Asking for help in a crisis … or not!

I spent the majority of 2015 ‘in crisis’. Between May and December I experienced my most severe depressive episode in a decade. It took me right off my feet, for the most part left me entirely incapacitated, and ultimately at risk of dying. CRISISI only began to recover in the days leading up to Christmas. January saw steady improvement in my mood. I was thrilled to find myself alive, having been convinced that I wouldn’t see Christmas because I had to die. I had hope again and, for the first time in my life, reliable, consistent support – which was to prove life-changing and to allow the final pieces of my life and self recovery puzzle to begin to fall into place.

February was rather more of a roller coaster of mood. I panicked as I first felt my mood decline, terrified of the depression taking hold and fearing I would be trapped in it again for months, or even years as I once had been. Depression can be paralysing.

Late last year, on a day when I was able to harness some capacity, I arranged to visit the local crisis centre – a voluntary sector project – to obtain support to build a crisis plan. It was a helpful appointment – my plan involved strengthening my fledgling support network and reaching out to speak to a worker at the crisis centre. The latter can be contacted by text, email or call … 24/7. A follow up appointment may then also be made for the client to visit the centre over the course of the next two days or a follow up call may be made to the client the next day, if more support is needed. It’s a good service. There is only limited provision of a similar type throughout the UK, certainly nowhere near enough to meet demand. Commonly, someone experiencing a mental health crisis, certainly outside of ‘office hours’, is likely to find attending A&E, where resources are stretched and often not geared to mental health, is their only option.

I feel enormously grateful that I now have access to appropriate crisis support. I experienced a four year period of serious mental illness some years ago. There was no specialist crisis support where I lived at that time, only an out of hours GP service that was stretched and, I’m afraid, in no way sympathetic to mental health difficulties. Telephone helplines, such as those offered by the Samaritans, SANE, Breathing Space (Scotland) and Supportline, although helpful, were no substitute for the services that are now available to me in a new area. I believe everyone experiencing mental health crisis has a right to the best, free care – 24/7. We are some way from making that a reality.

So, what is a mental health crisis? If you’ve had one you’ll certainly know about it; they are far from fun. Like those who experience them, they are varied and individual. A crisis might involve psychosis. For the uninitiated, that’s not where one wields an axe and becomes a killer as media depictions might suggest, but rather where a person’s perception of reality becomes mildly, moderately or severely distorted. Read more here. I thank my lucky stars that I haven’t had to experience it and have much respect for those who do. They’re not ‘loony’, ‘psycho’ or ‘sick’, but experiencing the symptoms of illness. They are as deserving of respect and care as anyone experiencing serious illness. A crisis might involve suicidal feelings, ideation and plans. Equally a crisis might involve loneliness, despair, fear or anxiety, impeding a person’s ability to cope or function.

For me, crisis is feeling suicidal, whether those feelings progress to planning to end my life or not, I don’t want to feel suicidal. As far as humanly possible, I want to avoid slipping that far.

Crisis prevention care is as vital as in-crisis care.

The increasingly stretched NHS is, in mental health terms, generally reactive rather than preventative, as limited funds mean limited resources and so limited capacity. In-crisis care is often woefully inadequate, crisis prevention nigh on non-existent. I was only able to access the support I needed when I was deeply in crisis, even after months of crying out to my GP for help with my rapidly worsening depression and suicidal ideation. The attitude was very much one of not to worry, you’ll be fine. When I described finding myself assessing elements of my home as means to end my life, my GP said that was OK, so long as I didn’t act on those thoughts.

No support was put in place to ensure that I didn’t act on them or to help manage and indeed, reduce those thoughts. Only when a friend, sensing that a suicide attempt may well be imminent, telephoned my GP surgery insisting they take action, did appropriate mental health support begin to materialise. My friend (at the time working away from home and 500 miles from the city where we both live) was correct in her assumption and may well have saved my life by at first listening, by continuing to listen until she was able to understand, and, once she did, by taking prompt and appropriate action.

