My Raw Truth

Until a year ago, mental illness was something that happened to somebody else. Something that happened to people who’d had a really tough life or who were weak in some way. Something that didn’t happen to people like me. People who are strong, active, energetic and full of purpose. Something that could be avoided or resisted; or, if all else failed, fought against with pure determination.

Then, from nowhere, in this great forest of life, I was bulldozered over by PTSD and severe depression. Bulldozered, flattened, trampled on and then trampled on again and again if I ever dared to try to get up. There was no avoidance or resistance; and determination…well I didn’t even know what determination was anymore.

It has been Hideous. Horrible. Horrendous. And I’m still in that forest, gradually finding my way, but still aware of the bulldozer rumbling in the distance.

My Raw Truth will not strive to share a journey in a chronological and ordered way. That’s simply because mental illness doesn’t happen in a chronological and ordered way. There have been many times when writing has been my saviour. A thought has occurred and it has evolved into a piece of writing that has exposed one tiny element of the Raw Truth of my personal experience. The writing process has helped me understand myself  and has helped those around me understand what I am going through too.

I would never dare to suggest that my stories will explain the true nature of mental illness. There is no true nature of mental illness. It is different for every person it affects and, actually, it has been different for me too…day to day or even minute to minute.

But what I do hope is that through my raw, honest and candid stories, I will contribute towards lifting the stigma, the fear and the mystery that surrounds mental illness. Those who suffer from it, and we are many*, are just normal people who are unable to avoid, to resist or to fight it with determination and who simply need our care, compassion and support.

* 1 in 4 people will experience a depressive episode in their lifetime.

How Exercise Has Helped Me at Every Stage of This Crisis


Sport has been important to me all my life. Through tennis in the local park with my best friend as a teenager; soccer training, matches and travel whilst at university; swimming to get rid of those extra pounds gained in pregnancy; a random year of Gaelic football in Rome; and playing in a squash league more recently, I’ve gained so much from all kinds of sport. Fitness. Competitiveness. Resilience. Stamina. Friendship. Team spirit. And that wonderful post-exercise feeling of crashing out with that warm glow on your cheeks and in your veins.

Enter a Major Depressive Disorder and all that vanished. Keen to keep fit? No chance. Feeling competitive? As if! Resilience and stamina? Can’t even get out of bed. Friendship and team spirit? Would rather be on my own. Warm glow? Who cares? At least, that’s what it was like to start with. I could barely motivate myself to get out of bed and move to the sofa, let alone exercise. Having a dog did force me to do something every day but I walked so slowly that I couldn’t exactly claim it was sport!

Then, with the encouragement of my therapist, I slowly began to realise that exercising again might actually help me. Sure, I didn’t want to compete on the squash court – playing against strangers in a confined space definitely wasn’t what my struggling mind wanted to cope with – but there were other options. Following encouragement of a mental health nurse who had visited me at home, I began with a simple step. He’d suggested putting my sports clothes on as soon as I woke up. That way I would be ready for exercise if and when I felt like it. I was a bit dubious to start with but I gave it a go. By the third day, I was standing on our cross-trainer in the living room, determined to give it a go. The words of my GP echoed in my head. “Even if you move for just five minutes a day, it’s a start.” So that’s just what I did.

Five minutes a day for a few days. At the time, I was having awful nightmares which caused me to begin every day with adrenalin pumping wildly around my body. As the five minutes became ten, I began to realise that exercising was killing all the adrenalin, fear and anxiety the night had brought me. This spurred me on and I was soon doing fifteen, then twenty and then thirty minutes every morning before doing anything else. Having woken up mentally exhausted, I soon had physical exhaustion to go with it. That was actually a good thing. It meant I could relax both my mind and body, resting to get over the night’s traumas, before planning my day ahead.

As the weeks went by, using the cross-trainer inside regularly turned into cycling outside. I would go ten or fifteen miles (this is very easy in flat-as-a-pancake Holland!), with a pause at the beach half way. So much movement and fresh air gave me a buzz while I was out and allowed me to enjoy an afternoon nap, free of nightmares and invasive thoughts once I got home. This got even better when, inspired by an article I’d read about the benefits of it, I started to swim in the sea during my pauses at the beach. Now September in Holland is a pretty cool 12-15 degrees Celsius and there’s often a biting wind on the seafront but, if nothing else, those swims were certainly invigorating!

