Random Musings: Going up and Coming down

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It is the end of the summer, the August Bank Holiday weekend. I am nearing the end of my fourth, big summer read and I am hibernating from the world. It has been a summer of highs and lows.

We managed only a few days away; once again there was no big family holiday this year. The children could not agree on where they wanted to go or commit to dates when they would be free. Even the weekend we booked was boycotted by elder son who preferred to stay home alone than come away with us. At least this precluded the need to organise a chicken sitter as he can be trusted to look after our feathered friends.

Yet these difficult to please children provided me with the major highlight of the season when they managed to achieve straight A’s in their exams. Elder son can now apply to the universities to which he aspires. After two years of focused effort daughter will be going up to medical school in October. I am so incredibly proud of their achievements.

I announced to the world that daughter had achieved her dream and was accused of crowing. Other friends quickly stepped in to reassure me that I had every right to feel proud. My view? It would be sad if, after dealing with all the crud that teenagers throw at their parents, we were not permitted to take enjoyment from their successes.

Life goes on. After the highs of family celebrations came the inevitable low. I have been through this often enough to know that it will pass but have still to deal with the noises in my head. I unfold each of my strategies: good food, regular exercise, fresh air, early nights. The lethargy of body and relentless questioning that anxiety brings drain my reserves.

Thank goodness for my books. I have read some wonderful works this summer. I discovered Urbane Publishers who sent me ‘Leaves’ and ‘Eden Burning’, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Another small, independent publisher, Influx Press, sent me two non fiction works which turned out to be fascinating reads; look out for ‘Imaginary Cities’ and ‘Total Shambles’. I had the big books set aside for summer to enjoy: ‘Purity’, ‘The Bone Clocks’, ‘Wolf Hall’ and the incredible ‘A Little Life’. And then there were a slew of less demanding but still thoroughly enjoyable works. I have written reviews for them all, do check them out.

We now have this long weekend at home before school resumes for my boys. Both are entering academic years which will culminate in yet more important exams. Daughter will be with us for another month before going up to Imperial College in London. There will be shopping to do, packing for her move and then the challenge of a drive into the city to settle her into her new home. Husband is already saying that he does not wish to deal with the inevitable difficulties of traffic and parking so I, the reluctant driver, will be taking on this challenge.

Life goes on. I received no new books in the post this week. My husband is pleased as he tuts at the size of my overflowing TBR mountain. He is not a reader. He does not understand. Although I feel no entitlement to ARCs the buzz of receiving them never diminishes. When a publicist offers me a book and it does not then arrive a little part of me shrivels. Do I not write good enough reviews? Is my readership not big or diverse enough? I comfort myself with the thought of the books which I already own that I can now read instead.

I had planned to attend an event last week to hear an author, whose book I enjoyed over the summer, talk about her work. Then my little car died. Husband diagnosed the problem, ordered the necessary part and left elder son to fit it. I was dubious but he did a careful, effective job and my car is once again on the road. I should have more faith.

I should have more faith in myself. That is my biggest challenge.

 

 

Random Musings: Mental health and genetics

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‘What have you got to feel miserable about?’

‘No point in wallowing in self-pity, why can’t you just snap out of it?’

One of my good friends has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. When she first told me this news she mentioned that her mother had the illness too. She was seeing first hand what her future may be if medical research does not advance. I mentioned genetics. It was absolutely the wrong thing to say. My friend has children and reacted with horror at the thought that this previously unknown flaw in her makeup could be passed on to them.

When I first started suffering from anxiety I wrote about it in my blog. One of my cousins responded that her mother, my mother’s sister, had also been anxious. It made me think about a possible genetic link. It caused me concern that I may pass on a propensity for this miserable malady to my children.

In my younger days I self harmed. Not often and never life threateningly but cutting myself provided relief from the very real pain that my dark thoughts triggered. I often considered suicide. I made one attempt with pills in my twenties but regretted it before I had swallowed enough to do damage. The body’s demand for survival is strong.

I did not speak of this to anyone. I felt ashamed. I believed that I would be regarded as an attention seeker. In my head I could hear the voices of the many who opined that those who truly wish to commit suicide succeed.

