A Bittersweet Goodbye

Warning: may trigger strong emotions toward cats or feelings of grief for lost/departed pets. An absolutely true and heart-wrenching story.

One summer when my eldest half-brother was visiting us at my childhood home, one of the greatest loves of my life wandered into the backyard suddenly and without warning.

He was young, jet black with a tuft of white hair on his chest and a roundish head, eyes that were an orangey-yellow and the moment they looked at me, I immediately loved him. He seemed to return the feeling as he came and rubbed against my leg and mewed with that voice my ears would come to adore.

He belonged to the woman who lived three doors down and was full of playfulness and zest. He climbed trees in the blink of an eye, hunted mice and birds in the neighbourhood, and gave the most exquisite hugs.

He would wrap his little cat arms around my neck, place his forehead against my chin, and purr as long as I would hold him. He soon decided I was his human and laid claim to his territory by intimidating any other feline who wandered onto the property. Growing tired of sitting outside, noisily waiting for one of us to come and open the door, he took it upon himself to rip holes in the front and back screen doors so he could jump up, wedge himself between the screen and solid door, and push until it opened. My home was now his, he decided. And I was more than happy to accommodate him.

On weekend mornings during a lie-in, if the doors were locked he’d sit on the air conditioning unit protruding from the window and with the sun shining behind him, his cat-sized silhouette would be there, giving shape to this persistent calling, telling me to wake up and let him in. If he stayed in for the night, he’d sleep curled around my head or the shelf just above, whether I wanted him to or not. I could stand in front of him and pat my chest and say “Here, Blackberry” and he’d jump up and give me his trademark hugs. If I patted my back he would jump up and sit with two legs on either side of my neck, lounging on my shoulders. There he would sit purring, hitching a ride with me as I meandered about the house. I’d feed him by hand and sometimes he would even do tricks for the food.

He would bring me gifts of various sizes. It started with the standard mice, but one day he brought me a bird. He sat there looking up at me and simply sounded, “Meow.” Being a girl of only eleven at the time, I freaked out and threw the bird out the door as quickly as I could. In my state of horror I threw him out, too. After his little time-out he wanted back in so I let him, at which point he sat in front of me once more and regurgitated the bird at my feet with a following look on his face that said, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise you wanted it chewed. Is this better?” Once again I freaked and threw him out.

When I was at school, he’d prance through the house at three o’clock every day calling for me. “She’s not here,” my mom would say and he’d jump out the door again. He’d come find me as I walked home, emerge from behind some house and walk with me the last few blocks back home. If I went away for a few days, he’d go back to his other house until I returned. As soon as I called his name he’d come sprinting, or he’d be waiting by the lilac bush already until he saw the car and tried to beat us to the door.

I was his and I loved it. He was the greatest companion I’d ever known and I’d come to rely on his company. He developed an immense sense of trust in me and would communicate in the most extraordinary of ways.

As he got in fights he would sometimes become rather injured; He would come to me and I’d clean his wounds and take him to the vet if necessary. I’d have to put him in a carrier which he hated so much he broke the door trying to get out, and once injured his own paw trying to do so. I hated seeing him hurt and felt awful for putting him in this confined space, but if let out in the car on the trip there he would become loud and difficult and dig his claws in my thighs with anxiety.

From his battles he earned a notch out of his ear and scars on his arms, but after a while I noticed his arms were getting injured in exactly the same way on a repeated basis. It was like they were swelling and bursting, not falling victim to the claws of another.

He never had a litter box as he always went outside, but one day he called at me until I looked at him and asked him what he wanted. On a large piece of cellophane on the floor, he urinated before me. There was blood in it. He looked at it, looked at me and mewed. He never messed inside, so I knew something was wrong, and after another trip to the vet he was given pills to clear up what they told us was a urinary tract infection. Another time, he showed me he had loose stool. I was nonplussed at having to dispose of it, but took him to the vet again with more crying and objecting from within the carrier.

He would have times of seemingly perfect health, but occasionally his behaviour would change and he would become withdrawn, finding a cosy place in my mom’s fabric stash to stay for days. He stopped responding to food and water as often and his once vibrant gaze became one of exhaustion. The vet said he had feline leukaemia and an upper respiratory disease. He administered a few treatments but told us it was terminal.

He started staying in the fabric stash permanently. I’d sit with him and stroke his fur and talk to him. At my young, weird age I’d learned to make the same meowing noises he’d made to me when he was content. He wouldn’t purr or give hugs anymore. He looked like he was in so much pain. Finally after speaking with the vet about his not eating or drinking anything for several days, he said we should put him to sleep or he would starve to death. I was heartbroken as I was going to lose this lovely creature who had been my only friend at times when I felt so alone and alienated. He was the one being I could count on to love me unconditionally and without fail.