Aside from a lack of appropriate sources of support, the symptoms of mental illness may themselves impede access to support. In recent months, despite having confidence in my local crisis centre (at least my ‘logical brain’ does) and having received much encouragement to seek support from it and other sources, such as my GP and my housing support officer, I have been unable to do so while in crisis or once I begin the slide towards crisis. This is because my depression rather has its own mind and it’s not supportive of my well-being, darn thing that it is! Depression makes me believe that I’m a burden and that no one can or will help me. That’s not what you need to be thinking when you need to reach out for support to manage your illness. You see my dilemma. I don’t feel that way unless I’m in the grip of depressive illness. That at least allows me to continue to devise and revise techniques to circumvent the obstacles to support.

I have made progress.

In February, with encouragement from my housing support officer, I was able to contact the crisis centre as my mood began to rise after a frightening few days of persistent low mood – although not so low as to ignite suicidal ideation. The contact helped strengthen my capacity to recover and continue to move forward. I was able to arrange to visit the centre two days later, in order to discuss my difficulty in reaching out as a mood slide or other crisis trigger occurs. This proved to be enormously helpful. I found my own answers, but having the time and space to discuss my feelings and thoughts around the problem with a crisis worker, is what enabled me to do so.

I realised that I had not been able to engage with either my crisis plan or my crisis/comfort box, despite working so hard to establish them to support me. In conversation with the crisis centre worker, I realised that I had been treating both plan and box as pariahs.

They reminded me of being in severe crisis – a terrible place to which I never again wanted to return – and so I shunned them.

I resolved to rename my crisis plan a rather more cosy support plan and to drop the word crisis from the comfort box. I also made a new, larger box and reworked the contents – a few of which are shown below. It includes, but is not limited to, the following.

  • Items for relaxation – such as a stress toy, herbal tea bags, a relaxation audio, a book and postcards to colour.
  • Photo frames to fill with images of the few who stood by me last year and remind me of the hope and support they offer me.
  • A soapstone heart and fluffy bunny – both tactile – to aid  grounding techniques.
  • Assorted toys and other items from my free and brilliant  Little Box of Distractions to occupy and distract a stressed mind are also in there.

Someofthecontentsofmycomfort box

For the first time I feel confident about accessing appropriate support when I need it – in the form of contacting a supportive friend, the crisis centre or a specialist helpline, whichever is most appropriate in the circumstances. I am somewhat less confident about accessing crisis prevention or in-crisis support from the NHS because of it’s failure to support me in the past and because of the limitations I know have been forced upon it.

Last week a mood slide was triggered by the unexpected discovery of a psychiatrist’s report from more than a decade ago. It details my poor mental state in the immediate aftermath of my disclosure of the physical and psychological abuse I’d experienced in childhood and beyond. I had some horrendous experiences within the NHS in those days, the worst when I was verbally abused by a GP, who went on to admit his wrongdoing but which was subsequently covered up and I was hounded from the practice. A mental health charity backed me but said that without family, a supportive partner or friends to stand and fight with me, I had zero chance of redress.

I still fear being that vulnerable again and know I have still work to do to recover from it. My current GP who, since my friend acted, has improved her support and so has been slowly gaining my trust – the first to do so since that event 11 years ago – is leaving the practice next month. Starting anew with another GP will challenge me, but must be done.

Faced with this triggered mood slide and associated flashbacks and anxieties, I did not panic and so trigger a further slide (well, OK, I did a teensy bit). I calmly and mindfully worked to ground myself, helping to stabilise me, and reached out to friends, Twitter friends and the crisis centre to obtain the support I needed to begin to recover my mood and confidence.

HappyThoughtsJar

How I felt when I achieved this (delighted) is described on a sticky note held within the jar pictured above. It was made for me last month by that super friend. Her intention is that the happy thoughts collected within it can also help to comfort me at more difficult times.

Feeling normal, embracing normal …

I doubt I’m alone among survivors of abuse and people who’ve experienced mental illness in having wondered whether I’d ever feel normal again.

