And no… it was not in a Bey way. Not all of us are #Flawless upon arising. In fact I would say many of us wake up, get through the day and go to sleep again as deeply flawed human beings.
Within one minute of waking up I was inexplicably crying. Four bouts of tears later, holding a coffee and a pastry as I walked up the hill trying to get my shit together, I realised something. This was an achievement. Yes, this basic walking up the hill to work business was in fact something to be proud of. And all the steps before it were too.
Here is the list of things I did before that point that I believe were worthy of encouragement, congratulations and metaphorical pats on the back. They might not be every day but they really were today:
I brushed my teeth and hair (yay hygiene and grooming!)
It may sound patronising and if you’ve never experienced anxiety you might not understand but something happens to your brain when the anxiety shit hits the functioning human in life fan. These basic things felt like the most daunting tasks in the world when my alarm went off this morning. They couldn’t possibly be done. I couldn’t do them. I didn’t have the supreme amount of superhuman energy it would take just to get my sad behind out of bed.
I managed it. I did all of those things that most days take no thought at all and today took a careful strategy of gentle encouragement, talking myself through each task. And then after I got to work I did a whole load more, one thing at a time.
The goal posts of achievement have to change when your brain decides that it’s going to fold in on itself and flat out refuse to function for no apparent reason.
“Come on,” I reason with it. “Just tell me why I feel like this and we can all get on with our day. If you’re not going to work properly at least tell me why!”
Nope. Nothing. I can’t even figure it out for myself, let alone other people. Cue two more lots of crying once actually at work when lovely, kind people in the office ask if I’m OK. It’s actually really frustrating because I’d really like to know what my brain is doing but IT JUST WON’T TELL ME. So I can’t tell you. Maybe it’s stress? Is it stress? Well I do have a lot of work to do at the moment so maybe I should sit down and try to do some of that. Great. Now how do I get rid of this paralysing feeling of dread and fear in me that makes me feel like I can’t do anything? I can’t concentrate. And the longer I don’t do any work, the more work I feel I have piling up with less and less time in which to get it done. This doesn’t make any sense. I’m becoming my own worst enemy and I’m stuck in a horrible vicious circle.
And you know what else? It’s totally counter intuitive to be your own worst enemy when you know you have to go to work and present your best self in an important meeting where impressions are everything, and I’m not talking about the kind where you put on the strong accent and pretend to be Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver (“You talkin to me?“)
So you move the goal posts. You say “It’s not going to be a normal day today. And that’s OK.” And you forgive yourself. You forgive yourself for not being perfect and happy all the time. You forgive yourself for being sad and not even finding the reason. You tell yourself you’ll do your best, whatever that looks like today and that will have to be enough. And then you hope that other people will forgive you too and understand that you showed up today when it really looked like you wouldn’t. That your achievements look different today compared to another day or another person. But they still count. And you should be the one counting them because you did that, all by yourself. Well done you. Well done me.
I got through a horrible anxiety day today. Maybe tomorrow will be better.
This is not the blog post I thought I was going to write tonight. I sat down at my computer and had every intention of writing about Passover. I wanted to write about how easy it is to complain about things when we are stripped of our usual comforts, and how I was thinking that actually we should use this week to think about how lucky we are the other 51 weeks of the year, and not about how this week we’re slightly less satisfied.
But instead I sat down and wrote a post about how I’ve been feeling over the last few months. It must be the right time for me to have done this, because it just happened, without warning.
It was unplanned and is unedited and if self reflection isn’t your thing, then feel free to stop reading now and go and look at something about cats instead.
This may come as a surprise to some of you who may see me as a positive person, who see me as someone who laughs a lot and likes to make others laugh, who can be good natured and as someone who is full of energy. But the last few months have been very hard. I’ve found the winter we just had to be particularly challenging in a lot of ways. I found I wasn’t entirely able to get a grip on my emotions, and try as I might I simply could not pull myself up from where I felt I was – an incredibly low point.
I don’t exactly know what it was that I went through. I haven’t been diagnosed with depression and I don’t know if I’m feeling better now because I’ve come through a rough patch or because I’m in an up phase of mental well being and it’s just a cycle that works in peaks and troughs. I don’t know if I’ll sink again in a few weeks or if I’ll be fine for the next few months or years.
