Saturday, 8 December 2012

The paralysed heart, the arrested soul

ready to jump

In my last blogpost I spilled my guts about things from my past that may have contributed to my descent into depression and suicidal thoughts. I also promised to share the legacy of those experiences - So in this blogpost I'm going to try and explain how my childhood experiences continue to reverberate through the years with some lightly sketched vignettes taken from my life:
  • It's September 2002. I'm standing bolt upright on a paddle board which is floating on the still waters of a small breeze-less bay in Skyros. I am desperately trying with every fibre of my being to either return to a sitting position or jump into the water but I can't bring myself to do either and I am rooted to the spot. I don't feel scared, I just feel ridiculous and aware that Mark (my then boyfriend, now husband) is getting increasingly angry with me. He's not angry because I can't jump, he's angry because my board is slowly drifting out to sea and out of his reach. I am frozen to the spot but his protective anger and worry finally gets through to me - I hesitantly make it down onto my knees, then into a seated position and we paddle back in near silence. Strangely, a friend who is watching from the shore, later tells me that to her I looked like a statue of the goddess Athena - gracefully floating towards the horizon with an air of aloof confidence.
  • A few years later I find myself standing in the reception area of a residential training college. It is late o'clock and I've left the bar so that a colleague can teach me to juggle, which I have always wanted to do but somehow never managed to. He hands me three juggling balls but, despite his gentle coaching and cajoling, I cannot bring myself to release any of them into the air. My colleague takes away one ball but still my hands and arms remain frozen and neither of the remaining balls makes it into the air. We are both laughing and I am convinced that any second I will release my grip on one of the balls. My colleague chuckles and, with a well-natured but despairing shake of his head, takes back a second ball. I am now standing with a single juggling ball in one hand and my other hand is empty, ready to try and catch it. Except I never manage to release that final ball into the air despite several minutes of my brain imploring my hand to 'just throw the jeffing ball already'. Our drunken laughter escalates into bewildered giggling at the absurdness of the situation we find ourselves in and I gradually deteriorate into teary hysterical laughter. My colleague accepts that his juggling coaching skills have met their match and we head back to the bar.
The scenes I've described above were not just real-life experiences - they also metaphorically represent a deep level of stuckness in my life ... I have a pervasively liminal feeling, like I am always on the edge, on the cusp, on the verge along with a sense that there is an invisible force holding me back from making progress on hopes and dreams that I rarely dare to consciously articulate. Earlier this year I was watching a PBS documentary called 'Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate' and one of the stories hit me like a thunderbolt. I was listening to Terri Jentz talk about her horrific experience of being attacked while camping with her college roommate and as she described the impact the single brutal trauma had on her life many years later:
"I had a feeling of stuckness, of paralysis, a loss of concentration, a seizure of my ordinarily unflappable will. Something was different. And with each passing year it got worse. [...] I began to fear everything. My body was afraid of being crushed by a vehicle. I had apocalyptic fears. I felt like I had to split into a kind of wildly overreacting, intensely emotive, even manic, self. And then I would just switch. like that, into a completely numbed out, deadened version of myself that was just kind of asleep, narcoleptic. Some invisible, hampering paralysis had set in. It was as though my ability to take my destiny in hand had been wrested away from me. [...] I wasn't aware of the anger I was carrying [...]. I had to confront the trauma in order to be free."
The whole documentary is worth watching but the section featuring Terri Jentz and her roommate can be viewed below:

         Watch Language of Anger on PBS. See more from Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate.

The fact that I could resonate so strongly with how Terri felt in the years after the attack shocked me - I still don't understand it at an intellectual level but that resonance was the start of me beginning to face up to the fact that the net result of the traumatic experiences of my childhood was, in some crazy unfathomable way, equivalent to being run over by a truck and threatened with an axe. I still can't quite comprehend how the childhood experiences I spent my whole life dismissing as normal or insignificant had been so damaging to my innate sense of safety. But hearing Terri talk was like hearing my own thoughts verbalised so I couldn't easily dismiss the realisation and, although I still have moments where I worry that I'm making a fuss over nothing or blaming my own inability to take action on a sob story from my early years, I know that that unexpected and incomprehensible recognition of the impact of my childhood experiences has been an important part of the healing process and a represented a watershed moment that, hopefully, will ultimately allow me to free myself from the invisible hand of my past and move forward to finally take centre stage in my own life.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Breaking the silence beyond silence

As I sit down and start typing this blogpost my heart is racing, my palms are sweaty, my stomach is churning, my brain is crackling with fierce static and my fingers are trembling on the keyboard. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to express myself properly but I feel a need to say something, no matter how much I stumble over the words.

