Mental Health Awareness Week

Above any other form of health issue, mental wellbeing is an issue that is largely misunderstood. It carries a stigma, one that perhaps we are all guilty of perpetuating knowingly or unknowingly – “don’t tell her/him, she’ll go MENTAL!” – we’ve all heard it, most of us have said it. What it implies is a lack of control, perhaps even a negative response to a situation. I do believe that a huge number of people perceive mental illness as a weakness on the sufferer’s part – almost a condition that is brought on through one’s own fault or even fabricated for attention. The difficulty is, I believe, that mental illness and (genetic) personality disorders are confused as one and the same thing. I don’t think they are – experts I apologise in advance!

Mental ILLNESS implies a condition that can be improved, hopefully cured. That’s the good news. Personality disorders are, in my humble/ignorant(?) opinion, something that is written into a person’s DNA. I’m sure someone may put me straight on this and again, I apologise for my ignorance…….

However, it is apparent that some of us are more prone to mental health issues – be it through nature, nurture, trauma etc. and the key is to recognise and try to understand why people suffer with depression, anxiety and a whole range of complex, life-limiting problems that cripple self-esteem, confidence and the hope of leading a full life. If you find it hard to understand, that is infinitely more acceptable than allowing your ignorance to scoff, ridicule or refuse any sympathy for these conditions.

Fear is fear – whether it is fear of real danger or any situation where you find yourself in a blind panic; the symptoms are all the same. Fight or Flight – heart racing, nausea rising in the throat like an erupting volcano, limbs turning to jelly rendering you immobile and frozen to the spot. It could be facing a particularly hostile interview panel, diving off a rock into the sea, facing surgery………………or sitting at home watching TV. That’s the erratic, irrational nature of fear. Some situations warrant it in order for us to release the adrenalin needed to help us through a tricky situation, whilst for those who suffer with panic attacks, sometimes there are no triggers.

My first panic attack occurred whilst sitting on a bus on my way to school when I was in Fifth Form. A lovely sunny day – I was grateful for two free periods in the morning and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and a pleasant stroll to the bus stop in the early summer sunshine. One stop away from school and suddenly my heart began to race ferociously. My vision blurred as I tried to distract myself by looking out of the window, confused and scared at what was happening to me.

Once you experience that kind of fear, you don’t forget it. Your mind is very clever, and associates that terrible moment of impending doom with where you were and what you were doing. Hence, getting the bus to school the next day was filled with blind fear and gut-wrenching trepidation.

I think fortunately we have come a long way since my mental health issues began. I didn’t know what was happening to me or why; just that my everyday, carefree life was over and suddenly I was afraid of everything; this resulted in severe black moods that jeopardised my faith in life itself. I now believe it was a mixture of emotional stress, hormonal imbalances and shyness. Had I sought the help I needed maybe it would have enabled me to rid myself of chronic anxiety for good but I chose to get myself through it, rightly or wrongly. Now, rather than resent what happened to me I am grateful for what it taught me. I do hope it has made me a more understanding person – and the thread of anxiety problems that have woven their way through my life have given me a ‘think outside the box’ philosophy that has held me in good stead.  We are a product of our thoughts and our interpretations of those thoughts; the first step though, is a clearer understanding of mental health issues, an acceptance that we are all susceptible to them at any time and that seeking help as soon as possible is the key. Too many people suffer in silence, too many sensitive souls have passed before their time after struggling through life became a burden too heavy to bear. Mental Health is not possible for all, just like any illness that is prevalent in the world, but changing our attitudes towards those who suffer will enlighten and educate everyone so that we can all learn to recognise problems and get medical advice sooner rather than later.

“No matter where you go or what you do, you live your entire life within the confines of your own head” (Terry Josephson).

Posted in Mental Health Awareness, War veterans/Remembrance | 4 Comments

The disease of our time

Dementia does what is says on the tin; this cruel, unrelenting disease dements the sufferer and concerned relatives alike. From the initial stage of mild depression, possibly introvert behaviour and an absent mindedness that we all (without exception) display throughout our lives to full blown mental torment that indiscriminately robs the sufferer of  happiness, independence and eventually, their sanity.

My first experience with dementia was when my paternal grandmother, no longer able to care for herself in her flat that was yards from our family home, came to sleep on our sofa while my Mother frantically sought the help that was needed. I can remember her waking up one morning, accusing my brother and I of keeping her awake all night with our noisy friends. We were barely in our teens at the time and we stifled giggles at the thought of our parents allowing us a riotous party, on a school night too! My Mother quietly hushed our mocking tones and explained we had to ignore her ludicrous accusations and incoherent ramblings as she really ‘wasn’t well at all’. My Nan was soon placed in a local nursing home, where we visited her until she died.

