About debigliori

I make books. All of the time. Every day. Even when I'm asleep.

The migraine-wrangler

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In the midst of all the weirdness currently afflicting our island, it was a choice between posting soothing pictures of guinea pigs or this one of some clouds. Normally, I’d post guinea pigs but…

It’s a long story and normally I’d say pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup of tea and let the golden retriever come and melt you with her beautiful kohl-rimmed eyes but…

Our beautiful Cara started her long transformation into becoming a birch tree last November, so she won’t be turning anyone into a melted puddle of dog-adoration any day soon. I couldn’t bring myself to write or post or tweet about losing her at the time, and even now I feel very strange writing about one of the bleakest days of our lives, so forgive me if I stop now. Suffice to say, last year was a little slice of hell-on-toast and not just because we lost our dog.

It began with a visit to a physio at one of Edinburgh’s private hospitals. Judge me if you will, but I paid for treatment because after forty years of trial, error, drugs, devices, diets, wash-outs and therapies, I was desperate to get to the root cause of my three-times-a-week migraine habit and having a perpetual sore neck seemed to be part of the problem. By ‘sore’ I mean ‘interrupts and hinders sleep’. Heaven knows, being an illustrator means you cannot in a million years afford private healthcare, but being unable to work due to pain means this little ship goes under so – I chose the lesser of two evils and paid to be treated.

And that, friends and neighbours, was my first mistake.

One day, at the start of June, the physio dug deep into my neck and simultaneously pulled hard on my left arm ( I’m left-handed) and the next day I was in a world of pain. No sleep. Not for forty-eight hours till my GP got some serious painkilling drugs down my neck and diagnosed acute tendonitis.

Couldn’t use my left arm at all. For a month. Couldn’t drive ( couldn’t use handbrake or gear-shift) for THREE months. Couldn’t raise arm higher than waist for two months. Couldn’t fasten own bra strap. Couldn’t dry off after the shower. God – the list goes on and on and on. Suffice to say, it was not only painful, necessitating two months of sleeping in a sitting position, but also made working and thus earning a living impossible. For two months. I emailed the physio to point out that she’d mangled me, but unsurprisingly, she had developed rapid-onset amnesia and denied all responsibility for wrecking my arm.

Migraines ramped up a notch or two. GP said ‘you’ve reached the end of the treatment road’ – not what a serial migraineur wants to hear. Not then and not ever. So – and here’s where you’ll throw your hands up in horror and wonder just how dumb I am. So – upon learning that the waiting list in the Lothians for referral to a consultant neurologist ( migraine being a neurological disease) is twenty two weeks, I did it again and paid. One appointment. At the same private hospital. Still a long waiting time but now whittled down to eight weeks. I reckoned I could hang on for that long if it meant seeing an expert who might listen and help and, I have no idea – wave a magic wand?

During which time, my elderly father was admitted to hospital after a fall and daily visits became part of the summer-of-Awful. Daily hospital visits began, for which, due to buggared shoulder, I had to rely on my brother to do the driving. Daily visits which were, in themselves, Beyond Awful. I won’t dwell. Brother and I used to reel out of the NHS hospital amazed at the care and dedication of the staff, but in shock nonetheless after spending time on a ward full of severely wandered and very ill old men.

Migraines ramped up another notch. Work fell away to nothing. Depression came calling, wisps of fog rolling in and turning what everyone said was the best summer ever into a grey porridge. Couldn’t swim in the sea because shoulder wouldn’t allow me to. But still, the neurology appointment came closer and closer and perhaps something would change for the better? I hung onto that hope like a life raft.

Come the day, I pitched up at the ritzy reception desk, was directed to a chair and waited. And waited. And waited. Mr ___ was late. Twenty five minutes late, to be precise. When Mr ____ rocked up, wreathed in smarm, with no apology for lateness and swept me into his consulting room, to my acute disappointment, he proceeded to plug Botox like there was no tomorrow. Sure, there were other drugs, most of which I’d tried, there were a few others I hadn’t, one of which he could sell to me, but Botox was the one. For sure. Thirty-odd injections in my scalp and temples every three months for a huge chunk of cash each time. Recommended at least three rounds of treatment before deciding whether it worked or not. I demurred ; nine months of trialling a new treatment which might or might not do the trick…was that the best he could do? And besides, I’m an illustrator, not a fund manager.

