What’s Your Pencil?

Image result for sharpened pencil

I will accept that my title looks grammatically incorrect; or at least like I’ve managed to forget a word. Bear with me, though, I really do mean what I’ve said (typed). 

A few months ago, I was sitting, having a work-related conversation with the wonderfully talented and always exuberant Phil Kingston. Within minutes, we realised that we were both Lamy fans. I explained that, because my writing is the way it is (small, not exactly artistic),  I require an extra-fine nib in order to render what I write legible. I handed my instrument to him, and Phil wrote a few lines with it. He quickly agreed with me that it was a beautiful writer, and we had a most pleasant chat about pens, and writing, and choosing an instrument.

 

I mentioned that I habitually use a fountain pen, except for my Morning Pages , which – for some reason – I choose to write on yellow legal pads in pencil. And, yes, I’m as particular about my pencils as I am about my pens. The one I favour for my Morning Pages is a beauty that is a black 4B that I got in the Science Gallery a while ago. It is just the write blend of soft and dark for me: Not so soft that it smudges easily, and not so hard that it writes too faintly.  

 

As Phil and I continued our chat, we mused about how our respective upbringings had influenced our choice of writing instruments. In the middle of all this, I suddenly realised something, and shared it with him. I’d been brought up in poverty by an abusive (psychopathic) father and a narcissistic mother.  I’d always loved writing – not just the intellectual, or creative, or academic element of it – but the actual, physical element of it as well.  As a young writer of about four, I remember bringing my pencil to my mother to be pared. She refused. There was ‘still plenty of writin’ left in it’, she had declared. Any time I wanted to sharpen my pencil, she would admonish me, and tell me I was being wasteful – which was a sin! – and I was to use the pencil until it was no longer possible to write with it.  

 

Of course, I internalised this message, and carried it with me into adulthood. It took until last August before I realised that I it didn’t serve me to believe that I was only ‘allowed’ to pare my pencils when their points were beyond usability. When I realised that I no longer needed to hold to that ancient belief, I abandoned it immediately. Since then, I have sharpened my pencil every time I have felt it necessary; I have allowed myself the tactile pleasure of using a pencil at its optimum point. It is bliss. Joyful, delightful, pleasurable.  

 

It’s a small thing – sharpening my pencil every time I want to, so it always feels good when I’m using it – but it has made me examine other habits and attitudes that were foisted on me by others, and which don’t serve me. I feel liberated beyond what might seem rational by this one small thing. 

 

So it’s really not an error when I ask  – ‘What’s your Pencil?’ What is the old belief or habit that you’re hanging on to that is not serving you, and is not aligned with what you want, and deserve, for yourself?

 

 

 

Some Lone Parenting Realities

Euro in Hand

Yesterday, the Irish Times reported that the number of poor mothers dying by suicide is on the rise. 

Privately, a friend who works in an economically-deprived area in Dublin, told me that in the past year, three lone mothers have died by suicide in that area.

Mothers who parent alone get the shitty end of the stick in this country. Lone parent families have the highest rates of consistent poverty in Ireland, according to the most recent SILC report (which you can read here). The vast majority of lone parent families are headed by women. There are barriers to education and paid employment – and the work women do in the home is completely discounted; it’s expected that we will

*cook

*clean

*make appointments for the children

*take the children to those appointments

*do the laundry

*do the garden (if we’re lucky enough to have one)

*organise the handyman (if we can’t do the DIY ourselves)

*top up the leap cards

*keep the car on the road (if we’re lucky enough to have one)

*organise drop-offs and pick-ups

*do drop-offs and pick-ups

*pay attention to every sign and symptom of our babies, children, teens so we’re on top of their mental health and physical health

*provide healthy, nutritious meals for our children

*clothe our children

*provide appropriate shelter for our children

*ensure that they are doing well at school

*fight for everything they require if they have any sort of additional need

*pay all the bills

*organise birthday parties

*find the money for cards and gifts for our children’s friends’ birthdays

*make time to spend with each of our children on their own

*read to our children

*take care of their cultural, sporting, and academic requirements

*make sure they take their medication

*keep an eye on who they’re friends with

*get to know their friends

*forget that third drink on a weekend night, in case one of the kids gets sick and you need to take them to the doctor / hospital

*turn down invitations because you don’t have / can’t afford childcare

*monitor the kids’ internet usage

 

This list is not exhaustive. In fact, it barely touches the tip of the iceberg of the things that mothers parenting on their own are expected to do – and judged and vilified for if they don’t, or don’t do it to someone else’s ridiculously high standards.

Is it any wonder an increasing amount of us are suicidal?

* If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact: Pieta House at 1800-247247, or Samaritans by telephoning 116123 for free, texting 087-2609090 or emailing jo@samaritans.ie or Aware: aware.ie; Tel: 1800-804848; Email: supportmail@aware.ie

Anxiety

Image result for the scream

Let me tell you about anxiety. Or, rather, let me tell you about my experience of anxiety. I’ve had anxiety for years, but didn’t know what it was until about two years ago. Then, I had the diagnosis, but didn’t realise the plethora of symptoms that could be attributed to it until the medication eased them. That’s right – I’m on medication for my anxiety, and have been for about a year. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted that before, because of the amount of stigma associated with being on medication. Still, in 2018. But I refuse to allow that to hold me back from speaking my truth. If I had asthma and needed an inhaler every day, would I be ’embarrassed’ or ‘ashamed’ or ‘shamed’ because of it? Probably not.

(As a brief aside, I love my medication. It doesn’t make me happy – it doesn’t make my life any better, it merely enables me to meet the life that comes at me without falling to pieces. It makes me functional. It restores me to myself. )

Anyway, even with medication, I still have anxiety, and even with the medication, it sometimes gets bad. Now, we all get a bit anxious. I accept that. But clinical anxiety is to ‘being a bit anxious’ as clinical depression is to ‘being a bit sad’.  Here’s what it’s like for me:

I wake up in the morning and it feels like I have something heavy – like a cannon ball – sitting in my solar plexus: It feels like it’s pinning me to the bed. I am paralysed by it. I lie there, trying to identify the source of the fear. The following sentences literally form themselves in my brain:
‘What have I failed at?’
‘What do I have to do today that’s terrifying me?’
‘What is today bringing me that I won’t be able to do?’

I know that I generally feel a bit better if I’m upright. It can take me up to two hours to cajole myself out of bed, though. So I get the added delight of telling myself:
‘This is you, doing nothing.’
‘This is you, failing. Right here, right now, this is exactly what you’re doing. Failing.’
‘You’re useless. You’re doing nothing. You’ll never get anything done.’

‘Just give it up. Give up everything you’re trying to do because you’re not doing it! Just STOP! Stop everything because you are nothing.’

I’m getting better at ignoring that voice, though, or of dismissing it when it speaks to me.

In addition to the shit I tell myself, I find breathing difficult when my anxiety is bad. I can go a minute or so without breathing, and not notice. Clearly, this is not a good thing. Especially when I realise I’ve been holding my breath, and then I bring my attention to it, and run the risk of inducing a panic attack! Really not a good look. (Panic attacks are evil.) So, I’ve got better at just breathing Like A Normal Person (for those who aren’t familiar, Normal People are people who aren’t me!).

Then there’s the wasps in my head. Not actual wasps, you understand, but that’s what it feels like, sometimes; that there is a whole swarm of angry wasps inside my skull, and I just can’t stop them buzzing, flying, stinging, the inside of my head.

Sometimes, for the sake of variety, my thoughts will try to emulate barbed wire on the inside of my head, rather than wasps. They’d hate me to get bored. They are hard to deal with, I’ll admit it. But I’m working on catching them and dismissing them before they multiply. I’m not always successful – but, then, they’re not always that bad.  A soothing distraction can be good – taking up my knitting, or doing a bit of colouring (as I mentioned before, I use kids’ colouring books because ‘mindful’ ones crank my anxiety levels up), or sticking. I also love devotional music – I prefer Hindu mantras – but devotional music comes (I feel) from a very special place, so devotional music of any persuasion touches me. Get on to You Tube, and see what works for you.

