Tuesday, 10 September 2013

We need to talk about Helen

As I type this blogpost there is an entire conference taking place in London with the sole purpose of saving my life ... yes, it's the How Can We Save Helen Harrop? conference and approximately 100 delegates there will be discussing how they can to apply the findings of a five year research project in order to prevent me from killing myself.

Of course I'm exaggerating for comedic effect, the conference hasn't been held purely to discuss how to save my life, there's a *slightly* wider remit than that ;-) But given that I currently find myself once again in the icy clutches of a suicidal crisis it does mean I have a very larger than average personal interest in what's going on there.

Over the past week I've watched as hundreds of tweets in my twitter stream shouted loudly about the fast approaching World Suicide Prevention Day - All full of very worthy sentiments and proclamations about 'tackling stigma' and 'getting people talking' and 'saving lives'. I don't have any problem with any of that sentiment but I do find myself doubtful about whether any of that admirable sentiment will lead to a reduction in the number of suicides.

I don't doubt that the stigma around suicide meant that I put off seeing my GP for months but the brutal truth is that for all the stigma-busting I've been doing by seeing my GP, seeing a therapist, and with the people I know in real life, through Bettakultcha presentations (not once, but twice), via a published book chapter, on twitter and here on my blog, I still find myself standing to all practical intents and purposes alone in my fight to save my own life. Yes I have wonderful friends, family and colleagues who all know what I'm going through but I don't think it's being unfair of me to suggest that for the most part they have no idea what to say or do in order to help me through my dark night.

Yesterday I went for a check-up with my GP and to update him on my rapidly declining mental health. We talked about the 18 month waiting list I'm facing before I can find out if CBT sessions will help me. I fought back tears as I explained with a violently shaking voice that asking for help and then being told I have to wait for more than a year was making me feel like my life wasn't that important. My GP was as patient and sympathetic as ever but in the face of my suffering he effectively shrugged his shoulders and admitted that there just wasn't any funding to help me. In retrospect the question I should have asked is 'What if money was no object? What would you be advising me to do then?' At least then my husband and I can make a pragmatic decision about what we do with our combined income this year ... pay off the mortgage or gamble it on expensive private therapy.

Actually I already have an idea of what that advice would be because my therapist gave me that advice earlier in the year - An intensive course of individual and group therapy involving Dialectical Behaviour techniques which would be centred around helping me recover the self which was forced into hiding during a childhood that appears to have left me suffering from complex post-traumatic stress/personality disorder symptoms. Price tag: £14,000 per year. [which coincidentally is approximately the same as my entire annual salary after tax]

Or maybe I could save up and take a chance on the Hoffman Process which looks like it would be helpful and claims to have helped 95,000 people worldwide to turn their lives around, including none other than Thandie Newton and Goldie. Price tag: approx £3,000

Or maybe I could start seeing my therapist again or start again with a new therapist. Price tag: approx £2,500 per year

And not forgetting the approx £100 a year for my current anti-melancholy prescription that I'll need to keep paying on top of whatever path I choose.

And maybe I'd gradually find that I'm well enough to work full time again and every single pound and every single hour I'd spent on therapy would have been totally worth it. Or maybe I'll just be another £10,000 poorer but at least I would still be alive, albeit still in utter anguish. Who knows? Spin the wheel and place your bets. Whatever way I play it the house will certainly win.

I'm sure the funding situation is worse, or better, or just different in other parts of the world and in other areas of the UK but I get the impression that services here in York are currently stretched to breaking. I made contact with the local Mind office last Friday to see what support and advice they might be able to offer and I'm yet to hear back from them [update, they phoned me yesterday afternoon]. I stumbled across the York Women's Counselling Service yesterday but it looks like they can't even add me (or anyone else) to a waiting list at the moment (and it looks like they haven't been able to since March). It takes an awful lot for me to ask for help but at the moment it feels like whenever I do it leads to a door with a solid brick wall behind it. It's making me wonder whether I'm looking in the wrong places or simply not using exactly the right words I need to use when I finally ask for help. Or maybe that's just my depression talking.

So today, on World Suicide Prevention Day, I feel like running through the streets of York shouting at the top of my lungs: "My name is Helen. I am Suicidal and I am Standing. Right. In. Front. Of. You!" 