At which point, he began to lose interest. Well, I could ramp up the dosage of the drug I was already on, he admitted. It was effective, if I could tolerate the side effects – this last seemed like a veiled threat. And that was all he wrote. End of consultation. I noticed that he hadn’t over-run my hour’s appointment. I’d had precisely thirty-five minutes which added to the twenty-five I’d spent waiting for him to appear made his next patient the lucky recipient of an appointment on schedule.

And then it all went pear-shaped. I ramped up the dose. The side effects were grim. So grim, I passed out on the bathroom floor, came to with a dent in my forehead which I have to this day, lost twelve kilograms in eight weeks, developed a tremor in my left hand and finally got to a point where I was thinking Seriously Black Thoughts 24/7. In the middle of this, brother and I were trying to sort out our dad’s house so that he could return home from hospital with some kind of care package in place. And go visit him in the brand-new care home he’d been placed in until we got our collective act together and made his house safe, zimmer-friendly and squalor of decades free. Skips were hired, weekends were spent gutting the ground floor, every time I did anything that used my left arm, I’d pay for it later that night. Two steps forwards, three back. Finally, it was decided that dad was never going to be able to return home and thus a permanent care home had to be found.

And all of this against the backdrop of a summer that just wouldn’t quit while farmers in the Lothians conspired to fill our air with the vomit-inducing stench of hen-shit. Everywhere. Every field. And our house is a little island of organic vegetable plot and flowers in the middle of a sea of agribusiness. The whole of East Lothian sweltered under a toxic cloud of noxious odours. Trust me – you had to be there to grasp the full foulness unleashed on our innocent airways. And migraines make me preternaturally sensitive to smells. As did the drug I’d been prescribed. Plus, I couldn’t eat, so profoundly, gaggingly nauseous did the drug make me feel. And the migraines had turned into a non-stop headache caused by over-use of medication for migraines. Oh, joy.

Other than following where the Seriously Dark Thoughts led, the only solution was to come off everything. Do a total wash-out. Take nothing when migraines struck. Not even an aspirin. That wiped out September and October and half of November. A weekly appointment with three day migraines. And our dog fell mortally ill. Our lovely Cara with the kohl-rimmed eyes and the softness of her head and her love for parmesan rinds above all else. Oh, Cara.

I’ll stop here. I did say it was a long story and I will continue soon, but for now, a pause to remember how good it is to share our lives with loving and loyal companions. She’d just come back from trying to persuade all of us to not swim. She’d swim out to where we splashed and wallowed, barking nervously, trying to herd us back to shore. Her pack. Who miss her so very much.

Lucky me

IMG_4034In truth, I would have happily bought every single one of these shoes, being something of a shoe-a-holic, but fiscal constraints held me back. And besides, in the Scottish climate, how many opportunities would I have to wear any of these more than once in my remaining lifetime?

The shoes and I were in Jaipur, taking part in the twin-cities Bookaroo book festival (well, I was, but the shoes were just hanging out on the street), and we had a free afternoon to go sightseeing and shopping, for as we know, all Westerners love to shop. I was excited beyond all measure to actually be in Jaipur because I’d always wanted to see the Palace of the Winds, but we flew past that in approximately twenty seconds flat because the guys wanted to shop. Not the women, but the men. Deepna and I watched in some amusement as the guys tried out manbags, kurtas, selected a rainbow’s worth of silk scarves and throws for assorted womenfolk, checked out more kurtas and then finally, it was time to go back for dinner.

So I didn’t get to see inside the Palace of the Winds but I did get to see inside a tiny shop while its owner showed us silks and yet more silks and hand-embroidered bedspreads, and all the while, at the rear of the shop, an elderly man perched across bales of kurtas and tried to sleep through all the bartering going on up front. I was so overwhelmed by the experience of being in India for the first time that I was tempted to join him.

There is a beauty overload everywhere you turn. There’s also unbelievable squalor, sprawling mountain ranges of trash surrounding the outskirts of the big urban conurbations and a rush hour when the air turns so thick with hydrocarbons you could almost chew it. India is wonderful and awful at the same time. I travelled hoping to have my horizons expanded and my mind blown and, yes, both of those things surely happened. The contrasts between old and new, rich and poor are enough to render one breathless, spinning like an uncertain compass needle caught between opposing poles of awe and horror.