I think the word normal is actually of limited relevance when considering ourselves and each other. After all, what is normal? Here’s one definition:

Normal (adjective) conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.

We do tend to prefer normal, particularly when it comes to people. Dealing with those whose behaviour is usual, typical or as we expect – that’s our comfort zone. The unusual, the atypical, the unexpected, can be unwelcome, even alarming.

AreYouNormalSpeechBubble

Many of us do celebrate difference and embrace diversity. At the same time, prejudice and intolerance not only exist but are rife in some situations, invariably born out of a mixture of ignorance and fear. Ignorance here not rudeness, but a lack of knowledge. The fear born out of a lack of understanding leading to a unwillingness to tolerate or accept.

Having a mental illness or other disability can see you popped straight into the box marked ‘not normal’.

TheNotNormalBox

Some of us really love putting others into boxes and have trouble thinking ‘outside the box’. If you yourself think that way, it can get a bit lonely!

The ability to pass as ‘normal’ can help you to be accepted or at least tolerated. I’m quite good at pulling off the appearance of a functioning human while actually finding life quite difficult. I’d never have guessed you were .. a depressive/anxious/sometimes struggle with social confidence/have been abused – is a familiar refrain. I’ve chosen not to wear a label around my neck declaring my impairments for all to see. I tend not to define myself in terms of them. I am not ‘a depressive’; I do have a history of living with the illness Depression. I do not want to live in the box marked depression, or any other box for that matter. I have a toe, a finger, a memory, a passion, in very many diverse boxes.

I’m tidy and organised. I love theatre, books, coffee shops and tea rooms, charity shops and second hand sales. I’m positive and enthusiastic. I was abused in childhood and beyond and the effects of that on me and my life have been profound and far-reaching. I lost a parent to suicide and I’ve survived an attempt to take my own life. I live with a number of health conditions – they are mostly invisible but have a not inconsiderable effect on my life. I don’t have children. I don’t have contact with my family. I have some issues with eating, I continue to work to overcome them. I like scarves and earrings. I love recycling and reusing. I adore words and writing! I like public speaking. I love arts and crafts. I’m driven and ambitious. I’m compassionate and sensitive. I can be very chatty.

All that, and more, is my normal. It may not be yours, but it is mine, and proudly so.

One day recently, I found myself feeling of normal mood. That’s what prompted me to write this post. You see I haven’t felt terribly happy about being in a ‘normal mood’.

I’d like to feel happy, hopeful and free to such an extent that I catch myself smiling often, even laughing, at the sheer joy of it. I felt like that for more than three days in a row last week! This was a new feeling for me. I sensed that, in the midst of my fifth decade, I am at last learning what is to feel free, even safe. I realised that I am finally beginning to thrive.

I wanted to always feel so bright and such delight, but my mood began to slide after an unexpected confrontation with a terribly traumatic period of my life. It came in the form of a psychiatrist’s report on my mental state in the period immediately following my disclosure of childhood abuse, found while organising paperwork.

I encouraged myself not to panic about the decline in mood and confidence I was experiencing; I’ve learned that doesn’t help and that, in fact, it’s likely to make things worse. I calmly and mindfully took care of myself and took steps to reach out for some additional support… slowly my mood and confidence levels rose. They didn’t again reach the heights, but settled somewhere around OK, I suppose. I was not thrilled about that.

After years of work to recover myself and my life, learning to love and accept myself and processing the trauma I experienced, I can now celebrate my own brand of normal – with all of the quirks and imperfections that entails. I can learn to live with normal, rather more mundane, mood states. I may even learn to celebrate those too. Sheer joy and jubilation is wonderful to experience, but who gets to feel like that all the time? It seems impossible that I could ever tire of such joy and freedom, having finally found it, but if I had it for always perhaps I would.

Embracing the mundane mood may seem dull but it is normal. Everyone has ups and downs in life and of mood. It isn’t normal to be so depressed that you feel you have to die, as I felt when so very ill for many months last year. Today I’m not depressed, neither I am a fountain of joy, but I am OK, and I’m coming to realise that that’s actually a pretty good state of being.

