The Bird and the Birdwatcher (A Cautionary Tale)

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Once, there was a bird.

She had the most gorgeous feathers of many colours, unlike anything seen before. And when she would open her beak to sing, all the creatures in the forest where she lived would stop to listen to her beautiful voice.

At dawn she would sing to welcome in the morning. Her friends often joined in her song, feeling every bit as beautiful as she. She filled their days with happiness and joy as her heart was just as wonderful as her feathers and voice. She was loyal and kind and very wise, and dearly loved by those who knew her.

At night she would sing a lullaby and all the creatures of the forest would feel safe as they drifted off to sleep. They all knew they were free, and life was good.

Soon, a birdwatcher came through the forest. He was seemingly very appreciative of birds. He complimented them all on their feathers and fed them from his hands. He brought the tastiest treats for them and they began to look forward to his visits. His touch was gentle, his words sweet, and his smile pleasing.

One day when he was visiting, he saw the beautiful bird. As she sang he fixed his gaze upon her, and as he did so, she couldn’t help but blush a little. He was smiling in a way that made her feel not just beautiful, but perfect. As she finished her song, he beckoned her to come near.

“What a magnificent creature you are, just look at how gracefully you flew.” he swooned.

“Why thank you,” she replied, feeling her cheeks grow red again.

“And that voice! Will you sing for me another?”

She performed for him one more tune and he praised her in such a way that she had never been before. He made her feel so special.

“Can I tell you a secret?” he whispered quietly. She leaned her head in a bit closer with an inquisitive look, and he began, “These other birds here, they have told me how they’ve grown tired of your songs. But I don’t see what they’re talking about, because that was exquisite. They don’t see what I see in you.”

“Oh,” she said, taken aback, “I didn’t realise they felt that way! If only they’d have said…”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he continued, “of course they wouldn’t say so. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. Say, would you be so kind as to grant me your company while I eat a meal this evening? I’m very lonely in my home all by myself and I can think of nothing better than to hear your melody while I dine.”

“Is-is it safe?” she asked.

“Of course!” he reassured her. “Such a treasure like you, I’d protect with my very last breath. I know how much the forest adores you. You have nothing to worry about.”

“Well I suppose so,” she began, “after all I’d hate for such a nice man like you to be lonely. Nobody should be lonely.”

“You go on ahead, my cottage is over there,” the man continued, “I’ll just gather some wood for the fire and will be right behind you.”

“Alright,” she agreed, “See you there.”

As she flew toward the cottage, the man approached the others. They asked why their friend had gone. “Oh it’s nothing,” he answered, “She was only a little tired of sharing her songs for today. She said she would rather sing alone. I’m sure she’ll be back in the morning. But I, on the other hand, would love to hear a harmony by such a good looking bunch. Sing for me, won’t you?”

When they finished the birdwatcher praised them, and made his apologies that his dinner would go cold if he stayed any longer. He said his goodbyes and turned to walk away, and as he did, the other birds were confused. They thought surely their friend loved them and was happy to share her songs, but she did fly off alone, and they knew the man to be trustworthy, so they believed him.

When the man arrived at the cottage, he looked so pleased to see the bird. “Thank you so much for offering your company tonight, my evening would have been so dull otherwise.” In his hand he held some branches. He placed them in the hearth and fanned the flames.

“It’s nothing, really,” the bird assured, and, seeing there was already a pile of sticks stacked nearby she chirped, “Oh, didn’t you know you already had sticks over there?”

“Silly bird, don’t you see those are not fit for a fire?” he laughed, “You had better leave such things to me. Now… I have been so looking forward to another of your songs, won’t you let me hear one?” He sat and poised himself with his hands under his chin, smiling intently, and motioned her to the windowsill, admiring, “What a beauty.”

She took her place by the window and began to sing as she tilted her beak upward and closed her eyes, trying hard to produce the best sound. When she opened her eyes, she noticed the pile of sticks was smaller. She looked all around the room and as she looked behind her, she saw there were a few sticks now standing upright against the window pane. Puzzled, she asked, “Weren’t these sticks just over there?”

“What are you talking about?” the birdwatcher replied innocently.

