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SWB on when the wheels came off


SWB recalls a time when the wheels came off…

So another week, another Tenx9: they’re coming thick and fast at the moment. I met the lovely Pádraig (who co-runs the evening with his partner Paul) at a Corrymeela event last Sunday and he told me they a couple of speakers short, so I volunteered to share the tale of a time around Christmas when my life hit the skids. I think the moral of the story is that it’s okay to sit in your arse once in a while, and not take on too much. Especially if you’re a trifle unhinged…

So pour a coffee, sit back and when you’re through, just pour another coffee. Here’s the story:

“Can we get a dog, can we? Please please please?” This was me to my husband (to whom I lovingly refer as LSB, or Long Suffering Bastard) two years ago. In fairness we weren’t really getting a dog, we were fostering one; my idea of course. LSB sighed and gave in, as he had done five years earlier when I’d suggested a baby, then eight months after she’d been born when I’d suggested another. Really, there should be a support group for beleaguered gentlemen such as he. It could be called ‘Demented Husbands of Belfast Unite’ and they could meet once a week in the Erigle. In fairness, such clubs may already exist.

The story beings at Halloween and ends at Christmas, so is bookended by two highly charged holidays if you have small children and busy lives. But we shouldn’t have been fraught, because I had made the decision to give the teaching up for a while and focus on the family. What was the point in working anyway, when I was handing my entire salary over to a crèche? Oh no, said I, I shall be a full-time mum. Our home shall be a place of warmth and conviviality, with delicious fare à la Nigella. I shall swan about in floaty garments while the children paint at easels in Cath Kitson smocks. The only thing this picture lacked was a golden retriever to bring my husband his slippers when he returned grey and drawn from the office. And so that’s when the giving bit of the story comes in.

Despite my lofty aspirations for domestic goddess of the year, nagging doubts assailed me. I had been a teacher, in a top grammar school. I had thus been thoroughly institutionalised: my former life had been dictated by bells. Teach this class, plan these lessons, mark these exams, record the results, go home, drink some wine and do it all over again. Would this new life, carting one child to her nursery and taking the other to the park be enough to occupy me? I wasn’t sure.

No, I felt it imperative that I contribute to society as a whole and perhaps undertake some charity work. So in an act of tremendous stupidity I volunteered to foster a puppy for a charity that provided ‘assistance dogs’ for children with Asperger’s syndrome and autism. Oh the irony! There was me, fretfulness personified, thinking that taking on an eight week old Labrador retriever was a good idea. The kids were still fitful sleepers and one was still in nappies. There was already enough shit in our house to make the Brexit negotiations look clean.

The convenor of the charity did have a serious chat with me before I took the dog on. ‘It’s hard work’ she said. “You’ll have to bring her to our specific puppy classes once a week, and walk and toilet train her according to our guidelines.” “We can do that,” I assured her. We we busy anyway with the weans, a small dog wouldn’t make much difference. Would it?

And then we got her. (I’ll call her Holly to protect her identity). Never had I seen the like. She was a gorgeous red fox retriever and LSB took one look at her and melted. She became his pet. In the evening he would have at least one child on his knee and the dog would rest her head on his shoulder. “You aren’t supposed to cuddle her all the time,” I remonstrated. ‘It’s in the guide book.” “She’s only a wee puppy, bugger off,” said he. We may have spoilt her a little.

Whether it was because of all the attention or not, Holly became quite demanding. She barked, constantly. She was like an unexploded bomb in our kitchen. Once awake, she demanded attention (or food or both) right away, and barked until she got it. I was not a natural at this dog-training lark, so generally acquiesced until she settled down. This was not what it suggested in the manual.

Remember Marley and Me where the dog knocks the toddler flying and Jennifer Aniston’s character nearly has an embolism? That was me, for two months. Though only a pup, she hurtled around leaving broken toys, cups and up-ended children in her wake. I stopped sleeping, and became a slave to the puppy and my children. I spent a large proportion of my day picking up poo. I started washing my hands Lady Macbeth style until they were red and raw. My nerves were permanently a-quiver and I started feeling very bleak. Never mind the proverbial black dog, I had a real-live russet one, and she was going berserk in my living room.

With a sense of foreboding looming over me, I took Holly to the final training session before the holidays. The trainer suggested we dress up in Christmas attire to have a little fun. I had bought Holly a red fleecy suit because it was so cold in the microclimate that exists in the Four Winds area. I myself, had intended to don a fetching elf costume I’d ordered from Amazon to wear at our local parkrun on Christmas Day. However, as I hunted that morning it was nowhere to be found. The only thing I could lay my hands on was a red jumper, and a short, black, leather skirt. In my haste I didn’t fully appraise this ensemble before leaving the house, but I did have time to appreciate the effect in the full-length mirror at the Club where the training took place. It was certainly festive, but in a sort of low-end shop window in Amsterdam sort of way.

