Yesterday, alongside all my troubles being far away, I went to visit Body Worlds in London. It's that exhibition of peoples bodies and it was ace. I took my 10 year old and 7 year old. We saw things like this (note no photography is allowed hence the poor quality 'sneaky' pic'.
As well as having lots of 'body' things, it had lots of 'brain' things too. I realise of course that your brain is part of your body but I think we very easily forget and seperate the two and don't understand or appreciate the impact the brain can have on the body. For example, I was told recently not to be anxious about something, I wish my brain could have believed that and my body could have agreed. Instead a week of sleepless nights, constant fretting and worry and all the other associated symptoms ensued.
Anyway, the brain stuff and some more shaky pictures....
Stress and Strain are 2 things I learnt about in my Engineering degree.
Stress = Force / Area
The effect of that Force or pressure on an object (or a person) can be the strain it is under which is Extension / Original Length.
So (too much) Stress can cause (too much) Strain, and (too much) Strain can cause something to break. I think we understand this well if we strain a muscle or strain our back, but do we think about the strain on our brain?
If we try and lift too heavy a weight we accept and understand if something goes twang, if we put our back out and have to lay up for 6 weeks.
if we try and cope with too much force on the mind we're not so good at this.
First we need to better understand the Stress and Strain we (and the people we work with, our family, friends) are under. And then help remove some of the stress (less force (pressure) or more area (people)) and help them cope with the strain of modern life (the ability to flex, to bend, to stretch).
Some of the common symptoms that I can exhibit in times of high stress are:
- Muddled thinking
- Hasty decisions
I've noticed myself doing that a few times recently. Particularly the muddled thinking and hasty decisions.
I know it's 'not me' and I know I'm 'not thinking straight' and I also know that the cause is stress and the cause of stress is from many different things. The picture below is from the MIND website about causes of stress, I annotated it 'for fun' to highlight what I have going on at the moment.
People rarely feel or behave a certain way because they 'choose' to. It's a combination of a whole host of different factors that impact us all.
I wish my brain was 'normal'. I wish I didn't sometimes exhibit the symptoms of being stressed, anxious and depressed.
But I do, and I am and it's hard.
I just wish people understood and I didn't feel different. And that's why I do this.
Today I didn't speak until 2.30pm when a friend rang me to check how I was. This wasn't through choice (the silence I mean, not the call).
I distracted myself all day today renovating my camper van (the one I bought after the bastard e bay scammer nicked the £20k I spent on the previous one which didn't exist. I'm taking my kids camping soon so it was a job I needed to do, and 7 hours of distraction today.
Then I came indoors.
And loneliness walked back through the door.
I find it hard to shake the feeling of loneliness in my life at the moment. I can go and do things and see people which I do, but sometimes I'd like people to come see me, for me to know they care, and I'm not as lonely as my thoughts tell me I am.
When you're happy you can be lonely and it can be ok, I assume.
When you're not feeling happy, feeling anxious, low or depressed feeling lonely is one of the worst feelings in the world. You don't feel good about yourself, about what's happening in your life about whatever it is you don't feel happy about and loneliness is like a like a magnifying glass, like Popeye's spinach, like Asterix's magic potion.
It's like the most powerful Marshall Amplifier making those thoughts and feelings louder and louder. It goes up to even more numbers than Nigel Tufnels Amp.
I've got a lot happening at the moment. I could do with talking it through. But I'm lonely so the only conversation i'm having is with my thoughts, and those types of conversations don't help.
I hope you're not lonely.
When we look at how our we or our organisations are performing we rightly look at the things that are going well, we celebrate the successes and we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. This positive reflection is important for morale, for motivation for learning lessons and for lots of other reasons I can't think of.
However it's essential that we also talk about the things that need improving, the reds and ambers in the RAG status document and give an appropriate amount of time to them.
This is 'even more' important when the things we are talking about are our people, the lifeblood of the organisation, the 'resource' without which we would be able to do nothing, at least until Skynet comes in.
