mental health awareness week

The person I mentioned last time I wrote (for the sake of privacy, let’s call them Person) is still in hospital. Having taken the huge, brave step to self-admit into the dark and lonely place that is their local mental health unit, Person got steadily worse and was sectioned just over a week later. Sectioning is where a medical assessment by two independent parties deems that you are a danger to either yourself or others (or both) to such an extent that you must a. go to a mental hospital and b. not be allowed to leave. Ironically, Person was on the list of people for whom I was running the London Marathon (raising money for Mind). I was looking forward to Person cheering me on on the day, but they couldn’t come because they weren’t allowed out of hospital. I wanted to call when I crossed the finish line, to say how the thought of them kept me going when I wasn’t enjoying it at all, but my courage failed me and I haven’t spoken to Person since. Someone else passed on a ‘well done’ from them.

I am not dealing with this well at all. The hospital stay was supposed to be a blip, a sensible precaution whilst medication was changed, something we (Person’s close friends and family) wouldn’t have to think too hard about and could just move on from. There is no measurable progress, there are no metrics, there’s no data I have access to about how Person is doing other than second- or third-hand via others on the phone. And I’m angry. It took me a while to realise it, but I’m really angry. When I found out how serious the situation was, I couldn’t process it – I was exhausted from the marathon training, and now this. It wasn’t fair. I was supposed to be the centre of attention here, the marathon was my moment. And, worse, I would have given (and still would give) anything for it to be me instead.

I cannot bear to think of Person alone in their horrible, bare, suicide-proof room, day after day, with most of their company comprising health professionals whom Person views as captors, or other fellow captives who are in just as bad a state. I can understand now why hospital staff suffer abuse – I want to go and scream at them until they explain what is happening and when Person will be better and why it’s taking so long. I want to scream at them for letting Person get worse, for labelling Person as ‘aggressive’ and ‘paranoid’ and ‘delusional’ and ‘psychotic’ when Person has never been any of these things before. I want to scream at them extra for not providing anything beyond the bare bones of keeping Person washed and fed, for not offering therapy, for the fact that without family and friends to provide a Kindle and a radio and puzzle books and art materials, Person would just be stuck in this hole with no distractions for the vast majority of 24/7.

I also want to scream at God, for not answering my prayers to make Person better. And I want to scream at the other people who also care for Person, for being so stoic and British about the whole thing when it’s a crisis and there should be melodrama because how else can you express the amount of anguish and confusion we’re all being subjected to? And for not telling me everything, immediately, because how can I feel in control and okay if I don’t even know how much I don’t know? Person threw a table at a wall, Person actually left the mental health bit of the building (under escort) for a couple of hours and it was okay, Person snapped their mobile phone in half, all of these are things I found out hours or days after the fact.

Like Person, I know I need help. I’m going to the doctor, to ask for counselling or maybe just permission to take more of my drugs. I should have done this weeks ago when sh*t not only got real but also went down and hit the fan, but I was too busy wading through it, trying to see a way out. But there isn’t one, for now. I just have to start looking after myself again, which is particularly difficult when all I want to do is call down unnumbered curses on myself in the hope that it will somehow deflect the suffering from Person. And there will be an end, Person is safe where they are if not exactly well, and the doctors say things should change for the better soon. Things for me aren’t exactly looking bright but I’m slowly (and resentfully) coming to terms with the fact that depression is a chronic condition I just have to manage, like diabetes, rather than a thing with an end where one day I’ll have an inspirational story of my epic journey to recovery.

It was last time I had counselling that I realised anger could be a mental health issue, and it definitely is for me now. Is it better than the numb emptiness that’s cost me several hours of work over the last few weeks because I just couldn’t drag myself out of bed? I don’t know. What I do know is that mental health isn’t all about nice fluffy success stories. It’s not a thing we should only talk about when the worst is past. It can be horrible and violent and scary and sad (I have family members who don’t read this blog because they find it too upsetting), but it’s reality for lots of people and it won’t get any less scary until it’s brought out into the open and discussed and understood and accepted. For Person, and maybe for myself, I want to help make that happen.

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power

Yesterday I was by a river, and I saw a small gosling trapped against a branch in the water, struggling to paddle away but unable to because the current was too strong. It was too weak, or too young, to make a noise to attract the attention of its parents, and though they eventually saw it , whereupon I left the scene, they apparently weren’t able to help. When I passed back that way later, the gosling was still there, no longer moving. It had given in to exhaustion.

