Is it getting easier, or am I just numb?

There have been a few things that have happened in the past few weeks which would normally trigger off ‘missing Mum’ alarm bells. They range in size, from those that would have knocked me for a few days, to ones which are just a bit tricky.

Things like:

  • Christmas (without Mum)
  • New Year (oh look, you have to survive another year without your Mum)
  • Getting a new phone (my old one was inherited from Mum, but there’s only so many times you can apologise to the person on the other end of the phone for the fact that your alarm is going off (while on the phone) and you can’t switch it off because your phone has frozen… before a new one becomes a bit necessary. I have mitigated it slightly by putting my favourite picture of us as my background, so I’ve still got Mum in my pocket)
  • Feeling ill (my flatmate and I had a discussion last night over which of my meds it might be a good idea to take, whether NHS 111 might be a good plan (nah, they’ll either tell me to go to bed or to A&E, and I don’t feel like going to A&E) and eventually concluded that heat packs, gaviscon and sleeping tablets with a ‘maybe it will be better tomorrow?’ would be a good plan)
  • An exam (who knows how that went as I’m currently a person of no brain and not really well enough to do much at all never mind take an exam, but I couldn’t postpone it again, and the invigilator said that I’ve aged well, so I feel like I won a little bit)
  • Upcoming appointments that I’m not feeling too fab about (Mum’s are good people to text ‘arghhhhhhhhhh’ to).
  • Feeling like generally, with my health, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going, and what to believe (Mum was always fairly blunt, if I walked in looking like I was dying she would tell me)
  • My mental health being a knob (seriously, as a twenty-something year old it’s hard enough to navigate life and try to keep yourself alive without your head attempting to kill you)
  • New year new diet crap (which she would have healthily laughed at and torn apart whereas every time ‘veganuary’ and ‘a researcher has decided that breakfast is bad for you’, I wish I was well enough to join in)

However, despite all these things, the ‘missing Mum’ part of my brain appears to have disappeared (along with the rest of my brain, arguably).

It’s not that Mum doesn’t ever enter my head, but when she does, at the moment, it’s in a much more clinical sense, with all of the emotion removed. It’s not that she never enters conversation, either, because she does (most recently this evening, with the exam invigilator), but when she does, and people say they’re sorry, I normally meet it with a bit of a shrug and an ‘it’s life’, where it might previously have set off cartwheels in my head.

I’m not sure if it is actually getting any easier, or if I’m just numb.

A lot of things, or perhaps everything, is pretty numb right now. It’s not as bad as it might sound – I’d rather be numb than distressed. I often end up in a weird depression-anxiety battle, with depression pulling at me to do nothing, and anxiety screaming at me to do everything; at least when I’m this low the battle pauses because anxiety gives in. So with everything being a bit numbed, it’s hard to know whether grief is lessening, whether it’s becoming the ‘new normal’, or whether depression is just smothering it.

For now I’m just going to keep plodding along, because I’m not really sure what else I can do.

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Here’s to Those of Us Who Aren’t Graduating This Week

It’s graduation season. Facebook knows it, Instagram knows it; it feels like everyone in the world is graduating. If you can count yourself among that number, then all I have to say is this: congratulations. I have so much respect and admiration for anyone who completes uni, whatever their degree class. It’s really not an easy thing to do, and it’s so lovely to see people smiling next to their proud family members and friends. I know people that have completed uni despite really difficult life circumstances, and I think that it’s phenomenal to have achieved so much, and they should be incredibly proud.

I also know quite a few people who should have finished university this year, but they’re not, because life didn’t go to plan. Some have horrible illnesses to deal with, some have chronically or terminally ill family members, for others life has just dealt them a rough hand and they’ve been blown off course a bit.

Currently, I’m sat in my jimjams watching Come Dine With Me repeats and hoping that tonight might be the night that I actually get a decent amount of sleep. Looking at all of these celebratory photographs while feeling so far removed from them can be pretty difficult, because there’s a nagging voice in the back of my brain saying “that could’ve been you”. It can be so easy to look at other people’s lives and see all that you’ve lost. Had life gone to plan, I would have been stood there alongside my peers in a cap and gown, smiling next to two proud parents. That’s what I always thought would happen when I signed up to university three years ago.