Small comfort(s) – friendship in the face of trauma and illness – PART TWO (first lost then rewritten!).

*PLEASE READ PART ONE BEFORE READING THIS PART :)*

I had a close group of friends from university, and others from different areas of my life. I tended to be the linchpin of the university group, the organiser, the one who brought us together. We each went off in different directions after graduating but would congregate at my home. They were like a second family to me, but my disclosure of abuse and mental breakdown was not well received.

There were mutterings about how abuse only happens in ‘terrible families’ and that seemed to lead to the conclusion that I must be terrible by association and so was best avoided. Some shared their disbelief with me that someone they considered to be so strong, bright and capable, could be so weak as to have depression. At one point I was told to get down on my knees and beg God for forgiveness for my terrible sins (after my attempted suicide). Some of these reactions were repeated as more friends became aware of my circumstances.

Illness, of any chronic or acute kind, can be isolating when it leaves a person unable to live as they once could. Mobility and energy may be compromised, together with many other aspects of normal life. They may become housebound or even bed bound. Friendships are tested, strained, and may even break down. People are often unsure what to say or do in these circumstances. They will often back away, for fear of doing the wrong thing and contact can ultimately be lost. Others are just not good around illness, while others are fair weather friends – around for the good, but not for the less so. For a decade my life revolved around healthcare appointments, depression and panic attacks, psychotherapy, pain, and my loo – thanks to a debilitating, progressive, and during that period, untreated, digestive disorder. The condition led to my becoming agoraphobic for a lengthy period, and further isolated.

*Over time I cut myself off from the very few friends that remained, for fear of having to face more rejection or misunderstanding and stigmatising judgements that, ill and traumatised as I was, I didn’t have the strength to challenge.

I came to realise that I had never been particularly discerning where friendships were concerned. Devoid of self-esteem, because of the abuse I’d experienced, I took all comers. I’d grown up without my needs being met, brainwashed into believing my purpose was to serve the needs of others. Anyone who wanted me to be a friend, got me, I didn’t stop to consider whether or not this friendship was right for me –  it’s perhaps no surprise that these friendships broke down in (my) extremis.

New people came and went over the years. Isolated and desperate and so ever less discerning, I leapt into a number of unsuitable friendships, often made via the Internet – one of few means of contact with the outside world.

Finally, after all these experiences and additionally the challenges of a very unhealthy marriage, I came to a point where I could no longer imagine trusting anyone ever again.

I decided I couldn’t go on like that.

Small comfort(s) – friendship in the face of trauma and illness – PART THREE.

*PLEASE READ PARTS ONE AND TWO BEFORE READING THIS POST :)*

I knew that if I wanted to do more than just survive, if I wanted to THRIVE, building trust and building friendships had to be an integral part of rebuilding myself and my life. However, there were more difficulties therein. How when you’re continuing to deal with chronic illness and, for want of a better expression, chronically difficult, often traumatic, circumstances, how do you make new friendships?

New person: Hello! What’s your name. What do you do?

Me: Erm, I’m heartsetonliving, I’m recovering from decades of abuse and subsequent illness 🙂 

New person: *is thrown* Oh. Er. *falls back to the usual script* Do you have family?

Me: I lost all my family due to a combination of death, abuse and abandonment. I haven’t been able to have a family of my own due to illness and a dysfunctional and damaging marriage 🙂 . 

New person: Lovely! *legs it*
I jest. That’s NOT what I say! Smiley

But I hope perhaps you get the picture. For a long time my full time occupation has been coping with the aftermath of years of abuse, managing illness and rebuilding myself and my life. What I do end up doing is skirting around my circumstances, probably coming across as awkward and evasive, perhaps even furtive and untrustworthy – which is far from the reality of who I am.

