If all you want is the book/blog stuff, head straight to the final paragraph.
As I return to the Sofa after a long ‘break’, I’d love to be writing the usual September post in which I’m fired up after a lovely trip to France, full of optimism and plans. But I can’t (and you’d probably want to kick me if I did). I was lucky to spend last week in the very north of Cumbria with my family, despite weather that was more like November. The sun made a rare appearance on my birthday, when I took this photo of the stunning view towards Scotland (a mile away) from the kitchen window. It’s a real treat to return home to sunshine and heat and, despite everything, a cautious feeling of excitement as both of our sons prepare to embark on new phases of their education, one here in London, the youngest starting uni in Leeds. I’ll be leaving him with my heart in my mouth.
Everything feels so precarious at the moment. People everywhere are dealing with previously unthinkable changes, grief and losses of all kinds. Of course we’ve always been fragile, and the future, even five minutes from now, random and unknowable. Under normal circumstances it’s not possible to live fully with those thoughts in mind but right now it’s hard to escape them with so many reminders. It feels as if the pandemic has clawed its way into every aspect of our lives, even complicating things which would have happened anyway.
I would have had a horrible summer even without it, after a gynae op for a condition that only presented during lockdown plunged me not only into ‘surgical menopause’, which I was expecting, but a brutal hormonal warzone far more complex than the natural process. I’ve learned more about what testosterone does for women – or what a deficit of it does to me – than I ever wanted to know.
There were weeks of insomnia, uncontrollable weeping, severe mood swings, inability to concentrate, crushing exhaustion and a total lack of interest in anything I usually enjoy – everything felt so pointless or overwhelming that I wouldn’t have got out of bed without my family taking care of me and friends checking in all the time. It was like being someone else in my own body, encased in thick grey fog.
This isn’t easy to talk about, and if it was just a catalogue of my misfortunes I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m very aware that millions of people, including friends of mine, are dealing with far worse problems that, unlike my ongoing issues, can’t be reversed. But however hard I initially tried to convince myself my health crisis wasn’t a big deal, it was, and there are a few thoughts I’d like to share as I continue to process it.
My experience, and what I’ve seen around me this year, has reinforced my belief that it is nonsensical to consider the health of the mind and the body as separate or different. We are all made of both. There is still stigma attached to the things I’ve been through (concerning women’s health, ageing, depression) and by speaking them out loud, I reject that and it’s worth giving up a piece of my privacy to that end.
If you have concerns about your physical or mental health, please seek help (and don’t wait three months as I did). I am deeply grateful to my surgeon and every last healthcare, admin or housekeeping worker who put their own safety on the line so I could get the treatment I needed. They showed genuine kindness and compassion and should get the same in return. The ‘hero’ narrative needs to stop – these are human beings who are entitled to respect, fair pay and safe working conditions.
Many of you will have read the moving articles in The Guardian by Elliot Dallen, who lived his final months during the pandemic and died last week aged just 31. One of the things he wanted to pass on was ‘let yourself be vulnerable and connect with others’, and that is good advice. My family and close friends have seen a different side to me this summer because I wasn’t capable of any kind of ‘I’m fine’ pretence and what’s more, I didn’t care. Not only is it ‘OK not to be OK’, it’s even OK to be a scared, volatile mess – the people who care about you will do it anyway. To all of the above, thank you for everything you’ve done to support me. I never truly appreciated before how lucky I am to have you.
Being kind to yourself, knowing when you’re reaching your limits, is not self-indulgence or weakness – it’s a form of resilience. We’re all living with extraordinary pressure, anxiety and insecurity, so there will be days when it’s all too much. I don’t always do what my friends say, but I’ve listened to them on taking things gently and it’s helped. I’ve been using the Headspace app (they’re not paying me to say this) and that’s doing me a lot more good than too much time on news and social media. For someone usually hooked on busyness and making plans, it’s been a big swerve to acknowledging the value of being in the present.
My doctors are helping to sort me out (acting on the consultant’s instructions, the GP and pharmacist are intrigued because they’ve never come across this before). There are no quick fixes and for now I’m a walking chemistry experiment but things are starting to improve. Returning to the blog feels like a small, manageable project and I’m looking forward to it – I hope you’ll join me and enjoy what’s on offer.
AUTUMN ON THE SOFA
The only confirmed guest author so far is Jude Cook, who’ll be here next week with a Writers on Location post on Paris, setting of his stylish and intellectual novel Jacob’s Advice. Others are in the pipeline.
I’ll be doing two pieces showcasing the best of my post Summer Reads summer reading – there was some great stuff.
There will be a post on my experience of writing and editing my second novel, Scent, which will be out in March next year from Muswell Press. (I did a lot differently with this one.) We are currently discussing cover design and bound proofs will be available soon. It’s so exciting to have this to look forward to!