Just say no. The two-letter word that changes everything.

photo_2017-10-11_19-39-06No.  I love swilling the word ‘no’ around my mouth. I love the feel of it. It’s round. Weighty. Assertive. And so much more powerful than yes.

Don’t get me wrong. I like yes, too. I say yes to opportunities and the unknown all the time. I love jumping out of my comfort zone and freefalling into new possibilities, whether that’s starting a new job or moving to another country where I can’t speak the language and don’t know anyone. Taking risks doesn’t scare me, whereas living with regrets does.

But no is so much more than just the opposite of yes. Whether you roll it around in your mouth, say it quietly or shout it out, no is satisfying in a way that yes will never be because strange as it may sound, no doesn’t limit me. It’s actually the contrary. It frees me to do exactly what I want.

Because by saying no, I’m defining the terms and conditions by which I live by. So, it’s no to energy vampires who would like to suck life out of me. It’s no to casual cappuccino dates with people who think they’ll get a free English lesson that way. It’s no to big parties when I hate crowds and would much rather catch up with friends one-on-one. It’s no to the hairdressers who want to turn me into a fake blonde when I’m perfectly happy to embrace the silver strands sparkling in my hair.  And it’s no to anything that isn’t necessary or doesn’t bring me joy.

After Matt died, my need to fix people to make amends for not being there for him meant my nos becames yeses and people took advantage of that. Boundaries were overstepped and the more I gave, the more expectation there was that I’d give. And at a time when my body was reaching breaking point from the emotional trauma it was carrying, that was simply wrong. But back then, I just couldn’t see it and wouldn’t object when people walked all over me and stole what little energy I had.

Now I’m back to don’t-mess-with-me me, I have no qualms about saying no. Sometimes I offer an explanation, sometimes I don’t. To some my refusal may sound rude but time is finite and none of us should have to account to those who don’t matter for the way we choose to use it.

By saying no, I’m looking after myself, avoiding burn out from taking on too much and prioritising my mental health. But more than that, I’m ultimately opening myself up to new opportunities and new experiences to which I can then say yes.



Why self-care (and stand up paddling) is my priority

photo_2017-10-09_16-07-07Today’s to-do list is shockingly long. Important stuff. Urgent stuff. Stuff that’s important and urgent, along with all the things that I need to cross off before flying back to the UK tomorrow.

But right now I’m not queuing up in the post office to pay bills, I’m not planning lessons and I’m certainly not editing the video to meet tonight’s deadline because as much as it’s important and urgent, it can wait.

Instead, I’m sitting at my favourite beach bar sipping a cappuccino as I watch the waves roll in only to fizzle out before reaching the shore. In a minute or two, I’ll pack my laptop away, grab my board and spend the next hour paddling, lost in my rhythmic strokes and the beauty around me.

Because what I’ve realised is that the sea is important to me. When I’m out on my board and thoughts spill from my mind, I have no problems, no worries. There is no right, no wrong, no stress, no angst and everything is as it should be. When I arrive back at the beach, I’m in a state of zen and more able to concentrate on the tasks I’ve got to get through. Put like that, it’s obvious why it’s become my number one priority on my to-do list.

If only I’d known how important self-care was back in that scary place that was the world after my brother killed himself; that not only was looking after myself not selfish, it was vital if I wanted to make it out of the black, fragmented chaos I found myself inhabiting. But nobody told me. Nobody. At a time when I was mentally beating myself up, guilt-ridden over Matt’s suicide and for the things I’d said and done 25 years earlier, I wish someone had gently – but forcibly – taken my hand, pushed me into their car and driven me to the beach. “Sit here and breathe,” would have been the best four words anyone could have said. Perhaps then my grief could have been carried away by the breeze instead of remaining wedged internally and choking me to brokenness.

Now that I’m happy, I have no intention of getting sucked back into that vortex of mental anguish, which is why, on my ever growing to-do list, wellness and self-care will always be my number one priority and I make no apology for that. So, if you need to speak to meet, then sorrynotsorry but you’ll need to wait until I’m back from the beach.

A summer wave of wellness

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I look in the mirror and smile.

My hair isn’t bouncy and I’m not radiating that Icouldbeonthecoverofamagazine glow. Not even close. My hair is what can only be described as an uncovetable mix of greasy and knotted, my face hasn’t seen make up in weeks, I’ve got a spot or two from overindulging on pizza and the dark circles under my eyes are proof I need to spend more time in bed asleep. Put bluntly, I’m not going to be scooping up top beauty awards anytime soon and should probably be reaching for one of those all-in-one face masks that promise instant glow, hydration and brightness as if I’ve just come back from a week at the spa.

And yet. I’m happy.  Despite the dark circles that have been awarded a permanent resident permit on my face, my eyes sparkle and yesterday at yoga, a friend who I hadn’t seen in months because of our conflicting schedules told me I was lit up with energy, though I suspect that had much to do with the two cappuccinos and espresso I’d already knocked back by ten am (disclosure: I’d been up since 5am. Three coffees in five hours isn’t quite so bad. Is it?).

