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

Slow down, what’s the hurry?

Over the weekend I started watching some videos from a YouTube channel by the Fine Brothers, which has kids, teens and college students reacting to things from the past to present and elders reacting to current trends. The music and fashions of the 1980s and 1990s made me laugh, cringe, and feel older than my actual age, I was born in the late 1970s, with equal measure. The music ones in particular make me realise how fortunate I was to grow up with such diversity in what was regarded as mainstream and/or chart music compared with today. Only this week Ed Sheeran has 16 out of the top 20 singles due in part to streaming of music counting as singles, making many in the UK question what is a single and what is not. For me the issue with most modern mainstream music is it sounds like a machine made it for the most part not a human; autotune leaves songs devoid of genuine emotion compared with say Cindi Lauder on ‘Time after time‘ or Snead O’Connor”s cover of ‘Nothing compares 2u‘ to the musicality of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘ or Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir‘. It all seems more painting by numbers in fifty shades of grey rather than with multicolour, which as someone with synesthesia music often does as each piece of music is visual and filled with colour.

However, it was kids reacting to technology of the past (1980s-1990s) I found most interesting of all, probably as would have been the ages of the kids to teens using them in the videos at the time they were new. In particular it was the responses from those under thirteen which interested me the most, for them the Internet to smart phones are normal ways of life, with everything being available in more or less an instant to 24/7. Most of them had zero patience to wait for things, anything more than around five seconds and they felt it was too long to wait. Things that required thinking or a series of steps were pushed aside as wanted instant results. To me some of the most important things we learn in life take time. Learning new skills from a new language to driving car cannot be learnt instantly. Or mastering musical instruments, which can be supplemented by watching videos on YouTube, but to become a proficient to professional level takes time and often daily patience. Creativity to using our imagination is another thing that an app or website cannot do for us alone, and takes time to patience to hone our skills. So in some way sold and new can come together. However, there are no shortcuts to make these our knowledge and not something we know how to find out how to do it or get something to do it for us.

Are we so used to things appearing as soon as we press a button or using an app to do it for us we no longer have the patience?  It made me think why do we need something done NOW, can we slow down for at least a minute, what is the hurry or gratification to have something instantly? Take deciding to watch a movie, in the past we would have gone somewhere like Blockbuster video stores to rent movies rather than a mouse click or tap on Netflix or Amazon Prime. I remember at least a three year wait between cinema release and being shown first on TV with renting a video would be the only option when it finally did come out to rent! ‘The return to Oz‘ for example I remember in particular it was many years after cinema release, like Disney movies that were seldom shown on TV (which was for copyright or so it was said). I still do not subscribe to either Netflix of Amazon Prime as do not feel the have the need for that kind of 24/7 entertainment in TV or movies, I prefer music or books to either and always have.

Do not get me wrong I love being able to find an old song I like and play it instantly or discover new music from artists I love to discovering new ones, rather than spend a fortune on buying vinyl, cassettes or CDs to rewinding tapes just to hear that one song I know by an artist or listen to that song buzzing in my head! I was also sad that when given a film camera one instantly wanted to take an old selfie with it and all did once the kids got the film in the camera, hurting their eyes with the flash as they did! As someone that developed her own black and white photographs in her teens and uses a DSLR I enjoy the process of taking a photograph as much as taking an image. It did make me wonder just how many images are now just files in cloud servers not physical albums, how will kids today be as embarrassed as we were when our parents dug out old photos of us to show future partners or spouses? Will technology exist to be able to retrieve photographs taken ten-twenty years before?

Significant improvements in technology over the last 20 years or so have perhaps made patience unnecessary in the modern world. Think about it, we can make credit card payments, get a taxi, talk to a friend across the world, or even check their mail – all of this online, right from home or sat on the toilet in a bar, and within the matter of seconds! We’re becoming more focused on quick fun — such as a game of Angry Birds on the iPhone — than on reading books or magazines. We also have online shops that will deliver that day, so no longer have to physically go to a shop and wait or order and again wait for it to arrive. Perhaps the signs of this instant gratification was something to come with the Harry Potter buy at midnight deals, as so many could not wait to read the latest book. With the rise in popularity of apps such as Tinder even our relationships with others have come to be instant fixes at the swipe of a finger for sex that would seem unacceptable twenty years ago as the fear surrounding HIV and AIDS to taboo of casual sex were so great. I have bought a few things on day of release or wanted the instant I saw them, the only one that comes to mind being Pink Floyd’s ‘The Division Bell‘ but that was only because it was a local holiday and passed a music shop!

