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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

I Love Lucy. A post on Tragic Loss, Suicide, Depression, Bullying, and Hope

Trigger warning: this blog contains information about suicide and bullying. Please take care while you are reading this.

Image: Banksy

On Sunday my friend Lucy (whom I knew from my stay in hospital starting last year) tragiically lost her battle with depression and ended her life. Lucy was brilliant, bright, funny and beautiful. She had attended Cambridge, like me (although I attended Oxford which Lucy would argue was inferior!), been ambitious in her academic aspirations and had recently returned to Sweden - a country she loved - to resume her studies towards becoming a doctor.

And now she is no longer here. I will never meet her and share a joke with her about the therapy groups we attended together at hospital.We won't discuss ice cream flavours over lunch. We won't watch terrible television together. She won't listen to music any more, sing anymore. Her singing is at an end. Her voice will never be heard again. And although I do love to write, I cannot find any words to describe what that sadness feels like to me.

What I do know, is, that there is not enough help for those of us who are struggling with depression and our mental health. Today in the UK, 17 people will die because of suicide, and up to 100,000 will attempt suicide this year. And that is not even touching upon the terrible lack of support forcing people back to work when they are too sick, which is why we must change the WCA. Nor the fact that too many young people and adults of every age are becoming sicker and sicker with the many facets of debilitating mental health conditions.

I will never. EVER. stop talking about how important it is that we support each other until we have ended the stigma around mental health and changed those harrowing statistics into more lives kept, more lives lived, more lives better because of access to care, support, kindness and love.

To honour Lucy, and everyone in her position, I will do this work. I will do it with others. I will do it for everyone with a mental health condition - or without one. I will do it for those caring for people with mental health problems. And I will do it for myself.

Here is my own story of times when I have lost "Hope". I know I have to watch carefully to try to prevent myself from harming myself during tough times.

I first lost Hope when I was five years old. My memory is so clear. I am standing on a wall in the playground again, because Rebecca and her friends tell me to. The wall has bars behind it and it’s too high for me to jump off. I can’t remember anymore how I got up here. I now know that play-time means wall-time, and when I realise that is how it will be from now on, I come home from school that day and in my room, alone with my toys and books, and I notice that Hope has gone.

I was hurt that she had left without saying anything to me. We had spent the last years together. She was there when I first rode my bike on the grass without stabilisers. She was there when I went to school (the school where I stood on the wall  every play-time) when we painted, when we ran, and when we made bread rolls and mine came out just like everyone else’s, round and golden and smelling so sweet. Hope was my friend: she was nearly always close by. And in the past, she only sometimes stood a little way off from me looking into the distance, like when I fell off the swing and cut my knee and my mother wasn’t there, or when *Beverly said that my painting of the owl was by her, not me, and Mrs Maler said that because we couldn’t agree, neither of us would have the painting, and she tore my owl picture in two and put it in the bin.

I had no words to describe the emptiness of life without Hope. I asked to stay home from school. I didn’t want to go in without Hope. Hope made me a bit braver. Hope showed me the squirrels who climbed the chain link fence at the other end of the playground and hopped along it, drawing out my smile after another play-time on the wall. Hope made things funnier, easier, lighter. Better. Hope made me want to keep exploring things. Hope showed me that the world was exciting and safe and different.

My mother eventually found out about the play-time wall game and that I wanted to stay at home so I didn’t have to play, play again, and play without Hope. Something must have happened – I don’t remember what – but I went back to school and I never played that game again. And then one day, when I was looking at the fallen leaves looking like someone had had a wonderful accident playing with the green, brown, red, yellow and orange poster paints, I smiled. And when I looked up I saw Hope at the end of the playground, watching the squirrels. Hope had come back.

As I grew up, Hope didn’t always stay. She came and went, sometimes staying for days, sometimes leaving for weeks. It was hard to manage when Hope left me. I understood Hope didn’t like school. I didn’t like it either, when Mrs Tramwell told me that a C was an awful test result, and I cried or when Jayne and Tessa sniggered behind my back, though not behind my back because they were right in front of me. As I got older, Hope struggled to stay. I sympathised. Sometimes I didn’t go to school because it was too hard without Hope.

