Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Bedtime Story (27/12/2017)

With the Christmas festivities all over and done with, this is the time of year I like to start thinking of all the other things I have to look forward to (it staves off the post-Christmas blues!).  So, this story was written with that in mind!

Please remember that this is the last bedtime story before I take a month off in January.  The weekly feature will return in February!

If you'd like to listen to me read this story as a podcast, just click here!

"What Will We Do Next Year?!"

Chrissie was feeling a little blue.
Christmas was over and Boxing Day, too!
She sighed at her big sister and whispered in her ear:
"Carolyn?  What will we do next year?"

Carolyn shrugged and simply replied:
"Think of all the ideas you have inside.
A new year's a blank canvass for you to paint on.
We can do whatever you like, when this year has gone!"

Chrissie frowned: "Anything at all?
Even ride my skateboard along the garden wall?
Because I can't do that yet, but I'd like to try.
Can I do it next year?"  Came Chrissie's reply.

"You can give it a go," Carolyn said,
As thoughts went whizzing around Chrissie's head.
"With another year, you'll be older and wiser,
But I'll still be here, to be your adviser."

"Can we invent new games and find new things to do?
And maybe visit some new places, too?"
Chrissie was suddenly losing her fears,
As she filled the new year with so many ideas.

"We'll think of somewhere to go on holiday,"
Carolyn said.  "And of course we can play!
The new year is ours, we can do what we choose;
Twelve brand new months, for you and I to use."

"Will we go down to the park, together?
And play outside, no matter the weather?
Will the trees grow new, fresh green leaves?"
Chrissie beamed.  "Oh, say they will, please!"

"We'll have brand new seasons to watch," Carolyn said.
"From Spring back to Winter; it's all ahead!
The days will grow longer and warmer and then,
They'll suddenly grow shorter and colder again."

"What about all the things that happened this year?"
Chrissie asked into Carolyn's ear.
"Can I keep all the friends I made and the fun that I had?"
If she could, then the new year didn't seem so bad.

Carolyn nodded: "Those things are yours.
So, yes, you can keep them.  Yes, of course!
When an old year ends and a new one starts,
You carry all you need, safe in your heart."

"But will things change, when the new year begins?
What if I forget all the things that have been?
What if the world moves on and I'm left behind?"
All these worries preyed on young Chrissie's mind.

Carolyn smiled: "The whole world will change,
And yet really, it will somehow still stay the same.
The world will seem big and we'll feel much smaller,
But we'll have birthdays and get older and taller."

"So I don't need to worry about the year being new?"
Chrissie asked her sister, thinking things through.
"Because a new year is just like fresh start,
So we should welcome it with an open heart?"

"A new year brings hope and the prospect of change,
But if you're happy it can offer you more of the same.
Carolyn gave Chrissie a sisterly squish:
"A new year is yours to do with as you wish."

Chrissie looked at her sister and gave her a grin.
She suddenly couldn't wait for the new year to begin!
"You know, Carolyn, it doesn't matter what we do,
As long as next year, I still have you."


Thursday, 21 December 2017

What Did I Learn In 2017?

There was a time when I genuinely thought that 2017 was going to last forever.  It kept dragging on and on, relentless in its awfulness.  Then suddenly, it changed, became great and then bam:  here we are, almost at the end of it.  Time really does fly when you're having fun (and drags like HELL when you're not).

As is customary here on this blog, I figured it was time to pull up a chair, get comfy and look back over the highs and lows of this year and work out just what I learned from it...

1. I have the most fiercely loyal and protective family ever.

I already knew my family were awesome, but good grief did they come into their own with their protectiveness, this year.  

From trying to make me see that there was someone in my life behaving fairly atrociously, to picking me up when things got really bad, this lot were utterly unwavering in their support.  Even when they weren't sure my decisions were spot on - such as back in June, when I told Mum I was going to send a message to a friend I fell out with last year, in the hope that with open, honest communication on both sides, we could work things out - I was still given the support to try, in full knowledge that my family would be there to help pick up the pieces if it didn't result in anything good (it resulted in silence, which was exactly what Mum had worried about and I learned just how good her cuddles are when I feel utterly dejected).

A loving family welcomes those who are special to you into their lives, as well as your own.  They also know when to pull up the drawbridge.  

I have a family that will protect me against all odds.  From frankly unhinged trolls online, harassing me across all forms of social media, to people I loved and cared for who've caused me pain, my family know when I need them on side and they are always there to bat for me.

So, to them from me, THANK YOU. x

2. YouTube has become MORE than just a hobby...

My goal for this year was to reach 100 subscribers.  If I passed that target, I thought 150 would be amazing.  I'm at 173 and whilst that might sound tiny to some people reading this, to me, it might as well be a million.  

I can't believe anyone actually wants to watch my silly videos about me and my life, but I am so, so grateful that they do.  Planning, filming and editing each video gives me a ridiculous level of joy - plotting scenes and sketches, learning new techniques in order to create a special effect and polishing each video during editing to make them as shiny as possible - it is way more than just a casual hobby.  It's a passion.

