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Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Raising money for Mind

The recent tragic loss of Robin Williams inspired an almost overwhelming response from people who care about mental health. Mind received more calls and visits to their website than ever before. On the morning of 12 August, they published a post on Facebook simply saying 'It's OK to ask for help' and the message was seen by 1.5 million people around the world.

I was on Facebook that day, absorbed by the death of Robin Williams. I was searching for comment, snippets of news and reaction from friends who, like me, just needed to talk about it. I was worried about my husband who has been severely depressed for years. I wanted answers, I wanted to know what to do. At the very least I wanted a conversation between him and me and an acknowledgement now that we can't go on like this.

I was also thinking about my Mum who only recently passed away after a wretched battle with Bipolar. Although she died of natural causes, during her lifetime Mum attempted suicide on a number of occasions. Sometimes afterwards those around her told her that her behaviour was selfish. They wondered how a mother could do this to her children? How this attitude only deepened her wounds, her guilt and her lack of self worth. It also made Mum's recovery all the harder. To be honest, this lack of understanding didn't help me either. As her daughter, I never saw Mum as selfish, just very ill and often alone. I guess it was the same for Robin Williams.

Whilst scanning through Facebook, an old friend popped up, someone called Jennifer who I went to school with and haven't seen for over twenty years. In the aftermath of Robin William's death, Jennifer took the brave decision to publicly tell all her friends that in recent years she's been diagnosed with bipolar. Inspired to break the stigma of mental illness and change attitudes, Jennifer used this opportunity to tell her personal story. I was really struck by it and I wanted to do something there and then. Jennifer is a singer and, by complete coincidence, also lives in North Lincolnshire. I contacted her and she was immediately enthusiastic about holding a charity fundraising evening together for Mind.

Jennifer and I finally met last week; she is even more hilarious than I remember! I'm really pleased that something positive is coming out of this and mental illness, of all things, has brought us together again. We're very excited about our gig on October 10th, World Mental Health Day when Jennifer, Pete (my husband) and I will perform a mix of comedy, music and poetry. If you're not able to make it then please, if you can, make a donation. I also urge you to keep speaking out and talking about mental health with your friends. Mind won't give up until everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets both support and respect - and they genuinely can't do that without us.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

I Am!

I watched 'Secrets From The Asylum' on ITV last night. It was really sad to see how badly the mentally ill were treated and misunderstood. Some were left to languish in institutions for more than sixty years. They landed up there perhaps because they'd suffered from "mental weakness" after having a baby, or what we would term now as postnatal depression. Others would end up there purely because a relative had been mentally ill; the assumption being that the condition was absolutely hereditary. This alone was a justifiable reason to warrant the incarceration of another for the rest of their life.

The programme reminded me of the life of a poet from the 1800's called John Clare. Recently I was asked to contribute to an anthology on the healing power of words. I chose a poem of Clare's for the collection and explain the reasons why below:

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.


This poem by the “almost forgotten” poet, John Clare, strikes at my soul!  I often read it to myself as a means of enabling my Mum’s voice to cry out to me. I imagine the rest of the world hearing loud and clear simply that she existed.

Mum had severe bipolar which, in truth, had a devastating effect on her life. On the one hand she was an intelligent, lively and fun person. She loved people and adored her family. On the other hand, mental illness was like a chain around her neck and it all but paralysed the very essence of who she was. In the depths of depression, when she found her inability to connect so upsetting, it only compounded how badly she felt about herself. She felt like a nobody. At times she even believed she was using mental illness as an excuse for who she really was. Sadly she never learned how to cut herself any slack, she never shouted back.

John Clare was a poet I came across, who lived in Helpston near to where I was brought up and where Mum continued to live in sheltered accommodation. He was a poor peasant born in 1793 whose raw and honest language was not fully appreciated in his own lifetime. A man committed for more than twenty years to a lunatic asylum with an illness which these days would most probably have been diagnosed as bipolar. Clare wrote this poem whilst committed and, I imagine, whilst deeply misunderstood and struggling to find any sense in the world around him.

I like the fact that John Clare is not only “shouting back” but he is also simply conveying the alienation of mental illness and it’s devastating impact; the “vast shipwrecks of my life’s esteems”. He’s acknowledging himself and thus giving people like Mum a powerful voice.

Mum loved writing and poetry. Sadly she died earlier this year and although we often found it difficult to connect with one other, I never doubted her immense strength.

Secrets From The Asylum on ITV....

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Last Day At School

First Day At School
I remember Frank's first day at school like it was yesterday. He was so little and not nearly ready for what was about to hit him. He went along with the novelty of it all to begin with but couldn't believe it when I walked him back again the following morning. And so began seven years of slog! Somehow he stuck with it, I guess he had no choice, and slowly he worked his way through the weekly routine, sounding out letters and describing the stories in picture books. Of course he much preferred to be free and play. The strain of sitting on a chair, trying to work out what people wanted of him, and "conforming" meant he literally climbed off the walls when he got home. It was a big adjustment for young Frank and his shy and sensitive nature only added to the strain of it all. Needless to say his start was slow and he continued to play catch up with his class mates for the first few years.

