Appreciate the Small Things? How?

My husband knows how to appreciate the small things in life. I am still learning. But as I crashed into severe depression, it was his ‘small’ gestures that constantly reminded me how much he loved me and helped get through each long, agonising day.

My nights had become torturous, plagued by nightmares of past traumas. My days had become endless as exhaustion deprived me of the energy I needed to teach, to be a mother, to be a wife, to simply live. Weight had started to fall off me; my face was pale; my eyes were blank; and my hair was thinning. Yet it wasn’t until I had a panic attack and the school nurse suggested I might be depressed and need help, that it occurred to me that that might actually be a possibility.

The biggest fear that immediately overwhelmed me was what my husband would think. We’d been together for eighteen years. In that time I had been strong, independent, purposeful…everything I no longer felt. He was a great believer in appreciating the small things in life, as well as the big ones of course. That appreciation escaped me entirely in that moment. Indeed, I couldn’t appreciate anything. Big or small.

What would he think of me? His strong, capable wife might be depressed, might need help, might even need medication. What on earth would he think of this new wife who had become everything that neither of us had ever imagined?

Well, I needn’t have worried. As the realisation hit my unsuspecting husband that this wasn’t a passing, rough phase, he immediately assumed the role of anything I needed at any time. If I was feeling that no-one loved me, he’d place a thoughtful note and a chocolate heart on my bedside table; if I needed to sob, but couldn’t talk, he’d hold me tight and dry my tears; if I made up too many excuses for lying motionless on the sofa all day, he’d insist that he really needed me to buy his coffee from the supermarket without delay. He started to call me randomly, just to check I was ok; he whispered to our daughters that all I needed was time and love; he brought me tea in bed with a little jug of milk because I always complained it was the wrong amount.

Each of these gestures, both big and small, have made every difficult day just that little bit more bearable. It’s been a long thirteen months. And it’s not over yet. But with my husband by my side, I know I can make it. I might even learn to appreciate the small things in life a little more, rather than always being alarmed by that huge, overpowering ‘big picture’. 

Why Is It So Hard To Simply Ask How Are You?

I wrote this five months ago when I was off work on long-term sick leave. It expresses my sadness about a common problem: people find it so hard to ask after you when you are mentally, rather than physically, sick.

I work in a fabulous school that is staffed by a dynamic, passionate and caring team of teachers. As well as having high academic aspirations for our students, we also focus a great deal on their emotional and social development. Teachers are extremely attentive to their students’ well-being and teach both PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) and P4C (Philosophy 4 Children) to help them develop their thinking and problem solving skills so that they can overcome any challenges life might throw at them. When we aren’t teaching, time is often spent listening, helping and supporting both students and one another…and then, when we are really stuck, we can always approach our lovely school nurse who has a cosy sofa and an endless supply of tissues.

My school rocks and I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in the world. I am also very fortunate that my daughters spent three years as students there, before moving on to the senior school. Not only have I therefore benefitted from this marvellous ethos as a teacher but also as a mum. It has enabled my daughters to grow into mature, empathetic and balanced young women who also know it’s OK to ask for support when needed.
I am currently absent from work as I continue my battle with depression. It’s incredibly hard to admit that I am not well enough to be there; and to know that it will be a while before I will be teaching full-time again. I miss my job, my colleagues, my students and the buzz I get from working in such a positive and thriving environment. But I really look forward to the day I will be back there amongst them all.
Yesterday, I had to see the company doctor and this involved going into school for half an hour. He was running late and I had to, rather nervously, hover in a corridor to wait for him. During the ten minutes I stood there, I saw seven of my colleagues. They all smiled at me. A number said how good it was to see me. One of them gave me a warm hug. Four of them stopped for a chat. I paused sympathetically as they searched for the right words to say. All four opted for the safe option: “So, how are your daughters getting on at Senior School?”
I had tears in my eyes by the time I went in to see the doctor. Before any polite pleasantries, I said to him straight away: “Why is it so hard for people to ask how are you? when the problem is mental health?” He smiled sympathetically as he shook my hand.
“Awareness of mental health is improving but we still have a long way to go,” he replied. “They are all worried about what to say.”
Well, what I’d like to say to my colleagues is this: it was lovely to see your smiles, great to be welcomed back and even better to be given a warm hug. If you could please just manage to ask after me, rather than only my daughters, it would help me feel that I haven’t failed, that my mental health problem isn’t something to be ashamed of and that I am still accepted amongst you. You see, on a good day, I know all of those things are true. But, on a bad day, I can’t do that by myself and the simple question How are you?would help me overcome that.
Oh, and by the way, if you fear that asking that question might lead to me breaking down in tears and giving you a thorough update about my rollercoaster journey, don’t worry. It won’t happen. I already do that to my therapist and my husband. When I come into school, I simply need to feel a part of that wonderful team that I so miss.

