Monday, 22 December 2014

I saw it through {not a victim}

Trigger warning : includes references to abuse - please take care of yourself

I've never heard a woman describe having a cervical smear test as a pleasant experience, but when your history includes sexual assault it's difficult to explain how genuinely traumatising it can be.  But, on Friday, I achieved a victory over my own history - it was something that might seem insignificant to most people, but I'm trying to celebrate the ups these days, so here goes.

I hadn't managed to keep any food down since Wednesday evening, I was running on fumes for sleep and I was snapping at everyone for everything.  My body and mind felt brittle, stiff, so tense that every sound seemed amplified a thousand times, and as I sat in the waiting room I could feel myself shaking.

When my name was called I exchanged a tight smile of acknowledgement with the doctor as I slowly stood and walked towards her, briefly wondering if it was too late to run screaming from the building before dismissing this as being likely to be noticed.

I am tagged as 'complex', something that means I'm seen at the sexual health clinic in the city centre as opposed to the treatment room at my gp surgery.  My reasoning is that staff who deal exclusively with sexual health are likely to be able to carry out the procedures more quickly than those who during the course of an ordinary day also carry out immunisations, change dressings and take blood.  The appointments for the complex clinic are longer, and the staff are aware that the women coming in might be struggling with all kinds of issues.

'So,' the doctor commented, 'Am I right in thinking you need a smear test today as well as a coil change?'  There was no stern look as I hesitantly explained the smear was two and a half years overdue, and the coil had reached it's expiry date six months ago - no tutting, no judgement, no fuss.  She nodded as I told her, in fits and starts, that this was something I dreaded intensely, and could not face submitting to as often as I knew that I should.  Hence the delayed smear test - although I'm recalled every three years, my coil lasts for five, and it had taken another six months to bring myself to arrange the appointment, and even then only because there were indicators the coil was becoming less effective.  Her calm and confident manner as she explained the order she would be carrying out the necessary tasks was reassuring to a point, but I could still feel anxiety churning up my insides.

'If you could just undress from the waist down and take a seat here, lay this paper over your lap and Helen [the newly introduced assistant who was tasked with supporting me] will show you how to position your legs'


Cold air on my clammy legs, the indignity of being partially clothed in the company of others, worrying about hairy legs and whether I smelled - it was all eclipsed in my mind as I struggled to get enough breath... images flashing before my eyes of times I'd had no control over what was happening to my body, I heard whispered threats, and heavy panting right next to my ear, faster and faster, and I clenched my eyes so tightly closed that I saw colours exploding...

I heard the doctor saying my name, asking me if I wanted them to talk to me for distraction, reminding me that I was in control and if I wanted them to stop then they would do so straight away.  'I'm okay' I whispered - of course I was far from it but the quicker this was done then the quicker I could get out of here.  'I'm fine'.  I tried to breathe slowly as I felt the speculum, as my insides were jacked open like a car in need of a new tyre.

'Lucas, the smear is done, you're doing really well...just try to relax, let your bottom sink into the couch, it's just going to take a minute...'

A twinge of pain, as if someone had flicked an elastic band against my insides...  I kept my eyes tight shut, and realised I was clutching Helen's gloved hand.  I was intensely aware that I was overreacting, but could do nothing about it, still focusing on breathing in and out.

'Okay - that's the old coil out Lucas - do you need me to stop?  You're doing great but we can leave it for now if you want, what do you think?'

My thoughts were whirling round - stop it stop it stop it stop it - but I knew I needed to see this through.  It was nothing to do with the pain (I've had three babies after all), or selfconsciousness of my body, but just the entirety of the situation - there was very little that could be done to make this easier for me.  It was about the struggle to get to this point, on this day, in this room, under this paper sheet - the struggle to relinquish control of my body to someone else.  'I'm okay, please finish' I managed to force out from between gritted teeth - I knew if I freaked out now it would be years before I was able to work myself back to here.

Another twinge and then 'okay Lucas, we're done...  I'm taking the speculum out now, we're finished.  Take a few deep breaths - you did it.  The smear is done, the old coil is out, and the new one is in.  You did so well Lucas - just relax a minute before you hop up, don't want you passing out.  I'm drawing the curtain round, to give you some privacy.  Sit up slowly once you feel okay, pop your trousers on and then there's just a couple of things to tell you and you can get out of here.'

