Strange dreams and other things

April 25, 2016

My alarm went off at 5.50am. I turned it off and went back to sleep. T-bird gave my back a half kick. In my dream I was very intrigued to see how the plot would develop. I can’t remember the details but I was in some kind of difficult situation involving two women. Was I married to one and had made some kind of promise to the other? What made it more bizarre was that I knew this was the plot of some book. I had even asked the opinion of the most writerly blogging friend I knew. Lilian had agreed with the reviewer (but whether this comment was positive or negative I couldn’t remember).

The first woman had arrived from somewhere it seems. Maybe she had come to stay for a week? She met the second woman who I can only assume was my girlfriend. Woman #2  felt bad because  #1 had clearly been led to believe that we would have some kind of relationship, and she didn’t feel able to tell her the truth. I remember at some level thinking that these two women would be very annoyed to hear that I was actually married!

Woman #2 helped #1 with some kind of spell, which would need to be undone when woman #2 and I got together. Very complicated.

At which point L came to wake me to tell me that I had over-slept and that I would need to get a move on to get to work on time.

Bizarre. What did it all mean? One association that I have is with “Forty Seven Roses” in which Peter Sheridan writes about his dad who, while being married to Peter’s mother, managed to have a largely long-distance relationship with a previous girlfriend.

Needless to say I don’t have a girlfriend. I suppose the Jungians would say something about masculine and feminine selves. Maybe my feminine self has different aspects to her.


Other than that, I can report :

  1. T-bird is almost two. Loopsie is five. T-bird is quite good at the ‘terrible two’s” and at other times is sweetness and light. She charms strangers in shopping centres. She blows kisses at everyone in her little play-group. Her favourite activity is running around the house.
  1. I did a Resilience talk to our staff, and now feel heartily sick of the topic.
  1. I am endeavouring to read more novels written by women this year. I have just started “Station Eleven” by Emily St John Mandel. I have also just finished “Rembrandt’s Mirror” by Kim Devereux.
  1. I have also just started “Cloudstreet” by Tim Winton. We’ll see which novel wins.
  1. Not much else. Parenting. School. More school. Family. Back ache. The weather. And no blogging. Plenty of coffee though. Ho hum. I hope that life is more scintillating where you are.

Making every ingredient sing

February 24, 2016

Thai-ingredients-mainI love my job … some days. Counselling teenagers is tough, not least because they can be so unreliable. Getting a teenage boy to remember to come to his session or to let me know that he can’t make it or at least to realise that he’s forgotten to pitch and communicate that to me is sometimes too much to ask for.

But I also get to do research and this year I’ve chosen as my focus: Building Resilience. There’s a ton of good material out there and the challenge will be to sift through it, take the parts that appeal most to me and to put it together in a meaningful way. I have a presentation on “Building Resilience” to give in exactly two weeks and, in the words of Masterchef, I want to make every ingredient sing. I want to present some stories and some theory but also to get the teachers to reflect on their own lives and those of their students. It’s a tough ask.

On the parenting side, we are lurching along. Our 5-year old is a lot easier to manage these days, except when it comes to getting herself ready so that we can get to school on time. Our 22-month old is a holy terror. “Bleugh!” And “Go away!” being two of her default responses when she sees me. I’m clearly doing something wrong here but I also I know this is part of the terrible twos. Deep breath. Don’t get angry. Walk away.

“I’m going to kill this child!” I muttered through clenched teeth as I passed the T-bird to L at about 8.40pm last night. Tessie was just being naughty but at the end of a long day I just wanted her to go to sleep so that L and I could sit down together and watch Australian Masterchef.

I love this programme. This week I decided to take some of the advice to heart. One of the guest chefs was telling the contestants to “Be bold!” and to have “No fear!” Rose, the contestant with the flapping hands and the tears, who always seems to be up for elimination, decided to be brave and went for the biggest fish in the pantry. She staggered back to her counter with a massive snapper and a look on her face that said “I’m being brave. Please reward me for this.”

