Are we ever ‘fixed’?

I’m just one of the many writers who has penned a memoir saying something like, hey, I had something terrible happen to me but I’m ok now and you can be too.

The reality is that none of us is ever completely fixed are we? Granted those writers who are in remission from cancer or who have been completely cured of a terrible affliction, might argue with that one. But deep down they know that we are all works in progress, physically and mentally. Good physical and mental health comes and goes. Those of us who have had a brush with something unpleasant will never take those good periods of health for granted again.

It’s twenty-one years since I got depressed after a series of bereavements.

It’s thirteen years since I suffered from burnout and functional neurological disorder and had to take six months off work to recover.

It’s two years and a few months since we learnt about C19 and went into lockdown, and since I was gripped with panic about the future.

It’s nearly one year since I finished writing my book, The Cactus Surgeon, in which I lay bare my health challenges over the years, in a bid to help other people going through something similar.

I still work hard on my mental health self-care and I am still yet to motivate myself to get fitter! I have joined a tai chi class recently, so that’s a start. There is always more to do, but I’m happy with where I am at the moment.

Wherever you are in the mental and physical health rollercoaster, I hope you have the support you need around you. Do drop me a line and tell me where you are this World Wellbeing Week.

How to add sculpture and texture to a garden

I love grasses and clipped topiary in a garden. They add sculpture and texture and when they are contrasted with floaty, fluffy flowers my heart sings.

I visited The Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park last week, where I saw some great examples.

Above are swathes of molinia grasses, which sweep across the lawn next to the rose garden and demand to be stroked and admired.

Here, they have created a formal garden with the clipped hedges, but softened it with the waves of soft perennials – from nepeta and nigella through to cranbe and phlox.

Each flower bed had a colour theme, and the off centre water feature and paths drew you into and through the space. There were benches within the hedging, where I perched to take it all in. Obelisks of highly scented roses and sweet peas added punctuation and their sweet smell stopped me in my tracks.

I loved this shady passage with grasses underplanting the trees. The round mounds of ophiopogon contrast brilliantly to the upright habit of the other grass, which is also lighter in colour.


You can find more garden photography and hints & tips on my insta feed.

I also share how nature gardening has helped me recover from burnout and functional neurological disorder, and poor mental health, in my memoir The Cactus Surgeon. Noticing the smaller details and stopping to really look at plants and nature has made me more positive, and a happier person.

May reads – taking me from Louisiana to The Lake District

I increasingly find myself drawn to non-fiction these days. I love learning from the experiences of others and there is always space on the bookshelf or in the e-book library for another health or nature memoir! I was pleased to fit in a Stephen King book this month. I have his Stephen King On Writing to read at some point but wanted to read some of his fiction work first. It didn’t disappoint.

My ‘book of the month’ is English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks. I was drawn in by the beautiful linocut illustration on the cover. Once reading, I was quickly transported to the Lake District countryside. James writes eloquently with pride, passion and love for the landscape he grew up in and is now a steward of. I loved the way he weaved together the history of his land and his family with that of farming more widely. This memoir really opened my eyes to the reasons for changing trends, and the challenges farmers face today. Another great book from my Adventurous Ink subscription.

The Green Mile by Stephen King – I haven’t read any of his books since I was a teenager but was intrigued by his method of publishing The Green Mile in segments. Reading it was pure pleasure. His descriptive writing and the way he goes between the narration of the past and present-day made me want to devour each chapter. Sometimes not much really happens, but it still had me completely hooked, wanting to know what happens next. It’s one of the most brilliantly crafted fiction books I’ve read for a long time.

You Only Live Thrice: Perspective is a Superpower by Karl Perry. I love the subtitle as I know myself that dealing with uncertainty and difficult times can be easier when perspective from previous experiences pulls you through. Throughout some really bleak times, Karl, again and again, grabs onto opportunities to flip his thinking into something more positive. His raw honesty meant I felt I was listening to a close mate sharing their experiences over a series of cups of tea, my jaw dropping in parts and smiling in others. Another well-written book from a fellow Write That Book masterclass alumni.

How to Catch a Mole: And Find Yourself in Nature by Marc Hamer.

Having read Seed to Dust (which I adored) I can see that this book was something of a stepping stone. It has the same evocative language and Marc manages to slow down time and suspend me within his own small wonders of nature.

