The wrong side of the tracks

***TRIGGER WARNING SUICIDE***

You can tell when I am not very well because there is a sudden flurry of posts after weeks of sitting around twiddling my thumbs thinking that I have nothing to say. I’d even begun to think this blog was largely defunct, hell, that blogging as an art form is on its last legs now. It simply doesn’t create the buzz it did when I started writing five years ago.

But the more unwell I become the more I remember the purposes of this blog. It’s not here to campaign, to educate, to support those who are looking for ways to feel less alone; those have been the side benefits. Really it began as catharsis, therapy when I wasn’t being offered any formal psychological intervention. In the very early days of spring 2011 it was just about exploring what was happening to me as I came back under secondary services. It’s pretty depressing really that five years later I am still under the same services – in fact I make the same journey to see the same consultant in the same building every single time.

I first saw a psychiatrist when I was 20 and I am now coming up on 42. Throughout that period have fought against hospital admission and been successful, largely due to having “insight” and having a husband at home to look after me. It’s actually pretty shocking when I look back and consider that the first time a life partner was expected to care for me, my ex-husband was just 19 years (we got married young). I mean… seriously? Expecting a 19-year-old to ensure the safety of a suicidal person, with zero support? I look at our son, now nearly 19, and can’t imagine how services could have been so irresponsible.

So although I’ve often been asked if I think I need to be in hospital I’ve always been able to say something like, no, because Tom can take time off work, or no, because I can have friends drop in and check I’m OK. Especially as eventually I tend to give up my suicide plans in the face of relentless niceness from the Home Treatment Team. I did that earlier in the week and feel so very relieved. On Thursday we made a plan that Tom would come with me to HTT on Sunday and hand over any drugs that are somewhere hidden in the house – to remove from him the burden of keeping them hidden, and to remove from me the temptation to hunt for them.

Yesterday (Friday) morning I felt less awful and that we now had a good plan to keep me safe I might be OK. My mind seemed clearer, empty of awful thoughts, and I was looking forward to going to yoga after I saw HTT. Friday is a special kind of class called yin yoga, which involves getting into positions and holding them for up to five minutes. It’s the most relaxing way I know to be in discomfort (I’m aware how weird that sounds!) and it’s probably my favourite of all classes. In the end I didn’t really see HTT; I’d made it clear the day before that I would come at a specific time because I wasn’t prepared to skip yin but when they eventually came down it was after a 45 minute wait and I had to go to the studio.

OK, we’ll see you tomorrow, they said. But how are you feeling? Are you OK?

I feel fine, really. I don’t feel at risk at all. See you at 11am!

I got to class with a few minutes to spare and positioned my mat in my preferred place. For the next 70 minutes I gave the class my all – it least in terms of my body. I pushed myself to the “edge” or what the teacher calls “the goldilocks spot” – not so easy you don’t feel it, but not actually painful and likely to cause injury. I would say that 60% of the time I was focused on the teacher’s voice, on the relaxing music, on the thoughts of how hard the posture was and on trying to breathe through the tightness until the bell rang.

But the other 40% was running through suicide options I had perhaps forgotten to consider before. I thought about the people I wouldn’t have the chance to see again before I did it. Mostly this felt entirely dispassionate but at the end of the class when I was tucked up under a blanket with my legs resting on a bolster I began to cry. I tried to do it quietly and quickly wiped the tears from my face as we sat up to end the class.

I felt OK as I headed home. Not as awful as you might think after those thoughts. But the exposure to them had done some damage on a less conscious level I think, because when I arrived at my tube stop I didn’t just leave the station and walk to the bus stop. I let my legs carry me over the bridge and down to the other platforms, one for stopping services, one for where the fast trains just whizz through. Platforms I had no business to be standing on,

I stood there and watched the fast trains, but I fiddled with my phone and looked at my watch and tried to make it look like I was meeting someone from one of the stopping services. I took mental notes, trying to gauge how and when to jump, whether it was best to do it as soon as the “This train will not stop here” message came over the tannoy or when I saw the lights of the train approaching.

I felt very pulled. I felt very drawn.

