Four years

It is often said the first two years of grief are the worst. This is very much my experience.

I’ve just turned 31 and at this point, don’t know whether many of the things society associates with being in your 30s will ever happen to me. I effectively lost a huge chunk of 2011 and ’12 to grief and related problems, and have never quite yet recovered from that. The amount of rejection I’ve had in my work often seems to have become inversely proportional to my ability to deal with it.

But, four years on from the death of my first friend to suicide, I take some comfort that this anniversary has got a bit easier each year. When a second friend died by suicide late last year the sheer unfathomable awfulness of that (and being under-employed, and variously messed about with professionally) forced me into being more proactive than the last time. Hence this blog; hence all the running, and a really great counsellor; much better than any of the previous.

This year is the first that I’ve started to develop a sense of the first friend belonging “to another time.” People and things that were a huge part of my life before 2011 are less relevant now. Things that seemed as remote as old age a year ago are now a daily reality. I’ve wondered lately with a wobbly smile what the daft bugger would have made of me becoming a runner, and tweeting/blogging about it. Though he was always the greatest cheerleader for my writing, and a wonderfully kind, compassionate man in many respects, he loathed exercise and could be pretty cantankerous about people posting things on social media that didn’t interest him, or that he couldn’t relate to. I like to think that on balance he would have been pleased, especially with me doing it for mental health causes. (And I like to think I’m a pretty considerate runner-tweeter – I turn off all those settings on apps which auto-spew tonnes of data no-one gives a hoot about). 

I am currently – tensely – waiting on some very important (writing) news which I don’t want to share in case I jinx it. But such good news would barely even have been a possibility three years ago. The writer Julian Barnes, who has written about grief, describes year five as a turning point. And I can, just about, see how he might be right…

How bereavement counselling can help you (even if you think it won’t)

Bereavement counselling’s pretty near the top of the list of things you don’t want to need twice in four years. My two experiences-  both after the suicide of a friend, both with Cruse Bereavement Care, both in the same town – were pretty different. But having had the second, I can comfortably recommend it to anyone…

The first time I had it, four years ago, it turned slightly awkward when, after a few sessions, I started bringing in other concerns. My counsellor was fairly insistent on sticking directly to bereavement matters, which is understandable but tricky when you have a knot of problems and it seems impossible to entangle the bereavement from the rest.

I was getting CBT for anxiety last year, and on the cusp of a decision on how and whether to be referred for the next stage of the slow snakes and ladders game that is NHS therapy, when I learned of another friend’s suicide. When I told the referral team, and that he was the second person I knew who’d done it, they said they wouldn’t see me until I’d been to bereavement counselling, so, not too hopefully but supposing it wouldn’t harm, I agreed to it.

This time I knew immediately without a doubt it was utterly the right thing to do. I’ve had short-term therapy throughout my adult life and although it was rarely actively unhelpful, if I’m honest, I’ve rarely found it as truly helpful as this before. As this great, thoughtful blog post on choosing a therapist hints at, the success rate for therapy is about the same as for dating and the reasons for it not working can be similar in both. As with relationships, some of the more promising therapists I’ve seen were non-starters or cut short for practical reasons (money; availability; logistics…). But, as with relationships, a good one feels worth the wait.

My final session is next week. I’ve never understood why people talked about “missing” a therapist. I was never particularly attached to any of mine and in the past, when therapy ended it felt little different than saying goodbye to my dentist, or builder, or any other service provider. They’d done what they could, to their best of their ability, and I felt a bit better, and there was nothing more to be said. But now I know – and I really will miss this one…

Below – without getting into things best kept within the room – I’ve put together a brief summary of how counselling has been helping me, and how it can do the same for you.

