A novelist writes about the mind, body and soul.

Day 6 of giving up smoking for Lent

Hurray, I’ve managed 2 nights now without my usual one or two cigarettes.

Sunday evening, without a packet was quite easy, as I was so tired, I could barely eat, let alone smoke. Last night, was slightly harder.  I drove to the Tabernacle in Notting hill, to the 5 X 15 event, which included Alain De Botton discussing why atheists can benefit by ‘stealing’ certain principles of religion even if they don’t believe in God, which he takes as a given. According to him there is no God.

I  would usually smoke my one cigarette of the evening, while driving in the car, a wonderful moment of escape from the kids, escape from routine, but managed to resist. I did fleetingly think of stopping to buy a packet, (the familiar pull of ritual) but remembered a hypnotherapist, once saying to breath in and out deeply, when the urge grips. Went to bed and definitely slept deeper than usual. Feel so good that I’ve even managed 2 days, as have told my children I am giving up for Lent and so far, I have smoked 3 of the days since Ash Wednesday and my daughter was not that impressed when she discovered a cigarette in an ashtray. But am determined to carry on now, perhaps past Lent, and on and on forever and ever.

The not so great moment came today when I weighed myself. I seem to have put on a kilo and a bit,  in the last two nights not smoking. I definitely remember  attacking some Maltesers and a packet of popcorn in the pathetic bid to have something in my mouth? A distraction? A prize?


Smoking Saga Day 2

Following on from my post yesterday, I am rather shamefully updating news of giving up cigarettes for Lent. I had planned to arrive at my friends’ house for dinner, with a bottle of wine but no cigarettes. Socialising, drinking, and feasting late, are all smoking triggers for me. I had actually planned this scenario, when at 750pm, I received the following text from my friend: Bring Cigarettes if u have any, really fancy one!

A better person than me, would have seen this as a challenge to overcome.

I texted back to say that I had given up for Lent, but I would bring a packet, that I had failed to throw away the day before. I toyed with the idea of not bringing them, but then decided I didn’t want to let her down at her own dinner party.  So of course we shared one in the garden, the moment I arrived. I felt pathetic and awful and planned not to post today at all. I was conscious of my breath as I kissed a rather fanciable man hello. I was conscious of other people  succeeding in giving up all sorts of things for Lent. After dinner, another woman, who said she had given up smoking for seventeen years, demanded one and my hostess said she would like one too.  I am proud to say at this instant, I did not, as I would usually do, join them in a carefree smoking fest.  So last night was a failure, but also somehow, a small triumph. I usually smoke at least 3 or 4 at a dinner and feel hung over from the nicotine the next day. At least today, I don’t have a nicotine hangover, but perhaps a tiny wine one!

Just one more cigarette – Can I give up for Lent?

I can’t seem to stop. I’ve tried. Yes really. Once when pregnant with my first child I didn’t smoke at all.  The second time I was pregnant, I have to admit that I smoked very occasionally and at a party, a stranger came up and berated me for it. A couple of years ago I gave up after I’d been hypnotised for a magazine article I was writing  (subsequently, I was convinced that me managing to not smoke was more to do with will-power than anything else, and I substituted great handfuls of the children’s sweets for cigarettes and made myself feel sick.) Gradually, as the month passed, I allowed myself to smoke other people’s roll-ups at parties, then gave in and bought my own, kidding myself that roll-ups are better than a packet of twenty.  I’m not saying that I am a chain-smoker, far from it. I am talking one cigarette a night. Recently it’s somehow creeped up to two a night. That’s the problem, it’s not a disaster, but it’s a habit. If I’m socialising it can escalate to the dizzy height of three or even four.  I hate the smell in the house and on my hands, but I love the thrill of it, the escape from the day, the whiff of release.

When the children came home from school last week, and demanded to know what I was giving up for Lent, I was foolhardy and replied smoking. Ash Wednesday arrived (yesterday) and when I woke, I visualised throwing the packet away, but when it came to it, I decided not to, because I fooled myself into thinking that perhaps someone else would want one, or  perhaps I could have just one on Sundays during lent, which apparently you are allowed to do.  By 9.00pm  I had smoked my one cigarette but managed to hold off from two.

