Hello! I was on the BBC Ouch podcast this morning with Mark Brown talking about celebrities coming out with their mental health, disclosure, the changing nature of celebrity, social media, sexism, Zayn Malik, mentalism and tea. And I also talk a bit about this blog (which is now so old it’s in its last year of primary school) Listen to us here:
Been a while, sorry about that. I’ve been in complete survival mode lately, just trying to get through the days and collapsing at night, with Oisín’s sleep all over the place so I’ve been knackered.
But somewhere in the back of my mind- and often at the forefront- is, “Does it have to be like this?” Do I have to work full time in London and commute 3 hours a day and only see my baby before bedtime, and weekends (although luckily I can work from home once a week too) , and work in a fairly responsible well paid job and still have to claim housing benefit in order to put a roof over our heads, paying more than half my wages still to rent?
It’s a dilemma that is tediously ordinary- most people who live in London have had it. Many do leave. At the moment though, we have no choice. The other viable option is to move, “Home”- “home” to Belfast, and Belfast has no jobs. Especially not in my niche, very London-centric field. I still have some sad ambitions of being a writer and making money off that, but again, the other tedious dilemma (and truth) is that we rely solely and utterly on me to make sure we aren’t homeless and hungry, and that also traps me in full time work, and makes me afraid to take any risks. The pressure is massive and sometimes I feel like my brain is going to explode from it, but I’ve still stayed largely well so *fist bump* But the financial noose is tightening, and we will never be able to have another kid here.
Life is very short.
If someone handed me a wad of cash tomorrow and said, “Go back to Belfast”, I’m not sure I would. Belfast is the place I ran away from as a wild eyed, manic 17 year old. My parents always expected me to come back, each year, each phone call, and I never did. Now my mum has moved out of the hated house of so many teenage miseries, where my dad turned yellow and died, and I don’t have a real sense of attachment to where she is now, or to those memories. I was incredibly unhappy there. It was a small minded, petty, violent, frightening shithole. It gave me many an interesting tale to regale Kent dwellers who’d never seen a machine gun, but so many memories I would drown in the deepest if I could, and I have tried. As a weird teen I dodged bottles and stones and spittle and I couldn’t wait to leave and took the first chance I could to. Why would I go back? It’s defeat.
Brexit makes it all the more uncertain – economically, NI relies a lot on the EU, and should the border come up again there will be hell to pay.
But…but. My uncle was on YouTube the other day and he found this:
That’s my dad. That’s my dad, speaking, real and alive in 1998, vox-popped about the Good Friday Agreement in a graveyard. I haven’t heard his voice in a decade, I had forgotten it. Had forgotten how softly spoken he was when not drunk, and his wispy ever windblown hair. I had forgotten the smell of that coat- that very one, with pear drops packets always crumpled in the most remote pockets- the musty, male charity shop scent. I had forgotten that khaki grass and listless sky.
I didn’t cry when I saw this video, although I watched it in silence about 10 times. Then I showed it to my son (who at 17 months doesn’t understand, but will one day). I don’t know what I felt or feel watching it, sadness, longing, a certain sense of pride, nostalgia? A similar feeling I get on the taxi ride back from the airport when I visit, landscapes, all wrapped up indelibly in each other. The mountains and trees and the graffiti. Of being there and leaving at the same time. Sometimes I feel as though my dad has flattened and become part of it, instead of the person, but most times I know that’s because it’s a preferable feeling to the chest crushing grief and regret of his fullness and life and death.