“These sticks, here, are now behind me. They used to be over there. I’m sure they weren’t here before. Why did they move?” she asked.

“No,” he maintained, “there were always sticks there. You’re imagining things. Perhaps you’re tired, you need some sleep. Silly bird.”

“I don’t think so,” the bird insisted, “I’m sure that pile of sticks was higher and there were no sticks here.”

The man’s fingers began tapping on the table. “I think I would know what was in my own home,” he said, and stood up quickly. He raised his voice, “Are you calling me a liar?”

“No! Of course not!” she conceded. “I wouldn’t–”

“I’d like to be alone now,” interrupted the man. “I think it’s time you left.”

“Oh please, I’m so sorry to offend, I really didn’t mean to.” The bird pleaded with the man, and he accepted her apology. When he then asked for more of her songs, she quickly obliged and serenaded the man until he appeared to be asleep.

“Don’t… leave… me,” he mumbled in between snores, and feeling guilty, and sorry for the man, she stayed. She ruffled her feathers to make herself comfortable for the night, as one of her colourful feathers dropped, leaving a dull grey one underneath. She then drifted off to sleep thinking about how rude she had been in exchange for his kindness, and how sad she was to have upset him.

When she awoke she saw he had made her a lovely breakfast of berries and seeds, and also that there were more sticks surrounding her, this time gathered and tied at the top. For a second she thought to ask if there were now more there than the previous night, but decided against it. She remembered how angry he had been and she didn’t want to upset him once more. Suddenly she noticed a few more of her feathers had dropped, but was immediately distracted by the man wishing her a good morning.

They had a wonderful chat as he told her how much he enjoyed her staying to sing him to sleep, and how she should feel free to come and go as she pleased. As a token of his gratitude, he placed a bracelet around her ankle.

“Our little secret,” the man said lovingly, and with that she returned to the forest feeling more special than ever.

When she arrived there, her friends started chatting amongst themselves. They didn’t seem too pleased to see her. She approached a group of them as she began a song, but none of them joined in.

“What’s that on your ankle?” one of them heckled.

“Why– it’s a secret, actually,” the bird replied sheepishly.

“I knew it,” another started, “she thinks she’s too good for us now.”

“No, that’s not it at all… if you must know, the man gave it to me,” she defended.

“What nonsense.” they all echoed at once, and flew away from the beautiful bird.

Leaving her alone on the branch, she watched as they all gathered together and sang a harmony without her. They looked happy. But the bird was not. Saddened, she flew back to the cottage, dropping a few more feathers along the way.

“Why are you crying?” the man questioned as he drew her near.

“I don’t know what I did wrong,” she whimpered, and looked down, seeing the bracelet. She thought maybe they had been upset that she had been given such a pretty thing. She would rather have her friends than a bracelet. “Oh, maybe it was because I told them you had given me this,” she began, but instantly found herself hitting the wall and in screaming pain. She didn’t know what had just happened.

“I wish you wouldn’t have made me do that,” sighed the birdwatcher, “but it angers me so when you tell our secrets. Hurts my feelings. Don’t you know how much I trusted you to keep that between us? And you betrayed me. I can’t think of anything worse than a friend who betrays another. That’s why I was so upset, I couldn’t help it.”

“I– I’m… sorry,” stammered the bird, “my wing… my wing is broken.”

“You should not have told our secret,” said the man, “if you hadn’t betrayed me you wouldn’t have got hurt. I hope you’ve learned your lesson now.”

He picked her up gently off the floor, where remained a pile of her feathers. He tended to her wing. And then, he placed her by the window. “Why don’t you climb in there,” he suggested, motioning to the sticks which were now attached to a base and completed by a door, “it will be much safer for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were in danger now your friends are so jealous. That’s why you should never have told. Would you like me to secure it with a lock?”

“Yes, please,” said the bird sadly, as she cradled her bandaged wing, while a few more of her feathers dropped.

For the rest of the day, the man brought her everything she needed. She began to forget the pain in her wing as he told her stories, made jokes, gave her some of his special treats. He really was a good man, she thought, and she had been so wrong to betray him.

