Maybe it’s just a film about Space. About the human fight to survive – to live – when faced with disaster (like your space shuttle being destroyed). But for me, Gravity was a beautiful piece of poetry about grief and depression. An emotional roller coaster, that left me a sobbing wreck on the walk home.

If you’ve never experienced depression, and have struggled to understand panic attacks, I urge you to go and see Gravity (preferably in 3D, obviously). The scene where Sandra Bullock is spinning out of control, unable to find anything to hold onto, unable to catch her breath, with the world outside muffled and far away, and with no one to save her had me gasping for breath. Because I’ve felt that way, often.

So many of our metaphors about breakdown and emotional pain have their roots in gravity. “Pick yourself up”, “Find your feet”, “Find something to hold on to”, “Free-falling”, “Spiralling out of control”… I hadn’t noticed them before.

In the film, Sandra Bullock is dealing with the loss of her child. Something she has to let go of, to surrender, to recognise she can’t control it… and then she has to grab on with both hands and fight to get back to solid ground.

I don’t know if it was the intention of the film, or just an accident, but I’ve never seen depression so clearly. I’m in a bit of a free-fall myself at the moment, feeling as though there’s nothing to cling on to (as everything around me is changing), but I’ve taken some hope from this film… that I will just keep going and that I will be able to stand up on my own two feet again soon.


Wearing your heart on your bicep

I’ve been struggling recently – feeling vulnerable. Getting better has been a long, and difficult, process and a few months back I felt ready to take on some new challenges, to make a change. But it isn’t easy. Starting a new course has reminded me  of those early days of University, and I can’t help but look back on them and be surprised by how strong I was. I packed all my stuff up and moved more than a hundred miles from my family – where I knew no one – and I survived. Not only that, I enjoyed it. I don’t think I could do that now.

And then, I did it again, almost a decade ago – quit my job and decided to train to teach, moved all the way down to the south of London (albeit with beloved housemates in tow). How did I do it? Could it be that I was stronger then? And, if I was, what can I do with the pain of my breakdown? If I can’t say “I’m stronger now”, how can I explain it?

People have spoken to me a lot recently, about what strength there is in being able to speak openly about how you feel; what strength there is in being able to feel as quickly as I do. A lecturer on my course told me that the other students would learn a lot from me, by listening to how I feel. That wearing my heart on my sleeve was my blessing (though he didn’t use those words). It made me angry. I don’t want to be a case study – I don’t want people to learn from me at the expense of my sanity.

But maybe there is something strong in being so openly vulnerable. Maybe I can find a way to live with this emotional honesty (something I can’t seem to control anyway). And, perhaps, I was only stronger back then because I was pretending to be someone I’m not. Someone who cared less, and hid behind a made-up personality. Maybe being me (the real me) is something I should learn to embrace, even if it means being open to heartache.

It scares me sometimes that I am in my thirties and still only just learning how to be human, but maybe that’s the whole wonder of being human in the first place.

Today’s revelation, brought to you by Heineken.

What I’m about to say is so hugely obvious, I’m embarrassed I need to say it at all. But today brought a revelation:

