I’ve spent hours – days even – cross-stitching over the last few months.
A lot of other people must have been cross-stitching too, as all the company websites I’ve bought kits from have had special messages up to say how they are coping with unprecedented demand due to the Covid crisis.
Even so, orders have arrived promptly, and been a joy to work with …
… helping me to gain a sense of being at peace with myself and the world:
There’s something so soothing about the technique of counted cross-stitch, that puts my mind at ease.
I’ve mostly made cards – and some Christmas decorations – to send to people – friends – and it’s lovely to think about these friends as I stitch away.
I’m not great on phone calls or Facebook, but stitching has become my thing. I’m going to try knitting again though, for a while. Knitting’s good too. And macramé: knotting!
At primary school I was cast as a mouse in the school play: all I had to do was say “squeak, squeak”.
The career advice I was given at secondary school was to become a librarian.
I didn’t want to become a librarian (or be a mouse) – I wanted to be able to speak.
There have been times in my life when I felt, finally, that some degree of fluency was coming through. But I’ve never quite reached the point of feeling that I could say what I wanted or needed to say, in any given situation. I think that’s why I’ve turned to writing poetry, because however much the spoken word evades me, and for whatever reason, I can express myself in poetry, one way or another. It doesn’t mean I don’t end up feeling ‘dumb’ and stupid in conversation when my brain can’t tune in to what is being said. However, in more positive moments I can also reflect on the many facets of communication, and the importance of being heard, in one way or another.
Anybody who has had depression knows that one of the most difficult things to deal with is that awful desolation that drowns you as you wake up from whatever sleep you can get.
It is an experience that you have to have had to know what it feels like, when the thought of even having to get up and get dressed, let alone do anything else, is beyond daunting.
There was a time when I could only wake up and get up by setting a first alarm clock to go off several hours beforehand, then another some time after that, and another later still. When I finally did get out of bed, my first port of call was a strong cup of coffee (appropriately named ‘Rocket Fuel’) with which I swallowed my anti-depressant tablet. Eventually I could then get dressed and ready for work.
I’ve started to struggle again with this aspect depression, after years of having trained myself to get up without too much snooze time between alarms. The fact that my partner now brings me a good strong cup of tea helps enormously, as does not having any time pressures at the moment. Even so, the tasks associated with waking up, getting up and getting dressed should not be underestimated for anyone who is suffering from depression. Like a lot of things, breaking the process down into small steps can be a good strategy. First one sock, and then the other.
I’m working towards being one of those people who springs out of bed in order to ‘seize the day’. Just because I’m slow to start, though, doesn’t me I don’t appreciate and value. It just means that I have to take my time to get myself (literally) geared up, even at a basic level.
This is one place (of many) where the poem in my recently posted Poetry Rule No. 9b comes in. Don’t judge a book by its cover …
Ironically, I’ve recently been feeling too tired to write about what I have wanted to write about: sleep. Until today.
Breaking the cycle of inactivity is massively difficult during a period of depression. It feels impossible to know what to do or where to start that will make any difference in any meaningful and lasting way. And then sleeplessness takes hold and so it goes on.
I still have variable experiences of being able to get to sleep, and sleep long and deep enough to feel rested. However, any current difficulties I have are nothing compared to what it was like for me, years ago, when I became addicted to sleeping pills (Triazepam).
In the end, to detox, I took myself to Turkey in the hot season, walked and sweated for miles and eventually screamed myself off them.
The process of detox itself, especially in unsupported circumstances, is very dangerous, and, to anyone contemplating taking tranquilizers of any kind, I would say, “Don’t!”.
It might be easy for me to say that now, as I did take them then and felt that I needed to – desperately – at the time. Maybe I did. But that was before I had explored all the other options and possibilities, mainly because I didn’t know about them.
There is much more awareness and access to mental health coping strategies than there used to be over twenty years ago when I was going through some extreme experiences. Meditation courses and apps, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, affirmations (I use these a lot), talking therapies, the benefits of exercise and so on. Even so, despite drawing on these approaches and applying them in my day-to-day life as best as I can, I don’t always sleep well.
Now, though, I’m much more able to sit or lie with the lack of sleep and rest into it, be patient with it, rather than going for a quick fix with all the associated draw backs. If I’m really struggling to settle I might get up, watch a bit of telly (reading is usually out of the question at these times, such is the impact of depression on my capacity to concentrate), make a cup of tea or – even better – hot chocolate. I also occasionally indulge in a glass or two of wine or a gin and tonic. (I’m conscious of the drawbacks and addictive aspects of alcohol reliance but it does sometimes do the trick; a couple of paracetamols – again as a very occasional alternative and never at the same time as alcohol – also eventually send me off.)
