My New Normal

 

The question was simple, casual:

“Would you like to join us for a drink at the bar?”

I’d been to one of my regular jaunts into the Highland capital for a literary meeting, and the kindly folk were being, well, kindly.

The answer however, was not simple.  The answer was complex.  It was at that moment I realised how far from normal my life has become.

I didn’t give the complicated answer, of course not.  Who wants to know that I can’t drink alcohol, or caffeine, or in fact anything at all after 7pm; that I have to be in bed before 10pm to stand any chance of getting anywhere near enough rest; that the effort involved in getting a train into town and walking to the meeting saps my energy and renders me good for nothing for at least 24 hours, and often longer; that my poor long-suffering fiancé has to drive into town to pick me up – an hour each way – because it’s too much for me to get a train back home?

So I smiled.  Declined politely.  Wondered if they thought I was rude, or weird. Or both.  They didn’t need the in-depth explanation.  It’s neither warranted nor helpful. It doesn’t make either of us feel better.

But sometimes I’d like to explain. Sometimes I’d like to clarify – that my constant leaving of the room is to go to the loo.  I’m not sneaking out for a fag or a drink; I’m not being rude and I’m not bored.  My bladder disorder means that I am unable to retain urine in my bladder without being in extreme pain.

I’d also like to point out, that however offensive it might be, my sweating is not something I can help.  The pain causes the sweating.  It’s autonomic.  I don’t like it any more than you do.

I might also stress that my lack of sociability is down to exhaustion.  I can’t volunteer to do things because I would not be reliable.  I can never guarantee from one day to the next what my energy levels are like; when I’ll have a good day or a bad day. And my good day might be a very bad by your standards.

So, I will continue to smile and answer the question simply.  For your benefit.  For my benefit.  I will continue to live my nowhere- near- normal, normal-for-me life. And when I see people who look sad or troubled, or in pain; when I see people giving the simple answer – although you can see the complication in their eyes – I will not judge.  I will wonder what trials and tribulations they are going through.  I will signal my solidarity to fellow sufferers of invisible chronic illness, who look so very normal but whose lives are anything but.

 

 

Photo by Debbie Mathews.  Installation by Sophie Cave, Kelvingrove Museum Glasgow.

Musings of a Former Vegetarian (without a current label)

 

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I decided, age 11, that I wasn’t eating meat.  Not no more.  Not no how.  My mother was horrified and thought I would die of malnourishment.  To be fair to her, she learned to cook a few staple dishes: her version of a veggie paella (with burnt tomatoes that tasted surprisingly good) and a cheese, potato and onion bake.  We also discovered pasta – a never seen before carb’ in our potato dominated house.

As you will note, I lived!  I soon found out about various aspects of nutrition, which sparked a life-long interest (and various certificates along the way) in diet, food and cooking.  The average supermarket didn’t have ‘veggie options’ in the early 70’s and meat-spurners were forced to buy weird things from wholefood shops that were packed in brown paper bags.  You had to be creative and engaged to survive without turning into a lentil-eating, sandal-wearing hippy.  As an up-coming teen, that was definitely not a cool vibe.  Rose Elliot, and later Sarah Brown, were my lifelines.  I cooked every recipe in those original books, discovering the amazing array of plant based foods, without the need for weird things from hushed wholefood emporiums.

I remained a vegetarian for over 30 years, fairly strictly.  I was never a vegan, I relied on eggs too much, but I’ve since dabbled with vegan cooking and enjoy the challenge from time to time, although not as a permanent lifestyle choice.  Being a vegetarian definitely made me more adventurous than my meat and two-veg mates, though it by no means guarantees a healthy lifestyle.  Over dependence on dairy can be a recipe for weight gain, and eating vegetarian versions of junk food – pizza, chips, convenience foods – will leave you equally lacking in vital nutrients and  as drowning in surplus calories as your carnivorous counterparts.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop being a vegetarian. I simply decided to add a little fish protein to my diet at a time when I was unwell and needed to make an extra effort to look after myself.  I’m not saying that you can’t be healthy and look after your nutritional needs on a plant based diet – I did it for over 3 decades.  What I am saying is that for me, eating sustainably sourced fish was something that I incorporated into my diet and found I enjoyed.

