What's happened over the past couple of years?

What's happened over the past couple of years?
Come and find out about our life-changing work!
Update April 2018: It's been a while my friends - and such a lot has happened since I was last active here!

When it finally dawned on me that I had been systematically abused - and not just by one person - my whole world collapsed around me.

You see, I had always believed myself to be a strong person. Capable. Successful and somewhat sassy to boot. A fighter. Someone who could overcome any challenge, as I'd proven to myself since early childhood, time and time again. So the knockout thud of recognition that I had been a 'victim' hit me with the full force of a steam train, tsunami and earthquake rolled into one.

"How could that have happened to me? How did I let it happen? Why didn't I notice it? Why didn't I stop it, or at least speak out?"
...and then came an all engulfing darkness of shame. And then the deafening silence.

It took me years to come out of that place. Years of hard work, self reflection and excruciating pain.

Which was how, ultimately, Light Up was finally born.

Now this work is being experienced and shared by many - and is growing in numbers and momentum. And I am grateful.

Grateful not only for my own experiences, also for the fact that Light Up gives people the tools to escape from their shame and pain in far less time than it took me!

We are already working with trafficked women, abused children and traumatised adults, successfully guiding them back to completeness (without having to relive their horrors) in as little as two sessions.

People are waking up and finding their voices. I am a firm supporter of the #metoo movement, and every other group that sheds light on and offers a platform for people to speak out and seek a complete way of living.

Yes, there is darkness in this world. Yes, there is much that has been hidden away. And yes, now people are speaking out. Thank goodness for those voices! The quiet ones. The angry ones. The sad ones. The loud ones. All have their place. All have their unique message to share. All are warriors.

I am honoured to be in service, and to play my part in reigniting this beautiful world of ours. We are coming together now. We are gathering force. And I am glad.

Fellow warriors, I salute you. I commit to continuing to stand in this arena alongside all my brothers and sisters who know there is a better way and a brighter future.

Come and find out more www.dnalightup.net

In continued love, recognition and gratitude

Mel xxx

Monday, 20 July 2009

Boy George, Handbags And Crutches

Boy George
Or how this particular 80's chick has discovered a new definition for "mind altering joints"

It was Friday night Saturday morning, and we were in full throttle. Wooden spoons for microphones, handbags on the floor for something to dance around ("it won't be a proper disco if we don't have our handbags in the middle!" Sarah had decided a few tracks earlier) all of us gyrating and singing along to Culture Club's hypnotic "Do you Really Want to Hurt Me?" the song and the music still as beguiling as it was the first time Boy George appeared on Top of The Pops.

We had all been transported back to the 80's discotheques of our youth - Suffolk for Vera, Manchester for Sarah and Eastbourne for me. We all had our favourite and quite different haunts, but the shared memories took us all to our younger days, and made our bond even stronger. Learned at different locations, we had also clearly all picked up the same dodgy dance moves as well.

We all met in France, having left the UK at various points in our lives. Vera, the youngest of the three of us, has been here since she was 18. Having come to France as an aupair, she fell in love with the boy next door and has been here ever since. Many years and two gorgeous children later, she still absolutely adores life here and is one of my "chosen" sisters. You know what I mean? People who come in to your life and you just instinctively feel that they're family.

Sarah, a year younger than me, spent 12 years here before packing up again and moving to Dubai with her husband and two children. We were already best friends before they left, and over the four years that they've been gone, our friendship has grown ever stronger. Various unforseen circumstances has meant that this is the third time I've seen Sarah this year. Another "chosen" sister, she and the kids had arrived chez-moi just one day earlier, so we'd decided that Friday night was to be a wild celebration of sisterhood!

The evening had gone well. All the children (hmmm... hormonal teenagers in actual fact, who grunt and lope around quite clearly embarrassed by their mothers!) had already started their own party while we finished off our meal in the kitchen. It was well past midnight before we finished the main course, and we'd moved out to the back terrace to enjoy the evening and a couple of vodka shots, brought over from Dubai.

We decided some time later that our other chosen sister, Sharon, should also be included in our party, so we hit upon the idea to call her so she could join in the festivities. Not, as it turned out, the best idea. She and her husband were both fast asleep, but, with typical grace and good humour she quickly got in to the groove with us. "It's so much harder to say she said than I said!" trilled Vera down the telephone, with Sarah and I cackling in the background! This all made perfect sense to us, of course, and Sharon simply commented that she was glad she could enjoy the humour without the headache in the morning.... it was an omen.

Shrieking with laughter and boosted by our ever-strengthening sisterhood bonding (and the Russian vodka) we made the fateful decision to start the disco.

Never a very confident dancer, but bouyed up with exuberance, I found myself throwing inhibitions out of the window and joined in with the ever increasing gyrations. I had just completed a rather impressive "how low can you go" routine with Sarah's very beautiful 15 year old daughter (I did pretty well actually.... considering!) when we decided to return once again to Culture Club.

I cheered loudly as "I'll tumble for ya" started to play and the memories flooded in - another omen. Half way through one of my more enthusiastic moves, my knee twisted in a way that nature never intended, and I fell straight to the floor in surprise and agony. I'm one of those lucky people who have never had an accident and am rarely ill. So when my body suddenly disobeyed my instructions, I was absolutley dumbfounded - and scared.

The past few months have left me feeling out of control as, on a daily basis, I continue to deal with the never ending nightmare that has been left for me to clear up. And now, with my knee severely damaged, I cannot even rely on my usually strong body to carry me forward.

I'm helpless and now totally in the hands of others until my knee heals. Nothing done by half, it appears I have torn my cruciate ligament. Weeks in a brace, followed by 20 physio sessions before I can have an MRI scan and then, likely, an operation to mend the damage. Then even longer to heal.