The man asked for some of her songs, and although she didn’t feel much like singing, she obliged to make him happy. She didn’t want to upset him anymore. She sang so much her voice began to crack, and by the end of the evening all her beautiful feathers had fallen into a pile at the bottom of her locked cage. She stared at them, and knew it was because she had been silly and betrayed her friend the birdwatcher that she no longer deserved to be beautiful.

The following day she awoke to a clean cage, but this time there was no breakfast. She asked for something to eat, as she could not go get any food for herself. The man demanded that she sing in exchange for his hospitality. She tried, but her voice cracked again.

“Look at you,” the man sneered, “not only are you so ugly, but you can’t even carry a tune. What good are you to anyone now? It’s a good thing I took you in when I did, or you’d never have survived out there in the forest.”

The man denied her breakfast and left the cottage. Through the window the bird could see him going to visit all her friends. She heard them singing to him, and felt ashamed, believing she would never be able to sing again.

Upon returning, the man brought her a small bit of food. It wasn’t a treat like he used to give her, but she was so hungry that she felt thankful he’d given her anything at all. He then offered her a gift, which was a little jacket made from her beautiful, colourful feathers. Delighted, she put it on and felt pretty for a second. He complimented her and she smiled, when she heard her friends outside the window. Excitedly, she waved to them with her good wing.

“He’s right, she does look happier there,” the bird heard her friends say as they turned and flew away.

The bird looked at the man. He had a smug grin on his face. She lowered her eyes to avert his, and saw once more the bracelet on her ankle. At that moment, she was sure she wanted it off. She no longer wanted to live with the man. She took off the jacket and thanked the man for the food, nodding her head to his following criticisms and trying to be as pleasing to him as possible.

Weeks later when one day the man went out, she seized the opportunity and tugged with her beak at the bracelet. She tried with all her might, but with a weak wing, and an overwhelming fear of what might happen when the man saw it was no longer on her, she stopped, and cried. Letting out a wail while thinking of how she used to sing and be loved and safe and free, and happy, but now she was surely going to die in this cage, she was surprised by the sudden sound of her own soft, melodic voice she had thought was lost. Shocked, she tried to sing a few notes. It worked! She sang a bit longer, repeatedly looking out the window and toward the door, worried the man would return at any second. Gathering a bit of courage, and remembering he would surely be gone for some time longer, she sang as loud and as high as she could, when one of the sticks of her cage began to crack. She stopped, contemplating what she had just done.

In her excitement she fluttered her wings. As she did so she noticed the broken wing had mended and did not hurt anymore. She fluttered again and a grey feather fell out. Surprised, she inspected her wings, to see that on the inside of one of them was a colourful feather. She beat her wings as fast as she could and as she did so, her cage rattled. She smiled as tears streamed from her eyes with this small glimpse of hope. She wiped them away and prepared herself, for the birdwatcher would soon be home.

When the man was around she pretended her voice and wing were still broken. He called her names and told her of all the more beautiful birds he had seen on his walks. She endured his speeches with a silent grace, nodding when he asked if she knew how good he was to her, and how she was lucky he provided for her, as she would no doubt struggle to survive on her own.

Despite becoming wise to his deceptive ways, part of her still wondered if she would indeed be better off staying with the man. Her friends no longer loved her, she doubted she was missed. She could hear their lullabies in the evenings, and their songs and laughter in the days. He would bring her food when she most needed it, and he told her how glad he was she’d chosen to stay with him. Despite the bad things he had done, he’d done equally good things. And she’d deserved her punishments, she thought.

One day when it was sunny, the bird said to the man before he left, “Please, just open this window a tiny bit, just for some fresh air? I am so glad to be safe in this cage and know it could do no harm, but the sun is a little extra warm today.”

Pausing to think about whether she could escape, but knowing her wing was useless and the cage locked, he relented and lifted the window. “Silly bird,” he muttered, and walked out the door.

Shaking, she gathered her courage and started to sing and beat her wings simultaneously. But thinking the man might hear her and be angry, she became terrified and stopped. She sat stunned the whole day until the man returned, feeling angry with herself for not taking what might have been her only opportunity to escape. She really was a ‘silly bird.’

