Me and a small c

In May I received the news that I had breast cancer – thankfully small and probably contained. The word ‘probably’, has shifted in meaning with every test and consultation. When the odds overwhelmingly suggest you won’t have cancer, but the tests show that you do, ‘probably’ is no longer a comfort and you lose your trust in it. The shock and worry has completely floored me.

Waiting for the tests and the initial findings of those tests was excruciating. There are so many possible outcomes and I drove myself mad trying not to think about them. During that time, my mind wandered to funeral planning. I chose music, a venue and imagined the cheery speech I would record. I don’t know what I was thinking. I wouldn’t want to put my loved ones through such a spectacle. I know now that it’s not uncommon for the mind to untether itself and explore dark corners, when it is forced to confront mortality.

The small c was found as the result of a routine mammogram. Two months after that mammogram, the cancer was surgically removed and a week later I was told it had indeed been slow and contained and that I wouldn’t require any more treatment. The relief was sudden and tear sodden, but has since gone to ground. The surgery has knocked me for six and the psychological impact has been strange.

The care I’ve received from the NHS has been outstanding – timely, kind and respectful. There have been opportunities to talk through risk factors and lifestyle. Other than age, which I can’t do anything about, I don’t tick any of the risk boxes. It seems the cancer was down to chance. I was advised to carry on doing what I’m doing in terms of diet and exercise Them’s the breaks, as someone who knows a thing or to about carrying on, recently said.

It’s a relief to ease back into work and think about something other than appointments, tests and results. In the heat of the late afternoons, I can’t help but sink into a thick sleep, populated with bizarre dreams. The mini-existential crises that have been shaking me back to consciousness over the past few months are becoming duller and losing their sting. I remind myself that I’m all right and that ‘probably’ came out in my favour. If I hadn’t had that mammogram when I did, I could have been facing a different set of ‘probablys’.

The Strange and Curious Guide to Trauma

It’s publication day – The Strange and Curious Guide to Trauma has been released.

The Strange and Curious Guide to Trauma is a science book for children aged 8 to 12 or older, and their significant adults. It explains how our bodies keep us safe and alive and how our early experiences shape the ways we experience the world.

Early on in the writing process, I realised that the science demanded a story to bring it alive. Stories can take some of the sting away and introduce light and humour and they pin facts into the real world we inhabit. Ordinary Jo, the protagonist, supporting actor baboon Tony and a cast of refuge collectors, carrots, and lambs tell the story of safety, threat, survival and the importance of relationships. They are the biology in action.

An ensemble of Some People, who are ‘behind with the science’ and so fall back on judgment instead, reflect some of my thinly-veiled and long held frustrations. The knowledge is trickling down, but slowly. My book is an effort to ‘trickle up’ knowledge by informing and empowering children and those who walk alongside them. And it’s a plea to combine knowledge with kindness because the two together can change lives and make the world a better place.

A massive thank you to everyone who has pre-ordered, reviewed and supported The Strange and Curious Guide to Trauma. I appreciate it greatly. Special thank you to Emmi Smid who has provided the most stunning illustrations which have added magic to the text. Hearty thank you to Steve at Jessica Kingsley Publishers for badgering me out of my post-covid lethargy and for continual encouragement.  Appreciative and respectful thanks to Dr Vivien Norris for reviewing the text for bad science (any remaining bad science is my bad science).

Influence, favour and flattery

My first proper job was buying bits for aircraft. They were small but important bits, that are necessary for getting private jets and other air vehicles off the ground. These small, important bits were sourced from a number of suppliers in a competitive market. Although I was a new graduate and a nobody, I was spending upwards off a million pounds a year on these small bits, on behalf of the aircraft manufacturer that employed me.

I got invited out for a lot of lunches when I did that job. As I got better at the job, I was given responsibility for buying more and more expensive bits for aircraft and got invited out to more and better lunches. It’s almost as though my purchasing power and the lunches were in some way related.

Lunches as well as desk calendars were all I was permitted to accept from the suppliers of the small and big aircraft bits, because otherwise I might be influenced to act in my own best interests and not the best interests of the company I worked for.

One time, someone in my office got sacked for breaking the Lunch and Desk Calendar Only Rule. I heard that a supplier of his had paid for his new kitchen. The new kitchen was not an unconditional gift, even though everyone involved might have pretended it was just a nice thing to do. There are no unconditional gifts or monetary kindnesses in the commercial world, only buying influence and favour.

