Has Belfast changed or have I changed? – Back “home” after 15 years

Apologies for the long silence. As alluded to in my last post, it’s been all go here.  We’ve moved country, I’ve moved jobs, and in the midst of it all I was flattened by an episode of ferocious (and probably to be expected) depression which has made it hard to write, and think. I’m starting to feel a little brighter now, so lassoing the thoughts before they float off and freeze in a cloud. Hello anyway!

Moving country. Not in any exciting, exotic sense where I’m now blogging on a balcony with a view over some bustling European piazza. I’ve moved back home – sort of – to Belfast.

I’ve written before about my feelings on my hometown, and wondering whether it was time to return.  I don’t believe there always should be a time to return; we can make our home wherever, without ever returning to the original.  It’s the kind of place that, for me, made for interesting stories but unhappy memories. (Incidentally, Derry Girls pretty much NAILS IT in terms of the more ridiculous – and heartbreaking- aspects of growing up in Northern Ireland).

London makes it extremely hard to make it your home unless you are extremely wealthy, which is ultimately why we have to leave. Supporting one family on my very modest indeed charity job income (and all the freelance work I can get too just to make it harder for myself) became impossible. We lived in a literally crumbling 2 bedroom house we were trapped in because we were on housing benefit and the fact that we were on housing benefit at all when I worked 2 jobs just felt so stupid and pointless.  Here, it’s merely just very difficult so slightly less soul destroying. Upgrade!

Robert’s from London, so it’s been hard for him to leave.  I feel like I’ve always had one foot out of it, and never felt entirely at home there.  Now I’ve left, of course I realise I was at home, because I lived there for 15 years and you’re always quantifying it on some phantom of childhood or that one night you had on a roof with people you never saw again.

It’s strange to be back. It doesn’t quite feel like back. Back is gone. I’ve become a weird hybrid of Norn-Irish/English, and it grieves me to admit it. I have all these insipid Englishisms which are utterly at odds with the Norn Irish straight talk- I say, “let’s have a chat” instead of, “we need to talk”, “bollocks” instead of, “ballix”, “privy” instead of, “toilet”, “perambulator” instead of “pram” etc. I have developed the English reticence with strangers and orienting myself is tricky.  People talk to you and it takes me a second to respond because I’m not used to being spoken to by human beings I don’t know. WHAT DO THEY WANT FROM ME?

In work, everyone leaves at 5pm. Dogs to feed, kids to pick up, and generally life to get to. People eat dinner at 5.30. I don’t know if that’s just my workplace, but it was unheard of in London, even in the charity sector, to rarely ever work past your hours.  I love this. People go to church and aren’t the facsimile lefty atheists I’m used to in the London charity sector.

It’s been almost three months now, and we can see that Oisin is starting to adjust. His spirited brrm-brrm bus journeys around the living room has ceased calling at Brixton and now stop at Rugby Road, Shaftesbury Avenue, City Centre… He says, “cave” and “eight” with that crater-trip in the middle, like a Norn Irish person does.  He says other things in the mannered English accent of his dad (a speech impediment potato in his mouth enunciating rubbing off on young minds and mouths).  He’s very impressed by the weather, lover of storms and rain and defier of parental screech from the sideline and mocker of elaborate aged sighing.

oisinscooter

“Back”. It is strange. I left when I was 17, so I’ve never been an adult here.  I rarely ventured outside West Belfast (where I’m from) and the City Centre. I think I went to a party in East Belfast once, and remember being called, “Emma” in Sandy Row since my actual name may as well be Fenian McTaig. But a lot of the city, and the country, is still a mystery to me.  My mental map, my topography, is London.  My childhood is West Belfast, and coming back has been occasionally wrenching.  It’s not as though I’ve buried grief about the things that happened there -namely, losing my dad – but cruising past the hospital he did in a bus, the funeral parlour, your granny’s old house, no longer as memories or memorials to be honoured at Christmas but places again, part of your day and life- strange.

It’s strange coming back to somewhere you’d sermoned about authoritatively for years to people who weren’t from there, and confronting your own total ignorance about it.

I live in South Belfast which is the fairly, “gentrified” bit- not a deliberate choice but necessity in that I had 1 day to find somewhere to live and was staying with my friend of the Ormeau Road. It all happened very quickly. We had one last muted Christmas in London and then in January, we bundled into a rented car with Oisin and the cats and got a boat and then here we were to very little fanfare.

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Bedroom window view.

