Enough

The legendary literary agent Diana Athill said in her memoir Somewhere Towards The End, written at the age of 91, that we are not afraid of death so much as we are afraid of the process of dying. I have thought about this a lot, and I agree wholeheartedly.

I believe I have truly made the best of a difficult journey and on the face of things I have a good life that is improving with time. I have held down a steady job for the last year and a half, which is almost the longest time I’ve stayed anywhere. I’ve carved out a place to express myself in the only way I know how, through my writing, and I am lucky enough to have some people listen to what I have to say. I’m glad and grateful for the little difference I have made in helping to raise awareness about the issues that have affected me within the wider community. I am not humble when it comes to expressing how proud I am of my ability to manage overwhelming emotions, especially when emotional instability lies at the heart of borderline personality disorder. I have managed to cope with the lifelong consequences of honour abuse, several rapes, a suicide attempt, disownment and experiences in childhood so morbidly terrifying I cannot begin to articulate them here.

I have learned that there is always a solution, and over time I have discovered the solutions that work for me. Talking therapy, meditation, writing and vigorous exercise all play a crucial part in helping me maintain my wellbeing. There is still a lot of work to be done to get me to a place where I can relate with trust and without fear to a romantic partner. The very thought of putting myself at any risk whatsoever of experiencing what I’ve been through before – even a fraction – is just too much to bear. But at least I seem to have found some hope that there may be someone out there who is not afraid of who I am or what I bring to the table; who can stand up tall and applaud my ability to speak the raw, honest, ugly truth and embrace it as only a part of my present experience. Because the other part of me is filled with a playfulness and joy that can only come from having had to sacrifice so much simply to be me. I fought so hard for that freedom and I am determined not waste it.

So I have a good attitude and I have hope. The biggest threat to my life now is a sense of weariness. I’m so very tired. I’ve written about my battles with the mental health system, which are not only ongoing, but increasing in intensity. In October last year, when I was triggered by revelations of abuse that occurred in my family, I felt intensely suicidal. I approached the NHS as I was in no place to fund private care, and that referral has taken so long that only last week I finally began my obligatory assessment with a mental health professional. I was told that the assessment would be broken down into three parts, with an hour’s session every two weeks. Depending on the type of therapy they decide is best for me, I will be put on another waiting list. God forbid they agree with me that I need talking therapy, because the wait time for that is months long.

Last Friday I had the first of those assessments. It was the first time I spoke in detail about three separate instances of rape that happened to me during my late teens and early twenties. Though I assumed I was safe because I was in the care of a therapist, the next day I broke down very suddenly and rapidly, and I ended up in A&E feeling intensely suicidal once again. When I saw my GP on Monday, he said he couldn’t hurry the assessments along, or prioritise my case on the waiting list, but that I should really consider a course of lithium or sodium valproate. Having made so much successful progress in working through the issues that my experiences have left me with, I wasn’t just disappointed. I was broken. Particularly as the psychologist I saw in A&E agreed so completely that medication was not the right path for me (although I do understand that a psychiatrist would be better placed to make such a judgement).

But I am going to pursue this referral. I will steel myself against the possibility that once again I might be triggered and end up in A&E. That is my game plan. But there is that thought, creeping in too close as I lay in the dark sometimes, that perhaps I am finally running out of energy.

Her

This isn’t really a review so much as a few jumbled thoughts I put together about a film that moved me. It contains spoilers so if you don’t want to know too much detail, hop along! ;-)

Tonight I watched ‘Her’, the movie directed by Spike Jonze about a man called Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his Operating System, ‘Samantha’ (Scarlett Johanssen). The film is a futuristic play on the way we as a society are increasingly starting to experience our relationships as something far removed from reality. As implausible as it might sound, Theodore does have in real terms many elements of a relationship as is ‘normally’ experienced, i.e with another actual person who exists in our day-to-day lives. His emotional needs are met; they have virtual ‘dates’ and are able to share much of their lives together.  And Samantha also happens to take care of the practical side of his life too. She organizes and manages Theodore’s emails, contacts and calendar. She remembers his family and friends’ birthdays, buys them gifts and even interacts with each of them in the funny, affectionate way that you might expect from a loveable girlfriend. As time goes on however, Samantha evolves past her programming to become a self-conscious entity who, having been taught how to feel human emotions by Theodore, becomes ‘super-conscious’ with the help of other OSs, and she reaches a point where she is no longer able to relate at a comfortable or even possible speed to that limited by Theodore’s innate humanness.

This was a sad and heartwarming movie that says much about how new technology is changing our relationships, as well as incorporating the elements of relationships as we currently know them, where people change and grow at different speeds; where we learn from and in turn teach our partners about our perspective on the world, and how we require our basic human needs to be met. How many of us can be honest and admit how much of our lives is spent looking out for that little green dot that shows whether someone is ‘active now’, or when they were last online? How often do we see status updates that are seemingly written for no one in particular but are clearly aimed at only one person with whom we’re scared to communicate directly? And how much more difficult is it to let go of someone who is wrong for us when we have access to so much live and up-to-date information about them online? Our behaviour on any number of social networks and dating sites can easily be interpreted in a number of ways, and this film begs the question: how much of what we feel is based on a complete fantasy?

With touching performances from Phoenix and Johanssen, as well as a scarily plausible picture painted by Jonze of how we might conduct our romantic lives in the future, this film is a must-watch.

