Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Ghosts of Birthday's Past

I have the birthday blues. As the day which should mark my final year as a teen rolls closer (June 29th), I find myself feeling far from excited. For most people turning 19, the preceding weeks should be an overwhelmingly exciting time. I should be making plans with the people I love to do something fun, something that'll probably involve alcohol. I should have a demanding list of birthday presents. I should be looking forward to it. If you hadn't gathered already, I'm not.

I haven't had the best of luck with birthdays lately, or Christmases for that matter, but that's a whole different story. For a start, I've never really been the "birthday type". Sure, I've enjoyed them as much as the next guy, but the last time I had my own party or went out of my way to celebrate was primary school. I'm a summer baby with a winter soul. I spend the first 6 months of the year dreading the day that summer arrives. I don't do heat, I don't do bugs and I don't do the overwhelming pressure to be "outdoorsy" as soon as the mercury hits 18 degrees. I would much rather celebrate my birthday in February, when it's cold as heck and everyone is a little less intense. If the Queen gets to then I want to too. Summer gets into everyone's brains like a drug and gives them a loss of inhibitions. This sense of freedom makes people behave strangely, they're louder and they're more excited and for such an introverted personality as I am, its all a bit much.

Aside from the fact that the timing of my birthday isn't quite right for me personally, they've also managed to fall at some really tough times in my life. 3 years ago, I was soon to turn 16. A lot was changing in my life at the time, though I suppose no more than the average 16 year old. I was moving schools and I'd broken up with a long term boyfriend. On the 18th of June 2013, my anxiety became the most important thing in my life. I was sick, very sick, for months. I lost almost a stone in a matter of weeks and my zest for life had been sucked out of me. I vividly remember my birthday that year. I had spent the entire day feeling sick, moaping around in my pyjamas. Luckily, I was unaware that what was happening to me was caused by anxiety and I still had the confidence to leave the house. That evening I attended the final event of the year at the school I was leaving behind, and once I was distracted and enjoying myself I finally felt less sick. Retrospectively that should have been a clear sign that what was happening to me was entirely mental.

16th Birthday, 2013

After a year at a new college, my sickness began to fade, although leaving both my body and my mind scarred. I'd lost faith in my body and I lived day to day life somewhat apprehensively. However, I successfully completed my first year at college confidently. I felt as though I'd found my feet and the past summer was behind me. Good Lord was I wrong. Once AS exams came around, my mental state had shifted. I was feeling sick again and my weight was rapidly decreasing, and this time my old familiar symptom had brought new friends to the party. I was dizzy for the majority of my exams and the weeks following, my vision was blurred and my heart was pounding. All of these are just parts of my day to day life now and I wish I'd known at the time that what I was going through was once again, all in my head. The day before my birthday was the very first day I had taken off school in years. At some point during the college day, I felt as if I was going to die, and I desperately needed to go home. At the time, we wrote this off as exhaustion from completing my exams. This is why I'm so passionate about spreading awareness about the physical symptoms of anxiety. I don't like to admit it, but if I had known sooner that what was happening to me was anxiety then maybe, just maybe, I would be in a better place today. My birthday fell on a Saturday that year, and I did absolutely nothing all day. Once again, I lurked around the house in my pajamas questioning why I felt this way. I have only one picture of that year, and I only took it because the level of pink my family and friends seemed to think was appropriate was entertaining to me. I saw no one outside of my direct family that day, and I cried at least once. A week after my birthday had my second panic attack (I still didn't know what was happening and was definitely convinced I was dying) and was then finally diagnosed with a whole array of anxiety disorders. 
17th Birthday, 2014.

