Seeking… Opinions

Caution:  This post contains discussion of suicide attempts and their effect on those close to the person who attempts.  However the post contains no details of specific suicide attempts and no images.  Please know that I am in no way offended if you choose not to read this post.

Sometimes it’s really necessary to gather the opinions of others  in order to find a way forward.  That’s where I’m at right now.

Recently someone in my life expected me to visit, and when I didn’t, she got worried.  I had said a visit would be unlikely because I was sick (fibromyalgia) but that was in some way misheard.  Next thing I get a phone call asking me whether I was killing myself.  She jumped to a conclusion that because I hadn’t visited, then I must be in the process of committing suicide.

At the time, my mental health was pretty good.  I certainly hadn’t been entertaining the thought of suicide or any sort of harm to myself.  It was my physical health that was the issue but I simply had to ride that out.  I had given the person no reason to think I was in danger, and she later agreed that there was no reason for her to be so concerned.  But I recognise that something must have triggered her worry.

I was pretty surprised by the concern she expressed.  I thought, “where did that come from?”  I knew that somehow I had to get my head around it and understand where she was coming from in order to be able to address her concern.

Jump back 16 years and I was clearly labelled by my psychiatrist and mental health workers as having “chronic suicidal ideation“.  That is, suicide was something I was pretty much constantly thinking about and planning.  I had a number of suicide attempts across a period of maybe four years, including two very large and ‘serious’ attempts (actually all attempts are serious).  Even when I stopped making attempts (the last was 16 years ago) I continued to have those chronic thoughts for a number of years yet.  It seemed no amount of therapy, ECT, medication or hospitalisation would shift the thoughts.  Even though I wasn’t actively trying to kill myself, I was still very much thinking about it.

Time has changed that though.  As I have written here previously, I have found some hope and purpose for living.  I am not having suicidal thoughts any more, although certainly there are still the tough times.

The person who raised concern for me the other day lived through all of this, although at a geographical distance.  I don’t in any way want to undermine the effect that my actions, and what she knew of my thoughts, had on her or other people close to me.  I know she (and others) literally waited for ‘the’ phone call, and at one stage she had every reason to believe she had got it.  That must be an incredibly painful way to live your life, not knowing what would happen next.

I suspect that the history of all my attempts and chronic thoughts had a much bigger impact on my family and close friends than I ever thought.  I was after all, caught up in my own hell and, at the time, had little appreciation of theirs.  Not because I didn’t care about what my actions were doing but simply because I was drowning in my own stuff.

A psychiatrist once told me that in his opinion, once you had carried chronic suicidal thoughts with you, that it isn’t something you could completely put behind you.  What I’m wondering is whether it is also impossible for loved ones to put behind them?

After all that happened to me all those years ago, am I always going to have a ‘suicide risk‘ label hanging around my neck (in the minds of those who love me)?

I want to say “can’t we put this in the past and move on?”  But maybe it’s not so easy.  Maybe they see the words ‘mental illness’, which will always be in some way part of my life, and continue to live in fear of getting ‘that‘ phone call.  Maybe when they expect me to turn up and don’t, they automatically now think ‘this is it‘?  I really hate the thought that they live in such fear for me, even after all these years, but is it something impossible to let go of for them?

I’ve never been in the situation my family were in for so long when I was chronically suicidal, but I want to see it from their perspective.  I admit I was just a bit affronted when I got this phone call.  I thought ‘can’t we let this go?’, ‘at what point do I become free to move on from that time in my life?‘ and ‘are we always going to have this hanging over us?‘.  To me, I want this to be the past, but is that too hard or even impossible for those who had to stand by and watch (and wait for the phone call)?.

So I’m wondering what you think?  Maybe you’ve been in the same situation as me.  Then again, maybe you’ve been a family member/friend who had to watch as your loved one went through this.  Or maybe you’ve got yet another perspective.

I know suicide as a subject is really difficult to discuss for all of us, and if you can’t or don’t want to, then that’s fine.   I just want to try to understand whether my loved ones will always carry this fear with them.  And is it something that is possible to resolve?

PS.  Please understand that I have absolutely no criticism of my family or others who loved me through this period of my life, and I have no desire to hurt them beyond what I have already caused.  I know enough to know that it was an incredibly difficult journey for them, as it also was for me.  I appreciate, beyond words, that they stood beside me at all.

“Time does not heal wounds. It’s a body’s ritual that does. The instinctual cleansing with rain or other waters, the application of salves. Despite the sting. Even neglected, the body begins to take care. To repair itself. Blood clots, tissues regenerate, flesh scars. Soon, the thin white line is the only evidence of the pain. It is the body, not time. Time does nothing except create distance between the body and that which caused it harm.”

― T. Greenwood

Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight…

My mood had been steadily declining as the week went on.  I had made a bargain with myself to get to Wednesday.  The fact that I had to make that deal with myself indicated in itself that things weren’t going well.  I got to Wednesday.  There was never any doubt that I would.  It was my niece L’s third birthday and I was hanging out for some ‘L-time’ and I admit it, I didn’t want to create a family crisis around her birthday.

