Living with Depression and Anxiety

This is the tenth time I’ve attempted to sit down and write this blog post. Words seem to fall short. I can’t quite capture how I feel. Is it sadness? No. Is it anger? No. Is it fear? No. It’s some strange emotion that has not name. It’s like I’m a pane of glass and all the emotions are raindrops. The rain is heavy. Some raindrops bounce off. Some raindrops linger for a second before deliberately rolling down, leaving a small path behind them. But the path isn’t small. It’s a ferocious river. Its walls groan against its weight. But there’s no stopping it.

 

The raindrops look small. But they are a tsunami. The pane of glass looks sturdy. But I can feel cracks starting to form. And I feel like I’m going to implode, throwing shards of glass in a million different directions. You might try and look through me. But there’s always a thick fog outside. You might think it’s romantic. But the fog is hiding something. You might look through me. But you don’t feel what is me. You don’t see what I see.

 

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Everyone thought I was living the life. I was young, attractive and smart. I was paid to travel the world. And I was constantly told how lucky I was by friends, family and perfect strangers.

 

In 2014 I was sat in a modern kitchen in an old shot-gun house in New Orleans. It was a paid trip. My phone rang. It was a friend. I picked up and quietly said ‘I can’t do this’. His perplexed response was met with a firmer ‘I don’t do this’. And without hesitation I began saying, shouting ‘I can’t do this’ over and over again. My brain was working but my consciousness had gone. The more times I said those four words the more tears fell from my chin. I was performing the fanatic ritual of my thoughts. I said only those four words for twenty minutes. It felt like the world had stopped moving.

 

I had finally cracked.

 

I didn’t realise at the time the enormity of what had happened until much later.

 

In the several months that followed I had done little work. I couldn’t focus. I had heart palpitations. I was overly-emotional. I had a panic attack every night. And I had become self-destructive. I tried everything to try and stop whatever it was I was feeling. But after the day was done, those thoughts would come creeping back. They were the shadows on the wall in the early hours of the morning. Turning on the light would only keep them away temporarily.

 

I decided to see a therapist. We talked about what had happened to the led-up to my breakdown. I identified several events and people that had profoundly affected me (which I’ll perhaps save for another post). She asked me to fill out some forms. Two questions that stuck with me was ‘Do you feel like a failure?’, and ‘Have you thought about hurting yourself?’. I answered yes to both.  My therapist advised me to see a doctor.

 

After speaking to a doctor I was advised to start medication immediately. I had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

 
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I believe I’ve always suffered from depression and anxiety. I always felt melancholy as a child. Several times I contemplated what the world would be like if I wasn’t in it. And I was too anxious to talk in school or at home. At first people thought I had learning difficulties. Then people thought I was just a quiet child.

 

Life ebbs and flows. For the first ten years of mine I was comfortable with being an under-achiever. I was put in small classes. It was slow-pace. Expectations were low. And, best of all, I could escape into my imagination.

 

When I was eleven I started to work hard at school. Mainly to prove the people around me wrong. Any feelings of inferiority disappeared for a few moments when I got an A*. People were, for the first time, proud of me. I pushed myself to be the best.

 

I began to associate intelligence with happiness. I thought I could study my depression and anxiety away. At the end of my MA I began to seriously doubt my mental health. I had just received a PhD scholarship. I told my mother how I felt. She told me I should do the PhD. I put my feelings aside.

 

I wish I had listened to my better judgement.

 
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Life is nuanced. And, as such, I can’t pin-point a single reason that led me to my breakdown. But I have learnt a lot from it. Happiness is independent of success. Happiness and health are the most important things in life. If you’re looking to cure your depression and/or anxiety by moving up to career ladder you might be disappointed. Some times what we think or are told is the right thing to do isn’t always the best thing for us. You should never do something to please other people. Listen to what your gut is saying. Know that being capable of achieving something doesn’t always mean you should do it.

 

We live in a meritocracy. We value money. We value status. But don’t for one second think that either of those things will make you happy.

