Flu

I’ve been ill.  Although not anywhere near life threatening, it’s probably the most ill I’ve ever been in my adult life.  We suspect flu, and I now whole heartedly regret not getting the jab last year.  I’m on the ‘at risk’ list due to type 2 diabetes, so get the jab for free (and the NHS are not shy in reminding me), but I laughingly say ‘I’ll get it when I’m old’ each time, and decline.  I won’t decline next year.

Normally if I’m ill, I’ll pass the time watching movies or playing on the console or PC.  This time, I was pretty much spaced out the entire two or three weeks, and just stared at the TV for something to occupy my feeble mind.  Between the coughing and the temperature, I was pretty much wasted.  My eating during the illness has been somewhat sporadic, I don’t think I had anything for the first two days, and then it’s been a mixture of bread and other junk.  Can’t imagine my blood sugar results in March are going to be very good.

Frustratingly, during that time, we had some great sunny days and I would have loved to have gotten out with the camera, but I just didn’t have the energy (not withstanding that I was also off work and it would have been a little disingenuous to be well enough to take photographs but not well enough to work).  This morning was the first time in three weeks I’ve been out of the house (other than two trips to the GP), and I’m not sure Tesco counts as a fun destination.  Even doing that has left me knackered.

So I’ve spent a lot of time staring at day time TV, with adverts.  One of the things I noticed is that every second advert during the day on TV is about after 50 life cover, to cover the cost of funerals. And every other advert in between those, is about reclaiming mis-sold PPI, short term loans, or claiming compensation for an injury at work.  What a fucking depressing collection of adverts.

Terrible sentence structure

I read back the blog post I wrote yesterday, and the sentence structure is shockingly bad.  I’m prone to passive writing, and equally prone to run-on sentences.  That blog post is pretty much a master class in shockingly bad writing (structure, not necessarily content).  I thought about going back and correcting it, but it seems a little disingenuous given the post was off the cuff as it were, just a rambling dialogue with my own brain.

It does highlight something I’ve been getting worse at over the years – proof reading.  I’m getting lazier.  I used to write and read everything back a couple of times, these days I’m lucky if I read it while I’m writing it.  This increases the number of incorrect word endings I use (-ed instead of -ing, -ing instead of -s, etc.) along with just missed out words.

I must try harder.

Coming to terms with it

md01-095_m_1_grandeNot a happy go lucky blog entry – you may want to move along if you’re already in a down mood.

It’s funny how we forget what we were like, or what we enjoyed, or what we did.  Is that just me?  My memory of my life is quite bad, I don’t think about the past much (other than a few specific things), but memories are sometimes triggered by other people having conversations about stuff.  I moved away from home when I was 18 (went to Uni) and never really went back.  That meant my conversations from the age of 18 onwards were about new stuff.  I wonder if this is what people mean by the phrase discovering yourself?

Because I mostly listened to people and spoke about how I felt about stuff, rather than the events of my childhood, I never reinforced those memories I guess.  Over time, still not talking about them (not for any dire reason, just because I was always private) means they didn’t get refreshed or used, and unused memories fade.  Or mine did.  Now, because they’re hazy I just don’t talk about them because I don’t really have good recollections of them.  So, I was going to start this blog with, I was never one for big family gatherings, and then I realised I wasn’t actually sure if that was true.  Maybe I was when I was young but I grew out of them, or maybe I was always too old for my boots, too sarcastic and cynical for my shorts?  Who knows.  For the benefit of brevity, let’s assume I was never one for big family gatherings.  I didn’t dislike my wider family as much as just disliking the process of being in a large family group.

I used to go to my grandparent’s (on my mam’s side) house for dinner (which is the midday meal where I’m from), during school dinner break when I was in my teens.  It was right next to the school and my mam worked school dinners in the same school, so you know, it made sense.  Kitty and George, I knew things weren’t perfect but as families do, everyone pretended it was fine for the kids.  I loved my granddad’s yorkshire puddings, and his bacon sandwiches made with white bread a foot thick.  Kitty didn’t do much cooking, but she let us tear up the place so we didn’t mind.  They had a scary shed full of tools and stuff I didn’t understand, a garden which had a chain-link fence which overlooked the school sports field, rocks in the garden painted with white gloss paint, and one year the snow drifts were so high in their back garden, we hid in them.

