Reflections – A Year of Grieving

Flowers in the Water

Yesterday was the first anniversary of my mum’s death. It’s been 366 days since I last saw her, spoke to her, heard her voice, felt her arms around me. 366 days versus the 10,688 I was blessed to have her in my life. I have felt her absence on every one of those days and it still doesn’t feel real that she’s gone.

Last year we scattered her ashes in a river where she had spent many happy summers as a child. We returned there yesterday and threw some flowers into the water. It was a calm day so the current wasn’t strong. Most of the flowers flowed gently downstream and became lodged at the tops of the small stone dams that produce tiny waterfalls along the length of the river.

Two of them, red roses, became separated from the others and floated over to where I was standing on the riverbank. One rose was in full bloom, beautiful and vibrant, but the other had tipped over, its stem reaching for the sky while its petals languished in the water beneath it.

The ripples of the river caused the flowers to slowly circle each other. They remained in each other’s orbits for a few minutes, the light breeze gradually pulling them apart until, with gentle grace, the open rose floated away from the other and headed downstream. The remaining rose, kept off balance by its upright stem, bobbed in place for a short time, before the current pushed it underneath the riverbank into the dark where I couldn’t see.

When my mind is overwhelmed by difficult emotions, it seeks meaning in metaphor and symbolic interpretations of the things I perceive. As I was watching the flowers – one with petals open, floating serenely; the other, upturned, petals obscured, drowning – I couldn’t help but see the effect my mum’s death has had on me.

Though decades too soon, my mum accepted the finality of her diagnosis and came to the end of her life with grace and serenity. Like the rose floating from the other’s side, my mum slipped away from me quietly, peacefully, leaving my life turned upside down and pushing me into a darker place where I couldn’t make sense of anything.

My mum ended the first of the five letters she left for me with the words, ‘nothing stays the same’. As I was watching the roses floating together, I knew they wouldn’t stay together. Their separation was inevitable. The river’s current would pull them away from each other just as the passage of time pulls people apart. We only share our lives with our loved ones for a finite period of time before they, or we, have to move on. It’s an undeniable, and often heart-breaking, fact of life.

I didn’t stay long enough to watch what happened to that upturned rose but, as sure as I am that time will continue to pass, I’m sure that the current will eventually bring it back out into the sun, petals facing the sky, and guide it downstream.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it does teach us how to live with them.

 

Mental Health Series – Mini Post

037 copy

Despite my best efforts, my mum’s death in July has made it very difficult for me to keep up with the monthly posts for my Mental Health Series. I still have a lot to say, so I will continue with them at some point, I’m just not sure when. It’s frustrating and I really wanted to continue with them as planned, but writing, especially emotional writing, is not something you can just do. You have to be in the right headspace and feel up to exploring those difficult issues. I’ve been too much in my own head for that lately, and most of my energy goes into getting through the day in whatever way I can.

To all of you struggling with similar issues, try not to be too hard on yourselves. Grief can drive you to keep going and going and going without taking a break because you’re afraid if you stop for a second the pain of the loss will overwhelm you. It might, for a while, but that’s okay. It might feel like the waves are drowning you, but when they break on the shore you’ll still be alive and breathing. If you give yourself time, the waves will get smaller, you’ll breathe deeper, and you’ll be okay.

Anyway, thanks for your patience. I’ll be back with you as soon as I can.

 

Mental Health Series: July – Grief

This is the seventh in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


Grief 2

River Tweed at Sunset, Melrose, Scotland (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

*The original topic for July was Mental Effects of Physical Illness, which will now be covered in the August post.*

When I first chose grief as one of the topics for this series, I imagined that I would be recalling the death of my granny, who I lost a year ago, and that of my grampa, who passed 5 years before her. Now, I find myself attempting to articulate my feelings surrounding a far greater loss – that of my mother.

To tell the truth, I was grieving for her even before she died. I didn’t think that was possible, but from the moment the oncologist told us mum’s cancer was terminal, the life we knew before her illness was over. I grieved the loss of that life from that moment. The years of carefree laughter when we were all healthy and alive. The constant reassurance of her steadfast presence in my life. The belief that she would be beside me when I got married and had children. All that disappeared in an instant.

Shock came first, followed quickly by anger and fear. Later, the grim acceptance of the hand life had dealt us, accompanied by the ever-present sense of dread that came with not knowing when, or how, this insidious illness would take her from me.

It’s a strange thing, the anticipation of grief. We all know that we will die eventually. None of us know how or when, just that it will happen. Terminal illness brings that reality into sharp and undeniable focus. You can no longer live with the comfortable assumption that the person you love will live to a ripe old age. Each day that passes is one fewer that you will get to spend with them – a fact that is true for all of us, but one that feels more present and immediate in the face of terminal illness.

Despite the fact that I knew it was coming, mum’s death was still a shock. She deteriorated very quickly, and went from baking and card-making to having a fatal seizure in just 36 hours. Somehow, I didn’t think it would happen that way. I assumed she would experience a steady decline, as my granny had with her leukaemia, and that I would have time to prepare myself. It occurs to me now that no amount of preparation could have ever been enough.

I came from my mother, and I’ve never known the world without her in it. The one I’ve existed in over the last 7 weeks since she died does not make sense to me yet. There is a constant feeling of uneasiness and anxiety alongside the sadness; a sense of drifting through my days without my emotional anchor to tether me to the life I had before.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and I still can’t decide if I was better off knowing I was going to lose my mum, and spending months dreading it and watching her illness progress, than I would have been if it had happened suddenly with no warning, while I spent the preceding months being blissfully unaware. There is no good way to lose someone who means that much to you, so maybe that’s a question I don’t need to try to answer.

