I am not a natural gardener, in much the same way that a brick doesn’t naturally float. My postage stamp garden is largely overgrown, and any attempt at house plants, no matter how easy to care for, leads to death.
But I so want to be a good gardener. I have wonderful memories of my grandparents gardens. The front garden was flowers, beautiful roses and cheerful marigolds. I remember helping my grandad collect marigold seeds, labelling envelopes in my skittery childish handwriting. The back garden was fruit and veg, an abundance which was shared with friends, family and neighbours at harvest time. My gran made jam and chutney. We had home grown veg with all meals.
I don’t have green fingers, I don’t understand soil or know when you should prune things. I struggle to find time to put in the work needed to turn my garden into something beautiful and productive. And then I feel bad about myself, its such a visible sign of not managing.
Yesterday I sat in the garden for an hour with my book. Although I’ve been off work a few weeks now I’ve spent almost all my time in the house, shut in and safe while I recover. And I’d forgotten how relaxing the sunshine can be.
I didn’t get much of my book read. There were some sort of fledgling birds playing in the garden, landing on the tall dock plants I’d been beating myself up for not removing, and diving down to squabble over bugs and slugs in the grass below. I watched in fascination. I realised I was smiling.
There is a thin strip of the garden, alongside the fence to next door, which I have forced some order into. As I was sitting in the garden I spotted something there that made my heart leap.
Peas! I want to grow more things we can eat than just the herbs. This year I bought some pea plants (still feels like cheating not to grow from seed – sorry grandad!) I’ve had problems with previous attempts, usually slug or snail related! I was so happy to see these ones are working.
There is something magical about plants turning into food. I know it’s science, not magic, but I’m still amazed and overjoyed when it works. So I checked a few other of my long suffering plants.
Tiny pepper, my first ever.
Hidden straw berries.
First ever gooseberries.
I had forgotten, in this long period of anxiety and depression, how good it felt to sit in the garden, to feel the sunshine, watch the bids who prefer my messy garden to all the neighbouring lawns and patios, and connect with nature. I’m determined not to shut myself up in the house any more. And making me feel that positive really is miraculous.
After a bad week last week I’m trying to get myself into gear and move forward this week. I’m going to do things, even if they’re only little things. I’m picturing it as the first positive pebbles which will hopefully begin an avalanche of positivity (possibly not the best metaphor, what with the crushing and all, but it’ll do for now.)
One of the things that makes me anxious and guilty is the amount of clutter in my house. I struggle to get rid of anything, have raised two kids who also struggle to get rid of anything and chosen a partner who, guess what? Yep, struggles to get rid of anything. I constantly want to do something about this, but don’t know where to start. I read blogs and articles, and I would be happy if my house looked like the ‘before’ picture, never mind the ‘after’ one. I spend ages doing things that seem to make little difference, and then I give up.
The anxiety and depression doesn’t help. The anxiety makes me worry and feel guilty about the house, but the depression drains any energy to tackle it. A never ending spiral of:
LACK OF ENERGY > GUILT > WORRY > MISERY > LACK OF ENERGY > GUILT >>>ad infinitum
I’m putting the breaks on that. I’m going to try and celebrate the little successes, rather than dwelling on the outstanding failures. This is going contrary to my normal pattern of thinking, and is going to take practice. But I managed to make changes in how I act to improve my physical health, so I’m sure I can make changes to how I think to improve my mental health.
So. Baby steps.
As a result of struggling to throw anything away my fridge has multiple almost empty jars. You know the ones – too much food to comfortably throw away, too little to do anything with. Wasting food was a big no when I was growing up, and I’ve held that belief with me.
The first thing you’ll notice looking at the finished cookies on that website is that they are beautiful, delicate things, carefully shaped and crafted. I baked them with my teenage son and our approach was a little more… let’s say rustic, rather than cack-handed, shall we? Baking helps my son practice fine motor skills, which are difficult for him due to his undiagnosed genetic condition and severe dyspraxia. So we went big and bold rather than small and delicate!
At first the dough was far too dry, and I ended up adding the egg white as well as the yolk. This still made delicious biscuits.
We used up the dregs of five jars of jams, chocolate spread and curds, so that’s five less jars cluttering the fridge.
Unfortunately they are now cluttering my bench until I can pass them on to a jam-making friend, but still, it’s progress.
I’ve been quiet here lately, and that’s reflective of my life in general at the moment. I’m closing in and shutting down. It started as a way to recover, avoiding the things that trigger my anxiety in the hope of getting to a settled state.
It doesn’t seem to be working.
I’m zigzagging between hyper-anxious, depressed and numb, with a very occasional happy few hours. And throughout it all I’m overanalyzing, trying desperately to work out how I can improve.
There are so many chicken and egg moments that I just can’t unravel. I feel like if I could I could fix myself. And that adds to the feeling of uselessness and worthlessness – I can’t do anything, not even look after myself.
Am I avoiding social situations because they make me anxious, or am I getting more anxious in social situations because I’m avoiding most of them? Am I isolated because I’m depressed or depressed because I’m isolated? Am I better off at home until I’m partially recovered, or would work distract me from my anxious mind? And so on.
Because of the impact of my mental health on my work, and vice versa, I’ve agreed with my employer to reduce my hours when I go back. This is necessary, it will be good for me, and I’m incredibly grateful to have a supportive employer. But it has financial implications which I feel horrendously guilty about. I feel like I’m inflicting problems on my whole family because I can’t cope with everyday life. It reinforces that sense of uselessness, of being a burden, incapable.
It’s been hard to find positives this last week.
Something happened on Tuesday that sent me right back to a traumatic event that happened nine years ago. I don’t want to write the details, that would set me off all over again. Suffice to say it’s one if those horrendously shitty things that real life can throw at people, it had a massive effect on me at the time, and took a long time to get over. And sometimes things put me right back in that moment, as if it was happening now. I never know it’s coming, and it always sets me a long way back. Although I tell myself I just need a quiet day to get over it I think it lingers, and explains why the remainder of the week was so difficult.
I need to hold on to the few happy hours. They’re fleeting, but they’re happening. That’s an improvement. It feels like a failure because they can end so suddenly, with me hurtling into an anxiety attack, but in fact feeling positive for any time at all is an improvement.
I had a dream this week, a nightmare, in which I was wearing a mask. I dreamt I was attacked by a dog which went for the mask, and that feels like where I am – the mask is slipping. I’ve worked hard to keep my smile on in public, I always say “I’m fine”, I don’t want people to worry, or feel sorry for me. Even to my GP I sometimes say ” I’m struggling a bit” when I actually feel like I’m hanging on by my fingertips, brittle and broken. My GP, to her credit, sees through this. I don’t feel like I deserve help, I should be able to fix this myself. But the mask is slipping, I can’t keep the smile on, even in front of my family who I always try to shield from the worst of me.
Perhaps this is a sign that I should be more honest? Admit I can’t fix it myself. Ask for help. But I don’t know what would help.
For many years I went out several times a week, dancing and drinking til the early hours. I’m not claiming any especial dancing skill, it was more rocking out than rhythmic, with pogoing and headbanging as required. So not particularly aesthetic, but still movement and exercise. Its no coincidence that I was at my thinnest then.
But life happened. First work that required getting up early in the morning, then children limiting my ability to get out. But on the rare occasions I did get out I still liked to dance and drink.
Then I had to give up alcohol. This was due to the various medicines I have to take, not any moral opinion on the evils of drink. But I went from being a typical British occasional binge drinker to tee total. And it was quite a shock to the system. Not least because the majority of my social life revolved around drinking.
It’s not a lot of fun being the only sober one among a mass of drunken people. Especially if you struggle with anxiety. I found I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself because I felt responsible for everyone’s safety, like I had to be constantly alert because I was the only one who wasn’t drinking.
I also lost my confidence. Sober I was well aware that I was now a fat, middle aged woman, and who wants to see a fat, middle aged woman leaping about when they’re out for a good night?
It’s that wierd depression contradiction of feeling worthless and useless, and at the same time self-centered enough to be assuming you’re the most important person there, the one everyone is looking at and judging.
I became paranoid that people would judge me if I danced, if I relaxed. I was hyper alert whenever I was out. My anxious brain never let up… Why does that person have their phone out? Are they taking my picture? What if they make me into some body-shaming meme? Why are those people laughing? It must be at me. How can I make myself less visible?
For several years now I’ve gone out less and less often. People have stopped even inviting me to the boozy nights out I used to enjoy. I miss it, but I feel I can’t risk the anxiety such a night brings on.
However over the last couple of year my partner and I have started going to gigs. We still don’t get out often, but its rekindling a love of live music I thought I’d buried in the 1990s, along with my student ID and dreadlocks.
Last night we went to the gorgeous Wylam Brewery to see the London African Gospel Choir perform Paul Simon’s Graceland. It’s one of my most loved albums and I’d bought tickets on the spur of the moment when they first went on sale, not realising that by the time the gig took place I’d be in the middle of a real battle with my anxiety. I wondered over the last week if I’d be able to go.
We walked across the town moor to Wylam Brewery, which is now housed in the Palace of Arts in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park rather than in Wylam. Walking rather than driving or getting the bus is a useful way for me to manage my anxiety, the extra time travelling helps me get my head in order.
I did have some moments of anxiety over the course of the evening, mainly when alone if my partner had gone to the bar or wherever, but I was able to keep it under control. The music was fabulous. And I danced all night, for the first time since giving up alcohol. I shut out worries about how I looked or what people would think and I enjoyed the music and relaxed. I sang at the top of my voice, I cheered and whooped, and I kept on dancing.
Since I started my efforts to get healthier my stamina has definitely improved. We went to see the Levellers a few months ago and I could only dance for the odd song, not all the way through. Dancercise has honed my rhythm and taught me new moves, not that I was doing a full on lindy hop or Charleston!
I don’t know why I was able to relax last night when it’s been so difficult other times. I dont know what let me ignore my anxious brain. My mood at the moment is still zigzagging all over the place, so it was probably equally likely that I didn’t make it at all. But I’m determined to make the most of the up moments when I have them.
When my anxiety becomes so chronic and debilitating that I can’t hold it together for a couple of hours, let alone a full shift, as happened last week, I retreat.
For ten days I’ve hardly left the house. I did a supermarket shop, but used the ‘scan as you shop’ so I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone. I did make it to Dancercise on Saturday, but drove there and back to minimise the potential social contact. I was glad I got there, it does me good mentally as well as physically. Other than that I’ve only spoken to my family and left the house to walk the dogs. Where I’ve had to communicate with people I’ve done it in writing.
The last few days I’ve felt slightly less anxious. Its come and gone, rather than the constant barrage of catastrophising thoughts they’ve ebbed and flowed. In the gaps between the anxiety there’s been nothing. Numbness, inertia, nothingness.
Despite a million things to do I’ve struggled to move off the sofa. Getting dressed has seemed a monumental challenge that requires several hours of sofa-sitting before I can attempt it. While on the sofa its been hard to concentrate on anything. I’ve played repetitive games on my phone or spent time colouring (another of my many u-turns, I was convinced it was just a fad, then tried it and found it helpful.) I’ve thought about how thirsty I am but not managed to summon the energy to get to the kitchen to make a drink.
I think this is my brain resetting itself. As if my subconscious has noticed the state I was in and decided the only way forward is a reboot.
Yesterday, after a morning of inertia and numbness, I suddenly felt alive. Like I needed to do something. I baked, I tidied, my daughter and I sorted out some clutter. I made a new meal and wrote a blog post. I didn’t feel anxious.
Of course it’s not as simple as that. No magic fixes. If the secret to mental wellness was to reset your brain by taking a few days feeling numb, well, Britain wouldn’t have the epidemic of mental ill health we seem to at present.
This morning I was numb and unable to motivate myself again.
This afternoon I had to go out, and I had to speak to people. I was slightly afraid that I was only feeling a bit better (numb does feel a bit better than anxious) because of my voluntary isolation. What if I fell apart again the moment I got near people?
I did OK.
The anxiety tried to make an appearance while I was shopping with my daughter (I refused to ask a sales assistant for help finding things) but I was able to overcome it (I did ask about a discount we’d heard we might be entitled to).
It tried to appear again when on the way to my son’s youth club (we were running very early) but again I overcame it (better early than late, right?)
Anxiety tried to appear a third time when I got to the gym (everything had been moved around) and for a third time I overcame it (I want and asked when I couldn’t find one of the machines I wanted to use.)
So for today I’m beating anxiety, 3 – 0.
Managing a few hours active a day is not the same as being recovered, but its a step in the right direction and I’m celebrating the achievement. Hopefully I can keep building on it.
Its been a strange week. I had a good weekend, exploring old favourites and finding new places at The Late Shows.
On Monday I broke down, complete loss of control, anxiety off the chart, unable to tell rational thought from catastrophising paranoia. I dont know why. I was sent home from work, with much care and compassion.
Monday night I stayed up late, watching the news from Manchester unfold. One of my daughter’s friends was at the concert. Luckily my daughter was able to get in touch with her and find out she was safe really quickly, before it had even been confirmed that it was an explosion. But it was clear others weren’t so lucky.
Tuesday morning saw the extremes of celebrating my son’s birthday and hearing the details of the ongoing tragedy in Manchester, deaths announced, desperate appeals for the missing, ongoing investigations. It also saw the worst migraine I’ve had for months, which pretty much wiped me out for all of Wednesday.
Thursday saw me admitting that I’m not ready to go back to work yet, and that forcing myself back before I’m ready hasn’t been doing me any good. This wasn’t easy for me to admit, I hate letting people down and I hate feeling useless. Although in the interests of honesty I probably should admit there’s also a little bit of a self-centered belief that no one can manage without me fuelling that desire to go back too. The truth is I am not indispensable at work, if I keeled over tomorrow I dont doubt I’d be missed greatly, but the work would carry on. I am indispensable at home, and I need to look after myself to continue being here for my family.
So now its Friday. I’ve barely been out of the house all week. Hardly any exercise, much birthday cake, much sleep and much pondering. My busy brain just hasn’t stopped, try as I might to slow it down. So instead I’ve diverted it, from anxiety inducing practical problems to general pondering on the state of the world and my place in it.
The thing I was most grateful for on Tuesday was that this image, from the wonderful Twisted Doodles who you really should check out, turned up in my Facebook feed just when I needed it:
What happened in Manchester breaks my heart, I am horrified by the damage one person with evil intentions can inflict. But I am hopeful because of the millions of positive reactions that came out of it. They are everywhere, from the local driver who drove my daughter’s friend all the way back to Newcastle, to the hospital workers who rushed back to work, to the people offering beds for the night or tea to the emergency services… Millions of them. I was so moved by this man, one of many who wanted to give blood and was going to walk around and smile at people.
I know that there are many places in the world where terror, bombs and needless deaths are an everyday occurance. There are people who know only too well that children are often targeted. I have a friend from Syria and I remember her speaking, some time ago, about an attack on an ice-cream shop during Eid. A horrific act, designed to target families with young children, which never even made it into the mainstream news here in the UK.
I think the contrast between our intense reporting and outpourings of emotion when it happens here, or in another western country, compared to whats ongoing in other countries, is down to a lack of imagination, not a lack of compassion. We can imagine how it feels for a sudden horrific event to turn our lives upside down. We can’t imagine how it feels to live that day in and day out, no certainty, just fear. We can’t imagine how it feels to be so desperate that you leave all you know behind and risk everything to get somewhere, anywhere safer.
I hate that this can feed into the extremists agenda, that it’s used to imply that we (white westerners) only care about other people like us. I think we do care, we just don’t understand.
I am heartened to see a lot of people standing up to the Islamophobia that always follows something like this. I know very little about Islam. I grew up in an area that was not diverse by any stretch of the imagination. It will sound very ignorant when I admit that for a long time I thought Muslim women who wore the burka were the equivalent of Catholic nuns, I remember being very confused the first time I saw a group of them with pushchairs! That was many years ago, and I am a bit less ignorant now, mainly because I know people who are Muslims now. Nothing helps dispell unintentional prejudice like talking with people, getting to know them.
We should not need reminding to see people as people first, unique human beings with a wealth of characteristics of their own, rather than lumping them together with labels. Even when it is a label they choose for themselves, it is not enough to know them by. But it seems sometimes we do need reminding of this.
My heart breaks for everyone caught up in the disaster in Manchester, and for those elsewhere who live through tragedy daily. My heart breaks for everyone whose life is torn apart by hate.
And I am hopeful. I am hopeful because I see many more acts of love than acts of hate. I am hopeful because communities are coming together and refusing to be divided. I am hopeful because people are speaking out against hate. And I am hopeful because I remember the previous Manchester bombing, of the Arndale Centre by the IRA in 1996. I remember feeling the fear that there could never be peace or safety. And I also remember Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sitting together, laughing, making peace. It is possible.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, with the theme Surviving or Thriving? I’d recommend visiting the Mental Health Foundation‘s website to find out more.
Ironically this week I have struggled to find words to talk about mental health, because I’m struggling with my mental health. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, but I’m zigzagging between not too bad and barely coping at a rate that’s leaving me exhausted. Usually my mental health, while not great, is relatively consistent. I’m OK for a few days/weeks/months, then bad for a few days/weeks/months, and so on. Just now I can go from OK to crying and unable to carry on several times a day. I’m hoping it’s down to the change in medication a couple of weeks ago, and that it will settle down. I’ve been speaking to my GP to plan what to do if it doesn’t.
I’m holding on to the fact that I am better than I was a few weeks ago, that there is progress. To illustrate I wanted to share two similar experiences I had a few weeks apart, vastly different in how my brain interpreted them.
Last week, my first week back at work, I had to drive to Gateshead for some training. I don’t often drive south of the Tyne except on motorways, and the Gateshead town centre is unfamiliar to me, but I had directions, my trusty sat-nav, advice from colleagues and, as it turned out, an optimistically naïve faith in towns always well signposting their public parking.
I’m not sure if the car park I was heading for was completely unsignposted from the main road, or if the sign was obscured by the roadworks and temporary traffic lights, but I didn’t see the turn off until I was passing it. I was then sucked into Gateshead’s one-way system where I tried to follow the occiaisional parking signs but ended up hopelessly lost and doing a u-turn to avoid a sudden (unsigned) bus only lane, much to the consternation of several bus drivers (I don’t think my mouthed apology and panicked wave appeased them). The inexplicable system continued to chew me up until I was finally spat out on a bit of bypass I recognised and was able to head to the quayside.
Its fair to say I was frazzled, definitely stressed, but I knew the walk from the Quayside into Gateshead was mostly a pleasant one and would give me time to calm down. I emerged from the car cursing the town planners, sign buyers and road builders of Gateshead and stomped up the hill perfectly fine to take part in the training (after a medicinal cuppa.)
Rewind a few weeks…
I am driving through an unfamiliar part of the city, following my trusty sat nav, to find my way home from an unfamiliar branch of my vets, the only one that could fit my accident prone greyhound in this morning. Spotting a gap in the traffic ahead I mirror, signal, manouver and overtake a cyclist.
Its only after I pull ahead of him that I realise there is unexpected traffic calming there, and my manouver has prevented him from pulling out past it. This I figure out while watching his angry hand gestures in my mirror as the traffic behind me slows to accommodate him.
I don’t know if there was no sign, or if it was hidden behind the van parked at the side of the road.
I am a terrible person, I have nearly caused an accident, I could have killed that man, I shouldn’t be in charge of a car.
He is justifiably angry. What if he reports me to the police? I’ll be arrested for driving dangerously. If I can’t drive I can’t work. What if I’m sent to jail? I’ll lose my house, my kids.
What if he’s a criminal and follows me or finds me out from my numberplate? What if he targets my family for revenge? I’ve put my children in danger. I’m a terrible mother, I shouldn’t be allowed to have children, they’d be better off without me because I can’t keep them safe.
Is the car behind following me? Have they witnessed it, do they want to report it or just lose their temper with me? What will I do if they yell at me? I can’t defend myself, I nearly killed that man, I deserve whatever I get.
This continues, not just through the day when I expect every knock on the door to be either the police, an angry motorist or cyclist out for revenge, but every night that week when I’m trying to get to sleep. What if he’d fallen off the bike? What if the car behind had hit him? I’d not just be responsible for the cyclist’s injuries or death, but also for the trauma of the driver who hit him. I am a terrible person. And so on…
That’s what anxiety does to me, the difference between an OK day and a bad one. The catastrophizing isn’t rational and it isn’t proportionate, although it feels it at the time. It doesn’t have to be a situation with a real fault or error on my part, my brain does just the same faced with something very minor, e.g. someone forgetting something I remember (“Should I remind them? They’ll think I’m bossy, they’ll think I’m interfering, they’ll think I don’t trust them, I must be a bad person to make them feel so bad”).
There’s a strange contradiction in my anxiety, one I can’t notice at the time and can’t explain. How can I feel simultaneously worthless, useless and unnecessary and also be so completelyselfishlyconvincedthat only I am responsible for everything? There was no thought in the second example of blaming the planners, sign writers or even the person who’d parked their van so inconsiderately. It could only be my fault. Nothing else and no one else gets in.
At my worst my mental health problems are visible, perhaps I’m jittery or I can’t make eye contact, but usually they’re hidden. Many people who know me have no idea about it. And that’s true of so many people.
The idea that everyone is fighting battle you can’t see is becoming a cliché, which doesn’t stop it being mostly true. Far more people have mental health problems than speak about it. I’m getting help. If you’re struggling please seek help too.