house rules

My son and I return home from the Centre de Loisirs.

A literal translation of the French would be “leisure centre”, but a CDL is actually a municipally-funded playscheme available in most state-run schools during the holidays. Parents pay a small fee but, since the service is means-tested, six euros a day buys me full-time care for my son while I’m working. This is a key reason so many French mothers are able to stay in the workforce.

There is no sign of my daughter, but a cursory inspection of her room reveals her savings jar is empty, so I assume she is out somewhere shopping again. Fourteen and free to roam the city, armed with her imagine-R métro pass. A level of autonomy that would have made my village-dwelling, fourteen-year-old self insanely jealous.

I unpack some shopping: an avocado and some puy lentils for me, ice cream and frozen pizza for the kids. They are both picky, to differing degrees, and I don’t have the strength to go to battle on the issue of processed foods and sugar-as-poison every day.

When I emerge from the kitchen, I’m greeted by the sight of a discarded pair of boots placed in the centre of the coffee table, soles down.

“Rule number one in this house is that we NEVER leave shoes on tables,” I bark, giving him my very best hard stare. “Because shoes touch the pavement…”

“…and might have stood in dog poo or pigeon poo. Or wee. Or tiny, invisible germs from poo or wee,” my son interrupts.  He’s become an expert at finishing my sentences.

“And did you know,” I continue, sensing a teachable moment, “that if we were in Japan and  visited someone’s house, it would be considered rude if we didn’t take our shoes off at the front door?”  I eye the shaggy rug, doubtless teeming with germs and, not for the first time, wonder whether we shouldn’t be adopting that custom ourselves.

My son makes no reply: I’ve already lost him to the siren screen of the iPad. On the horizon, I see a freak “accident” involving me “dropping” it and shards of retina screen all over the concrete kitchen floor.

A few moments later, I hear a muffled voice from underneath the blankets and towels which envelop the dining table, recently repurposed as a fort.

“Mummy, what are the other rules in this house? If that shoe rule is number one, what is number two, or number four?”

I join him in the fort, where we decide to brainstorm together. The best way, I figure, to make an exhaustive list of house rules is to draw on his memories of my most frequent scoldings.  My son has a finely-tuned sense of injustice and an infallible memory log; he backs up every criticism ever levelled at him.

  1. No shoes on tables.
  2. Always flush away poo (and wee if we have visitors).
  3. Mirrors are for looking with eyes, not for touching with sticky fingers.
  4. The floor is not a dustbin. My pet-peeve during cold-season is the pyramids of damp, partially-used tissues which proliferate in every room.
  5. No moonwalking into the (purely ornamental) bar cart.
  6. Never forget that our floor is someone else’s ceiling.
  7. iPad usage will be policed (more or less) strictly (depending on my state of mind and level of fatigue).
  8. Mum’s bedroom is a toy-free zone and may be used as a stage or a gym by appointment only.

We don’t get beyond 8, but I decide to call it a day, as I’m developing a cramp in my leg and it’s already abundantly clear that I’m running the tightest of ships.


Shortly after my discharge from hospital, I agreed to meet a couple of friends for a playdate with our kids at the local swimming pool, rue Denoyez.  (Note to French speakers: sadly, no, the pool has not been named after the street.)

I will admit that standing nipple-high in lukewarm water in a kiddy pool for an hour (or longer if I can bear it) is not high on my list of “Fun Things to do on a Weekend”. Approximately once every five minutes I screw up my eyes – laser-surgery left me with not-quite-perfect vision – to reduce the haloes around the red numbers on the digital clock at the far end of the adult pool. The high-pitched shrieking of delighted children shreds my nerves.

But the parent-friends in question are very good company – litmus test: we have drunk alcohol together – and they have graduated beyond a listing as “Mother of A” or “Father of B” in my phone, which is a testament to that.

After being cooped up for so long, I craved normalcy. Even the kind that requires you to wear a compulsory swimming hat and leaves you with wrinkled fingertips.

A couple of hours from RDV time I suddenly realised that a month of trouser and pyjama wearing hadn’t exactly left me bikini-ready. One of my favourite songs at the moment contains the lyric “I wanna shave my legs for you.” There is no-one in my life just now for whom I need or want to shave my legs, particularly during the autumn or winter months. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to make that long, chilly walk from changing rooms to pool looking quite so unkempt, so I started rooting around in the bathroom cupboard for a disposable razor which was neither blunt nor rusty.

A text message arrived, enquiring whether I had any spare swimming hats.  I began typing my response with one thumb. Sad but true: I can touch-type at 100 wpm on a computer keyboard, yet I text like a grandma.


