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An Emotional Day

Today will be an emotional one for us folks involved with PSS, whether they are service users, peer support volunteers or staff.

Nikki Greig was the second person I met at PSS. She and Paddy, the first person I met, ran the course on Depression and Anxiety that was so pivotal in my learning to cope with the rollercoaster of life with depression and anxiety.

She has also been a great asset for the creative folks that make up the rich tapestry of service users at PSS. She was responsible for organizing the fabulous evening at Siren last month, as well as many more events before. It was hard not to be inspired by the energy, good humour and enthusiasm with which she did things.

Soon after the Sticks ‘n’ Stones (Siren) event, she announced to us service users that she would be leaving this month. She is off travelling – starting in Australia and going where her heart takes her.

I know that all of us, service users and staff alike, will miss her. But on the other hand we have to say good on ya, Nikki. Life should be a series of big adventures, and I for one hope that this one will furnish you with some fantastic experiences and memories, with many more adventures to follow.

Bon voyage! We’ll miss you!

I would like to start a club called ‘Children of Lost Irony’. Nobody applies for membership, but is endowed honorary membership by missing blatantly obvious irony – usually carried in what they say.

It would be nice to always write about positive things and to maintain continuous optimism here – after all, this blog has evolved into a history of my personal recovery and re-balancing from depression. However, we do not live in a fairy tale world – no land of milk and honey, and sometimes things happen that should not be ignored or accepted.

As much as the stigma attached to mental illness is dissolving, it still has not gone completely – I’ve said this before on here, and campaigns like the recent Time to Talk day highlight that a certain stigma is still there within our society.

I think much of the background for stigma comes from within ourselves and the symptomatically negative view we depressives have on things. However, it is by no means the only background factor. One of the major external factors is discrimination – that’s probably blatantly obvious. (For saying that which probably doesn’t need to be said, I nominate myself as the second member of the ‘Children of Lost Irony’ – not the first, though. More on that in a second). While discrimination exists, and while government continues to propagandize that it is okay to criminalize the poor, the disabled, those with mental illnesses, etc. – to regard those groups as an underclass, a subculture as has happened throughout history with too many other groups (e.g. Blacks, Jews, Atheists, etc.), discrimination can claim justification in its actions.

So to our second member of ‘Children of Lost Irony’ – Weatherspoons.

I was intending to meet some friends at ‘The Lime Kiln’ – a pub in the J D Weatherspoon’s chain – here in Liverpool today, until I read this article on the Liverpool Echo web site last night (click the image to view the full article):

http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/jd-wetherspoon-stands-decision-stop-8711424

I have been there before and fail to see how they can justify the claim that there isn’t the space for the event, which has been held there for nine years. In the half dozen times I’ve been there, I have never seen the place actually anywhere near full.

“In recent months, we have had to turn customers away on a Tuesday, as there has not been enough room to accommodate them, due in part to a section of the pub being used for the disco.”

Of course, it is possible that Tuesday lunch time is an exception, but on the examples of other days (lunch times and evenings) that I’ve seen, it is a ludicrous claim. I have to say, too, that as a drinker for some 40 years and someone with experience in bar work, I have never once in my entire life seen anyone turned away from a pub, no matter how crowded – not once. So I’m sorry, Weatherspoon’s, but I simply don’t believe you.

And the statement that supports their membership to the ‘Children of Lost Irony’ club?

“As a result, we feel that we are no longer able to accommodate the group, in our aim to cater for all of our customers.”

“ALL of our customers”???

However they try to dress it up, this is pure discrimination against people with disabilities.

Thankfully, Liverpool councillors have written to Weatherspoons about this, voicing their protest (article on the ‘Liverpool Express’ web site – again click the image to read the article):

http://www.liverpoolexpress.co.uk/protest-disco-cancellation/

I will be boycotting Weatherspoons (their record on treatment of staff is pretty poor too – taking full advantage of the zero-hour contract system). Of course, they are a massive chain and I am one person – but there are other calls to boycott them going around the Net. Maybe, just maybe, if enough people do the same, they will be forced to rethink.

With so much bad press about Twitter and Facebook, trolls and abusers, it is nice to realize once in a while that it is not all bad.

