The Room

When my depression was at its worst it felt like I lived in a room with no light, be they electric or natural. I could not escape the room as I was a prisoner, but equally I held the key if I only knew where to find it. I knew there was something large covered in cardboard, that I would only notice when I finally discovered there were curtains. My knowledge of the world outside the room was from stories others had told in whispers to songs and books. Despite the darkness I had always found ways to hear and see them. Was I frightened to remove the cardboard? Yes and No. Initially I would say no as did not know any different, and yes when I found the cardboard I was frightened as uncertain of what lay behind them. It was almost better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

One day while daydreaming and pondering curiosity challenged me to try remove part of the cardboard to see what would happen. I accepted, despite my initial fear. It led to a glint of light shining into my darkened world; creating something new that I never realised I needed so badly. Gradually I decided that I would remove the cardboard to see what lay beyond as the light I was seeing from the small gap intrigued me. Bit by bit I slowly removed it until I saw what appeared to be a large window that looked on to a large garden and rolling hills. The view made me cry as felt more a prisoner than I had ever done before, perhaps the curtains and cardboard had sheltered me from the truth. Equally I saw the room properly for the first time. It held – a music player with vinyl records, bookshelves of fiction and non-fictions, a chair, table and bed with cushions. Simple in some ways but I guess held all I really needed for living, if you could really call it that.

As days past I found myself looking more and more to the view beyond. I had not looked to try find a key to the door, which took me a while to notice even after the cardboard had come down. How was I to make the journey to the view I kept wondering, for the only openings appeared to be firmly sealed shut. Was I destined to forever dream of this world that I could see and not use any other sense? I looked at my collection of items and thought…what would happen if I smashed one of the windows, could I not climb out and escape to the world beyond? I mean, I already had scars (physical and mental) what would a few more make in the name of freedom?! I took an old jumper and tied it round my left arm hitting one pane of the window, partly in hope and partly in wishful thinking I could finally be free.

The air that came through the crack was hypnotic filling the room. Gassing me not in toxins but fresh air’s taste and tickle; it even allowed me to hear the sounds from outside like birds in song. The window then became an itch that I had to scratch, knowing I had to make a larger hole and remove myself from my prison. It was only as I had removed the largest pane that I saw a mirror in the room and saw my reflection. In it I saw the face of someone I did not know but knew she deserved my love and respect like any other. As the tears fell on my cheeks I saw what lay round my neck, the key as a necklace. I shook my head, it had been with me the whole time but it took going through all to realise it. Much like life, what we need is something inside ourselves and do not realise that until the last moment.

This left me with a predicament, did I take the door or the window? As I knew not of where the room was and what lay beyond it, but instincts said best to help myself first before trying to help others (if there were any in this place). I took my step outside the window to a ledge and took a deep breath…I was free but where to now? I saw a drainpipe so rather than jump into the garden of the unknown I would slide down slowly into it. The garden at first glance was even more beautiful than I could have imagined from the window, was this like the biblical Eden? I looked back up at my window I saw all the others were covered in cardboard too, hundreds of them. In that moment I knew my life did not belong there and to head for the hills for the garden may hold hidden dangers if I stayed too long…or even worse returned to my cell.

It was in the foot of the hills I found a cottage and where I now live; listening at dawn to the birds that bring me news of the world to enjoying the other gifts that the natural world brings. The sights, sounds, tastes, smells and feelings they bring with hope. Day by day I walk further and further up the hills, knowing one day I will reach the peak and climb over the other side. I will see how far I have come from my darkened room and know I am finally free. For now I look back with the shadow of the room, house and garden within a few miles, so still hanging over me. I am determined to reach that peak and the follow my path in the light, far away from the darkness the held me prisoner for so long, accompanied by bird song that keeps me going through day and night.

© Fi S. J. Brown

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Watch our language

Mariah Carey is hitting the headlines this week, not for her diva behaviour or music for once, but for acknowledging her mental health and that she has bipolar. Although she may not be a singer I like on many levels, however I have empathy with those that like myself that have mental health conditions, and having friends with bipolar I know the ups and downs even with medication can be horrific to deal with.

