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An Epidemic of PTSD

 “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” ~ Plato

When I was first sent a link to this infographic and asked if I would consider sharing it on my blog I wasn’t sure what I might have to say about it. While it’s about PTSD and I have PTSD the subject matter felt alien to me. Combat and the military are completely outside of my experience.

I went to an engagement party while I really not very well where some of the guests were ex army, they recognised the symptoms I was experiencing and took me outside for a cigarette and an understanding chat, but that’s as far as it goes.

The thought of having PTSD because of having been to war just seems somehow more serious to me.

I’ve also tried to date to keep this blog politically neutral and I’m aware that I’m probably completely unaware of a lot of the politics of this image, been as how I’m not American.

But I kept coming back to that first statistic – every 80 minutes a veteran dies by suicide. And in light of what happened at Fort Hood earlier this week it seems worth reiterating that people with post traumatic stress disorder, and other mental illnesses, are far more likely to harm themselves than they are other people.

I was opposed to the war but it seems to me that if you’re going to send people out to fight in one you should have a plan before they go of how you’re going to look after them if they need it when they come home. A much better plan than having one of them die every other hour at their own hands.

PTSD Epidemic
Source: OnlineMilitaryEducation.org

I’ve Forgotten How To Pretend That This Was Ever What I Wanted

“There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. And then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking in mirrors.” ~ Tennessee Williams

I was five years old when I first decided that I wanted to die.

It was during school assembly on Children in Need day.

The teacher taking the assembly was explaining to us that one of the reasons for Children in Need day was to raise money for other children just like us who had leukemia. leukemia was making them very sick and sometimes some of them died because the doctors couldn’t make them better.

I didn’t understand why that meant that I’d had to come to school wearing my clothes inside out. I did know that I liked the sound of leukemia; I’d spend the next five years hoping that I’d get it, and being desperately jealous when I heard of anyone that did.

It’s the first time I remember having really understood the idea that it was possible for someone who was alive to at some point stop being alive. Not being alive sounded like something I would much prefer to being alive.

When I wasn’t secretly hoping that I would get sick and die soon I decided that I wanted to be a shepherd when I grew up. I thought shepherds still shepherded the way they did in the stories they told us, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, all alone up a mountain with no-one but their sheep for company. A shepherd or an explorer – I pictured myself heading of alone to get lost in places where nobody had ever been before. I still think it’s unfortunate that by the time I was born everywhere had already been discovered.

I think I was eleven the first time it hit me that if I wasn’t lucky enough to get cancer or hit by car I might end up having wait until I died of old age. And that could take a very, very long time.

The thought of having to live for another thirty, forty, maybe even fifty years made me cry myself to sleep. I’ve done the same thing on at least a semi regular basis ever since.

When I was fourteen they started talking to us about choosing careers. They gave us a book to look at with information about lots of jobs in it, about what they involved and what you needed to be good at to be able to them. I thought I was good at everything but maths. I scoured the book looking for a job where you didn’t have to be good at maths and that didn’t involve spending time around other people.

I pictured myself as a grown up living in a little two up two down cottage in the middle of nowhere with a cat, a dog, and lots and lots of books, going to work somewhere alone every day.

It occurs to me now that the underlying theme of these dreams I had for my life was avoiding it as much as possible. It had never felt like something I was supposed to be a part of – having friends, families – being accepted – was something other people did.

And yet for some reason the thought that it was possible to simply end my life never entered my head.

When I was seventeen I started college. For the first time in my life I met some nice, civilised human beings. I stopped hating life quite so much and decided I wanted to be a social worker. My parents refused to accept this idea and it was decided that I would become a lawyer.

I moved away to study law – for the most part I hated it.

When I graduated I found myself a good job with that international finance company that sponsors Formula One. I travelled a lot and I thought my life was glamorous. I cried any and every time I was alone because my soul hurt so much that I genuinely expected it to kill me. I didn’t know how to tell anybody what I was feeling so I texted the Samaritans a couple of dozen times a day.

Things didn’t work out.

I moved back home and started temping.

My soul carried on hurting until one day I was suddenly so happy that I thought I might burst. Happier than I had ever thought it possible for one person to feel.

I quit my job on a whim and went travelling round Africa. The day after I got back I moved across the country, into a house with three girls I’d never met, and started a job giving legal advice to homeless people.

I believed I’d finally found the life that I wanted.

For six months. Until I stopped being hypo-manic.

Then the bad thing happened.

I moved again.

I hated everything about my life until the following year when I moved into the flat. It was the first time I’d had my own living space. I loved it.

I felt independent and for another six months I thought I might be happy – or at the very least content. Then my soul started hurting again and resumed crying myself in despair at the natural life span of a human being.

I seriously injured my back and while I was whacked out on pain medication for the next eight months I gradually lost touch with people I’d know from other places. The pane of glass I’d always felt existed between me and everyone else seemed to thicken.