The mole catching was fascinating and it felt brave of Marc to write about killing animals, which many people would not admit to or share so freely in our world of starkly polarised opinions. The book rekindled memories of my own encounter with a mole. As a child, our dog dug one up, and I cradled it in my hands, admiring its soft, velvety fur. It bit me and I needed a tetanus injection!

Unflip: Changing Your Life After a Life Changing Diagnosis by Jen Parker. I learnt a lot about the condition ankylosing spondylitis, which I had never heard about before. The epilogue which described her experiences with medication and treatments will be very useful to anyone else going through something similar. It must have been incredibly stressful to be diagnosed such a long way from home.

Dopamine & dedication at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is colourful, inspiring and an assault on the senses! I arrived at about 8.10 am on Tuesday, RHS Members Day, and walked through the iconic gates – this year decorated in dried and fresh alliums – to get my first floral dopamine hit. The first of many.

I love the show because it’s a spectacle from start to finish. Here are some of my highlights:

A tablescape in the Floral Pavillion
The Blue Garden – in the Balcony Category

There were too many highlights to fit into just one article, so you can see more photos in my articles on the Perrywood Garden Centre news page.

I also love the RHS Chelsea Flower show because it puts the spotlight on the horticulture industry. I get a real boost from chatting with some of the designers and exhibitors because, like me, they are potty about plants. Some are more dedicated than others. This lady, Vicki from Craig House Cacti, makes me realise I need to up my cactus clothing game! I’m heading online to search for cactus fabric…

The cactus lady

When it comes to the menopause – knowledge is power

In my memoir, The Cactus Surgeon, I mention the possibility that perimenopause could be causing some of my health symptoms. I wrote that section about nine months ago, so here’s an update…

Earlier this month, I picked up my first HRT prescription. It’s taken me seven months to get it, and I had to stand my ground with the GP. Several friends and colleagues have since asked me about this because they feel nervous about approaching their own GP. We shouldn’t have to worry about this, and I’ve found that knowledge is definitely power. Whilst I was able to adapt to my perimenopausal symptoms, it was beginning to affect my work and relationships. There are also protective benefits of going on HRT, reducing the likelihood of a range of health issues, some of which run in my family. I felt it was something I both wanted and needed.

So, how did I get to this place? During lockdown, I started to experience heart palpitations, and my fingers would often go numb in bed. Sometimes I’d lose my grip and drop things. I spoke to a private GP, and she dismissed it all. Listening to my heart, she said it was fine and that numb hands were normal in bed. I was relieved, but part of me didn’t believe her.

Then my brain started to struggle. I began to forget things. It was like my brain was wading through treacle, and a veil was hanging over me. I would walk around the house, forgetting what I was supposed to be doing. I would burn food on the hob, walking away to do something else and forgetting it was there. I had to write endless lists, and some weeks were torture at work. I couldn’t get my words out. I couldn’t remember details from conversations even an hour previously, and as for the week before – forget it! I was honest with colleagues – “I’m sorry, I’m having a really brain foggy day” – and I found ways to cope. My notebook became essential. If things weren’t written down, they just slip away, like the fading trail of a jet plane in the blue sky. I often forgot to do something I’d promised my daughter, making me feel like a terrible mother. It was a bit like ‘baby brain’ when months of being sleep deprived make you walk through life like a zombie. Yet, I was sleeping well and looking after myself.

In the Autumn of 2021, I rang up my local surgery to hear that wonderful sentence, “you are number 26 in the queue”. After ninety minutes I got through!
Two weeks later, I was called by a GP. After I said I was calling because of perimenopausal symptoms, he asked me no questions except “do you get hot flushes” and then organised some blood tests. They came back normal. I didn’t pursue it as my symptoms happened to ease.

In the New Year, my symptoms came back with a vengeance. The joints in my hands became very painful after typing all day. I was putting a bit of extra weight on, but only around my middle. My skin was very dry. Periods were very haphazard in terms of duration and flow and were very irregular. I watched the Davina McCall TV programme. I read the book by Dr Louise Newson and downloaded several menopause apps. Everything was telling me I needed HRT.

I rang the surgery again, “You are number 14 in the queue”. This time a nurse called me back. She was abrupt and said, “aren’t you a bit young for menopause?”. I was made to feel as if I shouldn’t be bothering her. I mentioned the joint pain, and she quickly said, “could be menopausal but sounds like a bit of carpal tunnel”, but offered no advice. Yet again, I was asked to do blood tests. I told her I’d done those already, but she insisted. Guess what. They came back normal.

