The Fairy Liquid Myth

shutterstock_99587318There’s a myth that’s been around for a few years and I’m coming to realise how damaging it is, on very many levels. It’s the myth of the Fairy Liquid Ad.

I’m not having a go at Fairy Liquid itself, per se; I’m sure it really does clean with the power of an overnight soak in just ten minutes *sparkly wink*. It’s more the idea behind it. Check out the video below: beautiful, perfectly made-up mother with healthy, glowing daughter and an immaculate house. There’s an obvious, feminist objection to this, but it’s SO obvious that I’m not going to waste space on it here. What I’m really becoming aware of is the idea that life should be like this, sparkling and happy and whatever troubles you have, they can be washed away like the built-on grease that other detergents just can’t shift *repeat sparkly wink*.

I can’t take the credit for this observation, it’s my mum’s, but I am coming to realise how true and how damaging it is. Just don’t tell her, or she’ll be unbearable. The truth is that so many of us struggle with the idea that life should be perfect. Not just mothers with an immaculate house and/or a successful career, but a general Happy Ever After for everyone – the perfect job, the perfect house which is in the perfect neighbourhood with perfect decorations and perfect children singing Christmas Carols around the piano which Mother plays perfectly while Father puts the perfect star on the perfect Christmas tree. Or, perhaps, the perfect holiday in a Mediterranean resort where children splash merrily while Mummy relaxes with War and Peace and Daddy doesn’t need to check his stockbroker because his perfect PA is taking care of everything (but he might just check in anyway to make sure). And after they come home from their wonderful holiday the rest of the summer is a glow of green and gold and blue and paddling pools and fresh orange juice every morning. Anyway, you get the idea. Advertising has been drumming it into us for the last, what? 50 years? that unless you have some version of this life, you are a FAILURE. You have failed your family, your society, your own potential. You contribute nothing to the community, you are a waste of space, you’re obviously not trying hard enough. Is it any wonder so many of us end up with depression and anxiety?

There’s a growing awareness of this pernicious culture, for example Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antidote or The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris. But I’m not sure there’s enough, given the growing invasion of advertising into our lives. We still persist in the idea that there’s some elusive THING – a book, a gadget, an experience, a way of life – that will give us the life of the Fairy Liquid adverts. I was delighted lately at a meeting of school governors to hear that County Durham is intending to roll out a mindfulness programme across its secondary schools; I wish everyone had access to something like this. I’m trying to begin meditation and mindfulness myself, to become aware of the fact that this, what I’m living now, this is my life. It’s far from perfect (particularly lately) but it’s what I’ve got and the Fairy Liquid advert isn’t just difficult to obtain, something that I can aspire to  – it’s completely fictional. IT IS NOT REAL. It is unattainable and two of the greatest lies being fed into our brains at the minute are that it is attainable, even necessary, and that if I’m not there yet it’s because I’m just not trying hard enough. It doesn’t help that there’s a scarily fast-growing blame culture – our problems, the reason we’re not in the Fairy Liquid ad, aren’t just our fault, they’re the fault of immigrants or single mums or the unemployed. If I’m not trying hard enough, they mustn’t be either. Well guess what – they’re trying their damndest too. We all are. So don’t blame them, or your spouse, or yourself,  if you’re not in the Fairy Liquid ad.

No-one is, and no-one ever will or should be.

Fairy Liquid advert




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Arbitrary Politics

So, here’s a random thought that’s been building up in my mind over the last couple of weeks. Ever since I completed the political philosophy unit of my OU degree actually, so it really is very random, with no pretensions to political, economic or any other kind of expertise.


How are countries formed? They’d appear to be formed by processes of landgrabbing by various parties, usually begun centuries ago. So the country boundaries we end up with today are basically the arbitrary results of these long-long-term processes. In this way you get countries made up by the elite few in government which will contain various communities with their distinct identities, languages, cultures, and the borders are made to suit the particular political and economic needs of the governments concerned at the time. Sometimes the boundaries are set by outside governments who are remote from the countries that they’re playing around with - I’m looking at you, UK and USA.