It’s gentrified but still has a flute hall and union jacks everywhere that I’ve pretty much stopped noticing already. I’ve always hated union jacks- to me growing up they signified I was in a place I wasn’t welcome, and every sodding holiday in the UK would have them plastered all the shop, equally hated there.

Quick aside for people who don’t know what the fuck I’m on about; basically Belfast still has bits which lean towards being “Loyalist” (ie loyal to the UK, the Crown, all that) and Republican (ie not loyal to the Crown, want a united Ireland).  They’re the political terms- others are Unionist and Nationalist.  And there’s a lot of grey areas – I’m not an Irish nationalist but I am an Irish Republican, if that makes any sense.

What denotes you’re in a specific area is flags and murals. I am naturally more comfortable around Republican flags (tricolour mainly) and murals because I am from a Republican area, grew up with it, part of the scenery, so I don’t find them at all intimidating. I understand totally why someone who grew up in a Loyalist estate would.

I do find other flags a bit intimidating.  Here’s a “Seaneen Shits Herself Hierachy of Flegs”:

Union Jack

union jack

Not even a tummy rumbling, especially since the Union Jack renaissance which, even though it remains a resolutely political symbol in Northern Ireland, is more closely associated with various, “Great British…” TV shoes.

Ulster Banner

ulster-banner_1000

Probably wouldn’t shout my name out in this area, but again, no stomach stirrings.

Orange Order flag

2000px-Flag_of_the_Orange_Order.svgThere’s a flute hall around the corner, so this wouldn’t induce a squeaky fart as it would have done back in the day, but I wouldn’t go knocking on their door collecting for Trocaire.

UVF flag

uvf

Cramps and diarreah.

I’ve resisted posting murals and graffiti but this is an excellent blog full of them which also gives them their context. 

What’s changed though is, when I’m trying to orientate myself, friends are encouraging nuance around these things. I really wouldn’t have walked into a Loyalist area as a teenager- it’s why I don’t know much of Belfast. I’ve been quizzing my friends about different areas I’d never have ventured into- how have they changed? What’s going on there? From street to street the answer is different (it has taken me all this time to realise why people here refer to streets!) but much more different than it ever was.  I know I sound like an eejit with all my questions (“You’re from here!” But I’m not; I’m from here in 2003).

I left in 2003, which was 5 years after the Good Friday Agreement.  My abiding memories of the time are the pamphlet coming through our door and the, “Time for Peace, Time to Go” adverts on TV.

That’s just, well, celebrated isn’t the right word, but had its 20th anniversary.  Having been away for such a long time I don’t feel qualified to comment too much on the complexities of life since then, but there are some thoughtful pieces on the Good Friday Agreement here, here and here, and an event here.  And some pieces on how Brexit may entirely fuck it up and how the government licking the hole of the DUP almost certainly has, so well done there.

There’s much talk of Belfast having changed and certainly, it has.  It can be glib and simplistic to think that because we’ve got a Wagamama, because capitalism is flourishing here and hotels are popping up and people actually want to come here, it’s all well and good. We’re normal! Just like everywhere else! There’s craft beers! Costa! WE’RE BASICALLY LEEDS! We have tourists who come and write facile slogans on the “peace walls”! There are buses going through the Falls Road! Come Home was set here and didn’t reference the Troubles! (Did half expect the ‘Ra to turn up at the end and claim custody, though.  I hadn’t really appreciated the bravery of my English husband in full make up, fur coats and often a dress moving to Ballysillan when he was 18, in 2000. It was despite fierce protestations from his family which at the time I was scornful of.

And I have to say I want that to be the case sometimes, too. I like finding a fancy wee coffee shop and going, “Fuck me!” at the price and then not having any more fancy wee coffees ever again. And I like the democratising culture here, that it really does feel like it’s for everyone, and for everything, when in London, because of being poor, not being university educated, I felt so constantly on the outside and unworthy of it.  I can’t say if that’s changed, because cultural life was not what a 17 year old me indulged in while I lived here. I can say that if we were truly “just another place”, it would be a huge shame. Because Northern Ireland is different. It is morbid. It is mordant. It is silly and warm and curious and it fosters a different kind of culture.

Morbid. Another piece, and something that has been affecting me more than I thought it would, describes the, “Ceasefire Babies” – my generation and after. Suicide since the end of the Troubles has now killed more people than the Troubles themselves.  The suicide rate in Northern Ireland is higher than anywhere else in the UK, and highest in my generation, the children reared in and born after the ceasefire in 1994, and living in the shadows of trauma. Trauma in every sense; their parents, disconnected, unheard, unhealed. The communities; closed shops, tout graffiti, broken windows. Economic, social, personal.

