Sunday 31 August 2014

Bear with me...

Bear with me, dear friends... After an action-packed summer and so much going on (for the maternal mental health community, for Scotland and the UK, for my nascent business plans...) there is much I'd love to write about.  It will come: blog posts on Italy, restaurants, tips for a long road trip with toddler (The Boy was incredible, but we learned a lot along the way!), where I stand on the Independence Referendum (nae thanks, and I will tell you for why!), updates on mental health campaign work, fundraising ideas for APP and PANDAS... It will all come. 

But for now, bear with me.

For the first time in two and a half years (since before becoming pregnant with The Boy) I have been feeling the first familiar signs of an episode of depression coming my way.  When I had postpartum psychosis and subsequent anxiety - well, back then I was in hospital, or at home being visited by a CPN and specialist HV.  I was in "the system", diagnosed, in the care of perinatal specialists.  This feels like the first real test of what it means to manage my symptoms myself, proactively.  

During my PP recovery I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (having explained about my periods of depression, and possible manic symptoms, over the last 15 years).  After leaving the Mother and Baby Unit, we took care not to take on too many potentially stressful things, and my family and I were vigilant.  But as the months of good mental health sailed by, I naively thought that I had somehow found my cure.  That being a devoted mummy to The Boy (all those walks in the park, teaching him new things, laughing along with his antics) was acting as a protective shield.  My confidence grew (possible hypomania, but who can ever really tell?) and so did my to-do list, as I thought that I could take on the world.

This was never going to end perfectly.  But the good news is: I have recognised the early symptoms (sleeplessness, racing anxieties, inability to concentrate, social anxiety) and we are taking action.  And I have, for the first time in my life, found a community of people (the incredible #PNDfamily - you know who you are!) who I can share all this with.

So please bear with me, dear friends: normal service will be resumed soon!

Sunday 17 August 2014

SRT2014: Spain & France

So, instead of our usual route to Italy (Old Kent Road, channel tunnel, France/Belgium/Germany/Switzerland) we found ourselves in the Basque region of northern Spain.  The plan now was to spend some time in San Sebastián, before making our way down the French (autoroute) side of the Pyrenees, a further stop in the Languedoc/Provence region, and then drive all along the South coast of France until we hit Italy. 

San Sebastián 
This was a place we had been keen to savour for some time.  As a pair of food buffs we had heard tales of Basque cooking and the amazing seafood and tapas ("pintxos") to be enjoyed.  Perhaps we should really have made it here prior to The Boy's arrival, but hey he loves a tapas bar crawl as much as the next one year old, so he was very much along for the ride.

We stayed at the NH Aranzazu hotel, near the Onderetta beach.  A quick word on the NH chain of hotels: they can be found in many large European towns, and we would highly recommend them.  We have stayed in four different ones now (Budapest, Turin, Seville - and now San Sebastián) and they have all been immaculately clean, well located, spacious, and hugely generous with their breakfast offerings.  I believe they are operating in the same mid-upper price bracket as Mercure, Novotel and Holiday Inn. 

San Sebastián is an easy city to navigate.  There is one main road into the commercial centre, which also takes you straight to the beach and sweeps along the bay front to the old town.  The beach was a revelation.  I had heard so much of San Sebastian's gastronomy, I hadn't realised it also boasted one of the best city beaches in the world.  The town occupies a sheltered bay (complete with island), and along the entire shoreline is a wide sandy beach.  There must be at least a mile of sand to enjoy, with certain areas marked out especially for families, serious swimmers, boaters, surfers, etc.

Our hotel was very near the western edge of the Ondaretta stretch of beach, which is deigned for families: parasols and deck chairs, snack bars, play equipment, showers, and a full lifeguard station.  Once we managed to drag The Boy away from the choo choo train  climbing frame, he quite enjoyed dipping his toes in and jumping over the gentle waves.  The Husband and I took turns having a proper swim, and I loved the liberation of a sea swim in warm waters with the comfort of a lifeguard nearby.  A quick rinse in the communal beach shower and we were ready to saunter along the promenade towards the old town and its famous bars.