This situation will come back to bite sooner or later. Look at the Middle East, Ukraine, Ireland, India. Those arbitrary political borders suit the top guns but cause divisions where there don’t need to be, and lump together different communities because they happen to be geographically close. And we don’t yet know what will happen in the future; there are probably many old sores caused by these types of policy. A Victorian attitude that lingers like a nasty smell was that Africa was made of savages who had tribes rather than countries; luckily for them, we went in and sorted that out and created nice civilised political boundaries (with nice, civilised armies and guns to maintain them) and rearranged the place to our hearts’ content. I think we could perhaps take another good, hard look at ourselves there, people.

It’s possible to get a better idea of actual communities by looking at the linguistic features of the landscape, as accents, dialogues and creoles etc don’t respect political borders. People who form a community influence each other’s, and their neighbouring communities’, linguistic features through natural contact; people either side of a border will share features such as dialect or cultural practices. Why shouldn’t these things be more important when the big boys are playing real-life Risk?

As an example close to home, the current campaigns for and against Scottish independence bring up interesting questions. If there is a yes vote, what happens to those border countries that share far more with Scotland than Westminster? What happens to Berwick, for example, which is de jure England but perhaps de facto Scotland? Obviously it would be impractical to have a Berwick referendum, so they are lumped, whatever the outcome of the vote, with the existing political borders. Further south, Northumbria is an area with a distinct heritage and identity, a distinct regional dialect (with its own subsidiary dialects and accents) that is often almost unintelligible to Standard English speakers, and ten times as far removed from London culturally as it is geographically. Maybe it should be independent too? From an economic and political point of view this is ludicrous of course, but I can’t help thinking that if we could get past these ancient, arbitrary ideas of country and just look at communities, it wouldn’t be quite so unthinkable.

And of course, independence (based on community) doesn’t mean that anyone is taking their toys home in a huff. I mean, surely people can co-operate? I realise this is incredibly naive and idealistic, but let’s face it, political and economic borders haven’t really done wonders for World Peace now, have they? If Scotland vote for independence, it does NOT automatically mean they want nothing to do with England, and it does NOT automatically have to mean that England snatch back everything that they cast a possessive eye over, such as the sterling or the BBC. I don’t think Scotland are rejecting The Great British Bake Off along with Cameron and his cohorts, and I don’t see how it would benefit the UK to have such a dog-in-the-manger attitude. Share and share alike, eh? And perhaps respecting the boundaries of community rather than politics might make people MORE inclined to co-operate with each other. I don’t know.

That’s my five minute rant for today anyway. I expect there’s a million reasons why this wouldn’t work, most of them involving £, $ and € and anyone is very welcome to comment with those reasons. As I said, I have no illusions about my inexpertise or naivety. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion, however unrealistic, now does it? After all, being out of touch with reality never yet stopped someone getting into Downing Street…

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The modern princess’ transport. Horses are soooo last century.

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I’m currently reading my way through Cooked by Michael Pollan, which I’ve been looking forward to since I first heard about it and was lucky enough to pick up for half price in Waterstones recently.

I love Michael Pollan’s food writing; he takes a great deal of responsibly for slowly changing my attitude to food and grocery shopping. I highly recommend Food Rules,  for more on this. In Cooked, he turns his attention to what is actually going on when we cook;  the chemical reactions for example. I’m about a third of the way through and I love it. There are lots of moments when I think “ah, so that’s why that happens…”, and it makes me want to try cooking something a slightly different way.

More importantly, for me at least, is the fact that it’s reawaking my desire to cook. I’ve enjoyed cooking for a while but not lately. I was struggling with depression again in the later months of 2013 and since January our family life has been completely overturned. But Cooked is helping me remember how much I like making proper, tasty food and rekindling an urge to get back into my kitchen, get my lovely recipe books down and spend some time planning meals that I will enjoy cooking.

An example, to ponder: Pollan has been talking about the chemistry of onions, followed by mentioning the fact that they contain powerful microbial compounds which help make meat safe to eat.

Cooking with onions, garlic, and other spices is a form of chemical jujitsu, in which the first move is to overcome the plants’ chemical defenses so that we might eat them, and the second is to then deploy their defenses against other species to defend ourselves. (Cooked, Pollan,

2013, p145).