As my back got better I got sadder. And started voraciously reading about serial killers. Voraciously. Seriously, I’m pretty much a serial killer expect.

Someone suggested I go and see a doctor.

The doctor referred me to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with complex post traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. And told me that my obsession with serial killers is tied up with my obsession with death, that I’m looking for someone to identify with. She believed that I was trying to find what it was that gave serial killers such an apparently casual approach to the ending of lives; so that I could take it and use it on myself.

I started taking medication.

It didn’t keep me from the realisation that life is optional.

I became suicidal.

After taking an overdose I had several months off work.

When I went back to work my employer attempted to drive me out of my job. The stress on top of my illness led to several more months off work.

The legal wrangling over that issue finalised I decided I needed a change. I was eventually offered what I thought would be a perfect job working for No Second Night Out in London; in the mean time I started temping at a stockbrokers.

The job at the stockbrokers was surprisingly interesting and the people were fantastic.

And I started going out again. I went out dancing every single night for weeks on end.

The stockbrokers office was fifty miles away and in order to make it to work on time every day I had to ditch the medication. I didn’t think I needed it.

I moved out of the flat which by this point only reminded me of being ill. I was incredibly excited about the prospect of eventually moving to London.

I was ridiculously happy again. I thought I’d finally cracked it.

Then the London move fell through.

The job offer was withdrawn because my previous employer wouldn’t fill in a four page form for a reference. They wouldn’t fill in the form because to resolve my disability discrimination claim they’d signed compromise agreement that only allowed them to give a pre-agreed reference.

No Second Night Out were expecting this. I’d told them about it in my application form and my interview. They’d told me it would be fine. They said that my previous employer never agreed to fill in their forms anyway and we’d be able to work around it.

Then they changed their mind.

The depression gradually began to creep back in. I went and stood on the roof of my building and almost jumped.

I got sicker and sicker and in November I stopped working again.

I took another overdose at Christmas.

I’m back on the medication and I’ve been trying to get better. I’ve tried and tried but it just isn’t happening. The only thing that I can manage to want to come next is the end. I want to die the same way people who are so tired that it’s making them grumpy want to go home from a dreadful party they never wanted to go to in the first place.

The only thing stopping me is not wanting to hurt the person I live with.

Now a friend I’ve met recently keeps telling me that this feeling will pass, that I’ll get better. That my wish to die is new, fleeting; that for most of my life I was happy and I’ll be happy again; that I really want a whole bunch of things.

I don’t believe him. I don’t believe that this will ever end. He offers no evidence or reasoning. In fact he ignores all evidence and reasoning in favour of bald assertion.

So I’m trying instead to remember how to pretend.

I’m trying to remember how I used to pretend that a life was ever something that I really wanted.

I’m not doing very well.

 

blogging on a typewriter

Writerly Reflections

(Getty Images/Momcilo Grujic)

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ~ Toni Morrison

WordPress have been asking us lately why we write and who we are writing for; what are the origin stories of our blogs?

As I’ve debated with myself lately as to whether this blogging is worth persevering with I thought I’d have a go at answering those questions to see if it helped me to make a decision.

When I started Make-Up & Mirtazapine I didn’t really know the first thing about blogging. I certainly didn’t know that mental health blogging was a thing, or that there was a wide and wonderful blogging community – I just hadn’t been able to find it.

You see, I started this blog because I hadn’t been able to find the kind of website that I was looking for. When I first started receiving treatment for my mental health issues I’d spend hours on end googling my symptoms and diagnoses, and the things that I’d been doing to try to alleviate them, trying to find some other people like me.

The problem is that when you google symptoms and diagnoses you don’t end up finding blogs and the real people behind them you just find reams of clinically written information about symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments. And then with PTSD if you manage to get beyond that to find people writing about their personal experiences the first thing that you’ll find is the vast military community sharing stories and helping each other out with their problem of combat PTSD.

And of course both of these things are very important and very valuable. They just weren’t the things that I needed.

And then I happened to pick up a copy of Glamour magazine featuring, I think it was Frankie, from The Saturdays talking about her experiences with quite severe depression. And it was a pretty standard issue of the magazine but it had running through this theme of ‘It’s OK’ to not be okay, and to talk about the fact that you’re not feeling particularly okay.

And I remember thinking that was a wonderful premise for a magazine and that it was a shame it couldn’t be like that every issue. I mean, most general interest magazines include health features as standard, so why not mental health features?

It was the first time I’d read something about mental health that I felt that I could relate to as a whole person instead of just, ‘oh yeah, I feel like that sometimes,’ vis a vis a description of a set of symptoms.

