Why are we so stressed?

stress_ball
Courtesy of rosannadavisonnutrition.com

We all know someone who has suffered anxiety and depression. It is the most common mental health problem in Britain today, accounting for 43% of work days lost. Stress is the usual trigger. Many more of us, though we have not been ill, have nevertheless felt the pressure of the lives we are living. So what is it that is making us so stressed?

Recession has meant that competition is fiercer than ever in the world of work. There is a sense that we need to work harder and more effectively than ever before, to get that essential edge. Businesses need to run faster just to stand still; the fear of falling behind competitors is all-pervasive. There is a constant need to find new, better ways of surviving, and the number of long-loved shops that are no longer on the high street is testament to the perils of not keeping up.

It’s the same in health, education and social services, where statistics show that work stress is most prevalent. Targets must be reached and league tables must be climbed. New initiatives are always being implemented, so workforces have to cope with constant change. All pupils and all schools must be outstanding; the NHS must be a 7-days-a-week service – and these heady ideals must be achieved despite resources being already stretched to breaking point.

87673579_strike10
Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Can-do leaders are admired; anyone who suggests that impossible targets are not achievable has the wrong attitude – in fact when junior doctors point this out, they are vilified as greedy.

There is also a misguided belief that we can cherry-pick ideas from other cultures, but without investing in them properly. We think we can achieve things faster if we take shortcuts.

The Chinese way of teaching maths is much admired. Surely we’ll be more competitive in the world if we take that on? But the cornerstone of the Chinese system is that the teacher does not move on until every child has fully understood. In Britain, however, teachers must get the class to a certain standard by a certain time. They can’t linger with those who can’t keep up, because boxes must be ticked and data analysis must reflect outstanding progress.

Many people’s working lives are blighted by pressure from above – from people who are under pressure themselves. Shortcomings must be pointed out and improvement must be urged. Years of diligent service might not seem relevant. There is no room for sentimentality and no time or appetite for support and encouragement. In this toxic environment, time pressure, tiredness and anxiety are compounded by emotional distress. Employees feel that nothing they do is good enough.

It makes sense that the causes of work stress most commonly cited are: ‘workload, lack of managerial support and organisational change.’

Since work takes up so much of people’s lives, everything fulfilling has to be squeezed in round the edges. We’re stressed, so we want to relax, keep fit and being creative – but with so little time, we need shortcuts.

adult-coloring-pages-elephant
Courtesy of http://www.everythingetsy.com

Adult colouring books take us back to a time when the only challenge we faced was not going over the lines – and nobody worried if we did. They’re also a quick route to creativity – someone has done the drawing for us. I’m not knocking it – I love the excuse of having children round to return to the felt-tip habit of my childhood. There are some excellent books out there, some of which I helped produce. But ironically, the craze for this calming, mindful activity has led to publishers falling over themselves to rush books out in time to exploit the trend. Believe me when I say that behind every stress-busting colouring book is a publisher’s office full of nervous wrecks.

We want energy, so we drink coffee or eat sugar. We want to relax, so we have a drink. Sometimes, booze, stimulation and sugar are all offered in one hit – a vodka and Red Bull for the lady!

wk-sugar31011_3179952b
Courtesy of http://www.telegraph.com

Parenting has also been hit by the get-there-quicker bug. We want children to be happy and compliant so that the time we spend with them feels like quality time – so we ply them with sugary shortcuts to pleasure. It’s amazing how often you see adults pressing cakes on children, rather than being pestered for them. What are we teaching them about the route to contentment?

There is also no time these days for potty training – why invest hours in the win-some-lose-some process of helping children to become dry and clean at night, when there are pull-up pants in the world?

We want to work harder, relax faster and enjoy ourselves in quick, accessible ways. In place of companionship – which takes too long – we choose constant connectivity, flooding our minds with communication and stimulation in every spare moment.