What matters the most to me is that I was there when it happened, just as she wanted.  She was there for the first moments of my life, and I was there for the last moments of hers – as if things had come full circle. I had the chance to say goodbye; a gift I know many people don’t get. There is some comfort in that, at least.

Grief is an unusual emotion in that it alters your perceptions of the world. It suddenly feels wrong somehow, like it has shifted on its axis and no longer makes sense. Time continues to pass at the same rate as it always did. The view outside your window is the same as before. The people around you who are not directly affected by the loss go about their business as normal.

The fact is, you are the one who has changed, not the world itself. For a time, you exist in a state of cognitive dissonance that your mind desperately tries to reconcile. You know the world is no different than it was before, yet it feels like it is. It seems as though every person you see should somehow acknowledge the crippling sense of loss you’re feeling, even if they didn’t know the person who died. It is irrational and impossible but, when your own sense of loss is so profound and your life has changed so radically, you can’t help but feel like the world should stop for a minute, just so you can catch your breath.

I experienced this feeling almost immediately.

A few minutes after my mum died, I stepped out of the hospital room into the corridor. It was shortly before 7.30 a.m. and the morning shift was just coming on duty. A group of nurses were walking along the corridor towards me, laughing and joking together. I stared at them, angry and confused. How could they be laughing at a time like this? Didn’t they know that a wonderful person had just died in the next room? Those feelings were irrational, of course, but they were powerful nonetheless.

The loss itself takes time to accept. No matter how many times I talk about losing her, or stare at her death certificate, or write about what happened, mum’s death still hasn’t sunk in properly. This seems so strange to me. I was there. I held her hand and watched her go. I spoke at her funeral. I should be able to accept this new reality, but I haven’t yet. I even felt guilty when I cancelled her craft club memberships, as if I was betraying her by taking away something she loved so much, even though I know she’ll never use them again.

The human mind is incredibly complex, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that mine is trying to protect me. In an act of self-preservation, it is only gradually allowing me to come to terms with the loss so that I don’t end up overwhelmed by grief and unable to function. I’m grateful for that, but at the same time I know I’ll never truly be able to heal and move on with my life until I’ve fully accepted that my mum is no longer a part of it. Unfortunately, I apparently have no say in how long that process takes.

I am still in the early stages of grieving for my mother, but there are some things I’ve already learned that I hope can help others going through similar circumstances.

Alongside the pain and sadness, it’s okay to feel relief.

My mum told me that herself shortly after her diagnosis, and she was right. The person you love is not in pain any longer, and you don’t have to watch them suffer any more. Gone is the constant worry about what the future holds and the fear of how bad things will get before the end. It’s over. You’re on the other side of the thing you’ve been dreading, and you’re still standing. Mum’s cancer had spread to her brain, so there was a real possibility that she would suffer complications like a stroke or personality changes. The idea of something like that happening was very frightening for her, and for me, and I’m so relieved for both of us that she was spared that and was able to maintain her independence and sense of self right until the end.

It’s okay not to know what you want or need. Your feelings can change from hour to hour.

Grief is not linear or logical, so it follows that your needs won’t be either. I can’t count the number of times someone asked me what I needed or wanted. The only real answer I had for them was, “my mum”, but since that wasn’t possible, I tried to focus on the smaller, manageable things that people could help me with. I’m not someone who gives up control easily and I’m fairly set in my ways, so it wasn’t easy to let other people shop for me or do the housework, but it did help. Sometimes, what I needed was to lie down and stare at the ceiling, even if all I had wanted to do the day before was keep running through my to-do list until I passed out from exhaustion. There is no guidebook to grief. You have to do what is right for you, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. You might find yourself doing things you wouldn’t normally do (in my case, watching YouTube clips of trashy reality shows at 3 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep). Try to get used to your own unpredictability. Your life has been turned on its head and it will take time to get your bearings. Be patient with yourself.

Don’t make commitments unless you absolutely have to, at least in the early days.

I thought I was okay to carry on with my work and social lives a lot earlier than I actually was (sometimes I still feel like I’m not ready), so I ended up having to cancel plans I thought I could stick to because I just wasn’t up to fulfilling them. I’ve found that the mental reserves I usually draw on during times of stress are severely depleted, so when I try to do things I would normally have done with ease, like meet deadlines at work or make plans with friends, I find it much harder than it was before. I’ve had to accept that it’s okay to say “I’ll see how I feel nearer the time” or “I’m just not up to that right now”. Your work and friends will still be there when you’re ready, and if they’re worthy of your time then they’ll understand why you need to withdraw for a while. This is the time in your life when you need to address your own needs over those of other people.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, put your tasks into a box.

I mean that literally. There is so much to be done when someone close to you dies – planning a funeral, dealing with their affairs, spending time with well-meaning visitors – not to mention all the everyday things you would have to do anyway like food shopping and laundry. It’s very easy to become overwhelmed. In an effort to contain my anxiety about everything I had to do, I decided to put it all into a box. Bills, notes for the eulogy, mum’s mail that needed to be dealt with, post-it note reminders to buy a dress for the funeral, paperwork for the house I had bought shortly before she died – everything went in there. This turned out to be a very effective mental trick that enabled me to cram the stress of all my tasks into the confines of the box, while only taking one thing out at a time when I was ready to deal with it. If even that was too much, I simply closed the lid, which somehow made me feel better.