Then one day Frank seemed to find his friends and his way of interacting with the world. It involved a lot of Doctor Who and playground escapes in the Tardis. His confidence grew as he discovered that his peers were drawn to his imagination and sense of fun. Thanks to the empathy and encouragement of his teachers, he began to believe in himself in the classroom too. And whatever was going on with his parents outside the home, within it we kept things as stable and secure as possible. Some might call our lives boring, but I could see how important routine and normality were for Frank and his sister. I also consider ourselves lucky that we could do that.

Now there weren't any genius academic achievements and he never developed as a child prodigy on, for example, the violin. But what did happen was Frank grew into a lovely natured, happy young man in touch with himself and his own opinions. In his final year at primary school, his talented and highly motivated teacher took the bull by the horns and helped Frank harness and deliver on all his strengths. He ended school achieving his potential and, perhaps more importantly, with a belief that he can be whomever he wants to be. Naturally, as his Mum I am immensely proud of him as I'm sure other parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and carers are of their own child as they too leave school.

The other day Frank said to me: "what's the point of being an adult if you can't be childish sometimes?" I replied that there was no point and no matter how big you grow you must never lose that sense of fun. I guess senior school is going to throw new challenges which may at times hamper this self belief. I just hope Frank, like all children, continues to get the time, space and support he needs to thrive so he can keep dreaming his dreams. God knows, I'm still dreaming mine!

Last Day At School

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Me and Him "on tour"

Pete and I are home from East Sussex; three nights spent in our campervan in a field in Lancing WITHOUT our kids. We had a double bed each and we ate chocolate biscuits all day whilst watching back-to-back DVDs. Then by night, I applied Pete's guy-liner, shoved cotton wool down the central crevice of my bra (it's one of those proper woman wire-ones; kills my chicken ribbed chest everytime) and off we drove to perform our show at the Fringe Festival down the road in Brighton!
Come On!
We love Brighton. I kept confusing it with my home town coz everyone's really friendly and sexy and nice and up for a good time. We performed our show in this groovy little theatre; the upstairs room of the venue "Three and Ten" right in the centre of town near the pier. I decided, when in Rome, and did the full Ziggy Stardust...

"You Got Your Mother In A Whirl...."
Afterwards, back in the campervan, Pete and I made this pact to keep living the dream and we secured our promise with a hob nob followed by a really good film starring John Cusack. It is, afterall, too easy to let the good life slip through your fingers for something more ordinary and expected. For something like a digestive biscuit perhaps or a Dorothy Perkin's suit. I started performing poetry after realising that I was entirely unsuited to ordinary. It was pretty much around the same time Pete started playing the piano.

A man possessed by
'breast-loving word vomit'
Did you hear about Pete's "titties" outburst? It's with thanks to Broadway Baby that the hissing of word babble from this normally taciturn, hen-pecked pianist was noted.  Click on the link below:-

The Shallow Depths - Brighton Fringe Review

Thanks Brighton, maybe the south isn't so bad afterall.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Why The Hell Am I Doing This?

In 2012, in the midst of a double-dip recession, whilst bringing up two children, Pete and I threw caution to the wind and jacked in our jobs. We took redundancy from careers in journalism to pursue our passion – to write and perform our own poetry cabaret show. With modest redundancy cheques, we bought an electric keyboard, a rickety old campervan and a dog. We practiced the piano, we learned how to jump start a Hymer, and we all but failed to toilet train a dachshund.

The result is “The Shallow Depths”; a darkly comic stage show written in the quiet moments between doggy do-dos, kiddy tea-times, full-time work and general family mayhem. We're about to launch in our home town before taking the show on to the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals. As we build up to the first night, I find myself reflecting on why we chose this unlikely and somewhat mad path?
This is us, Family Dixon, a few years back. It looks like everything is rosy and that we get a lot of fun out of life. To a certain extent this is true; we adore each other, we are tight and we love spending time together. It was the world outside our home that got to Pete and me.

For many years, off and on, Pete and I have battled depression. I actually feel a fraud including mine alongside Pete's because his has been heavier, more persistent - clinical. Mine has come in fits and starts including postnatally but also as I dealt with the traumas of my past. I'd put off seeking help for so long partly because my Mum has bipolar which has had a devastating effect on her life. It sounds ridiculous but I thought if I stopped numbing my thoughts, which was so habitual it felt normal, I'd open up a can of worms and "end up like Mum". Of course I know better than that now and actually performance poetry is my way of embracing the madness.

The point is, when you finally wake up to yourself as I did, you find you're in a place where you don't belong. You probably never did, it's just you were too numb to notice before. You also begin to find the meaning, your meaning. I connected my passion for writing with performance and I built up the courage to go to a poetry open mic night. I dared to get up and speak my own words for the first time in my life. It was nothing much but the feeling was exhilarating. I knew this was my future, but how to deal with the present?