In writing this blogpost I'm keeping in mind a couple of tweets I, somewhat serendipitously, read this morning. The first is from Anthony Lawlor who said "In all the truth speaking, what goes unsaid reveals the most." And the second is from Teresa Robinson who shared a quote from Anne Lammott: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better."

The fact that I feel so fearful about writing this blogpost speaks volumes - particularly considering I have previously blogged about my, too close for comfort, brush with an eating disorder, and my, even closer for comfort, brush with suicidal depression - You would think that there are few shadowy areas of my life left to reveal to the glaring light of public disclosure ... but you would be wrong.

Over recent days, weeks and months it's fair to say that the UK has been rocked by a stream of shocking revelations regarding child abuse. As each scandal broke I watched the folks in my twitter stream reacting with righteous indignation and disbelief. And I gradually realised that two things seemed to be largely missing from the media coverage and the comments on Twitter. The first was recognition that the abuse cases being uncovered are exceptional, albeit no less horrifying, occurances and that the vast majority of abuse happens not in a celebrity's changing room or in a care home, but in ordinary family homes in our own villages, towns and cities. Statistics on the NSPCC website state that 1 in 4 people experienced sexual abuse as children. Most children know their abusers and 80% of offences happen in either the child's or the perpetrator's home. In other word it is not just aged television presenters, pop stars and MPs who will be feeling uncomfortable as new disclosures about abuse come to light. One exception to this lack of recognition was Anna Nathonson's piece in the Independent which was the first time I'd read the 1 in 4 statistic.

The second thing that was even more absent, in fact completely missing, was anyone putting their hand up and identifying themselves as a victim of abuse. This heavy veil of silence is a clear indicator to me that being a victim of abuse carries with it a massive burden of stigma. A few weeks ago I came to the personal realisation that although I had stepped forward and broken free of the stigma around suicide and mental illness (yay, go me!) I was still gagged and bound by the chains of the stigma attached to the contributory causes of my mental illness. I have spent a lot of time trying to work out how I could broach the subject of this double stigma without sharing any of the details of my personal experience. I'm feeling very dizzy and heavy-skulled as I type these words ... it seems to me that I probably cannot very easily do one without the other.

It feels unfair to me that having broken the silence once I now find myself needing to do it again. At least with my disclosure about my suicidal depression there was a happy ending - my personal experience of abuse and neglect is nothing but messy, shame-ridden memories which will no doubt deeply upset my close family and friends, and very possibly break my mum's heart. In the face of that, keeping silent seems the much easier path but the cost of that silence has been too high already - my ongoing mental health problems and recent suicidal episode (which I now realise was the result of 'double depression') is directly related to my early childhood experiences and further exacerbated by experiences throughout childhood and into early adulthood. It is still very hard for me to accept my depression and my ongoing issues with anxiety as a mental illness - it just feels like the result of me not being very good at being human. At the same time I also struggle to reconcile the relatively low level abuse and mistreatment I experienced with the severity of the impact to my personality development and mental health - the result seems disproportionate to contributory factors. In all likelihood this is largely due to a failure on my part to accept the severity of those contributory factors, underestimate the impact it's had on my life and a failure to appreciate the complexity of those factors acting on top of each other over time.

