To Stink Or Not To Stink: That Is The Question…

Dash Christmas 2013

I have an acute sense of smell.  And the truth of the matter is, I stink.  

Why don’t you have a shower?  I can hear your thoughts loud and clear.  Have a shower and you won’t stink.  Simples! 
Except it isn’t.
 
Somewhere in the deep hollows of my brain I know I need to wash.  I can smell my greasy hair, my unchanged clothes, my general cheese.  (Perhaps I ought to warn you that this post is pretty disgusting.  Any squeamish readers are advised to head for the door and take a deep breath of fresh air.  In fact, let’s all do that before I continue……)
Where were we?  Cheese.  That’s me right now.  If I sound proud of my cheese status, don’t be fooled.  I detest it.  I want nothing more than to be clean and smell fresh.  Typing my tale to the cyber world dilutes the potency and almost adds a flavour of fun.
Except it isn’t.
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It’s 2.54am.  I want to be in bed.  My body is tired, my brain went to jail hours ago.  Yet something nags away at my psyche picking out strands of unease and twisting them round my consciousness.  Over and under.  Inside and out.  Pulling, looping, knotting them into my thoughts.  Sleep will be missing me out tonight.
 
I find it easier to type than I do to wash.  If sleep is not possible, then typing is my default.  Sometimes the mindless waffle tripping from the laptop keys finds its way into cyber space.  Hence this post.
 
Some people might wonder why I have wasted time describing my general stink rather than taking action to eradicate it.  The hint is in the word ‘action’.  An action such as typing requires minimal effort, but having a shower – that’s way too big.
I am not naturally lazy.  But when the Black Dog eats my motivation for dinner I cannot get it together to have a shower, or change my clothes, or eat proper meals, or open my post… And as time passes the wall between me and the rest of the world gets higher and higher, until I cannot believe that the world is still out there with real people in it and real sky.
 
A view from Hereford (2010)
But I am very privileged to have two Black Dogs.  The first is the aforementioned vampire dog who sucks out all my energy and leaves me for dead.  The second is my black Labrador and guide dog who won’t hear any nonsense about not going out and neither will he entertain the idea of being unsociable.  And because I love him and respect his need for life and daylight and exercise, I go with him.
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So I have one Black Dog pulling me into darkness and another Black Dog pulling me into sunlight.  
And this is why I stink.  
 
Having two powerful dogs playing tug of war with my mind and body means I have no energy left to attend to my personal needs.  At times like this my day is given over to my three animals.  (My furry army also consists of two playful cats, Hagrid and Phantom). They need feeding and watering, exercise, mucking out, play time, brushing/grooming, and all-round TLC regardless of how I‘m feeling.  Every day begins at 7am whether I’m happy, sad or barely alive.  Every day the first forty minutes are devoted to animal care even if I am more zombie than human.   Someone remarked recently that my dog is better groomed than I am, but I did not feel ashamed.  As long as Dash’s coat is shiny and he is well fed and exercised, my life has retained a tenuous structure.  If my animals are happy and well looked after I know I am not in serious mental crisis.  
 
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As I type this my flat is in chaos, almost tumbling onto me.  I know that I am functioning on a very basic level.  But in many ways that does not matter because I am still functioning.  I just need to bide my time until I am able to thrive again.
 
Thanks to my number one Black Dog, Dash, I go out for a walk at least once a day,  I  say hello to at least two people a day,  I get a dose of Vitamin A and D.  My heart rate escalates.  Endorphins flood my brain. Black Dog number two is kept in the shadows. 
Dash checking wee mails
                                                                    Worth stinking for.
Hagrid on wall bed 2Cleo on scratch barrel 2
At some point someone will tell me I need to have a shower.  No one will allow the stink to reach truly hazardous heights.   No doubt I will feel shame and embarrassment, and I’ll probably protest and say everything is fine.  But somehow the stink police will win the day, as they invariably do.  And one way or another I will emerge smelling sweeter and wearing clean clothes.  
 
Not that this makes the slightest difference to my furry freedom fighters. To them the smell of love is stronger than the stink of B.O.
 

Talking Taboos: Should I live or should I die?