However, it is the language that I have seen used that disturbs me the most. Headlines that say she IS bipolar…would we say someone is cancer or diabetes, of course not so why do we say it with mental health? Why does this matter? The way language is used shapes how we see things, and in turn perceive the world around us as words evoke images and ideas. If I said my skirt today is blue and purple I’m sure you all will have an idea of those colours having seen them throughout your lives and interpret how it looks. By calling Mariah bipolar rather than saying she has it has a way to conjure up images of stereotypes from movies or TV shows of what this disease is like and continues the stigma as believe the stereotypical crazy mental health hospital patient. Their individuality is lost as seen as a label not a person. This negativity can effect their self esteem, hope for the future to accepting of help and negatively impacts on recovery to reaching out for help when they need it in the future.

The difference between physical and mental health in the ways we talk about them is from the past filled with scientific misunderstanding to social ignorance, which had those that have them seen as witches to possessed by evil spirits, or even as a sign of weakness or failing. The reality is that these illnesses can happen to anyone; they are biological and arise from a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental impingement. We can no more ‘be’ bipolar than we can ‘be’ cancer. We cannot ‘just get over it’ and is not ‘all just in your head’.

When we have an opportunity with social media to humanise or dehumanise others when we talk about mental or physical conditions, so please think and use your words carefully.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Just talk…

We live at a time when it has never been easier to contact another. With the tap on a mobile/cell phone we can speak by voice, by video, and by text with someone five minutes away to five thousand miles away. We may have 1000s of friends on Facebook, or followers on Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, yet find in an evening we still have nobody to talk to or go to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster with us. We can send a message to say ‘hello’ but receive no replies, which makes us wonder are they ignoring us, scared of what we will say or ask of them, or perhaps their social media erroneously is showing their presence online. The light has gone green, but no traffic is flowing our way, as wonder who are true friends are, and who is truly there for us when we need it.

We have never been so connected with other people, but we have never been so disconnected. Meet up with a friend and they spend all the time staring blankly at the black mirror we keep in our bags, or take selfies to show off where they are and show off their latest look or plate of food, make others look at who they are with but mock that you are not, almost giving the middle finger to those they did not invite. Making permanent records of our lives, but only it may be far from real; creating a version that we curate as want to be seen a certain way by others, composing near fictional tales of just how great truly is for us (but may also want to create the opposite so that gain the sympathy and empathy of others). Making it near impossible to differentiate from the girl that needs help from the boy crying wolf for the tenth time, how do we know when to ask the question ‘are you okay’?

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day that should remind us that a conversation is two way traffic, listening does not mean gazing into our black mirrors and pretend that we have heard or even care what another has said, but being an active participant. It only takes a minute to change somebody’s life, be it a passing smile to a strange in the street to a random compliment on a tattoo they have as like the design, or like on a picture just to say we have seen it and acknowledge what its message is. No matter how dark life may seem, how hopeless and lost we feel, there will always be someone who can help, even if it is not the first person. We need to keep going and learn those that are there for us without judgement, and not tell all we tell them in whispers of gossip, but we must remember to be there for them too in return. So please reach out, tell someone that the rain has return, and tired of trying to learn to dance in the rain to our own beat as all too often it is dancing to another’s that causes the problem. Never feel alone, the darkness lies, and don’t give up.

© Fi S. J. Brown

September third, 1990

Eight years ago this week I was writing about Roman fires as part of my PhD write up with a glass of red wine at my side, leftover from cooking my dinner earlier that evening, when an event I witnessed became a catalyst for something that I can only call a milestone in my life and fate wanted me to forever recall that very moment. Tonight I am sharing my photographs and digital art on social media as well as writing this piece, things I could only have dreamt that I could do, or that people would understand or follow them. However, it is none of these I am actually going to write on, instead it is something prompted by seeing children (re)start school after their summer break, which has reminded of the third of September 1990 when I changed schools, and the miserable seven years I had there.

As a child we are told repeatedly that our school days would be the happiest of our life, which made me question throughout my early childhood and into teenage years how miserable must life be as an adult if these are meant to be happy times! Perhaps in the more recent past they were more innocent times than then or even now to be a child, and those carefree days were led to be so happy as did not have the stresses and strains that adults experienced. I only need to look at pictures of my young nieces to worry about how sexualised the youngest is at five years old and posing like a woman four to five times here age in a bikini on a beach. The little carefree girl I played with last autumn seems a million miles from this wannabe model, a child stuck in an adult world, which in turn makes me wonder what world her and her sister will be part of as this ever changing world grows fifty shades greyer by the day.