More recently, as I am now back at work, it became harder to find time to exercise. I stopped for a month and was a bit slow to realise how that affected both my mood and energy levels. Prompted by my husband’s encouragement, I’ve started to cycle to work. This is a great way to ensure that I fit it in now that my routine is more intense again; as well as a lovely way to connect nature for an hour a day. The ducks in the image above are a common occurrence on the cycle paths, as our beautiful trees and calming canals.

I wouldn’t go as far to claim that exercise suddenly changed everything. There were still days that I couldn’t be bothered to do anything. There were plenty of days when exercising was all I managed to do. And there were lulls along the way when I stopped exercising for two or three weeks at a time. But what I can say with conviction is that when I managed to take those steps, whether it was only to put my sports clothes on or to cycle fifteen miles and have a swim in the sea, it always made a positive difference to my day. And when I had those lulls, I know that it always held my progress back.

I might not be as fit as when I was in my soccer team. The only competition has been with my mind when it hasn’t wanted me to do anything. I still don’t have the resilience or stamina to exercise and work full-time and be a Mum and be a wife (all of which I did for years without a problem); and I would far rather exercise on my own than with anyone else.

But I am moving. I am getting that warm glow in my cheeks and through my veins. And I am killing the adrenalin, the fear and the anxiety. At least for a while, anyway. It makes a difference. It really does.

What can you do that makes a real difference to you?

Dear Recovery…I Chose You.

I’ve just come across this on my PC. I wrote it a couple of months ago and then forgot about it. Now that I am recovering so well, it’s a delight to read. I was obviously teetering on the edge when I wrote it. Thankfully I chose Recovery and challenged the temptation of Relapse. 🙂

Dear Recovery,
You have been illusive for so long. I have dreamt of you. I have hated you for being so far out of my reach. I have longed for you. I have cried in desperation, believing I would never meet you. I have even hidden from you, once my depression became weirdly comforting.

It’s been endless, unbearable and agonising.
Yet, from nowhere it seems, you are tantalisingly close. Waking up is no longer dull and foggy – my brain buzzes with plans for the day and it feels good. Family meals are no longer a time to survive – I enjoy the chatter, the banter and the noise rather than struggle with it. Going to work, after a year off, is stimulating and exciting instead of being frightening. Conversations about next week, next month or next year engage me rather than fill me with dread. There’s never enough time to write about the ideas that flow around my head, instead of trying to find the energy to put that one thing in my journal.
As you can see, Recovery, I’m on the edge of meeting you in full and even of excluding my pursuit of you from my life forever. I will no longer need to dream of you. To focus on you. To believe in you. We will have met, shaken hands and said farewell. You see, I now have the tools in place to do that and I have no intention of needing to strive for you in my life again.
The problem is (isn’t there always a problem?), that your enemy Relapse is hovering around the corner and I still fear that my grasp on those tools is not strong enough to fend him off. It’s not that I am on my own. My therapist, my family, my friends and my colleagues are all there ready for me. Ready to remind me of those tools. Ready to pass them to me. Or even ready to force me to pick them up.
But that’s the other problem. Relapse is clever. He knows my fears and he plays on them. He knows how much I want to recover. How much I don’t want to let anyone down. How much, when I am overwhelmed, I need that readiness of all those people but how much I am unlikely to ask for it.
So during those overwhelming moments that still creep in every now and then, even as a warrior who has won so many battles, Relapse suddenly becomes appealing again. He’s there, hovering in the corner and ready for me. He means other people making decisions for me. He means lying on the sofa for hours without expectations. He means comforting, warm words from all those around me who have remembered I am fragile again. He means avoiding the responsibility of work. He means sloping off to bed when it’s all too noisy or chaotic or simply too difficult.
Dear Recovery, I voiced by concerns about Relapse’s power to a friend the other day. She took me seriously but she was also tough on me. “If you’re not careful, you’ll talk Relapse into happening. To be firm: stop looking at the mountain and thinking it’s impossible to climb it. You have already climbed through the ugliest and hardest part. Next you’ve got a bit of grind, but sooner than you think it will get easier every day.”

These words struck a chord with me. It’s hard to admit it but it’s true. If I focus on you, Recovery, I can make it and we will meet. If I give into the temptation of Relapse, believing those absurd notions that it would be good if he takes over, then I’ve allowed myself to be talked into it.
And I will not allow that to happen.
Thank you for always being there for me. Although I couldn’t see you for much of this journey, you were always waiting for me at the summit. True, Relapse has been there every step of the way too. But I’m a warrior with a great support network and I’m ready to kick him off.
Looking forward to shaking your hand,
Claire x

Routine – How I Learnt Its Importance The Hard Way

A big thank you to mind.org.uk for publishing this article this week. 