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Why is it that whilst some people are fighting to extend their lives, I am seeking to shorten mine?  Why did I fight so desperately and pray so hard when I had cancer?  I didn’t want to die then.  I wanted to live.  So why has my life value changed?  Is it a trick the devil is playing on my mind?  What do I really want?  Right now I am so close to killing myself.  That all-too-familiar feeling of a sinking heart, dark hole, bleak outlook, despair – all congealed into an emotional hell which swallows up your body, mind and soul.  So familiar, yet so hard to fight.  The conflict is painful in itself.  Should I live or should I die?  It’s like being torn in two by greedy birds of prey.
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I’m trying to tell myself that this is my illness talking, not me.  I am the person who fought off cancer, who has survived more than 40 operations, who has overcome sight loss, bereavement, rape and so much more.  So it doesn’t make any sense to want to die now when there are no such crises.  If only it was so neat and logical.  This illness takes away my reasoning.  My perspective shifts and I lose hold of the future I want to live for.  In fact the illness dilutes my world into nothing and emptiness.  It steals my feelings, kills off my plans, destroys my basic instincts for survival.  And finally it tricks me into thinking that this is what I genuinely want.  Death – so easy, so final.  Death is taking up so much of my head at the moment, and all this sensible stuff on paper is utterly meaningless.  I cannot find the true me in all of this.  I am standing on that proverbial cliff ready to jump.  Yet obviously I still have a desire to survive because I want to understand what is going on in my head.  I could have died earlier today.  Why didn’t I?  So am I in effect winning the battle even though I feel I am losing it?  Again, I cannot follow the logic.  When thoughts and feelings become blurred and memories and hopes peel off and flake into the forefront of my thinking – how can I know?  And this is why I hold on.  I hold onto that uncertainty, unsure whether it will flutter away and take me with it or land on the ground and take root.  I literally hold on to Dash my guide dog – Dash, who is physical and strong and lives for the moment.  And now my two lovely cats Hagrid and Cleopatra – they too live for the moment.
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As I write this I am listening to three animals sleeping – Dash is breathing heavily and the cats are squeaking, huffing and blowing air out of their mouths.  They let me know when they feel hungry, they are wired up to survive.  And so am I.  But this illness shakes all that up and I am left truly believing that life is not worth living, and wondering whether I can withstand yet another mental storm.   And oddly enough by writing this down and committing it to cyber space I feel a great sense of relief because I no longer feel alone.  I work hard at presenting myself well so that other people cannot see my suffering.  Sometimes people say it’s just a case of pulling yourself together, having a stern word with yourself and being grateful for what you’ve got.  Again, this illness is not founded on logic.  The only thing I am able to do is hold on, I cannot bat it away and do that British stiff upper lip stuff.  Not honestly, not inside.  And that’s why it’s such a struggle.
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Sometimes I sit at home absolutely sure that I have used up the last of my reserves.  Then an hour goes by and I realise I’m still here.  That raw, primaeval survival instinct somehow keeps my heart beating.  It’s when the pain gets too much and I start feeling guilty for burdening my friends and using up too many resources; when I see myself as one of David Cameron’s ‘parasites’ hated by the Daily Mail and the hard-working, tax-paying British public, that my life value dives to zero.  That’s when I feel I owe it to everyone to annihilate myself.  That’s the cruel trick that this illness plays, it feeds into your innate insecurities so that you can totally justify your reasons to die.  I am writing this while I have insight, in the hope that if psychosis lumbers into my thinking I will be able to read this and remind myself that there is no justification for suicide.  And my three protégés are testament to that as they lie here peacefully, not wracked by torment, but simply sleeping before they wake up seeking food, play and companionship.  Forget the past, forget the future, live for the moment.  Labradors and Ragamuffin cats do it, so why can’t I?
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Retreat of The Black Dog

I have so much to write about in Clairetrude’s Corner.  Some people may be wondering whether I made it to Scotland, or indeed, if I have returned.

Well here I am, in my Hereford den, poised to relate my adventures.  But the black dog has sought to hound me yet again, and that is why my WordPress Tartan Trilogy is still wrapped in its box in my cerebral attic.

I have stolen the black dog metaphor from Winston Churchill because I cannot produce a better one.  The hound appears from nowhere, hungry for your soul, thirsty for your life-blood.  When you wake up and espy the beast lying at your bedside you cannot escape from him.  Loyal as any hound, he follows you wherever you go, and finds his way into the core of your being.  In many ways you become the black dog which is haunting you. 

Shortly after my return from Scotland I learned that my grandmother had died.  I thought that I was coping fairly well with my grief until the black dog bit my ankles and brought me down.  Once I was on the ground with his hot breath pumping into my face, I could not get up again. 

Over time I have learned that the black dog is not something to fight.  He is stronger than I am, and could kill me with one snap of his jaws.  Whenever I feel those iron jaws upon me, despite my instinct to fight him off I must reach out to caress and soothe him.  As my fingers plunge into his black fur I know that I have to accept this unwelcome visitor.  For an unspecified period I will be sharing my life with him – a semi-feral beast who would not be averse to eating me for dinner.  If I allow him to stay and treat him with wary respect, I have a better chance of staying alive.  For being no ordinary hound, eventually he will tire of me and wander away.  The black dog likes to wander. 

