Grief

There’s not many things in life worse than experiencing the emotional, heart-wrenching agony of bereavement. But recognising that same pain in someone else is definitely one of them.

There’s a split second when you recognise another person’s grief and identify with it. The trigger might be a moment of eye contact, a comment they make or a facial expressive. But once grief has been seen in another, it’s not forgotten. Grief is painful to watch. 

The trigger for my recognition of grief in my friend Sarah (name changed) was a meme she posted on Facebook about how the stages of grief can change a person. Sarah lost her brother to cancer a few years ago. 

Sarah’s grief is agony for her and excruciating to watch. I’m desperate to cure it but there is no cure. So I wrote a poem. 

Writing this poem was therapeutic for me and hopefully made Sarah’s grief slightly easier to tolerate for a short while. 

He’ by Cath Mattison

He was diagnosed out of the blue. 
It couldn’t be true. 

What else could it be?

He’d never ever leave me. 
The pain in my heart

Set me apart. 

Finding a cure is key. 

He’d never leave me. 
I’m furious with him. 

The ultimate sin!

How dare he

Even consider leaving me!
It’s not fair 

To break up a pair. 

Why should he 

Have to leave me?
“Take me instead!”

In prayer I said. 

Pleading repeatedly 

“Never leave me.”
The tears flow. 

Please don’t go. 

It’s always been ‘we.’

Never leave me. 
And then he went. 

From others, love’s sent. 

I weep quietly. 

He’s left me.
Everything is slow. 

My mood is low. 

I still can’t see 

Why he left me. 
What does it mean?

Something must redeem 

what must be

Because he’s left me. 
His life will mean something. 

To this world I will surely bring

Meaning in his memory

Because he left me. 
I am kinder and wiser,

More generous, not a miser. 

A stronger person – he’ll see –

Because he has loved me. ❤️

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My Mum is Immortal 

My mum is immortal. She will never die. Not only will she live forever but she will also never turn into an old lady. 

My mum is a fit and healthy 70-something-year-old. She has hobbies, friends, a good social life and lives independently. She is not ‘old’. This will continue forever. Strokes, heart-attacks and aneurisms happen to other people, never to my mum. 

When my mum talks about ‘when she dies’ or ‘when her health declines’, I put my hands over my ears and refuse to listen. I won’t listen. I don’t need to listen. It won’t happen.  

Occasionally, my refusal to listen to this kind of talk leads to humour – “Dont you dare die. If you do, I’ll be so angry – I’ll never speak to you again!” (issued as a lighthearted threat not as a fact). We laugh and swiftly change the subject. 

Very occasionally it dawns on me that my state of denial is a dangerous place to be. I am not preparing myself emotionally or practically – in any way at all – which can only lead to enhanced feelings of shock and grief when the inevitable happens. This thought is too much. Luckily for me, my mum is immortal. 

My dad was supposed to be immortal too. Eleven and a half years ago he died. I haven’t quite forgiven him or God or Cancer or his G.P. or the oncologist or the district nurse or myself. Luckily my mum is immortal. 

My siblings, their husbands / wives / partners and my in-laws and relatives are also immortal. Even when Cancer threatens, it wouldn’t dare go any further than a threat. 

My friends, of course, are immortal. They will be here forever. I wouldn’t allow anything different. 

My nieces and nephews are the definition of immortal. Enough said. 

My kids and Gareth – no need to say any more. All of my four kids have had to fight for their lives when they were younger. Immortality has been earned. Nothing and noone would dare to question that fact – not Cancer, encephalitis, asthma, pneumonia, G.P., Consultant or hospital staff. Gareth, Izzie, Joe, Hannah and Ewan are immortal. 

I am not immortal. I will die one day. Cancer is rife in my wider family and I have made a deal. I’m happy for Cancer to find me rather than anyone I love. I have suggested it and invited it. If Cancer is coming, it will come for me – no one else. I’m okay with it. When it happens, I will deal with it. I don’t mind. I’m not afraid of death. My dad is there (wherever there is) so I know it’ll be fine. My only request is that my kids get to adulthood before it happens. I don’t think that is too much to ask. Cancer hasn’t answered this request yet but let’s hope it agrees. 

There are pluses to being mortal. Knowing that my life will end one day inspires me to live in the present and enjoy life, to do a few crazy things and make memories, to be kind and generous but also to be selective about who I spend my time with. 

My mum can still live in the present if she wants to. Being immortal doesn’t deny her of anything. She can still live in the present, let her hair down and have fun. She can also be kind, giving, as well as choosy about who her friends are. But she will never die.  

My mum is immortal. She will never die or get old. She will always be here. She will always be healthy. She will never ever go away. She will never leave me. No one and nothing will take her away. My mum is immortal. 

