Oshika update July 2017

Since my last update in January I am thrilled to announce that an additional ¥1,458,500 (just over £10,100 or almost $13,200) has been pledged to support a number of projects on Oshika. This brings the total now to over ¥23 million (that’s more than £150,000 or almost $222,000).

One million yen of that has come in from an individual, and that money will be divided between three projects … firstly to create the orchard on Ajishima, so that the islanders can grow fruits, vegetables, and nuts to be sold or used to make pickles to sell and therefore encourage small business opportunities, something very dear to my heart! Secondly to pay for the school uniforms for all of the students entering Oshika Junior High School in 2018. This will be the fifth consecutive year that together we have supported the parents on Oshika by assisting them with purchasing school uniforms. And thirdly to pay for the repair of the Ohara “tetsubachi” … the hand-washing area at the top of the shrine steps, an area that always fascinates me in every shrine I go to.

During my last visit, I had asked Kucho-san to obtain an estimate for the complete repair of all the different areas of the shrine … I had already found sponsors for the building of a new kanetsukido, and for the rebuilding of the shinden, but there are other areas of this 400-year-old shrine that needed repairing. What we have done so far in the rebuilding of this shrine, along with the estimate, has inspired the village to also seek sponsorship themselves, and they have found a sponsor for another part of the shrine, which is really encouraging. Sometimes the act of providing sponsorship can also provide a lot of hope and motivation. Thank you so much to everyone. If you are interested in sponsoring any particular elements of this shrine, which was created by Sendai founder Date, please let me know. Current needs range from ¥375,000 to ¥6 million.

Back to the donations that have been pledged since my last update in January … the Japanese community in Oxford are donating £1000 from this year’s fundraiser toward the creation of a performance space on Ajishima. There are a number of young musicians that have moved to the island and this performance space will allow them to organize events to bring people together, as well as share the healing power of music. Thank you very much to the Oxford Japanese community.

The Ajishima dog run will soon become a reality, thanks to a ¥200,000 donation from a Tokyo-based individual. The island has dreams of rivaling the nearby “Cat Island” in becoming THE place for dogs to have fun! This will provide a safe place for dogs and their owners, both residents and tourists. I am very excited about visiting this when it is completed.

And the lovely Mariko Yasuda is hosting her annual summer fundraiser again this year, and has asked me to find yet another project for her funds to support. Thank you Mariko!

And good news for projects that have already received their funding and are in the process of being constructed … The Ajishima playground, sponsored by the Ohana International School community in Tokyo, is pretty much finished! Just in time for the summer. AND the islanders were inspired by the support they had received and decided to apply to Ishinomaki City Hall to gain additional funding so that they could further develop the playground, and they were successful! Again, another example of motivating the local people to gain further support for rebuilding their communities. Thank you to everyone that supported this wonderful project to give the children of Ajishima a safe and fun place to play, and to encourage more young families to move to or visit the island. I’d like to share a little note from the islanders that shows just how much this space means to them: “Yesterday at the small post office on the island, I met the mother of one of the island children. She said her daughter and another island friend have played at the playground every day after school since we opened it up. The mother is so happy and relieved that her daughter has a safe and fun place to be a kid along with other kids. For that, she, we, all of us, are thankful for your kindness.”

Finally, the Ajishima Farmers’ Market and Shared Kitchen space, sponsored by a number of Tokyo-based entrepreneurs and philanthropists via HOPE International, is well underway. This is a huge project, involving the renovation of a very old building, and bringing together so many people from the island and beyond. Former residents and closing businesses have heard about this project and jumped in to offer support too, with five truck-loads of equipment, furniture, and materials being donated, and also inspiring the islanders to create a café as part of the market and kitchen.

Disaster recovery is so much more than clearing debris. It is so much more than building homes, and repairing old buildings. It is about giving survivors the time to process their shock, to reconnect with each other, to adjust to a new norm, to grieve, and to know that there ARE people out there who want to gently hold their hands along the way. To show them what IS possible. To show them that people care. And at some point … maybe YEARS after the initial impact, they can feel motivated, inspired, and strong enough to take the initiative in new ways to move forward with their lives and communities. Thank you so much to everyone that has been a part of that during the past six years.

And if you’d like to be part of the rebuilding of the Oshika community, there are still plenty of ways to help … there are a few projects on Ajishima (ranging from ¥200,000 to ¥1.5 million) as well as the Ohara shrine projects I mentioned above. The 2019 school uniforms will require ¥329,000, and of course, there are always the Pink Ladies fishing outfits! Just ¥20,000. My next trip will probably be in December so please get in touch if you’d like to know more. And thank you again.

With love and appreciation


I’m back! (WARNING: lots of swearing)

I disappeared three and a half years ago. Disappeared under a cloud so black and so heavy that I couldn’t see any way out of it. I don’t struggle with mental health issues or have periods of depression … by nature I am a ridiculously happy person (some would say annoyingly so). No. Something happened on 24th February 2014 which broke me, then continued to chip away at the pieces that were left until there was nothing of who I used to be.

You would never have known it if you’d seen me at the markets, still smiling and chatting to customers, but the smile that Phil the Olive Guy used to say lit up the whole market, was gone. You would never have known it if you’d seen me on Oshika, where I consider my job there to be making people happy. But Onodera-san saw right through me.