When my babies were born, three children in three and a half years, my life became too exhausting for me to think about much other than our day to day survival. I realised how alone I was. All around me other mothers appeared to be coping. I observed their social lives, the cakes they baked, the committees they sat on, the crafts they made. I felt a failure. I put on my outside face and tried hard not to complain. Always there would be someone worse off than me, those with money worries or a sick child. I took every implied criticism of my parenting choices personally, storing it all away to berate myself with later.

I still feel my stomach clench and nausea rise when I remember a situation where I said or did something that I subsequently construed as foolish. As a child, a teenager, throughout my adult life there are decades of foolishness that I struggle to set aside. I suffer palpitations, cold sweats, occasional panic attacks when asked to face certain, very ordinary, situations. There is no sense to any of this. Mountains made out of molehills still have to be climbed. Sometimes the energy to do so cannot be found.

I have never sought medical help. Although I have suicidal thoughts from time to time I would not do that to my children. No matter how utterly worthless I may feel at times I accept my duty as their mother.

My worry is that I have passed this on to them. What if my genetic legacy includes a switch that will one day cause my offspring to feel as I do? There is love in this house but will that be enough to ward off the worst effects of this imbalance?

There are those who are working hard to raise awareness of mental health issues and to challenge the stigma that it carries. So many have notions of justification and blame. They judge and find the mentally unwell guilty, although rarely as guilty as the sufferers find themselves.

I know that I am lucky. My issues are mild and generally manageable. I recognise my problems and many of their triggers. I avoid adverse situations where I can and have strategies for self help. It is only in my darkest moments that I feel overwhelmed.

My children’s genetic heritage includes a familial propensity for heart disease, stroke and various cancers. I feel no particular guilt for these as we must all die of something eventually. There are many in the family who have lived well into old age. I hope and pray that my children may be amongst this number.

I suspect that my fears for their mental health stem more from the issues surrounding quality of life. Parents wish to see their children happy. Anxiety and depression can kill, but for most sufferers it is the living that is the challenge.

Random Musings: Worry

I worry.

I worry about being late, about getting lost, about having to face my husband with a speeding fine if I accidentally drive over the limit, or a parking fine if I am delayed and stay longer than my prepaid time in a car park. I worry that I will be blamed.

I worry that my children will see me as dull or foolish and think that this is typical of a mother, a woman. I worry that my husband will see me as dull or foolish and decide to leave. I worry that I will express myself badly and cause offence or that my silence will suggest agreement with something I find offensive.

I worry about losing my muse, about the quality of my writing. I worry about not reading the books I have requested for review as fast as is required. I worry that my review will cause pain to the writer who may think I do not appreciate how awesome it is to have created an entire book and had it published. I want to remind them that each reader is unique and nothing is ever universally adored.

I worry that I will get sick and inconvenience my nearest and dearest, cost our beleaguered health service a foolish amount for treatment that merely delays the inevitable. When it is my time to leave this earth may I depart quickly and quietly, no fuss as I slip away. I worry that I will waste other’s time and money.

I worry about letting my family down, about not fulfilling my duties as wife and mother. I worry that I have lost whatever it was that drew my husband to marry me, that I have allowed it to be submerged under all of my worries.

Shortly after my second child was born I went to the supermarket with my toddler daughter and young baby. When we returned I parked my car in the driveway of our home and carried the sleeping infant to his crib before returning to unload the bags of groceries. My daughter had climbed out of the car and, in my mind’s eye, had accompanied me into the house. Now she was nowhere to be seen.

I searched the house, checked the car, walked around the garden calling for her. I looked up and down our road and in neighbour’s driveways. From a mild irritation that she had not followed me as expected I moved to a concern over where she could have gone. It did not take long for full blown panic to set in. Retrieving her brother from his crib I locked the house and set off on a frantic search.

I worried. I worried that she would wander in front of a car, that she would fall in a pond, that some stranger would see my beautiful little child and whisk her away from me forever. I worried about how on earth I would explain to my husband that I had lost his beloved daughter. I had one job, one important job, and I had failed.

