Thursday 21 December 2017

May all your Christmases be striped: A tale of festive crafting with anxiety.

Hello you ...  

This post both is and isn't about Christmas cards. Kind of a 'Schrödinger's Christmas Card' post if you will. Anyway ... 

Merry Christmas! Please accept the following as a festive greeting from me to you:
I haven't been around here lately at all (although I'm always on Instagram if you want to keep in touch there.) But, a look back at some of the titles of my most recent posts: 'An anxious person does stuff, like climbing a tower.' and 'How having anxiety is like having a funfair goldfish thrust upon you', might just give you a clue as to what's been preoccupying me lately.

I mean, when thousands of words on a given topic pour out of you on to the page, you might think that'd be a big clue that your mind was especially focused on that subject right now. It wouldn't take a genius to work out that maybe, just maybe, something wasn't quite right. Right?

Yeah. Except, no.

Somehow - despite having written two major blog posts about it, and even discussing with my writing mentor the possibility of writing an entire book on the subject, the anxiety attacks that I started experiencing back November took me completely by surprise

This genius here missed all the signs.

In hindsight, it's no great shock, but at the time? Sideswiped.

But, please don't worry about me, this isn't a sad post. I'll be fine, I'm getting treatment, I'm talking to people, I'm trying to take it easy on myself and ... I'm crafting. Which is where these cards come into the story ...
While taking some time off work I gave myself a few weeks to rest (OK, you got me ... I find that very hard to do, so maybe I tidied the loft, and all the dining room cupboards, and made shop kits, and put all the Christmas decorations up, and ... you know how it is ..). 
So, yeah, maybe I wasn't exactly resting my body so much, but I did make an effort to rest my mind. A remedy that involved things like a good dose of guilt-free Netflixing (it's the guilt-free part that 's the hardest to achieve, but that does the most good) and also a spot of purpose-free card-making.

It began at my monthly crafty get-together with friends where I started making greetings cards for no reason whatsoever.  Which I hadn't done in ... I couldn't tell you how long.  Yes, I make cards for magazine commissions but, as nice as that is, it's still work. So to just sit with no brief, no end goal, no recipient in mind, to just enjoy sifting through papery products, for fun, for the pleasure of mixing and matching colours and shapes and prints - was just what I needed.

These cards and those but it kick-started my crafty brain / hands again ... and I just kept going, only with more festive slant on things: 
And yes, my striped friends even make it into my festive crafts because zebras are for Christmas, not just for life. 

So, with 'Anne with an 'E'' running in the background on Netflix (highly recommended!), I surrounded myself with all kinds of supplies - traditionally Christmassy ones and regular non-festive, year-round stuff too, and pulled out a mix of zebra images and stamps to use as my focal point, and made a start ...
And just kept going ... 
I gave the various zebras noses fit to guide a sleigh ...
And typed out the greetings on kraft labels: 
And I coloured, clustered and layered to my heart's content ... 
Now, I'm not saying crafting with zebras has cured me (although ... my stripey friends do have previous experience of helping me out in these situations), but they did allow me several welcome hours of using a different part of my brain to the one trying to work out where and why my brain had taken a detour.
And that's what you need isn't it? A brief distraction. Not so much that you're ignoring the problem, and not for so long that you become unwilling to return to reality ... but for just long enough to let your brain to take a break, put up its feet, drift away for a while. 
And - really - I could do worse that a distraction that involves zebras, washi-tape, coloured staples, patterned papers and shiny 'bits'. Remind me to try it again sometime soon. 

Merry Christmas. May it bring you some gem-like delights and distractions of your own. 


(P.S. Don't forget to find me @withjuliekirk on Instagram if you'd like to hear from me more often. I even do Instagram Stories - short videos - over there, so you literally will hear from me and my tiny North Eastern accented voice. Which James says is posher than my real voice. So it's worth a visit purely for that.)

Thursday 19 October 2017

An Anxious Person Does Stuff (like climbing to the top of a tower)

Hey you. 

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for months but – be warned - that doesn’t mean I'm very clear on what I want to say. There may* be rambling.

(*There will be).

In general about doing things while you’re feeling anxious - and it may be the start of some sort of manifesto I’ll develop (#ananxiouspersondoesstuff), or it may come to nothing.

And it doesn't have satisfyingly transformative ending and, hey, who knows, it might just depress someone. Including me.

Am I selling this to you yet?

Oh and the story itself isn’t a particularly interesting, exciting, or dramatic one, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and some people may think I wrote it to fish for nice people to say nice things. 

Sounds great doesn’t it? You’ll have to read it to be the judge.

So what is it about?
It’s a poke around the idea of ‘conquering’ your anxieties, a narrative we often hear in relation to mental health, which is great in theory (I mean, who wouldn’t want to get over all their fears and worries and live a fulfilling life?) - yet in practice, in daily minute-by-minute life,it’s not always so straightforward.

Last month I wrote a post about how anxiety can feel like having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag unexpectedly handed to you, which makes the rest of your day just that bit harder to deal with (if you missed it, catch up here). In that post I mentioned that something over the summer had caused me to start thinking more deeply about anxiety and, hello! …  this is that something.

