Turn and face the strange

This week, we lost Ziggy Stardust and Severus Snape, both aged 69, to the ravages of cancer. It’s no age, really, is it?

I have been quite surprised at my own distress at both deaths. I was just a twinkle in my daddy’s eye when *that* Starman moment aired on Top of the Pops in 1972, after all. I can’t claim that David Bowie changed my life, as he did for so many others. I just thought he was an awesomely cool creative force (even if my favourite Bowie song is the super-cheesy Absolute Beginners). But I still cried.

As for Alan Rickman, he was in some of my very favourite movies. My first year at uni was more or less back-to-back viewings of Truly Madly Deeply. Plus he was Professor Snape, for goodness’ sake.

And you just feel that bit chillier when a star has gone out, even if it wasn’t shining directly on you.

There’s another obvious thing, of course. An awful lot of people die from some form of cancer every day. Those rogue cells are complete and utter bastards. And every time there is a high profile death from cancer, I do some kind of quasi-non-Catholic-sign-of-the-cross thing in my head.

There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.

It resonates, deeply.

During this very sad week for creativity and movies and music, though, I have been doing this mental manoeuvre without the added acrobatics of crossed fingers, because on November 5th 2015, I got my official five year sign off.

This was very much a WHOOP WHOOP! moment.

My oncology team are no longer interested in me. I don’t have breast cancer anymore.

There’s no such thing as being “cured”, of course, and disclaimers abound: there are no guarantees that there won’t be a repeat performance at some point in the future.

But my prospects are excellent: I’ve had amazing, pioneering surgery, a super-powerful chemo drugs trial, belt-and-braces radiotherapy, and I’ve got another five years of daily Tamoxifen tablets as an insurance policy. I also get annual mammograms until I’m 50, and an annual chat and check-up with the breast clinic. It’s all good.

I felt, yet again, like the luckiest girl in the whole world when the consultant stood and smiled and shook both our hands and said: “Well done. You did it”. Me and DH cried outside the hospital, with relief and happiness. It really did feel like we could exhale after holding our breath for five years.

Serendipitously, it was Fireworks Night, so obviously we had a handful of family members and close friends and excitable small people over for low-key sausages and fireworks and champagne. It was awesome to be able to say, out loud, that, as promised, I have well and truly fucked cancer. Pretty emotional, all round.

Life was good. We could all chill out and move on.

Well, for six days, anyway.

Because on the seventh day after my victorious sign off, DH got made redundant.

“FFS!!!” doesn’t really cover it.

I felt like we were bloody Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. We’d just wiped out one deadly opponent when another poisoned arrow came hurtling out of the woods towards us.

katniss

Me and the boy, recently.

My mum said, sagely, that you expect things to calm down by your 40s, but actually it often ends up being the most life-changing decade. It’s true that almost everyone I know is going through, or has gone through, some sort of Major Thing in the past couple of years: separation, divorce, serious illness, parental illness, bereavement, redundancy, financial stress.

Your 40s, in other words, are when you have to finally, properly, grow up. We are the adults now. The shit is happening to us and no-one else is going to make it all better or write a sick note excusing us from responsibility. That’s pretty scary.

DH had had a crap year at work, to be fair. After nine years doing extremely well in the same company, there’s nothing quite like being wrong-footed by your new boss at every turn, so your confidence is utterly destroyed. If he were a different man, he might have seen the eventual departmental reorganisation and redundancy as a blessing.

It was nothing personal, but my boy took it deeply personally. He has always worked hard, and cares very much about doing the best job he can. He’s all about achievement, and problem-solving, and efficient processes and spreadsheets and excellent relationships with clients and colleagues.

He’s also got the risk profile of a 70-year-old, according to our IFA: security, stability, salary, savings are his watchwords. My frivolous spending habits (“Ooh! Look! I must get that resin cockatoo for the mantelpiece!) and freelance life drive him potty.

Redundancy was literally his worst nightmare. In the days after he was given the shocking news, I could see he was imagining, somehow, that being made redundant would inevitably lead to losing the house, me, and the kids, until he was destitute and homeless.

How to support someone you love, who has got into that state? I was still out of breath from completing my own long, dark marathon of the soul. I had to put something of a shield up, to protect myself and not get dragged into the slough of despond. No use two of us crumbling under the pressure. I could definitely have given him more cuddles and sympathy, but at the time my gut instinct was that there was nothing to be gained by indulging the catastrophising.

Instead, I automatically went into Coach Mode, and encouraged him to Take Massive Action. It’s the only way of regaining some sort of control when all seems lost, really, isn’t it?

Reach out. Zsush up that CV and LinkedIn profile. Email and call everyone who might have a job, or might know someone who did. Take people for coffee. Arrange meetings. Go to every interview. Keep an open mind.

Above all, do whatever you need to do to keep your head in the right place, darling. Accept all offers of professional, moral, medical and therapeutic support.

Chin up. Smile. Shiny shoes. GO GO GO!

As with all of life’s big landmarks and crises, one finds out who one’s friends are. The lawyer and the headhunter truly stepped up, using their skills and love to support and advise, on a daily basis, sometimes for hours on end. Many others chivvied and cheered and were generally in touch and checking in. And DH was truly humbled by the number of colleagues and contacts who were as shocked as he was, and said lovely things about him.

Of course, when you take massive action, good things cannot help but happen eventually. And so it was that just five weeks later, on the very last day of term, just as he was breaking up for Christmas before being redundant on 31 December, DH was sent a contract for a very exciting new job Up That London.

