Nothing changes

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You get up after an internal battle. You leave the house. You survive the day. You go home. You go to bed and the whole thing starts again.

Like doped white mice in the college lab as Del Amitri once noted. An inbuilt Pavlovian response to life leaves us running everywhere but getting nowhere as we submit and conform – for what? Money to pay for all the things we don’t need and everything else that we want. A quick glance at the bank balance reminds us we are hostages to the system and until those numbers disappear that are anchoring us down this experiment will continue.

Why? When did we all sign up for this? It’s almost cruel to give children hope and ask them what they want to do when they grow up because it’s the same for 99% of us – up, out, work, home, bed. Very few end up in a position where the work part allows anything else, or even better you reach the point that you only work if you choose to rather than have to.

I had ambitions. I distinctly remember writing things in my jotter in Primary 3 about what I wanted to do when I grew up…where does that go? Some people still have it but more often than not it’s driven by a need for money to pay the debts, or a greed for money because there is never a big enough amount to satiate them. Now I don’t really have any dreams or goals. I look at my mortgage and know that with the new pension age coming in, I’ll either die before I retire or just after – save a huge lottery win.

Add the mundane daily routine to a brain that is so fucked up at times it scares its owner and you end up with someone like me. You find yourself searching round for the ejector seat, trapdoor or escape pod constantly because life just gets on top of you. The waves of depression replaced by just as unproductive mania and nothing gets done. You’re stuck to the spot with your legs rooted to the ground and that’s when you feel life passing you by.

Will I ever get the chance to move at the same pace the world around me does? It sounds twee but I think you get to a point (probably the very source of the mid-life crisis) when you hit this wall and realise none of the things you thought you needed matter. You look at your family and realise that is all you ever needed and all the other stuff is superfluous, but you’re so far in by then that climbing out is impossible – you’re stuck.

I stopped playing the lottery at the start of the year because I had never won more than £100 in the 24 years of playing it. The sad thing was that I missed the narrowest glimmer of hope that it gave me. I’m not stupid – I know that Lotto is forty-five million to one to hit the jackpot but in my drab deja vu view it gives me a positive thought twice a week – even when I’m at my lowest it cheers me up. Think I’ve had one £25 win since I restarted – is it worth it? Yes, unfortunately.

Now as a parent you look at your own kids and hope that they manage to break out of this monotonous conveyor belt of eat, work, sleep. That their ideas filled jotters are not just consigned to a recycling bin – that they actually do something they are going to love. That they don’t just end up here.

There are so many vomit worthy quotes about hope and destiny and optimism but I do like the one from writer Patricia Cornwell: “Survival was my only hope, success my only revenge”. That makes sense – the best revenge on the beige existence is to succeed despite the demons and limitations we find ourselves in.

I’d love to be an optimist, and at heart I am, but then you realise you’re just dreaming. You wake up and realise that internal battle to force yourself out of bed is back – only for the cycle to begin again.

JD

Mental Health Awareness Week

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Here we go again. The one week of the year when people pay attention to hashtags, TV shows and internet articles on people having issues with their minds.

It’s a great thing – it makes sure everyone is focused on the issues but like any of these days or weeks once it’s not fashionable it’s forgotten. Except for those of us who can’t forget. Those of us who live it rather than become aware of it are being short-changed too often.

We are the easy fix to a blame culture – “he was said to have mental health issues” is often the lazy tagline from media outlets after a terrible attack. Where is the disdain for those in power who are not doing enough to stop the problem in the first place. We are reaching breaking point in the NHS for physical illness so there is little or no budget for mental health issues.

GPs can be equally as useless with some ignoring symptoms or pleas for help – is it because they don’t care or don’t understand? Or is the truth of the matter that funding has been stripped so far back that a prescription instead of a referral is easier? For example I haven’t had an appointment with my specialist for well over a year because when she left they didn’t replace her. I know if I called up I would probably get an appointment and I’m lucky that I haven’t really had any need to call in that time – but how many others sit silently without the support around them or the ability to do something about it themselves.

Employers happily display plaques and certificates to say they are Investors in People but how many managers or HR staff have any training or understanding of the real day-to-day issues some of us live with? Just as with conditions like Autism or CP or ME there is a clear lack of understanding with employers flailing around trying to find a “fix” to something that really just needs understanding. You’re not a health professional, you can’t make this disappear.

