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Social Phobia explained to those who are not social phobic

22 Dec

I hate parties

Last week, I had two Christmas nights out planned. I only managed one of them, because I had a complete meltdown on the Wednesday. On Friday, getting ready to go out, I posted this on Facebook.

WHY am I having kittens about tonight? is it
a. I have ‘nothing’ to wear, ie I haven’t bought anything new for Christmas parties
b. there might be people I don’t know
c. anything I do have which is clean, it might be too dressy or not dressy enough
d. we might not be able to get a taxi home cause it’s mad friday
e. whenever i wear make-up i look a bit like a drag queen
f. general food anxiety, because there will be food, and people eat
g, I might say something stupid without thinking and offend or upset someone
h. all of the above
Do other people think this stuff and just not say it? Or is it medication/lack of/depression/introversion/OCD….???

I had an overwhelming array of responses, but they mainly fell into the following camps

  • Yeah I feel like this too, it’s rubbish isn’t it?
  • I feel like this too, I think everyone does don’t they?
  • You’ll be fine. We’ll look after you
  • Why are you worrying about that? Stop panicking!

I’m so unbelievably lucky that since I culled my Facebook friends, I no longer have any comments like ‘What’s your problem? There’s so much more to be upset about.’ You might think I’d be annoyed about the ‘stop panicking’ comment, but it was a private message, and followed by many reasons not to panic from a very dear friend who understands me.

I then read this awful article about social anxiety, and how basically you can will yourself into not feeling anxious by realising the anxiety is your fault and you can control it. That, my friends, is how not to understand that social anxiety isn’t just being anxious or nervous – it’s a phobia.

Look up phobia, if you don’t know the definition, I linked to Wikipedia above to make it easy.

Most people have a fear, whether big or small, of something. Show me someone who doesn’t have any fears, and I’ll show you a robot. I have a phobia of daddy long legs for example. I don’t like the way they move, and they used to make me scream. I can be in the same room as them these days, but time was I used to run screaming from rooms and had people telling me I was silly for being afraid of something.

On the other hand, spiders don’t scare me at all, but I have never once told someone they were stupid for having to get their husband to remove a spider from the bathroom. If you are afraid of spiders, there’s absolutely no logic to that fear. It’s very unlikely the spider you have in your house is poisonous, unless you live in Australia, and they’re very small – ‘more scared of you than you are of it’ is the usual response.

Now, I can understand a phobia of spiders if you have one, because I had a phobia of daddy long legs. I won’t belittle your fear. In return, I’d like it if everyone in the world would extend this politeness to people with social phobias.

We know it’s irrational. We know it’s stupid and silly, and that nothing will go seriously wrong, and everything will be fine in the morning. THIS DOES NOT HELP. If anything, it makes us feel worse that we feel this way because it’s silly and stupid, and so therefore, WE are silly and stupid.

The best response to anything is always empathy. If you haven’t already, there’s an amazing animation about the difference between being sympathetic and being empathetic. I don’t want it to look like I think there’s anything wrong with sympathetic responses, because they are usually better than nothing.

A sympathetic response is nice – it’s the responses above like ‘we’ll look after you’. It made me feel loved and looked after. But the responses I really loved were the ones saying ‘Oh yeah, I totally feel like that too’. Knowing that you aren’t the only person who can’t imagine a balance between turning up in pyjamas or in full evening dress is like someone saying to me, ‘oh yeah, I don’t like daddy long legs either, they move in a weird way.’

So whilst on Wednesday I couldn’t get myself out from under my quilt on the couch, couldn’t stop crying when I thought about leaving the house, and eventually ended up having a takeaway in the safety of my house, on Friday I went out. Talking things through¬† and having people being empathetic helped, and I went. Yes, it was fine, but in my rational brain I knew it would be.

The next time I get that phobia about going out, I won’t think back on this and how it was fine, and not feel phobic any more – in the same way the next time you find a spider in your bathroom and it doesn’t kill you, you won’t then be able to be rational about it the next time you find one in your bath. You’ll still go and get your husband to remove it, in the same way as I’ll go and find my friends to help me remove the catalyst to my fear.

