May 18, 2013
I did something very rash this afternoon. I paid to take Dad out to the local cinema to see the new Star Trek film. For those who aren't already aware, I hate public spaces. I hate the noise, the crowds, the mess, the stink, the brightness, the speed at which everything moves and well, everything about it.
It's not a mental condition to be scoffed at because it ruins your life and that's before agoraphobia has crept in through the back door.
Photo by MGL
I took it upon myself to do this today not for myself but for my Dad. He wanted to see the film but didn't want to go alone, and I felt bad for grumbling 'no' when he asked. I was also spurred on by Matt Haig and his blogs on Booktrust, which revealed what it's like to live with mental health problems.
After reading what Matt had to say, I did something that I find difficult; I thought outside of myself. I come across as a narcissist but it's not an option. I have hard time connecting to my feelings and understanding that people have feelings too, and how that feels. The will to empathise is there but the capacity isn't, not in its entirety.
So I paid a stupid amount of money for cinema tickets, packed my bag, dosed myself with Vallium, wrapped myself up (cinemas are always fucking cold), and donned my shades.
I made sure to book the seats just where I needed them too, just in case I needed to leave. We settled into the screen room with a drink and popcorn (I wanted an authentic experience for my Dad because it's been so long) and sat through the film. I'm sure he enjoyed it but I spent most of the time fidgeting and flinching. It was too loud, too bright and the things on the screen were too big and moving too fast. I'd forgotten my earplugs so pulled my hood up to muffle the sounds, intermittently plugging my ears, and distracting myself with a Chunky KitKat whilst trying not to vomit, and figuring out where I could vomit should the bile arise.
In addition to this massive sensory overload, I was sitting in a big, loud room surrounded by strangers. I found this abnormal as opposed to a natural human thing to do.
The film finished and to top off the day, I got Dad and I some nosh from a fast-food place. The whole experience, film, food and all, was hard. It was uncomfortable. It was something that I never want to do again because I gained no pleasure, confidence or strength from it.
There are many, including the mental health folk who presume to know what's best for me, who will argue, until the cows come home, that this exposure is a triumph. It's a great leap, a step forward, the beginning of my recovery.
No it's fucking not.
I'm exhausted. I'm stressed. I'm traumatised by having to be around people in the dark for that long.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is all about taking gloomy, negative thoughts, challenging them and turning them into life-affirming, positive components for the recipient to absorb and live by. What I did today is a typical exercise: face your fears, challenge them, destroy them. The only problem is, it's not that simple in my case.
Assessments for my mental health have been inadequate. There are things that haven't been explored that should have been, which makes for an incomplete and messy picture of what's going on. And in the meantime, I'm following the CBT rules because they're the only thing I have. Only, they're crap and don't work properly. I spend hours every week challenging my negative thought processes and, yes come out with more helpful alternatives, though I remain haunted by one thing.
It all feels wrong.
I've tried challenging this but the result is the same. Why isn't this working? This article explained a lot. Basically it says that whilst CBT can be really effective, it can sometimes leave a patient in disarray. Mental health issues might be too complicated for such a straightforward approach or the individual may have most likely been misdiagnosed. The therapist might not be looking at the bigger, humane picture. Psychiatrists might decide that an individual isn't 'suitable' (awkward, unpredictable, unwilling) for CBT; other conditions can also impact on the effciency and success of CBT, both mental and physical. For example, I'm totally confused as to how I'm meant to work within new cognitive parameters when my social phobias, agoraphobia and other health problems not only contradict the therapy but outright subvert it.
How is it possible to sit in a cinema and be happy, relaxed, feel safe, put your fears in place when it all feels so wrong? And why isn't it okay for all these things to feel wrong? Where are the rules, written in black and white, enshrined in law, stating that I am legally bound to be happy about situations I dislike with all of my heart?
Why is it so hard for people to accept that we are not all the same, that others thrive on things that a lot of people would lose their sanity over?
I don't want to be an isolated recluse for the rest of my life. I would like joy and close friends, a partner, a safe home and activities which both challenge and stimulate me. Oh, and a pug named Horatio. And a small, manageable garden.
I don't want loads of money, a flash car or fame; I don't want to go out drinking in crowded bars or eat at fancy restaurants; I don't want to be directly in the public spotlight; I don't want to go to the cinema again (seriously, I paid over twice the price of the DVD which will be out in a few months, on the tickets alone); I don't want to be part of the massive global world because I don't believe in it (I believe in small communities); I don't want to have the same cultural interests as everyone else, or the same sense of humour, or the same outlook on life. I don't want to fight or be manipulated.
I want to be me.