Having been mentally and physically strong all my life, fifteen months ago I crashed. Big time. I have only just returned to work following a year of absence. After 16 years of working full-time, this was a great shock to me. It was incredibly hard. It was a year during which I lost all the energy, enthusiasm and vitality that had previously come so naturally to me. I lost interest in myself and in those around me and spent the first couple of months essentially clinging to the sofa.

I was referred for therapy but, although I thought it was a good idea, the start didn’t go brilliantly. My therapist seemed too young and naïve to understand what I was going through. Besides, I couldn’t bear the fact that she spent so much time talking about the importance of a routine. Of exercise. Of eating well. Of sleeping regular hours. She’d ask me to tell her what I had done the day before; and what I’d be doing the following day. It seemed like such a waste of time – this was all common sense but I certainly didn’t have the energy or the willpower to stick to a routine at this moment in my life!

To my great surprise, things changed one day and so too did my perspective. Having worked from home for a couple of weeks to keep me company, my husband decided to go into the office.  By 8.30am the house was silent. He had gone and my daughters had left for school. I sat on the sofa and tried to calm the rising panic in my chest. The silence was deafening. I had nothing to do. Nowhere to go. No-one to speak to. What was I supposed to do all day? I vaguely recollected conversations with my therapist. Perhaps this was what she meant about the need for routine?

In the months that followed, I tried hard to carve out a routine for myself. Early morning walks with the dog; healthy eating (giving up beer was the hardest part); and lots of exercise. Most days I would have preferred to roll over and go back to sleep. But, most of all, the exercise was good for tiring out my whirring mind and calming the adrenalin that constantly pumped around my body.

After six months, I began to feel better and consequently complacent. I suddenly started to feel less of a need to force myself to exercise on a daily basis. My poor appetite had improved and I started to eat too much of the wrong things. As well as this, my better mood gave me the excuse I needed to buy beer again as I no longer felt at risk of it bringing me down.

Three weeks on I found myself alone, under the effects of alcohol and in a very risky situation which led my husband to rush to the beach from work to ‘make me safe.’ Following a number of beers, I had put my life in danger without any concern for the consequences. Understandably, both he and my therapist asked me why. Why after a period of apparent stability did my mood escalate from one to a hundred so suddenly? The explanation from me that I had received an upsetting email seemed to hang in the air and mock me as they stared at me in despair.

Following extensive dissection of the day’s events, I had to admit that the weeks preceding that day had contributed too. Although it seemed minor at the time, by stopping exercise, eating crap and drinking beer every day, I’d pressed the self-destruct button long before. By the time that day arrived, and I received an email I felt I couldn’t cope with, I was in no state to deal with it. Lack of exercise meant I was wired with adrenalin; a rubbish diet meant I felt lethargic; and I’d become convinced I needed beer to help me relax.

And there you have a perfect cocktail for a crisis. The debate about what constitutes self-care has been discussed a lot recently. I’ve come to realise that what once would have been a lazy few weeks in my life, can now actually compromise my mental health. So, if I choose to decide to abandon my routine, I either have to be sure that I am feeling particularly mentally strong or, that I am ready to accept the consequences.

Recovery – Give Yourself Some Credit Too!

During an incredibly difficult fifteen months, while I have battled depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I have been incredibly grateful for the support I have received. Throughout this period, I have thanked many people for their vital role for helping me reach the seemingly unreachable…that glimmer of hope called recovery.

These have included my husband and daughters for their immense patience, love, understanding and thoughtfulness. Day after day after day after day.

My parents and in-laws for dropping their lives in order to prop up ours.

Siblings and special friends for reminding me that I am important. That I do matter.

Friends, relatives, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers who’ve responded to me personally or through my blogs, showing empathy or giving encouragement.

My company and my boss for their willingness to wait until I was ready to get back to work and their flexibility in helping me do it in the right way.

Medical professionals, from my incredible therapist to random nurses who I only met once, for their professionalism, skill and care.

Even my dog. For whining at me until I got my butt off the sofa and walked him.