I researched carpal tunnel syndrome, and whilst it is rare to get it from typing too much, it is not impossible. I had been typing in the day for work and all evening to write my book. I now wear wrist splints at night, which has massively improved the joint pain. I no longer get numb hands at night. So, the nurse did help me a bit after all.

I was given free access to Peppy’s app via my health insurer. I already had two menopause apps – Balance (great for tracking symptoms) and Moody but hey, why not look at a third. I was glad I did. Via Peppy, I was able to have a direct chat with a menopause expert. After sharing my symptoms, they agreed that I should qualify for HRT. This gave me great confidence to go back to the GP.

Finally, I had another phone call with a different GP. He said I was very young to have perimenopausal symptoms and wanted to send me for further blood tests. I was thoroughly fed up with being sent for blood tests. I stood my ground and said that to my mind, I clearly had perimenopause symptoms and was entitled to HRT. I also reminded him that I was nearly 45 and didn’t feel I was that young to be experiencing it. To his credit, he checked the NICE guidelines and agreed with me. He then asked me which HRT I would like. Eureka!!!

Two weeks later and I already feel a little bit better. My skin is softer, and I feel brighter. It does feel like the veil is starting to lift. I haven’t noticed so many heart palpitations. I am still forgetful and easily distracted at work, and I will continue writing everything down, but it feels like hope is on the horizon. I’m on a low dose, so there is the option to increase after three months if needed.

At work (Perrywood Garden Centres) we’ve drafted a menopause policy and we have someone coming in to do a medical workshop with ladies, and a manager’s awareness session. Hopefully, this extra knowledge will ensure that my colleagues can feel confident in accessing the support they need from the NHS.

April Reads – taking me to the Amazon, Guyana, a magical London & back in time

I was unable to choose a book of the month for April, so have instead awarded it to two titles, which I’ve added to my pile of green books (covers and content).

First up was Life Lessons From The Amazon by Pip Stewart, who really is an inspiration. Whenever I read adventure books I am always a bit nervous that I will finish the book feeling rather inadequate, but there were no such concerns here. Pip tells her story with such vulnerability and openness that as I finished the last chapter I felt only pride and admiration for what she and the others achieved. I came to look forward to and appreciate the lessons at the start of each chapter. The last chapter really resonated with me, knowing what it’s like to have health problems and to have to wait for a diagnosis. Her writing made me feel like I was on the journey with them but I was quite glad I wasn’t at times!

My second is Fledgling by Hannah Bourne-Taylor which I couldn’t put down, because of the honest and beautiful writing. I was completely drawn into it, feeling every one of Hannah’s emotions as she completely bared her soul. My heart was often in my mouth as events played out, willing everything to be ok. I was fully transported to Ghana, a country I have never visited.

I shall think of Hannah and her experiences as I navigate the countryside in future. I have read a lot of nature memoirs over the last two years and this is one of my absolute favourites. You will love this book if you have a strong connection to nature or if you are drawn to stories by amazing women.

I discovered a new fiction writer this month. Ivan Wainewright was a fellow winner of the UK Selfies Book Awards in the Adult Fiction category, with The Other Times of Caroline Tangent. It drew me in quite gradually. Then, when life for Caroline changed for the worse, I became outraged and simply couldn’t put the book down until I’d found out how it ended! Caroline’s friendships over the years were very touching. Every chapter had both drama and emotion and it was very well researched. I enjoyed the mix of contemporary and historical settings.

The Crow Investigations Series by Sarah Painter has kept me entertained and I love the London backdrop. The Broken Cage was really easy to read, like the rest of the series. I always race to finish before being slightly disappointed that I’ve read the book in two days! I love how the characters are evolving, and the powers that Lydia is gaining keep my interest. There is a fantastic tension between right and wrong, and I like how Lydia grapples with this. I’m looking forward to number eight.

I also finished number three in the Furyck series, which didn’t disappoint. I’m taking a break before reading number four.

Lastly, I read The Art of Roughhousing, a very useful book. It outlines ways to roughhouse (or have some horseplay, as we would say in the UK), and the benefits of doing so. It gives age recommendations for each method and has diagrams to ensure you do it safely.

My daughter is nine and I wish I’d read this earlier! She definitely benefits from some horseplay, and it can be difficult to know what to do, and how to keep it safe. I think it would be better in paperback so you can flick back and forth to choose a method of ‘roughhousing’, so after buying it on my Kindle I might now buy that version.

You can find all my reads and reviews on Good Reads, and you can buy my book, The Cactus Surgeon, here.

