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.

 

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.

My Psychological Connection to ‘Hannibal’ (last post about Hannibal I maybe promise)

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This will be a slightly self indulgent and fan wanky post about my favourite show (yet again) but I just wanted to record and organise my thoughts about it and how much I relate.

I’ve been looking up Empaths and Highly Sensitive People and I think I may partially be in the same category. Looking up the traits, I tick a lot of them off. Random unexplained pains, a feeling of “just knowing” or understanding things, connection to animals, dislike of conflict etc, etc,… The last one particularly. When people are arguing near me, even if it is about something trivial or just a superficial debate, it is something I can’t stand. The second voices are raised I have to leave the room. It’s hard to explain, but I almost feel like they are angry at me and I can feel the bad ‘vibes’ (no better word) from their emotions in my own body to the point I feel physically ill. I can’t even watch question time. I openly cry at sad films; scenes of cruelty, particularly to animals, really shit me up. I can sense people’s inner motivations better than most. I often have mild out of body experiences, suddenly overwhelmed with the miraculous coincidence of my existence and I have to shake myself back into reality. I have vivid dreams and they start as I’m falling asleep. When I close my eyes clear images appear and sometimes my thoughts are so loud they sound like they are coming from the outside. My relationship with reality is… fractured. I don’t have full on hallucinations or anything, I just find it hard to keep entirely focused on what is happening and not daydream. Particularly if what is happening is dull and mundane (even if it is incredibly important). This is frustrating, for me and everyone else.

If I am an empath, it is something I share with Hannibal protagonist Will Graham. He uses his mind to profile criminals, I mainly use mine for writing and sussing people out. I’m realising more and more how much I relate to Will Graham, and not just with his love of dogs. In the first season Jack says “Will deals with huge amounts of fear, it comes with his imagination” Alana Bloom replies “It’s the price of imagination”. This fully resonates with me. I have recently realised that I suffer from anxiety, manifesting itself in OCD. Internet jokes about Will’s “unstable” nature helped me learn to laugh at a recent and overwhelming bout of anxiety. It’s wonderful to see a show that accurately represents what it is like to live with these traits and the downsides, and to celebrate the benefits of it. Will is invaluable to the FBI, his mind is the best tool they have and he’s every bit as emotional and dreamy and neurotic as me. It shows my unreal mind does not make me useless and laughable in the real world, it just means I have a different role to play.

As I’ve learned more about my mind and its qualities I have become more defensive of it and more confident. I can now explain my own way of seeing the world and defend myself when people call me lazy, over sensitive or out of touch with reality. I especially react strongly if people dismiss my emotions, or emotions in general, as “silly”, “illogical” or “crazy”.Emotions make sense if you have enough sensitivity to understand them. It’s a cold hearted and dismissive person who thinks emotions are irrelevant. Emotions can form the basis of opinions without voiding said opinions. Why else would you form a particular opinion without feeling something about it first? And if I start crying during an argument it’s because I hate arguments and I’ve been holding in the tears for hours, not to “emotionally blackmail” you. Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller has spoken of his love of “emotional plotting”. In Hannibal hallucinations appear as though they were real. Visual metaphor and magical realism also play a huge role, always being prioritised over grit and realism. It has always been an insecurity of mine as a writer that I could never come up with an intricate, world spanning plotline like George R.R. Martin, I have always had a concept or feeling to communicate and struggled to come up with a solid, workable plot to weave it into. The meaning comes before the means. This is what makes ‘Hannibal’ a unique and beautiful show, rather than a weakness. I love seeing something that reflects my approach.

The cinematography of Hannibal is like seeing my view of reality played out on a screen for the first time. Much has been written about the detail and artistry of the look of ‘Hannibal’. Every set is impeccable, the clothes are gorgeous and even the murders are Gothic masterpieces. I usually can’t watch murder shows as their bleak aesthetics get me down, I need to surround myself with intricate, beautiful things to feel comfortable. Any bedroom I’ve ever had has always been a bit of a visual cacophony, the wall of my room in my old-old house (I’ve moved six times) looked like a huge collage. I can’t stand bare, minimalist spaces. ‘Hannibal’ is deliberately, defiantly baroque and macabre and beautiful. What fascinated me was the attention to tiny details that usually get missed. I have often been teased for finding myself transfixed with things that don’t seem especially exciting. Seeing an extended close up shot of milk billowing like a nebula in a cup of coffee on ‘Hannibal’ was seeing my worldview finally understood. There is beauty, cosmic beauty, in the most mundane places and the makers of the show understand that. Whether it’s watching the way steam rises from a kettle and swerves and curves past the kitchen cupboards above it or the way blood mixes with milk, there is artistry everywhere if you know where to look. ‘Hannibal’ knows where to look and every frame is a masterpiece.

The strangely romantic relationship between Will and Hannibal has been explained by way of their understanding of one another. Even when Will knows what Hannibal is he can’t resist someone who ‘gets’ him. Whoever you are and whatever your mind, finding someone or something that seems to 100% understand you is rare and sometimes never happens. For me, so far, its ‘Hannibal’. It is reassuring in a world that sometimes dismisses and belittles me to know there is a piece of art and pop culture that will always psychologically have my back. Now I just need to get a job writing for them…

For the love of God – improve funding for mental health

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“Write hard and clear about what hurts” – Ernest Hemingway.

It has taken me some time to pluck up the courage to write about this, but I feel as someone who aspires to being a writer and someone who is finally in a place good enough to talk about this, I have a responsibility to shout into the ether of the ‘net what happened to me. Or rather, in me.

All my life I have suffered, or put up with, anxiety and OCD. It’s always been low level, flaring up like acne in times of stress. However so far it has always been something I could live with.

