The Stranger Who Became a Friend

#1000Speak for compassion

This is a guest post written by Nicky Hayward as part of the #1000Speak project…

I am the voice of the spirit trapped between inexorable cycles, caught in the crossfire, hanging on by my fingernails to a life that repeatedly loses meaning …

They say that mental illness affects sensitive souls. I’ve often thought it’s interesting to consider that many of us who are sensitive and compassionate to others measure ourselves by very different standards and can be unforgiving, even cruel, to ourselves. Priding ourselves on our empathic qualities and ability to get alongside others, often working in the caring professions or in pastoral roles, we can be judgemental in the extreme when we’re the subject in question and often fail to grant ourselves half a chance to get back up on our feet; particularly when we suffer with recurrent depression.

Diagnoses and classifications can be helpful for some things and experienced as damaging at other times. It’s good to see mental health being discussed more openly in social media lately – prejudice, stigma; what’s ‘illness’, and what’s a variation of ‘normal’ human experience?

Today I want to tell you about the memory that was triggered the other day by something I read. It was about 35 years ago, when I was twenty years old. I’d grown up, since the age of eight, with my Mum being periodically extremely unwell and in hospital – she suffered with ‘manic depression’, as they called it in those days.

I was always quite creative, and it would be twenty five years until I myself was told by a psychiatrist that my psychological state of mind was likely to fall ‘somewhere on the bipolar spectrum’. It was after I had my baby daughter and the added stress and challenges took me over the edge. I became alternately very driven and a bit chaotic and then deeply, paralysingly depressed – for months on end with the pattern intensifying over fifteen long-drawn-out years, year in year out. But as a young student and for a long time afterwards I was simply drifting: cooking in restaurants, designing cards I didn’t really know how to market; setting up an unrealistic small business; walking for hours with my dog around the hills, making meals for friends; hosting warm spontaneous candlelit gatherings by the log fire and largely sidestepping the confronting realities most young people have to address. I guess I instinctively cut myself a break.

I remember one afternoon in winter falling asleep in the glorified bedsit I was renting with a friend – round the corner from the wholefood restaurant where I worked – tired out by the intensive weekend evening shifts. I had one of those sleep experiences where it feels like you go to another world, a place of utter peace and reassurance; you almost don’t want it to ever end. When I did come to, darkness had fallen. The peace stayed with me, enfolding me. I lay there and watched as lights began to come on in the houses all round.

This was bedsit land, and many lives were based in this tightly-packed neighbourhood … just as you look down from a plane as it’s landing and marvel that so many hundreds of thousands of lives can exist in a place you’ve never really thought about before, and then that this phenomenon is multiplied all around the world; that the events and developments in these people’s lives must seem as critical and significant as ours do to us.

I saw a kitchen lighting up, a lady pouring a glass of wine and beginning to cook; somewhere else I saw plants outlined and a living room beckoning the weary returning worker. Further away, I saw a couple embracing, colours, shapes; I felt atmospheres and immense possibilities for the expansion of all of our lives, and then – as I returned to my habitual self – I started to remember what was happening later, plans for the next few days and obligations to be honoured; things I was in danger of letting slip. Weeks and months, contexts and thoughts about personalities, returned to consciousness, and I felt my heart drop as I contemplated my actual life with dismay. It occurred to me, whilst still under the vividly remembered dream’s calming spell, that it was as if my life was being arranged for me by a stranger, and an unsympathetic one at that.

All these years later I am at peace with my life, living much more in harmony with it, and, having got to know myself better, arranging it far more consciously. My own path has taken me through the exacerbation by antidepressant medication of my natural fluctuations (enthusiastic ‘ups’ & deflated ‘downs’ became ‘better than well’ feelings & devastating, crushing, life-denying depression) to the need to take a powerful medication, lithium, to keep everything manageable. I have also learned so much about myself & other people through the difficult years that, surprising as it sounds, I cannot un-wish those experiences. My capacity to empathise has expanded & I have been naturally led into working in the arena of mental health care.