I had got it all very wrong. The party bit was meant to be for after the training session, which I imagined had been suspended for that week while we drank coffee and exchanged tips on dog training. I was reprimanded for not having brought her official training bib. I then had to run up and down the hall in said leather skirt to demonstrate how she could walk to heel. She couldn’t, and was in no form to co-operate. We looked a trifle foolish in our matching crimson outfits and by now my face blended in too.

But Holly wasn’t the only one in bad humour. From the outset, something seemed very wrong with all the dogs. Some were snapping and growling and none were compliant. It was tense. The trainer was none too pleased and offence was taken all round. I left in tears and decided that this had been a foolish move.

After a few festive rows with the family, I felt myself unravel. I couldn’t shake the worrisome thought that perhaps the dogs knew something that us humans didn’t. I recalled the 2004 tsunami in South East Asia, where several days before the disaster, it was recorded that the animals had begun behaving oddly and fleeing the coastal areas. The recent news headlines had been apocalyptic. Maybe we should all have been listening, to the dogs.

I finally had the wit to ring my GP and explain my predicament. I told her my theory about the dogs and there was a brief pause on the other end. She suggested that I come in. Immediately. She listened and nodded. “You’re experiencing some very irrational thoughts,” she surmised. “No,” I told her. “I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable about any of this. To me this is all very real.” I felt a bit like Sarah Connor when she predicts full nuclear fall-out in Terminator 2, and tells the doctor if he’s not wearing factor two million sunblock in August 1997 “it’s all going to feel pretty fucking real to him too.”

‘Give the dog back’ said the doctor. She prescribed some pills to settle me and I acknowledged that I’d been ignoring symptoms of extreme anxiety for a long time, allowing them to grow and implode. I rang the charity and they were very understanding.

We knew that Holly was never ours, and by this time the children had tired of sharing their dad and increasingly mad mother with a highly animated pet. And so, two days after Christmas we took her to another trainer. After all the stress it was with some relief that I passed her on, but poor old LSB had tears in his eyes. But with her departure home-life calmed down and with that so did my nerves.

So what did I take away from my attempt at giving? The most salient lesson was that the tiny eco-system of my mind requires balance: tip the see-saw too much any direction and turmoil ensues. Keeping centred is essential to my well-being. Lesson two; while I like dogs, in truth I’m more of a cat person. And three, that LSB one, well he’s a keeper.





SWB on Mental Health (or lack thereof)

Do you know what’s ironic? Someone writing about mental health at the end of ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ when their head is more fried than a Mars Bar in a Glaswegian chipper. And do you know what’s wrecking me the most? It’s the fact that the pace of life has been ratcheted away up again and I’m no more fit for it. I just see a list of things that aren’t done and I can’t get near them because everyday there are eleventy-billion small things to do- all of which take longer than they should fucking need to.

And the absolute second I get stressed, guess what I do? I lose things, important things.  So this week I realise I’ve lost my bank card, and then WAIT FOR IT: in a fit of nervousness one evening I picked the magnetic strip off LSB’s bank card and rendered it useless. Of course this occurs in the week when we have the Small Child’s First Communion, when I need cash to pay for the lasagne that I can’t be bothered to cook; I need cash to give as gifts, and then suddenly I need cash for every other flipping thing under sun.

So I ring the Nationwide Helpline for lost and stolen cards (and psycho mummies who couldn’t find their arse with both hands.) I get Clive*, who exhibits the same willingness to help as Boris’s willingness to apologise for historic crimes. His tone is flat as I fail to understand a question. ‘I’m going to repeat this a second time,’ he says with a sigh, and then, because I’ve clearly annoyed him tells me that no,  I’ve failed to answer the security questions so no, he can’t order me another card.

‘Please, can I try again?’ I say. ‘I’m just very frazzled.’

‘Ring again, my hands are tied,’ says Clive.

‘Can you at least tell me that someone hasn’t already used it and emptied my account?’ I say, in desperation, hopping about on one leg trying to put my sandals on as we got ready to leave for the church on Friday morning.

‘No I can’t,’ says Clive and tells me to ring customer services again so I can waste another 15 minutes of my life being put on hold,  listening to shite music and a billion phone options. At this point LSB deftly stepped in and relieved me of the phone as he sensed that Clive was about to get a tirade of abuse. ‘No need for that,’ said LSB, sending me downstairs where he had the hair straighteners warming to do my hair.

He’s good like that, is LSB: properly in tune with his feminine side. When I pulled him in to Solstene Grene on Saturday I said to him, this is where you may want to just lop off your bollocks with a pair of secateurs, but he didn’t seem to mind in the least.

