Forging positive relations

You need more than a psychology degree to cope with my family

I have always been and will always be open about my rather conventionally unconventional family background. Although in Britain nowadays, it can hardly be considered uncommon for a child to be brought up by divorced or separated parents when I have considered in a linear fashion, the exact events that took place in my childhood I allow myself to safely consider my own childhood somewhat uncommon. But even if I disregard such events, I remember always feeling that my family set up was very much different from my peers whether their parents were separated or not.

Growing up as a younger child in the not so wealthy part of South Liverpool bordering on Toxteth, I met many children who’s parents could be considered unusual on the basis of age, sexual inclination, marital status or socio-economic status. However one thing that they all seemed to share that I didn’t, was the existence of a substantial extended family in close proximity to themselves. Whether little Chloe’s mummy left her daddy and ran off with one of the dinner lady’s son or not, the fact remained that both her and her sister still benefited from a wider support network of a family. Various aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins; there would be no end of support and guidance for the two girls.

In contrast, little old me had no siblings and certainly no other physically or emotionally close family members on either my mother or my father’s side. To make matters slightly more different to those of my peers, my mum moved a considerable to distance from my dad to the other side of Liverpool making it a sizeable commute to go from parent to parent especially for a youngster who could only rely on such parents to negotiate her way from one to the other. Apart from other things it meant that I experienced a rather disjointed and diluted social life for a considerable while.

The lack of a close family network made the inevitable difficulties of parents’ new partners, their failings, challenging step siblings and huge bouts of loneliness and worry a lot harder and more confusing for a developing child and then teenager to deal with. Even as I have gotten older, the fallout caused by the various step-parent dramas not to mention my own parents’  misdemeanors has highlighted the lack of a family unit for support.

A couple of years ago I had decided that I would spend Christmas alone abroad somewhere as it has never been a particularly joyous occasion for me for one reason or another. My dad was naturally dismayed at this and tried to come up with a Christmas that I may actually enjoy where I could feel part of a family. He organised that we would go to Ireland to spend it with the Aunty and Uncle that I have always had more of a relationship with than any other family members (still not exactly close) but I did rate them; my Uncle being hilariously funny in an almost accidental sort of way and my Aunty being a lovely, caring person.

So it was agreed that we would go. The problem was the day before we were leaving to go my dad told me that he and his partner were of the opinion that I was unconscientious, self absorbed and ungrateful and impolite. I won’t labour the conversation that we had or even justify these past allegations but safe to say I was hurt beyond words at yet another betrayal from my father and -needless to say- the sanctimonious full on character assassination. Thus it made for a very hard trip to Ireland, where I could barely stand to hear my dad talk and make falsely affectionate gestures . Needless to say my mood was dark and this definitely showed to my not so understanding relatives, as of course my father didn’t want to admit how he had conveyed his and his partner’s opinion of me to me. Not only would they be shocked at how they could be so callous but they would also presumably make him see that this was wildly inaccurate.

Instead I was presented to them as a problem child (as usual) with no further explanation other than I was finding it difficult to adjust to his not so new girlfriend. Pardon me when I say, “what a dick.” So my Aunty and Uncle who also happen to be my Godparents were too left under the impression that I was rude and ungrateful and all the rest. As there was no wider close-knit family to give the event some context, so their opinion remained, pushing me further from any sort of happy family relationship. Needless to say I was wounded that they allowed their selves to form such an opinion without any consultation or reaching out to myself and even after I returned to England and called my Aunty to apologise and explain I received to comfort or words of reassurance and understanding.

A couple of  years later on the day of my – what should have been a proud – graduation, the lack of a wider family was accentuated as it has been so many times before. A few days before my dad had once again put it to me that I was proving to be a problem for his extraordinarily sensitive girlfriend. Apparently my instances of lack of punctuality were in fact indications that I was rebelling against their relationship; my use of my phone at the dinner table was a direct shun to all present telling them I did not want their company; and my failure to gush over standard practices of decency from the demon-step mother herself was as good as me attempting to shove her head in the oven.

On this particular day, after the repetitious fall out, my dad turned up without any camera and with apparently no desire to buy graduation pictures or do any of the normal activities that the proud parents surrounding us were doing with their newly graduated off-spring. He came with no words or cards of congratulations of other would-be family members, no promises of a later celebration with more of the family clan, just a horrible atmosphere stinking of “my partner’s telling me you’re a witch and I don’t have the balls to say any different”. Sad, but terribly true.

As a result of instances such as this, without the solid, steady and unconditional support of family I am ashamed to say that I had become somewhat bitter and resentful about the concept of families. In a similar way that someone deprived of an obvious talent may become resentful of those who have been blessed with one such talent and indulged with compliments and praise. Although this may legitimately strike you as an odd paradox I can only be honest in my complete sense of having been deprived of the basic privilege of a family. Something which I so badly desired.

Consequently I have always been aware of my sensitivity towards fitting in with other peoples’ families whether it be friends of mine or the family of a partner. I was – childishly so – terribly jealous of the fact that they had one and I had none. It also meant that the inevitable event of family gatherings made me terribly uncomfortable as I had no previous experience of such events. No schemas in these areas had been able to be generated having been completely without exposure to this type of event and the consequential dynamics, etc.

