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.
February 12, 2013
The more I think about my circumstances, the more I am unnerved by how much they're costing me.
Two perspectives are obvious: the personal and the financial. How much is living with mental and physical illness really costing me? How much is it costing the services that support me?
On a personal level, the cost is enormous. Apart from missing out on all the things that a healthy individual my age would be engaging in today, like socialising and going to the gym, the deeper deficit comes in forms of things that are mostly undetected: my crippled self-esteem, the lack of motivation, bouts of confusion; the long-term effect of medication on my organs, the emotional damage that comes when another treatment / doctor / approach fails to deliver.
That's a mere handful which can be plucked from the pile. Other things too, things that we all take for granted, are missing. Smiling, for example. Feeling happy. Even when I do manage to muster a laugh or a grin from the depths, it's underpinned by the sensation that it's not the done thing – I feel like an outsider for expressing a positive emotion through muscular gestures in my face. Sometimes it's because I don't believe I should be smiling but mostly it's because there's more to be anxious, worried and depressed about.
My favourite 'positive thinking' fact that's been slung at me over the years is:
“You know, it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile.”
Yes well, my face gets a better work-out than yours. And there's another few pennies thrown out: optimism, empathy and gratitude. And these pennies all add up in the end.
I recently did a quick psychology measurement scale to give a general idea of how much stress I experience in my life and thus how susceptible I am to potentially developing chronic illness. A bit of a no-brainer considering I already live with chronic health problems but I took it anyway, being geared toward bettering myself.
After tallying everything up, my score came out at a respectable 1,198 points. Then I read what that number meant and almost lost control of my bladder, partly from panic but mostly from amusement: scores over 300 are a general indication that the individual will probably develop some form of chronic illness in their lifetime.
Well blow me down. And the scale whilst you're at it.
It turns out that life experiences are stackable, which accounts for my high ( LOL, high) total. I'm pretty much up to my eyeballs in Stress Debt, which makes my overdraft look like a fluffy, goose down duvet. I'm not yet thirty – what is the interest on all of this? What is this going to continue to cost me and are the bailiffs going to come round any time soon?
I expected this revelation to cause me even more problems but it's done the opposite. Like my Mum who quit smoking immediately after her first major heart attack (she wasn't much older than me), I've taken hold of the situation and started rethinking how I live, breathe, eat, walk, talk and think.
Change comes with a price but if it means I can settle some of these massive personal debts, I'm willing to spend a bit to save a lot. A lot being my life.
Stress and all of its associated diseases, kill.
On a strictly financial front, the cost of my being in such a mess is just as impressive. I'm not about to present a firm, sociological dissection of my care, treatment and support but instead, state a few realities and ask some questions about them. I'll start with something basic.
In an unfortunate twist, I take minimal medication because I can't tolerate many of the options available on the NHS. My most recent foray into chemical rejection has left me heart-broken; an anti-inflammatory finally helps me to feel a bit more human but causes undesirable complications, meaning I have to stop taking them and go back to being in constant pain.
I hardly made a dent in the prescription meaning that at least three weeks of pills are now to be returned to the pharmacist and destroyed. What a waste. Although my other meds are basic, they still cost a bundle to have them prescribed and I take them every day. I renew my prescription every three to four weeks out of necessity.
I wonder how much money it takes to fund such a basic set of pills and then how much more is thrown away when left-overs have to be destroyed because they're not suitable for me. How much money could be saved if:
- My doctors made a conscious effort to make sure drugs they prescribe me won't destroy my innards or send me off on a psychotic trip. Okay so they'd have to spend more time getting to know me and reading my notes (doing their job?) but those are short-term chips compared to the long-term mess of dicking around;
- More research was done see which chemical-based treatments actually work.
Every time I go to my GP or to see consultants, they get paid. I don't need to mention the scandals surrounding pay, do I? No? Fabulous.
When I do pay a visit to these people, and it's a regular thing, not a lot happens. There are no real developments, just the same old questions and techniques born from a lack of medical understanding and, I sense, a certain degree of unwillingness to take on board the criteria of another impossible disease.