In the end I just couldn't stay in my job. It wasn't who I was and I felt it was holding me back. It may sound weird but I thought about myself in my old age and I imagined the regrets I might have if I didn't make the right, if risky, choices. And so, I left. A few months later, Pete did the same.

We'd already started playing the piano and fiddling around with words and music. Now we had the freedom of mind and spirit to explore and experiment. Better still, we had time in the day, when the children were at school, to hang out together. Things happened slowly, they happened easily, without us really even noticing. My ideas morphed into Pete's and vice versa; they became ours. We set ourselves a few simple goals, like having three musical poems under our belt by the summer holidays, and the rest followed. Without trying, we seemed to deliver early on our targets.

After sixteen years of marriage, it was a whole new honeymoon period in our creative lives together. Of course it couldn't last; after a few months as the money started to run out we needed to find work. But it was enough to lay the foundations of the big dream; to write and perform our own show. We both took full-time jobs and, although juggling wasn't easy, we never lost sight of our goal. Now we just channelled our energies in the evenings and weekends. The children, who are always central to our lives, naturally became part of the process and the poetry. They too shared in the music, comedy and theatre of it and even the dog sat on my knee as I practiced the piano. I often played with her chin resting on my arm.

One day I felt we were close to having enough material to pull off a show of some sort; we just needed the incentive. That's when I phoned the Ropewalk in my home town which is a theatre venue attracting the likes of Alan Carr, Jo Caulfield and John Hegley.  Liz, who runs the place, agreed to take a chance on us and put Pete and me on for an evening.

That was six months ago and we've been rehearsing, shaping and honing the show ever since. Now just a few weeks away the nervous energy is starting to kick in. I'm really looking forward to finally getting on stage and performing our work to an audience. Of course I hope to get a good response but Pete and I feel we're quite niche and maybe it will take time to find our place. Also, neither of us have a need to "be popular" and to adapt our material accordingly. We just hope to learn from our performances, hone our act and, most of all, have fun.

Depression doesn't magically go away. Even today, particularly with our money worries - worries which must be familiar to so many during this recession - we struggle. But we have a way of channelling it now. We also have a renewed self belief that, whatever happens, we are about to create a really special moment. A moment that we have continued to battle for after that first fearful step along our unlikely path. Finally we are doing what we were born to do.

The Shallow Depths launches on April 5th at the Ropewalk, Barton Upon Humber

p.s the dog still shits on the carpet. 

Friday, 21 February 2014

Surviving February Half Term

The thing about February is Pete and I always get ill and this half term holiday was no exception. I came down with a nasty case of man flu while Pete endured an impressive, if rather embarrassing, bout of mad-hair-ittus:-
"Mum", my son said as I lay with thumping head surrounded in snot rags, "no offence, but you look like a chav when you're ill". 

On further analysis of my face, in particular the eye area, my daughter took great pleasure in whole heartedly agreeing with her brother. Unfortunately, it was the only thing they could agree on all week.

And that's the problem I find with February Half Term. When your defences are down and you can barely lift you mug to your mouth to dose yourself up with lemsip, your children squabble - meaning one's head thumps even harder. They squabble because they are siblings, they squabble because they are children but, most of all, they squabble because THEY ARE BORED! 

I resolved to try and kill two birds with one stone and packed them off to the swimming pool. There I hoped (nae, prayed) the chlorine would temper Pete's hair, whilst the splash around would also entertain Frank and Connie enough to find their love for each other once more. It all went to plan until afterwards in the shower when Connie gave Frank a quick kick in the balls; because that's what sisters do:
(Note how Pete is oblivious to the entire episode, so intent is he on washing down that mighty massive mop).
I knew then that these were desperate times. If we were going to survive February Half Term whilst keeping our family unit (and testicles) in tact there was only one thing for it. SPLIT UP.
 So I took Frank away to Manchester where we spent a night in a hotel specifically chosen for it's proximity to a Lego shop. Frank loves lego, he lives and breathes it. He spends hours ogling it in the shop. When, after what felt like ages, I raised even the mildest hint that it might be time to go Frank knocked me down: "Mum, it may not seem like much, but this is my way of expressing myself". And when you're a parent and your child says that, they win. But ultimately I guess, we both won. I bought him a nice big chunk of lego and off we headed back to the hotel room where he spent the next few hours making it. Meantime, finally, I relaxed under a duvet whilst drawing inspiration for a speedy recovery from the athleticism and elegance of the ice dancers at the Winter Olympics.
As for Connie and Pete; well they had fun too. They went to a hotel with a pool near Lincoln overnight where they could swim and wash their hair afterwards to their heart's content. And when we reunited back home with batteries re-charged, it's like we fell in love with each other all over again? Well, I wouldn't go that far but I'm looking slightly less "chavvy" now, we've all got used to Pete's hair and February Half Term is almost survived. Roll on Easter.

Making Lego in Manchester

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Shallow Depths

One spends so much of one's life "fannying" (well I do), that I'm so very excited to have written a show - a lifelong ambition. Pete has composed most of the music. It comes after big life changes for both of us when we finally found time and empathy to hear each other creatively.

The Shallow Depths: launched April 5th, 2014