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

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.

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.