Islam and Honour Abuse

Over the last year, I’m delighted to have made some great strides mental health-wise in continuing to heal from some pretty painful life experiences. I’ve become stronger in my purpose of helping others who might need support in identifying, escaping and recovering from honour abuse, and I’m glad that people finally appear to be paying attention to the issues involved, although there is much work yet to do. There’s little doubt, however, that a great deal of this interest from many quarters stems from the fact that I am quite willing at times to link Islam to my story as a cause or reason for the abuse.

I was interviewed recently by a PhD student in criminal justice from the US, whose research on institutional responses to honour abuse will be used to inform policy there. I definitely do not include this lovely woman as being one of those parties who are only interested in hearing what I have to say for its reinforcement of prejudiced thinking. But she did ask as part of her pre-prepared questions (as it was absolutely right of her to do given the current political climate) if I thought honour abuse had anything to do with religion. It was, of course, a loaded question. I immediately gave my stock answer, which went along the lines of “honour abuse happens in many different communities, regardless of religion.” I cited statistics publicised by the government’s Forced Marriage Unit demonstrating that they had handled cases from 60 countries in 2012 alone, including Ukraine. In this report from Refuge it is made clear that honour abuse takes place in a wide range of communities (I focus on forced marriage here as opposed to other types of honour abuse as the statistics were easier to find and share):

“…research reveals that a wide range of communities outside of the South Asian diaspora experience forced marriage, including: orthodox/fundamental religious communities in the UK; Irish traveller women; Armenian, Turkish and some mainland Chinese communities; Eastern European communities; African communities (such as Eritrean, Sudanese, Sierra Leonean and Mozambiquean); and AfricanCaribbean communities. This is consistent with evidence presented to the Government during a consultation on the criminalisation of forced marriage – A Wrong Not a Right (FCO et al. 2006). Although 65 per cent (n=45) of forced marriage cases were identified by respondents as being from the Indian sub-continent, many other geographical locations were also mentioned once, including: Egypt, Poland, Malaysia, Kenya, Ireland, Nigeria, Jordan, Yemen, South East Asia, Greece, Syria and Africa (FCO, 2006).”

This is all of course true. Despite these facts however, I look back on my own experiences and I know that religion was used as justification for absolute control and horrific abuse. Some awful things were done to me by my family. Despite the huge amount of deeply personal stuff I’ve already shared online, I have not gone near the worst of it, and I’m pretty sure I never will. I share just enough to strike a balance between the need to express myself in order to heal; to raise awareness so that others who may be in the same situation can understand that they are not alone, and most importantly, to give meaning and purpose to pain so intense that it would otherwise kill me if I did not speak out.

But I digress; the point is that I was made to understand the absolute inferiority of my place as a female in my family, and when I was old enough and had learned how to ask questions about this without courting further abuse (because to question the rules of oppression would be to question absolute authority), I was told that this was the way things are in Islam. The head of our family apparently said once that ‘women bring nothing but shame, from the day they are born, until the day they are buried.’ In my personal experience, intense abuse was closely linked with religious rhetoric.

Still it’s difficult to deny that in a post 9/11 age, there is a lot of Islamophobia, in the media and on the streets. It has been convenient for me at many stages in my life, right up until recently, to join in and blame Islam for my woes. At one point, during a Facebook ‘debate’ with a close family member, I admit I even said this:

“I for one am no longer interested in marketing some kind of mythical, progressive form of Islam by denying the atrocities that are happening everywhere in the Muslim world, and here, because of the rules it imposes on every, single aspect of a woman’s life. I reserve the right to wear what I want, date who I want and sleep with who I want (or not – it’s my choice), because these are the freedoms offered to me as a Scottish citizen. These are freedoms denied to too many women raised in ‘Muslim’ families practicing ‘twisted interpretations’ of the good book. Tell me, where are the good Muslim families that allow their women such freedom? What of the Arab Spring? Forgive me if I’ve become cynical. Yes it happens in other religions, but the followers of other religions have not taken it upon themselves to protect medieval practices to the extent that so many people have died in its name; in other religions, critical thinking and dialogue are valued to a much greater degree than it ever has been in Islam.”

I was very angry when I said it, but even when I look back now, I think the only sentence I would retract would be the one asking where the good Muslim families are. I made a damaging generalization because of my own experiences and I had become deeply frustrated and disillusioned. I am also not a religious scholar, and I have not carried out a comparative analysis of how many people have died in the name of one religion as compared to another. The phrase ‘Muslim world’ represents no one community definitively.

Other members of my family (who were also not satisfied with answers given to them about a religion that placed a stranglehold on every aspect of their lives) did their own research and found comfort in their discoveries about Islam. They experimented with the hijab and were invigorated by the possibility of living a freer, more progressive life as a Muslim. I was quite shocked the first time I stated what I thought was obvious about my not being a Muslim to a close relative… She asked me, ‘But how does any of that make you a non-Muslim?’ Had she met me?! By that time I was drinking, delighting frequently in not wearing very much (I’m talking faux leather mini-skirts, backless tops, sky high heels – jeez even in the description I delight in it!), smoking, clubbing, having sex… the list goes on. This was only the very start of our many disagreements on this, which sadly ended in our estrangement.

