The perks of being used to discomfort

I haven’t written in a while. I am working on two big new projects, which will both be near completion over the coming months, but which have taken up a lot of my time and thinking space. I am also building a baby in my belly, which takes up the rest of my space. This has left my blogging time lacking, but I had a thought this morning that I wanted to write about, so here I am!

As I have just mentioned, I am pregnant. My body is not hugely enjoying pregnancy, my hips are rebelling with a passionate protest, making most movements something I have to carefully consider before I make them. My feet are swelling, my rings are starting to risk being permanently embedded in my fingers, my head aches most days pretty badly, my breath is short and my energy is non existent.

These are all pregnancy symptoms and therefore not really surprising! However, they are uncomfortable, painful and have made life on a day to day basis more of a challenge than I am used to.

However, I am used to chronic fatigue, depression and anxiety. I have lived the last 18 months or so, in an increasingly small world. The chronic fatigue has left me having to consider every diary entry carefully, the anxiety has got me very used to lack of breath, the depression has meant I am very accustomed to mood swings of extreme and lengthy proportions and the combination has meant that pain is a regular factor in my life.

My point, is that whilst I am uncomfortable the majority of the time at the moment, and in pain (often considerable) on a daily basis and I am really enjoying being pregnant.

I wondered this morning whether this is because these feelings, whilst worse than usual, are not new to me. If I was normally fit and healthy, would I find it harder to be so incapacitated by pregnancy? The fact that illness is a regular theme of my life, may have made it easier to be ill during pregnancy.

I find that I am able to notice and get excited by the positive side of being pregnant, the kicks and the growing bump, the novelty factors really. The illness is just a part of life, it’s my usual day to day baggage, and therefore is manageable.

I may be completely wrong, and honestly, I am only half way through so give me another 10 weeks and I may be begging them to get the baby out! However, for now, I am feeling content and happy. I am enjoying the fun side without being too overwhelmed by the bad.

This contentment, this morning, made me happy. I like there being a positive end goal to the pain. It somehow makes it less boring than the usual stuff I live with.

The value of talking

There is a lie that society tells us. There is increasing awareness of this lie, and growing numbers of people speaking out to put an end to it. The problem is, it is so embedded in our society that whilst we might understand the theory, when we are impacted personally the lie suddenly seems so much more believable.

 

That lie is that mental illness is shameful, weak and something to hide. That those we love, when they realise what we are – what we have – will question our character and our strength, will doubt our ability to function ‘normally’ and will undoubtedly rethink their relationship with us.

 

This lie is corrosive and alarmingly prevalent. All of us will know someone with poor mental health – whether we are aware of that fact or not – and many of us will have supported and loved them regardless. However, when we get hit by poor mental health ourselves, we start to believe the lie. We know the theory, its nothing to be ashamed of, it can happen to anyone, our friends and family will still love us – and yet the lie still sinks itself into our mind.

 

This is part of the illness, it is the lie bought about by a mind that is suddenly our enemy and it is a lie that kills.

 

Today is time to talk day. A day that encourages us to talk about mental health with friends, family and colleagues. This is not something restricted to those with poor mental health – we all have mental health that needs care.

 

There is something incredibly liberating about talking about mental ill health with someone and finding that they are not going to walk away. If we don’t talk about it, we keep this lie building and growing, it is fed by our silence.

 

It doesn’t only help us individually though, I have found that when I speak about my own struggle with depression and anxiety others start speaking about theirs. There is encouragement in hearing others talking about it as an illness, not a weakness or failing. We find out we are not alone, not pathetic, not broken and not abandoned. Talking helps everyone involved in the conversation to have a better understanding of the nature and dangers of silence, it helps us love each other better and it helps us recognise the enormity of the lie we have believed.

 

If you get a chance today (or any day) talk about mental health. There will be someone you know who is living with a mental health problem in silence out of shame and fear. Your starting that conversation could liberate them and potentially aid them in not sinking further into the darkness.

The myth of the ‘Fresh Start’

Every year at this time I start looking to the next year; I’m not a fan of new years resolutions, because I can’t keep them, but I start a general contemplation of what the year will hold.

  

I think its weird that one day to another can be such a huge line in the sand that indicates a fresh start. The problem though is that there isn’t really any such thing as a true fresh start – unless you get amnesia and don’t know who you are, but I doubt that would be a very satisfactory fresh start really.

  

The new year ‘hope’ that comes each year is the point at which I think ‘this is my chance’ but I think what I hope for is essentially a character change. The new year might open my mind up to the possibilities but it isn’t going to change who I am.

