreated into my own little world and I have no idea what people thought of me at that time but I knew it wasn’t the image I’d wanted to project. 

I was doing a 12 hour day, leaving the house at 7am and rolling in at 7pm.  I was tired, I was worn out and I wasn’t even getting any job satisfaction because when you think people don’t like you, what kind of satisfaction can you take home with you?

I know everyone who works gets tired, it’s just the nature of working life, it’s not designed to be easy.  But not everyone was trying to conceal a mental illness that takes up more energy than you can imagine.  Not everyone was on 20mg of Olanzapine and various other psychiatric drugs, heavily sedated and trying to prove a point that a normal life could be achieved if you just worked at it.

I went to bed at 9pm.  I rose at 6am.  I said no to virtually every Christmas meal, every spontaneous night out and if anyone left the team for pastures new I said good bye to them in the office because what was the point in sticking around in Manchester when all I would be thinking is

“What time will it be when I get home?”

As the years went by in that job, I like to think that people liked me.  I like to think they saw my quirky side, that I could be a bit silly but I was also sincere, even when I made up a lie in order to avoid another social gathering. 

In all honesty Bipolar disorder is not a walk in the park.  When it comes to medication it’s not like taking paracetamol.  It’s not a cure.  It makes the symptoms take a backseat, they are masked, they give your brain a rest and they make everyday living so much easier.  Every single one of my Bipolar friends will tell you that medication is just one aspect of living a positive life with a mental illness, another aspect of it is management.  What I didn’t realise for so many years was that just because you take your meds it doesn’t mean you can live like the rest of the world, just as someone with Diabetes will inject their insulin, it doesn’t mean they can go to the shop and eat 5 snickers bars and can of full sugar coke.

People don’t realise that mental illness is a massive ball ache to manage.  With Bipolar Disorder I have to have a regular and strict routine.  Sleep is 100% a key factor in staying well.  If you’re Bipolar and you don’t sleep, you can kiss goodbye to the normality of your thinking patterns.  I get creative, I think if I can’t sleep I obviously don’t need it.  I get racing thoughts, my eyes play tricks on me and my whole world that I’ve worked by backside off to achieve falls down around me like a sack of mouldy potatoes with no where else to go.   

When you’ve been in hospital 6 times, twice facing being sectioned if you don’t comply, when you’ve seen some of the things I’ve seen people do behind the locked door of a psychiatric ward then trust me, the second you realise the life of a normal person who can party like a rock star isn’t possible because you need to take the beast of Bipolar in hand; then you’ll realise the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to question if you really want to repeat the cycle of self-destruction just because the rest of the world thinks you’re boring and you should just enjoy yourself because life is just too short….Well yes, life is too short, it’s even shorter when you’re living part of it on a Bolton psychiatric ward losing weeks and months of time trying to discover what reality actually looks like because believe me, when you find your way back into the real world you will never get back the time you have lost.

Try having a physical condition on top of a mental one.  Try having a bowel that doesn’t work and the doctors just keep saying drink plenty, eat more fibre and increase your dose of senna.  Try needing an operation for an Ileostomy and having to wait 12 months for it and while you’re waiting you have to sit by the door in the office so you can get to the toilet in time.  Try having to use two hot water bottles at work because you’re in too much pain and intense heat is the only thing that helps.

I love my stoma, I really do and I never need to worry about where the nearest toilet is because it’s now attached to me. But 1 year later tell me how you feel when you sneeze and you feel something inside you drop.  Tell me how you feel when the stoma nurse tells you your stomach muscles have collapsed and that’s just what happens when you have keyhole surgery.  Tell me what your reaction is when your stoma changes shape and becomes the size of tennis ball.  What do you do about the pain?  What do you do when you have to push hard on your stoma because there’s a bulge around it and you know it’s a partial parastomal hernia but the stoma nurse says it’s nothing because your tummy always sticks out when you’ve had abdominal surgery.  When the GP says you need to lose weight what do you do?

What do you do?

Well if you’re me you just get on with it.  You suck it up because there’s no other alternative.

I tell myself I’ve been through worse.  Bipolar is way harder than anything Wilomena can throw at me.  So what if it hurts 90% of the time? Who cares if it feels like someone has their hand inside my gut and is twisting my intestines like they’re doing a tug of war? 