But for me, and some others I know, even if we’d have stayed at uni and graduated with our class, we wouldn’t have had two parents stood smiling next to us, because we don’t have two parents any more.

The other morning, I was cycling around this beautiful city I now call home, as part of my job. I later went into the office, talked to my lovely colleagues, and spent a couple of hours listening to the radio whilst doing some work. I left the office and went to The Hut where I volunteer, and spent a while sat on a bench, chatting in the sunshine with a friend I met there. I came home and after a driving lesson, I spent some time with my flatmate, doing her hair for a dinner she was going to. I’m so lucky. I’m much more content than I have been in a long, long, time. I feel like I’m finally beginning to get a little ‘me’ back.
I wouldn’t have ever found The Hut, or my job, if I hadn’t left uni when I did. I wouldn’t have made that friend; I probably wouldn’t be living where I am now. I don’t know what I would have done or where I would be, but I wouldn’t be here; and I’m happy here.

I know a few others who have left uni, too, or are simply graduating at a later date. One or two have jobs, some are still living in this city and others have moved elsewhere. All of them are doing something with their life, and that’s amazing to see.

So here’s to those of us whose lives got blown off course. Those who are continuing to get up and face the world every single day, despite seeing how far life will go to try and make sure we can’t. Who are in new jobs, making new friends, creating a different life from the one we had always planned. Who might not have got a cap and gown on today, but who got dressed in something resembling an acceptable outfit, despite the crippling depression/stress/pain that can be in our lives, those of us for whom getting dressed and leaving the house is a real achievement. Here’s to those of us who don’t have that certificate, but who deserve a medal for simply participating in life when sometimes all we want to do is hide.

To everyone who is continuing to live their life, despite horrendous circumstances, I’m proud of you. To my friends who are watching Facebook this week with a pang of disappointment or sense of failure, I’m proud of you. I’m so proud of you for continuing to smile, for continuing to check if others around you are okay, for holding others together when you feel like falling apart, I’m really, really proud of you. I hope that you can look at all you have achieved, and all that you are, even if it’s not something you can get a certificate for, and feel a little proud of yourself, too.

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Chilling on Friday morning, reflecting on the lack of graduation, but the amazingness that is my job 🙂

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Where’s the “good” in “goodbye”?

I was going through old cards and letters the other day as I began to put things up in my room (I’ve been very creative with command hooks. I should probably have bought shares in command hooks…). I found the last birthday card that Mum ever wrote for me (which made me cry). I also found the card my family wrote for me when I first went to uni, which has found it’s way onto my wall.

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The more I read it, the more I think it’s excellent advice for life. (I wish you could FaceTime dead people, though, but Mum was cremated and I don’t think ashes can talk).

I was wandering round a shop today when ‘No Good in Goodbye‘ came on. As it came on I was scrolling through my phone and people from my uni course began to post their results.

Admittedly I got a bit of a ‘pang’ and my mind began to race about what could have/should have/might have been.

It feels stupid because I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am right now and I’m more content with life than I have been in a long time. If I’d have stayed at uni I would most likely have become even more unwell and probably wouldn’t have finished. I wouldn’t have met some of the wonderful people I now have in my life and would have missed out on some fantastic opportunities that I’ve been granted. I probably wouln’t be blogging for Blurt, or have the job I have now (which is basically my dream job).

I’m struggling to match the ‘me’ that I am, with the ‘me’ I’ve always thought I ‘should’ be. I’ve had a few conversations in the past week or so when people have been really surprised that I did Art up to AS level and DT to A2 level. They’re really surprised that I have a bit of a creative streak (something I’m debating blogging about more…). I guess I sort of abandoned creative me, and tried to become academic. There’s nothing wrong with being academic, but I don’t think it’s really ‘me’. I’m actually not a huge fan of reading and writing, I’d much prefer to play with paint, talk to people, or design a website. I like doing and being rather than sitting and reading. I like learning through doing or talking to people.

Uni was so tied up in Mum’s illness. I didn’t notice it at the time. I didn’t really think I was any different from my peers. When I’ve gone back through cards, letters and photos, though, it’s become increasingly clear how much Mum being ill really did affect it. I can see my social life dropping off. I can see the distraction setting in. I can match photos and cards to points in Mum’s illness. We tried to keep everything as ‘normal’ as possible, but looking back  I can see how far from ‘normal’ things fell.

