Tag Archives: mental health

“S.C.out of there”

Unusually I am starting the week not in crisis. By this statement I know I am probably doing the proverbial, ‘Tempting fate.’ However, all is quiet on the home front. Then my dad arrives in the company of our lovely, working Cocker Spaniel, Scout. Scout is a girl! She is named after the central character in the American classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, something I repeatedly have to explain to people who failed to have studied it at school, or who do not have a father who has it as one of his favourite books.

Dad and Scout arrived after a walk at Rudyard Lake, where dad had allowed her to explore the lake through a ‘good paddle’. Thus allowed her to acquire a considerable amount of sediment in her paws and fringes, most of which was deposited on my living room floor. My dad dutifully got the hoover out, which triggered a mammoth barking session and attempts to exact dominance over this noisy, electrical device from Scout.

Dad cleaned the area where the dirt had been deposited, leaving a ery clean patch in the middle of my floor. His OCD kicked in and he began hoovering and dusting the rest of the room so it would look eq

ually clean throughout. I did point out my cleaner was coming the next day and would have nothing to do, but to no avail.

Having a dog in our lives has proved to be a revelation, technically

Scout is our 2nd ever, family pet. Cassie, her predecessor and a Westie, was a different temperament altogether, not particularly into exploring in fact she once got lost when she squeezed under the garden fence and my mum found her in the neighbour’s garden waiting for someone to find her. It did not seem to occur to her that she could walk to the front of the house. Her single great motivator was food and the company of my nan, who she stayed with in the day while we were all at work or college. She had the acquisition of food down to a fine art. When my nan would go to visit her stepmother in respite care she would take Cassie to visit with ‘the oldies’ who would furnish her with Kitkats and other forbidden treats. Such was the mark this made on her that when walking past the home and not visiting she would attempt to drag her human companion into the entrance. Similarly, the owners of the local oatcake shop used to give her a sausage and this meant that she would refuse to go past the shop until she had received said sausage. She was my post-orthopaedic surgery present, the good effects of which lasted longer than the surgery’s, i.e. I benefited more from having her than from having the surgery itself. She wasn’t what you would call intrinsically loving, she would just flap her ears up and down to show she was pleased to see you, but she was funny to have around.

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Scout is a different personality altogether and, I have to say, she is never more than two feet away from you. I think her middle name should be Shadow. She likes to get her nose into everything, followed thereafter by her paws and then her mouth, this is quite sweet until you find her having a discreet little nibble of your left front wheel, or running off with a pair of your socks. Phone conversations with my Dad have now become punctuated by “Scout get down” or “Scout get out of there”. I commented to my Dad that she was very aptly named having ‘out’ in her name. Some of my friends have said I should train her to be an assistive dog. I thought this sounded like a good idea and in the book I bought I was heartened to see that a spaniel was featured. I sat her on my knee and pointed at the picture. I don’t think there a spark of mutual recognition. In this book it talks about dogs loading the washing machine with clothes, the closest we have come thus far (with the possible exception of the day she made me late for art by pulling my trousers off when I was trying to put them on) was when she stole my new, relatively expensive top off the radiator and proceeded to chew it and mop the floor. Not the kind of help I had in mind. Unbelievably my new top came out relatively unscathed.

I have discovered there is nothing like the companionship, fun and love you get from a dog. Scout is a positive force for healing in the wake of bereavement. She is my Dad’s new companion in daily activity, with an endless love of walking, boundless energy and inquisitiveness. On Monday I found her in my kitchen with a pen in her mouth, looking like I do when I am thinking what to write next. I think she is getting to know us both very well indeed!

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Meaning and Metaphor: Dispatches from the Front Line of an Illness and Disability

I have to confess to being somewhat neglectful in my blog posting of late. The truth of the matter is that having a close family member with cancer for a while became all consuming, our family has had its normal rhythm disrupted. Several weeks ago I came across an article in The Times about the different metaphors we use to describe illness. These it seemed were most often to do with war. I think for the individual affected by serious illness the war metaphors can become both descriptive and prescriptive, many people have described my mum as tough and a fighter. Both are true of her and in many ways appropriate as she attacks life in general with a type of military precision I have found nowhere else in civilian life. I believe it was Christopher Hitchens objected to this type of description, he felt that cancer was attacking him, not that he was battling the disease. I suppose having a positive mental attitude can improve your quality of life, but I am not sure how much impact it has on the progression of the disease.