As he was so lethargic I carried him to the car without the carrier he loathed so badly. For the first time he didn’t object. I walked into the vet’s office with him and was told I’d have to sit and wait for the vet to arrive. I don’t know if it was thirty minutes or three hours, but it seemed like an eternity.

While we were waiting, as if he’d saved all his strength for this one occasion, he was emphatically hugging, pawing, purring and kissing me for the first time in I didn’t know how long. I don’t know where all the energy came from, but I felt he knew what was happening. I was sobbing so much the receptionist started crying, and when she announced the vet had arrived, my heart sank. I didn’t want all the hugs to end.

As the vet prepared him for his passing I held his paw and stroked behind his ears with his forehead to mine. I said goodbye to my dearest and most cherished friend as he took his last breath and passed on.

The weeks after that, one of my teachers approached me asking, “What’s wrong with you? You used to smile sometimes.” I felt silly for saying “My cat died,” because to most people a cat is just a cat, but not Blackberry. He was so much more. A kindred spirit. A soul-mate, just not the same kind most people have.

I volunteered at homeless pet charities, paying special attention to the black cats. They were never like Blackberry. I decided I’d probably never meet a cat like him again.

But on one glorious, beautiful day, I took a new route home from school and the strangest thing happened. A black cat with orangey-yellow eyes and a roundish head came out from behind a house. I called to it, and it came to me, calling in what sounded like that same familiar voice. I patted my chest, and the cat jumped up. It hugged me, and purred, and put its forehead to my chin. I caressed its ears and noticed there was the same kind of notch in the same place as Blackberry’s. I noticed it had the same little tuft of white hair on its chest and the same scars on its arms. For ten minutes or more I stood there on the sidewalk hugging this cat, until I eventually put it down and resumed walking. It followed me a few paces. I looked away for a moment, and when I looked back it was gone.

Despite repeating that route from that day forward, I never saw that cat again.

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On Homesickness

I come from the land across the ocean. The land of the big skies, the Rocky Mountains, the majestic, sweeping landscapes and too much fast food. And I miss it. Right down to the Slim Jims and the late-night-one-stop-regret-shop that is Del Taco. It’s where I was born and raised and it runs in my veins. Not the Del Taco, I mean the essence of the America.

Now I’m in England. The place where I’ve accidentally offended people with my two fingers because I forgot it was a thing, where I’ve been mocked for saying pants and still don’t quite understand how to fit in properly. I’ve been here five years now, as of tomorrow. FIVE. That’s a long time to go without a hug from your family.

Sometimes it’s perfectly fine, because I’m busy doing stuff and I don’t notice anything. This is a place where hobbies are common, and I have plenty of those. Sometimes I wonder if I have those hobbies because I’m bored and trying to find something to do, or because I’m assimilating.

Speaking of assimilating, I’m losing my mother language. I use so many British-isms that I don’t even remember which things I used to say and which things are new. I insist on saying words like “folks” just to dig my heels into my American upbringing. But then I hear myself say “Mind the rubbish” and I have to stop to comprehend this foreign noise coming out of my mouth.

One of the hardest days I had was when I first stepped off the plane. Immediately I learned the meaning of “hayfever” as my sinuses filled up and I endured the non-stop dripping and sneezing and wheezing. I was pregnant, I’d been awake for a very long time, and hadn’t eaten for around the same. I had visions before landing of tasting real British fish and chips with the in-laws and having a generally nice experience. It was none of that.

After a lot of messing around and encountering absolutely everything being different, from the door handles to the blinds to the sidewalks, sinks, refrigerators, street signs, EVERYTHING, I was really hungry. I asked for some food, confused as to what happened to the agreement that we were going to have some fish and chips.

My mother-in-law, whom I am extremely relieved to not know any longer, asked if I wanted a cheese sandwich. In my head I assumed she meant grilled cheese sandwich, because that’s the only kind I knew. Nope. She gave me two thick slices of partially stale wheat bread, margarine spread all over, and cold cheese in between. She brought it to me, and in my state of shock I didn’t know what to say but, Uh…What?

What was this thing she put before me? Cold cheese with nothing else in there but margarine? I don’t ever eat margarine, let alone in a sandwich. Butter doesn’t go in a sandwich, either. She asked if I wanted some Marmite. What? Ketchup? Again, what? No! Brown Sauce? Stop!

At this point I wanted to cry. I had no idea what she was trying to do to me. Now that I’ve been here for this long and seen what they do with sandwiches, I understand she was just doing what seemed normal. That, and she’s not a cook. In the slightest. But it was a stiff wake-up call. Nothing is going to be the same here.

These days I’ve found my way around the cuisine, for the most part. Still very little proper Mexican food, which I love and miss dearly. American food is poorly replicated here also. But food isn’t the only problem.