Here is what I do know:
I felt exhausted and miserable and lonely. I felt like I couldn’t tell people that I was really struggling. I felt like I was lost and no one would find me. I felt like I wanted desperately to ask for help but genuinely didn’t know how. I didn’t know what to ask for. I didn’t want to go out – I couldn’t, I didn’t have the energy – but I didn’t want to be alone. Nothing made me feel better. I kept crying and couldn’t remember what happy felt like. I felt paralysed by anxiety and fear and sadness but with no rational clue about what was making me feel any of these things. The energy that went into faking being OK was utterly draining and left me exhausted. I haven’t written a blog post for ages. This is probably why. I couldn’t sit down and do it. I didn’t have the brain power. It was taking every ounce of everything I had simply to get through work every day. I was going to bed at 8pm some nights and if I’d made arrangements that I actually kept to, it was a relief if they were cancelled and it was mostly too hard for me to stay very long at anything.
I don’t feel like that any more.
As I said, I don’t exactly know what made me start to feel better. I hit a very low point a few weeks ago and considered asking the doctor for antidepressants. After consulting with a therapist that I currently see on a weekly basis, it actually didn’t seem like the right decision after all. But I did consider it very seriously and would consider it again if it turns out that I’m heading in that downward direction again. I don’t want to feel like that again. If medication is going to help me retain a grip on things then I will happily take it.
I’m writing about this because I think a lot of people feel scared to tell others that they’re not OK. It’s not a stigma thing for me. It’s the fact that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I almost wished I could tell someone I had something concrete, a label, a name of an illness to give. I didn’t know what to even call it. I just felt awful all the time. And the voice in my head that does me nothing but damage told me that no one wants me around when I’m no fun. No one wants to talk to me when I’m sad. No one wants to hear the negativity that’s raging in my head. Why would anyone want that? “Your friends only want the positive, happy, energetic version of you that makes them smile,” it said. “No one wants you as you are.”
This is absolute bullshit. This is an unhealthy thing that gets into my head when I’m too scared to show vulnerability. This is an isolating thought process, built entirely on an image that I think other people have of me. It wasn’t for me, but it can be very dangerous to think like that. I’m not writing about this to have a pity party (though I’m sure some will read this and say “Ugh, that Abi – she is so self indulgent and she is such a massive over sharer” and those people are entitled to their opinions but respectfully, those people can also fuck right off).
I’m writing about this because I know that if I felt this way and felt so entirely alone during that time, maybe there’s someone else who feels like that too. Maybe there’s someone who also feels like they can’t talk to anyone about how they’re really feeling, who can feel the weight on their chest growing and the panic in their stomach rising and the sheer overwhelming size of everything pushing them down. Maybe there’s someone who just wants to know that they are not the only person who ever felt like that. I’m writing this to let them know that it is OK to talk about how they feel and that it is not as scary as you think it’s going to be once you start.
I’m very hard on myself. I don’t think I realised how hard I am on myself until the last few months. If something goes wrong, whether it’s within my control or not, I feel like it’s my failure. Once that happens, that damn little voice in my head tells me that means I am a failure. I’m an intelligent person and academically, I know that’s not true. I know that even though I have a bunch of “you should have…” sentences in my head, even though society’s bizarre levels of acceptable life progression dictates that I should have achieved certain things by the age of 26, these are not necessary truths of life. But that’s not how it feels in that moment.
I read a really good article recently that advised we shouldn’t compare our inside lives to other people’s outside lives. In other words, what we show on social media or tell our friends is not always true to what is going on inside our heads. So why assume that’s what everyone else is doing?
I thought about it and realised that I frequently look at my friends and think how together they have it, how happy they must be, how happy I would be if I had something like what they have.
I’m 26, I’m single, I don’t have a set career going, I have 2 degrees that seem to be predominantly useless when it comes to getting a job, I’m always broke because I live from payday to payday and although I know I want to be a writer, I don’t know exactly how I want to be a writer and I don’t push myself to put my work out there. At times that feels pretty pathetic and for the last few months I’ve felt ashamed of my life choices, of who I think I am.
I’m 26. That’s young.
I’m single – that means I’m free and unattached and only one step away from meeting someone that might be excellent. I’m always in a position to make new friends without complications and I can basically up sticks and travel whenever I want because I have no one else to think about in that regard. That’s not sad, that’s liberating.
I don’t have a set career going, but that’s because I’m pursuing my dream and that takes time. I want to be a writer and I haven’t sent loads of work out to people…yet. I still can. There’s nothing stopping me but me. I don’t push myself, but I can and will because I’ve realised that now. All I have to do is sit down and do it. It’s OK if I don’t immediately succeed. I highly respect those who have worked hard for their success and I would be honoured to one day be counted among their ranks.