By now your imaginations are probably running overtime so I'm going to share my experience as undramatically as I can - It would be inappropriate to share the full details but here are the main 'highlights' of what I experienced:
  • multiple experiences of, relatively innocent, sexual contact at the hands of boys who were the same age or a few years older than me from about 5 years old through to puberty.
  • being 'flashed' by a stranger in an underpass on the way home from school, aged 11.
  • inappropriately early exposure to pornographic magazines and horror movies.
Other factors played their part too:
  • when I was born I nearly died and my mum didn't see me or my twin sister for several days after we were born - I then had to stay in hospital for a couple of weeks after my mum had been discharged (they kept my twin sister with me). Interestingly my therapist informs me that children who experience early periods of hospitalisation/maternal separation are more likely to be abused.
  • my parents split up and then divorced when I was very young (less than two years old I think) - I only found out earlier this year that domestic violence was the final straw, following years of emotional abuse (interestingly, it was my Grandma who spilled the beans on that family secret, not my mum).
  • we grew up with a very strict step-father whose discipline was largely founded on threats of violence and whose outbursts I experienced as unpredictable and unjust.
Domestic violence apparently happens to 1 in 4 women (there's that 1 in 4 figure again!) so the scenario of my upbringing is not altogether exceptional. If both domestic violence and sexual abuse affect the same numbers as mental illness is strikes me as odd that they are still so deeply shrouded by silence ... particularly when there seems to be widespread recognition that childhood sexual abuse is directly related to the development of mental illness and personality disorders later in life. I appreciate that the fight to breakdown the stigma around mental illness is very recent and is still ongoing but my feeling is that stigma around the causes of mental illness need to be broken too if those who are affected are to feel less isolated. 

The perpetrators of sexual abuse and other types of abuse were often abused themselves as children so breaking the stigma of abuse and providing support and treatment for victims of abuse seems key if we want to stand a chance of breaking the cycle in the future. I keep wondering whether some kind of 'abuse amnesty' together with intensive therapy and mediation services might be one way forward ... although that looks unlikely with the ever shrinking NHS budgets. Of course the 'don't wash the family's dirty linen in public' atmosphere of secrecy and complicity that is pervasive among families, the Eighties media coverage of social care service horror stories which ripped seemingly innocent families apart, and the lack of awareness of what constitutes abuse and how high the abuse figures are all contribute to the problem of tackling this potentially fatal societal problem.

And so having blogged about this publicly I face having a very difficult, but long overdue, conversation with my mum - I feel guilty about not talking to her first but I'm sure that will be the least of her concerns. I'm not even able to express much anger towards my perpetrators, let alone forgive them yet, so this is just one more step for me on a very long journey. In a future blogpost I'll try and put into words the ongoing legacy of those early childhood experiences but for now, if you are on a similar journey then be reassured that with 1 in 4 people affected by the similar traumatic experiences you are far from alone - please consider seeking a sympathetic ear if you haven't already. I'm seeing a therapist every week and have been for the last year but there are also organisations such as the National Association for People Abused in Childhood who are currently somewhat inundated but may be a useful starting point in getting the help you need and deserve.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Sometimes I Feel So Temporary

This is one of my first ever all digital illustrations - it was inspired by the lyrics of a Rumer song called 'Healer' which is one of the songs on my Saving the Only Life I Can playlist.

  Sometimes I feel so temporary
 So this is the first item donated by me to my Saving the Only Life I Can project. If I was feeling fearless I would write to Rumer and ask her if she could donate the track but for now here is a beautiful live version from YouTube:


Monday, 30 July 2012

Don't. Wake. Up.

Laura (aka She Makes War, aka @warriorgrrl) calls her music 'DIY gloom-pop' and, yes, her music does have a serious, weighty, dark and bewitching feel to it but I certainly never feel gloomy when Laura's sirenesque visceral vocals start insistently swirling around my brainspace. Something about the defiant tone in Laura's voice as she sings makes me feel galvanised whenever I listen to this track. On days when I felt adrift and rudderless Laura's voice was an anchor, life boat and safe harbour all in one.

I first heard 'In This Boat' when Laura performed it live at the Hope and Social Garden Party last summer and it  blew me away - by the time she played 'Scared to Capsize' I was fighting back tears behind my sunglasses. I thoroughly recommend you buy her recent album 'Little Battles' which you can download for however much you want on Bandcamp. The artwork is gorgeous though so you might want to splash out and buy a physical copy. And try to see her play live if you get the chance - but Laura makes playing live look so effortless that you might well find yourself thinking you should learn to play the ukulele, buy a loop machine and start a band of your own ... don't say I didn't warn you.