Done in a fraction of a second, the twisting of my knee joint has caused me to adapt my approach even further. Just when I thought I was getting used to the challenges, and that I was finally getting stronger again, I'm having to change my mind once more and learn a whole new coping strategy.

Fiercely independent since childhood, I've always prided myself on my ability to look after myself as well as others.

Now this, for the time being, seems to have gone as well. I am absolutely in surrender, and faith is now my crutch. I'm surrounded by great friends and a huge wave of support. But there is nothing more I can do for myself. My plans to secure work in September are now scuppered, and I simply don't know how I'm going to make ends meet. 

Over just a few weeks everything has changed - I've lost my husband, my business, my 'reality' and now my physical independence. I'm wondering now just how much lower I'll need to go before I can start to rebuild. The way things are going, I may well need to consider selling my beautiful home, as I just don't know where the money is going to come from now. My internal entertainment system constantly on play, Gnarls Barkley is now moving ominously closer with his frighteningly accurate musings "I think you're crazy"...

And yet, in some very strange and quiet way, I feel safe. I feel secure. And I know that things are working behind the scenes. 

This is what I'm holding on to, this is what's keeping me going and, as I look in to the faces of my wonderful friends, and I feel the love that's supporting me, I just know that somehow I'm OK. For the first time in my life, I truly have reached surrender and I know that in one way or another, I can trust life to throw me the lifeline I've been searching for since childhood.

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Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Buckets, Barque And Bastille Day

"Stop wriggling!" shouted Henry as the boat once again sank back under the water "port side down, all hands on decks!"

This was the comical scene, yesterday afternoon, as Henry, Ruth and myself were single handedly saving the barque from sinking to the bottom of the Charente river. Our tiny village, you see, has it's own river ferry system to take people from one side of the river to the other.

Originally crafted so that the people from one side of the river could come across to the other side (where we now live) and pay their respects in the 12th century church that sits in our part of the village, the Barque is a hugely important part of the commune. The church is known locally as 'The Jewel in the Charente' and is an ancient priory founded by the benedictines of Charroux. And the Barque, to most people, is of equal standing in this magical heritage.

It's crafted from huge chunks of oak, and is 3m long by 1.5m wide. I've regularly seen ramblers, families, friends, and mountain bikers with up to 3 bikes at a time pull themselves across the river with childlike joy. I'd fallen in love with our house the moment I set foot in it, but it was when the vendor wisely took us down to the barque and showed us how to traverse the river that the deal was done - that was my personal jewel in the charente.

So you can imagine my horror when, earlier in the morning I'd completed my hour long walk with Hamish, my dog, to find that I was all but stranded on the wrong side of the river because the Barque was just about filled with water. There was only a few centimetres still above the water - but we had no other option. We managed to get across (we must have looked a sight though - me with my white trousers rolled up, barefoot with sandles in hand, balancing precariously on the back of the boat and pulling with all my might to take me, the barque and the dog across the river, with Hamish all the while trembling and howling at the back because he's frightened of the water!). Playing in the river were two French teenagers who were clearly amused by the scene, watching our every move with no offer of help or encouragement. Once we finally reached dry land, the boys in the river gave me a wry smile and the typical Charantais shrug, adding "there's nothing we can do you know, it's up to the Mayor!"

"Of course there's something we can do!" I snorted "I live here, and this crossing is partly my responsibility - I'll be back!" (Arnie is never far from me in times of need). They shrugged again, smirked and dived in to the deeper water, swimming off chattering and laughing together. 

I went home and called in the cavalry. My son was at in his room, and was naturally the first person to hear about my concern. Now, Dylan has been brought up with my ethos that anything is possible, and sometimes I smile that even despite that, the French 'rules and control training' sometimes shows itself. At school the teachers delight in instructing the pupils that they'll never amount to much, and really shouldn't expect much out of life. "Rules are rules, and if you manage to secure a good job, which most of you won't, you'll be very lucky if you can earn as much as €1,000 a month by the time you get to the top." Talk about dashing dreams and keeping people in their place!  

And so yesterday, Dylan's first reaction was to go and tell the Mayor and ask what should be done. That was fine, off he went on his bike and I started making plans. At the same time, Henry and Ruth just happened to pop by for a cup of tea - Henry, you'll remember, is the miracle man who totally healed after breaking his back last year. I explained that we needed a team to bail out the barque, and in true British style, Henry's eyes lit up as he rallied the team "come on" he said, "we can do this together!"

And so it was that the three of us, Ruth, Henry and myself, trooped down to the river bank with buckets in hand. Leaving a note for Dylan, we strode along with the certain smell of victory in our nostrils.

The Barque, as I've said before, evokes a magical child like quality in most people. Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, and Pirates of the Caribbean all seem to come alive at that extraordinary setting. So with a loud "Heave ho me hearties!" we pulled the by now all but sunken boat in to the shore. 

The still swimming French teenagers, were looking a bit sheepish at this stage, and the shrugs had become more pronounced. I decided it was a clear sign of guilt, as they must have been jumping off the barque to make it sink still further. "There's a new Barque being built anyway for September" they offered. 

"Well we're still only in July, and we have to do something to save our Barque now!" I countered - with a little more courage than earlier on since I now had the cavalry with me, and we would not be taking prisoners if anyone tried to stop us.

Ruth held the boat in place, and Henry and I hunkered down at the river's edge to start bailing out the water. Each wrong move meant one side of the boat would go back under the water, so we gingerly balanced ourselves, gritted our teeth and sank the buckets in to the boat. It didn't seem to make much difference for a while, and the teenagers were starting to smirk in a "told you so" sort of a way, that just made us more determined.

