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Blog 40 of 40 - Life begins at 40

Forty days ago I set myself the challenge of writing 40 blogs over 40 days. The idea was to explore writing about whatever subject I wanted to (without it being for work) and see where my mind took me.

I thought it would be interesting to look back over the 40 days and see if any patterns had emerged within my writing, or if it helped me to have a clearer idea of what was really going on within me.

Although some days I could have done without it, it's actually been a surprisingly enjoyable experience. It's taken me to unexpected places - I've remembered things from my childhood and life with Martha that I wouldn't have otherwise.

Writing about funny stories from my past has felt rewarding and reminded me that my life has been a rich tapestry full of adventure and abundant with love.

It's been lovely to hear from friends (old and new), near and far who have followed my ramblings with enthusiasm. So off I go quietly back into my life - feeling an overwhelming sense of contentment and satisfaction.

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Blog 39 of 40 - Oranges are not the only fruit

One day I came home from work to Martha who was sat on the sofa looking rather sheepish. She looked up at me coyly - at first I thought the late afternoon light was playing tricks on me, but then I realised that Martha was bright orange of a shade that in a dulux catalogue would have been described as deep tropical peach. I tried to stifle my laughter, as she was looking really sorry for herself.

The story goes that she had 'borrowed' my fake tan which was a clear liquid and after applying it once - didn't think it had worked, so she applied it again and again. She had then gone to bed and overnight it had developed.

She said 'they're calling me wotsit at school', well that was it - I burst out laughing and she joined in momentarily, but pleaded with me to help her remove it.

We had a look on the internet and found out that salt and lemon juice was an effective way to remove it - so we set to work, but nothing shifted. We tried using an exfoliating pad, to no avail.

So for the next few days I had a wotsit for a daughter and Martha never borrowed my fake tan ever again.

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Blog 38 of 40 - Simple pleasures

I'm going to make a sad admission here - I have a Bobble off machine that removes bobbles from my jumpers. It redeems a sad old bobbly jumper into a brand new looking one once more - a type of up-cycling if you like.

I don't use it often, but on the occasions I do - I find it to be ridiculously satisfying (and slightly addictive). I once bought one for a friend and despite him raising an eyebrow when he opened the box - he was soon looking for more items around his home that he could render smooth again.

We've joked that there should be a helpline for people like us, who get a bit carried away with it all. So perhaps when you're considering cancelling your plans on a Saturday night so you can stay in to bobble off your entire wardrobe - you need to have a word with yourself. (In between writing this blog, I'm stopping to bobble off a pair of trousers. How did my life come to this?)

Now, in defence of my behaviour this afternoon - I want you all to know that a lot of my work is very intense and hurts my head a lot - so the odd mindless task is a welcome break at times.

Here's a very annoying clip to showcase this deceptive gadget. (No I don't get commission from bobble off before you ask!) And if you're tempted enough to buy one yourself - don't say I didn't warn you.

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Blog 37 of 40 - Who Shot JR?

Remember waiting and waiting, and waiting? We talked about nothing else at school for weeks. Who did it, who was it? I couldn't wait to find out the answer. Anticipation..., remember how that felt?

It was exciting, as though you were part of a special club - all waiting for the outcome. It brought you together with your peers, it was something you could all talk about.

Despite the weeks we had to wait to find out who shot JR, I can't for the life of me remember who actually did it. But that doesn't really matter, as the anticipation was more exciting than the result.

These days when I occasionally binge on a box set on Netflix, I can barely wait the 15 seconds between episodes. I also find my mind drifting and end up 'multi-tasking' whilst half watching whatever is playing in the background.

The key to happiness is said to be delayed gratification, with that in mind and the theme tune to Dallas playing in my mind - I think I'm in trouble.

I found this quote from Dallas which sums this up nicely:-

"...there are a few things that J.R. Ewing can't afford, but patience is one of them!"