I’m not sure if I didn’t know my dad’s parents at all or if they just lived too far away to be part of our lives.  My dad died when I was 4, and my mam didn’t talk about it.  We moved back to Newcastle after he died, because we no longer had to follow his army postings, and we made new lives near to my mam’s parents, and her 3 sisters.  I never asked about my dad’s parents.  I never used the word dad much, I remember once a cousin of mine calling me a bastard, in the way kids do, and I was a bit upset by that for a few days before learning what it really meant, and that it didn’t apply at all.  I’m not sure I missed him, although I know my sister did, and it became apparent that despite never talking about him, my mam missed him more than pretty much anything in the world except her two kids.  I was really too young to remember much, or I blocked it out of my memory, one or the other.  If you can’t remember someone, it’s hard to miss them.

My granddad died before my grandmother.  I visited him when he was in hospital, really unwell with pneumonia, and we spoke briefly about cricket which he loved a great deal.  My enjoyment of cricket, my limited knowledge of the game comes from his love of it.  I felt bad that I’d only visited him once, and that he was really ill, and probably unaware of me.  What can you do.  I was in my late teens.  My grandmother leant on all the daughters then, as you would.  I can’t even remember if I went to the funeral.  How shit is that?  I’m not even entirely sure if I was at university or at home.  Is it because I’m callous, or because I block this stuff out?  Because I have a bad memory or because I choose not to remember?

Not long after moving to Nottingham with Greté we got news that my grandmother had died.  I travelled back to Newcastle for the funeral.  I remember that.  I remember trying to be strong for my mam, because she’d lost her mam.  I probably failed.  I wouldn’t say I was openly close to anyone in my family, immediate or extended.  Emotionally stunted?  Just too cynical?  I’m not sure.

My sister had kids, and although she complained about it, my mam loved looking after them, loved having young kids around again.  It gave her a new lease of life.  Then they got a little older and to that age where they did stuff that my mam found hard work, like making a mess, running around putting their knees at risk, jumping off stools.  She’d moved closer to my sister, and my sister basically looked out for her.  I spoke to them, and saw them once a year, maybe twice, but that was it.

Then my mam had a stroke, and a fall, and although she was well enough to go home, she never really recovered.  She lost her confidence, would get lost walking short distances.  She was miserable.  She hated life.  She’d lost the man she loved in 1975 and never replaced him, her kids had grown up and moved out, and her grand-kids were growing up, and now she was stuck in her flat, no one to talk to.  She had another catastrophic, fatal stroke in December 2012.  I was sad, but I knew that was no longer unhappy, no longer trapped.  My sister organised the funeral, I attended, tried to say some words.  Saw my best friend from my youth, made promises to stay in touch, never did.  Saw the whole family, cousins and aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.  Then went back to my life.  I saw my sister, her husband and her kids more often after that.  I made more of an effort.  Not a massive increase in effort, but I think we both knew we needed to keep in touch more.

Then, in September last year (2015), my sister died.  She’d had a long illness, undiagnosed, then a diagnosis, surgery and then in a very short time, a more negative diagnosis and what was ultimately a very short period of very intense illness before she passed away.  Highly aggressive, pretty much untreatable, cancer.  She knew what was happening, the night before she passed away she had her husband bring the kids into hospital so she could talk to them.  Even in that last moment her thoughts were with her kids, making sure they knew what was going on, what they had to do.

That was it.  All my immediate family (as I use the phrase) gone.  Plenty of aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters-in-law, and of course, my amazing wife; but my family unit gone.

What does it mean?  I’m 45 this year, and I guess it’s not an unusual position to be in, but I’m still coming to terms with it.  Is there a message?  Life is short, buy the shoes?  I saw that today, and I think it’s true, although it’s never easy.  But is that the message?  Talk to your family more, live in the now, enjoy them now, but reminisce,  Talk about the past, laugh about it, because if you don’t exercise those memories they’ll just fade.  Don’t live in the past, you can’t change it, but bathe in it every now and again, remember how it felt.  Is that trite?  Probably.