Two weeks of cold turkey

10 Oct

Just a quick update as it’s World Mental Health Day

I saw my GP and was a bit disappointed in him. He asked me if I wanted to lower my dose any more, even though I’m not on anything, and asked if I wanted more ‘happy pills’ – I’m sure in my last post I said that ADs aren’t happy pills, so why is my doctor calling them that?

He also started talking about my weight, and how if I’m going to lose weight, I need to eat less. Not only would this be patronising to anyone, I found it particularly bad because I have a well documented history of eating disorders on my medical history at my surgery, and I told him last time that I didn’t want to lose weight thank you, just be healthier, and I didn’t believe that the two things were necessarily one and the same thing. I also said that I’d like to just get my withdrawal over and done with without even considering weightloss, as in I can eat what I want as long as I don’t kill myself – better fat than dead.

Now is when I usually go into stubborn mood, and prove that I can lose 3 stone, or prove that I’m not listening to him by gaining even more weight – I’m determined this won’t happen, and I’ll just become fitter by getting on the rowing machine… should my aching bones allow it.

So why are you coming off your meds?

27 Sep

There are people who think I shouldn’t talk about my mental health on here; in real life, and online, I’m told it’s ‘unprofessional’, and might make you, the reader, feel uncomfortable or that you can’t relate to me. I’m not here to argue that people feeling uncomfortable about discussing mental health issues is a stigma we need to get rid of, don’t worry.

However, this blog is about my creative process, and my mental health is absolutely related to this. If you don’t want to read mental health stuff, that’s fine, just stop reading now.

I’ve been trying to live better for the last year – it’s gone OK. I’m not smoking any more, not drinking as much, and my eating has settled into a pattern. I break these rules, I’d say, once a month – on these days I literally don’t know what else to do with myself, and I might eat 5 donuts, drink a bottle of port, or both. I’m not proud of this, I’m just telling you so we have a baseline.

I went and had a regular check-in with the nurse, and my blood pressure was high, high enough for me to be medicated if it continued, so I had to go and see the GP. He also checked my BP and it was still high. Turns out my anti-depressants raise blood pressure, and after five years they’re really taking their toll.

I’ve always said I’m happy to stay on anti-depressants, and am not ashamed to have to take tablets daily for the rest of my life. However, taking another tablet to counteract the effects of them isn’t something I relish, and being overweight affects my blood pressure enough without extra problems.

My medication, Venlafaxine, I don’t mind saying, is a bitch. It’s an SNRI, so unlike Prozac (arguably the most well-known AD, and an SSRI) it works on two neurotransmitters; norepinephrine as well as serotonin. This means that withdrawal is a nightmare. When I started taking it, I wasn’t told this, or if I was, I don’t remember. I spent a lot of December 2008 in a daze, either in bed, or crying.

I’d already experienced withdrawal symptoms just from missing one dose – this is due to its incredibly short half-life (i.e. it doesn’t stay in your system very long) so I wasn’t really looking forward to it. The doctor halved my dose to lessen the withdrawal, but I still got discontinuation syndrome.

I’d say that some days of discontinuation syndrome are actually worse than my depression ever was. Brain zaps in particular are, to put it frankly, fucking awful. If you want to see a full list of symptoms, all of which I’ve had, then follow that link above, but I’m not here to bitch about how bad the symptoms are.

Six weeks on half dose, and I’m feeling good – so, time for my check-up, and he gave me a choice. I could either half my medication again, and then discontinue in a month, or just discontinue them now – in other words, feel as bad as the last month for another couple of months, or feel even worse, but get it all over and done within a month.

