Sunday, 10 May 2015

You are not your behaviour.

"I repeat - you are not your behaviour"

Also imagine an RP BBC radio voice announcing this in the style of a documentary about World War 2.

This is something I've often said to people - and it's true. But there is some confusion here: many of us fall victim to thinking that we cannot change our behaviour, because it decides our identity (or our identity decides it) - it's down to our personality; it's 'who we are'.

For BPD, as with many other disorders, the sense of self is something of a confusing concept to begin with - or maybe that's just a universal thing - and I think this is because these behaviours can be all-consuming. If I manage to stop one, or in rare circumstances all, who am I left with? Is there even a me underneath all of this? So many layers I'm like an English spring wardrobe.

I've had BPD since I was 14 (or more likely from birth and just cemented a bit later on) so it's been shaping my behaviour for a very very long time (apparently age is something to be ashamed off despite it not being in anyway a choice, but I'm 35). I have no memory of a 'me' without it. But am I less 'me' because I no longer choose to harm myself in a way visible to others (whilst arguably continuing in ways that are more easily hidden)? Of course I'm bloody not. I'm stuck with me. For life. And beyond. Whatever the 'hell' that turns out to be.

Over the years I've had a lot of what are known as 'target behaviours'. At any one time I could be doing any of them, but always at least one. Taking drugs (including prescribed ones), drinking, promiscuous sex (although mainly due to being so drunk I have no memory of it - both dangerous and also questionable when it comes to consent...), restricting my diet, cutting myself, scratching holes in my scalp, having violent relationships, the list goes on. Just because I change these behaviours, it doesn't mean I'm changing myself. I'm still me, no matter how much I hate myself. As a teenager, I was given a weekly appointment with the nurse at my GP surgery, just so they could dress the cuts properly. This is actually one of the times I felt the NHS served me well. I wasn't made to feel like an attention seeker. The nurse dressed my wounds as she would've done for anyone else. She talked to me like a human being and that mattered to me. I never saw anything other than concern in her face. For anyone who questions harm reduction - I.e. Telling people how to self-harm as safely as possible rather than simply say 'stop doing that!' - think about that. One of the only perks of being thin at the same time was that I had a little less flesh to maim. 

Behaviour may be caused by something we can't control - this might be a developmental difference like autism, a cognitive difference like dyslexia or a mental illness. Sometimes this is true. If we've not had the opportunity to learn and hone skills that enable us to change our behaviour in spite of whatever impairment we have, then of course it'll be more or less impossible to modify behaviours produced as a result. For many there are no skills that will enable flawless interactions with the rest of the world. Neurodiversity accepts this and I'm a huge believer in acceptance of differences in the way people perceive the world. But with some intervention, some of us have the ability to learn to adapt our more harmful behaviours in order to make life easier for ourselves, and for others around us. We may not even need intervention - we might just learn through experience. Adapting how we behave does not mean we are changing the person we are. We'll likely still enjoy sport, and still hate Marmite. BUT The key question here is: Why the hell should we change?

I often hear people talk about their partner's expectations in a relationship, something like this: 

"You knew I smoked when we got together - why do you want me to change now?". 

Well, firstly let me just say if you're really defined by nicotine then frankly you probably should have sex a bit more, and if that means spending less time stinking of cigarettes well then 'suck it up' in a less nicotine smeared way. I'm an ex-smoker and therefore it's my duty to get all holier than thou when talking about smokers. Now I'm not for one moment imagining that my behaviours don't affect those close to me anymore. I'm fully aware that my rigidity when it comes to my diet is probably a) very annoying, and b) very dull. We don't go out for dinner anymore. We don't sit around the table and eat of an evening. I get very cross if someone eats my special 'safe foods'. But I'm at a point (I hope) where I can happily source those things for myself without expecting others to be always considering whether I will or won't join in. I do my own food shopping and everyone else can eat whatever they want. I'll even sit down for a social occasion and not eat without any wringing of hands, and it's not that it doesn't bother me, but that I know it's my problem. 

