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Friday, 29 January 2016

I'm Still Breathing...Have No Fear

I don't know what it's like in other countries, but in England when you're in hospital, waiting, without knowing quite what will happen, is the majority of how you spend your day. If you're an outpatient you check in and are on a list somewhere. If you know who your surgeon or consultant is you might be lucky and catch a glimpse of this lesser-spotted member of the medical species, but that's no guarantee they'll be seeing you. Checking into hospital last night I knew I wouldn't see my doctor till he next day.

I did know that I'd be checked in by a doctor, a nurse, a pharmacist and an anaesthetist, all asking the same questions and variously putting in a cannula, giving me a gown, reminding me about nil by mouth etc. At this point I'm not in pain so there's no rush. It's when I start to expect the surgery to happen and there are often claims that what I've been told is different to their understanding: "Your surgeon said you'd be next. But we have you down as number three." 

Short of calling my surgeon's secretary or making better friends with surgery schedulers or A&E I've no clue as to how to resolve this and concentrate in the main in just staying put and as calm as I can, trying not to believe too hard that it will happen - to avoid disappointment - and trying not to believe too hard that it will - at any minute - lest I am caught unprepared. An unsent text to Mat, not finishing this post (in case it's the last one). Not done.

I'm in hospital again. This time, not for anything to do with depression or mental health, but because it appears that the quite miraculous job that my surgeon Mr Laban did to save me and my back a year and a few months ago has worked a treat, and the screws in my spine have done their job and that my back is now healed enough for the screws to be taken out.

So here I am, in a small room where I can see south London outside of my bedroom window, waiting, just as I said, for my drip to be hung, for my surgical stockings to be brought and put on my legs to make them look as unattractive as possible whilst hopefully preventing clotting and DVT, and any hope of bein featured in Stylist magazine.

I had an amusing baptism of fire to the hospital on arrival last night around 8 PM, when being introduced to my private room (I am here as a private patient this time in the hope that it means that the procedure will go ahead on that date part, rather than the risk of being sent home possibly more than once which would negatively affect my mental health by increasing my anxiety about what is already a simple-but-dangerous operation). I found when I went to go to the toilet that it was already occupied... By a suddenly mortified nurse or orderly who, on being discovered, could not even look me in the face but eyes to the floor shuffled, stooped, at pace, out of my room and back into the anonymity of the hospital corridor. Something tells me that nurses are not meant to do this sort of thing!

A super-stylish surgical stocking tantalisingly emerged

Being here is a sign of the future, a sign that perhaps, after all the difficulties caused by the accident, this is the last step to putting it all behind me, then moving forwards, hopefully literally, since of course this operation is not without its risks.

(Image credit:

I do want the future to come, even on my darkest days I believe in the future. I believe that good things are going to come to and from me and others, the people that I care about so much. It's progress from the days that I can still remember, although perhaps not as clearly as when I am experiencing those days, when I feel that everything is hopeless, because I am hopeless, broken, useless, no good to anyone. Thankfully today is not one of those days.

Yesterday I had the most fantastic day off from work, spending the entire day at Maudsley Learning (@maudslearn) in Denmark Hill to speak several times during their #whymentalhealthmattets about my personal experiences of depression and mental health problems and my beliefs and perspective on the things that have helped me continue to work, and continued to make progress in my career, despite the fact that my depression became so severe in 2014 and still continues to bother me much more than I thought it might after such a lot of therapy and medication. I was moved by how many people (many from HR, recognising that this is a relatively new area but a wide-reaching one) have made the effort to attend from their various companies. Of course, I believe that everyone should be taking an interest in this because mental health and physical health are indivisible and whatever health needs are we should have support from our organisations.

It's so rewarding to speak openly about what my experiences of depression, support, stigma, progress and life have been when it follows with people telling me either something of their own story or telling me that my story has helped them to understand a little bit more about these conditions the people are still so afraid to talk about or think that they might have themselves – even mild stress.

Why Mental Health Matters Conference 2016

We still have such a long way to go to understand these mysterious health conditions relating to our minds. Sometimes I do feel like a bit of a science experiment, knowing that I've been on six different types of antidepressants and I've had counselling many times. I suppose that just makes me a work in progress, which is what we all are. I'm not done, I'm still learning, learning to walk, learning to fall, learning to do things well, and learning to fail and fail better as Samuel Beckett said.