He was never out of work for one second, after all. And I could not be prouder of him.

Two weeks in, and he’s loving it. Great, interesting people who have made him feel very welcome and can’t do enough to help. A boss who already knew and liked and respected him. A huge and stimulating challenge. Lovely jubbly.

So we started the New Year with me being officially healthy for the first time since 2010, with a job I love, and DH enjoying a proper silver lining in his career. Our quite extraordinary small people (DD is nearly nine-and-a-half and DS is nearly seven-and-a-half) have settled beautifully into their new school, where we moved them at half term, after all that nonsense with the last place.

There’s no way of knowing what 2016 will bring for us. But as Baz Luhrmann once wisely said: “Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind. The kind that blindsides you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.” True dat.

And, appropriately, in the words of the visionary Starman: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring”.

PS – I wasn’t kidding about the cockatoo…

IMG_9398

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The one where Pinchy gets a proper job (sort of)

So I haven’t blogged for a while. I’m sure you’ve all been feeling terribly deprived of my wit, pathos and insight since November, but hey. I have been busy, people! Busy doing what, Pinchos? you may enquire. Busy getting an actual grown-up proper job, THAT’S WHAT!

My new walk to work :-)

My new walk to work 🙂

Yup. This die-hard solitary writer now has a regular income for the first time since leaving my last salaried employment, 14 years ago. And actual colleagues! Since the start of January I have been working for one of the very biggest PR consultancies in the world, supporting the EMEA marketing team with copywriting, editing, editorial consultancy, social media content, training, and other word-related stuff.

Cool, huh?!

It’s been a very slow burner, but there was something inevitable about it. I’ve been working with this team since my earliest days freelancing: as soon as I resigned as features editor of trade mag PRWeek on a whim in 2001, my now-boss commissioned me to help her with some case studies, and to turn a couple of PR campaigns into entries for industry awards schemes. We discovered we worked well together. We became friends. Over the intervening years, our combined skills built an incredibly efficient, successful awards strategy, which has helped the consultancy become the most award-winning across Europe. I worked for her throughout both of my ‘maternity leave’ periods (which don’t really exist when you’re self-employed), and was even editing stuff to meet a looming deadline while strapped up to my drip on the chemo ward.

I also started doing award entry writing, editing and training for other agencies, of all sizes, around the world. I created a niche: there aren’t many former journalists who really get public relations and can do this sort of stuff well. My clients were often shortlisted and frequently won. But there was one problem. It was a rollercoaster. In the run up to awards entry deadlines, I was rushed off my feet, working for clients in several time zones, all charging PELL-MELL towards the same cut-off date. At peak times, midnight shifts (and beyond) were common. I was working while the children were at nursery, and then school, switching to mummy mode for a few hours, then back to my desk when they were in bed. I was frequently juggling dozens of pieces of work, including many first drafts written by people whose first language is not English, all of which had to tell an equally engaging story to convince the judges, all at the same time.

But then, the week after deadline: silence. I never quite worked out the trick of doing marketing and filling the pipeline with other non-time-sensitive stuff while you are rushed off your feet, so my working life was essentially manic peaks and then depressed troughs. I could have been writing my taking-bloody-forever novel during the down time, or spending hours in the gym, or decorating, but mostly I used to sit at my desk fretting. (And pissing about on Twitter, obviously.) Not having a deadline doesn’t really work for me: I descend into the slough of despond pretty bloody quickly if I haven’t got a pressing to-do list.

On paper, I had an amazing work-life balance. I worked school hours, was able to drop off the children and pick them up every day, and was there for every single school thing, while still earning a good living doing something I really like and am good at. In reality, I was stressed out and constantly worried about money – cash flow was ridiculous, as some months I’d be billing thousands and then other months, practically zero. And when you haven’t quite had the five-year sign off from your oncologist, this level of stress is probably a bad idea.

Something had to give.

Last summer, as I hit my 41st birthday (so much less dramatic than 40…) I took some time to reflect on what I had achieved with my career, and what I wanted my next decade to hold. As I pushed towards the 10th anniversary of starting my limited company, Besparkle, in August 2015, I knew I had two choices. The first was to change things dramatically to make it into a real business rather than a winging-it one-woman band. This would involve sorting out childcare, working pretty much full time, finding other contractors and partners, and investing in marketing. Maybe even writing an actual business plan for the first time! (Told you I was winging it…) The second option was to chuck it all in and find a job.

I dropped my biggest client a casual email, on a whim (this appears to be a pattern): if anything came up at her agency, job-wise, that she thought I might be a good fit for, would she let me know? She read between the lines (and presumably decided she didn’t want to lose me to a competitor) and within a couple of weeks had created a new job description, just for me.

At that point, obviously, I got cold feet. I felt utterly torn. One the one hand: oh my goodness, the bliss of never having to worry about whether I was earning enough again! And it wasn’t even that big a leap: I would still be doing a job I know and enjoy, with someone I work really well with. On the other hand: do I want to give up my independence, my flexibility, the children being my priority? Did I want to hand them over to a nanny? Do I want my days to be owned by someone else? Could I still go to all the school things? Aren’t I happy just working alone? Do I really want to do any commuting at all? Do I need colleagues? Do I want to say goodbye to my business? It’s only little, but it’s still mine, and I built it, and I’d just had my most successful year since having children.

