Friday, 14 December 2007

I think, if I'm perfectly honest, that the time has come to accept that I might need some help with this.

There are only so many "Sorry, I've got a really nasty bug" or "Sorry, another migraine" excuses I can trot out before I'm rumbled and they realise that the reason I haven't been to work for three days is because I could not get out of bed.

I don't know which bit of what is affecting me the most and what to ask for help with, but right now I'm staring down a very long, very double-barreled black depression and it's not a fun place to be.

I don't know if it's chemical or reactive. I just know that staring blankly at the inside of my curtains all day every day is not normal and I am beginning to despise this place.

Will drugs help that?


I hate drugs anyway.

I've never met an antidepressant that I've got on with, or rather, that my body has got on with; they are all far too agitating. Citalopram sent me flying into a manic episode and straight into hospital, resulting with six months on Valium to reverse the damage. Effexor had much the same effect, even at the lowest dose. The neurologist that attempted to treat my migraines wanted to try me on Amitriptyline, an older, non-SSRI AD. The list of side effects is horrendous, and I suspect it would have much the same effect as the others. Am I prepared to deal with that to try and climb out of this pit? I don't know. Is it the lesser of two evils? Again, I don't know.

I don't know what to do.

I feel as if don't have a friend in the world. Well, I do, but not here. Maybe it's true what they say about London, and maybe this is just a clear cut case of the loneliness of the city, eating me slowly from the inside out.

If I didn't have my cats to think about - oh god, I *am* crazy cat lady, aren't I? - I would, right now, tonight, pack a single bag, with enough clothes to get me where I'm going, my laptop and my phone, and just get on a train. Leave all my stuff here - I don't care about stuff anyway. Let the next person to live in this place have it. It'd make a nice home for someone - just not for me any more.

Worked for Stephen Fry... didn't it?

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Make Soup, Not War

I never know quite what to do with myself on a Saturday.

The rest of the week, I find, can be pigeonholed quite neatly. On Monday to Friday, I am inevitably doing one of three things: working, trying to force myself out the door to work, or laying around wrestling with my conscience for not being able to do either. This, in itself, takes up a considerable amount of brainpower and energy, and keeps me occupied for the better part of the day - perhaps ironically, moreso than actually working itself would.

On Sundays, I am usually thinking about whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing on Monday.

But Saturdays are a bit of an enigma, where the world as I know it stops turning for a little while, and that lovely feeling of relief on waking at not having to do any of that is quite quickly replaced with a vague sense of feeling utterly lost.

When planning my move back to London earlier in the year, and knowing that the majority of my time outside work would be spent alone, I envisaged my future Saturdays as being spent in the pursuit of all things arty and cultural. Perhaps browsing lazily around an antiquated bookshop in Charing Cross Road, stopping in a French-inspired coffee shop afterwards to flick absent-mindedly through the musty yellowed pages and watch the world go by outside through a small cloud of steam rising from the cup. Visiting galleries, even though I neither understand nor appreciate art, or attending one of the hundreds of musical events at the Barbican. Lounging around on the South Bank, people-watching, wondering where this person is going or where that person has been. Wandering aimlessly around Portabello Road market, procuring a bag full of nick-naks for my Victorian-themed flat, all of which would of course bring me pleasure, but would be ultimately quite useless.

Obviously, it hasn't quite worked out like that.

This morning, it being a Saturday, I peeked around the curtains for a brief look at the world outside, hoping perhaps that doing so would, for a change, plant a seed of inspiration in my mind as to how to spend the day. As my still sleep-filled eyes unblurred and adjusted to the light, I was delighted to notice that it was raining hard. I love hard rain. As well as reminding me of home as a child, circa 1982 - that wonderful sense of warmth and comfort and belonging after arriving home soaked from the walk from the school bus to be met with a big fluffy towel, a glass of squash and a Marmite sandwich - hard rain gives me an instant sense of relief; I can watch it hammer against the windows, run gracefully down the metallic exterior of parked cars, settle in puddles on the pavement and bounce from the umbrellas of passers-by, safe in the knowledge that it's giving me a legitimate excuse to hole myself up for the day - because who in their right mind wants to go outside in that?

So, today, instead of tackling demons, I tackled vegetables.

I made soup.

I chopped and boiled and seasoned and tasted and smacked my lips in delight and marvelled at the delicious smells coming from my woefully under-used kitchen as this random, spur-of-the-moment creation bubbled away on the stove for two hours. I nearly set fire to my flat in a slight accident involving the naked flame of the gas hob and an errant sticky label which was, apparently, still attached to my shiny new crock-pot... but we'll gloss over that. I blended and poured and divided the fruits of my labour up into individual little containers, surprised at the sense of satisfaction and achievement garnered from such a simple activity.

Had I been wearing an apron at the time, I would have been the epitome of domestic goodness, and with the soundtrack of old standards and big-band jazz happily playing in the background, I felt like the archetypal 1950s housewife.

I may even have sung at one point.

After the blending part of the process, I realised that in my enthusiasm, I'd made enough soup to feed a small army and yet had nothing to store it in. I pulled on my trainers and, without thinking about what I was doing, made the two-minute trip to the local homewares store for the cheaper, multi-buy equivalent of Tupperware.

Arriving home, as I turned the key in the door - I can't put my finger on the reasons why - it felt for the first time in months as if I was walking into home - somewhere that things happen rather than a place where people hide and acheive nothing.

All this from soup.

How strange.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Tell me, Chicken - have you met Egg?

According to an article in the Guardian this week, patients in mental crisis are not getting the NHS help and treatment that the Government has promised.

Here's why I think this falls under the category of "No shit, Sherlock!"

During the summer, I was referred to the local mental health team for CBT. I managed the initial appointment, and blogged about it here, and in fact, the original purpose of this blog was to chronicle the course of my treatment. This, as you may have noticed, quickly fell by the wayside. Why? Well, further appointments had to be cancelled, because I was so sick I simply could not get there.

While in the grip of an agoraphobic period - for these things, as I've explained before, tend to wax and wane - no amount of cajoling, encouragement or even a stick of dynamite up the arse is going to get me out of my flat. This is not laziness, or pettiness, or stubbornness, or a reluctance to help oneself (which is how medical professionals tend to see it as they take out their big rubber stamp to label you as 'resisting treatment'), rather a deep rooted conviction that the outside world is a dangerous place, that setting foot outside one's front door, or in my case, my bedroom, will result in certain death. I can not tell you why it seems so dangerous, because by the time I get to the point where I can not leave my room, the deep rot of clinical depression has set in into the degree that I can not form a sentence. But it seems to be that some kind of survival instinct kicks in and keeps me confined to my safe area, hidden behind some kind of invisible force field, within which it is impossible to sometimes do the smallest of things - take a shower, stand in the kitchen for any period of time to prepare food, visit the corner shop less than 100 steps away to buy that food to prepare - let alone to take a trip across London to explain to someone that I can't do these things.

All things considered, I should be one of the lucky ones. I live in London and my local mental health centre is two miles away, at the other end of two bus rides. Yet still, with that degree of illness, I couldn't manage this; someone living in, for example, rural Devon, where the nearest mental health centre may be 25 miles away in the next town or city, has no chance.

I wonder how many people are in this position. Why should agoraphobia be the poor relation of the mental health family?

Is it, perhaps, because people with agoraphobia are still unwittingly stigmatised as the Miss Haversham figure with filthy net curtains and an almost impossible amount of cobwebs in their houses - the strange, reclusive figure to be mocked, ridiculed, filed under 'eccentric' rather than 'genuinely ill', and left alone to die?

But back to the article, and the problem at hand, which, I feel, lies in the definition of 'home treatment', where home treatment does not actually mean home treatment, rather a government buzz-word to refer to any treatment in the community that does not fall under the category of 'admissions to hospital'.

What the NHS has then, when considering the treatment of agoraphobia, is a chicken and egg, Catch 22 situation. The patient can't get the help she needs because she's too sick to get the help she needs.

How can that be right?

Has anyone in the NHS even thought of this? Why isn't there some kind of home therapy service? People in crisis are being forgotten, their healthcare needs are not being met, and therefore, it is desperately needed. I've never heard of this kind of thing. Have you? Should we be lobbying our MPs and suggesting it?

Friday, 30 November 2007

On death, taxes and impressionable young children

Have you ever noticed how sometimes, you will hold a belief so dear to your heart until you write it down, and upon reading it back, the very words on the page that form the core of that conviction suddenly become something to be ridiculed?

That is my hope with this post.

Because it is all based on fear, sometimes I try and work out where the fear is coming from, and what, exactly, it is that I am afraid of when I know that nobody has ever been documented to have died from this.

CBT devotees the world over will tell you that at the basis of any anxiety attack is a fear, and to alleviate that fear you must, through a process of both elimination and demarcation, fence off that fear, challenge that fear, and question the evidence that leads you to believe that this fear is something that is likely to happen.

I wonder what they'd make of this, then.


When I was old enough for my mother to go back to work, she took a job cleaning the communal areas of a large block of flats for elderly people. Technically, the place was accommodation for what were termed in those politically incorrect days of the 1980s, 'the elderly and disabled', although the only disabled people I remember seeing were disabled due to anno-domini rather than genetics or accident. There were no young disabled people there. Only old ones, who died with alarming regularity.

I was seven years old.