I’m gradually working towards having a kinder and more balanced relationship with myself, doing what I can to be good to my body and my brain. I work on being thankful, get my brain into ‘glad’ mode and accept that I am getting “there”, which is “here”, with every day a blessing.
It is much easier for the me that I am now, than the me that I was twenty years ago, to not fall back on the quick fixes, partly because I have worked hard to find out about and put self-management strategies into practice and partly because I am in a much better place on a personal level. It is much easier to get to sleep on an evening, knowing that in the morning I will wake up in my partner’s loving arms.
Maybe there was a time when I did shoot the Albatross, and paid the price. But sleep is a very gentle thing, and doing my best to let sleep slide into my soul is part of an essential process of healing.
Grey island you spin and swirl around me (or is it the sea?) as I sit and wait for my thick-headed brain to clear which it does almost, but elusively and all too briefly teasingly still tense tension immense
Four seagulls soar one sits probably shits (or is that on the wing?)
Thrift, rock, heather purple, black, yellow, mauve green, grey, white weather wild mild quite
Walking, talking, inwardly I sit (still) and wait for my thick-headed brain to clear and allow me to feel the joy of the sea and the splendour of the trees and everything around me
So, I sit (on a rock) and wait for my thick-headed brain to clear and know that someday soon it will be free hopefully
A quarter of a century after I started my self-directed journey of recovery from a complete personal breakdown, it would be easy to think at this stage that I never will get that sense of mental clarity that I have been seeking.
I hoped by now that I could have been sailing instead of struggling to find the energy to get through each day in a remotely positive way.
There are significant differences though, between then – when I started out – and now – when I’ve arrived at a particularly low down point, wondering how on earth I’m going to summon up the motivation and momentum to start going ‘up’ or ‘forward’ again.
The most significant difference for me is that now I’m in a loving relationship. My partner and I care for and about each other in ways that make us both feel good. He suffers from depression too, so we often alternate in terms of who most needs support from the other at any one time. We’ve both had almost catastrophic life experiences to contend with in the past, both just come through by the skin of our teeth, both had to learn to trust again – often the most difficult thing of all, including trusting ourselves as well as each other. And we’re both now thankful that we’ve found each other. ‘Together Forever’ is our motto. We want to make the most of the time that we have – both now in our 60s – and that, in itself, is a motivator. At the same time, I’m still feeling profoundly exhausted and know that I need to do some more work on myself to pull out of this and finally put the traumas of the past behind me.
I know that it’s important to sometimes push myself and at other times do nothing. Doing nothing is hard as it brings with it the fear that it will become a permanent state and that I will vegetate from doing nothing to being nothing. At my age, fear of dementia also comes in to the mix. But in the depths of depression, doing anything at all feels like just too much, so where do I start?
I keep coming back to affirmations. Affirmations, some gentle regular exercise, healthy eating, not too much alcohol. All sensible things.
The affirmations I’ve identified for myself at this time are for depression and hearing problems. While I don’t really have hearing problems as such – other than age-related deterioration – I do have problems with ‘itchy ears’ and I have also had problems in the past with being heard.
I set about learning and practising active listening skills when I trained as a volunteer bereavement counsellor – it must have been about 20 years ago now. I’ve found those skills invaluable in different jobs and roles that I’ve held, although more latterly I’ve found it increasingly hard to concentrate. Active listening, by definition, means giving another person full attention. I think my body and brain have been telling me to give myself full attention for a change; had I ‘listened’ to what they were telling me earlier, I might not have arrived at the state I’m at now, although by the nature of cycles, they do have to go full turn.
Anyway, the affirmations that I’ve found, to say to myself when I can and when I need to, are:
“I move beyond other people’s fear and limitations. I create my own life.”
When I say each of these, at the very low ebb that I’m at now, I get a sense of uplift in my spirit, even if my body and brain are running well behind. I hold on to the belief that they will catch up though. Eventually.
Oh, and of course writing – something, anything – can be therapeutic as well. I’m going to keep writing, and affirming. And washing up, and doing a bit of gardening …
Turning the corner the familiar fields and shelters come into view
Open outlook, clear and calm this is the place where past harms are healed
Friends old and new graze on at steady pace it’s never too late for needs to be met just a turn of fate
The familiar fields and shelters will come into view again next year the way ahead may not always be calm and clear but we can always come back to this place this sanctuary
And marvel at the donkeys stroke the pony’s mane it’s always different every year and every year, just wonderfully the same
It’s around a year ago today that my friend, Rosemary, passed away. She was 49.
