Thursday, 11 July 2013

The thing I hate most about Depression

Here is the thing I hate most about depression: the way it removes my ability to feel or even remember joy.

The last fortnight has been hellish. I have struggled to do anything at all. Waking up in the mornings, I have come round already dreading the day ahead. Waking up to palpitations, a sort of fuzzy sense of unreality and the feeling that today is the day that will prove to be too much is exhausting. My anxiety has been so high I have spent most of the days trembling in anticipation of some nebulous, indefinable awful thing that I feel certain is going to happen, soon. 

It's been so bad that I found myself planning out in intricate detail how to end my life. Just because that is a bad thing, so if that bad thing happens then it's done with. No more worry. No more pain. Live or die, something will have happened and either I won't be around to deal with it, or I will but at least there will be something to deal with. A problem I can name and point out to people. Rather than this constant, terrible dread which I can't name, can't describe, can't explain to people.

I've wanted help, desperately. But depression does something truly awful to me, it takes away my voice, my language, my ability to communicate. It's why I've written nothing on here. It's why I've spent hours staring blankly at the phone trying to remember how to speak, how to use it to get in touch with my doctor, the hospital, a friend. Anyone. In place of my voice it leaves me only apathy and fear, it leaves me exhausted to the point that moving becomes next to impossible. 

I am not proud to say that there was a day that was so bad, even moving from my bed as far as the bathroom was too much. I lay there in my own  pee and cried. For five hours. 

This is what an acute episode of depression looks like, for me. The only good thing, really, is that for all my planning I never once had the energy to try and enact it. Even ending this thing - the only way in the pits of despair that seemed possible - was beyond me.

And right now, as I finally feel able to drag myself far enough out of this pit to find people again, to find my voice just enough to whisper a cry for help I am glad of that. Even if a week ago I wouldn't have been.

But none of this is what I hate most about depression. No, what I hate most is that when things get that bad, it seems impossible that they will ever get better again. It seems impossible that they have ever been better in the past, that I have ever been happy. Or even simply not actively unhappy.

Depression at it's worst makes it impossible for me to feel joy, to recall a time when I ever have felt joy. To know that joy is something which even exists.Instead it tells me I have never been happy and never will be. It tells me this so effectively that even when presented with evidence to the contrary - a friend sharing a
memory of a great night out, photos of holidays I enjoyed, time spent with my beloved - it still wins. Because I try to remember those times but it's like watching a movie about somebody else, with completely different experiences to me and in a foreign language. The pictures in my mind are of somebody smiling, laughing, joyful but there is nothing I can relate to. I try, but I can't summon even the faintest echo of joy. In it's place is  a hollow, dull empty feeling. Nothing. No joy to be found. No tools to fight back with. Just, nothing.

So, that's why the blog has been quiet. It's why I've not been in touch with my friends. It's why I've not been to work. It's why I ran out of me medication when I needed it most and it's why I failed utterly to get to the doctor for another prescription.

But here's the amazing thing that depression always conspires to make me forget. It get's better. It does. Because right now, things are still awful. They are. But today I made it to the bathroom. Today I got dressed. Today I managed to write these words. Today, there is no joy or smiles or laughter, but I found a photo of me smiling and recognised the girl as me, recognised the emotion as one I had felt and as one I will feel again. Today I made it to the doctors and asked for help. Today I told a friend I wasn't coping. Today I regained my voice. 

Maybe tomorrow I will remember what joy is but if I don't there will always be the day after and all the days after that because I know it's real, I know I've felt it before and therefore I'm capable of feeling it again. Right now, all I have is the vague memory of joy to guide me back towards it. It's not much, but it's more than I had yesterday and it will have to be enough, because the alternative is horrific.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Who's responsible for sexual assault and rape? Another rant

When I got up today I was intending to write some more about BDD, since yesterday's efforts felt messy to me. Instead, I found and watched this video. For those who don't have time to check it out, it's a debate about the victim blaming comments made by Serena Williams in regards to the Steubenville rape case.

There were some good points raised in the debate, including keeping the focus on asking why people rape, a discussion about parental and community responsibility and the difference between accountability and responsibility. There was also an attempt to defend Serena's position, which was less awesome in my opinion.

This raised a fair few issues for me, things like this can be incredibly triggering for me - and I have no doubt other victims/survivors/people who have experienced sexual violence. I hate that there is still a need to discuss this. The only person responsible for any specific incident of sexual violence is the person or people who perpetrated it. When it happens to a child or young person, then it is vital to also look at how and why they weren't protected by parents/caregivers/teachers/the wider community. What there should never be, in my opinion, is a need to tell people that they hold some of the blame for what happened to them because of where they were/how they were acting/how they were dressed and so forth.

The only times I was raped whilst intoxicated were the times my father forced me to drink, or spiked my drink with something. I have been drunk many times without being raped. I have been drunk many times without ever raping or otherwise assaulting someone. I have been around drunk people without ever taking advantage of them.  Drinking is not an excuse for sexual violence. True, drinking to excess can increase your vulnerability but so can many other things. Such as being a child, being unlucky enough to have be-friended a rapist or living within a rape culture.

If we keep teaching people that the only way to stay safe from rape is to never ever do anything that will leave them vulnerable to rape then we end up in a situation where people can't trust their own families, make friends with anyone. Where people can't wear clothes or not wear clothes. Where they can't be inside or outside. In short, we end up in a situation where it becomes impossible for people to live and function. Oh, and since none of these things will stop there being rapists then people who try to follow all these impossible rules will still be vulnerable to rape.

Now, I'm not saying never take precautions to keep yourself safe. Sadly, the reality of life is that there are risks out there and if we're aware of them we can try to reduce them. As a young adult we used to go to great lengths to make sure everyone got home safely after a night out and so on. It's great that I had the luxury of friends who were prepared to look out for each other. Not everybody does.

The truth still remains however that whatever we do to safeguard ourselves, we're still at risk. And there comes a point where trying to reduce that risk comes at too great a cost, when it has such an impact on your life that you no longer feel able to do anything.

And no amount of not drinking, not going to parties, not dressing how you want and not having a social life you enjoy will change the fact that most people who experience sexual violence are targeted by people they know and often trust. Which none of these rules will in any way help to defend us from.

So, I say it again and I will keep saying it: the way to reduce the risk of rape is to create a culture which actively discourages it, which makes it hard to achieve. A culture where those who experience it are listened to, believed and supported. Whilst those who perpetrate it are condemned for their actions.

It's not about whether someone was drunk or not, whether someone is a virgin or not. It's not about how they are dressed, where they were, what they were doing. It's about the presence of rapists and abusers in our society. We probably can't get rid of them completely, but we can make it harder for them to operate. We can make it easier for their targets to come forward and prosecute them. That's where the focus needs to be.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

A bit about BDD

Today I want to try and write a little about Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and my experience of living with it. This is probably the hardest thing for me to write about, to think about. Harder, in many ways, than even the abuse by my father. I don't know why that is the case, I only know that it is true. I'm making the effort though because of all the mental illnesses I struggle with, this is is the one I've found it is hardest for people to understand.

When I have tried to explain it to people, their responses have been varied. Mostly, I have been met with words along the lines of 'but you look great, you've got nothing to worry about.' Which is sweet, and appreciated. It doesn't actually help though. The thing people seem to find so hard to grasp is that whatever they are seeing, it's not what I am seeing. So whilst on the one hand I can understand that they probably do think I look perfectly OK, my reality is different. So very different.

In my reality, my body is out of proportion. My lower arms and legs are like spindly insect legs, growing out of a bulbous, segmented body. My head is tiny, my features uneven and lopsided, my hair stringy and thin, my neck is bigger than my head. It honestly doesn't matter how much other people tell me this isn't true because for me it is. For me, this is exactly what I see when I look in the mirror. Whilst it's nice that other people don't find me physically abhorrent, at the end of the day it's how I feel about my body and looks that matters. So whilst I appreciate that people are trying to make me feel better, the reality is that until I can learn to not care so much about what I see - or to perhaps, one day, see something different in the mirror - all the compliments in the world won't help.

It goes deeper than that though. It's not only that I hate how I look. According to an old therapist of mine my obsession with my looks is a way of masking the underlying fears that I am wrong somehow. I think there is some truth in that. Certainly most of my anxiety seems based around the idea that I am simply not right in some way. Whatever the case, telling me that I look fine isn't enough to make me see it. 

I suspect the best way for me to deal with this issue is not to focus on my looks at all. I'm not there yet, but I'm trying. It is certainly the case that when I can become engaged enough in something else that I stop thinking about, I'm happier. This is something I want to work on further when I am back in therapy once more.

In the meantime, my life is an exhausting one. It's one of constantly adjusting clothing, touching up make-up, teasing hair into exactly the right place. It's one of anxiety almost every second that everybody else can see what I see and they hate it as much as I do. 

In the past, it was one where I starved myself to make everything smaller, so that my head and body 'matched.' Sure, there were other reasons for my eating disorders, but this was an increasingly big part of it. I still hold the scars where I carved the words 'fat' and 'wrong' into my leg. I once tried to carve off the bits I didn't like, the excess fat and bone that made my frame 'wrong.' 

