Monday, 15 January 2018

Blue Monday (And How To Beat It!)

When I went to bed last night, I did so secure in the knowledge that I didn't have to start work until 1pm today, so I could have a lie-in, this morning.  This was, in itself, a case of me looking on the bright side, seeing as I loathe afternoon shifts, but I was determined to find a silver lining to the situation and, well, anyone who knows me, knows that I'm in a very serious, deeply committed relationship with my duvet...

And then the rain came.  Not in a metaphorical sense; this isn't a poetic way of saying I was suddenly hit by an emotional crisis.  No, I mean it very literally.  It started raining in the small hours of this morning and it woke me up.  Seeing as sleeping is one of my most favourite hobbies, I wasn't especially thrilled by this turn of events.  The term "like a bear with a sore head" pales into insignificance when compared to "like a sleepy short girl whose weird dreams have been unceremoniously interrupted by the weather."  Admittedly, it's not quite as catchy, but still.  Accurate.

So, I did what I usually do in these sorts of situations: I took to Twitter, to moan about it.

It was there that I discovered that today is apparently "Blue Monday" - supposedly the most depressing day of the year.  Yay...?

I could have used that fact to allow myself to moan excessively about my lack of sleep and to stomp around the house, looking for additional reasons to be mardy or sad.  But the gloomy fact is, I don't need a specific day in order to be stressed, anxious or depressed.  None of us do.  Depression can affect anyone, for any reason (or, indeed, seemingly without any reason at all) on literally any day.  That's the very nature of depression.  It doesn't wait, like some incredibly patient monster underneath your bed, for the one day a year it's allowed to leap out and roar in your face.  It'll do that whenever it likes.

And, of course, depression isn't necessarily a case of feeling blue.  Sometimes, you don't feel anything.  Not happy, not sad, not angry, just... Devoid of any emotion.  

But the good news is, there are ways to keep on top of your mental health, regardless of the date.  So, I thought I'd share a few of the ways I keep the monster under my bed at bay, whether it happens to be the most depressing day of the year or not.

This puppy is here because I Google image searched "monster under the bed" and genuinely scared myself.  Yes, I am a train wreck of a human.  So, anyway... Have a puppy, whilst I try to forget the many gifs of Pennywise from It I've just sifted through (I love that film, but now I have THE FEAR).

Talk To Someone.

Yep, the simplest answer is often the best one.

Depression can make you feel incredibly isolated from the rest of the world.  You can start thinking you're the only person who feels the way you do, or that you're not worth anything to anyone.  And I promise you, both of those thoughts are always wrong.

The first step towards getting yourself to a better mental place is finding someone you can trust - whether it's a family member, friend, partner or even your GP - and telling them how you feel.  Never, ever keep things to yourself, if you're feeling depressed or considering harming yourself in any way.  There are all sorts of ways to help you feel better, but it all starts with talking to someone.

If you really don't feel that you can talk to anyone in your family or friendship circle, you can call the Samaritans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by using their free phone line: 116-123.

Sometimes, you'll discover that just talking your worries through with someone else, gives you a different perspective on things and helps ease the load.  Sometimes, it'll take more than that, but talking to someone will be the catalyst to you getting the further help you need.  So, never keep things inside.  Always find someone to talk to.

Take care of yourself and be "selfish" if you need to be.

You can't be there for everyone else, if you're not looking after yourself.  Sometimes, as much as you might want to say "yes" to helping out everyone who asks, or to attending everything you're invited to, you have to retreat into yourself and have a little "me-time."

I've put "selfish" in air-quotes with good reason: there is nothing selfish about realising that you need to put yourself first, for a while.  Whether that simply means having a quiet night in by yourself, enjoying a bubble bath and your favourite dinner, or whether it's a case of barricading yourself in your room and playing Mario Kart for three hours, whilst you ignore every text message you receive, so be it.  Do whatever it takes to make you feel less pressured and more in tune with yourself.

Remember that mental health and physical health are often closely linked; if you're looking after yourself in terms of getting enough sleep, eating properly, getting some kind of exercise (I find walking the dog helps!) and paying attention to any aches or pains, you're more likely to be in a better position to kick depression's butt when it arises.

Find something you love and indulge in it!

When you're really low, it can be hard to find much joy in anything.  That's why it's important to work out what makes you happiest when you're on an even keel, and keep doing whatever that is when you're down, too.

For me, it's singing.  There are few things that can't be solved by a good warbling session.  If I want to shake off a bad mood, I'll do a bit of YouTube karaoke and stick firmly to cheesy, upbeat tunes.  If I feel like I need to wallow for a while, I'll break out the Les Mis soundtrack and sing Eponine's parts.  Yes, I am that kind of musical theatre nerd...

Now that I sing in a group as well, I find that's even better for lifting me out of a grump; it's hard to feel sad, mad or otherwise blue, when there's a chorus of fab people, singing in harmony with you and all you can think is: "Blimey, we sound awesome!"

It doesn't matter what it is that makes you happy.  It might be dancing, binge-watching your favourite TV show, painting, baking or even extreme ironing, for all I care - just find what makes you smile, what makes you feel good inside, and do more of it when your mood starts to drop.  

Spend some time with friends.