 

Recently, I have found that it really works for me if I forget about compiling a list of things to do – and give myself just one, achievable task to get through in a day. Some days (like today), it might take me all day to get it done. Funny thing is, that once I have that ticked off, I often feel like doing something else. So I’ll do something else, and that feeds a sense of achievement I hadn’t expected.

I’m learning to be gentle with myself. ‘Speak Love to yourself,’ my friend Kuxi wrote to me today. (When I’m bad, I can’t speak. I know, I know, it should be a national holiday, but it just feels like it’s too hard – so I send emails, or text messages. I know it’s important not to isolate myself too much.)

 

Also today, for the first time ever, I caught myself thinking

‘It’s going to be okay. You’ve lived through this before. You’ve lived through worse. You’ll bounce back – you always do.’

And the relief was amazing. I was able to recognise that I’m more unwell than I had previously admitted to myself, and reach out to a variety of people who can help – friends, my supervisor at uni, my doctor.

 

But the most important reaching out I did was to myself.  I was kinder, gentler, more understanding of myself this time around than ever before. I’m hoping it’ll ease up soon, and the next time it’s bad, I’ll be more aware and reach out even sooner. If you have anxiety, what works for you?

 

 

 

In-between Days

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There have been many thoughtful blog posts, and posts on social media recently for those of us who do not have family, and for whom Christmas is not a pleasant, or a happy time. For those of us for whom abuse was a part of our every day experiences of childhood, with no days off for Christmas – or even for whom Christmas made the abuse worse – Christmas is a time we’d rather avoid.

 

All that said, however, many of us who have fraught relationships with toxic or dangerous families, or for whom Christmas is tinged with grief, have wonderful friends. These wonderful, thoughtful, friends often remember us, and invite us to join with them on December 25th, and 26th. Then we find ourselves, on the 28th, or so, alone with our thoughts. If we’re lucky, we will have plans for New Year’s Eve. But there are the days between Xmas day and NYE that can be even more difficult than the days of ‘celebration’ themselves. The week that lots of other people humourously refer to as ‘the lost week’ where they don’t know what day it is, and there’s still mountains of festive food knocking about can be really difficult for those of us who haven’t felt we have much to celebrate.

It’s a week for concerted self-care. For this In-between Week, I have a list of things that you can pick and choose from to make yourself feel better.

 

  1. Get off social media for  24 hours (be sure to post in advance that you’re going to do this, so people don’t worry for your safety!). I love social media, but there’s a lot going on there at the moment that might make you feel more alone.
  2. Join a park run. You don’t have to actually, run, but it can be good for you to feel your body, and feel yourself in it. Park runs are fun, free, and you don’t need to register. Just turn up.
  3. Practice some self-appreciation. See yourself as a container for receiving good, and fill that container! By ‘appreciation’, I don’t mean ‘value’. Trying to value yourself often results in little more than either feeling squeamish, or like you’re trying to puff up your ego. Honest appreciation for what is present and true will boost your confidence in a powerful and authentic way. Honest appreciation is specific, both in what it is appreciating, and how it words that appreciation. Remember, appreciation is a gift you receive into your heart.
  4. Paint. Even if you don’t, do.
  5. Put some thought into buying a beautiful gift for someone – something you know they’d love, but would never get for themselves. If you don’t fancy braving the crowds in the sales, do the shopping online. In this exercise, though, that ‘someone’ is you.
  6. Plant something. Tend it, and look forward to it blooming. Give it what it needs, when it needs it. If you don’t  know how to grow things, read up, or ask a green-thumbed friend. Treat it the way you should have been treated.
  7. Every time your brain presents you with memories that you don’t need, thank them for showing up, but tell them it’s time to go.
  8. Make sandwiches, or buy biscuits and / or chocolate, and drop them into a soup run. There are several organised throughout the week and they are always grateful to receive donations.
  9. Download Borrowbox, and check out an audiobook. This app works even when the library is closed. There is something lovely about having a book read to you.
  10. Make a list of the films that are the celluloid version of comfort food to you. Watch them.
  11. Read some contemporary poetry, or get on YouTube and enjoy some spoken-word artists.
  12. Have a guilt-free duvet day.
  13. Print off some kids’ colouring pages from the Internet (unless you have a colouring book to hand) and colour them in. Don’t worry about the lines. Just enjoy yourself.
  14. Change the sheets on your bed.
  15. Go through your wardrobe, chuck out anything that doesn’t fit / you don’t like / you haven’t worn for at least three months. Remind yourself of what’s in there that you actually like, and that you know looks well on you.

A Good Bad Day

Spiral

 

Today was Not A Good Day.

 

The seeds for today not being A Good Day were sown last night, just after 6pm. That’s when the first thing went wrong. This morning, we were up and had left the house before 7.30. By 9.00am, the second thing had gone wrong. Things kept going wrong until 9.41am. By 10am, seven things had gone wrong – including the first thing that went wrong last night. By 10.13am, we thought we were back on track. Then something else went wrong. This is Thing Number Eight. It was too much.

 

Panic.

 

I couldn’t. I repeated that about 14 or 15 times ‘I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!’

 

Tears. Sobbing. Overwhelm.

 

The kindness of strangers.

 

The unexpected kindness of strangers.

 

The compassion of those who chose not to look the other way.

 

The unexpected compassion of strangers who chose to help.

 

The ninth thing went wrong. The ninth thing going right had been contingent on at least the eighth thing going right.

I was upset that the ninth thing went wrong. I knew I’d let my eldest daughter down because the ninth thing went wrong. But nobody died. We were all safe.

Later, the day (sort of) got back on track. I reflected on The Bad Day and realised that it had, actually, been a Good Bad Day: It took eight things before I felt overwhelmed. Eight. A year ago, one of those things would have overwhelmed me.  A year ago, one of those thing would have incapacitated me. A year ago, I would still – twelve hours later  – not have recovered. Today, it took less than an hour.

Today, I listened to what the voice in my head was saying. As I cried in the car after dropping my girls to school, I heard it. It said ‘I feel like a failure. I hate feeling like a failure.’ For the first time ever, it was saying ‘I feel like a failure’ and not ‘I am a failure.’

For all that they are real and valid, feelings are feelings; feelings aren’t facts. I was able to hear that I was acknowledging how I felt, rather than telling myself an absolute. This is progress.

 

A year ago, I’d have spun down a spiral that is hugely difficult to spin back up. In fact, I’ve never spun back up – I’ve only ever managed to crawl back up; slowly, on my hands and knees. Today, I was able to talk myself back from the first step on the spiral.

I felt dispirited, I felt like I had not won Wednesday, I felt frustrated, I felt powerless, I felt I had let my kids down. But I also felt like I could recover.

And I did.

Small victories, but victories none the less – and I have learned to celebrate my wins where I find them. Or where they find me.

Several things went wrong for me today – but they didn’t defeat me, the way they would have a few months ago. I’m learning. I’m learning self-compassion. I’m learning that sometimes, things just happen, and they’re not my fault. I’m learning that I don’t have to beat myself up when life doesn’t go according to plan. That’s what made today a Good Bad Day.

 

 

Colour Me Delighted

A few years ago, I went to visit my friend, June. I wanted to bring her a gift, but rejected the obvious – wine, flowers, chocolates – in favour of a colouring book. She was delighted.

About a year later, ‘mindful’ colouring books, and ‘adult’ colouring books became a ‘thing’.

I liked the idea of grabbing myself a colouring book or two and calming myself with a bit of colouring. The first one I bought was full of mosaics. It drove me mad. There were so many little bits of it. It was abandoned.  I got another. Its pages were filled with intricate pictures awaiting colour. I couldn’t give them what they were waiting for. They remained monochrome.

