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.

Why I am Not a Minimalist

For years I used to admire the concept of minimalism.  Whenever I entered a room that was uncluttered, functional, aesthetically pleasing and devoid of “things” I longed to live in such rooms myself.  I even described myself as a minimalist for a while, hoping that the label would imprint itself on my brain and change my ways.  I still sigh longingly when I find myself in a minimalist environment, for I yearn for an environment in which chaos does not prevail.

Try as I might however, I cannot bend myself into the shape of a minimalist.  I love “things”.  Not for their material value, but for their sentimentality, their ability to ground me during times of uncertainty, their feel, their stories, their normality.  Having a Labrador with a rudder-like tail means that “things” come and go, and most weeks I find myself scooping up broken pottery or glass.  Although I often feel a tinge of sadness to see one of my treasures consigned to the bin, I do not set any store by it.  My “things” are earth-bound, and as such they do not have intrinsic value. 

The real negative when you like having curios around you is that it’s a great effort keeping your environment tidy.  When I get to the point where I cannot cross the floor of my lounge without risking breaking my neck, my heart sinks and sometimes I just sit on top of the chaos for days.  I’d like to blame the mess on Trudy, but in truth we’re as bad as each other.  While she’s emptying her toy basket all over the floor I am hunting for an important piece of paper and in doing so strewing possessions here there and everywhere.  If ever a television crew needs someone to recreate a first-class burglary scene, then I am the woman to do it!

I know when it’s time to take action because my visitors are forced to sit on foldable picnic chairs as there is nowhere to sit.  (Chairs will have been turned into tables at this point).  This means an emergency blitz is called for.  Blitzing my flat is a necessary part of my life and I probably have to undertake this unenviable task four times a year.  It can take weeks to sort through what I wish to keep and what I should have discarded three months ago.  Usually the black bin bags contain papers and magazines, but occasionally I sift through my “things” and manage to fill a bag destined for the charity shop.  There are some possessions which just become old hat and no longer have a place in my life. 

Order is something that bothers me when I do not have it.  I get annoyed when I lose things and resent wasting time searching for proverbial needles in giant haystacks.  Having a sight impairment makes losing things commonplace.  Here I can name and shame Trudy for her part in separating my gloves, hiding various items of clothing, walking off with keepsakes and sometimes eating up bits of paper and creating an interesting carpet Collage.  But I contribute to the chaos too.  My recent bout of depression necessitated the most mammoth blitzing my flat has ever seen.  I stopped performing everyday tasks such as washing up, recycling junk mail and putting away laundry.  So my flat quickly became a living rubbish site, which would depress the most optimistic person.  It became unbearable to the point where I would find excuses to be elsewhere.  I started hating my flat, and wanted nothing more than to find somewhere else to live.

At this point where chaos was not fun any more, I had to take matters in hand and regain some order in my life.  In my head I had a clear vision of what I wished my environment to be like, and I began to work at creating an infrastructure which would help me maintain everyday organisation.  So I bought storage boxes and bags, files and folders, and began painstakingly sorting through the heap of chaos.  As the piles of papers dwindled and a path appeared in the centre of my lounge, my spirits slowly started rising.  I’m trying to find a set place for everything, so that even if I have days where the burglars revisit, I can put my “things” back in their proper place once my unwanted guests have been chased away.

Some people might wonder why I don’t just get rid of all my “things” to make life simpler.  Occasionally I have done so, but inevitably my environment fills up again with oddities and quirky ornaments that make me smile.  Despite not being able to see colours I have a very vivid colour-based imagination, and this manifests itself in my environment. I do not worry about things matching or co-ordinating, as long as they have meaning.  I do not like having “things” for the sake of having them.  In fact I could name all my assortment of objects and explain what they mean to me.  My environment is an expression of my life so far.  I have things which were given to me as a child, souvenirs from local and far away places, as well as objects which have been loved by others before me. 

Once or twice an onlooker has summed up my environment as “junk” – and it may well appear so.  But as human beings we all have different likes and dislikes, and to me my junk is very precious.

So I’ve come to realise that my yearning for minimalism is actually a yearning for organisation.  A tidy (albeit lived-in) environemt frees up your head and creates a healthy springboard for your day.  My new infrastructure has not been tested yet, but I’m hoping it will withstand the next onslaught of burglars not to mention the everyday habits of resident human and Labrador.

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