Tag Archives: mental health

Depression, Poetry, and Guilt

All my good intentions fell apart after my last blog post, and I was MIA for a couple of weeks. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just…. Life.

I’ve mentioned before that I have Bipolar II and a general anxiety disorder. Both are only minor in the overall scheme of things. In that I can manage them with lifestyle options such as exercise, food choices, meditation/prayer, and avoiding high-anxiety situations. However, “managing” isn’t the same as “curing”, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself on a down — which is to say, I’ve been depressed.

Living with depression is something I’m accustomed to. Since I was eight years old I’ve been through three or four periods of depression every year. Then I’d “magically” snap out of it, and everything would be fine. (I was only diagnosed with Bipolar II a couple of years ago, and suddenly my whole life made sense.) So I know how to cope. I know the warning signs to look for, so I know when I’m not coping, and when to seek help. I know how to minimise the worst of it through exercise and food. I know to treat myself gently, and not try to “push through it” — which includes not pushing myself to write when I don’t have the energy. I know how to cope.

But once my anxiety disorder kicks in, it’s a whole other kettle of crazy.

Over the last few weeks, my life has felt like it’s spiralling out of control. Circumstances outside of my control have left me in a situation that has been thoroughly dependent on friends for my everyday necessities. I don’t want to get into the details here, but trust me when I say that I am eternally grateful to have friends willing to sacrifice their own time and plans to help me in my hour of need. But gratitude only gets you so far, and on Thursday night I found myself having a major panic attack — the first in eleven months.

And around and around in my head went the thoughts.

Other people have it much worse… You have no reason to feel like this… You’re just being silly… Stop being so melodramatic… Somewhere in Africa, children are dying.

And so I grabbed a pen and paper, and I poured my pain and anxiety and guilt on to the paper. This is what I wrote.

The Guilt of Africa

 

Anxiety strikes like a copperhead snake
My vision is blurry, my hands start to shake
Too many weights pressing down on my mind
The burdens are boundless, I’m not doing fine

My problems are first world, my life is a mess
My heart won’t stop racing, I’m tight ‘cross the chest
My children are calling, I want them to stop
I need to curl up in the dark now and sob

My thoughts are a spiralling circle of pain
Why can’t I be normal? My head feels insane
My breathing’s too fast, my head is too light
I’ve lost all my hearing and most of my sight

And somewhere in Africa, children are dying
Putin is marching and oceans are rising
And my well-fed children have pain in their eyes
While their mother just cries and cries and cries

Is this all I am? A heartbeat? A tear?
A mess of emotional, overwhelmed fear?
My fingers are tingling, my toes have gone numb
I’m not even worthy to wear the name ‘Mum’

It’s dark now and cold and I’m sitting so still
If I move, then I’m worried that I’ll break the spell
Of peace, just a little, of paper and pen
And words spilling out like the Duke of York’s men

I have vodka and cigarettes, stars and the moon,
Two children who love me, friends and a spoon,
And a tub full of yoghurt in the door of the fridge
I wish I could eat, but my stomach is sick

And somewhere in Africa, children are dying
ISIS is killing, Ebola is rising
And here I am safe in a home of my own
Strung out, defenseless, completely alone

 

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Filed under Opinion, Poems

My Year of Mental Health

RainbowDespite my best efforts to blog every day, my posts have been somewhat sporadic. I’m sorry about that. For what it’s worth, it’s not you, it’s me.

No, really.

Do you remember back in January when I shared my carefully laid out my goals for 2013? They mostly consisted of reading more, writing more consistently, and taking charge of my writing career. So far, that’s going pretty well.

But there was another goal — nay, more a resolution — that I didn’t publicly share.

I resolved to make 2013 my Year of Mental Health.

Since I was a child, I’ve suffered from various mental health issues. There are times I’ve been fine. But there are lots of times when I haven’t.

Over the years I’ve been depressed, I’ve been manic, and I’ve heard voices and been unable to tell if they were real or in my head. I’ve been suicidal and I’ve self-harmed. I’ve taken crazy risks without caring about the consequences. I’ve suffered panic attacks and near-constant anxiety. I’ve been overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness that have left me curled up in the corner of the room for hours at a time. I’ve been hypnophobic and suffered from insomnia. I’ve obsessed over details, and been filled with rage because someone left a glass in the wrong place. I’ve feared and hated the outside world. And, on more than one occasion, I’ve hated myself.

And through all of this, there are two things I’ve always been: undiagnosed and untreated.

But it was okay. Because I got good at faking it in public and managing my symptoms in private.