The judges quickly gathered round to see what she would do with it. She cut two steaks and whipped together a Thai salad and some other concoction. I was impressed. I was thinking along the lines of “Feel the fear and do it anyway” except this time the version was: What if you can be anxious and bold at the same time? Because when it comes to my own feelings and behaviour I can never ignore my daily anxiety. But it doesn’t need to define my life. What if I was bold and adventurous as well as anxious and tired? What actions would I take instead? Would I be more decisive?

That’s become my thought experiment for the week. Not to be completely fearless and gung-ho but to take a few risks. To be a bit bolder AND also more reflective.

On the cooking front, however, I immediately fell on my face. I was trying to whip up a Thai Red Curry (from the box) while at the same time keeping an eye on the SA vs England cricket match. Unfortunately I took my eye off the pan and managed to melt one of our plastic spoons. L’s response was along the lines of: What the hell were you doing using a plastic spoon on a hot frying pan? I shot back with: “You’re not being supportive!”I managed to rescue the dish but I realised that I will definitely have to re-visit the multi-tasking idea.

And now I’m off to cook up some more psychological interventions. Wish me luck!

Having a life

January 25, 2016
Tessie with Tuscany book

T with one of her favourite books (a travel book on Tuscany).

What does it mean to ‘have a life’? And how does one have a life when balancing competing demands? The demands of parenting are well-documented: the sleep deprivation, the loss of self, the loss of sanity even. Putting ourselves on hold so that we can calm the baby, reassure the anxious toddler, make the school lunch, just do the flipping washing and organise the baby-sitting.

I bumped into another dad outside the school gates. I was feeling a little dodgy and so was still trying to make it work vaguely on time and get started on the mountain of emails that I don’t look at on the weekend. This dad has four kids, the youngest of whom is six months old. He said something about parenting four young kids as being like “throwing live hand-grenades”. I was in a hurry so I muttered something about taking “one step at a time” and then tried to re-focus on my Monday morning. My mind already races ahead to the week’s activities. Testing, meetings, counselling, welcoming service, trying to organise admission for a boy to the clinic. And then hoping that I have the energy to cope with the demands of the week. At least I am blogging this week, even if it is just to say “Wish I was here”. Oh, and I’m loving reading “All the light we cannot see” by Anthony Doerr. Other than that, life is carrying on.

Resilience 1: Prozac, Coffee and Fridges

October 27, 2015

Photo credit: Rebecca Wolsak

Struggling today but persevering. I was thinking (for the umpteenth time) about resilience. About being down but not out. I was going to post something about coffee and Prozac and then I remembered that I’d forgotten to take my little white pill today. I’ve got mixed feelings about being on Prozac. I think it’s definitely helped but I’m also sceptical and I don’t like the idea of being dependent on a chemical to feel better.

One of the side effects of being on fluoxetine is that I’ve started drinking coffee again (and eating more). I know that both coffee and sugar are bad for me but I definitely crave both of these substances now more than before. Previously my body just wouldn’t tolerate coffee and I would be bouncing off the walls (before crashing metaphorically at my desk). Now I quite like the buzz but I’m worried about overdoing it.

I read an interesting post detailing new developments on Chronic Fatigue which had me wondering what’s going on in my body at a cellular level. I’m certainly tired a lot of the time but I put that down to the strains of parenting. I don’t get to exercise enough and from the time I get home in the afternoon I’m often on the go with two small, demanding girls. Feeding, bathing, the bedtime routine. After that I often just collapse on our bed until it’s time to clean up the kitchen. Oh the drudgery!

This weekend we had the added drama of the fridge packing up. I was so stressed about the South Africa versus New Zealand rugby match that I decided to do some fridge defrosting as a stress release. Pick up knife, hack away at the ice in the fridge until …. I hit something I shouldn’t have and there’s a long hisssssing sound. Uh-uh. That’s the sound of Freon escaping and our 15-year old fridge expiring. The rest of the weekend didn’t get much better. But on the positive side we now have a sparkling new fridge which dispenses lovely cold water and which is purring contentedly on the side of our new kitchen. It’s silver, it tells the temperature (a chilly 2 degrees) and I think it’s possibly the best thing we own. We can;t afford it but that’s another story.

