Cravings [CN: Self Harm]

[Content Note: Frank and graphic discussion of self harm]


Funny how some things never quite leave you.

Its an old addiction but I’ve got it under control… more or less

Its maybe 20 years since I first hurt myself to ease the pain on the inside and the earliest self-imposed scar is over 15 years old

I’d love to tell you that it had been years since I last deliberately hurt myself.
I mean, yes, its been a while since I last actually picked up the razor – maybe even years – but I couldn’t tell you exactly how long that was, maybe its less, a lot less. And perhaps it is at best a couple of months since i punched a wall just to feel the pain and no more since i dragged a kitchen knife over my skin just to feel the sting but its not regular.
Sometimes it really is 6 months or more between the slips. Sometimes I even think its gone away.

It hasn’t.

At best, if I never hurt myself again I will always have these scars – the scars I may one day describe to my child as the marks of a struggle I fought with myself. Or perhaps as a symptom of an illness they know I fight every day.

But what i want is to open the skin and feel the pain. The sharp tear and long ache. The hot sticky mess and the sweet sweet release.
I dream about it, I think about it on the bus. I visualise it in the quiet moments and lust after it in the anguished aeons of despair and I even revel in its soft embrace in moments of happiness.

If you have never felt the pull of addiction I don’t think you can really know how it consumes you – and though this is no heroin it perhaps gives me an inkling of that want and need
It doesn’t rule or ruin my life. I am not a slave to my addiction, choosing it over more important things, battering myself and other people for an ever greater hit.
Most people will never notice my cravings.
But every now and then I give in. Still.
Still I want.
Still it feels like a need.





On Anxiety

I never used to think of myself as the anxious sort. As a child, I had a few repetitive  nightmares but nothing that cowed me; I was never terrified of any particular thing – even when I was obsessed with the causes and effects of chemical warfare aged 8… When I was small, I would face any challenge, not undaunted, not without any sense of danger, but with no sense that I would ‘fail’. My parents worked hard to make sure that I never felt I had to conform to fashion or to gender stereotypes – in fact they actively encouraged be to be individual, different, to stand up for myself and to question authority and I was good at all those things. I think it made it harder to admit to being afraid.

When I first began to recognise that I had slipped into the rabbit hole of depression I still didn’t see anxiety – I was reckless with my personal safety and I thought of my inability to face my life as being simply a manifestation of being suicidal… looking back though I see how much the depression was entwined with fear. I thought that I was a failure, and since I was terrified of failing at anything I was tormented almost as much by the fear as by the overwhelming certainty of my own awfulness (& yes I still fight those feelings).

Only now do I see the beginnings of the anxiety that haunts me every day. The protections I put in place to face people each morning were there at 14 even before the idea of them dropping away plunged me into misery. It easy to see how each quick tot calmed the nerves; easy to see that leaving exams to sob and shake on my knees because I could no longer control the hyperventilation were early panic attacks; easy to see how my sense of isolation led to the failed attempts to walk into seminars… I have watched the words dance chaotically across the page in every exam I have taken since I was 15, as I slipped in and out of full consciousness whilst hyperventilating and couldn’t even admit I was afraid.

Sometime in my first few months at uni I realised I wasn’t just “stressed” & a bit “depressed” I was pathologically miserable and terrified of everything around me. I muddled through partly by being more afraid not to and mostly because of a rather wonderful girl. However, I was offered a job by someone I trusted & didn’t want to let down in my 2nd year of uni and I believe it has got me out of the house most weeks since even once he left. All through 2 years of undergrad & 2 years taught masters I had panic attacks on public transport and every time I went into certain shops and more significantly I had panic attacks before I left the house each time I did  and again before going into lectures or seminars, even leaving in the middle to freak out in the toilets whilst trying to contribute (greek translation I’m looking at you especially) but I went to work and played my part because they relied on me to do so and those moments of being forced to fight saw me through university.