Yes, my blog has suffered a bit.  Each video takes at least an hour to plan, usually between an hour and two hours to film and then often as many as five or six hours to edit (sometimes more), so it does eat into my writing time.  Add to that the fact that I've begun recapping Grey by EL James for the 50 Shades Is Abuse campaign (each recap takes around 4 - 5 hours and you can catch up with them here if you'd like), whilst also working at my day job and trying to fit in something that resembles a social life, and you will hopefully understand why I've not been writing quite as much.

But in my YouTube Channel, I've found a new passion and a new creative outlet.  It hasn't replaced writing in my affections, necessarily, but they are equal bedfellows.  One of my personal goals in 2018 is to try to find a better balance, so that I blog a little more often than I have, this year.  A new video goes live on my channel every Sunday though, so if you're a little lacking in blogs to read, you can always hop over to YouTube and see what I'm up to!

3. Friendship heals all wounds.

There were times this year, when I rather dramatically described myself as having "no friends."  I'd lost my core group - the ones I thought I was closest to - and I figured that was it: I was alone.  Being proved wrong has been the best part of this year.  From my oldest friend Clare always being at the end of the phone and up for fun days out, to the fantastic Tracey, encouraging me to try new things and taking me out on adventures, I feel utterly surrounded by people who I am proud to call friends.  And (along with my family) it has been these amazing, funny, kind and supportive people who have placed a massive bandage on the wounds caused by the first half of this year and who, in doing so, have helped me to heal.  Rather than having "no friends," I am exceptionally lucky to have so many brilliant ones.

And as for the one who kick-started the total transformation of my year?  Well, Tracey has proven to me that friendship heals all wounds and that a really good friendship can weather a storm.  I love every minute we spend together and I can't wait to have a girly treat day together as soon as this blog is posted!  You're a treasure, Trace.  You've made the latter half of this year amazing and I reckon 2018 is going to be EPIC. ;-)

4. Despite firsthand experience AND training in it (for work), I still sometimes need help recognising abuse...

If you've been reading this blog for a long time, it's highly likely you've read the story of how I realised my last relationship had been abusive.  I had been sitting in a counselling session - sessions I'd started because I was convinced I was a terrible person and needed help to better myself - and had been talking about my "poor" ex and how he couldn't help his behaviour and I should have tried harder to help him, when the counsellor simply handed me a leaflet for an abuse charity and very gently told me to call them.

Fast forward more than five years, I certainly didn't expect to be sitting in another counselling session - again, sessions I felt I needed because I was a bad person and I needed to be "cured" - talking about this "poor" person in my life and how they couldn't help their behaviour and how I needed to try harder to help them and to put all my issues secondary to theirs, when the counsellor stopped and me and asked: "How is this any different to your relationship with your abusive ex?"

It came as a shock.  I pride myself on recognising abuse and knowing what to do if I spot it.  I educate other people on it, for crying out loud!  And yet, as soon as the words were out of my counsellor's mouth, it was suddenly blatant.  And once again, I hadn't seen it until it was pointed out to me.

That lesson was vital.  You might think you know what abuse looks like, but don't take it for granted.  Abuse can happen in any form of relationship, to any person.  You, me, anyone.  Never ask a person why they allowed abuse to happen to them.  It could be happening to you right now and you might not have any idea.

5. Always try new things and be prepared to give second chances.

In the last few months, I've tried a few new things.  Yet, one of those things wasn't really new at all.  

Anyone who knows me even a little bit, will know that I am a frustrated diva without a stage.  I love to sing.  Any excuse to sing in my YouTube videos and I jump at the chance.  Karaoke is a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine and I spend half my life wishing I lived in a musical.

So, when Tracey suggested we do a five week singing course, culminating in a concert, I jumped at the chance, even though it had been years since I'd sung in any kind of choir.  

The course was run by Moor Harmony, a ladies barbershop chorus.  Weirdly, I'd actually been to a Moor Harmony taster session many years ago (we're talking probably at least seven years, if not eight) and decided, for various reasons, that it wasn't for me.  But all the same, I figured it was worth another shot.

Oh.  My.  Goodness.

Those ladies - each and every one of them - are superstars.  Everyone was so welcoming and friendly.  The fabulous Musical Director, Lesley, was so incredibly enthusiastic and supportive.  The atmosphere each week of the course was just one of enormous positivity and, quite frankly, joy.  I would walk into a session and wish for every minute to last just a bit longer, so we could all have more time to sing and laugh together.

I genuinely cannot thank everyone from Moor Harmony enough, for the friendliness and encouragement they gave all of us on the course.  And it speaks volumes about their warmth and inclusivity that most of us who did the singing course have said we want to go back in January to become full time Moor Harmony members - myself obviously included!

Singing is such a mood-booster.  Even on a bad day, I could walk into a session with the chorus and leave floating on air.  It took minutes, if that, for a huge smile to crack across my face, each week.  If there's anyone reading this who is even slightly tempted to join their local choir or barbershop chorus, I can only say: DO IT!