It can help you…

  • If your grief is disenfranchised. Disenfranchised grief is the academic term for grief that has less status than losing a partner or relative, especially if your relationship wasn’t widely known or recognised by others. It also covers any bereavement where the cause of death carries a social stigma, such as suicide, or addiction. This article on disenfranchised grief has changed my life.
  • To confront difficult feelings, positive or negative, around the person who died honestly without being judged.
  • To understand why bereavement might have hit you particularly hard e.g if you have been bereaved before, especially in a similar way, or if you are in a job where there is lots of instability and rejection.
  • To deal with feelings, conflicts and questions which are specific to suicide bereavement and not covered by the general received wisdom around grief and loss.
  • To work towards acceptance Giving yourself permission to look for answers but also knowing when to stop.
  • Not to take it personally if someone else affected by suicide seems reluctant to talk about it. People open up at different speeds. Even very confident, outgoing people may find complicated feelings hard to express. They may not want to upset themselves, or you, not want to open up old wounds, or just not know what to say.
  • To talk through anniversaries and decide when and how to mark them.
  • To talk about how the bereavement might be affecting your friendships and relationships.
  • To be clear on how to safely express your feelings without impinging on anyone else’s privacy or wellbeing.
  • To realise grief is a constantly evolving process, and think about how you might cope with reminders, such as news stories, anniversaries, or approaches from mutual friends/acquaintances (or, especially, from the person’s relatives if you aren’t related and they don’t know you well). All these things are likely due to the nature of the mass-media and internet.
  • Related to the above, tcontrol your worrying about things you can’t control I’m going to work on a rough plan of action for this, using some CBT strategies.

If anyone’s interested in sharing their experiences of bereavement counselling – helpful, unhelpful or anywhere in between – I’d be very interested to read them in the comments.

Running and writing: A quick update

I haven’t blogged much recently as I have been busy preparing for the London 10K, as well as trying to grow my business, and coming to the end of bereavement counselling (separate blog post on that to follow here shortly). 

For those who haven’t already seen it, I wrote about running the London 10K over at my personal blog. It was a wonderful day. I raised a superb £650 for Mind, and have entered the ballot for next year’s London Marathon. Thank you to all my sponsors, and watch this space!

Somewhere around the 8K mark...

Somewhere around the 8K mark…

Obligatory UK General Election post

Politics is pretty unavoidable when you’re a Cold War baby…

My mum grew up in East Germany and has a fairly“plague on all your houses” view of politicians, but broadly on the left. My dad was a plakard-waving socialist. He was in the anti-Apartheid campaign, the Chilean solidarity campaign and the pretty-much-everything-you-can-think-of campaign. If you go to Central London with him he’ll tell you all about demos he went on in the ’60s and ’70s and show you the spot where an undercover cop smashed someone an inch away from him. I don’t like talking about his activism too loudly on record because he’s modest and some clod will probably use it to say I shouldn’t be allowed to do something or work somewhere but that’s how I was raised (in Bucks – yeah, that was fun.) I stood as a lefty independent candidate in my sixth-form’s mock election and got about five votes; one from my teacher. For a while, I was a bit of a firebrand. Depression (and Durham University, a pretty insular, apolitical sort of place) mostly got rid of that.

They say you get more right-wing as you get older. If my VoteForPolicies results are anything to go by, my politics haven’t changed all that much since I was old enough to have any. “Everyone I disagree with only disagrees with me because they’re a different age/background” is a rubbish argument anyway. I don’t think most people’s major priorities actually change a great deal unless something particularly drastic happens in their life to force that change. Certain things you are, you will always be, and policies relating to those things will probably always matter to you. What does change as you get older (at least, if you’re not an insufferable arse) is how you express your opinions, your tendency to be swayed by detail not just bluster, and your ability to see the most approachable of your opponents as human beings.

Another thing you do as you get older is separate personality traits from beliefs. To a degree, people can be just as nasty, rude, petty and vain while believing opposite things. I don’t care how nice and gifted with the gab you are if your views are revolting. Likewise, some vehemently progressive people are pains in the bum. If you want an epic example of “There is no cause so noble one cannot find fools following it”, Twitter is a good one. And saying people who went to boarding school are all emotionally-stunted sociopaths, or that well-off people can’t be depressed are two offensive and ignorant generalisations I hear too often from people who call themselves compassionate…

I think most of us have a “pet issue” which sways our vote – or would sway it if a particular party could convince us. I’ve posted this in here because mine’s currently mental health, and I’m an undecided voter (I know who I’ll vote against, but not for). I have secondary anxiety which is too complicated for the basic CBT but not severe enough for the higher-level NHS mental health services mostly (understandably) geared towards more severe conditions like bipolar, schizophrenia and psychosis. In my dream world, there would be a friendly local head-mender I could see as and when necessary, the same way as a hairdresser, baker, solicitor, plumber or mechanic. Or GP (well, I used to have a consistent GP – she retired…). Currently, NHS provision is basically a video game where I have to go through the motions and get help that isn’t useful to stand a chance of getting help which is. I’m currently waiting to see if I can be referred to a private centre in London which specialises in adults with dyspraxia and dyslexia, and actually seems as though it could address the root of my problems and how they interrelate, rather than deal with different ones in isolation.