I was about to hit send, when I realized my message could be construed as a threat to cause myself physical harm. And while the friend knew that no razors had been involved in my hospitalisation, my usually twisted sense of humour faltered for a moment and I couldn’t follow through.  I wound up deleting all but the first sentence.

Next stop was the bag where I keep our swimming towels, my son’s goggles, those infernal swimming hats and our swimwear. I don’t own a sensible, one-piece swimsuit, as I’ve never crossed paths with one which didn’t seriously exaggerate my pear-shape. I usually opt for an old, blue, geometric-print bikini often worn on holiday.

It was not in the bag.

Then my brain treated me to a little flashback montage. Me, wearing my blue bikini while nonsense-texting from the bathtub. Me, recording a video, long-since deleted, because nobody ever needs to view it (including me). Me, answering the door to two firemen, who gently suggested I might want to wear some clothes and put a few essential items into a bag. Me, wearing my blue bikini under the paper gown in casualty.

I opted for alternative swimwear. I wasn’t quite blue bikini-ready yet.


Waiting for dinner in a fast food “restaurant” that shall not be named, my son (8) is fighting with his sister (14). He gets very irritable when hangry.  The shoving and sniping escalate. She finds baiting him irresistible; he can be extremely sensitive. It’s a potent cocktail.

I mutter something about wanting to bang both of their heads together and remember my father saying the same thing. I have become my father.

Then son tells daughter that he hates her so much, he is going to stab her forty-five times.

My daughter pulls a shocked-emoji face, then laughs. I feel glad that we are all speaking English and in a part of town where tourists are thin on the ground. Also, there are no knives – even brittle plastic disposable ones – in this establishment.

“That’s a very specific number,” I remark, “did you choose it randomly?” We were learning the nine-times table recently. I hope that is the explanation, as it would be preferable to a warped tribute to my age.

My daughter looks at me with her “mum, that’s not parenting!” face. I try again.

“You know, it’s really unacceptable to make horrible threats to people, even if you don’t mean them. If you’re going to say macabre things like that, I’m going to have to block Youtube on the iPad again.”

Via gateway films like Paranorman, Coraline and Goosebumps, he’s been on a deep-dive into the horror genre lately. There’s a parental filter on, but he knows stuff about totally inappropriate films he has never actually seen.

He ignores me and turns to his sister again. “When we get home, I’m going to gouge out your eyeballs with the ice-cream scoop.”

I allow myself to feel momentarily impressed that he knows the word “gouge”, then start picturing that day ten or so years from now when I’ll lie through my teeth in TV news interviews. “I never saw it coming,” I’ll wail. “He was always such a sweet boy.”

Later that evening, daughter has been left babysitting while I’m at a party, five minutes away on foot.  I can’t afford a babysitter, so when the kids are with me, I’m grateful for invitations from friends who live in the neighbourhood.

I check in with my daughter.

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 09.38.46


Last year, in the context of my divorce, I applied for a loan.  It was quite a small loan, for about 15% of the value of our apartment. In essence, I was re-mortgaging my bedroom so that I could extract my husband’s share of the capital.

That said, I work part-time, so I’m looking down the barrel of paying off my bedroom for the next fifteen years.

By far the most difficult part of the process (and that is saying a lot, as my bank were breathtakingly incompetent) was dealing with the compulsory insurance, which includes coverage in the event of my death (we have a recurring theme!), or should I become too unwell to work for an extended period of time.

I’ve applied for a home loan twice before – both pre-diagnosis – and the health questionnaire had never phased me at all. I’ve never smoked. I’d never been off work for more than a week. The only time I’d seen the inside of a hospital in the past 20 years was for the delivery of my two children. (Is it just me, or does that it make it sound like babies arrive via DHL?) I’d forgotten the health questionnaire even existed until my bank manager sent me an email.

Have you been off work for more than one month in the past ten years?  If so, for how long? OK. Ouch. Yes. There were those six months immediately following my diagnosis.  I’m not sure I needed six months but I was on full pay and, for some reason, my ex-employers took their sweet time drawing up my exit papers once I’d negotiated my non-return. Anyone who has dabbled in mood stabilisers or anti-depressants also knows that you need time to get acclimated (especially as the first treatment didn’t stick, so I had to start over with a new one).  No point beating myself up about it now though: I took the time out and the damage is done.

