Health, Media

Mental Health Awareness Post (The Controversial One)

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close (as I type, there’s just an hour left), I wanted to share something with you that has been bothering me for the past few weeks.

 

In April of this year, Donal Walsh – a sixteen year-old from Kerry was a guest on the Saturday Night Show on RTE.  Donal was dying of cancer and knew his days were numbered. In fact, he died on the 12th of May – just over a month after his TV appearance.

 

I never met Donal. I don’t know anyone who knew him personally, but he came across as a lovely bloke. He loved sport, he loved his family. He was connected to his community. And he wanted to live! More than anything, he wanted more time with his family. He was desperate to stay alive. And he was furious with people who die by suicide leaving “a mess” behind them.

 

Now, I have no doubt that Donal Walsh wanted to live. I have no doubt that he was perplexed by people who don’t want to live – but I worry about the effect his words may have had on people who are feeling suicidal.

 

I was a suicidal teen. There were times when all I wanted was to die. Death would have been a merciful relief. I used to go to sleep praying to a God I fervently believed in to let me die in the night – to please let the overdose work, to please let the poison seep through me, to let me annihilate myself.  Unlike Donal I had no loving family. Unlike Donal, I didn’t have a future worth living for. I didn’t have a team of medics who were rooting for me, I didn’t have a community that cared about me, I didn’t have teachers who were keen to do anything they could to help.

 

In short, Donal had people and a future to live for. Many, many suicidal people don’t and telling them he’s “very angry” with them isn’t exactly helpful. More guilt to add to the pain and guilt they are already suffering.  I understand that Donal wanted to live but what he didn’t seem to understand was that people who die by suicide don’t want to die – they just want their pain to end. They just want to wake up in the morning and not suffer. They want the misery to stop gnawing on their innards. When nothing else they try does that, they do the only thing they can and end their pain permanently.

 

Being angry with people who are in pain doesn’t lessen their pain.

 

It reminds me of the horrendous years I spent trying to have children. It was the biggest sorrow of my life that I was childless. I would have done anything to have a child to call my own (how I managed it is a whole other blog post!). I knew I was in trouble the day I caught myself talking myself into taking a baby who had been left outside a Prague  supermarket in his pram.  But that didn’t mean I was angry with other women who had abortions. Just because I wouldn’t have made their choices didn’t mean I had any right to condemn them. Or even be angry with them. I was jealous – but I wasn’t angry. I was furious that Fate, or God or pure dumb luck had given them a pregnancy they didn’t want when all I wanted was a pregnancy, but I couldn’t take that out on the women.

 

I have no doubt that Donal Walsh meant well, I have no doubt that he wanted to inspire suicidal teens to stay alive. Sadly,  he was not informed enough to do so in a more constructive way.

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Media, Parenting

Time For a Culture Change With Regard to Abuse

Last night, RTE’s Prime Time broadcast an investigative piece on the state of childcare in a number of crèches in the greater Dublin area. I can’t link to the programme because (rightly, in my opinion) RTE has chosen not to make the piece available on iPlayer.

 

We were exposed to children who were yelled at, sworn at, pulled around, held down on mattresses with blankets over their heads to “make them sleep”, left in high-chairs for up to two hours with nothing to do (i.e. after mealtimes and when there were no table-top activities happening), left sitting in soiled clothes because the care worker in her own words “didn’t care” and was punishing the child. Crying babies were left on their own away from adults and other children. There was a basic lack of care or concern for the individual children, as well as a basic lack of any understanding of child development.

 

I completely accept that there are excellent childcare facilities in Ireland. I completely accept, also – that even in the crèches exposed – the fact that these incidences took place does not mean that every child was so treated all of the time. Or that all the women working in these crèches are careless.

 

Those of us who saw the programme, and those who heard about it, were outraged, upset, distressed and angry. I, for one, was not surprised. This, after all, is the culture in Ireland. Time and again we have seen that there is a terrible abuse of power in institutions in Ireland: The Industrial “Schools”; The Magdalene Laundries; Old People’s Homes;  Psychiatric Institutions;  Maternity Hospitals; Schools. Wherever there are vulnerable people, there are people ‘in charge’ to abuse their power.

 

We might not like to face or admit it, but Irish culture seems to be a culture of bullying and abuse. Those in a position of power abuse it. Of course, I don’t mean that every person in a position of power abuses it, but I do mean that it is not a surprising situation any more.

 

We can express all the outrage we like, we can make all the speeches we like, we can write all the laws we like, we can commission all the reports we like – but unless and until there is a cultural shift, nothing will change.

 

 

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Health, Personal

Mental Health Awareness Month (The ‘Turning’ Post)

The response to my last post was overwhelming – both online and off.  In truth, I’m not out of the woods yet. Yesterday was a good day, though and today hasn’t been too terrible.