"We'll fight them on the beaches!" "We're British, you know!" "Aye aye captain!" and all sorts of other encouraging phrases started coming from all of us and, little by little the boat started to raise out of the water.
Henry noticed there were large holes that had appeared at one end, and that the water was coming in nearly as fast as we were bailing it out. The teenagers were also on the bank with us by this time and shrugged and harrumphed "You see, it's pointless!" But they hadn't bargained on Pete's determination and expertise. 

"I used to work in a shipbuilder's yard" he winked as he foraged around the bank looking for suitable things to plug the holes.

Dylan had joined us by that stage, and with a few strong plant roots and some expert manipulation, the holes were indeed filled. We were triumphant and the teenagers looked impressed. Now that's praise indeed, and Henry, quite rightly, stood a few inches taller as he soaked up the admiring noises and nods that were heading his way. They then joined in and helped us empty the remaining water, and we all stood back on the riverbank to admire our handiwork together.

As we walked back home, it struck me that today we celebrate Bastille Day, when over 200 years ago, the determined French mob stormed the gates to free prisoners from the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs. And I smiled to myself.

Our little crew by the river may not have been a mob, and we certainly weren't rioting - but perhaps, even in the face of apparent impossibility, our determined persistence to make a difference and get a result had helped in some way to free two French teenagers from the prisons of their own mind.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Roast Chicken And Rain For Gravy

English: Roasted chicken EspaƱol: Pollo asado
Today I'm going to write about one of my childhood memories - I must have been 14 or 15 at the time. I hope you like it.

It was one of those days. The summer holidays were upon us, the sun was shining, and mum was in one of her "come on, let's do something girls!" kind of moods. No matter that I was perfectly content to stay in my room, trying out new makeup styles and figuring out how to re-create Jackie magazine's latest fashion trend from my eclectic wardrobe.

Nope, when mum got an idea in her head, we all joined in and, because she was always so enthusiastic, we always had a good time. Enthusiasm can turn even the most mundane of tasks in to an adventure - and with mum, life was always an adventure! 

We lived in Eastbourne and the sea was a big part of our lives. Summer was spent on the beach - every day without fail. There was a regular group of us who'd always meet up at the same spot on the beach, everyone dutifully bringing along a picnic to share and compare. We'd stay there resolutely until the very last rays of sunlight had left - and we absolutely loved it!

Autumn we'd take long bracing walks along the seafront, and for most people that would be enough. But not for mum. No matter the weather, we always packed our swimming costumes "just in case" and when the sea was at it's fiercest, often when the red flag flying, that's when mum's eyes would light up, she'd gather us together with a rousing "come on girls!" followed by the by now famous rally cry "we're going in!"

So in we'd go - every time. I would have been about 12 at the time, and my sister 8, and we'd all jump in to the waves together. In hindsight, it was absolute madness, but at the time we thought nothing of it. We'd all get bashed around in the surf, swallowing seawater when we couldn't get out from the swell, sand and pebbles collecting in our costumes as we were tossed and scraped along the beach, but each one of us ruddy cheeked and filled with the exhilaration and joy of being alive. That was how mum was.

So on that particular summer's day, I knew there was no point in protesting, I just went downstairs to find out what mum had in mind. 

While mum always made sure we didn't go without, we were always short of money and I know she struggled with that huge burden of worry for many years. With no man in the house, she fiercely maintained her natural independence and cheeriness and, to her, nothing was impossible. Never one to give up, many a seemingly mad-cap plan would be discussed and then executed to perfection. When we needed new sofas because the old ones were literally falling to pieces, she enrolled herself on an upholstery course and then completely re-covered them all herself. 

"Oh, Dee dear, you're such a clever girl!" my nan would regularly cluck, followed by the less charitable addition "of course she gets that from my side of the family" which would always sting mum, no matter how often she heard it. My nan had a constant need for praise and approval, which she felt she'd never had from either her parents or her husband. But she never noticed the hurt she would cause in others when she clambered over their triumphs to make herself feel important.

Mum had always wanted some outside furniture, so today she'd decided we were going to make our own. She'd rescued a handful of old rusty chairs from somewhere (I believe they had been in a neighbour's garage, ready for the tip) along with a set of metal legs that used to hold a table top. To other people, this collection would look nothing more than a pile of rubbish - but to mum, they held the potential of something magical. As, indeed, did most things.

So, my sister and I (quite accomplished builders assistants by that stage) got to work brushing down the rusty old metalwork ready for painting. Mum, certain that we'd complete the task in time for lunch, busied herself preparing a roast chicken meal for us to enjoy in the garden on our new furniture.

We found bits of old wood and sticky-back plastic to make the chair seats and backs, and cobbled together a table top from the left-over planks mum had been using to make a walk-in wardrobe (that's another story!). Using sandpaper, brillo pads, lashings of elbow grease and a mountain of nails, we finally had our four (nearly) matching chairs and a table. We painted the legs and varnished the table and decided it was ready to be christened with it's first family meal.

The plates were ones we had been collecting with points from our local supermarket. Stoneware it was called, rather too grandly I always thought, and was decorated with a browny yellow floral display - none of them quite matching the other. "Delightfully rustic!" mum would enthuse to counter my teenage disapproval.

She was a great cook, and took great pride in being able to rustle a wholesome tasty meal out of just about anything and at the drop of a hat. A useful skill, since Abigail and I would often bring our growing group of often hungry friends home for a little snack or two.

The chicken was carved and plated, along with the salad and some fresh bread, and the whole lot was taken outside for us to enjoy 'al fresco'. The varnish wasn't quite as dry as it could have been, and the plates stuck a little bit to the table top - but we didn't care. "Anyway, it was always going to need a second coat!" mum had reasoned sensibly.