Navigating my way through the unspoken societal rules and boundaries is a challenge. It’s not until after you make the mistake, then repeat it, then have a cry because you don’t know what you did wrong, that someone says, “Oh yes. You can’t do that here. They’ll think you’re nuts.” Ohh okay. I get it. I’ve been parading around like a jester. Cool. That’s just awesome!

I have days where I am so upset about one thing or another that while the pendulum is swinging I romance about how different life would be if I could just go back home. Then I realise it’s not that simple. I don’t have those funds, so I’m essentially stuck. That gets me even more worked up. But the other day, I realised something.

My homesickness is grief. Part of my anxiety is grief. Every household item I buy, every friend I make, all feel like they’re rooting me to this place where I feel I’m not on solid ground and not sure whether to stay or go, or if I’ll ever belong. Another thing I might have to sell. Another goodbye I’ll have to say. To think I’ll never move back home (still have no idea) hurts me quite a bit, like a knife in the heart. But I need to come to terms with the fact that a lot of what I’m grieving no longer exists.

Five years is a long time to be gone. Everyone I knew has moved on, got married, had kids or more kids, scattered themselves across the country. There was no one place I could decide to be before, and now the thought is even more confusing. Where is home? I’m not sure it’s here, but is it in Montana? Washington? Utah? I don’t know if my friends would still have time for me, if the people I care about are going to be able to make room in their lives for me again.

This idea of home I have is a figment of my imagination. I’m wasting my energy fretting about something imaginary. I would love to have the answer (and the means to accomplish it), but I don’t. I’m here now. I only have today. I only have right now.

Might as well do something with it. Let tomorrow take care of itself.

Keep Going (My Conversation With the Un-Dead Part 2)

He said he’d left me a note. He was going to leave me his car. He thought the world would be better off without him and he would be doing at least a bit of good this way.

I told him I didn’t want his car. What am I going to do with that? Look at it every day and think of you? Think of how angry I am that you did this?

Because yeah, I was angry. For as much as he claimed he loved his mother he was about to do the unthinkable and I could see in my mind how she would react. She’s a good woman. She’s been hurt by so many people in her life. She doesn’t need it from her son, her last remaining child. Heck, I didn’t need it either. He shared a birthdate with my other friend whom I mentioned in My Conversation With the Un-Dead who did succeed in taking his life. Both of them had a special role in my life for a time. Both I cared about. I’m tired of grieving one thing or another.

I explained to him that the car wouldn’t be helpful to me at all, it would be like salt in the wounds. Either it would be a constant reminder of pain, or it would be a chore and a load of paperwork to get rid of it, which I hate. In my angst I said he could take his car and shove it, I’d rather see him alive and driving the thing himself.

It was late November. He didn’t want to live anymore, he said. He was mid-thirties, no wife, no kids, no real accomplishments. He missed his sister who he’d lost to a terminal illness. They used to spend loads of time together. Now his Christmases were empty reminders of how they used to have fun together, but she was gone and that part of life was over. His grief left him in depressive states frequently. My hunch is that he was also bipolar, given his manic, Hyena personality and reclusive, Mole personality.

He had tried to seek counselling, but the systems can be slow and he was still waiting for an appointment. Every day he woke up alone, went to work alone, came home alone, ate his dinner alone, went to bed alone. That’s difficult when spirits are high, even more so when they’re low. He was dissatisfied with the general status quo of his life.

It seems to me that this failed attempt is a pretty good opportunity.

“For what?”

To do a one-eighty and change all the things you hate.

One way to look at it is this: When the world around you has you tearing your hair out, crying your eyes out, feeling powerless and worthless, that is the moment you can put your big-kid boots on and say, I’M NOT HAVING THIS ANY LONGER. But rather than a destructive way, how about a transformative way?

Where I grew up we had a saying: “Either sh** or get off the pot.” To me, this means that if I’m going to sit there complaining about something, I’m wasting my time. Instead of sitting there, lamenting over this or that, I have to get up and do something about it, or it’s never going to change. And would I rather give happiness a go than death? Yes. It’s worth a shot if I can get there and finally begin to thrive.

Our sadness is a symptom of a problem. It intensifies the more we stare at it. The key is to shift the focus, and start working on the things you can change. If everything around you has you dissatisfied, maybe you’ve outgrown it. Start a list, and one by one change the things you can.

Don’t set up camp where you don’t want to live.

If your current state of mind is sad all the time, don’t set up camp there. Don’t say to yourself, “Well, this is it. This is where it ends.” Don’t unpack all your hopes and dreams and set them to permanently rest on the shelves of your current state of despair. Because it’s there that they will die. And in one way or another, so will parts of you.

Consider the AA prayer, regardless of your belief in a deity:

God,

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

Some things can’t be changed. He could never bring his sister back from the dead. (And I totally understand that, because I wish I could bring my sister back, too.) But he felt his existence held no value. So, I suggested he give it value. He was always saying he wanted to volunteer for the homeless. Why not start there?