  

For some reason every year, I look ahead and see myself getting better, getting fit, eating healthy, staying on top of housework, and accomplishing wonders in my work. Thing is though, that I don’t think, even if I was well enough I would ever be that person. I am not really terribly ambitious, I have always erred on the side of laziness around the house, and exercise is far from the list of my favourite things.

  

Each year I buy into the myth that ‘this year will be different’ without actually working out how to make it so. I am so busy ‘hoping’ for change that I don’t really pause to consider what it would look like to make it happen. I mean, I do on the micro – you know, go to the gym, get healthy cooking books, write for 8 hours a week – but life is too messy for this to be sustainable on the macro.

  

This week I had a conversation with one of my favourite people who is starting to sink into the very familiar hole of hopelessness bought on by depression. And a couple of weeks ago I spoke to my psychiatrist who said that really he would prefer it if I stayed on my meds as my depression is recurrent and clinical and therefore likely to return on a scale similar to that of my last breakdown at some point.

  

For me, and my friend and so many others who are struggling to get by on the day to day level, the new year hope can actually be quite depressing. The fresh start is already slightly muddy.

  

Essentially I see it as looking out of the window after a fresh snow fall and seeing all this nice white snow, then getting outside and its already sludge.

 

Fresh starts are not really possible, we take the baggage of life and believe that it will suddenly become lighter because it is January again.

  

However, this doesn’t mean that new year can’t be an opportunity for hope. Looking back on the year I have had I see where things have worked and where things have gone wrong. I am more aware that my hope for change is largely based on my desire to be someone else, and so looking into 2016 I can think about how I can become more content and excited by the fact that I am just me.

  

This year, as I look ahead, I have the same old hope but it feels slightly less pressurised. I don’t feel that by December next year I will need to be a domestic goddess and an incredibly successful something professionally, I can look at it and hope that maybe I will grow a little here and change a little there, but maybe, most of all I can hope that I will be happier that I am me, and that being me is enough.

 

Now I am going to go have a drink. Happy new year!

Why it hurts – #kenlivingstone

Ken Livingstone has come out with some extraordinary comments today about depression.

 

He was appointed to the Labour defence review, which caused much comment – including comments made by Kevan Jones, MP for Durham North.

  

In response to these particular comments Mr Livingstone said ‘I think he might need psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.’

  

On LBC he was pushed to apologise, but apparently refused, because ‘He was rude about me, I was rude back to him, he needs to get over it’ and said he wouldn’t have said what he said had he known that Mr Jones had had depression.

 

The problem is, the comments he made were bad enough – ridiculing someone’s mental health as a response to political criticism is appalling. However, the comment that he wouldn’t have said it had he known Mr Jones had had depression feels even worse to me.

 

Initially, it appeared to be a personal jab at someone who had upset him. Cruel and unkind – but personal. It turns out however, that Mr Livingstone seems to think that having depression is something to ridicule. It was a statement, not targeting Mr Jones personal history, rather sending the message to all those that have depression to stay silent. That due to their illness they have no place making comment or joining debate.

 

The implication, by his own reasoning, is that he thinks that those with depression are disturbed and not of value in the public forum. They should seek medical help (which, incidentally, is not all that easy to get for such conditions) and shut up.

 

It hurts, because it is cruel, ignorant and by his own admission, generalised not just to bring down one political opponent, but to comment on all those who really should just go off to their GP and keep their heads down to prevent their disturbed ideas spilling out into the public forum.

 

These comments are what keep people silent and afraid. These are the comments that ensure that people don’t seek help until often it is too late. This is the stigma that makes having a mental health problem scary, because on top of living with the war raging in your head, you have to deal with the ignorance of people who really should know better.

 

Rant. Done.

 

(This is no comment on his politics… Just his insensitive and unhelpful comments on mental health!)


Mr Livingstone has now issued an apology for his comments on twitter. It has been encouraging to see such a sharp and fast response to entirely unacceptable remarks. 

The Ghost Life

Every now and then I re read all the Harry Potter books. I am just starting them again now and whilst reading the first one I got to thinking about Professor Binns. 

Professor Binns is a teacher at Hogwarts, he teaches History of Magic, and one day he had a nap in the staff room at school and died, he however got up in ghost form, leaving his body behind and continued teaching as normal.

I love this little story, I feel it is a wonderful analogy for depression when reversed. See, on really bad days, I feel like my body gets out of bed, leaving the ghost of me behind. I am an empty shell wandering around. Life sort of happens around me, without my really being quite aware of what is going on. Or rather than being unaware it can feel like watching yourself go through the motions, as if from afar, it’s that sort of out of body experience.