When I moved to the Highlands of Scotland I decided to try wild venison.  A healthy and sustainable option for meat protein.  (The deer need to be managed, to some extent, to keep numbers supportable in the environment, and make sure weak herd members don’t starve in harsh winters. ) So, I enjoy some locally caught and butchered wild venison occasionally.  And occasionally is the key word.  My diet is still largely based around vegetables meals, with one fish dish a week and a meat meal very rarely.

There is absolutely no doubt that in the UK we all need to reduce our meat consumption.  The current levels are not sustainable.  There are issues with the conditions of animals reared in other countries. There are issue with transportation of livestock. There is also some question as to the ultimate healthiness of a high meat protein diet. Above all there are environmental issues with excessive meat consumption, where land is given over to growing meat, when it would be better used for growing crops. However, it is also true that there are areas of the UK where crops cannot be grown.  Some areas of the highlands are prime examples.  The land is designated as ‘rough grazing’ and the fact is that you couldn’t grow crops on it if you wanted to.  In this instance, ruminating animals are the best way of turning poor grassland into a viable protein source.  If we all reduce our meat consumption and concentrated on buying better quality grass-fed UK animals, we could do a lot better by our farmers, who often struggle to turn a living, never mind a profit.  Farmers in the highlands, along with crofters, have always struggled with the poor land and the harsh environment, if they were supported with better networks and better prices, we could be self-sufficient in beef and lamb, without the need for imports.

Raising meat well takes time and effort.  The inputs are greater and it costs more, but it is a better option than antibiotic laced, GM fed imports.  I appreciate not everyone can afford the price of an organic chicken or a slow-growing grass-fed piece of beef, but if you only ate it once a month, once every few months, it would make it more likely.

Many people will disagree with my stance, and that’s fine.  I’m not preaching for people to stop being vegetarians, or to become vegetarians.  I’m encouraging you to be conscious about what you’re eating and the implications it has for your health and the health of the planet.

If everyone became vegetarian tomorrow, or next week, it would not save the world!  Many vegetarians eat soya, which has its own set of ethical issues.  The UK would not return to some mythical ‘green and pleasant’ land.  It is more likely to become a barren place of housing estates, out-of-town shopping centres and miles of tarmac.  In the highlands, where some of the grazing animals contribute to environmental schemes, the land would be overrun with non-native species and gorse, the deer would run riot, and new forestry would be under threat.  The natural world has a delicate balance and humanity has intervened for centuries, impacting it for both good and bad.  Without management, many highland species of plant and animal life would not survive.  Already threatened by habitat loss, they would struggle even more with herds of wild deer and sheep rampaging across the countryside.

Eating is both an ethical and political issue these days.  There is much to despise in modern farming, and there is also much to admire: there is good husbandry and bad; people who care about the environment, and people who don’t.  As consumers we need to encourage the good practices by demanding high welfare, slow growing, grass fed, non GM fed animals.  We need to be prepared to eat less meat and pay more for it.  We need to shun cheap imports that out-compete our home-grown meat on price, but not on quality.

So much of my life has been spent as a vegetarian that I still think of myself as such.  Most of my meals continue to be plant based, and when I do eat meat protein, it is always locally sourced, usually from someone I know personally.  We don’t all have the luxury of those choices, but we do all have the responsibility to think about what we eat and where it comes from.  My way of eating doesn’t have a label.  It’s individual, and so will yours be – flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore – it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a thought-out position.  That will mean you’re doing what you can with the resources you have, to eat well – for you and the planet.

 

 

 

 

Food ethics, security and sustainability is a huge topic.  If you want to find out more, the food ethics council is a good place to start:

http://www.foodethicscouncil.org

A Greater Fear

alzheimersI fear Alzheimer’s more than cancer, or more accurately, any form of dementia: a disease that can rob me of my abilities and ultimately my mind itself – my life too in the end.

Writing is part of who I am.  I can’t imagine forgetting how to do it; forming words and sentences, expressing ideas.  Such an easy, natural and taken for granted skill, stolen away by synapses failing to connect; brain cells dying.