Yes, you need to put yourself first and it's fine to turn down invitations and not put yourself under too much pressure to be sociable, but don't cut yourself off completely.  Spending time with people you care about - and, crucially, who care about you (even when you don't) - can be a fantastic medicine.  Sometimes, just making the effort to get out and have a cuppa with a mate can be the difference between a bad day and an actually-not-so-bad one.  Besides, depression can make you feel incredibly isolated, so it's always a good thing to remind yourself that there are people who want to spend time with you and who are there to listen to you, too.

Make some simple plans.

When life feels tough, it can be hard to consider the future, especially if uncertainty about your personal future is contributing to your depression in the first place.  But one way to stay on top of things is by taking control as much as you can.  Plan something - even something really small, like "tomorrow, I will make my bed" - and try hard to stick to it.  When you do stick to it, it's a small way of proving to yourself that you're still able to accomplish small goals.  You can eventually build up to bigger things, like a day out somewhere or even a trip away.  Don't rush yourself, but encourage yourself to have little things to do, so that you have something to aim for.

Having a simple plan for your day set in place is also a good way of ensuring you don't feel quite so out of control.  Depression can make you feel as though your whole life is out of your hands.  But making plans, however small, is a way to remind yourself that you still have some power to decide what happens during your day.

On good days, plan exciting things for the future.  I always find, even when I'm really down, that if I know I have a trip to the theatre or a dinner out with a friend planned, I want to stick to it, because I know it will cheer me up.  Having something to look forward to can be a really good way of keeping you going when things get you down.

Challenge yourself.

I don't mean you have to start setting yourself a goal to climb Mount Everest, when I say this (unless that's something you're really keen on doing...).  But when those negative thoughts start creeping into your head, challenge them.  

Depression makes it very easy to agree with self-hating thoughts.  You can easily decide "yep, I am unlovable, stupid and a total failure."  But instead of agreeing with the part of your subconscious that's making you feel that way, stand up to it.  Write down all the ways in which you're a good friend to people.  Make a list of the accomplishments you're most proud of.  Even if you're convinced you have nothing positive to say about yourself, you will find something, if you look hard enough.  

Remember it CAN and WILL get better.

There is always a positive way out of a negative situation, no matter how hard you sometimes have to look for it.  When you're feeling low, remember that it's probably not the first time you've felt that way and that you managed to shake it off before, so you know you can do it again.  If it is the first time you've ever experienced really serious depression, remember how you felt before it came on; you have been happy, excited, positive and calm before, and they are all emotions you can work towards finding again.

It might take time.  Sometimes, we have a bad day and then wake up the following morning, wondering why we made such a fuss.  Other times, we find that our dark mood lasts a lot longer.  But however long it takes, it can get better.  You just need to take care of yourself, reach out for support and work on getting yourself back on an even keel.

These are just the things that work for me.  You might have totally different ways of keeping the monster firmly under the bed.  But whatever works for you, keep at it.

And here's to a Monday that's distinctly un-blue.


Wednesday, 3 January 2018

5 Things I'd Like To See The Back Of In 2018!

Here we are in a shiny new year!  2017 was a hard year for a lot of us, for all sorts of reasons, so it's no wonder that we've greeted 2018's arrival with not only glee, but a steely resolve to improve on the last twelve months.  With that in mind, I thought it was time to come up with a few things I definitely don't want to take into the new year with me.  So, here are five things I would like to see the back of in 2018...

1. Donald Trump's sorry excuse for a Presidency

Okay, America.  You've had your fun, now.  You did the thing nobody thought you'd be daft enough to do: you elected an emotionally stunted, racist, tantrum-throwing, misogynistic reality TV star with literally no political experience, to the highest office your country had to offer.  Well done.

But really, with ongoing investigations into possible collusion with Russia, let alone his constant penis-measuring contest with North Korea (which has the capacity to destroy the freaking planet) how are people still supporting this maniac?!

Having someone this unstable in a position of enormous power is dangerous and has emboldened a whole sorry heap of white-supremacists and actual Nazis to come crawling out of the woodwork, praising Trump's name.  If he's not impeached in 2018, at least let someone do a bit of damage control and teach him how to be President without coming across as a spoilt, arrogant, unrepentant toddler with Mommy issues.

I really must stop sitting on the fence and say how I really feel...

2. Leave Voters Acting as Though Not Wanting BREXIT Makes Remainers Somehow "Unpatriotic."

Damn right we are.

When melty-faced hate-stirrer Nigel Farage was busily campaigning for the Leave campaign, he frequently said that if the result was close, say 48-52% in favour of Remain, then we'd have to take the wishes of those 48% into consideration, as it would be almost half the country who wanted out of the EU and it would be wrong to ignore them, completely.  How funny that when the result turned out to be 48-52% in favour of Leave, there has been no such concession at all.  WHO SAW THAT COMING, EH??!!

Almost half the country want to remain in the EU.  Almost half the country saw through the outright lies (£350million to the NHS) and the manipulation ("Let's take our country back!" - erm, I wasn't aware we'd lost it...) thrown at us by the Leave campaign.   And just like with Trump's victory in America, almost half the country was aware that this whole referendum was going to bring the knuckle-dragging racists out of their caves.  Sure enough, it did.  When I spoke out as a Remainer on Twitter, I was told by a barely literate Leave voter that my surname (which comes from my Greek-Cypriot grandfather, who came to the UK as an immigrant and worked hard to build himself and his family a life here), makes me "not as British as me, so I'm shutting your ARSE out of this conversation."  Yep, I don't get to have an opinion, because my blood is not 100% British bulldog fighting spirit, tea and clotted cream.  I've lived here all my life (besides a couple of years in Germany whilst Dad was in the RAF), I am patriotic and I consider myself British, but that pesky quarter Greek-Cypriot part of me means I have no right to air my views.  Because damnit, this is Britain and we don't want immigrants here, anymore - we're taking back our country!