Last year I was finally ready for a good birthday, third time lucky, right? I had dropped out of college six months earlier, and then failed to successfully complete my exams at home on my own as I had naively planned to. So it was fair to say I was ready to enjoy myself, and it was my 18th so there was no way I could avoid celebrating this one. My family and I had decided to spend the week in Wales with my grandparents, which is far more fun that it sounds. ( I also share a birthday, and a name, with my grandmother). It is, after all, my favourite place in the world. Also, although never spoken aloud, this plan allowed me to spend my birthday away from my friends and gave me a concrete solid excuse for not "partying". Despite my crippling fear of being away from home and a 4 hour car journey, I was uncharacteristicly excited. My birthday was our first full day away and it was a good one, at least to start with. Breakfast was filled with laughter and happiness, opening cards and presents together around the table. The morning was spent in a quiet cafe overlooking the sea, and walking along the sands, how could I ask for more? Unfortunately, my brain doesn't exactly keep up with long term enjoyment. By the afternoon I had crashed, I was tired and overwhelmed. I spent hours in bed watching reruns of friends and mentally preparing myself for dinner out in the evening. You see, food and I aren't exactly best friends and restaurants and I are definitely not best friends. So the age old tradition of going to dinner for your birthday wouldn't be my own first choice. But it wasn't just my day, and I like to think I'm a good sport sometimes, so I did my best. I had a panic attack at the table, like I said, food and I don't always see eye to eye. I cried twice. Thankfully, after a year of intense training, I've gotten very good at not looking like I'm falling apart in public. That certainly would have been a birthday to remember. By the end of the night my carefully done hair was tied up and my makeup, done properly for the first time in months, was smeared down my face. Shortly after turning 18 I hit a devastating low of suicidal depression. It happened, I won't pretend it didn't. 

18th Birthday, 2015
   (My Dad is comforting me after my panic attack, my cardigan is around me like a blanket)

So here I am, just days away from my 19th birthday and to tell you the truth, I'd rather it wasn't happening. Aside from the fact that my birthday this year brings another series of pressurised events, it also serves as a reminder that this is my 4th birthday since becoming ill. It's hard to accept sometimes that it's been so long and yet I'm still here, in an evolving but ultimately unchanged state of anxiety and sadness. Due to unfortunate timing, my birthday acts less as an anniversary of my birth and more of an anniversary of when my life took a turn for the worse. Melodramatic, I know. Although it seems at times that very little has changed for me since anxiety first became a part of my life, I know my mental state is stronger now than ever and it's always progressing. So this year, I have sworn to myself that I'll enjoy it, or at least I'll try. Every year I would tell myself that next year will be better and so far I've only been left with a trail of painful birthday memories. This year, even if it's not perfect, I will work my hardest to craft a memory that makes me smile, or at least achieve a birthday where I don't cry. That's not too much to ask, right? 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

64 Zoo Lane: A tragic tale of wild animals trapped in a residential area?

I've been a big fan of zoos all my life, I even wanted to be a zookeeper at one point in my childhood. As a child, there is so much wonder and excitement attached to visiting a zoo, they played a huge part in my own childhood and I have some memories I’ll never forget. As an adult, there is nothing quite like witnessing a child see a Lion up close for the first time. Their faces, the pointing, the attempts to roar back at them, it’s all the stuff dreams are made of. The joy of getting to see a penguin in real life, or hearing monkeys yelling from the trees, is undeniable. Unfortunately in the last year, for me and a growing portion of society, zoos have become less magical and more controversial. There's a lot of concern these days surrounding animal welfare in zoos and the more I hear the less inclined I am to visit one again. I'm not the boycotting type, I realise my one body would have little impact on them; the only reason I wouldn't spend a day there is for my own emotional well being. I don't think I could watch a Lion in a small cage without tearing up and demanding they let it out.

My major issue with zoos, among other smaller problems, is simply that it’s not our place to intervene. Animals are not made for our entertainment and are certainly not so below us that we are justified in "playing God", deciding who lives and who dies. Nature is vicious, that's the ultimate truth we have to accept. It’s a dog eat dog world out there, and bird eat bird, and fish eat fish.. you get it... Wildlife regulates itself and it is brutal sometimes, you only have to see one David Attenborough documentary to know that, but it is essential to the general life cycles of these animals and to the maintenance of the ecosystem. Food chains are something we learn in primary school, and each time we place humans at the top. Let’s get one thing straight, we are only the top of the chain because we have weapons. We are the most dangerous predators only because we have created objects which allow us to control wildlife, but place an unarmed man with an unarmed bear, who's top of the food chain then? Our weapons and opposable thumbs have given us the impression that we have the right, or even the responsibility to regulate wildlife. 