I've just seen the anaesthetist, so all being well I'll be off to surgery soon to have the screws taken out of my back. (I had spinal fusion surgery in October 14 after a minor fall caused a major fracture issue.) There were many complications in the last surgery, but I have to be optimistic that that won't be the case this time. The future, I'm hoping, is something that I'll have a chance to be a part of, and hopefully a part of as a well person without further physical complications (I'm sort of signed up and resigned to my continuing mental health management, so it would just be nice to know that despite the accident I'm okay to one extent!). 

(image credit: Pinterest)

However, at this time is one always reflects on the fact that something could go wrong and that I might lose the privilege of speaking out and saying something to the world that is just mine, as I have now in this blog for the last five years. For that reason then I'm posting this, so that all being well I will be writing a follow-up post soon. I'm very afraid, but trying not to be, telling myself not to be afraid, telling my husband and mum the same thing. Telling myself I'm still breathing. Whatever happens I really believe that we need to take care of each other and take care of ourselves.

Let's keep talking, shall we? Talking leads to openness which leads to us all being less afraid, which leads to more openness, and to the start of understanding. I'll see you soon for another conversation. Love to you all. Xxx

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Out of the Blue and In The Pink

It comes, it goes, it stays, it leaves...

My last weekend's post is fragmented with ups and downs, and therefore late because my mental health has been fluctuating, but knowing that writing helps, here it is.

Monday 18th January.

I'm feeling so so about the day ahead. Neither good nor bad, neither despairing or excited, at least right now. Right now I'm concentrating on the essentials: getting out of bed. Making the bed. Showering. Drying my hair. Dressing for the day and packing up my rucksack. Then there's the rush or swift pacing towards the train. And on the platform beside me are hundreds of others who have just gone through all those same things and probably more. They might have children to rouse and cajole and chastise through all of those steps above, parents or other relatives to care for, or perhaps they have already been up for hours exercising. (It is, after all, still January.)

Last week I wrote a blog post for Mind on the so-called and fictitious Blue Monday, explaining as clearly as I could that anyone with with depression could be #blueanyday.

So here's a look at my week.

Monday last, I performed all of the above. With a new year goal to try to be healthy and fit, with a hope that as a side effect I would lose some of the two stone I've gained since breaking my back and being on a cocktail of drugs, at least one of which appears to have beaten down with a stick my ability to eat well, exercise regularly and manage (to a better extent, at least) my weight.

I was extremely busy all day with a number of meetings with team members, colleagues leading projects I'm involved with, my boss and with others. On these days I know I won't have created a document (or 'deliverable', the word my business seems - inexplicably - to prefer) in my hand at the end of the day, the management consultant's equivalent of a painting to take home to mummy and daddy to put on the fridge with proud faces. I rush around the building, knowing that I will certainly meet my daily target of 10,000 steps as my meetings are randomly situated over the fourteen-storey two-building expanse that is my office.

Working my brain into an oiled gets a little rusty over the weekends at time

There is a reason that I schedule all these meetings together though. One after the other the meetings happen, and I take "a mindful breath" before each one, and get through them. during the first I might feel my gears or cognitive cogs creaking into life after the weekend of luxurious lie-ins (till 7:45!). But as the first meets progresses my clanking cranium starts to move more steadily and stronger, the oil of my breathing and breakfast silently slithering around inside me so I start functioning properly. My point is: once the wheels are turning, I want to keep going as much as I can. 

It's worth it to get my brain in gear and be productive

My mind is whirring eventually and I can actually think about each topic on the agenda and bring something valuable into what we discuss. And my second point is, that, I can't get any detailed work document compiled in a snatched half hour where I should also try to grab my lunch. So, at the end of Monday I feel surprised that it has arrived. I don't have anything in my hand to show for it, to prove I've done anything worthwhile, except a notebook of actions and considerations; but I did get through the day, which I always try to see as something positive these days, and attending so many meetings in a way makes the most of my mental and physical energy reserves to speak and contribute and to be in front of people.

My day can end with notes on a piece of paper, 
but those notes lead to decisions and - finally - to 'deliverables'

I go home and eat something for dinner. Something healthy, and watch television and then to bed. I didn't sleep properly on Sunday night so today, I hope, things will be different.

Tuesday 19th January

Just keep going. Get dressed, and do the things that come after that. 

Tuesday is usually the same, but last week a combination of needing to spend a large amount of time on teleconferences with colleagues in other locations meant I decided to stay at home. Without a three-hour round trip commute I can just get so much more done. Unfortunately I didn't sleep well again, so I indulged in an additional 45 minutes in bed. Some attempt that when I rose, finally, I would be able to push my mind into a state where I could work. I had more listening to do rather than talking, more notes to take, then, but also more time to be quiet even while listening to others talking.