During the fallow periods I was unable to be kind to myself – I was so afraid about the future and kept fixating on ‘what might have been’. Now I realise that what was happening to me was all part of my pathway, and it has even come to make sense.
If I could wish one thing for anyone reading this who is struggling through similar trials it is: that you are able to find compassion in your tender, long-suffering heart for yourself. You are stronger and more courageous than you realise – you are still here, after all. Who knows which qualities you are fine-tuning which will in future be helpful to others, could indeed be life-saving for someone else when you, alone, are able to get through to them or to understand what others don’t.

I leave you with a gift – a book recommendation. ‘When you’re falling, Dive’ by Mark Matousek. I buy most of my books from http://www.abebooks.co.uk – they usually cost less than £2 + postage: in total, nearly always less than £5. Every chapter in this inspiring book is about a different character who has been strengthened through enduring adversity. It has always helped me to know I’m part of a tribe, and this is actually one of the most inspiring books I’ve read. Go well, precious fellow soul.

21 thoughts on “The Stranger Who Became a Friend

    1. Thanks for giving me the chance, Jen. It means a lot to take part in this amazing event, and has made me realize I need to create my own website. Your encouragement has been amazing. Great to join you on the blogging circuit (well, almost!)

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  1. Nicky this is a great story to be part of 1000Speak with. It’s so true that we find inspiration and sometimes a source of ‘second wind’ in learning about others who have ‘been there’.

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    1. Thanks. I really appreciate the positive comments. Several weeks ago I was vaguely wondering which aspect of compassion to consider & an inspiring blog I read – sadly I lost it so can’t give credit – spoke about bipolar disorder & the split experience, the Jekyll & Hyde aspect to a sufferer’s life. It was the suggestion of not being in control of one’s brain with mental illness, of not being able to trust your own mind & power to protect yourself (even of sabotaging your own chances) that Brought this vivid memory back to mind. I realized it was just as viable to speak about compassion to self as any other form of compassion, and I too find it strengthening and warming to link with other survivors of inner hurricanes.

      Lovely to connect! Thanks for taking the time to write.

      I don’t have my own blog yet (bit daunted by the technicalities) but write a regular mental health blog column, Carry On Caring, at the address registered above – the RCPsych Blogzone – if anyone would like to read more. I’m especially keen to get some discussion going there! 😊

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      1. I noticed you were a fellow UKer 🙂 Nice to make your accquaintance.

        I think the not being in control is very hard. I haven’t any personal experience of bipolar, but have certainly had some pretty severe brushes with depression and anxiety related stuff. It’s so hard to try to claw back any semblance of control. And it’s chemicals, isn’t it. It’s not always possible to claw back.

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  2. Hi LRConsiderer, nice to meet you too.

    Yes, I think it is chemicals to the extent that we can’t just decide “I’ll look at it differently!” and suddenly make it all ok. This is why I have a problem with the current practice of offering six sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy to people across the board (whether they’ve been grappling with their problems for 20 years or have come to the doc with mild depression for the first time.

    It’d known now that if we’re happy or afraid it can influence our brain chemistry and realign our neural pathways – a fascinating book about brain plasticity is ‘The brain that changes itself’, by Norman Doidge.

    There’s lots of interesting stuff to read at times when it’s possible to read, but in times of darkness when all you feel you can do is try to fight off the assault, I always felt powerless. My mind was teaming with metaphors as I always tried to understand what was happening to me. Trying to claw back’ was one of them, and ‘just want to feel comfortable in my own skin’ was another. I put a card on my wall,I think it was Winston Churchill who said this: “If you’re going through hell, keep going!” and that made me smile,wryly,sometimes.

    Sometimes the problems have been caused or exacerbated by the drugs we are given, as I mention in my blog piece. That’s another issue again.