My maternal grandmother also became a victim to dementia. An immaculately groomed, proud woman evolving into a wild-haired runaway, fleeing in the early hours dressed only in her nightdress – desperately searching for some long dead relative, no doubt. She too was admitted to a nursing home and eventually lost her battle with the disease that took her mind and ultimately, her life.

Neither experience could have prepared me for watching the mental decline of my intelligent, funny father – his acerbic wit fought valiantly until the end as dementia and subsequently lung cancer, took him from us. Noticing how he arranged his pens, daily medication and glasses case each morning with military precision on the table beside his chair, it became increasingly obvious something was troubling him; on occasion you could see him staring at the items, frowning and then whistling nervously as he fought to remember if something was missing from the line-up. Then he would have an ‘Aha!’ moment and look in the drawer for his betting slips. Studying ‘the form’ on the racing pages of The Daily Mirror was an essential start to his day. His love of the Sport of Kings had spanned decades, not bringing any huge financial rewards but his modest flutters resulting in the occasional success that he felt warranted further investment! This daily task began to frustrate him and the hobby he once enjoyed only served to cause him distress, alerting him possibly to the fact that his concentration, dexterity and analytical skills were failing fast. Increasing confusion, verbal aggression and withdrawing from conversation followed. Yet somewhere locked inside the mental turmoil he was going through, my Dad would emerge with some witty remark and we would fall about laughing, welcoming the return of the man who we had all fussed over so much since losing our Mother.  It is a complete irony that he succumbed to cancer so quickly; was it better that, than fading slowly away, becoming a shadow of his former self? The guilt at believing this to be so never goes away, yet I am resigned to the fact that it is true.

I’m now witnessing dementia with my feisty, strong and independent mother-in-law. The head of her family since the untimely death of her husband at 57, she adopted the role with fortitude and a no-nonsense attitude that stood her in good stead whilst setting her family the perfect example of how to overcome the hurdles that we all face in life – be it loss, ill health, emotional upset or just plain old misfortune. She had her own mother come live with her and looked after her until she died just a few months short of her 100th birthday. A mother of six, grandmother of eleven, great grandmother of twelve and great GREAT grandmother of two (nearly three), hard work never daunted her, she did it all without the necessity for praise and recognition. As I looked through the glass panelled doors of the hospital she was recently admitted to, waiting for visiting time to begin, it was difficult to see how the easy-going, strong woman I knew had become the frail, bewildered old lady shuffling along the corridor. A heart-wrenching moment for me, doubly so for her loyal family who are struggling to find the way forward to alleviate her mental suffering.

How are we meant to deal with this complex condition? This disease that doesn’t always present itself honestly, but rather creeps up on the sufferer with a cunning, merciless greed that eradicates all sense of self. Dementia stealthily shuts down brain cells with no sense of remorse until we are left with the shell of our loved ones. All we can do is watch, as they search aimlessly for whatever is troubling them at any particular moment. It could be a book, purse, coat – even a relative long dead and the home where they lived many years ago. We lie to them, we placate them with promises of returning to an address which possibly no longer exists. It feels as if we are patronizing them and we vaguely remember the brusque response and incredulous reaction we would have got before the disease enveloped their rational mind. Our soothing, lullaby-like reassurances may calm them initially – only for yet another problem to rear it’s head a day or, if we are unlucky, an hour or so later as they become anxious and fearful we aren’t listening to their plight. Paranoia prevails, we are all their enemy.

Not enough is being done. Not enough help is out there in the initial stages of this disease. Media campaigns are not enough. As more and more people are diagnosed (not just the elderly, either) we are going to have to invest in research and make sure we wipe out the scourge of Dementia once and for all.

Posted in War veterans/Remembrance | 1 Comment

Living in the future

As the expertly crafted pumpkins are discarded and Dads finish off the last of the Trick or Treat sweets their beloved little Draculas/witches/dead cheerleaders/axe murders (really?) collected on Halloween, waiting in the wings is Bonfire Night……….or maybe not. Guy Fawkes maybe one of the first would-be terrorists we know of and his foiled plot was pretty impressive (CIA, I’m kidding) – but our fascination with fireworks seems to be diminishing, especially when you hear them going off all year round – New Year’s Eve celebrations are nothing to many of us without those anticipated ear-busting bangs at midnight, dogs everywhere scurrying off to a safe corner to tremble into January 1st once again.

