November 6, 2012
I've been in two minds about writing this post. It's something I want to say but not in order to moan and berate. I'm going to say it because it means a lot to me, because I want to reverse it.
I'm socially isolated.
I rarely get to physically see my friends or my family because they live a long way from me and have pretty busy lives. I don't get to go out and build a social life because I have medical conditions which prevent me from living a full life, safely.
I have no control over those things. I can try to bridge the gaps where possible but I can't click my fingers and bring everyone I love into the same space, free up a few hours a week so I can see them, and then magically cure my conditions so that I can lead a socially active life.
Sorry if you're reading this and happen to be a great optimist, but the above scenario, where I alone make everything perfect, is unrealistic. I'm not a defeatist by any means. I'm just in touch with what's possible given my circumstances.
So I'm unable to make regular physical contact with those I love. The solution is social media, right? Kind of yes, kind of no.
Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress and any other social platform you can think of, are all brilliant tools. I use the first four regularly, connecting with people not just in my close social circle but also with other people across the world that I have never met. You're probably one of those very people, reading this now. Hi! How are you? Thanks for reading.
But social media, for me, falls short. Why?
It goes back to the people I'm closest to having busy lives. I wouldn't deny them that, though I would appreciate being spared a thought. Sometimes I go off radar and whilst I'm absent, I rarely get a message asking where I am and how I'm doing. It may not be the case but it often feels like nobody has noticed I'm not there.
That is isolating.
I try my utmost to keep in touch with friends each week when I'm able to. It's at least once a week, even if it's a quick comment on a Facebook update. It shows that I'm keeping track of my friend's movements and paying attention to their thoughts. When I'm not having a rough time with my health, I go all out and write an email or even better, I go Old Skool and write a letter. I'll also pick up the phone and call my sister, or arrange a Skype/phone call with a friend.
This is how I connect with people 90% of the time because I'm unable to do it physically. Even with my alternatives, I'm limited by my conditions. Talking for an hour on the phone is knackering, for example.
So what am I asking? For people to connect with me more often. I don't want to be socially isolated, even though social situations make me anxious, and I think this is pretty obvious in how I communicate with my family and friends, and how I blog openly and honestly. I reach out.
Please reach back.
And it's not just me. We're on the crux of the loneliest time of the year: Christmas.
The 2012 festive season will be an empty and miserable time for many people – those with no home, children with no parents, the elderly, the estranged, individuals who have lost their families. Last year, I made a donation to The Salvation Army so that someone would have the company, care and attention that they deserve. And even though my finances are tight, I will be doing it again.
It doesn't take a great deal to keep in touch with someone. A few minutes out of the day to send a message. Arrange a phone call. Write back. Doing one of those things for me will make the difference between a week where I start to believe that I'm the most insignificant person on earth, making my depression worse, and a week where I think
I am not forgotten. My friends still think of me even though I can't do the normal thing and go out for socials with them. My friends acknowledge and respect that I live with a complex tapestry of illnesses.
Props to those of you who who do tweet and message me. Extra credit for reading my thoughts! You help me feel so much better and a lot less isolated.
Photo courtesy of takethea
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!
June 9, 2012
By the time you read this, it will be close to 5.30 a.m. On June 9, 2012, as I write it.
I’ve slept badly. I fell into dreams without realising and awoke at 2.30 with a sadness in me, so black and terrified.
I didn’t want to wake my sleeping family so I called the Samaritans. I wasn’t sure if they’d pick up. It rang for a bit but then a man with a voice as gentle and soothing as gravel popping under the slowing of car tyres, came through the phone.
I’m never sure of what to say. I shudder out the first words all the time, usually something like “Do you mind talking for a bit?” or “I need to get something off my chest”, if I’m feeling desperate.
I decided to say “Good Morning”this time. It seemed apt.
They always listen.
Always kind. Always patient.
I talk for an hour, sometimes less, sometimes a lot more depending on the state I’m in. I went 8 minutes over the ‘talk free for an hour’ allowance, meaning I’ll be charged for the whole call, plus those 8 special minutes. And I don’t care.
Without the Samaritans, I’d be nowhere. I’d be nothing. I’d be in tears, hysterical and too frightened to tell the truth about what’s going on inside of me. I’d be waiting for ever, like I am now, to talk to someone about it.
Waiting for a therapy referral to come through is waiting for a cure.
Not a cure for my mental health problems but a cure for my loneliness, my sadness.
The Samaritans are my cure.
And so I’ve done what is right. I never have a lot of money spare because I have debts and bills to pay and a manic person inside of me who is obsessed with books, vinyl, iPad apps, and mysterious objects.
But I have made space for £3 a month to support a charity who gets at least one phone call from me every week.
That £3 will join the £3 that goes to the WDCS which helps protect whales and dolphins across the world, and £3 to the RSPB which helps protect our country’s bird life and environment.
The £3 to the Samaritans is to thank them for everything they do and, I realise, it’s there to help them continue to protect me. And when I say ‘me’ I don’t just mean myself; I mean all of the people who call up in the wee hours, any hour, needing a kind stranger to help them through a rough patch.
The volunteers don’t get paid.
My Samaritan in these early hours was called Paddy and he was just what I needed. I said he should be paid for his good work. He said knowing that he helps people like me to continue living life is payment enough.
If you see a Samaritan fundraiser, don’t run from them because you run from me and you run from yourself. Give spare change, make a Gift donation, set up a regular donation even if it’s small like mine. It keeps the call centres open.
Become a volunteer.
I’m not usually this honest on my blog, even though I’m honest about my mental health; without the Samaritans, I’m not sure I’d be writing this. I think I’d be in hospital.
I’m going back to sleep. I still feel unsettled but because of Paddy, I feel less alone.
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.