In due course I will post properly about resilience. About how resilience is not quite the same thing as Grit. I will even put up a picture of my beautiful new couch. Life carries on. The girls are on their TB-prophylaxis and it’s going better than expected. At least it’s Rifampicin and not INH. Three months to go and then we can breathe a little easier.

Life is hectic but it carries on. And there are good days in between the hectic ones.

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

September 2, 2015

I am PilgirmTerry Hayes’s gripping debut novel is over 800 pages but well worth the read. The plot is pretty simple: Scott Murdoch (aka Jake aka Brodie aka …) is a retired secret agent. He was one of the best but now he’s hiding out in Paris, taking stock of his life post 9/11. The intelligence world has changed irrevocably, Scott is out of a job and he also knows that there are many people who would like him dead. He is very reluctant to return to his previous life but when a gritty New York cop tracks him down, he gets drawn into a very bizarre and intriguing New York murder investigation. And then, fast forward a bit, he is hand-picked by the head of the CIA to be a one-man secret operative hunting the world’s most wanted would-be terrorist.

The other side of the story is the Saracen. Hayes has done a brilliant job of getting into the head of a Saudi exile who is plotting to wipe out millions of Americans through a biological terror attack. The Saracen’s family life, his training and psychology are all detailed very convincingly.

However, when I had finished I couldn’t help wondering about a few things. I should probably put a SPOILER alert here but I will try not to give away the details of the plot. Firstly, why are Scott and the Saracen operating largely on their own? Everything that I know about al-Qaeda or ISIL or ISIS tells me that agents tend to operate in groups. They are trained in cells and they need a support network. The way I am Pilgrim plays out it’s Scott vs the Saracen. We know who will win but it’s still a nail-biting race against time.

Secondly, isn’t it convenient that the terrorists (in this case the Saracen plus some Albanian thugs) use the same interrogation techniques on Scott as the US use on their prisoners? If the CIA were trying to justify the use of waterboarding on terror suspects, they couldn’t have done a better job. Yes, they might say, this interrogation technique is abhorrent but see how the terrorists are using it themselves. All is fair in love and war.

Thirdly, I did wonder about the boy with Down’s syndrome. Call me cynical but did we need the added heart-string-pulling of a child with disabilities? Disability as a plot-device leaves me a little uneasy.

All told though, an excellent thriller up there with the best that you will read. Hayes is also a very successful scriptwriter so we can expect that when this becomes a movie it will be huge.

TB or not TB (Part I)

August 24, 2015

Bouncy toddler

Just before the school holidays our nanny was not well. She had lost weight, was complaining of tiredness and she had a terrible pain in her back. She was cold during the day and wore a thick jacket indoors. We thought it might be TB so we took her for a chest x-ray, which came back negative. Our doctor eventually diagnosed her with arthritis in her thoracic spine and she went off on her annual three-week holiday with some strong painkillers.

On the last weekend of the school holidays we were on holiday in Betty’s Bay and L got a text message from Grace* (our child’s nanny) to say that she couldn’t come to work anymore because she was sick with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDRTB) and she had to go to the clinic every day for treatment. It was a fairly short message and it ended with Grace sending love to the girls and saying that she missed them.

That was five weeks ago and to say we have been shell-shocked ever since is an understatement. We suspected that Grace could possibly have been HIV-positive and we had tried to reassure her that this would not affect her employment but that she needed to stay well. Both for the sake of her own children and for ours. But Grace denied being HIV-positive and we didn’t feel that we could press the issue. The one thing we were keen to prevent was that Grace would get sick with TB and then pass it on to the girls.

Cue worst case scenario. Apart from the trauma of trying to find a new nanny (just at the time when L’s mom, who is our main backup child-carer) will be overseas for six weeks, we have also had the drama of trying to assess whether the girls have been infected with TB. And then working out how to prevent them from getting sick.