Many of you were curious to know what ‘turns’ things around for me.  There are a few things.

I do keep a gratitude journal and that helps. I think. At the same time, acknowledging all the things in my life I am grateful for doesn’t mean that the stuff that troubles me goes away, or troubles me less.

Friends. People just picking up the phone or calling in or sending an email of support and compassion makes a huge difference. I’ve been overwhelmed by expressions of kindness. The concern of others is enormously uplifting.

Acceptance. For years and years and years I used to beat myself up and tell myself I was, somehow, a lesser person for being sad. These days, I allow myself to ‘own’ my sorrow and accept that it is real.  I make an effort to be kind to myself. Taking to bed and letting the sadness lie on me like a blanket actually works better than beating myself up for being that way.

Indulging myself. Knitting. Reading. Walking. Cuddling my girls. All the things I love to do, I do. I don’t belittle myself in my own head by telling myself how bad I am for not doing more ‘worthy’ things.  (Okay, I try not to belittle myself for how bad I am for not doing more ‘worthy’ things).

turn off the radio. I love the radio. It’s my favourite medium. But it’s full of doom, gloom, contention, argument and discontent. When I’m not feeling great , it agitates me (in a bad way) and I feel like I need to respond in a very concrete way to what I’m hearing. My feeling of helplessness is exacerbated. So I stop listening. I put on an audiobook, or listen to music or drama (thank you, BBC Radio 4) instead.

If people ask how I am, I honour myself by being honest and saying ‘not great’.  I’m careful not to overshare and if people want to follow the line of conversation then they can. If they don’t then they don’t have to. I’m mindful that I have no idea (generally) what other people are going through.

I do as little as I can. The house is a mess, I haven’t written as many words as I should have, I haven’t finished making those cushion covers……The list of things I haven’t done is as long as my leg. It serves to do nothing but further overwhelm me. So I take a deep breath and decide what is vital – then break that task down into it’s smallest components and call each of them a job. I don’t set out to clean the house. I set out to empty the dishwasher.

Above everything else, my kids keep me going. I am uncomfortable with the idea of giving someone else the job of keeping me alive, but the truth of it is that there is no one else to mind my kids. If I was hospitalised for a short period, someone would be able to take them for a few days or a week. After that, however, there is no one. I have no family who could take them and the ‘care’ system in Ireland would kill them. Figuratively, if not literally.

Also, a few years ago, I made my children (pictured below) a promise. I had one of the worst times ever and ended up – calmly, logically and with extreme clarity (so I thought) – ‘realising’ that the best thing I could do was kill myself. When I got out of hospital afterwards  promised my kids I’d never leave them until they were adults. I take promises very seriously and only make ones I am sure I can keep.

Beautiful Girls

Perhaps the hardest part of this overwhelming sadness is that there is no end date. I have no idea when it will be over. I can’t say to myself “just another week, Larkin and then it will all be over”  or even “this will be over in six months”. I have no idea when things will improve, but I have leaned to tell   myself that this, too, shall pass. I’m getting better at believing it.

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Health, Personal

Mental Health Awareness Month (The Scary Post!)

This month – May – is Mental Health Awareness Month. The initiative is being supported by See Change and there is more information about the campaign on the Green Ribbon website. (Green ribbons being the symbol for the campaign).

It is true that there is more awareness around mental health and mental ill-health and smashing stigma, but there is still a long way to go. Getting people to talk and to listen and to engage with the conversation is just the beginning. It’s a bit like feminism, starting the conversation doesn’t mean the job is done.  It means the job has started.

I hit a bump this week and found myself flooded with all the usual detritus that goes with such bumps.  It’s torrential when it happens and – like a torrent – it overwhelms. I could cry for hours straight. I can go to sleep late and wake up early just to fit in extra crying jags.

My children write me notes to tell me how much they love me in the hope that that can cheer me up. It does. And it doesn’t. It makes me feel better because I feel wrapped up in their love. It makes me feel worse because I don’t think it’s their job to make me feel better. My nearly nine-year old shouldn’t feel she has to spend 20 minutes writing a list of all that is good in the world to try and keep me in it. Because, of course, at the back of my mind is the guilty knowledge that – a few years ago – they came very close to losing me.  I worry that every time I am sad, upset or in tears, they worry that I will turn them into orphans. At those times – and at others, when all is well in my world – I remind them of my promise not to leave them.

They think I don’t notice that one of them has her eye on me at all times – as though they have discussed it with each other and agreed this between themselves. Which, in truth, they probably have. They think I believe them when they say – as they position themselves either side of me at night, like two guardian angels  – that they just want company and to sleep in a bigger bed tonight.

I was in conversation with a very dear friend during this latest bump and he put his finger on it.