I also had to admit to having a long-term medical condition. My bipolar disorder is declared as such to the French health service, which entitles me to free medical treatment. My month-long hospital stay was all expenses paid. Vive la France! Lying wouldn’t achieve anything (other than invalidating my insurance if something were to happen and I was found out).

So I filled in the questionnaire truthfully and a few weeks later, a second questionnaire arrived by post, this time for the attention of my psychiatrist.  I took it along to our monthly appointment. He scanned the first page, sighed and put down his pen.

“If I fill this in, Madame, then they’ll deny you coverage. I’ve seen this situation before.”

Tears welled up and my ears starting ringing: early-onset panic. “But what would you have me do? It’s too late for me to lie now,” I stammered. “I’ll just have to try. I really don’t have any other option. I need this loan.”

Reluctantly he completed the form, putting the most positive spin he could manage on everything. The details of my treatment, but an emphasis on how long I’d been “in remission” and in employment.

A couple of weeks later the reply came and I was relieved, at first.  I had insurance! My loan application could go ahead!

But reading the small print I discovered my premiums had doubled (and this directly in relation to the death insurance – how prescient).  As for illnesses, there were some major exclusions. Incapacitation due to a freak accident or injury caused by third-party was covered. If lightning strikes or I get hit by a car, all well and good (hmm… maybe well and good weren’t the best word choices here). But if I have the misfortune to develop a heart problem, say, or cancer? Not so much. Even though these things bear no relation whatsoever to bipolar disorder.

Even I can make a case for excluding my pre-existing condition. I’m a risky bet because of my illness itself, and that’s without factoring in the side effects of my medication. Lithium can cause renal failure, hypothyroidism, and much, much more. I have to take monthly blood tests to check my levels. A double-sided A3 sheet comes neatly folded inside every box of quetiapine and it might as well be a Penny Dreadful. Anti-psychotics are often responsible for diabetes and… you know what, I can’t face unfolding that leaflet right now, so let’s just leave it at “other bad shit”. The previous generation of antipsychotic drugs have been linked to dementia, and when I pressed my Doctor on that subject, he hedged like a politician, saying the newer molecules are probably safer, butas they haven’t been in circulation for long enough, no-one really knows for sure.

The other day, after reading an article online about a lady who had saved a fortune by renegotiating her home loan insurance, I entertained the idea of trying to improve my lot.  What was I thinking, you ask? Am I a glutton for punishment? Well, I did warn the broker up front that there were mental health issues and work absences involved, and she promised to take that into account when sounding out the insurers. And if it doesn’t work out, it’s no win, no fee.

So I completed the first form, where I had to start by admitting I’d spent a month in hospital. The second questionnaire arrived, and I found the suicide section.


Has the patient ever attempted suicide? If so, how many times? Date of last attempt? Likelihood of a repeat attempt? Tick boxes to choose method: firearm, hanging, jumping off a high building (as opposed to a low building?) or other (please specify). I wonder what statistical risk-analysis wizardry is behind these choices. Where is the wrist slitting? Where are the meds?

I’m guessing that if I do accidentally fall off a (high) bridge, someone will brandish a copy of this form at my next of kin and try to wriggle out of paying up. Here is proof that Madame didn’t fall. She had a history.  She must have jumped.

So when I read articles in the press about mental health and insurance coverage, my blood boils. But words, as you can see, rarely fail me.

</end rant>



We appear to have reached the point where my daughter can joke text about death. I’ve decided that this must be a good thing.

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 22.29.19

(Context: she felt I had insufficiently congratulated her for a good mark in her physics test, so several hours later I bombarded her with lovingly selected cheesy gifs and hideous Hallmark card quotes along the lines of “Nothing in this world is impossible, even the word itself says that I M possible”. So, on balance, I fully deserved it.)


So. It’s been a while. When I wrote in my sidebar that posting was likely to be intermittent, I didn’t anticipate taking six months off.  But here we are.

I’m ready to make a stab at writing about the events of last summer. Not necessarily in chronological order, but in whatever format works for me.  Some of these experiences are hard to put into words, but I will try.

* * * * * * * * *

My most vivid memory of my month-long stay at the Tenon Hospital in Paris is of a nurse I met on August 29th.

I’d just spent the longest twelve hours of my life in the emergency room, after being deposited there by a charming fireman shortly after midnight.  (In France, for some reason, medical first responders are firemen. And often attractive in my – albeit limited – experience. I have on occasion seen them out and about jogging in short shorts, and it is invariably a pleasure.)

I can’t say I would recommend an overnight stay in the Tenon emergency room to anyone.

