Tag Archives: Overthinking

Of triggers, traumas and taking control

There’s been a lot of talk on the interwebs of late about trigger warnings. What are they, who needs them, should we have them everywhere or nowhere, what good do they do? I’m not mad keen on them, myself – I can see a purpose in the basic sex/violence warnings you get on DVD boxes, since those are things that bother many people for many reasons, but I don’t see how they can usefully extend beyond these broad categories.

 

The thing about being triggered is that it’s completely different to being made to feel a bit uncomfortable. Triggers are part of living with PTSD. People who are triggered experience extreme, excessive reactions to stimuli – things like flashbacks, uncontrollable shaking, spontaneous nausea/vomiting, the fight/flight/freeze response. It can change your mood for days, give you nightmares, kill your appetite, prevent you from sleeping, cause dissociative episodes… Of course, not everybody experiences all of these things, but the point is that there’s a lot more to it than just not liking to see or hear something (and the people who co-opt the term “triggering” as a means of censoring and controlling those around them do none of us any favours).

 

Having dealt with PTSD for several years now, I’m no stranger to triggering and know very well the difference between something that triggers me and something that just upsets me. If I’m reading a book or watching a film or play and someone loses their loved ones through death or abandonment, it will upset me (if it’s done believably, otherwise it’ll just piss me off). I will probably cry. It probably won’t make me want to stop watching or reading, unless it’s really close to home. Breaking Bad came close once or twice, because Walter White strongly reminds me of my dad in terms of looks, temperament and physicality, and watching the character going through cancer treatment in the first season was tough. It made me very sad, and I thought about my dad a lot while I was watching it and missed him badly. It pained me that I’ll never get to show him Breaking Bad and tease him about the resemblance. But it didn’t trigger me. It caused me to have a perfectly normal response to being reminded of someone I still miss.

 

So what does trigger me? Well, the one I encounter most often is car crash noises. Some shows and films use very realistic crash sounds, and I find those hard to handle. I can usually rely on structure and lead-up to see it coming, in which case I’ll get ready and make sure I’ve covered my ears and am not looking at the screen when it happens. The trouble is that sometimes it comes out of nowhere, so there’s no action I can take. Last year I was at a book launch and part of the way through the reading, CRASH, sound effect out of nowhere! There hadn’t been any other sound effects, nothing to make me think that this might happen, so I was completely unprepared. I nearly leapt out of my seat, then sat there for a while twitching and shaking, trying not to scream or cry. I had nightmares that night. But at least it wasn’t as bad as seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron. I remember almost nothing about that film except that there was a sequence that was just one crash after another, and by the time it was done I was curled up in a ball on the floor with tears streaming down my face.

 

Now, car crashes are pretty common so I suppose one could argue that anything involving a representation of a crash should bear a warning. Personally, I don’t agree. They are common occurrences, and most people are fine a short while afterward. They process the shock and fright, they recover, they don’t shake and cry whenever they hear the noise. I recovered just fine from the first crash I was in, when I was a child. I appeared to be fine after the pile-up in 2005. It wasn’t until the black ice incident in 2008 that I started experiencing flashbacks and other trauma symptoms. For a while I found it very difficult to be in a car at all, but EMDR helped me to get things under control to the point where I can drive and be a passenger. It’s just the noises that still trouble me, but that’s my damage and I don’t think it should be necessary to undermine a dramatic device to accommodate it.

 

Also, not all triggers are as obvious as that. The other one that affects me is the smell of lavender. While car crashes are commonly considered traumatic events with negative associations, most people’s associations with lavender are very positive. It’s a very popular fragrance for bath products or anything laundry-related, and it’s one of the most common oils used in massage or any kind of relaxation treatment. It’s remarkably difficult to avoid, but for me it’s tied in with memories of things that happened while my mum was dying, things people did that I still can’t talk about, even in therapy, because to process those things is too close to forgiving them and there will be no forgiveness here.

 

I control my environment where I can. I’ve got used to checking laundry products and toiletries to make sure I don’t inadvertently pick up something lavender-scented. If I book a massage I request that no lavender be used in my treatment and offer to bring my own geranium oil instead. But there’s nothing I can do to control the outside world, where lots of people like the scent and I can smell it on them. Nor would I want to restrict their right to enjoy the fragrance if they like.

 

A few years ago my husband and I went to see Puppet State Theatre’s wonderful show The Man Who Planted Trees. At one point there is a description of lavender fields, and by means of a beautifully simple effect they waft the scent out over the audience. I saw it coming, only just, and scrambled for the bottle of Olbas Oil I usually keep in my handbag to drown out any other smells. It broke my heart a bit that I couldn’t enjoy that part of the show the way it was intended (though I certainly appreciated it objectively and could see that it was lovely for everyone else).

 

The experience I had at that show always pops up in my mind when discussing trigger warnings. I don’t think it would be reasonable for me to expect Puppet State to have anticipated my reaction. How could they? It would be equally possible that someone might have PTSD responses linked to a particular quality of light, or the type of shirt one of the actors was wearing, or to an uncommon phrase that might have cropped up in the script. If triggers are very specific and personal, any aspect of a show (or film, or book, or everyday experience) might be someone’s trigger – so in order to provide total protection, it would be necessary to list every single component of the production and every word in the script, and at that point haven’t you just experienced the thing anyway?

 

My preferred option is to take responsibility for my own traumas and deal with them myself. I try to anticipate the car crashes in TV and film, and I carry my Olbas Oil to overpower unexpected lavender. And, increasingly, I try to get the better of the triggers. I’m on the waiting list for further EMDR to deal with the car crash stuff, and while I’m getting support from my current therapist I am training myself to be able to tolerate lavender without having a visceral response to it.