Sometimes the world fails us, the NHS has had so much praise over the last few months and hats off to them they’re making the best out of a bad situation, but sometimes the NHS fails us and all we’re left with is to make the best out of our own bad situation because the reality of it is, if I crumble, if I flounder and if I fall, there is no mortgage fairy and time does not stop ticking just because my mind takes a ride on the Ferris wheel of Bipolar chaos.  Life does stop to consider its options when Wilomena decides she’s having a bad day and there’s nothing you can do for the pain except lie flat and that really isn’t an option when you’re sat at a desk all day.

I’ve been through worse…

…what do I do?

I make adjustments.  I turn up the volume and I do my best at life.

When I lost my job in the summer I didn’t fight to keep it.  It was time to move on anyway so I pulled my finger out and I signed up to every job site there was going and I applied for anything I thought I could do. 

I applied for jobs that I were too far away, underpaid, overpaid, a pipe dream, too few hours, too many hours.  Caught up in a Covid world of uncertainty I never imagined I’d fall on my feet.  I got a job that I really do love.  It’s less hours, there’s no commute and I’m in love with the people.  But you know what?  Nothing has changed.  I still have Bipolar and a massively problematic stoma.  I’m still tired and I still get pain. 

So if I have to start getting ready for bed at 8pm I’m sorry.  I’m sorry this makes me boring, I’m sorry you think that because it’s the weekend you think I should

“Live a little”

But regardless of what day of the week it is, nothing has changed.

Try taking 3 mood stabilisers all of them at a high dose.  Try to manage your tiredness and all the other side effects that, believe it or not you can live with because hospital is a much worse place to be.   Try analysing your every thought every second of the day to ensure you’re on the right planet.  Try praying that every stoma twinge is not going to turn into an infection because you haven’t got the time for it and you don’t want to go into hospital when its rife with Covid. 

So if you think I’m boring, if I’m not the person you want me to be and my lifestyle doesn’t match up to what you think it should; then I’m sorry.  I have never used being Bipolar or having a stoma as a reason not to do something and yes they are the reason I live my life the way that I do, but going to bed early, not drinking, not having late nights and all the over thinking; you have to understand, it’s not holding me back from life, the routine isn’t a punishment or a sacrifice; it’s just…

…damage control…

…it’s just me looking after myself so that I can go to Josh Groban concerts.  I go easy so that should Covid ever take a break I can invite a friend over for a curry and a chocolate cake we probably shouldn’t eat.  

All of this is so that I can meet my friends for coffee after work.  I do this so that I can go to work every day.  If I work I can pay for a holiday where I can take stupid selfies, eat ice cream and do doggy paddle in the infinity pool like a pro because I was never any good at breast stroke.  I can have my moment of Hollywood fame where I act out the priceless moment of getting out of the pool like a supermodel but it turns into a scene from Jaws where I look like I’m being dragged back in by a frenzied shark. But my favourite part is lying on a sun lounger with my ostomy bag basking in the scorching sun and everyone else is staring like its an alien and I’m just like…

“Yeah, I crap in a bag, what of it?”

My daily routine is dull as dishwater so that I can stand up in front of a crowded room and say…

“…this is how I do it and as dramatic as it might sound, this is how I’m alive.”

I am who I am because I take control.  Sometimes I loosen reigns, sometimes I try to fit too much into the few hours that we get during the day and sometimes I don’t do enough. 

…but everything I do, every technicality of the routine I call damage control is so that I can be the best version of myself. 

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Reading time: 11 min

How do I sum up something in the briefest of ways without taking up too much of your time but also having the space to give you a big enough impression of what my younger years were like?

I hate to dwell on my younger years.  I don’t like to give my childhood too much “air time” because it’s not something I can change.  What is it they say on Love Island?

“It is what it is.”

I don’t want my childhood to define me, but the trouble with growing up is, whether we like it or not, it’s shapes us.  It moulds us into the adults that we become.  We go from impressionable children to grown up humans who have choices…do we become the worst version of ourselves?  Or do we become the best?

I grew up in a sociologically approved nuclear family; two children, and two parents.  We appeared to the outside world to be the perfect family.  My parents were hard working , my Mum was an Assistant Head Teacher at a secondary school in a unit for hearing impaired children. My Dad started out as a mechanic and I knew from a very young age how hard he worked because his hands and fingernails were always black with oil and grease that no amount of scrubbing could ever clear.