After it happened, or maybe even while it was still happening, I realised there were two distinct ways I could present the events:
  1. As an entirely true, but slightly selective, ‘internet’ version of event in which I wouldn’t have lied about what happened or - if I did - it would only be a lie of omission. And it would have ended with a glossy, punchy, neat Instagrammable philosophy. Or ...
  2. as a messy and complete version, where I do reach some sort of happy ending … but then sail straight past it to the more realistic place that lurks just over the horizon.

 You know I decided on the latter, don’t you?

If I’d gone with the first version we may all come out of it with a little sugar rush of good feeling but it wouldn’t have lasted. 

It would’ve perpetuated the lie that you need to be bold and confident to get anything done in this world, when I’d rather say: anxious people can do stuff too, even if we feel conflicted and crappy while we’re doing it!

So, for your reading pleasure (or not) here it is …

Content notice: this post contains detailed descriptions of an anxiety attack which may be triggering. Also, there’s swearing because … well, because apparently that’s what comes out of me when I write naturally. (Imagine the disappointment I must be to my Catholic school English teachers).

A story of An Anxious Person Doing Stuff (including a guided tour up a bell tower).

So what have you been worrying about now Kirk?
Well - thanks for asking - over the summer James and I booked to go on a guided tour of the highest tower of Lincoln Cathedral, which, initially, wasn’t a cause for concern. We’d been on several other roof tours there without a problem, I’m not especially claustrophobic, or scared of heights, they’d provided some great photo opportunities in past years and it seemed like a good solid part of our holiday itinerary. It never occurred to me to worry about it ...

And then …

And then, when we went to book tickets in advance, they made us read a list of all the things that we could expect during the tour (regarding the steepness of the 300+ steps, the narrowness of the stone staircase and passageways, the heights, plus the level of fitness and the sensible footwear required), and we had to sign to say we were OK with all of that. Which I was.

And then …

And then we had to wait several days for the event itself to come around.

Oh the sweet irony of our room name ... 

Before the anxiety (or, if you’re familiar with the analogy: ‘Before the funfair goldfish arrived’):

If I’d read that list ten minutes before beginning the tour I might not have been quite so alert to the possibilities for concern; but there’s nothing like the luxury of All. That. Time. To. Think. to really set anxiety in motion, is there?

“It’s probably the same list they’ve shown us all the other times” said James sensibly. “And nothing ever happened then.” he went on, trying to reassure me. 

And maybe it was, maybe every other time I’d just skim read those potentially troubling phrases, dismissed them, signed it and gone straight on the tour without a second thought. But ahh … this time, time was the enemy.

Seeds of anxiety + time +  plus the manure dumped from an over-thinking brain = quite the strong, and anxious, seedling growing in my chest.

Or, to use the goldfish analogy: at this point someone was surrounded by the smell of diesel-powered generators and boiling hot-dogs, wasting all their spare change on trying to hook a duck and win a fish. No one had yet thrust a goldfish at me ... but the moment was growing ever closer.

On the day itself, sitting waiting for the guides to arrive, my breathing had already begun to speed up, I began to feel slightly dizzy, a bit nauseous, and maybe like my digestive system might play me up.

I want to repeat here  that there doesn’t need to be a specific cause for the anxiety: I was NOT sitting there thinking I was going to get trapped in the narrow corridors, or fall from the height. Rather, like a scaly little fish, in liquid, in a thin bulging plastic bag, anxiety is often far more slippery than that. I was just anxious. Not of or about anything in particular. I just was.  
And then ... the tour began.

During the anxiety/goldfish: 
So, there we were, a group of around 15, heading straight up the first set of stone stairs where several things conspired together to make me uncomfortable:
  • It was warm: it was July, in a narrow staircase packed with bodies exerting themselves, travelling upwards, just like the heat.
  • It was narrow: like … ‘not much wider than some people's’ shoulders’ narrow, which I could probably have coped with, except …
  • It was a spiral: the tightly coiling twist meant that the steps tapered away into nothing at the centre so, while you could easily set down your left foot, the right foot had to be careful it actually made contact with a flat surface or you’d slip. And all that spiralling became dizzy-making. The women in my family are not blessed with the strongest of necks and looking up to grab the hand rope (there was no rail) and look down to check where my feet were going, tightened my neck muscles making me dizzier still.
  • It was steep and speedy: the guides were setting such a fast pace (it would’ve put even the most overly achieving personal trainer to shame) there was literally no time to stop to catch your breath.  
And finally, to quote Tom Petty -
  • There ain’t no easy way out: At times I couldn’t keep up and tried to slow down, but the guide at the bottom was setting the pace for the people behind me leaving no way to drop back and let people overtake. The staircase was only wide enough for one person, so there was absolutely no way down without making the entire party back up all the way down too. And who wants to be that person??? (Oh, hi there Social Anxiety, fancy meeting you here, have you come along to take photos of the view too?)

None of this on its own would be insurmountable – but all of it slung together?

And … did I mention it was warm? And like a work-out? And relentless. And verrry … verrrry … swirrrrrllllllyyyyyy spinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnyyyyyyyy?

James was ahead of me, I often glimpsed the soles of his shoes dip out of sight around the spiral while I tried to slow my pace - meanwhile, behind me, or rather - below me - a stranger had their head at my feet. Or worse. 

And - boom - there I was, wonkily storming up an ancient spiral staircase filled strangers while trying to carry a funfair goldfish (seriously, if you still don’t know what this means, you need to read my other post).

By the time we reached the first stopping point I was struggling. Emotionally more than physically but hey - physically too – let’s not leave out that particular treat; I had the whole party going on.