It might never happen. My octogenarian parents show no signs of it.  My mum was tested because she thought her memory was failing.  The morphine she’s on is the more likely culprit. She passed the tests. So no signs, no obvious risk markers, but the fear lurks: in my forgetfulness, my inability to recall where I’ve put things; the impossibility of retrieving the right word at the right time.  I know it’s tiredness, and stress from being tired, that robs me of my capacity to remember, to recall, but the fear lingers.  Pain is so much easier to contemplate.  I can live with pain.  I do live with pain. Even dying is easier to think about.  Easier than contemplating losing yourself and everything that makes you who you are, without even knowing it.

I think about writing about dementia.  I’ve worked with clients who have it.  My sister works in the field.  I have friends who have family members with it.  There’s a wealth of experience and information that could be explored.

But for now, I think this is all I can manage.  For now I‘m writing furiously for all I’m worth, ticking projects off against the day when who knows what, who knows when.

 

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We all experience memory loss, and the inability to recall names and words from time to time and for various reasons. If you are worried that you or a relative may have Dementia, contact your GP who will refer you/them to a specialist.

The Alzheimer’s Society can be found here:

https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/

And Alzheimer Scotland here:

http://www.alzscot.org/

 

 

Taking The Challenge

 

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At the weekend my fiancée swam a mile in Loch Lomond as part of the Great Scottish Swim event.  He’s been training for a year and has seen his fitness, stamina and speed improve in that time.  Some of our friends thought he was a bit mad to do it, and some of them thought he was courageous.  In reality you probably need to be a mixture of the two!

It got me thinking about why people take on these sorts of challenges: climbing a mountain, swimming a loch, running a marathon, abseiling from a tall building.  For some people it’s about raising money for charity; doing what you can for a good cause.  Tony has raised, so far, over £500 for a small MS charity that provides support to MS sufferers and their families, though for him that wasn’t the prime motivator, it was more about the personal challenge.

Sometimes it’s good to have an objective focus for our efforts.  As someone who has multiple long term health issues, getting fit, and staying fit, is always a challenge due to my energy (lack of) and pain levels (high). At the start of the year I decided to challenge myself to run a 5k.  I chose the Loch Ness Marathon because it was far enough away in the calendar for me to stand a chance of achieving a degree of fitness and managing to put in some training time before the date, and also because I love their strap line: ‘If you have to put yourself through hell, you may as well do it in heaven’.  This applies to the gruelling rough terrain marathon, but for me it sums up my attitude to the 5k – any distance in fact- as I enjoy being out in the open to train.  I could have got fitter without signing up for a 5K race of course, but there’s something about setting a formal challenge that motivates me to achieve my best.  I guess a lot of people are the same.

The swim on the bank holiday weekend in Loch Lomond was a joyous affair.  There were people of every age, sex and colour.  Participation in these events is open to everyone who can complete the distance, regardless of any other factor, and that is also part of their attraction.  The oldest participant was 80 years old.  He swam a mile in under an hour.  I’m not sure of the age of the youngest participants, but there were certainly people there in there early twenties.  There was a great community spirit from both competitors and supporters, with everyone focused on the same thing: taking part.

For some people a 5K is literally a ‘walk in the park’, for me it’s a really big deal; for some people a marathon is hard and for others it’s relatively easy.  There were a high proportion of first-timers taking part in the swim, and I will be doing the Loch Ness 5K for the first time in September.  A lot of people decide to take action in their 40’s and 50’s.  With youth long gone and the prospect of getting old on the horizon, many people make the decision to get fit, take up a sport, take on a challenge, or otherwise shake up their lives in some way.  I have friends who have taken up cycling, rowing, dancing and running now they are into their 50’s.  I like to think it’s more than a fad, or worse fear, but more a life-affirming joy of living; knowing that we can hone our bodies into some sort of physical shape that makes it possible to swim lochs, cycle continents, climb mountains, for as long as we have the strength to do so.