This story has a happy ending. A stranger had noticed my little girl as she toddled alone down a neighbouring street. He saw me and stopped to ask if I was looking for this child, pointing me in the right direction; stranger need not always mean danger. As I rushed to find her a friend who had been watching for me came out of her house with my daughter. She had seen her alone, known this was not as it should be, and taken her in to safety until I could be located. She offered me a brandy, concerned at my shaking and ghostly face.

I worry about being responsible, about doing the wrong thing. I worry that I will make a decision to act and it will not be what was expected or required. I worry about being blamed.

And I am blamed: for preparing and cooking the same boring meals or presenting a change that is not enjoyed; for trying to discuss a topic when my detailed knowledge is lacking; for not being as smart as my former achievements suggest I should be. I am berated for not fitting enough approved activities into my day or for not being always available and willing to do as others wish. I am blamed for not meeting the expectations that they have of me.

Occasionally I will book outings for myself to events that do not interest those I love. I work hard to minimise the inconvenience this causes them but still worry at my selfishness.

I worry.

When did I get like this? When did the smart, independent, young woman I used to be turn into this worrier?

Perhaps I would worry more if I did not recall that that smart, independent, young woman had her own, very different demons to contend with. My worries are a burden, but only because I am no longer so alone.

 

worry

 

 

 

Panic attack

Monday morning just before 6am. I could have slept in today, what with the children being off school for the holidays. My body clock does not understand this change in routine. My husband left a cup of tea on my bedside table when he left for work so I sit up to enjoy it, firing up my social networks to see what the rest of the world has been doing. And there it is, a simple status update. I have tried so hard to make my loved ones understand the impact that such events have on me. I see the exasperation in their faces, that they think I am making an unnecessary fuss, that I should just stop behaving like this.

If only I could.

*

Anxiety is something that we all experience from time to time. Most people can relate to feeling tense, uncertain and, perhaps, fearful at the prospect of certain events or situations that they find stressful. This type of short-term anxiety can be useful. For example, feeling nervous before an exam can make you feel more alert and enhance your performance. However, if the feelings of anxiety overwhelm you, your ability to concentrate and do well may suffer.

When you feel under threat anxiety and fear can protect you from danger by triggering the release of hormones such as adrenalin. Adrenalin causes your heart to beat faster to carry blood to where it is most needed. You breathe faster to provide the extra oxygen required for energy. You sweat to prevent overheating. Your mouth may feel dry as your digestive system slows down to allow more blood to be sent to your muscles. Your senses become heightened and your brain becomes more alert.

These changes make your body able to take action and protect you in a dangerous situation either by running away or fighting. It is known as the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. Once the danger has passed, other hormones are released, which may cause you to shake as your muscles start to relax.

This response is useful for protecting you against physical dangers. The response is not so useful if you want to run away from a stressful situation where there is no physical threat. If you have no need to physically run away or fight, the effects of adrenaline subside more slowly, and you may go on feeling agitated for a long time.

If the anxiety stays at a high level then you may feel that it is difficult to deal with everyday life. The anxiety may become severe; you may feel powerless, out of control. Sometimes, if the feelings of fear overwhelm you, you may experience a panic attack.

A panic attack is an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement. It is the rapid build-up of overwhelming sensations, such as a pounding heartbeat, feeling faint, sweating, nausea, chest pains, breathing discomfort, feelings of losing control and shaky limbs. It can be a frightening experience.

If something distressing happened to you in the past and you were unable to deal with your emotions at the time then you may become anxious about facing similar situations again in case they stir up the same feelings of distress. Some theories suggest that you may inherit a tendency to be more anxious, and so it is a part of your personality.

Anxiety can have an effect on both your body and your mind.

Physical effects

Short-term:

  • Increased muscular tension can cause achiness.
  • Rapid breathing may make you feel light-headed and shaky.
  • Rising blood pressure can make you more aware of a pounding heart.
  • Changes in the blood supply to your digestive system may cause nausea.

Long-term:

  • Fear combined with tension and lack of sleep can weaken your immune system, lowering your resistance to infection.
  • You may experience digestive difficulties.
  • You may feel depressed.

