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People with Promise

I have a habit of connecting with people who have problems.

I often think that this is because I am a person with problems myself – a case of like attracting like, or of people finding others who have empathy with them. I really do believe that God – or the universe – brings people and situations to us when we need them, or when they need us, or simply when there is some synergy going on. So at any given time many of my friends and acquaintances, like me, will be experiencing mental health issues, or be snowed under with the stresses of caring for someone.

This is all well and good. It gives me a wonderful framework of friends who understand me, and a mutually beneficial and supportive network of people that is expanding all the time. And of course it’s not all doom and gloom – we have fun and laughter along the way, and share many interesting and exciting experiences together.

The difficulty comes when I try to have a one-on-one romantic relationship with people with problems. Or them with me.

I am a very up-and-down person – you have probably gathered that by now if you are following my blog. In my younger years the doctors slapped a ‘bipolar’ label on me, although this was later peeled off and replaced with ‘recurrent depressive disorder’ one. It’s nice to be disordered on occasion, but not to have a label. It makes you feel like you need to live up to some designer tag and produce at least three manic episodes a year.

Although I don’t do mania, I definitely feel like a Vivienne Westwood piece when it comes to my mental state: mostly full-on out there, somewhat flamboyant, and not at all symmetrical – and most certainly not containable within the social norms.

I love Vivienne Westwood’s clothes, but, like me, they can’t be easy to live with on a day-to-day basis. Those brave men who risk dating or even living with me, may be attracted to the bouncy outgoing bit, but the moment I hit a low they must wonder what’s happened to the happy, sociable person they thought they had hooked up with. Conversely, if they happen to meet me in a depressed phase and for some strange reason feel comfortable in a supportive role, then they often cannot cope with things once I turn into a flighty social butterfly with more energy than a bottle of Lucozade.

Add into this mix my Quakerly thing of seeing ‘that of God’ in everyone (human beings ARE endlessly fascinating and rewarding, whatever their background and life experience, and if you’re not open to this you miss out on some wonderful connections and people) and the result is a string of risky relationships with intense emotional connections, but a lot of gunpowder sitting in a big pile underneath us just waiting to be lit.

The other day I was bemoaning this state of affairs with a friend as we travelled together in the car. I said how I had now got used to my family and friends saying ‘Oh, Anne!’ and ‘Please be careful’ whenever I talked about the current state of my love life. This is partly my fault, of course, for being so open and honest with people I am close to, and I have learnt to be more careful and respectful about what I share now. But sometimes people’s reactions, and indeed my history (and there have been one or two mega-mistakes), make me question my judgement and instincts.

So we are travelling along, and I am saying to my friend how I have a habit of connecting with people who often turn out to have problems akin to my own, and he says, simply: ‘You pick people with promise.’

I love this.

I love that the people I pick have promise. And I love that the people I pick seem to somehow see some promise in me. It’s back to that positive language thing – looking at the good in a situation and not harping on about the risky bits. You can think yourself into the doldrums if you are not careful.

I just hope that any aspiring partner can cope with walking around with a woman whose hair is now the colour of purple pansies and whose mental state can resemble anything from a Sex Pistols T-shirt, to a carpet dress, to a tartan ball gown.

MAD MOMENT…

Ringing dad’s mental health team and the Care Quality Commission on a day when I woke up feeling depressed. Mental suicide.

MARVEL MOMENT…

Going to the optician to choose a new pair of glasses and instantly finding no less that three frames which I loved and were comfortable to wear! Now just have the difficult decision of which pair to pick!

© Anne de Gruchy

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Mind Matters

It’s a golden autumn afternoon, with blue sky and a blustery wind. I have a migraine headache coming and going behind my left eye, so I am trying to allow myself to relax. This, on a day when a plumbing malfunction left me with no useable sink or washing machine (my sink waste mechanism crashed and burned late last night); on a day when my new lodger/house-sharer is in the process of moving in; on the day before the long drive down to Dorset to see my dad again.

My head is in a funny place at the moment. I am finding it hard to maintain an equilibrium and am upskittled easily by even small things – and, believe me, there have been plenty of straws to break this camel’s back. One minute I feel I am coping fine, the next I feel completely overwhelmed. My appeals for help via a request for a Carer’s Assessment and for more input from the mental health services have been turned down. Pulling out, and leaving my father without proper support, is not an option for me.