My life is stunted by the lack of novel human contact.
By which I mean that I no longer meet the same huge diversity of people anymore. I don’t get to learn something new from somebody everyday. I have a great number of friends. People I adore, people I love to listen to. But – and here is the rub – I know what they’re going to say. It’s fairly rare when I can’t guess what someone’s reaction to something will be. And the new facts that they offer me are very often things I can’t use. Things that don’t quite register on my radar-of-usefulness, things that merely depress, or bewilder me. I don’t mean to negate what they’re saying. I have chosen these friends particularly because they are this way. I love that their interests are different from mine, that they live in worlds quite different to my own…but I also love that I can trust them to react the ‘right’ way to the things that are bugging me. The downside to having such a great group of friends, is that our lives are so intertwined that they rarely have much to say to me (about the things that matter to me – the little things) that I don’t already know… or haven’t already thought of. I know that the Husband, and many of our friends, are particularly interested in food – where to eat, and music – who to listen to – and these are things that don’t seem that important to me. I’m not meaning to say I look down on stuff like that, simply that I don’t really feel like I have the right conversational skills to discuss the merits of a biodynamic burger, or the new, obscure band. I’m not sure what I really mean at all.
Except that, today, I was stuck in a position of not going home. There were builders in the house until 5, so I went for a drink in a pub garden and waited for them to be gone. And it was in that pub garden (as so many times before) that I had my revelation.
I feed off other people’s lives.
Like some sort of soul-sucking demon, I need other people to make me feel new. Maybe it’s a wanna-be-writer thing. Maybe it’s growing up in a large family. Maybe it’s that I’ve never been quite sure I have anything very unique to offer. Either way, I get off on other people.
There was a family in the pub. A grown up daughter from America, her English housemate, and her visiting parents. And what a storyteller her Daddy was! Now, it isn’t right, or proper, to eavesdrop, but it’s certainly more fun than reading a book you bought in a charity shop for the occasion. And every word was like a new world opening up. He talked of New York, of the Jews (they’re annoying, and then they move out of NY to get old, and even more annoying, somewhere else… and he knows he shouldn’t say it, but it’s just true). His wife -so much more confident, and yet still submissive, in a way I’ve only ever seen American wives manage – told of their first date. It was a beautiful story, better told by her, but involved him turning up to a hiking party in a tuxedo shirt. “Why a tuxedo shirt?” they laughed. “When you’ve been single a while,” he replied,”your laundry kinda creeps up on you. I had nothing else to wear!”.
I have worked in the same school, with children of the same backgrounds for nearly a decade. I have friends with similar backgrounds to my own, or with similar lives now. The people I work with are all in the same profession (albeit for different reasons). It is rare to meet people who are wildly different from this (except, as you do in London, on the street – but that’s not a relationship, it’s a battle!).
The times I remember in my life as being my happiest, are when I started University, and when I moved to London. It became clear this afternoon, just why that might have been. It is the diversity of the human soul that most makes me smile. It is remembering how very vast the world is – but how very similar we all are. It is listening to storytellers, liars, crazy people, charismatics, IT developers, philosophers, poets, non-hipster-middle-classers, that I need. I need to find some more of those people, and to suck up everything they have to offer.
I need to sit in a pub garden more.

I’m Sunshriek, and I’m a mental.

A few weeks ago I was asked if I could do a certain something at work. The short answer, I replied, was no.

I rarely say No. Few teachers ever say ‘No’ (when really they should) because there is a culture, and understanding, that it is all ‘for the kids’. We work all the hours that God sends doing pointless paperwork because it’s ‘for the kids’. ‘No’ is a word reserved for speaking to said kids, not one to use where management are concerned.

You don’t say No in teaching.

But I did it, I said No.

I have taught at my current school for nine years. I have run two departments, trained up countless PGCE students, achieved some of the best GCSE results we ever had. One of my students went on to get top marks at one of the best universities in the country (mostly his work, to be fair, but in my subject… so… you know…). I’ve managed the Social Committee, supported newer teachers, entertained the caretakers, held training sessions for other members of staff. And, the kids say they love my lessons and choose to talk to me outside the classroom. I think I’ve been pretty successful at my job.

But then I said, No.

The first meeting I arranged to talk about this – after the frosty-cold-shouldered-run-in in the staffroom – seemed to suggest that my manager had long been concerned about my general performance. I was always saying I didn’t have enough time to do things.

Now, a person would have to be in years of therapy to understand their own reactions to someone saying you don’t do your job properly. Luckily, I happen to have years of therapy under my belt. Unluckily, I am still totally unable to access everything I’ve learned.

In that moment, it was true. I was crap at my job. Here was someone telling me that I am always complaining, never meeting deadlines, and generally performing poorly. I was devastated.

You leave early everyday, she said.

You refuse to take any work home with you, she said.

Do you even care about the kids?, she said.

And finally, Are you just doing this to pay the rent?

I could have cried. I have cried, many times, in meetings at work. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’ve never been able to channel anger into anything other than hot, frustrated tears. This time, though, I didn’t cry. This time, I just felt resigned. Because, you see, this was the first time I had said no. And I have NEVER missed a deadline.

“If”, I said to her, “that is what you think, then I suggest you take the matter further”. And then I left.

I’m not sure I really need to go into what it was that I had been asked to do, but I think it’s worth saying that the only reason I said no was because I had been asked the question “And can you do it by 4pm, please?”. Was I refusing to do the work? Not really. All I was saying was, “No, I can’t do it by 4pm”. I can’t do it by 4pm, because I am teaching all day, and it is a physical impossibility. Really, though, the problem wasn’t that they had asked the impossible, and it wasn’t that I had refused. There was a new thing, now… this thing about how I’m not putting everything into my job. I am not living and breathing Teaching. I do not care about the kids. 