Having such negative experiences in the “family” that I have experienced and having developed an acute sensitivity and resentment to other people merely enjoying their right to have a close family, I considered myself surely doomed. Done over by childhood experiences, in a true Freudian way. I was devoid of the tools and motivation to forge positive relations…

Good news though. It turns out that this is not the case! Having been dropped in the metaphorical deep-end, by the (turns out) happy circumstances of being temporarily homeless during relocation to London, and having to stay at my boyfriend’s parents’ house for around a month has done me the world of mental good. Although I observe that coming from a bigger family is not without its own challenges, I still see these as comparatively small to be in the fortuitous position of having one. Being emerged in someone who is pretty special to me’s own family has shown me that I need not bear the weight of a lonely only child of a broken family of two! I am actually in the incredibly fortunate position to join someone else’s family and perhaps even one day, create a happy one of my own. (Don’t worry darling, not for a few years yet, eh?!)

But much more remarkable than this realisation (I always knew it was theoretically a possibility), is the fact that I can also happily appreciate how wonderful having a family truly is without an ounce of resentment. This probably sounds a minor achievement but to me it is really quite astounding. I know now what an amazingly basic but shockingly beautiful and inspiring pleasure it is to be a part of something almost of inexplicable stability and the amazing thing is… this incredible phenomena doesn’t need good fortunes nor riches nor power to have… and now for the cheesy part…. it just needs love with a hint of compassion.

I have always been living proof- if only to myself- that the past can exert weird influences over us, but now I am happy to say that these can also be overcome as we also have the ability to open ourselves up to experience. In my case, it is an undescribable love for and trust in my partner, that allowed me to open myself up to situations that I whole-heartedly would have shied away from. This has had an effect on my own “pseudo-family” relationships, which have in turn also become much more positive and healthy.

Now it is not so much forging positive relations, but allowing them to happen.

(Apologies for the long post)

… I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.Blaise Pascal

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It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

Just over 6 months ago and things were very different. Considering the nature of my last post my silence is likely to be interpreted as everything got too much! I’m happy to say that the silence is a result of quite the opposite. During the darker hours of my ordeal with a malfunctioning bladder/urethra/does-anybody-really-know? it seemed like there would be no end to the traumas. Although it hasn’t been as straight forward as “and now you’re better”, I have made significant progress which I can only be forever thankful for.

But it’s not just the condition of my health that has changed; in fact it seems that life as I had come to know it for the 6 months after Uni has completely changed. Rid am I of an innocuous self-centred flatmate, rid am I of thankless and insensitive employers and rid am I off a desolation that knew no bounds. Instead I find myself happily ensconced with my ever-supportive boyfriend, the both of us now proud parents of a tiny Dwarf rabbit. I now face the exciting and gratifying prospect of moving our little “family unit” down to the Big Smoke where I shall be studying a Masters in Health Psychology whilst making a freelance living from the marketing skills I have acquired over the past two years.

And just like that my big sources of woe have been dissolved. I no longer am stuck in a scenario of no social life or even proximate social support network and thankless employers begrudging me my illness (how inconsiderate of me!) My dad being a part-time Buddhist constantly reassures me of the concept of “impermanence”. Of course nothing ever remains the same and that is the one consistency of life. But this is of limited comfort in a limited amount of situations; if you’re happy at that particular moment in time, it’s disheartening to know that this shall not remain the same and if you are suffering at another moment in time it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can manage to feel any better about how things are.

So what can give you solace in the good and bad times of life? The answer to this is never going to be a straight forward one unfortunately but having been very much down and out, despairing with no means or will to turn things around I am fascinated with my own case of astounding recovery. “Recovery” in this instance does not exclusively refer to my physical health problems but also my mental health. To paint a picture of my mindset and health but half a year or so ago:

A broken girl, who barely had the inclination to raise her eyes from the floor to focus on anything within the immediate vicinity of herself. Suffering 3 to 5 hour migraines daily, sometimes twice a day, it was no comfort to shower and be clean or lay in bed under the safe of duvets when the necessity to was to be stuck stead-fast to a toilet. I had no desire to socialize as such social settings were anxiety provoking if anything, not feeling myself and considering myself a failure in many social exchanges – not to mention that the constant nagging urge to relocate to a nearby toilet to relieve but a drip of urine. Yes. Very pleasant times indeed.

It had gotten to the point that I couldn’t see an end, didn’t want to face the struggle of coping in the circumstances and fighting for regaining my life and health left me distinctly underwhelmed. So what changed to allow the close of night and rise of dawn? It certainly wasn’t an abrupt change that snapped me back to “normal” but however subtle, it was hugely significant. I must first acknowledge the role of Feverfew. For anyone who is suffering regular migraines (or even infrequent ones) that seem to be unwarranted, this may just be a miracle cure. It’s a herbal tablet that when taken once daily can completely eliminate the occurrence of migraines at all. As I was saying, I was literally experiencing a minimum of one migraine a day for up to 5 hours for at least 2 weeks with no end in sight. As soon as I started taking Feverfew I had one last half-hearted migraine which more closely resembled a bad headache and since then I have not suffered one.