A few days later she caught a glimpse of her colourful feather. She sighed, and knew she must act. She told the man how grateful she was that he’d opened the window the time before, and how much cooler it would be for him when he returned from his outings if he opened it again. As nothing had previously gone wrong, he agreed and opened the window, and left.

Giving him time to walk far enough away that he wouldn’t hear her, she began to beat her wings. The cage rattled. She beat them faster and harder, and tilted her beak upward, closed her eyes, and sang as loudly as she could. The sticks were cracking, and rattling more furiously. Thinking of how much she wanted to be free from her cage and away from the man, suddenly with a burst of what felt like insanity she pushed off and began to fly. Upon making contact with her beak, the cage shattered into thousands of pieces. Her grey feathers were moulting with every beat and her colourful ones re-growing at a fantastic pace. She squeezed out of the window and flapped her wings with fervour in the direction of the forest.

She was flying, and singing the best song she had ever heard coming out of her own mouth.

Being careful to make sure the man was not in the forest with her friends, she settled amongst them. They looked at her with surprise. “Please,” she said, “I have missed you all so much. Please will you help me get this bracelet off my ankle?” She sobbed with relief as they hurriedly rallied together to pull the bracelet off her ankle. “The birdwatcher,” she wailed, “he broke my wing. He caged me. It was awful. He’ll come for me. Please, we need to protect ourselves from him.”

“But you looked so happy when we saw you,” one of the birds commented, “why didn’t you leave sooner? You’ve been there a long time… if anyone treated me like that I’d have been out of there ages before now. How could someone as wise and as beautiful as you allow yourself to be caged?”

“I know,” the bird replied with shame, “I wish I had left much sooner. But I was so scared, and I thought it would have been impossible, so I stayed. But there’s no time to explain. Listen up!” They gathered all the creatures of the forest around and discussed what should be done about the man.

Now walking home to his cottage, the birdwatcher saw something glinting in his path, appearing to float in the air. He approached it, curious. Reaching out his hand, he saw it was the bracelet he had put on the bird, suspended in a spider’s web. After another step he found himself falling into a hole, which had been dug by the underground-dwellers. The birds had disguised it with twigs and leaves. It was so deep, he could not climb back out. After much trying he gave up, feeling sorry for only himself.

The bird, now back in the forest with her friends she had once loved so dearly, began a song. All the creatures chimed in with her, making the whole forest resonate with their harmonies. The last of the grey feathers began to fall out as she sang, except for one feather where her wing had been broken. It was never going to be colourful again. But, accepting it as a token of her strength and courage, she looked upon it proudly.
She would never forget what the birdwatcher had done, though she still felt sorry for him… just not too sorry.

Artwork by my eldest son, age 11

Artwork by my eldest son, age 11

This is a story about domestic violence. It was written to challenge questions like, “Why doesn’t she just leave?”
And statements like, “I’d never let that happen to me.”
And perceptions like, “She’s too pretty/wise/educated/etc. for that to happen to her.”
Domestic Violence can happen to anyone, by anyone. The damage isn’t always physical, and the solution not always simple.

It is also worth noting that while this story has a relatively happy ending, that is not always the case in real life.

(This story and all posts contained in this blog are the intellectual property of Kirsten Young and are copyrighted as such, unless expressly stated otherwise e.g.: “reblogged”.)

It’s Still Self-Harm

I suffer from generalised anxiety disorder, depression, and PTSD, that I know of. As much as these diagnoses say “mental illness” or “mental health issues,” for me they are also very physically related. Not only do I feel like I’m being zapped with volts upon volts of electricity as I shake, sweat profusely and get clammy palms at the thought of confrontation, but I am constantly worried about my body. And not in a way most people would think.

When I started doing these blog posts and looking through my hard drives for photos I thought would be appropriate, I saw my body in the various sizes it has been in the past five years. In 2010 I weighed about sixteen and a half stone. By the end of 2011 I was ten stone. That’s about ninety pounds’ difference, over forty kilos. Since that time I’ve put on ten pounds here, twenty pounds there, then freaked out and made resolutions and worked it back off again. When I see the pictures of how big I was, I feel disgusted that I could’ve let myself get that big. When I see the ones of me smaller, I think how good I looked, how I wish I could be that size again, but also how I remember still feeling huge and disgusting at the time. Over the past six months I’ve put on weight at a rate so much higher than ever before, and am now a good thirty pounds heavier than a weight I’m comfortable being. Except I’m only comfortable with being any weight in hindsight, because no matter what size I may be, I still feel uncomfortable. This got me thinking… what is my problem?