I know that I have conditions to manage and that their certainty is a matter of opinion. I'm prepared to explore these conditions within parameters that stretch me but don't endanger my stability. I'm scared. I know what I want but everything that's meant to be helping me get there is leading me in an unsuitable direction. All the professionals in the world can insist but if what they say feels wrong, if my solar plexus aches and that voice in my head says
“uh Sam, buddy. Nah…”
I'm not about to do shit that I don't want to. Anything or anyone that states I have to and is not within moral and ethical standards, or within the law (this one worries me because mental health law disables more than it enables) for insisting that I should, can jump ship. They're breaching my human rights, that fundamental right to say 'no'.
I won't have that taken from me. And that attitude feels so, so right.
June 15, 2012
I’ve decided to go with something a bit more challenging for the next part of this series. The last article on knitting was a bit of a ‘get out of jail free’ card for all of us.
So what makes this one so tough? You have to go out. Amidst people.
As with the last post, I’m not going to go into the technicalities of the craft. Trust me, I’m not a guru gardener; I’ve killed (without intention) more plants than I can count.
But the rewards from this activity are numerous and better than, in my totally unprofessional opinion, any group therapy with bells on.
What I’ll be doing, as with the knitting article, is explaining why gardening is so important to me and how it could become a life-saver for you. And the planet.
You don’t have to be an Agoraphobiac or a tree-hugged by the way. Neither do you have to have hectares of land for wild deer to frolic across.
A concrete box, surrounded by brick walls and urban noise can become a haven for shadow loving plants. Dress it up with some outdoor lighting (candles, string lights, solar lamps) and there you have it.
How about a traditional six foot stretch backing onto a railway line? It needn’t be all lawn. Veg and flowers will prosper in the right conditions.
I can hazard a guess that some of you may live in a flat; get hanging out of that window (safely please…) and install a good-sized window box.
The best bit though is that gardening needn’t be restricted to out doors. I have a growing collection of plants that I tend to indoors. Admittedly plants that don’t always need a lot of attention due to my forgetfulness, but plants nonetheless.
This is one of my Phalaenopsis orchids. They grow happily indoors as long as they’re kept out of direct sunlight and watered properly. A bit like me.
You can pick these up at pretty much any supermarket now but I’d recommend heading to a decent garden centre. If there’s a Dobbies close by, I’d recommend them. And no I’m not being paid to say that or getting any freebies. The place is just awesome and worth the effort/terror of stepping out your front door. Which brings me to the pep-talk.
This is not an easy task. By all means, you could order bulbs and seeds from the Internet the same way you could yarn, but I’d like to show that by pushing your boundaries by the slightest amount, you can stop your fears from ruling your life and create a space to be proud of, even if it’s just a flower in a pot on your desk.
Rules. With this task there must be rules.
- Don’t do it alone. Garden centres, particulary at this time of year, are nightmares incarnate. There are people and kids everywhere, all scurrying about and cramping up the joint so the last thing you want is to be in that situation on your own. Take a trusted friend of family member. I go with my Dad.
- Make a trip out of it. Looking for plants and materials like soil, wood, feed and chippings (to help prevent soil dehydration) isn’t a death sentence; it’s a chance for you to take control and find pleasure in a new habit. One of my favourite things to do when I go with my Dad to Dobbies is to seek out lavender or other rich-smelling plants, bury my face in them and take as many deep breaths as I can before he says that people are staring.
- Plan ahead. I can’t stress this enough because of the stress. Don’t go on a whim and don’t go when you’re stone broke. You need good health, a good frame of mind and a good bank balance if you’re going to do this. Planning also allows you to think about what to do in the event that you start to feel uncomfortable or freak-out. Neglecting planning will lead to a negative experience which means you’re less likely to do it again.
So why gardening? What makes it indispensable to me? I’ve grown up in and around greenery, trees and flowers. These places were a haven of peace and solitude for me, just what I needed when I felt the need to escape coming on. The sanctauray of the garden is more important for me now than it ever has been.
Gardens come with two sides to them, forming a paradox. They force me to go out and be social but then they draw me in and shut me off from the rest of the world.
When I’m done with the hustle of the over-populated garden centre, I return home and rest for a while. Maybe a day or two. Then I turn my attention to the plants themselves; I plan how and where I’m going to put them, prepare the soil so that their roots have a good place to start their new life. I ready the watering can with warm water. Yes – warm water. It’s better for the plant, particularly seedlings, as it’s not as shocking as cold water. You wouldn’t jump into a freezing shower, would you?
When everything is ready, I tease the plants from their plastic containers and loosen their roots. This is beneficial for the both of us.
Loosening roots, particularly if there are masses of them, gives the plant space to breathe in its new home whilst allowing me to subconsciously untangle any stress that’s under my skin.
Contact with soil makes us happy. Check out that link and see what it says about the benefits of getting your hands dirty in the garden,
It’s not the only source which plugs (if you’re already a keen, green-fingered fool, you’ll get that joke) the benefits of creating and maintaining green spaces. Go ahead and google ‘benefits of gardening’ and you’ll be inundated with thousands of results which all say pretty much the same thing: gardening is good for you.
