Welcome to my nightmare…

I didn’t sleep last night (shocker, right). Actually, I did kind of sleep. I was so dog tired by 11pm that I decided to try going to bed like a normal person. I read for a bit and much to my relief, I fell asleep. For about 45mins.

I was awoken by the first nightmare around midnight. By half three and the fourth nightmare I had given up on the idea of sleeping. Nightmares are the part of PTSD that I don’t really talk much about. Maybe because they are an intermittent problem. Probably also because it’s not something that people (in my experience) take seriously. Responses to my attempts to discuss my nightmares have ranged from vaguely dismissive to full on belittlement.

I think when I say nightmares people hear bad dreams. You’re probably thinking of anxiety dreams (teeth falling out, failing exams, getting fired etc) or standard scary dreams (trapped somewhere, being chased, really bad person creeping around your house horror movie type stuff). Maybe you’re even imaging those childhood bad dreams that are terrifying in ways that are incredibly specific to you. All of which are horrid, but not at all debilitating. I suppose I do understand why folk say things like ‘well, they’re not real’ or ‘as soon as you wake up it’ll be gone’; that’s their experience. Oh, how I wish it were universally true.

Creepy face

PTSD nightmares are a whole other thing. They are related to trauma. For me, they often mirror my flashbacks. Sometimes they’ll get creative and go abstract. I’m trying to get some rest and my mind will just be replaying amplified versions of the most distressing moments of my life. My head is a terrible editor; it just rapidly cuts from one horrendous image to the next. All of which are graphic. Blood and dead babies are the common denominators. They’ll begin in a very realistic & upsetting fashion and degenerate into gruesome bloodbaths (sometimes literally).

Blood splatter

As I mentioned the nightmares are a sporadic problem. They almost always have a trigger. That can be a really tiny thing that I possibly didn’t even pay that much attention to until it starts becoming a pivotal detail in my dreams. It can also be a major life event. My nightmares are usually accompanied by & linked to flashbacks in my waking hours. They always come in clusters. I never have just one upsetting dream. They plague me every time I close my eyes. All of which adds up to a significant disturbance.

The torment doesn’t melt away when I regain consciousness. There’s always more to come and it is real. Every scene is drawn from my reality. I end up scared to sleep and just as scared to be awake. I can’t be alone in this because nightmares are close to the top of every PTSD symptoms list. Any psych evaluation or questionnaire will ask about them. Yet, I don’t see much discussion of the topic. I include myself in that. It’s an aspect of my mental health that I feel really uncomfortable being honest about. I don’t know exactly why we’re all so tight lipped, but I’d bet stigma plays a part.

Sleeping ly

It’s always the messy parts of mental illness that we shy away from. Anything that feels uncontrolled or dark or too close to crazy is glossed over. Those who haven’t experienced it don’t want to think about. Those of us who have don’t want to deal with judgement. Where the nightmares are concerned I think there’s also an element of feeling stupid. Kids get frightened of bad dreams. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that you should be able to handle it. Especially when that’s the message the world is giving you.

I’ve yet to discover anything that’ll chase the dreams away. Sleeping pills aren’t helpful because they make the nightmares more vivid. Thankfully they occur less frequently than they used to. Keeping quiet certainly isn’t helping. Perhaps if people knew what I was referring to when I say nightmares they would be less patronising. A little empathy can go a long way, but you have to understand someone’s experience before you can offer that.

You can’t change the way she feels, but you could put your arms around her…

I dreamt about an old friend last night. A friend who is no longer living. It was a lovely dream that I was sad to wake from. As I tried to commit the dream to memory I realised that whilst I thought of her often, I hadn’t spoken out loud about my dear friend in a long time. Too long a time, which is something I need to rectify. I need to talk about her. Tell her story. Share how she changed me. And that is exactly what I am going to do.