We must only have taken our first mouthful when, in typical english style, the heavens opened. Small drops at first, but steadily building to quite a downpour, the skies turning decidedly grey at the same time. Did we move? Did we take our meal inside to the warmth and dry of the dining room? Did we heck as like!

"Come along girls, we're jolly well going to stay out here and enjoy it!" my mother encouraged, as yet another large dollop of rain bounced off her plate and on to the table. And so we did.

To anyone who could have seen us that day, we must have looked absolutely absurd. The food on our plates was practically swimming, it was cold and wet, and we were all soaked to the skin - but we were happy. We'd finally got the furniture we wanted, and mum had shown us once again that we can achieve whatever we set our hearts on and proved that it's up to us how we respond to life and it's uncertainties.

"Hmmm... rain for gravy... now there's a new idea!" she had mused, chewing on a mouthful of particularly soggy chicken, while yet another mad-cap plan was clearly beginning to take shape.

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Wednesday, 8 July 2009

"Je Te Laisserais Pas Tomber" - 5 Words And The Hand Of Friendship

Hand in hand
Hand in hand (Photo credit: Images by John 'K')

(This has turned out to be a longer post than I had anticipated, but it just seemed to keep on flowing! I hope it's not too long, and I hope you enjoy it... Thanks, Mel x)

It's funny how the smallest most innocent things can make the biggest differences? I subscribe to daily motivational emails from Neale Donald Walsch, the author of 'Conversations with God' and, just as I sat down to write this entry, his email arrived and today urges me to remember that "...it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all..." Yet another unconnected coincidence?

I was sitting outside working on my laptop the other day, and I was visited by Berber (pronounced Bear Bear) one of the village locals who have been kindly looking out for me over recent weeks. He speaks no english (fine for me as my French is pretty good) and uses a broad local Charentais dialect. His family has been in the commune for countless generations, and they've dedicated their lives to tending the fields, planting and harvesting the crops, and organising the regular communal gatherings. He is well past retirement age and, as with so many of the locals, still works day and night on his beloved land.

In recent times, I have regularly returned home to find a gift on my table just by the kitchen door - a bucketful of freshly cut daffodils, bags of fresh cherries picked from neighbouring trees, lettuces from the garden, and plants for my garden wrapped in newspaper to keep the roots moist until they can be dug in to the ground.

The locals, of course, know what has happened, and on this particular day, Berber turned up as he often does and shuffled up to sit at the table where I was working. He doesn't speak very much, and often leaves long silences between the gruff sounding and often clumsy words he uses. It's clear he struggles to say what he means, and often resorts to grunts, harumphs, and typical Charantais shrugging of the shoulders peppered with the odd knowing "bah, eh oui!" which is a great substitute for many words. 

But this particular morning he sat down and asked me how I was getting on. Whether I'd found any work and how we are both doing settling in to the changes. I carried on typing and explained that I'm throwing out new seeds everyday in to the field of employment, and that one day something must surely take root and bring the results I need. I kept the smile on my face, and the strength in my voice that I've learned to perfect over so many tough times. But he must have noticed something. He stared at me with his deep brown soulful eyes, and wriggled in his seat, pulling himself up taller and clearing his throat. It clearly took a great deal to find the words, but eventually he simply said "Je (ne) te laisserai pas tomber" which means "I will not let you fall" 

I lost my composure at that point, and my mask of courage slipped. Despite myself, I felt my eyes welling up and tears of gratitude started trickling down my cheeks. I had no words. I just became aware of tiny cracks appearing in the brittle shield of strength that had been protecting my heart from pain. Berber said no more, asked no more questions, just nodded, got up from his seat, squeezed my shoulder and quietly wished me"bonne journee" or "good day"

Since then I've thought about the power that a hand of friendship can have - and questioned whether, perhaps, on previous occasions I've been so concerned about staying strong (typical British 'stiff upper lip' and all that) that I've overlooked support that could have been available to me all along?

I've talked before about having had a few 'challenges' in my life (and realised how I've come to dislike the glib over-use of that word to describe problems or even traumas - under the 'keep positive' mantra of well-meaning but sometimes deluded modern-day motivators) so now is probably a good time to explain a few of them.

For me, it seems, change has been a constant in my life since my earliest memories. Not for me the slow, gentle undulating waves of change to which one can gently acclimatise, but instead a mighty tsunami that arrives without warning and washes away everything in it's path in just a blink of an eye. 

The first was the death of my father when I was just 4 years old. 

I absolutely adored and worshipped  my 'Daddy' in the way, I suppose, that only a daughter can. To me he was my hero, my saviour, and I knew that however much love and adoration I gave him, he returned it 10-fold. My mum was pregnant with my little sister at the time, so dad had taken it upon himself to be the 'clown' and 'entertainer' to me as mum was understandably less energetic than usual! He would frequently return home from work with 'treats' for me - small things, sometimes a paper airplane, other times bubble gum that he and I would hide with behind the sofa, pretending to hide from mum because she didn't approve of any kind of gum (all part of the game, of course!) 

He'd often scoop me up above his head and put me on his shoulders, and tell me "Boo" (my nickname) "just look at the world - it's all there waiting for you!" and I truly believed I could do anything. We were all very excited about my sister's imminent arrival, and would sit for hours discussing names and what games we were going to share with her. I remember his beautiful and easy smile, one that spread right across his face and around his eyes that couldn't fail to touch everyone else who was around him. And I was so very very proud of my Daddy.

That day, he'd decided to return to his office in the evening to finish off some work. It was way after I'd gone up to bed, and I remember hearing the door shut behind him, shouting out "see you soon!" and the familiar noise of the car engine as it raced off down the lane. I snuggled deeper in to my covers and settled down to a comfortable sleep. That was the very last time I'd know that feeling.  

He died that evening in his office - a mixture of the prescription drugs he was taking to shake off a cold, together with the glass of wine he'd had at home with my mum had, apparently left him slightly drowsy. The heater in his office was new and, unbeknown to anyone, was leaking lethal carbon monoxide fumes in to the air. My Daddy's lifeless body, slumped across his desk with pen still in hand, was discovered by his brother when he arrived for work the next morning. 

I wasn't told about his death until after my sister was born, 10 days later. I can only now begin to imagine the torment my dear mother must have endured through this time - she was only 32 years old and facing life as a widow and about to give birth. All I remember from my point of view was that I was to go and stay with my best friend in the village 'until after the baby arrives'. And I really don't remember much else. Until I was home. I'd met my gorgeous new little sister, and then mum sat me gently next to her in her bed to tell me the news.

And from that moment on I knew that life would never be the same. The funeral had been and gone, I had a new sister to 'look after' (for that was how I saw my role at that point - because Daddy was no longer there to fulfill it) and a new school to start. We went down to Sussex for a few months to stay with Nan and Grand, my mum's parents, and I remember developing scarletina, eczema, and all manner of other minor ailments for which I was given gallons of potions and mixtures to combat. I remember playing in the park with my Nan, I remember long walks along the seafront, I remember sitting on a huge model elephant on the pier.... but I do not remember crying.

The next tsunami was to hit 12 years later. 

Towards the end of 1980, not long before my 16th birthday, I had developed a nasty bout of pneumonia. Weeks and weeks at home meant that I had missed a great deal of schooling for my all important O Levels the following summer. By the beginning of the New Year I had recovered sufficiently to return to school, and we all trotted along to the doctors to get a certificate proving that I had missed a chunk of last term through illness. It was to be sent in to the examining board in the hope they would view my papers with compassion when the time came.

It was a Monday, 12th January 1981, and after the doctor had signed the certificate, mum asked him if he wouldn't mind just taking a look at something for her? So she laid down on the couch and the doctor bent over her. He touched her and then looked at my sister and me and asked us to go in to the waiting room. He didn't need to say anything. There was something in his eyes that turned my blood to ice and I felt the familiar feeling of dread rising up through my body.

My heart was pumping as my little sister and I went through to the waiting room, and I just couldn't keep the words inside me. I turned to Abigail, and said as gently as I could "Mummy's got cancer". I didn't understand where this "knowing" came from, I just knew with every nerve cell and fibre of my being that it was true. 

We both waited anxiously, and watched for the doctor's door to open. Like my dad, mum had this most incredible energy about her - people have often said that she lit up a room. And as she came out of the surgery, she was still wearing her biggest smile, and gave a jolly laugh and nod to the doctor as she closed the door behind her. But I knew.

We all got to the car, and strapped ourselves in - I was in the front seat next to mum, who was still wearing her famous "come along gals!" sort of smile I was so familiar with. I waited a few moments until we were out of the car park, then I turned to her and asked gently "Are you going to tell us then?" She faced my questioning stare, her smile not quite as convincing as she countered "Tell you what darling?" And I had to say it. "You've got cancer, haven't you?" 

And with that, with those 5 small words, the truth was out and I knew that life, once again, would never be the same. 

The three of us spent that evening at our dining room table, talking, crying, hugging and trying to understand what it all meant. It turned out that she had found a lump in her breast a few months earlier, but had been told by a so-called friend that it was nothing she should be worried about, so she had ignored it (and that's another story for another time). Now it had spread and she'd been told by the doctor that they had to operate immediately to find out just how bad it was. 

I asked her if I could feel what it was like and as she gently guided my hand to her right breast I was horrified to realise that the entire area was solid. Cold, rigid and hard - and I felt the anger and indignation exploding inside of me - how could her boyfriend not have noticed? Why didn't anyone do anything about it? I swallowed it down as I knew mum needed our support not more questions, but I vowed that from that moment I would never let something like this happen to anyone else again.

She went in to hospital just over a week later, cheerily telling people she was going in for a hysterectomy. Why? Well, she explained to us that she wanted to keep strong within herself and know that all was well, and that this way would help her so that she didn't have to explain. So we went along with it, and were forbidden to tell friends or family what was really happening. Now, I realise, this was just about the worst thing any of us could have done, as we had to keep up the pretence that everything was ok, while struggling with the turmoil and fear of the truth. But Abigail and I stayed true to her wishes, and during the first few days I only told one very close friend what was really happening - but still I felt guilty. It came out later on, though, as it became clear just how far the cancer had spread, and mum simply couldn't hide it anymore.

It didn't last very long. Abigail and I visited her no more than 4 times in hospital. By Wednesday 4th February, we were told she was too ill for us to see her - she died at 21.50 on Friday 6th February less than a month after we had first discovered she was ill.

I didn't go to her funeral. Mum always said she didn't want a funeral - too much fuss, too much sadness and such a waste of flowers she used to tell me. So, again, I followed her wishes and opted instead to go to school that morning - utter craziness as I look back on those times, but I honestly thought I was doing the best thing, and that she'd have been proud.

We went to live with our guardians - Eddie, an old friend of the family, his wife Gilly and their young child - and another one on the way. And we did our best to fit in, to be 'good girls' and to help out and stay happy - we were conscious to not become a burden, and although our entire existence had changed, we did a pretty good job.

The next tsunami happened on Sunday 9th January 1983. 