And now after all this talk of food, I’m starving so I’m off for some chemical jujitsu…

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My heroes

You know when you try to think of heroes – people you’re inspired by, whose example you aspire to? I’m currently sitting in the swimming baths watching my daughter’s swimming lesson and I think my children might be my heroes.

Daniel is 6. He’s quiet, intelligent and analytical. But he’s quietly confident, an intelligent leader among his friends,  and a diligent, analytical hardworker. He has determination and he doesn’t shy away from a challenge. He’s caring and compassionate and draws people to him.

I want to be like my son.

Emily is nearly 4. She’s dynamite – she lands with a splash wherever she goes and she doesn’t know the meaning of quiet. But she is confident, funny and dances through

life. She has friends and she cares about people. She lives in the moment and she can focus when she needs to.

I want to be like my daughter.

My kids make me immensely proud; not just for what they can do,  though what they can do constantly astounds me,  but for the strong and wise people I see them becoming. They make me more than proud though, they set me an example, and this is a fairly new and startling revelation.

My children are definitely my heroes.


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Dieting fast and other food oddities

I’ve been struggling with my weight for a while now. Managing to hold on to my rather apathetic (to say the least) attitude towards exercise whilst losing the metabolism I had when I was 19 means that I am *cough* stone *cough cough*, have an embarrassing BMI and am heading towards diabetes faster than you can shout “jam doughnut”. The problem is, I like food. I enjoy cooking – especially baking; I enjoy eating – especially cake; I like small social occasions – that involve cake. So any time I’ve tried, rather half-heartedly  I’ll be the first to admit, to diet, I’ve fallen off the carrot wagon rather spectacularly and without much regret. Until I come to try some outfit or other on or see myself in the mirror or a photo.

I thought I’d found a solution to this in the 5:2 way of eating. Y’know, where you eat normally 5 days a week and fast, restricting yourself to 500 calories or a quarter of your recommended calorie intake, for 2 days. You can mix it up, fasting for more days a week or cutting down to 1 day’s fast when you’ve reached your target weight or you’ve had a particularly hectic social life. It sounded ideal, only limiting myself  2 days a week? Cutting out worries about fat, calorie or other monstrosity except for a piddly 48 hours a week? Plus all the other health benefits which were very convincing – hell yeah, I’m up for that.

At first it went pretty well. It wasn’t as hard as I’d expected and I lost a few pounds pretty quickly. Then there  were problems – I had the start of a down time with depression, I had an exam to study for, I had mad things happening at home and basically I struggled to both fit in fast days and enjoy them when I did. And the usual problem of dieting then stopping – the weight went back on, with interest.

Today I thought I’d give it another go. And I was miserable. Not that I particularly wanted to binge on Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food (oh, but now you mention it…) but I was just getting so uptight about the calorie restriction and thinking of some actually very healthy food that I could have been eating instead. Such as the lovely sandwiches Beloved Husband and Emily had for lunch from the new village deli, or the nice granary toast Beloved Husband had for breakfast.

My next approach, ladies and gentlemen, is to try thinking rather more holistically. For a start, as I mentioned above, exercise and I haven’t exactly been soulmates over the last 33 years. I’m pretty sure it’s exercise’s fault, not mine, but I’m prepared to be magnanimous and give it another chance. Our actual diet is pretty healthy to be honest – I could REALLY do with cutting my portion sizes down a bit and being more truthful with myself about how much I snack, but our meals are fairly balanced, nutritious and varied and my repertoire is expanding all the time thanks to books like Jerusalem, Plenty and the River Cottage gang.

It’s funny though, how such an integral part of life, like eating, can be so emotive. You comfort eat (oh alright, I comfort eat), you swing from diet to diet. You turn something meant to be enjoyable into an engorgement where bigger is better (XL Big King, anyone? 32oz steak? triple chocolate fudge cake with whipped cream?) and you lose all sense of proportion. Or you become afraid of food and the horrors of carbs, fat, calories… Speaking of horrors, we turn into horrors ourselves, messing with the food chain to get those bigger burgers, cheeper chickens (boom boom. sorry.) or GM crops. You measure yourself constantly against everyone else – that sinking moment when someone says how horrified they are that they’re so big, and it’s a good 3 stone below your weight – when what you should really be doing is measuring yourself against yourself.