In February 2014, a giraffe named Marius was shot by keepers at a Denmark Zoo. It was then publicly dissected, and fed to the zoos resident lions. The reason the zoo gave for choosing this giraffe? He was unsuitable for breeding because his genes were "too common". This murder, and that's exactly what this is especially as they opted against euthanizing him instead, was openly protested against. Other zoos from all over the world offered to take the giraffe in to prevent him from losing his life. The zoos director gave a statement saying "We have been very steadfast because we know we've made this decision on a factual and proper basis. We can't all of a sudden change to something we know is worse because of some emotional events happening around us." Maybe I don't know a lot about the breeding program for giraffes, but I cannot find a way to believe that allowing another zoo to provide a home for Marius would be "worse" than killing him. The fact of the matter is that this 18 month old giraffe lost its life because humans feel their superiority means they can pick and choose what happens to animals. You can read the full story of Marius’ death here, The same zoo, just months later, killed an entire family of lions, two parents who were reaching the final years of their natural lives anyway, and two young cubs. The reason for this one was that a new male lion was going to arrive soon, and may have killed a male cub; I can’t find a reason for the deaths of the females or the parents, which breaks my heart. Why was one new male  sonecessary if it meant 4 others must die? Explore that one yourself if you wish

Zookeeper deaths are unexpectedly common. I’m not saying it’s a huge number, but 21 deaths in 22 years in the USA is a lot, and is equal to the number of fatalities from shark attacks in the USA. The reason for this is simple, these are wild animals. They have not evolved to live in captivity, or interact with humans, or depend on others for food. Back in April 2016, Stacey Konwiser, a keeper at a Florida zoo, was mauled by a tiger and lost her life. The details surrounding the incident have varied ever since, and are the subjects of 5 different investigations including an internal one. However, no matter what the circumstances and the reasons for her to be in the enclosure near the tiger; the fact is that this tiger is a killer by nature. That is how it lives its life and how it has evolved to survive in the wild. Putting a wild, lethal animal in an urban zoo doesn’t remove its innate desire to attack. The only way to guarantee safety from these kinds of animals is to carry a weapon, which in itself speaks volumes for the practicality of storing these animals for our own entertainment.  You can read about that one here

I understand that in some cases, zoos can be beneficial to the conservation and protection of animals, especially endangered species. The most important point is that zoos prevent these animals from being poached and hunted in the wild, or harmed in anyway due to human intervention. This is the only reason I would consider supporting zoos, there is no need to protect animals from natural dangers. Nature has been doing its own thing long before our intervention, and will continue to do so with or without us. That said, none of the animals we see in British zoos and most other countries’ zoos are not meant to be here. This isn’t their climate or natural habitat. There are reserves in many of their home countries, which are monitored by rangers, but allow animals to be protected from a distance. Their purpose isn’t for human enjoyment, and they have free range over a vast area of natural land rather than a small caged area, which never quite sits right with me. There are over 10,000 zoos worldwide and about 2,400 in America alone (I use America because it’s bigger, the statistic are more notable). The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) is an organisation established to enforce high standards of care for the animals as well as of science and conservation. Only 212 of those 2,400 zoos are a member of AZA. Honestly, that terrifies me. It’s talked about a lot, but it is actually very rare for animals to be reintroduced into the wild from a zoo, which seems like the only reason they should exist to me. I can’t find a solid reason, and trust me I’ve tried, for why animals are better off in captivity. I understand the occasional benefits, but as an overall conclusion, I just can’t back it entirely.

