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 ūüôā

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?


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.

Moodswings to the max

Bridget’s picture of Hockney’s Arrival of Spring

Yo. Hello y’all. It’s been a while since I last blogged, a few weeks after my breast balancing op. Loads has happened in the meantime: DH and I hosted ‘Polish Easter’ for the first time, which was rather special; we took the kids to London on DH’s birthday, including brunch at the Wolseley, the Hockney exhibition, and the London Eye;¬†work flooded in; I submitted the first 5,000 words of my novel to a Good Housekeeping¬†competition; we found out that DS will be joining DD at her school (of which more another time); and after some stiff negotiation by my amazing DH, a group of neighbours yesterday finally all signed up with a small developer to sell the bottoms of our gardens.

All of which has happened under clouds real (sodding rain) and metaphorical. It’s the tamoxifen, you see. A rather unpleasant side effect has crept up on me over the past couple of months. Not hot flushes and night sweats, as I had the first time I tried the drug a year ago, but a severe and at times fairly debilitating state of permanent PMT, combined with waves of deep fatigue. Mood swings, to the max.

Well, it is a rather powerful hormone-fiddling drug, designed to stop my particular sort of pesky cancer cells taking hold in either breast again. Apparently this is common: about six months after starting the meds, a raft of side effects tend to kick in, hang around for about six months, and then settle down for the rest of the five years it is prescribed for.

My birthday boy on the London Eye with our pair of delicious herberts.

I am so up and down it’s not funny, for anyone, least of all DH and my precious kiddies, who are constantly on tenterhooks to see what mood I’ll be in. They scan my face anxiously: are there signs of softness,¬†affection,¬†a smile, playfulness, understanding, patience? Or are they about to feel the Wrath of Mummy for the smallest misdemeanour? I notice there is often a silent pause after a spillage or similar, as the children hold their breath, frozen, waiting to see whether the eye of the hurricane will pass by and come to nothing, or they are going to get caught up in its distressing¬†and noisy disturbance.

No-one in this house knows whether, on the spilling of a drink (which happens daily with a 3yo and a 5yo) I am going to say ‘never mind’ and just wipe it up, or whether I’m going to go completely ballistic and shouty and throwy, and turn a small accident into a major ‘state of the family’ incident.

And that includes me. Because it genuinely feels like I am not fully in control, most of the time. Not an excuse, I know. But I am as surprised as everyone else about the speed and force of my disproportionate anger. It’s usually confined to those I live with (don’t we always hurt the ones we love the most?), but there have been a few occasions where I have flown into a rage at other family members and friends, and they have been shocked, not recognising the roaring harpie who has replaced me. After an angry episode, I feel drained, and sad, and terribly guilty, and wish I could turn back time and react differently.

Other times I feel so exhausted and low that I just want to go to bed, in the middle of the day, and I can’t seem to get my thoughts straight. I cry silent, prolonged tears about nothing in particular. My brain won’t work properly. I find making plans difficult, and I stutter and mix words up when I read stories out loud. Sometimes¬†I resort to absolute crap for the kids’ tea because I cannot muster up the energy to make anything healthy, and have the inevitable battle of wills about what they will and won’t eat.

I have little tolerance for excessive noise. I am irritable, unresponsive, and disengaged, some of the time. My joints ache. My hands and feet tingle and fizz. Life is un-fun. DS tells me every night he doesn’t like me when I shout, but he knows I still love him even when he’s naughty. This breaks my heart.

I am also starting to realise that tamoxifen and alcohol are not best mates. A couple of glasses of red are fine, but put white wine, and especially fizz, into the mix and I get drunk teenagerly quickly. While everyone else at the party might have a slight fuzzy head the day after, I am panicking because I have a huge gap in my memory of the evening and have to check with everyone whether I need to apologise for anything. Blackouts are not conducive to mental equilibrium. So I don’t really look forward to going out any more, because I can’t relax and enjoy myself like I used to.