Except, you know, those immigrants often do the jobs we don't want to.  And they frequently work long hours, dedicating themselves to our crippled NHS.  They've brought multiculturalism to our country and made it - at least once - a more tolerant, community-minded society.  They're our friends, neighbours, partners, workmates...  And a quick DNA test will lead most of the people roaring "BRITAIN FOR THE BRITISH" to discover that their blood isn't "pure" British, anyway.

And yes, I know not all Leave voters are racist and me talking in this way might rub those who aren't up the wrong way.  Unfortunately, the fact remains (ha!) that a lot of people have taken the "Leave" vote to mean that they can openly voice their intolerance for minorities, immigrants and even certain religions with impunity.  And that needs to be called out.

But, casual racism aside, one of the most irritating claims made by Leave voters is that Remainers are somehow "unpatriotic" for wanting to stay in the EU.  And that, my friends, is utter rubbish.

I wanted to remain because I'm patriotic.  I wanted to see the country prosper through trade and through free movement of skilled workers.  I wanted to remain because I didn't want to see vile racists believing they now have carte blanche to air their despicable views.  That's not the country I'm proud of.

Obviously, if I could see the back of BREXIT full STOP in 2018, that would be flipping marvellous.  But if that's impossible, then at the very least, I don't want to hear any more Leave voters calling people like me "unpatriotic" for having a view that isn't buried in colonialism or xenophobia.  And I certainly don't want to see BREXIT used as an opportunity for racism.

3. Corruption in Hollywood, the Pervasion of Abuse Against Women - And Victim-Blaming!

2017 was the year that #MeToo took off as a hashtag on Twitter.  I read hundreds of those tweets.  I wrote several of my own.  It saddened me that so many women - and indeed several men - had experienced sexual harassment, assault or some other form of abuse, be it physical, psychological or emotional.  It saddened me.  But it didn't shock me.

It didn't shock me because, unfortunately, my own experience of an abusive relationship earlier in the 2010s, opened my eyes as to just how common it is.  Just how frequently this stuff actually happens.  It's frightening.  And it has to stop.

I also wasn't shocked by the accusations against major Hollywood actors and producers.  Why?  Because Hollywood is the capital of an industry that has long placed men in positions of enormous power, yet graded women on nothing but their sexual appeal.  If a girl wants to make it in movies, she has to be pretty, slim and willing.  That's been the not-so-tongue-in-cheek "joke" for years.

But what was almost as depressing as the sheer scale of the corruption in Hollywood and the pervasion of abuse against people from all walks of life, was the victim-blaming and the hand-wringing done by certain sections of society.  From creepy trolls on social media, bad-mouthing the women who came forward, as though finding themselves in the position to be abused in the first place was entirely their own fault, to guys like Matt Damon, who became the poster-child for all guys moaning about not being able to grope strangers anymore, when he said: 

"I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior, right? And we’re going to have to figure — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right?"

Depends on whose butt you're patting, moron.  If it's a random girl you've never spoken to, how do you know she's of the age of consent?  How do you know you haven't just molested a child?  More importantly, regardless of her age, how do you know she's okay with you touching an intimate part of her body?!  Why was it ever generally accepted that a guy can just start groping a woman he's not remotely familiar with?   Why is it even okay for guys to send sexual messages to women they don't know on social media (like the guy who, when I tweeted a photo of a bruise acquired during paint-balling, felt it was appropriate to DM me to ask whether I actually got bruised in a kinkier way)?!

For weeks after the Harvey Weinstein news broke, I kept seeing guys moaning on social media: "Well, how are we supposed to know if a girl's interested, if we're suddenly not allowed to touch her?!"  USE YOUR WORDS, IDIOT.  Ask if she wants a drink.  Flirt in a way that isn't massively crossing borders.  Read her body language.  All we're asking is that you don't just randomly come up to us as a total stranger and put your hands on intimate parts of our bodies without asking.  It's NOT that hard.


4. People Who Just Can't Accept The Doctor Being A Woman.

When Jodie Whittaker was announced as taking over from Peter Capaldi as The Doctor in Doctor Who last year, I cried.  I cried because I've been besotted with the show for the last 12 going on 13 years and I couldn't believe that I was finally going to see a woman in the title role.  

Then I got mad.  Because, predictably and frankly boringly, out came the misogynists.

"What next?!  Pink, fluffy dice in the TARDIS?!"  Shrieked the horrified Daily Mail readers.

"I'll never watch the show again - the BBC has ruined it!  IT'S POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD!" Screamed men with daleks tattooed on their arms (right next to their UKIP tats, probably).

How dare a woman play the role of an alien who can, canonically, change their entire body in order to avoid death.  That's not realistic!  How can the Doctor possibly have a vagina?!  What if she chips a nail whilst running away from a Cyberman and bursts into tears because it's her time of the month?!

It was depressingly obvious that this would happen.  And the people yelling and screaming (not all of them men, it must sadly be said), are so totally transparent in their misogyny, it's laughable.

