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Why I’m marking the anniversary of hitting rock bottom in my personal life


Frances with her sons

Frances with her sons

Frances with her sons

Today marks the anniversary of a game-changing day in my life. But it’s not one of the usual milestones you would celebrate, like a birthday, or a christening or a wedding anniversary. In fact, it wasn’t a happy day at all. This was the day when I hit rock bottom. Fortunately, I survived to tell the tale, and here it is.

It was the second week in September 15 years ago. My marriage had just dissolved, my husband had moved out and for two weeks I had stage-managed the situation so well that few people knew anything was wrong. I was starting to feel quite upbeat; the boys had seemed to accept our explanation as to why we were living separately and had as yet shown no signs of anxiety. I was actually enjoying having nights to myself with no one to cater for and was maximising the time by going swimming or sitting solo in the cinema.

I had convinced myself that I could cope and that this was the beginning of a bright new phase in my life. In that chipper frame of mind, I had set off to collect my younger son from school that afternoon and was waiting in the playground when another parent I hadn’t seen since last term bounded over and asked the unfortunate question, “So how was your summer holiday?”

I opened my mouth intending to reply with the standard platitudes, but instead heard myself blurt out: “My marriage broke down actually and ...” then I couldn’t finish because I was sobbing. With that spectacular conversation-stopper, the poor guy, whom I barely knew then, was dumb-struck for a few excruciating minutes before the kids came running out and we were both saved by the school bell.

And that was just the start of the emotional tidal wave. Next up in this domestic tragicomedy was the visit by the electoral registrar. Having composed myself enough to get on with my daily routine, I had just started preparing the tea when the doorbell rang. It was the jovial old lady from the council.

“I just wanted to check all the details I have on your form,” she said. “Have any of your circumstances changed in the last few months?”

“Well, actually ...” I started to reply, but my quivering lower lip couldn’t sustain a full sentence and I broke down again, sobbing from the doorstep while she looked down, clucking and tutting sympathetically.

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Eventually, I got a grip and explained that our family of four had become one of three as I wiped my eyes and blotted my mascara on the polyester headscarf she kindly offered because neither of us had a tissue.

A few minutes and another attempt to compose myself later, the milkman appeared. As I attempted to explain, weeping all the while, why I no longer needed a pint a day (my ex took milk, I didn’t), it seemed like a cosmic conspiracy to bring me to my knees. Poor old Roy didn’t know where to look. After all, they don’t train you in counselling at Dale Farm dairy, do they?

From there, I went to the parents’ evening. Luke was just starting P7 — a giant step for an 11-year-old, what with the transfer tests looming and all the preparation that that entailed, so there was a lot to take in. I sat there on a tiny classroom chair,  amongst a host of (seemingly) happy couples. I must have looked awkward and ridiculous, wearing a pair of sunglasses like a fashion editor at London Fashion Week. The other mums and dads probably assumed I was an outrageous poser, but it did the trick and I wept silently and secretly throughout the entire meeting.

I thought I’d got away with it until the meeting was finished and the teacher* asked me to stay behind.

 It wasn’t detention — she had seen through my anti-distress disguise and was concerned enough to ask what was wrong.

By that time, everyone else had gone and so had all my coping mechanisms, so the floodgates opened and I nearly drowned her in my sorrows.

I have, of course, come on leaps and bounds since then. Giant ones, worthy of an Olympic long-jump medal, in fact. I discovered the joy and freedom of my own company and wouldn’t give that up for the world. My two little schoolboys are both adults and loving their lives.

It hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park, but I think it’s important to remember your lowest days so you can marvel at your personal resilience. Which is why I mark this anniversary and hold it as dear as any other.

This column is dedicated to the lovely Mrs Andrews at Ballyholme Primary School, who gently offered me her shoulder to cry on and promised me she would keep a special eye on Luke (and she did)

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