Hypersensitive Nerve Pain

img_20160911_215620007So, the physio this morning spent ten minutes making me sweat with pain as she massaged my injured torso.

I am so determined to be fully functioning again, I give gorge walking a bash, as you saw in my earlier blog – and get out of the water early and walk along the path once the nerve pain and tingling in my hands becomes an issue. Never mind. I still did it. I still got to join in with other adventurous women. I still got to feel like I once used to. I couldn’t sustain it but am so glad I did it anyway. Inside I am an adventurous woman. In my head. The body’s been a bit bashed about is all.  I knew I had my appointment this morning if anything desperate happened and I stopped whirling and floating in the water early to protect myself.

My physiotherapist, lovely Sally, took to the massage oil almost as soon as I arrived. She demonstrated the pressure she was using by massaging my good side. No pain. Touch my right side and I break out in a sweat. My glasses steam up! The pain is bad. In my last mammogram, I was taken out of the machine just as I was about to faint with the pain. But Sally says if I massage through the pain – three times a day for ten minutes each time – I will desensitise my nerves which are telling me I’m in pain when, really, I’m not – it’s safe – and we have to get those pesky nerves used to the pain so they stop acting up! Lots of sweating about to happen in this house then. The body is a strange thing.

Since my cancer operations and subsequent radiotherapy, in late 2013 and early 2014, I’ve been in constant pain in my chest, side, neck, shoulder and down my arm. My mouth used to be so dry I drank water all the time and nothing lubricated. My eyes are now so dry, I need daily gel to moisturise them. I even get up in the middle of the night and put more gel in the left one, as it sticks shut and wakes me up. I have weak muscles, tingling thumbs and fingers. My jaw and cheek hurt as I tense myself to protect my body from pain. It’s been a waiting game – three and a half years.

I am so glad to finally see a physiotherapist who knows just what I need and says it is a common problem for breast cancer patients. I just hope she proves to be right. She is sending me off to an MSK physiotherapist for my knees which play up since taking Letrozole. It isn’t cancer I’m recovering from, it’s the treatment for cancer: surgery, radiotherapy, drugs.

But along with my physical pain, there are multiple other issues. I’ve taken early retirement through ill health because I simply cannot sustain school teaching while my body is tiring so much. It becomes prone to viral infections which lay me low. It isn’t fair on pupils or colleagues to repeatedly be absent and I cannot thank my school, Galashiels Academy, enough for all the support and patience they have shown me. But no job equals no money. I’m too young for a state pension. My own pension doesn’t even pay my council tax. I still have a mortgage. My house has been on the market for six months and no sale. I need to get the equity out of it to invest for a small income. I’m trying to reduce my stress so my body doesn’t succumb to viral infections from being tired and, unfortunately, my circumstances are stressing me!

Being single and being a woman are both tricky financially. I’m not complaining. I’m a woman, after all, we are resourceful, but sometimes, just occasionally, it gets me down that I have a degree, I’m bright, I’m committed, I’m experienced and I’m still powerless because money is power, power is control and I don’t have much of either. I’m no different to so many women and, no doubt, a lot of men. But a degree and a profession are meant to protect from financial insecurity. Staying home to look after children punctures that equation good and proper.

Yet, I still maintain that those years where I prioritised my children helped them grow in resilience. Teenage years chucked a lot their way and they didn’t escape unscathed, but as life settled down they returned to the strong and caring individuals they are, secure in the knowledge they are loved. But the irony is, I have always worked, freelance or part-time from home. I just squeezed it in around my family. And my efforts to keep my finger in, to do a little freelance work, did nothing to give me financial security in the long-term.

So, now, because I value work, I am struggling with not working. I feel like I should be working. I apply for jobs. I plan self-employment projects. But the reality is, my body still needs time to properly heal. I am going through the benefits process and even that is hard in terms of it being done at a distance. There’s little leeway to hold a conversation and ask questions when all you’re doing is filling out a form with boxes; following a designated path through the bureaucracy. Life feels inhuman at times like that.