Back to the point in hand; Recently it was self-injury awareness day. I am aware. And because of me, my parents were also horribly aware. I can no longer ask my mother how it made her feel to see the result of my apparent hatred for my flesh, but I knew. I've not cut myself since 2004, the year she died. 11 years have gone by since I said goodbye to what had been my friend and coping mechanism, but had been turned against me by someone else who tried to control me because his own demons were controlling him. A sort of never ending control loop, if you will. So I changed that behaviour, but lo and behold, I'm still me. I will probably think of cutting myself on and off for the rest of my life. Of all the target behaviours I've had this one seemed the most immediate release. I'm attempting to use writing as an equally immediate tool, but it's not as easy to do. That's probably an unfathomable concept if you've never had the experience, so you'll just have to take my word for it. This literal and metaphorical release stuff is starting to become common knowledge now that we're beginning to talk more about mental health. 

I've just graduated - 'graduated'! Ha! - from an 18 week stint of therapy, where I learned a lot about why I've behaved the way I have since forever. It was both amazing and chilling to spend time with a group of other people who knew. They understood. We probably could've finished each other's sentences, such was the synergy between us all. Even though I've left the group, I still feel a huge sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of the people I met there. I found it heartbreaking to see two of them become inpatients again before they'd even finished the DBT course. I wanted to remove their pain but still the voice in the back of my head wanted to make it about me somehow - because I've never been a 'proper' patient - I've never been admitted and had my struggle confirmed. I'm fully aware of the ludicrousness of that statement, but as much as I want to make it untrue, it just isn't. Maybe it's because I'm expressing that I need to know what I am before I can start to fix me. I'm not fully ill, I'm never always fully ill.

Eating disorders are by nature competitive. There are angry souls littered across the Internet, refusing to 'share tips' with others, saying they don't want someone else to die if they help them out. What they really mean is that they don't want someone else to do it better than them. Of course nobody wants to admit it. We want to be the best at our behaviours. I once found out very unexpectedly that a friend of a friend (who I happened not to know very well at the time) was also a cutter, and she had a lot more scars than me. Up until then I genuinely had no idea that other people did it too, let alone that there might be someone else who actually did it more than me. That feeling of not being ill enough is the one thing that makes being ill unbearable. Having to go that step further just to prove how fucked up you are. 

Somewhere underneath all of the bullshit about harm reduction being 'not sharing tips' and about mental illness being about membership of some sort of special club that normal people aren't allowed to join, there's a need to just be honest about it. It's not wrong to feel you're competing with your fellow thin person. We'd be much better off stripping back the layers of rubbish and just saying it all - if it's all out there it's less inside our heads, and that must be good. 

My behaviours are not me. But I have to be me.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Proteopathy, you idiots.

This last week I not only feel old, but I feel as if the planet earth has been sucked into a swirling vortex of virtual reality, where women have finally started to become so much more powerful that we finally make men (and the scared women who feel a bit unsettled because their level of understanding of feminism and of themselves is basic/non-existent) a bit nervous. When I say that I include not just the best of us, but the absolute worst. Even the ones whose grasp on knowledge and wisdom is so tenuous that they've gone almost full circle and started to behave like every other woman is a threat to them - so much so that they just constantly attack anyone who gets too close to the truth of it. I'm not going to name names, because I believe that only gives them (her) more of a platform, but I'm sure you know exactly who I'm talking about - more donkey ride than pedigree racer, but about as horsey as they come. Poor old mare, Hopkins. I'm sure she'd love it if I said I find her face offensive - she's already 'spoken out' (god I hate the terminology the tabloids use) about how she's no oil painting but at least she's thin, yadda yadda yadda, but it's not her face that's the problem. It's her desperation. Methinks she doth protest too much; there's got to be some seriously insecure thoughts bouncing off the echoey walls of her otherwise empty skull for her to so widely miss the point of existence. Never has one so publicly displayed a text book mental illness. The woman's literally screaming for help.

"Well gee, whad'll she say next, folks?!"

Of course I have a lot of extraordinarily talented female (and male, obviously) friends, and most of them can outshine all but a tiny minority of the bumbling fools lobbing insults around on various social media sites (Twitter, 'quelle surprise'!). But paradoxically, talent rarely comes with the most vital accessory - a bulletproof shield and selective hearing. What it does seem to provide though is the appearance of having both, plus often a razor sharp wit. Sometimes wit doesn't cut it.