Psychological effects

Anxiety can make you more fearful, alert, on edge, irritable, and unable to relax or concentrate. You may feel an overwhelming desire to seek the reassurance of others, to be weepy and dependent.

The way you think can be affected: if you fear that the worst is going to happen, you may start to see everything negatively and become very pessimistic. If your anxiety is severe then you may find it difficult to develop or maintain good relationships, or simply to enjoy leisure time. Sleep problems may make your anxious feelings even worse and reduce your ability to cope.

For some people, anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it takes over their lives. They may experience severe or very frequent panic attacks, or have a persistent sense of anxiety. Some people may develop a phobia about going out or may withdraw from contact with people, even their family and friends.

*

Like many mental issues, understanding the causes and effects does little to remove the stigma attached. We are expected to just get on with it, to accept what is happening and stop making such a fuss. Others cope fine with far more challenging situations. We are at fault.

I have to make choices. I can try to take control, look after myself, and risk seriously annoying my loved ones in the process. Or I can try to do what is easiest for everyone but me, and thus risk a recurrence of this panic. The thought of that makes my heart beat stupidly fast, the nausea threatens to overwhelm me.

I don’t yet know what I shall do. I want to escape but where could I go? I feel such a failure for not being able to deal with this rationally. Sometimes just keeping on living is so hard.

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Numbers

Some people go to parties to socialise, or to organised groups, both formal and informal. They make music or things, exercise or discuss books; they get together with like minded people to enjoy their company, chat and hang out. They meet up with friends, get to know new faces, catch up on gossip and each other’s lives. Man is a sociable creature who thrives when welcomed and accepted by others.

For much of my adult life I did not question that this was the way I should live. I agonised over my inability to gain acceptance into any close friendship group. I had friends but we were not open with each other, not in the way I had been conditioned to think we should be.

And then, when I finally found my way into a clique, I discovered that I still struggled. I could go through the motions of attending and hosting the small and larger events as expected, but would worry afterwards about the detail of the things that I had said or done. I would do my best to cover my growing anxiety, but enjoyment was marred by the after effects as I suffered increasing bouts of mental self-flagellation.

Withdrawing from this way of life was not a concious decision but an act of self preservation. I could no longer cope with the days spent trying to deal with the growing anguish that followed each social encounter. No matter how often I told myself that my reaction was foolish and unnecessary, it was still all too real to me. The turmoil had become more than I could bear; I needed to allow myself space to be calm and peaceful.

I still very much enjoy getting together with a friend. I can cope with a walk or a meal out when it is with one or two people. Although I will still feel concern about what I have said and how I have come across at times, I do not wish to avoid society entirely.

I find it interesting that, given my anxiety when dealing with people face to face, the space in which I am most comfortable socially is on line. I know many people who feel that social networks are too public to allow them to relax; I know a few who are appalled that I share so much.

There are aspects of my on line presence, however, that give me cause to question my acceptance in this community. None of my many accounts are followed by large numbers of people; does this mean that I am lacking in some way? I do not agonise over the numbers but rather mull over what they may mean.

I do not know how one gains a following in cyber space. My Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest accounts are all as public as this blog, yet attract little attention. It is only on my Facebook account that I actively manage the privacy settings. Even there the numbers tell a tale; I know all who I have befriended on the site but am not accepted as a friend by all I know.

There are many little homilies and sayings that pop up from time to time entreating us to take notice only of those who offer acceptance of what we are and to avoid those who bring us down. I wonder what it says about me that I am of interest to so few. I am wondering if the numbers matter.

It is not good for my mental health to dwell too much on what others may think of me. I wish to grow as a person; to be kind, understanding and accepting of others. When I look to improve my knowledge and to question why I think as I do I value input. For this I need interaction, yet I struggle to cope with that which is offered; to attract attention from the like minded individuals who must be out there.

Yesterday evening I was trying to discuss a book I am reading with my husband. He was nodding and making all the appropriate noises in response to my enthusiastic comments but, as I continued, I could see his interest wane. He had not read the book and had no views to impart. When I converse with others it too often feels like this; I am eagerly trying to share but am choosing the wrong audience. It is not that I am disliked, but that I struggle to tailor my interactions in a mutually satisfying way.