Greté got me some socks and boxer shorts for Christmas (among many other wonderful gifts).  She was a bit apologetic about those, but I reminded her I’d run out of other people who were going to buy them for me, so it was her job now.

How come it’s only Wednesday?

Feels like it should be at least half way through Thursday by now, if not next Tuesday.  We finally got Greté’s ESA submission completed and sent off.  It arrived on the 8th December, just in time for Christmas.  So thoughtful of them.  As usual, the mere existence of the form made a big dent in Greté’s confidence and overall management of her depression.  Being asked to describe how bad your illness is so that someone else can judge whether it’s bad enough to deserve welfare isn’t exactly the most confidence building of actions.  Doing so when you’ve had to appeal and subsequently win twice previously just makes it all the harder.

I’m still not convinced the financial cost of processing the ESA submissions and subsequent appeals outweighs the financial cost of just paying anyone who applies for it in the first place (never mind the health cost to those affected).  There’s a flat percentage of people who’ll take the piss, and they don’t mind lying on the forms.  Most honest people who aren’t trying to deceive anyone are honest on the forms anyway, and still get rejected until the appeal stage.  I don’t see how anyone wins at this process.

Anyway, we’ve filled in the forms, honestly, and we’ve included the letter we sent in for the 2013 appeal, and we’ll see what that results in.  We’ll keep trying to manage the impact on Greté’s health and hopefully get her back to a more stable position.

Slowing Down Time

So it’s 2016, which is as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone.  Where does the time go?  A few years ago now, David Gemmell told me about a friend of his, an elderly gentleman, who suggested that we feel time passing more quickly as we age, because we experience less new stuff each day.  As children, everything around us is new, or we’re doing new things, exploring and discovering new knowledge.  As we age, in general, our days are filled with very similar things, and there’s little new or surprising in each of them.  So our experience of time is based on the density of our memories for any given period.  More memories of different things and the passage of time feels slow, fewer memories and the passage of time feels quick.  The aim then, is to keep doing new things, discovering new things, experiencing new things, and thus, slow down the passage of time.

I don’t know how true it is, but I don’t see the harm in trying.

I pay lip service to new years resolutions usually, if I go that far, and although I’d like to think this year is different it probably won’t be.  However, even in the face of obvious failure it’s usually still worth having a shot, so here are my new years resolutions for 2016.

  • Drink more.
  • Eat more.
  • Photograph more.
  • Watch more films.
  • Be happier.

I know that being happy is not really something you can choose (others might disagree), but you can take steps to increase the chance of it working that way – if you have the energy (there’s the kicker).  I don’t drink much alcohol any more, partly because we’re not in the situation where alcohol is often consumed very often, and partly because of the diabetes.  There’s a lot of sugar in beer, and alcohol screws with your blood sugar on top.  However, I do like a bit of whiskey and people keep buying it for me.  So I really should drink it.  I resolve, within reason and within sensible measures, to drink the whiskey I have in the cupboard and to bloody enjoy it.

I already eat too much so the second one might seem odd, but I tend to eat too much low quality food.  What I want to do, is eat too much high quality food (or, a more sensible amount of high quality food, as an alternative).  I want to eat more exciting things and less boring things.

I’ve struggled with getting out to take photographs in the last few months.  Part of this is because my sister died in the latter part of 2015, after a short and devastating battle with cancer.  I was on the road a lot visiting her, and while my battle wasn’t anywhere near as hard as hers (clearly), I pretty much expended all of my energy and had nothing left over.  Most of that travelling took place at weekends, which was the only time I really had for photography, so it took a back seat.  Then Christmas was upon us faster than we could imagine, we had a lot of work to do helping Greté’s mum and step-dad move house, and now it’s the new year.  So, in 2016, I will take more photographs (and I will try and be less negative about the output).

I love films, I should watch more of them.  I will watch more of them.  You can’t stop me!

Part of being happier means expressing myself again, writing, and that means blog posts.  I like writing them, because they help me understand how I feel, even when they’re about nothing more than how my day has gone.  So, I intend to overhaul the blog, replace the template with something a) cleaner, b) less black, and c) easier to maintain.  And I intend to blog, to alleviate stress, to ramble, to solidify my thoughts and to share (maybe) my photographs.

Here’s a funny picture of some cats.

Given up blogging?

