Tag Archives: Mental health

My place in the sunlight

I spent the whole of last Tuesday utterly convinced that the following day would be a Thursday. No matter how often I reminded myself it was Tuesday and that, typically, Tuesdays are followed by Wednesdays, I couldn’t persuade myself of this one. That week, I felt sure, deep down, did not contain a Wednesday, and was going to skip straight to Thursday. For context, I don’t work Wednesdays, so that I felt like instead of my tomorrow being a day off, I’d have to get up and go to work, and be going straight into an all-day meeting and evening social.

The next morning, I woke up to find it was indeed Wednesday. No all-day meeting.

What’s more, it was actually warm and sunny.

That too took me by surprise somehow – not that I hadn’t seen the forecast, I’d been looking out for it coming – but it felt like spring might never arrive this year. Maybe in the same way as the day before I’d been convinced somewhere inside that this week we’d be skipping straight past Wednesday to Thursday… yet there I was, living and breathing a Wednesday.

I don’t know why this year feels so dark and cold, to the point that somewhere inside I’d accepted it as a given that this year didn’t have a spring. But spring comes, relentless, regardless how awful a winter preceded it. However cold and wet the season, spring will come. Even a year with a rubbish spring and summer will pass, and spring will come again the following year. However cloudy, the light still expands. However wet, the birds still sing. However windy, the flowers still bloom.

How have I got stuck in winter? How have I lost that perspective? I’ve not lost hope; but I have needed my sight lifting.

So. On that wondrous Wednesday, I got a load of chores done successfully, ate well, and then cycled down to the sea to think and write. It was very windy, and I got totally sand-blasted, but the sky was completely blue, the weather warm, and I had my feet in the soft, soft sand. And that truly felt amazing!

Thinking about it, what’s true? Well – last year was fearfully, supernaturally wonderful and full of miracles (and I was still not entirely well), and this year will be different. But though I’ve been feeling overcast, things are good – and who knows the miracles that will unfold? God is moving me forward, that’s for sure, and though following takes me down difficult and sacrificial paths at times, there’s no greater adventure and God is good. God is love. There is a lot of love in my life. There will be miracles!

So far this year I’ve not felt as rubbish as I was feeling two years ago, but nonetheless the depression has returned, as though the sky has clouded over and will not shift. The pain itself has seemed harder to identify than before, more nebulous, though probably also rooted in the old fear of failure, of failing here socially and in terms of making progress towards my dreams. Yet… this past week, I’ve felt the sun on my skin again, for the first extended period since maybe January. It’s surprised me into realising I’d slipped under the clouds, and into the realisation that there may yet be a spring!

I need to seek the sunshine – physically and metaphorically; find where winter is passing, see that bigger picture, breathe the fresh air, notice and remember what’s good. Put the work in to look after myself in the moment, but also to keep looking for healing, wherever the hurt lies. This is a season for self care, to the max.

What’s inevitable, really?

Spring follows winter and seasons change. God’s kingdom will come, with or without my involvement. I can throw myself into that and embrace it, being all I can be each day, and that will remain.

I’m pretending I’m ok. That’s not inevitable. I can relearn honesty and openness and vulnerability. I can again find ways to be real about how cold this past few months has felt.

I feel alone with the pain this time. That’s not inevitable either. The truth is I’ve been creating distance from people by hiding my reality. In truth, if I make myself vulnerable, I may still find myself alone (that’s by definition what it means to be vulnerable), but… seasons change. At least we’d all know where we really stand. And it’s never the end of the story. More likely, I will again find solidarity and sympathy. It’s likely me that’s sick of my illness, rather than that my friends are sick of hearing about it.

Can I get back to a place where bad days come like passing clouds on a sunny day? Clouds will come. That’s inevitable. Some days, it really is cold and overcast and I just have to huddle up and wait it out. But there are other days when if I get on my bike, put in the effort and make it down to the coast I can find sunshine.


More on self-care and fighting depression with truth here 🙂

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Breaking the silence at Yarl’s Wood

On 24th March, M and I got on a 7am train to travel to Yarl’s Wood detention centre near Bedford. We went to join a solidarity demonstration, aiming to give support and encouragement to the (mostly) women inside the centre who were themselves protesting their treatment. 120 of the detainees had been on hunger strike for a month, and we felt so moved by that show of courage and desperation that we felt we had to show up to support them and do what we could to make their voices heard.

Yarl’s Wood is an immigration detention centre. People who do not yet have leave to remain in the UK can be raided and taken to these centres, and locked up there indefinitely. Sometimes they are released, sometimes they are deported, and often without notice. Those detained may be undocumented immigrants, or they may be detained during the process of claiming asylum. They may have had asylum claims rejected and are either in the process of appealing their rejection, or have been left destitute with no means of leaving the country (and in any case, nowhere to go to if they feel that ‘home’ is no longer safe for them). It is government policy that asylum seekers may neither work nor claim benefits, so that if their claim is rejected they are often left destitute, in theory to ‘persuade’ them to leave.

Claiming asylum is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If a person is in danger and has to flee their country, they may claim asylum on arrival in the first country they arrive in after escaping. If the receiving country finds their claims to be reasonable, they must accept the person and give them protection as a refugee. But countries such as the UK make it a very difficult process. As part of the policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ towards immigration, targets are set for the number of deportations, which means officials are under pressure to reject as many claims as possible to keep numbers of accepted refugees small. As a result, asylum seekers are often lied to or given confusing and conflicted information on arrival about the proper process to making a claim, meaning they can easily be refused refugee status later when it is shown they didn’t follow procedure. If they do claim, they can be kept waiting long periods, refused arbitrarily and forced to go through long appeals processes, made to give concrete proof of their claims, or provide documentation they cannot obtain without putting themselves further at risk. Conversely, they may be ‘fast tracked’, giving them just days to make their case. And all the while, they may be detained and risk deportation.