That’s not much of a choice, but I went for just not taking them any more. There were a few factors behind this

1. It’s my birthday in about a month, and I’d like to feel well enough to go out

2. I’m out of tablets and don’t really want to pay for another prescription

3. I just want to be done with it all and start FEELING again – this is what I want to talk about in more detail

If you’ve never taken anti-depressants, don’t know anyone who has, or usually don’t read blogs about mental health, let me explain something. Anti-depressants aren’t ‘happy pills’. They don’t simply make you happier. If they did, then everyone would take them.

Depression is caused (it is believed) by a lack of serotonin in the brain. So what SSRIs do, basically, is keep the serotonin released by your brain IN your brain. If you’re not depressed and you take anti-depressants, it won’t create more serotonin, you just might end up with too much serotonin in your brain, and ultimately serotonin syndrome. (Before you say anything, I do know that what they do is a lot more complicated than this – I did neuropsychology at university – but it’s dull, and you can find out online if you want to know in more detail)

SNRIs, as you might imagine, keep serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain for longer, and have basically the same outcome – you no longer really feel highs or lows.

I know this sounds strange, but everything elicits a flatline response. After about three months on them, I stopped feeling so low, which was brilliant. After months of crying at everything and feeling like I didn’t want to live any more, I started to feel some nice feelings.

As your brain becomes used to SNRIs, you start to level out, and instead of see-sawing between the occasional low (e.g. 1 out of 10) and some uncomfortable highs (10/10) about ridiculous things, everything elicits a response which varies only from 4 to 6.

This is a relief for a while; when someone tells you they’re pregnant, instead of feeling rage that it’s not you, you can just show genuine pleasure. When an advert for Oxfam comes on the telly, you can feel a bit sorry for them, maybe donate a tenner, and then get on with your life, instead of sobbing uncontrollably and trying to give them all your money.

But then it becomes monotonous. You get some genuinely awesome news, and you smile, but you don’t feel that excited, or you get some truly awful news about a friend, and you’re a bit sad, but not enough. None of it is enough.

So that’s why I decided to try going without medication – I want to feel dizzying highs again, I want to be genuinely excited about things. Now and then when I’ve accidently missed a dose I’ve seen a glimpse of what I’ve been missing – something will make me really cry on TV, or I’ll have a giggling fit at Jimmy Fallon. Yesterday I was laughing so much at the Tumblr which collates bad estate agent photos that I couldn’t stop my mouth twitching – it was weird, but I was excited by it.

The last six weeks, I’ve also been more creatively sparked than I have in a while, and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence. In two weeks time I have another appointment, but fingers crossed I can get through this, and enjoy my new emotions. Wish me luck!

Feeding the Fish

25 May

Wow, yesterday’s blog post went down really well! I’m so pleased you all found the joy in amongst all the other stuff, and took it as inspirational rather than miserable.

I feel I should share my two online heroes that helped me in the writing of that blog.

Keri Smith

I’ve talked about Keri before, but I continue to feel her influence all the time, even subconsciously. Without her, I wouldn’t have started living so playfully without feeling stupid.

I urge you all to have a look at any of her books. ‘Wreck This Journal‘ is particularly good for freeing your creativity.

Allie Brosh

You may have seen Hyperbole and a Half before and not realised – she drew the cartoon which has led to almost everyone I know saying ‘all the things‘ and why I threaten to lick people who don’t leave me alone.

The other day she wrote the most truly amazing blog about how it feels to be depressed. It was fun, honest and sad. I was halfway through writing my own, and it’s partly why I put off publishing it, but also why I broke up the text with photos.

My particular favourite section is about the dead fish. It’s extremely frustrating when you’re depressed and everyone tries to find the reason why. It’s human nature, I know, but I could totally relate to Allie’s drawings, especially this one.


So from now on, I’m going to use the phrase ‘my fish are dead’ when I feel like crap, and it can also be a siding scale – ‘please leave me alone, my fish are almost dead’ for example. If I feel good, my fish can be jumping. You get the picture.

That’s why this post is called ‘Feeding the Fish’ – I’m going to start posting ideas to take you out of your comfort zone if you’re not a natural adult player, but hopefully that will ease you in slowly without you feeling stupid.