I sometimes get a bit (over) passionate about this and focus on the negative bit and here's why.....
If a company made wine and 20% of the bottles had glass floating in them, that company would (I hope) concentrate a lot on that 20%. I don't expect that they would spend very long talking about the 80% that are ok.
If a company made cars and 10% of them set on fire I think they'd be talking about that.
I think these decisions to focus on the bit that carries the risk are 'easy' because it's easier to understand the consequences of not doing so (injury, deaths, litigation etc).
So when we're talking about our people do we get the balance right of the effort and time we take talking about the things that are good and not so good. As I said above I completely understand that we need to talk about the good stuff and celebrate success, I'm just not sure we have the balance right when it comes to staff health, safety and wellbeing.
Mental health is often hidden, as we know. The indicators of it can be hard to spot and many people feel the stigma and don't want to talk about it. Some people feel stigmatised for their mental health even when they have been open about it.
if 1 in 4 or 25% of your family, friends or organisation was going to break their leg this year you would talk about it a lot, discuss how you could reduce that number, how you could support those people and the impact on the other 75%, who might be breaking their leg next year.
If a good chunk of that 25% had been mentioning they were a bit wobbly, were struggling, had started tripping you'd be concerned and do what you could to make sure they didn't break their leg, do some preventative things, take some action, perhaps even resource up a plan to do something.
I don't think you'd spend too long talking about the 75% of people whose legs were ok.
So why do we do that with mental health.
Anyway, I'm rambling, so back to the point i'm badly making.
Celebrate success, acknowledge what is going well, it's critically important, but get the balance right.
I know it can be difficult, because it's hard to understand because you can't see it, or no one has ever admitted to you they struggle and how it makes them feel. But it's critical we do deal with it. Sharing, being open and listening are essential to improve things. Lets make sure it's not in the too difficult box.
I read an amazing post about anxiety yesterday.
It concludes with "But more than anything anxiety is caring. It’s never wanting to hurt someone’s feelings. It’s never wanting to do something wrong. More than anything, it’s the want and need to simply be accepted and liked. So you try too hard sometimes."
I thought I could have written the article.
I care. Perhaps I care too much.
I'm writing this in a hospital waiting room waiting to have an ultrasound to check a lump. I should be focussing on myself but I can't and am working on my laptop (I have loads on at the moment) and am writing this.
It's because I really want to be liked. It's because I care about people. Often a lot more than I care about myself.
And it's anxiety that makes me feel like that.
I love the fact that I care. I love the fact that I want to do things for others. I just wish I could give a bit to myself.
The band Travis wrote a song called "Why Does It Always Rain On Me". You might know it. I don't think it's a very happy song.
It starts out with "I can't sleep tonight, everybody's saying everything is alright". That's a bit sad. He might just be an insomniac but I think he has more on his mind.
The chorus starts with "sunny days, where have you gone?" But I'm not that sure it's about the weather this song.
My favourite line in it, because it resonates with a friend of mine is this one "I can't stand myself…..I'm being held up by an invisible man"
It might be a good time to stop reading now if you like. It's not getting any better from here on this blog. Although that is the end of the Travis lyrics, but not all the lyrics.
So what this blog is really about is my friend Saul, I'm going to tell you part of his story. I’ve known Saul a long time and he confides a lot in me and agreed to me sharing.
His pressure release valve hadn't been working. When it gets like that he said that he didn't know what to do. He had so much frustration and rage and anger inside him that it had to come out or he would explode.
So he used to let it out in the only way he knew how.
And he did that by hurting himself.
He told me he first did it about 20 years ago when he punched a wall about ten times on the way home. It hurt a lot apparently and he ended the night with bloodied knuckles, but he said it helped in a strange way.