Find joy in small things, if only to remind yourself that you still can.

My mum made me promise that I would find something to smile about every day. Before she died, I thought that would be impossible in the early days, or that I would feel guilty for still being able to laugh even though she was gone. Thankfully, I was wrong. At first, I only felt the weight of my grief lift for a few minutes each day. A song would come on my iPod that would make me want to get up and dance or sing along; my dog would wag his tail when he saw me; a friend would send a message that made me smile. These little things are important and necessary, as even a few minutes’ respite can give you a much needed boost. Feeling even remotely happy after losing someone can make you feel guilty, as if it somehow invalidates your grief, but it doesn’t. The complexities of human emotion make it possible to feel joy while simultaneously feeling profound sadness. The two states are not mutually exclusive. Besides, the person you lost would want you to carry on with your life and be happy, so you should allow yourself to be when you can.

Accept that your grief will be a part of your life for as long as it needs to be.

The moment of loss is like the epicentre of an earthquake, or the flashpoint of an explosion. The devastation left in its wake is immediately apparent, and for a time you can see nothing else – only the gaping hole that the loss has created. The shockwaves continue to ripple out, gradually decreasing in intensity over time, until they dissipate completely. The life of the person they leave behind has been irrevocably altered, but it carries on regardless.

Grief is exhausting. Grief is unpredictable. Grief is not linear or logical. Grief is unique to the individual experiencing it. Grief has no tangible end. It simply becomes a part of you, subtly shaping the person that you are, until, one day, the loss doesn’t hurt so much, and you can move on with your life.

I keep thinking about a line from my favourite poet Robert Frost’s ‘A Servant to Servants’: “The best way out is always through.”

Allow yourself to go through the grieving process, no matter how long it takes. Don’t fight it or resist it. Grief is the price we pay for having had someone wonderful in our lives, and, no matter how much it hurts, it is a price worth paying for the memories we have and the ways in which that person changed our lives for the better.

Losing them doesn’t mean you have to lose yourself. Don’t ever let grief make you feel like you don’t have the strength to carry on.

One breath, one moment, one day at a time.

Mental Health Series: April –Anger

This is the fourth in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


Anger

The sun obscured by haze from forest fires, Montana, USA (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Like most emotions, anger exists on a spectrum. It can range from mild annoyance to blinding rage. Sometimes, anger can be a useful emotion. It can motivate us to stand up for ourselves and others, fight for justice and equality, and even help us survive in situations when it provides the strength we need to stay alive.

Anger can also be incredibly destructive, and that’s when it becomes a problem.

It can deceive us into thinking it’s an ally. It can make us feel stronger and more able to withstand the pain and fear that has triggered it, while, in reality, it is making us weaker. Like a drug that makes the user feel indestructible while simultaneously wreaking havoc on their health, anger provides us with a shield against the world while at the same time it saps us of our energy and positivity.

Whether it’s becoming violent, losing our temper with friends and family, or turning to self-destructive coping mechanisms like alcohol or drugs, repressed anger has a way of breaking free from our mental restraints and leaving devastation in its wake.

In my experience, this kind of intense anger can be provoked by situations that fall into three categories: disappointment and frustration with ourselves for mistakes we’ve made; hurt and mistreatment caused by another person (particularly someone we trust); and pain caused by something beyond our (or anyone else’s) control.

The third category is arguably the most difficult to deal with. While we can learn from our own mistakes or confront someone who has wronged us, we have no recourse when life simply goes wrong and there is no one to blame.

When I started thinking about how I would approach this aspect of mental health, two significant periods of my life came to mind: one from when I was a child, and one that I’m currently experiencing.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts in this series, I grew up with a severely autistic younger brother. Completely non-verbal and often violent, it was an incredible challenge for my parents to cope with him. As a result, they inadvertently placed a great deal of responsibility on me at a very young age. My brother’s violent outbursts often came without warning and I was very frightened of him, yet I was frequently left alone with him and expected to keep him amused while my dad was at work and my mum did housework or cooked us dinner.

One day, after so long living in fear, dealing with being bitten, pushed around and forced to follow my brother’s rigid routine at the cost of seeing my friends and having a normal childhood, I couldn’t take it anymore.

He was in the garden driving his toy car in circles around the swing set. It was big enough for him to sit in, and he had already worn a muddy path into the grass from weeks of this repetitive behaviour. I remember vividly standing there staring at him, feeling all my unexpressed anger and fear rising to the surface until I couldn’t focus on anything else. There was a long-handled wooden brush propped up against the side of the house. I grabbed it and waited until the car came closer to me, and then I swung the brush as hard as I could at my brother’s face.

I didn’t really understand why I’d done it, but it became clear to me later on. I wanted my parents to realise that their reliable, helpful and ostensibly strong daughter wasn’t coping the way they thought she was. I wanted them to ask me why I had done something so out of character and give me the opening I desperately needed to express all the fear and anger I was feeling. I wanted them to protect me.

Instead, they reprimanded me for what I’d done, cleaned up the blood from my brother’s nose (which thankfully wasn’t broken), and said no more about it. He went back to driving his car and I was left feeling worse than I had before.

Obviously, lashing out like that was the completely wrong way of trying to deal with my anger, and I still feel terrible that I hurt my brother, but I can forgive myself for that. I was a frightened child acting out of fear and desperation. That said, I wish I had felt able to tell my parents that I was struggling. I never doubted that they loved me and were doing the best they could, but at the time I genuinely believed that they wouldn’t have been able to cope if they knew how I really felt.