 

It’s been a long process, beginning with using CBT to control myself when I encounter the fragrance. Every time I would try to push myself a little bit longer before I blocked the smell out. I’d control my breathing, remind myself that the nausea was without cause, dissect the intrusive thoughts, try not to let myself shake. Later I acquired a bottle of lavender oil and started training myself to handle the scent at its strongest. Most recently I scented my bath with it so that the smell of lavender went wherever I went, and noted how it affected me. I’m almost entirely in control of it now. I’ve overcome the shaking, the nausea, the hyperventilation. I’m aware that I still experience heightened alertness and am quite jumpy when I can smell it. But it’s so much better than it was, and I’m still working on it. Whether I’ll make my peace with lavender to the point where I can have it used in massage I don’t know, but at least I’ve made it to this stage. I’m getting there.

 

Of course, overcoming triggers through exposure isn’t the right move for everyone, so I’m not suggesting that anyone who manages PTSD and may be reading this ought to do the same. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of mis-steps along the way. But I’m glad I’m doing it. I may not have dealt with the trauma that underpins the trigger, but I’ve managed to detach the scent from the experience and will, in time, reclaim it. Whether that’s healthy or not is up for debate, but I don’t know if I ever can have a healthy relationship with those experiences or how long and arduous the journey to get to that point would be. The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is to deactivate the triggers so that I can deal with the trauma or not, in my own good time.

 

Do I have a conclusion? Not really, sorry. I can’t tell you whether trigger warnings should exist, I can only tell you that I can’t imagine they’d be helpful in my particular case because I’d need to know the thing I’m watching/reading thoroughly in order to know whether it would be triggering. But hopefully this post explains a bit about what it feels like when it happens, what I’ve been able to do to reclaim control and why it’s complex.

 

Enough for now. Whenever I write mental health posts I reach the point where I can’t keep writing long before I reach any proper conclusion. The urge to delete the whole thing kicks in. So I’m going to post and go and work on something else before that urge wins.


A Provocation for the Declaration Festival

Tonight (technically last night, since it’s about 1am) I gave a provocation at the Declaration Festival. It was for the closing event, responding to Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the right to rest and leisure). I was delighted to be part of it, particularly to be in the company of Jenny Lindsay and Harry Giles and their excellent, deeply personal responses to the topic. 

My own response was likewise personal. Unsurprisingly, I came at it from the mental health angle. This is the text…

 

Hi. I’m Jen. You might already know that. I’m never sure how much you know.

 

Thanks for coming. Not that you had a choice, but still… thank you.

 

I hope you like the weather. I chose it specially. I thought it would be a good introduction to my mood, you know? A bit grey. Frosty. Kind of a foreshadowing thing.

 

It’s really nice to see everyone here today. What’s even nicer is that I’m pretty sure that most of you are real. You look real.

 

Except you. You, not so much. I’m not sure whether I’m hallucinating you or not, and it’s not really polite for me to ask complete strangers whether they’re real or not. Normally I wouldn’t call attention to you, just in case you are a hallucination and everyone thinks I’m crazy for interacting with someone who isn’t there. I’d wait until someone else has demonstrated that you’re real to them before I said or did anything involving you. It’s a bit convoluted, I know – the easiest way to establish your reality would be to touch you, but there are two problems with that. First, if you’re not real then this entire room full of people would see me waving my hand through empty air. Second, if you are real then – wait, actually, it’s three problems. Because the second problem would be that I’d just started pawing at a stranger for no apparent reason, and the third would be that while we were in physical contact you might be able to read my thoughts.

 

That’s why I’ll avoid shaking anybody’s hand if I can. You seem like very nice people, and I’ve no doubt your hands are clean and everything, but I’m sure you’ll understand that I don’t really like letting people read my mind until I get to know them a bit better. It makes job interviews and networking sessions a bit of a bitch. Especially when people don’t employ me or don’t reply to me, because then I wonder whether it’s because they saw something in my mind that they didn’t like. I wouldn’t blame them. There’s a lot in there that I don’t like. And here’s an interesting thing – I’ve never succeeded in getting work from someone whose initial greeting involved a kiss on the cheek. I hate cheek-kissing. If touching my hand gives you access to my thoughts, kissing my cheek is like plunging head-first into them. So I’ll keep my distance and run the risk that you’ll think I’m stand-offish. I get that a lot. Stand-offish, reserved, arrogant, bitchy… I just don’t want to let you into my head, that’s all. I’m sorry. It’s not meant as a slight.

 

And now I’m noticing that all of these people are staring at me and that means I’ve been concentrating on you for far too long, trying to figure out whether you’re real. That suggests that you’re not and that I’ve been looking at an empty chair for all this time. So they think I’m weird already. And it’s not that they’re wrong – I’m well aware that normal people don’t have these kind of hallucinations – but I would rather they got to know the professional side of me first. The functioning side. And now they haven’t. Again.

 

The worst thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. I’m in control of this situation, after all. This entire room is part of my story, it’s a construct made in my own mind, so in theory I could turn it into anything I like. Surely, if everything here is the product of my will, I could have manifested a scenario in which I walk into the room and you all automatically think I’m amazing? I could have dreamt up people who have been waiting their whole lives to hear public speaking skills like mine. Why would I imagine a situation where people look at me with long faces, or sneakily check their phones while I’m talking, or think I’m crazy just because I sometimes see things that aren’t there?

 

Oh. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, you look like you’re having a terrible time. Is it just to do with this? Or is it something bigger? If I’ve imagined you, if I’ve made you exist, have I given you an existence that’s that bad? I’ve done that before, and I feel pretty guilty about it. So if I have… If I have then I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what to do about it. The easiest thing, the usual thing, is for me to steer clear of other people. If I can manage my environment, it’s easier to tell when things are real. It limits the possibilities, but not in a bad way. Just in a way that makes life more manageable. Less exhausting.

