Archive | July, 2012
Sad woman face with smeared makeup

Critical Condition

(Getty Images/Alina555/Vetta)

“I’ve realized therapy is incredibly therapeutic.” ~ Lisa Schroeder

I’ve been reading the comments on this excellent article by Gaby Dunn on Thought Catalog with interest. Particularly the views of commenters who have negative views on therapy and see those who seek it as weak or self-indulgent. The article explains why she tries to be as open as possible about the fact that she’s in therapy.

I think it highlights for me one of the biggest mistakes that we often make in our approach to mental health issues, which is that we focus too much on the ‘mental’ or psychological angle, and forget the health part. This then leads us to treat our mental health in a way that would seem bizarre if we applied it to our physical health.

Earlier this year I was taken into hospital because my mental health had deteriorated to the point where I had an almost irresistible compunction to take my own life. I was experiencing a mental health crisis, and few, I think, would argue that it was wrong for me to have received treatment at this stage.

However, when it comes to conditions where the symptoms are less severe, the support for people receiving medication or entering into talking therapy dwindles. With a considerable number of people believing, as those commenters, that treatment is unnecessary for conditions such as milder depression or anxiety. It is seen as acceptable to tell suffers of these illnesses to pull themselves together, and that they ought to be better able to deal with things.

Now, lets just for a moment look at those two scenarios in the same way that we would if they were physical ailments.

I was treated in a hospital because my life was in danger. My broken brain was trying to kill me. So, basically what I had was the psychological equivalent of stage three cancer, or having been in a serious car accident.

But in order to have reached the psychological equivalent of having stage three cancer, I first passed through stages zero, one and two, as my metal health gradually deteriorated.

This means that at the onset of my illness, when I had only mild depression and anxiety, I was at stage 0-1 of my illness. If it was customary to offer serious intervention and treatment at this stage I might never have progressed to the point of needing hospital treatment.

It would be unthinkable for any one to be in stage one of a serious, potentially life threatening physical illness, and to not be treated. It seems crazy to me that a person seeking treatment at the equivalent stage of a mental illness can be seen as self indulgent.

Even if you think that this comparison is overly dramatic. Surely it can’t be too much of a stretch for you to see the onset of depression as equivalent with the common cold or a serious headache? You could even at a push stretch it to the flu, maybe?

Who would fail to take action at the onset of any of these illness? Even those who are wary of building up a tolerance to over the counter remedies would buy a box of tissues if they felt a cold coming on.

And yet it can be seen as normal, and appropriate, that people with mental health issues should dismiss these warning signs and only seek treatment when they are poorly enough to need hospitalising.

I think that we, as a society, need to take mental illness far more seriously, and adopt much more of a ‘health care’ approach to dealing with it. It should be second nature to have your psychological equivalent of a box of tissues, and to make use of it whenever you feel the need for it.

 

London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony

Olympic Fever

Have you all been watching the Olympics? I’m surprised to find that I’m ridiculously excited about it.

I used to love the Olympics. The first one I watched was Barcelona in 1992 and I thought that it was just magical. I thought the opening ceremony was thrilling, I loved the anthem with Freddie Mercury and Monserrat Caballe and the parade of the athletes from countries I’d never even heard of.

I listened to the speeches about bringing the world together through sport, and about athletes striving to be  the best that they could be, and I believed in them – I was only eight – I thought it was all amazing.

I think I watched almost every event of that Games. And the one in Atlanta in 1996.

It was during the time that Team GB had people like Sally Gunnell, Linford Christie, Colin Jackson, Jonathon Edwards and Steve Redgrave. They were my heros. They seemed so talented, and dedicated, and just so… happy.

As I got older though I lost interest.

There were all the drugs controversies.

The Games became less convenient to watch as I grew older and busier, and the events were staged on the other side of the world. Plus the fact that my school wouldn’t let me try out for the track team because I wasn’t on any of the winter sports teams, so I wasn’t going to get to be a runner myself after all.

I did apply for tickets to the London Olympics, just because I thought it’d be cool to be able to say I went. Especially if I got to watch the sprinting events with Usain Bolt. But I wasn’t especially excited about it.

I did get some tickets. They were for the ladies boxing though, and I’ve sold them on to a friend of a friend because I didn’t think that was a good event to be watching just yet.

By the time the build up began, with the tour of the flame, I’d lost interest again.

But then I watched the Opening Ceremony on Friday and thought it was phenomenal. Absolutely amazing. I thought Danny Boyle represented what Britain’s all about perfectly.

Although I’d be really interested to hear from any readers outside the UK whether you had any idea what most of it was about? It did seem like there were a lot of national in-jokes.

