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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

It's New Year's, Eve, Time to Get Anxious!

Anxiety, moi?

On the day after Boxing day I started to write and posted something the day after, but what I actually wrote was much longer, because my feelings post Boxing day, post fat+sugar+alcohol+sugar+fat etc. were more than one blog could contain. I wrote this:

"It's a delicate balance. If I'm in the slew of a deep depression there's not much I can bring myself to do other than stay in bed and perhaps watch something on TV. If I'm a little better I might be able to read something - fiction definitely, not too taxing. Or I could eat something unhealthy (or healthy) or I could drink something healthy (or unhealthy) and then I could... "And don't I want this darned depression to vamoose? Yes I do," I tell myself, and the internal monologue continues. Unfortunately I've got more consciences in my head than a plague of Jiminy Crickets and the discussion goes on for quite some time. I won't bore you with all the repetitions, but on and on they go. 

In the meantime my anxiety might come back right after Christmas with the special worries about the fact that the day we're supposed to eat the most is 6 days away from the night we're supposed to look better than we ever have; apart from our wedding days. Well, anyway, the depression and rumination about what I've just eaten mixes with the worry and anxiety about which outfit on earth I'm going to be able to wear, and this fills up a good amount of time. I never have so much of the two so beautifully blended in their toxic potion than at this time of year.

Last year even though I was on no medication and wasn't receiving any help from a doctor or counsellor, I managed to make it out for a run on Boxing day because I knew that needed to try to curtail the depression caused by chemicals and topped up by me at times with more in alcoholic form, with as vigorous a form of exercise as I could manage. I went running every day from Boxing day to New Year's day (inclusive, almost certainly fuelled by prosecco). This year I can't do that and it's already 27th and I've barely moved from sofa to bed; pre-Christmas Day, I did all my shopping either online or through the local high street shops; I wrapped on the table with lots of cushions to support my back and took a rest afterwards, so all in all, my physical activity has been spectacularly low. 

All in all, I guess I'm saying that I don't have the usual physical aspects of running to help me out, and I've not done too well in making myself get up off the sofa and out into the world. (And the rain hasn't helped either, so no thanks to you, weather gods.) "

Now it's just under twenty four hours in which I will be buttoning myself up in something. I don't know what. Perhaps straight-jacket and comfy sweater will have a stand off. I'm not sure where we'll get to but we shall see. I'm going to a dinner so it would be great if I could eat something without exploding, à la Monsieur Creosote, avant les entrées.

I have had a horrid day of anxiety which I have not self-medicated with any unhealthy food or drink (although I am am going to have a Chinese for dinner. I'll try to eat in moderate proportions. That's 'try'...)

I've felt sick, I've felt miserable, I've stayed in bed and gone for a walk and slept and just waited for it to go away. It might be going now, and I hope they don't put too many additives in the food - I really hope that it doesn't come back. And tonight I get to take the most medication I'm allowed in my weekly cycle to try to stop my legs fidgeting and my arms trembling or whatever the main medication throws at me. "But it will pass", I tell myself. "This will pass. I have to just wait. So wait." And I will. And I do.

I wish you all a happy new year's eve. I've had some where I've made resolutions and some where I've kept those resolutions. And others not. I am going to go into this one a bit more neutrally. I can't resolve to run a marathon this year as I don't know what my neuro-spinal surgeon will say about the metal work and screws in my back, and now I know that these wretched wires in my arm will have to go, but only to be replaced with a rather large and nasty-looking screw instead to have a chance of fixing my arm. Again. 

Hopefully it will work this time. So more hospital for physical conditions. I don't know about what's going on in my head, but I'm back at work, albeit getting there part time and from home, and will be working hard to make sure I try to stay healthy. I suppose that is something like resolve; I just need to remember to not beat myself up on the days where I need to stay in bed because my arm kills or my back prevents me getting up, or my head won't let me leave the house. Resolve, but not regret. I would like, no more, to regret being me.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

I'm Fine: A White Christmas Lie

It's the day after the day after Boxing day. We have now eaten so much I can barely make out the keys with my pudgy fingers as I type. We ate beef, Dauphinoise potatoes, stuffing made with sage, chestnuts and all manner of pig products, Yorkshire pudding and more. We had our blinis garnished with sour cream, lump fish caviar and smoked salmon with Champagne, ate Yule log, mince pies, pannetone, and more. And the only exercise was not mine - Mat ran the Park Run locally.