In the end I thought, well, I have three options. 1) Call Tom and hope he can leave work early and come and get me. 2) Call HTT who will have to send the police. 3) Seek help from a member of station staff who would have to call the police. I felt like I had crossed a major line and that if Tom couldn’t get me I’d be in the realms of being under s136 and probably down the road of a formal assessment under the Mental Health Act. I really, really didn’t want that, but I was in more danger than I’d ever been on the wrong side of the tracks. (Tom later said it was a watershed moment.)

I texted Tom and thankfully he rang almost straight away. He talked me through leaving the station and we agreed a place to meet. I was so distressed I ended up buying a load of crap from the mini Tesco and stuffing my face in the street while a waited. Better fat than dead, right?

I am now in a very difficult position. Home Treatment Team can’t see me at home for privacy and logistical reasons, but they are one of my main sources of support. The other is yoga. HTT requires a 20 minute tube journey in between buses. Yoga requires a 45 minute tube journey. Both tube lines involve passing though that station. I feel safe at home, but then I am cut off from support.

In the evening I rang HTT and got a nurse I know fairly well. I knelt on the kitchen floor and sobbed down the phone describing everything that’d happened. “Charlotte, you know that if you’re standing by the train tracks trying to pick your moment, you need to come in. I have a bed [on the unit where I see HTT] right now as it happens, but I can’t guarantee it will be there tomorrow.” I said I’d talk it over with Tom, although I knew would be against admission; he’s worked on too many wards to be positive about them.

But I am really struggling to keep myself safe. I am thinking about or reading about different methods, making shopping lists, doing reconnaissance, trying to think what I need to do put my financial and funeral arrangements… It’s really, really exhausting. It’s like having a part time job that you find yourself bringing home with you.

If Tom weren’t here I’d have no choice other than to be in hospital right now. Now, as I said to the HTT nurse, is time to let go of pride. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve avoided hospital. It’s not relevant to the now. Tom’s going to drive me to HTT today and tomorrow and will be around the rest of the time. But what happens on Monday?

 

 

 

Posted in Bipolar, Crisis care, Mental health, Mood disorder, NHS services, Suicidal thought, Suicide, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Scary people need #TimeToTalk too

Time to Talk day is here – a laudable attempt by umbrella campaigning organisation Time to Change to get as many people as possible talking about mental health. A quick scan of the Twitter hashtag shows that charities big and small, NHS bodies, celebrities and politicians are all pledging their commitment today to have conversations about mental health.

As you probably know, I’ve done work for both Mind and Rethink, TTC’s biggest funders, and indeed have volunteered with TTC myself (and taken the pledge!). One of my very earliest pieces of campaigning was propositioning complete strangers at the London Mela and asking them to have a conversation about mental health. Yet I’m left wondering: whose mental health? What are we talking about? What does the phrase even mean?

It’s tempting to point out that “mental health services” are actually services for people who have poor health, but so what? The same is true of “the health service” in general. Equally yes, “we all have mental health” and I suppose this is supposed to point out that we’re all essentially on a spectrum. OK, but how does that help? I have a few minor physical health problems, so by that logic I guess I am on a continuum with someone with multiple serious conditions. Does that give me insight into their life? Not at all. Do they feel comforted by knowing that I’m a little bit ill? Seems unlikely.

Furthermore the spectrum model implies that we’re all at least a tiny bit ill. In fact just this week someone told me that “there is no such thing as a mentally well person”(!). So-called Blue Monday passed in a flurry of attempts to let people know they “were not alone”. Let’s just remember what exactly they might be feeling “alone” with: being a bit low although completely within normal mood range, for one day, because of easily identified factors such as Christmas being over, being in debt, dark mornings and dark nights, and the inevitable anticlimax of the post Christmas and post New Year period.

In other words, they were being asked to seek help for being completely normal for a day. So one effect of the spectrum model appears to be to pull groups of people who do not have diagnosable conditions into the mental health zone. The spectrum concept also makes it easier for people to self-diagnose. I suspect we all know someone who is actually quite well but would secretly like some kind of diagnosis, especially ones associated with creativity or “specialness”, such as bipolar or Asperger’s, and I see them as sliding up the continuum like the “worried well” Blue January dudes. The increasing focus on “workplace wellbeing” and “resilience” by mental health charities sees a big part of their business engaged in the very furthest, safest end of the mental health rainbow.