L-time was perfect.  L, her father, her grandmother and I went out for coffee (and fluffy for L).  In a bit of a daze, having taken some extra meds to get through the day, L and I played with the toys she had with her… teddy, little monkey and Sally, not to mention the cafe’s range of toys available.  We were at a local cafe that had its buildings collapse in the 2011 Earthquakes, and now runs primarily outside (it’s spring here but they provide blankets for warmth in the winter and sun hats in summer).  There’s nothing unusual about that in post-quake Christchurch and it’s good when you have kids (and adults) who need a bit of space.  Oh, and delicious cake.  For local readers, visit Under the Red Verandah Cafe (a shameless piece of advertising).

Spending a few hours with L made a significant difference to my state of mind.  I mean it went from ‘I’m not coping‘ as I (strangely for me) posted on Twitter a few days before, to ‘I can do this‘.  I concluded once again that I must get myself into the presence of L when I feel that bad.  Do not stop, do not pass go… go directly to L’s home and have some quality time with my favourite person.

The thing is I came home feeling better but I still somehow posted this picture on my Facebook timeline that night (with no explanation):

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Image credit: The DawgPoundFreeWeb
I have been unable to find more detail of image credit but would appreciate being advised accordingly if known.

I am not sure exactly why I posted it, but usually I am very careful about posting pictures or comments that could be disturbing and/or worrying to others.  I wasn’t thinking.  I posted it with a sense of being flushed down a toilet, or maybe jumping, and turned off the computer and went to bed.

By morning I could tell that a few friends were concerned about what I posted, but perhaps more so, I realised that for me, what I had posted was concerning.  Time with L hadn’t quite improved my state of mind as I thought it might.  I was still very depressed and struggling for hope.  Living one day at a time, although it had cut down to one hour at a time.  Time to admit there was a problem and get some help.  And time to apologise to to friends.

I guess the thing for me is that earlier in the week I had tried to ask for some help (twice)  from someone close to me, but they didn’t pick up on it.  Perhaps I wasn’t direct enough.  Perhaps there were just other things on their mind, but I had to accept responsibility for the need to keep asking until I got the help needed.  That’s something that is really hard to do with you’re depressed, hopeless and you’ve already tried without success.  You probably know that feeling too.

Yesterday I saw my doctor.  Actually he wasn’t my doctor (who was away) but a very good locum who I have seen on a number of times before, and trust more than my own doctor.  The first thing he picked up on was that last month’s lithium blood tests showed that I was only just in the therapeutic range.  He felt my meds should have been increased at that time the tests came back, considering that I was already showing as depressed at that time.

What worked for me was that I was heard.  The doctor heard that my mood was dropping by the week and that I needed some help.  I am terrified of returning to my years of hospital admissions, suicide attempts and self harm.  It was a never-ending cycle in one hospital door and out another.  I will do anything to avoid going back to that lifestyle (if I can call it that).  My mood might have dropped dramatically but I still had enough life in me to do anything I needed to do to avoid that.  My doctor acknowledged that, as he increased my medication.

I have also now been given six therapy sessions (free) which may help me deal with some of the family issues going on for me right now, and affecting my state of mind.  Meanwhile, today I am going out to see L.  ‘Therapy‘ of a kind for me, and her chance to show me her new scooter and balance bike (birthday presents).

Someone said ‘fall down seven times, get up eight‘.  I don’t know who but I know it’s true.  I just have to keep getting back up.  I know this is a recurrent illness and every time I get back up is another claim of hope that tomorrow will be better.

“Needing help doesn’t make you weak, in fact quite the opposite. It makes you strong, smart, resourceful, and realistic. Being prideful is a weakness. Asking for help when you know you’re in over your head is STRENGTH. Don’t ever forget that!”

 - Unknown

Fathers Day

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Today is the first day of spring down here in New Zealand, although the weather in Christchurch has been pretty good lately so I have been thinking it was already spring.  Anyway, I have my daffodils in a vase, and outside my kitchen window there are birds frantically building a nest in a tree which used to be the domain of my cat, Penny.  She’s probably looking down from heaven horrified that I’m letting this happen.  After all that was HER tree.  But I’m fascinated watching the progress.

Today is also Father’s Day in New Zealand, and I admit I find that a little more troublesome.  I loved my father dearly and used to enjoy having a day for him, but now that he’s gone I feel a bit like being at a party where the guest of honour was a no-show.  It just doesn’t work.  It doesn’t seem right.

In the past week I have seen lots of advertising telling me to buy everything from socks to chainsaws for my father.  It is all wasted on me.  It was anyway, as my family never went in for the commercialisation of Father’s Day (and Mother’s Day).  A card, a hug and a family dinner was it.  And it was enough.  My father was never going to appreciate a chainsaw anyway.

Actually when I think about it, he would have.  In his last years he had a bee in his bonnet over a neighbour’s tree hanging over my property.  The neighbour refused to do anything and Dad refused to let it go.  Had I given him a chainsaw he would have found his way over the fence (the mind boggles at the thought) and chopped it down himself.  Then all hell would really have set loose.