We were still living on the south coast with our guardian, and just a couple of weeks earlier we'd celebrated my 18th birthday with a huge party at the house. I was in my second year of A Levels and things were pretty good. Abby and I had arrived home late from a weekend visit with our paternal grandparents in Lincolnshire. We had made the 5 hour coach ride down from Peterborough, and then a taxi from the coach station at Eastbourne. We'd been laughing together the entire journey, and giggling at some of the things Granny and Grandpa had been saying and doing over the weekend. It was past midnight by the time we got home and everyone was already in bed and the house was in darkness. So we said good night to each other and crept quietly to our bedrooms. Mine was right at the top of the house, and right above the bedroom of my guardians. I reached behind the door to turn the light on, and went in to my room.

I couldn't believe my eyes. There, strewn across the floor and my bed, were my mother's clothes...! I stared in disbelief as shock and the horror wrapped their icy arms around me. I reasoned that there was nothing I could do at that point, so I carefully picked up the clothes, folded them up, and got myself ready for bed. Once again, that now familiar feeling of dread was gnawing away at the pit of my stomach. My heart was pounding, my head was full of unanswerable questions, and I knew for sure, that my life was once again about to change for ever. 

The following morning we got up and went down for breakfast - I don't remember whether or not I told my sister what had happened, but I do remember than neither of our guardians were at the breakfast table. Their little boy came down as usual, and we busied ourselves with getting him fed and watered, as was our usual routine. Eddie came down just a minute before we were due to leave, and I asked where Gilly was. He just brushed me off saying 'she's too tired this morning' and rushed us in to the car. The music was on as usual, and nothing was said. So I took it upon myself to ask that same question I had asked my mother when she came out from the surgery "Well, are you going to tell us then?"

We were met with coldness. Not the love and concern that mum had shown when I had asked her the same question. No, this time it was a sneer. "You're going to stay with your grandmother. You're to pack your bags tonight and you're leaving tomorrow morning. You're not coming back" And that was that.

Many years have passed since then, and there are many more stories to tell - but they are for another time.

For now, suffice it to say that the most recent tsunami hit on 21st April this year when I discovered the truth about my husband. And it's the most ruthless one yet and is the one that has hit me the hardest. Because it's crashed down on every single level of my heart, body and soul. Every thing that I'd trusted, everything that I'd put my faith in has been swept away in a heartbeat. 

Is it a coincidence that it happened on the day when I officially outlived my mother, and, therefore both my parents? I don't know - I'm still working on that one.

I've decided that I must have been born with a strong soul to endure such things - but I'm beginning to wonder just what lessons I'm meant to be learning that I've perhaps been too damned stubborn to learn!

This time, perhaps, I'll stop being so strong. Perhaps I'll stop believing that I have to be super human and carry the weight of responsibility on my own. 

This time, perhaps I'll be able to accept the healing waves of unconditional love and support that surround me - often showing themselves in the most unexpected of ways and from the most unexpected of people.

This time, perhaps I WILL let myself fall - and learn to trust that I'll be caught, supported and carried to safety by the hands of friendship that are reaching out to me every day. I'll be the human being that I am, and perhaps in the process I can also heal the little girl who, somewhere deep inside of me is still waiting for her hero to come home.

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Monday, 6 July 2009

Happyman 213, The Press And The Lawyers

English: The Scales of Justice Gilded bronze f...
Sometimes I wonder where I've been going wrong? Why, for so many years even when I've stayed strong and resolutely positive through times of challenge and adversity, why do I still find that the 'baddies' can hide behind the 'political correctness' of those who are meant to stand for freedom and human rights? How is it that, in fact, they regularly sail on a ship of 'human wrongs' through the sea of political correctness and an impossible wish to do right by all parties concerned. Or it it just lack of gumption to stick their neck out...?

I, for one, have always stuck my neck out. If there's been an injustice to correct, a battle to fight, someone's rights to defend, I'm up there rattling cages and rousing the troops, with the determination of William Wallace coursing through my veins: "they can take our lives but they'll never take our freedom!"

Only last year, my dear friend Henry broke his back in a freak accident at work. He and his wife, by the way, are one of those couples who always pay their bills on time, keep records, and respond faithfully to every French demand for yet more 'justificatifs' and pieces of paper to satisfy their red-tape stranglehold on humanity. 

So when Henry was taken for life-saving surgery on his spine, followed by a long stay in hospital and then weeks of daily home visits from the nurses, they were confident that all their medical needs were covered by their insurers. After all, it was only a couple of weeks previously that their bank had sent them a letter inviting them to change their insurance. And during the face to face meeting, they were told that the top-up insurance for which they'd been paying over €150 a month for the past 18 months was no longer necessary because the health service had made some recent changes. So they had signed all the necessary paperwork there and then. Sorted.

So when Ruth, Henry's wife, duly took the paperwork to the hospital to settle the bill, she was absolutely horrified to learn that in actual fact they had no cover and were expected to settle the medical bills themselves. Bearing in mind that these good people are close to retirement age, and that at the time we had no idea how well Henry might recover from his accident, this news was nearly too much to bear.

Weeks of wrangling followed, and I went along with Ruth to various health, insurance, and social security offices to help her fight their cause. Each time to be met by a 'jobsworth' french civil servant who wanted to pass the buck on to another department, with a supercilious smile, a shrug and a "madam, there's nothing we can do". With Ruth clearly distressed at each meeting, I found myself flexing all manner of fluent and furious French I didn't know I had within me until then. Eventually shaken in to action, we finally started to get some results.