As I write, the black hound still lurks nearby but he appears to be retreating.  As soon as I feel some space between the beast and myself I crawl onto my knees and examine my wounds.  The bites have been severe this time, but they are not fatal. 

I know that as soon as I regain some inner-strength and optimism he will slide away into the shadows.  When I become master of myself, I am master of him also.

So the Tartan Trilogy may well appear fairly soon if the black dog continues his retreat.  But right now he is still skulking between me and my mental archives, and I do not wish to lose my fingers.

Dogs or Antidepressants?

I have not tended my Blog for a while because I’ve been waiting for a decidedly dark cloud to lift from my mind.  It is taking its time – so much so that I have decided to wait no longer.  This time of year has always stirred up a malevolent host of demons in my world.  The darkening evenings actually seem to suck the life out of me, and I feel myself sinking into hopelessness.  Real sink or swim stuff.  Yet here I am, still alive enough to write.

When all is well I throw myself into daily life  – making plans, embarking on courses, committing to dates and appointments, acting on ideas.  Then depression strikes and within days all my excitement has died.  I can feel the demon’s claw seizing my spirit and attempting to strangle it.  Suddenly I cannot go out, I want to shut myself away from my friends, I lose the motivation to do the simplest tasks, and slowly things begin to fall apart.

So where does Trudy fit into this?  My black and white choice is to find somebody to look after her while I wallow in misery, or to stumble onwards and continue caring for her myself.  Unable to part with her, I’ve chosen to keep things as they are.  The upshot is that I have   to continue with a daily routine for Trudy’s sake.  That means getting  up at the usual time to feed her and take her outside for her “busy busy”.  More often than not I meet a neighbour and we spend a few minutes engaging in chit-chat.   Having a bouncy Labrador makes it impossible to hide away from the outside world.   Thanks to Trudy, the skeleton of my normal routine has remained intact. 

I have learned to lower my expectations during times of low mood.  My current goal is to survive this rather bleak period and to continue to look after Trudy – not because I have to, but because I want to.  The love I have for Trudy makes me glow inside, and even when my mood is dark and I can’t feel the warmth from that glow I know it’s still there.  When Trudy bounds over after I’ve popped out for a few minutes, I can feel the glow stirring, and it gives me hope.  Trudy is a gift, and the bond we have is a gift.  Being on the receiving end of the unconditional love which just spills out of Labradors is very precious. 

One of the great things about dogs is that they are so tangible.  Trudy’s warm, soft fur has an instant feel-good effect – and that’s before I get to the silky ears, and the wagging tail.  Research has proved that stroking animals can increase the levels of serotonin in the brain.  In addition it can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and decrease pain.  This is why there is an increasing number of Therapy dogs being assigned to hospices and retirement homes.  In fact when I have visited such places myself in my capacity as a Speaker, I have witnessed the positive effects that Trudy has had on some of the patients.  Trudy is synonymous with Life.  Just being around her makes life livable.

Perhaps her ability to inject humour into my bleakest moments is the thing that strikes me most.  If Trudy wants to play hide and seek with items from my laundry basket, she won’t take no for an answer no matter how depressed I feel!  And the fast-beating thump of her tail has such an upbeat rhythm that my mouth smiles without me even thinking about it.  Then there are the numerous feats of Labrador mischief that prove to me how priceless Trudy is, and before long I realise that I’m actually glad to be alive.  Sometimes I surprise myself by my own spontaneous laughter – thanks to Trudy.   Trudy ignites hope inside me, and hope is what stops people from drowning.

So despite the waves of gloom which permeate my days at the moment, I have the means to stay grounded, focussed and connected with other people.  When I’m in the park with Trudy, fellow walkers see the hurtling Labrador before they see me.  Even when they notice me and we strike up a conversation they are unaware of my inner struggle.  This in itself is a true bonus.     Antidepressants can set right the chemical imbalances in your brain, but having a dog like Trudy is a reason for living and thriving.  Merely wanting to look after a dog takes your thoughts away from your own troubles.  Actually having a dog reduces those troubles to the bare minimum.   Trudy’s role as a Guide dog at this time is secondary to her therapeutic role.  The very fact that she gives me so much makes me determined to do what I can for her.  This has prevented me from caving in on myself.

Trudy provides me with so much more than freedom and mobility.  I know she understands me as I do her, and it feels like we’re joined together by something magical.  She is not just part of my life, she has become part of me.

