Thought for the day

Words and ideas can change the world

 

Sleep well, Robin.

Advertisements

Happy New Year – and thank you

Just a quick note to everyone who visited the blog during 2013.

As we launch into another year, I wanted to say a sincere thank you to those of you who stopped by, commented, shared, retweeted or liked the posts. It’s been a busy year on An Cailín Rua, with lots to talk about. I did have great intentions of writing a minimum of one post a month during the year, but fell a bit short in the latter part of the year – but that’s what new year’s resolutions are for, right?

As regular readers will know, it’s been a year of great change for me personally; having  in 2012 made the decision to leave a steady job to face an uncertain future.  2013 saw me starting the year with no income and no idea where I’d end up. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, I know, but stepping away from security and out of the comfort zone felt like a bit of a risk.

I’m happy, however to report that the gamble paid off handsomely. And while the past year has been challenging at times, and laced with a level of uncertainty throughout,  it has paid dividends in terms of new experiences and achievements, both personal and professional, and more time doing the things that I deem the most important, with the people I care about most. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a number of different and challenging roles with some fantastic people, both on a paid and voluntary basis, and feel challenged and motivated in a way I haven’t for a long time. I even managed to get some writing published, which was a  high point for me personally.

While the journey is nowhere near over, and I still have some big decisions to make on a professional level, I feel lucky and privileged to find myself in a position where I have real and exciting choices.

To those of you who supported me in the early days, the wobbly days, the days of crippling self-doubt and the days I felt utterly lost, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your encouragement. Some of you are family, some of you friends, and some of you I’ve never even met, but at no stage during the journey did I feel alone, thanks to you. Thanks for reading the blog, and encouraging me to keep writing, for challenging my opinions, and educating me and helping me to develop my own thinking.

Wishing you all the very best for 2014, dear readers and I look forward to your company for the year ahead.

On World Suicide Prevention Day, what can YOU do to prevent suicide?

It’s World Suicide Prevention Day today, Tuesday 10th September. The day, is an awareness day observed annually in order to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides.

It’s unlikely many of us here in Ireland lack awareness of what is one of the largest killers of our young people. Recent CSO statistics indicate that 507 people took their own lives in Ireland in 2012 – however, as per any suicide reportage, this figure forms only a very small part of the picture. Not all suicides are recorded as such; there are many unreported accepted suicides, and the overall figure masks the occurrence of severe suicide blackspots in certain parts of the country, like Limerick, Wexford, Mayo, Leitrim and Cork, with Limerick numbers the most alarming at 26 in every 100,000. The statistics, though they are only a snapshot, speak for themselves. However, a lack of proper recording and accurate data to work with, particularly to use to spot clusters and trends, is one of the key challenges facing those who fight every day to try and turn the tide of suicide

Regular visitors to the blog will know that I touch on the topic of mental health here the odd time, sometimes in relation to my own experiences, sometimes at a more general level, and occasionally referencing the influence of things like alcohol on our collective mental health. It’s great to see frank, open discussion of mental illness on social media and in the newspapers today; however in the course of the debate, we’re constantly hearing about “breaking down the stigma” as if it’s some big mystery. Stigma is born of ignorance and breeds fear, yet the reality is, each and every one of us has the key to breaking down that stigma, by just learning a little more about the nature of mental ill-health, and by taking small but meaningful steps to challenge it. Yes, you too. It’s not rocket science, and we can all do it. Some thoughts below.

  • The key message we’re hearing is “If you’re in difficulty, talk to someone”. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just reach out, and everything will be okay. Well, you know what? It’s not that bloody easy. Firstly, when you’re in a place where you’re struggling, or convinced that no-one gives a damn about you, and that you might be better off dead, it’s incredibly difficult, nigh impossible, to reach out and talk to somebody. If you do reach out and talk to someone, you may not get the response you hope for, or need. What then? We need to stop placing the onus on people who are suffering to make that first move. This is a collective, worldwide responsibility. It starts with you and me, showing real human kindness to the people around us. Look around you, at your family and friends. If you think that someone is struggling, talk to them. Pick up the phone. Let them know you care. Even if they’re not visibly struggling, tell them anyway. It can be that simple.
  • Telling people to “just talk about it” is all well and good. But in a country where we’ve been bred for generations not to talk about things, talking is something not something we’re all very good at. And if you’re the person chosen to talk to, you might have no idea how to handle it. If you do see someone struggling, and you’re not sure what to do or how to talk to them, that’s totally fine. It’s natural. We’re all human; we’re not all counsellors. Sometimes indicating that you’re willing to listen is all that’s needed. And if you need some help, the folks over at See Change have some very practical tips on how to talk and listen. And there are services available to help both you and the person in difficulty – you can call them yourself, pass the details on, or offer to accompany them while they seek help.
Green Ribbon 1