Spot the Emma.

So, that's that!  Another year, lessons learned and fun times had.  There were more things I could have written about here, but five seems like a good number to end on.

However your year has gone, I hope you can take some positives from it.  I wish you all health, happiness and success in 2018 - here's to spending it, together!  You're all smashers. x

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Bedtime Story (20/12/2017)

I live with a much-loved Labradoodle and this time of year, he inevitably gets rather spoilt by all of us, because we just can't resist buying him Christmas gifts.  So, this week's last story before Christmas just had to be about a dog!

If you want to listen to me read this story, simply check out the podcast!

Please be aware that the Bedtime Story feature will be going on hiatus for the month of January.  I typically write these stories a month in advance, so this is to allow me to spend Christmas and New Year with family, without needing to take any time to write.  The weekly bedtime stories will return in February, but there'll still be a final story next week, before my month off begins!

Waiting For Santa Paws...

Denver was still just a puppy.  He'd never seen Christmas, before.  The big tree in the living room, the coloured fairy lights and the delicious smelling mince pies he wasn't allowed to eat, were all brand new to him.  He didn't quite understand why he wasn't allowed to nibble on a mince pie, when everyone else was, although Mum said it was something to do with raisins being bad for dogs.  He didn't fancy being poorly, so he tried to just sniff the pies, whenever they came out.  He was only allowed to sniff the chocolate treats hanging on the Christmas tree, too.

But just the same, Denver was excited.  How could he not be?!  The children - Rosie and Sam - were so enthusiastic about Christmas, that it was impossible not to be carried along with them.  Everyone seemed so happy and there was such a sense of anticipation in the air, that Denver found himself wagging his tail and jumping about even more than usual.

Of course, that meant he was knocking things over a bit more than usual, too.  And Nan hadn't seemed all that impressed, when his claws caught her fuzzy Christmas jumper and he pulled a long, glittery thread out of it...  In fact, everyone had shouted at him to get down.  But they'd soon gone back to smiling and laughing, so Denver was sure that Christmas must be a very special, very good thing, if it made people so happy and so quick to forgive.

One evening, whilst Denver was curled up in his basket, sulking after being told off for digging in the garden again, he overheard Rosie and Sam talking about someone called Santa Claus.  He crept over to where they sat on the sofa, their eyes shining and their mouths curled into big smiles.  Santa Claus sounded amazing!  He was apparently very jolly and kind and he came to every house on Christmas Eve, bringing presents for everyone!  Denver wondered if that included dogs.  He pricked his ears up and placed a paw on Rosie's lap, by way of asking.

"Santa Claus will bring you presents, too," Rosie confirmed.  But Sam cocked his head to one side and looked the young puppy straight in the eye:

"He only brings presents to people who are very good," he told him.  "You have to be on your best behaviour."  He chuckled to himself, adding: "Then maybe Santa Paws will come, for you!"

Santa Paws?!  Denver was over the moon!  He hardly dared to imagine what Santa Paws might bring him: A big, juicy bone to chew on, perhaps?  Or a bouncy ball that he could have Rosie and Sam throw for him in the garden?!

There was just one problem.  Denver was only young and he felt like he kept making mistakes.  How could he be sure he'd be well behaved enough to get a treat from Santa?

Denver decided to try his absolute best, in the days leading up to Christmas.  He only chewed Dad's slippers if his teeth were really hurting.  He only sniffed around the dinner table when he was really hungry.  And he only jumped up at people he really liked the look of.

But every time he did those things, people still told him off.  "Bad dog!  Don't jump up at people in the street!"  Mum chided.  But Denver was confused; he was only being friendly!

By Christmas Eve, Denver was worried.  He really had tried his best, but he just wasn't sure it was good enough.  He'd wagged his tail so excitedly when Rosie and Sam were getting ready for bed, that he'd knocked a glass of milk off the table.  Rosie had been sad, because that milk was for Santa.  Denver was sad, because surely Santa Paws would be cross, too.

That night, he sat in his bed and watched as everyone disappeared upstairs for the night.  Soon, he was alone in the dark.  He stared out of the kitchen window, at the black sky, lit only by stars and the silver moon.  He blinked his sleepy eyes and waited for the sound of jingle bells, that he'd heard Rosie and Sam talk about.  But no sound came.

Denver curled up in a ball and tried to hold onto the Christmas excitement that everyone else had been feeling.  But he didn't feel excited, anymore.  He hadn't been good enough.  Santa Paws wasn't coming...

The next morning, Denver was awoken by the sound of shrieks and laughter coming from upstairs.  He opened one eye.  It was still dark.  It felt like everyone was up even earlier than they were on a school day, but he knew the children didn't have to go to school that morning.  He sighed and tried to go back to sleep, but then his nose twitched and he realised he could smell something...different.  Something he couldn't usually smell.

