grief: anniversaries are like time machines

I’ve been dipping in and out of Outlander, a Starz TV series in which the heroine is suddenly transported back in time from the 1950s to 1743 whilst on holiday with her husband in Scotland. 18th century Scotland is vastly different to the time she used to inhabit including how people live, what they eat, what they wear, and their values. The landscape and architecture is unrecognisable and all reality is distorted.

About a week before the third anniversary of my dad’s death I started to feel like I had time-travelled. Not literally, of course, because that really isn’t possible. I’ve checked. Rather, I felt transported emotionally back to that time when everything was grey. It was as if the canvas of my current reality suddenly had a grey wash. Everything continued as normal around me but it was monochrome and I was feeling empty, low, and at times, tormented. I couldn’t concentrate so well. I felt lost and my head ached. Worst of all, I felt NEEDY. Uh oh. It is so hard to think and behave rationally when we are in pain.

This was a lingering state for the following three weeks. During this anniversary period I had moments of worrying I was getting depressed. I wanted to stay in bed. Forever. Unsurprisingly, being in a state of grief makes one more susceptible to mental health problems. One reason being that when I’m sad I have less of a handle on my thoughts and negative ones tend to rule the roost. My anxiety isn’t getting better like I thought it was. Now I’m getting depressed. I just hate my life and I can’t change it so I will feel like this forever. Before I know it, I am feeling inescapable symptoms of anxiety and depression.

I recently watched the music video for alt-pop duo Oh Wonder’s song All We Do and it was set up around the following question;

oh wonder

One person in it said:

‘Accept where you are, then it’s easier to move forward.’

As I’ve written previously. I think recognising what you feel at certain times in life, perhaps in response to certain triggers, and then accepting those feelings is so important for when you feel like you’re circling the drain and could drop into that black hole any minute.

It’s the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis

It’s the anniversary of my wife leaving me

It’s the month my baby would have been due

It’s no wonder you feel anxious/low/tormented/lost/irritable. I have certainly found that accepting being in that place makes it easier to bear, especially since I know it will pass.

Yet the problem with accepting where I am is, I sometimes can’t figure out where I am. Right? I am feeling the feelings and have no idea why. They are all-consuming and my rational brain has been squeezed out of the party like some unwelcome misfit. ‘You don’t belong here with your logic and your calm explanations.’

So, the questions remains, how to help yourself find where you are?

Talk to someone.

I literally told my husband he had to listen to me. We went out to walk the dog and I announced;

‘I’m aware that I’m not feeling good and I need to talk about it so that is what I will do.’

This was followed by…. Silence. Then,

‘I just don’t know what to say.’

It’s not easy being vulnerable. I managed to find some things to say and so on and so forth. After two hours I stumbled upon the idea that I may still be feeling rubbish because of the anniversary even though it had passed. I realised I was still in this three-week window. You see, the funeral was three weeks after his death and the time between felt like a bit of a black hole of suspended animation. I was just floating in murky depths, awaiting the frequent waves of sorrow to wash over. Once I realised this, my rational brain was then summoned and I thought lots of helpful things like,

You’ll feel better very soon, then.

It’s not surprising and therefore not something completely random.

You need to do lots of comforting things and not push yourself.

I’d regained some control and, most importantly, some hope. I’m still feeling that weight of sadness. I guess it’s here for a while yet and to some degree, for the rest of my days. Strangely, accepting that does help me find a way forward.

 

 

 

when you feel anxious about being anxious

I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.

Mark Twain

My husband and I recently travelled to Athens. He went to see some sites he is studying in his Ancient Greece PhD. I went to eat nice food and have a week off from work (referring to work in the home and out). It was a pleasant week in which I prioritised self-care rather than creating a pressure to see and do as much as possible. Where does that pressure even come from? I suppose it amounts to some sort of achievement. My perfectionism-recovery-programme told me to enjoy, rest, connect. So I did.

The only downside in all this was the fact that I had to take a flight. There, and back. I wouldn’t categorise myself as having a flying phobia. I felt mild twinges of anxiety as I watched the safety presentation before the flight on the way out and this didn’t feel abnormal. However, I hadn’t actually flown for a year and a half – not since before I became unwell with anxiety. So unexpectedly, when the plane underwent some minor turbulence, I felt the familiar symptoms of a panic attack wash over me.

I had cold tingles travel up my chest and neck. My heart started pounding. My stomach was churning and I felt sick with fear. There was nothing I could do about the situation. I couldn’t leave via the nearest exit (which were ‘here’ and ‘here).

This is what I did:

  • Square breathing, read about this very effective technique here
  • I arrested my thoughts and imagination that were starting to play out the scenario of when the plane goes down and what I would do, as if I was Liam Neeson in an action film.
  • I had a playlist of helpful thoughts that I put on repeat:
    • Maybe, but probably not (in response to imagining the plane crashing)
    • Minor turbulence is normal, not dangerous, and inevitable on a flight
    • No one else is worried
    • Flying is statistically very safe
  • I played music and started reading as a distraction

I wasn’t sitting next to my husband (cheers, Ryanair) and so I gave myself a big high-five when I managed to calm myself down and even fall asleep, which anyone who has had an adrenaline rush knows, it’s not so easy to relax immediately after.

