After a winter in Brittany – ‘The Darkling Thrush’

56917864_10158516217380031_4875156840125562880_n
Yesterday…

It snowed again this morning. On the 14th of April. Yesterday was so beautiful – the sky blue with a very few clouds occasionally blurring the warm sunshine – so waking up to the white stuff was a complete surprise. It didn’t last long and didn’t settle, but it was a reminder that our first winter in France has been unpredictable – in weather and in mood.

It is not the fault of Finistere; we knew we weren’t moving to a climate very different from the one we were leaving in the South West of England. It is about two degrees warmer here, and drier in summer, but the winters are wet and the skies leaden for days on end. Living so close to the forest we see both the benefit of this rain, and its disadvantages. The spring greens are just taking over from the brown, bare branches and we know that there will soon be a carpet of shiny green under our feet, and dry firm paths where now there is wet leaf mould and slippery mud. This is a fantastic place to live, and we have no regrets. But we now know why many here head for sunnier climes in January and February – it is a time to ‘tough it out’, rather than feed the soul, for me anyway.

57343422_10158516218035031_590890489503285248_n
Our wonderful, primeval, but muddy forest

My mood became very low, and I was unable to work at anything other than routine admin, of which I had plenty. The four books I have now been commissioned to write should have excited me, but instead weighed as heavily on my conscience as the clouds over the treetops, constantly threatening a deluge. I underestimated the difficult transition period needed after the change we had made. I worried about our grown-up children in the UK, was convinced I was physically ill because panic gave me symptoms and I became fearful of leaving the house. Masking depression and anxiety is hard work and that masking feels necessary when you don’t know the people around you very well (even though we have met some really lovely folk here) and are unsure of their response. I was, as the doctor here suggested, depressed about being depressed, furious with myself for not appreciating how lucky I am – always a dangerous place to go. 

A friend from England saved me, in a way, by writing, on paper and sent in a real envelope, long letters two or three times a week, about day to day life, family things, normality (or what passes for it) and wise words. I am hopeless at replying to letters, but I wasn’t required to so I didn’t. What a relief. I can’t thank her enough, or those other friends who write and keep me in touch with the world. I felt a long way away.

There have been some wonderful times, when the sky has cleared for a few days, and the paths have had a chance to dry out sufficiently for me to look at something other than my feet as we walk, enabling me to look into the treetops, spotting long-tailed tit, wagtail, hearing the buzzards mewl and see them wheeling on open wings above the fir trees. There were snowdrops, and other wildflowers I didn’t recognise and days at the coast when the sun was warm on our faces even though it was March, and there was always Teddy the dog, and Peter, just sitting there with me.

220px-Turdus_viscivorus_in_Baikonur-town_001And there is the thrush –  mistle I think, rather than song – who started singing from February dawns (which are late here, an hour ahead of the UK) and who continues now, even as I write this in the early evening. He has favourite phrases, some almost nightingale pure and so loud you can focus on little else but his beauty, sitting proudly, as he does, on the topmost branches of the trees around the house. He may be three birds or more, but for me, it is one solitary companion lifting the heart, and the mood. He is marking his territory, impressing the lady thrushes, living his few short years on this earth to the height of his ability. And he speaks to my soul. I am writing this, and have made decisions about my workload and will now focus on writing and editing, as I have always wanted to do. The sound of the bird song reminds me there is so much more to living than the stuff the 21st-century calls ‘life’, and you can go days without spending more than a few euros here. So my mood is lifting, and once again I can see depression for what it is – an illness that comes and goes, like the weather. Spring is here, and soon we should get a warm settled spell.