I have nothing against hard work, and I know that competition and challenge can enrich our lives. In my former life in the office, I was involved in applying the pressure to make deadlines myself. I love colouring in. I like alcohol and cake. I have been known to ply children with tasty things to make them happy. I’m on facebook and I have occasionally enjoyed tweeting and reading tweets about something I’m watching on TV. All of these things are fine in themselves and in moderation.

But I can’t help feeling that the way we are living, with all this crammed in and real relaxation abandoned, has created a perfect storm for stress. And the shortcuts to relieving it are not working. We need real change, and an end to the cult of competition and of doing everything faster. We need to take back control over our time.

 

Community – Our Lost Treasure

Apologies for the lack of posts but my lovely husband has been suffering from anxiety – that is, the illness rather than the state of just being worried. It has rather wiped the smug ‘Look at me, I’ve given up my day job!’ smile off my face.

On the other time, I am more than ever convinced that I have done the right thing. Last time Jon had anxiety, it took nine months for him to recover from the severe depression it provoked. This time we are coping better as a couple, and I know that my much more helpful reaction is because I am mellower and less stressed myself.

Last, time, I was so terrified of this illness, in which Jon seemed to be erased before my eyes, that he couldn’t share how he was feeling, so he retreated into his pain and I into my frantic efforts to make him better. We lived side by side, but alone.

This time I have a measure of calm, and I have time. Most of all, I have a new strength, gained from spending quality time with other people, having proper chats. I’m available if someone needs me, and now that I need a bit of support, it’s there. Don’t get me wrong, I worked with fabulous people when I was in the office, but we were all too busy to be truly available to one another.

This, I believe, is what we have lost because people are working so hard: community. Relatonships are essential to human beings – we are herd animals; we simply do not thrive alone. Research shows that isolation is more of a risk factor for early death than smoking (http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/03March/Pages/Loneliness-increases-risk-of-premature-death.aspx).

When you work long hours, everything fulfilling in life has to be crammed round the edges of the day job, along with all the chores. You might seek community in clubs and pastimes, but these become another burden on your time, like doing the recycling. Perhaps you join a book group to help give your life more balance, but you’re so frantic and over-stretched that you avoid your neighbours because you haven’t got the time or the energy to speak to them.

article-1281305-09c02166000005dc-149_470x423

Somehow, we have been sold the lie that a good lifestyle can be bought if only we work hard enough. But quality is sucked out of our lives in the process.

My parents live in an ordinary road with a bit of garden where Dad has always grown fruit and veg. When I was a child we played with the other children in the street, knew all the neighbours and walked to the local primary school. Now the house next door has been bought to let, and families move there from London, drawn by the promise of a good life in a leafy Kentish town with clean air, green gardens and desirable schools.

small-vegetable-garden-planning
Courtesy of getbusygardening.com

My parents report in bafflement that their new neighbours don’t do the garden. Weeds run riot and apples rot on the trees. The newcomers seem surprised that my parents greet them over the fence and take an interest in their children. They commute to the London jobs that are paying for all this. Childminders ferry the children to and from school and the pavements no longer ring with the seventies sounds of playing on bikes and skates. I wonder if life seems rich to these families, or just crammed with people and activity, but strangely bleak?

I volunteer in a community café, and I see first-hand what it means to people. Some might have needs of various kinds, and the café helps them out, but many are just there for the company. It might not seem like much – a warm place to sit with a cup of tea or a meal, and people who know you and take an interest in how you are. But it’s everything. I know this, not from some patronising do-gooder standpoint, but because this is what I need as well. Like everyone else, I leave the café richer.

These days, community is fractured, time-tabled out or put on hold. When we get a whiff of it – at a rare local event or a party for someone’s big birthday – we are elated, calling out as we leave, ‘We must do this more often!’ But years go by and we don’t.

Vale Road Ladies
The lovely community of Vale Road (I’m top right), coutesy of Rosanne Smith.  We must do this more often!

I’m not advocating that women should be back in the home, or imagining that everyone can chuck in their day job and like Mother in The Railway Children ‘play at being poor!’ But I wonder how many people feel locked into the double-income lifestyle, when learning to live on less might be the key to options they didn’t know they had.