Back in 1990 dressed almost head to toe in green (yes even my underwear had to be green) I entered a classroom with the stares of my fellow pupils and invisible sounds telling me it was not the place for me…perhaps the near accident the year before should have told me to listen to my instincts and run, but alas there was nowhere and nobody to turn to. I can still recall my classes that day, which included drama and German – giggling to myself at learning that Varter was German for father, which to my 11 ¾ year old ears sounded like farter and very appropriate for my dad! The school was different in how my old one had operated, but ultimately left me just as miserable as its predecessor with bullies and time on my own. My teachers however for the most part were excellent, and as someone that likes to learn thrived under ones like my Latin teacher that encouraged everyone no matter how good or bad you were. Her methods are ones I use myself whenever teaching or supporting someone, and still wish in part I had studied Latin at St Andrew’s University as I considered back in 1996 in tribute to her, but my PhD did involve the Romans so in a way I have done.

The impact of those year years left scars that even now I can feel throughout my body, but they are beginning to heal with the passing of time combined with good friendships that help me to see how naive and stupid the bullies were. I have achieved more than even I thought was possible when I packed my clarinet away and left them behind at the Usher Hall with a smile and the largest sigh of relief that had ever been heard in its corridors. This was just after being pushed off the platform while singing our school song and national anthem to say to me even in our final moments as pupils they did not accept me as one of their own. Ironically, I officially left a month before but had come back to play my clarinet at the request of the head of music, to which I had agreed as long as did not need to follow uniform restrictions to rehearsals! Even now I do not wish any of them ill or bad times, but as someone that knows karma eventually comes a knocking, it will do what needs to be done. My name in full is still one I struggle to own as tainted with the echoes of their laughter, but grown to prefer my shorter form as shows those that really know me to use it.

Going forward the echoes and laughter will eventually go as let the last scar heal, I promised myself I would not pick them. So what will the next eight years bring, twenty seven is far to hard to imagine…well as Coldplay sang – “You can take a picture of something you see. In the future where will I be? You can climb a ladder up to the sun. Or write a song nobody has sung. Or do something that’s never been done” – I intended to do them all and more as this woman can. What I have learnt is that there will always be some that judge and make assumptions, or make our lives hell as their own is not very good, but they do not know the real us and the best action is to show them we do not care to how far we have come.

© Fi S. J. Brown

The Swan

Earlier this week I tuned and adjusted the white balance of this picture, which I recently took of me with my mobile/cell phone; finding myself looking in the eyes saying ‘yes that’s me‘ and ‘quite a good photograph for a quick selfie.

For a long time an ogerous monster lived in my head that would have said something like this: ‘eww, what an ugly and loveable freak of nature you are, no wonder people point and laugh at you in the street. Delete that at once, nobody wants to see your ugly face on Facebook or Instagram. Don’t bother taking any more selfies, shows your ego is growing. Oh and may break your phone…ha ha!’

Instead another voice came out, the one I use when talking to others with my natural empathy and understanding ways, and not one I have heard myself say to me: ‘You look pretty and happy there Fi. Who cares if you see flaws or things that aren’t right in this photograph, better to knit a scarf than nitpick at yourself for no reason. Anyone that laughs and/or calls you ugly can spin on your middle finger, that’s what it is best used for!

I nearly choked on my own emotion, not for the first time, but this was in a positive way of my own doing to myself. Pondering, perhaps this former ugly duckling has finally seen her own swan-like reflection, and will glide the river of life wherever it is leading her to go. I do not need a mask of chemical colours or a surgeon’s blade to syringe to make me look beautiful; I am me, not an ogre but a swan, and that’s fine with me.