This changed around spring this year. I was having a bit of a bad time. I was living in a cold, dark, miserable house at uni. My finances weren’t great and looking to get worse. My family were moving away from the lovely house we had lived in for two years without me there to psychologically separate from it. I was lonely most of the time. I come from a busy and noisy family and despite living with 8 people I spent sometimes whole days on my own in my room, my flatmates quite understandably spending time with their partners and revising. On top of that there was an illness in the family. This was all getting me down, things really got bad when I was hit with unusually bad insomnia.

I’m usually a great sleeper, as soon as my head hits the pillow I’m off.Then one night I just didn’t sleep. I freaked out so much about it I didn’t sleep the next night. This continued, I knew it was because I was anxious about not sleeping that I wasn’t sleeping, vicious circles and everything. I would dread going to bed and would often end up staring up into the dark, frozen with fear about not sleeping. Other people may have brushed it off, watched a dvd and tried again later, I just couldn’t for some reason.

This anxiety over not sleeping brought the OCD on. If you know me you’re probably thinking “you are the least likely candidate for OCD ever” and you’d be right. I’m messy, disorganised, I hate order and routine. But the thing is, like most mental health issues, 99% of what you hear about OCD is utter bullshit. Condensed into an easy to swallow, watered-down concept they can make freakshow documentaries about. Mine, much to my flatmates dismay, did not take the form of tidying. I would get the compulsion to do rituals and physical tics, pointless activities to temporarily settle my anxiety. I restricted myself unnecessarily as well, in what I watched, read and ate. The words I used, my nights out, and so on. For a while it was merely a pain in the arse to deal with. Even then I didn’t think it was pointless and I should stop, I just saw it as my own personal burden I had to ever so catholicly deal with. People asked me why I was walking funny, or performing arbitrary routines and I would brush it off and change the subject.

After Easter break it very quickly spiralled out of control. I wasn’t eating enough and I lost a lot of weight. Routines and stupid rituals could take up hours of my day and physically exhaust me. My knees were in agony due to an ongoing tic of sitting up and down in chairs for literally hours. I had blisters on my hands. I was dehydrated. The worst one, the one that made me realise I truly needed help, was walking. My trip to uni featured lots of different pavement slabs and patchy tarmacing and my OCD compelled me to walk on certain things in certain ways, sometimes going back to them several times. A journey that took 15 minutes normally got longer and more frustrating. One day it took an hour and 45 minutes. I came home and collapsed in a chair, sobbing. The journey was hell, I was in tears most of the time, paralysed with panic and trying desperately trying to steady my breathing and wishing someone would break away from their life and rescue me. I knew then I absolutely had to tell someone, which naturally terrified me. I thought people would think I was a nutcase, I thought I was a nutcase. No one wants to be labelled. It was walking home that finally rescued me. My friend Jennie blessedly found me a few days later trying to complete the same journey and failing. She smilingly asked me how I was and I broke down in tears. She took me home and I told her what was happening. She, and everyone else (with one exception whom I will not name) was of course overwhelmingly kind. People are like that, most of the time. I bought my flatmates prossecco to say thank you. The next week or so they took me to doctor’s appointments and meetings at uni to get extensions on my coursework which had become an insurmountable task to do. They made me cups of tea and talked to me, and walked me to and from uni. They were angels. They didn’t judge me or laugh, they stayed up stupidly late while I did my batshit routines and even cooked for me. Eventually I went home and slowly but surely got better. These days it is still present but not overwhelming. The kindness of others was not something that gave out on me.

The problems came with trying to get solid medical help. A psychiatrist in A&E gave me my options but could offer me no real help there and then. I couldn’t get a doctors appointment in time and had to wait til I got home. A doctor called the emergency mental health team, who didn’t see me as an emergency as I wasn’t suicidal or harming myself or others. Eventually I got put on a six week waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy. Another doctor prescribed me prozac, which has worked.

Everyone I spoke to was sympathetic but told me I would have to wait. Admitting you have a mental health issue takes time and a crapload of courage. Once you’ve told someone, you want and expect help straight away. Then you’re told you’re going to have to wait even longer.You are torturing yourself and humiliating yourself and you get a waiting list. Everyone said the same thing, mental health is the worst and most underfunded part of the NHS.

I love the NHS, I think it’s the thing we should be the most proud of as Brits. Mental health is stigmatised, misunderstood (“I have to tidy! I’m so OCD!”) and not physically apparent. You have to be suicidal to get immediate help. The way we see mental health has come on leaps and bounds, half a century ago I may have just been lobotomised, locked up and forgotten about like a minor royal (ouch). I’m grateful to have been born when I was born. Things still need to improve however.

What startled and upset me when I told people what was happening with me was how many people shared similar experiences. Nearly everyone I know had dealt with depression, anxiety or some other disorder at some point. This isn’t something other people have to deal with. I always thought that. Now I realise it is incredibly common and present in people from all walks of life. Any other type of illness this omnipresent would take up a sizeable chunk of the NHS, yet it seems near impossible to get help quickly and effectively. Things aren’t looking good with the outcome of the latest election either. My stepdad, who is ill, joked “I’ll be dead and you’ll be a looney!”.

The whole of the NHS is suffering but, like mental health sufferers themselves, this part of the NHS is shuffling along, neglected, silent and misunderstood by many for far too long. This isn’t the problem of exceptional individuals you don’t know, I guarantee you know someone who has suffered from mental health issues. Maybe you’ve had them yourself. I’m still getting better and I’m finally understanding what I have and what it will mean for the rest of my life. Many others are still living in the dark and we need to help them, right now.

I don’t know who exactly this post is addressed to. You, George Osbourne, The media, the general public, the Government, the Health service. I just hope someone hears.