So this place I am in now, this is progress of a sort. I no longer resort to such drastic measures as trying to alter my body by harming it. I am still a very long way however from being able to view it with anything other than disgust and terror.  After over a decade of work, I can finally accept that other people don't see me the way I do. I can finally understand that what I see is not real but is only a cruel distortion of reality.

My hope is that when I return to therapy, I will find I am more able to discuss BDD, to work on this illness as it has never been the focus in the past. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Oh look, another sexual assault and victim blaming rant.

Today I have been reminded of something which happened back when I was at school. I was 15, studying for my GCSE's. The incidents I am thinking about happened primarily in my French class, over a number of weeks.

I'll be honest, as a teen I was awkward both socially and physically. I wasn't a popular girl, though I had a small but tight knit group of friends and a few acquaintances. The sort of people I got on with, who seemed to like me but would studiously look the other way or even join in when I experienced the occasional bout of bullying.

One of these acquaintances was a boy I will call K. K was very good friends with two of the girls I hung out with. He'd known them for years, grew up with them and their parents were close. So, I came in contact with K quite often. By the time we were 15 I was starting to think of him as a friend. He would talk to me even when our mutual friends weren't about, and engaged in some harmless teasing of the sort that is usual between kids of that age.

At the start of the Easter term our French teacher decided to alter the seating arrangements. I ended up sat next to K. I'm sure I've mentioned that I was a very anxious child and teenager, so I didn't like this change. I was relieved that at least I was going to be sat with someone I liked however, and tried to look at it as a chance to get to know him better.

During the first lesson we were sat together, he placed his hand on my knee, over my skirt. I shifted it off. He apologised. No problem, I thought. The next lesson, he did it again. This time when I moved it, he grinned. A few minutes later it was back. He scribbled in my note book. 'I'm just being friendly.'

By the end of the lesson I was really upset with him. Touching me wasn't 'being friendly' not when it was a touch I didn't want. I told him in no uncertain terms not to do it again. He apologised once more. Next lesson, he slid his hand up my leg and under my skirt. I removed it. And the battle continued.

There were more scribbled notes - was I frigid, a lesbian, a racist (we were of different ethnic backgrounds). Was there something wrong with me, that I wouldn't want a nice boy like him to touch me? Two weeks after this all started he told me I should be happy of the attention, it wasn't like anyone else was showing an interest. He also made it clear he didn't fancy me, so I shouldn't get all arrogant about it.

Needless to say, this really confused me. I considered seriously talking to someone about this. My form tutor, perhaps. First, I decided to raise the issue with my friends. They plead for leniency. It would be problematic for them, if there was a falling out. It was true he was behaving in an annoying and upsetting manner but apparently he 'didn't mean anything by it.' It was made fairly clear that if I kicked up a fuss about a bit of casual touching, then I would be completely over reacting, earn an unpleasant reputation for myself - after all, nice girls didn't get groped in class - and force my friends to pick sides, which they didn't want to do.

So, I didn't tell anyone. Instead, this carried on. Until one day, when his hand managed to travel so far up my leg he was brushing against my knickers before I managed to grab and remove it. I had had enough. I told him to fuck off and leave me alone, then burst into tears. I was sent out of the class for making noise and creating a disturbance. The teacher never asked me why I shouted out, or what was happening. Later, when talking about it I was told not to make excuses for my own bad behaviour. No one was interested in listening to me about what had happened, or why. The important thing for me to understand was that swearing, talking in class and disturbing other students was never acceptable.

Needless to say, this gave K the clear message that he could carry on with what he was doing, safe in the knowledge that any attempts to stop him would lead to me being punished, rather than him. So, I refused to sit beside him. I was sent out of class again. I was told I must sit where the teacher told me to. I explained that I understood this, and would sit anywhere else I was asked. But I would not sit beside K. In the end, they moved me back to sit beside one of my friends. K was never asked what it was he was doing that made me so determined not to sit by him.

K and my friends considered the change in seating arrangements to be the end of the matter, with all issues resolved. The whole situation was hurtful and hateful, though paled in comparison with what else was going on in my life at the time.

The thing which brought this to mind was coming across a disgusting 'game' called 'Nervous.' This is a 'game' where school boys sit beside their female classmates and see how far up their legs they can move their hands before the girl objects or twitches, revealing her 'nervous' spot. I wonder now if what happened to me was part of a similar game. Apparently, this charming 'game' has been around for while.

When people ask me why I am a feminist, this is why. Because the casual abuse of peers is not acceptable, ever. It is not a game, it is not funny, it is not a compliment. It is a disgusting, vile act and the fact it happens in our classrooms, so often unchecked or unnoticed is an atrocity.

Friday, 7 June 2013

I feel small today. :( Trigger warnings apply.

Today I have had many flashbacks. It has not been the best day. During one of them  I drew the following. I don't have many words this evening, so I thought I would share these instead.

Why I struggle with appearance based compliments

I really struggle with compliments, particularly those based around appearance. A huge part of this is related to self esteem. All compliments bother me simply because I find it really hard to believe them. I never feel like I'm good enough so it's hard to accept compliments at face value. I am working on that though, particularly when it comes to accepting them gracefully. 

With appearance based compliments, I struggle for other reasons too. Firstly there is Body Dysmporphic Disorder (BDD). BDD is horrible. On the one hand, I know that what I see when I look at myself is not what other people see. On the other, what I see is my reality. I might logically understand that I have a very distorted view of myself, but that understanding hasn't thus far translated into being able to change how I perceive myself. 

For me, my body is all out of proportion. It just doesn't fit together properly and looks all wrong. My face is so full of flaws it has quite literally made me sick to look at it before now. Simply put, there is no physical aspect of myself that I really like except possibly my eyes. Though saying dislike is not a strong enough word, it doesn't go far enough in explaining my lived experience of this disorder. It's not as simple as not liking what I see, it is a feeling that I am so ugly it's not possible for other people to feel anything but disgust when they look at me. It's bad enough to prevent me leaving the house at times, just for fear of other people's reactions. There are days where I honestly believe people will be so revolted by me they will at best laugh and point, at worst harm me. There are days when I feel that if someone has to look at me, it will ruin their day.

So, in light of that it's pretty damn hard to accept a compliment. If someone compliments me on how I look, the first thing that pops into my head is 'they're lying.' The second is 'why'. Then I have to give myself a stern talking to and try to remind myself that I have a disorder and my reality is not theirs.

There's another aspect related to this too. For me to leave the house takes a lot of effort. I've generally speaking gone to a lot of effort to make myself look as good as possible but once I'm out I try to avoid thinking about my looks at all. It's hard, but I do things like ban myself from looking in the mirror when I go to the loos, or carrying a mirror around with me. I try to lose myself in whatever company I'm keeping and whatever activity I'm doing. When someone tells me I look nice I am then forced to think about how I look. Once I've worked my ways past the 'they're lying, why' thing, I then reach the 'is it possible I actually do look alright' part. This seems so implausible to me that I have to then check. It's a compulsion and one I find it takes a lot of determination and energy to fight. Many days, I don't succeed.

Once I've looked in the mirror, I can't stop. I find myself making excuses to go to where a mirror is so I can start at myself and try to figure out what it was that someone saw and liked. This inevitably leads to me not finding anything to like and then feeling distressed and upset. On a good day, I will spend the rest of the day checking my appearance, fixing my hair and make-up and altering my clothes to make sure they are hiding my biggest problem areas. On a bad day I have to go home as I can't cope with being outside looking the way I do.

Then there are the times I've made a special effort, such as going out clubbing, to a party, a nice dinner or a wedding. On those occasions I crave and need compliments. I will repeatedly ask my partner if I look OK and need almost constant reassurance that I do. Not that I can believe it for long, but it helps briefly. I once burst into tears on a lovely girl in the ladies loos because she told me she liked my hair, which I had been convinced all night looked wrong. After events like this, I count up the amount of unsought compliments I was given, particularly by strangers. Each time I get less than my current 'personal best' I hate myself for not having done enough to look bearable. It's tiring work.

Finally, there is the simple fact that the compliment IS based around appearance. I struggled every day to focus on other things, things I recognise as more important. I might not feel comfortable about compliments on my work, my writing, my ability to be a good friend but they are to my way of thinking far more valuable. They are about who I am as a person, rather than simply what I look like. When people compliment me on what I look like, rather than what I am doing then it reinforces the idea that my appearance is the most - possibly only - important thing about me. 

I find that it bothers me less when people say 'Hey, I just wanted to tell you I really appreciate how much you helped me out the other day. Incidentally, you're looking fab today.' Than if they approach me just to tell me I look nice. It makes me feel a bit more valued, simply because as well as liking how I look, they seem to like me as a person too. Which is far more important to me. 

I still haven't figured out this whole messy area of compliments, but I intend to keep working on it. Right now I have mastered the art of smiling and saying thank you, even if inside it has set my stomach churning with anxiety. Maybe one day, I'll be able to smile, say thank you and feel good that someone likes something about me. Here's hoping!

Dissociation and me, a love/hate relationship

Ah, dissociation my old friend and nemesis. It's about time I talk about this I think, if only because it's one of my most troubling symptoms. We all dissociate, it's an important defence mechanism. I remember the day my mum died. A relative sat me down and told me what had happened. I calmly nodded my head, said I understood and went outside to be by myself for a bit. I knew that I should be upset but actually I was just numb. It didn't feel real, everything felt very far away and I didn't really feel much of anything. When I came back inside, I spent a lot of time making sure everyone else was OK. People were crying in the front room, talking in hushed voices in the kitchen. Someone punched a wall and sat stating at his injured hand for a bit. I made tea, handed out hugs and otherwise did what I could. I still didn't really feel anything myself. It didn't seem possible to me that mum was gone.

I remember shopping for an outfit for the funeral, determined to find something nice so I looked good for the day. I felt a sort of weird disjointed guilt that this was what was bothering me, but my mum's death still didn't feel real. I still found myself sitting on the bottom of the stairs in the evenings, waiting for someone to take me to the hospital to see her. I remember just sitting there and staring at the wall, not really thinking about anything. In the days leading up to the funeral people started to talk about what would happen to us kids now, whether it would be best for the family to move so we were nearer our aunts and uncles and cousins, our grandparents. I felt panicky and upset by these conversations, but not really about my mum's death. Then it was the day of the funeral. I put on my nice outfit and we went to the church. My aunt explained we'd be going to stay with her for a bit so we wouldn't be going home afterwards, we'd be going to her house.

Reality started to sink in. Mum was gone, nothing would be the same again. Finally, I found my tears. I balled my eyes out during the service, I almost passed out at the grave side. My hand was shaking so much when it came to throwing the dirt in on top of the coffin. It didn't seem possible that my wonderful mum was in there, that we were burying her, that she was gone. But whilst I couldn't relate that coffin to my mum, I was finally starting to come round to the idea that she was gone. I was a mess, for days I couldn't eat, talk to anyone or do anything much but cry. Grief had set in.

That numbness, that feeling of unreality which allowed me to carry on and look after everyone else - that was dissociation very much coupled with denial. It couldn't be real so I didn't let it upset me. It was useful, it allowed me to carry on and do things that needed to be done - such as preparing for the funeral - but if it had gone on longer than that I would never have been able to grieve, to accept my loss and start to come to terms with it.

To a lesser degree, I've done the same thing with exams, interviews and other stressful situations. Generally speaking, I have no recollection of how I've done, what I've written or said after these events but I seem to do well because all the stress and panic is set aside for a bit and allows me to get on with it with a clear head. Very useful. It's times like this I love dissociation.

These aren't the only times I've dissociated though, not by a long shot. I used to dissociate when I was being abused. It's why I can't remember all of the incidents and why many of my memories are sort of fuzzy and distant. Growing up, I was able to dissociate so heavily from the abuse that I quite literally forgot about it when I wasn't reminded of it. It meant I had this really awesome relationship with my father at times, and this really awful one with him at others. For me, it was like the abuse happened to somebody else so when I wasn't alone with dad, I was able to enjoy our time together. Then as soon as we were alone, the panic and anxiety would set in.

I was often anxious as a child and teenager. In my teens, I experienced angry outburst, I hurt myself and starved myself and I honestly had no idea why I did these things much of the time. As I got older it got harder to separate myself from the abuse. I could remember it happening, I knew my father hurt me on a regular basis. I started to find other ways to protect myself, such as staying out late and avoiding time alone with him. Things that hadn't been available to me when I was younger. Yet I still dissociated. The first time I told a GP about the abuse I was 20. She asked me gently if I thought that my self harm and depression were related to this. I thought she was mad. I honestly couldn't see how the two things could be connected. The me that experienced those things simply wasn't the same person who had been abused. In much the same way, the person I was when I went out with friends, found a job and generally speaking enjoyed life wasn't, in my mind, the same person who hurt herself, refused to eat and tried to kill herself.

I felt like several different people, and this is a form of dissociation too. I could remember what had happened to me if confronted with it, such as when I saw anything to do with child abuse on the telly or experienced a flashback but the rest of the time I simply didn't think about it and for me it was like it ceased to exist. When I was happy, I didn't forget that there were months at a time of depression, I didn't forget that I still self harmed regularly but again, unless this was brought up - for instance by people asking if I was feeling better - it simply vanished from my mind.

Then there are the flashbacks. Oh the flashbacks. This is different to memories. I used to remember the abuse at odd times and it was always upsetting. I often dissociated when faced with these memories. I would become detached and numb, everything would feel fuzzy and unreal but that was better by far than the flashbacks. The sudden rush of panic, the over riding fear that I'm in danger. The confusion when I can't make sense of where I am because I simply don't recognise this place.The inevitable finding somewhere to hide, the frequent cutting and tugging at my hair, my skin. The inability at times to even recognise those nearest and dearest to me, because quite simply I am someone else. I am that girl, the one who was abused. The one I find it hard to accept even today was really me.

It's like time travel but with none of the fun and adventure, or ability to change things no matter how ill advised. It's not like going back and seeing yourself - though I often experience memories this way. It's being back there, going through it all again.

Flashbacks are often where my hard won coping mechanisms fail. I'm no longer the person who's had the benefit of therapy and medication, who has a list of handy things to do or numbers to call to help me calm down and feel safe. I stare at such lists in confusion. They aren't mine, I don't know these people and I can't do these things. I am a girl, just a child who hasn't yet learned these things. I've overdosed mid flashback before, I've cut. I often have no recollection afterwards of doing these things, of what happened. I simply remember the fear and distress. Sometimes there are images, sounds or smells I can recall after the fact. In many ways these are the best times, they give me a clue as to what happened to me - what I was reliving. That gives me something to work with. More often, I don't remember. I am just left with a feeling of being small, young and scared. There are less extreme flashbacks too, where I know where I am but I still experience the distress and panic, where superimposed over who I am now is the person I was then.

At the time I was experiencing the abuse, dissociation was my best friend, absolutely. Without it I would have been truly helpless, truly unable to cope. I wouldn't have been able to get up every day, go to school, make friends and do 'normal' things. I would have been fearful wreck, all the time. As it was I was an anxious kid, though I didn't know why most of the time. Without dissociation I wouldn't have been able to function at all.

Now, this kind of dissociation is not really my friend at all. There are days where I look back and can't remember what I've done. There are days where I need help but can't ask for it, because I'm the 'wrong' person. There are days when I look OK, so that nobody knows inside I am screaming. There are days where what I have to do is difficult or scary, but necessary. These things go undone half the time, because I dissociate and 'forget' about them. Until I am reminded that I didn't do them. When this can include really important things like paying bills, going to work or eating food, that's an issue.

I frequently have no idea if I've eaten or not, or if I've spent money or not. I find things and can't remember buying them, writing them, drawing them. Or I do remember, but it feels like 'someone else's' problem and so I promptly put the associated memories 'away' somewhere in my head.

Dissociation for me has stopped being a helpful way to survive and cope with past events, and has instead become a barrier to me learning how to survive and cope with current ones. It's a problem, a huge one. One I am still trying to figure out how to deal with, one day at a time.Hopefully I will be starting another course of therapy soon, which should help.

I wrote about this here partly because it helps me to write but mostly because I know I'm not the only one dealing with this and it's rare I see or read anything about it that isn't in a medical textbook or a support forum. In trying to talk to other people about this, I often find they are scared or disbelieving. They either think I'm 'mad' or a liar.

So, this is me doing my best to help someone, anyone understand even a little bit about dissociation. It's me trying to reach out to people struggling with this to know they aren't alone, to invite them to share their experiences or talk about them if they want to. To help those who know someone struggling with dissociation to support them. As ever, I hope it helps somebody.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

A rant about street harassment

So, I've not posted for a few days because I've been having a tough time with my mental health again. When your thinking is clouded it makes writing just a bit difficult. Something happened to me this morning that I want to talk about. Mainly because it's not a one off incident, and if it happens to me I'm sure it happens to other people too.

So, after a few days of hiding at home due to high levels of anxiety I made myself leave the house this morning. I went for a walk, there happens to be a nice park not far away and with the kids at school it's normally pretty empty this time of day. Perfect, I thought.

There was a guy out walking his dog, he smiled as our paths crossed and I smiled back. It shouldn't be difficult to smile a greeting at a stranger but it can be for me. I did it anyway though and nothing awful happened. He carried on his merry way and after a few seconds sniffing my leg his dog did the same. It was actually kind of nice, as even brief interactions with other people usually are when I don't let the anxiety get in the way. It made me feel a bit better so I carried on my walk.

About ten minutes later, I came across another young man. He approached me and asked if I had a light. I explained that I didn't and moved past him. He followed me which caused a jump in anxiety levels. Still, I was determined to be rational. Maybe he wasn't following me, maybe he just happened to be heading in the same direction. A few seconds later he pulled even with me.

'Where are you going lady?'

At this point, I really didn't want to engage in further conversation with him. I wanted to get away from him. But how to do so? It's entirely possible that he was just a bit lonely and looking for some innocent conversation. I didn't want to be rude. I also didn't want to antagonise him. I hate confrontation and I'd gone out for a breath of fresh air not to get into an argument with somebody. I took a deep breath and answered.

'Oh, just out. I'm in a hurry, sorry I can't stop for a chat.'

Then I sped up. So did he.

'Don't be like that, I only want to talk. You're a very pretty lady.'

At this point I was on the verge of panicking. I just wanted to be away from him. I was starting to sweat, my vision was starting to blur and I was finding it hard to think about what I should be doing. I blurted out, voice a bit trembly.

'Please just leave me alone.'

He didn't. I headed towards the exit to the park, towards the nearby high street. It has lots of shops on it and is always busy. I don't know how much of this was a concious decision and how much was based around the fact that this was the nearest exit. The man carried on following me, making more comments about how I looked. As soon as I reached the exit and headed out into the high street he stopped walking. He stood in the gateway and shouted after me that I was 'an arrogant bitch and I should watch myself.'

Needless to say, walk ruined and almost in tears I headed straight home, repeatedly checking that I wasn't still being followed.

It's been a while since this happened to me, but every time it does it not only upsets me it stirs up lots of old fears and emotions. I can't help but recall all the other times it's happened. The time a guy followed me from the post office to my house. The time a group of teenagers in  park followed me for a few minutes telling me how that if I didn't stop to talk to them they were going to rape me. The time a guy in  car followed me for several minutes calling out to me, first in a complimentary fashion and then with increasing anger as I continued to ignore his advances. I was only 15 at the time and in no way prepared for such attention. It reminded me of going clubbing and rejecting the person who's just hit on me only to be met with derision and anger.

It reminded me of the time an ex and a gang of his friends followed me to college one day, referring to me as a frigid slut and a whore. For not sleeping with my ex and then dumping him when he became too insistent. It reminded me of another time when a different ex sent his friends to follow me home explaining that if I didn't go back to him, I could expect trouble. Telling me that I was disloyal and a slut for not wanting to stay with him and warning a male friend of mine to stay away from me, because I was a mental bitch.

In short, it reminded me of all the times men have acted like they have a right to expect and demand my time and attention, because they've decided they want to give it to me. It reminded me that so many men don't see me - or any other woman - as a person, but as an object to be admired, desired and owned by men.

I remember once complaining to a friend about this and being told I should take it as a compliment. Men found me attractive and this was apparently a brilliant thing. Really? I find lots of people attractive, it doesn't mean I think it's OK to harass them or hate them for not returning my attraction. I've never once thought that I was so awesome, the mere fact of my finding them attractive was such a huge compliment they should be grateful for it. It's never occurred to me that giving some a compliment should oblige them to accept it and then do everything I ask or want.  But then, I've also had people tell me this can't have happened to me because I'm not pretty enough. Way to dismiss and insult me all at once, and to tell me that presumably I should consider myself lucky to experience harassment.

To be honest, I don't think it's even about finding someone attractive. To me it seems that like all other forms of sexual harassment, abuse and violence it's about power. The power to enforce your will over somebody else and it's never ever OK. Nor is it a 'compliment'.

I've had people tell me before that maybe these acts (or at least some of them) were innocent, that these men should at least be applauded for having the courage to talk to a girl they fancy. No. It's not about courage. I've talked to people I fancied, I've been gutted when it hasn't worked out for me. Rejection is never a comfortable feeling. I've never then felt the urge to call them names, or try to intimidate them into complying with my wishes. That's not courage, that's harassment. It's vile and it's not ever acceptable.

Nobody is 'lucky' to experience unwanted attention, particularly when it's threatening. No one has the right to follow you home (or anywhere else) uninvited, to threaten to rape you, to call you names and try to shame you, to close in on you and deliberately try to make you feel bad and uncomfortable. It's not OK and it's not a position which can be defended. It's not the same thing as asking out someone you like, it's not about that. It's about some people feeling entitled to treat any and all women as objects they can do what they want with. It's the same thinking that allows people to rape and otherwise harm women, and by trying to justify it you are telling them that's it OK to think of other people this way. It isn't.

Well then, rant over. I still feel sick and shaky but better for getting that off my chest. As ever, I hope somebody out there finds this useful in some way.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Some thoughts on self harm

I've had many conversations with people over the years about self harm. I've discussed it with friends, family, doctor's, nurses and therapists. I've discussed it with a line manager at work and I've even discussed it with a stranger on the train once, after they noticed the scars on my arms. So, I thought I'd take the time to share some of my thoughts based on my experiences both of self harming and of talking about it.

Firstly, I would like to make it really clear that self harm is not a failed suicide attempt, nor is it necessarily an indication that someone is contemplating suicide. People self harm for a whole variety of reasons, often the same person engages in self harming behaviour for different reasons at different times. I know that I've harmed myself in different ways, at different times for a variety of different reasons.

Sometimes it's been a way to cope with overwhelming emotion or racing thoughts that seem beyond my control. At other times I've self harmed simply in order to feel something, to prove to myself that I still could. Then there have been the times I've dissociated so heavily I can't remember what I've done or why. There is very little more upsetting than 'coming round' somewhere to find yourself with clearly self inflicted injuries and no idea why they are there. Finally, I've self harmed when the suicidal thoughts became too much to deal with, when I was truly afraid I would give in and act on them. Somehow, hurting myself seems to hold those thoughts at bay, reduce them for a time. I have quite literally hurt myself in order to keep living. For me, self harm is often the direct opposite of an attempt on my life.

Something which comes up often when talking about self harm is the idea that it is wrong, a maladaptive behaviour which is only ever harmful. I am not entirely sure this is true. Certainly, it looks like an unhealthy behaviour. I would accept that a mentally healthy person doesn't engage in self harming behaviours. Where I would argue is that it is automatically maladaptive. There are times when I have tried very hard to engage in more 'healthy' behaviours to control my thoughts and emotions, to get back to a place where I can fight them again. There are times those techniques - many developed in conjunction with a therapist - haven't worked. At that point, I would argue that harming myself is in fact a valid response. Particularly if the only remaining alternative is suicide.

For me, suicidal behaviour can be a compulsion which I find it very hard to fight. There are times it hasn't been, times where it has seemed like the best way out. On those occasions, as soon as any other alternative has been found the desire to take my life has ceased. There are other times though where that isn't the case. Where the compulsion is so strong there simply isn't time to think. Times where the compulsion is so powerful I can't simply sit and wait for the feeling to pass. On those occasions, self harm can help alleviate the compulsion. It's almost like by giving in a little, the urge is lessened to the point I can fight it once more. To the point I am able to put into practice the techniques and tools I've been given to keep myself safe. There have also been times where suicide seemed like the best option and I wasn't in the position to seek advice or help in finding another.

I am thinking now about when I was much younger and being abused by my father. I was too young to move out, running away hadn't worked and I had nobody to talk to. No where I could go for help and advice. At ten years old, I didn't even have the language to talk about what was going on even if I had found someone to talk to. By thirteen, when I made the first attempt on my life I had the language but my depression had deepened to the point that things liked talking to people seemed entirely beyond me. In situations like this, where any form of help or support seem impossible suicide can seem like a frighteningly welcome idea. At times like these, self harm provided a temporary relief from such thoughts and feelings. Temporary, but accessible as often as I needed it. It allowed me to maintain a degree of functionality, it allowed me to continue living until I reached a point that alternatives became available.

I am writing this now as someone who hasn't hurt herself on purpose for three years. It's the longest I've ever managed and I'm pleased to report that I have developed many other ways of fighting suicidal urges, of dealing with racing or intrusive thoughts and emotions so strong I struggle to cope with them. I still remember very strongly being that other, younger girl however. The one who turned so often to self harm because she didn't yet have tools to handle things any other way, or found herself in situations where those tools didn't work. I can say with a hundred per cent certainty that my life is better without self harm, but also that I wouldn't be here to realise that if I hadn't had this tool at my disposal.

I guess I want three things from this post. Firstly, to address the assumptions which can be made about self harm - it's not a suicide attempt, and whilst it can be connected to suicidal ideation or thoughts that's not necessarily the case. Secondly, some understanding that self harm serves a purpose, it can work, albeit temporarily and that for each person, each time they self harm the reasons can be different. Finally, I want anyone who reads this and identifies as a self harmer, there is hope that one day in the future you won't need that particular tool any more.

So, if you are reading this and know somebody who self harms, please try not to assume you understand and please don't judge. Anybody who self harms would be happy to find a safer, healthier way of dealing with things but there will be times this really is the best option they have available. Understand and accept that and you'll find helping them reach a place where it's no longer necessary will be easier for everyone involved.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Listening, an often underrated skill

One of the things I hate most about talking to my friends and loved ones about my mental health is this: they often assume what I want or need from them is advice and a way to fix things. There are times when that is what I'm asking for, sure but most of the time all I want is someone to listen. There are times when I need to just talk, to get thoughts out of my head and to share my experience. 

What often happens instead is a horrible cycle of frustration and upset for everyone involved. I try to talk, my confidant jumps in to offer advice. I become upset and frustrated because I'm not being listened too, because someone is trying to 'fix' me and tell me what I should be doing. They become frustrated because their advice isn't being taken on board, it can feel like I don't want to get better and ultimately they are trying to help but clearly aren't. Not a nice position for anybody to be in. We both tend to walk away from such conversations exhausted and unhappy, often with each other. 

I understand that sometimes it can be overwhelming to listen to me talk. If you don't think you can listen right now, much as that might be painful for me to hear it's also OK for you to say. If you think you might be able to listen at a different time please make that clear, though also don't assume or expect I will be able to talk at the same point you are able to listen.

When I am telling you I don't know what to do, that I feel lost, alone or helpless that's not me asking you to tell me what I should do or how to fix things. When I say I don't know what to do, have you got any ideas? Or when I ask what you think I could or should be doing, that's different. 

 Sometimes people tell me in a slightly injured tone that they don't feel they get the chance to add anything to the conversation. This is simply not true. By listening to me you are doing so much, providing something I need so very badly. Every time you start to think that not having something to add, by not having magical answers that will fix everything you aren't helping please take a deep breath and remind yourself of this fact. Listening is the single most useful and helpful thing you could be doing, taking time out of your day to hear me - someone who has spent so much of her life not being heard - is showing me that you care, that you want to help, that you are there for me in the ways I need you to be. Not many people are able to do this, so when it feels like you aren't doing enough I need you to know you are doing everything.

It's hard to just listen, I get that. I've been there too. I understand that you might also be having a tough time, that you might want to talk too. Or that you simply can't sit back and listen right now. I understand too that it's really hard to sit and listen to someone you care about in pain when all your instincts are telling you you must be doing something, when you really want to just make it all better.

That's in part why I'm writing this. None of us get it right all the time, I'm no more able to simply listen every time than you are. I think we need to be kind to each other here and simply try to understand. Every time you are able to listen, that's a time I will treasure. Every time you aren't, I will do my best not to be hurt and angry. I won't be able to do that every time but I'll do my best, you do the same and hopefully we can help each other. 

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Love and hurt, a post about child abuse

I've spent the last hour trying to come up with a title for this piece instead of just getting on and writing it. A delaying tactic if ever I saw one. Thinking about the abuse I suffered growing up is always difficult, but the hardest part for me is thinking about the fact that it was missed by those who loved me. It's taken so many years to recognise that no one knew I was being abused, but that this didn't mean no one loved or cared about me.

Some of this comes down to understanding how and why I was vulnerable, which ties in to why the abuse was not noticed or stopped. As a child, my understanding went something like this: My parents are meant to love and look after me but one of my parents hurts me and the other one doesn't stop him. They both tell me that they love me, but yet they aren't looking after me. So they must not love me like they say the do or else this hurt is the same as being looked after.

I am sure it doesn't take a genius to figure out how this was a damaging idea to grow up with, that I had to chose between the idea that I wasn't loved, or that what was being done to me was right and proper even though it hurt. I wonder at times how much this idea that pain = being looked after contributed to my self harming behaviour.

As a teenager my understanding changed again. I knew what was being done to me was wrong, and I couldn't understand how someone who claimed to love me could do it. I spent a lot of the time convinced that my father therefore couldn't possibly love me. Then he would go and do something kind and thoughtful, he'd look out for in the way that I really wanted him to and I was conflicted once again. For my mother's part, I understood by now that her illness had contributed a lot towards her missing what was going on. There were weeks at a time where she was in the hospital, longer still where she was home but effectively bed ridden and reliant on us to tell her what was going on in our lives. I told her lots of things but I didn't tell her about this. To my mind, she already had enough to deal with. Then she died, and it was too late to tell her anything.

So, by my teens there was an understanding as to how I was vulnerable to abuse. One of my parents was my abuser, the other was fighting a long term, painful and ultimately fatal disease which made it much harder for her to see what was going on. I was so worried about making things harder for her that I went out of my way to keep quiet about things which might trouble her. It did become apparent in my teens that I was unwell and struggling to cope, but given my mum's illness and death there seemed an obvious reason why this would be the case.

As an adult, I can finally look back and say I was loved and I was hurt, the two aren't mutually exclusive. The hurt wasn't right or OK, it should never have happened and certainly wasn't a sign of love or care. I was failed, in that neither of my parents were able to look after me properly however only one of them was to blame for that. The other did everything she could, and to this day I think if I had felt able to confide in her then she would have done everything in her power to protect me.

So, there were a number of reasons I was vulnerable. I had a parent who was frequently absent from home or restricted to a single room due to illness. I didn't have the language to talk about what was happening to me because I was a child.  I didn't want to upset a woman who was already unwell and had a lot to deal with, and whom I loved very much. I was conflicted about my feelings for a father who was at times a monster but other times everything I wanted from a dad. By the time I had the language and knowledge to talk about what had happened to me I had been silent on the subject so long that I was afraid to speak out. There was so much fear around the idea, it would distress my mum, I might not be believed, people would think less of me for letting it go on for so long. These vulnerabilities were things my father took advantage of, then added to. He told me he'd kill himself if I told, or fought back. He told me it would kill my mum if she found out, that my siblings would hate me, that we'd all be put into care.

I wonder now how different things would have been if I'd been able to break that silence and speak out. There's no real way to know, but I have my belief that my mum would have done right by me because I know, without a doubt, that she loved me after all. As an adult, that's the one thing which seems clear and for now that will have to be enough.

Talking about suicide

After many years of dealing with mental illness I’ve reached a point where I’m quite open about my mental health. I’ve had negative experiences when sharing my story but I’ve had many positive ones as well. Perhaps the best thing to come out of it has been the way that my openness has helped other people to talk about their experiences too. Learning that I’m not alone, whilst in some ways sad has also helped me overcome some of the isolation which seems to be the lot of a person with mental illness. Helping other people by providing a listening ear or supporting them while they access professional help has done wonders for my self-esteem too.

Yet there is still something I find it difficult to talk about. Suicide, whether that be relating my past experiences or discussing the still recurrent ideas or urges that pop up, is a difficult topic to tackle. Firstly, there are other people’s reactions to is. Far too often I face a lecture on how selfish it is. Frequently instead of being able to talk about why I feel like I do I end up having a discussion about how my suicidal ideation is upsetting and distressing for those I’m talking to. I’m sure that it is and I’m happy to talk about that, but right then in that moment what I need to talk about is me.

There is a common belief that if you are talking about suicide you aren’t at risk of taking that step, but that’s not true at all. If I’m talking about it, thinking about it, contemplating it then what I need is someone to listen. To set aside their distress and help me work through mine because when I’m at that stage I’m simply not in a place to be offering support. I’m in desperate need of it myself.

I can honestly say that I don’t want to die, what I want is to no longer be in the situation I’m in. There are times when my depression and anxiety become so bad I honestly can’t see any way out that doesn’t involve death. What I need at those times is another option, another way to improve my lot. In talking about it that’s what I’m seeking.

It’s not about being selfish, or wanting attention. It’s not about having given up. It’s about not wanting to live with things the way they are and being unable at that moment to see a way to change my life. Sometimes it’s about being so afraid of my suicidal thoughts that I fear I will give in to them, simply to make them stop. Thoughts of suicide can be horribly intrusive, hard to deal with and often times come with a compulsion to act on them.

All I ask is that if I – or anybody else – talks to you about suicide, listen. Take them seriously, but don’t panic. Keep listening and keep me talking. While I’m talking I’m still fighting, still seeking an alternative. It may be that I’m not safe to be alone. Perhaps I need to be seeking professional help and support. You can help me do those things and I’m not saying that you have to deal with the situation alone. All I’m saying is that if I’m talking about this it’s because I’ve recognised that I’m not coping alone.

Later, when I’m coping better I will be happy to listen to your side of the story. I think it’s important to do so. I just need you to recognise that in the moment, I’m not able to help you. All of my energy and ability to think is taken up trying to survive until this current urge passes.

A bit about OCD

When I tell someone I have OCD I am often met with disbelief. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm far from the tidiest person. I don't obsessively wash my hands, compulsively clean up after myself/other people. This is part of the problem with the common misperception that OCD is a disorder categorised by cleaning. Whilst it can present that way for some that isn't what this disorder is about.

I've met and spoken with a number of fellow sufferers, only one is a compulsive cleaner. She cleans because she can't escape the thought that if anything in her home is out of place then the rest of her life will fall apart. For me, my experience of OCD is different but it does share some common factors. Namely intrusive thoughts of things going wrong and the compulsion to repeat a behaviour which helps me to feel calmer about this possibility.

It started when I was a kid, after the loss of someone very close to me. Much like any other child faced with death and grief for the first time I was upset and worried. If one person I loved could die, so could another. So could I. In fact anybody could die! It was someone of a revelation and it was an idea which has haunted me ever since. I have been calmly walking into town when suddenly I am plagued with the image of myself being run over, or slipping off the curb and dashing my brains out. This image will not go away, it sticks in my head and it feels so real I have found myself reached up to touch my head and check for blood before now. Or I will struggle to get to sleep at night because I can't get the idea out of my head that someone I love is dead. At times this has gotten so bad I've phoned someone up at four in the morning just to make sure they are OK.

Since this first started happening I've developed little rituals, things I can do to 'banish' the thoughts, or somehow prevent them from happening. I know that there is no way my bizarre little habits can actually stop events occurring, in the same way as I know that I can't cause something to happen simply by thinking about it. Yet I can't stop these thoughts, these fears from happening and I haven't yet been able to fight the compulsions that accompany them.

I have a ritual that involves light switches, which I have to engage in every night and every morning. I have a set of numbers which has to be repeated a set number of times, in a particular order to prevent harm coming to my loved ones when those thoughts occur. Then there is another one where I have to pull at my hair until the thoughts have faded away.

This is what OCD is like, for me. It's not always visible to other people - in fact, quietly tugging at hair is something commonly written off as just a nervous tick, counting happens in my head not aloud, you'd have to be around to witness my light switch ritual in order to know about it. Yet it is always with me, it is something I deal with on a daily basis.

The thoughts aren't always about physical harm or death, I have many more rituals or compulsions than I've listed here but the general theme remains. Each person's experiences of OCD will be different, just as we are all different. Yet there are some commonalities. OCD is often about anxiety, always about compulsive thoughts or behaviours and only sometimes about cleaning.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

I have spent ages now trying to write this post and have deleted it several times. At this point I have no idea if I will manage to successfully get across what I want to say. Here goes, I'll give it one last shot.

I want children, I really do. I always have. I don't have any yet, partly by choice (the time isn't right) and partly because it's just worked out that way. I've been pregnant before and I would have chosen to keep that child despite the situation not being perfect but that choice was taken from me when I had a miscarriage. It sucks but there you go.

As a woman with mental illness I get hit with a lot of mixed messages about becoming a mother. On the one hand, my mental illness has interfered with my ability to develop a career and achieve any degree of financial stability. People keep telling me to sort out my career before I have kids. On the other hand, I'm not getting any younger and more often now people assume I've decided against having children or urge me to have them asap before the choice is taken away from me. Then there are the people who tell me having a child would be the best thing I could do. It would 'give me something to live for',  a reason to get better (apparently my own happiness and well being aren't good enough reasons). There are also the people who tell me the opposite, that as someone with mental illness I should never have children. It wouldn't be fair. I couldn't look after them. I could pass on my mental illness.

Now I'm not saying that these aren't things I should think about, of course they are. I do think about them, a lot. Particularly the stuff about my mental health and ability to be a good parent. I just don't think that other people's opinions are the best way for me to decide whether or not I'm ready to be a parent. Really, there are only two people who's views matter in this situation. Mine and my partners, as we'd be the ones going on to try for a child if we decided that was something we both wanted and felt ready for.

So then, career and finances. In an ideal world I'd have a career I loved and a steady income. It's not an ideal world and I don't. I might never achieve those things. In terms of having children this provides me with a difficulty as I'd like to provide my possible future children with an ideal life. One that's stable, where I can afford to provide them with everything they need. It's certainly something I give a lot of thought to. Right now I'm doing what I can to change my working situation. Stable employment, in a job I can stick with for more than a year or two at a time is the goal. Though I'll be honest and admit that this isn't something I'm trying to do just so I can have kids. It's more for my own benefit. It would be lovely not to have to worry constantly about money. Not to feel worthless because I have spent years at a time unemployed.

Let me tell you about my mum. She was physically ill and unable to work. In my mind, she was still a good mum. OK, so I was abused by my father and she didn't know about it because she was ill and bedridden or in hospital much of the time but I still think she was a good parent. In that situation it was my father who was the bad parent. Incidentally, my father also had a long term, steady job for the entirety of my childhood. It turns out the ability to work and provide for your children doesn't automatically translate into being a good parent. My mum wasn't well enough to work, she didn't bring in much if any money. Yet despite her illness she was always prepared to listen to us kids. When she couldn't get out of bed to play with us she used her awesome imagination to invent games we could play with her. She was the one who went through our homework with us, helping us find ways to figure it out when we got frustrated. She was the one we went to to have our knees plastered, to talk about our day and to read a bedtime story with. She wasn't perfect but she was an amazing mum. It turns out there's more to being a parent than providing financial support.

What about age? Well, age bothers me. I'm less than a decade away from the point where I can expect my ability to conceive and carry a child to start on a sharp decline. I'm not convinced I'm less than a decade away from establishing myself in a career, managing my mental health to a point where I'm happy and feeling ready to take responsibility for bringing a person into the world. That upsets me, because I want children. That said, more than half a decade is still a long time. For all my worries and concerns it is possible to achieve what I want to in that time, and if it takes a few years longer so what? My granny was having children into her early fifties. Her last pregnancy was problematic, but that was due to a non- age related illness. I know other women who have had children later on in life with no problems too.

Besides, what are these problems I could face? An increased chance of becoming infertile. That would be sad, but not the end of the world. I want children and I would be very upset if I can't have them. There's lots of things I've wanted in my life and not been able to have however. I didn't want to be abused growing up and it has had a long term negative effect on my life, but I'm learning to deal with it. I wanted a very specific career since a fairly young age and it's taken me time to make my peace with the fact that for various reasons I can't have it. It hurt and it continues to hurt, but I've still managed to have a life beyond that loss. People are amazingly adaptive. If I can't have children that will hurt, it will take time to come to terms with but I don't think it's impossible for me to do so if I'm faced with that possibility.

I could be at an increased risk of complications. That's a scary thought, but as with anything else in life you weigh up the risks versus the benefits. If the benefits seem worth the risk, then you do it. If the time comes then along with my partner I'll look at the risks, make sure I'm well informed and then make a choice. What about increased risk of disability in my child? Well, again I will make sure that I am as well informed as I can be but I imagine I'll go ahead anyway. I don't think a person with a disability is a person incapable of having a meaningful, fulfilling life. I know that not to be true. So I don't see why I would decide not to proceed just because there is a risk of having a disabled child.

So, moving on then. Should I have a child because it will give me a reason to live, because I think it will act as a miracle cure for my mental illness or so I have a purpose? No. Really, just no. Children aren't 'cures' or 'fix alls.' Children are people. Plus, I have a reason to live: Me. I've spent a whole lot of my life feeling like I didn't matter, I'm only just learning that I do. So please don't ignore me when we're talking about my life.

What about the opposite view? Should I not have children at all because I'm mentally ill? There's a lot to think about with this one. I need to consider how I'd cope with difficult times - and I know that there will be some. I have to think about how my mental health could impact on a child's mental health, quality of life and so on. Given that there are times I can't look after myself I need to think about whether I could look after a child. Of course I do. So should anybody who is thinking of becoming a parent.

Let me ask you something. Do you think people who have ever been physically ill shouldn't have children? I mean, they got better but they might become physically ill again. It's a risk isn't it? Mental illness is the same. It can improve, people recover and/or learn to manage their symptoms and mental health. Not everyone who has a mental illness will be mentally ill for the rest of their life. Most people aren't. My mental illnesses have been with me for most of my life, though I think they are better now than in my teens. More importantly, I've gotten better at recognising when I need help or support or to reconsider my treatment plan. I know how vital a good support network is.

I've never harmed or endangered anybody else, despite my mental illness. I've managed to care for and look out for other people, even when I've failed to look after and care for myself. I recognise that there is a difference between doing this on a short term basis and doing it long term, but I don't think the fact I have poor mental health should mean I will automatically fail at these things.

So there you go. I am not 100% sure I have really said what I wanted to but I've done my best. My basic point is simply that as a woman I already face a lot of pressure and judgement about my choices regarding parenthood. When you also factor in the fact that I'm mentally ill that seems to increase a whole load. And I don't think that's fair or right. Having lived with mental illness for a long time I'm much better equipped to judge how it affects my abilities and choices than a stranger.

So believe, if I ever decide the time is right to have a child I will have considered all of these points and more at great length. I will have weighed up the risks and done everything in my power to reduce them, as will the person who decides to become a parent with me.

Today I have been thinking about racism, sexism and other isms

It's difficult to think of yourself as someone who could discriminate against somebody else unfairly yet it's important to understand that this is something we're all capable of and have probably done at some point in our lives. Harder still to think that we might be doing it right now or will do it in the future. Yet to my mind it's really important to be aware that we can, to be concious of this possibility. How else are we going to catch ourselves thinking or behaving in ways that need to be challenged or changed?

Let me explain. In this instance I'm going to be using racism as the example. I grew up and live in a big city in the UK. I have friends and acquaintances of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I certainly don't think of myself as a racist. I do however live in a society where racism is sadly endemic, a part of my culture and background that I've absorbed without even being aware of it.

Growing up, some of my close friends were subjected to racism. I've seen them called names for the colour of their skin and I've defended them. Even as a child it upset me when I witnessed such behaviour and I can't remember a time I didn't know it was wrong. But racism isn't only present when it shows itself so openly. It's a subtle pervasive thing.

As a teenager and young adult, walking down the road alone at night I was often quite anxious about being followed or harassed. I had good reason, it was something that had happened to me on more than one occasion. What it took me a while to realise and address was the fact that if I came across men of colour my anxiety jumped up a notch, in a way that it didn't when I was faced with a white man or even a group of white men. Why? Because at some point I had internalised and taken to heart the idea that men of colour were more dangerous than white men.

Where did that idea come from? No one in my family had taught me such a thing, but the general media did. Conversations at school with my friends did. I certainly wasn't alone with that fear. Yet I had no evidence to support it. Sure, it was all too easy to remember the times men of colour had followed me for a while in their car cat calling and making suggestive comments. Why did I find it so hard to bring to mind the time a white guy followed me all the way home doing the same thing?

I was raped in my teens by a boyfriend, who happened to be black. So that might have accounted for some of my anxiety. Only, I experienced sexual violence on a far more regular basis at the hands of my white father. I was sexually assaulted at school by two school mates, one white and one black. I was raped by an ex boyfriend in my late teens who was white. I had a stalker for a few years, he was white. Our house was broken into several times. On all but one occasion there was at least one white person involved. In fact, most of the objectionable or dangerous behaviour I've been subjected to the perpetrator was white. Yet my anxiety still increased when faced with the prospect of walking past or in front of men of colour.

This is racism, pure and simple. It might have been happening on an unconscious level but it was still there, still present. Once I realised what was going on I then had to work to change it. I had to confront myself with the facts every time I was faced with that situation and eventually, after several months it worked. It was only by being concious of what I was doing and what must be behind it that I was able to alter my thinking.

I had to do something similar in regards to my anxiety and paranoia around strange men in general, but that's digressing slightly from the point. The point is that recognising my racism in this instance wasn't comfortable. It didn't make me feel good about myself and the temptation to try and justify it, or ignore it as something I couldn't change was huge. I didn't though because I like to think of myself as a good person, and to my mind good people confront their prejudice and deal with it.

In terms of sexism, I've experienced similarly sexist ways of thinking and have tried to challenge them too. I still remember the times I felt uncomfortable around girls who didn't wear make-up or like clothes shopping because I had no idea what to talk to them about. The days before I realised that other girls were in fact people, just like me and might therefore have a white variety of interests outside of their appearance. I didn't find myself lost for topics of conversations with my male classmates, who I never discussed make-up with so it was silly to be limiting myself when it came to chatting with the female ones. I've been guilty in the past of thinking that if I ever became a wheelchair user I'd be miserable and hate my life. That was something I wasn't even aware of really thinking until I first got to know a wheel chair user and found myself being surprised at how happy they were. That there is disablism.

This is why I think it's so important to be aware of the potential we all hold to discriminate, to hold prejudices we're and let them affect our thinking and behaviour. It's important to fight this when we see it in other people, when we realise it happens on an institutional and societal level. I just think it's equally important to challenge and fight it within ourselves. It is not possible to live in a society which holds such prejudice without absorbing some of it ourselves. If we really want a society free of these things then we ourselves need to be free of them and that's only going to happen if we avoid falling into the trap of thinking it's impossible for us be prejudiced.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Feel like I did something good today

Today I wrote a guest blog for The F Word. As part of my social anxiety I find it really difficult to judge whether anything I have to say is useful or relevant. I find it even harder to put my ideas out there for public consumption and therefore judgement. So, I'm really proud of myself right now. For starting this blog in the first place and for being brave enough to fight down the anxiety long enough to submit something to another, widely read blog.

I did it not because what happened to me was awful (though it was) but because I know I'm not alone. It's pretty well established by now that someone who reports sexual violence or other forms of abuse and isn't believed has their risk of facing similar in the future increased.

At the time I first told I was believed, but after that any further disclosures I made were dismissed as me being 'over sensitive.' The end result was the same as if I hadn't been believed in the first place. Then there is the fact that it wasn't just me experiencing that negative effect.

I've stated a few times now that as a result of speaking out about sexual violence other people often see me as someone they can talk to about their own experiences. I'm not going to lie, at times that's hard to deal with. I'm not always able to hear such things without becoming emotional, upset and angry in a way which isn't helpful for the person talking to me or myself. Yet over all, I kind of love that this is the case. That something I've said or done helps other people feel able to open up.

More than once I've found myself in the situation of being the first person somebody discloses their abuse, assault or rape to. When that happens, the person talking to me often wants advice on how to get help, how to report it or whether it's even a good idea to talk to people about it. I want to be able to help them and I like to think that I've been able to.

What hurts, so much, is when what should be a positive experience, breaking that awful silence becomes something else. When instead of being met with emotional and practical support instead that person's story is met with derision, when that person is assumed to be lying. Not because of anything they've done but because other people don't feel comfortable with the fact that it's possible for me to know so many people who've had these experiences.

I don't know why it's so hard for people to recognise that a person who talks openly about sexual violence is likely to attract conversation about sexual violence, and as an off shoot of that will meet other people who've experienced sexual violence. My hope is that my guest blog will help at least one person realise that this happens. That it's possible for more than one person in the same social group to have suffered sexual violence or abuse, and that it's possible for one person to experience sexual violence more than once in their life. It it does that, and they are then able to use that knowledge to provide support for people then today I've done a good thing.

Binary Gender, it's a problem

I know I've only just posted my piece about gender but I failed to mention something else I think is important. Here in the UK, as a society we only recognise two genders: male and female. Everything about our society enforces the idea of binary gender. Which is a problem because not everyone fits into those two categories.

Yeah, that's right. Not everybody feels comfortable or happy living their life as either a man or a woman. Some people don't identify that way. Maybe they feel like a mixture of both male and female, maybe they just don't feel like either. Maybe they do identify as male or female, but don't conform to current social expectations of either. 

It turns out it's a complicated issue. Personally, I hate binary gender. It leads to and enforces the idea of gender roles. Women as one thing and men as another. It doesn't allow for individual differences and preferences. It makes it harder to do something which isn't considered normal or appropriate for your perceived gender. 

I'm talking about things like men being home makers and stay at home dad's, or women working in male dominated industries. 

I'd write more but I'm tired and worn out and I've been writing on other projects already today. So I'll leave this here for now. Mostly I wanted to acknowledge that not everybody falls into the neat little categories of male or female, and a society which fails to recognise or accept that is problematic.

A bit about gender and 'real' women

Just lately it seems like I've come across a whole new set of memes, adverts and such like going on about 'real' women. On the one hand I support the idea that women who aren't skinny are still beautiful and attractive. On the other I really don't think yet another way of telling people how they should look is the best way to get that message across.

There's another issue here too. By telling people that there is a way to be a real woman that's sending the message that anyone who doesn't conform to whatever ideal is being pushed isn't in fact a woman at all. Seriously, this is not OK.

In my view anybody who identifies as a woman is a woman. It's really that simple.

I was lucky, the gender suggested by my sex is the one I happen to feel comfortable with. Luckier still, I happen to have the physical characteristics that other people identify with being a woman. Namely, breasts, curves, a womb and ovaries. I've never had to fight to be accepted as a woman. So for me, these 'real woman' messages are upsetting because they just seem like another way to dictate how I should look, but that's it on a personal front. Of course, there are other discussions about being 'real' women going on. I'm thinking now not only of the aesthetic side of things, but debates about non cis women.

I particularly hate the idea that to be a woman you have to be born a woman. Gender is a social construct, often confused with biological sex. It's impossible to be born a social construct.

Now I want to talk to you about two women I know and how messages like this upset them. One of them, who I shall call B was like me, born female and identifies with the associated gender. However, when she was in her late teens she found out she was infertile. She couldn't have periods or carry a child because her reproductive organs hadn't developed properly. When discussions about 'real' women pop up, she tells me she still feels a bit uncomfortable. She identifies as a woman and lives her life as one, is accepted by people as one. But, when people start saying that in order to be a 'real' woman you have to have been born with the right set of genitals and reproductive equipment that's when she starts to feel bad. Is she only half a woman? Part 'real' and part made up?

Then there is a woman I am going to refer to as Anna (not her real name). Anna is a trans woman. She spent most of her childhood and adolescence being told that she was wrong. The things she wanted to wear and do were 'inappropriate'. As an adult, she decided to change her name and start living her life as a woman. Years later she's happy that she made the right decision. As a woman she feels right. Yet still she's faced with the message every day that her choices are somehow inappropriate and wrong. She's often banned from women's spaces and discussions about what it means to be a woman because apparently she's not real enough for those.

It sickens me, it really does. Anna faces the same issues that other women do, she shares many of the same concerns. She's an active feminist and advocates for women's rights and equality. She just didn't happen to be born with the right parts. But then again, neither was B.

To my view, both B and Anna are woman and therefore 'real' women, since both of them exist because they both feel most comfortable living their lives as women.

As I said earlier, it really is that simple.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Difficult times

Today is a day on which I am struggling. It can be very hard to get through the day when you live with a chronic condition, whether it be physical, mental or some combination of the two. I don't think many people who haven't been there really understand that.

When it gets too hard for me, a few different things can happen. I can try and kill myself - thankfully that's not where I'm at right now. I can hurt myself, which again I haven't done yet. Or I can hide from the world in any number of ways. That's what I'm doing right now. Hiding away, where no one can see me.

Sometimes, when I'm hidden I hide so well I'm an entirely different person. Today, I am a small, uncertain person who finds it difficult to use words. I've been her for a few days now and right now it feels safer to be her than it does to be me.

Hopefully, in a day or so I will feel better and find my words again. Then no doubt I'll have lots to say, as usual.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

"If I had your life I'd try to kill myself too"

Today has reminded me of one of the most useless and hurtful things someone said to me. Picture the scene, if you will. I had been referred to a CPN (community psychiatric nurse) after attempting suicide. It was our first meeting and I was being assessed to see what help and support I needed. Part of that involved a risk assessment and part of it involved talking about why I had tried to kill myself. I'd just finished talking about the child abuse, the rapes, the eating disorders and the anxiety about everything ever. It was at this point that my CPN reached out, placed a comforting hand on my arm and looked into my eyes, her own brimming with sincerity and stated 'if I had your life I'd try to kill myself too.'

I think she was trying to express sympathy with the way I was feeling, trying to let me know that she understood where I was coming from and that it was OK for me to feel that way. I get it, she had the best of intentions. Yet here's the thing. I already knew how bad my situation was - that's why I was there, trying to find another better option than suicide to change it. What I didn't need to be told was that actually, my life really was so appalling it wasn't worth living. Thankfully she was able to arrange for me to see people better equipped than she was to help me out.

So, why has this whole experience reared it's ugly head again? I'll tell you. It's because of this post. It's because today I was reminded that we live in a society where a large number of people think being disabled is so awful they'd rather be dead than live with a disability. It's because we live in a society where people think it's OK to tell other people that they think they'd be better of dead. OK, so I don't think most people realise that's what they're saying, but it is.

If you tell someone you'd rather be dead than live their life then you're saying you don't think their life is one worth living. I can tell you first hand that being told that hurts. That being made to feel you should want to be dead is no fun at all - particularly if you already feel that way.

I was lucky. There were people around who felt that my life was worth saving, there were services around which provided me with the help and support I needed to realise that myself. To help me get to a point where I could look at my life and say 'well, I live in pain everyday which sucks but there are benefits to being alive which make dealing with the pain worthwhile.' Without that help and support, from mental health services and from friends and family I wouldn't be here today. I absolutely believe that.

Now I can't help but wonder what the situation would have been if I was not only severely depressed but also had a physical impairment. Would those services still have helped me? Would people still have been so supportive and determined to help me see I had reasons to live? Or would the combination of mental illness and physical impairment have been considered too much for anyone to live with?

Human beings are amazingly adaptive. Seriously. We do all kinds of things every day to make our lives work. If we move to another country we learn the language to enable better communication. If we find ourselves in pain we take medication to ease it. If we lose someone close to us we grieve, but we survive their loss. As a teen and well into adulthood I experienced a lot of emotional distress and I dealt with it, not always in ways that other people would recognise as healthy or well adapted but in ways that nonetheless allowed me to keep going. When those ways became problematic, I was given help to find new ways of coping and was able to carry on with my life.

If you have a disability, you might need to find ways to manage it. Such as using mobility aids, having your house adapted or taking medication to help with pain and bodily functions. The point is that it's possible to manage your disability and live with it. We know this because people do it every single day. People lead productive, fulfilling and worth while lives AND have a disability. Because a disability doesn't mean your life isn't worth living. Except when people make it so, by denying access to places, services or necessary equipment and treatment. By treating people like they aren't people because they have a disability. Or by telling someone they are better off dead.

Rant over for now. Thanks for reading.

Getting ready for summer

So, I have become infuriated by the number of 'how to get a bikini/summer body' adverts that keep popping up everywhere. This happens every year. Along with the 'how to lose X weight in X weeks' adverts I find them kind of triggering. It's taken me years to be able to gain weight in the first place without having some kind of horrific melt down. Now that I have gained weight, it takes a lot of will power not to turn to unhealthy habits to get rid of it all again.

Learning to love your body shouldn't be a difficult thing, but it is for me and many other people out there. We are constantly bombarded with the message that our bodies should look a certain way. Hey, for that matter we're also sent the message that our bodies should be able to do certain things, yay for disablism. That's a whole separate post though. It's not exactly news that I don't like my body, but that's something I really want to change.

Lately, I've come across this awesome blog. It's pretty inspirational. I want to feel that confident and happy in my self and my body, I want to be able to wear the clothes I like and go outside without living in constant fear of what other people think. Without worrying if I'm pretty enough or slim enough to look 'right' in them. I'm not there yet, but I'm pleased to report that I'm making progress.

Guilty confession time, I used to visit pro-ana websites and chat rooms when I was really ill. Until recently, I still had a folder of 'thinspiration' pictures to remind me what I thought I should look like. Part of my progress has been in deleting that folder and looking around the web for more positive ideals and role models. Given that I fully support the idea of health at every size, and given that I have found any number of women of all different shapes and sizes attractive it's time to start applying those beliefs to me.

So, here's my plan for summer preparation. I am going to formulate a new exercise regime. Which is a tricky one for me as in the past I've tended to over do it. However this time my focus is going to be different. I won't be exercising to make myself lose weight. No, instead I am going to be concentrating on making my body more able to do the stuff I want it to. Regular exercise, coupled with food will mean I can do more awesome stuff without become exhausted. Like dancing for longer when I go out, spending the whole day outside in the sun with my friends. That's the goal here.

Next, I am going to dare myself to do a few things. I want to leave the house without covering up my upper arms. Sounds simple but it won't be. Given how anxious I get leaving the house at the best of times leaving it with one of my 'problem' areas exposed is not going to be fun. But, if I can do it once and realise that I'm more comfortable physically, maybe I can do it again. And maybe by doing it over and over I can learn to stop worrying about doing it. That's the plan anyway.

Finally, I am going to enjoy the sun. I love the sun and here in the UK we just don't see enough of it. Sunshine makes me happy, which is a huge incentive to get out into it. A really sunny day is often enough to make me brave the outside world. So, I'm going to use that to my advantage and get myself outside, in summery clothes despite the anxiety.

With luck, by the end of the summer I'll have taken some huge steps towards feeling comfortable in my own skin.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

I was raped whilst trying to avoid being raped.

Today I have been listening to blaming the victim, a radio documentary by Grace Chen. It's well worth listening too. Then I got into a conversation with some friends about it. Sad to say one them responded by claiming that women should be taking precautions against rape and that, in their opinion many rapes could be avoided if women were more careful. Naturally this made me very angry. I don't do well in debates when I'm angry and upset at the same time as I tend to become a bit incoherent and tearful. So, I let my other friends take over for a bit.

Now that I am a little calmer I want to talk about one of the many reasons that women 'being more careful' isn't a good way to prevent rape. For a start, it won't do anything to stop men being raped, so there's that. Also, as long as there are people vulnerable to rape rape will continue to happen. It's not possible to remove all vulnerability by 'being careful'.

When I was 15 I was raped by a boyfriend. I was alone with him in his house, we'd been drinking and I was wearing make-up. My parents didn't know where I was, they didn't want me dating and drinking at that age so I hadn't told them. All of this is fairly standard teenage behaviour but I can see that I had put myself in a vulnerable situation, by lying about where I was, by drinking, by dressing up nicely and by being alone with a boy. However, I have a few questions. Is it unreasonable to want to look nice for a date? Is it unreasonable to spend time, alone, with someone you trust and who is supposed to care about you?

Sure, I shouldn't have been drinking as I was under age. Sure I shouldn't have lied to my parents. Let's look at why I was doing those things, shall we? I had a bit of a drinking problem when I was 15. I had turned to drink as a way to cope with my constant anxiety, in a huge part triggered by the ongoing sexual abuse by my father. I didn't tell my parents where I was going because if I had they wouldn't have let me go out. I desperately wanted to be out because when I stayed at home I was at huge risk of being raped by my father.

I could have hung out on the streets but I had had it drummed into me from a young age that this put me in danger, of rape or other violent assault. I could have been with my female friends. Earlier in the night I was, we all hung around in a nice big mixed gender group. Only it was a school night and one by one people went home. My boyfriend was the only person I knew who's house I could stay at that night. Since going home put me in danger of being raped, this seemed like the safest option.

So, I drank in order to over come my anxiety so that I could bring myself to leave the house. I needed to be out of the house to ensure I wasn't raped by my father. In order to stay off the streets, which is a dangerous place to be, I agreed to go home with my boyfriend. This meant being alone with him, but he'd never previously raped me, I trusted him and he'd promised to always take care of me. So, everything I did - aside from wearing make-up to look pretty for my date - was designed to protect me from rape. Yet I still ended up being raped that night.

I wasn't raped because I wasn't careful enough. I was raped because my boyfriend wanted to rape somebody.

Now, I know this is only my story. Not everybody who is raped shares my experience. The point remains though that being careful didn't stop me being raped. The only thing which will protect people from rape is by creating a culture where rape is not acceptable. Part of that can be achieved by not blaming the victim, or telling people that they can stop rape by being more careful and instead focussing our attentions on the people who want to rape.