Feel the Panic and Carry On

The first time I experienced a panic attack I was standing in a hotel foyer, as a teenager, in Lisbon. It was completely overwhelming. I felt distressed, my heart was racing and I felt lost, afraid and tearful. I frightened the person I was with and it took some hours to feel normal again. The exuberance of youth, however, allowed me to push it to one side and move on.

The first day on a new temping assignment when I was just married, was my second one. It crept up on me during the day. I felt a tingling around my mouth and a feeling as if someone was stroking my leg. Eventually, I had to ask to leave and on my way home I was convinced I was dying. I felt weird for the rest of the day and frightened that it would happen again.

After having seen my GP, I realised I had suffered a panic attack. We were planning a move to Portugal at the time and subconsciously I think I was worried. But this panic attack completely rocked my confidence. I became anxious about being outside in public places. My heart would race and I would feel light-headed.

As I went through my twenties I learnt how to deal with them. They always crept up on me unawares. And often when I was alone. Pins and needles, tingles, lightheadedness . Once back in a familiar place with people I knew, I would gradually feel better. By my thirties they had become so infrequent I no longer thought about them.

Recently, having gone through menopause, I suddenly feel vulnerable again. I worry about losing those I love. I am feeling my age. And with that those familiar feelings of panic have reappeared. . When this happens I feel I want to pull a blanket over me and hide. I cope with work – if anything it is a distraction. But days off bring over-thinking, which is exhausting. I lack motivation and a sense of purpose and forget how to be my own best friend. Instead, I accuse myself of not doing enough, not stretching myself and I have to make do with achieving the bare minimum. Sleep is my friend. It puts my scrambled thoughts into order and quietens and soothes any distress.

But on the good days I remind myself that the bare minimum is ok. It is keeping the show on the road. It is being Claire. That’s who I am. An over-thinker, a worrier, a frequently disappointed , yet continuing optimist. I will find my sense of belonging again in this new chapter of my life. And until then I will just be.

I’m sorry but it hurts !

The pain was excruciating. It hurt so much. I had to tell them to stop. She hurt me. He hurt me. I was in tears when I left. All from the mouths of women who have had bad experiences at gynaecology clinics. Today I had yet another conversation with a friend who felt they had been hurt and had their request for anaesthetic seem an annoyance to the clinician.

Why does this happen ? Why is it ok to think that it isn’t painful for women to have their reproductive organs examined or treated ? Is it because the access to them is a well-trodden route ? Sex, tampons, coil insertions and of course childbirth, when 3-4 kilos of baby is released into that superhighway, the vagina, all take their toll. Surely such a used, sometimes scarred and weathered place must be able to withstand significant pain ?

But the fact is – for all the vagina’s traffic, it doesn’t mean that you can prod and poke around at what is at the end of it. without it hurting. It isn’t fair to make women feel as if they are being fussy and causing trouble to ask for an anaesthetic. Many times a local anaesthetic isn’t even offered unless it is requested. Women are just frequently expected to put up with invasive and painful procedures with nothing but gritted teeth.

Females are generally hardy, with an exceedingly high pain threshold. But are they really ? Is it just that they have been conned into thinking that pain is normal – for them anyway. From personal experience it is interesting that you can have an operation on your hand and be deemed worthy of having your meals brought to your bed, yet the local hospital post-natal ward is a self-service affair. Women who have endured hours of painful labour, shuffle along the corridor in dressing gowns, wincing with each step, like something out of a zombie movie. No special treatment for them – just another day at the reproduction office.

Sadly it is the elderly women, the shy and the ones who don’t like to make a fuss that get the worse deal in all of this. They are the ones who won’t ask for pain relief, who won’t say no to the student audience, who will walk away in silent, painful acceptance of whatever happens.

It is a nonsense that women should have to endure pain. Discomfort admittedly – but not pain. To my fellow Eves, don’t suffer in silence. Ask for pain relief – decide who can watch or accompany the procedure. And if you feel that somehow you have been treated uncaringly or made to suffer unnecessary pain, then make sure you report your feelings to PALS – the Patient Advice and Liaison Service.