Many of these points of resistance were incomprehensible to DH, who was just over the moon I was even considering it. He’d never really forgiven me for resigning without any discussion with him, and doesn’t exactly embrace financial insecurity. But he had another, more positive, reason for encouraging me, too: he reckoned that having colleagues and getting out of the home office would do me good personally, in terms of my happiness and emotional stability. Other high-flying (mostly male) friends also told me to basically ‘get over myself and get a job’.

Then HR got involved, and it became apparent that what they could offer me in terms of a full-time salary was below what I’d need to earn to factor in childcare and travel. The numbers weren’t adding up on either side. But we all persisted, going backwards and forward on possible scenarios: the will was there to make this work, somehow. Then I had a lightbulb moment: Option 3 – let’s stop talking about employment, just put me on a retainer contract for a few days a week instead. This was a win-win: they wouldn’t have all the overheads of a new employee but still had priority over my time, and I would get to stay in control and keep my independence. Essentially, this is the holy grail for a freelancer.

And so that’s what happened.

The logistics have sort of fallen into place. After a couple of false starts, we finally found a fabulous, cheerful, capable after-school nanny who does pick up, tea, homework and bathtime, enabling me to work two long days and spread my other hours out over the rest of the week. The smalls are in breakfast club a couple of days, too. And despite my worry about not being there for them, they are, of course, absolutely fine. They are eight-and-a-half and six-and-a-half this month, after all, rather than babies. I still mostly work at home, I can still do school stuff (though the school campaigning has had to go on the back burner) and still do some work for selected other clients, and still manage my own time.

The best bit, though, is Wednesdays. My London day. My grown-up, proper job day. The day I get up early and put on a smart dress and get on a packed train and go to a big open-plan office and see my inspiring, clever, creative colleagues, new and old. I have a half-hour fast walk from Waterloo in my trainers, through a historic bit of London that is very easy to love (I only forgot shoes and had to buy a new pair of fierce heels once, honest), and get sushi for lunch, and have meetings in cool little break-out areas with some of the cream of the communications industry.

It’s the one day of the week where I’m a professional first, and mummy second. I leave before the kiddies are up, and DH does the morning routine and school run. I get back around 7.30pm to find tired, happy, freshly-bathed kiddies in their PJs watching the Simpsons with a glass of milk, with the nanny having handed over to daddy. That this is possible, and everyone is OK, is a revelation for me.

I know this is already a very long post but I have to make one final point: I could not have done this without DH. He has totally stepped up. He has a greater childcare role than ever before and has taken on more of the domestic burden without blinking. I feel like he takes my work really seriously for the first time in a long time, and he is doing his bit (thankfully with a pretty flexible employer himself) to make sure this new level of formality in my career works for all of us. We’ve always been a team, but now it feels more like we are equals again. It’s turning out to be good for us. And I have to admit that he and our friends, who are all a bit ‘I told you so’, were right all along, damn them: creative solitude is all very well, but sometimes you’ve just gotta put your lipstick on and get out there. Who knew it could be such fun?

The rebranding of Pinchy

I did something small yesterday – tiny, really – that has a much larger significance. I removed two little words from my Twitter profile. So what? you may be asking, quite reasonably. Well, the two little words were ”F*cked Cancer’.

It just felt right to let them go. Or maybe it stopped feeling right to include them. I only have 140 characters to sum myself up for my trusty band of followers, and spending ten per cent of that on a disease I had a couple of years ago (I’ll be three years past diagnosis this October) suddenly seemed…what? Irrelevant? Awkward? Embarrassing? Like I was hanging onto something in the past and continuing to let it define me? Maybe even a little bit David Brent going back to Wernham Hogg after he’d been sacked. Sometimes it’s just time to move on.

This isn’t to say, of course, that I will ever forget about having cancer. The day I was diagnosed was, and will always be, as defining a moment in my life as getting married and giving birth to my two babies, in that it changed everything. There are moments in one’s life when it really does seem, quite tangibly, that you are one person one day, and a completely different person the next.

It's all about these little guys...

It’s all about these little guys…

Or, perhaps, that you see the world differently as one chapter closes and another opens. Like you are breathing a subtly different air; like the appearance of everything has been put through an Instagram filter. Marriage, birth, death, diagnosis, divorce, and lottery wins: they split your life into ‘before’ and ‘after’.

So pre-October 2010 was BC: Before Cancer, and everything after 13 October was AD: After Diagnosis. That sounds a little simplistic, but that’s how it was. One day, life is a certain way. The next day, your previous taken-for-granted existence has disappeared, forever.

I was accidentally reading some emails from the BC-AD period this week – you know when you press a button on Outlook and you’re suddenly looking at your oldest emails, rather than the newest ones? – and it was plain weird. In the weeks leading up to The Big Day, it’s all chat, jokes and making arrangements with friends, liaising with existing clients on projects, and setting up meetings with new clients. I marvelled at the normality of it. The innocence.

From 14 October, the emails have a different texture and tone. Cancelling meetings and dates, and explaining why. Announcing, carefully, my news. Asking for help and support and advice. I was astonished at my calmness, my clarity, my eloquence, the lack of panic or distress in my words. But it’s really obvious that nowhere, in not one single email, do I say the word ‘cancer’: it was still too raw, too powerful, too shocking.

My 40 year old boy on his birthday trip to Roma.

My 40 year old boy on his birthday trip to Roma.