I must go now that I’ve explained my circumstances. I’ve excused myself for looking well yet hope you understand I am not fit enough to work and support myself like I once did. It is hard having to re-evaluate who and what you are. I would like to still be the girl pictured at the top of this story working at the University of Illinois; the girl who cycled to work in London, fearless of the traffic; the woman who held down a full-time job and established a respected community theatre group at the same time. The mental transition to being me but a less dynamic me is difficult.

I’m going now to lie down for ten minutes and create a sweat with some olive oil. If you’ll excuse me … Ouch!




Gorge Walking August 2017Yesterday I spent my day bumping and buffeting my way downstream in a cold August Tweedsmuir. It was a microcosm of life.

One minute you are laughing at life’s vagaries: the slippy stones planted in your way, ready to trip you up, but you dance upon them lightly. The next moment you are swept away in the current unable to control your speed or the direction or even find your footing.

It was a wonderful day. Safe and risky at the same time and it reminded me to go with the flow and laugh while you panic. And to remember to have a cosy bath, good hot food and to relax after the effort.

Thanks to Jo and Biggar Adventure for organising the day and a huge thank you to the brilliant group of women who came together to laugh and support one another in wetsuits!

Getting started on Playwriting

So pleased to be on this playwriting programme with Jules Horne and the lovely Kirsty Jobling (pictured). Kirsty played my daughter in The Gap by Oliver Eade when we toured Borders Banter around the region with Odd Productions.  Dorothy Bruce’s See Them Rats completed the Banter production back in 2012. It is fitting that I was directing new writing from the Borders then and now one of the cast is with me on a project to create more Borders writing for production.


Wheelchair Or Not. An Afterword.

I am sharing my friend, Phoebe’s, post below. She is a struggling with ME. I feel for her because being unwell is rotten and because I recognise a lot of what she says is true for me.

I too carried a mental image of what I should be in the world and it didn’t include being a single mum or having cancer or having to retire early due to ill-health.

High tempo secondary teaching meant I continually had oral thrush, herpes in my mouth, nose and eyes, exhaustion through a low thyroid and fear that, while my body was fighting these minor immune issues, my cancer was being given a back gate invitation to recur (they didn’t get all the pre-cancer out due to it being back against my ribs).  I think being run-down gives these diseases a chance to take hold. Additionally, the radiotherapy left my right ribs very tender and painful. I am compromised in health and finance. They go hand-in-hand.

I want to work. I like working both for the challenge and the social aspect. It’s good to be part of a team. I simply need to work in an environment that allows me time to recuperate if blisters erupt. It doesn’t take long for my body to heal if it gets a quick response from me and I let it rest a little.

I am planning on making more of my writing skills through publications and workshops/talks. Maybe my new novel, The Organ Donor, which I’m editing just now, will bring in some money. I hope so. Maybe the Playwrights’ Studio programme will open a new avenue of productivity and pay.

Moreover, I love yoga for restoration – Yin yoga – and I hope my reputation as a specialist in that will grow. I start at the Eastgate Anne Younger Studio in October with Yoga Zone. Tutoring is an option.  Borders Youth Theatre may need my services. And I need to sell my home of twenty-four years.

Unseen illness is more common than you think. Like Phoebe, I look well. For that, I’m grateful. And for the massive support I’ve had from school, the council, my family and friends I am very thankful. Something is going right!

me by David

The Slave’s Lament

Last week I joined Helen Boden,  a specialist in writing from art, at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh to see Graham Fagen’s The Slave’s Lament installation (on until 29 October). It was a fascinating 45 minutes sharing reactions and thoughts with others.