So, we already know I’m a bit head-spinny, and my legs are heavy, and my lungs are asking Why Julie? Whyyyy? But now:
  • the hollow of my spine was slick with sweat;
  • my forehead a curtain of droplets to be swept away by a tissue, 
  • and there was a tightening in my guts. 
And, anxious readers, you know the kind of tightening I mean. The kind where you’re not 100% sure how it all might pan out. Like, maybe you might just burp or your stomach will grumble and then you’ll feel some relief, or ... maybe it’ll be vomit, or a fart. Or worse. Who knows? (And when you know where a stranger’s head is going to be in a few minutes once you’re back on that staircase, well … it doesn’t bear thinking about.)

By now we were in an open space where we could pause to breathe and recuperate, while the tour guides told us something about the automated bell ringing system and used their laser pointers to indicate areas of architectural interest. But my body was demanding more of my attention and - you know how in Tom and Jerry, when the humans talk and all you hear is that ‘Wah wah wah’ sound? Well, that.  So, ignoring the tour altogether I began stripping off. Off came my jacket, rolled up my sleeves and, let me tell you, if there’d been a dignified way to whip off the leggings from under my skirt …

While trying to juggle these immediate physical needs (get cool, breathe) with the overarching emotional goal of calming the fuck down, there was a constant battle rumbling in my mind: how much of this discomfort is due to the anxiety and how much to the sheer exertion? It was probably a filthy mix of both but – if I focused on the idea it was most likely just the exercise I could prevent the anxiety from escalating. Far better to attribute the wobbly legs to all those bloody steps, than to some inexplicable fear.

And then …

Despite all the attempts at rationalisation I started planning my exit strategy. What would I say? When would I say it? So yes, hi, yes, so … yes, lovely brickwork up there, and h, those ancient beams, but I can’t do this any longer, I can’t go further up, I can’t go at that pace. Something might come out of me, who knows from where. Don’t make me, you’re not the boss of me, let me out, let me ooooooouuuuuutttttt!”.

Or words to that effect.

But, on second thoughts … FFS it’s supposed to be a nice day out, you wanted to do this, it’s a normal thing, it shouldn’t be this overblown. You’ll spoil the day for James. You’re a hundred or more steps up, in a room with some sort of machinery (if I’d been listening properly I’d have known more) and there’s no way they’ll leave you to wait here until they all come back down. No. You’ll  have to be escorted out. All the way. You’ll look feeble. A failure. A criminal!

And I reckon it was this – the idea of the social embarrassment – that made me decide to stay the course in the end. Not the positive self talk, not the focusing, not the 1reathing but the horror of something worse than feeling like this i.e: feeling like this while other people spectate.

So I kept calm and carried on!

OK, OK, OK, no … that was just a little joke! Let me re-phrase that: I carried on. We can say that much if nothing else.

After the initial anxiety began to subside:
In short, we climbed further up; we squeezed through a corridor that was almost too narrow for me; I sat opposite the bell as it bonged. 12 times. (Alas, it’s a level of distraction not yet readily available on the NHS as a treatment.)  

We climbed up more swirling steps to the roof ...

where we looked out for miles across the countryside;

And saw the resident peregrine falcons swooping and sweeping below us.

 I was fine with the height, and thoroughly welcomed the cooling blustery breeze. 
And then ... then we went down the way we came, only this time non-stop, with more open space in front of my face (if you think that going up my face was close to the steep stone steps rising directly in front) and also without my bum in anyone’s face. Always a bonus.

Back on terra firma I felt like someone made of rubber trying to maintain their balance on a bouncy castle. 

I felt like an astronaut meeting gravity once again. I felt heavy, yet breakable. Slow yet skittish. 

I needed lunch; a good cup of tea; a hand to hold. I also needed to write about what just happened (it’s how I deal with stuff) and before I was even out of the Cathedral I had the idea to turn the experience into a blog post. And the first, most obvious, thought I had was that it would probably take the shape of a story detailing how I, beat the anxiety to get through the day, a kind of heart-warming triumph over adversity type click-bait.

And then …

And then nothing about that plan sat right with me.

If I had written the “Here’s how I overcame my anxiety to enjoy a day out” post it would have been kind of true – but also kind of bullshit.

The truth is yes, I did it despite being anxious, but I didn’t want to turn it into some half-truth that glossed over the ‘real’ parts of a real-life story. Because, when it comes down to it, apart from the bit on the roof, and seeing the birds in their element, it was unpleasant, and I wish it had been easier.

How’s that for some inspirational lifestyle blog content?

But it’s the truth.

So why are you telling us all this Kirk? What exactly is it you’re trying to say?

Well, if you remember at the beginning (hours ago, I know, I just can’t write short posts – sorry about that.) I did warn you that there was no truly happy ending here. So I hope you’re not too disappointed with the weary conclusion that – even if you manage to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ it doesn’t mean it will feel good.

But what would it achieve for me to end the story at the point where I look brave and wise and like I have all the answers without telling how it left me feeling?

Yes, I stayed until the end of the tour despite wanting to leave but I got through it because it ended. We moved locations, sitting down to hear the bell ring helped me focus on something else, the breeze on the roof top was life-giving and sweat-drying.

I didn’t ‘overcome’ it because I achieved some peak mindfulness (although Lord knows that was mixed in there somewhere) or because some catchy life-hack rewired my neurons in 10 minutes, or because I recalled the enlightened words from some gold-foiled motivational slogan.

