All that I am, all that I ever was…

I am more than my mental health. I am more than my homelessness. I am more than any one aspect of me. I am Addy. And this is…


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Roadblocks to Recovery: #4. Home is where the heart is

Being homeless is more than just being without a roof over your head. It is being without comfort, without security, without love. It is being without any of the things that most people take for granted in life. When you’re homeless, your life becomes about one thing; survival. It is about finding food to provide sustenance, it is about finding water to imbibe, and it is about doing whatever you can to get through each day and each long, never-ending night. Some homeless people sleep with knives and/or clubs to offer a layer of protection should someone attack you in the night. Some homeless people have the emergency services on speed dial on their phone, just in case the daily onslaught of abuse you receive from those more-fortunate than you turns nasty.

I know this because I was one of those people. For years of my life my home was a park just south of the Melbourne CBD. I slept with a stick that I wrenched off a tree; I had the emergency services on speed dial. My ‘home’ was a patch of grass; no comfort, no security, no love. It was, without question, one of the most brutal periods of my life – but it was a period that taught me something; it taught me the value of ‘home’.

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My ‘home’ was a patch of grass beneath a tree; no comfort, no security, no love.

Ever since I moved into my unit in February 2012, I have felt grateful for having a roof over my head. I’ve felt grateful for not having to sleep with a stick digging into my ribs and for having some semblance of security and comfort around me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I’ve felt gratitude of the like most people couldn’t even conceive of, because my life has been, almost literally, in the gutter. But this gratitude still doesn’t detract from the fact I don’t – and have never – felt at ‘home’ where I live. It has always been a case of ‘the place I sleep’ or ‘the place I live’ rather than home, and that is because I know – and have always known – that my heart isn’t in it. And home, for me, has always been intrinsically linked with heart.

When I was growing up in Portlethen, on the east coast of Scotland, I liked where I was living. I felt at home in our house. I felt at home traversing the various streets and alleyways of the town. And I felt at home playing amidst the various brooks, burns and open spaces the township had to offer.

When I was growing up in Caldicot, on the south coast of Wales, I didn’t like where I was living. I hated the house in which we lived. I disliked the various streets and alleyways of the town. And I rarely, if ever, played amidst the various fields, parks and open spaces the township had to offer.

So it comes as no surprise to me that the latter – Caldicot – is where my mental health began to deteriorate. Sure, my age had something to do with it, but I have always linked my lack of ‘home’ to my increasing depression and anxiety. Being somewhere so devoid of comfort, so devoid of security, so devoid of love, can have a devastating effect on ones mental health.

After living in Caldicot for the better part of my teenage years, I finally realised that I was able to assert my adulthood and move somewhere that I actually liked. Within months of this decision I was back in Scotland, this time in the north, living in the city of Inverness. And I found almost instantaneous solace amidst the river, islands and back streets of this fair city. Within minutes of being there I felt ‘at home’; I could feel a weight being lifted from my soul, I could sense my depression easing, I could sense my anxiety waning. Years of pain that Caldicot had inflicted on me were being undone, simply from living somewhere that I was passionate about, somewhere that provided me the safety and warmth that I crave from a home.

And herein lies one of the fundamental problems that is plaguing my hopelessness today; however grateful I am for the roof that I have over my head, I cannot deny that it does not – and has never – felt like home. Not the unit that I call home. Not the town that houses that unit. None of it stirs my soul. None of it lights a fire in my heart. All this town is doing is slowly depleting my strength. It has become, over the last few years, a major trigger; impacting on my depression, PTSD and anxiety in ways that I could never have comprehended when I ended up here during my homelessness.

I need to be somewhere I feel passionate about; I need to live somewhere that I feel comfortable. It is as important to me as the most necessary components of human life; food, water and love. If I’m not happy where I live, then it stands to reason, that I’m not going to happy within myself.

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However grateful I am for the roof that I have over my head, I cannot deny that it does not – and has never – felt like home.

So what can be done about it.

Firstly, I need to make the difficult decision that has been plaguing me for over a year, a decision that I wrote about just last week; I need to decide whether or not I want to make my future Australia, or whether I’m going to return home to the UK. Both options have their advantages, both their disadvantages, and I have been veering between the two for the last several months. Although I know no-one can make this decision for me, I’m still open to hear your opinions and advice, given this is such an important and life-altering decision.