I haven’t stopped reading poetry of course, and although I would love to find a reason to include some lines from John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ here, (rightfully one of the most famous love songs to nature, and a treatise on life, and death, and feeling and  – well read it…), that would be to cheat Mr Thrush and the joy he has brought me recently. So instead here is Thomas Hardy, who could often reflect, gloomily, on the human condition and in this poem of the winter, of the turn of the year and a century (it was written in 1900) he meditates on what feels like a dark time, for him, for the world.  Even as the song of the thrush intrudes upon such thoughts, he can’t be sure why the bird is so cheerful, or whether it is truly a sign of hope. The poem is more complex than I make it sound and reflects the scientific and religious developments of the 19th century and the conflict this caused many, but for me, at this moment, it is simply a tribute to the power of the smallest things to bring the greatest hope.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy

Guest post: Cholera’s Lasting Legacy by Amanda Thomas

Amanda Thomas with her latest book Cholera: The Victorian Plague
Amanda Thomas with her latest book Cholera: The Victorian Plague

Today I am lucky enough to have a guest on my blog – author and historian Amanda Thomas, whose latest book Cholera – The Victorian Plague has just been published by Pen & Sword History. Here she offers a fascinating, and tragic, overview of this terrible disease, which still ravages communities in many parts of the world. My sincere thanks to Amanda and full details of how you can purchase her book are given at the end of the piece. If you have any questions or comments we would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

I have been interested in cholera for many years and my second book on the subject, Cholera: The Victorian Plague has recently been published by Pen and Sword.  I first became aware of the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century when a distant cousin, Susan, asked me why some members of our family had disappeared in Lambeth in the late 1840s, specifically James and Anne Osmotherly, who originated from the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.  James is my second cousin five times removed and Anne was the niece of Susan’s great grandmother.  Susan and I visited Lambeth Archives in London and discovered that James and Anne had both died of cholera, an often fatal disease which causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea, and which is commonly thought to be caught by ingesting water tainted with sewage.

It was at Lambeth Archives that I opened for the first time a box of documents entitled The Lambeth District Sanitary Reports.  These pristine papers, virtually untouched since the day they had been written, were to form the basis of many articles about the 1848 to 1849 cholera outbreak and eventually my first book on the disease, The Lambeth Cholera Outbreak of 1848-1849 (McFarland, 2010).  The District Sanitary Reports were written in two or three phases in January and February 1848 and give a vivid insight into the deplorable living conditions of Lambeth’s working poor.  They were produced in response to the 1847 Metropolitan Sanitary Commission to investigate whether better drainage and sanitation might improve the health of Londoners.

London Slums  Wellcome Library, London
London Slums
Wellcome Library, London

In the nineteenth century thousands died from cholera in Britain during the four major epidemics of 1831-2, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866, and in the years between when the disease was still prevalent but not so virulent.  In Lambeth alone in 1848 and 1849 around 2,000 died, perhaps more, but many deaths were attributed to dysentery and, despite the introduction of civil registration in 1837, some went unrecorded.  At a time when disease was little understood and the government was fearful of uprisings like those which had taken place in France and America, it was important to keep the working poor in check.  Deaths from cholera in the early stages of an outbreak were kept as quiet as possible by the medical elite so as not to cause widespread panic; those most at risk of the disease were the poorest members of society and also most likely to cause unrest.  The working population was concentrated in the densely populated riverside communities of conurbations which had grown up and rapidly expanded in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.  Epidemic diseases such as cholera are opportunistic and will spread easily and fast in environments like these where there is a lack of sanitation and little understanding of basic hygiene.

Death from cholera is swift, painful and unpleasant, as the dehydrating effect of the disease causes the blood to thicken, affecting circulation and respiration.  In a densely populated community cholera will spread voraciously once it has taken hold, killing vast numbers throughout the warm weather of summer and early autumn.  During the worst epidemics gravediggers were unable to keep up with the number of burials, and the merciless nature of cholera, together with the sight of coffins piled high at cemetery gates, had a profound and lasting effect.  In the nineteenth century cholera was as feared as the plague, or Black Death.  Local authorities and the government knew something had to be done but the challenge was enormous and also extremely costly.  In the new urban industrial areas such as Lambeth’s waterfront, houses for the working population had been erected hastily and without care.  A lack of sanitation, filth, damp and poor ventilation were all factors in the spread of other potentially fatal diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, measles and diphtheria.

Politics and religion divided opinion and played a part in delaying social reform; ignorance and prejudice impeded scientific progress.  Most believed disease was spread by miasma, or foul air, which did not help the argument for improving sanitation.  Yet whilst the poor were the worst affected by cholera, the better off were not immune, and the repetitive severity of successive cholera outbreaks highlighted an urgent need to improve Britain’s sanitary infrastructure for everyone.  Outbreaks of influenza and typhus in the late 1830s also had an effect, but by the middle of the century the putrid stench emanating from rivers and open sewers, scientific observation and the gathering of statistics were all catalysts for change.