 

Because that’s what this is. Exhausting. Every time I’ve been in treatment, when I’ve explained the experience of this lovely combination of schizotypal ideas of reference, magical thinking and good old ADD, that’s what my various therapists and head-shrinkers have said. “That must be exhausting.” Every time. And they’re right.

 

They’re right.

 

This is my punishment, my penance, the price I pay for bringing you into existence and making you miserable. The price of inhibited dopamine uptake, deficient serotonin production, of a genetic quirk that triggered an intermittent madness in me. A mind that never stops tormenting me for the real and imagined things I’ve done. A brain I can’t trust, can’t ever turn my back on. A reality in which I can never, ever… rest.

 

And that’s why I’ll always struggle with Article 24, the Right to Rest and Leisure. For someone like me, with a mind like mine, the management never stops. No amount of recognition or legislation will ever be able to force me to let up on myself. The coping mechanisms have to be constant, otherwise they won’t exist at all.

 

But because of that, I appreciate everything that leaves me with only this battle to fight. The wider the recognition of the right to rest and leisure, the more I feel like I have breathing space. Time to myself, time to hide from the world and focus on quieting the noise in my head. Knowing this to be my right makes me feel better when I see the judgemental faces that my brain conjures up looking at me as if I’m lazy or workshy or seeking attention.

 

Are they judgmental, these faces? Your faces? Are the expressions I see on them real? Are the faces themselves real?

 

I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough energy to reach a conclusive answer.

 

All I know is this.

 

I’m tired.

 

And I need to rest.


Somewhere in the #GlasgowEffect stooshie, there’s a non-subjective question…

If you’re involved in the arts in Scotland and you don’t live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of The Glasgow Effect by now. No, I don’t mean the phenomenon whereby people from Glasgow have an unusually short life expectancy, but the art project of the same name by Ellie Harrison.

Over the past day and a half Scottish Twitter (which Buzzfeed informs me is A Thing) has gone nuts over this project. Bloggers and journalists have jumped in to have their say about the nature of the project, the nature of funding, the nature of art and the horrors of the online world.

I’m not here to write about my opinion on any of these things. It doesn’t matter what I think of her project or her decision to title it The Glasgow Effect or to use a picture of chips to represent it. It doesn’t matter whether she’s English, Scottish, Martian or Prefer Not To Say. The point is that as far as I can tell, her application for Creative Scotland’s Open Project Funding should never have been assessed, let alone granted.

Creative Scotland’s guidelines can be found here. On Page 13 they say “Academics or other education professionals seeking funding related to their educational role cannot apply.” Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Ellie Harrison is a lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College. But of course lecturers take sabbaticals, and a lecturer who is also an artist might very well take time away from her post to concentrate on her practice, right? Right. And that would seem quite legitimate… but it doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here.

The day after this teacup tempest began, Harrison made a pinned post on the Glasgow Effect Facebook event. Here it is, quoted in full (emphasis mine):

 

Hi everyone, thanks so much for your interest and engagement in the project: both positive and negative. Glasgow has been my home for seven-and-a-half years and to suddenly have a response like this to one of my projects has been quite overwhelming. You have given me so much material to digest, it will take the whole year to do so. I hope to follow-up by meeting many of you face-to-face, when all the fuss has died down.

Before I sign off Facebook for a while, I would like to address the important questions raised about the money. Anyone who’s done any research about me will know that I am interested in the undesirable consequences of certain funding systems, and, I am working to set-up a radical alternative: the Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund. This will form the bulk of my workload in 2016 whilst in the city…

Like any provocative artwork, The Glasgow Effect has been devised to operate on many levels at once, and the questions about ‘community’ being raised on/off social media these last few days is certainly one of them. As much as I do care sincerely about the environmental issues raised by the project as my previous work should testify, I also want to highlight the absurd mechanisms at play within Higher Education which were its initial impetus.

In the interests of transparency and to provide a more detailed context for the project, I will shortly publish the full text from my Application to Creative Scotland on the Tumblr. The Application was written over the course of one month in June 2015, in order to fulfil one of the criteria of my 3.5 year ‘probation’ for my Lecturing post at the University. I was required to “write and submit a significant research grant application”. After one unsuccessful attempt, on 20 October 2015 I was awarded the grant. Since then, I have been negotiating an Agreement with the University to ‘donate’ the £15,000 to them in exchange for paid ‘Research Leave’ in order to undertake the project.

In this Agreement I have been careful to stipulate that the money be used solely to cover my teaching responsibilities and that a post be advertised externally, in order to:
a) create a job opportunity for a talented artist in Scotland
b) provide the best possible experience for my students in my absence

The fact that this University, like most others in the UK, now requires its Lecturing staff to be fundraisers and is willing to pay them to be absent from teaching as a result, should be the focus of this debate.

At least now, thanks to you all, I have ticked the Creative Scotland’s ‘Public Engagement’ box, I can get on with the real work.

 

So the £15,000 will be (or already has been) given to Duncan of Jordanstone College to allow them to hire someone to replace Harrison for a year. The application itself was written to satisfy her employer’s requirements. Obtaining this funding and carrying out this project allows Harrison to continue in her lecturing role. Fair enough… but how is this not “seeking funding related to [her] educational role”? And if the funding she sought *is* related to her educational role, then by Creative Scotland’s own rules her application shouldn’t even have been assessed.

Creative Scotland put out a statement in support of Ellie Harrison yesterday. Here it is (again, emphasis mine):

 

Regarding the current debate around Ellie Harrison’s project…

Ellie is a recognised artist with an MA with Distinction from the Glasgow School of Art. Her idea, articulated in a strong proposal with the working title “Think Global, Act Local”, met all the criteria for Open Project Funding. It focused on exploring whether it’s possible for an artist to generate an existence for themselves by living, working and contributing to a single community, as opposed to being constantly on the road because of the need to earn money from commissions from different places that incur costly travel and accommodation costs and high carbon footprint usage.