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We travelled from Jaipur to Swati Madhpur to visit a school and spend two nights in a very upmarket glamping establishment where we had our own white tents complete with little en-suite bathrooms and the sound of the wilderness of a tiger reserve right outside our canvas doors. To my dismay, all that stood between me and a Tiger Coming To Tea ( What’s for tea? Guess what? You’re it!) were a few strips of velcro.

Velcro? To ward off a marauding tiger? Not to mention the crocodiles we’d been peering at through binoculars? I have no idea how I managed to sleep on our first night,  but I did. And woke to birdsong. Birdsong as part of an astonishing call and answer sequence ; first a bird sang, then Jose in the next door tent answered on a viola. Bird; Jose: bird: Jose – what a perfect way to begin a day. I lay awake, entranced.

We took a train back to Delhi the following  day and disembarked at a station with the longest platform I’ve ever seen. Our luggage was immediately whisked away atop the heads of two porters with unfeasibly powerful neck muscles ( three heavy suitcases, piled one on top of the other? HOW?) and the only way to navigate our way through  the crush of thousands of people on the seemingly endless platform was to follow the undulating pile of suitcases weaving their way through the crowds up ahead.

Streets in Old Delhi were so narrow you could hardly make your way through the throngs of people, and we found ourselves pressed back against walls and doorways to allow passage of motorbikes with sometimes as many as four passengers riding pillion. I stood on something soft as I tried to get out of the way of one of these overloaded vehicles and looked down to discover I’d stepped on a dead rat. At least, I hope it was dead…

In the Spice District, a red fog of chilli powder engulfed us as we made our way past sacks of cardamon pods, cumin, coriander, turmeric and fenugreek. And those were only the ones I knew ; there were many other open sacks, full of mystery ingredients,  but light was leaching out of the sky and it was time to return for dinner.

The book festival sessions were hilarious and emotionally exhausting in equal measure. I was there to talk about picture books, but also to talk about my book about a personal journey through depressive illness ( Night Shift). I was nervous about mangling cultural mores or stepping on shibboleths or causing any upset by talking about depressive illness or any MH issues. I needn’t have worried. The generous and open-hearted audiences were only too happy to talk and ask questions and share their stories and finally, on the final session of the last day of the festivals, as a helper at the back of the tent was making the ‘last question’ signal, and I was happily anticipating a lie-down in a cool hotel bedroom, a young girl put her hand up and asked –

‘What advice should I give to a friend who is thinking about killing herself?’

Suddenly, I was walking on eggshells. My voice wobbled, my eyes filled up and I said something along the lines of – ‘Tell her she has no idea of what lies ahead of her. None of us can see the future. To cut it off, to make that awful irrevocable decision to end her life means she will never experience all the joys and heartbreaks and bliss and whole range of human experience that she is standing on the threshold of. I imagine she is having a terrible time right now, but this will not last for ever. Nothing lasts for ever. Things change, she will change with them. Her future self is begging her to reconsider. All of life lies before her. All of it.’

Thankfully, what you can’t hear or see behind these words is the halting, wobbling, nose-blowing wreck that was delivering them. This was not what I was expecting, but now, in retrospect, what I’ve taken from the experience is that this, this terrifying moment at the end of a book festival was why I went to India. Regardless of the outcome, the best we can do is to reach out and be kind to each other. To have compassion for all others and ourselves.

India was so massive, so full of people that I felt utterly insignificant. A tiny human ant among billions of others. Blessed by the fortunate circumstances of my birth in Scotland, blessed by my education, my friends and family, all of these contributing to the fact that I am warm, have a roof over my head and food in the cupboards. India made me appreciate that this gift of a life is mine by the merest fluke of fortune.

Lucky me.

 

 

Happy-making

So. Today was another day of waiting for progress on the book front and rather than waste time trying to write something else when I already have several irons in the fire or hanging in the wind or whatever metaphor you might prefer to describe projects stalled in the ‘your call is valuable to us but all our operators are busy so please hold…’ phase, I decided to do things to make myself happy.

Things like baking bread.