"Oh no, it's not because she's a woman.  It's because she's such a bad actress," insisted one Facebook user who has clearly never seen Broadchurch.

"They've deliberately chosen an ugly actress who looks like a man," spat another person who has blatantly never seen Jodie Whittaker.

Guys.  Guys and weirdly misogynistic girls... Calm down.  Jodie's spoken two words on screen, so far.  We haven't got a freaking clue what sort of Doctor she's going to be.  So, if you really are the "lifelong fan of the show" that you claim to be, how about you get over your aversion to female anatomy and give her a chance?  How about you consider for just a second, that you're not the only Whovian in the universe and that the show doesn't bend to your rule?  Perhaps you'd like to consider for a brief moment, the fact that there are young girls who watch the show who are now being given the subtle message that they can aim higher.  That they are equal.  That they don't have to be the sidekick; they can be the hero.  And if that really upsets you, then mate... You need to have a serious word with yourself and find out why you're so anti-women.  Because it's 2018.  We can vote and everything.  You're going to have to get used to it, because we're not going anywhere.

And we've got the keys to the TARDIS.  If you don't like it, the door is right over there.  Except I think you'll find your world will most definitely be smaller on the outside.

For the record, after just two words in the role, I believed 100% in Jodie's Doctor.  She's going to be...

5. People who throw insults at anyone they disagree with.

Yeah, yeah, I know I've used the term "knuckle-draggers" to describe people I disagree with in this very blog post, but in my defence, I'm using it against racists, misogynists and people who victim-blame.  Oh, and Donald Trump.  So...  The term stands.

What I can't stand - and what I vehemently want to see an end to in 2018 - is the tendency, particular on social media, for people to resort to insults the very second they see a harmless opinion that differs from their own.


Me: I really dislike Little Mix.

There's an air of anonymity given to all of us when we browse social media.  Even if we're using our real name and photo, we're still talking to someone from behind a screen.  Someone who we'll probably never come into contact with in real life.  That counts double for the people who use a made-up name and whose avatar is a picture of a cartoon, or a dog or basically anything other than their actual face.

But none of that means that you have the right to abuse someone because they happen to dislike a movie you really enjoyed, or because they dissed a musician you're a fan of.  

It happens way too often and much, much too easily these days and I hate it.  We're losing our ability to have reasonable debate.  We're losing our respect for differences.  And all because far too many of us are desperate to be RIGHT ALL THE TIME and to hurl insults at someone is apparently easier than being grown up enough to accept that they're entitled to have a view that we don't share.

When you think about it, it's utterly stupid:

Person 1: I didn't enjoy that episode of Eastenders.

Who knows, maybe 2018 will be the year that we all grow up just enough to allow other people to express an opinion, without us feeling the need to insult them in reply.

Side note: if the person expressing the opinion in the first place is being racist, sexist etc, then of course feel free to be creative in your insulting responses.  I know you're not supposed to sink to their level, but we have a troll in the White House: all bets are off.

Yep, I went there.

Look, the reality is that none of these things will probably disappear in 2018, no matter how much I want them to.  But having a rant about them all has made me feel a bit better, so...  I'm chalking that up as a win.

Happy new year, everyone.  Let's make 2018 a good one.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Bedtime Story (27/12/2017)

With the Christmas festivities all over and done with, this is the time of year I like to start thinking of all the other things I have to look forward to (it staves off the post-Christmas blues!).  So, this story was written with that in mind!

Please remember that this is the last bedtime story before I take a month off in January.  The weekly feature will return in February!

If you'd like to listen to me read this story as a podcast, just click here!

"What Will We Do Next Year?!"

Chrissie was feeling a little blue.
Christmas was over and Boxing Day, too!
She sighed at her big sister and whispered in her ear:
"Carolyn?  What will we do next year?"

Carolyn shrugged and simply replied:
"Think of all the ideas you have inside.
A new year's a blank canvass for you to paint on.
We can do whatever you like, when this year has gone!"

Chrissie frowned: "Anything at all?
Even ride my skateboard along the garden wall?
Because I can't do that yet, but I'd like to try.
Can I do it next year?"  Came Chrissie's reply.

"You can give it a go," Carolyn said,
As thoughts went whizzing around Chrissie's head.
"With another year, you'll be older and wiser,
But I'll still be here, to be your adviser."

"Can we invent new games and find new things to do?
And maybe visit some new places, too?"
Chrissie was suddenly losing her fears,
As she filled the new year with so many ideas.

"We'll think of somewhere to go on holiday,"
Carolyn said.  "And of course we can play!
The new year is ours, we can do what we choose;
Twelve brand new months, for you and I to use."

"Will we go down to the park, together?
And play outside, no matter the weather?
Will the trees grow new, fresh green leaves?"
Chrissie beamed.  "Oh, say they will, please!"

"We'll have brand new seasons to watch," Carolyn said.
"From Spring back to Winter; it's all ahead!
The days will grow longer and warmer and then,
They'll suddenly grow shorter and colder again."

"What about all the things that happened this year?"
Chrissie asked into Carolyn's ear.
"Can I keep all the friends I made and the fun that I had?"
If she could, then the new year didn't seem so bad.

Carolyn nodded: "Those things are yours.
So, yes, you can keep them.  Yes, of course!
When an old year ends and a new one starts,
You carry all you need, safe in your heart."