‘Don’t be scared,’ he entreated me down the wobbly line from his part of Asia. ‘You’re not on your own.’

I was scared. I hadn’t realised that until he pointed it out to me. From ten thousand miles away, he could hear my fear when I – who was feeling it – didn’t even realise it was there.

I can’t speak for everyone who has an episode of mental ill-health, but here’s what it’s like for me:

I just don’t feel like I deserve to live. I feel like I’m a burden on humanity. I am an offense. Feeling like this about yourself is scary.

I offend myself. I do not know how to redeem myself in my own eyes and this, too, is scary.
I feel like I can no longer go on like this – yet I have no solution. Feeling like I don’t have the solution to a problem scares me (I always have a solution!).
The stress takes a physical toll – I have been hospitalised on more than one occasion with migraines born of stress. My neck, shoulders and upper-back feel they are made of steel.
I feel like I’m fighting a war – that I have been fighting a war for more years than I can number and that, while I have won a couple of battles, I am losing the war.
I feel scarred and battle weary, which is scary.
I can’t stop crying. Not even in public. I feel as though, by losing that amount of control over myself, I have no dignity. Feeling as though you have no dignity is scary.
I look like shit and I don’t care. It scares me that I don’t care.
I feel as if I have no anchor. Feeling like you are blowing in the wind is scary.
Failure is the biggest, most overwhelming feeling when I’m like this. Failing at life, failing at being ‘normal’. Feeling like you are failing is scary.
Feeling like the world has no use for you is scary.
Feeling like the world would be better off without you is scary.
Feeling like your whole existence has no value, no meaning and no importance is scary. Because if those things are true of you, then you have no right to exist.  And the alternative can be equal parts attractive and scary.
Feeling that everyone knows the secret to life – except you – is scary.
Feeling that you’ll never be good enough to be told the secret is scary.
Feeling that, somehow, you deserve this is scary. (Even when you know that’s not how Karma works.)
Feeling that you can’t even speak – can’t even advocate – for yourself is scary.  Especially if you like to tell yourself that you’re ‘normally’ reasonably articulate.
Wondering if this is your new normal is scary.
Wondering if you will ever be able to manipulate your brain into cohesion again is scary.
Wondering if this is the time that will prove unbearable is scary.
But scariest of all is when it stops feeling scary. When there is no feeling. When you rummage around inside yourself to figure out the name of what you’re feeling; and you come up with nothing. Because that is how you’re feeling. You are feeling nothingness. There is no word in the English language to describe the emptiness.
I’ll be wearing my green ribbon this month to invite people to start the conversation. Don’t be scared to engage in that conversation with me.
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Media, Personal, Uncategorized

Would Not A Rose By Any Other Name Smell As Sweet?

The decision, by the government in New Zealand, to ban certain names has led to titters on Twitter and prompted much water-cooler chatter on the subject of names and naming.  Irish people have written about how hard people in other countries find it to pronounce Irish names.  The Daily Edge beautifully illustrated this difficulty.

When you think about it, their name is the first social token a person receives.  Levitt and Dubner, who wrote Freakonomics devoted much ink and paper to musing about the social capital of certain names, predicting which would be popular with the next generation and why certain parents give certain names to their children. (Much of it is to connected to the desire to sound as though they belong to a more affluent sector of society than they do).

When I was 16, I changed my surname by deed poll.  My old man is an arse, and there was no way I was going through life with his name. It was only then I realised what a difficult thing it is to give yourself a surname. Naming my children was a doddle comparatively. I called them Ishthara Saoirse and Kashmira Meadhbh (Kashmira means The Abode of the Goddess and also the name of a flower that grows on the Malay Peninsula, where we lived when I was pregnant. Meadhbh means intoxicated with joy) .

The conversation about names yesterday and today,  made me think of interesting names I have encountered.  In one class I taught in Singapore, I had a Tan Wee Ping and a Hu Lee Ping. Their personal names were Wee Ping and Lee Ping, respectively.  I have also taught three brothers named Nixon, Regan and Clinton as well as sisters called One, Two and Three.  Their dad wasn’t going to bother using a ‘real’ name until he had a son.

When I lived in Indonesia, I knew quite a few  men called ‘Shah’  (one of them intimately). Under the new naming laws of New Zealand, they would not be allowed to use the Anglicised version of their name because it means ‘King’.  Likewise, the Indian women I have known called ‘Rani’ – meaning ‘Queen’.

In India, my daughter and I had a neighbour named ‘Dimple’ and one of the nurses at the hospital we attended was called ‘Pinky’.  In Malaysia, Azlan is quite a common name, and it took years before I stopped thinking of lions every time I heard it.

The prize for most unusual/discomfiting name still goes, however, to a seven year-old who was in the first class I taught in Singapore. His personal name was Kun Ting.  I called him ‘Darling’.

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