People have always taken on challenges.  Some are more risky than others – mountain climbing or sailing around the world- but the essential reasons why people do these things are the same.  We do them because we can: the mountain is there to be climbed, the loch is there to be swum, the race to be run.  It gives us a sense of adventure and challenge; the adrenalin rush and the achievement; it instills some sort of discipline and routine and encourages us to learn lessons about ourselves – what motivates us and makes us tick.  We understand on a fundamental level that these things can be good for us both mentally and physically.  We know in our bones that we weren’t designed to sit still in front of gadgets for hours on end.  As it says on my fiancée’s t-shirt ‘if you think adventure is dangerous, try routine – it’s lethal!’ We are designed for thrill, challenge and adventure in the physical world – our ancestors are testament to that, and we are testament to the fact that sedentary stressful lifestyles are not what we are made for.  So, I would urge you to get out there.  Challenge yourself.  Do something adventurous; take a risk.  You will enjoy improved fitness and better mental health.  Find something you enjoy and you will come across others that enjoy the same thing.  There are clubs and societies and events up and down the UK.

If you’re struggling with health issues or have disabilities, there are still active things that you can do.  There’s a father who has pushed his disabled son through a thousand or more marathons in a specially designed chair; there are disabled athletes of every discipline.  And if like me, you are in pain and suffer with a lack of energy, aim for something small – a walk around the block, a length in the pool – enlist the help of a friend to support and motivate you.  We can all benefit from being outside and having a bit of excitement in our lives.

 

Happy adventures!

 

Support me here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Debbie-Mathews-Ruppenthal

Support Tony here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/theweeappshop

British Paralympic Association – Find  a Sport. http://parasport.org.uk/find-a-sport/?gclid=Cj0KEQjw3ZS-BRD1xu3qw8uS2s4BEiQA2bcfM9fbdHAiskWcx8FsaYR-fhYQo82Zf10zDUuZjGUbR6kaAje58P8HAQ

 

 

 

See Me

See Me End Mental Health Stigma

Invisible, long term and utterly devastating.  Mental illness, in particular depression in its various forms, is still very much misunderstood.  It’s 2 years since Robin Williams died.  The news shocked and saddened me – I’ve been a life-long fan – but I shouldn’t have been surprised.  No one is immune.  Depression isn’t choosy about who it picks: actor, football player, rugby player, teacher, police, stay-at-home mum, politician – anyone can be struck down and at any stage of life.  Some depression is situational. But for many depression comes often without reason or cause.  Depression isn’t always ‘about’ something, it just ‘is’.

Some people found it hard to understand how someone privileged could take their own life.  It’s an indication of the sheer desperation and desolation that many people with depression feel.  Wealth, family, fame, none of it can insulate you from the impact.  For many people with depression it’s the ultimate action of power against a foe which you have no control over, and no way of beating.  Hopelessness leads many down the same path.

As someone who has completed Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), and spoken to people who have lost family members to depression, it is clear that the action is not cowardly or selfish, as many claim.  The act of taking one’s own life may be a desperate one, but many people genuinely feel that their loved ones would be better off without them. Such is the feeling of worthlessness that this seems like a reasonable, logical option – the only option.

High profiles deaths like that of Robin Williams have done something to raise public awareness of depression, and that’s a good thing.  Far more needs to be done however, so that this invisible and destructive illness doesn’t take as many lives, and ruin somany more.  In 2014 (the most recent figures available) there were over 6500 recorded deaths from suicide.  The highest suicide rate in the UK in 2014 was for men aged 45-49 at 26.5 per 100,000.  Suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49 , eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. That’s a very scary statistic.  There’s plenty of research into cancer and lots of preventative advice about heart disease but comparatively little research and advice on depression and suicide.  It’s mainly left to charities like the Samaritans, Mind, and a host of smaller third sector organisations to raise awareness and provide advice and support.  Given the statistics, that isn’t good enough.  We have public campaigns on testicular cancer – an exclusively male killer- why not depression?  Whilst it may be true that more women are diagnosed with depression, it is also true that more women than men seek help.

See Me Scotland have had high profile campaigns to end mental health stigma but there has been no equivalent in other parts of the UK.  Isn’t it time we made a concerted effort to tackle this serious public health issue which is affecting men adversely?

