Archive for the Mental Health Category

A Year of Closure

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , on March 12, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 12th March 2021, which means it is exactly one year since Maynooth University campus closed because of Covid-19. Last year 12th March was on a Thursday and I remember doing my Computational Physics lecture in the morning and a computer lab in the afternoon and then hearing we couldn’t go back to teaching the following day. After that, as it is this year, it was the Study Week break (which includes the St Patrick’s Day holiday). Last year we all trued to use the opportunity to move all our teaching online.

I certainly didn’t imagine that a full year later we would still be working from home. Although the current lockdown isn’t as strict as that of last Spring we’re still told not to come on campus unless it is strictly necessary, and all teaching remains online.

When the campus closed last year I was living in a small flat with no internet connection, so the only way I could do my teaching was using my mobile phone data. It wasn’t great but I did the best I could.

At least I was able to use the semi-unlocking of the lockdown in late summer to complete the purchase of a house. I’ve been much more comfortable doing teaching from here for the last six months or so, although not leaving the house except to do shopping has led to an extreme sense of isolation which is not all ameliorated by endless online meetings via Zoom and Teams. That, together with the heavy workload, is all very wearying. It further annoys me how many people think “working from home” means not “working very much” or not “working at all”. What it does mean is never getting away from your work, except when you’re asleep.

I’ve noticed over the last few months that the agoraphobia from which I’ve suffered sporadically over the years has very definitely returned. Agoraphobia can be defined as:

…an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms of anxiety in situations where the person perceives their environment to be unsafe with no easy way to escape. These situations can include open spaces, public transit, shopping centers, or simply being outside their home.

My long-term agoraphobia has been about the threat of physical violence caused by a traumatic event in the past, but now it is more general. I see too many people not taking proper precautions (face masks, social distancing, etc) that it gets me very anxious for a new reason. Supermarkets are bad enough, but it’s more general. I’m now starting to realize that I’m going to find it difficult ever to return to a “normal” life of crowded lecture theatres and campus buildings after this pandemic ends, whenever that happens.

This morning I did a tutorial (via Teams) which was my last teaching session before the mid-term break. I was exhausted even before term started so it has been a very difficult six weeks. It’s not just the teaching, it’s also the relentless stream of demands from upstairs for other things to be done. There seems very little understanding from that direction of what life is like on the front line, to be honest.

My appointment as Head of Department for Theoretical Physics was nominally three years. I am now about halfway through that term and can’t wait for it to end.

Unfortunately there isn’t much light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. Case numbers in Ireland remain high, and are falling slowly at best; they have actually been increasing for the last few days. Vaccination rollout is also very slow, thanks to supply issues (chiefly with AstraZeneca).

I am now fairly confident that teaching at least for the Autumn Semester of 2021/22 will again be online, as there is little chance of staff being vaccinated by the end of the summer. I know colleagues in other Irish universities who are planning for this eventuality too.

My Acting Career

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Mental Health, Television with tags , on January 30, 2021 by telescoper

Out of the swirling mass of cathartic memories unleashed by watching It’s A Sin there suddenly popped this one which had been buried away in the dark recesses of my subconscious for over thirty years.

Oh no, I can hear you thinking, not another one of those tediously self-indulgent posts. It’s not like that, actually. I decided to share it mainly because I think it’s quite funny!

When I was living in Brighton in the late 1980s I and a friend of mine decided to try a spot of amateur dramatics. I can’t remember what the play was – because neither of us succeeded in getting involved – but it seemed like it would be interesting so responding to an advert in a local newspaper we turned up for the audition.

The first bit was a reading. My choice of piece was a bit unusual. I did a bit of drama at school, but since I went to a single-sex grammar school all the female parts were played by boys, which is why I ended up playing Lady Scottish Play in the Scottish Play. I remembered some of Mrs M’s speeches – an do to this day – so did for my audition piece the one that begins “The Raven himself is hoarse…” and has bits about “unsex me here”, etc.