 Hetty is Britain’s first dual Guide dog and Seizure Alert dog http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/news/uks-first-dual-guide-dog-and-seizure-dog-graduates-with-new-owner/

Children with autism and OCD benefit from assistance dogs  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/giving/11DOGS.html?_r=2&partner=TOPIXNEWS&ei=5099

Therapy dogs in Psychiatric services http://drdeborahserani.blogspot.com/2010/10/therapy-service-dogs.html

My Phoenix will not let me die

I am not a particularly outgoing person, and three years ago you would have had to drag me into a room full of people.  Social ease does not come naturally to me.  Yet I have learned to present a confident persona largely as a result of my role as a volunteer Speaker.

When I trained with my Guide dog Trudy in 2008 I received the “Qualifying Pack” which all rookie Guide dog owners are given at the end of training.  One of the leaflets in this pack gave details about becoming a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs.  Something stirred inside me and I wondered if I would be any good at it.  After all, I had started out at University wanting to be a Teacher.  I love the art of language, and to me a string of well-chosen words beats any fireworks display.  This  drive to express myself and communicate passionately with others left me in no doubt that I would end up being a Classics Teacher. 

But it was not to be.  Twenty years after my arrival at Oxford I found myself dwindling in a nursing home, afraid to be seen in public, unsure of who I was.  Losing my useful vision at the end of my first year as an undergraduate was the end of my world.   The disappointment of having to abandon my degree  left me in tatters, and I lost all hope of having a life.  The grief I felt took over my mind and dismantled my thoughts.  I was unable to function, and thus began my default career as a psychiatric patient.  I  seriously thought that I would never emerge whole again.  

But after many struggles which spanned twenty years I did emerge.   Somehow I reached the peak of the mountain, and my reward was Trudy.  Training with a Guide dog had been my dream since leaving Oxford.  I knew that a dog would free me from the confines of sight loss, so I had to get myself back on track.  At the time I did not anticipate that it would take so many years.  But Trudy was worth the wait.  When I trained with her I had been a resident in the nursing home for seven years, and never envisaged leaving.  Trudy literally led me out of the front door and showed me the world outside. 

So the leaflet in the Qualifying Pack renewed my sense of purpose and gave me direction.  I moved into my own flat and began to seize every opportunity to rekindle the life which had so nearly died inside me.  Could I really be a Speaker?  Why not!  I was extremely apprehensive, for my mental breakdown had stolen my confidence and given me a morbid fear of strangers.  Yet I knew that if I didn’t seize this chance I would probably never feel fulfilled.  I reasoned that even if it was disastrous, at least I would have given it my best shot.

I expected to have some training in Public Speaking before I was let loose on the public.  However this was not the case.  After registering as a volunteer for Guide dogs, six months later I received a phone call requesting me to give a talk at a nearby village Primary School.  I cannot properly describe the terror which took hold of me as the appointed day grew closer.  What was I thinking of?!  Me! The semi-reclusive blind woman with a cleft palate speech impediment, giving a talk to a schoolful of kids!  I always struggled being part of an audience, so how was I going to address one?

The dire scenarios tormented me for nights on end, but I forced myself to go through with it.  When the day came I was relieved to find that most eyes were fixed on Trudy throughout my talk.  I was speaking during Assembly to 90 children,  but thanks to Trudy the dreaded “spotlight effect” did not take hold of me for long.  When I finished my talk the children plied me with excited questions, and I felt so elated that I almost soared into the air.  I was alive and free! This first talk was sixteen months ago, and now I am averaging about three talks a month.  So in a very round-about way I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a Teacher.  The topic of Guide dogs is easily as thrilling as Classics. 

As I have grown more confident, my voice has ceased to vibrate uncontrollably as I’m speaking.  I forget that I have a cleft palate which affects my pronunciation of certain consonants.  Somehow I have learned to project out of myself, and the audiences I speak to rarely get to see the quaking nervous wreck inside the Speaker.  I would not say that every talk I give is a success.  Recently I came home convinced that my public speaking phase was over, and that I would never have the guts to speak in public again.  But I guess the Phoenix within me won’t let my courage die forever.  This week I gave another talk in Hereford, and thankfully I hit the right note with the audience.  The buzz from a well-received talk fires up your soul and you leap into the clouds feeling literally on top of the world.

One of my favourite books is Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis.  Zorba’s dance epitomises the phrase “Carpe Diem” – seize the day.  His love for the moment and the simple pleasures of life, together with his incredible passion for music, has always struck a deep chord within me.  Zorba knows what it means to be free, and is desperate to teach others the essence of freedom.  One day I shall visit Crete and when I get there I will dance like Zorba.  Sometimes it pays to leap out of your every day life and risk the unknown.  Uncertainty gives rise to adventure, self-discovery and possible fulfilment.   If it all goes wrong and you find yourself heading over a cliff-edge, then you can always turn round and go back the way you came.