One of my favourite lines from 'In This Boat' is 'in these veins I hunt for poetry' and I couldn't resist writing those words onto my veins - the same veins that a part of me longed to open up earlier this year. Those same veins somehow feel much more embedded in my body these days:

hunt for poetry

Friday, 27 July 2012

Let's meet at Hope Street

I asked my friend Mark Ivkovic if he would contribute to my Saving the Only Life I Can project by taking a photo of my favourite street sign in York and he certainly did me proud ...

Hope is a word that I've used a lot over the past couple of years but it's a hard word to pin down the meaning of - Charles Snyder defined it as "the sum of the mental willpower and waypower that you have for your goals”. Earlier this year I think I was running low on both willpower and waypower. At that point carrying on the battle against my own mind often became an act of faith with only a small slither of hope that I would ever feel like a halfway normal human being. I wonder now whether I lost hope completely for a short bleak time and that maybe it was running out of hope that signalled the lowest point for me before I started to resurface again. It's hard to know for sure - when I look back at the first three months of this year it's still as bewildering to me as it felt at the time. My hope now is that I stay well and that I help others hold onto hope and seek help a hell of a lot earlier than I did.

You can see more of Mark's talent on his professional photography website: bang | Photography

Mark's photography is inspiring enough but the way he mixes it with words on his blog is something else and this post on his own self-doubt resonates wildly with me and my own cliff edge.

And if you want to visit Hope Street yourself then you can find your own way there with the help of this Google map.

Mark and I are talking about collaborating on some more photos for this project and I'm hoping that some of his photography skills will rub off on me in the process :)

Footnote: In the 'See Also' section of the Wikipedia page there is an entry entitled 'Anything is possible when it means everything' which I love but it turns out that it's a non-existent page and there are only five search results for that phrase in Google, all of which go to dead ends ... how delightfully strange :)

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Wait of the World: Act Three

The Wait of the World, a poem in three acts 
by Helen Harrop
June 2012

Act Three:
The universe waits,
The universe watches
Its juvenile galaxies
Of birth stars and death stars
Leaving their light legacies.
Destruction and destiny
Played out through
An infinite sky ballet.
All stagnant satellites,
All ghostly globes,
All spinning baubles
And enslaved pebbles.
Numerous as grains of sand,
Smooth and bright
As playground marbles.
All fire and brimstone,
All hell and highwater,
All gas and vapour,
All clumsy collisions
All futile and futureless.
An orbiting ossuary.

The universe waits,
The universe watches
For the final falling star
For the celestial light to fade
For the future to fold in on itself.
One dark night of the soul
And then ...
All blank horizons
And inert energy laid bare
Across the wide waiting sky.

The nothingness waits,
The nothingness watches.
And there is no end
To the endless beginning.

The Wait of the World: Act Two

The Wait of the World, a poem in three acts 
by Helen Harrop
June 2012

Act Two:
The world waits,
The world watches
Each extinguished epoch
With the ignoble grace
Of a billiard ball
Unwrinkled by time.
The world is a spinning spectator
As race follows race
With no winners or losers.

The earth continues
With no worries of science
Or physics, or gravity.
Simply everything in its place
And a place for Everything.
No historic histrionics
Just a past-less presence
With no fear to furrow brows.
The world just is and always was
The universe’s eternal yes.

The globe endures
Impermanent parasites;
A barely perceptible,
Innumerable nuisance.
From ethereal single-cells
To insignificant Jurassic beasts;
All imaginary mosquitoes
Evidenced only by their egos
And their venomous bites.
All fury beasts,
All faithless and dreaming,
All fearful and hiding,
All hopeless and hurting,
All hate-filled and hunting,
All pestilence and predation.

The earth devours their dead
Builds mountains from their bones
And forests from their fallen flesh,
Drawing their blood into its corpulent core.
Deaf to their desperate prayers,
Unmoved by their moods and means.
Blind to the damage they do,
The earth lives on in fermitude, not servitude.
Each eon blinked by and instantly forgotten.
The world waits,
The world watches
As the moon conducts tides and
The sun devours time and
The universe opens its waiting arms.