One participant, a Greek national, told us of the Syrian camps in Greece today – the shocking but, sadly, unsurprising, exploitation of vulnerable people. Another sparked curiosity about the nature of consciousness when she revealed her mother had been in a coma for three years and she had been compelled to prove her consciousness. I remembered meeting an elderly man from Virginia when I was a research assistant at the University of Illinois in 1980 who spent a good hour tutoring me in the “fact” that the negro is not a fully formed human. Our flawed humanity and unwillingness to embrace all humanity in compassionate terms are given a historic anchor through this moving and beautiful installation.

Go and see it. Take time to absorb the mix of classical strings and the sweet voice of the golden toothed reggae artist, Ghetto Priest. See the three ships go sailing by and marvel at the suggestions embodied in the bronze rope sculpture. The tree, the noose, the roots, the fraying reach for better times are all entwined.

Gorgeous and thought provoking.

Managing Life’s Muddy Mess

A friend has just had news of cancer. I wish him well in his journey and hope his treatment is brief and effective, as it so often can be. I hope he finds time to do the things he loves during treatment and discovers more about the deep well of creativity and kindness that is all around us, once we get a chance to stop the hurlyburly and see it.

Below is my piece which appeared in The Scottish Book Trust site a couple of years ago. I hope it helps encourage others to find their niche and what makes them feel whole.


Life is Full
By Kathleen Mansfield

April 2015 and I’ve travelled a long way since October 2013. My heart and my head have shifted. My breast has lost its way. My liver and kidneys are on a daily ration of drugs to survive the journey and my skin looks radiant due to the palm load of supplements I now indulge in each morning. What about my bones? Fragile. Weakened from the treatments.

It’s been a roller coaster, filled with fear, uncertainty, regrets and loneliness and it has forced me to confront the truth that we are all here for a limited time only. Like a shoe sale. Force your foot in because it’s a bargain? Or wait for the perfect fit – later? It’s a conundrum and a paradox that just as you come to terms with this insubstantial life and its frail timespan you are forced into the waiting game of cancer treatment: discovery – wait – biopsy – wait – hospital planning appointment – wait – think you imagined you had cancer because you don’t feel ill – wait – get chest infection with the stress of all this waiting and feel properly ill – wait – surgery – wait for lab results – operation recovery period – sleepy head with no thoughts from Tramadol – sort of nice – oh, no, another operation – wait for appointment – recovery and await lab results – oh, no, another operation – recuperation – Tamoxifen – radiotherapy – drug sensitivity – try another – add another – cracked rib – bone scan – osteoporosis? Phew. Good news.
Oh, yes, the uncertainty of cancer is a metaphorical journey many of us face. The figures are bleak. There are more than 200 different cancers, each requiring different treatments. Statistics from Cancer Research UK indicate that more than 331,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in 2011 in the UK, that’s around 910 people every day. Every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer and, disturbingly, 1 in 2 people in the UK born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime.
It was brilliant that, during my treatment, Facebook suddenly went viral with no-make-up selfies. It helped to ease the sense of isolation. There I was cocooned at home, bra-less in my pyjamas for comfort and not a scrap of beautifying to be seen. It helped that others went public with their morning faces. It felt like they were mirroring me. Silly, but oh, so very helpful and reassuring. It also helped to know that research funds were being raised. I want my children to avoid this scourge.
Even though my family and friends were truly amazing, I couldn’t help but feel I was travelling alone. I didn’t expect anyone to climb inside my head and heart and understand the intensity of regret I felt for a life less lived than I felt it should have been. I regretted not listening to myself more. I had the answers to all my problems always. But I’d repeatedly choose to ignore my intuition – not to trust my gut. That led to time wasted. Time spent not doing what I loved doing. Time in limbo where I didn’t even try to uncover what it was I loved. I would never get that time back.
Facilities like Maggie’s Centres are a haven of calm and respite after a difficult consultation where the outcome isn’t what a woman wants to hear. You enter straight into the kitchen. It is such a clean and tidy and welcoming kitchen with home baking wafting: tempting you if you pick the right day. The team of delightful volunteers and other “patients” gather around the table with teas of all descriptions and readily talk and share. It is never bleak. The sun pours in through the ceiling and the glass walls, the staff are amazingly sensitive and somehow say just the right thing – how they know is beyond me. I always leave feeling fortified. They’d helped a friend of mine who’d died of cancer and she had spoken well of them before I got ill so I knew to head there after my consultations. Now I am raising money for them through my writing.
I wrote Tumour Rumour every day of my illness. Initially, it helped me cope. I didn’t want to burden my two young adult children or my friends and family, so I wrote it all out. For the first time in my life, I had the time and the opportunity (I had little strength to do much else) to write about me and for me simply because I like writing. I did it for me. It wasn’t until three or four months down the line that I looked back over the words, to see how far I’d come, that I could see there was some merit in the content. It was then I decided to use bits and pieces to create a book.
Tumour Rumour is available from Maggie’s at the Western General in Edinburgh. It raises funds and I hope it helps others going through the cancer factory to use the inevitable time, where they may feel like a puppet with no independence, for themselves. To accept the gift of time and to find their creativity, whether it is knitting, model making, story telling, music or whatever, and let it flourish just for them, for no-one else and with no agenda other than to cheer themselves up and to learn how deeply creative all us humans are by nature.
I am still finding myself with niggles relating to my treatment and the disease. I am still writing. I am about to publish an e-book – on this all-consuming subject. It’s called Words from the Heart, charting a journey through cancer. It isn’t bleak. I am not bleak. Life is full.