Vibrio cholerae bacteria Source: http://remf.dartmouth.edu/images/bacteriaSEM/source/1.htm
Vibrio cholerae bacteria Source: http://remf.dartmouth.edu/images/bacteriaSEM/source/1.htm

The stories of Dr John Snow and the removal of the pump handle in Soho, and Joseph Bazalgette’s new system for London’s sanitation are well known.  They reinforce the common understanding that cholera is not transmitted through the air in miasma, but rather, it is a waterborne micro organism, a vibrio, which spreads through water tainted by sewage.  Today cholera remains a serious threat to public health but current research and the recent outbreaks, such as those in Haiti and Bangladesh, have shown that contaminated drinking water is not the whole story, which the historic record confirms.

In Bristol during the 1866 cholera outbreak Dr William Budd realised that the working population was at risk of contracting the disease not just from a contaminated water supply but because of their poor hygiene.  Budd and his colleagues made local people aware of the need for cleanliness and also put in place a system for disinfecting affected houses.  As a result only 29 people died in Bristol during that outbreak.

Amanda with the heritage plaque she wrote for Lambeth Council  Credit: Alexander Thomas
Amanda with the heritage plaque she wrote for Lambeth Council
Credit: Alexander Thomas

There is no doubt that the cholera epidemics during the Victorian era played a part in speeding up social reform, including effective sanitation.  However, as the recent Ebola outbreak has highlighted, deadly infectious diseases are still a threat to public health in Britain.  The good sanitation which we all enjoy – and the efficacy of antibiotics until recently – have created a dangerous complacency.  Today most diarrheal disease in Britain is caused by an ignorance of good hygiene, particularly the importance of hand washing and careful food preparation.  In the Victorian period the rapid spread of cholera through densely packed communities was not because of tainted water, but rather by hand-to-mouth (oral-faecal) contamination.  At the peak of successive outbreaks, cholera spread most rapidly through the female population, the women caring for the sick and washing the garments and bedding of the dead.  Cholera is a resilient bacterium and can remain dormant for long periods of time, including within dried vomit and excrement.  Those handling such materials who neglected to wash their hands with soap and water afterwards caused the spread of cholera just as effectively as the tainted water supply in John Snow’s Soho.  Bacteria are cunning and opportunistic and our ignorance of the importance of basic preventative measures – such as simple hand washing – means that we will always be vulnerable to diseases like cholera.

AMANDA THOMAS is an author, historian and linguist; she has previously worked in journalism, and public relations. Her books include ‘The Non-Conformist Revolution’ (Pen & Sword History, 2018), ‘Cholera – The Victorian Plague’ (Pen & Sword History, 2015), and ‘The Lambeth Cholera Outbreak of 1848-1849’ (McFarland, 2010). She has advised on the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ (Series 10, 2013), ‘The One Show’ (2016) and, in collaboration with English Heritage, on ‘The Flying Archaeologist’ (2013) 

www.ajthomas.com

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Cholera-Hardback/p/10951

‘I opened up the window and in flew Enza..: How Spanish ‘flu added to Great War heartache

1007_flu-3090440_166x138In Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I examine a number of different causes of the trauma experienced by British society as a whole during and after the conflict. I also acknowledge that we should not attribute 21st century responses to those who lived 100 years ago. However, there are some that are, surely, timeless and there are moments in history that shake the very foundations of everything we believe in. Without getting too cliché ridden, there is only so much an individual can take, and in Shell Shocked Britain I consider extending this to the nation as a whole.

So take yourself back to September 2001 and the shocking attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. After the horrors of that day, and the aftermath, do you remember how worried everyone was that an anthrax attack was imminent? That the postal service could become the means by which death was spread across the US, and Britain (I was refused some strong antibiotics for  cellulitis on the basis that they must be stockpiled for just such an eventuality)?  The fear of the ‘other’ became overwhelming, leading nations into war and beginning a chain of events we have yet to recover from. Would we, some wondered, ever feel safe again?