There is no ‘good’ in ‘goodbye’ and as each day goes by, I miss Mum more and more. There’s more I want to tell her, or ask her advice on, or just chat to her about. But maybe there is a bit of good in the bad? Maybe Mum’s illness and death and my leaving uni have forced me to reassess who I am and what I’m doing with my life, and maybe that’s no bad thing…

Regaining Okay

Today, everyone I started uni with three years ago will hand in their final essays (and then probably go off and celebrate with a suitable amount of alcohol followed by a few days/weeks of sleep).

Taking leave from uni in October was the right thing to do. I have no doubt about that. Not going back in January was undoubtedly also the right decision at the time (albeit one which I had slightly less control over).

It doesn’t stop it being odd, though. Last week my Facebook was filled with dissertation hand-ins and this week it’s full of final hand-ins and celebrations. It feels like more than seven months since I was one of them (a living, breathing, highly caffeinated student). It feels like a lifetime ago. A lot has happened and changed in the past seven months, but it’s not just that. I really underestimated how much I was in the uni bubble, and I really underestimated how quickly I would fall out of it and feel so out of it.

Life is bringing more changes for me at the moment. I’m moving out of the place I’ve been living for five months this weekend. I’m starting a new job in the next few weeks. I’ve just finished the course I’m doing at Mind. Lots of things are changing. It’s all positive change but change nonetheless. I’ve come a long way in the past few months, but there is a long, long way still to go. I’m not working on trying to get the ‘old me’ back any more. Too much has happened and changed, and I’ve changed with it, but I’m still working on getting to a place where I have more good days than bad days, a few less ‘grief attacks’, and hopefully a lot less anxiety (something which continues to rudely interrupt my life no matter how much I tell it I’d really quite like it to disappear).

My friendships have changed, too. A lot of people who I expected to stick around haven’t, but that’s okay. It’s life. Some things some people have said or done I’ve not agreed with, but I’ve also learned to stand up to that, and I’ve learned it’s okay to leave people at a point in your life. Not everybody has to make it to your future. I’m learning to trust some of my closer friends more, and to go to them when I need them, something which is really hard to do when one of the people you always thought would be around and be there for you dies.

I don’t regret taking time out from uni. It was the right decision. It has given me space, allowed me some time to breathe, and enabled me to meet some wonderful people who I can now call my friends. I’ve really settled into a new volunteering role (which I’m hoping to keep up alongside my new job), and I would never have found it had I not arrived on their doorstep five months ago and basically spilled my life story to them and asked them if they could help me.

Even with knowing it was the right decision, it is weird seeing everyone finish and I imagine it will be weird come graduation, too. There is also a nagging voice in my head telling me I should have stuck it out and ‘just done it’ (fun little words pop up like ‘failure’ and ‘weak’). I’m trying to ignore it, though. I know that’s not the case. I’ve continued to live, continued to get up every day and do things even when they scare me, I’ve continued to work on regaining ‘okay’.

Dear Mum.

Dear Mum.

I really, really miss you.

It’s so hard having to make decisions and not having you to run them by. I can guess what you’d say, but I don’t know. I can hear your voice in my head saying ‘be kind to yourself’, but translating that into real life decisions can be tricky.

There have been lots of decisions to make lately. Whether to put an obituary in the paper, which song to put with the video of your photos, whether to bother washing my hair or whether it can wait one more day… One of the harder ones is what to wear to your funeral. I should have seen that one coming really and asked for your help in advance. I’ve always been useless at that sort of stuff. I don’t want to wear black because that seems a bit morbid, but I need to be smart. I’ve ordered a few bits online, I’m hoping that they don’t all fit/I don’t like them all because if I do I’ll be skint. I’m afraid it’s probably going to be Primark shoes, your nemesis, but some things never change!

I’ve had to make a really difficult decision today – whether or not to take a Leave of Absence from uni. It’s been mentioned by people for a few weeks, but the time has come for the decision to be made. There is no right or wrong answer on this – keep going, work hard, attend all my lectures from now on and hope my head is in it enough to pass an exam and write a 5000 word essay in January, or take a break until January, do this term next year, graduate 6 months after my peers, and hope it was all worth it.

