Long before Covid-19 came onto the scene, I’d had a morbid sense that I was sitting around the table with ONE oxygen mask, and there were lots of us, I was the smallest one (in my family) and at the back(bottom of the pecking order). This had been my modus operandi, shallow breathing and holding my breath had been responsible for countless missed opportunities: interviews for jobs made for me, exams, driving licence tests, the list is endless.

Somewhere in this lifetime, I’d learnt that life was better safer lived from the inside out. I was a closet punk rocker, artist, writer and entertainer. But shush, no one was supposed to know about this. The world felt like such a violent and volatile place that I ushered my kids indoors as soon as they could read to counteract the passive aggressive abuse we got on a daily basis living as a ‘peculiar looking family’ on our council estate. We only came out to go to school/work/library/shops and kept ourselves to ourselves. I hoped that this would be sufficient to keep my family safe. However, I tried to ignore the fact that we were existing but not really living. I was also doing my bloody best as a disabled migrant and single parent on a low income.

Years later, I look at myself and see someone older, fatter and calmer look back at me in the mirror. The last few years have been cathartic as I’d hit rockbottom with my family having been let down by the education system having turned a blind eye to the systematic bullying my daughters had gone through at the school that should really be renamed ‘Camden school for slurs’. Following this tragedy (I am not exaggerating: it was for me, as I was raising kids and not looking after gerbils), my anxiety and panic grew exponentially and I would take hours before stepping outside, so traumatic the outside world had become. However strong the urge to retreat inside was, my survival instinct told me that I’d already locked myself in with my kids and would need to look at another strategy for coping. The answer came inexplicably through a vision to start running social group for parents of under 5’s, putting them in touch with other parents in their vicinity and building a network of support that would ensure other isolated families would not endure what we had to go through. Standing up, terrified in front of a group of parents and modelling singing to them has helped me forget about myself and focus on turning my pain and regrets into joy and hope. Now, five years later, I understand more about the benefits of singing to parents and babies: I am really singing to myself, to the terrified little girl inside, looking to self-soothe and comfort whilst I practice ‘exposure therapy’ and hope for the best.

This lockdown has forced me to up my game in ‘coming out’ when I had to work from home alongside my lovely (but noisy!) neighbours . After suffering in silence for days, I drafted and sent them a text acknowledging our individual needs , theirs for exercising their little ones and mine for rest and silence to concentrate. This has felt cathartic and self-honouring. I feel like I have finally arrived in taking my space in the world. After all, I live here too.

 

 

 


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It’s Sunday evening and Mental Health Awareness week starts tomorrow.

Watch out for the bunting, the posters, the merch, events, interviews and tanned celebs repeating a one liner platitude.

I won’t be joining in the ‘celebrations’ as I am not buying into the hype.

I have grown this cynical(I call myself ‘cinacal’) from simple observation over two decades spent in London raising two daughters on my own. I have struggled with my mental health throughout, seeking help non stop and not getting it. I’ve been bullied and intimidated many times by those with more power, who smelt the blood of vulnerability in the sight of an isolated foreign woman, little girls in tow. From headteachers to neighbours, it seems that everyone could have a go at it, as if I’d been walking around with a sign saying ‘ pick on us please’. Of course I wasn’t but my sensitivity was picked up as defencelessness and a green light for anyone to snipe at us. So much so that I became a recluse and instructed the girls to pick up books when children would not play with them. I think we were seen as a strange family, a bizarre sight on Kentish Town road, always on our own, holding our heads high and our hearts on our sleeves. Looking back at it, we were like an accident waiting to happen in what looked like a dog-eat-dog world of playground politics and populist Britons, open mouthed with disbelief, watching us approach with our strange aura, a multilingual mystery, a cultural mish mash of bohemian freedom, spirituality, our obsession with self-improvement through education and our indomitable hope which seemed to drive some mad with muted rage. In this context, I’ve kept us safe-(ish) in the sense that we’re still alive today, that we’re in relatively good health but at what price? I have undoubtedly become aware of the impact of living such a life has had on my health: mental and physical. I can only guess at how my daughters have also been impacted from seeing their sole carer always alone, regularly distraught and despairing. My amend to them has been to seek help with all my strength, not leaving a single stone unturned to aim for a better life for me but especially for them.

I have seen professionals dangerously uneducated in human kindness and  lacking empathy express ‘concern’ around my mental health. What that meant really was that unless I would tone my symptoms down and stop asking for help, my children would be seen as potentially ‘at risk’ from living with a mother so open about her mental health struggles. It is no surprise that I have had to go to pieces quietly from the discomfort of my cluttered living room until my youngest had reached her 18th birthday before I could talk about these struggles openly. The shame society has tried to tar me with does not belong to me but to a heartless society which says one thing and does another.

Aside from waking up with so much pain crystallised in my body from  the compounded anxiety, hypervigilance and responsibility for raising my daughters alone in the past 23 years, I am waking up as if from a coma, realising that I may never feel safe in the UK. This lockdown, we’ve seen it all again, my ‘otherness’ has ruffled feathers and disturbed those on our housing estate who clap for the NHS, call frontline workers ‘heroes’ and put nice little rainbows on their windows on the one hand whilst organising wild parties, sending me texts calling me deranged for wanting some peace and quiet sometimes, ganging up on me to intimidate and ostracise us. This lockdown has shown me what I already knew so well without having seen it with my eyes but strongly felt with my heart: It’s those who think there’s nothing wrong with them that one needs to watch out for. I won’t be celebrating what I already know: Mental health awareness is weak in the UK.

