Sunday 30 July 2017

When you Feel Weak but it Turns Out You're Strong

When you Feel Weak but it Turns Out You're Strong

Written by Casey Douglass

Casey Douglass

The following post won’t teach you how to throat sing in easy listicle fashion (I hate listicles). Nor will it be some tasty piece of fiction with monsters and gore and an ending that stays with you for the rest of the day. All this post will do is tell you more about me, and only you can decide if that tickles your curiosity or not. The reason behind it is that I’ve been absolutely slaughtering myself about where I am in my life, and in a rare moment of what seems to be good sense, I’ve remembered the value in looking back at things and rooting out the positives besides the negatives. This post is what came of that moment of clarity. I decided to post it too, as any thing I tend to do like this just gets thrown to the wayside once I’ve finished, and promptly forgotten. Posting it might help it stick. Who knows.

When I was at Junior school, I felt held back a little. I was the kid who actually asked for homework when we still weren't at the stage of our education that warranted it. I was the only child who turned up at science or computer club. I was a geek, and that’s fine by me. I wanted to get on in life and I enjoyed learning. I even had a couple of girlfriends during my time in Junior school (not at the same time, I was and always will be a gentleman in that regard), but for a geeky fella back then, I did alright.

I was around ten or eleven years old when my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder emerged, derailing the person I was and sending me into a hell that seems to forever be snapping at my heels. OCD is an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer becomes obsessed with some urge or fear, e.g. a fear of germs is one common example, and feels the compulsion to do something to alleviate that anxiety, e.g. washing their hands. The insidious thing is that by giving in, the OCD wants more from you next time. Washing your hands once, to keep with our example, won’t cut it the next time the fear arises, so you might do it twice. This is the birth of an obsessive compulsive loop, and they can form around all kinds of things, issues and fears.

I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until I was sixteen, so five or six years of mental anguish was my companion as I worked my way through high-school and my GCSEs. Schoolwork was one of the easier things for me, even with this other distraction taking up lots of my time. I was in the top set for most subjects, a position that gave the opportunity for my Maths set to take our GCSE a year early. This I did and got an A. I also collected a host of A stars and As in the rest of my GCSEs, with a few exceptions, but I was broadly happy. When I hit college for my Maths, Physics and Computing A-levels, I felt like I’d hit a brick wall.

I was receiving treatment for my OCD at this time, was on anti-depressants, and was also seeing the college counsellor too. I was body building at the gym with enjoyable 2.5 hour fully body workouts twice a week, and mountain biking about 20 miles each weekend too. Everything came to a head, and the strain of my anxiety and a couple of other factors ended up with me attempting to kill myself. It was after this that I realised that I didn’t want to go to university, not instantly anyway. My grades wouldn’t have got me there anyway, so I thought about having a gap year, maybe going to Australia for 6 months, that kind of thing.

When I left college, I went through the usual run of shitty jobs people go through. It was during the second one of these that I fell ill with glandular fever, and was fired not long after, because I was still on a trial period. It was absolute bullshit and it made me regret struggling to work with a double chest infection only about three weeks previous to that. Bastards. Anyway, I seemed to slowly get over the glandular fever, but then went down hill again and haven’t picked up again since. That was almost two decades ago, and it led to my diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (also called M.E at times).

CFS is horrendous. I thought OCD was hard, but the exhaustion I feel every moment of the day is something I’ve never really gotten used to. Also, the stuff about “exercise being helpful” when it comes to anxiety became a cruel joke for someone who struggled with just getting up the stairs. As I write this now, my hands are shaking, my head hurts and my eyes are heavy and gritty. I’ve already rested once before starting this article, and will have to rest frequently all day, just to stop myself sliding down into flu-like symptoms that take even longer to diminish. As you might imagine, this makes living what people might deem a “normal” life next to impossible. It is also where a lot of my self-directed animosity strikes home.

When I’d been unwell for about six months, I decided to do a correspondence course in fitness instructing, even though going to the gym or any kind of exercise was out of the question. My thinking was that I could do the theory stuff and then get the other half of the certificate, the physical exams etc., once I was better. The course was something that, pre-illness, would have taken me a year I’d estimate. The biology it contained was GCSE level material at best, the exercises and movements stuff I already knew pretty well. Due to the fatigue, it took me the whole three years allowed to complete the course, which was a sign of how my illness was affecting me. I got my diploma but never did do the other part sadly. Incidentally, I’ve casually taken the odd I.Q test since being ill (by casual I mean I was half watching TV) and tended to score around 120, so I don’t think my mental capacity has slid too much, which is something.

After this, I began to get into photography, thinking that I could maybe make some kind of living snapping interesting pics. I learned html and built my own website to display my work, studied the art of photography as best I could, and generally tried to get myself into a position where I felt I could start earning money. It didn’t happen, largely due to how limited I was in getting out and about. Anything close enough to me to snap, I’d already done multiple times. That dream died a death basically, although it’s something I still dabble with for fun.

It was after this that I came to revisit my love of writing. Writing is something that I’ve always enjoyed, and often pestered my teachers to ask “When can we write a story again!” I did an introduction course with the Open University and managed to pass that. I then decided to go for a full diploma in literature and creative writing. This I did over the next two years. I created this website and began getting my writing out there in an unpaid capacity, mainly by way of fiction contests and by writing posts for geeky websites like Geek Syndicate and Generic Movie Blog. I built a portfolio and hoped for the day when I might feel ready to try my hand at being a self-employed freelance writer.

From the diagnosis of my CFS, until a few years ago when I came off it and went self-employed as a writer, I was on ill health benefit. I just want to say that it truly is the system of incompetence and backstabbing that various news stories over the years have painted it as. I did a lot of the things that the benefits system wanted well before they became compulsory, like seeing a disability adviser etc. etc. Let’s just say that they couldn't help and agreed that I was doing all I could. This however meant nothing when your next medical came around and you had to appeal the decision to stop your benefit. I HATED being on benefit. I REALLY hated it. When I did leave the system to pursue my writing, it was after a failed benefit review. I lodged my objections and tore apart the bollocks they had come up with line by line, but it changed nothing. I used the push to make the jump into writing and trying to earn, and almost had a breakdown in the process. I’d rather die than go back on benefit again, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. I’m sure the government won’t mind that one bit though, one less person to support.

My CFS and OCD went into overdrive with the stress of trying to find my way with freelancing. An example of this is that I used to enjoy burning candles or jossticks in my bedroom. I always did it safely, but became preoccupied with the threat of sparks or leaving things burning by mistake. Before I went for a week long break at the coast a few months later, I spent two hours checking around my bedroom for any sign of sparks, smoke or fire, even though I knew it was my OCD. Under my bed, around the table, under my chair, in my friggin’ cupboards, even in some of my DVD cases, checking that the discs weren’t warm. My heart was hammering the whole time and I was drenched in sweat when I’d finished. You’d be amazed at what your mind might take for a spark if your body is already sensitized with anxiety: sunlight reflecting off things, the flash of my mobile LED when a text came, etc. If it happens at the edge of your vision, whether you react or not, it still gives you an anxiety spike. This was the worst period I’d suffered with my OCD since before my diagnosis, and no-one knew. I told no-one how bad things got. This was mainly due to already having had treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for OCD and knowing that nothing new could be said or done to help me. I did it all myself and pulled myself out of the mire once again. My life is full of episodes like this, although not often so severe.

In the time I’ve been self-employed as a freelance writer, I’ve never made a profit. I’m lucky enough to live with my parents who are very understanding and don’t pressure me to pay my way. I still find that I beat myself up about my lack of progress though. Well, not a total lack of progress. In the intervening couple of years, I’ve been published in more places, I’ve made some money, even if it’s just enough to cover my bank fees, and I have pushed myself to expand my comfort zone, appearing on podcasts, using social media when all I want to do is crawl into a hole and be quiet, and generally trying to move forwards.

I have limited time each day in which I can work, due to symptom management and other considerations, yet I still graft and do work that either doesn't pay at all, or pays so little that it may as well not pay. This adds a kind of hopeless stress to the things I do, but it is what it is at the moment. I feel trapped in a lot of ways, and the only way I feel things could possibly move on is if I can start to earn a little more and be more self-sufficient. Again, more self-imposed stress. I beat myself up about not pitching more ideas to more potential clients, for not reading the stack of Writing Magazines I have yet to touch because of some kind of block, and myriad other things. I know this kind of self-talk isn’t helpful, but it’s so overwhelming when deep in depression, that when I struggle to brush my teeth some mornings, anything else just doesn't seem worth doing, including living. But I go on.

In the time I’ve been ill, I’ve read countless self-help/mental health/psychology/philosophy/ spirituality books, from CBT to ACT, from mindfulness to the Satanic Bible, from Osho to Alan Watts, from Shamanism to The Sedona Method. I’ve worked to get a handle on the things that I can, and to be accepting of the things that I can’t change. I’ve improved my skills in a number of areas and even when I feel dead inside, I can still find the drive to help other people if I can, even if I don’t feel like it. This all counts for something.

This is the crux of what this long post has been about, trying to show myself that I’m not the weak coward that I always paint myself as when I fall into the spiral of hopelessness that I sometimes do. I’m never good at complimenting myself or bigging myself up, but at the very least, by reading back what I’ve just written, I can see that these words don’t depict someone who isn’t trying to do what he can with what he’s got. I think one of my biggest fears is failing at something that I then look back on and wish I’d tried harder, which is a way of thinking I could find myself in about anything really.

I don’t mind failure, I do mind if I feel I could have done more to give myself a better chance at things. To some degree, this post has helped me see that that feeling of wishing I did more, if it does happen that writing isn’t a thing I can do to sustain myself, might not feel so bad, knowing that I have tried, and that’s pretty much enough.

If you are struggling with anything like the issues I've mentioned, you have my complete sympathy, and I hope you will seek help if you haven't so far, either by seeing your Doctor or talking to people like the Samaritans. It might help. It's worth a try. If you'd like to chat with me about anything I've written too, you can find me on social media or use the contact me page by clicking below. If you want to throw money at me to write something, please feel free to do the same. Thanks for reading.