In part it is a question of men feeling that they can’t talk to anyone and receiving negative responses when they do.  Being told to ‘get over it’ is a common response to depression.  Women may be more sympathetic in general, but it’s not really a ‘man thing’ to admit vulnerability, and being depressed is often seen as a weakness.  We need to get across the message that depression is an illness.  You wouldn’t tell someone to get over cancer or a broken leg, and no one with depression should be told to ‘get over it’ either.

Clearly this is a more complex issue than this brief piece can cover.  I would urge you to find out more.  Do the ASIST training so you can recognise the signs in friends, family or strangers. Find our more from the organisations mentioned here. Above all, be kind to your fellow human beings.  You never know what struggles they are going through.  Don’t assume because someone is a joker or the life and soul of the party that they are happy, that they are immune from depression.  Robin Williams was a brilliant actor, had a fantastic sense of humour and what looked like a perfect life, but he also had depression – and it killed him.

I am running a 5k as part of the Loch Ness Marathon at the end of September in support of Support in Mind Scotland, a small charity providing support to people with mental illness and their families.  If you feel you can donate something please go to my JustGiving Page. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Debbie-Mathews-Ruppenthal

Thank you for reading this.

 

Statistics courtesy of the Samaritans:

http://www.samaritans.org/about-us/our-research/facts-and-figures-about-suicide

 

“Not the Answer…

not the answerThis statement appeared on the day of the budget in my Twitter feed.  The person tweeting was referring to the ‘Sugar Tax’.  There was heated debated about how futile it was, or what a good idea, or how it was taking the heat off other more important issues (are there many more important things than our children’s health and well-being?)

I got a bit foot-stompy and this blog is the result.  Well, no, of course it isn’t ‘the’ answer, or not the whole answer anyway.  No one is that naïve, not Jamie Oliver, not the general public, the nutritionists not even the politicians who approved it.  But here’s the thing, maybe things are so bad, with our own health, our children’s health and the health of our environment, that there is no single big ass solution – maybe there never was. Big ideas, high level strategic solutions are for governments and world organisations.  As people, we identify with the practical; what’s meaningful for us.  We feel irritated and overwhelmed by policy, policing and projects.  Most of us I suspect want to engage, but when the message is: ‘you must do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ – negative dictates from above – we feel quite the opposite: disengaged, disenfranchised, and if you’re me, down right rebellious.

We long to be inspired by a vision of something we can achieve, something positive.  The carrot being infinitely better than the boot (to mix metaphors). We need to see results of the steps we’re taking and to take them one at a time, each one leading inexorably to the next until we’re on that journey towards making a difference. Thankfully there are trail blazers, eco warriors, impressive environmentalists and campaigners for the health of the planet and the health of the human race. And we need them to inspire and encourage us to take action.

However, there are people who struggle to survive now, people in this country who have to work out where the next pay packet, the next meal, the school books, the bus fare, the money for the electricity is coming from, and people in other places in the world who are far worse off than that.  It’s not always a lack of care that stops us from taking action as much as a sense of priority.  Ironically it is the people least able to take action that poor health and climate change impact first, and to a greater degree.

No one wants to see the earth burn; no one wants their children to be morbidly obese and unfit.  We have to deal with challenges at all levels: personal, societal and political to start making a difference to anything.

So, no, the sugar tax won’t cure childhood obesity, but it has raised awareness of the issues involved, it has raised the political profile of an insidious, damaging and costly epidemic.  There is much more to be done to rescue a generation of children from bad sugar and bad advertising, and a great deal more to be done to save the world for them.

And we all have a part to play.  We are all part of the jigsaw which will give us the panoply of answers required.

The Plan – Jamie Oliver http://www.jamieoliver.com/theplan/

 

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream..

Sleeping CatWe all know the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and we view sleep itself with the same worn familiarity.  Like many things in life, sleep is something we take for granted, that is, until we don’t get any.  When something becomes unobtainable we are more likely to re-assess how we value it.