The structure of Monday (with all its meetings stacked up) works for me, but I need both company and solitude to balance my mental health, and time away from the office is a great way to be fully involved in my work but not exposed to the anxieties of travel, dressing up, all the above "start the day" activities. Plus, no one can see my face or any part of me; I could be wearing my pyjamas or my jeans. (If I'm at home as I was for most of Tuesday, I'll likely be wearing jeans, thick socks, a woollen t shirt, two jumpers, a woolly snood, a rug-like scarf and a hat. Our central heating is either on and not very hot or off. Either way sitting still for hours is not the best if you want to stay warm.) the point of this alone time is to be able to carry on working on terms that help my mental health not get in the way of progress.

I ended the day with a treat to see a film - Room - at the cinema, alone. I love solo cinema trips, since it was always too late to organise spontaneous visits with friends most weekends. Alone in the cinema I can think whatever I want and it doesn't matter if others disagree. I won't need to be polite and listen and broker my way through the discussion; it's just me on my own in the dark watching a story unfold, and my review is in my head, not open for discussion or critique.

Wednesday 20th January

Wednesday was similar in form to Tuesday. I spent my working hours at home on calls and producing some documents in the time in between. I can't remember whether I slept well on Tuesday night or not, but I suspect I didn't. Somewhere along the way through Wednesday morning a combination of feeling numb and feeling desperate seep in and I notice by lunchtime that I feel like going to bed and not getting up for the rest of the day. 

I wasn't overworked, I was overwhelmed by depression.
Not the same thing. It can happen through over work,
but I'm still working on understanding this skittish illness

Where does it come from? I had therapy coming up later and so, so wanted to stay at home and slip under the duvet away from everything and everyone in the world until Mat finally got home. But the practical part of me somehow wrestled me into boots and out of the door. I didn't enjoy the fresh air on the walk as I felt the despair of myself - the self I cannot love - in spades. But I know that the exercise and air are natural remedies for better mental health. And luckily for me, it was beautiful. Rationally and unobjectionably beautiful.

The only thing I can think of ito explain what has become a regular mood dip is that the middle of the week is when I have involved myself in the work equivalent of a mess of wool and knitting needles of activity, and if I stop every stitch will perhaps unravel, or if I continue I must be unrelenting in my commitment to progress. You can't make an omelette, etc. Perhaps that is it. It's the second Wednesday in a row when I have felt like this. I can't remember if it came on at the same time, but by the time I'm through with crying in therapy and back at home in the evening, still crying, I did remember how it feels to feel desperate and that things won't get better.

TV. Food. Sleep. I think the sleep worked this time. I didn't have anxiety in my stomach and tingling all over me the next day. That's all I've got. So that has to be good enough.

Thursday 21st January

Thursday was unusual. I had to go to Tooting for a hospital appointment and walked all the way there from home, rising very early, to try to use the walking and fresh air I know - rationally - that I have to include in my life for better mental health. My feet hurt by the time I arrived but I focussed more on hope that my brain would be flooded with positive endorphins of the exercise rather than the dull, murky and lumpy vessels of whatever chemicals are causing my depression to come back and dip my mood again. I also wondered whether two days at home consecutively had made me lonely, so I` don't know. I'm just trying a lot of things I know are good for me and hoping for a better day tomorrow if today is rubbish.

I had a reason to feel somewhat abnormal. I was nervous about seeing my neuro-spinal surgeon a whole year after our last meeting. He is both a brilliant surgeon and a thoroughly nice man but I was terrified that I wouldn't be deemed fit and well to have the screws taken out of my spine and afraid in equal measure that I would. I had to call my health insurer to gain an authorisation code for the surgery which is another worry for me, as the representatives are trained to the precise words that come from their mouths to offer a balance of sympathy and firmness, the latter in particular when one of them tells you that you aren't covered for that and that there is nothing that they can do, even if you might find your life at risk because of that seemingly irrational and quite silly conclusion. (To be fair this has only happened once, for suspected sleep apnoea.)

When I've got a lot on my mind, my thoughts
weight twice as much as my body

The rest of Thursday was part triumph and part disappointment. There are so many days like that, where hour to hour I feel elated one moment, but the next in a slough of despond. I had a couple of great meetings but also several where no one showed up. If this happens once, great, I can use the time to get things updated for one project or another, find the resources to fee fulfilled. Three or four cancellations, though, and I'm slightly panicked that I won't be able to achieve the things I was meant to, feeling sick. These things happen; I have to tell myself that, and that there's no reason that it's me. 

This sometimes worries me... 
I am, after all a control freak... so I can control scheduling the meeting,
but not who attends them!

