A tough month or two for writing – but still a bunch of good things have happened

The last few months have been hard. Several things have combined to remove many of the anchors that keep me grounded and help me manage my anxiety. Loss of routine, plus a sense of impending threat to home, which I’ve been lucky enough to have as a safe space means many of my coping mechanisms have been challenged. The small routines and rituals that help me manage both physical and mental health have been thrown into disarray by various levels of disruption that more than a little too close to home.

So what’s been happening? You may remember we were facing the prospect of a house being built on the opposite – which would mean having the owners garden and living areas just feet from our bedroom windows, as well as a big increase in noise and light pollution on a day to day basis. We found out in June that planning permission has been given. This has left many of us in our little community at best perplexed and at worst dealing with an unsettling feeling of betrayal and hurt. I managed to be pretty chilled and philosophical about it al at first, but recent weeks have seen me feeling rattled by the injustice, and lack of understanding. Managing these emotions is hard and takes an enormous amount of energy – that is often in short supply.

We’ve also been doing a bit of renovation, with a view to moving, or a view to making things nice if we stay. Old houses always need more doing than is anticipated, and we’ve come up against various delays that have meant a long old time with a house full of boxes and dust.  Add in a huge upturn in my paid work and you have the prefect recipe for a significant spike in mental distress. No time means no writing, no writing means no release and no release means no peace. Neglecting the things that allow me to make sense of what’s happening, and to grow as a person, rather than be constrained by the poor behaviour of others, is foolish. I am turning over yet another new leaf.

Hope is emerging. The work on the house is coming to an end, I’m working hard to move on from the hurt and anger to a place of reflection and understanding (we’ll see how that goes once the diggers and concrete move in) and I’m finally feeling the words come back.

Despite all this turmoil and challenge, I’ve lots of lovely poetry news this month. I’ve put together a small exhibition of poetry and photographs that’s on display locally, had several poems accepted for publication including an absolute favourite Whilst you were doing that Adria was jumping rope for three hours published in the fabulous Sledgehammer Lit. I’m particularly fond of this poem because both technique and content are more “me” if that makes sense. The poem is a cut-up poem ( a technique which brings me a real spark of excitement) based on an article about the reality of being a Victoria’s Secret model, which naturally leads to questions about body image and our response to the ideals placed upon us.

The other good thing is that my second column has been published in Spelt magazine, and I’ve managed to do my first ever live reading as part of the magazine launch. I was nervous, obviously, but I do really like the column I’ve written for this issue and the gentle support of everyone involved including editor Wendy Pratt made me feel safe enough to enjoy the experience.

So I keep moving, even when everything feels impossible and all I really want to do is run away to the sea. I’ve a few new projects coming up, plus a new group course which is proving to be just the right balance of challenge and interest. Autumn is coming, the wheel keeps turning and hope is always somewhere to be found.

EMDR published today on Fevers of the Mind

Speed post to let you know I’ve a new poem about EMDR therapy, published today on Fevers of the Mind.

The words do come back

For the first time in months I’ve woken with a poem in my head. It’s not terribly good,but it’s there, and now it’s tapped out into my noteapp waiting to be read.

This year has been strange. Much of it has been taken with trying to save an old garden opposite our houses – it’s a bit wild, and has been consciously neglected by the current owners to facilitate their somewhat ironic plans to build an eco house. The upside of this neglect created a home for such an array of birds and wildlife – it’s sad that it will be torn up under the cloak of sustainability.

Wild garden – soon to replaced by a house

Trying to save this garden has taken lots of time, lots of writing, lots of emotion and lots of the energy I usually use to write creatively. The decision has been made and the developers got their way. I am happy we tried our best to save it, happy we were on the side of good, and above all happy that my happiness does not depend on something that causes so much distress to the land and our village community.

So there’s been that. There’s also been the curious challenges associated with everything reopening. I’m thrilled to be able to see people, thrilled to go out but also really don’t want to get back on the merry-go-round of exhaustion and recovery. I seem to have forgotten how to modify and manage myself – interaction is so terrifying/exciting it sets all my alert sensors off and inevitably I end up completely floored. I need to go back to monitoring my baseline and careful planning….