I wrote the above poem after we had been to visit an animal sanctuary in Norfolk. Rosemary had introduced me to the animal sanctuary because she had adopted a Shetland pony who lives there, Sampson.
I suggested we go and visit which we did, and revisited a few times more, before it got to the point where it was too much for Rosemary. She found it too tiring, she said, which it was. It was too tiring because she smoked heavily and was an alcoholic.
Rosemary had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in her early 20s. While she never opened up much about her past or about anything emotional at all really – I was told in no uncertain terms to ‘leave it’ if I prompted her in any way – she did tell me once that the psychiatrist who diagnosed her told her that she would never work again.
That may well have been the case in the conventional sense of what constitutes ‘work’ in our society, but if it was unlikely that she would ever do regular paid work again, that prognosis could have been presented differently, to give Rosemary a sense of hope of having a fulfilling life, even if not the life that she would have been hoping for as a young woman in her 20s at that time.
In recent times there has been a lot of talk about mental health and a lot of awareness raising in the media, but when it fundamentally comes down to it, has anything significantly changed to ensure that people who have diagnoses of extreme forms of mental illness can find some way of identifying themselves with a meaningful role, a sense of positive purpose, in the world? I’m not convinced that it has.
Some people are fortunate to be partners, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, which can help to offset the stigma and isolation that accompanies their condition, but many – like Rosemary – do not.
Rosemary was not an easy person to get on with. She pushed people away, more often than not, and did make lifestyle choices – however hard and judgmental that sounds – that led to her limiting her own life in many ways. But I have often wondered how different it would have been if, when given that diagnosis of schizophrenia all those years ago, she had been told about all the things that she could keep doing – and all the support that she would get in the process – to help her feel good about herself and her life, whatever form or path that took.
Having extra support at a critical time can make all the difference between us, on the one hand finding our own strength and resolve to come through with a sense of purpose and, on the other hand, wavering and floundering and – at best – just not drowning.
At times Rosemary pushed my patience to the limits and then some (and she knew it!), but I could only try and imagine what difficulties she went through every day. Somehow, through that diagnosis, and prognosis, and the position it placed her in, in the world, all her intelligence, her good memory, her dark sense of humour, her creativity, her kindness to animals and sense of fair play got devalued, not least by her.
Thank you for the friendship that we shared Rosemary. For the times we spent at nature reserves and animal sanctuaries, the concerts we went to and the smile that you used to greet me with.
“I choose to be peaceful and calm. Everything is unfolding as it should.”
Affirmations can be hard to take on faith at the best of times. At times like this – and especially with an affirmation like this – it can be even harder.
On my daily walk with my partner, in the beautiful spring sunshine and along the peaceful country lanes around where we are lucky enough to live, I’ve stopped and said this affirmation out loud, and it has helped; helped me to remind myself that I can choose to respond to any given situation in a calm and peaceful way, providing I have control of my emotions and my mind. It might be hard, but not impossible. It is something that I can keep working towards being able to do, even if I can’t do it now.
I first started to use this affirmation a few months ago, when I was struggling with some very difficult work situations and high levels of associated anxiety.
I discovered it in a slightly different form at http://thinkup.me/affirm and my thanks go to the author of that article. (5 Recommended Positive Affirmations for Anxiety by Yvonne Williams Casaus, 26 December 2017)
After struggling with anxiety and depression for many years, I keep thinking that I’ve beaten them, only to be hit again by another wave.
The difference, though, between when I first started my personal battle with depression – in my teens – and now – in my 60s – is that I now have a well-stocked resource bank of strategies to fall back on.
Even so, the nature of the disease- and it is a dis-ease – is such that it can be hard to fall back on what we know works when we are at our lowest ebb. I also find that I no longer have the reserves of fighting energy that I used to have, but if I can at least find an affirmation that resonates with me – even on a leap of faith – then I am doing something positive to pull myself through.
The first time I came across affirmations was when I was going through a breakdown in my late thirties.
Suddenly reaching out – desperately, as I knew I was in danger of drowning and was definitely not waving – I found that there were sources of help and support around that I had never even heard about before or could imagine being available.
Counselling was one of these, meditation another, and I also came across a book called You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay (1984).
In that book , as I recall, I identified an affirmation that reflected the exact opposite of how I was feeling:
“I am the love and beauty of life in full expression.”