Then it became more serious for Saul about 15 years ago for a period that probably lasted 4 months. He’d been through a rough patch. Hardly anyone knows, or knew. He reckons that some people suspected at the time but swift explanations about cats scratching him and accidents with barbed wire fences seemed to be accepted.
He says he remembers how scared he got when he cut his arm deeper than he meant to.
But he also remembered the feeling of relief he experienced afterwards. And how somehow the pain got out of him. Saul told me how he remembered how feeling the pain escape was better than the feelings in his head beforehand.
He wrote me a letter at the time which I remember well as it included the line 'I cut myself and watch me bleed, my anger subsides and so does my need'. That captured how he felt in a nutshell. It was like a weight was lifted for him. Turning the emotional hurt into physical hurt helped, people understand that, he could understand that.
Sometimes hurting himself was the only way Saul knew how to cope with feelings like sadness, self-loathing, emptiness, guilt, and rage.
It's helped him feel in control.
It's helped him not feel numb. Not feel like an empty shell. To actually make him feel something.
It helped. But he hardly ever told anyone because they wouldn't understand.
I was worried about Saul. But he told me not to be and that he didn't do it for sympathy and he didn't want people to worry. He also made it very clear that he didn't want to die. He had just found a different way to cope with life when it was tough. And he wanted to cope with it. And to live. He didn't know how else to cope.
Saul isn't mad or mental or crazy, or whatever term people may choose to use. And he certainly isn't dangerous as the only person he would ever ever hurt is himself. But he does understand him hurting himself can hurt others emotionally for a number of reasons, because they care for him and he causes them to worry about him.
And he hates hurting other people.
If you know him he doesn't need you to call anyone or rush round. He really doesn't. He only let me share this as he thought it might help some people who know him understand him better.
Saul is still just Saul. But you now know a secret he's been carrying and hiding for years.
He's just always struggled to cope with things and ended up loathing himself and then found it hard to know what to do with those feelings of loathing. And that's what happened. Years ago.
He rang me before Christmas 2016. He told me it started again in 2016 after 15 years off. Saul was older now. According to the web it seems to be mostly but not exclusively teenagers who struggle with this. Why has he gone back to something he hasn't seen since his twenties?
I don't know the answer. I'm not sure that he does either but its clear things had got on top of him again, that his other coping mechanisms weren’t enough. All I know is that Saul told me he really needed that release last year. He cut his legs that time, and his side as no one could see there, because he didn't want anyone to see. But he also started to burn himself with an iron. Of course he told people that these were 'accidents', and he got clumsy with the iron. I didn't believe him, but I did believe him when he said they were also a combination of intense physical pain and intense emotional relief. He was hurt and was hurting but he felt better. He later told me he once burnt himself back in his hotel room after an interview, he was so convinced he had done badly, so angry at himself for not being perfect that he needed some way to vent.
I don't expect you to understand Saul. I expect you to think he is strange, odd, weird, stupid, dangerous maybe. Why would someone hurt themselves? But I hope you don't think those things. Some people drink. Some people fight. Some people cry. Some people take drugs. This is just what he did. He didn't want to kill himself but he didn't realise how much his actions were hurting others, were hurting those he cared about most.
But whatever you think about him it's ok.
I like him. He's just struggled sometimes. Lots of people do. If self-worth is low and you don't love yourself it's not a big step to hating yourself, or hurting yourself, or it wasn't for him.
He is embarrassed about them as well.
He's worried about what you'll think of him. Really worried. I had to persuade him to let me share this.
He only let me share it because he is confident and comfortable that he has changed and this behaviour is in the past and to show the importance of sharing and being open for yourself and to help others.
But I hope that like me if you know Saul you'll still want to.
He's still the same person.
Some of his scars are just visible and some are still hidden.
Lots of people are like that. Probably more than you realise.
Saul is doing good things now, he got professional help to be able to deal with things better.
He got professional help because of the support and love of his best friend. She's incredible. You need your friends when things are tough.