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My Secret Disclosed

I am Cath Mattison, a 48 year-old speech and language therapist living in the south-east. I am a mother of four teenagers, a wife, owner of two dogs and I have a secret. 

I don’t talk about this. It’s my secret. Occasionally I do tell someone I trust – but not often. I can’t cope with the possibility of not being believed. It’s happened before and it hurts. 

So here goes. I have ‘Phobic Anxiety Disorder’. Yes the same person who you might have seen on stage in amdram shows, making a speech at my twin siblings’ 40th, performing as a backing singer in a Bowie tribute act. It’s true. I have ‘Phobic Anxiety Disorder’, otherwise known as ‘Social Phobia’ or – my own name for it – ‘The Beast’.

When I am in specific social situations, my body responds in an abnormal way. I experience panic attacks, palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea…. I have fainted and vomited many times in these situations. The psychologist who diagnosed me hit the nail on the head when he described it as experiencing the same physical reaction as a person would experience in a situation of extreme terror. It was a relief when he could tell me what it is. 

I was born with Phobic Anxiety. My earliest memories are of feeling terror. I was terrified at playgroup, school, brownies, tennis lessons and any other clubs I was sent to. Children are at the mercy of adults – Teachers / Brownie Leaders / Tennis Instructors can at any time ask a pupil to stand up and read something out to the class, answer a question or demonstrate a tennis stroke. I had no control and couldn’t handle it. School was stressful to say the least. I was a frightened mouse. 

Avoidance. The art of avoidance became my speciality from a young age. Avoidance became my crutch, my lifesaver. I quickly developed a vast repertoire of excuses and perfected the art of faking illness. If I couldn’t rely on avoidance, I suffered. I remember very clearly the dreaded history lessons at secondary school. Everyone in the class had to take a turn at reading out a section of the current text book. Instead of listening to others read before my turn, I would work out what section in the book would be mine to read out and would spend the entire time rehearsing it over and over, not taking in any of the information. Needless-to-say, I didn’t achieve my potential at school. 

I was diagnosed in my twenties. I had asked my G.P. for a referral to the local mental health department after finally realising that when other people say they are nervous or anxious about something, what they are experiencing is not the same as my experiences, physically and emotionally. 

Knowing what this thing is called led me to read up on it, understand it and devise a plan of action; a plan of attack. ‘Attack’ is an appropriate word. I was furious. Why was my body trying to hold me back? Why was this thing inside me forcing me to deliberately avoid opportunities? No way was it going to beat me. 

My ‘Plan of Attack’:

1. Put hand up at least once a day in a lecture to ask a question, give a reply or make a comment. The reasons are irrelevant. My spoken words are irrelevant. What matters is the act of drawing attention to myself. 

2. Progress to putting hand up at least once in EVERY lecture. Again, all details apply regarding what is or isn’t relevant. 

3. Continue with number two but have enough control over the physical symptoms to be able to listen to the lecture immediately before and after raising my hand. 

The plan involved facing The Beast full on but in baby steps and not fainting or vomiting in the process. 

There were times when anxiety did beat me. There was a period of a few months when I avoided social situations because walking into a pub or restaurant was too difficult. With permission, I sat my final exams at university in a room on my own rather than in an exam hall as the Phobic Anxiety took over when surrounded by people. These are only a couple of examples. Unfortunately the truth is there are many many times when I have given in. 

A turning point came when, as a speech therapist trainee in Edinburgh, I joined the local Scottish Country Dance Club. Bear with me; this will make perfect sense! Having read up on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, I found that taking my turn to dance while being watched by other dancers in the set made me face The Beast full-on. It was a bizarre mixture of terror and fun. Because the dancing WAS fun, I became even more determined to win and subsequently did a lot of Scottish Country Dancing during those years. 

A further turning-point came when I became a mum. Suddenly there was another person (or, in my case, four other people) to consider – four people more important than anything. I became very conscious of what example I was setting. Suddenly the Phobic Anxiety wasn’t my worst fear; Any of my childhood being cursed with the same beast became an even more dreaded fear. The focus became teaching my children from an early age that social situations are to be enjoyed. I wanted them to learn that the world was their oyster. There was nothing to fear. Presenting myself as a socially-confident role-model became my mission. 

As my kids have got older and become teenagers, it has become an even bigger responsibility to demonstrate confidence when being the centre of attention. Phobic Anxiety is often inherited from parents so they are at a genetic disadvantage. I couldn’t risk them being exposed to The Beast from nurture as well as nature. While focusing intensely on doing everything I could to protect my kids from Phobic Anxiety, I changed from someone who was terrified of the limelight to someone who has been called an ‘extrovert’! Me!! An extrovert!! 