We first became aware of what was happening a few years back, when a couple we knew were detained, mistreated and deported.

The husband was involved in a political party in his home country, but his political involvement attracted the attentions of a rival, more extreme political group that were known for ‘disappearing’ political opponents. Realising they were in danger, but not understanding their rights to asylum, the couple decided to escape to the UK where they could study towards their profession under student visas. When their studies and visas ended, they then tried to claim asylum, but were rejected as they hadn’t claimed on arrival. They appealed the decision; whilst in the UK, the situation back home had deteriorated. His brother had been hunted down and murdered by the extremists, and furthermore, the couple had become Christians here, which put them at additional risk of persecution back home (and was also how we had come to know them). They went through lengthy appeals; they had the documentation necessary to prove their identities, their political involvement, the activities of the rival group, their relation to the murdered man, his death and the facts surrounding it, and there was plenty of evidence for their new faith being genuine. At the end of the process, their claims were eventually thrown out on the grounds that, as corruption existed in their country, they could in theory have bribed multiple agencies to falsify all the documents. There was no evidence that they could provide that would be accepted in any circumstance, simply because of their country of origin. (That is particularly awful; I challenge you to find me a country in which corruption is completely absent.)

Now pregnant, the couple were detained, I believe in a sudden raid, and taken to Yarl’s Wood. Whilst there, we got word that the husband was being physically abused. The church attempted to gain access to him, to have his wounds investigated, and gain access to a legal investigation into how he had been hurt, but this was denied. The border agency then made a rushed, botched attempt to deport them. The private security firm guards contracted by the agency tried to force them to board a flight to their country of origin; when they struggled to resist this and screamed for help, they were both beaten, subjected to anti-Christian abuse, and handcuffed so tightly that their hands turned blue due to loss of blood circulation. Other passengers on the aircraft who expressed concern were told not to worry, and that the guards would keep them safe from the ‘illegals’ who were making such an unruly racket. The pilot then intervened, and upon seeing how the couple were being treated by the guards, ordered them all to leave the aircraft.

Eventually the agency managed to deport them by separating them, holding them in solitary confinement in different detention centres for a period, and then misinforming both of them that the other had been deported so that they finally consented to be taken. We heard from them shortly after their return that they had immediately fled the country again and were now in hiding over the border. Thankfully their baby survived.

What outrages me most about this process is that people fleeing danger in their own countries are treated with fewer rights than criminals, despite having done nothing wrong. I accept that our country’s resources and capacity to help are not infinite, and also that some bogus claimants will try to play the system, and that it is legitimate (though in my opinion not necessarily moral) to want to exclude such people and ensure that they use legal means of entering the country if they wish to do so. But I don’t accept that we should deny compassion and human rights to anyone, especially those who come to us claiming to be in grave danger and seeking a safe refuge.

Even the most dangerous serial killer is considered innocent until proven guilty (this is because it is easier to disprove a person’s claim to innocence by producing evidence of their culpability than it is to produce evidence that nothing happened, as well as to avoid the possibility of a miscarriage of justice). They must be given a fair trial. They have access to legal representation, medical care, and protection of their lives. Once they are found guilty, they are given a defined sentence. Once they are locked up, they lose their freedom for the duration of that sentence, but are still given adequate food, clothing and medical care, and allowed contact with their families unless deemed dangerous to them.

But an innocent person seeking sanctuary, who has committed no crime but may have escaped a war zone, or torture, or persecution due to their religious or political beliefs or sexuality, is considered guilty until proven innocent. They can be detained without warning, and without trial, denied access to legal representation and medical care. Their detention can be of any undefined duration. And whilst detained, they may not be given adequate nutrition or medical care and may be held in solitary confinement, without access to their families or other detainees. And all this is extremely damaging to a person’s physical and mental health.

Human rights abuses are occurring. In addition to taking away a person’s freedom, access to adequate care, dignity and rights to a fair trial and determined period of detention, there are allegations from former detainees of physical, sexual and emotional abuse taking place within the secretive confines of the detention centres, away from public scrutiny, so numerous that such treatment may be the norm.

When we heard the women of Yarl’s Wood were on hunger strike as a result, we felt we couldn’t stand by and do nothing to back them up.

When we arrived at Yarl’s Wood, we saw a large, long accommodation block, surrounded by a tall, green security fence and CCTV cameras. Outside the fence, stretching most of the length of it, was a crowd of fellow demonstrators, many of whom were themselves former detainees of Yarl’s Wood or other centres, with PA systems set up. Inside the fence, though the windows of the centre were only able to be opened a hand width, we saw the vague shapes of many women detainees in the windows, heard their voices calling for freedom, human dignity and closure of detention centres, and saw their waving hands. Many of them had put up placards in the windows with slogans such as ‘No human is illegal’, and some were waving bras(!) or beating the windows with plastic bottles. Placards on the outside of the fence held encouraging messages about other detention centres that had been closed down. The demonstrators had put up a phone number that detainees could call to be put through to speak to us over the PA, and between chanting (‘Yarl’s Wood – shut it down!’) and beating on the fence to make a noise that the detainees could hear to know we were there with them, we were addressed by speakers from both sides of the fence. It was incredibly powerful; the stories we heard and the courage evident in the detainees’ protest were moving and humbling.

We heard both current and former detainees tell their stories. Some had escaped torture. Several were in danger of persecution or of the death penalty for their sexuality (they told of the difficulty and humiliation of having to try to prove their sexuality). One was in danger because of her opposition to the government. Some could not speak of what they had escaped. They told how they were qualified in fields such as nursing and engineering. We heard from some how they longed for home, but could never return whilst the danger persisted, from others how frustrating it was to be unable to do the jobs they were qualified for here and realise their potential.