Christmas is the ‘main event’ after Halloween; we have scarcely sighed with relief as the endless parade of ghouls, ghosts and serial killer outfits are removed from shop windows, than the yuletide consumer-fest is, it seems, unveiled overnight. We are currently enjoying unseasonably warm weather (climate change is real, I assure you….but that’s a whole other story/blog) so to be met in a store by festively decorated pine trees and Bing Crosby crooning about his hopes for an Arctic deluge is nothing short of bizarre when I’m still wearing t-shirts. Has it always been like this? I think maybe it has, for a long time anyway; I distinctly remember gasping in disbelief at some very beautiful (and expensive) Christmas decorations sitting alongside garden chairs and parasols in an upmarket department store…….in August. That was more than thirty years ago, those halcyon days of the 80’s when hairspray and shoulder pads were more important than life itself (and not just for the men).

I think it’s important to live ‘in the moment’ even for just a few minutes every day. Mindfulness (a mental state achieved by concentrating on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings) is becoming more popular with classes running nationwide and a recognition of the exercise and it’s health benefits being proven. Sounds good to me, but for the cynical perhaps it’s a bit too ‘New Age’. If that is you, please bear with me………

Whatever your views on mindfulness, living in the moment makes perfect sense. Of course, we have to plan for the future and organize our lives in order to obtain some sort of structure but it is also important not to allow our lives to forge ahead at breakneck speed as we hurtle from one ‘festival’ to another. This isn’t the easiest thing to do considering the constant bombardment of our senses imploring us to buy ‘stuff’. Any ‘stuff’, just as long as we buy it; from Easter eggs on New Year’s Day to Christmas cards on balmy September Saturdays. The advertisers cleverly have us thinking about the next big event far too prematurely, so mindfulness in my opinion is becoming more and more a necessary part of our lives.  It works for me anyway!

Posted in The world in general | Leave a comment

We Will Remember Them

The most significant event for me this week wasn’t the Scottish referendum, or the unusually balmy(and barmy!) September weather or even J Lo’s new music video (please don’t watch it if you already haven’t – especially if you’re a woman and already despair at the constant, demeaning portrayals we are bombarded with; actually, don’t watch it if you’re a man either. Your eyes will fall out. At least, they nearly will and you will hate your mysogynistic self for at least an hour).

What really moved me this week was a short visit by an old gentleman to the Jospice charity shop where I work. He entered the shop quite unobtrusively and handed over a pair of freshly laundered trousers he had placed neatly in a carrier bag. He explained that he had lost a lot of weight recently and would like to donate them, which we gratefully received. He has come to the shop several times with donations; the clothes are always freshly laundered and carefully folded in their bag. This day, he had another bag with him.

“Can I just show you something?” he asked quietly. Of course, my co-worker and I agreed. He removed a small, gilt-edged photo frame from the bag. It was a photograph of him receiving a generous handshake from Prince Charles, both resplendent in their military uniform. Genuinely impressed and touched by his willingness to share with us his obviously special moment, we both congratulated him and thanked him for bringing the photograph in to show us. He had attended the World War commemorations in Normandy a couple of months previously and lamented over the dwindling numbers of veterans and how he had left military life prematurely as his wife had requested. We thanked him again for bringing the photograph in to show us; he carefully placed the photo frame back in the bag and left the shop. I watched as he walked away, noticing the clothes that hung desperately to his obviously diminishing frame and felt so sad at his growing frailty and thought about the gradual demise of his generation.

Although I have no tolerance of war (especially today’s ‘campaigns’ that appear to be more propaganda-based and fuelled by greed and the acquisition of oil supplies) I am nevertheless in awe of the First and Second World War veterans, civilians and soldiers alike. They endured sacrifice, hardship, loss and devastation on a scale we can only try to imagine. They did all this and yet without any professional counselling and very little or no significant financial help or support.  Whilst I would never advocate mine or future generations experience such similar horrors, it does lead me to believe that deprivation is good for the soul, however cruel. They ARE a dying breed, the war generation. That makes me so sad. For I don’t think we ever really let them know how wonderful they truly are; their strength coupled with their humility is endearing and inspiring at the same time. If only Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong was compulsory reading in all comprehensive schools – there can’t be a much better insight into the hell that was the trenches in the First World War. We need to remember them, always.