The thing is that I was lucky with my father.  I might not have him around now, and I continue to miss him every day.  But I had a father who loved me, was there for me and made sure I had my physical and emotional needs met as I grew up, and long into adulthood.  I know that there are too many people who don’t, or haven’t had fathers like that.  How do you handle Father’s Day when your memories, or even your current reality is either no father, or an abusive, neglectful or unloving father?  It’s pretty tough to be grateful for a father like that and I think the commercialisation of such an occasion only succeeds in rubbing dirt in the wounds even more.

The truth is that not all fathers are good fathers.  I wonder how we acknowledge that, in a way that doesn’t exclude people who have this reality?  It seems to me that as a society, when Fathers Day hits (and Mothers Day for that matter) we forget that reality.

As I mention Mothers Day, I think this is an even bigger issue because some how society paints a picture of the wonderful, loving mother who provides for our every need.  We get a picture from the media of mothers who would do anything for their children.  And sure, that is an accurate picture for many, but not for all. For many the abusive, neglectful or unloving mother is a reality.

For many, mothers weren’t there for their children and failed to provide for their physical and emotional needs.  Mothers can be as abusive as fathers, but I’m inclined to think that society hides from that truth.  Somehow it’s easier not to think of women in that way.

Again, Mothers Day as we know it simply serves to isolate those who have had less than ideal relationships with their mothers, almost more than it isolates those who have poor or no relationships with their fathers.

Unfortunately I’m not sure there is an easy answer, except I know that it is terribly hard to live with the reality of poor parental relationships anyway.  It is simply made more isolating and difficult when as a society we paint such rosy pictures of the traditional nuclear family.

I miss my father today.  I will probably go and put some daffodils on his grave later, but mostly I will simply be thankful that my father loved me, and perhaps even more so, believed in me.  I know I am so fortunate.

This one’s for Dad…

“All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.” 

― Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

There Will Be No Sorrow

This past weekend (it’s Sunday here in NZ) has been really difficult for me. There have been a lot of tears and a lot of swearing, from one who doesn’t generally swear much.  I think it would be reasonable to say I am entitled to do some mud-slinging on account of what another person has put me through lately.  I’m not going to.

[So that you're not completely in the dark, a number of you follow my ex-boyfriend's blog and yesterday he posted some rather startling (well, to me anyway) news on his blog.  That, combined with some other matters I can't go into, led to a great deal of upset for me.]

What does mud-slinging really achieve though?  Nothing really.  Maybe a brief moment of satisfaction, but not enough to make it worth it.  I’m not really a mud-slinging type either.  I might feel it inside and maybe sometimes it would be better expressed.  But only when it is expressed safely, for both me and anyone who might be in the way.

One of the difficulties I have faced is that I haven’t been treated with that all important kindness and compassion.  Should I say the kindness and compassion which is crucial to me in how I relate to others.  Mud-slinging would not meet my criteria of kindness and compassion, so that even though it might seem justified, I’m not going there.

I’m hurt, but I can find peace for myself eventually simply in the way I choose to react.  So one step at a time, I’m going to patch up my wounds and move on.  No, it’s not that easy.  I’m human too.  But it is my choice.

Interestingly (and painfully) while all this was happening yesterday I had another painful exchange with a family member who told me that my teenage behaviour some 30+ years ago had scarred their life ever since.  I was already feeling pretty overloaded with emotion, although this person was not aware of what else was going on for me.

To be fair I was probably the worst behaved of the three teenagers in the family, but I wasn’t a ‘bad kid’.  There was nothing extreme.  I was just me and was probably starting to show my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) tendencies, which wouldn’t be diagnosed for another 25+ years.  I was simply a little difficult to communicate with unless I felt totally accepted by the person communicating.

30 plus years on and I have been told what I always suspected.  The way this person is today is apparently my fault.  Luckily this is something that I had already been through in therapy (because I suspected the person felt that way), so I was able to distance myself from this blame.  I am not responsible for the actions of another person, even if I was a slightly difficult teen.  And let’s be real.  That was so long ago.

This all relates to the other things happening in my life this week, where I have been blamed for another’s behaviour/actions.  It’s interesting how we can so easily blame another for our behaviours, and while this would have crippled me in the past, I’m not letting it.

I’ll be straight with you, and I apologise to those who find it difficult reading.  A few weeks back I spoke in Flawed… Or Perfectly Formed about how chronic suicidal thoughts tend to crop up for me anytime anything goes bad.  So yes, this past week I have struggled to see any hope and thoughts of suicide came up and hit me square in the face.  Yes, for a bit it seemed like the best option right now and I was scared of the track I appeared to be heading on.  I wanted my Dad because we had a type of password agreement between us in which if I couldn’t find any other words to say how I was, I could indicate just how bad things were by this means.  Dad, of course is no longer here, having died over two years ago.  And there was no one to reach out to in this manner.

What eventually shifted my thoughts was the number of readers who follow my blog who have lost a family member to suicide.  Those readers helped me (without knowing it) to shift my thinking away from destruction.  Their pain (from where I’m sitting) managed to shift the block for me.

I go on.  I move on from the hurt of this week.  There are some wounds that need healing but for that little girl (L) who is like my guardian angel ( see Disappointed In Me) , I keep on going one step at a time.  Thank you to my dear friends who have also helped me to do that just by being there (often across cyber space).

My friend Ruby, shared this music link with me after I included another version of the song some time back.  I’m sharing it today because the wording is slightly different from most Beatles versions.  This one includes the words ‘there will be no sorrow‘.  I’m not sure what The Beatles meant by this slight change but I like to think that when we learn to always treat people with kindness and compassion, that ‘there will be no more sorrow‘.  This is my hope.  Thanks Ruby.

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” 

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Being Compassionate To Myself

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These are my ‘Dorothy’ shoes, named by my friend Elizabeth.  I don’t do sparkly, diamantes and fairy dust, and so these are probably as close as I am going to go to ‘Dorothy’ shoes.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go spend a few hours watching the Wizard of Oz, and keep an eye out for Dorothy’s shoes.

This picture was my Facebook profile picture for a long time, partly for the reason that by seeing the picture I was reminded to imagine myself walking in the shoes of the person I was talking to on Facebook.  That was in my days of my primary activity on Facebook being support groups.

After all, that’s what we’re told to do, isn’t it?  Walk a mile in a man’s shoes before you judge him.  It’s a pretty good philosophy in my mind because it reminds us not to judge another until we know what their life involves.  It allows us to go some way towards offering empathy, something we all want and hopefully are prepared to give.

Empathy, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this

In the mental and physical pain that many of us carry each day, what we want is for someone to say “I get how it is for you.”  What strikes me is that while we’re on a never-ending quest for understanding, would it ever be enough for us?  I’m not sure.  I’m not convinced that anyone, unless they know me exceptionally well (and there’s very few in that class), can really know ‘how it is for me‘.

I don’t mean for that to be as depressing as it may sound.

Even if you walk a mile in my shoes, that does not mean that you are going to understand who I am.  After all you need to be me in my shoes, for you to understand me.  If you just walk in my shoes, you may have a completely different experience of me.

When I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia I joined, signed up or ‘liked’ many websites and pages relating to living with fibromyalgia.  I thought I would be understood.  I thought I would meet people with the same experience.  I didn’t.  I thought it would make my experience of fibro better.  It didn’t.  If anything I felt more isolated partly because even these people didn’t seem to ‘get it‘ for me.

I don’t mean to offend anybody because those sites are all offering good information and support, but actually I didn’t feel understood, I didn’t feel I was with like-minded, and like-suffering people and all that happened was that I felt pretty isolated and depressed.  I pulled back, fast.

One thing I did find before I left was a whole lot of posts available for members to share with their friends and family, like this one:

It’s crying out for empathy, but it’s not the way I’d go about it if I was looking for empathy, and I doubt it would be that effective.  Personally I see these types of posts and I groan inside.  Maybe I shouldn’t, but then I’m human.  Maybe I’m allowed to say this because I have fibro (then again, maybe I shouldn’t) but while fibro is a hellish existence which I don’t enjoy, this description of it does not capture fibro for me.  This is begging for attention!  And who likes people who do that?  I would never share this with my friends and family.  Then again, I accept that it could well be the very real experience of the author.  We are all different.

I’ll take another subject I know only too well.  Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  People with BPD suffer immensely and the quote above, with a few minor alterations, could be used for us.  But why stop there?  Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Dissociative Identity Disorder, to name a few?  Which mental illness does not include great suffering, and leave sufferers feeling like they are imprisoned?  And who doesn’t want the understanding?  Chronic physical illnesses of all types are also the same.

My point is this.  We can cry out for empathy in these ways.  We can beg people to understand us.  But they never can fully understand what we’re experiencing, because they’re not us.  They can only understand to a limit and then we have to live with our own understanding beyond that.

I don’t have people in my life who fully understand what I am suffering both in mental, or physical terms.  A few have some idea, but then I have to remember that just because they might know someone else with BPD, doesn’t mean they understand my reality of BPD.  Like most disorders there are many variances which make reality different between individuals.

But you know what?  I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter if they don’t get my suffering.  That’s not what I need from my friends and family.  Yes, it would be lovely if people understood exactly what my needs are, but I’m being unrealistic.  What I need is absolute acceptance of who I am, as I am.  If they can give me that, then I can put that with my own compassion toward myself.

I believe that I would be more effective in getting my needs met if I didn’t push my demands for understanding on other people so much, but started practising self-compassion, in order that my needs be met.

I need to focus on what I can do to meet my own needs.  It doesn’t make me a hermit, it just makes me aware of what I need, and find ways to meet those needs… without having to go begging for everyone to understand me.  I also think  if I can love myself and take care of my own needs without begging for friends to ‘get‘ me, then I also become more attractive as a friend to others.  And that leads to more of my needs being met.

Is that confusing?  It would be quite remarkable if we all had friends and family who understood our suffering, but it’s not going to happen.  These are human beings we’re talking about.  If I can appreciate and accept my own suffering, identify for myself what my needs are, and be compassionate towards myself?  Then I am starting to make progress.

One final thought.  Think about the dog or cat who gives you unconditional love.  They don’t understand your suffering.  They just love you anyway.  And isn’t that enough?

“If you celebrate your differentness, the world will, too. It believes exactly what you tell it—through the words you use to describe yourself, the actions you take to care for yourself, and the choices you make to express yourself. Tell the world you are one-of-a-kind creation who came here to experience wonder and spread joy. Expect to be accommodated.” 