Maybe not. Last few weeks I’ve had an itch forming to start writing blog posts again. Maybe I’m starting to finally recover from the crushing despair I felt in the job I left in June this year? Who knows.

Whatever the reasons, I’m definitely starting to feel more creative again and that inevitably leads to blog posts.

Street Photography

So to my great surprise, I seem to enjoy ‘street photography’ more than the other kinds of photography I’ve tried over the last few years.  I’ll be the first to admit however that much of my street photography is ‘photographs taken in the street’, rather than the more classic street photography.  By that I mean, the form is really about capturing ‘decisive moments’ in a candid way, usually at quite short focal lengths.

At the moment, I tend to use longer focal lengths, and often my results are more candid street portraits than actual street photography.

Despite that, and with all the respect due to the real tradition, I’m enjoy what I do none-the-less, and over time hope to improve my confidence, and my technical ability, to switch to shorter focal lengths and capture more moments rather than interesting faces.

When I bought a DSLR, I really thought I’d be spending my time shooting pictures of animals and wild life, and early on, I did that.  However, wild life photography (good wild life photography) requires a large investment of time, spent waiting, watching, and planning for the moment in which to capture the animal.  Taking a thousand pictures of swans, however beautiful they are, isn’t in the long term wild life photography.  As such, I haven’t invested the time, or found a place in which I want to invest the time, to carry out high quality wild life photography.

Landscape photography is as time intensive as wild life photography, and certainly requires just as much planning.  Taking an occasional picture of a stream, and capturing a brilliant image of a landscape are two different things, and the latter requires a lot of planning, preparation and timing to get the right light and the right shot.

Portrait and event photography both interest me, probably for the same root reason as street photography – they’re about people and I find people fascinating.  However, I don’t have the confidence yet to take portraits and I don’t have the opportunity to take shoot many events (although I take the chance whenever I can).

So I’ve found the immediacy and unpredictable nature of street photography to be the most engaging activity I’ve been involved in since getting the camera.  I love looking at the pictures and finding hidden gems of human behaviour that might not have been obvious at the moment I pressed the shutter button (see the guy on the left in this picture, https://www.flickr.com/photos/eightbittony/19423003901).  I love seeing the emotions of people’s faces, and I love building a narrative that may or may not be real based on the instant the picture was taken.

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that truth is based on your perception at the time, and street photography really encompasses that philosophy for me.

Hopefully my confidence will increase, and I’ll get better at shooting at short focal lengths.  I’m not going to stop trying to improve at wild life, landscape, event, sport, portrait and the other forms of photography of course, it’s just that street photography is both accessible at any time, and more thrilling so far than anything else I’ve tried.

Depression Awareness Week – 2015

This is the letter I wrote, but never sent to my MP. I never sent it because writing it took so much energy, that I couldn’t face going back and proof reading it, and by the time I was ready to do that, we’d completed the appeal and Greté had been moved to the Support Group. So apologies in advance for bad grammar, repetition and typos.

I wrote the letter the day we got back from the interview at the DWP, which is a mandatory aspect of being in the ESA Work-Related Activity Group.

“I appreciate this is a long letter, but it is written from the heart, and I implore you to read it.

Myself and my wife (Greté Evans) have just returned from a mandatory interview with an employee at the Job Centre. Firstly, I want to say that I have the utmost respect for the staff working there, and that despite the rest of this letter I have no complaints about how any individual has dealt with our case.

My wife suffers from a condition which used to be called Dysthymia, but is sometimes known as Persistent Depressive Disorder. The Wikipedia link for the condition is,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysthymia

My wife also suffers from a Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia and a number of related conditions. Additionally, she has chronic back pain due to an issue with her spine.

In the mid to late 90’s, while undiagnosed but still suffering from dysthymia, my wife continued to try and work. Sometimes those were paid roles, sometimes they were voluntary. However, around 1997 my wife’s health deteriorated and she was laid off from her last paid job. Although she was diagnosed (again) as being depressed, and given anti-depressants, the diagnosis was not for dysthymia and the anti-depressants in question were unsuitable.