I’m also in an oddly buoyant patch of copy and content writing work – this means my brain can barely find the creativity to read, never mind write. Where 5.30am starts were once for poetry and journalling,they’re now for product descriptions and web content. Work is wonderful, and the money is essential but I’m very much out of bakance. I’ve missed the calm of the last year, an realise how much I crave either absolute routine or absolute spontaneity. At the moment I’m in a limbo mix of the two that I’m not enjoying.

The words do come back

There’s a hazel tree in the woods at the back of the house that I sit under and it’s become a place to just be, and to let my mind wander and recover a little. The words are slowly coming back, the thrill at reading good poetry is returning and I’m starting to feel like myself again, to feel like my mind is my home.

Publications in June

Precious few subs have meant precious few pieces published (odd that) I do have two new pieces out this month. I am – the story of a tiger girl is part of Streetcake magazine and another due to be published in the amazing Sledgehammer Lit. Issue two of Spelt is due to land soon too – it’s going to be incredible and I’m still a bit giddy to be a regular columnist for them.

What’s next?

I’m setting aside a day for writing. I have a commissioned piece to finish, and perhaps a new piece to start. I’ve discovered some exciting new places to submit to too, thanks to a Twitter thread from Elizabeth M. Castillo. I don’t think I’ve given myself a day like this in months. It’s quite wonderful.

Writing through Anxiety

A difficult ten days or so here. Ten days of intermittent anxiety attacks, feelings of absolute hopelessness and all the jolly symptoms that go hand in hand with an anxiety disorder. I’m on the other side (more of that later) and can trace back to the triggers, but I’d forgotten how frightening it is to be in the midst of it all.

What is an anxiety attack?

I think they’re different for everyone. For me the symptoms build up over several days. I know it’s coming when I start becoming fixated on the possibility of loved ones dying, as well as becoming obsessed by detail of any task. I lose the ability to cope with change, and can crack without obvious warning. The attacks peak with symptoms that are similar to a panic attack – rapid uncontrollable breathing, rapid heartbeat. It’s scary.

As well as these peaks, I experience an intense malaise, feelings of worthlessness, and feel profoundly ashamed that I can’t control my mind. I finished a year of EMDR therapy just 12 months ago, and genuinely thought I was “over it”.

What are the triggers?

A combination of exhaustion from taking on too much as well as a couple of things on TV that tapped some past incidents are what I trace back to. I think being over-stretched meant my brain hadn’t got the resources to rationalise and reason. I couldn’t remember any of the techniques I’d been taught, and couldn’t seem to talk myself down. It’s like being on a train that you know is going the wrong way but you can’t stop it. Being busy meant I let much of my good habits (I keep a gratitude diary and practice tapping therapy) lapse. Like forgetting to exercise I suppose.

What happened to stop the anxiety?

Things peaked a few days ago. It wasn’t great. On Thursday I happened on this tweet from Matt Haig

It resonated, and somehow landed, and I think started the path back.

Thursday also saw the start of NaPoWriMo – a month of writing poems. I’m part of an online group, Wendy Pratt’s April Write-a-thon, writing, reading and feeding back. Thursday’s challenge was to write a sestina, using six set words – nothing specifically to do with anxiety – and out it all came. The discipline of the sestina seemed to calm me. It was a poem that came from the dark place where I was living – and yes, “getting it out” genuinely helped. It created clarity, and perhaps distance. It’s not a bad poem either.

I’m not out of the woods, and a bunch of physical M.E. symptoms has clustered (dealing with the huge amounts of adrenaline created by anxiety takes its toll) but I am less trapped by it. I feel like myself for the first time in what feels like an age.

I rarely post about this these days, but today this feels right . I feel like celebrating feeling better, and feel chastened that I stopped taking the care I should.

Have a happy day, take care, wash your hands, wear a mask and pick up your litter.

