“No Filter”

It’s almost 12 months since the last time I smoked.  As the days draw closer to the 7th of January, I start to feel excited.  I think I’m going to make it.

I started smoking in 2013, on a psychiatric ward in Kent, in the rain and freezing cold.  The other patients offered me their cigarettes and I would say yes: to be polite, to be sociable, and for something to do.  Fresh air was looked upon with vague suspicion but smoking?  Smoking was something that could be understood.  And so I smoked.

When I left the ward, went back to my ordinary life and my MA, I decided to quit.  Who knew this nicotine thing was so addictive?

It snowed all that January, and I would smoke in  the back garden, listening to sad music and pondering life.  I felt like a cliche, a retrospective of stereotypical teenage angst, but it soothed me.  Given that I had been hospitalised for being suicidal, the health issues caused by smoking seemed the least of my worries.  Granted, I felt guilty for my new habit.  I felt worried about the state of my teeth.  But I also felt a relief I didn’t get from anything else at that time.

Someone told me smoking uses similar techniques to the breathing techniques they teach you for managing panic attacks, and that makes perfect sense to me.

Who knew I would live to do it for four more years?  Two hospitalisations later, I was still breathing in the smoke, exhaling slowly, like it was sacred.

This year, four days after my 30th birthday, I decided it was time to give up for good.  One day at a time.  It’s been a lot of days now and although the cravings do hit me, I don’t regret the decision.  And I don’t regret having smoked in the first place, either.  There’s no point.  People in desperate places make desperate choices, and I did.  And now I know I have the strength to do this, I have more faith in myself.

 

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At 14

Lime green crop top,

UV handprint

stitched across the breast-

something I stole from Camden market

because I was the best

at theft

(and running).

All that summer,
I never bought a single thing.

I thought that I was grown

and knew it all and more,

and that I’d always known.
Thought I was not a little girl

while throwing toys

against the world, to see what stuck.

Said I don’t give a fuck
and felt brave, and tall.
But for all the make-up, I was young

and the grown up pose I struck

was always wrong.

(I see that in the photos, now

of clothes that I was not allowed,

me, drinking on the spinning ground,

with friends around me.)
I was the best at running,

the best at theft.

But that long, bold summer,

I wasn’t old enough

for saying yes.

PIP: However

Today I had my assessment for PIP (Personal Independence Payments- a benefit you can get in the UK for a physical or mental health condition, regardless of whether or not you are working).  The man who carried out the assessment was kind and polite; at no point did he make me feel bad about my application.  However, there is always a however, am I right?

However.  The questions he was given to ask me were inadequately phrased for the nature of my condition.  Bipolar is episodic: that is to say, I experience symptoms of depression and hypomania in episodes. That means that tasks I can carry out in the “euthymic” (“normal”) phase, I struggle with for blocks of time when I am unwell with either a high or a low.  The questions are often phrased in ways like this: “how many times a week do you need encouragement to cook/ eat?”  This then becomes difficult to answer unless dividing episodes by 52 (to account for every week of the year) and then coming up with a weekly average, thereby effectively lying because it is not every week that I experience those particular difficulties.  The questions do not take into account that illnesses can fluctuate- not just within a week or a few days, but for blocks of time throughout the year, interspersed between periods of being “just OK.”  So I don’t know if I will get PIP or not based on my honest answers and attempts to explain the nature of bipolar. Should I get PIP?  If it is for people with long term conditions impacting upon their everyday lives, the answer has to be yes.  If it is based on how many times a week I am impacted by my condition, it has to be no. I think they need to rephrase and rethink, not because they are trying to outwit people or catch them out, but because they are not taking into account the fact that myriad illnesses manifest in ways that do not meet the criteria if they are assessing on the basis of impact throughout any given week.

Me too.

Me too.

 

Me too:

slow erosion of confidence

over the decades.

 

A secret’s corrosive; it lies

in your stomach and burns.

 

And I’ve lied, compulsively,

to myself: it didn’t happen.

Better to lie than lie down

and let it take me.

 

I thought.

 

But they churn out

excuse after excuse

for abuse upon abuse

 

of trust

 

of power

 

while we:

 

shower off the shame

that should be theirs

and hold their names

(the ones we know)

beneath our tongues for years,

as if the bitter taste, held down

could help us swallow fear.

 

Me too.

And maybe you,

it’s hard to say but every single day

it’s done.

And every single day my lips are sealed

 

they’ve won.

Punishment

Two people (real people, but I can’t give details) were talking about the mental health system.  One mentioned that hospital had felt like a punishment, and the other took that literally.  “Oh,” she said, turning to me.  “I get it.  So hospital is like a punishment for the ones who don’t get it.”  I explained that hospital is for people who need more support than can be given in the community.  After several explanations she “got” it and I felt relieved.

And then I remembered.