My Dad was rarely in the family home and my younger brother and I were always told that he was “driving”.  This meant that he was out doing long haul driving trips from one end of the country to the other in forklift trucks and he would be gone for days…but I never missed him.  Whenever he was off on one of his “driving” trips it was a relief because it was respite because he ran our house like a military camp. 

The first thing I ever did wrong was be born a girl.  In Greek families the first born is expected to be born a boy, I never got to understand the reasons why but whatever they were I had already disappointed him before I even had the chance to learn how to talk.

I grew up with so many rules and regulations that I didn’t realise until I was around 14 or 15 that my friends and my peers didn’t have the same rules in their families.  When my dad came home from work we had to be at the bottom of the stairs ready to greet him with our best Greek before he was able to put his key in the door…

“Kalispera Baba…”

We had one of three responses…

  1. “Spera!”
  2. “Disappear!”
  3. “Bedroom inspection 10 minutes.”

Number 3 was the worst.  1 and 2 meant we could retreat back to our bedrooms, out of sight out of mind and out of trouble.  Three was problematic.  Bedroom inspection meant we had to blitz our quarters to his satisfaction and specifications and not one of those things was easily obtainable.

The bed had to be poker straight, no lumps in the sheet and the duvet had to be tucked in at all the corners. The bin had to be empty because if it wasn’t he would empty the contents on our beds.  He’d run his fingers along every surface looking for dust and if he found it he would wipe it on our clothes.  He would check our school bags for drugs and cigarettes and threaten us with strip searches. He would favour one bedroom over the other and whoever was deemed failure in that moment had look at the other person’s success and learn from them because they were better. But neither me or my brother were ever better in that moment, we were just lucky.

We were never physically abused but the verbal torment was difficult to live with.  I was a constant disappointment, I was ugly, I walked funny; my brother was naturally clever and bright.  He was popular at school and slotted into society like a well-oiled machine.  I may have been jealous of my brother growing up but I never resented him.  He was my ally.  He was the one who after the humiliation would knock on my bedroom door and say,

“Do you want to borrow my Roxette tape?”

Everything in the Spathis family household came down to three things, money, appearances and control.  To the outside world we had to look like the perfect family and we were lucky to be in it because we had food on the table, clothes on our back and a month long holiday every summer to Greece.  Did I want any of that? Not really.  I just wanted to be loved.  I wanted my Dad to love me.  Looking back I put too much effort in to trying to please and impress someone who couldn’t be pleased or impressed.

My dad made a constant point that money was an important part of life, it was the most important part of life.  When I got my first part time job at the age of 16 I had to offer my Dad my £17.50 as a gesture and a contribution to the household because I was earning now.  He didn’t take it but the lesson I had to learn was that I owed him.

Everything in life comes at a cost and I was quick to learn that enjoyment sometimes costs a little bit too much. My mum and I love the band James.  Their song “Sit Down” is an anthem of my younger years and every time it comes on the radio I can still hear my mum singing along in the car as she drove us to school. 

When James announced their tour in 1999 the band were at the top of their game and tickets were like gold dust but with the pay from my Saturday job I could afford to go so my Mum and I forked out for two tickets. 

Miraculously we had decent seats but it wouldn’t have mattered, just being in the same room as Tim Booth back then was an honour and a moment to remember forever.

The following morning my mum made a fry up.  Bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs and toast.  I’ve never been a big breakfast eater and meal times were always stressful at home but I’d been witness to one of the best concerts in my own little history so I had a big smile on my face as I cut into my bacon rasher.

My dad asked how much the tickets were, back then concerts were reasonably priced we’d paid around £30 for each ticket.  He asked how much the carpark had cost, I remember it was £5.  I’d bought a t-shirt, how much was that? I think it was £15.  I remember the mood changing at the breakfast table.  He picked at everything, he was angry we’d spent so much money on something so trivial.  He left the table in a temper and I stared down at my plate with a bit of bacon and cold scrambled egg remaining.  I lost my appetite because I felt guilty.  I’d wasted money and I had nothing to show for it that was of any use to anyone else, I had been selfish.

I scraped the last bit of my breakfast into the bin.  Just as the last bit of my half-eaten bacon rasher was falling into the dustbin abyss my Dad walked back into the room…now I was wasting food.

“GET THE FOOD OUT OF THE BIN!”