Imagine that after 9/11 an epidemic strikes, affecting the world in the winter of 2001; it is a disease so virulent that hundreds of thousands are dead within weeks, including many who survived the horrors in New York. It is the stuff of disaster movies. But when considering the aftermath of the Great War what is often overlooked is a similar, real, event; another equally devastating but natural disaster that was about to scythe down those that had survived the worst years of the fighting. Influenza.

A protein from the virus, recently identified in 2004
A protein from the virus, recently identified in 2004

When the virus was first noted the symptoms were benign, no worse than the common cold. Soldiers in the trenches complained of sore throats, headaches and lack of appetite. Highly infectious in the cramped, insanitary conditions, no-one seemed to suffer the symptoms beyond three or four days and military doctors were relatively unconcerned. Similar outbreaks had occurred in 1916 and 1917, when illness spread amongst gas-weakened troops and may have been caused by contact with wild and domesticated birds. However, the virus quickly mutated and, mistakenly reported as having originated in Spain, ‘Spanish’ influenza became a killer. By the end of 1919, between 50 million and 100 million deaths could be attributed to the virus worldwide.

The pattern of spread in Britain can be traced from May 1918 with the first cases in Glasgow, moving south to London by June. In July, 700 were reported dead from the virus in one week. Schools all over the country closed and church attendances fell drastically as people tried to avoid infection. Over the summer, the number of deaths declined, but by the autumn the disease had returned, this time causing the deaths of 17,000 in London alone. Cinemas, theatres and any public buildings where large numbers might congregate were closed down.

100 years ago, the public were ignorant of the ways in which infection was spread and even as the war drew to a close were inclined to believe the conspiracy theorists who blamed the Germans.

Spanish fluThere was no cure; like the common cold it simply had to run its course. Hospitals became overcrowded and unable to deal with the number patients admitted. In Aldershot those most desperate cases were left under shelter in the open air to ensure there was room on the wards for those more likely to recover. Many families stocked up on the suggested home remedies, such as quinine, and crowd control was necessary at dispensaries. The  population was advised to wear small surgical masks, ensure good hygiene and sleep in well-ventilated rooms, all sensible advice.

Whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain I came across other supposed ‘cures’ that caused practical problems for those resorting to them. In August 1918, Joseph Jackson, a 31-year-old soldier who had fought at Mons and returned home later with shell shock, had been recommended to drink beer for the influenza he had contracted. This resulted in a six-month prison sentence for kicking a policeman when he was arrested for drunkenness.

Contrary to the rather ‘romantic’ scenes depicted in Downton Abbey, when the lovely Lavinia succumbed, watching someone suffer could be shocking, especially if they were one of the 20 per cent of patients who developed septicaemia or pneumonia, for which there were no modern antibiotic treatments. Some developed a lavender tinge to their skin, the sign of ‘heliotrope cyanosis’. Its onset was alarmingly fast and signalled lack of oxygen and imminent death. A fit, young person could be well first thing in the morning and dead by tea-time. Whole families were affected, children orphaned and left in the care of grandparents as mothers and fathers died.

The families watched as the lungs and major organs of loved ones became filled with a thick jelly, which caused suffocation; bleeding from the ears and haemorrhage from the mucous membranes made it a terrible death. A feeling of intense depression came over those infected and, even patients who recovered were left with a lasting feeling of dejection and hopelessness. In the book I detail some of the reports I uncovered of suicides successful and unsuccessful – by those affected.

Communities large and small could be free of the infection one day and prostrate the next. Troop movements and conditions on the Front contributed to the spread, with the autumn outbreak coinciding with the Armistice Day celebrations. The circumstances required to spread infection were maximised as strangers kissed and hugged in the crowded streets. This time wealth and status was no protection and the age group hardest hit were those who were actively engaged in war work: 20 to 30-year-olds. It is still not clearly understood why this otherwise fit age group was most affected. It might have been because they benefited neither from exposure and possible immunity from previous ‘flu outbreaks or from the improved nutrition available to school children through free school meals. Whatever the reason, it increased the pressure on already fragile temperaments and the Hackney Gazette did little to assuage fears, printing an article in January 1919 stating that ‘this adds a new danger to life. One is never safe in this world.’