 

 

I’m not sure I will ever overcome anxiety and depression. We are like old enemies now. But I am learning to live with them. I have accepted there will be bad days and good. And I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. When I feel like a pane of glass, overwhelmed with the rain, I remind myself that this is just a chemical imbalance. There’s nothing wrong with me. It doesn’t define me. And I certainly shouldn’t feel ashamed.

 

 

 

 

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My Grandma, the Sociopath and Dementia Patient

Every time my grandma tried to hold me as a little girl I’d defiantly bury my head into my mum’s stomach, refusing her outstretched arms. At the time, my mum thought it was just my shy nature that stopped me from showing my grandma any affection. Today I believe it was because I could sense that something about her was off-kilter. Years later the doctors came to visit her. She was nearly eighty and, like many elderly people, she had become forgetful. An MRI scan showed that pockets of her brain had shrunk. She had a severe cognitive disorder that, over the coming years, would rob her of her memory and eventually her life. Soon she would forget how to sign her name, draw a clock-face and turn on the TV. But the doctors found something else. She had an untreated personality disorder.

 

As a young woman, my grandma had given birth to half a dozen children. She’d hide their toys so they would get beaten by their father. She’d hit them for minor things (buying her a Christmas present she didn’t like earned them a spanking one year). She’d drop them off at a children’s home when they were barely older than five just to scare them. She’d tell the other kids at their school to punch them. She abandoned her youngest children when she met a new man. She would send them hate-filled letters on Christmas day and, when they were older, their wedding day. When she found her new husband innocently talking to her daughter she got so jealous she kicked her daughter out. She would construct lies, convince herself that the lies were real and use this as an excuse to manipulate and cast out the people closest to her. Most of her children now live successful lives, but they all bear emotional scars that no amount of therapy will erase. The others carry the hallmarks of the same personality disorder, following their mother’s life trajectory like an actor reading from a script. But my grandma never showed any remorse for her actions, only ever crying for herself. There is a complete absence of empathy and selflessness behind her dull grey eyes, and it really disturbed me. When I felt sick for the third time after eating at my grandma’s house my mum made sure to throw any food she gave us in the bin in case it was poisoned. It might sound like a ridiculous precaution but, if you knew my grandma and her erratic behaviour, you’d understand why.

 

I knew early on that I was one of her least favourite grandchildren. She liked me in part because she was a very superficial person. She made sure to tell people if she ran into someone she thought was ugly or fat or if I was eating to many ice-lollies (she actually told me that eating ice lollies made out of water and fruit juice would make me fat. She’s not very bright). And I was the cute blonde frilly-dress-wearing kid that she liked to hold for photographs. I have a photograph of her carrying me when I was asleep. Tiredness had prohibited me from acting out my usual tantrumatic ritual. But I was also a smart kid. When I came home with my first-class degree she told me that it’s more important for men to do well at school and bragged about how well my male cousin was doing. She put a lot of emphasis on being beautiful to capture a wealthy man, something she had done but something I had no interest in doing. I like to read books and draw and she likes talking about people so, apart from our DNA, we have little in common. And she made sure to let me know that I wasn’t high on her list of favourite grandchildren by taking others on holidays and buying them expensive gifts which she readily told me about, sharing intimidate details about how much money she had spent on each of them. Now, I don’t think she loves them. I don’t think she is capable of love. She has fallen out with these same grandchildren over the years and even took one of my cousins to court for no other reason than to cause her suffering. But she enjoys having a captive audience that will listen to stories about her and her perpetual victimhood. This is something I am too sceptical and/or rude to do.

 

I’m convinced she had the onset of dementia when she called me by my mum’s name several years ago but, because of her seamless ability to lie, manipulate, play the victim and act vulnerable, it went unrecognised. When a rational person suddenly acts out irrational it’s much easier to identify a problem. When an irrational person acts irrationally it’s understood that that’s just part and parcel of their personality. A lot of people with dementia will experience frustration, taking their angst out on their nearest and dearest. But my grandma has always sought pleasure in hurting people. Her cravings for drama at other people’s expense are constant and alarming. It’s sad when you have to check yourself before you consult a doctor about your grandma because she has pretended to play the vulnerable old woman one minute and stabbed you in the back the next. It’s hard to know if she genuinely forgot that you gave her that scarf for Christmas and re-gifted it to someone else, which she then gladly told you about, or whether she is using her illness as an excuse to justify her otherwise unjustifiable behaviour.

 

Mental health professionals that have come into contact with my grandma suspect that, more than the dementia itself, it is her personality disorder that is causing the bulk of her problems. People have been advised not to enter her house alone because she is perceived as a threat. She has accused people of stealing multiple times (allegations that were found to be completely groundless), hitting her (once again, there’s no evidence of this) and tried to get her carers fired for supposedly saying things that they have no recollection of saying, then, when she is caught out, blames it on the dementia. Understanding and managing her personality disorder has become first priority.

 

My grandma is a prime example of what can happen when dementia and sociopathy collide. She is both vulnerable and a threat, exhibiting the frailness of a debilitating disease and the destructiveness of an antisocial personality disorder. It is a relief that, at eighty years old, she has finally been diagnosed with sociopathy. We now have a better understanding of why she is the way she is. But for me too much water has gone under the bridge. There can be no redemption and, given her complete lack of self-awareness prior to dementia, I doubt there can be any real change at this late stage. She wasn’t the wholesome grandma I should have gotten in this life but she has taught me how put up with sociopaths and narcissists – don’t!

 

‘Education’

Since my blog has quickly become a hodge-podge of everything and anything, I thought I’d quickly upload a poem I wrote tonight. Uploading poetry might become a regular thing but I won’t make any promises!

 

‘Education’ 

 

I learnt how to count when I was two or three.

Flies fest on the bodies left behind in war,

Replacements move through a revolving door.

The numbers are not the government’s responsibility.

 

I learnt history when I was four or five.

Letters left behind by the literate and free,

Who can speak for the enslaved rotting in the sea.

Only the words of the deceitful survived.

 

I learnt religion when I was nine or ten.

Women in Church look like pastel-coloured clones,

I wonder if they know that God often appears as a drone.

The pages of the Bible are made of dead men.

 

I learnt science when I was twelve or thirteen.

Agent Orange burns an infant’s lungs and eyes,

The buzz of manufactured chemicals drowns out their death cries.

A black arm welcoming the AIDs needle’s silver sheen.

Three Things That Recently Happened That Annoy Me

1.) My neighbour built what she calls an ‘orangery’.

If you’re an ignorant millennial like me you probably have no idea what an orangery is. So here is an orangery:

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This particular orangery was built in the Victorian era to grow oranges.

Now you’re probably thinking that my neighbour lives on an Austenesque estate bought with the dowry of a wealthy widow to own such an orangery. WRONG!

She lives in a three-bedroomed semi-detached house built in the 1970s. And her ‘orangery’ looks more like this:

17273193_10212351030560610_607099042_o

Now I don’t know when it became popular for middle-class families to build a brick extension with a couple of windows and call it an ‘orangery’ but it’s really annoying. What’s next? Will we start calling dining rooms ‘ball rooms’? Or the attic the ‘servants’ quarters’? Dear God, people, stop trying to pretend your brutalist townhouse in Grimsby is a twenty-storey Georgian mansion.

2.) I’ve turned into a hypochondriac.

I suffer from anxiety. Anyone who knows me knows that. I’ve never considered myself a hypochondriac, however. But I recently found myself in to the sorry position of waking up at 4am in a cold sweat because those dry patches on the soles on my feet became athlete’s foot. You might think that thinking you have athlete’s foot when you don’t isn’t cause for concern. But it turns out athlete’s foot is a gateway drug. Just last night I convinced myself that I had sepsis after experiencing slight abdominal pain.

In the space of a week I’d gone from thinking I had athlete’s foot (when I didn’t) to thinking I have sepsis (when I didn’t). This irrational behaviour of mine annoys me.

3.) A third of my right eyebrow fell out.

It just fell out.

I don’t know why it no longer wanted to live on my face anymore but it’s gone. And that annoys me.

I believe it may have been brought on by stress but it certainly fed into my newfound hypochondriasis. And the vicious cycle of panicking over small ailments, causing stress and creating even more ailments, fictional and non-fictional, continues.

And that’s it for this week, folks!

Why I Quit Academia

In 2013 I packed my life into a suitcase and headed across the Irish Sea. I was twenty-two at the time and had been offered a Ph.D. scholarship and studentship at Northern Ireland’s most prestigious university. I would be the first Dr in my family, and a female one at that. All those hours spent in the library pouring over books and flicking through Jstor had paid off. I was one step closer to my dream of becoming a university lecturer. So why, three years later, did I decide to walk away from academia?
Competition

I have been known to flip a board game or two when things aren’t going my way. Throwing a Monopoly piece at your winning (and hugely irritating) older brother is pathetic but is unlikely to cause severe emotional distress. Academia is different. I can’t throw a Monopoly piece at the student next to me who has just chewed up and spat out my paper in front of the entire faculty. I have to kindly smile and say ‘thank you for your comments’.

Every Ph.D. student has heard of ‘impostor syndrome’. It’s a term used to describe the overwhelming sense of inadequacy you experience when you work with a bunch of over-achievers. And I’m one of many who suffers from it. The further I moved up the academic ladder the more I felt like a failure. It didn’t matter that my friends and family thought I was doing great. The only thing that mattered was that I couldn’t reach my own, slightly unrealistic, goals. And I took it personally. It’s hard to keep up with the people around you. There will always be people who are smarter, more dedicated and more stable than you. But academia doesn’t care much for personal problems. It cares about numbers and league tables.
I used to equate success with being the best at what I did. I thought that if I became the Queen B of university lecturing the crippling anxiety would magically go away. If someone had told me that I’d receive a pet unicorn and an Umpa-Lumpa as a classroom assistant upon becoming a lecturer I’d probably have believed them. There are very few academics that aren’t battling anxiety, poor work-life balance and isolation. When I moved to Northern Ireland my fellow Ph.D. students and I were told that 40% of us would be diagnosed with depression. And there’s a good reason for this. The dog-eat-dog world of academia is highly competitive. Only the fittest and/or heavily medicated stand a good chance of survival, and I’m neither.
Success should not be measured by the amount of articles you publish or those pieces of paper you’re awarded at graduation. Success should be measured by happiness. I’d sacrificed relationships and my sanity for a Ph.D., but it didn’t make me happy. I felt lonely, miserable and out of my depth.

Unemployment

Welcome to Job Seekers! After finishing your Ph.D. reality has a habit of slapping you across the face with a wet fish. You know the Great Recession of 2008? Well there’s been fewer jobs ever since and thousands of currently unemployed postgrads who are applying for the same job as you. Hurray!
If you aren’t one of the lucky few that walk into an academic job right off the bat you should probably think about getting a ‘normal’ job. And here we encounter problem number 1. You’re too overqualified. The head of frozen foods at your local Asda (the UK equivalent of Walmart) starts asking questions like ‘how do I know you’re not going to leave in a month?’ ‘why do you want to work in a place like this?’ etc. And you have to present your case to head of frozen foods-come-Judge Judy. This obviously means lying through your teeth. Tell him/her you spent the last four years of your life studying the mating process of chimpanzees so you’d know how to better handle the late night costumers. After nailing the interview you’ll spend the next year asking yourself why you bothered. But, hey, at least you have a job and a staff discount.
But that isn’t the worst of it. Here’s problem number 2. After going to Job Seekers they often advise you to remove your MA and Ph.D. from your CV to avoid aforementioned questions. This can be pretty soul destroying.
But here is the BIGGEST and far more serious reason why I walked away from academia….

Sexism

Sexism in the workplace is a huge problem. Women aren’t strangers to off-handed remarks, Victorian dress-codes to physical assault and rape. But, naively, I thought academia would be different. The brilliant and encouraging male professors that had taught me in the past had convinced me that academia was a glossy bubble of politeness and acceptance. This bubble quickly burst when three months into my studies a student told me about what my then supervisor had said about me. No, he didn’t tell the student about the merits of my research, he told them I had an ‘amazing arse’ and he wanted to ‘hook up’ with me. I contacted him immediately, demanding answers. He denied it all and I believed him.
A week later I was in his office, Marvin Gaye playing from the speakers behind him. We talked about work, as usual. But just as I was about to leave he said ‘I’d tell you why I said those things but I don’t think I should’. I nodded my head and left. Hindsight is a brilliant thing. I wish I’d reported him, asked for a new supervisor and carried on. But I didn’t. Things don’t get better once a supervisor crosses that metaphorical line and this case wasn’t the exception.
In the last few years I’ve been the recipient of verbal abuse and sexual assault, not by senseless thugs, by professors. Seeing how women are treated in academia made me question if this is the right environment for me to be in. More than the competitive nature of academia or fear over employability, sexism shattered the idea of academia that I had built up in my head. Things need to change. And they can only change if more women become lecturers. So, ladies, don’t let this put you off if you’re thinking of applying for a Ph.D. This is just my experience and, perhaps, a bit of a warning.

A Comparative Study of Academia and Weight Watchers.

‘I’m a fucking genius!’

That was my initial thought when I came up this hypothesis:

Doing a Ph.D. is a lot like getting an annual subscription to Weight Watchers. And here’s why:

Pros of both:

  • You believe you’re making a positive change which gives you a greater sense of purpose.
  • Every time you step on that scale and you’re half an ounce lighter than last week or you hand your chapter in on time you feel like a better person, even if lasts for just five minutes.
  • First impressions count. And there’s nothing that says ‘I’m better than you’ quite like a small waistline and/or a Ph.D.
  • Develop relationships with people who have similar goals and are sickeningly middle class.

Cons of both:

  • That moment of ‘why the fuck am I doing this again?’ when you realise your holiday is in three weeks and your beach bod looks more like a beach ball or you realise that promise you made to your supervisor about handing in before you go away is about as real as Donald Trump’s tan.
  • Every time you step on that scale and you’re half an ounce heavier than last week or you’re late getting that chapter in, your inferiority complex starts flexing its muscles, getting ready to punch you into your next panic attack.
  • It’s so competitive that you begin to hate those middle class twats. Who do they think they are doing better than you anyway?!
  • You’re going to have a mental breakdown halfway through and balloon up to a size 40, so why bother?

These are the lessons I’ve learnt over the course of three years. And it took me a while to get there.

The day I learnt that mascara is as debilitating as pepper spray was after I broke down in front of my computer. There I was. Black tears streaming from my red, irritated eyes. Bubbles of snot flying out of my nose. My throat forming unhuman sounds that, even in my manic state, surprised me. I had become hysterical. If some 19C physician had seen me then I would have been strapped into a straight-jacket and diagnosed with an incurable case of ‘tilted womb’.

But my office mate didn’t even flinch. It’s customary to have a Ph.D. breakdown at least once a year. If you don’t suffer a breakdown during the years you’ve spent staring blankly at a computer screen trying to string what could be said in 10 words into 80,000 words, it probably means one to two things: A.) You’re so emotionally mature you make Ghandi look like a pubescent teen, or B.) You’re a raging sociopath who Literally. Feels. Nothing.

I’m joking. But seriously…

 

 

Tearing Down Historical Monuments – New Orleans Edition.

The people have spoken and the court has ruled that New Orleans officials can begin the process of removing the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle and three other monuments.