    Thank God these times do pass for most of us and in the interim we can talk, research, connect and communicate. over time we can often make real progress, learning about how we best operate too. But realizing we are not alone with this trial, that it is not ‘abnormal’ to suffer in this way, can be one of the most helpful discoveries of all.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your story Nicky. So many people are harder on themselves than on others. I agree with you that compassion for yourself is so important; even it’s not always easy, it is worth it. A friend once told me to think of it as learning to play tennis with your left hand if you are right-handed. It feels very unfamiliar at first and takes practice to make the changes last! I found that analogy helpful.
    I’m glad you’ve come to peace with yourself after your difficulties.

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    1. Thanks, Yvonne. Yes, well … largely. When something disturbing happens it’s always tested.

      These habits, like self-talk, usually go back to our very early years, don’t they? But surrounding ourselves with people who nourish us helps a lot too, I find. I’ve also found analogies and metaphors have helped me a lot too.

      I have found this experience (my first of getting out there amongst bloggers) really encouraging and strengthening too. There’s something about appreciating what each other do and sharing feedback that is so empowering. Thanks a lot for taking the time talk to me. It helps too.

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  4. Hi Nicky, you have such a lovely way of putting things into words and helping to enable us to understand our ups and downs in life.

    “If you’re going through hell, keep going!” is going up on my mirror!

    Thank you

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  5. Thanks a lot, Emma

    It means everything to me that what I write encourages others. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  6. Fabulous piece Nicky – Self compassion is something Iv’e always (and still do struggle with) , though I have no trouble empathizing with others.

    I agree with you that compassion for self is worth working toward though, and I am working on it 🙂

    I’m glad that you’v reached a place in your life where you feel happier, and more settled.

    You are an inspiring writer Nicky, with a heart for the hurting – you really must get your own blog (I insist on it!) :o)

    Take care hun, Kimmie x

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    1. Kind of you to say so,Kimmie. I guess like you, coming from the perspective of personal struggles, as a pay off I’ve gained some insights & understanding.

      You’ll be pleased to hear, then, that I’ve bought the domain name knowyourownmind.com, & will get writing as soon as a) I have a minute again and b) my techie friend shows me how to set it all up & use it! The people who’ve told me how simple it is to do don’t know me. Writing’s one thing, anything half way technical another. I sent off for the ‘Idiot’s Guide to Facebook’, for example, but never used it as it looked too much like a CLAIT handbook!

      So, once I get ‘on the air’, as it were, I might well be asking you and Jen a bunch of dull questions, if you can bear it.

      Your sites, in their different ways, are a constant inspiration, and it’s great to have such examples to aspire towards emulating in some ways. On Fb only since last summer, and Twitter since the autumn, I’m delighted and really excited to be beginning to discover the blogging community now and realizing the potential of becoming an active member. I can hardly wait! You and Jen have both been major figures in encouraging me to do so. Thank you again so much for this, both of you.xx

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      1. Hooray! Welcome to the world of blogging! It’s a lot of work but you are going to love it. You definitely have what it takes!

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      2. Thanks, Jen. Yes, I feel very drawn to it – I feel like I fit in here and, having always writtten and known in my heart I was ‘a writer’, I kept thinking I’d have to wait before I did anything about it: until I had more experience of life, until I was ‘well’, until my daughter grew up and my time was my own, etc. She’s nearly 18 now, and I have no excuses left! Plus I feel blogging was almost made for me – it’s an informal, relaxed medium that perfectly suits my natural writing style.

        I’ve been really encouraged by the 1000 Voices initiative, and am excited to realise it’s going on to cover all manner of related subjects. To be honest, I feel this is the next part of the healing process for me and I can hardly wait to get set up and going. Apart from writing, the thing I’m most looking forward to is meeting and continuing to forge links with other members of the blogging community, and being able to join forces with others in commentary and activism in my specialist field.

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  7. Reading these words, by my dear friend whom I’ve know for many years, was really quite moving. I hadn’t been prepared to feel this way, but perhaps there is something about the depth of description and clarity that resonate even more here, in black and white, than the many conversations we’ve had on the human condition and ‘our lives’ throughout the duration of our friendship.
    I would find it difficult to put into words how loving and supportive Nicky has been on so many occasions during my similar struggle with stabilising bi polarity symptoms, and whilst battling her own demons.
    I like to think we’ve brought comfort to each other in darker times, though I’ve always seen Nicky as the wise owl, and myself as the scatty cat!