But no, I won't do that, because I was raised to be as invisible and as silent as I possibly could be in order to try and stay out of harms way. So I will sit here and I will wait and I will try to my hardest to keep up hope while I continue to work as hard as I can at trying to save the only life I can. And all the while I will try to stave off the nagging fear that I am doomed to become a news headline on the front of our local paper: 'NHS Fails Tragic York Suicide Woman'

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Nurturing my hopeful monsters

The latest donation to my Saving the Only Life I Can comes courtesy of Matt Wicking, who is the lead singer from the Australian band The General Assembly. I fell heavily heart-first into their music when I saw Matt performing at my first Uncivilisation Festival in 2011. I hadn't yet mustered the courage to contact Matt and ask for his permission to include General Assembly tracks in my creative project but happily he fortuitously and unexpectedly materialised in front of me at this years Uncivilisation (which I was at last month). I excitedly bounded up to Matt and blathered away at him about wanting to use his music for my Saving the Only Life I Can project. I waxed lyrical about how much one of the tracks from The General Assembly's Dark Mountain Music EP had meant to me at the depths of my depression. He generously said an unreserved yes pretty much straight away and then he asked me which track I was talking about ... my mind went blanker than a very blank thing and I couldn't even recall a single lyric ... it was totally mortifying. We hastily agreed that it was probably the track 'Wildwood' I was talking about and left it that. For the next few days of the festival I wracked my brains trying to remember *any* of the lyrics that had purportedly meant so much to me during my darkness last year.

Of course the moment I was back in York and safely out of blathering range of Matt I remembered ... it was the whole gosh-darned EP that had been a life raft for me. Wildwood was indeed thickly rich with lyrics that resonated with me:
"Got me searching for the answers on the forest floor" 
"And now I don't know where I'm going and I don't know where I've been so it's hard to find a place where I fit in" 
"I’m searching for a feeling that might not even exist. It’s like looking for a fog in the middle of a mist. I’ve got a compass in my pocket and a watch on my wrist but I’m lost." 
"And nothing's keeping me from losing all the things I've learnt so I'm lost." 
"Now I don’t want to search no more, for an answer I don’t know no more than I did when I started, don’t want it keeping me awake no more"
You can listen to the track 'Wildwood' here [it's featured on Dark Mountain's 'From the Mourning of the World' LP]:

But every other track on that General Assembly EP had lines in them that seemed to be speaking directly to me too:
"Too nervous to talk, too scared to be silent" 
"We're howling in the mountains, burning bones, firing up flares, calling you home." 
"The story starts at the end of everything."  
"The thought of thinking it just makes you ill. Your mouth is moving but your mind is still." 
"You aim at nothing and give it all you've got" 
"It's what your body won't forget and your mind can't understand. The only way out is through. The only way in is under. If you try to measure it you're bound to lose. If you run from it you won't discover [...]" 
"So hold on, just hold on, hold on, hold on. Yeah hold on, just hold on, hold on."
You can listen to the whole of The General Assembly's 'Dark Mountain Music' EP:

In fact it was the last track on that EP, Hopeful Monsters, that helped to keep me afloat. I remember singing the 'hold on' lines at full voice with hot tears flowing down my cheeks on more than one occasion. It still brings a lump to my throat when I listen to it now.

Listening to the EP (for the hundredth-plus time) again it strikes me that there's something more than the lyrics alone resonating with my bones - There's a beautifully mournful quality to the music and at times Matt's voice sounds like a wounded animal which has taken human form - His voice spoke to the wounded animal in me that wanted to just curl up and howl silently into the forest floor.

Huge thanks to Matt for giving me permission to include these tracks even though I couldn't recall a single lyric or song title when I barrelled up to him at the Uncivilisation festival last month :)

Incidentally you should tarry not, go sally forth and dive deep into Matt's solo project, Huckleberry Mockingbird, which is the name that he sings, blogs and poets under. If you find yourself moved by murmurations, silence, funeral parlours, childhood or imperfection then you will find yourself very much at home on his blog.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Semi-suicidal - first draft

Something has kept me silent in recent months - I'm not entirely sure what that something is but I think a large part of it is the fact that I couldn't bring myself to tell you how dark things have got for me again. The 'conquering hero' persona felt so comfortable that I didn't wan't to admit how distant that identity was becoming. When I first wrote my contribution to 'Our Encounters with Suicide' in October 2012 I felt safer than I had for many many years - In fact I felt pretty much bullet-proof. I'm not sure what changed or why it changed but Our Encounters with Suicide has now gone to print and it's gutting that I can no longer relate very strongly to the final paragraphs. But the good news is that my latest medication seems to be helping (third time lucky!) and I've felt completely safe for more than a week so I'm pretty optimistic about everything right now.