The Wait of the World: Act One

The Wait of the World, a poem in three acts 
by Helen Harrop
June 2012

Act One:
The woman waits,
The woman watches,
All glacial grace
As the world passes her by.
All vitriol and volcano
Beneath her micron thin skin.
She travels on
An arrested trajectory
With no peace or progress.
She is a dream dredger
Who is drowning on dry land.
Every day she fills her pockets
With stone-dead desires
And walks to “the bottom
Of a great ocean of air

The woman waits,
The woman watches
For permission to proceed.
All chaotic energy and wet steam,
All silent fury and invisible screams.
The vestiges of verbal violence
Still hang heavy overhead
Like storms over Thor’s anvil
Threatening her mind’s meniscus.
Her heart is a prismic prison,
All refracted hope,
All shattered light,
All white heat.
She is held together
Against her will.

The world waits but forgets to watch
And even the orbiting satellites
Avert their gaze
Until one day it slips her mind
To hold her molecules together.
And hairline cracks that race
Across her porcelain mask
Become fractured canyons.
And the whole universe glimpses
The glittering carbon centre
Of this daily doomed star
As she achieves escape velocity
And hurtles into the world’s waiting arms.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

I can tell I'm awake

tears in dublin 

The latest donation to Saving the Only Life I Can is a particularly special one because it has been donated by my cousin, Peter Pollock. I found out that Peter suffers from depression after I told his sister about my depression. It was the same moment that I inadvertently broke the news to my Grandma (I'd naively assumed that she'd already know about it from my Mum). When I've finally mustered the courage to tell friends and family about my depression it's quite surprising how many times those people have responded by telling me that they, or someone close to them who I also know, also has depression. It made me realise how important it is that I carried on telling people - If I stayed silent about my depression then it meant that those around me would almost definitely stay silent about their depression. And a dark secret would be allowed to hide in the centre of my family and in the centre of my life.

As soon as I read Peter's poem on his blog I asked him if he'd be prepared to donate it to my project and he very kindly said yes without a second thought. Thank you cousin - for your poem and for walking alongside me in the darkness.


I’m awake.
I can tell I’m awake,
I never feel like crying in my sleep.
My eyes are closed.
I’m not holding back tears.
I never try to hold them back, they just never come.
What happened?
Why do I want to cry?
What terrible thing is affecting me this way?
No horrible event,
It’s all just my messed up brain chemistry.
I hate it.
It won’t go away.
…Tomorrow will be the same as every other day.
I’m awake.
I can tell I’m awake -
I never feel like crying in my sleep.

by Peter Pollock

Saturday, 5 May 2012

I Am Trying to Break Your Hearts

When I first volunteered to do my first Bettakultcha talk back in February my main motivations for stepping up to the plate were a) so there would be at least one female speaker at the inaugaral York Bettakultcha and b) so I could attend free of charge, because I was having cash-flow, ahem, issues at the time. With very little thought on my behalf I suggested that my talk might a (relatively) light-hearted take on my experience of depression and suicidal impulses, and how worry was both threatening and saving my life. Little did I know at that point that I was about to spiral even deeper into the darkness and resurface back into the light again. A week before my talk I had been to the brink and back so it was a very different talk than the one I'd planned to do - Richard and Ivor were kind enough to let me go first and for the 5 minutes I was talking everything was a bit of a blur.

Anyhoo, enough rambling from me ... spend 5 minutes watching what I said and then take a closer look at the smiling friends and family that surround you - some of them may be silently enduring more pain than you can imagine possible. Find out who they are and then just bear witness to their pain - they don't need you to fix them, they just need you to listen and walk alongside them through the darkness until they can find their own way back home.

And here are my slides with accompanying notes.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Say something I'll remember the next day

The bright white piano from DIY
Wilful Missing's 'bright white piano'
DIY by Wilful Missing

I really pleased to announce that the third track to be officially donated to my 'Saving the Only Life I Can' project is DIY by the absurdly humble and beautifully melancholic Wilful Missing. If you aren't as pedantic about punctuation as I am then you can sing along to the lyrics here:

For me this song encapsulates the maddening ambivalence and amnesia of chronic depression - it got to the point where every morning I felt like I awoke at the cliff's edge, peering into the void and I had to spend the rest of the day inching away from the edge, desperately trying to find something, or someone, to treasure, something to celebrate, something to hold onto - any small fragment that would give me hope and help me in my daily remembering of why life itself was worth  holding onto.
"Baby say something,
say something I'll remember
the next day,
but the shadows
conceal us
from hoping."
I'm hugely grateful to Wilful Missing for writing such beautiful music - You can hear more of their tracks on their Bandcamp page. I strongly advise you to go and see them play live if you get the chance ... it's an indescribably magical experience. If you live in York then you are in luck because they're playing at The Stereo on Gillygate next Thursday.