 

But before I delve any further into this issue I think it’s only fair that I briefly explain who I am and what my work is about. I’m a race, slavery and memory scholar. A big part of my work is public histories. I was drawn to public histories several years ago after I stumbled across some documents in the archive. The documents detailed the construction of a popular living history museum in Northern Ireland that was built in 1970s, the height of the Troubles. What I expected to read in the documents was an unwavering enthusiasm for historical accuracy and authenticity. What I actually found was the exact opposite. The master-mind behind the museum wanted to craft an historical narrative that would contribute to the depoliticisation of working-class Protestants and Catholics to deter them from paramilitary violence. This made me see museums a little differently. Museums are not static or objective harbingers of knowledge, they are politicised and contested spaces that are influenced by external factors. They tell us as much, if not more, about the world we live in today as they do about the past events and individuals.

 

So where does this leave us with Confederate monuments?

 

Firstly, I would like to say that I think that slavery was and is deplorable and America and Europe have been quick to forget this unpalatable part of their history. It truly irks me that New Orleans, home to America’s largest slave market in the antebellum period, has tried to erase this history entirely. There are no plaques. There are no statues dedicated to the victims of slavery. And, until recently, there were no slavery walking tours. I DO support more inclusive historical narratives that give a warts-and-all history of New Orleans. But I DO NOT support the removal of Confederate monuments. And here’s why:

 

  • Public histories are not unbiased depictions of an individual or event (see previous paragraphs). They are products of their time and, as such, appear incredibly flawed to the people of today. I don’t expect my generation to feel at ease with the then completely acceptable language our grandparents used to describe people of colour back in the day. My point is attitudes change. The nineteenth-century abolitionist and highly religious depiction of an enslaved person kneeling down with a chain hanging from his neck would not be used today because it shows a lack of agency and a reliance on the white saviour. The image tells us NOTHING about the lives of the enslaved and EVERYTHING about Eurocentric ideas of slavery. A monument carved a hundred years ago is not an accurate portrayal of an event or individual, rather it’s the product of an idea of an event or individual that developed at a later stage. Monuments are time capsules. We can see what people thought and felt after a person died or an event has passed. And, for this, they serve as an important reminder of what oppressed peoples had to overcome and how far humanity has moved on.

 

  • They are important tools in education. Glasgow, Scotland, is known as the ‘Merchant City’ exactly because it was home to some of Georgian Britain’s most affluent slave merchants. Glasgow built statues to commemorate the great ‘Virginia Dons’ who dominated the tobacco trade. If you take a walk around the city you’ll find yourself walking on streets named after slaveholders. But the BAME population is not campaigning for their removal. The Coalition of Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) was established in 2002 in Glasgow. Since then it has run hundreds of slavery walking tours. Statues, buildings and street signs play a huge part in their tours. The exclamations of horror heard when someone learns that the statue they walked past to go to work is actually of a slaveholder makes it all worthwhile. A person has to confront the institution of slavery AND society’s response to this. The latter can be just as shocking as the former. As important visual aids, if these statues and street-signs are obliterated the potential for learning about a city’s past via walking tours becomes more difficult. Instead of tearing monuments down USE THEM. They are a chuck of stone. Project what you will onto them. Write plaques that tell people about Andrew Jackson’s involvement in the Trail of Tears. Take visitors around the city and educate people about what these people did. Creating a dialogue is important if we are to inform people about the past.

 

  • Do you feel uncomfortable looking at Confederate monuments? Good. You should. History is full of awful, nasty things that SHOULD make your anxiety levels go through the roof. Art (particularly old art) is not going to always support your worldview. And that’s healthy. Please debate it. Call each other out. And while you’re doing that you might just learn something you didn’t know before.

 

  • Once they are gone they are gone forever. A child might walk past the Andrew Jackson monument and ask ‘What did he do?’ Fifty years from now that might not be the case. Removing statues will not correct the wrongs of the past, but fewer people will read the name Robert E. Lee. And that, in my opinion, is a great loss. In a world the prioritises STEM subjects, less and less people read history. Public histories play an important part in reconnecting people with the past and inspire more children to learn about their history.

 

 

These are my thoughts. Feel free to agree or disagree.

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