Coronation Street recently featured a story line about male suicide. While I commend the show for dealing with the issue sensitively and with the support of the Samaritans, it can’t be down to one TV show to raise the issue. There is a need for this to be constantly in the forefront of political discussion and policy. Young men are taking their lives in ridiculous numbers each day and yet no one seems to care until it directly impacts on them – when it’s too late.

I love the NHS and I’ve been very fortunate that anything I have ever needed treatment for, I have been well looked after, but not everyone is as fortunate. The taboos surrounding talking about mental illness are still entrenched in society – and not just our elders. Young people struggle every day with problems – anxiety, depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, trauma and many other conditions. I see it every day in my classroom and there is little I or any of my colleagues can do to help. Resources are tight but the common sense that screams that dealing with the problem when it first arises would save money, time and heartache later in life.

I’m not angry there is an awareness week – I’m angry it’s not front and centre all the time. More people need to speak up to help remove the taboos and secrecy and shame and doubt and fear and confusion. More politicians, sportspeople, celebrities should add their voices. I know that more are coming forward all the time but as soon as they do some media outlets attack them for trying to make it fashionable to have a mental illness. We can’t stand for that as a community – ostracize the media not the individuals.

I have come up against ignorance, denial and discrimination because of my BiPolar condition. If I had asthma or diabetes no one would care and I would be automatically treated for it. I know it’s easy to say that diagnosing mental illness is more difficult, but that shouldn’t stop us trying to push for that.

With thousands of people committing suicide each year – 5600 in 2016 alone and the figures are rising year on year – we can’t ignore it much longer. It is the single biggest killer of 25-40 year old men. If it was a disease like cancer or a heart condition we would be running races for it, holding telethons and dressing up in silly costumes. But we don’t. Because we’re scared. It could be us, or someone close to us. If we get cancer we stand up proudly and declare how we are going to beat it, if we are told we have depression it’s suddenly our fault and something to be ashamed of.

We need to foster a more positive attitude toward these conditions and illnesses and stop allowing them to be excuses or clichés. Instead of Mental Health Awareness maybe it’s time for Mental Health Acceptance otherwise more will struggle, more will break and more will die. 

JD

Hibernation

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As Hemingway put it, “I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”

The older I get, the more I am convinced that we shouldn’t be awake all through the winter. Dark and Cold. My current moods as well as the weather outside and my desperate yearning for the warmth and light to return. Depression is a pain in the head that drills down with each and every thing that annoys you. Intolerance is magnified to become a giant shadow over your consciousness leaving you with little light to live in.

Animals hibernate and there is a suggestion that we perhaps did once too. Pack me up in torn newspaper in a cupboard under the stairs and wake me in March. It’s not often in life you can say you are jealous of Blue Peter tortoises but…

SAD does play it’s part, but for me in general the depression is becoming an issue again: snapping, being rude, obnoxious – well even more obnoxious than normal. You can hear yourself spout negativity and your self loathing begins to circle the drain as you grab at it like a small boat heading for a killer clown. Metaphorical confusion aside I’m bored with feeling like this. I’m getting less “sad” about depression and more pissed off and fed up.

You have things you need to get done, deadlines that are disappearing and you can barely manage to function never mind crossing items off of your “to do” list. I currently have the attention span of a… There is little getting done just now and even getting out of bed in the morning is an achievement. How pathetic does your life have to be that that is an achievement – perhaps I should make a nice star chart for myself with categories including “Getting up”, “Not shouting in people’s faces” and “Faked caring convincingly”. Mind you as a craft project I’d get halfway through and lose all enthusiasm for it.

Working with young people makes things even more difficult at times because some of them need to be looked after, need you at your best and you summon up each and every ounce of your strength to do the job. There is an unattributed quote that goes “Do not confuse my bad days as a sign of weakness. Those are actually the days I am fighting my hardest.” which sums up exactly what depression feels like. I’m not weak – f*cking hell to get up and get on with your routine is a huge achievement when your mind and soul are still resting on the pillow.

