Updated: Jan 23
In an interview with Russell Howard where they discussed the death of his two year-old son, Harvey, comedian Rob Delaney said,
‘I feel like an alien now, I feel weird. Like I feel like I’m a different species. I’ve seen behind the veil and I’ve been humbled viciously and I now know things that not everybody knows.’
I've changed since my son died. You can't have a year like I've had and then be the same person. I'm living on that different planet too, observing everyone as though i'm an outsider and feeling mystified at the things they see as important that I once did but don't anymore.
Yet this incredibly painful year taught me so much, I simply can't let it all be for nothing.
I thought for an end of year post that it might be a good thing to share how I got through 2019. I've written a top ten list of things which is long, as was my year, so pull up a chair if you think what I have to share might help you or someone you know.
1: I Found Out Who I Am
I began my journey to self by collecting then reading a lot of books on subjects I felt resonated with me in some way after my marriage broke down. There's a moment in the beginning of the film, Eat, Pray, Love when Elizabeth is buying a stack of self-help books and the assistant tells her there's a whole divorce section out back. I smiled at this because it was me. Back then I was looking for answers as to why I couldn't seem to make my life and my relationships work and books seemed the best and easiest place to start. I then began opening up and talking to people. As I braved sharing deeply personal things it's true I felt vulnerable, but the feedback I've had from all kinds of places has continued to make a huge contribution to the much improved me.
Take time out to go within, and books are always a good way to do that. I've thrown away what didn't fit and taken a lot of advice on board that absolutely did. I learned I'm a far better person than I'd been led to believe for a long, long time. I learned that the hard way; by having to start my life over from scratch and ask people for help. It came from everywhere; it continues to come from everywhere. This was another important step towards really seeing myself too.
After I moved into my new home back in January 2019 I told a family member how staggered I was by the help that had come at me from all sides while my life was on the floor. (As I shared in a previous post, 'A Writer's Life - The Raw Truth, I'd endured a period of homelessness in order to leave my relationship). He put his arm round my shoulder and said, 'What do you expect, Auntie Heather? You've been here for all of us for years. Everyone wants to pay you back.' I had no idea people thought about me like that, because whenever my family needs me I just go, it's not something I have to think hard about. I've long forgotten most of the things I've done to help various people. It's a powerful thing to stand back and take a good look at yourself through the eyes of someone who loves or admires you. Try to do that.
We all have a tendency to ignore the good stuff people say about us and settle our thoughts on the negative things. You can have ninety-percent good comments on your performance at something and ten percent bad, and it's the ten percent that consumes your thoughts.
Stop. Just stop. That, I've found, is great advice. I'm a new person today, and a large part of my healing has to do with listening and absorbing the wonderful things people have to say about me. It takes a bit of getting used to, accepting praise - particularly when you lived a long life with a toxic person or people who put you down a lot. I wish you would see your light - I wish that for everyone with a heart that's hurting.
Go on, get out. Find you. Then believe in the good thing you've found. I'm willing to bet you're wonderful.
2: I Kept a Journal.
Keeping a journal is like a much needed conversation you have with yourself. When I began writing mine I was telling no one about my problems except for the journal. It became like another person to talk to - the only thing I could confide in at the time. I worked a lot of things through in that first journal of the last six months of my marriage. One of the most monumental moments of 2019 was the day I tore out and burned every page of that one because I didn't need to go back to it anymore. I'd learned everything I needed from it by then and always felt sad reading the thoughts of this woman in a previous life who'd been confused and bewildered. She's gone now, but I remember a paragraph that still hurts my heart for the woman I was back then. I wrote:
'I keep being told, "Oh, I should just stop what I'm doing and listen to you, shouldn't I? It's got to be all about how you feel, what you think."
I can't wait for the day when I find someone who doesn't make that sound like such a ridiculous thing to ask: to simply be listened to.'
I started a new journal after destroying that one, knowing I'll never be her again. It was a very powerful healing experience. Keeping a journal continues to be a huge help to me.
Write to yourself everyday. You'll be amazed at what you learn.