As children most of us sleep routine hours without a thought for what else we might be doing with those hours.  Sleep is natural and necessary.  We all know ratty children who’ve stayed up beyond their bedtimes.  Being under the duvet can have its attractions, however, and  our relationship to sleep, and our sleep patterns themselves, often change when we are young adults.  We want to live life to the full and squeeze every moment from the day, burning the proverbial candle at both ends.  At college late night sessions doing last minute submissions, and conversations into the wee small hours, were almost mandatory.  And why not?  We’re only young once!  I have never been good at late nights however, even when I was at college.  I knew I needed my sleep, even if it was only five or six hours, and everyone else knew it too!

Starting a family is another time that we tend to pay attention to our relationship with sleep, mostly when we’re not getting any.  The disturbed nature of  our sleeping patterns can have huge impacts on our lifestyles, and relationships, especially if our tempers fray.

We do need our rest.  Science has proved it.  Many leaders, famously Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, claimed to not need sleep, but the reality is that they probably obtained their quota at different times, or in different ways to the norm.  Cat-napping is a good example of this.  I have a friend who can cat-nap anywhere.  He can even decide to sleep for ten minutes, and then wake up refreshed.  It’s an enviable skill, although when he’s fallen asleep on the train after one too many glasses of afternoon beer, and missed his stop, I do have to smile!

Lack of sleep, even disturbed sleep, has an impact.  The list of possible long-term effects from not getting enough sleep is impressive, and includes a potentially reduced lifespan.  People who work night shifts are prone to a number of illnesses, and are even more likely to have accidents.

When you begin to look into the subject, you can see why sleep deprivation was used as a torture.  We can only go a maximum of 11 days without any sleep.  In 1965, Randy Gardner, a 17-year-old high school student, set this apparent world-record for a science fair. Several other normal research subjects have remained awake for eight to 10 days in carefully monitored experiments. 1 None of them suffered lasting ill-effects, but after  2 or 3 days, most  of them showed progressive and significant deficits in concentration, motivation, perception and other higher mental processes; after a relatively short time we start to notice deterioration.

I’ve not had a regular sleep pattern in over 18 months now, and my ability to deal with normal day-to-day stresses is definitely diminished.  My memory is worse than it was, especially short-term memory, and there is some research which suggests that we actually need sleep to lay down memories.  Sometimes I feel like someone’s wiped my hard disc over the last year or so, and that I’ve somehow lost a chunk of life.  Living with sleep disturbance certainly robs you of your capacity and energy, and can make normal functions seem far more difficult.

We know very little about our need for sleep, and what causes disruption, and though there is some research, and a rise in the number of so called ‘sleep clinics’, there is very little real information around considering the importance of the subject, and the scale of the problem.  It is thought that up to 1 in 3 people in the UK suffer with insomnia.  For some it’s a short blip in an otherwise regular sleep pattern, but for others it’s the scourge of years, decades even.  In the UK the  NHS  spend around £50 million a year on prescriptions for sleeping pills, that’s 15.3 million prescriptions and up to 1 in 10 people taking them. In itself, this can lead to long term issues, not least addiction;   diverting some of the spend to research and alternative therapies, could prove to be a more effective solution.  There are several sleep clinics now in the UK, but being referred to one is a lengthy process, variable across the country, and with no guarantee of a successful outcome.

As we age we may sleep less.  We may need to sleep less, or it may be one of the curses of ageing.  Again, there’s not a  whole heap of data to draw conclusions from.  What is certain is that sleep is crucial for our mental and physical well-being, and that a healthy relationship with sleep is every bit as important as a healthy diet.  Some research even suggests that our sleep patterns can influence weight gain.

Make a regular date with your bed.  It is not time wasted; rather it’s necessary to who we are and how we function.  If you think you have an issue with your sleep patterns seek some advice from your GP and/or look at one of the many support groups available on line.

Zzz  Sweet dreams Zzz

Refs:
1 J. Christian Gillin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, conducts research on sleep, chronobiology and mood disorders

2 Sleeping Pills, Britain’s Hidden Addiction. The Guardian On Line (Guardian.com) Lifestyle Article August 2012.

For Further Help and Information see:

NHS Sleep Problems

British Sleep Society

Mood Juice, Self-Help Guide to Sleep

Photo credit Remigiusz Oprzadek  Dreamstime Stock Photos

Life is a Box of chocolates – J Ross 1961 to 2013

smallerIt’s taken me eight months to write this blog entry.  Not that I’ve spent weeks writing draft after draft, searching for mots justes; it’s been more of a distillation process, where the content needs to bubble and brew, mature over time, and the distance that gives.