I have 2 degrees because I love learning. I learned about books and theatre and those are things that make me happy and fulfilled my thirst for that knowledge. I then learned how to be a better writer and that might not immediately serve me well as a career move but it’s a step towards making me better at a craft that I not only love, but need. I would do another degree in something equally career-useless if it made me happy and if it was what I wanted to learn about.
I’m always broke…well let’s not run before we can walk. Maybe one day I’ll get better with money. But I might never be rich and that’s OK. Money isn’t what makes me happy. That’s not a bad thing. I fricking hate money! I don’t really want to be one of those people who is only motivated by money.
I still think a lot of my friends have an awful lot and are lucky. There is a part of me that envies my friends who are able to go to a stable, office job every day. My brain just doesn’t work like that and I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. But I don’t envy them their jobs. And I try very hard not to envy the happiness they have with a partner. It’s hard, because I want that and might not have it for years and there’s nothing more lonely than being the only single one in your group of friends, surrounded by the romantic happiness or contentment of others. But that’s OK. I’m slowly making my peace with that. Don’t get me wrong, feeling lonely is really shit. And sometimes it will get the better of me. But that’s OK too. Because I hope that I’ll win the majority of those little voice in my head battles.
It’s OK that I am not yet where I think I want to be. It’s OK that I’m not sure what I want or how to go and get it. It’s OK that I’m not sure what or who I want to commit to. It’s OK that I’m still building up the confidence to take risks and allow myself to be vulnerable in different areas of my life. All of these things that might feel like negatives are actually fine. I don’t need to keep justifying myself to the expectations of others. And neither do you. Conventions aren’t necessarily good things.
There may well be entire months in the future, like the last 3 months, where I am unable to see anything positive, where I sink and feel like I’m drowning, not because I don’t want to swim but because I can’t remember how. But right now I know that I am very lucky because my friends and family were incredibly patient with me. No one shouted at me for cancelling on them even at the last minute. No one abandoned me because I was sad. Even in moments where I was terrible company, the people that I love and trust stuck around. I don’t know why I think they won’t. I would do the same for them.
And that’s something that’s really important to remember – these are people that you love and trust, that in some cases you’ve loved and trusted for years. These are people who turn to you when they’re in crisis. If you are able to tell them that you’re in crisis, you absolutely should. I can’t guarantee it, because I don’t know your people, but I would bet all the money I have and triple the amount that I’m in debt (that is so much money guys, you don’t even know) that however you imagine them reacting, that’s not how it’s going to go down.
I received more love and compassion and kindness than I ever would have imagined and I am exceptionally grateful for that. The friends and family that allowed me to work through the last few months in my own time, with all the stumbling blocks and tears and difficulties…those are the people I want to keep around. Those are the people who make me feel very, very lucky.
So maybe this isn’t so far away from the post I wanted to write after all. OK, for this week of Passover I have to think about every stupid morsel that goes into my mouth (insert rude joke here) and I may feel full but I will feel entirely dissatisfied after almost every meal. Breakfast has to be some kind of magic trick every day and the toothpaste is weird so my teeth never feel properly clean and my God if you ever need to combat diarrhoea eat a couple of matzahs and you’ll be sorted for at least 3 days. Seriously, it’s like swallowing a cork. This week, what I don’t have is the food I like and I’m used to or the freedom to eat said food, even though this whole stupid festival is about having freedom in the first place.
But I do have a huge amount of other things and for those I am extremely grateful.
I hope that this wasn’t too preachy and that it encourages people to talk about things to someone if they feel as unbearably low as I did until about 2-3 weeks ago. If you can’t talk to a friend or family member there are lots of wonderful organisations that have freephone numbers and take calls at any hour of the day or night.
Chag kasher v’sameach (happy Passover) and happy Easter to all. If you don’t celebrate either of these, enjoy the days off work.
It’s not Mental Health Awareness week. It’s just January 24th 2015. It’s Saturday. Today is not significant.
I’m on the tube and it’s not very crowded. I move towards the middle bank of seats. As I get on, I hear a high pitched noise being emitted from the bank of seats to my left. I sit down. As I do, a man moves from that side to the seats on my right.
I look to my left to see who made the noise. I can’t tell. It could have been any of the 5 people there I can see. I get out my book. I hear the noise again.
I look. I can’t tell who it is.
We get to the next stop. Someone sits down near whoever is making the occasional strange noise.
Another person moves away from those seats.
Finally I see the guy making the noises. They vary from groaning and a sort of heaving sound to woops and shrieks. He’s youngish I think, curly brown hair, pale skin, kind of a big mouth, open face.