I don’t fancy patches, I’ve read they give you weird dreams. The idea of nicotine gum sounds awful.

It’s National No Smoking Day on March 14th. Yesterday  I read that around 157,000 children between 11-16 start smoking every year. That was me, I started at boarding school, partly to hang out with the “cool girls” partly for something to do to relieve the monotony. My father is a keen smoker, and always has been, I remember my mother smoking when she was stressed. My mother hasn’t smoked for years now.

I have to stop. For all the obvious reasons. Not least my children hate it.

I’m going out to dinner tonight at a friend’s house. There will be people, wine, possibly someone else smoking (though that is doubtful). I may blog tomorrow and tell you what happened. I really really do want to give up.

The hell of getting into a London Independent School at 11

My ten-year-old son, recently sat three 11plus exams for two academic independent London schools, (One co-ed, one boys only) and one less academic, but oversubscribed school.  Let’s just say all the schools he tried for are oversubscribed. Seriously oversubscribed. Recession? What recession? My only conclusion is that the parents of children who would have normally gone to boarding school, are cutting back by trying for London day schools. When I say the exams are hard, I mean hard, I could barely manage the maths papers that he was practicing, although I have to admit maths was never really my thing.

We live in West London and the competition is fierce, very fierce, much more fierce than I had imagined, even though I had been warned.  One popular, academic co-ed school near us, had 950 applicants for about 100 places. He is a bright boy. We have always been told this by our friends, and by our families. His teachers have always told us that he is articulate for his age,he is in every gifted and talented programme the school has going, but this means nothing when it comes to trying for these schools. It’s madness. We had him on track to go to the local Church of England State Secondary, when about 18 months ago, my mother offered to pay independent school fees. This sent me down a different path, a path that perhaps he was not fully prepared for. He had a tutor, but only from the summer half term of year 5. What I didn’t realise is the private school children have literally been preparing for these exams all their academic life.

These few weeks have been hell. Taking him to the three hour exams, seeing the hundreds of children, some tiny, like him, queuing up, clutching their see-through pencil cases, made me feel tearful and emotional. Watching them come out looking pale and shell-schocked wasn’t great either. Our son was very brave, never complained, but really, these children are young.The days continue to be tense and nerve-wracking.   The first letter came from the boys school, – “the competition for places was fierce this year,” it said. Our boy had not been asked for interview. My heart sank. We feared the worst, he wouldn’t get in to any of the three schools, he  tried for. I feared the worst, because he would feel like a failure. He had worked hard, he had turned up, he’s only ten! Not even eleven until the summer term. I began to think he should have been tutored for far longer, than just from the summer half term. Then a few days later, a letter from the less academic school arrived.  He’s been asked for an interview on this coming Saturday. My sense of relief was extraordinary. When I asked the school secretary how many children have been invited for interview she said %60 of those that took the exam. This is still in no way a done deal.

We are waiting to hear from his favourite school, the academic, mixed school, the one he really really wants to go to. We will hear early next week. Last night he came downstairs saying he couldn’t sleep, he wanted to ‘curl up and hide.’ Why I asked. “It’s just the exams, he said, “the interview,everything.”  I have not put him under pressure, I have told him that the state school is a fantastic option, that he can only do his best. Whatever school he  end up going to will be the best one for him. He knows that. He just doesn’t believe it any more. He has seen the facilities, the sports fields, the libaries, the exclusive hush and comfort of the private schools.

I wrote an email to a friend who had gone through the same thing last year and this is what she said. Yes I know exactly what you’re going through. (my child) went through the same gruelling system last year – also transferring from a small local state school.  The mother of her best friend  got in such a hysterical state that she applied for 12 schools.  He’s a very bright boy.  The statistics do seem horrendous but the picture is not nearly as bad as it may seem.   the idea that there is only the private school or disaster is definitely very VERY far from the reality.  The options are wide and varied.  But the climate of fear is so pervasive.  And paranoia is catching.  Everyone is muttering the figures to one another.  Everyone has a looming foreboding that their childs whole future happiness and well being is one the line.  
Step back, stop listening, hold your nerve.  I promise you it will work out fine! 