Very slowly, Denver yawned and stretched, blinking against the blackness all around him.  He could hear giggles and gleeful chatter coming from upstairs, but more importantly, he could smell something just on the other side of the kitchen door.  He jumped up, pawing at the wood, but it was no good; he was much too small to open the door.  Then, there came a clattering and familiar voices, as Rosie, Sam, Mum and Dad all came hurrying down the stairs.  They flung the kitchen door open and flicked on the light.  Suddenly, Denver could see something hanging from the handle, on the outside of the kitchen door.  It was a stocking!  Just like the ones he'd seen in the storybooks Rosie and Sam had been reading, the night before!

To Denver's amazement, Rosie tugged the stocking from the door handle and brought it to down to Denver.  "Santa Paws came!"  She grinned.  "I wonder what he's brought you?!"

Denver was overjoyed!  His tail wagged faster than it had ever wagged before.  He jumped up at everyone, licking their hands and faces, as they bent down to stroke him.  Santa Paws had come!

"You're a good dog," Mum told Denver, scratching his ears.  

"A very good dog," Dad agreed.

"The best dog ever!"  Rosie and Sam laughed.

Denver tugged at the stocking and out came a brightly coloured bouncy ball, a big, juicy bone and a packet of his favourite doggy treats!

But before Denver could play with anything, Sam cried: "Come on, everyone!  Let's go and look under the tree!"

Denver followed everyone as they darted into the living room.  Beneath the Christmas tree was a huge pile of presents!  There was even one for Denver!  

As wrapping paper was excitedly torn off, Denver was allowed to shred it, playing with empty boxes and running around the room, wagging his tail.  He had to agree that his first ever Christmas had been a brilliant one!  In fact, he could hardly wait for next year!  And now he knew for sure, that even when he did silly things and made mistakes, his family still loved him.  

He was a very good dog.


Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Bedtime Story (13/12/2017)

By the time this story goes live, it will be a week after I've had the chance sing in my first concert in many years.  In November, I signed up for a five-week singing course with a local ladies barbershop choir.  I have absolutely loved singing with others again - so much so, that I plan on joining the choir properly in January!  So, to celebrate, here's a story all about the magic of song.

If you want to hear me read this story as a podcast, just click here.

And if you want a book as a last-minute Christmas gift, my brand new children's novella, Isabella, is out now!

Caitlin's Carol Concert

Christmas was nearly here.  The tree was up, the fairy lights were twinkling and everywhere Caitlin went, people seemed to be excited and full of smiles.  It was Caitlin's favourite time of year, but before school finished for the Christmas holidays, Caitlin had something she wasn't looking forward to.

Every year, Caitlin's school put on a Christmas play.  All the children's families would come along to watch and there would be a rush of costumes to make and words to learn, in the weeks leading up to it.  But this year, the school had decided to hold a Christmas carol concert, instead.  And Caitlin was not impressed.

Caitlin liked music and she never minded the short songs that usually featured in her school's Christmas plays, but this year, the songs were much longer and more serious and everyone had been taught to sing sweetly and clearly.  The older classes were even adding some harmonies.  Each class was also performing a song on their own.  Caitlin was terrified; she didn't think she could sing; what if she let her class - or worse, the whole school - down?!

"I don't want to sing in the concert," Caitlin insisted to her mum, the day before the show.  "I can't sing."

Her mum frowned.  "Of course you can," she replied.  "Everyone can sing!"

Caitlin shook her head.  "I can't," she said.  "I get all the notes wrong and then I get embarrassed and I forget the words..."  She took a long, deep breath.  "The class will sound better if I'm not there."

Mum tutted.  "Don't be silly.  I think you sound lovely when you sing.  Besides, it's not about how good you are.  It's about standing up there and being part of something.  Singing can be such a joyful thing to do; you shouldn't make it scary, by worrying about it.  Just let go and enjoy it."

Caitlin wrinkled her nose.  Singing didn't feel all that joyful to her.  Although, to be fair, when they'd practised for the concert at school, Caitlin was usually pretending to sing along, hoping nobody would notice that there was no sound coming out.

Despite her mum's words of encouragement, Caitlin was still feeling worried by the time the evening came.  Her dad tucked her into bed and Caitlin sighed.  "Dad, can I miss the concert, tomorrow?  I'm not good at singing and I'm really nervous."

Dad cocked his head to one side.  "Why don't you think you're good at singing?"  

Caitlin shrugged.  "I'm shy.  You have to be really outgoing to sing.  You have to be loud, not all whispery like I am when I sing.  And if I try to sing loud, I'll just sound like I'm shouting.  I just don't want to do it.  I'd rather stay at home."

Dad kissed her on the forehead.  "There are lots of very famous singers who sing gently, rather than belting out a tune," he insisted.  "Anyway, you won't be singing by yourself.  All your classmates will be with you and you can listen to them, to make sure you're doing what you're supposed to be doing."  He smiled down at her.  "Your mum and I are really looking forward to seeing the concert.  Your big sister's been practising her harmonies for weeks!"

The following morning, Caitlin waited for her big sister, Harriet, to come downstairs for breakfast.  When she joined Caitlin at the table, Caitlin whispered to her: "You need to persuade the teachers that I'm too poorly to be in the concert, this afternoon."  She patted her own chest.  "I'll just pretend to cough a lot, or something."