Kathryn xx

Writing poetry in a pandemic

I’m reading a great deal about how much harder this lockdown is – and it feels strange reaching the anniversary of what many of us believed might be a brief period of hibernation. This anniversary means that the reality of a whole year of living through a pandemic hits hard. For me it still feels almost dreamlike, and although my digital footprint continually reminds me of all the confusion and fear of last year, it still feels otherworldly.

The fear has faded – and taken the adrenaline and fervour with it. Hackneyed use of warlike language has abated, and ever more sensational the headlines are continually created to turn our minds to other issues. It feels a little as though we are trying to hide from the anniversary, the horrific loss of life  and the ongoing uncertainty.

This uncertainty that is the challenge. A string of unkeepable promises means the dates hung before us are no longer  something to look forward to, but something we gingerly hope may happen, and gingerly hope won’t cause further damage. Shifting sands and changing tales all cause a sense of needing to double check oneself, and needing to keep hope at bay.

Yet normal life continues. I enjoy a nice dinner, clear up the latest mouse head the cat has brought in, watch for the daffodils opening and the first shoots of early spring – the phrase “this time last year” reverberates, and there is a whiff of nostalgia for that feeling of being “all in it together”.  My anchors haven’t changed, but my need for them has increased immeasurably.

Music and travel all in one bag from Syd Records

Writing during a pandemic is hard

Writing is hard this year. I feel my work has gone backwards a little, and I don’t seem able to concentrate or focus. Maybe tiredness, maybe M.E. maybe just the culmination of a singularly peculiar year – where my normal stimuli of live music, travel and time by the sea have been curtailed. I’ve work forthcoming in some great spaces, notably The Dawntreader, as well as a poem in Louise Mather’s celebration of cats Feline Utopia and my column in Spelt magazine, but the sense of losing myself in writing, that fizz of excitement when something is really coming together is absent. Perhaps  just need to step back for a while – read more, listen to more, replenish my soul battery.

Thanks as ever for reading, stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands,

Kathryn

xx

The final gift of 2020

My news feed is full of folk feeling joy at “seeing off” 2020. I get it. The year has oscillated between terrible and banal, frustration and despair. People have lost loved ones in a way none of us would choose. Teachers, healthcare workers,retail staff, hospitality teams are all working to keep things running so we can keep feeling “normal”. The year has been hard, and the things that keep us going have, well, gone.

Christmas covid-style. Fire pit and family.

For me – it’s not been so very different. Being trapped at home is my “normal” and in many ways not feeling the pressure to socialize (one of my biggest energy sappers) has created a sense of calm. I miss people terribly, but I realize that the round of events I rope myself into does need to be managed more closely when we emerge from the constraints imposed by the pandemic.

We’ve had fun stuff too. Lockdown birthdays with Llama bunting, livestreamed gigs, a visit from friends complete with exciting trip to get a sausage roll from our local café. It’s been a year of thinking small, and learning what I really love.

This considered calm has meant more writing. I’ve developed so much this year. I think I’ve had more publications, including my pieces in Popshot and Paper Swans Press, I’ve launched my own bespoke poetry business and dipped my toes back into flash fiction.  More than this, I feel like something has shifted – I feel like I understand that I’ll never understand,that I’ll never feel like the world’s best writer, that my work may never be declaimed from the rooftops. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I write, what matters is that I think. I end the year feeling that small quiet strength that carries me through so many changes and challenges.



The final gift of 2020 came a few days before Christmas, when we learned our neighbours are planning to build a large house directly opposite our bedroom window. This means we may be facing a house move. This in turn means leaving a community we’ve been part of for twenty years, and losing the support, safety and calm I enjoy and rely on for my mental and physical health. It’s a blow, and has caused some distress during an already fretful Christmas,but I’m trying to keep my positive hat on and see this as an opportunity rather than a loss.

I’ve been lucky to have this view for 20 years. It seems my luck has changed.


Sending hopeful wishes and thanks for your support over what has been a most unusual twelve months. Here’s to more love, kindness and empathy.