Ellie’s project is based on the premise that if society wishes to achieve global change, then individuals have to be more active within their communities at a local level. In restricting herself to staying within the city boundaries she is keen to explore what impact this will have her on her life and on her work as an artist with national and international commitments.

Our funding will support Ellie’s creative practice in Glasgow and we will be interested to see how the project progresses. As part of our funding conditions we will require an evaluation of the project once it is completed.

 

So according to Creative Scotland, The Glasgow Effect fits the Open Project Funding criteria. Which either means that CS isn’t au fait with its own criteria, or that artists *can* apply for funding that relates to their academic roles, in which case they need to rewrite their guidelines more accurately.

 

 

 

That said, Creative Scotland makes no mention of the money going to Harrison’s college and their way of putting things seems contrary to hers. I wonder if they’re actually aware of how it’s being used? They should be, since artists have to present a projected budget when they apply for funding (while the text of the application can be seen here, the budget was not included along with the other supporting documents). But again, if they are aware that the funds are going straight to Duncan of Jordanstone, how do they reconcile that with stating that Open Project Funding can’t be used for anything relating to an artist’s academic role?

 

 

 

I’ve put this question to Creative Scotland on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve yet to receive a reply, but then they seem to be keeping a bit of a low profile today. If I haven’t heard back by this evening I’ll email them directly, and whatever they tell me I’ll be happy to share. It’s quite possible that there’s something I’ve missed, something that allows them to bend their criteria this far, or some explanation that has passed between Harrison and Creative Scotland but hasn’t made it into the public sphere.

 

 

 

For the sake of the others who straddle art and academia, I think it’s worth pursuing an explanation. I want to find out if this funding stream, which currently looks like it’s closed to any academia-related projects, is actually more open than it appears. And I want to be reassured that Creative Scotland is being as scrupulous as it needs to be about observing its own policies…

 

 

EDIT: Creative Scotland has responded. Quoted in full:

 

Just to confirm that the £15,000 funding that was awarded to Ellie Harrison for the project, originally titled “Think Global, Act Local!”, through our Open Project Fund was to support the artist in her work on this project and the development of her creative practice. The funds will not be paid to Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design to cover the costs of her teaching post. This complies with our criteria for funding through the Open Project Funding route which states that it can be used to support “the time to research, develop or create work or content including artist’s bursaries to support practice development.”

 

Well, now I’m *really* confused. I think Creative Scotland and Ellie Harrison need to have a wee chat and figure out whose version of events they want to use in future. At best, one or other of them is incorrect about this…

 


Knowing where I stand

There are some obvious difficulties inherent in living with mental health issues. There’s the apathy, the auditory hallucinations, the need to lock the car door three times. There’s the social stigma and the knowledge that by being open about it I might well cost myself opportunities. There’s the day to day management and constant updating of my CBT skills.

But among the weirdest and more difficult things is accurately assessing the severity of the issues. If you’ve never been “normal” or non-disordered, it’s hard to figure out how far from “normal” you currently are. (The world is full of people who try to say helpful things like “there is no normal”, “everyone’s a bit weird” and “you shouldn’t pathologise emotions”. Well-intentioned, but honestly, not helpful when you’re dealing with mental health problems. Yes, everyone has their idiosyncrasies, but there’s a difference between people’s quirks and actual disorders, and identifying mental health problems is not the same as pathologising emotions.) If you’re trying to figure out when it’s time to get help, you need to have some idea of how far into disordered thinking you’ve gone. Figuring that out requires observation of other people and comparison with them – for me, at least.

The tricky thing is doing this without letting it descend into a Crazy Contest. The point is to keep tabs on my own state of mind, not to prove that I am the Craziest Crazy that ever was Crazed. The difficulty arises from the fact that it’s hard to be objective and dispassionate about my own headspace, and there aren’t many reliable external criteria to help.

When I had my first and worst breakdown, the one where I stopped talking, eating or moving unless forced, that was categorised as Severe. Severe with Catatonic Features, to be specific. What I considered “getting better”, my shrink considered “Moderate”. I haven’t experienced full-on catatonia again, and I hope I never will. (Though just as a side note, this is what I mean about the difference between handling a disorder and “pathologising emotions”. I know what profound sadness and loss feel like, and I know what catatonic depression feels like, and I can assure you that they are nothing alike. What I was being treated for back then wasn’t “having feelings”.)

As of my last assessment, it’s categorised as Mild/Moderate. This is the best the headspace has ever been, so this blows my mind in two ways. First, those terms don’t feel like they do justice to the vast gulf between how I am now and how I was then. It feels like there ought to be at least a dozen different words standing between me and catatonia. Second, if this is Mild/Moderate, then what must it feel like if you’ve only ever experienced Mild? Or if you’ve never experienced depression at all? How does that work? My earliest memories of depressive feelings and behaviour date back to when I was only two or three. I’ve never been “normal”, there has never been a time in my life where I wasn’t this way. There are, apparently, people out there who do not live with depression, and I have no idea what that feels like. I genuinely can’t even imagine what it must be like. I’m fascinated by the concept.

That said, I’m fascinated with other people’s experiences of mental health in general. It seems like everyone has either experienced mental health problems or watched someone go through them at close quarters. It surprises me how many people I’ve met who have been hospitalised at some point. Bizarre as it may seem, the fact that I’ve never had to have inpatient treatment is one of those things which, in my darker moments, causes me to question the legitimacy of my own disorder. The “logic” runs this way: If I’ve never been hospitalised then I can’t have been all that bad, in which case my depression (etc.) is much less severe than theirs. Same thing with suicide attempts, I’ve never been caught in the attempt or ended up in hospital, so my depression can’t have been that bad.