Probably a good job that I didn't try this given that I'm unable to move my back properly due to the rather large steel rod in my back, accompanied by its screws, and in my elbow several exceptionally irritating wires. Just quiet - this year we wanted to make sure that this Christmas was especially quiet, no one else than us invited and very minimal communications with others by text or online.

There are two 'spirits' of Christmas prevalent in my life's version of A Christmas Carol (non alcoholic ones I mean, though more on that later!): the ghost of depression and the ghost of anxiety. These two terrible twins love to get at me before Christmas and after it. This whole year I've spent time and money fighting these twins, who are perpetually in the 'terrible twos' phase, exploring and exploiting what they can do and causing nothing but trouble.

It was only earlier this year that I started to realise that I had anxiety as well as depression. Although I've always described myself as someone who couldn't relax at all and whose only hope of an afternoon of not fidgeting madly was to sit in front of the television with my phone to play a game on, a film to watch, and quite possible an enormous amount of leg fidgeting while all of this went on. I literally could not sit still, worrying and worrying about the things to come over and over again, mind reading, fortune telling, forecasting and predicting every possible outcome I could think of.

Now I connect this anxiety I recognise with childhood memories of a familiar sense of unease I now know they represent. I can remember as a child feeling a tremendous discomfort in my stomach, a sense of dread that at three years old I had no vocabulary to articulate. I used to pull in my stomach to try to make the feeling go away. Now it overcomes every part of me and I can finally sense it - I know that I'm anxious - whereas before it was so much a part of me; so stressed and over-sensitised was I at all times, even in sleep, that I didn't even notice it anymore. It's worse at family functions or holidays, work situations or places where I have to see people. So yes, generally quite bad when I get out of the house. Sometimes not even that.

And then we have depression, which is my more familiar of the terrible two. Depression has lived with me a long time and pops up to say hello too often. I think it's when I see the happiness of Christmas that sometimes I feel that that completely unrealistic world - whichever one I'm watching - will be completely out of reach. And let's not even talk about what was going on inside my brain. A whirring of at the very least a trio or quartet of thoughts would un-file themselves from the copious cabinets that somehow found the space to be stored within my brain. The thoughts would be picked at random from the past and begin to circulate slowly at first inside my head.

While White Christmas plays cheerfully in the background (well, okay, Die Hard, but that's hardly realistic in its happy ending amid the lovely bloodshed and broken glass) the after effects of Christmas kick in: excessive sugar, fat, additives, alcohol and the rest that equal a Christmas meal come out to play havoc with my synapses and my digestive system simultaneously.

As I lost my sense of smell almost entirely after the accident, and it hasn't come back yet, I'm finding it hard to taste things as well as I used to. What I can taste and smell are rarities I do really appreciate. I can just about smell Poême, my favourite perfume, and I can taste most of the flavours of the delicious stuffing Mat made for our Christmas dinner.

Even so, I've indulged as above with Christmas eats and Champagne etc. The come down from all of this unhealthy list might mean a higher than normal purchase rate on Pepto Bismol for some; for me it usually means that depression can kick in. I've noticed that if I drink only small amounts and allow plenty of space between days, the depression can hold off. But add to this sugary food, fatty snacks with all their additives? I may as well eat a triple super-sized Big Mac meal. So Christmas is not going to go 100% well since I allow myself to be put under food (and less so drink) assault.

I've changed my eating and my drinking - cutting down massively on the latter in particular (I never really overeat that much). In fact the only time I've drunk every day for a while this year was on a holiday I took earlier this year. Gone the excess, gone the quite often daily glass of wine; remaining the anxiety and depression when they come with only the prescribed medication and the sense that they will probably pass even if it doesn't feel that way, and eating as healthily as I can (apart from the odd sugary snack or crisp. Hey, I'm only human!) I'm now below the Government's weekly health recommendation for alcohol consumption. Now I just need to work on my addiction to crisps.