Heaven is ….

Sitting in the sun, but under a parasol, with a good book and a view of the sea. Hotel accommodation – but not all-inclusive and not in an isolated spot. Within a four-hour flight from the UK, but not the UK. Accompanied by my husband and two daughters. That is holiday heaven for me .

Sun and warmth are a key ingredient for my annual holiday. Partly, I think, because so many childhood holidays were spent in pursuit of that elusive bit of blue sky, when you could briefly predict being able to expose your flesh to the elements. Jumpers and cardigans were not an unusual sight on a beach, even in August. We were a hardy bunch and as a young child it didn’t bother me at all – in or out of the water. As I entered my teenage years we all wanted that Duran Duran ‘Rio’ suntan and unless we slavered on the innovative (at the time) Duo Tan it just wasn’t going to happen on a beach in Westward-Ho !

The Parasol is important. Firstly, it protects from the blazing heat of Southern European summers, yet it still allows some rays through. You still feel as if you are sitting in the sun. Along with my Factor 50, a lesson learned too late to save my mottled skin from the die-hard sunbathing of my youth, it allows enough protection to spend the day outside enjoying the sun’s rays without burning or over-heating.

Reading – I love good story-telling , so definitely non-fiction. I always feel self-indulgent as I pack my reading selection for any holiday. These books represent that I will have nothing to do, nothing to feel responsible for. That I can choose to pick up any one of them to read, whenever I want, without feeling as if I should be doing something else. And no, not a Kindle. I tried that and discarded it. It has to be a proper book.

Having lived in one of the UK’s counties furthest away from the sea, the first sight of the sea has always filled me with a deep sense of joy, relief even – like being able to take a deep breath for the first time in ages. For us Inlanders, who didn’t play The First Person to See The Sea on their family holidays ? For me, no view surpasses the sight of sea meeting land and so it is of absolute importance for my summer holiday. And it has to be sea – I have dismissed the Italian Lakes for this very reason.

My house is at the end of a no-through road. I don’t see much from my front-facing kitchen window ; the odd delivery person, the postman, the neighbour next door or the inquisitive sort who thinks it’s a short cut to somewhere else then has to turn round and do the walk of shame back past my viewpoint. Hotel accommodation, therefore, is preferable to a villa holiday because I like to people-watch. I enjoy the hustle and bustle for a change – especially a hotel in a resort rather than one standing alone on a headland.

Villa holidays also mean self-catering – which involves trips to the supermarket and preparing food – even if you eat out once a day. Yes, you get more space – but space isn’t an issue for a week or fortnight when your holiday isn’t going to be blighted by bad weather. Villas can also have a tendency to be dark inside, partly to keep out the heat – but the result is rather gloomy . I like the white, brightly lit walls, silky sheets, and generic art work of hotel rooms, along with a balcony to sit out on in the evening -somewhere to spy on the world from above.

Half-board is my preferred meal option. All-inclusive can make you a prisoner of your hotel – and the quality of food, drink and the inevitable queuing frequently unappealing. However Bed and Breakfast isn’t enough. As a family we are poor at making choices – we make good choices but take too long to make them. This can have a detrimental effect on finding a restaurant for an evening meal. In the past we have finally sat down for a meal only for a younger eldest daughter to announce that she was not hungry, tired and wanted to go to bed. The meal was aborted. Half-board has solved this issue. We all know where we are going and at what time.

A four-hour flight maximum from the UK. Yes, it is limiting and I could be persuaded to travel further, but why for the holiday I enjoy ? All the necessary requirements are reachable in four hours, with enough variety there to keep it interesting. Why spend a whole day of my precious annual leave, sitting on a plane sipping room temperature white wine, hemmed in behind the seat in front for longer than is necessary ?

But the UK itself will not do. The uncertainty of the weather, the slightly sad and quirky seaside hotels with their carpeted bathrooms, the abundance of pebble beaches and freezing waters is only really week-end material. Then, it doesn’t matter if you have to pack a brolly and scuttle between teashops to avoid the downpours.