When Jacqui died, there were no national headlines announcing the fact, not even an article in the local rag of the area where she had lived for over 20 years.  There was no display of national mourning, just ripples of grief from friends and family that spread locally, washing over people who knew her.

Jacqui was an amazing person.  She struggled with serious health issues, as well as being an amputee, and having bi-polar.  What made her so amazing was that despite everything she was cheerful, grateful, generous, kind, and very talented.  In her circumstances I’m not sure I would have been so positive about life.  One of Jacqui’s enduring features was her courage in the face of adversity, her zest for life.  She was never possessed by negativity, but had resilience, in spite of her lack of self-belief.

Jacqui was a mum, a family person through and through, who would do anything for those she loved.  She bought up a bright, cheerful, well-adjusted daughter through all the turmoil and challenge of her own life.  Jacqui was full of kindness and bright ideas, and a genuine community spirit.  Despite her dislike of crowds, and many social settings, she was the baking hero of her local village, and churned out thousands of bakes over the years, raising money for local and national causes alike.

Jacqui managed to hold down a job, and didn’t claim state benefits, to which she would have been entitled.  She forged her own way after her marriage break up, and lived independently.  Jacqui was always shy of new people, but that didn’t stop her making friends, or referring herself to the befriending service where I first met her.  She constantly challenged herself to do new and difficult things.  She continually stretched herself and didn’t ever shy away from what she found hard.

Jacqui liked Christmas, and at this time of year I remember her enthusiasm for planning, for choosing the right presents for people.  As a talented baker and professional chocolatier, as well as an accomplished crafter, Jacqui was often able to make unique and memorable gifts for people.  A Christmas without Jacqui, and her fantastic chocolates, will be a poorer one for sure.  She was great at thinking of present ideas for people, and with the merest information could suggest a range of potential gifts.  I used her skill on more than one occasion!  Jacqui liked her own company and could find people hard to understand, but she always invited people for Christmas; as well as her family there would often be an elderly person, who would otherwise be on their own.  Jacqui was good at putting her fears aside and doing what she felt was right. 

Sometimes life could overwhelm Jacqui.  She could deal with most things, but when a spate of disasters came her way, the cumulative effect of circumstances and mental illness could mean she would be unable to cope.  Frankly, I have no idea how Jacqui coped even with the everyday trials of life.  She had a sleep disorder, which meant she rarely got more than a couple of hours sleep a night, and she was on copious amounts of medication which would have grounded most people.  Inevitably there were frequent stays in the local mental hospital while she recovered her equilibrium enough to cope with the world again.  I often wonder how the sleep deprivation impacted her mental health.  I’m struggling with lack of sleep myself right now, and can attest to the many negative impacts it has on day-to-day living.  For Jacqui this was a constant she had to endure, as despite heavy doses of melatonin, her sleep disorder was never resolved.  It is testament to her courage, tenacity and resilience that she managed to get up and go to work and carry on a normal life.  I know people with half the troubles she had that are unable to achieve that.

When Jacqui was low, she could be really low – her complete demeanour changed and she took all the negatives personally.  She felt everything was her fault and she must be a bad person.  It’s very sad to see someone you care about crumple in this way due to what is thought to be a chemical imbalance in the brain.  Usually energetic and motivated, Jacqui became listless, lacking in energy, and full of self-loathing.  She usually had awareness that she was becoming low, and a part of her could often see it for what it was, but often the depression consumed her, and it was difficult to reconcile this person with the Jacqui I had come to know and love.