© Fi S. J. Brown

me 2017

Mental Health Awareness Week (2017)

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week worldwide, so excuse my little essay that follows. For it is a chance to start those conversations that for some are so difficult to begin we do not know how, and need to listen actively with an open mind that does not judge or laugh back. We all have good days and bad days but when those days seem to merge into one grey mess it can be hard to find the courage to ask for help as do not know who’s hand will grab ours back and those that will push us under to drown us. It is often through surviving through the thick fog we discover our true friends that will always have one hand there for us and the other with a tea/coffee to give with us; sharing experiences and a slice of cake and laughter as realise we do that thing too.

For some the image from Hollywood movies is still very much how they see someone that has any mental health condition, yet the truth it can happen to any of us at any time and we look no different to anyone else. We cannot just ‘snap out of it’ as events can leave scars that may not be visible but inside are ripping us apart days to weeks and months to years later, reliving those times again and again without them ever stopping. We may also have a brain who’s chemistry is out of sync, so need medication in order for it function, just as we may take insulin for diabetes. Finding an outlet such as writing, painting and dance can also help us, but others turn to alcohol and/or illegal drugs, as sometimes we just want it all to stop with a full stop/period.

Going to therapy is a way to express just how we feel, words aloud can be scary and ring on in our minds after we have said them. Letting in a stranger can feel as invasive as brain surgery, which is why a qualified therapist is a must. The current UK general election has even been discussing mental health provision, at a time when many services have been or being axed already perhaps this should have been considered first. Health should not have to be split into health and mental health as adds to the stigma; medicine should be holistic covering body, mind, and spirit as everything is interconnected. We are all human, we all experience this journey uniquely, and we are all loved and appreciated, just remember that. The past is gone but yet still may hurt us, the future is unwritten but we can choose a new path; yet we live in the now, we can support and be there for each other today, and we can end this old stigma on mental health for good.

© Fi S. J. Brown

A cry for help?

Why is it when someone tries (or sometimes succeeds) to take their own life do we call it a ‘cry for help’? When they may have been trying to tell us things just aren’t right but we have either been too busy or could not read the signs. How can we be there for someone when they pretend that all is alright until we have that sudden alarm call that everything is far from ‘fine’?

When I was at my most depressed I likened it to sitting on a rocking chair sat on the edge of a cliff. I could see rocks falling by the side around me yet had nobody that saw them fall but me; I knew that one day the rocking chair would snap and send me hurtling down down to the canyon below. That ‘scream’ would be my ‘cry for help’, and lying at the bottom of canyon was like hitting life’s metaphorical bottom. Sometimes the fall kills us, but sometimes when we fall we find our wings and fly. Could I have let others see the rocks falling? I tried but most were more interested in their own lives or I could not tell how I ended up on the rocking chair in the first place due to fear that led to me losing my words even in therapy. I was not strapped to the chair so yes they could have helped me escape it, but we do not always realise how much things from the past have built up to in my case a cliff one hell of a drop.

So what can we do? Be the friend that actually listens and cares in a two way form, it is not an one way street for what you or I want, it’s what WE want and can do as a partnership. I had one ‘friend’ that after hearing me say I wasn’t good would turn things on themselves before saying they were off or suddenly too busy to talk. Distance should not matter, in these days of text messages and social media a message can be sent in an instant and let another know we care and there if need someone. Yes, it can be hard to admit we are on the cliff or see a friend on the cliff but we need to let others in not shut them out. They can help us set fire to the rocking chair, not burn both of us as some may do in jealousy, envy and/or greed; a true friend does not care about splinters or shards hurting them as worried how and/or why they are hurting us, The burnt remains of the rocking chair can then be pushed over the edge. from which the ashes can act as a fertiliser to help us grow and gain the strength of a tree that formed the chair. Do not be afraid as that one person can be all that it takes to see the view from the cliff that actually shows how far we have come in life and is not the end of the journey.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Prisoner F

Sticks and stones they threw in words and laughter bruising my skin,
Painting all in shades of purple, blue and red that nobody could see.
Hurting feet with a blade to answer why as rivers fell from my eyes,
Feeling trapped like prisoner all in green on life sentence at row M.

Outcast as nobody dare make friendship with the one with my name,
Only a fool would try but soon learnt to toe the unwritten party line.
Writing SOS notes in Latin hoping someone would hear my cries,
But would never take a final bow as wouldn’t give that final pleasure.

