Knitting and its therapeutic benefits

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Knitted ladybirds for an amazing friend of mine. Many thanks to the pattern from Stitch London Blog.

Things have been kind of busy round here. Easter was supposed to be days of writing, knitting and seeing family, and instead I got sick (not, you and I both relieved to know, the shitty illness, but a bog-standard cold). And then life stuff took over for a few weeks, which is what happens, but I have missed writing, and realised I need to carve out time for it. And also that it’s ok if I don’t write for a couple of weeks so I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. Plus I wanted to finish a knitting project, and knitting has been therapy over the past few years. Writing and knitting, both creative activities and ones that require very little in the way of equipment or space, and inexpensive too.

I learnt to knit from my paternal grandmother, and still have a memory of sitting in her living room on a sofa patiently, and badly, making a scarf under her supervision. I don’t recall exactly how I felt as I knitted, or attempted an approximation of knitting, and I don’t think I’d have been more than 7 or 8, but mostly my memory is being happy spending time with my gran and making something. I remember a blue knitted jumper she made me which was one of my favourite items of clothing. Handmade items are made with love, made for a particular person in mind, and that love and care radiates from whatever that item is.

It was many, many years after that time on the sofa that I picked up knitting again, and I forget what entirely inspired me to re-learn. I knew I wanted to do something creative, that could occupy my hands, that might be useful in some way, and the memory of knitting stayed with me. Not the memory of how to knit though, aside from it requiring knitting needles and wool (yarn, people, yarn. As I now know. Wool is yarn, but not all yarn is wool). I bought such items and ‘Knitting for Dummies’ – yes, it exists – and set about trying to teach my fingers to repeat the stitches I’d learnt to make decades before. Unfortunately all that happened were incredibly tight stitches, holding such tension on the needles that it was a physical effort to knit into them, and rather than creative relief, it was mainly creative frustration that resulted. And so while I prefer to learn by myself, I knew I needed to find a teacher. It’s the kind of skill that is best learnt watching someone.

And so the needles and the yarn sat around for a while as I procrastinated about how to find a teacher (one of my strengths, procrastination), veering from being too busy to fit in classes when they were running, to why would I think I’d be any good at it, and back again. Until I needed a distraction, and knitting came to me as a possible solution. The distraction was needed when Original Acquaintance announced his depression, and started to ever so slightly withdraw, and the slow creeping pain of not hearing from him was a hole that I needed to fill. Knitting became therapy, and it is heartening several years later to be reading about how this form of creativity has helped others and provided the same relief to many people in the same way it did for me. Knitting allows my hands and my mind to be occupied, the latter being the most important. It requires attention to be paid to the task at hand, looping yarn round needles, counting stitches, following a pattern, counting rows. You can’t do that if you are thinking about anything except the knitting. The knitting itself isn’t a difficult thing to concentrate on, it doesn’t cause you stress (unpicking 6 rows because you went wrong is annoying, but you pick yourself up and start over), it doesn’t hurt you (I’ve stabbed myself with a sewing needle a few times, but I can live with that without it causing me sleepless nights), and when you have finished, you have a beautiful thing that you, and only you, have created. Despite whatever was keeping you awake once you finished the knitting, whatever you had felt during the day before you got home and picked up the yarn, there was something lovely and special, and an achievement when very little felt like it was worth doing.

And it inspires such wonder – ‘you’re so clever’ is one of the most frequent compliments you receive – especially on trains, as I am unashamed to pull out my knitting, mainly on trips to the south west of England, when you catch someone across the aisle looking across to watch, flicking their eyes back to the other direction when I look up, because, y’know we’re British, and that wouldn’t do. And I smile and go back to the knitting, not caring if someone is looking because they’re watching the craft, not staring because they’re judging me (which is my usual and wholly unjustified fear, and is, you are safe to believe, utterly insane and somewhat egotistical if you think about it.) And it inspires joy and calm, and I feel peaceful when I do knit.

It has been up and down, my relationship with knitting over the past few years. It was truly my therapy for about 3 years as I tried to deal with the grief of Original Acquaintance’s disappearance, and it was only when I couldn’t even find the energy to knit (its other advantage, you don’t need much in the way of physical fitness to pick up some knitting needles) that I started to realise that maybe something else was going to be needed. For several months I didn’t knit, I think partly because I was so tired that once I got home, it was a relief to do absolutely nothing, and partly because I knew that everything I had been trying to keep at bay was no longer staying away by knitting. But it has returned as my good mental health has, and while sometimes I can go several months without knitting, I feel so much more positive about myself when I pick something up and start again on a project. An excellent friend gave me The Mindfulness in Knitting (by Rachael Matthews) for a very recent birthday and I read the first 2 chapters with pleasure sat out on my balcony in sunshine (sunshine is also very therapeutic). That also sounds more glamorous than it is, but in London any outside space is a joy. And I am far from the only person to think knitting is therapeutic.

The picture with this blog is the project I was aiming to finish, for another incredible friend and her school class (I told you there might be pictures of knitting at some point). My next creative skill to master is crocheting. That only requires one hook, so even less equipment… 

If the thing you’ve been using to hold stuff at bay isn’t helping at the minute, then links to help are in About. And if you’re a knitter or some other crafter, whether you share what you do or not, hold your head up high, and be proud of yourself, especially when it shows you light.