Nowadays I know my limits. I know how far I can push The Beast before it attacks. I know I can perform on stage – sing, dance and act – without fainting or vomiting. I know I can talk to an audience on a stage with a microphone. I know I can be the watched and listened to without The Beast taking over. I know this because I have done it and not fainted or vomited. The symptoms have all been there but I have found ways of controlling them so that The Beast stays caged. 
My ‘Caging of The Beast’ Tips:

The Beast CAN be caged. I have managed it with the following…..

  • Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and a gradual (very gradual) build-up of exposure to The Beast. This needs to be ongoing. 
  • Deep Breathing and Medication – Propranolol is a betablocker, prescribed medication which calms down palpitations. It can work well with deep breathing to take the edge off the worst symptoms therefore preventing the build-up to fainting / vomiting. I take one just before an anxiety-provoking event. 
  • On-Going Management – Unfortunately there is no cure for Phobic Anxiety Disorder in my honest opinion. I don’t believe it ever goes away but it can be controlled. If it’s neglected, The Beast can escape from the cage at any time so ongoing management is crucial to keeping it under control. I do this by setting myself targets on a regular and frequent basis. I don’t beat myself up if I can’t do something e.g. Make a speech at a conference. I understand and accept my limits but I do so on MY terms rather than be dictated to by The Beast. Previous aims have included performing on stage. I have built this up gradually from being able to be in the background in crowd scenes only to having a main part with lots of lines and singing solos. 
  • I also keep it in check by keeping in contact with the local mental health outpatients department. Occasionally The Beast has threatened to beat me and turn me back into a frightened mouse. A short course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a psychologist has been enough to keep it caged. 
  • I have also learnt that humour helps. Making light of this experience-limiting condition seems all wrong but being able to laugh at myself has at times been a godsend (See previous blog ‘Pre-gig Nerves’). As long as it’s on my terms, humour can definitely help. 

I expect some of you might be reading this thinking ‘What a load of xxxx! Everyone gets nervous sometimes!’ But maybe there’s a few of you who can relate to this blog. 

To the doubters – Firstly, I’m delighted that you don’t believe me! It means I have hidden it well. Secondly, I’m also delighted that you don’t relate to any of this because that means you don’t recognise The Beast in yourself. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. 

To the believers – I’m sorry that you can relate to this blog, that maybe you too are or have been a Master of Avoidance – a frightened mouse. If so, I hope that sharing my experience helps you on your journey of caging The Beast. 

A final note – This blog has been difficult to write. It’s personal. Very personal. It’s been my secret for such a long time but maybe it shouldn’t ever have been a secret. There’s no shame in admitting to mental health struggles. A big ‘thank you’ to my friend Ian Brockbank whose own openness and honesty about his own mental health has inspired me to reveal my secret. Perhaps talking about it will help me keep The Beast well and truly caged… 👍

Photos:

  1. Dancing in The Edinburgh Military Tattoo 1996.
  2. Backing singing in a David Bowie Tribute act, Maidenhead Festival 2016. 
  3. My family. ❤️

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An Ode to R.S.A. Insurance

Gareth has been out of work

for 6 whole months, going burserk. 

Fed up, bored and stressed was he,

Sick to death of daytime T.V.

Jeremy Kyle, Philip and Holly,

Annoyed at anyone who seemed jolly. 

Updated C.V. and LinkedIn profile,

Job centre, the dole,……it’s all vile. 

Redundancy is not much fun

with no job lined up. Nothing. None. 

Washing, cooking, cleaning floors. 

Cath demanding “Get on with the chores!”

Mortgage, bills, the ‘weekly shop’,

Cath is working non-stop. 

Pressure, stress, we need a break

but we can’t afford one…. ffs!

With Benefit Street a real possibility

And never holidaying again a real probability,

We need a job offer. We need some luck. 

Because unemployment does truly suck. 

Then all of a sudden, a glimmer of hope, 

all thanks to Cath’s mum who prayed to the Pope. 

A great job offer with reasonable pay

from G’s old haunt…..Horsham’s R.S.A.!

R.S.A. Insurance, you’ve saved the day!

Local, friendly and a short bike-ride away. 

How shall we celebrate? We pondered and looked. 

A luxury holiday? Yep! It’s booked! 😊

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Missing

Steven Cook went missing on the first evening of his holiday abroad with friends. I have been following the case on social media and by googling updates since it happened nearly 12 years ago.

A month ago a skeleton was found at the bottom of a well next to a disposable camera. It was announced recently that tests on the skeleton were conclusion – Steven had been found.

I am devastated as had hoped and prayed for years that Steven would be found alive and well, with some kind of weird and wonderful but completely reasonable explanation for his disappearance.

I follow other long-term missing people cases avidly on social media  – particularly Andrew Gosden, Natasha Lee, Madeleine McCann, Corrie McKeague, to name a few, – and have had conversations with the families of some of these missing people offering support and prayers.

