Down and Up and Down Again

Two and a half weeks ago, I sat down and wrote this:

I don’t want sympathy and I don’t want pity. I don’t really want anything from you, except for you to know that this is really, really hard sometimes. I want you to know so you understand when I cancel plans, so you understand when I am full of rage about the empty cereal packet left lying on the fridge, and so you don’t feel alone if you are feeling this too.

My life is pretty great. Amazing, actually. I was born fortunate and have had every chance in life. Now, I have a family and they are the most important things in my world. Two people in equal first place. However, I am desperately sad sometimes. My insides feel pulled towards an unforgiving centre as if there is a stone at my core, just above my bellybutton that sucks every good feeling from me and turns happiness into frustration, unhappiness, and guilt.

My lovely boy is a wonder. He is a joy to be around so much of the time. He laughs and smiles. He is developing just fine. He doesn’t sleep that well, but is not a bad sleeper by many people’s experiences. He’s a baby, after all, and babies don’t often sleep that well. I am no more challenged than most mums, I am supported by a husband who adores his son, and I have a midwife, a doctor, and family and friends to prop me up. 

The thing is, I still can’t do it, but I can’t give up either. And it’s killing me.

Some days I just function, going through the motions to ensure my baby’s basic needs are met, that we have something for dinner, and the house doesn’t look like a disaster zone. On these days, it’s a plus if I find the inclination to shower. I can’t play with my child for more than a few minutes. I spend nap times staring at a screen, taking nothing in. Sometimes I sleep too, but it’s a tortured sleep, full of dreams that could be reality, filled with crying babies and household chores, so that I wake unrefreshed and cheated. 

Some days I cry and cry, sobbing being the only way to release the tension that mounts inside. My nails are chewed and my skin raw from where I’ve tried to scratch away the tension. 

I can’t do it, but I can’t give up either. 

My mind never stops. It counts the hours, planning the day: wake, eat, play, sleep, wake, eat, play sleep. Every minute is accounted for, yet the minutes drag and drag. When the basic needs are met, then there’s the extras: cook meals, sort out winter clothes, fill the baby bag so we can go out, clean the high chair, pack for trips, work out the best time to meet friends around wake, eat, play, sleep. These things shouldn’t weigh a lot, yet my brain feels unbalanced on my shoulders and ready to explode under the burden.

The post stops there. O. probably woke up and life went on. Wake. Eat. Play. Sleep.

I returned to this piece several times, but I found that I couldn’t finish it in the same tone. I tried to pick up that voice again, tried to capture how terrible I’d been feeling, but nothing came. You see, these lows, these deep, deep lows come out of nowhere and vanish as quickly. A lot of the time, sitting in the peace of my house, playing with my son, or pottering about doing the laundry,  I don’t recognise the person who wrote the above. I don’t feel capable of feeling that awful. In fact, I feel like a fraud, an attention seeker who shouted at her husband, punched the sofa in frustration at something silly, and sobbed about not being able to cope.

Then there is the accompanying guilt. There are at least three woman in my immediate family with several kids and full-time jobs who hold it together. I have a good income, stability, a great social welfare system, and an incredible support system as well as a relatively easy baby and no post-birth complications or traumas. Compared to so many people, what right do I have to feel bad? I have so many luck stars that I might lose count.

Thus, I am living in a vicious circle of emotions that squeeze me tighter and tighter: Unexplained sadness, frustration and anxiety, a return to feeling well, guilt and shame over previous feelings, unexplained sadness, frustration, and anxiety, and so on. Each stage lasts different periods of time. Sometimes I cycle through the set multiple times a day; other times I go days and days before there’s a change. There is little rhyme or reason, no predictability, and no hints as to when the changes will come.

And now, 19 days after I first started writing, this post is no closer to being finished. There are two reasons, I guess. Firstly, because it’s scary to share things like this. Will people think it’s oversharing or will they think I am crazy or stupid? ? Maybe, maybe not, but I am damn sure I am not alone in these feelings and know that every time I read someone else’s tale, it helps me feel less alone. Thus I am willing to share because it might be good for just one other person and that’s good enough for me.

Secondly and crucially though, it’s been so hard to conclude because there is no conclusion. I wasn’t feeling bad one day, and now I am fine. There’s not a pill to fix it instantly or an obvious answer. And, as the original piece said, I don’t want sympathy or anyone to do anything. I just want to get these feelings out of me. So yes, things are up and down and everywhere in between. I feel ashamed and guilty about that sometimes, and other times I am forgiving of myself and accept that it is part of who I am at this current stage in my life. I am up and down and up again. I am everywhere in between. I am a new mum having a hard time of it, and I am both sorry and not sorry.  There’s no conclusion, only now, and right now I am somewhere in between. Tomorrow I might be the woman from 19 days ago or I might the woman below, enjoying the sunshine with her beautiful boy. I guess I can’t keep looking for a conclusion; I just have to keep on going.