We heard story after story detailing demeaning treatment from officials, of dismissed evidence, of being detained without warning in dawn raids. We heard of lies they’d been told whilst in detention to repeatedly raise and dash hope, amounting to psychological abuse (the worst example was from one of the current detainees, telling us how another couple had suddenly been summoned early one morning, told they were being released and to pack because they would be leaving in a mere matter of hours, and being overjoyed – only to find it was a deportation attempt). Several reported that detainees were offered a paracetamol for any medical complaint, regardless what it was or how severe, so that detainees themselves sometimes had to call an ambulance to gain proper medical attention, and of suicide attempts being met with removal of possessions and humiliating denial of privacy as the suicidal person was put under constant watch. And we heard that they were offered ‘work’ such as cooking, decorating, cleaning and repairs at the centre – for £1 a day! Tantamount to slavery, and assisting in their own detention. Several former detainees had told how they had been detained and released multiple times.

We also heard stories of courageous resistance; of hunger strikers, of detainees standing up to the authorities, of those put to work in the centres deliberately being non-cooperative (for example, one man told how, made to work in the kitchen, he had emptied a pan onto the floor in front of the guard who was ordering him to work). Former detainees urged those inside to stay strong, to keep resisting, to make life difficult for their captors (one spoke of how he had been accepting and compliant during his first detention, believing what he was told about his release being sped up if he behaved well, but found that those who made the most trouble were released sooner, and had subsequently learned to fight back), and to believe that change is possible and that we were here supporting them. They told them the authorities were running scared, and encouraged them to keep up the pressure.

These people showed tremendous strength of character, enduring and resisting under conditions I don’t doubt for a moment would break me. I was profoundly humbled.

It was clear that the process was both inhumane and damaging for individuals, but also ineffective and costly to the state.

These detainees strike me as brave, educated people, wanting to contribute to society and with so much to offer; already brave in escaping such awful dangers, they are now speaking out for justice in a shamefully hostile environment here. I was humbled and inspired by their bravery and strength. I felt honoured to have the chance to meet some of them, to hear their stories, and I couldn’t help feel that these heroic individuals could only be of benefit to our society for their courage, compassion, wisdom and determination to see the world change for the better. The more I heard, the more I was inspired to keep speaking out with them.

Short-term, I want to see asylum seekers treated like (suspected) criminals – and it appals me that that would be an improvement on the current situation. I want to see the hunger strikers’ demands* met. I want to see asylum seekers informed properly of their status, rights and procedure, and what they can expect of their treatment from the outset. I want to see them given fair trials. I want them to be presumed innocent until proven guilty (ie, that their claims would be taken to be true with the onus on us to try to disprove what they were saying and produce contrary evidence, or else accepted). I want to see those detained given definite, fixed detention periods, and full access to food, clothing, contact, legal services, medical care, protection from abuse, and human dignity whilst detained. Medium-term, I hope one day we can see the end of detention all together, and a much fairer and more compassionate approach to asylum.

Long-term… I dream of a world that is safer and more equal, where people can move freely as they choose, where borders are reduced to a line of an address and an administrative convenience, and no longer deny anyone’s freedom. So long as some countries are relatively poor, dangerous or unstable there will naturally always be both a flow of refugees and a separate pressure of net migration away from them, but I believe the better response to this (though more difficult) is to work towards the prosperity, stability and safety of those places, rather than to close the borders of our country and our hearts against those trying to find a better life here.

Break the silence, cross every border that divides us, unite us…’

– Delirious?, Break The Silence

Below is a copy of a letter I’ve written to my MP; if you want, please feel free to use this as a template to write to your own MP, though I’d advise you to put it into your own words since I’ve written it from my own perspective as someone who attended the demonstration and heard these stories first-hand. You can send an email to your MP quickly and easily here, all you need to know is your own postcode as the site finds your MP’s name and contact details for you from that.

I recommend the Detained Voices blog for more stories from inside the detention centres, and Liberty for more on asylum and human rights.


Dear MP,

On 24th March, after hearing that 120 detainees had been on a month-long hunger strike in protest at their treatment, we went to attend a solidarity demonstration at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. I want to tell you what we saw and heard there, and ask you to speak up on their behalf and mine as one of your concerned constituents.

(I here added much of what I’ve written above)

I believe human rights abuses are taking place in these detention centres and in the asylum system as a whole. It appals me that people who have committed no crime but are fleeing danger and horrors are given worse treatment and fewer rights than even the most dangerous criminals. I want to at the very least see asylum seekers treated like suspected criminals: I want to see them informed properly of their status, rights and procedure, and what they can expect of their treatment from the outset. I want to see them given fair trials. I want them to be presumed innocent until proven guilty (ie, that their claims would be taken to be true with the onus on us to try to disprove what they were saying and produce contrary evidence, or else accepted). I want to see those detained given definite, fixed detention periods, and full access to food, clothing, contact, legal services, medical care, protection from abuse, and human dignity whilst detained.

Please would you do all you can to put pressure on the government to:

Short-term:

  • Meet the demands of the hunger strikers (which are detailed below*, as written by them)

    Longer-term:

  • Close detention centres like Yarl’s Wood and move towards a fairer, more humane process
  • End the ‘hostile environment’ policy to immigration

Our country is not ‘full’, and I believe there is plenty of capacity, will and ability to help many more people seeking sanctuary than we are currently. Furthermore it is inhumane to set quotas on the numbers of people fleeing for their lives who we will help.

I want to see the government stand up to xenophobic rhetoric head on and assert the UK as a place of safety for those in genuine need of it, as far as we possibly can as a prosperous nation, whilst working towards a safer world, tackling the dangers that force people to flee their countries in the first place.

