Speed post to let you know I’ve a new poem about EMDR therapy, published today on Fevers of the Mind.
A difficult ten days or so here. Ten days of intermittent anxiety attacks, feelings of absolute hopelessness and all the jolly symptoms that go hand in hand with an anxiety disorder. I’m on the other side (more of that later) and can trace back to the triggers, but I’d forgotten how frightening it is to be in the midst of it all.
What is an anxiety attack?
I think they’re different for everyone. For me the symptoms build up over several days. I know it’s coming when I start becoming fixated on the possibility of loved ones dying, as well as becoming obsessed by detail of any task. I lose the ability to cope with change, and can crack without obvious warning. The attacks peak with symptoms that are similar to a panic attack – rapid uncontrollable breathing, rapid heartbeat. It’s scary.
As well as these peaks, I experience an intense malaise, feelings of worthlessness, and feel profoundly ashamed that I can’t control my mind. I finished a year of EMDR therapy just 12 months ago, and genuinely thought I was “over it”.
What are the triggers?
A combination of exhaustion from taking on too much as well as a couple of things on TV that tapped some past incidents are what I trace back to. I think being over-stretched meant my brain hadn’t got the resources to rationalise and reason. I couldn’t remember any of the techniques I’d been taught, and couldn’t seem to talk myself down. It’s like being on a train that you know is going the wrong way but you can’t stop it. Being busy meant I let much of my good habits (I keep a gratitude diary and practice tapping therapy) lapse. Like forgetting to exercise I suppose.
What happened to stop the anxiety?
Things peaked a few days ago. It wasn’t great. On Thursday I happened on this tweet from Matt Haig
It resonated, and somehow landed, and I think started the path back.
Thursday also saw the start of NaPoWriMo – a month of writing poems. I’m part of an online group, Wendy Pratt’s April Write-a-thon, writing, reading and feeding back. Thursday’s challenge was to write a sestina, using six set words – nothing specifically to do with anxiety – and out it all came. The discipline of the sestina seemed to calm me. It was a poem that came from the dark place where I was living – and yes, “getting it out” genuinely helped. It created clarity, and perhaps distance. It’s not a bad poem either.
I’m not out of the woods, and a bunch of physical M.E. symptoms has clustered (dealing with the huge amounts of adrenaline created by anxiety takes its toll) but I am less trapped by it. I feel like myself for the first time in what feels like an age.
I rarely post about this these days, but today this feels right . I feel like celebrating feeling better, and feel chastened that I stopped taking the care I should.
Have a happy day, take care, wash your hands, wear a mask and pick up your litter.
I’m reading a great deal about how much harder this lockdown is – and it feels strange reaching the anniversary of what many of us believed might be a brief period of hibernation. This anniversary means that the reality of a whole year of living through a pandemic hits hard. For me it still feels almost dreamlike, and although my digital footprint continually reminds me of all the confusion and fear of last year, it still feels otherworldly.
The fear has faded – and taken the adrenaline and fervour with it. Hackneyed use of warlike language has abated, and ever more sensational the headlines are continually created to turn our minds to other issues. It feels a little as though we are trying to hide from the anniversary, the horrific loss of life and the ongoing uncertainty.
This uncertainty that is the challenge. A string of unkeepable promises means the dates hung before us are no longer something to look forward to, but something we gingerly hope may happen, and gingerly hope won’t cause further damage. Shifting sands and changing tales all cause a sense of needing to double check oneself, and needing to keep hope at bay.
Yet normal life continues. I enjoy a nice dinner, clear up the latest mouse head the cat has brought in, watch for the daffodils opening and the first shoots of early spring – the phrase “this time last year” reverberates, and there is a whiff of nostalgia for that feeling of being “all in it together”. My anchors haven’t changed, but my need for them has increased immeasurably.
Writing during a pandemic is hard
Writing is hard this year. I feel my work has gone backwards a little, and I don’t seem able to concentrate or focus. Maybe tiredness, maybe M.E. maybe just the culmination of a singularly peculiar year – where my normal stimuli of live music, travel and time by the sea have been curtailed. I’ve work forthcoming in some great spaces, notably The Dawntreader, as well as a poem in Louise Mather’s celebration of cats Feline Utopia and my column in Spelt magazine, but the sense of losing myself in writing, that fizz of excitement when something is really coming together is absent. Perhaps just need to step back for a while – read more, listen to more, replenish my soul battery.
