I’ve found May inexplicably difficult to write about – despite the fact that, on the face of it, it’s easily been my best month of the year so far. Both work and life finally feel like they’re getting back towards some semblance of balance. On 9 May I was finally discharged from neurosurgery, free from the neck brace that had kept me so restricted for 15 weeks. May has been full of sunshine, joy, love, and wonderful opportunities to catch up with some really special friends. And, of course, it’s been my first month as a full-time freelancer since August 2015. Obviously though, I’m still a long way from what I set out to achieve in January. So I guess it’s been bittersweet. As well as providing the year’s highest highs, May’s also seen some of my lowest lows – from duvet days of depressive apathy, to full-blown existential crises about the future.
I’ve loved the return to freelancing, as different as it’s been from what I’d originally envisaged. I feel like May has been the first month since the accident that I’ve got the balance of work (almost) exactly right – a comfortable, steady stream, with enough exciting projects in the pipeline to feel busy, but without totally overwhelming myself.
At some points during February and March, while supposedly signed off sick, I was over-working in a way that – like my gin and pizza habit – looked pretty positive on the outside, but was (with hindsight) rooted in self-loathing and avoidance. I’d convinced myself that keeping busy was a form of self-care, but honestly there were moments when it felt more like self-harm. Insidious, even sometimes well-meaning, but self-destructive nonetheless. It’s no coincidence that April, as well as my most profitable month ever, was also one of the periods when I’ve felt most miserable.
Like my work, everything else in life has felt much more balanced in May than it has done lately. My renewed flexibility, both physically and temporally, has definitely helped – providing both the time and mobility to put into practice all those tried and tested coping mechanisms that have eluded me since February. I’ve finally been able to really relax into quality time with friends and family, with some really wonderful catch-ups in Manchester, Sheffield, London and Hertfordshire. I’ve been for a very long overdue hair cut! And I’ve enjoyed making the most of some of the beautifully sunny days we’ve had this month.
May’s also seen the start of some big, exciting changes in both my personal and professional lives, which I’m looking forward to sharing soon. It feels, to quote RuPaul (who’s never not relevant to any given situation), like the beginning of the rest of my life. I’m exercising more, comfort eating and drinking less, getting more fresh air, spending more time with cats (my own and other people’s), reading more, and – excepting a few wobbles – generally looking after myself better and more compassionately.
This month I finally read The Princess Diarist, which I ordered the day of Carrie Fisher’s death. I love her self-deprecating sense of humour, and her raw honesty about life, love, and mental illness. I’m also a huge Star Wars fan – episodes 4, 5 and 6 were amongst the most well-watched and well-loved VHS tapes of my childhood, and Princess Leia helped shape the woman I am today, as she did for so many others.
The Princess Diarist, naturally, ticks both boxes – providing an insight into the making of that first, groundbreaking film, as described in Carrie Fisher’s wonderfully unique voice. From the Carrison affair to the shock of being thrust into the limelight – and featuring extracts from the diaries she kept at the time – The Princess Diarist is such a compelling read on the life of a witty, brave, and complex woman whose entire career has been defined by that iconic character.
I’ve spent the rest of the month reading The Story of a New Name, the second of Elena Ferrante’s much hyped Neopolitan novels. Unlike the first, My Brilliant Friend, which took me a long time to fall in love with, The Story of a New Name has had me captivated from the first page.
Its depiction of young, female experiences of love, friendship, education and growing up are so breathtakingly authentic and imbued with a passion that – particularly following on from The Princess Diarist – made it feel unnervingly like reading someone’s private diary. If only, of course, all adolescent women wrote their diaries with the same stunning literary qualities achieved by both Elena Ferrante and Carrie Fisher!
Writing as therapy
Between the two of them, I’ve been inspired to start writing my own diary again. Journaling and I have had a troubled, on-off relationship for as long as I can remember. I couldn’t tell you how many crisp, fresh notebooks I’ve started jotting down my daily thoughts and reflections in, only to lose interest within a month. My sporadic diaries will never be published as literary memoirs, but finally feeling able to express some of my trauma and anxiety in ink has definitely helped me start coming to terms with things this month.
There’s something very cathartic about giving voice to thoughts and feelings that you don’t dare express out loud, or in your blog. In my typical style, I’ve so far only really remembered to write in it while feeling extremes of emotion – so it swings alarmingly from joyful relief and elation to utter despair and despondency without any real effort at balance or a coherent narrative. But that’s the beauty of a diary, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to.
Getting to grips with trauma
Late May also saw the start of my NHS therapy, after three and a half months on a waiting list. I’ve been as anxious waiting for it as I’ve been frustrated, to be honest. How many thousands of words have I written on CBT – my own experiences and other people’s – over the years? Shouldn’t I be able to write the book on the theory of how CBT works, so why aren’t I managing to apply it to my own life?
Fortunately, I’m feeling more positive after the first session. I’ll get 12 weekly hours of Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT), which so far feels far more helpful than I’d feared, and I really like my therapist for the first time ever. Again, I’ve written so much in the past about the importance of a strong therapeutic relationship, and of finding a therapist you connect with – all the while knowing that, on the NHS, beggars can’t be choosers – but I feel like I’ve struck gold this time.
As ‘back to normal’ as so much of my life feels now, trauma is a funny old thing. It strikes at unexpected (and usually inconvenient) moments, in the form of physical panic, or total despondency, or an overwhelming sense of grief. It’s been rough, but I feel like I’m hopefully through the worst of it. I really hope TF-CBT can help me keep moving in the right direction.
This Girl Can
Speaking of moving in the right direction, the penultimate day in May was a biggie for me. Four months and three days after fracturing my spine, Jorge the spinal nurse gave me the all-clear to start running again. I’ve never been a brilliant or speedy runner – I run very much for the fitness and mental health benefits, rather than the gold medals – but it’s been one loss that I’ve really felt during the past 18 weeks.
On Tuesday morning I put my trainers on, walked to the nearest grassy area (I’m not allowed to run on concrete again just yet!) and ran the slowest but most satisfying mile of my entire life. I felt amazing afterwards. May has been full of small but significant steps and, frustrated as I’ve been by their smallness at times, it’s wonderful to have so many of my old, faithful coping strategies at my disposal again.
Herbalife and Immediate PR very kindly sent me a big parcel full of goodies to support my return to training – including a five-week training plan, electrolyte drinks, and protein bars – and I’m looking forward to putting those to good use as I get properly stuck into my running routine in June. Inspired by last month’s incredible Mind Over Marathon, I feel like I need a mental and physical challenge to work towards – it won’t be a marathon!! – so watch this space for that next chapter in my recovery journey. Any (realistic) suggestions very gratefully received.