kindness

Nine lessons and three carols

Cuddles and William declare an uneasy Christmas truce

Cuddles and William: an uneasy Christmas truce

December 2015 will be a lean month for this blog of mine. At last my book has passed the 3/4 mark; writing it feels less like the psychological equivalent of self-flagellation than it did earlier in 2015. I must keep at it before the muse goes again. I’ve also had a piece accepted for Guardian Healthcare, plus a few talks and a couple of other projects on the go. The blog has slipped down the priority order.

But as I contemplate my 61st Christmas, I’m thinking of lessons learned from the previous 60. Painful and salutory, to me anyway. I’ve jotted them down. I’d welcome hearing yours.

1. Presents

We all know this, but Christmas is about retail. Shops and online sellers expect to do more business in one month than in the other 11 added together. Don’t be a mug. You don’t have to fall prey to them. I have, so many times, and it has never made me happy. Instead, make stuff. If you don’t have time, or your efforts really wouldn’t be appreciated, give to charity in someone’s name. Choose a second-hand book. Put a photo album together. Give away something of yours that you know the other person likes. Or give a promise – a plan for coffee with a friend on a miserable January day gives you both something nice to look forward to and lasts longer than at item bought at vast expense from a retail giant.

2. Cards

Getting all your Christmas cards written and sent is not a competition. If you like doing them, that’s lovely. But telling people yours are all posted can sound boastful, especially if they are having a hard time. Also, try to not to be annoyed at what you perceive as one-upmanship when you get the email from x who is donating money to something for Syria instead of cards this year. Be grateful for their kindness instead.

3. Getting drunk

A bad idea on any day, especially as we get older and alcohol seems only to have negative effects. But on a day so loaded with emotion, it can be disastrous. I once spent Christmas afternoon and evening asleep after overindulging at a neighbour’s Christmas morning do. Steve took the children for a walk on the beach and we had pasta for dinner because I couldn’t face turkey. Eventually I gave up alcohol altogether. You don’t have to be so drastic. But sparkling elderflower or a nice cup of tea will give you a merrier Christmas.

4. Fresh air

Houses got steamy at Christmas with all that cooking and hot air. Plan a walk. It will blow away feelings of resentment or sadness if you have them and lift your mood even if you don’t.

5. Worship

When Tanya Gold  told her rabbi she didn’t believe in God, he replied “You think he cares?” I’m unsure about God myself. My mother believes, so when she stays with us at Christmas, I go to church with her. We try a different one each time. We are like Michelin Guide visitors for the Church of England. (Nice sermon, shame about the vicar’s surplice.) This year, she’s with my brother. I will go down to the beach instead and give thanks for nature and human kindness. Worship anything you like. Except money.

6. Food

In the past I’ve fallen prey to Good Housekeeping Christmas cookery guides and spent many stressful hours producing a groaning table of rich food which no-one really wanted. You don’t have to buy into anyone else’s plans of what to eat at Christmas. Cheese on toast can be nice.

7. Hopes for the day

Spending too much on presents and listening to Alyd Jones on the radio won’t change anything. Only you can do that, by thinking about things that are important to you. As Maya Angelou said, if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. I’m working on mine.

8. Hopes for the future

As for the day

9. Everyone else is happy

No they aren’t. And the ones who tell you how happy they are, are probably the unhappiest of all. If you must read articles in Hello about how celebrities spend their Christmases, do it with a massive pinch of salt. The way to happiness is not via designer houses or even another person. It is only when you have learned to love and accept yourself that you can truly be happy and then be in a position, should this arise, to love someone else unselfishly.

Away in a manger

People tend to go on about children at Christmas, and for those yearning for parenthood, this is an added unkindness. All I can say is, if you have babies, yes, they are amazing. But they also bring havoc, anxiety and fear. Imagine being a refugee parent? If you are lucky, they will grow up safely and turn into friends.  Being a wise auntie or uncle to real or pretend nieces and nephews brings parental joys without quite so much of the heartache. The real heroes for me are the people who help other people’s children through charities. And by fostering and adoption. Thank you to all such people everywhere; you rock.

Little donkey, or puppy or kitten

Lovely but messy. Unlike a child, you can take them back but you will break their furry little hearts and risk permanent guilt yourself. Offer to help out at an animal shelter. You will then make a better decision about animals in your house.

We got Cuddles, one of our rescue cats, just before Christmas 1999, and almost immediately I went down with flu. She spent her first week with us sleeping on my bed thinking she had come to live with a bedridden elderly lady, which is a pussy-cat ideal billet. When I arose, she was indignant. She died aged 17 in 2012. We still have William to keep us company. Unlike us, he doesn’t miss her at all.