Thanks as ever for reading, stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands,
This week has been a gloomy one. I’ve felt overwhelmed by the endless slew of injustice that is bestowed from those who are employed to care about us all, and especially the most vulnerable. I am privileged to be able to write this on my own laptop, at my own desk, with warm(ish) feet and a full stomach. But I feel powerless. Sapped of energy. It feels like a time when poetry and creativity is needed more than ever, to remind that there is beauty and good in this country. It also feels like a time when poetry and creativity is utterly banal and irrelevant. My mooching around my emotions, noticing the play of light on a rose, or the slow movement of spiders huddling away from the cold, is at odds with the sheer dreadfulness of day to day life that others are experiencing. It feels insulting to feel disappointment or frustration at my own concerns.
A development opportunity I’d set my sights on for next year is out of my reach financially, so I’m back to the drawing board about my next steps. I’m pleased with how I’ve responded though – I didn’t take it as a sign that I’m not good enough, or feel that I may as well give up. I’ve worked hard to reach the point where I am and I’m not stopping now. Development is not just about becoming a better writer, it’s about valuing myself, my work and believing in it. Being from good working class stock, a career in the arts still has an air of being fancy, of being somehow indulgent. This is borne from a deep desire for security – an avoidance of the challenges faced by those who’ve gone before. I can’t quite shake it. I still hear myself frame my writing as a hobby, and follow up any conversation about poetry with a assurance that do some “real” work as well. Sometimes this “real” work values each of my words at a penny, but somehow even this meagre pay is more credible.
I have a couple of things up my sleeve, I’ve applied for a bursary from Raven Studios a local group of creatives, sent my pamphlet submission and have a new prompt a day course starting in November, which should help reinvigorate a regular writing practice. I’ve also set up Poems from the Hare my brand new shop, where you can commission a bespoke poem (just in time for Christmas!) and buy a copy of my brand new zine, which will be landing in the next couple of weeks.
What about the treacle?
It’s how the week has felt. The grey days with whispers of gold from the trees, the weight of the sky. The mizzle or drizzle or full on rain. My endless doom scrolling in the small hours. My absolute inability to read, which inevitably affects my writing and the nag,nag,nag of pain that increases with each damp day. Wading through treacle. It won’t last, there is a way out and I am never not grateful for the fact that I am lucky enough to have these things as my worries.
Thanks, as ever for reading, hopefully next post will be all about me sending my zine into the world, and if anyone can recommend a book that is uplifting and rollickng good story I’d love to hear your suggestions.
Stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask
I’ve found myself complaining a lot over the last few weeks. It’s not sitting well. Whilst I have bouts of gloom, I’m not generally a complainer. I’m a keeper of gratitude diaries, a giver of personal pep talks, a reluctant Pollyanna. Counting my blessings is second nature – I’m aware it’s not hard – I have food, warmth, safe home. Still these last few weeks I hear myself moaning about things that shouldn’t bother me – trees blocking a bit more light in my yard than I’d like (SAD begins to creep around at this time of year) envy of those with big skies and wide views, moaning about a misplaced sock or overlooked watering. I don’t like what I’m hearing.
Alongside this is an utter lack of creativity. Not a note, a scrap and scribble. I can barely read let alone write. I’m not sure if my brain is just overwhelmed by the awfulness in the news (although that’s usually fuel not foe) or I’m having to readjust to being in social situations after several months of solitude. It feels like the good creative part of my brain has twisted shut, and all that seeps out are petty grumbles.
Perhaps I just need a change of scene – like many people I’ve only left my home county once since the beginning of March. It’s not a terrible place to be by any means, but think the fact that many of my anchors, the things that make me feel like me, have been removed has left me a little rudderless. I miss the rush and collectivism of live music; I miss travelling to different places and seeing the similarities in human nature as well as the vast differences in culture. I miss the way the light falls differently, the new scents that characterise a country. I miss living.
Missing these things is a privilege in itself of course. It means I’ve travelled, been able to afford both money and time to enjoy music. It means I have a partner who genuinely loves the things I love. My normal doesn’t suit everyone, and the world’s normal certainly didn’t suit me. At the beginning of lockdown, I was of the mind that it was quite nice, having all these gigs streamed, and joining various zoom quizzes, being able to go to museums and galleries online – things that M.E. has curtailed in real life. Six months in I’ve realised that these things are only a sticking plaster. I need that feeling of being with people I feel myself with, that feeling of community, of a common love and it doesn’t happen through a screen. I know that the future is bound to be different, but I’m scared we are going to lose the things that make being human a rich and vivid thing. The curated perfection of a screen is no match for a flawed, emotionally charged performance, or that moment when I stand back from a painting in a gallery and feel my synapses fizz with excitement. It’s no match for sitting around laughing a daft tv program with friends you’ve not seen for years, sitting down to share food you’ve cooked together, no match for the excitement of walking into a dingy nightclub an hearing the music you love, knowing it’s going to be a good night.