Sunday 23rd January

I'm skipping forward to Sunday as its getting late and I'm very tired. Even blogging, which I love, takes energy, and I need some reserves for Monday. Continuing to try exercise for health, I  had run on Saturday morning and struggled but running on Sunday was easier. Reading through the above makes me feel sad, because it really wasn't a bad week at all, but I hate how a small thing can make me feel really dragged down. Meeting up with two lovely women from the In The Pink a cappella group to discuss International Women's Day and their performance at my work was a delight and so much fun. We laughed and shared our love of music and its powerful means to make me (and everyone) feel good. and walking around beautiful Oxford with Mat lifted me up again. Not necessarily forever, but the inspiration of music and beautiful buildings, happy memories and fantastic people are always going to be magical medication, and make me feel well again. 

Doing what I can to stay in the pink and out of the blue

So here's to another week of ups and downs that leave me somewhere along the narrow road to tomorrow. Take care. x

Sunday, 17 January 2016

A Little Fresh Air: Walking It Off.

Brentford - five miles from home 
= a few cobwebs dusted from my mind

I've been trying to take a more sensible approach to working off some of the stuffing and pastry-based products Christmas always includes for me, and just aiming for a number of steps in a day. Sensible rather than ultra juicing (kale only, of course) whilst doing a billion squats a day is the only way at the moment.

I don't have the time to run during daylight hours, and I have about as much enthusiasm for getting up in the dark and rain to run as I have to spend an entire 5 seconds listening to a 1970s open university programme on physics. I'm aiming for 10000 steps a day, which is just about doable with the number of escalator steps plus making meetings at least a floor away from where I am, so I have to clock some extra paces.

Syon House and the Thames on a cold, clear day

The year has brought some new responsibilities, which have given me much to think about, and little time in which to put thoughts into actions. As the new network chair of our mental health network at work I am really keen to follow on the amazing work the last chair and committee put in, not least since supporting mental health has become so central to my life.

Free as a bird. How I want my mind to be.

For this reason I was thrilled to take on a voluntary role leading digital and social communications for the City Mental Health Alliance, too, which is an incredible opportunity to help support colleagues in the city beyond my own organisation. These opportunities will help me to achieve my goal of reaching more organisations with the truth about what mental health really means (from my own perspective especially) and that people can thrive professionally with the right level of support from their work and the care they give to themselves.

Kew Gardens from the tow path. Nothing but views.

Critically, while any change is going on, I need to make sure that I take care of my mental health, so I don't risk exhaustion and having to give up these things, which would risk bringing out that old chestnut self-loathing, always a very unwelcome guest in my life. "Balance," I keep telling myself, "balance." I really need to find this as much as possible to keep me well, at work and out of hospital. Enough activity, enough active rest and enough physical rest and time out from doing anything at all. I need all of these things for the best chance to stay well.

Even if it means getting a bid mucky, I'm up for a challenge.
Mentally and physically, I think.

It's definitely easier said than done. I'm the first to admit that I'm not very good at saying 'no' to exciting opportunities, even if they might take a lot of work. I don't want the fact that I have depression to get in the way of taking on ambitious projects in my life.

Choosing pathways. Nearly six miles in.

I admit that in the past I've tried to manage an ever increasing workload by ploughing on through it at all hours of the day (particularly in the past, trying to get promoted and actively panicking that if I made a single 'mistake' that I would miss out). Now I know that working 100 hour weeks is not even realistic for one week, let alone a string of them. So even though my stomach currently has butterflies at the amount of work I have on for the weeks ahead, I have forced myself not to spend the weekend working or completing ever more activities. The weekends are there for a reason, and I will just get ill and stressed if I don't have a break.

Kew Bridge and rowing.
I think I chose a slightly more sedentary activity, but lovely to see!

Yesterday, then, I decided to spend time on things that would help me to take time out and hopefully get a different perspective. And what often helps me is to get out and about, into the fresh (and ideally not rainy) air and walk.

And it's quite hard to get lost!

I learned about London on foot. I first moved to Archway, single and with a lot of friends well established with their weekends filled, so, with no other plans, I used to walk all the way down Holloway Road on a Sunday morning and keep going, into the deserted city, its austere stone blocks feeling almost as cold as Oxford on any autumnal morning as no pedestrians and few cars blunted the sharp wind racing around its tall, noble cornices. Nowadays I really am spoiled for choice, living near to two of our most beautiful royal parks - Richmond and Bushy - and a five minute walk from the Thames.

Perfect running weather. Or walking. Or rowing. 