The pages of the ‘mindful’ and ‘adult’ colouring books that I bought, or considered buying, filled me with anxiety. I could feel it rising. The sections were too small. They didn’t scream ‘fun’, they screamed ‘task’. I have enough tasks I was looking for something to enjoy – in a similar way to how I enjoy knitting. It is repetitive, meditative, and soothing. These colouring books were not stirring the same emotions.

Then I remembered Kalkitos, and how much I’d enjoyed that, as a child.  I also loved stickers, and using them to make pictures with. I couldn’t find any Kalkitos, but I did find a sticker book for adults. It was filled with tiny flower-stickers, and other tiny stickers. I was tempted, but couldn’t part with £12.99 to buy a book that didn’t fill me with excitement.

Then, I had a brainwave. Why was I so hung up on adult versions? Hadn’t I enjoyed colouring books as a child? So, why was I looking at adult colouring books?

I came home with this:

 

Colouring Book

Which had the added bonus of these:

Stickers #2

I was delighted. This little book, and the stickers in it, filled me with joy, and anticipation, and excitement.

 

Colouring might well be a good tool for improving your mental health. Like any other tool, however, you need to make sure you have the right one. Don’t feel you need a ‘grown-up’ version of something that used to bring you joy when you were a child. Think of comfort food; if a toasted cheese sandwich was what made you feel safe and loved when you were little, then avocado toast with a sprinkling of pink Himalayan salt and a light dusting of cracked black pepper isn’t going to revive that feeling.  Go with what it feels right to use, rather than what you think you should be using.

 

 

 

 

World Mental Health Day

Mental HealthToday is World Mental Health Day – a day when we’re supposed to reflect on our own mental health, and how we care for it.

I think that World Mental Health Awareness Day might be a more appropriate name, but I don’t get to decide these things. I suppose the fact that the day is named and acknowledged at all means that there is awareness brought to mental health.  Not so long ago, people in Ireland didn’t mention mental health at all. It was stigmatised almost as much as being an unmarried mother. And that’s saying something.

Sadly, both states – being a lone mother, and having mental health difficulties – are still stigmatised in today’s Ireland. It’s no wonder that so many women who parent alone report having mental health difficulties. As a proud member of the steering group of S.P.A.R.K., I conducted research among our members and will be presenting my findings at our First National Conference on November 3rd, next.

Campaigns such as the Green Ribbon Campaign   have certainly helped get people talking, but it’s not enough to get adults talking to each other about how they are feeling. We need to give our children the language to talk about their emotions, too, and – just as importantly – we need to listen. I am often struck by how the reaction to our high rates of suicide among young men, our response is to encourage them to talk. I honestly feel that that’s a case of ‘too little, too late’. As a nation, we spend their entire formative years telling our children to ‘shut up’, to ‘be quiet’, to ‘speak when they’re spoken to’, to ‘mind their own business’ when they ask questions, to do things ‘because I say so’, to ‘stop crying’ when they are upset etc. etc. How can we, then, reasonably expect these same children – when they are teenagers and adolescents – to talk about how they are feeling?

 

I must also point out that it’s all very well encouraging people to have conversations, to open up about their mental health, and to stop hiding how they really feel, but it’s a bit irresponsible if there isn’t also information around how to receive and react to the information once it has been expressed. What should you do or say to someone who reveals, in the course of a conversation, that they do want to die? Or even that they are teetering on the edge of a depression? Or that their anxiety is so bad that they aren’t sure they’ll be able to make it home from work?

 

Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems we have with regard to mental and emotional health and their effective treatment is access to appropriate supports. In Ireland, a child in acute crisis (eg at risk of dying by suicide) could be waiting months to be seen by a member of the CAMHS – the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. That’s if they’re lucky. Thankfully, Pieta House will see those who are suicidal much, much quicker. Adult services aren’t much better – with just six sessions of ‘talking therapy’ being offered to medical card holders in crisis; preceded, of course, by a good long wait on a waiting list. For those who would benefit from therapies such as CBT or DBT, a catchment area lottery applies. You may or may not be offered a treatment that has good success rates for your particular difficulty if it is not provided by the HSE in your area. This is hardly a person-centric model of care.

 

Even with a sympathetic GP, the help and support vista around mental health is rather grim.  GPs often have little to offer beyond chemical intervention (pills don’t suit everyone, and the side-effects can be horrific; including increased anxiety and suicidal ideation), and general advice to exercise, drink less alcohol and caffeine, and avoid stressful situations.

I’m not saying anything new. I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. I’m just bringing attention (again) to the dire state of mental health services and care in Ireland, and the damage lack of access to care brings to the lives of those suffering.

 

 

Quitting

Q

 

Quitting. Quitting everything – including life itself – is an attractive proposition to many people. To those of us who have survived sexual abuse, however, it can feel more attractive, more frequently, than it does to members of the general population. How often, and how strongly, you feel like quitting depends on a number of factors, but support is key to helping you get through the bad minutes, hours and days.

 

In this blog post, I am speaking directly to people who have been sexually assaulted, and who feel like quitting.

 

Sometimes, the first person you can turn to for support is yourself. Sometimes, the only person you can turn to for support is yourself. Before you consider quitting this life, please read this first:

  •  Please do not do anything to harm yourself today. Give it 24 hours, and remember that your record for getting through days like today is 100%.

 

  • Feeling suicidal is not a failing on your part. These feelings arise when the level of pain someone is feeling exceeds their ability to cope with that pain. You just need to figure out a way to either lessen the pain, or increase your coping mechanisms. Both are possible.

 

  • If your suicidal feelings are being caused by flashbacks, a useful thing to do is to ground yourself and remind yourself that even though you feel like you are living the experience again, you’re not. You are not being assaulted in this instant. What can be hugely helpful in these instances is to be aware of what is happening to you in this moment. Look around you. See who is in the room with you. Name them. Look at what you are wearing. Name it. Look at the room you are in. Name it. Describe things you can see in the room with you. Keep going until the flashback (or intrusive thought, whatever you want to call it) is gone. Repeat as often as necessary.

 

  • If the pain is too much for you to bear on your own, don’t even try. Reach out to someone who will understand you. That last bit is very important – very often, survivors reach out to people who are not supportive, or who appear to be supportive, but really aren’t. Call your local rape crisis centre. Call or text the Samaritans. They will not judge you, but they will help you. If you have a good relationship with a mental health professional or service, give them a ring and let them know how you are feeling. Ask for help. You are worth it.

 

  • When the suicidal feelings pass – and they will – don’t judge yourself for feeling like quitting. Be kind to yourself afterwards. Acknowledge that you were having a really hard time, and congratulate yourself for getting through it.

 

 

 

Timing is Everything

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One of the things I struggle most with is getting enough done in a given day. I go to bed every night upset with myself for not having been productive enough. I wake up with anxiety because I haven’t done enough the previous day and, therefore, I have even more to do ‘today’.

I’ve tried ‘to do’ lists – but they are always impossibly long and become a stick with which to beat myself. I’ve tried ‘have done’ lists – but they always seem impossibly short and I am sure I’ve been too lenient on myself and wasted time. I’ve tried not bothering with lists and just ploughing through the day, but find that means I don’t always prioritise correctly and I often end up finishing the day with an important job that hasn’t been taken care of.

Last week, I tried something different and put myself on a schedule. I even scheduled a few breaks, time to eat, and I was ruthless with the cold turkey app. This all resulted in a more productive me, but I still wasn’t getting through everything on the to do list. I was interrupted by unscheduled phone calls two days last week, that I took because I felt I needed to. (One was from a recruiter, and the other was work-related, but also slightly social: It, therefore, went on for longer than it would have, had it been just work-related.)

 This week, I’ve been managing better. I have a to do list. I am writing a schedule every morning before I get started. BUT the difference this week is that, for every hour of productivity, I am adding on an extra twenty minutes. So, for example, if I schedule a piece of work at 10am, expecting to finish at 12.00pm, I don’t schedule the next piece of work until 12.40pm. Most days, I’ve been ahead of myself, which makes me feel under less pressure, less anxious and – to be honest – just that little bit pleased with myself.