Harriet looked bemused.  "Why would you pretend to cough?  The concert's going to be fun!"  She blinked at her sister.  "Is this why you wouldn't practise with me, all those times I asked you?!"

Caitlin nodded, her cheeks flushing red.  "You sound really pretty when you sing," she replied.  "I'm not brave enough to sing loud, because I just sound rubbish."

Harriet laughed.  "That's nonsense!  You have your own voice and it's special because it's yours.  You should try really singing your heart out this afternoon.  I think you'll enjoy it a lot more, if you do."

They finished their breakfast in silence and soon, it was time to head to school.

The day passed much too quickly for Caitlin and before long, her class were lining up, ready to head into the hall for the concert.  The reception class were opening the show with a cute little song about reindeer.  Caitlin watched the children - all younger, yet seemingly braver than she was - and it made her feel sad.  She could see her parents sitting in the front row.  She could see Harriet, standing proudly with the older children at the back of the stage.  The next song was one the whole school were singing together.  Caitlin did her usual trick of miming along, moving her mouth in all the right places, but not making any sound.  Then, to Caitlin's horror, it was her class that had to take centre stage and sing a song on their own.

As she shuffled into the place she'd been told to stand, Caitlin looked at her classmates, all smiling and looking straight out at the audience, like their teacher had told them to.  Caitlin's mouth felt dry.  Her heart was hammering against her rib cage.  Her forehead had started to sweat under the hot lights.

The music started.  Caitlin felt like running away.  She wanted to yell "stop!"  But she forced herself to think of everything her family had told her.

This is about standing up here and being part of something, she thought, remembering her mum's words.  Singing can be such a joyful thing to do.

She remembered her dad, telling her to listen to everyone else, to make sure she was doing the right thing.

And she recalled her sister's words: You have your own voice.  And it's special because it's yours.

The musical introduction was over.  The class began to sing.  Very quietly, Caitlin joined in.  She forced herself to stand tall and to stare out into the audience, with her head held high.  And, weirdly, as she did, her voice seemed to get a little louder.

She listened to the words she was singing - all about Christmas and presents and being with people you love - and she thought about what they meant to her.  And, to her surprise, she began singing a bit louder, still.

With each word she sang, Caitlin realised her shoulders felt lighter and a smile was slowly creeping across her face.  The words that tumbled from her mouth seemed to be coming straight from her heart and lighting her up like a Christmas tree.  Instead of standing stiffly, scared to move, Caitlin started to sway to the rhythm of the music, singing freely as she went.  She listened to the sound of all of her classmates singing in unison, letting their voices wash over and comfort her, making her confident enough to sing even louder.

At the end of the song, when the audience burst into applause, Caitlin waved at her mum and dad, unable to stop herself from grinning.

Later, when the concert was over and the family were heading home in the car, Mum turned from the front seat and smiled at Caitlin.  "I'm really proud of you," she told her.  "You did something, even though you were scared, and you did a fantastic job."

Caitlin beamed back at her.  "Actually," she began, "I hope we do a concert instead of a play next year, too."

"Really?!"  Mum chuckled.  "But I thought you didn't like singing?"

Caitlin shook her head.  "Oh, Mum," she tutted.  "I just needed to find my voice, that's all!"

And with that, Caitlin turned to look out of the window, at the darkening sky outside, singing to herself all the way home.


Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Bedtime Story (6/12/2017)

It's officially my favourite time of year and that can only mean one thing: it's time for Christmas stories!  I hope you and your little ones enjoy the first of this year's seasonal bedtime stories.

You can hear this story as a podcast by clicking here.

And if you're still looking for Christmas gifts for the little ones in your life, my newest children's book, Isabella, is out now!

"What Does Santa Want For Christmas?!"

Every year, Milly knew
She had a special job to do.
On Christmas Eve, before bed,
The same thought popped into her head:
"Let's leave Santa a surprise!"
And she'd plate up one of Mum's mince pies.

But this year, she changed her mind:
"You know what would be really kind?
To give Santa's mood a festive lift,
We could leave a proper gift!"
Then Milly rubbed her chin and said:
"What would Santa like to get?"

Milly had lots of gift ideas,
Like brand new bells for his reindeers!
Or perhaps to keep the dirt at bay,
A tin of paint for Santa's sleigh?
As Milly's parents looked at one another,
Her ideas kept coming; one after the other:

Would Santa like a brand new sack,
For carrying presents upon his back?
Or some of those trainers that light up and spark,
To help him see when he walks in the dark?
Perhaps he'd need a new map of the world,
To help him find every boy and girl?

Milly's mind buzzed with a hundred thoughts:
"Maybe we could buy him some swimming shorts?
After all, when his work is done on Christmas Day,
I'm sure he'll need a holiday?!
Perhaps he'll fly off somewhere hot and sunny.
Maybe we should leave him some spending money?!"

