mindfulness

Resisting my Stalker

I’m stalked by anxiety and resisting it is my daily battle.

It tempts me from the moment I wake up and feel a rush of panic as my heart becomes humming bird wings in my throat and I have to tell myself not to vomit; I have to tell myself that it’s just another normal day that I can cope with; I have to remind myself that there are no real threats; I have to convince myself to get out of bed. I talk to myself until my body listens and gets up. I’ve mastered it so well that no matter what, it works every day now. It’s been working every day for over a year.

The more I reflect in writing, the more I’m convinced by the immense power I have over myself, but the challenge is resisting anxiety which so sneakily steals the memory of all these sensible thoughts from me. I am so used to giving in to anxiety that it’s become a reflex- in my darkest moments I automatically connect to all the other dark moments and boy is it hard to make them go away.

But resistance is possible and the more I do it, the more I remember that.

I find noticing different textures whilst walking to work soothing- I sometimes run my fingers along fences and leaves, mentally recording the feeling.

I’ve not been reflecting enough in writing and letting my thoughts run loose, so the anxiety stalker has been right behind me, threatening to attach itself to those thoughts like a shadow during a never-ending clear-skyed noon. It’s OK though. I’ve spotted it in time and here I am. It’s time to think back to where I last was before I strayed: using philosophy and psychology to guide me by slowly working through Derren Brown’s ‘Happy’. I can’t remember when I stopped reading but I know why. I gave into the fatigue that accompanies that feeling of not coping.

Resisting anxiety is all about the conversations that I have with myself. If those conversations are in my head, I often fail to notice the anxiety stalker. If those conversations happen in writing, when I know someone else could read them, I’m forced to accept the illogical as illogical. Reading and writing is my savior. No it’s not. I’m my savior and I recognise that I can use reading and writing to help.

I don’t like the preachiness of life tips, but if you too are stalked by anxiety, I genuinely recommend you reflect on the conversations you have with yourself and think: am I ever expressing these thoughts externally to see how they sit outside of my head? If not, please look for a safe space to put your thoughts out in, to help you identify which are sensible and which are side-effects of anxiety leaving you in fight-or-flight mode.

mindfulness

Holiday Blues

I have my annual leave coming up, and while I’m looking forward to some much-needed time off work, the topic of holidays has been depressing me ever since I can remember. It’s high time I addressed this.

I know the reasons for it and I know they’re not good enough, but until I write them down and confront them, I don’t think I’ll fully accept it; instead, I’ll give into the self-pity and let myself be sucked into a depression yet again. So here goes, my attempt to explain why I associate holidays with stress…

I first started to get an idea of what a holiday was when I learned enough English to understand the kids in my class talking about their summer holidays. I remember once when I was 10, our teacher said that we’d received a postcard from Joseph in our class, posted when he’d been on holiday to Spain. Joseph had returned to England faster than his postcard and was there to hear it read to the class and there was such excitement as we got to hear that they stayed in a villa with a pool. These were all things that I wouldn’t hear about at home.

The holidays I knew of from home were those my cousins went on. They all went on the same holiday: to visit family back in Cyprus. I didn’t have great memories of Cyprus at age 10 . Plus, even at this stage I knew that terms like ‘indefinite leave to remain’ didn’t apply to my family yet, so no holidays abroad for us. Plus, even if we did get this status, how would we ever afford a holiday when my mum wouldn’t even allow us to keep our birthday money?

I was 17 when I had my first holiday trip. It was a random holiday literally the year we were granted citizenship, after a 10 year wait for a decision from the Home Office. I have to say I don’t even know where my parents got the money from, but somehow they scrambled it together and sent me and one of my sisters to Cyprus with my auntie. My mum made me pay for it in the end. When I was there I discovered a bank account that my name-sake had put some money into for me…and as I write this i have worked out for this first time where they got the money from. While we were there I heard my auntie talking on the phone back in England with my mum. My mum had borrowed money from her (I didn’t know what for then, but now I realise it must have been to pay for our flights) and she needed it. My mum was saying she didn’t have it. I offered to lend my mum was was in my bank account in Cyprus. Like my birthday money, I never got it back.