Cancer used to be impossible. Now it's getting its arse kicked.
Hospital appointments get me thinking about how much time, money and resources would be saved if the doctors I saw went just that little bit further in trying to get to the bottom of my conditions. Late last year, one doctor did just that and I got some results which was fantastic until another doctor shrugged the new findings off as 'marginal' and sent me home in a bubbling pot of misery and pain.
Since then, I've requested a second opinion because I don't believe that dismissive consultant was right to leave me 'as is' and wait for things to develop beyond their criteria of what they clinically believe to be significant. I'm talking about a number here. What they're missing out in their opinions is my quality of life, the test results that all support one another and my roaring family medical history.
If I were a doctor presented with a case identical to the one I, as a patient, am facing now, I would throw the 'criteria book' out of the window and tend to the patient. Not every patient needs the same level of care and that's my point. Averages have turned specialist consultants into glorified GPs who do little more than order blood tests, recommend more drugs and then send you home.
Tests and Treatment
I lost count of how many blood tests I had last year. So far in 2013, I've had a routine check of the standard stuff: cholesterol, vitamin levels, liver function, and a specialised request to check my rheumatoid factor and for any rogue anti-bodies. I have these things checked every four to six months because things need to be observed. I have an illness of some description, after all.
After giving what I imagine to be nearly a pint of blood for such tests in 2012, I started pushing for more proficient investigations and got them. That's how I found out my thyroid gland is doing fine – an excellent thing to eliminate in the game of 'Guess the Mystery Illness'. At the same time, I discovered something that would have remained buried had it not been for my insistence that they check.
When you have a condition that can't be directly diagnosed, you do things in reverse. You make sure all other systems are functioning before sliding into acceptance. It'd be stupid not to but that's what my doctors have so far done with me.
It's only down to meeting an excellent GP who listens, and pushing consultants to their patient etiquette limit, that I've been able to get specific areas of enquiry addressed. How much have these hospitals wasted on pointless tests when they should have been honing in on trace abnormalities?
Yes, it must have cost a fortune to have an isotope scan on my thyroid but it doesn't matter; I have a prolific history of it in my family and to have found no hint of disease in that area is a blessing. A potential candidate for my trashed health has been eliminated and psychologically, I have been lifted from the folds of worry. Debt = settled.
That's only one example of the numerous avenues I'm exploring in order to find out what is going on with me. It could be that I have all of these other tests done and they still find nothing, but I'd rather just do it and know that my heart has no defects or blockages (again, this sort of problem is a good friend of my family. A lover, in fact) and be certain that I'm not walking around with a treatable condition that could be prevented from doing even more harm the older I become.
As for treatment, it's hard to see where to turn when you don't know what's wrong with you, which is why proper investigation is so important and why doctors shouldn't be so dismissive of approaches that fall outside of a fringe department, the ones specifically designed to send people like me to when a doctor's face hits a brick wall e.g. pain management clinics.
I had a physiotherapist declare outright that no amount of massage therapy or acupuncture will help with my lower back problem, or any of my other conditions. I didn't get a say in that announcement which was a shame because had they let me, I would have explained that:
- Previous acupuncture therapy had not only helped my bad back, it had also eased the pain I was experiencing throughout my body and induced positive outcomes with my mental health. My nerves had been soothed, my muscles relaxed and my depression alleviated. It wasn't a cure and it didn't happen overnight (it took around four session until I noticed how well it was working) but it was the best two months of treatment that I had ever experienced. It still is.
- Deep-tissue and muscle massage has been shown to help reduce pain, inflammation and and stress in a variety of illness. It's particularly promising in my own conditions.
I state again that alternatives to drugs and clinics are not cures. What they are however, are a different attitude toward chronic illness. They manage conditions instead if dumping them in the corner until the next appointment comes round. I think that, despite being sniffed at still, these forms of treatment, at the very least, freeze the interest on the growing debt of failed medical care.