Everything is slightly detached, dampened, life feels somewhat slower and like it is happening to you without any active participation. Similarly to what I imagine a ghost feels like – you are present but not able to participate. You cannot feel, or taste, somehow things seem less, but, at the same time you are conscious of the loss you are experiencing. Aware that you would like to feel again, mourning the happiness you can see but is somehow out of reach. 

However, I like neat and tidy analogies to explain away how I am feeling, and whilst Binns offers something that really does seem to cover me for depression, he doesn’t really get the heart racing like anxiety. 

The Harry Potter world does, however, offer a wonderful analogy to partner with good old Binns. Peeves. The constant threat around the castle of a sudden ambush by walking sticks or chalk, or the sudden shock of him appearing from nowhere, his ability to cause you shame and humiliation and panic. 

With the new diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) I feel like I am living the ghost life. It isn’t sucking away my happiness (although the more my energy fades the more the depression threatens to resurface), I just feel the same sort of detachment from life I did at the height of depression. 

Things just happen around me. I feel disconnected from active participation in the world and keep trying to get myself motivated with promises of adventures and trips, but really, I don’t have the energy for that anyway. 

Perhaps this is what CFS does. Where depression took my happiness and will, but left me with a physical capacity for activity, CFS has left me my happiness and will and taken my ability to do anything with it. Both seem to have left me with the same result – a feeling of increasing isolation and withdrawal from the world. And that constant threat of anxiety, suddenly appearing from nowhere, leaving me with a heart racing and a screaming doubt that things will ever return to ‘normal’.

Sometimes life sucks, but I do love a good analogy, and one that comes from the world of Harry Potter is enough to make my whole day happier and more alert! 

WMHD – an encouraging day!

Today has been a really encouraging day for me.

 

I have spent the day in Hammersmith taking part in the Big Mental Health day. A conference, unsurprisingly, looking at mental health in the context of church and how the church can better engage with and care for those in their communities and congregations with mental health problems, as well as look after our own mental health.

 

The theme of the day was ‘us not them’ and was exploring the fact that when we talk about people with mental health problems, we talk about ‘them’, failing to recognise or remember that we all have mental health, we all have to look after our mental health, just some of us have more trouble with this than others.

 

We need to talk about mental health as ‘our’ problem, in order to engage with the fact that it WILL impact on us all, whether personally or due to someone close to us.

 

However, the big mental health day was just one conference in a day that has been noted all over the world. If you look at the #WMHD hash tag there are SO many people talking about it. Whether it is their experiences, or training resources, or hopeful stories, or just an acknowledgment of the scale of the issue we are facing – people are talking about mental health.

 

This is such an encouragement, as, year by year, we are seeing more people engage with an issue that will effect everyone of us in our lifetimes. 1 in 4 people will have a mental health problem in any given year – which means we will all know someone who is living with and fighting mental ill health.

 

It is extraordinary to me that stigma still exists in association with something that is so prevalent, and yet it does. I was asked recently ‘what is the most shocking thing you have heard in relation to mental health?’ but in reality, the more appalling statements seem easier to dismiss as idiotic, the shocking thing is that people still believe (and it is alarmingly common) that people with depression are dangerous. Or that it is a sign of weakness or failing to be diagnosed with a mental health problem. It is shocking to me that people still feel the need to hide their mental health problems, because the negative responses are still a major problem and induce feelings of shame or fear in those already struggling too much.

 

This stigma though, is changing. Increasingly people are feeling brave and bold enough to speak out about their experience. Other people are listening and learning, wanting to know how they can support a loved one or colleague. Organisations are asking people to come in and talk to them about it, wanting to explore how they can care for their staff better. Today, I was one small part of a world wide conversation talking about mental health – and it is incredibly exciting.

 

So, as I sit here beginning to dose and my brain turning foggy, I feel encouraged by the changes and conversations happening across the world, today at least, I feel hopeful!

Change induced brain malfunction

I saw my psychiatrist on Monday and was happily chatting to him about how well I was doing. Exhausted, yes – but seeing someone else about that. Anxiety still bad, yes – but I am pretty good at managing that. It was my mood that I was really excited about.

For the past few months my mood has been potentially more stable than for the past decade. Or that’s how it feels anyway. Life has settled in the past few months, I know where I stand on most things and I feel safe.

Change though, is an inevitable part of life and although I may try to avoid it wherever humanly possible (just try getting me to eat the ‘wrong’ type of muesli in the morning) every now and then it pops up.

It is in these moments that I am suddenly aware that perhaps things are not quite so stable as I would like or have believed. This morning, I called my GP – my wonderful, patient, wish she was my friend GP. Someone who has fought my corner fiercely over the past few years and has been the one I always go back to when a referral goes wrong, or whatever else I might need.