Best Self-Published Memoir in the UK!

I’m absolutely buzzing after my memoir, The Cactus Surgeon, was announced as the winner of the Selfies UK Book Awards in the memoir/autobiography category yesterday!

These national awards recognise the UK’s best indy-published books. There were just eight titles shortlisted, and winners were announced at the London Book Fair. The judges praised “the simplicity of [the] storytelling”, a cover that was “perfect for this kind of writing”, and “integrated photos enhancing the narrative and the book’s sense of renewal”.

Judges: Alan Staton (Booksellers Association), Alan Samson (ex-Weidenfeld), Ben Hughes (IngramSpark).

BookBrunch managing director Jo Henry said: “We have been thoroughly impressed by the wide range of topics covered and the professionalism of the publishing expertise shown by the 25 authors on this year’s shortlists. The powerful stories told in the memoir/autobiography category made immersive reading for our judges, while the winner is very much a book for our time.”

As a self-published author, it can be quite challenging to get recognition for your writing, so this award is just wonderful. It’s given me a confidence boost, and a desire to keep writing.

Hannah received a cash prize of £750, which she is donating to the charity FND Hope UK. She will also receive a profile in BookBrunch, a winner’s certificate and other publishing opportunities and packages from sponsors and supporters.

The Cactus Surgeon is available via this website! Also on sale at Perrywood Tiptree, Perrywood Sudbury, Red Lion Books in Colchester and the Markshall Estate shop. You can get it via any independent or chain book shop (just ask them to order it in) plus via other online retailers.

More about The Cactus Surgeon
The Cactus Surgeon outlines how, when living in London, Hannah suffered burnout and was diagnosed with a functional neurological disorder. With no information available to help her, she found her own way to get better.

Growing up living on the same site as Perrywood Garden Centre in Tiptree her childhood was full of nature and plants. This was in stark contrast to the concrete of London, where she became unwell. In searching for the answers to her illness, she wonders whether being torn from her pot and replanted in a more hostile environment was the reason her body started to malfunction.

After seeking out alternative therapies, and moving to the countryside of North Essex, her ‘green recovery’ continued. It’s a book of mindful moments, savouring the small wonders of nature.

March reads

I’ve struggled to concentrate on books this month. With dogged persistence and the help of a good fantasy novel, to get me back in the reading groove, I have managed to finish a fairly eclectic mix.

My ‘Book of the Month’ is The Book of The Tree: Trees In Art. This is a contemporary collection of art around the theme of trees. I admit I haven’t read every page but I couldn’t wait to write a review because this book is just sublime. It is a comforting, soothing book to be picked up and looked at when you need a moment of calm. Every single piece of art is wonderful. It connects me to the natural landscape and also inspires me to pick up a pen or paintbrush and capture it on paper. There is a good mix of famous artists and those who are new to me. A book to treasure.

One of the beautiful pieces of art from the book

Dare To Lead by Brene Brown. Non-fiction. A book for anyone who is a leader – in work, at home, in the community. My copy is crammed full of neon post-it notes – a very good sign that I learned a lot. In this book, Brene shares with us years of research and her vast experience in training leaders. It is also peppered with her own successes and failures. There were some absolute gems – I’m regularly going to ask my team “what does support from me look like?”, and I loved the idea of turning always knowing into always learning. Some of the conversations she recounts felt over the top for my British workplace. It would be easy to adapt the words and phrases to make them feel closer to the language my team would be more comfortable with. My idea of a good business book is one that gets me out of my echo chamber, and challenges me to behave differently. Dare To Lead has certainly done that.

Winter’s Fury by A. E. Rayne. Fantasy novel. There are times when I need to escape from real life, into a world that is unfamiliar, interesting and full of intrigue. This book certainly delivered. I love the character of Jael – strong yet not infallible. It’s a classic fantasy novel – involving journeys, love, mysteries and friction between opposing sides. Who is good and who is evil. Who will survive? I couldn’t put this book down, and having bought the trilogy on my Kindle I kept going into book two without hardly a pause. I look forward to seeing where the characters go next, and hope my favourites don’t get killed off.