I got through it because it didn’t get worse, not because I suddenly found “5 fresh ways to battle an anxiety attack”.

I got through it because, despite my body trying to convince me otherwise, I didn’t pass out, die or, worse still, do an explosive shit in the face of a total stranger.

And – rather than feeling elated, powerful, a changed woman … I just felt hollowed out and like ‘Oh, really? This crap? Again’.

I’m not saying I’m not pleased I stuck around but I can’t say what I did made me feel strong or brave …
  • Because when your mind and body are in turmoil trying to decide if you can cope with a perfectly normal situation - it doesn’t feel brave. At all. And that’s OK. If we wait until we’re brave to do thing we might never do things! And we’ll miss out. And we don’t deserve to miss out.
  • Because the idea of ‘brave’ whitewashes just how hard it feels to be present while your body and mind are in mutiny.
  • Because - what if I’d decided that, actually, y’know what? the best thing for me in that moment would be to practice some gentle self-care? What if the kindest thing I could have done for myself was to quietly take aside one of the guides and explain I wasn’t feeling happy about the rest of the tour and could I please leave? Would that have made me the opposite of brave. Would that have made me a coward?

If I’d spun this as a motivational tale of how you can hang on in there, get through a panic attack, and not miss out on interesting experiences – I worry that I’d be giving the idea that it’s (a) what you should do, and (b) suggest that it's easily done.

It’s neither.

It’s all hard and dirty and foggy and baffling and individual and changeable and challenging and draining.

I don't feel in any way valedictory about it. (Although, truth be told, I’m more sanguine about it now months down the line – but at the time – I did not feel proud of myself for keeping my head when all around me were quite possibly having no problem keeping theirs).

So is the moral of this story that anxiety sucks, and you shouldn’t even try to get through it because you’ll still feel like limp turd afterwards?

Firstly – ew, ‘limp turd’? Nice visual there dude. And secondly: no but also yes – a little bit. And no, of course not. And kind of.

Glad we’ve got that clear.

Mostly I wanted to share the story here partly because I thought the line "do an explosive shit in the face of a total stranger" was too funny to waste, but more so to say that:
  • if you too have felt like a quivering wreck for no good reason, if you too have been visited by the unexpected funfair goldfish, and if you too felt like why, for the love of Netflix, you can’t just function like everyone else … then … hey … me too. 
It’s not just you.  It feels like it is, but it isn’t.

I wanted to talk about it because often it’s the ‘after’ stories you read; the stories of how people came out the other side … and, as inspiring and optimistic as they might be … it’s not always realistic to think that there’s a ‘Other Side’ to come out of. 

Life’s messy and circular, it throws unexpected goldfish at you when you thought the funfair had left town for good years ago. Life doubles back, and drops you down wormholes, and you’ll be dragged backward and forwards in your ‘journey’ more times than Marty McFly …

Rather than share a clean and tidy ‘after’ story, I wanted to share a messy ‘during’ one, not to depress anyone, but to say something along the lines of: 
  • You know what? You can have anxiety and still do stuff, it might not always be fun, you might struggle, you might almost fall apart in public, you might sometimes feel like you might die, but – honestly-  you rarely do, and don’t let that put you of doing something you want to do, it can’t be just the bold and oblivious who get to see and  things and and, and, and ….

 And I’ve got so much more I want to say on this topic – the 1000 words I’ve cut out of this post for a start. But I’ve said far too much for one post already, and those other words can go towards my manifesto for all those anxious people doing stuff! (which, at the rate I'm spewing out this stuff could easily turn into a book!)

I’m going to be using #ananxiouspersondoesstuff on Instagram if I have another stressy tale to tell (chances are …) and you’re welcome to join in with it and tag me or get in touch via any of my online homes: 

  • Please add your anxious voice to the wobbly chorus if any of my messy life moments here struck a chord. Have your say in the comments.
The more we share this stuff the more we'll learn that there are lots of us out here focusing on our breathing, trying to ignore funfair goldfish and always carrying a packet of stomach-settling mints 'just in case'.

Let's speak loudly and elbow our way into the world, and not let the confidently oblivious types have all the fun.

And let's be kind to those we see struggling ... including ourselves. 


Tuesday 10 October 2017

Alright Teesside Blogging Workshop - link round-up

Hello there regular readers - and a special welcome if you've just popped in after attending the 'Blogging & Mental Health' workshop at the Alright Teesside World Mental Health Day event today.  Hello again!

If you were at the workshop:
  • Below are links to all of my mental-health related blog posts I mentioned during my half of the workshop;
  • Plus links to my 'Push-up Bra Blogging' online course (it's all free, you can just hop from one post to the next picking up tips as you go).
  • And the Instagrammer I mentioned to. Just keep scrolling for all the links ... 
If you weren't at the workshop:
  • Consider this a re-cap of some of the mental health themed articles I've posted here over the years.
  • If you are someone who's ever left a comment on one of those posts - thank you - and please know that I used you as an example of the power of the blogging community at the workshop today! 

Links to the blog posts I mentioned during the workshop:

Here's how I compared anxiety to having to look after a funfair goldfish:

Here's a post where I combined a regular post about a day out ... with being honest about the anxieties I had about going

And here's the post where I talk about how my anxieties nearly made me want to give up writing:

And this one's the post where I originally revealed how I'd experienced depression in the past, as well as explaining what a plastic zebra had to do with my recovery

And here's a link up to my guest post on the Mind blog.