I called, and found out she had left. I have been crying at anything and everything since. I read an article and cried, I read a text and cried, I hugged my husband and cried, I got cold toes and cried, my blood test results have gone missing and I cried. I haven’t cried in quite such an unstable manner for a while.

Whilst I concede it has only been a few hours, there is something significant and sad about my reaction to this change. My mood is stable, most of the time these days, but then I haven’t had any knocks or shocks in a few months, and here, when one comes I feel my brain sinking into a darker place, I feel my anxiety rising even higher than normal. Whilst I know it will pass, and I will get a new doctor and they may be equally brilliant and wonderful it is a knock that throws open a whole bag of thoughts that I had thought I had tidied away.

Is it wishful thinking that got me to this point? Am I actually as unstable as ever, just more withdrawn and isolated, have I just cushioned the effects of the illness and hidden them away?

It is a reminder that depression can improve, that you can recover and do really well, but that things can cause you to slip, for your mind to tumble a long way in a short time, and that the recovery comes in stages. It is a reminder that I won’t be ill one minute and well the next. This small shock that many would dislike, but not all would melt over seems to have caused my brain to go into a spin and question every part of life – marriage, home, work, purpose and meaning. Am I safe? Is life stable? What else is about to go terribly wrong?

My rational brain can see the irrational thoughts and laugh at them, and perhaps this is the biggest indication of change in my mood. I can see that things are actually ok, I can recognise that life is stable, I know that I have tidied up the panicked and rampaging thoughts before, and that whilst they may affect my mood whilst they run chaotically through my mind, I know I will collect them again and get back to a more stable mood.

It’s just frustrating to objectively look at what has just happened in my mind and know that it isn’t really real, but that it has made me a tearful wreck, all because of one small, sharp, shock.

The biggest lesson of the day though, is that changing Doctors SUCKS!

Rush hour panic

Most of the time I have my anxiety relatively well under control, but every now and then it slips out and I find that I am entirely overwhelmed by my situation.

Such was the case today. Victoria station, rush hour. I normally avoid rush hour, or plan ahead, but today I was exhausted, my legs were already wobbly, my breathing already shallow and, whilst it shouldn’t be a contributing factor, my phone was dead. I had totally failed to consider that when I got off my train I would be entering the mayhem and anxiety inducing chaos of Victoria station in rush hour.

It is hard to adequately explain what happens when an anxiety attack hits, but here goes.

It starts with the image of hundreds of people, many with suitcases, ahead. Then you are amongst them, all walking at different speeds, some pushing, some dawdling, some deciding to stop directly ahead. A ton of noise all bouncing around and the battle to find the exit.

All of this causes my brain to freeze, the oxygen is apparently sucked out of the air, my legs get wobblier, my vision goes slightly blurry. Each bump and shove causes me to mutter and mumble aloud – nothing distinct really, but a vague sort of panic bought on by the chaos of the situation.

I find a quiet (ish) corner and breathe slowly for a few minutes, convincing myself that the world isn’t actually falling apart, it is possible to reach the bus and then the safety of home, and that actually if I just take a few steps I will be fine.

When I got home, I was all wound up. Writing this has calmed me down. Now I might have a proper conversation with my husband, and a cuddle with the dog and admire the rainbow and stunning sky out of the window.

Interestingly, in the midst of this panic, I overheard a snippet of conversation, and it stuck. So, to the man running a half marathon on the 29th November, I hope it goes well!

Feelings

Most of the time I doubt that what I feel is real. There is that thing, always in the back of my mind informing me that I am a hypochondriac. That really I could do a lot more than I do, I am lazy, without drive.

If I say I feel sad, I think I must probably be unworthy of the feeling. If I feel overwhelmed, I am painfully aware that I am just weak. If I feel trapped, I know I have trapped myself, because if I just pulled myself together, pushed through the pain, I would probably be fine. 

I don’t trust what I feel, as I know that often, what I feel is not what is real. However, that means that the impact of those feelings is often dismissed and ignored. I don’t really know how to find the balance, where I trust that the emotions I feel are real, even if they are there due to illness not circumstance.

My years with depression though, seem to have led me to distrust every feeling I have. The non emotional ones too. So currently, I feel a constant weight of guilt that I am not exercising, working and staying active. The reality is that when I do, I get dizzy, lose coordination in my arms and legs and start slurring my words, but all of this surely could be overcome if I just pulled myself together?