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Blog 36 of 40 - The Books of my Youth

After the early years spent reading books such as Milly Molly Mandy, I then graduated to The Adventures of the Wishing Chair about a chair that had wings. This had a particular resonance with me as my mum told me she had been gardening one day and had found me under a cabbage leaf, she then cut my wings off and took me in as one of her own (it sounds a bit sinister now seeing it written down like that, but as a child with a vivid imagination - I liked that story a lot as it made me feel extra special).

I learned later that this story wasn't a million miles from the truth of my origin (minus the fairytale allure), but I'll leave that mystery hanging for another time.

I visited the local library a lot and got absorbed in the Mallory Towers and St Claire's series by Enid Blyton. One of the best books I ever read as a child was The Adventures of the Black Hand Gang by Hans Jurgen Press as it allowed the reader to locate hidden clues and solve parts of the investigation themselves. I loved this book so much and would read it again and again as every time you read it, you could choose to go to different chapters to solve the mystery, so it was like reading a new book every time.

When I was about 12 years old there was one book from the school library that was always out on loan which was Forever by Judy Blume. I went to a Catholic Primary School so I was astounded that it stocked it at all, but as soon as word got around, there was constant demand for it. I eventually got my hands on a copy and my 12 year old eyebrows were raised a few times whilst reading it.

Around the age of 14 or 15, I remember loving My Sweet Audrina by Virgnia Andrews, as it seemed like a right of passage at the time as it was a little bit risque. 

I read to Martha a lot when she was little, but her love for reading alone began around the age of 7 with The Weather Fairies. I remember her sitting by the pool on holiday in Croatia reading them one after the other. The very last book she ever read was Kensuke's Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo, but I'm not going to lie - she also loved The Diary of a Chav by Grace Dent!

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Blog 35 of 40 - Reconditioning Social Conditioning

I was having lunch in a cafe today and as I glanced out of the window, a little boy who couldn't have been more than 4 years old smiled and waved at me - it was sweet and natural, there was absolutely no hesitation on his part. I instinctively smiled and waved back. 

I remember when Martha was about age 3 asking loudly on the London Underground 'why is nobody talking'. People started to snigger and look bemused at this audacious toddler, who without realising was pointing out the strange social conditioning we've become accustomed to, rather than going with our natural humanity.

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I'm interested as to when we lose that natural curiosity about others, or perhaps we don't lose our curiosity and it's more about allowing the social norms to overpower our instincts.

I know we can't go around in life like the character from the film Elf as we don't live in a snowglobe, but the sweet simplicity of his character and in the gesture of the little boy I saw today, really helps us to return, albeit momentarily, to our true nature.

Three rules I've come up with for my life are to learn to have:-

1.  the optimism of a dog

2.  the curiosity of a toddler

3.  the wisdom of an elder (eventually).

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Blog 34 of 40 - Back to my roots

It's been a busy few months and so I'm heading to Scotland next weekend for 10 days to recalibrate. Ayrshire is an incredibly beautiful part of the world. The coast is stunning and I'll definitely be heading to the beach for some fresh sea air and perspective.

The beach I go to faces the Isle of Arran and Ailsa Craig and despite them being a regular backdrop during my childhood, I've never been to either.

When I'm 'home' it feels as though everything within me is in tune again. There's nothing quite like your family to ground you and put you in your place - as the youngest girl I get treated accordingly and bossed around a lot, which is both annoying and endearing.

I truly love living in Oxford, but sometimes I just need to head to Scotland - it's a visceral feeling I get when I haven't visited for a while, things stir within me that I don't understand and I get an immense yearning to head back to where I come from.

Since Martha died, I've often wondered whether I should move back to Scotland, in some ways my life would be so much easier if I did, but I've been in England now for 27 years and most of my friends are here (my modern family), so I'm not sure if living in Scotland again would really work for me in practice, but I'm open-minded about my future.

The uncertainty of my 'new' future is something I now find more exciting than worrying - the serendipity of life. I truly believe that there are good things ahead for me and whatever challenges are thrown in my path are supposed to happen - so I will accept them and learn as I go. 

In the meantime, Scotland is calling for me. 