Kathryn xx

Popshot and positivity

Would you like to hear some positive stuff? Amongst the disruption of Covid, and fear around curious political manoeuvrings, 2020 has been challenging to say the least. In amongst all this, there have been some personal positives. This has been my best year so far in terms of publication, with work appearing in high profile online journals, being placed in Paper Swans Press single poetry competition and now appearing in Popshot- which feels like a big achievement. The feeling of holding something in my hand which has my words inside is hard to beat.

 I feel a little awkward about the poem – it’s about something that makes me uncomfortable, and something that I rarely talk about (put paid to that haven’t I?) but issues around body image follow many of us throughout our lives. I thought I was fat when I was seven stone, I thought I was fat when I was nine stone (a fact reiterated by a helpful GP) I’ve never felt comfortable with my body, the responses it elicits and the assumptions that are made. I’m an average size now, to go with my just over average height (and gosh I hate to be average anything) but I still long to be tall and interestingly skinny. Preferably adorned with a permanent pair of Magenta de Vine style sunglasses.

This issue of Popshot is about freedom, and being free from my body is a curious hope, (especially now M.E. means I can’t even enjoy a simple walk – it’s like a prison on some days)  but this poem represents that freedom, as well as touching on the power and promise of the ocean. I’m angry that we are so manipulated into believing we have to present our bodies in a certain way that we’ve damaged our digestive systems with endless diets, spend thousands plucking and colouring and poking to meet some ideal that no one really understands any more. I’m not angry with the fact that people do these things, I’m just frustrated that we are so trained to dislike ourselves that looking like someone else feels like the only way to be happy.

Aha I promised positivity didn’t I? I think being able to talk about this is positive – chats with colleagues and friends about diets have always brought a feeling of absolute inadequacy, and a huge sense of anxiety. Enjoying food in front of others is always tainted by wondering  what assessments are being made and I always long to be the person who fulfils the stereotype and orders proper ladies’ food like a dainty salad* just so I can avoid the feeling of being judged.  I never do and always end up in a pull of pride at not bowing to convention, and an overwhelm of self- loathing. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Writing this poem is a bit of battle cry, a bit of determination not to be bowed down by convention. Will it make a difference to how I feel? Who knows, but I hope reading my poem brings a spark of positivity and more than that I hope freedom begins to move beyond the waves. The fact that it has such a powerful, apposite illustration courtesy of Shut Up Claudia is the icing on the, ahem, cake.

You can buy Popshot from leading news outlets like WHSmith, or via the Popshot website. The Freedom issue is full of work that is funny, moving and challenging and I’m proud to be part of it.

*no disrespect to those who order a dainty salad.

July

has been a difficult month. Various events have conspired to create a wave of minor panic attacks and underlying swell of anxiety that I’ve been free of for some time. These patches will come and go, and I’m better equipped to meet them head on and use all those techniques like counting things and managed breathing to jerk my brain from its doom-filled track. These techniques don’t always work, and it’s fair to say that living with this kind of intense anxiety is exhausting (and scary).

I’ve also been more active socially – by which I mean I’ve been to my mom’s for socially distanced egg and chips – and I’ve realised that this takes a lot more energy than I think. When we were in full lockdown my days felt more my own. As soon as I began to see other people, or to venture out of the house ( a slightly disappointing trip to Ellesmere) I get trapped in a cycle of preparation and recovery that means where I once had seven days in a week, I’m suddenly down to three. Being of a perfectionist persuasion, I’ve been trying to maintain seven days’ worth of activity, so where day to day things like cooking and cleaning were nicely spread out, I’ve ended up exhausted and unable to take on any freelance work, and certainly unable to write.

This is the reality I suppose. M.E. doesn’t go away and I feel like I’ve got to learn my baseline all over again. Combine this with leaden skies and the general terror of the times and it’s no wonder my brain has been on high alert. I haven’t written a single thing this month and I’ve missed it terribly. Even my journal is patchy, just scraps of thoughts and the odd drawing.