So every sodding day I fight

Sometimes the walking out the house isn’t too bad and crowds of people are easy to ignore; sometimes the knots even unwind a little but often it takes me 30 mins to walk out the door just to walk the dog and I never know how to express myself. As well as the physical discomfort of anxiety (racing heart, shortness of breath, insomnia, shaking, sweating, nausea, headaches etc.) there is a sensation of permanently struggling to get one’s head above water, of inadequacy, uncertainty of being permanently scrutinised. I grit my teeth and know when I need to find a quiet space and glass of water to stop the shakes and the stuttering. I don’t have many panic attacks now – I am much better at controlling my breathing  at least – and I have both the CBT and mindfulness techniques for recognising illogical ideas, living in the moment and pushing myself to keep going. But knowing something isn’t true or isn’t harmful is not the same as stopping feeling like it is (logic is not enough to stop the whirring) and it doesn’t go away.

Turns out I’m pathologically anxious after all

Brief Comment on Democracy

The UK did some electing recently and I was able to participate thanks to the postal voting system.

It might sound like a trite thing to say but it is worth drawing attention to; I don’t have a postal vote because I am frequently out of the country or live at two addresses – I use one because it means that I can be part of the democratic process no matter how my health is on polling day.

If you suffer from any kind of depression or social anxiety walking into the polling station and making any sort of decision is mind-blowingly intimidating and overwhelming for the cognitive processes. Not to mention you have to get your shit together enough to know which day it is and where you are going.
I managed it only once; stood in a booth sweating, shaking and crying whilst I tried to remember something relevant about the names in front of me and knew I would probably never do it again.

With a postal vote, I receive my ballot papers in advance. It means I have a chance to look at the candidates, walk away, look again, let them sink in & even go away and read about them on the internet all over again; I have a chance to read the instructions 3 or 4 times so I don’t just spoil the ballot paper and to actually make a choice. A real informed democratic choice.
It also means I have about a week to remember to take it to the postbox whenever I feel confident without time-pressure.

So when we talk about all the people who don’t vote and wring our hands in wet liberal despair about disenfranchisement – just remember that a simple change of process meant that my mental health no longer gets in the way of my vote and it might help someone else too!

Recovering Agoraphobic learns to drive

Sounds like the start of a comedy skit?
Ha bloody Ha

Lets be clear this is massive simplification of my own experiences not a psych study..
Firstly, since I currently leave the house most days of the week and work in a people facing job I would say I mostly have the agoraphobia and social phobia under control but, like all the clichés about the lifelong struggles of addicts, every time I step out the door I have to battle the fear. Some days I can’t fight it and the more often I do put the effort into going out the more I need time to recover from that effort.
Secondly, driving fills me with all kinds of dread related to my perfectionism and pressure from my family which rather complicate my progress.

Nonetheless.. when panic is induced by the swirling movements of people and the way crowds trap you and by being in unfamiliar places there is something particularly odd about forcing yourself out to a position where judging group reactions and making quick decisions in unfamiliar settings are what keep you alive.
When driving  there is an illusion of isolation and protection of the car which is contrasted with the reliance on the behaviour of other road users and their judgements. As I manoeuvre the vehicle I am excruciatingly aware that other people are basing their actions and reactions on what I do, judging me in a very real sense – to other drivers I am not an individual, I am a driver already marked out as to be cautious of by the driving-school board on the top of the car.
The number of things to remember, to pay attention to, and to deal with seem to turn into a blur as I struggle to contain my anxiety, exacerbated as it is by the sheer mass of stimuli. Simply breathing and not tensing all of my muscles become tasks in their own right. My instructor commented recently on how long it seems to take me to settle into managing simple sequences of action such as gear-changing and I wanted to tell her that its because I am fighting the tears and waves of panic at every new scenario, at every moment that she needs to correct me, wanted to but couldn’t find the words.

It wasn’t this hard before. When I first learnt to drive at 18, I was deeply depressed but oddly hopeful about starting a new life at university, I didn’t know that those unexpected breakdowns were called panic attacks and I’d never actually failed to walk outside my own door. I didn’t think I would be good at driving but nor did I think the whole world would think me a failure for not learning it then and there. I failed my test (mostly by being hungover and a bit nervous) and didn’t see the point in trying again in the middle of a town, no point worrying about that kind of thing – then I didn’t go out and people who don’t go out don’t need to drive and then I was busy and broke and struggling academics don’t think about driving. But the years crept by and the depression didn’t lift and the anxiety got worse and I still know that its a skill I need, so now I try to drive and it is new and harder.