It helps lift depression, gives your body a work-out and releases stress.
It doesn’t matter how much you do in my mind. I recently planted a blue daisy-like plant called ‘Felicia’ in some old pots I found in the churned mud of the riverside where I live.
The plant was split into three to accomodate the size of the pots and to leave part of it to place in one of the boxes outside. Not bad for £1.25.
I’m at my happiest when I’m around plants. I can be the biggest ball of stress going and all it will take is fifteen minutes with some soil and some seeds to transform me into a different person. A calmer person, a softer being.
You can be as committed as you want to this activity; visit the garden centre once a month, twice a year if you like. Have as few or as many plants, trees, flowers, vegetables, fruits as you like but keep in mind that they will need your attention and care.
I’m deciding whether or not to grow tomatoes and cucumber again this year because I have already have a fair bit on the go: herbs, carrots, beetroot. At the moment, I’m not sure I could manage any more along with my non-eating plants. Gardening is as much about responsibility as it is pleasure. You have to take care of yourself and your green friends or both of you will suffer if you go over the top.
Speaking of responsibility, it’s down to us to do something about the problems that our only home in the entire universe, faces.
Creating green spaces with bee and butterfly friendly flowers is one of the easiest and happiest ways to do this. Imagine if everyone gardened, everywhere, anywhere. What would our world look like? How would people feel with soil under their fingers?
Now, enough of my hippy dreams. You need resources! I haven’t given you much in the way of gardening tips but I can show you where to find some.
Alys Fowler has to be my favourite gardener because she practices something called permaculture: the art of throwing out formalities and inviting in a smorgasbord of sustainable methods of planting that encourages a self-sustaining Eco-system.
Her books aren’t just how-to guides; they’re a collection on independence, filled with ideas on how to recycle bits of scrap, go skip-diving for materials (without upsetting anyone), how to use the world around you to nurture your garden, and what to do with the things you grow: jams, cakes, soups, pickles. Yum.
You can breathe a sigh of relief because you don’t have to go to a bookstore to get them, or any other book on gardening, unless you want to of course. I recommend taking a look on, wait for it, eBay and AbeBooks not just for Alys Fowler but pretty much any gardening book. I have several volumes that I’ve found over the Internet that are no longer in print but offer some timeless and excellent advice on how best to tend to your plants, what pests and diseases to watch for and how to treat them, and also design advice if you’re looking for a particular theme.
You can also order plants online if you’re not feeling ready for the garden centre just yet, but you can also find particular plants that you may not be able to get so easily, like my Witch Hazel on the left.
I got this from an online stockists last year for £15 which is a bargain considering it was out of season and the same plant would have probably cost twice as much at a specialist centre. Plus I didn’t have to go out.
What arrived a week later from Holland was a stick in a box. I soaked the roots, talked to it as I prepared its pot. Yes, I spoke to a stick. Talking to plants is very therapeutic for speaker and plant alike; the plant listens and the speaker gives carbon dioxide in return. If you believe in that of course.
The Witch Hazel was planted in mid October and remained ‘dead’. I watered it, spoke to it, even gave it warm herbal tea. It broke my heart a bit. Then in January, it blossomed. Bright red flowers sprouted all over the stick, lasted through until March and then died off. I thought I’d killed it until the leaves came.
This might seem a bit of an irrelevant anecdote, but it all adds to my belief that gardening is one of the best things an Agoraphobiac can do. When people aren’t your cup of tea, plants can be.
They’re beautiful, good for you and the planet, and prevent the growing isolation caused by The Fear. It prevents it because every time you look at you garden, your chilli plant on the kitchen side, your rock garden trying to establish itself, you’re looking at one of your biggest achievements: creation brought about by attention, dedication and love.
And this is what folk who are scared of the big wide world need themselves, right?
If you’re one for Karma, sending out the goodness you need will bring it back to you. Gardening is a great thing and can be done anywhere. You never know, you might even grow a few human friendships at the same time.
Just a quick note: All of the photos featured in this blog have been captured by yours truly. Apt considering I’ll be exploring photography next time.
If you use any of my photos in your own blog or link to them, I’d really appreciate it if you stated that they’re my work. Thanks very much!
March 17, 2012
Knitting. I love it. My Mum used to sit all day and night, glued to the TV or the phone, weaving any number of blankets and baby garments without looking at what her hands were doing. She’d occasionally refer to the pattern she was following but otherwise, what she did was sorcery.
I tried and failed as a kid. Mum didn’t have the patience or time to teach me properly.
Two decades later I read Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas and become bewitched by that same sorcery. I owe a lot to this book for seducing me with the prospect of pulling off one of the most difficult garments to knit: socks.
