A great weekend celebrating a milestone birthday with family. Food, fun and fantastic weather – what more could we ask of South Wales in September?
When I realised that this year’s World Mental Health Day was focusing on the subject of suicide and suicide prevention, I paused. I wasn’t sure that this was an area that I could write about knowledgeably and, in fact, even as I write this blog post now, I’ve got a constant thought in the back of my mind that it could be just as easy to press “delete” as it would be to press “publish” when I’ve reached the end of my musings.
I’ll be honest, suicide is not a tragedy that we’ve had to deal with firsthand. I know friends and colleagues whose families have been shaken to their very core because of the unexpected and sudden death of a loved one, but I can’t pretend to understand just how difficult it is to come to terms with that death, deal with the impact of it or find a way to somehow carry on with life “as normal”.
Can I understand what leads someone to believe that death is the only answer to their problems? Possibly.
I’ve never been in the position to feel that there is no other escape, but my own experiences with depression over the years due to my T1D, following the traumatic birth of M and the massive mental health impact of workplace bullying do perhaps give me a slight glimpse of how frighteningly easy it is to spiral downwards into the darkest of places and not know how to climb back out of that hole. Sadly, it’s been a truth we’ve also had to face with M in times when he has struggled to come to terms with the reality of his chronic illness and all the consequences that come with that; and we’ve watched G battle to overcome the challenges of having a sibling with health challenges. I’ve written about these experiences and how they’ve affected me, G and M many times and you can find those posts through searching “mental health” or “bullying” on my blog.
Today I saw this image posted on social media by our local NICU ward, a place I know well after the births of both G and M, and it perfectly encapsulates everything we should be teaching our young people about their own mental health: that no emotion should ever be considered to be wrong and, most importantly, that it’s okay to not feel okay.
…and gone tomorrow!
It’s an old joke, I know, but it sums up perfectly the start of the new school year for G. For those of you who’ve been following me for a while, you may remember that 2 years ago G took the plunge and decided to cut her beautiful long hair for charity. She donated the hair itself to the Little Princess Trust, who use it to create real hair wigs for children who have lost their hair due to intensive medical treatments. G also took the opportunity to raise funds for Over The Wall and it turned into an impressive occasion, leaving her with a very grown-up hairstyle as well as raising £500, which was then match-funded to create a staggering £1,000 fundraising total.
Over the summer months, G has been talking once again about wanting to cut her hair – I think the hassle of combing numerous tangles and knots out of it had all become too much – and so at the end of her second day back at school, she headed to our local hair salon and once again braved the cut. Mike suggested to her that she consider donating to the Little Princess Trust once again and as soon as she realised that there was enough length to allow her to do it, there really was no stopping her.
This time round she’s gone a little shorter than before, but it’s still an absolutely stunning style for my fast growing-up firstborn. We are so proud that she didn’t think twice about making the donation and even more so when she said that she wants to continue to donate her lengthy locks whenever she can. To paraphrase G, she wants to “…donate my hair, just like Dad donates his blood…” – a fantastic ambition and who are we to argue.
New job, end of term, fundraising plans, health challenges, summer holidays… sometimes it really is nice to be able to stop and smell the roses, especially when they’re as beautiful as this bunch of flowers currently gracing G’s windowsill. A thank you from her Stagecoach school for all her help last week at their summer school – a small acknowledgement of her efforts and one that has very much been appreciated and enjoyed by us all.
We’re all taking a little time this week to slow down and appreciate life. With a couple of days off planned for the end of the week, I’m winding down to just spending some much-longed-for family time together and am wondering if I can convince the children to give up their technology for at least some of that time too. M is spending the week planning 101 things he wants to do with G before we have our break, whilst G tries her best to ignore him and focus on some gentle revision instead. Mike and I will complete as much work as we can and anything left outstanding will quite simply have to wait until we head back to our desks on Monday morning.
I hope you too get the chance to stop, take a breather and appreciate life in its fullest this week.
A lot can happen in 20 years.
In the years since our wedding in December 1999, our family has doubled in size and we’ve moved schools, houses and jobs at a rate that has to be seen to be believed. We’ve survived illness and loss within both our families and our friends, and continue to do so on a daily basis thanks to some long-term diagnoses that have oft-times caught us when we were least expecting them. Chronic illness has become a much bigger part of our lives that we could ever have imagined, but with that has also come some amazing friendships, connections and opportunities that we never even dreamed would happen and that, in many ways, I wouldn’t change for the world.