I’m from West Belfast in Northern Ireland- from right here, to be precise:
I used to get incredibly angry when people said I wasn’t, “really Irish” because I was from the North. Because I was from West Belfast, which is poor, Republican, Nationalist, bilingual and which is an area that has suffered in every sense for it- economically, physically, emotionally- it felt like we had fought for the right to identify as Irish. That being really Irish is being a fighter. I was a right wee Chuckie when I was a kid, because you were, being from there. I tried to explain this badly on Twitter one evening, when the vote for bombing Syria was happening. As a kid, you can’t rationalise that there’s reasons for things, you don’t know the mechanics of the IRA, they weren’t the ones on our streets with machine guns, raiding our houses, and you will hate the occupying outside force with a greater strength and unite against them, no matter who the internal bastards are, if they’re not the bastards dropping bombs on your head. It will backfire. I was a kid at the end of the Troubles and still lived through stuff I’d rather forget. I tried to articulate having this feeling as a child, who hated the British army and bottled them gleefully, and was told to, “do one” and then blocked by a fairly well known TV journalist. I understand why, of course, but I’ve tried to explain a thousand things about being from there, and have failed and have never been understood once in the 14 years I’ve lived here, or it been understood I’m always talking from the perspective of a relative child.
The more I’ve tried to explain and failed, and the less I’ve been understood, the less I’ve minded being not, “really Irish”. Because I’m not. I’m Northern Irish. With different culture, frame of reference, art, really fucking awful TV programmes, slang, politics, worldview. I’m not a Nationalist, and I’m only a Republican in the true sense of the word, but I’m not really Irish. But the, “not really”, at least for me, gave me a shaky sense of belonging when growing up. A sort of unwanted feeling- the South didn’t want us (how as a child I wanted them!), the mainland certainly didn’t (fairly understandable really)- that I still sort of have now, living in London for my entire adult life. I’ve never felt like I belong here, either. You are, to an extent, whether you like or not, a product of your environment, and I don’t know how much my sense of ill fitting is just my personality or is a culture clash. I have quite a dark, morbid sense of humour, which strikes me as a Northern Irish trait, a doggish type of friendliness and energy, which also does and puts me at odds with quite a lot of people I met, I tend to say what’s on my mind and talk much more quickly than my thoughts are formed which means I talk a lot of shite. I find myself always trying to shut up. And speaking in generalities. I prefer myself when I’m in Belfast. But that could just be romanticising, just be trying to find a connection, a place called home.
I don’t feel at home here, but when I do get that throb for home, I don’t know where that is or what it means- if it’s qualities I have I wish I could share with people, or my family, or the landscapes (I got a bit emotional going through Yorkshire a few weeks ago, it wasn’t flat!) or the sense of humour, or the people. Whether it’s inside of me, or outside with my husband and son, or everywhere, or even in bits of London that I would miss massively. I moved a lot as a kid and I continued to when I moved to London. I’ve moved 10 times in 14 years, to find home, and I still haven’t. Whether it ever existed at all, or would again, or what it would be. I’m not and never will be English, and feel such a sense of shame over England politically I often don’t want to live here.
The closest I’ve come to pinpointing it was when I watched the Irish animated film, Song of The Sea, just after my child was born. It’s rich with mythology, beauty and humour, and is a study of grief and loss. And mythology was a way I made sense of my own feelings as a child. To understand my own sense of not – belonging, I used to walk around my parent’s room with a mirror that had broken off a dressing table. I tried to get into that world beyond, the mirror world that existed in our own, the Tir na Óg. I’d try to lose myself in the farmlands behind our house and talk to the horses and birds and imagine they understood me.
But that is hiraeth because it can never be returned to, it doesn’t and never did exist.
How will Oisín understand himself or his feelings, with what reference? Where will he belong or feel at home? Watching a documentary about London back in the day, expansive, diverse, grand and historical, I thought if we moved him out of here he’d hate us for it. But it’s also transient, and many people we love face the same dilemmas and move on, but also probably will in Belfast as adults, as I did.
I don’t know whether I want to bring up my kid in a place of my defeat but I wouldn’t live in West Belfast anyway. Robert feels Belfast as home- that one brief year he lived there affected him deeply- but it’s his home, birth home (not house, but place), we live in now, in Streatham. And I like that, that forever and forever, our son will be from the same place as his dad, no matter where we go. Belfast would have cousins for our son and people who could pronounce his name (although to be fair I’m sometimes unsure myself if I’m saying it right, because the South and North pronounce it completely differently). Belfast is different now than it was, although still backwards in some ways. That in itself is sort of exciting when I feel like London is shrinking and pushing everyone not rich to the fringes. What’s the point of living in the biggest city in the world if you live on the edge of it? But there are still rarely visited streets in the centre which are maps of my early years here, where I remember.