I know now that I was wrong and that their marriage actually grew stronger during those difficult years, but as a child I had no understanding of this. All I saw were the negative effects of my brother’s autism. Things like my dad holding his bedroom door closed to protect the rest of us from his uncontrollable violent outbursts. My mum being taken to hospital after he attacked her when she tried to get him to brush his teeth. My parents fighting to stop him from cutting his own ear off with a pair of scissors when he had an ear infection and couldn’t handle the pain.

Children shouldn’t have to see those things and feel frightened in their own home. It’s no wonder that I was angry. Talking about it likely would have made all the difference, and I’ll always wish that I had spoken up.

As an adult who has spent more than her fair share of time with psychologists, I know that talking things through is the best way of dealing with anger, and it’s one of the ways I’m trying to deal with the anger I’m currently feeling. It’s a different kind of anger than I experienced as a child. Not only because I now have the maturity to express it in a healthy way, but because, this time, I have no one to blame. Instead, I have only yet another confirmation of a truth that we all must accept as the cost of living – life isn’t fair.

Last month, my mum was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We lost my granny to cancer last year and my grampa five years before that. They helped raise me and I loved them both so much, and my mum means the world to me, so this news was absolutely devastating. When the oncologist gave us mum’s diagnosis and we walked out of the hospital, it didn’t take long for my tears to dry and angry thoughts to take their place.

Why did this happen? How had the doctors missed it? Why did our family keep getting hit with one blow after another?

Not two months previously, we had been told that mum had beaten breast cancer and that she would likely continue to live a long and healthy life. We had started planning for the future again after months of chemo, surgery and radiotherapy, and I was so angry that the battle we thought we had won was only part of a bigger war that we are going to lose.

In order to be able to talk about it, I have to understand and acknowledge why I’m angry:

I’m angry because my family and I have been through enough hell in our lives already.

I’m angry because the physical pain I deal with every day due to my health problems is making it much harder to deal with the emotional pain.

I’m angry because I won’t have my mum there for me when I get married and have children.

I’m angry because I’m losing the person I love most in the world and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I could easily become consumed with my anger at cancer, at my mum’s doctors for not spotting it earlier, at the universe for this cruel twist of fate – but that won’t change anything. All it will do is taint the time I still have with my mum and rob me of the energy I need to help both of us get through this. I don’t want to let that happen, so I’ve had to figure out how to live with this anger in a way that doesn’t compromise my mental health.

Unsurprisingly, this has involved a lot of talking. My mum and I have always been very close and she believes in having an open and honest relationship, which means we’ve been able to talk frankly about everything from her funeral arrangements to how I’ll cope after she’s gone. That’s been very upsetting at times, but it’s also a huge relief to be able to discuss and work through such a difficult situation together.

One of the hardest aspects of grief can be regret and unanswered questions, so mum and I are ensuring that I’m left with as few of those as possible. We talk even more than we used to, and if a question comes to mind, no matter how trivial, I make sure I ask it – even if it’s just her opinion about the latest reality TV show!

I know there will be times to come when I’ll want to ask mum’s advice and I won’t be able to, so she’s writing me letters in response to questions I think I’ll have in the future. Questions like what advice she would give me if I were pregnant with my first child and what she would like me to tell her grandchildren about her. It’s wonderful to know that I’ll be able to carry those words with me as constant reminders of mum’s support and guidance, even when she’s not here to say them to me herself.

She’s also asked me to try to find something to laugh about every day, which hasn’t been too difficult since this family has always met adversity with laughter. It’s the antithesis of anger and the perfect antidote for the feelings of dread and helplessness that we’re all struggling with.

If I allowed my anger at what’s happening to consume me, I wouldn’t be able to face up to the future and make the most of this quality time with my mum and the rest of our family. It’s time I won’t get back and I know I’ll never forgive myself if I withdraw from the people who love me because I’m too angry to be around them, so I force myself to confront my anger and push through it.

I’ve made a big deal about the importance of talking in this post, so I have to acknowledge that doing so is something that many people, particularly those who struggle with mental health problems, can find incredibly difficult to do. That’s absolutely understandable. When we open ourselves up to others, we become more vulnerable and have to face the fear of being dismissed or ridiculed, but that shouldn’t stop us from reaching out.

Talking about intense and confusing emotions is a skill that can be learned and practised until it becomes easier over time. For years I only wrote about my feelings in private journals and poems, but once I started talking to psychologists and close friends and family, it became a lot easier to express them. As I talked about in last month’s post, I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t learned to do that, which is why I’m encouraging others to do the same.

Since lack of support as a child with a disabled sibling was such a challenge for me growing up, several years ago I set up my own online support group for the siblings of those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome. You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/110123842407656/

There is also a wider support community for siblings of those with disabilities available via SibNet: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SibNet/

2017 Resolutions

memory-jars

At this time of year, a lot of us are looking back on the resolutions we made for 2016, and either congratulating ourselves for having accomplished them, or beating ourselves up for failing to live up to our own expectations.

Most of my goals for 2016 were centred around reading, writing and the publishing world. Although I managed to accomplish some of them, my year was derailed pretty early on and I never quite got back on track.

2016 was a really tough year for me and my family, and most of my emotional energy was focused on dealing with losing my granny and supporting my mum through cancer, so my goals fell by the wayside. Normally, I’m the kind of person who is very goal-orientated and doesn’t cope well with failure (even if it’s only self-perceived failure), but, now that the relentless wave of 2016 has finally washed ashore, I’m trying to look at things differently.