It has been difficult. At times it has been agonising. And I have no doubt that without this tremendous support, I wouldn’t have made it through the hardest year of my life. I will be eternally grateful to all of these people and, if I haven’t managed to tell them that yet…well, they know now.

Yet reading this list, it is startlingly obvious that I have not credited the most important person for their role in my recovery: myself. Although most of the time it hasn’t felt like it all, I, myself and I have actually been fundamentally important on this road to recovery.

For the times I dragged myself out of bed to have a noisy family breakfast when all I craved was silence.

For the times I met a friend for a coffee when I just wanted to be alone.

For the times I got on my bike and rode to the beach when I longed for the sofa.

For the times I kept writing, even though the sting of a rejected blog hurt so much.

For the times I engaged in painful, embarrassing or downright unbearable dialogue with my therapist when all I wanted to do was run away.

For the times I decided I could go on no longer but reached out for help before it was too late.

The list is endless. No-one else could have done any of that for me. No-one else could have made that difference in that moment on that day.
Therefore I deserve some credit, some appreciation, some gratitude…and I must remember to give it to myself.

For all those suffering from mental illness, don’t think for a second that I am suggesting it is all about choice. There are people out there who believe that happiness is a choice. They are the people who have either never experienced mental illness; or who have put their recovery down to choice without noticing the many other factors involved.

What I am saying, however, is give credit to yourself when it’s due. For every time I cycled to the beach, the temptation of the sofa won five times. For every time I opened up to my therapist, shame or fear won ten times. That is why I am congratulating myself on my own role in my recovery, for all those crucial moments when I did manage to win.

Yes, I couldn’t have done it without all those incredible people in my life.
But actually, I also couldn’t have done it without incredible me.

The Human Lives Behind the Headlines

A new kind of post. But a topic that is as close to my heart as mental health.

I lived in Italy for 11 years and the news was (and still is) frequently focused on the boat loads of migrants who risked a treacherous journey to start a new life in Europe. Many didn’t make it and their stories are heart-breaking. What is also heart-breaking, however, is the prejudice they face if they do make it. I totally understand that the issue of immigration is a tough one. Italy, for sure, is struggling to meet the needs of its own citizens, let alone hundreds and thousands more.

Yet, ultimately, we are all human and human life must be respected and protected above all else. Last year, I realised that I wanted my daughters to know, understand and believe this so I wrote a book to help them see beyond the headlines and statistics that can be so derogatory towards immigrants.

‘The Other Side of the Fence – A Tale Of Love and Oranges’ is the story of Sayid, a Syrian teen who arrives on Lampedusa, an island in Italy that receives thousands of migrants every month. Francesca, whose father works at the reception centre, meets him having volunteered to work there for the summer. So begins a tale of sweet communication problems, heart-breaking experiences, a dangerous journey and an eventual love story.

The words above are Francesca’s. I will be sharing more quotes from my book in the coming months and let you know if I ever fulfil my dream of publishing the book. If nothing else, I will self-publish and place a copy in my daughters’ hands.

At twelve, they are young, impressionable and very susceptible to the prejudice around them. Above all, I want them to see beyond that and to understand that there are valuable human lives and stories behind every headline and every statistic.

I would like to stress that the quote above from my book is purely fictional and not my own lovely mother’s words! 

Falling Ill Taught Me To Empathise

Just over fifteen months ago I was a dynamic, energetic and enthusiastic teacher. Passionate about my job, I placed huge importance on being efficient, organised and flexible and I rarely took time off. As a Year Leader of four classes, I expected the same of my team. In the name of improving, progressing and innovating, there wasn’t much time for listening or for being empathetic.

That was incredibly hard to write. And to admit. At the time, I thought I was a good leader. No doubt in some ways I was. Of course it’s good to be committed and to strive for success. But, during the hardest year of my life while I have fallen apart mentally, I have realised that there was not enough balance, either for myself or for my team. That lack of listening and of empathy was actually incredibly significant. I didn’t know it at the time. It’s taken a long time for me to get there.

A large part of my drive came from my boss. The headteacher of my school is dynamic, energetic and ambitious. I believed that anything less wouldn’t be good enough. So that was what I strove for too.

So when I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, having been mentally healthy all my life, her reaction was a major concern to me. I was initially told I’d be off work for four weeks. I was horrified. Four weeks! How could I possibly leave my class and my team for that long? My naivety seems laughable now!