This made me happy on several levels. One: thrift. There were four eggs left over from before Christmas, so I cracked them and sniffed cautiously and then turned  them into what I think is called a ‘reinforced dough’ with the addition of honey, salt, yeast and flour. The dough rose like a rocket, but that may have been because I sat it in a very warm place.

Two: simple alchemy. Making bread makes me feel like a goddess of the kitchen. Nothing like Nigella, more of a minor magician, adding a pinch of this and a bit of that and stirring it all in my crucible. The way dough rises is like life itself. Forcing its way up, even in the oven as it is transmuted into bread.

Three: making grown-up mud pies. There’s nothing quite like footering around with bits of dough to take me back to playing with my bestie Isabella when we were seven. Roaming wild in the dust and sand behind Tante Fiona’s house in Majorca, we used to make pretend food, smoke Uncle Morty’s cigarettes ( and throw up in the bushes – eughhh, why were we so keen to grow up?) and generally play at being grown-up ladies. I wonder where Isabella is now? Anyhoo, I digress. Mud pies rock, especially when you’re middle-aged and much in need of some proper playtime.

Four: the smell. Bread, just out of the oven has to be one of the best smells ever. It greets you as you come in the door, it warms the kitchen and it makes me want to eat and eat and eat…

Alas. My appetite in this wintry season is all-consuming. And double alas, I sprained my ankle a few weeks before Christmas and didn’t realise that I’d done such a thing until I went running  and wondered why my ankle swelled up like a dodgy doughnut. And despite all my careful exercises and taking it easy and not over-using it and blah de boring blah, I’m still unable to even do my basic 10,000 steps without it blowing up again and letting me know that tomorrow belongs to it.

Consequently, I’m a larger version of myself than I’d like to be. Which is so very much a first world problem that you may well wonder why I’m banging on about it BUT, without physical activity, my mental health takes something of a nosedive. I rely on running to keep me reasonably level. Without it, I’m flailing around trying to find straws to clutch to keep me afloat. And if you throw a lack of action on the employment front into the mix, you have a recipe for disaster.

Hence baking bread. And making new things for supper just about every night. Last night I made gnudi (little ricotta dumplings with a sage and tomato and basil sauce thing) from a recipe in the weekend papers. I’m looking at you, Señor Ottolenghi. To my dismay, they began to disintegrate in the simmering water just like a poached egg does round its margins. I fished them out, but they were a dozen damp little disasters rather than twelve perky little pillows. I did my usual post-mortem on them as I hoovered them down; ricotta too wet, celeriac too tasteless, basil and sage fighting it out for alpha flavour ( the basil, being an Italian thug, won) but oh, how disappointed was I? Tonight, it’s back to the safe haven of the Student Vegetarian Cookbook’s pumpkin goulash.

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Ochhhhhh. In a week’s time, I’ll pluck up courage and try Señor Slater’s version of gnudi, and see how they are.

This weekend it’ll be the annual marmalade-fest when the house fills up with the smell of simmering Sevilles and I fill the cupboard with jars of what I hope will be crystal clear jars of orange sunshine. Laying down supplies for the year ahead. A good way to spend time when I’m on hold.

Waiting and waiting and waiting for the go-ahead for a book means also waiting to earn money. Eating very, very economically. Trying not to breathe too deeply less something else falls off and requires some form of therapy to put it back together again. Gnudi are cheap. So is home-made marmalade and my heavens, pumpkin goulash is amazingly inexpensive. Especially if it’s made with half a pumpkin found lurking at the back of the fridge. So nothing gets wasted. Not even four eggs, one month past their sell-by date. Ew.

Shhhhhhhhh. Don’t tell. A well-raised loaf keeps its secrets.

Oh, Baby

IMG_4334World, meet Rebecca Eilidh, born yesterday. Approximately seven hours old here, and determinedly sleeping, less she wakes up and discovers she’s not inside the safe warmth of her mummy. So small and so perfect.

Her daddy suggested that she’s concentrating on her next bit of magic after setting the Trump Tower alight. I must have missed that bit of news because all I could think of yesterday was the safety of Rebecca’s mummy and the safe arrival of ( at that point) Little No-Name. Not a lot of anything done at GlioriSchloss yesterday, apart from waiting for the phone to ring.

