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Monthly Archives: April 2013

When I get up on Saturday morning, I should usually have some bread dough waiting for me in the fridge.  Sourdough is so slow I can do its first prove overnight if I chill it.  But how cold it is kneading it straight from the fridge!  See that big bubble just under the surface, waiting to be popped.Image

By the end of the morning, with the first load of school uniform humming away in the washing machine, a few less weeds in the garden, and the crossword done, it has nearly finished its second prove (in my warm cupboard).  It usually comes out of the oven sometime after lunch:Image

and the difficult thing is to let it cool right down and not to eat it straight away while it’s hot!  On a good week it lasts through till Monday, but some weeks (if there is some good jam to go with it) it doesn’t make it past teatime.

 

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I was awfully gloomy as a teenager: I mean, a real Eeyore; I can’t have been much fun to be around. Of course teenage is a time of extreme states of mind, extreme joy can be replaced by cold darkness in a heartbeat, but this was a settled grey fog, without relief or variety. From the age of 11 onwards, for several years, I experienced everything through a thick muffling blanket, took very little pleasure in anything, and felt no connection with the rest of the world. At the time, depression was not recognized in teenagers, and since I never lost time from school, and carried on studying hard, none of the adults around me, with one exception, knew that anything was wrong.

The exception was my mother, who knew just how unhappy I was. For years she patiently chased me down, listened to me, chivied me away from my books. She taught me the gentle pleasures of going for walks, doing crosswords, watching a favourite TV programme. It was years before I finally mastered the art of not being depressed, and fully appreciated what she had given me in those years.

However, although she was sympathetic, I never felt that she understood. I was convinced that she had never experienced depression in her life. It seemed to me that our temperaments were as different as the sun and the moon. Both my father and I suffered depression, but my mother seemed mysteriously immune. Of course, as a teenager, since it seemed obvious to me that the world was just depressing, I secretly thought my mother was a bit lacking in imagination! In fact later on the turning point in my battle against depression was in finally recognizing that happiness was not a failure of imagination.

Now I am the mother and it is my children who are amazed at my apparent impermeability to the utter awfulness of the world around them. I am the one coaxing, listening, modelling a calm and happy life. It’s not a confidence trick: I am not selling them a pup. I am happy, and I could show them how to become happy too. But I know they can’t hear that yet, and that it may take a long time for them to understand. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they think I don’t understand, and that I am a bit lacking in imagination.

My son is so worried about his exams next month that he’s making himself really ill.  It’s awful to have to watch.  I’ve already written about being worried about the drop in his appetite.  Of course as a parent, you want to avoid your children suffering – you look after them, you try to give them what you think is good advice, you fuss, nag, shout or praise depending on your personal style.  But against depression, what can you do?  Perhaps some parents – with some children – can intervene and stop the process, but I suspect nature is against the rest of us.  (This doesn’t make it any easier to accept.)

ImageMy son has Asperger’s, and his thinking can be rigid at times.  I encourage him to talk to me about his worries and I listen to what he says. I know enough about CBT to spot some of the classic thinking traps, but usually I try to keep quiet. Just occasionally I can’t stop myself and I ever so gently imply that there is an alternative way to think about something – an alternative that would be less painful, less guilt-ridden, less brutal.  I am always roundly rebuffed.  He is going through a phase where it is so important to reject advice from parents, that he hardly listens to a word I say.  He has to reject it, he has to refute it (no matter how thin his arguments against), he has to stake his independence.  I can see the path out of his prison, but he won’t take it until he finds it for himself.

Isn’t this always the problem with supporting someone with depression?  You are sitting outside the prison with the key to the door in your hand, but they refuse to take it from you?

It seems all I can do is what I am doing: watching out for him in practical ways, making sure he gets to bed at a reasonable hour, cooking for him, nagging him to wear his coat when it rains.  I have arranged for him to see professionals for the depression, we take him to his appointments, I try to give him space to talk if he wants.  I talk to the school, trying to explain why this is not just normal reluctance to do exams, but something more dangerous.  I try to make sure he doesn’t become isolated in the family, I encourage him to come on family outings (he doesn’t usually want to go), I make sure he sees his friends.

There’s a fair chance he won’t even be able to take these exams – he’s been unable to take several in the past.  There are serious problems building up for him in the future if he carries on skipping them.  And in the meantime, his mood is getting bleaker, and more savage with every day that passes.  But all I can do it seems is watch and support him.

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These pansies have already been burning brightly for several weeks, but at last they have been joined by a cacophony of daffodils, violets, cowslips and anemones.