After three and a half years I was exhausted. I’d tried everything to pull myself up and nothing seemed to work. I gave up. So when I found a lump, I did not care one bit. Within an hour I’d already decided not to tell anyone, to refuse treatment, and quietly take myself off to Switzerland at some point. I wasn’t afraid. Part of me was relieved. At least there would be an end to feeling like this. The lump turned out to be nothing. And it shocked me.

It shocked me that what happened to me had brought me, a fundamentally happy person who loved life and bloody well lived it to the full, truly believing that I never would again. It shocked me into deciding that I HAD to do something. If only I could get rid of all the negative chatter and replaying what happened that was constantly going on in my head.

Things like the banging of doors, police officers in my home, bottles of wine being drunk one after the other, the insults, the shouting, the vicious text messages, the urine soaked bedding, my hand shaking with so much fear I couldn’t get the key in the door, finding knives hidden away, bolting from my home in the middle of the night, sleeping in secret in a caravan for a month, sitting terrified in a court room, and being handed that piece of paper that would make me safe. It didn’t make me safe from my own thoughts though. I wanted them all to just fuck off.

So that’s what I told them to do. And this is why I’m sharing this. Because after 24 hours of telling EVERY SINGLE NEGATIVE THOUGHT in my head to fuck off, they did. And once they did, I could finally BREATHE again, and throw myself back into life. I was ME again.

And in the two and a half weeks since that happened, I’ve found myself playing music while I pickle, singing and dancing in my kitchen, laughing again and I mean REALLY laughing, taking that weekend off that I’m always saying I’m going to do to hang out with a dear friend in London, having that beer with my delivery guy and friend that he’s always suggesting, reaching out to the people who’ve seen me at my worst during the past three and a half years and letting them know how much I appreciate them never giving up on me, booking that hair appointment to go back to the crazy colours I used to have, and finally asking that guy out that I’ve fancied for like a year.

So I share all this in case just one person might be stuck with their negative thoughts going round and round in their head and feeling that there is no way out. Tell those thoughts to fuck off. And they just might do that.

Father’s Day Thoughts

If you find bad language offensive, best ignore this post because there’s rather a lot in it …

Father’s Day is coming up, which can be a bit of a strange day for some, myself included. For years I’d look at the rows of Father’s Day cards in the shops, and think that none of these sentiments were relevant to me. If I’d ever sent my father a card that said “To the best Dad in the world,” after the age of about fourteen, he’d think I was taking the piss. And he’d have been right. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to wish him Happy Father’s Day, I just wanted a card that said, “Dad, you’re kind of a dick, but I love you and Happy Father’s Day anyway.”

These days, I like to send a card to my father-in-law, who, despite the fact he hasn’t actually been my father-in-law for six years, I still think of him as one, and he still thinks of me as his daughter-in-law. In recent years I’ve come across a range of cards directed at mums on Father’s Day, so I like to send those to my mum. Some of them are touching and sweet, and some of them are brutally honest and hilarious. I prefer the latter and this is the one I’m sending her this year.

Now my biological father might be reading this post but I’m not worried, because he has a great sense of humour and we’ve come a looooong way in recent years, so I think he’ll see the card I’m sending mum, laugh, and say to himself, “Very good Carrie, very good.” These days he’d be the first person to put his hand up and say, “Yep, I was a Twat Dad.”

And this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of all the Twat Dads out there, or “Twads” as I prefer to call them.

I get that parenting is tricky. Nobody prepares you for it. You might find yourself a parent way too young in life, you might have had crap role models, you might have had kids with someone it turns out you don’t want to spend your life with. You might, quite simply, be an asshole. We’re all human, and taking care of a little human is TOUGH. There are all sorts of things that make someone a good father, and make someone a bad father, but I think that there are two fundamental basics to being a father, that may determine whether you’re a Twad or not …

  1. Always, always have the utmost respect for the woman who is raising your child. Whether you are in a relationship with her or not. This means talking to and about her with kindness, empathy, and support. Always. You might not love or even like her anymore, but if you can’t afford the woman who is raising your child some appreciation and respect, then you’re probably a Twad.
  2. If you’re not a stay-at-home dad then do whatever you can to share the financial responsibility for raising your child. If you don’t have a job that means you can’t afford to support your child, then bloody well get one. It doesn’t matter how much money the mother makes. Be a responsible parent. And if you do happen to have more money then the mother of your child (who may not have followed the career path she had hoped for because … oh yeah … she’s raising your kid) then don’t go spending that money on yourself and your new hobbies/girlfriend/family/house instead of school uniforms or a washing machine for your child’s home. If you can’t share any wealth you have, or make an effort to get a job, then you’re probably a Twad.

This is just my opinion (and I’m not mentioning the crap mums out there because this is about Father’s Day), but I think that being a good father is actually more about how you treat the mother, than how you treat the child. Chances are, if you’re able to treat the mother well, you’ll treat your child well too. Because whether or not you’re with the mother, you’ll be providing the first role model of how human beings should treat each other. And being a great role model for human interactions is the best gift you can give a child.

