Memory Disturbance

The Winter I Chose Happiness

The thing about happiness is that it feels abnormal.

I was out with a friend recently and before I even realised quite what I was saying, the words slipped out of me. I said, quite naturally, “I feel happ-” before I suddenly clapped a hand over my mouth.

Did I say 'happy'? I meant 'I'm feeling crappy'. (Source)

Did I say ‘happy’? I meant ‘I’m feeling crappy’. (Source)

I managed to recover my composure before my friend even realised what I’d said. It didn’t seem to resonate with them as being anything out of the ordinary. But it shocked me to the core. Happy? What is this ‘happy’ of which you speak? I haven’t felt happy since my brother died. And may never again. Certainly not until the grief fades and I recover my sanity. That could takes years yet. It must have been some mistake. I must have been in Pretendland too long and was just feeling a bit calm … or vague maybe?

But the very next day, I found myself blurting out, “To be honest, I actually feel happy.” My friend smiled, “That’s great!” I shook my head, “No. Not so much.”

I thought maybe the feeling was specific to that weekend. To being out with friends. To straying too long in fairyland with spritely, lively people who don’t share my problems. I figured that getting home, settling back into the drudgery, would return me to the comforting normality of grief and depression.

But I stayed happy. It bled into my week like indelible ink across paper. It soaked into my hands and for the life of me, I couldn’t wash it off. It wasn’t just me that saw it. I met up with a few friends and family members who, all independently of each other, commented that I looked happy. Or at least looked different. Even my psychologist remarked that he hadn’t seen me laughing and smiling so much in all the time he’s known me. Scary when even your psych notices. I thought I was going there to vent all the sads. Who laughs their way through their psych session? Crazy people like me, clearly.

b (Source)

Oh god get it off! Get it off! What gets happiness off? Turps? Methylated spirits? (Source)

It’s strange that I should have such an aversion to feeling happy. I mean, it’s just an emotion. Completely natural. But after more than a year and a half of being perpetually depressed, down to the depths of despair … happiness just doesn’t seem like a very natural feeling. It feels fake, forced and like a betrayal. Is it betraying my brother to feel happy? I’m really not into the whole “your brother wouldn’t want you to be sad” as I tend to respond with “yeah well, my brother wouldn’t want to be dead. But he doesn’t have a say in the matter. And he certainly isn’t here to tell me to feel otherwise.” But truly, is it even okay to feel happy now? Is it too soon?

I disagree with the concept that grief is a linear experience. As though you get through a stage of denial, then anger, then bargaining, then a long stint in depression, and then find yourself at the sweet endpoint of acceptance. In fact someone even said, in all seriousness, with no hint of irony, “So which stage of grief are you up to?” Seriously? Do you think that I just tick them off the list on my way back to sanity? Gosh that would be a hell of a lot easier than actually living with grief. At least you’d know where you were up to and how long you potentially had to go.

b (Source)

“Your ignorant question is taking me back to my anger stage!!!” (Source)

So I can’t just say that I’m finally up to the shiny acceptance stage just because I’ve been feeling a bit clearer. I mean, my head’s restored some clarity. I can think a little clearer. I still haven’t recovered the memories and the dreams are still as bad. In fact, the night terrors got so bad I woke up one night screaming and then the next night choking. But the tiny space I’ve managed to clear in my mind is wonderful. I can go and sit in the corner and look out upon the clutter with some hope that I can chip away at it over time. Make that tiny space bigger. Liveable. So I’m not hiding there, but actually living there. In an immaculate mind.

b (Source)

My mind is a mess! (Source)

But the thing is, I have no idea how long the happiness will last. It’s been fairly consistent lately. And not dependent on external factors. I have had some of the worst panic attacks since the event in the last few weeks. One of my most recent ones lasted for about 3 or 4 hours, after which I became virtually catatonic. And yet I sort of bounced back to a happy state once it was finally over. It seems that my base line has lifted just a little. I still get just as despairing and wretched. But maybe now I’m not entirely inconsolable. But who knows? This could be the eye of the storm. I’m trying really hard to believe that I’m healing. But like I said, it’s not linear. And it’s been really hard to tell anyone that I’m feeling a bit better because I don’t want people to just assume that I’m cured and not take any subsequent depression seriously.