I get panic attacks on the tube. Almost every panic attack I’ve ever had has been on the underground. They feel completely random. Maybe they’re linked to stress levels but I can’t consciously tell. It’s horrific when it happens. I get sweaty and hot and I feel like I’m going to pass out or maybe die. My heart pumps faster, I shake, I can’t breathe. It’s like my whole body descends into mayhem for literally no discernible reason. And the fact that there’s no reason doesn’t make it better. It makes it worse. Because I want to rationalise it but I can’t. I can’t explain it to myself or anyone else.
And when I’ve had panic attacks, when I’m shaking and sweating and pale and clearly not ok, mostly no one says a word to me. Twice people have offered help. But one time I’d already fainted so I’m not sure it counts. And I’ve had significantly more than 2 panic attacks on the underground. But I’m not having one today.
So it’s Saturday and I’m on the tube and a third person has moved away from this guy and all I can think is that for every person who moves away from him, I want to move closer. I don’t know his mental state. I don’t know how much he comprehends of the people moving. Does he know they’re moving away from him? He might have Tourette’s and have perfect comprehension of what’s going on around him but find himself unbearably trapped behind tics and noises and overwhelming compulsions. Or he might have something much more serious than that and not have any idea that the people on the train are made so uncomfortable by his presence.
Why is it so uncomfortable? Why have we cultivated this culture where we run away from someone who is different, feeling tense and scared until we walk away to sit two blocks of seats down the carriage where we can breathe a sigh of relief?
I think about it and I wonder if I feel uncomfortable. I don’t think I do.
I think about the people I know who struggle with depression, anxiety, addiction, mania, anorexia, low self esteem…I think about what they look like when you can see those things manifesting themselves and I think about when you can’t. Arguably, that’s more sinister. Because you never really know if someone is OK or not. We have no idea what’s going on behind the faces of all those people we see every day. The ones we talk to and the ones we don’t. But mental illnesses and struggles are not contagious. Why are we so scared when we see them? What instinct is it that tells us to be afraid?
I wonder if it’s because they’re too different to how people see themselves. We are, as a species, notoriously afraid of things that are “other”. Or maybe it’s the opposite – maybe they’re too close and people are afraid that if they look they’ll recognise all too clearly what they see. Perhaps it’s too painful to admit that the guy we call crazy is only one bad day, one life step, one change away from where we are.
There are things that I really don’t like. I don’t like sick, for example. If you’re puking, I’m not going to hold your hair. A 3 year old kid I was looking after had his first ever puking experience from a stomach bug, and when I told my sister about it I said “I was really good and only leapt away from him twice.” She said she was proud, but only after she’d laughed at me. I know why I don’t like sick. It smells bad and it comes from inside you and I have a visceral reaction to it that makes me feel like I’m going to be sick too. Maybe fear of mental illness is the same as that? I don’t know.
It’s a bit more crowded now. I move a few seats closer. Just in case. But by the time I’ve moved through the people and sat down again I realise he’s gone.
I wish I’d had the conviction to move closer more quickly. I wish that I moved when the first person did, not after the third. I wish for him not to have anything too serious, but I also wish that he doesn’t know that he’s the reason people moved on the train.
I’m not afraid of other people’s problems when I’m OK. I’m afraid that there’ll be no one to help me when I’m struggling. I’m afraid of people turning away because I’m sad and can’t make myself be happy and they don’t want to see me when I’m feeling like that. I’m afraid of becoming disconnected from everyone because they’re scared of me. I’m scared of being the person people move away from and I’m terrified of not understanding why I’ve been left alone.
I hope that if I’m in a situation like this again that I can act with kindness, that I can look at the person, whatever his or her struggle, without staring but without seeing through them, like I’d look at any stranger. I hope that I can smile at them without it being forced or patronising. Like I’d smile at any stranger. I hope that I can manage not to define people by the struggles they face, internal or external. I wish, perhaps naïvely, for a society in which, when we see people struggling we move closer to them to help, motivated by compassion, not closing our eyes or running further away because we’re inexplicably afraid.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw
“Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.” – Charles Dickens
I’m on my phone a lot. I’m on my computer a lot. I’m a writer – I use a lot of screens. I would say I’m fairly close to being a master of electronically communicated comedy. I’ve got the text shouting thing down pat. A well placed capitalised sentence can induce “Actually laughing on my own, in public” from my recipient. Yeah that’s right. I’m good with the written word. And I can type super fast so I never miss a beat or a joke.
But what is this doing to us as human beings? Is it healthy?
Well, all the evidence would suggest no. It isn’t. I say “all the evidence”…I really mean “my reactions to things”.