"But will things change, when the new year begins?
What if I forget all the things that have been?
What if the world moves on and I'm left behind?"
All these worries preyed on young Chrissie's mind.

Carolyn smiled: "The whole world will change,
And yet really, it will somehow still stay the same.
The world will seem big and we'll feel much smaller,
But we'll have birthdays and get older and taller."

"So I don't need to worry about the year being new?"
Chrissie asked her sister, thinking things through.
"Because a new year is just like fresh start,
So we should welcome it with an open heart?"

"A new year brings hope and the prospect of change,
But if you're happy it can offer you more of the same.
Carolyn gave Chrissie a sisterly squish:
"A new year is yours to do with as you wish."

Chrissie looked at her sister and gave her a grin.
She suddenly couldn't wait for the new year to begin!
"You know, Carolyn, it doesn't matter what we do,
As long as next year, I still have you."


Thursday, 21 December 2017

What Did I Learn In 2017?

There was a time when I genuinely thought that 2017 was going to last forever.  It kept dragging on and on, relentless in its awfulness.  Then suddenly, it changed, became great and then bam:  here we are, almost at the end of it.  Time really does fly when you're having fun (and drags like HELL when you're not).

As is customary here on this blog, I figured it was time to pull up a chair, get comfy and look back over the highs and lows of this year and work out just what I learned from it...

1. I have the most fiercely loyal and protective family ever.

I already knew my family were awesome, but good grief did they come into their own with their protectiveness, this year.  

From trying to make me see that there was someone in my life behaving fairly atrociously, to picking me up when things got really bad, this lot were utterly unwavering in their support.  Even when they weren't sure my decisions were spot on - such as back in June, when I told Mum I was going to send a message to a friend I fell out with last year, in the hope that with open, honest communication on both sides, we could work things out - I was still given the support to try, in full knowledge that my family would be there to help pick up the pieces if it didn't result in anything good (it resulted in silence, which was exactly what Mum had worried about and I learned just how good her cuddles are when I feel utterly dejected).

A loving family welcomes those who are special to you into their lives, as well as your own.  They also know when to pull up the drawbridge.  

I have a family that will protect me against all odds.  From frankly unhinged trolls online, harassing me across all forms of social media, to people I loved and cared for who've caused me pain, my family know when I need them on side and they are always there to bat for me.

So, to them from me, THANK YOU. x

2. YouTube has become MORE than just a hobby...

My goal for this year was to reach 100 subscribers.  If I passed that target, I thought 150 would be amazing.  I'm at 173 and whilst that might sound tiny to some people reading this, to me, it might as well be a million.  

I can't believe anyone actually wants to watch my silly videos about me and my life, but I am so, so grateful that they do.  Planning, filming and editing each video gives me a ridiculous level of joy - plotting scenes and sketches, learning new techniques in order to create a special effect and polishing each video during editing to make them as shiny as possible - it is way more than just a casual hobby.  It's a passion.

Yes, my blog has suffered a bit.  Each video takes at least an hour to plan, usually between an hour and two hours to film and then often as many as five or six hours to edit (sometimes more), so it does eat into my writing time.  Add to that the fact that I've begun recapping Grey by EL James for the 50 Shades Is Abuse campaign (each recap takes around 4 - 5 hours and you can catch up with them here if you'd like), whilst also working at my day job and trying to fit in something that resembles a social life, and you will hopefully understand why I've not been writing quite as much.

But in my YouTube Channel, I've found a new passion and a new creative outlet.  It hasn't replaced writing in my affections, necessarily, but they are equal bedfellows.  One of my personal goals in 2018 is to try to find a better balance, so that I blog a little more often than I have, this year.  A new video goes live on my channel every Sunday though, so if you're a little lacking in blogs to read, you can always hop over to YouTube and see what I'm up to!

3. Friendship heals all wounds.

There were times this year, when I rather dramatically described myself as having "no friends."  I'd lost my core group - the ones I thought I was closest to - and I figured that was it: I was alone.  Being proved wrong has been the best part of this year.  From my oldest friend Clare always being at the end of the phone and up for fun days out, to the fantastic Tracey, encouraging me to try new things and taking me out on adventures, I feel utterly surrounded by people who I am proud to call friends.  And (along with my family) it has been these amazing, funny, kind and supportive people who have placed a massive bandage on the wounds caused by the first half of this year and who, in doing so, have helped me to heal.  Rather than having "no friends," I am exceptionally lucky to have so many brilliant ones.

And as for the one who kick-started the total transformation of my year?  Well, Tracey has proven to me that friendship heals all wounds and that a really good friendship can weather a storm.  I love every minute we spend together and I can't wait to have a girly treat day together as soon as this blog is posted!  You're a treasure, Trace.  You've made the latter half of this year amazing and I reckon 2018 is going to be EPIC. ;-)

4. Despite firsthand experience AND training in it (for work), I still sometimes need help recognising abuse...

If you've been reading this blog for a long time, it's highly likely you've read the story of how I realised my last relationship had been abusive.  I had been sitting in a counselling session - sessions I'd started because I was convinced I was a terrible person and needed help to better myself - and had been talking about my "poor" ex and how he couldn't help his behaviour and I should have tried harder to help him, when the counsellor simply handed me a leaflet for an abuse charity and very gently told me to call them.