    Nicky, It is inspiring and makes me feel good to see all your years of yearning for an end to the painful emotions and debilitating feelings ease, your life becoming so much more settled.

    I look forward to reading more…..xxx

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    1. I’m not sure whether I’m writing this in the right place, but that’s a great idea, Jen! I’m such a beginner … I’ve just realised that it I click on the faces I get through to a person’s blog!! Presumably, if I like a blog I sign up to follow the person and then I get all their new posts? Loads to learn, but it is such a new experience – it’s teamwork really, inspiring one another on to write further material. It’s great making new friends and having a number of people to ask questions, too – don’t want to drive one person mad. But then, as in other areas of life, once I become an initiate I can bring others in and teach them the ropes too. Feels like a very exciting new chapter, and thanks again for getting my piece up there following that very 11th hour request.

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      1. You are so welcome. I’m very excited for you and by all means feel free to contact me by email or Facebook messenger if there is anything I can help you with!

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  8. Thanks, Dear Jo. It touches me deeply to read these words. I know what you mean about things almost punching you more emotionally when you see them delineated in print, and out there too – not just between friends.

    You’re right, it’s amazing to think of how many years we’ve known each other – our three months in India, doing festival stalls together and all the rest. I like ‘the wise owl and the scatty cat’ – the owl and the pussycat in their beautiful pea-green boat! That’s about right, don’t you think?!

    I think one of the problems in life is people taking themselves too seriously and we’ve usually managed to find things to laugh at now matter how dire things became sometimes. I always knew at the depths of depression that, when I couldn’t find anything funny, there really was a problem.

    Even when we’ve hardly been in touch, as true friends find, we’ve known one another were there and when we met again we’ve picked up right where we’d left off. Although our tastes don’t always coincide, for each of us music and laughter have helped see us through. Who’d have ever thought we’d have experienced the bipolar cycling challenge together?

    Just found the blog that really impressed and gave me the idea of writing about this particular memory. everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/bipolar-disorder-myths/ I might have told you already.

    Sam Dylan Finch strikes me as a mature, thoughtful, concise, intelligent and perceptive writer. There’s a link to his blog at the end of the article too. Thanks for the inspiration too, Sam.

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  9. Perfect…

    During the fallow periods I was unable to be kind to myself – I was so afraid about the future and kept fixating on ‘what might have been’. Now I realise that what was happening to me was all part of my pathway, and it has even come to make sense.

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  10. Hi Robert, I’m glad you liked it. I feel the same, and I know if the dark times came back I’d be the same again. For me it was like night and day – friends made that comment. But once I emerged from the pit each time my life felt fertile with new and rich insights. It was as though those times hadn’t been utterly sterile, but a sort of refining process had been taking place. I also feel it was all part of an unseen purpose, and my life now was certainly shaped by what happened then.

    There’s a lot of talk about psychological therapies helping ‘mild to moderate depression’ in the UK these days (though where lines are drawn I can’t fathom). Mine was definitely major and utterly debilitating, as it sounds as though yours was, and to this day I can’t understand why people who are profoundly troubled are offered short courses of cognitive therapy. At the time, it feels like another reason to blame yourself – feeling it’s ‘faulty thinking’ that’s causing and prolonging the problem.

    I’m more inclined to agree with the book that said you should just wallpaper the time until you start emerging from the depths again. Someone told me the other day that she got in job lots of dvd box sets and watched whole series’ at at time! I wish I’d thought of that. I wonder whether I’d have let myself! One counsellor told me it was the kindest thing I’d done for myself since I’d first come to see her about six weeks before, when I decided to let myself sit and read a novel. It was so much more constructive than torturing myself and my long suffering husband with my unceasing search for the answer to ‘life, the universe and everything’, and in fact the sensation of feeling comfortable once more in my own skin was all I needed – suddenly I couldn’t remember what all the questions had been.

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