As miraculous a cure for migraines as Feverfew was, this barely made a difference to my mental health at all and this alone would not have lead to the return of my volition. A hollow shell of myself, one night I lay listless on my dad’s couch barely tasting the food that he had made and offering nothing for conversation or comfort to my worried parent. He suggested that we watch a DVD of a support group for chronic pain patients that could no longer be helped by drugs and the pharmaceutical industry. I didn’t want to watch it, having no interest in watching other “fellow sufferers” yet I didn’t protest.

The DVD (Healing and the Mind by Bill Moyers) was a documentary focusing on the treatment of chronic pain using the Buddhist based practice of mindfulness. The mindfulness practice was lead by John Kabat-Zinn who had detached the religious context from the highly beneficial practice of mindfulness in order to allow the adoption of it into a Western society. Initially the people attending the 8 week program are shown to be skeptical, disheartened by the fact that they have come to the end of the line of modern medicine’s answers and remedies. Faced with the prospect of living with the current chronic conditions for the rest of their lives, their hopes had been shattered, nerves and resolve battered.

As the DVD continued my dad and I became privy to the almost intimate process of the lives of these people improving and improving, their spirits rising and rising as they now enjoyed and envisaged a life without the awful suffering that they had had to endure for so long. As the documentary progressed it was as if certain neurotransmitters in my brain started firing again, gradually allowing cognitive functions that I had lost the ability to muster and exercise. From that evening on I began to make plans again and to feel the strength to fulfill them. I regained my control and resolve, I saw a light where once there had just been darkness and I found that I was able to allow stumbles without remaining helpless on the floor.

The dawn of a new day began with the glimmer of hope that has been realised almost every day since. And long may it continue.

A Merry Christmas signals the start of a New Year

Christmas tree

Christmas: end of the old and start of the new

Typically Christmas has been fraught with feelings of dread, a sense of underwhelming and a general despise borne out of a lifetime of broken family Christmases which never ceased to surprise by sinking to new levels of low; there were bitter family feuds, car crashes, meals for two in the silence of a big empty house; one of the more “eventful” ones featured a trip to Tunisia, being hounded by Arab men offering my dad copious amounts of camels for me, while  I befriended a baby frog who I turned to after crying about being subjected to the Golddigger and her God-awful old-bag of a mother. Very eventful indeed.

Also until about 2 years ago I had suffered a New Year curse, never-failing every year to be very ill with a variety of different ailments over the years: There was chronic vomiting, fever, tonsilitis, cystitis; and when I wasn’t ill I was just generally having a very depressing time. It is a culmination of these far from merry festive season experiences that had left me anything but festive. Some have taken to calling me “Scrooge”, my response to which is to guilt tripping them for making light of my sorrowful past.

Given that I have been all but merriment in the recent months, with the loss of a treasured era and the gaining of a persistent ailment, I have been most surprised about how I have regarded Christmas this year. Logically I should be especially weary and mournful of Christmas this year as last year was probably the worst one yet and this one has been preceded by a large amount of stress and ill-health. But do you know?! This year it is quite the opposite!

A few months ago I remember discussing Christmas with my boyfriend and I got most over-whelmed and worried – something which he could not quite understand. Yet as time has drawn on, I have become more and more excited for the whole festive period. Not only have I been most prepared when it comes to buying gifts, the allocation of time spent with various family members (mine and the boyf’s) has been done, I believe, to perfection. I am a great fan of perfection and this pleases me greatly.

Rather than feeling resentful about last Christmas, I have found a renewed urge to make things work out happily and have felt really gratified that it seems to have. Usually each Christmas I have felt that I am missing out on what so many others have; a large family, running jokes, fun and merriment. In contrast I have felt very much isolated. I have longed for the “conventional Christmas” with a large table full of close relatives, a traditional English Christmas dinner, hymns on the stereo and mulled wine all around in the warmth of a log fire. In all truthfulness, it has made me very sorrowful in the past and I have often found myself crying or feeling extreme anger and irritation. In that typical teenage way, I have said to myself “it’s so unfair! Why don’t I get to have a lovely family Christmas?”

What is different this year? I think whatever is different, it is so subtle that it cannot be stated. However, what I can say is that something within me has changed. Perhaps I can bestow something positive on the illness I have now long had; to cope with it, I have had to adjust the way I address things in life. I don’t think that this has been a conscious readjustment at all (that would give me far too much credit). But with the help of my family (including extended family in the form of step parents/siblings and close family friends) I have started to react differently to a whole host of challenging things, not least my ongoing ailment. Now, rather than obsessing and agonizing over things that stress or worry me in a big way, I have started to let these reactions go.

There is a mindfulness approach that I try to keep firmly fixed in my head; when negative thoughts or emotions arise, acknowledge them without reacting to them. This means when I get a sharp stabbing threatening to develop into a persistent bout of UTI, I don’t automatically go in to crisis mode and crumble thinking that it is going to ruin all of my plans. Instead I think “oh shit, that hurt. Let’s carry on and see how it goes…” It’s an approach that is very much easier said than done, and how I’ve actually managed to do it, I have no idea. Two things that it may be possible to credit for this changed internal attitude are a visit to Scotland to see the Tibetan doctor (yes, you read right) and becoming more and more comfortable with my free-falling in love (again you’ve read right).