3: I Got Counselling
The most effective and powerful part of therapy in my case as I walked into that first session clutching my journal like it was the last evidence of my sanity, was to feel listened to, believed and understood. This break in the clouds came after a prolonged period of gaslighting so I, a writer, had lost confidence in my ability to even use my own words to describe my feelings and experiences. Everything I thought I knew about myself and the accuracy of my natural intuition had been continually called into question up to then. The advice I got was invaluable, but the realisation that another person understood what I was saying lifted a huge fog that had been hanging over me for several years in an afternoon. Once I could see that I made sense, I began slowly and steadily learning to have confidence in my ability to work things out for myself, which I'm sure is the whole point. It was the springboard to so many new discoveries for me after a lifetime of feeling misunderstood. Talking to a therapist felt like my brain was having a spa day.
I know quite a few people who absolutely refuse to go to counselling even though they need it, because they think opening up the deepest, darkest recesses of their mind to a stranger will make them feel uncomfortable. It really does, he was a bastard...
He made me, an introverted, life-long expert in avoidance, face things. :-)
Go find the best friend you'll ever have who's not your actual friend. Get counselling.
4: I Searched For Meaning
This one's an absolute biggie. Looking for and finding the meaning to every bad thing that happened to me this year has been a game changer. I discovered in doing that I could cope with so much more than I ever thought possible and I've gone on doing this like it's a habit now. I've held my head up and bloody made myself keep going.
It doesn't sound easy, does it? Let me try to help.
Viktor Frankl, a holocaust surviver, said,
'It's not the physical pain which hurts the most, it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.'
I think this is a helpful way to start looking at your pain, knowing that it's more about the why than the what is happening to you. It's while you're experiencing the full force of it that you're most open to receiving the information you need to find the why. When you stop to think about where it's actually coming from, you'll see it. I've seen that I'm not grieving because Ryan died; I believe he's very much still around me. I'm grieving for myself because I miss him here in the physical so much. My tears are for me.
Finding the reason for your losses won't stop you feeling the pain and it definitely won't stop you crying over them. You have to accept and let all that out. It just helps to give your own life purpose and you a reason to go on. I have found new life and purpose in my work since the loss of my son, and at 49 years of age I'm at university studying hard for a Master's degree in TV writing. I and my son have stories to share.
Look for the meaning, then go out there and do something with what you learn. I can't tell you there's a short cut or roundabout for dealing with grief - the only way is through it. But get busy with it. You need to. And I want to say another thing about grieving. Don't allow anyone to tell you that the things you feel about the person you've lost being 'there' at times aren't real. Everything is as you say it is. It's your experience; it belongs to you. Don't let anyone take that from you.
I was woken up by my son's voice in my head the other day. He said, 'Don't cry, mum. Honestly, everything's going to be okay.' I cried a lot through December, and this made me cry again. It also gave me comfort. I've endured a string of traumas this year and although I'm helped and supported by an amazing network of family and friends who are there whenever I call, I've had to face a lot of it by myself. Even if the things I hear in my head are a product of me knitting myself a mental comfort blanket to protect myself from feeling alone, that's okay. It's okay because it works and I know I'm not suffering from any kind of mental illness. Take what you need from these experiences, knowing that there's not a single soul on this earth who actually knows where we go when we die. Keep an open mind, allow it to soothe you. Lord knows, you need that even and especially from yourself.
You're going to cry. It's going to hurt. Let it be. And when you're ready, look for the meaning. It's there somewhere, trust me.
5: I Stopped Caring What People Thought About Me
Lord this would be a good one to make people stop reading or taking me seriously, but here goes: I'm an oddball. I'd have been burned as a witch three hundred years ago and that's all I'm going to say here on my blog. If you meet me in real life and I trust you, I'll probably tell you about it now if you asked me. In short, yeah, as someone tweeted the other day, this is me whenever someone says, 'But this is the way it's always been done.'
I have some ways about me that often don't want to take the road everyone else is on. I'm a heretic and I've always been that hamster.
Whatever your particular brand of weird is, as long as it isn't hurting anybody I say embrace it. It's very liberating.
6: I Embraced My Vulnerability
Here's mine - right here on the page. I've written enough on this one so I'll tell you a story instead.