Heading Home with Hope in my Heart

Goodness only knows how A Hawk in the Rain (the combined talents of Cassis Birgit Staudt, Tom Lingard, Simon R. Goff, George Kirkham) managed to collaboratively compose a piece of music that is both heartwrenchingly beautiful and soul-soaringly hopeful but thank goodness they did because this track has comforted and uplifted me on countless occasions since I first heard it about a year ago. It's the second track to be donated to 'Saving the Only Life I Can'.

Home 22-11-10 by SimonRalphGoff

I have always had an uneasy relationship with the word 'home' and last year I was suddenly struck by the shocking realisation that I had no feeling of being at home anywhere in the world, even in my own home. The poet David Whyte often talks about how we are often exiles within our own lives, more of that another time but one of his poems which resonates deeply with me is 'Revelation Must be Terrible' so that's worth reading if you have any 'belonging' issues:
"Being far from home is hard, but you know,
   at least we are exiled together."
On the 24th March, as I reluctantly readied myself to leave the warm embrace of The Maytree, I realised that I felt like I was going home for the first time in more than 30 years. I listened to 'Home' by A Hawk in the Rain as the train carrying me back north pulled out of Kings Cross and I had the broadest smile across my face for every second of the track. Huge thanks to all the members of A Hawk in the Rain who unanimously agreed to donate this track to my Saving the Only Life I Can project. Special thanks go to Simon Goff who I first met in his role as the bassist for Hope and Social and who kindly contacted the other band members to make the request on my behalf.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Rethinking Depression, Virtual Book Tour

Today is the day I welcome Eric Maisel back to my blog again (well, technically speaking it wasn't this blog he visited last time but it was still my blog). Last time it was to talk to Eric about his book, The Van Gogh Blues, and this time it's to share his latest book, Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning.

If you have visited my blog in the last couple of weeks then you'll know that I've just emerged from chronic depression/a long-running existential crisis but back in February when I first purchased the Kindle version of Rethinking Depression I had barely accepted that I was depressed, let alone imagined that I would emerge from the darkness any time soon.

Eric's latest book builds on the ground he explored in The Van Gogh Blues but it is not just a semantic restatement of those ideas, it challenges the very foundations that book was based on - Rethinking Depression feels to me like the work of someone who is running out of both time and patience with the world and is therefore determined to get their message across as clearly as possible to rouse an audience from their unquestioning slumber before it is too late for all of us. And Eric's message couldn't be any clearer or more provocative - in short, the long-standing trend towards defining sadness as depression and treating it as a medical disease serves only the purposes of the medical industry and not those of the patient. His aim is to "point you in the direction of your own knowing." and help the reader question whether depression really exists.

Given that I had been diagnosed with depression and prescribed anti-depressants by my GP less than a month before I started reading Rethinking Depression you'll understand why Eric's assertion was a somewhat bitter pill for me to swallow. His words chimed deeply with my own knowing (as vague as that was) but at that very same moment I was putting my faith in modern medicine to provide me with a safety net while I continued working with my therapist to try and step away from the metaphorical cliff's edge that I found myself beside when I awoke every morning. To say that I was conflicted while reading Rethinking Depression would therefore be a massive understatement.