In terms of people with actual diagnosable conditions, depression and/or anxiety are clearly the marketable face of mental illness. After all, everyone’s has at least a taste of low mood or feeling anxious, right? The theory seems to be that the smaller the gap between service users and non service users, the greater the reduction in stigma. And here of course is where recovery narratives kick in. The conditions that receive the most attention are those with better odds of being completely resolved after a single episode. Even if they aren’t, they’re often seen as conditions which allow the person to be fairly well between spaced out episodes. In other words, these case studies straddle the well and the unwell parts of the spectrum, reinforcing the message that “we all have mental health”.

What I see is an increasing phenomenon whereby “mental health” has pretty much become synonymous with the most common conditions – and those conditions alone, and vice versa. I see newspaper articles that talk about services and policy without mentioning any conditions other than depression and anxiety. Am I being (non-clinically) paranoid? Well, let’s take a look at who the main charities have as their “ambassadors”, which is the term Mind uses, or “celebrity supporters” if you’re looking at Rethink Mental Illness and Time to Change. I won’t bore you by showing my working, but as far I can see the three biggies have 41 supporters/ambassadors. Of these, 20 have direct lived experience. Here’s the breakdown:

Depression: 12     Anxiety/panic attacks: 5     Eating disorder: 1

Bipolar: 2 (the expected “big guns” Stephen Fry and Frank Bruno

In the big push to further close the gap, charities have adopted a “people with mental health problems aren’t scary, honest!” approach, recommending a water cooler check in with an unwell colleague with the reassurance that they won’t freak out or crumble into dust.

 

As it happens, I’m big on this idea of people talking to other people about their mental health. I love running Mental Health First Aid training, which encourage delegates to talk to anyone they know or suspect may have a mental health problem. But MHFA encourages sincere, human to human interaction with people – without insisting these interactions feel safe. The course rolls up is sleeves from the get go, unafraid to get stuck in to help delegates figure out how they can talk to people who are suicidal, who self-harm, who are actively psychotic – without promising it’ll be easy.

Because we need to be honest: people with severe and/or enduring mental health problems can be scary. We can be emotionally messy or flat and difficult to engage with. We can behave strangely at work or in public. We can withdraw from contact for days, weeks, months. Sometimes we can be aggressive. We might see or believe things that you just can’t. The shapes of our bodies might make people nervous. We might have forearms covered in scars. We might have pulled our eyebrows out. We might have recently tried to take our lives.

We do not exist to make other people feel comfortable – even if we could.

The closer the “common conditions” of depression and anxiety are pulled towards people with no diagnosable condition, the wider the gap becomes between “common conditions” and “severe conditions” becomes. Experiences of discrete episodes of mental ill-health and lifelong, disabling conditions are edged further further apart. Those of us who are sometimes scary, who don’t or won’t ever fit the recovery narrative, who won’t even get near a water-cooler moment because we can’t get into a workplace, feel left behind

I don’t want people to only talk to me about mental health if I am “relatable” on a given day. I don’t want to be shunned if I seem scary. I think the zone where scary is acknowledged but the conversation goes on anyway is where the magic happens. I call it “compassion”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Activism, Mental health, mental health debate, Mental health services, Recovery, Stigma and discrimination | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Groundhog Day

I’m having trouble blogging right now. I want to, I think it would be cathartic, but anything I could write about I have written here before. There is nothing new in my experience. Feels like Groundhog Day.

I’m back under Home Treatment Team. Again. The hospital receptionists remember my name. I guess I should be pleased that I haven’t seen them for 7 months, but…

I’ve been preoccupied with suicide. Again. I feel mean because I kind of laughed at the HTT junior doctor yesterday when he asked if I’d ever had suicidal feelings before. Well, only since I was 13, doc. Again, the way I want to do it, the methods, the timing is the same. I am secretive, devious, but no more so than in prior crises and previous posts.

Again I try to manage it by moving from bath to bed, trying to ignore anything in between unless it’s food. Cramming sugar down my throat, as always.

There are only a couple of real differences. One is yoga, and that continues to be incredible helpful. It allows me to park any thoughts at all about whether I want to be in this world or not for the 50 minutes or so when I’m engaged with power yoga. Feelings do bubble up when I’m lying on my back at the end, lights dimmed, relaxing music playing. Feeling so safe, so held in that 10 minute period, makes me cry, I think because I want to feel that safety all the time, and I can’t.