A few weeks ago I took a weekend trip to Scotland to see a Tibetan doctor as means of an alternative cure. We stayed with one of my dad’s old friends, Diana who I have always been very fond of since I was little. Rather than the visit to the Tibetan doctor (will keep you posted on that one) I believe that it was the stay with Diana that did me a world of good. She has a modestly sized house, pretty much in the middle of nowhere and lives with four cats, with her daughter and granddaughter living across the road. There was something so peaceful and calming about every aspect of the visit, that I truly believe has stayed with me since. The food we ate was simple, healthy and delicious, the entertainment consisted of a giant puzzle, a game of Pictionary and “A Good Year” (an amazing film).  But there was something so wholesome about everything that I gradually started feeling comfortable in my own skin again. Perhaps it was the reassurance that even if I don’t end up making heaps of money and charging through life getting to the top, I’d do well in a simpler, quieter existence such as this. I can’t explain it really, but ever since, I have felt happier and healthier and stronger.

Another major internal battle that I have had going on ever since I’ve struggled with my health and the transition from university life, is the feelings of dependence on my boyfriend. I am fiercely independent – to a fault at times – and have had real difficulties surrendering pieces of myself to others in any capacity, especially romantically. The more I have come to rely on my boyfriend for emotional support, the more I have been troubled by this tendency, the more it has therefore created problems in my own head. This too seems to have abated. No longer to I reproach myself for feeling weak when I open up about feeling less pleasant emotions. Long gone are the feelings of caution as I fall deeper and deeper in love; it doesn’t feel thought-out it feels natural and light – the way I expect that it is meant to be. Now there is no more conflict between head and heart, the two are in blissful sync and I feel so much calmer for it.

Whether these two factors are causal or results of another factor is up to debate, but I hardly care. All I know is that I have never felt so  at peace and now all that overwhelms me are feelings of excitement, love and joy. This year although still far from conventional, (we are having a Middle-Eastern feast for Christmas dinner and my dad’s girlfriend’s ex-husband is at ours for Christmas!) it truly has been a happy Christmas, which does indeed signal the start of a glistening brand new year.

Please leave old baggage well alone!

When the bags have been put down, there is little point in tampering with them

I have for the past few weeks been seeing a therapist, which is exactly what prompted this post. The reason that I decided to push my pride aside and let my extensive psychological knowledge (yes, I am boasting!) go, was because I knew I needed help. The reason that I needed it, was because I am suffering from ongoing health problems which significantly afflict a large portion of my life (sob). With no quick and clear end of these health problems subsiding any time soon, I decided that I wanted help with reducing the psychological stress that arose from them. Thus I opted to see a therapist…

Now baggage can come in many different shapes and sizes; formed for, and as a result of, different factors and exerts its influence in a whole range of different ways. Many of us, I believe are born with a certain amount of ready packed baggage in the form of personality traits which aren’t always helpful. Then of course there is the amount of baggage that is accrued as we travel through life. I have always been very much aware that I have been prone to the acquisition of such baggage due to a lifetime of difficult events and situations. From early childhood I have very much struggled to overcome challenges, which I believed made me  resilient to a lot of other situations that I had to face through the years.

It is maybe due to this awareness that I have always been keen to tackle these problems head on. Maybe it was ever since I learnt about Freud’s concept of repression and how damaging it could be, that I have been determined to lay my issues to bed in the best ways possible. I think this is why I find it very hard to be dishonest now, even in situations whereby lying would be the kindest thing to do: “No you don’t look fat”, “yes, of course I think you can do it”, “no, I don’t mind”. It is almost like an allergy to dishonesty. Personally I like to be told things straight, so that any problems can be addressed and misunderstandings can be avoided. This naturally applies when I am dealing with myself. I don’t like to pretend I’m happy when I’m not. I want to examine what it is that I find difficult or what causes unsavoury emotions because otherwise how will these things be rectified?

There are a lot of issues from my childhood and teenage years that I found although I could address them, I couldn’t lay them to rest. There was a part of the healing process that was out of my hands. These came in the form of acknowledgement from my parents of certain difficult times, when perhaps they conducted themselves in a way that made things particularly hard for me at the time and therefore rendered a lot of unresolved emotion. I am lucky in the respect that I later became able to have candid conversations with my parents whereby I received apologies, reassurance and explanations. I genuinely believed that this enabled me to let the past hurt and destruction go.

This may be true, at least on a cognitive level and I really do not feel that I harbour resentment for anything that I was put through as a result of my parents failings. I know it wasn’t easy for either of them and both of them had to battle to find their own happiness, which meant that they couldn’t always put me first. I don’t blame them. They are only human and they possess amazing qualities that not only do I admire them for, but I have them to thank for some of these qualities being instilled in me.

