Nashville Looks Good On You

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This trip to Nashville wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. I’d had this vision of going out there and writing a load of songs and going to show after show after show and seeing all the friends I’ve made out there. I managed to do some of those things – and I’m really proud of what I achieved – but my mental health really dominated the trip, much more than I’d hoped it would.

We got off to a pretty rocky start when I forgot to take my medication the night before we flew out. We had to leave at two o’clock in the morning so I never really went to bed and therefore my nightly routine was disrupted. Plus I was excited and nervous and just generally all over the place. We got to the airport and I couldn’t even walk the distance to security, I was so completely out of energy. I thought it was the lack of sleep and stress of travelling but I physically couldn’t do it. We ended up asking the airport staff for assistance and they were absolutely amazing, at every airport we travelled through over the trip: they got me a wheelchair and took me wherever I needed to be, getting me early access to the planes, and so on. It was so helpful and honestly made the whole thing possible. I don’t know what I would’ve done without their help. It took a few days to recover and it was only then that we realised what had caused it.

The reason we go at this time of year is because the Nashville Songwriters Association International hold the Tin Pan South songwriters festival, where hundreds of songwriters perform songs that they’ve written. They have a great mix of famous and up and coming so you get a lot of different, beautifully written songs. All of the shows that I went to were good and some of them were fantastic. My favourites include Lori McKenna, Alyssa Micaela, Emily Shackelton, Hannah Ellis, Natalie Hemby, and Travis Meadows. They were truly incredible.

There were a couple of other musical highlights too. By some wonderful coincidence, Kelly Clarkson was playing the Bridgestone Arena while we were in Nashville. I’ve always wanted to see her and I’ve always wanted to go to a show at Bridgestone. And to make it even sweeter, Kelsea Ballerini – who I LOVE – was opening. So it was perfect. The show was amazing and I had a blast. Totally a bucket list moment.

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The other musical highlight was getting to see my friend, Caylan Hays, perform. We’ve written together several times and on my last trip, she came to see me play a gig and by another beautiful coincidence, she was playing on the last night of our stay. She was fantastic. She’s such a talented writer and I love her voice. Throw in some gorgeous electric guitar and I was in love. You can check out her music here.

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And of course, I got to go to two Song Suffragettes rounds. I love this organisation with my whole heart and so it meant so much to me to see both shows while I was there. They – the people who run it and the girls who play – are so inspiring and I hope I can play with them again someday.

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I had several writing sessions while we were there and for the most part, they were a struggle. I love the people I was writing with dearly but my brain still isn’t right: a casualty of my depression and the medications I’m taking. We’re still trying to find the balance where I’m emotionally stable and not creativity stifled. Still, I’m trying and I so appreciate these writers for having patience with me while I work through this. I also got to spend some time with friends, old and new, and they really inspired me in this dark patch of my life.

But throughout the trip, I really, really struggled. My anxiety was so high that I actually had trouble breathing and my depression was so overwhelming that I found myself falling apart (even in public places, which I’m usually able to avoid doing) multiple times. There were lots of tears and lots of Diazepam; it was very hard. I struggled desperately with wanting to go home and I was battling suicidal thoughts (helpfully described by Claudia Boleyn as, “my brain trying to kill me”) for most of the trip. In truth, it was a bit of a nightmare but there were some really great moments that helped me manage it and of course, I had my wonderful people (my Mum and my writing partner, Richard Sanderson) there to support me. The trip wouldn’t have been possible without them.

Also, shout out to Pancake Pantry for teaching me what it’s like to get excited about food.

A Year of Kittens

In the afternoon of the 26th February 2018, my gorgeous cat Lucy had her second litter of kittens. As with her first litter, she made a nest on one of the levels in my wardrobe and that’s where she headed when she went into labour, after checking that I was right behind her. For both labours, she came in search of me and yowled until I followed her up to my room. She was very insistent. So I went and sat with her; every time I tried to leave, she yowled. So I sat there all day and saw far more than I needed to… But it resulted in these two handfuls of fur: we nicknamed the older, grey one ‘Mouse’ and the younger, tabby one ‘Tiger.’