I also hasten to add that I do not for one minute think anyone whose fish are dead is in that situation because they haven’t played enough, or that playing will feed every fish. I’m just using it as an analogy because its what keeps that big black dog (an analogy some other people prefer) from my door.

That big blog post I’ve been threatening – Drawing and Giggling

24 May

About two months ago I felt ‘the fear’ about my life. My shop was becoming more quiet, and I couldn’t work out why. I correctly guessed that jewellery doesn’t excite me in the same way it did three years ago, so I rebranded my shop, and started selling stationery, such as notebooks and stamps.

After 6 weeks of selling stationery, I’ve realised it isn’t just jewellery that doesn’t excite me any more – its retail.

When I say ‘retail’, there are things I don’t mean. I don’t mean the other staff members I work with, the products I sell, and I definitely don’t mean my customers. I mean the struggle that retail on the high street has become. Even then I don’t mean the recession, or rental increases, or landlord woes – I mean a personal struggle.

I’m finding this hard to explain. As usual, lets rewind a few years.I’ll pepper this post with photos to break up all the text, and give you something to laugh at.

Chloe in Lancaster 1994

Lancaster, 1994

It’s 1994, I’m almost 19, and doing paid voluntary work before I do my Psychology degree. I spend time drawing and giggling, and helping someone finish their own degree. During my own degree course, I spend my time making zines and working as a Carer to supplement my grant. I finish my degree, and I become a behavioural therapist, drawing and giggling with children.

Chloe in Liverpool 1998

Liverpool, 1998

Now it’s summer 2000 and we have a crisis with the Carer for Ian. I have to stop working with children because we can’t find anyone to look after Ian. I’m pissed off about it, but I love him, so I suck it up and do it. I realise that I need a job where if I take time off, it’s not as big a deal as working with children. So I find a job advert where they list abilities as ‘enjoying coffee and talking’ and I’m exhausted with looking, so it seems right to apply. During the interview I’m told I’m overqualified, but I explain about Ian, and they hire me – its now my 25th birthday, and I’m a dental receptionist.

Chris, Sarah and Chloe, Leeds 2002

Chris, Sarah and Chloe, Leeds 2002

I loved this little job, answering the phones and helping people. All the staff were, and still are, lovely, and I’ve kept in touch with them all. Talking to patients was always my strong point, and my memory for faces and names, coupled with my organisational skills, made me a bit of a natural. I’m helping people who are in pain, being paid for it, and I don’t have to work full time.

A couple of years pass – we continue having trouble with carers, but my job carries on in much the same vein. Then my mum becomes terminally ill with cancer, and I start to re-evaluate my life. I want to spend more time with her, and I’m perhaps realising I want to go back into a profession, rather than answering a telephone all day, as my mum was doing right up until she died. She always told me she felt wasted as she had so much potential – I don’t want to waste my own.

Chloe and Esther, 2003

Chloe and Esther, 2003

I hand in my notice, and think about teaching again. I start volunteering in a school, drawing and giggling with children again. I also start making t-shirts and selling them online – even now I can’t remember how that came about, but it was a nice hobby for a while. Eventually, I have an interview to do a PGCE but I don’t have enough voluntary work, and they’re worried about my ability to do a full time course if we struggle with care for Ian. I’m told to go volunteer some more, and try again. Before I can, mum dies, and I spend time grieving.

16th July

Chloe, 2005

During me grieving, I get a phone call from the dentist, and they ask me to go back and work for them. I’m exhausted with grief, I’m not a teacher yet, and they sent me flowers when mum died, so I say yes.

The NHS has changed – we have targets to fulfil, and working in a dentist is no longer about helping people, it’s about earning the money we’ve already been given or they take it away from us. We seem to be constantly chasing our tails, and it’s miserable. I hate it, but I still like the staff and I can’t bear the thought of handing in my notice again. Ian and I decide to try and have children, but it doesn’t happen – that’s a story for another day.