My problem with baggage seemed to be a fairly recent one. It is a problem that unnerves me a fair bit, having always endeavoured to let the past go and look ahead. My problem comes when the baggage resurfaces in the worst and most powerful form possible. It is a sweep of such drowning and sorrowful emotion that I never feel that my tears are enough to relieve it. This is a very strange experience to me, as I cannot recall a period where I have felt so knocked, vulnerable and helpless. Explanation of such phenomena would benefit from a partial explanation of some themes in my life.

Betrayal: My mum left my dad when I was about 5 years old. I remember that there was an element of betrayal in how I felt about it. Maybe because I was a daddy’s girl, maybe because my dad felt betrayed and this transferred down to me, maybe because she quickly moved in with her friend who then became an unconventional step-father figure.

When I was 14, my mum then left me for a quiet life with a fat stupid man, instead of helping me through some of the most difficult years of my life so far. Not long after that, my dad seemed to transfer all of his love and attention to his gold digging girlfriend and her “IVF” kid.

I suppose this is sufficient to set the basis for a sensitivity towards betrayal, which I also suppose runs hand in hand with the other predominant theme of baggage in my life: Abandonment.  It is the two of these themes that sets perfect conditions for feelings of isolation which have been primed further by the fact that I am an only child, I don’t have a close family, I have tended to live geographically apart from where my friends and school have been and, I suppose, I err on the side of being alone because it beats the hell out of being left alone.

As you may be able to tell, I am frightfully aware of all these “psychological frailties” and so it truly does unnerve me when I feel emotions that I have not felt for years now enveloping me. Or do I? Actually I think not. As previous blog posts (and the lack of over the past month) have shown, my health has been pretty Goddamn awful. It is this, in actual fact that makes me feel so bereft, as I am sure it would to anyone who had a limited social circle/family nearby, a demanding job, a limited bank account and a preference to jolly well be healthy again!

I did in fact, warn the therapist straight away that I am an individual that has always psychoanalyzed myself, which at times may not be very productive but on the most part has fared me well. So I thought that I would bear with him when he wanted to discuss my past;  I gave him the benefit of the doubt when he wanted to explore my past and had little to say when I was not forthcoming in such a subject and wanted to discuss my present problems. But there is only so much patience and bullshit that I am prepared to take. Let me please illustrate for you a little how one of my lasts sessions went:

Me: I get really upset and feel really lonely because of this illness… it stops me from being able to do things and I feel isolated because I feel I can’t join in with everyday life. I’m just constantly stressed out and worried by this.

Him: lonely? What makes you feel lonely?

Me: The fact that I have to keep going through this illness and no one can really give a quick solution or make it better and nobody really understands how it feels to have this day in day out. (I kindly embellish to give him an opportunity to say something sensible) I get frustrated because I communicate clearly to others what the problem is and how it makes me feel and they seem to understand, but then at some point – be it a couple of hours, days, weeks- they will do or say something, that makes it seem like they don’t understand at all. (I give him an example of my mum listening to me tell her what the health problem diagnosis was and then suggest advice from a woman who had something vastly different)

Him: So you don’t feel understood?

Me: No I feel understood but I feel like people forget.

Him: You feel forgotten? You must have felt forgotten when your mum kicked you out, or your dad bla bla bla.

__________________________________________________________________

Yes quite. I am all for therapy but I am not for amateur therapy, especially not when it entails dragging up emotion from the past unnecessarily. The next time I got upset about the stress of my health condition, I was actually convinced that all of this awful unresolved emotional trauma was still weighing down heavily on me. I believe I sobbed to my boyfriend that this was so. Sorry boyfriend, I was misled. I know that I have resolved my issues a long time ago, and I know that sometimes naturally there may be some residue of left-over emotion at poignant points in life. This is not reason enough to indulge in past grievances that have well and truly been laid to rest. In fact I am aggrieved that a “therapist” would prey on someone emotionally vulnerable for quite different reasons and seek to dig up past woes, when in actual fact all the person wants is some better coping mechanisms for stress arising from a physical ailment.

I am all for exploring the past and I do think that this can be a terribly helpful process for those who’ve never endeavoured to before, in some cases. I have though, and to rehash old news is frankly a waste of my time. I look to better the present. So dear Mr Therapist, I will reiterate: please leave old baggage well alone!

You Are Who You Meet

My friends are my family

“My friends are my family”. This is what I remember anxiously imploring my dad, tears in my eyes, at about 16 years of  age. This was in response to his announcement that he intended to move us from our abode in Liverpool to Manchester to meet the requirements of his girlfriend at the time. I was shocked at his callousness; not least because it was in the middle of my GCSE years and I was already functioning poorly due to past upheavals but mainly because I did not know how he could expect me to be happy without my friends!

To many parents, I’m sure this matter would sound little more than trivial; children and teenagers are particularly resilient and built to adapt, rendering a relocation unremarkable. However, the proposition was that I would remain in my school in Liverpool and commute from Manchester which meant that there would be no adapting, just clumsy readjusting which I could see was likely to fail.

I remember at the time considering just how much support my friends actually gave me and I was convinced that this was much more than I was or would ever get at home. I would always be content in their company and meetings with them would always provide so much more than could ever overtly be observed. There was that underlying trust that they would always be there for me, when things got difficult and this meant more than anything. Perhaps this is what is taken for granted in most friendships at that age, but I always valued it so much.