This need for instant gratification is making the younger generations perpetually impatient as they are unable to grasp that waiting for something is what made us appreciate it more. Perhaps it goes hand in hand with things being so disposable now? Have something now as it won’t last another five years. I am all for living in the now but surely this is taking it a touch too far?! Do we really need these instant results and quick fixes? Can we not slow down, as we are now accelerating so fast I feel I am clinging to the edge of my seat in a car driven by a teenager that has learnt to drive only through watching YouTube videos; knowing a crash will come soon and many will be injured and/or unable to operate without the need for instant help and/or support. Maybe I am getting old and have the same fears my parents and grandparents would have had with technology I now take for granted. However, it is a good day for me when I can shut off my phone and just enjoy the world around me without being stuck behind a screen, appreciating what I have now and not what I could click or tap to have or do next next.

© Fi S. J. Brown

 

What you don’t see

This week is Depression Awarenesses Week, which this year is focusing on #whatyoudontsee. As open as I am with acknowledging I have depression on social media it is not as look at me but more a listen to me not judge or mute me.
By writing about my experiences it helps give them a voice of their own that can be heard by others and thereby lose the power they try have over me. Another reason is the stigma many of us with depression (and other mental health illnesses) still suffer from and it is about time that this taboo was shattered for good. A final reason is not everyone has a voice or able to talk about depression, so I am trying to open doors in order that people feel welcomed not judge or mocked.
To anyone reading this that thinks that depression is abnormal, consider this; if I asked everyone of my friends to make a cake I would have a variety of cakes with no two being exactly the same, each one is representative of the individual that made the cake but none of them would be abnormal. In the same respect we are all shaped by our experiences, traditions and beliefs. Imagine wearing our neighbour’s underwear every day as we both live in the same neighbourhood or feeling the odd one out at family gatherings despite sharing genes. Equally, we may share the same experiences but how they impact upon us varies, and sometimes we cannot “just get over it” as the trauma is still deep even decades after the event(s) may have occurred.
When the black dog calls, it is like a dog barking constantly at me from the garden until I give in and let him in. Then he licks my face all over till it is wet, but in reality these are my tears. In the past I would sit in silence for days as not even my favourite music that got me through my teenage years would bring me comfort. However, now I get out my pen to write or put on my walking boots armed with my camera to go for a walk, sometimes take a piece of clay to make my feelings 3D, other times I go to one of the many musical instruments I play to let them become a song and also cooking or baking as help me focus on the present moment, especially making bread by hand. So for me finding coping mechanisms like these as well as loyal, loving and trusting friends is what helps so I do not give up and remembering there are stars shining and ringing even when it looks pitch black outside.
© Fi S. J. Brown

Breaking the invisible wall

As someone with a visual mind I often found when studying for scientific subjects it was easier if I had a visual reference or way of seeing them. It is perhaps for that reason I was drawn to the environmental sciences, not just for my love of the environment and nature but the anthropogenic (human) impacts upon them could be seen, whether that be at the present time with my own eyes or elucidated using proxies for the past such as pollen, seeds, charcoal, diatoms etc under a microscope. When it comes to mental health for many it is the invisible nature of the illnesses I feel that contribute to the continued stigma associated with them. For unless we ourselves or have a close friend/family member it can be very hard to understand let alone empathise with. We see someone with a broke leg or having treatment for cancer we wish them a speedy recovery ot luck with their treatment, with diabetes or asthma although unseen too and for life we accept that they are common human illnesses; yet one in a four adults and one in five children in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, with 1 in 100 being diagnosed with bipolar or schizophrenia at some point in their life. What can be done? How can we break down these invisible walls that we have built to create a them and us scenario?

A bit of background to my own story. I was diagnosed in January 2007 aged 28 with depression and anxiety, however, you can look back to almost 25 years before and there were signs of both due to my acute sensitivity and bullying I experienced from when I first started school in 1983. I had counselling from 2006 to 2007 and psychotherapy from 2007 until 2009, which I have mentioned in previous entries on this blog. In the last few years as I have learnt to respect, appreciate, forgive and I guess love myself for who I am and who she’s not, I have also developed deep friendships that give back what I give them in love, respect and appreciation, which help me daily. The name of this blog is a tribute to one of them who encourages me and my creativity, so my little thank you back to him. For me, one reason I write, photograph, play or make music, and model with clay, is to let the feelings I have their own voice or become beyond what is inside me as would keep them bottled and been told in therapy how much they suffocated me for doing so, thus needed an outlet. I found creativity a great outlet, not just for my aforementioned visual mind but it allowed what I was feeling a way to be seen, they could no longer strangle/suffocate or even hurt me as they were now real and had their voice, but I retained the power that they were trying to take away from me. I also realised by sharing some of my creativity with others it meant it was no longer invisible to them, with some inspiring others to realise their battles were not alone or show how far I had come to become the person I am today.

