Help me if you can, I’m feeling down…

Are you losing the plot yet? I fear I’m getting there. Lockdown is getting harder. If like me you already have less than perfect mental health, you may be closer to the edge than most.

I’m with you. I’m finding all this time alone is churning up lots of issues I would prefer remain undisturbed. The isolation is leaving far too much room for pondering big issues. Existential questions that I couldn’t answer before the world went mad & are even more confounding now. I swing between Groundhog Day dread and being on jangly high alert. Trying to break the monotony of another day home alone by sorting your underwear drawer is a tiny bit depressing. My already racing heart attempting to burst right out my chest every time my noisy neighbours thump really isn’t fun either.

Am I doing anything that matters? Am I running out of time & is this pandemic melting huge chunks of what is left? Can I continue to makes ends meet? Am I doing enough for those who can’t? Can I get a Tesco delivery slot or my prescription? Will I ever get rid of long covid? Will all my loved ones get through this unscathed and will we ever be permitted to be in the same room again? This shit is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are all the intrusive thoughts and fears of catastrophe.

Image of iceberg above & below waterline. The sea is vivid blue.

I say this with the knowledge that I am in a privileged position. I have security & a support system that many do not. Too many people are living in situations that are perilous in every possible way. Accessing even the most basic of assistance is getting harder. Half a carrot, a handful of tuna & frubes will not feed hungry children (if you don’t understand this ref, read this & try to control your rage). When you can’t rely on the system to ensure kids don’t starve you can bet that mental health services are in distress. A fact that has been keeping me awake at night as I worry about my own mental wellbeing.

With that in mind I wanted to share some resources. If you don’t feel you can wait to reach the top of an nhs waiting list one of these may be helpful.

Theses organisations offer reduced cost therapy.

Arbours Association

Frontline Therapist

Problem Shared

The Guild of Psychotherapists

Dedicated to Change Project

The Spark

Sandyford Glasgow

Most universities & colleges offer counselling services. If you are student it’s worth checking out what help your institution can give. Many also offer low cost therapy with students training in psychology disciplines.

You can find online support here:

Samaritans

Mind

Calm

Age UK

Women’s Aid

Beat

The Mix

Childline

There are also local services across the UK, a bit of google research may lead you to affordable (or free) help in your area. I know that none of these options are perfect, I wish I had the answer. In the absence of a complete solution I hope these options might be helpful.

As always when discussing mental health it is important to state that I am not a professional. Please seek advice from your GP in the first instance and contact emergency services if required.

When will they stop…

I used a hand sanitiser in a train station the other day. It was one of those super strong types that you find in hospitals. As soon as it hit my skin I was whisked back in time. For a second or two I was somewhere else. Somewhere I didn’t want to be.

The cold sensation drifted through my body. A zoetrope of mixed up images spun in my head. Blurry flashes conjured by the clinical scent. I felt dizzy. I sat down, took some deep breaths. It passed. I was grateful.

Blurry spinning image of trees & sky

It wasn’t entirely gone. That night the whirl of disjointed scenes dipped in & out of my dreams. Random words have jarred memories. My mind has wandered mid thought or conversation. I have felt the panic rising. Spells of forcing my head to connect with my physical reality have emerged. Struggling to focus on what I can actually see, hear, smell in this moment. Ignoring the feelings climbing my throat.

Tonight in the shower I couldn’t shake the feeling that the hot water streaming down my legs was blood. I couldn’t wipe the hospital aroma from my nostrils. Nor soothe the ache that spread from my back to my thighs. The hand sanitiser has triggered a reaction. My body is recalling the trauma stored deep within. It’s a phenomenon associated with PTSD known as body memories.

I haven’t experienced this symptom in quite some time. It lies dormant; rising unpredictably. Sometimes reacting to obvious & painful stimuli. Or, like this week, triggered by a tiny insignificant detail. My olfactory senses seem particularly attuned to old wounds.

New born baby feet with words birth trauma Association

This time it’s the initial loss. I feel my body failing. I know it isn’t happening. I have learned how to pull myself back to the here & now. Still, those moments when I’m dragged to the past feel completely real. I am not just thinking about unpleasant events. I am feeling them. My flesh & nerves & senses are reacting to something that happened 20 years ago.

Body memories are excruciating. It becomes a battle between what you know & what you feel. Fighting strong emotions is a challenge. When you add physical sensations grounding yourself is an onerous task. I have experienced these episodes replicating the sensations I felt during miscarriages & pregnancy. At times these physical memories are accompanied by flashbacks & other PTSD symptoms. Other times they occur in isolation. They mirror my actual experience so completely that I’ve found myself taking multiple pregnancy tests when I knew it was almost impossible for me to have conceived.