It is possible to find friends in similar circumstances to yourself as Ruby Wax has said it can be a relief to find support and empowerment from your own ‘tribe’, people who can more easily relate to you, and you to them. In a mental health setting where I was a voluntary worker in a mentoring role, I unexpectedly made a close friend who has since given me more support than I can ever remember receiving. After the ‘straw and camel’ event of late spring followed by the desperate summer, I am still alive today, able to write this, because of that friendship. There can also be complications making friends ‘in your tribe’, with others like you having more than their fair share of problems, often limiting what they can offer.

*I walked away from one long-standing friendship that had been different, one of give and take, warmth and good humour. Ten years passed. While my life stalled, that person’s life moved on in significant strides as they continued to grow and develop in a typical sort of fashion. But they seemed not to let me go entirely and as technology progressed through those years, so they would pop up with a greeting from time to time via the Internet through one medium or another. I would look the other way, trying to pretend I couldn’t see, too scared to hope. Finally I took the plunge and responded. Having recovered some health and rebuilt a good deal of myself, thanks to extensive psychotherapy, and regained some confidence; I decided this was the time to tell all.

They knew little more than that I had been low. They didn’t know that I had been living a ‘double life’ throughout our friendship, let alone anything about the devastation to my life, ongoing consequences and the fight to recover and rebuild.
That must have been some shock I delivered that day!
They didn’t know what to say … anxiety gripped me as I thought, here we go again.

We have persevered, but it’s been quite the rollercoaster ride, for both of us. We have floundered many times, and just recently I thought we were dead in the water.

It’ll be 25 years next year since we first met. I hope we’ll celebrate that.

I thought if this friendship could work out, it would give me the confidence to reignite and better engage with another long standing friend to whom I was not so close but whom I had not discarded entirely. We’ve remained in occasional contact by post or online. I know I have often backed away out of embarrassment or an inability to explain my complex circumstances. Perhaps I might introduce that friend to this blog …

My reunited friend and I used to work together seeing each other almost every day, and socialising from time to time. After three years we both moved on to different circumstances, a hundred miles or so apart. We wrote letters and met when we could. It was a friendship I cherished, not foreseeing the chasm that would eventually open up between us. These days we live more than two hundred miles apart, we sometimes email (OK, I do a lot, often in great angst or worse), sometimes we text, sometimes tweet, occasionally natter on the phone.

I can’t help but wonder how our friendship would work if my life were less of a ‘train wreck’. It’s like the proverbial elephant in the room and one around which it is extraordinarily difficult to negotiate.

My friend is not with stress or strain in their own life but has an extensive network: a close family, children, friends and work colleagues. Aside from this friend and following the death of a loved one a year ago, I have no one close to me from my life before 2010. I have no sense of connection to my history. I’ve been isolated due to illness and my circumstances. There is no doubt that I am in need of support right now, probably more so than I have ever been. But it can’t be fair to put so much onto the shoulders of this friend, can it? Immediately there’s a huge imbalance in the friendship. I’m crying out for that friend to provide support of the sort, they might more likely find from family – something I don’t have. We’ve re-established contact after ten years, and been immediately thrown into a whirlwind of intensity (admittedly by me) because my circumstances are so intense, rather than say laid-back or easygoing, or at least more everyday.

How I wish I had all the answers. I keep pressing forward trying to learn and make progress, trying not to berate myself when I think, when I see, I’m making a hash of things and I worry my socks off that my friend will decide our friendship isn’t worth the hassle I bring.

Consistency in support is so important to me right now. I don’t have roots, or solid foundations on which to depend and so feel secure as I tackle whatever life throws at me. My life has been built on quicksand. I want to know where I stand with friends, feel solidity, security from them. A more ad-hoc or casual approach is unsettling, sometimes even frightening. A regular text – even just to say hello, thinking of you, offers reassurance and a boost. A seemingly small comfort, actually offers enormous benefits. A simple set of ground rules can similarly reassure. Not knowing when next you might hear from that person or even how on earth this friendship is meant to work becomes stressful and anxiety-provoking. But my friend doesn’t need this like I do, in their more ‘normal’ life.

What if a friend doesn’t feel able to deal with that? What if naturally, in more average circumstances, the friendship would never have evolved to be that way BUT you, in your circumstances, clamour for them to meet your needs in this way – because there is no one else to do so?