I chose to keep way from the gorilla story in this, because it’s been so widely discussed that my own opinion isn’t particularly vital, so I’ll keep it short. My issue with the incident isn’t the choice to kill Harambe, in the end there was no other option. As I’ve said, animals that have evolved to be wild are dangerous no matter what. Gorillas will tear smaller monkeys quite literally limb from limb for dinner, that boy was in danger regardless of what people think Harambe was doing. My issue is with the gorilla being there in the first place. One more time, they are not in existence for our entertainment. They are dangerous beings and there is no guarantee of human safety by keeping them in a cage surrounded by humans. He should not have been caged; the humans should not have been in a position where they could decide the fate of a wild animal.

I still see the joy in zoos somehow; all animals are majestic no matter what type and it’s hard to deny the attraction to watching them up close, especially for a person who will probably never travel to see them naturally in a safari or a reserve. However, no matter how hard I try, I can’t feel comfortable with them. Maybe someone needs to explain to me better the positives of holding animals in captivity because while researching this, I can assure you, I found no pros as concrete as the cons. In the end, my argument is this, we are not superior. We are simply more protected. I see no reason why our more developed brains mean we have the right to play god. I cannot justify why our weapons allow us to pick and choose who lives where, and if they live at all. 

Friday, 3 June 2016

Lets Talk About Meds.

I don't usually consider myself a particularly angry person. I know that it's good for my mental health to remain calm as much as possible. I've learnt to let go of most things fairly quickly, or at least allow myself to be open about the problem. I'll admit, and I know i'm not alone in this, the very first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my phone. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Facebook tends to irritate me on a daily basis without doing anything specifically wrong, but on this particular morning, a post I came across caused my heart rate to hit dangerously high levels. Furious. Fuming. All the 'F' words really. 

I worked by way back through shares to find it was originally posted by the Facebook group "Earth. We are one." which bizarrely describes itself as an "educational website". I found myself so angry I couldn't so much as send a screen shot accompanied by a lengthy rant to my friends. I tried to compose myself before beginning on a journey through the comments left by others. Thankfully, the vast majority were as furious as I am, unfortunately some were equally as ignorant as the original picture. I saved a few to share. 


This anger sat with me for the entire day. I had intended to just let it go, try to ignore the twisting sensation in my gut, but as the day went by it became clear that I wasn't going to let this one die. Medication for mental illness has been a big topic for me lately, I am currently in the process of increasing my own dosage, which is rough to say the least, but it left me with a lot to say about medications. And then this horrendous post came into my life and it all came pouring out.

This picture, this concept, is so incredibly damaging. So incredibly ignorant. There is so much stigma around the idea of having to take medication for a mental health condition, mostly due to the belief that its origin is simply faulty thinking rather than chemicals. This kind of harmful message put out into society leads people to refuse medications, or even go so far as to lie to their doctors to get away with not taking them. There is this image of medications making you "weak" or that reliance on a medication means you're too lazy to put in the work to get better on your own. I believe wholeheartedly that being outside, meditation and enjoying small pleasures is very beneficial to achieving good mental well-being, but I also believe that sometimes you can work yourself to the bone and still have nothing left to give. I was one of those people. 

After living with Agoraphobia for a year, with 6 months clocked in intensive Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), I hit a wall of depression. Prior to this I never really would have described myself as "depressed", sure I got sad, living with anxiety isn't exactly a joyful experience, but shortly after my 18th birthday I spent the entirety of summer 2015 unequivocally depressed. Everyone's experience of depression is different, please remember that, while some describe feeling numb, I felt everything but numb. I was manic, I would cry for hours on and off, unable to express why in any other way than to scream "I cant do it anymore" into a parents shoulder. This episode lead me to the realization that I needed help, more help, biological help. This was a decision that kept me awake at night, I am terrified of side effects, I am terrified of my body feeling and doing things I didn't plan for but by September, with the support of my therapist, my parents, and now a certified psychiatrist just for extra input, the choice had been made, I told my GP about my summer and she prescribed Citalopram, an SSRI (which essentially helps your brain release and uptake more of those good chemicals). Unfortunately, although I wouldn't have thought so at the time, I was back on my feet by the end of the summer. My confidence caused me to decide by myself that I did not need the drugs. They stayed hidden and unopened at the back of our medicine cupboard for months. 