I was an only child, living quite a way away from the rest of my friends who lived locally to our school. This had occurred because after insisting on enrolling me in a high school nearer to the area my mother was living, she left her partner and went to live in another city leaving me with my dad a good hour commute away from my school. I suppose to an extent, this made me a little isolated. I had the top floor of our old lovely Victorian house essentially to myself and would spend a lot of weekday evenings alone up there. It may be this that instilled my tenacity for independence. Alone with my thoughts, writing, music and faithful cat I can now look back fondly on what I no doubt then found to be a lonely experience.

It is true to say that it was an absence of family that lead me to place such value on friends. They were my resolute support network and I always put a lot into nurturing such friendships. Although I was outspoken, I was rarely the one that people would have a big fall out with. I cared too much to be at fault and they would never find a friend as committed or available as I.

Unfortunately the absence of family also meant that I relied on an array of friendships, some of which weren’t necessarily as good or healthy as others. It was a few years previous to my dad’s proposed move that my mum upped sticks and left. Very soon after that my friendship choices became questionable and I made the cliché of falling into the wrong crowd.

Where I lived meant that I was on the border of the notorious Toxteth; once famous for its riots, now left pretty defeated and boarded up. Having discovered the joys of drinking in the park (I repress the mental image of the memory) I soon met many of the local inhabitants. I can’t bemoan their influence on me, as they were just like me at the time: clueless and unhappy, searching for a way to feel something other than resentment and animosity. It is hard to describe the intensity of the draw towards “the wrong crowd” or to convey the reasons which entice you to do so. I knew that my father would not approve, but I also knew that he was not around. Nevertheless, the connection with those friends ran much deeper than a desire to rebel.

After a year I was heavily involved in a lifestyle that I should have been a million miles away from. Still now I am amazed at the extent of the group’s misbehaviours at the time. But it had taken a toll on me and slowly I was losing myself to the mental impact of such an existence. The psychological strain started to manifest itself physiologically to the extent that I was taken to hospital to have an MRI scan as the doctors suspected that I had a brain tumour.

Inwardly I knew what the cause was and equally I knew that it couldn’t continue. The only way I could get myself better was to cut off that group completely. It wasn’t easy but I managed it and slowly I regained myself.

It was years later when I left for university with everyone’s words still resounding in my ears: “You make the friends that you keep for life in uni!“. “Good” I thought, I was ready to see more of the world and hear more from like-minded people. It was a bit of a shock when I arrived at university – nothing like the abstracted experience that I had anticipated. Everyone was so different and the majority of my flat were male, apart from one girl who had not yet arrived. Nonetheless over the course of the first year there were particular people who I found myself clicking with, despite the fact that they were not necessarily people who I would have previously pictured myself clicking with.

I will always remember my first year of university with a great deal of nostalgia; delicately retracing how my close friendships now were cemented back then. All in all the transition from college to university for me, was fairly smooth sailing. I had many great times that long surpassed the typical university experience of getting drunk. My friends and I would go on random early morning drives into the country, climb hills and build fires; we’d frequent country pubs, break into horse sanctuaries with the pure intention of simply stroking horses and have rounds upon rounds of Articulate.

Sadly I slowly slipped away from these past times as I entered my second serious relationship. This lasted into my third year of university before I decided to give up the uneven struggle of trying to make it work in a situation where it was near impossible for it to do so. By the end of the relationship I felt defeated and in having neglected my friendships I had surreptitiously lost myself. Slowly I had stopped seeing my own value for lack of people I was sharing it with. I suppose the realisation that I needed my friends rather than a relationship hit me rather hard and suddenly but I can’t stress what a difference it made.

I’d become uptight, irritable and sullen. No longer was I seeing the funny side of things. Once relaxed and content, I had become pushy and difficult. Exiting the relationship as I did, positively transformed me back to the me I had been sure that I once was. As my friendships flourished so did I and not once did I regret my decision.

The lurking suspicion that I guess has been with me since my early teenage years, is that I may be able to be happy on my own and with myself but what I can’t help but think is that my friends are part of who I am and without them I simply do not function as well.

Taking the piss; Mind over Matter

When will it all end

When will it all end?

I have never been one to throw in the towel, despair and just want to give up. I pride myself on my resilience and capacity to cope with most things that life throws at me. Unfortunately we all have our limits. I feel that I reached mine. I understand the importance of seeing a bigger picture and embracing the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and this is what I tend to do when I find myself slipping down a chasm of desolation

It all started around 9 months ago when I suffered from unrelenting cystitis. Now most females are bound to know better than males just how excruciating this can be. No major problem: just take the sachets available from most supermarkets and it’ll be calmed and gone within a few hours – days at most. It becomes a bit more bothersome when that just doesn’t do it; chronic urges to urinate along with painful stomach cramps, just can’t be ignored. Not too worrying, though – just go to the doctor and get some antibiotics. Gone!