Still, that holiday, although it had its dark family moments, reminded me of my love and awe for the sea, the beach, the water, the sunshine and nature in general. Being able to just absorb it all, purposelessly. I basked in it and I knew if I could do it on my terms, it would be my happy peaceful place.

The following holidays were on my terms. As I struggled through uni, working far too many hours, I saved up and went on cheap and cheerful holidays, and though they were tainted with the fact that I would usually have minimal (and once no) spending money, they were still my bit of calm and freedom. I was in a place I’d chosen to be.

It’s now been 5 years since I went on a holiday abroad due to financial constraints. Yet, these last 5 years have been the most meaningful and fruitful of my life. I have finally addressed my mental health and am slowly starting to address my physical health too. I have begun a genuine voyage of self-discovery (slow as it may be) and I am making more informed, intentional choices, instead of letting life drag me along.

So, when people at work ask me where I’m going on annual leave, I shouldn’t feel this great anxiety and feel flustered into explaining why I’m not going anywhere. Sometimes I’ll say we might have to move soon, sometimes I’ll say I have family stuff on, because I just think that I don’t want to have to say that I can’t afford to go anywhere. I feel embarrassed to say I don’t have any plans, but why should I? Why is it such a big deal to me?

It’s because to me it’s a reminder that I’m failing at that aspect of life. I’m failing to be a normal person who has energy to do stuff after work and is organised enough to save money and plan holidays. But I’m not. As much as I want to, I can’t save money for a holiday, or a deposit for a mortgage, or even basic clothing. But I have to also realise that I could be as organised as can be, but I could never afford to save any money until we are both working. For now, this is a single-income household with 2 people and £1000 a month rent to pay.

And I need to remind myself that holidays don’t have to be abroad. They just have to not be wasted. This is me reminding myself.

Tomorrow is my last day at work before my holidays. I’m going to the beach. It doesn’t have to be abroad. It just has to be when I choose.

The British summer is beautiful and I know I can be happy in it.

mindfulness

Intentional Recovery

I love how these twigs are holding on.

So I dipped for a bit again and I noticed I was dipping and before I knew it I was struggling to get my head above water again. There wasn’t enough money, or time or energy in me to put up with everything life needed from me to keep things going, and this was all I could think about. I had to keep rewinding the TV, because my mind kept wandering and I kept missing whole chunks. I was ignoring pressing tasks at work for fear of failing at them, avoiding anything challenging or new for fear my in-competencies would be exposed, and I was struggling to empathise with colleagues or over-empathising with them and making their worries my own, too.

I’m well-versed enough now though to know I couldn’t let it continue. I had to lead by example- I tell people to seek help without shame when they need it.

I knew it would take a while to get some therapy to help me through so I asked the doctor to put me back on my beta-blockers.

I didn’t even hesitate, because I remember how they rescued me last time. I’ve done my research on it, I know how my body takes to it and it is helping. I’m finally able to have decent stretches of time that aren’t pestered by panic and anxiety. It’s amazing how quickly I just accepted the state of panic that was taking over my days and didn’t check myself until…I was going to say until it got too late, because that’s what usually happens; but I didn’t wait until it was too late this time. This time I got help in time.

This is why active reflection like this, in writing, is so much better than just letting my mind wander. Normally, I would have accepted that my response wasn’t good enough again this time and punished myself with guilt, endlessly.

So things are improving. I’m holding on. Intentionally.

mindfulness

Derren Brown is making me Happy

My partner is treating me so kindly (featured image displays one of his many spontaneous gestures of love) and I have a meaningful, rewarding job I love, yet the depression monster has been coming back to bite lately, hence why I haven’t been writing.  As ever, depression made me bury my head in the sand and let things get to crisis stage before I finally stuck my head out for air.

But depression didn’t do it to me; I did it to myself…without the added weight of guilt, that’s what Derren Brown’s heroic book ‘Happy’ (2016) reminded me of.  Derren’s book covers all key areas so well that in true agnostic style, I’m temporarily appointing it my bible.