It Was So Hard To Give Up Control and Let My Therapist In…But it Was Worth It

A year ago, my first few sessions of therapy were a challenge. Although I had started going to them voluntarily, I was sceptical it would make any difference. I’d always preferred to keep my worries to myself. I prided myself on being strong. Independent. Not too reliant on anyone. Not even my husband. Over anxious people often irritated me and I had spent much of my life working hard to be in complete control of my emotions. I also found it very hard to trust anyone, unless I had known them for a long time. I didn’t really see how therapy sessions could help me. Unbearable nightmares. Significant weight loss. Panic attacks. Extreme irritability. Many of the symptoms of depression were there. But how exactly could talking about them make them go away?
I was even more sceptical having met my therapist. She was clearly at least ten years younger than me. Probably didn’t have children. Possibly had little life and work experience. And, in those first few sessions, all she seemed to talk about was the obvious: the importance of creating a routine now that I wasn’t working; ensuring that I exercised every day; eating and drinking regularly; and talking to my psychiatrist about medication to help me sleep better. Was this woman for real? Was I really spending my time on being told what was: a) common sense and b) impossible right now? How could I create a routine when work had been my life for ten hours a day for the last fifteen years? How could I exercise when I lacked the energy to get out of bed? How could I eat and drink when I felt so sick that I couldn’t even look at food? And did I really want to go down the road of taking medication to help me?
She was also predictable at the end of every session. She’d remind me to call or to email if I needed to. That her support wasn’t limited to our weekly sessions. She was busy but she, or someone else at the centre, could always find time for me in a crisis.
I would look at her blankly. As if I would call her in a crisis! What would she do, tell me to go for a walk with the dog or distract myself doing something else? As if that would help me in a real crisis!
To my great surprise, things suddenly changed one day and my perspective on therapy was transformed. Having worked from home for a couple of weeks to keep me company, my husband decided to go into his office. It was an hour’s drive away but we were both happy that I was ready to be on my own and it was easier for him to work from there.
By 8.30am the house was silent. My husband had gone to work 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? The emptiness of my day before me was overwhelming. What on earth was I going to do with myself?
An hour later I had walked the dog and done the ironing. Back on the sofa, the rising panic was even more intense. Thoughts began to bulldozer through my mind. How can it possibly have happened that I wasn’t well enough to work? Was I not good enough to teach anymore? Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be a Mum anymore either? I felt that I was a bad wife. Always stressed or irritable or tired or something. No-one actually wanted or needed me anymore. There was actually no point in me being here at all.
Heart racing, I looked wildly around the room as if in search of inspiration. My eye finally caught my phone that was tucked safely in my palm. My therapist’s words came to mind. Call or email when you need to. That was what she’d said, right? Did that really mean I could email her though? I mean, maybe she’d just said it. I didn’t want to disturb her. This probably didn’t really count as a crisis. Even though I wasn’t sure if I was safe in my own company. Phone her. That was the other option. But that meant calling the office first. So I’d have to speak to two people. And maybe I wouldn’t know the first one. No, I couldn’t do that. Email was the only option.
I paused and took a deep breath. ‘Please help me’ I wrote in the subject box and clicked ‘send’. Leaning back on the sofa, I worried about what I had done. Maybe she wouldn’t answer because she’d be cross with me. She’d probably think I was wasting her time. What could she do anyway? She was on the other end of the phone. It wasn’t as if a conversation would change anything.
Five minutes later, my phone rang. ‘Unknown caller ID’ appeared on the screen and, as I answered, I heard my therapist’s voice. “How can I help? How are you feeling Claire?” I took another deep breath. ‘How could talking help?’ I thought once again. Wondering immediately why I had bothered to email her.
After some gentle encouragement, I began to open up. Then, within minutes, she knew everything. My fear of being alone, the intense sense of panic I felt, my concerns that I wasn’t safe. I sobbed as I spoke and all the words just fell out of my mouth in a relentless cascade that probably made little sense.
With a level of calm that I hadn’t expected (how could someone be so calm when someone else was so hysterical on the other end of the line?), she told me to listen to her plan. I had to hang up the phone and call my husband. I needed to ask him to come home. In the meantime she would free up her schedule to see me. She would call me back in five minutes. Was I listening? Had I understood? Yes, I thought to myself. And thank goodness you are speaking to me like an idiot right now because that is just what I need.
Within fifteen minutes, I knew that my husband was on his way and that I would be seeing my therapist by lunch time. I had a plan to do even more ironing until he got home. That was all I needed to focus on. The ironing. My husband coming home. My appointment with my therapist. I took deep breaths. And focused on those three things. Nothing else. Just those three things. And some level of calm began to return.
I entered my therapist’s office a few hours later and began to sob before she started to speak. She had yet to see me cry and once again I was struck by her calmness. Edging the box of tissues towards me, she waited patiently for me to speak. “I can’t do it,” I whispered. “Life. I can’t do it. It’s just so hard. No-one needs me. No-one wants me. I’m useless. And I just drag them all down. That’s all I do. I drag them all down.”
In a measured and decisive manner, she moved from the chair in front of me to the chair on my left. We were much closer than we’d ever been before. Quietly and softly she began to say, “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but this moment will pass. You will feel better. You do matter. You are important and you are needed. You can’t see that right now and that’s ok. That’s because you aren’t well and that is why I am here. I am here to remind you. You will get through this. It will end. You just need to hang in there.”
She went on, essentially saying the same thing but in different ways. Her soft words and her physical closeness began to have an impact on me.
After a while, I began to look at her in a different way. I did need someone else after all. Right now, I needed to hear those words and to believe them. She was the one who could say them because she got it. She’d heard it before and, ultimately, she didn’t care. Not in a brutal way, of course, but she didn’t care in the way that someone close might have done. It was a true revelation to me. That was why it was helpful to talk. That was why I was here. This young, unworldly person before me, could offer me something that no-one else could. And I had so much to learn from her.