I felt that if Meg, our heroine doomed to failure and an endless universe, could apply herself to something as complicated as knitting with four needles, in rounds, and thus creating socks you just can’t find anywhere in our consumerist society, I could bloody well do it too.
And I did.
But not before learning the basics.
I’m not going to spend my time here trying to explain how to knit but am instead going to provide you with resources to set you on your way to creative freedom. First of all though, I’d like to describe what knitting has come to mean to me, and describe what I’ve accomplished through learning this skill.
As I said, Scarlett Thomas gave me the spark. I went out, purchased some yarn that I liked the look of, a set of 5mm bamboo needles and used the Internet to learn the basics of casting on, making knit stitches and purl stitches.
I was clueless. The first thing I knitted was a case for my Kindle, complete with a large fold-over flap and pocket, and lovely wooden buttons. I knitted it way too big, dropped stitches, creating the odd hole in the final product, but when it was finished and stitched up, I couldn’t have been happier.
This sleeve has since become the place where my iPad lives when I pack it away.
My first project had released me from a saturated accessories market, taught me the basics of a valuable skill, helped me express my creativity, kept me occupied when I was feeling low, and had most importantly, opened up the path to knitworking: connecting with other knitters and those who appreciate the craft.
Since that first, imperfect Kindle case, I’ve knitted a multipurpose shawl, scarves, hand warmers, a bra (yes, a bra!), a jumper (which took a month to complete),and to my complete satisfaction, socks.
My first pair were well made but a disaster size-wize; they were meant to fit my size seven feet but ended up being more suitable for someone with size ten feet. I quickly learnt that needle size and yarn weight is very important: always check your yarn for what size needles you need and then use them.
What was so important about my first pair of socks is that I knitted them over my first Christmas alone. I was to scared to leave my home with my Dad to visit my family in the west of the UK, so I had the house to myself for a few days.
Great right? Almost.
I needed something to distract me from the fear of being isolated for three days, so knitting socks to carols on Classic FM became my saving grace. They’ve since become lovingly known as Troll Socks because of how huge they are.
Since then, I’ve gone on to knit several more pairs for friends but mostly for myself because they make me feel secure and they give me something to do when I’m down in the dumps or need my manic mind distracting for several hours.
Knitted for a friend
Knitted for me: Slouchy Socks of Awesome Mark II
So for me, to round up (you’ll eventually get this terrible joke if you’re not already a knitter), the art of knitting is a way to focus my mind, express myself, liberate my tastes, encourage my creativity, and make things for people I love.
Knitting need not be solitary; stitch and bitch groups are on the increase and they’re a mine of knowledge because the odds are, most of the people in the group will be Grandmasters of the Needles.
I’ve personally chosen not to attend such groups but if you’re feeling bold, go for it. You’ve everything to gain and knitting is such a useful skill to have under your belt.
If you’re not in to big social groups, you could buddy up with a friend and teach one another, spreading the yarn-love far and wide. And even when that’s too much, there are online communities.
Ravelry.com is an amazing site where you can find plenty of patterns and resources to help you on your way. You can take on projects, updating your progress for people to see, and join groups in their efforts to create innovative items that go beyond dodgy jumpers, though dodgy jumpers are back in fashion courtesy of Sarah Lund.
As for books, I highly recommend buying The Ultimate Knitting Bible to get you started.
This book explains all of the basics with clear pictures and references and I’ve found it to be indispensable; I refer to it every time I need to learn a new skill or if I’ve forgotten methods I’ve not used in a while.
I’d also recommend taking full advantage of YouTube alongside this book, purely because seeing someone cast on i.e. create the first row of stitches from which all others will follow, can give you the guidance and confidence that the book might not be able to. For example, I used YouTube to help me wrap my brain around creating stitches i.e. increasing, because the pictures weren’t clear enough for me.
Now, where to get your kit from. Don’t be afraid of secondhand stores, gloomy looking stationey-come-post offices for needles and yarn; if you’re a beginner, you pick up some good deals without breaking the bank and if you decide knitting isn’t for you, you’ve not just spent a wad of cash on something you’re never going to use again.
But wait. That involves going out…
But wait again; the Internet! eBay is a fantastic place to find yarns and needles for good prices and you can often pick up bulk yarn supplies for a lot less than buying from a store.
I’ve spent many happy hours gawking at all the pretty yarns and seeing as I’ve gone pro in the sock department, I’ve invested in these fine Symfonie Needles, an investment that I am yet to regret in spite of their price.
So there you have it. Even if you think you’ll never get the hang of it, still give it a bash. Start with a basic item like a scarf and go on from there. An entire world of creative possibility is open to you, along with a warm and welcoming community , and you don’t have to go out to do it.
But the best thing about knitting is that it might just give you the courage to take the next step, visit a local craft shop, pick an attractive yarn, and strike up a conversation with a fellow knitter.
My life is richer for having knitted.