Of course – maybe I just imagine that this is different for me. Adrenaline can help your reactions and surely everyone is made nervous by the power of life and death that a speeding hunk of metal puts at their fingertips – the ability to kill someone with simple inattention, the ease with which you could kill yourself…
But that doesn’t mean I’m not having to fight myself every step of the way

Not quite enough

I hate feeling like a disappointment  and a burden – I hate knowing that the people I love don’t necessarily feel that way about me but that I can’t shake it.
I hate that despite “knowing” how the cognitive dissonance and logical fallacy works, understanding the tricks my mind plays on itself and being able to follow all of the practical suggestions I still can’t change the way I feel about myself.

I just can’t remember how it feels not to feel like a failure. Everything I do lets someone down- its a good day when its only me who is disapppointed. I fight to feel like I am not just begging for reassurance and demanding attention and not giving people the care that they need and deserve.
I work hard every day to make sure that other people don’t feel I rely on their feelings to get by in my own self-worth. I know that it is hell not to be able to ‘fix’ that sense of inadequacy – I know how hard it is to accept that no matter how much you love someone you can’t make them love themselves and so I try conquer these feelings.

I am sorry I am hard work. I am fighting, even when I am tired
I have too much to do and too many adventures planned not to win the fight… I just want to be the best that I can be.

Dog Walking – Health and Obligation

Before W and I got a dog we thought long and hard about the implications and responsibilities inherent in a pet. Particularly the time and energy required to walk a dog – as a couple who both have jobs, joint problems and severe social anxiety this was not a minor consideration.

I know that even though our Rory boy is old he needs to get out of the house regularly and that proper exercise keeps him healthy physically and psychologically. Its good for us too.
I am currently aiming for 2 brisk 20 min walks for the boy a day (which if I do both gives me 20 mins of raised pulse in total) and although I know that some days without a walk or with just one 30-50 min walk are acceptable I also know they do none of us any good.
I know that walking regularly helps me keep my weight down, forces me to get fresh air and daylight to lift my mood and generally promotes my overall wellbeing.

It is my duty to walk my dog.

Its not easy. A cold or flu makes the energy vanish, a headache makes any kind of focus fade, the cold and wet weather (or a heavy shift) mean that my knees and back ache and every step hurts.
But far more harshly my desire to hide from people paralyses every step. When I was deeper in the throes of misery I would walk my anxiety, anger and suicidality off at 2 or 3am when the streets were empty. Even now every day it is a battle to step through the door. I am at my worst when I anticipate other people on the walk.. the 8am club of dogwalkers at the local park who in their very existence make me feel inadequate as a dog-owner and person; the schoolchildren heading home; the people with their real jobs heading to or from places of employment – all of them are torture. When leaving the safety of my bed is tricky, leaving the protection of my home is a battle and panic attacks are only just under the surface.

I know that it is good for me not to let my fear rule my life and I know that therefore walking my dog is good for me. But I worry that W sees none of these benefits since my obligation is stronger than hers – she works harder and doesn’t have the same opinion of what a dog of Rory’s age needs – so it doesn’t seem to help her out the house etc. Plus some days when I am too tired for the fight with myself I worry that I am a cruel person to bring a dog into my struggle; that I might in some way let my health impinge on my dog’s wellbeing.

I guess the point of this post is just a reminder that whilst a pet is a fantastic companion and brilliant motivation for exercise and social interaction sometimes the price in exhaustion is heavy and the ability to guilt-trip oneself is strong.
I need to remember that actually its fantastic even when its hard, that sometimes its ok to say “its your turn – I need a break” and that “I’m sorry boy, how about I pet you and you lick my toes and show me you love me regardless?” works too.

Words on Living with Pain

A Fragment.
(Not a definitive description. Not even a drop in the ocean of the different experiences of just one person.)