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(Day 1 – 27th February 2018)

They were gorgeous. Utterly gorgeous. They were soft and warm and just so cute. I loved every minute with them and as you can imagine, I spent most of their kittenhood with them in my bedroom. Watching them grow and explore and experience the world around them was enchanting: they are so completely and fully engaged with everything they do, from eating to playing to getting into trouble. Your whole world shrinks down to the room you’re sitting in. It’s very mindful to watch. And I found their innocence very healing. Then (and now) they look at me with such trust that it takes my breath away.

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When they were two months old, we moved house. Of all of us, the cats were the least traumatised: they continued to eat, sleep, and play. They even ventured outside and fell in love with the garden. I don’t think there’s anything as cute as kittens pouncing on long grass.

I was very distressed by the move (and still am to some extent) and it really exacerbated both my depression and my anxiety. So I found it very difficult to know how I felt about anything, let alone something as significant as whether or not we should keep the kittens. I was also repeatedly weaning myself on and off different medications, which did a number on my emotions. It was a mess. I was a mess. A very sad mess.

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Eventually we decided to keep them. I still felt very unsettled but I figured that since there had been so much change, a little more wouldn’t make much difference (in the context of my anxiety). We’d thought about it a lot: before they were born, we’d entertained the idea of keeping one but after getting to know them and watching how bonded they were right from the start, I knew that I couldn’t keep one and give away the other. We couldn’t keep two out of the little family of three.

Not long after we made that decision, Lucy started getting really irritated with them, hissing and swiping at them as they approached and even going out of her way to have a go at them. And when that showed no signs of stopping, I started to get really upset. That coincided with a medication change that made me so anxious all I could do was cry. I was terrified I’d made a huge mistake, that I shouldn’t have kept them but now I loved them too much to let them go, keeping us trapped in this very stressful situation. It was excruciating.

Fortunately, things have been better recently. They’ve all started to bond again and I often find them all snuggled in a bed together, legs and tails everywhere. It’s completely adorable. We even bought them a cat tree that has both a nest and a mouse on an elastic string; they absolutely love it and I get such joy from watching them play.

Now, I’m not just writing this because I love talking about my cats. Today is the kittens’ birthday and that seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on the choices, the anxiety, and all the emotion that has gone into this experience so far. I haven’t got it all figured out yet. I still don’t know if I made the right decision and maybe I never will. Maybe it’s just a case of learning to live this life that I’ve chosen, just as we learn to live with every choice we make, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. But regardless of all of that, I love my animals and I’m grateful to have them in my life. Hopefully that’s enough.

Tips For Talking About Mental Health and Mental Illness

Today is Time To Talk Day 2019, a day dedicated to talking about mental health and breaking down some of the stigma associated with mental illness. It’s always ‘time to talk day’ on this blog so to do something special, I thought a post about talking about mental health might be appropriate. It’s true that the more you talk about this stuff, the easier it gets but starting is hard and we all need help sometimes. So with that in mind, here are some tips for talking about mental health stuff:

You are telling someone about your mental health:

  • Start with writing – Talking is hard. If it’s going to make the process easier, it’s absolutely okay to start with writing, whether that’s writing it all down in a letter or email or simply ask to have a conversation about a particular topic by text. I used a Facebook message to let all of my friends know that I’d been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder; it was the most efficient way of getting all the necessary information to all of my important people.
  • Bring helpful information – You don’t have to remember all of the information and sometimes it can help both of you to have something concrete to refer to.
  • Know that you can stop if you need to – You don’t have to reveal everything. The basic facts can be enough. This is your story and you can share as much or as little as you want. Talking about mental health and sharing your experiences can be helpful but that doesn’t mean you have do it if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.
  • Remember that some people won’t understand – Unfortunately, not everyone will understand or react helpfully. Chances are you’ll come across someone who will say something hurtful and it will be devastating. It will. There’s no way around that. Allow yourself to feel it and then let it go. There are more good people than bad.

