It all started when I decided I wanted to share stories from a cross-section people who’d spent Christmas in Jail. My aim was to highlight the positive and funny side to let loved ones know that it might not be as bad as they think and have a much-needed giggle. Mission accomplished and some, because I had never considered the value of the data I would capture. I hadn’t anticipated the identification of trends, themes, commonality and significant differences in the people in prison.
It quickly became apparent that the people who’d been to prison wanted to contribute beyond Christmas. They need to share their prison stories in a place where their voice will be heard. There was a drive and passion in every contributor to help anyone at risk of going to jail and the strong desire to help others turn away from crime. They’re all people who’d spent a lot of time in jail and the experts by experience who’d walked the walk. I always thought that lived experience and experts by experience were one and the same but they’re poles apart.
The ‘one-timers’ with lived experience were completely negative, very few had a good word to say about Christmas and they didn’t want to contribute. Whereas the ‘long-timers experts by experience accepted it for what it was and made the best of Christmas. Each of them had really funny stories to share, and tales of compassion, community, the haves helping the have nots. Two completely different views and perceptions, most likely arising from the attitude of the ‘one-timers’ who haven’t yet accepted their fate.
I’m sure this is obvious to most people, and do forgive my ignorance, but it occurred to me that if I was planning a stay in Cornwall, it would be useful to know the perspective of a day tripper, first impressions do count and you have a snapshot of one part of Cornwall visited on one day. But if I wanted to know the ‘real’ Cornwall I would seek someone who had lived there for a few years.
There is a huge appetite for people who’ve been in prison to share their stories and help others learn from their mistakes, and subsequent success. There are an equal number of people who want to read their stories and all being in one place makes life easier.
This is my opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives by publishing guest blogs. I would cover the Nine Pathways and the school to prison pipeline with a different theme each month. Genius! I gave myself a deadline of two weeks to launch the all singing all dancing What Can Be website to inform, inspire and influence loved ones during the first week of January. I was going to capitalise on the success of the Christmas guest blogs.
I asked David for his opinion, got the green light, went full steam ahead and lined up some amazing contributors within two days. David had even recorded a couple of podcast interviews and I just continued to ignore the elephant in the room.
Inevitably, I failed to meet my self-imposed and unrealistic deadline which made me a failure, full of self-loathing with anxiety and depression beginning to control my every thought. It’s no surprise when I’d been working from 5am to 3pm, seven days a week, for months and by this time I could only see the bad bits on the screen, the good bits were irrelevant to me – the website was bad and I was a failure.
The trouble is, I have ‘complex mental health needs’ and a complete inability to see anything but absolutes. Thinking in black and white is not something I find easy to overcome. My moods are black and white too and I can only be high or or low. When I’m on a high I’m invincible, creative, confident, ambitious and can achieve anything I set my mind to. I’m obsessive and unstoppable, and believe me David has tried to stop me many times. I ignored him because I was too absorbed in what I was doing and he’s more than capable of ironing his own clothes anyway. Actually, he really isn’t, because he leaves creases in his t-shirt – that’s not ironed then! He’s only ever ironed three t-shirts, so it’s not worth me kicking off. I have to remind myself that standards, just like opinions are different and there is no good, bad, right or wrong. David’s way of ironing is different to mine – it’s sh!t!
On the flip side, critical thinking is my default mode and when it comes to auditing, well you can imagine what I’m like at following a document trail, identifying non-compliance and I’m shit hot at data analysis and spotting bullshit policies. I ignore anything containing the words ‘should/might/may/could’ or the classic ‘we aim to/are committed to/ are determined to, focussed on’. These are statements of intent and I need to see evidence of what you ARE doing and not what you think you should say you’re doing. I’ve never seen the Loch Ness Monster or a ghost and I’m not prepared to take anyone’s word for their existence without evidence.
Looking back I could have met my deadline because although the website was basic and one might say that it was adequate, sufficient and good enough. But to me adequate or good enough is not the same as good. Nothing can be a bit good or nearly good. If it’s not good then it’s obviously bad and I refuse to complete any task that is not good. You meet a deadline or you don’t meet a deadline, you succeed or you fail and I had failed. Yes, I do put myself under a lot of pressure to achieve perfection.
Inevitably, three days after my deadline I was ready to link the website and go live. Triumphantly I clicked on publish and the whole b*stard lot had disappeared – the website and the email account. The same e-mail address that I had given to the contributors to send me their work. Excellent.
I hit the lowest of lows. Excellent.
I recognise now that my passion, determination and ambition far exceed my capability on this occasion. But, I’ve stopped beating myself up now and I’ve looked for the positives. I may have failed but more importantly I have been successful in developing my IT skills, getting the right people involved, building a wider network and most importantly I recognised when I needed to take a break. Not forgetting that I learnt some really good stuff about people who’ve been in prison.
I’m putting the website into hibernation until we can get a professional in and the right equipment. Our equipment is insufficient, our skills base is lacking and frankly we just can’t get the staff! Nothing is right – so it can only be wrong.
My master plan is on ice, but my passion, commitment and determination are still on fire. I WILL do it and I WILL make a difference to the lives of others.
But right now, I’m going to take this opportunity to have a period of self-reflection, self-healing and self-care.
After two days of hissing, spitting and swearing at the screen trying to correct the biggest failure ever known to man, I finally listened to David.
Everything happens for a reason, even if we can’t see it at the time. I was getting very close to making myself ill and I couldn’t see it. I’m so lucky that David spotted the signs because for me a depressive episode can last for more than two years. It’s happened to me three times in the last ten years and for the same reason each time, completely burned out as a result of pushing myself too hard and for too long at work. I’m compelled to stop anyone else over-doing it at the expense of their mental health.
Why did I need to share all this in a blog? Because when you’re talking anxiety and depression, David and I are the definitive experts by experience.
During lockdown, most of us will experience feelings to anxiety and depression and some will throw themselves into work as a distraction. Working from home can put people under a lot of pressure to ‘prove’ they are working and do this by working more hours with less breaks, often at 5am or 9pm to accommodate your family.
The internet is awash with advise on mental health, wellbeing, self-care, nutrition and exercise. If you follow this advice it will improve your mental and physical health. But I would like to offer you some additional advice.
You KNOW when you’re pushing yourself too hard and that’s the time you need to step back and take a break. You will NOT be ok as soon as you’ve hit the deadline – your mental health will be worse.
Your loved ones KNOW when you’re pushing yourself too hard, listen to them and take a break for a few hours, days or weeks, however long you need. There is no timescale to ‘get back to normal’. You really don’t want to rush to back to work for a nervous breakdown.
It really works for me and as soon as I’m sprawled on the sofa with the remote control in my hand the pressure is off. I don’t beat myself up, feel guilty or worry whether anyone thinks I’m being lazy. I accept it for what it is and tell myself that I’m going to switch off from everything and clear my mind. It works! Your mind does empty of negative thoughts and you’re almost guaranteed to wake up the next morning bursting with positivity. It’s the same feeling as holding back the tears, desperately wanting to cry, but stopping yourself until eventually the dam bursts and you’re sobbing your heart out. We all know how good it feels after bawling your eyes out. Timing is everything – give yourself a break as soon as you know that you’re pushing yourself too hard.
Do find someone to talk to, but make sure you turn to someone to listen. If you need advice go to a professional, but sometimes we just need someone to be there while we get it off our chests and say it out loud. It’s always worth opening the conversation with this to avoid being hit with a barrage of well-meaning advice.
If someone turns to you, I’ll offer you this advice.
NEVER make it about you, your experience or your opinion. If you do this, you’re not listening to a cry for help and you’re ignoring their needs.
NEVER dismiss, play down or invalidate their feelings. “What have you got to be depressed about? How can you even be depressed? All you need to do is stop feeling sorry for yourself and pick yourself up.” Excellent. So from what you have just said, you don’t believe me, you think I’m making a fuss about nothing and I don’t have the right to be depressed anyway.
Please don’t do that to anyone who turns to you for support.
I’d love to finish by saying that I’m always here for you if you need to talk. But for the next however long, you’ll have to speak to David. Frankly, I’ve got enough sh!t in my own head and I don’t want to take yours on as well! Anyway, I’m going to be far too busy with my face masks, bubble baths, candles and I might even have a go at knitting!
Give yourself a break when you need one, look out for your loved ones and help them take a break.
Take care of you and the ones you love and give knitting a go!