A dip in the sea

One good thing about the spell of hot weather is that it warmed the sea up enough to make the thought of swimming in it seem appealing. Most of my good ideas never get further than my mind, but last Saturday morning my brother and I went to the beach and into the water. He had a proper swim in deep water, while I wallowed in the shallows.

The breeze that took the edge off the late morning heat made the waves far too lively for me and my weak over-sensitive body felt quite panicked at first by the rapid, unpredictable movement of the water. I had to accept that wading out to swim wasn’t possible. I felt much safer, if a little foolish, sitting down with the water just covering my legs. Leaning back on my elbows I enjoyed letting my lower body rise and fall on the waves until I began to feel cold.

shells 2I wrapped myself up in my bathrobe and sat on the warm pebbles to recover from the excitement. It’s nearly 20 years since I last got more than my feet and ankles wet in the sea! And it’s been a few years since I did even that. Naturally I soon started sifting through the stones to see what I could find, popping a few shells and a pointy stone into my pocket as a souvenir of the day. I rarely go anywhere out of doors without bringing back something that’s caught my eye. A shell or a stone, a leaf, twig or seedpod, pieces of metal or plastic.

shells 1I haven’t done any sketch-bookery this week (yet), but I have had fun inspecting and arranging my little collection of beachcombings. I’ve collected several tooth-shaped stones like the one on the upper right over the years. I call them shark’s teeth, though I always suspected they weren’t really of animal origin.

Thanks to the internet I now know that it’s most likely a trace fossil formed in the burrow of a creature that lived in the chalk sea. A long time ago!

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Depicting depression

Summer is never my best season and although I’ve been doing magnificently well in keeping (relatively) cheerful this year, it has been hard work. And last weekend I completely ran out of energy for keeping the black dog at bay. It had been snapping at my heels for a while and by Saturday I felt completely paralysed by inertia and misery.

Which isn’t a great state to be in when you have a sketchbook to fill… I’d planned to do some actual sketching, but couldn’t face the effort involved in even deciding what to attempt to draw. I stuck some layers on my papier-mâché bowl as that was a purely mechanical task and did some more lying around feeling utterly crap.

Eventually it occurred to me to try and depict how I was feeling. Thinking about it now a spiral of darkness seems a pretty clichéd symbol of depression, but at the time the idea animated me enough to send me to my pile of newspapers in search of suitable material. As it happened the first thing I picked up had a full page advertisement on the back which was mostly shades of dark grey. Perfect.

So I sat down at my blank page, tore some small squares from the sheet of greyness and started sticking them down. The relief of being absorbed in the task was immense. At first I was simply tearing and sticking – the only decisions I made were to work in an anti-clockwise direction and not to leave any gaps between the spirals. I didn’t pay any attention to the shading or to the shape of what I was making.

spiral 1

I only had enough energy for short sessions of tearing and sticking. So I did a bit here and there between long rests and doing all the shit that has to be done whether you feel like it or not. In session two or three I noticed that I was beginning to pay attention to the shading and shape. Instead of simply taking a scrap of paper and gluing it down, I was making choices about the balance and placing of darker or lighter shades. I had to get a compass and draw a guide circle to satisfy my need to create a neat shape.

spiral 2

I observed myself edging from just-doing to slight control-freakery with wry amusement. So typical! I also observed the calm that comes with being absorbed in a pleasurable task and the pain of simply not having enough energy to alleviate depression with activity for more than a short space of time. Yes, something is better than nothing, but that doesn’t make the grief of not being able to do more any less painful.

As the spiral got bigger the problem of how to end it began to loom. I started with a vague idea of filling the whole page, but my supply of material was limited and I was making something far neater than I expected to, so a slight tension began to build up about when to stop. I carried on on the basis that if you aren’t sure, add more, until suddenly I knew that it was finished. I’d pretty much run out of the lighter greys, so if I made another circuit I’d make a border of dark grey that would be visually unappealing.

spiral 3And then, rather than accepting that moment of awareness that it was done, I added one more small piece in a misguided attempt to make it look more “finished”. It didn’t work and I couldn’t remove that piece without messing up what should have been the last one. Sigh. Oh well, it’s a sketchbook. It’s about learning, not perfection.

The original “end” occurred at about the place where the two would be on a clock face, leaving the spiral open. After some deliberation I decided to close the gap up to the top of the circle rather than leave it with the fuck-up piece glaring at me every time I looked at it. If I’d been planning such a completion I’d have graduated the edge better, but I like it better than the fucked-up version. Though that bulge on the upper right will always be a reminder to STOP when I’m “told” to!

As a depiction of my depressive episode the piece is pretty much a failure – the reality is far more chaotic and much darker. Still, it was good therapy and an interesting sketchbook exercise. I learnt a lot from doing it and will experiment further with collaged spirals and circles. It might be a good way to decorate the papier-mâché bowl I’m making.

Have you ever tried to depict a mood as a creative exercise or as therapy? What technique(s) did you use? What did you learn from it?

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Summer sketchbook

July was mostly filled with preparing for visitors, enjoying their presence and clearing up afterwards. It was another big milestone in my recovery process and it all went remarkably well. Once that excitement was over I started on my plan to focus more on creativity.

Long ago I bought a fancy A4 sketchbook bound in scrumpled purple and blue two-tone fabric. It sat on my bookshelf for many years gathering dust because I couldn’t bear to sully its pristine pages with my pathetic scribblings… On the basis that it would be frightfully embarrassing to croak leaving a load of blank sketchbooks as my legacy, I finally persuaded myself to get the fuck on with filling it.

01 August - teabag drawingsIt’s now lying on my kitchen table with eight pages already adorned with my creative output – a couple of collages, one pencil drawing, some writing and some messing about with teabags inspired by Ruby Silvious whose website I found via Pinterest. I’m also making a papier-mâché bowl, but obviously that won’t be going in the sketchbook.

I’m struggling like mad with my perfectionism and impatience. I spend at least as much time deciding where to place things on the page as I do actually making them and my impatience often leads me to exceed my available energy. Perhaps, more positively, it’s my enthusiasm egging me on to do too much at a time. Either way I end up drained. Still, I need to engage with that struggle in order to find a balance that suits me mentally and physically.

I hope that as the days go by I’ll relax more about what I put into the book. It will probably be more scrapbook than sketchbook as I like cutting and sticking more than I like drawing, but the main thing is to fill it up! And to enjoy doing so.

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Pacing and priorities

The excuse I’ve been giving myself for not blogging is that I’m too busy doing things to write about them. And it’s true, the pace of change in my life at the moment is much faster than I’m used to and by the time I’ve processed one thing enough to write about it loads more has happened. So the moment passes and thoughts stay in my head instead of being written down. Which is fine, I have a lot to do to rehabilitate myself and try to create a more normal life at my improved (but still very impaired) level of energy. I’ve enjoyed being able to crack on with things that I need/want to do in addition to dealing with the basic necessities.

What has become apparent over the last couple of weeks though, is that I don’t cope very well when circumstances conspire against me and I have to deal with unexpected events. Nor am I very skilled at judging how much ongoing effort and attention will be required once I set something in motion. For example: Ordering a new pair of trousers is easy – I can do that lying on my bed. Trying them on, finding they are far too small, returning them to exchange for the next size up, trying them on, finding that they are ludicrously too big and returning them for refund uses up a considerable amount of time and energy. And the end result is that I still need new trousers, I’ve wasted a load of precious time and energy, and I’m miserable about being entirely the wrong shape for manufactured clothes…

Still, learning anything worthwhile involves making mistakes and, as I recovered from my latest set-back due to too many events outside my control colliding with my own over-optimism about how much I could achieve, it occurred to me that prioritising writing might slow me down enough to avoid overwhelm. On the other hand, it might depress me to observe too closely how slow my progress towards rehab actually is. Chronic illness hasn’t altered my fundamental preference for quick wins over slow and steady achievement. You can’t turn a hare into a tortoise by strapping a shell to its back.

My vague plan for the rest of the summer is to focus this month on enjoying having first my niece and then an old friend to stay. As I haven’t had house-guests since I moved here eight years ago the prospect is both exciting and scary. Still, I’m very glad I feel ready and willing to take such a big step outside my comfort zone AND in the month I usually find most trying health-wise. After that I’m hoping to spend August doing more art. I have almost completely neglected my creative life in favour of getting on with practical matters over the last few months, so I want to see what I can achieve if I make creativity my priority for a while.

I might write about it, I might not…

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Measuring progress with a strimmer

I’m aware that my health has improved since I had my Ferrinject treatment last year, but it’s really hard to quantify what “feeling better” means. While I make up my mind whether buying a Fitbit or similar device would be a good idea, I’ve got some less conventional ways to measure progress. Like strimming the back yard.

Two years ago I wrote this this blog post. I didn’t strim the yard again until Good Friday this year. I was bloody nervous about doing it, but it needed doing, I wanted it done and it seemed like as good a recovery milestone as any. Recovery isn’t just a physical process – you have to deal with some big fat fears on the way.

All went well and I drafted a post about my triumphal return to strimming. And didn’t publish it. Or write anything else until today. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it was partly because I still didn’t trust that I’m getting better. And because so much is happening that I’m mostly just getting on with doing it rather than writing about it. And perhaps because recovery is a fucking scary process and I feel very vulnerable about it.

But, I strimmed the yard again on Monday and did quite a lot of domestic chores as well. And that seems worth recording. I didn’t feel great yesterday, but nowhere near as bad as I would have done after the same amount of activity pre-Ferrinject. Not that I’d have actually been able to do that many tasks in one day anyway!

After re-reading this prior to publishing I don’t feel it even begins to convey the issues that beginning to recover after a very long period of steadily declining health brings up. It is hugely challenging just experiencing it, let alone trying to explain what’s happening to anyone else. It’s too big and too complicated. Too personal and too uncertain. I’m experiencing what feel like huge changes for the better, but progress towards a conventional sense of wellness is very very slow.

Maybe it’s just too soon to try and make sense of it all.

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Early morning musings

I like it when I wake up slowly in the morning with no urgent need to get up. I pull out my earplugs and lie still, relaxed, listening to the birds, tuning into the weather. Maybe I stretch a little, then settle again to enjoy just being there poised between sleep and waking. Thoughts drift in and out of my mind; mostly prosaic (what day is it?) and sometimes profound.

Today I found myself thinking back to imagery I conjured up in my early days of psychotherapy, thirty-odd years ago. At the time I felt, for various reasons, utterly lost and broken. I visualised myself as a mess of runny jelly separated from the shell that had given me shape and support. Without my shell I was vulnerable, formless and scared witless.

At the time we played around with ideas of trying to firm up the jelly so it didn’t need a hard shell to protect it, but somehow it never really resolved into an image that felt completely satisfactory. I’d forgotten all about it until this morning when I suddenly had the revelation that we should have focused on making the shell resilient rather than toughening the jelly!

For some reason that thought cheered me no end. It’s not as if I’ve consciously given much, if any, thought to an unresolved piece of imagery during the last thirty years, but it was still an “Ah ha!” moment, as if some small piece of mental jigsaw had finally slotted into place. It felt profound, though after pondering it on and off throughout the day I’m not sure why.

Is it a sign confirming that I’m now reasonably emotionally resilient? Or is it a nudge to look at some other issue in a different way? A reminder that you need both container and contents to make a whole? Or just one of those random pieces of mental flotsam that washes up in a half-awake mind?

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Convalescence is work

When I had my last spell of better energy at the beginning of the year I was wildly over-optimistic about what I could achieve. I increased my activity level too much and too fast, leading to a horrible crash that lasted most of February. It was a reminder that I need to find a steadier, more sustainable pace of recovery.

This time round I’ve been more realistic about my capabilities, so when my hot flushes resumed last week to wreak havoc with my sleep, I was better prepared for the necessary slow-down. I’m not happy about the situation, but a slow-down is better than a full-stop.

A couple of articles have really helped me cope with the set-back. First, ME/CFS Self-help Guru’s post about the challenges of managing improvement and then Toni Bernhard’s article How Chronic Pain and Illness Fan the Flames of Uncertainty in Psychology Today. Thank you both for your wise words.

The thought that’s been in my mind lately is that “convalescence is work”. In the digital age we view so many things in binary terms. When applied to health it’s tempting, but too simplistic, to see yourself as either well or ill. This is especially true for chronic conditions which fluctuate and are riven with uncertainty.

In my mind “wellness” pretty much means “able to earn my living by working at a job” and illness means being unable to work. So every time I feel an improvement in my health I start thinking about finding ways to earn my living. Which is pretty stupid really when I still can’t reliably manage the business of day-to-day living!

So, for now, I have to think of convalescence as my work. The pay is uncertain, as is the duration and nature of the tasks involved, but it’s the most important thing for me to be focused on right now. I need to work out how to convalesce effectively in a constantly changing and somewhat insecure environment.

I’ve started making a list of things I need to be able to do reliably and without adverse effects on my health before I even think about work in terms of job, career, self employment etc. Although in some ways it’s a dispiriting reminder of how far I have to go, I hope it will be useful as a benchmark for measuring my progress.

And because everyone needs regular time off from work to refresh mind and spirit, I’ll be including leisure activities on my list. On Tuesday I spent a very happy hour watching the tide come in on Goring beach.

wave splash

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