I’ve said before that I don’t consider the day I was diagnosed to be the worst day of my life. It was probably up there for DH, my sister, and my parents, but not for me. And I’ve said before, also, that I wouldn’t have not gone through it: I don’t want to go through chemo again, ta, but I honestly feel it was a critical experience, a positive turning point, and full of important lessons. I’m still processing all of that – it takes time to become someone new, or rather, to slough off the crap that has accumulated over the years and allow yourself, with love and approval, to just be yourself.

Rome and Cosmopolitans: what's not to like?

Rome and Cosmopolitans: what’s not to like?

Nevertheless, I have never defined myself as a cancer patient, sufferer, victim or survivor. It’s just something that happened to me, it’s not everything I am, by a long way (although I know I do go on about it rather a lot in this blog…) And it’s time, now my scars are silvering and my hair is finally thick and growing, to move forward. I’ll still nod respectfully to  cancer, of course: it will never not be a significant part of my life and history. I honour its memory. But it’s not part of my present or, god willing, my future.

And I don’t want it to be one of my ‘things’ any more. My adorable children, their education, the marvels and bafflements of love, books, writing, cats, trees, good light, cooking and eating good food, good wine, good company, the pop music of the late 80s and early 90s, quantum physics, the mysteries of the universe, complementary therapy, Italy (we had an amazing time in Rome for DH’s 40th in April…), London, social media, art, stripey tops, pretty necklaces, spa days, heels, being a red-headed Leo – all of these will continue to be my ‘things’. Cancer doesn’t belong  in that rich, colourful tapestry any more. There will always be a bit of me that’s ‘the girl who f*cked cancer’, but it’s rapidly becoming a 1970s-orange-tinted Polaroid.

Someone I adore once told me I had ‘f*cked cancer with dignity and courage’. I look back on that brief interlude with my head held high, but only for a moment. I turn round to face today, and tomorrow, and the sun on this golden afternoon is warm on my face, and I am smiling, and the view is really quite something.

Anger management

This is going to be a hard post for me to write, I suspect. But you know I’ve never shied away from looking myself in the eye and critically assessing my emotions and behaviour. And when there’s a Big Thing going on in the background, it’s kinda tricky to honestly and engagingly write about anything else. So I’m just gonna blog this one out. Be patient with me, gentle reader.

So. This is the thing. [Deep breath]. I lose my temper.

OK, I can hear a chorus of wry guffaws from other mums there. We all lose our rag, I know that. It ain’t pretty, but it happens. Sometimes our reaction is out of proportion to the crime committed. Often, we feel bad and guilty afterwards. But I’m not just talking about ‘normal’ exhausted mummy roaring when the smalls or their father have just tipped you over the edge. I’m talking about a truly disproportionate, terrifying fury that is extremely scary for everyone involved, including me. I’m talking about Losing It. ‘Seeing Red’, like Lucy, the little girl in Roald Dahl’s ‘The Magic Finger’, who finds sparks flying out of her fingers when she gets cross. Being out of control. Anger that bubbles up from deep inside, on a rush of adrenaline, and then explodes with little warning, leaving everyone traumatised, and weeks or months of relationship flotsam and jetsam to mop up. magic finger

Last May I wrote (Moodswings to the Max) about how hard I was finding it on the Tamoxifen I have to take for a total of five years to prevent my particularly aggressive, hormonally-linked form of breast cancer from coming back. I admitted that I was being a nightmare to live with, very up and down, and had on occasion gone off on one with people I love. I was still in that state, though, and not really ready or able to see things clearly.

What’s changed now is that after those horrendous first nine months or so on this powerful medication, I really did settle down, and the mood swings disappeared. And then something weird happened at the start of this year: I started to feel happy. Truly, peacefully, content. It started on a Thursday morning, on the way back from the school run. I was in the car, close to home, and suddenly had this overwhelming feeling that I can only describe as bliss. Like all the love in the world was available to me, and like I could only conceive of expressing myself in loving ways. I know this sounds extraordinary, but that’s how it was.

And it didn’t go away. I had nearly two months of feeling completely marvellous. Work was effortless, and fulfilling; my relationships with DH, my children, my family and friends were relaxed, and loving, and joyful. Nothing really wound me up; I didn’t sweat the small stuff. I stopped worrying about things I couldn’t change. My inner sea was calm, and I was cheerful. I also experienced what I can only describe as compassion for the first time. For someone who has spent much of her adult life in various states of anxiety, depression, resentment and martyrdom, it was a revelation. This was how good life could be, with not a single thing changing other than my outlook! And it was easy, and unconscious! I was happy. Seriously, how cool is that?

All of which loveliness made it even more shocking when a few Saturdays ago, out of the blue, I EXPLODED with anger at a family dinner. No-one saw it coming, least of all me. It was like I was watching myself. I went ballistic, about a small thing, that had always mildly irritated me in the past but which I had never mentioned. I stood up. I shouted. I gesticulated. Doors were slammed. The row escalated – fire was met with fire – and then very soon afterwards I started to feel a terrible sense of remorse, horror, and utter worthlessness. It felt like I had smashed something really precious. I felt utterly drained, wrung out, and like I didn’t want to exist. My thoughts were scrambled.

And then endless apologising, and the validity of the thing I had been trying to communicate negated entirely by the manner in which I delivered it. There were mutterings about me needing to see a doctor, and even mental illness. And then I felt very flat, and very low, for a few days. So sorry. So disappointed and frustrated that I had shattered my own state of calm and happiness. So conscious that the relationships involved would take a long time to get back to normal.