Once I was sat back down, dressed but still shaking, I almost dissolved into hysterical giggling when the doctor commented that I looked pale - of course I did! - and asked if I needed to lie down for a while.  But I just wanted to be done and get home.  'You're not covered for seven days' she reminded me, and though I knew it was going to take longer than that to unwind from this I nodded and thanked her.  I was scared and dizzy and tearful and trembling, but I had seen it through and that was partly because of her.  She'd been professional, but thoughtful; empathetic, but not condescending; confident, but not pushy.  Because I had faith that if I needed it to stop then it would, I had been able to continue.

Mr Manley was waiting outside, having been barred from the women only complex clinic, and hugged me tight against him as he asked if I was okay.  I spent the afternoon on the sofa, wrapped in several blankets, with a steady supply of cups of tea and biscuits.  I have a follow up appointment in a few weeks which, to be completely honest, I will probably cancel as it will include an internal exam, and I just don't think I'll be able to do it.  Then, in five years I'll make another appointment, and go through it all again.

There's a voice in my head pointing out that the smear was way way way overdue; that the doctor and Helen are most likely laughing together over the state I was in (both emotional and physical - I mentioned the tears and the hairy legs, right?); that for most women, ordinary women, this is no big deal; that I should be over this by now.  But there's another voice in there too - a quiet voice...not quite a whisper, but without the confident tone implying years of practice.  A voice that tells me none of that matters.  A voice that suggests I concentrate on the fact that I saw it through, even though it was a struggle.  A voice that reminds me to look forward, instead of back.

Friday, 5 December 2014

news *TW*

Possible triggers regarding mental health distress - please be aware.

***I edited this post after hearing that the family of the individual I mention are asking for media privacy.  I have taken out the limited information that I included on her, but have made the decision to repost this, and hope that it is read and recognised as my personal reaction and desire to promote openness over the issues relating to mental health. ***

Hot tears chased one another down my cheeks as I tried to keep my breathing even, not wanting to draw the attention of the kids.  If they noticed my red eyes and running nose I'd have to explain the reason for my distress, and I didn't know if I could.  Along with many others, my heart was aching for a woman I'd never met, and the pain she must have been experiencing.  My chest felt dull, empty, and I wanted to howl - to protest against the universe about how this was not fair - a woman who had just become a mother, a baby who had just begun her life - gone.

On twitter I found I wasn't the only one who had been shaken by the news that the baby's body had been found.  If we were brutally honest with ourselves we knew that if she'd been left on someone's doorstep then she would have been found already and returned to safety; and if she'd been tucked into a bush then the temperatures overnight would have been too cold for her to survive.  I think for me the news that the baby had been found brought not only grief for her death, but also added another layer of pain for her mother - that she had reached that level of desperation and disconnection.

A huge assumption needs to be acknowledged here.  I am assuming that the mum's mental health deteriorated before she left the hospital with her baby girl.  That may not be accurate, but I'm writing with that in my mind as the likely course of events.  Something else I'd like to point out is the dangers of confusion and missed complexity when relying on social media.  With no body language cues or tones of voice we're forced to rely on emoticons and our own understanding of language, and this can easily go wrong.  A group of us on twitter realised this and the importance of 'think before you tweet' - hopefully mainstream media will be responsible when reporting the circumstances - in fact the Samaritans have an established media protocol, focused on reducing risk to vulnerable readers, respecting privacy and recognising the complexities involved.

As utterly devastating as this must be for all those who knew and loved her I find my focus is not on their grief but on the mum herself.  Not because I don't feel for them - my most sincere condolences go to all those who knew her.  I think my mind is drawn to her distress because, along with many others, I identify with some of her pain - that recognition of her anguish resonates deep within me and brings up memories of times I struggled to connect with the world around me and found myself bereft of hope and unable to look forwards.

Even now writing this I'm in tears, and so I'm purposefully making the choice to tend to my own needs and leave it there for now.  I hope to be able to share with you my experience of post natal depression, as well as the stories of others and the importance of fighting the taboo and stigma relating to mental health and pregnancy and birth.  If you'd like to join in, please get in touch - you can email me, make contact through twitter (@abstractLucas) or leave me a message in the comments box.  

If you need support or want to talk please consider getting in touch with the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 (from within the uk) or click here .

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Accessible ice skating? Really?