One of my earliest memories - for some telling reason, I have no memories before this age - is of my mother, leaning over the bannisters in the long, winding corridor of Level 5, her vacuum cleaner and bucket of cleaning supplies by her side, weeping, and imparting to me the pertinent piece of information that her favourite resident was dead. Twenty eight years later I obviously don't remember the manner of her passing, only that it crucified my mother.

A year later the warden left, and my mother, having already had some experience with the residents, both dead and alive, was given the job. And so, at the age of eight, I was packed up from our comfortable existence in a typical 3-bedroomed semi on a street where I played with other children and rode my bike like a daredevil until I scraped all the skin off my knees and shot berries from peashooters at the rival 'gang' from the other end of the road, and moved to this place - because the job came with on site accommodation.

And there began my very strange existence of growing up in what was, at the time, referred to somewhat proudly as 'sheltered accommodation'.

My mother gave her heart and soul to this job, this place, and these people, sometimes to the detriment of myself and my father. She talked of nothing else for the 20 years she was employed there.

Part of her job description was to call on each resident every day to ensure their well-being. With sixty-five flats to cover, this was not a task for the faint hearted, and took most of the morning. I, being too young to leave alone in the flat for any extended period, was often taken with her. This was the part of the our new life that I enjoyed; I was adopted by tens of kindly old ladies as a surrogate grandchild and consequently, the pile of presents under our christmas tree was, without fail, mountainous.

The other, not so enjoyable part was the 24-hour cover that she supplied. This entailed a call system, the business end of which was in our flat. Several nights a week, the alarm would go off, revealing a panic-stricken old person in their flat on the other end, perhaps having fallen (simple), or perhaps in the grips of a heart attack, or a stroke (not so simple), or perhaps a terrified spouse having discovered their partner of fifty years or more unresponsive - cries for help invading our flat like a muffled fog, a disembodied voice waking me from sleep in the room next door. Many of my nights were spent hiding in corridors, pretending not to watch as the scenes unfolded before my eight, nine, ten year old eyes; my mother waiting for ambulances and worried relatives and comforting as much as she could where she was not permitted by law to give medical aid.

They say that the young child learns from those around her, and I was too young to understand the difference between the simple call from a lonely elderly person, fearful of nothing and needing reassurance, and the not-so-simple medical emergency. What I learned, therefore, was that anything going on in one's body, whether it be medical or emotional or a blend of the two, is a cue to cry for help to avoid death, and when the person providing that help is one's own mother... well, I'm sure to this very impressionable eight-year-old with a somewhat active imagination, it was a powerful suggestion, and one that's very probably stayed with me. To this day, the sight of an ambulance outside somebody's house strikes the fear of a God I'm not sure I believe in into me, and yet it's the very thing I rely on for support and comfort. A twisted paradox, really.

I did not have the luxury of a quote unquote normal childhood, where children are allowed to be children, shielded from hurt and fear and life and death. My childhood was spent in this place, an old people's home, where people got sick and died like leaves falling from a tree and my mother had to deal with the raking up. People dropped dead in their flats. People dropped dead in the corridors, and on one memorable occasion in the middle of the night, someone dropped dead outside the front door. Because it was all part of my mother's work, and 'to be kept apart' from family, even though it invaded our life every day, it was never explained to me. I had no grandparents and I never went through the process of a person's death of my own accord; rather, soaked up like a sponge this strange phenomenon that I saw happen at the periphery of my life, every time it happened.

I lived there until I was 19. My parents, now in their late seventies, still live there; my mother is now retired, and the shoe is now on the other foot. They are residents. I go home maybe once a year. I hate it. I can't bear it.


I really do not know where I am going with this story, only that I needed to tell it. It does explain an awful lot about my need for reassurance, the reason I fly off to hospital with the slightest of complaints - the one that I'm sure that this time, is going to cause me to drop dead. It does explain why every sensation in my body is something to be feared, and why I struggle so much to carry out day-to-day activities when I feel under the weather. Unless I feel 100% healthy, I can not bring myself to leave the flat for fear of aggravating it, feeling ill, needing help, and the fear of becoming suddenly seriously ill or incapacitated is one that drives my existence. It really isn't rocket science to deduce where this problem has come from. How to deal with it though? That's a headscratcher, that I do not have the answers for. But really, do any of us?

Monday, 5 November 2007

Ten Ton Tessie - I bet she was an agoraphobe

Here's something they never tell you about in all the literature about mental health conditions: Agoraphobia = massive weight gain. As if the indignity of the unplanned panic attack in front of people you've only just met wasn't enough to deal with, one also has do it while being really, really fat. Meh.

Yes. It's one of the co-morbidities that they don't mention. I suppose it's only simple physiology, really. In order to gain weight, you must take in more calories than you're expending. Since the majority of my last six months have been spent either a) sat frozen to the spot afraid to move, or b) laying in bed, frozen to the spot, afraid to move or c) asleep at various odd times of the day, that lovely state in which one doesn't have to worry about being afraid to move, it stands to reason that whatever I've taken in has gone straight to my hips, arse, thighs, boobs, face - in fact, quite nicely distributed over my entire body.

I've never been a small person. I'm never going to be of supermodel proportions, as I am British, and female, and have an unhealthy love of curry and real ale. But four years or so ago, when despite things being slightly better in the mental health department, I still was tipping the scales at almost a monstrous 21 stone - that's 289 pounds for the Americans among us - I decided enough was enough and headed off to my local Weight Watchers meeting, where I did staggeringly well and lost a little over four stone. I still wasn't slim; I was still, let's say, of 'ample proportions', but I got away with it. I can carry extra weight and still look, and feel, good.

But not this much. I hate it, and I hate myself; I look in the mirror and feel utter disgust and revulsion, which in turn, doesn't help with the agora/panic issues.

I have no idea how much I've put on. I'm probably back up to my pre-WW numbers - except it's not a number, right? - and it all seems to have piled on in the last few months.

This is making me extremely miserable. It also has the added bonus of making me want to go out even less than I already do, because I'm so ashamed of the way I look at the moment.

So, I have to do something about it. Were I not so afraid of anaesthesia, and dying on the operating table, I'd be sorely tempted into some sort of bypass. I have control issues, and really can't trust myself around food, and so I sometimes wish that weight-loss programmes could be akin to quitting smoking, i.e., you remove food from the equation altogether. I'm sure it would be much easier for me this way. But, since this really isn't an option, I need to look at other ways of doing it.

The other issue I have right now is that due to six months of really not working very much, and subsequently losing my flatmate, I'm completely broke, living on chocolate, toast, biscuits and Supernoodles. Due to ever shrinking safe zones, I'm limited to the few shops in the triangle that leads from the alleway, along the main road, and back to the end of my road again. This used to contain a nice healthy fruit & veg shop, but now doesn't, as they've closed down in the last couple of weeks. So, that's the Co-op, Costcutters, and the newsagents, then. They don't sell much healthy food.

My activity level is basically zero at the moment, and while I know that just moving more is the key to all of this (for the reverse is what's done the damage), the fear of pushing my body into increased heart-rates and sweating and breathlessness is just too much to deal with - just too much like how a panic attack feels. Even gentle walking will bring it on. Ironically, I know that the one thing that will help with the anxiety is exercise. But I just can't see how to force myself into it without inducing major, 999-dialling panic.

But I have to do something, before I end up on Jerry Springer, being lifted out of a window by a winch. So, all suggestions are gratefully received.

This being said, I have just developed the rather lovely anxiety symptom of difficulty swallowing, so the issue may just sort itself out :-)

Monday, 22 October 2007

Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated

Sorry, folks. My broadband has been giving me hell, and I've also been busy with the slightly strange issue of, well, trying very hard not to fall in love with someone, and failing, but we'll come to that some other time.

So, just for Migraneur, who was kind enough to check in on me today, *waves*, here's a slight update.

Agora-wise, things have been very bad, and I haven't really felt like writing much. Getting out of the flat has been an issue, but despite that, I managed a trip home to Devon a couple of weeks ago. It was taxing, but necessary. During my trip, my father tipped me off that it looks as if my mother is in the first stages of age-related memory loss and now I'm aware of it I wonder how on earth I didn't spot it sooner. I'm trying very hard not to use the proper term for her condition, as she hasn't been officially diagnosed, and until she is, I refuse to believe it. I came home and cried for three days straight, and then got on with my life.

And for a moment, I really thought I had it all sorted.

Last week, I received an email from the 'Talent Manager' at a place I worked for a year and loved - somewhere, for once, that I was happy in a work situation. Would I like two days a week freelance work? I thought about it for a whole nano-second before emailing her back: "Yes, please!!" I started last week, and it's brilliant. So happy to be back. Ridiculously happy, in fact. The money's not great - actually, I'm not even sure what the rate is, because I'm doing it purely for the love of being back there - but it was enough to see me through.

I also had my flatmate here, covering part of the rent, making up the money I wasn't able to earn. I thought I'd reached a good compromise; some work I was able to handle, a couple of days a week to rest up afterwards so as not to overstress myself, a bit of a routine to start getting into again, somewhere I could get to for a few paltry quid in a cab if the morning was really bad in an agoraphobic kind of way - and I could still, just about, pay my bills.

Everything was slotting back into place.

That is, until my flatmate came home tonight and dropped a bombshell; she's moving out at the end of this week, and didn't even see fit to give me any notice.