This was her advice, step back, stop listening and hold your nerve. Her child did get into the three schools she applied for. But still for all of us out there, going through this now, Step Back, Stop Listening and Hold Your Nerve. And if you’re applying next year, think hard before you do. If your child is coming from a state school you will need a tutor, and that is the least of it.

Insomnia (An amended version of an article I wrote for The Times in December)

It’s four in the morning and I am staring into the darkness, aware that in just three hours, it will be time to get up. It’s going to be hard to cope with the day ahead, which makes me fret and worry. I am overwrought and exhausted, but too alert to sleep. I turn the light on, sit up, read, turn the light off, lie down, turn to one side and then the other, get up, tiptoe downstairs and warm a pan of milk in the cold kitchen,(more to relieve the monotony than anything else). My husband remains oblivious to my nocturnal wanderings and slumbers on snoring beside me. Although I am quite adept at going through the motions of work and childcare on four hours sleep, at worst I am snappy, intolerant and unproductive. At the very worst (perhaps after two or three days of not sleeping) I feel demonized, low, plagued with headaches and debilitated with exhaustion.

Hours pass slowly in the early hours and the night feels interminable. In the early hours of the morning, my life seems bleak. On the rare occasions that I sleep well however,  I feel invincible and optimistic. There are insomniacs who are only on good form for part of the day, Jim Cooper, a digital producer and consultant, says that if he’s had a bad night he will be “fine all morning, but after lunch is often a dead zone. Not a good time to drive or give a presentation as I just want to sleep. If I’m in my office I often lie on the floor and close my eyes.”

Night-time has never been great for me. I was prescribed valium when I was too nervous to sleep during the summer of A levels and was very scared of the dark, as a young child. Bedtime was something I rallied against. I remember being sent for afternoon rests in the dark when I wasn’t tired and going to bed early. Dr Chris Idzikowski, director of the Sleep Centre in Edinburgh,  says,  “if children are sent to bed too early and lie in bed awhile before they fall asleep, it can possibly lead to an association with remaining awake in bed, ie insomnia. The same is true for adolescent’s who’s biological clocks run slightly slow so they don’t fall asleep as early as most parents would like. They go to bed and remain awake, with the same potential problem of an association of remaining awake.”

Repercussions of insomnia can be severe. When our son was one, my husband and I separated for three months, both worn down with the broken nights and exhaustion, he despairing at the fact that I was permanently tired. Things are better now, but I have to take precautions to increase my chances of a good night. No caffeine or chocolate after 2pm. Alcohol, particularly champagne, keeps me awake. Eating too late or rowing can stop me sleeping. If my adrenaline gets going (most recently when my husband was away and I thought I heard someone slamming the back door) I won’t sleep. If a room is too light, or too noisy it will wake me, and I may not get back to sleep. I remember a holiday in a hot room in Greece when I didn’t sleep more than four hours a night the whole week. There are so many rules to follow and things to factor, that sometimes something slips.

Dr Idzikowski agrees that for an insomniac everything has to be just right. “Sleep is controlled both by the brain and the mind. In the area called the hypothalamus, in the brain, there are three important control mechanisms, one controls sleep, another wakefulness and another is the 24 h biological clock, which permits sleep to occur during the night. The sleep controller needs to be turned fully on and wakefulness fully switched off for good night’s sleep. Psychological mechanisms such as conditioned wakefulness and over-active mind also contribute. Everything has to be right for sleep to occur and perhaps this complexity is what causes sleep to go wrong.”

Jim Cooper thinks his reason for not sleeping is medical. “I was diagnosed with over-productive adrenal glands. My body naturally produces an excess of adrenalin. I take pills to bring this under control. When I can’t sleep I am completely wired., thinking of ten things at once. It’s like having 10 screens in your head all showing different things.  I’ve decided that if I can’t get to sleep or wake up early I should just get up and read or work.”

Dr Idzikowfski supports alternative therapies that are scientifically backed up to help insomniacs, like acupressure, yoga and Thai Chi. He treats insomniacs with cognitive behavioural therapy and if someone needs help regulating their sleep patterns in the short term, he would prescribe sleeping pills but  as he points out every case is different.