For a short time at the start of my writing career, I did engage in what I believe many people with a Muslim background were and are still doing – marketing this new model of progressive Islam, one practiced by women who revel in their choice to wear or not wear the veil, to love and marry whomever they choose, to follow their own career path and generally celebrate their own autonomy. I genuinely wish them well – it is not an easy task to forge a feminist Muslim identity when you are surrounded by Islamic extremists, or Islamists as they are now known, out-and-out racists, and Islamophobes. I look at many of the fierce online debates on taken on by people like Raquel Saraswati, Iram Ramzan or Lejla Kuric and am appalled by the abuse they face on a regular basis simply for being women who identify as Muslim and who accept the need to actively campaign for critical reflection of religious practice.

I personally have not chosen that path, because I find my spiritual appetite satisfied completely by the writings of authors like Neale Donald Walsch, Dr Brian Weiss and a host of other self-help gurus. I have said before that ‘religion demands that you wage a war on your own soul and call it a holy battle; a lifelong test of your will to fend off autonomy’. So it’s clear that I am not a Muslim. I do not even call myself an ex-Muslim, because I never practiced by choice. Hell, I faked my period for two years before they actually started just so I could get out of reading namaaz.

But I will say this: I have nothing if not a right to question, criticize and ridicule any type of Islam that seeks to oppress women in the same way I was. I am deeply angered by those who dare to suggest that my story (and others like it) fuels Islamophobia and that I too could be deemed Islamophobic. There are those who claim to provide a platform and a voice to marginalised individuals in one breath, and then in the next accuse a survivor of the Bosnian anti-Muslim genocide of being Islamophobic before blocking her on social media, simply because she very politely questioned an editorial decision to publish a post defending gender segregation in UK universities, written by a spokesperson for an extremist organisation! You couldn’t make this shit up!

I do understand that with my often explicit writing about sex and open support for criticism of many issues to do with Islam, I would not be considered the strongest ally for those who wish to continue countering the racist vitriol out there, especially by those who do identify themselves as Muslim. But that in no way detracts from the fact that there are, like my abusers, many, many people out there carrying out horrific atrocities in the name of Islam, on both a personal and political level. It does not detract from the fact that any conceptualisation of Islam as a benign, inclusive and progressive religion that may have existed (and I scoff at the notion) has been utterly decimated. And it certainly does not bode well for Islam if the only way for those who do wish to counteract Islamophobia is to join in denial of abuse in Muslim communities, in the same way as Islamic extremists themselves are doing! And I see this being done in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I look at tweets like the one below and am reminded of accusations towards me that I’m simply being used as a puppet.

Screen shot 2013-12-29 at 14.38.42These people can, quite frankly, go fuck themselves for dismissing the possibility that I might, just might, have some agency and a passion for raising awareness! I am very well aware that journalists, politicians and policymakers alike may have great interest in stories like mine, and may even attempt to use them solely to progress their own agendas, some of which have a distinctly Islamophobic taint to them. That does not mean those stories are not important.

There has to be a balance and there has to be a sense of reason. Yes there is Islamophobia. But there are also a number of deeply worrying issues in the Muslim community that are being ignored and that are, through denial and inaction, adding fuel to the fire. I leave you with one final thought. In the little work I’ve done so far to set up a mental health service for honour abuse victims, I have observed some striking parallels in the issues within Islam that are being sensationalised today, and those within the Catholic community historically. Oppression of women, child abuse, forced marriage – all occur within that narrative too. The same issues can be found in all religions that by definition dictate a code of behaviour that devalues autonomy and judges, often with harsh punishment, those who do not follow the prescribed code. It’s no bad thing that Islam is flavour of the month for rooting all these issues out – it’s time to get them out in the open and fucking deal with it like grown-ups.

Mental Illness: Nature or Nurture?

In my last post, I was writing while in the midst of a highly dangerous BPD trigger episode that took me fearfully close to attempting suicide again. Before I go any further, I should make it clear that I am no expert in mental illness except when it comes to describing my own experience of it. There may be times when I use terminology that feels absolutely right in doing so, but which those who are experts may well apply more knowledgably. I’m glad to say that I’m feeling a lot better since then, although I’m still angry that I didn’t get the care I needed, and indeed am still not getting. I did, however, manage to get one session in with my psychotherapist, and as predicted she helped me to identify the trigger for this severe episode.

A few weeks before the uncontrollable tearfulness and panic attacks that signal an episode began, I had been out to dinner with a relative. During the course of the evening, I heard for the first time about an incident of utterly savage abuse that had occurred within our family. I don’t feel comfortable going into any further detail about it here, but I mention it only to illustrate how in my case, childhood abuse can directly contribute to and exacerbate mental illness. At the dinner, when I was having this conversation, I reacted by doing little more than gritting my teeth hard for a moment and then saying, “Well that doesn’t fucking surprise me.” I didn’t really think more about it at all over the days and weeks that followed. But I did start to become withdrawn. I found the commute to work extremely hard. I felt massively unsafe and had to take some time off. I then started finding it difficult to take a simple walk to the shops to get food for myself, and this quickly became worse to the point where I couldn’t even bear to walk down to the kitchen to cook for fear of being around other people. I knew that I had entered a big danger zone, so I started to practice every single coping mechanism I knew, and I revisited every resource I had that had helped me in the past. And it worked, to a point. I could feel my mood start to lift and I felt the peaceful elation that comes with knowing that I had pulled through again. But something was different this time. Each time I felt myself coming up, a small incident would occur that triggered me afresh. Martial arts training, usually invaluable in helping me manage my moods, became a non-option. An online article about assault had me burying myself under the covers in floods of tears. A misogynistic comment about violence against women from an ignorant colleague at work was what sent me home on the day I came close to ending things. It wasn’t until I saw my therapist that I connected the dots and really addressed what I had been told at dinner that night. Suddenly everything made sense – no wonder my coping techniques hadn’t been working – my mind was trying to comprehend how someone whose job it was to protect me and care for me could do something so chilling and barbaric. And no wonder I felt so bad when I wasn’t even consciously acknowledging the struggle I was going through!

