Monday, 20 June 2016

In Case you were Wondering...

I am still here!  I haven't been blogging a lot this year because I have been thinking that I really should move away from mental health as a topic and go forward with my life.  I tell myself that my breakdowns were far in the past, that I have won that battle now, that I have told my story in the hope that it would help others and therefore I have done my bit and can put it all behind me.

So, I have started to explore other avenues.  I started a law course and gave it up.  I tried to write novels and found out that it is harder work than it appears (although I am still trying; in fact I have actually enrolled on a Masters programme in Novel Writing to start this autumn which will hopefully give me a boost).  Over the last year or so I have gone off in several other different directions, applied unsuccessfully for at least two jobs...

However.  Mental health is an important part of my life.  I find it fascinating, as I do all aspects of health.  I don't really want to move on - by which I mean - of course, I never want to be unwell in that way again, but I no longer feel the desire to move on from the subject itself.  I am still learning so much about emotional wellbeing and, to be frank, I am also still failing a lot of the time to put what I have learned into practice.  I am still a work in progress.

What is different these days is that I don't feel alone.  Through my memoir and the work I have done with various organisations over the last five years or so I have come to realise that many people have had the same problems as I have and have also managed to overcome them.  There are many more who still battle their demons.  I have realised that emotional distress is part of the universal experience of human existence.  We are all works in progress.  That's how it is meant to be.

I will never accept or agree with the label of schizophrenia, which has done so much harm to so many people - but it doesn't bother me personally as much as it used to.  This would probably never have happened if I hadn't written the memoir and then the sequel to it.  I needed to look into the whole thing thoroughly, find out as much as I could about the label and about myself, in order to be able to discount it.  I intend to keep writing about it all until the label is done away with.  It is cruel and unjust and it should never be part of any 'treatment' administered in the name of medicine. 

I don't care so much about this label being applied to me though.  I try not to worry as much as I used to about what other people think of me.  There's no point, people have to make up their own minds.  I have lost some friends over the years since I wrote my book but I have made many new ones.  Life goes on. 

The thing is, all human beings are imperfect in some way or another.  Sometimes we go to great lengths to hide this fact, which can contribute to our unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life.  But the way forward, I believe, is to be honest about ourselves and about our experiences, as much as we feel able.  To keep trying to connect.  Keep trying to improve.  It is certainly the way forward for me.

So, here I am again.  I might be a bit rusty, and please excuse me if that is the case, but I intend to start saying my bit on the subject of  mental health again and to keep on saying it.  Because it matters. 

Monday, 22 February 2016

Catching Up

It has been noted (by my daughter's friend - hi Beth) that I have not blogged as regularly as I said I was going to.  In other words, I have broken my New Year's Resolution.  So far, so normal. 75% of New Year's resolutions are broken by this time of the year (I just made that statistic up but I don't think it is far off the truth). 

Anyway, my excuse is that I am having a mid-life crisis.  I have been assessing and re-assessing my path in life for a while now and come to no firm conclusions whatsoever.  So, what happened was, I dropped out of the Medical Law Masters soon after I started it last September.  I have been avoiding mentioning that, but it happened, and I had good reasons for dropping out at the time although I have been regretting it recently. 

Basically, I kind of lost confidence in my chances of getting a job at the end of the course.  Everyone else on the course seemed - no, was - so professional, organised, well-presented and just out of my league.  They were all lovely people but I didn't feel like one of them.  Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that after a couple of years of behaving like that sort of person I would probably have been able to wing it.  It would have been a good qualification, enough to get me a professional role and then I would have been a professional for real.

Never mind.  I also had money worries - Paul was really supportive of me doing the course but it was costing a fortune and I stress about money at the best of times.  I started to catastrophise, imagining the worst case scenario, which would be that at the end of the course we would be twelve grand poorer and I wouldn't be able to get a job, or worse, I would decide that I didn't want that sort of a job and then I would feel that I would just have become a liability.

Anyway, it's history now.  I didn't do it.  I dropped out very early on so it didn't cost any money, in case you are wondering.  Now I need to find something else to do instead, because it is becoming increasingly obvious that I need to work, in some capacity.  Which is where I have started to go around in circles.  Initially I was torn between studying to become a solicitor and training to becoming a teacher.  Both are possibilities, if only I can hold my nerve (judging by the Masters course I would need some sort of external support to do that, and I would plan accordingly.  I would arrange regular sessions of counselling or similar for the duration of the course.  It would take a year of study for me to qualify to become a teacher or to start work in a solicitor's office, because I already have a first degree). 