I fished out as much of the scrambled mush and the wet bacon rasher that I could salvage.  I don’t remember his exact words, but I had to eat the food that had been in the bin.  His words are not relevant because I know how he felt as he stared down at me crying into my dirty breakfast.  Disappointment, hatred, disgust.

All the way up until that point I had tolerated him because I had to.  But this, this was the final straw.  The feelings of disappointment, hatred and disgust were mutual.  I wanted out of the Spathis household. 

As a child I had begged my mum to send me to boarding school so I could escape.  I wanted to be like Pat and Isabel in The Twins at St Clares or like Darrell Rivers in Mallory Towers but the difference was I would never complain the way they did in the books.  Boarding school sounded perfect but my only option was to work my backside off and go to university.  Leave and just go.  Get the hell out and live life the way I never could if I stayed at home.

It’s funny really, reflecting on all of this; because as I said, he really wasn’t around that much.  My Dad was a Grade A adulterer.  God knows how but he had women falling at his feet left right and centre.  I’m guessing he probably made some of them feel like he could save them, I’m not sure what from but I’m certain in most cases he destroyed them.

I caught him once.  He had a guy working for him who went to prison, my Dad promised this unfortunate soul that we would watch over his family while he rotted in a cell wearing a prison issued tracksuit.  It was only when I saw my Dad with my 13-year-old eyes as he put his arms around the waist of his co-workers wife that something in me said “nah, that’s not right.”  I’d seen Saved by the Bell, I’d watched Zack and Kelly get it on and it looked a lot like what was going on in front of me and it was wrong! So wrong. 

I talked to my Mum about what I’d witnessed and it was downhill from there. When my dad knew what I’d seen he called me a liar. I was making up stories, I was poison, evil and it was another three years before he admitted that what I’d seen was the truth.

My parents split up twice, once when I was really young and the second time I was 16.  When they got back together the first time I remember my Grandma asking me if I was glad my Dad was coming home, I said yes, but I meant no.  She didn’t know what it was like at home but I wanted her to be happy.

The second split was only supposed to be a temporary thing.  He threw us out of the family home, me, my brother and my mum.  He went on holiday with the woman he’d lied about three years before and told us we had three weeks to find somewhere else to live and move out.  If we didn’t he said we’d just have to deal with it when he brought someone back after a night out. 

It was three months before we found a beaten-up cottage that had more problems than you can imagine.  What was intended to be temporary turned into 17 years.

Call it what you will, unfair, cruel, downright unbelievable, but even when the walls were literally falling down around us, at least the three of us were finally safe.  We were safe from his hatred and his immediate cruelty but he still controlled us, my Mum in particular, for a further 18-19 years until she was in a strong enough place to divorce him; and now he is nothing.

If I ever say anything to people about my life growing up, some ask…

“Why didn’t your Mum do anything?”

I used to ask myself the same thing.  In the moments where it counted, when we were waiting to be told we could eat, when he told me I was a waste of a person, when he picked at how I dressed, when I got B’ s instead of A’s, when I just existed and he didn’t like it, why didn’t she tell him to stop?

Because she couldn’t.  Because it wasn’t possible. Because she had it worse out of all of us and I didn’t know that until now.

My mum sometimes says she hopes I can forgive her.  But there’s nothing to forgive.  In the end she rescued us and she took us to a safer place where we could be who we wanted to be.  My brother could experiment with his hair and order a takeaway every Friday night with his friends.  I could invite my friends over and we’d sit and listen to music and talk about the boys we liked at 6th from.  I could write stories and I could buy whatever I wanted with my £17.50 and not have to hide it.  We could live without the fear of being judged or ridiculed and what’s more is, she continues to rescue us every single day; financially, physically and emotionally. 

My Mum is my best friend, she’s my oracle; she knows me better than I know myself.  She’s the strongest woman I have ever known and I forget about the things she’s been through because she always looks ahead. Even when she doesn’t feel like it she works hard at life to make it better for everyone else. I would never have achieved any of the things I have if it wasn’t for Mum. 

She feeds us, pays for the broken toilet, takes in parcels and is a sponge for the trials and tribulations of adult and working life.  She is the first person to take a stand when the mental health system bails on me and everyone around us and I know when she reads this she’ll be thinking, “Kat, I really wish you hadn’t done this” and my answer to that is, “suck it up Glenny, because it’s the truth.”

Every story has a hero.  My mum is mine…

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Reading time: 12 min