Once, I set myself a challenge of losing a bunch of weight. But the more I stared at the scale and what it said to me, the less it moved in the direction I wanted. It kept going up instead. So I changed my approach. I realised I couldn’t focus on the weight I lost, because that’s not where I have control. The only real way to change my problem was to start doing some work. I learned that by doing the work, the numbers took care of themselves. I had to constantly remind myself “It’s not about the weight you lose, it’s about the work you do.”

Similarly, we don’t own magic wands where we can suddenly change everything. We have to take it one step at a time, one day at a time, one brick at a time, one word at a time, whatever. It takes time, but it’s always more worth it to try than to give up.

What is in your power? Do that. Do as much as you can every day, and in three months see if you feel the same as you do today. Then do it for three months longer. Then six months. Keep going until this day is a distant memory.

He didn’t like his job, either. I told him to look for another one. In threatening to write a book about him, I told him that if he didn’t at least try to fix the things he didn’t like first, I’d tell the world how he gave up before he even started trying. I’d say he was a quitter. A coward. Is that what you want the world to remember of you? The legacy you want to leave behind? No? Then do something about it.

I don’t mean to tell people considering suicide that they’re cowards and quitters. This one situation is not every situation and I’m not judging you, readers. But as I said here, I was grasping at straws with him. And I do know what it feels like to not want to keep going. But I also know there is a lot of value in picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, taking a big breath, and putting one foot in front of the other in the direction of a better life. You can learn a lot about yourself, amaze yourself, and find strength you didn’t know you had.

Keep going.

If you’re struggling, please remember that if you reach out, your call is likely to be answered. If nothing else, there are hotlines to help. In the UK, the Samaritans are there on the end of the line to be an ear (08457 90 90 90 fees apply). In the US, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “We are here for people struggling through any sort of situation – you do not have to be feeling suicidal to call. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7/365.”

“Try to remember, that you can’t forget
Down with history, up with your head
For sweet tomorrow, she never fell from grace
We might still know sorrow but we got better days”

-Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Better Days

My Conversation With the Un-Dead

I didn’t even like him all that much. He was obnoxious. Purposely obnoxious. But there was something childish and endearing about him. He was obnoxious because he was always trying to be funny. He played the devil’s advocate just to wind people up. He wanted to be laughed at, laughed with if you prefer, because he was always giggling like a hyena. Except when he wasn’t.

Through knowing him I observed two distinct sides of him: The Hyena, and The Mole.

The Hyena was hyperactive to the point he was hard for me to take at times. It could be entertaining and we did have a lot of fun times, but then it would cross that line and it couldn’t be shut off on request. The Hyena wanted attention constantly. The Mole wanted next to none.

The Mole would hide in his bed for days, barely eating or interacting. Sometimes going through Facebook post binges of sharing nostalgic songs he thought described his depressive mood and inner self. It was hard to know whether he was trying to garner sympathy (being the attention-seeker I knew him to be) or simply be alone comforting himself while trying to hint that he needed someone to give him a form of a hug.

We all need hugs sometimes.

At one point my intuition would not leave me alone. Something was wrong. He wasn’t posting his heart on Facebook, he wasn’t calling for a cup of coffee, he had basically fallen off the face of the Earth. It had been over three days since I’d heard any echo of his existence.

I texted; no reply. I called about five times; no reply. I messaged a mutual friend asking if he’d been seen; no he hadn’t. I called again.

Finally I got a text back saying he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to talk. Upon pressing he said he would tell me something he hadn’t told anyone else: He’d just attempted suicide.

He’d tried to hang himself. With his makeshift noose screwed to his doorway, he gave it a go, but it gave out. He woke up passed out on the floor, bruises all around his neck. His voice was messed up. He felt ashamed of himself. Not for trying, but for failing. I invited him for coffee.

He came around, and we had a lengthy conversation. He didn’t appear to want to stop at this attempt. He was pretty sure he was going to try again. I asked him what was going through his head. What did he think would happen when his mother found out. What compelled him to do such a thing.

“It’s not about anyone else, it’s about me. My choice. My life.”

But what about your mum?

“I left a note for her. I told her it wasn’t her fault.”

But do you really think it’s going to be nice for her to have survived her children before her time? As a mother I can tell you that’s got to be the absolute worst thing in the world.

He looked pensive for a moment. “But it isn’t about her.”

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect her. She’ll be sat at home minding her business after going to lunch and doing a bit of knitting and the police will come knocking on the door. Then who will comfort her? Your father? Is that what you really want?

“When Jenny died I was the one who had to go tell her.”

And what happened?

“She absolutely fell to pieces. That was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I never want to see her like that again.”

Right. So that was one child. It is so unnatural for a mother to survive their child. Now imagine that it wasn’t just one of your children but both. The grief doesn’t just double, it increases exponentially. That could kill her.