So, what is my advice to you? Well, when you begin something new, such as therapy, try to abandon preconceived ideas. Both about yourself and about others. As you embark on a new journey, you might surprise yourself and others may well surprise you too. If you are open to that from the beginning, and allow your therapist in, it may well make your travels a little smoother…or at least get them off to a quicker start.

How This Ageing Ball of Fluff Has Helped Me Fight Depression

Taking part in family life has been a significant challenge for me during the last year, having experienced a major depressive episode for the first time in my life. In an effort to get me out of bed every day my husband, who has been extremely supportive, insists I still make our daughters’ packed lunches. It works. I manage to drag myself from under the warm duvet to make their lunch and even exchange a few words first thing in the morning. It gives me some sense of achievement, of purpose; and momentarily, some optimism about the day ahead.
That is, until the usual last-minute mad rush is over, and the front door closes when they all head off to school and work. This moment has frequently been a crucial one for me. Will I crawl back into bed and hide from the world? Will I sob into the silence as I’m unable to accept that I still can’t go back to the teaching job I love? Or will I go into complete crisis mode?
Well, had it not been for Bruno, our black, fluffy, grumpy, old family dog, I probably would have done one of those things every single day for a year. Yet his needs have ensured that I haven’t, helping me on my slow road to recovery.
His early morning walk has meant so much more than just taking the dog out: A vital change of scene. Deep breaths of fresh air. A gentle stretch or an angry stomp of my legs. Unexpected, brief chats with friendly neighbours. The company of quacking ducks or squawking seagulls. Plus, over time, realisation that each season has changed even though I feel that time has frozen.
Often, arriving home would then be a harsh reminder of my reality. No job to rush off to, no important tasks to do, just an empty day ahead that I need to fill. And that silence. That silence returns as I too shut the front door behind me.
Yet Bruno steps in again. His impatient bark reminds me he is waiting for his post walk biscuit; and his empty bowl points out that he needs to be fed. With both ‘jobs’ done, I’d normally crash on the sofa, tired out by those tiny efforts. The silence would threaten me once again. Silence can be dangerous. It can lead my thoughts to race and my nerves to jangle. But as Bruno pitter patters around on the wooden flooring or decides to ‘dig’ ferociously into his cushion, I am reminded that I am not alone. When in need of comfort, I’d often call him and he’d snuggle up next to me on the sofa. His body would warm mine and stroking his fur would bring me calm once again.
Seven hours are a challenge to fill in this frame of mind but, inevitably each day drew to a close. I would suddenly go from deafening silence to family chaos: two daughters competing to share the news of their days; Bruno barking for attention; dinner to prepare; homework help; vital Face-Time calls with friends the girls haven’t spoken to for forty minutes; and anything else that might come up.
Post dinner, I am frequently shattered. Having craved company all day, I now crave silence and being alone. I’ve held it together through noisy chatter, homework and a family dinner and now I just want to crawl away and hide. Once again though, Bruno’s hopeful look catches my eye. I know that my husband will take him out on his own if I ask him to. Yet I also know that this is the only time of day that we get the chance for decent, uninterrupted conversation. I also know that it will get me out of the house again. Fresh air, movement. Those things I guiltily realise I haven’t had since Bruno’s last walk. So, we chat as we stroll around the neighbourhood, keeping a close eye on Bruno who is going blind and deaf in his old age. We both dissect our days. I am reminded of the outside world that is moving on beyond despite my bubble. My husband gently probes to find out how my day has been.
Sometimes there is little for me to say. Mentioning the fact that I have walked, fed, stroked and cared for Bruno seems so obvious and insignificant that I’m embarrassed to do it. Yet when I finally fall into bed and remember how I felt as my family closed the front door behind them, I am reminded that actually those achievements are actually something to be proud of…and something I can thank my black, fluffy, grumpy companion for. Without him I may well have gone back to bed, sobbed or dived straight into crisis mode; but, what I have done instead is taken one more small step towards recovery.

From a Lost Wife to a Lost Husband

 