Fast forward more than five years, I certainly didn't expect to be sitting in another counselling session - again, sessions I felt I needed because I was a bad person and I needed to be "cured" - talking about this "poor" person in my life and how they couldn't help their behaviour and how I needed to try harder to help them and to put all my issues secondary to theirs, when the counsellor stopped and me and asked: "How is this any different to your relationship with your abusive ex?"

It came as a shock.  I pride myself on recognising abuse and knowing what to do if I spot it.  I educate other people on it, for crying out loud!  And yet, as soon as the words were out of my counsellor's mouth, it was suddenly blatant.  And once again, I hadn't seen it until it was pointed out to me.

That lesson was vital.  You might think you know what abuse looks like, but don't take it for granted.  Abuse can happen in any form of relationship, to any person.  You, me, anyone.  Never ask a person why they allowed abuse to happen to them.  It could be happening to you right now and you might not have any idea.

5. Always try new things and be prepared to give second chances.

In the last few months, I've tried a few new things.  Yet, one of those things wasn't really new at all.  

Anyone who knows me even a little bit, will know that I am a frustrated diva without a stage.  I love to sing.  Any excuse to sing in my YouTube videos and I jump at the chance.  Karaoke is a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine and I spend half my life wishing I lived in a musical.

So, when Tracey suggested we do a five week singing course, culminating in a concert, I jumped at the chance, even though it had been years since I'd sung in any kind of choir.  

The course was run by Moor Harmony, a ladies barbershop chorus.  Weirdly, I'd actually been to a Moor Harmony taster session many years ago (we're talking probably at least seven years, if not eight) and decided, for various reasons, that it wasn't for me.  But all the same, I figured it was worth another shot.

Oh.  My.  Goodness.

Those ladies - each and every one of them - are superstars.  Everyone was so welcoming and friendly.  The fabulous Musical Director, Lesley, was so incredibly enthusiastic and supportive.  The atmosphere each week of the course was just one of enormous positivity and, quite frankly, joy.  I would walk into a session and wish for every minute to last just a bit longer, so we could all have more time to sing and laugh together.

I genuinely cannot thank everyone from Moor Harmony enough, for the friendliness and encouragement they gave all of us on the course.  And it speaks volumes about their warmth and inclusivity that most of us who did the singing course have said we want to go back in January to become full time Moor Harmony members - myself obviously included!

Singing is such a mood-booster.  Even on a bad day, I could walk into a session with the chorus and leave floating on air.  It took minutes, if that, for a huge smile to crack across my face, each week.  If there's anyone reading this who is even slightly tempted to join their local choir or barbershop chorus, I can only say: DO IT!

Spot the Emma.

So, that's that!  Another year, lessons learned and fun times had.  There were more things I could have written about here, but five seems like a good number to end on.

However your year has gone, I hope you can take some positives from it.  I wish you all health, happiness and success in 2018 - here's to spending it, together!  You're all smashers. x

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Bedtime Story (20/12/2017)

I live with a much-loved Labradoodle and this time of year, he inevitably gets rather spoilt by all of us, because we just can't resist buying him Christmas gifts.  So, this week's last story before Christmas just had to be about a dog!

If you want to listen to me read this story, simply check out the podcast!

Please be aware that the Bedtime Story feature will be going on hiatus for the month of January.  I typically write these stories a month in advance, so this is to allow me to spend Christmas and New Year with family, without needing to take any time to write.  The weekly bedtime stories will return in February, but there'll still be a final story next week, before my month off begins!

Waiting For Santa Paws...

Denver was still just a puppy.  He'd never seen Christmas, before.  The big tree in the living room, the coloured fairy lights and the delicious smelling mince pies he wasn't allowed to eat, were all brand new to him.  He didn't quite understand why he wasn't allowed to nibble on a mince pie, when everyone else was, although Mum said it was something to do with raisins being bad for dogs.  He didn't fancy being poorly, so he tried to just sniff the pies, whenever they came out.  He was only allowed to sniff the chocolate treats hanging on the Christmas tree, too.

But just the same, Denver was excited.  How could he not be?!  The children - Rosie and Sam - were so enthusiastic about Christmas, that it was impossible not to be carried along with them.  Everyone seemed so happy and there was such a sense of anticipation in the air, that Denver found himself wagging his tail and jumping about even more than usual.

Of course, that meant he was knocking things over a bit more than usual, too.  And Nan hadn't seemed all that impressed, when his claws caught her fuzzy Christmas jumper and he pulled a long, glittery thread out of it...  In fact, everyone had shouted at him to get down.  But they'd soon gone back to smiling and laughing, so Denver was sure that Christmas must be a very special, very good thing, if it made people so happy and so quick to forgive.

One evening, whilst Denver was curled up in his basket, sulking after being told off for digging in the garden again, he overheard Rosie and Sam talking about someone called Santa Claus.  He crept over to where they sat on the sofa, their eyes shining and their mouths curled into big smiles.  Santa Claus sounded amazing!  He was apparently very jolly and kind and he came to every house on Christmas Eve, bringing presents for everyone!  Denver wondered if that included dogs.  He pricked his ears up and placed a paw on Rosie's lap, by way of asking.

"Santa Claus will bring you presents, too," Rosie confirmed.  But Sam cocked his head to one side and looked the young puppy straight in the eye:

"He only brings presents to people who are very good," he told him.  "You have to be on your best behaviour."  He chuckled to himself, adding: "Then maybe Santa Paws will come, for you!"

