How to talk to me

So since I’ve started this blog a few people have asked how they should talk to me/treat me/what topics of conversation are ok/not ok? 

Now I can understand this – I’ve been very open with these blogs, really put myself out there. It’s probably opened up some things most people didn’t know about me, and yes that can make people more aware that certain things may be triggering for me. I’ll go into more detail, but the one thing I would say is: I was diagnosed with depression over 12 years ago, and have probably had it a lot longer. This means that I’ve probably had depression for the whole of the time a lot of you have known me. Some of you may have known, or realised there was something going on – I’ve never been that reticent about talking about it – some of you may have had no idea.

Disclaimer: the following is specific to me and my needs, it’s not necessarily going to be the same for other people with mental illness. 

From my point of view this means treat me the same as you always have. Believe me I’ll let you know if I need anything different.

I’ll go into detail a bit about some areas.

I’ve kind of touched on one of these in a previous blog – my scratching myself. I will at times have cuts/scratches on my arms – it’s one of those things. If you notice you can ask what happened, I may reply in a joking fashion – a throwaway line about getting into a fight with a bush/door/myself – but that’s just my way. Being asked by friends, by people who care doesn’t put me on edge, it doesn’t offend me and it doesn’t embarrass me. The reason I tend to give a throwaway answer is that I don’t want to come across as attention seeking. The whole scratching thing is a stress thing and nothing else. If people notice and ask that’s fine, but I make light of it as anything else (in my mind) seems melodramatic.

Triggering topics – is there anything I should avoid talking about? Not really no, not related to my depression anyway (normal rules of sensible conversation reply). Normally I’m happy to talk about my depression, anxieties etc. if there’s a reason I’m not, I’ll let you know when it comes up. I’m in the lucky position where I have it under control – yes I still have ups and downs, but most of the time they’re less extreme than they used to be. If talking about this stuff with me is helpful in some way – I’m happy to do it. I guess for me it’s kind of like the ‘bullshit’ rule I use in most RPGs I run. Yes I’ll have a lines and veils conversation up front, but the option is always there to interrupt and say – I’m not happy/comfortable with where this is going can we change it? So in normal conversation there’s very little off the table to begin with, but I’ll call it out if we hit something I’m not prepared to talk about – at the time. It may be something I’ll happily talk about another time.

Social anxieties/Panic attacks. I’m prone to both of these – as is H as well. I do find certain situations more challenging than others – particularly when I’m not expecting them. For example I went to the shop on Sunday morning to get a few bits and pieces. It was just gone ten and I was expecting it to be quiet. It wasn’t. This started to trigger a panic attack – which I actually got a hold on and prevented from becoming fully blown. If I’d expected the shop to be busy I would have been prepared and fine, but I didn’t expect it so an attack was triggered. 

In social situations I don’t mind loud places, I don’t mind new people, I don’t mind lots of people – but put them all together and I struggle, especially if I wasn’t expecting some/all of them. So at most gaming conventions I’m fine – I know some people well, more to say hello to, and I know what to expect environment-wise and am ready for it all. Even a new con is generally okay as they tend to be similar. So what to do with me in these situations? Where possible warn me (I sometimes wish I’d thought of saying this to friends years ago, but hey that’s life). If I know what to expect, I’m more prepared and cope better. I may still have a panic/anxiety issue, but it’s a lot less likely. If you think I might not be okay ask me, or ask H if that’s easier – we’ll be honest. Allow me to do what I need to do. This hasn’t happened in quite a while, but in the past people have overcrowded me checking I’m ok, asking what they can do etc. To be fair I don’t think anyone I still spend time with has ever done this, but you can probably see where this can be problematic as well. Sometimes what I need is space – so if that’s what I ask for please give it to me. H is very good at spotting when what I need is space, so will also be in a position to let you know what’s happening.

I think what I’m trying to say is I’m still the same person I always was – you just know a bit more about what’s going on in my mind. I don’t write these blogs to change how you treat me – I write them because they’re useful to me (they’ve helped me process some things I hadn’t thought about before), I write them because I think being open about mental health issues is very important. I also write them because there’s a possibility they may help others – though for me this is a good side effect not the aim.

I hope that makes some sort of sense. Thanks for reading and stay safe all.

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Safe spaces 

One thing I’ve become very aware of with my depression is the importance of self-care and safe spaces. This is undoubtedly true in all sorts of situations but I’m talking specifically from my own experience of Depression. 