During a manic episode, Jacqui was never totally disinhibited or reckless, as some people are.  She became more buoyant and cheerful, and often thought of things to do that she would never usually entertain.  I once remember her arranging a party for herself.  Jacqui was a born organiser, so it was no surprise she liked the idea of organising a party, but there was no way she would ever be the centre of attention amid a host of people!  The invites didn’t go out thankfully – she would have been mortified!  Whatever frame of mind Jacqui was in she was always kind and considerate of others, and although in some of her moods she may have had an unintended impact on people, there was never any malice of intent.  I liked Jacqui when she was ‘high’; on the way up you got a glimpse of the joyful ebullient character she might have been without the impediments of illness.  She was less self-critical and more confident, less apologetic and more assertive. 

The thing about bipolar is that it subsumes your personality in some ways, and the medication can dull people into shadows of themselves.  I suppose both ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ were intrinsic aspects of Jacqui’s personality, but it’s hard to know where ‘illness’ ended and the ‘real Jacqui’ started.  I suppose that the truth is more complicated than that; Jacqui was not her illness, any more than someone with cancer is, but the nature of mental illness in particular affects personality in a way that other conditions don’t.

Jacqui was Jacqui.  She was one of the most amazing people I’ve had the privilege to know.  And six years was way too short a time.  She was my friend and I miss her.

 

Bipolar Scotland

The Power of a Smile

Smile small Intuitively we all know that smiling is good for us, and good for the wider world too – don’t we?  It costs so little – the energy required to turn the mouth upwards- a few muscle movements less than a grimace, mere seconds- and yet it can mean so much.

A cheeky boy who I’d never seen before, sitting on the station platform as my train passed, raised a hand at me and smiled.  He winked too; it was a mischievous gesture, but it still made me smile. I laughed out loud in fact!  I was coming home from work, moody and half asleep, but a smile from a stranger made me laugh!

A smile can be so many things: conspiratorial, affirming, sympathetic, friendly, or simply joyous.  It’s an exclusively human facial gesture and something we should do more of in my view.  Making the effort to smile at another human being, engaging a stranger, or even a familiar face, can be very life-affirming.  Not only does it benefit the person receiving it, but it benefits us too.  It’s hard to be crabby when your face says otherwise!

Psychotherapists tell us that what’s inside affects what happens externally, but a smile can turn that wisdom inside out.  Wearing a smile instead of a scowl can actually improve how we feel inside.  Go on, give it a try! May be it’s because we have to make a conscious decision to do it.  Smiling may not change our circumstances, but it shows we can change our attitude to things by choosing to be more positive.  I’m not talking about a false, sycophantic, half-hearted for-the-camera effort here, but genuine warmth of feeling that we can display on our visog with a tiny adjustment of muscles – and attitude!

Such is the power of a smile, telephone sales technique trainers insist that you can ‘feel’ someone smiling at the other end of the phone.  Science also tells us that laughter can improve the outcomes for patients being treated for cancer, so the old adage about laughter being the best medicine isn’t far wrong.

Give it a try, what have you got to lose?  You may not cure the world of all its woes, but you may make someone’s day, even your own!

A Certain Age…

over the hillIt would seem that I’ve reached ‘that age’.  She didn’t say ‘old’, not exactly, but certainly she indicated that I was no longer ‘young’ enough to assume that all will be well!  Yesterday I had my first ECG; not because I have a dodgy ticker, or a family history of heart disease; not even because I’ve reported chest pain, or in anyway indicated that my heart might be suspect, but simply because I’ve hit a ‘magic’ number of years (or nearly).  Now, it must not be assumed that my heart can take the shock of  an anaesthetic.  Last year all was well: I had two anaesthetics, and no questions asked!  This year, however, is a different story – my strong and beating heart must be checked for tremors, palpitations, irregularities and anomalies.  The wires and graphs showed ups and downs in regular rhythm; no sinister beats or skips were recorded on the chart.  My bp of 120/70 can return to its more normal – for me – 100/60, and I can breathe easy knowing my cardiac muscle is pumping away like a good ‘un.

It’s not that I have any objection to being asked to have an ECG, not at all, it’s comforting knowing they’re making sure I’m OK.  What is disconcerting is the concept of this invisible boundary which I’m about to cross.  Last year my heart was ‘young’ and this year it is, well, if not exactly ‘old’, certainly ‘of that age’ where it must be suspect evermore!

Thankfully I still feel young at heart, however the medical profession choose to classify me!