Santa Paws?!  Denver was over the moon!  He hardly dared to imagine what Santa Paws might bring him: A big, juicy bone to chew on, perhaps?  Or a bouncy ball that he could have Rosie and Sam throw for him in the garden?!

There was just one problem.  Denver was only young and he felt like he kept making mistakes.  How could he be sure he'd be well behaved enough to get a treat from Santa?

Denver decided to try his absolute best, in the days leading up to Christmas.  He only chewed Dad's slippers if his teeth were really hurting.  He only sniffed around the dinner table when he was really hungry.  And he only jumped up at people he really liked the look of.

But every time he did those things, people still told him off.  "Bad dog!  Don't jump up at people in the street!"  Mum chided.  But Denver was confused; he was only being friendly!

By Christmas Eve, Denver was worried.  He really had tried his best, but he just wasn't sure it was good enough.  He'd wagged his tail so excitedly when Rosie and Sam were getting ready for bed, that he'd knocked a glass of milk off the table.  Rosie had been sad, because that milk was for Santa.  Denver was sad, because surely Santa Paws would be cross, too.

That night, he sat in his bed and watched as everyone disappeared upstairs for the night.  Soon, he was alone in the dark.  He stared out of the kitchen window, at the black sky, lit only by stars and the silver moon.  He blinked his sleepy eyes and waited for the sound of jingle bells, that he'd heard Rosie and Sam talk about.  But no sound came.

Denver curled up in a ball and tried to hold onto the Christmas excitement that everyone else had been feeling.  But he didn't feel excited, anymore.  He hadn't been good enough.  Santa Paws wasn't coming...

The next morning, Denver was awoken by the sound of shrieks and laughter coming from upstairs.  He opened one eye.  It was still dark.  It felt like everyone was up even earlier than they were on a school day, but he knew the children didn't have to go to school that morning.  He sighed and tried to go back to sleep, but then his nose twitched and he realised he could smell something...different.  Something he couldn't usually smell.

Very slowly, Denver yawned and stretched, blinking against the blackness all around him.  He could hear giggles and gleeful chatter coming from upstairs, but more importantly, he could smell something just on the other side of the kitchen door.  He jumped up, pawing at the wood, but it was no good; he was much too small to open the door.  Then, there came a clattering and familiar voices, as Rosie, Sam, Mum and Dad all came hurrying down the stairs.  They flung the kitchen door open and flicked on the light.  Suddenly, Denver could see something hanging from the handle, on the outside of the kitchen door.  It was a stocking!  Just like the ones he'd seen in the storybooks Rosie and Sam had been reading, the night before!

To Denver's amazement, Rosie tugged the stocking from the door handle and brought it to down to Denver.  "Santa Paws came!"  She grinned.  "I wonder what he's brought you?!"

Denver was overjoyed!  His tail wagged faster than it had ever wagged before.  He jumped up at everyone, licking their hands and faces, as they bent down to stroke him.  Santa Paws had come!

"You're a good dog," Mum told Denver, scratching his ears.  

"A very good dog," Dad agreed.

"The best dog ever!"  Rosie and Sam laughed.

Denver tugged at the stocking and out came a brightly coloured bouncy ball, a big, juicy bone and a packet of his favourite doggy treats!

But before Denver could play with anything, Sam cried: "Come on, everyone!  Let's go and look under the tree!"

Denver followed everyone as they darted into the living room.  Beneath the Christmas tree was a huge pile of presents!  There was even one for Denver!  

As wrapping paper was excitedly torn off, Denver was allowed to shred it, playing with empty boxes and running around the room, wagging his tail.  He had to agree that his first ever Christmas had been a brilliant one!  In fact, he could hardly wait for next year!  And now he knew for sure, that even when he did silly things and made mistakes, his family still loved him.  

He was a very good dog.


Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Bedtime Story (13/12/2017)

By the time this story goes live, it will be a week after I've had the chance sing in my first concert in many years.  In November, I signed up for a five-week singing course with a local ladies barbershop choir.  I have absolutely loved singing with others again - so much so, that I plan on joining the choir properly in January!  So, to celebrate, here's a story all about the magic of song.

If you want to hear me read this story as a podcast, just click here.

And if you want a book as a last-minute Christmas gift, my brand new children's novella, Isabella, is out now!

Caitlin's Carol Concert

Christmas was nearly here.  The tree was up, the fairy lights were twinkling and everywhere Caitlin went, people seemed to be excited and full of smiles.  It was Caitlin's favourite time of year, but before school finished for the Christmas holidays, Caitlin had something she wasn't looking forward to.

Every year, Caitlin's school put on a Christmas play.  All the children's families would come along to watch and there would be a rush of costumes to make and words to learn, in the weeks leading up to it.  But this year, the school had decided to hold a Christmas carol concert, instead.  And Caitlin was not impressed.

Caitlin liked music and she never minded the short songs that usually featured in her school's Christmas plays, but this year, the songs were much longer and more serious and everyone had been taught to sing sweetly and clearly.  The older classes were even adding some harmonies.  Each class was also performing a song on their own.  Caitlin was terrified; she didn't think she could sing; what if she let her class - or worse, the whole school - down?!

"I don't want to sing in the concert," Caitlin insisted to her mum, the day before the show.  "I can't sing."