Some practical tips on talking about mental health

  • We all have mental health, and we all have a responsibility to look after our own mental health. We are not victims of our minds. Prevention is better than cure, and there are countless things we can do to mind our minds.  Exercise, fresh air, spending time with friends, eating well, taking a break from online activity, are all small steps that can have an incrementally positive effect  on our own mental – and physical –  health.
  • Just like most physical ill-health, mental ill-health is not a permanent, unevolving state. Sometimes we’re in good mental health, sometimes, less so. That’s normal. For various reasons, people can go through difficult times where they struggle to cope. Depression can be all-consuming, and for the person experiencing it, it’s hard to believe that this feeling will every pass or that things will get better – but things can and do get better. Depression may be something that will always be part of your life – but it can be managed, in many different ways. Equally, if someone you know is experiencing depression now, with the correct help, there’s every chance they can and will recover.
  • It’s heartening to see so many people sharing their experiences online. Sometimes writing things down is therapeutic, and reading those stories from people you might know is oddly reassuring. Let’s start taking the next step, and talking about it face-to-face, with our friends and family. It doesn’t always have to be a big deal. Experiencing mental health difficulties during life’s journey is perfectly normal, and a simple acknowledgement can go a long way. This was the thing I found hardest to do, but was the one helped me the most.

I experienced my worst depressive experience in my 20s, and at the time felt in despair that things would never get better. They did.  I learned some valuable things over the course of that time that I carry with me every day,

  1. While depression might always be a feature of my life, it doesn’t define me. I am far more than that.
  2. Depression can be managed. Proactively and reactively, there are things I can do to combat it. It’s not always easy to react, which is why I try to be proactive.
  3. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, the very act of doing something about it made me feel stronger.
  4. “This too shall pass” became my motto For me, accepting that I wasn’t well was important, and sometimes I just needed to put my head down and let it pass, rather than fighting against it. Pass it did, and pass it will, if and when it happens again.

These are lessons I learned on my own journey, but maybe they’re things than can help non-sufferers understand the nature of the illness and remove some of the mystery about it.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Preventing suicide isn’t something for “other people” to do. It’s up to you, and you, and you, and me. So do something. Pick up the phone, knock on that door, send that message. Speaking as one who knows, it could make all the difference.

The road less travelled

Recently, I’ve been getting itchy feet.

(Not of the fungal infection kind.)

Change is in the air. I’m restless. I want something different.

The past two years have been … tumultuous. Largely good, but rough, at times. I’ve been shown evidence of the frailty of human existence up very close, no fewer than three times.

There was a different outcome on each occasion.  Each time took its toll, in a very different way.

But I learned a lesson. It’s that life is so, very short. So very fragile.

It’s too short to spend it in a way that means you’re not happy.

I learned another lesson.

It’s that the most precious things in your life are people that surround you. Your family. Your friends – the family you choose for yourself. If you’re lucky enough, the one person you choose to share your journey with, for whatever portion of the way. Nothing, but nothing is more important than those people. Nothing.

After almost six months of constant working almost to the point of exhaustion, I took some time out.

I realised how little I’ve seen my family over that time. I noticed that my friends were busy making plans, and I wasn’t being included. I saw how I’d shut myself off from the world, buried in a laptop, or sitting late in the office. It dawned on me that I’d felt for a long period that the very idea of a relationship simply meant more demands on the time I didn’t have.