Then, a few days ago, a friend’s partner suffered a catastrophic stroke and underwent emergency brain surgery. Life hung in the balance. Someone young and vibrant suddenly wasn’t anymore, and their whole universe of friends and family were thrown into the uncertainty of an alien space.

It’s been a wake-up call.

How far I’ve let myself get bogged down in the detail of everyday life! My own struggles hinge on the minutiae of maintaining things, on ownership and property, on so many thousand words to be written every week.

The situation my friend finds herself in, took me back to the time that we nearly lost my son during heart surgery when he was 15. To the sudden, sharp, realization that life is not a given and that every moment is precious and has to be lived. Being reminded of this again I have begun to seek the goodness in the things that stress me out: the blessing of having a wonderful Quaker friend who came, at very short notice on a Saturday, to fix my sink; the joy of having found a like-minded soul and ‘cat auntie’ to share my beautiful home; the fact that the love between myself and my father binds me to his care.

Last night, a further blessing. My new mind-man, with whom I have found an amazing connection, telephoned me in response to an email in which I told him that the plumbing malfunction had made me feel like throwing in the towel. He listened, and soaked up that very upskittled mess in my brain, until I simply felt sleepy and OK instead. Like the lulling of a lullaby; a tone poem in caring and how to talk ourselves back to common sense.

So now I am thinking: how to treasure this golden afternoon? Maybe I will go out into the garden and gather the leaves that are dancing in the wind, until my house-sharer returns and we can begin a new chapter gathered in under the protection of this roof.

MAD MOMENT…

Brain somersaults! Again! I am convinced my brain (as well as my scatty cat!) is trying to do as many rotations as the leaves in my back garden in the autumn wind. Now where on earth was that ‘off’ switch?

MARVEL MOMENT…

A wander in Wareham Forest with dad and his dog, Isla. The joy of simply being outside with someone you care about and exploring somewhere different. And, of course, seeing Isla’s excitement at all those wonderful new smells!

annedegruchy.co.uk image: walk Wareham Forest

© Anne de Gruchy

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Just What IS ‘Reality’

I had a discussion recently with an intriguing person I met in cyberspace – all about reality. About slipping in and out of it and what this feels like. About what reality is anyway. (Check out Willem de Kooning for some thought provoking quotes…)

Of course, I got to thinking, and my thoughts went like this:

• Can we actually slip ‘out of’ reality at all? Surely, wherever we are at the moment – physically or in our headspace – is actually our reality?

• If where we are in our headspace is totally weird, doesn’t this just make reality more interesting?

• If this freaks us out, isn’t it time we started changing our idea of what reality is, or challenging others in their limited concepts of reality?

I’ve spent a lot of time around people with mental health problems and believe we should learn from the experience of those who hear voices. This applies not just to people with labels like schizophrenia, but to people with some types of dementia, too. Although the voices can sometimes be very frightening and aggressive, they are often positive and accessible. A bit like me finding I coped much better with my erratic mental health once I simply accepted that this is part of me, many people who hear voices find the solution is to make friends with the voices, rather than trying to banish them through therapy and drugs. The voices are part of reality, too.

Sometimes, when I’m having a particularly low day, I try to focus my reality in to an exact moment of time. The instant I let my reality widen out I think about the things I ‘should’ be doing but that I can’t face at all. Instead, I try to find the ‘now’ reality: the raindrop running down the window pane, the tiny buddleia seedling that has found life amidst the cracks in the mortar of a wall, the sound of the wind and the feel of it on my face.

Living with a reality that keeps creeping into the surreal, or that is not acceptable to the society we live in, is a hard thing. Occasionally I look at my lovely assortment of friends and wonder at the proportion of us who has some kind of experience like this. But then it is logical, given my own experiences, that we have found each other and formed our own community of support.

Connections through mutual experience are really important. Take, for instance, the time I was low and could not work out how to handle myself, so I sent out a tweet into the twittersphere saying:

‘Down, down, down today. Lovely friends but just can’t shake the blues. Made scones as therapy and avoiding computer.’