Chloe, 2007

Chloe, 2007

I’ve talked about what happened next many times, so I’m sorry if you’ve heard this before. In 2008, I decide I don’t want to work there any more, but I can’t work out how to resign. I was hoping I’d have a child, and had that excuse to leave, but that hasn’t worked out. Instead I decide to demand a pay rise, a ridiculous amount, or I’m going to find another job. It’s almost double what I’m being paid, but I’ve looked around online and it’s about right for what I’m doing.

He says yes. My world crumbles.

Adrienne and Chloe, 2008

Adrienne and Chloe, 2008

Now I’m being paid more, even though it’s right for what I’m doing already, he demands more of me. I’m already stressed and hate my job, but now I start to hate my boss too. I start to hate the patients, the other staff, and even Ian. I start to drink more at home to ‘relax’ and find I can’t sleep without alcohol. I’m having trouble eating properly, and almost everything makes me physically sick. My memory is going, I can’t concentrate, and the only time I go out is to go to work.

Finally, in August, we have a meeting at work during which it becomes apparent I’ve forgotten to tell someone at work something which seems tremendously important to my boss but which I don’t care about, and I’m being scalded by both him and the other member of staff. I totally lose all feeling in the left side of my body, and I’m only staying upright because I’m leaning against a table. My vision is blurred, and it’s like they’re both shouting at me from far away.

Mornings - anxious

Chloe, 2008

That’s when I decide the only way out is to kill myself. It’s not that I want to do it, it’s just that at that point it seems to be literally the only option. It’s irrational, it’s ridiculous, but I can only see that now. At the time it seemed literally the only choice.

Obviously I didn’t go through with it. I’d have been really pissed off with my younger self if I had. Instead, I went to see my friends, came home and told my husband, and went to the doctor. I’d seen doctors before, but none of them had ever said I was depressed. I’d been diagnosed with hypoglycaemia, sinusitis, tonsillitis, ‘nervy tummy’, migraines, exhaustion, stress…but this was the first doctor to say ‘you have major clinical depression’.

End 2008

Chloe, end 2008

During the rest of 2008, I have a really shit time – my meds are being swapped and changed, because I react badly to certain anti depressants (SSRIs) so they put me on SNRIs which seem to work, but only if I have extended release ones. I behave like an awkward cow, because I do research to see if I’m really depressed, and find lots of stuff about bipolar disorder and think I might have that because my moods cycle. I bully the doctors into letting me see a psychiatrist, and she confirms I don’t have bipolar disorder, it’s just my personality.

As a sidenote – Even now, I’m still not sure why my moods cycle, but they definitely do. If I ever bring it up in any appointments, I can see eyes rolling as if I’m trying to have something more interesting than depression. There’s a lot around online about bipolar disorder being a kind of rock star disease that people feel glamorous having, and having read a lot of what people say about their own bipolar I don’t feel like I have it any more. There’s definitely something up and down about me, but I don’t really know what, and maybe it doesn’t matter. My meds seem to work, so lets stick with it.

Manic day

Chloe, 2009

Let’s go back to 2009 – I’m painting, all day, every day. The house is full of paintings which I haven’t given to friends as they all have them. Someone suggests a craft fair, so I book one in Morley. It’s terrifying – I have to take Ian with me, I have a panic attack on the way, and another one setting up (because I’m late due to the first one). However, I sell three paintings, and get in the local paper. I keep in touch with the organiser, and start doing more craft fairs. People often comment that they would buy my paintings on greeting cards, so I produce some, and they do buy them.

I start to feel so much better, I think about my future. I decide that because art has helped my mental health so much, and I had so much trouble finding an art therapist, that I will become one. I do research, and find out I need an art degree, which is a pain as I have a psychology degree. After talking to Ian, my friend Claudia who works in the library of an art college, and the only helpful person I’ve ever met in a job centre, I find out I can do an access to higher education course for free; this is comparable to a foundation degree in art, which will then allow me to do an art degree.