I am currently job hunting, my past feels like a giant noose around my neck as found many do not understand that we do not fit simply into boxes and some of us do fit two at the same time. I am fed up feeling like the outsider watching in. Equally, having achieved academic qualifications while battling physical and mental illnesses is something I am proud to have achieve, but feedback I have I received is my past is intimidating but impressive…so what can I do? It is not helped by people thinking they can decide what is best for you, when you have tried and tried but just want to give up and only your closest friends saving you from going under completely. However, one thing I know is that I am determined to help inspire and help others, so they do no give up and break this stigma or invisible wall around mental health. As another way to break the wall is for us to work together, showcasing what we can and not what we cannot. In the past to try break the stigma we have created a glut of diagnoses that are really just descriptions of certain patterns of human behaviour, and have not helped. My dream? I am not sure, maybe one day I will be a creative and/or eco therapist of some kind using my passions to help others. Until then here is my hammer breaking down the invisible wall for today, will you join me?

© Fi S. J. Brown

Which way now…?!

I was once asked by one of my closest friends “is there anything you CAN’T do?” I could instantly in my head think of 101 things I could not do in this lifetime. For me perhaps the hardest of all is finding my little place in the world as often feel the outsider looking in. How I can showcase what I can do and who I am when I cannot shout? I may have academic qualifications that many envy (degree, masters 1 and 2 and PhD) but realise now they were not my real passions and was led to what I thought was my path but was filled with dead ends, promising avenues and false starts. Currently I feel I take one step forward and two back, such is the merry dance life has got me stuck in a loop doing.

So to find a vocation that fits with my interests, skills and traits I have been reading Richard N Bolles’ famous book What color is your parachute?  I have drawn my flower diagram on paper and on my laptop, which you dear reader can see below, and asking friends what jobs or vocations they can see me doing. What do you think? Suggestions from friends have ranged from counsellor and social worker, to trek leader for those with disabilities or older people’s activity co-ordinator, and even policewoman or teacher.

WCIYP_Tea

This helped as I thought old ideas a new, such as ecotherapy or therapeutic landscape designer to speech and language therapist. However, with thinking of old ideas, my old negativity and self doubts crept in, with questions over my health too. Things like I cannot drive to I cannot draw due to my dyspraxia, or I get tired easily due to fibromyalgia, and what about my depression?
Ironically, Dick’s next chapter was on dealing with handicaps and disabilities. He suggested I looked at my skills in more detail. Initially I thought there are many things I cannot do, but it forced me to see actually, there are many more things I CAN do than CANNOT, so perhaps my friend was right after all! The results of this are below. However, I still feel no further forward than I was this time last week and maybe last year.

Skills_Tea

Perhaps my friend was right, the sky really is my limit (well I cannot drive into the sunset)! Finding where we belong can and a job that is us when we do not have a dream of our own, a dream job does not exist as burnt from past experiences or the present feels like it is constant fog.

If asked what my dreams are it is usually for my closest friends to have what they work so hard on in life to get the respect and recognition they deserve, beyond friends and family. For now, I’ll finish reading Dick’s book and may be something(s) will click into place, keep dancing to the rhythm I want to dance to and not the dizzy dance I have been caught in, and like the lens on my camera, focus on what I can control and matters.

© Fi S. J. Brown

My “real self”

I was reading an article posted to Facebook on “Depression is the unavoidable by-product of not being who you really are?” I decided to ponder this and reflect on my own experiences of depression and self hate.

Looking back on my days pre-therapy I hated every part of me, frequently dreaming that I would have every part of me surgically changed, as thought I must look at total freak for the way people pointed and laughed at me in the street. My self image was so bad in waking life that I thought that I must look like the love child of Frankenstein’s monster and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I mean why else would people do that or call me ugly to my face? I decided that as heard it so often, it must be true, I must be truly have something repugnant about physical appearance. However, at no point in time would I ever have considered plastic surgery to change it for real. At the same time I was not allowed the freedom to express myself; I always Frances’ daughter not an individual in my own right, and she always wanted the final say in how I looked from my wig (I have alopecia universalis) to my glasses and how I dressed. Any medical appointments she would come to, encase I said something she did not want said. It took me a long time to realise I am the daughter of a narcissist.