Famous names were lost to the virus. Sir Hubert Parry, composer and musician; economist Max Weber; William Leefe-Robinson VC, the first man in Britain to shoot down a Zeppelin airship. But Kaiser Wilhelm contracted flu and survived.

By early 1919 the numbers infected by the virus were gradually falling and the worst was over, although reported cases continued well into the summer of that year. Experts still dispute how many died from this strain of influenza across the world, but estimates range between 40 million to 100 million and around 230,000 of the victims were British. Other countries were hit even more cruelly; 4 per cent of India’s population died, and in some parts of the United States bodies were piled high in the streets until mass graves could be dug, as nearly 675,000 people lost their lives and 25 per cent of the population contracted the virus. It was tragedy on a monumental scale.

Surely, when assessing the impact of the trauma of the 1914-18 conflict, one has to imagine how we would respond now to such a nightmare, bearing in mind at the hint of ‘bird’ or ‘swine’ flu we are on major alert. It is remarkable to think that the consequences of an illness with a higher body count than the Black Death, remains a footnote to the Great War.

‘Mental Cases’ by Wilfred Owen: Writing the horror of shell shock in poetry

Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)
Wilfred Owen

On Friday 21st March it was World Poetry Day. It is often one of those ‘days’ that passes people by, especially if they do not consider themselves a poetry lover. (I don’t think anyone truly dislikes poetry; they just haven’t found the right poet…) The UN states that World Poetry Day reminds us that:

‘Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings’.

As anyone who follows this blog regularly knows, I would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I adore poetry and like nothing better than a couple of hours browsing an anthology or looking at the Poetry Archive online and discovering someone new; or a poem that expresses just how I am feeling at that time.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegA common humanity and a recognition of kinship is something I have been working through in my book, Shell Shocked Britain, which has been occupying a lot of my time recently. My editor is sending me her final edits and I am adding a few, last paragraphs that I have thought of since the manuscript was first presented in December. I have also started a twitter feed for the book and given it a Facebook page to ensure I can follow as many interesting First World War sites and projects as I can and offer tantalising snippets from the book and the research I have done for it. If you feel like following either then do ‘like’ or ‘follow’ for more details.

Anyway, as it was World Poetry Day on Friday, and because I was unable to post anything whilst in London for the day (and at the launch of Angela Buckley’s fabulous book ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’) I thought I would offer here a poetic tribute to the shell shocked men of the Great War in the words of the wonderful Wilfred Owen. Owen was himself hospitalised at Craiglockart in 1917 to recover from neurasthenia (another term for shell shock). A chapter in Shell Shocked Britain uses line 15 as its title – Always they must see these things and hear them. It sums up the enduring trauma the men experienced, during and after the war, and indeed the whole poem expresses vividly the horrors that haunted the men that broke down, unable to articulate their pain.

shellshcokIn my book I do recognise that many men came through the war and lived happy and fulfilled lives, safe with families and able to leave the war behind them. Some trod a path between the past and the futures they wanted – a narrow way that held dangers should life decide to deny them the support they needed to maintain their sanity. Others could never recover and spent the rest of their lives dismantled emotionally and physically – ‘set-smiling corpses’ that woke each day to face new torments. Ten years after the war 65,000 men were still receiving treatment and many broke down many years after the conflict ended.

These truly were ‘the men whose minds the Dead have ravished‘.

Wilfred Owen – Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them, 
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense 
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
– Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
– Thus their hands are plucking at each other; 
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness

The images Owen uses, of nameless men reduced to’slavering’ like animals and suffering an endless purgatory, is surely a metaphor for the de-humanising effects of the war and the resultant retreat inward to a hell these ‘helpless’ men cannot escape from.

Do read this poem through a few times if you can. It is shocking in its graphic description of the men Owen was treated alongside at Craiglockhart, under the enlightened care of psychiatrist William Rivers. It is a vision worthy of Dante and surely berates us should we forget these men who reach out to ‘paw’ and ‘snatch’ at those of us who might live on without giving them a thought….

Starting as I mean to go on…

step-forwardNext week I am taking what is, for me anyway, a really significant step. I have to believe it is a step forward and although it is not exactly brave, it is taking all my courage to move further along a path that until now has seemed one which could only lead inexorably to anxiety and unhappiness. It is a path that is meant to lead in quite the opposite direction.