― Victoria Moran, Lit From Within: Tending Your Soul For Lifelong Beauty

A Band Of Warrior Women

I was sitting in a medical waiting room this morning; waiting while my mother had a blood test. This was the second waiting room for the morning, and we had one yet to come.  Looking around the room I noticed something that I had seen before, in other waiting rooms.  Here was an older person sitting next to a middle-aged woman.  The combination was repeated around the room, and was there to be seen in all the other waiting rooms my mother and I have recently been in.  Presumably often a mother and daughter, occasionally father and daughter.  A band of warrior women, presumably supporting their parents.

I don’t mean to be sexist, but in all the times I have seen this happening, I have never seen the middle-aged woman replaced by a middle-aged man.  Occasionally it is an older man accompanying the older woman, but mostly this seems to be the domain of middle-aged woman.  There to support their parent.

My mother is due to go into hospital to have an operation next week and since she has taken to wanting me to take her, I have learnt a routine.  From my mother’s perspective it is easier for her if I drive, and have to worry about parking.  And it is easier on her if I navigate us through buildings to where she is meant to be.  From her perspective my role is then to sit quietly and be the dutiful and supportive daughter.  Often it seems from the doctor’s perspective it is good to get another opinion of what is happening, and even a slightly quicker answer.

As an aside today my mother chose to tell a nurse all about giving birth to me, and then about her last job (some 50 years ago).  All this when actually she was meant to be saying how well (or otherwise) she managed around the home.  When I stopped and thought about it I imagine that it made mum’s day to have people so focussed on her and what she has to say.  Usually I’m the only person she sees.  And with that, I relaxed a little and decided the nurse could handle the time management.  Let mum enjoy this a bit.

In the back of my head I guess I’ve always known that it is often the female off-spring who end up providing more support to elderly parents.  Especially single females have often been expected in the past to give up their own lives to look after parents.  I’m not sure that I had ever given the whole thing much thought.  Perhaps I should have.  I am the only female and have two brothers.  Neither of them are in positions to support mum this way.

I guess I take it on because I am available, but I suspect there is a sense inside of me that this is what I should do as her daughter.  And my guess is that all these other middle-aged woman in waiting rooms have had the same sense.

What I’m wondering is the difference between the sexes.  I know there are men who look after elderly parents, although it’s not what I see while I’m sitting in waiting rooms.  I’m wondering do men feel some sense that they should be supporting their elderly parents in these practical tasks?  And how do you deal with it that sense if you simply don’t have the time or flexibility to do these things?

And what happens to the elderly people who don’t have a warrior woman (a middle-aged daughter) to help?  I know (and she commented) that mum would have really struggled this morning to go to all the appointments that were necessary today.  She would also have forgotten most of what she was told at the appointments, had she not had me there to listen.  That said, she would never admit to that.

It makes me think that elderly people who don’t have family able to help must really struggle.  It must be a very lonely and isolated life if there are not people there to help.  I’m inclined to think that I have never stopped to think how hard everyday life can be when you’re old.  Instead I just get frustrated when stuck behind them in a queue.

As I think I said recently I admit that I’m too taken with old age right now.  I hate the term middle-aged (because I still think of myself as in my twenties) but it is much preferable to what is to come.

“I would like to believe in the myth that we grow wiser with age. In a sense my disbelief is wisdom. Those of a middle generation, if charitable or sentimental, subscribe to the wisdom myth, while the callous see us as dispensable objects, like broken furniture or dead flowers. For the young we scarcely exist unless we are unavoidable members of the same family, farting, slobbering, perpetually mislaying teeth and bifocals.” 

―    Patrick White,    Three Uneasy Pieces

Not Sissies… Or Paupers

The Little Boy and the Old Man

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean,” said the little old man.”

― Shel Silverstein

A few days ago the picture below sprung up on my screen, from my friend Sue’s Facebook page.  There could have been no better timing for me, for the issue of old age had been sharply thrown in front of me through my own family relationships.  “Old age ain’t no place for sissies” is so true that I think we are mostly inclined to try to ignore this truth.  Another friend’s elderly (and wise) father later added that “it ain’t no place for paupers too“.

Image credit: FB - Sue Fitzmaurice (used with permission)

Image credit: FB – Sue Fitzmaurice (used with permission)

I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened, but sometime in the last perhaps five to seven years, my parents aged to a point where their welfare and health became almost more important than my own.  Remember that I don’t have children, and the most I have had to be concerned about someone else was my cat (who passed away last year).  Now I had elderly parents to worry about.

Until some (usually) undefined date on our adulthood I think it is easy for us to exist in our own worlds, and tending our own needs.  Somehow there’s a kind of “they’ll be okay” approach applied to older parents, and we know (in the back of our minds) that sometime in the future, we might have to pay a bit more attention to their needs.

For me, this probably happened for with regard to my mother’s well-being about seven years ago when she started to have a number of falls.  After that I found that if I was walking with her, I was watching the surface she was walking on for her safety.  It just happened.  She didn’t ask.  Actually she would never ask as she has always been fiercely independent.  I simply found myself looking out for her, consciously wanting to avoid another fall for her.

As for Dad, who died nearly two years ago, my change in attitude toward his well-being came at the time of his heart attack, about four years ago.  Dad was in the city one day and got accidentally knocked over by a cyclist on the footpath.  It triggered a heart attack.

Amazingly Dad drove himself to my home (about 10 minutes away), and came in saying he felt a bit off colour.  I assumed, at most, he might need me to drive him home, as I wasn’t aware of the severity of his symptoms.  He looked fine.  When he eventually told me that he thought I should call an ambulance, I admit I thought he was being dramatic and we would be ‘told off for wasting their time’.

It wasn’t a ‘waste of time’ at all, and it was the first of several ambulances that would come to my home, for Dad in the next few years.  Again, like with mum I found myself wanting to check if Dad was okay.  Sometimes he was, and unfortunately other times he wasn’t at all okay.  Dad later died in my home.

It almost felt like I had lost my parents, and that I had become the parent to them.  I said that once to someone and they told me not to be silly because my parents weren’t children.  That’s not what I meant to imply.  What I was feeling was that I now had responsibility for them.  It just happened, as they aged.

My mother is now 85 and widowed.  She is facing some major surgery in the next few weeks.  Because I have been the main family member to provide daily support for her since Dad died, I now find myself dealing with what is ahead for her.

While I am particularly concerned with how she might cope with the surgery, I find myself missing my Dad even more than usual.  Why?  I admit it is because if he were still alive he’d be the one making decisions and arrangements with her.  I’ve ended up the ‘parent’ (or my therapist tells me ‘the spouse’)and while I will do everything I can for her, I seriously wish I didn’t have this responsibility.  I desperately want to go back to when my parents were young, healthy and going to ‘live forever’.  Yet it’s not like that, and it is really hard.

The reality is that my mother is doing pretty well for her age.  Out her dining room window, in the apartment she has at a retirement village near my home, she can often watch residents of the secure dementia unit (across the car park) pacing.  They’re basically walking in circles, within their confined space.  Confined by fences, walls and locked gates.  It’s hard to watch, even at my age, without wondering, ‘is that how I’ll end up?‘  I don’t need to wonder what my mother thinks.  She’s told me, and told me what to do about it.  Another weight I don’t want to bear.

Yesterday I happened to come across a blog by Chris Curry at Healthy Place.com.  I quite like his blog about stigma, and was challenged in my thinking by his title, Remembering the Forgotten: Your Response to Dementia.  It seems that most of the elderly end up with some form of memory loss and/or confusion, on a scale of ‘nothing major’ to ‘residing permanently in a secure dementia unit’.

Who would want this for themselves, or for their parents?  Not me, that’s for sure…  but then off-spring don’t generally get a choice of what they will have to deal with.  No one gets a choice.

In his blog Chris suggests that the stigma associated with dementia is perhaps the greatest of all mental illnesses.  I don’t think I had stopped to consider dementia as a mental illness, but it is an illness of the mind.  And how many jokes do we choose to laugh at about dementia and the memory of the elderly?  It’s easy because no one is going to fight back like we might choose to fight against jokes of say, bipolar for example.

It makes me think.  When I say that mental illness is okay and shouldn’t be the subject of stigma, then I need to include in that dementia and other illnesses related to the degeneration of the mind in the elderly.  If we fight for ourselves, then we fight for those who ain’t sissies too.  I wouldn’t like to have to choose one mental illness over another, but I’m sure getting the feeling that old age ain’t much fun.

Maybe that’s pessimistic, but then I look back at the last say, five year of my parents lives and I wouldn’t have wanted their health for anything.  And actually they’ve got off pretty lightly.  I look at the final years of my grandparents too.  I wouldn’t choose that either.  I think that actually the aging process deserves more respect than we often give it.

“In one thing you have not changed, dear friend,” said Aragorn: “you still speak in riddles.”
“What? In riddles?” said Gandalf. “No! For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.” 

―    J.R.R. Tolkien,    The Two Towers

What’s Happening To Her?

Image courtesy of  href="http://www.freedigitalphotos.net" target="_blank">FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday, after a particularly difficult time in therapy, I was thinking about my family who had to stand by and watch me try to self destruct over and over again, as the years went by, and I struggled with mental illness.  At the time the relationships in my family were a bit different from they are today.  In addition to that my father, who was perhaps my staunchest supporter has died, and there is a whole new generation of nieces and nephews, who actually are still too young to know what pain my family went through.  I know that it is not just my pain, they bore theirs too.

I also know that while I pushed many friends away, there were a few who also had to stand by and watch me in my determination to self destruct. I admit I don’t really know what they went through.  I have been in the same situation of watching others go through this journey, but I have always had my own experiences as a kind of backdrop to understanding what was happening.

This morning a friend posted some music on Facebook. Often I pass by other people’s music post but the title caught my mind and I chose to listen (and watch) this time.  It’s amazing.  It is from Ashley Jordan

I was fading away… right in front of my family and friends.  They had no idea how to make a difference, and I know that I made it difficult for them because I was so intent on destroying myself that I didn’t want them to get close.

