Thursday, 5 July 2012

Why put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today?

I have seen a few therapists over the last few years as I have been diagnosed as suffering from both anxiety attacks and depression. The anxiety attacks became so bad that I couldn't go to work. It was the most awful thing ever and I felt so helpless. I'm very lucky that in my area the provision for mental health care is actually rather good (comparatively speaking) and I was referred for counselling with what is known as 'Talking Therapies'. Essentially this is a service designed to offer a 'quick fix' to people who need help to get them back to work and cope with everyday life. It is primarily based around teaching the patient CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) techniques so that they can manage their mood by changing how they think about things and deal with situations.

Panic attacks are a very natural response.....
Imagine you are a caveman and you are out collecting wood for your fire. A bear approaches. Your heart beats faster, you might feel sick, sweat etc. This is your body warning you that there is a very real threat. You then have two options. This is known as the 'fight or flight response' and is a very basic, instinctive reaction. You either stay and fight the bear, or you run for your life! Getting it right could be the difference between life and death. So the caveman makes a very instinctive decision. He assesses the threat (the bear) and he then assesses his ability to cope with that threat (his strength, weapons etc) and makes a snap decision to either stay and fight or to turn around and run. Got the idea?
Now there are few occasions in a modern world when we have a true need for the fight or flight response. We mostly have sedentary lifestyles, work in offices and our employers are covered by so much legislation and red tape that we are mostly protected from life endangering situations. We no longer have to hunt for our own food and live in the wild. Ergo, the fight or flight response is not needed as much as it did in the days of the caveman.  In people suffering from anxiety/panic attacks, the individual comes across an everyday situation and somehow they feel panic.  There are various ideas about why the panic occurs.  Sometimes it can be a response to a one-off trauma.  For instance, you have a car accident on a specific road and each time you go along the same road you believe the road poses the same risk as it did on a previous occasion. Other theories suggest that it may be from over-stimulation of specific hormones.

So in people who suffer from panic attacks, they come across certain situations, consider the situation a threat to the point of exaggerating the enormity of the threat, then they underplay their ability to cope with that threat.  The see-saw effect of this combination is what creates the panic attack.  What CBT does is firstly help you to identify the sensations that alert you to the attack. Next you are taught how to identify the root cause of the threat - what the counsellors often call 'the hot thought'. Once you have identified the 'hot thought' , you are taught how to rationalise yourself through the panic by challenging it.  This often means questioning the validity of your instinctive beliefs and can be quite tricky to work through. Finally, you are then encouraged to  teach yourself a different response.  The idea is that eventually by forcing yourself to challenge your thought process and try something different, you realise that the situation was not life threatening and your confidence and ability to cope grows.  As your confidence grows, the threat diminishes in size.  When this is challenged by the individual often enough, it becomes a 'learned response/conditioned reflex' (see Pavlov's Dog experiment! -  Eventually balance is restored.

In my particular case, I've finally identified that my hot thoughts (or triggers) normally originate in my feeling that 'people always leave me' (abandonment) or that 'I'm not good enough'. Whenever I a situation occurs that reinforces either of these deep rooted beliefs of mine, it triggers my panic.

The next step for me is being able to challenge these deep rooted beliefs, however these beliefs are so ingrained that its not so easy to suddenly convince myself that these thoughts are irrational.  This is  what I'm currently working on. :-)

I guess the moral of today's blog is Carpe diem.

 Challenging the 'hot thought'  - This is the worksheet used to challenge 'hot thoughts'.

Monday, 7 May 2012

A Friend In Need

Had such a strange week really. I've been surprised at my strength, resolve and determination this last few days. I haven't felt this strong in such a long time. I guess I've come a long way since I began my journey, though I recognise I have a long way yet to go. I'm not entirely sure whether that's because I'm medicating or whether it's because I'm healing. Perhaps it's a little of both.

So what's changed? A friend called me the other day. I had noticed I'd missed her call so I called her back. She really didn't sound herself. When I asked if everything was ok, she hesitated, before breaking the news to me. She and her husband have decided to divorce. I was the second person she told. I was so shocked. Never have I known such a lovely couple. I have never witnessed them arguing, and they seemed like such a perfect match. They are both dear friends of ours and I was so sad to hear of their decision.