Thank you for your time.


*The demands of the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers:

1. Shorter bail request periods
Legally it should 3-5 days, however it can take anywhere up to 21 days, or even a month before you get a bail hearing date

2. Amnesty for those who have lived in the UK 10 years and above

3. End indefinite detention
Detention periods shouldn’t be longer than 28 days

4. End Charter flights
Charter flights are inhumane because there are no prior notifications, or only an oral notification with no warning. They give no time to make arrangements with family.

5. No more re-detention
Redention should not be allowed – if you have been detained once, you should not be re-detained if you are complying with the laws they have applied. This is a contradiction, you are being punished for complying with the law; it ruins the whole purpose of expecting compliance

6. End systematic torture
Systematic torture takes place in detention – at any point an officer could turn up and take your room mate; you’re constantly on edge, not knowing what will happen next. Those who are suicidal now have their privacy taken away because they are being watched – you don’t know if an officer is coming to check on you or coming to take you away. Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later

7. Stop separating families
Separating families is inhumane – people in here are married or have British partners and have children outside, and they are denied their right to private life and right to privacy; their Article 8 rights

8. No detention of people who came to the UK as children
Young adults who came to the country as minors should not be detained, deported or punished for their parents’ immigration histories

9. The beds need to be changed
Some of us have been here for a year on the same bed; they’re the most uncomfortable beds

10. LGBT+ persons’ sexuality be believed
It should be understood that explaining your sexuality is difficult

11. Fit emergency alarms in every room in the detention centre
Only some rooms have them, and there have been a lot of cases of people being very ill in places where they can’t call for help

12. Give us access to proper healthcare

13. Give us proper food to look after our diets

14. Release people with outstanding applications

15. We want to speak to Alistair Burt MP for the constituency

Looking for Europe 7: BCDO North, all the feels

June 2-3rd

We got back to the house of the friend we were staying with very late that night – she had put out a happy birthday table for me, really sweet! We were all tired so I opened it in the morning to the accompaniment of some spectacular 90s cheese on the TV, it contained some nice arty gifts, and also some silly birthday gear for the VIP photos! We took our time packing, and then drove up to BCDO, set up the tent, and eventually got on site. I met up with my parents, there for the day, which was nice. It was a beautiful site, a big old house by a picturesque lake, with a boathouse and lots of waterlillies, birds and flowers, and also a big yellow hot air balloon saying ‘Jesus loves you!’ on the side! However the weather did not show it to its full effect, and we had rain for most of the day!

We found out that Switchfoot were doing another interview, so after getting lunch and hanging out with fellow fans and my parents for a bit we went over to see that. We ended up sitting in on the previous interview with a worship band (who credited Switchfoot for inspiration, but had not learnt the secret of playing full on, loud, crazy rock shows in a small intimate venue a la Paris!), and then there was some uncertainty about whether Switchfoot were around or not. But eventually Drew and Romey were located, and came in for an interview. They were very good again, but funnily kept getting asked questions about how they started out – despite both of them having joined a little later than the others! They said hi to us when they came in and saw us there. At one poibt Drew commented on how goid the tea was in England and said ‘I don’t know how you do it!’ I may have called out ‘Boil the water!’ 😀

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VIP was right afterwards, we were met at the merch table and taken right over to the grounds of the house where the tourbus was, and they used the bus as the photo backdrop. It stopped raining just for that! I felt a huge amount of nervous excitement meeting Jon again after the solo show, it literally felt like I was meeting him for the first time, like it was all new again! I gave him the letter I had written for that show but hadn’t had the chance to pass on to him there, in which I’d reaffirmed that I was doubly a megafan of his as his solo music meant as much to me as Switchfoot’s, and that he had a fan for life. I was so in awe!

Jude had themed her VIP photo this time around the SwitchFam, so it was appropriate we were there with our friend, and I could tell them they had set me up with all the birthday stuff. She was so chilled, and handed Drew a piece of artwork to open later. In my photo I had on a huge birthday badge, saying ’34 today’, which I had stuck a ‘2’ over: ‘It’s 34 really but SwitchFam are always all 24, right?!’ Drew sang a line of it, and Tim wore the ‘happy birthday’ shades! Then Jude got a very silly podcast-style facebook live video of the guys sending a message to the SwitchFam group!

As with BDCO South, there was nothing else on the programme any of us particularly wanted to see (that day at least; had we not been running off the following morning again there were bands on I’d have gone to see). A fellow fan had brought her little bear mascot along to the festival, so afterwards we had a bit of time for some more silly photos with him and Kitty Jon before the show, very cute!

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The show was awesome, again, but it was very wet. We just about got to the front again, but it was a squash. A lot of water had to be swept off the stage before they started, so I was a bit freaked when Jon came right out and stood on the speakers… and then got up on the wet crowd barrier a couple of times!! (Please don’t slip, please don’t slip..!) He came right over to us twice.

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They rocked awesomely and gave us a lot of emotion too. Jon referenced the rain a couple of times, for example holding his hand up to catch some on the appropriate line of Stars. They played I Won’t Let You Go again and Jude had a total emotional meltdown; that song brings a lot to the surface. So it felt powerful when they then played We Are One, and I had my arm around her, singing it out, and Jon came right over to us to sing too, like he deliberately wanted to do something nice for Jude. Afterwards I spent a while just sat with her, trying to find a way to comfort her, but it was hard to know what to do or say – I guess as others had found me at the previous BCDO when I had found myself in that sort of state. My mum found us, and gave her a massive cuddle!

 

There was no aftershow, to be expected as they were going straight off to play in Slovakia the next day (the only show we couldn’t get to), but we went to the campfire just in case! It was really nice, small and fun, and we sang some worship songs, especially Rend Collective. The band tried to play Dare, but they mangled it so much we couldn’t really sing along! 😀 Eventually I took a wrung-out Jude back to the tent to get some sleep, and sent out a prayer request as it seemed everyone was battling their own minds somewhat.