b (Source)

“But I thought you said that you were cured. You can’t just keep playing the grief card to get attention, you know.” (Source)

It’s been really lovely being able to default to a kind of contentedness. But I think my doubts have been eating away at it a little. I’ve been resisting it, shrugging it off, playing it down. And I think if I kept this up, eventually I could whittle it down to nothing. And retreat to the safety of grief. I know grief. It knows me. We don’t like each other. We loathe each other. But we’ve tolerated each other for so long now that I don’t really know how to be anything else. It would be so easy to carry the grief around forever. Become one of those bitter people that others look at and whisper, “Why are they like that? What happened to them?”

And so I find that happiness is a choice. My base mood might have lifted, but it’s a daily choice to keep it there. Not to let it slip back down. I’m not going to be happy everyday. I probably won’t be happy most days. But the days that it seeps back in, I need to embrace it. It’s the last day of winter as I write this. And it will be the first day of spring when I post this. It may be completely arbitrary but it seems rather poetic that a change of seasons should represent a definitive change in self. Grief isn’t a linear journey. But maybe it’s seasonal. Maybe I can leave winter behind and move into spring. Growth. Rebirth. The frost melts from around my heart and I find it’s replaced with blossoms. Much like the honey-smelling white blossoms that used to adorn our old plum tree.

I’ve been listening to “The Winter I Chose Happiness” by Clare Bowditch as I write. The album ends with her singing, “are you ready yet / are you ready yet / to be happy?” And I can honestly say yes. Yes I am. I choose happiness.

[Featured Image Source]

“Let Me Know If There’s Anything I Can Do”

The thing I hear most from people is “let me know is there’s anything I can do.” This is such a lovely thing to say. Many people have said this to me, even as recently as last week. And it truly is a caring, generous sentiment. The only trouble is that we tend to say this to people who aren’t in a place where they’re capable of answering. When my brother first died, I was unable to eat or look after myself physically. Much less delegate tasks or make specific requests. And so the responsibility of asking for help is on the person that’s suffering. In fact, I was reading one article that said that not only is it difficult to work out what you need, but it’s hard to remember who offered help and to work out who would be the right person to help with that particular task.

I still find it hard to ask for help now. But I’m realising that so many of us want to help but have no idea what would be helpful. And so I started to wonder whether, instead of wanting to know if there’s anything you can do … to just do something of your own volition. Or to just find a thing that needs doing and do it. So here’s me saying , “Yes there are anythings you can do. These are things. See things now. Do things do.”

Listening

I think that absolutely above all else, listening is the most helpful thing. A lot of my friends have taken me out for a hot beverage and asked, “how you are you really?” It’s been rather a pleasure when we’ve got passed all the “fine thanks, and you” pleasantries and  they’ve been genuinely interested to hear how I’m coping. And some of the most significant experiences were when people asked follow-up questions. I didn’t just vent and then they swiftly changed the subject onto happier things. They listened. They responded with further questions. And then they listened some more. And they didn’t try to summarise what I’d said and contextualize it as being a stage in a linear grieving process, as though abject despair can be repackaged as “just something you’re going through, but it’ll get better soon”. Instead they agreed that things were just really bad. One of my closest friends said several times: “That’s really shit, lady.” It totally is.

Sad Panda is sad. (Source)

Sad Panda is sad. (Source)

I think what deters proper listening is not wanting to mention the war. I had another friend who took me out for hot beverages and was very adamant that they wouldn’t bring up “the whole grief thing” so as to provide me with a nice happy outing where I didn’t have to think about it for a while. I can totally understand that people would want to avoid “mentioning the war” so as to not upset me, not make it worse for me. But it just doesn’t work like that. I always think about it. Constantly. And NOT talking about it, actively avoiding it, is harder. Not mentioning the war makes it worse.

There’s an episode of Fawlty Towers where some German guests have arrived at the hotel and Basil, after receiving a serious concussion, is trying desperately hard not to mention WWII. But the more he adamantly tries not to mention it, the more it slips out in completely inappropriate ways. Until the woman in pink is sobbing loudly into her plate.