He now believes, no actually that's wrong, knows that he's never going to do that stuff again, he's found other ways, he actually can't believe he was in that place and genuinely feels and knows that he's different now.
He also hates how much he hurt other people by hurting himself, how much he must have put on them, how they must never have been able to stop worrying, how the impact of his mental illness created such a strain on others.
He really hates how he affected his best friend who was the main person who kept him afloat during those dark days and who he misses every day. She saved him but it affected their friendship and he's still working on repairing it and is scared he has lost someone so special. But he's not resorting to hurting himself to cope, which bearing in mind how much this friendship means to him is a testament to how much he has changed, and learnt.
It took a lot for Saul to invest time in himself in both his physical and mental health and get better. But he did it and he feels better that he did, and glad he was pushed, encouraged and supported to.
He told me he's helping others now, that that helps him feel good and how that brings some positive from something so negative.
So that's Saul's story, his secret.
He's alright Saul. He really is. He's sorting himself out. He's looking after himself.
So don’t call him, you really don’t need to and he wouldn’t have let me share this with you if he thought that would happen.
Just say hi next time your paths cross, maybe give him a knowing nod, maybe tell him he was brave to share (but definitely don't tell him he was stupid to), and accept him for who he is.
I think he’d like that.
And if you're in a bad place, or have a friend like Saul, talk or listen, don't judge, give them support and encourage them to talk and let things out.
People have tough days, weeks, months even but that doesn't define who they are. The mind is a powerful thing and it can be a battle everyday, but like Saul with love, care, support and perseverance you can get out of the darkness.
He has, he chose the light, and I'm super proud of him for that.
Welcoming another guest blogger today. Stephen is a colleague at work who I've never met, we've never spoken but we've connected because of openness about mental health. I encouraged Stephen to share because it helps me so much and I'm delighted he agreed to. Initially he said he wanted to be anonymous, but then changed his mind and said he had nothing to hide. This makes me proud of him. He should be proud of himself.
Take Care. Paul
Mountain High - Valley Low
4 days in to February and I’m physically and mentally exhausted. Monday morning blues, or is it Monday morning worries, or Monday morning anxiety and fear of the unknown.
Last Monday I was on top of the mountain looking over the views and endless opportunities and paths that my life has for me. Today I’m looking out into dense fog and feeling disorientated, trapped in a place where I can’t see a way out, I feel that panic and churning in my stomach again, those little signs that my anxiety is trying to ride over me again.
I worry and I catastrophise about so many things in my work and personal life…..things that haven’t even happened but seem to swamp my thoughts.
So February – lets kick start this one off, had a my first ever car accident in 11 years of driving (Me, Myself and I were ok, so was the other person) – I drove my self home a few miles after exchanging details, made myself a huge cup of sweet tea, - and I tried to process what the hell happened in the last hour.
Well I couldn’t, my whole body and brain was tingling , my senses were overloaded, I was on adrenalin kick, I was …experiencing what anything other human would, but for me it was all new and unknown and overwhelming. I started doing the what if’s, why did I go that route home, what if I went straight home, what if ….this wasn’t helping. The one thing I know I could do was ring my dad, sister, partner and a friend – physically they couldn’t do anything but emotionally they could be with me on the phone while I let it all out.
Reality is that I will end up bottling my anxiety and emotions by the time I get home – I know what I should do, but its so hard.
Having that over me this weekend, raised my anxiety; about driving, about work and about aspects in my personal life, I came to face Monday morning and I feel drained emotionally and physically.
If I just start BREATHING, and taking a little control of my thoughts and anxiety by writing them down, today will become less foggy, less disorientating, and tonight all I want to do is go home, hug my loved one, my cats and let all my anxiety and emotions and feelings out that have tried to overcome me in the first 4 days of Feb.
I have faith, I have hope, I have love, and I have family and a few close friends; and I have strength and determination. It’s easy to say this but to turn words into actions all the time when I’m feeling very lost is a constant battle that I’m constantly learning from. Ill keep doing what I know best, talking and writing.
What will the rest of February bring, only time will tell.
When I catastrophise it makes me ignore any good I have done, any progress I have made and just focus on the negatives. Focus really hard and really clearly on what didn't go right, what I could have done better and what wasn't perfect.
This is the power the mind has. Today was actually, logically and really a good day but my mind has decided otherwise and what my mind decides then my emotions, actions and body dutifully follow.
Hence I just sat in a meeting room at work and had a bit of a cry.
I obviously dried my eyes before I came out of the room, because there's still a stigma, there's still shame, there's still fear.
I don't really have a positive message to end on this one, i've recognised i'm catastrophising so I just need to get past it.
A friend told me about an idea for a New Years resolution based on a word. She chose health. I like the idea because there are loads of things you can then do which will contribute towards it. Whether it’s getting fit, going to the dentist or giving your mind a break. It will all help with health.
I’ve decided that my word will be sleep. This has been prompted by starting to read an amazing book recommended by a friend called why we sleep, by Matthew Walker. That’s the books name, and the authors name. You should read it.
Anyway I digress, and hope I haven't sent you to sleep already.
According to Professor Walker we sleep for between 25 - 35 years of our life but focus disproportionally on how to improve ourselves in the time we are awake.
We don’t understand or make sure that we take care of ourselves for a third of our day. For a third of our lives.
A balanced diet and exercise are really important. But sleep is the third spoke in the wheel. We likely concentrate more on diet and exercise, but eat poorly or don’t exercise for a day and you’ll be generally ok. Get a bad nights sleep and you’re knackered, literally and literally. And this not only affects your physical condition but also your mental.
That's all I have to say today.
Sleep is important, more important than you probably realise.
I'm off for a nap now
Today another guest blogger, Mary. I've known Mary for a number of years now but only knew part of her story about when she had been flooded. But I wasn't aware of the other challenges she has faced and continues to face, the mask she has put on and the bravery she has shown to face life head on and passionately champion causes.
We spoke briefly about mental health at a recent work event and I asked if she would be able to share her story. I'm pleased to say she did....
Take Care Paul
Behind the door - Mary Dhonau
I have given numerous presentations about what it’s like to be flooded. These are based on both my own experience and those of the countless people I have spoken to over the last 18 years. One of the things I always emphasise is that we don’t know what is going on in the lives of people before they were flooded. I’ve been told many heart-breaking stories along the lines of ‘My mother died, the day before the floods came’, or ‘I had just had a diagnosis of cancer and then we were flooded’. Such appalling coincidences are among the many reasons I have championed the plight of the flood victim.
Let me tell you what was going on behind my front door.
Just before the floods of the year 2000, my youngest son Peter was diagnosed with severe autism and severe learning difficulties. His behaviour was challenging to put it mildly: he didn’t sleep, self-harmed, broke windows with his head and regularly smeared poo about the place. Try to imagine, if you can, being flooded in that situation. We lost every one of his toys and had to cope with builders in our home for many months. It was that experience that made me don on my wellington boots and start campaigning.
Fast forward to 2007. During the intervening years, Peter’s autism had become unmanageable for us; no state school could meet his needs; and my marriage had imploded under the strain. (He had recently escaped from his special school, the only child to do that in the 30 years the headteacher had been there.)
Someone from my local Council said Peter was the ‘worst case of Autism they had seen in a long time’. After a multi-agency meeting, it was decided that he should go to a specialist residential school. He was only 10 years old and the decision to let him go was such a painful one - I felt I was letting him down, it was a bit like giving your baby to someone else to bring up. Then we were flooded again - not as badly, as I’d made our home flood resilient, but we were still flooded, and it wasn’t a picnic by any means.
I was also running the National Flood Forum at the time and my phone didn’t stop ringing (remember 55,000 people had been flooded). I was giving advice to people and talking to the media day and night. I guess with the name ‘National Flood Forum’, people thought we were huge but at the time, it was a very small organisation.