You can read the first draft of my chapter in full below - I'm hoping that the editors have tidied up the glaring errors but it's fairly readable as it stands. The only feedback I had during the submission process was "It's fine" so I have no idea if it's any good but I feel something approximating pride when I read it back so hopefully it will be kindly received and hold it's own alongside the other chapters. I'm still waiting for permission to republish this on my blog but I'll leave it here unless I get asked to take it down. You can order the full book via PCCS's website: http://www.pccs-books.co.uk/products/our-encounters-with-suicide/#.UfePcFFk--K 

"I am standing by the sink in our kitchen. I am holding a knife in my right hand. I am pressing the very tip of the blade hard against the artery that runs up my left wrist. I want to puncture the vein and let some blood flow but my skin is unyielding and resists my efforts. I am not trying to kill myself but a part of me wants to know how easy it will be to slit open that vein if I do decide to die. I’m disheartened to discover that it will be much harder than I have imagined.

Arguably this is the closest I have come to acting on my suicidal impulses. Looking back I can see that it represents the summit of a mountain that I have been desperately trying not to climb and yet somehow I find myself standing here pressing a knife into my wrist. I shrug off my death wish once more and carry on unloading our dishwasher.

At that moment it was less than six months since my GP had diagnosed me with severe chronic depression and prescribed the minimum daily dose of Citalopram. I was now up to the maximum dosage of 30mg and the safety net that I had hoped anti-depressants would provide has failed to materialise. In one of our weekly sessions I tell my therapist that I feel as though I wake up every morning looking into the abyss and have to spend the rest of the day inching my way back from the cliff’s edge. And then I go to bed, eventually fall asleep and wake up the next morning to find myself at the cliff’s edge once more.

I’d been battling with this death wish for much of my adult life but by this point it had evolved from an occasional intrusive brutal thought, often involving being instantly wiped out by a passing lorry, to thoughts that were becoming more frequent, more deliberate and more insistent. And there was a voice that had started accompanying the thoughts. The voice had started repeatedly whispering “Do It!” as a train pulled into the platform or as a bus hurtled by at the traffic lights. So far another voice inside me had always dismissed the whisper but that voice seemed to be fading fast and the whispering voice was getting louder. I am terrified that the whispering voice will win out, deeply ashamed that I seem to be failing at the simple task of being human and exhausted by my seemingly Sisyphean struggle. More than anything I just want the battle to be over – one way or the other.

In truth I wasn’t scared of dying but I was scared of the legacy my suicide would leave behind for the people I knew. Particularly those I loved; my husband. My twin sister. My mum. My grandma. My older sister and her young children (who are still struggling to cope with the unexpected death of my brother-in-law). My aunts, uncles and my cousins. My best friend. My work colleagues. My therapist. My wider circle of friends.  My next door neighbours. Even the 2000 people who followed me on Twitter. I worried that one day I would stop worrying about what my death would do to them. Because when that day arrived I would be free to jump. In a notebook I wrote: “too scared to live, too brave to die”.  But I didn’t feel brave – I felt pathetic and I felt trapped by my own cowardice. I wanted to not exist, to stop breathing, to fade away – I did not want to take my own life. I couldn’t bring myself to commit to suicide but by this point it was the only solution that held any hope. I wanted my death to be painless, painless for me and painless for those I would be leaving behind. My fear of a failed attempt and of the suffering a successful attempt would cause for those who know me were the only things keeping me alive. One day I was hit by the realisation that the only way I could kill myself without hurting anyone else would be to take the entire planet out with me – the thought was absurd, brutal, deeply shocking and it was the first glimpse I got of the deeply buried anger that lay beneath my depression and my tendency towards self-destruction.

At the time I had no idea of how close to the edge I was in reality and whether I would ever act on my suicidal impulses but I stepped up the precautionary measures I’d been taking for years – While waiting at tube stations in London I’d force myself to stand with my back pressed against the back wall away from the platform edge until the arriving train has come to a halt. When my husband handed me a large box of 400mg ibuprofen I took one strip from the box and asked him to store the rest at work. And as the deathly whispering got louder I devised delaying tactics and made bargains with myself to buy extra time – I started knitting a blanket 400 stitches wide and internally agreed not to kill myself before the blanket was finished.