My memory is foggy, as I had ingested (then spontaneously expelled) a not inconsiderable quantity of sleeping pills and sloe gin, but I spent a great deal of time quietly sobbing in a foetal position. I had a pulsing headache, and the overhead lights were causing me physical pain. Parked in a large room on an uncomfortable trolley bed behind a waist-high partition, I wore nothing but a standard-issue paper gown which gaped open at the back. I wasn’t permitted access to my phone or the few possessions I’d grabbed on my way out.

One fellow patient shouted for hours: variations on the theme of “let me out, you can’t keep me here against my will”.  I jammed my fingers into my ears, but there was no way to effectively block out the ranting and I remember thinking that if I wasn’t already insane upon arrival, thanks to these various assaults on my nerves and senses I’d surely be certifiable on departure.  Another patient – or it may have been the same one – defecated all over the floor.  I didn’t see or smell it, and I am thankful for this small mercy, but I heard a nurse swearing copiously about having to hose him down and mop it up.

Salvation came in the form of the on-duty psychiatrist, who had examined me when I was admitted. She’d asked me to consider a voluntary stay on their small psychiatric ward, specialised in psycho-trauma and addictions. There were about thirty beds, in single or double rooms, and most patients, she explained, were suffering from depression, or under treatment for alcohol addiction. The majority were female.  It was a calm, non-threatening environment where I could rest, recover and get the help I needed. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest this was not.

I’m not sure what the outcome would have been had I declined this offer, but it didn’t occur to me to do so.

She returned after a few hours with good news: a bed would be ready for me at 2pm, about 6 hours later. I’d just have to hang in there for a few more interminable hours.  Once on the ward, she warned me that there would be a policy of zero contact with the outside world for the first 72 hours. No phone, and no visitors. Panicking, I managed to negotiate the temporary return of my phone for an hour (and the loan of a charger) so that I could text platitudes to my nearest and dearest, no doubt frantic with worry.  I was okay. I was going to be in good hands. I was sorry for the inconvenience.  (Apparently, I’d already sent some semi-coherent texts to them from the ambulance, but I have no memory of that).

My daughter’s father, the only adult in Paris at that time with keys to my apartment, was  duly tasked with packing a bag and dropping it off that evening, without being allowed to see me. No mean feat, given we had separated a decade ago and he didn’t really know his way around my apartment, let alone my underwear drawer. I think my daughter helped him pack. I can’t bear to imagine that scene.

I was escorted across the hospital in a wheelchair – across a carpark, down several long corridors, up a lift to the sixth floor – with a blanket for modesty. My belongings had been corralled into a regulation plastic bag.  The room – number 9,  Salle Janet – was spare and institutional.  A generic hospital bed and side table, in pastel blue, which reminded me of my daughter’s Playmobil hospital set. A numbered wardrobe that had to be kept locked at all times, in case of theft, and also – I think – to stop me putting on my clothes and shoes and absconding. An armchair for the visitors I’d eventually be allowed.  A table and chair I never used.  An ensuite room with toilet and sink.  The shower was down the hall and merits a post all of its own.

The windows didn’t open, aside from a vent at the top, and there were no hooks or handles, for obvious reasons.  I was briefly amused that 1) my plastic bag hadn’t been considered hazardous and taken away and 2) my inner voice was capable of a gallows humour of sorts, even at a time like this.

Alone in my room, once the nurses had taken my blood pressure, confiscated my phone and left me a jug of water, the reality of how I had come to be there hit me with devastating force.

I curled up, I sobbed, I drifted. It had been several weeks since I’d had more than 3 or 4 hours’ sleep, and I hadn’t been eating. I’d travelled to a mental space I can only describe as my idea of hell.

Enter the nurse.

I don’t remember her name: we only met twice in the month I was there, as she was on secondment from another ward, and they soon put me on meds which scrambled my short-term memory. So I can’t describe her in any conventional way. Mid-length, mousy-brown hair, I think, drawn back into a pony-tail. A slim build. A regulation uniform.

But I will never forget the way she drew the chair up to my bed, held my hand, smiled warmly and looked into my eyes.

“I wish I was dead, I wish I’d succeeded,” I confessed, sobbing, although it’s impossible to understand now, with hindsight, how I could have said these words, let alone meant them. It’s almost unbearable to admit to them today. But she looked at me with such a gentle kindness, such an absence of judgement, that somehow the invisible line between her eyes and mine became my lifeline.

I have no idea how long that nurse stayed beside me – my notion of time that day is unreliable – but I’ll always be grateful to her.

And while I have no memory of the colour of her eyes, the comfort I drew from her gaze I will never forget.