One, or other of us, took it further. I spoke to the manager above her. This man, a member of senior leadership in an outstanding school, repeated the same comments – comments I could now be sure had come from him in the first place. What I remember most from that meeting is how little emotion I felt. Whilst I had been upset in the meeting with my immediate manager – a person I respect, and like – I don’t have a great deal of time for this guy. So, when he asked me whether I should really just leave teaching, because I clearly didn’t care enough, I just felt mild indignation.

“I know about your illness” he said “and I know that people with psychological problems often try to do as little work as possible, so that they don’t get sick again…”

I zoned out after that. A whole part of my brain shut down so that I wouldn’t have to process the exact thing that he had just said. I wasn’t doing my job properly… and it was because I was a ‘mental’. I should leave teaching, because I was a mental. I was mental.

Let’s put aside the legal ramifications of his comment. Let’s forget, for a moment, that Depression is recognised as a disability under the Equal Opportunities something-or-other. And that managers need to be very careful talking in the way that he has. Let’s just focus on that one comment: People with PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS.

Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something derogatory about the phrase ‘psychological problems’. The man on the tube with his trousers tied up with string, who hasn’t bathed for a year and who is muttering to himself. He has psychological problems. The lady who leaves her entire inheritance to her cats, rather than the children who have supported her in her old age. She has psychological problems.

And now me; the married, home-owning, professional, educated-past-degree-level woman; with hobbies, talents, and a vast array of wonderful friends? I have psychological problems. Pity me.

Stephen Fry has spoken openly, honestly, and far more eloquently, about his struggles with mental illness. He said recently how supported he felt, and how positively the general public have responded, suggesting that attitudes towards mental illness are changing. I’m sure that they are, or I wouldn’t have been quite so shocked and horrified by what was said to me. But here’s my two cents anyway:

What if my manager’s comment had been this: “I know you’re recovering from cancer, and that’s probably exhausting, but you should be working longer hours”?

Or, “I know you’re in a wheelchair, but you don’t even try to manage the stairs. Don’t you care about the kids?”

Mental illness, like any other physical illness, does change the way you have to work. I no longer feel I can put in all the extra hours I used to. I struggle to stand in front of a group of 30 needy teenagers for five hours a day, keeping my cool, staying professional, endlessly patient and positive. It is exhausting. Like Stephen Fry’s comments about hosting QI, it is difficult to teach with a constant, nagging feeling that you just want to curl up and die. By the end of the day, I am exhausted. So I go home and switch off.

I do, however, always meet my deadlines. I always plan and deliver lessons which Ofsted would deem ‘Good’. I know my students as individuals and I treat them as such. My marking is up to date. I attend every meeting and I support every, stupid, new initiative until they change it back again. I, in short, continue to do my job even when it’s killing me.

But I hate to think that people are looking at me and thinking I’m not doing what I should. So, I asked both managers to give me some suggestions about what it was that they wanted from me. I explained that I was confused by what they were saying – that I thought I was doing okay. The single, beautiful, suggestion was this: “You could put up some display work on your classroom walls”.

I told them I don’t do interior design, I have psychological problems.

Maybe I’m better suited to School Leadership… I am mental, after all.

Can I get Superbetter?

I spent much of this morning watching videos on TED talks. I woke up miserable, and desperate to find something inspiring, something to make me smile. And I found a great deal of inspiration in what I watched, and I laughed a lot, too.

There’s something deeply awe-inspiring about so many people who still have the optimism to change the world, an optimism I haven’t experienced in a long time. And there’s a comfort, too, in finding a sort of familiar spirituality in the science of ‘wellbeing’. I’ve read a lot about Mindfulness, for example, and always found it tickles some old religiousness inside me. The Husband – a die-hard agnostic – recently came across the idea on his own, and he’s found a great deal of benefit in Being Mindful. That makes me happy. Mindfulness, though a discipline backed up with a great deal of scientific jargon, is ultimately what Jesus meant when he suggested ‘considering the lilies’. At least that’s my take on it.

But the above video is from a talk that I found most practically helpful this morning. Jane McGonigal had an accident that left her with concussion, the symptoms of which lasted at least a year. She speaks about how there seemed there was nothing she could do without triggering the issues, but stay in bed. Where she thought constantly about ending it all. As a gamer, and a designer of games, Jane invented SuperBetter and, with the help of her Allies she overcame the problem.

I’ve tried a lot of ways to ‘recover’ from depression, and I’m always keen to give anything a go, so I’ve signed up to SuperBetter. I love the fact that I can use the iPhone app (which makes everything easier) and that I have much more control over the content than other ‘wellness’ apps can give you.

I know a lot of people that might benefit from something like this – it’s not just for depressives, but for people suffering chronic illnesses, people wanting to lose weight, people wanting to quit smoking. In my mind, we might all benefit from a little life coach in our pocket!