Yes, I'm fucking fuming, because everyone deserves more respect than that. But that's not the point.

So, what is the point? What does this mean in the short-to-medium term for this agoraphobic gal just trying to scrape a living? Well, it means in order to keep my head above water, I'll have to go back to working full time, wherever I can get a job. This means that I'll have to leave the part-time job that I've just started. In the place I've been trying like fuck to get back into for four months - the place that makes me happy, the place that makes it worth getting out of bed to go and earn a crust.

To say I'm gutted is an understatement. And pissed, and angry, and let down, and wondering why I bothered.

Still, lesson learned - never do business with friends, and never rely on anyone but yourself.

This is a worry. Financially, I'm screwed. My housing benefit has been stopped because I'm working part time, and I'm not really up to working full time at the moment, certainly not somewhere unfamiliar, and certainly not somewhere that I'll have to commute half way across London to get to by 9am when I can't even drag myself into the land of the living until gone then most mornings. To try and do so would undoubtedly see me turning into the sort of person who has to push and push and push, shaking and crying, to get herself out of the door. Which of course, I am.

I can pay this month's rent and that's it. I also know I'll have a short spot of freelance work coming in from elsewhere in the same organisation, sometime before mid-November, but how much I'll be paid for it and when is anyone's guess.

After that I'm on a wing and a prayer.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Fighting the good fight

At the end of my street - a typical, London, Victorian terraced street - lies a fairly main road, full of hustle and bustle at any given hour of any given morning. People coming and going, running with cardboard cups of overpriced coffee in one hand while the other wrestles simultaneously with an umbrella and an Oyster Card as the bus approaches.

Sometimes I sit in the cafe at the end of my road and watch, and wonder. Where are they going? What are they doing with their day? Why is it so important, and what could possibly be so pressing? And is it OK that life is different for me?

Modern medicine is all about the conventional. The success of a treatment for a mental health issue is judged not in terms of quality of life for the patient, but on how well a suited and bespectacled consultant, who only knows you by a series of medical notes passed to him by someone else who may have seen you for ten minutes in the past year, judges you to have 'returned to normal life'.

This usually means 'returning to work.'

"Oh yes, he made it back to work within five months - isn't that marvellous?!?!"

Well yes, of course, if that's what the patient wants. But why? Who is it that decides the benchmark by which a normal life should be measured?

Maybe I've been 'better' all along. Maybe it's OK that I live my life like this. Maybe I don't have to force myself to take part in something into which I do not feel I fit, as long as I do not hurt another human being, morally or financially, by not doing so.

Maybe I don't need to earn all that money to live, to be content. Maybe all I need to do is the bare minimum in order to get by.

How many people, I wonder, entertain fantasies of living on a desert island, away from civilisation and with reposibility for no-one and nothing other than oneself? "Hermit" and "recluse" take on an air of the glamourous, while "agoraphobe" does not have quite the same ring.

But really, where's the difference?

The difference is the giving of the diagnostic label and the medicalisation of the vast variety of the human condition, whereupon that idyllic lifestyle that we all seek becomes something to be treated, to be drugged, to be ridiculed.

Maybe, to the man on the street juggling the coffee and the umbrella and the Oyster card, it's not normal to want to spend every day cocooned in your flat, writing, conversing with people you care about, avoiding the gut-wrenching fear of day-to-day responsibility, but maybe it's normal for me. I am not sitting here every hour of every day, tearing my hair out in frustration at the restrictions my condition places upon me - until I have occasion to have to fight against them - and maybe that's because that's just who I am. And maybe fighting against them is what is feeding the anxiety.

And I wonder - what would happen if I just stopped fighting?

Sunday, 16 September 2007

On guilt

When I started this blog a couple of months ago, my main aim was to write a bit about anxiety disorders and agoraphobia. To inform, maybe to try and break down some of the stigma that still, even in this day and age, surrounds this sort of condition.

In essence, to tell it like it is, hopefully with a bit of dry humour thrown in for good measure.

It hasn't quite worked out like that, not least because what I wasn't expecting was the level of feedback I've had, or the insight I've gained into myself and the way my mind works.

It's better than therapy, and just as well, since I'm still on the waiting list for my CBT.

In her comment to my last post, bohémienne noted that I seem to carry an awful lot of guilt around with me about something I haven't chosen for myself.

That's not something I've thought very much about up until now.

When I first started having panic attacks around ten years ago, the medical professionals I saw shoved me out of the door with beta blockers and an affirmation that I should be thankful, because at least I could "still make it out of the house". I didn't want chemicals and I didn't want patronisation. What I wanted was to be pointed in the direction of someone who could help me to understand, to work through it, to get well. This wasn't forthcoming, so I carried on with the medication and carried on with my life. Or tried to. So I worked, and worked, and worked, the idea already planted in my head that I was a time-waster, an attention-seeker, a statistic they didn't want. Maybe that was when the guilt set in.

At the time, I was in a long term relationship with someone who didn't understand and didn't want to understand. And that's fair enough. Not everyone can cope, and although we never took our wedding vows, "in sickness and in health" does not mean the same thing to everyone.

Every attack was greeted with scolding, and shouting, and yelling, and protestations about ruined days and ruined evenings and ruined nights sleep.

More medication - valium - provided a little relief, until it was time to come off, time to go through six months' worth of withdrawal and several years of after-effects, and then the relief was gone, replaced with assertations that I was a 'mental bitch'.

Guilt, laden on me in bucketloads for seven years.


And then there's work. Guilt, that sometimes you have to phone in sick with something you can't, or don't want to explain. Guilt that you can't be reliable. Guilt that you're not pulling your weight, because that's the Great British Way - stiff upper lip and get on with things. Or, "Don't Panic, Mr Manwairing!" Guilt that at the age of 35 I haven't managed to hang onto a job for more than a two years - I was intelligent at school, did well, and should have made more of myself. And the inevitable guilt that when you finally have to leave, or get fired for taking too much time off, you're sponging off the state, living on handouts, not paying your bills, not making ends meet.


About eight months ago, I tried to make the drive to see my elderly parents. Driving is a big problem for me: what if I lose control at the wheel and hurt myself, or someone else, or worse? But still, I tried; the guilt of not seeing them, of staying away while as far as they're concerned I'm living it up in the big smoke, too busy to make the trip home, evidently too much.

I made it about 20 miles down the A303 before I called for help. A nice man from Green Flag came and collected me, and my lie that I was suffering with a migraine and couldn't see to drive, put my car on the back of a low-loader and transported me in silence from somewhere in Hampshire to the arse end of Devon.

It was a long journey. Much longer than it would have been had I managed to get a grip.

That evening, I sat in my parents lounge, fighting off yet another attack, with my mother fussing around me not knowing what to do and my father almost in tears, reciting the words "We've done this to her," like a sad mantra.

More guilt. Guilt that he's carrying that guilt for himself.

I managed a day and a half before I came home, and haven't been back since.


And finally, guilt thrown on me from the medical profession. Guilt about calling for help when I honestly, truthfully am convinced that I'm about to die. Guilt when they wheel you out of the back of the ambulance into A&E, guilt when you're greeted with hard stares from hard nurses who don't have time to waste on a mental case when there are heart attacks and strokes in the next room. Guilt when, lying on a trolley three hours later, you start to feel better and kick yourself in the head for doing it again.


That's the thing about this sort of thing, you see. Everywhere you go, you're greeted with guilt, with accusationary stares and implications of time-wasting and of being the person that 'nobody knows what to do with'. It says an awful lot about the state of the mental health services in this country that a good deal of this pressure comes from medical professionals - even the terminology given to the condition, Panic Disorder, conjures up images of overreaction, of making something out of nothing, of a chicken with its head cut off. But that's a subject for a post of its own.

I find myself wondering how much this guilt is driving my condition, and whether I will ever be able move past it without letting it go. But how, when it's all I've ever known?

For Migraineur - thank you for your concern. This weekend has been a little better and the black mood has lifted somewhat. The latest thing is meditation; I feel faintly ridiculous sitting there chanting in my head, but it does seem to be having an effect.

Yesterday, I opened my front door to put the rubbish out and was greeted with a huge box on my doorstep; beautiful flowers from a very dear online friend. I'm presuming she read my last post - I don't know because she hasn't said why she sent them, but that doesn't matter because it made my day. So I went out, to get a vase to put them in. I only managed ten minutes or so, but it's a start. And again today. Half an hour in Hammersmith, to get a few bits I needed; feeling unreal, heart banging out of my chest, tapping my fingers nervously against my thigh as the cashier took just that little bit too long to ring up my purchases, jumping back on the bus as soon as I could.

Was it fun? No. I hated every second of it. But I tried.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

A day in the life

At half past six my eyes creak open.

Where is it? Is it here?
Oh, yes. There it is. Waiting to greet me, waiting to welcome me to another day.

Six thirty-five: why? Why is it here? Did I not eat right yesterday? Did I not sleep properly? Did I stay on the computer too long last night? Did I do something to encourage it?

Is it my fault?

I thump the pillow in frustration, knowing I cannot sleep it away.