Being knackered because you’re hungover from a summer of fun is completely different to not sleeping because of nightmares and trauma and grief because in the first instance you actually can’t wait to do it all over again, whereas, in the latter, you know that as much as you want to close your eyes and sink into oblivion, you can’t.

Right now, I’m zen. I’ve spent most of my summer in the water or on the water. I’ve paddled out to watch the sun rise and the sun set. I’ve paddled in the light of the full moon. I’ve sat in silence as dolphins have swum next to me. I’ve had morning coffee and evening prosecco on my board in the middle of the sea, laying the board as you would a table, complete with a tablecloth, linen napkins, a candle and china cups. There’s something rather special about drinking from china cups or wine glasses as the waves roll around you. And up until this morning, I haven’t written a word. No angst of the blank page or writer’s block as I stared at the screen of my laptop and willed the words to come. No agony of a deadline and wondering what to write. No pressure of trying to make adjectives and nouns come alive. My conscious decision not to write has been freeing, life-enhancing even if it sounded strange at first.

“What do you do?” strangers would ask me.

“I’m a writer,” I’d reply, just like I always have.

“Really? What are you writing?”

“Nothing,” I’d shoot back. “I’m living.”

Apart from paddling, I’ve swum in ice-cold pools high up in the mountains, I’ve camped under pine trees near to the sea. I’ve fallen asleep in a hammock. I’ve been to a sunrise concert on the beach and skinny dipped at midnight. I’ve caught up with old friends and made new ones. I’ve built mashmallow worlds with my three little besties who are ten, six and three. I’ve put on weight: I like to pretend it’s from building up muscle from all the paddling but I suspect too many glasses of wine, slices of pizza and bowls of crips at the beach are the real culprits. But the day I can no longer fit into my bikinis is the day I will begin to worry.

For now, I’m ready to be a writer that writes again, including blogging here regularly – another reason, if I really needed one, to look in the mirror and smile.

Seven years today

It seems like yesterday, it seems like forever. Seems like some days I never had an older brother, on other days he’s still the big brother who looked out for me when I was little. Memories and grief are layers of onion skin. Sometimes they make my eyes sting, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the wound rips open and I cry and cry and cry. Nights I sleep deeply, peacefully; others I close my eyes and open them quick to shut out the images flashing through my mind. The impact is nuclear, the fallout is far reaching and it would be easy, so easy, to close my eyes and end it all. But life is beautiful. The Sardinian snow that on closer inspection is almond blossom covering the hillsides. The shimmering turquoise sea. Snails that kiss on the pavement in the rain. A five-year-old that runs to hug you when you pick her up from school, a nine-year-old that makes you a wonky clay heart to keep on your bookshelf and 10-year-olds that tell you you’re the prettiest teacher ever. Fleeting moments of simplicity because in this brave new world post-suicide everything is measured differently. Career prizes, consistently scoring top marks in evaluations, getting commissions from big-name magazines once so important no longer matter. In the immediate aftermath of losing a loved one to suicide, success is simply having the strength to put one foot in front of the other and make it through the hour. Months later, it’s about functioning on the outside while learning how to knit yourself back together again, how to stretch your skin across your bloody, broken heart. And now, the biggest achievement of my life is being happy, thriving again, while knowing the frightening statistics that say the suicide bereaved have a much higher risk of dying by suicide themselves. It seems like yesterday, it seems like forever, but, actually, it’s seven years today. So today is all about doing yoga, hitting the beach, paddle boarding, feeling grains of warm sand between my toes, filling my house with freshly-cut flowers, baking cakes, reflecting, remembering, having dinner with some of my dearest friends, opening a bottle of red wine and celebrating my brother’s life.


Starting off the week – 2016/3

Perhaps because I’ve had a cold and been hibernating on the sofa, or simply because February is my least favourite month of the year, sandwiched as it is between the newness of January and the hope and beauty of March, I’m concentrating on poetry and magic this week.

The first link is An Understanding of Joy by my friend Dawn. It always resonates, no matter how many times I read it.

Next up is a poem by RM Drake on the beauty of moving forward – a reminder that if we stay still, nothing will change.

Then there’s this from Tyler Knott Gregson about allowing in the light.

I’ve just finished rereading History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky. As a poet, it stands to reason that her writing is beautiful, heart-breaking, and full of straight-to-the-point phrases such as “I suppose no one is truly dead when we go on loving them”.

And, to end, I’ve been going to yoga once or twice a day over the past month and I always hear this at some point during the class.

Have a good week  x

Starting off the week – 2016/2

Here are a few links which focus on suicide prevention that have been collected over the past few weeks when I’ve been busy doing other stuff:

What’s it like to be a moderator on suicide watch and is it really necessary?