By the time I was twenty I knew Hope found life with me hard. She would turn up sometimes to see me, when I was in a concert or handed in an essay that received positive comments from my tutors, or when I had a picnic on the river friends. Hope came for these times, and lingered a while beyond. I loved times with Hope. But Hope didn’t stay. She would take long trips, especially in the winter when the sun didn’t come through the grey clouds, and the mornings and evenings were dark and cold. It was hard without Hope. I relied on my hot water bottle, extra jumpers, socks and the comfort of bed to read or sleep, while Hope was away. I didn’t want to go out without Hope; I didn’t want to do anything. She would pop in from time to time, and sit on my bed, next to me, just so that I would know she was there. I think she wanted to stay. I just don’t think she could.

Life was hard without Hope, so I decided to work at making her stay. I watched her closely. If she moved towards the door, I took her hand and led her back towards me. If she looked out of the window, I distracted her by creating a picture with my oil pastels or walking in the park to see the squirrels I knew that she loved. I arranged to see more friends, to go to the cinema, cook, travel and explore the world, organising lots of things I thought would make being with me more desirable for Hope. I wanted Hope to stay.

Image: Hey Miss Awesome

Life events tested me to fight for Hope. At twenty four a great friend died and my father got cancer. I asked Hope to stay, small as she was, quietly in a corner as I grieved and worried. I whispered to her, “Please stay,” on days when I stayed in bed. Slowly my whisper became a voice and I started to find happiness again, hand in hand with Hope. I got my degree and a new job; I met a wonderful man and we fell in love; I got another new job (a better job, though a harder job). Hope remained, watching me rush through into new things and exciting experiences.

Image: Love this

I was afraid Hope might leave again, as the changes – happy and sad – brought my anxieties and worries back. I worked again to keep her, making more friends, socialising, doing, working, walking, and filling every moment of the day with something that would keep Hope with me. I bundled memories of rest days, calm and quiet under the duvet where I had warmed myself, rushing forward into everything clinging on to Hope to stay.

Image: Negatives are taking over

But I failed. I couldn’t keep Hope and myself in this way. In the spaces between this new different life of work, love, new (and old) friends and new city, the quiet moments were dangerous. I saw that I was tired. Smiling pained me. I wanted my mouth to droop into expressionlessness. I preferred isolation and sleep to any alternative. A fog of numbness filled my head with its heavy coldness, which flowed into my sinuses, my cheeks, my ears, down to my neck and through my body to my leaden feet. It weighted down my limbs, pushing me back into bed as I tried to get up. The fog took away my taste buds for food I ate with friends I had no energy to see, which I wasn’t hungry for. Surely my friends wouldn’t want me anyway. I was worth nothing like this. Without Hope. I went back to the doctor, again. I cried. “I have lost Hope.” My nights were wakeful, though all I wanted was to dream away these difficult days. I watched for Hope to come back, but all I saw were shadows of her. Wisps of something close to nothing. Not Hope.


Today, Hope has run away from me again, and I can’t find her. I should be better at looking for the signs that she’s about to bolt, really, after twenty years of living with her, here and there, from time to time. I’m feeling heaviness again; I cannot sleep; I don’t want to eat or see people. But I do. I do because I know that the only way to find Hope is to believe in her. I see people when I can. I eat things I know I like even if I cannot taste them. I run in the park looking for the squirrels Hope and I both love. I take my medicine. I go to work. I write. I try to be kind. I love my husband. I live.
I have succeeded at work despite losing Hope at times. I have achieved more things than I thought I could. I have grown. I have railed against the people who don’t understand depression; what life without Hope feels like. I tell them they are not alone. I stand up believing in Hope even when she is barely a memory to me. Please believe in Hope. Hope is there for you, even if you have to work to find her.


I believe that I will find Hope and that you will too. The wisps will become shadows, which will grow darker and more substantial. At last, tiny, but real, Hope will appear. And I will welcome her again, be kind to her and try to keep her with me, always.


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Saturday, 14 November 2015

Making a Song and Dance of it...for Mental Health

I haven't written much here about singing - something I used to do all the time in choirs, as a soloist, in musicals etc., perhaps as I sing so rarely (in public) these days, and only at people's weddings if they ask me. Singing has, though, always been a major part of my life, ever since I can remember (and actually even before that). I made myself extremely popular aged three when I participated enthusiastically with the singing of hymns in our local Catholic church by replacing the words and music to the hymns with the words and music to "Daisy Daisy", a much better and uplifting song in my three year old's opinion. (Clearly!)

