Patchwork Time – for World Mental Health Day

I had a go at stitching my patchwork quilt the other night. It’s pretty old now. Dad gave it to me years ago.

I spread it on my bed every year, around the time Dad died, because that’s when it starts getting nippy. Early October.

I’ve been meaning to repair it for ages, not wanting it to fall apart, tricking myself it’s because I think everyone should have a cute patchwork quilt that lasts for their lifetime, when really it’s simply because he touched it and touching it makes me feel like a part of him is still here.

Quite without planning the other night I found myself reaching for the sewing tin to begin to sew up the jaggedy rips. It was only as I stopped stitching that I realised it was a funny night to be doing it; the day he was found dead. Two days after he’d done it. The 6th, 7th, 8th of October are always grim days. Picturing him hanging there. This year, I’d been quietly proud of myself all day that I hadn’t been a mess. That I even felt happy. Having a daughter has been fantastic medicine for many things.  My subconscious must have reached for the blanket then; a practical way of acknowledging this new phase of grief; a cosy handling of time. In control. Not too sad. I never thought I’d reach this stage.

Dad bought the blanket for the spare bed in 1999, when my sister and I went to stay with him in Wales. It was Christmas. We were sulky to change our usual Christmas tradition of staying in our cosy burrow at home with Mum, but more than that, we were shitting ourselves. After months of bearing the load herself, Mum had told us that Dad had six months to live. She didn’t know why, he wouldn’t tell her. He wanted us to go for Christmas so he could talk to us.

So we had a sort of Christmas. But he said nothing. And then we left, got a succession of trains home to Southend, our brains so confused I can’t remember what I felt anymore. Months passed. He never talked. It was like he had never told Mum he was dying in the first place. Out of necessity, I just carried on, trying to finish a degree I no longer gave the slightest shit about. Numb. One day he gave me the blanket like a gift. Over the years it has become just another lovely thing my Dad gave me, that I’m glad to have, but really, at its source, it is the backdrop of the time I waited to hear what I thought would be the worst news I’d ever hear, not knowing the worst news would come a few years later, in 2003, when he hanged himself. Another unexpected development.

Dad was an ill man. I had been kept from the troubling spots of his bi-polar character and phases my whole life, and then shit got real. That Christmas, when we waited for him to tell us he was dying. Perhaps he was going to lie and say he’d got a massive tumour or something. I don’t know. Perhaps he was planning on killing himself then; preparing us in the only way you can without saying “FYI: I AM GOING TO KILL MYSELF. NO, DON’T TRY TO STOP ME, I REALLY AM SET ON IT. SOZ.” Perhaps having some time with his children made him realise he couldn’t do it, then. It got delayed.

He was ill. Not consistently – very often he was joy and activity and fun and inspiration and kindness and support and sharp intelligence and love – but the illness waited for him, and he waited for it. Mourning him and puzzling over the act of his suicide has made me ill many times through the years. Grief feels like a mental illness because although it might be spun from the circumstances of losing someone rather than inner chemical workings, it is still a mental trap; a dark labyrinth that takes years to find your way out of, often feeling like you don’t have the strength to keep going. Then there’s the worrying you have ‘the same thing’ as you father. The fear of that legacy.

The blanket began as uncertainty and confusion, then it became epic darkness seeming to have no end, then it became merely sadness and fondness and nostalgia and memories, until it became comfort, warmth, a winter friend. Time and I have worked together on it, not always getting along.

And now my daughter is bunny-hopping over it, it’s changing again. It will be her Grandfather’s blanket, the one she’ll never know. She’ll grow up seeing my crude stitchwork, puckering the fabric like scars. My very imperfect attempt at fixing something. And one day maybe I’ll use it to tell her that things change, and how they change, and that they can keep changing. Maybe one day it will be with her when she feels ill, comfort and warmth, maybe it will be with her when she keeps going, a stitched together reparable thing, a winter friend.

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Make it kind – Mental Health Awareness Week

I haven’t written about my father, his suicide, grief, or mental health for a while now.

I felt I should just ‘stop’. Let him rest, let it be, & stop picking the scab. But grief never really goes. It just changes.

In the last few months Dad has been present throughout my pregnancy thoughts, & now that my daughter is here my relationship with him has shifted again. During the last 15 years I have never thought ‘how could you do that to us, to me’. Tenderness battled anger and always won. Now I have a daughter, I can’t help but re-examine my feelings. How could he do that to us, his daughters? I couldn’t do it to her. I never want to leave her for a second, & the thought of being the source of her biggest sadness makes me want to be sick.

So how could he do it to me?

But of course, the answer is, mental health. It can make a man leave the loves in his life because he absolutely cannot face being alive anymore, because he cannot function, because life seems a long and unbearable journey, because it seems unfixable, because he even believes he is doing the best thing for people by leaving. Because the power of depression is sometimes so strong it even outweighs love, that beautiful thing that we are taught is stronger than anything. It’s terrifying when we discover it isn’t.