In an attempt to combat insomnia, I have tried homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology, massage, over the counter drugs, yoga, hypnotherapy, regular exercise, lavender spray, Jin Shin Jyutsu, the therapist places hands on your body “to determine energy flows”. (This seemed to help, though costly, and the therapist left) I once even tried a meditative walk around a  labyrinth in Arizona, which was wacky but rather wonderful. The most recent attempt to induce sleep, involved listening to a CD of ambient music for insomniacs– it didn’t make me sleep.

My husband once insisted that I try sleeping pills. When my GP finally agreed to prescribe them it was a miracle to drop off instantly to sleep, but after a while the pills made me feel hung-over, as though I had permanent jet lag. I never take them now.

There was a breakthrough when a fellow insomniac, recommended Acem Mediation. If I practice this simple mediation daily, my sleep patterns are better, but I need a good chunk of time to do it properly. I sometimes use it as method to fall asleep for a ten-minute nap, which always leaves me refreshed.  At the moment I am taking supplements that contain serotonin, magnesium and valerian, but they are not guaranteed to work particularly at key hormonal periods of the month.  They haven’t worked tonight for example. I have turned on the light and write this at 1.41 am.

Go Skate!

ImageSkating is the one thing I love doing, that makes me feel like a child again. When I was young, I had regular skating lessons, at Queensway in London, and even learnt to skate backwards and dance.  A few years ago we started skating at Kew on the outdoor rink, and loved it all over again – first we would toddle around with the small children which was a little boring, and then me and my husband would return for a date on the rink, which was really fun. Kew no longer has a skating ring, but this year I’ve been skating twice, just to feel the thrill, and now my children dash around too without any help – my seven year old daughter is a real whizz in fact.

I’ve just returned from France where we skated on the outdoor rink in St Tropez. It was very cheap – 2 Euros for as long as you wanted to skate (officially meant to be an hour, but no one knew). It was surrounded by twinkling Christmas trees and fairy lights, lovely. However, the rink was run by a trio of maverick men, who admitted it was never cleaned and so it was easy to trip up on the mounds of ice that mounted up. Also there were gangs of teenagers playing “it” which was terrifying. The first time we skated I fell over twice.

Much safer and brilliant in this rainy weather is the indoor rink at Westfield, which closes this Sunday the 8th. It’s reasonably priced and not too crowded. The rink is smallish, but the ice is beautifully smooth. We rushed around the rink and didn’t feel scared once. Great Fun and well worth a visit.

All I want for Christmas

1.I’d love anything from Neom Organics, a superb company that uses natural organic products, but packages them in a really stylish way. This Christmas I’d like to receive their body scrub, as my skin is a bit dull and grey and lifeless during the winter months. They also have perfect presents including reed room diffusers and candles.

2. Anything from Korres. Their  sun tan lotion is the best I’ve ever used. I know thoughts of sunbathing are not exactly appropriate for this time of year unless you happen to be flying off to the sun for Christmas. I’ve tried their new pomegranate skin lotion. It’s absolutely wonderful and I’ve used it a few times without moisturizer and it’s still made my skin soft. It’s also great for taking off makeup and tightening pores. I also have their Vanilla plum body milk and guava body butter and there is nothing synthetic about the smell.

3. A years supply of Lovea shampoo and conditioner. These products really do make your hair shine.

4. A years supply of Liz Earle muslim cloths and face cleanser.

5. A life time membership to the Park Club in Acton. 27 Acres of grounds, including an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts (both inside  an allweather  dome and outside)  and every class you could think of, including acqua zumba, pilates and yoga,  keep me sane. I have been known to swim in their outdoor swimming pool in the middle of winter when snow is falling! Extremely child friendly too.

Motorway phobia, my full article from The Times

I am driving on the M4, feeling as though I am stuck on a macabre conveyor belt, which will end in death. All around me, lorries are thundering past, aggressive drivers are inching up right behind me at recklessly fast speeds and I am panicking because it seems impossible to stop or get off. I am imagining a whole series of morbid scenes – the tyre will burst,  I will lose control and the car will swerve into the crash barrier.  Whatever happens we will all die.  My heart is palpitating, my hands are clammy and my breath sounds strange and unnatural. My ten-year-old son asks me why I am panting.  I slow down to 30 mph and wonder if I will make to the lay by. I am shaking and sweating.  I try not to cry.