An organised crafter…

… is a less stressy crafter.

Hand-decorated thread drawers

Hand-decorated thread drawers

Also, it makes the Husband happier, and I won’t find myself covered in embroidery thread when I’m halfway to the pub.
To get this beautiful chest of craft drawers, I decorated a set of blank wooden craft drawers (probably from eBay, or somewhere, I can’t remember) with acrylic paint and some sticky backed fabric (I thought it looked easy to use. It wasn’t. Next time I’ll just use paper like a normal person).
The knobs are a little bigger than the ones that came with the drawers, but they mostly broke when I tried to forcefully detach them.
I like the pattern, and I quite like the green, too.

Close up of the fabric pattern

Close up of the fabric pattern

In the spirit of organising myself, I needed a better way of organising my threads. So I downloaded this printable from Wild Olive, which is one of the most fun things I’ve seen in a while. I printed the bobbins out on thick photo paper, because I didn’t have any card, but they work just perfectly. Aren’t they the friendliest bobbins you’ve ever seen??

Wild Olive Bobbins

Wild Olive Bobbins

Itchin’ to be Stitchin’

I heart the Doctor

I heart the Doctor

I’m not sure what it was that brought me back to cross-stitching. I know I tried it out as a child and – back to that patience thing again – I couldn’t ever finish anything. I think it was seeing this pattern as I searched for all things Doctor-related that made me think I could pick it up again. WeeLittleStitches makes cross stitch cool again. And if cross-stitch is cool, then someone as cool as me should be doing it, right? (also, I have tried knitting and crocheting and I SUCK, so I needed something else to be doing at those Stich and Bitches).

Cross stitch has become, not just a hobby, but a bit of an obsession. I overheard a girl in the craft store the other day explaining that she was taking up cross stitch to give up smoking. I wish I had thought of this before I got good enough to stitch and smoke simultaneously (whilst also drinking cups of tea). Cross-stitching is all-consuming. You can lose yourself in it. On occasion I have looked up to see that it is gone midnight, and I haven’t moved for several hours.

Castle on the Hill cross stitch

Castle on the Hill cross stitch

What’s more – with wonderful software downloadable from the internet – you can cross stitch ANYTHING. The above is a pattern I created myself from a drawing by my beautiful friend Purrr. She intended it as a stain-glass style colouring print out, I put it into a cross-stitch pattern maker online, and there it was! It’s not finished in this picture, it needs some more blues and greens, but it’s getting there.

The Sunshrieks

The Sunshrieks

For the Husband’s birthday (which I, unforgivably, forgot about until he mentioned it 3 days before) I stitched up a little pixelpair of us. Using MacStitch, it’s easy enough to create your own designs, even if you lack any artistic talent, as I do.

I have another few that are finished, but that I can’t show publicly at the moment as they’re presents for people over the coming months. Check back here for updates, soon!

Christmas craftiness.

Since my siblings seem intent on bankrupting me by having endless numbers of children, I thought I might make Christmas presents for them all.
I lie. I also like to make them something that says I have spent time thinking about them. I’m a terrible person when it comes to remembering birthdays, keeping in touch or phoning people (I have an actual phobia of the phone, I’m sure). I can’t say for sure that they don’t look at the things I’ve made an wish I’d just gone to their Amazon wishlist, instead, but it makes me happy.
This past Christmas, I had just learnt the beauty of ModPodge (or watered down PVA glue, if you’re in the UK and financially challenged). So, I stole photos from their facebook pages, bought blank tissue-box holders, and created these:

Personalised photo tissue boxes

Personalised photo tissue boxes

They weren’t the star of the show, though. The ones that took the longest (and nearly drove me crazy) were the photo jigsaw blocks I made for the two middle nieces (LC and Bee).
The idea was simple. You know those block jigsaws that toddlers have? I’d create some of those, but using photos of the little ones.
The process was not so simple.
Firstly, wooden cubes have lots of sides. Who’d’ve thought? Secondly, your printer will never print to the size you want if you just assume it’s going to. Thirdly, putting glue on the outside of a cube and then leaving it on paper to dry will just stick the cube to the paper (duh).

Jigsaw blocks

Jigsaw blocks

The other thing I discovered, after carefully choosing the photos, cutting them to size, gluing, waiting, gluing, waiting, gluing… etc… was that these puzzles turned out UNBELIEVABLY difficult to complete. It isn’t just that there are 6 different sides to these blocks, but also that each side can be turned four different directions. If I were to make them again, I’d stick to simple, bright designs, rather than photos that all have a similar colour or pattern.