 

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Tap, Tap, Tap

Straighteners, charger, dryer.

Tap, tap, tap.

Oven, kettle, fridge.

Tap, tap, tap.

Phone, keys, purse.

Tap, tap, tap.

Every… thing… off.

Tap, tap, tap.

Again. Once more.

Tap, tap, tap.

Taps get a tap. Tap, tap.

Shower, bath, radiator.

Tap, tap, tap and tap.

One tap too many. Round again. 

Tap, tap, tap.

One, two, three.

Once more for luck.

… … …

This time out.

Front. Tap. Door. Tap. Locked. Tap.

Main. Tap Door. Tap. Locked. Tap

Outside. 

Ready to go.

Tap, tap, tap. 

Deep breath, tap.

Heart slow down.

Boom, boom, slow.

Boom, boom, beat.

Deep breath, walk.

Deep breath, ignore.

Ignore the pull.

The pull back.

The pull to tap, tap, tap.

Bye Bye Quick Fix, Hello Plan

What can I do, what I can I take, what can I change to make this better?

These are common questions when it comes to anxiety. You just want the feeling to go the hell away. You think: if I quickly check that my straighteners are off, I’ll get some peace, some rest bite from the incessant nagging that if I don’t, I’ll be single-handedly responsible  for something awful happening. It doesn’t matter that the third sneaky peak on the way out of the house leads only to the fourth and the fifth lap of the house. There in the moment the only thing you need is to feel better, lighter, free of doubt.

Anxiety banks on you looking for the quick fix. It thrives on your hope that you can heal a flesh wound with a bandaid. Checking for the fifth time doesn’t make the anxiety go away; it briefly calms it before the storm strikes.

Why, then, do we keep relying on quick fixes?  Well, it’s natural to want to make our lives easier. It’s perfectly acceptable, too. It’s why a well-timed cup of coffee gets you through a tough morning.  It’s why washing detergent comes with an easy-pour spout. The problem, however, is that emotions can’t be turned on and off like a tap. Anxiety has no simple answer. Constant worrying can not be cured overnight.

Yet, lately, I’ve been all about the quick fix and it’s not working.

I know, for example, that my hair straighteners are off because I am looking at the plug where I used them and it’s empty. However, all I can see in my head is an image of them turned on. It’d be easy to go and look in my bedroom. It’d get rid of the doubt… for about ten minutes. Because, the more I check, the more I need to check. The more I try to calm the intrusive thoughts, the more strongly they imprint on my mind. Yet I can’t seem to help it. The cycle has started and the vicious circle is tightening its grip.

It’s time for some action. It’s time for a plan.

One treatment for anxiety involves pushing yourself through the stress of needing to check and coping with the intensity of sensation that comes from not checking. You have to force yourself not to give in to the misplaced notion that you can just check once and be better. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into a million times, yet one that’s all too often impossible to avoid. So, I’ve come up with the following in the hope of breaking out of this current pattern.

I will:

  • Allow myself to check once before I leave the house. That means a quick glance in each room to check that things are off.
  • Take a deep breath before the front door and accept the fact that I am feeling nervous about going out.
  • Leave the house, lock the door, and take another deep breath, again, accepting and noticing that I feel bad, but not allowing myself to give in.
  • Tell myself that if the feeling is as strong in five minutes, I can come home and check.

 

It will probably work about a third of the time for the first few days. It will probably never work all the time. It’s a reality I’ve long accepted. However, it is action. Since my little guy came along, I am even more aware that anxiety is a poison in my life, and a learned behaviour that I desperately don’t want to pass on. I’m fighting it for two, now.

It’s easy to write this down. It’s a list that’s meaningless until the next time I go out. It even seems to trivialise something that’s incredibly complex.  However, I gotta try, haven’t I? Nothing will change without recognising what’s going wrong and thinking about how to fix it. This half an hour of thinking it through, of typing it out, of sharing it in the hope of calming it is step one. It’s my way of saying bye bye, quick check, hello plan.

It Takes Time: Talking and Listening Your Way To Good Mental Health

“Yes, but there isn’t anything wrong with your heart, you know.”