Perhaps it was our sky-high expectations but I actually felt a tiny bit disappointed by our (first) pintxos experience.  They looked amazing, a huge array laid out over an old-fashioned bar, but clearly they had been on display for some time - so the Serrano-wrapped prawns, morcilla, croquettes and other delicacies were all stone cold.  My advice?  If you don't have responsibility for a restless toddler, then relax a while and prop up the bar with a cold cerveza - then nab the best-looking plates as soon as they appear from the kitchen.

Our second day (we stayed three nights in total) was more successful: we had booked lunch in a neighbouring town, upon a friend's recommendation.  El Kano, in Getaria, is a seafood restaurant, employing the traditional barbecue grill that is typical of the region.  Getaria itself is reached via a spectacular coastal road from San Sebastián - and, although much smaller, has its own beaches and winding old town to explore.  Our lunch (and subsequent ice cream) here was great, and really gave us a feel for Basque food (in particular, hake "neck"). 

Further tapas explorations, back in San Sebastian, yielded: sublime vegetable tempura-like fries, bacala cod, pork cheeks, and gazpacho. 

We chose to break our journey south with two nights at Des Trois Couronnes in Carcassonne.  We chose this hotel primarily for its secure underground parking, on-site restaurant, and small swimming pool.  The room was much smaller than at the NH, but perfectly serviceable.  We made good use of the pool, and the restaurant.  

Carcassonne is famous for its medieval walled city, and it really is impressive.  It is also well known for its cassoulet, a homemade version of which is served at even the most basic of restaurants.  

But don't bother trying the "renowned" creperie La Ble Noir - unless you happen to have made a reservation.  I was prompted to write my first-ever Trip Adviser review after we were turned away (from a completely empty restaurant) when we only wanted a very quick bite.  I don't know, I respect their reservations policy, but aren't crepes "fast food"?!  We left, shaking our heads at the French, their attitudes towards tourists, and their precarious economic productivity...

Domaine Des Clos
Onwards, to somewhere completely different.  We found this hideaway about five years ago, on the way back from an earlier road trip, around Corsica and returning via the Marseilles ferry.  Domaine Des Clos is a renovated provencal farmhouse, between Beaucaire and Bellegarde, near the attractions of Nimes, and the Carmargue (think: lavender, lace, Provençal herbs, white horses and flamingos!).

Des Clos offers utter peace and quiet (if you don't mind a background hum of crickets), and a complete escape from the world.  It is charming and rustic enough, without being kitsch.  It is neither a B&B, hotel or collection of gites - but incorporates the best elements of these all.  That is, you can enjoy a delicious breakfast laid on in the beautiful converted stable block, while also having your own kitchen and dining room.  You can enjoy the inviting swimming pool in the company of other rampaging toddlers, while also finding quiet spots in the extensive grounds all to yourself.  The grounds are completely safe (there are even child-proof locks on the swimming pool fence), and you can even find a trampoline and sandpit.  Twice a week (in July and August) you can join in the fantastic "table d'hote" cooked by owner Sandrine.  

It is just a lovely, welcoming, place to escape with a young family.

We felt completely rested after three nights here, and ready to tackle the drive along the French Riviera towards Genoa. Unfortunately, by this point, we were racing to get The Husband to a dentist (long and boring story) so we could only just clock the famous place names as we passed along the winding autoroute: Cannes, Monaco, Nice, Monte Carlo, Cap D'Antibes.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Three things we can all do in response to Robin Williams' death

Robin Williams' death was shocking.  And not just because he was such a well-loved talent.  People are understandably confused as to why someone so successful, so funny, so famous, could also be so overwhelmingly depressed.  

It takes a tragic (and preventable) death such as this to help us all realise that depression can and does strike at random.  Depression is not about being happy or sad.  It is not about being pleased or annoyed, amused or bored, fulfilled or malcontent.  It is an illness.  It can happen to anyone, at any time, even when they are supposed to be happy.

Hiding depression away, putting on a smile, a brave face, makes life more pleasant for the rest of us.  But the consequences for the sufferer can be acute.  So here is three things that we can (all) do:

1. Conscious that they don't want to "bring everyone else down", a person with depression may start to hide away.  Their illness may be preventing them from getting in touch or socialising at all.  If you have not heard from your friend, your sister, your neighbour, in a while - send them a text or write them a quick email, asking "How are you?" "I've been thinking of you".

2. A person with depression may start to think about suicide.  It's a commonly-held assumption that asking about their suicidal thoughts or plans may only encourage that person in ending their life.  This is a myth, as I learnt on my recent Mental Health First Aid course.  Talking about suicide does not increase suicide risk - so ask the question.  It's the hardest question you may ever have to ask a loved one, but it might just help.  Many years ago, when I was struggling with one of my first (and scariest) depressive episodes, alone in a new city and away from my family, my dad asked me directly over the phone: "Kathryn, are you thinking about taking your own life?".  I couldn't speak, but yet the love and support that flowed down the telephone line and into my ear was enough to keep me safe that day.  So I repeat: ask the question. 

(Ps This is not the same as the media covering explicit details about a person's death.  Some of the coverage on Robin  Williams has been outrageous and, frankly, quite dangerous.)

3. Stop perpetuating ridiculous ideas about what can or can't "cure" depression (and other mental illnesses, while we are at it).  There is an industry out there (lifestyle gurus, some religious preachers, health and fitness companies, etc etc) who all think they can give you The Cure.  Managing depression is about finding the right treatments for the specific case: it may involve pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, some alternative therapies... But it is unlikely (in my view) that "finding joy", praying, eating or avoiding certain foods, will cure you.  Joy, prayer, fresh air, healthy food and exercise are all wonderful things in themselves (and I know being a mum of a lively toddler is a fantastic protective factor for me and my depression).  But they are not cures.  Presenting them as such places a burden of guilt on the sufferer, that they are not trying hard enough to be happy.  That if only they changed this or that they would be better.  Someone recently tweeted me that "self belief" could have helped rid me of psychosis.  It was well-intentioned, but hugely misguided.  I had no idea who or what I was - let alone a sense of self-belief!  So let's all stop with the cod psychology, the remedies and the old wives tales and recognise that depression is as much deserving of medical and therapeutic treatment as any other illness.

"Nanu, nanu" 
- Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Thursday 7 August 2014

SRT2014: "Cruise"

They have a reputation for garishness, vulgarity, obesity and premature aging.  But, to be honest, the thought of a cruise has always been quite appealing to me: cocktails in the lounge, strolls around the deck, dinner at the Captain's table, and all the time in the world to while away.  What could be so awful?  Sadly, this same concept is The Husband's idea of hell on earth: norovirus-y, vomit-inducing, captive, claustrophobic hell.  So I'm not getting my cruise any time soon.

But wait!  What's that you say?  There's a 20 hour car ferry crossing from Plymouth to Spain?  On a huge ocean-going vessel with cabins, restaurants, swimming pool, and entertainments?  We are IN.  The Husband didn't even hesitate: here was a way to satisfy his wife's longing for some sort of cruise, while also getting us to the continent relatively easily.  And it was only 20 hours, so if it all turned into his idea of Hell he'd (probably) cope.

After our lovely week in Cornwall, we made the short trip to Plymouth.  The queue of cars waiting to board the Brittany Ferries ship gave us an idea of its scale.  It took several hours to get everyone on (apparently this is an exercise in brain and computer power, involving several complex algorithms to decide exactly which vehicle needs to be stowed where on the THREE car/freight decks).

Once on board, we headed straight to our cabin.  Sadly, this wasn't in the "Commodore" area (complete with double beds, complimentary fruit baskets and private balconies) but we did have a "large 2/4 berth" which was spacious enough for being in a boat, and had a surprisingly normal ensuite shower and WC.  We both had comfy pull-down single beds - The Boy in a specially-provided travel cot between us.  There was even room for two more bunks above us (although if these were occupied the cabin would have felt seriously on the small side!).

Ok, enough of the cabin.  What about the rest of the "Pont-Aven"?

Well - The Boy and I were giddy with excitement.  He was running up and down the corridors shouting CHOO-CHOO TRAIN!!! at the top of his voice, completely oblivious to the fact he was on a boat.  We went for a good walk (run!) around the main passenger areas, spotting: a soft play room, numerous highchairs throughout the cafes and restaurants, delicious looking pastries (all the catering and staff onboard were French), a glass fronted atrium, small swimming pool, piano bar, beauty spa, cabaret lounge, and more...  

Glancing at the prices, I noted they were remarkably reasonable: £3.95 for the "cocktail of the day" (a punchy Caiparinha) for example.  While the self-catering option looked fine (pizzas and panini based), we followed those-in-the-know to the reservations queue for the main restaurant.  At £25.90 for a buffet starter, main course, buffet dessert and cheese, it was justifiably popular.  Choosing the early 6.30pm sitting, I even managed to procure us a window table.

This left us just the right amount of time for some children's entertainment (including an introduction to ship's mascot Pierre the Bear), a drink and a wash before dinner.

Dinner did not disappoint.  The French know how to lay-on a buffet and to be honest if you had ordered the alternative a la carte starter and dessert you would have been disappointed!  I crammed my starter plate with pate, salami, salads, stuffed peppers, ceviche, souffle and more.  The Husband went wild on the fresh langoustines.  Main courses were less exciting, but just a prelude to the jaw-dropping dessert table.  Here, I initiated a colour-coordinated "wheel" of tastiness.

Dinner and an early night were quite enough for us, but if you had the energy you could have been entertained all night long with singing, magic, bingo, more singing, and a disco.

The next morning there was still plenty of time for strolling around the outside decks, and even some dolphin (or were they pilot whales?) spotting across the Bay of Biscay.  We also made good use of the soft play room.  Looking around our fellow passengers, we remarked just how many (the majority?) seemed to be other young families off on their holidays. Of the retired people onboard, most seemed to be grandparents attached to an extended family group.  It certainly all felt much more like Disney than Saga.

We arrived on time in Santander, waved goodbye to the Pont-Aven and vowed to come aboard again soon.  What a great, alternative, way to reach Spain!

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Summer Road Trip 2014: Cornwall

We started our Summer Road Trip 2014 (TM) with the in-laws, in their rented holiday cottage near St Mawes, Cornwall.  In fact, we based the first continental leg of the trip on this location, choosing to take the long car ferry from nearby Plymouth to Santander in Spain (more on the ferry crossing in a later post).  But first - to Cornwall!

The drive: SRT2014 Stage 1, Sussex to Cornwall
After a lovely busy day spent with friends at their beautiful baby boy's christening in Sussex (The Husband had one of the starring roles!), we got The Boy into his jim-jams, fed, and into the car seat with his bottle of milk at around 6pm.  Leaving at this time worked out really well, as The Boy slept most of the first half of the drive, waking as we approached our planned pit stop (Dorchester McDonalds).  The second half of the drive was less successful sleeping-wise, but at least the traffic was flowing (by now around 9pm driving through Devon) and we got to test out the iPad seat bracket /toddler entertainment system we had jerry-rigged for him (successful).

The Cottage
I'm not going to give away the exact identity of this small hamlet and row of prettily thatched farm cottages - it's a well-kept secret and we intend to keep it! :)  It is nestled amongst hilly farmland on the Roseland Peninsula, across the bay from St Mawes and above a well-hidden beach, reached only via precarious cliff paths and ropes.  The farm, and many of the surrounding cottages, are now owned by the National Trust. We arrived late at night, but already the contrast with central London was clear: the bright starry sky, the owls hooting... We could not ask for a more peaceful setting.

The best aspect of this tiny two-up, two-down cottage was that once you closed the gate to the cottage path, it was completely enclosed and safe for The Boy to run around.  He could run in and out of the four cottages, up a few steps to a huge garden and orchard, all backing onto a ready-to-be-harvested barley field.

The Boy was in heaven, and we barely felt the need to ferry across to St Mawes itself (we did once or twice, just for the fresh saffron buns and pasties!).  We sat in the garden, watching The Boy run and play (he had not only one set of grandparents, but also some dear family friends and a neighbour's kindly border terrier).  We let him run wild.  We indulged his fascination for tractors by letting him watch the harvest "up close".

The Beaches
If the North coast of Cornwall has the surfing and Rick Stein, then the south side has the unspoilt beaches. We visited several along the peninsula, but one in particular stands out: Porthcurnick Beach, with the "as featured on TV!" Hidden Hut (see its website here: ).  The swimming was bracing, but the waters crystal clear and inviting.  The Boy splashed in up to his knees which was a great start.  We dried off and headed up the cliff steps to the Hidden Hut: essentially an outside catering unit, serving delicious, freshly prepared food to the beach crowds.  It wasn't cheap, but then we are so accustomed now to trendy London street food, £9.50 for a delicious Goan Seafood Curry didn't strike us as unusual.  We were glad to have ordered our food early (lunch is served from noon) as by the time we were tucking in, the queue was snaking around the tables and perilously close to the cliff edge.  With The Boy now happily napping, we lingered a while before strolling back to the car.

Trelissick Gardens
A quick note - we did make use of our new National Trust membership status in Cornwall, but only the once!  With The Husband nursing a toothache (don't ask: long story that begins with a root canal during our honeymoon), I took The Boy for a mother-and-son day out at nearby Trelissick House and Gardens.  It was a forty minute drive, including a ride on the King Harry Ferry (a simple "floating bridge" chain ferry - with spectacular views up and down the Fal estuary).  Trellisick itself (the little of the grounds I actually saw while managing a hungry and petulant toddler) was lush and elegant.  In a year or two's time I can imagine us happily stomping around the well-marked "woodland walk" (around 4 miles according to the map).

The Verdict
The Husband and I agreed that Cornwall was just the start to SRT2014 we needed: peaceful and relaxed for us, but a wild adventure for The Boy.  He spent all day, every day, outside running around, often in the company of adored friends and relatives.   We ate well, slept magnificently (hardly any TV and absolutely no traffic noise!) and felt all the better for it.  Ready to pile back into the car for Stage 2.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Number Two

My "baby" has now reached that slightly awkward toddler age when well-meaning friends are starting to wonder if we are "thinking about Number Two" yet.  I introduce The Boy to new acquaintances and their gaze sometimes turns towards my (suspicously rather bloated) mum-tum.  It's bad enough that I can't seem to shift the baby weight (let alone the Olanzapine pounds) but now strangers automatically think I may be pregnant with our Number Two.  

Oh Number Two, dear Number Two.  I've thought of you nearly constantly for months now.  Every time I see a toddler with a pregnant mummy, or I hear an NCT friend has given birth again, I think and I wonder when, if, you might come along.  If wishing made it so, you would be here already.

But it's not that simple - physically or emotionally. 

Physically, the lead consultant obstetrician who debriefed us several months after The Boy's birth gave me the "all clear", for future pregnancies.  But I'm not so sure.  He glanced over the details, but our C Section was not straightforward and required a much longer and more L-shaped internal incision than usual.  My insides were pushed and pulled, and then pummelled into submission to stop the subsequent haemorrhage.  I wonder if perhaps my uterus lining is not quite as it should be?  There is no way of knowing, without further investigations which I am keen to avoid.

Emotionally, whew - where do I start?!  I have no idea if I (or indeed we as a family) are at all ready for another baby.  Do I crave a newborn in order to reclaim the time I lost to postpartum psychosis?  With a 50% risk of relapse, am I putting the entire family unnecessarily at risk?  How could I bear to be separated from The Boy if I had to be readmitted?  How could I do that to him? To us?  I have only recently started a course of psychotherapy to deal with these (and other) issues - how can I even be thinking of bringing a new baby into our equation?

Life is good as a threesome.  We fit perfectly: into our little house, our little car.  Around one end of our kitchen table.  Snuggled on our sofa.  Walking hand-in-hand down the street, The Boy swinging between us like a pendulum.  Where would Number Two even fit in?  Practically speaking, we are fulfilled and complete - and I have read many articles on the subject of only children, none of which cause me any concern for The Boy's sibling-free future.  His future will be filled with friends, cousins, travels, experiences... and two parents, his little family, who will love him above all else.

Babies are gifts.  Little bundles of cells and matter into which God/the Universe/Karma (whatever spiritual force you believe in) has breathed life into.  I count my blessing, every day.  One child is infinitely more (in my eyes) than no child, and I know how lucky we are to have him here in the world, safe and sound in my arms.  

I'm not so sure we can ever "decide" to have a child, and we certainly can't plan the exact size of our eventual family.  Whether you are blessed with one or more children is often outside our own control.  So I've decided not to decide, and to leave the "decision" (such as it is) up to God.  Taking this whole matter out of my hands is a huge relief, and leaves me free to enjoy our family as it is: complete.