Some family activities are tricky when one of you uses a wheelchair, and it's easy to grumble when things don't go very well, but I wanted to share a really positive experience we had today - ice skating.  Not one of the most obviously inclusive activities, admittedly...

We're spoilt for choice in Bristol at this time of year - we get temporary outside skating rinks at Cribbs Causeway, another at a nearby garden centre, and a third in Millennium Square run by @Bristol.  Everyone in Bristol knows the big shiny ball - an easy reference point for the kids!

Cerebra (in conjunction with the children's hospital) organised a family session, and we were lucky enough to be drawn from the hat, so down we went.  Staff were great, and not the slightest bit phased by umpteen kids in wheelchairs on the ice, or the couple of meltdowns that are inevitable with that kind of situation.

Noah feel over a couple of times and was helped back to his feet by staff who managed to not make him feel self conscious about it at all - pretty impressive since he now seems to have reached that point in life where you want to be exactly the same as everyone else and falling over on the ice is so embarrassing you're pretty sure you wished you'd knocked yourself out just so you don't have to deal with seeing anyone notice that you fell.  

Petal, still at the 'look at me I'm invincible' stage of pre-puberty, has pretty good balance and kept calling out updates as to how many times she'd circled round and not yet fallen over - at least partly to rub salt in Noah's wounds I'm sure! 

Smiler decided that just because he was in his wheelchair on the ice shouldn't mean he didn't get a turn with the penguins (think sliding walking frame for skaters otherwise reluctant to let go of the side), and since there were plenty it seemed reasonable...  The look on his face says it all!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

I am the soft starshine at night

It happened.  This weekend.

Pam died.

She had been in my life since I was born.

She was ninety, still living in the house she shared with her husband, my Uncle Cyril, until he died last year.

She had no children - living at a time when women had to make defined choices about careers and families, she chose to be a school teacher, then a headmistress at an elite girls boarding school, not marrying until she was thirty, almost unheard of back then.

Post mortem today, to determine whether she fell down the stairs then had a stroke or the other way around.  As she didn't press her alarm, it's likely she was unconscious and "didn't know anything about it".

Goodbye Pam.

She loved this, I know it brought her comfort after Cyril died.

Do not stand at my grave and weep, 
I am not there, I do not sleep. 
I am in a thousand winds that blow, 
I am the softly falling snow. 
I am the gentle showers of rain, 
I am the fields of ripening grain. 
I am in the morning hush, 
I am in the graceful rush 
Of beautiful birds in circling flight, 
I am the starshine of the night. 
I am in the flowers that bloom, 
I am in a quiet room. 
I am in the birds that sing, 
I am in each lovely thing
Do not stand at my grave and cry, 
I am not there. I do not die.

(Sourced here)

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Wednesday, 8 October 2014

How To Bake :: stilton & grape flatbread

The first recipe Mr Manley chose to try from our review copy of the How To Bake book - Stilton & grape flatbreads.  Straightforward ingredients, clear instructions, fingers crossed...

I'm always a bit wary of the 'leave until the dough doubles in size' bit, mainly because I've never before had dough that actually did double in size, but whaddya know - it did this time! 

Although the pics are in the wrong order (I'm trusting you to be able to overlook that) please note the fancy/not fancy dough cutter/scraper with the blue handle - an inspired birthday gift from Petal for Mr Manley this past Spring, from Lakeland - only £4.99.  According to the afore mentioned Mr Manley it makes it possible to work with impossibly wet dough, so a bargain then!

Each piece of dough is crammed full of what seems like a huge amount of cheese and - as per the slightly alarmingly specific instructions - four halves of grapes.  Although this initially appeared to be ridiculously faffy, once we were flattening out the pudgy little parcels it became obvious why they needed to be less than full size single grapes - they catch as you roll, and tear the dough.  

Then into a frying pan where they puff up and brown off - they came out looking fab actually, and my worries about melted Stilton all over the place fortunately didn't come to anything!  

The flatbreads were very filling - probably something to do with all that cheese - so we had leftovers.  Although the instructions said to serve warm, we defied Mr Hollywood by tucking into them the next day cold, and they were lovely, thank you very much. 

Likely to become a regular addition to our picnics, these got two thumbs up from the kids - a promising start to our exploration of How To Bake!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

{ I was sent a copy of How To Bake to review by Suppose, but all thoughts and opinions are my very own.  Or Mr Manley's.  Or the kids.  Promise }