Wallowing is not my style though (I prefer tear-filled rage) so as August begins, so does another set of resolutions – to make time, to ease up on the cleaning obsession, to ask for help and to write. I’ll see how I get on.

August also brings a new publication, which is a bit of a big deal to me – Popshot magazine is notoriously hard to get into (I only discovered this after I submitted or I’d never have tried) so having a poem published as part of their Freedom issue is incredible. I’ll do a proper post about it next week, but if you are venturing into the shops you’ll be able to buy a copy in WHSmith – if anyone does please take a photo of it and send it to me  – it’s my first piece of print out in the wild as it were.

That’s it for now – here’s to a better August for all of us. Stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask and be lovely.

Thanks for reading

Kathryn xx

How does mental health impact on M.E.? *

The last couple of weeks have been tricky – I lost one week to M.E., which is never nice and seem to have taken a little longer than usual to recover. It’s been a curious combination of cold weather and reaction to revisiting past trauma, I think.

The cold weather is simple to understand – like loads of people who experience joint and muscle pain as soon as the weather turns cool and damp the pain in my limbs shoots up. It stops me sleeping and makes moving, showering etc. tricky. I’m used to it, don’t like it and think it’s yet another reason I should move to live in Abel Tasman.

The impact of my mental health is something I’m still coming to terms with. For a long time, I’ve fought against this idea, simply because a common derision of M.E. is “it’s all in your mind” (it’s not. if it was, I’d have scooted it out long ago). My EMDR therapist last year gently mentioned this and I felt very defensive – after the year of treatment though I noticed a difference. My symptoms were still present, but it was easier to find and stick to a baseline. I’ve also noticed that my symptoms increase at certain flashpoints (October through to Christmas is always hard) . So what’s caused this latest flare? It seems to have been my lovely poetry course – it’s called Telling your Story and touched a few trigger points for me. My first thought was “oh the therapy’s not worked” but I realised it has – it’s just not complete. The fact that I can recognise and take steps to minimise damage show that my instinct to survive is stronger than my instinct to destroy. There will always be triggers (just like for everyone) the difference is I know what to do, even if it takes a while for me to get there.

What does this have to do with M.E.? I don’t know is the honest answer – it’s just a connection I’ve made and that seems to hold up. There’s theories that past pain is stored in our bodies, theories that people with M.E. have developed a particular personality type that is the result of trauma. The idea of whole body health isn’t new, and each time I fall into this I realise that making time for good mental health practice is as important as making time for good physical health practice. I’m a bit rubbish at both, but I am getting better!

The other inescapable impact is the fear and chaos around every corner. I feel ill placed to talk of the current situation, but it feels wrong not to. I’m vehement in my belief in equality and at this moment that means supporting BLM – I can do very little other than educate myself and acknowledge my own privilege. This concept is something that seems to make people extremely uncomfortable – but you know my nan did it for years – she called it counting her blessings. Being aware that circumstance has given me opportunities that have been denied to others doesn’t denigrate the society I was born into. Not fighting to make sure everyone has the same opportunity to be the best they can be does.  

*this is my own personal experience – everyone with M.E. has different symptoms and stories. This is why we need research.

Thank you for reading, stay safe, speak up and wash your hands. I’d love your feedback and as ever if you like, comment and share on social media it helps beat the algorithm and raise my profile as a writer. Normal poetry musings will resume next week.

How to look after your mind while doing the best for your body

I was very poorly at the start of the year, which meant I spent most of January trapped at home, and a couple of weeks in one room. My biggest mistake was forgetting to pay attention to my mental state. This kind of isolation is something we’re all likely to face over the coming weeks, with added elements of fear and uncertainty to make things just that little bit tougher. Therapy last year has made me mentally more resilient, and I’ve been able to identify what I’d do differently next time so I thought it might be useful to people in the same situation. I didn’t think I’d have chance to test it quite so soon….