I have a few main areas of interest on the social networks (mostly Facebook) – these include humour, photography, injustice (and lately politics), music and mental health, care and disability issues. Yesterday I posted something on Facebook about how things have been for me recently – mentally and emotionally. The response to it was quite amazing to me: very moving and humbling. I am lucky to have such good friends on and off there. It is worth copying the post here as well as one comment that summed up the general feeling I got from the responses and my reply to it.

I’ve been going through a ‘volatile’ patch lately in terms of mental health. Thankfully some of the time I have had things to do and to distract. Today was particularly low when I woke from what was without doubt the most horrific, cruel and sadistic dream I ever had.

I haven’t been able to understand WHY I’ve been going through it, and sometimes it takes someone else who knows you (sometimes better than you know yourself), and knows your ‘history’ to figure it out.

Today I was reminded that this was the time of year that, after everything else had been tried, and after becoming as resigned as anyone ever can be to the last stages of a terminal illness, Helen came home from the Marie Curie Hospice. I never forget that time, but sometimes I forget the timing. Does it help to know what is behind this miserable feeling? Absolutely it does! It helps to allow myself to grieve, to remember the wonderful times with a wonderful person; it helps to move on in the small way we all have to at every key point in the years that follow loss.

So wholeheartedly I can say Thank You to Frankie [my girlfriend] for reminding me and helping me through.

I often worry when I post items like this that it may be seen as self-indulgent, or self-pitying and sympathy seeking. I never see it that way myself, and it only comes into question when I read it afterwards as objectively as possible (which is admittedly not all that). By the time I post things like this, I have usually worked through the issues that are mentioned in it (although the horrific nightmare that woke me is still haunting me now!).

My view is that by sharing such stuff, such experiences and the coping and support strategies that come into play in these situations, it helps in the gentler side of campaigning to de-stigmatize mental health issues. The stigma around them has decreased significantly in the time that my life has been blighted by depression, but of course, it still has a way to go. Especially under a political regime that is working hard to ‘re-‘stigmatize mental illness, disability, poverty etc.

Thankfully, I think most of my friends on FB don’t see it as self-pitying – I get encouraging comments about my honesty and openness. I also get a lot of supportive comments too. To me it shows the better side of Facebook.

The selection of friends that commented is notably diverse too. There are friends from college, 35 years ago, that I haven’t seen in all that time. Until we were back in touch on FB, they had no idea of the loss of two of my partners in succession, or the depression that resulted (although I suspect those that knew me well could discern the potential for depressive issues even back then). There are people that I have met in and around Liverpool in the years since Helen (my second partner’s) death, then there are those around this country and abroad – many of which I’ve never met in person.

Of course, no post about social networking should go without some warning about self-disclosure. As vulnerable people, it is far too easy to give too much information away. We should always be careful not to give addresses, phone numbers and other personal information out publicly online. Sometimes we can do this almost unknowingly. It is always worth checking privacy settings frequently and for each post you add. The trolls, abusers and other undesirable elements are out there and they do watch. So we need to be cautious.

To end back on a positive note, here is the comment I mentioned just now. It is from one of the people I knew at college:

Catherine Francoise: I have only recently been back in touch with you through the wonders of Facebook Marc but I absolutely love your honesty and your ‘realness’ in being brave enough to say how you really feel. I am also struck by the absolutely awesome friends you have in your immediate circle! We forget how much past experience will still affect us now so no wonder you are in a more difficult place right now ~ but holding on to the wonderful things your life with Helen brought you both will eventually pull you through this ‘throwback’ time. You have such a great heart Marc ~ keeping you in my thoughts and payers right now xxxx

Facebook really doesn’t get much better than that for me, and the rest of the thread is equally supportive. Here is my reply:

Marc Fraser: Catherine – thanks for all that. Sometimes I worry that my honesty and realness border on self-indulgence. I don’t post stuff out of self-pity: usually by the time I post about things related to depression, I’m over the issue. Depression and related conditions really have overshadowed a lot of my adult life and it’s only in the last few years that I have started to turn it around and put the experience to some – hopefully – good use. When I was first diagnosed (which in all honesty was probably long after I had the condition), nobody talked about it. It was a thing people were ashamed of. Even my psychiatrist – my PSYCHIATRIST! – told me to pull myself together. Over the following years, that stigma has been reduced greatly, and the support network, certainly here in Liverpool, has developed into something amazing. However there still IS stigma attached to it, and my posts about it here and on my blog are an attempt to help in de-stigmatizing it. If it really does help other people that have been through similar issues to read about it, then none of the experience has been wasted.