My fading away took the course of a physical fading as I starved myself through Anorexia.  But I was also fading away as the heavy doses of medication took from them, who I was.  I was different to the person they had known and loved.  They didn’t know how to be with this new, angry but desolate me.

As I repeatedly tried to kill myself, they were left wondering just how long it would be before I achieved my goal.  I know this because one of them had the balls to tell me that he wondered how much longer he would have a sister.  He even said in a letter that in some ways he wished I would achieve my goal…  and then at least my nightmare would be finished and there could be peace.

In addition to the anorexia, heavy medication and suicide attempts, my nightmare journey also consisted of constantly worsening self harm, reliance on drinking and over-medicating to get me through the day… or the night, not to mention the repeated rounds of Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT).  The ECT also saw their sister, daughter, grand-daughter, wife, friend fading away as my memory was badly affected and to some extent just never returned.

Cate was fading before their eyes, and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.  Those that could, poured money into treatment but it produced no results.  Those who I allowed, tried to let me know they loved me.  But then I was pretty determined to not let anyone near, and I had a husband who enabled that to be in his thinking that he was doing the right thing.  He kept them away.

And as for the husband, now an ex, I have little idea what was going through his mind.  While he wasn’t the right person for me, he still was an essentially good person who had somehow landed himself in the situation of loving someone who was fading away fast.

There is a chapter in my book, Infinite Sadness, about the role that family and friends took.  Of course it is written from my perspective, and not theirs.  Their perspective is hard for me to even imagine, but I know it had to have been rough.

“…It is strange how when I most needed people I couldn’t bear to be with them.  I hid from many phone calls.  The answer phone and Dave proved very useful.  When people knocked on the door I hid and pretended to be out.  I couldn’t stand myself or my feelings and I couldn’t handle the thought of others seeing me like that and maybe agreeing with me. What if they couldn’t stand me either? I maintained that I was not lonely but rather just very alone.  There is a difference and being with people wasn’t going to help me.  Many times being with people left me feeling totally out of the real world.  I didn’t fit. I didn’t like what I saw of myself and I didn’t want others to reject what I knew they would see….”

“…So why did I push them away?  Part of it was what I didn’t like about myself, that they might see if I gave them a chance.  But more so it was because I didn’t think they could understand.  Perhaps too, at times, I felt it was partly their fault that I was suffering so much.  Of course it wasn’t their fault.  There were definitely things about my life growing up with my family that were now affecting me, but equally there were things that had happened since I had become an adult.  I couldn’t blame my family for those things – but I did.  For a while everything was their fault.  I didn’t want to see them or hear from them.  Dave, thinking he was doing the right thing, made this easy….”

(p. 174,5 Infinite Sadness, 2009)

So why am I choosing to write, and cry, my way through this today?  Because when I listened to that song I heard, and thought about my family and what perhaps they felt as they watched me self destruct.  I know for me I constantly thought they didn’t get it.  The truth is that they probably didn’t.  How could they?  They had never faced this before and they were seeing me fade (mentally and physically) before their eyes.  To watch someone you love do that must be devastating.

When I was caught in that nightmare there was little time or even inclination to stop and think how what was happening to me, was affecting those around me.  I will never know how some of it affected people, but I know now that I am not the only person who suffered as a result of my mental illness.  Somehow for me, it is important now to be able to look beyond myself a bit.

I don’t have the perfect family.  Not at all.  Aside all of this, most of us have been through some very traumatic experiences in the past couple of years, what with earthquakes, deaths, health issues and more which have taken their toll on us.  We’re like any other family and some of my family actually had roles in the causes of my illness.  My friends are just like anyone else’s friends.  Human, with feelings and limits.

The good news is that I came back from fading away.  I know plenty of families don’t get their loved one back.  We are all different now, and the scars are clear, but I guess what matters is that we are here.

It’s worth thinking about sometime.  How it might be for our friends and families to watch.  They are pretty much helpless and generally don’t, or won’t understand for their own reasons.  Writing this has made me cry a lot today, because there have been losses.  Isn’t it amazing how a random piece of music (and video) can take our thinking down tracks we weren’t expecting?

And on a slightly lighter note…

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” 

―    George Bernard Shaw,    Immaturity

I Matter

One of the things I battle with on a daily basis is that I matter, and whether I actually matter to anyone else.  Do I love myself enough to say I matter to me?  And does anyone else love me enough to say that I matter to them?  And will they show it by their actions?

Some of the struggle with this comes from the Christian upbringing I had which constantly told me to put others before myself.  Songs I sang in Sunday School taught me that I came last.  And I guess that’s where I always put myself.  As the youngest child in the family, my name always came last.  I’m not saying that my parents put my needs last, but that my brother’s and my parents names always came before mine.

In the school roll my name came near the end because my surname was Reddell, near the end of the alphabet.  I can remember wishing my name started with a A, so that I could be at the beginning.  But then the Christian upbringing  would no doubt have listed that as a sin.

Another thing I was taught was “pride cometh before a fall“.  That meant I couldn’t be proud of myself, I couldn’t take pride in my achievements, and actually no one else was ever going to proud of me.  It might not be what I was meant to learn from the statement, but it is what my young mind concluded.