If you’re a Twad, chances are at some point, your child is going to have “issues” with you. Your own relationship with them will likely not be a happy one. In my case, I had an on-off relationship with my father for thirty years. Thirty years! I went through periods of cutting him out then letting him in, then cutting him out and letting him in, over and over again, only to discover every single time that he was still a Twad. The longest period I went not speaking to him was ten whole years.

When someone cuts you out of their life it can be tempting to think that it’s intended to be some kind of punishment. I never intended it to be like that, and it certainly never felt like that. Sometimes you need space from someone, and it’s not space to think about that person and all the wrongs and the disappointments and the he saids and he dids. It’s about needing the space to NOT think about those things anymore. To just get on with the joys of life without having to deal with a person who consistently disappoints. So if you know deep down that you’re a Twad, don’t be surprised if at some point your child says, “Enough is enough.”

Now, all credit to my father, during those ten years he would make attempts to reach out. I found them to be totally inappropriate … occasional emails, a Facebook friend request, and once contact through a geneology website, to which I childishly responded by clicking the button that said, “I am not related to this person.” I still needed my space to not think about him, BUT he was letting me know however he felt comfortable, that he was still thinking about me. And this is actually a key message to all Twads who have been cut out from their child’s life. To gently, kindly, not too intrusively but consistently, respect your child’s boundaries but let them know that your door is open to them.

Because one day a few years ago, when I’d accepted that I would never have a father in the way that some people have them, I sat down and handwrote a little card to him, saying that he was welcome to make contact in person, and that I had no expectations. And this is a key message to all children of Twads. A Twad will never be the father you want. And really, that is OK. It’s sad, but it’s the hand that some of us are dealt in life. I wrote the card not because I needed or missed a father in my life, but because I didn’t need one anymore. We are not given a choice in who our parents are, and I actively made a choice to have him in my life again. Not as a father but as a friend. I didn’t need anything from him. I just didn’t want to cut him out anymore. Not because of any pain that might be causing him. But for something … I didn’t know what when I wrote the card … but for something that cutting him out was doing to me.

He called me the very same day my card arrived. We had a very normal chat, like people who’d only spoken a few days earlier. I had always enjoyed talking to him, had always loved his sense of humour, and had always found him easy to talk to. He was the one I’d call to send me condoms when I was in Japan — I never felt that anything was taboo with him and I’ve always preferred being around people with whom you can talk about anything. It had never been him as a person I didn’t like, it was him as a father. I shouldn’t really have been surprised that we connected again right away. And to be honest, I think that period of no contact was necessary for us ever to have any kind of “nice” relationship.

He lives overseas so we weren’t to meet in person until about six months later. Again, we connected right away, and I enjoyed his company. We didn’t discuss “us.” I had no desire to bring up anything. There was nothing I needed resolving because I had had the space to do that on my own. And I didn’t (and still don’t) want to spend what little time I may have with him, going over the past. He was obviously more emotional than I, but that’s understandable … as you get older I guess you become more aware of what you’ve missed out on because of ways you might have treated people. That must be tough to deal with. I wouldn’t want to be coming toward the end of my life with that kind of regret.

I mentioned that I wanted to pick up a mirror I’d spotted in a secondhand shop that was exactly what I’d been looking for to go in my bedroom, and he insisted on paying the £10 it cost. It was a really small thing, but it meant the world to me. Of course I didn’t need him to do it — I have enough money for whatever I need. No, it meant the world to me because of what he said when he bought it, “Of all my kids, you’re the only one who’s never had anything from me.” It’s not technically true because he bought me my first car, and he took me shopping once at university where he filled the trolley with all these expensive branded items when I would have just thrown in a few tins of beans and packets of pasta and not taken advantage of his wealth. At 45 I’m the eldest, and his youngest is about five, and with a few more kids in between, a long time ago I got used to the different levels of financial and emotional support we’ve received, but still, it meant so much to me that he acknowledged that I’ve had very little from him when compared to the others. I truly treasure that mirror.

So on this Father’s Day, I want to say, obviously, try not to be a Twad. But there are a lot of them out there so if you’re one of them, give your child space to be Twad-free for a while if they need it, but keep your door open.

And if you’re unlucky enough to have a Twad for a dad, it’s OK to want to be free of him, and you don’t ever have to “make up” if you don’t want to, regardless of any pressure anyone might try to put on you. It’s up to YOU, and you alone. But don’t be surprised if one day you feel that you do want him back … It was only the day after his phone call when I realized why something was telling me to reconnect.

Because when I woke up the next day, I felt at peace. Like a little bit of my heart had mended. And I hadn’t even known it was broken.

Seeing good … again

I recently wrote about being the kind of person who sees good in others, and how that can make you a target for people who want to take advantage of you. Those people are parasites, bullies, narcissists … people who are jealous of your open and loving heart and the love and friendship that has brought you, and seek to cause you pain in order to feel good about themselves. Because they have nothing else in their lives from which to gain inner peace and happiness. They get off on making people around them miserable because it makes them feel they have control of something fundamentally good … you.

So how do you move forward after an experience that has shattered your worldview? That has deeply challenged your strongly held beliefs that people are kind and loving and while everyone makes mistakes, surely nobody would ever intentionally inflict pain on others? That has made you question everything you thought you ever knew about how we all strive to treat other human beings?