Someone is telling you about their mental health:

  • Hear them out – Try not to interrupt, even if it’s to reassure them. It may have taken a lot to get to this point.
  • Appreciate the courage/effort it took – They’ve probably been thinking about this conversation for a long time and worrying about how it will go but they did it because they care about you and want you to know what’s going on with them. They worked through all that anxiety for you and that’s a really big deal.
  • Don’t dismiss or minimise – It’s natural to want to brush off scary things and make them smaller and therefore less scary but that invalidation can be devastating, especially if this is something that they are currently really struggling with. If you’re at a loss of what to say, try “Thank you for telling me all of this” or “That must be really difficult” or “Is there anything I can do to support you?”
  • Let them know that you will be there for them going forward – Make sure they know; don’t let it just be implied. Tell them and then check up with them. It doesn’t all have to be about mental health: it can be staying in semi regular text contact, a silly card because it reminded you of them, or just trying to catch up a bit more often.

I hope this has been helpful or at least not boring. I wishing you all a lovely Time To Talk Day and I’ll see you in the next blog post.

My Personal Warning Signs of Depression

In a recent therapy session, my therapist and I were talking about this latest depressive episode and what I’ve learned from it. Because I’ve learned A LOT. I’m not ‘un-depressed’ yet but coming out of it a bit has given me a new perspective on it, on my depression and how it affects me. Hopefully that perspective will be helpful to me in the future. Because depression can creep in very slowly, you don’t always notice the signs but in hindsight, there are a handful of things that should be red flags in my mind. Maybe being aware of these things can help me prevent the depression getting as bad as it did this time.

  • Unable to write songs – I don’t mean a bit stuck. I mean a continued inability to reach the level of functioning necessary to write songs. Songwriters, do you know what I mean? I know exactly the feeling I mean when I write this and although it does sometimes come out of nowhere, it is the biggest sign that depression is creeping in again. It’s very distressing to be unable to do the thing I love the most.
  • Losing my excitement – This was something I didn’t realise was gone until it returned. I’d get excited about things in theory but I assumed the dampened emotional response was just part of the depression numbness. But since I’ve started to feel better, my excitement has resurfaced about as dramatically as a volcano. It’s fun but a bit disconcerting. So, in future, if my excitement seems to have gone AWOL, I know that it’s a potential sign of depression.
  • Overwhelming anxiety about the future – I am always anxious about the future so this is a tricky one but when it becomes overwhelming and it feels like more than I can cope with, than I could ever cope with, and it goes on for an extended period of time, it’s a symptom of my depression.
  • Feeling hopeless – Similar to the previous one, feeling overwhelmed by hopelessness is a real sign of a depressive episode. It feels like everything inside me has stilled, like there’s a new, sharp clarity to everything. Everything becomes very simple and really pointless. We all feel hopeless now and then but when this feeling doesn’t pass, I know I’m in a depressive episode.
  • Increased suicidal thoughts – This one is the final straw, the most telling sign. I’ve always felt very strongly against suicide so when these thoughts start to filter into my everyday thinking, I know I’m in trouble.

There are symptoms common in everyone – like low mood, fatigue, low self-esteem, and so on – but these are my personal warning signs. Do you know what yours are? Are they similar or different?

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The Next Chapter in the Medication Chronicles

Just over two months ago, I finally stopped taking Amitriptyline and started taking the new medication I’d been prescribed, Clomipramine. I’d had the prescription for over a month but I just hadn’t felt able to start taking it: I felt so drained and so worn down by what felt like an endless train of medications that made me feel worse instead of better. And on the off chance that it worked, I didn’t feel ready to feel ‘better.’ It’s hard to explain but it felt like I’d physically feel better – chemically happier – but still have all these ‘depressed’ thoughts, a juxtaposition that I did not feel strong enough to cope with.

But on this particular night, I felt a little more steady and so I took advantage of that: I stopped taking the Amitriptyline and started the Clomipramine. I felt different almost straight away; it took less than a week. I felt physically lighter, like a fog had lifted, a fog that I hadn’t felt settle. It was disconcerting – I felt a little bit like I might just float away – but it felt good too. It felt cathartic.

Suddenly, I was excited again. I was excited about pretty much everything, from swimming and playing with the cats to bigger things like future writing sessions and far away holidays. I hadn’t realised that that was something that had disappeared. I’d been excited about things in theory, in the way I thought about things – I could recognise that something was exciting. But I wasn’t actually feeling it. So to have it back was exciting in itself. It was amazing and I savour the feeling every single time it appears.