I think people get a bit “Don’t mention the dead brother. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it alright.” Well let me just totally fix a misconception here. DO mention the war. Do ask me how I am really. It’s ok to ask me questions about what happened. And it’s totally ok to mention my brother. I love hearing stories about him. In the time between his death and the funeral, the only time I came out of Catatonia was when someone found a video of my brother dancing like a complete fool. It was lovely to see him in glorious 3D again. I try so hard to keep him in my head. I try to animate the photos I have of him. I try to bring the memories back. So telling me things you remember about him, your memories … that’s what actually jumpstarts my brain. He may be gone from the world, but he still lives in my head.

bird brain

I hope he likes living in these birdhouses I found. (Source)

Care Packages

In the first few weeks when I needed round the clock babysitting, I stayed with some friends of mine. They asked me what they could get me. They were going up the road to buy some things. I said that I had absolutely no idea what I needed. They responded that they were just going to buy some random things and they didn’t want to get the wrong random things … so I may as well put in a request. “Uhh… iced tea…” I stammered out, “and a jigsaw puzzle…?”. “Done,” they replied. And so they returned within the hour with many litre bottles of iced tea in every flavour and a really beautiful jigsaw puzzle of a sunset reflected over a woody lake. They said that they panicked as they didn’t know what kind of tea I liked. Luckily I like EVERY KIND. I lived on that goddamn iced tea for the best part of a month. And I chipped away at the jigsaw daily, imagining that every piece I found a home for represented a tiny piece of me that I could somehow put back together.

iced tea

“One of your best everything, very yes please.” (Source)

Care packages are such an old fashioned thing in my mind. The old cliche of the hosuewives turning up on the doorstep with armfulls of tupperweared (tupperworn?) casseroles or baskets of muffins. But they have been invaluable. A friend of my mum’s sent her a whole box of wine. What a fabulous friend. And a colleague of my dad sent him a massive box of groceries and fancy pastries. Sometimes the food that people would bring over for me would be the only food I ate all week. When you’re barely able to dress yourself, making meals out of raw ingredients is a Herculean task. I had to ask my partner to explain to me how to make a sandwich because two crackers and a jar of jam just weren’t going together in a logical way. “Honey,” I pleaded, “Why won’t it sandwich? Why does everything hate me?”

I’ve also had two different friends mail me tea. In the mail. I don’t really get excited about anything anymore. I hear that’s common with depression. But seeing a huge package from T2 turn up on my doorstep is pretty damn exciting. There was one day in particular, quite recently in fact, where things were particularly bad. Some days things are bad, other days things are worse. I don’t know why an orange cube of loose leaf tea pulls me out of that state. It seems like such a simple thing. But the gesture of choosing one, buying and mailing it to my address just means the absolute world to me. Plus T2 keeps bringing out new feature teas. That whole banana range? And now the chocolate range? When will it end? Won’t somebody think of the children?

T2

Orange (packaging) is the new black. (Source)

Days Out

I had some friends contact me who wanted to take me out for a high tea. This was no ordinary high tea. They’d booked a hairdresser and makeup artist to do proper vintage styles. We had 50s-inspired dresses, pearls and little lace gloves. We went into the city, dressed to the nines, and had a glamorous high tea at a posh hotel. And there was champagne on arrival, scones, the whole thing. It was a really incredible day out. It would have been a nice day even if I hadn’t had been grieving. But when I was suffering from frequent panic attacks and agoraphobia, it was a really gentle and generous way of coaxing me out of the house for an afternoon.

high tea

It’s harder to sit around the house and watch entire seasons of tv shows when I’m looking as good as this. (Source)

The same friends also came over to my place one day with a whole stack of baked goods and a picnic blanket. And we sat in the local park and talked about all the big things while the hot sun drifted down through the gum leaves. That was rather pleasant. One friend had brought along her young daughter who was entirely too young to understand why I was upset. At that age I would have been terrified of a noticeably distressed adult. But she came over to me, of her own volition, and gave me a huge hug. Threw her tiny arms around me. It really meant a lot to me.