Seven o'clock. I need to shower. Wash my hair. Find my clothes, or I'm going to be late. Maybe just another ten minutes. Another ten minutes and I might be able to get into the shower without thinking I am about to die - or even get to the shower. Maybe something to eat first - it could be blood sugar - it drops in the night, you know. But that would involve going to the kitchen. Maybe a drink - it could be dehydration. There's water by my bed. Try that. Maybe some Rescue Remedy, maybe some milk, or maybe it's just me. Perch on the edge of my bed and rock without knowing why.


Half past seven: Fuck it. If I just stay here, I don't have to think about it. I don't have to battle through it to do all these feelings and sensations in order to do things that should come naturally. Breathe. Turn on the computer. Check emails. Check forums. Converse with people, because from behind the screen, I am strong, I am safe. Hold off for as long as possible, just in case it's gone soon.


Eight o'clock: Fuck, fuck fuck. It's eight o'clock. I'm not showered, I haven't eaten, and time is ticking by. I'm late. The thought of the responsibilities - simple things - get to work, earn a crust - set off a spark that jolts me into more panic, gnawing at my conscience like a rat nibbling an electrical wire. If I am lucky, a few tears might alleviate some of the tension, but most times, they won't come because I am numb to everything else except anxiety.


Eight thirty. I may have showered, or I may not have. I may have clean clothes on, or I may have picked up whatever is on the floor and made do, because it's easier than the trip to the wardrobe. I may have called in sick, but lets assume for a moment that I am walking to the bus stop, and that the ground is moving beneath me with every step and that inside, I am whimpering.


Nine o'clock. I am at my desk. I have camomile tea. The screen is moving in an alarming fashion and for a moment it hits me - what if it happens here? What if I have to run out, to go to the hospital, to call an ambulance in front of all these people? I could never go back. I try and concentrate on my tasks, and fail.


Twelve o'clock. Lunchtime. Walk to the canteen, or go hungry, because here feels more comfortable? I choose the walk. The floors move; I'm sure the patterned carpet doesn't help. What's on the menu today? Oh, this and that, that and this. This? No. That? No good. Don't know what's in it. Might be allergic to it, even though I'm not allergic to anything. Imagine it - throat swelling up in front of all these people, the panic, the blue lights. No. Let's not have that. Let's just have some toast instead.


Two o'clock. My face is numb down one side and while the left side of my brain knows it's an anxiety symptom the right is convinced of a stroke. Should I call someone? Call for help before it kills me? What? What do I do? Weigh it up against the potential embarrasment - that's what.


Three o'clock. Tired. Headachy. Tea will solve both. But no. The caffeine might trigger me. Then what would happen? I might die, in front of all these people.


Hometime. Get on the bus. The bus might be hot. I am afraid of being hot because hot makes me think of ill and ill makes me think of dying. Swarms of people make it ten times worse. Stand near the doors so I can get off as soon as it stops. Manage the lane back to the flat, keys and phone in hand. If I collapse in the lane that's it - nobody will find me. It's not a main road. This lane is where I might die one day.


Evening. Safe. Home. In my room. Behind my screen. Dinner? Nothing in. Takeaway? No. MSG might trigger. Got some crackers. Can't be allergic to them. They're safe, even if my legs shake from the lack of food. My head hurts. I should sleep, but stay on the computer, because here is where my mind can be distracted. Here I am near my phone, just in case. Dizzy. Sick. Need a pee, but the bathroom is too far away from the phone. Put it off until the last possible moment. Dignified.


Bedtime. Sleep? No. Afraid to shut my eyes, because what if they never open?


Fucking hell. This is fucking hell.

I have had this for close to ten years now and this is the longest sustained period that I have been unwell. It's almost a year now, every day waking like this, every day ending like that, and I am tired, I have had enough, I am beginning to understand what drives people to do it, why people listen to Wake Up In New York and nod, knowingly. I am sick of being the 'brave' person who must battle through every day to do the simple things that people take for granted. I don't want to be 'brave'; I want to be normal, to be me again. Whatever happened to me - where did I go to while all that stares back from the mirror is an empty shell, dead from the neck up? I am sick of being the person who is always too unwell to see her friends, to make it to the kitchen, to work a full week, to hold a meaningful conversation. I am sick of hiding, and of hiding this, but I don't know what to do to get well and I don't know what to do to make people understand.

So many people don't know, and generally the ones who do look on me with disdain. My flatmate knows nothing; I need to tell her, lest she think I'm the weird girl who sits in her room all the time. Which, of course, I am. I am afraid to tell her; afraid of trying to explain, afraid of the brief look of pity I will see flash across her features before she packs her bags and leaves.

And I met someone. Someone great. How do I explain it, when the time comes to meet? I don't want it to be ruined, even if I am.


Tonight even my room feels unsafe. My head has been hurting for four days. The agitation is unbelievable, like insects crawling through my intestines. I do not know what to do to make it stop, except cry, and that won't come, and what's going through my head right now is "My parents would be so disappointed" - but still I want my father to take me in his arms and stroke my hair and kiss my forehead and tell me it'll all be over soon. But my father, at nearly eighty, would be crushed by the weight of this.

I also want a magic pill. I want the equivalent of insulin to a diabetic, thyroxine for someone hypothyroid.

There isn't one, at least not one without a bitter aftertaste.

I don't know what to do.

Is this what desperation feels like?

Friday, 7 September 2007

Never Do Harm

The thing that frustrates me most is the up and downs, the peaks and troughs, because one always follows the other and not necessarily in any way that you can predict.

If I could have one wish - apart from for it to be gone - it would be to be able to nail it down, to give it some semblance of order. Say, Monday-Friday for the up period. Saturday and Sunday for the down. At least then, I'd know where I was on any given day.

I suppose it's complicated here by what you might call co-morbidity - which thankfully, has nothing to do with dying, rather to do with things that exist together and feed off each other. Co-existence would be a much more positive way of referring to it, but that would imply an inaccurate sense of peace.

In my case, there's the agora, and the anxiety, but there's also the migraine, the run up to which presents very similarly - it's always a struggle to tell one from the other but because a migraine is a more socially acceptable excuse, publicly it is usually the one that wins the day. And lumped on top of that is a nice healthy dose of protracted benzodiazepene withdrawal syndrome; a recognised phenomenon that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the medical profession steadfastly refuse to believe in, perhaps to wash some of the guilt from their hands.

The day I was out and about and couldn't remember where I lived was the day I knew it was time to wean off the meds. It's my 4-year anniversary in a little under a month. Funny how you remember these milestones. So, with a little help from the wonderful people at, months and months of careful planning and cutting ended on the 7th October 2003, after just six months therapeutic use at what they told me was an 'insignifcant dose' and turned out to be anything but. While I was doing so, I had A Big Plan: cut the miniscule safe amount on a Tuesday, because Days 4-6 after a cut were always when your world turned upside down. That way, I could still make it to work until the end of the week, before it floored me on a Saturday. The following days - 14 or so - until the next cut were always rough, but I knew the worst was, in theory, over.

I wish it still worked like that, but it doesn't; now there is no Being In Control, no Knowing What Days You'll Be Able To Go To Work, no Big Plan. Just hanging on for the ride. Up and down, left and right, head over heels, trying to stay one step ahead of a screwed up central nervous system without falling off completely.

Sometimes, on the worst days, I think about suing. It's been done before, although the £40K settlement in Ray's case was a piss poor insult for the 14 years of medically-induced hell he endured. But because there was no help, and because nothing was documented apart from a repeat prescription and a sick note for the DWP once a month, there is probably no recourse for me. I suppose at the very least it might raise awareness that the hippocratic oath is failing the people it is meant to protect.

Does this sound bitter? I do hope not; bitterness is a pointless emotion. But I'm tired and frustrated, more than anything because not being able to be reliable makes me feel like a big fat failure.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007


Trying to shoehorn myself into a life that was never made for me is what's done this; the nine to five, the full-time relationships, the expectations of parents weighing heavy on my shoulders that pushed me into this twisted, half-baked version of normality.

I am the proverbial square peg in the round hole, as I suspect many of us who do this sort of thing are, although to look at me physically you'd probably see it the other way around.

In my mind's eye, I am not this; some invisible number, churning the wheels of an industry I have no interest in or respect for. In that same mind's eye I am a writer, or a musician, an actor, a hermit, or a traveller with dreadlocks and a mangy dog - it would have to be a dog, as cats, I suspect, wouldn't take too kindly to a life of caravanning - and alone. Always alone, although I crave nothing more than the undying devotion of another human being and to undyingly devote myself to them in return. It's a perverse logic, isn't it?

But here's the thing. I am tired of trying to fit in where I simply don't; the crowbar is leaving marks that refuse to heal.

This is not where I belong, and never has been.

The time we have here is too short for the lie not to have to stop; by continuing to believe in it, I have achieved nothing except a succession of discarded jobs, discarded homes, discarded people, discarded dreams, peppered with vague, fleeting snatches of something approaching happiness from totally inappropriate sources.

What is that to look back on from the next life?

It's a damn short step from here to the Hatchery, and lining up for our daily dose of government-issue Soma.

It makes me angry - who the fuck is this omnipresent, invisible entity that tells us it is necessary to conform? Who is it that tells us it's wrong to stay in bed until our eyes flutter open of their own accord, or to eat chocolate digestives for lunch and a sandwich for tea, or to work all night and sleep all day? Who decides that it's frivolous to spend your life making love on the beach with someone who has eyes for nothing and nobody else, or that you must exclusively prefer one gender over the other, or that the only way to experience the riches that life has to offer is from behind a desk belonging to the person who makes money off the back of your misery while your life ticks away?