The other difference is HTT. This could just be me reading too many things into the last couple of days, but firstly there seem to be a lot of new staff. Secondly they seem to probe a lot more deeply around risk and, “Do you think you should be in hospital?” has kicked up a gear to, “Are you sure you don’t need to be in hospital?”

I don’t want to be in hospital, but I feel under pressure to go in. It’s making me feel that I can’t be honest after all, so then I’m not sure what the point of going is… I’ll see what tomorrow brings but what I am really holding out for is time with the consultant on Thursday. I’m really hoping for a complete medication review…. I was ready to start on the final drug the National Affective Disorders Service recommended (a calcium channel blocker called nimodipine, which even most clinicians seem not to have heard of). My own consultant did warn me that it was off licence and that he had never prescribed it before but I was feeling so desperate I needed something, anything, to change.

I had a very long talk with a lovely HTT nurse yesterday and she helped me see that from an outsider’s POV I am already on a lot of drugs. She actually seemed a little shocked that I was so unwell whilst on so many meds. I explained that they keep getting added in, but nothing ever comes out of the equation. Do I really want to add a fifth drug into the mix?

Suppose the nimodipine didn’t work, what then? Then I’d be on five drugs not working very well. Suppose I did stabilise on it. Which drug(s) could then be safely withdrawn? Everything has a function: lamotrigene for rapid cycling; pregabilin for anxiety; quetiapine for sleep and management of psychotic features (forget lithium, however, as I don’t believe it does anything). Removal of anything could be seriously destabilising and then I’d be back in the same boat.

I really want to see the consultant and get his POV. I can’t carry on taking drug after drug but still having crisis after crisis. I need it not to be groundhog day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Bipolar, Crisis care, Depression, Medication, Mental health, Mental health services, Mood disorder, NHS services, Psychiatry, Suicidal thought, Suicide, Treatment planning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Shadow boxing part 2

Since I last posted I have been very busy working on my shadow box. I’ve been gratified that a number of people have been really interested in what I’m doing, even to the point of offering to send me things. It’s not easy as that, sadly – the box is really difficult to work with in some areas. The smallest and most narrow cells are of course the hardest to fill and so they’re the ones I most need objects for. Often my heart leaps when I see something lovely in a charity shop or somebody shows me a pic and suggests popping it in the post – then I realise it’s just that little bit too wide.

Another problem is that the tray is very shallow so a lot of items I’d like to use (some of them on top of tray ATM) are simply too deep, again often by that frustrating millimetre or two. I’ll need a glass front so Tom has suggested we consult a glazier about having one that’s just a few millimetres in front of the edge of the tray itself. This would make all the difference and maybe some of the items currently sitting on the top of the tray could make it in there!

Anyway, I chose to work within the structure and limitations of the box, and that means being patient in sourcing things for it. Over the past week I’ve put a lot of effort into choosing paper items and ephemera to make “wallpapers” for each cubbyhole, whilst at the same time collecting things to fill them. Here’s where I’ve got to.

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I was very pleased that after quite a bit of searching I found my treasure box, which is essentially what is left of my “little collection”. Among other things I rediscovered the broken doll, the lacquer eggs, the slice of agate, the miniature bottles, the dark wooden horse that looks like something out of an illustration for a Chaucer story, and my grandmother’s clip on earrings. A particular favourite is the hammer and sickle badge which came from a beret I bought at Checkpoint Charlie about eight months after the Berlin Wall fell (I was 16).

There are still lots of other things still in the treasure box but, true to the recurring theme, they are all too big. Never mind, because having travelled the length and breadth of west London (I can only think of two or three more High Streets I can easily access) I have some gorgeous charity shop finds and I am sure there will be more.

Look out in the “travel section” for the moon gazing down benevolently on the little wooden boat, Lord Ganesha, wallpapers made from maps of the arctic sea and the former Eastern Bloc, 100 year old sheet music, and the tiny teeny elephant. The coins are Swiss Francs and Argentinian Pesos. Still to be used in this area (somehow) are a Ukrainian bank note, a 1925 book on the cities of Umbrian (Italy) and some Iranian stamps.

