Courage to face down the ogre

Courage is always required to move forward in life.  I often think about courage and how hard it can be just to do ordinary things for those of us who suffer from PTSD, anxieties, depression and other traumas. But then I think, hang on a minute! Maybe that’s the problem. Thinking about things being difficult makes them look bigger.

There’s an old fable about a group of travellers on a long, long road. One day, they meet an ogre on the trail.   It is roaring at them and generally kicking up and they are all petrified. Full of fear, none of the travellers will dare approach the ogre (well you wouldn’t would you) and yet somehow they need to get past him to continue their journey. And then suddenly, hooray, out of the mist rides a Knight in Shining Armour, his shield all emblazoned with deposed ogres and defeated orcs. ‘Good Sir’, chorus the travellers, ‘please depose this ogre for us, we will pay you well and then allow us to be on our way.’road-3186188_1920

But the Knight is in a bad mood. His team lost the match, his partner shouted at him that morning, he’s tired and emotional, he’s really not feeling it. ‘Another time guys’ he says unsympathetically riding off into the distance. In the fable the travellers do eventually pluck up the courage to move closer to the ogre. Yet mysteriously as they do it grows smaller, roars less, squeaks more!

Well we get it. Fear only makes the problem bigger whereas facing up to the problem makes it shrink. No-one else can do it for you. Mmmm! Sometimes that’s true. Things in our heads make us fear and fearing the fear makes it worse. But in my personal experience things are not always that straightforward. An ogre is a fixed and known (!) quantity.   Whereas modern society seems to have multiple and complex dangers so that it is not always possible to know where the ogre is or how to stand up to it.  Nor does it ever take the same shape or form. Ogres are streamed to our screens daily; trolls don’t even need to bother to get out of bed . And we get by with a little help from our friends.

Sometimes you creep past the ogre and breathe a sigh of relief only to find its cousin or sister in law waiting round the next corner – or a hologram of its Aunty! It makes no difference if we are anxious and scared whether it’s a chimera or a great green yelling beast, the body still goes into the same fight or flight response, tells us to get the hell out of there, starts a whole pattern of responses that the medical profession still barely understands nor do we who experience them but which seem to date back to our experiences as cavemen. What would the average caveman do when faced with rush hour on the tube the brain asks itself? Go into blind panic? Job done, says the brain. When in doubt says the brain, panic. When depressed says the brain, be listless and zombie like with muscles that can’t hold up a pea pod, because if you’re doing nothing but being flopped out on the bed then I guess you’re safe from the lions and tigers and bears (oh my) and then I don’t have to work what to do with you.

I look back to before I got ill and think that I lived in an ogre free zone. It isn’t true of course – that is just rose coloured spectacles with a bit of youthful bravado thrown in for good measure.  There are always difficulties and problems to be overcome so there’s no point thinking that if I can just get round that particular corner I’ll be fine, which I admit I often find myself thinking, because as soon as I’m fine something else pops up which says ‘not yet, you’re not’. Hoping for a problem free life is not realistic. What I need is resilience and the ability to stay rooted amidst all the stuff and value the good bits, try not to let them get overwhelmed by the bad bits.

Resilience comes from living and struggling and coping with problems! It doesn’t come from sitting on a desert island being the beneficiary of the fruit of the desert island tree much as that idea seems attractive. One who has never suffered from depression or anxiety or other mental illness cannot understand the lives of those who do. One who has never suffered from those things cannot help another sufferer.

 

Spring, Mental Health style

brian-garcia-196959-unsplashThis is not a gardening blog. Just as well because I am not a gardener.   But which of us is not encouraged by Spring?   It’s a cold one here in the UK.  The January gloom that descends every year,  swiftly followed by feverish February, has finally departed.    Snowdrops and winter aconite have made their appearance and those that know about gardens are starting to head out there and mull over the tasks to be done.   Soon bluebells will be covering the woods and it is time to feel hopeful again.

Nurturing life is a creative activity.   The trouble with mental illness – and there are many troubles with mental illness – is that when things go well I’m like the town mouse who forgets to store up seed for the winter because, hey its always going to be summer and let’s party!  By the time I remember that it isn’t always going to be summer, I can’t concentrate on storing up seed, and things start falling to bits. When winter hits, and there’s no seed in the cupboards because I was too busy partying and celebrating summer, then I start beating myself up for being disorganized and blaming myself for being useless, then I feel bad and can’t bring myself to go to the Doctor because he’s useless too and so on.    In between metaphorically partying and mentally beating myself up, I am not nurturing but engaging in extremes. So I have developed some rules for my mental health gardening.