Forgive me for being a little obtuse. Even that word seems designed to obstruct and prevent clear understanding. I am certainly finding this hard to express. Or easier to avoid expressing directly.

Those who know me, or have read a little about me in Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, or on this blog, will know that I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44 in 2006. I had young children and was terrified but I came through chemotherapy and radiotherapy successfully and have just been told that I can now come off of all the medication that has been keeping the beast at bay. The worst of the risk is past, apparently. No-one will say ‘you are cured’. In Somerset they don’t even say you are ‘all clear’. It is a brave man they say that will claim to have cured cancer. It can still come back but I should, with luck, do well. Good news, move on. How much easier said than done that has been for me.

From a young age I have been faced with illness – not always my own but certainly my father’s. He was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s when I was just starting primary school and I don’t remember him physically well at all. As with many neurological disorders he had good days and bad days and our lives were ruled, understandably, by how he was feeling. But I now know that however ‘good’ the day and however well he felt he would always assume the worst. He had suffered grief and loss in a previous marriage and despite happiness with a new family he felt disaster was never far from his life. It stopped him opening up to us, to love us as he might for fear of losing us as he lost his first family. Who could be surprised at that?

Dad died almost exactly twenty years ago and until I started counselling two years ago I didn’t realise how quickly I had taken over his role; started reading from the same script. The breast cancer confirmed it for me – I was playing a part in a tragedy of my own making. A starring role in my own disaster movie. How could I be one of the lucky ones? After all I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, had breast-fed my children and had just got fit and healthy when I found the lump. I had all the protective factors but no, I wasn’t one of the 9 out of 10 for whom all is well. I was the 1 in 10. Cue song…

But it has gone on too long. Before Christmas I had a scare. Ultrasound and MRI scan eventually confirming that what was on my liver was not the worst it could be, but something benign. Something that is a nuisance but NOT cancer.

This post came to me when I was browsing the Poetry Archive site, as is my wont. I found this poem by Felix Dennis, which I dedicate to my dad. I wish he could have read it.

Not All Things Go Wrong…

by Felix Dennis

Not all things go wrong, and knowing
This, be wary of despair,
As you go through hell — keep going,
Make no brave oasis there.

Through the shadowlands of grieving,
Past the giants, Doubt and Fear,
Heartsick, stunned, and half believing —
Heed no whisper in your ear.

Not all things go wrong — and after
Winter’s famine comes the spring,
Kindness, beauty, children’s laughter —
Joy is ever on the wing.

This is such a simple poem but very real for me as I head into 2013.

So with the thoughts of Felix Dennis in mind, where does it leave my script? My soap opera of a life of anxiety? Well it actually changes nothing. I could think ‘well those good results were this time, there will be others’ and carry on in the same way, crucifying myself with anxiety. Or I could do what I have done and at least take steps to try to break the cycle; write a new ending to the story. Give myself some funny lines and be kind to myself. Write myself the equivalent of a retreat; not from the world but from the knotted workings of my own mind.

logoI have booked myself onto a Living Well with the Impact of Cancer two-day residential course offered by Penny Brohn Cancer Care in Bristol. I know many men and women go shortly after diagnosis or just after treatment has ended. It has taken me six years to take advantage of the charity’s support and I hope it will make the difference to me that it has to so many others; exploring the meaning of cancer in my life with people who understand the impact of the proverbial ‘journey’. I know now I have become almost phobic about cancer, avoiding friendships with those travelling the same tough road for fear of losing them, being unable to offer the support they need or assuming their experience would be mine. I barely talk about it; hardly ever write about it which is bizarre when one’s every experience could inform one’s writing. Perhaps when I come back I will open up; I will certainly tell you how I get on.

I know it will take commitment and leaving behind all the excuses I have made to myself in the past. I must want to learn how to take care of my mind and body so that instead of taking the path that meanders without purpose to the one thing certain in our lives (death, not taxes – I paid £12 this year) I will work to choose the path that might be new and scary but which offers me not a poor shadow of my old life but a new one. I will try to come to terms with the anger and disappointment and move on.

I will tear up my father’s script and write myself a new one.

Mental health guest post: on surviving using self-help strategies….