Until we went to the bank to ask for their explanation as to why they'd given us incorrect advice that had resulted in the cancellation of their policy. "Mais non, madame" smarmed the bank manager "it was clearly explained and they chose to sign. Perhaps you don't understand our system?And anyway, under our laws, they should never have been paying for a top-up because they were never entitled." This was a blatant lie, and the signatures on the pieces of paper proved that they had given them incorrect advice. 

William Wallace took over at that point - I imagined the blue war-paint burning in to my cheeks, as I stood up to face this smirking creature - perfectly manicured and perfectly versed in the "there's nothing I can do" school of responses. I didn't pull him over the desk, although I was sorely tempted. Instead, I locked eyes and vowed to him that we'd be back (Arnie had by that time crept in to join William Wallace in my internal cinema screen).

So I used the French paperwork system to get our case heard. I sent a registered letter to the Chief Executive of the insurance company, copied in to the President of the bank, and copied in to the Bank Manager. It was strong, it was just, and it was factual. And less than a week later the issue was resolved, with the Bank Manager squirming that "just on this one occasion" they would make an exception and reinstate the insurance cover they had told Henry and Ruth to cancel just a few weeks earlier. No matter. He kept his pride, and we got our result. Sorted.

But how many other folk would have had the gumption and determination to fight against a wall of faceless pen-pushers to amend a human error that was threatening not only to cripple them financially but also reduce them to emotional meltdown? Incidentally, more than a year later you'll be pleased to know that Henry is fully recovered with no visible scars from his ordeal.

And so, faced with a battle of equal enormity just a short while ago, I donned my warpaint and prepared myself for the fight. 

I had just discovered, you see, that my dearly loved husband of 10 years had been living a double life. Unbeknown to me, he'd racked up thousands of pounds worth of debts, had been avoiding bills, and had also been advertising himself as Happyman 213 on sex-sites and meeting up with people for casual sex for months and months. I had absolutely no idea that this was happening, and I thought that we had a good, strong marriage that would last for ever. But faced with the overwhelming evidence, I had to accept that his life here with my son and with me had been just a sham. And so I went in to battle - for myself and for my son who, for the past 11 years had known and loved this man as 'dad'.

First of all I contacted our accountant to tell him what I'd discovered, then I rang our business bank to freeze the account and then I called in the liquidators. Oh yes, we had been running a very successful training company together for the past decade, and had lived, travelled and worked together every day for the past few years.  So the depth and calculated execution of his duplicity was extreme, to say the least. And if it wasn't actually happening to me, I would find it hard to believe that one person could so successfully dupe another.

In the midst of coming to terms with the biggest shock of my life - emotional turmoil, financial ruin, the realisation that everything I depended on as being real and solid was in fact a charade - I decided I wanted to tell my story. Incidentally, since the day I discovered the facts about my husband (all documented and proven through an email trail he left behind him) he has gone to ground, leaving me to deal with the fallout. 

So I contacted a well-respected press agent  to see whether my story had any mileage. I wanted to share what had happened - the inner child in me wanted someone to stand up and fight, and tell it like it was. I also wanted to create a piece that could inspire other people to find inner strength, no matter what issue they were facing, to dig deep and eventually find a way through. 

At the same time I also created a new website to promote my coaching skills, based on my experiences with our training company, and reasoned that I could use the newspaper article to kick-start my new business and bring in some much needed work so that I could support myself and my son.

I was delighted when a large national daily newspaper loved the idea. So I was interviewed, and they sent a photographer to my house in France for a photoshoot. "Give me a sad wistful look" he asked - just the once and never again as I countered his request with a determined smile and stance of victory. 

"I'm no victim here" I replied, " I'm coming through this and I want to inspire others as well, so you won't be getting any of those kind of poses from me" 

The photoshoot went well, and the article was written. I had been told by my agent, that we would need to do a 'right to reply' with my husband. It would not be printed, it was just so that legally the newspaper is covered. I had no problem with that - as I knew my husband could not deny anything I had said since the proof was all there in black and white.

What I hadn't considered, though, was that he would come back with a stream of twisted 'facts' designed to discredit me. I have countered those allegations, and both the agent and the newspaper know that they are untrue but, to cover themselves legally the paper now will not print the article without a full interview from him giving 'his side of the story'. And neither will any other publication. 

This is despite the fact that my husband is a proven liar, and the fact that all my words are substantiated. The story wasn't even written in a 'bad' way about him - it was much more about how I am surviving and coming through the toughest time of my life. Both the agent and I are frustrated beyond words.

So once again he has control.

Interestingly, the liquidators are also pretty quiet despite my requests for information on the legalities and status of the liquidation. Despite this I am sending them new information every day as still more creditors turn up out of the woodwork, having been given excuse after excuse by my husband as to why their payments were late. At the same time that he was spending thousands of pounds of company money on clothing, sports equipment and trinkets for himself and his sex partners. All those debts went down along with the business - nothing was in his name.

You see, he had to go to meet with the liquidators and sign the paperwork that I had instigated. He's very plausible (he had me fooled for nearly 11 years) so I can only guess at what he might have told them.

At the same time, he is refusing to respond to my divorce solicitor, and is also refusing to pay the mortgage on our jointly owned place in Scotland in which he is living. I am receiving the increasingly harassing phone calls from the mortgage company up to 5 times a day, despite the fact that my solicitor is attempting to get through to them on my behalf. It's proving to be a ridiculously difficult challenge. And because at this moment in time I can't pay the first legal bill from my solicitor, she cannot push my case any further. 

Along with many other household items I have already sold to put food on the table, I have just put my beloved old Landrover up for sale in order to pay my legal bills and keep a roof over our heads for the next couple of months. I am also still dealing with creditors, keeping my son safe and secure, and also pushing for work. 