And then other times I am completely fine and feeling like the best of myself: calm, cheerful, full of energy, funny, creative, clever, organised, and capable. This happens most when I am at work, writing and editing silently at my desk overlooking our monkey puzzle tree, focused and in a flow that takes me¬†very much out of my own body and far away from the torturous maelstrom. Then I have peace, and clarity. The sunshine helps enormously, and goodness knows we haven’t had much of that lately.

In some ways, this is tougher than going through chemo. It’s doubly hard because as far as I, and everyone else, is concerned, the whole caaancer thing is over, and I’m well.¬†Quite rightly, everyone moves on with their lives. But I am reminded frequently that it is not over, not by a long way, and sometimes it feels a bit of a lonely struggle after so much love and support for so long.

I have another four and a half years on tamoxifen. I am hoping things will settle down at some point soon. The only solution my consultant mooted, last summer when I took a break from my first attempt at taking the drug, was to also take anti-depressants – SSRIs – to even me out. I’ve been on anti-depressants a couple of times in the past and although they work beautifully, I’m just not keen on taking medication to combat the side effects of medication. It seems like the start of a vicious circle. And you do rather lose yourself on SSRIs. Comfortably numb. Don’t want to go there again, really.

The other options are to investigate the complementary routes: kinesiology to try and reduce my reactions to the drug and keep my energy balances; herbs and supplements to take the edge of the extremeness of the mood swings. Plus fresh air, deep breathing, exercise, healthy foods, soothing teas, reading, meditation, laughter: anything that increases my background sense of wellbeing.

So. I have blogged this one out. Time to get back to client deadlines while keeping an eye out for any blue sky peeking through the clouds and the drizzle. And wait to see what mood I will be in when my babies get home from school and pre-school today. I hope I will smile at them and make them feel safe and loved, rather than fearful and confused. But I just don’t know.

The final piece of the jigsaw

So I only have three days left, including today, of having an impressive cleavage. At 7.30am on Friday morning I will be checking into the short stay unit at the Royal Surrey County Hospital for my state-funded boob job, to reduce the size of my left breast so it matches the now cancer-free, smaller but much more pert right breast.

After it all heals up, I reckon I’ll be down to about a C-cup from a DD – happily, bigger than I expected before the initial op last Easter (yeah, it was that long ago!). I won’t need to be tucking my silicone chicken fillet into bras to fill out the cup any more. I will be able to spend all the lovely Rigby & Peller and Figleaves vouchers that generous friends and rellies have been giving me, on pretty bras (much more choice for smaller sizes, I gather). Given the ‘tits like a 19-year-old’ state of the right one, I may even be able to get away with not wearing a bra in the summer (though I do feel that once a lady is past a certain age, going for the ‘smuggling Tictacs’ look under a Hollister t-shirt is possibly just a bit sad). Another plus: I won’t have to hoik my post-breast-feeding puppies into undergarments any longer. And I’ll be able to wear polo-necks!! What’s not to like?!

'Chesty LaRue? Hooty McBoob? Busty St Clair?'

Well, I’ll tell you what’s not to like. There is a massive psychological difference between staring down at mummy boobs that grace one’s tummy when unscaffolded and thinking: ‘Gosh, I would love to have a few grand to get these chaps lifted and possibly reduced! I’d feel so much younger and clothes would fit better and I’d feel more confident and sexy if I had a boob job!’; and the¬†procedure being forced¬†upon you, in two far-apart stages, because the cells in one of your tits went a bit mental and threatened all sorts of nastiness if they weren’t cut down to size. The decision was out of my hands.

I really liked having big boobs, saggy or otherwise. I liked having an impressive cleavage. So did DH. He’s a tit-man through and through, and was particularly fond of the soft bits at the side, so he’s got some adjusting to do as well. I liked wearing low-cut tops and dresses. I’ve always been¬†quite happy for all and sundry to be thinking ‘Woah, look at the top bollocks on that!’. Plus breast-feeding my two babies is one of the proudest achievements of my life, and every stretch mark and scar is a reminder that I have done some things right as a mummy.