This subject has become a big part of my life. It occupies my thoughts on a daily basis and in fact has become a morbid obsession.

This is a confession. I am obsessed with missing people cases. For a long time I didn’t know why – or I convinced myself I didn’t know why. But in fact I have always known why. It’s about the emotions a person goes through when their loved one goes missing and stays missing long-term. I have never experienced it, thank god. I can’t imagine it. I don’t want to imagine it.

When my dad died, I wasn’t in control of my mind. This lasted a long time and was only relieved by a year of weekly bereavement therapy by an excellent counsellor. For me, grief was a living, breathing monster which grew inside me, controlling my mind, my thoughts, my feelings. I described it to my bereavement counsellor as ‘the feeling you get when squeaky chalk is dragged across a blackboard’ – that toe-curling screech – and it never stops. 

I am fascinated by how anyone copes with grief in its worst possible form – the ongoing pain of not knowing what has happened to a loved one. The ‘not knowing’ must surely be worse than anything. The emotional pain never ends. How on earth do they cope? How do they function on a daily basis? Medication and counselling probably play a huge part but how is it possible to ever reach a level of acceptance when your loved one is still missing? For some people in this situation, blotting it out with drugs, alcohol and gambling might give some temporary relief. For others, the inevitable depression might lead suicide. 

This blog isn’t witty or wacky and it’s impossible to end it in a lighthearted way. Instead, I will just say that my thoughts and prayers today, as every day, go to missing people and their families and friends. 🙏

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Cancer

Cancer is rampant in my family. My mum had it at 61, my sister at 46 and my brother had pre-cancerous cells at 30. They all survived. My dad didn’t. His cancer showed itself at 68 and he was dead 3 months later. 

My wider family / relatives are cancer-prone too. As a family we have been affected by all different types of cancer and at a range of ages. We’ve also had various tests as a wider family which have ruled out specific genetic syndromes that increase the risk of cancer. Our high incidence of cancer is just bad luck. 

For me personally, I often feel like it’s only a matter of time. I eat healthily, don’t smoke, exercise regularly and don’t consume too much alcohol – ok well not as much as I used to. But I’m not convinced that that makes any difference at all to the likelihood of developing many cancers. 

Well I’m sick of it! I’m sick of worrying about! I’m sick of feeling like a ticking time bomb. I’m sick of just hoping it doesn’t happen until at least my kids are independent adults. I’m sick of following this last thought with ‘It rips you apart whatever age you are when you find out your parent has cancer.’

The Race For Life slogan ‘Cancer – We’re coming to get you’ is fighting talk. It’s all about solidarity, joining together as a nation to defy cancer. But mostly it’s about people supporting each other. I’m not the only one who worries about me or someone I love getting cancer. 

I’m angry. Because of cancer my dad has two daughter-in-laws, a son-in-law and three grandchildren who he has never met. The four grandchildren who cancer DID allow him to meet were all under five when he died so he was robbed of watching them grow into the lovely young people that they are today as teenagers. 

My fury at cancer has fuelled me on to make big plans this year. I’m running the London Marathon in April (I’m not a natural runner), a cake sale (I’m not a naturally gifted baker) and organise a music and dance show (I’m not naturally organised). I need to focus my energy on doing something positive and proactive, rather than just sit and wait for Cancer to get me or those around me. 

Please support me. Thank you. X

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Cath-Mattison

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Pre-gig Nerves

A year ago I joined the local panto amdram group, having previously been in groups further a field. That’s where I met Stephen, a 26-year-old comedian who also does a David Bowie tribute act in local pubs and clubs, and I found myself becoming his backing singer. 

So…. in my late forties I am a backing singer with a short dress and silver sparkly boots. This means that I voluntarily sing on stage. No one forces me to do it. I do it for fun. And it IS fun. GREAT fun – when I’m actually on stage prancing about and warbling. BUT that time-slot from arriving at the venue to the beginning of the gig is……TERRIFYING. 

During this time-slot, my palms sweat, my legs shake and my stomach is in knots – and, for obvious reasons, my butt needs to be stuck to a toilet. But more than the physical symptoms, it’s the emotions and thoughts which are harder to deal with. 

My pre-gig nerves are a minefield of tangled emotions. Everything I’m doing, planning on doing in the future and have ever done in my life is suddenly open to intense scrutiny. I am the ugliest, stupidest, most ridiculous, pointless person on the entire planet and everyone knows it. My self-confidence couldn’t be lower. No wonder thoughts of making a run for it go through my mind. 

I decided to video myself in the midst of last night’s pre-gig nerves to see if I look and sound as insane as I feel. I think the results are pretty conclusive! Enjoy! 😃      Pre-gig Nerves

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