In the bleak midwinter

If you get depression, winter can be peak time. Two years ago, I was coming out of my most sudden, worst ever bout. Christmas was the most casual we have ever had. There were no expectations and so we just had a nice time. I never again want to feel like I did during November and December 2013, but I’m trying to replicate the low-key Christmas that resulted. It was a gift I had not anticipated, all the more precious for it.

If I don’t have a chance to say it again, happy Christmas. May yours be filled with what really matters to those you care about. And to you.

 

What Recovery Means to Me

I wrote a piece recently for HSJ about the importance of recovery in the upcoming Mental Health Taskforce report. And it got me thinking about what that much overused but, to me anyway, beloved word “Recovery” means. Here are my thoughts.

  1. Some people think that recovery is about getting better and then doing everything possible to forget that you were ever once unwell. But that would be a complete waste of the experience.

  2. Our minds are like our bodies. They never forget being hurt or ill. If we let them, they will incorporate the scars from our experiences and use them to make us stronger and better people.

  3. Recovery is about celebrating everything that has happened to us as an essential part of who we are, even those things that we may prefer to forget. This knowledge will help us as we face challenges in the future.

  4. There are no sudden or miracle cures for psychological ill health. Recovery is slow, often unsteady, and at times very painful. That is why we should celebrate those who have achieved it as much if not more than those who have borne and overcome physical illness.

  5. Sometimes we must go backwards in order eventually to go forwards, for example during therapy when exploring painful memories or damaging patterns we find ourselves repeating. And as with physical wounds, we cannot truly heal if we try to bury bad feelings deep inside ourselves. They have ways of getting out and causing harm at unexpected moments.

  6. The word Recovery has nicer connotations than Rehabilitation. But they mean essentially the same thing. Recovery does not mean that everything is the same as it once was. That would be impossible. Even the healthiest and luckiest people encounter loss and pain from time to time. Recovery means harnessing the lessons we can learn from life events, however terrible, and incorporating them to make ourselves wiser, kinder but also more vigilant of the triggers that cause us pain or are the warning signs that we need to take care.

Like many of you, I am reading the excellent but troubling report by the King’s Fund into the state of our mental health services. I thought Stephen Dalton, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Network of the NHS Confederation was sharp yet lyrical on BBC Radio 4 Today in his analysis of what patients and staff are facing, and in his condemnation of the government and NHS England for saying one thing but apparently doing exactly the opposite at the same time. And that made me think as well.

It seems to me that our mental health services will forever be in a state of recovery. We cannot forget the changes we have experienced, including many hard-won and stunningly positive ones, particularly in the last couple of decades. But we also must face up to the damage that is currently being caused by the ongoing service cuts, and the havoc wrought by ill-thought through initiatives to save money or confuse prevention and early intervention with specialist care. Imagine the uproar if excellent cancer services were to be cut because money was being invested in health promotion and cancer screening instead?

These cuts to mental health services are carried out through fear on behalf of providers who get ferociously criticised if they don’t accept the unpleasant medicine willingly, and ignorance rather than cruelty on behalf of commissioners who are cushioned from the direct impact of the risks faced by patients and staff. The story on the Today programme of a dangerously ill man taken by ambulance to a voluntary café as a place of safety, who then had to wait 3 days with his desperate family before a hospital place was found was not a one-off. This is the result of too many bed closures alongside near collapse of community services in many places. We must face up to what is happening and not pretend it is all OK, or we risk slipping back all too quickly to the horrors of the past.

So we must be vigilant, wise and compassionate about the state of our mental health system. For me, compassion doesn’t mean keeping quiet. It means speaking up with intelligence, evidence and passion for something that matters more to me and to those reading this than almost anything else.

Let’s get together and let’s keep making a noise. Mental health services are not some luxury item that we can do without when times are tough. They are the essential bedrock of our society. In tough times, we need to invest in them even more.

Being able to say this with courage, conviction and purpose is what recovery means to me.

Please do this and please don’t say that

Since coming out about my on-off relationship with depression, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked me stuff and told me things. Some have been extremely helpful, some not so much.