So while I can intellectually process the ‘positive’ aspect of my balancing surgery on Friday, forgive me if I’m not really feeling it. I never wanted my body to be a different shape entirely, and I never wanted a cosmetic boob job. A bit more toned, a few pounds lighter, less prone to dry skin, sure. But being resculpted entirely against my will? That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

I’m sure I’ll get used to it – I’m sort of used to having one small boob and one big one, nine months after that first mission-critical op, and I never thought I’d get used to being lopsided. And it’s a short, simple op and the recovery will be quicker, and there’s no lymph involvement this time. And it’s being done by the same brilliant surgeon, Tracey Irvine, after we sorted out a slight hiccup whereby the date I’d had in my head for the op since September – 23rd January – didn’t get transferred to her 2012 diary and there was a certain amount of date juggling before we came up with 3rd Feb. That – Titgate – was very hard to deal with because I’d been psyching myself up for this op for months.

And now the real date is here and I’m finding it harder than I thought. I need to pull myself together. It’s only a standard breast reduction, FFS, what am worried about? It’s the final piece in the cancer treatment jigsaw. After this, apart from 4.5 more years of Tamoxifen, it’s over, right? Cancer journey completed; job done, well done Pinch, time to get on with the rest of your life.

The thing is, though, it’s starting to dawn on me that this won’t ever be over. My body will be a different shape forever. I will always have heavily scarred breasts. And I have finally realised that I will always have to take care of my right arm and try to avoid cuts, burns, bites, excema, cracked skin. After the rather nasty cellulitis/lymphoedema incident which had me on antibiotics for a month before Christmas, I now have a snazzy graduated compression bandage which runs from my knuckles to my armpit. I have to¬†wear this if I’m going to be working on the computer for a long time (ie, doing my job four days a week), driving for any length of time, ironing, lifting, housework, exercise. Forever.¬†It looks a bit like I’m a dummy in a shop window when I wear it, because it’s flesh-coloured. It’s quite tight and tricky to get on, like wearing support tights.

I don’t have any strong feelings about it, to be honest – it’s quite reassuring that there are things I can do to hopefully stop me getting cellulitis again, because that was so grim. I don’t think a gentle nudge that I have to look after myself is necessarily a bad thing, really. But it is a constant reminder, nevertheless.

And then something else happened a couple of weeks ago that added a new dimension to the realisation that once you’ve had caaancer, life is always going to be different in so many ways, some which are actually good lessons or blessings, and others which aren’t. That new dimension was fear.

I haven’t felt fear since the day I was diagnosed. At the risk of sounding like Simon Cowell, I genuinely mean that. Not one twinge. I always knew I’d be fine. And then me and DH watched the eagerly anticipated first episode of the new series of Restoration Man (the one where Gorgeous George the architect sees a couple through some crazy water mill restoration project). The couple in question had been able to embark on their mad scheme after a critical illness cover payout after she got ovarian cancer. That was a few years ago, she was fine, silver linings all the way, we cheered, such a strong echo of our own experience. Then about half way through, the whole thing turned into a nightmare. The cancer had come back. Secondary cancer is incurable. She became more and more frail. George and her husband were in tears. So was DH. Then she…well, she died, and never got to see their dream project completed. Eeeeeek. Awful.

I must admit that was the first time I’d fully appreciated how fearful DH still is of my health, and possibly why he’s never really felt he can properly ‘celebrate’ me ‘getting better’. It was also¬†the first time I’d felt any sort of fear. It crept on¬†me like a chilly shadow:¬†‘What if it does happen again? And what if, then,¬†I’m not so lucky?’.

But I can’t think like that – I have had such good, thorough, belt-and-braces¬†treatment. Plus I’m never going to be as stressed and lacking in sleep as I was for a couple of years in the run-up to my diagnosis. And I’m taking control of my diet, and doing my yoga, and all the esoteric non-medical stuff I believe in. All I can do – and all DH and my family and friends can do – is trust that things are exactly as they should be, right now, and all is well in my world.