After a number of months, Greté tried again to get work, with a temp agency, but during her first day suffered a severe panic attack and had to leave the office to which she had been sent. This crushed the last of her remaining self-confidence and over the next year or so, her health suffered even more greatly. Over the following 2 years there were periods in which she considered suicide as her only source of relief.

Over subsequent years, Greté had severe bouts of depression on and off, over the top of the constant dysthymia. Eventually, she met a GP who understood her condition and together they finally found a diagnosis for Greté (tragically, the GP was Dr Elizabeth Kinston). With the right medication and support, Greté has been able to manage her symptoms for a number of years now.

But she is not cured. Every day she battles depression, every day she battles panic attacks and crushingly low self-esteem. Some days Greté is able to go out to places she knows well, with people she trusts, and those people might think she’s perfectly healthy. Greté can go shopping to Tesco, but if something out of the ordinary happens, or the aisles are busier than she was expecting, she might well suffer a panic attack and have to leave. Other days she battles to even get out of bed.

During all of this, Greté has received various benefits, and until recently was receiving the non-means tested benefit introduced before ESA. During those periods we have both suffered the shame and dehumanising health assessments, carried out over the years by decreasingly qualified medical staff. In 2006 we appealed when Greté was told she was fit to work. Within minutes of the appeal board interviewing Greté, it was clear to them the decision had been made in error and her benefit was re-instated and back-paid.

Earlier this year, Greté was informed she would be moving to the new benefit system, and would need an assessment. We received the forms and completed them honestly, as best as we could. Within a few weeks Greté was notified she was being categorised and placed in the Work-related activity group. We were told we had 30 days to appeal.

But we didn’t know what to expect. Greté doesn’t want to spend her life not working. She already suffers from severe self-esteem issues and not being in work in the current climate and current ‘scrounger mentality’ government stance makes those feelings ever more acute. We both hoped that maybe the process would offer up some help, some assistance. Greté could speak to people who understood her condition and together they could work through the options and perhaps begin the process of understanding how, if possible, Greté would be able to get back to work.

This is all against a backdrop of my deepest fear. Greté’s condition means that she can’t handle change, confrontation, unexpected situations or some social interaction without severe panic. A panic attack at work so severe you can’t breathe (let’s not even talk about getting through a job interview), and leads to you running out of the building will only lead to a tough conversation the next day. So maybe Greté has a panic attack and a few days of severe depression and then goes back to work. Maybe it happens again a few weeks after, and another conversation with her manager results. But Greté’s illness prevents her from handling that as well, and she’s signed off for 2 more weeks. Combined together, this causes Greté’s ever present real illness to worsen, her self-esteem to crash and her anxiety to take over her whole day, and suddenly she’s considering suicide again as the only option.

Despite that fear, we didn’t appeal immediately, we waited and we went to the first interview with the DWP. Of course, Greté couldn’t go on her own, but I went with her and we listened to the member of staff tell us what this process entailed.

Her first comment was that most people miss the bit in the letter that says benefit is only paid for 365 days before becoming means tested. Indeed, we had both missed that. Greté immediately suffered a panic attack, began crying uncontrollably and would have left the building had I not been there to basically physically hold onto her. I got her calmed down, and we listened to the rest. Basically, there is no support, there is no officer who understands Greté’s mental illness. There is someone who can help you find work, but finding work isn’t the problem.
The issue is Greté being physically capable of attending an interview and holding down a job with her current illness without eventually becoming suicidal.

Even if we don’t engage with the process, and just go by the numbers, in a year my wife’s benefit will stop. I work full time, and earn a salary. I’m sure we’ll still be able to eat, but that’s not the problem. My wife’s illness leaves her with no self-esteem. She already considers herself, during the worst of her days, a burden on me, and those around her. The fact that she currently has her own money with which she can contribute to bills, gives her some sense of worth. When that last thing is taken from her, when she feels as worthless as she can, it will be the final act of a government that doesn’t care about her.

So today, while my wife recovers from her ordeal and tries not to slip into a further depression which may last weeks, I am going to start the process of appealing the initial assessment.

We tried to engage this process constructively, we wanted and hoped that we might get some help, and that Greté might get some support to work despite the significant challenges she faces. But it is clear to me that the process itself is not constructive, that actually it doesn’t care about the effect working for a living might have on someone’s health, it cares only about getting that person off benefit and into a job. Should they fall sick again afterwards, or indeed, God forbid, should they become so sick they commit suicide, the process doesn’t care and for a short time at least the person is off benefit and killing themselves slowly in a day job.