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Blog 33 of 40 - Just a Minute

I've just been to see a live recording of the BBC radio show Just a Minute at The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford as part of the 2017 Oxford Literary Festival.

Hosted by Nicholas Parsons, accompanied by his wife who was the dutifully timekeeper. 

The panellists were Maureen Lipman, Tim Rice, Paul Blessard and Kit Hesketh-Harvey. 

They were all very naturally witty, as you'd expect, especially Maureen Lipman and Tim Rice. Nicholas Parsons at the age of 93 is gifted with a sharp and brilliant personality and sweet wit of a bygone age.

It reminded me of childhood moments, sat by the open fire listening to old uncles and family friends telling stories from their lives. You know the days when proper conversations took place and the world seemed to run at a pace which was more wholesome and manageable (or perhaps I'm just looking back with rose-tinted glasses?)

Tim Rice introduced himself by saying: There was a young man from Peru, Whose limericks stopped at line two. The topics included daffodils, the caribbean, a cup of tea, gardening, the dreaming spires, alice in wonderland, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. Maureen Lipman challenged her own repetition and was awarded with a point (such are the quirks allowed by Nicholas Parsons to comic effect).

All very quintessential and British, but I wouldn't hesitate to allow this deviation for 'just a minute' of my life, or even mind a repetition for that matter.

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Blog 32 of 40 - Legs like an Isle of Man Badge

After a month off from exercise because of my back, I decided to try a gentle yoga session this morning. I started teaching myself yoga from books when Martha was about 2 years old, so I've been doing it since about 1999. It didn't make sense to me at first as some of the poses looked as though they do your body more harm than good, but after persevering for a while, I could definitely feel the benefits (to both my body and my head).

At times it has slipped from my routine as the distractions of life have got on top of me, but my body soon starts to stiffen and seize up, so I know that it's something I should maintain as it works well to help me feel balanced and strong.

Martha used to lie on the floor next to me trying to copy what I was doing - once she said 'look mummy I've made one up' - she was lying on her back with her little legs in the air having placed a 1p coin on each eyelid. 

Back to today, my back is a lot better although there's still some residual muscular pain, so I just need to be careful not to aggravate anything. (This old injury began when I was a teenage gymnast. After tackling a back flip I then jerked forwards landing on my knees, which jarred the bottom of my spine.)

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My gymnastic coach was of the 'old school' variety and just complained that my legs were 'like an Isle of Man badge' rather than straight - there's no pleasing some people. In those days it was a case of 'if your head's not falling off - you're fine' and most people I know from then seem to be pretty hardy.

My body feels so much better now after the yoga and the spring sun is streaming in the window. Agnes Obel's Citizen of Glass album is playing in the background and I'm noisily eating a very large, juicy orange - namaste indeed.

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Blog 31 of 40 - A perm on a perm

Did your family have a uniform hairstyle - one for the males and one for the females? If so, was it a page boy or bowl cut? Or perhaps like me, you got the generic perm. Every female in our household seemed to have one and the bubble perm seemed to be the perm of choice. The footballer Kevin Keegan, led the way for the male perm at that time too, so men weren't safe from the delights of the 80s perm phenomenon either.

Now, by the age of 12 I had never even had my hair trimmed, let alone cut, so I had more than a passing resemblance to the girl from test card

But once I got it cut for the first time, I was then allowed to get it permed. So I did - again and again, and again. A perm, on a perm, on a perm and so on.

Now, I have naturally wavy hair, which needs very little encouragement to go curly, so there was absolutely no need for me to get it permed whatsoever. It was like chemical warfare on my poor hair for the next 10 years until it dawned on me one day that I could create exactly the same effect using a diffuser on my hairdryer (and the invention of serum felt to me like the equivalent of the invention of the wheel or electricity!)

I'd like to apologise to my hair for the pointless perm habit and for the many hair mistakes I have made over the years. I'd also like to apologise in advance for any future hair faux pas which will inevitably come.