It can be tempting to hide away and avoid people altogether. To not permit yourself to become close to anyone new. To cut off everyone you do know because, well, do you really know them at all?

Just over three years ago something happened to me that completely and utterly shattered my worldview. I was in shock for a year. Aside from a few people, nobody knew what was happening, and on the outside nobody guessed. I did a brilliant job of covering things up. After that year was up, I knew I could no longer live that life, a life that went against everything I believed in, that was leading me to question my own sanity, a life that was consumed by treading on eggshells, panic attacks, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts. I took steps to distance myself from the cause, but things got much, much worse, before I was finally free. Free to work out what the bloody hell just happened. And free to work out how I was possibly going to face the world again without losing an open, loving, and trusting heart, knowing that there were indeed, toxic people in that world. Parasites, bullies, narcissists.

But I have worked out how to face it, while still keeping my heart open, loving, and trusting. Here is what has worked for me, and I really hope this might help others feeling how I did not that long ago.

Firstly, spending a lot of time alone is really important. Time alone without distracting yourself by alcohol, TV, Facebook, or filling up your social calendar. Take some time out from everything and everyone except yourself. Grieve. Process. Be angry. Cry. Learn to be comfortable with your own emotions. Learn to be comfortable with yourself. You need that time to process what has happened, and be honest with yourself about why you have been a target. This is not to say that it is your fault in any way. THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT.

Secondly, get a good counselor. Someone who specializes in abuse, narcissistic personality disorder, PTSD. Someone who acknowledges that what you have been through is NOT NORMAL. Make notes on what you want to discuss with them. Prepare for your time with them. Tell them you expect to come away with actual tools after every session, and not just expect them to listen while you pour your heart out. You want someone who is proactive in assisting you with rebuilding your worldview.

It is likely that patterns will emerge in your personal or professional life where your kind nature was taken advantage of before. Some of those memories may still cause you confusion. Now you can put them in context and understand that you were a target because of your open and loving heart. You didn’t do anything wrong.

You know the way that you can see people in pain? You can sense people in trouble and want to help them? You can’t help that about yourself, right? You just want to make their pain go away. Well, bullies and narcissists can read you just as well. They are experts at finding people with the most empathy because they know if they play the victim card, you’ll be putty in their hands. They can’t help that about themselves either … it’s just the way they are wired. There is nothing you will ever be able to do to change them, and there is no treatment for narcissism. They will never change.

They may have brought you unimaginable pain, but they have also given you an incredible gift. Because if you spend enough time actually processing what happened, you will be able to spot a narcissist or bully a mile away. They all behave in exactly the same way. There is nothing original about them. Which makes them easy to study. You will educate yourself about narcissism and know exactly how to respond to them. You will learn all sorts of new vocabulary, like lovebombing, gaslighting, flying monkeys, grey rock, which will enable you to easily articulate exactly what happened, and to see when anything like that is happening again. You will be able to identify these people. And instead of feeling dismayed at the number of toxic people there are in the world (and when you know the signs, they are everywhere) you will feel a secret confidence that you know what they are. And you will know to avoid them. When I met an acquaintance’s husband, I instantly saw the signs. He makes me extremely uncomfortable whereas he wouldn’t have done before, so I now know not to invest any emotional energy into that man. But I’ll be there for his wife when she realizes it too.

And it is that emotional investment that is the key to how you face the world afterwards. I made a very conscious decision to hold on tightly to my open and loving heart, because I bloody well value it. I like that about myself. I like me. I don’t want to change. So I’m just going to hold back on any emotional investment because I’m not willing to change ME, and that me is a target.

So I decided that I wasn’t going to trust anyone new. But I wasn’t going to MIStrust them either. I wasn’t going to assume everyone had some agenda of their own. But I wasn’t going to assume everyone DIDN’T have an agenda of their own. I wasn’t going to make any kind of decisions — good or bad — about anybody. I would just let them be whoever they were, confident in the knowledge that they might not show their true colours right away, and confident in my newfound knowledge of all the signs of toxic people. And confident that, having spent so much time alone and continuing to do so, anyone I let close would be close because I had one hundred percent CHOSE them to be, not because I needed anything from them. I no longer needed someone to heal, because I am focused on healing myself. Nobody can ever heal someone else anyway. You have to do it yourself. And some people never will.

Now this newfound knowledge about yourself and others is all well and good, but if you spend all your time alone you don’t get a chance to put it into practice. So you’ve got to get out there and interact. You need the chance to put your new radar into practice, and know how to clearly set boundaries when you feel in any way taken advantage of. I’ve had this opportunity three times in the past year, when I was in situations where three separate individuals behaved in ways where I felt my good nature was being abused. I fought my natural instinct to avoid conflict and not upset people, and instead put myself first. I stated very clearly that whatever was happening at the time was unacceptable, and did not give that person the opportunity to do it again. Easy to do if you’re not emotionally invested and if you know the signs that somebody will continue to treat you disrespectfully. It’s in their nature. They can’t help it. You won’t change it. But YOU get to decide if they will have the chance to do it again, not them. And actually, for someone who has historically been absolutely crap at setting boundaries, it was a fantastic feeling to do it the first time. And it got easier each time.