And then I realised that this was the third time since starting on the Tamox that I had done this. There have now been three separate occasions, all with close (safe?) family members, where I’ve been annoyed about some relatively minor bit of behaviour for a while, and then the next time it happens, BOOM. Pinchy, having never mentioned that she was irritated by this behaviour before, throws a grenade into the room. Friendly fire is always the most shocking. There have also been other occasions with acquaintances where I’ve suddenly gone from being Mrs Nice Guy (with a particularly rubbish cleaner, with a jobsworth postman, with a nosy neighbour) to being the Crazy Angry Lady.

And I can only see this now. It’s so obvious, in retrospect, but at the time, on every occasion I really did feel that the other person was to blame, that they had pushed me so far that I had snapped. This gives me hope, actually: I think my Rose Period at the start of the year meant that I was in a good enough place when this last episode happened that I could reflect on and evaluate it in a much more honest way.

Anyway, DH and I went to the doctor (which we both felt was a box-ticking exercise to appease worried family members, to be honest) who was sympathetic, and not at all surprised or concerned given my current chemical make-up. She also cautiously suggested that DH and I go for some joint post-cancer counselling. I have never had any feelings of anger about having had cancer, and feel I’ve dealt fully with my own experience, with outside support in the forms of my wonderful Health Creation Mentor, Kit, and my coach Amanda (not to mention my amazing family and friends). DH has also had his own course of counselling, but we’ve never spoken to anyone together about the hell of 2010-2011. We literally have no idea what the other has gone through. And his tendency to get angry himself when I go off the rails (thus not really helping the situation) may be rooted in his fear of losing me, which we’ve never explored together in a safe place.

I have also taken what feels to me like the most appropriate action: getting some tools under my belt to diffuse anger if and when I feel it brewing. I have just got back from my second cognitive hypnotherapy session with the quite brilliant Teresa Harvey who uses a mix of counselling, hypnotherapy, NLP and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique – the ‘tapping’ that you sometimes see Paul McKenna using to help hardwire positive suggestions more effectively). We’ve looked at my memories and experience of anger, in the past and recently. We’ve done some visualisation stuff in a trance state. We’ve looked at how I might, in the future, be able to calm myself down and respond, rather than react, from a calm, assertive, loving place. It’s exhausting work, because I re-experience all the emotions I felt at the time, but it also feels very cleansing, and important, and positive.

So. I wish I could turn back time and not have put my loved ones – or myself – through these episodes. But sometimes things have to get really bad before they get better. Every experience teaches us something valuable. And if I come out of this more able to deal with conflict and my emotions, then that’s got to be a good thing for my children, my marriage, and my relationships with everyone from our parents to our siblings to my best friends to the bloody jobsworth postman. I’ve only got three and a half more years on the Tamoxifen. And hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be able to say that I used to lose my temper. And get back to being calm and cheerful again.

Most of the time, anyway: I need to continue to teach my children that experiencing a full range of emotions, positive and negative, is normal and desirable, and it’s how you handle those feelings that counts. Also, I’m not the new Pope, or Buddha, and there’s always going to be some tosser who cuts you up on the roundabout.

Where have all the cowboys gone?

I’m worried about the boys. Or rather, men. Really, I am. Over the past couple of years, a hefty percentage of the chaps I know, or who are married to people I know, appear to have dived, lemming-like, into what I can only describe as a mid-life crisis of some kind.

I spent a couple of days last week with some amazing women, on a goal-setting day run by our fabulous coach Amanda Alexander. We all run our own small – mostly one-woman-band – businesses. We all have professional backgrounds, some at a very senior corporate level. We all have young children. We’re all planning significant income for the year ahead, some of us into six figures. And as we talked – in the collaborative, open, non-competitive, supportive, sharing, and sometimes emotional way that a group of like-minded women talk – it became clear that most of us had something else in common. Problems with our men.

Between us, the grown-up boys in our lives had been through, or were still going through, a whole smorgasbord of bad stuff, including: anger management issues, depression, unemployment, family illness, and bereavement. Divorce and separation – past or impending – was mentioned by around 50% of our group. Counselling, medication, suspected infidelity, obsessive fitness, expensive new hobbies, and the purchase of powerful motorbikes had all been involved. Other themes included husbands and partner’s disengagement, absence, lack of support for their women and children (whether emotional, financial or in terms of childcare), really quite shit communication skills, emotional constipation, and general flakiness.

Seriously, where's this guy when you need him?

Seriously, where’s this guy when you need him?

And it’s not just this group of women. In conversation with friends, The Trouble With Our Men comes up again and again. But please don’t get the wrong idea, boys: we’re (mostly) not sitting around bitching about how crap you are. We’re properly worried about you. We love you, and we care about you, and we’re worried as wives, as mothers of sons, and as friends of women and men. We’re worried about what these mid-life crises – because this does seem to be happening to a ridiculous amount of men in their late thirties and early forties – mean for you, for us, for our marriages, for our children, and for society.

A couple of months ago I heard that men aged 35-49 are now the highest suicide risk in the UK, according to government figures for 2008-2010. I was saddened, but not at all surprised, by the stats. Men in this age group – our husbands, our children’s fathers – are under an awful lot of pressure. I’m no psychologist or sociologist (or any other ‘ist’, unless you count piss artist), but it seems pretty obvious that men’s place in the world is not as straightforward as it used to be. For a whole load of complex reasons, men are no longer necessarily respected as the head of the family, authority figures, breadwinners (hunter gatherers…). The old testosterone-fuelled ways of running businesses and indeed countries – power, aggression, competition – don’t seem to be working quite as well. They are also expected to step up and achieve their earning potential, be active and involved parents, share the running of the household, be great in bed, and be emotionally intelligent.