I’m sure there are thousands of people out there who stumbled on this little nugget of time management long before I did, but in case you’re not one of them, I thought I’d share!

 

More on Poverty & Education

My piece yesterday on education and poverty struck a nerve with many of you. I received a slew of messages here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on my phone, from women who found themselves in similar situations. Women who tried desperately hard to educate their way out of poverty. Women who tried to grab life by the scruff of the neck and gain an education for themselves so they could lift their families out of poverty.

Some of us end up pursuing more than one degree in an effort to improve our circumstances. Unfortunately, in Ireland, if you want to pursue a second degree that is not higher on the NFQ than one you already have, you will not receive state funding. That means that if you find the MA you have isn’t enough to secure employment – and you can’t, for whatever reason, pursue a PhD – you will have to self-fund. This is what I ended up doing. My intention was to use the money from a settlement for sexual abuse to pay my fees (and for the therapy I need as a result of the abuse to keep me mentally healthy).  The problem is that one of the brothers who raped and otherwise sexually abused me decided not to honour the settlement. In desperation, I launched a Go Fund Me campaign explicitly, exclusively and entirely to ensure that I stay fit enough to parent, and that I can finish my degree and graduate.  And, then, maybe – just maybe – get a job somewhere. Anywhere.

It struck me earlier today how gendered this all is. The men walk away from their financial obligations, and abuse the children they have decided not to support. They further abuse the women to whom they don’t pay child support because they know that (most) mothers will go hungry before they allow their child/ren to suffer.

The structures of our society and our legal system are patriarchal and allow men who do not wish to support their children, to walk away from their obligations. The women who are then responsible for every aspect of raising the children are then vilified by the society that does not men to account. This, in turn, enforces the belief that many of these men (and, to be honest, I am thinking of specific men; not necessarily men in general) hold; that women deserve to be abused. That women who stand up to the men who bully them need (in my ex-husband’s words) ‘to be taught a lesson’.

Even before I became a mother, I knew one thing; no woman creates a child on her own. Not even those who have virgin births or those who claim impregnation by entity. To continue to promulgate the myths around mothers who are forced to raise their children on their own shifts the focus from those who are doing nothing for their families to those who are doing everything they can for their families. Those who are doing all they can to make their lives, their children’s lives and, therefore society better.  Ironically, we are frustrated by the very society we are trying to improve as we are trying to improve it.

Ireland may no longer lock up lone mothers and sell their babies, but it has a long way to go before it can become in any way congratulatory over the way it does treat them.

 

 

Choose Life

This is a pro-life post. I am pro-life. I believe every one is. Including suicidal people. I say this because (as regular readers will know) I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation for most of my life. I am happy to say that it’s more than six months now since I thought it might be a good idea to kill myself.

But here’s the thing; I never wanted to die. Not really. I wanted the pain to end. I wanted to make the pain I was suffering go away. I wanted to live torment-free and know that the torment was gone for good. The sensible, logical part of my brain went through a slew of possibilities before, sensibly, logically, deciding that suicide was the best answer. How I’m actually still here is anybody’s guess – but I am. Maybe it’s because only the good die young.

Years ago, I heard the brilliant Professor Rory O’Connor speaking. Energetic, passionate and compassionate, Professor O’Connor was conducting research on suicide and he made an impassioned plea to everyone listening:

‘If ever there is a question to choose between life and death, choose life. Choose life!’

His words echoed in my head for months and years afterwards. On some of my dark days, I repeated them mantra-like adn waited for how I was feeling to catch up with what I was saying.

Today – World Suicide Prevention Day – I’d like to share two lists with you. First up is a list of things I would urge you to do for yourself if you are suicidal.

  1. Have a mantra and repeat it to yourself. This can be anything that steadies your soul. Choose a religious one if that helps. Or find an aphorism that works for you. For years, mine was ‘It will all come right in the end: If it’s not all right, it’s not the end’. My current favourite is ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going’ alternated with ‘You are never alone’ which echoes in my head in the voice of the wise friend who first said it to me.
  2. Seek help. Even though you feel you’re not worth it, believe me – you are. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Have a message set up, on your phone, and ready to send to five or six people who know you and know your history and that you might – on occasion – be suicidal. It’s best if this note is kept short ‘I need help. Pls call me back if you can’ works for me. Then, when (or if) you do send the message, you will know that whoever gets back to you is self-selecting and you’re not intruding.
  3. Go somewhere safe. Even if the safest place for you right now is in bed, get back into bed. If it’s in your friend’s kitchen, go and sit in your friend’s kitchen.
  4. Ring a dedicated hotline – like the Samaritans or Pieta House. You are not ‘bothering’ these people by phoning them, you’re keeping them in a job. Make the call.
  5. Find a photograph of you that you like and that captures a moment when you were happy. Keep it in your wallet or somewhere you can find it in a hurry. Look at that photo and remember where you were when it was taken. That happy person is in there still. They will be back, if you just wait a while .

d22ff4fcdbd96408aef19Just because you think...worthless

Secondly, if you become aware that someone you know is suicidal, please be mindful of what you say:

1 Do not tell a suicidal person that they are being selfish. In the same way that you wouldn’t tell an asthmatic that their asthma was selfish.

2. Do ask if there is anything you can do – and offer something concrete; a cup of tea, a hug, a walk, etc.

3. If you think the person is ‘just looking for attention’ give it to them. If they are that desperate for attention, then they are desperate.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of witnessing; just being with a person and allowing them to feel what they’re feeling without trying to ‘fix’ it. It’s okay to just sit and say ‘I am here for you’.

5.  Don’t dismiss the feelings of a person who says they are suicidal. If you feel you can’t cope yourself, ring a dedicated hotline like The Samaritans or Pieta House.

Progress Report

Kindness-cat-and-bird-150x150

 

Yesterday, I was on Talking Point with Sarah Carey on Newstalk. The talking point was mental health, and I was there in my capacity as an ambassador for See Change.  If you’re interested, you can listen here.

 

The programme was pre-recorded on Friday which, it turns out, is probably just as well because yesterday was a really bad day for me. It started with some bad news on Friday night.  Okay, it was a bit more than ‘bad’. It was so bad that someone  emailed to say they were devastated to hear it. Imagine how I felt?

 

Immediately, I went down the road of

‘It’s because I’m not good enough.’

‘It’s because I’m shit.’

‘It’s because all my ideas are crap.’

‘It’s because I was an idiot to expect that this would work out for me.’

‘It’s because no matter how hard I work, nothing good comes of it.’

‘This is how my life always is. It is shit now. It always was shit. It will always be shit.’

‘I should stop expecting things to get better.’

‘No matter what I do – and I do a lot – my life will never improve.’

‘I would be better off killing myself now.’

‘Wouldn’t I be better off killing myself now? Then this would all end. No more disappointment.’

And so it went for a few hours.

 

Then, I took myself off to bed. Not because I felt sorry for myself, but because it was the safest place for me. I retired. I decided to give myself a day off from problem solving. I decided I didn’t have to sort the entire problem out there and then. I had enough to do just minding myself. I allowed myself to do that.

 

Early (5.30am early!) on Saturday, a really good friend of mine gave me a call. He’s in another time zone and knows I get up early, so it wasn’t unusual. I’d sent him an email the night before – a two-liner to let him know what had happened and he rang to see how I was doing, to offer support and to remind me that I am not alone.

 

He didn’t ask me what I was going to do now, he didn’t ask me what my next strategy was, he didn’t berate me for ever thinking this particular piece of bad news would never come. Instead, he told me ‘I don’t think you realise how successful you already are. I don’t think you give yourself credit for how much you have done – and for how much you continue to do.’

 

Instead of asking what I was going to do for the next five years, he asked what my plans for the rest of the day were. I had planned on going to the Excited conference in Dublin Castle, but had decided not to bother.  In the course of the conversation with my friend, however, I changed my mind again and went to the conference.  My mood dipped, however, and by the time we were on the road, the reality of my situation hit me again and I was overwhelmed. I told myself I’d  stay at the conference for two hours. And managed to stay for five.

 

Back home, I returned to bed. I was exhausted. Drained mentally and emotionally from the bad news and the knocking it had given me. I tweeted that I was retiring and received gentle concerned messages from people. They said they were there for me, and I knew they meant it. I knew I had people who would listen if I needed to talk. At the same time, I was pretty sure that a good night’s sleep would help.

 

And it did. I’ve taken it easy today and – apart from cooking – have done very little. I’ve been a little down, but not suicidal. I’m feeling much better. I’ve changed perspective slightly and seen that I have choices – I always have choices, even if I don’t always immediately see what they are. ‘Hidden in plain sight’ is one of my favourite concepts and often that’s where my answers are .

 

The reason I’ve shared this with you is to make the point that recovery is possible; your mental health doesn’t always have to spiral; doesn’t have to follow the same turbulent path. What always was doesn’t always have to be. I helped myself by realising that there were elements I could control, things I could do to help myself.

 

The first thing I did was be kind to myself. I can’t do much about what other people say to me – but I can absolutely control what I say to myself. So, I stopped with the berating messages in my own head. It helped.

 

I chose the people I shared my bad news and my consequent frame of mind with. I didn’t go looking for people to (metaphorically) beat me up – as I would have previously.

 

I no longer take my woes to people who will reinforce the negative. I used to. For years, there were people in my life who fed me those lines and started those beliefs in me in the first place. They reinforced those beliefs the entire time I was in touch with them and freeing myself from those people has freed me from being told terrible things about myself all the time.

 

So, because I no longer hear those words externally, I don’t have to listen to them internally anymore, either. If I find myself thinking ‘I am worthless’ I question that. I choose whether or not to believe it. Of course, sometimes I will believe it. But I believe it for a shorter period of time.

 

Sometimes, part of deciding whether or not we believe something is to test its validity externally – by asking other people (directly or indirectly) what they think. These days, I surround myself with supportive people (not people who always tell me I’m right, but people who see my value and support my growth).

 

Set-backs, disappointment, fear, worry and heartache will always be a part of life, and I know that. But I’m getting better at dealing with those situations. Not everything is the end of the world. Not everything is the end of my world. I have always been skilled at problem-solving, but I no longer expect myself to have an immediate solution and I am prepared to give myself the down-time I need to feel better without the voice in my head excoriating me for ‘wallowing’.

 

When’s the last time you were kind to yourself?

 

Weeding for Mental Health

It’s May. So it’s Mental Health Awareness Month. As a See Change ambassador, I try to make at least one post in the month of May that deals with mental (ill) health. By the skin of my teeth, here is one for 2014.

 

Yesterday, an interview I gave appeared in the Irish Times. Now, it might seem a bit daft, but sometimes I forget that people read the paper. More to the point, I forget that people I know read the paper! Then I’m a bit stunned when they refer to something I’ve said in a piece I’ve written, or been interviewed for. To be honest, reaction to my pieces has always been kind, but the reaction to this piece has been overwhelming.

 

One of my oldest and dearest friends shared it on her FB page and, via that share, I got a slew of messages from people I’d been at school with, people I hardly knew and people I know quite well.  They were all generous, supportive and from the heart.  Three parents spoke to me at the school gates today – with another running up to me as I was stopped at traffic lights – to say they’d read the piece and to share kind comments.

 

So then I got to thinking about friends and how they sustain us.

 

A few years ago, I started to worry about myself. I worried that I was becoming selfish, unkind and harsh. I worried that I was becoming judgmental (a trait I really hate to see in myself) and intolerant. Why? Because I was ending friendships and relationships and I thought it reflected badly on me. In the space of a year, I had managed to turf two people out of my life whom I had regarded as friends. I was uncomfortable with myself. I thought it meant I was A Bad Person.

 

Gradually, it dawned on me that, instead of falling out with them, I was falling in with myself. I was making a stand and saying ‘no more’. I was seeing unacceptable behaviour and calling it for what it was for the first time ever. I was telling people that I could no longer be treated badly and take it. I was saying ‘I deserve better’.  Of course it felt uncomfortable. Doing anything for the first time feels uncomfortable. Especially when it is against all that you have been told is ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘acceptable’.

 

Sometimes, though, you have to put yourself first.

 

Part of that was choosing my friends and not feeling obliged to maintain ties with people who were damaging – or even people who took me for granted.  I was astonished at how much better I felt. Suddenly, I had more energy, I felt better, I had less angst. I was able to follow my dreams without worrying about having my ideas (and, by extension, myself) knocked, ridiculed or torn apart.

 

These days, I surround myself with wonderful people. People who are kind and generous and thoughtful. People who share my fundamental values – even if we come from different backgrounds, religions and generations.  They don’t always agree with me – but they always respect me.

 

Weeding out the people from my life who were toxic, destructive and abusive (even if that abuse was just unkindness and/or taking unfair advantage of me) has been a huge gift to myself. Being around people who think I’m all right has done wonders for my mental health. It wasn’t easy to start with, but – like so many other things – it has become easier with practice.  I’d highly recommend it. 🙂

Mind Yourself

Today is World Mental Health (awareness) Day and I was honoured to appear on TV3’s Midday programme (you can see it here – from 13 minutes in), talking to Sybil Mulcahy about my own experiences. It was a short interview (about 3 minutes) so I didn’t say a lot!! I was also interviewed for The Five-Thirty – news round up on the same station.

 

Tonight, I’m taking my girls to see ‘Box of Frogs’ in the hope that it helps normalise the discussion of mental health. And also, to be completely honest, because I know and love the actors in the play.

 

Earlier this week, I was privileged to meet with the Chair of the Expert Group to discuss new capacity and mental health legislation. This was the final element in the body of work I worked on with Amnesty International. So, it’s been a good, and busy week from the mental health point of view.

 

Today is a good day. I feel useful – and for me, that’s key to my own sense of well-being. My girls are well and happy and nothing nasty has arrived in the post, by phone or by email. I have lovely plans for tonight. I’m on an even keel. I know that it would take very little to tip the scales in the wrong direction. I know that it wouldn’t take much to knock the wind out of me completely – but I’m not dwelling on that possibility. I am, instead, dwelling on the fact that today, all is well. Today has brought me nothing I can’t handle. Today is filled with love and friends and brightness and coziness and good food and laughter and happy children.

 

Those of us who have mental health issues aren’t defined by them – any more than a person with asthma is defined by their asthma. Like asthma, mental health issues can be controlled and they don’t affect you every day. Our mental health difficulties don’t manifest every day – there are good days as well as bad days. There are fantastic days as well as terrible days. There are days filled with love and joy and peace, as well as days filled with fear and pain and despair.

 

People with asthma are advised to be aware of their triggers; to avoid them whenever possible; to take action as soon as a trigger becomes apparent and to give themselves enough time to recover after an episode. In the same way, those of us with mental health issues (and I believe that’s everyone) would do well to be aware of our triggers, to avoid them whenever possible, to take action as soon as a trigger becomes apparent and to give ourselves enough time to recover after an episode.

 

Mind yourself!

 

 

Mental Health Awareness Post (The Controversial One)

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close (as I type, there’s just an hour left), I wanted to share something with you that has been bothering me for the past few weeks.

 

In April of this year, Donal Walsh – a sixteen year-old from Kerry was a guest on the Saturday Night Show on RTE.  Donal was dying of cancer and knew his days were numbered. In fact, he died on the 12th of May – just over a month after his TV appearance.

 

I never met Donal. I don’t know anyone who knew him personally, but he came across as a lovely bloke. He loved sport, he loved his family. He was connected to his community. And he wanted to live! More than anything, he wanted more time with his family. He was desperate to stay alive. And he was furious with people who die by suicide leaving “a mess” behind them.

 

Now, I have no doubt that Donal Walsh wanted to live. I have no doubt that he was perplexed by people who don’t want to live – but I worry about the effect his words may have had on people who are feeling suicidal.

 

I was a suicidal teen. There were times when all I wanted was to die. Death would have been a merciful relief. I used to go to sleep praying to a God I fervently believed in to let me die in the night – to please let the overdose work, to please let the poison seep through me, to let me annihilate myself.  Unlike Donal I had no loving family. Unlike Donal, I didn’t have a future worth living for. I didn’t have a team of medics who were rooting for me, I didn’t have a community that cared about me, I didn’t have teachers who were keen to do anything they could to help.

 

In short, Donal had people and a future to live for. Many, many suicidal people don’t and telling them he’s “very angry” with them isn’t exactly helpful. More guilt to add to the pain and guilt they are already suffering.  I understand that Donal wanted to live but what he didn’t seem to understand was that people who die by suicide don’t want to die – they just want their pain to end. They just want to wake up in the morning and not suffer. They want the misery to stop gnawing on their innards. When nothing else they try does that, they do the only thing they can and end their pain permanently.

 

Being angry with people who are in pain doesn’t lessen their pain.

 

It reminds me of the horrendous years I spent trying to have children. It was the biggest sorrow of my life that I was childless. I would have done anything to have a child to call my own (how I managed it is a whole other blog post!). I knew I was in trouble the day I caught myself talking myself into taking a baby who had been left outside a Prague  supermarket in his pram.  But that didn’t mean I was angry with other women who had abortions. Just because I wouldn’t have made their choices didn’t mean I had any right to condemn them. Or even be angry with them. I was jealous – but I wasn’t angry. I was furious that Fate, or God or pure dumb luck had given them a pregnancy they didn’t want when all I wanted was a pregnancy, but I couldn’t take that out on the women.

 

I have no doubt that Donal Walsh meant well, I have no doubt that he wanted to inspire suicidal teens to stay alive. Sadly,  he was not informed enough to do so in a more constructive way.

Mental Health Awareness Month (The ‘Turning’ Post)

The response to my last post was overwhelming – both online and off.  In truth, I’m not out of the woods yet. Yesterday was a good day, though and today hasn’t been too terrible.

Many of you were curious to know what ‘turns’ things around for me.  There are a few things.

I do keep a gratitude journal and that helps. I think. At the same time, acknowledging all the things in my life I am grateful for doesn’t mean that the stuff that troubles me goes away, or troubles me less.

Friends. People just picking up the phone or calling in or sending an email of support and compassion makes a huge difference. I’ve been overwhelmed by expressions of kindness. The concern of others is enormously uplifting.

Acceptance. For years and years and years I used to beat myself up and tell myself I was, somehow, a lesser person for being sad. These days, I allow myself to ‘own’ my sorrow and accept that it is real.  I make an effort to be kind to myself. Taking to bed and letting the sadness lie on me like a blanket actually works better than beating myself up for being that way.

Indulging myself. Knitting. Reading. Walking. Cuddling my girls. All the things I love to do, I do. I don’t belittle myself in my own head by telling myself how bad I am for not doing more ‘worthy’ things.  (Okay, I try not to belittle myself for how bad I am for not doing more ‘worthy’ things).

turn off the radio. I love the radio. It’s my favourite medium. But it’s full of doom, gloom, contention, argument and discontent. When I’m not feeling great , it agitates me (in a bad way) and I feel like I need to respond in a very concrete way to what I’m hearing. My feeling of helplessness is exacerbated. So I stop listening. I put on an audiobook, or listen to music or drama (thank you, BBC Radio 4) instead.

If people ask how I am, I honour myself by being honest and saying ‘not great’.  I’m careful not to overshare and if people want to follow the line of conversation then they can. If they don’t then they don’t have to. I’m mindful that I have no idea (generally) what other people are going through.

I do as little as I can. The house is a mess, I haven’t written as many words as I should have, I haven’t finished making those cushion covers……The list of things I haven’t done is as long as my leg. It serves to do nothing but further overwhelm me. So I take a deep breath and decide what is vital – then break that task down into it’s smallest components and call each of them a job. I don’t set out to clean the house. I set out to empty the dishwasher.

Above everything else, my kids keep me going. I am uncomfortable with the idea of giving someone else the job of keeping me alive, but the truth of it is that there is no one else to mind my kids. If I was hospitalised for a short period, someone would be able to take them for a few days or a week. After that, however, there is no one. I have no family who could take them and the ‘care’ system in Ireland would kill them. Figuratively, if not literally.

Also, a few years ago, I made my children (pictured below) a promise. I had one of the worst times ever and ended up – calmly, logically and with extreme clarity (so I thought) – ‘realising’ that the best thing I could do was kill myself. When I got out of hospital afterwards  promised my kids I’d never leave them until they were adults. I take promises very seriously and only make ones I am sure I can keep.

Beautiful Girls

Perhaps the hardest part of this overwhelming sadness is that there is no end date. I have no idea when it will be over. I can’t say to myself “just another week, Larkin and then it will all be over”  or even “this will be over in six months”. I have no idea when things will improve, but I have leaned to tell   myself that this, too, shall pass. I’m getting better at believing it.

Mental Health Awareness Month (The Scary Post!)

This month – May – is Mental Health Awareness Month. The initiative is being supported by See Change and there is more information about the campaign on the Green Ribbon website. (Green ribbons being the symbol for the campaign).

It is true that there is more awareness around mental health and mental ill-health and smashing stigma, but there is still a long way to go. Getting people to talk and to listen and to engage with the conversation is just the beginning. It’s a bit like feminism, starting the conversation doesn’t mean the job is done.  It means the job has started.

I hit a bump this week and found myself flooded with all the usual detritus that goes with such bumps.  It’s torrential when it happens and – like a torrent – it overwhelms. I could cry for hours straight. I can go to sleep late and wake up early just to fit in extra crying jags.

My children write me notes to tell me how much they love me in the hope that that can cheer me up. It does. And it doesn’t. It makes me feel better because I feel wrapped up in their love. It makes me feel worse because I don’t think it’s their job to make me feel better. My nearly nine-year old shouldn’t feel she has to spend 20 minutes writing a list of all that is good in the world to try and keep me in it. Because, of course, at the back of my mind is the guilty knowledge that – a few years ago – they came very close to losing me.  I worry that every time I am sad, upset or in tears, they worry that I will turn them into orphans. At those times – and at others, when all is well in my world – I remind them of my promise not to leave them.

They think I don’t notice that one of them has her eye on me at all times – as though they have discussed it with each other and agreed this between themselves. Which, in truth, they probably have. They think I believe them when they say – as they position themselves either side of me at night, like two guardian angels  – that they just want company and to sleep in a bigger bed tonight.

I was in conversation with a very dear friend during this latest bump and he put his finger on it.

‘Don’t be scared,’ he entreated me down the wobbly line from his part of Asia. ‘You’re not on your own.’

I was scared. I hadn’t realised that until he pointed it out to me. From ten thousand miles away, he could hear my fear when I – who was feeling it – didn’t even realise it was there.

I can’t speak for everyone who has an episode of mental ill-health, but here’s what it’s like for me:

I just don’t feel like I deserve to live. I feel like I’m a burden on humanity. I am an offense. Feeling like this about yourself is scary.