While overworked millions in this country turn to mindfulness manuals and colouring in, the world’s best stress-buster – community with others – is being thrown on the scrapheap of history.

But it can be retrieved if you just give yourself more time and less pressure, and gently reach out to those around you. It brings simple joy in good times, and a web of support to sustain you when things go wrong.

 

 

 

I’m a completely different person

n-OFFICE-WORKERS-large570
Courtesy of Huffingtonpost.co.uk

This must be true because my Mum told my son, and he told me.

Four months after I gave up the day job, I look back at Office Me and I begin to understand what was up with her.

  • She was big on security and routine, but so hungry for distraction and human interaction that she had to self-impose a social media ban during work hours.
  • She was generous with money but mean with her time.
  • She had always put all her energy into doing things well, but regularly felt that nothing was ever good enough.
  • On waking, she would instantly be alert for the next thing to dread.

Now I don’t have material riches, but life is richly varied. I’m in control of what I do with my time, and I can afford to be generous with it.

I have plenty of work now, but I managed not to let it bother me when I didn’t have much, and that is the real achievement.

At the Café where I volunteer, it struck me this week that everyone leaves happier than when they came in. I love being part of that.

I spend time with people who need to talk. I sit in cafes with my parents, just watching the world go by and shooting the breeze.

I realise that in my previous existence, busyness was eating away at my humanity.

I have spent concentrated time working lately, enjoying the task with the windows open, birds singing and bees pottering in and out.

When I went into the office for a meeting, my lovely ex-colleagues looked oddly immobile, as though someone had clamped them to their chairs. When I asked how they were, they all said, ‘busy’.

I know that many people don’t have the chance to give up their day job, and that it wouldn’t suit everyone. But it seems to be working out for me.

And now my frugal tip of the week:

Join the library!

Having not been for years, I went in, joined at no cost at all and on the spot ordered a thriller that had been published that very day: When She Was Bad by Tammy Cohen. Within a couple of weeks, an email came to say it was ready for me. I have it for three weeks, but it isn’t going to take that long to finish it, because it’s gripping – and all for free! If you’re looking to make a saving on books but don’t want to miss out on the latest titles – what could be better?

And if you’re into cheap eating, have a go at this frugal recipe:

Roast cauliflower with black pudding and olives

IMG_7996

This is adapted from a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe from the Guardian. I always think his food looks tasty but lose interest when I see the 13 obscure ingredients and a pan I don’t have. This, however, is dead easy and  really cheap.

1 large cauliflower separated into small florets

150g of black pudding, skinned and cut into big chunks

A large onion cut into wedges

A handful of pitted green olives (buy them in big jars, in brine – try Lidl)

2 tsp smoked paprika (cheapest in Asian shops)

A handful of pumpkin seeds

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

3tbsp olive oil (doesn’t have to be extra virgin, again, Lidl or Asda)

Salt and pepper

Handful of chopped parsley

Heat the oven to Gas 7, 220C, 425F. Put everything except the parsley in a bowl with salt and pepper, mix well and spread out in a roasting tin lined with greaseproof paper. Roast for 25–30 minutes until the cauliflower is golden and soft. The black pudding will be cooked through and this is healthier than frying. The original recipe had chorizo but I have discovered a passion for black pudding and it’s so cheap!

Not to Worry

The freelancer’s challenge (and just about everyone else’s)

Back from Vietnam after an epic journey, I set about returning to my new freelancing life.  I soon realised that the nice fat payment I received in March was not likely to be repeated any time soon. I had finished off several of the projects I had kept on from my day job and had joyfully invoiced for them in the last gasp of the financial year. I have a few more on the back burner but nothing like the daily work I had to start with.

Anxiety about where my next payment is coming from has begun to creep in.

What if I can’t get any more work? What if everyone at from my day job who was so positive about continuing to give me work has now realised they’re glad to get shot of me? What if my accountant laughs when he sees my figures? (Seriously, I actually do visualise this last one. But why would he laugh? And what on earth does it matter if he does??!)