There is a continual debate about the causes of mental illness, mostly centering on whether it’s down to nature or nurture.  There are some who will rightfully express indignance at the myth that mental illness can be resolved solely through talking therapy, because that is simply not true. But to deny that childhood abuse may contribute to or even cause mental illness is also incorrect, and presents an incomplete picture. Psychotherapy has most definitely helped me manage both my conditions (bipolar disorder type II and borderline personality disorder), to the point where the length of my episodes has shortened drastically through ever-increasing knowledge of how my illness manifests in my life.

So is it nature or is it nurture? I say it can be both – the spectrum of mental illness, in terms of specific diagnoses, as well as intensity and combination of symptoms, varies as widely as the individuals who experience it. This debate will continue to fascinate me, as does the research unfolding in the science of epigenetics, which challenges our assumption that what makes us who we are is a result of either nature or nurture. Instead, we are now challenged to think about how nurture affects nature. The video below has the simplest explanation of epigenetics that I could understand, although a doctor colleague of mine says that the research has moved on drastically from work with mice. Enjoy.

What I Mean When I Say, “I’m Fine”

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When I tell people I have bipolar disorder and/or BPD (I speak less about BPD because of the deep stigma associated with it), they usually have some idea about what it means. They might know it’s something to do with prolonged or intense mood changes, or they might know it affects sleep patterns a great deal. Others know a little more because they suffer from some symptoms of mental illness themeselves. They will know that when I’m having ‘a bit of a dip’ I am struggling to function. Maybe they think I cry a lot or that my depression manifests itself through listless, unmoving rumination on events that have made me feel bad. And they wouldn’t be wrong exactly. It’s just not a complete picture.

I’ve been having a bit of a bumpy time of it over the last few weeks and each time I thought it was passing I seemed to slip again. I’ve mentioned before that I attempted suicide when I was 13 years old, by overdosing on paracetamol. I’ve written about the panic I feel when I realise I’m in a place where I might not be able to work – which of course translates into ‘might not get paid, might not be able to pay rent, might have nowhere to go, might end up homeless.’ Then there’s the dread and panic involved with seeking help. I might get told my only option is to go to A & E, where previously I have been patronised, dismissed and treated with contempt. Yes, contempt would be the right word. They might tell me I need to go on medication, which does not solve anything for me personally. The fact of the matter is, I have been in therapy for a long time and likely will be for a good while yet. Because I have been through some terrible things, I have had to learn how to cope with the aftermath, and for me that’s through talking therapy. It helps me process the ways in which my past has affected me and it teaches me new skills to cope that have turned my life around. It brought me to a place where I truly believed that my disorders could be something from which I can recover. But it’s been years since I’ve been able to access that kind of care through the NHS. I see my current therapist on a private basis and even though the fee is extremely reasonable I am still not getting the care I need. I have to work part-time because that’s all I can manage. My rent has risen after a house move, and it takes almost half my wage each month. After debt repayments and travel costs I barely have enough to eat, never mind enough for therapy. Admitting this makes me feel ashamed for being poor.

I am more than aware of the deep lack of support available to me now. So I don’t underestimate the importance of following a strict regime of mental health maintenance. Every morning, I do the morning pages exercise. I practice mindfulness techniques as much as I can throughout the day. I do intense exercise through kickboxing and jiujitsu training three times a week (I cannot tell you enough how much this helps). I try to finish the day with a guided meditation to help me relax and fall asleep. This is what I do just to get me through the day, when I’m feeling ‘normal’. When I’m not doing so well, I will visit the loo at work to let out a few tears and practice mindfulness a little more intensely, and I will write affirmations over and over to change my mindset. I also keep a mood diary that I can take to my therapist so we can explore whether anything has triggered a dip. 70% of the time, these techniques will work.

But then there are the times when they don’t. My diagnoses have helped me get to know how my symptoms play out and what my triggers are, although this is still very much a work in progress considering I only got diagnosed at the end of 2011. If I follow this strict regime, I can still expect to have about two serious mood dips in a year. I’m confident (today) that with the right support, these will decrease and perhaps disappear altogether. I’m fortunate enough not to lose a job with each dip anymore. So a few months ago, when I was feeling good – in control, on top of things and generally happy – I went to my GP and said, “I need your help to make a crisis plan of action for when I next have a dip.” I wanted to be prepared. I was making an effort to fight; I was going to continue working and making a living like a normal person, no matter what. I was told, “Sorry, but mental health services are a mess. You will only be treated when you are in an acute phase. But if you feel like you’re starting get bad again, come to me – I’m quite confident that I can handle most things.” Ok. I kept it in mind.