Who compromises??

As someone in need, and someone who knows others in similar distress some to whom I have reached out to try to support, I want to say that the friend should be the one to compromise. It could be argued that they are more easily able to do so because they are not the one in distress. On the other hand, I find myself saying that it isn’t right to pressure or coerce anyone to do something with which they’re not comfortable.

Friendships, for all of us, take work to maintain – the level of work required can be multiplied many times in the face of illness or trauma.

I know, I’ve written an essay! Many congratulations if you made it to the end. I’m afraid there is no prize 😉 ! I’d genuinely love to hear of your experiences of managing/making/maintaining friendships in similar circumstances – whether you’re the needy or the needed 🙂 .

TTFN x

Small comfort(s) – friendship in the face of trauma and illness – PART ONE.

Stick your hand in the air if, by virtue of being a survivor of abuse or someone who lives with chronic mental or physical illness – or any combination of those, you’ve had struggles with friendships.

I know I have. Oh boy, have I … Any friend of mine reading this, and there are precious few these days for reasons which should become apparent, will concur!

 putyourhandup

What about being a friend to someone who falls into one or more of those categories? Stick your hand in the air and wave it about if that’s you. How is it for you??
Have you stuck by a friend through thick and thin? put_your_hands_up_in_the_air_by_varganorbert-d32d7em
Have you struggled to know what to say or how to deal with a friend’s circumstances? Have you found it easier to distance yourself, although you might feel guilty about doing it?

I am, to use a cliche, a ‘people person.’ I can be shy but I can also be ‘Tigger’ . I am sociable and very interested in others. I’m warm, friendly, caring … and witty(or so I like to think!). So what’s going wrong, why do I have so few friends now and almost no one I can count on?

Disclosing experiences of abuse is difficult for a multitude of reasons. I began doing it in my thirties, at a time when I had many established friendships. It didn’t happen earlier because until then I didn’t know that what I had experienced, was continuing to experience, was abuse, and I was caught up in the machinations of life with abusers and stuck behind the wall of silence so often installed by those who abuse.

I remember so clearly. A locum GP had finally asked the right questions and discovered my real circumstances, not only those my brave front portrayed. She referred me to a counsellor, who told me so carefully and with such compassion …
‘This is abuse … you don’t have to live like this.’
I was assailed by a plethora of thoughts and feelings – everything from pain to confusion, fear to disbelief. I was clear on one thing. It was better this was out in the open, people would rally, I would be supported and loved through this.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Operation Self Care

Regular readers may remember Operation Fight Back  – my action plan of early 2014 to help me to cope following the breakdown of my marriage and subsequent illness – here’s a sample. I needed to be as well as I could be in order to cope with the impending search for, and move to, a new home, in addition to my continuing efforts to rebuild my life – studying, plans for self employment etc. As it turned out, there was much more with which I was going to have to cope.

My health, which is already an issue, has suffered greatly because of all of that and particularly the ‘straw and camel event’ of Spring 2015. You can read more about that here and here.

I’ve written about self care on several occasions – you can find those posts, should you wish, by clicking on ‘self care’ in the tag cloud on my homepage. Self care was once anathema to me. My experiences of abuse led me to believe that self care was self-indulgent and that to indulge oneself was very wrong – certainly, at least, it was very wrong to indulge MYself in any way. I learned that I should … must, flog myself, metaphorically speaking, until I bled.

I’ve undergone several periods of counselling in the years since my abuse was disclosed and I cut myself off from what remained of my family. In the early days of counselling I learned to do away with the word should, replacing it instead with could. I also learned to have compassion for myself and that self care is an essential part of life. I learned that I am worthy of care. I also learned, after years of giving from an ’empty place’, that you cannot take care of others if you do not take care of yourself. I do have a tendency to forget the latter, and need to be reminded of it!