To my husband,
This is incredibly hard to write but I am doing it because I understand that it’s easier for you to know what’s going on in my head than not to know. I will be completely honest and I am sorry if that makes it difficult reading.
I am going to explain how my day went from beginning to end yesterday as that will give you an idea of how I have been feeling over the last week.
I woke up with the feeling I have every day: my stomach feeling cramped and hollow, my mind feeling overwhelmed at the thought of a day ahead to fill. Determined to distract myself, I tried really hard to focus on the girls and their early morning chatter and demands – including a last minute change of lunch. Although it’s always good to be with them, their noise is hard to bear. Whether it’s the scraping of a chair or the slamming of a door, or a never-ending description of a dream they have had, I have to work really hard on not getting irritated with them. When they left, it felt like an achievement that I had managed to stay tuned into their conversations and not get visibly annoyed with them.
You all left the house and the silence I had been longing for was suddenly deafening. I sorted Bruno out straight away for a walk, knowing that I needed to distract myself. At the start of the walk, I tried hard to focus on the small things around me rather than think about the day, weeks and months ahead that loomed threateningly in front of me. I listened to the chirping of the birds, the splashing of the ducks and Bruno’s paws pattering behind or in front of me. As the walk progressed, I reached the part of the path where a canal is on either side and you can see the windmill in the distance. The path suddenly looked never-ending. Perhaps that reflected how I felt about this whole nightmare. I could feel my legs weaken and tears started to pour down my face. Within seconds I was sobbing uncontrollably and I had to pause on the bridge to try and pull myself together. At that moment, the only thing I could feel was that this was never going to end. That I would never feel normal again. That I would never get pleasure in even the simplest things. Had I had a box of painkillers in my bag, I would have taken them and curled up in a corner waiting for them to take effect. I just wanted to forget, for the pain to end, for it all to be over. And when I feel like that I lose all sense of who I am, of you, of the girls, of the unbearable consequences of what that would do to everyone. I just want it to be over and I am not me anymore. I really need you to understand that. Please don’t ever feel that I could act on these thoughts because I don’t care about you all.
After maybe ten minutes of standing there in that state, Bruno actually barked at me, bringing me back to where I was. I put him on the lead and slowly walked back to house. Every step was hard and I just wanted to come home and curl up on the sofa. But hearing your voice as I came in through the front door made me realise that I couldn’t. I had to get myself moving and distract myself until I was feeling better. I went to the chemist to collect my prescription. That wasn’t such a good move. I wasn’t ready for that at that point and, for the first time, I was strongly tempted to buy some painkillers and to take them. The chemist was busy and that, bizarrely, stopped me. Perhaps having people around me is a reminder that life goes on and that I need to be a part of it.
Coming home again was agony. I so wanted to curl up and try to block it out with sleep. But I knew you’d never leave me to do that in the morning which is why I proposed gardening. The sun was shining and I knew it would do me good to get outside and enjoy it. It worked. For an hour I pottered in the garden. Every time I began to feel overwhelmed, I forced myself to focus on the specific task I was doing: to feel the soil in my hands, to enjoy the warmth of the sun on my back. When we sat down to lunch together, I was feeling a lot better than I had been all morning.