My mother taught me to be a walker in Nottingham, where I grew up. To my horror, on days when at least half of my classmates had to stay away from school due to snow, because we lived in the centre of town, there was no discussion: we would walk. I find it faintly comical now, because the walk was fewer than two miles in length, but to my five or six year old self it was a marathon distance, on top of the massive unfairness of having to go to school when I wanted to stay at home and make snowmen.

Under the district line across to Chiswick. 

I have many happy memories of walking now, though, and it has always kept me - relatively - fit. Mat and I have a shared love of walking around London, which his friends exploited when he was made to walk (for pleasure) from Hammersmith to central London for his stag do, and made to (for their pleasure) down a shot chaser with every pint consumed, at every pub, along the way. Ouch.

A booze-free walk for me. Phew!

I had to walk to the doctor two weeks ago as I appear to have developed sleep apnoea... always a delight to have a new condition to add to my collection... and wanted the exercise. It has been so wet and miserable here in January so far that I have shunned running and even a walk to the station has been a chore.

Made it to Chiswick Bridge... nearly there!

But walking makes me feel so much better. Or at least prevents me from feeling any worse, if I'm feeling unwell. I have always found a lovely rhythm to walking. I can listen to the birds or the river or the traffic; I can listen to podcasts (Woman's Hour is a firm favourite) or audio books, or I can listen to the Frozen soundtrack or the Trout quintet, with no one any the wiser what music I might have in my ears!

Under the bridge

As I walk, I don't care so much about whatever I've left behind. Part of me is concentrating on not falling over, so there can only be so much focus on the extended to-do list; part of me is listening to the soundtrack of my choice. And lastly, my eyes are part devouring, part dwelling on, the sights to every side.

Mud. Nothing doing. Mud.

I'm lucky to live in a place where I can walk so far along the river to many destinations, to the shops two or three miles away, depending on the direction, or farther afield, and all bypassing beautiful houses, boats, locks, gull, herons, cormorants and many river birds, proprietary robins, bridges, gardens and streams and rivers. And of course, the city buildings and omnipresent sky.

A mere spattering. I got off lightly!

The mud is another matter, and not particularly top of my list of things I want to adorn myself with as a fashionable accessory. Elizabeth Bennet may have got away with it, but she was, after all, the wittiest of women, and the beauty of Hertfordshire, as even Mr. Darcy realised in the end.

 "She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild."
   "She did indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!"
   "Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office."
   "Your picture may be very exact, Louisa," said Bingley; "but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice."

There are other benefits. The assault of nature experienced while walking is another way of practising mindfulness. Except of course that you're not really practising, it's got you with both hands. There is no way that I can just ignore sights like those above when I'm walking. In fact I think I made myself a bit late yesterday by stopping so many times to take photographs.

Even the river bank is fascinating.
I've seen mice, rats (I like rats by the river)
and many other lovely animals and plants.

As well as all the above, it is lovely to meet so many people along the way on the river - quite different to my earlier north London experiences early on a Sunday morning. Cyclists, runners, yes, but walkers of all ages and many nationalities with dogs, dressed for a smart Saturday lunch, dressed for another 30 miles in well-trodden walking boots, it is simply lovely to spend an hour (or three) on a bracing walk. It warms you up in the cold, and warms me through to participate in this community activity, albeit on my own, with a simple smile of "Hello" to those I pass.

Dry routes are good. As long as you're still dry.

Yesterday I met friends in Barnes (west London) for a pub lunch. And there really only is one thing I love better than a pub lunch with good friends, and that is a pub lunch with good friends that I feel that I've thoroughly earned at the end! I had my work cut out to make it there on time with a slightly more relaxed stroll with Mat to Richmond (three miles) before the remaining five and a half to cover at a considerably speedier pace!

End in sight!

This week will be very busy again, and I know that my to do list is only minutely shorter for the few things I've accomplished today. (Then again, I did make it to the tip today. Things really don't get much more exciting than that.) However busy it will be, though, I have breathed fresh air and had a decent attempt at exercise. And there are always West Wing conversations to be had. That's my tip of the week, dear professional readers. If you want to get a meeting with someone who doesn't have time for a meeting, go and meet them as their meeting ends and walk them to their next meeting. Polish your elevator pitch or the points you need to raise to a minute's chat and you might be surprised what you accomplish in a short walk around the building (as well as adding a few more steps to your day)!

Yeah. Not sure...

I slept better, and woke surprisingly rested (albeit with rather aching legs this afternoon). As always, I will see how the week goes. But tomorrow when I get on those escalators at Waterloo, I'll know that a few steps are - in more ways than one - in the right direction. Take care. x

Hooray! A lemonade for the muddy woman with the purple hair.