A certain protein product did it this time. 

Across the globe in Siberia, desperate mothers are sending their teenaged girls to modelling castings where they must parade in bikinis in front of men who claim they're doing them some kind of service by judging them purely on their bodies. That's why it's such a nonsense to say that media that reinforces the idea that women should look a certain way is innocent. There's a frankly a stratospheric difference between encouraging obesity and the subtle yet still pretty bloody obvious repetition of the message that a woman isn't 'ready' to enjoy the experience of going to the beach unless she ingests some chemical crap and has visible abs. If you were to do any level of research you'd find that most of the women in the world who work out don't actually have perfect bodies. It's those extremes that are damaging, not the idea of being fit and healthy.

I stupidly bought Grazia magazine last week to get 25% off a dress to wear to a wedding - I wondered if the front cover was just using shock tactics to entice us in to read the then carefully researched stories about women's issues that lay between the covers, so I decided to have a bit of a read and find out.

Firstly, the use of single quotation marks in "Kim to become dad's 'transgender' stylist" was irksome. It's not a made up term. If the rumours are true, then her dad is transgender, not 'transgender' as if this was some fantastical situation invented by a sleb to get more famous. It's not a game Grazia. 

Next up was "Grazia election survey: Who's got your vote... And who do you weirdly fancy?" Oh right, sorry yes I forgot - women are too stupid to know who to vote for unless one of them is someone they fancy. Because everything is reduced down to sex, isn't it. Grazia, you idiots.

Next up is "Pret announced you can get your coffee free if you're pretty - boss Clive Schlee revealed that staff can give away free drink to customers at their discretion. He said (allegedly) 'They will decide "I like the guy in that tie" or "I fancy that girl or boy". It's supposed to be a cheaper and simpler alternative to a loyalty card scheme'. Well, hold on a gosh darn minute - that doesn't sound like an official announcement from Pret exactly does it? That's just something the boss dreamed up and then let slip, which is not only nothing like any kind of loyalty scheme ("Being pretty and being loyal in 'not the same thing' shock!!") but it's also sort of encouraging customers to try and hit on staff in order to get their drink for free. Either that, or they only employ people incapable of instigating relationships through conversation, or other more usual methods that have more to do with the person involved than how nice their tie is.

By this point I've lost all hope of finding any decent (or any) journalism in Grazia. I only had to peruse the first few pages to have myself reduced to an object, sexualised, judged and shat out. At least More magazine had position of the month, which was actually pretty informative.

I DO expect companies to be morally as responsible as they can be. I DO expect them to consider that because of the society we live in, there are insecurities shared by the majority of women - even the ones who don't think they do - and to knowingly play to those is the wrong thing to do. I know why young women react angrily when you tell them an image they aspire to is wrong - it's because you're telling them they're insecure. I was exactly that way until I was in my late twenties; and what did it make me? Well, it made me ill actually. The only difference between the teenage me, and the now me is that now I know why I do it. I'd love to say that's half the battle, but it isn't. Something so sewn into the fabric of young womanhood doesn't just wash out when you realise you've been lying to yourself. 

The fact that anytime a woman calls out those who perpetuate these stereotypes, naysayers everywhere pipe up with badly worded retorts centred around her being ugly, fat, jealous, hairy, fairy, sexless, unfit, bitchy, snooty, blahhhhhh yadda, zzzz... Sorry I drifted off there - they're just proving her point. "We say you should look like this, and if you say otherwise, we'll say you look like shit. Nerrr Nerrr ner nerr nerrr!" 

See? Sounds dumb, doesn't it. 

Saturday, 4 April 2015


Let's talk about 'pro ana', shall we?

'Ana', for the uninitiated, is the personification of my good (bad) friend, and hopefully not yours - Ms anorexia herself. Sites named in her honour, touting hints and tips for how to starve oneself to death, were rife at one time, until someone quite rightly decided that they'd be culled, along with their sister, 'Pro-mia' (bulimia) sites. 