To be fair, I’d been working on some great projects. Met some incredibly talented and inspiring colleagues and clients. I’d been learning about things I’d never otherwise have, and uncovering insights that made me feel genuinely excited.  But in a quest to gain experience in the sectors which I felt made my job worth doing, I was sacrificing the time that made my own life worth living.

Such is the nature of agency life, I’m told. Sometimes I drive myself too hard. It’s true. But in a quest to find projects in line with my own values, I ended up sacrificing them.

There’s only so long you can go on like that.

So I went away to the sun. As soon as I stopped, the cold that had been chasing me for weeks caught up with me. I coughed, I sneezed, I sweated and  felt sorry for myself.  When the fever lifted, I slept. Then for days I read. Glorious, glorious books! A joy I’d forgotten. I switched off my phone, ignored emails. I got up at dawn and watched the sun rise over the sea. I took time to breathe, and do nothing at all.

And I thought.

I thought – what is it you want to do with yourself? What do you see yourself doing in five years time? And I couldn’t answer. The only conclusive answer I came to was: Not This.

So I decided – I needed to do something. With no alternative on the horizon, I decided to force myself into a making a change. I decided it was time to leave my job.

I came home. I talked to my family. They stopped just short of telling me I was mad. (I appreciate that they didn’t.) I talked to my friends. They left me in no doubt that they thought I was making the right decision. Some made me feel like anything in the world was possible, and I hope I’ll be grateful to them over the coming months for helping me to believe it. Someone else told me that I “won’t starve”. I hope they’re right.

So, I find myself at the beginning of October, facing into an unknown future. I have just under twelve weeks left to work here, before facing unemployment. It’s daunting.

Scrap that. It’s more than daunting – it’s terrifying.

But … it’s also exhilerating.

I have a blank canvas. Whatever happens from here on in, it’s my decision. I can stay where I am. I can move county. I can move country if I wish. (But I don’t think I will. I like it here.)

I’m scared. Scared that I won’t make this work, and that I’ll have to go back to my employer, cap in hand, and beg them to stay. To be fair, they’ve been incredibly supportive. But to do so in my eyes would be to fail. I feel I have to make this work.

All I do know is that long-term, I want to work in an arena which I know in some small way, helps to make the world a slightly better place. I’m happy to work hard, as long as I know I’m making some small difference. There are things that I’m passionate about. There are things I’m good at. If I can’t find a postion straight away where I make a living working doing things I’m passionate about or good at – fine. I’ll have more time to devote to them outside of my paid employment. And eventually it will come. I want to be able to wake up in the morning and know that I am contributing something to the people around me, to my family and friends, and even to some extent, my country.

And I’ll make it happen. In time, somehow.

Wish me luck. I’ll need it.

file000724748949

Dark Nights of the Soul

Ireland. The land of a thousand welcomes. Where the grass is green, the sun is rare, the Guinness is black (or ruby red, if you’re a purist) and the craic is mighty. Sure it’s a great little country altogether we have. Isn’t it?

Well, it is. For the most part. Unless you’re suffering from mental ill-health, that is.

Ireland, for all its warmth and revelry, its friendliness and humour, struggles to deal with mental health issues. As a population, we don’t really like the thought of anyone being “not right in the head”. We regard those who are “a bit touched” with pity, suspicion and even fear. We exude patronising pity for those who “suffer with their nerves”. We don’t talk about mental ill-health in the same way as we talk about physical ill-health, and if someone shows signs of mental “frailty” they are labelled, for life.

Come to think of it, talking about feelings on any level, apart from the most superficial, tends to be a challenge, particularly if you’re male. And especially not with other males.

Something I’ve noticed over the past couple of years in Ireland is the big increase in media coverage of mental health – and mental ill-health. Be it blogs, websites, articles, newspaper reports dealing with depression and other mental illnesses, this is an area which is generating more conversation than ever before – and not before time. Organisations like Spunout.ie, Headstrong, Grow, and Shine to name but a few of many, have been working to push these issues into the the public arena and popular discourse, and are slowly but surely building conversation, knocking down walls and very, very gradually reducing the stigma around mental illness. An initiative which has really pushed the boat out in terms of working to reduce stigma around mental health problems is
See Change, an alliance formed by over 40 voluntary organisations, state agencies, universities and youth groups including those named above. Their work has really impressed me so far, particularly their ‘Make a Ripple’ campaign, which comprised of stories by real people who have been affected by these issues, serves to remind us that mental ill-health is not solely the preserve of people we don’t know.