Living a life where you’re cautious with your emotional energy may sound like you’re constantly on the lookout for, well, assholes, but it’s not like that. Being aware of poor behaviour doesn’t mean that you stop being aware of good behaviour. If anything, you become even more appreciative of the little kindnesses in the world. Because they are there. And this is why it’s really important NOT to shut yourself away from the world. If you don’t work in a field like I do, where for three days a week I meet hundreds of people at the markets, then get yourself in a position where you are likely to meet random strangers … even if it’s volunteering in your local charity shop. When you’re spending your day smiling and chatting with complete strangers, that in itself keeps your heart open. And sure, you notice the man who flirts with female stallholders right in front of his wife, but you also notice the man who spends every weekend shopping and hanging out with his nephew. You notice the self-entitled kids who grab a handful of tasting crackers and run off after smirking at you, but you are touched by the sweet one who politely asks you if they may taste a pickle then shyly thanks you before returning to their parents.

And it’s the uncle and the polite child who stay in your heart. Because it’s open.

20 years being self-employed

Today I realized that this month marks twenty years of being self-employed. In the past twenty years I have published magazines, books, built online communities, represented artists, organized events, consulted for small businesses, and conducted seminars and one-to-one life-coaching. At one time I had twenty employees. I now find myself in a completely different world … making pickles and chutneys, mainly by myself.

Of all the businesses I have worked on, I would NEVER have imagined that making pickles and chutneys would bring me so much happiness, so little stress, and be so rewarding on so many levels, including financial, something which has never been a motivating factor for me in any of my businesses. I have recently filed my third year of accounts and was amazed to discover that Auntie Caroline’s has grown 400% since my first year.

To all the entrepreneurs out there who are wondering when they will find “the one” (and by that I mean the business that brings you EVERYTHING you need in life) it took me twenty years but I got there. And to everyone that has ever thought about being self-employed … just go for it. The people you will meet along the way will make all the ups and downs worthwhile. I have met and worked with some amazing people from all over the world who have become life-long friends, and some have become like family … this is the common thread in ALL of my businesses. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of my career, which, as a self-employed person, meant becoming part of my life.

Seeing good

When I was little, my mum would say about me, “That girl would see good in Hitler.” I was too young to know what she meant. Forty years later, a conversation with a dear friend, a Japanese lady about the same age as my mum, echoed what mum used to say. Mrs Sasaki told me that I believed everyone was good, so I kept my heart open. She said that in keeping my heart open, bad people could get in there, and not everyone was as good as I thought. She asked me to be careful with my heart. And this time I knew exactly what was meant. It had taken me forty years to understand what my mum had been trying to say.

In those forty years, life had offered me many opportunities to learn that people are not always what they seem, but for some reasons I didn’t learn this lesson.

In preschool, the sewing I had worked so hard to perfect was claimed by another child, and I was handed that child’s sewing. I pointed this out but the teacher said it didn’t matter. So I sat next to the little girl who I thought was my friend, watching her delight in the result of my efforts, while I looked at her sewing in my hand, with its messy stitching, loose ends, and colours that didn’t match.

In secondary school, I found out that my teenage sweetheart had been cheating on me for years, not with random strangers but with my girlfriends. I was glad to have found out just before I was escaping to university and away from everyone.

In my early thirties, I discovered that my roommate kept a diary obsessing about my life … what I wore, what I did, what I looked like, who I slept with, how “fat” I was. I didn’t even care about those things myself. All those times we had sat together on the sofa watching TV while she scribbled away I had assumed with mild amusement that she was obsessing about her own life. She was obsessing about mine. I had thought we were best friends.

In my late thirties, an employee gave me a beautiful book, in which she had written, “I hope this book inspires you, half as much as you inspire me.” I was so touched. A few months later, I discovered that she secretly ran a gossip blog about what was going on in my life. She encouraged people to anonymously post information about me, and when nobody responded, she had conversations with herself. It was very, very odd.

I have other stories like that. Lots of chances to think back to my mum’s words and understand what she meant. But it wasn’t until now, in my mid-forties, that I finally got it. Because something happened that fundamentally changed the way I viewed the world.

When you believe that everyone is good, you become a target for those that are not. When you believe what people say to you, then manipulative people can say whatever they want to you and know they will be believed. When you have an open, loving heart, Mrs Sasaki was right, anybody can get in, including those who have no intention of being open and loving in return.

You are a target for these people not just because it is “easy” to gain your love, trust, and friendship. But because they WANT something you have and know they can never, ever have in their own lives. They want your open heart, they want the love they see surrounding you, they want the excitement, the admiration, the adventure, the achievements, the home, the money, the friends, the partner, the LIFE you have. Being close to you means they can tell themselves that all the good in your life is somehow part of theirs. They have no sense of identity of their own. They are lost souls. They are parasites. Parasites only choose the best hosts.

So is the answer to stop being trusting, loving, and open? No, it is not. You do not have to change anything about yourself. But the answer is a complicated one … one for another day.