The reality is, there doesn't seem to be a specific issue that has caused this. When we talked about it, there were some small matters, but I guess ultimately the reason was related to children. My friend and her husband both wanted children, yet haven't any. I delicately asked about the situation and my friend explained that she loves her husband, he is very intelligent and she is so very close to him, she says her husband is kind (I agree) and that they are (and intend to remain) the best of friends. They have no financial worries. My friend confirmed that they both wanted children however she had told her husband she didn't want one. Why? Simply, she knows that she would be almost solely responsible for bringing up any child. That, despite being kind, he is simply oblivious to the day to day running of their affairs. She amplified her point of view by saying that he doesn't know how to work the washing machine, or even which drawer to place the detergent in. Nor does he even know how they pay for their bills. They come from their joint account however he had no idea they were paid by direct debit. He also wouldn't know when their dog was due to have its vaccinations. These were just a few of the examples she provided. Now my friend is not afraid of hard work. She works full time, and has a good social life too. She knows if she had a baby, she would be unable to 'rely' on her husband to help her and she just doesn't want to go it alone. Yes, she admits she could ask him and he would do it, however she doesn't want to be in the situation of having to ask her husband to do such things.

It's really such a tragedy. I totally understand what she is saying. When I finally asked her did she just not want children, or was it that she just didn't want them with her husband; she confirmed it was the latter.

So they have agreed (after discussing this over the course of their 14 years of marriage) that they will divorce. Despite my friend saying this is the right decision, she is desperately sad. Combined with worrying that she may end up a lonely old spinster, she has never lived alone. She lived with her parents until she met and married her husband. She is such a strong capable woman and I know she will cope, yet I could see her sadness and watched her cry. I spent all of Sunday with her. We talked. We cuddled. We cried together. We reminisced together. We laughed together. THIS is what friendship is about. My friend needed me, and despite our own troubles, we were there for each other. I guess it was this that has given me strength this week. I may be finding things tough at the moment, but then so are others. I am so very fortunate that I have a good friend in her. She is here for me. I know she feels the same way about me being there for her. No matter how tough things are, I am lucky to have her around and others like her.

There is nothing like trying to help a friend to make you forget your own troubles for a while. It is such a wonderfully cathartic experience.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Dulce et decorum est?

1st May was my Dad's birthday. That means on Tuesday he would have been 60. He always said he could never imagine himself being old.

I have such mixed feelings about his birthday. I feel a strange mixture of anger and relief. Anger at him for choosing to die rather than live. Were we not important enough? And relief, that he is not here. Was he a coward?or did he genuinely believe he was protecting his family by taking his own life?

You hear of people being asked at an interview about if they could invite one guest to dinner, dead or alive, who would it be? In my case, I think I'd invite my Dad. I'd want to ask him so many questions. Tie up all the loose ends that seem to circulate forever in my head.

When he died, my mum originally told me he died of a heart attack. This wasn't strictly true. He committed suicide and died from carbon monoxide poisoning. I didn't find out he had killed himself until I became 16.

The story leading up to that is too long for one blog entry. That day though has had a profound effect on his widow and each of his children and even on other people who didn't even know him. It's crazy to imagine that his death 24 years ago is still impacting on the people we are today.

That Saturday, I was watching tv in our living room. I remember it so well. Wet Wet Wet was my favourite band. They had just released a new track - Angel Eyes. My Dad was mad about his music. He had a record collection that was the envy of all my schoolfriends. He used to make up 'tapes' for people he knew. This was when we still played vinyl and just a few years after the invention of the 'auto-reverse' Sony Walkman (for the uninitiated, this meant you didn't need to take the tape out and turn it over)! So, lead singer, Marti Pellow was talking about his musical influences and referred to his love of Tamla Motown. My Dad and I had been teasing each other for some time about the influence for this song and that morning he had finally been proven correct. Anyway, we were kids, it was Saturday morning tv and we barely looked up as he said goodbye and left the house. Something I have regretted ever since.

In our house, chores were split amongst the kids in return for pocket money. The chores were also rotated to avoid arguments. It wasn't until my brother went to vacuum the carpet that mum realised something was very wrong. The hose that was used for the staircase was missing.

It wasn't until later that afternoon, that the reason for its disappearance became apparent, although my mum had her suspicions. Sometime around 3 or 4pm the police showed up at the door to break the news that my dad was dead. He had committed suicide by attaching the vacuum cleaner hose to the exhaust pipe of the car. When he turned on the engine he administered himself a lethal dose of carbon monoxide into his airways. His car had been found by a passer-by, on a country lane, not too far from his place of work. It's strange the things that you think of at a time like his. I remember wondering whether he had been listening to one of his tapes as he died. If so, which song was playing?