Here’s my handy guide on what not to say to someone like me:

  1. Please don’t ask “So why do you think you get depressed?” If I knew that, I’d fix it. I’m trying to find out, but it’s a work in progress.
  2. Please don’t say “Have you thought about exercise?” You bet I have. And now I’m in recovery, I’d love you to come for a walk or bike ride with me. And see if you can keep up.
  3. Please don’t say things like “When I retire, I’m worried I might get depression like you did. How can I avoid it?” I don’t know! What I do know is that depression isn’t caused by one thing. If you’ve got to this stage in life without experiencing it, chances are you never will. But I can’t make any promises.
  4. Please don’t say “When I get depressed, I always…. (insert favourite pastime/exercise/indulgence.)” Thanks for the information, but you haven’t had depression. Or you wouldn’t say that.
  5. Please don’t say ” Do you think talking/writing about your depression might make it worse/bring it on?” No I don’t. Sure, exploring this stuff is painful. But psychological wounds are like physical ones. They won’t heal if you simply cover them up. They will fester. To heal properly, wounds need sunlight and oxygen. Being open is the antidote to the nasty old stigma which makes people who don’t experience mental illness feel embarrassed about it and people like me who do feel ashamed.
  6. Please don’t say “I never thought of you as the sort of person to get depression. I always thought you were so strong.” Yes. And that’s part of the problem. If you read Tim Cantopher’s Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, it will help to invert your thinking about depression. As it did mine.
  7. If I’m not on medication, please don’t tell me that I should be taking it. If I am, please don’t pass judgement, or ask if I have thought about talking therapies instead. And please don’t call antidepressants “happy pills”. People with physical illnesses such as cancer or heart disease don’t need well-intentioned, uninformed amateurs to opine on their treatment. People with mental illnesses are the same. It is neither good nor bad to take medication. It is just sometimes an essential part of getting better or staying well.
  8. Please don’t say “You seem too jolly/optimistic to get depression.” Again, do read Tim Cantopher. Depression is rarely a permanent state. For me, the stark contrast between how I feel when depressed and my state when well is close to unbearable.

Depression isn’t the same thing as sadness. In my case, it is a combination of self-loathing and emptiness. But we are all different. See my letter to you for further info. It includes the details of the book I mentioned above.

Having listed some Please Don’ts, here is a precis of what I have found, through experience, really helps.

Do please:

  1. Hold my hand when I need it
  2. Be patient
  3. Listen carefully and don’t overreact
  4. Resist judging
  5. Encourage me to seek professional help if I seem to be going round in circles
  6. Tell me you won’t allow me to let this thing define me
  7. Avoid defining me by it yourself
  8. At the same time, allow me to incorporate it into my life.

Like anyone who experiences any form of mental illness, be it lifelong or more fleeting, I am so much more than it. But it is also part of me. I am learning to accept this, as I hope you can too. Not for me, but for the 1:4 people who experience mental illness from time to time. Because this is the only way we will truly eradicate the stigma that so besets us.

Thank you for your kindness in reading this. It means a lot.

Welcome back

Hullo you.

So you’re back, are you? Please forgive me if I haven’t exactly laid out the red carpet. It’s just that the last time you were here, you caused havoc. It took me a year to deal with the consequences. You wore me out. My family and friends were extremely glad to see the back of you. My own feelings, as you well know, were more mixed. Because I recognised that you had, quite literally, become part of me.

What I can tell you, as you so cleverly insinuate yourself back into my life, is that I’m better prepared for you this time. I’ve done a lot of soul – searching. And I’ve had professional help. I have slowed down my thinking, and learned the painful lesson of sharing, with a few trusted people, that I’m not always OK, and in particular the devastating effect you can have on me if I don’t take care.

I’ve also made some new friends, who know you too, or someone like you. At great personal cost, they have developed ways of living in harmony with their cruel demon. I am indebted to the generosity of these new friends. I am even grateful to you, because, were it not for your last, most shocking visit, I would never have met these extraordinary people.

I have again only recognised your arrival with hindsight. A disapproving little voice whispering in my ear at my 60th birthday party, at the very moment I told those closest to me that I had finally got my mojo back, saying: have you? Have you really??

This makes me question myself. Was I pretending, all those months after I thought you’d left? Faking it till I baked it, as the saying goes? I don’t think so. Because faking is almost impossible with you around. My razzle-dazzle, such that it is, fades in your presence. My smile becomes less convincing when it is painted on. Plus, and this has been a very important lesson, pretending not only hurts me. It does damage to others.

This month, you appear a few times, in the small hours, when I should be turning over from the first refreshing sleep of the night and falling quickly back into the next slumber. Instead I become alert and watchful. At these times, you make me go over past failings, magnifying them out of all proportion. In the mornings, there you are again, a dank blanket, ready to spoil the day. Not every day, but enough of them to make me worried that soon, you might not be leaving.