Safe spaces

One of the wonderful add-ons to my depression is panic attacks. Thankfully I don’t get them too often nowadays, but used to get them quite frequently in the past – and still get them occasionally now. For those of you who’ve never had a panic attack, they’re incredibly difficult to properly explain – but the ‘fight or flight’ instinct we all have at some level, goes into overdrive towards flight. Everything becomes overwhelming, for me everything seems to close in on me and I get very claustrophobic. Every noise is 50 times louder, my vision goes funny, my head starts pounding and I just want to get out. Afterwards I tend to crash out as well – I’ve had (I think) a massive adrenalin boost and as that drains away I’m shattered – that’s certainly what it feels like.

During and after a panic attack a safe space is vital to me, but it doesn’t have to be a physical place. If it happens in the middle of a supermarket getting away can be tough, but if I can find a quiet corner, I can run through some mental exercises and give myself a safe space in my mind, to rest, relax and get back to normal.

A physical safe space is even better – the car (when parked safely, stationary) is a place I’ve made my safe space. I can sit in the car for some time and feel things returning to normal – and of course it locks me away from the outside world. Home, or pretty much anywhere with H is a safe space. They understand my panic attacks, and know that sometimes it can’t be talked through, but just having someone physically being there, being a support if needed makes wherever I am safer.

Even larger places can be safe places for me – a number of the gaming conventions I go to are safe spaces, especially those that are held in the same location every year. I’m somewhere I know, I know the layout (I know the exits) and although I won’t know every attendee I usually know enough to feel surrounded by people I trust, and supported by those who have some idea of what’s happening. The flip side of this of course is that a gaming convention can be a hard place to gain some space in, so if it isn’t a safe space for me when an attack comes on it can be very difficult (I had quite a bad panic attack at a LARP we attended last year, I knew very few of the players/organises at the time, and found it very difficult to get back into the right mind-space).

Another safe space for me is music, if I can pop in my earphones and listen to just about anything I start to feel safer.

Certain groups of people can also make a space safe. If they’re people I’m comfortable with, who know a bit about my depression, that’s great and makes me feel safe. Also spaces that are deliberately safe, a group with whom you can share as little or as much as you want without judgement, just acceptance.

Thanks for reading and stay safe all.

Music and me

Music plays an important part of my life in many ways. I play a number of instruments – with varying degrees of proficiency, I sing, I write songs, and I enjoy listening to music. Also one of current favourite RPGs is powered by music. 

So I’ll go through each in a little detail, looking at how it impacts on my depression and day to day life. So listening to music – this is something most people do at times. I listen to most music at work – I’m fortunate enough to work in a back office function where we’re allowed to listen to our phones/I-pods through headphones, as long as it doesn’t impact on our work, and that we still answer our phones promptly. Because of this I often only plug in one ear bud, rather than both. This allows me to hear what’s going on around me quite clearly, whilst still listening to my music. Admittedly this has made songs a bit odd from time to time, you can miss little bits or the balance can be out, and in one case the band (Queen) had all the vocal output in the left ear, and all the instrumental in the right – meaning no lyrics. However when certain songs, that mean a lot to me, come on, I’ll add the other earplug to enjoy them in all their glory. I’ve just done that as I type as ‘Invincible’ by Muse has just come on and that track and whole album ties in to an important part of our (H and my) lives. Which nicely brings me on to the effect listening to music can have on me. Songs are great memory triggers – they can throw you (or me anyway) right into the emotions of a certain time, that in some way the song is inextricably linked to. These can be happy memories, incredibly sad memories and everything in-between. A song can make me smile, let out a contented breathe, make me angry and bring tears to my eyes. Now I do get quite extreme emotional reactions to some songs, maybe more than others, maybe not. I don’t know. You might wonder why I listen to songs that can make me sad, make me cry? My answer is fairly simple, every one of those songs came from a less happy part of my life, but I survived whatever those times were, and am still here. They’re events I got through and that helped make me the person I am today – and as I’ve mentioned before – I like who I am.

Playing and performing music. Performing is probably a bit too strong a word, H and I only usually play for each other, H’s family if we’re with them and occasionally to friends who are over. Although we both like to play, and as a rule try to do a couple of songs every day, we don’t like to force our music onto others – we will only play when friends are around if they ask (or we’re really drunk!). Playing and singing just makes me feel good. It’s a sense of achievement, it also improves my playing and singing – the more I do of both, the better they get. As a rule we play cover versions of songs – even though we’ve both written a number of songs. We have our style of playing – and we predominantly use acoustic guitars and ukuleles so all of our versions can probably be identified as being us – we tend to have a ‘sound’. Overall it’s that sense of achievement – on my down days I don’t feel like I’ll get anything done, so sitting down and getting through just a song or two shows that I can. It’s also something we do together. Although one of us will tend to take the lead in a song we’re playing usually the other accompanies in some way, so it’s a great activity for the two of us together. I can’t say whether I enjoy singing or playing more though. It really depends on the day and my mood. I can get very down on my own voice, and often think it sounds terrible – although H (and others) assure me it doesn’t. I guess I still lack confidence in my abilities and that’s why playing daily helps. The more I do it, the better I get, and I can hear the improvements as well.