Blissful: the feeling of having a regular urination cycle! But not for long. It recurred so many times that I was left sick of the sight of doctors scratching their heads, taking urine samples, consulting their “General Practitioner-ing Guide for Dummies”, bemused by the fact that there seemed to be no infection at all. At length they would say “We’ll try another antibiotic”.

As suspected, the antibiotics didn’t work and by now I was worrying even more after having looked up my symptoms on the internet and scouring forums which all pointed to dreadful diseases and incurable ailments.  The last straw came at the fifth hundredth doctor, who this time after some bewildered “umming and ahhhing” offered the following: “maybe you’re constipated- it can sometimes put pressure on your bladder”.

Having described my symptoms at length, now well-practiced like the words of a play, I was appalled at this whimsical diagnosis. My discomfort was quite clearly a localised problem having nothing to do with my bowel movements, which were in fact regular. I must admit that I had an intense urge to punch her in the face, whilst shouting “If you want to make random guesses, fuck off to Deal or No Deal!”

I had decided enough was enough and as is so often the case when things are free, the NHS healthcare was useless. I sought the advice of a private gynaecologist who gave me a quick and accurate diagnosis: Urethritis. The medication helped and I was cured.

I’m sure that you can imagine my horror when, quite unpronounced, whilst still taking the long-term prescribed medicines, the symptoms all returned. I went back to my local doctors, dejected and requesting a consultation with someone other than the constipated moron. Fortunately this doctor had a clue and on my second visit to her (which must be making my total number of doctor appointments circa 2281) I was given an alternative medication after being informed that I was unlikely to have an infection any more. This medication was instead aimed at dulling the nerve signals from the urethra to the brain, which now had been eternally “switched on” due to the returning infections.

Although this tactic worked for a while, like everything else so far, its efficiency diminished and I was left in chronic discomfort and a state of despair. Aside from the physical hindrance, the mental impact was the worst. What was once joyful in life was now drained by the anxiety that I was filled with as I evaluated: Can I do that or will I be too uncomfortable? No gym, to relieve you of those inevitable fat days which are becoming much more frequent now; no going out drinking with friends as it makes you feel worse when you drink and boring when you don’t! ; no sex, so you feel prematurely “passed – it” and unsexy as you flinch every time your boyfriend’s hand near touches your thigh.

All of this contributes to the worst part of the sorry situation: The sensation that you are losing yourself. Once positive and light-hearted, resilient to most things if not all, you feel as though you want to curl into a little ball and hide from the world that now must surely see you as a weak crumbling mess.

The last consultation confirmed what I feared. In the absence of an infection it was likely to be psychological/neurological/same-thing. My central nervous system had gotten into a pattern of firing that now would be hard to counteract. Having been intensely interested in health psychology, I was horrified when the urologist likened the condition with “phantom limb syndrome” which I have learnt is often intractable and chronic.  The most effective methods of relief are – to my knowledge – often complex neuropsychological techniques.

The worst part of the unidentified condition was the impairment on my psychosocial well-being and general distress levels. I suppose as a psychology graduate I should have welcomed the opportunity of putting faith in the power of the mind-over-body stance, which I had always advocated. I can’t quite explain why, but the prospect filled me with fear, quite possibly because I felt that I had little energy left to invest in mindful practice to relieve my discomfort. I wanted “a normal” problem – one that could be fixed with antibiotics or strong pain killers.

Although I have always embraced the fact that I am not “normal”, embracing my as-of-yet undiagnosed condition in the same way was rather hard. Getting the feelings of anxiety and worry to subside, is no easy feat. Having said that I suppose it is time to put my money (or mental health) where my mouth is and practice what I preach. During my studies I was put in awe of the brain’s plasticity and capacity to respond physiologically to different patterns of thinking.

In a study this year “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter densityit was demonstrated how just 8 weeks of mindfulness training could reduce grey matter density in the amygdala (the brain region principally responsible for emotions such as anxiety and stress) which was consequently reflected in the participants’ own subjective feelings.

Perhaps it is the untamed neurosis within me that makes it difficult to suppress feelings of helplessness that only ever really arise when my health is involved. This in itself presents an opportune subject for examination which may help in my attempt to assert mind over matter.

I suppose that all is not lost while you still have your mind. Referring back to the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence; nothing remains the same. What cripples me now is likely to be nothing but a distant memory in time to come.  I must remember that I am what I think  and have faith that my mind will surely overcome matter.

The Buddha

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much
as your own unguarded thoughts.

Clinging on the career ladder after uni… and considering jumping

"The good old days"

University is something that so many people know that they are going to do after sixth form or college. It is regarded by many as the natural next step (at least before tuition fees went up by a million pounds!). 3-4 years at that point seems endless and usually people expect that during those years you will formulate a clear idea of what career you want to go into, if it has not already been decided. What I feel there isn’t enough warning of, is the fact that you may very well be left in your final year left floundering and uncertain as to where you want to go next and what you actually are able to do next. When degrees are not vocational ones like medicine, it’s a pretty difficult dilemma to find yourself in.

Before uni I had planned to become a criminal lawyer fighting for justice. After my first three months of studying law I drew the conclusion (please forgive me my cynicism) that law was really just about making money; criminal law being possibly the worst paying area of law, I was quickly deterred. Psychology had always fascinated me at A level and that had been the competing option before I had opted for a law degree.  It was this that I decided to change to after completing a rather wasted first year of law.