Let’s start by saying I met J because we were both ill. I was in my early twenties & struggling to deal with undiagnosed PTSD. I was trying to hold together a life that was increasingly unsatisfying with a self harm habit that was spiralling out control. J was dealing with similarly unhappy circumstances and a self harm problem that becoming, frankly terrifying. We both found some comfort in a community of sick people who didn’t know where else to turn. We were people who couldn’t ask for help or had asked without receiving the sort of assistance the we needed. No one talked about self harm then. Except maybe in the odd film where it was usually portrayed as something a trouble teen might do or a suicide attempt. Even the mental health professionals treated us like shit (sadly, some still so). If our attempts to hide the problem had failed, our families & friends were frightened ( & in some cases cruel). We were dealing with real problems; rape, abusive relationships, miscarriage, escaping from cults, drug dealing parents & a multitude of other big, scary problems. We were of course also living with mental illness. Some of us had a laundry list of labels and others had not a single clue what the fuck was wrong. But there was absolutely something going very wrong for all of us. This is where I met J. Amongst this this group of desperate people I also found a salvation of sorts. These broken people offered each other a kind of support that we couldn’t find anywhere else. We dragged each other through the kind of darkness that most will never understand. And J was kind of our leader.
J was living with pain beyond what would be considered durable. Her mental anguish was compounded by the physical horror she was compelled to inflict upon herself. J was not ok. Every solitary moment of life was a battle hard fought. And, yet, she always had time for us. She had love and support and encouragement for her damaged flock. J lived in a different time zone, but she still called day & night to remind me to keep breathing. She wrote letters and sent care parcels. She compiled lists of all the things that just might offer one us a couple minutes respite from our own fucked up heads. She replied to every ‘ I can’t do this anymore’ with such kind & convincing entreaties to keep trying, that we did. Her words worked because we knew, that she knew. We were all able to help each other because we shared a world that most people didn’t know existed. For me, j was the ultimate inspiration. If she could do this with such grace, I owed it to her and all the others who loved me to at least not give up.

Kelvingrove park

It’s such a cliché, but this goodness expanded beyond our group. She was studying to be a nurse because she wanted to help people. Everyone in her life adored her. J was that person who offered succour, but she wasn’t a martyr or a goody goody. She was fun. Her sense of humour could be wicked. Most of all she was strong. J fought to live. She engaged with mental health services that let her down over and over and over. She was still working and studying at the peak of her illness. She endured the brutality of her self harm and the callousness of those supposed to treat them. She did it all with dignity. Life beat J black and blue. This world committed an almost constant vicious assault on her. She fought back hard. She battled with and blood and heart and care and tears and wonder. She did not win.
J succeeded in taking her own life in a sad and awful way that left no doubt that she meant it. I wish with everything in my being that I could have changed how her story ended. Both the circumstances & the prematurity of her passing, but I don’t blame her. I understand that life was no longer a viable prospect for J. I hate that, but I do not begrudge her some peace. I am still angry at the professionals who failed her and the people who’s actions caused her so much pain. I will never be angry at J. She gave life her very best shot. Her suicide was neither selfish nor weak. It was just the only option she had left. It kills me that someone so beautiful was left with a choice so ugly. I understand it, though. Whilst I know it may be an unpopular opinion I can accept it. I can respect that it was her decision to make.


So, why I am writing this? What am I left with? Actually what remains is so much more positive than I could have ever imagined. Losing J was soul destroying, but life does go on. I go on and so do those other sad people that she cared for. I don’t want to disrespect those wonderful people by not acknowledging that they too saved me. We all helped save each other. In hundreds of big and small ways. After J’s death we continued to care for each other. We laughed and cried and screamed and swore together. We stayed up nights and called ambulances. We sent Xmas cards and made hospital visits.
From that group I maintain friendships with some incredible people. Some of us are entirely recovered, some still walk the tight rope; we are all still alive. We have partners, careers, babies, hobbies & passions. We all do our bit for mental health awareness. Whether that’s through writing, organising, working in the field, donating to MH charities or just supporting loved ones with their difficulties. I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to prevent others falling through the cracks. I will fight for everyone to have more choices than J. I know I am not alone. That is her legacy. She lives on through the people she touched. We endured. We succeeded. We survived.
WE LIVE

1 in 4 adult in UK will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. It is incredibly likely that you or someone you love will have to fight this battle. You can help improve the lives of suffering in a number of ways. Please do what you can to make sure more people survive.