One such relationship that we have all absolutely come to value is the one with the charity, Over The Wall. They have been a phenomenal support to G and M since both first attended their camps in 2016 and are, in an almost unbelievable stroke of serendipity, also celebrating 20 years since they were first launched by UK businessman Joe Woods following in Paul Newman’s footsteps and the development of the Hole in the Wall Gang camps in Connecticut USA in the late 1980s.
So what are we doing to make this a year of note?
As far as our anniversary goes, I’m hoping that Mike and I might manage a night out somewhere special, though celebrating the week before Christmas can make that difficult as we negotiate the huge numbers of office Christmas parties that we inevitably encounter when trying to book a table anywhere without a lot of forward planning.
And, of course, it will come as no surprise that we are also working hard to raise awareness and funds to support Over The Wall’s ambitious plans to take a record-breaking 1,000 children to camp this year. Mike started the year in style with a sponsored polar dip on New Year’s Day and we’ve turned our hands to a few other things – some old, some new – to see just how much we can raise. We followed the “sparking joy” fashion and adopted a Marie Kondo approach to clearing out our wardrobes, committed to giving a regular amount each month and even stood in the entrance of our local Tesco superstore a couple of weeks ago to collect what we could and spread the word about the camps too.
G and M have obviously been a big part of many of our efforts, but are now launching an appeal of their own. Their yearning to do something truly spectacular has unfortunately been somewhat hampered by not yet being quite old enough to participate in the activity of their choice, but they have instead picked the next best option in their eyes and will be taking part in a sponsored indoor skydive at the end of this month.
How can you help?
Well, it goes without saying that any sponsorship you can give would be very gratefully received by G, M and OTW, especially if you can help them meet their fundraising target of £200 – scaled back somewhat from M’s original suggestion of £20,000 – by visiting their fundraising page here.
If you’re not able to donate, but live near a Tesco store in one of the following areas*, OTW is one of their Bags of Help Centenary Grants recipients until the end of August and by adding your blue token to their box, and encouraging friends, family and fellow shoppers to do the same, you will help them receive a significant grant that will be genuinely life-changing. Remember “Every Little Helps”, even if that’s by a blue token!
Finally, sharing the OTW message of #mischiefandmagic with friends and across your social media channels will not only help the charity reach even more of the estimated 50,000 children and young people living with serious health challenges across the UK, but sharing our fundraising page will hopefully bring even more cash donations pouring in to help them achieve their goals not only this year, but in the future too.
*OTW is currently starring in stores across: Perth & Kinross, Angus, Stirling, Fife, Clackmannanshire, South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, East Lothian, Midlothian, Somerset (inc Bristol), Wiltshire and Swindon.
We’ve made it!
We almost literally limped to the end of term, but we made it, not withstanding the challenges of mock exams, shingles and Lyme disease. Homework was completed (and handed in), sports day was competed in (and won) and the last day was enjoyed in all the glory of own clothes and an early finish to the day.
We might only be a week in, but already G and M have been busy. We’ve squeezed in a couple of films they wanted to watch, the beach has been enjoyed with G’s godfather and his family visiting from Canada and they’ve kicked off this week by volunteering at our Church’s holiday club for primary-age children during the day as well as taking part in the evening’s youth club for teens.
And there are plans for the weeks ahead: G is spending a week volunteering at their Stagecoach’s summer school, a visit to London to see the musical of their choice thanks to London theatre’s Kids Week and even some fundraising for the fantastic Over The Wall which they’ve planned themselves (more details of that to follow). We don’t have a “big” summer holiday planned having been to Berlin during May half-term, but instead have decided to enjoy our local area as well as the occasional overnight visit to somewhere a little further afield in the UK.
One thing’s for certain, it’s looking to be a busy, fantastic and very happy summer holidays and I hope yours are too!
Sending birthday wishes to our Canadian family and friends!
