Tuesday, October 10, 2017

How I Met My Mother

A couple of weeks ago I had a rather bruising experience on Twitter. A complete stranger replied to a post within a conversation I was having declaring "adoption is always wrong". Being adopted, I took issue with this, and this was met with a stream of sneering abuse where I was accused of being brainwashed, of working as a "propagandist" for adoption, and told that my only purpose in life was to "fill the gap of your mother's infertility."

"Have you been to Twitter before?" I hear you cry. And yes, fair enough, I know that Twitter is the place angry people go to take their problems out on complete strangers. Nonetheless it felt like a very strange attack - this man genuinely felt that my experience was somehow illegitimate, because it was a happy one, and others came out to show their support for him.

Adoption is by its very definition complicated. It is not "always wrong" just as it is not "always right" - where cases of babies being snatched from unmarried and underage mothers in too-recent history are shocking, modern-day cases of children being left with natural parents, perhaps out of some misguided sense that biology is always best, who then abuse and sometimes even kill them are equally so. Adoptees' experiences vary hugely, just as, let's face it, do those of absolutely everyone else - those living with their natural parents in the perfect two-children-and-a-dog household in their semi in Hemel Hempstead may well have the picture-book childhood, but there could be terrible abuse going on behind the scenes; many people in single parent families, some with step-parents, some without, grow up happy and fulfilled, others do not. I have friends who were raised by grandparents, siblings or in foster care - all had different experiences that were neither wholly negative or wholly positive. Life is, like it or not, the luck of the draw.

In that draw, I effectively lost my first ticket then won the lottery simultaneously. On the one hand, I was born into potentially hopeless circumstances of which I have become aware retrospectively but which, in short, meant that my mother was completely unable to care for me, and adoption was considered the safest option, and the environment in which I was most likely to thrive. I already had a brother in care, a violent father, and a mother in turmoil. It was that mother, on the advice of a social worker, who agreed to let me go - in doing so, she gave me the greatest gift any mother can give: a life.

I make no apology for living a happy and fulfilling life, no matter how many strangers on the internet (at one point there were four of them shouting at me) tell me I had "lost my identity". I had not. Every one of us is unique, the person we become and to an extent the person we choose to be. Like everyone else I am the sum of all my experiences - the loving mother who agreed to relinquish me, and the amazing parents who brought me up. I am very well aware that the result was a privileged upbringing, in a nice house with a lot of love and nice things and music lessons and any hobby I wanted to try, a host of opportunities I would not have had if I had been in and out of care. A lot of the people I encountered online seemed to see everything as very black and white, where blood ties are everything and the alternative is inferior. But the world is not black and white, it is a hundred shades of grey and beige with the occasional flash of colour, and nothing is ever perfect. Yes, Social Services could probably have offered my mother more support, but would that have been "better" for me? It would certainly have been different, but I don't think it would have been better.
I do regret some elements of my adoption - not that it happened, but how it was done. I spent years fretting about a birth mother about whom I knew nothing, and when I did finally find out more I realized these fears were not unfounded. I recently spoke about this in detail in a BBC interview My adoption was all agreed before I was born. When I read my file, four years ago in a cold basement office in Blackburn, I was drawn to the words "mother wished for daughter to be adopted. Mother has never seen her." On finally meeting my mother recently I asked if she had really never even laid eyes on me. It was true, she said. When I was born I was taken into another room. Not only could she not hold me, she couldn't even look at me - they were worried this would make me want to keep me. As a woman of child-bearing age I find this unimaginably cruel to the point it almost causes me physical pain. When I was three she approached the agency and asked if she could have a photograph of her little girl. They said no.

There is a lot wrong with a system that allows this (though I hope things have improved in the 35 years since I was born). Adoption should be a good thing, a positive thing, even when it comes out of the darkest of places or the worst abuse. Everyone should be involved and supported as far as possible. In an ideal world adoption would be as portrayed in Juno, but of course, this is fictional. My mother was failed by this system, a system that did the best for me but forgot about her. She did not matter to them, and they failed her.

I finally met my mother last week, four years after reading my file, four years after finding out that she had given a name to the baby she was not even allowed to see (Kelly Marie). I had been nervous about doing so, partly because of what I had read - when a baby is adopted it is not without very good reason - and so I left it a long time, maybe even longer than I should. But she was - she is - lovely. She is a warm, friendly, chatty person with a huge smile, and an excellent hugger. Within minutes of meeting me she stressed to me that my adoptive parents were my "real" parents, that they had brought me up and that she understood that. She explained to me again - openly - about some of the problems when I was born, that she had not wanted to give me up, but that she had no choice, and that she had done what was best for my wellbeing. We had lunch together and we went shopping in the market. I bought a jumper, she bought some earrings. It was a happy day. It was, as far as was possible, a normal day - so much so that afterwards I almost felt cheated of my emotions, as they were not as strong or as in turmoil as I had prepared for.

We cannot have or change the past, and I at least do not want to. I am content with the one I have - every happy, sad, beautiful, painful, complicated piece of it. But we have the present and we have the future. We have both grown up, we have loved, lost and learned. Next week is Adoption Awareness Week, and I stand before you as one product of adoption - proud, happy, as imperfect as the next person but secure in who and where I am. The only regrets I have are that the system was not kinder to the lady who gave me the greatest gift in the world: my life.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Walking Back To Happiness

Having blogged incessantly about mental health here in the past (when not blogging obsessively about football) it's probably only fair that I should blog about the end of the story, or rather the end of the tediously long chapter that's been dominating this blog over the past couple of years. Having been citalopram's biggest cheerleader for the last couple of years (it remains, I maintain, a wonder drug), I'm now coming off it. Slowly.