I’m being simplistic here, but it seems as if we want men to be softer and more sensitive, and yet we still expect them to be strong. Meanwhile, women are busy changing the world while changing nappies. No wonder men are confused. No wonder they feel rather emasculated. No wonder they need to be in control. No wonder they feel like they ‘can’t do anything right’,  and ‘can’t go on like this’, and ‘need some time out’ and ‘we don’t show them enough affection’. Chuck a recession, job and money worries into the mix, and you’ve got a timebomb on your hands.

In some cases it seems almost like post-traumatic stress disorder: something very bad has happened, and they just haven’t had the tools to deal with it. My own DH won’t mind me saying that he found my diagnosis of breast cancer and 18 months of treatment incredibly hard. He had to be strong, for me, for our babies, for his employer, when he felt shocked, scared, anxious, and really very upset much of the time. He had additional responsibilities with the children and the home as well as working full time, his wife (who would normally have been his confidante and coach through a crisis) was throwing up after chemo, losing her hair, recovering from surgery, and then working out how to be herself again. When it was finally all over, he just hadn’t dealt with any of it, and this manifested itself in getting increasingly shouty and exploding  about nothing at all. We’ve pretty much sorted it out now, and I think we’re better at talking, and loving each other, than we ever have been in our 23 years together. But, you know, there was definitely a point at which our marriage could have swung the other way.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to bear, when our men dissolve into tears, or are distant and numb, or avoid coming home from work, or drink too much, or yell at us, or even attempt to find solace in another, less frosty, bed. There is, it has to be said, an element of frustration, impatience and resentment in our feelings about all of this. It might even seem, when they are being particularly rubbish, like selfishness or self-indulgence, because mothers have to keep buggering on, basically. The kids’ tea isn’t going to make itself, no matter how shit we feel. Even when I’ve been in the depths of depression, we’ve all had clean pants. But resentment is not a fertile ground for love.

I am worried about the boys, because I love all of the men in my life, and I want them to be happy. I’m a feminist, but not to the extent that I want an alarming number of men to feel like killing themselves because they can’t live up to expectations. I don’t want men to feel useless, and fearful, and powerless, and pointless. Because we’re a team, right? We need each other. We’re on the same side. And I don’t want to be doing all of this on my own. At some point we need to stop resenting our men who aren’t manning up for whatever reason, and feel pity, and express compassion, and show them love. To treat them with humour, patience and praise, a bit like recalcitrant children. To make it easy for them to talk to us. To be their safe place. And gently encourage them to put on a smile and some metaphorical lipstick, face their adoring public, and keep the show on the road.

 

Why I love my husband

I fessed up to DH this week how worried I was about various aches and pains in my back, ribs, abdomen and hips. He made me say it: I’m scared the cancer has or will come back. I don’t know where, or how, but that’s my vague, nebulous, all-pervading fear. I’m probably healthier than the rest of you put together, in fact, but terror is a powerful thing and it twists every thought and sensation into ugly shapes.

And after blanching and taking a deep, ragged breath, he put his hands on my shoulders and looked down into my eyes and said: ‘Pinchy, you are exhausted. You have not stopped this summer. Get some sleep, keep off the booze for a bit, get back into a routine with school and work, and see how you feel. If you’re still concerned in 10 days, go to the doc.’

Wow. So that’s why I married him. That’s why we’re still together after 22 years and 12 rollercoastery years of marriage. That’s why he’s my best friend and my rock and why I love him very deeply despite our occasional off-the-scale rows and frequent miscommunication. He takes the piss out of me constantly; he annoys me in a million tiny ways (wet towels, dirty socks left by the sofa, loading the dishwasher wrongly, tuning me out when he is on his Blackberry, the usual);  he worries about things that to me seem inconsequential, and is infamous for sometimes being moody, anti-social and monosyllabic. But put the man in a crisis – or the threat of one – and he can be a frickin’ hero.

My boy at the summer party – a rare smiley photo!

He says the right things. He remains calm and rational. He can be astonishingly wise. He is kind. He tries to look after me, when I let him. He listens. I fell in love with him when I was 15 because he made me laugh, and was tall and strong with floppy blonde hair and outlandish sartorial taste. He still makes me laugh now the hair is almost disparu, and although he has replaced tartan trousers with the Surrey Dad uniform of Superdry, Crew, Ralph Lauren and Joules, he does still look adorably eccentric in his lycra cycling get-up. He is an extremely capable, involved and loving father to DS and DD, and knows when I have officially Had Enough and whisks them off to the park for an hour so I can ‘re-group’.

He’s the only person on the planet who sees the very worst of me, and yet he still loves me in all ways to the absolute best of his ability. He writes notes in birthday and Christmas cards that make me cry. I take him completely for granted, most of the time. But the spontaneous little leap of happiness in my heart when I see him turn into the drive in his car or bicycle at 7pm says it all. I’ll inevitably be snapping at him five minutes later, but that’s tired working parents for you. We’ve been together a very, very long time, since school, and not having him around would be like losing a limb (though as the Paralympics has shown, that’s not necessarily the end of the world these days ;-)). I can’t say that I’ve never looked at another man in all those years and I can’t say I don’t enjoy a bit of flirting. I can’t say I haven’t thought – as I’m sure he has – that our marriage has been challenging. But I wouldn’t be without him for all the Earl Grey in the Home Counties.