Anyway, I was hoping I could write this all poetically and meaningfully and try to explain something profound or interesting, but instead it’s come out as a bit of a jumble. Bollocks.
How the fuck did that happen? Here’s my piece about my dad.
I was going to give this an ambiguous title, but thought it best to be upfront in case you wanted to click away. I’ll wait.
My brain is a bit of a mess at the moment. The only time I feel peace is with the baby- no expectation, no social contracts to worry about, no bullshit, just pure life, giggling at cats. I think sometimes in my writing I give the impression I threw a jacket over my shoulder and whistled off into the sunset. But there are no sunsets, this day never fucking ends, not really.
I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been told I had pre-diabetes, which is a warning sign for diabetes. I have been doing as required, weight loss and (very little, see above about exhaustion) exercise. Low carb diets are apparently the way to go, so I have gone. I have no choice. I have to lose weight, and I know I should view this as a good thing- after all, who wants to get diabetes?
Diets, and low carb diets in particular, set off something awful in my head. I had bulimia for years. For lots of years, I was fat and bulimic so even though I was tearing my esophagus and fainting, nobody took me seriously. I actually got congratulated by one doctor for losing some weight when I went for help, having smashed my head the previous night when I lost consciousness over the toilet bowl. Another doctor told me I had a nice figure. Because that’s always been the deal- as long as I wasn’t fat, I was fine.
It was a low carb diet that started it all. I gained a huge amount of weight on olanzapine as a teenager (as a teenager?! on olanzapine?!) and went on the Atkins diet. I lost weight- a fair amount, and enough to put into, “still a bit fat, but socially acceptable” range, and I also had a very physical job (which I lost due to being mental) which kept me quite fit. But the way it framed food- as carbs bad (PS CARBS ARE NOT BAD, IT IS BULLSHIT), other stuff good- gave me a chronic fear of carbohydrates and I found myself panicking and vomiting if I ate them, even accidentally. And eventually came off the diet for my sanity, but the eating disorder remained. It waxed and waned, I maintained my fat to doctors but thinner than I was on olanzapine physique, and then years later I was put on Seroquel and gained 4 stone in a few months and returned to my eating disorder with a vengeance. I was never a huge binger, I mostly threw up my meals and with particular panic if it had carbohydrates, so decided to forego food entirely. I even went on a liquid diet, all the while also being bulimic, and was eventually slim enough that the commentary from the paramedics as they hauled me into the back of an ambulance in 2008 was that I was beautiful so why would I try to kill myself? I doubt they’d say that now.
I recovered from it without any help other than sheer bloody mindedness- or shitty mindedness, since I was also abusing laxatives and spent most of my sisters 2009 visit in the toilet. The chemist stopped serving me, I was hopping pharmacies, I went on holiday and in the post-holiday photo flickage saw my dewy eyes in a restaurant in Barcelona and remembered I’d thrown up that expensive squid ink, that my moist panda face was due to just having vomited and not from the candlelit joy, and now I couldn’t shit without 10 laxatives. I’d fucking had enough and I stopped taking them and started eating and keeping it down. This, combined with still taking antipsychotics (and other medication like Lamictal), also meant I started gaining weight again, and a dose increased banged on a few stone in 2 months, and there I was, the fattest I’d ever been, but no longer bulimic, and I was proud. Proud and fat, two things you’re never allowed to be at the same time.