As I do every year, I started getting into resolutions mode when New Year was coming round last December.  This time, I was so deep in depression and desperate to get out of it that I had written out my resolutions (the usual lose weight, meditate and exercise daily, be more productive, make more money, go on holidays…) and actually started sticking to them before Christmas day!

Predictably, I burned out before the first week of January was through.  I went back into decline and not coping with basic daily tasks, forgetting to take medication and refusing to step back for a minute…going from task to task to task with the constant nagging anxiety that there was not enough time to do anything.  I became irritable and angry inside and as always, my reflex was to take it out on my partner.  Mostly, I didn’t, but instead just screamed at him in my head for the stupidest things.  He hadn’t done the laundry or he’d only washed half of the dishes, etc.

This screaming in my head made me so miserable that one day I inexplicably burst into tears in the kitchen and sobbed into his chest, while telling him that I was angry at him although I knew I shouldn’t be.  I told him I wanted him to do stuff and he wasn’t doing it and it was making me so frustrated…but really, he wasn’t causing any of my anguish…I was.  This isn’t something new to me.  I’ve heard this a million times and recognised it to be true but at times either chosen to ignore it or simply forgotten it; acknowleding this has been so freeing for me.

As I’m reading Derren’s book (I’m about half-way through) and as I go back to re-read it, I hope to delve deeper into some sections and explore them in detail.  I also strongly intend to adopt some of the philosophies and practises he analyses and recommends.

I hadn’t touched my bike in over a year.  It’s a bit rusty, the brakes aren’t great and there’s no rubber left on the handle-bars, but I love riding it.  I was avoiding social situations at all costs and had restricted my life to home, work and the compulsory family visits.  After I started reading Derren’s book I cycled round the village green for hours, started being kinder to my partner, attending social events and even began to feel a little happy sometimes.  I knew happiness wasn’t this fireworks sensation, but I just needed reminding…thanks for putting me back on the path to peace Derren!

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anxiety · depression · health · mental health · mindfulness · psyhology · recovery · self-help

Maslow Got Me Low

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I’m very lucky to work for an employer that not only offers professional development courses and workshops, but also ones to help personal development.  A few months ago I attended a workshop called Optimum Wellbeing.  It was motivating, it was inspiring and all those things it should have been to make us want to better ourselves straight away.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t real-world-proof, so as keen as I was to be a better me when I left, reality caught up with me and I wasn’t able to immediately turn my life around as I’d naively hoped.

However, full of naive hope though I was, the cynic in me had already started a plan B in my head.  I would put the book that came with the course and the notes into my office and timetable small chunks of reading time to reflect back over the stuff in it.  Last week was my first timetabled spot to look over the stuff and as I flicked through the papers, my eye was caught by the bright colours of Maslow’s pyramid.  I’m no different to a primary school kid I guess, bright colours and you’ve got my attention!

I remembered finding this theory appealing in the workshop; the arrogant part of me immediately wanted to see how far up the pyramid I had reached.  For those who haven’t come across this theory before, it is called the Hierarchy of Needs– a great summary can be found HERE.  When I first came across it, the desperate-to-be-happy girl in me immediately interpreted it as a tick-list of achievements to get through before finding final happiness, peace and contentment or as he called it ‘self-actualisation’.

I started reading through the list of ‘characteristics of self-actualisers’ and was so happy to see I could already tick off so many things on the list.  Some characteristics I knew straight away I had, like ‘unusual sense of humour’ and ‘democratic attitudes’ even though I had never really used them to think about and describe myself.  But then, inevitably, there were the short-comings.  For example, the following did not apply to me:

-Accept themselves and others for what they are. (I have a hard time accepting myself and often have a confused/fluid perception of others)

-Able to look at life objectively. (I can only do this sometimes usually when it’s not my life)

I immediately started thinking about how to fix myself and forgot all about critical thinking.  Just because this theory was presented to me in an academic setting, it didn’t make it right.  Luckily, the Simply Psychology summary I used to read up on the theory ends with an excellent ‘Critical evaluation’ section which calls the whole theory into question, pointing out flaws in Maslow’s methodology (his data came from uncontrollable/biased sources such as biographies) and his limited sample (mainly educated white men).  I was letting conclusions from a very flawed study convince me that I was on the wrong path!