And why is it that we listen to them at the expense of our happiness and fulfillment?

Does it make you angry too?

It should, because we all deserve better.

Monday, 20 August 2007


Firstly, because I hate blogger's lack of being able to leave a response to an individual comment, and I wanted to make sure y'all see it: Thank you, Unreliable Witness, Bohémienne and especially Migraineur for the lovely messages you left on the last post.


In her short story 'The Harvest', Amy Hempel uses the following line:

"I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence."

I wish I'd written that. Not only because it's such a perfectly constructed metaphor (or is it a simile? I never can tell the two apart), but because it sums up so much of how I feel right now.

I'm in the wrong place - a toxic environment. I know it, and I feel it, and at the moment, there's nothing I can do about it.

What does this have to do with anxiety and agoraphobia, you may well ask? Well, the effect it's having on both is fairly pronounced. Every morning, the alarm brings with it that familiar feeling of dread curling around my insides, the one that makes me want to hide from the world until it passes. Except I can't. So I get up, and I move through the day. By the time I get home, I'm full of migraine, tension and anxiety, exhausted from dragging it around with me like a parasite, and all I can do is shut my eyes and hope that tomorrow, it will be better.

It's a bloodsucker that saps my energy, my life, my creativity; I can't form my thoughts into words. I can't write. For someone who loves to do so, this is unbelievably depressing. It makes me even more invisible than I already am.

I know that hinging your happiness and mental well-being on outside circumstances is a dangerous way to live but somewhere along the line, I think I missed out on the gene that allows me to find it within myself, although I'm not sure whether nature or nurture is the culprit. You see, indirectly, and through observation, I was taught that life is something to be endured, not enjoyed.

"Don't worry. It's only for life," they'd say.

About anything.

Seeing them now, just sitting around, waiting to die, brings about such an internal conflict; on the one hand, fighting with all I have not to spend my life like that, and the feeling of inevitability that my genetics will make it that way for me too.

And yes, the projection makes me angry.

All I can do is to not give up, to tell myself that something will turn up, that one day, I'll be where I belong, even though I have no idea where that might be, and when I am, all will be right with the world, and the parasite will die.

This is so black. I apologise. I'm just so tired.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Medusa Is Alive And Well, Apparently Living In Hammersmith

Sometimes, although admittedly not often, because generally this is seen as something to sweep under the nearest available carpet, someone will say to me "What's it like?"

You can't, after all, see it, like a leg that is broken or a finger that is bandaged, and the truth is like trying to describe yellow to someone who's never seen colour.

The long version is this: a belly full of writhing snakes, a pair of legs full of rapidly-setting concrete, a head full of static and the noise the radio makes late at night when one station starts to bleed over another; floors that undulate beneath you like the breaking of a wave across the bow of a ship and incessant thoughts that convince you that this time, this will be the one, this will be the time it kills you.

The short version, however, goes something like this: Fucking Hard Work.

Accept the anxiety, is what they tell you. Accept it, allow it to float over you and its effect will diminish.

Will it bollocks.

Most days, I try and parcel it away as just one little piece of my life, but there are days, like today, where this is impossible, where the above is relentless, and those days grate at my psyche like nails down a blackboard. I hate to be negative about this. I really do. But sometimes it's inevitable.

For various reasons, I've spent the last year or so half-immersed in the disability community. (I say half-immersed, because until I got involved, this was something I'd never thought to apply to myself - I'm still not sure whether I want to or not and so my toe is still only tentatively dipped in the water.) What I've learned from that is that there are huge amounts of positivity and normality there for the taking, but also that I envy the people who've come to terms with much greater impairments than this, and carried on with life out the other side. I envy them. How sick is that? I envy them because I'm not there yet, and because I don't know what to do to get there, and because every damn fucking day I want to press the button that doesn't exist and shut all of this off. I know that envy is a pointless, destructive emotion, and that acceptance is the key, but what if you don't want to accept?

Then what?

It shames me that I can't.

Forgive me for this badly-written, worthless post; it pains me and offends my sensibilities to be writing such utter rubbish.

File under "not knowing what else to do".

Sunday, 5 August 2007

The storm before the calm

What I think may be some kind of upturn started early on Friday while consulting a style guide and hacking my way through a badly-written government document.

It fizzed along my spine like the detonator on a cartoon bomb.

Because an attack is often preceded by an inexplicably sudden and drastic mood change, I began to prepare for the mother of all migraines.

So far, I am not banging my head into a pillow in pain.

At this stage I am trying not to focus too much on the explanations dancing their way through my head: Am I coming out of the other side? Am I starting to feel better?

Is this what normal feels like?


Two nights before, courtesy of an unexpected meltdown and a bumpy trip in the big yellow and white taxi with the green-uniformed drivers, I wound up at the A&E department of Charing Cross Hospital.

Finding myself at the end of the street before I called is how I knew it was coming.

When they arrived, they asked me why I was not a hundred yards down the road in my flat. I told them I had tried to get some air, but what I meant was "I didn't want anyone to see."

There were no blue lights, because there never are.

Until it was my turn to be evaluated, somewhere behind the woman in pyjamas resting a carrier-bag full of medication on her lap, they put me in a makeshift waiting room with the walls plastered bare.

Apparently, they're renovating too.

Because I had closed my eyes tight against the threat of rivulets of embarrasment, I knew that the Polish stranger sitting three plastic chairs away from me had moved only when I felt his arm around my shoulder. It did not matter that of his many words of comfort, the only ones I understood were "Smile, yes? Smile".


I could not tell you for how long I was there, only that when the lights became too bright and the leads became an annoyance and not a comfort, it was time to go home.

The old woman I passed on the way through the automatic doors was pushing a shopping trolley, her shoes made of plastic bags and the laces holding them in place from a material I could not make out in the half darkness, intricately woven with obvious care. I wondered if her smile was due to pride in her feat of engineering.

I thought of the shoes on Thursday morning, when the mountain seemed too large to climb, and forced myself. Got up. Left the flat. Went to work. Came home.


On Friday, I was at my desk before the clock ticked around to eight.


I have not told the story of the run-up for self-gratification; it is because I am cautious that this may not last, and if it does not, I may need a reminder that the situation is benign.

It almost feels wrong to be accomplishing some things, to be on top of others, and to have plans. The first draft of half of a short-story collection, for example, which even has a theme. The idea around which every one will be constructed is planted firmly in my head; they will interweave and reflect because that is how life works.

The tiredness now is of a different kind, of running on little sleep not because it eludes me but because it is not necessary; a tiredness born of living and breathing, and of making hay while the sun beats down.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Revenge? You decide...

Ladies and gentlemen: in the course of the past twenty-four hours, I have made a new, and very important scientific discovery.

I blame my trousers, for they were falling down at the time, and however you look at it, in no way can that be construed as anything other than a faux-pas of epic proportions on one's first day in a new job.

Here's how it happened.

I was looking for a safety pin to fix the broken zip. I failed, managing only to procure a large paperclip from the stationary cupboard in the hope that somehow - perhaps in some kind of parallel universe where errant clothing can be made to defy gravity by a small, rounded piece of metal with absolutely no fastenings whatsoever - it would do the trick.

I headed to the cubicle, locked the door, and placed my phone (because y'all know, it goes everywhere with me, in case I, well, start to die or something) on the top of the feminine disposal unit next to the toilet. A shinily modern, new-fangled, architectually pleasing toilet. With no cistern.

In retrospect, this was my first mistake.

Except it wasn't.

My first mistake was to not notice the slightly curved top of the disposal unit.

From the moment the slide began, everything moved in slow motion; a Hollywood voiceover of "Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!" echoed around my head as I faced what was surely the ultimate exercise in split-second decision making. Because, you see, at the time, I was holding up my trousers.

With both hands.


My poor little Motorola. I did love it so, for it had a radio, and lovely earphones with a rich, full-bodied sound; it had also tirelessly rescued me from many a percieved agoraphobic emergency and now it, itself, had died. In a moment of overwhelming guilt, I realised that not only had I failed the trusty companion who had saved my sanity on so many occasions - I had consigned it to a watery grave.

A mercifully clean watery grave, I thought, as I rolled up my sleeve.


It was at this point that I forgot about my trouser dilemma, and frantically began to press the power button.

Hosed. Bogwashed. Ruined.

After a brief period of mourning - and the irritating realisation that in the time-honoured tradition of saviours the world over, its death was a needless one, because despite owning these trousers for close to six months, there was, apparently, a button I didn't know about - I decided that the journey home without backup was just too far out of my comfort zone.

This, then, is how I came to find myself, an hour later, walking into "Phones 4 U" - a strange, alien place, where I was faced with a bewildering array of handsets, a sudden influx of pushy sales assistants with bleached blond hair and diamante earrings (and that was just the men), and several life-sized cardboard cut-outs of their advertising icon, posed in various stages of the infamous hand-signal that would, were he not already dead, put Ted Rogers to shame.

I completed the transaction and left for home with my new sidekick - a Nokia - in tow. God, I hate Nokias. They're small, and fiddly, and irritating, and a technological expression of what is wrong with the world. But more importantly, despite being the cheapest in the shop, they're forty quid.


Checking that there was enough charge in it to cover the journey, I set off, annoyed at the outlay, but relieved at the familiar sensation of safety. I got it home. I plugged it in. I changed the ringtone to something that wouldn't make people stare at me on the District Line with a vague expression of pity.

With some help from a friend, I managed to turn off the infernal predictive text, not only because the T9 dictionary surely ranks as one of the most hideous, unusable inventions of the last decade, but because I refuse to be a part of the uprising of people making a mockery of the English language.

I even managed to set the alarm so that I could get up this morning and go to work, to recoup some of the expense.

So, as I switched out the light and settled down to sleep, it was with an overarching feeling of being quite pleased with myself. I, who cannot operate a video recorder and have trouble grilling sausages to a satisfactory conclusion because the cooker is 'too fiddly', had succesfully negotiated the acquisition of a new gadget and managed to make it work (and subconsciously reinforced a ridiculous safety behaviour at the same time - but we won't go into that).


This morning, smiling wistfully as I fished my dear-departed, soggy Motorola from my handbag to consign it to the 'slightly broken electricals that one day I will do something with' bowl on the table, I accidentally pressed the power button... whereupon the little bastard sprung into life, defiantly wishing me a good morning with its cheeky Motorola greeting.

So. That scientific discovery. Here it is. Don't spread it around now, but it is technically possible for an inanimate object to gloat.

Sunday, 29 July 2007


It strikes me as odd that after two months, all I am feeling is mild irritation. What should be clouding my view is some kind of red mist; at the very least, I should be slightly aghast at your sense of entitlement.

"God, I've missed you." Your voice almost a whisper, I have to strain to hear above the sound of the cappuccino being made for the pin-striped cliché at the counter, shaking the rain from his umbrella.

What's going through my head is "Someone will have to clean that up" but what comes out instead is "You knew where I was."

"I know."

The silence that aches to be filled with variations on but it's difficult and it's hard to get away and you knew my situation when you met me lingers in the air like a penny waiting to drop.


I put my hand over the top of my cup as the refill approaches attached to a teenaged girl in a black uniform.

"No, thank you - I've had enough."

I wonder how many times she's encountered this scene in the short course of her working life, and whether the voyeuristic opportunity makes up for the minimum wage.

"I haven't," you say, pushing your cup towards her without looking away, holding my gaze in the palm of your hand.

She pours, and I study your face through the steam, attempting to pick out the lie that doesn't appear to be there. Look at the eyes - isn't that what they say? It always reaches the eyes, but all I see is impossibly pale green, piercing in its devastating beauty, the hook that reeled me in now a luminescent sea of I want and I need and I'm sorry, I should have called.


"I wasn't expecting you. Today, I mean. Here. Why are you here?"

Because you are the itch that has always needed to be to be scratched?

"They invited me." I nod in the direction of 'them', as if I need to clarify. "I wanted to catch up. Maybe I shouldn't have come."

'They' are at a separate table, discreetly burying their curiosity in paperwork and coffee as you shake your head, slowly, resolutely.

"No. I'm glad you came. I've been wanting to see you."

Then why didn't you?

Knowing that they already know somehow makes it more shocking when you lean across the table to steal a first public kiss. Soft, delicate, impossibly quick, chaste, even; the stark contrast with what has gone before seeming completely alien.

"Come with me. Tomorrow. I've got a couple of days..."

Because I have never been able to say 'I'm leaving', or maybe because actions speak louder than words, I reach out to grab the bill and your hand moves swiftly to cover mine, as if tracing feather-light strokes of your thumb across my palm could keep me here. The crease that forms at the corner of your eye lets me know that the hitch in my breath has not gone unnoticed.



Outisde, I lean against the wall as the traffic rushes past, the moisture in the air cooling the flush in my cheeks. In for a count of four, out for a count of five. I flip open my phone, scrolling through the numbers for the one I know will ask no questions.

"Can I borrow your sat nav?" I say, after dispensing with sufficient niceties to still be considered polite. "Just for a couple of days?"

"Sure. Where are you going - somewhere good?"

I pull the crumpled piece of paper from my pocket and take in the handwritten address.

"Honestly?" I ask, and I realise the person I am questioning is not the one on the end of the line. "I have absolutely no idea."

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Thank you for the days?

I don't want this to be a 'symptom diary.' That's dull, and self-indulgent, and doesn't make for good writing. This, primarily, is why I haven't posted a bean since last week. But I need to write about my day, which frankly, has been a nightmare from start to finish. Please, do feel free to skip.

I honestly think that the worst kind of panic attack one can have is the one that is already underway as you open your eyes to face the day, because that particular type does not afford you the time or luxury of practicing any of your coping skills; it's faster than the speed of rational thought.

I suspect that my recent ridiculous bout of insomnia may be to blame - over the past two weeks or so, a typical night will see me finally dropping off at 3.30, 4, and waking at 8 - combined with low blood sugar from not eating dinner last night and the three day migraine I've had this week, which has necessitated enough painkillers to potentially stun an elephant - most of which contain entirely unhealthy doses of caffeine, because they're the only ones that touch it. It's a trade off, a difficult balancing act; I know the caffeine will almost instantly kill the pain, which at times is unbearable and leaves me pathetically crying into a pillow, and so I gamble, and weigh up the relief I know it will bring with the possibility of it resulting in a day like this.

Sometimes I get away with it. Today, I put all my chips on red, and lost.

Big time.

I knew I'd have to leave the house in the midst of it, to buy food, to solve the low blood sugar problem, so steeled myself to deal with it; I put on my heaviest boots, possibly in the hope that they might anchor me to the ground. And then I realised. My phone. Not charged. Not good. Fuck. No other option but to go without it.

My phone is my safety net. I can handle most things if I have my phone. Some things. With my phone in my hand, I know that when it gets unbearable, help is just a three digit call away. The morals of this are still up for debate, I know. But still. I need my phone, and today, I didn't have it.

I lasted about 30 seconds before my head exploded.

'Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god' went my brain, as I stumbled my way to the biscuit aisle.

'Oh god oh god oh god please hurry please hurry' went my stupid internal voice as I saw the three people in front of me at the checkout who were about to unnecessarily prolong the agony; the embarrassment of having to explain why I would be asking to nip in front keeping me at the back of the queue.

'Oh god oh god oh god oh god' , screamed my head, as I felt my way along the wall in the alleyway, the one that leads from the Co-op to my house, wondering what the hell God would do about it anyway.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I don't really remember getting home, but I must have done, because I'm here now. Or am I? I don't feel safe, so...

This afternoon I slept, and woke up in much the same state. (Toxic naps. File under 'unexplainable phenomenon'. Alternatively, label 'a pisser'.)

It's all about hiding, really. I kept up the act for long enough to welcome my new flatmate, staying away from the hospital only because I didn't want to have to explain it and embarrass her. Retreated back into the bedroom, still uncomfortable even in my comfort zone. Retreated into things I know and love, the things on my computer, chasing cars around my head, things I know will make me smile, things that dull the pain.

I feel so defeated. Useless. Cursing my biology. Toxic, empty, numb but for the burning muscles and creeping anxiety. Exhausted, but afraid to sleep. Days like this are incomprehensible. I don't understand them, and I don't understand why I need to. If I had the ability to do so, I'd probably cry.

Eventually, when I've watched enough cars and cocking about to lull me into sleep (it's a harmless addiction, and one that hurts nobody), I'll shut my eyes and hope that it'll be gone when I open them again, or if not, that it'll be at least manageable for a while, that there will be a few open windows, allowing me to breathe the same air as everyone else.

I'm going back to work on Tuesday. As it stands, I'm not sure about coping with it, and so, I haven't yet signed the contract, because what if I can't?

Monday, 16 July 2007

Who lives in a house like this?

Except for a precious while at the weekend when I was blessed with company (for it is surely not the done thing to entertain two male platonic friends in one's bedroom), the last time I was in here was days ago. I am unsure when, until the iMac wakes from its sleep, the last document I was working on still on the screen casting my mind back to its deadline, and allowing realisation to dawn.


It's now Monday evening. But here I am. Uncomfortable to the point of agitation, but here.

I'd love to pretend that it was some kind of epiphany, some kind of courageous triumph over an invisible force or an immovable object. The reality is somewhat less inspirational - a knackered iBook charger - and the need for the internet that outweighed the need to stay cocooned tonight, and for once I am simultaneously glad that I spent money I didn't have on an indulgent gadget and annoyed that by necessity, it must reside in the other room.

The avoidance of this room is something I'm struggling to comprehend. It's neat, it's tidy, and yet at the same time, cosy and inviting, and nothing bad ever happened here; I'd even go so far as to say it's a beautiful room if I could work out a way to do so without sounding pompous. My favourite room in the flat, and the one I'm always proud to show off when having friends over for the first time. The one that sold the place, even though I rent. Metaphorically, then.

A dark wood floor, stained in golden hues of cherry. An original black marble Victorian fireplace standing almost half the height of the wall to which it is attached, that has long since lost its fire; instead, in its place, stands a collection of haphazardly arranged coloured glass bottles that catch the light as it dances through the gossamer thin muslin adorning the huge, airy bay window.

And alcoves. One either side of the fireplace, full to bursting point with books I haven't yet read by authors I know I would love had I made the effort, except the Murakamis and Hempels and the Carvers, the contents of which are and always will be imprinted on my memory, along with those of the Clarksons and the Mays. Unconventional shelf-fellows, perhaps, but I read those whose writing I adore, the literary credibility, or misplaced lack thereof, of the name on the dust jacket has never been able to sway.

Oh, the alcoves - simple, but perfect, for I always wanted alcoves. The initial enthusiasm over every place I ever lived in gradually melted into a faint sense of disappointment that I could never quite put my finger on until now, as the lightbulb goes off above my head: no alcoves. Now I finally have them at the ripe old age of 35, I barely ever see them.

I drop a cigarette into the makeshift ashtray next to me - a bottle, I refuse to buy an ashtray; until I do, I'm not yet officially smoking again - and wonder why.

Pictures give a small clue to the passions of the occupant within, or without; an Edwardian scene at Ludgate Circus; on another wall, three black wooden frames, a trinity, each containing a symbol which could suggest a French pavement cafe; on the chimney breast, the centrepiece: a framed poster announcing a forthcoming auction of classic cars. Fine Le Mans Winning British Marques. Jaguar, Aston Martin, Lagonda, Bentley. Let's waste time, chasing cars, around our heads...

A few, carefully selected DVDs, but not too many, because clutter and materialism have never sat comfortably: Peter Gabriel, live and otherwise; Glenn Miller, expertly played by Jimmy Stewart; one box-set of Titanic documentaries, another of a nameless television show over which I may have an obsession slightly too unhealthy for one of my years, especially for one of my years who never watches television; a gap where the Billy Connolly shows resided before I lent them out - to whom, I don't remember.

A souvenir from the job I adored, acquired in a slightly dodgy and alcohol-fuelled manner. A tiffany-style bowl, filled with odds and ends and coins on the wrought-iron decorated dark-wood coffee table that's such an accidentally perfect fit it may merge with the floor if seen from above. A climbing tree, already half shredded by one of three over-exuberant cats and the "Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure", a gift from a friend that makes me smile every time I see it.

An armchair that everyone else hates but that fits my form like a plaster-cast, an Indian-themed throw on the sofa-bed, sitting uneasily against the period backdrop and at the same time, blending in perfectly.

Who lives in a house like this? It could only be me.

This room is me.

Perhaps, therein, lies the answer.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same

"So," said the trainee psychotherapist, the one being critically observed by her supervisor, who didn't appear to be much older than she herself was, "Can you tell me, in your own words, what's brought you here today?"

I chewed my bottom lip, wondering who else's words I would be likely to use in a situation like this, and considered some possible responses.

"Because being on first-name terms with the area paramedic crews really isn't a good way to endear yourself to the local community. Especially when you've only just moved in."


"Well, frankly, staying in bed all day is playing merry hell with my basal metabolic rate, and I'm sure I'd feel much better about myself if I were a svelte size twelve."


"Quite honestly, taking taxis everywhere because walking seems too scary is costing me a bloody fortune, and I *am* on the dole, you know..."

In the end, it was the tissues that did it. Why is there always a box of tissues? There they were, in the very edge of my field of vision - on the one hand all white and stark and clinical, on the other, an unspoken invitation; open up, let it all out, it's OK to do that here - and I ran out of smart-alec answers on the spot.

"Truthfully," I said. "I'm here because this is doing my head in."


This being an initial assessment, there were lots of questions to be answered. I rambled, as I have a tendency to do in job interviews, possibly because this felt a little bit like one.

Then came the crunch. The Big Question.

"What would you like us to do for you?"

I hate that question. The last time it was asked of me, the neurologist looked me up and down over the top of his regulation consultant-issue pince-nez and told me that as I didn't fit neatly into his particular diagnostic box, didn't I think I would be better served by a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists than a member of the Royal College of Physicians? Which was so dignified that nowadays, I try to avoid that question like I would a plague of locusts.

This time, then, I was leaving it up to them.

Counter an open question with another open question is what was going through my head.

"What would you suggest?" I asked.

"There are lots of options," she said. "Firstly, there's Computer CBT."

Gosh - surely the ultimate in self-help. I've heard of CBT. I've even had it before. This, apparently, is different. You turn up at your treatment centre. They log you in. They leave you to it. You do exercises on-screen. Someone comes in at the end to check what you've done, and this is how you get all better.

Now, I know a little bit about usability. I've worked in the interweb field for ten years. I also know a little bit about how people read things on a computer screen and why there's a reason that the inverted pyramid model of journalism is so important when writing for the web.

People scan. Quickly. This is not a good medium for "taking stuff in."

So, while smiling to myself at the memory of the short-lived Ananova newsreader, I politely declined the offer of a virtual therapist, and asked if I could maybe have a real one instead.

And for once, a mental health professional nodded, smiled, and agreed with me.


Before my appointment, I sat in the waiting room opposite the transsexual with the blond wig and too-short skirt - why is the skirt always too short? - and as the second-hand chugged around on the clock, I filled in a yellow questionnaire containing what seemed like hundreds of boxes.

"In the last week, how have you felt about X, Y and Z?"
"Have you thought about killing yourself?"
"Have you had enough energy to do the things you normally would?"
"Have you felt anxious to the point where you really couldn't stand it any more?"

Terrible, god no, not at all, constantly... repeat ad-nauseum.

Tick, tick, tick.

I ticked boxes.


So, I'm now a questionnaire on someone's file, and I'm sure I now fall somewhere within the diagnostic criteria for something. Where, and for what, remains to be seen. Having fought labelling for the better part of ten years, this is annoying in itself, but in order to get help, I know I have to play the game, to accept the label, even if I choose not to apply it to myself.

Take what you need and leave the rest, isn't that how it's supposed to work?

We shall see.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Hi ho, Hi ho...

I always told myself that when my last contract finished, I'd finally take some time off. That working in a pressurised (but wonderful) industry for too hard for too long without a break - 4 years, there or thereabouts, one year straight in this particular contract - was what was doing strange things to my head again after a period of feeling relatively OK with the world. That, towards the end of the job, which I adored, my growing and incredibly frustrating inability to perform to the best of my talents, to be a reliable part of a team, and to stay away from the safe zone, was simply a product of my tiredness, of everything catching up with me, of burnout. That I'd emerge, refreshed, after a couple of weeks off, ready to face the world again.

Hmm. As with the all the other best laid plans of mice and men, it didn't quite work out that way. After five weeks unemployment - the longest I've ever been out of work - it doesn't take a brain surgeon to work out the correlation between that, and the current state of shrinking safe-zones, or to work out just what the strategies I use to live with the hand that's been dealt to me are.

Working, apparently, is what keeps my head above water, and so for the past few years, I've been living by what I like to call the 'flying by the seat of your pants' theory. It doesn't seem to be a popular one; others look at me, aghast, trotting out such well-worn cliches as "How can you work in such an insecure industry?" and "How can you not know what you'll be doing from month to month? I couldn't live like that", and, to this day, my father is convinced I'll end up roaming the streets of London, pushing my clothes and my cats around in a shopping trolley.

But, maybe bizarrely for one with such an apparent inbuilt need for safety and security in other areas - it seems to suit. It keeps me going, keeps me ploughing on, the thought of the rent not being paid motivating me like a rocket up the arse when the prospect of getting to the street, only 20 feet away, and - gasp - to the office - seems as daunting as running a marathon must have seemed to Jade Goody after her two week pie and takeaway training regime.

You see, when I do things right, working allows me to pigeon-hole this, all this stuff, away as just one part of my life. Yes, it's a challenge; yes, you come up against all sorts of odd things during the course of the day and you also develop ways of dealing with them because you've -perhaps deliberately - given yourself no alternative. Moving closer to work and hanging the expense, because the commute is killing you. Cabs there and back, because if you thought of the journey you'd never get there. The iPod filled with relaxation and meditation tracks, constantly plugged in at your desk. The Rescue Remedy hidden in your bag, discreetly droppered into the warm milk and camomile tea constantly on tap from the canteen. It's not perfect, or foolproof, and it costs a fortune, but sometimes, it does enough of a trick to allow you to carry on with your day, and they're all things you can hide.

Ah, hiding. Hiding, hiding, hiding. It's a sticky one, isn't it - in the professional sense, do you disclose, or don't you? I've hidden it for as long as I can remember, looking to the Littlest Hobo for inspiration when it catches up with me. During my last contract, I just wasn't prepared to do that - to cut and run, but still, it didn't stop the hiding. Why? Silly, perhaps, considering I was working in a place where it really, really shouldn't have been a problem and reasonable adjustments could have been - would have been - made.

Maybe had I said something, things would have been easier in the last couple of months of the job, and I wouldn't be left, now, feeling as if I blew the biggest career chance I'd ever had in my life. But you see, once you do that, you're faced with the thorny issue of shooting yourself in the foot - once those adjustments are made, you lose the very coping strategies you've built up for yourself, the techniques that allow you to actually get there and be productive... and then you're back to square one, wondering where on earth to go from here.

Or maybe this is just me, and maybe next time, I'll work harder to find a happy medium.


This wasn't supposed to be such pointless exercise in navel-gazing; I logged on tonight fully intending to write about my day. And although it was a particularly bad one for some reason, it was a damn good story - about how my routine trip to the Job Centre to sign on turned into a convincing impression of an entrant in the 100 Yards For People With No Sense Of Direction as I wandered around Shepherds Bush in the throes of a panic attack, wondering how the hell I was going to get home without actually dying.

And yes, with my phone and my keys in my hand, I did pick the bus that took me past the hospital. Just in case.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

On safety

As a background to this post, I shall first attempt to dispel a common myth - the definition of agoraphobia as a 'fear of open spaces'. Complete twaddle, I'm afraid, although it's easy to understand how this misconception came about considering that, when taken literally, the word translates from its Greek origins as 'a fear of the market place'.

What it actually means is the fear of being anywhere that escape to a 'safe place' may be difficult, or that help, medical or otherwise, may not be available in the event of a panic attack.

So, with that out of the way: What is the definition of a 'safe place'?

Home? Car? Work? Bed? The arms of the rare friend who 'gets it'?


At the time of writing, I've had vicious attacks of the "please help me, I'm dying" variety in all of them, and yet still, somewhere in the back of my mind, they reside in a little box marked 'safe'. I still haven't quite worked out why this should be the case when other quite ordinary places - the Co-op, the short walk to the office at my last job, the train, the living room - so often fall victim to avoidance.

Hospital as a safe place is an interesting concept because any nurse in the land will tell you that in these days of rampant MRSA and other assorted nasties, it's probably one of the least safe places you can put yourself in. It does seem like a contradiction in terms when you look at it objectively, but I'm betting that isn't the reason that not many agoraphobics would comfortably admit to an A&E department being their safe place of choice.

'Choice' is a bit of a misnomer, because it's actually a last resort, generally used only when all else fails, when your usual safe places, for some reason, become temporarily otherwise. Really, it is, although you can see the disbelief on the faces of those who attend to you when, between hyperventilating breaths, you manage to splutter out the words "I didn't know what else to do."

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the curse of the dysfunctional flight-or-fight response - biological, inbuilt, and faster than the speed of rational thought. When we were sharing our living space with sabre-toothed tigers it no doubt served a purpose - to drive us away from danger without the inconvenience of needing to think about what we were doing; by design, therefore, it temporarily robs us of our ability to think clearly - and therein lies the problem.

Most of the time, after years of practice, you manage to snatch back a little rational thought in the middle of the mayhem. You know the routine, you know the pattern it takes, you know that if you can just wait it out, it's not going to kill you. But there are also occasions where for no apparent reason other than a sudden misfiring of neurons, you just can't.

So you do what anyone does when faced with a perceived threat to survival. You pick up the phone, and you call for help.

There's always that sense of burdening, of knowing, somewhere in the back of your mind, that you don't belong there. That the 999 operator talking you down from the blind panic and the chest pains and the incapacitating dizziness while waiting for the first response vehicle to arrive could well have - should have - been deployed on a more 'deserving' case, even as they reassure otherwise while reading from a script that you've 'done the right thing by calling us'. That just because you think you're dying it doesn't necessarily mean you are, while the person down the road with the cardiac problem or the pensioner slipping into shock after falling on the street may well be.

The guilt is overwhelming, the shame dropping over you like a bucket of ice as they hook you up to a machine which reads out yet another normal ECG and ascertain that yes, your blood pressure is ridiculously high, but that's not surprising under the circumstances. They pack you off home again with a shake of the head and a not-quite-out-of-earshot murmur about psychiactric liaison teams and still you can't quite get up the nerve to say yes, it's frustrating for me too.


Depending on the phase of the condition at any particular point in time, then, 'safe places' can vary wildy: out, with someone else; anywhere behind your front door; in your office; in your bed with your phone and your keys to hand 'just in case'. Anywhere with your phone and keys to hand - or sometimes in your hand - 'just in case'... although phones do tend to object to being taken into the shower.

I hope that when the day comes where the safe place is inside my own mind, I'll know I'm finally there.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Pizza: the unintentional saviour of the agoraphobic Londoner

It was tangible, you know - the relief felt on finding a forgotten ten pound note lurking underneath my money jar this evening. It's always nice to find cash that you don't realise you have - there's nothing quite like the joy involved in finding a screwed up fiver in your pocket scant moments before it's sent to a watery grave in the washing machine (or the abject horror when half the stray, shredded note is discovered at the drying stage). But for the agoraphobic, or for this one, at least, it represents something extra - the removal of the potential embarrassment at having to pay the pizza delivery boy in twenty-pence pieces because:

a) even though your day started with a trip to A&E (because that's OK - a safe place), you haven't been able to get out to the shops, and your flat contains nothing resembling any sort of food;
b) had you able to get to the cash machine for a less financially embarrassing note, you wouldn't be ordering pizza in the first place. See: A.

If I were to hazard a guess and commit the cardinal sin of issuing a sweeping generalisation, I'd say that the state of mind of the average agoraphobic at any given point in time can be deduced by the quality of their diet. Since today has been particularly trying, it's pizza again tonight for me, purely for the reason that it contains less anxiety-inducing MSG than Chinese food, and because it's easier to vary the toppings and avoid boredom setting in. Tonight, it's meatballs and green pepper, with reduced fat cheese. A cursory nod to nutrition - if it's got something green on it, it can't be all bad - and who knows, it may even contain a vitamin or two.

I sometimes wonder if, when the nice men from Domino's arrive at my door with pizza in hand, they ever stop to consider just why my patronage has been so great recently. Do they think I'm actually addicted to Chicken Strippers? Someone who just eats too much pizza for her own good - a heart attack waiting to happen? Someone who, today, can't manage the two minute trip to the Co-op, or the extended period of time in the kitchen required to cook? Someone currently living in her bedroom, who hasn't been in her lounge, or her kitchen, for three weeks? Someone who's beginning to despise pizza; not because her taste-buds are objecting, or because familiarity breeds contempt, but because each mouthful serves as a reminder of her inability, today, to rise above it?

Of course they don't wonder. To them, I'm just another tip, an unknown quantity, as I am to most, for even in this day and age of enlightenment and tolerance and inclusion in the DDA, it's not something you broadcast, least of all to the pizza delivery boy. Even if all the neighbours, and their painters and decorators, and the binmen, and anyone else in the general vicinity at the time have already seen the paramedics knocking on your door that day.

It's days like this that I thank heavens for London and its diverse range of food delivery services. And yes, while I acknowledge it's not real food, and that a nice hearty home-made soup would be infinitely more beneficial to my current state of mind, a girl's gotta eat.

It also leaves me wondering about those of us who live outside the 4 mile delivery radius - just what do you do when this sets in and the cupboards are bare?

"Agoraphobic Eats Own Arm", perhaps?

Write about what you know

Throughout history, courtesy, etiquette and innate Britishness have dictated that when introducing oneself to the world, polite small-talk comes first and gory details come later, but this doesn't tend work too well in the blogosphere (oh, how I hate that word) when the gory details are about to form the bulk of your writing. So, for the purposes of this post, I have decided to break with convention. Get it all out in the open. Out of the way.

"Come out", if you like.

So here it is in a nutshell. The basics, the gory details, the stuff you need to know.

My name is Miss Vertigo. Well, obviously, not really, but, y'know. I am 35 years old. I have agoraphobia. If it must be known, it began ten years ago, two weeks to the day after witnessing a traumatic incident, the details of which are not important. It started with the occasional panic attack and progressed from there until my living area shrank to the size of a couch, because that's where I stayed unless it was absolutely biologically necessary to move.

Yes, I've been down the psycho-pharmacalogical route; yes, it was hideous; yes, the chemical damage inflicted left me with more problems than it solved. No, I'd never go there again, not even kicking and screaming.

Yes, it's a pain in the arse. No, I don't let it dictate my life or define me as a person but yes, sometimes it does get the better of me. No, not everyone in my life knows about it, because sometimes, it's more socially acceptable to invent a headache.

No, agoraphobia isn't just about the Miss Haversham on the corner who hasn't left her cobwebby house for fifty years and dispelling that myth here and now is very high on my list of priorities for this blog. Yes, we do go out. Lead productive lives. Work. Have relationships. Do all that normie stuff. And sometimes that's difficult, sometimes it's damn near impossible - but you keep going, plough on through, push and push and push until you drop. Why? Because it's better than the alternative.

Although it's always lurking, and right now the ugly head of shrinking safe-zones is, for some reason, being reared, no, it's not a constant. Yes, it comes in waves; in peaks and troughs, in massive highs and miserable lows, and while the highs are wonderful, liberating - normal - especially after a prolonged low, there are occasions where your bed becomes your safe-zone. But at least you're comfortable.

The ups and downs make for an interesting life.

After ten years or so of faffing, being pushed from pillar to post, doctor to doctor, A&E department to A&E department, patronising bastard to patronising bastard, I thought it may be interesting to chronicle the course of non-medicinal treatment I'm about to undergo. Or at least that's the plan, but despite Nu-Labour bluster, we all know that patient choice is not high on the NHS agenda when it comes to matters of the mind. Drug 'em up, shove 'em out the door, keep 'em coming back for more. It's the easy way out. The cheap way out. But it's not for me, principally because I refuse to bow down like a lamb and become a drug company science experiment. I have that t-shirt already. I bought it unintentionally, with no possibility of a refund - and I wear it every day of my life.


If you're still with me, then welcome. I hope that once I get going, you'll find something here that's identifiable, something familiar, something shared, something to talk about in the pub. That's assuming we can get to the pub without needing to call out the psychiactric liaison team.

If you're not, then maybe a blog about fluffy kittens would be more your cup of tea anyway.