Structure in sadness

Mental health

Right now, something that gives me sustenance is attempting to write Haiku. I don’t want to write long sentences with frippery and slippery language. I also want to escape what’s inside my head, and it is helpful to engage my brain with a strict 5-7-5 syllable format, even though in modern Haiku that is probably not cool anymore.

Here are some:

Rain on the windscreen/Calm wisdom of the still trees/As it seeps to their roots

Blush flower stands still/Petals fall one by one/Echo of its soul stays

Deer dotted in grass/Sun cracks in the autumn sky/Herd moves to winter

Old trees keeping watch/On dog souls and children’s souls/Milk of Mother Nature

Skeletal leaf forms/On the cloudy autumn sky/Summer dreams falling

Stardust falls to earth/Becomes part of who we are/We rise to the skies

Song thrushes jostling/On damp Dublin pavements/Early morning joy

Trees in autumn blaze/There is God in your stillness/Golden angel hues

Church bells ring out loud/City traffic hums and roars/Crisp blue autumn sky

Spiderweb spun cloud/Delicate as the rainfall/City starts its day

Happy cloud poodle/Bursting with life and hope/Bold winter beauty

Lightening against the sky/Nature’s own nucleus/Marvellous Maple

And here’s one that cracked my 7-year-old up when I read it out to him, putting things in perspective somewhat, and made me want to try to write more Haiku that would make him laugh:

Pencil case puppy/You lie on the windowsill/While I am crying

Finally, it’s not a Haiku, but rereading Ezra Pound’s In the Station of the Metro blew my mind a little:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Perfection in a little poem.

It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me

Mental health, Motherhood

Why do I love this line from Taylor Swift’s song so much? Why do I want to play Anti-Hero on repeat?

Am I a Tween, filled with so much hope and hormones, hoping that one day I will be just like the powerhouse Taylor, who writes songs and writes off men with equal panache?

No. I love it because – whatever the song is truly about – it makes me just stop and go: Hang on. You’ve tumbled back again, taken twenty leaps backward after those moves forward you made to better your life, eat well, exercise, make a constructive plan for the future, get your finances in order, stop scrolling, become a suddenly beatifically patient person, insert here the thing you need to do to improve yourself.

Is the song about taking responsibility, or is it about taking blame? Now I am trying to navigate the difference between the elegance of personal responsibility and the brutality of blaming myself for all the stuff that is going on in my life. I like the song on a visceral level. It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me. It allows me to think on to ruminate on what I should do about this problem that is me.

Is there freedom in saying It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me? I think so. Because any other way of thinking is a set up for despair. But, you know, not too much It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me, because that, too, is a set up for despair.

I read this morning that your children are like a mirror back to you, their brilliance at mirroring your foibles as piercing and as shattering as that reflector would be if it broke into spikes and pierced you right through the heart. Oh I’ve heard this so many times: your children are reflecting back to you what you are, or they are mirroring back to you whatever stress, worry, anger, joy, content and resilience you may be feeling.

I believe this to be true to a certain extent but of course they are a bundle of cells themselves with searing souls and starving hearts of their own – and their feelings are theirs and not yours. It’s hard for me to separate the two, it really is. It’s hard for me to separate myself from anything, in fact.

Yet It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me. Loving this line is a separation in itself. Thinking you are the problem is separation too, a nearly futile trip of the ego that sets you as powerful enough to be able to control any given situation.

We only have control over a few very basic and predictable things, I think. The rest is about letting go, surrendering, jumping in the raft and holding on as tight as you can as it flows, flies, flips and floats down the raging rapids of life.

And today is the texture of mud

Mental health

At the weekend I read Laura Dockrill’s compelling memoir What Have I Done? which has been sitting on my bookshelf since its publication in 2020. I knew I was going to read it, but felt dread every time I looked at the rest of its title: Motherhood, Mental Illness and Me. There’s another one I feel the same way about at the moment: probably brilliant, I will read it, it will be a painful read, that’s just how it has to be: Alice Kinsella’s Milk (subtitle On Motherhood and Madness, I’m sure we can all spot the theme here).