So I have been giving myself a good talking to.

Every working situation has its pros and cons. I knew that the downside of the freelancing life is that it’s all boom or bust; you’re either too busy or you have nothing to do except fret about paying the bills.

My new life is not going to work for me if I allow myself to worry about this. I need to accept that I will not always be busy and enjoy the upside.

And here are this week’s postives:

  • time for writing
  • beautiful spring weather
  • running through the woods
  • spending time with my parents and catching up with friends
  • a lovely morning walk to a church event and the warm fellowship of the people there
  • time to chat with people in the showers at swimming and at the café where I volunteer
  • being with a two-year-old, which makes seeing a digger or a helicopter a thrilling event
  • being there for my parents during their searching-the-loft-for-lost-house-deeds-and-putting-foot-through-the-ceiling crisis (don’t ask)

As ever on holiday, Jon and I ran out of books and resorted to reading each other’s, so Jon knows all about delivering babies in East End in the 50s (Call the Midwife) and I know from Bear Grylls’ Mud, Sweat and Tears that success is all about what goes on in your mind.

So I am keeping a grip on the voice in my head.

Every time it suggests I’m a loser, I shout it down. I’m equally stern when it speculates about what people think of me or devises bleak scenarios for my future.

After a run through the springtime woods one morning, my inner voice piped up:

Why worry about money when I can feel this good for free?

And that seemed much more like it. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. The trick is to worry just enough that you’re stimulated to come up with new ideas and opportunities to keep the work coming in, but not so much that you’re mired in pessimism and panic.

And given that lean times might be just round the corner, here are a couple of recipes using foraged goodies that are in season now.

Free food for foragers

IMG_7813

I discovered the joy of cooking with nettles and wild garlic when Jon and I were living on £1 a day per person  for Live Below the Line. If you have never cooked with nettles, put your worries aside – they do not sting you once blanched in boiling water, and the taste is velvety, smooth and delicious, not sharp as you might imagine. And wild garlic is a more delicate, fragranced alternative to the usual (tame?) variety. It’s the leaves and flowers you are after rather than the roots – have a look on grass verges and in woods. The wild garlic seems early this year so nettles have not long come up, but in any case, it’s the new, yellower top leaves you want. Obviously avoid areas where dogs might have cocked their legs, and wear gloves.

At home, plunge the wild garlic in very cold water, pat it dry and keep it in a bag in the fridge until you use it. Wash the nettles with your rubber gloves on and discard any tough stems, keeping smaller, tender ones. Blanche the nettles in boiling water for two minutes at the most, then rinse with cold water in a colander, and press out the water with a spoon. Now you can touch them without getting stung. Chop the nettles roughly and they are ready for use in either of these recipes.

Almost Entirely Free Nettle and Wild Garlic Soup

I cooked this soup tonight with what I had in the house and garden as well as what I foraged from the common. You can make it in all kinds of different ways but this is what I did.

2 generous handfuls wild garlic leaves

2 generous handfuls nettle leaves

1 small leek from the garden

500ml of vegetable stock

Prepare the nettles as above. Wash and chop the wild garlic. Chop the leek and fry it in a little olive oil for 5 minutes, then add the chopped wild garlic and fry for another 2 minutes. Add the prepared nettles and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

IMG_7814

Take off the heat and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Season as required. This makes a thin but tasty soup. You can add a splash of milk at this stage, or if you like a thicker soup, add a chopped potato or some rice at the frying stage. I served this with a teaspoonful of Asda Smart Price Soft Cheese (in the absence of any crème fraiche) and snippets of sorrel from the garden, then plopped in some of the home-made croutons that still fill my freezer from the bread leftover from Jon’s party).

IMG_7817

Nettle and Wild Garlic Pesto

I have kept the amounts vague because it depends how much you are going to use and how you like it. This pesto keeps for two weeks in a jar in the fridge.