Of course, that doesn’t take account of the fact that when I was catatonic, I probably should have been in hospital. If my mum hadn’t been able to take care of me, that’s where I would have been. Well, in hospital or dead. When I lived alone there was always an undercurrent of worry in my mind in case I misjudged myself and ended up catatonic again before I sought the right kind of help. I’ve always tended to go to ground when my headspace isn’t good, so it wasn’t unusual for me to vanish every so often. If I had slipped, I could have succeeded in starving myself to death. Would I have been far enough gone to merit hospital treatment? Yes. Would I have caused my own death without ever having been hospitalised or having any record of suicide attempts? Yes. So presumably these things are not good yardsticks for severity. They’re not legitimising experiences, they’re just experiences that people might have had depending on their circumstances. It’s a lot easier to end up getting sectioned if you have a disorder that causes you to behave strangely in front of other people. Disorders that manifest in withdrawal and introversion make it easy just to waste away unnoticed. That this could have been my lot still frightens me. That’s the thing I am guarding against.

On the flip side of this, I sometimes read  or hear about other people’s experiences and they seem milder than what I’m used to. I work hard to listen and read without judgement, but it’s an emotional topic connected to a strong fear, and I would be lying if I said that I’d never had a rogue thought along the lines of “Pfft, low moods, that’s nothing. Come and talk to me when you can’t feel anything at all, then you’ll know what real depression feels like!”

This is nonsense, of course Different people experience different levels of severity. I know that. I understand it. That’s why there are different categories. Also, catatonic depression isn’t the only legitimate form of depression. I’m aware of all of this. But when you’re dealing with mental health issues, it’s a constant battle to be taken seriously (both by myself and by other people) and to accept my own diagnosis and experiences as legitimate. When I feel myself slipping and decide to seek help, I feel bad about taking up my GP’s time because there’s still a part of me that doesn’t really accept that there’s a whole realm of depression that lies between “fine” and “catatonic”, and that I don’t have to be unable to function in order to justify asking for help.

This is why I feel it’s important for people to speak openly about their mental health, if they can. The more people there are talking about it, the better equipped we as a society will become to talk about it (I hope). The better equipped we are, the easier it will be to assess our own mental health and gauge how we’re doing. I often wish that when I had my first breakdown, the internet had been further developed. I had access to it and was using it in 2000, but the blogosphere was considerably smaller and it would have been great to have had access to the range of experiences that you can find online today. Future Jen-equivalents, I hope you find this and I hope it helps.

Still, as important as I believe it is, it’s just as important for me to remember that my mental health and dead parents aren’t all there is to me. They’ve been major influences on my life and my choices, and I’ve no plans to stop writing about them, but I think that for my next post I’m going to find a less angsty topic (and by that I don’t mean arts politics, the other major strand to this blog). I’m sure I can do it if I try…


You wanna know how I got these scars?

Most people don’t notice the largest scar on my face. It hides in plain sight. It’s very pale, I’m very pale. But it’s quite long, starting about an inch above my left eye, running all the way up my forehead and ending about an inch and a half past the hairline.

The smaller facial scars are the ones that make their presence felt, because they’re the ones that interfere with the shape of my right eyebrow. It always looks a bit oddly plucked.  This annoys me far more than the deep, pale scar on my forehead.

Then there’s the scar on my left knee. It’s ugly and unmissable – or at least it would be if anyone ever saw my knees. That seldom happens. I don’t have much of a summer wardrobe, living in a place where warm weather is not abundant, but even the skimpiest of my dresses tend not to show off my legs. There’s not much about my body that makes me feel self-conscious, but the scar on my knee does. I hate it.

All of these scars are from the same incident, and they all turn ten years old today.

On the 8th of March 2005 I was involved in a five-car pile-up. I was still singing back then, and I was on my way home after a performance. The crash took place on Queensferry Road, just past the Quality Street junction heading away from town. Having grown up in the north-west of Edinburgh, it’s one of those places that has always been part of the landscape of my life.

At about 23.30, someone swerved out from his side of the road and onto mine. Despite the time of night, the road was busy. There was no evasive action I could take. All I could do was brake and hope.

The approaching car hit me. The car behind hit me. Apparently two other cars hit mine as well, though I don’t know how. My awareness ends with approaching headlights and the thought “I fucking refuse to die here” and resumes in the wreckage, watching blood dripping onto the airbag and realising it could only be mine. My passenger door was open and someone was telling me to stay calm and wait to be cut out of the car.

With impeccable shock-logic, I reasoned that if I didn’t have to be cut out there might be some chance that my car – my Mum’s car – might be saved. So I unbuckled my seatbelt and climbed out. Via the passenger door, because mine was staved in. As I hauled myself out I noticed that my left wrist was probably broken. Didn’t clock the multiple pelvic fractures, though. I staggered around for quite a while, trying to get someone to tell me what had happened and whether it was my fault (at this point I couldn’t remember the events prior to impact), before the paramedics arrived.

The twenty minutes or so that I spent in that ambulance were among the worst in my life. I was bleeding, frightened, in pain – and when the paramedic asked me if they should call someone, I had no answer. I desperately wanted my Mum and Dad, but Mum had been dead for over a year and Dad for eight months. Instead I lay there, trying not to freak out as they strapped me into the neck brace, and wondered what time it was and which of my friends would not mind being disturbed. I knew I was nobody’s first priority. It was an incredibly lonely certainty. I asked them to call the friend I had given a lift to that night, on the grounds that she would probably still be up, then I channeled my fear and loneliness into bickering with the paramedics about how long it would take us to get to the hospital. They said ten minutes. I said that from Queensferry Road to the ERI with a head trauma patient was never ten minutes. I had some vague memory of Mum telling me that ambulances don’t speed or put the siren on when the patient has head trauma, and I knew exactly how quickly you could get to the hospital, whether by staying within the speed limit or by breaking it, thanks to Dad’s tests and then his stroke. In those facts, in that knowledge, there was a little bit of them. It was the best I was going to get. Those poor paramedics…

What followed was a jumbled, nightmarish experience. In that overheated A&E ward I drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I’d come to and someone would be doing something – plastering or stitching me up, wheeling me off for scans, taking blood. They took blood so many times. I was terrified that they’d found the same cancer in me that killed my parents. I had been warned that I might have it too and opted not to be tested. They kept taking my blood and not telling me why, and I was sure that they were making certain before telling me I was going to die. I didn’t have cancer, of course. I’m still here. It was just bad luck that my first couple of vials got contaminated.