I’ve had some hairy moments. Pregnancy was one long hairy moment, but particularly the 12 week scan when I was tactlessly inducted into a study on women with BMI over 30 at risk of gestational diabetes, and told they’d watch what I ate. Bear in mind I’d just gotten a train I had carpeted with my vomit from intense pregnancy sickness that meant I could barely eat anything. I was given a very stern warning- sterny stern, you’re fat, stern, you can’t gain any weight (I’m fucking pregnant? Are babies made of fluff?), you’re going to get diabetes, pre-eclampsia (I got neither) while I sat in shaken silence, waiting for my trisomy screening results to come back, wishing, somewhere, noted, in big red letters, was that I’d had an eating disorder, and it might be best to have these conversations with me a) privately and b) tactfully. Being weighed every time I went there was hard, as I’d thrown my scale out some time before.
I actually didn’t gain any weight due to the sickness, but there were times I wondered if there wasn’t a psychological element to it. Somewhere, in the back of head, was and still is, “You didn’t gain weight because you threw up. Vomiting works”. That conversation and the ones that followed changed my perception of what my body was doing- I had felt I was nuzzling, nurturing, protecting, being a cozy home for my wee Bean, and the constant emphasis on my weight (which I could not help, because I also wasn’t allowed to come off medication) and the horrible things that would happen to the baby because of it made me feel like my body was a cesspit that he’d be lucky to emerge alive from. The final kick in the balls was on my fiftieth diabetes test where the doctor said I needed an extra one because I was on Seroquel, and women on Seroquel had a 95% chance of getting gestational diabetes. I was absolutely furious because I knew he had pulled that statistic out of his hole, that it wasn’t true, and that it was said just to frighten me enough to have another GTT when I’d had three, including one the week before, and found them horrible because I felt so ill and would wake up lightheaded from fasting yet again, and then spend two hours trying not to vomit up the sugar liquid. I didn’t get gestational diabetes, but then I got this warning, so I no longer feel smug, or even angry. Maybe I deserved to be treated like a fucking idiot, because I’m fat.
So here I am again, on a low carb diet. And, although it never really went away, I did reclaim some of the brain space that food had filled for so many years. I filled it with other things, flowers, joy, eating that sourdough with olive oil, nights of meals where I wasn’t distracted by where the toilet was, where I didn’t disappear for an hour afterwards, and later nights where I didn’t have to get up to sit on the toilet for another one. I find where I work to be a very difficult place when it comes to food. I work at a mental health charity, which, with me being an anxious person generally (that’s why it’s called generalised anxiety disorder, Seaneen) it can be tough to be surrounded by wellbeing messages, and by a focus on exercise which I don’t do, with a body I don’t have, with feelings I don’t feel. I try not to eat my lunch in work, which means I spend a fortune, but I hate any sort of commentary, any sort of scrutiny, even if it’s kind or polite. But the way I coped was to nothing food and exercise, to not ascribe any sort of moral value to it, even a good one like, “it feels good, it’ll make you feel better”. Because it’s just another stick to beat myself with. (Should go without saying, these are my feelings- no reflection on anyone I work with. I work with a few really close friends, and the rest of the people I work with are brilliant. This is all me).
I know these are quite irrational feelings and things I do, but they’re ways I have of pickaxing that territory back. And now all that space I fought to reclaim has been avalanched again with food, with a fixation on numbers, good/bad, and an even greater sense of panic because I HAVE to lose weight now. And it means I’ve had my head down a toilet again a lot more than I care to admit, and new scars on my knuckles and a feeling of despair and self loathing. I don’t want this, and I wanted to be a model of good eating and good self esteem for my son. I love eating dinner together, in the years of clawing back my mind, eating became a pleasurable, social thing. But there are things they have to eat (like pasta, carbohydrates) that I can’t. I eat lots of veg, I use flax seed, I have the odd slice of Burgen bread, and I’m not doing Atkins style low carb, but my diet is largely separate from the family table now, and it is depressing, and it feels like I have fallen so far backwards. I’ve also started eating meat again which is something else to feel awful for, because I had no fucking clue how to feed myself. As a vegesaurus I was living on beans, lentils, veg. And now, I was getting to the end of some days feeling like I was going to faint. It was one more thing to worry about, because I was struggling to get enough protein, and would eat more carbohydrates from hunger, and panic. I have no moral highground because I’ve been on and off meat, but had gotten to the point off meat where I felt like I was really, well, off.