I’d be interested to hear what matters to others in the mental health “world,” and why. Do you know who you’re voting for and if so, what persuaded you?

Spring memories: A reminder of why I’m running for Mind

If you follow me on Twitter you may’ve noticed a few oblique angsty tweets over the last six weeks or so in anticipation of something a bit difficult. This week is that something…

I’ve always had a great long-term memory. It baffles people sometimes, especially given how ropey my short-term one can be. My recall of names, birthdays, phone numbers, pin numbers, anecdotes and dates of meetings from ridiculously long ago would probably make me a decent candidate for MI5 if I wasn’t an over-open-hearted writer with an East German parent.

An impeccable long-term memory can make an untimely death feel especially raw, unfair and all the horrible, difficult things that it is. I’ve already lived with one set of bereavement anniversaries for the last four years. This year, there’s a particularly difficult double anniversary. Now, not only have I known two friends separately take their own lives, but I also saw them both in person within a week of one another, in April the same year.

I remember the time distinctly, vividly and very happily. 2011: year of the Royal wedding, and the Spring heatwave, and My Brilliant Career. The warm weather we’ve been having recently, and Royal Baby Watch (yes, the unborn baby someone has found “20 facts” about),  have been making this month a bit of a Groundhog Day experience, with added grief and weirdness (and minus the brilliant career bit. I’d very much like a rerun of that, please, thanks…).

People react to difficult anniversaries in different ways. Some try to ignore them as much as possible and push on with life; others need rituals and a sense of occasion to find their peace. Trying to ignore the significance of this week would be like trying to ignore my own head exploding. At the same time, I wanted to do something I could justify to myself as somehow useful, bearing in mind I can’t really afford a day off and am in the midst of a confidence crisis with writing. The only work I’m getting at the moment is speaking gigs, and the only enjoyment I’m getting at the moment is training for the London 10K at the end of May (and swapping cheesy running playlist suggestions with Friends Who Run on Twitter…).

It’s strange to be floundering at something so profoundly natural to me and conquering things which so profoundly aren’t. The reason I signed up for the run in the first place, other than as a fundraiser and a double memorial gesture, was because pretty much my entire self-worth for my entire life has come from writing and I wanted to show people I could do something else. Now no-one’s paying me to write and all anyone wants to talk to me about is my running. Be careful what you wish for…

But, since I’m so utterly consumed with running and little else at the moment I’ve decided to mark the anniversary by spending tomorrow in London, walking and cycling along the 10K route to familiarise myself with it, work out where I’m supposed to be going, and mentally prepare for next month. Somewhere along the way, I’ll be dropping into a very shiny bar, having a drink of something so strong and overpriced it could apply for its own postcode, and raising my glass to absent friends. And to K., the brilliant counsellor I’ve been working with over the last few months, who I truly cannot thank enough.

I’ve been planning all of this for weeks, and somehow I’ve still ended up faffing around on the laptop at midnight the night before asking myself ridiculous questions like a chick-lit heroine cramming for an exam (“How do you actually use a Santander cycle? “Can I drink in St James’s wearing Converse shoes or shall I wear my diamante flats again? Is it acceptable to still own a pair of flat shoes from 2011? Hell, is it acceptable to own virtually no shoes that aren’t flats?”). It was much the same this time four years ago, when I was up late pondering the following day’s meetings. Some things never change. Much as I want this to be a serene occasion, it wouldn’t feel right without just a bit of faff. What my friends taught me – what all good friends teach – was to accept it and rise above it. The best people you meet are those who make you forget what time it is.

Finally, I’ve also made a short video to remind me, and you, of my story, of everything that I’ve alluded to here, and of why I’m fundraising for Mind. Thank you in advance for reading/watching. And if I haven’t caught up with you recently or made plans to do so, it would be fab to.