Spending a lifetime living in this order and routine I now feel adrift, when cancer a strongly disruptive force unexpectedly landed in my wider family life. The strangest thing was that many things carried on as normal. Cancer is a word that makes you stop and take an involuntary deep breath, the surprise comes when you breath out and and find that all other aspects of life are the same, life it seems still happens. The paperwork generated by my disability, normally so deftly filed by my mother has piled up meaning that my once ascetically pleasing work top has all but become engulfed. For several weeks I felt like I was camping out in my own life, just as when you are on holiday, you get to the hotel, live out of suitcases and experience and do things you would not normally do, so to with the wider family experience of illness.

My life has been ordered and routinised by virtue of the assistance I require in order to live. Every day of my life has its own structure, different activity and mini plan. Cancer has disrupted things on every level. So used to being the subject of medical intervention myself it felt like an odd kind of out of body experience to watch it from another perspective. People are always telling me how much I sound like my mum, now I catch myself thinking she sounds like me. She uses medical lingo like a pro and would rival some of my friends from my special school days, comfortably using terms like PIC line and spiking a temperature. For all my adult life my mum has served me well as a clothing mannequin, while shopping she would try outfits against her body to see if the trousers would be too short as we are the same height. I never thought this role would reverse in the form of the loan of my spare wheelchair and pressure relief cushion, the latter becoming necessary because of a serious reduction in body mass.

We have a deeper and in some way better understanding of each other, perhaps that can only come via a shared experience. I have learned to be less idealistic and judgmental of those who make choices for loved ones based on the information given at the time, and we both know well that medicine can be both miraculous and cruel, tearing to the depths of ones soul on both counts.

Recently I was struck by media reaction to statistics that indicated that over 50 percent of woman and 43 percent of man took a drug that was prescribed to them, most “popular” were pain killers, cholesterol medication and antidepressants. The inference being that we could do without these if we just shaped up and pulled ourselves together. It saddens me greatly that even in the 21st Century it can be inferred that to experience mental ill-heath is a negative lifestyle choice that should be discouraged. Yes such drugs are costly, but like treatments for cancer and heart disease they save many lives and improve the quality of those lives.

Dyslexia Awareness Week

Last weekend I started reading Footfalls in Memory, a book written by Terry Waite. Waite travelled to the Lebanon in 1987 as a Church of England representative in an attempt to secure the freedom of four hostages, one of whom was the journalist John McCarthy.

In the opening paragraphs he discusses the things he most missed while in captivity; outside the obvious human comforts top of his list was reading and a good supply of books. In his 1,760 days in captivity he longed for, dreamt of, begged and prayed for books. He relished the few that were brought to him by his captors and dredged his brain to relive the books of his youth. One night he was dreaming particularly vividly of his study and bookshelf within it when he was pulled from his dream by the shackles on his legs.

His recounting of this experience struck a cord with me. Like Terry Waite I too have a lifelong love of books but have known what it is to live with the deprivation of them. I was not of course a captive in the same sense, I was a prisoner of my own neurology. Dyslexia was my jailer, in addition to cerebral palsy. Dyslexia and significant neurological visual processing problems were the biggest cause of my distress. People could grasp my physical limitations well, because of course there were some very obvious visual clues. Believe me, I could never have blended into the background in any room, my movements resembled a Thunderbird puppet after an impressive night on the tiles, this helped people accommodate my difficulties. The hidden disability is, I have discovered, a entirely different ball game. It brings with it embarrassment and the constant need for justification.

Dyslexia is a condition that is subject to much misconception. It has spent many years on the margins of educational discourse. From the outset, it has not been taken seriously as an issue, with those affected suffering educationally as a result. Dyslexic people have often failed to achieve their full potential, with little interest taken in their condition. Dyslexia is often overlooked and mislabelled as: nobody is expected to be good at everything; laziness; stupidity on the part of the individual.

There has however, in recent years, been a surge of interest in the condition. There is growing awareness in schools of the problems faced by dyslexic children in the classroom environment and of the different ways by which people learn and process information.The problems caused by dyslexia are all too often situated and discussed only in the context of academic learning, as something that is only relevant to childhood and a problem that disappears with the end of one’s compulsory education.

So, what is it like to be dyslexic? In what ways does it impact on the individual? It is, I think, a different experience for each person. Every dyslexic I have met has had slightly different problems, seemingly all related to reading, writing and spelling but manifesting themselves in slightly different ways. Each person has different strengths and weaknesses.

For me, to have dyslexia has, for much of the time, felt like living in my own world. Text feels almost like a second language and led to me spending years feeling out of my depth in the school dominated world of childhood. For a dyslexic, the classroom is often a place where you can feel left behind, particularly if the problem remains undiagnosed and unaddressed.

In school, teaching is structured to suit the majority of children, who are not dyslexic. This can create a situation whereby children lose interest in the learning process, which can ultimately impact upon the rest of their lives.

Some have described dyslexia as a “gift”. I have, in my life met some extremely talented dyslexic people, many of whom tell me they would not be without it. They think it has made them more creative, it is truly a part of the people they have become.

I struggle to think of my own dyslexia as a “gift”; being a writer, I resent its presence. Maybe my dyslexia has given me something to strive against. Often I have thought my existence is proof that God has a spectacular sense of irony or a good sense of humour; dyslexia has helped me develop both of these traits. Like a lot of dyslexics I know, I am told I am a good lateral thinker. Unlike many of my dyslexic counterparts, I am not a good kinaesthetic learner; this may be because my dyslexia is complicated by cerebral palsy. I have searched hard to find the “gift” my dyslexia has created, but have yet to find it.

I love to write and to read, neither of which I achieved in an entirely conventional way. I still remember fondly the arrival of my first Talking Book player aged 7 or 8, a metal box with a lever control for play and rewind, track change, tone and volume. It was heaven help you if you fell asleep as to relocate your lost place would take a long time as they were all on tape; you would have to listen to the oral tape markers that contained letters and numbers to try to find it again. Sometimes now when I can’t drift off to sleep I catch myself counting N10, N9, N8, way more effective than sheep for sleep. The first player I had looked like a cross between a reel to reel player and a Dalek from Dr Who. I still remember the twinge of excitement I felt when the old tape cartridges dropped through the letter box. If I could manage it I would sneak off to my room for a quick five minute listen, the taste of which could keep me going through the darkest of school days. A true comfort and the best of all my friends. I firmly believe that access to Talking Books saved my life. They reminded me I could learn and were the beginnings of my true education.

Technology has moved on and although I would not be without my computer, I am still reliant on the help of other people, who work hard to ensure articles I write conform to the laws of the English language; helping others to understand precisely what it is I am trying to say. I access support from the Dyslexia Association of Staffordshire. Although I am able to read text, it is easier for me to retain the information I hear, so I prefer audio books of which thankfully, there is an ever increasing selection. The advent of Mp3 players and Podcasts, have also helped me to access information in a way that works for me.

I often think about how my life would have been different, had I benefited from early diagnosis of dyslexia and appropriate teaching. When you are diagnosed as an adult or in late adolescence as I was, it is a struggle. You carry with you a lot of negativity about intelligence and your ability to learn and achieve. I was lucky in the end, after leaving special education for a mainstream placement my problems were re-evaluated and addressed. I was surrounded by teachers who did not perceive dyslexia as a dead end problem. It was never allowed to be a barrier to achievement or a negative label; it was something to be worked on and around.

Dyslexia, with the right help, does not have to define who you are. Whether you are diagnosed as a child or as an adult, improvements can be made at any age. For this to happen, dyslexia has to be considered as something that affects people across the board. It is not just an issue for educators but a fact of life.

A Dark, Divided Century

A few weeks ago I went to a local history event to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The idea of the event was to commemorate and explore the different aspects or the conflict and look at how it has shaped the society we live in today.

There were living displays, men and women in period dress demonstrating everything from joining up for the Kings Shilling, to examples of battle kit that was issued. I have to say I was more than a little shocked at how meagre the kit was, it seemed to consist of little more than a scratchy woollen uniform, ration tin, shoe cleaning kit, a gun and a tin hat. It was both scary and poignant to think of thousands of young men, some little more than children, despatched to a hostile frontline.

Soldier's kit

The railway station where I live has remained remarkably unchanged over the last century, in fact when I am waiting on one of the three platforms to go off on my travels it has many times made the past seem somehow closer when I am on the platform. If you removed the electric digital announcement screens, it would be like going back in time. The ghostly figures boarding trains in their thousands become tangible beings; the ones who boarded a train compelled by social expectation to be men and fight never to come back. The entrance to Platform One now has a war memorial in remembrance of those who worked on the railway and were lost in the conflict.

The Great War, as it came to be known, saw change and development on several levels, social, technological and medical developments reshaped our society. The years leading up to war had seen growing support of the women’s suffrage movement that campaigned to give women the vote and afford them the same rights and opportunities that were available to men. However, war saw the suspension of political protest and direct action. Women took on a new place in society, they worked in jobs that were previously considered to be the preserve of men, they stepped into the breach taking on dangerous jobs working in munitions, nursing and driving ambulances on the frontline, proving equal in worth and ability to men. For women, war became a means to demonstrate the need for equality and recognition, one of the few positives, yet unintended consequences of war.

The event I visited had several stalls each chronicling the different aspects of life in war time. It was at one of these that I came across a period actor talking about developments in medicine that were a consequence of war. He talked about Walter Yeo, a sailor who sustained massive facial injuries in the Battle of Jutland. Yeo underwent pioneering treatment under the care of the groundbreaking surgeon, Sir Harold Gillies, who developed skin grafting as a way of treating individuals with serious skin wounds or burns. Walter’s face was painstakingly rebuilt over many years. Whilst Yeo was still described as having a severe disfigurement, he had significant function returned to him.

Walter Yeo (courtesy of Wiki)

Professor Roger Cooter wrote about the impact of war on medical advancements. He discussed how the First World War created an opportunity for medical development due to there being a substantial number of combatants presenting with very similar injuries.

There were 2 million disabled veterans who returned home at the end of World War One, who suffered a variety of injuries resulting in long-term disability, both physical and mental. This war made disability more visible and a pressing social issue. It resulted in the opening of the original poppy factory in Richmond in 1922 closely followed by Lady Haig’s poppy factory in Edinburgh in 1926. The idea behind both sites was to employ men who had suffered life-changing injuries in the conflict to provide them with a livelihood. This was the first time in history that society began to accept disability as part of social life and its responsibility. Disability through wounds became seen as almost an honourable state with the Silver War Badge being issued to soldiers who had been discharged due to their injuries for their service.

I am grateful for these individuals who, unwittingly, blazed a trail for me. They helped to create a world which was of a mind to accept me with all of my physical limitations. They fertilised the idea of an inclusive society.

I will remember them.

A painting I did to commemorate the centenary of WW1
A painting I did to commemorate the centenary of WW1

 

The 2nd of my Remembrance paintings
The 2nd of my Remembrance paintings

Dyslexic, Uncovered

Last week I attended the Annual Conference of The British Socological Assocation (BSA), an event that brings together individuals from all areas of sociology. This proved to be a time of reflection upon my own journey to becoming a sociologist and the issues and barriers facing others that find themselves in a similar situation to me.

It has now been some ten years since I graduated with my degree in Crime Deviance and Society and ten years since I gained my Masters in Social and Cultural Theory, things could have been very different. I was never considered to be particularly academic as a child. I was the one who sat at the back of the class with a vacant expression. Well, I must have looked vacant anyway as I spent my formative years being told off for daydreaming.

Many of my regular followers know my background but here is a quick refresh or introduction for those of you new to my e-world. I have Cerebral Palsy, use a wheelchair and went to special school from which I made my escape aged 16 with no qualifications to speak of. I enrolled in a mainstream college and was diagnosed with dyslexia at 18. University followed. I am passionate about education, for me it is both the gift of, and key to, personal development and social stability. I often get accused of being more than a little obsessed with the education topic, such that when two close friends announced they were pregnant I was plotting their due date against the English academic calendar.

I am an August birthday, us summer-borns are something of a scourge on the educational landscape. My teacher friends tell me that “you really don’t want a class full kids like you.” We are you might say on the back foot academically speaking, invariably not quite ready for the work we are doing. We are the cake that would have been so much better with another five minutes in the oven. If you add dyslexia to the equasion, you can really feel up against it.

These days we are used to the ideas of inclusion and disability awareness. Last week I even came past my local primary school and noticed the school sign had a wheelchair using child prominently displayed. It has become the norm, no big deal, to have a child who uses a wheelchair or a walking frame in mainstream school and there would be an outcry if adjustments were not made to accommodate their obviously differing needs, and rightly so.

However, there is one disability that, even in the inclusive atmosphere we see today, often continues to go unrecognised and therefore unsupported. Dyslexia is a condition that has been subject to a great deal of misconception and is much of the time on the margins of educational discourse. We see periodic surges of interest in the condition, debates over causes and even whether it exists at all. Dyslexia is all too often discussed only in the context of academic learning and something that is only relevant to childhood, a problem that disappears with the end of compulsory education.

So what is it like to be dyslexic? In what ways does it affect the individual? It is something that is different for each person. Every dyslexic I have met has their own, sometimes seemingly unique, problem areas. Many have some amazing strengths as well.

When I was a child dyslexia felt like being in my own world. It always felt like I was missing something that was obvious to everyone else. At my best as a child I felt like I was 30 seconds behind the others in the room. In school, classroom activities are structured around how the majority learn. This can lead to the classroom becoming a very bewildering place for dyslexic people. In my life I have seen very intelligent people who are disinterested in learning, have little self worth and feel like they have nothing to offer, purely because the current system at its best puts some of those in it at a disadvantage, and at its worst condemns them to fail from the outset.

Of the multiple diagnoses I have I find physical disability frustrating, depression frightening and dyslexia embarrassing and loaded with social stigma. If I had the choice to remove one of my disabilities dyslexia would be the one I would choose without a second thought. There are some I know that think having dyslexia is a gift giving them creative flair and problem solving skills. For me it was like being in a cage. Before the dyslexic label was applied to me and I got appropriate help I used to think I would die in my own mind. In my more wry moments I have thought that my being dyslexic is living proof that God has a sense of irony. Writing is the one thing I am good at, but I need help to do it. I was having a bad time in hospital a few years ago that resulted in my having a long-term urinary catheter. While it was being fitted, something I had resisted for years, I remarked to the consultant, that if I were to find myself in hell for me it would not be fire or ice I would just be catheterised while simultaneously being made to play scrabble.

Dyslexia with the correct support does not have to be a barrier to achievement. It is not all that you are. Whether you are diagnosed as a child or as an adult, there is help available and improvements can be made at any age. However to enable this, dyslexia has to be recognised as something that affects people across the board, making it not just an issue for educators but one for other walks of life too.

The Creative Muse

As most of you know I have been experimenting with all things artistic recently. I was faffing around on Youtube last week and came across ‘Art Journaling’, this is a way of expressing yourself using words, colour and images that are personal to you. It really has got me thinking. I had not intended to use art to comment on social or disability issues, I just wanted a bit of down time as I am often told that I ‘do’ disability too much, that it has an all consuming influence on my life and is destructive and negative. All in all a counter-productive force. When discussing a persistent episode of writers’ block a friend remarked that I eat, sleep and breath disability and even holiday in it as well. She felt that I needed a break from it all and art was to be my attempt at the great escape. This was just going to be about me in a soul sense; no big political statements, but freedom in the true sense. That aim fell apart when I opened ‘A Short History of Drawing’ by Andrew Marr, in the introduction he discusses the stroke he had and the frustration he felt when trying to draw during his recovery. He notes that for the first time he was hit by the realisation that drawing was an activity that very much required the use of both hands. I had a flashback to a time when I had to be constantly reminded to, “Put your left hand on the paper when you are writing and drawing” great, unless it happens to be your weakest side! I think this perhaps was part of the reason I never found drawing or doing anything on paper therapeutic or enjoyable in the psychological sense. Essentially, Mr Marr’s book is about his own art journaling. He uses drawings taken from life and photo’s to recall and record significant and domestic events in his life. Colour is used as a powerful tool to add to the tone and dimension of the image created. This makes quite mundane images more significant and this effect is added to by his short descriptions. It inspired me to attempt to do something similar. I have long wanted a way to record random quotes and phrases that have impacted upon me, prior to the journal they were just dotted about in notebooks or on hard drives in no particular order, meaning that they were not easy to catalogue and therefore tricky to find when the mood was on me. By turning them into a visual form it made them more expressive for me and forced me to organise them in a more logical progression. I have learned to love experimenting with colour and contrast and I can do this now to find the combination with the greatest impact for me. I have moved now to combining computerised text with my images which actually makes it feel more ‘mine’, which is fantastic if you don’t like your own spidery handwriting. Art for me now has become less of a distraction from my cares and woes and more of a therapeutic aid to mental recovery, which is a powerful tool to me.

This was my first attempt. The girl in the picture is part of a background by the artist and art journal maker Jennibellie
This was my first attempt. The girl in the picture is part of a background by the artist and art journal maker Jennibellie

The Therapeutic Endeavour

The only drawing I ever did that got the thumbs up in art class. He's a bit of a talisman.
The only drawing I ever did that got the thumbs up in art class. He’s a bit of a talisman.

A change is as good as a rest, or so I am told anyway. This week has seen me picking up a paintbrush for the first time in almost twenty years, which has come as something of a shock to those who know me as I have never been known for any kind of artistic prowess, in fact quite the reverse. My high school attempts at still life and other art projects regularly reduced my teacher to despair with one notable exception, Spring The Tree Frog, he was my signature and the only attempt at art my teacher ever said was good.

My visual perceptual problems are such that I have very little concept of depth and perspective. I also struggle with different shades of some colours and this is further complicated by my impaired motor skills so all in all art, like ballet, was never something I could see myself doing.

My return to the creative arena happened quite by chance. I had my regular checkup at the hospital, the weather was cold and wet and the taxi I had organised to take me home was late. I had got as far as sticking my two front wheels out of the door of the building and I was overwhelmed by arctic winds and the smell of nicotine, I made good my retreat into a warm waiting area in order to ring the taxi again. Whilst idly thumbing through the self-help leaflets I picked one up about ‘Echo’, an organisation that provides mutual support for those who experience self-harm.

For some months now I have been experiencing depression and anxiety, this has triggered an old habit of skin picking. At times of stress I pull the skin of my hands and fingers. You may think of this as a trivial affliction akin to nail biting, disgusting possibly, but definitely not life-threatening. However, I have now picked at the skin so much it has caused a thickening of tissue which means that bending some of my joints is problematic. This makes managing a catheter interesting and wheelchair pushing tricky.

The leaflet prompted me to go to Echo to see what they were all about. I discovered that they have a timetable of activities which include an art group, that meets each Friday morning at the Dudson Centre in Hanley. The group was free to access so I thought, “What the hell!”.

Being me, I went off to do a bit of research before I went along and discovered that there is quite a history of using art as a therapy for those with mental distress. The most famous case is perhaps that of Richard Dadd who was held in Broadmoor after he murdered his father in 1843, here he was encouraged to continue painting as a form of therapy, it is now suspected that he suffered from a form of paranoid schizophrenia.

Thus reassured I went along to my first art session. The session was run by an art tutor who was great at supporting me, lots of people were painting owls so I thought I’d join in, it’s also the only shape I can draw so it worked out well. By the end of the session I was well and truly bitten by the creative bug and have now started producing some pieces as gifts for friends and family. It is lovely to have an activity that I can do, to create something when my head is feeling like cotton wool and rational thought is tough to do. If I cannot think clearly I can still end the day having achieved something, which is a great feeling as I still feel like me and not a complete waste of time. It is also something that I can now do at home, so if I cannot get to a group I can still have that sense of achievement, something I now know is important for my good mental health.

My Echo Owl