But soon, Milly realised her plan had a flaw:
She ran to her room and flipped through her draw.
She rummaged through pants, t-shirts and socks,
Then emptied out her money box.
Milly's face grew sadder and sadder:
She couldn't afford a present for Santa!

"He won't know how grateful I am, will he?"
Asked a terribly sad, disappointed Milly.
But "of course he will," her parents told her.
"You'll understand that when you get older."
And Mum had an idea that was perfect, too.
"What if this year, the mince pies come from you?!"

So, on Christmas Eve, Milly rushed into the kitchen with glee,
As excited as a young chef could possibly be!
She mixed and she stirred, she scooped and she baked,
Until she was so tired, she was barely awake.
She held the tray of mince pies with her oven glove.
She knew they were special; made with love.

Suddenly, Milly knew that was the important thing.
And the feeling it gave her made her heart sing.
She may not have bought a big gift for Santa,
But now she realised that that didn't matter.
Milly climbed into bed and closed her eyes,
Dreaming of Santa - and of fresh, warm mince pies.


Why This Year's I'm A Celebrity Proves We STILL Don't Understand Anxiety

There's a tradition in my household.  For a couple of weeks, in late November/early December, we all gather around the TV to watch (in recent years, some very minor) celebrities eat kangaroo anus, get covered in cockroaches and generally banter or bicker around a campfire.

Yes, it's I'm A Celebrity season.

It's one of those love/hate shows.  Many have (probably with good reason) spoken out against the potential for animal cruelty involved (do those cockroaches really want to be dumped on a reality TV personality's head?!) and it's fair to say that I'm A Celebrity hasn't been without its fair share of drama.  Just two years ago, I wrote about the vile Lady C's appearance on the show, during which she point-blank refused to undertake certain challenges unless she was told in advance what reward she'd get and worse, she violently insulted anyone who disagreed with her, even attacking Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley's children.

This year, though, the main talking point for many watching the show, has been the treatment of Iain Lee, radio broadcaster and comedian.  Iain came into the show as a late addition along with Labour MP, Kezia Dugdale and from very early on, was outspoken about his mental health issues.  He talked about the importance of sharing your feelings and explained that he hates the toxic idea that men can't - or shouldn't - cry.  It was quickly obvious to most viewers that Iain is a sensitive person and someone whose honesty is to his credit.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of his campmates.

Another celebrity in this year's camp is boxer Amir Khan; a man who fights people for a living, but screams at insects, was the first person this year to say "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here" in order to get out of a trial and claims to be afraid of snakes, despite his own behaviour being decidedly snake-like.  Can you tell I'm not a fan?!

Amir quickly became friendly with footballer's wife Becky Vardy, ex-footballer Dennis Wise and soap actor Jamie Lomas.  Together, this group began acting in a way not dissimilar to scenes played out in schools throughout the land.  They were the "cool kids."  And cool kids always need a target.  That target is usually someone different.  Someone intelligent and sensitive.  Their target in the camp?  Iain.

During a now infamous "Dingo Dollar Challenge," (in which two celebrities are sent out of camp to undertake a challenge, in the hope of winning a treat for the whole group) Amir and Iain won a plate full of strawberries and cream for the camp.  On their way back to deliver the goodies to their teammates, Amir suggested they sneakily eat the treat by themselves and then get rid of any evidence.  Iain laughed at this suggestion (never before made by any celebrity in well over a decade of the show being aired), but it quickly became clear that Amir was serious.  He told Iain: "I'm eating them now, so it's up to you what you do" and sat down to do just that.  Now, Iain should have stood up to him and refused to get involved.  I'm not excusing Iain for joining in.  However I'm also not going to judge him too harshly for the fact that he didn't walk away.  Why?  Because I've been that target, "othered" by the "cool kids."  And I've gone along with things I wouldn't normally have done, in the hope that it might make them treat me as an equal.  It was very obvious by this point that Iain already felt like an outsider, yet here he was being invited to do something naughty with one of the popular camp members.  Add to that the fact that Iain was hungry and missing home, the treat proved too good to resist.  He and Amir polished off the strawberries and cream, then returned to camp, lying that they'd failed their challenge.

But it was what happened next that really horrified me.

Almost immediately after lying to their campmates about the result of their challenge, Iain told Amir that he felt guilt-stricken and wanted to come clean. Amir was absolutely adamant that he should do no such thing, going as far as to say "you tell them it was you, don't you dare mention me."

It's absolutely typical "cool kid" behaviour.  School bullies love to drag the quiet, sensitive one into things they know they could get into trouble for, then deny any responsibility.

To Iain's credit, he owned up and did take almost complete responsibility, refusing to discuss Amir's part in proceedings, when asked by a campmate.  Later on, when Amir's fellow school bully crowd spoke with him about what happened, they were insistent that "you wouldn't do that sort of thing" and Amir was only too happy to go along with their views, confirming to Dennis Wise that "it was Iain, yeah."