At the time, I was feeling like the worst wretch that ever crawled the planet. But I knew I had to do something to turn my life around and so I took on board the affirmation and kept saying it to myself again and again and again. And it worked. Not on its own, not without me doing all sort of other things at the same time and ever since, but it helped to cure my warts (literally) and set me on the path to keep working and trying, never giving up.
This brings me to some more poetry, and Poetry Rule No. 28, Stand your ground when you need to; move when you don’t
Sometimes it isn’t as bad as you think it’s going to be it isn’t even worse as you hesitate with anticipation and brace yourself to curse
Sometimes you’re presently surprised more than you thought you could be when you’re met with some small kindness unexpectedly
At times like these it’s good to be wrong in fact I would go so far as to say it’s a blessing that’s been missing for a long time so, no messing seriously
Sometimes are better than no times never wouldn’t you agree?
In case you don’t want to buy the book, or perhaps as a taster (I’m one of 12 poets in the completed work), here are my poems from the collection:
Now at the Pinnacle 14-and-a-half per cent proof point of my existence I’ve reached the Nottage Hill sub-station of my life I haven’t got a Sauvignon Blanc’s clue about what to do next other than to ‘méthode-champenoise’ my way through and hope that if the cork crumbles the bottle won’t be blue and the sieve will be fine so that just for now I can at least drink the wine
I can dance
I can dance without moving my feet at all I don’t have to do the foxtrot or quickstep my way to any ball I can cry without moving my lips I can laugh without making a sound all I have to do is know that the earth is flat, it isn’t round The dance is mine to make up from the music of the wind a sense of something swirling in and around my mind I don’t need a choreographer an audience or loud applause I just need to dance in my own way and then I’ll dance some more I can dance without moving my feet at all on and on and on and on it is my dance my life my call
Here’s to Wealth!
Cheers my dear to the love that you bring into my life and though I never want to be your wife I want to share with you all the good things that life brings
I love it when you sing as I know it comes from within your soul and as we learn together to love each other something magical unfolds
The trees without leaves that you hung around my neck and from my ears help to take away all my fears of things undone of words unsaid the sadness of never nurturing a child upon my breast
Where once was hope and then despair becomes a sense of stillness in the air and from that place of breathing and of wings comes freedom to wonder and wander into the rich realms of being together feeding the birds with the wealth of our love
Heading for instant gratification no time to waste or spare I take my mug into the kitchen only to find a queue of people there
Halted, suddenly, empty cup in hand my thoughts spill over into the needs of others heads bowed or lifted as we together stand
I only needed coffee and soon the queue was gone my waiting time was over but for someone else it had only just begun
I’m also proud of the back cover copy that I wrote for the book:
A relationship break-up can be a difficult experience at any age. It isn’t always easy to see the opportunity beyond the heartache, and even less easy to find ways of putting the experience into words.
The triumphs of Maria Stephenson’s emergence into a new life as a writer and teacher are embodied in her collection of ‘Poetry for the Newly Single Forty Something’ (2017). Maria didn’t just stop at publishing her own collection though. She inspired others to explore their creative approaches to the theme, leading to this exciting anthology, which is more than the sum of its poems.
The words of each poet paint a picture of part of their own unique life story. Demonstrating diverse responses to life and writing challenges, threads of commonality emerge and unite.
What are you waiting for? Dive in, explore, share in the joy of words and wonders of life that these writers have explored and shared. These poems aren’t just about being newly single, or about being forty something, they are about being – essentially – human.
The reason for my pride is partly because I think it stands well as a piece of writing in its own right (and even being able to credit myself with that is a remarkable* achievement in its own right), and partly because of what it represents for me in terms of having come through what I’ve come through, still fighting, still writing, still reaching out.
* https://iamremarkable.withgoogle.com/ (#IamRemarkable is a Google initiative empowering women and underrepresented groups to celebrate their achievements in the workplace and beyond.)
I’ve recently read an article in the BBC’s Science Focus journal about willpower.
I’m not a scientist which is one of the reasons why I get this journal every month. I find out about all sorts of interesting things that I wouldn’t hear about otherwise, and it’s generally a really good, accessible read (although some bits go way over my head!).
In this article there was reference to willpower in relation to eating disorders and the impact that meditation and other aspects of mindfulness training can have on the power of the human will.
In my early teenage years, I had to use willpower to start to take control of my own life, but eventually had to allow myself to move beyond it and enter that scary place where self-control no longer prevailed.