So there are my ghosts or spirits. They came back right after Christmas day as I came down from all the foods listed at the top of this page, added to which were a couple of glasses of Champagne and a nice glass of red. I noticed on Twitter my fellow sufferers from mental illness getting ill or antsy right after Christmas - or even on Christmas afternoon itself. We made it to Christmas Eve; then we needed to make it to Boxing day and beyond.

Beyond...yes. What is beyond? It's New Year's bloody eve. The least favourite night of the year for many; the most stressful for others, possibly because six nights after stuffing your face with all those blinis, turkey, stuffing (stuffing on stuffing) the television is telling you that the greatest night of your life is coming up and you'd better find some way to stuff yourself into your best dress and heels. I'm restricted to flats thank goodness, and with my restricted movement I think that I may also need to wear a tent to hide my Christmas pudding tummy. I'm not inviting Depression and Anxiety to come with me because I'm going to go to a party and try to have a good time - fewer drinks, less food and who knows, maybe they won't even come back the next day.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Christmas Card for You. Thank You for Being There This Year.

My year in pictures as a Mosaic. And what a year.

Tonight at a single voice will sing the opening lines of the carol "Once in Royal David's City". Among all the 'panic Saturdays' and 'feral' complaints of the season as shoppers completely forget to show any kindness or mercy while pushing one another out of the way to get to that last Elsa doll, or that last packet of sage.

A Christmas Thank You from me.

I was once that single voice as a child in my home town Cathedral in Nottingham, and it was magical - that was the magic that people chase after at Christmas. Being part of something bigger than me; the music of Christmas eve. Today I have a lot of people to say thank you to, so above I've recorded a short message. Thank you very much for your reading and your support this year to all my fantastic friends and family. It has been quite the year and I am grateful to be here in spite of its events.

As everyone posts their Year in Facebook or takes advantage of the many other programmes that do this, we are all reflecting on our years to date and the events and choices that have shaped it. The above words are the messages of support I received from people during my worst ever period of depression, in July 2014, and although I still find it hard to hear the words properly because I'm not good at supporting myself, I am so grateful to the people who took the time to say them. 

Our Christmas bookshelves. Thank you for all the cards.

Being prepared for Christmas for me is easy, even if the run up to Christmas isn't. Our flat is warm, our tree and lights are up and we have our food, films, and one another ready to enjoy the season with our own home-made, private traditions. We are very lucky.

If you're stuck for that one last gift, please consider a donation to one of the many deserving mental health charities - Mind, Sane, the Mental Health Foundation - or to the Guardian Christmas appeal which this year will donate to many other unique and special mental health charities. Take care. 

Donate to the Guardian Christmas Appeal here.

Have a healthy, happy, peaceful Christmas everyone. Love, Jessica

Monday, 22 December 2014

Time for Television, Tears and Great Tales. My Favourite Christmas Films.

Up. This is Mat and me, Whatever we're doing, it's always friendlier together.

Television time is here. After our annual family lunch on Sunday, which has more tinsel and tiaras than the local panto, this year in particular I am glad to be finished with travelling for a while as my back is complaining at me. For anyone out there with an injury, I sympathise if you're travelling - it does become very difficult to travel without discomfort, so I'm now in my Christmas onesie, the pillows are plumped and it's time for my favourite films.

Radio Times. Everyone has their own highlighting system. I keep it simple here.

Service stations have been navigated. Unruly trucks (and truck drivers) escaped. Fighting children and parents on their way to grandma's for lunch have been left behind. Time to exhale.

Terry's Chocolate Oranges and really expensive pic'n'mix are a few yards away

I'm now home and the Radio Times has been highlighted so it's time for TV. Terrestrial television doesn't really exist anymore I suppose, but I still look to the four (five as of the nineties) original channels. TV was my saving grace last year when I could barely get off the sofa, and this year is a little better, but old habits die hard, pun intended.

Special number 11 = Love Actually. To me, you are perfect. And your soundtrack too.

You won't find classics like 'It's A Wonderful Life' here, and I had to limit myself to ten otherwise you'd do more reading than watching. Many are childhood favourites, unapologetically adored. Here we go with some of the TV film treats I'm cueing up.


1. Back to the Future (1985)

Marty McFly risks life and limb to save his parents' marriage and his own destiny of dweebdom for a better life. With the help (and hindrance) of his great friend Doc Brown you've got time travel, a Delorean and a whole lot of skateboarding tricks. This is not one to miss - the bad guys get creamed, and there's sure to be a happy ending. It's like panto, just without the man dressed as a woman and with Huey Lewis. Great stuff.