Lunch over, you started to work again. That sense of hopelessness welled up inside me again and this time I didn’t have the strength to fight it. I curled up on the sofa for a couple of hours, trying to sleep but battling butterflies for every second of it. Leaving the house to collect Sofia, gave me a lift again. I was looking forward to spending twenty minutes with her and was pleased that I had managed to give them both some nice things for their orange day at school. Our argument flattened me within seconds. By the time I dropped her off, I felt like I was a complete waste of space. She’d been argumentative and difficult but ultimately she was right. I could have popped home to get her hoverboard on the way, we weren’t going to be late as I feared.
During my session with Katy, for the first time I was able to explain how I had felt throughout the day. It was incredibly hard. It actually felt physically painful to say the words out loud when I described how I felt on the bridge; and it was only with her gentle questioning that I managed to do it. The only reason I can speak to her more easily than to you is that I know she won’t be emotionally affected by what I say. It breaks my heart to have to tell you all of this and I can’t imagine how it makes you feel. She made the point, however, that it must be harder for you to have to guess what is going on in my head than to know it exactly. That is why I opened up to you last night and why I am writing this now. But you must let me know if it’s too hard for you to hear.
For the last week, every day has been similar. I have good moments but I also have moments of extreme crisis. I would like to promise you that I will never take an overdose again but I can’t do that. When I am completely absorbed in how I feel, like I was on Bruno’s walk, I lose all sense of rationality and it’s at those moments when I could potentially do it. What I can promise is that I will try harder to open up to you. As I find this so difficult, here are a few points that would help:
• If I seem distant or distressed, ask me specifically if it is a ‘butterfly moment’
• Don’t expect more than a ‘yes’ if it is because I find it hard to speak
• Gently try to distract me and please don’t leave me on my own
• Remember that my energy levels are low so don’t choose an active option for distracting me
• If you can’t distract me or if I just want to lie down, hug me and let me cry it out
• When you need to leave me on my own, ask me if I’m ready
I’m sorry if this has been a tough read babe; and I hope it’s been helpful in some way. I will do my best to be more open with you but gentle questioning from you will help. I find it very hard to start any conversation about this.
Lots of love,

Your Lost Wife

JUGGLING – a poem too many parents will relate to

Balls of different shapes, colours and sizes,
Juggled swiftly with the help of many different guises;
Efficiency and control are at the heart of the game,
To keep the momentum going, the balance the same.

Concentration and focus is what it demands,
It’s the balls themselves that bark the commands;
Rate their importance, keep them all going,
Look out for new ones – they’ll creep in without you knowing.

Occasionally one gets dropped, is it really no big deal?
Has anyone noticed the shame that you feel?
You pick it up, resume the pace, swift as before,
Now determination not to fail consumes you even more.

But it’s tiring, it’s tough and you start to slow down,
Your struggle is revealed by your deep frown;
Yet you keep going because failure is not a possibility,
You try to smother the frown with false positivity.

Then one day you wake up. You’ve dropped them all.
Every single one could not avoid The Fall;
They lie scattered in front of you as though to mock,
Your mind and body are blank as though in shock.

What now? What to do about each of those balls?
Do you reach out to grab one or try to grab them all?
Do you actually have the strength to juggle anymore?
Or will you give up completely and lie with them on the floor?

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.