The saddling doubt of salmon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I find it difficult to be open about my anxiety and depression, to speak and express myself freely (outside of fiction), because like many others, I find it confusing and contradictory. Mental illness is a cocktail as unique as the vessel which carries it, so I don’t expect people to understand me when I misunderstand and contradict myself.

Fine not fine

The saying goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but I believe it’s the saddling of an unsolicited burden, like much of my fiction. The salmon of doubt, the smell of fish…

When a real-life friend recently posted a festive mental health message on Facebook, I was grateful but confused. Thankful that someone had posted something I wouldn’t, but unsure of how to respond. I’m not one to follow instructions, least of all when a copy-and-paste request is so generic in such a complex field. So I’ve copied and pasted it here:

Anxiety sucks. Being isolated and believing your friends don’t care sucks even more.

How many of you have had a night out planned, or arranged coffee or a beer with friends and suddenly the 4 walls you inhabit seem the only safe haven because it’s the only place you don’t have to pretend you are ok, so you cancel?

Or when you are invited out you tell them how terribly sorry you are but you’re already booked up that weekend, when you are actually just really busy holding it together in your safe box. And so the first problem starts, all by itself.

People stop asking you and the isolation that at first wasn’t true becomes your only truth.

Please don’t give up on your friends. Ring them, go round, even when they don’t want you to. Because they really do they just don’t know how to say it.

And in work every passing comment is a negative, you constantly do more to get over the feeling you’re not good enough. The exhaustion from not sleeping because you panic all night over what you cannot influence means you make mistakes, you live in a fog and it is a vicious circle.

I’m going to make a bet, without being pessimistic, that out of my Facebook friends that less than 5 will take the time to put this on their wall to help raise awareness of and for those who have mental health difficulties. You just have to copy it from my wall and paste it to yours.

Who will be my 5 … I wonder?

Yeah, damn straight. But I wasn’t one of any arbitrary number, because although I’m everything in that post, I’m also more. And who am I to post on my own timeline when it’s parts of me which are buried in there? Why ask people to check their other friends are okay while overlooking me? No point sending them on a guilt trip they wouldn’t otherwise have known, and I know what those are like when I live every day with many. Little point in burdening them. But I did reply:

Asking us to copy and paste about mental health seems very well-meaning, but the trouble is, not many of us with anxiety will actually copy and paste, for fear of being ignored, but at the same time not wanting to attract attention we can’t escape. I know I won’t, and neither will I post it as a stand-alone, for the same reasons. That’s anxiety, and depression, and paranoia: socially crippling. Thanks for sharing what I can’t explain though…

My friend then posted his thread, and my reply, on my timeline. Again it was of the best intentions, a plea to my friends whom I’m loath to trouble, especially when some still don’t understand addiction, and can find no sympathy for someone who – as far as they’re concerned – put themselves where they are. It was sharing problems which I didn’t fully understand in myself. That more public post by proxy would have been more like a plea for help, which I know no-one can provide, because there’s no cure. It’s not one I would make on behalf of myself.

Hello Hi How are you

This quieter way of sharing is where I’m more comfortable, just telling a few friends, who for some reason come here to see what I’ve written. I prefer the semi-secret society of blogging, keeping it on a need-to-know basis, while still wearing the heart tattooed on my left hand. Anything more public would fill me with an inner anxiety that everyone might run away, or become obsessed about how many may respond. Based on previous best intentions, those who do are rarely ‘always there for you’ when you need them.

Friends have offered to come over in the past, even take me out somewhere quiet. I was grateful, then backed out as the date approached, but not kicking unwanted attention away any more than I’m happy in my own company. Both are uncomfortable, and I don’t want to subject anyone else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Others let me down after promising to come over, and in a way it was a relief, because it’s one less person to try to explain to, what I don’t understand.

That shared post might have looked like I was asking for help, but afraid to do so directly, so I’d appointed a spokesperson to speak about what I couldn’t. And I didn’t want those who still judge to think I was asking for financial help, nor anyone for somewhere to go at Christmas, because if I couldn’t be with my family (kids or parents), I wanted to be alone, watch Jimmy Stewart and eat cheese. I deleted the post, just as Christmas was cancelled for me anyway. This too shall pass.