To rectify this little error, I printed out the photos I had used, for the girls to use as guides, and put the whole lot together in a funky drawstring bag.


We saw Bee and her parents at the weekend, and her Mummy tells me it’s one of Bee’s favourite things. Which is nice to hear.

Bee and her puzzle

Bee and her puzzle

Kit, Chloe and Louise – Wee Wonderfuls

Doll limbs at Stitch and Bitch

Doll limbs at Stitch and Bitch

I have a group of friends who meet together ever so often to learn how to knit, or crochet, or to drink a lot. On the first such meeting, I took along all the arms, legs and torsos that needed to be sewn on. I don’t recommend sewing on legs and arms when you’ve had a few sherries. You’d be amazed how wrong you can go.

Here’s a quick walkthrough on how to make the perfect doll for your little princess.

1. Collect materials. In this case, the most important is the pattern. But fabric and thread is pretty important, too.

Basic stuffing

Basic stuffing

You’ll note the chopstick? A great trick for turning long legs the right way out after sewing them.

2. Sew your doll together and stuff it. Don’t sew it wonky (deformed dolls are less loveable, unless you watched that cartoon from the nineties…). Don’t sew it the wrong way round. Don’t sew yourself to the machine.

Naked baby

Naked baby

3. After stuffing your doll, sit back and bask in your own wonderfulness. And, give it a cuddle. Feel its chunky little head. Too cute.


4. The face on the pattern is just so cute. And super-easy. Simple smile. Round, felt eyes. The only issue here, is that the stitches come out of the back side of the head. You might remedy this by sewing the face before you attach all the pieces together, but the pattern doesn’t recommend it – you might end up with a wonky face.

5. Add hair. This is my least favourite bit, and I’ll tell you for why. It’s difficult. And you need patience. Ugh. Still, this mohair yarn is the exact curliness and colour of my LL’s hair… so I had to make it work!

LL doll.

LL doll.

6. I mentioned in a previous post, how I didn’t know how to make clothes. The pattern really helps out, here, and I found the instructions invaluable as well as easy enough for a novice, like me, to follow. This doll has a little onesie under her dress – which is great because it masks those slightly drunken stitches around the legs and arms.

Lou Lou in her onesie

Lou Lou in her onesie

7. The dress was a little harder (thus, no photos of the process). You’ll see that I cheated round the hems, and added felt. This covered up the uneven, messy stitching – hems are fiddly at the best of times… they’re a lot harder when they’re teeny-tiny!

Lou Lou

Lou Lou

To finish her up, I made her a little handbag out of felt, and a little notebook to go inside. In the end, probably a good thing, because that’s the thing LL loved about it most, when I gave it to her on her birthday. She immediately opened up the notebook and began to scribble in it. She tells me she wrote “I love this doll”.

Which made LittleBigSis, and me, cry.

Doll making for Aunties… cont.

The first doll I ever finished

The first doll I ever finished

The first doll I ever finished looked pretty cute. Okay, so her arms were a little wonky, and I pulled her eyes a little tight. But I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself. What was missing, however, was the weight I was looking for. I wanted a chunky, heavy doll and this little thing was far from that.

I’d heard about Waldorf dolls before. Their chunky heads, and expressionless faces were originally intended for home-schooling in the Waldorf fashion. The fact that they aren’t smiling is supposed to encourage a child to exercise their imagination more. This doll can be happy, sad, angry, silly, depending on the wishes of the child. What’s great about these dolls, is that they have such fat, little heads. I like fat, little heads – as my youngest niece would tell you if she could.

I dutifully studied websites and tutorials. I bought this book on Amazon. I even went here and bought the materials I would need. But Waldorf dolls and I, it seems, weren’t meant to be. In part, this is because – again – I lack any patience. Also, I’d never used a sewing machine before and that material is pretty damn stretchy. Anyway, for all my love of the idea behind these dolls, it just wasn’t happening.

Which is when I came across WeeWonderfuls. The book is a dream – full of ideas for making dolls, and other softies. But the downloadable pattern of Kit, Chloe and Louise, (available on the website) is what really made me smile.

The pattern is simple enough, but the doll at the end is chunky, with weight, and with the cutest, fat, almost-square head. Something about this really appealed.

And so, I set to work… at one point I had 4 dolls on the go at once, almost a factory line, so that, eventually, each of my nieces might have their own doll from Aunty Sunshriek. I think, perhaps, the process needs its own post… I’m still getting the hang of inserting pictures into my text.