Both parties in this story struck a chord with me. Work is particularly busy for my team at the moment, I’ve just done my longest training run before the looming spectre that is the London Marathon, and I’m still helping at two Rainbow units. The training is so intense I’ve had to sacrifice church on a Sunday morning, to fit in the longest runs with time to recover before work on Monday, and Zumba, because the risk of injury is too high and also I’m just too tired. Those are the two weekly activities I love the most, which bring me joy. And, let’s face it, I don’t even handle things that well when I do have more of the joyful activities and less of the difficult ones. So I feel like that gosling, paddling hard but getting nowhere, without much hope, only circumstance preventing me from being swept away entirely. Powerless.

And there are people in my life who are a bit like the parents. Not in that they’d leave me to die, but in that although they want to help they just don’t understand what sort of help I need. The solutions they offer are for a different problem than the one I have. Their best efforts, the best intentions, will not fix it. And now someone close to me is in hospital because their own mental health is very bad, and I feel like one of those well-intentioned people too. There’s nothing I can do – all the marathon training and fundraising in the world isn’t going to make this person I love a single bit better, and it’s breaking my heart. There is a support group on Facebook for all of the Mind marathon runners and it’s full of positivity and inspirational quotes and encouragement, but none of it is ringing true now. I feel like I was stupid to think I could make things better.

So I can’t fix other people, and I certainly can’t fix myself. I’m too busy feeling bitter and indulging in short term solutions like wine and chocolate to even be able to offer any kind of solidarity. I wanted to beat depression but it’s beating me, and worse, it’s beating people I love. It’s like trying to stop a tank with a stick. I don’t know what I was thinking.

snow

For maybe the first time in my life, I’m not excited that it’s snowing. It isn’t due to any inconvenience – yes, it’s not really cycling to work weather, but the buses are running; yes, my zumba class is cancelled, but getting there would have been dreadful anyway; yes I’m off work, but that’s because I’ve got a cold. I usually love snow – even hearing the phrase ‘it’s snowing!’ makes me excited, and I love just looking at it because it’s so beautiful and bright.

It’s the same with some of my other favourite things – I’ve got a new, bright orange, woolly dress which is really warm, and there’s a vase of flowers on the table from one of my best friends, and my husband just bought me some new loose leaf tea, but somewhere a connection is down and the joy from these things just isn’t getting as far as my brain. Can having a cold affect your ability to feel things? I’m just numb and spaced out and I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know what might help. I want to feel something so much it almost hurts.

burnout

Ironically (and so many things about depression are ironic), as the weather gets colder, I have managed to burn myself out. The combination of work, housekeeping, marathon training, two Rainbow units and preparing for Christmas has finally got to me and I am exhausted. Things came to a head on Thursday evening where nothing went to plan at Rainbows and there were eighteen excitable children running rings round me, all vying for my attention. We reached the end of the meeting and I felt wrung out, and to my horror I started crying and had to hurriedly go and pretend to look for something in the cupboard as they all left.

There were a series of small disasters during the meeting, most of which I should have been able to deal with, but after a day where I had gone for a run in my lunch break and forgotten to bring a snack to give me some energy to face the children, it was too much. The things that went wrong pile up in my head and clubbed together to point me at one conclusion: I had failed. Failed to keep control, failed to make sure the girls all had fun, failed to prepare activities they would enjoy even though I’d tried so hard and everything was planned out. And when I fail, it’s a small step to the certainty that I am a failure.

I’m doing too much. I can’t cope. Yesterday afternoon at work I just started crying at my desk, for no reason except fatigue. None of these things I’m doing (except buying the Christmas presents) are going away any time soon, and if I let one of the spinning plates drop I can’t pick it up again without the others crashing to the floor as well. I have to keep going. But it’s too late – I’ve got a cold, I’ve posted in the online support group for other people mad enough to be running the London marathon next year for Mind asking if it’s okay to rest at all or if I just need to carry on regardless. I’m kind of hoping the response will be carry on, then I’ll know it’s just laziness and I’m being pathetic and I can beat myself up accordingly.