Unfortunately for Iain, "Strawberrygate" had made him even more of a target than he was before.  Now, the "cool gang" of Becky, Amir, Dennis and Jamie were constantly whispering in corners about him.  Becky told him to his face that he was a "game-player," after Iain said he wanted to go home.  She claimed he was going for the sympathy vote and worse, in the Bush Telegraph (the jungle equivalent of Big Brother's Diary Room), she declared him "a fake.  As soon as the cameras are on, he wants the limelight."  This, from someone who is supposed to be the ambassador for an anti-bullying charity, really sticks in the throat.

I fully believe that Iain did want to go home, when evictions began.  Why wouldn't he?!  He was forced into taking full responsibility for something he hadn't initiated, he was isolated from the group, bitched about and, most recently, mocked for having failed to complete a trial which Dennis Wise then achieved the top result for.  It's no wonder that Iain, who has been completely open about his mental health issues, has struggled in the face of such playground bullying.  It has made for extremely uncomfortable viewing.

Anxiety is not something to be trivialised or mocked.  I know this, from personal experience, but it shouldn't have to be the case that we only understand something once we've experienced it firsthand.  We need to be more open to hearing how others feel and why they feel that way, even if it makes us uncomfortable in the process.

Those who find Amir hilarious, or who praised Becky for "telling it like it is" (a phrase that needs to die painfully, given how often it's attributed to people who are actually just boldly speaking hate or being judgemental/rude) have claimed that Iain has isolated himself from the group.  Let me explain how that happens, when you're suffering with anxiety:

Anxiety is like a little devil on your shoulder.  When you do something good, it will tell you it was bad.  When you do do something bad, it will gnaw away at you, reminding you of what a terrible person you are.  I have no doubt that this contributed to Iain's insistence on coming clean about the strawberries immediately and I'm certain that knowing his campmates were furious with him (and seemingly less angry with Amir, who ducked out of admitting his full role), will have eaten away at him.  Anxiety makes you paranoid that nobody likes you as it is, so when people are beginning to show signs that they're genuinely not keen on you, you magnify those small signs in your mind, until you're utterly convinced that you are hated.  So, to realise that a group of people who resemble the popular kids at school are whispering about you behind your back, can be absolutely crushing to someone with anxiety.  To see Dennis Wise insisting that the trial Iain failed to complete was "really easy" and that the water that caused Iain such panic was "only a metre and a half," not three metres deep as Iain had said it was (Ant and Dec, the show's hosts have since confirmed that the depth was three metres), will only add to that feeling that you're not liked or believed.  You only had to look at how wounded Iain looked as Dennis crowed about the ease of the task, before Iain magnanimously shook him by the hand and congratulated him. 

When you convince yourself that you're not good enough and that people dislike you, or think less of you than they do of the rest of the group, you tend to go into yourself.  You isolate yourself because you think that's what everyone else wants you to do.  It really is like being at school: if the cool kids don't want you on their table, you sit by yourself, instead.

Some of the other campmates have had the empathy and humanity to recognise that Iain needed a friend (although, laughably, not the one who's meant to be an anti-bullying ambassador).  Shappi and Kezia took him to one side for conversations and tried to include him a little more.  Sadly, those two have since been voted off the show, leaving Iain much more of a target.  Jennie is now perhaps the person best placed to show Iain a little kindness, whilst the likes of Amir delight in running him down at every given opportunity.  Indeed, Amir has insulted Iain's supposed "weakness" when it comes to facing his fears, despite the fact that he screams at the mere idea of something crawling on him.  He even announced that he'd like to punch Iain for his "sneakiness."  

But Iain isn't the one talking behind people's backs.  

There are sneaky people in that camp.  They're the ones behaving like the in-crowd at school.

And yet Iain, still showing a level of decency the others frankly don't deserve, has been consistently trying to rise above everything and force himself to be a team player, even when you can see that he is visibly upset and would rather be alone.  He even sacrificed his own email from home during a recent challenge, in an effort to ensure others got theirs.

In last night's televised challenge, the campmates were split into two groups and put in a taxi, which was then filled jungle critters.  Amir screeched and wriggled, howling at the mere thought.  Iain, who was sitting next to him, tried to reassure him by telling him that what he could feel on his back were not spiders, but cockroaches, knowing that if he knew the truth, he'd freak out more.  But despite Iain's attempts to calm him, Amir continued to shriek and scream throughout the ordeal.  Yet, afterwards?  He spoke in the Bush Telegraph, insisting he hadn't screamed at all.  

This is gaslighting.  And this is what Amir, Becky, Jamie and Dennis are all guilty of.  Each of them has spoken about Iain using words that would be more accurately used against themselves.  "He's sneaky."  "He's playing mind-games."  "He's weak."  "He's got a lot of problems."

Notice how rather than talk to Iain about why he's quiet, why he seems to be isolating himself or why he might be saying he wants to go home, they all simply gather together to talk about him?

For me, this is becoming increasingly disturbing viewing.  As the camp grows smaller, Iain's status as an outsider only seems to become more prominent (although I was pleased to see him having a good time at "The Jungle Arms" pub, last night, integrating much more).  I was bullied at school.  I know what it feels like to be constantly worried that the "cool kids" are talking behind your back.  I know what anxiety can do to your mind and your behaviour.