Isabel, me and Tilly

Chloe reading to Isabel and Tilly, 2009

I do pretty badly at the interview, in my eyes anyway, as I cry the whole way through it because I’m out of the house, and he’s judging my drawing. Somehow I get on the course, and it’s great. I’m drawing and giggling again, and most of the other students are pretty cool. I get on particularly well with two; Kim who eventually opens a tattoo studio which I work at, and AM who eventually becomes a photographer who does my photo shoots.

During the college year, I become really interested in sculpture, especially recycling toys, and making my own tiny versions of things, which end up being made into jewellery, and I start selling these on my market stalls. Almost all of my college work is coming in handy for my growing business, so making and selling things is becoming a full time job.

Chloe and Madeleine, 2010

Chloe and Madeleine, 2010

I have another crumble when I talk to my tutor and she says that if I do an art degree I’ll need to pay fees, and it’s thousands of pounds, and the masters degree to be a therapist will also cost thousands. I go home and tell Ian, and he lets me in in the secret that he’s been putting money to one side every month to pay for a degree – this is one of the many reasons Ian is amazing.

Anyway, I go back to college the next day, and talk to a different tutor. He asks me what I want to do in the future, and I start crying again because I can’t imagine doing anything other than paint for a career. He talks me through it, and it becomes clear that I don’t really need an art degree to do what I want to do, because I’m already selling my art, and it’s possible I could make this into a career.

Ian and Chloe, 2010

Ian and Chloe, 2010

So I go home again, and I tell Ian I don’t need an art degree, so let’s use that money to set up a shop selling my artwork as well as other people’s – I clearly remember going to a shop like this with my mum when I was little, and a few similar ones whilst growing up, and it seems a shame there isn’t one in Leeds. I find myself a business link advisor, and in my first conversation with him, he tells me someone called Michelle is actually setting up one of these shops in Leeds, so I should get in touch with her first.

Summer 2010 – I move into Bird’s Yard. If you want to read about this, go here to the guest post I did for Leeds Inspired.

iiphone backup 383

Chloe, 2011

We’re back up to date, almost; It’s the start of 2013. December has been a fairly good month in the shop, and I’m geared up for the same January routine I’ve followed for the last two years; spending a month learning new skills, tidying and recycling things from my study, and making stuff ready for February.

I get tremendously sidetracked by making things and experimenting, I’m enjoying myself too much. I feel more happy than I have in a while, painting things, sticking things to other things, cutting plastic things in half, and folding more origami paper than you can shake a stick at. I start trying to get other people I know to see that what I’m doing isn’t unusual but should be a part of everyone’s daily routine. Encouraging playfulness becomes more important to me than encouraging people to buy things.

Winners - Best vintage #winners

Winning ‘Best Vintage’ 2012

I feel ‘the fear’. This seems to be becoming a hobby again, instead of a career, as I’m no longer making money. I keep buying craft supplies not related to jewellery by finding ways to justify it as a business expense.

So I decide it’s because jewellery doesn’t excite me any more – I start buying craft supplies in bulk to make things with, and selling the remainder, so it makes sense to rebrand as a stationery shop. I wrote a blog post, where you can see my thoughts about this, and my justification for it.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that since Christmas, as well as being more ‘experimental’ and ‘creative’ I’ve also been drinking too much. I’m finding sleeping difficult without alcohol, my memory is going, and I’m finding it hard to keep food down. I start to hate the people I work with, and don’t leave the house unless I’m going to the shop. The shop is no longer enjoyable, but I know how much Bird’s Yard is struggling, and I worry that if I leave, the whole shop will have to close down.


Chloe, 2013

It may be too long since I wrote a similar paragraph above, but you may have noticed a pattern. I hadn’t, literally until last week when I was so hungover last Sunday that I slept all day Monday as well. I was feeling exactly like I did when I was trying to leave my old job and didn’t feel like I could hand in my notice. I was carrying on doing something I didn’t enjoy, and eventually began to hate, because I was worried they couldn’t cope without me.