That isn’t what’s happened so far though. Someone has been kind to me in a way I couldn’t to myself, and said it’s okay to stop completely for a bit. If I’m burnt out then I need to look after myself, because I matter, and I need to get better. Getting better won’t happen if I don’t let it. I have permission to recover, from a virtual stranger, but it’s the permission I needed. Now all I have to do is not feel guilty about it.

me too

The #metoo campaign, where women who have experienced sexual assault are encouraged to share their stories on social media, has hit me a lot more strongly than I expected it to. I first saw the tag at the top of my Facebook feed yesterday, shared by a friend, and I had to Google to find out what it meant. Then I kept scrolling, and it just kept appearing. So many of my friends, and I had no idea. My own ‘worst’ experience (look away now if you don’t want to know) was actually when I was at infant school – a group of boys who used to bully me and my best friend once got me into a corner of the playground and made me take my pants off so their ringleader could give the rest of us a rudimentary anatomy lesson, with me as the model. Since then I’ve been groped at a club plenty of times (what woman hasn’t?), and when I went to Morocco aged 15 there were a few similar instances, just without the club.

And I’ve never been physically hurt, and I know it wasn’t my fault, and none of the incidents involved anyone I thought I could trust, but it was abuse, and it was real. And in the past 24 hours I’ve discovered that so many people I love, more than I could ever have guessed, have had that experience too. Of being objectified and degraded, in myriad different ways, at different times and in different places and by different people. I feel sick and helpless. I want to cry, but the depression means I can’t. There is a huge weight of hopelessness lodged in my chest because I want to hurt for all of these friends in solidarity, because what else can I do? It might not even be hopelessness, it’s just a kind of tightness and tension without a lot of actual emotion attached.

Also yesterday I discovered that someone I knew at school, who I actually had a bit of a crush on when I was fourteen, is now a convicted paedophile. His offences span several years. All of his victims are likely experiencing the same kind of crushing darkness that I feel now, and I want to be sad or angry or horrified but I can’t feel it, it’s just blank, like I’m trying to reach something on a shelf that’s just too high for me. And before this all happened I’d started reading A Handmaid’s Tale, so now I want to keep going but it’s really quite hard because it suddenly seems totally plausible and that would be horrifying if my exhausted brain had a setting for that but it doesn’t, I just know on an intellectual level that somehow the horror that’s usually only internal is coming from the outside as well now and there’s nowhere to go to get away.

square one

Last week I had a performance review at work and it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, or maybe I’d been desperately trying not to think about how it would go so the outcome was always going to be a shock, or maybe I have a warped perception of my own capabilities. Either way, I was really disappointed. And I didn’t cry in front of my boss when I got the verdict, and I managed to laugh it off in front of friends as maybe a slight insult to my pride about which I could just feel indignant and a little bit martyred, but actually I’m crushed. This was one of a series of things that happened recently that would probably be humbling for a well-adjusted person, but I’m not one of those, and I don’t do humble so much as I just crumble.

One of the other things happened today. I’ve been going running for a while now, and it started with a local group which lured me in with the promise of a free t-shirt and an ‘all levels’ route back in January. Today was my twentieth session with them, and still I found myself alone at the back, with not only no one else as slow as me but no one willing to join me at my pace for the sake of being sociable. After this long I’m used to being at the back, which is not a common experience for me because usually if I’m not the best at something I ditch it pretty sharpish, but I still find it demoralising and humiliating that I am so *so* much worse than all of the others. When I’m alone I can forget that I’m slow, but having people to compare myself to week after week and consistently coming out as the worst is slowly scraping away at my self-belief. How can I be getting better if I’m still last?

The third thing is more like a collection of things. I had a difficult week at Rainbows last week where my voice was a bit croaky and I couldn’t shout, and I didn’t know the names of the new girls so I couldn’t get their attention, and they were so excitable I could barely breathe for cries of ‘I’m bored’, ‘Can we go to the park?’, ‘Where’s our other leader?’, ‘Are we doing baking today?’, ‘Is it home time yet?’. Rainbows (like work, I thought) is usually something I’m quite good at, so being so out of control was beyond draining. I feel like I’ve lost my authority and I don’t belong. I’m slightly dreading going back.

Which fits in well with the work social I have this week, with some other managers. Who are all men, which scares me for reasons I don’t really understand (maybe because I have vivid memories of the group of boys who used to bully me in the playground when I was six, or because it was a boy who claimed my Lego house as his own when I went to read to Mrs Collins on my first day at school, or because at my segregated-by-sex secondary school one of my few male ‘friends’ made a point of telling me that ‘everyone here [at the boys’ school] takes the p*ss out of you every time you’re mentioned’), but apart from that they’re nearly all more senior and older and much more experienced, and I just feel so little and out of my depth, like hanging round with my big brother’s friends when they came round to our house.