Luckily carers from Peter’s new school were with him during the day, trying to get to know him but in the evenings and nights it was just me, answering that phone at the same time. Peter wasn’t my only child either). I was determined to keep going, even though the demands on me were incessant. Then the time came in September for Peter to go to residential school 35 miles away - although we did it gradually, parting with him was honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Something broke inside me after that but still I kept going. I can clearly remember walking to a local river bridge with tears pouring down my face, to give a TV interview. I gave ‘a brilliant interview’ (so the guy said afterwards) but I walked away and cried again. Then one day I woke and didn’t stop crying for days. I felt totally broken.
I really struggled with going to my GP, ‘what will she think of me’ etc but she was brilliant. She had a mildly autistic son, so knew something of what I was going through, and she’d also seen me many times on the television news. She was very supportive and said I was exhibiting ‘true grief’, having put Peter into care. She was astounded that I had been able to hold down my job.
One huge mistake I made was not to tell the board of the NFF just how bad things were for me. (My advice to anyone going through something similar, is please tell your work place - I literally couldn’t cope, and my work relationships suffered).
To this day, they still don’t know. I was put onto antidepressants and was on them for quite a while. I think once this has happened to a person, you never fully recover. I’m self-employed now (which can be very scary, as it tends to be feast or famine, and when it’s a famine time, I do become quite anxious but who wouldn’t?)
I’m seen as ‘strong’ ‘passionate’ and ‘charismatic’ about the work I do - but some mornings I can wake, and that bloody ‘black dog’ is in my room and sitting heavily on my chest. The type of person I am, I plaster a smile on my face and get on with it but it’s not always easy.
My son is now 21 and in a local specialist care home. His mental capacity is between 9 months and 4 years, He was also recently diagnosed with epilepsy. Hindsight has told me that putting him into specialist care was the best possible thing we could do for him - he has had a much better quality of life as a result. My ex-husband and I care for him together every other weekend and we have quality time with him. It is still stressful and demanding but we do get to hand him back afterwards.
However, as I result of all I’ve been through, I have been left scarred. It has planted a permanent ‘seed’ in my brain that will always be there, and one I guess I will always wrestle with.
Relationships, friendships, how well you get on with people can be heavily influenced by your mental health.
That's not really a very insightful comment, but it's very true. How much have you thought about the impact mental health (yours or others) has had on your life?
We meet some people on our journey who we get on well with but realise that were not as compatible for whatever type of relationship we have or thought we would have.
Sometimes this realisation is linked to who someone actually is, sometimes its linked to who someone actually is because of the situational impacts of the challenges of life.
I lost myself a few years ago. I struggled. My mental health was poor, but I can see now that it was situational. In the same way that things like living in the wrong area, not enjoying your job etc can lead to you losing your zest.
I'm pretty certain I had a breakdown. But hindsight is a great thing.
Situational change is ok because you can try and change the situation, or at least realise that the situation has a lot to do with why you feel and think like you do. And that poor mental health doesn't define you and like Ronan said life can be a rollercoaster.
As an example I went to a music weekend recently. The last time I went was 3 years ago and I was anxious for the whole weekend and didn't enjoy it. I didn't want to be there and I pulled out the following year. However last weekend in the same place I felt like a different person, the anxiety wasn't there, I was more relaxed, I was enjoying life more.
My situation had changed and so had my outlook and my default position on life to be anxious was not there.
People can change. Some people can't. Some people say they can but don't.
You can see change, you can observe it, you don't need to tell people you've changed because they tell you that you have.
Take control, make the change, realise life is a rollercoaster, accept that you can struggle at certain times, but also believe in yourself that you will get back out of the trough.
I feel like this was a real random ramble so I'll probably re-write it later, but its good enough, and i don't need perfection.
Mr Paul Wyse