June always seems to be a busy month for G and M and this year has been no exception to that unwritten rule. As well as the hell that was the lead up to G’s Year 10 mock exams – the exams themselves have proved to be not quite as stressful as we all feared they might be – there’s also been the much more enjoyable enrichment week for M and G’s work experience week too. Add in Live Lounge performances at school, end of year performances with their performing arts schools, we’ve finally found ourselves at the end of June and it’s time to take a deep breath, enjoy the last few weeks of school (if that’s even possible) and look forward to the summer holidays.
Last year, M was part of the school-based activities week as he wasn’t in a position to be able to consider being away from home from a health perspective and this year was no different, although the school makes the decision that all Year 8 students remain on-site, rather than being offered residential trips. After much deliberation, he was fortunate enough to be awarded a place on his first choice activity: the photography course. M really enjoys taking photos and has captured some really stunning snaps using just his phone’s camera at home. This was an opportunity to learn much more about the craft of photography itself and he spent 4 days learning about shutter speeds, taking action shots, images through water – lots and lots and lots of water! – and using light to write and capture words. He loved every moment of the course and has already decided to start saving up his pocket money so that he can buy his own camera as soon as he practically can.
The Friday was spent on a different activity and much to our surprise, he opted for paint-balling, something that has left him battered and bruised in the past. In fact, M hasn’t been paint-balling since he was hit accidentally by an adult using a high-powered weapon in the wrong part of the course at a friend’s birthday party. Whilst he wasn’t injured particularly and bounced back very quickly, the experience rattled most of the people there as M had his feeding-tube at the time and he was sore for a few days afterwards. However, the prospect of running around with a group of his friends and their plan to gang up on some of the teachers seemed to excite him and he couldn’t wait to go on the Friday even despite the rain. It was another fun-filled day and he enjoyed it all, even if he did come home sporting a rather impressive bruise to his right thigh by the end of it.
Whilst M had a week of enriching and engaging activities, G meanwhile found herself completing her work experience week. Back at the start of the school year, we had gone through a number of possible posts for her to consider and apply to for the week, but in the end she decided to spend the time working at the surveying firm as Mike. She spent her week learning how to carry out and complete property valuations, building surveys and home-buyers reports as well as the more mundane office and administration tasks that all good work placement employers expect: photocopying and shredding! Her Friday saw her spending the day at a building site and finding out about project management and property insurance claims. G very much enjoyed her week, though her diary entry for the Wednesday perhaps sums it up best – when asked “What have you learned about work this week?“, her honest response was “That it’s exhausting!“
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (#MHAW19) in the UK and the focus this year is on body image – how we think and feel about our bodies. I’ve talked about mental health in relation to our family before as there is no question that the ongoing challenges of M’s ill health and the restricted diets of both children have impacted not only them, but Mike and me too. Just because I’ve not written about body image issues before doesn’t mean we haven’t faced them and I thought it was finally time to try and put my pen to paper and talk about our experiences honestly.
It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the way I look. I am not a size 10 having, as I have often said, passed through it on my way to bigger and better things. I struggled as a teen being taller and bigger than some of my friends and again as a new Mum, when some of my antenatal group bounced back to their size 8 jeans within a ridiculously quick space of time, something I was never going to achieve. The depression that has haunted me since my early teen years didn’t help with my sense of self worth and it has taken me 40 years to finally accept that I am the way I am and that that is enough. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally have a crisis of confidence even now, but I have learned to wear clothes that flatter my shape and can truly step out with confidence when everything comes together to help me feel good about the way I’m presenting myself to the outside world.
There is no question that G is the spitting image of Mike and his side of the family, which gives her beautiful tanned skin and dark hair, although her build is very similar to mine. She has struggled at times with not being as slender as some of her friends and these days complains that she appears to have stopped growing whilst her friends are still inching past her. She is a beautiful young lady on the inside as well as out and we encourage her to find her worth in the way she behaves and reacts to the people who are around her and not her physical looks. We have all heard the criticisms of both print and social media and the airbrushed images that all too often create unrealistic expectations in our children and young people. The increasing popularity of taking selfies and then using social media filters to manipulate the image presented to the world can add to our unrealistic perceptions about the way we should look. I still remember a discussion we had with one of the paediatricians when she was little, who told us that the danger these days is that our perceptions and expectations of body shape and size are such that we fail to recognise when people are a healthy weight for their height and instead view them as overweight. G is learning to eat healthily, keep active, believe in herself and, most importantly, to not constantly compare who she is to her friends.