Eric's argument isn't that a deep unrelenting melancholy doesn't exist but he offers some pretty persuasive arguments for why those feelings of despair and meaninglessness do not add themselves up to a medical condition. What Eric seems to be aiming to do with his latest book is no less than achieve a monumental paradigm shift, one reader at a time. Rethinking Depression challenges the reader to enter into a conversation about the current state of the mental health industry and invites us to step up to the plate, stand still for a moment and decide to force our own life to mean something despite all of the barriers in our path. Although Eric doesn't offer all the answers, because only we can decide what makes life meaningful for us, he does offer some unflinching words of guidance to help with the journey:
"Decide to live until death wrests away your freedom."
"...create your life-purpose vision and then [...] do the best you can."
Eric's vision for the reader seems to be that they choose to fight the good fight, creating meaning in their own life day after day, year after year, moment to moment. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes it requires us to do nothing less than get to the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity and to ignore the temptation to either exist in the mediocre, meaningless simplicity on this side of complexity or to lie down and try to make ourselves at home within the complexity itself. Now that I finally feel like I emerged from the chaotic, dark complexity that I made my home pretty much all of my adult life I am re-reading both Rethinking Depression and The Van Gogh Blues with new eyes and I can already report that the view from here makes it worth every step of the climb. I feel like I'll need to review both books again next month to do either of them the justice they deserve.

You can see what other folks think about Rethinking Depression by following the blog tour schedule on Eric Maisel's website. Rethinking Depression is available from Amazon in Kindle or paperback format if you'd like to enter into the conversation yourself.

NB: Any money that I make from the Amazon affiliate links in this blogpost will be donated directly to the Maytree Respite Centre.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Hope Still Shines for You

I'm excited to announce the first track to be generously donated to my 'Saving the Only Life I Can' project - I first heard this track by Nicholas Peters last year when my friend Katherine Jewkes (who performs guest vocals on the tracks) tweeted about it. I loved 'Hope Still Shines for You' from the first time I listened to it but in recent months and weeks I found myself listening to it more often - The combination of Nicholas' lyrics and Katherine's ascendant vocalisations both comforted and uplifted me and with every listen I tried to internalise the lyrics to form a protective mantra as I fought my way through the darkness.
"Through your pain and sadness, 
Longing times of gladness, 
Even through your darkness, 
Hope still shines for you."

Hope Still Shines For You by nicholaspeters

(c) Nicholas Peters - 'Hope Still Shines For You' cover art.
Nicholas is the first person I've approached to ask permission to use his track for this creative project and I'm hugely grateful to him for granting that permission so freely. I hope you like the track as much as I do - it has a sort of  mournful yet angelic Monty Pythonesque edge to it and I love it more every time I listen to it. You can read the story behind the track and listen to more of Nicholas' compositions on his website or his SoundCloud page.

Serendipitously, the cover art for 'Hope Still Shines for You' is very similar to one of my own self-portraits:

My Shadow Self

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Saving the only life I can

the journey

A few years ago I was introduced to the poetry of Mary Oliver during a creative workshop my friend Sophie Nicholls was running - the poem Sophie shared with us was Wild Geese and I loved it. I looked up more of Mary Oliver's poetry and came across one that stopped me in my tracks: The Journey. The whole poem is beautiful but it was the final two lines that made my bones vibrate and the words in those two lines have stayed very close by ever since:
determined to save
the only life you could save."
For more than a year I've been thinking about doing a creative project inspired by those nine words and the time has finally arrived ... It is with great pride and delight that I announce my 'Saving the only life I can' project. Over the next 12 months I'll be gathering together a collection of songs, music, poetry and artwork. Some of it will be pieces that lifted my spirits in recent months and some of it will be things I've created as I tried to find my way out of the darkness. I'll also be creating original work and asking some of the talented folks who inspire me to contribute some new work to the project. On the 24th March 2013 I'll release a beautifully crafted, lovingly curated collection for sale and any money I make will be donated to the Maytree Respite Centre and the Tuke Centre.

I'll release more details as the project takes shape and I'll be announcing my first confirmed contributor very soon.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

We were blind and now we see

do not cut here  -----------

I've been looking back through the photos that I've uploaded to my Flickr account over the past six years and it's hard to believe that I couldn't see how deep and fast the riptides of depression were flowing within me ... the slideshow below features the photos that I now realise were quite obviously symptomatic of my often fragile state of mind:

The levels of self-deception, secrecy and concealment are troubling to say the least - no wonder depression is sometimes called the "grinning madness" and little wonder that I felt like I was wearing a mask all the time.