By the end of the night, as the shock and morphine began to wear off, I knew that I had been in a crash with a combined speed of 100mph. I had five pelvic fractures, damage to my pubic bone and sacrum, my left wrist was broken and had been re-set, the laceration in my knee went all the way to the joint, glass had been removed from my right eyebrow area, and my forehead had been split open. Apparently my skull was visible, but no-one would give me a mirror. I can understand why, but honestly – how many chances am I going to get to see my own skull? Hopefully not many, but I would have been really interested to see it while it could be seen.

Scar 1

The doctors who treated me expected me to be in hospital for at least a month. I was having none of that. The hospital smelled of nightmares. The last time I had been there was when Dad had his stroke and I spent two days waiting for him to die (which sounds brutal, but we knew about the terminal cancer so swift death from a stroke seemed like a far kinder option). I wasn’t going to spend a minute longer in that place than I had to.

I forced myself back onto my feet and was home a week later. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. I might have avoided some of the permanent damage if I’d stayed in. But… I couldn’t. Not that being at home was much better, in a hastily set-up bedroom in what was usually the dining room. That was where we had laid out Mum’s coffin. To me, it always smelled of formaldehyde. I managed two nights in there before I became convinced that if I stayed there I was going to die too and started dragging myself up the stairs to my own bed. I had specifically promised the doctors I wouldn’t do that, but needs must. I had thought that I’d have someone to take care of me while I got back on my feet, but… well, let’s just say that I learned a few excruciatingly hard lessons about trust after I came home from hospital. I was on my own, negotiating the house with a crutch in one hand, a cast on the other and a massive feeling of being kicked while I was down.

I healed, mostly. The facial scarring, as I’ve said, healed cleanly. The one on my knee stayed hideous, but easy enough to conceal. I never regained full strength in my left wrist, there was some permanent damage to my lower back and my neck, and I was left with involuntary eye movement and deteriorating vision after the head injury. I haven’t needed a walking stick for crash-related reasons since 2007. My confidence didn’t recover, though. I learned how alone I was. I learned a very particular kind of fear. It threw everything I had lost into sharp focus. And even now, ten years later, I can’t stand the sound of car crashes in films and TV shows. If I don’t see the crash coming and cover my ears in time, the trauma reaction kicks in and I start twitching like a fucking idiot and have to fight not to scream.

That’s quite a legacy for someone’s brief fuck-up. To this day, I do not know why it happened. I don’t know whether the other driver was high, suicidal or having a seizure at the wheel. I don’t know whether he was suspended or banned from driving. All I know is that he was male, speeding, alone in the car, and he escaped with just bruises. That’s what I got from the police and hospital staff. I don’t even know whether I should be angry for him or sorry for him. All I know is that something this person did, voluntarily or otherwise, left me with damage that will be with me for the rest of my life. Scars on my face, my leg and my psyche, and I still don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it.

Scar 2

 

At least I could feel legitimately insulted by the compensation I was offered. Someone – his insurance company? – offered me £440 to compensate me for my medical expenses. I set the cheque on fire. £440 barely covered the amount I had to spend on getting to and from the hospital for cast removal, stitch removal, physio and god knows that else. It did nothing to cover the ongoing physio or my glasses or contact lenses. Those are costs I’ll always have to meet out of my own pocket, because someone drove his car into mine. I could have fought for more, but I was a traumatised 22 year old with no family and no-one who would support me through that process. I just couldn’t deal with the paperwork. I couldn’t handle reliving it and having the validity and severity of my injuries questioned. Dealing with the horrible, arbitrary nature of what had recently happened was enough, and if someone, somewhere was willing to price my well-being so low… fuck them.

Ten years on, I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this. I feel the need to mark the day, almost to the minute. I need to remember what happened and how it felt, and how difficult it has been to set aside over the years. The reminder of the car crash is there every single time I look in the mirror. Facial scarring is strange. I’m incredibly lucky that it wasn’t disfiguring. It so easily could have been. But even so… it’s my face. Mine. My visual identity. And it’s got this big line down it because someone caused me to get hurt.

I choose to own it. Back in the ghost tour days I used to rub lipstick into it to make it look recent and livid, because it freaked people out. I knew it had the capacity to freak people out. When people do notice it, it’s ghoulish. I went to the release of the last Harry Potter book with my scar proudly displayed because sometimes you just have to make the joke before anyone else does (and believe me, when the scar was still easily visible I heard every fucking Harry Potter joke ever). I part my hair in line with the scar. I refuse to hide it. It’s barely visible, but I’d rather leave it available to be seen than brush my hair over it and look like I’m trying to hide it.

Bizarrely, I sometimes catch myself wishing that the scar had not faded quite so perfectly. Sometimes I wish it had stayed visible so that it didn’t look like I’d made an effort to conceal it. I haven’t, and I never did. The scar is a visual signifier for something I haven’t forgiven or forgotten, something I probably should forgive and forget but I don’t know how, because I don’t understand the event itself. If I could just be angry about it or just know that it wasn’t his fault, I could feel something fairly. Instead I feel nothing but confusion and pain, even now. I would probably have let go of the emotional pain years ago, were it not for the literal, physical pain that accompanies it. I feel the pain, it makes me angry, and all the feelings come flooding back.