In my head an awareness of pain sits like static from across the room. It hums at me, irksome and untouchable, just off kilter enough to make me feel irritable. But I am used to this and concentration on other things allows me to forget it is there. Stopping reminds me, getting tired reminds me, I remind me.
Sometimes the buzz of static grows bluebottles. Extra whining buzzes on top of the dull hum. They swoop closer or settle silent only to be raised up by something unexpected. I cannot see the cause of the bluebottles, I don’t know why the short bursts of extra pain appear or settle down again. I cannot open the window for them or squash them, I must be quiet and hope they fall asleep or find their own way out and leave just me and the static.

Bad days are when the white noise of pain that makes it so hard to concentrate gets so loud I can barely hear people’s words or complete simple tasks. Bad days are when I can’t decide if I need utter isolation to practice breathing or to do everything at once to try and shut it out until I am so exhausted I can sleep. Bad days are snappy, weepy, untouchable, unpredictable, pacing-the-floor, staring-at-the walls days.
But Good days, well I like good days. On good days painkillers work, on good days birdsong is more distracting than the static, on good days I am strong enough.

[Incidentally this description is equally valid for Chronic physical pain and for the mental pain of depression]


University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day

Today the University Mental Health Advisers Network has encouraged universities across the UK to hold a series of events to promote good mental health.

My University has suggested a 5-a-day plan for maintaining/improving wellbeing. These are:

  • connect with the people around you
  • do something active
  • take notice of the world
  • learn something new
  • give to others

The idea is to suggest positive things individuals (and especially students) can do to improve their own wellbeing – with the theory not only that prevention is better than cure but also that although efforts to destigmatise often attempt to promote dialogue a lot of effort is put into recognising symptoms and promoting equality it starts from a notion of right and wrong mental states rather than a continuum of health, the former of which van lead of course to reinforcing a sense of internal stigmatisation. I think that, of course, awareness goes hand-in-hand with positive activity and steps that encourage students to look after themselves and each other can only be lauded.

My only real quibble is that as a distance-learner I can’t assess how the day has gone or actively partake in any of the events.

As part of this national day I have had a chance to look at the documents published by UMHAN which include suggestions for improving access to HE for people with mental health difficulties, improving reporting of mental health disabilities and engaging with support from the DSA scheme and frameworks for institutional support. And I have to say I’m impressed, I’m especially impressed with their section of guidance for students and I look forward to seeing the suggestions and guidelines more widely publicised

Daily Anxiety check

I often think that Anxiety suffers from being less high-profile than depression. Its often found with depression and it can be slipped into a ‘stress’ diagnosis or dismissed as shyness or something that can be treated with encouragement and self-confidence classes; but in reality its complex and various.
A quick internet survey shows a series of different diagnoses related to anxiety but more importantly that it affects people in a lot of different ways – from complete withdrawal to panic attacks, sleep problems, appetite disruption..

Anxiety and I have an odd relationship. I don’t remember quite how the fear of failure made leaving the house so hard..The panic attacks creep up, some days I can predict that because I’m on edge I might lose it but some days it hits me out of the blue. For the most part I have it under control at the moment, its just a vague nagging fear in every part of my life.
However, the real daily struggle I have is with the wife’s anxiety. In the early hours of the morning she wakes in fear; going out, shopping, working – all often enough to make her physically ill; when she is stressed she has more seizures, her stomach plays up, she has more headaches, forgets more, loses more things and assumes I am angry with her more often. My problem? I can’t stop blaming myself. Its ok that she is having a rough time, its ok if there are things she can’t manage (as long as we keep trying to improve things) – but why can’t I help? why can’t I soothe it away or make each day easier or offer sensible advice? I know that this is ridiculous.. I do.. but at 4 in the morning its hard to be rational.

So plans? Well I want her to talk more seriously to her Dr about dealing with the anxiety – right now I’d settle for tranquillisers if it weren’t for her principles – but more seriously how do you make breathing exercises or a diary regular practice when you are tired, stressed and dyspraxically bad at organising?
Meanwhile I guess I should head back to the Dr.