I feel curiously better now I’ve written this – I’m not a complainer. I’m just struggling a bit with being in one place for six months and so everything from overgrown trees to misplaced socks is starting to feel too much too Pollyanna my way out of. Reading back, this seems like a normal enough response to a six month lockdown.
Hopefully creativity will spring back soon. Until then, wear your mask, wash your hands, read widely and critically.
has been a difficult month. Various events have conspired to create a wave of minor panic attacks and underlying swell of anxiety that I’ve been free of for some time. These patches will come and go, and I’m better equipped to meet them head on and use all those techniques like counting things and managed breathing to jerk my brain from its doom-filled track. These techniques don’t always work, and it’s fair to say that living with this kind of intense anxiety is exhausting (and scary).
I’ve also been more active socially – by which I mean I’ve been to my mom’s for socially distanced egg and chips – and I’ve realised that this takes a lot more energy than I think. When we were in full lockdown my days felt more my own. As soon as I began to see other people, or to venture out of the house ( a slightly disappointing trip to Ellesmere) I get trapped in a cycle of preparation and recovery that means where I once had seven days in a week, I’m suddenly down to three. Being of a perfectionist persuasion, I’ve been trying to maintain seven days’ worth of activity, so where day to day things like cooking and cleaning were nicely spread out, I’ve ended up exhausted and unable to take on any freelance work, and certainly unable to write.
This is the reality I suppose. M.E. doesn’t go away and I feel like I’ve got to learn my baseline all over again. Combine this with leaden skies and the general terror of the times and it’s no wonder my brain has been on high alert. I haven’t written a single thing this month and I’ve missed it terribly. Even my journal is patchy, just scraps of thoughts and the odd drawing.
Wallowing is not my style though (I prefer tear-filled rage) so as August begins, so does another set of resolutions – to make time, to ease up on the cleaning obsession, to ask for help and to write. I’ll see how I get on.
August also brings a new publication, which is a bit of a big deal to me – Popshot magazine is notoriously hard to get into (I only discovered this after I submitted or I’d never have tried) so having a poem published as part of their Freedom issue is incredible. I’ll do a proper post about it next week, but if you are venturing into the shops you’ll be able to buy a copy in WHSmith – if anyone does please take a photo of it and send it to me – it’s my first piece of print out in the wild as it were.
That’s it for now – here’s to a better August for all of us. Stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask and be lovely.
Thanks for reading
The last couple of weeks have been tricky – I lost one week to M.E., which is never nice and seem to have taken a little longer than usual to recover. It’s been a curious combination of cold weather and reaction to revisiting past trauma, I think.
The cold weather is simple to understand – like loads of people who experience joint and muscle pain as soon as the weather turns cool and damp the pain in my limbs shoots up. It stops me sleeping and makes moving, showering etc. tricky. I’m used to it, don’t like it and think it’s yet another reason I should move to live in Abel Tasman.
The impact of my mental health is something I’m still coming to terms with. For a long time, I’ve fought against this idea, simply because a common derision of M.E. is “it’s all in your mind” (it’s not. if it was, I’d have scooted it out long ago). My EMDR therapist last year gently mentioned this and I felt very defensive – after the year of treatment though I noticed a difference. My symptoms were still present, but it was easier to find and stick to a baseline. I’ve also noticed that my symptoms increase at certain flashpoints (October through to Christmas is always hard) . So what’s caused this latest flare? It seems to have been my lovely poetry course – it’s called Telling your Story and touched a few trigger points for me. My first thought was “oh the therapy’s not worked” but I realised it has – it’s just not complete. The fact that I can recognise and take steps to minimise damage show that my instinct to survive is stronger than my instinct to destroy. There will always be triggers (just like for everyone) the difference is I know what to do, even if it takes a while for me to get there.
What does this have to do with M.E.? I don’t know is the honest answer – it’s just a connection I’ve made and that seems to hold up. There’s theories that past pain is stored in our bodies, theories that people with M.E. have developed a particular personality type that is the result of trauma. The idea of whole body health isn’t new, and each time I fall into this I realise that making time for good mental health practice is as important as making time for good physical health practice. I’m a bit rubbish at both, but I am getting better!
The other inescapable impact is the fear and chaos around every corner. I feel ill placed to talk of the current situation, but it feels wrong not to. I’m vehement in my belief in equality and at this moment that means supporting BLM – I can do very little other than educate myself and acknowledge my own privilege. This concept is something that seems to make people extremely uncomfortable – but you know my nan did it for years – she called it counting her blessings. Being aware that circumstance has given me opportunities that have been denied to others doesn’t denigrate the society I was born into. Not fighting to make sure everyone has the same opportunity to be the best they can be does.
*this is my own personal experience – everyone with M.E. has different symptoms and stories. This is why we need research.
Thank you for reading, stay safe, speak up and wash your hands. I’d love your feedback and as ever if you like, comment and share on social media it helps beat the algorithm and raise my profile as a writer. Normal poetry musings will resume next week.
An early prompt on Staying in and writing it out was to create a piece of dystopian flash fiction. I have a reputation for being slightly contrary, and found myself writing a sort of dystopian rom com called Bread and Roses instead. Have a read and, if you fancy, leave some comments about it, (or anything else!)
At the moment, writing feels very odd, almost disrespectful.The gravity of the situation in the U.K. grows each day, and each day brings its own brand of strange awfulness. Did you imagine in January that the words “596 dead -see page four” would not only not be headline news, but reduced to some kind of “teaser” with fun splash graphics? Me neither. We had it on Monday from one of our most tawdry of papers. Social media is a minefield of opinion and accusation where anyone asking any questions is decried for not “being positive”, yet no-one seems to have any answers. So yes, sitting in my sunny room writing poems and silly stories feels pathetic, and entirely unhelpful.
What else am I going to do though? I’m growing vegetables and flowers (which also I do in non-pandemic years), I’m cooking, baking, cleaning, trying to make sure I take care of my health (which also feels disrespectful) and just, well, living. The discipline of daily prompts from my course means I can step into a different part of my head for a while, and stop obsessing about my next online delivery for at least fourteen minutes. I’ve written more this year than in the whole of last year, and that is good. I need to step away and redraft a some of the pieces, and disregard others, but it feels good to just be writing. The contradiction of this calm with the chaos I know is happening in wards just a few miles away is palpable but not writing will not curtail the pain of others. In all honesty, there’s no conclusion to this little piece. Here’s a link to another new poem, and I hope you’ve noticed I managed to write a whole post without using the word “unprecedented”.
Wash your hands, stay safe, ask questions.
Self imposed isolation for almost a month (I’m not on an official list but getting a simple cold puts me out of action for weeks, so I’m taking no chances for fear of relapse). My brain has thought of nothing beyond how terrified I am for everyone and being utterly obsessed with making sure everyone I know has enough food. I seem to be morphing into some kind of domestic fanatic, making bread, baking cakes, growing veg and generally about finding one hundred and one recipes to use up beetroot. I’ve been too scared and angry to write anything that isn’t work related (and therefore essential to keep eating) and that’s been fine….
…except I’ve missed it. I’ve missed going into another world, I’ve missed sitting seeing if I can taste the right word to use, I’ve missed hunkering down into language to let all those glimmers of joy quietly glow. I abandoned my Poetry School course (thankfully I have a credit) and wasn’t sure how I’d get on with my two new ventures this month. One is a free weeklong short story course, designed by Tania Hershman, courtesy of Arvon, and my other is another poetry course from Wendy Pratt. I missed out on funding to go to Arvon this summer, so I was thrilled to have the chance to benefit from Tania’s unique take on the world and how she incorporates this into teaching and as you’ll remember from my February blogs, there is something about Wendy’s approach that gives me a freedom – and a feeling of being good enough.
I started both today, after doing a super long piece of work about safety in the construction industry (I know). My brain is sleepy, and my thoughts are a little swimmy, but I seem to be able to connect to that part of me that can escape. The first exercise in the short story program was to gather phrases from three poetry books, two instruction manuals and a recipe book, then build a story,and the prompt form Wendy was to recall and respond to being the butt of a joke ( loads of material for this one).
I’ve written a story about eating squirrels and drafted a poem about styling out a loss of control, both of which seem ideal for the current situation.
I doubt I’ll write King Lear, discover great scientific theories, or even get around to polishing up all the pieces I want to submit, but I finally feel a little more like me again, and that is a wonderful thing.
I was very poorly at the start of the year, which meant I spent most of January trapped at home, and a couple of weeks in one room. My biggest mistake was forgetting to pay attention to my mental state. This kind of isolation is something we’re all likely to face over the coming weeks, with added elements of fear and uncertainty to make things just that little bit tougher. Therapy last year has made me mentally more resilient, and I’ve been able to identify what I’d do differently next time so I thought it might be useful to people in the same situation. I didn’t think I’d have chance to test it quite so soon….
Create a routine
This is the most important thing, not so much if I’m really ill and all my body wants is to sleep, but for the times when I feel a bit better but can’t do loads. Over the last seven years I’ve learnt that having a rhythm to my life keeps me balanced. In an ideal week I get up as I would if I was going out to work and keep set hours. I can’t “work” for a full eight hour day, but I can do a couple of hours of something (writing/reading/gardening etc.) over the course of the day. I have a lunch break, and I “finish” in the evening. I try to keep my weekends as some semblance of a weekend, so that’s the time for lolling on the sofa, or eating a fancy dinner. A routine helps me feel in control and keep a leash on the panic, so I can cope when things don’t go to plan
Treat yourself well
The worst thing about being so poorly is not being able to wash and be clean. Other than my scheduled rest days or if I’m crashed, I always try to get up, shower and dress. I have work clothes (thankfully not orange owl printed crimplene anymore), and I have nicer clothes that I wear at the weekend. I’m not swishing about the house in a ballgown (often) but I’ll put on some make-up and perfume if I fancy. It all makes me feel a bit more like me, if that makes sense.
Do different things
If there’s anything good about all this, it’s the raft of online resources that are popping up. There’s ways to visit a gallery, take a trip to the zoo and loads of online courses available for free. At the moment social distancing feels like a great time to do nothing but watch box sets and eat pizza. This is a wonderful activity, but it gets dull really quickly, and dullness leads to boredom which leads to apathy and suddenly getting off the sofa is a lot harder than it should be.
Talk to people
This is a biggie, and the single most important change I’ve made in the last year. Some weeks I see my partner for about ten minutes a day – his having to work late and me being ill in bed makes communication hard, and it often gets to the point where the sound of my own voice is alien to me – like listening to a recording. This makes me nervous to speak, which feeds social anxiety and becomes self-perpetuating. I hated talking on the phone and relied almost exclusively on text and social media to talk to anyone outside my own four walls. Since about September, I’ve been having regular phones calls with my dear friend, and this has made so much difference. We schedule a time, so I don’t have the panic that usually accompanies an unexpected call and spend about half an hour just chatting about everything and nothing. I’d really recommend doing this, even if you’re not usually a phone person, there’s something about the twists and turns of conversation that can’t be replicated by typing.
Being well enough to cook is tricky, and it’s easy to slip into eating nothing but toast. I’m not going to repeat all the stuff about fruit and veg (but yes, eat fruit and veg), especially when these things are hard to get. I tend to keep “easy” foods in for ill times, so for me that’s ready to eat rice, chickpeas, tuna and eggs. It’s all stuff that takes minutes to open and eat as gives me good quality nutrition. I also fail completely and trough the packet of biscuits I was saving for if I have visitors, which feels wonderful for about six minutes and six minutes only.
All those Italians on their balconies have the right idea. Even if I’m not up to walking, I try to feel fresh air on my face as often as I can, even if that’s as tiny as putting my head out of the window. Being outside takes me out of my own head somehow too. I’m lucky enough to have a small garden, and even a short time sitting watching a bunch of ants doing ant things or listening to blackbirds showing off about who’s the best blackbird ever, helps me put distance between myself and my thoughts.
Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it. Reality is that our culture of repressing emotions, the much adored stiff upper lip, is bad for my mental health. Squashing stuff down gives it power, and sometimes that power becomes too much to cope with – cue tough times for my mind. It’s hard to ask for help, but harder to live without it. If you’ve got a friend you can trust to listen, then get in touch. At the end of January, I sent dear friend a scared email saying how I was feeling, and the impact of hearing someone say “it’s ok, I’ll help” was huge. It’s taken me years to get to this point, but I’m glad I have.
That’s it for now, I hope it’s helpful. I’m hoping my brain will have stepped out of panic mode soon so I can write creatively again. If you’re lucky (?!) my next post might be called Odes to Corona.
Stay safe, wash your hands and if you can, please stay home xxx