Sands logo

It’s another aspect of PTSD that I rarely see discussed in the mainstream. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not only (or even mainly) associated with combat trauma. Yet, it’s the link most people draw. The violent outbursts in media portrayals of the illness are not accurate. New studies are highlighting how prevalent PTSD is in women who have experienced baby loss & birth trauma. For most of us, managing PTSD is an internal process. Distress may leak out, but the grind is with yourself. Accessing the right help, surviving that help (trauma therapy can be brutal), learning to manage symptoms, accepting the parts you can never fix & the impact they will have on your life.

It’s painful & exhausting & many of us never completely recover. To stand any chance of healing specialised therapy is essential. There are so many barriers to reaching that help. It can take years to obtain any psychological intervention without the resources to pay privately. Even longer to receive the specialised therapy that can actually help. So many people can’t afford to wait.

This month I’m supporting The Birth Trauma Association and Sands. Both organisations support families who have experienced trauma surrounding baby loss & birth. Please join me if you can.

Look back in anger…

I’m angry. So angry that it’s hard to contain. The problem is there’s no specific target for my rage. It’s a generalised, tear everything down kind of fury. There’s no release. I can’t spew my anger over unsuspecting bystanders. Keeping it in doesn’t feel like a viable solution either. Where does one put all the free floating resentment that no one is actually to blame for?

Life isn’t fair. I came to terms with that fact a long time ago. I’ve accepted a lot of bullshit. Fought crazy & illness & disability & mistreatment & loss to build some sort of something. I’ve struggled, but I’ve rolled with the punches as best I could. There’s only ever been one thing that I’ve felt I couldn’t do without. One single imperative. When you’re willing to get by without so many things, it feels so desperately unfair to be denied the thing that would make it all ok.

I watch everyone around me do the thing I cannot. Some with such ease it leaves me breathless. For others it’s a harder journey, but they reach their destination. I love those people and I love their babies, but it’s so hard to be the only one stranded.

I’m angry that I have to do this again. I’ve been tricked into hoping. Now I have to deal with the fall out. I am mad at myself for being stupid enough to believe. I resent having to submit to medical interventions. I didn’t ever want to hear someone say they can’t find a heartbeat again or look at another bloody speculum. I’m furious that I’m still bleeding and that I have to cope with all that triggers. It’s agony to be constantly reminded that my body has failed again. It’s exhausting to face the nightmares and flashbacks of all other blood. I don’t want to relive each of the worst moments of my life whilst trying to get through this one. I’m sick of blood tests and transfusions and putting on a brave face. I hate that I don’t get to opt out. I’m not strong, I just don’t have option of walking away because it’s too hard.

I don’t understand why it has to be me. Why my babies keep dying when I want them so much. Why does the universe give life to those who can’t or won’t love their children? Every time I read a horror story of abuse it feels like a personal attack. I think of all those terrified pregnant teens, the adult women who can’t feed another mouth or just never wanted to parent and I wonder why it couldn’t be me instead. I’m not angry at the individuals; everyone should have the right to choose. I’m furious at whoever or whatever makes decisions. What could I possibly have done that disqualifies me?

I see people smoking as they hold their child and I have to restrain my scream. Each impatient, inappropriate or lazy exchange between a parent & child kills me. Even the standard complaints about bring tired and tantrums make me feel like punching someone. I know I’m not being fair, but it’s like bitching about your diet to the starving. Don’t they know what a miracle they’ve created? How can they forget how much that little person needs them to do the right thing. I know it isn’t easy. Kids are exhausting and all consuming, but they’re worth it. The joy outweighs the sacrifice.

I’ve had enough therapy to know that burying your feelings is never helpful. I know I can’t dig a deep enough hole for this much emotion, but I have no idea where else to put it. I can’t lose it with every person who is rude or mildly inconveniences me. I have no desire or intention of venting on the people I love. I used to work this shit out with a scalpel. That’s no longer an option. What do I do?

A central part of your mind’s landscape…

Are you respectful? Do you try not to hurt other people’s feelings? How often do you reassure friends that they have done a great job, tell them not to be so hard on themselves? Almost everyone manages these things & more. Most of us know how treat others kindly. We’re all delighted to be our loved one’s cheer leaders. So why do we find it so hard to be in our own corners?

For a long time I thought my negative self talk was a rare thing. I was battling severe mental illness & I assumed the cruel way I addressed myself was justified. I didn’t really speak about that abusive voice in my head outside of therapy. I did CBT, compassionate mind training, EMDR and a variety of other therapy techniques. Regardless, I still talk to myself in a manner that I would not dream of confronting others. Yes, this is part of my mental health problems, but I’m realising it’s also really common.