I’m meant to go to some sort of Eye of the Tiger soundtrack diabettus group and I can’t face it, because I know it’s going to be fixated with weight loss and weighing and food. I can’t do it, it isn’t going to help. The thought of being sat around a circle on those uncomfortable blue chairs fills me with dread. And it makes me want to lose even more weight so I can say, “Well, see? I don’t need this group”.
I am hoping things will settle down as they become second nature. This is pretty much my lifestyle now. I have lost weight, but I don’t even feel good about it. I feel like now if I gain it back, even a pound, I’ve failed in some way. A lady in Tesco I talk to commented on my weight loss and said I must be doing, “something right” and my brain went into an utter tailspin. I know this is my problem, and that it’s silly in a lot of ways, but I worked so fucking hard, and it’s a dogwhistle to self hatred. I feel like I kidded myself. I was never comfortable with how I looked (and massive LOLs to the fact that when I eventually got therapy for body dysmorphic disorder I looked a way I would kill to now) but on most days in the past few years, I could think, “Banging boobs. Nice eyes”. But now I find myself looking in the mirror with contempt. I see big fat sagging tits, and eyes that are squashed by the weight of my face. Although there is a lot of truth in that my medication has made me gain a lot of weight (because antipsychotics do), I feel like, well, why I didn’t I tell them years ago that I wasn’t going to take them (and I did but psychiatrists vacillate between, “you don’t need them” to, “YOU’LL DIE WITHOUT THEM”). I can’t blame it entirely, and it’s a cop out to do so. Why didn’t I even carry on being bulimic if I meant I wouldn’t get so big and end up almost diabetic. Why did I have that Gu, or eat that pasta, or enjoy that meal.
But I don’t want to be bulimic again, and I’m on a very slippery slope. I’m trying to be honest about this- I’m in touch with someone who’s on a similar diet for similar reasons and who struggles with similar feelings so we can give each other a bit of support (even if we don’t, it’s still sort of nice to know someone else is feeling the same) and I have told very close people so they know I’m not being weird and they’re also being supportive. So I just wanted to say it somewhere.
PS: I feel like an absolute loser for writing this. Breaking stigma, yah yah yah. I’d still be mortified if someone googled me and found this. None of this paints me in a good light. Hiya.
Bipolar isn’t the whole story of my life and definitely not my teens, where I started to become ill but was mostly unable to cope under the psychic pressure that teenagehood is, a stew of hormones, trauma, the Manic Street Preachers and very shitty make up. It was a pretty lonely, pretty frightening time, pretty silly time for me at points. So I wrote an article for Buzzfeed on things I wish someone had said to me as a teenage mentalist. You can read it here.
Spoiler- it doesn’t end with me shiny haired and recovered, because that’s never how it ends.
I wish I could go back time and never have taken psychiatric medication. I’m not even sure how much I credit it with my stability. There are definitely times that it was helpful, but did I need to take it always, forever?
When I was prescribed carbamazepine when I was 16, nobody told me why, or what it would do, or what side effects it did. I was so drunk and dizzy on them, so sleepy, I’d fall over. I was 16 and my life should not have been like that and if it had to be I should have been told why. You take them because an adult told you to and your life was falling apart and you were scaring everybody with how you were behaving.
When I was 17 I was prescribed olanzapine and again nobody told me why or what side effects it had. I gained a frightening amount of weight in such a short space of time that I stopped recognising myself, I felt like my body was being inhabited by an alien.
I’ve been on antipsychotics my entire adult life so far. I never got to know who I was without them, except for the periods I’d stop taking them to see how I felt, and naturally I got ill (ill or withdrawal? I still don’t know). It’s not as easy as just going, “I’m not taking them”- you get labelled, “non-compliant”, “difficult”, and when you’re trying to live your life, rocking the boat is scary.