And that’s something, I think, that is really important and not addressed nearly enough, certainly in the any of the treatment that I’ve had. It’s very easy to get bogged down by the fact of being unwell and the frustrating battle to become less unwell. But the thing that had done me the most amount of good besides my psychiatrist prescribing me mirtazapine was my wonderful friend Jenna dragging me out of my flat and making me focus on just about anything other than my mental health problems.

So, I’d stopped going out because I had a problem with anxiety and being around other people who I didn’t know made me skittish at best, and at worst flat-out terrified. No-one can actually carry on like this. Not if they live alone and need to be able to feed themselves anyway. So, she persuaded me to go with her to our out of town shopping centre, in the middle of the day, to wander aimlessly around looking at pretty things.

Which I managed okay with because in the middle of the day there’s nobody there. But it got me used to being an hour away from my living room.

And then she took me to the Chanel counter and insisted that I get a make over. And the nice make-up lady made me feel pretty. And presumably made herself a nice chunk of commission out of the small fortune I ended up spending on make-up, moisturisers, and perfume.

But she made feel pretty. And while I was feeling pretty there was less room for feeling anxious or depressed.

The time I spent focussing on my face was time that couldn’t also be spent obsessing about the things that were going wrong inside my head.

And my face needed focussing on, as did my hair, my nails, and well, most of the rest of my body. People in the depths of a major depression tend to be very neglectful of what the mental health profession politely term ‘self care’ and the rest of us understand as ‘personal hygiene’.

Then we’d go back to Jenna’s flat and talk for hours over rolled up cigarettes and endless cups of tea, about mental health stuff, but, also about anything and everything else. The news, stuff we’d seen on TV, art, fashion, photography, gossip, philosophy, our relationships, other people’s relationships. And the next thing we’d know was that the sun had set. And then come up again. And that we were still talking.

And this was all very new to me. It’d taken me the best part of twenty years to work out that I was even sick, much less that there was anything that could be done about it. And I was working in a field – social welfare – where you’d expect people to have a greater than average awareness of such things.

But it was hard work getting myself diagnosed properly, and even harder work to get myself treated properly.

And, occasional lapses into craziness aside, I’m confident, and assertive, and articulate, and by no means accepting that the doctor is always right. (Plus I now have one of my own at home, which makes far more difference than it has any right to. Medical staff seem far less inclined to dick you around when they know that everything they do and say to you will later be appraised by somebody who knows all the same things that they do.) I couldn’t imagine how it must feel for others – like a lot of my client group – who were shyer, or sicker, or more deferential to their doctors, or just didn’t know how to describe what they felt.

So I decided to put it all on the internet.

I wrote about what depression felt like and how I’d told people that I was sick. I wrote about things that people had said that had helped me and things that they’d said that hadn’t. In the hope that somebody might read them, and recognise them, and not have to wait as long as I did to find out that there was something wrong with them rather than feeling like they were the thing that was wrong.

And they did.

In the first month half a dozen or so people emailed me to say that they’d found my writing had given them the courage to seek help with their own mental health problem. Some of them had even printed what I’d written off and taken it with them to their doctor. Which was encouraging.

And then I wrote about make up, and body image, and travel, and relationships, and all those other things that Jenna and I had spoken about over our tea and cigarettes. Hopefully in something like the same way that we spoke about them - some posts are just conversations we had at three o’ clock in the morning written down on a page – because I think those things are important in feeling better as well.

I like to think that I’ve created my own mini version of that mental health magazine that I’d thought would be such a good idea.

But mostly in writing here I’ve helped myself.

I’ve mentioned before that I had this ambitious idea that if I take all these things in my head that I was afraid of and just put them ‘out there’, tell them to the the internet, and then be comfortable with leaving them sitting there, then maybe I could learn to be comfortable with telling them to myself. And then later with telling them to other people – just as a matter of course rather than because I had to because otherwise it might kill me.

I’m still not sure how well that’s gone.

But on a much more basic level it’s helped by giving me something to do with my brain while for months I’ve been too sick to work. By allowing me to have achieved something in my day besides waking up and going back to sleep. And by giving me people to talk to when all the people I know by their faces have been busy being at work.

Writing has helped me to remain literate and verbal.

You know that feeling when you haven’t seen anyone else all weekend and then you go back to work on Monday morning and when the first person you see starts talking to you your brain has to work that bit harder to form coherent sentences in reply than it did on Friday? Now amplify that by weeks of not working or speaking to anybody – blogging and thinking about the words I used online saved me from emerging from my sick leave a gibbering wreck.

Which for the time being all seems like reason enough to keep doing it.

 

beautiful suicide

Because A Pretty Corpse Is No Use To Anyone

(Getty Images/Jose Juan Garcia)

“It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful. I’m not alive for that purpose. My existence is not about how desirable you find me.” ~ Warsan Shire

Like many other people I’ve put on quite a bit of weight since I started taking mirtazapine again. Unlike, seemingly, any other people I don’t particularly care.