Not controlling, mind you. Managing.

I got so good at it, most of my friends didn’t even know I had a problem.

When I was ‘up’, I could take on the world. I didn’t need sleep, so the hypnophobia wasn’t a problem. I could achieve anything. And sure, there was always a part of my brain anxiously fearing the day I’d crash into a ‘down’ condition, but I’d manage. I always managed. I was okay.

And then…

And then Little Brother came along. Little Brother, with his propensity for leaving a trail of mess in his wake. Little Brother, who demanded to be held and cuddled and loved, even when I needed my personal space. Little Brother, with his whirlwind tantrums and unrestrained laughter and overwhelming joie de vivre.

Little Brother, who threw my carefully ordered existence into disarray in a way that his old brother never had.

And suddenly I wasn’t managing.

Suddenly I was floundering.

Suddenly I was anxious and angry and unpredictable, as likely to burst into tears as scream or laugh or hyperventilate. Suddenly I was having panic attacks two, three, sometimes four times a week. Suddenly I wasn’t okay.

But I was scared. Scared to step outside my comfort zone and admit that I wasn’t okay.

But I needed to do it. For my children, if not myself.

And that’s why I resolved to make 2013 my Year of Mental Health.

I saw a psychiatrist in January. It was a big and terrifying step.

And now I can’t say I’m undiagnosed or untreated.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and mild OCD.

I was prescribed medication.

And now…

Look, I’m not magically okay. It’s… trying. To say the least. There’s trial and error in finding the right medication, and I don’t think I’ve got it right yet. Some days I find myself wishing for the good old days when I may have been “crazy”, but it was my kind of crazy and I knew who I was and how I would react to things.

Then I look around and notice how much calmer my children are, and how much I’ve come to enjoy the feeling of Little Brother curled up against me for “more more cuggles” before bed, and I know that no matter how hard this adjustment phase is, it will be worth it.

I’m not going to regularly talk about my mental health on my blog. But I wanted to let you know why I haven’t been around as consistently as I’d like. Oh, and also?

Speaking up about what I’m going through is another big, scary step.

And sometimes it’s important to be brave.

You never know who will benefit.

Ship in port

I’d like to dedicate this post to my good blogging friend Kim “The G is Silent” Pugliano. Her honesty and openness about her own mental health not only inspired me to write this post, but also went a long way toward helping me come to terms with my diagnosis. Thanks, Kim. You’re the best.

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Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff

Don’t Panic! — Writing About Anxiety

Panic -- Photo by ClaraDonWhen I was at a writing convention last year, I took part in a workshop designed to strengthen characterisation. We did a number of exercises in the workshop, many of them in small groups where we could discuss our characters and stories.

During one such exercise, we split into groups of three or four people and were instructed to share the pivotal dark moment of our novel; a turning point, where the protagonist has to face and overcome a major conflict.

One of the women in my group was writing a YA novel about a girl facing bullying at school. The scene she described went something like this:

The protagonist has to get on a school bus and everyone is mocking her and she has a panic attack. Then she sits down on the bus and doesn’t let the mean kids win.

As someone who has suffered anxiety attacks for most of my life, I had questions. Lots of them. Like, what triggered the attack? What happens while she’s having it? Has she had them before?

The author seemed bamboozled by my questions. Confused.

The other kids are making fun of her like normal, and she’s just had enough. So she has a panic attack and then decides not to put up with it anymore and just sits next to someone she doesn’t know.

I ask some more questions, but get the same information delivered in a variety of ways.The other two members of the group nod and smile and congratulate the author on using a panic attack as a form of conflict, because it’s so “original” and “unique” — and, one of them adds, fairly easy to write, because there’s no actual bad guy and the girl just has to stop panicking.

And I found myself wondering: Is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this scene is nonsensical?

Over the last few months, I’ve come to realise that most people don’t know what it’s actually like to experience a panic attack. Look up ‘panic attack’ on the internet, and you’ll find various websites that list symptoms like breathlessness, rapid heartbeat, sweating, light-headedness, weakness, dizziness, feeling of doom, nausea, intense fear, and depersonalization — plus plenty of other “less common” symptoms. Then there’s a note advising that “not everyone who experiences a panic attack experiences all of these symptoms”.

But it’s rare to find a description of what it actually feels like to experience a panic attack. Now, I’m not an expert on anxiety. But I’ve suffered through more panic attacks in my life than I care to count. (The first I clearly remember was when I was eight years old.) Allow me to share what it’s like to be in my head during one of these attacks.