I’m not sure I want to let go of the anger, anyway. Destructive and unhealthy it might be, but it’s mine. When I began to let go of the anger regarding the bereavements, what I found underneath was something much more complicated and harder to deal with. I don’t know if this would be the same. It might not be. But if it is… it’s easier to be angry. I know how to do that. I’ve mastered the art of a nice, passive rage that sits below the surface, kept at bay until I need it. Any time it starts to burn a little low, I can look in the mirror and the scar is right there to refuel it. Long, white, less visible than it was, but clear enough. A reminder of 2003 – 2005, and the last of the three events that hurt me badly and shaped the course of my life. The last of the Decade.

Scar 3

(This was taken earlier today. Ignore the facial expressions, this is what we call “resting brunch face”. It’s just that the scar was noticeable, and it prompted this post so I thought I should include it.)


After the detour…

Hello, blog. Long time no write.

I’m still here, I’m still alive, and I’ve been meaning to update for just over a year. So why haven’t I?

2014 took its toll. Well, from October 2013 onwards, really. It’s nothing I haven’t mentioned before, just the usual Dead Parents stuff. Hence not writing about it. Hence the constant desire to write about it curtailed by angst about writing about it. Am I making sense yet? Probably not. This is why I’ve been so quiet.

I was expecting the anniversaries to be something of a problem. Perhaps that was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but perhaps it had to be. As I’ve said previously, I’ve always struggled to balance the desire to move on from the grief with the necessity of making that grief mean something. If the grief means something, if their deaths were truly significant in my life, then the anniversaries had to hurt me, and the more it meant the worse the pain had to be. Self-inflicted? Partly self-inflicted? A natural consequence, but one I need to feel that I could, in theory control so I convince myself it’s self-inflicted? I have no idea. Honestly, I have absolutely no clue how much of the pain I generate myself and how much is an inevitable result of the pain of bereavement. I can analyse, I can guess, but I can’t step far enough away from myself to get a clear view.

However, while I may not be able to get enough distance from myself, I finally have enough distance from the events. At last I can start to look at that period as a whole – which I need to do in order to lay claim to what happened and turn it into something I can use and take ownership of, rather than something that controls me. But it’s something I can’t do without feeling it all over again. Essentially, over the course of 2014 I had a very quiet, gradual and protracted version of the breakdown I probably ought to have had in 2005.

This manifested as paralysis and lockdown, which is typical for me. Back in the aftermath of the bereavements/injuries I would move between periods of being apparently functional and periods of shutting the world out. During the former, it looked like I was coping. In fact it was the lockdowns that were keeping me going and allowing me to process things. Making myself look functional has always been how I’ve outrun emotions and pain.

The trouble with pain is that it’s so bloody overwhelming. I can feel my way through it, learn to understand it and eventually control it, but doing so is all-consuming. I can’t do it and have a social life. I can do it and work, because I can plough all the emotional stuff into my writing. Fictional characters make excellent receptacles for anguish, and they’re great company. Other aspects of my work, specifically the ones involving human interaction, are less easy to integrate. Putting words in the mouths of non-existent people is fine, but conversing with real ones, whether in writing or in person, is harder. They’re a lot less easy to control, and when I’m trying to manage the pain I don’t have much room left over for uncontrollable things.

Which brings me back to why I’ve been so silent here. Firstly, I’ve written plenty about the Dead Parents and the grief here. There’s nothing more to be said. Except that there’s everything still to be said, so much that if I wrote a thousand posts I could barely scratch the surface. It’s futile and/or necessary, and either way it’s overwhelming. It’s self-indulgent and therefore unjustifiable, and/or it’s helpful to other people and therefore more responsibility and consequence than I can handle just now.

I’ve meant to write, and I’ve wanted to write, and again and again I’ve thought “I must write about this”. Then I’ve opened WordPress and found that I couldn’t. This is what I do with emails, too. I know who I need to contact. I plan the content meticulously in my head, then I open Gmail and can’t touch the keys. There’s no point, it’s all been said, or it hasn’t but either way the interaction will take up more energy than I have and it will make the pain worse. I really don’t want the pain to be worse.

So that’s what’s been happening. But now there are things I need to use this blog for, and I’ve started a project elsewhere that will (I think, or at least I hope) let me balance the pain and the output in a useful way. Cryptic? Hell yes, because I haven’t decided whether I’m telling people the specifics of the new project yet. It might just be for me, for the present at least.

Time to start writing here again. I can just about deal with interaction again. I think. We’ll find out. Welcome back to the Scenic Route.


The Tyranny of the Telephone

The internet can be a daunting, even terrifying place, but there are times when I’m incredibly glad to have access to it. In particular, I find it very comforting to be brought into contact with other people who share the same apparently unusual behaviours as me. For a long time I wondered whether I was the only person who was genuinely terrified of the phone. By being open about my hatred of phones online, I discovered that it was a surprisingly common fear – amongst my friends, at least.

Have I always been this way? Yes, for as long as I can remember. It was easier back in the days when I was very small and being taught to answer the phone when it rang. The deal was that I could answer provided I said “Hello, how may I help you?”, answered any direct questions and then handed the phone over to Mum or Dad. At that stage I didn’ t have to worry about actually making the calls. As I got older and was expected to have actual conversations with the people who called, or – worse – to call people myself, the anxiety began to set in.