After a considerable amount of tests and palaver, L assessed that they had been infected and bought a whole armload of preventive medicine which we tried to get the girls to take. Both of them vomited – the first one in the first five minutes. The second one in her sleep (all over the bed). Those drugs are revolting.

What to do? L is already sick of me repeating the old psychology cliché of “one step at a time”. At least I didn’t add in “Let Go and Let God”.

Since then we have stalled for time. L had a presentation, I had other work demands. Tessie was sick with bronchialitis. Both of the girls had winter colds. We couldn’t face doing endless cleaning without a domestic worker. So we decided to wait. I tried to convince L that Grace only got sick because her immune system was compromised and that the girls were both ostensibly healthy. Most people infected with TB never get sick. Yes, T is already showing signs of early asthma and children under the age of three have compromised immunity anyway. But to all intents and purposes she is a bouncy toddler. A clingy little one who falls down a lot and cries broken-heartedly when momma leaves for work. But a healthy little girl nevertheless.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop

July 6, 2015

Man who couldn't stopDavid Adam has written a wonderful book about his decades-long struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Adam, a journalist for several years with The Guardian and who now writes for Nature, has written both a personal account of his OCD and a factual and historical account of this debilitating mental condition.

For him the OCD centred around an irrational fear of getting HIV/ Aids. In practice this meant that every possible public surface was a source of fear. However much his rational mind told him that he couldn’t get HIV from a door handle, the irrational fears won out (with crippling consequences).

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop (Picador: 2014) is open, engaging, punchy as well as very interesting. There were moments when I could have done with less history (e.g. on lobotomy and leucotomy) and more personal narrative. But given that this must have been a very difficult book to write, Adam has done incredibly well. The parts I found most interesting were those in which he described the genesis of his own OCD, the description of his treatments (both drug and CBT), as well as the discussions about neuroscience and the difficulties of categorisation. As with all the best Science writers, Adam manages to be interesting, knowledgeable and very accessible.

I do have a few gripes though, and perhaps the first one is his dismissal of Freud and psychodynamic therapy. He gives a shortish account of Freud’s famous OCD case (the “Rat Man”) and then laughs off Freud’s emphasis on the psychosexual origins of the Rat Man’s obsessions and compulsions. Psychodynamic psychotherapy has moved a long way from Freud’s original ideas and the emphasis these days tends to be far more on the early bond and relationship with the mother (or primary caregiver) than on any sexual rivalry with the father. Interestingly, while CBT is the psychotherapeutic treatment of choice (together with SSRIs) for OCD, the current research on the importance of primary attachments means that psychodynamic therapy is still incredibly relevant here as well.

Adam provides a glimpse of possibilities (admittedly quite dismissively) in his final chapter:

This should be … the point … where it all comes together. Having discussed the possible causes of OCD – the genetic, family, social, Freudian, environmental, infectious, psychological, medical, traumatic and just plain unfortunate pressures that might contribute – I should reach a triumphant and emotional conclusion. … It was my parents what did it or my childhood fear of dogs … [the] betrayal by the boy who I thought was my friend … [that] my mother had a stroke and couldn’t hold me as a baby …

I couldn’t help noticing that this was the only mention of his mother in the book. Similarly, his wife is only mentioned in the acknowledgements. Surely Adam’s OCD must have been incredibly difficult for this relationship as well? But I can also well understand the reluctance to go there. It’s one thing admitting that you have a mental illness without dragging your nearest and dearest into the mix as well.

Jenny Turner, reviewing in the Guardian, writes:

His fear … seems to be some sort of death-fear, associated with blood and sex and other usual suspects, triggered perhaps by his misfortune in having reached sexual maturity just as an emerging disease became the focus for a massive moral panic. So Adam’s Aids fear, too, makes most sense when looked at sensitively and symbolically, as a story.

It’s easy, I suppose, to say that we would like Adam to be able to look at the symbolic side of his crippling fear. What he has done is extraordinary enough.