At the beginning of my dip last week, I went to straight to my GP before I started feeling really bad. I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the doctor with whom I’d had that conversation at such short notice, but by this point I knew I was in danger of entering an acute phase anyway and I wanted to be referred, either to a psychiatrist or a psychologist. What I got was an appointment with their Brief Intervention Team. For the 25th November. And the numbers for a bunch of crisis lines. Yesterday, I called the practice again, and was told that the doctor who had given me her assurances is away at the moment, but that I can get a senior doctor to call me back. I know how this will play out – it’s A&E for me at this point. I left work early, because I can no longer perform the, ‘I’m fine, I’m just having a bit of dip’ pretence.

After getting off the tube, on the 10 minute walk home, I practiced my breathing exercises to ward off the tearfulness and panic that I was feeling. It wasn’t working well and I didn’t want to make a scene in the street. I bit my tongue and pinched myself hard continuously to give me something else to focus on. ‘That’s not real self-harm,’ I told myself. But I had nowhere to go, and no one could help. I knew this. “Only a therapist is qualified to deal with these situations,” I often tell well-meaning friends. Because otherwise I end up having to guide them through my distress, which of course makes things worse. I thought back to my suicide attempt. The only thing wrong with how that played out was that I didn’t take enough pills. And I left relatives to deal with the aftermath. I regret that. ‘This time could be different,’ I said to myself. ‘I know how much I need to take. I could take the dose, and then call a cab to take me to A&E, leaving just enough time for it to be too late for anyone to save me. It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon. Look at those green leaves. I could enjoy this final ride.’

This was not a new plan. It’s been on my mind since the breakdown that led to my diagnoses. So what do I tell people when they ask me how I am? I say, “I’m fine” or “I’m just having a bit of a dip”. Because I do not need platitudes or reminders to think positively, or compliments on my ability to manage and pull through, as much as I appreciate and value that in my times of wellness. But what I have is a mental illness. Illness does not respond to logic. Illness does not respond to ‘pulling yourself together’. And illness certainly doesn’t respond to avoidance or denial of the issue. If you really want to be there for someone who is suffering from symptoms of mental illness, consider your ability to do so carefully. If your own emotional capacity is depleted, you cannot help. If you don’t have time to listen, you cannot help. If you cannot bear to hear words of utter despair without pressuring your friend into ‘staying positive’ when they do not really feel it, you cannot help. And you know what? That’s okay! We are all human and we are each dealing with our own challenges. Set your boundaries and be at peace. And crucially, remember that they must feel comfortable opening up to you. The worst thing you can do to a friend with mental illness is make them reassure you in their time of need. If you cannot help, accept that and leave them be. If, after considering all of this carefully, you still feel like you have the capacity to support someone with mental illness, go to them, as quickly as possible. Give them your time, your ears and your open arms.

The Anxiety of Happiness

Today I’m remembering a therapy session I had with *Maria a few years back. I hadn’t been diagnosed with BPD or bipolar disorder at the time, although that’s not really what’s important here. I’m just remembering the strangest dilemma I had, and it’s one echoed by several people close to me who, through circumstance or self-development, have made real progress in enhancing their emotional well-being, but were finding that instead of feeling content and happy, their levels of anxiety and even panic were becoming more pronounced the better they got! Talk about a ‘can’t bloody win’ situation! But nonetheless, the feeling of overwhelm, dread and mistrust that came with feelings of increased contentment and happiness were very real.

Maria looked at me, perplexed, as I tried to explain it to her. As I often did, I fell back on my writing to help me out. I said, “Ok. It’s like this. All my life I’ve lived in this really dark forest and I’ve been galloping through it on my horse. The undergrowth is completely tangled and there are thorns everywhere, and I can’t see where I’m going because there is only darkness. 20131011-112950.jpgMe and my horse have fallen over so many times and my legs are constantly scratched from flying past the sharp thorns. Huge rocks spring out of nowhere and I’ve had to veer suddenly, risking death itself. It’s been hard living life at such speed, galloping in the dark and not knowing when the next accident, injury or obstacle will arise, or what form it will take. But you know what? I know this forest, I know it like the back of my hand. I know just how many ways this forest can fuck me over, and I know how to get out of a million tight scrapes. But all of a sudden, I’ve run into a clearing. I’m blinded by this burning bright light and it hurts my eyes. I start to see colours in my daze – what the fuck are those? Flowers. Green grass. Fruit. A stream. Sunlight. These I do not know. I run back into the forest at full speed, convinced I am being ambushed by some new devil I am about to encounter. I start to spend more time at the edge of the forest looking out into the clearing. It takes me a long time to lead my horse out there and let her drink from the stream and eat the grass; she’s always so eager and too trusting – she forgets all too quickly the times she’s led me into danger because of this.”

20131011-113445.jpgMaria looks at me, unblinking, realising afresh that I am as mad as a hatter (aren’t we all). But she works with it. She says, ‘Okay – it’s good that your spending time at the edge of the forest. You don’t need to go out there and do it all at once. Why don’t you go out and examine just a blade of grass, or one piece of fruit? How does it make you feel? Do you feel up to risking a taste? It might make you feel ill. But then it might you feel great.” We went on to talk through how all this is a metaphor for how I needed to practice mindfulness to negotiate the unknown landscape of happiness. Or any unknown landscape at all for that matter, because you don’t know what you don’t know, and of course you need to be mindful of the risks. But you will never know what incredible prizes await if you don’t try.

20131011-113436.jpgI have carried this story with me ever since, and it guides me in times of uncertainty. I’ve made up the next episode, which is where I discover a beautiful, flower-strewn path that leads out of the forest altogether and into a dazzling paradise, bigger than the forest. I discover other people who don’t want to trip me up or kidnap me or steal from me or kill me – how suspicious I am of them still! Of course there are times when it all gets too much and I just need to run back into the forest and be with what I know so well for a while. But it never takes me long to find my way back out these days.

*Name changed to protect identity

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Eid Mubarak

So it’s Eid today. For years before now, it’s been a day of heartbreak for me. It used to be the one time in the year when everyone in the family was together; so many siblings and nieces and nephews running around; so much excitement and banter and happy noise. We would think for weeks beforehand about what we were going to wear. I used to always love choosing the brightest, most intense colours and matching them up with bangles and earrings and embroidered shoes.

Shaheen shalwaar kameezIn the years after I left home, I still had a relationship with most of my family, and tense though it was I did feel a little freer. I noticed the sense of compromise in the way my matching eyeshadow or someone else’s sleeveless shalwaar kameez were allowed to pass without comment or punishment.

And I remember the food. For those who have experienced honour abuse and have subsequently become estranged from their families, food is an emotional subject indeed. In her book Daughters of Shame, Jasvinder Sanghera puts it like this:

“The pungent smells of cooking, the pot of curry on the stove, the big unifying meal – those are the key ingredients of an Asian family. Leave them behind and the things that take their place – microwave meals for one, tins of beans and any kind of takeaway – are all reminders of the massive gaps in these girls’ lives. Some of them deal with it by becoming great cooks themselves, others – the majority – turn away from food completely.”

All day on Eid, my mum’s kitchen smelled like heaven and we would help while meat was marinated; vegetables chopped; salads, yoghurts, rice and naan prepared. The young ones would run up to me, hug me, climb all over me, demanding my attention and love. After we’d stuffed ourselves silly and fallen into a food coma, we might watch a movie or play a game. We were together.

For a long, long time, I dreaded cooking and the constant disappointment of tastes that made a mockery of those memories. Each of us experienced feelings of joy, relief and contentment as we ate in each others’ company. We joked and bantered and even though awful things had been done to us, there was always someone in the room who knew what I was feeling and going through. That was home. Yes I had to behave in a certain way; yes I had to censor most of who I was and yes I was still under constant surveillance – but we were together and I was part of something. I was part of a family. When I left, I felt more alone and more disconnected from my sense of self than I thought possible. I felt like a ghost.

But then I remember other times, like when I went to a sibling’s in-laws for a family gathering. I was wearing a black shalwaar kameez with silver embroidery around the neck; nothing like the provocative clothes I often like to wear now. It had a tiny V-neck around which the embroidery twirled. The mother-in-law, who couldn’t speak English, grabbed my wrist and took me into the kitchen. Then, she took a needle and thread and sewed up that tiny little V-neck as I stood there in shock. I was in shock because I thought had escaped such shaming treatment more than ten years previously. Only now do I realise for how long I carried it with me, and still do in some ways.

And there was always something. TV channels needing to be switched over if a women was wearing something ‘inappropriate’; if there was an on-screen kiss; once I was even told not to refer to a ‘chicken breast’, but to a ‘chicken fillet’, because the word ‘breast’ reminded this person too much of a woman’s boobs. That’s what sexual repression will do. I will definitely be talking more about how sexuality and expression of it often strikes at the heart of the motivation behind honour abuse. But for now, as I sit alone with a Bud, enjoying being gloriously me and writing this, I’d like to remember the good stuff.

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Here are some pictures of the AWESOME food that I used to eat on Eid, but can’t seem to replicate yet (I kind of like cooking now, I’m getting into it!), and here is the music that reminds me of home. I have a few precious memories that I will protect so that I remember always where I came from. The rest I will keep close in a guarded part of my consciousness so that I can use it to help others. Because nothing feels quite as good as the sweet taste of freedom.

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Life After Honour Abuse

Some months ago, I wrote this post sharing the fact that I have experienced honour abuse. I was told in no uncertain terms by relatives that legal action would be taken if I continued talking about this on a public platform. I have encountered a range of reactions from others, from messages of support and encouragement to questions about why I would choose to sacrifice my relationships with those who are supposed to be dearest to me. I’d like to answer that question today.

I was lucky enough to have escaped my situation in November 1995, when I was twelve years old. Eighteen years have passed, and still I struggle at times to work through the bitterness, anger and despair that my experiences have left me with. I come from a large family and out of all its members, I am in contact with only one. When I was thirteen years old I tried to kill myself by overdosing on paracetamol. I lived with undiagnosed borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder up until the end of 2011. The abuse and subsequent mental illness left me vulnerable to rape, which occurred on several occasions. And I’m in a mountain of debt that I will be paying off for years to come. There is more, but some stories will remain between me, that person and God alone.

But despite all of this, I now appreciate more than ever the freedom with which I’m blessed. I live in a beautiful area of London and I have a part-time job where my colleagues are incredibly supportive and it allows me to take care of myself and my symptoms in the way I need. I count myself incredibly lucky that those symptoms are not so severe that I can’t work, or I would be in some serious danger. What keeps me going day to day is the knowledge that I am not alone, and that speaking out without shame about my experiences may influence others in the same situation to understand that, and to know that there is help at hand should they choose to leave, despite the risk to their own lives in doing so.

Jasvinder-Sanghera-campai-007The reason I know this is because of one woman – Jasvinder Sanghera.

A couple of months ago, I attended an event on honour abuse, forced marriage and abortion. When I walked into the auditorium at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, I saw her: one of my all-time heroes, sitting quietly in a corner at the front of the room, waiting for the event to start.

Jasvinder Sanghera, CEO of the charity Karma Nirvana and survivor of honour abuse herself, is a woman very dear to my heart. When her book, Daughters of Shame, was passed to me by a relative a couple of years ago, I was told, ‘’You must read this! It’s what we went through!”

Whenever I see her now; whenever I hear of another case of honour violence and murder, I know what my duty is as a compassionate human being. The lack of understanding is still rife and where I had thought great inroads were being made to amend this, I was confounded to learn just how much work there is still to do. I value my experience now because I can inform practitioners, clinicians, managers, educators – all those in the position to identify and support victims – I could help them understand what they should be considering and what they should be looking out for. And more stories from those who have experienced honour abuse are needed; I am just one individual who can only advise on these things from my own limited experience. There are others who could add to that knowledge, who may even disagree with what I say is needed, but who in any case will help to inform policy and procedure when it comes to those at risk.

I have been told that I am a selfish publicity seeker for choosing to speak out about this in my real name, because it might link me to others involved who do not wish to speak out or be identified in any way.

Even I, in the process of writing this, ask myself, ‘why are you dredging all this up again?’ It doesn’t make me feel good to go back there, especially since I’m in such a better place now. I would far rather enjoy the feeling that my life is a holiday because I can enjoy wearing what I want, speaking to whomever I want, to dance without shame, get drunk on good wine and imagine falling in love with that guy who asked me out for a coffee in that beautiful voice without having to worry about whether I’ll be beaten, harassed, sexually abused or emotionally blackmailed by my own family. But I can’t – not when I know I have the ability to influence others in some small way, whether they are service providers, practitioners, clinicians or other victims themselves. I gave refuge to one young woman who had fled her abusive home environment too. She says to this day that she would not have had the courage to stand by her decision and against all odds begin to rebuild her life again had it not been for the knowledge that someone else understood what she had been through and had come out the other side with real hope of happiness.

Over the coming months, as well as speaking out about my own experiences, I will be working alongside my business partner, a highly experienced counselling psychologist, to set up a mental health service for those who have experienced or are at risk of honour abuse. And for those of you reading who have also suffered at the hands of their families in the name of honour, I would say this: You have a right to live. And I mean really live, not just exist. Whatever you are told about things being the way they are in ‘your culture’, know that nothing excuses emotional, physical or sexual abuse, wherever in the world it might occur. Nothing excuses forced marriage, slavery, imprisonment or a lifetime spent under the choking control of others. And understand that no matter who you are up against, or how many, there are people out there who will keep you safe and protected if you would only seek them out.

Bipolar Depression: My Recurring Nightmare

NB: I wrote this post a few weeks back (it’s now almost July), and am happy to say I am feeling much better than I did here! That’s not to say I’ll never be there again, but right now I’m grateful to be on the up :-)

Yep. I’m here again. I shouldn’t be surprised to find that I have entered yet another phase of depression considering I have bipolar disorder, and type II at that, but let me tell you – my heart falls through the fucking floor each and every time it becomes so debilitating that I can’t function properly, like it is now. The first time I realised I was depressed this time around was when I started bursting into tears at work over the smallest things. I had been looking forward to seeing my therapist for ages but my financial situation just would not allow it, and sad as it is, I’ve lost all faith in the belief that I will get the care I need on the NHS (hours spent in A&E in 2011 because of active suicidal feelings, only to be dismissed, patronised and discharged with the promise of help in 8 weeks’ time took good care of that). So I tried to remain aware that for a couple of months I’d be using all the tools in my now extensive armoury to stay safe and well. Mindfulness meditation, affirmations, walking, working out, crying, writing, talking, reading, revisiting the notes from all my previous therapy sessions – all this I used to fight the urges to drink too much, eat shit food and withdraw so completely that I didn’t want to leave my room, never mind the house. I was boasting that I was so good at taking care of myself that you could call me a ninja of mindfulness! But there was one thing I hadn’t accepted despite all my efforts to remain self aware – I needed help and I needed to ask for it.

One thing I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I am a very proud person, and it hurts me deeply to ask for help, especially since those times in the past when I have asked – in fact begged – for help and found myself utterly alone in my struggle. Being able to stand on my own two feet and not have to rely on anyone sadly became a great achievement for me. But in the midst of crisis, you have no say in your vulnerability. Bipolar blogger Charlotte puts it perfectly:

“I have seen mental health crisis described as the point where you are no longer able to take care of yourself, where you fear that without immediate support your mind is in danger of snapping. For me, there is an additional element to a crisis, that of being stripped of all pride. Because it’s the point where I can no longer pretend, no longer put up a front or wear a mask of normality. It’s the point at which I no longer have a choice about who gets to see my suffering, and where. It’s all out there, in public, whether I like it or not.”

When I couldn’t control my tearfulness at work, and when I saw the look of pity from my well-meaning colleagues, I felt humiliated. The next phase of my crisis was beginning, and involved a complete and comprehensive loss of self-esteem. A stream of negative thoughts coursed through my mind, compounding my pain: ‘I’m not good enough at my job, it’s my fault for not having seen this coming, I should just be able to think my way out of this, I’m a burden on everyone else…’ These thoughts soon turned into, ‘here I am again, having to take time off work. Will I have to leave? How will I support myself? My life is going nowhere. I’m such a fuck up. Really, what’s the use? No ambition that I apply myself to will ever be fulfilled because at some point, always, I will lose it like this. I do not want to be here. I want to die.’ I felt, as Stephen Fry puts it so well in his documentary about bipolar disorder, like ‘everything that happens is because [I am] a cunt.’ Worry, guilt and shame amplified beyond toleration the pain I was already feeling – I was feeling bad about feeling bad. And before I knew it I was fantasizing about how best to go about the process of doing away with me.

But this time, I noticed something different. This time, I had caught myself in enough time to give myself the proverbial kick up the arse I needed to sit down with my boss and properly, clearly, ask for help. Because my mantra had become that famous line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” I had been through this enough times now to know that if I did not do whatever it took to get the support I needed, I could look forward to deepening depression, public panic attacks involving hyperventilation and heart palpitations and strong urges to harm myself. I would reach the point where all my coping strategies and therapeutic techniques would fail until it was too late, because my behaviour would have led to irreversible damage to the life I’d rebuilt for myself yet again, for what feels like the dozenth time. And I would have no choice but to start the cycle all over again – or else.

The turning point was not only my newfound ability to ask for help, but the invaluable and unconditional support from a few special people around me. My boss told me that she was not helping me out because I work for her, but because I have people around me who care about me and who want to see me get better. She told me that I am a strong, capable, confident young woman with steadfast ambition who is fantastic at her job and I should not be allowed to waste that. Then she gave me the practical support I needed so I could get to my therapist, and told me with a smile to fuck off out of the office until I felt better. In the space of about fifteen minutes, she took away my reasons for feeling guilty, worried, ashamed and incapable for being in crisis. And I have been home now for just a few days, which I have spent focusing fully on the issues that I know have contributed to this particular phase of depression. I know it won’t be long until I get back to my usual routine.

But you see, I’m one of the lucky ones. I am taking no medication, am able to hold down a job with the right support and manage my own care without having to deal with the added pain of others making important decisions about my treatment. I realise that with each time I’m made to accept a another low phase, I do so with just a little bit more experience and knowledge of how best to see it coming and to work through it. The first time I was here, at the age of thirteen, I tried to kill myself by overdosing on paracetamol and ended up in hospital for a week. Throughout the years I have walked out of jobs, racked up a shitload of debt, fucked up my personal relationships, succumbed to self-imprisonment that held me in my bed for days on end and panic attacks so severe that they made me think I was going to die. But through all of that, bit by tiny little bit I began learning. I began practicing. I worked my arse off in therapy, facing scary shit I really did not want to deal with. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to my usual trouble-making self in a matter of days, and for that I will be proud, and deeply grateful to those who have helped me pull through.

Exercise and Mental Illness

Having recently moved house, I found myself stupidly broke after paying higher rent plus deposit, so I had to cut costs wherever I could. That meant suspending my membership at Premier MMA, the gym where I train in KTX kickboxing and jiu jitsu (these guys are incredible by the way – check them out if you’re local). I’ve always known it does me good on so many levels to have regular (even daily) exercise, especially in helping to manage my symptoms of bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. But I thought to myself, ‘What harm can a month off do?’ and besides I didn’t really have another choice unless I got into (more) debt.

At the end of that time, I can say without doubt that a month makes all the difference. The consequences of not getting regular exercise have reminded me that the slippery slope to ill mental health is never far away. I started eating horribly, which of course made me sluggish and lethargic. I regained some of the weight I was so proud to have lost after coming off the anti-depressants I’d been on for over a year. I was drinking more. And inevitably I had a few wobbly phases where I did get depressed again. My sleep patterns became even more erratic than normal and I found myself practically nodding off at work, almost crying with tiredness. I have no doubt that if I had continued with my regular exercise regime, the absence of medication would not have been a problem. So I’ve learned an important lesson there.

But here on the other side, having learned the crucial importance of a structured, guided exercise regime and ready to start training again, I’m keenly aware of my own privilege. My symptoms are nowhere near as bad as many sufferers of bipolar/borderline disorder. I’m able to hold down a job where the boss and the team around me are incredibly supportive and genuinely look out for me. I make enough money to cover a gym membership most of the time. But others aren’t so lucky. It angers me to think how people with mental health issues and other disabilities are constantly stigmatised, ignored and shoved down the list of government priorities, FOR NO REASON.

But, all is not lost. There are some wonderful writers around who have dedicated themselves to raising awareness and campaigning for change on issues involving all aspects of mental illness and in particular bipolar disorder. I’d really recommend you follow the work of Charlotte Walker and Natasha Tracy for great writing on what it’s like to suffer from mental illness, how to support those have it and the obstacles they face in every day life.