Rather than being angry with myself for not achieving everything I wanted to, I’m choosing to be proud of myself for making it through 2016 with my sanity, self-confidence and sense of humour intact. I wouldn’t have managed that when I was younger, so I’m counting it as a solid achievement.

I’m also choosing to believe that 2017 will be better than last year, so I’m setting myself some new goals for the year ahead:

  • I’ve signed up to participate in the Goodreads Reading Challenge for the second time. Last year, I set myself a goal of 45 books, which turned out not to be attainable, so this year I’m aiming for 30 books. I have a great stack to get started with and I’m looking forward to delving into them. book-stack
  • Last year, I decided to participate in the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge to read 12 books in 12 different categories in 12 months. It was a fun idea, but I only managed to read about half of the books on my challenge list (to be honest, I completely forgot about it and just read whatever I felt like). This year, I’m not going to try to stick to a specific list, but rather just aim to read a mix of genres in both fiction and non-fiction.
  • Getting my first short story published last year was a great experience and one I would love to repeat, but my main goal this year is just to write, whether or not I feel like sharing it with others. I didn’t write any fiction at all in 2016, since all my ideas stubbornly refused to make their way from my mind to the page, so I’m hoping to change that this year. There are so many characters running around in my head, a few of them are bound to break free!
  • This blog didn’t get much attention from me last year either, so writing more posts is another goal. The ones that have meant the most to me have been centred around mental health issues, which I’ve been dealing with a lot in the last year. A number of people have told me that those posts have helped them and that they’ve shared them with others, which is fantastic to hear, and it’s given me the confidence to write more along the same lines.

I feel good about these goals and I think they’re realistic and interesting enough for me to achieve, so I’m going to leave it there for now. I hope you all enjoyed bringing in the new year, and I wish you all the best for 2017!

Suicide Prevention Week: Why I’m Glad I Kept Living

Suicide Ribbon

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, leading up to World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th.

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and came across the hashtag #IKeptLiving. Suicide survivors were talking about how they were glad their attempts had failed, and those who had thought about suicide in the past were explaining why they decided not to go through with it.

I am one of the latter.

Nearly 14 years ago, when I was 15, I was seriously contemplating ending my life. I had already been diagnosed with clinical depression and severe OCD, and I was being treated by two psychologists at a treatment centre for adolescent mental health. During one of my early sessions, they gave me a questionnaire to fill out so they could better understand how I was feeling.

While they were discussing it with me, they asked me which question had been the most difficult to answer. I tried to tell them, but found I couldn’t get the words out, so they laid the questionnaire down on the table in front of me and asked me to point to it instead.

I pointed to ‘Do you think about committing suicide?’ I had answered yes.

One night, a few weeks later,  while I was contemplating my latest round of prescription meds for my numerous health conditions (physical and mental), I started to think seriously about how many I would need to take to make all the pain go away. Probably more than I had handy, I reasoned, so I would likely need to sneak a bottle of alcohol out of my parents’ drinks cabinet to wash them down with.

I didn’t go through with it, but I was dangerously close. I’ve explained why I chose to keep living in a previous post, so I’m not going to talk about that now. Instead, I want to talk about why I’m so glad I’m still here.

If I had taken those pills, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school and two university courses.

If I hadn’t gotten help, I wouldn’t have just come home from the job I love.

If I hadn’t kept going, I would never have gotten two poems and a short story published.

If I had let the darkness take me, I wouldn’t have had the past 14 years with my family and oldest friends, or had the chance to meet all the wonderful new friends I’ve made in those years.

If I had listened to the depression and anxiety, I would never have seen the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone National Park, or three people I love get married.

If I hadn’t focussed on that glimmer of hope, I would never have met my idol, the wonderful Kate Mulgrew, who is integral to the reason I’m still here.

If suicide had been the end of my journey, I wouldn’t have the rest of my life in front of me, and all its unknown possibilities.

Those are just some of the many reasons I’m glad I chose to keep living. I hope you are able to find yours. Remember: you are unique; you are irreplaceable; the world will be worse off without you, not better.

If you need someone to talk to, there are people who can help. The organisations’ names are linked to their websites.

UK

Samaritans: 116 123

HopeLineUK (Papyrus): 0800 068 41 41

Breathing Space: 0800 83 85 87 (Scotland)

 

USA

Crisis Text Line: Text ‘GO’ to 741 741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 273 8255

 

International

You can find a list of international suicide helplines here.

 

A Battle on Four Fronts – Grief, Pain, Anxiety and Illness

At this moment, there are countless people across the world struggling with mental health problems, living with physical illnesses and disabilities, dealing with the grief of losing someone they loved, and living daily with the fear of losing someone else. At the same time, there are people facing all four of these struggles at once. I wish I wasn’t one of them.

This year:

My mother, the person I love most in the world, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

My granny, who helped raise me and was more like a mother than a grandmother, died of leukaemia only 5 months after her diagnosis.

My own health, which has gotten steadily worse over the last 14 years, threw me another curveball and added more medication, hospital visits and potential surgery to my already long list.

My mental health, which I have struggled with since I was a child growing up with a violent autistic brother, has made every day a fight between extreme anxiety and crippling despondency.

These events have been overwhelming and frightening, but they have also taught me very valuable lessons.