Northern Ireland is a tiny country and every week there’s another, “sudden death”, “tragic death”, “died unexpectedly”. All coded words for suicide. I hear more detailed stories off the pages. That bald, Northern Irish way of speaking. “Poor divil”. But the divil is ancient and forever, and these people are young, so young.

I understand why they’re coded words. Part of me doesn’t want to understand it. There are many initiatives and charities to support people, such as PIPs, but no government to implement any cohesive strategy for something that’s so complex.

It is striking and it does, on a selfish level, scare me and sadden me.  I know myself how indiscriminate mental illness is, but it’s not entirely true that suicide is. Suicide is less indiscriminate than mental illness.  Suicide kills more poor people and more marginalised people. It discriminates.

I worry about raising a child in a place where suicide is so prevalent, and so amorphous.  I always think campaigners are immune to suicide in a way- since y’know ending stigma and “reaching out” and “speaking out” apparently cures suicide, but an alarming amount of prominent campaigners for mental health here have died, and partly I would imagine because they’ve become campaigners due to losing someone close to them to suicide. And so it goes on. I don’t know to insulate and protect Oisin from it. I don’t know how anyone in Northern Ireland can insulate and protect the people we love from suicide. I remember my dad’s devastation when a friend of his killed themselves. I remember mine when mine did, she was only 16. I remember how offended I was the first time someone suggested I might have 1) got the fuck out and 2) had mental health issues due to things like falling out of bed at night when a bomb went off and living with the British army at your front door. If we can’t admit to ourselves that it fucked us up, what hope is there?

Intergenerational trauma aside, further trauma ripples.  I’m almost more worried about Oisin killing himself here than I am about the Troubles kicking off again. If the Troubles did we’d get the fuck out. But you can go as far away as space and if you want to die you will still want to.

So, strange. And I don’t want to end on such a note in this brain dump post, so here’s some lovely pictures too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listen to me and Mark Brown talk dogs, Trump, the Faff Zone and mental health on BBC Ouch

Do you procrastinate to the point that you get very little done? And how do you break free?

Presenters Mark Brown and Seaneen Molloy-Vaughan (that’s me!) call it the Faff Zone and say it hijacks your mind.

It’s a mental health takeover on this week’s BBC Ouch podcast. Drop in on the two as their lively and reassuring discussions give a bit of necessary focus and humour to living with mental health difficulties.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05vb4f9

(Sorry for sharing this in a less detailed, personal way – I have just moved country and am starting a new job tomorrow!)

Christmas love to you all

I’ve been a bit AWOL, apologies. Just wanted to swing by to wish everyone a nice Christmas, or at least, one that’s not too shit for you. Or if it’s just another day, then I hope it’s one of the better ones.

If 2017 has been bollocks for you, I wish you a better 2018 instead. We’re just two years from sounding like we’re living in a dystopian novel, and given the way the world is going, we may just well be.

I’ll be back writing soon – take care if you’re reading.

And if you’re struggling, this might be helpful.

Me talking self harm on Metro’s “Mentally Yours” podcast

Absolutely lashing with sweat due to illness, and having just burst an eardrum by being stupid, I went to a restaurant in West London to meet Yvette and Ellen of the Mentally Yours podcast in which, now having listened, I was surprisingly coherent in retrospect.

I don’t find self-harm the easiest topic to discuss. It’s pretty hard to without getting a bit graphic, so a warning that this podcast does have some fairly graphic language, as well as a few fucks, because it’s me. I haven’t self-harmed in 8 years, but because I live in a scar suit, the reaction my body gets from both the public and the medical profession means I may as well never have stopped.

It’s also not an easy topic to discuss because everyone is so different.  The hardest question I was always asked when I self harmed was, “Why do you do it?” I know the circumstances I self harmed in, the houses, the rooms, the ritual.  But the why, the visceral, deep down why, is mostly a mystery to me even now. I tried to explain here as best I could, the same way I tried when I was a teenager and was confronted, badgered, hectored with the, “Why?” from everybody who in turn wanted to understand their own anger, rage, disgust at it.