Friends with children have been a haven to me. It’s something of a small relief to sit around chatting with a friend while a kids movie plays in the background and their miniature offspring entertain themselves, oblivious to the complexities of my world. My mum and I talk about having heartbeats in the house. There’s solace in being alone, but feeling completely alone can lead to panic. So it’s nice to just have someone or something that has a heartbeat in the same house as you, even if they’re in a different room. And so children are nice. Animals are nice. Or in the words of Pratchett’s Death, “Cats. Cats are nice.”

Kitty hug

“Ok hoomin, but dis is last hug.” (Source)

Free Things

Can’t afford to take your friend out for a spa day or throw a box of wine at them? Free things are just as meaningful as non-free things. Perhaps even moreso. A few friends wrote me letters. Getting mail, actual handwritten letter with stamps on the envelopes, is a thing of joy. You don’t even have to write about things if you want to avoid mentioning the war. Just shove some shiny pictures you cut out of magazines that you stole from the doctor’s waiting room into an envelope and splurge on a postage stamp. I love mail. Mail. Love.

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Handwritten letters tied up with string. These are a few of my favourite things. (Source)

I also had friends and relatives who would just post funny cat pictures, links to knitting patterns or memes of my favourite shows to my Facebook wall. I think it’s just that basic human contact that counts, you know. It almost doesn’t matter which medium you contact me through or exactly how your communicate. It’s just reaching out at all. So call me. Check on me. Let me know you’re still out there.

Leaning Out

A friend sent me this article about ‘ring theory’ which basically suggests that when someone is in a crisis of any kind, they are in the centre circle. If you can imagine concentric circles around the centre, then everyone else in their life fits into rings around them. So the person who is suffering is in the centre. Their partner or immediate family is in the next ring out. Their close friends further out than that. Then even further is perhaps extended family, acquaintances, colleagues, neighbourhood gossips, lackeys, flunkies, minions, exes. Or whatever. Look at the picture. The picture explains.

Now I am the Lord of the Rings! (Source)

Now I am the Lord of the Rings! (Source)

The whole point of this is that people in inner rings can lean outwardly for support. But you can’t lean on the people in smaller rings than you for support. So people in my extended family shouldn’t really be leaning on people in my immediate family for support. They need to lean outwards to their own support networks. And likewise, you need to offer comfort inwards. So if you are on, say, the fifth circle out … it’s unreasonable to be calling up someone on the third circle in and dumping all your fears and worries on them. They might not be the person most affected by the tragedy, but they still need comfort. And they’re probably being a pretty big support for the people further inward than themselves already. It’s a useful theory I think. Does it work for you? I’d be interested to hear what you all think of it.

And another thing … if you’re still interested in the ‘what not to do’ side of things, the best article I’ve read so far has been this Cracked article called ‘The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React To Tragedy’. And believe me, I have heard all five of these responses many times over in the last 18 months. Including the “If I had been there, this wouldn’t have happened’. Seriously. People have said that to me.

In Conclusion

Maybe just check on the people in your life who are going through things. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re really going. Buy them flowers. Or steal a few sprigs of lavender from a neighbour’s garden. Write them a letter or just hand them a post-it note saying ‘U OK?’ Never underestimate the power of turning up with cupcakes. It doesn’t really matter what you do in the end, just do something. I’m loathe to say something as trite as ‘it’s the thought that counts’. The action still counts. But I guess it doesn’t matter how grand or small the action is so long as there’s thought behind it.

Also I now want lavender cupcakes. Ending post here. Need to bake!

[Featured image source]

My Hair

My hair has died. It seems to be a relatively common thing with grief. You might have heard about going grey overnight. While a quick google search can’t offer me definite proof whether that’s medically possible or not, it is most certainly true that people can experience hair loss or change in quality after a sudden shock.