Write it yourself quoteornella-binni-106372

Create Drama in your Plots

IMG_20170511_121239061_HDRCreate a dynamic to keep your reader interested. Content needs planning and decision-making.

A Plot Diagram can be helpful if you want to decide what to include and the order of inclusion. This works for individual sections/chapters as well as the overall structure of longer pieces or novels. You can apply it to personal writing as well as fiction.plot diagramWe took familiar stories and broke down the “beats” so we could see the underlying pattern. Can you guess the story being described here?

  1. A girl finds herself in unfamiliar surroundings and is tempted to sample what’s on offer.
  2. She explores the preferences of others to see what it feels like.
  3. She tries more and more things, assessing each and accepting or rejecting as she goes. In the process, she breaks what does not belong to her.
  4. She exhausts herself and takes a rest in the comfort of the “life” she most feels comfortable with – uninvited.
  5. Her intrusion is discovered and outrage ensues.
  6. She is rejected and she leaves never to return.

*Answer at the foot of the page.

You could then take those six points and hang a new story on them. For example, a student party gatecrasher rifles through things in people’s rooms or otherwise. Or someone having an illicit affair gets the chance to discover the other partner and cannot resist trying on their clothes/makeup. bed!

The theme of the story is how our behaviour can hurt others and we can explore that theme simply or in a complex manner. But each time we explore it, we need to ensure there is a sense of tension – internally or externally – or both. Anticipation and relief are all part of the readers’ satisfaction when reading.

So, when planning your writing, think about creating tension and use foreshadowing to keep the reader interested in where the story is headed and lead up to your climax with a sense of direction and inevitability.

Use your senses to describe and entice your reader into your world viscerally. If you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch it in your mind, then your reader will be there with you if you choose your words carefully.

Here’s another Plot Diagram with spaces to help you plan your next piece of work. Happy writing folks!


plot diagram to fill in

  • It’s Goldilocks and The Three Bears, of course.


Jupiter Artland Inspiration

The Tamed Monster

On Wednesday I spent the morning with Marjorie Lotfi GillLuka Lesson and Omar Musa at Jupiter Artland. It was a brilliant morning. Marjorie led the writing group – about a dozen of us – around the works. We were focusing on the theme of journeys.

We wandered the beautiful grounds, absorbing the elements. Then we wrote what inspired us. We began with Charles Jencks’ Life Mounds. Having been a cancer patient and used Jencks’ wife’s creation, Maggie’s at the Western, I was emotionally beholden to this feature. It is architectural and elegant, poised and artificial: a marriage of nature and artifice.