Honestly?  I would love Iain to win.  Because it's about time we stopped rewarding those who are openly nasty and who try to push their own negative traits onto others.  It's time we tried to understand those who feel isolated.  Those who are different.  Those who are brave enough to start a conversation on the subject of mental health in the first place.

But really, my biggest hope is that we all learn something from this.  If we can, as a majority of viewers, accept that slagging people off behind their backs is wrong and that allowing a clearly distressed person to become more and more isolated is the last thing that should be happening, at least some good will have come out of Iain's experience on this show.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Bedtime Story (29/11/2017)

I'm a big believer in being honest with children and talking about our feelings.  We all experience different emotions at various points in our lives and we rely on those around us to help us negotiate our mood swings.  So, this story is about the importance of sharing our feelings - and about the importance of having good friends and family to help you talk those feelings out.

To listen to me read this story as a podcast, just click here!

A Mood A Minute

Feelings happen all the time,
You might not even notice.
But some day you'll be feeling fine,
The next you're at your lowest.

So, when Milly, Anthony and Bo
Met with their friends, Susanne and Bennett,
It will be no surprise to know
They experienced a mood a minute!

First off, Milly wanted to play
A game she'd invented herself.
You had to pretend it was Christmas Day,
And you were Santa's chief elf.

But Anthony said it sounded dumb,
And Bo and Susanne weren't keen.
Bennett shook his head and said "no!"
Which Milly thought was mean.

Milly felt sad and a little ignored,
To think that her game had been mocked.
She sat down alone, looking bored,
But around her, her friends soon flocked.

They explained they just wanted to play something else,
They hadn't meant to hurt Milly's feelings.
With that, Milly's heart began to melt,
And her bad mood soon started healing.

As the friends began a different game,
Bo wanted to be the leader.
But it turned out that Bennett wanted the same;
He couldn't wait to succeed her!

That made Bo feel terribly cross.
"I said it first!" She cried.
When Bennett sneered that she couldn't be boss,
It made Bo feel angry inside.

She stamped her foot and felt rather hot,
As her cheeks flushed a fiery red.
But as she stood there, glued to the spot,
Susanne said: "We'll take turns, instead!"

Bennett said sorry for making his friend
Feel so mad when he hadn't intended.
And sure enough, that helped Bo's feelings to mend
And soon the commotion had ended.

Then Susanne suggested they play
With the new toy she had just got.
It was shiny and new, the best toy of the day!
Susanne had one - the others did not.

Anthony sighed; that toy was his dream!
All he wanted was one of his own.
His eyes were practically turning green,
He was envious right down to his bones.

Why did Susanne have such a cool toy,
When he didn't have one as well?!
Anthony was so jealous, he felt annoyed.
And the others?  Well, they could all tell.

"I'll always share it when we play together,"
Susanne told her envious friend.
And though it's mine and you can't keep it forever,
You can play with it 'til our playdate ends."

Outside, the rain had started to fall,
And so inside the house the friends stayed.
As the weather erupted into a storm,
It made poor Susanne feel afraid.

She pressed her hands over her ears
and her whole body trembled with fear.
She could hardly wait for the storm to clear;
She didn't want those grey clouds to come near!

But "the weather can't hurt you,"
Anthony said, giving his friend a hug.
"And it's bound to pass, soon,"
Bennett added, as they sat on the fireside rug.

Having her friends to make her feel better
Soon put the smile back on her face.
Susanne wrapped her arms around her pink sweater 
And stayed huddled by the fireplace.

Once the rain had stopped and the sun came out,
The friends went rushing outside.
They wanted to build a den, somewhere,
In which they could camp out and hide.

But Bennett had spotted a spider,
Whose web had been spun on a bush.
As Bo stood with it beside her,
Bennett dashed off in a rush!

He was suddenly terribly nervous
And hung back, not daring to look.
He stared at his feet on purpose,
And his whole body shook.

Then, his friends helped him edge a bit nearer,
Showing him that it wasn't so bad.
And when Bennett saw the spider clearer,
He found himself feeling glad.

His friends had gently encouraged him
To see that he needn't be scared.
And so Bennett, with another grin,
Entered the den they'd prepared.

As they sat in their den, outside,
The friends thought about how they were feeling.
From sadness to anger, jealousy to fright,
And nerves; emotions had left them all reeling!

But they knew it was okay to feel things,
And to share how you're feeling inside.
And the best thing that friends bring,
Is the knowledge you don't have to hide.

It's normal to be sad or feel cross.
And we all feel jealous, now and then.
It's okay to be scared or nervous of
The things that you fear in your head.

But good friends and family will help you,
To share those feelings out loud.
It helps when you talk your emotions through:
"We'll always do that," the friends vowed.

So, next time you feel an emotion,
Don't feel you must keep it inside.
There's no need to cause a commotion,
Just share your feelings with pride.