I am overweight, I am unfit and I need to change but not because I’m x size and the mums in the playground or on Facebook are y or z size. I need to change because I don’t want to be monitoring my blood after every meal or feeling too big to wear the clothes I want to wear or avoiding pictures with my babies. I want to graduate in a couple of years with my OU degree and wear a lovely dress under my graduation gown. But I think I need to readjust my attitude to my body fairly significantly; start treating myself with a little more respect and doing what I need to do.

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Leisure and Relaxation

For various reasons I’ve been considering the relationship between leisure and relaxation. I suppose everybody has a basic definition of these two concepts – roughly, that leisure is what you do when you’re not working and relaxation is what? Something that makes you feel refreshed and calm? It’s a slightly harder one to pin down, although, as Beloved Husband said, you know inside when you feel relaxed. I know for example that I feel more relaxed when I’m lying down reading a book but it will take a more logical thought process to think through what exactly it is about that situation that is relaxing. And if it was a game of Taboo, in which I had to describe it without actually saying the word ‘relaxation’, I’d have to think about it a bit.

Leisure is slightly easier although, paradoxically, far more subjective. There is far too much that is leisure to one person but boring slog to another. I mentioned reading above – I know several people for whom reading is boring, hard work or just not their idea of a good time. Leisure could be described as what you do outside of work but I think it needs further clarification into ‘that which is not salaried’ and ‘that which is not obligatory’. Many leisure activities are not salaried but people still have to do them – mowing the lawn for instance is obligatory if you don’t want your garden furniture to disappear into the wilderness forever (possibly taking the children with them, depending on how caught up you are in your own particular relaxing activity…); it has to be done outside of work time unless your work is landscape gardening; and if you don’t find gardening enjoyable it is not relaxing although it is, technically, done in leisure time. Cooking is a relaxing activity for many people, a chore for still more, and obligatory for all as we all need to eat (unless we’ve disappeared into the wilderness created by not mowing the lawn in which case we can eat berries or whatever).

Conversely, there needs to be a little consideration of the definition of work too. Presumably, if you’re the landscape gardener I mentioned earlier, you enjoy gardening. So your work has the double bonus of being both enjoyable and salaried. Does this mean it’s not leisure, even though you enjoy it and it relaxes you? Or does the fact that you rely on it for a living take away the enjoyment and turn a relaxing activity into a chore? What a shame! And an excellent argument for not doing what you enjoy for a living; then you would presumably finish work and go home ready to use your leisure time to the fullest; at least, once you’ve done all those rotten jobs that you don’t get paid for but still have to do. Which would take all your time and energy and boom! You’re back at work again.

Hmm – it’s a thinker…

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Paraphernalia of one’s own

shutterstock_121678021I’m a carrier. I carry stuff around with me everywhere. If I get a new book (joy of joys) I carry it to bed, to each room that I go to, I have it sitting next to me. I have a box of things that I carry upstairs on a night and downstairs on a morning – this is actually part of my self-help, it’s a tip I picked up from I Had A Black Dog by Matthew Johnstone  and contains things to make me feel better, things that remind me of good stuff, of how to be myself.

All of this evidence leads inevitably to the question of handbags. I’m afraid I contribute to the stereotype of a woman obsessed with bags. I love them. I get a bag I like and I use it until it dies, or at least until I have to give it a little rest in the name of humanity. Bag-amity. Whatever. I could window shop for bags for hours as my long-suffering Beloved Husband knows. And I start with very good intentions, honestly I do. I try to limit what I put in my bag to the essentials – a wee bit of essential make-up, a notebook, purse, organiser and of course, my Kindle. It ends up becoming a receptacle for, well, pretty much everything.

But I feel slightly more justified in my hoardiness now, in my clinging to paraphernalia. Paraphernalia, I have learned, is derived from two Greek words, para -meaning beside – and pherne - meaning dowry (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, p 989, 2009; also noted from Paraphernalia – The Curious Lives of Magical Things by Steven Connor, which looks like an excellent book). It refers to everything that a woman possesses besides her dowry, ie everything which is actually her own. This doesn’t have all that much meaning now but in a time when a woman’s possessions automatically became her husband’s upon marriage, this paraphernalia is actually very significant and, I imagine, quite precious.