One thing I definitely learned from judging myself against the characteristics and behaviours Maslow claimed ‘self-actualised’ people had was that I need to reflect on who I am and who I want to be with a bit more kindness.  The truth is that I possess most of the characteristics and behaviours on his lists, but it just wasn’t good enough for me and Maslow got me low!

What theories have you come across in your attempts at self-improvement?

anxiety · depression · health · mental health · mindfulness · recovery · self-help

Reflecting on Anger

I found something I wrote about 2 years ago and I felt my heart start scuttering up towards my throat again as I read it- my body so readily believes that it is in a state of distress!  In the spirit of Narrative Exposure Therapy, I wanted to reflect on it, dissect it and reduce its ability to remove from the now.  This is what I wrote:

…One of the reasons I started writing here was that I wanted to confront the anger that I internalised. Even today it haunts me. I’m riddled with impatience and anger in unexpected times and places.

Today I tried really hard to control it and I couldn’t. I suppressed it with all my might but it still poked out and I’m trying to defend myself and explain it but I can’t. And he gets so annoyed with me. And everything he throws at me angers me more and I can’t even express the anger because it would end it all. He tells me it’s PMS. He tells me I’m being assy. He tells me I’m being a princess. I’m raging inside and want to scream the place down. But I hold back. It would only make things worse. So I take it. Let him keep belittling me for fear of losing him.

How can it be that I anger such a calm man? How I wish he came with instructions. I am willing to do it right. I just keep getting it wrong. He knows I’ve realised I’m wrong most of the time, so now he’s willing to let me take the blame for it all. It’s all my fault.

I loved him. I’m starting to resent him. He knows my memory is failing and is using it against me. He is making me feel bad for shit I’m not sure I’ve done.

Or am I being paranoid? I’m sick of not knowing. What’s wrong with me? Am I broken forever? I’m sick of secretly crying on the cold bathroom floor.

I need to get up and face it all. Life is so hard. If I wasn’t such a coward I would just end it all…

adult alone backlit dark
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I would love to say it was a different me who felt that way, who felt she was treated that way, who wasn’t coping, but it was the same old me, in a lower place than I am now.  I still feel all those things on occasion, but there are other things in my life now that don’t let me fall down the rabbit-hole of self-sorrow for too long.  These new things (a job, more space and creative activity) have also given me the distance necessary to get some perspective and see what was real and what was imagined.

As much as I hate to admit it, John was right about one thing: my moods are extremely affected by my menstrual cycle.  I used an app to track it and to my utter annoyance, John is pretty much as accurate as the app about when my period is due.  As annoying as it is, it has armed me with information to help me be more self-aware.  I’m now conscious that I might be more irritable or have the hunger to enable me to eat the entire contents of the fridge and take precautions.

I have also realised that during times where I’m not affected by an imbalance of hormones due to my menstrual cycle, John has his own issues.  He is sometimes irritable and impatient and it’s not my fault and it doesn’t have to mean that my world stops.

That’s the main change.  I know that my world would not stop without him now and in the past I had convinced myself that it would.  It strangely sounds like I’m not as in love with him as before, but it’s quite the opposite; I am now with him out of choice and not out of necessity.  For too long I believed and behaved as though we were not equals.  I believed him to be so superior to me.

That is why I know I love him more now.  He did not make me feel like we are equals by lowering himself in my eyes.  He made me feel like we are equals by boosting me up.

And now I still get angry because of him but it’s a lot briefer and scarcer and usually ends up being because of misunderstandings.  I am still shite at communicating my feelings to him because my feelings are still confusing to me.

I know I need more therapy.

depression · immigration · mental health · mindfulness · PTSD · recovery

Parentless Schooling

Although I never really got into trouble much, I remember always feeling like I was a bad child.  The feeling just lingered there, staining my thoughts and drove my words and actions.  I remember feeling like I had to lie to make myself sound more worthy, because I’d already accepted that I couldn’t possibly be good enough as I was. I can only assume now that I must have felt that way because of how easily my parents seemed to have left me.  The lack of apology for leaving me parentless destroyed any self-worth I had as a 4 year-old.