Info on Instagram: 

  • Laura Jane Williams Instagrams at -  @superlativelylj - and she's a great example of how you can use IG as a micro-blogging platform.
  • And if you want to read through the Instagram posts I've written about my own dog phobia, you can find those on IG by searching for the hashtag #phobiatales - or by clicking here:  #phobiatales 
  • And, if you want to group together a particular set of your own posts, remember to create your own hashtag too. (Simply decide on the words you want >> hit the # key >> write the word with NO GAPS between them >> and that's it! It automatically becomes a link to click. Remember to tag all the similar posts with the same hashtag, and they'll all be visible when you click it! 

Links to my *free* blogging course:
If you're brand new to blogging some of this might be information to bear in mind for further down the blogging road - however, there's still lots you can pick and choose from to see what helps! (and - for the record - it has nothing to do with bras! It's just meant to be a memorable comparison!)
  • Here's the introduction - to help you get acquainted. There's a wealth of information in there covering: what the series is all about and what it isn't; who the series is for ... and who it isn't.

1. The 'Why?' Approaches: Why would I want to blog more? What's in it for me?
2. The 'What?' Approaches: But what am I going to find to blog about?
3. The 'How?' Approaches: Getting organised + streamlining your blogging. [Plus a note on blogging-pains!]
  • Chapter 9: The Kenny Rogers Approach: or 'you gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em etc'
  • Chapter 10: The Freezer Meals Approach: 'making in bulk but savouring one at a time' IF YOU STRUGGLE TO FIND TIME TO BLOG THEN THIS CHAPTER INCLUDES MY #1 TOP TIP OF THE ENTIRE SERIES!! 
  • Chapter 11: The Dr. Who Approach'how travelling in time can come in useful'
And finally ...
  • A course summary, a round-up and a reflection on the other side of the screen ... your blog readers + community.

There's plenty of reading here to keep you busy for a while so ... I'll leave you to it!

I hope you find something here today that helps inspire you to:

  • start a blog of your own 
  • OR to join Instagram
  • OR to simply start thinking about the stories you tell yourself in daily life ... and the stories you could maybe share with others some time in the future.
Here's to exploring, explaining or escaping your mental health issues through storytelling, wherever and however feels right to you. 


Thursday 21 September 2017

Book Review: The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington

Hello you, how's things?

If you're looking for something new to read, Christmas gift for a book lover, particularly if they're a young adult with a fondness for fashion - then don't budge until you've had a look at The Red Ribbon:

What is The Red Ribbon?
The Red Ribbon, is a young adult novel set in a WW2 concentration camp, and is the first novel by fashion historian Lucy Adlington. 

If you’ve been with me here, or on Instagram, for a while you’ll have heard me mention Lucy before as I've attended several of the fashion history presentations she delivers through her company The History Wardrobe. All of the talks I've seen, such as Great War Fashion, Gothic for Girls, Fairytale Fashion and Jolly Hockeysticks, have shone a light on the role clothing has played in women’s history, and they've each used the politics and practicalities of costume to explore larger ideas about women's role in society. (I always attend these events with my Mam and sister and – it's like my sister says – we go in thinking we’re just going to look at clothes … and come out with our militant feminism nicely burnished!)

And, unsurprisingly, with The Red Ribbon Lucy Adlington continues in exploring those same themes, this time inspired by the dressmakers of Auschwitz. While there may be some slightly fairytale-esque elements to the narrative - the idea that there was a sewing workshop inside a concentration camp - is not one of them. It's is based on true - if little known - historical events, because, yes, even in the darkest of man-made places there was silk, and satin, and ribbon. And it's there that Ella - the heroine of Adlington's story - learns that being chosen to serve the fashion whims of the wives of SS officers is one way to survive.

How does The Red Ribbon handle the infinitely dark setting of the story?
Well, I'd say Adlington handles it carefully, respectfully and at a (I'm guessing) deliberate remove.

The book is published under the Young Adult category, therefore - while never white-washing any of the brutal realities - this is, understandably, not a story about the darkest moments. I would say it's aim is to educate younger readers about the atrocities, but in a safe space, a self-contained narrative, with a feisty teenage leading character alongside them every step of the way.

As a 41 year old perhaps I'm not the ideal reader, yet I still found much to enjoy here, with a story that - like the rest of Adlington's work - is compelling, illuminating, ... and female.

How is the book structured? 
The narrative focuses on Ella's experiences of the camp:

  • her recruitment to the sewing room, 
  • her progress and attitude towards dressmaking for their captors, 
  • and on towards well ... that would be a spoiler wouldn't it? Perhaps I'll leave you to find out the rest for yourself ... 

The blurb on the preview copy puts it in the same category as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Diary of Anne Frank, but - not having read either of  those - it put me in mind of two other Holocaust-related narratives: Primo Levi's The Periodic Table and Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes.
  • In The Periodic Table Levi tells different stories about his life, including surviving the Holocaust, using elements from the Periodic Table as building blocks to connect together his life experiences, with each of the stories in the book taking the name of an element.
  • Similarly Adlington colour-codes each of the book's sections, Green, Yellow, Red, Grey, White and Pink, with each colour describing not only Ella's current dress-making project , but also the colour of the life around the camp.
  • The colours, plus the focus on the dressmaking itself - rather than the entire history of the concentration camps - is a well thought out method of approaching the subject matter. 
  • It takes what is vast, unfathomable and beyond general comprehension - and zooms in, and in, an still further, until we don't need to try to understand the incomprehensible, we just need to pay attention to this one single aspect. It's in absorbing the details that we can appreciate the wider picture.