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Blog 30 of 40 - Hello I am David

One of my favourite films is 'Hello I am David', a documentary film about David Helfgott which went on to inspire the film Shine.

I laughed a lot when watching this and there are many endearing moments too full of depth and generosity, depicting the best in human kindness. There's an incredible innocence about David, he's hilariously impulsive and impish - but his babbling insights are astounding and show the complexity of his mind and talents.

His wife is a person of great wisdom and strength - she needs to have a lot of patience to cope with David's behaviour, but she also recognises what a privilege it is to spend your life with someone like him. 

My favourite scene is about crunching an apple in your ear at 3am, but I won't tell you more - you should watch it and find out for yourself (it's worth it).

Speaking of the best in human kindness, two very dear friends know how much I admire this guy, so for my birthday they bought me tickets to see him in concert at the Barbican in London in May to commemorate his 70th birthday.  I can't wait.

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Blog 29 of 40 - Etch a Sketch

I used to spend hours patiently turning the knobs of my etch a sketch a fraction at a time, scraping all the iron filings, so I could see the mechanism inside to see how it worked.

My little brother and I mostly got on well and would play harmoniously for hours, but sometimes we'd get on each other's nerves and that led to us fighting as most siblings do.

One morning my temper got the better of me and I hit him over the head with my etch a sketch (I was about 6 years old and my brother was 4). As children we are very impulsive and don't tend to think beyond the very moment we're in - but as soon as I'd done this, I instantly regretted it as it smashed open and the grey dust filled the air.

The living room soon resembled a lunar landscape - picture the TV series Space 1999 and you're pretty much in our living room in that moment.

The mess was extensive - it looked as though all the colour had been sucked out of the room which was caked in grey aluminium dust, (as was my brother's shoulder-length golden hair).

We both went eerily silent as we knew I was in big trouble - this mess was too big for us to cover up or deny, so we just sat quietly and waited for mum to wake up. Despite the mess, two small children looking very grey and sheepish, must have been a hilarious sight.

I don't remember mum being that angry afterall, the anticipation was worse - but my punishment was to share a bath with my brother, which didn't bother me too much and I had truly learnt my lesson by that point. 

For my brother's birthday this year I had an etch a sketch birthday card specially made for him. I laughed my head off as I posted it. He texted saying that he blames that moment from our childhood as the reason he's now completely bald.

My parting advice to children is to play safe and remember that your little brother will probably be taller than you one day - so be nice to him!

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Blog 28 of 40 - Peeling potatoes to Bronski Beat

It felt as though as soon as I was tall enough to reach the kitchen sink, I was handed a potato peeler that became my daily companion. I'd carry my single tape deck ghetto blaster (my sister got the twin-deck one with high-speed dubbing) from my bedroom to the kitchen.

I'd stick on my mixed tape of Tears for Fears, Strawberry Switchblade, Toni Basil and Bronski Beat. A particular favourite was the track Why? from Bronski Beat - which enabled me to get through the 5lbs (2.26kg) of potatoes in a flash.

 

I'd sing and dance along as the blur of peelings grew in front of me. We had potatoes with pretty much every dinner as they were a great, economical way feed many mouths. The endless potato repertoire on rotation were mashed, boiled, fried, baked, chipped, we'd also have stovies which is a traditional Scottish dish.

In the summer we ate local Ayrshire potatoes for the whole time they were in season. We used a machine that'd scraped the flaky skin off, but we'd then need to scrape out the eyes with a knife - so there was no escaping the burden of potato duties in our house.

I rarely peel potatoes nowadays, I leave the skins on - as I think I've already peeled my quota for life. As I came in from work today and turned on the radio as I always do, Jimmy Somerville's falsetto voice echoed around my kitchen and I had a little dance for old times' sake.

I'm not going to be mean about Jimmy and compare him to a potato as many other people have done. To me he will always be someone who helped me pass some mundane hours from my childhood quickly.

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Blog 27 of 40 - The invisible passenger

When I was about 4 years old one of my older brothers passed his driving text. There was some gravel-covered wasteland next to our house and he wanted to put his clapped out old mini through its paces - so I was brought along to accompany him on his quest.