Grief changes all the time. I have struggled with losing Dad for years, the sadness very nearly made me give up myself at times, and just as grief got easier, I will now struggle with the thought that he would have had so much more love to give and receive if he could only have believed that there was help out there; in medication, in people, in good old fashioned kindness, in miraculously powerful time. I will struggle with the fact that Marcie will never meet my father, one of her granddads, but I will make sure she knows all the good things about him. And one day I will have to talk to her about mental health. I’m not sure what I’ll say yet, but I know it will be kind.

#mentalhealthawarenessweek

More things I’ve written on similar themes

Body

Sitting on the bed just now, jumble-headed & waiting for my eyes to clear enough to get up for a wee, I looked down at my swollen tummy and really looked at it. What a change. I thought about the inner intricate whirrings & industrious processes, makings of a life that i can take no credit for with my knowing brain. My body has taken over. My body, which I have never loved nor even liked much. I have been unkind to it every day.

Some people love their bodies during sex, or in the act of dressing or displaying, of styling or posing or playing or sporting or pushing themselves beyond a limit they refuse to accept; love themselves in the freedom of private pleasure, of solitary nudeness, in childish unconsciousness or the unthinkingness of orgasm; in relief, in the defiance of unacceptable sickness, in healing, in surprise at still being here, in joy they ever were, in determination to stay and be and live while they still have a body to carry them around, to permit them the grace of their fleeting existence.

I’ve still never liked my body much in any of that. But I just realised in the half-dark, with a little thing stirring awake beneath the massive earthlike arc of my skin, that I really like my body. Love it, even. Not the look of it, but the fact of it. Its new purpose.

I don’t know how I’ll feel about it in the last few weeks of pregnancy. I don’t know how I’ll feel about it during birth, or immediately afterwards, or soon afterwards or long afterwards, until it starts to age and ail me as it will. But for now, the biggest and strangest and most natural-unnatural I’ve ever been, I really love my body. And I will love loving it, for a while.

Up the Duff & Terrifyingly Fine

I told everyone I was pregnant yesterday. It wasn’t a prank or anything. It’s true. I’ve just been keeping it under my hat for 22 weeks. Well, it started under my hat then when it got a bit bigger I had to admit defeat and transfer it to my tum and honour the traditional gestational process. (Turns out a uterus is definitely better for that sort of thing than a beret.) And now it’s grown even more and there’s no getting around it anymore. Especially in confined spaces with a rucksack on. I am with child. Having a baby. Knocked up. Preggers. Up the duff. In the family way. Expecting. No longer able to say I just ate a lot of pasta.

There’s a little human growing inside me. A girl. Holy smoke.

And this is literally the best way I could think of telling people. A sort of jocular awkward kind of joke about hats and pasta, because I actually feel really shy saying anything about it at all. The kind of shy that people would scoff at and say “Yeah alright, Hasler. Shy. Course.” But I am. Because for all my splurging about sometimes intensely personal things, half a decade of writing a pretty open book column, talking about being pregnant feels like the next level of sharing. Writing columns or articles about suicide, grief, depression, other big dark things, is fine; they’re important to me, part of my guts and nerves and heart and pulse, but I’m not protective of them. I just say what I think and out it goes. But I am protective of this little thing that’s wriggling about in my big round belly. That’s a completely different thing. A creature. A living thing. Something that I must look after with every bit of strength and love and determination I have. Every good thing I possess must go into making this human grow and learn and be happy. I will have to learn and grow more in order to do a better job. A job and a devotion I must honour until I die. I’ll have to keep five steps in front of her, half a watchful step behind, and a silent step to the side, by her side, all at the same time. Until death us do part. That’s an unfathomably massive thing.

I cannot believe they’ll only let people drive a vehicle after months of expensive lessons and a big scary test, but this – actual creation – we can just crack on with on our own after a bottle of wine on a Friday night and a couple of pregnancy tests a few weeks later in the bog at work. I keep expecting someone to say “Sorry Hasler, the results have come back and you’re not cut out for it after all. That’s it; put it back.” And I wouldn’t know where to start with putting it back. I can’t even get cereal back in the box after it’s spilled on the floor. (Not that you should, but I do hate waste. Five second rule and starving kids in Africa and all that.)

And here I am, still joking about it, like it’s a box of Cheerios I could adios.

When it’s the least funny thing I have ever known. Having a baby. It’s the biggest, realest, scariest, loveliest, most important thing. I am insanely wired on the all-consuming seriousness of it, and already ready to kill for her. I am protective of her eyelashes and fingertips and her tiny little pouting mouth. I am protective of her tiny doll parts as all this sexual abuse stuff still blows around in a gale. I am protective of her heart and her receptiveness to the world and her experiences and all the people she will ever love and all her future joy.