Writing music – or at least songs. I’ve not written very many songs yet, I’ve probably got about 4 or 5 completed, with 2 or 3 partially written, and a few more ideas bouncing around my head. I tend to be more a lyricist than a music writer. I’ll come up with the words, may play around on a guitar and think ‘that’s a nice chord, I want to use that’, but generally H writes the actual tune for my songs, or matches the chords to the tune I’m singing – they’re much better at that than me. I pour a lot of me and a lot of my experiences into my songs. This tends to mean I find it easier to write sad songs rather than happy songs – I have plenty of happy memories, but as mentioned in a previous blog, when I’m good mentally I struggle creatively. I’m working on writing more happier songs, as I feel it’ll help me in the long run.

Music in games – as mentioned above, one of my current favourite RPGs is Ribbon Drive. It takes the concept of a road trip, with music being used to pick the type of road trip, the characters and then driving play. This use of music allows me to hit real highs and lows emotionally in games (something which I love to do). As the game is played around playlists I often create new playlists as I listen to music. If I hear a song and think it would work in Ribbon Drive I’ll either start a new playlist or fit it into one in progress – at any one time I have 3-4 playlists under construction, some of which will probably never be played, but I find it a rewarding exercise just to create them.

 So music is very important to me, it helps with my mental wellbeing and now also plays a big part in my gaming life. I’m off now to listen to my Iphone music on shuffle all – not knowing what’s coming next makes the listening all the more interesting for me.

 Thanks for reading and stay safe all.

Depression – times I find it hard to open up

So, I’m relatively open about my depression – nowadays. I guess that’s fairly obvious from this blog, but there are things I find it difficult to talk about to certain people or at certain times. 

Take work for example – I was very open about having Chronic Depression when I applied – I made sure it was on all the forms I needed to fill in about existing health conditions. I’m also fairly open with my colleagues, I wouldn’t say I’ve made an announcement, but neither do I hide the fact. If a conversation moves that way, I’ll quite openly state that I have Chronic Depression, and that it’s under control, but I don’t tend to go into any detail, and not everyone in the department knows.

 However that’s pretty much where I draw the line with work, which can lead to awkward questions and conversations on occasion. As mentioned in a previous blog, I have a habit of scratching my arms when stressed, or in a particularly low mood, and although I’m openly depressed, I’ve not told anyone that a certain level of self-harm plays a part of it. I wear shirts for work so my arms are covered, but the office gets hot and I often roll my sleeves up, and this shows the marks on my arm very clearly (particularly as they tend to start at the bottom of the rolled up shirt sleeve). Occasionally someone notices them and asks what happened to me – and then it starts. I can’t say – oh I did it to myself, without getting into a conversation I don’t feel comfortable having with my colleagues. In fact they’re very hard to explain away – last time I was asked I said I’d been in a fight with a hedge. I deliberately made it a bit jokey and hoping that would be the end of the conversation – it was that time. There was a bit of follow up chat, but it was accepted that it had happened whilst gardening. It did however make me very aware of the scars on my arms and has meant that since then I’ve tried to keep my arms covered more of the time, I’ll get away with the hedge story once, but not again if there are fresh scratches and scars on my arms again.

 On the same topic, a friend asked this weekend what had happened to my arms, and this is someone I know has read my blog, and is very aware of my depression and stuff, yet I still found it difficult to articulate what the scars were. I said something about – ‘Oh I had a fight with myself’, and then my friend realised and confirmed they were actually from me scratching myself. This was an odd one for me – it was a friend who knew the situation yet I still found it hard to articulate that it was something I’d done to myself. And of course there was nothing wrong with them asking, my brain just goes funny about it. The same stands true with H, for a while I passed my scars off as being clumsy (which is still one of my symptoms of depression), and it actually took them asking directly if I was self-harming for me to admit it – to myself as well.

 I’ve not really thought about it before, and whilst I can understand the work thing, I really don’t know why I’m so reluctant to speak about his to friends and particularly to Helen.