And finally – my preferred companions – my husband and girls. Yes, we argue, yes we like doing different things – but it works and we can be ourselves. No-one is going to feel offended – well not for long, anyway. Irritation can be addressed freely and still we shall all be talking at dinner time. Holidaying with others, whilst enjoyable, does require a bit too much compromise and biting of tongues to be a truly restful break.

So that’s the kind of holiday I would like this year. As my eldest daughter forges her own life now, the opportunities for just the four of us to be together are fewer and therefore more precious. I hope this year will be one of them.

Those who Run and the Rest of Us.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There is a section of my trip to work favourited by those who like to run. In the morning, lycra-clad Mums, sporting the latest designer leggings and heart rate monitors – or whatever it is they strap to their arms, with not a bouncing boob in sight, jog and puff their way along the pavement. I imagine their fridges full of halloumi and almond milk and their kids packed lunches a homage to healthy eating.

Men feature more heavily on the evening run and also groups of women running together. During the winter months, some have lights on their heads – like surgeons. I imagine how great they must feel, mentally and physically, at the end of it , when they finally kick off their running shoes. These aren’t amateurs or the Couch to 5K crew (although some will hide in their midst for a day or two before falling away ) – they are the elite crowd – the die-hards. They shame those of us who drive past on the evening run, just thinking about dinner.

I have tried many times to become a member of this club of people who get high on a sprint down the park. But try as I might – from an early age, running has always brought pain and wheezing.

Who can forget being forced to run the 800 Metres at school ! Even as a skinny 10 year old, by the second lap of the field I would be struggling to catch my breath and have a pain in my side. For the rest of the school day, I would wheeze each time I breathed. In fact, all through my life, whenever I have attempted to jog or run, each time thinking that today would be the day I relished the blood pumping through my veins as I pounded the pavement- the same thing has happened. It was only recently that a nurse told me I probably had exercise-induced asthma and that I had coped with it by avoiding the triggers, such as running. Hence why I wasn’t affected by it on a daily basis.

At this moment in life my dodgy knee rules out any chance of joining the Run for Fun brigade. Walking, pain free, is my aim these days and things are definitely improving. But any lycra I may buy in the future will probably only grace the hall of a Pilates class or Beginners Yoga and I think I will stick to black.

If you are a Runner, though, I salute you. Those of you who run, rain or shine, dark or light and think nothing of a cheeky half marathon at the weekend, for pleasure alone – you belong to a select breed of human being !

Russian Dolls and Parties.

Russian Dolls. I have a small collection of them. I love their colourful designs and themes. The fact they contain smaller, sometimes different versions of their outside shell, that can’t be seen, unless we take the time to open them. Some have as few as 3 pieces and others have as many as ten or more – each one beautiful but slightly different. Some are simpler in their design as each doll reveals itself and they become smaller. Others have an unvarnished, unpainted wooden exterior, embellished with a little gold -yet when they are opened the ones inside are painted in vibrant colours. All rather like people, I think.

People are complicated and rarely do we get to see the smallest, simplest versions of them. It requires time and effort on both sides. We need to listen and observe more in order to see beyond the exterior. For our own part, there is also a freedom in allowing our inner versions to be exposed. But it requires honesty and bravery.

Age gives us the confidence to be more honest. On the one hand I can easily stand up in front of a hall full of people and speak or read and even enjoy doing so, but as my friends now well know, I find parties very difficult. At this point in my life, I find it stressful having to socialise with lots of people. The woman who happily exchanges smalltalk with the public at work or at the checkout in the supermarket, really dislikes social occasions doing the same thing. I love just being at home. I talk a lot at work and I like peace, quiet, comfy clothes and my own company in my free time.