Her mum frowned.  "Of course you can," she replied.  "Everyone can sing!"

Caitlin shook her head.  "I can't," she said.  "I get all the notes wrong and then I get embarrassed and I forget the words..."  She took a long, deep breath.  "The class will sound better if I'm not there."

Mum tutted.  "Don't be silly.  I think you sound lovely when you sing.  Besides, it's not about how good you are.  It's about standing up there and being part of something.  Singing can be such a joyful thing to do; you shouldn't make it scary, by worrying about it.  Just let go and enjoy it."

Caitlin wrinkled her nose.  Singing didn't feel all that joyful to her.  Although, to be fair, when they'd practised for the concert at school, Caitlin was usually pretending to sing along, hoping nobody would notice that there was no sound coming out.

Despite her mum's words of encouragement, Caitlin was still feeling worried by the time the evening came.  Her dad tucked her into bed and Caitlin sighed.  "Dad, can I miss the concert, tomorrow?  I'm not good at singing and I'm really nervous."

Dad cocked his head to one side.  "Why don't you think you're good at singing?"  

Caitlin shrugged.  "I'm shy.  You have to be really outgoing to sing.  You have to be loud, not all whispery like I am when I sing.  And if I try to sing loud, I'll just sound like I'm shouting.  I just don't want to do it.  I'd rather stay at home."

Dad kissed her on the forehead.  "There are lots of very famous singers who sing gently, rather than belting out a tune," he insisted.  "Anyway, you won't be singing by yourself.  All your classmates will be with you and you can listen to them, to make sure you're doing what you're supposed to be doing."  He smiled down at her.  "Your mum and I are really looking forward to seeing the concert.  Your big sister's been practising her harmonies for weeks!"

The following morning, Caitlin waited for her big sister, Harriet, to come downstairs for breakfast.  When she joined Caitlin at the table, Caitlin whispered to her: "You need to persuade the teachers that I'm too poorly to be in the concert, this afternoon."  She patted her own chest.  "I'll just pretend to cough a lot, or something."

Harriet looked bemused.  "Why would you pretend to cough?  The concert's going to be fun!"  She blinked at her sister.  "Is this why you wouldn't practise with me, all those times I asked you?!"

Caitlin nodded, her cheeks flushing red.  "You sound really pretty when you sing," she replied.  "I'm not brave enough to sing loud, because I just sound rubbish."

Harriet laughed.  "That's nonsense!  You have your own voice and it's special because it's yours.  You should try really singing your heart out this afternoon.  I think you'll enjoy it a lot more, if you do."

They finished their breakfast in silence and soon, it was time to head to school.

The day passed much too quickly for Caitlin and before long, her class were lining up, ready to head into the hall for the concert.  The reception class were opening the show with a cute little song about reindeer.  Caitlin watched the children - all younger, yet seemingly braver than she was - and it made her feel sad.  She could see her parents sitting in the front row.  She could see Harriet, standing proudly with the older children at the back of the stage.  The next song was one the whole school were singing together.  Caitlin did her usual trick of miming along, moving her mouth in all the right places, but not making any sound.  Then, to Caitlin's horror, it was her class that had to take centre stage and sing a song on their own.

As she shuffled into the place she'd been told to stand, Caitlin looked at her classmates, all smiling and looking straight out at the audience, like their teacher had told them to.  Caitlin's mouth felt dry.  Her heart was hammering against her rib cage.  Her forehead had started to sweat under the hot lights.

The music started.  Caitlin felt like running away.  She wanted to yell "stop!"  But she forced herself to think of everything her family had told her.

This is about standing up here and being part of something, she thought, remembering her mum's words.  Singing can be such a joyful thing to do.

She remembered her dad, telling her to listen to everyone else, to make sure she was doing the right thing.

And she recalled her sister's words: You have your own voice.  And it's special because it's yours.

The musical introduction was over.  The class began to sing.  Very quietly, Caitlin joined in.  She forced herself to stand tall and to stare out into the audience, with her head held high.  And, weirdly, as she did, her voice seemed to get a little louder.

She listened to the words she was singing - all about Christmas and presents and being with people you love - and she thought about what they meant to her.  And, to her surprise, she began singing a bit louder, still.

With each word she sang, Caitlin realised her shoulders felt lighter and a smile was slowly creeping across her face.  The words that tumbled from her mouth seemed to be coming straight from her heart and lighting her up like a Christmas tree.  Instead of standing stiffly, scared to move, Caitlin started to sway to the rhythm of the music, singing freely as she went.  She listened to the sound of all of her classmates singing in unison, letting their voices wash over and comfort her, making her confident enough to sing even louder.

At the end of the song, when the audience burst into applause, Caitlin waved at her mum and dad, unable to stop herself from grinning.

Later, when the concert was over and the family were heading home in the car, Mum turned from the front seat and smiled at Caitlin.  "I'm really proud of you," she told her.  "You did something, even though you were scared, and you did a fantastic job."

Caitlin beamed back at her.  "Actually," she began, "I hope we do a concert instead of a play next year, too."

"Really?!"  Mum chuckled.  "But I thought you didn't like singing?"

Caitlin shook her head.  "Oh, Mum," she tutted.  "I just needed to find my voice, that's all!"

And with that, Caitlin turned to look out of the window, at the darkening sky outside, singing to herself all the way home.