I’m making the same point here as I did by not sharing on Facebook: I want to talk about it; I can’t talk about it. I have a smaller, less judgemental audience here, who won’t patronise me, say they’ll come over sometime, or always be there. At least I know they’re more likely to listen with their eyes.

If I had a live audience, I could talk for hours about how depression, anxiety, paranoia and all the rest affect me, because it’s such a mix I’m always trying to make sense of by speaking to myself: Sorry you can’t get through, and neither can I. But I’ll get back to you, probably in fiction. There I can find my inner confidence and contradict myself about being too shy to talk about it, so I close down and resist the exposure everywhere else.

I can write, and maybe one day unpack what’s inside my head, this post, and that last sentence, about why I fear to be out while placing myself in full view. It’s partly because I have to edit the weight of the burden, leaving myself with all the untold narrative in my head. When memories are forgotten, they become stories. But some stories can’t be written, because they’re still practising to become memories.

So many molehills in my mind, and from the outside that’s all they are. But I walk like Hannibal on eggshells, around a tower of giraffes (because it’s a better collective noun than a herd of elephants) in a mountainous range with many volcanoes. One day, all of this will make sense.

Not doing it wrong cows

That’s me in the corner (B-side)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today is four weeks since I was in the spotlight, having my brain prodded to determine if I’m entitled to Personal Independence Payment (PIP, which I’ve been receiving for the last four years). The social machine is tiring and I’m in danger of losing my head.

Losing head LegoSilvia Borri

I’ve been restless since the beginning of this year. It seems longer, but it was two years ago yesterday when a tribunal judge awarded me PIP, until September 2018 (reassessments are every two years). Ever since I’ve known it’s 2018, I’ve been more on edge than usual (and even my usual on-edgeness is not normal). For the last two or three months especially, I’ve been stumped, laid low and crippled, afraid to start anything lest my money is stopped, and unable to concentrate even when I do.

I’ve plotted stories but not written them, started some and not finished, and written endings with no beginnings. Nothing fits together and it’s all spare parts. None can be cannibalised and given life. I can’t keep my mind straight, and I may yet have to go through the rinser at another tribunal.

I’m hoping there’s a human in the system who sees I’ve been through it twice already and won, so they don’t put me through it again. Waiting to find out if you’re ill enough to be paid to be unwell is a cruel and inhuman process, but it’s designed to wear a person down so that they give up, the social and ethnic cleansing of those who were already socially excluded and only partially visible.

Kept in the dark, I’m cutting myself up, sawing bits off, and trying to reassemble myself. They hope I’ll fall apart, but I’m just about holding myself together. It’s all in my head, and they know this. It makes mental illness worse, and that’s the plan. Our Tory government are the real cannibals.

That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight. Until they put me out of my misery, I can’t sleep.

Losing head Coffee

Anxiety and despair in 3 words

POETRY

A 45 RPM I wrote, which spins for about 14 seconds. It’s about stumbling back into life in Tonbridge after ten years in London, and all that’s meant over the last five years. I made it black and orange, as a kind of reflection of a one-way train ticket. Off the rails and onto the streets, but from where I live now, there’s a direct ThamesLink train line straight back to Catford…

Tonbridge Station Poem 6

If I’m eating my dessert with a teaspoon, please don’t give me a big spoon. I’m having a great time and I know what I’m doing.

The mended heart of Catford

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Where you’re from is not necessarily where you were born or spent your childhood, but where your heart is, and where you feel at home. Despite a comfortable upbringing in the country, I feel I’m more from London, specifically the borough of Lewisham, and Catford, SE6. That’s where my heart misses a beat…

catford-cat-702x336The Catford Cat (from LoveCatford)

At my recent benefits assessment, I was asked when my depression was originally diagnosed. That would be in 2011, after I was robbed at knifepoint in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a place otherwise full of pleasant memories. And in a way, even the attack wasn’t all bad. It was the start of everything going wrong and me losing all I had, but it redistributed people to where they better belonged.

A lot has happened in the last seven years and much has changed, most of all me. The last few weeks have been hectic, as I’ve been assessed by life and dealt with more changes, while making peace with where I am.