I offend myself. I do not know how to redeem myself in my own eyes and this, too, is scary.
I feel like I can no longer go on like this – yet I have no solution. Feeling like I don’t have the solution to a problem scares me (I always have a solution!).
The stress takes a physical toll – I have been hospitalised on more than one occasion with migraines born of stress. My neck, shoulders and upper-back feel they are made of steel.
I feel like I’m fighting a war – that I have been fighting a war for more years than I can number and that, while I have won a couple of battles, I am losing the war.
I feel scarred and battle weary, which is scary.
I can’t stop crying. Not even in public. I feel as though, by losing that amount of control over myself, I have no dignity. Feeling as though you have no dignity is scary.
I look like shit and I don’t care. It scares me that I don’t care.
I feel as if I have no anchor. Feeling like you are blowing in the wind is scary.
Failure is the biggest, most overwhelming feeling when I’m like this. Failing at life, failing at being ‘normal’. Feeling like you are failing is scary.
Feeling like the world has no use for you is scary.
Feeling like the world would be better off without you is scary.
Feeling like your whole existence has no value, no meaning and no importance is scary. Because if those things are true of you, then you have no right to exist.  And the alternative can be equal parts attractive and scary.
Feeling that everyone knows the secret to life – except you – is scary.
Feeling that you’ll never be good enough to be told the secret is scary.
Feeling that, somehow, you deserve this is scary. (Even when you know that’s not how Karma works.)
Feeling that you can’t even speak – can’t even advocate – for yourself is scary.  Especially if you like to tell yourself that you’re ‘normally’ reasonably articulate.
Wondering if this is your new normal is scary.
Wondering if you will ever be able to manipulate your brain into cohesion again is scary.
Wondering if this is the time that will prove unbearable is scary.
But scariest of all is when it stops feeling scary. When there is no feeling. When you rummage around inside yourself to figure out the name of what you’re feeling; and you come up with nothing. Because that is how you’re feeling. You are feeling nothingness. There is no word in the English language to describe the emptiness.
I’ll be wearing my green ribbon this month to invite people to start the conversation. Don’t be scared to engage in that conversation with me.

Mind Yourself

Like your physical health, your mental health is your own responsibility. You can choose to blame other people for everything that’s wrong in your life, but you can also take responsibility by looking for help when you need it. There are people and places you can go for help, but the first thing you need to do is admit that you need it in the first place.

 

I don’t say this glibly.  Looking for help – admitting you need it – can be a scary thing to do. For many of us, seeking help for a mental health issue is difficult. This is due, in part, to the fact that there is such stigma attached to mental ill-health that  seeking help can be daunting. But think about it – if you had a broken leg, wouldn’t you take yourself to hospital? If you had a cough that wouldn’t go away, wouldn’t you seek help from a doctor, pharmacist, homeopath or naturopath? It’s the same with your mental health.

 

If you are in emotional pain, there is no reason to let that pain fester. There are many different types of healers you can approach, depending on your own beliefs and what you feel might work best for you at a given time. The point is that if you are suffering you are not doing anyone any favours – not yourself or anyone around you – by continuing to suffer.

 

If you are unhappy, you must take responsibility for your unhappiness yourself. Blaming other people for every upsetting or disappointing event in your life does no one any favours – including yourself.

 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t hold other people accountable for their actions. Accepting responsibility for your unhappiness also allows you to accept responsibility for your happiness, which is hugely liberating.

 

For example, I could quite easily blame the people who abused me for my unhappiness. That would just give them power over me. I no longer choose to do that. Instead, I acknowledge that there was huge pain and trauma associated with their actions. I acknowledge that I need to heal from that trauma. I acknowledge that there are some bits of me that will never heal (a bit like an amputee accepting that a severed limb will never re-grow). I also acknowledge that in every moment of every day, I have the power to choose my own happiness.

 

It took a lot of work, a lot of therapy and a lot of time for me to reach this point. I’m still a work in progress, but I know I can’t do it all on my own – and I don’t expect that of myself any more.

 

I’ve learnt how to mind myself.

 

Mind Your Space

One of the things that can impact directly on our moods – and on which we have a lot of control – is our environment. Living in dreary, grey Ireland won’t do much to lift your mood but there are plenty of things you can do within your own four walls that can help.

 

I have noticed that I feel much less motivated when my house is trí-na-chéile. I feel like I can’t breathe, I feel overwhelmed and I feel lethargic and incapable when the house is a mess. The solution is so simple – sort it out! The problem is that by the time it gets bad enough for me to feel stifled by it, it feels like a problem that’s too big to tackle. The solution, I’ve found, is to tidy and sort as I go – and to get the children to pitch in and do their bit as well. I know this sounds so obvious and simple – but it is really easy to let things slide. It’s easy to let things get out of control when there are so many things of equal priority on your to-do list. But when something so simple can have such a profound effect on your mental health, it’s a good idea to train yourself to pay attention to your surroundings.

 

Decluttering is wonderfully therapeutic. At least twice a year, we go through every cupboard, closet and drawer and strip it of anything non-essential. It helps if you have a friend who will lend a hand with this process – other people aren’t emotionally attached to your clutter the way you are. If you haven’t worn an item of clothing for 6 months (or for two seasons, if it’s a seasonal item like a winter coat) give it to the charity shop. Books you have read and know you won’t read again deserve to be enjoyed by others – so donate or Freecycle them, too.

 

While your children are doubtless artistic genii, you don’t need to keep every daub they ever put on a piece of paper in their lives. Keep a sample from each school term, and one or two other exceptional/sentimental pieces. Bin the rest.

 

Moving furniture around – even getting rid of one or two pieces – can improve the flow of energy in your home. If you’re not constantly irritated by the placement of a particular table or stool, you’ll automatically feel a lot better when you step through your front door.

 

Paint your walls happy! Even in rented accommodation, it’s usually possible to broker a deal with the landlord with regard to repainting the premises. Start with the room that bothers you most, or the room where you spend most time (they’re often the same room!) and set to with rollers and tins of gentle, refreshing colours. If a re-paint really is out of the question, head to IKEA and invest in some cheap frames (they have loads) and frame pictures, paintings, postcards and even bits of fabrics to brighten your surroundings – and your mood.

 

I’m not suggesting that we should all aspire to make our homes museum-like in their neatness or zen-like in their minimalism or even that we should know and employ every rule of Vastu Shastri or Feng Shui, but the more you enjoy being in your surroundings, the more you’ll enjoy being in your skin.

Supporting Someone With a Mental Health Issue

At some stage in our lives, each of us will suffer with mental ill-health. It’s important, therefore,  to know how to manage our own mental health but it’s also important to know how to support someone in difficulty.

 

The first thing to remember is that, like pregnancy, mental health issues are not catching. You won’t ‘end up like’ the friend or relative you support when they’re feeling low.

 

Personally, I find that the most qualifying, the most dignifying, and the most helpful support I have ever received from friends who have supported me is what compassionate professionals call ‘witnessing’.  Simply put, this is the act of  ‘allowing’ the person who is suffering to go through what they are going through without trying to minimise or ‘fix’ it; without trying to shake the person out of how they are feeling or tell them that shouldn’t need to feel as bad as they do. Just allowing a person to sit in silence, or sit and cry and not trying to intervene is hugely empowering for the person in pain.

 

Sometimes we stay away from people who are in mental anguish because we are embarrassed to see someone who is in pain, or because we don’t want to see our own pain reflected back at us. It’s really important not to further isolate people in pain by shunning them. It adds to the stigma, and can make people more reluctant to reach out.

 

If you share a hobby or have a standing arrangement with someone who is suffering mental ill-health, don’t change your common routine just because they’re not feeling well.  They may not be as chipper as usual and they may be resistant to  going out but if that’s the case, can you go to them? Feeling that people still care can be a huge help to recovery for most people.

 

Do remember that ‘this, too, shall pass’ and your friend will return to themselves.  In the meantime, though, you don’t have to have all the answers, just being there and making the odd phone call or the odd cup of tea can make all the difference. Letting your friend know that you think they’re worth bothering about and worth the time and effort you put into the relationship can help them to feel that way about themselves.

 

Finally, bear in mind that if you want a friend, be a friend. You never know when your own mental health will suffer and you’ll want support, understanding and kindness yourself.