I clung onto lines from songs, poems and books as if they were life rafts, all the while staying almost silent about my battle to everyone except my GP, my therapist, my husband, my twin sister. Everyone I met on a day to day basis would scarcely have suspected I had depression let alone guess that I was suicidal – it is no wonder that depression is sometimes called ‘the grinning madness’. I lived in fear of anyone uttering the phrase “are you *okay*?” with anything close to genuine concern – I was convinced that I would completely fall apart. The silence is cast iron, completely self-imposed and I didn’t consider breaking it for even a moment.

I’m walking across Ouse Bridge on my way home from work. I stop half way across to stare into the barely moving, thick inky water below. I feel the weight of the laptop and other belongings in the rucksack I’m carrying on my back. I’m certain that if I walk back over the bridge and make my way to the river’s edge then I can slip into that inviting darkness and disappear with barely a ripple; the weight of my rucksack enough to drag me down to the river bed.
The impulse is echoed in the opening lines from an unfinished poem I’d scrawled on the back of an envelope a few months beforehand:

Let’s fill our pockets
With the rocks we find
And take our tears
Back to the sea;

We’ll walk into the river,
We’ll walk into the stream,
We’ll walk to the bottom
Of the wave-ridden lake;

We’ll wait in the depths
With our faith, hope and dreams;
Until the bubbles stop rising,
Until the air leaves our lungs,
Until we breathe our last breath,
Until our desolation drowns.
My thoughts are jolted back to reality; someone might see me going under. Or someone might jump in to save me.  And that someone might lose their life trying to save mine. I shrug the thoughts away and carry on home but as I walk away I launch an internal investigation to try and establish what this morbid part of me thinks it will gain from sinking below the surface of the Ouse. I ask myself what I was feeling as I looked down into the dark river and the response that comes back is immediate: a feeling of comfort, a sense of sanctuary. Shortly after that night I make contact with the Maytree Respite Centre in London; a sanctuary for the suicidal.

As I make my way across London to the Maytree Centre, on an unseasonaly warm and sunny morning in April 2012, I make one last bargain with myself – I won’t kill myself until after my stay at the Maytree. As my anxiety levels rise on the train, I put my headphones in my ears and cocoon myself in The Silent League’s songs to keep me safe during my journey. I arrive at their front door with a feeling that could best be described as chronic battle fatigue and I surrender myself completely to their care for five days.  While I’m there I sleep, talk, eat, knit, read, laugh and cry. In my cosy attic bedroom, in the sun-filled garden, at the dinner table and in the one-to-one therapy sessions I finally find the sanctuary I’ve been so desperately searching for. In one of the individual therapy sessions one of the directors tells me that she has a picture of me in her mind – I’m standing on the hellishly hot banks of a river and cannot bring myself to jump into the cool, revitalising waters of the stream that is running alongside me, even though I know how much better I will feel once I do. I worry that I will leave after four nights and will still be afflicted by the feeling of paralysis that has plagued me for so many years. On the sheet of paper left by my bedside table I write  “I have a river of tears trapped inside me” – I feel like I have both a volcano about to erupt and a dam about to burst inside me. A day later I scribble the words “I am already dead inside” and part of me realises that killing myself would be utterly pointless because something in me has already been murdered many, many years earlier. The thought is much more comforting than it probably sounds.

In one of my last one-to-one sessions the same director tells me she hopes that even though I can’t yet take off my armour she hoped that my time at the Maytree had at least thinned it out a little. As I prepare to leave the next day I feel like a different person. In fact I feel like a person full stop – I have a fledgling sense of self for the first time in living memory. And as my train back to York pulls out of Kings Cross Station I have a sense of ‘going home’ for the first time too.  I look out of the window and see a small stream glinting alongside the traintracks and I write in my notebook: “a river of kindness is following me home”

I still don’t understand exactly how or why but my persistent suicidal thoughts disappeared overnight, as if a switch in my head had been flipped to ‘off’ while I was sleeping – But I do know that I know longer see bridges, rivers, roads, train-lines, knives and painkillers are no longer weapons that I can use to kill myself. The void that I woke up next to every morning has also receded from view and the grinding, aching empty nothingness that I once felt is already hard to me to imagine. And I suddenly feel like I’ve not only discarded my battle-worn armour, I’ve removed myself from the battlefield completely.