Ashamed as I was about not being at work, I have never felt ashamed about my diagnoses. I sent my head teacher an email explaining what was wrong in a desperate effort to convince her that I did actually need to be off work. I was terrified about what her response would be, fearing it would be dismissive or cold.

When this appeared in my inbox, my fears disappeared:

“It takes courage to begin to process the impact of these kinds of experiences and I acknowledge you in being brave enough to start to face it all.
You need to prioritise yourself at the moment – all will still be ticking along at work ready for when you feel back on track. There is absolutely no rush and no need for you to worry about school.
So, take your time. Enjoy walking the dog, being a mum, chilling out, staring into space…whatever you need to do – it’ll be very well worth it in the long term.”

I was so relieved and grateful. Despite her drive and ambition, the headteacher I admired so much had just acknowledged that it was ok to take time out for mental health. The fact I hadn’t expected her to be so understanding, made it seem all the more significant.

Receiving that email was just the beginning of me realising how important it is that people truly listen and show empathy. I’ve benefitted from endless similar experiences since when my husband, my family, my friends and my therapist have simply listened to my confused and jumbled thoughts without judgement. Every single time that has happened, it’s been so precious to me. And, time after time, it’s slowly taught me how I can be a better listener and how I can show empathy too.

This week, a friend who I’m not very close to, popped by on the off chance for a chat. I wasn’t home. As I re-read her message, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it that it seemed. So I suggested meeting for a coffee the following day to which she replied ‘wonderful.’ When we met, I was a little nervous. We’d never done this. Would conversation be awkward? In the past, I would have leapt in with constant babble about not very much to prevent any awkward silences. On this occasion though, I simply asked ‘how are you’ and sat back, ready to listen.

For an hour, she talked. She’d read my blogs. And appreciated them. And needed to share.  I listened. I made the odd suggestion but I didn’t jump in every 10 seconds thinking I had a quick fix to everything. A year ago, I would have done just that. Striven to fix and then to move on. Listening felt good. Feeling her relax and open up even more, felt good too. Realising how much I’d changed for the better, felt great. Receiving this message a few hours later, made me feel so proud:


“I really wanted to say Thank You for everything today. The idea of the coffee, the beautiful present and mostly Listening!! Thank you so much. I really felt Much Better after that :)”

The ‘beautiful present’ was a note book and pens to record how she, as a mother of four, is going to prioritise and treat herself. So simple. That was another tip I’ve learnt this year. Never forget to prioritise number one!

A year on, after a couple of false starts, I’m finally about to go back to work. I am so much better. I feel ready. I am excited. Fairly nervous. And hopeful it will go well.

Above all, however, I want to go back and be a listener and an empathiser. To students and colleagues at work; and to family and friends at home.

If I have ‘only’ learnt the importance of that during this intensely difficult journey, then I know my headteacher was right.  It has been ‘very well worth it in the long term’.

Thank you to ‘The Mighty’ for publishing this article.

Being Thin: Losing Weight Doesn’t Always Mean What It Seems

I wrote this back in October. A lot has changed since then. For a start, I’ve gained all the weight I lost…and some! But it’s always good for me to go back and read what I wrote during difficult times. It makes me realise just how far I have come; and just have much I am learning on this life-changing journey. 

I braved a party this weekend with people I hadn’t seen for ten months. With the help of make up to give me some colour; a lovely dress to help me feel good; and a glass of wine to take the edge off my mood, I ventured into a crowd of family and old friends for my mother. Only for my mother. My mother who has supported me so much through a major depressive episode, who was celebrating her 70th birthday and who really wanted myself and my family to be there.
It was tough. Tough to make small talk. Tough to smile. Tough to hug and be hugged. Tough to bullshit about how marvellous life is for five long hours.
The hardest part, however, was hearing the endless comments about my figure:
“I know you’re having a hard time at the moment sis but your figure is amazing.”
“What’s your secret? I wish I could be that thin at 40!”
“Wow, you look fantastic!” I am so jealous of that waistline!”
Positive comments, I know. Yet my loss of four kilos in a month, which removed every trace of my post-holiday chubbiness, told another story. That was why those comments were so hard to hear.
After eight months off work, I finally returned full-time in September to my job as a Primary School teacher. My heart glowed. It was so good to have a purpose again; so good to have an important part of my identity back; so good to be leaving the house in the morning along with my children and husband.
That was until the pressure started to build. Pressure. Tension. Desperation to prove myself. The demands of twenty-four students in their new class. Long hours. Family life. Plus, just in case it wasn’t enough, my husband went away for work and my anti-depressant changed. The Perfect Storm. Easy to spot, looking back.
Well that Perfect Storm caused my stomach to twist, to burn, to cramp. Eating became a duty. My appetite had gone.
The change in medication led to extreme nausea. Eating was no longer a duty. It felt impossible.
The stress made adrenalin surge relentlessly through my body. Intense exercise was the only way to calm the chemicals that rushed through my veins.
Excessive exercise and lack of food meant lack of energy. That, in turn, meant light-headedness. That was strangely welcome. Feeling faint, I could lie down and rest without my head bursting with a stream of destructive thoughts.
And then, as I lay on that sofa, and put my hand on my flat belly, I felt a great sense of satisfaction. I had failed at work. I was on long term sick leave once again. Due to concerns about my safety, my life was once again dominated by concerned looks, probing questions and others making decisions for me. Whether that be a company doctor about when I could return to work or a psychiatrist about what I should be taking every day, that lack of control frightened me. Touching my flat belly, on the other hand, was reassuring. Reassuring because my weight was the one thing I could have complete control over. The buzz that gave me was huge. The incentive to push myself to eat properly was even more limited.