I was doing okay until this time last week, but now I’m just not sure of myself. I had some sort of self-confidence built up, like a fragile teetering Jenga tower, but it’s collapsed now. And it’s a bit pathetic that my self belief can be taken out by a small series of unfortunate events like this, but it’s true. I feel small and incompetent and like I’m not really doing well at anything. Everyone else is better, faster, braver, more confident. I was trying to get there but now I’m back in my place. And maybe I’m a slightly different person to the one I was last time I was here, maybe I’ll bounce back a bit better and the exercise and the daily gratitude and the best support network I’ve ever had will help, but I didn’t really want to be here again at all.

running away

I’ve sort of taken up running, and a couple of weeks ago I started getting really bad pain in my shins. I Googled the symptoms (don’t do this for any symptoms ever, it’s a bad idea) and concluded that I might have fractured both my tibias and that I’d better stop running pronto (or even running at all, heh heh). After a quantity of red tape, I got to see a physiotherapist last week and after yanking my legs around for a bit he assured me that nothing was broken, it was just muscle pain; I could still run.

I could still run, but it might hurt. This was almost a direct analogue of the one piece of advice from my last therapy that really stuck in my head – depression might take away your enjoyment of a thing, or indeed any feelings towards that thing at all, it might sap your motivation to start on that thing and diminish your energy levels when you’re trying to see that thing through, but you can do it anyway. Breaking a leg makes it impossible to run; damaging a muscle doesn’t. Breaking your back makes it impossible to get out of bed – but having depression doesn’t (at least in my case).

Being told by someone who knows what they’re talking about that I can still run, that it’s possible even if it might be the opposite of enjoyable, was as much of a revelation as when I learnt in December that depression does not have to prevent you from doing things. That thought, a bit like Sirius Black’s knowledge of his innocence which the Dementors couldn’t take from him because it wasn’t a happy thought, has stayed with me. I have done a bit less lying in bed – I keep going to work, even on the worst mornings, and I stay my hours even on the bad days, which are as frequent as ever. I did take a break from a couple of things, but I use the time to do other things, not to flop around. Today I’ve scored a major victory by getting home, making muffins (to an unfamiliar recipe), cooking and eating dinner and sitting down to write this, all before the start of the Great British Bake Off.

Sometimes I wonder what the value of this victory is, though. It’s all very well being a functioning member of society who dusts the lounge and puts on a bra to go round the corner to the shops, but going round being functional doesn’t mean I’m enjoying it. Sometimes I do, but sometimes it’s difficult and exhausting and I really really want to just lie on the floor hating myself and not do things any more, maybe forever. But I keep going – it’s almost a habit now, and in a grey logical sort of way I can see that since lying on the floor is something I’ve never enjoyed I’m more likely to feel happy if I do keep doing things I have enjoyed before that if I do that.

But am I fixing the problem, or working round it? Maybe it doesn’t matter. I never seem to get anywhere when I start thinking about that. Back to the running though, that helps. Mostly because I’m not a natural athlete, so it takes all of my concentration to just keep going and there isn’t space left in my head for any of the usual stress. Everything gets left behind. If I can’t lie on the floor for the rest of time, maybe running would be an acceptable alternative. But, as with all things that help in the short term, when I’m not doing it it doesn’t help. Not in a way I can measure and believe, anyway. So I’ve been running away for months now, and I can keep doing it – regularly, if not perpetually – but I’m not sure where it’s getting me.

no it wasn’t

So begins a poem by Adrian Mitchell called ‘Nothingmas Day’, about an ordinary day which is not Christmas. Sometimes a Nothingmas is all I want – ‘the quiet of
unsung carols and the merry silence of the steeple bell’ is all I can deal with. At the risk of sounding like Romans 7, it’s not that I want to do nothing, but there are plenty of things I want to specifically not do. This evening I am not going to the pub with my colleagues, which means I am neither using up my dangerously low energy reserves engaging with people nor anxiously preserving that energy in a corner. I did not stay at the office until all of my team had left, because I’d done my hours and I was exhausted.

This weekend, I hope to not worry about the people I’ve been most worried about this week, because I’m not their mum or the self-care police and worrying isn’t going to help any of us. I’m going to not call the bank and not go into town to face the crowds of tourists and not think about work. Right now I’m not going to zumba because I’ve hurt my foot and it needs to get better, and I’m not going to eat all the biscuits in the house because although I get a kind of savage enjoyment from doing things that I know I will strongly regret later I can see far enough into the future to know that’s not a good idea.