I notice the pattern – and I decide I don’t want to have a shop any more. This time I know that I can simply say ‘I want to close my shop’ and the world won’t end. Yes, it’ll be upsetting for people I work with, for my customers, and it’ll be a shock. It’ll be hard work at home getting used to not going to work, and lots of preparation will have to go into making sure I do stuff instead of staying in bed all day. What I don’t do is decide ‘I’m going to make myself dead’ in order to get out of what’s happening to me.

I’m so amazingly proud of myself for this, I can’t even tell you.

badge making

Chloe, May 2013

So I’ve handed in my notice to Bird. She’s gutted, but she understands. She hasn’t told me she hates me, like I thought she might, and even the threat of someone hating me didn’t stop me doing what I know I needed to do. I know in my heart that I put my heart and soul into making my own shop work, as well as doing my part in making Bird’s Yard work.

My shop has been a success – I haven’t made a fortune, but I’ve helped people to find presents and cards, the right piece of jewellery for an event or outfit, supported other jewellery makers and artists to get into business themselves. I’ve learnt a lot of lessons about retail, business and working with other people, and at the end of the day, I’m not cut out for retail. It’s a cut throat business, where profit margins are more important than helping people.

So what am I going to do? I’m going to carry on selling online, I’m going to be a travelling salesperson of a sort (that’s a story for another day) and I’ve already started researching becoming an art therapist again – apparently you can get onto the course with a Psychology degree now, so maybe having a shop for three years was a good way to wait.

cakey08 (28)

Near Fab Cafe, 2007

What I definitely want to do is start encouraging adults to be more playful. Looking over this post, I’ve done a lot of carework, as well as playing, and I want to bring those two needs together and make sure other people can find their own playfulness. Maybe it won’t mean becoming an art therapist…all I really know for sure is that I want to work in a way which makes other people happy, as those jobs where I’ve helped other people have coincided with the happiest times, as well as all the drawing and giggling.

Socially acceptable ways of being miserable at Christmas

20 Dec

Tomorrow it’s nine years since my mother died. Today, nine years ago, I was probably cuddling my new niece, which I spent a lot of time doing in the run-up to mum dying.

We were due to spend Christmas with mum and dad anyway, as we knew it would be her last one. In the end, we had to rush home earlier after the phone call everyone with an ill relative dreads – come home now, and say goodbye.

December was crap nine years ago – we spent the whole month wondering if she’d make it to Christmas, especially as she hadn’t met her grand-daughter yet. As mum and dad both have their birthdays in December, there were actually three dates we wondered if she’d last until. The whole month was full of frantic phone calls home, crying at adverts showing mothers who weren’t in intensive care, and having to answer over and over that question, ‘how is your mum doing?’

As she eventually died four days before Christmas, and we were already at home, we stayed there, and ended up Christmas shopping in my home town, where bumping into old school friends was unavoidable, and I answered every question about mums health with a chirpy, ‘oh she died yesterday’, as I hadn’t actually taken it in yet. Christmas Day itself, we had to open gifts we’d wrapped for mum and decide what to do with them, and I clearly remember taking a present into dad with a cup of tea and saying that mum had asked me to get it for him, and he tried to pay me back.

It was the weirdest, most sad, celebration. We were all still shell-shocked, as I really think we all thought we’d be at the hospital on Christmas Day, so being in the house seemed luxurious. I can’t remember what we ate, but I remember we didn’t pull crackers.

The point of me writing this is that me saying I’m sad in December because mum died at Christmas isn’t just because of the grief, which I feel sporadically anyway. It’s the memories.

The whole of Christmas is so wrapped up with these memories, I find it really difficult around December, because everything is geared towards Christmas in this country. It’s all about ‘family’ and gatherings, eating and drinking, but always as a group.

The following year, I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas, but we decided to spend it with dad because it was his first year without mum. We went down to Lincolnshire, and during a meal with my brother and sister-in-law, my dad announced he’d proposed to his new girlfriend.

I don’t blame my dad for trying to give himself some happy memories – he lost his own mother at new year, as well as his wife at Christmas, so he’d wanted a happy occasion to think about in December instead of remembering the two rubbish ones. Much as I don’t dislike my dad’s fianc√©e, it was a shock, and we all spent much of Christmas drunk.

Then four years ago, I had a nervous breakdown in October, and found everything so difficult that year that I bought and wrapped all the presents in November, and wrote all my cards, in case I was ‘dead by Christmas’ myself. December is a hazy nightmare of medication swapping, and counselling appointments. One day, I sat in the bakery section of Asda and lay on the floor crying because it was too busy, surrounded by mince pies.

One other day in particular sticks out – it was the 23rd December, and at the end of it, I was given a crisis number, but was also told, in case I felt suicidal over the holidays, it was a different number as the usual one is closed. He then wished me a merry Christmas.

The last three years, we’ve spent Christmas Day visiting my in laws (who live the rest of the year in France but who house sit for someone nearby), and then going home again to eat a meal just the two of us. Even this year, I’ve worried that this is becoming ‘what we do’ and I’m starting to feel out of control of my own Christmas again.

There’s no point in asking my dad to spend Christmas with us, because he says it’s too cold in our house, he sulks when he isn’t at home for Christmas Day (we tried one year, and he hid from everybody until they went home), and we’d probably end up killing each other because he’s put gravy in the wrong place on my plate.

This piece is all leading somewhere, I promise, and because of your patience, we’re almost there.

December for me now, is the worst month of the year. It’s mum’s birthday to contend with first, and then all the other memories start to flood back. The way it felt waiting for someone to die, the rushing to the hospital, the sleepless nights and jumping when the phone rings. Then I start to remember how it felt a few years later, when everything made me cry, and I didn’t want to leave the house. Next, we have the anniversary of mum dying, and the grief for her being missing. Finally, we have the guilt at where we decide to spend Christmas – whoever doesn’t see us will be disappointed, and if we don’t see anyone and just run off together, that’s bound to cause arguments.

So when I feel more depressed than usual in December, how can I communicate all this to anyone who doesn’t know me well enough, or hasn’t got time to read all this?

I say ‘my Mum died at Christmas’. It seems socially acceptable to be upset about this. It’s definitely better than ‘I find Christmas socially awkward and overwhelming’ or ‘Christmas has a wealth of bad memories and associations for me’.

I’m just not sure for how many years after her death this will be socially acceptable – then again, there won’t ever be a time I won’t miss Mum.

Small Victories

15 Sep

Today I woke up to an email which freaked me out. It made me want to stay in bed.

We had plans to go to Saltaire to the festival, as a friend was doing a craft fair in amongst it. I wanted to see her and give her a hug, she’s having a tough week. But this email freaked me out – I wanted to stay in bed.

VICTORY NUMBER ONE – I got out of bed, and got showered and dressed straightaway.

We drove to Saltaire, and the traffic was madness. Loads of roads were closed, and it was hard to find parking. The streets were crowded with people, and I was worried I’d run someone over. I started feeling terrible, and didn’t want to stay in Saltaire.

VICTORY NUMBER TWO – we parked the van and got out.

Walking through the crowds, we couldn’t find where we were meant to go. The streets were still swamped, we asked people where we were going and no one seemed to know. I wanted to just go home again.

VICTORY NUMBER THREE – we stayed until we found the craft fair.

After we’d seen her we decided to go and get some lunch. I didn’t know where to go, there were no accessible cafes nearby. All I wanted to do was go home, and get back in bed and eat a ham sandwich.

VICTORY NUMBER FOUR – we went to a pub for a pub lunch

These small victories are what people who feel the way I do at the moment need to grab onto – I could have done different things at all these four points, but I challenged myself. Even though I didn’t buy anything at the craft fair, or spend that long in Saltaire, I didn’t stay in bed. I’m congratulating myself for that.