As for the Edmund de Waal similarity: 
  • like in The Hare With Amber Eyes - which tells the Holocaust through the experiences of members of author's family - The Red Ribbon gives us someone (albeit a fictional someone based on various true accounts) to relate to within a story usually told in terms of millions
  • We get to know an individual. 
  • And, in this case, it's an individual who loves fashion magazines, who resents authority figures, who hopes her grandparents are OK, who feels the excitement of a new friendship. 

And - if current and future generations are to continue to heed lessons from the Holocaust - stories such as this, which personalise the past, are always going to be valuable.

So how is it 'fairytale-esque' then? 
Well - despite being at the centre of one of the defining events of the 20th Century - Ella's world is very small, and, in the heightened conditions of life in the camp she's very much a fairytale heroine, a kind of Cinderella trying to find a way out of her restrictive lifestyle. 

Furthermore the writing style is, at times, almost fable-like in its choice of language. 
  • For example Ella talks of being on 'a List', and how the List is why some people end up in the camp while others don't. Yet, as a child, she doesn't have a full explanation as to what's happening, it's all experienced as rather mythical and story-like.  

But, really, who would know exactly what was happening? 
  • We look back on that time with hindsight, with documents, photographs, films made which reveal the scale of the atrocities; 
  • we now know the terminology, the details, the locations, the numbers. 
  • But if we were there, if we were like Ella - stripped of everything and fighting - or dressmaking - for our lives - how much would we really know about what was going on? How could we know? 

The device of the naive narrator who gradually begins to realise what's happening will likely impact younger readers who may not themselves entirely understand that period of history. And as not everything is clearly spelled out from the offset, they may be drawn into Ella's story without fully appreciating which story it is she's telling. Once they're involved, once they care about Ella, the story then gradually begins to unfold the genuine horrors, but with care.

Who is this book for?
  • Anyone (like me) who likes learning about history through fiction. The idea that there were dressmakers of Auschwitz is a grotesquely fascinating one, and is worth learning about whether through non-fictional accounts, or stories such as The Red Ribbon.
  • Anyone who likes 'a good story'. One they can get absorbed into and want to follow through to find out what happens at the end. 
  • A young adult with a passion for self-expression through fashion. The book (and indeed Adlington's work with The History Wardrobe in general) has a lot to say about the dismissive attitude that 'it's just clothes ... it's not important.' Because the fact that people made space for dressmaking inside a living hell proves that the social messages we tell through them mean they're absolutely not 'just clothes'.  
  • And anyone looking for a refreshing take on inclusion. I'm pretty sure that it's not just my interpretation, and that there was a (very) subtle nod to same-sex attraction within the narrative. I won't spoil it for anyone, but I'm pretty sure there was a frisson, a spark which wasn't made out to be a huge deal, was not overly laboured as a defining issue but was just a light touch, fresh, natural, and simply there as a part of the story. 

The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington is published by Hot Key Books (on September 21st 2017).

What do reckon then? Can you think of someone who'd enjoy The Red Ribbon?
  • Does it help you cross off a name from your Christmas gift list?
  • Or does it give you a title to add to your own Christmas Wish List?!
  • Does it remind you of something you think we all need to add to our reading lists?
  • Does it make you want to find out more about the real stories which inspired the novel?
Let me know in the comments or via any of my online homes: Instagram * Twitter Facebook * Website

And you can catch up with Lucy Adlington via the History Wardrobe Facebook page or on Twitter @historywardrobe #theredribbon
Happy reading! Speak soon.


Disclosure: I was sent a copy of The Red Ribbon in return for a review.  When I saw that Lucy's publishers were seeking reviewers I put my name forward, as being familiar with her work already (through her presentations and her non-fiction book about Great War Fashion) it seemed an ideal fit. I've not been asked to discuss or link to anything in particular.All of the words are my own (well, I didn't invent them, but I did arrange them in the order I wanted, to say the things I wanted to say!)

Thursday 14 September 2017

How having anxiety is like having a funfair goldfish thrust upon you ... and other stories.

Hello you, can we have a  chat about anxiety? Yours, mine, anyone’s.

And can we help those who’ve never experienced anxiety to understand it a little better by explaining to them how having anxiety can be like being given a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag?

Content notice: Discussion of people with anxiety and how some people struggle to support them. Also contains some swearing (because, when you’re writing about real things … you might as well be real about it). 

So, if you’re up for that chat … read on …

Next month (Oct 2017) I’m going to be co-hosting a workshop, with the mental health charity Mind, in which we’ll introduce people to the idea of blogging for, and about, mental health. And, while I don’t consider myself a #mentalhealthblogger as such, I don’t shy away from sharing my wobbles through life. 

And while sharing can’t necessarily prevent wobbles, it’s good to know there are other wobblers around. They give us something to grab on to, and even if we feel ungainly and awkward while grabbing, at least the reaching out keeps us from hitting the floor. 

And the only way to learn that there are other people experiencing these things is for one of them to talk about it; and today it’s my turn. If you need to grab on right now, this post is for you.