I realise this may not sound like the most sensitive way to go about this conversation. But at the time, he was basically saying his goodbyes to me. He was almost certainly going to try again. And possibly succeed. I was not only grasping at straws trying to talk some sense into him, but I realised I had a rare opportunity here.

Do you realise that this conversation I’m having with you now is the one that every single person wishes they could have with the person they’re grieving due to suicide? I’m now asking you all the questions the bereaved have no way of getting to ask.

So what about your friends? What do you think they would feel?

“It isn’t about them. It’s about me. I’m being selfish. I know that. But I can’t take this any longer.”

Don’t you realise how many lives you would affect? What about me? With all the s*** I’m going through, the last thing I need is to be grieving your ass right now.

I should note we had a special relationship. He was always taking the piss out of me. I saw nothing wrong in returning the favour.

“Well I left you a note, too.”

I don’t want your damn note, I want you to not break your poor mother’s heart. Don’t for one second underestimate how much this would destroy her. The least you could do is wait until she’s passed.

At some point I threatened to write a book about him. I told him that because I’ve got to ask all these questions, if he’s dead he can’t stop me. I’ll even use his real name and talk about all the twat things he’s confessed to me. He didn’t seem to like that. Too bad.

He knew it was a selfish decision. He wasn’t in denial about that. But he felt he had the right to make that decision and to a certain extent, he’s right. He can make whatever decision he wants. But timing is priceless. When you’re suddenly gone, it affects everyone who knows you. Whatever struggles people are facing, the passing of their friend or loved one adds to the pile. A lot of times it adds not only grief, but guilt.

Questions like, What could I have done differently to prevent this?

“Nothing. I chose to do this because I selfishly wanted to end it. It had nothing to do with you.”

Why didn’t you reach out for help?

“I didn’t want help. I’d given up.”

Were you mad at me?

“No, and I don’t want you to feel badly.”

But I will feel badly. I’ll feel terrible.

“That wasn’t my intention. I wasn’t thinking about that.”

In the end, I don’t believe he tried again. I told him that no matter what dynamic lies between himself and his parents, I promise they would rather take time out of their busy schedule to go and visit him in his hour of need than to lose him forever. From what I’ve seen, he has reached out to them since.

He and I are no longer friends. The Hyena personality could be really hurtful sometimes. I deal with a lot of personal issues of my own, and having him in my life was adding to a lot of issues that I couldn’t handle any longer. But I don’t wish ill on him, or anyone else. I sincerely hope he gets all the help he needs and begins to thrive at some point, which is the same I hope for myself and the rest of humanity.

However, I have learned one very important lesson through this. I will never take the passing of anyone personally. At the end of 2013 I lost someone to suicide who was at one point a very dear friend of mine. I felt awful. I felt as though I should have known, I should have spoken to him more often, I should have done this or done that. But I’ve realised I can’t hold myself responsible for anyone’s decisions. I have had to divorce myself from the mindset that I could have saved someone who was insistent on departing from this waking life.

If someone chooses to take their own life, that’s up to them. I am no stranger to these urges, but sometimes we have our reasons for either continuing to fight or giving up the fight. I get that. Life is hard. Lonely.

I don’t know if my conversation with him was the right thing to do, but I was there for him. I listened. I cared. I tried. I made myself available and proved to him that when I said “I give a s*** about you,” I meant it. From my experience, that seemed better than to ignore it, disregard his feelings, or shrug the whole thing off.

If you’re struggling, please remember that if you reach out, your call is likely to be answered. If nothing else, there are hotlines to help. In the UK, the Samaritans are there on the end of the line to be an ear (08457 90 90 90). In the US, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “We are here for people struggling through any sort of situation – you do not have to be feeling suicidal to call. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7/365.”

If you have heard someone say they are thinking heavily about attempting suicide, they are not always bluffing. If in doubt and you have no other options, call the authorities. My un-dead friend insisted he didn’t want me to, but in hindsight I probably should have. At the time, I was scared of losing him as a friend for “betraying” him. Funny how our minds work in a crisis. But sometimes that’s the best thing we can do for them.

Read the rest of the story here.

The “Mental” Stigma

Last year I knew someone whom I have chosen not to know any longer. We’ll call him Travis. His friend came by quickly while we were chatting, reeling from a conversation where he claimed he had just been yelled at by a woman who had just told him she didn’t want to see him anymore.

“She’s got that depression thing, you know? She’s mental.” He said this with a wince on his face like he was talking about someone with leprosy, for example.

I looked at Travis and he looked at me. My look was saying “Don’t you dare laugh at me, I know what you’re thinking.” His look was saying to me “I really want to laugh at you right now but don’t want you to punch me in front of my mate.”

I listened to this friend of Travis, and inquired more about his predicament. She had four kids. She was dating him, but he wasn’t very supportive and now he doesn’t know what to do about her because he didn’t want to break up, but she’s got that depression thing. He was out of his element.