(We’d only gone into town so I could go to to the Nationwide, where, incidentally, the lady at door was so maternal and kind as she sorted me out that my eyes filled up and I nearly had a wee cry.)

Sometimes folks, you just aren’t feeling it. I think I am just very, very tired of things being arse-about-face, and I need some good news. I need the promise of a holiday; some quality time with LSB without wondering what the hell the children are up to, and hoping that a cat hasn’t taken a shit in the bath (again).

Be kind to yourselves everyone. Nothing is normal, yet the pressure is on. Does anyone remember an Irish Furstenburg advert from the early nineties which was a series of conversations all spliced together? At one point a fella is saying ‘ALL I SAID WAS,’  as a prelude to another person losing their shit.  I think that neatly encapsulates how life is right now. It may just be one thing, but it’s plonked down on top of a festering quagmire of what other people have said or done (or not done,) or just life in general being a total fucker. We’re all struggling, and in these circumstances, why wouldn’t we be?

With this in mind, we maybe need to take a second and remember what we’ve all just lived through. We are a whole lot tougher than we give ourselves credit for. Yes, at times we may feel like something the dog just puked up, but we’re all here, getting our shit done. And if we need a good cry sometimes or to take a duvet day, then so be it. Let’s all just mind our heads.

And as always, a massive thank you to everyone one of you who reads my blog- whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter or on the blog itself. It really helps me to have this as a form of therapy. Anne Enright, bless her, says that regardless of whether you ever write a book, sitting a a desk and writing regularly will change you. I don’t know if it makes me any more sane, but I find that writing helps, and if  what I put down manages to resonate with anyone then that is a massive bonus. Thank you for giving me space to vent and taking time to read.

You can read my other musings on Mental Health here.

*Names have been changed to protect the guilty


SWB on back to school and Tilly’s ‘gotcha day’

The children have gone BACK TO SCHOOL! Oh Happy Day. Thank absolute f**k, because I was starting to go more than a wee bit funny. Do you know what was becoming awkward? Thinking of anything new to say to my husband. In Louis De Bernières book ‘Birds Without Wings’, one of the main characters is a shepherd. Wiling away the hours on the Greek hillside with just his goats for company, he comes to know all their different baas and bleats. Each one is distinct, indicating, hunger, fear or playfulness. There is another bleat though, which has a flatness to it. It is the bleat when there is nothing to say, just a random noise emitted for the craic alone, just for sake of it.  LSB is well familiar with this sort of random noise. He’ll be going around, trying to do his work, or watch TV, or nodding off to sleep, when I suddenly say ‘HELLOOOO!’

By saying ‘HELLO’, I just want to alert him to my presence, or indicate that I might need some attention. Sometimes I may feel the need for some interaction from another adult, and not just a child asking for the fiftieth time that day, what’s for lunch.

We have this habit, still, a year into lockdown, of saying to each other ‘So, what’s the craic?’ Like, in all serious, what’s the craic? The craic is zero, zilch, deader than it was the last time you asked me, I want to say, the change to is that I’ve had a pee in the downstairs toilet rather than the upstairs one, just for hell of it.

Thank God we got the dog because she provides many a conversation starter; it’s a bit like when we first had children, when we would just stare at them, mesmerised by their tiny wee hands and soft cheeks. Now we do the same with Tilly, while she sprawls on our bed, admiring her matching white socks, her silky ears and long snoot. It’s a gentle sort of a way to pass the time. We got her a year ago today, motoring out to Ballyclare with two crabbed children giving off: they weren’t a bit keen to be bundled into the car for a random drive. All the complaining ceased when we met Tilly though: she put two paws up on LSB’s shoulders, and that was it. ‘Will we bring Tilly home?’ he said to the girls, and they readily agreed.

The next day though, I had a total and utter meltdown. We listened to Boris’ announcement and I thought ‘What have we done?’ Suddenly I imagined not being able to walk her enough and having police challenge us for leaving the house. I felt stupid and irresponsible- my anxiety spiralled out of control as it is won’t to do. I wondered could I have managed to have got us all infected by Covid even on the short trip to get her.  Clean berserk I went, remembering the last time I’d got a dog and the havoc that experience had  wreaked in the house. I rang the woman from the shelter: she must have thought I was an absolute nutter. ‘Can we return Tilly?’ I said, tears tripping me. She wondered if the dog had done something dreadful. No I explained, other than a piddle in the house and a wee bit of excitement upon seeing the cat the first time (Izzy swiftly demonstrated the she was the boss in the house) she had been perfect. ‘It’s just the lockdown,’ I said. ‘ I didn’t release it was all going to go so mad. The woman was brilliant, giving me some tips on how to manage and promising that if it all went to shit she wouldn’t see me stuck. I am so, is glad we stuck it out. Given Tilly’s backstory of abuse and neglect, it is she the one who should have needed therapy, but instead it’s us who have been comforted and supported by her.