Then we visited Alec Finlay’s A Variety of Cultures. I found this inspiring in its simplicity yet fecund in significance. We all exist together and yet are separate. Some of us soar, others stay more grounded. We grow as a community and we try to reach our potential as individuals, despite the vagaries of growing and enduring the niblings of deer, thunder claps which rent asunder trunks, causing us to fork and rearrange ourselves and the challenges of a dry earth. 

Following on from this Luka and Omar performed their poetry in situ. They were both excellent: a real treat I hadn’t expected.  We all wrote our own responses to the place and the people. Marjorie’s ode to her father in response to Luka’s Oddysey at Firmament was touching and honest. It’s amazing how words have the power to move us.

Below is the sum of my work from the morning. We shared our words over coffee and flapjack. I had a wonderful time in good company with delicious words. It was food to nourish the soul.

Firmament by Antony Gormley – a wonderful metal structure of a man on his knees

(In response to Luka’s poem – pictured – which likened Greek Myths to the events happening today in Syria, saying we won’t know the mythical proportions of the changes until it recedes in history, I wrote The Tamed Monster)

The Tamed Monster

He emerges, knee by weary knee,

Up the lapping froth of sea.

His former life hanging on rusty bones;

Alone, bleak – a fragmented shadow on the earth’s crust.

Where are they?

His wife and Aisha?

Have they, too, landed forehead-first –


Are they living under the rays of this same sun?

Forcing strong, skeletal, dark angled pain on a new shore?


The pain of crumpled arrival is personal – witnessed by few;

A fall from grace that makes no sense in comfortable lives.

In suburbia.


Suck by Anish Kapoor  – an imposing prison encasing a sink hole.IMG_20170510_124215800

(In response to Omar’s poem which questioned the completeness of news reports, I wrote No Fairy Tale)

No Fairy Tale

Imprisoned in thought.

Our conscious minds unable to escape.

Sensing, seeing a possibility … another place beyond the bars:

A place encaging its own deep well of fear,

Where one may not be accepted or find oneself accepted.

Where falling could be endless.

The bars reach high, handcuffing freedom to the dirt.



Where is the truth behind the reportage?

No fairy-tale ending here,

Even if we wish very hard.

Please, Daddy, Please.


A Variety of Cultures by Alec Finlay – an orchard with ladders at each tree measuring the projected height of its canopy.  There was no poem to respond to, simply the artwork itself.

A Variety of Cultures

My response to the orchard:

Look at Me

Jack climbed the ladder to another world,

His footsteps counted in treads.

The canopy of the world’s orchard receding below him.

Trees, fruits, all varieties –

Tall, small, squat –

Existing side-by-side, unable to reach Jack’s dizzy heights.



Making a show of fine blossoms

To outsmart, out-selfie, their neighbours.

Look at me. I exist.


Life Mounds by Charles JencksLife Mounds Charles Jencks

These artforms are elegant and manicured and sweeping statements of grandeur with reflected in the mirror of clear, clear water.

My response to this beautiful creation:

The Snip and Clip of Time

Tremoring, the clouded mirror melts.

Mosaic olive, charcoal, earthy brown.

Solid stones. Secure.

Sparkling Morse Code rips the surface,

Telling a tale I cannot comprehend,

And Adam’s Apple gully takes me to the edge.

Should I leap or play it safe?

Explore the ancient arch;

The reflected oval of infinity?

Geometric, man-made, created from nature,

In nature. Like me.

Born perfect in nature.

Moulded, formed, stretched by years of laughter and loss.

It takes some effort, some maintenance,

To chisel and polish this fragile, robust exterior.

A speckle of daisies, a dandelion baby defy the snip and clip of time:

The bed’s too wide and steep for daily perfection.