Experiences of writing, and writing of experiences

I made a decision a couple of weeks ago to find time to write more. It’s probably the only thing missing in my life right now … not because of the need to express myself as I have some lovely friends I can freely do that with, but because of the need to reach out and comfort, inspire, inform, or support others. That’s always been my motivation for writing, right back to when I wrote my first book. I’ve got the beginnings of three memoirs on my laptop … one about the strokes, one about Tohoku, and one about surviving narcissistic abuse, all of which are in one way or another, intended to help other people. I know I’ll get round to finishing them but in the meantime, I’ll try to write more blog entries.

I’ve always found that writing about your own experiences is the best way to touch others. I am always overwhelmed by readers’ private or public responses, and by how many people may have had similar experiences. People I THINK I know surprise me by writing privately to me about how my writing helps them, which makes it worthwhile. Because it’s not easy writing about some things. I understand why some people keep their experiences private but it’s too difficult for me to be silent. I feel like I’m hiding things. I’m an open book by nature. Always have been. I wear my heart on my sleeve and find it impossible to lie. Writing comes very easily to me. And transferring difficult experiences from the private domain to the public domain has always been a vital part of healing for me as well as a way to reach others. I didn’t write about my strokes for months, if not years. It was too difficult an experience to remember, but a big part of healing for me is turning difficult experiences into opportunities to help others. I hope that my writing about how Tommy died will help dog owners know what to expect … I would have loved to have known this in the weeks leading up to his leaving me.

But not everyone is comfortable reading such personal stories, especially about unpleasant or painful topics. Topics that are written about in a raw, truthful, deep-inside-your-gut kind of way. Some people want to push these things away, pretend they don’t exist, refuse to acknowledge the pain and struggles that others deal with. I feel a bit like that whenever I see pictures of animal cruelty on Facebook. I scroll past them quickly, ignore the stab in my chest or the sting in my eyes, and sometimes unfriend the poster, not because I don’t like that person, but because I don’t like the feelings their sharing evoke in me. It’s easier to pretend cruelty doesn’t exist, and to convince myself that even though I KNOW it does, if I unfriend that person, I will have one less reminder that there are horrible, horrible people in the world, who do horrible, horrible things.

So as I follow up on my promise to myself to write more, I know I will make some people uncomfortable. I’m not going to apologise. I’m tired of worrying about everyone else. I know I will lose some Facebook friends, and maybe even friends in real life, and I’ll deal with that. I’ve dealt with worse. It actually frees you up to write even more honestly. And sometimes we have to come to terms with the fact that not all friends have a place in your life after difficult times (I lost a few after the strokes when I was no longer able to go out drinking with them) but you can still feel grateful for the earlier times you did share.

My writing will make people uncomfortable. But the people who feel uncomfortable are not the people I’m trying to reach out to. It is the people who are stuck in the middle of difficult experiences, whether that be recovering from a head injury, losing a pet, or moving on from abuse. I’m writing for you. I’m reaching out to you. Please keep reading. You’re helping me too xxx

Taking sides

We’ve all seen couples break up when we’re friends with both. It’s shit. And if we’re decent people we generally try to stay friends with both and hope that given time, the former couple might be able to be friends again, or at least be civil to each other or not make anybody else feel uncomfortable in their presence. I remember when my first husband and I separated, we both tried to be so considerate of the feelings of our mutual friends and both families, that we both made the effort to be kind and respectful to each other both in public and private. So much so, that when we met up with a couple of friends only weeks after we’d split up, who later confessed to being a little nervous about seeing us together, instead they were really surprised to find out how well we were getting on and impressed with how well we were managing a really hard time for us both. Don’t get me wrong … it wasn’t without its share of tears and yelling, but that did not set the tone of how we managed our separation, nor the years afterwards when we regularly communicated as friends via Skype. My first divorce remains one of the things in my life that I am most proud of, however odd that may sound. It may not have been a great marriage, but it was a great divorce. I don’t think there is any one of our friends or families who would have felt uncomfortable spending time with us together at any point during the past six years.

Of course, I’ve been on the other side of this too … where I’ve seen friends split up. And being a diplomatic Libra, I’ve never liked to feel like I have to take sides. I’ve tried to show support to both parties, even if I’ve felt closer to one rather than the other, and always made it clear that I’ve wanted to be there for them both. If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I would have said that it is always best not to take sides.

But I’ve changed my mind. I’ve discovered that there IS a situation where I think it is absolutely necessary to take sides. And that situation is where one person is afraid. Fear is the key factor here.

If one person is afraid then they are likely to have experienced physical, psychological, or emotional abuse. Physical abuse is obviously easier to prove than psychological or emotional, but in any case, all you, as a friend, might have to go on, is one person’s word. And the sound of fear in their voice, or the sight of fear in their eyes. While I hate the word victim, I’m going to call the person who is afraid, the victim. The other person is the bully.

And the reason why you cannot remain neutral and have to take sides between a victim and a bully (even if you honestly don’t know which is which because of course you haven’t seen anything with your own eyes) is because if you do remain neutral, it is the bully who gains. Staying neutral does not help a victim one bit. So if you’re tempted to try to remain neutral, you’re actually adding to the victim’s trauma. They don’t know where to put you as they try to come to terms with what’s happened and later try to put their life back together.