My last serious panic attack on the motorway happened two years ago. Last summer I drove on the motorway for the first time since then, and only because I went to see a hypnotherapist. I am slowly regaining my confidence, but when I read about the pile up on the M5 in Somerset in which 7 people died and 51 were injured, I felt myself regress. I have  been a nervous driver and passenger since I was sixteen and broke my femur in a horrific car crash, which I was lucky enough to survive. I imagine I will always be nervous, but I know I am not alone. In a recent survey of 13,905 AA members, only 44% of the women surveyed said they felt confident driving on the motorway.

After a panic attack on the three-lane Westway in London, which at the time only had a 30 mph speed limit, I decided to get help and booked to see hypnotherapist and psychotherapist Charles Montagu, who had been highly recommended.  He suggested that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress from my accident so many years before. He guided me in some breathing exercises and finally hypnotized me, addressing my subconscious. It was hard to believe that it could work, but three days after my first appointment, I drove up the M11 with my husband in the passenger seat, breathing deeply and repeating the mantra “I am relaxed and in control.”  My husband probably thought I was mad.

I have driven on the motorway a few times since then, but not yet alone. I still wonder whether I will  ever be able to drive up the motorway like a normal person, without even thinking about it. The artist Polly Morgan told me that when she drives on the motorway she is in a ‘constant state of heightened awareness that she is in a potentially life threatening situation.’ This is exactly how I feel if I am brave enough to drive on the motorway, although there have been fleeting moments, when I think of nothing, or just enjoy a conversation.

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, Consultant psychiatrist, ventral North West London NHS Foundation Trust, explains that my problem can be classed  “as a specific (isolated) phobia. These phobias are restricted to highly specific situations,” In my case, driving on the motorway. “The trigger was the accident at 16 but the contact with motorways in later life is able to produce high levels of anxiety or indeed panic attacks.”

According to ex Police advanced driver Phil Truss, who instructed me on a Drive Alive DAD (Driving Anxiety Disorder) course which I booked after news of the M5 crash, it’s “mostly women who are afraid of driving on the motorways, maybe because men are too macho to admit it.”   Managing director, Michael Sweeting agrees that women are much more willing to ask for help. “Quite often they just need reassurance to build their confidence.” In the ten years that he has been helping people with driving disorder,  he doesn’t recall one man who has admitted to any kind of fear on the road, although Montagu has seen a few.

Obviously the severity of the paranoia depends on the individual– some women start fearing the motorway after their children are born, because they are conscious of not wanting to put themselves in potential danger. My fear really took hold after I met my husband and became accustomed to him driving on the motorway, so that on the few occasions that I did drive, I became overtly conscious of what I was doing and it seemed terrifying. Polly Morgan’s anxiety, also started when she met her partner and he always drove on the motorway. When she attempted to drive after he was tired and needed a break, she had a  “total, consuming, crippling attack.” At one point in desperation she emailed Darren Brown offering to barter her work if he would cure her, but he failed to respond. When she split up with her partner, she bought a car and confronted her anxiety by forcing herself drive short distances up the motorway  to see her sister.  The more she practiced the better it became, until one day it lifted and has never been quite so severe since.

Jenny Jones, a teacher, had sessions of cognitive therapy for her motorway phobia. What finally cracked it for her though, “was having to put the whole thing in perspective. When my mother suddenly needed me at home in the country as my father was vomiting blood, I had to make the decision that getting to my father was more important than my fear.” Another woman I spoke to admitted she would sometimes fantasize about crashing into the car ahead, just to end the nightmare of driving up the motorway. After being rescued by police in a lay by, she was enlisted the help of a psychotherapist and ex police driver  and embarked on a structured course;  she has been a confident driver since.