"On a bicycle made for two" 

Having begun my singing career in front of audiences. Not appreciative audiences, mind, but audiences all the same, I found a joy in singing that I cannot say I have ever found in anything else.

"My heart wants to sing every song it hears."
I couldn't have said it better myself, Jules.

Aged five, I had memorised all the words (yes, I really do mean *all* the words) to The Sound of Music (among other things like "I Know Him So Well" and "Karma Chameleon". I enjoyed demonstrating my impressive memory for lyrics to Mrs Edley in the playground at break time, where the poor, poor woman had to listen to endless renditions of "The Hills are Alive" at 10am by a five year old. Another reason we need to respect teachers: their endless patience. I also joined my fellow TSOM enthusiasts organising short performances of "So Long, Farewell" during breaks, preceded by lengthy discussions on choreography and styling. Precocious, nous?

I'm about to burst into song here, can you tell?

Now then, there is a reason for telling you all these things about my brilliant childhood singing career, and that is that last week I was involved in two events where signing, and dare I say it, dancing even - were suddenly back in my life, front and centre stage.

On Friday night as I sat writing my post for the weekend a tweet popped up from Mind mentioning open auditions for a musical, to be put on (i.e. rehearsed and then performed) within forty-eight hours. Not only that, but auditions were to be held the following day!

Err YES. Yes, yes and YES!

At this point in the evening I knew that I had consciously committed myself to writing slides for a proposal at some point during the weekend, and my exhaustion levels were increasing, but still, I knew that I both had to have and wanted to have a break from work in order to be able to function and in order to decrease my anxiety levels. And, quite frankly, because I needed to have some fun - a work *life* balance. I decided that in support of Mind and to encourage myself to do something new and fun I would go and audition to show my support for this wonderful initiative which raises funds for a chosen charity with each 48 hour challenge.

Read Ian's blog for Mind about putting on shows and
managing his anxiety through his creativity

Saturday morning I went to bootcamp (which I've not done this week as I've been travelling) and after many, many squats, burpees and a whole host of exercises that made me wonder what mad decision had led me to commit to a Saturday class, in the rain, outside, where I was putting myself through a hell of endless press ups and sprints. Saturday afternoon (a glutton for 'punishment') I went to Paddington Academy to meet Ian and a whole host of extremely enthusiastic casting team, choreographers and more performers auditioning for this year's chosen show - Thoroughly Modern Millie - to be performed next year.

People who really can dance. Incredible.

Just for absolute clarity, since I have no video evidence to share with you (thank goodness) of my absolute inability to dance, I would like to make it clear that I can, in no way, dance. I can do the YMCA dance, the time warp, and I can do aerobics. And that's it. The wonderful women and men observing the dancers and teaching us the steps were kind and supportive in spite of this, and one of them has amazing photographic skills - she made it look like I can dance. Miraculous.

See? Doesn't this make it look like I can dance?
I really, really can't. At all.

I came away from the audition absolutely exhausted physically with the effort of performing and re-performing the jazz steps that I saw my fellow auditioners perform with an ease and snap I definitely did not exhibit, but it was just so, so much fun. The exertion and joy had eradicated my anxiety and I felt absolutely wonderful. I hope I remember more often the instant curative nature of dancing with others or alone, for the pure love of music and movement. Any exercise - running, walking, swimming and more helps my anxiety, but adding music is even more effective.

Me acting. I can actually act. Thank goodness
there's something I can do!

And there's more! On Sunday through Tuesday this week I was fortunate enough to attend the Power Shift Forum at the Said Business School in Oxford. More on that in a future post, but at the networking drinks in the Ashmoleum Museum on Sunday evening I was again so so lucky to be surrounded by music and kindness. The super cool and hugely talented In The Pink came to sing at the event, In The Pink are an all-female acapella group in Oxford comprising students both from Oxford and Oxford Brookes universities. And they are INCREDIBLE. Thirteen young women with a shared passion for music, just singing their hearts out in a way that made me laugh, grin, cry and just love everything about them.