So whether it was nerves or nausea, exercise or a need to control, the hidden reasons were many. That’s why those four kilos fell off my body with seemingly little effort. That’s why I had a waistline to be admired.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t like those compliments. Who doesn’t like a compliment?
But next time you see someone who has lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, think before commenting. There’s bound to be a story behind it. If it’s a good one, the person you are admiring will be quick to share. If it’s not so good, perhaps it’s wise to look beyond the thin waistline, the excessive blusher, the lovely dress and the wine induced positivity and simply ask, ‘How are you?’

 

From Baby Steps To A Monumental Leap Towards Recovery

After 40 years of good mental health, my breakdown came from nowhere. So, too, did my diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe depression.

A year on, and the impact of baby steps toward recovery is finally evident. I am not yet the energetic, enthusiastic and tireless mother, teacher and wife I once was, but I am suddenly beginning to recognize myself again.

The problem with baby steps is that you often don’t see the progress you are making. Each step forward is so minuscule that you barely notice it; and, of course, the steps backwards make recovery seem impossible. But then one day, something happens and you suddenly realize all those baby steps have contributed to a monumental leap from where you were in your darkest days.

My “something” was my sudden urge to book a flight from the Netherlands to the UK to support my younger sister. She’s in the middle of a big project for work, her husband’s away for the weekend and she has two young children to look after. As we chatted on the phone, it seemed natural to suggest that I pop over for the weekend to help her out.

This would have been no big deal 18 months ago. Yet now it is truly monumental.

A year ago, leaving my bed or the sofa seemed impossible — now I am leaving the country.

10 months ago, I couldn’t walk down the road without clutching my husband’s hand — now I long for some independence.

Six months ago, I couldn’t bear my teenagers’ chatter — now I am throwing myself into family chaos with young children.

Four months ago, I couldn’t cope with thinking about my own issues, let alone talk about someone else’s — now I’ve happily offered myself as sous chef, nanny, therapist and drinking partner for my sister.

Two months ago, I felt like this nightmare would never end and constantly wanted to be alone — now I am excited about the future and being with my family.

So, if you feel all those baby steps are pointless and getting you nowhere, I encourage you to keep believing and keep going. It might take a while, but one day your “something” will happen and you will realize that you have taken your monumental leap too.

I am realistic. I know there will be steps backwards. There will be more occasions when baby steps are needed. To remind me they are worth it, I might just frame that flight ticket.

Juggling: Part Two. I Now Know It’s OK To Drop A Ball!

For this to make complete sense, read my first Juggling poem earlier in my blog. 🙂

JUGGLING – a year on: post therapy

Well I didn’t decide to give up, my mind just took control,
And for a full year of my life, held a dominant role;
I plummeted into severe depression, ceasing to be me,
Wife, mummy or teacher, I could no longer be.

My hair thinned, I lost weight, I could no longer care,
Detached from all who loved me, life’s joys I didn’t share;
Moving from the sofa was an impossible feat,
I often longed for my heart to cease to beat.

The situation was extreme, from intense pain I couldn’t hide;
Nightmares of past traumas, led to my attempted suicide;
It broke so many hearts but mine was numb to it all,
My emotions had been dead since the day of The Fall.