I see these people running around outside in their spandex and neon shoes and even when they’re three hundred pounds heavy, I envy them. I envy that they have the courage to get out there and sweat, running around alone in public, because I would hate for people to be looking at me doing that, regardless of size. I hear of consistent runners and exercise-doers and I am in admiration of how these people can keep these routines in place. I envy myself when I look at my pictures, for being able to get in shape all those times. Sometimes I have no idea where that discipline came from, but I want to find it again.

When I moan about my weight to those I know, thinking how annoying I must sound that I’m even talking about it, I hear generally encouraging things. Some people tell me I’m not too big at all, that I still look great, but thanks to anxiety I don’t accept this as truth. I’m not fishing for compliments from them, but in my head they’re looking at me and seeing all the things I see when I look at me, which is this bulge and that ripple and that flappy bit and this crease, and I feel the need to excuse myself for how I am. I feel they hate me for whining about it, but I can’t stop. They waste their words reassuring me about something which will only stop being an issue when I stop using it to hurt myself.

As I went through another bout of deep depression and started gaining a little bit of weight this year, I felt not only angry with myself for getting carried away with my eating habits, but a masochistic sense of relief and a compulsion to keep getting bigger. I stopped caring about how much butter I put in this, or how much sugar was in that, and completely threw out my own philosophies on eating properly. I was beating myself up constantly that I was only compounding my own problem and making more work for myself. I knew that if I didn’t hold back the portions, my clothes would no longer fit and I’d have to buy more, which I couldn’t afford. But then I’d buy another tub of ice cream, and go to the scale and feel worthless and stupid for gaining another three pounds in one week.

After thinking heavily about it, I’ve come to understand why I do this. I don’t harm myself in the traditional sorts of ways most people would think of when they hear “self-harm” but this is a cycle of anguish that never seems to end. It’s still self-harm even though there’s no blood or bruises.

When I’m feeling better and more motivated, I can look in the mirror and appreciate my stretch marks as “mommy stripes” and my returned layers of fat as “womanly curves” and “proof I’m eating,” which is good in a way because I’ve experienced loss of appetite for weeks at a time and starvation due to poverty alike. But within a matter of days or even minutes I’m saying all kinds of mean things to myself and going to the cupboards to find something high in fat, salt and carbs. It doesn’t feel the same as “emotional eating” where people binge when they’re either happy or sad. It is deliberate sabotage of what I know in my conscious self to be healthy and good for me.

When I’m bigger that means I’ve also stopped doing any kind of real exercise which equates to weaker muscles. When my core is weak I can have excruciating and debilitating back spasms. When I have that extra layer I experience the cutting off of circulation and numb limbs when I’m on the floor playing with the kids. I’m slower. I have less energy. I increase my risk of developing diabetes, which runs in my family. I stop going out of the house. I stop seeing friends. I feel ashamed when I see people who knew me when I was smaller and this can trigger panic attacks. I create more pain of the physical, emotional, and psychological varieties. I tell myself I’d be so much healthier and happier if only I were smaller like I used to be, while simultaneously feeling fear of being that size again.

The fear of being healthier is attached to the incidences in the past in which I was sexually and non-sexually harassed or assaulted by others. When I’m smaller I get a lot more attention for the way I look while loathing the ‘lookers’ for being so shallow. In addition to more serious incidences of abuse, there have been times in the past when I’ve been followed through town at 5:30am by a large man making kissy noises at me, been touched inappropriately in the workplace, been disregarded as an intellectual based on stereotypes of pretty girls (so much wrong with that), been asked to flirt to earn the company free work, been whistled at, hollered at, objectified and singled out for being attractive. I’ve faced competitive attitudes from co-workers, hatred, animosity, and bullying from other women, threats to my well-being, and general negativity.