The whole getting ready to go to a party has become stressful. I can guarantee that any outfit I have planned to wear will look dreadful on the night and I end up with a bedroom littered with clothes and a longing to stay at home. I feel bad-tempered and hijacked. Even the anticipation of this feeling increases my anxiety. When and if I finally get to the party I wonder when it would be polite to leave. It sounds ungrateful and unfriendly, I know.

I feel the same about committing to going out as a group in the evening too – in fact any social arrangement involving a group of people. However much I love those I am supposed to be meeting, when a ‘night out’ is arranged, I can’t get enthusiastic about it. Dread would be too strong a word, but In the past I have been thankful for reasons not to attend. Putting that into words seems shocking but I have become protective of my ‘Me’ time.

One day, as an evening out was being arranged, I finally decided to be honest with my work colleagues. I admitted how I felt and asked if it would be ok if I decided on the day whether to go or not. Their complete understanding warmed my heart. Now when booking a table they always call me a “maybe” -but say that it will be lovely if I do come – and with that freedom I mostly do – and I have a great time.

Knowing that friends understand if I don’t attend has made life much easier. By peeling back a layer I may have made myself appear more vulnerable – weird even – but I have removed a source of stress from my life and I feel closer to the people I have shared that with.


F for Fish

At what age do we start to worry ? When do we stop expecting the best to happen and start to contemplate the worst ?

When I was three, I started attending a little school called The Kindergarten. Up until the age of five we were in the Nursery – a room that had the Alphabet along the wall that we would recite phonetically each morning. I can still remember most of it to this day. A for Apple, B for Balloon, C for Cake , D for Duck, E for Elephant , F For FISH….

Life in the nursery was mostly carefree. We finished at midday and activities were informal and play-based. At the age of 5 we moved into the Schoolroom on the other side of the cloakroom and we would stay for the whole school day. With that came school lunches and, at some point early on, Fish Pie.

Fish Pie was salmon pink with potato on top. On its first appearance the enthusiastic school cook, hair in a bun and flushed with heat from the kitchen, dug her spoon into the cooking tray and put a large dollop on my plate, smiling reassuringly. As the steam hit my nostrils the unfamiliar smell of fish turned my stomach as I took my plate back to my seat.

We didn’t really eat fish at home. My parents would occasionally have fish and chips – but I always had a sausage instead. The only other time I remember fish being cooked was when my Dad brought a trout home from a fishing trip. It lay there staring into space, glistening on the kitchen side. Then, my Mum, with a certain reluctance and my my Dad, the proud hunter-gatherer, decided its fate would be in the oven. I stayed in the garden because of the smell and wondered how anyone could eat something like that. In the end, only my Dad partook of the catch.

Yet, here I was, at school, with a plateful of it. I picked some of the potato off the top -but most of it was touching the fishy filling. I could eat no more.

It was customary for us to parade past the teachers’ table with our plates after our first course. It was at this point that it was observed, and a comment made, that I had ‘barely touched’ my food. I wasn’t forced to eat it, and that was all that was said – but for the people-pleaser that I was – and still am to some extent, it shattered my confidence. I had done something wrong. A grown-up was unhappy with me – and Worry fired its first fiery arrow into my life.

From that day forward my whole experience of going to school was over-shadowed by worry that today would be Fish day – and that I wouldn’t get away with not eating it. Up to this point my life had been worry free. I had lived in the moment, not anticipating anything but normality or good things.

Dad used to drop me off at school on his way to work and I was often the first to arrive. I would wait in the little cloakroom and play with the owner’s kids until the others arrived. The lady who owned the school lived upstairs, and one day, after sheer panic on my part in the car on the way there, Dad agreed to go to the bottom of the stairs that led up to her accommodation and shouted up, “Mrs. Hughes, Mrs Hughes – if it’s fish today, Claire doesn’t have to eat it !” The relief I felt was overwhelming . I knew she knew I didn’t have to eat fish- and my Dad knew she knew. I was safe !

But once wasn’t good enough, you see. Adults forget things. Mrs Hughes might forget that I don’t have to eat fish. So EVERY day I made my Dad go through the same ritual and Mrs Hughes would yell down, somewhat impatiently, that she understood.