You’ve always been good at the academic stuff and I’m struggling to motivate myself to do it without you. You’ve always read through my essay, talked to me about my subject, debated with me, been interested in my work and helped me to come to new conclusions about things. I really needed you today to help me make this decision, but you’re not here.

Today I sat down to catch up on lectures and perhaps make a start on the research proposal which was due in yesterday. I spent 3 hours listlessly flicking through lecture slides with zero motivation or energy. I think that was my answer, so after discussing it with pretty much every man and his dog, I’m taking a break.

I miss you, Mum. I keep seeing things that remind me of you, or see something in a shop and think of buying it for you then realise you’re not there and it hits me again. I think of texting you, but you wouldn’t get it. I don’t want anything big, I just want to talk to you, I miss you. I just want a hug. Or to rest my head on your stomach while you stroke my hair and we chat about the day or something medical or something else. I just really, really, miss you.

Love you lots xxx

Ten Tips For Surviving Uni When Someone You Love Is Dying

Packing up your bedroom and going to uni is exciting and scary whether you’re going into your first year, or subsequent years. Packing up and heading off to uni and leaving behind a parent (or other family member) who is dying brings a whole host of new challenges and worries.

My brother and I have put our heads together to try to come up with some top tips for being at uni while a loved one is dying. We’re not experts on the subject, but we have a few ideas after going through it ourselves.

I learned of Mum’s terminal diagnosis midway through my first year, my brother learned of it during his final year of school and attended a different university from me for his first year, last year. Our advice won’t suit everyone and some things will vary between universities, but we hope that these tips give you a few ideas, make you feel less alone, and put your mind at rest a little.

  1. Let the relevant people know about your situation as soon as you can. This may include pastoral care networks, college/welfare/halls tutors, those in charge of mitigating circumstances, and your academic tutor. This way, if a situation arises where you need to use these resources, it will be much easier to access the support you need, and don’t be afraid of asking for help when you do need it.
  2. Apply for mitigating circumstances if you need them. Nobody will shout at you if you end up handing a piece of work in late because your loved one was in hospital – but you need to let them know why that piece of work is in late, rather than having them assume that you’re just a ‘typical student’.
  3. Find a friend or a neighbour and let them know what’s going on. Sometimes you may need someone to help you look out for your wellbeing. It might be that they pop in every now and again and make sure you’re eating and sleeping, or make sure you engage with the more social aspects of uni from time to time if that becomes a struggle for you. Even regular Nandos visits with certain friends can be a real lifesaver – sometimes it’s important to have things to look forward to.
  4. Go to your lectures. Sometimes your mind will be full and the last thing you’ll want to do is go to a lecture. Go anyway and try to take some notes. Your mind might not be with it in that moment, but later when you come back to the work it’s better to have some rubbish notes than no notes at all.
  5. Stay in touch with your family if you can. It might be through emails, letters, phone calls, or carrier pigeon. Dad used to write me weekly letters about family life and a bit about Mum. Nowadays we mainly communicate online or by text.
  6. Find your local carers centre. See if they have a young adult carers (YAC) group. Even if they don’t have a specific YAC group, see if the carers centre can help you out. They can often provide a chance to chat with others facing similar issues and it can be really helpful.
  7. Don’t be afraid to go home. Lots of people may tell you not to go home during the first term (or at least half term) of uni, but it’s okay to want to: Your loved ones condition can change, and you may well want to spend more time with them if you can. I know I certainly had to find a balance between the fierce desire to get away from home as fast as possible with wanting to spend time with Mum while I still could It’s not an easy balance, it takes time to work it out, and it often needs reassessing, but that’s okay.
  8. Have fun! Just because somebody at home is dying, it doesn’t mean you can’t go out, it doesn’t mean you can’t drink, it doesn’t mean you can’t join a sports team, get stuck into societies or become a volunteering whizz. Make the most of uni while you’re there, it passes faster than you’d think.
  9. Don’t struggle on alone. If your grades are dropping because you’re too upset to leave your room and go to lectures, tell someone. If you’re missing deadlines due to spending time in hospital, tell someone. If you’re beginning to feel that you can’t cope, let someone know, because there are options and there are things that can be done.
  10. Look for help online. If you’re struggling with offline help, try looking for some online support. Hope Support Services offer online counselling for those who have a terminal illness in the family. Carers UK have lots of information on their site, and Marie Curie have lots of information as well as a helpline you can call. There are loads of resources out there even if they can take some digging to find. Lots of services will be local to you, so have a quick google.