It’s weird that for me all the stuff about the long term and my own mortality has only started sneaking in since I finished my treatment. It’s¬†probably why I’m a bit up and down at the moment. I spent over a year with my head down, buggering on through it all, and only now do I get flashbacks that make me really shiver, and give me some insight into how everyone else might have been feeling.

I think the main lesson is the obvious, and hardest, one: that we only get this day once, and so it needs to be good. Whether that means it’s productive, or fun, or lucrative, or problem-solving, or organised, or thought-provoking, or relaxing, I want to go to sleep every night thinking, yes, I made the most of that day. Whatever the size of my bloomin’ tits. Bye-bye Chesty La Rue, it was nice knowin’ ya. There’s a new pair of chesticles in town.

Fundamental starts with ‘fun’

Look at the big smile on my face! I’ve just had my first session with my new Health Creation Mentor, after starting work on the Health Creation Programme. This is such an amazing resource for anyone moving on from a health crisis, or who suspects that body, mind, and spirit are not functioning in a perfectly healthy way. I’ve mentioned how useful I’ve found the Cancer Lifeline Programme from the same organisation, Health Creation, and this is the next step.

The idea is that is during the course of six months you work through a beautiful, chunky file, packed with written information, CDs, and self-assessment exercises. Each month, you fill in a booklet and answer yes or no to 90 questions in four areas: Body (Food, Exercise, Detox), Mind (Stress, Relationships, Emotions), Spirit (Being true to yourself, Energy, Spiritual connection) and Environment (Your space, Your communities, and Natural World). You add up the scores to draw your ‘Picture of Health’ to show how you are feeling about various aspects of your total health. Then, either working alone or with the help of a monthly coaching call from a Health Creation Mentor, you set monthly goals that will move your scores gradually upwards.

This is totally up my street as:

 a) I LOVE filling in forms. (The recent census was like Christmas, frankly, such is my passion for neat box-ticking. Yes, OK, very slightly OCD, possibly).

b) As I said last time, I really respond to this coaching approach where you start from where you are now, while recognising the impact of the past, then set goals and take action to move forward in a positive direction.

c) This is exactly the right amount of structured hand-holding to help me work out what I want the next phase of my long and healthy life to look like, and to take steps to make sure cancer gets the message that it is not welcome again Chez Pinchy, thank you very much.

Anyway, my mentor for the next six months of becoming a healthy person in all ways is the very lovely Kit Hammond Stapely . The moment you hear her voice, your shoulders drop and you relax. It’s like soft caramel, honestly. Our hour on the phone flew by. We talked about what I want to achieve over the course of the programme, unhealthy patterns and habits, and looked at my Picture of Health – which is like a very spiky star rather than the desired wheel, such is the variation between areas of my life which are really good (including Relationships), and areas which at the moment have a big red sticker saying ‘Equipment failure – engineer has been called’ (ie Emotions and Energy).

So now I have some health goals, including starting a daytime yoga class, cancelling my gym membership because it makes me droop whenever I think that I ‘should’ be going to the gym, walking to school twice a week to pick DD up when DS is at nursery, playing with the small people or chilling out with them in front of the telly for half an hour after school rather than rushing round doing laundry etc, and putting stuff that makes me happy and nurtures me before non-urgent and unimportant chores.

As Kit said: ‘Loving, nurturing and supporting ourselves is fundamental. And the nice thing about that word is that it starts with FUN’. She has prescribed a FUN family water fight over the coming weekend (a heatwave is predicted!). I’m going out with girlfriends this week to have FUN, and have booked a night away in Bristol with DH next weekend (where I went to uni) so we can relive a bit of our youth, sans kiddies,¬†and start a new habit of having FUN together.

Right, off to get some vitamin D in my head via the medium of hanging washing on the line. I may sing loudly while I do it, I warn you. It’s all about fun, people, and I want you all to tell me what you’ve got lined up this week that is just for fun. Let’s get some more joy in our lives, starting right now!