If, as many people do, you have an iPhone, I know I can contact you in the following ways:
Face time – also FaceTime voice call
Skype instant message or call
Facebook – wall post, tagging in a status or private message
Twitter – public post and DM
Viber message or call (though I don’t have it so that one might be difficult. But in a pinch, I could download it, check to see if you have it and then if the other 9742 ways didn’t work I COULD GET HOLD OF YOU THIS WAY. At the very least I could invite you to use it. That’s what a sane and reasonable human would do, right?)
Off the top of my head I have just listed 16 different ways to contact you. SIXTEEN. WHY DO WE NEED TO BE CONTACTABLE IN SIXTEEN DIFFERENT WAYS?!
I cannot convey strongly enough how much this freaks me out. And how much of a contributing factor I believe this technology and communications phenomenon is to the ever increasingly psychotic behaviour of people in the Western world.
I am not a patient human being. I’m just not. I do try to be, but naturally I’m impatient with anything from replies to messages and emails to adults understanding basic concepts. I don’t do well with slow people. I operate at a high speed and I expect others to keep up. I suspect I have been made much worse by the high speed and higher speed and higher higher speed internet that makes everything so easily available.
Inevitably this brings me to online dating. We get to know people through screens, via websites and messaging services. We want them to text after a date, not call. It used to be that we waited for a phone call. Now we don’t talk, we text. That is a severe communication reduction. I was once in a relationship where we texted all the time but never really said anything. It’s so easy to do that. It’s not easy to phone someone and then not say anything without quickly realising that something is wrong. As a generation, we have become inept at making phone calls when we should. We have lost out on getting to know each other vocally when we aren’t face to face. Of course there are some people who have never been the type to talk on the phone, but more and more we don’t have conversation, we just chat.
It can be argued that people used to communicate through writing, so actually what we have is a throw-back situation to the days of writing letters. Here’s why that is not true – letters take time, thought and care. Occasionally we may choose to write an email over which we spend a lot of time, but I believe that is quite rare. When someone hand-writes a letter to me and I open it, that is all I see. That letter has been written without distraction. I know the letter has not been interspersed with Facebook and twitter and emails and other things. It has been crafted by hand for me to read. Similarly, I give it my full attention. When an email is written it is probably one of many tabs open. There are 9 million other things you can do on that computer screen. It’s not the same and does not elicit the same response as a letter.
Now let’s talk about mental health. There’s a lot of debate about if mental illness is on the rise, or if we’re just less taboo about it than in previous years, so we’re more aware of it. I think it’s perhaps a bit of both. I also think that part of the reason for the increase in young people suffering from depression, is that we don’t have time to process anything anymore. Living in the age of technology is overwhelming. We’re expected to act quickly on everything. Things have to be done immediately, if not sooner. The brain is wonderful – fast moving, adaptable, fascinating. But conversely, we need time to process information and news and ideas. We don’t have the ability to know things immediately. Ironically, we are given the most time to learn and understand new things as children, when our brains are actually at their speediest.
We are fairly immune to emails now. I have been given the advice to make a phone call when applying for a job so my emailed application doesn’t just fade into the blur of so many others. If you want something done by someone, you should call the person or go and see them – emails are much easier to ignore because we don’t see them as important. We are desensitised to them.
I still like to receive phone calls and talk to people. There are already people who are more comfortable with screens than humans, and seek refuge behind their computers. Our real life, person to person communication is suffering because of our dependency on technology. Look around you the next time you’re on a bus or tube or train. How many people are on phones or electronic devices? Are we even more uncomfortable with making eye contact with strangers than we used to be? Our basic receptors to people are not the same as they used to be.
There are positives of course – the wealth of information we can access, the widespread capability of the news and being able to skype or facetime with a relative or friend across the world. Like magic. Technology in itself is neither good nor bad – it is neutral, but we don’t only use it for good. We replace the validation and understanding we crave from the people closest to us with selfies, Facebook likes, retweets. We mistake these things for popularity. We mistake these things for people caring about us and we mistake the tiny gesture of a click for giving attention. We are simultaneously much more callous and more fragile now – we forget that behind each screen is an actual person just like us, and our relationships are suffering.
I do believe that our heavy reliance on technology and the fast pace at which we insist on moving is psychologically damaging. Nervous breakdowns, stress, depression and anxiety are all apparently far more common now than they were, say, fifty years ago. Although public perception and understanding of these conditions is part of it, there is no smoke without fire. The fire here, in my view, is technology. So goodbye conversation. It was nice knowing you.