For two years we (his children) lived in ignorance of all this. My mum kept the burden between herself and a few close family members - to spare everyone else the heartache she knew it would cause.

So, back to the present day. Why do I feel a mixture of anger and relief that he left us? Well I feel anger that he left my mum with the sole responsibility to raise us. Left her a widow at such a young age and that he put us through the pain of having to grieve for him. I'm also angry at him because I feel like I have so many unanswered questions. As for the relief, that comes down to his motivation for choosing to commit suicide in the first place. If he had lived, I'm certain life would have been quite different to how it had been until that point. The point is this though; our lives changed the day he died anyway so he didn't spare us that by killing himself. We still went through hard times adjusting to what happened. At least if he had been alive, things may have changed but at least there would be an opportunity for us to have answer to the many questions that still remain. That being said, if he had lived, we would have had to deal with the many repercussions. I still think that the option that I'd have chosen would have been for him to live and face the consequence of his actions.

Instead, he took what I consider to be the easy way out. The coward's way. (More on that later.) He ran away from it all and chose death over his family. His actions were selfish.


Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Always on my mind.

It's been a very long time since I've written on here. After chatting to a friend who recently started up their own blog, I reflected upon this and decided to return and start updating my own blog more regularly. I hope to update it - at least on a weekly basis.

In the scale of my mental health, April is usually a very bad month for me. For most people, April means springtime, improving moods and weather, and the growth of new things. For me, and since I was 14, April has been a month of sorrow. On 23rd of April 1988, my father committed suicide. He was 35 years old and would have turned 36 little over a week later. My mum became a widow at the age of 35, I was 14, my brother 12 and my sister just 10. Overnight we went from being a large family with foster siblings to a family of one adult and three children.

So why am I telling you all this? Well I guess I've spent a lot of the last few years thinking about this event, and how it has made me much of the person I am today.

In previous years I have marked my father's passing on his anniversary (yesterday was his anniversary). This year has been quite different. Upon reflection, I think my Dad was actually a very selfish man and he hurt many people. Yes, he was/is still my Dad, but it's important to remember all the parts of him and not just the rose-tinted view that I think death often promotes in us.

This year, I decided to focus on the living. I decided to thank my mum for being so wonderful. She really is the strongest person I know. It's hard to comprehend that she was younger than I am now when she became widowed and had to bring up her three children, single-handedly. I love my brother and sister so very much too. We are a close family who now have a very unusual bond. My Dad's death has affected each of us in our own way, but there is no doubt it has impacted upon the lives of each of us.

So yesterday, instead of the usual moping about and general relief that the anniversary has finally arrived and is almost over, I decided to take my son out to the cinema for the day. I switched off my mobile (for once) and focused very much on the people around me. We had a lovely day and it gave me pause for thought about how my father's death has influenced my behaviour (more to follow in a future blog I'm sure). My friends are amazing. I had no less than 45 comments about my Dad's anniversary on my Facebook page. So many kind people who wanted to let me know they were thinking about me.

If you're reading this, how has the death of a loved one affected you? How do you mark their passing? Has it made you consider your own mortality? Have you even planned your own funeral? What do you think of suicide? Are people who commit suicide being selfish and cowardly, are they simply very unwell or are they being incredibly brave and may be doing us a service in some way?

So how has his death affected me? It has made me less trusting. I want to love freely and without the burden of fearing that those I love will leave me someday. That fear often leads to irrational behaviour on my part to 'keep' close those people I care for, and is often the cause for them leaving me too. I also think I tend to blame myself for things that I shouldn't. Something happens and I apologise because I'm so anxious to please people and keep them from leaving me. I'm sure that sounds rather desperate however I really don't think my friends would say I'm like that. On the plus side, I seem to have a heightened sense of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. I consider everything in the minutest of detail. I hate hurting people and most of all I loathe liars. I'm extremely loyal. Most of all, when I feel loved I become less harsh and a lot more content with myself and life.

In summary, please take care of those you love. Please don't take what you have for granted, love those who love you and don't waste time thinking about those who don't. Remember we work to live, not live to work. Remember to tell those that you love that you do.

Thanks to those who bring sunshine into my life at the times when it feels like there is no light.

'Maybe I didn't treat you, quite as good as I should have
Maybe I didn't love you, quite as often as I should
Little things I should have said and done, but I never took the time
You are always on my mind, you are always on my mind'

Chalk x