But until I make that choice, there are other things I could do to improve my sense of home:

Secondly, I could invest some money into decorating my unit. I’m not talking about painting and wallpapering, I don’t think my lease would allow such drastic alteration to the premises. I’m talking about fitting it with furniture and decoration that I have chosen. The only furniture I currently have was donated to me by a charity when I first moved in. They gave me a bed, a table and chairs, and a couch. I had no say in the style of furniture, I had no choice in the matter, I was just grateful for the help. But now I want that choice; I want to live somewhere that looks the way I want it to look.

Thirdly, I need to find the ‘love’ that makes a home a home. And this is where the social anxiety has an impact. I know that if I had friends, and/or a relationship, my sense of home in both my unit and the town in which I live, would improve. Love always has that effect. But to find those friends and/or a relationship whilst suffering from social anxiety is all but impossible, so I need to improve that, in order to improve my sense of home.

Fourthly, I could move to somewhere else in Australia. The only reason I moved to this town was because I couldn’t find accommodation in Melbourne. I didn’t choose this town. I didn’t opt to live here. I just ended up here because I had nowhere else to go. So moving somewhere that was my choice; moving somewhere that I wanted to be, may be the best thing for me. But this opens up a whole kettle of fish in regards to my finances that I’m not sure I would be able to deal with, for the last thing I want is to be homeless again. I may have survived it once, but that doesn’t mean I want to end up back in that park with a stick digging into my ribs night after night.

Fifthly, well, I can’t think of a fifth option right now so I’ll have to leave it there.

Unlike the previous installments of this series, this is a problem area of my life that I do have some semblance of control over. I could decide to leave this town tomorrow – and probably be happier for it – but the constant threat of homelessness prevents me from doing so. I know I need to improve my sense of home, I know that this would improve my hopelessness and other mental health issues, I just need to make some difficult choices.

Previous installments in ‘Roadblocks to Recovery’:


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Roadblocks to Recovery: #3. Social Isolation

Over the last eight years, my hope has been on the decline, so it is no surprise to me to find that it has now completely evaporated. What caused this decline in hope began when I lost my social network in 2007, following my breakdown and the subsequent emotional abuse I received. For without people with whom to share our life with, there is little hope left. Hence today’s roadblock to recovery is the isolation I have found myself existing in.

Social Isolation

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There is a difference between loneliness and isolation, just as there’s a difference between isolation and solitude. What I experience is not the serenity of a few hours spent in solitude from the hustle-bustle of contemporary life, what I experience on a daily basis is the soul-crushing state of being completely isolated from the rest of the human world. I have no friends. I have no acquaintances. I have no-one. And over the course of the last eight years, that’s something few people have been able to comprehend.

We live in a world where friendships are common place. Everyone is supposed to have ‘friends’ on Facebook, everyone is supposed to have a cavalcade of followers on Twitter, and everyone is supposed to have one or two people in the real world that they consider friends. People with whom you can catch up with over a beverage or two, people who you can confide in, people with whom you can wile away the hours and validate your own existence. So when someone – such as myself – comes along who has no-one, people react with complete confusion.

Over the years, everyone from support workers, psychiatrists, psychologists and telephone counselors have reacted with disbelief upon being told I have no friends. They were unable to comprehend that some people have no-one they can share life with; that no matter how hard some people try, they just don’t have any friends.

The problem I have making friends stems from the first two roadblocks I have looked at; PTSD and social anxiety disorder. My abuser worked her genetically blessed arse off to convince both myself and the world that I deserved no-one in my life. She deliberately isolated me from my friends through a series of lies and manipulations, she informed me that I was an orphan that no-one could ever love and took great glee in informing me that I should move into a cave where I wouldn’t inflict myself on the world. Her incessant abuse also rendered me unable to trust a living human being – including my parents – and without trust it’s almost impossible to make friends, let alone sexual relationships. Even if it wasn’t for the psychological damage my abuser inflicted on me, making friends has always been something I’ve found difficult to do. Ever since I was but a wee young thing in school, talking to people has been difficult for me. This is why it took so long (five years) to make friends after my arrival in Australia, and why I find it so difficult to forgive my abuser for destroying this social network I’d created.

The other reason that I find making friends so difficult, is the simple reason that I don’t have any friends. It may sound odd, or plain ironic, but the simple fact is it’s easier to make friends when you already have friends than it is to make friends when you don’t have friends. Firstly, you are more likely to meet new people through your existing friends, and secondly, people are far less likely to ask “what’s wrong with you”. For someone who doesn’t have friends is automatically (and wrongly) labelled as being ‘not friend material’ because they must be ‘crazy’, ‘needy’ or ‘just plain damaged’.

I am acutely aware that being so isolated is damaging to both my physical and mental health. A study in 2013 found that people who suffer from social isolation are more likely to die prematurely and it is commonly known that isolation can increase feelings of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. So it isn’t too difficult to realise how being isolated has become such a severe roadblock on my journey to recovery. We all need someone in our lives. Someone we can vent to. Someone we can share with. Someone we can spend time with. To have no-one is painful, debilitating and damned lonely.

The only social contact I have comes from my weekly appointments with my support worker. They last for approximately one hour each. Every single other hour of the week I spend alone; staring at the wall, roaming the streets, trying desperately to work out how I can make friends. It’s debilitating, painful and makes me wonder why I continue with this crazy thing called life.

So what can be done about my isolation? How does one even go about making friends at the tender old age of thirty-six?

Well, firstly, I need to do something about my social anxiety disorder. For as long as this condition retains the control it does over my mind, I am never going to be confident enough to talk to other human beings. There is far too much risk of humiliation and badness if I do.

And, secondly, I need to do something about my PTSD. For as long as this condition retains the control it does over my mind, I am never going to be able to trust other human beings to the point of making and retaining relationships with them. There is far too much risk of pain and chaos if I do.

But once I’ve done those, there are other things I can do:

Thirdly, I could join some local community organisations or social groups, this way I can enjoy my spare time doing something I enjoy doing whilst placing myself in a position to make new friends and connections. Perhaps a photography group or book club would be suitable to begin with.

Fourthly, I can make more of an effort to connect with people online. I find this method of communication less painful than real-world conversation and it could lead to making online friends with the hope of transferring the friendship into real-world contact, depending on where the people live, of course.

Fifthly, well, I honestly can’t think of a fifth option, for making friends basically boils down to getting yourself out there and just meeting people! No amount of counseling or therapy is going to make friends, it’s just something you need to do, regardless of risk. For without risk there is no reward.

Previous installments in ‘Roadblocks to Recovery’:


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Roadblocks to Recovery: #1. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

I spent a considerable amount of time yesterday reading through some of the blog posts that I wrote in 2012 and 2013, quite possibly the most prolific blogging period of my online writing career. Some of the posts were depressing, some were uplifting, some funny and others steeped in inspirational content. But the defining characteristic of each blog post that I read was hope; hope for me, hope for a better future, hope for my recovery journey.

Over the last twelve months, ever since I slipped into a deep depression that refuses to lift no matter what I do, I realise that this hope has evaporated. I no longer have hope that I will ever recover. I no longer have hope that my life will be any better than it is now. And that’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever written, for if my life is never going to get any better than what I have now, I may as well kill myself, because what I have now is nothing.

My “life” (if you can call it that) is a monotonous routine of the same-old, same-old every single day. I roll out of bed in the morning only because I need to go to the bathroom. I fiddle online. I listen to the radio. I watch DVDs (almost at the same time each day) and I yearn for something (anything) to happen so as to break the routine that I have fallen into. Sometimes I try to break the routine myself; go for a walk, cook something new for dinner, break up the route I take when walking to the supermarket, but nothing cracks the protective routine I’ve fashioned for myself.

As I read those blog posts yesterday evening I began to wonder why I have such trouble breaking my routine. Why I have no hope for recovery. I started to wonder about all the roadblocks that have been created that are preventing me from continuing my recovery journey. All the niggling frustrations that have been concocted to prevent me from living the life that I want to live. And it is these roadblocks that I need to explore, to try to work out why they are causing such problem and what (if anything) can be done about them.

For until I navigate these roadblocks I will have no hope, and without hope, there is nothing.

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

PTSD

The first roadblock that is preventing hope from re-entering my life is something I wrote about recently: PTSD. My PTSD is a complex beast. It is not just from one incident, but rather several life-threatening and traumatic incidents that have occurred over the last eight years of my life. From being emotionally abused, to being raped, to being forced to live a homeless, sub-human existence, the memories of these events permeate every facet of my life, forcing me to live in a constant hyper-vigilant state. There are so many triggers, so many things for me to avoid, that ‘living’ is something that seems almost impossible. Even simple acts like someone chewing gum, talking to people or writing comments on blogs can cause crippling panic attacks and hours of re-living the events that have defined my life over the last several years.

Even without these triggers, my PTSD can come flooding back unbidden. I have already mentioned recently the near constant conversations I have with the ghost of my abuser, frantically trying to make sense of what she did, why she did it and why I deserved it. Conversations (nay, screaming matches) that can last for hours at a time, no matter what I’m doing or where I’m doing it. At night, my sleep is constantly disturbed by the near-endless nightmares of being raped, and that is when I can get to sleep, as my efforts are often affected by the memories of my time sleeping rough as my mind constantly asks whether or not I ‘deserve’ to be sleeping in a bed.

Living in such a hyper-vigilant state is exhausting both physically and mentally. Constantly having to be aware of everything that is going on around me, constantly avoiding things I want to do and places I want to go, in case I find myself triggered, in case I succumb to the crippling effects of a panic attack. It’s mindbogglingly tiring. So much so that I often have very little energy to do the things I want to do. I have trouble walking down the street without being overcome with exhaustion, I have trouble keeping my mind focused on even simple acts such as grocery shopping or watching a movie.

No matter what I do, the PTSD has a direct impact on every area of my life. And no matter what I do, nothing seems to alleviate my suffering. I’ve tried everything; from CBT, DBT and mindfulness, to talking therapy, exposure therapy and psychotherapy. Nothing works. Nothing does anything to alter the hyper-vigilance, flashbacks or endless replaying of my previous trauma.

The impact it has on my life is devastating. And the PTSD I’m afflicted with is clearly a major roadblock on my journey to recovery. For as long as the PTSD has such a hold on me, I will never have hope for recovery, let alone be able to recover to any reasonable degree. But what can I do about it? People suggest I should “move on”, “get over it” or “move forward” from the trauma. I’m told to simply stop replaying events. I’m encouraged to just “deal with it”, but these suggestions are nothing more than platitudes that I already know, platitudes that ignore the devastating effect that PTSD can have on someone. It’s not easy to just “get over it” or “move forward” when you are constantly being reminded of the trauma to the point of panic attack and inaction. It’s not as simple as just “moving on” or “dealing with it” when your subconscious mind constantly dregs up memories that you don’t ask to remember. When I’m lost to a PTSD flashback, when I’m trapped in a conversation with the ghost of my abuser, when I’m experiencing nightmares of being raped or being assaulted whilst sleeping rough, I’m not even conscious enough to acknowledge my own name, let alone tell myself to just “move on”. It’s just not going to work. Period.

So what can be done? Well, if I had the answer to that my PTSD wouldn’t be causing as much of a problem, but I need a plan of action in order to rebuild hope, so I have to come up with something. Anything. So:

Firstly, I need to undertake some extensive talking therapy. I firmly believe that psychoanalysis from someone who is trained, someone who knows what they’re doing, someone who has experience of PTSD, will do me the world of wonder. I’m hoping this will come courtesy of the psychologist I have recently been put in contact with, if it doesn’t, then I need to find someone else. Regardless of how much it costs.

Secondly, I need people in my life. People have always been more powerful to me than medication. The most stable I have ever felt in my life (late 2006) came at a time when I wasn’t medicated, when I wasn’t receiving treatment, but when I had friends. The simple act of just being around these friends, spending time with them, sharing my life with them, enjoying life with them, changed the structure of my brain and enabled me to see myself for who I want to be. They distracted me from my issues, took my mind off my troubles and enabled me to enjoy life. Yes, people would help, that much I’m sure.

Thirdly, I need to consider PTSD specific medication. If there is such a thing. I don’t know much about the world of medication when it comes to PTSD, but it’s something that I need to research, something that I need to look into. For if medication can help, I’m more than willing to give it a go. So if anyone has any experience of medicating PTSD, please leave a comment below, your experience would be greatly appreciated.

Fourthly, I need to write more about the incidents that have caused my PTSD, for by talking about them in a safe environment (such as my blog) I may be able to look upon them in a new light. I may be able to alter the way my brain interprets them, alleviating the control they have.

Fifthly, well, I don’t have a fifthly, so four items will have to suffice for now. At least it’s somewhere for me to start rebuilding hope.

Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear.
If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.
Thich Nhat Hanh