I have a love-hate relationship with anti-depressants. When weighed up, the love side wins, but with caveats. I maintain that antidepressants are incredibly useful, and go into full social warrior mode when people on the internet demonise and defame them, or even sneer at those of us who use them. Even on my own Facebook page, friends of mine have told me, with apparently no qualms, that they are just a "crutch", that that I need to "deal with the real issue". This has always struck me as odd - nobody would say to someone with diabetes "well, you seem fine now. Let's stop the insulin and see what happens." While I realise this is a simplistic analogy, there is nonetheless some truth in it - why would you deliberately turn down something that works? And why would you then stop taking it if you're happy with the status quo? But that's exactly what I'm doing, partly because my doctor says I should, and partly because it seems to be the current expectation that, when life becomes a beach, you should go and leap in the sea and wait to see if the sharks will come for you or not.

My husband called citalopram, the second drug I've tried in a fifteen year on-off battle with depression and anxiety, a "transformation". But the fact remains that, however marvellous it is once you're on it, starting and stopping it is, for want of a more socially acceptable word, a bitch.

I've built a fairly successful comedy routine out of my experience of going on citalopram, whose accompanying leaflet, like other SSRIs, lists "intense sweating" and "loose stools" and "excess wind" amongst its many side effects, whilst later saying that one of the things it treats is "social anxiety". So, when you are by definition at your lowest, hence being given the drugs in the first place, you become a shaking, sweating, copiously-farting, accidentally-shitting wreck, then wonder why your social life has gone from zero to minus figures. Coming off is much the same, a metaphorical kick in the balls: "Feeling happy, are you? Ha! Well let's see how you are after two weeks of solid nausea and head zaps, shall we?"

The internet is not really much help. Online chat forums tend by their very nature to be populated by the people who've had the very worst experiences and are seeking reassurance, and what results is a one-upmanship of pain and despair, a sort of updated Four Yorkshiremen sketch for the mentally unwell: "I couldn't get out of bed for THREE DAYS!" "I lost TWO STONE from throwing up!" "My symptoms lasted for SIX MONTHS!" It's a bit like seeking comfort from Marvin the Paranoid Android. On the other end of the spectrum are those infuriating people who have no symptoms at all: "I felt a little tired but still managed to run the London marathon in record time while tapering my dosage." Smug twat.

The reality, for most, is somewhere in between. In my case, withdrawal has not been helped by a chirpy, stiff-upper-lip GP who blithely told me to cut from 20mg straight down to 10, because "it's a small dose and shouldn't have any side effects". Five days later I presented myself, shaking and weeping, to a pharmacist in Boots, who told me this was a fundamentally daft idea, and that I should go much more slowly than this. Withdrawal from drugs has always seemed to be my downfall, and I now have a reliable pattern where it all starts off jolly well, then you get a couple of expected side effects, then suddenly your body feels like it's been hit by a truck.

GPs are quick to warn of any emotional side effects (presumably because they are keen to stress to patients that increased feelings of anxiety/weepiness are just signs of your body adjusting to a new dosage, and not of the original problem coming back) but seem less concerned, or even positively flippant, about the physical ones. Dropping down the first time, I was hit on about day three with a really severe, migraine-like headache. On day four this had turned into what felt like persistent travel sickness - waves of horrendous nausea that had me gripping my desk and taking deep breaths and wondering what the etiquette was if you accidentally ended up throwing up in your office waste paper bin. Calling my GP I was told that this was a "common and mild side effect" and it wouldn't last long. I'm not sure if you've ever had severe nausea for 5 days in a row, but it doesn't feel very "mild", and knowing it's common doesn't make me feel any better.

Having levelled out at 10mg for a few months, I recently took the plunge and went down to 5. Again, emotionally, no worries. Physically, though, my hands are shaking as though I've had five espressos in quick succession, and if I move my head too quickly I get a curious sensation not unlike my brain touching an electric fence. Smells are unpleasantly enhanced, whereas everything I eat has a bizarre taste of iron filings about it. Add all this together, and I am swimming through inevitable and persistent queasiness. And frankly, it's miserable.

So, that's where things are at the moment.  I do all the right things: I eat fairly well, I run and go to the gym constantly, go to bed early, and I have generous and supportive friends who have probably heard more than they really need to about the state of my digestive system. And yet I am, ultimately, a slightly wimpish, verbose, middle class liberal with a temporary addiction to the UK's most commonly-prescribed drug. Symptoms or no symptoms, it's safe to say I won't be running the London marathon this year, mainly because I have neither the stamina nor patience to train for a 26-mile run. But I am running a 10k in May, and I am keeping everything crossed that this all goes away by then. If not, that balance is going to tip, and citalopram and I will no longer be friends.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

I'm Spartacus

Yesterday morning, I awoke with an all-too-familiar feeling. I’d worked a 55-hour week, running a 3-day event for new students arriving in the UK for the first time from 82 countries. On the Wednesday morning, they had never met; by the Friday evening, they packed out the student bar, where I left them singing a raucous version of Let It Go together. It was a lovely feeling. On Saturday, I paid the price. I woke up feeling as though I was drowning, and that I did not have the energy to tread water. The flood engulfing me whispered “I’m an unnecessarily pretentious and overly-laboured metaphor for depression, and I will never be far away.” I went back to sleep and didn’t get up until 3.

Depression and its sidekick Anxiety, Mental Health’s Bonnie to its Clyde, have been a constant presence in my life for many years. Even when I’ve been completely free from them they’ve been there, skulking behind a hedge patiently waiting for a weak moment in which they can pounce. As I’ve become more open about it, and as I have become more involved, as part of my job, with others who suffer similar problems, I’ve not, as I hoped, witnessed a growing understanding and awareness. Where I’ve no doubt we are, as a society, becoming more confident and more knowledgeable on mental health issues, far more often I have witnessed evidence of fear, misunderstanding and even downright discrimination.
Most recently, I was told by someone in a position of some authority that I can’t have  depression, as I have a lot of hobbies and a social life. “If you had depression,” she asserted confidently, “you wouldn’t be doing these things. Depression has a significant effect on your everyday life.” I ought to get round to telling my doctor this, lest he continues to prescribe me antidepressants, or indeed telling my brain, wide awake and racing at 3am with illogical fears, that it shouldn’t have the audacity to believe this is a symptom of a wider condition.