When I was receiving treatment for my mental illnesses as a teenager, I discovered that writing was the key to my recovery. During my final session, my psychologist asked if he could keep some of my poems to help other patients. That helped me realise that writing about my experiences could help others.

I want to do that again. I want to make all this mean something.

When I think about what I would say to someone struggling with the same things I am, the following comes to mind.

Grief is not linear or logical.

It will strike at unexpected moments. One of mine was when I walked up the front steps to my house for the first time after granny died. It suddenly hit me that I would never take her arm to help her climb those steps again when she came to visit. I cried for almost an hour.

Guilt and grief tend to go hand in hand, and there may be times when you feel guilty for NOT crying. I didn’t cry at my granny’s funeral. Instead, I stood up and recited a poem I had written for her. Afterwards, a number of people expressed their admiration of how I had kept my composure, to which I hastily replied that I was sure to be an emotional wreck later that day. At the time, I worried that my apparent lack of emotion would lead them to assume that I wasn’t feeling my granny’s loss as deeply as I was.

I realise now that there was no need to justify my way of dealing with things. Grief is a process unique to the individual, and comparing yourself to others is both unhealthy and counterproductive. Do what you need to do, not what you think you should do.

You don’t have to feel guilty for not handling a loved one’s illness as well as they are.

Watching someone you love dealing with an illness is often harder than going through it yourself. My mum has been telling me for years how hard it is for her to watch me in pain every day, and now I know how she feels.

She is handling her cancer with grace, strength and determination and I’m incredibly proud of her. One of the things I admire most is her ability to focus on one stage of her treatment at a time, without wasting her energy on worrying about the future.

I simply cannot do that. For me, her cancer presents a minefield of anxiety, fear and endless terrifying questions. What if she reacts badly to the next chemo drug? What if she doesn’t wake up from the surgery? What if she gets an infection? What if the cancer comes back one day? What if I lose her like I lost granny?

When I’m having a really bad day and the endless cycle of questions pushes me into a panic attack or makes me so despondent that I just sit and watch reruns of Star Trek, I always find myself apologising to her. I feel like I’m letting her down if I’m not constantly upbeat and pushing aside my own problems to help her deal with hers. So what if my stomach hurts so much I can’t stand up straight? My mum has cancer, my problems are nothing compared to that, right? Wrong.

Just because I’m not the one with cancer, doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to be struggling, too. The effects of illness and injury are felt by more than just the person suffering from them. They ripple out and touch everyone who loves them.

You are not weak if you are not coping and your loved one is.

You are not selfish if you are ill or in pain yourself.

Your fears and struggles are just as valid as theirs.

Be honest and keep talking. You can get through it together.

Anxiety doesn’t always have to be a handicap.

I would be lying if I said that I wouldn’t banish my anxiety disorder if could. Of course I would. It can be incredibly debilitating, isolating and frustrating, but that doesn’t mean that all that anxious energy can’t be redirected towards something positive.

Your mind insists on running at 100 miles an hour, analysing in microscopic detail every facet and nuance of your life? Fine. Make it work for you. That over-analytical way you have of looking at the world? It doesn’t have to be a handicap. Even a quick glance at job advertisements will tell you that the ability to be organised and analytical are highly sought after traits by employers. Your mind can conjure up worst case scenarios at impressive speeds? That means you have the ability to anticipate problems and head them off before they happen. Another very useful trait.

If you’re anything like me, your anxiety will drive you to organise everything, with ease and accuracy, because that is the way your mind attempts to bring order to the chaotic state it exists in. I have become renowned at work for my lists and spreadsheets, and there’s nothing I like more than being given free rein to get stuck into organising a new project. My work gives me focus and allows me to channel my anxiety into something productive.

I’ve written more about this in a previous post, which you can find here.

Wanting to move forward and actually being able to are two different things.

One of the worst things about mental illness and grief is that, while you desperately want things to get better, you have been robbed of the motivation and confidence to make any positive changes. It can make you feel pathetic and weak. It’s amazing how things like filling out a job application or making that long-overdue trip to the bank can seem like climbing Mount Everest, (never mind things like trying to buy a house – my current Everest).

At the moment, the only time I feel truly productive and useful is when I’m at work. My job gives me achievable goals and a daily sense of accomplishment, not to mention a great social atmosphere (laughter is the eternal panacea).

Those feelings are vital and we all need them. If you can’t find them at work, look at the other areas of your life. Are you creative? Enjoy being in the garden or the kitchen? Volunteering your time to help others? There are a great number of ways you can give yourself the opportunity to feel accomplished and productive, and it’s important to keep trying until you do. Your mind will have more trouble fixating on negative thoughts if you’re busy arranging a flower bed or perfecting a new recipe.

That being said…

The days when you do next to nothing are not wasted days.

Those days when you can’t muster the will to leave the house or do much more than stare at the television are your mind’s way of telling you that it needs a break. That’s perfectly reasonable, especially considering the energy it takes to generate a constant stream of anxious thoughts, process grief or cope with depression. The mind can only take so much.

My granny’s leukaemia entered its final stage in the same week as my mum ended up in hospital after a bad reaction to her first round of chemo. I couldn’t sleep. I felt sick with grief and anxiety. My physical pain levels shot up to the point that I had to check with my doctor if it was safe to increase my dose of painkillers to the level I needed just to get through the day.

Initially, I tried to cope by burying myself in work. I only accepted how much I was struggling when I realised that I couldn’t even do that anymore. That was incredibly hard to admit to, not just because my anxiety used the opportunity to make me feel like a failure, but because I am not a person who feels comfortable walking away from her responsibilities.