There are three things you can do … one, stay neutral, in which case the bully gains. Two, side with the bully, in which case the bully gains. Three, side with the victim, in which case the victim gains. The only way you can support someone who claims to be afraid, is by believing what they say one hundred percent, and walking your talk on how unacceptable you believe the bully’s behaviour has been, by not being neutral. It really is that black and white. There are no grey areas in this kind of break up.

There’s always the chance that you’ll back the bully by mistake. Bullies can be very good at playing the victim, because bullies (especially psychological bullies) are by nature manipulative. But it doesn’t matter if you make that mistake, because the real victim will grieve the loss of your friendship and then move on. If you realize later that you made a mistake, you can always apologise and have a conversation about it, and hopefully rebuild that friendship, which can perhaps be an even closer one because you have a better understanding of what the victim went through. But these are situations where you need to pick a side. However hard that may be for you, I promise you that it’s been much harder for the victim.

I’d been thinking about this whole “taking sides” concept for a while, and in the past year a few couples I know have separated, so I got the chance to see really how easy it was going to be for me (diplomatic Libra) to support everyone. And I very logically used the “fear” criteria to decide how I would act. With one couple I could see absolutely no indication that either of them were afraid of the other … they were pissed off and hurt, sad and confused, but nobody was afraid. It has been easy for me to continue offering them both love and friendship. But in other situations I have seen and heard fear. So I told the victim that I — without a doubt — believed everything they were saying, “coached” them through reporting incidents that caused fear to the police, made it very clear that they could count on me to support them, and will always do whatever I can to make sure that others know about that bully. Because that’s the thing about bullies … they’re always looking for their next victim.

I would never have come to this conclusion had I not been the victim of a bully myself. Had I not felt very real fear. Had I not had to go through the process of reporting incidents to the police, and ultimately applying for (and getting) an injunction. And if anything positive came out of that experience, it is that I will always believe someone who says they are afraid. And when you’ve been abused, the most important thing you need to hear is that you are believed.

When your dog is coming to the end of their life

Tomorrow, Tommy will have been gone for a month. And I wanted to share some things that might be helpful for other dog owners as they approach their loved one’s later years, and this has turned into my personal story too.

But first, let me offer some advice as to what to say (or not) to someone who is about to lose or has just lost their pet … don’t say “Think of all the good times” because the owner is right in the middle of a really horrible time and those good memories will feel unbearably painful for a while. We live in a world now where pain is to be avoided and really, sometimes we just need to cry and be angry and sad and FEEL pain, before we can move on to the next stage. Secondly, don’t say “they’re in a better place now” because to a dog owner the best place that a dog can possibly be is snuggled right up next to them, with their nose pushed into the collar of your dressing gown.

But what you can say that does actually help is share a memory you have of that person’s pet, or tell a story about losing your own pet. These kinds of words help the grieving owner feel connected to others who understand your grief. And if you’re not a doggy person then just send them love, or say you’re thinking about them, or that you’re sorry. One of the nicest things someone (a very non-dog person) said to me about Tommy was “I have never known a dog that was so loved.” These words continue to touch me, a month on.

Back to the advice for dog owners … I can’t stress enough the role your vet will play in this. The last thing you’re thinking of when you choose a vet for that cute little puppy you just got, is the moment when that puppy leaves you. But it’s important. I realized after the fact that my vet actually has something on their website about being there for you at the end, and I think that says a lot. Vets are not just there to help your pet through life, but also to help your pet through death. And a good one will be there to help you through that too. They will take the time to answer all your questions (and you’ll have many if your pet has a terminal condition), and never make you feel like you’re bothering them. Choose your vet carefully.

Secondly, you won’t know how you’ll feel, at any stage … at that moment when your vet tells you it’s terminal and there’s nothing they can do, at that moment when you know their quality of life has gone, and at that moment when they die. Just go with how you feel. Be prepared for all sorts of feelings and thoughts to come up, perhaps not even related to your pet. I was surprised to find myself flooded with memories of all sorts of unpleasant things that had happened in my life during the past ten years … years when Tommy had been such a comfort. My neighbour told me how she found herself taken back to the time when her son was little, remembering how this excited puppy pulled on the pram. There could be all sorts of memories that arise while you are preparing for your companion to go.

I decided to put much of life on hold during Tommy’s final days, which turned out to be weeks. And I’m sure this is something that has made the past month without him so much easier than I had possibly imagined. I have no regrets because I was there for him in every way possible, feeding him the kinds of things I’d never allowed him to eat before, shooting out of bed to be by his side if he got up in the night, and watching his every move for signs of him being in pain. Some people are different, but for me, I didn’t want to keep him around just for my sake.

The other thing that I believe has made losing him just that bit less painful, is that I didn’t even let him get to the stage where he was in pain. Trying to work out when it was time for him to go was so difficult and consumed my every thought … there are online questionnaires that help you work out whether it’s time for you to say goodbye and I found that a bit helpful. But I still didn’t really know. But when it came down to it, one day I woke up and looked at him, and knew his quality of life had gone. He wasn’t in pain, but he wasn’t enjoying life anymore. And I knew.