What am I scared of? Being judged and getting things wrong, mostly. Like the writer of this article – http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2013/08/why-are-you-calling-my-texting-device/ – I don’t always find it easy to hear exactly what people are saying on the phone. I’m very sensitive to background noise, and anything with more bass than a human voice will drown out whoever I’m talking to. I also find that hearing someone’s voice when I can’t see their body language and facial expression is like reading a letter with every third word blanked out. It’s a confusing experience and I find it difficult to trust disembodied voices on the ends of phones. Unless I’m talking to someone I know, really, really well (and sometimes even then), my stupid depressive conviction that everyone hates me tries to get out of control.

However, when I was younger it was easier just to shut my anxieties up and get on with things. I could talk myself through the fear, doing a kind of rudimentary CBT. I still hated it when I called my friends and their family members answered because that interfered with the script in my head, but I could do it without having a meltdown. I was never exactly comfortable with phones, but I could deal with them and even have long conversations with people I knew well. Then, as with so many other fears of mine, the trouble really began when my parents died.

To be absolutely precise, the trouble began when Dad was dying. My mum went quickly from diagnosis to death, and for the couple of weeks that she was in hospital we barely left her. Dad and I would dash home to wash, change clothes, top up our supply of cornflakes and peppermint tea for her and then go back. When Dad got diagnosed he was at a much earlier stage, so the plan was for life to go on as normal until the need for palliative care grew more pressing. A few days after he came home from hospital, he had a stroke and ended up right back there.

When Dad and I arrived at A&E I was warned that he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He did. Then I was warned he probably wouldn’t make it through the next 48 hours. He did. I snatched a few hours’ of sleep in some unoccupied doctors’ quarters but didn’t dare go further away than that. After day three, the doctors encouraged me to go home, get some sleep, spend a bit of time outside the hospital. After I’d been home for some sleep and a shower, I went shopping. Specifically, I went looking for the kind of yoghurts my dad liked. As I pulled into the driveway, my aunt came and told me that the hospital had phoned and it was that “come at once” call. I went tearing across the city, terrified that I might be too late.

I wasn’t. Dad would survive for another four months, but throughout that time he would not only be dying of cancer, he would be at risk of a secondary stroke which would probably kill him. Since he was partly paralysed and I couldn’t handle caring for him on my own at home, he was transferred to the hospice. I practically lived at the hospice until he died, but I still had to go home for showers, changes of clothes and occasional time off and nights in a bed rather than a chair. My home phone and mobile numbers were written in large letters on a pinboard in my dad’s room and I have never been more diligent about keeping my phone charged. Every time I left the hospice I was just waiting for my phone to ring, dreading that it would be the call telling me to come back because we were at the end – or worse, the call telling me that I could take my time because it was too late.

As it happened, my dad never had another stroke. In fact, he made an incredibly impressive recovery from the first stroke. It was truly galling to watch him battling to regain his vocabulary, his diction, use of his right hand, while at the same time watching him wasting away as the cancer took hold. (He even got as far as being able to recall most people’s names accurately, though he always confused mine and Mum’s. That was painful.) He died slowly, his body shutting down bit by bit, and I was with him throughout it. But even though I never got that call telling me he’d had a second stroke, the fear of it never left me. I learned to associate ringing phones with bad news, and that’s why my mobile lives on silent.

After Dad died I was subjected to harassing phone calls on the house phone for some considerable time. That didn’t really help with the phone fears. Upwards of five times a day, any time from morning until the small hours, a particular member of my family would call and leave long, rambling, often threatening messages on my answering machine. (In retrospect I should have reported it to the police, but it’s amazing what you don’t do when you’re newly orphaned and made promises to your parents. Or I should have changed my number, but I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be in that house for much longer and I would change my number when I moved. To change my number would have been an admission that I wasn’t getting out my dead parents’ house any time soon.)

So, none of these things really helped me to deal with the existing fear of phones. I have mad CBT skills, but it’s an inadequate weapon against this particular demon. When my phone rings I am convinced of the following things:

1) Someone I love is dead/dying.

2) Failing that, someone I love now hates me.

3) Failing that, I am in some kind of massive trouble with someone over something.

4) Failing all of those, the person who used to leave those message has found me again. (This one is why I NEVER answer calls from numbers I don’t know or withheld numbers. EVER. My job makes it necessary for me to have my contact details available, which means that occasional calls from unknown numbers are inevitable, but that’s why I have voicemail. If a client leaves me a voicemail I expect that they’ll leave their name and ask me to call them back. If a friend leaves me a voicemail I expect it to be an emergency, because they all know everything I’ve written in this post and that I don’t appreciate being put through the phone fear unless something is wrong. Friends who want to chat to me know to text me first so I’m expecting their call. People who call from an unknown number and don’t leave a voicemail… I HATE THEM ALL. When that happens, I get those joyful feelings of “they’ve found me, it’s all going to start again, how much do they know, have they found where I live, am I going to have to change my number/move/call the police”. And this goes on for ages, just because some people won’t leave a fucking message. Thanks! Thank you so much! I love reliving traumatic experiences just because it’s too much work to say “This is X, I’m calling about Y, please call me back.” If it’s important enough to warrant a phone call, it’s important enough to leave a message. If it’s not important enough to leave a message, why are you calling me in the first place?)

This is why I love email. And Facebook. And Twitter. And video calling on Skype. And blogging. And texting. And pretty much anything else that means I can communicate with people without phone calls. Nothing beats a face to face conversation, of course, but if that’s not an option I’d rather use pretty much any means of communication rather than the phone.

There’s more to explore here, so I will revisit this subject at some point – as always, I’ve written until I couldn’t write any more and need to step away from this topic for a bit. The external influences on my fear are pretty clear, but it would be easy to get stuck on them and not look at the root causes. There are issues here concerning control, feeling unable to communicate with people, feeling that people are incredibly difficult to understand but that I have to keep trying and trying to do so. All the things that pushed me towards theatre, essentially. Though, sadly, I don’t think that “don’t phone me, just write me a play and I’ll write you one back” will ever catch on.