The benefits assessor asked me many probing questions, including what fuels my depression now. Mainly it’s guilt. I feel guilty about being a drunken, abusive, narcissistic sociopathic monster, and all the upset I caused so many people, during and after; most of all my long-suffering ex-wife and my children, but also my parents, forced to kick me out on the streets when I became unmanageable at the last chance saloon. That was the greatest act of bravery on their part, but the world didn’t want me the way I was. On the streets I’d either die like that or get better. As it was, I was a Tory. But as some of my more liberal friends have observed, I was very sick.

Mum stopped watching Pointless when I was on the streets, because we used to watch it together. When I stayed at my parents’ last week, after helping them around London for dad’s latest assessment, we watched Pointless together again. Dad’s doing well, so much so that I can write about it now that we’re seeing an improvement.

Long story short, he had suspected hydrocephalus, requiring a surgical drain of fluid which had built up around his cerebellum. He ended up with a severe infection which hospitalised him for three weeks, then had intravenous antibiotics administered by a district nurse at home for three months. He was very sick indeed.

When I met mum and dad for lunch before our trip to London, the first thing which struck me was how dad’s face matched his jumper. It was light brown in colour, where before there was nothing but grey. The last time I saw him, he was confined – physically and mentally – to his armchair. Even though he’s still largely confined to a wheelchair, he’s getting his mind back and he’s starting to walk short distances. He says he wakes up now and looks forward to the day, where before he was waking up and not knowing where he was, only to realise he wasn’t dead and that another day threatened.

After a day of trundling then watching TV together, my dad said it was great to have me around, because he knew that I was now. It was great to be there, spending time with my parents now that so much has changed for all of us (and brought all but my obstinate sister closer). Before I went to bed that night, I apologised about all that had gone before, when I was a Tory. “That’s all in the past,” mum said. If only they were.

The last time I saw the kids, I made a heartfelt apology to my ex-wife. “What for?” She knows of course, but she’s speaking from an over-it position, where I can’t get over it. I don’t swan around in life, happy with where I’ve got to. I spend every day feeling guilty about everything I did when I was drunk, looking at the little I have but glad to be here (alive), and glad that everyone else is in a better place. Except me.

Which ought to be enough for my remaining detractors (friends who are very much no longer, or still Tories), but they won’t rest until I’m gone. Even then I’m familiar with the technique of haunting. While I’m still here, I’ve changed into something those people don’t recognise.

Now I’m a left-wing liberal socialist, embracing diversity and all the colour and variety of life, music, art, culture, history, and personal identity you find in the kind of place where I’m at home. I’m an ageing punk, but from the days when Carnaby Street was all independent clothes, records and accessories shops. Now I’m a bit queer.

Home was once a country to be proud of, when the London Olympics showed the world what the UK could be. Now we’re a nation divided by fascist politicians, but the resistance is coming soon, on the streets where my heart beats.

I’m squared with the people who matter in my life, my family and the friends who stuck around and forgave me, even if I can’t. As for the rest, I don’t care if they love or hate me: If they love me, I have a place in their heart. If they hate me, I trouble their mind.

I’m from Catford after all.

peace-rainbow
‘I love my hands!’ (Academy of Ancient Reflexology)

 

Getting the hang of Wednesdays

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Days like these are the worst, when you wish for the emptiness of the vacuum which is a typical day with depression. These atypical days are filled with thoughts. My mind is always full, which is why I suffer insomnia, but these thoughts are the darkness escaping the vacuum. For Arthur Dent, it was Thursdays he couldn’t get the hang of, where most of my problems seem to haunt me on Wednesdays.

Arthur and MarvinHeroes of fantasy and sci-fi (Stark After Dark)

I’m looking at everything ahead and I can’t see any bright horizon, just the red glow of dusk. The optimist and the pessimist have no control over an outcome, but the optimist has the better time leading up to it. As low as I’m feeling today, the optimist is a far-away stranger in that crimson landscape.

As the Marmite filling of my family’s generational sandwich, my main thoughts are with either slice of bread. Thankfully my eldest seems to be over the worst of his recent derailment (when you’re 13, you’re just looking for somewhere to go off the tracks), which means my dad is an even greater focus.