I am having a baby. I can feel her kicking and I’ve got a feeling that’s what it’s all going to be about, for me, for the rest of my time from now on. And that is terrifyingly fine.

VTndEGR

Taking It Back

Dear David Amess MP,

I’m really glad you retracted that moronic statement you allegedly didn’t write. The one that said that “The recent revelations that countless starlets have apparently been assaulted by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein are dubious to say the least”, that “this sudden flurry of alleged inappropriate advances beggars belief.” and then, a faeces grenade from left-field, “Just as with claims against Jimmy Savile here in the UK, why did no one say anything until now?”

Wow. A sideswoop Savile defence. That’s classy, Dave.

I’m glad though that you had the guts to blame a member of your staff because you really shouldn’t be expected to take the flack for the idiocy of someone you’ve wilfully employed to be your mouthpiece when you’re busy on other matters, like making sure Southend is shown off at its best in its year of being self-appointed Alternative City of Culture. (Only two months to go til the as yet undisclosed special end of year celebrations! I hope it’s something on the end of the pier. As you well know Dave it ain’t even a thing unless it’s on the pier.)

I’m extra glad you’re putting “instructions in place to prevent this happening again”. Do keep us posted as to what happens to this churl in your employ. After all, as much as I’m loathe to accept you are there by elected means, whoever is doing your job for you is not. If they’re messing up and they weren’t even elected, get them out Dave. Liability. You don’t need any more bad press to make you look like a numptie.

The fact it was a press release presumably means you/they thought your/their two-penneth on the Weinstein matter was write-and-share-worthy.
A question for you Dave. Who asked you? No, really – who did ask you? When was it an obligatory part of your day, paid by us, to comment on the goings on in Hollywood, or to put aside your sandwich to make sure gobby women everywhere got a sharp elbow in the ribs? That’s not in your remit is it? A knee-jerk reaction to a man you don’t know getting slammed for his consistently deplorable behaviour around women? Did you/your employee think it was high time that some of these women who got all uppity over being objectified and intimidated be put in their place, by you? What is their place, Dave? On their knees, not making a fuss?

Re the laughable “why did no one say anything until now?” – you do know that it is almost never the instinct of a raped or abused woman to march straight to the police to report it, or to even mention it to family and friends, don’t you? You do realise that by the time most women can stand and breathe and talk after an attack the DNA has passed from their bodies? You do know that because of the way Everything Works most women have absolutely no faith that their claims would be taken seriously and are reluctant to expose themselves to even greater vulnerability and pain? Furthermore, you do realise that cretinous comments like yours make you complicit in the further silencing of victims?

Let’s just suppose for the sake of optimism that you really didn’t make this statement you allegedly didn’t make. Let’s assume the person who issues your statements feels like they know you well enough to comment in lieu, that they really think you’d want to stick your head above the parapet to express sympathy for a rich man who is attracting overdue universal wrath, to attempt to give the unfortunate reputation of poor Jimmy Savile, loyal friend of the Tories, a bit of a polish, and to blanket victim shame? Because that’s worrying Dave. Because they’ve either got you wrong and should be immediately dismissed, or they’ve got you right and you’re the one who should be immediately dismissed. Which is it?

Sincerely,
Most Women

Lucky Shampoo

Finding the right shampoo is like finding the right man. You hope its scent will make you stop cross-eyed and swoon, you want it to bring out the best in you like some kind of magical transformation, and occasionally you get it in the eye and wish you hadn’t.

I’m not a superstitious person, usually, I don’t think, (though I do still say hullo to lone magpies and never tread on three drains; the learnt behaviour of childhood) – but whenever I find a nice new shampoo I sometimes attribute any good luck I have to its sudsy powers until the bottle is finished. I know this is ridiculous, like some kind of new age dickhead witch seeking magic in potions, but the possibility still pops into my head nonetheless. The things we allow to course through our noggins while we’re trying to find sense and reason and patterns in life are quite often completely uninvited, unfounded, or just plain bonkers. Our imagination pitches itself against the science of the world we have been taught and think we know.

I remember my first feeling of wondering if shampoo had some kind of glutinous destiny when I was about fourteen. My first love, a boy named Joel whom I had loved from afar for months, with whom I then went on to have a steamy on-off smoochy love affair that peppered my teens like summer christmases. He liked the smell of Revlon Flex, and by golly if I wasn’t using Flex I thought our union would crumble like a cake with no butter. Then for a brief while I started doing well in science at school and put it down to the discount brand I was using at the time that made my hair softer than ice-cream and smell like blueberries. I never found the shampoo again; we only went to Kwiksave that once. Good science & I were clearly not meant to be. (This could in fact explain my formulating hotchpotch ideas about shampoo. No hard facts; just lunacy.) Perhaps this strange linking is purely down to the evocative power of scent; the nose blindsides your other senses with that power that can call to you toddler memories unbidden at the age of 36 when you smell milk formula or the perfect trinity of twiglets and orange squash and the warm plastic of a wendy house.