The mighty and magical In The Pink

A few of them were kind enough to come and meet me the next day and over drinks me made plans for do a couple of events together next watch this space.

I don't know if singing or music is a passion of yours, but even if not, I have rediscovered how enriching and what a natural medicine doing something you love can be. I'm resolving to do more singing, bad piano playing, and even horrific dancing. I am smiling as I write this, and given that smiles are rare, I'll go in search of them in whatever way helps me to be here, smiling, writing this, living. Take care x

Friday, 6 November 2015

Situation: Stress - National Stress Awareness Day 2015

I'm absolutely knackered today, to be quite honest, and although I know that I will love writing this post, because I love writing, I'm going to try keep it short so that I don't overextend myself. (Or, colloquially, knacker myself even more, and possibly become ill.)

However, as this week included National Stress Awareness Day, I wanted to write something about my own awareness of my stress levels, particularly in relation to work.

You can read a post I wrote for Mind on stress here. I talk about some of the things I've learned about myself in relation to stress, and how I try to manage it. I got trolled on Twitter for the piece, which I guess means I'm doing something right... Luckily the tweet was deleted and reported before I read it, so my already shaky confidence levels didn't nose dive, and my stress levels stayed in the 'medium' category.

I'm going to run through the week and see how I did against my own mantra of #balance over everything else.

I worked a full week and have been working some long hours because I'm involved in a global project with Indian colleagues, and sometimes when my insomnia means I wake up at 5am I just start working (that is, if I'm not exercising - see below) so that I can spend more time with them. On the flipside, this afternoon I have a private appointment and am then not going to work, because otherwise I will not be able to have any rest or downtime, and this will affect my health, no question. I am a little bit stressed today because I feel that there are many things going on at work and I don't want to drop the ball on any of them. Thankfully I have a fantastic team who are supportive and brilliant, so I'm grateful to have that, but at the same time I am always aware of my personal accountability and really want to do well at work and not have us not make progress in some way because of a miss on my part.

I made this statement about work, but it's actually about everything in life. I started a bootcamp on Monday - a month-long exercise and eating plan to boost energy levels, make me fitter and hopefully leaner too. After a fartlek run on Monday, a 5K jog and bootcamp morning class on Tuesday, by Wednesday I could hardly move for the aches in my muscles. I'm doing this bootcamp because next year I'll probably have the screws removed from my vertebrae now that my back has healed, and the fitter I can be the better I will recover from this surgery. I was a bit stressed out during bootcamp at a couple of points where I wanted to strike the right balance between pushing myself hard and not harming my back. I was especially nervous about the wet grass we were running on, for fear of slipping over and possibly injuring myself.

Yeah, sorry Jillian. I might need the odd break.

On the other hand, I am sitting here thinking, "Wouldn't some chips be nice, as well as quinoa and spinach and kale and juice?" I have been following the plan, but there are times in the bootcamp when I stop doing a plank or star jumps with a massive rope because my body is screaming at me. I need to get through the whole month, work, exercise and all, so I do sometimes allow myself a break, or an adjusted target of twenty press-ups  rather than thirty, say.

I've been in the office twice this week and will also travel into town today. Looking back at my calendar for the week, I didn't do too badly. The days I was in the office (Monday and Wednesday) are the ones where I had the most meetings, many of them face to face, but I also managed to attend private medical appointments and have a bit of a breather either side of those so that I can take some time out. I realise more than ever how much I need that time out, and I have to say I'm really looking forward to this afternoon when I can not blog, work, exercise or anything, but just rest. (And yes, Netflix will probably be involved :)). I have to do this otherwise I will be ill - I can't keep going at full pelt for hours and hours or days and days. Perhaps some people can, but I'm not one of them. 

The above is all because I don't want to stop fighting the fight where mental health equality is concerned. I'm delighted that I've got several speaking engagements coming up - some at KPMG on my home turf and some at other organisations and conferences. But, and it is an important 'but', I will only be able to do this if I keep my health sufficiently good to enable me through it, along with the work and the exercise and life etc.

So, onwards through Friday and a restful and fun weekend ahead. Stay healthy, and whatever you're doing, take care of yourself. You are resilient because you are here. Take care. x