This is where there a real disconnect between those who live with depression and those who don’t. Survival, putting one foot in front of the other, not swearing at the top of your lungs on the worst days is like climbing Everest or crossing the finishing line first for me. I just wish it wasn’t part of my day-to-day life. I am more than aware that there is no such thing as “normal” but it would be nice just for a whole year to get through it without succumbing to the darkness.

Go back to your Doctor is the thought that will be crossing of many you – and while it’s not the worst advice there is a problem. Because you will come out of the other side of the dip at some point changing meds in the middle of it makes it difficult to work out if it is the addition chemicals or just time passing that has made it better. Obviously if this becomes longer than the two or three weeks it has been I will have to consider speaking to the quack at some point.

The one thing I’m working really hard on this time is the family. I’ve been guilty of using up all my energy throughout the day and leaving nothing in the tank for when I get home and that’s not a wise thing to do. They are the support network, the cushion beneath you and you have to ensure that they are also getting the effort from you too. I have to spend less time “on” at work and plan my lessons more carefully to give me that space and so far I think I’ve got the balance almost right. Not perfect, but then there’s no such thing.

All you can do is your best is the cliché – but things become clichés for a reason. Mostly because they are true.

JD

Treading Water

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So here we go again. I’ve been busy writing down ideas and starting a much more substantial piece of writing – but today I felt the need to come back to the blog for the first time in months and unload because words from my mouth are failing me right now.

I haven’t had a dip or real down since the mammoth five month deep depression of last October to March. There was a wee blip in the summer but nothing to worry about. This time I feel like I’m treading water, just keeping my head about the surface and all those feelings of emptiness, loneliness, uselessness and self-loathing are back on the radar.

Getting up in the dark mornings and driving home in the twilight is again an issue – the Seasonal Affective Disorder element of the down is definitely in the mix as the little sunshine there is appears trapped outside while I sit in work. It sneaks round the corner of my classroom by the back of lunchtime so the kids want to draw the blinds to stop it from blinding them. I’d happily be blinded just feel like I’m getting some of the benefits. I could go outside at a lunchtime, but there’s not much time then and I have to grab food too.

I’ve been aware of slipping slowly down over the last week or so but now it’s been turned up to eleven and I just want to disappear. The most frustration thing with this illness is that you can’t really do much to prepare  for it as it just appears uninvited. You begin to lose the capability to think clearly; words fail you and there is a disconnect between what you want to say and the noise that eventually comes out. You try to force humour to stay “up”, but there’s nothing worse than that false bonhomie when you don’t feel like it.

The feeling of helplessness that lives in your mind; the constant self-questioning and doubting everything you say and do; the desperate desire to close your eyes and sleep until it passes; the anger that sits in your stomach and erupts when you least expect it; the grief for the loss of your former self; the wish that everyone else felt as bad as you do to make it more bearable.

Your hands shake, eyes fill and heart sinks as the black dog pads towards you. How long will it sit alongside you for this time around? Will you finally succumb to the darker voices and stay hidden from the world? It’s not a suicidal thought to not want to wake up in the morning – you must have a plan and carry out an action for that to be concerning – it’s more you don’t necessarily want to be around when the black canine companion is.

Becoming more isolated – feeling lonely even in a crowd is the worst part. Being able to “give a shit” becomes harder and that punishes those closest to you each time as you fail to connect as you should with on a daily basis. Some days it can take all your effort to say “Hi” never mind listen to the regular minutiae of everyday life that the world throws at you. Like a grump at Hallowe’en you just want to switch off the lights and hide from the world outside – physically outside and also outside your head-space too.

Would I struggle as much if I lived in a warmer climate? More sun, longer days? Or am I just programmed this way to fluctuate between such diverse moods? So many questions spin around your mind as you try to come to terms with what your brain is throwing at you and the answers are not at arm’s length, they’re not even visible – instead they are lost in a miasma of confusion and illogical thought. Just to lay your hands on something to allow you to clear some of the clutter that exists upstairs would be a relief, but as days march on you are only left with more problems, more questions and ultimately more illness.

Time to think about counselling again? Possibly – really didn’t get much out of it last time but sometimes it’s that you just don’t click with that person, so that may be an option. Medication changes? Well the problem is in the full perspective of your life this is just a blip and perhaps a change in mood after the introduction of another medication would have happened anyway. All I know is I have to wheel out the coping techniques that have worked for me so far. It’s not a perfect system but I am able to get up (eventually) and get to work and largely get everything done I’m supposed to do. That’s really the best I can hope for going forward.