But then, I have also been thinking, perhaps I should do a Masters in creative writing. I can write, I am sure of that.  I am a writer already.  But a Masters course might help me focus, give me contacts, possibly forge the way to a career in academia if I studied really hard and did really well.  Possibly it would just get me writing more regularly and also better than I do now.  The good thing is that the funding situation has changed between last year and this and now, for the first time, postgraduates can get government student loans on the same terms as for undergraduates.  All postgraduates, up to the age of sixty!  That makes me feel positively young.  Potentially, that could open all sorts of doors.  Too many, maybe, for someone like me who is already feeling overwhelmed by all the possibilities.  I could study practically anything!

So what do I do?  Try to get a career off the ground?  If so, what career?  I would like to be a solicitor to prove to the world that I could do it.  Plus, I find the law interesting.  Plus, I can't help feeling that if I am going to do a job I might as well get well paid for it.  And have some respect for it - now, that would be a novelty. 

Teaching, on the other hand, might suit me better.  I think I would be a good teacher.  And I would be available to my own kids in the school holidays - a massive bonus.  Everything has been going so well with them all these years, they are growing up so wonderfully.  I don't know what the formula is and I know the likelihood is that we are just lucky but I can't help thinking that me being at home in what is more or less a full-time support role might have something to do with it.  I don't want to blow it at this stage. 

Then there's the writing.  I have not written much recently.  I still know I can write, but if I am not writing much, or not enough, or if the quality of what I write is not meeting my own expectations, then things really need to change in some way.  Plus, I want to contribute financially and the writing is not fulfilling that function at the moment. 

I may have stumbled on the solution today, or rather, a friend of mine might have found it for me.  This friend texted me this morning with information about a local admin job, quite well paid, quite interesting, for just twelve hours a week.  I could fit it in around the other stuff I do.  It wouldn't be too stressful, once I got used to my new duties.  And I might even be able to study for that Creative Writing Masters part-time, probably by distance learning.

The deadline for that job was today, so this afternoon I wrote up my CV and composed a covering letter and drove into town to give these in.  Interviews are being held next week, so I won't have long to wait.   

Anyone who is waiting for the link to the film and Huff Post blog I wrote about last time - sorry!  The post got rejected by the Huff for being too short - I didn't realise that they had a 500 word minimum.  I meant to re-write and re-submit it, but last week was half-term and I barely switched on my computer at all.  I will get around to doing it soon.  WATCH THIS SPACE.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Schizophrenia - or Emotional Distress?

I think this is the fourth blog I have written for the Huff Post this year.  I know I meant to write one a week and am already a little behind…  Anyway, when this one is published I will link to it here, and then hopefully you can follow the link and see the video it mentions.  It doesn't actually mean much or say anything new without the video but unfortunately I have no idea how to add photos or videos to this blog, although I really should learn that one of these days. 

In any case, I hope all of you out there are well and happy.  I am beginning to feel that Spring is in the air – so many things have started to bud out in my garden and although I know the current cold snap will halt them in their progress it still feels positive.  Exciting too, as I can't remember what on earth I planted - I must make a note of what actually grows in my garden this year. 
I do know I have some new raspberry canes - a friend gave them to me last Autumn.  I saw these sticks the other day and nearly pulled them out thinking they were dead plants of some kind but mercifully I remembered what they were just in time.  Reminds me of the time my mother-in-law planted beans for me and I pulled the whole lot up a couple of months later, thinking they were bindweed.  Easy mistake, apparently. 
This is starting to feel like a gardening column.  Back to the case in hand: Huff Post Blog 4.

‘Schizophrenia’ – or Emotional Distress?

Several months ago, I was asked if I would contribute to a video to be made by the mental health charity Mind, about schizophrenia.  I don’t like the term schizophrenia – I was once diagnosed with this condition and although the psychiatrists turned out to be completely wrong and it has been many years since I suffered from any symptoms of mental ill health, the term itself has affected my life in a negative way. 

‘Schizophrenia’ was never intended to be a derogatory term, but after more than one hundred years of misuse and misunderstanding it has become synonymous with madness and danger.  It needs to be modernised, in the same way that manic depression was relabelled as bipolar disorder, some years ago.

Young people are still being labelled schizophrenic, despite much evidence of the harm caused by the diagnosis.  The term has now been eradicated in many forward thinking countries and I live in hope that the UK will follow suit before too much longer.

In any case, I made it clear to Mind that I would be happy to speak about the condition on the video, but that I wanted to make clear my views about the harm done to people by use of the word schizophrenia.  Furthermore, I told them, I wanted to speak about the inhumane way that people who suffer breakdowns are forced to take psychiatric medication both in and out of hospital, sometimes for the rest of their lives, despite its debilitating side effects.  I also wanted to warn young people of the serious risks of cannabis use to their present and future mental health.  There was more.  The girl I spoke with assured me that my views were valid and that it would be good to have them aired.