I don’t know, some mothers really are the proverbial ducks to water when it comes to tending to their offspring. So many seem to breeze through it, ‘getting on with it’, no intense ripples or shocks to the system that last for years afterward. I truly envy them, and even their children, who get the immediate benefits of an emotionally stable mother from the get-go. I acknowledge that some of these breezy mothers are likely hiding pain also, and my view of these super-human capable mothers is skewed. Still, these vibrant beings exist in my head, something impossible to measure up to, as that will never be me.

I struggle. When I’m sad, and I am today, I have to lean back on a few clichés to get a post going: so here’s one: it is one step forward and it is two steps back. It is green smoothies and mulberries, then salt and vinegar crisps and a mountain of chocolate. It is signing up to all of the exercises classes and online too so there’s no excuses, and laying mute in bed, ruminating over all my past mistakes. It is a gloriously pretty dress, make-up on, or pyjamas stuffed under trousers because I can’t be bothered to get dressed properly. It is trying – always trying – to wipe off the stifling mood mud that threatens to engulf me, and then falling back into its suffocating gloop.

That’s moods, isn’t it? They do pass, but it doesn’t feel like that when you have to live them. Laura Dockrill’s memoir was so truthful and exactly conveyed the insanity that can happen post-natally; for her it tipped over into post-partum psychosis. I was close to that after my first-born, and waited far too long to get help with my shameful, horrid, tortuous thoughts (I feel for my self of 10 years ago, trying to plough through that with a sweet screaming newborn).

Anyway now I have a madness of another sort. It is denial of getting older. It is a shock of suddenly no longer having babies. This is another thing, to my eyes, that so many mothers move though gracefully – their babies growing up. Not me! Nope, this was my ‘purpose’ for so many years, following tiny ones around to check they didn’t die, feeding them, cuddling them, rocking them. Now I’m back working some nights, but rattling around the house in the mornings putting a lot of pressure on myself to ‘finally write that book’ or ‘get a highly paid high-powered job’ or ‘become suddenly extremely buff and fit’, and it’s all no good.

I get it, it’s a transition period, just like early motherhood. But do you know what? It actually sucks.

Here, now, nothing else

Mental health

Well here we are. Hello. All of our human hearts, beating. Except when they stop.

Sometime back in mid-January, I started reading about the coronavirus. Soon, I couldn’t stop reading about what was happening in Wuhan. How terrifying it was. I started to obsessively wash my hands. By the beginning of February, my eldest boy had started picking up Lego with one of the youngest’s baby wipes, saying confidently, ‘Mummy, look! I won’t catch any germs this way.’

I went too far, constantly talking about hand-washing. I made them feel alarmed. The eldest, especially. He’s become a little fixated on death. He’s fascinated about the Titanic, and about Hitler. This is partly because he’s always demanding that I ‘tell him facts about history’ and my knowledge is sketchy even though I aced history at school. It was my favourite subject. Fascinating stories. But real.

Now we are living through history.

Late last year, I started this thing of thanking my former self. Just for small tasks or actions. For example, I’d clean the kitchen a little extra before I went to bed (by that I mean, clean it like a normal person and not a slovenly harlot), and in the morning I would be like ‘Well thank you, Jacqueline of last night, you have made my life so much more pleasant this morning.’ I’d use it for the utter drudgery, like folding laundry, putting it away neatly instead of leaving it in desperate stressy piles. I’d be so grateful to my sage self of yesterday, that thoughtful person who’d crisply folded my kids’ clothes and put them away, ready for the next day of spilling succulent spaghetti sauce and rolling in the ink black mud.

I also used it in parenting, finding that minute moment before I lost my shit and expanding it, or even just acknowledging it was there. Thank you, former self, for not viciously verbally attacking your sweet babies because you are tired, not coping, whatever. Thank you for the silence instead.

Now I wonder, through all of this, what can I thank my former self for? What can I contribute? Like many, I feel helpless. I’m not going out to the frontline every day, every night, and potentially exposing myself to this frightening virus, which is killing people, old and young. I’m not saving lives. I don’t work in a supermarket.