Coming clean at work

When I was diagnosed (by a doctor rather than myself, although I knew exactly what I had) I was away from work for 8 months. During that time I worked first 2 half-days a week, then 2 days, then 2 and half days, then 3 days. It was exhausting and strange, and I felt as if I had abandoned my newly-formed team. I was trying to prove to myself and those I worked with that I could cope, that I could work, that I was ok, that I was not just a person with depression, that I could still be a senior manager. The irony being I never wanted to be a senior manager. I didn’t want to be a manager (which is rather a confession given I’m sure there may be the odd person who works with me that will read this). But like depression, that was the card I’d been dealt. And I suspect most people who are managers didn’t really set out to be. The way some parts of our world work…

After I’d been back in the office full-time for some months, I stood in front of my work colleagues, many of whom I’d known for years, some only a matter of months, and told them all about my depression. I didn’t feel brave, or courageous doing so, but that is what I was told afterwards, and it lifted my heart to feel that I might have made a difference. That I might have helped; my life is dedicated to helping, and my natural instinct during my recovery was to talk about what had happened to me, what was happening, and to be as open about my illness as people would let me. But I didn’t think it was brave, I thought it was normal. And right. I certainly would not put myself in the brave category of human beings who do astoundingly life-saving courageous acts of heroism. Hero is a hugely over-used word and it’s not something I would set out to be. Ok, so I did set off to a foreign country with little plan and nowhere to stay beyond the first week I was to be there and an open return ticket for a ferry back home, and stayed in that country travelling on my own for nearly 3 months. I was 19, and looked 16 if not probably a bit younger depending on how drunk you might be. But that country was Ireland even if when I was in the north it was during the troubles. Not very brave, just foolhardy perhaps, and risk-averse as I wasn’t going anywhere I didn’t know the language (well, there was an awkward 10 minute conversation with a Belfast resident during which I had no idea what he was saying. Apparently he didn’t understand me either. I find this hard to believe – me? Posh southern BBC accent, that I got the piss taken out of me for having at school? The harsh truths you learn about yourself travelling…).

This is what I said to my unsuspecting and kind colleagues – not the stuff about my accent, that would certainly have been remarked upon and noted as perhaps requiring an intervention, but the paragraphs that follow this one. What upsets me most is that for all my desire to help and be open, I very much doubt I would have said this in an environment in which I knew I would not be listened to. And what upsets me most about that is that I know that is very likely to be the case in many workplaces and families everywhere. That is shameful.

“Some of you may have known or noticed I wasn’t in the office much about this time last year, and wasn’t around much for the first few months of this year either. I’ve thought a lot over the past few weeks about whether to step up in front of you, my colleagues, and talk about why I wasn’t here. And then I made a pledge to myself and online at ‘Time to Change’ in September [2015] to talk, so here I am.

“There’s a frequently cited statistic these days, which you’ve probably read, that 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health illness. I’m not going to argue the statistic, and from my own experience, it bears some truth, as I know many people among my friends, those I love and have loved, and my family who have and are suffering. You might know something about mental illnesses because of the experience of your own friends and family, or, although I hope not, from your own experience of being ill. I didn’t think I that I would be one of those statistics, but it turns out I am. I wasn’t here last year because of depression. It’s a word that gets thrown about quite a lot, and I’m not going to be precious about that; I have no problem and couldn’t care less if people use the word depressing or depressed when they’re not. I do, and will continue to. It’s a figure of speech that I have no interest in censuring.

“I do want to talk about what it really is to feel depressed in the context of its medical meaning. It isn’t talked about, and that’s why I want to talk about it. I want to be open and honest about what this illness is, to remove stigma, and help other people to talk about their mental health. I didn’t know I was ill for a long time. I don’t genuinely know how long I was ill before I got help, although a series of events that happened to me a few years ago have recently been described as a ‘trauma’, and I think I knew then that I was already wasn’t feeling well. But the type of depression I became ill with was caused by stress. There are different types of depression. Scratch a surface and the brain does incredible things to people. I believe you can recover or manage many of these illnesses but they remain with you, always. The important thing is to get help. I’m going to say that several times.

“I thought I could cope, and I didn’t want to think that I couldn’t. I didn’t think I could be ill because everyday I got up and came into work, conducted conversations, managed meetings, went on holiday, saw friends and family, went out to the theatre, knitted in the evenings. I spoke to a now ex-colleague a few months ago when I was returning to work and told him why I hadn’t been here – he was hugely sympathetic and sad, not least because he hadn’t realised I had been ill during all the meetings we’d been in and the work we had done together. He said how positive and cheerful and funny I had always been and what a good person I was to have had in meetings. All that time, I had barely felt like I was contributing a thing, but had tried very hard to ‘put on a face’. I won’t go into the exact details of how I realised exactly how ill I was, but I had recognised that the effort of doing all those things was very, very stressful. And tiring. Getting up was tiring, having a conversation was tiring, going home was tiring, pretending to be ok was exhausting. I stopped going out, I didn’t leave my house, I wanted very much to not have to talk to anyone. I couldn’t sleep, but I didn’t want to get out of bed. Every day. For weeks and weeks and weeks.

“What got me up and out of this awful situation was help. Some very kind and caring people here, some in this room, recognised that I wasn’t well, and with that recognition came my own. In some way I think it allowed myself to give me permission to say ‘you aren’t ok’. And it’s all right that you aren’t. Some of you may remember the death of Robin Williams last summer [2014] – a hugely sad event and a great loss. That was, oddly or not, part of my moment to acknowledge I needed help – all over social media people were exhorting the need to talk to people, expressing their sadness at his death and his illness, and inside me, I wanted to write that’s me. That’s me.

“I got help here at work because I listened to my friends, and my colleagues, and I took time off. I got help because I went to see a doctor for the first time in years. And I was helped by noone judging me, by people showing how much they believed in me, and by people who asked how I was. For several months, the same kind friend asked me daily how I was – knowing that every day there was someone who liked me enough to ask that question was one of the main reasons I started to get better. Because one of the things that you may not know about depression is the way in which it turns you against yourself. I didn’t believe I was worth anything, and didn’t believe anyone who told me I was.

“I’m still recovering. This might be with me forever, but I know I can live with that. Speaking to a health professional about my illness, she described me as strong. Strong! I thought she was talking utter nonsense. She recommended this book, and I read the first chapter, and it was like a light bulb switching on. The author could have been writing about me. They are writing about me. I urge you to read it – we have a copy in the library [I work in a library]! I thought I had to carry on, and get on with things, because to not do so would be a weakness, and well, plenty of people have problems to deal with. The strength to actually do that, to keep carrying on, to keep taking on the stress, and to conduct my life was and is what made me a strong person. And that is what that professional meant. It also contributed to my stress. Someone else’s brain would have reacted differently and not made its owner ill.

“At the end of the day, I think depression is your body telling you to get away from the stress and in this world, it is difficult to find an escape. What I think saved me (and I don’t use the word saved lightly) was kindness. And humour, and friendship. So be kind to yourself and each other. Ask me how I am. Ask other people how they are. If you’re worried about them, say so. I might not always answer truthfully, and they might not either, but keep letting them know you’re there. Because it will make me and them feel even a little bit better knowing that you have made the time to stop and ask, and notice. Even if someone you’re worried about doesn’t say anything the first time you ask, they will know you did ask. And the next time you ask, they might think, that person is asking how I am. Maybe they’re someone I could talk to. And a third time they might say, actually, a chat would be really nice. Or a cup of tea. Or going for a walk. Or they might find you a few weeks later and say, would it be ok to have a chat now? Because you might think you did a really little everyday thing by asking someone how they were, and that is really a massively important and wonderful thing that you have done for that person. And if you’re the person who wants to let someone know how you are, but don’t know how to, please don’t be afraid to get help. It is exhausting and painful and hard work not to, and even if you think you’re not worth it, you are. If your leg was broken, you wouldn’t try to struggle on for months would you?

“That is some of what I can tell you about my experience, and I will talk to anyone at any time about it more if you have questions. As I said earlier, I am being open about depression because people aren’t, and even though I had had so much experience in my life of caring for and knowing people who were ill, I couldn’t help myself when I knew that it had come to be my turn. So I want to make it ok to talk about these illnesses, and I want people to know that it is not a weakness, that it is not when you feel annoyed that Monday has come round again (although, frankly, when does that ever help!), but that it is relentless and hard, and the person with it is fighting a war inside them where the winning side is repeatedly saying, you’re not worth anything, why bother anyone with this, why would anyone bother with you? Who wouldn’t want to help someone fight that battle?”

That’s a long post, I know. And I’m sorry if it was a hard read – take the positive from it, which is that we can all help and that it only takes a kind word to make someone know they are valued and loved, and could be the one that puts them on the road to recovery.

If you’re finding it hard to find your value right now, there are links to help in About, and always, you are loved.

Banging on about talking therapy again

There wasn’t an intentional break last week – and you did accidentally get two posts (here and here) the previous week which means technically I didn’t take a break. But last week was really tiring and I had to cancel my plans at the weekend, partly because of the snow and also because I felt what I like to call ‘a bit wobbly’ (translation: feeling like crying at the thought of leaving the house. I know, it doesn’t make a lot of sense given that I had left the house for 4 of the previous 5 days without a problem). Fortunately that doesn’t seem to have come to anything. It’s horrible to cancel plans, and I hate doing it. It is self-care when things are too much, and has no reflection on the people you had plans with. I have to retreat at weekends at the best of times. I am much much better than I was at not thinking it being selfish and unsociable, but there’s still a thought at the back of my head that it is selfish, and that I should consider myself lucky that I have the ‘luxury’ of a weekend to be able to retreat into.

One of my counsellors gets very angry about the word selfish (when I say very angry, she does not rant, wide-eyed, in our sessions, that would be frankly weird. So let’s say she feels passionate about it, much as I do about things like the bonkersness of nationalism). She thinks that people frequently describe themselves as selfish when all they are doing is trying to carve out a bit of time or space for themselves, and that being selfless is not a good goal because all that does is place a huge emotional toll on the person trying to be selfless. And that does them no benefit, nor means that they can do what they want to do for others, which is support them effectively. As she would say, you have to invest in yourself in order to be able to invest in others. Actually I can’t remember if she’s ever used those exact words, but it is the kind of thing she’d say. What she would prefer is a middle ground between selfish and selfless, or a reclaiming, perhaps, of selfish so that its negative connotations were diminished. To be clear, sometimes people just are being selfish. But chances are if you think you’re being selfish, it’s unlikely as in my experience people who genuinely are being selfish don’t recognise that at all.

I wrote ‘one of my counsellors’ as the keen-eyed among you may have spotted. I don’t have several at once. That would be daft. And somewhat complicated. But I have seen 3 over the past 5-6 years. Not continuously, and if I had continued seeing a counsellor when I first spoke to one, maybe the meltdown 2 years later might not have happened. Who knows. I’ve briefly mentioned talking therapies before and I remain outraged that it is not a treatment available on the NHS for as long as people need it. I am lucky, and I do mean lucky, that I can afford to pay for private counselling sessions. If not, I would have stopped seeing my second counsellor nearly 3 years ago and I think I would be in very different place if that had been the end of my access to counselling. It is a space for you to express yourself in a neutral and unbaggage-laden place. And that is incredibly important when you are trying to work through emotions and understand why something has had an impact on you. My friends and family are fantastic and I know they will always listen, but, and I’ve done it myself, when you see someone you love in pain you want to try and fix them, often by trying to take the pain on yourself. And that can make you both feel a bit useless, or in the case of the friend or family, frustrated that your help hasn’t ‘helped’. It has, it really has, but it’s sometimes easier to share what you’re feeling with someone who isn’t emotionally invested in the relationship.

My first counsellor was arranged via the counselling scheme, Confidential Care, available to me via my employer. I don’t work in the private sector, so there’s not a vast amount of benefits (I won’t get into the pensions strike happening this week, as this isn’t that kind of blog…), but access to counselling support is one of them. Six sessions is what is available. Because counselling costs, as I might have mentioned earlier… Hannah was a kind and sympathetic woman, I think about my age, and had a room in her house where she did her counselling. I spent most of the sessions talking about the Original Acquaintance rather than myself, and we were getting to me when the six sessions came to an end. At that point I should have looked around for another counsellor but I felt a tiny bit better, didn’t really have the energy and spring was round the corner (winter flipping sucks when you feel lethargic at the best of times), and I thought I’d be grand as I’d managed perfectly well up to now.

That meant it wasn’t until I got the depression diagnosis nearly 3 years later that I saw another counsellor and that was via the excellent ‘Time to Talk’ programme via Greenwich NHS (otherwise known as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies). Not only that but I was fortunate to have to wait only 3 weeks before being assigned a counsellor and I got 8 sessions! Woo. Sharon was absolutely great, and seeing her meant 2 buses after work and waiting in a doctor’s surgery because she used an office there for evening appointments, but it was worth it. She was firm but kind and another post I might write at some point could be based on the sort of diary I kept at the time, as each session ended up with a seemingly identifiable theme that left me musing about particular words. She also taught me that responding to a compliment with a self-effacing comment, as the British are so inclined to do (‘what a really pretty skirt’, ‘*embarrassment and mumbling* oh only a tenner.’ Perceived subtext: not really worth the money, don’t know why I bothered, why on earth have you even noticed, I don’t want you to think I spend money on myself when there are people starving’), was potentially an insult to the compliment-giver. What, she said, would you say if someone gave you a gift? Thank you, obviously. I’ve been well brought-up, let’s make that clear. A compliment is a gift – so why do we try to turn it into something else. It’s bloody hard to change a habit of a lifetime, but I have done that work to say thank you when someone gives me a compliment. You might think seriously you went to counselling at a cost to the NHS, and that’s what you came out with?! It’s not all I worked on, so don’t worry. That was a good lesson to share, though.

The counsellor I’m seeing right now has been in my life for over 2 years, and that’s for other days, as you probably all need a loo break or a cup of tea by now. 

If you don’t have immediate access to a talking therapy, there’s still help out there. Links in About.

For the love of reading

I live in stories. From a time I can’t remember except as brief glimpses of a blurred snapshot I have lived in stories. And been the heroine. Jo of Little Women, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne Shirley, Nancy Drew, What Katy Did, Pollyanna… I read and re-read and dreamed and retold the stories with me in the centre (mainly as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Why I thought living on a prairie in the 19th century would be marvellous I don’t know. But I wanted to). And it never occurred to me that the oh-so-romantic Katy recovering from a terrible fall and paralysis did happen to me. Sure, not a fall, and not paralysis, but life-threatening and months of recovery. Not as splendid as in What Katy Did though, languishing on a chaise-longue… (and I cannot remember if there was a chaise-longue, but did I mention I’m a romantic?)

For some, a lot, most of my life I’ve wondered did all the stories I read when I was a child lead me to have such a romantic view of what I thought my life would be that I ruined any hope of that romance. The happy stories that always resulted in the girl characters becoming women who then had husbands and families, and despite the occasional life-threatening disaster, always ended up healthy and well. But then I starting thinking differently about these girls who became women with husbands and families. Those characters in those stories were and are good (not too good, even with Pollyanna in the mix), witty, kind and loving girls and women. Many of the stories I read were from the 19th and early 20th centuries featured women who, if the stories followed them from childhood, fell in love and married. 

And there will have been many arguments that these stories provided few role models to girls reading them except to set up the expectation that what women did was get married and have families. Now in one sense, that was what women did do when those stories were written. But women wrote those stories, so women were also female authors as role models. All those characters already mentioned and more – Jo March, Laura Ingalls Wilder, What Katy Did, the Abbey School women, the Chalet School girls and women, Anne Shirley (if I wasn’t going to be Laura, Anne was a close second) – were strong, imaginative and creative. And the girls and women they wrote about married for love, with men who were not necessarily perfect but who loved the women they married, treating them with respect and care. And for many of the series I read, the men were not the centre of attention, and often on the periphery, but they were mindful of the women who supported, cared for, advised their sisters, friends, children and family. Those women who were all sisters, friends, daughters before being wives, and very clearly remained as such. So perhaps what I took away from those stories was that women are central to family, society and their communities, and are equals to men in contributing to that society.

Which, when you think about it, provides bloody good role models for men and women. And I’d much rather my romantic view of life too. 

If you fancy some reading nostalgia, all of those books can be tracked down one way or another – give your local library some support for starters. And if reading, or something otherwise life-distracting isn’t helping at the moment, links to help in About.

An Original Acquaintance disappears…

Original Acquaintance was my kind of man. Is my kind of man? Was. Is… He’s still alive, so is. I say is still alive. But, frankly, there’s a very strong possibility he could not be. It was my worst fear in the months after he disappeared. It continues to be my fear. The very tiny hope I have, the glimmer that keeps him alive is that somehow through the chain of mutual friends if there was ever the unbearable day that he had died that would pass its way slowly through links that must persist and we would know. To this day, I live with guilt that my mutual friends lost a friend because of me. Because when he disappeared he didn’t just leave me behind but some of his closest friends. What I know of his past behaviour leads me to believe that he would have got in touch with them again, but he didn’t and hasn’t because that would lead back to me. I like to think that he is so embarrassed about his behaviour that he is too ashamed to contact friends who know me, but actually I don’t give a fuck. I know he will never get in contact with me. (I write that, 6 years later, with a detachedness I didn’t think I could achieve, and at the same time with a heart that is broken and tears in my eyes. Also I don’t know he won’t for a fact. I continue to hope to be proved wrong.) 

Another story: 3 years after he disappeared, no one (that I knew) had heard from him. Things had just gone ever so slightly awry with another Acquaintance. I was, although I didn’t realise at the time, about to start my walk down the staircase of depression and everything was on a tilt. Fuzzy. I say all this with hindsight. Back to the story. I was out at the theatre with some friends (possibly one of the last theatre trips for many months – the depression has a side-effect of robbing all kinds of joy from your life, including going out to do things that you like with people you like), and they had all gone from our table to get food. It was June, we were outside (the theatre was in a park). I checked my phone and there was a message from one of the mutual friends. Original Acquaintance had been in touch with her partner. After 3 years. One of the friends I was out with came back, took one look at me and actually used the words ‘you look as white as a sheet’. Now, given how pale I am, except when the freckles all join up over summer, this must have been a truly marvellous sight.

He was alive. He had got in contact. And I was sat in a park about to watch theatre, while in my head there was one man I loved still as far away as he had been for 3 years but alive, and another I had started to care about starting to remove himself from my care and attention. Jackpot, people. How lucky can you get. It is, on reflection, perhaps unsurprising that the overwhelming emotion I felt was utter and total numbness. I think that there was so many emotions – relief, hurt, incomprehension, sadness, confusion – that they cancelled each other out.

And that was it. Fairly trivial conversation took place, and then he disappeared again.

To now. It is a relief to not spend all day every day thinking about him. First thing in the morning. Last thing at night. I forget how many months it was before I realised that the night before I hadn’t thought of him. I think the months made up years. This is unbearably tragic and sounds highly melodramatic, and verging on obsessive. But how often do you think of the partner you love? And then imagine one day, they weren’t there when you woke up nor when you went to sleep, and that their phone no longer worked, and their work email sent a mysterious out of office response that implied they were ill, and no friends had heard from them for several months before this had happened. And then imagine that you didn’t know for 3 years if they were alive or dead. Then come back to me and tell me I should pull myself together, get over it, and I’m better off without him. Because I’m sure that’s what my family and friends thought. And why wouldn’t they? He had made me miserable, I was clearly depressed (not that I noticed), and he was a selfish shit. All of which, including the selfish shit part, I completely agree with as an assessment of the impact he had on me. But he was also ill. And by disappearing he thought he was protecting me from that. Mental illness does that (yeah, it was his cross to bear too). It convinces you that you are worthless, past caring about, and not fit to be loved. And through all of those years, I held that tiny piece of knowledge in my heart and in my head, and kept it alive like protecting a candle flame from the wind. If that candle flame had gone out, if I hadn’t know what that illness could do, I don’t know how I would have survived.

If you’re suffering a loss, whatever it is, look after yourself, and keep focusing on the love around you, and don’t turn down offers of help. It will get you through.

As always, if you need to talk to someone or help, links in About.

Joan, a life lived

You may or may not have read my second post – ’tis here if not – in which my childhood illness came up. I have only a few memories of being in hospital but I’m fairly sure Joan would have been with me. And must have been with me after that blood transfusion. Joan is a bear, a koala bear (on reflection, koala bears may not have plastic faces and hands, one of which allows said bear to suck its thumb, but at the very small age at which I received Joan, she became a koala bear, and you’ll never convince me otherwise), given to me by one of my beloved grandmothers, picked up from a jumble sale (if I recall correctly), so she was pre-owned and pre-loved before she came into my possession. I don’t know why she’s called Joan, I have no idea where the name came from. Absolutely none. Maybe there was a now forgotten children’s character in a book I loved.  But she is Joan and she has been with me for my entire life that I remember. She came to hospital with me, and she has lived with me in every place I have moved to, keeping the connection with home and family and love, and reducing the distance from all of that just a little. Toys, dolls, teddy bears, those tokens of childhood that so many of us had, are disregarded and put aside as years progress. Their ownership is mocked, and in adulthood we are made to feel small, inferior and emotionally stunted if that evidence of childhood is revealed or noticed. Such items evoke such power over our emotions and comfort when there is pain; if we place faith in an unseen god, keeping one small bear from childhood to keep faith seems unremarkable.

She is still with me. A happy and cheerful memory of childhood, security and a reminder that you can carry your family with you everywhere you go. She has been to Australia and New York and Ireland. And must have been to France, and various parts of the UK. She will always stay at home now – I went away for a trip to get away from work and emotional blah several years ago, up to York (York may be down for you, or across an ocean, but it’s up for me in London), and on the journey up my suitcase was stolen. I know! Who steals a suitcase? from a train? Of all the luck. I survived, although probably arriving only a few hours from home in a country where I already spoke the language and in a city in which there was an M&S and Boots from which to get supplies, I was hardly in the Sahara. I digress. I decided to stay up in York for the week I had planned, even though my first thought on realised my belongings were not with me was to turn round and go home again. I had a really lovely week despite it. I didn’t want to worry my mum or anyone with the suitcase story until I got home, so I didn’t. And the first question my mum asked me on my telling of the story was ‘Was Joan with you?’. I’m sure she asked how I was too, because she would definitely have done that. But she was right to put Joan first. I would have been distraught if Joan had gone. Nothing else in that suitcase couldn’t have been replaced. Except Joan.

So now she stays at home. A little sad, as I like to think she enjoyed being stuffed into a rucksack in a rather undignified manner to travel halfway across the world. Of course by leaving her at home when I go away travelling she is left at risk of me leaving a grill on and the flat burning down, but I’m pretty sure that won’t happen… Even though I have an uncanny knack of carbonising toast.

If you have a childhood toy/doll/Star Wars figure (I don’t have the latter, but I imagine a lot of people do), treasure it/her/him and don’t make anyone make you feel less for doing so. And as always if you need help, links are in About.

Sometimes, the drugs do work

Something else about depression. How it is treated. One of the most excellent therapies is talking and sadly talking is not very sexy as far as finding money to fund it goes. There are millions spent on sexy research to develop drugs-based treatment, a much more attractive proposition to governments providing a health service because a) drugs companies can bear the costs and b) drugs companies like making money. A drugs company won’t make a lot of money from promoting talking for 30 minutes a day to pharmacists and GPs.

There are other ways to treat depression. You can, as the euphemism goes, self-medicate. Come on. Self-medicate? That’s taking drugs. Only not ones that drug companies have spent lots of sexy research money on. They don’t have to even be legal drugs if you self-medicate. Plus it doesn’t really treat the depression so much as make you forget, for many hours or even days at a time if you’re really committed to the self-medication, that you are a living, breathing human being with depression. Staying in bed for several days, only getting out to go to the loo, waiting for it to pass (because it will) is a less risky treatment than self-medication, but if you have to leave the house because you will lose your job, or your children need taking to school, or you cannot live with the people you are sharing your home with and have no means of moving elsewhere, then self-medication can be very attractive. Or you can kill yourself. Admittedly, depending on one’s perspective that’s less treatment, more final solution, but at least your own hell is done. And depression has done its job, taken you to the point where you believe its lies and abuse, because it’s your head telling you all that and why would you – you – lie to yourself?

Actual medication is never an easy subject where mental health is concerned. I was never anti-medication. I never believed in medication in isolation either. I urged a very sick friend to consider it when she was adamantly refusing because of fear of turning into a zombified being. I saw others take medication and improve their stability levels just enough to manage coping with basic day-to-day tasks that provided some chinks of light. I had friends who swore by it, and confessed they didn’t know how they’d manage without it. And when it came down to it, when I knew finally that I was ill, I knew I would be prescribed medication. Self-medication hadn’t worked (don’t get excited, I’m really not a risk-taker, so we’re only talking alcohol). Creativity as a distraction had stopped working (but as a therapy, really effective, and another post for another day). Sleep worked but only because it was the only thing I could do that was effective in stopping me doing anything else.

Let’s have a story: How I fell in love with the drugs.