As long as the water levels don’t rise any further I should be able to keep my head about the surface.

JD

The story of my life

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After years of thinking about it I’ve started writing it – my story.

It’s a strange thing to do for someone like me; a nobody, but I’m not going to let it stop me. You may find that I will rarely be blogging because of this but I did want to share a few thoughts on looking back into your own past.

Don’t.

It’s not really a good thing to do if I’m honest as you find going right back in your own timeline a bit…wibbly wobbly timey wimey if I’m honest. You start to remember things you had long since moved on from and dumped into storage but it all comes up from some dark recess in the back of your mind a smell, sound or memory that then triggers thoughts you had long since forgotten.

I wanted to write it because i wanted to take what I’d done with this blog and make it a more comprehensive examination of my mental health across my life. Were there issues and baggage in my past or was my childhood idyllic? Neither is true for anyone regardless how much they protest. Initially I have found that it’s the negatives that have floated to the surface and after four thousand words I’ve only covered up to the age of twelve with hardly a chink of light in there.

I’m sure once I go back and start redrafting the writing as a whole piece of work I will be able to be more objective, put more humour in it and dial down the Angela’s Ashes elements. As the great Paul O’Grady always said “We were poor, but we were shoplifters”.

You remember people as well. Faces and names who were hidden away too. Anyone who knows me will tell you I can do faces but names are a real issue. I can teach a kid for a year and still get them confused with one of their classmates. You do wonder how the mind works when it comes to memory – it feels like a giant cupboard packed full of things and as you try to pull one object out the rest start dropping on your head one-by-one. Like going in your loft and realising you have a strange twin brother called Eric.

I don’t have a twin brother called Eric in my loft by the way. That’d be ridiculous. He is in my parents’ loft, it’s bigger.

Eric aside, there are so many things that I have floating around my head now and it’s leaving me slightly disoriented as with newly recovered memories squeezing their way into your timeline things don’t look the way you thought they had. Perceptions of situations change and there is the danger of you becoming an amateur psychologist trying to make sense of things that every kids did, but somehow you doing it marks you out as unique or different. The reality is you were just a kid but with hindsight and diagnoses over the years you start to put two and two together and make seventeen.

I hope the experience of writing it will be cathartic and that I’ll have it even if I never do anything with it, but I think it’s fair to say that in my fortieth year I’ve already lived a rather unusual and challenging life.

One day I might share it, then again it might drive me mad rethinking everything I’ve ever done and be the final nail in my already secure insanity coffin.

JD

Clarity

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When you live with a head like mine, you find moments or days of clarity are a rare and treasured thing. In the last week I have felt the most “Normal” as I have in a long time. But then I was due a break after the toughest six months I’ve experienced.

From October until mid February I had been battling with depression – deeper and darker than I’d ever gone through before. Permanently exhausted, empty of optimism and lost to what felt like a parallel world – distanced from my own life. You are aware of your solitude, of your separation from those around you in emotional terms but you don’t have the tools or wherewithal to do anything about it.

You know you are a horrible person to be around. Your lack of patience and decency embarrass you. You want the ground to open up and remove you from the life you are living. I’m lucky that I’ve never stood on the edge of the darkest point of humanity; the idea of dying is not in my mind – sure, you wish you weren’t alive, but there’s a marked difference.

Now looking back on what was a difficult time for me and all those around me, it now seems so far removed from where I am now. I feel stronger, happier and more contented than I have done in a long time. I wonder if that is a result of the prolonged struggle – feeling relief and release from the black dog that refused to let me go for almost half a year.

Right now I feel good about life and with a change to the medication I am determined not to fall back into old habits. Easier said than done because you can’t legislate for the arrival of the down periods. You think that you have a grasp on it, but speaking to my other half it appears that my awareness is always delayed – I only realise I’m in the dark once I arrive there and not necessarily while I am on the journey towards it.

There is always the concern that I am heading for the other extreme and the mania is around the corner. As the late Carrie Fisher called it “Liquid Confidence” that pumps through your veins making you feel invincible, risk averse and dangerous. I don’t think that’s where I am at the moment but you can never be sure.  Those moments where your mouth is disconnected from your filters and brain – away on an adventure of its own.