Anyway, the ceremony got me all hyped up to watch some of the events. And like I said before I am absolutely loving the Olympics.

I’m getting ridiculously excited about events I haven’t watched in years, like the swimming, and even events that I’ve never watched before, like the Judo. Watching the Olympics has taken up much of my weekend. Which is why I’m only just getting round to updating my blog in the middle of the night.

The athletes seem so focussed, and the atmosphere seems to be incredible, and everyone is so healthy! And I’m finding it really inspiring.

I’ve remembered how good it feels to be able to walk up seven flights of stairs, like I’m having to do to get to work while the lift’s out of action, and not be completely out of breathe. To be toned and healthy. To have an endorphin buzz after a fitness session.

So I’ve decided to take action.

I think my depression is light enough now that some consistent exercise might just help in driving the rest of it away, along with some other changes that I’m making. And as part of my phased return my start time for work has been moved to ten o’ clock.

Which means that I have time to start swimming every morning.

And I think I’ll see if I can make time for a fitness session that I’ve seen that runs on some evenings. It’s at the local muay thai gym and involves lots of intense cardio. I don’t know for sure that it won’t kill me, I haven’t done any exercise at all since I injured my back about twenty months ago, but I can at least give it a go.

I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll let you know how I get on.

 

 

What’s In A Name?

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” ~Chuck Palahniuk

As we need others to offer a stable reflection to keep us sane, we also need other people to help us to form our identities. A large part of our self-image is derived from the view of ourselves that we see reflected back at us through the eyes of others.

Thus a child who is continually told that he is stupid will probably grow up believing this to be the case, even if he has the same potential as Einstein. And a plain girl who is constantly told that she is beautiful will likely come to believe that so she is.

I used to have a housemate who called me ‘molto bello’, which he thought was Italian for something like ‘very beautiful’. At the same time I had a group of friends who casually referred to each other as gorgeous, beautiful, sweetie, etc, and said I love you at the end of every phone call.

 

And strangers used to be lovely to me. They’d carry my heavy bags on and off of trains without me thinking of asking, chase after me when I, frequently, forgot to wait for my cash out the machine, and pay for my lunch when I was behind them in line at the petrol station.

That was the last time that my illness was trying to tear me apart.

The first time that I had what I knew for sure was a depressive episode I had so much pain in my chest, in my heart, in my soul it felt like, that I genuinely believed that it would eventually kill me.

I cried my heart out every time I was alone. That included being alone on buses.

I hated being alone. But I wasn’t very often. When I wasn’t working, I was partying, mostly, or hanging out with my housemates. The most time that I would spend alone was my forty minutes bus journey to and from work, and the three or four hours I spent asleep. There was always somebody for me to be with. And I didn’t really have the option not to be.

I hated myself. I hated my life.

But I never tried to die.

I’m not sure I particularly wanted to die. I wanted to fall asleep and not wake up, but that’s not really the same thing. And, although there are other, more complicated factors involved, I think I’ve pin pointed one of the reasons as being that I’d internalised the words and actions of others.

Somewhere under the litany of self-hatred, the crippling lack of confidence and self-esteem, was another layer of my psyche which believed that I must be beautiful if that’s what people told me, must be ace, must be exciting, and must be worth a stranger buying lunch for.

 

Yet I was experiencing depression, as part of what I now know to be PTSD, because of the words and the actions of the people who came before them. The people who were there from the beginning of my life. The community I lived in throughout my first eighteen years.

My parents, who had children because they were supposed to, rather than because they wanted to, made their resentment of the experience abundantly clear. They found everything that I did either inconvenient, annoying, or embarrassing. No matter what I did I’d be yelled at for not fitting in with their ideal of a family and told that I had to change.

I can see now that my Dad’s mood pretty much went in cycles. Every six weeks or so he’d flare up, it wasn’t triggered by anything I did or said, it wasn’t triggered by anything.

But at the time, when I was a kid, I believed that I was bad because I was told I was bad. I thought that the way that I sat on a sofa genuinely was enough to make a grown man quiver with rage. That there really was something inherently wrong with me that meant that I didn’t deserve to be loved, even by my own mother, and I devoted all my energies to trying to change it.

Fruitlessly of course.

 

In trying to avoid doing any of the things that made my dad want to hit me, I ended up avoiding doing anything. Which makes some perverse sense now. The thing that I’d done to upset him was to live, so not living was the only way I could seek to pacify him, but of course it was never going to be enough. Nothing I could do would make it so that I’d never been there in the first place.