Meanwhile, I’m off to bed. By the time you read this I’ll be awake and ambling my way to London; hopefully having slept some…

[10pm: EDITED TO ADD]: I had that big drink. Hell did I. And I have now raised an absolutely SMASHING £570 for Mind. THANK YOU ALL SO VERY MUCH.

Drink!

Am I big enough? Hell yes I’m big enough!

Thoughts on the German air tragedy, mental health and capability

I wasn’t going to write anything around the GermanWings tragedy, for a number of reasons, but I was encouraged to, so I have. If you haven’t yet read the statements from Time To Change and Mind about media coverage,  please do.

Against my better judgement, earlier today, I also read the comments below some pieces about it:

“People with histories of mental problems shouldn’t be allowed to be responsible for hundreds of lives!”

“You wouldn’t let a blind man drive a bus….”

Let’s deal with the “hundreds of lives” first. If you’re an imminent danger to anyone you shouldn’t be responsible for any lives, whether it’s five people’s or a hundred. No-one whose loved one has just been murdered says: “Ah well, at least he only killed the one and not a plane full of passengers, that’s something eh….!” In the statistically rare situation that someone with a mental health problem poses a danger to the public (as opposed to themselves) they shouldn’t be working, and they should be receiving support and treatment (Sidenote: Not cutting mental health and welfare services to the bone would really help here). 

Now, how do you define “mental problems?” “Seeing a therapist” covers anything from a psychotic breakdown to a few sessions of marriage guidance. (Sidenote: “Psychotic” doesn’t necessarily mean “violent,” either. It just means believing things that aren’t true or real). Taking medication is a similarly wide umbrella: Anti-depressants are prescribed at different rates for different reasons; a prescription on its own doesn’t say very much, and some people who’d probably benefit from them aren’t taking them. Or indeed, “a history”? Meaning what? Three months ago? Five years ago? Ten years ago? Twenty? And do you think everyone you ask about their history is going to disclose it to an employer, given the possible consequences? (Hint: No, they’re not. See also: weapons owners. You’re supposed to mention health problems, physical or mental, to the police when applying for a shotgun licence, who then inform your GP. People who save lives for a living can be a bit iffy towards people who kill things for a hobby, especially those with an iffy mental health history. Gasp, applicants might not always be entirely honest…)

And no, employing someone with depression in a public-facing job is not the same thing as employing a visually-impaired bus driver, for important reasons. A visual impairment is a fixed thing affecting one function of your body. Depression and anxiety are fluid and affect people in different ways, to different degrees and in different situations. Someone who is brilliant and capable in a job when they are well shouldn’t be categorically barred from it because they’re sometimes unwell. And although capacity can be controversial (I know this because I talk to companies about it in relation to dyspraxia and dyslexia, which includes discussions around dyslexic medical staff and fitness to practice) most fitness-to-practice situations take care of themselves perfectly nicely because most people, including those with disabilities, are perfectly good at assessing their own abilities, especially around life or death situations. We’re not being made to employ armies of dyspraxic plumbers, dyslexic proofreaders or autistic party planners by political correctness. Similarly, there’s no reason to think there are any more depressed people in aviation than any other industry. If anything, there are probably fewer. Episodes of debilitating self-doubt don’t exactly lend themselves to a career defying gravity.  In any event, broad, rigid rules don’t work well for complex conditions.

Pilots are already regularly, rigorously assessed for their mental and physical health, but no screening process can ever be infallible. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy. The kind that sticks even in the minds of those who consume a huge amount of terribly tragic news every day. It sticks in my mind because I have family in a small German town not dissimilar to the one where sixteen schoolchildren on the flight came from, and in 1999, age 15, I sat in the departure lounge at JFK surrounded by passengers from EgyptAir flight 990 which crashed into the ocean within an hour later killing everyone on board. My mum was holding onto me in tears the night the story broke earlier this week. Unfortunately, sometimes, rare, awful, heartbreakingly tragic things happen. They are awful partly because they’re exceptional. They don’t point to an epidemic.

You shouldn’t be allowed to leave comments below newspaper articles unless you can do some basic critical thinking. That’s social exclusion I can get behind…

Review: Life After Suicide, BBC1

“You don’t ever get over losing someone to suicide but if you can talk about it you can be happy again.”