I suppose I still occasionally do this baffling fusing of shampoo and luck in my head, but last week I found myself thinking of it even more. I’d just cracked open a bottle of caramel and cocoa-smelling goodness that left my hair feeling like fresh combed straw, too stripped clean to be soft, and then in a succession of an intense 3 days I had heart-stopping sad news, got burgled, and then had some possibly life-changing good news that left me dizzy. Given the fact the new shampoo had brought with it two bad days and one day of giddy smilebursts, in my head I had to label the bottle ‘intense experiences’ rather than ‘good luck’. And now I’m halfway through the bottle and wondering if the bit of possible good luck will die once it’s empty. What will happen next?

Maybe thinking small things like shampoo affects anything is easier than believing in god or some other greater steering power or giving yourself up to the utter randomness of life. It comes in a bottle, contained and potent and fresh and clean, and pushes you out into your day with a lingering scent, the feel of your hair on your head, the air than moves between the strands, a constant tangible feeling.

Do you go out and buy exactly the same shampoo in the hope that it will be similarly charged with serendipitous particles, or do you seek a different better luck in a new bottle, a different smell or brand promise? Or do you accept that you’re mental and shampoo has got bog all to do with anything and you make your own luck? I know the truth in my head, but my imagination is boss. And my hair smells really dreamy.

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The Trouble with being Burgled

The trouble with being burgled is that it makes you question how good your stuff is when they decide not to take any of it. That, and the safety of your abode. But mostly your stuff. I got called home from work last Thursday saying there had been a break in. My neighbour had disturbed them and they’d been into both flats. I legged it home assuming that the only thing I own of any value – my mac – would definitely have gone. And surely the reprobates would have had the good sense to spot that the 1980s brown glass perfume bottle in the shape of a bassett hound was a fine collectable that might not fetch much on the Cash Converter circuit, but would provide hours of whimsical inner mirth. Neither were touched. And when they’ve flung your clothes out of the drawers onto the floor of course you’re going to judge yourself. As you fold it back up and place it back in the drawer, you’re thinking “fine, ok, so these sequins weren’t the best decision I’ve ever made, but I’d had some darn good times holding my stomach in in this skirt and if you can’t see that then it’s your loss”. Burglary makes you take things very personally.

Turns out they hadn’t taken anything except for some Royal Horticultural Society vouchers my neighbour had got for his birthday. That’s quite niche isn’t it. I imagined the robbers stalking around the walled gardens of a stately home, guiltily opining the peonies. I comforted myself that they had only blatantly disregarded everything I own because they had been rumbled by my neighbour before they could bag up the loot. Of course they would ordinarily have taken the knot of sterling silver necklaces I have amassed since my teens that would take seventeen hours of picking apart with patient fingers and possibly a pin to make any of them wearable again. If only they hadn’t been cut short by the vigilance of Stephen downstairs they would have been right in the money.

When the attending cop came round he introduced himself as Christian and I thought it was a bit inappropriate, changing established police protocol in such a friendly manner. If I was going to be questioned, I wanted to feel sufficiently ill at ease to call him Officer. My burglary, my rules. Officer Christian was satisfyingly big and burly. I found myself wondering if he could lift me with one hand while batting back hardened crims with the other. I decided I bet he could if he wasn’t feeling tired and I had only had a light breakfast.

I felt bad that Officer Christian had to come round to mine for a rather lacklustre tale of a basic bungled burglary where nothing was taken. I wanted to pep it up for him so he had better stuff to jot down in his neat tilted handwriting. Then he mentioned he’d just come from a double-stabbing and of course I felt inferior. I couldn’t compete with murder. My knives couldn’t hack the seeds out of a tomato anymore let alone disembowel someone.

It’s a funny feeling knowing someone’s been in your home without asking. I’ve been burgled before and the last time left me feeling vulnerable for months; it felt like the windows and doors were permanently left open for all and sundry to come bursting through, and in the darkness at night I was jumpy at every sound. It’s not about the stuff. I don’t have much and what I do have is not going to support anyone with a £200 a day heroin habit, not even long enough for a five minute high. It’s about feeling safe. So while I stared around at the mess and the broken glass and the worthless things I own and felt that familiar unsettled feeling of my private space having been violated, I mostly felt relieved that I have never had to feel the desperation that one day turns ordinary people into thieves. That can’t be fun. Especially if Officer Christian catches you and pins you by the balls to the wall, which I’d kind of like to see if I’m honest. That’d teach the tykes for thinking my stuff is shit.

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