He carried on talking about that depression thing. “Those women are crazy, you know?”

At this point Travis did start snickering. Partly because he realised his friend was inevitably about to put his foot in his mouth, partly because he was taking the piss out of me (British term- told you I’d switch back and forth) hinting that I was also “mental.” Jerkface.

I gave him the “Seriously, don’t make me punch you.” look.

I then turned to Gary, Travis’s friend, and began to explain in the gentlest of terms that there are far more people who struggle with depression than he realises, and depression doesn’t mean the same as mental the way he’s saying it.

Upon further pressing, it was clear why she had broken up with him. He had absolutely no understanding of the condition and was talking about it in the most derogatory of ways. I could hardly believe my ears at what ignorance was coming out of this man’s face.

Being the person that I am, I don’t tend to sit back and say nothing when something’s going terribly wrong. In a room full of people where there’s been a request for a volunteer to do something, and no one wants to do it, I’m the one who will put my hand up and get it done. I hate wasting time, energy, and a good opportunity.

To Gary’s surprise, I told him that I, myself, have struggled with depression for quite a long time. I didn’t do anything to cause it, it just was. Would I like to get rid of it? Of course! Who would want to keep something like this? But a sure-fire way of alienating and angering the person who has it is to make them feel like they’re icky because they happen to suffer from it. In the end I told him that after their most recent conversation, it would be best to back off and let her welcome him back on her terms if that’s what she wants to do. At best he could say, “I just want you to know I’m here for you” and BE THERE if she needs him, without judging, or giggling, or cringing.

To be quite frank, it’s not cool to call people mental if they have depression and/or anxiety. It’s also not cool to laugh about them because of it. There is a huge stigma surrounding mental health issues that needs to end. For someone with depression who is already feeling horrible, to see other people joking and laughing about someone else who has this is extremely hurtful. It can cause them to withdraw further and become more afraid to live their lives.

For a person who has never thought about harming themselves, or known what depression or anxiety truly is, I understand that the vantage point they’d own is not one conducive to understanding what it’s like. And that’s okay. It’s okay to not be able to understand. What’s not okay is condemning/ridiculing what you don’t understand. I’d like to think that we’re all generally headed towards getting this concept as a society, but clearly there are plenty of people who aren’t there yet.

As I’ve described in this open letter, our co-humans with adverse mental health conditions just want a little bit of understanding. Less singling-out. Less icky faces when talking about us. Less ignorance. Less stigma.

Please?

A Letter of Regret From Your Anxious and Depressed Friend

Dear Friend,

I was not always this way.

I did not always hide away from the general public for months or weeks at a time. Once I was quite confident. I occasionally felt happy. I had a full time job and I could face customers with no concern. I would chat to people over the phone, make an effort to see friends, be interested in daily life. I could cope with negativity. Overcome it, even. I wouldn’t let anything bring me down because I had something inside me that made me keep going out there, into the world, facing it all.

But sometimes, Friend, things happen. Sometimes just one thing. Sometimes many things. The courage to face these things is strong at first, at least stronger than now. But depending on luck, or coincidence, or fate, or opportunity, eventually the voice of that courage for some people is quieter. Weaker. And sometimes, silenced completely.

It is not your fault these things happened. And if you hear the tales of what they were, you will likely hold an opinion in your head of what could have been done or said as a result to resolve the issue. But your experience in this life is not the same as mine, Friend. No matter what we have in common, we can never share the exact same perception. Please make sure not to confuse your perception with mine. We are different.

Sometimes I need a break from people. Usually the people who I don’t yet know completely, but like, and with whom I want to hold some kind of friendship. I’m already tired of feeling anxious and sad and don’t want you to grow tired of me feeling anxious and sad. I’m sure you care and would be happy for me to confide in you, but I’ve confided in friends before and been burned and heartbroken in return. I can’t bring myself to take that kind of risk again.

I’m afraid I won’t be good company. I’m afraid I’ll burden you with my emotions which I don’t feel would be fair on you. I have heard of your struggles too, Friend, and would like to help you, but I can’t. I take all struggles as if they were my own and my load is already far too heavy. Sometimes my whole world is devoid of any good news, and any conversation we could have would be very quiet on my behalf. All I can really do is listen, because if I speak I might burst into tears. But I don’t feel strong enough to pretend to be holding myself together right now, so I’d just rather not.

I’m sorry you feel I’ve been avoiding you. You see me comment on social media but I ignore your messages. This is because commenting on social media is usually not personal. It’s a distraction. It’s a way to have adult conversation without the spotlight being on me. I can do it in my pyjamas without having done my face to look like I’m prettier than I feel on the inside. I don’t run much risk of having to answer the question “How are you?”