I’ve read this story on the suicide of the Columbine killer, Dylan Klebold, on so many websites and seen it on the news, but that doesn’t dilute its impact.

This was also powerful reading on Slate, in part, I guess, because Italy is embedded in fierce debate over the rights and wrongs of civil partnerships.

And from the Times, this article on the rise in suicides among teenage girls. It was sent to me as a photo because of the paywall, which would prevent some of you from reading it. I teach so many pre-teens and teens that this really resonates. And it proves that governments really do need to make mental health a much bigger priority.


Starting off the Week 2016/1

A New Year, a new beginning. I’m not a big one for resolutions because they make me feel bad when I break them.  However, in 2016, I am determined to stay on track, posting my collection of links weekly as opposed to on a random when-I-have-time basis.

It shouldn’t be too hard. At the beginning of last year you really had to look hard to find stories related to suicide. Now there are stories published almost every day, both in the nationals and on popular lifestyle sites, and friends regularly send me links to things they’ve read that they know will be of interest. That’s a good thing,  because I continue to believe that the more suicide is talked about in the media, the more we (me, you, campaigners) can bring about change.

On that note, the first link of 2016 has to be this article from yesterday’s Independent which discusses how much detail needs to go into reporting suicides.  Those of you who heard me talk at the 2015 suicide bereavement conference know that I’m very much in favour of suicides being reported, but a lot of you disagree. So what do you make of opinion piece in the Independent?

Next up is this on Chris and Cliff Molak who wrote an emotional Facebook plea to end cyber bullying after their younger brother, David, killed himself.

There’s also this from a writer who found closure to her mother’s suicide by visiting a medium.

June Sarpong pays tribute to her brother who died after jumping off a bridge in Los Angeles in October last year.

And finally, remember Jonny Benjamin? His online search to find the man who saved his life six years earlier was turned into the Channel 4 documentary The Stranger on the Bridge.  Read an update on his life now from yesterday’s Telegraph here.

From grief to celebrating: loving my brother’s would-have-been birthday

Like most people, I love the hibernation aspect of January.  Snuggling up on the sofa with a good book and a cup of coffee is usually exactly what I need in the post-Christmas slump.

But not this year. The rain (oh, the rain!) in England meant prolonged huddling on the sofa or under the duvet eventually led to cabin fever and now all I want to do is be outside exploring. I’m like my cousin/nan/parents/family’s dog, Rocco, whose tail starts thwacking the floor as soon as he hears my dad scrape the last spoonful of porridge from his bowl and clicks its time to go for a walk in the woods.

I’m back in Sardinia now, where I’ve swapped grey skies for blue; raindrops for sunshine, and with that comes absolutely no excuse for staying inside. Especially not today, which is a what I’ve come to dub a would-have-been day.  In other words, it would have been my brother’s 42nd birthday. Would have been, because he only made it to 35.

Today on Matt’s would-have-been birthday, it’s 20°C and sunny out so I’m off to the beach to gulp in lungfuls of fresh air, dream big, and listen to the waves inhale and exhale at the shore. Then, once I’ve finished writing and caught up with friends, I’ll uncork a bottle of red wine and celebrate my brother’s life and the magic (more on that another day) of being alive.

Christmas comes but once a year – or maybe not

A few days before Christmas, I found myself on Asos for a quick present-buying session. What actually happened is that for an hour or so jumpers adorned with Santa and Christmas puddings and snowflakes found themselves being added one after the other to my shopping basket. And let’s get one thing straight here: I am not the sort to pull on the obligatory festive sweater. Later on, driving to yoga, I realised that the chorus of Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine had seeped into my head and the tuneless singing was coming from me and not the radio. Conclusive proof that I was definitely in the Christmas mood.

I used to love Christmas. Catching up with friends over a Christmas Eve pint. Red-wine kisses under the mistletoe. Family together. Ripping open presents right after breakfast. The blow-out lunch,  with me eating nothing but a pile of vegetables because inevitably we’d forget to pop something vegetarian in the oven for me. The obligatory snooze in front of the tv, followed by our family Snowman tombola. The traditions were so solid, so entrenched, I never thought that one day they might change.

Except, as all good stories go, they did. On Christmas Day 2008, I had an argument with Matt and never saw or spoke to him again.  We celebrated Christmas 2009 with him in the ground. By Christmas 2010, my nieces and nephew had moved to Canada and seven months later my Nan had died.  By the time Christmas 2011 came round, my idea of family festivities had been nuked.

Then this Christmas my younger brother stayed at home with my sister-in-law in Spain, meaning the numbers dwindled to just four. But you know what? It was actually fine,  and although there wasn’t a Christmas sweater in sight, it was no less festive than it would have been with 20 guests around the table.

As it happens, I’m still humming Christmas songs, but that’s (supposedly) more to do with a dodgy iPhone that seems to want to play them on loop than any real desire to keep the festive period going. However, with a Christmas jumper or two snapped up in the sales, you just never know.