I am not alone in berating myself. In fact, I think to some degree or another, we all do it. My problem is keeping it under control. I can spiral from ‘that was daft’ to ‘I’m utterly useless’ in a flash. I am aware that haranguing myself in this way is damaging. I know it plays into other aspects of my poor mental health; it lowers my self esteem, leads to second guessing & most dangerously makes me feel like I should punish my incompetence.

Lately, I have noticed a lot of public discussion on this topic. It has become clear that women in particular fall prey to negative self talk. We undermine ourselves. We judge ourselves not good enough. I’m wondering why.

Is it a side effect of our culture? There’s a constant onslaught of just keep grinding messages. Everyone has a side gig. Many women are trying to juggle careers & motherhood. We’re all trying to fulfil multiple roles. All the while being bombarded by media images of perfection. Is this why we fall short in our own estimations?

I’m not superwoman. None of us are. I have learned to cope with lots of aspects of mental & physical illness. This one I cannot seem to conquer. My first thought in the face of almost every problem is ‘this is my fault’. Although not in such polite terms. I can take a part the situation logically and prove that I am not always to blame. Intellectually I can believe that I’m not the cause of every misfortune, but I can’t feel it.

As I’ve said I have received significant psychological intervention. I know all theory behind the skills that are supposed to combat these thoughts. Somehow, I remain immune to the entirety of it. So, I ask you, what do you when that horrid internal voice pipes up? I’m really asking & I am absolutely open to suggestions.

Wake me up inside…

Today I saw another one of those social media that purports to offer alternatives to self harm. This time the post also claimed that sharing this information would save lives.

I’m just going to be completely honest, this bull isn’t saving any lives. These are not credible alternatives to self harm. They will not stop an ill person from hurting themselves. They don’t solve the problem of why a person might feel the need to hurt themselves; they don’t even address it. In fact, in some cases they reaffirm the idea that hurting yourself is a good coping mechanism (just so long as you do it in a socially acceptable manner).

I’ve talked & written about why these suggestions are insulting until i’m blue in the face. I see others giving excellent arguments against such advice & yet this sort of thing is still the only information disseminated in the mainstream. So, I thought I’d try to talk about what actually can help one refrain from hurting oneself.

My suggestions are more complicated & time consuming & bloody hard. They don’t lend themselves to becoming a jaunty list to share in Twitter. The grim reality is that self harm is a grind and so is quitting.

Blood stained foot

For me the first step in getting anywhere close to stopping was understanding why I started in the first place. I truly believe understanding why a person self harms is crucial to recovery. Self harm isn’t the illness, it’s a symptom of it. From the outside identifying what is distressing you might seem simple, but trust me, it isn’t. There can be layers of trauma & hurt. A person may have a lifetime of issues woven into a complex fabric of pathologies. Picking that apart is intensely painful. Having pulled on that dangerous thread, you’re going to have to find ways address those underlying problems. They don’t simply disappear under a bright light. It takes time, professional guidance & huge bravery.

And that’s just the beginning. Next you have discern what you get from self harm; how is it helping you cope. What function is inflicting pain serving. Again, this is no simple puzzle to solve. My self harm had many roles. I was punishing myself, I hated the body that had failed me, I was avoiding emotions I couldn’t cope with, the blood was cathartic, I became addicted & a multitude of other reasons. Predictably totting up all the pay offs doesn’t negate them. There is more work to be done. One must weigh how healthy each function is and decide if it enhances ones life. For instance, probably not a great idea to be continually forcing myself to do penance, however it is a good idea to not be completely overwhelmed by sadness. You must find away to live without the unhealthy whilst also establishing new mechanisms to maintain essential uses. Of course all the time you are working away at your inner self you are dealing with addiction. Self harm is habit forming. So, your journey of self discovery/healing/madness has a background of overwhelming urges & powerful compulsions. To begin with you have to fight the full force of addiction every single moment of every single day. Plus, of course, everyone has their own additional problems to throw into the mix. Maybe you have co morbidities or financial problems or a family you’re trying not mess up with your illness. Life doesn’t stop when crazy calls.

None of this easy. It does not and cannot happen over night. It involves breaking down long held beliefs & opening yourself up to being scared and vulnerable. This post is just a simplified version of a process that takes years. It involves psychiatric professionals, medical intervention, medication, therapy, a support network, a&e visits & most of all trying to be honest. I understand why it’s easier to pretend you can draw on your skin or scream at a wall until you’re better. It is terrifying to a/ begin trying access the kind of intensive help needed & b/ expose yourself to pain you’ve been desperately trying to suppress. Believe me, selling yourself & others a lie is not the answer.