So wait, you’re telling me that Charmed isn’t accurate? (source)

I’ve always had naturally fabulous hair. It was curly when I was a little girl, with kiss curls at the back of my neck. I remember my grandmother brushing my hair for me. She’d part it down the middle and work on one side at a time. Once she was finished the left side and it was silky and smooth, she’d call it the ‘princess side’. Then she’d start on the still-tangled ‘witch side’. My mother used to braid my hair in the evenings after my bath. She wasn’t really a perfectionist, but she would get frustrated if she braided one side significantly lower than the other. I loved it when she’d unravel it and start it over as I had another block of time enjoying the feeling of someone playing with my hair.

Yes this is totally me at four years old and totally not 1930-40s Hollywood actress Myrna Loy. (source)

Yes this is me at four years old and totally not 1930-40s Hollywood actress Myrna Loy. (source)

My hair went relatively straight through primary school and much of high school. When I was about fifteen, I cut my hair really short: it was about eye level at the front and shaved in at the back. It sounds terrible, but it was one of the best cuts I’ve ever had. I was amazed at how curly it went. I’m sure it was more likely that it coincided with puberty (and therefore a change in hormones) than a magical haircut. But I was rather thrilled with my new curls. It’s remained wavy ever since. Even at the longest I’ve ever had it.

About this long. Probably. (source)

About this long. Probably. (source)

It has this lovely wave that shapes my face. People often ask me how I style it or what product I use. But honestly, I just wash it and it dries like this:

Also completely me and not Kate Winslet. (source)

This is also completely me and not Kate Winslet. (source)

And then my brother died. And my hair with him. It hasn’t been falling out at all. In fact, to look at me you can’t even tell. I’ve told close friends about the change in my hair and they genuinely don’t believe me. But underneath, it’s all coarse and spindly like hair that’s been badly bleached. And the shape of it is kinked and frizzy like grey hair.

Something like this. (source)

Something like this, but the whole of my hair. (source)

It’s so kinked in fact that it’s statically charged and attracts lint from everything I wear. It takes me over an hour to brush it out each evening. Knots form around the bits of lint so badly that I have to cut them out. I’m not talking about the ‘knots’ that tangled hair get. I mean proper knots. The kind that earn you badges in girl scouts. You know how you can tie a knot in a single strand of something? Like string? I get that kind a lot. It is impossible to undo a knot in a single strand of hair.

Apparently the sebaceous gland shuts down and stops delivering all those precious oils to the hair. Which produces a similar effect to over-shampooed hair. The hair gets dry and coarse. The scalp suffers. Everything goes horribly wrong. This leads to Seborrhoeic Dermatitis which, judging by my symptoms, I most definitely have. Hilariously fun things like acne along the hairline, dry scalp, general all-purpose pimples on the face and shoulders … oh yeah, and hair loss!

It is completely treatable. The main thing is time. As for the hair, you can try every treatment, leave-in conditioner and serum therapy under the sun but none of it will help. It all comes down to time. I’ll need to cut a good slab of my hair off to take the weight off the roots. And then just wait it out until sebum and vitamin E production start up again and things naturally return to normal.

That should be enough, right? (source)

“Hmm. Actually, can you cut it a bit longer?” (source)

In the meantime, I keep returning to ‘Little Women’. The 1994 film in particular. In one scene in particular, they’ve just had news that their father has been wounded in the war and their mother needs to get to the hospital in a hurry. They don’t have enough money for train fare, so Jo sells her hair for some cash.

Your one beauty. (source)

Meh. I’ve gone shorter. (source)

I just love this unsupportive reaction from her youngest sister, Amy. “Jo, how could you?” she cries. “Your one beauty!” As though that’s all there is to her. Not just a pretty face, indeed. And yet I really relate to this at the moment. I’ve been testing the water by telling people I’m thinking of cutting my hair. And I’m met with this “your one beauty” reaction. I’ve had to dig out old photos of me just prove it’s suited me in the past. And I resent having to explain to people why I need to cut my hair. I should be able to get away with just wanting to cut it on a whim, surely? Part of me thinks, “it’s just hair for goodness sakes!” And yet, I can’t help but feel cheated. Isn’t it enough that my brother’s died? Does my hair have to suffer too? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t also for the PTSD, memory disturbance, depression, anxiety, insomnia, ALL THE THINGS!