After the cull, nothing changed. Ana sites just added in transparent disclaimers:

"This is a site dedicated to the support or recovery of those suffering from eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorders. Please be sensitive to this fact when creating an account and contributing to the board."

This seems a little out of place at the top of a forum which in its description on Google calls itself 'the leading pro-ana forum and community to discuss diets, thinspiration, results and find pro ana support groups'. We'll move on to 'thinspiration' later. Be prepared for that, don't sit down with a nice meal in front of you and save that bit to read, will you.

As a 30-something woman, I'd guess the majority of the writers and posters on these sites to be early teens, which makes them even more scary, but the content also raises some interesting considerations. There is usually one board for the oldies, but the language is very different as you might expect. We know how dangerous it is, but we do it anyway. It seems hopeless. I use these forums when I feel hungry. People have visible 'tickers' showing their weight loss, many of them for BMI (body mass index) with a goal of 16. We're grown ups, yet we want our bodies to shrink to the size of children. 

The fact that most of the users are children only adds to the mystery - I think a lot of the problem comes from the medical professionals dealing with eating disorders. At what point does someone become anorexic? How can a body mass index (BMI) be an accurate measure of illness? Weight is deceiving after all. If you find reading about weight triggering, please don't continue reading - the very last thing I want is for something I've written to add to another's misery. That's definitely not the point of this blog. The competitive element of these forums is what bothers me the most - it draws me in and makes me take part to be the thinnest. You'd be surprised how it IS about being thin. Not just control, as we're told so often in the media. 

Psychiatry often relies on several shaky pointers to diagnose anorexia and other EDs or EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified - catchy name huh!), all of which I deem to be completely unreliable. Body mass index - my consultant gets out his little cardboard wheel of weight vs height, and as long as I stay above a certain number that's outside the normal range but not considered 'critical' I'm fine to just go back out into the world. If I don't, I get shut into a big house full of other people who may or may not have similarly chosen to lose a lot of weight. So why am I the odd one out again? I feel like an ana-fraud. This system also relies on me being honest about my weight - thus far nobody's made me stand on the scales. 

To be technical, I don't have 'an eating disorder', I have 'disordered eating'. Apparently I'm standing at the crossroads, trying to decide whether to have an ED and relinquish all the DBT skills I've learned by choosing that path - because 'DBT doesn't work for anorexia'. Sucks for me then that I can't see where I vote on this at all. We're told that no mental illness is a choice, aren't we? But I know I'm definitely not the only one who restricts what they eat to be thin. I like feeling my hip bones. I like wearing size 6 clothes and being able to slot myself into small spaces. I can't let go of my illness easily.

The first time ana reared her ugly thin head, I was still at school. Cue arguments over the dinner table and smashed plates as my mother despaired at my refusal to sit down and eat with the family. The second time I was 21 and in the midst of the break up from hell. I was taken to the Priory by my mother after being asked not to keep coming to the local gym, because they were worried about how thin I was and how much exercise I was doing. After a successful ana diagnosis (does that label stick for life, or do you need to get a new one each time you relapse?) I decided I didn't want to put on the required stone to meet the goal they'd set for me, and went to university instead. Probably a big mistake, but what's done is done.

So, do I think the 'pro-ana' sites serve a purpose? Well, yes they do if you want to look at 'thinspiration' - it's like porn for people with anorexia. Images of very thin people, and I mean VERY thin, skeletons with skin. It's how we get off. But there're also plenty of fellow crazies with big eyes who can validate your craziness and get you through when things get really dark. People you can be completely honest with. They know it, they live it too. 

Right now I'm hanging by a thread. I'm not standing at any crossroads. This is just happening to me, and then one day it'll stop. It always does.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Anger management

In recent weeks I’ve seen a lot of so-called awareness pages/groups on social media posting factually incorrect articles with no scientific basis about the horrific traits of people with borderline personality disorder (my diagnosis). I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this not only unhelpful, but actually pretty upsetting. It’s definitely not a good way to raise awareness, unless the aim is to warn people about how awful people who have BPD are. 