…because I don’t want to lie to you. That would make me feel anxious when I’m already feeling anxious. I don’t believe in lying to people, especially people I care about. I don’t want to fake a smile, tell you I’m fine, and divert your questions while screaming inside how I’m anything but fine.

You may see me posting an update about a group I went to, or am going to go to. Maybe inviting someone along. But I still haven’t answered your messages. This does not mean I’m feeling better and have purposely skipped you. This doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. My doctor told me to do things in the community so I don’t completely shut myself off. This is what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to get myself back into the habit of being seen in public for something other than to run a quick errand. I’m trying to quell the self-talk in my head that tells me everyone hates me and thinks I’m weird. Sometimes when I meet new people and they smile at me, I think that perhaps I’m not all that strange. “I can do this… I can do this…” I say to myself.

You see, Friend, with a head full of thoughts like mine, there is no invisible ticket machine. In a perfect world I would answer all messages and requests in order, and you’d be able to know when I’m going to call your number. But that’s not how this works. There is no ticket, no number, and if I can’t shut off the feelings inside me, I might never get to you. Or I could respond to you tomorrow. I really have no way of knowing.

To expect that I give you attention specifically is just unrealistic, and I’m sorry. I regret that the nature of this beast is not one where I can gain complete control whenever I want to, and give all the people all the attention they want or deserve. You may be lonely too, and I’m sorry. But I’m training myself to take care of myself and my needs, and to give myself all the attention I deserve, because that’s what is supposed to help me recover, or at least cope.

Part of the reason I got into this mess is because I put everyone else’s needs before mine. And they took, and took, and took some more until there was nothing left, because I was so willing to give. I regret being so naïve. I love to see people happy, but I forget that I need to be happy first. You might not be one of those people of whom I speak, but that’s unfortunately irrelevant. I can’t handle any of it yet.

Maybe we struck a friendship during a time when socialising wasn’t so daunting. Maybe you think it’s totally uncharacteristic of me to be silent and surely you must have caused offense. But Friend, understand that this condition is unpredictable and the best thing you can do is just wait.

There is no forcing a friendship with me. I need time. I’m grieving that part of me that no longer exists and that bright future I thought I was going to have.

As part of my anxious predicament I’m regretting so many things. Things that are long since dead and buried, things that happened yesterday… The way I reacted to something, the person I shouldn’t have trusted but did, the thing I said that surely must’ve made me look like an idiot. The fact that I feel this way in the first place. The fact that I can’t make it stop. The fact that I’m hurting my friends by accident by apparently turning my back on them. The fact that I don’t have the strength to be what my loved ones need any more. The fact that I can’t talk to you about this in person because it’s too hard. The fact that I can’t have friends because I can’t talk to my friends and therefore none of them can begin to understand why it’s hard for me to keep friends. The fact that I am so alone I don’t know when I’ll ever be less alone. The fact that there are people depending on me that deserve better than for me to be so afraid of so many things that I can hardly function.

I’m trying, Friend, and I’m so sorry if you’re hurt by me. If you want to walk away I understand, but please do not convey to me the disappointment that I’m not what you want me to be, because I’ve got enough disappointment in myself for the both of us. Just send me positive thoughts as much as you can spare in the hopes that maybe, one day, I’ll be on the other side of this, and I’ll be so grateful that you were so patient and understanding. When that day comes I will be able to call you a ‘Great Friend.’

Sincerely,

A Nervous Wreck


Read Why I Chose to Speak Out.

For more understanding on anxiety attacks from my own personal story, click here.

Read about The “Mental” Stigma here. 

Read Where I’m Going With This here.

Help end ignorance. Help make this world one of greater understanding and compassion.

Being Grounded

Have you ever found yourself within the grip of a panic attack?

Have you ever wondered what your friend might mean when they say they’ve suffered one, or what to do to stop one when it’s happening?

Let me take you through an example of a panic/anxiety attack from the only experience I know: my own.

So there I was… Land line phone ringing. Looking at the letter in my hand saying my payment’s behind and a bailiff might soon come to my door to recover goods to cover the cost that is owed. Land line still ringing. Head going through my recent incomings and outgoings wondering how the hell am I going to have the money to prevent the bailiffs from showing up. Kids asking me questions. Can they have milk. Wondering if the milk goes if I’ll be able to buy more milk. If I buy more milk the bailiffs would be that much closer to coming to essentially rob me because I don’t have anything to give them to stop them from coming. I’m feeling violated already and they haven’t even been here! Phone still ringing. Who could be on the phone? The school to say my kid’s been in trouble? The bill collector to say they want money? Or THAT WOMAN I told to stop calling me. I told her twenty times, she still calls. She wants to harass me because I’m not doing what she thinks I should be doing and she’s projecting her fears onto me. I can’t talk to her. I want her to leave me alone. Why won’t she leave me alone?