So today was a good day. A year after the first lockdown, the children went back in to school, singing and chatting on their way down the road, with wee Tilly wagging her tail alongside.  I know it’s a crazy fecking world out there, but please God, can things please be on the turn.





SWB gets arse to seat (finally)


Anne Lamott, a writer whom regular readers will know I hold in high esteem, recommends that one keeps their expectations low when it comes to writing  on a Monday. She suggests that after the freedom of the weekends, it is hard to condition oneself to achieve much, while the memories of the period of reprieve sit so vividly at the forefront of one’s mind. When it comes to writing, the summer seems to me, like a constant stream of Mondays.

I find it almost impossible to settle myself, running hither and thither, dogged by a state of mild but relentless anxiety about how to entertain my offspring. The holidays ought to be a time to unwind but instead the constant demands of small people means that I feel I have to crank it UP a gear, when every natural impulse suggests I do otherwise.

In Spain, in the absence of turning to writing as a means of catharsis, I took to the drink. Last year, we left the laptop in security at Belfast International, this year I left the charger, plugged in, at the house. ‘We can turn back,’ said LSB, ‘We have time.’

‘No no,’ I said, like a demented lunatic. ‘Foot to the floor, we MUST NOT be late.’ We were a mere ten minutes from the house, but on we trundled, and rocked up at the airport a full ten minutes BEFORE the baggage drop had even opened. I’m an anxious sort of a traveller.

My dreams of tapping away merrily on the balcony thus came to naught, and my writing muscle went un-flexed for almost a fortnight. Instead, I sipped more Vinho Verde than was advisable but did help somewhat dull the intensity of the children.

I exaggerate a little. I was reasonably restrained until the last evening, when I got quite carried away in a tapas bar in Fuengirola. After enjoying ice-cold beer as  aperitif, I foolishly guzzled  Rioja with the meal and got stuck into dessert wine with my tiramisu. I was in fine fettle by 11am and kept pestering LSB to let me adopt a small Chinese child. I even dragged the father-in-law into the debate. ‘You could take a pivotal role,’ I told him, with some gusto. ‘I’ve done my child rearing,’ he said firmly, giving his son a sympathetic look.

It was all great fun until the next day when our bus to the airport took the most dreadfully circuitous route and the combination of heat, hangover, and perhaps a dodgy langoustine in my Pil Pil Prawns left me feeling most nauseous. I was so ill and sweaty and quite beyond speech that no one came near me and I was left to sit alone on the bus, undisturbed in my misery. I suppose there is always a silver lining when one looks for it.

Incidentally, there is FORM to my wanting an Asian child. It was always a thought of mine that I might adopt, even long before I had shacked up with LSB and had my own pair. A former partner had to rein me in on a trip to Cambodia, when I kept harassing American parents about how they came by their Asian children. ‘Why can’t we just do World Vision like everyone else,’ he had grumbled.

Anyway, you can just imagine LSB’s delight when we arrived at our resort and there was a lovely couple from Galway with FOUR children,  one of whom was their biological child and the other three hailed from Mexico and China respectively. The little Chinese fellow took a great liking to me and I spent a great deal of the holiday with him slung round my neck, finding it quite hard to relinquish him to his mother. ‘Oh dear God, she has him again,’ I heard LSB mutter to his dad at least once.

Gosh, I digressed terribly there. What I’m trying to articulate, badly, is that over the summer I come quite UNDONE, and perhaps go a little berserk. Although I wheel the kids into various summer schemes, (this week, Playball, last week, tennis at Stranmillas Boat Club, both excellent) we are all out of our routines and I’m beginning to think that I actually quite like a routine to keep me functioning like a normal person. Without one, I feel like a cartoon motorcar, careening down a hill helter-skelter with hubcaps flying, then boot and bonnet, wheels and all, until it lands, a hissing steaming wreck, fit for nothing.

But I’ve so much to write about, not least the wonderful John Hewitt Summer School for which I was lucky enough to receive a bursary and attended last week. I was almost over-saturated by culture and was left reeling altogether by the quality of the poets and novelists who shared their work with us. I did the most wonderful memoir workshop with Ferdia Mac Anna who recommends ‘bum glue’ as a means to getting started, and I took his advice tonight and just SAT DOWN and blattered something out.  I’ll write more about the whole experience again, when a small child is not running around, at 21-34pm holding a colouring book and singing PEPPA PIG, FA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA, with tremendous vigour.

If you’re in anyway religious, say a few prayers. If not, say them anyway. I need them this evening.