I was prescribed 20mg of citalopram a day. After I picked up the first prescription I read the side-effects. There’s a lot but I know enough to understand that there are several categories and the ones that most people experience were the ones to consider. Not that I didn’t worry about all the others. I didn’t start taking the medication straight away because I had an essay to write and I did not want to be experiencing the side-effects while undertaking intellectual activity of that minor magnitude. Also the advice was that if you were about to do something significant requiring consciousness, you should probably put off starting to take the medication until that was out of the way. It was about 3-4 weeks after first seeing my GP and having the drugs in my hands before I started to take them.

I chose to take them about 10pm at night. I cried every night before I took them, and I cried afterwards. I hated that I was having to take drugs to fix this illness. I hated that my body was being subjected to something that made me nauseous and dehydrated, and that I didn’t even know whether it would work. I was afraid I’d feel nothing if I took the drugs. And then about four months in, I found something out that made me almost run home to take the pill because I was so relieved that I had this way of coping with what would have been unimaginable days of sleeplessness and misery.

The story involves an Acquaintance, and for a change not the Original Acquaintance (although anti-depressants would have been a help there, but that’s a WHOLE other story). So all I will say is that what I felt on that day was betrayed. If I had not been ill, and recovering from that illness, there’s every possibility that it would not have been so impactful. Emotions are slippery things, making us euphoric in one moment, and devastated the next. But what I know is that when I got home that night I did not cry before I took the drugs, nor after, and I haven’t since. What I realised was that although they did make be dehydrated, and although they occasionally still made me nauseous, and they certainly make me forgetful, what they also did was provide emotional stability. Everything that had been in my head before I starting taking the drugs was still there, but the drugs stopped everything rattling around in it ALL THE TIME. They gave my mind some space to stop thinking about everything ALL THE TIME. And they were the sole thing that I knew would enable me to get up the day after that horrid day. And I did. 

What that life event has also led to is an incredible amount of work on forgiveness. I like to think I am generally a very forgiving person (I forgave the Original Acquaintance for their behaviour a very long time ago), but it turns out, not so much given the right circumstances. Or circumstance, as it’s only the one that I’ve struggled with over forgiveness. I hope I’m nearly there, because the energy and anger that not forgiving consumes is life-sapping too. And to be clear, I’m talking about me and my circumstance only. I know there are life events after which forgiveness would be a very, very hard thing to do. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale triggered a lifelong musing on asking for forgiveness and the giving of forgiveness without being asked. Again, another topic, but that book remains one of the most incredible works of (not so much) fiction I’ve ever read, and there are threads throughout it that have stayed with me since I was 17. The act of forgiveness being one.

Upshot: the anti-depressants have worked for me. But not on their own. I have found a fantastic counsellor, I have a tremendously supportive employer, and a family and friendship network who have offered nothing but love and care. And I have worked bloody hard on self-care as not being selfish, and realising that I don’t have to help everyone because I will admit that very occasionally, it’s all right to help yourself…

As always take care, and if you need help, links are in About.

What’s the point of depression?

 

**If you’re feeling low, you might not want to read on. No detail but the reality of depression means suicidal thoughts and you need to look after yourself if you’re concerned about triggering**

A few weeks after my 7th birthday, a blood transfusion saved my life. I hadn’t finished the school term, and I liked school then. My younger sister was at school, nearing the end of her first year. My youngest sister was barely 3 months old and needed all the baby stuff doing that a baby needs.  It took me many years before I was able to reflect on what type of emotional hell my parents must have been through. Very sadly, my family had experienced a death before I was born, a very young cousin I never met. And neither of these events were because of poverty, war, hunger, accident, but because for some evolutionary reason – keeping population under control? – the human body is under attack from diseases and illnesses that it cannot always recover from.

This illness I now suffer from has no rhyme or reason to it – an illness that causes the mind to convince a person that they should end their life. I can see it has a purpose of maintaining population but it is a very inefficient approach. On the face of I guess most illness isn’t efficient as there’s no care as to whether the person who gets sick is a mass murderer or a doctor. Evolutionary theory tells us of the strongest surviving the fittest, or those who have adapted to a genetic quirk that causes us to live longer will survive and pass on that genetic quirk. Depression simply makes no sense in that context. It is what fascinates me and what makes it a horror story. Mind control horror. It’s a B-movie plot of the 1960s, but that’s what depression is. And you know it’s happening. At age 7, I don’t recall that I had much experience of mortality. No precious grandparent had died (yet), the one pet we had was alive (and continued to be for several more years), I lived in no warzone, hadn’t experienced a sick friend. And I don’t know that I understood the concept of death, and certainly wasn’t in a state of understanding when I was in a ward in the middle of the night without my parents to hold my hand. I would imagine that if you had asked me if I wanted to wake up the next day to see my mummy, daddy and little sisters, I would very definitely have said yes. I would have asked to leave hospital and have the extraordinarily painful needle in the back of my hand removed as well, but that’s a different point.

Depression at its absolute worst meant that if you had asked me if I wanted to wake up the next day, I would have said no. With every episode, the question is asked again and again. I know it is a horrible thing to hear, the person suffering it and those who are living with someone who is hearing it. I can only speak for my experience, and it is a feeling of such tiredness that you want to be away from that. I cannot emphasise this enough: I didn’t not want to live life, I didn’t want to live mine at that moment, because it was full of the depression voice. And it is always in that moment. The next moment is a new one and the depression voice fades.