 

 

 


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Years ago, when my daughters were 4 and 7 years old, I moved into the estate where I still live. I really struggled making a home out of a bare flat that was rented with us with no other flooring than the cold concrete that I tried to dress as well as I could with carpets and throws. It was a repurposed refurbished old school that had been a hostel for homeless families, and so all 41 families moved into their flat at the same time. From day one, all around us, we could hear the banging of hammers and aggressive drilling sounds at all times, signalling flooring being installed, shelves put up, anonymous cream coloured institutional flats turned into warm family homes . Aurally, I felt very small and very alone, with my two girls, I felt like we were three little birds emitting tiny chirps amongst the bulldozing sounds of dragged furniture, barking dogs and DIY. Visually, I felt that we stood out too, an anomaly in the reddish NW1 brickwork landscape, where whole intergenerational clans unloaded heavy furniture, had a pint in the car park, geezers whilstling and teasing each other, dogs running, babies crying, life in technicolour with sounds, smells and loud visual clues advertising the brute force of a large pack of humans in all their imperfections.

In contrast to this, I was an educated working class mum, always polite, discreet and direct, a young solo mum, dressed up in vintage and always alone, flanked with my two adorable daughters. People looked away when we marched on down Kentish Town Road, and boy, did we feel alone, so alone. I felt like we stood out, I felt like we were so vulnerable and I felt the dangers all around us in the form of unfriendly faces, professionals in white coats looking for the slightest chink in the armour of our fragile glass structure built to last one day only to point at my expected dysfunctions as a single parent family with no support. It didn’t matter that I had never stopped asking for help from all these professionals and others, ever since I had become a mother, I felt that the strange family I had conjured up were only relatable to them through the lens of a social concern, we lost our names and got marked with a case number time and time again.

Moving to this new flat also marked the beginning of my recovery from alcohol and drugs where I first heard about the concept of taking it ‘a day at a time’. I still remember taking my last drink on the 6th March 2004, I remember the despair, the loneliness, the fear, the anger I still feel today, though not all the time and not the whole shebang of feelings at the same time , more importantly, I can feel these without having to self-medicate with substances as I have other tools today, by the grace of God.

I could only have guided my small makeshift boat along the raging sea of the last 16 years a day at a time, an hour at a time, a minute at a time, even a second at a time as I never thought we’d make it alive in what looked like a brutal dog eat dog world where I protected my little girls the best that I could, holding my breath to not feel the terror, soldiering on, through a perfectly close fitting outfit and popping lipstick in the shade of hysteria red.

 


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I live here too. That’s a fact. However, a look around my surroundings fills me with discomfort, quite literally as I find not a single space to perch and do some work either in my room which overflows with beaded jewellery bought in Mexico but never worn (I may lose one of these earrings, and then I’d be left with just one, you know, and then…what?), stacks of vintage clothes in too small a size, piles and piles of books ranging from French classics which I would have the luxury to read in the language of Baudelaire but will get around to do, someday I’m sure….and paper, paper, paper everywhere: receipts, bank statements, identity documents, attempts a journaling over dozens of otherwise blank notebooks where I’d attacked a few pages in the frenzied delirium of wanting to spill the beans there and then and reflect upon my life. In this chaos coated in cat hair, I cannot hear myself think and sometimes ‘get tough’ on myself, clearing a cabinet or corner, only to feel overwhelmed by the minuscule dent I have made in the mountain of things towering over me. I have sometimes been able to ignore my surrounding hoard and decided to sit down on my bed, pushing away the many meditation and recovery books and other inspirational materials aimed at lifting me out of the electrifying daily terrors I wake up to.

Then I remember that experts tell you never to do any work in your room when you struggle with sleep, as I do. Your bed should be reserved for sleep, light reading before sleep or sex (you said what???)

I take myself to the lounge where I imagine I could settle down at either the big dinner table or on the sofa, but then, I am caught up in an inferno of housewifey guilt as I can see from the corner of my eye, washing that needs folding (or worse: hanging), dirty plates from pasta and sauce 3 days ago and piles and piles of boxes containing mountains of papers: bills from 2003, my daughters’ school reports from 12 years ago, clothes, games we’ll never play and deceased computers still held onto for the treasured photos and files they may still contain. There are craft projects never started, musical instruments never played, as the concept of time and space has always been rather painful to me. I’m not going to blame where I am for my upbringing in an overcrowded one bed flat in Paris but it certainly didn’t help me in feeling that time and space where mine to take as I wish. I have become painfully aware, looking around my living room in the sober light of reality that I have lived in survival for years, not processing anything, just dumping issues in a corner and putting out wild fires all around me. It’s like waking up to the identity of a bag lady who’s been on a pilgrimage of shame and loneliness for years. I pray and meditate before opening a bag, like a museum piece, it contains a various assortment of clues as to what kind of a day this had been, a scrunched up receipt from Iceland, an old travel card, a drawing from my now 23 year old daughter then in reception, crumbs, a few pennies, a misplaced lipstick, an old (unused of course-what are you like….) tampon. These relics testify to the effective living of a life but I have no recollection of such a life. All I remember is holding my breath and waking up years later, older, fatter, with young ladies as daughters instead of the little girls I once had. I suspect that I had been existing rather than living and that would explain the absence of a good chair.

 


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