With therapy and love, as well as vital medication,
I’ve managed to turn a corner with anxious trepidation;
As I tiptoe towards the future, I feel hope once again,
And I’m more able to cope with that intense pain.

It’s been a traumatic journey but I’ve learnt what life’s about:
Human connection is crucial, as is the courage to reach out;
I don’t need to prove anything or to always be strong,
And if I drop the odd ball, nothing will go wrong.

It’s true that life is challenging and we’ll always need to juggle
But please be self-aware and ask for help when you struggle;
I always thought I was invincible, I’d cope with any strife,
Please don’t believe in that, you might just save a life!

‘Attention-Seeking Is Not A Swear Word

As a teenager, hearing the “dramatic” girls in school described as “attention-seekers” was the norm. Whether they sobbed loudly in the school toilets or rushed out of the classroom in a panic, the gossip was always the same. The words, “she’s such an attention-seeker,” would be spat out with contempt. Being shy, I didn’t use those words myself, but I also didn’t challenge them… largely because I thought they were true.

During my college years, teacher training and first 15 years of teaching, my opinion didn’t change much and my reaction was much the same. Of course I’d show sympathy if any of the children in my class were upset but, in true “British-stiff-upper-lip” style, I would encourage them to go out to play as the “fresh air will make you feel better.” As for colleagues, I truly believed feelings could be kept under control, there was no place for them at work and that any outward display of extreme emotion at work was indeed “attention-seeking.”

Then, out of nowhere, I was struck by severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For the first few months, I didn’t recognize it, acknowledge it or even see it. I continued to work, though it was an unbearable struggle. A year on, a good friend and colleague told me how I behaved in that time and according to the standards by which I had always harshly judged others, my behavior could only be described as “attention-seeking.”

I’ve never been one to sob loudly, even in the comfort of my own home, but after two hours teaching, I would frequently cry in the toilets during my break. My red eyes gave me away as I returned to class, but I’d avoid eye contact with anyone I passed. But I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.

I began to avoid meetings with large groups, knowing it would be noticed, but also knowing I couldn’t bear being in a room with so many people who were more confident, smarter and more in control than I was. But I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.

I started to mark books in my classroom with the door closed and the lights off. I knew it was odd, but the brightness and the hum of the strip-lights tormented me. And I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.

I ceased to eat lunch in the staffroom, before ceasing to eat it altogether. Weight was falling off me. My clothes hung off me, but I felt so sick that eating felt impossible. It sapped my energy. I looked pale and weak, shuffling around school rather than dashing as before. Everyone noticed but I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.

After a few months of this struggle, the school nurse invited me in for a cup of tea and a chat. She asked me how I was. “Fine,” I answered, without looking her in the eye. I knew that was a tell-tale sign of lying, but I had no real reason to feel so awful and didn’t want to believe it myself. I certainly wasn’t attention seeking.

“No you are not OK Claire,” she replied gently. “You’ve lost so much weight, you’re not eating, you’re pale, you’re distant from everyone, you mark in a dark room… the list goes on. Can I ask you something? Can you look me in the eye? Claire, are you suicidal?”

My eyes that had met hers for a millisecond, hit the floor. For the first time in my life, my body was overcome with heart-wrenching sobs. Putting my head in my hands, I bawled as though I could never stop. How on earth did she know I no longer had the will to live? Was it that obvious? I swear I hadn’t been attention-seeking!

There began a year-long absence from work, intensive therapy and endless moments when I “sought attention.” These included moments when I sobbed down the phone begging for a “crisis” appointment with my therapist. Times during which I spent days on the sofa or in bed, barely responding to those around me. Desperate occasions when I self-harmed but never actually went “too far.”

All of these occasions filled me with shame and disgust. How was it that I couldn’t control my emotions? Why couldn’t I just “get a grip”?  How could I put my family through this? And so it went on… and on.

This self-battering took place one day during a therapy session. My therapist listened patiently, waiting for me to finish. Her words that followed provided me with more comfort than anything that had been said to me for a long time.

“‘Attention-seeking’ is hardly a swear word. I see all of your actions as a cry for help. You were desperate. You needed support and you asked for it. You did it in the wrong way sometimes. But we can work on that. You need help. You simply need to learn how to ask for it.”

I absorbed her words.

And then sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed.

She had undone three decades of prejudice against others and prejudice against myself.

It was OK to need attention. It was OK to seek attention. And once I knew that, I was ready to do it in the right way.