But I am still here, and I intend to be for many more years. It is hard work convincing yourself that the depression voice is lying to you, but it is necessary and important, and you are a brave person to tell it to piss off. Well done if you have or are doing that right now. You are brilliant.

Links in About for help.

In which I have been thinking (god help you all)…

I don’t really know what I would have chosen for my second post, and this might not be the one I would have selected from some that I have lined up but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking (to anyone reading this who knows me, this will not come as a surprise, and for anyone who doesn’t but knows someone who does a lot of thinking, you may realise what this involves) about how to write about life, and I’ve done even more thinking this week. I imagine it can be deeply frustrating sometimes if you live with someone who thinks A LOT about things, but you’ll be getting the benefit of some very carefully considered decisions, ideas and opinions. Even if it takes 2 months to get to them…

Back to the particular topic of my recent thinking. It included why people might think I have bad mental health, and what people think causes bad mental health. I’m not a scientist (though I have the privilege of working with many), so it would be impossible for me to go down that road, and there’s plenty of literature available to try and help people understand if there are biological, chemical, psychological and many other -icals causes. I don’t blame anyone or anything in particular for my bad mental health, not least because I don’t actually know how long my mental health has been bad. I think I might have have episodes of what I know now to be depression long before I acknowledged that the reason I felt so terrible was because of depression, but those could have been times when I felt sad and a bit unhappy, but not depressed. There’s a difference, by the way (and what’s really hard once you know you suffer from depression is recognising that feeling sad occasionally is not the heralding of another episode). If you really put me on the spot, and please, try not to, because I detest being put on the spot – for understanding why, see the paragraph on thinking a lot and you will probably draw the correct conclusion – I do know that the first time I can say ‘oh that was depression’ was 6 years ago, 3 years before I got a diagnosis, and when, ironically, I had fallen in love. That’s a whole other story in which Original Acquaintance, who had been on the edges of my life for years before the falling in love thing, is likely to appear in future, but on the other Acquaintances front, you’ll get no more. Some of the others I’m lucky enough to still have in my life, which is all anyone needs to know.

I also know that when things eventually collapsed around me, it was in a very large part because, although I thought the counsellor I saw at the time was insane for saying so, I had been strong. To unpack that*, please read Depressive Illness: the curse of the strong by Tim Cantopher (if you want to buy a copy, the link is to Hive who support local bookshops – just saying). It is simply an excellent book, short, un-taxing, and describes the type of depression I have suffered from, and is the type of depression that I can write about here because I know what that is.

And I suspect I may come back to this again, but please don’t think that bad mental health is a consequence of a bad childhood. Or certainly that mine might have been. I have Matt Haig to thank for assuring me in his book Reasons to stay alive that I am not the only person to think ‘but I can’t have bad mental health, my childhood was great’. So you’ll be barking up the wrong tree if you think you’re going to get my teenage diary. Sorry! (Actually, I’m not. My teenage diary starts with a picture of Phillip Schofield sellotaped to the back of the front cover – please don’t judge me, nor on the use of the word unpack earlier*- and mostly catalogues how I didn’t like high school. Not revolutionary. I should say that I didn’t like school not because I didn’t like learning – I love learning! – but more that there were simply too many people in one place which as an introvert, so not my thing. Primary and middle school, whole other story – I adored primary school.)

Lastly for today, I know about a vast number of other mental health illness but I haven’t experienced those; regardless of that if you have any type of mental health illness, know that you are not alone, that you are loved and take it one minute, hour and day at a time. Might be the best advice I can give. Links to help are in About.

Time to talk

My ambition to get out there and talk about mental health is now open… This is a few weeks in the making, but years to actually get to the point where I needed to talk about my mental health. I’ve lived some stuff, but then honestly, after even a couple of decades on earth, let alone more than that, who hasn’t? I have told this fact to someone of my acquaintance a thousand times but it would seem to make no difference to their fear of feeling. Might not have been exactly an acquaintance (a tad closer than that and there’s a more than strong chance they will feature in the future of this), and a thousand times, sometimes that was a conversation conducted in my head when said person properly listened and took account of what I was saying, rather than ignoring me. But that’s a story for another time.

If you are dismissive of the impact of life on the living of it, then you are welcome to go away, but I’d much rather you stayed. If you have lived some stuff and not experienced bad mental health, by some luck of biology, personality, psychology or goodness knows what else, then consider yourself fortunate to have lived without your mind turning on it and telling you not to bother with the whole show at all. I’d prefer to have not experienced all that, but on the other hand, as with all life stuff, I’d be a different person, and the upshot of talking about my mental health is that I’m growing to like that person.

If you’ve stumbled across this because you are feeling, frankly, shit, and want to know there are other people who feel like that, or because you’re worried about someone who you think might be feeling shit, then I’d like to help in some small way. Chances of anyone stumbling across this for some time after posting are slim given it’s going to take a while to get my voice out there, but something you’ll learn (probably) from further reading is that I’m a hopelessly romantic optimist. Plus my counsellor is convinced I’m going to become a world-famous writer, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint her. Perhaps not world-famous. But I guess you have to aim for something…

So we’ll see what happens, and I look forward to meeting people along the way.