The passenger door didn't close, so he told me to hold it shut. Now, I was a slip of a thing - much smaller than the average 4 year old, so I held on for dear life as he practised wheel spins and hand-brake turns. I can still see the clouds of dust in my mind's eye and hear the revving of the engine.

Within the adrenaline-fuelled excitement, my brother paused and looked over to his left in horror only to realise that I was no longer there. In the blink of an eye my little arms gave out and the next thing I know is that I've been propelled from the car and am tumbling along the ground like a rag doll. 

My brother stopped the car and ran up to me pleading 'don't tell mum, don't tell mum'. This is the moment in a cartoon where birds fly around the head of a dizzy and dazed looking character. 

He took me to the sweet shop and bought me a tube of smarties to guarantee my silence.

When I think back to moments like this from my childhood - I wonder how I am still in one piece. I laugh at the shenanigans my siblings and I got up to and shake my head at the madness of it all.

I feel as though I'm the human equivalent of a weeble toy and the words from that advert are the theme tune to my life  'weebles wobble, but they don't fall down'. 

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Blog 26 of 40 - Sundays with Martha

Sunday in our house was family day. On Saturdays Martha was allowed to go out with her friends in the daytime, but we agreed that Sunday was always for family.

Every Sunday Martha and I would go for coffee in a local cafe. Shoulder to shoulder we'd browse through Style Magazine commenting on the latest fashions and laughing at the satire of the Mrs Mills page.

On my very last Mother's Day I woke up to Martha welcoming me with a takeaway coffee and a copy of Style Magazine. Later in the day she painted my nails in pastel colours which you can see in this picture:

Today I met a dear friend for coffee in a local cafe and we shared wonderful moments from our own lives.

This quote from one of my favourite books 'Tuesdays with Morrie', sums it up for me pretty accurately:

“I give myself a good cry if I need it, but then I concentrate on all good things still in my life.” 
― Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

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Blog 25 of 40 - A 1970s Livingroom

Woodchip wallpaper, painted in a shade of browny peach. A brown velour '3-piece suite' as they were known as where I come from. A burgundy shag pile carpet (that I'd skim my feet along to give small electric shocks to my younger brother). One wall of varnished cork tiles, around the fireplace adorned with brass plates, mirrors and ornaments. 

An endless stream of visitors - family members, neighbours, police (we lived next door to a police station and they were always in having cups of tea), priests frequented our house too and I remember once being given the task of whitening their 'dog collar' using Jif (now known as Cif for some reason), one of my sisters used Jif to whiten her teeth, but that's a story for another time.

Constant chatter filled the air - no stopping for breath, apart from to take a long drag from a Craven-A or Superking cigarette, then the drone of chatter would carry on all day and into the night. One cigarette being lit from another in an endless chain during all waking hours.

Toddlers would stumble around being fussed over by everyone through the haze of smoke. We weren't allowed to open the windows in case it caused a draught. I'd watch fascinated as a cigarette would hang from a chatting lip with 2 cms of ash precariously about to make its descent. 

My siblings joke that we came into the world as children and left home as smoked kippers. I've got chronic asthma and spent most of my 4th year in an oxygen tent in hospital - but never was that correlated with living with about 10 chain-smokers! I've never even taken one puff on a cigarette, but in respect of passive-smoking, I probably smoked 60 a day for the 17 years I lived at home!

Funny to think that you used to be able to smoke on planes and now you can barely take a bottle of water on board.

Back to 2017 now - I'm off for a walk across Port Meadow among the wild horses to fill my 1970s lungs with some 2017 fresh air!

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Blog 24 of 40 - The rhythm of life

The very last film I ever watched with Martha was the French film Untouchable - based on a true story about a wealthy quadriplegic, Philippe, and his carer, Driss, an ex-convict.