3 big handfuls of nettles, prepared as above

2 big handfuls of wild garlic leaves and flowers

A little parmesan cheese*

1 small garlic clove

Zest of half a lemon and a little juice

A small handful of pine nuts or other nuts

A glug of olive oil

Whizz the prepared nettles and wild garlic in a blender with the parmesan, garlic, lemon zest and nuts. I didn’t have pine nuts but I did have a bag of unsalted mixed nuts from Lidl. I soaked a few cashews and macadamia nuts in hot water for a few minutes to soften them before blending. Blitz to a rough paste then add salt and pepper to taste and a glug of olive oil and blend again. Add a little lemon juice – I prefer only a few drops but you might like a good squeeze. Put the pesto in a clean jar and top up with a little more olive oil. Keep it in the fridge.

*Frugal though I am, I find cheap or fake parmesan a false economy (the worst is the stuff sprinkled from plastic pots – it smells of sick for goodness sake!) The fake stuff is waxy and lacks the taste of the real parmegiano reggiano, meaning that you use more . The real thing lasts for ages and just a light grating adds a huge flavour boost. Look out for offers or go to Lidl.

IMG_7819

 

We had the soup followed by Asda Smart Price spaghetti with the pesto tonight – the whole meal cost literally a few pence. We are going to honk of wild garlic at our quiz night later, however!

Look out team-mates if we lean over to whisper an answer…

A Life Less Busy

busyman
courtesy of tyboynewsletter.blogspot.com

‘How are you – busy?’ people would say when they rang me at the office. Because busy was how I always said I was. They knew it was a barely concealed plea not to take up too much of my precious time.

I groaned if a friend or family member rang me in the evening.

I had very little time to spend with friends, or with my parents. I enjoyed the camaraderie and company of the office, but I yearned for a deeper communication; for sharing lives with others in a more meaningful way. I just didn’t have time.

I didn’t much like the person I was becoming.

With Easter upon us, I have done the first stint of life without the day job, so how have things changed?

I love spending time with my parents and with friends, having proper, unhurried chats and being able to help out when needed.

I love looking after my friend’s two-year-old, spending hours in the garden watching him exploring the possibilities of bottles, watering cans, water and, most joyfully, gravel. This week he noticed that I talk to the cat in a high voice, and made his own so hilariously shrill that surely only dogs could hear it. ‘Wake up!’ he squeaked to the sunbathing Misty.

Volunteering in the community café, I have worked with a man with learning difficulties who gets more unbridled joy from wiping tables than most people get from life’s biggest treats.

I have had time to listen to friends who are going through hard times, instead of just catching up with the headlines and having to rush off. With time for proper, prolonged talks, you can move beyond the difficulty of a situation and end up just chatting, relaxing and laughing.

I don’t hurry past when someone says ‘Hello’ to me now; I have time for the people I meet. When the woman in the charity shop messed up the till; I reassured her that that happens to me all the time at the community café.

When Jon comes home tired and stressed, I listen and sympathise. I’m not too tired and stressed myself to do so.

Horrified by the attacks in Brussels this week, I felt a strange need to reach out to our local muslim community. I looked up the details and found the email address of the imam. It took me a long time to compose that email: I was very aware of the risk of sounding like a nutcase. It was a message of peace and love, from one person of faith to another. It felt like all I could do. A couple of days later, I had the most lovely reply. The imam said my message gave him hope.

Freelance Sophie is different from Sophie-with-a-day-job. I think I might prefer her.

And of course, it’s being able to live on less that makes this new lifestyle possible, so here are latest frugality headlines:

I went to a jumble sale

I got two jackets, a jumper and a trifle bowl, all excellent quality, for next to nothing! Even charity shops look pricey to me now.

I have bought next to nothing for our up-coming holiday…

… instead fishing out suntan cream and insect repellent from the back of the cupboard and making do with some VERY old summer clothes.

I FINALLY got the message about switching energy companies

I have known for ages that I should do it but I am allergic to form-filling and fuss. However, when I’m having lunch at home, money-saving expert Martin Lewis is on the radio, and he says things like, ‘This is so easy now, you’d have to be brain-dead not to do it!’ So I asked a much cleverer friend who does these things, and she recommended http://www.uswitch.com. Seriously, this is incredibly easy now. I just typed in a very few details about our current supplier and tariff and the site came up with 80 deals that would be cheaper. The new company let your old company know you’re moving, and pretty much everything is done for you.