I know that self care is key to my being able to keep going … and ultimately to fulfil that dream of truly living. (I also know that I can’t do this alone and will need the help of others, but that is for another post.) There is much to say about self care and I know I will return to it. For now here are the basic tenets of Operation Self Care:

  • I will take care of myself physically – that includes showering regularly and brushing my teeth (depression can make you smelly!)
  • I will not withdraw but will connect with others as far as possible – using Twitter and my blog to supplement RL contact
  • I will write, write and WRITE some more – you can read here why writing is so important to me. I realise now that I have been continuing to let it fall off the bottom of my to do lists and how unhappy that has made me. I can still struggle to prioritise my needs, but I am determined from now on to always prioritise my writing. For starters, that means blogging daily, as far as is humanly possible.
  • I will do all I can to nourish myself with home-cooked food, despite my lack of money. You can read more about my new found connection with food and cooking – after abuse disconnected me from it – here.
  • I will always PACE MYSELF, I will acknowledge that I am a #spoonie, and that I am facing really challenging circumstances that would challenge anyone.
  • I will try not to fear judgement and will remember to tell myself that if someone thinks they could do better, that I’d like to see them try 😉
  • In addition to writing, I will consider other ways to incorporate things that make me happy into my life.
  • Exercise will form part of Operation Self Care, as it did Operation Fight Back, more about that in a future post.

As I have been writing. a veggie chilli has been simmering nicely in the kitchen and a second load of laundry is doing its thing. I have twenty more minutes on the clock* before I know I must stop, take time to eat and make every effort to unwind (it doesn’t come easy), before an early night. My housing support officer, newly appointed in light of the ‘straw and camel event’ and my subsequent decline, is visiting me tomorrow morning and I need to be in reasonable shape to best cope with that. She will be bringing me my first food parcel, after referring me to a local food bank; I’m still trying to process that.

*I can feel my #spoonie symptoms starting to make more of a nuisance of themselves. I hope to publish this post, send a tweet or two and rustle up a quick email reply to a pal, before the sands run out…

TTFN x

Jack Monroe has given me, as a survivor of abuse, a freedom from fear and I really want to thank her.

I have never wanted to devour a recipe book. I don’t suppose they taste too good, do they? I have owned and perused many a cook book from slim guides to hefty tomes, by the lesser known and the ‘celebrity’ chef, offering everything from simple suppers, one pot dinners, veggie delights, vegan cooking made easy, low fat, low stress … low fun. No matter the brilliance within those pages, those books couldn’t excite me.

I’ve never found cooking in any way thrilling despite being far from devoid of enthusiasm generally (I’m something of a jump up and down, beam broadly and talk the hind legs off a donkey with great passion on many topics, type. Enthusiastic hardly covers it.). I do enjoy food. I’m mindful of the importance of healthy eating. I don’t want to rely on processed foods and have often wished I had a love of cooking from scratch.

My lack of excitement for cooking, stems from a lack of confidence rooted in an old fear. I recall the swipes, slaps, pokes, verbal batterings and other punishments that accompanied the cooking of my upbringing. Nothing I did, in learning to cook or otherwise, was ever deemed acceptable. I’ve worked hard to build self esteem and confidence, but my relationship with cooking remained affected. Perhaps because it’s such a fundamental skill, and I was for so long deemed incapable of even that. I instilled my ex-husband with the confidence to learn to cook, and mentored his efforts – planning menus, gathering ingredients and lovingly encouraging. Still I cooked without enjoyment, with a lot of fear and to no more than a basic level.

The blog, devotedly largely to cooking on an impossibly tight budget, I found at agirlcalledJack.com caused something of a stir. I refer not to the stir in the media or in a bowl filled with a magical mix of low cost kidney beans, a square of dark chocolate, tomato puree and a pinch of cumin. This was the makings of a stirring deep inside of me (ooer – I have heard tell that food can do that to some folks).  Instead of wishing that I could tackle these recipes, that I found I was avidly reading, or feeling that I ought to tackle them; I started to find that I wanted to tackle them. Soon I found that not only did I want to tackle one or two basic budget recipes, I wanted to tackle quite a few. Then came my first encounter with A Girl Called Jackthe book* …

I devoured it in one huge gulp, reading from cover to cover with mounting EXCITEMENT. I wanted to make these things, because they excited me and because, finally, I felt I could. Then, after cooking one day, I found myself thinking I enjoyed that, then it happened again … and again. Now I look forward to cooking and it seems I enjoy it every time and best of all the fear has gone and in its place is a growing confidence.