Because my parents apparently hated me, and told me I wasn’t worth bothering with, I was hideously insecure. I was scared to say anything to anybody in case they saw what my parents saw in me and hated me also. So inevitably I was the weird kid who was bullied in school. The kid none of the other parents wanted their kid to be friends with.

Everyone in my class told me, day in and day out, that I was weird, ugly, and unlikable. So I believed that too. After all if absolutely everyone thought so they couldn’t all be wrong, could they.

It doesn’t help that even now as whole person, who knows that she isn’t inherently flawed, I don’t fit in where I came from. It’s a very proudly working class neighbourhood. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that, but the people there tend to see anyone who has a university education as being above themselves. People have very ‘traditional’ attitudes, which include a vague misogyny, not so vague racism and out right homophobia.

I’m a liberal, a lawyer, and a traveller. I don’t belong there.

 

The result of growing up in that environment is that I have spent my whole life feeling like an outsider. Even now, in places where I am accepted, I don’t feel like I altogether belong. I feel somehow separate from other people, as though I’m not like them somehow.

Maybe it’s nothing more than the fact that I can’t relate to anyone with a normal family background or lifestyle, I don’t know. Maybe with all this therapy I’m having that will change that some day.

All any of this demonstrates is that I am far more the product of everybody I have ever known than it is at all comfortable to realise. And the power of words, however superficial, to harm or heal.

The lesson that I am trying to learn from this understanding is to be more mindful of whether the things I say to people are a contribution that I’m ready to make to their identity – I’ve decided that it’s better to be perceived by some as frivolous and shallow and do no harm, than to add to anybody’s negative self-image.

As well as to always consider whether the image of myself reflected back from the people around me is one that I’m happy to live with. I finally understand that that may not be the identity I have to live with. It may just be that I need to seek out a more favourable mirror.

 

Imperfect Happiness

“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

You don’t have to be perfect, not even by your own standards, and never mind anyone else’s. It took me a very long time to learn that, and I still frequently forget it. I know I’m not the only one. It’s important to remind ourselves every once in while though.

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with goals or standards, but the pursuit of perfection, to be attained in the future, can turn into just one more barrier to enjoying the present. Another way to get trapped into seeing periods of our lives as being provisional.

We tell ourselves that we’ll be happy when we’ve just finished some academic or work project. Once we’ve achieved some health and fitness goal, we’ll be satisfied. Once we’ve found the right person, or started a family, we’ll settle down and start getting on with our lives.

Some times we even put the things which will really make us happy – such as looking for a relationship, moving elsewhere, starting a family – on hold until we feel that we’ve reached our goal of perfection.

The problem with this way of thinking is that, because perfection is unattainable, it can allow you to put parts of your life indefinitely on hold. Once you’ve ironed out one perceived flaw in yourself there will always be something else that you notice, and find that you just have to work on, before you can relax and start living your life to the fullest. Happiness will always be around the next corner.

“Happiness isn’t happiness without a violin playing goat.” – Do you really need to teach a goat to play the violin before you can be happy?

I think this approach is particularly common when it comes to our personal relationships. People often speak of wanting to have their career sorted, or to be financially stable, or to be living just where they want, and then they will devote more time to their family, friends, or finding a partner.

I know there was a period in my life where I decided I shouldn’t date because I was too poor, or because my health wasn’t the greatest, or because my living situation wasn’t ideal.

But what I was basically saying to myself was that I didn’t expect anybody to care about me because I wasn’t good enough yet.

What we are saying to ourselves any time we delay in doing something we want, something that will make us happy, until we have some other area of our lives sorted, is that we don’t feel that we deserve it yet. That we don’t think we should be happy because we aren’t perfect.

But perfection is unattainable.

And apart from those of us who habitually kick dogs, rob little old ladies, and cheat on their tax returns, we all deserve to be happy. We deserve to be happy today.

It’s the journey towards our goal of perfection that makes us who we are. That builds our character. That gives us things to talk about and parts of ourselves to share with other people.

When was the last time you watched a film, or read a book, about someone who’s life went exactly the way they’d wanted it to? You haven’t? Well, there’s a reason for that, their stories aren’t usually very interesting.

If you’re looking for someone to settle down with; or even just making new friends, would you rather be meeting people who talk about how their life has been a succession of ticks put in boxes, or people who’ve had their ups and downs but have interesting stories because of it?

If your answer is the latter then you might want to give yourself a break now and then. Go after the things that will make you happy today and allow yourself to be that compelling person.

Any person or any place that will only accept you when you reach their goal of perfection, will actually never accept you anyway. So you may as well find those who will accept you, while you’re perfectly imperfect, right now.

 

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