It is because of these experiences that I’ve started – tentatively, at first, but now wholeheartedly – to talk about mental illness in my standup. Encouraged by a very positive reaction – the I’m Spartacus moment Imentioned in my last post – I now have a ten-minute set dedicated entirely to discussing mental health. I acknowledge this doesn’t sound immediately hilarious (I open my gigs now by saying “I suffer from depression, which is always a promising start to a comedy set”, then joke that audiences tend to laugh out of fear of what I might do if they don’t) but, as with everything in life, there is humour to be found in mental illness, if only we have the confidence to bring it out into the open. It is amusingly ironic, for example, that the side effects of the tablets I take can include “excess sweating” and “excess wind” (implying, perhaps, that there is an optimum level of flatulence to which we should all be aspiring), yet they are prescribed, amongst other things, for social anxiety, a condition probably not helped by persisting farting accompanied by the smell of body odour. It is darkly comical, in a Darwin Award sort of a way, that, of the 30 or so people who fall to their deaths from Beachy Head each year, 1-2 fall off accidentally whilst hilariously pretending to jump for a photo opportunity. It is, I remark, typical that Beachy Head itself is only the world’s second most popular suicide spot, because America ALWAYS has to go one better than us, as they have done here with the Golden Gate Bridge.
I have, to my surprise, had absolutely no negative responses to this new set, despite its being a little close to the line in places. On the contrary, the positive reaction I’ve had has felt overwhelming. The first time I did a full set on these issues was at a competition, and it got me through to the final. At the final itself, a woman threw her arms around me as we waited for the toilet. “I’ve seen your set twice and oh my God it’s so true!” she said, and proceeded to list for me the different antidepressants she’d tried. Later on, I got an equally positive but far more restrained reaction, as a big lad with tattoos came up to me, gave me a manly pat on the shoulder and said “the mental health stuff. Yeah. Just want to say, I have depression too. Nice one, mate.” After I posted the video on Facebook, I received both positive comments and private messages from friends and acquaintances. One was from a schoolfriend I haven’t seen for many years, telling me that my talking about depression so openly had really helped her, as she suffered herself but hid it from colleagues at work – I had had no idea she had suffered from it, and like me she has, on the surface, an “active” life; another took it as their cue to try standup themselves; a third asked me for some advice as she had just started taking the drugs I’d joked about in the set. Some commented openly that they had depression too – another, sort of cyber “I’m Spartacus” moment.

The experience of talking openly about mental health has been incredibly liberating and rewarding, as well as unexpectedly moving. If I’ve helped even one person, that’s an amazing feeling. If I’ve just made people giggle a bit, well that’s fine, because that’s what standup is meant to do. Either way, I Am Spartacus, and I now know I’m not alone.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

It's Good to Talk

The other night, I tried something I’ve not tried before: I told jokes to a room full of (mainly) strangers about mental health. I dabble in standup comedy, something at which I’m mediocre – I have stock, observational material about Colindale, modern life, travel and other everyday things, and I can tell a story and do a range of accents. I’m generally inoffensive and, while I don’t get squeals of laughter, I can make people crack a smile.

Comedians will tell you nothing is off limits. Cue, therefore, jokes about Malaysian Airlines, suicide bombers and paedophilia. But you don’t often hear jokes about mental illness. Perhaps people think it’s in bad taste, or perhaps they think it’s just not funny. But, like everything else, it is.

“I’ve just gone on antidepressants”, I begin. A single shriek of laughter from one of the audience, followed by an anticipatory silence from everyone else who looks to see where the laugh has come from. “That’s not meant to be the funny bit!” I say, to uncomfortable chuckles. I then go on to tell them that, since I have gone on antidepressants, all of my “suggested posts” from Facebook have been for mental health charities, or inviting me to run (my other hobby) half marathons for Mind. “This is a great thing to do to someone who is mentally unstable. To effectively say [cue creepy voice]. Hi there. We know you’re mental. We’ve been watching you.”

I realise this isn’t hilariously funny, but it broke the ice enough that, when I said my next line – “I had more jokes about mental health, but I’m in two minds about doing them” – it got the groan it deserved.

We’re always being encouraged to talk about mental health – the Time to Change campaign is all about doing this, and many workplaces have signed a pledge to do so. Going back on medication meant that last week was my window to talk honestly in my set about it. And it worked.

“You have to laugh at my jokes because I’m on antidepressants and you don’t know what’ll happen otherwise,” I tell my audience, who laugh awkwardly. But a little later another comedian goes onstage and, adlibbing, points to me and says “like this lady I also suffer with depression.” It’s like our own mini I’m Spartacus moment. Without meaning to, I’ve opened up a debate; I’ve made perhaps a few people stop and think for a moment; I’ve made at least one person realise “you’re not alone,” and he has done the same for me.

And you’re not alone. And not being alone makes a world of difference. Going on citalopram, I’ve had two close friends I was able to go to with strange questions like “did everything taste weird and kind of metallic to you? Did your sense of smell increase? When did that go away?” that would make no sense to anyone else. I’ve been, in turn, reassured that the clinging, constant low-level nausea and hangover-like headache will go – and finally, this weekend, they have. And, after my comedy, I gained both new friends and a new sense of determination and confidence that, in a small way, I was doing something good as well as simply throwing out average material at drunk people who will laugh regardless.

You’re not alone, and sometimes, whatever is going on, we should all just get together and have a good laugh about it.
Living my life vicariously through Julian, a Colindale-based cheese plant with Marxist tendencies who, it turns out, doesn't react well to antidepressants either. It's a long story.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Dining Out On Affectation (with extra jus)

I went to a Michelin starred restaurant a couple of weeks ago. I love good food, but restaurants of such quality, and the inevitable accompanying pageantry, take me so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even see my comfort zone any more. As a kid, “going out for dinner” usually meant a takeaway from the local chippie, or a trip to Mother Hubbard’s if somebody had a birthday or a wake. Frankly, the mere presence of cutlery that wasn’t plastic made us feel we were getting a bit above ourselves. Nowadays “going out for dinner” generally translates as “I’ve got a voucher for Pizza Express” or “we’ve not had a curry for ages.” So this was a rare treat.

So, how do you know you’re having a world-class dining experience rather than a standard Friday night at your bog-standard tandoori or local Wetherspoon? Here are some indicators:

The “tasting menu”. This is where you’re charged a set (usually large) amount of money for what is ultimately a series of canapes presented as mini courses which you need a magnifying glass to see.

-          The dishes feature mysterious ingredients or are so incomprehensibly titled that you can’t work out what they are, but are too afraid to ask. What, for example, is a Mahogany Clam? And how does he differ from a Standard Clam? Suddenly you find your tiny portion of meat comes with “jus” (rationed, crap gravy) and pea puree (substandard mushy peas). Other parts of your meal sound decidedly unappetising, but to admit this would be to show your lack of culture, so you keep quiet and eat your smoked salmon with “a smear of liquorice gel”, even though this sounds like something you’d rub on a mouth ulcer, and your “shaved fennel with birch syrup” (I promise I’m not making this up) even though, as far as you know, fennel isn’t particularly hairy and birch syrup sounds like a hippy remedy for a hangover.
-          Each staff member has a designated job, and cannot and will not stray onto a colleague’s territory. You must not ask the person who puts the napkin on your knees (posh diners evidently being above doing this for themselves) if you can order wine, the wine waiter (sorry, sommelier) if you can order your food, expect the person from whom you order your food to actually be the person who then brings you your food, or ask the person who brings you your food for the bill. At the restaurant we visited, there was one waiter whose sole job seemed to be to replace pieces of cutlery, and he looked positively excited when the woman next to us dropped her knife, swiftly replacing it with more aplomb than was strictly necessary.

-          You are not allowed to eat or drink until the content of each course has been explained in great detail. With each course, the sommelier appeared at our table and we were treated to a very informed description of the wine and why it was the best wine for what we were about to eat, and we had to nod sagely as we learned about the different types of grapes that grow along the Chilean/Argentinian border, pretending to be interested. We then had to go through the same thing with the food, as the waiter whose job it was to describe the food gave us an elaborate overview of what, owing to the tiny portions, would take us less time to eat than it took him to describe. “Here you have gently grilled lobster which was caught just this morning off the Sussex coast. His name is Barry, and he was the youngest of seven. Barry is served on a bed of fluffed quinoa with a light drizzle of menstrual jelly.” (OK, I made that last bit up.)

-          Once you have the wine, great care is taken that you do not pour this yourself. Instead, it is placed just out of reach, thus ensuring that the Head Wine Pourer stays in secure employment until retirement and you remain thirsty.

-          At the end of the meal, it is obligatory that you try the recommended “digestif”. This invariably tastes a bit like cough mixture.

-          The evening ends with a phone call from your bank querying if your card has been stolen or if you really did just voluntarily spend over £200 on coffin-roasted Trafalgar Square Pigeon with deadly nightshade compote and goat-sick glaze followed by organic blackcurrant soufflé sprinkled with locally-sourced vanilla-infused orphan tears.

My friend described this as "some chunks with some coloured sand". I still don't know what it actually was.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Bravest of Decisions

I watched a programme last night that left my sobbing into the arm of my sofa for a good few minutes after it had finished. Admittedly this is not newsworthy - a tendency to cry even at Disney (seriously, you didn't cry when Mufasa died?) made this pretty inevitable, but Protecting Our Foster Kids was still heartbreaking. Last year I briefly joined a choir. I left because a woman I met there, a social worker, told me that "it's sad you had to be adopted. Nowadays we would work with your mum to make sure she could keep you."

Thank fuck I was born in 1982.

I have mixed feelings towards social workers. I think that in general they do a wonderful job in atrocious conditions that are not of their making. On the one hand, I am who I am today thanks to the tireless work of one social worker, Beryl, my guardian angel, who raised my brother and so many others so well and ensured I was placed safely with loving parents; on the other, they are painfully constrained by the system in which they work; thanks to "The System", my brother and I grew up hundreds of miles apart, unaware of each other's existence, and when we finally found one another my world shattered in the process. For this, I can never forgive "The System". I know this makes me a bad Christian, a horrible, ungrateful person, but we are now in our 30s; we will never have our childhoods again - The System took that away from us.

Protecting Our Foster Kids was a beautifully moving programme. In it, a struggling mum, Natasha, eventually admitted that, actually, she did not want her baby son; she could not care for him. She had clearly tried so hard, had fought her feelings of uncertainty, but eventually she had admitted it was too much. Natasha is one of the bravest women I have ever seen. I want more than anything to throw my arms around her, to say "God bless you." She has one child already and is clearly doing a great job, but a second was a step too far - and she was courageous enough to recognise this.

My mother was not.

When I read my adoption file, it made for sobering reading. On the one hand, this was reassuring: you don't want to find that you were placed for adoption on a whim, that some poor woman made a mistake that cost her the right to care for her child. But it was more than that. On my file was my unfamiliar birth name - a name I had never heard until that day; below it was my brother's name, already familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time, this presence who had suddenly crashed into my life. I'd gone; he'd stayed.

Unlike Natasha, who had apparently, painfully, come to her decision unpressured and of her own accord after spending supervised time with her son, my mother was offered the option to give her son up for adoption, for a better life, but she did not take it. Her youngest child was whipped away at birth, her future so potentially catastrophic that the official social services file stated "mother has never seen her"; and yet because her older son had already "formed a relationship" with her, he was left where he was, to continue to form a bond that never really happened, to be constantly rejected and hurt. The social worker's hands were tied unless my mother relinquished her eldest child, which she did in action but not in word. The System tore apart two babies who had, at the time, nobody else in the world but each other (we now have my birth father's family, and are so blessed in this respect). I went to wonderful parents, but my brother stayed behind, subjected to a childhood of uncertainly and spasmodic "parental visits".

This is why Natasha's decision to me is so marvellous, so beautiful a thing, and I wish mothers such as her could have more support, more recognition. I wish the system could say "do what is best for your child, without shame, without regret - it may seem a terrible, horrible thing; it may mean doing something desperately brave - but we will support you." It should not be seen as failing, as giving up. It should be seen as giving the greatest gift one can give: the gift of a good life. And, in time, I hope they can be reunited again, as I have been with many members of my birth family in adulthood, so she can see the fruits of that decision.

I have recently met up with my aunt and grandmother on my birth father's side. This has been a wholly joyous experience - enlightening, loving and wonderful. My world is slowly piecing itself together in beautiful ways. I am so lucky and owe so much to so many.

But I would be lying if I said I could easily forgive my mother, or social services for placing such a decision in her hands, and for allowing that decision to be "maybe, maybe not, whatever", until my brother eventually ended up in permanent foster care while I charmed the pants off old Northern ladies 400 miles away.

Natasha was selfless and aware enough to realise she could not cope with two children. I sincerely hope that, off-screen, she will be supported in her decision and be able to come to terms with it and be at peace with it. My mother, conversely, was never supported enough to realise she could not cope with either of her offspring.

Despite her, despite The System, we did well. We were happy. And now we are - to some extent - together.

But we could have been together all along.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Last Taboo?

Last week, I posted about depression on Facebook. I expected a few “likes” but was surprised by the response – several people shared my post, and two people I had not heard from in years emailed me privately to tell me they suffered from depression. Others commented more openly beneath the original post.

There’s a real need to post about mental illness, to be more open and sensible about it. If we did that, perhaps people would feel more able to ask for help, and more supported; perhaps it would even be an impetus to make services better. The post was this:

When you suffer from depression, you’re familiar with the feeling that the world is sinking beneath your feet, taking you with it into the darkness below, and there’s very little you can do about it; when you suffer from depression, you understand that even a small task can feel like climbing a mountain in a blizzard; when you suffer from depression, you’re familiar with that feeling that life is simply a series of activities to pass the time, but any passion you once derived from those activities has gone; when you suffer from depression, you are swamped by exhaustion, you make little mistakes from within the fog of tiredness and kick your useless, worthless self for your inadequacy; when you suffer from depression, you know that it will never truly disappear, and that in the good times it’s still there, stalking you, watching you, waiting to make its move when you’re at your most vulnerable; when you suffer from depression, you know people will tell you to just cheer up, because you have no reason to be depressed; when you suffer from depression, the idea that the world would be better off without you is a very real one. When you don’t suffer from depression, this can all be very hard to understand; when you don’t suffer from depression, you will never truly know what this is like; but any attempts to do so, to just accept, and to just be there are truly appreciated, even though it might not seem so at a time.

The response encouraged me once again to talk about depression. I’ve noticed that people do seem to be becoming more open – recently a number of sports people have spoken candidly about their experiences. But there is still one huge, terrifying taboo (and understandably so): suicide.

When Robin Williams died, I was bereft. I dabble in stand-up comedy, and he is probably my favourite stand-up of all time. I love his energy, his seeming spontaneity, his many silly voices, his creativity. After he died, the media was full of stories about this good, kind, talented man, and yet here was someone who, despite his genius, and despite being loved by so many people who had never even met him, took the decision to take his own life. Only one positive came out of it: we began to talk about suicide.

There were, of course, the sneeringly nasty, judgemental, high-horse remarks littering the social media pages and newspaper “comments” sections, the people who branded him selfish and said he was going to Hell. “Good riddance”, one said. But to me, to brand suicide a “selfish” act seems lunacy in itself. Suicide isn’t “selfish”. If you think about it logically, it’s actually quite bizarre.

As humans, we are innately programmed to survive. We have all sorts of internal mechanisms to prevent us from doing harm to ourselves, from the ability to feel pain and disgust as a warning that something could be harmful to us, right up to the “fight or flight” mechanisms that guide us how to respond in a potentially hairy situation. Suicide goes against all of this. To want to take your own life is in effect overriding our natural programming. To label it “selfish” is simplistic, and meaningless. Can you imagine taking your own life? Think of the enormity of it: actively deciding to do something that will probably cause you physical pain, and, when it’s over, will mean you are simply no longer there any more. Ever. There’s no going back, you have made the decision that there will no longer be a You. I assume that, for anyone in a “normal” state of mind, this is unimaginable.

If you have felt suicidal (though I’m sure some experiences are different), this bizarre, unimaginable act will suddenly seem like the most logical thing in the world. Far from selfish, it can feel like you’re doing the world a favour. If you are seriously depressed and have reached rock bottom, it can seem entirely sensible that you should not exist any more. After all, you believe yourself to be a worthless, terrible person. You reason that, OK, people will be angry and upset at first, and you may go to the utmost lengths to stop this from happening, such as ending your life somewhere away from everyone, or using the least “messy” method possible) but, ultimately, they will be better off without you; they will get over it, they will move on, and the world will be a better place. You truly believe this. Add to this the intense, unending pain that depression causes, the complete despair, and suicide is not so incomprehensible after all: you can choose fight or flight, and there comes a time when you just can’t fight any more, and cannot see any benefits of doing so.

I’m not sure what the purpose of this post is, except to try to get people to stop and think before leaping to criticise, or judging what is, literally, a truly insane act against the comfort and security of their own sanity. People need help and (as far as possible) understanding, not scorn and stigmatising. If you can, try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, walk a while weighed down in agony with their backpack, feet blistered and bleeding. Then, you will maybe be able to walk alongside them, an enlightened companion.

And finally, because I'm British and find all this incredibly awkward, here's some Bad Taxidermy all the way from Sydney:

Monday, March 30, 2015

Out of your Mind

I know the moment I switched on the radio on Friday morning and heard that Andreas Lubitz, the now-infamous Germanwings pilot, had suffered from depression, I knew there’d be trouble. Sure enough, I soon found the tabloids trying to whip up hysteria, effectively branding all sufferers of mental illness as a grave and inherent danger, intent on the destruction of all around them, and calling for a blanket ban on anyone flying. Before long, the “general public” had been invited to join the scrum, and were doing so joyfully in every comments forum on every media website that offered the opportunity. Many of the contributions were vicious, personal, and with very little basis in fact.

I was relieved, then, when Mind issued a statement responding to the event, inviting its readers to complain to the media about their reporting of the tragedy and the fact that it was not “responsible”.

What happened next was arguably the very definition of ironic. Inevitably, the post elicited many comments. Many simply missed the point, responding with outrage that Mind were somehow supporting mass murder (which clearly they were not); others responded with a kneejerk reaction already echoed in the press that depressed people clearly shouldn’t be allowed to fly, ever. Some went further and suggested there were many jobs that depressed people should not be allowed to do. And a few used it as an opportunity to make cruel, unfounded personal attacks, like this example (one of many):

I messaged Mind on Twitter querying the unchallenged presence of such posts on their Facebook page, and was actually rather shocked by the response (over 3 tweets) which read: “We do moderate comments and remove those we think are v likely to be triggering but we do not censor on the basis of someone having disagreeable views. It is a delicate balance and if you could like to complain about our handling please contact our complaints department.”
I was horrified for several reasons. Firstly, I object to being spoken to like a naughty 6-year-old: I felt the reference to censorship to be patronising and rude, implying that somehow I do not agree with free speech; secondly, I’m appalled by their definition of a “disagreeable view”; thirdly, I felt they were challenging me to make a complaint: “go on then, complain, see if we care” – because clearly they don’t.

Let’s be clear: many people do, sadly, have highly disagreeable views – this event has shown this only too starkly - and when they are aired they are often challenged (though perhaps to no avail) by other posters. This is fine. This is "debate", as much as one can debate with ignoramuses. But deliberately going to a mental health support page and directing comments at potentially vulnerable individuals, branding depression as indulgent and sneering at their opinions, is not “disagreeable”. It’s bullying. And Mind are saying they support that.

I also take issue with the fact they claim not to censor, when everybody else effectively does. Many a time I’ve logged onto the Guardian and seen “This comment has been removed by the moderator” in place of a post, because that post is deemed to have contravened forum rules. You cannot ever, for example, say something racist –it’s against the law. Similarly, comments of a sexual nature on a forum aimed at young people might be deemed inappropriate and probably be removed. Some things are simply not OK in certain situations: I manage a Facebook page as part of my job which is aimed at international students. If someone were to come on there and say, for example, that all international students should leave the UK, and I did not remove it or challenge it, I would fully expect to be called into my manager’s office and be asked what the heck I was doing. It wouldn't be an illegal comment, some might even think it a valid opinion, but it would be entirely inappropriate for that forum and potentially damaging for its client base

Mind is an organisation that sets out to support those with mental illness, to campaign for better services and equality, and to speak out against injustice. As an extension of this, one would expect that these values would be adhered to on their Facebook page too, and that (as much as is ever possible on Facebook) those struggling with mental illness would expect to feel safe there. Mental health sufferers know only too well that many have “disagreeable” views and do not need to be reminded of this, condescendingly or otherwise, but would reasonably expect that, when such views appear on the page of a mental health charity (especially if aimed at an individual), they would either be removed or challenged. Mind did neither. And then defended its lack of action to someone who had raised concerns. Perhaps it would have been wiser and more honest to simply admit they did not have the staff capacity to police it properly, and put a disclaimer in the post to warn people of this? I think that's probably closer to the truth, but instead it was implied to me that I was being illiberal and should suck it up.

Mind proudly claims the following on its website:
Our values
Mind's values are at the heart of everything we do.
We reach out to anyone who needs us
We're stronger in partnerships
We listen, we act
We speak out fearlessly
We never give up

Yesterday, as I read their tweets in disbelief, I did not feel "reached out" to, I felt abandoned; I did not feel listened to, I felt preached at; I had not seen them speaking out. My perception instead was that they were condoning bullying; a page surely aiming to provide support for those with mental illness was instead being harnessed to give the tormentors a voice, with Mind’s blessing; and, worse, Twitter was being used to put someone reaching out for help firmly back in their place: “not happy? Fine. Whatever. Go complain.”

The last few days has shown that mental illness is one of the last acceptable prejudices. It has shown up a shocking amount of misunderstanding, assumption and even hatred. It has hurt me and made me reluctant to challenge unacceptable or misinformed views, and it must have hurt and scared others who are in a far more vulnerable place than I am. The message to sufferers once again is that they should keep quiet about their problems, for fear of a negative reaction, or even unemployment, that those with mental illness are a problem at best, or a threat at worst. And now, for me at least, there is one less place we can trust to help us when we need it.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

A bold prediction, a bolder win

In the wake of an underwhelming draw against Colchester – a useful point to keep us within sight of the playoffs, but a little disappointing nonetheless – my mind of course went back to last Saturday’s still-unbelievable performance against Chelsea. I've thought about it many times in the course of this week, rewatching the goals countless times both for the thrill and to reassure myself it really happened. But it did. And I was there!

When I think back to last Saturday there’s one particular image that sticks in my mind. It isn’t Halliday’s wonderful goal that took us into the lead, or even Yeates’s stunning added-time clincher; it isn’t the sea of claret and amber jumping up and down in the stands (though this was both humbling and spine-tingling); it isn’t even Parkinson, standing with his arms raised in the middle of the pitch in front of ecstatic fans after the final whistle had blown, perhaps not truly believing himself what had just happened. It was this: as the Chelsea fans made a quick exit, shocked and bruised, and the crowds began to thin, some in the home stands remained, and you suddenly noticed they were fumbling in pockets for concealed City scarfs and unzipping fleeces to reveal City home strips. In amongst the sea of blue seats, all around the ground, were specks of claret and amber, City fans who had begged, bought and borrowed tickets so that they could be at this once-in-a-decade fixture. It felt for a moment like the final scene of Spartacus, as though each fan, from his hiding place, was now proudly proclaiming “I am City!” “I am City!”

Oh, how tortuous it must have been to stay quiet throughout those dazzling ninety minutes. From my own, safe seat amidst the vast crowd of 6000 Bantams, we had gone crazy from the very first corner (for this, back at the beginning of the match, had felt like an achievement) to the glorious sound of the final whistle. When the first goal went in we were overjoyed, for it was something we had thought we could only hope for: Chelsea were not going to do a Swansea on us; whatever happened next we could hold our heads high. Unlike many teams that have visited Stamford Bridge, we were not going to leave goal-less. Here we were, a League 1 side, giving, for a few minutes, at least, the Premiership leaders a bit of work to do. We bounced and sang and screamed and waved and looked forward to the TV highlights. And then the unexpected happened. This time, we went wild. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the stand had collapsed under our weight as we leapt up and down. Strangers hugged one another, and we laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. There was going to be a moment, however brief, when we could say we were drawing with Chelsea.

And then, the unimaginable happened. We took the lead. My heart raced so much it was hurting, and I momentarily worried I might have a heart attack. Suddenly we were beating Chelsea. I thought of the Arsenal match, but this was better – that had been a single goal, then an agonizing equaliser, a nailbiting period of extra time then penalties. But this was Chelsea; this was their home ground; and we were actually ahead. As the huge ground buzzed with increasingly frenetic chanting and ribbing of a now obviously fuming Mourinho (“Can we play you/can we play you/can we play you every week?”) I found myself doing something I’m pretty sure is a) futile and b) wrong, but I did it anyway – I prayed. Raised a Catholic, the line “Ask and it shall be given unto you” fleeted across my mind. Is that blasphemy, I wondered? Was it really a bad thing to just long for us to keep the lead?

The teams take to the pitch at the start of the game; we hope we can save face with at least one goal.

Real anguish spread through the away crowd when seven minutes of added time was announced. Surely they would equalise now? Surely this team, almost entirely unbeaten at home, would never let this happen? Surely a replay at Valley Parade was the best we could hope for? The chanting reached frenzied levels as we all desperately willed the time away, waiting for the magic whistle to seal a mind-boggling win too unexpected to be the stuff of dreams, but, in the end, it wasn’t the whistle that sealed it, but another goal. And then, finally, the whistle blew, and, for me at least, we had reached a new level beyond that even of Arsenal and Villa and that wonderful season that took us twice to Wembley. Here, in a ground I had never had a need to visit before, we had just beaten a team that Swansea, the team that beat us so emphatically in the League Cup, had fallen to a week earlier. For a moment, in statistical terms, we were elevated to a status alongside the likes of Barcelona. Behind me, an older gentleman in a flat cap who looked so delightfully Yorkshire hugged me. He had real tears streaming down his cheeks.

The 6000 fans and the many more scattered so movingly around the ground stayed for a good half hour afterwards as the players paid tribute to their astounding support. Later that evening, in my adopted hometown (I am a reluctant Londoner) I had the bizarre experience of being stopped several times in the street and on the tube to be embraced or have my hand shaken by complete strangers who wished to thank me for the fact we had just beaten the nemesis that is Chelsea. Arsenal and Tottenham fans and even a man of Polish origin who was just a casual onlooker wanted to talk to us about the game and buy us drinks.

I admit that in all the excitement I lost my sense of decorum somewhat: the day before I had been interviewed for the City website outside a deserted and freezing Stamford Bridge and, when asked for the score, I had said “Well, we beat Arsenal, so I’m going to say one-nil to us.” The interviewer can be heard sniggering slightly as he replies “A bold prediction there”, and at the time I thought "thank heavens I didn't say 3-2", which was the result that for some reason had popped into my head. In the small hours, falling into bed, I sent my last tweet of the night: “Is 4-2 bold enough for you? Suck on that!!!”

Once again, the amazing passion and dedication of the fans has been richly rewarded; once again we are giant killers; once again I am so incredibly proud of my hometown and my club. We are, now and always, the best team in the world: we are Bradford City.

Fans applaud the third goal in disbelief as City take the lead.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

His name is Eric

This is the elephant in my room. I’ve called him Eric. He’s part of a campaign currently being run at the university where I work to try to encourage people to talk more openly about mental health issues. As a member of staff, I guess I’d better set an example.

Mental Health still has a huge stigma attached to it, even in the UK. It shouldn’t, but it does. People are afraid, ignorant or have misconceptions which affect how they respond to it, if they dare respond at all. Previously open about suffering on and off with depression, I effectively retreated back into the Crazy Closet last year following a horrendous experience with someone I’d previously considered a friend. Mind, the Samaritans, and other charities advise you to confide in someone you trust and to reach out for help when you need it. At my lowest point ever, I admitted to this friend (someone who had assured me in writing that he was “always there” for me) that, although I wasn’t suicidal as such, I’d had fleeting thoughts of suicide. I told him I feared I wasn’t coping and was afraid of what might happen. My friend had been living with us for a while after going through a stressful period of his own, so I knew I could trust him.

His response? He sent me a long text message which told me he was “giving up on me”. He told me my behaviour was “manipulative” and "erratic" and that I needed to “get help” (a laughable misconception about this country’s ability to deal with mental health, whereby you mooch up to a counter and say "I'd like some magic pills, please" – I was already on a waiting list for counselling and had been for almost two months.) He told me that my friends were "pandering" to me rather than helping me with their support and understanding, and that I was to stay out of his way. He told me he’d spoken to other people about me and that they agreed with him (I spoke to them later, and they most certainly didn’t.) A few weeks later, at a work social, in front of everyone, he told me I had to leave, as I was not welcome. I left, humiliated in front of colleagues, and didn’t go out with anyone outside of my closest social circle for several months.

At the time I was devastated. This was made worse by his refusal to spell out what I’d actually done wrong (it's completely plausible that I said or did something that angered him - we humans do that sometimes and generally work it out afterwards) which added confusion to my deep distress. When I finally did get counselling I talked far more about the hurt he’d caused me than I did about my upsetting personal situation (I had just found out I had a brother and read my adoption file – his nasty text, in fact, was sent on the day I visited the agency and found out, amongst other things, my birth name). Now I’m no longer devastated. I’m furious.

And I’m furious partly because this person worked in a large, prestigious university and had direct contact with students. Many of them were probably manipulative people who needed to get help… but he wouldn’t have known that, because they probably never told him. If they had, he would rightly have “given up on them”.

And it’s because of people like him that we need to come out of our Crazy Closets and talk about the elephant in the room.

I can’t tell you when I first began to suffer from depression and anxiety (the official diagnoses/labels I’ve been carrying around with me now for over 10 years.) I think it was probably when I was a teenager, but then, it’s “normal” for teenagers to feel low, moody, to be self-absorbed and suffer self-loathing. As a teenager, I remember climbing onto the big windowsill in my bedroom, drawing the curtains, curling up into a ball and sobbing for hours. I had terrible nightmares that usually resulted in my untimely death. Everything made me anxious. I sat in classes at school with my heart permanently racing, worried I was going to be “found out” for something (though what I don’t know). This went on, as far as I can remember, indefinitely. From the ages of 13-15 I can honestly say I have no recollection at all of being happy, even though I had some great friends. Both before and after this period I’d describe myself as a pretty cheerful person.

As a young adult, I became increasingly aware of feelings that were more than simply being sad, or irritable, more than just having a bad day or lacking in confidence. Progressively intrusive thoughts gnawed away at me. Life began to feel unbearable. In my head, everything was heading for disaster – my relationship, my college work, my friendships, my future (though it’s worth noting at the time I was a high-performing student with a lovely boyfriend who is now my husband and a close circle of friends, all of whom I still have.) My usual tendency towards perfectionism became an obsession and a phobia of making a mistake. I found it difficult to articulate how I was feeling, and hugely frustrating that people were unable to work it out for themselves. I eventually sought help from the college chaplain and from a tutor. I told the tutor I was scaring myself as I had this reckless impulse to just run into the road of leap off a bridge. I had no intention or desire to end my life, but I was terrified I would suddenly do something completely insane. Alarm bells rang and he said this was actually a common symptom of depression and other related conditions. With the support and advice of both of these wonderful people, I rather sheepishly asked for help.

These are the symptoms of depression. It turned out I had most of these, but I also had a crushing feeling that I was being melodramatic and was wasting everyone’s time, and that I simply needed to pull myself together. After all, as a couple of people tried to reason with me, I had a very nice life; I had no “reason” to be depressed. But depression is like any other illness – there’s no “reason” why you get cancer, or why you catch a stomach bug, though there are risk factors. Depression can affect anyone for no reason. It can, in some cases, have triggers – I get very annoyed by some of the militant mental health campaigners who shout as a sort of Rule 101 of depression that it is ALWAYS just random – my episodes have often been sparked by some momentous events, whereas at other times there’s been no explanation at all. Yet when you’re unlucky enough to get cancer, people don’t tend to call you a malingerer or an attention-seeker (though I’m sure IDS is thinking it, but that’s a rant for another day.) When you’re throwing up uncontrollably with norovirus and you ask someone to get you a glass of water or pick up some shopping for you they probably don’t accuse you of being manipulative.

If I’m being entirely honest, the way I feel about my own mental health issues is primarily irritated: I’m very active, I have lots of hobbies and interests, including stand-up comedy. I just don't have time for all this misery crap. I also consider myself a fairly intelligent person, and it infuriates me that one half of my brain can’t simply reason with the other half and tell it to pull itself together. But it can’t, and God knows it’s tried! A couple of years ago, things started to get out of control. My mind was convincing myself that terrible things were going to happen, that I was somehow going to make some catastrophic error at work and get fired and as a result become destitute and divorced. I became so terrified of opening my mail at work that my hands would shake when I did it, and I would sweat and salivate as though I was about to be sick. During the day my stomach caused delightful issues, and at night I was restless and agitated. I slept for probably no more than 3 hours a night. I was crying on a daily basis over everything and nothing, and was convinced I was worthless. I went back to the doctor, and in a comfortingly short space of time things got better.

Finally, last year, in the build-up to my friend’s “giving up on me”, I had the worst depressive episode I have ever experienced. This time there was definitely a trigger, in the form of huge personal turmoil. Overwork, the emotional stress of finding out about a past I had purposely consigned to history and presumably a tendency towards depression combined to make the perfect storm. In my fitful periods of sleep I was haunted by the same dream on a nightly basis: I was in front of a judge, having been found guilty of the crime of being born. Each night he subjected me to execution by a different means. Each night I was jolted awake, shaking and crying, while being hanged, electrocuted and shot by a firing squad. I began absent-mindedly scratching my hands and arms with paperclips and staples while working. I spiralled into what I can probably legitimately term insanity, and have even blocked out some things that friends tell me happened over the couple of weeks when things really came to a head. I desperately wanted to shout "PLEASE HELP ME!" even though there was no particular help I wanted. It's perfectly possible I came across as manipulative; I certainly came across as snappy and unpredictable, probably started to drink more than I should, and leapt from relative hyperactivity to borderline panic and despair. One night I sat in the square near my flat alone, and sobbed for no conceivable reason - if someone had asked me what was wrong, I wouldn't have had an answer. Eventually, there just didn’t seem any point to living any more. My very sensible, educated brain reasoned that I was never meant to have been born in the first place, that this whole chain of events had caused nothing but pain for many around me, that I had let everyone down and that I neither deserved nor wished to be here any more. For the only time in my life, I thought about how I could do it.

I am exceptionally lucky that, for the most part, I have good friends and an amazing family, deserving of sainthood in some cases, who have been patient, loving and understanding. I am lucky that, like those with diabetes, epilepsy and countless other conditions, mine is entirely manageable – drugs (after a bit of trial and error) and CBT have both been useful on different occasions and, as with any illness, knowing everything there is to know about it helps you to counter it whenever it comes to look for you again. I am incredibly lucky that, unlike many chronic conditions, any episodes of depression and anxiety are for me extremely rare and short-lived, and easily reined in before they turn into anything dangerous. Last year was a blip that, if I’m honest, makes me feel a little sheepish, and makes me kick myself for not "coping" better and allowing myself to be deluged by symptoms I should have recognised. I now no longer sit weeping on park benches, can now open my post like a normal person, and recently embarked on a foray into stand-up comedy. I love my job, have a new flat and a picture-book homelife and am probably going out rather more than I should. Normal service has resumed. Life is very, very good.

But as a result of this I am confident, willing and in a good position to discuss the elephant in the room. His name is Eric, and he needs your help.