  • Protect emotions from snow as snow puts pressure on branches and bends them. Stay warm. Be kind.
  • Check all stakes and supports – accept encouragement where its offered rather than thinking ‘you have no idea what my life is like,’ even if the person doesn’t have any idea what my life is like I can give them credit for trying.
  • Plan ahead – make the best of the good days when it feels like anything can be achieved
  • Prune tendencies to lock myself away – accept help.  Everyone needs a bit sometimes.
  • Feed seedlings something sensible.  They don’t like sugar!

 

Broken wiring

Mmm. Interesting. What are my worst symptoms? That’s a tough question to answer.   Feeling like death every day, lack of ability to concentrate, restlessness, depersonalisation, bouts of anger which I turn in against myself; either caring far too much about things or not caring at all.   Feeling like I am composed of a series of broken switches, none of which is sparking properly.  Not being (or rather not feeling)  a valid human being whatever one of those is.  No sleep.  Exhaustion.   Life looks like one big pointless empty space.

A friend  who was diagnosed with a physical disease said however horrendous the disease was and the treatments,  it was easier to deal with than depression.  People who suffer with mental health issues –  who then also get physcial ailments –  are dealing with both things together.

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Anger is a tricky one.   Some aspects of anger are positive.  There wouldn’t be any charitable causes if people didn’t get angry about poverty.  Without anger, women would  never have got the vote; without anger no-one would ever have taken a stand against racial inequality.   But it has negative destructive sides as well. Keeping that under control is important.

What do I do when I feel this way?  I don’t drink alcohol nor do I take any medication.  That’s my choice and my decision for my own life.    But there are things I can do for myself – exercise is a big one.  I belong to a local gym and go at least three times a week.   I try and avoid too much screen time when I feel this way which is hard as we are all wired these days and writers spend half their lives on the internet.  I have my books, my writing. I used to buy books every time I got depressed but then found I was struggling to afford it.  Safe to say I have a lot of books!   And music too of course.  I listen to loads of classical music.   I often listen to my favourite band the Manic Street Preachers.  Although their lyrics are so full of existential angst I’m not sure why it’s therapeutic listening to them I just know that for me, it is.

Family is important. Sometimes I call my wonderful children who give meaning to my life.  I chant too.  But one of the best ways of making myself feel better is to stop thinking about my own stuff and do something to help someone else.   Not always easy but it works everytime.  I think one of the problems with depressive illness  is its tendency to isolate the sufferer.   This is a trap which is to be avoided at all costs,  because talking and being with other people is always constructive if you allow it to be.

When taking your dog to the vet involves heroism

Something James said in his post (Its, Okay, not to be Okay …)  about being trapped in the house and it taking years to get his life back.    That resonated strongly because it has taken me over a decade to get my life back from the time everything fell to pieces for me.  I remember needing to take my dog to the vet because he was ill – for most of us that would be a relatively straightforward task but it was beyond me at that time.  I had to ask my son to accompany me.  I’m not talking about challenging stuff here.

viktor-talashuk-1165456-unsplashI’m not talking about military style heroism or charging a gun placement at Goose Green.  I’m talking about going into town: I’m talking about the simplest  outing to the cinema, the café, the restaurant, things which others take for granted but which for me had become borderline impossible to do.  I wasn’t always like that.  My mental illness seemed to descend out of nowhere,  or rather it crept up, started out feeling nothing very much and ended taking over everything.   It changed my perceptions,  those internal maps which in turn govern perceptions of the external environment.   Some can trace their illnesses back to specific traumatic events, I can’t.  It just became.

You want your life back – the normal one that you remember when you went to a party or to the office or to the school parents’ evening just because those were things that were on the itinerary and they were not special or extraordinary and required no special or extraordinary thinking or courage.     My normal daily routine does not include charging a gun placement at Goose Green armed only with a spoon and plate, but my subconscious mind for reasons known only to itself, came to think that it did, and informed my body accordingly.   Fight or flight became my normality.

I’ve read studies that say that the part of the brain that is malfunctioning when we start to feel like this (the amygdala) doesn’t recognise linear time.  In other words it never seems to get to a place where it thinks, hell that was traumatic but it’ s OK it’s over now so we can all move on.  It lives in this groundhog day of perpetual terror and makes the rest of our bodies do the same without any rational basis whatsoever.    Our brains are millions of years old and perhaps they haven’t evolved as much as other more temporal aspects of our lives,  as much as we would have liked them to.