So very glad all went well. Another small miracle quietly performed by the NHS.  It’s amazing when you think of it ; the maternity wing is a bit like a spaceport from a science fiction story. Whole persons ( albeit the bonsai version) materialise inside its walls from thin air. Two people ( I’m being boringly normal here – insert whatever number you want)  walk in and three ( as above) leave.

Where will the world be when Rebecca holds her first grand-daughter in her arms? Let’s all hope that we’ll collectively have grown some brains and made it a safe place to raise little humans. But for now, shhhhhh. We’ll tiptoe backwards out of the ward and leave mummy and baby sleeping, warm and safe on a winter’s night in 2018.

Travelling hopefully

IMG_4039In truth, I travelled fearfully, not being even remotely adventurous. Back last summer when I was asked by my lovely editor at Hot Key Books if I’d like to attend a book festival in India, I jumped at the chance. Come November, two weeks before departure, I was a migraine-ridden wreck, unable to sleep, catastrophising every possible thing that could go wrong and gazing at my open, unpacked suitcase as if it was a blue set of jaws threatening to swallow me whole.

My  past avoidance of air travel meant that arriving at Terminal One in London felt like stepping into some ghastly version of the future with added shopping opportunities. So many people. So much money. So many destinations. So many elevators. And I was about to climb aboard a tin tube and be hurled thousands of miles away from Da Bonnie into an unknown land. Where untold bacteria lurked if all the tourist manuals and WHO warnings were to be believed. And due to a worldwide shortage of some vital vaccine ( Hep. A) I was under-prepared. There was a large hole in my First World armour. A friend counselled me to keep my lips firmly sealed in the shower. Another said brush your teeth in bottled water. Yet another mentioned the possibility that I might want to pack my own syringes and needles in case of dreadful accidents befalling me where, presumably, I’d rise off my theatre bed and demand that the surgeon used my pre-packed supplies.

WHAAAAAAAAT?

On arrival, the smog in Delhi was everything promised by the various sources I’d read before leaving. It was toxic, but also ethereally beautiful in its own end-of-all-things kind of way. This is how the world ends, not with a bang but bronchitis. The traffic in Delhi, as promised, was sclerotic. There were wild pigs rooting in the gutters on broad leafy thoroughfares. There were people sleeping on the dirt barrier between the north and south travelling lanes of motorway traffic. Cooking their breakfast in the middle of speeding cars and smog and ever-present danger. Tiny children with liquid eyes tapped at the window of my taxi and mimed putting food into their mouths. Camels pulled carts and tuk-tuks honked their horns, swerved in front of us and belched fumes. Every lorry, no matter how decrepit, was hand-decorated with flowers and symbols and on the rear, the notice to ‘sound horn’ and ‘flash at night’.

Four of us bound for the book festival, plus a guide and a driver travelled in a people-carrier from Delhi to Jaipur. A long, interminable drive which should have taken about four hours but ended up taking nine. (To which, add my seven hour sleepless flight the previous night). We stopped in traffic, we stopped to worship at a temple, we stopped for lunch at a fast food roadside place where I drank two sips of possibly the nastiest drink that has ever crossed my lips bar none. And I have drunk rabarbero*, so I know whereof I speak. This particular Rajahstani horror was a lime soda, but it tasted of pure sulphur, like something excreted by Satan then chilled for future consumption. One of us got food poisoning that day, but remarkably, it wasn’t me. Perhaps swilling sulphur isn’t such a bad thing?

*Rhubarb aperitivo beloved of old Italian men in the bar down the road from my Nonna’s. Has a catastrophic effect on a younger person’s colon. Obviously designed for self-irrigation. Or perhaps it was just me?

Found & Lost redux

Don’t know if you remember the two abandoned guinea pigs we found in the snow, six months ago? Tiny little mites? Yes- those guys.

Well. A lot of water under the bridge since then, I can tell you. Not to mention bushel-loads of hay, kale, lettuce, apples, beans, courgettes- no, eughhhh, they hate courgettes. Which is a damn shame, since M grows them in such jungly profusion that another two pairs of jaws would have been very helpful at such times as when the tides of zucchini threatened to overwhelm GlioriSchloss and all who cooked there.