I remembered how much, at the time, hospitalisation felt like a punishment to me.  That purgatorial state.  The way the nurses and doctors could be unkind, dismissive.  The way that I often felt I was there because “nothing else could be done” with me, that I was there because there was no chance of me getting better.  The loneliness, the restrictions on when I could see the people I loved, the constant pumping of medication I didn’t want (and didn’t think I needed) into a system undernourished by depression.  I could see why she thought it was a place for the hopeless ones, the last-ditch-attempt ones, the ones who were effectively being punished for being unwell.  Because at the time, that was exactly how I felt.

I saw through my own arguments, how weak they seemed in the face of the facts.  Even though hospital is a place for “getting better”, it definitely doesn’t always feel like that.  I understand why she took that comment literally, and I wish I didn’t, and I wish she didn’t have to.

Predestination

In an alcohol support group once, I heard a woman say that her daughter seemed like she would be “one of us” when she got older.  Her daughter was six.  She had, said the woman, “all the tell-tale signs.”  None of these included interest in alcohol, or any signs of addiction to anything else, from video games to jam sandwiches.  No; it was obstinate behaviour, wanting to have her own way a lot, being selfish and thoughtless.  Things I would have thought fairly normal in a six year old, and better dealt with by telling her off/ encouraging better behaviour, than by labelling her a premature alcoholic.  Yet this woman genuinely believed that her daughter held the seed of addiction within her, and would grow up to be like her mother.

I’m well-versed in the fact that addiction can repeat through generations (whether through biological leanings or learned-behaviour) so I’m not saying that it was wrong or stupid for this woman to have concerns about her daughter’s future well-being.  I am saying that, in structuring the idea of The Alcoholic as this person with specific and immutable characteristics (which could actually be possessed by anyone, and to varying degrees), she was attributing to her daughter a serious problem that the girl could have no way of knowing whether or not she had.  All because she was stubborn about the kinds of toys she wanted to play with. I can’t help but wonder if, by reinforcing (explicitly or implicitly) this kind of negative perception of her daughter, the woman might end up producing self-doubt in the girl before any signs of a problem are present.  Prevention is better than cure, sure, but there are better ways to prevent than to scare-monger and to stereotype.

This was not a solitary concern- others nodded, agreed, and shared similar thoughts.

This is one of the reasons I stopped going to such groups.

Echoes

I’m going to talk about something.  Something I haven’t spoken about on this blog (or in many other spaces), and something I won’t go into detail about, for many reasons.

In my past, I have suffered trauma.

This is the case for many people who experience mental illness, and for many people who self-harm, and for most people who are female.  Between the lines on this blog it probably won’t have been a stretch to imagine.  I haven’t spoken about it for the same reasons I haven’t spoken about my recent bout of mental ill-health much: the desire for privacy; the worry about who might read it; and yes, the (undeserved) sense of shame.

One reason I have so rarely (if ever) spoken about it with mental health professionals, is that I am scared.  I have noted again and again the stigma and unhelpful treatment that comes with certain diagnoses and the fact is, the diagnosis I am talking about (BPD/ EUPD) is very often associated with trauma.  Like the self-harm, it feels like another box to be ticked to label me with something I genuinely don’t think I have.  It is sad and unfortunate that this fear would render me silent, but it is a fact.  Like everyone, I don’t want to be misunderstood, and the sad truth is that asking for someone to understand would be likely to trigger the opposite reaction.

Another reason is that in the past, trying to discuss it has flooded me with long-lasting distress, destroying my ability to cope and to keep myself safe.  At the moment I am actually working through it, and I am trying to do so slowly to avoid such a back-slide.  I wrote a little about the feeling of doing so:

Breath catches in throat
over sharp bones
of baby birds, no,
the sharp bones of the words
I don’t flesh out.

Supposing they grew into fledglings.
What then?
Little fledglings of stories.
I’d be choked on the fluttering wings
of the things I don’t say.

These little fledglings of stories, though, are what I need- one day- to let fly.  At least, this is the narrative we are told. That talking helps.  That it’s Time to Talk.  So this is what I am doing now- talking, trying to be brave.  (By the way I don’t think talking always= bravery.  There are reasons for speaking or not speaking that have nothing to do with courage.  There is often bravery in silence, too.  But this is my attempt).

I feel exposed now, having written this, and I can’t be sure of the wisdom of posting it, or whether I will leave it up.  But like my other recent post- about feeling unwell there is something in me that wants others to know that they are not alone.

We are taught to minimise pain, because things are always worse for someone else.  We are taught to feel weak when we express it.  We are told that we can move past it, get on with it, forget it, sometimes even by those who have been through it.  But we are not selfish, we are strong, we are not wrong if we can’t bulldoze our way from past into future paying no regard to the events that shape them.

I tell myself this and will keep doing so until I feel it.