I don’t really know how to move past this inability to trust my body and feelings. To cut myself some slack for my current largely inactive state of being. Perhaps it is the deep and somewhat desperate desire to be able to live a more active life that is turning my illness into a weight of guilt. Perhaps it is the ongoing journey of recovery from depression, the decade long habit of guilt being the predominant response to any perceived failure I see in my life.

I feel though that something has to give. I would like my health, physically to be the thing that does – that energy would suddenly appear, but I suspect it may in fact be how I respond to myself that needs to change.
Perhaps really, I need to just let go of the life I think I ought to have now, and find the joy in the life I am living. But saying ‘just’ seems to trivialise the enormity of that task.
A friend once said to me ‘don’t should on yourself’ and I find that it was possibly the best and hardest advice I have ever been offered. So, my new adventure of attempting to let go of the ‘ought’ and ‘should’ parts of my life is going to begin.
It ought to be fun….

Where is God?

I process the thoughts in my head through writing, it is how I work out where I am at and when I write it is sort of like unblocking a drain and watching the water wash away. Usually I write very quickly, in a rush of thought as I empty my brain, but on the subject of Gods location in the midst of struggle that doesn’t seem to work, I find myself struggling to verbalise the swirl of thoughts in my head.

I mention this because in my last blog I asked the question – where is God in the continual battle and never changing story? And I want to respond to this question – not in a ‘TA DA! I know it ALL!’ sort of way, more in a ‘here is my thinking’ sort of way. So here goes, this is where I think God is in the midst of the struggle of getting by day by day.

It is very easy when talking to someone who is struggling to get by to offer a trite and simple answer, but this more often than not – unless coming out of sincere relationship and understanding of the situation of the one you are talking to – makes the recipient angry! The bible however, is where I find an answer that is neither simple nor irritating, but real. Throughout the bible we meet character after character who lived lives that were hard. Some were hard because of poverty, some due to illness, some due to persecution, some due to God’s call on their lives. The reality is though, that finding someone in the bible who lived free of suffering is not possible.

This continues in the new testament – which is full of references to caring for the widow, the orphan and the slave. The happy news the gospel brings does not mean that accepting it into our lives means we will live happy, easy lives. The ‘happy gospel’ myth does a disservice to the apostles, the early church and to Jesus as it fails to acknowledge the words written that point to suffering as part of the world we live in.

The gospel I read is one about sacrifice and hope – the God who came down to earth in a sacrifice the likes of which I will never comprehend. He spent his life facing struggle after struggle, and came to a point where he asked God to take away the pain of it. He then handed it over to God and surrendered himself to His will. This story is the greatest comfort for me. It tells me that when I sit in tears, begging God to end the pain and he seemingly doesn’t answer, Jesus gets how I feel. It also tells me that Jesus, in his lifetime, surrendered to God, accepting that sometimes our most desperate pleas don’t get answered in the way we would like. There is no answer to the mystery of why some people get healed and others don’t, or why some people get children and others don’t, or some get married and others don’t or any of the other questions in life – but there is an understanding that Jesus knows what it is like to feel like God has forgotten us, and this assures us that even when it feels like it we know he has not.

The bible is my comfort, because throughout it offers hope in the middle of darkness. Psalm 139:12  says ‘even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you’ – this is a promise to me that says when God seems distant, when I cannot seem him, I am assured he sees me.

The thing is, when I read the bible I know that God heals, I know he could heal me, I know that if he doesn’t I have not failed him, I know that if life is a battle every day until the day I die God will be fighting the battle with me – for me even. The bible gives me hope in who I am, in who I could be, in who God is and how precious I am to him.

However, I find that that confidence fails when I hear testimony after testimony which is concluded with a happy, pretty bow. When I am asked, for the gazilionth time, whether I have asked God for healing, or am told a story of a healing that happened to someone just like me.

What I want to hear is how people live IN the fight. How do people keep up their hope, when things are not changing? I want to hear the testimonies of what God does when all hope is lost. My experience tells me that it is in the darkest moments that God does the biggest things, and whilst I might not have been physically healed, He has drawn me deeper into his love and grace. Showing me the lengths of his love for me and offering me comfort when all is black.

These are testimonies that both deserve to be heard and are equally valuable to the church. We need to learn how to walk alongside each other in the midst of heartbreak and suffering. To do this, we need to learn from the extraordinary depths of faith and hope that those whose situations are unchanging can find. We need to learn from the bible that God does extraordinary things in desperate situations – but this doesn’t mean that we will no longer suffer. We need to stop guilt tripping and answering complex questions with an absurd simplicity.

Where is God? He is here. With me. Enjoying my moments of hope and holding me in the moments of brokenness. He is the promise of a future, he is light in the dark, he is everything.