As psychology is such a broad subject I thought that my degree would slowly but surely guide me into my preferred area and that I would be suitably educated to progress to the next level of my chosen psychology career. Wrong! I won’t get into a rant over how poor I found the standards of my degree education (at least not in this entry) but to cut a long and irate story short, it was pretty crap. Fortunately for me, the year already spent at uni barely applying myself to law and living the uni dream, meant that I was more motivated by my third year at uni -and second year of psychology- to do some extra curricular things that were likely to look good on a CV and more importantly teach me a few important life lessons.

My best friend laughed at me and still laughs at me in retrospect, calling me “Suzy-High-School”: I was social and publicity secretary of the departmental society, putting on man auctions and Amsterdam trips, I was a peer mentor, mentor to a kid in social care and got involved in promoting the “Mental Wealth” organisation. I had a great old time and did indeed learn a lot. It was these activities that put me in good stead for employment. By my final year I was president of the society, student representative  and working as a marketing assistant (soon to be promoted to manager). Great CV. Great experience. However I’m sad to say that in the absence of clear educational guidance and perhaps some other factors, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do after my degree.

So here I am now. Some would say in a much better boat than other recent graduates. I was offered full time employment as a marketing manager which allowed me to get a nice city pad and live the young professional dream. So what’s up? I have voiced my worries to my dad who, at the tender age of 62, tells me he is still searching for what he wants to do “when I’, growed up”. This, I must admit isn’t inspiring. I do not want to be a 62 year old, still discontent with my career.

Don’t get me wrong, I love marketing but I always thought I was destined for something a bit more “academic”. Not in a snobby way- I just did! And although I do enjoy my job, in that I love creating strategies to market the company and put them into action and get results, etc, etc I am not passionate about technology. Yet I struggle to identify what I am really passionate about, at least enough to commit myself to it for a career path. It is the commitment issue that is key here. I worry that once you go along one route, it is incredibly hard to extricate yourself from it for fear of having to start again. Now while the iron is hot and I’m not too tram lined in my work, I want to identify what my real passion is for so I can slightly adjust the tracks to head for a specific career.

It’s not just the anxiety that I put on myself when considering where I’m headed that throws me in this post-uni-life: It’s the lack of time. Oh how I miss the days when if you really didn’t want to, you didn’t have to get out of bed. Sunny day? Why not hit a beer garden?! There’s always the evening to catch up on your dissertation, unless of course you end up getting pissed and going out- there will be time to catch up. Now there is no time, which is particularly ironic as I remember saying to my friends “It will be so good when we don’t have uni work to worry about any more. The evenings and weekends will just be completely your own to relax and do what you like!” Pah. Poor old naive me. True there are weekends and evenings completely to yourself, but guess what? All you will want to do is catch up on sleep! And how many things are you required to do between the hours of 9-5 that you never realised before? Doctors, garage, bank, contacting the council, getting your hair cut, that much needed wax- the list goes on!

Perhaps the worst thing of life after uni, is the sudden lack of socialising. Personally, I am a very sociable person. I love people and company- perhaps slightly a product of early only-child neurosis- but nonetheless people make me happy. Now I remember worrying about this at a certain point whilst still at university. I started reading a book called Happiness by Matthieu Ricard and the message that I gathered is that happiness cannot rely on external factors. I understood and agreed and then I thought how?? 

I know what I love about myself and I do appreciate myself more than most people probably appreciate themselves. I am comfortable with me and I do love my own company, but what if there is no choice but your own company? Thinking you’re funny in the absence of other people laughing with you is not so enjoyable. Acknowledging you are a considerate, kind friend means little when its hard to apply that because no one is around. I was worried.  Maybe it just boils down to social confirmation, I don’t know, but what I do know is that having no friends around sucks!

In university you are in this little bubble where all your friends are in the same place, may even live with you, have the same social circles and schedules. After uni everyone leaves; either on to the next city, or even better travelling, or they go back home- which invariably is not near university. I have struggled with this adjustment the most. Safe to say, I still have not quite adjusted. My job means that the people I meet are generally not in my age bracket and have husbands or wives and kids- maybe even grandkids. As luck would have it, my friends that are still about are on completely different schedules due to their work (bar work, musicians, still at uni). To spell it out, it all feels rather lonely at times.

So how to I conclude, without leaving myself and readers completely depressed? All I can say is that I constantly battle to keep perspective. This is not it. I do not have to get stuck and I am not completely helpless! There are things I can do to give my life meaning- like write this blog! Or read a good book or take a walk and enjoy my own thoughts. I am not without friends and I am not without friends in the same boat. I have a steady income and I do still have lots of lovely times. I try to value what I have now and I try to realise that this doesn’t mean I am settling. I am young, I have options and as long as I remain me I will stay ambitious. Hopefully that should help me out some way.

I am certainly on the ladder, climbing steadily but I keep looking at other ladders to see if a.) I can make the jump and b.) if I really want to! I’m sure all will slowly become clear even if I end up taking a slide instead at some point.