I think about the people who are dying. I read on the news: 839 people have died here, 381 there. And I think about my beautiful beloved uncle, who died on March 6. He didn’t die of Covid-19, but there he was. Laid out in his coffin. Such a perfect expression on his face, exactly the same one as he had on his face when he was alive. He was smiling, his eyes crinkled up at the corners. He radiated love, as he did when he was alive.

The tens of thousands of people who have died. The twenties of thousands more who loved them desperately. The people who died alone. The people who are dying alone.

The things we can do are so very tiny, but so very large. We can just keep hunkering down, keeping our families safe as best we can. We can help people who need tiny-big things – just a bit of shopping, or conversation. I just met Phyllis the other day. She’s in her 90s. She’s my neighbour. I didn’t know that until recently, when I saw her at the window nine doors down as I walked by. She wanted to talk about the neighbour’s cat who kept coming around to be double-fed. We talked about that, and I said I’d see her again on my next loop around the square.

I want to help. I want to thank my former self for not burying her head in the sand in this crisis.

We feel helpless, but we can help. We have to.


Mental health, Motherhood

My middle son has this tiny pair of walking boots, impossibly cute, suitably hardy and adorned with preternaturally long laces that are always coming undone.

Putting shoes on my three small boys is – sheesh – I dread it. If my husband is around I will diligently go find the socks in our massive odd sock basket (my new way to store the endless mountain of insolently unpaired socks) but I will attempt to avoid the actual putting on of the shoes, which seems to go on forever, can involve getting kicked in the face or, worse, one of the boys lying luxuriously on the ground, foot aloft like a very short emperor, waiting to be shod.

Lately, my son’s walking boots have had me beaten down because no matter what way the laces were tied or how carefully maneuvered, within minutes they were undone again, ready to trip him up, say, at the top of the stairs, or as he was crossing the road (my brain likes to keep me on my toes with all the worst case scenarios). The top of one lace was frayed out like a dried old bunch of weeds, which, upon regular viewing, sparked a sense of hopelessness inside of me. It would never fit back in to the tiny top eyelet on his shoe, yet I knew that maybe if it did – just maybe – the laces might have a better shot at staying tied.

So I laced and laced again, every day, ten or twenty times a day, observing the frayed head, sighing when I looked at the eyelet, thinking about where to get a new pair of such laces and adding that to my list of Important Things That Need Done.

Shoes. Socks. It’s the tiny things that will derail you when you are feeling overwhelmed, as I am at the moment with the monumental task of motherhood. Straightforward things can seem insurmountable.

Then, the other day, after we’d all hurled ourselves in the door from school, I grabbed the boot from where it had been thrown in our hallway. I sat down on the bottom stair, and picked up the dried weed lace, rolling the top of it slowly between my thumb and forefinger, then threading it easily into the pinpoint eyelet. It all took less than a minute.

Briefly, I marvelled at how simple it had all been. I knew also, in that moment, how really simple everything else is too. How things can change on a dime. How all it takes is a tiny action, a small shift in perspective, and life will become just that little bit easier.

Musical chairs

Meditation, Mental health

My friend’s been playing little ten-minute meditations to her kids on the school run. I probably should be doing it myself, but I like to drown out the dog-eat-dog world that exists in the three car seats to the rear with the volume cranked up on the dulcet, comforting voice of Marty Whelan on Lyric FM.

‘Is meditation like – a chair for the brain?’ asked her four-year-old, who has clearly nailed it when it comes to all things zen, as all small children have really. It is a perfect way to describe what that kind of mental restfulness can feel like. You get a break from yourself, from your worries, from the relationship you have with the most important person in your life: you.

That relationship is most important because if you aren’t being good to yourself, you probably aren’t being so great with others either. And I don’t mean ‘good to yourself’ in any kind of cream-cake eating hot purchase kind of way; I mean respecting yourself, giving yourself what you need emotionally so you can give that to others in your life who need it too (say, for example, three small children).

I’m off the chair at the moment. My brain isn’t sitting anywhere, it is all over the place. I’ve let the wild horse out and it’s running absolutely amok, totally out of control. I haven’t even started to look for the lasso to rein it in – I’m too far gone for that. This is what depression feels like. It feels almost exactly the same every time I get it. I’ve stopped meditating because meditating can – sometimes – make you feel worse.