I saved us £479 in a few clicks of the keyboard.

I’ll have to change again in 13 months, but it was so easy, I don’t care. I feel just as epic as that bloke in the adverts. I may walk round London wiggling my booty.

10894958_274327322691438_599649230_n
courtesy of http://www.createfilmproductions.co.uk

And now I’m going to ruin everything and look like the most enormous frugality fraud, because we are off to Vietnam to celebrate Jon’s 50th birthday – on the proceeds of the two-salaried life we have left behind!

If it makes you feel any better, we are going on one of the busiest days of the year, one of those storms with a name is forecast and the terrorist threat is at ‘Severe’, which officially means, ‘one down from there’s actually someone with a gun to your head’.

Still outraged? OK, I’m going to slink off now and come back to you in a couple of weeks…

The real source of work stress

It has been five weeks since I left my editor’s red pen in the office and headed home.

It has been a revelation. For the first few weeks, I castigated for not doing the right thing at the right time and not doing anything well. When I was writing, I thought I ought to be working, and vice versa. My aim was for every minute of the day to be productive. I feared failure at every turn.

I was baffled. I had assumed that I would leave work stress in the office. Here I am in my own home, I thought. I feel judged, undervalued and criticized. But hang on a minute – I’m the only one here!

It was a huge lesson for me to discover that a significant source of stress is not in the office, but in the space between our ears.

I don’t mean to imply that work is not stressful in itself. In tough times, both private business and public sector organisations are under enormous pressure, and this gets transferred to employees. My own husband suffered nine months of severe anxiety and depression because of his previous role as deputy head of a school.

But I am fascinated to discover how much pressure comes from the negative voices inside our own heads.

i-told-the-negative-voice-in-my-head-to-shut-up

Last week, I started volunteering in a community café. On my first morning, I got confused by a multiple order while a queue was forming, and the till emitted a high-pitched shriek to let everyone know that I had messed up. I was mortified, and apologised again and again. The owner was lovely and kept saying it didn’t matter. Hours later it dawned on me that I had never worked in a café before. I had had only a few short hours to learn the job. I am not superhuman. And that’s OK.

In many workplaces, there are external pressures and critical voices. The trick – and here’s the difficult part – is not to join in with them. Let the boss between your ears be a good boss: encouraging, accepting, challenging but kind.

Things have changed in my workplace now. I have been enjoying my writing as my first baby – sorry, novel! – has come home with encouraging and hugely useful notes from my writing mentor. I have spent lovely time with my parents and with friends, from the youngest (just under 2) to the oldest (just turned 80). I have volunteered at the Winter Shelter for the homeless and at the community café – both enormously inspiring. I have been for walks and runs in the woods.  I have worked, invoiced and even been paid. I have written a talk for church. I have been sprucing up the house and only today forced an admission from Jon that he is thrilled with the tidiness of the cupboards.

Moneysaving tip for today: buy big and eke it out

We have leftover casserole from Jon’s party, frozen in batches, which makes a gorgeous meal every couple of weeks or so. This was made from chuck steak, which is not expensive at all – ask your butcher. We are also still eating the leftovers from the enormous whole salmon (price about £10) that I stuffed with herbs and lemon and baked on Boxing Day (http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/fish-recipes/whole-roasted-salmon-stuffed-with-lemon-and-herbs/). The frozen leftovers are lovely with risotto – put the fish in at the last minute as you don’t want to cook it again, just heat it through.

Whole chickens and even turkeys might seem expensive, but if you buy big to allow for leftovers, it is much more economical than buying individual breasts, legs or slices, and you can also make stock and soup.