And, annoyingly, he is right: this summer has been exhausting. Memorable and wonderful, but really quite tiring. The last day of term was a whirl of watching the Olympic torch and a very champagne-fuelled hen do, immediately followed by a few days en famille on the Isle of Wight, glamping at Tom’s Eco Lodge during that heatwave we had at the end of July. I was relaxed and happy from the moment we got on the ferry, and the kiddies adored every second of it, from running feral in the woods with other campers’ children, to swimming in the surprisingly warm English sea. DD hadn’t believed there was such a thing as a beach in Britain (mummy fail…) so being with them for the whole collecting shells/rock pools/sand castles/ice-cream thing was even more magical than our trip to Disneyland Paris last summer. We accidentally saw the Queen on her trip to Cowes, had a boiling hot afternoon at Robin Hill Park, met up with my gorgeous sis and her best friend and their broods for some paddling, and all ate together in the evening after firing up the wood burner. There was no telly, and no internet access, and it was bliss.

‘Roughing it’ on the Isle de Blanc.

Then there were the Three August Birthdays. My beautiful DD’s 6th was a lovely, giggly day at Build-A-Bear Workshop and Pizza Express. For my 39th, DH presented me with a guitar, sketchbook and fencing lesson. He had clearly been sneaking a look at my bucket list – he always buys me the most thoughtful, generous presents. And, thrillingly, my best friends S&J treated us to Derren Brown tickets on my birthday, which also happens to be their anniversary. And what a perfect surprise it was to see them on the station platform and to have champagne and pre-theatre supper at Christopher’s  in Covent Garden together before the best evening’s entertainment ever. (Still can’t work out how he did it…) And for my cheeky DS’s 4th birthday, lunch at Jamie’s and a trip to see Brave at the cinema with his little chums.

Not to mention the Big Fat Summer Party, our combined birthday party, which I’d been planning for months. This involved: around 60 of my favourite grown-ups and children chillaxing in our garden on picnic blankets; a gorgeous hot day; a gazebo;  great tunes; groaning tables of yummy food and cold beverages; a bouncy castle; a face painter; children’s entertainers and ‘movie time’ for the kids with popcorn, so the adults had plenty of child-free time. That took some organising, and although I’m glad I was hosting because it was all exactly how I wanted it (control freakery), I would have liked to have been able to hang out with everyone too.

And between all of this was a big work project, DS finishing pre-school, a trip to London with DD and her best friend to see the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and eat ice cream on a lion in Trafalgar Square, and a week of one-to-one swimming lessons. Almost zero time to myself, to catch my breath. I thought there would be more time for just doing bugger all and more laid-back playdates with old friends this summer, but it’s amazing how quickly you can fill up six weeks of ‘free’ time.

We finished the summer with a week in the Cotswolds, staying in one of the stunning modern glass-backed houses set around lakes at Lower Mill Estate. Best friends in another house round the corner, lots of swimming in the indoor pool, spa treatments, kids scooting around in safety, days out in beautiful countryside (loved Bourton-on-the-Water, which was NOT anything like Venice, as advertised, but did have a great model village which featured itself many times over, getting smaller and smaller, like something from Borges). The week also notably featured too many heavily-salted prawn cocktail snacks, and an awful lot of wine. Us five adults basically pickled ourselves for a week in sauvignon blanc and malbec. It was our 12 year anniversary while we were there and we went out for supper a deux, though we managed to have a couple of blazing drunken rows during the week. And towards the last day of the holidays all the twinges and anxiety I had back in June and July reappeared. Too much wine, too little quality sleep, too much going on, too much emotional turmoil. It is possible to have too much fun, it transpires.

Crazy kids at Bourton-on-the-Water. Not Venice.

So I have Taken Action. Plan Pinchy is thus: Sobriety, Sleep, School. I am on day 5 with no alcohol and committing to a Dry September. (I KNOW! Totally unlike me. I hope that didn’t make you spit your tea out.) It’s the first time for months that I’ve gone for more than a day without a nice glass of something but, weirdly, am not missing it at all. So far. I’ve been taking all my supplements, including the powerful anti-cancer ones: carotenoids, Indole-3 carbinol, turmeric. I have a kinesiology appointment coming up, and a session with my health creation mentor. I am going for a walk every night, chanting affirmations like the mad crazy-haired middle-aged woman I am. I am trying to go to bed early, though I am still having difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking up in the morning. Nytol doesn’t help: I am like sodding Rasputin, nothing knocks me out.

Tomorrow DS starts school (of which more very soon), DD goes up to Year 2, and I get back to editing in silence at my desk overlooking my monkey puzzle tree. And at the end of next week, if I don’t have more energy, less discomfort, smaller bags under my eyes and a bigger smile on my face, hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to the GP I go. Holding DH’s big old paw very tightly.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

You know that thing I said a while ago about not feeling any fear when I was diagnosed with breast cancer or throughout my treatment? Well, turns out you can only Keep Buggering On for so long before the big ol’ scary monster, Fear itself, bites you on the arse and one has what I will delicately describe as a Wobble. (You don’t want to know the extent of the tears and associated snot, frankly).

