My attempts to ‘garden’…

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Very not much my garden, sadly but that of the garden of the stationhouse at the disused Highgate train station. One of my recent trips outdoors… And many thanks to Hidden London and the London Transport Museum for the opportunity to see it.

I’ve had the idea of ‘nature’ in my head for a while as the subject of a blog post, and it’s take all that while for me to sit down and start typing. It was triggered by my walk to my local train station as part of the commute as one morning a few weeks ago the council began pruning the trees on one of the streets. It’s a street I’ve walked up and down almost daily since I moved to where I now live nearly two years ago, and one of its great pleasures is the care and attention some of the residents pay to their front gardens, and that the street is lined with trees. A particular favourite is on a corner with amazing purple/red leaves (someone did identify it, I think my mum as she knows stuff like this, and if she doesn’t she has a very good guess which I’m inclined to believe as correct not least because she’s my mum), and this was the first tree that the council hacked at. As it had been blossom season barely a few days before this, a beautiful sight and one that always makes me feel a little more joyful, it seemed an even greater shame for this destruction to be taking place just as everything was coming into full leaf. (if that’s the right phrase, I’ll hold my hands up now and say I’m not a writer about nature…)

The consequence of this was that I genuinely changed my walking route to and from the station. Walking up the street where the tree branches were disappearing daily, along with their leaves made me want to cry. It was a reaction I wasn’t really expecting, and given everything else happening in this world, one that may seem like an overreaction. But it was most clearly linked to the joy I had felt watching these trees move from their winter undress, to glorious blossom that sheds to look like snow on the road, to be replaced by their summer dress. Spring brings a lift to my mood, and I’m even more conscious of that since acknowledging my depression. To have someone remove that joy was heartbreaking. Blossom is forever associated with cherry tree blossom that decorated my local park where I grew up – we walked through it and back every day as part of the trip to school. That image of glorious marshmallow pink trees have stayed with me ever since I was little.

The street running parallel to that one which I now walk up and down has some beautiful trees, mainly in gardens and I can only assume that the latter fact is why they haven’t been pruned to within an inch of their wooden lives. It has brightened the commute again.

The emotions that have been attached to this connection to the environment have prompted me to start filling my house – balcony first – with plants. I am remarkably lucky to have outdoor space, and though it is small, it is sunny and there’s enough room for a few pots of colour. I have not managed to keep plants alive during my adult life, for reasons I don’t know really know as I was excellent at keeping several plants alive when I was a child. Possibly the lack of any other responsibility at the time… I managed to keep herbs alive last year on a windowsill and then they died while I was on holiday. I’d left them in water but they gave up much to my disappointment. And for the past few years, I lived in such a small space that plants would have found it hard to survive as they’d have probably been killed by books falling on them or yarn getting wrapped round their stalks preventing valuable nutrients from travelling upwards. When I was 8 or 9 my class spent a week staying at Paignton Zoo (goodness knows if such things still take place – a week with a bunch of 9 year olds in a B&B, our poor teachers) and one of the memories I still have is the plants we grew from seed and were able to take home at the end of the week. I would imagine one reason for the memory staying with me is that the plants survived because I cared for them, until I left home around 18. Aside from the tomatoes – they had reached the point where they could be planted out in our garden and duly were, and then my parents decided to move house and we couldn’t take the tomato plants with us. I don’t know why, the injustice, as you can tell, remains with me to this day. The pay off, it should be said, was my own room for the first time in my life, and to be fair, I think the tomatoes were a sacrifice well-made… The survival of those other seedlings should now provide me with inspiration that I can achieve the same miracle during adulthood. I may even try to keep some tomatoes alive.

Where this culminates is that every article you read on maintaining good mental health tells you to be outside, to do exercise, to leave the house for a walk, go to a park, be surrounded by nature. I spent my childhood being outside a lot – we would regularly visit local woods, the beach, parks, playgrounds, and the ultimate: Dartmoor. You can tell me of mountain ranges, of valleys, of lakes, of rolling hills, and I will likely love them all, but Dartmoor remains the place I love most. I think it is in part related to its centrality to my childhood and time spent there with my family, associated with the colours of so many browns, greens, greys and purples, and the lack of people and buildings, with landscape stretching as far as the eye could see. If you get the chance, go there. And back to that being outside for your mental health – London has plenty of outside space. It also has journeys to that space, filled with people, and I cannot, often, summon up the energy to deal with that. Which is ridiculous because when I do make the effort, and find a spot to sit, or walk, I feel better and happier and tell myself to remember that feeling the next time I feel as if I cannot be arsed to get off the sofa. Of course I do remember that feeling the next time I cannot be arsed to get off the sofa but it still doesn’t make me get up and leave the house. With flowers out on the balcony, herbs on my windowsills, and (if it ever happens) hanging baskets outside my front door, I can bring some of the outside in.

If you’re finding it hard to get out, don’t beat yourself up. You will, and until you do, get some flowers (cut if planting is not an option) every now and then as that’s guaranteed to make you smile when you walk in a room. And if you have a park nearby, know that there is the possibility of green, and when you get the opportunity to be in it, remember that. Even the memory might lift a bad day when you can’t be outside.

Keep looking after yourselves, and if you need some help, links are in About.

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.

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.