Not everyone is able to find the strength to get help. Angie Barry, a stylist has not been able to drive on the motorway since her daughter was born 20 years ago. Charles Montagu explains that an anxiety can develop into a full blown phobia over time and gain in intensity. “The bigger it becomes, the smaller we feel. We get to a point when the irrational fear is disproportionate to the risk and inhibits our ability to live life fully and freely. That is the point we should seek help.”  “Something happened when she was born,” Barry says, “lorries on the motorway turned me into a basket case. When my daughter went to boarding school I couldn’t drive myself down to see her and hated myself because of it. Over the years I have booked serious motorway driving lessons and then cancelled them. It didn’t help that we lived near one of the most dangerous roads for fatal accidents, the A361 near Exeter and I would get into a state and my ex husband would tell me I was not driving properly.”

The author Susan Hill has been driving since 1965, but chose not to drive on the motorway  four years ago because as she says, “I decided it wasn’t good for my blood pressure.” In the past she had behavioral psychologist treatment for general driving phobia which she says worked ‘brilliantly and quickly”  but she still avoids motorways.  “I don’t like the speed of the motorway, plus knowing you can’t stop that easily and that when there is a crash it seems to be major and involve so many. Fear begets fear, so I don’t bother any more.”

Mitey Roche a writer who lives in rural France, insists that her decision not to drive on motorways is not a phobia. “I think my fear is rational. What happened in Somerset could happen any second anywhere. All it takes is one mistake. There are too many cars on the roads. In France they only have two lanes and people are going a minimum of 130km an hour, including trucks. I don’t fear driving in the States simply because people go slower and the lanes are wider. I am looking to buy a house near a station, so that I don’t have to drive any more.”

During my sessions with Montagu, he reiterated that motorways are statistically safer places to drive than anywhere else, but for someone like me it’s hard to believe that is true. Researching this article I found out that Department of Transport figures confirm that UK motorways are safer than other roads. In 2010, 1910 people were killed on British roads. Most fatalities occurred on rural A roads with a further 22% on other rural roads, 32% on urban roads and only %6 of fatalities occurring on motorways, these facts do comfort me a little.

On the morning of the DAD course, my apprehension at the slightly strange situation of going out in my car with an ex police driver, Phil, was surpassed by how embarrassed I was to see him wipe squashed popcorn from the passenger seat of my car. We drove to the motorway and  he kept up a running commentary of what was happening on the road, which was slightly odd, but rather useful and I exited the slip-road onto the motorway – a real trigger point for me -feeling safe. There was not much traffic and I was being accompanied, so I am still unsure how it will be when I drive on my own.

The following day when I rang Charles Montagu to make a top up appointment, he made a reassuring and extremely good point, “The only reason the crash on the M5 was headline news, is because it is such an unusual event. If it were a usual occurrence, it would have been a small item on page five. Motorway drivers usually have a very mundane time of it.”   I think in the end he’s right.



Driving on the Motorway is the worst thing for my soul

I have an article in The Times today about my fear of driving on the motorway. Apparently I am not alone, many women fear it and some, like me, have been phobic about it. If you click on this link you will be taken to the first page of the Times. Scroll right down you will see a rather odd photograph of me behind the wheel of my car. Click on this and you will be able to read the article, if you pay a one off daily subscription!

Below is my first paragraph:

I am driving on the M4, feeling as though I am stuck on a macabre conveyor belt, which will end in death. All around me, lorries are thundering past, aggressive drivers are inching up right behind me at recklessly fast speeds and I am panicking because it seems impossible to stop or get off. I am imagining a whole series of morbid scenes – the tyre will burst,  I will lose control and the car will swerve into the crash barrier.  Whatever happens we will all die.  My heart is palpitating, my hands are clammy and my breath sounds strange and unnatural. My ten-year-old son asks me why I am panting.  I slow down to 30mph and wonder if I will make to the layby. I am shaking and sweating.  I try not to cry.

A dog is man’s best friend but cats are my favourite

If you fancy two adult tickets (Children go free) to the Discover Dogs Show at Earls Court on either the 12th or 13th November, please visit my other blog:  I love animals but cats are my favourite. I always hug my huge cat, Kitty (Or Cuba as the children call her) just before I go to bed and when I get up. 

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