The bright side of being sad

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me being sad

Will Graham expressing my coping methods.

“There’s no room for demons if you’re self-possessed” 

“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that’s unacceptable”

(Both the wisdom of Carrie Fisher)

If I was going to describe the year 2015 for me, instead of using actual words I would probably just scream and punch something for half an hour. I had a devastating breakdown in my mental health, I had to deal with the fallout of that.  My stepfather’s illness got steadily worse and I heard the news of his death in the train station at eight in the morning trying to get home to say goodbye to him. No one in the station stopped to comfort me. One woman picked up her bags and walked away.  I spent Christmas with a family in mourning and read his eulogy while most people were buying stuffing. Even in the calmer parts of last year I dealt with my Mum’s appendicitis, my family moving house without me, and other slaps to the face. My family now joke that we’re cursed. As Carrie Fisher once said “the situation was getting worse faster than I could lower my expectations”.

It’s no coincidence that this was also the year I took up amateur boxing.

So now it’s 2016 and nothing that terrible has happened yet,save for the death of my great uncle Joe, who was in his late eighties. OK so that was not ideal… But, like a character in a movie with a hastily written tragic backstory (or an X factor contestant) I have changed a little.

I’ve always had a pretty sunny outlook, despite outward appearances of being quite grouchy. At heart, I tend to assume things will get better, or at least assume they can’t get any worse. This isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with a lot of crap in my life, but still I’ve always kind of kept on truckin’. I tend to be calmer and happier than most when things are ticking along smoothly, possible down to denial, possibly down to just being glad bad things that happened in the past aren’t happening right now. Having knowledge that life can be terrible can make you pessimistic, or it can just make you extra grateful when things are less than terrible.

This attitude isn’t always a good thing.

Flashback to early last year. I was living in my crappy, cold, dark house, with the knowledge that my beloved stepfather was terminally ill. If I felt bad about all that, I managed to push it right on down and ignore it. I looked at the positive. I had freedom, I was a university student living with my friends, young, healthy and I had my own double bed for the first time ever. I was no longer a bullied teenager living in a godforsaken comatose backwater village enduring my parents tempestuous divorce. I could come and go as I please, my stepdad was ill but he was doing ok at the moment, and I would often get good news about how his tumours were shrinking. Maybe he would be ok after all. So I just kept smiling, went out for the odd drink with friends and basked in the glorious fact that I could come and go as I please.

I had these little OCD ticks, but whatever, they would get better.

Spoiler alert, they did not.

So before I knew it I couldn’t function on my own, and I spent most of the day exhausted and in tears. I believe this is partly down to my refusal to just be sad already.

If I had just said to myself “hey, your life is crap right now. That doesn’t mean It’s gonna be crap forever, although it may get crappier yet, but instead of being lil’ miss happy sunshine giggle fairy, just brood a little bit and acknowledge that you’re not happy” I may have spared myself a repeat prescription of prozac.

I’ve always joked that I would make a great goth (I have the colouring for it) but I’m just “too chipper”. Well maybe forget that.

So surprisingly enough, this year I’ve found myself feeling sad sometimes. I’ve recently been putting up with this super fun chronic fatigue thing my body is doing, and a year ago I maybe would have just ignored it and told myself sleeping to much is better than having insomnia. The urge to do that still comes up. “Oh I’m fine besides that, it’s just a little bit annoying, you know?”. I don’t want to worry other people, and I don’t want to worry myself, so part of my brain goes “leave it, hun”.

I have pledged to myself that I shall not leave it. It sucks that so tired my eyeballs hurt. It sucks I can hardly face a 9:15 lecture. It sucks that in third year, when I have work piling up, all I want to do is curl up in bed.

And about that, it’s not just tiredness, even when I don’t feel the need to nap I want to snuggle up in my bed and act like the world is on pause. And it’s only expected that I should feel like that. I’m grieving, goddamnit, I’m recovering from a serious mental health episode. I am now going through life knowing it’s potential for random, sustained cruelty. I have threads of real sadness in me that weren’t there before.

Acknowledging this brings a strange freedom. I find I’ve become bolder, more assertive, more motivated (when I’m not napping). All the inspirational facebook posts in the world had nothing on the motivational power of an awful year. I say things like “fuck it, we’re all gonna die anyway” and I mean it and I do the thing.

And when I feel sad? I let myself be sad. I listen to sad music, and I cuddle my stuffed rottweiler puppy Ronnie (who I definitely didn’t get as a Christmas present just this last year) and I just let it happen. I keep an eye on it for bigger problems, but I let it happen. I think about all the reasons I’m sad, I have many, and I just let myself be a moody bitch. I’m experiencing the effects of grief, the fatigue, the irritation, the infamous “seven stages” which are meant to follow each other in an orderly queue but instead hit you all at once and just swim around, not making a whole lot of sense.

Sometimes I’ll remember something arbitrary I did with my stepdad once. I’ll remember the time we had a carvery on my way back to Uni or when we went to a beer festival or when I found him holding his hand in pain by the fridge cos the chemotherapy made him extra sensitive to the cold. And sometimes I cry. And I just let it happen. Same with horrible memories of my illness. Memories of my stepdad will come from nowhere, when I’m cooking, when I’m trying to sleep, and It’s like a big knife in the chest. Grief likes to ambush you, and it can hurt physically. I’ve decided not to ignore that. That sadness will be there forever, and trying to forget it would, as I’ve learned, be very unhealthy.

