On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 1: ‘The Little Girl Who Was Afraid’.

 

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall, (2013) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Mariner Books.

I’ve always loved making up stories. We all love them; as highly complex social creatures we have evolved to be curious about the lives of others, and stories help us feel connected. We read about heroes, and wish we were brave. We read about antagonists and recoil at their evil (or unwillingly admire it). We read about cute little animals dressed up in human clothes, and smile at the anthropomorphism, because we relate everything back to ourselves, remind ourselves of our humanity. We crave stories that engage us, that thrill us, perversely, even tales that terrify us. To experience vicariously the lives of others. And we are all storytellers. We enjoy recounting our experiences, our loves, our hates, our political opinions, to others who will listen and who then tell their own stories as a reward. So we can relate. That is in the nature of being the complex, highly developed social animals that we are.

And then there are the stories we tell ourselves too. We tell them in the silent noise of our memories, in vivid daydreams, and the too-real depths of nightmare sleep. Those stories are often as unreal as any fictions; although the events recalled may be accurate, the perceptions are often misremembered (memory is notoriously unreliable); or they become tangled and twisted and end up becoming our own horror stories, worse than any writer could create. Because in our over-developed, modern brains, these tangled twisted misrememberings are real.

As mentioned before, I’ve grown up as a people-pleasing, body-loathing, anxious person, which has led to several bouts of deep depression. The stories I’ve told myself – I’m rubbish at everything, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m unlovable – have developed over many years into patterns. Into fictions I’ve learned to believe.

 

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. She was adored by her parents, who used to told her how perfect she was, how much they had longed and longed for her, so much, that when she came along, she was more precious than all the jewels in the world. She was cared for and cossetted, wrapped up in soft cotton, especially by her mother, who believed that the world was a Bad Place for her little girl to go out into.

‘You might be taken away if you leave the safety of our home,’ the mother would say. ‘There are Bad People out there who would do anything to hurt a precious creature such as yourself.’ And she would look out of the window at the Big Bad World, and the Bad People who lived in it, with terror in her eyes, and the little girl would look too, and she began to feel afraid.

 

Who really knows where our anxieties stem from? Through a lot of counselling – this time, and others – I’ve come to learn the origins of my own. I was a cossetted only child, I was, without sounding ungrateful, loved too much. So much that I always felt I had to prove how much I loved back. Of course that didn’t go through my young mind – not exactly like that – but pleasing my parents, respecting my parents and those older than me, members of my family who would protect me, was all I knew. If I did anything to rock that particular boat, then I would suffer, and everyone I loved would be hurt. And so the storyline began: I can’t be on my own. If I’m on my own, Bad Things will happen. And the people I love will suffer.

And then my mother went out to work. Or tried to.

 

The little girl doesn’t understand what’s happening. Her mother is dressing herself up; she looks different somehow, although the little girl can’t really say why. It’s quite early in the morning too, and yet they’re getting ready to go out. When the little girl asks why, the mother says, ‘Mummy has a new job. So you’re going to meet a new lady who’ll look after you.’

            The little girl doesn’t like the sound of that. She knows that having ‘a job’ means leaving the house to go somewhere to ‘work’. She knows this because her father goes out to work and brings home money to live on, and to buy her new dollies. But although she feels scared, she doesn’t believe her mother with leave her, and so she allows her mother to get her dressed, and follows her like a lamb to the slaughter (although this is a term she has never heard, but I’m saying it here now, because that’s what she was).

 

I was about three years old, pre-school anyway, and this was the very first time my mother had ever left me with anyone else. Including, at that stage, my father, because our activities at weekend were always family events. So being faced with Something New was scary. But even as we walked away from our house, round the corner into another street, I didn’t believe anything would really change. That’s the thing about children – even in the worst scenarios, they trust.

 

The little girl looks toward the house they’ve arrived at. It’s a house much like the one she lives in, a terraced house, but it looks looming and forbidding, somehow tumbledown and threatening, like one of the scary castles she’s learned about in fairy tales. She clings to her mother’s hand more tightly, and looks up at her. Her mother looks down at her and smiles. She drags her feet as they walk to the front door. It’s black, like the sealed entrance to a cave, and the little girl doesn’t want to go in, in case there are monsters. She feels tears threatening; her throat closes up. She clings tighter still to her mother, who has knocked on the door. A witch opens it. She is dressed in a wrap-over housecoat that looks tatty and stained. Her hair is hidden under a scarf tied like a turban, but the strands that escape it are grey and flimsy. She wears no makeup on her coarse features, and she is smoking a cigarette, which she holds between two yellow-stained fingers. When she smiles, it’s like the opening of a grave. The little girl’s mother doesn’t seem worried though. Instead she smiles and tells the little girl the witch’s name, and that she’s going to stay with her while Mummy goes to work. The little girl doesn’t take it in, doesn’t understand. All she understands, with rush of utter terror, is that her mother is going to leave her with The Witch. With a Bad Person.

            She opens her mouth and begins to scream.

 

In the end, my mother did leave me with the woman, who of course, wasn’t a witch at all, but a reliable adult who never intended me any harm at all. But I screamed all morning, and all the next day too. I screamed and cried so much that my poor mother had to leave her job and stay at home with me again. She didn’t get her next job until I was at school, and then it was part-time; she was always home when I was. Now I understand the sacrifice she made then. Now I understand the need she had to be something other than a mother – it was never good enough for her. But of course that little girl I was then didn’t understand. And so a terrible fear of abandonment was added to the list of narratives I was beginning to tell myself.

I’ve always loved making up stories…

On Courage, a Bit of a History, and Why I Have Decided to ‘Come Out’ About my Mental Health Issues

I have never been brave. I have never had the kind of courage I observe in others. Looking at other people’s lives – going on ‘mad’ adventures, going on holiday on their own, applying for jobs, sending out their writing; the list goes on and on – I wish I had the nerve to do what they have done. Regrets, as the song goes, I’ve had a few. I’m very aware that what I see on the surface often hides what goes on beneath – believe me, I’m very aware of that. But still….

When I look back on my very early life, I can see where my lack of bravery might have come from. I was an only child to older parents. My parents loved me so much, and I recognise and appreciate how valuable it was, am all to aware that some children have never had that. But they loved me so much, I feel – on reflection now – that I was suffocated by it. I’m not going to go into my personal experience of being an only child – this post isn’t about that – but other only children I know feel the same way. I was the apple of my parents’ eye. The much-longed for child they could pour all their love into. The whole world centred around me, and therefore pleasing my parents because I was everything they wanted and I didn’t want to hurt them became my goal in life. And that was, I believe, where my lack of courage, and the seeds of my issues began. Please understand this is not me being ungrateful. I loved my mum and dad, and they, like most parents, did what they believed was right. And like all parents, mine only had their own to learn from. Those lessons may or may not be/have been ‘good’ lessons.

But anyway, I grew up feeling like I had to please everyone. To do my ‘duty’. To obey, pretty much without question, because that was what ‘good girls’ did. I think maybe my male counterparts didn’t have that, because in those days (60s/70s) the roles of men and women were still pretty clearly defined. Especially by my parents’ generation.

It all meant I was an anxious child, always terrified of being abandoned, from an early age clinging to my mother, who resented it. I know that because later on in her life, she told me so. She wanted to go out to work, and the very young me wouldn’t let her go. I’m not going to discuss that here either, but I can’t be angry with her for needing something else than motherhood. Still, the damage was done, and I grew into an anxious teenager. I didn’t like anything that took me away from the safety of my childhood home. Even when I went on my first holiday without my parents, at eighteen, it felt like I’d been torn away from them, even though it was my choice. I remember crying down the phone to my mum that I missed her and wanted to come home. It didn’t really help that my holiday was in a cold rundown chalet in a rain-sodden holiday camp on the Isle of Wight!

I married someone who was controlling. That is all I will say about that aspect of the relationship. Being desperate to impress and please, I believed that control was what love was. And he did love me. But he had his own issues, as people do. So my anxiety grew worse – this time mostly centred around my body, which, because of comments in my early teen years, was a source of loathing for me. I believed I was fat (I was eight and a half stone!). I believed I was ugly. I most definitely wasn’t good enough. When I had severe, crippling post-natal depression after the birth of my first child, I was a ‘bad mother’ – this told to me by my own mother, and by my mother-in-law, neither of whom ‘believed in’ post-natal depression because they ‘didn’t have depression in my day’ and I should just ‘be grateful’ for what I had. That was my first severe bout of depression, and it nearly killed me.

Life went on. I was never the same again. My depressive episode was life changing. and of course, it’s a very well-known thing that once someone has had a bout of major depression, it’s much more likely that it’ll happen again. And it did, in various ways, until the next breakdown when my (by then pretty much loveless) marriage broke up. It’s funny how it hits you, a break up, even if you (think you) want it. I had been so desperately unhappy for so many years, yet I didn’t have the courage to end what was, in the end, a very unhealthy relationship. So when my now-ex finished it, I collapsed. I’ve since learned some things about why this might have happened. Firstly, of course, I was already mentally vulnerable. Insecure, anxious, years of constantly feeling inadequate as a wife and mother. But also, the break-up of a marriage (or any other long term relationship) has been described as a kind of death. And it is. Death of expectations, death of status, death of a kind of self. And again, it nearly killed me.

Over the years, other things happened. My parents both became ill. My mother developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, followed by dementia. She needed constant care, and when my father had a heart attack one day when I was working in my new job as a lecturer, I had to drop everything and go to care for her. I missed my very first academic conference at which I was meant to present, and felt like a failure. After that, it was a constant thing. My father recovered (although he had another heart attack later, leading to me again having to drop everything for my mother while he was in hospital) and he was my mother’s main carer, but I was always on red alert; and I couldn’t let a day go by without phoning my father to check that everything was okay, and if he needed anything. That continued until he died in 2012, seven years later.

During that time I had several sessions of various types of counselling via my GP but none of it helped. Looking back, I believe I just wasn’t ready for it. I think that, in some way, I needed that self-blame – it was constant, and worse, it was familiar, something almost comforting to fall back on. It’s a weird attitude to take, but if it’s the only one you know, you stick with it because anything else is even more scary. This is a common thing for many, many people with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. We want them gone, but it’s scary, thinking about the process of getting better. Sometimes we just don’t have the strength or the motivation to help ourselves. And of course for me, other people were always more important.

My mother passed away – I still have flashbacks of that. I have flashbacks of her face before she died. Flashbacks of having to phone my father first thing in the morning to tell him. And then a new phase began. I haven’t dealt with those yet. My father became – after a short period of seeming okay – suicidal. And then the phone calls became constant. And I mean constant. From his carers – he became increasingly frail during the years after my mother’s death; from the hospital, where he was admitted twice after threatening suicide; from the hospital because. Increasingly frail, he contracted numerous infections. Eventually, he was admitted to a specialist psychiatric unit, where he was pushed over by another patient and broke his hip. That was the beginning of the end for my wonderful dad. He developed a form of severe dementia, and eventually died in a care home. Of course, during that time, I lived on the edge of a breakdown. When he died, I fell apart again. I’d been a bad daughter, not good enough for him (interestingly I’ve never grieved my mother, not thought too much about her death, despite the flashbacks, because maybe I don’t want to unravel it). I’d let him down. Hadn’t helped him enough. I was weak and couldn’t cope. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

I’ve posted recently on my latest bout of depression. I sincerely hope there won’t be another, but those of us with repeated bouts of whatever dogs us in our history have to be vigilant. And of course, for me it’s still early days. As I’ve said before, I’m taking it one day at a time. Working really really hard on maintaining the progress I’ve made. Trying not to see every down mood as a sign I’m going back into the depression I’m recovering from. Trying not to see every niggle of uncertainty as a sign my anxiety is returning. I will need more counselling in the future. And some things, maybe, can never be fixed, just looked at differently.

So why am I writing all this? Why am I ‘coming out’, as it were? Why am I repeating some of the stuff I’ve written in previous posts? Who am I, in a multitude of famous voices opening up and discussing mental health (the BBC series, Mental Health and Me, featuring Nadiya Hussain, David Harewood, and next week, Alastair Campbell, is powerful and important) to think I’ll be saying anything worth listening to?  The answer is, in part, quite simple: This is Mental health Awareness Week in the UK, and I am privileged have a voice to speak with. But it’s also because this – and the other posts I’ve written – are my own small acts of courage. I don’t know if this is all reckless; after all, as a lecturer, I’m in a position of trust, and am supposed to be ‘professional’ and, I guess, wear a mask. To an extent, we all wear masks. And much of the time, I do, although I will never, ever  pretend to be something I’m not. Now though, after this last breakdown, I’m tired of feeling like I have to hide it. This is part of who I am. It’s shaped me. I own it. And so I’m saying it. I’ll say it as many times as I need to.

There is still too much stigma. Too many people feel like their mental health issues are shameful. I’ve been shamed for it, and quite recently too. All too often we feel like we’re bad people for feeling the way we (can’t help) feel. All too often, we’re told that telling the world we’re a mentally unwell person is bad for us, that revealing our mental health problems is a death-sentence for our careers (and for some people, unfortunately, that is true). We feel bad for the way that others see us, like it’s our fault, and think that we’ll never be seen the same way as ‘normal’ people. And that is so, so wrong. I mean, people with cancer are never (I hope!) told to ‘get over it’, or to ‘smile’; or that ‘others have it so much worse’, or to stop being attention-seeking. These attitudes have to end. I can’t end it on my own. I’m just one person. But I’m at the point where I don’t care who knows, because it’s part of who I am. And that’s okay. Finally, I know that’s okay, and accepting it has been part of my recovery process.

What I want to say, at this, the end of Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, is that I have seen lives devastated by mental illness. In my job, I work with many vulnerable young people who can’t cope with their problems. Often they’re ashamed of them, because they ‘should’ be able to cope. Because they ‘should be’ perfect. This is increasing in society, for many, many reasons. And so I want to say this, to them, and anyone else who is struggling: We are so much more than our issues. We are so much more than our illnesses. We are people who love, who are intelligent, who care about other people, who are often involved in the care of other people. We should not be ashamed; and we need support, not shaming.

Encouragement, not embarrassment.

Voices, not invisibility.

Sound, not silence.

 

Work, Mental Health and Me: A Bit of a Rant, and a Wish for the Future

So I’m getting ready to get up after a largely sleepless night spent ruminating, a constant cycle of never-ending negative thoughts, and which, over the past couple of years, has become centred around my job. I’ve alluded to this in previous posts, talked a little about the stress (actual and perceived) that my job in Higher Education entails. Over this time, I’ve come to dread getting up in the mornings. Increasingly my brain tells me: I can’t do this. I really can’t do this anymore. I’ve ignored the voice, because I’m worried that going off sick will be a terrible thing in terms of ‘abandoning’ my students, of leaving my colleagues to do my work. Of being a ‘bad’ employee – of my deteriorating mental health being a ‘black mark’ against my career. Of being thought weak and incapable. My suffering is less important, or so I feel, than allowing myself to be a ‘good’ employee and colleague, a ‘good’ lecturer. So what has actually brought me – and so many others, because there are so, so many others – to this point? Work benefits us, of course, if only to provide us with the income we need to sustain ourselves; it can give us a sense of wellbeing and purpose in our lives, but it can harm us too, especially if we are vulnerable, prone to the effects of ‘bad’ stress. Work in these days of ‘do more, be more, get more’, can harm us. And frequently does.

Modern Western capitalist culture is driving (has driven) us inexorably to poor work-life balances, with increasing levels of bad stress (because not all stress is bad, and a little stress has been shown to be a good thing because it stops us becoming complacent) and anxiety becoming the new normal. Even those without underlying mental health issues (in my experience, and from talking to colleagues, this is certainly true in HE institutions) are finding it detrimental to their wellbeing. For those of us who do have those issues, it can become impossible to cope, which was what happened to me. Not taking proper lunch breaks (eating at your desk while catching up with yet more apparently pointless admin), not even taking toilet breaks because of being ‘too busy’! Working more hours than you’re contracted for to ‘get the job done’, despite having a workload plan that allegedly maps out our work to that allotted time, has become a regular thing. People who ‘work hard’ or who are ‘very busy’ are held up as shining examples to the rest of us, who may feel shame for not doing the same. But ‘working hard’ no longer seems to mean what it once did, which is doing the job you’ve been contracted to do, in the hours you’re paid for. Now it means being ‘on’ 24/7, feeling obliged to check emails at godforsaken times of the day and night, at weekends, on holiday, constantly proving yourself, and sacrificing oneself on the altar of ‘professionalism’. Working those hours, essentially, for free.

My experience is of course in HE institutions (and I guess some are more guilty of this than others). Students have become cash cows, and we strive to give them a great ‘student experience’, a term that’s bandied about, although what that means is never really explained to us who are supposed to provide it. We even have Deans of Student Experience, a whole new level of management, some of whom may not see an actual student for days on end (cynical but…). Anyway, for me a good student experience means being part of a great course with experienced, engaged lecturers who are passionate about their subjects; along with support for health and other necessary issues such as finances and housing. Is that simplistic? Well yes, maybe it is. But it’s how I feel.

Of course this is all a result of the increased marketization and monetisation of HE, along with more and more TEF-driven government-driven, ultimately (and not just in my view) pointless bureaucracy to ‘prove’ we’re doing our jobs, when we should be actually doing them: Helping students, supporting them through their studies. Allowing them to be educated, which is what they, and we, are there for.

The pressure’s not just on us, but on young people, who are being told: ‘Do a degree, despite your instincts telling you it’s not for you, despite the debt you’ll incur. You’ll never amount to anything if you don’t do a degree.’ This, and the educational experiences that come before – the SATs process that begins at five years old, exam-driven high-pressured GCSE’s and A-Levels – are factors that lead to increasingly stressed out, anxiety-ridden young people, many of whom have to work throughout the course of their degrees because they can’t afford not to. A generation that needs support more than ever, when in some universities, student support is being cut to the bone, which is not only kind of heart-breaking, but in some cases, has led to loss of life. And yes, I’m angry about it. And another factor of cutting jobs, of course, means there’s more work for fewer staff, and the cycle continues, and if we complain we’re being unprofessional.

That was a long side-note, I’m aware, almost another post in itself, but it’s all contributed to the way I’ve been feeling, to my feeling that despite what we do – working harder, trying harder – it’s all become increasingly impossible to keep up with. And I’ve felt a sense of increasing futility.

So work and working towards work has become increasingly unhealthy, with increasingly damaging consequences, the toll on mental and physical health becoming more apparent. And you just have to Google ‘is modern work harmful?’ and you’ll find loads of articles backing this up. In fact the evidence is scary. To back myself up a little, this 2016 article by Anna Coote in the Guardian discusses the fetishisation of work: ‘The fetishisation of work is making us miserable. Let’s learn to live again’ is one of many I’ve read through.

Still, despite evidence, someone reading this may think – stop ranting, this is just how it is. We have to accept it. But why do we? Maybe I’m just idealistic – I’ve been accused of it before, like idealism and caring is some alien, unwanted thing – but is it idealistic to wish better, healthier futures for ourselves and others? Is it idealistic to hope that large institutions and businesses might become more mental-health aware? For example, provide training for managers which will help them to help support their staff. To provide wellbeing strategies that actually mean something. To foster atmospheres of empathy and understanding rather than being rigidly held to process and inflexible attitudes. To pay for training for mental health champions who staff can go to for support, so they can better support their students (MIND offer this training to workplaces, as an example). As a society, not just in HE, we need to look at our attitudes, to examine examine them closely. I’m not a politician, or the CEO of a big company, or any other kind of leader. I can’t legislate or be the instigator of much needed wide-ranging changes. But I can look at my own life and my own small role in the lives of others. I can begin to make the changes I need to make.

In the end, I went off sick from work for two months, having counselling, learning to meditate daily, just resting my exhausted mind. And yes, I’m stronger now, and have been back at work this week. But I’ve realised a lot of things about myself and my relationship to my job during that time. First, I’ve realised that I am not my job, and my job is just one facet of my life. That I’ve put too much pressure on myself to be perfect, to ‘prove’ myself. That things didn’t actually fall apart while I wasn’t there (of course they didn’t!). Not everything’s down to work, of course. My breakdown came from much deeper issues than that, and those things haven’t been resolved yet; maybe they never will be. But the pressure that’s heaped upon us, and that we all too often put on ourselves in order to justify our existence, exacerbated and magnified what was already there.

In The Empire Strokes back, Yoda said: “Do or do not, there is no try.” And in the context of the movie, it makes sense. But I will try, because I can’t fall apart again, and not just for my own sake either, but for that of others too.

Reference:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/26/fetishisation-work-miserable-long-hours-poor-pay

 

 

Twenty Lights That Shine Through the Darkness

“There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights.” ― Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)

I’ve just read Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive (2015. Canongate Books), and it’s my opinion that everyone – not just those who have lived/are living with depression/anxiety (or both, of course!) should read it. It’s a real, raw, and honest account of his struggles through these horrible illnesses. But it’s also an account of what helped pierce the darkness of his mind, and which continues to help him get through difficult days. Inspired by this, I thought I’d make a list of my lights. It’s helped me to realise that the sky is bright, just behind the clouds (Andy Puddicombe, who runs the Headspace meditation and mindfulness programme, talks about the ‘blue sky’ of our minds, that it’s always there, and we shouldn’t forget that). That it’s always there, despite how dark the day or night might become. I’m very aware that some of these things may be privileges others don’t have. I’m grateful for those too! So, in no particular order, and not a definitive list:

  1. My amazing children, who have saved my life when there didn’t seem to be anything else to go on for. They continue to be my shining lights. Thank you, and I love you xxx
  2. My amazing partner, who has recently seen me at my most despairing, and who has been a constant and strong supportive presence, just loving me quietly and unflinchingly. I love you too xxx
  3. My friends, who’ve stuck by me when I didn’t feel worthy of your friendship. You know who you are xxx
  4. Being aware of the natural world, marveling in its absolute beauty, and allowing it to fill me. This is especially true of being by the coast, watching the sea, its inexorable movement, tidal ebbing and flowing, and the sunlight and cloud playing on the water in unending motion. I want to live somewhere that can give me that.
  5. Continuing with the theme of nature, watching birds, listening to their songs and calls, is an utter joy to me. One of my favourite things to do is to go to an RSPB reserve and watching in silence from a hide. Getting a thrill at just being in their presence, feeling the privilege of that moment.
  6. Foxes and bats (the same as birds, really, except the thrill and privilege is almost stronger, because I don’t see them often, especially bats).
  7. I love their independence, and yes, their – what we perceive as – silliness. Animals aren’t here to entertain us, but they do anyway. One of my favourite words is kitten.
  8. Meditating and feeling the peace that goes with it (in good sessions anyway!).
  9. Singing at the top of my voice to songs I love.
  10. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels have – if not saved my life – then at least helped me manage to get through some dark days when I could do nothing else but read them. I miss his wit. RIP Sir Pterry.
  11. Reading generally. My salvation and escape – and yet a touchstone to reality, when reality is too difficult to deal with: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (2011).
  12. Writing – finally learning to love it again. It’s catharsis, it’s exploration, it’s learning about yourself, and your own view of the world (even through fiction).
  13. Good cheese, good red wine, and bread. Taken together, or separately.
  14. Good food and wine in general (I have only once lost my appetite during depressive episodes!).
  15. I don’t care if it’s noisy, dirty, confusing, manic. It’s my home town, and a source of never-ending fascination and joy for me, even at its most annoying (Northern Line and Piccadilly Line, I’m looking at you!).
  16. Teaching my students and feeling like maybe I’ve made a tiny bit of difference to their lives.
  17. Watching YouTube videos (especially on makeup and skincare!). These have also been a form of salvation, in that I’ve discovered that actually, despite the pressure on older women to just disappear and fade away, I’m not too old to care about how I look, or what makeup I choose to wear. Appearances of course, aren’t everything, but for me, looking as good as I can helps my self-esteem. I’m being me and that’s freeing.
  18. Another of my favourite words is chiaroscuro, because the concept of light and dark represents my mood swings. Plus, it’s just a cool word.
  19. David Bowie.
  20. Hope.

Ignoring the Signs

I’d seen the signs before. Insomnia. Lack of concentration. No interest in anything. Not wanting to socialise. Becoming increasingly irritable with the people I love. Pushing them away. Worrying incessantly, ruminating compulsively and negatively about pretty much everything. And feeling complete and utter hopelessness for my future. In fact my brain told me I didn’t have a future. That I was a never-has-been-and-never-will-be; and I didn’t deserve anything else. This was nothing new for me. I’ve lived with depression, and those thoughts, most of my adult life; and in fact, had been living with it constantly, in one way or another, in some kind of severity or another, for two years at least before everything finally went to hell and I felt something crack inside me.

And yet, before that day, I continued. I smiled and pretended – to the outside world anyway – that I was okay. I turned up at work, even though I would feel sick with dread on the short journey. I believed that I was useless and couldn’t cope like other people could (that last at least was true – I wasn’t coping – although finally I’ve mostly accepted that I’m not useless!). I lived in a constant state of high anxiety, wondering what new stresses that day would bring.

My job as a senior lecturer is high pressure – increasingly so in a Higher Education system which regards education as a business and students as customers rather than human beings  – and the constant pressure of having to prove myself became intolerable. And yet I ignored the signs. Ignored the voice in my head that told me: Enough is enough. You seriously shouldn’t be going on like this. But I ignored that voice for those couple of years, because – despite a couple of quite serious dips, which of course I also ignored –  I was still functioning. Because I was ‘valued’ as a member of staff, even though I felt less and less valued, less and less relevant – if indeed I ever had been, which I was never convinced of. As the months dragged by, it was as though I was – to use a cliché – wading through treacle towards a place of blank and black nothingness. I can honestly say that the only time I felt ‘safe’ at work was when I was with my students, who have been a joy to teach.

And in essence, that was another issue. Because I was ‘valued’ and a good teacher, I decided – and I now recognise this as warped and dysfunctional thinking – that I couldn’t let people down by going off sick. That I couldn’t burden my amazing creative writing colleagues with extra work, or abandon the students, who I cared about so much. I have often been asked by some people why I care so much. Why I invest so much in other people. Is there a definitive answer? Well, I don’t believe in definitive answers; life is always so much more complicated than that. But I can say that it’s in my nature to care (enhanced by nurture), and before I became a mum, I was a nurse and midwife. It’s in me to do my absolute best for others, to never let people down, because, at the heart of the matter, I’ve always believed they’re more important than I am. That is how I was brought up. Duty and people pleasing. I have always served others, and not myself. That’s not selflessness. It’s being a ‘good girl’ by bowing to the authority and needs of others, almost without question.

But that’s for another time.

And so I continued, until, finally I just couldn’t. Until I felt that snapping inside, and knew I couldn’t go on. Luckily I had an occupational health appointment arranged, and the advisor took one look at me and, after asking lots of pertinent questions, told me I had to go to my GP and get signed off. I felt an immediate sense of relief, but those feelings of intense guilt, and terror that everyone would hate me for it, also surfaced.

Cutting a long story short (I’ll deal with other subjects in other posts) I’ve been off work for two months now, having quite intense therapy and meditating regularly, and just looking after myself. I’ve learned a lot about myself, including that my needs are important too, and I will try to resist the urge to bow to pressures – internal and external – that are dangerous for my mental health, because that’s more important than anything else. I’m going back to work next week. I’m anxious, terrified in fact, but I’m stronger now. I realise I have choices.

And I’ve made the choice to care about myself more.

I guess the point of this is to say to whoever might read this: look after yourself. Don’t ignore signs until it’s too late. Seek help.

Love yourself.