Martha had come home from school raving about it as they were watching it as part of her French lesson. She thought I'd like it and as most parents know - when your 15 year old is offering you something, you should take it (as moment to moment - you never know where their mood will take them). Any quality time spent without bickering or doing the 'good cop, bad cop' routine on them is a welcome relief. 

So we snuggled up together on the sofa, her mass of curly hair getting in the way of the screen. When I tried to move it, she shirked away, irritated letting go of my hand. After a few seconds she'd forget she was annoyed and entwine her fingers in mine again. In my memory, I can still feel the texture of her hair now, the smell of shampoo.

Martha's hand entwined in mine

Martha's hand entwined in mine

I really loved the film - Martha knew my tastes so well. 

I tend to like quirky films, or those based on true stories, slow-paced, poignant films full of depth and insight. 

The one scene that stands out is a dance routine by the actor Omar Sy which is absolutely mesmerising (I could watch it on repeat as it always makes me feel buoyant and inspired).

There seems to be such freedom to how he dances, an innate sense of rhythm and timing.

 


I haven't watched the film again since that day when my girl was still safely by my side, but maybe I'll watch it on Mother's Day this Sunday as an homage to her in gratitude of the beautiful memories.

Martha's baby hand in mine

Martha's baby hand in mine

 

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Blog 23 of 40 - Anyone's Child

I've spent the day in Bristol with some of the other families from the Anyone's Child Campaign. As I look around the table, there's a 'knowing' look in our eyes, an understanding of what is really behind our façades. There's a grace and humility that is difficult to describe without experiencing it for yourself.

We are united in our collective grief - there's a powerful atmosphere of determination. Some have been campaigning on this subject for over 20 years and have now become experts as a result of the 2 decades they've travelled along this road. 

New families are now joining our campaign regularly - a bitter sweet reflection of what brought us together, showing the true nature of the world we are currently living in. Their recent losses hang in the air - but slowly and gently they bravely share their stories and talk about their respective loved ones.

It is so important to feel understood in these moments. To feel heard when it seems as though nobody in the world could possibly be listening - is reassuring.

In time we see their shoulders lift and their broken voices become resolute as they gather themselves and the wheels of their lives start to slowly turn again.

There are tears of sadness and there are tears of joy, but together we support one another and carry on because Anyone's Child was our child.

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Blog 22 of 40 - Aftermarth

I managed to sleep for 6 hours before the remnants of adrenaline from yesterday stirred me awake again. Updates were coming through on my phone throughout the night. As I now sit quietly contemplating yesterday, I can see the heavy rain bounding off the road outside the window of my Oxford home. 

Yesterday was interesting in helping me to gauge where all this is getting to. The dialogue is changing and people are getting the point of why all drugs need to be legally regulated.

In the 3 or so years I've been campaigning, I've found myself needing to defend my point less and less and that shows me that the tide is changing.

Professor David Nutt produced the following table which shows alcohol to be the most harmful substance and ecstasy to be the 4th safest.

As a society, we still have a long way to go with regards to educating people about using substances, but I believe things are heading in the right direction.

10 people die every day in the UK from a drug-related death, despite this the government says that what's in place is working. If that's a success in their eyes, what would a failure look like?

 

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Blog 21 of 40 - Nerves

I'm sitting in the basement of Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road in London. I'm being interviewed on a live podcast by Decca Aitkenhead. This event has been organised by LEAP UK for the Anyone's Child: Families for Safer Drug Control campaign.

I've just spoken to a researcher at BBC Newsnight as they've asked me to go on the show live tonight. Strangely, live interviews are easier than pre-recorded as you know that you've only got one chance to get it right - so the adrenaline kicks in and you somehow find the right words (well, hopefully). 

My stomach feels a bit queasy at the thought - although I've been interviewed probably about 150 times now,  I suppose my nervousness is really a resistance to the truth of my own story. It's painful, but I do it, because the thought of another parent becoming me is worse.

I'm about to do interviews with The British Medical Journal and Closer Magazine as it's so important to reach different readerships and to help to promote this problem as much as we can. I'll report back tomorrow, so wish me luck!

Here's the clip:-

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