Maybe it will help you in your writing. Maybe it will help you understand what someone close to you is experiencing. Maybe it will help you feel you’re not alone. Just keep in mind that not everyone experiences panic attacks in the same way. This is how I experience them.

(If you suffer from panic attacks, please consider whether you wish to read further.)

——————————————————————————————————-

These clothes need to be washed by hand. Whose idea was it to volunteer for this job, anyway?

I turn on the tap and let the water run for a bit before I put in the plug. The kids are in the next room. I can hear them playing, giggling and laughing. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be arguing again and I’ll have to go intervene. I have to hurry. I have to get this washing done.

The water splashes into the tub, filling it up far too slowly. The rush of water, drops spattering on the sides, the harsh sound of water against metal. It echoes off the walls, drowning out other sounds. I can’t hear the kids now. Why did I volunteer for this? Why am I washing these clothes? This isn’t my job. I can’t–

I can’t do it.

The water is too loud. Everything is too loud. I need to turn off the tap, stop the water running. But if I do that, I can’t do the washing. And I have to do the washing. I can’t–

I can’t let them down. I can’t–

Too loud. I turn off the tap. That will do. The water will do. But there’s too much of it. The water makes it hard to breathe. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. My heart races. It’s pounding so hard, it feels like it will pound its way through my chest. I can feel it there. Pounding. Harder. Faster. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. No breath. My lungs don’t work. My chest is tight. Too tight. Squeezing my heart. I try to suck in air, but my heart is pounding too hard. No air. My arms go number, pins and needles starting at my fingers and racing up my arms like wildfire. All consuming. I can’t–

I can’t stop. I have to get this washing done. Dump the clothes into the sink. Try to act like I can’t–

I can’t do this.

I can’t do this . I just can’t–

I can’t hear the children. Is that good? Are they okay? Should I go check on them? No. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. I can’t–

I can’t stop this. My heart feels funny. Light. Like there’s no air. My eyes are hurting, sucked back into my head, like there’s nothing in the space behind them. No air. No blood. My heart is racing and I can’t–

I can’t feel anything in my arms. I can’t–

I can’t make it stop. I can’t–

I can. I know what this is. It’s just anxiety. It’s just panic. I know what this is. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. I can–

I can’t.

I can’t see . The world is black and grey. Spots of colour. It doesn’t make sense. My arms are numb. My legs. The ground is rolling and I can’t–

I can’t breathe. I need to breathe. Slowly. I need to…

The children are calling. I hear them, but I can’t–

I can’t go out there. I can’t face them. I can’t breathe. The air is too–

The clothes. I need to wash the clothes. I need to feel normal. Dump the clothes in the water. Take a deep breath. Start to wash them. Stop my heart from pounding. Concentrate. Focus. Breathe. In. Out. In Out. I can’t–

I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t face this anymore. I can’t feel. I can’t–

I can.

Wash the clothes. Deep breaths. Calm. I need to calm. I can’t–

I can’t find myself. The weave of the cotton I’m washing is so loose. I can see the gaps between the strands and I slip between them, slip into nothing, disappear. I don’t even exist. I am nothing. My head is full of clouds and water, and the water is in the tub, and the clothes in the water, and there’s nothingness. I am nothingness. I can’t–

I can’t feel myself. I don’t–

I don’t feel–

My eyes hurt. They fill with tears. Are they my eyes? I can’t–

I can’t cry. I can’t breathe. I can’t stop. I can’t–

A child. Talking. His words are noise, so loud, so loud I can’t hear them. I can’t–

I can’t fall down. I can’t give up. I can’t–

I can’t stop. I smile. I nod. I hope the child will go away. I try to breathe. I feel something behind me. A wall. I sink down it and let my head fall and tears fall and life fall and I fall and I can’t–

I can’t.

I can’t.

I can’t move.

Time. I’m on the floor. I don’t know how I get here. How did I get here? My eyes hurt. My chest hurts. My arms are numb and tingle. Time. How much is gone? I run my hands over my skin and it hurts, like needles in my flesh. The light is too bright. It hurts my eyes. I can’t–

I can’t go out there. The lights are too bright. The sounds are too loud. Every touch on my skin is agony. Don’t get too close. Don’t look me in the eye or you might know me, you might see me, you might see I’m not real. I can’t–

I can’t just sit here.

I can’t just sit here forever. I have to move.

My head aches. I feel tired. Empty. Hollow. Like the life has drained out of me.

My breathing evens out. My heartbeat slows.

I stand up and go back to washing the clothes.

I can’t keep doing this.

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Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff, Writing