2. Home Alone (1990)

Poor Kevin has been a naughty boy and is banished to the attic, even though it's scary up there. In fact it's pretty much scary everywhere except on the ground floor of his house, especially when his parents accidentally take off on vacation for the Christmas break with their extended family but forget to take little Kevin along. All would probably be okay, except for the local pizza store, which would run every chance of running out of cheese pizzas. Not so, though, when the bad guys Harry and Marv turn up to case the joint (aka Kevin's house). It's time to get creative, and Kevin's got some natty ideas. We follow along as he plays every trick in the book to beat them. "Merry Christmas Ya Filthy Animal." Indeed.

3. Up (2009)

Okay, so this is not most people's idea of a Christmas story. Mat and I spend the first twenty minutes full on sobbing and the rest of the film drying each other's eyes. Ed has lost his best friend and beloved wife after many, many happy years together and feels like there's not much to be cheerful about. (Cue crying). In fact he met her as a shy little child and it was love at first...fall. They wished for a future of adventures in foreign lands and children. They couldn't have children (cue more crying), so they focused on adventures instead. Now their time together is over. (More crying.) Lucky for Ed, along comes Russell, a whole load of balloons, a dog named Dug and a big bird who loves chocolate and adventures never imagined await. More bad guys get beaten and friendship wins the day. (Cue more crying. If you haven't got the message yet, invest in Kleenex to mop up your tears for this fantastic movie.) I gushed all over the guy who made the clouds in the early montage at my brother in law's wedding in an extremely uncool way, but I have no regrets. This film brings out the purest, unadulterated childlike emotions. I just accepted that I was never going to be anything other than a goof where this movie goes.

4. Wall-E (2008) (and Ratatouille and Toy Story 1-3 etc.)
Wall-E and Eve. True Love.

Boy meets girl. Girl's not interested - she has a plan. Boy can't stop thinking about girl. It's the old, old story. Well, except for the fact that Girl fulfils (unknown) mission, her power shuts off (eh?) and boy follows her into outer space to try to save her from an (also unknown) fate. So maybe not the old old story. This, though, is a true romance, showing that even if we humans do fill our planet with such mountains of rubbish that we have to escape by giant spaceship while it recuperates, there's hope in all of our hearts to be kinder to one another. Another weepie, (I know, I'm such a sucker) grab your loved one (ones) by the hand and enjoy a romance and proper adventure in this magical film. And the others - well, in my book anything with John Lasseter's magic touch is a winner. Watch and be enthralled, excited, enraged, enriched. Just watch.

5. Batteries Not Included (1987)

See above: you will need tissues for tears. The bad guys in this film are the faceless corporate giants who want to tear down a beautiful pre-war walk-up to build another identity-free concrete multi-storey. This time, it's with a little help from some very little visitors from outer space who come to the rescue of the residents of the building. In typical New York style the residents have little or nothing to do with one another. Until now. We see the sarcasm and the sadness of past times brushed away and a beautiful friendship and bond develop in New York. Like Up, we can't entirely beat the bad guys from getting their buildings. But we can reach a compromise, and in good old New York where the corporate giants rule, that's good enough. Added delight from the wonderful and much missed Jessica Tandy. I also love her in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. If you can squeeze that in over the Christmas season, do!

6. The Railway Children (1970)

Tissues. Yep. Same old story. In this lesser known, low budget British drama filmed in its most famous version in 1970 with a young Jenny Agutter playing Bobby, E. Nesbitt's story of three children who find themselves unexpectedly making a temporary home in a Yorkshire village. Bobby and her brother and sister don't know where their father is, and this is Victorian England, so it would be impolite to ask. Keeping a stiff upper lip has never been so comprehensively summed up than in this triumph of the individual over society, and the amazing things that can be achieved by children who cannot stop believing that their father will come home. It's one of the last scenes that makes me howl, but I will leave it to you to find out which. You'll know when the tears start flowing freely. I daresay.

7. Pollyanna (1960)
Hayley Mills does a fine job as Pollyanna teaching us to play the 'glad' game

I believe in being good to one another. I believe in this more than I believe in anything else, and I never give myself a harder time than when I can't be charitable and forgive and forget. It brings me sadness when people aren't kind or charitable back, but I find I'm equally cursed and blessed that I can't learn. Pollyanna taught me not to give up, and although I am 100% more sarcastic than she is, and might plausibly more fun on a night out with margaritas, hers is a more modern parable for us all. When her father and mother die, she goes to live with her aunt, who has a very different set of rules for life. Pollyanna tries to find friends in her new home, but no one seems to like to smile. Pollyanna doesn't give up, although the townspeople try so hard to make her, and gradually the corners at the sides of people's mouths start to curl up. And as they do, we all learn that we need to be a bit more grateful for what we have. I can't do this when I am ill. I can't be grateful for feeling like I want to die because it's just too bloody hard to live. But Pollyanna can, and I want to believe that I could be a bit better if I held her as my mentor in my mind.

8. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Okay, so there's a theme developing here. Less of a theme, more than an investment in Kleenex. Michael Caine's finest hour. Forget the Italian Job, forget Alfie. Forget the rest. This guy is the best Scrooge in the business and he's working with the finest green frog and pink pig in Hollywood. If you haven't read A Christmas Carol, it's a beautiful story and Dickens' genius no less apparent here than in his other works. The only thing that's missing from Dickens' masterpiece are the singing mice and the creativity of that other genius: Mr. Jim Henson. So watch and learn, and love. And cry (of course) as the story unfolds. I'm not going to spoil it for you here if you've never seen it.

9. The Labyrinth (1986)

You, you remind me of the babe. (What babe?) The babe with the power. David Bowie is the goblin king who has fallen in love with fifteen year old Sarah. She feels too grown up to be babysitting her step brother Toby and annoyed that her father's remarried a woman she doesn't like, but not grown up enough to let go of her toys, her costumes and her story books. Whatever your age, if you haven't already enjoyed this film, here's another chance to witness Jim Henson's masterpiece. Each character is a beautiful creation;

10. Miracle on 34th Street (1994) / Die Hard (1988)

Tissues. Check. Yep. I like the Richard Attenborough version but the Shirley Temple one's gotta be worth a watch too. People are mean in New York city and a little girl wants to help to save a department store with old fashioned values. The bit that gets me in the newer version is between Santa Claus and a little girl signing because she can't hear. But the rest is not so bad. There's a simple wish of a child for her mother's happiness and the old good guys versus bad that bring Santa Claus out on top. And in Die Hard, well, it's good guys versus bad again except this time it's John McClane kicking some serious arse in a wife beater while his wife Holly rocks eighties hair and power dressing. Just watch it. It's amazing.

I guess you can tell what I love about these films. It's that good wins over evil. It's the fact that there is hope. When you feel hopeless yourself it feels good to remember that you can feel (that you can, in fact, feel enough to cry) and that just maybe there is more good in the world than you feel there is right now. That's what I love. I like to watch these films alone sometimes when I don't want other people to see me cry. Even if I can't get out in the world, I can see it through the non-realism of these films. The good in them is what I want to believe in. I want to believe in good people, and that I can, or could, be one of them. And that's enough Christmas spirit; enough of a Christmas miracle.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Christmas. Doing it My Way. Cards, Christmas Trees and Cuisine

Special walks in the park, wrapped up, hand in hand.

Following on from my last post, I've been thinking more about what I do, and what Mat and I do, to make Christmas special for us. With six sleeps to go until Christmas I have finally got around to getting organised. Ish. Organisation is difficult for people who have bouts of depression because doing anything at all is an effort, as I've said before. This is one of the most irritating contradictions, because doing things that you enjoy (or would usually enjoy if you weren't under the duvet feeling nothingness or just plain sad) actually helps us sufferers feel better. But once I get going, I can remember what feels good, and talk about them here.

I repeat to myself, especially at this time of year.

So here are some things I've been thinking about this week, about Christmas. It gets to me in the end, you see. There are going to be more things to think about and write about: the wonderful books we can read this season and the films, promised in the last blog post. They'll come. But for now, here are three simple things to enjoy in the season, sad or ecstatic, alone or lonely or in a room of the happiest people alive. Bless us all.
Mini quiches. A true delight!

Enjoy good food, and share it. I love to cook and use cooking creatively to capture my imagination and my taste buds. Christmas food has so many origins and varieties. Favourites are delectable smoked salmon mini quiches with capers - a magical mouthful of creamy filling, smoky fish and the sharp bite of the caper. (Get the recipe and play around with it with Delia for inspiration.) Mince pies are a naughty treat with their buttery, just-crisp-enough pastry (I recommend Marco Pierre White's Lemon Tart pastry for these; the egg in the pastry makes for an additional richness in the pastry, and the lemon zest complements the mince meat with a zing. If you are at all interested in practising mindfulness, may I recommend it this holiday season.

Mince pies with heart shaped pastry

Here is an exercise in living in the moment: hold your mince pie (or whatever little treat you choose) in your hand to feel the texture of the pastry and its warmth in your hand. Smell the mixture of spices and the butter and lemon. Before you taste notice how the scent and the sensation feels, And when you taste hold the food in your mouth before you chew. If you do this with just one mince pie, one peanut butter cookie, or whatever your holiday treat may be, the magic of Christmas food will come alive in your senses.

My first ever attempt at a gingerbread house. Mat ate most of it - eventually - so can't have been that bad!

Remember the ones you love. I am always surprised and delighted by every Christmas card that I receive. At my most ill they always make me cry because right there when I'm in the middle of berating myself for being ill and useless, someone reminds me that they are thinking of me and Mat, and I am overjoyed by this. And crying because it's overwhelming to feel when you felt nothingness before.

A Sheep,  dressed for the weather, sent last year by a great friend

Writing every card this year has been a treasure for me, despite my faulty elbow (still not fixed, now awaiting a screw to replace the looped wires) and wonky back. I read through the cards I have kept from last year; there are some lovely messages and brilliant designs in that. I also keep cards from friends and family no longer with me - and I remember them with love and sadness, that bittersweet combination.I'll tell you about them sometime.

Thank you Mind for my Brussel Sprout e-card. It's been a pleasure working with you.

Decorate a beautiful home. I heard from a few people recently who are having a hard time at home because of our continuing financial problems as a world, and because of losses and hardships. At times like these it doesn't always feel great to be at home; it can feel more like a prison cell if you're trapped with the ghosts who have replaced the people who used to be there, or the things that were their's. And there are all the other times we don't feel ourselves, or feel ill that home - which should be a haven - feels cold and unfriendly. I felt a bit lost at home the other day. Usually I would have started decorating for Christmas much earlier. We had bought a tree a week ago, but it stood unadorned in the living room because I had not found the energy to decorate it. Yet.

Our Christmassy home. Tree. Baubles. Lights. Done.

I started decorating on Thursday. Mat and I have spent Christmas together for the last nine years. It's the best time together and as soon as the box of decorations came down (with Mat's help since I can't lift much more than a white card star) I started to feel what is our magic of the season.

Our tree by night. Beautiful.

We used to have very little cash to spare, and I was teaching high school children 11-16 who probably had more tinsel and tiaras than I could ever imagine; but I picked some simple white card, some glue and some white and silver glitter, and I made what for me were the most beautiful decorations, decorated just with white lights which blur in the night light.

Simple white stars and now white squirrels keeping them company. The tree.

Now we have a menagerie of small stuffed animals to keep us company; we have Christmas music - him - Wizard and Slade (played only once), me Mariah Carey (well, someone else can sing it!) and Chris de Burgh's A Spaceman Came Travelling.

The menagerie. Wishing you all a happy Christmas.

The star on the top of the Christmas tree is that Mat and I were married near to Christmas. Our wedding anniversary was yesterday. Four years married and nine years together and my best friend and beloved husband and I still feel like celebrating our togetherness. Honestly. He is the best gift of all.

Us on our wedding day. We're shy so we're playing the piano to avoid the cameras.

So that's me in the last few sleeps till Christmas. Tomorrow is our big family reunion, when we'll get together and exchange news and a few gifts. I'm looking forward to seeing the children rushing around the room. Well, I say that. I'm looking forward to it for about five minutes. And then I might have a bit of a headache and Mat will certainly need a lie down. But that's tomorrow, and maybe you'll hear about that next week.

Stay healthy out there. A lovely Christmas week to you all.