I had decided on the strategy of baking and avoiding digital stuff, but was finding it hard to follow my own advice. Miraculously (Or not? Some things are just given to us when we need them), within seconds a tweet pinged back:

‘Scones sound great! I’m feeling the same and must go and treat myself now.’

I replied: ‘Hope you find something treatworthy enough for you – remember you are precious’, with the response: ‘Thank you Anne. That really made me smile ☺’

I can’t begin to tell you how important this exchange was to me at the time. My reality collided for an instant with a complete stranger ‘out there’ in the ether. I have since started following my responder’s wonderful and touching blog, also about living with mental health problems. Check it out at:

http://ibelieveinromeo.blogspot.ie

So what is my reality now? Well, actually it is sitting on a beautiful stone bench in the sunshine surrounded by the wind and scent of herbs in the garden at Hardwick Hall.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Bench in Hardwick Hall Herb Garden

MAD MOMENT…

Deciding to have a ‘Pamper’ afternoon for friends with wonderful Weleda products and reflexology (see my ‘Brain Libraries’ post for details of the brilliant Emma Brown). I now have two friends planning to do reflexology training! Just hope they want to use me as their guinea pig.

MARVEL MOMENT…

Hardwick Hall herb garden comes pretty close!

© Anne de Gruchy

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Defining Ourselves: Ill Health and Labels

I had an interesting conversation with someone the other day, about how illness can define us. It got me thinking about my own up-and-down mental health, and how it has shaped my life over the years. It also got me thinking about my dad.

My dad has Alzheimer’s, or Alzheimer’s type dementia, according to the lovely psychiatrist who interpreted the results of his brain scan for us. We sort of expected this, having lived with his failing memory and, at that particular time, his increasing confusion and anxious phone calls about everyday things. In a way it was a relief, for the family if not for him, to have a label to pin on his difficulties. It also felt strangely validating – evidence that he actually needed the interventions and support we were providing. Similarly, when my mum became paranoid and aggressive and accused us, her daughters, of plotting against her, the doctor’s verdict of vascular dementia gave shape to our experiences with her.

The trouble with all this is that it is all too easy to let a diagnosis or label affect our expectations and our view of someone, and that includes ourselves. My mental health was very erratic in my teens and early twenties, with big, unpredictable, plunges into depression. At first I wanted labels – a diagnosis or some type of biological cause to explain it – and I went through a whole raft of medications and hospital tests. Perhaps the most useful thing to come out of all of this was the verdict that my high intelligence was a counter to my depressive tendencies, and that I needed to have a stimulating occupation to engage me. I had almost written off the idea that I could cope with work or study.

As I’ve moved on with my life, I’ve always seen myself as someone with ‘mental health problems’, even when I’ve been well and stable for many years. It helps me plan my life to avoid the biggest risks to my health – I work part-time and have learnt how to balance my space and busyness. The conversation about feeling defined by illness made me reassess my view. We all have ups and downs, and I have had many difficult circumstances to deal with in my life, so why do I feel I need this label so much? Has it become a safety net that simply confirms to me I am not worthy of all sorts of things – from a partner in my life to common respect from other people when I struggle with something? I am more than this, and wholeness is important.

With my dad, too, I sometimes wonder at the diagnosis we have been given. Statistically, many people with ‘dementia’ turn out, after death, not to have the brain chemistry to support their diagnosis. Once dad’s bladder cancer was treated his confusion settled down, and although his short-term memory is non-existent, he functions very well with help and support and enjoys a busy social life. The other possibility of course is that the Donepezil/Aricept medication he has been given for his condition is doing a good job. Either way, he can’t seem to put his brain into gear about how to heat up a ready meal, but is very perceptive and involved when discussing ideas and events that strike a chord with him.

So dad’s behaviour and progression is not typical of others I know with dementia (if there is such a thing as typical in any case). And this is the exact problem I am discussing: labels, or a particular diagnosis of illness, can result in us ending up being defined by them. I expect dad to behave or develop in a certain way because of his diagnosis, and when it doesn’t happen I feel that my expectations have short-changed him.

So how about me? On reflection, I have decided that I do not want to be defined. In fact, I like the idea of being ‘undefineable’! But if I absolutely had to be, here are some of the things I hope would be considered to be part of ‘me’:

• God in me and loved by God
• Creative
• A thinker
• Complex but compassionate
• Hopeful for this world despite all its problems
• Bouncing back
• Allowing time to be a healer
• Trying to do my part.

MAD MOMENT…

Having a ‘comfort coffee’ today when I know it is likely to trigger a migraine.

MARVEL MOMENT…

The energy and positivity at the Jeremy Corbyn rally at the beautiful Albert Hall in Nottingham – what an atmosphere of hope and ‘positive politics’!

© Anne de Gruchy

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Double Trouble: On Mental Health and Caring

I have been given the opportunity to contribute a blog post to the Involvement blog at Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust. For Carers Week I shared with them my own blog about caring for my dad who has Alzheimer’s. As is the way with the supportive carers and mental health communities, the Involvement Team kindly guest posted one of my own blog posts and offered me the chance to write another one for them – so here it is. I am also posting this on my own website.

I thought I’d share a little of my own journey as someone who has lived with mental health problems all their life but has recently experienced the double impact of becoming a carer.

I have a mood disorder. Variously, over 54 years, I have been given the labels ‘bipolar’, ‘schizoid’ and ‘recurrent depressive disorder’. I don’t like labels. Occasionally they can be useful – for instance if you need support from medical practitioners when dealing with the benefits system – but mostly they stick us in boxes and make it harder to climb out.

The big turning point for me, in dealing with my mental health, was when I accepted that this is who I am, that there was no simple biological explanation or miracle cure. This is my natural way of being and I simply had to tailor my lifestyle accordingly.

I stopped trying to hold down a full-time job and went part-time. I stopped my battle with the side effects of drugs and worked with a psychotherapist to manage my mental health without medication. It was a long process and my mental health still impacted heavily on my life – I lost several jobs because employers were unsympathetic or discriminatory and relationships were a minefield – but for many years I managed a reasonable balance and pretty happy life.

Then came caring. First my uncle, then my mum with the early stages of vascular dementia, then, after she died, my dad. I have lovely sisters who help as much as they can, but they both live abroad. I worked part-time and had some degree of flexibility, but the older members of my family all lived 200 miles away. I couldn’t take a half-day off work to take my dad to the hospital, I had to take three or four. Eventually, at the beginning of this year, I gave up the struggle and resigned my job – which was, ironically, leading the wonderful Compass project that supports carers of people with dementia in Nottinghamshire.

Caring, for me, is long distance. One of my blog posts Long Distance Caring – How to Stay the Course addresses the particular problems of this situation (find it at: https://annedegruchy.co.uk/2015/05/18/long-distance-caring-how-to-stay-the-course/). Yes, there is a care agency going in to help with my dad’s day-to-day needs, but we have to manage the package, as well as trouble-shooting multiple problems and health needs. There is my dad’s social life and lifts to co-ordinate, his house and dog to maintain, and his finances to deal with under power of attorney. There are crises and visits at short notice. Dad is determined to stay in his own home, and who can blame him? However structure and routine are important to me, and all this change and coming-and-going has been challenging and distressing. It has not been good for my mental health.

I had a breakdown at the end of last year, and another not long after stopping employed work to focus on caring, but at last I feel the tide is beginning to turn. In an attempt to make sense and something positive out of all of this I have registered as self-employed and returned to my writing. I hope to publish my novels. My blog is part of the process of putting my work out there, and I hope people might like to have a look at it! Share the link to my website and you’ll make one carer and weary mental health battler very happy…

© Anne de Gruchy

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE INVOLVEMENT TEAM…

https://involvementvolunteeringexperience.wordpress.com

Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust provides integrated healthcare services, including mental health, intellectual disability and community health services. The Involvement Team work within the Trust to ensure that service users and carers are involved in service planning and scrutiny of their services. They also provide volunteering opportunities and collect and analyse service user and carer feedback.

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Analysis Blues (or: How to be a True Creative!)

If you are following my blog you’ve probably gathered by now that I love to analyse things.

It flows though my writing in the way that I explore ideas and psychological change, and also my everyday life. I am definitely too much of a thinker, as one friend highlighted when she queried the words ‘bit of’ in my description of myself on my Facebook page.