I realise that I've given less attention to the personal costs of living with chronic mental and physical health problems. There are some things that I don't want to bring into the light just yet, perhaps because I'm ashamed or because I'm frightened of what they entail. I'm not ready to explore the price tags that are tied to all aspects of my life.
Though I'm inclined to dismiss my inner Drama Llama, I have to acknowledge the creeping dread that this kind of oblivious secrecy produces: not knowing who you are and what little buttons that, when pushed, set you off, is a state of being that all of us should be weary of: ignorance is bliss. So is sleep until carbon monoxide comes into the equation.
If I've decided anything after thinking about all of this, and more, it's that I'm going to make sure that I'm not side-lined any more. Speculation aside, I am living with chronic illnesses and they are preventing from living a fulfilled, purposeful and productive life. They are degrading me both mentally and physically. I may not be dying but I'm not exactly living and life is about living, or so I believe.
I'm going to invest in my future. I'm going to refuse compromise and 'come back in six months' in favour of commitment and 'do your job right'. Professional will baulk at me, some will probably tell me I'm being paranoid, but they're not the ones who have to pay for all of this in the end.
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
July 20, 2012
My last two posts have been gloomy. Life is hard to live sometimes and I often question why that is and whether I'd have better luck in a different life.
I had a terrible time during my yoga class today. I couldn't focus and I ended up crying through most of it because I was convinced I needed to get out, escape. Run away and not come back. But it wasn't the yoga I was running from. It was me.
So I come home and eat junk instead of taking care of myself and intermittently weep when I get that urge to run again. And then I find that a post I wrote for Tiny Buddha a few weeks back, when it was sunny and I was getting burnt, has been published on the site, and people have responded really well to it. There's a lot of gratitude going on.
I cry again but with sobs this time. Feeling so crushed and then being propped up by complete strangers is the ultimate in vulnerability and has helped restore some of my emotional strength.
If you're one of the kind folk who commented and are reading this now, you made a real difference to my day. I'm so grateful.
I don't know how long I'll be in this state for. It could end tomorrow or next week. It could end when Autumn hits because I'm generally happier when the nights are longer. I don't think it matters in the end. I'll carry on living and feeling whatever I feel.
June 24, 2012
I don't know why they call it a Black Dog. Isn't depression enough of a cliché without giving it a mysterious name to hug?
Dysphoria. Name the damn thing as it is. I am dysphoric; trapped in a room whose pleasures are too many, stuck on a boat that I want to be rid of, rooted in a town that holds nothing for me.
Fixed in a body which isn't mine.
Self-indulgent tripe; the rain is tapping on the hull and all I want is to smash everything because it is self-indulgent. I'll even smash myself, given the chance.
Books, pointless. Films, engrained. Writing, stale. All these things are nothing compared to wanting to tear off this skin, this life and put it in the bin. Not even they recycling bin – just the bin so it can go to a landfill and rot, or a furnace and burn.
There's an insect in my room.
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.
February 24, 2012
I set myself far too many tasks last week. Or was it this week? I forget. Anyhow! I made a promise in an earlier post to write a series on Creativity for the Agoraphobiac, that is, anyone who struggles with going out and being around a lot of people.
As I explained, this condition is a nightmare to live with but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the activites that more socially able people enjoy.
I’ve chosen a selection of creative activites to write about in the coming weeks, activities that I find fun, educational and theraputic. The best thing is of course, you can do all of these things within the safety of your own haven and invite close friends to join you if you’re feeling sociable.
Each post will focus on one of the following and (hopefully) provide my own examples and wisdom for you to draw on:
- Drawing / sketching
- Cooking / baking
- Letter writing
I think this is a fair list for now but it may be added to in the future. Look out for the first installment, Creativity for the Agoraphobiac: Knitting, in the next couple of weeks.
Forgive me for making you all wait so long if you’ve been hanging around for these posts; I’m not feeling my best at the moment. I’ll do what I can, a little at a time, as anyone should when they’re under the weather.