Now that I look back on my childhood, I’m impressed by how well-behaved I was.  Aren’t parentless abandoned children supposed to go off the rails, rebel and get into trouble all the time and then end of on The Jeremy Kyle show one day?  Instead, I was this weird mixture of timid and brave.  I rarely tested the boundaries (even though I had the urge to) as I was much more concerned with adults’ approval.  I had no parents, so I was desperate for any other adults’ attention.

I found school exciting and loved helping my grandmother around the house when she let me. She taught me to knit and crochet. She even convinced my teacher to give me a report card even though I wasn’t officially enrolled.  I mean, I heard her convincing her to do it and I knew that all the As were meaningless but it still made me happy.  My gran cared about me.

Our little school in our little village in Cyprus consisted of two classrooms in a building surrounded by almond and cherry trees. I loved getting lost in the surrounding woods at playtime, daring myself to go in deeper every day. I would usually be alone as being in the wrong year group isolated me.  As the school had accepted me 1 year early, I was younger than all my peers and found it hard to be accepted.

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I pretty much started my school life as a loner. I was in the infants classroom with Teacher Oya. We were arranged in rows according to our year group. There were 3-6 children in each year group. She would teach us from the blackboard one row at a time while the rest of us sat or worked in individual silence. She was a softly spoken lady from Turkey, who wore a black velvet Alice band. I remember trying to get my hair to sit like hers. She was probably the closest I had to a mother figure for a while. We barely spoke to each other, but she was someone to look up to.

Her husband taught the juniors (aged 9-11). He was called teacher Ferit and was scary. He had all the features of a teacher from the 50s. He had a hot temper and readily used his cane. He had nicknamed my older sister BigBird because of her larger frame and would regularly humiliate her in front of the whole school, especially during PE. He would throw items he found irritating out of the window (e.g. scented rubbers, tiny bouncy balls) and hit our knuckles with a ruler if we didn’t meet standards.

I do remember occasionally doing naughty things for attention and always feeling awful for not getting in trouble. Once, I kept and spent a coin I found on the floor in the school shop and was so terrified of being caught I hid under a willow-tree-like tree at the end of the playground when playtime was up. As I saw the teacher marching up to me, I tried to hide deeper in the tree, terrified of being told off and publicly scolded.

He simply told me to come to class. The guilt wouldn’t leave me. Why hadn’t they told me off?  I was so consumed by guilt that it never occured to me that I might not be found out!

I tried to make up for what I thought was my inherent badness by being a good student.  I found the work they gave me too easy and just took it upon myself to start doing work set for the class above.  I understood the teacher’s explanation of column addition, so I did that instead of the dot-to-dot activity meant for me.  I finished all the sums faster than most people in the class and proudly took my work up to the teacher’s desk- I still remember that I got about half of them wrong, I remember the shame, the disappointment.  Why do I still remember this sometimes and why does it still make me feel bad?  I was a 4 year-old doing 6 year-olds’ work but I still fail to impress myself?

depression · feminism · immigration · mental health · mindfulness · PTSD · recovery

Parentless

Fearful Fabric Face
I tried painting on fabric in a dark and depressed time as a teenager.

I was 3 when I started living with my dad’s parents at the top of one of the two hills that made up our village in Cyprus.  My parents were working in London.

I remember being stood on my grandfather’s belly reaching up for his binoculars hanging from a nail in the white wall. He was the source of a lot of laughter for me, singing my pains away when I fell and grazed my knee or getting me to walk on his back, calling it a massage. These fond memories were later tainted by my mother’s accounts of how controlling he was of her, spying on her house at the top of the other hill to see what visitors she had with his binoculars. He would then ban certain visitors. 

I remember the smell of pan-toasted bread in the background as my grandmother washed me and my little sister in a tin in the middle of the huge kitchen with water heated on the fireplace.  I wasn’t old enough to realise the simplicity of our lives and I was living moment to moment- something I haven’t been able to do since my early childhood; now I’m too often stuck in circles of memories.
I remember the day my older sister arrived from London a few months after us.  My parents had decided that they couldn’t work or save money with any of us still with them in London.  We were all now to be under our grandparents’ care.
My older sister’s arrival was an exciting day. I can still see her skipping towards me with a huge smile. I then moved to my other grandparents’ house with her and would daily visit my little sister. My grandmother, who lived in the sandy valley was too old to walk up that hill with me every time and my older sis wasn’t interested in us little ones much. I guess the age gap was too big then. I was 4 by now and she going on 7. I honestly can’t remember a single conversation or game with her in Cyprus after her arrival. Little did I know she was facing troubles no little girl should. 
My grandmother – being the pragmatic woman who she was- convinced the village school to take me on a year early. She needed some rest between looking after us and my grandfather who soon became completely bed-bound. She was such a tough woman, but always gave me little speeches to tell me that she believed I could be something.
I only remember disobeying my gran once. I don’t remember the spanking. Just her anger. I had quickly nipped out to accompany the neighbour’s daughter to pick up something from her uncle’s house ten minutes’ walk away. I had gone to a stranger’s house without telling her.
I cried myself to sleep that afternoon and woke up to overhearing her explain herself to the neighbour, telling her how she had gone crazy looking for me in the whole neighbourhood. It wasn’t until I learned of the dark things that happened in that village that I truly appreciated her fear. 
And so months turned to years, and we would be parentless until I was 7. Parentless little girls are so vulnerable. 
anxiety · cycling · depression · feminism · immigration · mental health · mindfulness · PTSD · recovery

Cycling For Muslims

I wrote this just before starting this blog last year…

As depression threatened to debilitate me chronically again, yesterday morning I fought it and got my bike out. After weeks of anxiety building up (I naively stopped taking my antidepressants before I was assigned a new psychotherapist) and feeling worthless and hopeless again, the fighter in me resurfaced. I decided to give the finger to all the voices in my head and do something that has always proven to make me feel good about myself: cycle til I could no more.

When I got back home, as predicted, I was energised to do my chores and much more willing to let bad thoughts go. Still, when I sat to write the next bit of my story here, I could only think about what cycling meant to me as a child, even though we are not yet chronologically there yet. I was stuck, so I didn’t write. Having slept on it, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that I can’t tell you this in chronological order when I am living a present constantly interrupted by the past (compliments of PTSD).
So, although I will come back to where I left off in my story, I will now jump forward a few years to 1993.  At age 7 I was newly and permanently back in grey London and the main feeling that plagued me was longing for the freedom I had in my Cypriot village. After being free to roam the village unattended and playing amongst trees and crops, being stuck to the confines of a semi-detached house was so frustrating.
On a sunny September day my younger sister had asked for a bike for her birthday and was crying having been told it was too expensive. A visiting uncle took pity on her and ordered one for her. When it arrived, the true reason behind my parents not wanting to buy the bike emerged. My dad sat us down and told us that bikes weren’t really for girls because it could “spoil” their virginity. Until I actually understood what virginity meant later in my teens, this fear nagged at the back of my head. I didn’t understand how or what would happen, but he made it clear it would be the most shameful thing that could happen to a girl. 
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You see, in London, thousands of miles away from our village mosque (only really used during funerals and Eid) Dad had found Islam. Well, at least he thought he did. Having been kicked out of my mum’s by police following yet more violence in 1991, he made friends with some practising Muslims. In his most needy time, having lost his wife and home, they picked him up, helped him and told him about their version of Islam, which he then combined with his existing thoughts. 
 
Well, Dad worked long hours, and Mum wasn’t bothered about bikes.  The bike was too big for my little sis and she got bored of it soon. I kept falling but I learned to ride it. I would use the downhill alley running down the side of our garden as a starter and ride down and up that cul-de-sac, dreaming of being able to actually go somewhere. It was the first tool that enabled the daydream world I would later create to help me escape the reality of my childhood. 
 
So for me, cycling is escapism. Not ignorism.  It keeps me sane and calms me so I can go back to concentrating on the main plan. When I was a child, the main plan was running away from my parents physically. Despite all the odds being stacked against me, I eventually did that. 
 
Now I need to get them out of my head.