Reluctantly, I went on compassionate leave until after granny’s funeral. In hindsight, I can see how absolutely necessary that was, and I will always be grateful for the incredible support I received from my colleagues (and continue to receive).

Needing a break does not make you weak or unreliable. On the contrary, being able to admit that you need one is a strength in itself, and you should never feel guilty for it. Neither should you feel guilty that your biggest accomplishment for the day was getting out of bed. When your own mind is trying to sabotage everything you do, a small achievement is still an achievement.


For those of you who believe there is no hope in your future, that you are weak and worthless and the world would be better off without you – I understand that. I’ve had those thoughts and I’ll never forget them. But I would urge you to remember this:

If you jump off that bridge, or swallow those pills, or use that razor – there are no more possibilities. No more chances for the extraordinary and unexpected twists of fate to change your circumstances and the way you feel. A single moment of random serendipity changed mine 13 years ago, and I’m still here because of it (you can read about that here).

My granny knew about my mental and physical health problems, and one of the last things she said to me was ‘thank you for being everything that you are.’ She didn’t see me as weak. She was proud of me just the way I am. She said her life had been a journey, and I will carry her words with me for the rest of mine.

If you had told me a year ago that all these things were going to happen, I would have bet every penny I had that they would have sent me spiralling back into the cycle of clinical depression, severe OCD and suicidal thoughts that defined my teenage years.

That hasn’t happened. I am still here.

Anxiety and Editing – The Perfect Combination

Editing Marks

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but a few things have happened this week that have made me decide to write it now.

Some background before I get to the main point.

I grew up with a severely autistic brother, whose violent outbursts and unpredictable behaviour made my childhood home a frightening and dangerous place to be. He’s my only sibling and I’m the eldest, and my parents unwittingly placed a great burden of responsibility on me that I was too young to bear. I became fearful, withdrawn and terrified of telling my parents how I felt because I thought they couldn’t cope. I wanted to be the strong one, because, from where I was standing at 11 years old and ignorant of the strength of my parents’ marriage, I believed that if I showed any weakness, my family would fall apart.

A few years later, after my brother had been moved to a specialist residential care facility, I developed health problems. It’s a complicated story but, in a nutshell, an undiagnosed autoimmune disease left me with permanent damage to my digestive system and significant problems with my nervous system. When it all began the physical pain only added to the emotional pain and eventually it all got too much. I became depressed, horribly anxious, and, eventually, suicidal.

I got the treatment I needed, and, 13 years later, I’m a completely different person than I was then. My physical health has gotten worse, but my mental health has improved enormously. Unfortunately, although I have beaten back the depression and suicidal thoughts, I still have an anxiety disorder.

Because of this, I worried for years that, despite my academic achievements and ambition, I would never find a profession that would suit me. Then I found publishing, specifically, editing.

To my great surprise, this turned out to be the perfect job for someone with an anxious mind.

I work as a Publishing Quality Controller, and my main responsibility is to ensure that our books are as consistent and error-free as possible before they go to print. I LOVE my job, and I have found that it has allowed me to turn my anxiety into an asset.

It sharpens my focus and causes me to hone in on errors by instinct as well as by skill and experience. I’ll run my eyes over a page and think, something is wrong here, and I won’t stop until I find and correct it (or grudgingly convince myself to leave it alone if necessary – some authors are very stubborn!). It also makes me highly organised, and I use spreadsheets, checklists, folders and a ridiculous number of post-it notes to make sure nothing is missed or forgotten.

I don’t have a very laidback attitude when it comes to my work. When I send a top priority job to our typesetters, I’m slightly on edge until they acknowledge receipt of it. When an important deadline is unexpectedly brought forward, I’ll work as much overtime as it takes so that I don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of getting it done on time. My anxiety has a hard time letting me cut corners, even if I know the readers would likely never notice the errors I don’t fix. I know they’re there, and that’s all the motivation I need to keep working.

I have been known to be in bed about to fall asleep, suddenly remember a detail about a book I’m working on, then get up again and write it on one of my ever-present post-it note pads so that I can follow it up the next day. Crazy? Maybe. But it means that I don’t have to worry about it and I can get to sleep. The same goes for checking my emails out of office hours. I’m a ‘forewarned is forearmed’ kind of person, and if having knowledge of a new job the night before means I can hit the ground running the next morning, then I’m happy to keep an eye on them.

To a lot of people, this way of doing things might seem very unhealthy, but it works for me, and has the added benefit of taking my mind off the physical pain I deal with every day.

I am incredibly fortunate to work in a very supportive and sociable environment with seriously awesome colleagues, and I have the best manager I could possibly ask for. So many people face stigma in the workplace because of their mental health issues, and, while I don’t go about discussing mine at work, it doesn’t bother me that there’s a chance a few of my colleagues might read this. I trust them not to judge me for it or look at me any differently, and that’s a rare gift that I’m very grateful for.

Earlier this week, I had an upsetting conversation with someone close to me, and while I lay awake that night unable to sleep for worrying about it, all I wanted was for it to be morning so that I could go to work and plough my nervous energy into something worthwhile that would focus my mind and help me feel better. It worked, and that day I managed to send a series of 5 books to our typesetters and beat the deadline I had set for myself.

Sure, having an anxiety disorder means that I spend a lot of time worrying about small things (or what other people might consider to be small things), and even things that never actually happen. My anxious mind can conjure up the worst case scenario from any situation faster than my rational mind can stop it. That’s hard sometimes, but it also allows me to anticipate potential problems at work and head them off before they jeopardise the quality or deadline of a book.