I would recommend having your vet come to your home. I couldn’t bear the thought of taking Tommy to the surgery and walking out without him. I didn’t want to have to hide my emotions for the sake of the surgery staff or other clients, and when my vet offered to come to my home it was a huge relief for me. So you know what to expect, this is what happened …

Patrick arrived with a big box of “stuff,” containing syringes and other things. Immediately my heart started racing and in my head I’m going over and over again “Oh fuck oh fuck this is really it now. I can’t believe this is happening” but on the outside staying calm and strong for Tommy. Patrick shaved Tommy’s two front paws, which is where the euthanasia injection was to go, then gave him an injection behind his neck, which was the sedative. Pretty soon Tommy was snuggled in my arms, snoring away, sounding so peaceful and happy. I sat on the floor in the living room, and Sandie wandered around sniffing at the big box. I had heard many times that if you have other pets, it is best that they are in the room when one passes, and Patrick reiterated that. When I was ready, Patrick put a syringe full of pink liquid into Tommy’s front leg, and again after asking me if I was ready, Patrick then pushed the liquid into Tommy’s leg, telling me what he was doing at every moment.

I had thought at that moment I would say something to Tommy, but I didn’t feel the need. I was completely unaware of anybody else in the room and felt totally and utterly focused on and connected to Tommy. The only thing I can liken it to is when you say your wedding vows, when there is nothing else that exists except that you and the other person and that moment. I was vaguely aware of Sandie suddenly stopping her wandering and lying down next to me and Tommy. I realized afterwards that I hadn’t needed to say anything to Tommy because I had spent every night before going to bed telling him how much I loved him and thanking him for being such a wonderful friend. I had said everything I needed to say to him already.

I didn’t even know Tommy had gone until Patrick said something. There had been no dramatic moment, no exhaling, no wee or poo, which I know sometimes happens. There was nothing distressing or traumatic for him. It was like he went to sleep in my arms and I realized that his little body wasn’t moving with the rhythm of his breathing anymore. I smiled at how peaceful and beautiful it was. When I was ready Patrick used his stethoscope to confirm Tommy had passed. And I sat with Tommy in my arms for as long as I wanted, although truly, I could have sat there for days. I didn’t want to let him go. And I still feel like I would do anything just to hold him in my arms again. Just one more time.

But I laid him down on a thick plastic green sheet, which Patrick gently zipped him up in — watching Tommy being zipped up was really the only horrid moment of the whole thing. And then Patrick carried him respectfully out of the house, with his arms out straight in front of him and Tommy resting on top. It’s funny the details you remember. I watched them go before closing the door, and even though tears had been running down my face for the entire time, as soon as I closed the door this huge half-sobbing half-choking noise came out of me. I have never cried like that in my life. It didn’t even sound like crying.

And while all of the above may sound absolutely awful, I am so glad I did it. I was there for Tommy during his very last moments. He spent his last moments right there in my arms, in his home. And if I hadn’t done that, I think it would have been so much more difficult to deal with. I would urge anyone facing this, to be with your loved pet if you feel you can. Yes it will be horrid, but it will be beautiful too.

And I’ve let the tears flow during the past month. Whenever they’ve come. Wherever I am. Market customers who knew Tommy was ill have asked how he is and I’ve told them, and just let the tears run down my face as I tell them. I don’t care. Tommy deserves my tears and I don’t really want people around me who aren’t comfortable with others’ emotions anyway. I can recall four customers in the past month who have stood sobbing in front of my stall as I’ve told them that he’s gone, and I love them for sharing my grief. In his life Tommy gave me so much, and I feel like in his death, he has continued to give … whether it is people I don’t know very well who read my Facebook updates on him with tears running down their faces, or market customers snuffling away with me … I feel like he has given us permission to be sad together, to cry together, to comfort each other.

Tommy’s final gift to me was making me face a fear I have had since he was a puppy … that fear of the day when he would leave me. Not a lot scares me but I’ve always had two real fears … losing Tommy and losing my mum. Both inevitable things … if life follows its natural course then logically I expected Tommy to go before me, and I expect my mum to go before me. Yet I still had so much fear about these two inevitabilities. But when it came to it, I faced Tommy’s death. I did it. I did right by him. And I did it on my own. No partner by my side, no kids, no friends. I faced that fear and I’m no longer afraid of one day doing the same for my mum. Tommy has given me the strength to face grief. And I feel so strong because of that.

And now is the time when I can look back at the good times and the memories of Tommy. Mum and two of my closest friends (Tommy’s “uncles”) spent Easter weekend here with me and Sandie, and Tommy was a major topic of conversation. We laughed at all the terribly naughty things he used to do … one story after another had us in stitches. He was such a bad boy, leaving bits of shredded toilet paper, little pebbles, and chewed up fabric all over the house.

Cleaning the house for the first time after he went was hard … I felt like I was removing all traces of Tommy from my home as the vaccum quickly filled up with dog hair and I wiped the spot on the bathroom floor where he always seemed to slobber. I found the little bit of fur that Patrick had shaved off and put it in a little Japanese dish. I talk to the beautiful wooden box that Tommy’s ashes are in, and know that he is still part of my home. And somehow I doubt that I’ll ever wash my dressing gown again, I sit down every night in it and breathe deeply … there’s a spot on the collar that smells just like him.