Trees in the snow
Personal

Well holy shit, somehow it’s February

I haven’t posted since my review of Force of Nature on the 15th of January, which was a cheat post anyway because I wrote it last June. Before that I did my End of Year Reflections, plus a few other posts thinking about the year that had just happened and the one that was coming up.

Well, suffice it to say 2017 wasn’t exactly excellent. For the past few years I’ve adopted a Russian tradition of writing a wish for the upcoming year on a piece of paper, burning it, then tipping the ash into a glass of champagne and drinking it as I welcome in the new year. This year I didn’t get a chance to do that, but if I had then my wish would have been for the year to be better than 2017.

Continue reading “Well holy shit, somehow it’s February”

Books, Poetry

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

~ Emily Dickinson

Continue reading “Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter”

Personal

My contribution to #WorldMentalHealthDay

Some time ago, I broke my foot in a boxing class. I’m not even sure how I managed to do it – I wasn’t actually boxing at the time, just doing the warm-up exercise, which involved sprinting from one side of the room to the other when the trainer yelled “GO!”.

I tripped over something (myself? the floor? air?) and landed crumpled-up on my foot. It broke. I spent some time at home, not walking on it and keeping it strapped up and elevated, until it eventually healed.

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Dreams, Personal

Sweet Dreams Aren’t Made of This

Last night I dreamed that my daughter died.

I went back to the school I used to work at, and my manager from the advertising agency I worked at later was also there. I’d apparently been looking after the team for him while he’d been on holiday and he wanted to catch up about what had happened while he’d been away.

Before our meeting I decided to go for a walk and say hi to everyone. I walked through the door of our office and ended up in the school corridor. I made my way to the library (where I used to work) and found my colleagues there. Elizabeth was cataloguing books and Vivien had brought in a small plant pot filled with mud, which she was playing with absent-mindedly, making a bit of a mess.

We chatted for a while, caught up on what was going on, and Elizabeth told me there was a pile of mail in the main office. I went and picked it up; it was a load of university prospectuses. We used to have a lot of them in the Careers room, which was one of the small rooms off the library (along with the Media room, the Prayer room, the Computer room and the Archives room).

I brought them back to the library and put them in the Careers room, sorting out mail that was addressed to me and holding it back. I said goodbye to Elizabeth and Vivien, and went back down the corridor to the advertising agency. Opening the door, I suddenly realised that my manager and I were supposed to catch up over an hour ago. I rushed to his desk and apologised. He said it was fine, looked at the clock, realised he still had some spare time, and we went into a meeting room to talk. My manager ordered pizza; the girl who delivered it was French, studying history at university. She had long black hair and was very friendly, nattering on at me about how interesting her subject was.

We switched to speaking French and I told her I’d always been interested in history but had never managed to make a career from it. I wished her luck and switched back to speaking English, for my manager’s sake. She looked a bit offended, stood up and left quickly.

My manager and I chatted for a while, mainly about how his family was doing, and then he asked whether there was anything that he should know about what had happened when he’d been away. I said it’d been pretty quiet, and then he realised it was time for him to be in another meeting anyway. “Good to catch up, Scar” he said, standing up and moving toward the door.

I picked up my mail from where I’d left it on the desk and prepared to leave with him. I noticed two things at the top that didn’t look like normal mail: a folded-over piece of notepaper, and an envelope that looked like it’d been addressed by our overall boss. I picked it up and lifted the flap of the envelope. On the inside of the flap, pencilled in capital letters, were the words “[Daughter’s Name] died this morning” followed by a date. I closed the flap and leaned on the desk. My manager looked at me worriedly. “Shouldn’t have opened that one” I said, trying to laugh.

I fled the room as inconspicuously as I could and made my way down the corridor, looking for somewhere I could sit and read the letter undisturbed. I bumped into Vivien, who’d been told that she had to go and help the coal man bring coal to the fireplaces along Corridor A. “Surely that’s the whole reason we have a coal man, though, so that we don’t have to do that?” I asked, linking arms with her as we walked in the same direction. Internally I was marvelling at my ability to seem normal.

We came to a part of the building where a couple of steep stone staircases led down to a well. In the well were entrances to the building’s basement, one of which was a ladies’ toilet. I left Vivien on the higher level and climbed down the stairs.

Someone vacated one of the stalls as I walked in, so I went in after her and sat down on the toilet. The door was a bit flimsy, but I thought it’d do. I unfolded the other sheet of paper first. It was from a guy I hadn’t thought about in ages. He’d had a bit of a thing for me while we were at university; I’d never noticed it, but a couple of friends had pointed it out.

‘I heard the news’, it said. ‘If you need me, I’ll be on a train by the time you read this, but then staying at this address.’ An address in the north of the country was written below, along with a phone number.

I opened the other envelope again and reread the words on the flap. Suddenly the door to the stall burst open and a student who had been walking past looked in in confusion. I asked her to pull the more substantial sliding door across. She looked confused again. Sighing, I pulled up my pants and walked over to the door, noticing when I did that the sliding door wasn’t working. “No problem,” I told her, “Not your fault.”

I picked up my things and went into the next stall, pulling the door across and securing it properly. I sat back down on the toilet lid and pulled the piece of paper out of the envelope again. I began to read it. Suddenly a group of people burst through the wall of the cubicle I was in. There was a large hole I hadn’t noticed when I’d sat down. One of them – a girl I’d been at school with many years ago – grabbed the envelope and paper out of my hand before I could stop her. “This looks interesting,” she said with her characteristic inquisitiveness, “I wonder what it says?” I clutched at it wildly; thinking it was a game, she held it away from me. I grabbed her arm “No, stop, you don’t understand,” I said, and started crying desperately, holding onto her arm with both hands, “It’s bad news. It’s really, really bad news.” She looked apologetic and handed the envelope back. I held onto her and cried. Then I woke up.

Now I know I shouldn’t call Daughter to check she’s alive. It would be irrational. But dreams are strange things and I might have to do it anyway.

Personal

HelpStopMe Review

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I signed up to the HelpStopMe service a few weeks ago and have been doing their Depression course online.

I was skeptical because I’ve had bad experiences with therapy in the past, mainly because it’s focused too much on feelings. I’d sit down opposite my therapist, who’d ask how I was feeling, and I’d say “fine” and wouldn’t really be able to elaborate. We’d go over and over the same ground, they’d ask about my experiences, I’d tell them, they’d ask how these things made me feel, I’d say I didn’t know, we’d get nowhere.

So I wasn’t sure what an online course could give me where classical therapy has repeatedly failed, but I figured it was worth a try. And I was pleasantly surprised: it’s actually really good.

I think one of its main selling points, at least for people like me who don’t really go for the “touchy-feely” approach, is that it doesn’t focus too much on your emotions, but more on actions. If someone says “How have you been feeling this week?” I find it hard to give them an honest answer, but I can answer “How many times have you been outside this week?” because that’s pretty straightforward.

I’m currently part of the way through module 13 and have just done the Depression Self-Test for the third time. They ask you to take this test periodically throughout the process, so you can work out how you’re doing. When I first started, I scored 19. A few weeks later, I scored 27. At the time, I was quite disheartened by this outcome, but I’d just had some bad news and I do find that sometimes with things like therapy you have to be prepared for it to get a bit more difficult before it gets better. This time when I did it I scored 15; overall a definite improvement!

There have been improvements in my day to day life as well. I’ve been doing more, but not in the manic-doing-everything way that I’m used to, just in a getting-more-done way. Rather than trying to cram as many things as humanly possible into a 24-hour period, losing sleep and berating myself when I don’t manage to complete everything, I’ve been splitting my days into sections (one of the recommendations from the course) and managing my time more efficiently.

There was a really useful module at the beginning – it took quite a lot of work but it was well worth it, so if you’re stuck there at the moment I’d recommend ploughing through! It involved taking an hourly inventory of everything you do for a week. Yes, it’s hard work. I did it in an Excel spreadsheet because I didn’t want to be constantly logging in to the HSM site. The idea is that you write down what you did, hour by hour, and then your level of happiness, from 1 to 10. There were some things that were unsurprising – when I called the water board to query my bill, my happiness went down – but there were other things that I never would have guessed. Like for instance, every time I spent time on the internet when I wasn’t working, my happiness went down. I’d thought I enjoyed things like playing around on Pinterest and Tumblr – and I do – but sometimes I’d do it just to stop myself thinking about anything, and actually it wasn’t healthy. I’ve now cut down on my internet usage (I know! Shocking!) and it’s really helping me feel better about life in general.

I’ve had several realisations throughout the course, one of which was that I’ve spent most of my life looking after other people – I’ve pretty much always had someone depending on me for something – and the past two years are the first time I’ve ever just lived on my own and not had someone need me for something. I then realised that, if I treated myself in the same way I’d treat someone else who depended on me, I’d probably feel a whole lot better. And that’s just logical. I like logic.

Another useful realisation happened when I was scoring my weeks on the happiness chart. Every week when you log in it asks you to rate how happy you’ve been feeling in the past week (something I don’t find easy). There was also an exercise towards the beginning of the course where I had to write down a number of things I had to do over the coming few days, and then estimate how happy each one would make me feel. I discovered that I didn’t mind admitting when something would hit the lower end of the scale – I gave out a lot of 2s and 1s – but that I couldn’t bring myself to tick an 8, 9 or 10 – there was some kind of misplaced guilt involved with the idea of enjoying something, or admitting to actually being really happy. I haven’t quite worked through this yet, but I think just knowing it’s there is probably helpful.

The course (at least, the bit I’m on at the moment) mainly focuses on challenging your beliefs in a way that seems rational, which I like not only because it’s nice and logical, but also because it makes me feel less like some kind of completely irrational weirdo. Sometimes just the thought of seeing a therapist can make you feel like there must be something wrong with you; doing an online course, though, just means you’re into self-improvement, and the way it’s set up means you feel like the things your mind tells you aren’t particularly weird, they just need to be questioned and challenged from time to time.

I’d definitely recommend HelpStopMe, particularly their Depression course which I’m taking at the moment. You can sign up here and take a test to see whether you’re currently experiencing symptoms of depression.

It’s currently just £39.99 and you can sign up at HelpStopMe.com.

Disclaimer: HelpStopMe allowed me to try their service for free, however they have not paid for my opinion or influenced it in any way. All views are my own.

photo credit: Helga Weber via photopin cc

Personal

Will People Please Stop Dying Already?

A few months ago I lost one of my closest friends. She was the kind of person who always completely got it, whom I could (and frequently did) sit and talk with for hours and not get bored.

She killed herself in March. Her loss is felt by all of her friends; a fact she must have been aware of, on some level, but one her mind forced her to ignore. The thought of putting herself through any more time in this life was too much, so she ended it.

I can’t say it came as much of a shock. She’d always struggled with depression and frequently contemplated suicide. But that made it no less sad.

The last time I saw her we sat up all night talking with one of our other friends. She described to us the method in which she was going to kill herself and how her funeral and the subsequent weeks would unenfold. We knew by this point that there was no point in trying to dissuade her – we’d tried so many times already. The only thing we could do was keep alert and try to stop her if we caught her in time. We didn’t.

When I heard about her death, alongside all of the usual thoughts came one not usually associated with suicide. When someone has been struggling with cancer, or a similar long-term, horrific illness for a long time, there is a sense when they finally die that their loved ones feel at least as if they are finally at peace. Like their pain has ended. It is acceptable to say this about illnesses such as cancer, things that degenerate people in an obvious and visible way, but less so about suicide. And yet it is how I felt about my friend. She had suffered for so long, and knowing that she was no longer feeling that way lessened my own pain somewhat, because I knew she could finally be at peace.

The past few months have been hard. Her death sent me spiralling into an inertia the likeness of which I had not seen in myself in decades. I sat inside the house all day and gorged myself on foods my body can’t process. I grew fat and lethargic. I resented seeing my other friends, cut off all but the most necessary communications with the outside world.

Eventually I started acting more like a human being again. I got back on my feet – literally and metaphorically – and continued on with life, the way I know my friend would have wanted me to do. In the meantime, a couple of friends-of-friends also took their own lives. The news of these didn’t hit me so hard, because I barely knew them personally, but of course I felt for my friends, and three suicides in the course of a year, just in my own small friendship circle? That seemed excessive.

And then Robin Williams died the other day, something which made me feel quite sad, despite me not being someone who particularly follows the life of celebrities. But he seemed like a good guy.

I met up with another friend the day after the news of his death broke. My friend spent four hours talking about how he wanted to kill himself; about how he saw a kindred spirit in Robin Williams, someone who constantly tried to make others feel better by playing the clown, being “the fun one”. And my friend does take that role in our group, it’s true. He spoke about how, if Robin Williams with all his worldwide support, could not keep going through life due to its sheer impossibility sometimes, what sort of chance did he have? He updated me on some ongoing difficult situations in his life, and spoke about how there was only one surefire way out of them. I do not believe that this friend will kill himself, at least not soon. I think he flirts with the idea in the way people do when they’re having a bad time – but if I’ve learned anything from the past few months, it’s that life has a grip most fragile.

I got on the train home pretty exhausted by all this talk of dying. As I was alighting at my stop at half past midnight, my mobile rang. I picked up. It was another friend, slurring her words almost incomprehensibly, who told me she’d just chased a load of pills with several bottles of alcohol and was about to slit her wrists.

Long story short, I was on the phone with her until the ambulance finally turned up three and a half hours later, and then they let me stay on the line while they did all the procedures they had to do, because she was completely freaking out and needed someone there. I hung up at 4am and got up again at 6am to go to a meeting.

Luckily she pulled through and she seems ok(ish) now, she’s being looked after and she’s calling me to let me know what’s going on.

The world is a shitty place, but it’s worth living in. Or at least, I think so. I just wish I could transfer some of that hope to the people who need it most, especially – and this is me being purely selfish now, but allow me this lapse of logic please – my friends and acquaintances who seem to be leaving the world at an alarming rate.

My friends who have gone, I miss you. My friends who are still here, I’m glad you are and I hope you’ll stay. I’ll do everything I can to make sure you do.