I watched this yesterday essentially against medical advice. It’s only a couple of weeks since I went to Time To Talk. I’d had a week of particularly bad anxiety that led to cancelling a long weekend abroad and I had the decorators in (metaphorically and literally – neither ideal for the situation). On top of which, earlier in the day I’d been gently advised by my (lovely) counsellor that I’m doing too much mental health-related activity at the moment and should try to balance it with other things for my own health’s sake. But having known about the programme and inwardly prepared for several days (and accompanied by my dad, a Samaritans volunteer), I decided to go ahead with watching…

Life After Suicide was a one-off documentary presented by Angela Samata, whose husband Mark took his own life eleven years ago. She talked, with great courage, clarity and dignity, about her journey from grief to acceptance. The initial shock – he’d shown no signs of depression and, as in most suicides, left no note. When he rang her hours before his death to tell her he loved her she’d assumed he was just apologising for not being at work. Then the guilt – they were childhood sweethearts and at the time of his death had been living apart as she’d been feeling, in her words, “restless”. Then the stigma – people who just didn’t know how to react to her. Then the unfathomable task of explaining his death to their two sons. The youngest was just three when he died. She described the moment, when, age five, his questions changed, from: “Why did daddy die?” to “How did daddy die?”  That one word made all the difference…

The rest of the programme followed Angela as she met other bereaved families and tried to help others coming to terms with similar losses at earlier stages, from a local SOBS support group, to Downton Abbey actor David Robb whose wife Briony took her own life in 2013 after a long battle with anorexia (“I fell in love with the back of her head,” he says, referring to how they met performing in a play). She met Professor Rory O’Connor of Glasgow University, a leading researcher into suicide, who’s currently exploring the link between pain threshold and suicidal thoughts. (“How do you become a suicide expert?” my mum wondered aloud. “When your friends keep bloody well dying of it…” I thought ruefully). Professor Rory wasn’t just there for “The Dry Science Bit” as academics in documentaries so often are; he had a personal connection too – he’d lost a close female friend to suicide, and had been haunted by his inability to prevent it despite his expertise. I’ve only recently started to hear of others who have lost friends, and it’s given me the most enormous sense of relief.

Another contributor with a very personal connection was one of the volunteers at the excellent Maytree hostel which offers a safe space to those in crisis. “I felt my children were better off without,” she said, her voice cracking as she told the story of her several suicide attempts, and time in the mental health system. Angela wondered whether if her husband had been aware of such a crisis service at the time, he would have sought help. (It’s worth also mentioning the Samaritans at this point, as the programme didn’t, although they were listed in the end credits).

Finally, Angela confronted her worst fear as she met a woman called Jacqui who had lost both her husband and son to suicide. She has always worried one of her boys might follow her husband’s path. Jacqui’s story of how her son became ill after beginning a career in the City and eventually killed himself after returning home to live with her was almost unmatchably tragic, but Jacqui was keen to reassure Angela that such a loss was not inevitable, especially not given how open and honest she had been with her boys. Jacqui lives on the Norfolk coast, where she says she has now found happiness.

The programme raised many questions in connection with suicide that could be whole other blog posts here in themselves: The metaphors and analogies we use to describe suicide (“It’s like that moment when you lose your wallet and your heart stops, except it’s permanent” said one widow). The effects of suicide grief on children and how best to communicate with them openly, especially those old enough to remember the bereavement the most vividly. The intense moodswings that go with it (feelings that can change from day to day and even hour to hour). The inquest process and the debate around whether inquests should be public. The role of support groups (my experience of a SOBS group in 2012 was very different to the one in the film). Though the programme did mention the stigma around suicide, there wasn’t any reference to disenfranchised grief, which could make a whole other programme, let alone a blog post. But I’ve so much admiration for Angela and her contributors for making such an articulate and brave film.

“You alright?” my Dad said to me afterwards, with a nervous laugh. “Yeah,” I answered, with tears in my eyes, and clumsily tried to hug him while he was still sitting down. A clumsy, determined hug. Somehow that seems to say everything…

You can watch the programme on BBC iPlayer for the next 27 days.