Anyhoo, moving swiftly on.... As a first step towards repaying my un-repayable debt of gratitude to the Maytree Respite Centre and the Tuke Centre I've had an idea - If you like any of the photos within my Flickr Stream then you can freely download, print off, re-use them ... the only catch is that in return you have to make a donation to either the Maytree or the Tuke Centre:
I'm also planning a longer-term annual creative project to raise funds for both the Maytree and Tuke Centres and I'll be inviting you to contribute your creativity to that project as soon as I've got my head around how it will work :)

Sunday, 1 April 2012

I have been leading a life of quiet desperation

Twelve days ago I arrived on the doorstep of the Maytree Respite Centre near Finsbury Park. Maytree is a charity that offers a 'sanctuary for the suicidal'. I don't quite know what I hoped for when I first contacted them but it felt like I was standing at the edge of an abyss without wings or a safety net to break my fall. My arrival at Maytree was the culmination of a 38 year journey during which I had slowly, almost imperceptibly, descended into a decade of chronic depression (varying from mild to severe). I didn't dare to dream it at the time but walking over the Maytree's threshold was the first step towards finally saving my own life. When I left the Maytree's warm embrace five days later I somehow emerged from the lead chrysalis that had nearly pulled me under, laid down my impenetrable battle-scarred armour and felt like I was heading home for the first time in 38 years.

Choose life.

Only half a dozen people knew where I was during those five days, my husband, my twin sister, one of my cousins, my best friend, my therapist and my boss. Only another half a dozen or so knew I was depressed, let alone that I had been fighting an epic, hidden battle with myself for my own survival. When I look back at my photography, poetry, art and notebooks from that decade and beyond it's glaringly obvious that I was depressed but even when I finally saw my GP and was prescribed anti-depressants, at the end of last year, I still found it hard to accept that I was ill.
"Most [people] lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them" ~ Mis-quotation of a line from Henry David Thoreau's 'Walden' [source]
The first part of that line is from Thoreau and comes from Walden which was a manifesto for living simply. The full quote reads:
"The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." Henry David Thoreau [source]
For most of my adult life I tried, and failed, to either fix myself, find myself or flee from myself but, to paraphrase Jon Kabat-Zinn, wherever I went, there I was and in the end I ran out of energy, stopped running from the insatiable hungry ghosts haunting my mind and I did the only thing left to do - I faced myself. With the last sliver of hope left inside me I hoped that a small shift would take place while I was at the Maytree - a shift that would keep me safe for a little longer while I continued the battle against my own thoughts. I have no way of explaining the total transformation that took place on my last day at the Maytree and I'm not sure I'll ever fully understand it but it was like waking up from a nightmare just as I was about to hit the ground. In February this year I wrote in my notebook: "my feet and eyes feel heavy as I drag my despair through the snow." However fast I ran, I couldn't get away from the darkness that had descended and the dark void felt like it was starting to surround me on all sides. All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep until the snow covered my tracks and any sign that I had ever existed. I held tightly to any music and poetry that soothed my soul, if only for a second. I tried to memorise one of John O'Donohue's poems in the hope that it would come true if I recited it often enough: "I would love to live / Like a river flows / Carried by the surprise / Of its own unfolding." During my train journey home from London to York last Saturday I scribbled these words down in my notebook: "There's a river of kindness following me home." The next day I added these words on the same page: "it feels so amazing to be alive today."

I will never be able to fully repay the Maytree Respite Centre or those of you who held me in your thoughts while I was there but I will spend the rest of my life breaking my own (and society's) silence around depression and suicide. My new goal in life is to be the poster-child for suicidal recovery and be a voice in the darkness for anyone who is fighting their own battle. At an existential level it's true that we are alone in life and death because we are the only ones who know what it is like to experience the weight of our thoughts and feelings but there are people out there who will walk beside you while you fight to save your own life - keep looking for those people and never give up hope that you'll find them ... they are probably already much closer than you can possibly believe.

This blogpost is just the first of what I'm hoping to share about the bewildering journey I've been on. Last week I did a BettaKultcha talk about how the Maytree had helped me save my own life and I'll post the video of that talk (eeek!) as soon as it's available, then later this month I'll be hosting Eric Maisel on my blog as part of his virtual book tour for Rethinking Depression. In the meantime though, here are the slides (including the script that I used as the basis for my 5 minute talk):