After being treated by 5 psychologists in 15 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that my state of mind as it is now may be as good as it’s going to get. Rather than being upset by that, I’ve finally reached the point where I’ve accepted it. There are times that it still gets the better of me, but those times get less and less as the years go by, and, for the most part, I am able to control it enough to allow me to live the life I want to.

Rather than fighting with my anxiety and trying to change the person it has led me to become, I’m using it to my advantage. I haven’t figured out yet how that’s going to work in other areas of my life (where it still tends to cause problems), but I’ve certainly figured out how to use it to make me the best Publishing Quality Controller I can be.

I would never have wished to go through the things I have and to have been left with this anxiety, but it’s a part of me now, and it doesn’t have to be a weakness. For me, it has become a strength, and I think, if he could be, my brother would be proud of me for that.

The Need to Write

I love to write. I always have.

When I was a child, I would scribble endless stories on scrap pieces of paper and staple them together as little books.

Inspiration came from all sorts of places.

The animals in our garden were sentient creatures that would go on fantastical adventures among the overgrown trees and shrubs.

The lovebirds we looked after while my grandparents were on holiday were on their own vacation and would break out of their cage at night to socialise with the wild birds.

The ornaments on the shelves would come to life in my imagination and go on all kinds of adventures in the outside world, (my favourite of these was ‘The Pig That Lived in the Wild’ which I illustrated and recorded as an audiobook).

Once, I wrote a story about a squirrel that went into outer space in his squirrel-sized spacesuit. I have no idea where that one came from!

As I got older, my writing turned inward and rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of my journal pages. Severe depression and crippling OCD inspired poetry and introspective monologues that eventually helped to restore my emotional equilibrium. The mental health centre where I was treated kept some of my writings to help other patients, and ever since then I have believed in the power of creative expression to overcome emotions that would otherwise be suffocating. You can read more about those experiences in one of my previous posts.

Years have passed since then and my life is much busier now, to the point that sometimes I don’t realise that I NEED to write. The words force themselves through though, one or two lines at a time, until I have no choice but to notice them.

Sometimes, I dream about a dark room with a single spotlight shining on an easel holding a large sheet of white paper. As I watch, words appear on the page written by the invisible hand of my subconscious to form poems or extracts from stories. When I wake up, the words are still vibrant in my memory, and I make sure to write them down before they disappear again.

Other times, I find myself with a pen in my hand, idly scribbling words and ideas that won’t leave me alone unless I express them. Like this one that has been with me for the last few weeks:

Quote

It’s been a stressful start to the year, and I think these words are an expression of how I respond to emotional upheaval by taking refuge in writing. Those are usually the times when the words are at their most insistent and will run riot in my mind until I write them down.

I’m not sure where this blog post came from, but recently I’ve been feeling the need to write something, and this is what appeared when I sat down at my laptop.

I feel better now.

8 Ways Reading Can Help With Depression and Anxiety

Me glaring at monsterWe all perceive depression and anxiety in different ways. Maybe for you they are dark clouds obscuring the sun; maybe they are demons who follow you in your dreams and promise to haunt you for the rest of your life; maybe they are monsters who pop up everywhere and look like they were drawn by a 10-year-old, like the one that I made for this post (I apologise for my mediocre artistic skills, words are more my game).

Whatever they feel like to you, it can be difficult to find anything that offers some relief and breaks the cycle of negative thoughts. Since this blog is mostly about books, I wanted to write a post about how reading helps me on the difficult days, and how I hope it might help you.

1) A rapid heartrate and racing thoughts are common effects of anxiety. Reading can help slow these down. Well written prose and poetry have a natural rhythm that can lull your thoughts and breathing into slowing down without you even noticing.

2) An interesting story will pull you in and help you to push your difficult thoughts and feelings aside. Even a short break from them can be mentally and emotionally rejuvenating and give you much needed strength to get through the day.

3) Books contain some seriously awesome weird and wonderful things dreamed up by the impressive imaginations of their writers – hidden magical worlds, futuristic realities, fascinating fictional cultures and characters. The human mind is a powerful thing; powerful enough to fight back against depression and anxiety.

My bookworm is not afraid of the monster.

My bookworm is not afraid of the monster.

4) Depression and anxiety can make you feel very alone and like no one understands you. Given the wealth of characters found in books, you’re bound to find some who are just like you who you can relate to. Reading about their struggles can help you better understand your own and give you ideas about how to cope.

5) Can’t find the words to explain your feelings to others? Find a book with a character who is going through the same thing and ask your friends or family to read it, or just pick out some quotes which speak to your feelings. I would recommend It’s Kind of a Funny Story (fiction) by Ned Vizzini and Reasons to Stay Alive (non-fiction) by Matt Haig. There are loads of others out there and you can find great lists on sites like Goodreads.

6) Books can be a great way of connecting with other people, whether online or in person. Depression and anxiety can make it very difficult to talk to others, but discussing a book you both enjoyed can provide a safe and interesting conversation topic.

7) Reading can inspire you to write yourself, which can be very therapeutic. You don’t have to let anyone else read it, but letting your thoughts flow from your mind into the outside world can really help to put them into perspective.

And finally …

8) Reading connects you to the world beyond the confines of your own mind. That’s where the hope is. Books can beat monsters (and squash their cardboard representations).

Monster squashed in book