An important element of mental health is to celebrate when you manage an attack or a situation that involves triggers. Too often we can fixate on the times it overwhelms and feel an acute sense of disappointment and even failure.

I got through the flight with extreme sweat patches and a sense of elation. Not half bad. As we were travelling to our hotel an unnerving thought snuck into my mind:

I am going to have to do that again in six day’s time.

I told myself it will be fine and I refused to think about it again. Thankfully, that worked and I had no anxiety about it during the week. Until we were at the airport again and I was terribly anxious, worse than during the flight over.

It’s amazing how quickly your mind can associate a place/activity with certain feelings. In the end, I was essentially feeling anxious about being made to feel anxious again. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but it’s not a nice feeling. If we then listen too hard to that anxiety we will avoid the experience and before we know it a phobia has developed. At face value, the flights were perfectly fine. As Mark Twain alludes to, we have an incredible capacity to create and often what we create are terrifying experiences that never actually occur.

I was dreading four hours of potential torture but it was much better than expected. I told myself, who cares? They’re just feelings and I’ll manage. I slept for a large part of the flight thanks to my serenity (!). I looked out of the window and marvelled at what I could see. I chose to feel grateful for the experience and what it afforded me.

Now I am feeling confident I will be fine for my next flight in the summer holidays. Also, that each time it will be better and better. That belief in itself is an antidote to anxiety. I am noticing that just as anxiety can spiral out of control very quickly, it can also work in the opposite way. As you gain more confidence in your ability to handle it and more awareness that they are feelings you can overcome, things keep getting better.

What are some of your mental health triumphs?

IMG_2940 (1)
Me and my husband on the island of Aegina

thoughts on loneliness and how to handle it

Ever since reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I have been pondering the subject of loneliness. In part due to the frequency with which pangs of loneliness have struck me in the last six months since we left our hometown and moved to the big smoke.

What does loneliness actually feel like?

I’m aware of my inability to fully grasp the depths of it having never been isolated to the extreme. Yet we all experience loneliness at some point in our lives and the simplest way I can sum up what it feels like is with the following statements:

I wish somebody knew about this. 

I wish somebody knew what I was feeling… What I did today… What I’m hoping for… How misunderstood I’ve been… How ill I feel… How much I despise my life… The cute thing my child/pet just did… The movie that just moved me to tears… The mistake I made that’s eating me up.

Loneliness is an inevitable acquaintance of suffering. Not just because people can avoid you because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, or because they won’t bring up your pain or loss because they think you’ve momentarily forgotten it and would be put out to be reminded of it. It is simply because no one else has gone through it in the exact same way that you have. You are isolated by your own uniqueness of circumstance and personhood.

This is why I believe empathy is so essential and drives connection. To have your truth and perspective heard and acknowledged without judgment is a hand lifting you our of your isolation and shame. Shame and isolation have a Catch 22 thing going on. They fuel each other and it can be so challenging to break free from the shame of isolation or the isolation of shame.

What helps deal with loneliness?

Well, as all mental or emotional issues, it’s not a simple answer. But here’s my genuine response:

  1. Self-pity – it’s only natural right? (Smile and nod.) But as soon as I realise how unproductive that is…
  2. I contacted people and made plans – this can take real willpower when I don’t know people very well. Loneliness is a natural response to not having that connection with others that humans naturally crave. To an extent it can propel us in a positive direction towards others, but those deeper connections take time to forge. So I guess putting myself out there is no quick fix but is part of playing the long-game of trust and friendship. This is where my word for the year comes in ‘do’ – just do it. Just text, just ask, just invite.
  3. I tried to think outside of myself – now this doesn’t come natural as I feel things deeply and so tend to get a bit entrenched by what I’m feeling. But on this rare occasion I reflected on who might be lonelier than myself and so I volunteered to help at a social drop-in for the elderly, run by my church on Friday mornings.

anne l gratitude and service

It’s potent when you choose to reflect on who you could reach out to instead of simply hoping to be reached.

4. Talk about it – Brendan Cox (the husband of the late MP, Jo Cox) was on All in the Mind’s show about loneliness and he spoke of the loneliness you feel from the absence of a specific person and that relationship. There is loneliness in grief when you can be surrounded by others and feel very supported and connected, but be desperately lonely without that significant other and the role they played in your life. There’s certainly no fix for that, but being able to talk about it and have someone hear, understand and acknowledge that pain is hugely comforting.

BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind show are conducting The Loneliness Experiment where they are gathering responses to a questionnaire from people across the nation to get a picture of the prevalence of loneliness and to try and discern how to tackle it. Read about it and take part here.

What’s your experience of loneliness? Do you inwardly cringe at the thought of admitting to it?