Why? Because it releases stress. It gets rid of pain, by stirring it up. The idea is to let it go. That’s the hard part. Meditation can be like bleach for a blackened soul, and actually, I’m learning, it must be approached with caution. I will go back to it but at the moment I’m stepping back, once again hunkering down, once again waiting for the terrible storm to pass.


Mental health, Motherhood

I am wading through fog at the moment, my brain feels like mashed potato, and with too much butter in it, to boot.

I have all these theories as to why I feel like I am lost in the mists right now, all terrifying and unhelpful like ‘early onset Alzheimer’s’ or ‘mercury poisoning’. Can such cloudiness be put down to my three small children and a six-year long accumulation of interrupted nights? Well, I don’t know but I’m sure if I went to the doctor with my tale of brain fog she would probably kindly point that out, and reassure me that everything was ok. I’ve just googled ‘what to pack for a weekend away’ which has really hit home to me what a mental state I’m in. I can’t think where to start with that, honestly. Pants, I suppose.

It doesn’t really matter what the reason is, I need to fix it. How? I don’t know. Read more books? I’ve already lined up a book called ‘Brain Longevity’ which is full of sensible advice about how to get blood rushing to the brain. Part of me feels like surrendering to the fog, actually. Just stop worrying about forgetting appointments and feeling confused about what day it is. Just go with the flow, however bewildering the current is.

I won’t do that though. I’ll try to follow the dim light I’m sure I will stumble across in a day or two, in a week or two. The brain is a uniquely beautiful, living and sprouting thing, and perhaps mine is, oh I don’t know, recalibrating, or regenerating itself. Maybe it needs to slumber for a bit for new shoots to spring out. I think a lot about how many of my problems would be solved by the purchase of a wall-planner, a giant thing taking up one side of the kitchen. I’d sit there every morning, a master in command, with a big, black marker, arrows everywhere, my life, everyone else’s, planned out. Perhaps if I tethered my thoughts, my brain, my life in this way, things would be simpler.*

*Note to self: A wall-planner is not a radical suggestion. It’s fairly normal if you have a family.


Mental health

I’m stuck in a tornado of foul weather at the moment. Wexford is sunny, mostly, the eucalyptus trees still sway jauntily beside the wooden deck where I have my coffee every morning. The flowers are still in full bloom, their vibrant colour a solid example of how beautiful the world can be.

But boy do I feel like crap. That’s the problem if you are prone to depression, or anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. With effort, you can manage it, you can surmount it, but you can never fully escape it. It will come back at certain points to torture you.

I’ve always wondered about this. How can things, outwardly, remain exactly the same, yet inwardly, change on a dime, and change violently at that? Sunshine, still in place. Stunning beach with wild waves, still there. Trees and flowers, refer above. Three gorgeous children, steady, loving husband – all present, all still a gift.

But I feel wildly sad and sorry and angry and yes, depressed. It’s been brewing for a while, a few months and here it is. It’s arrived, as bolshy, as unwelcome and invasive – as insane – as Boris or Trump. It will pass – it does, it has before, even though every time you get a fresh bout, you think it won’t, you think: that’s me done for now. I’ll be feeling like there’s been a truck of manure dumped over me for the rest of my life.

There’s no immediate reason, based on my present reality, for the way I feel. This is the vileness of mental illness. It strikes anyone, at any time. While a traumatic childhood or experience can set the scene for it, an inviting, filthy bed for it to lie in, depression is not discerning in who it chooses to mow down, and when it decides to do it.

I hate feeling like this. What exactly does it feel like? Well, first off, your hope goes. Just like that. Where it is there one day, it is gone the next. Your imagined future quickly follows suit. Then your present reality sours, even though yesterday it soared. Guilt sets in, that you feel the way you do, even though you have everything that you have. It’s swiftly followed by torpor, apathy about things that formerly excited you, and relentless worry. An inescapable, terrifying feeling of doom descends, like something truly awful is going to happen. A knot forms in your stomach. It doesn’t go away. Anger rises and falls, sweeping you along, crushing you down. You want to hide away, batten down the hatches, but you can’t. I used to do this before I had a family, and it made me feel worse. Dangerously so.