Another event coming up in Manchester, which should be very interesting. As the flyer says: come and have you say, if you are able to.

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Craft and Vintage Fair

Another fab event coming up in Liverpool on Saturday, 21 February 2015.

Tinderbox Fairs are putting on this ‘Craft and Vintage Fair’ at Nook & Cranny, Bold Street, Liverpool. Take a look on the Facebook page to check out some of the things that will be showcased.

Tinderbox Fair Flyer

There are also two spots available at the fair for vintage traders.

If you are a vintage trader, and are available and interested, please email Jenny McCarthy at:

tinderboxuk@gmail.com.

“Illusions Parade”

This is just a quick post to mention an upcoming event, which a friend drew my attention to. The event itself is in August, but in case any people reading this (or any of their friends, colleagues, etc.) want to submit some work, it is worth mentioning, as the final date for submission is 1st April 2015.

“Illusions Parade”

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The web page is pretty self-explanatory and worth a look for anyone interested in visual and or experimental arts.

There was a fantastic turn-out at PSS’s “Sticks ‘n’ Stones” show at Siren Liverpool on Thursday evening. As promised, there was a nice selection of drama, poetry and music, as well as opportunities to engage in conversation about mental health.

Yesterday – Friday – I felt a great feeling of anti-climax, which brought back memories of a past that barely feels like my own. I remember working for shows – whether they were plays, dance, installations or concerts. The show takes over your life from the moment of conception to the end of the final rehearsal; then it is shared – and then it is done. I am pretty sure that I am not the only person involved in the PSS evening that felt the same anti-climax the day after. All I can say is “Well done to all of you! You did good!”

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My prepared part for the show is now available and public on YouTube under: PSS Sticks and Stones: A Trick of the Eye – A Trick of the Mind. There is also a small selection of photos on my ‘Beyond the lens’ page at Tumblr. There is a bigger selection of photos from the evening in a (public) Facebook Photo Album under ‘PSS – ‘Sticks ‘n’ Stones’. (Most of my photo albums are publicly accessible if you would like to browse further).

During the course of the evening, during which various ‘games’ and ‘teasers’ were given out, I was given a card that read ‘Have you ever laughed or joked about a mental illness’. The other people at the table I was sitting at seemed somewhat shocked when I said “Yes I have – my own!”

I have never lost my sense of humour during the years of struggle. Sure, it changed – it became rather more cynical and biting when I was at my worst, although my sense of humour has always been somewhat dry and cynical, I think. The ability to find something to laugh at even in my most dismal times has carried me through. I realize of course that not everyone has the same strategies, but to me laughter – and the digs at myself, as well as the distortion of my photos during the darkest times have been therapeutic. And without them I would have probably been self-destructive in a much more literal way.

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So what’s next?

I am at early stage discussions about a couple more project ideas that may hopefully come to fruition within the next few months. Nothing is fixed yet, so I don’t want to tempt fate by talking too much about them, but hopefully I will have something to report very soon.

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We have come a long way in reducing the stigma attached to mental illness, but as yet it is still just a reduction – not a removal.

Tomorrow, ‘Time to Talk Day’, is all about working to further reduce that stigma and the discrimination that goes with it. Don’t be surprised if someone comes up to you tomorrow and asks your consent to take your photo and for you to make a comment about your feelings about mental health issues. The statistics about mental illness speak volumes. According to those statistics, one in four people will experience some mental health issue in their life – it is slightly higher in Liverpool. Yet the statistics don’t take into account the number of people that are in denial.

Many people say “I’ve never had, nor will I ever have, a mental health issue.” Yet if you were to go through life without ever being stressed because of bereavement, divorce, job loss, threat of job loss, abuse (mental or physical), you would either be very blessed, or – more likely – so emotionally repressed that you could expect at some time to suffer a breakdown of some kind.

From personal experience I can say that there is a great deal of relief in not only admitting and facing up to the fact that you have a mental health issue, but in being among people who do the same. Having a condition like depression or anxiety is isolating enough to start with. When someone is denying that they have that condition, it becomes even more isolating. Being with people who can say “Well actually, you’re not alone in this – I have had the same issue.” is one of the greatest steps towards re-balancing that I took in my battle with depression.

Denial and the need to talk is a key factor in the performance organized by PSS at the Siren Café in St Jame’s Street, Liverpool tomorrow. 

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My part in the event is a slideshow representing how our self-image can be distorted by mental illness:

Blurb

Lost and Found

Yesterday I took part in the ‘Upbeat 2’ event organized by the Richmond Fellowship, Liverpool and Imagine and held at the Zanzibar Club in Liverpool. I found it very beneficial in a lot more ways than I expected.

I bumped into a couple of people I had known when I first came to Liverpool back in 2000, I also met friends of friends, and made a couple of new ones. It was another opportunity to force myself out of the house too: it is so easy to fall into the mire of reclusiveness in the Winter months with residual depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). To get there and take part was, in itself, quite an achievement for me.

Then there was the playing in front of people. I haven’t played the keyboard in front of anyone since the early 90s. More recently, I have ‘lapsed’ away from keyboard practice for about a year now. So to have the confidence to actually play, knowing that my performance would be far less than I could be capable of was another big achievement. I even borrowed a violin for a few seconds and scratched out an Irish Jig – I haven’t touched a violin for over 10 years.

Oh, my performance on both instruments was far from great. I know how much better I’ve been on them, but it didn’t matter as much as having the bottle to ‘have a go’.

I met a very nice lady called Jen McCarthy, who had written some lyrics and had a rough idea for a song from them. I bumped into Alex – a guitarist I knew when I first moved to Liverpool: he played lead in the band that Chris, my late partner Helen’s son was drummer in. Then a fantastic and experienced guitarist called Simon joined us and we put the song together. It was great fun, and I think we came up with a song that did justice to Jen’s lyrics.

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On stage

Finally, at the end of the evening I volunteered to play ‘live’ and in one ‘part’ an instrumental that I’d recorded on a multi-track recorder  over 20 years ago (probably the last time I seriously played the keyboards until I got my current instrument in 2013). The recorded track had drum machines, sequencing and overlayed ‘orchestrations’. Yet here I was attempting it with no sequencing or programming whatsoever. I was either very brave or very foolish.

AshSnap_2015.01.27_12h54m24s_001

And it is this that provided the most illuminating aspect of the day. It gave me time to ponder the effects of years of depression on my confidence, or maybe it’s a chicken and egg thing, and the gradual erosion of confidence contributed to the depression? who knows… I was also able to observe progress made in its slow and partial return.

The fact is that I had not been a confident performer since I went to college (ironically). I had four years of prominent members of staff saying that when I was playing in an orchestra or as a soloist, I stuck out like a sore thumb because I looked like I wasn’t enjoying it, like I didn’t want to be there. As much as I tried to ignore it and ride above it, it eroded away at confidence until I ended up a jibbering, shaking wreck whenever I was on stage. It was extremely frustrating and annoying: even now, after years out of violin performance, after years of not playing the violin, I still listen to orchestral music, and if I’ve played it I relive it. If I haven’t played it, I think myself into the orchestra – I listen as someone thinking about how it would feel to be taking part in the performance.

I found confidence as a carer when my wife became very ill, but when she died, that confidence was eroded by self-blame and self-doubt. Then I started to find confidence as a person in a loving relationship with Helen – in spite of the relationship being fraught with difficulties related to first my mental health and then her cancer. Losing her also knocked my confidence. Even now, the residue of that knock is that I still have a slight feeling that I am like ‘the kiss of death’ and that getting close to others is harmful to them. I know – it doesn’t make any sense. The logical part of my brain tells me I’m being stupid thinking like that, and maybe crediting myself with way too much self-importance. Yet the emotional, sentimental – and depressable – part of my heart still harbours those feelings.

So the return of confidence has been so gradual I have barely noticed – as gradual as its initial onset. I am thankful to my friends and my new girlfriend – even though ours is currently a long-distance relationship (she lives in Philadelphia, PA) for helping me to find it again. What has taken me completely by surprise is the outlet for it – a return to creative projects: music and photography/photo-art. Last night was a milestone in taking back my life and regaining some of that confidence.

Planning in the cold

All in all, the day was a great way for people who have been touched by mental health issues to get together, work to get creative together and raise our feelings of wellbeing through creativity. I’m looking forward with hope for another similar event next year.

Just a quick mention of an upcoming event on January 26. As the poster says, the workshop is for Imagine and Richmond Fellowship members, but the evening gig is open to all and with free admission. I’m hoping to take part.

UpBeat 2 poster