When I look back at what I went through it is my self-imposed vow of silence that I still find chilling and I worry that if the darkness envelopes me again in the future I would stay silent once more. So I feel like I have a moral duty to break my own silence about what I went through while I can and also speak up about my experiences on behalf of those people who cannot yet bring themselves to reach out and let someone know that they are drowning inside. My weekly therapy sessions continue, possibly to be succeeded by group therapy sessions in the near future. I still have a lot of work to do around safeguarding myself and building a resilient sense of self but I no longer feel like I’m doing so on borrowed time – I now have my whole lifetime to unravel and embrace the mystery that makes me who I am."

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Dispatches from the edge of life

do not cut here  -----------

My words are going to be published in a book. Two thousand and nine of my words to be precise. They form a chapter entitled 'Semi-suicidal' which will appear in a book called 'Our Encounters With Suicide' later this year. I have always wanted to be a published author ... how strange that the lowest point of my life so far would be the inspiration for those words. I'll hopefully be able to share more of the chapter with you once it's been published but in the meantime here is the opening paragraph {Spoiler alert: I survive}:

"I am standing by the sink in our kitchen. I am holding a knife in my right hand. I am pressing the very tip of the blade hard against the artery that runs up my left wrist. I want to puncture the vein and let some blood flow but my skin is unyielding and resists my efforts. I am not trying to kill myself but a part of me wants to know how easy it will be to slit open that vein if I do decide to die. I’m disheartened to discover that it will be much harder than I have imagined."

Monday, 18 February 2013

Forty Days of Silence, or 'why I've given up tweeting for Lent'

I'm in danger of becoming a bit of a silence bore [exhibit A, exhibit B]. Luckily for you I'm only on day 5 of my 40 day twitter silence so my opportunities to badger you about it are somewhat limited until Easter arrives. But while I have your attention, let me tell you about silence and why I've given up tweeting for Lent.

For the last 18 months or so I have been anything but silent. First I broke my silence to a therapist, then to close friends and family, then to my GP, then to my managers at work, then to more friends and family, then to the kind staff and volunteers at the Maytree sanctuary for the suicidal, then to a room full of near strangers, then to the whole internet via my blog and twitter.

And then I realised that breaking my silence about depression and suicidal thoughts wasn't going far enough ... so I broke my silence on physical and emotional abuse, first to the world via my blog and twitter, then to my mum (hardly the ideal order to break the news but that's the order it happened in).

And then I ranted and raved on twitter and set out my vision for a kinder society. And then I ranted and raved a bit more.

why hold on with tears in our eyes?

And I found myself wondering whether all my silence breaking had really changed anything. And I wondered how many other people's stories need to be shared before anything changes. And that's when I thought I'd stay silent again instead and see if people would react more to my public silence than than they had to my public silence breaking. Putting it simply, I decided to yield the floor and stop talking about silence for a while to see what happens when I stop speaking up.

The main aim of my 40 day twitter silence is to raise awareness of silence and how it adds to the stigma experienced by abuse victims and those suffering from mental health conditions such as depression. If you'd like to support my 40 day twitter silence you can do that by sponsoring me or by simply talking to those in your immediate family and circle of friends about their mental health. The money you donate will go to the Maytree respite centre who helped me find my way back to the land of the living last year.

I'm not undertaking this twitter silence as a digital detox so I'm still looking at twitter and I'll be sending very occasional DMs to close friends. If that feels like I'm cheating then I'd like to politely suggest that you embark on your own twitter silence and make the rules for that as rigid as you'd like them to be ... and let me know about it so that I can sponsor you :-)

So anyway, enough words from me, please visit my Just Giving page and make a donation if you can spare the cash - but more importantly please talk about silence and get the support you need to break your own silence.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

It's time we talked about silence

We need to talk about silence. We need to talk about the way that silence kills loved ones. We need to talk about the way victims who break their silence find themselves re-silenced or turned away from. We need to understand who benefits from silence and who suffers. We need to notice the moments when we stay silent and uncover why we were so afraid of speaking that we swallowed down our words. We need to take individual responsibility for the times we silence other and the times we silence ourselves. We need to talk about silence. Let me start by telling you about mine.

My silence started young. In fact it started at birth when my twin sister and I arrived in the world two weeks early and I was born with 'primary atelectasis' (or 'lazy lung syndrome' as I prefer to call it). I don't know if military hospitals are particularly overcautious but before our mum had even woken up from surgery I had been baptised by the military chaplain. I'm not sure if I was put on a ventilator but if I was then I would have soundlessly been crying. In any case I almost certainly did not come out of our mother's womb with the customary vagitanus screams of a new born infant.