This sort of ‘BPD bashing’ tends to be kept alive by people who’ve been in a relationship with someone who has BPD, and have pinned all the blame for the breakdown of their relationship on their ex-partner’s mental illness. This is convenient for them I suppose, but it doesn’t absolve them of blame and it probably doesn’t make them feel any better either. I’m the child of a parent with this much misunderstood disorder (although it went undiagnosed), and it’s a safe bet that I inherited it, but what’s the point in ruminating on that? It is what it is – so deal with the here and now. After all the present is all we have. 

Let me blind you with a bit of science:

Emotions are key to our ability to reason, plan and make decisions and they’re controlled by the emotional nervous system in the brain, which also contributes to memory formation and a whole lot of other magical intangible things. Not bad for a lump of soggy tissue and electrical activity. You keep your neural pathways to yourself. In people with BPD, physical differences in the part of the brain that would normally regulate emotion remain inactive when the person is exposed to something very emotionally provoking. This means that the reaction is likely to be very extreme in BPD sufferers. We know this because we can see it using FMRI scanning. My brain is broken.

Biosocial theory says that this double whammy of biological dysfunction in emotional regulation (i.e. not having the skills to recognise and deal with emotions in the usual way), plus an invalidating environment (where feelings are denied or made out to be ‘wrong’) results in pervasive emotional dysregulation. It’s not difficult to see how things might get messy. Assigning blame to someone with BPD for their inability to navigate something as emotionally complex as a romantic relationship is akin to chastising someone who has epilepsy for having a seizure. It’s about time this ‘neurodiversity’ was accepted – some brains work differently; we provide tools for people with dyslexia, but there’s no software to help someone regulate their emotions. Yet.

It is possible to learn how to regulate emotion and start to behave differently, in a similar way to how people with ASD can – we can adapt to living and interacting with neurotypicals (that’s basically the rest of humanity), because we can’t expect neurotypicals to allow for our neurodiversity can we? No we can’t. That would just be silly! ‘How would we know where you were to avoid you?!’ I hear you cry. 

At this point, let me reinforce the severity of these effects – 10% of people with BPD complete suicide. We’re far more likely to harm ourselves than anyone else, especially because of the combination of a high suicide risk with sometimes reckless or self-harming behaviours (anorexia is also very high risk for suicide and common in BPD). 

We (and by ‘we’ of course I mean the ‘royal we’ because no two people with BPD are the same, we’re not a homogenous tag team of emotionally inept troublemakers) are likely to attempt to ‘jump off’ when a wave of emotion comes, using so called ‘target behaviours’ which provide the coping mechanism we don’t have through normal emotional regulation. These target behaviours are troublesome at best and life-threatening at worst.

Another problem is recognising what emotion one is feeling. Imagine that! Not only feeling something really extreme, but not even being able to name the emotion? Apparently there are 6 basic emotions, but the only one I can recognise is anger. Anger’s the kind of emotion that tends to hurt the person feeling it more than it hurts whatever has made them angry. It’s destructive by nature. I can vouch for the fact that it really doesn’t take prisoners. Just now I was told that only butter, not margarine, was free with the jacket potato I bought for lunch. You have to pay 10p to choose a healthy option. THAT JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?!!

So funnily enough, at the end of a typical day all I want to do is SWITCH IT ALL OFF, but instead I get a guilt trip courtesy of good old social media. 

I’m feeling… angry?

Friday, 13 February 2015

'The successful candidate will have proven experience of making it upas they go along'

By now I'm sure it's fairly obvious that nothing is safe from this blog. No subject is taboo, and you're right - I have no shame. But I know others with much less shame. 

I've always foolishly lived through the ideation that one always reaps the rewards of hard work. But year upon frustrating/punishing/soul destroying (delete as appropriate) year, it's become increasingly clear that no matter how many times one reads 'Lean In', one who has a CV that looks like someone dropped a scrabble set and picked all the letters up at random before arranging them in one line across the middle of the board is not going to succeed in convincing an employer that those 'transferrable skills' are something they want to touch with a barge pole (or even a Scrabble dictionary).

This is how a line of questioning during a recent job interview went:

"Tell me about a time when you managed a project, end to end?"

"Erm, well, I got a phone call from the studio engineer saying we had 24 hours so could I write something to a rough cut of the film."