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Moving across to the left, at the top I have what I think of as the “celestial” section. More use here of the old atlas and the paper puppet theatre, buttons, a marble, jewellery and anything else I felt looked a bit like the moon or moonlight. This includes a vintage pendant I bought in Oxfam years ago and almost wore when I got married last year, a choker that I chose when shopping in the US with my ex, and a pearly ring brooch that come from my grandmother’s jewellery box. The mirrored crescent moon was in my treasure box, it would fit on one of the bigger cubbyholes but I think it’s a bit much… I’ll give it some more thought.

Underneath all the moon stuff there’s the pharmacy theme. Like Cornell, I’ve filled my little bottles with things which aren’t quite medicines. I also used the broken china doll I dug up at the bottom of the garden because she’s in need of treatment. The pocket watch is probably my favourite charity shop find, it’s not antique (which is how I could afford it!) so I may do something to “age” it a bit. I love that it actually works. There is something here about vital signs and about ageing I think.

At the bottom are the animals. Nowhere near there yet with this section.

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And the last section. Thinking about nature here… I snipped out a number of portraits from a book on Victorian gardeners and gave them a bit of a tint with a mixture of strong instant coffee and PVA glue, because the paper was too shiny and new looking. I think they look a bit Darwinian, and clearly they had a great interest in plants (and beards), so I’m playing around with how I can use natural things. More combing the park for interesting bits and pieces. I overcame the fear of looking like The Mad Lady Who Picks Things Off Pavements a long time ago :) There are severn gentlemen in the book and seven cubbyholes along the top left row which is pleasing. I’ll be making papier mache and cardboard frames for each of them this week so they will fit into the cells without being pushed all the way to the back where you can’t really see them. Earlier this week I bought a set of acrylic paints in gold, silver, bronze and copper and I’m really looking forward to using them.

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Other than that, all I have right now is…

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So that’s the progress as of Sunday 17th January!

I’ll post some more next week :)

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Bipolar, Crafts, Hobbies, Self-management, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Shadow boxing

I can’t even remember where I saw it advertised but when I saw pictures from the Royal Academy’s Wanderlust exhibition of the work of Joseph Cornell – an artist I had never even heard of – I was desperate to go. I found myself even more charmed than I expected and went round the exhibition twice. I won’t say too much about Cornell’s life because you can read all about it yourself, but several things struck me. The title Wanderlust refers to Cornell’s idealised love of travel and exoticism, yet he never left New England and was pretty much a recluse. In the early 20th century he became a prolific maker of art, collecting all kinds of objects and compiling them into what he called his “shadow boxes”, many of which reflected his interest in travel by incorporating maps and papers written in foreign languages, particularly French. He scoured junk shops looking for items, combining Victorian etchings with a range of found objects into three dimensional, glass-fronted works of art – this Pinterest board has a brilliant selection featuring may of the boxes I saw at the RA. You can see other recurring themes such as birds, “medicines” (usually strange objects in apothecary-ish glass bottles), celestial bodies/the night sky, balls and games.

Why did the shadow boxes appeal to me so much? Well, they are whimsical, and so am I. As a child I was always claiming things for my “little collection” – anything went, as long as it was small. Later this was expanded to my “museum” (OK, a cupboard with the front panels removed and replaced with chicken wire, previously home to a defunct guinea pig) and I admitted larger objects. There was a former rubbish dump at the end of our garden where I found the broken torso of  little china doll, shards of porcelain and a tiny blue Victorian scent bottle. Things I’d found became combined with things people had given me and more “treasures” I started buying from the secondhand stalls at the local market, a habit that has stayed with me.

I came away from the exhibition feeling really inspired and immediately started looking for quirky bits and bobs. I didn’t have a box, though. I looked on eBay at print trays, the most obvious approximation to one of Cornell’s boxes, but the postage or collection seemed beyond me so I shelved the idea until 2016.

We went to Herefordshire to stay with friends over New Year and they took me to Ludlow. I was very excited when I found THIS on the pavement, propped up against the wall of a shop selling hand-printed cards. It was raining (as in most of the UK over the Christmas and New Year period) and the wood at the bottom was wet but there weren’t any others, so it came back with us damp and stood in our friend’s hall, drying out slowly,  until we left.