I do go out again now.  The life that I got back wasn’t quite the one that I used to have but I feel I’ve achieved every bit rather than just taking everything for granted.   My practise of Nichiren buddhism has helped enormously.   It’s been a struggle but I know that it’s made me a much stronger person, better able to empathise with others.    If that’s a cliché then it is, but no less true for all that.

Days when life scrolls across the vision…

Some time ago I took myself to the cinema to watch Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia.

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Three quarters of the way through the film I got an attack of claustrophobia or anxiety (or perhaps just melancholia)  and had to leave the cinema, so I never found out if the two planets collide at the end or not.  Even though the film is on Netflix I still haven’t caught up.   It is a strange film, but then it portrays strange lives.  Is there any life which is not a strange life?  What is normal and how do we know? 

In any event, I was much less interested in the idea of an apocalyptic collision between two planets than I was in the film’s portrayal of depression, how sufferers feel isolated, even when surrounded by others:  perhaps especially when surrounded by others.   The main character (played by Kirsten Dunst) is so ill she can’t even get through her own wedding day and who can blame her, it’s a pretty dire wedding.  Sometimes in depression things which are relevant and important just don’t feel relevant and important, even though everyone is telling us that they are.  That idea in itself leaves the thinker outside the group.

There are times I regard with bemusement things others may find of vital interest; there are days when  life seems to scroll my vision across like credits rolling at the end of a programme.   I am like the viewer who has already gone to the kitchen to make tea without seeing the list of hard working people whose labours have gone into the film’s creation.

I continue to be fascinated by links between the artistic nature and mental health.  I do believe there is one.   I also believe trying to craft words, music or pictures out of nothing (although it’s not out of nothing it’s out of the psyche) leave us vulnerable to disturbed layers in the sediment of our sub-conscious.  But is it then the case that an artistically inclined person is more open to adverse mental health effects than say someone who has created a business plan from nothing or a scientific formula?

Logically it doesn’t seem possible.    According to friend Google through whose kind offices I have just discovered that Charles Darwin suffered from schizophrenia, scientists are also prone to depression.     I also discovered the completely unverified fact that that individuals who score straight A’s at school are four times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder.

So be of good cheer guys we are all brighter than average.  Let’s be wise as well and take care of ourselves.

This is a challenge for me…

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…  to put words to the long silence,  to voice things I have never discussed even privately.  I was born into a family whose ethos was ‘put up and shut up’, while concerns about depression were dismissed as ‘neurosis’.  So I write to you as neurotic – according to certain members of my family – and whatever that means!

Slowly, very slowly, mankind is crawling out of the caves on this issue.  Mental health is opening itself up discussion thanks to blogs like this and the democratizing effect of the internet; it is even becoming fashionable, a cause adopted by various celebrities and royals.  Thank goodness.  Because thirty years ago (which in the context of human history is a billionth of a microsecond) if you were female and middle class you didn’t attend the institutionally sexist GP system in the UK with much hope of ever being taken seriously even for a physical health problem.

Whatever the 21st century brings us, one of its blessings will be an opening up of these Victorian attitudes surrounding illness of the mind.  Sadly at the moment though this has not led to much increase in available resources. In terms of mental health service provision in the UK – especially for young people – the ‘Cinderella of the health service’  continues to sit by the cold hearth and rake through the ashes.

But even a greater understanding of mental illness is only ‘greater’ compared with what used to be understood; basically nothing.   Early ‘treatments’ for mental health could easily be confused with scenes of medieval torture.   Bessel Van Der Kolk in his study on trauma The Body Keeps the Score recounts horrific stories of when he started as a trainee in psychiatric hospitals of patients being hosed down with cold water.  And we are not talking about the 18th century here.   That is where mental health ‘treatment’ was in the 1960s!  That’s before we get to the lobotomies and the electro shock therapy.

I do believe that we are all interconnected. Environmental factors and damage to the ecology which supports the human race must play a part in the increases we are seeing in depressive illnesses.  One day our governments may wake up to the fact that sick individuals make sick societies and that purely economic modes of thinking are outdated. That hasn’t happened yet.

On a day to day basis I try to set goals and determinations and move ahead in some way, even if just a millimetre at a time.   I used to belittle myself constantly in my thoughts and conversations.  I don’t do that now.  Ever.   Without making excuses, on days when I really can’t then I try to accept that today I really can’t.

Buddhism teaches the principle of “cherry, plum, peach and apricot” – that all things have their unique beauty and mission.  Every person has a singular mission… his or her individuality and way of life.  That is the natural order of things.