 The other thing I find particularly difficult to talk about , and at some level even acknowledge, is when I’m having a rough patch. I find it easy to talk about past experiences and symptoms, and actions I take to help – even if I’m going through the same thing again as I write about it, but I find it incredibly difficult to step up and say ‘this is happening to me right now’.

 As an example, sometimes when on a down swing I find myself welling up for no reason, and occasionally someone will notice and ask what’s wrong. I find myself unable to share, that it’s just my emotions being all out of whack due to my depression – I’ll pass it off instead to having banged my leg on the desk, or having a cold that’s making my eyes water or something along those lines. This is not just at work, this is around friends and H as well. Again I don’t know why I do this, I’m very aware that I’m doing it, I know it’s ridiculous at some level, but I can’t get past that to actually open up about what’s happening to me at the time.

 These are just two examples, but there are other similar behaviours. I find it easy enough to talk about past experiences with depression but very hard to talk about what’s happening right now – unless I’m in a good place. It’s quite possible that during bouts of depression my brain isn’t in any sort of place to talk about what’s going on – it’s all concentrated on keeping things together as much as it can. Whilst I can understand this, I also know that being able to talk through what’s actually happening would probably help me work though it more quickly. And that right there kind of sums up my depression in many ways – I know I have it, I’ll talk openly about what I’ve been through, I can recognise when I’m in a bad patch, but its effect is such that I find it hard to take the immediate steps that will help me deal with it – at least those that involve others – and that’s kind of messed up.

 As ever thanks for reading and stay safe all.

Something I believe contributed to my depression

I really don’t know what caused my depression – in all likelihood it was a combination of many things. I do believe that my feeling of isolation during big chunks of Secondary school definitely contributed to everything and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.
 

For a large part of Secondary school (from about 11 to 14 or 15 years of age) I felt very much like an outsider. Firstly I was much shorter than my peers – no-one’s fault, but it didn’t help and my growth spurt came later than a lot of my classmates. This didn’t help me feel like I fitted in. I was also very ‘bookish’. I love reading – indeed I still do, and I was a geek, not a computer geek but I was still into things seen as geeky.

However what really pushed me out of the fold in school was the fact I was bullied – and the complete failure of the school to deal with it. As you may have gathered above – I wasn’t popular, I didn’t have a group of friends around me. When I moved to Secondary school almost none of my particular friends from primary school were in the same class as me. From memory (and I’ll admit this may be flawed) I think there were 5 of us from my primary school in our class, 2 of whom were my friends, 2 I didn’t know as well, and myself. Also the 2 I would say were friends were both female, and I was in that societal induced stage at the time where it wasn’t cool to be friends with girls (I won’t go into how ridiculous this is, I know that as an adult, but as an 11 year old I followed what was expected of me).

In my form at school there were 3 groups that bullied me. 2 groups of boys – this was a mixture of physical and verbal bullying, and 1 group of girls – this was predominantly, but not only, verbal bullying. I was a young 11 year old I guess, certainly not as worldly as some of my classmates appeared, and really didn’t know much about relationships, sex, didn’t know many swear words and so on. This feels like it shouldn’t be a bad thing – but it proved to be for me.

So I got picked on for not knowing things, and being a kid I tried to pretend I knew more than I did, and then felt even worse when exposed as not knowing them. This is the shape most of the verbal bullying took – along with some name calling, and comments on my size.

I was also physically bullied – quite badly at times. Two particular memories stand out. One was being dragged around the classroom by my feet, careening into desks, being kicked as I passed by quite a few people. I came away from it surprisingly physically unscathed – the same can’t be said for my mental wellbeing. I’d basically been shown I was absolutely powerless, for the duration of the ordeal (which in memory still feels like hours, it was probably 10 minutes at the absolute maximum) I had absolutely no control over what happened to me. I was totally in the hands of my classmates. I was scared, I was in tears and all I saw afterwards was the class laughing at me – or hiding their faces. I’m sure some were horrified by this, but didn’t want to turn themselves into targets by interfering. And I guess that’s where the bullies’ power comes from – physical intimidation and fear – people didn’t get involved because they didn’t want to end up in my place.

The second memory that stands out is being pushed into the bottom of a cupboard and not being let out. Even though I was small it was a very enclosed space, and it was dark, and of course once again I wasn’t in control of what was happening to me. I wasn’t exactly weak (the rugby pitch was one place where I always held my own) but I’d been pushed in by a group of lads bigger than me, I was cramped into a space where I couldn’t fully use what strength I did have, and there were many of them holding the door closed – I had no chance of pushing it open. Funnily enough I suffer at times from claustrophobia – now I can’t be certain it harks back to this, but I don’t recall it being a problem before this point of my life.

I think what really made the whole thing unbearable for me was the school itself. Teachers and other staff seemed almost wilfully blind to what was going on. When I finally did tell my parents about it and they contacted the school it was handled abysmally. I was taking part in the French exchange, and was due to have a French student staying with us and accompanying me to school at times. All three groups of my tormentors had made threats about what they would do to him (using the sort of nationalistic stereotyped terms that are still far too common for my liking). I can’t really say for sure how long ago it was, but I think the fact that someone else, rather than just me, being put on the line is what made me finally go to my parents about it. They (both being teachers themselves) contacted the school to tell them what was going on and to ask that something was done. And this is where my school showed it had either no idea how to deal with this kind of thing – or that it saw the contact from my parents as a nuisance to shut down as quickly as possible.

Our Head of Year was also my classes English teacher, and at the beginning of the next lesson she stood at the front of the class and basically said ‘Ben has said that he’s being bullied, and that the exchange student visiting soon has been threatened – this is unacceptable and must stop’. I kid you not, the head of year, stood in front of the class, told them I’d complained of being bullied and had reported that they’d threatened to do the same to a student due to be visiting. Funnily enough this didn’t help at all – quite the opposite in fact. My next few weeks at school were even worse than they had been – when confronted by the various groups of bullies I did my best to say it wasn’t them I’d meant but one of the other groups, not that any of them really believed me. Net result even more bullying physical, verbal and mental.

So after this I withdrew. I spent every break I could in the library or in my younger brother’s classroom. I wandered the school grounds alone, dodging everyone else. I used to spend ages sat on the grass outside the sixth form common room, it was a safe place, and if someone did start on me there was a fair bet some of the sixth formers would come out and put a stop to it. Yes, I got more protection from older pupils than I ever did from a member of staff at that school.

Now in fairness my whole school life wasn’t hell. As I got older I made friends with people outside of my class group – some of whom remain close friends to this day. I enjoyed most of my time doing A-levels, although I was part of a fringe group of outsiders rather than one of the ‘main crowd’. However due to my experiences above I sort went into exile for a lot of my school life – I certainly won’t describe it as self-imposed exile, I feel quite strongly it was forced upon me by the bullies and the school’s lack of action. I do think though that this furthered my sense of isolation, and the experience of what happened when I spoke out made me less likely to take my problems to other people – and this I think played a great part in my depression, or at least in how long it took me to seek help.

I’m not going to play ‘what if’ about the whole situation. It happened, I guess in some ways it helped make me who I am today – and that’s someone I’m very happy being. I have great friends, a few from my school days, but even more from gaming (I had to get gaming in there somewhere). With the gaming friends I’ve made I do finally feel like I belong, I’ve found my group, my place in the wider world. I also have my home with Helen, that’s the keystone of my current happiness, even without everything else I’m incredibly happy with that part of my life.

Also the above gave rise to a lot of my song writing – below there’s the lyrics of a song of mine that very much comes out of these experiences – the end is more recently written, and captures where I am now.

 Thanks for reading all – stay safe.

 

 ‘Outsider’ by Ben

I don’t seem to fit in here,                                       I’m smaller than you all,                                            I don’t speak up from fear,                                    I’m wishing I was tall.

So I sit away from you,                                          Just reading my next book,                                         I keep my head down,                                     Hoping you won’t look.

I’m an outsider,                                                 Where are my friends.                                           I’m just the quiet one,                                              An image that never ends.                                      I’m an outsider,                                                 Where are my friends,                                            I’m just the quiet one,                                              An image that never ends

I walk these halls alone,                                       They echo to my stride,                                               I go from place to place,                                                  Always ready to hide.

I’m an outsider,                                                 Where are my friends.                                           I’m just the quiet one,                                              An image that never ends.                                     I’m an outsider,                                                    Where are my friends,                                            I’m just the quiet one,                                               An image that never ends

Now it’s all gone and changed,                                   I have found my place,                                     Helped by all the games we’ve played,                 No need to hide my face.                                           

I put myself out there.                                  Running all those games,                               Starting to show some flair,                       Changing my life’s aims

No more an outsider,                                            Here are my friends,                                                No longer the quite one,                                        And I hope it never ends.                                       No more an outsider,                                           Here are my friends,                                                No longer the quite one,                                       And I hope it never ends

(For those interested a very early version of the first part of this song, without the last versus, can be found on our AloneTone page here:  http://alonetone.com/helbenmusic/tracks/outsider-3 ), a newer recording should be bookending the album I’m currently working on.)