The truth is there are no tips & tricks for beating self harm. There is no magic fix or complete cure. I look at it like any other addiction. I will probably always want to cut, I have to do whatever I can not to. No amount of extremely cold water will ever change that harsh fact. When it comes right down to it, for me, the driving force in abstaining is knowing that I want other things more than I want to pick up that scalpel. Oh & sheer will power. I couldn’t have come to that realisation without more than a decade of therapy. I absolutely could never have exercised this level of control over the voice in my own head without putting in all that work.

I’m not going to say everyone’s story is the same as mine. I can’t guarantee that you can ever get completely better. I’m not. I can only offer you the hard truth of my experience & my certainty that there aren’t any shortcuts. Don’t share false hope. Let’s be honest with people who really need it. Trying to quit self harm is a nightmare, but there is hope that you’ll wake up.

Something to talk about…

A couple of weeks ago I got in a taxi (not an unusual occurrence) & engaged in the usual polite conversation with the driver. The weather, had I had a nice day & so on. Then he went quiet for a minute & said ‘can I ask your advice on something?’

This is the kind of question that usually rings alarms bells, but for some reason I decided to give this guy a chance. He had talked about his children in our short conversation & came across as a decent person. I’m glad I trusted my gut. He wanted advice on how to help his son, who had been self harming.

The taxi driver never alluded to my scars, but I presume that’s why he thought I might have advice to offer. He explained a bit about his son. How he had changed schools after a move, found it hard to make new friends, become more insular. Then how his wife had discovered their son had been injuring himself & how they were both lost. They’re son didn’t want to speak to anyone about it, they didn’t know if they should force the issue. He was increasingly unhappy, so far their attempts to help had been unsuccessful. It broke my heart. This man clearly loved his child. It was just as clear that he was utterly out of his depth.

So, I told him I had experience with self harm. Explained that it could serve a few functions. That is was habit forming & yes, it was a sign that his son was really struggling. I stressed that I wasn’t a professional mental health worker & that everyone was different, but in my experience it was best to get help as soon as possible. It was also important not to make his son feel forced into anything. Research some options & present them to his son, try to let him make choices. I suggested he make it clear that he & his wife were always available to talk about anything & offered some organisations he could contact for more advice. That was about as much as I felt able to say to a stranger during a taxi ride. I didn’t know any details of what was going on for his son, so I didn’t know what would be best for him. It felt insufficient, but when we arrived at my destination he refused to take payment. He said my words had lifted a load because now he felt like there was help for his son & he had an idea of how to find it. I got emotional, wished him the very best & thanked him for my free lift home. We parted & are unlikely to meet again.

So, why am I telling you this? I’m sharing because the more I think about it the surer I am that this kind of thing should happen more often. I think the reason it doesn’t is stigma. That taxi driver took a chance; he shared sensitive information & asked me to do the same. He dared to break a taboo & admit that he needed help. The result, hopefully is that his family will find that help. How many people struggle with mental health problems and never find the courage to ask for help? How many people just never know who they can turn to?

I’d love to live in a world where it didn’t even take courage to tell someone you’re hurting. It shouldn’t be so hard or so hidden.

If you are experiencing mental health difficulties it is imperative that you seek help right away. Mental Illness almost always get worse & harder to treat when left to fester. There is no shame in not being ok. You deserve any & all hell to feel as good as you can.

Your GP is always a good first step. Take someone you trust to advocate for you if you can.

MIND offer a variety of local services. You can find the in your area here.

SANE offer specialised mental health support. You can contact them on 0300 304 7000.

You can also call The Samaritans 24/7, 365 days a year on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

I got all my sisters with me…

Ok, the left is down, but it’s not out. With evil pricks sweeping into power the world over it’s important to take a stand. We can all make a difference; none of us have to look far to find a worthy project to support.My plan this Xmas is to give locally & hopefully encourage others to do the same. 

If anyone needed a reminder that the patriarchy still isn’t smashed recent events have certainly served that purpose. Women are still under threat from numerous directions. Unfortunately those closest to us can be the most dangerous. In the uk 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. There are still 2 women dying every week at the hands of a male partner or ex partner. With 90% of women reporting their children witnessing attacks it is clear how far reaching this problem is. The human impact of these figures is devastating. Being outraged is not enough, we can all do something to help. 

Glasgow Women’s Aid provide support & refuge accommodation to women, children & young people experiencing domestic abuse. Their services are far reaching, from emergency housing, to legal advice & counselling services. Even a small donation could help keep someone safe this Christmas. If money is tight you can still support Women’s Aid by following them on social media. They often post request for items needed to allow women & their children to start a new life. You may have things lying around unused to that can ease that process or a simple share  could bring it to the attention of someone who does. 

Twitter – @GWA1973

Facebook – @GlasgowWomensAid

There really isn’t any excuse not make this festive period feminist. Let’s get giving.