"So, how did you plan the project?"

"Well... I didn't I just stayed up all night and wrote the music, and then booked the musicians to come in on whatever days they could."

"How did you manage your time?"

"I don't know really, we just stayed there until it was done."

Needless to say I didn't get the job. 

Now, I know that I do actually have some skills, but in a situation like that where it's in no way representative of or similar to any other situation I've found myself in, for any job, I just go blank. The problem is a combination of the following factors:

1. I take a shitload of medication - this means my short-term memory is awful. I can't remember the conversation we had 5 minutes ago, unless it covers something I can pin to an older memory. I have to write everything down (or type it into an iPad, because my neurological issues have scuppered my previously gorgeously neat handwriting).

2. Job interviews don't actually give people a chance to showcase what they're capable of; even those who don't have any sort of disability are just talking - and there are very few jobs where one just has to talk (OK - maybe politicians).

3. Having the questions in advance so you can prepare, or papers with you to refer to are both frowned upon. If you have dyslexia, you can have more time to think, and you can have pretty much any physical adjustment you like, but it's the format of the interview that is prohibitive to those with memory problems, difficulty with communication, or anxiety. 

To help prove my point, I've been put in many many challenging situations, and I've always risen to them. Here are some examples:

1. I arrived to my new teaching job in a sixth form college, having got the job by talking about music, and taught a class of 20 students - every single one of whom had additional needs. Some didn't speak English, and I mean they didn't speak it AT ALL. One student tragically died during the year, she was knocked down by a car right outside the building. Despite having no teacher training, any advance notice of the needs of the class (and one had asperger's meaning the role playing element of the course was just completely out of the question for him), and having to deliver the news of their comrade's death, all of them passed the year. I have no idea how it happened, I barely remember a thing about the actual content. What I do remember is the feeling of pride swelling in my belly and bring a lump to my throat. There is nothing in the corporate world that even comes close to teaching. 

2. After a year of another job teaching music at degree level, the studio manager I worked with to deliver a performance assessment mentioned to the head of course that she should have let me know what we had available to do this beforehand. She didn't like having her shortcomings pointed out, so she got her revenge by ending my contract. That's some warped logic. I held back from doing what I should've done to be reinstated, and just left quietly because I knew the politics would never work in my favour. My students all passed the module and many of them have done much better than I have in the music industry. Many of them stayed in touch and I've also worked with some of them professionally. Not bad for someone who only graduated a couple of years before.

3. I successfully delivered a music theory lecture to 30 strangers on a degree course at another university, despite only having scraped a pass in music theory grade 5. One of them nearly caught me out, but I pulled the old 'I wanted to see if you'd notice the mistake' trick. I'm a talented fraud.

4. I've delivered more speeches this year than ever before, even though I suffer from sometimes crippling anxiety and I don't like to hold any prompt sheets because people will be able to see I'm trembling. I stand up in front of my peers and my superiors (in grade but definitely not in character) and I talk about my mental health condition, about self-harm, and about my eating disorder. The most important part of this is that none of the senior execs are brave enough to show they're human by talking as openly as I have. This is the one area where I get recognition - just one person saying it touched them makes this painful honesty worthwhile.

You get the idea. I'm good at making something out of nothing - I can wing it in most situations, but I can't get through a sodding job interview. I've got all my previous jobs based solely on merit, not on what lines I've learned to churn out for a performance with no script. It's about time people realised that just because it's 'what we've always done', doesn't make it right.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

What's mine isn't yours

I've noticed a phenomenon. One that I find particularly annoying; I'd say on a par with waiting in a queue for a day, only to find that whatever it is you're queuing for runs out just as you get there. It's like a wasted day, when we all know time is precious. Probably as annoying as the constant references to 'stress, depression and anxiety' when people talk about mental health problems. Notice I say 'mental health problems' and not 'mental illnesses'. Because they're different, right? A problem can be solved, but once it's an illness you're no longer a functional human. I have an illness, not a problem. I make it not a problem, even though I'm ill.