Unfortunately, we can’t give you a step-by-step guide for being at uni while someone you love is ill. Every person, every diagnosis, every uni and every course is different, so we wouldn’t even know where to begin. Enjoy uni: make mistakes, stay up too late, meet new people, discover the city, perhaps even do some work(?!)…who knows that the next year might bring. The most important thing to remember is that there is no ‘right’ way to cope with terminal illness; you need to work out what’s right for you. Stay strong, and best of luck.

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Packing Up My University Year

On Sunday, I moved out of the flat I’ve called home for the last ten months to the house I grew up in but no longer call home. A year ago, I would never have imagined I’d feel so at home in York, or so out of place in the village where I’ve spent most of my life so far.

As I was packing up my life, I noticed a few things – like all of the cards from my 21st birthday. Each card represents a person who loves me and cares about me, someone who knows that I have good times and crappy times, and who stands by me through all of it.

I took down all the letters I had stuck on my wall. I write to a few of my friends and they write to me. We support each other through the ups and downs of life, share quotes and ideas, teach each other skills and coping strategies we’ve learned. We sometimes send pictures or little items to help and guide each other through each day. These people have taken the time to sit down and pen me a letter, and those letters have been on my wall all year.

The four walls of that flat have seen so much over the last 10 months. Back in September, they saw me rush off before the first week of uni as Mum entered hospital again. They will have seen me crying late at night as I wondered if she was okay. They will have seen a repeat of that in November.

December, and they saw me getting excited for Winter Ball, trying on a new dress, learning to do my make-up. Eventually coming in far too late with a smile on my face because it had been such a good night. They will have seen a few times like this, times when I’ve been a ‘normal’ 20/21-year old – going out with my friends, coming in too late and sorting out the mess of make-up and shoes the next morning.

In February, they will have seen me disappear for a week as I went back to my parents’ house because Mum was deteriorating rapidly. They will have seen me curled up on my bed, sobbing into my teddies after that first night, because Mum was dying and there was nothing I could do. Sitting, staring at screens the following morning, jumping on every phone call. They will have seen me a week later, my world changed forever as Mum went into a coma and, for a few days, looked as if she might die. I am still so grateful for all that ensured she didn’t, but am still regularly plagued by flashbacks of those days.

In March, they will have seen me both surprised and delighted at the number of cards and messages I received for my birthday (once I’d got home from working on a residential!). They’ll have seen me read each one individually and arrange and rearrange them on my shelf. They’ll also have seen me become upset as I went to bed, realising that Mum would probably never see another birthday of mine.

In May, they will hardly have seen me. I spent most of my days working on my essays, determined to get the grades I knew I could achieve. Determined to prove wrong those people who suggested I should take a year out. Setting my heart on achieving good grades, partly for myself, and partly just in case they are the last grades of mine that Mum will ever see.

It’s now July and I’m moving out for two months. My rent is up and doesn’t re-start until September. The walls will see me take each card off my shelves with care. Prising each photograph off my noticeboard, releasing each letter from its place on my wall. Standing confused, staring at those five odd socks wondering quite where their partners have gone.

This year, York has become my home and I don’t want to leave. Mum may be ill, but while I’m in York, that fades from my mind slightly. This year I’ve made new friends, strengthened existing friendships and become distant from others. I have continued old volunteering projects and signed up to new ones, taking so many amazing opportunities which have come my way. I have grown in confidence in my job and been rewarded with increased responsibility. I have learned more about my degree subject, written assignments on interesting topics, and dragged myself through essays on not-so-interesting ones. I have chatted to my MP about getting young people voting, been part of BBC’s election coverage, brought a mental health awareness campaign to campus, raised over £400 for cancer research and started this blog.

All day as I pack up and contemplate returning to my parents’ house, one wonderful quote from my favourite wise bear, Winnie-The-Pooh, sticks in my mind: ‘How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard’.

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