Reality bites

I breezed through my first chemotherapy day last Thursday. Came back from 11 hours at the hospital and four different drips (herceptin, then pertuzemab, then carboplatin chemo and then doxetaxol chemo) feeling absolutely fine. A bit tired as I hadn’t slept the night before (rehearsing the day, you know how it is when you’ve got something biggish coming up), but otherwise, feeling rather proud of myself.

The night before, DH presented me with my Team Pinchy t-shirt that he got my lovely aunt and uncle to print for me. I wore it all day and the nurses loved it. (We’re doing some more, ¬£10 each with all proceeds to the amazing Fountain Centre complementary cancer care unit at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, so let me know if you’d like one.)¬†Mummy was with me all day, and I was so well looked after by my own lovely research nurse Celia. She was a complete legend – kind, gentle, funny, and smart, and hugely reassuring.

The worse bit was the cold cap to try and prevent my hair falling out too much. That was fricking cold – a -5.5 degress bright pink cycling helmet hooked up to a cooler to keep the temperature constant for more than three hours. The first half hour was almost unbearable, after that I sort of forgot about it, though picking ice out of my hair at the end of the day reminded me of going face down into a snow drift in Val d’Isere.

But today is Day 5, if we count Chemo Day as Day 1, and it has to be said, I feel like crap. The euphoria of finally starting treatment and it being absolutely tolerable on the day rapidly dissipated when the side effects started coming, thick and fast, on Friday. Nausea? Check – and the anti-emetics made me feel how I imagine a heroin addict feels going cold turkey, like I wanted to crawl out of my own shaky, twitchy skin. I didn’t know what to do with myself, it was the weirdest feeling. Sore mouth? Check – chemo blasts the cells in your body that replicate themselves most quickly (hence hair loss), including all your mucous membranes, so the inside of my lips, mouth and throat feel like when you really burn your mouth and then have that horrible taste for days because it’s full of dying cells. Everything tastes disgusting. I get hungry but don’t fancy anything. Ice helps, a bit. Manuka honey, too (trust me to need the pricey stuff – a girl’s got standards to keep up!). I keep getting weird little aches and shooting pains in random bits of my body.

I’m beyond tired – proper feet-not-working fatigue. My wonderful M&D took the kiddies back to their place on Friday afternoon (described by¬†my 4yo DD¬†as a ‘mini-break’ !?).¬†DH made me a day bed on the sofa and for the first time ever, other than a week or so after each of¬†the babies were born, I have been forced to accept that I have to rest. ¬†This is Brand New for me. As a freelancer, I didn’t even have maternity leave with either of them, cracking on with writing and editing and cleaning during their naps. I don’t find it easy to stop, sit down, relax, do nothing. I am always busy. There is always something to do in the house, for the kids, for other people, for my clients. But now I really have no choice but to do bugger all.

Also for the first time, I am starting to willingly accept help instead of my usual refrains of ‘It’s ok, I’ll do it, no thank you, I’m fine’. Some of S’s delicious homemade butternut squash soup? Yes please. DH cleaning the bathrooms, hoovering and doing the cooking? Yes please. Pops doing the ironing? Yes please. Lovely school mum friends popping into Sainsbury’s for bog roll and making us a lasagne? Yes please. I am learning to accept, with grace and gratefully, any and all offers of help and support.

I’m not used to this, at all, but maybe it’s one of my big lessons from this whole caaancer thing. I’m not alone. I don’t have to do everything myself. I don’t have to be superwoman. I don’t have to cope. There’s being capable and Just Buggering On (all good things in my view) and there’s being stubborn,¬†anally perfectionist,¬†and martyr-ish. One of the promises I’m making to myself, my family and my friends right now is that there will be a lot less of the Resentful Saint about Pinchy from now on. Which I’m sure will be a blessed relief for you all.

Right, I’m off to read some chick lit in front of the telly and try to ignore my mouth ulcers. Amen.