This isn’t a post about my own experiences of depression. I’m one of the luckier ones. In my lifetime, I’ve dealt with two pretty bad bouts of the blues, both severe enough to necessitate time off work and both harsh enough to make me wonder through the darkness of despair if life would ever look any brighter again and if I would be better off dead. I’m not going to write at any great length about how waking up in the morning during a period of depression is almost a disappointment… nor about the way it saps your energy and motivation, how broken sleeps provide no respite, contributing only to sustained exhaustion. I don’t intend to dwell on the guilt you feel for your lack of enthusiasm when nothing moves you. Neither will I write much about how, during a period of depression, you become your own worst enemy, locking yourself away, isolating yourself, distancing yourself from the people around you and focusing helplessly on the negative thoughts, feeding the selfishness of the illness until you are trapped in a spiral of misery so intense that all you want to do is go to sleep and not wake up.

No, for those who want to read about the experience of depression in depth, there are plenty of accounts out there, written by those souls courageous enough to share.Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve learned to deal with it. Every so often, another wave will appear, out of nowhere to wash me under, but as any bad surfer knows, sometimes it’s easier to duck beneath the wave and let it roll over you than standing up and trying to fight it. Acceptance has been half the battle, for me.

It does sometimes feel like a constant, exhausting fight, keeping the darkness at bay. A feeling I’m sure many a sufferer will identify with… but to live in fear is to let it dominate your life and I will absolutely not allow that to happen.

Sometimes though, it’s hard.

Everyone deals with things differently, and for me, I’ve always found the internet a ‘safe’ place to share. (That’s why I think Aware’s online support groups are a fantastic initiative.) As per the bio, I don’t much like talking about myself. I like asking questions more than I like giving answers, and I would struggle,  face-to-face to talk to many of my friend about this. Only a handful know that I ever suffered with depression, and it’s never really mentioned. I feel this is partially because, I think, having never suffered it themselves, they cannot empathise. Harsh? Yeah, probably.  And a bit unfair – given that we just don’t know what anyone else is dealing with in their own head.

But it’s no way meant to be derogatory. In my experience, there is a divide between “them” and “us”. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression will comprehend, and those with no experience simply cannot understand. They can sympathise, but can’t empathise with the despair. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing, for them. I find however, if I say I’m feeling down, it’s awkward. After a while when it doesn’t lift, people become impatient, or bored. I’m not saying it’s their fault. Naturally, it’s frustrating for them too when they’re getting nowhere. But I sense the impatience, and knowing I am the cause stresses me and upsets me even further. Therefore, I just find it’s easier not to talk about it.

And I couldn’t, in a million years, begin to imagine telling my current employers. I don’t think there is any place for mental “weakness” in business, and I have unfortunately seen very real evidence of this.  I have imagined the conversation in my head once or twice, for laughs. A couple of recent initiatives which have approached the issue from the ‘preventative’ side though, like stress management courses and an emphasis on fresh air and exercise, are positive and ones that I hope are not just tokenism, and will contribute in a small meaningful way to the mental health of all employees who participate, whether they realise it or not.

It’s my hope that all the work being done at the minute by the organisations above can somehow bridge the gap between ‘published’ experiences and real life, and that the conversation can become relevant to all of us. That’s where the real challenge lies. And this is a challenge that needs to be taken on – from the top down. Any politician who actively promotes the issue of mental health is worth their weight to this country in gold. It’s all very well to say that it’s good to talk about these things. We can say that til we’re blue in the face. We know it’s good to talk.

It’s translating the rhetoric into reality, and dealing with mental ill-health in a positive manner when it affects you, or me or someone close to us, and actually talking about it when it happens – that’s what will ultimately show that we are winning this battle, and my fear is that it’s easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. These organisations need to position themselves in such a way that they are accessible to those who have very little strength to actively reach out. And let’s encourage those of us who are stronger to look out for others. I fear that the disconnect remains, but only by working together (and looking out for one another) can we erode this “strong, silent” mentality and help make those dark nights of the soul a little less lonely.

file000100299191

(Image: Morguefile.com)
 

It’s the little things….