Finally – marinate your own olives

IMG_6963

The ones sold in plastic pots are really expensive. Buy a big jar of olives in brine from Lidl or your best low-cost supermarket and keep it in the fridge. Put a bit of olive oil (again, Lidl and there’s no need to buy extra-virgin) in a smaller jar and add whatever flavouring you like: finely chopped garlic, lemon zest and fresh herbs are all lovely. Rinse a few olives at a time to get rid of the salty water and keep them in the oil until they’re needed. You can keep the same oil in the fridge for a month or so and replace the olives. The oil itself is lovely with bread or couscous.

Life can still be tasty when you’re mean!

Please share your own money-saving tips, or your work stress wisdom – I’d love to hear from you.

IMG_6966

The One Where Sophie Is Fine

OK so I didn’t think leaving the security of a job after working full time for the best part of thirty years was going to be such a Big Deal.

I was like this when I jumped out of a plane. As we climbed to 10,000 feet with the wisecracking crew trying to wind us up, I didn’t feel frightened at all; I just couldn’t think straight. I hoped I was taking in all these vitally important safety instructions. But maybe I wasn’t..?

skydive 003
Ready for my tandem sky dive and feeling no fear…

Tipping out of the door and freefalling were a thrilling blur of movement, then the chute opened and my tandem partner did a couple of stomach-turning loops, superfluously trying to add to the excitement. That’s when travel sickness set in.

Sophie flies
Freefalling!

The landing was fine – clearly I had taken something in, as I didn’t break any limbs or die. But I felt sick for a couple of days afterwards.

Fast-forward to going freelance. I airily assured everyone that I was fine! Friends fans will recognise the episode when Ross makes a desperate show of not minding Rachel going out with Joey. But I was fine, I wasn’t nervous at all – I just couldn’t think straight.

3171fb31-79dd-4f5b-8835-1a0d032996c6
Courtesy of http://www.playbuzz.com

Resigning, telling everyone and having leaving parties were all part of the freefalling fun. But actually working at home for the first couple of weeks, cut adrift from every familiar support system, turned out to be a roller-coaster ride of panic.

At the end of week two, the sickness has subsided. I have achieved a lot under my own steam; seen friends and family, walked in the woods in the sunshine, worked and even broken through my writer’s block to write an article and a short story and start on the second novel.

So I’m fine! But I admit it now – it was a big deal.

And if you’re in this for the money-saving tips:

Dirt Cheap But Surprisingly Nice

b3d29872-83d2-4e7f-90de-8d8dcc91949a

Asda have had a tough time lately but we have relied heavily on their Smart Price ranges since we had our last big budget cut, and I promise you, we eat REALLY well on very little. Asda are not sponsoring me (why would they? Only 4 of you are reading this!) but that’s where we do our main shop at the moment. I should add that the prices of their cheapest ranges have gone up (some have doubled), so we are keeping an eye on them.  PLEASE DO COMMENT if you have any hot tips from any other saver ranges/discounters.

There are some things I have bought with a heaviness in my frugal little heart, but then discovered they are completely acceptable. One huge surprise was Smart Price teabags. I thought these would be made from the dust the tea pickers swept off the floor – but they are really tasty and only 50p for 80.

As for the baked beans – it is always handy to have a student adviser, as long as they are not the sort who think cooking is pouring the hot water on a pot noodle.  It was our son, Ben, who told us that these are absolutely fine (and only 23p).

Porridge, if you like it, is a nutritious and warming winter breakfast and if you buy the Smart Price porridge oats, super cheap as well at 75p for a kilo bag.

Chopped tomatoes at 31p  –  these are the staple for hundreds of recipes and proper chefs use them, so why wouldn’t you?  Italians use them, for goodness sake! Their tip is half a teaspoon of sugar to take the acidity out of sauces, but don’t tell the Sugar Police.

And finally – the tin of herring fillets is from Lidl. The mustard and dill is our favourite flavour, but these are great too. Lidl annoyingly don’t quote prices online but from memory these are 89p.

I don’t claim to be an expert – I’m just sharing ideas. Please do share yours! What are your staple cheap ingredients? Can you beat any of the prices above? What are your Dirt Cheap But Surprisingly Nice top tips?