Happyman 213, on the other hand, is living his new life, still continuing to work with a couple of our old and unsuspecting clients (who will have believed whatever story he's chosen to tell them) and simply ignoring everything else. Scot free.

Is this justice? Is this what we're to expect from our legal system? Is it for this that William Wallace and all those other brave souls in history laid down their lives?

It's surely a case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing - or perhaps not. According to his advertisement on the Blackbox XXX adult-sex website, Happyman 213 boasts of using at least one of his hands countless times a day to....well, you can imagine. The other, quite clearly, is left free to stick two fingers up at the law which, it appears, is too scared to stop him. 

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Friday, 3 July 2009

Life's Little Lettuces

Lettuce (Photo credit: Hamburger Helper)
Having had great success growing my own herbs, and experimenting with the odd runner bean sown quietly among my container pots, I decided this year that I'd take the next few tentative steps to 'growing my own'.

I already have tomatoes, beans, peas and a good crop of rocket, and a few days ago i bought a punnet of 24 baby lettuces from a market stall to add to my collection.

They are lollo rosso variety - a beautiful, vibrant mauve colour with pretty curly leaves. I'd been told that you can pick just a few leaves at a time and they'll continue to produce all through the summer - fantastic!

They had been grown individually in little 'cubes' of soil that were joined together. So I carefully broke off each one and eased them gently in to their places in my garden. I watered them in, welcomed them in to their new home, and thought no more of it.

The following day I went down to check on my latest additions, and found they had all wilted and shrivelled - every single one of them. I was gutted! Still, I reasoned, they've just come to a new home and, even though I've done my very best to give them  care and attention so they can settle in, it must still have been a stressful move. To be uprooted from the place you grew up, separated from your friends, and placed in a new place that must seem huge, empty and hostile - they'd probably never been out of their greenhouse before! Even then I couldn't help but chuckle at the very obvious links to my own childhood experiences.

So I continued to water and tend them - propping them up and talking to them as well (oh yes I did!). But the days passed and they didn't seem to make much progress. Four of them completely shrivelled (like lettuce that's been left in a fridge too long? Watery and floppy) two of them seemed to be picking up a bit, and the rest of them just looked generally wilted. They simply didn't seem to have the energy to do anything at all, even though the sun had been shining every day, the soil was good, and I continued to nurture them.

It was just a few days later when we had the most almighty of storms. It started, as usual, with a sudden drop in air pressure. The birds went silent, sensing the impending changes, and the brooding skies started to unfurl their rumbling cloaks as the sunlight became overshadowed by the gathering storm clouds. A warning crack of thunder split the air, and then came the rain. Sparse at first, but steadily gathering momentum as the ferocity intensified, turning the gentle thrumming in to relentless heavy pounding, bouncing off every hard surface and intensifying the sounds even more. 

I imagined my poor little lettuces - being beaten, battered and drowned, and I felt sad at my unforseen role in hastening their untimely deaths. They'd seemed so happy and full of promise at the market stand, and I'd thought that I could give them more. But I was wrong. The storm was too mighty, they were no longer together, and they couldn't fight alone.

I noticed again the similarities in my own life and the battles I'm facing on a daily basis as I try to make sense of the past two months. Now I am unable to pay my bills, there is still no work booked, and my estranged husband is doing nothing to move forward with the divorce proceedings. I feel alone, helpless and vulnerable - and some days I wonder how to keep going.

With my own storm clouds gathering above me, I've been using every nerve cell and fibre of my being to stay positive, strong and determined for both myself and my son, even in the face of continued adversity. It's like a slow, relentless monster moving towards me. I can't always see or hear it, and I can sometimes  pretend it's not there; but it's always getting closer and I cannot escape no matter what I do. 

Yesterday I received two bits of unfavourable news, which for me, announced the thunder and lightening of my own personal storm. That was it for me. I had no fight left, no more solutions to create, nowhere to turn and I felt I simply couldn't carry on. I was totally drained - emotionally, physically and spiritually. I was all washed up, and I sank slowly to the floor and let myself go as the hot tears of frustration, hopelessness and exhaustion coursed down my face, blurring my vision as my body shuddered with hard rasping sobs. 

Finally exhausted, I dragged myself to bed, to face yet another night of vivid and disturbed dreams as I continue to try and make sense of this on-going living nightmare.

This morning, it's another beautiful sunny day. I decided I'd spend my first couple of hours tending my garden, and assess what damage had been left by the storm. The earth was once again dry - too dry in fact, so I switched on the well-pump and went about watering the beds.

It was about 11am by the time I got down to my vegetable patch. Absent-mindedly sprinkling the water spray over my beans and peas, I suddenly noticed out of the corner of my eye, a little flash of mauve in the next bed. I shook my head and blinked, surely it couldn't be...? I edged closer, and more purple tinged leaves came in to view, as I saw that every single one of my lettuces had not only survived the storm, but were now actually standing upright and strong, and waving in the breeze! Even the two that I had previously thought were completely dead, had sprouted small, determined new leaves right at the centre of the 'blob' that was left of them.

And I found myself laughing - quietly chuckling on the inside at first, and then growing to shoulder-shaking gaffaws as I continued to take in the lessons on every single level of my being.

"The darkest hour is the one before dawn" is one of my favourite sayings - and these little plants had taught me some invaluable lessons. About how difficult it can be to settle in to a new routine after change. About how no amount of external nurturing can make you 'come back to life'. About how the biggest storm that to most people would appear a killer, had actually washed them clean, nourished them, and made them strong. 

Nature is truly wonderful. And nature's little lettuces of life have given me hope and inspiration today. 

Perhaps I'm not alone though. Perhaps other people have learned from lettuces before me. And perhaps that's why one variety was called Little Gem....

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