The most exciting thing is that my creative brain woke up and started firing again. It’s like my depression completely suppressed my creative brain and so I was physically unable to write songs, to function at the cognitive level necessary to write songs. I wrote about this in a post a few weeks ago. I’ve got several writing sessions coming up which I’m really, really excited about so I’ll keep you guys updated as to how they go.

I’ve also been taking Pregabalin – for several months now – to manage my anxiety. It has reduced my anxiety to a degree but I’m still dealing with A LOT of anxiety, so I need to talk to my psychiatrist. But it has helped. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been side effect free: I’ve been experiencing muscle twitches, mostly in my legs but sometimes in other parts of my body too. And it’s gotten worse as I’ve increased the dosage. That can feel quite scary, to not be in control of your body… I’m in the process of trying a new anti-anxiety, Flupentixol. It doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect so far but I’m trying not to lose hope.

The excitement and the giddiness have faded a bit since the initial boost. I’ve had a pretty bad week: my depression got overwhelming for a moment there. I’m coming out of it but it was pretty scary and I still feel quite shaken by it.

So that’s an update on the medication front. As per usual, it’s been a bumpy road but things are better than they were and for that, I’m really grateful.

Situation Specific Mutism

I first found myself unable to speak when I went to see the doctor for my anxiety and depression, although I didn’t know that that was what it was at the time. I’d been referred to the ‘Wellbeing Service’ by my GP (who I’d been seeing since childhood). I have always struggled with anxiety and so my Mum – my hero – came with me to provide support and any extra relevant information I might forget in the moment.

But the anxiety built and built. I walked into the room and sat down and in that moment, I stopped being able to function. I felt like I had this massive weight on my shoulders, so heavy that I physically couldn’t lift my head. I stared into my lap, unable to move. I couldn’t even move my eyes. And even if I could have, sustained eye contact felt impossible. That’s something I still struggle with (there’s a blog post about that here). The meeting of eyes feels so incredibly personal, like they’ll see all of me or I’ll see all of them.

And I couldn’t speak. I knew what I wanted to say – I could just about hear my own voice in my head above all the anxiety – but I couldn’t physically say them. My throat felt painfully tight and my tongue refused to cooperate. I was trying to speak, trying to function, but I just couldn’t.

I was told that, if I wouldn’t talk, they couldn’t help me. That still upsets me all these years later because, to me, it seems so obvious that I was struggling with real, difficult anxiety. We walked out and suddenly the words exploded out of me and I was standing in the street outside, screaming and swearing and sobbing. I felt so abandoned.

From there, I went to a series of doctors and therapists but was unable to speak. My Mum spoke for me: we would discuss it all in detail before the appointments so she knew what I would say if I could. It was difficult and traumatic and I felt like I was getting sucked further inside myself with every experience of being unable to talk.

Eventually I ended up seeing an EMDR therapist called Mark. We sat on chairs in the middle of a big empty room that had a glorious view of London at night. Sometimes we sat on the floor and played dominoes. I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t look at him but after a while, we started using a white board and pen. Writing has always come to me more naturally than speaking. So he asked questions and I replied, filling the board with scribbles.

But in the end it wasn’t to be. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing, maybe it wasn’t the right time. We’ll never know. I ended up taking a break from all types of therapy. I just needed some space. And then, in the summer of 2014, I went to see a psychiatrist and I knew things had to be different. I couldn’t do it again. I needed to talk.

I don’t want to give the impression that selective mutism is a choice. It’s not. I didn’t simply decide to start speaking again in these highly stressful situations; it’s so much bigger than that. There was a shift inside me, an unconscious realisation that talking was the only way to create change. One of my parents describes it as “a leap for survival” and she’s not wrong. It was about survival, although I wasn’t conscious of that at the time. At the time, it was just another step in a long line of steps.

What I’ve learned throughout all of this is that everything changes. It’s like shaking a box full of puzzle pieces, trying to get all the pieces to land in their respective places. With every shake, it lands in a different arrangement and life looks different. Different things are possible. Sometimes it’s even enough to see what the picture is.