As stage was set for the final act I was pushed out and shown my place,
Forever on the sidelines not upfront with those I journeyed long with.
About to be released into the world with freedom as served my time,
For a bespoke crime that had been created for me by my fellow inmates.

They say that time can heal the pain but can never heal my scars,
Forgiving and forgetting actions now memories only takes me so far.
But I have no place for hateful thoughts or plotting my revenge,
They are but footnotes in a journey that they’ll know or understand.

© Fi S. J. Brown

The strangest feeling

Last week I kept getting baby thoughts in my head, a miracle birth much like the one many were to celebrate later that week, which followed a day later by an old friend announcing the birth of her daughter after years of health issues. I was genuinely overjoyed as know how far she has come to get where she is now, achieving many things that to me still seem and are impossible for different reasons. The smile on my face however was not to last as I received a message on Facebook to tell me news of a girl I was at school with twenty years ago, she had overosed and taken her own life. Both people knew each other but one had been an off and on friend for over twenty five years and the other had been one of the bullies that reduced me to tears and suicidal thoughts throughout my teens. I felt numb. As someone that writes and campaigns for an end to the stigma on mental health as well as being naturally empathetic, I wondered what had happened to the girl I had known and had she secret torment that had no voice. It was not a sign of weakness or selfishness to take her own life,  as when the rocking chair at the edge of the cliff breaks, it takes a very strong person to fling on, I have been there and it is not a pretty view or one I ever wish to see again.

I scanned my year photographs from high school that I intended to burn years ago and sent them to the girl that told me the news. I saw people’s faces and names I had not seen in twenty years trickle down my Facebook news feed as comments came in on pictures she and others posted. I could not bring myself to ‘like’ anything as was like being back in the playground with her usual French taunt in my ringing in my ears. Was I being selfish? Feeling that my pain was important as they were my experiences and memories of this girl, but ultimately felt they should be secondary to her friends and family dealing with the aftermath of suicide. It all left me with the strangest of feelings; nothing in life can prepare you for it and know what is right or wrong to feel or say. It comes at a time when I am considering setting up an organisation to support, spread awareness and educate on invisible illness such as depression to fibromylagia and endometriosis as feel along with my writing I need to take it to the next level but uncertain what way just yet. Perhaps her death shows how much pain we carry with us; we may have nobody to share it with or know where to turn. Just remember dear reader someone does care and will listen without judgement, never ever give up and always rember my mantra, believe it again. 

© Fi S. J. Brown

The Magic of Christmas

It is that time of year again when it’s not only bells that are ringing but tills with money spent on gifts that we hope will not be returned on Boxing Day to our ears from hearing that song by Slade or The Pogues again and again. The days have become shorter and shorter as ‘to do’ lists get longer and longer only matched by the queues everywhere we turn. The excitement reaches near hysteria as we count down to that man’s arrival with his herd of reindeer to deliver gifts on the 25th, but only if we have been good of course! For some it is extra special for marks the birth of the son of their god in a stable in area of the world that today tears of joy have been replaced by grief and blood.

Those that find themselves more ‘bah humbug‘ than ‘ho ho ho‘ are seen as the party poopers but we have to remember some of us may find it hard to find “that perfect gift” for family and loved ones, whereas others do not know if they can afford the cranberry sauce let alone the turkey or where they will be living tomorrow as the street may become home. There are of us those that live with hidden illness, from mental health to chronic pain, which want the feelings of sadness, darkness and/or pain to go away once and for all, not what Snapchat filter shall I use on my selfie today or which programs do I watch on my new giant TV first. There are also some of us that have nobody to celebrate with, as feel suffocated by the so called ‘magic’ not hypnotised.

When the clock strikes midnight on the 25th of December just remember it is but one day; it does not matter if we mark it or not for there is nothing to say we must celebrate, no matter what anyone may try to tell us otherwise. Do not feel guilty for not giving a physical gift because every day we give a bit of ourselves to those we love and those that appreciate, accept, and respect us for who we are, making an effort to be in our lives, remember this and know it can never be bought or sold. Finally, accepting who we are and what we have now not what we’d like to be/have or were/had, as well as accepting and respecting others irrespective of differences is the magic of Planet Earth not just on this one day or time of year, and spreading peace, light and love everywhere.

© Fi S. J. Brown