My outlook for 2018 is optimistic.
Nestled in my kitchen, a motto for the New Year.
When I started this blog, I was in the aftermath of a mental health crisis, and I was starting to regain my sense of wellbeing through psychology sessions and self-help.
My first post features a stunning black cat gazing up at the light, and that image has been symbolic for me ever since.
My early posts where in April/May 2014 and in them I describe my experiences in hospital, how I was trying to reconstruct myself and, despite anxieties, how my new job would help with that reconstruction.
At the time I was all about social work, and parity of esteem between mental health and physical health services. I was also ambivalent about medication for me—i.e. taking medication on a daily, ongoing basis. Since writing that post my view has not changed.
After a mercurial rush of writing, the last of my early posts was in July 2014. I then went silent for 3 years. No posts. I had a new job, new horizons. I was absorbed, I was achieving, but I wasn’t paying attention…
I returned to posting in August 2017 during a bleak but stubbornly upbeat period. I take a cold look at myself by the year’s end and I archive my old about page (see below). I still have my ambitions, but at the core of me I’m focused on self-compassion, wellness and flourishing. 2018 is my year to be in-step and in-tune with the infinite possibilities of me.
My old about page. Archived Dec. 2017
A moment of serenity. In my mind’s eye I’m rising above the chaos, floating away from my fears and racing thoughts. All of their noise recedes, growing smaller as I rise. When the burners are still, I’m moving with the morning breeze, and merging with a peaceful silence.
Image: Hot Air-Balloon in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa
It happens to everyone, life-changing moments and events which shape and define how we move forward. My dad passed away when I was 13. A short while later, Mum had a breakdown and was hospitalized, and our family splintered apart. Me and my two brothers were separated. My older brother went to foster parents, me and my younger brother went to separate care homes.
Yes, it was traumatic. Seeing dad lying in a coffin. Noticing how different mum was when she was discharged from hospital—switched off, lost. At the time she started to rebuild her life, I was 18 and going to college, and I had a lot of stuff buried behind a smiley mask. When I look back, I wonder what stopped me from asking for help… I kept a diary, I read self-help books, I had my brothers and friends to lean on, I was strong… Maybe I thought I was okay.
My younger brother B and my husband Sevs were close. They were always philosophizing and setting the world to rights. When B tried to commit suicide Sevs was first on the scene. Until then, we had no idea B had mental health problems. He was in his 20s and so was I.
The scene around his hospital bed was quiet. Me, mum, Sevs and my older brother. I remember feeling useless, not knowing what to say. I grew a lot closer to B after that.
When Sevs passed away, B was there all the way. There were times when he seemed more broken than me. I was 29 when my husband died, and I internalized everything. Same as I did with my dad. I went to work, I kept a diary, I read self-help books, I had my brothers and my friends…
I carried on, but I was in psychological freefall and it became a pattern of behaviour, wearing the mask of being competent, cheerful and on a natural high, whilst being lost in a private darkness. One of my big mistakes was not asking for help. I needed it.
I woke up to that need in 2013. I’m in my 40s and in psychiatric care for three months. The experience was traumatic largely because I kept refusing to take medication and as a result I was forcibly injected. Looking back, I remember being resistant because I didn’t think I was unwell and I didn’t want the side effects associated with antipsychotics. What I wanted was to talk.
I received input from psychologists when I was discharged, one-to-one sessions and group therapy. For the first time in my life I was taking a flashlight to my mind, and I was determined to change. No more self-imposed isolation. No more beating myself up. I was learning how to accept my obsessive thoughts, balance the highs and manage the darkness. The boost to my sense of wellbeing was enormous and I was buoyed by a new sense of confidence. In retrospect I didn’t fully appreciate what had started. Taking a flashlight to my mind was the beginning of a life long journey that, from the onset, requires daily practice, vigilance and deep self-compassion.
But I was half-blind to the requirements and bursting with enthusiasm. It wasn’t long before I started a masters in psychology. I manage the course alongside a full-time job, and graduate in 2016. Without pause I then aim for a doctorate in counselling psychology, and I secure a place to start the training in September 2018. But in my pell-mell rush to succeed, what did I miss? More than I realize.
In July 2017, nine months after graduating, I’m at a community mental health meeting with a psychiatrist. My mind is fractured and my thoughts are swirling outside of my head like stars around a black hole. I resist taking medication based on previous experience, but in the end, I’m too distressed to hang on to old fears. I accept aripiprazole and a referral to psychology.
Looking back… I’m still considering what threw me off balance. It’s rarely just one thing and given my current retrospective, I’m looking at a complex of things, old and new: overconfidence, complacency, questioning my diagnosis, slipping back behind the mask, telling myself I’m okay when I’m not… There’s more to add. Am still looking back, still quietly processing.
image: photoflake behind the mask
How I feel about my life right now. Bright, hopeful and full of endless possibilities.
When I’m balanced and well, my mind looks like plant earth, a bright blue marble in space. When I’m unwell, my mind is a loud, confused mess with all my thoughts hanging outside of my head like Saturn’s rings. I was distinctly unwell in May and June, and I’ve been off work since July.
Support from my GP was instant, and then my community mental health team took over. At first the treatment was intensive: medication which I struggled to accept, weekly meetings, follow-up phone calls, and a referral for talking therapy—there’s a long waiting list. I’m not expecting to be seen until the New Year.
By late September I was starting to regain a sense of myself and feeling like my mind was less exposed. The meetings became bi-weekly and my care coordinator moved to another position. He was excited about the change, and when I saw him for the last time, I was happy for him. But I mourned his move on because he was so optimistic. He said I had a lot more strength than I realize. In my head I said, perhaps.
I’m still trying to work out what threw me off balance. Overwork, not taking enough breaks and poor self-care are factors. But there are other things going on in my head that I need to unpick, understand, make peace with, accept. My next meeting is in December and they’re now four weeks apart. I’m still off work but I have supportive employers—and that helps. A lot.
New art work at my local talking therapy centre. My photos barely do them justice, the detail and colours are incredibly vivid.
Waiting times for my appointments can be awkward. I’m not the type to use my mobile phone as a helpful defence mechanism. I’m one of those types who fidgets with her purse, and notices other people waiting or passing by. At times I might seem a bit lost but I’m not. I’m just uncomfortable and feeling awkward.
Eventually, I slip into a hinterland of fleeting thoughts whilst gazing at blank space. The new art works make it easy to focus, and melt in to peaceful acceptance.