When I first started uni my mother sent a parcel down to me through the post- a forgotten item from home, perhaps; a Travis CD maybe, my Barbie alarm clock peut-être? All vital belongings when you are first away from home aged 18, clearly. Anyway, as no-one was in when the postman called, the package was returned to the central Royal Mail depot. Eager to acquaint myself with my new city, I set off to collect the parcel on foot, armed with my trusted ‘A-Z’ (another gift from Mum)- for these were the days pre-Google Maps and, would you believe, pre-mobile phone ownership. According to my pocket tome, the depot was located very close to my shared student house, on the outskirts of the city, and yet somehow a 4o minute walk turned into hours. I wandered over flyovers and through subways, meticulously referring back to my miniature map for guidance, trying (and clearly failing!) to take the most direct route to my destination. I passed many people along the way, but never once asked for directions, feeling that no matter how long the journey took, I wanted to be the one who got me there and back successfully. You may be relieved to hear I was happily reunited with that package from home (though I have no idea what it was, I do recall it came in the shape of a recycled John Lewis hat box), and safely made it back home (avoiding the flyovers on the return leg) in one piece. This story came back to me recently when I was facing another problem, and facing up to the fact that this time I really did need to ask for help.
You may have noticed I have been away from this writing game for a while. In fact my last post was written on the eve of my sister, Mary’s anniversary; a time when even after 14 years, I was still keenly reminded of her loss. It’s been a busy few months since then. The month of May revolved around psyching up and coming down from the inquest into the death of my sister, Monica. I did a lot of contemplation. I listened, I thought, I breathed in, I cried and I breathed out. Afterwards I let myself off the hook psychologically from a lot of the trauma related to the events of her death. The annoying thing about clichés is that they tend to be very true, and talking things over with my husband the day after the inquest, I heard myself saying out loud, Monica wouldn’t have wanted me to be feeling like this. And I know that she wouldn’t. She was a good person; attending the inquest into her death helped me to realise that her existence for the 41 years and 3 months she lived and breathed, was more than that of the actions she took on her final day. Hearing the hard, cold facts about the nature of her death was excruciating, but having that knowledge also helped to stem the horrific re-imaginings of that day. I felt cleansed and positive. I found myself able to carry out tasks that I had previously been putting off: making a dentist appointment, finishing household tasks, but more importantly, seeking some help for myself.
Although the inquest was a reminder that I would never have to live through the day of my sister’s death again, it didn’t extinguish the trauma that has attached itself to so many places and memories. She lived fairly close to me, in the neighbouring city. We saw each other with a fair amount of frequency, and naturally went places together. Now all of those places have become mini Tupperware boxes of trauma that are re-opened every time I think of them. Worse, some of the places I feel that way about, we didn’t even go to together, but they are near to places I associate with her: Ikea has now become ‘that place near her wedding reception’; a swanky hotel me and my husband used to (very infrequently frequent) has become, ‘that place near the police station we had to go to’; a local castle/tourist attraction has become, ‘that place we went to 3 days before she died’. I hear the voice of a man on the radio talking about the recent rescue of the Thai schoolboys and I hear her husband’s northern tones. I know that holding on to this trauma is not healthy, but I have no idea how to fix it. And the feeling it elicits is difficult to define. The best illustration I gave to a friend recently was that it is like escaping from a lion’s mouth, and then someone asking you to go back in. It’s all safe, but just go back in a min, will you…? And my overriding response? I’m scared. I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I don’t want to! Just like a kid being scared of the dark; no matter how much you try to reassure them, it’s still the same. They’re just scared. And so am I.
I had disclosed these feelings to some close friends a few months ago, but it wasn’t until one of them suggested that I speak to someone about it that I realised it for myself. Up until then I thought it might just dissipate over time. Dissolve away, just like that child growing out of being scared of the dark. But hearing myself voice these things to someone else, I knew that really I should do something. I decided that if I was going to speak to someone, I would rather make it someone I was familiar with. So even if it was going to take a few weeks to find a suitable time, I arranged to see the GP we have seen so many times with the kids over the years. Sitting in the waiting room before the appointment was like waiting to get a tooth extracted. Was I going to be able to successfully and coherently explain what I was grappling with without coming across as a raving lunatic within a 10-minute appointment slot? Next time I saw him about one of the kids would he start looking intently at me instead from now on? Would he start questioning my ability to mother if I told him I was scared of going to Ikea?! The thought of saying it out loud made me lightly guffaw, but a professional? Well, as you can imagine, he was just that, and listened kindly to what I said, without so much as once reaching for the panic button/direct hotline to Social Services. Unfortunately it was a self-referral system these days, and so I just needed 30 minutes to myself uninterrupted during the day to have a deep and meaningful over the phone with someone where I could explain that, no, I won’t be cashing in on the latest sale on Ikea Billy bookcases any time soon.
Well, me being me, it takes me 5 days to get a first class stamp for a friend’s birthday card in spite of living next door to a post office, so despite relieving myself of full-time work many months ago, finding time for that call about the Swedish furniture company took over a month to materialise. I was looking after the kids, I was marking exam papers, I was watching stories on Instagram, but one thing I wasn’t doing was opening up that can of worms any time soon. But happen it did. When I eventually did speak to someone (they rang me after I had filled in an online survey), they were as sane and calm as the GP had been, and talked about the best pathway to help with my ‘anxiety and depression’. Anxiety and depression. He repeated it several times throughout the conversation, along with mention of PTSD. Am I depressed then? Am I anxious? He had said it so many times that it made me stop and look at myself for the first time ever. PTSD I could somehow agree with; there was no doubt that I was suffering from some sort of shell shock over what I had been involved in that day of Monica’s death. But depression? Wasn’t that what they suffered with? Or them? Or them? ‘Do your feelings about what happened to your sister affect your everyday life?’, he had asked me. Well, yes, I have left my full-time job; my career. And then suddenly, as the days unravelled after that phone call I began to come to the realisation that all this time I have been looking out at other people’s strife with mental health thinking, God that must be really difficult for them, I had totally dismissed the idea that I myself needed some help. I had done Mental Mutha, I had bought the PinPower pin badge, I had drummed up support for Mind and Samaritans, all the time thinking of someone else’s health. I was ok. And then came the realisation that actually I did need some help. I do need someone to help me. And that’s ok.
And so where in the past I would have marched on regardless, determined to do it myself, this time I am asking, ‘Excuse me, but can you please show me the way?’.