His health isn’t improving. Long story short, he was getting a bit forgetful, culminating in him forgetting where he lived one night when he was out in his car (alone). After much debate with mum, I phoned the police. I knew someone was always going to be “The one who…” and seeing as I’m usually assumed to be, I didn’t break with stereotype. The police picked him up and got him home safely, but he subsequently had to surrender his driving license.

The whole family was disrupted as a result, and my dad’s lost a great deal of his freedom and liberty. The memory thing was found to be a build up of fluid around the base of dad’s brain. It wasn’t a degenerative condition and a simple drain should alleviate the problem.

He was admitted to hospital and the procedure was initially deemed a success. Trouble is, a succession of setbacks followed, as dad developed an infection which required intravenous antibiotics, prolonging his stay in hospital. Eventually when he returned home, he took a fall down the stairs. I can’t help thinking that I’m “The one who…”

You wouldn’t expect someone to get better after all that, but the old man’s still with us, albeit never fully recovered from the initial diagnosed condition because of these complications. Mum and dad have made adaptations to their house, but dad longs to get back to tending his garden. I’ve suggested it might be quite nice to let it meadow a bit, to attract some wildlife, which dad also loves. It’s about quality of life now, and he’s probably got some years in him yet if he’s kept engaged by people and things around him.

Which all serves to reduce the importance of my own issues, which are short-term, relatively speaking. At worst (ever the pessimist), I’ll have my PIP application declined as it was the last two times. I have no reason to think otherwise, as despite claims that mental disability is given equal consideration to physical restrictions, mental illness remains invisible. Yes, I can walk a short distance to a local shop. I have legs which work and I don’t require a physical aid to walk. Sometimes though, the anxiety and paranoia are such that I simply don’t attempt it. That can’t be seen when you’re asked to walk up and down in front of an assessor.

If my application is declined, then I’ll appeal at tribunal, as I did the last two times, and both times I won. It hardly seems worth putting me through it, but I suspect there’ll be another attempt at social cleansing by wearing me down in the hope I give up. I didn’t the last two times.

So the worst case scenario is I’ll have my benefits reduced throughout the appeal process, then reinstated and back-paid afterwards. I might just have to adjust to a lesser quality of life for a while. Then again, the ‘Medically-qualified’ PIP assessor might not be a midwife this time, they could be a psychiatrist or psychologist, who is more likely to confirm my various conditions, thereby sparing me the ordeal of the appeal process. If government out-sourcing fulfilled its function properly, a simple thing like appointing an appropriately qualified assessor would save the state considerable funds.

But it doesn’t work like that. The savings are made by getting claimants off of benefits, and subjecting them to an extended dehumanising process is one way of thinning out the numbers, when some people just don’t have it in them to fight. My last two appeal processes made me far more unwell than I’d been at the outset, but I didn’t succumb to the social cleansing machine.

Beyond the small sphere of me in my sandwich, there’s the world at large and plenty to worry about, not least of which is the rise of the right. Those of us on the left, and anyone who cares about the planet we all share, we need to find our voices. Fascists will not be reasoned with, so there’s little point trying to debate, negotiate and be democratic with the blinkered and socially-conditioned.

I’ve written of positive outcomes for humanity and our home, just as I’ve doomed them both in other stories, where the right’s solution is population reduction. Being an optimist or pessimist about such existential things might actually determine the outcome. At the end of it all, that thought strangely perks me up, as it’s more a duty than a choice.

I feel slightly more hopeful about the coming weeks and months now than I did when I started writing. Sometimes it’s nice to talk to myself as I type, just to relieve some pressure. It’s always been my only real therapy. Thanks for reading.

Slugs, snails and all things nice

THE WRITER’S LIFE

One of the many functions of depression is to kill your emotions. I and many other depressives have written about how we don’t feel down all the time, in most people’s understanding of the word, but that we have no emotion at all. Depression is not feeling sad, it’s a feeling of complete emptiness.

Balloon pop

The unexpressed emotions build up, and sometimes they all bubble over at once. When they do, we might suddenly become overwhelmed by (in my case) a feeling of guilt over past actions, and become inconsolable in our grief. Other times, we might realise – just for a fleeting moment – that all things considered, everything is okay. We’ll suddenly feel happy, and grateful of the life surrounding us, expressing ourselves by letting people know we love them, and that we appreciate what they do. It’s ‘the manics’, but when you’re also an alcoholic, people can assume you’re on something. It seems I can’t win, I’m not allowed to be happy, so I stop being it.