Today, we buried my cousin.

23 years old, and until Wednesday morning and the accident, full of life and humour. We’ll miss him more than I can write here.It’s been a rough few days, watching his family grieve. Grieving with them. What’s struck me however through the grief and the sadness and the exhaustion of the past three days is what a big impact the little gestures have.

Firstly, the amount of food that arrived to the house within hours. Trays and trays of sandwiches. Cake mountains. People wanting to do something… anything. Anything at all.

The younger group sitting up all night with him. To watch over him. The stories.

When they carried him out of the house for the last time, nearly thirty cousins, so rarely together, but at that moment together in raw grief, linked to each other for support formed an impromptu guard of honour to see him off. A protective semi-circle wrapping their arms around a broken family. Only wishing so badly we could do anything to take some pain away.

Thousands of people filed through the funeral home. When I say thousands, I mean we sat there for four and a half hours. Four and a half’s worth of people queuing up to offer their condolences. There were queues for miles. Today, those who sat in the front row have swollen, tender hands and wrists. (A tip. When offering condolences at a funeral, don’t squeeze too hard when shaking hands. Work on getting that balance between ‘wet fish’ and ‘vicegrips’ just right. It matters.)

The guard of honour of the local youth group, with which the family is so involved, from the end of the road to the church. They waited nearly two hours for him to arrive, then they walked beside the hearse with him to the church as the ball tolled. Hearing that bell toll…it’s such a lonely sound.

Today, strangers in the cars on the road pulled over as a mark of respect for the funeral. Those little things… Things that you’d never consider worth remarking on, took on a new significance. I never realised until now how touching it is to have a stranger ackowledge your grief. I know I’ll be doing that myself in future.. it may not help, it may make no difference. But it might.

It’s been a long three days. But there are far, far longer days ahead. Sleep well, Spud. We’ll miss you.

file0001188160819

(Photo: Morguefile.com)

Fond Friends Forever…. or a friend indeed

Another post written for the group writing competition, The Great Cake Experiment.

Do check it out – there are just two weeks left in this round.
___________________________________________________________________________

Once, a long time ago, when Kylie loved Jason, I loved Kylie, Snickers bars were called Marathons and everyone’s biggest ambition was to own a Walkman, I made a friend. We sat beside each other in the back row of first class, feet in white ankle socks swinging a few inches above the ground, sharing confidences. I learned that her dog got sick in the kitchen last night, and her dad shouted at her mum. She learned that at the grand old age of eight, I still sucked my thumb to get to sleep. We were best friends. She had pigtails. I, with my boy’s cropped locks, was jealous and begged to plait her hair, like my dolls. We made each other cards daily – middle pages torn from copybooks, adorned with pink marker pen, tin foil flowers, crayoned hearts and declarations of everlasting devotion. Together, hand in hand, we skipped around the playground, hopscotched and built dens under tree branches, where no-one was permitted to enter. We would be friends for ever and ever.

A rather frail child, I was susceptible to asthma attacks and chest infections. One such bout ensured I was housebound for a week. At lunchtime, between bouts of painful coughing, I could hear the screams and laughter of my friends as they ran and skipped and chased in the playground, from my home just metres from school. The week felt like seven rolled into one. Eventually, I healed and was deemed fit to return to the classroom.

On entering the room, I was met with a state of disarray. Chairs facing the wrong way, teacher’s desk stood at the side of the room instead of the front and there were new pictures I didn’t recognise on the wall, and – oh! there she was! – my dearest friend, my soulmate, deep in conversation at a new desk with someone else. I tapped her on the shoulder, excitedly anticipating a rapturous welcome.

“Oh, you’re back”, she said. “Teacher moved the classroom around. You’re sitting over there. I sit here now. Beside my best friend.”

I froze. The world stood still. Hot tears stung my eyes. With a flourish of her pigtails, she swung away from me, and resumed her conversation. On the desk, I could see the telltale glint of a tin foil heart, a declaration of friendship forever, scripted lovingly pink marker pen.

A friend, indeed.