I do miss those moments. Being on two medications, both of which are ones that push down the mania and limit it, makes it a rarer occurrence. There are always moments where the tongue is quicker than the mind, but I’d like to think I was better at stopping myself these days. The thing I miss is that complete freedom of thought, my mind was able to go off on tangents and have fun and I’m lacking that spark in my life. Perhaps I’m just growing up – can’t be Peter Pan forever.

Robin Williams once said “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” And while I know that I have more than my share of madness, it’s the spark that is absent and I’ve got to force myself to find it more. Surely the spark is not just part of the mental illness – it must exist independently and within me as a person. Maybe it’s time I threw caution to the wind occasionally and embraced the lighter side.

This clarity is great at the moment while I am feeling well, but whether I can find and utilise the spark when the darkness next arrives remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: I cannot survive life without pleasure or fun. It’s time to put enjoyment and light front and centre more often, and remember that no matter how bad things get there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

JD

 

 

Moving on? Not really

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It looks like we made it…but we didn’t. Every time you emerge from the other side of a depressive episode it might appear to the outside world that you are back on your feet and things are good again, but it’s not as simple as that. Damage has been done: to yourself, those around you and even people you wouldn’t think of.

My last depressive state was the worst I’ve experienced and I’m only now really out the other side of it. Three months of uncertainty, loneliness, anger, loss, confusion, sadness, emptiness and regrets slowly ebbed away to leave me where I am now: more uncertainty. I don’t know if I’ve leveled off and am in a “normal” state or if I am heading toward the manic room.

What hurts the most – to quote another song – is the impact those three months had. I hurt people around me as they worried about my situation, feared the worst could happen and were directly affected by my actions and moods. You cause their mental health to suffer as you battle with your own. This then turns the spotlight back on you and the guilt flares up.

But it needs to be addressed. As someone who lives with Bipolar there needs to be a clear message sent out to say that you can call us out on our moods and behaviour. If you live with someone who is struggling don’t bottle up your own feelings because there is no sense at all in everyone suffering. You must speak to your loved ones – even if you worry it could make things worse.

If you are open and honest and approach the subject early you will find that we are more receptive than you thought. If someone you love is going through a tough time but is on medication or getting help then you should be free to open up to them about the impact they are having on others. It will maybe shock them just how bad things have become, but in the long-term everyone involved will be better off for it.

Writing it down makes it seem easy, and in reality I know that people will be hesitant to be as forward as I am suggesting. If you are seriously concerned about the person’s well-being you have to act and not leave it festering. You could write it down or speak to the person with a couple of other people to support both of you. Not talking about it is not the answer.

I know I rattle off a few hundred words a time on here about it but it’s a selfish thing really; I’m trying to deal with my own illness rather than worry about others. And it’s okay to say you’re “not okay”, that you are struggling with life – but you have to make sure those around you are kept in the loop and know you are attending appointments, taking medications. Avoiding the issue doesn’t help anyone involved.

For the person with the mental health issue, here are three bits of advice:

  1. Speak about your situation with someone you trust
  2. Allow them to speak openly and honestly with how your behaviour is impacting on their life
  3. Accept that you can’t get through the problem on your own

If you are the person supporting someone with mental illnesses:

  1. Understand that they do not always know what they are doing to others – it’s often unintentional. Telling them will hurt them, but that’s okay.
  2. Listen, but don’t be afraid to challenge them if you don’t agree; they’re not babies you can be honest with them
  3. Remember it’s an illness and it cannot be stopped just through will power – they will need help and you should support them with that.

Again it seems simple to put it in three points for each side, but know that this is a starting point from which life will get better. Do nothing and the problem will only get worse and then you are going to be in a situation where it might be too late to tackle things.

To the sufferers, remember it’s highly unlikely that it is your fault that you are living with mental illness. You need to face up to it and deal with it before it takes total control of you. Health professionals and your friends and family will be much more receptive than you think they will be – they won’t judge you and you’ll find it will be a relief for many around you that you are able to explain your behaviour.

With so many people living with mental health issues these days you are less alone than you know. Us nutters are all around and you should own up to being part of the club – you’ll find that we are a welcoming group that is happy to help anyone who points out their membership card.

JD