It is easy to believe therefore that if you’re slim you have no reason to have body image issues, but I can tell you that’s not true either. M is the complete opposite to the rest of us and has always been on the slender side. He is chatty, witty and can ooze absolute self-belief at times, and yet he has struggled with feeling too thin, too short and lacking muscles when compared to some of his friends. He refused to wear shorts during his Junior school years, even when the weather was gloriously sunny and we asked for permission for him to wear jogging trousers rather than shorts for PE – all because he hated the way his legs looked. These days he’s a little more prepared to reveal his legs, particularly when it’s too hot to be comfortable in jeans, but he frequently comments on just how much taller than him many of his classmates are.
Boys can be just as much affected by body image issues as girls can and we’re lucky that our secondary school is very aware of that fact and looks to support all of the pupils in its teaching about these matters. We are all aware that puberty is a tricky time and one that needs to be carefully navigated by all involved. At home, we look to help both G and M grow up with a positive self image and belief as well as teaching them the importance of balanced meals and regular exercise. We also encourage them to talk openly and honestly with us about how they’re feeling about various issues, not just about the way they look, and will help them find answers or solutions if they want. Our youngsters grow up sadly believing all too often that they need to be thin and conventionally beautiful to succeed in this world and I find it devastating that they do not truly understand and believe that there is so much more to achieving success than the way they look.
This weekend has been one of “those” weekends. You know, one of the ones where there’s so much to do and just not quite enough time to manage to do it all. A combination of birthday celebrations, performing arts classes, auditions and hospital appointments has left us feeling somewhat exhausted; but tonight, after a fun few hours with M, G and a group of their friends, I’m also counting our blessings.
It’s been no secret that M found last year, his first at secondary school, tough. The move into a school environment where his year group was considerably bigger than his entire junior school combined with family deaths and the inevitable challenge of his continued restricted diet left not only M, but all of us, struggling to find a positive way forward. Circumstances last year meant that we didn’t really do much to celebrate his 12th birthday, so I was determined to kick off his teen years in whatever fashion he wanted.
The celebrations started with an M-friendly pear and ginger cake with caramel buttercream icing on Friday evening to accompany his presents, which included the bass guitar and amp that he’s been yearning after for a few months. He had been slightly frustrated with Mike’s refusal to take him to look at guitars last weekend and was only marginally mollified by the promise to get up early this Saturday morning to visit our local guitar shop and examine exactly what was on offer. As you can imagine, his excitement in finding the guitar and its own mini amp waiting for him when he got home from Stagecoach was wonderful to see and we’ve been serenaded with renditions of both “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Seven Nation Army” since late Friday night! I’m just glad the bass guitar lessons he’s been having at school appear to be paying off already and delighted to see him so wiling to practise in every spare moment.
However, the culmination of M’s birthday weekend came yesterday afternoon as we spent the late afternoon and early evening with a group of his and G’s friends. M had chosen a group of old friends and new, some from school, others that he’s grown up with and the best bit was seeing just how well these different strands of his life hit it off and enjoyed the few hours together. After lots of chat, M had decided he wanted to try his hand at an escape room and we booked 2 rooms at one of our local escape rooms sites. We amicably split into 2 teams, each with an adult and a mix of the older and younger children and determined to compete against the clock, rather than each other to escape our locked rooms.
I was impressed with how well they all worked together and certainly those on my team managed the frustration of solving some of the clues well, with only one of M’s friends needing some redirection and reminders to focus from time to time. We were lucky to escape with just 2 minutes to spare and although Mike and M’s team were not quite so successful – they had found all 4 keys, but failed to open the door in time – everyone enjoyed themselves and were ready to move on for a dinner to suit all dietary needs that were present.
The chatter, camaraderie and chuckles around the table were wonderful to experience and all the children were a delight to spend time with as they enjoyed their food and just spending time together. It was a wonderful way to celebrate M’s 13th birthday and I really have counted my blessings tonight that M has finally found his way out from the darkness of last year with the help of some amazing friends, who accept him for who he is and don’t see his health challenges as a barrier to their friendship with him. A perfect celebration with both new friends and old; and a combination of friendships that I hope will keep going for many years to come.