The box waiting for some TLC

The box waiting for some TLC

Now it’s in our hall while I think about how I want to proceed. Tom’s going to help me clean out the individual cells, but I’ve already started playing around with some bits I might use. The pink swan on the top might look a bit strange, but among the birds parrots and swans particularly feature in Cornell’s work and I just found it in a charity shop.

Getting a feel for the sizes of the cells

Getting a feel for the sizes of the cells

Now to acquire more objects. The word acquire is key. I don’t want to just go out and buy the objects. I like the things to sort of come my way through being given to, discovered by, or found by me, and if gifts I prefer them to be from some considerable time ago.

According to my rules, it’s fine to go to a charity or junk shop with a vague mental list of the types of object Cornell might’ve used and hope I’m fortunate enough to find some. I won’t however be going online to search specifically for “old glasses” or “marbles”. My hope is that if I go out with a sense of openness something might suggest itself for the box. Chance and serendipity are really important to me. I don’t really enjoy sourcing objects from tidy corporate charity shops either. I like them cluttered, kooky, idiosyncratic. The best are one-offs that support a tiny charity I’ve never heard of.

The only exception is the purchase of some tiny glass jars or bottles which you’ll have seen crop up in number of shadow boxes. There is no way I would come across those in a junk shop and I’m pretty sure Cornell couldn’t have had either, but like him I plan to fill them with found items.

In terms of the backing papers, I have a mix. As Cornell used maps in his boxes I had the idea that I might too, and that just as he drew inspiration from the past, it would be fun for me to look backwards using an atlas like the one I pored over as a child. It struck me that with so much geopolitical change in the last 30 years, maps of the USSR or Eastern Bloc were as much a product of a now vanished world as were the Victorian engravings Cornell was using in the 1920s and 30s. Miraculously, I found the exact same edition in a charity shop the very day I thought of it! Now there’s a chance finding. So I can take what I like from that.

These gorgeous paper theatre templates I just unearthed were given to me well over a decade ago by a guy I very briefly dated… look at the bottom one (you couldn’t make it up – and no, he didn’t know):

Template for a "sun box"

Template for a “sun box”

A Puppet Theater

A Puppet Theater

Anxiety Dream Theater

Anxiety Dream Theatre

Here are some vintage postcards from my favourite charity shop – the ones shown here are Russian (top) and German, fitting in with the Wanderlust theme:

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And this, from a book of postcards of the Red Fort in Old Delhi, which I have scientifically dated by the tourists’ flares:

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Here’s a charity shop  print:

I might pursue a shell theme across one row

I might pursue a shell theme across one row

I haven’t decided yet whether I am going to put Perspex over the front of the finished box (it definitely won’t be glass). I may have to, otherwise even items which I’ve superglued might not survive someone knocking their shoulder on the corner of the tray. So I’ve decided to keep all the items within the depth of the box, even if that means leaving some things out. While Cornell was alive he kept the boxes open, adding and changing the contents, but I think mine will have to be “finished” at some point.

In the meantime I shall bore you with updates. I may well be a wee bit obsessed with this project, but given how high I’ve been there are so, so many worse things I could be obsessed with!

Bits and pieces from around the house

Bits and pieces from around the house – pebbles, a marble, sea glass, an urchin shell, coal, a tiny bell, leaves and berries. There are a couple of polished semi-precious stones in there as well but I think they are too “refined”

 

Posted in Art, Crafts, Hobbies | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

No more stockings

When I was small I was, like all children I knew, in a ferment of increasing excitement throughout Advent. On the 23rd December I would lie in bed and hug myself, thinking, “Tomorrow I shall say that tomorrow is Christmas Day!” My parents took it in turn with my aunts and uncles to host the festive meal and I took particular delight in decorating our living room in preparation for my cousins’ arrival.

Then Christmas and I sort of… parted company. My parents’ separation when I was 16 led to horrible decision-making about where to spend Christmas Day. None of my thinking was about what I wanted to do. It was all about what I thought I should do, about what was “right” and who “needed” me.