Let me begin with an example of the aforementioned phenomenon - I attended an event based around handling difficult conversations with employees with mental illnesses. The keynote speaker was our very own, very publicly alcoholic, Alistair Campbell. He regaled us with the story of his downward spiral into the gutter, and his subsequent rise back to health, with the help of a lot of money and a lot of meditation dahling. Let's be honest here, when the police pull up to a drunken man swimming on the pavement and they see that in fact he's a public figure, they are bound to treat him well. He got respect, dignity and an easy transition into medical care, whereas Joe Bloggs would've got bruises from being roughly manhandled and a night in a concrete room with no daylight, with no even an alka-seltzer for his hangover. Of course, I'm not belittling the level of depravity Mr. Campbell reached - in fact I'd imagine that just spending time amongst some of the biggest liars in the land would result in one soaking in depravity simply by osmosis - but what I am saying is that for him, the experience had some cushioning peculiar to his level of celebrity.

What I've realised is this: people feel that if they've had a mental illness, that means they understand what it's like for everybody else who's had a mental illness. It gives them carte blanche to put on their judgy pants (please forgive me Mumsnet, for I have sinned) and set themselves in a class above anyone who has made decisions they don't understand, or behaved badly when they were unwell. And to illustrate this, I give you Alistair Campbell.

At the beginning of the evening, I was prepared to have an uplifting shared experience of breaking down barriers, of acknowledging that no matter who we are, we're all vulnerable - anyone can have a mental illness, blah blah blah etc. During Alastair's speech, as he reclined in his chair and slurred only slightly less than I imagine he might have when he was drinking, it became clear that he was sharing nothing that resonated with those of us for whom treatment had been a mystical land we would never reach. He'd been politely and tidily nurtured back to health and sobriety in the Priory. Believe me when I say that it's a far cry from the corridors of an NHS acute ward. They keep a game of charades in a glass fronted dresser rather than an emergency hammer in a break glass box by the window.

After the performance (and yes it was), we retired to the networking area, and whilst he pointedly (and whilst looking around to make sure people were noticing) chose an orange juice, I went for wine - a large one. I was halfway through it, when Mr. Campbell sidled up to me and the group I was talking to, with an incredulous and sneering middle class expression on his purple vein-laced face. 

"What's with the tattoos?"

"I got them to cover up scars."

"Oh... Right."

And then he disappeared as fast as his addled legs would carry him. 

This is a textbook example. It's all well and good talking about mental health, until someone says something that 'even you' in your position of being cool about all mental health, just because you've done time as an alcoholic in psychosis, has no understanding of. I can guarantee that in his head he thought: 

"You mean you actually got tattoos, like some sort of prison hard nut, and even though you're a woman? And.... You... Cut yourself so badly that you needed full sleeves of tattoos to cover them?! What am I meant to do with that?!"

Well, I'll tell you what; it doesn't matter that some reputable organisation invited you to deliver your story and plug your book - the fact you're in the enviable position of being able to down tools and write a book in the first place gives you a chance that most normal people don't get. The man sitting on the bench outside Tescos conversing with his voices whilst drinking cider, unwashed and unshaven for years will never write a book. He may not even live beyond this winter. Average Joe with chronic anxiety walks past him every week with his shopping, thinking "Ugh, what a disgusting tramp", before driving to his CBT session paid for by his private medical insurance. There's a shortage of clients at my DBT group, because although the treatment is proven to be successful for even the most challenging clients, it's costly. Please someone tell me - which part of 40 hours of therapy costs £60000? Yes, it works, the therapists know their shit. But really, this could change people's lives and yet the cost is prohibitive and it's very existence is kept under wraps. What the fuck are we doing?

The moral of the story is this - talk all you like, be open about your experiences, because it helps facilitate conversation rather than sweeping them under the rug, but your codeine addiction is the same as that tramp's heroin habit, cheaper perhaps. Do you control your kidney function? You don't? Ok, well your brain does a bunch of stuff you can't control, including ordering your other organs around. You might end up living on the streets as a drunk and dying of cold and gangrene, or you might end up spending 2 months in a nice hospital where you kick your alcoholism using drugs that stop the withdrawal killing you. Oh, and enjoy charades.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Conversations with my brain

"Listen, brain - I need you to be normal tomorrow - please, I really need to be normal. I've got work to do tonight and it has to still make sense when I have to show it to other people. Ok?"

