The last eighteen months have been difficult.
In January 2022, my dad was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. In January 2023, he died. All the while my mother, whose challenges with vascular dementia were becoming all too evident, needed more support as my father’s health declined. After he passed, my family and I had to provide round-the-clock care for her for two weeks before she could go into a home that could properly cater to her needs.
At first, in those early months after Dad’s diagnosis, writing fiction was my escape. Once a week, on a Wednesday morning, I would eschew real life and instead drink coffee at a café on the edge of the River Stour with a group of other writers. Sometimes I wrote fiction, sometimes I penned letters to agents to see if I could drum up interest in my work. A productive morning, always.
But then my dad died, and the words dried up.
With Dad gone, I spent many hours caring for my mother. As I got dressed on those days, it was interesting to notice the amount of effort I’d put into the outfit I was wearing, how I’d bother to apply a little makeup, wear my hair down in waves, when the only person I’d interact with outside of my home was my mother who is so far along her dementia path now that she seems to be living on another timeline entirely. She no longer knows my name, the day of the week, where she is or who I am in relation to her, but every time I visit she will have some compliment for the outfit I’m wearing.
Dressing myself has been the only channel of creative expression that’s remained open to me. I’ve been shopping more, at times almost obsessively; I always drop into flow when I’m planning an outfit. Thinking back, I suppose it’s no great surprise. In 2006, after my sister was involved in a car accident (the injuries from which she would die from, over two years later) the way I kept myself relatively sane when driving to my new job (a 45-minute commute) was to think up outfits. On those long journeys to specialist London-based hospitals, I would maintain some semblance of calm not by reading fiction or studying, but by leafing through and earmarking clothes to order in the fat catalogues that my mum used to receive in the post.
As the idea for this blog post came to me, as it started to form in my head, I wondered why I was writing it, why I felt the compulsion to publish it given it’s much more personal than the stuff I’d share here usually. I think the most honest answer I can give is this, and it’s twofold: we all go through rough patches, sometimes long and arduous, sometimes unthinkably devastating, and I wonder if someone else reading this going through their own Life Shit might feel hopeful that there can be some small day-to-day way of experiencing pleasure in the darkest of times (not least because, whether we like it or not, we usually have to get out of bed and dressed to face the world). Secondly, I have always felt compelled to tell the truth. This blog post sparked as a result of reading a blog post (by my wonderful friend, Cait Flanders) who told her truth and in doing so inspired me, in this small way, to share mine.
Sometimes, the best way to tell the truth is to tell it in a story. But because I have been preoccupied with life stuff, writing fiction–which had been an amazing source of escapism before my father died–doesn’t appear to be available to me at the moment. I struggle to maintain the focus required to read my own work right now. But, I am able to plan an outfit.
I’ve always battled with the fear of criticism that this interest in colour analysis and personal style is vain, trivial, frivolous, at worst even narcissistic. But here I find myself, yet again, grateful for the way we can express ourselves through what we wear, that such an outlet exists. That, in troubled times, it has been there for me. I hope, if you are struggling yourself right now, it might be something you can lean on, too.