I've been making myself get out and meet new people, going against the introvert in me who'd rather stay home with a good book sometimes. Last week I was out with a fellow writer for the first time who happens to have read some of my work as well as my blog. So much about me is here for all to see: my heartbreak, my losses, some personal life experiences and my weirdness. It's not that I mind anymore what anyone thinks; I guess this bit is waiting for the fall out. Waiting to learn who's going to leave and who's going to stay. Going out for a drink with someone I haven't known long at this point was a huge exercise in vulnerability for me. It's one thing to write out your life for anyone to read, it's another to be face to face with someone new who's read it all before you've even had chance to open your mouth about yourself. I was prepared for him to think I was a basket case, even though he was happy to spend time with me after all that reading. We had a nice afternoon, got along like a house on fire, had a few laughs and I didn't sense any judgement on me. And now I have a brand new writer friend to bounce creative ideas off.
In the same week I was with a group of people that didn't know me at all when suddenly, all eyes were on me after someone decided to share a deeply personal thing from my past without warning or my consent. The weight of judgement I felt in the discussion that followed made me feel annoyed more than bothered by it. What I took away was the knowledge that there was no one in that group I wanted for a friend.
The moral of this story? When you share the deepest parts of yourself, opening your heart for all to see, it does make you feel exposed. However, that's when you can see clearly who your people are, perhaps, as in my case, after years of spending too much time and energy trying to be accepted by those who aren't. Being open allows you to start filling your life with good, genuine people and filter out the toxic ones. It's not your business to care what anyone thinks of you, it's your business to assess people's actions and reactions to you in order to form healthier relationships. I've learned at long last that I don't have to care what anyone thinks of the things that have happened to me, I only have to pay attention to my instincts. I'll be accepted for who I am by the people that matter. I'm not what happened to me. I'm not my past, I'm just me.
It's not easy allowing yourself to be vulnerable. This new approach to openness will make some people uncomfortable and close doors in your life. But you soon learn they were all dead end, dark broom cupboards where you kept smacking your head on things as you tried to feel your way around. They're exhausting.
Then there are the doors that will open to you. They lead to sunny, bright, far happier days that make you forget the countless broom cupboards you've got yourself stuck inside. All the best people are through those sunny doors getting a tan.
Keep walking that way.
7: I Kept the Silly Side of Myself.
I've somehow managed to make some of the most seemingly straight-laced people forget who they are for a time and give in to the giggles. It's one of my most favourite things to do, break down people's invisible barriers through humour. I'm a happy heretic. I hate to follow rules; it seems to me that a lot of them forbid people from having a happy life and a sense of humour about themselves. Why? There's nothing in the world that feels better to me than laughing until I can't breathe with someone.
Before I became a writer I had a lot of jobs where I just kept doing things that gave clues to the comedy writer I was going to become. I may as well have given up and got real over what I was meant to be doing, because I was never helping ANYONE get any work done in these places.
I had the Chief Pharmacist of the Midcounties Coop Group serving tea to store staff in a flowery apron as a competition prize after the poor fools let me take over the staff newsletter. I managed to talk twelve male, corporate professionals from the Head Office of another company I was working for to pose naked, semi-naked or in some version of drag at their desks for a calendar I was making for my line manager's fortieth birthday. All that laughter behind closed office doors as department heads crept about trying not to let the CEO catch them undressed was the scariest, funniest thing.
My poor, long-suffering line manager. He found himself subject to practical jokes for much of the time we shared an office - things like checking his desk diary on a Monday morning to recall all the important meetings he had that day only to find that at nine-thirty he had to 'SEE HOW I LOOK IN TIGHTS'. That giant, desk-sized diary which was meant to help him organise his working life contained more fiction than all three Lord of The Rings books. It was there - right there - that I started writing stories. I didn't upset him too much; it's been almost nine years since I left that job and he still speaks to me.
Another ex colleague sent me a message recently when he saw I was making steps into TV writing as a career:
Seb hasn't heard the laugh he remembers me for in over twenty-five years. I know he heard it enough though, because he was often rendered helpless by something daft I'd said or done even as we worked our way through some difficult casework together. When I laughed, it was very
often at the states he got himself into laughing at me. I recall him, a usually staid and professional senior housing officer, having to dive under his desk and hide from a particularly unpleasant tenant who was waiting to see him one day. He had to be serious and give her a
ticking off, which wasn't going to work in his state. It took him a good few minutes to compose himself enough to be able to crawl out from his hiding place to take that meeting. The memory of a grown man in a shirt and tie, crouched under his desk, eyes streaming from laughter was the
image I saw when I heard from him again. It's one that I'm happy to remind him of now he's a Managing Director. I bet he wishes I was working with him now...