It links very nicely with my recent reading of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s OwnShe famously said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write. I’m quite sure she meant it literally, money and your own personal space are both precious and necessary for producing good work. But they are also important for the autonomy and sense of self-distinction that they indicate. Having a space of your own, like having possessions of your own outside your dowry, give you a chance to see yourself as your own entity, entitled to occupy that pocket of space and time in your own right and not merely as ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ or ‘daughter’ however important those roles are. That distinction has been important to women through history, surely? To all humans – that they, themselves, are entitled to occupy that particular bit of space and time despite the prejudices of those around them?

My paraphernalia, then, is a chance to stand up for my rights I suppose! I’m in the lucky position that I’m the only one trying to suppress me, although I am pretty good at that. My paraphernalia is a chance to express who I am – by looking at my paraphernalia, could you tell what kind of person I am? I think so. I have a little bit of make-up – I like to look nice but it’s far from the biggest part of my paraphernalia. I have a notebook – I like to note things down, things that interest me or arouse my curiosity; I’m also a writer. I have a organiser – I’m not very organised and a flick through this would show a stranger all of the lists and appointments and reminders I need to function in the same reality as the rest of the world. It also shows how important my family are to me, in the front there’s a picture of my babies and throughout the pages are appointments like ‘Daniel’s swimming lesson’ or ‘Emily’s nursery’. I have a kindle – books are hugely important to me, and scanning the books I have on my kindle would give someone the impression of a butterfly with a wide range of interests; the books not yet finished (oh, that tell-tale progress bar!) show how my concentration can be distracted by the new pretty shiny thing.

I’d say that’s a pretty good picture of me. So my paraphernalia has truly become, in a sense, my room of my own and my own self and I shall continue to carry my paraphernalia around with me and take up that pocket of space with pride. Or at least, without guilt.

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Flitting Around the Arts

It seems my whole creativity has been locked away somewhere, just out of reach. Like a particularly tormenting biscuit barrel that a child (oh no, Emily, whatever makes you think I was thinking of you?) can just see but is too high to touch. I keep saying, I will write, I will blog, I will draw, I will play but it’s never quite the right time for that. I’m beginning to reach it – picture a wobbly two year old stretching and balancing on tiptoes – and part of the reason for that is my recent plunge into the arts.

The Open University course I began in October – and somehow am nearly finished – is The Arts Past and Present and has been a breathtaking tour through history, poetry, art, classical studies, philosophy, religious studies, english literature, music history… have I missed anything? Probably. While the biggest gain from the course has been greasing my rusty old brain cells again, I’ve come away with a new appreciation of The Arts that I never had. I’m discovering the joy of wandering around an art gallery (including the stuff that doesn’t look like anything), reading new poetry (including the stuff that doesn’t rhyme), thinking new thoughts (including the stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense…yet).

Last weekend Beloved Husband and I went into the Laing art gallery in Newcastle. It’s the first time I’ve been to a traditional gallery and happily I had already covered and enjoyed the coursework on art history, giving me some basic skills to appreciate the paintings. I really did. It was awe-inspiring to be millimetres away from these wonderful paintings and to try to tease out what each one was making me feel. I’ll be back. Bwahaha.

And today I got a book of poetry by Carol Ann Duffy from the library in Durham. I’ve never really read her work, and I’m entirely new to poetry having blocked out GCSE English other than a few fragments of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. All I know about poetry is an introduction via Seamus Heaney and Thomas Hardy in my course assignment, and Stephen Fry’s rather wonderful book, The Ode Less Travelled. Oh, and I tried some Sylvia Plath but struggled a little, despite really wanting to ‘get’ her. So today I fancied being brave and trying a whole book of poetry by one author and I took home The Bees, Duffy’s first anthology since becoming Poet Laureate. I devoured it in pretty much one sitting and then started again. I loved the language, the emotions she wrought, and the pictures she made real.

So while my own creativity is locked away, I’m feeding on the creativity of others and at the minute, I’ve got a reading list as long as my arm. I don’t know how long it will take me to reach that part of myself again but I do know I’m getting there, and that along the way I’m finding new and wonderful arts to enrich my soul a thousand times more than it was before.