Social anxiety and paranoia are best mates with depression, imprisoning the afflicted, so they have plenty of time to think about life, the universe and everything, and everything just gets worse. It’s a self-perpetuating and degenerative condition. Apart from visits to the local Tesco every other day, my outings are limited to well-rehearsed known quantities, the monthly trip to Milton Keynes for a day with my children being one. This month was different, as we had a day out in London.

I’m fine with London. Even though it’s a mega-city, I feel more comfortable in the capital than I might in some remote village. It’s because I know London, I lived and worked there, and it’s where I’m from. I sometimes think that if I had the means to move back to the capital, my mental health might improve. On Saturday, I was okay, and the emotions which London evokes for me carried me through the day. It’s quite surreal when you’re not used to having feelings, like being carried around in someone else’s body, a haunting of the living, a possession.

I met the kids at 11 and we went for an early lunch, our thinking being that few others would be lunching at that time, and we were right. Our further thinking was that when we got to our first attraction at about 1 pm, most normal people would be having lunch. And we were right, as the London Transport Museum was sparsely populated when we arrived.

There’s only so much you can do with stationary vintage vehicles, and with the youngest in tow, we were bound to end up in the gift shop, which is rudely expensive: £60 for a sofa cushion (albeit one in Victoria Line seating material), and £40 for a magazine rack (ditto, Northern Line) being two examples. The littlest filled a bag with stationery in London Transport livery (and paid for it), then we set off for our next destination – The National Portrait Gallery – on foot.

The Portrait Gallery is hosting the BP Portrait Award, but before we troubled that, I took the kids on a whistle stop tour of the main National Gallery. Although they’ve been to London before, and to some of the paid attractions and national institutions, it was when they were very young. Neither could recall seeing a Leonardo da Vinci or a Vincent van Gogh, so that’s where we headed.

Leonardo_da_Vinci_Virgin_of_the_Rocks_(National_Gallery_London) Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_127
National Gallery, London

Carried along by my emotions, I was a little overcome standing in the presence of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. To be just inches from a painting, able to see the brush strokes made by da Vinci over 600 years ago, is a humbling position to find oneself in. There I was, standing only as far away from a priceless treasure as Leonardo did to paint it. Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers was a similarly belittling experience, and when we left I was grateful of some dust in the wind blowing through Trafalgar Square as I wiped my eyes.

I have a condition called Stendhal Syndrome, on top of all my others. It’s a psychosomatic disorder, manifesting in me as an emotional mental weakness or vulnerability. When I see or hear something beautiful, it evokes the same outpouring of various emotions as the manics or the guilt. I feel sad, but they’re tears of joy. It takes quite a lot to set me off, and it happened again pretty much as soon as we walked into the Portrait Award exhibition, when I saw this:

Bertha
Bertha (c) Jesus Maria Saez de Vicuña Ochoa

I did a double-take when I read the cue card next to it, which said it was oil on canvas. Up close and personal, it’s the kind of thing which stops you in your tracks and glues you to the floor.

My young companions were as into all of this as I was, if not quite so visibly moved by it all. Eventually it was time to feed their curious minds with Chinese food. They’d never been to Chinatown before, more used to eating oriental cuisine from take-away cartons, so dinner was a multi-sensory experience. Frankly, the food was mediocre at best, the service arrogant, and the prices bloated. Eating in Chinatown is more Russian roulette than I remember, but the kids enjoyed it, so I kept my mouth shut.

Of course, all good things must end, and so it was yesterday. As soon as the kids had headed off on their train, I got the most almighty emotional comedown. If I hadn’t been in London, with all that atmosphere keeping me going, I might have been tempted to play with the trains instead of riding one home.

In a few days I’ll be back to just feeling dead inside, but until then separation anxiety feels like I’ve had my chest ripped open and my heart pulled out. For a while last night, I perked up as I remembered all I’d done in the day. I texted someone and told them how happy and grateful I was to have had that day. They replied that I seemed to be acting oddly, and was I on something?

I wasn’t. I wasn’t under the influence of anything, just a brief feeling that life was okay, quickly popped like a balloon at the end of a party.