By the time I got to university I hated the thought of it and began a programme of repression that would have delighted Cromwell or Stalin. In our first winter in our student home we would not, I told my baffled fiancé, celebrate Christmas. It was hypocritical as we were both atheists, and anyway I abhorred the rank consumerism and the waste. Much better (in my view) to celebrate New Year; at least that meant something. On Christmas Day our relatives rang. “Did you like the-” asked my sister-in-law before I shrieked, “We haven’t opened them yet! We’re not celebrating Christmas!” Friends found my attitude strange and sad, watching how I dreaded its approach as the decorations and crackers appeared in the shops.

It’s such a cliché that “Christmas is for children”, but only once I had Max and Alice was I was able to view the festive season as pleasant. Suddenly shiny, jingly things and coloured lights, perfect to catch a child’s attention, made some sense. When Max was two and had already been presented with the questionable gift of a newborn baby sister, I put up a proper Christmas tree. He was awed. “Is this my Christmas tree?” he kept asking, pointing in case I wasn’t sure which tree he was referring to. “Are you make it for me?”

Perhaps I was compensating for the lost Christmas years but it became very important to me to establish traditions that would last through childhood. It turned out that I was good at it. I was so, so good at it. I made, although I say so myself, wonderful stockings. At this age I often wondered why we had bought the children “proper” gifts at all; they were so impressed and delighted with the contents of their reusable stockings.

Every year we read and reread Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas and Father Christmas Goes on Holiday. I was required and delighted to read it in exactly the same way every time, with the “correct” voices and intonation for every character. A few years later this favourite was joined by How Santa Really Works, which is recommended for its incredible ingenuity but takes a very long tome to read out loud.

I was an expert at the real life child/Father Christmas interface. We always left him a mince pie brandy or sherry – not too much, he was driving – and a carrot for Rudolph. Rudolph was fastidious in his nibbling and it was very clear than reindeer teeth and not pointy human incisors had been at that carrot. Father Christmas usually made sure to leave a few pastry crumbs and a little bit of brandy to show that while he appreciated the gesture, he was in a bit of a hurry. Despite this he was occasionally able to take a quick breather and scribble a letter for Alice if she had left him a picture or a thank you in advance note. What amazing, fantastical writing he had. All those incredible curlicues.

Of course we continued these traditions long after Santa had been busted. As they got older I took Max and Alice to Christmas plays (some a bit darker and more sinister than we were expecting). They were in children’s choirs and sang Christmas songs, and we sang carols elsewhere too, mostly for fun, occasionally for charity. Alice and I would bake Christmas things together, once assembling a gingerbread house. I particularly remember this as I burnt my finger on a wickedly hot melted boiled sweet windowpane. We kept up the tradition of stockings for years. I tried never to add together the £1 here and the £3 there and lived in happy denial of the total cost because buying the stockings’ contents still brought me such delight.

These days we are moving into the realm of vouchers and monetary gifts. Alice still likes to have things to open, although this will be the first year that she doesn’t get a stocking (Max stopped wanting/needing one a couple of years ago). This is all normal. It was entirely expected.

And yet I feel almost bereft.

I already miss it. I miss very carefully and quietly filling the stockings when I was sure they were asleep, being careful that the Chocolate Orange was in the toe to leave space for other tiny gifts. I miss selecting those gifts, wrapping some in scraps of coloured paper, leaving others to be discovered as they were. I miss chomping that carrot and I miss messy Christmas crafts. I miss adopting the gruff, grumpy demeanour of Briggs’ Father Christmas. In fact I miss seasonal picture books, full stop. The other day I saw someone reading Mog at Christmas to her grandchild and I almost cried.

I know I’ve nothing really to complain about. I have a fantastic husband who I’ll be spending the day with and then we’ll have a lovely second Christmas with the children at my mum’s. Tom and I will cook beautiful food together and drink the champagne we were given as a wedding present. We needn’t be woken at unearthly hours to be informed, “He’s been!” We don’t have to keep them entertained while I’m in the kitchen. We can skip the kids’ films and nobody will whinge about not liking Christmas pudding.

But I miss being Santa.

Posted in Christmas, Parenting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Mood crash investigation

Trigger warning: suicidal thoughts, suicide planning, railway suicide

Tom is a great fan of air crash investigation programmes. He takes pride in knowing exactly which seats to choose to maximise our chances in the unlikely event of a crash. (I don’t have a fear of flying, but if I did I’m not sure whether this would make things better or worse.)