Suddenly, my garden has awoken from sleep, and my beds are a mass of chick weeds and goose grass. After such a long winter it is almost a relief to see them! But though they are so easy to pull out, that very ease of managing these early weeds often lulls me into a false sense of security: and a mat of goose grass and chick weed later on in the year is much harder to deal with. I have lost whole plants smothered by a sticky bright green web.

I am still shuttling between my “real” office and my home office, depending on who needs me at home. And with exams looming up in a month’s time, both my darling but hopelessly fragile children need a great deal of me.

Today, however, I had a little moment of rebellion. I came home from work after lunch, ready to finish off a couple of pieces of work at home, and be on hand for whoever made it home from school in one piece. I drove up to my door, the sun was shining brightly, the chick weed was waving at me cheerfully by the front door, a friendly mass of tiny yellow and blue flowers, each one ready to seed baby chick weed all over the garden.

Sod it, I said. I stowed my laptop upstairs, pulled on my wellies, picked up my hoe and dug that chick weed right out. Just in time too: along with the chick weed and goose grass, I had missed a whole twist of nettle root at the back of the bed which had sprung back to life, Rasputin-like.

What was more important in that precious hour before my children came home from school? Filing that monthly report? Or hoeing out the chick weed and goose grass?

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I took my daughter to London to see the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum yesterday. Fantastic exhibition! There is something about the Roman world that feels achingly familiar despite the 2000 years. From the table in the hall with the “posh” silver on display, to the remains of cosmetics on a woman’s dressing table, or the election slogans painted on the town walls, there is something vibrant, noisy and aspiring about these people. Yes, they had slaves, yes, they found brutal combat entertaining, yes, they had an odd taste in phallic ornaments, but we can still see ourselves in them, staring out of their portraits, reading their business contracts, sitting in their gardens.

And my favourite part of the exhibition was the Roman garden – I loved the idea of courtyard gardens, bringing light, water and the living world right into the centre of the house. The picture above is just part of wonderful light and airy garden murals painted all around one room that overlooked a courtyard, so that it must have seemed like an extension of the garden. It is like stepping into a birdspotter’s manual, with dozens of species of birds (and plants) painted with great skill and accuracy.

I may not be able to remodel my house around a courtyard, but I shall have to make sure my garden gives me as much pleasure. If you learn nothing else from Pompeii, you certainly learn that life is short and to be seized!

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Isn’t red cabbage wonderful? The colour and texture as you cut into it! I’m stewing it up slowly with some balsamic vinegar.

I have a few days of holiday from work, my son has gone on Easter camp, and I am supposed to be caring for my daughter. But at the moment my daughter is getting along quite well – I am not needed nearly as much as usual. Today she has even ventured out on her own, leaving me to play around in the kitchen and generally relax. It has been so long since I had time to myself I don’t know what to do!

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One of the men on my team has just returned from paternity leave – here in the UK men get two weeks off for the birth. Trying to be a good manager, I took him to one side and asked him how it went, and if everything was alright at home. He launched into a pretty full-on account of the birth.

It struck me that it was a bit of a shame for him that I was a woman – he really needed to be telling his story to a man who had been through it all himself. As a woman, even though I have given birth, I am on the wrong side of the experience. Men and women often seem to avoid talking directly about childbirth to one another – plenty of times I’ve found young mothers swapping birth stories in the kitchen, while their partners are just as absorbed in the front room, sharing their own tales of horror from the maternity ward frontline. The experience of the two genders is bound to be different, and it is not always easy to share stories across the divide. After all, plenty of women feel that unless you experience the actual pain, you have not really “had” the experience. And plenty of men don’t feel able to admit to their partners just how scary, boring and ridiculous some of the experience was for them.

I can’t see how a man’s account of his experience can be dismissed as invalid – it’s just different. For some men it is cleary quite startling and can be traumatic, especially when things do not go according to plan. It may be a young man’s first experience of a hospital, of witnessing someone in severe pain, or of quantities of blood. On the positive side, it is usually the partner, not the woman, who can actually see the emerging baby – and is sufficiently alert and unaffected by pain and drugs to fully appreciate the miracle of birth. It is a hugely emotional experience, and for first-time fathers it may also mark the start of a rapid psychological journey, catching up with a partner who may have spent a good part of their pregnancy adjusting to motherhood.

Watching young men becoming fathers, even as a rather distant observer, it is obvious the change it makes in them. Of course birth and parenting have an immense and lasting impact on women, but it is easy to ignore the changes that they make in men.

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