And that is my lack. Others seem to slip so naturally into discourse with whoever they are with. Perhaps that is why I struggle face to face when I can read the body language and worry about how I am being perceived, or when I know that I will torment myself afterwards with anxiety over whatever verbal diarrhea my nervousness caused me to impart.

On line there is just as much scope to appear foolish but it is the reader’s choice to follow or friend; to interact or ignore. And so we are back to those numbers. I love that I can use my social networks to keep in touch with my family and friends in far flung places; those who I would choose to see more of if distance were not an issue. Perhaps I ask too much in expecting to use cyber space in any other way. Perhaps I am asking more of myself than I am capable of being.

An example of a social network diagram.

Security and control

There I was; sitting feet up on a sofa in my sunny, family room yesterday afternoon; cup of coffee by my side; searching the internet for some pertinent information that I needed for a piece of writing that I was working on; when a group of window cleaners appeared unexpectedly in my back garden. From feeling relaxed and engrossed in my work I moved to a state of moderate anxiety. My space had been invaded.

If I did not pay someone else to clean our windows then the job would never get done. When I lived on my own this was how I chose to live, but my husband notices dirt on windows and it bothers him. Thus I must put up with the monthly visits from the window enhancement specialists, even though their presence makes me feel uncomfortable. They are friendly and efficient in their work so give me no reason for concern, but I still dislike their visits. When I hear them approach with their clanking ladders and buckets I feel the urge to pull down the blinds and hide until they are gone. In the event I fight this foolishness and embark on some useful activity. My house is now cleaner inside than it would have been had they not made an appearance yesterday afternoon.

My privacy is very important to me. I can only truly relax when I know that I am alone and unobserved. I would not wish to live a life of complete solitude as I value the company of my family and friends, but I am only at complete ease when on my own. I sometimes think that I would make rather a good hermit.

When in the company of other people there is an expectation that one will behave in a certain way. Parents are encouraged to teach their children by example so must try to behave appropriately. Friends will be interested in certain aspects of one’s life but probably not the minutiae of every passing thought, so a mental filter is required to produce conversation that it is hoped will be of interest. Only the closest of family members will be happy to listen to the random, free range discourse that can be emitted from a head stuffed full of thoughts on and opinions about everything that has been read or seen in a given period of time. I am never as satisfied with the verbal conversations that I have as with the internal discussions that precede them. The spoken word is rarely my friend.

Growing up in Belfast it was common practice for my regular companions and I to call at each other’s houses unannounced. Whether the visit was planned or spontaneous there seemed no need to forewarn. Perhaps this harked back to the days before all houses had telephones, but popping in for a quick visit was an expected occurrence. When I moved to England I was vexed that I found it so hard to make new friends. I could easily arrange to go out and socialise with a number of people, but nobody ever called round to visit me at home. In the early days of my new life I would surprise my new acquaintances by appearing on their doorsteps; they always seemed a little put out when this happened so I soon abandoned the habit. It would seem that I have now conformed to the established reserve of my adopted countrymen, and have probably taken it even further as the years have passed by. It is rare indeed for me to call on anyone without forewarning them of my intention; an unexpected call at my door causes uneasiness more often than the eager anticipation that I would once have felt.

I suspect that the reason for this change in my behaviour is my need to feel in control of my life. So much of what I do is dictated by the needs of my significant others. I have freely chosen to share what I am with them, but find the cost can sometimes be difficult to bear. I need to guard a space and time for myself if I am to find the inner contentment that allows me to be a better person for all. I need to feel the security of self acceptance; to be allowed some measure of choice in how I live and how I spend my time. Too often it feels as though others are making decisions for me with which I am uncomfortable.

My best days are still those that I spend enjoying life with my family and friends. The memories that provide the highlights when I look back on what I have done are the events that I embarked upon with others of my choosing. However, just as we need to feel well rested before we may fully enjoy an activity, so must I give myself time alone before I can fully appreciate the benefits of company. I also find, more and more as I get older, that I can relax only with those that I have freely chosen to spend time with. For me, having that control can make the difference between anxiety and eager anticipation of an event. I need to be granted the freedom to live my own life as I choose.

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Free to be me