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.