Without You

Dear Mama,

I’ve started to write this so many times but have yet to finish the letter. I couldn’t bring myself to complete something I can’t send or get a reply to. This is our fifth Christmas without you and I thought it would be easier by now. I can’t believe you’d lost both your parents by the age of 28 and could still get out of bed every day; let alone raise two children, hold down a job and maintain a marriage.

There’s so much I want to tell you, so much you’ve missed. I want to believe you still exist in some form and that you’ve seen all the good things that have happened in your absence but that feels cruel. Like being on the outside of a great party and not being able to join in. Of course, if you’d seen all the good things you’d have seen the bad. I’m so sorry, I’ve spent a lot of time not being the daughter you raised and blaming you for everything. We both know I was broken before you got sick and losing you became my Get Out of Jail Free card for everything. But I’m clawing back some of my sanity and I’ve given up drinking, the source of so many problems (348 days sober today!)

Something happened earlier this year that I thought was impossible – I forgot what your voice sounded like. I went from hearing you telling me you loved me every day (even in my head, after you’d gone) to silence. You know Dad’s not much of a talker when it comes to feelings and without anything resembling a functional relationship “I love you” has pretty much disappeared from my life. Last night I dug out the Christmas books you read to us when we were little and as I held them and started to read I heard you again and it was the best Christmas present I could have asked for.

I need to tell you that although the last few weeks of your life were so traumatic I am finally able to let that pain go. I had three years of flashbacks, nightmares and sometimes I thought the pain would kill me but I am still here. Early next year I am speaking to a trauma counsellor to deal with what went on in my brain after you died. I held off for so long because part of me needed to keep reliving what happened because letting it go felt like letting you go. But I’m only letting go of the anger and hurt. You didn’t abandon us, you raged against an aggressive tumour and doubled the pitiful life expectancy doled out by your doctors. You were a bloody hero and I will never tire of telling people that.

Christmas will always be hard, it was your day to shine. You made it look so easy and it was such a perfect holiday for you – food, family, laughter – your three favourite things. I never told you but I spent most of my first Christmas without you as an adult in my own home crying. It just didn’t feel right without you. And it still doesn’t. Grief is a physical presence in the house. There’s a seat we still don’t use because it’s your seat. A side of the bed that remains untouched. Pristine pillows missing your usual drool stains (we even miss your snoring!) Dad misses his best friend, I miss my annual gift of giant knickers and socks that are too tight.

I think I am finally inching towards acceptance. So much of what happened doesn’t seem fair but then life isn’t fair. You taught me that. Damn you for raising a pessimist.

I love you. I miss you. Until we meet again…

Cath xxx

Trauma

Trauma

This morning I received a text message that convinced me I was going to die. It was a perfectly innocuous message from a courier company telling me that Colin would deliver my package between 2 and 3. What was threatening about that? I was convinced that this man was going to deliver my parcel of dresses. During our time together he was a courier driver and my brain made the illogical step of making him today’s courier. That’s PTSD for you. It makes no sense to anyone but me that a message about a delivery could send me on a thought spiral which ended with me being murdered on my doorstep. I was terrified, shaking and crying and felt sick knowing I would be alone when he arrived.

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Speaking About My Broken Brain

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At 17 I left home, by 22 I was married, divorced at 26 but I never truly felt grown up until I was 30. That was the age I decided to (wo)man up and ask for help with my failing mental health. I had been experiencing bouts of depression, anxiety and insomnia since my teens but when the issue came up with my GP it was always by accident. Luckily my doctor wasn’t clueless and when I would say “Oh, I have a twisted ankle and by the way I haven’t slept properly in three weeks” he would always probe me on the insomnia rather than the ankle. I fell into a cycle of taking some tablets, being referred for counselling that I inevitably cancelled after one session and eventually feeling “better”.

In early 2012 I turned 30 and had everything I could possibly need: a job I enjoyed, good friends, a loving family, money in the bank and a roof over my head. I had nothing to be sad about but I felt completely and utterly empty. I was given good news by people I loved and I couldn’t raise a smile. I didn’t suffer from low mood – I had no mood. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and would find myself reading the same article in a magazine repeatedly and not absorbing the words. I became so forgetful it scared me. I would look at people I know and struggle to recall their names and forgot my PIN number so many times I had to save it in my phone to avoid embarrassment in the supermarket.

In March 2012, I made an emergency appointment at the doctor after I realised that I had been subconsciously stockpiling paracetamol. I wasn’t sure if this was because of genuine forgetfulness or if I was planning a suicide attempt. My appointment was due to last 10 minutes but I left after half an hour with a puffy tearstained face, two prescriptions and an urgent referral to the local mental health assessment centre. I had completed the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) and was found to be severely depressed. I remember my doctor asked if I planned to take my own life I said that I had no real plans but every night I went to bed hoping I wouldn’t wake up. That’s when the tears started. It was the first time I had ever said that out loud.

I would love to say that after that day everything fell into place and I was miraculously well again. Unfortunately that was not the case. My depression wasn’t triggered by anything specific and I didn’t gel with the counsellor I saw. I took the medication and whilst this helped with the depression my anxiety increased. My insomnia spiralled out of control and I had a constant sense of impending doom. I was convinced horrific things would happen to my family and had nightmares about car accidents, fires and violent deaths. But rather than give up, every time I felt worse I kept going back to my GP. My medication was changed, I self-referred to a work place counselling service which was much better suited to me and I started talking to people about how I was feeling. My mental health issues were always my dirty little secret, I was ashamed to tell people I was close to how I was feeling because I didn’t want to be judged.

I just started to feel a little lighter in mood then my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer in June 2012. It was as if all the nightmares had come true. In my head I felt like all my anxiety had been justified and that I was somehow right to be so paranoid and pessimistic. I now realise this was my broken brain speaking. What happened to my physical and mental health during the period of mum’s illness and the time following her death were devastating but I truly believe that I wouldn’t be alive right now if I hadn’t sought help before the shit hit the fan. I don’t believe in psychic abilities but I have always had a decent sense of intuition. Maybe in the months before mum’s diagnosis my brain started sending me signals that I was going to need all the help I could get.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and I am saddened that in 2017 many people still can’t talk openly about their mental health. They are ashamed, disgusted with themselves, misunderstood and maligned. I have been called selfish, lazy, an attention seeker and a psycho (that last one was from an ex-boyfriend, charming fellow). But the more we talk about mental health, the more normal it becomes. The more I talk to people about what I am experiencing, the more they understand. If you keep cancelling plans because you are too anxious to leave the house, tell someone that rather than make up a bullshit excuse, they are more likely to offer to help or come to you. Some of the best friends came to see me when I couldn’t face the outside world.

I am not “cured” as mental illness is something I will always have in some form. I deal with life one day at a time, take medication as anyone with a long-term health condition would and just try to be as kind to myself as possible. Remember, asking for help isn’t a sign of failure. It’s scary and the process may suck sometimes but talking about how you feel may just save your life.

If you or anyone you know may be suffering from mental illness please seek professional help. I found the following websites and podcasts helpful:

Mental Health Foundation – Practical advice to help with your mental health and well-being
https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/

Mind – A-Z of mental health, an online community and tips for everyday living are just some of the excellent resources
https://mind.org.uk/

Samaritans – if you are in the UK or Republic of Ireland you can call Samaritans on 116 123, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This number is FREE to call. You don’t have to be suicidal to call.
http://www.samaritans.org/

Bryony Gordon’s Mad World Podcast – A ten part podcast series in which Telegraph journalist and OCD sufferer Bryony discusses mental illness with a different guest every week. The Prince Harry episode gained worldwide attention and started a lot of important discussions around mental health.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/bryony-gordons-mad-world-podcast/

Breaking the silence

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I apologised to my rapist. It took me five years to write that sentence and will take me many more years to understand why. What happened that night in August 2011 has haunted my dreams, damaged my friendships and obliterated my trust in men.

I relive that night and the aftermath frequently. I know my rapist. He was a close friend. He’s the husband of one of my best friends. Before today we were the only two people who know what happened that night.Read More »

Just a bit of banter…

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I’ll always remember the first time I encountered sexual harassment in the workplace. I was 17, new to a small company where I was the only female employee. I was encouraged by my boss to be “one of the boys” and join in with the office banter which seemed to revolve around critiquing the tits of the models in lads magazines. I shared an office with Peter, who was in his late 30’s and proudly displayed pictures of his wife and children next to his desk. Peter became really interested in finding out about my life and would quiz me on my breaks. Did I have a boyfriend? Had I had a lot of previous boyfriends? Where did I like to go out? Had I ever had plastic surgery? I felt uncomfortable with his questions, especially when I found out he was relaying my answers to the rest of the team when I wasn’t around.

Peter kept finding ways to come over to my desk, usually under the pretence of borrowing some stationery. He liked to put his hands on my shoulders and slyly look down my top or he’d reach past me and brush his hand against my chest. I started wearing high necks and baggy clothes to deter him. I told him I didn’t like having my personal space invaded but he didn’t listen. I was friendly, smiley and chatty with anyone who came into the office but when we had client meetings I’d often hear one of the guys say, “Watch out for her, she’s a maneater.” I’d blush with embarrassment and tell them to shut up but it just seemed to encourage them.Read More »

Last Goodbye

The landline rang on Saturday afternoon. No good news is ever delivered via the home phone. It’s the hotline for cold callers and bad news. But I already knew, I’d seen the news online. I held the mobile in my hand with my Twitter feed still open as I picked up the receiver. It was my sister in law: “Have you heard?”  A small groan escaped from my lips. “He died this morning, it was sudden, are you ok?” She’s talking about my ex husband and the answer is no. I’m not ok.Read More »

Living with the Monster

My ex-boyfriend is in prison. This makes me happy. My only regret is I didn’t put him there.

They say you never forget your first love. This is certainly true for me. I was 17, C was almost double my age and recently estranged from his wife. We were co-workers who embarked on an intense and impulsive relationship which resulted in us moving in together within a month. He was everything I was looking for in a mate: strong, funny, intelligent and mature. Everything guys my age weren’t. He showered me with compliments, wrote me notes to tell me how much he loved me and a quick glance in my direction would give me butterflies. All very Mills and Boon. I soon discovered this was all a front.Read More »