"Ok, sure. Of course it does depend on whether I wake up when you tell me to though. You know I can't just switch myself off and on at your beck and call. I need to ease myself in to the day gently, especially because your stupid nerve compression wakes me up in the night. Plus there's those 'mood stabilisers' or whatever they are. Let me tell you lady, they have no business getting involved. If I want to sleep, I will. If you drug me I'll just make you feel sick in retaliation." 

"Seriously brain - the lift is still broken and I'm on my own tonight so I can't drug you anyway - I have to be up at 6am to get ready (make my face look less like a clown did my makeup) and try and convince a toddler to walk down 8 flights of stairs in under 20 minutes, when one of my hands is already buggered from carrying the buggy down this morning. Breakfast at nursery finishes at 8.30am and I have to spend at least ten minutes prizing him off my leg so I can get to work before 9am. Just try and act normal, please?"

"But what's in it for me? Where are the nice warming emotions you promised me? It's been nothing but want want want for the last 20 years. You know I'm still 16, but yet you try to force me to be a grown up. You want to drive cars, impress important people and be responsible for a child; I don't have the right qualifications for any of that - you're bloody useless at that stuff. And well you know it."

"Yes brain, I realise it's tough for you to be expected to function like a grown up when you've got stuck at 16, but haven't we practised this enough by now? How are those new neural pathways shaping up, huh? I know you can do a pretty convincing performance of being 34 now - sometimes I could swear people actually think I know what I'm talking about. Just try doing that?"

"I don't know what you mean. Everybody expects you to fail anyway, what's the difference?"

"The difference is, brain, that right now things are actually not a total mess. I'm not living in chaos - and I know that makes you jumpy, but it's time to stop fucking around now. It's not just you and me anymore. This is what we talked about, remember? In DBT? I'm giving you a full day a week to learn all this stuff. It's not easy for me either. You try explaining to your boss that you need a day off every week for 18 weeks so you can stay un-mental. It's not like saying you've got cancer so you need chemotherapy - you can't just do a scan to show you're all fixed. People will forever think you're incapable, no matter how much you prove yourself. They don't even think they're doing it most of the time. The mind's not like a kidney, you can't get a decent one transplanted in."

"God, always so melodramatic aren't you?! What's your problem, eh? It's not like I haven't warned you before - you always push it a step too far. Disaster follows you around like a bad smell, and yet you want me to act normal! None of this is my fault, and it's about time you acknowledged that."

"Alright alright - I get that - you got damaged. It wasn't your fault. And then you got damaged some more. So you thought that was the normal way of things, am I right? You didn't get taught about the emotional stuff, so you got stuck. And now you don't want to be normal because damaged is all you know how to be. But I need you to try - please brain - just try and work with me here?"

"You used to be good at stuff at school; remember that time when we got 100% in a SATS test? We were a team then. That's where I want to be."

"Brain, it's been almost 20 years since we left school! Nobody cares about SATS anymore - they care about me doing my job!"

"But I want to stay in the past, with all the things that make me feel safe. Where your mum used to put lavender oil under your pillow when you were ill and you felt like you mattered."

"I know brain. I miss her more and more every day, and sometimes I can't even remember what her voice sounded like. But now it's my turn to do what she couldn't do for me and break the cycle for the next generation. He deserves to get a shot at a normal life. I need you to function tomorrow. I need to be able to think straight without all the noise."

"Yeah, I guess so. I am trying. I didn't really mean to get stuck - I just didn't get what I needed."

"I know brain. I understand why. But I need you to work when I ask you to, so I can keep working and prove that we can be a team again. I know it's not going to be easy but we can do it."

"Ok. I won't promise anything, but I'll try. All these drugs make me feel weird."

"I know and I'm sorry. All of this is for your own good - just trust me, ok?"

"That chair looks weird."

"Shut up. The chair is fine."

"I just saw a spider."


"What if you die during the night?"

"For christ's sake brain....!"


"Goodnight brain - 6am, ok?"

"We'll see..."