Somehow I was able to talk. I couldn’t tell you how. My psychiatrist has told me since that he didn’t initially believe that I struggled with social anxiety, and anxiety in general, because that first impression of me was so confident and articulate. He understands now that it was a matter of survival, desperation making once impossible things possible.

It’s been several years since I found myself unable to speak. Even though I continue to struggle with anxiety, it’s never again manifested in that form. But even now, I hate the phrase ‘selective mutism.’ It implies that there’s some element of choice, like I was (and others still are) choosing not to speak. If I could rename it, I would call it Situation Specific Mutism. I think that fits better.

I wish I could offer some wise words or some quietly brilliant advice to those still unable to speak. But I think the most important thing is finding someone who gets it and not giving up until you find that person. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. The right person – the person that will get you and make it work for you – is out there.

Somebody once told me the story of a boy who was only able to participate in therapy when the lights were off but up until that point, all the medical professionals in his life had refused to do that because it wasn’t how things were done. Sometimes it’s ridiculously simple but for whatever reason, people don’t want to make those adjustments. But there are people out there who will, whether that’s having someone with you, whether you need to write rather than speak, or use another medium to communicate. In my experience at least, sometimes you have to treat the anxiety in order to make communicating easier.

The last thing I want to leave you with is an app that might be useful. It’s called Emergency Chat and it’s designed for communication when speaking is difficult. You hand it over to someone and it shows a message that you can personalise to what you’re going through so that the other person can understand it better and then you can type back and forth, or not. The message itself may be enough.

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I hope this has been helpful. And if you’re going through something similar, know that I’m thinking of you and sending good thoughts.

The Old New Year’s Resolutions

HAPPY NEW YEAR!! I hope you have all had a lovely, relaxing holiday period and that you feel hopeful about the year ahead. I’m feeling lighter than I have in a long time and for the first time in months, I’m actually excited about what’s coming next.

But, before we move on to the new year and all the new plans, I want to pause for a moment. This time last year, I set several resolutions – more like goals – for 2018. Now, 365 days later, I want to look back at them and look at how I did, whether I achieved them or not…

WRITE MORE SONGS – Technically, yes. I did write more songs. Not as many as I would’ve liked but more songs nonetheless. As I mentioned in my review of 2018, my depression seemed to completely suppress my creative brain so writing anything was a really struggle. But I’m cautiously optimistic about my songwriting in the near future.

RELEASE MUSIC – Yes, as I said in my halfway-through-the-year post, I have music out in the world (you can listen to my first single, ‘Invisible,’ here). It was a long, hard journey to that first milestone but we made it and I’m excited about what’s coming next.

FIND THE RIGHT MEDICATION – I found many wrong ones but, fingers crossed, I’m onto a good one. Right now, we just have to wait and see (my least favourite sentence in the world).

WORK ON BEING HEALTHIER – I feel really good about this one. Since August, I’ve been going to the gym and swimming for at least half an hour most days of the week and I’ve kept it up for six months. I’m so proud of myself and I love it so much. It helps me make sense of the world and it makes me feel really good. Food is still a daily struggle but I’m not restricting and I’m also not eating everything in sight. So that’s something.

BECOME MORE INDEPENDENT – I feel like I’m going backwards with this one. My depression has been all consuming and just as it started to let up, anxiety rushed in to fill the void. So I’m struggling here. I don’t know what else to say about this one.

READ MORE BOOKS – Yes! I definitely did that! My small, achievable goal was five books and I managed to read ten! So I’m very proud of my efforts in this department. Hopefully I can keep this up going forward.

IMPROVE MY MUSICAL SKILLS – This is another casualty of my depression. My lack of concentration and motivation has just made it impossible to do any consistent practice. Even when I tried my hardest, I couldn’t do it and then I’m really good at beating myself up over it. That’s another thing I need to work on. But as I’ve already said, I’m cautiously optimistic about things moving forward.

GO THROUGH MY POSSESSIONS – Well, I did that. We moved house and so I went through everything as I packed it. That was very overwhelming so I’m sure I missed stuff. I’m still creating a new order and finding things that I can throw out or give away but I made a huge dent in this resolution and I’m pleased with my effort.

So I guess it is now time to make some new resolutions. Watch this space…

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