So, yes, anxiety.

For the record: I don’t have a current medical diagnosis of anxiety. I have had in the past and, these days, while anxiety relating to my phobia is frequent, the more generalised anxious episodes I'm talking about today are thankfully few and far between.

However ... this summer I experienced something which gave me a slight anxiety attack. Afterwards, when it crossed my mind to blog about the event, it really made me stop and think about how we talk about anxiety, how we emphasise battling through it, getting over it, feeling the fear and doing it anyway, which - to me - doesn't feel like always the best approach. But, before I write that post, before I tell that tale, and consider those questions ...

I’ve been trying to think of a good way to explain this particular kind of anxiety to someone who hasn’t experienced it. 
  • Because sometimes people are anxious for no fully explicable reason, which can be hard for both the individual and those around them to comprehend. 
  • If we admit to feeling anxious, the people around us, led by a genuine desire for us not to be upset, can sometimes respond with things like: “Well don’t be” or “There’s nothing to worry about”, “You’ll be fine” etc. 
  • And while the “Don’t be upset” attitude is genuine and well-meaning … it’s also less helpful than it’s aiming to be. 
(Of course, there are also people who are just Ignorant Shits who think you should just pull yourself together, but I don’t think they’re reading this right now. But if you are, hey, just don’t be a shit eh? And that’s that problem solved.)

What I want to do now is offer up a couple of comparisons, an analogy or two, a Forest Gump-ism if you will ...
  • something that might help non-anxious folks appreciate how baffling a sensation anxiety can be
  • how it can feel like a loss of control
  • and how external it can feel, even though it’s happening inside your own body. 
If there’s someone in your life who you‘d like to ‘get’ it a little better than they do now, shove this under their nose and see if anything helps them understand (you know how people like to hear things from several sources before they quite believe in it!)

So, here we go …

How anxiety is like having a funfair goldfish thrust upon you ... and other stories.

Just like that feeling when you suddenly wonder if you’ve left the gas hob on, the bathroom window open, or the back door unlocked, there are times when a sensation like dread, panic, or turmoil, descends on you, fully formed, from out of nowhere. It just creeps up on you. Hits you. Washes over you.

That’s anxiety. 

Because, often in those situations:

  • it’s not like you’ve actually been sat there all morning actively thinking about the gas, the window, or the lock. 
  • It’s not like you’ve been turning the over the idea in your mind like a gem stone in a polishing tumbler. 
  • It’s just something that popped up, something that suddenly occurred to you … and, try as you might, you can’t un-occur it. 
And, just because you tell yourself:
  • Of course you’ll have locked the door, why wouldn’t you? 
  • When have you ever just walked out and left it? 
  • You definitely did. 
It really doesn’t stop that niggling doubt, that increased heart rate, that whirring mind, that prickle of panic-sweat in your armpits.

And, if I tell you that everything’s fine, that I’m sure you’ll have locked the door, that you can just stop worrying about it … will you?

Can you? 


That’s anxiety. 

Because someone experiencing anxiety can’t just switch it off simply because that would be the most rational and productive thing to do. 

Once you’ve panic-sweated, you’re stuck with panic sweat. It’s a reality. Thinking calmly might certainly prevent an escalation, but it’s only a clean-up job after the fact – the event still happened, it’s still something you need other people to take seriously if their support is to be of any use to you.

And, yeah, it’s hard for someone to put themselves inside you head – especially when, during an anxious episode - you yourself may not be too sure why you feel that way. And it’s not always easy to ask for support. 

So, in order to explain to others this slippery, wispy, spectre of a sensation that wafts in unbidden and – more importantly – unseen …

... let’s try thinking of anxiety as something tangible, something concrete, something that can be witnessed and accepted as ‘real’. 

Something we can hold. 


How about we think about anxiety as a funfair goldfish that’s been dumped on you? 

OK? OK then.

Say you’re going about your business one day, doing your thing, living your life, and then someone emerges in your peripheral vision, carrying a goldfish in a plastic bag, the kind you win at a funfair. And they’re a little out of breath, a touch distracted, they keep looking over their shoulder, and then ...

... they hold out their arm saying “Here, hold this this” while thrusting the plastic bag towards you.

And you take it, because – of course you do – it’s a goldfish in a plastic bag what else are you going to do? Let them drop it?

“Thanks for that” they say, while turning on their heels to leave. And you attempt to object, opening and closing your mouth in a manner not unlike the goldfish you’re holding, but they carry on regardless declaring: “I’ve got to dash, I’ll be back for it later” before vanishing.

And you don’t really know how you got into the situation, you don’t know the backstory (Why you? Why now?) all you do know is that you’re suddenly on your own … with a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag to handle.

And you’ve got shit to do, you’ve got to go about your day, get stuff done, act like a functioning adult; and as if everyday life isn’t tricky enough, you’re now going to have to try to do all of that while taking a f*cking funfair goldfish along with you.

That’s anxiety.

Then you bump into someone you know – someone who doesn’t have to carry a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag with them – and they ask how you are. And although you feel silly, embarrassed and awkward confessing it, you do. You tell them that – because you’ve suddenly got a goldfish in a plastic bag that you have to carry around, you’re actually struggling a little to do all the normal things that everyone around you seems to be managing without issue.

That’s anxiety.