Since those early days, M has built a summer house with slot-in pig transporter so that the Boyz may be gently portaged from indoors to outdoors and released into their airy chateau sur les herbes HQ without too much stress and squeakings. And brought back in at night, since neither of us could bear the idea of the poor little mites cowering in their hutch while cats prowled outside trying to find a way in.

Since we first clapped eyes on each other, I’ve written a book about their earlier lives ( sheer curiosity and a long period of waiting for various projects to get off the ground drove me to imagine what on earth could have brought two little guinea pigs to a snowy car park in the back of beyond*) with a great deal of fanciful embroidery and writerly hyperbole, but hey…that’s how I roll. Besides, Lost may well have been the descendant of a Russian émigré…

However, as usual, I’m going off-topic. The thing is, time has passed and the Boyz are now the guinea pig equivalent of teenagers. Oh, boy. Oh BOYZ. NO! STOP! Eughhhhh.

Sex has supplanted food in their scheme of what is most important in their lives, and heaven knows, the poor wee guys need something to take their minds off a life spent in what amounts to a very pleasant prison. So scrawny little Found spends an inordinate amount of time sniffing hopefully ( or perhaps suicidally) at Lost’s cojoñes until finally, Lost manoeuvres his vast bulk around and jumps on top of Found. There is a considerable disparity in their sizes, I might add. Not to mention their intellects. Found, despite this behaviour detailed above, is definitely the brains of the outfit. But even so, we occasionally have to take them off to the bath, put them in a centimetre of warm water and gently launder their fur. BOYZ, I tell you…

I look at them in their cage and wonder if we did the right thing all those months ago. Then we have a rare sunny day, we hook up the slot-in pig transporter, the Boyz run flat out to be first inside, and look, there they are, being carried lovingly outside to their hutch. Where they run freely, jump all over each other, play with their toys, eat lettuce till I swear they’re stoned out of their tiny minds and generally have the air blowing around their whiskers.

Air on your whiskers, no predators, a wide and plentiful variety of things to eat and a hot and cold running supply of humans to do your bidding…how bad can that be?

*The answer is not – their own legs. Anyone who has ever seen a guinea pig waddle would know that they’re not built for distance.

Hands across the ocean 2

So. Tickets found and I’m on a train which we caught by a mere whisker. Miss Mouse is a bit of a quivering wreck to be honest; running for trains with wheelie cases and fiddle in tow is not her idea of A Good Way to Pass a Sunday Afternoon. Still… 

Where was I? Yes; back to LA. After a few days of acclimation we ventured out ( always by car) to do a bit of sightseeing. The Californian coast was dotted with hundreds of those ‘nodding donkeys’ endlessly siphoning oil all the better to run the beating, glittering, air-conditioned heart of the City of the Angels. The coastline was lovely, we had picnics, drank date shakes ( yum) fended off predatory squirrels intent on stealing our picnics and generally enjoyed the warmth. Heading back into town with the sky a hot grey and the smog a visible presence as we drew closer to the city, we saw that all around on the Santa Monica highway were the biggest cars and suvs and trucks I’d ever seen.

Back then, that was. 

In 1988 to be precise. Since then, we’ve adopted the supersize US model in so many things, aligning our cars, portion sizes and expectations to those of our cousins across the Pond. After 9.11 we wrote that we were all Americans now. Just as after recent atrocities in Europe, we’ve been Parisians, Londoners etc. 

So now, as hurricanes batter Cuba and St Kitts- are we all Cubans now? As Irma bears down on Houston and Florida? Where are we on that? As wildfires turn an area of California roughly equivalent to Germany, France, Spain and Portugal combined ( combined!) to smoke and ash… where are we on that? 

What the hell will it take for us to wake up and say- ‘ we’re all humans here and we need to get our shit together before…’

Before we destroy our one and only home.

I don’t know if those siphoning nodding donkeys are still doing their thing on the California coastline. I don’t know if the outdoor pools I swam in and indoor a/c I enjoyed is still running. I suspect the cars are smaller; only the poor drive those vast gas-guzzling museum pieces. I don’t know if the highway still has fourteen lanes of traffic.

Or if the squirrels still try to pinch your picnics.

One thing’s for sure; we are all nodding donkeys now.

I hope we wake up in time.