Taking fun where you find it

This is a post about being happy, because sometimes being an adult is no fun at all. It’s a bit circuitous, but stick with it.

I left work last night (late) and phoned my husband to say I was going to be late. It was bloody cold outside and I had a four mile cycle ahead of me in temperatures appreciably below zero, and where I had left so late, it was completely dark.

As I left work I got a message from my sister saying she was sending me something that had to be signed for the next day so I called her to find out whether it *actually* had to be signed for, or if it just wouldn’t fit in the letterbox. My sister is sending me something because she is a nice sister, and had just heard that I have been asked to give evidence at my friend’s inquest. For those of you who haven’t read this blog much, my friend killed himself last May, so now there has to be an inquest to establish cause of death. You can read about my friend and my resulting charity exploits here and here. It’s a sad business.

Being British my sister and I complained about the weather – being in York, she has had a lot of snow. I complained how long it took to shift when we had it here, and commented that although it was quite cold enough to snow in Cambridge, we thankfully hadn’t had any. Snow makes it so hard to get to work. Snow is cold. Snow makes cycling a real mission.

As I spoke, of course it started snowing. Just what I need, I thought. I got off the phone to my sister and stopped. I love snow. I even went to Canada in the middle of winter for honeymoon because I love snow so much. Since when did my life become so defined by getting to and from my 9 to 5 that I didn’t have the time to enjoy snow?

I cycled as fast as I could down Adams road (pretty speedy considering it’s downhill) with my tongue hanging out like a dog, catching snowflakes. I looked like a cretin. But a happy cretin. Because doing stupid shit like this is what being happy is all about. I laughed out loud at how ridiculous I must have looked.

I think about my friend who died fairly frequently, and not just because in a few weeks’ time I will stand up in a courtroom and try to explain to a stranger why I think he killed himself. I think of him at moments like this to remind myself how grateful I am to enjoy catching snowflakes with my tongue. How much I love the view from Garrett Hostel bridge on my way into work (pictures at the top). How chirpy it makes me to cycle into work on a sunny morning. Because the last time I spoke to Burgess at length before he died, he told me that he went for a walk in Weston Park on a warm sunny spring day, listening to cricket on the radio (he was a massive cricket fan) but didn’t feel anything. He knew that the warm sun on his face, the ice cream, the children playing and the cricket should all make him happy, but he just didn’t feel it. The depression he suffered told him that these things weren’t enough to sustain lasting happiness, and refused to allow the connection in his brain to be made between enjoyable spring days in the park, and the resulting feeling of contentedness.

I try to remember this when I feel too much like a beleaguered grown-up and stop enjoying the little things. The logic is flawed: my enjoyment at these simple pleasures was never transferrable – I couldn’t make Burgess happy at the things that made me happy. And I certainly can’t do anything for him now. But I can take from this sad experience a sense of gratitude at what it feels like to be alive, and not feel as though that is an inestimable burden even when being alive feels like being cold, tired, and sad. Because even when we can’t see it – for whatever reason, stress, fatigue, depression, illness – there is so much to be happy about if you are willing to start small.

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Life after suicide – a thank you post

Ok boys and girls, this is a seriously neglected blog, and I have lots of fun, adventure and food related posts coming up (I promise!) but first there are some thank yous to make. What I would like to do with this post is to say a massive thank you to everyone who supported me in my comedy charity bike ride which I did for Mind after my friend ended his own life. I started with the distant hope of raising £100 for Mind – I called my mum to ask if this was reasonable. We both though it was a little high and then decided we probably knew ten people between us who could be relied upon to donate £10.

I raised £800.

The messages of love and support on the webpage have been of great comfort to me, and many others. I am amazed by the generosity of everyone who has donated – sometimes total strangers, some even from overseas. Even recently, two people that Brunton number 1 and I know have had real issues with depression that we have been unable to talk to them about because it remains unacknowledged and taboo. This is not acceptable – and Mind is just one of many charities that is seeing that changed. I’m proud to have been able to support this amazing charity, and grateful to all the people that have made it possible. I can’t tell you all just how much it has meant to me that so many people thought this was a cause worth donating to.

Moving on

Suicide itself is still incredibly taboo, and many people are surprised at the frankness with which I tell them that my friend took his own life. I personally feel nothing for the stigma or the taboo – I knew my friend, and I know that his life is worth no less to me for the fact that he ended it. However, it has still been a difficult thing to reconcile, although in many ways it gets better over time. The abruptness of the death undoubtedly makes assimilating the loss into my life, reconciling the idea that my friend has gone, very difficult. He has become both more and less to me all at once – I worry continually that I’ll forget silly things, like what his voice sounded like. As much as it surprises me how quickly certain memories have become vague, it is as though other memories I forgot that I had have come out of hiding. Things which never used to make me think of Burgess now often serve as a (sometimes sad) reminder – things like old tape decks and record players, Neon Bible, and in-jokes that no one gets any more. I read our old emails and remember that before the depression took hold there was a rich and varied life there, and that we were awesome together.

‘Are you Twiglet?’

The thing that actually makes me the saddest is the loss of my nickname – only Burgess ever called me it. It was funny (and awkward) when my suicide note was addressed to ‘Twiglet’ with an accompanying note saying ‘someone please call Twiglet’ and my number. Unfortunately no one knew who the hell Twiglet was and I was saved in his phone and address book as ‘Twiglet’. When the police eventually called there was an awkward ‘are you Twiglet?’ conversation that was so funny I wanted to be able to tell Burgess – it was only when I realised I couldn’t that the enormity of what had happened hit me. Now no one gets to call me Twiglet, and it surprises me every time how sad that makes me. I’ve also learned that it is not appropriate to laugh hysterically at being called Twiglet by a police officer. I think I weirded that poor lady out more than a little bit.

I’m sure any of you who were close to Burgess (and even some who weren’t) will relate to the feeling that it never feels like the right time to ‘move on’. I find myself thinking I wish that his death would just stop making me sad, and then feeling terribly disrespectful because it should be a sad-making thing. I’m reliably assured this is all part of the process. The sense of loss doesn’t really go away – you just get used to the weight of it on your shoulders, get used to the feeling that he is actually gone. Burgess used to refer to suicide as ‘leaving’ or ‘catching the bus’ and it never really felt like a permanent thing, almost as though you could just be dead for a while until you got better, like some kind of extreme rehab. Having spent months talking about suicide this way, I had almost become desensitised to what suicide would actually mean, and the permanence of what he had done to himself came as an awful shock. It makes it hard to accept that until we meet again in the great Western Bank library in the sky, this is it. I’m gradually getting used to the idea of life without my pal – it’s a slow process, but I’m getting there. I wish all the best for anyone reading this who is going through the same.

Continuing support

No one deserves to live a life so troubled that they feel as though they need to take their own life, and no one deserves to lose a friend that way – just as no one deserves to die of cancer, or AIDs. That’s why I’ll probably continue to make regular donations to Mind.

My page is open to one-off donations until the end of the month, so anyone who thinks that cycling over 25k in the rain dressed as princess Leia with accompanying R2D2 merits sponsorship there’s still time to rock up and sponsor me.

http://www.justgiving.com/Amanda-Brunton

There’s also a main ‘In Memory’ page where people can continue to do ‘In Memory’ sponsorship events and read all the lovely comments people have posted, or donate directly to Mind.

http://www.justgiving.com/remember/20094/Alex-Burgess

So thanks to all the generous people who made this all possible (you’re all awesome!) and thanks to all the people who’ve been instrumental in helping me through this difficult time (you all get a pat on the back).

Burgess would be super embarrassed by all this fuss, but doesn’t get to do anything about it, so here’s a chirpy mugshot of us both 🙂 We made an awesome pair!

On depression, suicide, and Star Wars fancy dress

For those of you who know me, then I am sure this post is only going to describe an event I am sure you are all aware of. However, the blog is increasingly getting views from outside of  my immediate friends and family, and so I shall start at the beginning.

8 weeks ago one of my closest friends took the decision to end his own life.

I have not been totally truthful here – this is not the beginning of the story. However, poor mental health is such a taboo subject that it is often only from this point that friends or family become aware that one of their loved ones is suffering from a potentially life-threatening illness. The days of ‘The Big C’ are long since over; cancer is no longer a taboo subject which simply cannot be mentioned in polite conversation, and has to be hidden away by the sufferer. Yes, it’s frightening. Yes, it can feel defeatist, or like weakness to admit to those around you that you suffer with an illness that you cannot hope to fight without extensive treatment, and that you are afraid of the outcome. However, sufferers of this (often long-term) illness are quite rightly treated now with the respect and sympathy they deserve, rather than fear and shame.

My hope is that one day, depression and mental illness can be given the same respect. It is an illness which is not, on the whole, the fault of the sufferer. Nonetheless, the stigma associated with it dictates that the sufferer is often treated as though they can just ‘cheer up’, as though there is some blame to be apportioned to them for their suffering, or that treatment is an unnecessary luxury. Attention seeking somehow. Consider for a moment how it must feel to be afraid to die of cancer – an illness that you as an individual are powerless to stop. Now consider what that fear of death represents when you are afraid you may simply do it to yourself, and feel equally powerless. You expect nobody to take your fears seriously, and moreover, in order to receive treatment you have to beg, explaining over and over what you fear you may do to yourself. For many, this is a terrifying reality from which suicide provides the ultimate relief.

So what really happened?

The more truthful account of my friend’s life and death is this: he was a wonderful, talented, intelligent young man. Despite mental and physical illness of a severity that would have rendered a less robust person incapacitated, he achieved an outstanding 2:1 in English literature from a top university. He was a dedicated friend, a maverick, a lover of gin and a thoroughly entertaining person to be around. He had terrible taste in music, clothes and wine. He was high maintenance. He needed continuous emotional support to continue to live life as normal. He didn’t like to ‘be a burden’ to those around him, and although he was often hard work, he was an equally generous friend in return.

The last eight months saw an accelerated worsening of the depression, anxiety, and physical illness from which he had suffered for many years. His ability to go about day-to-day life was eroded a little bit at a time. Occupational health forms require that you declare mental health problems – they also ensure that you are almost unemployable. Mental health’care’ on the NHS is a total lottery depending on funding. In my friend’s case, he was sent home from hospital with a self help book when his therapist said that his suicical feelings had become out of control. Two weeks later he was found dead.

The mother of a close friend of mine is a mental health nurse, who describes a mental healthcare system almost entirely propped up by charities. These charities are having their funding systematically cut back, yet no state-sponsored health service has taken their place. Hopefully no one reading this blog will ever have to experience what my friend suffered – the humiliation of begging for help, while suffering with one of the cruellest illnesses of them all. However, the sad fact is that one in four of us will suffer from poor mental health. Even if you don’t experience it yourself, odds on someone you know will.

Why am I telling you all this you may ask.

Because something needs to be done. The hardest part about all this is that my friend isn’t coming back. We couldn’t save him. All we can hope to believe is that he is now experiencing in death the peace that he desperately wanted in life. This doesn’t solve the fact that for many out there, they are still living out the reality of mental illness without adequate support, feeling unable to express to those around them the suffering they are experiencing.

In just over a week I will be cycling 20k on my 35 year old, beaten up Raleigh shopper. I’m doing it dressed as princess Leia (I decided to auction off the right to pick my fancy dress…) and I have made a home made R2D2 to put on the back of the bike for running repairs. Mental illness isn’t always depressing. My friend would be laughing himself silly if he knew I was doing this now! I’m doing it for the charity Mind, as it helped support my friend and I through the worst of times. The most important thing they do is make mental illness talked about, and make help accessible. If you want to donate, hop on over here:

http://www.justgiving.com/Amanda-Brunton

Your support will be very much appreciated, but more importantly it’s the attitude that’s got to change. People have got to start seeing this as a real and treatable illness. People have got to stop believing that it is the fault of the sufferer. And above all, we have to start prioritising mental healthcare rather than letting vulnerable individuals fall by the wayside.

Rant over – normal cheery, food-related service will return with the next post 🙂