One of my favourite scenes in this film is where Beth awakes in the night to hear Jo crying:

Little Women

It may seem petty that of all things, it’s my hair that’s getting me down. Sometimes I have almost this exact conversation with my partner. He’ll say, “Are you sad about your brother?” and I look up through the tears to wail, “My hair…” It’s distressing that your body just falls apart with grief. Dealing with the mental and emotional fallout is hard enough. But having your body disintegrate on you is a constant reminder of how messed up things are. And I hardly need a constant reminder. His permanent absence from our lives is the constant reminder.

[Little Women spoilers ahead. I can’t imagine this being a problem for anyone. If it is, come over. I have three different film versions and all four books. I’ll make you tea. And scones. Or just come over anyway.]

How does Jo cope when Beth dies? I think she cries twice and then writes a book. Hardly realistic. So I guess we have three things in common: crap hair, dead siblings and writing. Maybe there’s a book in me yet.

Dreams and Memories

I don’t get days off from grief.

Everyday he’s dead. Everyday I’ve lost him. And each day robs me of another memory of him. One thing people often tell me is that at least I’ll always have happy memories of him. But a dense cloud settled over my mind the day he died and I have no way of knowing whether I’ll recover the memories that seem shrouded from me.

A scientifically accurate representation of author.

I now have a thing called ‘memory disturbance’. It’s probably more easily described as a symptom of PTSD. I have vivid flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks, as well as bouts of insomnia, irritability, paranoia and hypervigilance. Fun! One of the most common dreams is that I am having a conversation with him after he’s died. And I have to explain to him that he’s actually dead now, and how he died and why he died. These are obviously troubling for me because they’re horrifically complicated things to explain even to regular people. But I also have to process his reactions to this information. And that’s traumatic in a whole other way.

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“So let me get this straight, I’m like Bruce Willis and you’re the kid who can see me? Also why do you dream in stock photography?”

People seem to have preconceived notions of PTSD, which is totally ok and often helpful when explaining things. But I like ‘memory disturbance’ because it hints at how genuinely disturbed I feel about the whole thing. When he first died, I instantly lost memories between ages 12 and 25. I could remember me between those ages. But I couldn’t remember any me that involved him. Which, as siblings who are only a year apart, means pretty much everything that happened to us as teenagers and young adults. Some of that is slowly coming back, but usually only when other people remind me of things.

And that’s just the past. In the last year, I have banked hardly any memories. Things that happen just don’t get transferred over to my long term memory. I can remember the funeral, but I can’t remember who was there and who wasn’t. Memories get split up and stored in parts. So I can remember being in a certain place, but not who I was there with. In fact writing this is difficult because I’m having a hard time trying to remember the things I have trouble remembering.

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In my dreams, my brother seems real. He’s three-dimensional. And he has his voice. And he’s just exactly as he was the last time I saw him alive. But he can only ever say the things my subconscious gives him to say. And he doesn’t know he’s dead. And he can’t tell me anything I don’t already know. So there are no answers in my dreams. And like Cobb in Inception, I can’t imagine him with all his complexity, all his perfection, all his imperfection. He’s just a shade of my real brother. My memories, what little I have of them, are the best I can do. But they are just not good enough.

In some ways I had a really good day today. I had the opportunity and motivation to write, knit and play piano. There was even tea and almond cake. And yet I had really distressing nightmares in the morning, graphic flashbacks during the day and a major panic attack in the evening. The PTSD trifecta! I was hyperventilating so badly that I was actually stuttering. That’s a new one.

There are constantly new symptoms. Some I manage to get some control over or I find strategies around them. But there are always new ones. You may not have guessed that some of the symptoms of grief can be physical things. Maybe you’ve heard of people going grey overnight, but my hair turned so coarse overnight I have to cut strands out every few days. My nails permanently split and layers come off in sheets. Not to mention anemorrhoea, month-long headaches, week-long eye twitches and a period of shock that lasted over three months.

So even if I don’t think about his death. Even if I can stay distracted enough to not relive the day. Even if I find myself feeling creative, social or energetic … my nails will still be brittle, my hair will still be gnarled and my brother will still be dead. There just aren’t days off from grief.