Mental Health Awareness Week

Apparently it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. I say apparently because I’ve been avoiding much of social media for the duration. All the influencer posts. All the one size fits all advice from people who aren’t trained in the area or are just repeating glib suggestions. I’m being harsh. I am sure the posters concerned are trying to do good. And maybe they do reach out and help someone. Fair enough.

But those of us with closer, lived experience in this area maybe don’t need reminding every single time we scroll through Facebook or LinkedIn, (and yes, I know I’m potentially being hypocritical here, but at least if you’ve got this far you have done so by choice ).

For a lot of us every week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Something we deal with. Every. Single. Day. It’s exhausting. Looking out for signs, trigger points, anything that might lead to some kind of relapse. And along comes a well-meaning mental health awareness post to brighten our day. And then another, and then the first post again, shared by someone else we follow.

Not only this, but these articles are so full of sweeping generalisations – just because I’ve suffered from depression it doesn’t mean I know anything about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or any of the other myriad conditions that people have to find a way of living with. It’s as if someone who once had a broken leg can automatically be an expert on mitigating the effects of varicose veins.

Although as Gillian McKeith managed to build a career as a ‘nutritionist’ from not much more than an intense interest in the contents of someone’s bowels, it isn’t that surprising. Anyone can be an expert on anything if enough people are listening. Being full of shit can be highly profitable.

Back to Mental Health Awareness Week itself. It’s 2021. Surely we’ve had enough focus on developing awareness of these issue by now for this to be unnecessary? But then I hear a colleague in the office moaning because someone won’t go to work because they are ‘a bit sad’. Yes maybe I should have said something. Maybe I should have snapped. But perhaps they were just covering their own insecurities, their own issues, their own illness. Many of us are just trying to find a way to deal with our own crap (unless we’re Gillian McKeith of course).

Despite my colleague’s comment, I do think attitudes are changing – I only have to think back to what it was like in the 80s and 90s to see how far we have come, and initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week have probably played a part, despite my ambivalence and curmudgeonly annoyance. Just don’t expect me to share any chain mail social media posts on this subject (or any other for that matter).

There is so much that still needs to be done. I could rant and rage about the government’s woeful attitude an funding cuts to mental health provision in the name of austerity, but I’m not going to bother. They aren’t listening and they certainly don’t care.

On a personal level I’m not at the stage where I am willing to divulge everything that I went through. Sorry to disappoint, but you won’t see some badge of honour confessional from me in this post.

One thing I will say is that in my case there were times that I felt as if the treatment was as bad as the illness it was treating (it wasn’t). The prose piece which follows at the end of this post, (at this stage part of a much larger sequence I am writing – though it might not make the final cut), is an attempt to give an insight into one aspect of my own treatment through the use of (in my case a relatively low dose) anti-depressant medication.

Having started by criticising advice being given out during Mental Health Awareness Week, I am going to give two pieces of advice of my own.

Firstly, from personal experience and what I’ve read, I don’t think you can properly begin to deal with depression in someone until that person realises or accepts that they have a problem. Secondly, if you are struggling with depression and getting to the point of thinking that those you love will be better off without you being around, then you are wrong. The void you will leave behind is far greater than anything anyone who cares about you will be feeling right now.

Anyway, before this ends up as one of those self help articles I pilloried at the start of this article, here’s the poem / flash / hybrid writing piece. It hasn’t appeared anywhere else before. It’s entitled Sertraline (the anti-depressant I was taking for some time). To misquote The Verve, sometimes the drugs do work, even if we don’t always think they are at the time. They helped, and alongside the support of health professionals and my wonderful family and friends I was able to find my way back from the dark.

Sertraline

A comfort you said it was being unable to feel. You’d paid for the fog with your own credit card. It came in a box of bitter-white pills. Slip one from its pod and sleep not needing to dream. 

Numbness is a blanket. Tuck in the edges. The gaps where light might grow. It’s a fair price to pay for a few hours of peace.

A bus-stop shelter in a nondescript town, where stormwater guttering sluices with despair. Been waiting for years for a way out of this place. For a discourse of traffic through a diaspora of spray.

Walking the centre in a figure of eight. Stanchions of concrete stained with rain. Shopping precinct garlanded with for sale signs. The acrid scent of alleyway piss. Playing chicken with passing cars. The thrill of knee brushing steel.

Or finding a feather in the park. Look how it shimmers in the sheen of a summer moon. Remembering a smile, the whiteness of teeth, the shape of a laugh. But there is no iridescence here. I like it that way. 

I’m not the man I thought I’d become.

This Storm Will Pass

Well at least I’ve managed to complete my business accounts whilst in furlough from the day job. It’s been a useful exercise. Something to focus on each day, with measurable daily achievements, of sorts. Something to take my mind off what is going on in the outside world. Something to help stop my mind from unravelling.

43 days.

43 days since March 23rd, and how many more until the lockdown ends? I’m in a pretty good place at the moment, but it is easy to become overwhelmed. I am still being careful as to how much time I spend following the news and reading the latest – sometimes justified – outrage on social media. I have plenty to do during the course of each day, even without the joy of filling in spreadsheets.

The loft still needs clearing. Those settlements on Fallout 4 aren’t going to defend themselves. The British Trust for Ornithology website still needs updating with my latest bird observations- oh look, another Herring Gull ( www.bto.org for details if you want to get involved).

But I know a lot of people will be really struggling with what is happening now, and the worry of what comes next. There is a lot to be worried about here in the UK, which now has the highest confirmed death toll in Europe. A lot of grief, many families broken. But for most of us, these storms will, eventually, pass. Whatever the new normal is, we will adapt and find our own way through.

The poem that follows first appeared in Landings

You

Darkness will take your palm,
hold it gently in-between
the strobe from occasional cars;
patterns made and unmade
until you can no longer see
the hand in front of your face.

The shifting dislocation of dusk,
a near-roost of starlings swirling,
as if shoaling shared memories;
will you redact a well-lived life,
the wrinkling of your skin
in a swoop of passing stars?

I knew a man who thought he had it all,
but time gnawed into an abscess
that just wouldn’t let him be.
Some live their lives as strangers
chasing somebody else’s dream;
their days just slipstream through.

Dusty candles on a mantelpiece,
ornaments without a future,
a warm glow that will never flower;
no fluttering petals of light,
no guttering to get the wax weeping,
no joy no sadness no love.

Yet see the way that midnight turns,
when illuminated by sublinear traffic.
The arcing sweep of a headlight beam,
your face reflected in a roadside pool.
Hold that moment, that rippling smile;
hold it tight and drink it in.

So nurture your future, feed it well;
don’t hunker down as the window panes shake.
Open the door and run into the street;
this storm will pass as they always do.
Catch the rain on your fingertips,
the sheen of beauty on your skin.

Some Days the Sky Is Brittle Clear

I’m very aware I haven’t written anything here for a few days. It’s a good job I don’t have many followers! A lot of writers seem to be finding these times inspiring from a creativity perspective. I’m not. I have managed to write a couple of haikus for a daily Facebook page – and am quite happy with one of them. I will post it and share others from the Daily Haiku page here as and when I think it appropriate.

During lockdown I should have plenty of time to utilise writing exercises and play with various formal structures and prompts, so as to respond to all the activity out there and be a part of this cultural dialogue, using it as a spark for new work. But I’m not currently in the mood for writing anything about the Coronavirus pandemic.

Part of this might be around trying to avoid being overwhelmed by what is going on right now. I write using a laptop, and could easily spend hours on Facebook, Twitter or various news pages, getting lost in the latest reports and opinion pieces covering the feckless ineptitude of this government in their handling of the crisis.

Like many people I have to be careful. I was diagnosed with depression in 2015, (though may have had it before – the poem at the end of this post is at least twenty years old). It’s a relatively mild form, so I am able to function normally most of the time. It doesn’t noticeably affect my day to day work. I really feel for those whose “black dog” is bigger and more intrusive.

There have been occasions where I have felt the need to take a step back from non-core activities to protect my health – I gave up my roles as chair of governors at a local secondary school and chair of Tongues and Grooves in the Community because of it. I’ve also skipped a good number of events for the same reason.

I do know the poems about Covid-19 will come – whilst I have written very quickly about specific events previously, sometimes it takes a little longer for the ideas to germinate into something for the page. In the meantime, I’ve been working on my annual business accounts, keeping the house reasonably tidy (ish), and playing Fallout 4 – a post apocalypse survival game – on the PS4. Well it’s good to be prepared.

Anyway, what started as a post about one thing has turned into something completely different. Clearly many people’s mental health is going to be very fragile during and after the lockdown. So please be gentle, be kind, and look after yourself and others around you.

Darkness Sometimes This Way Comes

…as a hulking fog-front snuffing out the sun.
Most days it is a vague shape on the horizon,
waiting for the weather to turn.

The worst are those when the sky is brittle clear,
cold enough to snap
into so many defenceless pieces.

These are the times you can’t see it coming,
can’t stiffen or prepare
for this whitening suffocation of thought.

Clouds are clouds whether visible or not,
as rain starts pouring
through cracks in a porcelain sky.