And then my silence deepened. My twin sister and I were in the neonatal intensive care unit for the first two weeks of our lives. I've only read fairly recently that a crying newborn will stop crying out within a matter of days if they are not attended to. That certainly sheds new light on our mum's observation that we were exceptionally well-behaved babies who very rarely cried throughout our early infancy. And I've also discovered over the past year that my challenging entry into the world, together with the impact of other traumatic childhood experiences, not only meant I was predisposed to becoming a future victim of abuse from day 1 but also that my life quality and life expectancy were somewhat dented from that moment on.

 we scream in silence

And so my silence continued through childhood. No one really even had to tell me to be silent, a single glance from an irate adult and I effortlessly silenced myself. But I also found ways to speak up ... unfortunately they were silent screams in a world that doesn't want to hear the voices of those who are suffering. Headaches, sleep walking, sleep talking, earache, sore throats, ravenous reading, fainting without warning, excelling at school, fitting in, seeking sanctuary and respite in the school sick bay and our local library. My school reports largely comment on what a "pleasant" child I was. But early on a teacher venomously asked me if I knew the meaning of  the word 'hypochondriac' and other teachers made it clear that I was trying too hard and my raised hand in class increasingly went ignored 'to give the other children a chance'. As the years went on I stayed silent through emotional abuse, bullying and intimidation. I stayed silent on the outside and put all my energy into trying to make sense of the world I found myself in on the inside. Tears and words swallowed down as easily as aspirin.

Through the eyes of a child my silence makes complete sense and, even though it didn't always keep me safe, it did keep me alive - even if I was simply surviving rather than thriving. Looking back now it is the silence of others that I find the silence of others most shocking. The doctor who diagnosed me with tension headaches, the teachers who didn't ask why I was trying so hard and worrying so much, close family who didn't ask my stepfather why it was necessary for young children to eat every meal in complete silence. And in recent years those who have responded to the news of my depression and anxiety first with sympathy and then with untold personal stories of their own suffering in silence. And also the silence of my current GP and the healthcare profession as a whole who seemingly have not once thought to tell me that the circumstances of my birth alone left me vulnerable to a profound sense of aloneness that would be very likely to lead me early to my grave, either at my own hand or as a result of the ghostly shadow my "early life adversity" is likely to have cast over my nervous system, my brain and my heart. It seems strange that when interventions to tackle the damaging after-effects of early adversity were first being rolled out, no one thought to ask 'and what of the walking wounded, the spirit murdered and those who harbour a terrified child within their soul? What of the damaged parents who will be taking these newly protected children home? What can we do to heal them? And what cost to humanity if they continue to roam the world unhealed?' Silence is met with deeper silence.

Silence told me I would be safe if I didn't talk back and that even rolling my eyes was a crime against my stepfather's authority. It told me that I was wrong to trust my innate sense of injustice and that I should ignore the swallowed down fury that made my throat hurt and my bones shake. Silence told me that the sky was not falling in and that threats to my safety came from strangers, not in my home. Silence told me not to shout for help, not to raise the alarm and not to cry unless I was alone. Silence told me I was invisible and that no-one was listening to my screams. Silence told me everything was okay. Silence became my home and silence nearly killed me.

I appreciate that my words above are veering dangerously close to being hyperbolic and maybe I am grossly overstating the risk. Maybe I'm not a fragile ticking timebomb after all. Maybe I should just shush up and get on with forgetting about the past. But the very fact that it feels like that's exactly what everyone hopes I will do makes me convinced that it's the last thing I should do. Maybe the new early life interventions will break the cycle of domestic violence, child abuse, rape, murder, poverty and despair ... or maybe we need to collectively break our silences and learn how to offer and receive solace rather than outsource our compassion to charities, experts and pharmaceutical companies. Maybe then we will stop having to bury people for the want of a shoulder to cry. Maybe then we can sit with our own suffering instead of reaching for the knife drawer, the wine bottle, the sleeping tablets or lashing out at our kith and kin, destroying someone else's sense of safety and security or travelling half way across the globe to lawfully murder other people's sons and daughters. Maybe then we'll see silencing ourselves and others as the most dangerous form of violence there is.