Friends who have been through health crises of their own or with children tell me this is entirely normal. It works a bit like post-traumatic stress disorder, from what I can work out. The big thing happens, you get through it (no choice: it’s happening whether you dissolve into a puddle or not, and the human pysche is astonishingly resilient), you survive. All is well. You stop being intimate with consultants and surgeons. Then, a while later, a thought pops into your head. An insidious, sneaky, betraying thought that starts ‘what if…’

Exempli Gratia: ‘What if that pain/twinge/ache/tingling/weird colour is because Something Is Really Wrong?’ The body has let one down before with a poor performance, after all. Quite dramatically too. Specifically, in my case (let’s be brave and look it in the eye, shall we?): what if that annoying ache in my back is because I have secondary cancer of the liver (rather than another bout of sciatica)? What if that discomfort under my left rib is because I have secondary cancer of the pancreas (rather than getting so excited about my new health discovery, chia seeds, that I overloaded my gut with sudden, massive amounts of soluble fibre)?

If something really is wrong, do I really want to know? Do I want to be prodded and scanned and take the gamble of a) being completely reassured and feeling like a happy idiot or b) being told devastating news that means I will be compelled to write birthday cards in advance for my darling babies and husband for the next couple of decades?

I had a quite intense session with my awesome health creation mentor, Kit, this morning, which prompted me to blog about this. She’s had first hand experience of The Wobble: she was diagnosed with ‘incurable’ cancer in 1992, is in fine fettle, and still panics before every annual check up. She reckons fear is just an acronym of ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. She asked what the thought was that I was thinking, and where it had come from. I know exactly. It was a feature in my beloved Grazia magazine about three weeks ago. It was from the fiance of a young woman who had just died from secondary breast cancer, in her liver, after recovering from breast cancer treatment and then getting a pain in her back. He had been hoping she would make it to their wedding this month. She didn’t quite get there.

This very sad story would have given me the jitters by itself, but there is a twist worthy of the Whitbread first novel prize (ooohhh….). It wasn’t the first time this beautiful girl had been in the magazine. She had written her own story in 2010, just after being diagnosed and having her first chemo. I remember, graphically, reading her feature, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I read it in bed, just after finding the lump in my breast for the first time, two or three days before fessing up to DH and booking an appointment with my GP. I remember the gut-liquidising chill as I read it: I already knew, deep down, that I was about to follow the same path. Chemotherapy in particular, before I had any idea of what it actually entails, was one of the most terrifying things I could imagine enduring.

And so when I read that she had died, my thought  – the thought behind all of this fear over the past few weeks – was this: ‘What if my life is mirroring hers?’ Almost instantly, I started to notice twinges and discomfort all over my body, all of which also have perfectly innocent explanations. No back pain at first, but I worried so hard about it that, sure enough, some back pain manifested itself. I worried so deeply, I’ve given my immune system a bashing and am currently fighting a rubbish chesty cold – the first for years (I really don’t get ill, apart from the obvious…). I panicked about my alcohol intake. I spent an entire evening, last Friday, crying on DH as I explained why I was scared. For, like, five hours (poor sod). Hot, salty, really big ploppy tears. They just wouldn’t stop. It was remarkably cathartic, actually, because to be honest I haven’t really cried specifically about caaancer at any point.

Then on Saturday afternoon I decided to take action. I had heard rumours of the mind-clearing benefit of exercise, though as a largely sedentary, distinctly non-sporty person, I had little experience of this. Regardless. Strapped on dusty trainers and, if I can just shock you, dear reader, I went for a run. Yup, you read right. Pinchy made like Forrest Gump and just….ran. And then walked for a bit, before running, and walking again, round a quiet local residential area, accompanied by an interesting selection of tunes on DD’s borrowed Shuffle. Among the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and Kylie there are a fair number of Disney themes. Turns out The Climb by Miley Cyrus is a perfectly acceptable running track…

Run, Pinchy, run!

Do you know what? Those rumours are true: moving your body really does clear your head. In the stressy age of extreme juggling we live in, that in itself is far more of an argument for getting off one’s fat arse than the nebulous idea of ‘getting fit’. Kit suggested that the universe sends us loving lessons, and maybe the message embedded in my fearful state was my own need to take proper control of and responsibility for my health: my diet (already pretty good, but I have made some more tweaks and am liking James Duigan’s Clean and Lean approach. I will learn to love kale…), the amount of wine I get through (38-year-old working mum levels. You know what I’m talking about), and my lack of any exercise other than 60 kettlebell swings most mornings.

My instinct is that she’s probably right. And she’s also right that I need to pick up the phone to my oncology team and say I’m not comfortable with waiting until next February to be checked over. Being signed off for a year is AMAZING, obvs, and I’m sure my consultant wouldn’t have done so if he wasn’t entirely sure that I’m fine, but six months in, I’m also miles further from medical attention than I have been since I was diagnosed. Which may also have something to do with The Wobble.

Other action: do some yoga cat poses to sort this damned sciatica out. Stop with the chia seeds for a bit (already done; gas levels no longer on the red-for-danger bit of the dial). Most importantly, apply the four questions that make up The Work of Byron Katie to that pesky ‘my life is mirroring hers’ thought:

1. Is it true? (I don’t know)

2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true? (No)

3. What happens when I think that thought? (The Wobble)

4. Who would you be without that thought? (Fully enjoying being happier, and more myself, than I have been at any point in my life, ironically).

Then turn it around: my life is not mirroring hers. We are completely different people, with different diseases, different treatments and different outcomes. I am safe, and free, and all is well.

And a final reminder to myself and everyone else: MOVE AWAY FROM GOOGLE if you or anyone you love has a question mark over some aspect of their health or what’s happening in their body. American health forums filled with fear-filled posts by the ‘worried well’ seriously Do Not Help. Ever. Now, I must ring my oncology team. At some point.