The following morning we woke too early; the sun was blazing in and the campsite was awake. On the other hand, it was perfect weather for our friend to go out and get some stunning photos on site, which hadn’t been possible the day before, and for us to get the tent properly packed down in the dry weather. We got off site in good time, had an early and chilled out lunch, and then went our separate ways, our friend to catch her train and us to the airport bound for the final show in Budapest!

The airport was hell. I decided I am never flying again if I can possibly help it! There was just so much hassle and stress and getting through the airport took literally hours. I can’t help thinking I can put up with a whole day on a bus easily in comparison, when you can just walk up half an hour before departure, show your passport and stay with your luggage! Delays meant we came close to missing our connecting flight, which added to the stress, but thankfully we made it ok in the end. We got to our rather interesting hostel, and I got a bad night’s sleep, but thankfully Jude recovered just fine.

 

Read Part 6 here and Part 8 here

Survival strategy

I wrote this in my diary the night I missed Jon Foreman’s aftershow/solo show at the BCDO festival; it’s a survival strategy for getting through a depressive episode, so I have it to look back on the next time the ‘wolf‘ starts beating me around the head with painful thoughts. It’s the process I went through that night, and over the following couple of days, firstly to withstand the immediate assault, and then to calm myself down from it, and then to find God, and light, and hope, through it all, and eventually to recover.

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The little note at the bottom I added in the morning. It felt like sometimes you have to lose the occasional battle even when you’re winning the war, and that it’s ok that sometimes ‘chaos wins’. With no apologies for quoting a lyric, because it was one of the lyrics that shifted my perspective that night, this episode was the shadow that proved the sunshine; suddenly facing a (temporary) deep and scary darkness turned up the contrast on my life, and giving the tears to God as a desperate prayer I really did see hope, and joy, and every good thing, in a breathtaking light.

Hope is strongest set against despair.

The Light shines the brightest in the dark.*

 

*John 1:5, The Bible

Resurrecting me

Like so many of Jon Foreman’s songs, Resurrect Me has played a huge part in my story.
I stayed up till 3:30am last night watching (amongst other things in the beautiful, honest, hope-filled evening that was TWLOHA’s Heavy and Light concert) Jon singing this song. In a whole evening dedicated to being real, opening up about when life hurts, and affirming that hope is real, it struck me again that this song was what first inspired me to seek help for my own pain about a year ago.
I’d been back and forth between ‘ok’ and ‘not ok’ for some time, and keeping an eye on myself, aware I needed to take my mental health seriously but not sure at what point to reach out.
And then one day last spring I found myself listening to this song. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, but that day one line jumped out at me: ‘I tried to drown the pain with a friend of mine, it didn’t seem to help, ah she’s got a pretty face with her wedding lace but I’m still waking up with myself
Suddenly it was obvious; if I’m not ok now, without a job, what makes me think I will be ok when I get one? Isn’t the problem right here, in me? A line in a book I was reading that same week confirmed it: Wherever we go, ‘We take ourselves with us’. I had to find a way to be ok with that!
Here is the truth. I was ‘ok’, but I was carrying pain that previous jobs had not fixed. Neither had my marriage, my relocation or my home. Maybe it was ok for that ‘ok’ to not be enough, and to seek help.
I can testify that it was absolutely worth it! There is help and support out there, none of us are alone in our pain, and as TWLOHA will tell you, hope is real, help is real and recovery is possible. I’m now on that road; I hope that I am learning to ‘take myself with me’ now, to be able to keep my eyes on the honest reality of the state of my soul and listen to both my ‘light’ and my ‘heavy’.
I don’t know where you are at. But if you find yourself waiting for something to complete you, I’d love to encourage you to find help to discover that you can be whole already, without that thing yet in place. If you’re not ok with yourself now, you will not be ok when that job, relationship, family, move, marriage, money, or home arrives. That pain is there, in you. And that’s ok. And you can be helped to find yourself whole, now.
Resurrection is real.

You can watch the whole of Heavy and Light here, I recommend the whole thing, a really affirming and honest event.

Being thankful

We hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for the first time this year! This has not been an easy year at all, personally or politically, but aside from liking the tradition and fancying the cooking challenge, I wanted to do this as I felt that actually I still have a huge amount to be thankful for from the past year, and that in a time when circumstances make it harder to see the good things and feel thankful, setting aside a little time to focus on what I am truly thankful for is a good discipline. The more I’ve thought about it, the more good I’ve spotted amongst the mess, and it has left me feeling genuinely grateful for those good things and a lot more positive about the year. So; my list:

  • Time at home. My new year’s resolution this year was straightforward after last year’s wonderful chaos; to do nothing! Well, maybe not ‘nothing’, but no crazy plans, no charging around the country(/world) week after week, and to focus on spending time right here at home, with our local friends and church family, and making progress on our DIY projects. And we’ve done that! It’s been really nice being a little more settled.
  • Living in Devon. Related to the last point – we live in a nice place! It’s been good to spend more time just enjoying where we live. Our main holiday this year was to Lundy Island, an island off the north coast in a protected area, which is therefore jumping with sealife. We saw so many seabirds, seals, jellyfish, rockpoolies and dolphins, and it was beautiful – all almost on our doorstep! And the walks and beach trips we’ve done closer to home have been wonderful too. We made an effort this summer to go down to the coast on nice evenings for barbecues or chips on the beach as the sun goes down. I can’t help but be thankful that my life looks like this after years living and working in and near London, it’s a real blessing.
  • The support for our whitewashing nonviolent direct action last year. I’ve been blown away by the amount of support I and my fellow activists have received since our action last November. A huge crowd of supporters turned out to our trial, some coming a really long way to be there. There were far too many people to fit in the viewing gallery and many stood outside in driving rain for us all day, praying, holding banners and looking after us. I’m so humbled! And on top of that, when we received a (much smaller than expected) fine, friends, family and supporters crowdfunded enough to pay it off in full! We checked the amount that came in a week after the verdict, and it seemed a random amount; but then we totalled up our collective fine and realised it was the same amount to the nearest pound! Shortly after this we closed the crowdfunder early as we had exceeded our target, despite not expecting to meet it, and found the amount raised exactly covered our expenses for the action too! I am profoundly grateful to God for so fully honouring our imperfect willingness to do this, and to our supporters, both for the obvious practical help this was, but also for the solidarity of knowing we had so many people standing beside us and willing to also pay the price of speaking out on climate change.
  • Good news on climate change. Aside from the ratification of the Paris climate agreement, it seems politically that this has been a bad year for climate, as in practice the political world has barely moved into action at all, and in many cases we’re still seeing the politics moving backwards. However; more and more this year I’ve seen signs of change, almost in spite of the politics of it all. The economics are starting to shift. As renewables grow, in spite of policies that hamper them, and the combined pressure from increasingly cheap renewable energy, financial disinvestment, uncertainty over the future under international climate agreements and the cost of carbon hits the fossil fuel industries, a real practical shift away from fossil fuels has begun. We have a long way to go, and fast, but this is genuinely encouraging. We need to keep up the momentum on fossil fuel disinvestment, which is really a win-win situation, whilst at the same time urging our governments to think progressively and practically get behind this shift, which would really speed the process up.
  • Vegan abundance! Going vegan ten years ago was relatively straightforward, with plenty of choices available in ordinary shops, and at least something you could eat in most restaurants when out. But there has been such a fast shift over the last year or so! Several vegan/explicitly vegan-friendly businesses have popped up all over town, raised consciousness means I’m finding it more common for non-veggie friends to know how to make really nice things for us, little innovations the world seems to have just discovered (coconut cream makes wonderful whipped cream, chickpea water works like egg whites…) mean vegan baking has suddenly become even easier and cafes are cottoning on, and even some vegan cheese seems to be finally starting to resemble the real thing! I’m suddenly beginning to realise how much self-control I’ve lost over the years, now that what was a ‘special diet’ is becoming so mainstream; I’ve been used to luxuries being just that, and therefore jumping at the chance to indulge when the chance arose from time to time, but suddenly it seems there are easy luxuries everywhere and I have to be restrained for the sake of wallet and waistline! But at the same time, what a nice problem to have – such great news for me, and for animals and the environment 🙂
  • The mental health services. Wow am I thankful for the help that I’ve found available to me this year as I’ve found myself battling depression! I’ve heard the horror stories and know not everyone gets the help they need when they need it, even when they do seek it, but my experience has been good so I know that’s only one side of the picture. I’d love to see the day when mental health is taken as seriously as physical health, because it is, and everyone can find help. But I’m very thankful that I have a good GP, have been able to take part in a well-taught CBT course for free, and have had help from my church towards paying to see a counsellor. Each of these things have been a God-send in an unpleasant situation, and I am so thankful.
  • Supportive family and friends. And again on a related note, I am deeply thankful for the community of people I have in my life who have treated my illness as an illness, been understanding as they can be, and been there to encourage me and share advice. I feel honoured to be able to reciprocate that to others too, and am grateful to have that chance through this circumstance. It’s brought me closer to myself, to others, and to God.
  • The RSPB. Last year I was volunteering for several different charities, often on my own and with irregular hours. This year I decided to change and focus on my work with the RSPB nature conservation charity, filling my newly-free days in the week by taking on some scientific support work in their local office, which means I’m now working with others and with pretty regular office hours, and getting to use my science brain a bit. Simplifying my work this year has itself done me a lot of good; but so has the RSPB directly. Conservation is not always the most encouraging world to work in, with so many species and habitats under threat. But working with the RSPB, I see an amazing array of good news stories as hard work saving nature really does pay off. Both internally and externslly there’s a real emphasis on hope and encouragement around this. The project I’ve worked most with this year has just celebrated a milestone as a little bird we almost lost from the country has been brought back from the brink and is increasing (you can read more about that here, it’s a nice reminder that good news is out there!). But even in addition to this, the organisation takes staff wellbeing seriously (as a volunteeer I am still considered part of the staff team) and has done a lot of work to raise the profile of wellbeing and mental health and promote activities and support that can help. I’m not sure I could be working in a better environment right now!
  • Being able to ‘do autumn properly’. It’s no secret that I love autumn! I felt like I missed out on it a bit last year in my busyness, so this year I made an effort to give time to enjoying it as much as possible. So we went on holiday in the Lake District, swam and bodyboarded in the sea, went for walks in the local arboretum and elsewhere, picked up colourful leaves, made some of them into pretty decorations or collages, went birdwatching plenty to catch the migration in progress, baked for halloween and used it to pray over the world’s darkness, went to the legendary Nottingham Goose Fair (enormous cheesy funfair, and something I haven’t done since leaving home), went to an apple day and made apple fritters to celebrate, had a Thanksgiving party and a Harvest ploughman’s meal, went to a fireworks display, and planted trees in the garden. I don’t think I’ve missed anything this year, and although it’s been unusually warm and dry and the trees gave us a bit of a stop-start display this year it’s been wonderful – and I have far too many photos! 😀
  • Switchfoot. I confess, when I drafted this list, this was the first thing I wrote! A lot of bad things have happened in the world this year. But 2016 was also the year Switchfoot brought us their 10th album, Where The Light Shines Through. And in a dark year, it really has been where the light has shone through for me, not just a highlight of the year for a fan, but also an incredibly timely album full of messages of hope and strength and light, so much needed just now. This band has done more than anyone else this year to encourage me to look for the points of light breaking through the darkness, keep my eyes on the Source of my hope, and work to become where the light shines through myself.

Self-help for anxiety and depression; part 2

I’ve now finished the CBT self-help classes I have been taking this summer. I wasn’t sure how to write this post as it isn’t such a personal perspective as the last, and I’m reluctant to turn this into a mental health blog in general; my aim is just to keep sharing where I’m at. But I felt I wanted to follow up my previous article on techniques for managing depression by sharing the treatment techniques we learnt on the remainder of the course, as I feel the more this information is shared about, the more we can help each other overcome our illnesses.

The second half of the course looked more at ways to overcome anxiety – first a session about understanding and handling panic attacks, then a session looking at worry and how to manage it healthily, and finally a short session on recovery and avoiding relapse*. I’ve been experiencing more anxiety than is normal for me since being ill, but not to the extent of being diagnosable, hence this being much less of a personal perspective than part 1; I haven’t had to deal with the symptoms to know how effective these treatments are. But here they are; they’ve helped me to understand anxiety more, and I hope they will help us to overcome any anxiety of our own, and to help others experiencing it:

Panic attacks – ‘Panic’ is one of those words that is in everyday use, and yet has a very specific meaning when talking about mental illness. We all ‘panic’ at times. But not everyone experiences panic attacks. Panic attacks are very common, affecting maybe 1 in 20 of us; they are extreme anxiety attacks, usually lasting just 10-20 minutes, that cause physical symptoms such as a pounding or skipping heart, breathlessness and/or hyperventilating, sweating, shaking, feeling like you will be sick or need the loo urgently, or feeling dizzy or faint, and feel terrifying. When a person is having a panic attack, they often feel like something awful is happening to them, for example that they are choking or having a heart attack. They feel so bad, people become anxious about having another.

The course leaders described what is going on here as being like a household smoke alarm, which goes off if there is a fire, but also reacts to burnt toast! Basically our brains interpret something as a threat, even if it may be a non-physical threat such as a deadline or a crowd, and release adrenaline, which would prepare our bodies for ‘fight or flight’ responses. The physical symptoms experienced in a panic attack are the direct result of this adrenaline, which increases heart rate, breathing, sweating etc to prepare our bodies for action in response to this ‘threat’; the symptoms may be scary but they are not dangerous, and the worst is not going to happen. Knowing this can in itself help break the fear cycle.

The anxiety the onset of a panic attack causes can cause a vicious cycle of panicking thoughts and symptoms, and afterwards, the fear of a repeat can mean that consciously or even unconsciously a person can begin monitoring their body for small changes – which can trigger the ‘smoke alarm’, and mean a panic attack can seem to come on out of the blue. And so, we start to avoid certain situations we fear may bring on an attack or be hard to cope in if it happened, and develop ‘safety behaviours’ to cope, things like staying near to exits, having something to distract us like a phone or music, or seeking reassurance. In the short term, they help us feel less anxious; but in the long term they reinforce the problem. What if these things were not available to you? Could you cope? If not, it is a safety behaviour. Using it is training your brain to be dependent on it and that without it you would be unable to cope, whilst never giving yourself a chance to prove that you can cope.

To regain your independence from safety behaviour and feel able to cope in situations that made you anxious, the treatment is again going to involve hard work and perseverance, but apparently really does help people overcome crippling anxiety. It involves facing your fears in a very careful way. The aim is to retrain your brain not to be afraid of fear, but to accept that anxiety subsides with time and doesn’t need to be run from. Anxiety symptoms are caused by adrenaline, and adrenaline wears off; this treatment teaches you to feel the adrenaline wearing off and become used to that as a normal follow-on to the feeling of it increasing.

Firstly, grade the situations that make you anxious – give them a score out of 100 for how anxious they make you feel and rank them. Find one thing that ranks about 40-50, and work with that until it stops causing you anxiety before moving on to something tougher. Identify any safety behaviour you use, and perhaps incorporate that into your scores; maybe something is easier to face with a friend than alone for example, so would score lower. Taking that situation that scores about 40, work on putting yourself in that situation regularly, at least four times per week, scheduling it specifically into your diary to make sure you do it. Do not allow yourself to do anything to lessen the anxiety of the experience or distract yourself; you need to be able to feel that initial anxiety to feel it coming down with time. Stay in the situation long enough each time to experience the anxiety levels reducing to about half what they were initially. This way you teach yourself by experience that if you expose yourself to this situation, the anxiety will reduce.

We discussed reasons it may not work, and they mostly came down to not staying in the situation long enough, masking the anxious feelings, or incorrectly grading our anxiety, which obviously takes some practise (if you pick something you think will be a ‘40’ and it turns out to be much more anxiety-causing than that, you may not be able to handle sitting it out long enough to let the adrenaline come down and feel that effect, whereas if you go for something that turns out not to make you very anxious you won’t feel much either). Basically this aims to retrain our brains out of triggering the ‘smoke alarm’ over situations that are actually not dangerous, and get used to the physical sensations of increasing and decreasing adrenaline, whilst increasing our self-confidence.

This obviously only works for situations that we can experience regularly; for one-off situations such as a job interview or party for example, we were taught to try behavioural experiments. The first step in this case is to identify the anxious thought (perhaps ‘I won’t know what to say if I’m asked a question and will look stupid’ or ‘no-one will talk to me’). Then identify any safety behaviours you might use (maybe taking in notes to read from, or taking your phone to hide behind). Then plan an experiment (Can I do this thing without my safety behaviour?). Plan out how you will do it, then predict exactly what you think would happen if your anxious thought turned out to be true. Write it all down to keep a record of to refer back to. After the event has happened, come back to your experiment, and note down the actual, honest outcome, and exactly how it worked without your safety behaviour. How does it compare to your prediction, and what does that say about your initial anxious thought?