To see people happy and make them laugh has always been the thing I love most. One of my favourite memories of my trip with Mandy in the summer was on the last night when she lost the power of her legs, rolled all over the tent she was trying to put up and begged me to stop making her laugh because her stomach hurt. She laughed a little bit too hard one day... Well, she'd been eating onions.
Shout. Sing. Dance. Laugh.
Find your joy and try to live in it every day, even if you can only manage it in short bursts. They'll get longer with time and dedication. Don't let your happiness go out the door, no matter what.
8: I Wrote Down Five Things I'm Grateful For Every Day
When someone says, 'Be grateful' as your entire world is falling around your ears, it sounds like stupid, sickly, Pollyanna thinking. I get it. And I won't lie and tell you that it's an easy thing to do at the start. Yet after Ryan died I started to write out five things I was grateful for on a daily basis, I've been doing it ever since and IT WORKS. I can't tell you how many days I squeezed the daftest things out while sobbing and swearing at the page. 'Thank you for the fucking potatoes', I wrote once when I really couldn't think of anything else.
I suffered horrible, lonely days and said thanks for them. 'I'm so grateful that I'm lonely alone now instead of being lonely without being alone.' That's a real line from it, by the way. My sentence structure wasn't great when I was crying.
I wrote, 'Thank you for loving me' when I was stuck for something to write and the song by Bon Jovi came on. Nobody was loving me, so I didn't even know who I was saying thank you to. I gave thanks anyway. It could have been Jon himself.
I wrote thank you for the 804,834,000 seconds that my son was in my life.
There were many, many times when finding one thing felt near impossible, let alone five. Yet I've managed to do it every single day for just over a year.
What's the $%&% point?
a) Things I needed began magically turning up right on time, sometimes in the most random, inexplicable ways. b) After twelve months of practising gratitude, whenever anything bad happens my mind automatically looks to the positive now. I do it all the time. It works, and there's real science to back me up.
"Research has shown that gratitude can improve general well-being, increase resilience, strengthen social relationships, and reduce stress and depression. The more grateful people are, the greater their overall well-being and life satisfaction. Grateful people also have a greater capacity for joy and positive emotions." - Karen Young, The Science of Gratitude.
I don't need or want to bang on about this one, it works and it's the end of 2019. Start on the first day of 2020 and come back in 2021 to tell me I'm right. Because I am.
Be grateful for your potatoes.
9: I Realised My Own Worth
This is one of my favourites. I wrote the lines above on a day when I'd had one of the first of what was to become many significant breakthroughs on my road to healing. It was momentous for me to write this AND believe it, because this time last year I was at an all-time low. I'd begun to believe I was a bad person who was too much for anybody to love.
If someone like me was in love with me, I'd never let them leave. That's how well I understand my worth today. You are worthy of a great and incredible love. Worthy of so much more than you've had.
I am wonderful, and so are you. Know this, but more importantly, believe it. You can learn to love the person you see in the mirror again, even after the most terrible cruelties. You only have to say it enough to begin to believe it. Say it, write it, listen to it, sing it to yourself. I'm happier in my own skin these days than I've been in a long time against a lot of odds.
I know there are horrendous experiences that deliver a level of pain that's beyond most other
people's comprehension. Bad people can take your pride, your dignity, your sanity, your self-respect and even your love for your own body away from you with their harmful actions and you need to sit a while with that in order to process and deal with it. You need to find and accept help to come back. But to carry on letting it hurt you for the rest of your days gives the person who took all this without your permission all the power while continuing to steal yours. Do you want this person to hold your happiness hostage? What if you could make a decision not to let them? It takes a lot of strength and courage to change your mindset but I've done it in the midst of a world of personal pain. I like to think that if I can do that, others can too. I hope you can.
Change your mind. Know your worth; remind yourself of it every damn day. Then no one can take that from you again.
Ahhhnd finally, because this has gone on long enough:
10: Keep Dancing When The Lights Go Out.
My friend Mandy and I took Ryan's ashes along with us on a roadtrip around the north coast 500 last summer, recording ourselves dancing on ten beaches along the way in his memory. I had lost my child; Mandy, her husband of 30 years.
When you're sad, raise your vibration with happy music, and if you're able to, dance. It works. Sing 'Ain't Nobody loves me better than YOU!'
That's everything I have.
Wishing you a happy, healthy 2020 full of love and laughter. Take care of you. xxx