Between September and December I suppose you could say I was doing well. I was making progress, and I wasn't particularly sad. The medication sat on its shelf in the cupboard though, screaming my name every time I walked past. It was a silent pressure, a constant reminder that I needed to work harder, harder than my body could handle in reality. We had organised for my extended family to stay with us over Christmas, I love very much when my whole family is around, don't get me wrong, but it is a very stressful experience. The demands to be social and active are a lot of pressure on me, and sharing my house with others means finding an escape isn't easy, and that's the core concern for an agoraphobic. As the holiday rolled closer, bundled with the general stress that is Christmas, I stopped sleeping. I would lie awake in bed until 2am, not thinking about anything in particular, but definitely not calm. The less sleep I was getting, the more I would panic, until I was awake at 4am having uncontrollable panic attacks, On the worst nights when I would sit awake, pondering whether death would be a better idea than being awake, I would have to shuffle along the corridor with tears blurring my vision to wake my mother, the only way I could get back to sleep was with someone beside me. A low point in my life for sure. I spent the entire Christmas holidays in a state of mania, I was tired and terrified 24/7, I cried 3 times on Christmas day alone. I was a mess, and I spent a large amount of time considering whether life was worth living anymore, "the sweet relief of death" as I described it. This was the general continuing mood as time progressed. Finally I asked my parents about sleeping pills, I was desperate for relief, the idea of being essentially unconscious sounded like paradise to me. My Mum chose to remind me that instead of sleeping medication, I should be taking the full time chemical altering medication that was waiting patiently for me. Of course I aggressively rejected this idea, full meltdown, screaming that I couldn't do it, that all I needed was some "time".  This was when she chose to take it upon herself to make the decision for me, for which I am eternally grateful. I was no longer able to make my own well informed choices, my mental stability was out the window and floating away fast like a child's balloon in a hurricane and this is proven by the fact that I have very few memories of that week. I can remember feelings, and hazy blurs of important moments, but my anxiety and depression were in overdrive and that means your mind forms very few solid memories. She allowed me to calm myself down, and then we discussed the reality of being medicated, I agreed to give it one more week and promised I would start then, but the very next morning I felt brave enough to bite the bullet and start there and then. 

Maybe it was a placebo effect, honestly I don't really care, from that very first day I felt better, I am on a low dosage, slowly attempting to increase it to a more efficient level, and I very much still get panic attacks and sadness and a terrible fear of just about everything but I feel different. I feel more in control of myself, like my core is a little stronger than it was for the first year of my illness. I truly believe this medication has changed everything for me. There is this myth that being on this kind of medication "numbs" you, so you're essentially like a zombie, If it does, you're supposed to change your dosage or the type of drug altogether. I haven't felt numb at all, most of the time I feel more stable and somewhat colourful, that's the positive I am sure I've gained from my medication. My dreams are weirder now,  trying to cut tablets into tiny pieces is beyond stressful, and my Citalopram and I certainly aren't on the best of terms yet, but I am forever grateful that I have it. I am also grateful that I was given the freedom to try to fix my illness on my own, even if I wasn't sucessful

My point of this long and way too personal for the internet story is that choosing to be on a  medication is not "giving up", it is not "weak". I gave blood, sweat and tears to my fight against having to take anything for my illness, no one will ever have the right to tell me that taking medication means I haven't been trying hard enough. My only weakness in all of this was trying to convince myself I didn't need any more help. In no way is medication a cure, it is simply a tool which allows us to feel a little stronger in ourselves while we continue to work hard to get our lives back on track. There is no place in my world for people who take it upon themselves to shame those who choose to use medications to assist their recoveries. Ridding your life of things which make you feel bad is smart, getting outside more is smart, eating healthy, getting more sleep are all smart ideas but in reality are not always possibly to achieve, especially whilst in the grip of a mental illness. Sometimes the extra help is necessary and there is no shame in that. You are not weak, you are not giving up. Choosing to take a medication, any medication, is one the bravest decisions you can make for your well-being and no one has the right to tell you otherwise.