In the event, though, none of my views about mental health treatment were included on the film, although apparently a podcast will be released in the next few months which will not be so heavily edited.  I am not complaining – Mind is a worthy organisation and they had to produce the film they wanted to show the world – it was not under my control.  And I am sure the film, which shows five of us who have been diagnosed with the condition, will prove useful to the world.  Even though, in my opinion, it could have been a lot more so.

Here’s a link to the film.  Enjoy!

Monday, 25 January 2016

Working Mums v Stay at Home Mums

Below is my most recent blog, written for the Huff and for here.  I haven't actually posted it to the Huff yet.  I want to find a suitable picture to go with the piece first and because I want to get on with my latest attempt at a novel I am going to wait until my computer support team (husband and eldest daughter) are home this evening.  Laziness?  Yes, perhaps.  But I am Giving Up Feeling Guilty.  In fact, that might be the title for my next blog post...  Anyway, here is this one:

Working Mums v. Stay at Home Mums

At the start of January I made a resolution to write one blog post a week – and whoops, I have blown it already.  Last week I had other priorities.  A friend popped in unexpectedly one morning for a chat.  The next day I had to take one of my daughters to the opticians.  I had a parents’ meeting and a school uniform sale to attend.  The few hours a day that I try to allocate to writing gradually became consumed by other matters.  By Friday I had stopped even trying (or pretending to try) to write and just spent the day out shopping with a friend. 

It is all too easy to become distracted when you work from home, so much so that sometimes the distractions seem to be part of the routine.  I feel privileged to be able to take my children to appointments or to pick them up from school if they are poorly.  I like to meet friends occasionally for coffee or lunch and a chat.  I do usually manage to fit in some writing during the day but it is sometimes hard to find the motivation.  By last weekend though, after a whole week of not writing, it was tempting to think that perhaps I should find a job and contribute to the family in a more measurable way – i.e. financially. 

The trouble is, I have friends who are working mums, I observe them becoming stressed with all the tasks they have to juggle and I can’t see myself existing that way.  Plus, just because I enjoy my days, doesn’t mean I have an easy ride.  I do a lot of chores; cooking, cleaning, all the things that keep a household running, and I do have a large family (a husband, four children and two dogs) to look after.  I think perhaps every family needs someone in a support role – certainly in the absence of family members to rely on.  I shouldn’t feel guilty, I tell myself.  I have plenty to keep me busy. 

I am not a helicopter parent, at least not deliberately, but I am around to help the children when they need me, and I probably have more time than most to think about what is the best way to feed them, what are the most suitable activities out of school and so on.  I am trying to raise independent, confident children, I am trying to make their lives as secure as possible so that when they grow up they won’t have the problems that I did.  It is important to me to prove that I am a good mother, a capable mother - although I know that most people don’t even consider such things in relation to themselves or anyone else. 

And that’s the other thing – because of the track my life has taken, I don’t know if anybody would employ me anyway.  Would you employ a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia?  I am not sure that even I would.

So, is it better to be a working mum or a stay at home mum?  I don't know, because I have only ever tried one of those options.  All any of us can do in life is our best, which will depend on our personal circumstances and those of our family.  I would say from personal experience, that once you have chosen a path it is probably better for your sanity not to wonder what the road not travelled might have held. 

Sometimes, blogging feels like shouting into the ether.  There are so many things on the internet and in the world at large competing for our attention, why should anybody want to read about what I think?  Last week, though, a friend phoned to say she had read my last piece about how every down in life has a corresponding up and that we should always bear this in mind when we are going through troubled times.  She said it had really helped her – and that was enough to encourage me to get back on track. 

This week, I will write more than last week (that won’t be difficult!)  I will continue to blog regularly, or try my hardest to do so.  I will keep plodding on, and one day I might even finish one of the many novels that I keep embarking on and abandoning.  Or perhaps, when the children are grown, I might go out and find a job after all.

Meanwhile, life goes on and everyone in my little home is healthy and happy, including me.  

It is all progress, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.


Monday, 11 January 2016

When Times Get Hard - Hold On!

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2016 is to write a weekly blog post on the subject of mental health, or as I prefer to term it, emotional wellbeing.  Last week I wrote about how to battle your neuroses – or to ignore them and carry on regardless - and in either case why you should do your utmost to make the most of life.

In my opinion, the reason we are here on this planet is to be happy.  I don’t know how I formed this opinion – I suppose I feel it, rather than think it.  Sometimes life gets hard and happiness seems elusive, but there are certain things we can do to help ourselves even in difficult circumstances.