Jack, I can’t thank you enough for that.

I’m never going to be contestant on the Great British Bake Off. I haven’t baked consistently since the cookery lessons of my school days of the 70s and 80s. I have baked since then but with fear, little success and more than a dollop of self-judgement. Last week * wait for it * I made a banana loaf. No, really, I really did … and bloody good it was too! I searched the terms ‘easy low fat banana loaf’ and came to this recipe from the BBC Good Food website – a site I believe also inspired you, Jack. I have to say that if I can successfully complete this recipe, anyone could, but boy did I enjoy making it. I positively revelled in it. By the end I might as well have conquered Everest, such was my sense of accomplishment and new found baking confidence. I’ve made it twice more since and, thanks to a gift of some apples, next week plan to bake Jack’s Apple and Cinnamon loaf.

A slice of MY banana loaf to sustain me as I write

As someone who lives with a number of diagnoses of chronic illness and is a ‘spoonie’, the amount of energy required to make a meal is of real importance. Before Jack, for two years (trying not to eat rubbish) I relied largely on expensive ready meals and ultimately, so burnt out was I, ended up living by snacking, not healthy, not good for the waistline and not at all satisfying or sustaining. My dysfunctional marriage had ended, I was continuing my extensive efforts to rebuild my life post-abuse disclosure and subsequent serious illness. I was dealing with the sudden terminal illness then death of the last person I had left who could be termed a ‘loved one’. I was studying, volunteering, making plans for self employment to revive the hard won and much beloved career stolen by the effects of abuse … and a whole lot more. Then after a final piece of devastating news it all stopped.The words straw and camel come to mind. I saw no light this summer. I stopped going out and my world closed down. Suicidal thoughts raged aplenty.

Now in dire straits financially, as a result of my marriage ending, and illness, I need Jack’s recipes all the more. My grocery shopping of late has almost entirely comprised products from the supermarket’s ‘basic range’, thanks to Jack encouraging me to try more than one or two. I’ve found I didn’t have enough money to buy tampons and put back food items to pay for them. Now I no longer have money to shop. Last week I was referred to a local food bank – a surreal moment and one that I’m still finding difficult to process. My first food parcel will arrive on Thursday.

My new found cooking confidence is helping to sustain me in more ways than one at this terribly difficult time. I’m sure I’ve cooked more in recent weeks than in the rest of my adult life and I’m using cooking implements that have long languished in boredom. I have a history of mental illness because of the trauma and abuse I have experienced. Reactive depression has returned with a vengeance, that alone makes me feel like I’m wading through treacle. It feels good to know that I am sustaining myself with good home cooked food. A bit of weighing, chopping and stirring goes some way to distracting my troubled mind.

I fear turning on lights and as colder days approach, I know that I can no longer afford to heat my home, despite the fact that the cold exacerbates my chronic pain. At risk of homelessness, I know that without a roof over my head, cooking will be the least of my worries. I hope there is a way I can be supported to stay in the one-bed rented flat I found last year and have grown to love so much, and keep on cooking and growing.

Thank you Jack for your brilliant recipes delivered in a gentle easy manner that means even the most ‘culinarily-challenged’ like me can be engaged.

I thought there could be no greater surprise than when I took up running last year (I am far from an athlete) but now … now I find I’ve added the category Food and Cooking to my blog :))) !

I still can’t make an omelette, despite Jack’s gentle instruction I still end up with scrambled egg. One day  …

With love and many grateful thanks to you Jack xx

*Thanks also to Jack for the introduction to the Hive, buy books online and support vital independent booksellers at the same time. Click here to buy any of Jack’s books – no, I’m not on commission 😉 !