The worse thing about all these ideas whizzing round my brain is their tendency to come to me at three in the morning. They insist on being heard and keeping me awake until I get the notepad out of my bedside cabinet and write them down. As I glance at the clock now, it reads 03:46!

Ideas are one thing, but analyzing stuff is another kettle of fish and a bit of a risky business with rather slippery results. It can be dangerous to prioritise head space above the heart or emotions, and I tend to see the analytical part of me as negative and unhealthy – the bit that makes me critical, or nit-picky, or too much of a perfectionist. My psychotherapist would challenge me on this of course, pointing out that for every negative aspect of a trait there is a counter-balancing positive if you just look for it.

This train of thought ties in with a Twitter link I followed the other day, which ended up at an article by Cody C Delistraty called: The Depressing Downside of Creative Genius. This was on an intriguing website called Human Parts which ‘explores the patchwork of the human condition through experimental and traditional personal writing’.

The article was looking, as many people have, at the link between creative genius and mental health. It cited some work done by Andreas Fink at the University of Graz in Austria that looked at the involvement of the precuneus, the area of the brain that exhibits the highest levels of activity during times of rest and which has been linked to self-consciousness and memory retrieval. In other words, the bit that indicates if we ruminate about things a lot, including our own experiences. His work found a relationship between the ability to come up with an idea and the inability to suppress the precuneus while thinking. Fink found that this inability to suppress the precuneus is seen most often in two groups of people: creatives and psychosis patients.

Apparently, this part of the brain only lights up at restful times for most people, but for writers and creative people it seems to be constantly activated resulting in difficulty in focusing on one thing and some schizophrenic and borderline bipolar tendencies. This is absolutely me to a tee and could certainly explain not only why I have struggled with a mood disorder all my life, but the pesky waking up at all hours with a stream of ideas. I definitely need an ‘off’ switch built in!

I did get rather excited, though. If nothing else, and always looking for the positives, I took it as evidence that I am a real writer after all!

MAD MOMENT…

Doing my ‘being a viewfinder’ thing on a walk with my son, who is a professional photographer. He was taking lovely arty pictures of the scenery, buildings and people, and I was holding up my hand and making my fingers into a rectangle to check out the composition options. All I can say is: Embarrassing Mums Rule!

MARVEL MOMENT…

The amazing buzz at the Jam Café birthday celebration and open mic evening.

© Anne de Gruchy

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On Being a Blog Virgin

This is my first ever blog post!

In general I dislike most things digital or powered by electricity – drills, computers, self-imploding phone apps – but love anything manual and messy. Give me a garden to dig or wall to build over social media networks and widgets anyday. Cooking, gardening, doing my art, walking, badminton and singing keep me happy. Writing alternately drives me bananas and keeps me awake at night with ideas that just HAVE to be written down at three in the morning (my memory is definitely not what it was…).

Putting my writing out into the public domain is something I desperately want to do, but getting ‘out there’ into social-media land freaks me out – so this blog is a not-so-minor miracle. It’s like hitting the digital age on one of my dad’s steam trains – full on hiss and heat but many years too late. I got there in the end, but now I need to let the firebox get up to speed.

So what do I want to blog about? How do I make it useful and interesting for me, and hopefully for you lot out there, too?

Here is a list of the things that engage me and that I hope to share with you:

  • The amazing place I’m at in giving up a job to focus on caring for my dad and my writing and artwork.
  • Mental health: the highs and lows and what I’ve learnt during years of tackling my own and working in this field.
  • Theology/spirituality: what I’m reading, what I’m experiencing, what inspires me, what I’ve learn from others.
  • Me, my dad and his dementia. Our journey together. The logistics of caring at a distance. (Including the funny bits….)
  • A ‘Mad’ and ‘Marvel’ moment in my life since my last blog post.

and

  •  I don’t promise that the odd garden or cookery reference won’t pop up sometimes!
Mad Moment…

Continuing to dig foundations and moving hardcore for my paving when my old shoulder injury was definitely telling me ‘no’!

Marvel Moment…

Finding three amazing and inspiring women to form a ‘Companions on the (Writing) Journey’ group.