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Five ways to help yourself through depression

It’s a couple of months since I posted about my depression and I’ve since been to see my doctor and started on anti-depressants. I’m a different person to the one I was a few months ago; I’m cooking, looking after my house and my kids, starting the first module of an Open University degree and even taking small steps to get back into writing and revising the novel draft I finished earlier this year.

I hadn’t realised until looking back over the past few months, years, whatever, how much of my life was lost to depression. Now that I’m getting my life back I think how lucky I am and how important it is that anyone who is worrying about depression gets some help. Anti-depressant medication won’t help everyone, or it might but only after much experimentation to see what suits you personally, but it has to be worth a shot.

Anyway, there are some small things I’ve found that help lift me, even with the drugs, when I feel that dark tug.

  1. Music. Make a playlist and put on your ipod, burn it to a CD, whatever. Make a couple, actually; one should be a wallowing CD, where you feel free to just feel miserable. IMHO this should be saved for certain occasions like where those blasted hormones add their tuppence’orth to the slurry pit of life. The main one should be any and all music that gets you singing along or dancing in the kitchen or nodding like the Churchill dog, whatever eclectic mix it ends up as. One of my mood CDs has some Breton folk music, the 1812 Overture and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful all on the same CD and I love it. FYI, Queen are generally a good bet. Can anyone resist doing a Wayne’s World to Bohemian Rhapsody?
  2. Find a ‘hand hobby’. Mine is baking (Marian Keyes’ book is an excellent place to start), yours could be gardening, knitting, woodcarving. Something traditional and satisfying, that really uses your hands. For all though there’s something soothing about using your hands and sort of getting back to basics, I’ve heard too that actually stimulating the nerves in your hands produces happy hormones. Sounds good to me? Also, it’s very stress-relieving to knead the bejeebus out of bread dough or chop carrots with venom. Better the carrots than the husband, if you ask me.
  3. Light a candle. Yes, even in summer. The dancing light of the flame is hypnotising and soothing, and the scent should be one that makes you happy. Spend time, AGES in fact, browsing a good selection of scented candles to find one you like and remember that smell is quite a personal thing, with a scent that one person loves doing absolutely nothing for someone else. I have a Yankee Candles Black Cherry one that I love. It’s a very happy scent, fruity and sweet and ever so slightly decadent-dressed-up-as-wholesome.
  4. Get into nature. Gardening, as I said above, is fabulous although I’m no-one to talk since I’m generally acknowledged among the family as the Kiss of Death to plants. But I hear it’s very good for you and the time I do spend in the garden I feel peaceful and satisfied. Sally Brampton in her book Shoot the Damn Dog is a wonderful advocate of gardening. Plus you’ll be saving the planet and that’s a great thing for giving a teeny boost to your sense of self-worth. There’s also going for a wander in some greenery, going to the beach and running sand and/or water through your fingers or going to the top of a windy, exposed hill like in the Dales and letting the elements hit you. Even better if it’s raining, but try to have someone standing by in the car with a flask of tea and a towel and a hug. I love the feel of rain on me, it really reminds me I’m alive which is far too easy a thing to forget.
  5. Explore alternative remedies. I’m a great believer in aromatherapy and western herbalism, and I hear loads about the power of meditation and mindfulness. Close your eyes in the middle of a depressive spell and spend five minutes breathing deeply and listening. If there’s running water nearby that’s a bonus but it would be good if you weren’t distracted by needing a wee in the middle of connecting with your inner self.

These help me, but won’t all work for everyone. The important thing is to find what does work for you in my opinion. Some people find writing during depression extremely therapeutic; I couldn’t face a pen and am having to ease myself back in. And all of these are self-help tricks, not cures. No substitute for going to a trusted doctor and talking through how you feel. Most importantly, acknowledging to first yourself, then your closest family, that there’s a problem is absolutely essential and can take ages. I’ve had a problem for years but didn’t acknowledge it till last year, and even then it took months to come to terms with properly and even longer to ask for help in the form of medication. The important thing is to give yourself permission to feel how you do then you can start to look after yourself.

Now I’m off to pummel some bread dough.

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