Jencks’ and Maggie’s take on life: build it from the bottom up.

Leave it as inheritance.

And so, the lonely, verdant velvet

Reaches up, across and down

Melding decisively and subtly,

Seeking the right way.

The best way to find a way.

To weigh our grievings in art.

Please feel free to leave a comment.

Projects and Nursery Rhymes

Today at Kailzie Creatives we enjoyed glorious weather, drank coffee and explored our various projects.  We looked at the back stories of Nursery Rhymes and gave feedback on writing. It was a couple of splendid hours of chat, writing, sharing and inspiring. Join us every Thursday 10.30-12.30 at Kailzie Gardens Cafe, Peebles.

An excerpt from my forthcoming novel –  The Visit – appears in The Eildon Tree literary magazine shortly. Do get yourselves a copy – available in the local library – and enjoy the breadth of talent residing in the Scottish Borders. Let me know what you think of it in the comment box below.

Lipstick Kissing



Wednesday, 8 January 2014:
A bizarre bubble of dreamscapes,
drug induced by little painkillers.
A primitive encounter with faceless strangers,
cars, horns, hoots
and no way out.
An effective, bossy woman (dare I call her assertive?)
showing me how to
manage life,
strides purpose full, mobile to ear,
focused, direct, efficient.
I follow her down a rocky cliff,
strewn with wildflowers – thrift, fleabane, sea lavender,
tucked tightly into the crevices of the stormy path
to the sun-drenched shore below.
She is building her dream,
or directing the builders of her dream:
a home looking out to sea, at her price, on her terms.
No shoddy workmanship.
I take note.

We march into a hotel breakfast room.
I follow. She leads.
It’s full of sprightly, elderly, carefree folk filling themselves
on hearty plates of sausage, eggs, beans, toast.
Obedient, I take my place in the line.
Before I order I am whisked to a rendezvous with Cary Grant.
You won’t know him. He’s old. Older than me. Deceased.

There I am,
with a 1950s’ hairdo,
a bright, defined lip line and sparkly eyes.
I’m looking surprisingly girly. I’m Cary Grant’s love interest.
And, conveniently, in a bed. A double bed.

With Cary Grant.

But still, somehow, in the breakfast room,
amid the ravenous diners.

And he is teaching me to kiss.

I’ve got my knitting with me.
It’s important not to lose sight of the nuts and bolts of life.
No getting carried away with myself.
But it is Cary Grant and it is still, somehow,
in the sun-streaked
breakfast room,
amid the ravenous diners.
And he is teaching me to kiss.
You know, like in the films.
I drop my knitting it’s all so fascinating.

Lesson One
of the Ten-Part kissing programme is complete.
Chaste. Not even a lipstick smudge.
We prepare for Lesson Two.
We arrange ourselves, side-by-side, on crisp, white pillowcases.
Prim and proper.
Anticipation rises; my heart all a-flutter;
my lipstick, as I said, completely unsmudged.
When, crash, slide, kerbam … a cheeky 1950s’
schoolboy, a grin as wide as a chorizo and a creamy bare bahooki
flies into the hospital ward –
towards our bed.
Mine and Cary’s.
Cheekyboy is avoiding immunisation in his rear end.
I know because, just then, the ward door flies open and
a “friendly” white-coated, 1950s doctor strides teasingly, menacingly, towards the child.
His giant injection at the ready. Pantomime-style.
The boy, unaware of my immaculate red lipstick
and my anticipation of potential smudging,
in defiance emits a rip-roaring fart.

So loud, it wakes me.

I like to think Cary and I
exchanged glances and laughed charmingly.
A 1950s’ laugh – innocent and fresh.
I’d only just retrieved my knitting needles
from the floor.
I’d lost them in the intensity of learning how to kiss.

I was reminded of Mitch Hedberg, a deceased American comic:
He said, and I quote:
“I’m sick of following my dreams.
I’m just going to ask them where they’re
going, and hook up with them later.”