Create a routine

This is the most important thing, not so much if I’m really ill and all my body wants is to sleep, but for the times when I feel a bit better but can’t do loads. Over the last seven years I’ve learnt that having a rhythm to my life keeps me balanced. In an ideal week I get up as I would if I was going out to work and keep set hours. I can’t “work” for a full eight hour day, but I can do a couple of hours of something (writing/reading/gardening etc.) over the course of the day. I have a lunch break, and I “finish” in the evening. I try to keep my weekends as some semblance of a weekend, so that’s the time for lolling on the sofa, or eating a fancy dinner.  A routine helps me feel in control and keep a leash on the panic, so I can cope when things don’t go to plan

Treat yourself well

The worst thing about being so poorly is not being able to wash and be clean. Other than my scheduled rest days or if I’m crashed, I always try to get up, shower and dress. I have work clothes (thankfully not orange owl printed crimplene anymore), and I have nicer clothes that I wear at the weekend. I’m not swishing about the house in a ballgown (often) but I’ll put on some make-up and perfume if I fancy. It all makes me feel a bit more like me, if that makes sense.

Do different things

If there’s anything good about all this, it’s the raft of online resources that are popping up. There’s ways to visit a gallery, take a trip to the zoo and loads of online courses available for free. At the moment social distancing feels like a great time to do nothing but watch box sets and eat pizza. This is a wonderful activity, but it gets dull really quickly, and dullness leads to boredom which leads to apathy and suddenly getting off the sofa is a lot harder than it should be.

Talk to people

This is a biggie, and the single most important change I’ve made in the last year. Some weeks I see my partner for about ten minutes a day – his having to work  late and me being ill in bed makes communication hard, and it often gets to the point where the sound of my own voice is alien to me – like listening to a recording. This makes me nervous to speak, which feeds social anxiety and becomes self-perpetuating.  I hated talking on the phone and relied almost exclusively on text and social media to talk to anyone outside my own four walls. Since about September, I’ve been having regular phones calls with my dear friend, and this has made so much difference. We schedule a time, so I don’t have the panic that usually accompanies an unexpected call and spend about half an hour just chatting about everything and nothing. I’d really recommend doing this, even if you’re not usually a phone person, there’s something about the twists and turns of conversation that can’t be replicated by typing.

Eat well

Being well enough to cook is tricky, and it’s easy to slip into eating nothing but toast. I’m not going to repeat all the stuff about fruit and veg (but yes, eat fruit and veg), especially when these things are hard to get. I tend to keep “easy” foods in for ill times, so for me that’s ready to eat rice, chickpeas, tuna and eggs. It’s all stuff that takes minutes to open and eat as gives me good quality nutrition. I also fail completely and trough the packet of biscuits I was saving for if I have visitors, which feels wonderful for about six minutes and six minutes only.

Get outside

All those Italians on their balconies have the right idea. Even if I’m not up to walking, I try to feel fresh air on my face as often as I can, even if that’s as tiny as putting my head out of the window. Being outside takes me out of my own head somehow too. I’m lucky enough to have a small garden, and even a short time sitting watching a bunch of ants doing ant things or listening to blackbirds showing off about who’s the best blackbird ever, helps me put distance between myself and my thoughts.

Be weak

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it.  Reality is that our culture of repressing emotions, the much adored stiff upper lip, is bad for my mental health. Squashing stuff down gives it power, and sometimes that power becomes too much to cope with – cue tough times for my mind. It’s hard to ask for help, but harder to live without it. If you’ve got a friend you can trust to listen, then get in touch. At the end of January, I sent dear friend a scared email saying how I was feeling, and the impact of hearing someone say “it’s ok, I’ll help” was huge. It’s taken me years to get to this point, but I’m glad I have.

I know not everyone has their own “dear friend”, but there is still help – Samaritans and Mind are invaluable resources with trained listeners who will help you work out what you need.  

That’s it for now, I hope it’s helpful. I’m hoping my brain will have stepped out of panic mode soon so I can write creatively again. If you’re lucky (?!) my next post might be called Odes to Corona.

Stay safe, wash your hands and if you can, please stay home xxx