There is a particular factor which I think is crucial to our happiness and our emotional wellbeing – at least, it’s something which I have learned in life and I think might be useful to others to know.  It’s about the importance of holding on.  That for every down there will be a corresponding up. 

Life does throw us a curve ball sometimes but things always improve.  How long things take to get better will depends on the nature of the event and on the individual reaction to it.  When I was young, I seemed to experience vast tracts of time during which I felt lost and lonely and I do wish I had been aware at that time of how much better, fuller and more rewarding things would become in the future.       
This seems to be to be one of the fundamental truths in life – if you only hold on, things will get better.   I get so sad when I hear of people giving in to hard times, especially if they harm themselves in any way.  I wish I could say to them – keep your body intact, look after it, because your mind will heal to match it in time. 

A friend who travelled to Africa on a humanitarian mission a couple of years ago said that the people she met there were the happiest she had ever known.  They were just grateful every day to be here on earth, alive, despite the extreme difficulty of their everyday living conditions compared to our own.

Which is not to say that our own problems are imagined – but we would do well to remember that we too are lucky to be here.  Sometimes we over-complicate our lives by fretting over things which will not seem to matter at all a year or two hence.  Certainly, we should not fret over the presence or absence of material objects in our existences – the fact that we are here is a wonderful and precious thing, and we should remember to cherish it above all else.

We need to understand, as the Africans instinctively do, that in being here we are blessed.  You don’t need to be religious at all to think this way, but it does help to understand, or to believe, that there is something bigger than us out there in the universe.   When I was younger I didn’t allow myself the comfort of faith and the world seemed a much harder place for it. 

So to sum up: bad times, or low moods, don’t last forever.  For every down, there is a corresponding up.  It might not be a long term problem at all – simply go for a long walk and you might feel better even faster than you anticipated – if not, keep exercising, sleep well, etc…  Or if, as I once did, you have lost hope, remind yourself that you will find it again eventually.  Definitely.   

Just persevere, keep going.  Take one step at a time to improve your emotional well–being: Exercise, eat well, sleep and rise at regular hours, confide your feelings to a friend or to your diary.    Look after yourself and just keep on taking those small steps forward.  Because one day, beyond doubt, you will look back and realise that you have risen above your circumstances and that you are properly happy again, at last.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway

I have decided to update this blog weekly, after neglecting it somewhat in recent months/years.  I think it is important to keep trying to spread the word about emotional distress - to avoid the disease perspective, to encourage people to believe in their chances of recovery from various symptoms, to emphasise the point that drugs are not essential to this process.  I just know I am not unique as a person who has suffered several severe breakdowns and yet gone on to live a full life.  It will never cease to bother me that more people are not aware of their potential for recovery.  Well, actually it will cease to bother me - when the situation is remedied.

Anyway, to aid my chances of success in blogging every week and to simplify matters, I am going to post the same blog here as on the Huffington Post.  I have not made the most of the opportunity I was given on that paper, just over a year ago and I have resolved to do so from now on.  Many people dream of blogging for the Huff - I was offered the chance on a plate and perhaps failed to appreciate it sufficiently.

Onwards and upwards. 

By the way, this blog wont be up on the Huff until later tonight or tomorrow, because I have to find a picture to accompany it first.  I need to get on with my latest Work in Progress now, because novels don't get on and write themselves, as I have discovered to my cost...

 So, you saw it here first...  Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway

I am on a constant drive to beat my neuroses.  Sometimes it feels a bit like that game where you hit the crocodiles or frogs or whatever with a hammer – you bash one down then another pops up in a different place, seemingly faster and faster…  Funnily enough I started to write this blog one day last week and then the following day Deborah Ross, one of my favourite columnists in The Times, used the same analogy in that paper and had the correct name for the game too – Whack a Mole. 

So then I was going to edit that bit out of this column because I didn’t want anyone to think I was copying her.  Then I decided that in fact I should go ahead, because I thought of it before she wrote her column and anyway, what does it matter…  You see what I mean?  I am neurotic.  I think about and analyse far too many things, take responsibility for all of it and then anguish unnecessarily. 

Anyway, I am going to keep fighting my neuroses.  Sometimes this is best done by ignoring them (although note that this is pretty hard if, like me, you are in the habit of writing about your various issues and then publishing the said writing).  Some of my difficulties I have to face head on.  I am not sure why, I just feel compelled to.  For example, many people (women especially) have or develop a fear of driving and they, probably sensibly, just take avoidance action – after all, nobody has to get behind the wheel of a car. 

I like driving around town and am grateful to have the use of a car, but I have always been fearful of driving on motorways.  I don’t really need to do any motorway driving these days but every so often I make myself do some anyway, just to prove that I still can.  Even if I am shaking and sweating before the journey (and I always am) I find that the next time is immeasurably easier (as long as I don’t leave it too long between trips). 

I won’t list any of my other ‘problems’ just now.  I have done so elsewhere, at length.  I do want to share the good news though, for anyone who is still suffering from various worries, phobias, neuroses or however you want to term them.  As you get older, all sorts of things become easier – from socialising (you tend not to care so much about what other people think of you) to working (you tend not to care so much about what other people think of you) to battling your various fears (you tend not to care so much…etc). 

Basically as you get older, you realise that you are not the only person in the world who worries about things.  Everyone is riddled with insecurities, they just manifest them in different ways, or if they are really lucky, they have learned to overcome their difficulties (I recently re-read M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled and it was brilliant on this subject).

So, my advice is, just get on with life.  Enjoy it.  Tackle things, or choose not to.  Live.  Don’t be shackled by fear.  In fact, feel the fear and do it anyway.  And guess what - I stole the title for this article from the book of the same name by Susan Jeffers.  But – you know – who cares?!   

Happy New Year to everyone by the way.  I hope it brings you all much success and happiness. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Mind film

I have not done a lot of mental health based activism recently.  I have had other fish to fry (I will write more about my other projects in due course).  Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I had an email from the McPin Foundation asking if I wanted to take part in a film that Mind, the charity, were making about schizophrenia.  Apparently they were having trouble finding people, particularly women, with the diagnosis who would agree to be filmed (I wonder why that would be?  I can't imagine why anybody wouldn't wish to 'fess up to being a schizophrenic on film!)

I wasn't sure either at first.  So I spoke to my husband, who said straight away that he thought I should do it.  I hesitated, but soon realised that being on film saying I have the diagnosis is not really any different from what I have been doing for the last four or five years (writing about it).  I wrote the book under my maiden name in an effort to protect my children from the stigma of being associated with and tainted by the 'schizophrenia' word but my photo is already out there - in fact it was on the front of my memoir for the first couple of years of its publication. 

I checked with my daughters as well though, before contacting Mind.  The older one said immediately that it would be fine.  The younger one said it would be fine as long as none of her friends saw the film.  I said that was unlikely but I couldn't guarantee it.  Then I pointed out that I really don't have anything to be ashamed of and nor does she - I was ill, I am now better, and if the film helped other people to see that there is a life after this awful, stigmatizing and damaging diagnosis then it was kind of my duty to go ahead and take part. 

She agreed.  I was pleased that she had questioned it, though, because it made me realise that I really should do the film.  So I contacted Mind - and within three days I found myself in a café in Stratford, sitting at a table, talking and pretending to drink coffee with four other people who have the same diagnosis.

It all happened so quickly, it was a rather surreal experience in some ways.  Our filming overran, so the next groups had appeared by the time our session was finished - I think these others had diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.  Or to look at it differently, we had all suffered from emotional distress at one time or another, which had manifested in different ways.

Paul had driven us to London and he stayed in the café when we were filming, so he got to talk to quite a few of the others involved in the subsequent sessions while he was waiting.  I envied him that - I love meeting people who have been through similar experiences to my own and find that I always learn a lot from them. 

I did get to talk to 'my' group at length, of course, and one thing in particular struck me: each of us had been using cannabis at the time of our first breakdowns.  I always knew cannabis was a factor in my own breakdown and I will never forget the psychiatric nurse who told me that it featured in every single set of medical notes he had ever seen - this, as I saw it, was further proof of the damage done by that substance.

The whole experience was fascinating, in fact.  It was also exhausting - the drive to London took almost four hours and the time to get home was only slightly shorter.  plus, of course, filming itself was pretty intense - quite a departure from anything I have done before.

I feel lucky to have been involved.  I am getting nervous now, though, about how I came across on film and I am becoming increasingly keen to see the finished product.  We spoke for well over an hour and the film will be edited down to less than ten minutes in length so I know I lot of what I said will be edited out.  Before I did the film though, I made it clear that I wanted to talk about how unjust I feel the diagnosis is, and how people can recover fully without medication, so I do hope those points remain in the edited version.

If anyone wants to see the films that Mind have made so far - on topics ranging from post-natal depression to bi-polar disorder - you can look them up on their YouTube channel, or follow the link from the Mind website.  Our film will be number sixteen in the series - the others are all very well made and interesting to watch so hopefully ours won't let the side down.  I will link to it here when it is up online.