There are mountains of terrifying reviews about mirtazapine, as there are about most mental health drugs, all over the internet where people go into horrifying detail about their awful experiences with some admittedly pretty awful side effects. With that in mind I think it’s perfectly understandable that a lot of people think twice, thrice, and even four times before deciding on whether or not to take to it, or any similar, medication.

There does seem to be a definite theme, however, when it comes to mirtazapine, of people warning that ‘this medication is bad because it will make you gain weight.’ I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve read written by clearly very sick people who have stopped taking it for just this reason.

My friend Ally’s been reading them as well. It’s why despite being almost actively suicidal she refuses to get the prescription her doctor gave her filled. She’s basically decided that she’d rather take the gamble on her life than on the possibility of getting fat.

The very avoidable possibility.

You see, the mirtazapine itself doesn’t actively make you gain weight; it just increases your appetite and makes you really, really hungry all the time.

And you can either respond to that the way I have and start eating enough food for three people, or, you can just not do that; carry on eating the same amount of food as you would normally and deal with the being hungry. Not a particularly unusual state of affairs for someone who’s perpetually dieting anyway.

I was discussing this with my social worker the other day and she spoke about Ally’s concerns like they were perfectly legitimate. As if the choice between taking medication for your life-threatening medical condition and staying thin was a genuine dilemma rather than an obvious no-brainer.  As though prioritising your appearance over your life were an understandable decision.

And, so now I’m wondering how as a society did we get here? How did we make conventional beauty vanity that much of a priority?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware of what I chose to name this webspace. I own a shed load of make up, scores of designer shoes, and a wardrobe full of beautiful dresses. I spend a fortune on my hair. I like to feel pretty and attractive.

It’s just that before this past week of #nomakeupselfie (yes, I know it’s good that it’s raised lots of money for charity) I was blissfully unaware that it was obligatory. That trying my best to look nice was something I was required to do. And that to allow people to see me not ‘looking my best’ was something that should be worthy of note; and a charitable donation.

Sorting out my mental health is one of my main priorities.

Fashion and beauty products have helped to improve my mental health as hobbies.

While I’ve been sick I’ve lost all perspective to the point where I’ve thought that taking an overdose was a good idea. And enjoyed slicing up my own flesh with a razor blade. But never to the point where I believed that the value of my contribution to the world was in any way correlated to the amount of space I took up in it.

You’re supposed to improve the world, not just decorate it.

You’re supposed to be good, and kind, and diligent.

I try to be smart, and funny, and interesting. I aspire to be talented at something. I want to help people.

I like to think that, aside from the odd creepy stalker here and there, the people in my life are there because of my personality and character rather than my face. I hope that my career is based on the fact that I’m professional, hard-working, knowledgeable, and good at what I do. I’d hate to think that I have any of the things I’ve worked for only because of my honey-blonde hair and previously tiny waist.

Pretty, which is mostly about genetics, just doesn’t feel like much of an acheivement; because, well, for the most part – it isn’t.

Nor has it ever seemed like much of a compliment.

Pretty is like nice. It’s how you describe someone when you can’t think of anything more interesting to say about them.

Think about it.

When you’re talking to someone in a general way about a third person, unless that person is either really ridiculously attractive or someone you have a crush on, the way they look isn’t something you tend to mention. You talk about what they’re like, what they do, things they’ve said, the way they make you feel.

Unless they’re not very interesting. In which case you’d describe them as nice. And maybe pretty.

Now think about all the things about your best friend that make them your best friend. I bet ‘because they’re pretty’ doesn’t make the list, even if they are. I know I like my best friend because he’s smart, and funny, and interesting. I love that he’s kind, and thoughtful, and generous. I admire the fact that he’s talented, brave, ambitious, and hard-working. And I don’t know how to begin to thank him for saving my life; because he saved me from myself, from my depression.

He’s also very nice and incredibly pretty; but do you see how I mean about that seeming somewhat unimportant in comparison to all those other things that he became on purpose? They’re not things I’ve ever thought to say to anyone about him before today because they’re so relatively uninteresting.

Pretty is like a picture on a wall; nice to look at, nice to have, but neither essential to, nor the purpose of, the wall. (Unless it’s in an art gallery, which in this analogy would make a person a model; unless you’re a model you don’t need to be pretty.) 

So stop prioritising being slim or pretty.

First prioritise your health and well-being – because a beautiful corpse is no use to anybody.

Then focus on living an interesting life. On being successful; however you define it, on creating something, acheiving something, helping someone. Give people reasons to remember you and things say about you.

And then if you want to make yourself feel pretty – go ahead. But do it for yourself; because you want to, because you enjoy it; not because you think it’s something that you’re supposed to do, or are expected to be, or that it’s something that you actually need.

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