I still use willpower – to push myself from the point of doing nothing – which I can so easily fall into – to the point of doing something, making a start with decorating my house, for example. But as far as eating is concerned, I seem to have arrived at a much healthier state of mind, where I eat when I’m hungry and recognise the signs when I’m full. I enjoy food – a whole range of different types of food, not just the ‘cottage cheese and crispbread, endless omelettes and no chips diet’ that I lived on for many, many years.
When I concentrated on eating as little as I possibly could everyday, I had little capacity to concentrate on anything else. I’m no longer limiting my life like I limited my food intake although I’m not just eating my way into the oblivion of obesity either.
Ironically, the room that I’ve started working on in the house is the dining room. I’ve found a fabulous wallpaper – ‘Mystical Forest’ – and I’m taking my time, doing a bit at a time, and can gradually feel that sense of transition from having to push myself to do it, to getting drawn in to the process of doing it, and taking pride in the way it looks. I don’t think I will gain any interior design awards, but it is a labour of love, to enhance the lovely home that me and my lovely partner are lucky enough to live in.
It’s not my real name, but ‘Glad’ is better than sad, and I’ve worked hard in my life to be Glad, not sad.
I’ve recently started decorating my house – our house. This may not seem like an amazing revelation or achievement, but it is for me. I’m 64 years old and have had a long struggle to be able to enjoy doing the everyday things that I can focus on now.
It’s taken about fifty years of unlearning and then re-learning how to be me. Poetry hasn’t been the only vehicle I’ve used for recovery and discovery, but it has been a regular companion along the way.
As a teenager – like many teenagers since and still – I developed a very negative self-image of myself, inside and out.
Out Out, out into the world That’s where I wanted to go What I wanted to do When I was young But when I looked in the mirror All I could see Was an ugly, unattractive body Looking back at me
I went on a diet from the age of about 15 that lasted for the next 30 years or so, and affected every aspect of my life (or more accurately non-life that it had become). I didn’t think I had anything to offer as a person, didn’t know how to form relationships, and put all my energy into losing weight. At least if I was thin, that would be something. Except it led to nothing, because it wasn’t solid ground on which to build a life. It was the best I could do at the time, but I did eventually realise, after I’d had a major breakdown in my late thirties, and was trying to get myself going again in my forties, that I needed to eat, to give me energy, to be able to live. I had to finally, eventually, push through that awful sense of self-loathing that I associated with putting on weight in order to emerge as a (literally as well as generally) well-rounded person with an appetite for life.
I still have to work at it, still take anti-depressants, can’t use shop changing rooms or look at myself naked in a mirror, but on the whole this does not affect my ability to enjoy my life – with my partner – and try to make the most of every day.
I can still very easily cut myself off, go into ‘zombie’ mode, more readily associate with entropy than energy, so decorating my house – however long it takes – and writing this blog – wherever it takes me – are positive signs of engagement; action rather than inaction.
I hope my poems and other musings may resonate with anyone who has struggled to find their own identity and path through life. I know now that there are endless possibilities and I hope that the following poem (in six parts) helps to show how important it is for each of us to find our fighting spirit:
Jacket 1 It’s there, on the chair The red fleece jacket With hood and drawstring waist That I don’t want to wear Don’t want to keep
It’s warm and soft when I put it on But far too big for me Drowned in a red sea Shapeless, I feel A baggy, saggy, faceless entity
I look at the jacket On the chair In limp, loose folds of red, and seams This isn’t the jacket of my dreams
It’s theirs to wear Not mine to keep Their tears to cry Not mine to weep
It’s there, on the chair The red fleece jacket With hood and drawstring waist That I don’t want to wear Don’t want to keep So I’ve put a price on its head To let it go free To someone who wants it But when will that be?
Jacket 2 It’s there, on the chair The red fleece jacket With hood and drawstring waist That I don’t want to wear Don’t want to keep
It’s warm and soft when I put it on But far too big for me Drowned in a red sea Shapeless, I feel A baggy, saggy, faceless entity
I look at the jacket On the chair In limp, loose folds of red, and seams This isn’t the jacket of my dreams
It’s not my layer These aren’t my lies With drawstring waist And nylon ties
It’s not my jacket They’re not my dreams These aren’t my ties They’re not my seams
So I leave the jacket On the chair To go my way While they go theirs
Jacket 3 Now it hangs upon the door That red fleece jacket That I didn’t want to wear Didn’t want to keep
It’s warm and soft when I put it on And not too big for me Warmed in a red sea Shapeless no more No baggy, saggy faceless entity
I look at the jacket On the door In limp, loose folds of red, and seams It’s not the jacket of my dreams But just a layer to keep me warm From frozen looks And glares of scorn
It is my jacket With hood and waist To wear a while From place to place