"Before you can exploit others you have to silence them." - Derrick Jensen

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The paralysed heart, the arrested soul

ready to jump

In my last blogpost I spilled my guts about things from my past that may have contributed to my descent into depression and suicidal thoughts. I also promised to share the legacy of those experiences - So in this blogpost I'm going to try and explain how my childhood experiences continue to reverberate through the years with some lightly sketched vignettes taken from my life:
  • It's September 2002. I'm standing bolt upright on a paddle board which is floating on the still waters of a small breeze-less bay in Skyros. I am desperately trying with every fibre of my being to either return to a sitting position or jump into the water but I can't bring myself to do either and I am rooted to the spot. I don't feel scared, I just feel ridiculous and aware that Mark (my then boyfriend, now husband) is getting increasingly angry with me. He's not angry because I can't jump, he's angry because my board is slowly drifting out to sea and out of his reach. I am frozen to the spot but his protective anger and worry finally gets through to me - I hesitantly make it down onto my knees, then into a seated position and we paddle back in near silence. Strangely, a friend who is watching from the shore, later tells me that to her I looked like a statue of the goddess Athena - gracefully floating towards the horizon with an air of aloof confidence.
  • A few years later I find myself standing in the reception area of a residential training college. It is late o'clock and I've left the bar so that a colleague can teach me to juggle, which I have always wanted to do but somehow never managed to. He hands me three juggling balls but, despite his gentle coaching and cajoling, I cannot bring myself to release any of them into the air. My colleague takes away one ball but still my hands and arms remain frozen and neither of the remaining balls makes it into the air. We are both laughing and I am convinced that any second I will release my grip on one of the balls. My colleague chuckles and, with a well-natured but despairing shake of his head, takes back a second ball. I am now standing with a single juggling ball in one hand and my other hand is empty, ready to try and catch it. Except I never manage to release that final ball into the air despite several minutes of my brain imploring my hand to 'just throw the jeffing ball already'. Our drunken laughter escalates into bewildered giggling at the absurdness of the situation we find ourselves in and I gradually deteriorate into teary hysterical laughter. My colleague accepts that his juggling coaching skills have met their match and we head back to the bar.
The scenes I've described above were not just real-life experiences - they also metaphorically represent a deep level of stuckness in my life ... I have a pervasively liminal feeling, like I am always on the edge, on the cusp, on the verge along with a sense that there is an invisible force holding me back from making progress on hopes and dreams that I rarely dare to consciously articulate. Earlier this year I was watching a PBS documentary called 'Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate' and one of the stories hit me like a thunderbolt. I was listening to Terri Jentz talk about her horrific experience of being attacked while camping with her college roommate and as she described the impact the single brutal trauma had on her life many years later:
"I had a feeling of stuckness, of paralysis, a loss of concentration, a seizure of my ordinarily unflappable will. Something was different. And with each passing year it got worse. [...] I began to fear everything. My body was afraid of being crushed by a vehicle. I had apocalyptic fears. I felt like I had to split into a kind of wildly overreacting, intensely emotive, even manic, self. And then I would just switch. like that, into a completely numbed out, deadened version of myself that was just kind of asleep, narcoleptic. Some invisible, hampering paralysis had set in. It was as though my ability to take my destiny in hand had been wrested away from me. [...] I wasn't aware of the anger I was carrying [...]. I had to confront the trauma in order to be free."
The whole documentary is worth watching but the section featuring Terri Jentz and her roommate can be viewed below:

         Watch Language of Anger on PBS. See more from Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate.

The fact that I could resonate so strongly with how Terri felt in the years after the attack shocked me - I still don't understand it at an intellectual level but that resonance was the start of me beginning to face up to the fact that the net result of the traumatic experiences of my childhood was, in some crazy unfathomable way, equivalent to being run over by a truck and threatened with an axe. I still can't quite comprehend how the childhood experiences I spent my whole life dismissing as normal or insignificant had been so damaging to my innate sense of safety. But hearing Terri talk was like hearing my own thoughts verbalised so I couldn't easily dismiss the realisation and, although I still have moments where I worry that I'm making a fuss over nothing or blaming my own inability to take action on a sob story from my early years, I know that that unexpected and incomprehensible recognition of the impact of my childhood experiences has been an important part of the healing process and a represented a watershed moment that, hopefully, will ultimately allow me to free myself from the invisible hand of my past and move forward to finally take centre stage in my own life.