So you don’t hide, you can’t hide – you carry it around with you. You plaster a smile on your face when the situation demands it. You try as hard as you can, especially for your children because you can’t let them see you like this, or sense you like this.  

How to get out of it? Each time I start slipping and drowning in it, I can never remember. I know vaguely that routine will help, eating properly, staying away from alcohol, taking refuge in books will help. Simply watching my children will help. Meditation becomes a chore, sitting with myself seems repulsive. But I do it anyway. Moving, walking – that helps. Talking to people, and not necessarily about how I am feeling, that helps. Taking a shower feels like an achievement, so that helps too.

There’s no one way to help. There’s no magic button to press. You just have to be with it until it goes. And it does go.


Mental health

This morning, I was thinking that the cruellest side-effect of depression is that it robs you of your interest in life. There are many other things that it does: envelops you in darkness, makes you cry, makes you numb; makes you sleep too much or not sleep at all – and these are just a few nasty nails in your daily existence, which becomes like a stifling coffin when you fall foul of this mood disorder. There are countless more. The worst is the thievery of your lust for life, something which is your birthright.

So how does this look, exactly? Well; take everything. Take the sea, the stars, the planet around you. Take music, orchestras, sonatas and smoky nights. Take eucalyptus, maple, oak trees, flowers – roses, marigolds, daisies, peonies. Take books, poems, words, art. Food. Take people in all their glorious infuriating love and laughter and jealousy and sorrow. Take craft, the joy of work, of bending your mind to something that nourishes it. Animals; a dog’s head nestling on your lap. The balletic paw of a cat. The sight of a goldfinch.

Take interest in everything outside of yourself, where the world is, where all its wonder is, where acres and oceans and aeons of discoveries lie, ready to be peeled open and feasted on with a child’s delight. Take all of this and discount it. Fold in to yourself. Take away the universe itself. It cannot hold your attention, not even for a second.

It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? That such a state of mind can exist and persist within our delicate design.

Fist fight

Meditation, Mental health

I had a not-so-lovely dance with rage this morning. It doesn’t really matter what set me off, I’m telling you about it because each time it happens, I am freshly shocked as to where the anger comes from and how it can be so powerful as an emotion.

It’s horrible. It is absolute monkey brain in action. Now that I meditate regularly I notice that the anger usually rises and falls quickly. It doesn’t stay, because I can feel it in my body, I can pinpoint it almost as a separate thing to me. I’m not blindly angry about things anymore. I think meditation has made me take a huge step back from it. It makes me want to examine it. There are distinct levels of being you discover when you meditate every day and there is always, always a very distant layer at the top – one that observes. It looks at what you are doing and it doesn’t say, holy hell that is terrible, or well done chump you’ve lost it again. It’s just sort of sitting there, holding you. I suppose if it could speak it would be calm and neutral. Oh I don’t know what it would say! Anger is such a destructive emotion but I absolutely believe that it is better out than in.

You obviously can’t keep directing it at other people, but you can’t suppress it either. Someone did say to me years ago that my torpor of a depression was anger turned inwards. I thought it was a pretty lazy thing to say, like, how handy for you that you’ve compressed my decades-long depression into one sentence. But now, after some years of looking within myself in order to try to correct my less useful tendencies, I see that they were right.

Anger is not really going to go anywhere, I guess, once you have those tendencies. I think this is brilliant from Maria Popova’s website Brain Pickings. She draws the reader’s attention to the poet May Sarton, who says: ‘Sometimes I think the fits of anger are like a huge creative urge gone into reverse, something dammed up that spills over…’ The creative urge gone into reverse is a great way to put it – it’s some kind of life force; tangible, gone in to reverse, yes. It is something dammed up, for sure. It works with triggers, of course it does – the thing that you are getting angry about now might be small, but it is certainly triggered from something that happened to you in your past.

If you want to grow, really grow as a human being, and become the best one you can be, then you have to spend some time figuring out what these triggers are, and then you have to disable them. They must be unpicked, taken apart and made harmless in their dissection – that’s if you want to stop suffering. And don’t we all?