I need to go get the babysitter. I need to go to work. The customers yelled at me last night because the place was packed and the kitchen was handling the party upstairs so their food orders had to wait. I panicked after some time and ended up crying in the cellar. What if that happens again? I can’t go to work and cry. Phone still ringing. Kids want milk. Why can’t I just answer the phone and make her stop calling me? What if the bailiffs come next week? What will they take? What does everyone want from me? Why am I an adult and don’t know what to do? Why am I failing at this? What should I have done instead? If only I’d made that other decision when I was a teenager I’d be in a different place by now, right? I don’t even know.

My chest gets tight. What if I have a heart attack? I’m too young to have a heart attack! Breathing is getting heavier and faster. I can’t slow it down. I can’t stop it. Why can’t I stop it? My eldest asks me if I’m okay. I’m not okay. I might have a heart attack right before his eyes. I don’t want him to see me so fragile. My vision is getting blurry. I can’t see straight. Am I going to pass out? I try again to slow my breathing but now I’m making strange noises that make me sound like an owl because I’m starting to sob at the same time and the combination of these is making a “hooooo” noise. He’s asking me what’s wrong. I can’t answer you because I’m uncontrollably hooting! Tears come streaming down my face. I just did my makeup in preparation for going to work in front of all those people and now I’ve ruined it. I can’t go to work with streaks down my face, they’ll all ask me what’s wrong! How am I even going to drive when I could start hooting again at any minute?

The panic doesn’t stop. It carries on. My son gets me a bag to breathe into but I seem to recall hearing that’s the wrong thing to do. So which is it? Bag or no bag?

THIS is the moment my counsellor’s talking about. The panic attack. Or anxiety attack, if you prefer. I’d prefer they didn’t exist, if I’m honest, who gives a **** what you call it?

She says imagine it’s like a television with a lot of different channels going at once. Close your eyes. Grab an invisible remote. Press pause. Stop. Loosen every muscle. Become floppy like a rag doll. Open your eyes. Look around the room and start naming things. Shelf. Cupboard. Fish tank. Couch. Shoe. Table. Simultaneously, breathe in and count to five, then breathe out and take it from five to ten. One two three four five, six seven eight nine ten.

This brings you back in the moment and grounds you. Roots you to the present. Keeps the pendulum of the mind in the centre instead of swinging wildly from past to future. Because when your mind is swinging wildly from “what if” to “if only” it can’t focus on what’s actually happening right now. You can’t undo the past. You can’t control the future. In current reality those places aren’t real. They’re memories and projections. They’re essentially just figments of your imagination.

But they can easily grip you right where it hurts. They can have you in their invisible trap and have you feeling like you’re going to die, and like you’re worthless because you can’t stop it.

I have tried to tell people about anxiety and panic attacks. I still have a sense that they’re not quite understanding what I am talking about. I don’t know what they think but I know that their perspective is not what I want it to be. Occasionally I meet someone that might say “Oh yes. I’ve had one of those. Those are the worst.” Now imagine you have scenarios like this playing out nearly every day, suddenly and without warning, just to trip you up. They don’t care if you need to go to work or not, what would you do?

Try to remember that in the midst of that storm that pendulum is swinging, and that naming things in the room and counting to ten while taking deep breaths is a good thing to do.

Pharaoh's Fury

Pharaoh’s Fury

It reminds me of that Pharaoh’s Fury ride as a kid. That big boat that swung from extreme to extreme. When it swung forward I thought I would fall out back first, when it swung backward I would fall out face first. I wasn’t actually going to fall out either way, but try telling that to my churning stomach and crying eyes at the time.

If you have a friend who is telling you they’re having panic attacks, please think of this and try to imagine how that feels. These people are not silly. It really isn’t something they are doing wrong. It is an instinctual response resulting from the “fight or flight” reaction to a crisis. It is still a crisis even though it’s not a bear attacking, because it may as well be, for all the brain cares. In that moment we can neither fight nor flee, so what happens is we suffer from a sort of short circuit where everything goes haywire. It is utterly confusing and soul-destroying.

Be kind. Be kind to yourself if this is describing you, be kind to your friend or loved one if this is describing them. We need support. We need to be told we’re doing all we can do and that we can only cross these bridges when we get to them. There is no sense in revisiting the past, no, but we’ll likely do it anyway because it’s hard to not do that.

Be gentle. If you can’t go to the thing because you’re going to be putting yourself at risk, call and say you’re not going. Give that little bit of understanding to yourself and trust your instincts. Don’t drive after having just had a panic attack. Don’t push yourself over that edge. Consider your needs and start putting them first for once.

Be forgiving. Forgive yourself, forgive your friend. Adding to the “I’m disappointed in you” dialogue is not necessary. Or helpful.

Before panic attacks I would say that being “grounded” would be a bad thing. Now, that’s all I want to be.


Image courtesy of: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/08/Pharaoh%27s_Fury.jpg