Add mental health education to the national curriculum

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You an also make a massive difference by writing to your elected representatives an telling them mental health is major issue for you. Let them know that how they vote on mental health related issues matters to you. You can find your representatives here.
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Try to comprehend that which you’ll never comprehend…

In the midst of a wonderful weekend at the Edinburgh Fringe I had two really inspiring experiences. Both of which fuelled in me a desire to share some writing that hasn’t seen the light in quite some time. On Sunday I saw Neil Holborn perform his stunning poetry. He is very open about his struggles with mental illness & includes his own experiences in much of his work. The power of his honesty & the emotional response he received to some of his pieces really struck me. He reminded me of the power of sharing the dark reality of mental illness. Later that day I was introduced to a friend of my boyfriend who also talked openly about his past mental health struggles. This led to a discussion of how helpful it is to talk about these issues; how more often than not other people will then share their own experiences of mental illness. We talked a little about how that realisation that mental illness is actually really common relieved so much shame. It reminded me how important it is to talk frankly about my experiences, so that those in the depths of illness can see that they are not alone. Equally important is to reach those who have never been touched by mental health problems. Letting people see that this can happen to anyone, that the pain is intense, debilitating & uncontrollable lifts stigma. I really believe that the way to fight ignorance is information. Not just statistics, but brutal insights into conditions often misunderstood. It is so much harder to dismiss mental illness when you have been confronted with it’s reality. 

With this in mind I decided to review work I produced in my darker days. For those unaware I have battled with PTSD, depression & self harm for most of my adult life. Although my mental health is much improved from the time of this piece, it remains a daily struggle. One is never cured. The best I can do is learn to live with what I cannot change & fight for what makes my life beautiful. I am profoundly grateful to no longer be actively self harming. I am also aware that urges still exist. It takes work to maintain my current life. I make a daily decision to keep fighting & I am far from alone. 

I know these words may be disturbing to some, but I ask you to read them anyway. I share this because I passionately believe that a deeper understanding defeats stigma & grows compassion. 

i had another little crisis

despite a transfusion in late december,

my haemoglobin had again dropped to 6.6

causing doctor’s to get jumpy

&

prompting talk of another transfusion.

this fuelled  a panic in me

i do not like having blood transfusions

i feel incredible guilt.

other people are more deserving of this blood

someone selflessly gave of themselves.

i will waste it

i know it will feel horrendous inside me

i do not want it.

i don’t really have the option of

saying

no

they will call in a psych consult

which could lead down a road

i can’t

even

think about

my first stupid reaction

is

i must cut

whilst the dr’s decide

i will blood let

i know it doesn’t make sense

to most

but

there is method in the madness

my hb is already low

i may as well be hung for sheep as a lamb

i will hate myself less for shedding my own blood

if i lose enough blood

do enough damage

i may feel sated for a while

with this in mind i set to work

after two disappointing nights

of

slicing

&

producing inadequate wounds

i got angry.

on the third day,

the gp called to say they had decided to go with an iron infusion the following week.

i considered myself free

to

paint the town RED

i felt it couldn’t be that bad

if i didn’t need a transfusion

i had still better fit in as much damage

before treatment

&

truthfully

after two pitiful nights

i needed it

so,

feeling enraged with myself

i set to work

i chose a spot on my slightly less scarred right forearm

i cut vertically

downwards

towards my wrist

everytime i reached a depth i could live with

i elongated the cut

&

started to work down into it again

i got into the most dangerous mindset

where

i just can’t resist

a little

bit

more

i ploughed through the layers of my flesh

fascinated

with what lay beneath

i watched three distinct fountains of blood

flow into one

sticky

hot

pool

i pulled the wound apart to make the blood spurt higher

i sawed through

some

tough,unknown inner material

and

thrilled

as the spray soared out

and hit my face

when i was finished

i watched

for

i don’t know how long

long enough to become dazed

i had created a gaping trench

the entire length of my foream

that continuosly filled with blood

and

spilled over, flooding the floor.

i could not stop the blood

nor, could i think straight

i wrapped a towel around my arm

put a huge jumper on top

and

took the bus.

yes,

the bus

to a&e

i trailed blood into reception

& collapsed in the triage room

i was so ashamed

dreaded trying to explain myself

lay in a cubicle

crying

i had done this many times before

but somehow

i couldn’t control my fear or self loathing.

i received 21 stitches

a transfusion

and

was hospitlised again for three days the following week with chest pains & breathing difficulty 

requiring

another

two units

&

suffering from severe pain

i spent those 3 days in & out of a morphine

induced altered reality

Junior dr’s were too scared to take blood from my arms

apparently experience is required

to find a vein in this network of scar tissue

the consultant was overly kind

fellow patients

stared & whispered

i lay there in

shame

pain

fear

all of which added up to

another attempt

to stop.

11 days

and counting……

20/03/2012

Blood on a mirror