The Long or Short Straw ?

There’s something about your fiftieth Birthday that makes you confront your own mortality. It’s a major turning point and there’s no dressing it up. You remember your own parents turning fifty – and you thought they were old. Now you are them.

You have become the target audience for over-50s life insurance, funeral plans and Saga holidays and when you reach fifty-five you can then add retirement housing to your list. Advertisements aimed at you have greying, benevolent-faced men and women, sporting chinos and Cotton Traders shirts. They, of course, are beginning their fun-packed, travel-filled retirement – I, on the other hand, am desperately making up my pension years, with little chance of retiring before I have to re-apply for my driving licence.

On the health front, I liken myself, this side of fifty, to a ten year old car. Things have started to go wrong and I probably need my cam belt changing. I am not as reliable as I once was and use a lot of oil. Sometimes I have the enthusiasm and drive of my youth, but mostly I prefer a calm life and taking it easy. Just a couple of prescription meds keep my show on the road, for now. And gels. Lots of gel.

I have both longevity and premature death in my genes. My Mum died at the age of 57 from a massive brain haemorrhage. She was otherwise healthy and in good shape. According to the neurosurgeon, she had probably had the aneurysm that caused the bleed since childhood. All sorts of factors could have contributed to its rupturing, but the main one was Bad Luck. And so I wonder about my luck. Do I have some ticking time bomb inside me like she did ? Has Fate marked my card denying me my old age, or will I follow most of my relatives and reach my 80s. It would be good to know because I could adjust my behaviour accordingly.

The other week, Spring poked its head around the corner and Costa decided to refresh its frozen drink range. I had walked into town during my lunch hour and had settled down in a corner with my frozen Fruit Cooler and a piece of tiffin to watch the street outside. On taking a sip of my drink, a searing pain shot up my neck to my head, just above my eye. ‘So, this is it,’ I thought. ‘It’s the short straw I’ve picked and it all ends here in Costa Coffee !’

Of course, it didn’t. It was simply a reaction to the icy drink and after a few grounding exercises I was back planning what I was going to cook for dinner and my pain was gone.

Joking aside, though, I regularly take my blood pressure at home and I keep a couple of aspirin by our bed in case of a heart attack. Other than that life goes on as normal and I allow myself to dream about the next phase of my life, where our girls are both independent adults and my husband and I can start running around sand dunes in our chinos and walking sandals.

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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.

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 .”