I talk about why self-harm might be on the rise in young women, on which I wish I’d said more. What I didn’t mention was my feeling that there’s an earlier sexualisation of young bodies, and self-harm can be both a fuck you to that, and a way of acting out self hatred.   I also touch a bit on the trivialisation and dismissal of childhood and teenage emotions, and of their trauma, and the unfathomable things children endure and can’t express (and bear in mind I blocked someone on Twitter for asking if I had self-harmed due to something like a teenage crush on Boyzone, so do refrain from making fucking stupid comments like that please).

And I chat about coping with scars and what led me to stop, how I stayed that way, and some advice to anyone who might want to hurt themselves.

Thanks for having me, Metro! Have a listen.

 

ANXIETY IS FUCKING BORING

I’m not the most exciting person. Most days, the most exciting thing I do is break our geriatric tap in the kitchen. Whoosh, there is goes again. The momentary crisis of grabbing cloths and jumping back and hot geysers, a tiny little flood. That’s about as exciting as life often gets for me. Occasionally, I might say something slightly witty at an advert. Or write a tweet that gets FOUR likes and retweet. Put on the good bra to go to the shops. Pulse quickening.

I get plenty pulse quickening with my anxiety. Constant, worsening anxiety that turns every single thing into the same thing. Heart palpitations, hard to breathe, floaty, distant, shaking anxiety.

It used to just be Some Things. The Big Things. I’ve written at length about my fear of death and the therapy that I uselessly underwent to help it. I still have that but my more constant anxiety has even turned that heart stopping, face clawing, screaming existential terror into a mundane nightly chore, like brushing my teeth (just kidding, I don’t brush my teeth nightly, I’m not the Queen).  I climb to bed (it feels like a climb because I know what’s coming, that huge boulder perched on the precipice ready to flatten me), put on my sleepy sounds (an app that has waves on it), try and read shit on my phone until I can’t stay awake, but then I invariably do because I’m reading shit on my phone, then a word, a thought, death, dead, older, you’re 32 in a month, I wonder what it’s like to be 82 and know with utter utter certainty you’ll die soon, some sort of black jellyfish thing floats into my brain and sting sting stings until I can’t breathe, and want to fling myself out of the window, just to not feel this way anymore. I’m in bed, I’m safe, nothing is happening to me.

Every night. I could set my watch by it, if I had a watch. I don’t, because ticking clocks make me think of death and I can’t be in the same room as one. WHAT A CARD I AM.

How BORING IT IS to not be able to be in the same room as a ticking clock.  I just go through my nightly panic attacks alone. Occasionally I’ll have flung myself across the room. Reader, in previous years, I’ve even wet myself from fear. Really quietly. Try not to wake up Robert. “Why don’t you wake me up?” Because it’s fucking BORING. BORING. BORING. How many times have I talked this out, with you, with him, with a therapist, with this blog and Facebook and all the other things I fling my feelings at when I’m sick of them clinging to my heart like tar. It is BORING. I have reduced the most primal feeling of all men, all, since the beginning of time, to something so FUCKING BORING.  So self obsessed, so insular. Panic or paralysis, that’s about it.

It makes me angry.

It makes me angry it’s just gotten worse and worse. When is it my time to be okay? Over the past year or so my anxiety has changed from something that happened to something that just is. Everywhere, always. It has infested every single aspect of my life and made every single thing in my life bloodless.  The only exception is my son, because he is life and also because he is so attention consuming in his tiny toddlerness and I have to stop him walking into traffic it’s hard to think or feel anything else but hypervigilance.

Twee cartoons, though helpful for many, don’t capture the boredom of anxiety. They convey chaos, a mind racing with possibilities and thoughts and fears.  And that is anxiety, but racing isn’t the right word. It’s tumbling, jumbling, crashing, smashing and smithereening. Over and over, so it’s just a hum.  Just one catastrophic thought after another. From the big. I am going to die. Smash, bang. I am going to die soon. Smash, bang, thump. Then you panic. Smithereen. Rinse, repeat. (I am not going to do this thing at work well.  Now I’ve wasted so much time panicking I have no time to do it well. I am scared if I don’t cross the road at the right time I will get hit by a car. Now I am dissociating at the traffic lights and can’t remember how to cross the road. I think I fucked this thing up. Everyone must know I fucked this thing up.  I am anxiously obsessing over this thing to my friends. Now my friends must be annoyed at me.  I am coming across as a weirdo because I am feeling anxious and spacing out. Blah blah blah).  I am not suicidal in the least but I think about killing myself with alarming regularity just to never have another day of anxiety.

I am just really bloody tired of it. It is really exhausting. I don’t know what to do about it anymore. I have to think everything over a thousand billion times. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that. I find it hilarious I was once described as “impulsive” when I’m now everything I do is at a glacial pace because I have to investigate every other known option and settle on none of them.  I know in a sense it’s habit. Useless CBT tried to break that habit, it didn’t work. I can’t do mindfulness because so much of my anxiety is wrapped up in mortal things; hearts beating, breathing and all that, so it actively makes me panic more.

I was off work for months due to anxiety.  I had counselling, and was kicked out for missing 2 sessions (one flu, one sister visit). The counsellor was also clearly a bit unsure of me, having expected some sort of 12 session wham bam you’re cured mam and getting someone trying to process trauma and manage a mental illness on top of the day to day stuff (and it is the day to day stuff now really, it takes up such a huge amount of my energy to stay relatively sane while holding down 2 jobs to live and trying to keep everyone in my house not homeless). So I went to a private therapist for an assessment, begged skintness (despite having 2 jobs, I am skint) and will do more therapy, and maybe it’ll help, and maybe it won’t. I can’t take SSRIs because they kick off mania which would be another whole boring pile of shit to contend with. I’ve taken propranolol and it does its business but doesn’t do anything about my head.

Here are some ridiculous things my anxiety has made FUCKING BORING lately.

  1. Booking a holiday. Being in the privileged position of being able to take our first family holiday thanks to my mum in law, I decided the most fitting way to celebrate was to faff and worry so much I didn’t book anything for weeks until it was really expensive and we picked somewhere almost at random. Then I worried about that and felt responsible for preemptively ruining everyone’s holiday and terrified of wasting a lot of money we don’t have on not going somewhere utterly perfect and anyway taking a 2.5 year old on holiday is fucking stupid so I’ll have to ask Facebook for opinions and talk about it constantly until I eventually have a panic attack in the street while I’m holding an emergency sausage roll. THANKS BRAIN.
  2. A meteor shower. The splendor of the heavens! Shooting stars! The inky canopy dotted with bright stars, so beautiful and visible at my mum’s up in the mountains of Northern Ireland.  OH HEY BY THE WAY YOU HAVE NO FUCKING IDEA WHY THEY’RE THERE AND YOU’RE GOING TO DIE BEFORE YOU FIND OUT. Time to go back inside.
  3. Watching a beautiful sunset from my bedroom window. Aaaah, isn’t this nice, and it’s light enough still you might not have a panic attack in the dark. Try to go to sleep now. Go on. Sleep like the dead. What are you doing with your tiny finite life YOU COULD BE DOING SO MUCH MORE FOR ALL IT MATTERS ANYWAY. ARRRGGGGH.

NOTHING HELPS. Talking about it doesn’t help because there’s no solutions. That sausage roll might have helped for a few minutes, just like this glass of wine I had might have helped too, but that’s it. No baths, no walks, no runs, no good food, no wanky “self care” helps. Because it, all of it, becomes part of the same stair climbing routine with a panic attack at the end.

I’ve mentioned it before but the insularness of it makes me angry. I wonder sometimes if my anxiety is some sort of pressure release system due to feeling constantly and rightly worried about losing my jobs (therefore I must be perfect at them but then I worry so much I am shit at them) and making my family homeless. It is so internally focused that I have tried to block out the world in case my brain just fucking collapses.  Since I last wrote here a thousand awful things have happened and are still happening so I focus all my anxiety on internal, BORING things, some of which are in my control, and if they aren’t, then I try to wrench them into it. Of course, you can’t control everything, and then you freak out.  And this is the biggest thing in my life I don’t feel I have any control over whatsoever which just frightens me more. And bores me, because I am constantly trying to keep it socially acceptable, and that’s boring.  To just be a stuck record that skips over and over. A voice from a speaker in the distance garbled through air, a static buzz.

I’m bloody fucking sick of it.

 

 

 

 

 

Having a diagnosis of mental illness doesn’t mean you’ll be a bad mother.

No matter what they tell you, for years.

I’m often too knackered/too busy/too dispirited by the world to blog, so you can often find me on Twitter instead. Here’s a series of tweets I wrote tonight on the topic of mental health and motherhood. Come and find me and say hello.

(Click on the tweet to read the thread)

Me and @MarkOneinFour on BBC Radio – Ouch: Disability Talk, Let’s talk about mental health … but then what?

Hello! You can listen to me and the lovely @MarkOneinFour talk mental health, Prince Harry and inappropriate dancing on the BBC Ouch podcast this week. Let me know what you think! 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p050rhtp

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