Editor’s note:  Dandelions and Bad Hair Days has brought me into contact with some really interesting and honest writers and Melanie is definitely one of them. She is a freelance writer, mother and is currently working on her first novel. Recently having been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, she embarked on a mission of self-help, to assist alongside her medication and talking therapies. Her guest post today details some of the methods used by her and others to ease their symptoms during what can be a difficult time of year for many. Do take a look at her own blog over at Molly Doubly-Barrely.

lavender aromatherapy

Self Therapies – A holistic approach to mental illness

 A commonly uttered phrase I have been hearing of late is ‘they won’t help you unless you help yourself.’ Of course, my perpetual need to over analyse what people say took over and I have since become fanatical about self management strategies, Googling and reading until my brain aches with information overload. After waiting two weeks for a referral to the Wellbeing team, I had worked myself into a state, my medication had reduced in its effectiveness and I was generally making a hash of life. Then my appointment was cancelled due to staff shortages. Luckily, I had already read up on the experiences of others and I now realise I am not alone in searching desperately for ways to help myself, having been – temporarily – let down by the professionals. Continue reading “Mental health guest post: on surviving using self-help strategies….”

Doing Good? – Mental Health Awareness Week 2012

Today marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week 2012.

Perhaps you are suffering from ‘Awareness Week’  fatigue? Haven’t we had Depression Awareness week already?

It’s Dementia Awareness Week too – isn’t that just another sort of mental illness?

Perhaps you are fed up with stories of ‘celebrity bipolar disorder’ and see it as another manipulation of the media by attention hungry stars.

Maybe we should all just pull ourselves together, stop wallowing in self-pity and over-dramatising situations that others just deal with.

After all – all these people on benefits look perfectly healthy don’t they? Some of them even laugh, go out, have friends.  Why don’t they get a job?

And why is that bloke in the next office always off sick? Aren’t you stressed too? Perhaps you have shared your suspicions that he is shirking with your mates in Accounts. You can’t understand why he doesn’t just come back to work and face up to his responsibilities instead of heaping his work onto others.

Continue reading “Doing Good? – Mental Health Awareness Week 2012”

One year on: a new life – Mark’s story

Editor’s note: The monthly mental health guest post on No wriggling for March has been written by Mark K. Social networks provide great support to those with mental health issues and it is via twitter that I ‘met’ Mark. Writing has long been a release for him during bouts of deep depression, but only recently, after changes to his diagnosis & treatment, he has started writing when not under the cloud of depression. He is using this new found freedom to write on mental health issues, to help raise awareness & to fight the stigma associated with mental illness. He blogs at http://nudirection.blogspot.com.au/ 

Just 12 months ago I was diagnosed as bipolar. I was told I suffered from social phobia, had anxiety issues, suffered from PTSD & was mildly obsessive-compulsive. Yet the year that has just passed is the best I’ve had in probably 15 years or more. How can it be that despite this alarming list of mental illnesses, I’m so much better today than I was?

The answer is quite simple. Before this diagnosis I was being treated based on an eleven year old diagnosis, a diagnosis I had believed was incorrect for most of that time. In early 2000 I was diagnosed with major depression – a label that I would live with for the next eleven years. I never realised it at the time, but once you’re labelled by a doctor as having a certain illness, it can be very, very hard to get it changed, even if you know it’s incorrect.

Continue reading “One year on: a new life – Mark’s story”

‘Face or figure?’ – On needing to lose a little weight in middle-age…

Woman With A Cigarette: Fernando Botero

Oh dear. I have been told I should lose a stone in weight. That is something else in kilograms but it won’t sound any better. It should probably be more like two  – I have lymphoedema in my legs and extra weight makes them swell. Added to that, my trousers are too tight, the sleeves of my jacket feel as if they have shrunk (and it is nothing to do with extra muscle) and when I do aquarobics my rear end bounces up and meets itself going down. My sister has lost weight and feels great but I have put on ten pounds since Christmas. Stressed and depressed I can’t even cling to lack of appetite and consequent weight loss as compensation. I can hear half price chocolate mint sticks calling to me from the fridge even now…..

Continue reading “‘Face or figure?’ – On needing to lose a little weight in middle-age…”