Nowadays, I suppose a written letter would have solved the problem, or a little meeting to make sure I understood that everyone was onboard with the Fish issue. But somehow, things didn’t work like that back in the seventies.

And so Fish Pie – in fact Fish anything for school lunch became my first real worry. This, in turn, became a kind of phobia that I carried through to my next school, where I ingeniously managed to convince them I had an allergy to it. Instead, they would give me a slab of cheese when it was Fish day – until the time I left some of it on my plate after they had given me a hunk of cheese large enough to make a Ploughman’s lunch for a couple of hungry adults. As I approached the slop bucket, I was shamed in front of the whole dining room and told I was ungrateful and wasteful by the sour-faced dinner lady and cooks. The next day I arrived with a packed lunch.

Growing up brought more pressing worries than Fish and my fear subsided. As a young adult, spending more time in Portugal, Fish even became something I enjoyed. And I knew when my mother-in-law placed a grilled fish head on my plate one lunchtime that my fear had been overcome. “There’s plenty of good fish on that! Here’s another plate for the bones .”

An Olive Grove in Tuscany

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Do you ever think back to what you dreamed your adult life would be like? Does your life now look anything like what you had hoped for ?

I dreamed of living in Italy – looking out over a Tuscan olive grove. I had vague ideas about what I would do, but nothing concrete – nothing to work on really. My dream was a precarious one as I was always a home bird and relied a lot on my Mum for emotional support. Therefore things started to unravel the moment I waved goodbye to my parents on my first day at Uni and I sat on my bed, in a shared room with another girl, who I didn’t know. I felt sick with longing to return home.

Eventually after trying to fit in and struggling with the workload, I gave up. The dream of my Dad had ended. I was supposed to get a degree, any degree. But that was not meant to be. What followed was a series of jobs for a temping agency, none of which was very interesting. Checking crystal glasses for imperfections, calling out phone calls on an intercom while reading Mills and Boon novels and phoning directory enquiries all day asking for three phone numbers at a time to make up a contacts list, to name a few.

Having fallen for a Portuguese guy whilst on a summer course while I was still at Uni, I aimed to find a job in Portugal, so I could be near him. This resulted in a foray into the cut-throat world of timeshare. It was a disaster – in two weeks I only managed to convince two people to go and look around the hotel we were promoting. I spoke to the well-spoken lady who had recruited me in London – she was ‘in a relationship’ with the aggressive American in charge of the selling. ‘You’re too nice for this job” she said. Her American pit-bull just called me a drop out.

I never made it to my house in Tuscany. But I did make it to a house in Lisbon, where I lived with my husband – the Portuguese guy – for the first years of our marriage. We looked out on an area where gypsies had made their ramshackle homes, with their evening bonfires and frequent brawls. (These homes no longer exist and the people who lived in them are now rehoused in tower-blocks – a sort of cleansing before the European Cup in 2004). So I ended up with a city-scape on the Atlantic instead of my countryside retreat on the Mediterranean – but Portugal is my second home now. I can speak Portuguese and I love their food, wine and beautiful weather.

Bringing up children brought me back to England. But to this day I somehow feel I don’t quite belong. I have a job in a Drs surgery -a job that interests me and which I enjoy going to. but it will never pay for an interesting retirement or be anything more than a means to feed and clothe myself.

I still yearn to be somewhere else – yet I have no means of knowing how to do that. I am waiting for youngest daughter to finish college or Uni and then I will have to think. Fear makes me want to be safe – to be where I know how things work, where I have the NHS, where I have family and friends. But I also have another fear – a fear that somehow this is it – this is my lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful and happy for all that I do have. I know that many people are not as fortunate as we have been. But I want to surprise people – I want to be able to go “Look ! look what I have done!” And I just want my life to be more than general housework interspersed with shopping trips, being a taxi service and dealing with prescriptions.

I don’t want an olive grove in Tuscany any more. But I do want something different – something I can show my teenage self with pride – something to surprise those that love me.