Shortly after moving to Loughborough in October 2006 I began therapy, at first I had no real reason for feeling depressed as just always seemed to be there like raindrops in my tummy as I put when I was a child. It was then I started to unravel all I kept inside and found I had razor blades inside my stomach too, as often beat myself up emotionally for things that were not my fault and/or had never had a voice to say stop or no. I had been hurt so much by life that I almost gave up just before Easter 2008 as came close to suicide, I felt like the puppet mistress would never let me be free to be me. On my return to Edinburgh in October 2009, I had begun photographing, but nowhere near as much as I do now, with a feeling of sickness and dread. I had tried to turn the camera on me for around a year by then, perplexed at the woman that appeared on it as she was not the ogre in my head. Gradually over the next few years as I returned to writing combining with my photography and finding supportive friends I saw me as a person and learnt to appreciate, respect and love this unique person that I am. I belong not in a laboratory but helping others, writing and photographing, and dressing the way that suits me!

So was my depression caused by not being who I am? Yes and no. I am far happier internally than I have ever been, I can look in a mirror and say it’s just how I am at this moment and that’s okay. Equally, I can delete or edit a photograph based on it being a picture and not make it feel so personal. However, I still have depression as there are still things from my past that hurt me and in my present but try not to let them. To me mental health conditions, including depression, are far more complex than a simple and singular explanation. I have mentioned before that we let things take root and suddenly faced with a tree and sometimes a forest of issues we should have dealt with at the start. To me it is this forest that overwhelms us as we do not know where to begin to cut it down; borrowing an axe from someone else is like trying to use their methods to solve our issues it may work but not always; and often a combination of many things help, but the most important is living for today as per mindfulness so that the roots can take hold of us. So be true to ourselves, but equally be gentle with ourselves, as we’re not all meant to be Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian, or Kelly Brook, but also note the images we see of them are heavily edited and may also have just the same insecurities as we do!

© Fi S. J. Brown

Press pause

Stop where you are and what you’re doing, pause briefly, and note in your head: three things you see, three things you can hear and three things you can touch.

In your own time do the following:

  • The first type or write it down in pen on paper, in any language;
  • The second draw or paint, even sculpt it with clay, so can be seen;
  • The third say aloud or sing it in a song so now has a voice of its own;
  • The fourth mimic either in action or sound, is it easy or hard to copy;
  • The fifth note how it makes you feel, happy or sad, and also why;
  • The sixth what shape does it have, is it like others, can you compare;
  • The seventh what or who does it remind you of, past/present/future;
  • The eighth can you put a value on it, does it need one or is it priceless;
  • The ninth can you imagine a world where it was not here on Earth now.

Before you finish, I want you to think of a tenth thing – yourself. All you have noted above are aspects of your own character as you see them.

Pause at least once a day remembering that you matter too, how uniquely remarkable it is to be you, and try be a bit kinder or gentler with you.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Therapy…!?

This week I have been considering the journey I have made the last decade with my mental health, the stigma I have encountered to the breaking point I reached and the help I got through therapy. A good friend posted a link on Facebook to a newspaper article with Kate Winslet’s negative view of therapy; she could outsmart the person giving her therapy and decided it was not for her. To me, I felt was very out of touch attitude and only added to make the stigma of mental health and addiction worse as could not look beyond what she felt was someone inferior to her.

My own experiences of therapy tell their own tale: It is almost nine years to the day since I started having counselling. I remember well the fear I had to send the email to the university counselling service, it was admitting I had a problem but could they help and did I really need to see a counsellor? I had only done so as my so called boyfriend had pushed me to do so as felt I needed the help they provided. Although it was something I had considered as far back as eight years previously, I never thought the time was right. However, I had decided if I had not moved in 2006, I would not see Christmas as my depression was strangling me so much and living with a narcissist mother that only wanted to control every iota of my life. Therefore, it was certainly the right time at almost twenty eight, to start to understand why I felt so depressed and suicidal much of my life.

My first meeting with Anne was like stepping into someone else’s home with the way she lit her office to the pictures around the room, so immediately felt less like I was going to another part of campus. She had a caring face with a gentle tone of voice that like the lighting made feel at ease. Over the next few months we both realised my issues were far deeper than counselling could offer, she wrote to my GP who by that time had me on antidepressants after I had become suicidal over the Christmas holidays, but he simply asked me if it was true what Anne had written and as I said ‘yes’, the letter was crumpled and put in the bin. It felt like a metaphor for my life, crumpled up and nobody really listening to me; the lyrics to Tori Amos’ “Silent all these years” rang with crumpled paper now sat in my GP’s waste basket. Anne and I tried a new tact and a different doctor in the practice after I had self harmed when in hospital for a then undiagnosed ear infection. This time action was taken and was referred to a clinical psychologist.

To say I was apprehensive on seeing a clinical psychologist was an understatement, to me that made it sound like I genuinely was crazy or mad. Our initial appointment I had to rearrange owing to a visit from my mother that left me in a state of deep depression as felt I could never be free from her clutches or control. However, when I met Ginny I met someone that was willing to go with me on a journey to explore how I got to where I was today, psychodynamic therapy. It took me longer to warm and trust Ginny as felt like it was her not listening at times or full of questions. It was far from easy at times as felt like I was left at the edge of a cliff and then was expected to return to the world, continuing my PhD research, with all these memories and emotions going round in my head that somehow I had to leave them and focus on what I needed to. It was only after my suicide attempt eight years ago that I began to realise just what it was she was getting at. By the following autumn as we said ‘goodbye’ I felt sadness as realised she had given me stepping stones to move forward in life and most importantly was no longer afraid of my mother!

Since then I have found good friends that I know I can open up to but know I do need further help to deal with some issues still unresolved. I use creativity such as writing and photography to walking around nature as my self imposed therapy. Through it all I have grown to accept and appreciate me the person as I see my mother for the narcissistic woman she is and my brother that hurt me badly as an overgrown child that depends on her so much, neither able to see or accept how much they did and do hurt me still. I also accept why my father left my mother and my many issues I felt with him leaving, not being there when I needed to support.

In addition, I have learnt therapy is something we all need at times in our life, it is hard and dark, but with professional help we can find candles to hang that show there is light and where it hides. I would go so far it is part of healthy living to know and understand it is okay to ask for help in this way, as you would a doctor for a lump on a breast or broken ankle. I am currently deciding if this is not a path I should consider myself, to become a counsellor or psychologist, as love to help others and naturally empathetic, using my creativity and love of nature. I welcome thoughts from others on this, some I have asked say it is very me as already the empathetic ear or shoulder to rest that does not judge anyone and lets someone be themselves, allow them to grow and bloom to whatever or whoever they want to be.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Normal…a redefinition

How a dictionary defines normal can be very different to how as people we do, ask hundred people and you will get a hundred definitions. Equally, ask the same hundred people what they define as abnormal, and you will get the same result. This is because our life experiences to the people we meet adding different colours and layers to how we see the world. With the advent of social media to the cult of celebrity these too add to this perception we have of the world. Seldom do we stop and think of what is normal and/or abnormal and do not question it.

We pass judgement every day; be it how best to serve tea or coffee to how to dress ourselves and the partner we choose to have in our lives (if at all). They all serve as means of self-expression, that is to say they say “this is my way” of living life. The choice of partner you will already have opinions on, some maybe tutting or swearing at the thought anyone may want a partner of the same gender as themselves to choosing not to have a partner at all. So which is the normal way? Simply put all of them are and none of them are.

Even people that claim not to be judgemental make judgements every day, knowingly and unknowingly. So on deciding if another’s choice partner as in the above example is normal or not we are making a judgement, not on morality or ethics but based on our personal sense of normality.

In defining what is normal, we need to look at our own lives, where we make judgements and where others judge us. Whilst doing this we also need to consider not just why we think this way, but what is the root of this belief and why we have these expectations of others and equally ascribe them to ourselves.

Expectations of ourselves and/or others can be due to our families, beliefs, and cultures we grew up in to the ones we find ourselves living in now, which by breaking these can lead to estrangement and even death. Equally, we need to learn not to be hard on ourselves and/or others for failing to live up to these expectations: For example, in some areas of the world you would be expected to be married with at least two children by 21, but we have to remember that may not happen for all and trying not to be judgemental on someone that by 25 is single and a virgin. How can we ascribe the actions or personality of ourselves and/or another normal and/or abnormal just because they are different to our own?

So should the word normal in this case be left like many prejudices and stereotypes be left in the past? Just because we do not agree with, have no knowledge, expect life/another/ourselves to be a certain way, is it really abnormal? Equally, should we expect others to agree with and/or collaborate with our ideas of what is and is not normal? Have they not also got their own, just as valid, ideas and ways of expressing what is normal to them?

Let us return to defining what is normal, a friend once said “it is a function on a washing machine”. Normal in real terms is what is right for us and our journey, trying to conform to the expectations and ideals of others is like wearing our neighbour’s underwear! We also try to put labels on ourselves so can find like minded people, only do this if you must to let them explore your world but remembering not to judge them by our ideas of normal, for we are not them, have not and never will experience their journey their way.

I am currently writing a short book exploring the above themes, to find just what is normal to us, the journey to find what it is but always remembering that one size will never fit all, and finally accepting what we have found, which can be just as difficult as the prejudice we can encounter from others.

© Fi S. J. Brown