These words still haunt me. They still cause me to bristle and feel ashamed. Yet, I can’t even remember if it was a male or female doctor or a nurse that said those words to me. Nor can I picture his/her face or tell you anything else about him/her. I do, however, remember the shade of lemon and mint green paints used in the consultation room. I remember clearly staring at the floor, face burning and feeling mortified. And just a little bit angry.

I’d been trying to describe the symptoms of what I would come to know was a mild anxiety problem. I would later be diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) with some Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) tendencies. At that moment, however, I was in my early twenties, with two decades of experiencing behaviours and feelings that didn’t seem normal, and desperately trying to describe them to see if there was any way to feel a bit better.

Perhaps the words came out harsher than intended, perhaps I misinterpreted them, or perhaps she just didn’t believe me, but which ever way, those words stung and left me with a complex about mental health that exists within me, to some degree, even today.

It takes no time to crush someone’s confidence if you’re not careful.

Anyone who has ever felt nervous about anything can testify that while anxiety is a mental phenomenon, it often manifests itself physically: racing heart, sweating, tension, sickness and shaking are all symptoms that anxiety suffers experience. Anxiety is common place; it’s an instinctive reaction to danger. It’s just it becomes problematic when it is your common state of being. It is an issue when you constantly react to danger that isn’t there.

Anxiety had been my every day for years, on and off. From waking in the night and feeling an overwhelming responsibility to ensure my family were alive to checking taps, plugs and electrical items, intrusive thoughts led to extended periods of worry.  By my mid-twenties, it was getting out of control. There was always something lurking in the shadows. There was always a thought, starting off no bigger than a seed, that could come to life faster than Frankenstein’s monster. (Later I would learn that, like that monster, appearances are deceptive and engaging with the thought and understanding it would be the best remedy.) These thoughts chip, chip, chipped away at my confidence, my enjoyment for things, even some of my relationships.

It takes time, but recognising that something isn’t quite right is a big step.

So what changed? A little while later, on a routine appointment with another nurse, it came up again. I wanted to know if the medication I was taking could cause mood swings and sadness, because, well my moods were swingier than your average playground set and I felt mostly sad, most of the time. With some prodding, this nurse made me relax and got me to explain. And just like that, she was referring me to a counsellor. Nothing fancy, just someone who I could go to for a couple of sessions and talk it out. Someone who would give me some suggestions of how to take back the control I felt I’d never had.

It took time, but talking was the first step to feeling better.

And so it began. That couple of sessions became months of sessions. Each week was spent tackling a different thought or a different behaviour. There was no quick fix and no magic pill for never feeling anxious again. Everyone feels anxious sometimes. We’re supposed to. It’s human. However, understanding this, learning about how anxiety is useful and when it is useless made the biggest change to my life.

It took time, but listening to an expert explain anxiety was a huge step to understanding and, ultimately, feeling better.

It’s been five, maybe even six years since I last sat down with Jen and talked and listened. In that time, I’ve found a confidence to talk more openly about mental health. I realised that people I knew with back problems or long-term injuries could talk about their health, so why not talk about mental health? There’s nothing heroic in it. There’s nothing usual in it. We’re just not in the habit of it. So, in honour of Time To Change’Time to Talk Day, it seemed important to share just one small story and remind people of the need to talk and the need to listen. I’m so glad that first experience talking about mental health didn’t put me off forever. Had it, my life would be a lot worse for it.

It took time, but talking and listening about mental health helps me to keep feeling better.

Take your time to talk. Take your time and listen.

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For World Mental Health Day: How Language Changed The Way I Viewed My Mental Health

As a child, it’s hard to know if the emotions you are feeling are the same as everyone else’s. It’s hard to identify what’s normal from what’s not. From a young age, you have words like happy, sad, angry or excited in your vocabulary, but nothing to help capture feelings with any subtly. You certainly, for example, don’t have the word anxiety or its real meaning, and therefore are not well placed to identify or explain this hard, sinking feeling you walk around with.

Recently, I was reflecting on my anxiety and how my life has changed over the years, and I came to a startling conclusion: the most powerful weapon I ever gained for tackling these feelings and these behaviours, as I would come to call them, was language.

Words allowed me, in a way I would never have suspected, to define and explain what was happening to me and then gave me the vocabulary I needed to change the narrative. From anxiety and adrenaline to intrusive thoughts and catastrophising, terms helped me to understand the nature of ‘things’ that I never realised even had names.

When I was little, I’d lie awake sometimes, I can’t really remember how often, desperate to hear my parents breathing. I’d creep down to my sister’s room to check she was still alive. Back then, it was impossible to say what was making me do it; I had no control over this feeling, this need to make sure that everyone was okay. Later on, I was able to explain that this anxiety was driven by an overactive sense of responsibility –a belief that I had to ensure that everyone was okay, and a misconception that a slip on my part would result in unimaginable consequences that I would be unable to cope with.