…And such is my inertia that I wrote all of that on Friday and now it’s Monday and I was late for work because I stayed in bed for two hours after my alarm and here I am on the sofa instead of having a bath or doing the specific piece of self-care I wrote down yesterday because I knew I wouldn’t be able to think of any today, with my unwashed hair and tight chest, listening to upbeat music in the hope that it will have some kind of healing effect. But it’s not working, I’m not working, I’m just dragging myself through the day and I don’t know who to talk to or how to make it better, and I’ll never get off these drugs and I need to practise for the half marathon I entered, as if I believed in myself that much, but I need to rest and I can’t rest because I’m anxious and I’m anxious because I can’t rest. I can’t do anything useful but this leaden despair is the opposite of restful. What I most want to not do is feel like this.

reprieve

I think this is what it feels like to be a normal person. I’ve got energy (sometimes) and optimism (sometimes) and things that have been on my to do list for months are finally getting done. I’ve finally followed advice people have been giving me for years about giving up some of the things I used to do which gave me more stress than joy, and it actually seems to be helping. I jumped in a river the other day, fairly spontaneously, and at the weekend I painted my nails. It seems so ironic that the little things I’m supposed to do to help myself get easier the more I do them in exactly the same way that the little things I’m not supposed to do get harder and harder to stop once I’ve started.

And I’ve got feelings, sometimes more than I know what to do with. There were some big changes at work last week which were announced quite suddenly and I was caught off guard and I just cried. And then I looked at my watch and realised I was supposed to be in a meeting and stopped, and then I got home and cried some more. On my current medication I quite often can’t cry and right now my Dad is ill and one of my best friends has just been diagnosed with depression and anxiety too and instead of just having that in a big blob in my chest I could just express my sadness like a normal person and feel a bit better.

And yet there’s always the background spectre of wondering whether this will last, whether it’s just an illusory collection of endorphins and sugar and caffeine and maybe hysteria because of all the pain, or whether this time that will be it and I’m done. Given my family history that does not seem likely. But I should probably just not think about it too much now, because when it stops again I won’t be able to remember what it feels like to be this okay anyway so it’s not as if I’ll be able to miss it. At the moment I can even relish feeling sad because it’s so much more wholesome than the tight restrictive despair I’m used to. But I’m not sad at the moment.

patience

Like probably every parent ever, my mum often used the phrase ‘Patience is a virtue’. When I got older, I would retaliate with ‘Well, it’s not one of mine’. It never has been, and whatever all the experts say about mental plasticity I’m not sure it ever will be. Right now I’m recovering from tonsillitis and it is one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in a long time. It had me completely floored for over a week – I’ve been slurping cough medicine like water and sleeping during the day and drinking cheap scotch for medicinal purposes and it still hasn’t gone away. It’s a bit like a mini version of my journey with depression, except no one is telling me to take up yoga or go gluten free.

Also the tonsillitis is viral so I don’t get medication and I just have to wait it out. To be honest I’m not sure how much the medication helps with my depression these days anyway. A similarity is that I’m bombarded, more so than usual now I have a minor physical ailment that people can identify with, by messages from people insisting that I rest. My mum, my boss, people at church, my husband (well, he always says that, but who listens to advice from someone close to them unless it ties in with what they want to do…?) – it will come back or get worse if I don’t rest, I mustn’t just dive back into everything, I have to take things slowly.

What no one seems to realise is I find this so damn difficult. I don’t like to stop and take stock (which incidentally is one reason I don’t do so well at noticing if I’m getting better – I don’t want to make a journal or a mood graph because what if it just shows me it’s all going down the pan? One bit of my husband’s advice I did actually take was to stop tracking my sleep, because if I had even half an hour less than the nightly amount I’d set myself, I expected to be tired and it made things worse. Apparently when it comes to sleep deprivation, ignorance is bliss). I’m scared that if I stop I just won’t start again. I need momentum to keep me going, not endless cups of fruit tea and reruns of the Great British Bake Off.

Also I get stressed, even (especially) when my other emotions aren’t really working, and if I can’t do something active there’s no way to let it off. Talking helps, but I can’t even do that without coughing. I want to go running and dance to the radio, even just empty the dishwasher without feeling worn out afterwards. Yesterday I had to go out and ended up doing 10,000 steps, which is supposed to be an average day for a fairly healthy person, and my legs ached all evening. I can’t even cry, not about myself and not about horrible things in the news – the drugs don’t let me most of the time and anyway I probably don’t have the energy. Resting would probably be easier if I cared about myself, but I don’t. I’m fed up.