And this person (who isn’t an Ignorant Shit) doesn’t like the idea of you struggling so they try to ‘fix’ the situation. They say things like: “Well, just stop having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag then, and it’ll be fine. You can get on with things like I do and you can stop worrying”.

“Oh” you say, thinking for a second that you’ve found a kindred spirit “So you know what this is like then? Have you also had to struggle along with a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag? What worked for you? How did you change things and get back to ‘normal'?”

And they frown a little, and tense-up, and think you’re being sarcastic. 

“No” they say, “I’ve never had a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag myself. But, if I did, and if it stopped me doing the things I wanted to do, then I’d just stop having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag.”

And your heart sinks a little while you try to explain that it really isn’t as simple as all that
  • That you didn’t ask to have a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag today, it just sort of happened to you. 
  • That you didn’t opt for one for the attention.
  • And you did try to get out of the situation, 
  • And yes, you do know that you could put it down but that – seriously - that’s not as easy a job as you’re making out. 
  • Because – it’s vulnerable and wobbly and you’re not sure what’s the best approach. 
  • And well, it’s in a plastic bag for a start, it’ll probably roll off the table, or leak or burst and the fish will probably die and then the whole situation will be so much worse and it’ll all be your fault and everyone will be staring at you and wondering why you can’t just for god’s sake handle something as simple as a goldfish in a plastic bag like anybody else would!
And they look awkwardly at you like you just said all of that out loud, because you just said all of that out loud.

And they say “Oh, so, are you like, frightened of funfair goldfish or something? Is that why you’re panicking? Do you think it’s going to kill you or something? Because, it won’t kill you, you know? I think you’re getting this all out of proportion. Just breathe. It’s only a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag. Don’t think about it.”

And – after considering the best place you could shove the goldfish in order to stop them talking - you explain that:
  •  No you’re not frightened of funfair goldfish in plastic bags. 
  • You don’t think they’re going to kill you.
  • They’re not something you spend your life dreading, in fact, most of the time they don’t enter your head.
  • But that actually none of that rational thinking matters right now, because right now – no matter how you try reframe the situation – whether you think about it or not, there’s no mistaking it – you’re still standing here holding a bastard funfair goldfish in a plastic bag. 
  • You just are. 
  • It’s happening. 
  • And it’s happening now.
That’s anxiety.

And eventually the person (who really isn’t an Ignorant Shit, they just don’t get it because, unlike you, they’ve never had to carry a funfair goldfish in a carrier bag around with them) looks you in the eye, realises they’re not helping, and says “Is there anything I can do?”.

And at first you want to cry a little because, part of you is just not used to people being so thoughtful, while another part of you feels ridiculous and not worthy of their consideration. 

But you have a think, and you give them some options, some ideas of things they could do to help you while you've got to hold on to a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag.

“Well,” you say … 
  • “You could maybe just sit with me for a bit. It might get a bit lonely what with me being the only one here having to hold on to a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag so, some company might be nice.” Or … 
  • “You could try to distract me. Tell me a joke, give me something to focus on or fiddle with until I can get rid of this thing.” Or … 
  • “You could tell me that you know it’s not my fault, that I didn’t think my way into this, that anyone can find themselves suddenly having to hold a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag, that it can happen to the best of us.” Or … 
  • “You could remind me that ‘this too shall pass’ – that goldfish don’t last for ever, that the owner will come back soon, that I won’t be carrying this for all time.” 
  • “Or … if I’m really struggling with this whole having to carry a funfair goldfish around with me thing, you could tell me that - if I can’t carry on with business as usual - you won’t think any less of me if I just take it outside/home/somewhere quiet and just wait it out.”
And then, you say "Oh, and when it does pass – which will probably feel quicker now I’ve got some company – but when I’m no longer struggling to hold this thing together and stop it bursting all over the floor and ruining my entire day …
  • ... after that I might feel a bit tired, a bit vulnerable, a bit silly – so maybe then you could make me a cuppa, pat my hand, kiss my forehead
  • (Obvs. that last one depends on who they are. Don’t let the Ignorant Shits kiss your forehead #ruletoliveby) 
  • ... and then we could just carry on like it was no big deal.” 
And then the person who didn’t get it before, gets it a little more.

And where before they were uncomfortable with you having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag - because they felt helpless, out of control - they now begin to feel useful, like there’s something they can do if it ever happens again.

Which it might. Because that’s just caring for funfair goldfish for you. And anxiety.

They're both unpredictable but better when shared ... and orange*. 

 (*Anxiety isn’t really orange, I just put that in to see if you were still paying attention.)


So ... what do you reckon? 
  • I don’t pretend this analogy reflects everyone’s experience of anxiety, yours will be different. 
  • If you have your own way of defining, describing, giving a shape to you own experiences of anxiety … do share those too. Someone else may read your version and relate to it.
  • But if this one does help you, or someone you know, get their head around the amorphous confusion that is ‘Anxiety’ …then please ... 
  • Take it, use it, adapt it and let me know what you think in the comments or via any of my online homes.  
  • And please - if you can - share it ... so others might find and benefit from thinking about anxiety as a funfair goldfish! 
  • And any time you're welcome to join me with your own responses or stories using the tag: #anxiousgoldfish 

Thanks for letting me chat about this with you today. I hope something sticks in your mind and comes in useful when you need it to. 


*No funfair goldfish were harmed in the making of this article.