I will not allow anyone to make my wife more ill. No matter how healthy she appears day to day, the very act of working for a living could put her life at risk, and I won’t allow it to happen. Ironically, if she were in work right now, she’d be signed off sick due to the anxiety and additional depression the recent few weeks and months have brought on.

You may feel I am being melodramatic. I have no idea how much you know about mental illness, depression, anxiety or any of the other issues that myself and my wife live with on a day to day basis, but I promise you, there is no exaggeration here, no drama for the sake of it.
Just an amazing wife who suffers from a terrible, invisible illness.

I do not know what I expect you to do with this letter, I guess I just mostly want you to know how current policy is affecting real people.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.”

Depression Awareness Week – 2015

My wife suffers from Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia) and does not work.  We appealed a decision to move her into the ESA Work-Related Activity Group in 2013, and that appeal was successful.  This is the e-mail Greté wrote, and rather than writing some long blog posts about Greté’s illness, I’m posting this to give you an idea of what she battles with daily.  Tomorrow, I’ll post a letter I wrote (but then never sent) to my local MP.  I’ll explain why I never sent it in that post.

Again for clarity, this letter is from and about Greté.

Dear Sir / Madam,

On the 6th November 2013 I (Greté) was placed into the ESA Work-Related Activity Group. I am writing to you, to formally ask you to look at the decision again.

I do not believe enough consideration has been given to my mental health and how both looking for work and then trying to hold down a job will affect me.

I tried to answer the questions in the questionnaire honestly, but feel they have not been reviewed fully in context. For example, I would not be able to attend job interviews on my own, and would be unlikely to be able to attend my first day at any new job on my own either. Which prospective employer is prepared to let me attend my first day at work with my husband or someone else I trust so that I don’t have a panic attack? Which employer would let me attend with someone for the first 2 or 3 months until I built up enough confidence and trust in the place of work and the people present so that I could go on my own? Who could even spare the time to attend with me in that situation? That is the reality of my mental health. Can I go to the local Tesco on my own? Yes, because I have been there literally hundreds of times before with my husband. Could I go to a shop I have never been in before? No, and if I were made to it is likely I would suffer a panic attack before I even made it in through the door.

My conditions (dysthymia, panic disorder, agoraphobia) are not cured. I am not well. I suffer from those conditions every day. At best, I manage my surroundings to try and contain the symptoms and ensure I don’t dip into a double depression. I thought that the work-related activity group would include support and counselling to enable me to begin to move towards the process of looking for work. However, in discussion with the Job Centre Plus staff (I attended the interview with my husband) it is clear that level of support does not exist. At best, the process would help me looking for work, but looking for work is not and has never been the issue. As it happens, I had a panic attack during that interview, despite the presence of my husband, and only his presence stopped me leaving the building. Instead, I just sat and cried uncontrollably throughout the whole interview.

The issue with the mental illness that I suffer with daily is that I can not deal with change, stress or pressure, and under those situations I am likely to have a panic attack and essentially ‘run out’ of the workplace. Perhaps, through some miracle, that would be tolerated once or twice, but it would lead to difficult conversations with the company, and those conversations in their own right would lead to more stress and anxiety.

Ultimately these situations would inevitably lead to further depression, self harm and potentially suicidal thoughts. I know this, because it is exactly what happened the last time I tried working in the late 1990’s. I ran out of the work place after suffering a panic attack on my first day, and the following months were some of the deepest depression I have ever suffered, including suicidal thoughts, which led to referral to a psychiatrist.

Although my condition is now fully diagnosed and managed day to day with medication, that only allows me to operate literally day to day. The pressure of work, interview rejection, deadlines, change, and social interaction would inevitably cause the symptoms of my ever present illness to flare up.

The mere thought terrifies me. The whole process of engagement from the ESA terrifies me. In the last month, my desire to self harm has never been stronger and it is only the safety of my own home and family that has helped me rein those feelings in.

I urge you to reconsider my case and place me in the Support Group.

The usual random blogging type stuff, usually ranting.