But those things are in the past, and it’s the anxiety and PTSD telling me to be afraid of what I should be doing for the sake of my health because if I do it, I might get hurt. It’s nonsense, but that’s the difference between one who suffers from these conditions and one who doesn’t; the privilege of rational thinking.

I know that if I exercise and eat appropriately I’ll slim down and my nicer clothes will fit, my release of endorphins will increase, I’ll feel more confident, have more energy, a more consistent heart rate, possibly a reduced rate of panic attacks, and so many more benefits. I know that if I just put my workout clothes and shoes on, turn on my fitness DVD (because there is no way on this earth you’ll find me jiggling, panting and sweating in front of strangers), I will be done in about thirty minutes and feel really accomplished. I know this, but in the straightjacket of depression I can hardly bring myself to do what is needed to get it done.

These are three invisible illnesses among many. Their ability to manifest in a physical form can include literally preventing a person from doing or saying something they know they should, and compelling them to say or do something they know they shouldn’t. It hurts to know these things have any power over me, despite all my stubbornness and shows of determination and willpower in my former years. And it hurts even more that even though I accomplished so many amazing things before, I can be prevented from doing a few silly crunches and lunges.

So as I’ve been writing about strength and putting one foot in front of another, I thought it time that I get back up and try again to take my own advice… and I’ve done two workouts in three days. It’s no big deal on paper but any victory over self-harm for someone battling it feels like a gold medal.

…and if this sounds like you, reader, you’re not alone.

Get back up off the floor and keep going, keep fighting.

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Photo and design of papercut: credit Lucy Jerwood http://www.facebook.com/twinklecuts?refid=12 (Thank you Lucy!) Artwork created for the Always Keep Fighting Campaign (see here).

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?

Where I’m Going With This

This is the follow-up post promised here.

After The Accident, my niece and nephew were left behind suddenly, without their mother.

My niece, Ezri, was two-and-a-half years old, my nephew Lucian was two months old. Ezri had been seated in the centre of the backseat of the car at the time, and had escaped with merely a scratch on her foot. Lucian, however, was on the same side as my sister when the car was hit. Miraculously he was barely injured, with only a concussion and a bruised liver resulting from the impact. The car was so badly damaged they didn’t even know he was still in there, at first. If it weren’t for him suddenly crying, they wouldn’t have heard him and he would have been carried away, alive, with the wreckage.

These thoughts continuously haunt me. I cannot imagine what they must have seen or heard, or how they must have felt. But I love them to pieces, which is difficult because I’ve been an entire ocean away from them for the past five years. That’s beside the point.

The point is, it hurts me to think of how they felt after all this. How do you explain to a child that their parent isn’t coming back? How do you convey their love and legacy to the innocent? I know my family isn’t alone in this; there are children across the world who are struggling or about to struggle with this concept. Not even just kids, but people of all ages. Grief is a difficult thing.

So I wrote a story. Just something simple, about a family of bunnies with Ezri as the main character. In the story, Mama Bunny disappears and Ezri goes to find her after she sees her dad’s reaction when she asks where her mama is. I wrote it for her and Lucian, initially, but I think this is bigger than that.

When we were at the hospital, nobody gave us any materials to help talk to the kids. They just kind of leave you to it. My vision is that this book will be published with illustrations and distributed for free to families who are about to lose a parent of children. I want it to be available for purchase so that people everywhere can enjoy it and take a bit of comfort from it.

BUT I DON’T QUITE KNOW HOW TO ACCOMPLISH THIS.

This is where you come in, friends. I want to hear from people who would be able to offer advice or time and skills on editing a video so I can create a Kickstarter page to raise the funds to get this done. I need ideas. Artists. Programmers. I’m thinking maybe an app where the kids can flip the pages and play with Ezri Bunny. Or some animated illustrations.

I myself am an amateur artist but for some reason I have a mental block when it comes to doing artwork for this particular project. I’m thinking stuff like this:

Painting by Kirsten Young

Painting by Kirsten Young

I would like to post the story free for anyone to read, however I am afraid of copyright issues and the work being stolen. So maybe I could read the story on video to upload to YouTube. But I don’t know how to edit video.

If you or someone you know would like to help, please give a shout. I’d love to see this accomplished in 2015.

Thanks for reading.

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