Recovery by Dr Gavin Francis. Non-fiction. A short informative read, which gives a brief introduction to recovery and convalescence. As someone who has convalesced, it was interesting to hear the perspective of a GP and there were a few points to consider. He told us that many of his patients need to be granted permission to take the time to recover that they need. I certainly relate to that and know from experience that if you rush your body or mind will find a way to slow you down again. I certainly agreed with his sentiment that a patient’s attitude to their illness can have a strong bearing on the nature of their recovery. My rating would have been higher had I not been previously spoilt by reading the likes of Wintering by Katherine May, and many books around the power of nature to heal – by authors including Sue Stuart-Smith, Lucy Jones, Josie George and Isabel Hardman. Those looking to recover could perhaps learn more from the stories of other patients. As a quick read though, this book packed a lot in.

Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore. Historical fiction, set in a landscape familiar to me. I am equally fascinated and appalled by the tales of witchfinders. This one ebbed and flowed for me. I loved some of the passages, such as Rebecca describing her mother and when she entered Colchester for the first time. Towards the end, the characters of both Rebecca West and Matthew Hopkins really came to life. A.K. Blakemore’s portrayal of a slice of rural life in East Anglia in the mid-1600s was at times uncomfortable, but always interesting.

On my ‘to be read’ pile for April –

Some marvellous self-published books from the Write That Book gang

More self-published titles by the fellow shortlisted titles in the Selfies Book Awards:

  • Dear Tosh by Ninette Hartley
  • War Diary: The Diary of Mike Rogers by Alan Beardsley
  • Pushing Through The Cracks by Emily J Johnson
  • Married to The Man Who Washed Himself Away by Joan Leech

And of course number two in the Furyck Saga for a dose of escapism.

And in the pile of books next to my bed, and next to my computer I have titles by Marc Hamer, James Clear and more…I’m taking some time off during the Easter holidays so I am hoping to read seven books this month. But, which ones?!

Shortlisted in the Selfie Awards!

Having friends and family buy and enjoy my book has been lovely, and when strangers buy the book and give a five-star review it’s even more rewarding!

This week, recognition for The Cactus Surgeon has gone up yet another level! I found out it is one of just eight titles shortlisted in the Selfies UK Book Awards – which reward and recognise the UK’s best indy-published books – in the memoir/autobiography category.

To say I am delighted is an understatement! I find out if I am a winner on April 5 at the London Book Fair. To top it off my friend Jill Morris, who I met through the Write That Book masterclass with Michael Heppell, is shortlisted in the fiction category for her exciting thriller The Big Fix.

Here is a look at the shortlist in the memoir/autobiography category. I’m off to check out the competition!

My February Reads

This month I have started lots of books, but not finished very many! It’s a terrible trait to have half-finished books scattered around the house.

Book of The Month – Fifty Words For Snow by Nancy Campbell *****

This was a lovely read, the kind of book which you can read in one go or dip in and out of. Each chapter started with a beautiful white snowflake on a blue page. Nancy then shared a word, the English translation and where in the world it comes from. We were then treated to beautiful words around stories & true-life events, traditions and cultures or amazing facts. All of course around the theme of snow. I was taken across the world to far-flung places and learnt new things closer to home too. A well researched, entertaining read which I would highly recommend. All the way through I couldn’t help thinking how timely this book is. The sad fact is that climate change will erase some of these cultures and annual events as temperature rise loomed large. Thanks to Adventurous Ink for including it within their subscription. 

The shortest chapter, and one of my favourites!

Snow in May: Stories by Kseniya Melnik ****

Another book with snow in the title and this time a collection of short stories. Kseniya’s tales were enthralling, interesting and unique. They all had one thing in common, characters with a connection to Magadan in the far East of Russia. I loved the individuality of the characters. Each one very quickly became real in my head even as I was only a page or two into the story. It was a window into a world I know nothing about. This book was from the Shelterbox book club and I am glad I picked it up after a few months on the shelf. My subscription has lapsed but maybe I should go back.

Suffolk Folk 2021: An Anthology of East Anglian Folk Tales for the 21st Century. By UoS MA Creative Writing students. ****

I loved the premise of the book – exploring Suffolk folk tales, and then bringing them bang up to date with contemporary versions from UoS MA Creative Writing students. They were imaginative and interesting but be warned, some were fairly dark and disturbing! I shall never again look at those sleepy Suffolk villages in quite the same way.

Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge. ***

An easy read which outlines lots of reasons that walking is good for you, and outlines some of Erling’s personal experiences which were fascinating.

During March I hope to finish some of the books I’ve started including Manningtree Witches, Brene Brown’s Dare To Lead and Atlas of The Heart and The Art of Roughhousing. I’d also like to read some uplifting fiction or maybe some fantasy. The news out of Ukraine is so heartbreaking that I definitely need an escape, something completely unconnected to real life.