My Christian upbringing even served to protect those who stalked me.  I was specifically told in relation to them that I should ‘love my neighbour and do good to them that hate you“.  What that meant in reality was I was supposed to be nice to them, and my needs for protection didn’t seem matter to anyone.  Christian love and compassion was what was called for.  When I was a teenager I thought that was just how life was.  My needs didn’t matter.  Now I am an adult I worry that teenagers might be taught this stuff now days.  I hope not.

Since my mental health ever became an issue (it’s interesting that it simply doesn’t matter until diagnosed with a mental illness) people have been telling me that it is okay to put myself first.  It’s okay for my needs to matter.  At this stage, after many hours of therapy I can tell you that I do matter, but I still find it hard to put it into practise.

At what point do my needs matter more than loving and accepting another person?  I still haven’t worked that out.  I still am not sure how to put this into practise in everyday situations.

I struggle with it in a number of places in my life, and still there is this little voice in the back of my head that recites ‘Jesus first, Yourself last and Others in between’.  It’s so ingrained in my head that I don’t know how to say ‘well actually my needs come first’.  Even as I type that, I’m thinking “selfish“.  I’ve done the textbook learning but I still don’t have it totally in operation in my life.  I don’t yet know how to strike the balance between me and the rest of the world.

Last week in What Matters To Me This Christmas Eve I told you about my family starting a family meal before I had arrived.  As I sat there that day my thoughts were “I don’t matter to these people“.  It seemed to me that I didn’t matter enough for them to think/say “We can’t start yet because Cate’s not here yet“.  Now I can see a number of logical reasons for why it might have happened, but it still hurts.  Not that they started lunch without me, but that I didn’t matter to them enough for them to think of me.

What makes it more painful is that I look around for people who I matter to, and actually most people have their own lives, their partners and children, and I am just me.  I know that I mattered to my father when he was alive, and so it makes his absence is more painful when something like that happens with my family.

The thing that I wonder is ‘who’s going to put me first?’  Will anyone?  Or has everyone got greater priorities than me?  I promise I’m not having some pity party for which I need huge doses of sympathy.  I don’t.  But I know that learning to matter to myself is helped when I can know that other people say to me “you matter to me“.

Maybe the psychology of that is all wrong, and I need to be able to just matter to myself.  But don’t we all want to matter to other people?  And surely knowing that I matter to someone else teaches me about mattering (Is that a word?  It is now.)  to myself.

I know I matter to some people, and yesterday I spent time with some of those people, purposely because I desperately needed to feel I matter to someone.  I knew with them, I would feel that, and I did.  It was in complete contrast to the lunch I nearly missed last week, simply because I knew without at doubt that I mattered to them and that my needs were important.

PS.  I need to say this isn’t at all a criticism of Christianity.  It’s not.  All it is, is my experience.

“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the
person you are.” 

―    Marilyn Monroe

“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.” 

―    Harvey Fierstein

What Matters To Me This Christmas Eve

It’s Christmas Eve here in my part of the world.  I have a list of things I need to get done before the day is out, but for now I want to stop, and think about what matters, what really matters to me this Christmas.

Christmas is will be about family for me this Christmas.  I am expected to be part of the family Christmas by some, simply because I don’t have a family (I mean a partner and children) of my own.  But that is small stuff compared to what matters to me.  I play along to meet expectations but really my heart is some place else.

Yesterday I went to a family Christmas lunch.  The whole family wasn’t there, but those I wasn’t going to see on Christmas Day were.  I arrived on time armed with Christmas gifts for the children, only to find they had all started the meal without me.  When I asked why (calmly and politely), there was no explanation forthcoming, and really all it did was tell me yet again, that to those people, I don’t matter.

“Family isn’t always about blood.  It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are.  The ones who would do anything to see you smile and who love you no matter what.”

I am fortunate to have some family members who are blood-related and fit this definition.  They weren’t there yesterday, sadly.  The people who were there simply told me by their actions that I didn’t matter… and yes, that hurt like hell.

I’m not going to get bogged down in how that hurt, but rather focus my energy on those people who do matter to me, and I know I matter to them.  What is difficult is that this Christmas I am cut off from the people I would prefer to spend Christmas with.  People who would want to include me and want to show their love for me.

I also want to be with my friends who are struggling this Christmas.  Christmas can be a time of hurt and depression, and I hate that.  I really hope that somehow those friends can find some peace tomorrow, and know that they are loved (even from afar)

Those I want to be with are thousands of miles away, and so today I will place them in my heart, where they belong.  And I will take them with me as I celebrate Christmas tomorrow.  That way they are with me, in my heart and the physical distance doesn’t seem so harsh.

And to finish, a quote from my favourite wordsmiths.  Not because it necessarily fits with what I have said, but simply because I like it.

Calvin (Calvin and Hobbes)

“CALVIN:   This whole Santa Claus thing just doesn’t make sense. Why all the secrecy? Why all the mystery?
If the guy exists why doesn’t he ever show himself and prove it?
And if he doesn’t exist what’s the meaning of all this?
HOBBES:   dunno. Isn’t this a religious holiday?
CALVIN:     Yeah, but actually, I’ve got the same questions about God.” 

 - Bill Watterson