Finally, when we came to discuss this as a group, several people said that the controlled breathing techniques we learnt previously really helped overcome panic, firstly by shifting the attention onto the action of breathing, and secondly, physically working with the adrenaline by increasing oxygen intake whilst slowing breathing down, which helps the heart rate to come down and stop hyperventilation.

Worry – When we’re ill, our worrying can feel out of control. There are basically three types of ‘worry’: Practical worries (about something we are able to do something about); Hypothetical worry (‘what ifs’, which we can’t do anything about), and ‘Rumination’ (going over past events and thinking what you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ have done or wishing it had been different – which again we can’t do anything about). We handle worry differently because of differing basic beliefs about it – some negative (for example ‘I shouldn’t worry’, or that it will get out of control), some positive  (for example thinking it helps motivate or prepare us for things).

We all worry, and that’s ok, but we can’t deal with worry by simply trying not to worry; that just makes us worry more. To deal with excessive worry healthily, try keeping a diary for a short while to identify your worries. Are they practical or hypothetical worries, rumination, or negative thoughts? Negative thoughts are better dealt with by thought challenging.

Set aside a short period 15 minutes of the day as a worry time – a time when you won’t be busy with other things and not too late in the day so you go to sleep with anxiety; you need time to relax afterwards. Through the day, write down all your worries as you go, maybe on post it notes so they can be discarded once dealt with, and put them aside to look at in that planned worry time – that way you acknowledge them rather than trying not to think about them but can shelve them for later; you can think about them but don’t have to think about it right now. Practise drawing your attention back to the here and now after writing down a worry, perhaps by focussing on your breath or on your physical senses (what can you physically hear right now for example). In the worry time, allow yourself to think about the things you’ve written down, but discard them at the end of the allotted time.

Any that turn out to be practical worries, you can think through a strategy for how you will deal with them. When you do this, think as creatively and even outrageously as possible to list all the possible ways you can think of to solve the problem: For example, if the problem is having no money for the bills, solutions could be to change jobs, cancel a subscription to something you don’t use… or rob a bank! Then go through the advantages or disadvantages of each, make a plan, schedule it, and once you’ve done it, review how it went.

I’ve found a massive difference in my own excessive worrying simply from categorising my worries; once I’ve noticed what I’m thinking it seems to have interrupted the worry process enough for me to bring me out of the worry. The techniques we’ve already learnt for motivating ourselves and challenging negative thoughts have also really helped me with worries too, meaning I get on with addressing practical stuff rather than getting into a cycle of letting tasks become overwhelming. As for rumination… I’m going to need counselling for some of that.

Recovery – It is normal to experience both good days and bad days during the recovery process. Keep a diary and monitor how you’re doing to see if the bad days are increasing or decreasing, and to keep a record of the symptoms you experience. If they’re increasing, you may be able to troubleshoot by looking to see if there’s a technique you’ve forgotten that could help, or maybe you need further help – in which case, do seek it out. The treatment techniques require a lot of practise so keep trying, and monitor how they are going alongside how you feel. Keep practicing them until they become second nature again.

So, how am I?

As I write, I am doing really well! For the past three weeks I’ve been feeling far more myself than I have for maybe a year or more. Maybe all my self-care efforts are paying off; maybe prayers are being answered; maybe the CBT is having an effect; maybe these are good days, interspersed with bad days on the road to recovery, or the end of the first wave of illness before the next hits. Maybe it’s the season – I find it hard to feel down when the autumn is coming in, although it’s also a season when vulnerable feelings make more sense. Maybe it’s a combination of things. But I’m feeling good just now. That said, I’m taking one day at a time; I can feel the depression-monster lurking somewhere behind my back, and I’m having to keep checking over my shoulder the whole time to stop it sneaking up on me again. I can still hear it feeding me lies, and it’s still taking deliberate effort to put these things I’ve learnt into practise and stay healthy. I’ve now started seeing a counsellor. CBT treats the symptoms of mental illness really effectively, but many of us need more than that to fully recover; counselling aims to address the underlying causes. I definitely feel in need of both tackling the symptoms and the causes. I feel now like I have strategies for coping and re-developing my resilience to pain. But I am still carrying that pain around, and I really want to address that, to dig underneath and understand what’s really going on. I’m hoping counselling will help with this. Another step towards kicking this thing!

 


 

*We also had a quick look at medication; I’m absolutely unqualified to talk about this medically, so if you want to know more about it, please speak to a doctor or pharmacist for advice. I can’t tell you about all the different types of drug, how they work and what they do, except that it’s to do with healing the way chemical messages are passed within the brain, which gets disrupted when you are ill. But the main points I’ve learnt are that there are many different drugs out there, which work in different ways and have different associated side effects. Most take a few weeks to take effect, during which time they may make you feel worse before you get better, so you may need to persevere to get the benefits. Most of the side effects subside in that time too. Different people’s anxiety and depression illnesses respond differently to different medications, so you may need to try more than one before you find one that works, and that may mean finding a good doctor to work with you and be understanding of you. They are not addictive. Most people are able to start coming off medication after six months or so, some need longer. Those I know who do or have used medication are really keen to tell me the difference it has made to their lives, that they are able to feel like themselves again and live a normal life. As for the stigma attached – if you had cancer, and were recommended medication to treat it, you would take it and no-one would criticise you for it. If you had a condition, diabetes for example, that meant you needed to take medication daily to be able to lead a normal life, you would take it and no-one would criticise you for it. Mental illness is illness. Mental health medication is medication. Let’s not treat it any differently.