Obviously sadness can take over your life, sometimes to the point of crisis. But It’s a natural emotion, and I’ve always believed emotions are a part of us, they are not separate, they aren’t switched on and off through sheer force of will, they are us. So now I’m practising what I preach, and I’m letting myself feel bad as well as good.

 

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Living Life Post-‘Breakdown’

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So earlier this year I had what many people would term a ‘mental breakdown’, which is a phrase I never thought, and never hoped, I would have attached to myself. My life long low-level anxiety and OCD took over my life to the point I couldn’t look after myself and I had to leave uni and come home to recover.

Thanks to counselling sessions, prozac, being looked after and generally having time to heal I am more or less back to ‘normal’ and I can function well. But carrying on life as if it never happened is not a choice I have and I can’t help but feel I had the stuffing knocked out of me and you can see where I’ve stitched myself back together. So I thought  I’d take a look at just what it means to live after a breakdown.

The biggest change is now knowing what is ‘wrong’ with my mind. I always noticed my compulsions and irrational worries, but I always just sort of… put up with them. I believed my worries were legitimate and my odd compulsions were just a habit, a tic, an annoying part of being me. Now I know what to call myself, and these labels are more freeing than oppressive. Knowing that these are illnesses I have and not just something that I am is empowering, now I can fight them when I see them, they can’t sneak up on me. I talk about it as a ‘blessing in disguise’, it was horrible but getting to the point where I had to seek help and learning what I had meant I could find out how to fight it.

What surprises me looking back is just how passively I accepted what was happening to me. I was having a bad time anyway and when my anxiety flared up and my OCD became the cruellest, most abusive dictator imaginable who delighten in seeing me torture and humiliate myself, I suppose my strength to fight it was waning. Or I just didn’t know how far it could go. I didn’t think it would leave me in physical and mental agony, I just thought it would eventually die down like it has done before. I will no longer remain so accepting of it. Now if my compulsions come back I fight them. Walking down the street while visiting friends in Hull I had the same nagging voice return, telling me to walk on certain patches of pavement or step there or go back to that and I shouted NO. Out loud, in a (luckily) empty street. There was no way I was letting that nagging voice inside me keep me from going where I needed to go. It helped, strangely enough, I surprised myself with my newfound assertiveness.

The other side of discovering this strength is realising just how weak I was at the time. I now live with the horrible knowledge that my mind is capable of turning against me so entirely that I can’t take care of myself. That is a terrifying thought. I have to be on guard for the rest of my life, and I must learn to accept that what happened before could happen again and I will have to adapt to that and learn how to cope. A stranger at the post office kindly offered me a lift home the other week, and told me she worked in mental health. I said what had happened to me and we discussed just how common these problems were and how they could happen to anybody. I certainly didn’t think I would ever have mental health issues as a part of my life, they were something other people suffered from. Now I know I am no less weak or susceptible than anyone else, which applies to everyone.

Generally I view myself at the time it happened as a stranger. That wasn’t me, it happened to somebody else. Sometimes it comes back, like 5000 volts of electric memory, the times I nearly passed out with exhaustion completing my routines, the times people stared at me or shouted things at me in the street, the time I was stopped by a policeman asking me what was wrong. When I remember, really remember, I feel terrified, vulnerable and lonely. I usually curl up into a ball and tell myself it’s all over now I and I will never be that humiliated or scared again. I have always prided myself on being a strong person, someone with insight and enough emotional intelligence to withstand things. Nothing is more humbling than fully remembering. I don’t really like talking about it that much, and I only do so when I feel it is necessary. I hate listing my tics or discussing them openly, I found it hard enough to write this. I understand terms like ‘mental scars’, what happened was, in every sense, traumatic and it’s a horrible thing to know happened to you.

I’m more aware of myself and the world than ever. Now mental health issues apply to me, they mean a lot to me. I was delighted to hear Jeremy Corbyn had appointed a Minister for Mental Health, and to hear people discussing what needs to be improved in treatment of mental health. I wince if I hear someone who is a bit tidy describe themselves as OCD. I ended up bonding with people around me who had similar issues, and I joined the mental health awareness society at uni. It’s a shame that it took something as dramatic as that to make me take notice of just what a big problem it is. It will remain as an issue close to my heart and I will try to be as helpful as I can to others suffering similar things. The prejudices I had about mental illness have gone and my language has changed. I’m happy to see this happening on a bigger scale, people now seem to seriously debate the issue and try and take down the stigma, and I often find myself against people belittling anxiety, OCD and other disorders, or not changing their language to reduce stigma and false stereotyping. I will always be on the side of political correctness.

So I have emotional and mental scarring, which, while invisible, often feels like I am living after a serious physical injury. Knowing what I have is both a blessing and a curse and will require me to take care of that part of my health for the rest of my life. However it is freeing, knowing I can get over this, I shouldn’t put up with this and I am certainly not alone.