Leaving terrorism or war aside there are actually relatively few reasons a plane might crash. Most obviously, there’s failure within the plane itself. It’s remarkable how a tiny thing – a defective screw or a missed electrical test – can cause such catastrophic failure.

Then of course there’s human error. A failure to engage or disengage some system can be fatal, as can misinterpretation of data from the instruments. I put it to Tom that freak weather might be another cause, but he was firmly of the opinion that the job of the pilot and co-pilot was to manage the weather situation, so that would be another kind of human error. That’s me told, then.

Why do I suddenly care about aeroplanes? Well, I’ve had a crash of my own recently, albeit bipolar not Boeing.

Until a couple of weeks ago I was doing well. During October and November I’d built myself a firm, strong framework of 5-6 yoga classes a week. I was going at the same day and time every week, so it added a lot of structure to my life. It’s far from being an experiment or a luxury now – it’s become essential. And of course there’s always the meds, chemical messengers if not electrical ones, taken exactly as directed, day in, day out. I never mess with the programme (not intentionally anyway, but everyone misses a dose now and again).

I’d even begun to bolt on useful extra safety features, things like daily meditation, mindfulness days, and eating more healthily. The whole thing was holding together well and I felt calm and happy. I was starting to believe that I could do things, things a “normal” person might do. I dared to consider whether I could forge an actual career in research.

Then THIS happened:

Edited screen shot

Reading that status makes me cringe. It’s pretty much the equivalent of a pilot saying, “Hey, I see there’s a freak ice storm ahead! It’ll probably get into the engines and freeze them but I’m going in anyway! Hope we all survive, LOL!” Part of my brain was flashing DANGER! DANGER! DANGER! but I overrode it.

There was no way my self-management plan was going to hold up under that strain, and for everything I did, I missed a yoga class. The end result is that I’m not very well. Within 24 hours of posting I was in free fall, not even able to tell whether I was in mixed mood or ultra rapid cycling or whether there was even a distinction. I’ve had nights when I’ve only slept a few hours despite, perky and bouncy in the day despite 700mg quetiapine, and nights when I’ve slept 14 hours. On one particularly sedated night I was so drugged I wet the bed and could only manage to drag a small towel between my body and the mattress, spending the rest of the night mostly sleeping my own pee. In the morning I stripped the bed, humiliated.

Sometimes I’ve been clearly hypomanic and it has served me well. This week I part facilitated a workshop, where being an enthusiastic people person is exactly what’s needed. Being energetic has also been extremely helpful in getting the Christmas shopping done and I’ve only slightly overspent. But this good humour can turn in a second. I’ve been irritable in vicious way. Awful words have bubbled up from deep within and before I can stop myself I have been horrible to strangers (usually because of some queuing incident because I am that British). At the time I feel smug and self-righteous but later those words leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I’ve been struggling with suicidality too. First came the cold, hard, sneaky side, encouraging me to manipulate Tom and my consultant and my pharmacist to give me more meds, using my months-long wellness to minimise any thoughts that I could be at risk. I knew that if I kept quiet the sneakiness would grow and I would be in a lot of danger; I had already started researching minimum lethal doses again. In the end I told both Tom and my consultant some of these thoughts, but I did not do it gracefully. The drugs have been taken away and my loopholes closed down.

Now I am obsessing about suicide by rail. Sometimes in the combined high energy and low mood of a mixed affective state my agitated body tries to pull me into physical danger even before my conscious mind has spotted that there’s an opportunity. Even when feeling a bit better I keep fantasising – not intentionally at all. I feel a huge urge to jump down onto the tracks even when no train’s coming. I try to stay as close to the platform wall as possible but I have at times been close to having to ask station staff to take me somewhere safe. But what would they do? Call an ambulance probably, so no.

My lamotrigine’s been put up to max. There’s nothing to do while I wait but to try and rebuild my plane. In the past 24 hours I’ve been wondering what the point is, building the plane then crashing it then rebuilding and crashing it over and over. Is it worth owning a plane at all if this is how it’s going to be in perpetuity? I just want to hide in the hanger and never, ever come out.

 

Posted in Bipolar, Hypomania, Medication, Mental health, Mood disorder, Rapid cycling, Self-management, Suicidal thought, Suicide | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments