Archive for mental health

The Week After

(As before, previously published on my Patreon. I’m very much home now!)

I can’t believe it’s been almost a week since our Serbian adventure.

The days at once flew past and yet seemed so long. Cross-country friendships were kindled and I saw many move forward on their own individual journies.

One of the main things that has stayed with me was the process that Team UK went through while preparing to enter the arena to fight.

Initially, there was quiet. Just the sound of metal jingling as armour was buckled on, the odd request for help, but an absolutely intense atmosphere pervaded the Camp. I felt as if I was intruding initially, and retreated to my favourite bench to watch, close by if needed.

As the days went on, I was somehow absorbed into the activity. I helped Himself into his armour first; then another person, and another. As I’ve spoken of before, I was happy to work on odd jobs, but this was rather different – I quickly became aware that each piece of kit had to be positioned as its wearer wished. Too tight and movement would be impaired; too loose and injury could easily happen. Broken weapons demonstrated how hard each blow was, and the armour had to hold up against this.

By the final day, every time I made ready to go to my place in the audience, I was being grabbed multiple times for ‘just a quick bit of help?’ and I was carrying several peoples wallets, passports etc in my handbag. It feels peculiar how light it seems now I’m carrying just my own things!

I became incorporated into the busyness without force. I watched, respected each fighter’s preparation process, and took instruction (pointing out potential problems if I saw them). I was caring, efficient and – again, after years of PA work – able to do what was needed. They were patient with me, and (I hope) glad of the help.

The thing that has stayed with me, however, is that atmosphere. It wasn’t just about doing a job. The absolute focus was crucial. Every person had their own method for getting ready to face a team of other men or women, and each wanted to remain standing at the end.

I would imagine it to be similar to before an important sporting match, but with the added edge of higher potential for injury. Everyone saw and heard the little Serbian ambulances trundling on and off the field each day. Fortunately, nobody on Team UK suffered more than a concussion.

But I was honoured to be included in these rituals, and said as much to the Team Coach afterwards.

I’m reminded a lot of a line in the movie ‘The 13th Warrior’. Antonio Banderas’ Arab scholar is given a sword, like all the other warriors present. He protests, ‘I cannot lift this!’ One of the others smiles and yells ‘Grow stronger!’

That is my main take-home from this event. I saw so many fighters working to grow stronger, physically and mentally. I was very aware of my own weaknesses (likewise), but have been trying to figure out how to overcome them. I want to be better as Team Support in the future. I want to be as strong as I can.

Perhaps such inspiration will help mind as much as body. I saw much that I would call bravery, but which would be shrugged off as ‘normal’ to the fighters.

The members of Team UK are already looking to future events both at home and in Europe in the months ahead. Some I will be able to attend, some not. I was surprised how disappointed this made me.

I see parallels in recent thoughts and writings. What is important, what is not. How can I grow stronger, to do what I need to do in everyday life and its associated battles.

I hope my striving to be a Mental Health Warrior will be reflected in my physical spoons as well. Either way, I’ll do my best, for myself and those around me. I’m honoured to do so.

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Who Am I?

When asked who you are, what is your immediate response? Your name, your job, marital status, sexuality, hobbies… all the labels that make up that sense of Me.

In which case, my name is Cat, I’m a priest and author, married with two dogs and two cats, cis-female, into books and knitting. Also GSOH (Good Sense of Humour).

But that by no means tells you about who I am inside. The Me that looks out from my eyes, who writes these words and tries to convey (with varying degrees of success) what she means to all of you.

One of the things I’ve sought to actively explore in recent years is who I am. That’s a continuing mission in a way, one that we all share.

As children, our identities are malleable and mostly made up by our parents: those who buy our clothes, sort out our haircuts, tell us what we’re allowed to do and not do, and generally teach us about the world.

As teenagers, we may rebel against this, as we strike out more to find our own identities. We try on different looks, join social groups, follow musicians or sports teams. Community merges with personal identity, giving us a new sense of family through our friends, much of which is formed through schools (specifically, those we come into contact with every day).

When we reach adulthood – say, over 21 – we’re supposed to have figured it all out. Who we are, what we want to do. Job goals, relationships, family of our own. But it’s not that simple now, as the world changes and so many more options are open to us (or closed).

We have so much information now, it’s virtually impossible to remain disconnected from the events going on in the world. We may wish to actively engage, pushing for change, or quietly work behind the scenes on a local (or even familial) level.

As others listen to our opinions, we may find that we have more power than we ever knew before. What do we do with it? Even this blog may inspire someone – I see that in the comments and responses. My actions have weight, even if it seems right now that it’s just me tapping away on my laptop in my living room.

Lately, I’ve felt very disconnected. My new medications have made my thoughts fuzzy and unclear. I’ve made mistakes, got frustrated, stepped back a little. I’ve felt that I let folks down by being ill.

That’s not true, of course. I’ve stepped back because it’s been necessary. I’m still here, after all. Battling the annoyance that I can’t do everything I want to do right now!

We’re on the cusp of Spring. Which I didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me. The changeable weather has meant the turning of the year has crept up on me… but something inside has known.

I can’t help but think of the transformation that Spring ushers in. The seeds finally braving the world as they appear from the soil. New life arriving, with enthusiastic yells and insatiable curiosity. Stepping outside and feeling the sun’s warmth after a mad winter.

Working through my illness, I’m exploring who I am all over again. What my new abilities are, my new boundaries, needs and preferences. A good portion of it is relearning who I was before, at heart – elements of myself that have been lost or forgotten during traumatic times. A lot of what I find is new and exciting… and a bit scary.

I’m paying more attention to what is true for me. Yes, I do want to do that. No, I don’t like this. Not just giving way for the sake of others and becoming a shadow in the background.

I may not be able to do as much as I once could, but I Am Still Here. I’m passionate about words, both the writing of others and creating my own. I love seeing creativity in action and supporting creative folk. My spirituality encourages my curiosity, my desire to explore and to know Why.

Which means I have little time now for bullsh*t, for prevaricating and yoghurt weaving (look it up). I’d rather hear your stories than what you think I want to know. I’d like to see behind the everyday masks and make friends with the person beneath, warts and all.

I want to help others on their journeys, without judgement until I know the full picture. I want to know Why things are as they are. I want to poke complacency and foolhardiness, to encourage and applaud transformation, ideas, action and achievement.

The world is changing as we are. Much as it makes me want to hide sometimes, I know that opting out is not an option. I’d rather help, in my small way, to make and be the change I want to see. I can only do this by recognising my own truth, my own Self, but recognising that it’s constantly changing as I learn and move forward.

That’s what life is.

Once again: What Can I Do? What Can You Do?

Go on then. We’ll muddle through together, as we step forward into the new Spring.

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(Desktop art: ‘Terrence the Badass Unicorn’, by MonkeyGhost)

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Small Magics

(Cross-posted with Drops of Awen).

To paraphrase many notable occultists, Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.

We all do this, all the time – but unconsciously. We let ourselves be influenced by outside forces, as our attention is moved from one thought to the next.

But when we take charge of our consciousness, with intentional and will-power, we can feel the change happen.

As I walk this path, I often say that Paganism is a constant practice (in the same way that we practice magic). We learn about ourselves and our connections with others, and create change with our thoughts, words and actions.

Today… perhaps a simple change, but to me, a profound one.

I felt myself beginning to slip, to spiral down into the depression. Quickly – time to take action.

Moving is the first step. Sometimes I don’t even get that far, which is why I usually have a book or a knitting project to hand.

Then Doing, something which brings me back to myself, usually through happiness, an activity I enjoy. Alter the negative feeling, grab onto something to stop the spiralling fall.

I distract myself with this, even though the anxiety-voices are telling me that I have things to do, I should be working! But no.

Right now, I’m spending this hour in an indulgent, sweet-smelling Bimble bath. I’m reading a book. I’m washing myself thoroughly, then using pleasant scented Lush oil afterwards. I wrap myself in a soft dressing-gown, and fuss the pups (who’re always glad I survived The Bath).

I can now feel mind and body relaxed. The tension has dissipated, the worried voices gone quiet. I was able to beat it (this time). It’s not always so simple, but I celebrate this victory.

Each win tells me that I can do it, and keep on doing it. Even on the worst days.

I’m now sharing this, cross-posting so that in these small words can themselves be a magic spell, to inspire in turn.

If you need it, feel my hand reaching out to you. We can get through it, dear ones.

Small magics, together.

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Morning

Life changes.

Years ago, I learned how to be up at silly o’clock, to catch a train into London and start work. Sometimes I went to the gym by the office first, then ate breakfast at my desk.

I enjoyed it. Watching the sunrise time change as the year moved, enjoying the peaceful freshness before rush hour. I was awake and got a lot done before most people had started.

Mornings are difficult for me now.

Not so long ago, I had to pull over on my drive to work, because I was crying so hard. I couldn’t continue. I didn’t have the strength to face the day, let alone work with others. I had to return home. Defeated and ashamed.

My own inner sunrise was changing, I think. What had been possible before… now was not. A limit had been reached. I had to rest, regroup, figure out what next. I wasn’t sure how long that would take, or even how best to do it.

I still love watching the dawn. The fresh quiet over the fields when I walk the dogs before the school run begins on the street. I’m in a very different place, geographically and personally. Battles have been fought.

Sometimes those tears still come. I’ve rushed back from the walk and collapsed inside my gate. Or I’ve continued, wiping my eyes and trying to take solace from playing pups (who try to help as best they can). I always carry a handkerchief, just in case.

Mornings aren’t the start of the ‘potential’ of the day for me. What will I do today?

That potential can be overwhelming. Rushing thoughts of what I have to do get faster and faster, until I can do nothing except sit and shake. Himself sits with me if he’s there, caring and concerned. But my illness seems determined to list everything I must do, before berating me for not being able to do any of it. Spiralling chaos.

I try to take mornings gently now. As much routine as I can (things happen, after all). Allowing myself to pause to knit, or just sit and watch the birds run the Kitten Gauntlet in the garden (this is apparently A Thing).

I always have to move and do eventually. That is certainly daunting, and sometimes too much. I have to let the wave of Overwhelm pass. Once the flood ebbs, I may be worn, but then I can see what’s left – priorities remain.

I do what I can. Still exploring the healing process, what my body and mind need. Ups and downs are natural. It can be so very hard.

But it helps me to appreciate every sunrise that I see.

Still here.

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Quiet

I seem to be following themes this year. The path is a winding one, leading to new places and revisiting old from a different direction. Sometimes we move in circles, or get caught in whirlpools, until we’re ready to move forward – or get thrown forcibly on to the next challenge!

It’s Yuletide, the centre of the Christmas season for the world outside my window. So much is going on, with the news full of chaos and uncertainty. People are having to take stock, to actively consider what’s important to them… because 2019 may bring deep and personal changes. Apathy, ignorance or abdication of responsibility will not be an option.

For now though, I sit. I haven’t wanted to write. I haven’t wanted my voice to drop into that ocean of media. It’s midwinter. The word that sums up life for me right now is ‘Quiet’.

That’s not to say things have been quiet. I’ve been battling hard over recent months, and making it through is not always a certainty. But I’m still here.

The latest fight has been against inner voices telling me that nothing I do makes a difference. That my own voice may as well be silent, for it adds nothing. I’m not wanted. I’m not here.

I pause as I write these words. They may seem mad – well, they are! They are irrational, provably false. When you’re in your own dark places, these words ring so loud, it’s almost impossible to block or even attempt to dispute them.

But I hold on. I take a deep breath. I speak.

I call out for help as best I can, and while I’ve been notably ignored by the systems that should be in place to assist (an overwhelmed NHS), friends have more than proved their love by listening, sharing, sending gifts and kindness across the miles. More than anything, I’ve wanted to post myself somehow to where they are, to show my gratitude in person! Because I want them to know how much they  have helped in my fight.

It’s easy to feel isolated when it’s dark. You can’t see anyone around, can’t hear them… you feel so alone. But even a whisper will be picked up by someone. Friends care enough to listen, to hold space (even across the Interweb), to join you in the wish for peace and healing.

A dear friend provided much needed humour and distraction this week, reminding me of a quote from a favourite TV show: ‘Family don’t end with blood.’ She didn’t realize at the time, but that brought me to tears – because it’s deeply true. Your family are those who are there for you, who step up fearlessly because they love you and will fight alongside you without a second thought. They don’t hide when times get tough; they sneak into the blanket fort alongside you (and bring snacks).

A shared image or phrase. A simple ‘hey, how’s it going?’ The touch of a virtual hand at your shoulder. These things cost so little, yet can mean everything.

So I sit, quiet and alone. But still breathing. Still able to reach out to those who are there. I try my best to use my word-powers for good, after all, so the least I can do is honour those who listen – and help in return, as much as I can.

For me, this midwinter is about cutting through the noise to find the inner truth. Hold that quiet space within, just sit and be. You can do this; even if you need to take yourself physically away for a while, to take a break from the seasonal busyness. Seek out that light burning inside you, and let it warm you for a little while. Remember what’s important – and feel those who love you for it be with you, be it in body or spirit.

Deep in the darkness, the fire burns, and with it the bravery and strength needed to move forward in Yourself.

Try to feel the Truth of this time of year. The lights and the laughter, the sharing and gifts (not always tangible!). We do our best, whatever that may be. We set our space, hold ourselves firm, stretch out with our roots and prepare for the months ahead. We’ve adventures to face together.

Season’s blessings, dear ones.

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Addendum: For those of you who’ve been kind enough to support me on Patreon, I’m sending a little seasonal gift – a small rite just for you, in the spirit of the season but also in the light of my thoughts here.

I can’t thank you enough for supporting me, lovely friends. I’ve definitely got plans for you all next year!

Yuletide blessings x

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Light in the Dark

This week has been particularly difficult for me (and many others, I suspect). Despite the lights appearing to signify the Yuletide season, it’s proving more difficult to penetrate the darkness within as the days we battle through grow shorter.

I’ve not been able to do much at all. Helpful medical voices ask ‘What do you normally do to make yourself feel better?’ To which I want to yell ‘DON’T YOU THINK I’VE TRIED ALL THAT?!’

But I haven’t really, have I? Because I can’t. The dark thoughts prevent me – from focusing on a pleasing book, finding a distracting movie, concentrating on complex creativity. Several times this week, I’ve been unable/unwilling to even move from my chair, for fear of what might happen.

Instead, I’ve found myself thinking of ‘safe’ places from my past. Like a child having nightmares, I’ve reached out to memories of refuge, which was often needed in years gone by.

I would spend many lunchtimes at school hiding under the watchful eye of that most dreadful of gatekeepers: The Librarian. A friend to me, none of those who wished to bully me would brave her door, and so I was safe with Anne McCaffrey, the Dragonlance heroes, or any number of other fantastic and wonderful worlds.

Years later, other lunch-hours were spent in warm cafes, soft jazz in the background as I lost myself in different books. Times had changed, but circumstances hadn’t: my bullying boss would never look for me there.

On trains, in tiny secret green spaces, even walking through the streets with audiobooks being read to me, I would find solace and security in tales of wonder and magic.

Years later (again), I found myself drawn to true stories of magic: Phyllis Currott, Starhawk, Margot Adler. Wonderful, strong women who taught through their own experiences of things never thought possible.

The magic began to spill from the books into reality, as I dove deep to explore the power within me. Words, yes, but whether spell or story, I could do this. I could do magic too!

Today, I opened a book that would ordinarily be called a ‘guilty pleasure’, perhaps. Magic, romance, battles, monsters… all those wonderful things that those who love ‘The Princess Bride‘ know make for the best stories.

At last, the words caught me. I was able to turn the pages, experience the thoughts of the protagonists, see the challenges that they faced and overcame.

As I paused, a thought occurred. This week, I had revisited the very depths of that black hole within me, of illness, fear and sorrow. I hadn’t been able to pull myself out, because I could not focus on my familiar lifeline. The tactics of that Black Dog, Depression, had cunningly found a chink in my armour. By drowning my brain with a morass of negativity, self-hatred and exhaustion, I hadn’t been able to access these otherworlds. Books remind me of what is good, what is worth living for. By preventing me from seeing the words, stymying that connection, I had no way to escape my own internal oubliette. Or even notice that such an escape was possible.

It may sound strange to one who has never felt the touch of mental illness, but it really does seem like a cunning monster – hence all of the personification names. I rather like Winston Churchill’s ‘Black Dog’, but lately I’ve also become fond of ‘brain weasels’ (with no disrespect to either of those real-world animals). Either way, the monsters within try innumerable methods of breaking down your defences, until they find a weakness to exploit.

GK Chesterton (and subsequently Neil Gaiman) famously said: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

We find the weapons we need within the pages of magic. We see ourselves in the heroes and heroines, both old and new. We tell each other stories, as I do here, in my small way.

Because the power of the monsters within comes from convincing us that we have no power. We have no magic, are unable to stop ourselves from being overwhelmed, because we lack the ability to fight back. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, the perpetual spiral down into the depths.

It doesn’t take much to think of stories that specifically focus on this. ‘The Neverending Story‘ is a battle against The Nothing. ‘Labyrinth‘ is a girl fighting to find her own power. Both feature disgusting swamps that drag you down and make you give up. As does the aforementioned ‘Princess Bride’.

Go back further. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ has flowers of forgetfulness and an all-powerful Witch. Odysseus almost gives in to the song of the Sirens. The original Labyrinth of Knossos swallowed up many souls…

… until the protagonist remembered the way to get through. In each case, friends provided lifelines to help the hero dig deep, to remember what they were fighting for. To keep going, to endure, to make it. (Depression isolates us, remember – another of its tactics).

I have talismans that help remind me of my own power. Sometimes they’re inspiring quotes; other times, comforting blankets, or gifts from friends. Whatever works to help me remember my connection to my own magic, to the life that exists in me and the world around.

Other physical, real-world people may seek (intentionally or not) to take that power away. But this is only possible to long as we allow it. That seems hard to believe, but it’s true.

Last night, my husband said to me something both simple and profound. ‘You know, you are allowed to say No to things you don’t want to do.’

This struck my exhausted brain surprisingly hard. I can do that? Really? Because the Black Dog had been using examples from the past to show me that this is precisely what I could not do. I had to keep my Chin Up and Soldier On. Other people, Authority People, said so.

No.

I sought comfort today, not just the urge to hide. Recharge, not just regroup. Remember that there was always power within me. Stories had always been my lifeline to that: my breadcrumb trail, my ball of yarn (as well as real balls of yarn, of course, but those arrived in more recent times!).

I thought back to those tales of true magic, from modern-day witches, bards and magicians. Every one spoke at one time or another of fighting ‘demons’ – almost like a computer game, through which we access the ‘next level.’ Stories reflecting real-world experience, and so inspiring progress. An upward spiral…

By simply surviving, by refusing to give up that last flicker of power, we win. By stepping forward, by raising our own voice, we share that power with others who may need the reminder. We can be the inspiration, the spark of Awen, the flame in the dark. Someone will hear, you can depend on that.

Sometimes, the Black Dog overwhelms and makes us forget this. Part of my battle is fighting to remember, to hold on and to Stand.

I think now of that modern fairytale, of Keanu Reeves reaching out to gently stop the bullets aimed at his heart, plucking them out of the air with that same realization as Dorothy, Sarah and Bastian.

And so on this tiny page amidst the myriad words on this InterWeb, I share this. As a reminder.

Go rekindle your candles, my friends. Inside and out. May they warm you and help you to remember your stories.

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Overcoming Fear

A week ago, I had a call that should have made me happy and excited. I’d won a makeover and photoshoot with a local company, so Himself and me would be off to their studios to be looked after and made to feel like stars.

I was terrified. I was so close to saying ‘No, thankyou’ and hanging up the phone. Because the prospect of such a thing was almost too much for me.

I’ve always hated pictures of myself. I know this isn’t unusual, as we never quite look like we imagine from inside (I always think the ‘residual image’ of Neo in the ‘Matrix’ films would never be quite as effortlessly cool as they present it to be!). But years of mockery at school combined with the usual personal anxieties as an adult have not made me tremendously comfortable in my own skin.

But something in me seemed to rise up and silence those naysaying voices. ‘Nope. You’re doing this.’

For the last few days, it’s been an undercurrent of worry, rising to just under panic levels the night before. What do I take to wear? What will they ask me to do? How can I hide?

Ridiculous, perhaps. But so runs the track of irrational negativity.

Even on the morning we were due to set off, I sat for a while in a heap, not knowing what to do. Finally we both shoved some things in a bag and set off. Keep moving. We’re on the way now. I took knitting for the journey (yes, as passenger!), to calm myself as best I could. I know that my lovely husband was nervous too, but he seemed so calm, so ‘together’ and at ease. I was envious.

I’m so glad to say that I needn’t have worried. From the makeup lady to our host, to the merry and talented photographer, we were both put at our ease from the first. I was convinced to undertake what they called a ‘boudoir’ shoot, and throughout, the voice behind the camera kept telling me ‘beautiful, lovely, yes!’ The negative niggles kept telling me ‘she’s lying…’ but I gritted my teeth and kept smiling. Or looking moody. Or just gazing into the middle distance at a random stepladder out of shot.

Much fun was had when Himself was convinced to fetch his armour out of the car, by the way. In case you didn’t know, he does full-contact medieval combat (HMB) – so the sound of a cutlery drawer falling downstairs was in fact a real Knight stomping down the corridor. Everyone was impressed. Not your normal day in a photography studio, I imagine.

We were taken into a room and shown the results. Jaws dropped (ours). Smiles began… and grew. Laughter. Hugs. Stories shared with the photographer. She’d never guessed that I was so scared, nor that I fought depression, anxiety and panic every day.

I look now at the pictures we made, and the smile rises again. Ultimately, all I did was show up – the skill was all in those who crafted the images (and did the makeup). But stepping through the door was almost too much. Leaving my house was almost too much.

I’ve undertaken rituals to face my own darkness. I’ve been forced to look at myself, inside and out. This day may have been primarily fun, playing with props and clothes, guided by skilled hands. But it was no less a rite of passage, facing the unknown, overcoming my terror (I’m really not exaggerating there) and stepping forward.

I’m keeping copies of my favourite pictures handy, to remind myself when I’m feeling fearful. I left that studio feeling so brave, as if I could do anything. I want to hold on to that, to remind myself of what I can do when those negative voices rise. Because the deeper voice is remembering how to speak, to say ever more loudly ‘You can do it, you know.’ And here’s the proof.

Images and makeup by Chique Photography. Shawl is ‘Morticia’ by Boo Knits, yarn by Posh.

(I’ll be including a little more story and some additional images for my Patreon friends – please do hop over there and support me if you can!)

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