These habits, or behaviours, changed as I grew up, but the root thinking – something a wonderful counsellor helped me understand – remained the same. Whether I was stuck (for that’s what it felt like) in the house checking electrical appliances and taps for ten minutes before going to work or revisiting the days events to try and figure out how to repair the damage from the “stupid” things I’d done or said, I was acting on this deep-rooted belief that I always had to be responsible or else something bad would happen and I’d get the blame. Furthermore, I remained convinced, whatever the situation, that the consequences would be unbearable, so unsolvable even, that I could envisage no possible means of coping.

There was no overnight cure, no magic button, but working through some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and completing assignments over the course of a year or so made a huge difference. It was, ultimately, however, having a language to talk about this element of myself that had been so mysterious for such a long time that helped. Furthermore, it’s these words, this knowledge that helps me through lows and dips now. When anxiety takes over I can call it out. When I’m imagining the worst, I can recognise it and challenge it. I can take back some control over things I felt were controlling me. It’s a relief I’d never dreamt possible.

Words can’t solve all problems, of course. We’re each unique. But, being able to name the beast, spot its weaknesses and understand them, certainly helped me to tame the beast.

Best foot forward, taking care care of yourself, recognising problems, and looking ahead.

Versus

We can begin with a metaphor, but I’ll let you decide which one: how about Jekyll and Hyde? Or the double-edged sword? Let’s try it’s a fine line;  or what about two sides of the same coin? Happy with those? Got an alternative? It doesn’t really matter. They all work in their own way and they all describe the aspect of my nature that is both the most and least useful. They help explain the best and worst part of my character: my saviour and my nemesis.

Worrying about stuff, any stuff, keeps me focussed. Being anxious makes me organised, helps keep me on top of things and able to keep going. It is my drive and my motivation.

Until it turns around and slaps me in the face.

Until it drives me to the top of my game then sends me hurtling back to the ground with a sickening thump.

Wanting to get it right, feeling the weight of responsibility, hankering to do things well, wanting to make good decisions and be an all round good person are amiable qualities.

Having to get it right, fearing the consequences of responsibility, needing to do things well, cowering at the idea of making a bad choice or being a bad person are attributes that are from amiable.

Thus:

The dutiful soul that makes me check things carefully  is the beast that leaves me doubting what’s done and what’s not.

The contentious mind that helps me create to-do lists is the nervous energy which leaves me with five to-do lists at the end of the week, rewritten and extended, too antsy to tick something off.

 

The ever-careful conscience that helps me make moral decisions is the paranoid inner-voice that whispers poisonous thoughts and doubts.

From careful to obsessive, alert to rabbit in the headlights, thoughtful to overthinking, the seesaw never stops. The best and the worst of me, yo-yoing back and forth.

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Grey rain… pretty patterns.

 

Bottle Neck at the Door

They are waiting on the other side of the door. They are outside, standing patiently in line, waiting for you to finally turn the handle. They are staying calm for now, but it’s bound to change. They all think they’re important, you see. They all think they’re the number one item that needs attention and so they are bound to start to jostle for position soon, bound to start elbowing here and there.

They are all the bits of life that need attending to: the bills, the plans, the E-mails, and the calls. They are the work that piles up: the day-to-day musts, the projects, the minor things that always slide until they become major. They are the bullet points on your to-do list, resenting the order in which they were added to the tenth post-it note this week. They are the deadlines, jumping up and down desperately to get your attention, filling you with a counter-productive dread that does more to demoralise than motivate.

And they are all there, right outside the door, desperate to get in.

They are all there, not prepared to wait until tomorrow, forcing their way into today.

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Turn the handle – Open the flood gates

See, you were warned – they are getting rowdier now, pushing and shoving, vying for attention. They all want in and they all fear not making the first cut. They know there is only room for so many on the other side of the door.

Still, it’s not like your sitting behind that closed barrier alone. There are already 101 things crammed into the small space that are the hours of today. Your eyes need match sticks to hold them open. You yawn more than you breath, yet you can not sleep. Not with the riot that is now going on, warning you the flood gates are about the burst at any moment.

And when they do?

What happens when we can’t manage it all anymore?

Well it’s only a small door. Realistically, only so much can get through without everything getting stuck. And when it gets stuck, necks twisted around the door frame, fingers waving desperately, trapped behind the door hinges, all we can do is pull free the important things.

We have to do what we can today,  weed out what really matters for tomorrow and leave the rest to fight it out amongst itself!