 

Mental Health

Many discussions on mental health focus on mental ill health.  Like our physical health, we need to care for our mental health. Here are a few ways everyone can easily incorporate mental health self-care into their daily lives:

 

1. Exercise.  I know it can be hard to find time, but if a twenty-minute walk or run is the difference between a good day and a terrific one, it’s something you need to find the time for.

2. When you’re feeling down – or feeling you might slide towards feeling down, don’t read or listen to the news. News is usually negative, and when we’re mentally and / or emotionally vulnerable or fragile, the negativity eats at us more than it would otherwise.

3. Have something that soothes your soul – knitting, needlework, painting, reading or photography – nearby and use it to help you when you need it to.

4. Don’t use your to do list as a tool to beat yourself with and scream ‘Failure!’ at you. Only allow things on your to-do list that really need to be done today.

5. Don’t berate yourself for being sad. You feel how you feel and you don’t have to apologise for it – not even to yourself.

6. Keep a gratitude journal. In it, write down the things you are grateful for. On your sad days, look through it and realise how blessed you are.

7. Whenever someone pays you a compliment, or comments favourably on something you’ve done, make a note of it. If you start to feel down, refer to the list.

8. Add to the list with things you notice and like about yourself.

9. Treat yourself. Every day do something nice for yourself; buy yourself flowers, run yourself a bath, talk to a friend, read a book, watch a movie you love, cheat at solitaire….whatever makes you feel you good. You deserve to feel good.

10. Eat well. A good, nutritious diet will help you feel good and will strengthen your immune system. All of which will help you feel good inside and out.

Mental Health Awareness Week

Fair play to Newstalk for undertaking a week of programmes and events to highlight Mental Health. The first of these programmes was aired this morning, and featured the wonderful Caroline McGuigan from Suicide or Survive, as well as two parents who had each lost a child to suicide.

It was heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure to hear their stories and I felt privileged that they chose to share their tales with us. Their bravery was apparent.

In Ireland, tackling a mental health problem is still fraught with difficulty – not least the stigma that attaches to the subject of mental ill-health.  Time and again, those of us who have suffered with mental health have spoken of how physical ailments are more socially ‘acceptable’; of how, if one had a broken arm or a broken leg, or the influenza, people would have no difficulty enquiring after your health and your progress. Mental health difficulties, though, are treated differently.

This stigma can also prevent people seeking help. It can be hard to ask for help when you feel that you will be judged for feeling low, or sad or suicidal.

Think, for a second, how you react to people who reveal they have, or have had,  a difficulty with their mental health. Is it a negative, positive or neutral reaction?  Upon what do you base it? Is it based on something you have heard? Something unsubstantiated? Your own experiences or the experiences of someone close to you?

See Change and Suicide or Survive are doing all they can to change the stigma associated with mental ill health in Ireland. It’s up to the rest of us to do our bit as well.

See Change

This morning, See Change launched its Make A Ripple radio campaign. The campaign sees 22 real people tell (part of) their real stories. These awareness-raising ads were recorded and produced without scripts and without music or intros by the wonderful, generous, inspiring Evelyn McClafferty.

I was honoured when I was asked to be part of the campaign, which aims to raise awareness and smash the stigma surrounding mental ill health in Ireland. I was delighted when I was asked to speak at the launch. This is what I had to say:

“I became involved with this campaign because I believe that the more people speak out about their mental health, the more people will speak out about their mental health.

The stigma attached to mental ill-health allows ill-informed people to continue to say ill-informed, unkind, untrue, unhelpful things about mental ill-health. The only way to exorcise stigma is to educate it out of people. The only way to do that is to challenge it. The only way to do that is to speak out and refuse to be silent. To tell the truth.

My truth is that I have post traumatic stress disorder. I have PTSD because I was sexually abused from the time I was two until I was an adult.  The people who brutalised my body also traumatised my mind. How could they not? Body and mind are two halves of the same whole; they are indivisible and inextricably linked. Yet, discussing physical health is so much more ‘acceptable’ than discussing mental health.

I have a condition – a disorder – that is incurable. There is no cure for PTSD – there is no pill that will take the edge off it. When I was hospitalised two years ago, the consultant psychiatrist I was under told me as much. ‘Medicine can’t help you,’ he told me candidly. ‘We cannot help you here.’

He was right, the best I can do is be grateful for the fact that it’s not as bad as it was. Because, truly, it has been awful. There were days, many days, when my first thought upon waking was ‘Oh no! I’ve woken up again.’ There were days – years, in fact, where I retreated so far inside myself that I wasn’t sure I could ever be found.

PTSD meant I lost the ability to recognise my own instinct – let alone follow it. As you can imagine, that got me into some hairy situations. PTSD has seen me suicidal, believing that I truly was the worst person on the face of the planet; believing that the world, including my children – especially my children – would be better off without me.

PTSD left me terrified of the world and everyone in it. It left me believing the worst of myself. It saw me acting in ways that were not in my own best interests.

My symptoms were compounded by my attempts to conceal them from the world of “normal” people. (Yeah right! Who’s normal? Hands up here, all the normal people!) The relief I found when I stopped doing that was phenomenal. Suddenly, the energy that I’d been spending on concealing how I was, on playing the game, was freed up. I felt lighter – I felt like myself, even though it wasn’t easy. Especially not in the beginning.

It meant staying away from people who fed my negative views of myself., and who had a vested interest in keeping me stuck. It meant being honest when people asked me how I was. I’m not always ‘grand’! Sometimes I’m only ‘okay’. Sometimes I’m pretty low. Sometimes I’m barely hanging on. But I accept that.

My mental health is part of who I am, but it does not define me any more than having green eyes or unfashionably large feet or tattoos define me. I’m not stigmatized because of my eyes, or my feet or even my tattoos. So I no longer accept stigmatization because I have PTSD.

I’m not naive enough to think that my rejection of it will erase stigmatization. It won’t be wiped out at the end of this campaign fortnight. I know it’a a long journey and we’re just setting off. I know that people will still talk. I know people will still be unkind. I know some people will still call me cracked. But that’s okay, because every time someone calls me ‘cracked’, I remember what Groucho Marks had to say on the subject:

‘Blessed are the cracked,’ he said, ‘because they let in the light.’

So I thank God for all the cracked people. Long may we continue to let in the light. Long may we continue to shine.’  “

The stigma attached to mental ill-health can compound the difficulty of the initial problem.  Speak out about mental health, get help for mental illness the same way you would for physical illness. Don’t suffer in silence.

Mind Yourself

My girls were three minutes late for school this morning. It was my fault entirely;  I had them out late last night – at  The Sugar Club, a nightclub in Dublin. Even though it was a school night, I made the decision to bring them because I thought the event was important enough for my duaghters to witness it first-hand. The event in question was the launch of See Change‘s Make A Ripple campaign.

Make A Ripple is the joint effort of 45 individual bodies concerned with mental health. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness about mental health, mental ill-health and to remove the stigma associated with mental health difficulties. Two very brave women – Barbara Brennan and Caroline McGuigan –  spoke about their own experiences with mental health problems and their brushes with suicide.

Mental health is as much a part of who people are as their physical health – in fact, the two are inextricably linked. I felt it was important for my children – aged 7 and 9 – to be at an event where mental health and difficulties with mental health were spoken about openly and without shame. At their ages, I wanted my children to be aware of that. I wanted them to know that if they ever had a difficulty that they could speak about it – and that by keeping it to themselves they would be making it worse.

We spoke about mental health on the drive home. My girls understood what Barbara and Caroline  had meant when they spoke about their difficulties. They understood that it  was important to talk about pain and difficulty – whether that pain was physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.

Coming away from the launch last night, I had a very strong feeling that mental health awareness needs to be taught in primary schools across Ireland. If we are going to remove the stigma associated with mental (ill)health and see a decrease in the number of suicides and attempted-suicides in this country, then we need to start with children as young as five and six.  Those children are our future, we need to make sure theirs is a bright one.