Most wicked one, you mess with my head. You have ways of making me feel responsible for everything that has ever gone wrong that I have had remotely anything to do with, and for not doing enough to solve the ills of the world. You force to me go over and over stuff that makes me feel bad or sad, and guilty for my luck at any of the good things that have come my way. You tell me I am undeserving, selfish, lazy, intellectually weak, self-indulgent, tedious and evil.

And I believe you, to some extent, but not quite so much as before. Because I have learned about your psychological tricks. In a straight fight, I know you will always win. I need to listen to you, because occasionally you are right. After all, you are merely an extension of my conscience, aren’t you? I just mustn’t try too hard to placate you, or listen so much that I stop hearing others who speak more kindly to me.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve tried to take myself less seriously. To be less certain and to listen with greater care. And I’ve learned that to be kind to others, which after all is the whole point of having been put on this earth and being human, I must first be kind to myself. So I’m trying more of that now, mainly in my internal world, but also by sharing how I am feeling with those close to me and some of my newfound friends.

I’m not going to try to banish you from my life. I can’t; you are a part of me. But please don’t get big ideas. You are only a part. Despite your mean little voice telling me I don’t deserve professional care, I have again sought it. It is already helping. But in the end it’s up to me, and only me, whether I allow you to become my defining feature. I am determined that you won’t be. To achieve that, I must also never again pretend that you don’t exist at all. That is why I am writing this blog, for all to see. I will face you, and not allow you to win by making me feel ashamed of your occasional visitations. There should be no shame.

Welcome back, my friend. Today the sun is shining, and you are quiet. But I know you are still there, waiting for me in my weaker moments. And I’m ready for you.

I hope.

 

 

Here’s to kindness

My friend Sara said yesterday that I seem to mention kindness a lot in my blogs. She’s right. I’ll explain what kindness means to me.

  1. Kindness is a gift we can each share with other humans, however rich or poor we are. It is remarkable that those with the least material wealth, such as people I know in Pakistan, are often the most generous to strangers as well as family and friends.
  2. Kindness means listening to another person as they seek meaning, understanding and eventually accommodation in bad things that have happened to them.
  3. I used to think kindness was about other people. Recently, I’ve learned that to be truly kind to others, one has to start by being kind to oneself. This is harder than it sounds. And it takes a lot of practice.
  4. Kindness includes going to an event, a leaving do, even a funeral, not because you necessarily want to, but because it would mean a great deal to someone else to have you there.
  5. Kindness is about reaching out to someone who is lonely, low or appears to be in need of help, and not minding if you are rebuffed.
  6. Kindness helps you to offer genuine congratulations to someone who has worked hard to achieve something admirable, even if you aren’t feeling great yourself. You may notice that their positive reaction will make you feel warmer and more contented.
  7. We saw great kindness in Sussex on Saturday, as thousands came to pay their respects to the 11 who died in the Shoreham air crash. By laying flowers on the footbridge, observing a minute’s silence, lighting a little candle or wearing a black armband, people showed love to the bereaved and to one another. Their kindness has made a terrible time feel slightly less terrible.
  8. I’d like to think that in the UK, we might extend our kindness to the desperate people currently queuing at Calais, being smuggled in containers or risking their lives in tiny boats to cross the Mediterranean. The so-called “migrant” crisis is actually a humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing torture, war and starvation from troubled parts of the world are not “benefit – cheats”. They come from all walks of life. They are doing what any of us would do in similar circumstances. And Great Britain is not really “full-up.” Compared with them, we have great riches, including plenty of room and resources. And if helping makes things a little bit less comfortable for some of us for a while, then so what? If we were in a lifeboat, would we prevent another person from climbing in, just because we liked our own space, and leave them to drown? I hope we wouldn’t.
  9. In Buddhism, kindness is named explicitly. But as a matter of fact, kindness is the fundamental feature of all world religions, including humanism. The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible, after which Samaritans are named, is about kindness. People who volunteer to help others enrich our world with their kindness.
  10. There are many people who write about kindness. The blog I’d most recommend is by @johnwalsh88. Here is a link to his latest. And here is the philosophy of the author.

In the 35 years that Sara and I have been friends, she has led by example and taught me a great deal about kindness. Everyone who knows her will understand what I mean. I will be forever grateful to her for this.

This will be my last blog for a while.  I’ve a book to finish and blogging, while good practice, is too easy a distraction.

I’ll be back. Meanwhile, let’s put pressure on our government. Let’s no longer feel ashamed of images of drowned people on the shores of seas close to our green and pleasant land.

Here’s to kindness. In the end, it is all that we have to give.