That brings to mind the contrast with our world today; the victory that was ours in 1945 prevented a whole new, Ayran landscape forming. Our world, our country, is racially diverse and all the better for it. The blending of cultures, creeds and customs is the only recipe for our beautiful planet. We have to embrace progress – which means welcoming change. This may not be what a lot of people want to hear but those wonderful men and women, who are no longer with us, sacrificed their own prosperity and all too often their lives to create the world we have now. We in the West are very often cosseted and spared the suffering some nations endure on a constant basis – that old man reminded me how lucky we are and how much we owe him. Lest We Forget.

Posted in War veterans/Remembrance | 2 Comments

Morecambe’s Vintage By The Sea and the re-invention of the British seaside.

I was fortunate enough to hear about The Vintage By The Sea event through my daughter who has recently graduated from Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Her good friend and fellow student Lauren Zawadzki (aka Pip’s Unimum….which is a whole other story!) was contracted to organize the vintage festival with her friend Elena Kate Gifford. The concept of Vintage Festival is the brainchild of Wayne Hemingway, fashion designer, who heralds from Morecambe. It is a testament to their dedication, organizational flair and determination that this event was a complete, resounding success.

It was held in Wayne Hemingway’s home town. I’ve never had a desperate desire to visit what is undoubtedly a geographical delight; a beautiful, sweeping bay nestling on the shore of north Lancashire with fabulous views of the Cumbrian mountains across the water. My only curiosity about the area was the refurbishment of The Midland Hotel – an art deco hotel standing proudly at the south of this coastal resort, which was allowed to fall into disrepair but given a new lease of life and lovingly restored to it’s former glory. The perfect backdrop to anything vintage, it embraced the crowds visiting the event as they wallowed unashamedly in nostalgia. Retro Heaven!

I’m not going to romanticise – Morecambe is a town in need of investment, imagination and not a little renovation. I do know there are a lot of bright, artistic and ambitious people living there who are staunchly proud of where they live and want nothing more than to see it’s resurgence. Vintage By The Sea has most certainly set the wheels of progress in motion.The council need to build on this; to utilize the talent and creativity waiting to fan the flames of this recent success and put Morecambe on the ‘place to go’ map.

The weather was glorious. Okay, it rained a little on Saturday morning but the clouds soon blew away and we were left with azure blue skies right through the weekend and provided with stunning sunsets too………..Morecambe’s sunsets rival anything you can witness on the Med, trust me! I was fortunate enough to attend both Saturday and Sunday. My original plan was to enjoy afternoon tea at The Midland Hotel on Saturday afternoon and venture further afield Sunday. After seeing what was on offer the first day, I couldn’t wait to return for more on Sunday…..and it just got better. The list of attractions are far too numerous to mention but they included a brilliant world-renowned one man band, numerous professional bands and singers, a ‘posh pooch’ and vintage car parade, Punch and Judy, fantastic dance displays encouraging anyone to join in (vintage, of course!), clothes, hair and beauty stalls, and a vintage bus/bar/disco. The evenings provided ticketed events – again definitely retro themed and concluding with a Northern Soul disco on Sunday evening. In all, something for everyone from the 1920’s onward.

In the late 1960’s, our seaside towns lost their attraction for the British public in many ways; they were discovering far off lands…exotic places like the Costa Brava and Brittany(!) offered a much more sophisticated holiday and guaranteed enviable tan. The knotted handkerchief, pasty-kneed deck chair hogger was frowned upon. Rightly so, some would say. People were ‘Scholling’ off to the Mediterranean in their droves, those who could afford it that is and possibly some who could not! They sniffed at the idea of candy floss, seagulls and wind-swept beaches. Soggy cheese sandwiches flavoured with gritty sand were discarded and paella ruled,  the gastronomically discerning British holidaymaker satisfying his/her desire for more adventurous culinary delights.

I believe the (British) tide is turning; we ARE more discerning now, sophisticated too. With countless Mediterranean holidays under our belt and more and more exotic locations visited, I sense nostalgia creeping in, in harmony with the yearning for far-off lands. I’ve delighted in the wonderful work that has taken place in Southport along the sea-front and beyond, never more so than on a sunny summer’s day when it is bustling with day trippers and holiday makers alike. New Brighton also has transformed itself from a decaying, down-trodden town and continues to improve with new investment promised in the future. People DO want the foreign travel and to post photos on social media, much to the chagrin/jealousy of our cyber friends (selfies and hotdog/legsonbeach included!), but the hankering for a good old seaside experience is now viewed with affection and this is reflected in the commitment and investment being witnessed up and down the glorious, rugged coastline of Great Britain.

I just hope Morecambe council hop on board and share the same vision as the wonderful people behind Vintage By The Sea, who have proven just how amazing a holiday at the British seaside can be.

Posted in Vintage/culture/seaside | Leave a comment