Now I’m 30 and I’ve been off them for about 6 months. I had tried many times to, and I was okay to stay on them postnatally as I could see how they’d help (even if it meant I could do no night feeds, and miss out on that special, defining parental experience). I came off them, finally, when I had to go back to work and realised I couldn’t take them and parent, and work, and that I’d had enough of weight gain. It wasn’t as hard as it had been before because I was in a good space mentally, I’d titrated down, and used antihistamines to take the edge off.
I’ve only lost 7lbs since being off but it is the first time in years the scales have gone down. I am almost 5 stone overweight and the only time I’ve been slim in my adulthood was when I had an eating disorder. I wasn’t a slim teenager either but I wasn’t fat, and I wasn’t the antipsychotic fat I am now, with a bloated face and huge tummy.
Doctors have never taken me seriously about this. Despite gaining 3 stone in 3 months on a dose increase. Nobody was ever honest about this with me, about side effects in general. I was always made to feel it was my fault, that I was just stuffing my face, when I wasn’t. Always told to do more exercise when my medication made me so tired that I could barely get up in the morning, and when I said that I was told to go to bed at 6pm. Whenever diabetes was mentioned, it was always with an apologetic shrug. Despite the fact that due to my medication I was supposed to get annual health checks and blood sugar tests, I only got one- my first one- last week.
Now the inevitable has happened, what I’d hoped to escape by getting off them, but I haven’t. I have prediabetes and now I have a fuckload of work to do to try and undo this, to avoid diabetes, if I can at all, I don’t even know. I need to, what choice do I have? I am already on my knees with exhaustion, I commute 3 hours a day, I work full time, I have a baby, I am trying to manage my mental health without medication and it is hard. But I am not going back on it ever. I am petrified of getting diabetes, of anything that will shorten my lifespan. I’ve always known the 20 years younger statistic, I’ve quit smoking, my cholesterol and blood pressure is perfect at least.
I’m not blaming the medication entirely, but I wouldn’t have gotten to this weight without it, and I have no idea what it’s done to my body. And I’m scared and worried, and wondering- was it worth it?
I have a one year old. How the hell did that happen?
Happy first birthday to Sunny Boo, little Bean, beautiful Oisín. It is a singular joy being your mum and watching you grow from a mini Bean to a human Bean. At one, you still love the cats, you love music and dancing, shaking your head and jumping up and down on your bum, bibbling, pretending to have a tantrum then laughing, Chu and Where’s The Cat (‘at!), the light of the moon and little eggs laying on leaves, hurling yourself onto teddies, talking to the bookshelf, cleaning your high chair tray with a cloth, watching other people, being carried up the stairs by your dad still makes you dance with happiness every night. You still love your little baby gym- you couldn’t even reach the dangly toys when we got it and now you can lift the whole thing up to tip over, and those toys are well chewed. You love the feel of the wind in your hair. You love being sang to, sometimes when I sing to you at bedtime you flip out so much I have to stop. You are hilarious and make me laugh more than anyone else. You push books to us to read and flick back to your favourite pages. When you have night terrors I feel like I’m walking an ancient path, responsible for such a small life beginning to make sense of their world, a sovereign being in your own right, but being carried around by your daddy and a cat always makes it better. You have weird taste in food and love anything strong, you turn your nose up at mild cheddar and yomp down the vintage stuff, smoked salmon and celery. You make the most amazing noises (the cats have their own special ones) and sometimes wake up in the night to babble with slightly unnerving clarity. You’re the most sociable and sweet baby I’ve ever met, you share your happiness with everyone around you, looking into our faces with a grin. You have the best selection of smiles, the softest skin and the longest eyelashes. Having you has made me reevaluate what’s important, made me kinder, happier, given me the closest thing to the answer of what the universe means that I think I’ll ever get. You’re the best and we love you. And thanks to everyone who’s been through this year with us, helped, hung out, given advice, made him giggle.
Oh, and happy 8th birthday to the cats too!
One year ago today: