December: A pre-introduction – coping with the weather

The darkness has arrived.  It is engulfing us.  And it is crushing some of us.  Winter can be a difficult time for some of us, for our mental health and our physical health.  Winter weather can restrict and isolate us.

Before I get onto this month’s topic, I want to say a bit more about how I am currently thinking about winter this year.  In the past I have battled against it, I have set myself up to fight the winter.  This has involved SAD lamps, meal plans, cooking and freezing in bulk and late winter holidays to sunnier places.  But I was constantly on the defensive and to be honest, my success was limited.  I would still get to the end of winter having faced worse depression and increased physical pain.

Then last winter came and it was my first winter not working and so I wasn’t going out and seeing people and wasn’t feeling useful and so on.  All great things for your mental health.  In addition to that, most people I knew were working full time and I can’t go out in the rain on my own because I can’t put on my own wheelchair waterproof.  On the whole, these things are still the case.  I do now know people who don’t work which is good but I still can’t go out in the rain without help and the cold is bad for pain and the dark is bad for mental health.

Then, last Christmas, an amazing friend of mine gave me the wild unknown animal spirit deck.  And shortly after, I started my blog series, looking at each animal more closely and getting to know them.  The first card was the bear.  And it was one of a few things that really transformed my approach to winter.

Instead of battling, the bear teaches us to go with the seasons, to let the rhythms flow with us not against us.  We can embrace the urge to hibernate, as long as we balance it with more active times in the spring and summer.  I’ve already repeated a lot of the bear post in many other posts so I’m not going to talk much more about it, but I do recommend looking at it.

Along with the bear, I was also finding I was reading about the necessity of the darkness.  The need to have space and time to go within ourselves and to nurture ideas and seeds which aren’t ready to be externalised and made vulnerable.

Some of what I was reading was talking about changing the way we think of darkness.  It is not the absence of light, but something immensely valuable in itself.  Without the dark, we cannot see the moon, we cannot see the stars and we do not appreciate the light.  This is a time of rest, of restoration, of recuperation.  A necessary part of the year.

But of course, the winter can feel long and this is why we have festivals and celebrations.  December has long been considered a holy month, holding as it does the winter solstice and later the Christian Christmas as well as Hanukkah, and various other feast days.

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Insert your own swallowing pun here

trigger warning for anorexia and eating disorders

So, having developed POTS earlier in the year, I now find myself with severely worsened swallowing issues…

Partly this post is so I don’t have to repeat myself but partly it’s also a grumble.  EDS is the gift that keeps on giving.  And just when you’ve got used to one new symptom, bang, there’s another one.

The health issue

I’ve had trouble swallowing for years but never particularly severely.  Mostly it’d be a feeling of a lump in my throat or difficulty swallowing saliva.  Then a year and a half ago I started having trouble with tablets coming back up.  Not often so it took a few months till I went to the dr.  She tried me on PPIs thinking it was silent reflux.  They made it a lot lot worse.  I went from bringing up tablets once a week to once a day. And it didn’t matter what shape or type the tablet was.

I was then referred to ENT.  By the time I saw them I’d managed to regurgitate a lot of juice in the middle of the night, a scary time.  ENT then stuck a camera up my nose and declared there was some redness, probably from silent reflux.  They gave me a really awful printed advise sheet which was full of common sense and nothing I wasn’t already doing…

Then came an appointment with a lovely speech and language person who declared my swallow is slow to get started and a bit weak.  She couldn’t help me with regurgitation issues because the speech and language team only deal with things going down.  She looked into what to do next with me.

Somewhere along the way I also had a barium swallow test which came back fine.

Then, two months ago, I woke up one morning and everything fell apart.  Suddenly I couldn’t swallow most foods without regurgitation, my tablets became a battle and even some drinks flew out the window.  What I have been left with is a strange menu of small portions of dairy free cauliflower cheese (cauliflower cut up super small), gnocchi and grated cheese (but only 8 pieces of gnocchi…) and ice cream.  Up until recently I could do white chocolate buttons (lower melting point than others), only 4, but that seems to be too much now.  I could also do apple juice if it was watered down by half.  Now I’m on a third apple juice to two thirds water and struggling.  I can do lucazade if it’s watered down with lemonade.  And I can do wine, which is probably not a great idea on the amount I’m eating but it’s also probably the main reason I’ve not lost more weight than I have…

I have gone from eating vaguely normally to an amount my anorexia likes and I have gone from drinking 6+ litres of fluid to less than 2 and my salt intake, which I need for controlling the POTS has inevitably dropped drastically…

Thankfully I had a gastro appointment six weeks into the troubles and the dr has been really helpful, or at least he listened well and took note of what I was saying.  Unfortunately there aren’t many options.  I’ve just tried one medication which hasn’t helped, may have made things worse and came with weird side effects.  I’m waiting to hear about a second med he wanted to try but it is a long shot.  And he didn’t want to talk about what happens after that…  Based on the options he ruled out, I can’t see anything other than feeding tubes ahead… Which is a hard thing to think about.

The social issue

A lot of socialising revolves around food but also, right now, i don’t have the energy or the mood to be people-ing much… which i also know is going to make my mood worse…

None of the foods I can eat are any good for eating outside the house because they either aren’t available or need cooking.  This means on the full day course I did recently and the day trip I took, I’ve had some nibbles of cheese, four buttons and glucose tablets to get me through.

There is also the aspect of having to repeat everything to people when I see them and having helpful suggestions made.  Which brings me onto my care.

The care issue

I know that my carers are doing what they’re doing primarily out of concern.  But they keep suggesting foods I should try, asking if they can tempt me into breakfast and telling me about the meals they’re going out for.  Some of this is because it’s hard to know how to help, in fact they can’t help, but some of it is thoughtlessness.

I have placed a huge sign in my kitchen asking people not to talk to me about food or my swallow unless it’s necessary or I bring it up – it seems to be being ignored…  Yes, I do want to grumble to my care team now and then as it’s a horrible situation and I’m annoyed.  But I don’t want to be asked if I’ve thought about soup/custard/blended food, especially when I’ve already explained that I can’t.  And I definitely don’t want to hear the details of your Christmas dinner, because mine is likely to suck.  Literally.

The mental health issue

And of course, within this all, we have the anorexia.  Which was in a good place mostly.  And I think anyone’s mental health would suffer in this situation.  Firstly, I’m not getting enough food and that’s bad for your mind, I’m not getting enough sleep either and I am so bored of the few foods I can eat.  Plus I’m really craving salty foods and cravings are tough to deal with.  And my only real experience of beating down cravings is anorexia…  When I am not experiencing disordered eating, I don’t limit what I eat or when I eat really…  Which actually reminds me that I’m not fully recovered from the anorexia because there are still lots of foods I won’t eat or aren’t comfortable with and I do limit quantity.

So that’s all fun, right?  I’m going to balance this out with a blog post about a new pretty oracle deck in a few minutes!

A birthday in the house of Helen’s

Check back at other posts for context:

Coming up this week is the birthday of one of my Helens.  Hennie, the teenage-ish version who has a cat called Charlie, is the quietest and shyest of the house.  She has had a tough past and struggles a lot with identifying and meeting her own needs and is still getting used to being in a house full of love.  That’s all I’m going to say about her, she’s very private and wouldn’t like me much if I said much else.

However, she has no problem with me sharing a bit about how we’re planning on celebrating her birthday.  She is a Scorpio which places her birthday anytime between October 23 – November 21 this year and as I’m a pisces we figured we’d go for the time when the moon is in Pisces, that is 29th to 31st October.  This year that means we’ll be going for Tuesday although ideally we’d have avoided Halloween…

When we first started talking about her birthday, she was clear it was to be a low key event, not surprisingly.  She wanted a bonfire, herbs burning and poetry.  Ideally outside and with only people she felt really comfortable with.  A bit more chatting and she thought maybe storytelling would be nice too, hopefully the story of Ceridwen.  And a private tarot reading, just the two of us.

How this translates is not always an easy matter.  I can’t have a bonfire for example.  But we’re having candles, incense and mulled wine or mulled apple juice.  Ideally there would be lots of nice autumny food as well but I’m having trouble swallowing at the moment…

Whilst this isn’t a Samhain celebration, it does drawn on elements of the fire festival.  Hennie inhabits a liminal space between light and dark and can find herself in either very quickly, more so the darkness.  And this has been a darkness that has caused us both a great deal of anxiety and fear which makes this time of year a great chance to transform and reframe it.

Death and darkness are important, they are necessary parts of the cycle of rest, regeneration and rebirth.  As I wrote about in my post on the bear spirit card, we all have periods of activity and inactivity, of light and dark, of external and internal and we can benefit a lot from seeing them both as important and not fight against them.

Instead of battling the darkness, we can use it as a time to dream and ponder and plant seeds for the year ahead.  We can be rejuvenated by this period and be thankful for the space to rest and nurture ourselves and our ideas.

“Increasing darkness and cold means we must accept that winter is fast approaching and we must adjust to this changing season.  Leaves have fallen off the trees, birds have migrated, animals have gone into hibernation, and frosts have come.  It is a time of death and decay, death of the cold, and within this, knowledge of rebirth.  It is a time of forced adjustments that, once accepted, reveal a new set of possibilities, a new phase, a new power to life.” 
– Glennie Kindred

Right now, for me, forced adjustments seem very much present and seem also like they’re here to stay…

We will embrace this time of year as a chance to go into our unconscious self, to heal and to renew ourselves.  To incubate our potential and keep ideas and dreams safe until the winter months are over.  It is a time to go back to our roots, to plant seeds and to accept that life comes from death.

We will be looking at the year that has passed, the gifts it has bought, the sorrows we’ve seen and looking ahead, making wishes and dreaming.

We might use leaves to embody those things we want to let go, burning them as we release the past.

We will be trying to incorporate elder, a plant of regeneration and renewal as well as feminine power.  And apples, as Hel’s apples represent a journey to the land of death and rebirth.  We’ll also be using some spices, cinnamon feels appropriate, a firey spice for the cold winter months and ginger, another firey spice which grows underground.  If my eating was better, I’d be including some seeds here as well.

The tarot spread we’ll be doing will have three cards which will roughly correspond to:

  1. The past, the underworld, things which are hidden
  2. The present, now, material things
  3. The future, the otherworld, possibilities and direction

Wish her happy birthday and I hope winter treats you all well!

How I work with my house of helens

Please see the explanation post to understand what my house of helens is.

Ok, so there are five helens and a cat living in the house of helens:

  • little helen, a young girl who is probably about 6 who likes playing outside and getting dirty.  she is the youngest member of the house but she has her own voice and is listened to and respected by all.
  • hennie and charlie cat come as a duo most of the time these days, she is older than little helen.  she’s had a tough life and is quiet and is slowly learning to identify her needs and try to meet them.  she loves reading and writing and is slowly gaining in confidence.
  • chariot, the warrior of the house, is confident and sure of herself and is the activist, the campaigner, the advocate and the fighter.
  • big sister is, as you might expect, a big sister type figure.  she first made herself known when little helen was dealing with some big and intense and painful stuff.  she is there in hard times and there for fun times.  she has a maternal nature and does a lot of the tea making and cake baking in the house.  she loves nature and has a lovely herb garden.
  • mana, the grandmother of the house for want of a better term. often she is quietly going about her business in the background, helping things run smoothly with a kind word here and there and a hug or a kiss.  she first came to me in a dream and was the archetypal ancestor as angel type figure.

So that’s a quick run down of the gang.  I wanted to share that to make it easier to talk about how I work with the house of helens.

Check ins

One of the main things I do with my house of helens is check in with them.  I aim for once a week but sometimes more, sometimes less.  To do this, I close my eyes, take three deep breaths and as I take them I visualise walking through the gate, up to the house and through the front door.

When I haven’t been to see them for a while, there is a part of me which gets scared no one will be there.  But so far, its never happened.  That said, when I didn’t check in for quite a while, I did have to deal with the fallout and the hurt feelings that caused.

So I go in through the door and I don’t know what I’m going to find.  Quite often there is someone in the kitchen and I might have a cup of tea with them and a chat.  If there is something in particular on my mind, I might seek out a particular helen and see how they can help me.

Sometimes I turn up and they’re all in the garden.  Other times I’ve arrived only to find them in the attic.  One occasion they were in the middle of a film night (their time zone does not run in sync with ours!).

When I was being sick a while back (I hate being sick), I went in and curled up by the fireplace in the kitchen.  Little helen gave me a little hug before going back to whatever she was doing.  Mana wrapped me in a blanket and stroked my hair.  Big sister went and got some herbs and made me a healing tea.  Hennie hung round the edges, afraid but not sure why.  We managed to chat a little and she was scared something was going to happen to me even though she knew I just had a bug or something.

What the helens do is not guided by my consciousness and that is what I find most powerful and helpful about this practice.  It taps into my unconscious which has a much better idea about what might be bothering me and how best to remedy the matter.

One to one

Recently I’ve been doing some one to one work with my helens.  This is where I intentionally seek out a particular helen and we talk and get tot know each other better and look at their strengths and weaknesses and their skills and interests.

With most of them, this is currently being guideded by Jailbreaking the Goddess by Lasara Firefox Allen.  The book shifts goddess work from the traditional trinty- maiden, mother and crone – to a five pronged version which isn’t build around maternal status.  Helpfully for me, there are five helens and they fit quite neatly into her five faces of the goddess!

Before doing this work, we had a house meeting and talked about whether people wanted to take part or not and what their hopes and fears were.  Big sister went first, mostly so she could see how appropriate it would be for little helen.  Hennie is not currently ready but was worried about missing out.

With Hennie, instead of jailbreaking the goddess, we are working through some stuff around attachment.  I went on an afternoon course about it a while back and she found it really interesting and relevant to understanding herself better.  This is intense work and although we are both tempted to rush through the material we’re using as a guide, we know that is not the best approach.

The same is true for jailbreaking the goddess.  It’s a great book and I want to read it all now but I need to work at the right pace for the helen in question.  And we need breathing space and reflection time.  And I need a gap between each helen so that I can honour them better.

Asking for help

The other main way I work with my helens is to draw on their strengths for certain things in my life.  The most potent example I have is when I went to my ill health retirement interview.  This was going to assess how much of my pension I was entitled to based on whether the assessor thought I stood a chance of working again.

This was intense, life changing stuff and I knew I had to be strong and clear about my illness.  Which is hard because we tend to spend our whole life minimising its impact.  I had to give the assessor an accurate and detailed picture of my life, down to intimate details.  I had to explain to a stranger, coherently and persuasively, that I will never work again.  Despite only just starting to come to terms with the idea myself.

So, the night before, I sat down with the chariot and we talked about how we wanted the interview to go, what strengths I needed to use and what approach we wanted to take.

I went into the interview more confident because of that and when I came home afterwards, I went into my house of helens and collapsed at the kitchen table.  The chariot was no longer the helen I needed most and big sister took over with tea and little helen danced and revitalised me a bit.

Other

I have also done tarot readings with them, as a group and individually.  I have done a couple of pieces of art with them.  I use them as a means of talking to my carers about stuff in a way which feels less vulnerable (most of them know about the house of helens).  They are slowly revealing their own birthdays to me so that will be something we will celebrate in the future.  This year we shared a birthday and I lit a specific candle for each of them and we had cake.

As I said in my last post on the house of helens, I’d love to know if anyone else does anything similar.  I know a lot of people do inner child work and it’s sort of related but also not…

My house of Helens

This post came out of the desire to write another post.  I was trying to combine them but it was getting rather epic and unfocused.  This post will also, hopefully, help me to talk about my helens with people which is something I find hugely helpful.

I think I’ve mentioned my imaginary Helens on here before but I can’t find the post and I don’t think I went into much detail.  Essentially, whilst I was in therapy, I “found” a younger version of myself and we worked with her around some stuff.  Then along came a big sister character followed by a maternal, matriarchal figure, Mana.  Then my inner warrior, who was incredibly burnt out, made herself aware to me but didn’t want to see me because I had overused her.  This was the chariot.  After therapy, I also found an older younger version called Hennie and she has a cat called Charlie.

I’ve been doing a lot of work with them on a one to one basis recently and I feel I have a lot stronger sense of Little Helen, Big Sister and Hennie.  But the Chariot and Mana still feel a bit distanced.  As I said, the chariot burnt out in terms of fighting.  This was the result of a long time of trying to get a house, trying to get a wheelchair, trying to get mental health support, trying to get work to become accessible and so on.

Each helen has a tarot card I associate with her and this has been helpful in terms of getting to know them and letting them speak through tarot.  The main reason for this post is just to give some background before I post about the chariot.  I tried writing it just for me and her as a way of getting to know her better but I do write more cohesively and coherently if it’s going on my blog…

Whilst my post will be deeply personal, it will also touch on elements of the relevant card and archetypes which I hope will be relatable to most people.  Even if you don’t have an imaginary helen in your head, you probably have a vague sense of an inner warrior or an inner child etc.

I know this is a very specific way of approaching personal development, self care etc but it really works for me.  I’d be very interested to know if anyone else does anything similar.  It all revealed itself very organically and in a really empowering way.  And continues to do so.  Like any relationship, it is necessary for me to slowly get to know them, to let them reveal what they are ready to share when they are ready.

Nothing I do with my helens is fully conscious.  For example, Hennie was struggling a lot to identify her needs, let alone try and get help meeting them.  Then one day I checked in with my house of helens and charlie cat had wandered into her life.  This is proving to be a really good way of helping her understand that it is ok to get your needs met, helping her identify charlie cat’s needs and hence her own and helping her learn how to ask for help.  If I had consciously sat down and tried to plan that, it wouldn’t have worked.  The same goes for the initial concept.  Had someone, a month before, told me I’d be working with imaginary helens as part of my therapy, I wouldn’t have taken them seriously…  I was really lucky that my excellent therapist went along on the journey with me, not pushing me into it and not pulling me away from it.

“Battling” depression 

I keep seeing things about the fight against depression, battling it, being a warrior, beating it etc… And it’s really annoying me…

As someone who has had depression on and off for many years at different levels, I do not relate to this.

Everyone experiences depression differently and if the battling narrative works for you then that’s fine.  My problem is with it being the only narrative.

For me, firstly, I don’t think I will ever “beat” depression. I think depression is as much a part of me as my faulty joints. Which means fighting depression is not something I will ever win and fighting depression is essentially fighting myself and my DNA. I have spent a lot of years at war with myself, I don’t want to keep fighting.

Secondly, it suggests that if you have depression, you are weak or you aren’t fighting hard enough. Which makes it your fault.

I have spent a lot of my life and a lot of my energy in denial about my depression. My most recent period of depression was foreshadowed by about a year where I was adamantly not admitting to myself that I was depressed again.  And this inevitably made things worse…

By accepting my depression and slowly integrating it into myself, I have found I am much more able to manage it.

When I tell people that I want to put things in place for the next time my depression is severe, I get told not to be so pessimistic, I have to believe that I’m cured etc. But this isn’t realistic. For most of my life I have been depressed, why would this just disappear? And my acceptance of this means I can plan, I can set up helpful routines and check ins when I’m doing better in preparation for when I’m not.  I can work with my depression rather than against it.

Working with my depression means noticing it.  It means saying ok, things aren’t great today, lets engage in some gentle self care, yay you made it out of bed, congrats… let’s pause for today and see if that helps make tomorrow easier.  It means noticing that I am being really irritable and instead of beating myself up about it, I can acknowledge that my depression is playing a role and to ease the irritability, I probably need to look at how I can ease the depression.

As I said, everyone has different experiences with depression and for me, accepting it as a lifelong part of me means I am more likely to spend my time and energy caring for myself rather than fighting myself.

High functioning depressive

I’ve been told before that I can’t have real depression because I was able to get out of bed and work.  It was a horrible thing to hear.  Yes, I did get out of bed and get to work but it took everything I had and it hurt like hell to do.  But equally, there was no way I couldn’t not go to work.

I have the curse of high functioning depression.  My depression does not look like most people think depression should look.  And that means I don’t always get taken as seriously as I need and I get dismissed by friends, acquaintances and medical professionals.

I probably look my most professional and most together when my depression is at its worst.  Only then do I wear makeup, dress smartly etc.  I am not me at those times.  If you ever see my wearing a suit, I am probably a complete and utter mess inside.

I was an A* student throughout school and left university with a masters in mathematics and the entire time I was severely depressed, suicidal, self harming and going through periods of anorexia.  No one ever thought to look past that to see what I was hiding.  No one ever saw my depression.

People have told me time and time again how strong I  am and make it sound like a compliment.  But inside I am screaming that I don’t want to be strong.  I want to collapse in a heap and cry and never get out of bed and never speak to anyone ever again.  But I don’t think I will ever be able to do that.  I function with my depression.  Or at least I do my best to make it look like I am.  I go through the motions whilst desperately wishing I no longer existed.

One of my major triggers is invalidation.  And the stereotypical symptoms or pictures people have of depression have led me time and time again to question my own depression.  Doubting myself made me expect the rest of the world to doubt me.  If I doubted it, would my GP just laugh at me?

Depression comes in many forms and looks like many different things.  If someone has taken the time and effort to tell you they’re struggling, don’t tell them they aren’t.