The saying that was drummed into all of us buyers during the mandatory anti-corruption training was: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Even a lunch is buying your favour, whether you think it is or not. It is a transaction and you will pay for it in one way or another. You will also pay, one way or another, for the seat in the box at the rugby club, the short break, the party at the chateau and the jet travel there and back, even if you’re unaware of the deal you have entered into.

If you are unaware of the deal that you have entered into, this is most likely because of flattery. Part of the transaction is about making you feel extra special and chosen out of everyone because of who you are and your fun, wit and intelligence – not because of the position and influence you have. Flattery works really well, but only for the flatterer in the long term. The flatteree gets to go to a nice party by a lake or wherever, perhaps with famous people who also believe they are there because they are great people, not because they have entered into a commercial arrangement. Sooner or later they will all come to realise that the flattery that was showered upon them was fleeting and empty and that they have given away far more than they had bargained for.   

My new book The Strange and Curious Guide to Trauma is published on 21 March 2022 and is available to pre-order here.

All you need is a spare room

The charity Home For Good working with Bath and North East Somerset Council invited me to speak at a service to mark the work of foster carers, kinship carers, special guardians and adoptive parents at Bath Abbey on 11 February. I’d like to thank them for inviting me. It was wonderful event. This is what I said.

Last year a local authority was forced to issue an apology after it launched a recruitment campaign for foster carers, using the slogan “all you need is a spare room”. You can see what their intention was, but it was rather tone deaf.

That same slogan popped up on my Facebook feed this week. “All you need is a spare room” it declared. There was a jaunty but unconvincing exclamation mark at the end, trying a bit too hard, as exclamation marks so often do.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, that’s abuse, neglect other toxically stressful, traumatic experiences are driving a public health crisis. This one, isn’t the result of a single pathogen, like a coronavirus. It’s causes and transmission routes complicated. The headlines are that across a population, a score of 6 or more ACES increases the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, mental health problems, diabetes and substance abuse and reduces life expectancy. At a population level, toxically stressful childhoods lead to poor outcomes and are costly at a human and a national level.

Just last month a small study in Wales found a link between a high number of ACES and vaccine hesitancy as well as resistance to mask wearing and abiding by lockdown rules. One could also ponder the similarity in the behaviours of the chronically under- and chronically over-privileged. But I promised myself I wouldn’t stray into politics, so I won’t go there. The study concluded and I quote: “better compliance with public health advice is another reason to invest in safe and secure childhoods for all children”.

But what does that mean? Investing in safe and secure childhoods? How do we untangle and address the underlying causes of this public health crisis?

There is one intervention that we know of. According to the World Health Organisation, it is the single most effective intervention for abuse and neglect. It buffers the effect of ACES, dramatically improves mental and physical health and increases earnings.

That intervention is good parenting.

And that’s what all of you here provide, day in and day out, in addition to a spare bedroom.

Through your love, care, commitment and perseverance you make a profound difference, to the lives of children and young people. And collectively you are tackling the roots of a public health crisis.

If you are squirming in your seat, because you find the praise a bit awkward, then buckle up. There’s more to come.

In my day job as the editor of a magazine – Adoption Today – the membership magazine for the charity Adoption UK, I have the privilege of interviewing many special guardians, kinships carers, foster carers and adoptive parents. I zoom into their homes and they share their stories and their advice and they allow me to share these with our readers. They are as are you, an exceptionally generous group of people.

Recently I’ve been interviewing those supporting young people with stacks of ACES, as they negotiate that most difficult life transition – moving into adulthood. Young people with substance abuse problems, severe mental health issues, and involvement in the criminal justice system. Many of these carers and parents manage high risk, life and death situations on a fairly regular basis. And there are those who after years of raising a child are now raising that child’s child – something that they had never planned to be doing in their retirement years. If all that wasn’t enough to contend with, almost all of them describe the battles they fight for services, support and sometimes even understanding. They use the words “battle” and “fight”and I’m sure many of you here today would use similar words. Revealingly, it is the language of war – waged by whom, isn’t entirely clear.

These are stories of heroism. No other word fits. These carers and parents wouldn’t regard the continued, committed, extraordinary care they give as heroic. “It’s what you do”, they would say, “because you care and you love deeply. You never give up hope. You keep doing your best for that young person, because they deserve it. And because usually there is no one else”.

Heroism isn’t only about the strength summoned up in the extreme situations. Heroism is found in the everyday effort required to ensure our children can access what they so desperately need and have a right to – a good and inclusive education, involvement in community, the opportunity to play sports and engage in the arts, opportunities to witness different lives, to travel and to dream. Every day heroism is to be found here, in Bath Abbey today.

The daily and often unnoticed and undervalued heroism that you all show up with, is quite literally changing lives. And it is so much more than a spare room.

Thank you.

Stewart Lee’s Snowflake/Tornado was unexpectedly comforting

I wasn’t sure how well I was going to cope with Snowflake/Tornado, Stewart Lee’s current stand-up show. It’s not that I don’t love his work (I really do), but I just didn’t know how much capacity I had left to be toyed with. When you buy a ticket to a Stewart Lee show, you know this is part of the deal and you enter into it willingly, in exchange for the most incredibly well-crafted and funniest stand-up you will ever see. “Now I’m going to play with you,” he says, and he does and you fall for it and it’s hilarious.

Image Idil Sukan stewartlee.co.uk
Image: Idil Sukan

Like many, my capacity to be played has been squeezed in recent times. Our nations glorious leadership, which every day spews cognitive dissonance over its subjects, has a lot to answer for. You’d think a pandemic would be dissonance enough, but no, it’s fun or expedient or something to mess with the truth and our heads. Just yesterday, a rabble pumped full of conspiracy theory handed to them by our not-a-complete-clown-in-chief mobbed two MPs and not-a-complete clown reportedly serenaded his new/old head communicator with I Will Survive. It’s always about you. It’s unbearable. When will it end?

I drank a gin in the theatre bar before the show and took a raspy breath – the kind you take before diving into the sea in January, or watching an episode of The Responder. Ultimately, I’ll feel better for this, less furious, you tell yourself, but equally I might cry and not stop for a long time.

Stewart’s show opened with an old favourite. “It’s safe to come on in,” it beckoned and we did. The bloke next to me laughed really loudly and rocked back and forth in his seat. I laughed really loudly and knew I was amongst my people. The hits kept coming – the complicated and exposed call back, the pretend egotism, the affectionate regional insults. Stewart shared his workings, before he played his verbal tricks and we willingly fell for every one of them.

There’s a foundation of morality and empathy to Stewart’s trickery and that’s why his shows work and his audiences are loyal. We are all in it together, done with not done to. The nation’s not-a-complete-clown has also revealed his clever tricks (how could he resist?) – dead cat, layering of untruths, jokey racism. The trickery treats us like idiots, ratchets up disbelief, tangles us in lies and mistrust, making us doubt what we thought we knew to be absolutely true. The laugh comes behind closed doors, well away from the audience. We’re not invited in for that part. We are the suckers left taking care of each other, growing sicker and more furious, having to jump into cold seas just to stay sane. We are not in safe hands.

During the show and for a brief moment, Stewart stepped out from behind his clown mask, broke the spell and made a touching connection with the audience. “I know how hard it’s been,” he said and I found it unexpectedly comforting and quite moving.

When you get your fill of empathy from a Stewart Lee show, that’s a sign of just how mad and dissonant things have become. It’s been an appalling two years and yet there we were, gathered together in a theatre, older and changed but still laughing together. It felt like an achievement.

Check here for tickets. My new book The Strange and Curious Guide to Trauma will be published by JKP in March.

Christmas Lessons Learnt

You vow that you will never put yourself through a Christmas like that ever again. It was meant to be enjoyable, you put a shit load of effort into making it enjoyable and it was something of an endurance event and people cried. The problem is that as next Christmas looms, you’ll vaguely remember this Christmas was at times awful and there were things you were going to do differently, but you won’t remember what or why. You also won’t remember what went well. Sometimes we are destined to live in repeating patterns unless we run our family lives a bit like a business.

If you live in a ‘complicated’ family and you’re emerging out of a tangled and at times unbearable mess, I offer a tip. I’m not usually into tippy tips, but this one works for me.

I bring to you The Christmas Lessons Learnt:

  1. Find a pen and paper, or open the notes on your phone. Wherever you write this thing, it has to be easily findable next year.
  2. Mentally walk yourself through the Christmas season and write down what went right and what went wrong. For example: bought pot plant for neighbours and they really liked it, cooked Christmas dinner from scratch, no one ate it and I flipped my lid, certain person took centre stage, we responded and we still haven’t recovered from the fall out.
  3. Now write down how you intend to manage that hazy faraway place that is next Christmas. You may want to think extra hard about how you can take pressure off and the bits everyone enjoys which are easy to achieve. There will be more difficult parts too – the people and relationship stuff, the boundary-setting and protecting time and events that are precious to you. In my experience, this plan should be fairly specific – buy frozen roast potatoes, book a supermarket delivery at the start of December and order the non-perishables, don’t even consider the panto, let certain loved ones live out their own choices, don’t rescue.
  4. Put or save your list somewhere safe and write a prompt with an alert in your calendar, round about 1 December. Read Lessons Learnt from last year.

Writing a Lessons Learnt is not only an investment in next year, it is superbly cathartic. And filing it away means we can move on and face the new year, with fresh hopes and plans.

I’m over making grand new year resolutions but I like the sense of a fresh start. Wherever this new year finds you, I hope that 2022 brings you companionship and good times. If you’re not yet ready to look ahead then finish off the sherry and give yourself a pat on the back. No matter how well or not it all went, it’s done and over with for another year. The very happiest of new years to you.

The Unofficial Guide to Therapeutic Parenting, the Teen Years – OUT NOW

Finally. It’s out. The Unofficial Guide to Therapeutic Parenting, the Teen Years has been published. You can buy it here or here and other places too. Isn’t it a handsome thing? I love the cover (it’s a metaphor you know).

The book is an honest, real life look at therapeutic parenting during the adolescent years because just when we’ve got a handle on the special kind of parenting many our children require (well done us), adolescence swaggers in and sticks two fingers up. Adolescence on top of trauma and relational difficulties is an interesting combo. Our loved ones who found it challenging to regulate their emotions, assess risk and follow rules even before adolescence showed up, will certainly experience extra challenges. Yes, my friends, adolescence plus trauma is rather a double whammy.

Teenagers naturally drift away from their families and support networks and fall into the arms of supportive peer groups, right? ‘What’s that?’ I hear you cry, ‘they don’t have a supportive peer group’. Many of the protective factors that cushion averagely raised young people against risk are not available to our loved ones. We may find ourselves picking up the pieces amongst some interesting situations. Our influence as parents, carers and professionals wanes just when our young people are perhaps at their most vulnerable.

The Unofficial Guide to Therapeutic Parenting – the Nightmare Years (lol) is set amongst the modern day parenting obstacle course, littered as it is with sexting, self-harm, exploitation, aggressive behaviours and internet addiction, to name a just few of the challenges. The risks todays teens face are not what they were certainly when I was young and many of us middle-aged parents and carers have few reference points. For example, when I was a teenager I smoked a bit of tobacco and had some inappropriate boyfriends. I didn’t do anything that could have landed me in jail or the local ICU. I didn’t even send pictures of my tits to random strangers. What a square! It’s a baffling world some of our young people find themselves in, at the press of a button, in a moment.

Of course, not all teenagers who have had traumatic early lives experience a rocky adolescence and for that reason my book comes with a massive proviso. If you and yours are gliding quite nicely through these years then don’t read it. Do something lovely together instead; have a barbecue, crack open a Coke Zero, watch a film, or even better, leave your teenager alone in the house and reclaim your social life. The Unofficial Guide has been written for those of us parenting at the hard edge of adolescence, who are a little overwhelmed and frightened by it and who struggle to recall what a social life is. I’ve worked hard to produce something practical, relevant and entertaining, whilst walking the talk. (These books aren’t just dashed off, you know.) There is humour, swearing and practical suggestions and if that’s what you’re after then please buy a copy. If you like it, I’d be very grateful if you could leave a review on Amazon and pass on recommendations to your friends and colleagues. My work is very much a word of mouth thing.

And if you’d like to hear me being interviewed by superwoman Helen Bonnick, author of Child to Parent Violence and Abuse, then click here for a podcast hosted by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Review: Isma Almas, About a Buoy – Adventures in Adoption

Isma Almas’ 2019 Edinburgh show is biographical comedy at its best. Her story of what led her and her female partner to adopt a little boy of a different heritage to their own is captivating, generous and at times so shocking I couldn’t prevent myself from gasping and laughing at the same time, in a state of liberal, white-girl confusion. 

Isma disarmingly shares the racism aimed at her as a child growing up in the 1970s. Although the racism is enragingly predictable, one incident in particular is not and neither is the comic storytelling approach that Isma takes. She lures and relaxes you then jabs you in the ribs. There are proper narrative punch lines, unexpected and unnerving. Even less predicable is the Islamaphobia she describes at a significant point during the adoption process. Researchers investigating the lack of diversity amongst those coming forward to adopt would do well to see her show, buckle up and not ask themselves too many questions about when its right to laugh. I won’t share the story, but I will say that Isma is a social worker and might have reasonably expected an easier ride because of that. It turns out not to have been the case. More subtle but equally damaging racism has since collided with her family. She skilfully exposes and dissects the excuses and the flawed reasoning, then wallops in with a firm reminder this is not a TED talk. The show never veers towards worthiness.

Isma and I are both adopters and initially connected in the virtual world. When I embarked on a novel set in the world of stand-up comedy, she reviewed a draft and gave invaluable feedback. It needs more misogyny and more messiness, she told me and her advice significantly improved my manuscript. Then she asked if I would give feedback on her Edinburgh-bound show, About A Buoy and I made my way to an office space near King’s Cross station, wondering just how awkward being the only member of an audience was going to be. It wasn’t at all. From the off I was with her, swept through a marriage and a divorce, a new relationship and a child. I knew some of the ending but still it touched me, right before it kicked my feet away, picked me up and bathed me in sunshine and Queen. Isma’s show is narrative comedy at its most vibrant and enriching and a perfect, mid-afternoon festival pick up.

Isma’s show About A Buoy – Adventures in Adoption, is showing at The Gilded Balloon from 31 July to 26 August.

Child to Parent Violence and Abuse by Helen Bonnick – review

Every now and then a book comes along that makes me want to grab a loud hailer and wear a sandwich board displaying it’s cover with “READ THIS NOW, PLEASE” printed across the front. I would stand outside our denuded public service ‘hubs’ and chant non-aggressively and if I had the cash, give out free copies. Helen Bonnick’s new book Child to Parent Violence and Abuse, A Practitioner’s Guide to Working with Families is one of those books. If you work with families who talk about or even allude to controlling, abusive, or aggressive behaviours directed towards them, by their child or a child they are caring for, then this is the book those parents need you to read.

I first met Helen some years ago in a cafe near a London train station. We had connected online and decided to meet in person to talk face-to-face about her professional desire to explore what was then a hardly reported on phenomenon and my experience of it. It was still a time when social media was a useful way of connecting with others and sharing complex and difficult information without fear of attracting further abuse. Helen’s work and her website www.holesinthewall.co.uk draw heavily on much of that information sharing and reminded me how much I had learned and how much support I’d received from others during that time.

Helen’s book is well-written and clear and yet complicated, is practical and yet doesn’t give easy answers and is compassionate and doesn’t apportion blame. ‘We need all of us,’ she writes, ‘the whole family, parents and professionals to work together, if we are to stand any chance of bringing about change.’ It’s hardly a radical statement and yet real life experiences are littered with blame and taking sides and accusations and investigations. There are good reasons why. Violent and abusive behaviours can drive us all into opposing corners, if we’re not careful. What Helen does so well is explain how we can work together and the information that all professionals need when working with families.

Headings such as ‘Difficult parents or difficult situations?’,’Parents are retraumatised by the helping professions’ and sections on building trust and safeguarding get to the heart of the matter. The reality of violence within the home, perhaps still taboo is laid bare as are the all too frequent and ill-fitting and simplistic responses. But this book isn’t just about ‘awareness-raising’, it’s about professionalism and processes and practical solutions and continuous improvement whilst recognising the pressures that all of us are labouring under.

Living with constant and terrifying violence and abuse from a loved one who isn’t choosing to behave in such a way and trying to get anywhere close to explaining how that is, is like trying to report from the war zone of a foreign country, while gunfire drowns out your voice. Many of us are rendered mute. We are desperate for advocates who know the terrain and who can translate for us. Helen is a brilliant translator-advocate who can bridge the sometimes aching divide between families and services. BUY HER BOOK NOW. Please.

Today it isn’t raining

Today it isn’t raining and the wind doesn’t buffer the bird feeders on the crab apple tree. Today I have sown seeds in the wet soil and in pots of compost on the window ledge. And I have planted hardy hopes and autumn fruiting optimism in anticipation of bowls of greens and pots of jewelled reds and purples.

Last year was devastating. Seeds rotted and plants bolted. Nothing flourished. I despised having no choice but to dig deeper and deeper and feared it had all been for nothing.

There must have been growth all along though because this year strong green shoots emerge, persistent despite the nipping frosts.

There’s not much more for me to do now the compost is spread over the ground and the watering can is filled and left by the outside tap. I’ll put on my boots and head out across the fields where the buds push open in the hedges and the deer rest in pairs if you are still enough not to disturb them.