Surprisingly I got through the reading bit.

For the next part all the survivors (about 15 of us) sat in chairs on the stage. The Director bloke then announced that he wanted us to “act” somebody crying. I sat for a moment, then looked at the others, who were making what I thought were very hammy attempts to do a cry and I thought to myself “I can do better than that”.

I may have been quite young then, but I’d quite recently been beaten up, spent weeks in a psychiatric hospital, and seen two friends die from AIDS. I had, therefore, under the surface, acquired quite a reservoir of sadness to draw on. I’m not a trained method actor or anything like that but I knew that I could summon up something very easily. So that’s what I did. I shut my eyes and thought for a moment, and started crying my eyes out. The group of prospective actors around me all stopped and stared.

Eventually the Director came on stage looking very concerned and asked if I was all right. I said “Yes. I’m fine. I thought you you wanted us to cry.” He looked amazed.

The audition ended and I assumed I had wowed everyone enough with the deep emotion of my performance to get the part. On the way out, though, I was told that I hadn’t passed the audition.

The reason given was that it’s absolutely no good portraying grief or pain in a theatre – even a small one – by sitting in a chair actually crying. The audience won’t really see the tears, so you have to do a lot more with gestures and movement.

The production went ahead without me in it, and I’ve thought so little of it until now that I’ve even forgotten what the play was!

It’s not much of a talent to be able to turn on the waterworks on demand, but I thought I’d share this experience here to point out (a) that I can still do it and (b) if there are any TV or film directors looking to cast a (hopefully lucrative) role for a middle aged guy who can cry in close up and is not required to do much else then they need look no further!

Perhaps I should hire an agent?

The Eyes to the Left

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, Mental Health with tags , , , , , , on October 1, 2020 by telescoper

One of the things I managed to squeeze in during these last hectic days was a visit to the optician. I hadn’t had my eyes tested since I lived in Brighton, probably more than five years ago, which is a bit long to leave it for one of my advanced years. Inevitably the test revealed that I needed new spectacles, though curiously one eye – the left – has changed much more than the other since my last test. My prescription has corrections for both astigmatism and myopia (short-sightedness) but these are both well corrected by varifocals, the type of glasses I have worn for some time. My new specs took just a week to arrive and I find reading much more comfortable wearing them than I did with my old ones.

I remember the first time I had to wear varifocals I found it quite difficult, especially looking down through the bottom half of the lens (which is where you are assumed to be looking when reading) as they make it difficult to judge the distance to the ground (or, more dangerously, exactly where the next stair is….). I found after a day or two I was used to the varying focus and now I think nothing of it.

Because it means that your eyes focus differently on horizontal and vertical lines, and that’s exactly how text is constructed, uncorrected astigmatism makes it difficult to read words and numbers at a distance. With varifocals you have to look through the top half of the lens, which is the bit that corrects the astigmatism, and move your point of view until you find the place where the optical performance is best. I’ve often found myself in the audience of a lecture moving my head in odd ways to try to find the best angle to read what’s on the screen. I hope it’s not too disconcerting for the speaker when I do that!

The most interesting bit of my visit to the optician however was that I had an optical coherence tomography scan which generate a three-dimensional picture of the back of the eyeball. I’ve never seen one of those before. Here’s an example (not me):

This type of scan can be used to diagnose things like glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, neither of which I have. In my case though it did reveal a significant level of unevenness in the surface at the back of both eyes and some signs of swelling of or near the optic nerves. The optician showed me the scan and pointed out these abnormalities, but said that it wasn’t anything too worry too much about as he thought it was historical rather than progressive. He said the only time he’d seen anything like that was in the cases of people who had in the past had some form of trauma to the head (which can cause increased pressure inside and so damage the back of the eyes).

I’ve blogged before about the long term effects on my mental health of the beating I experienced in Brighton over thirty years ago, but this was the first time I’ve seen such clear evidence of the physical damage that I presume was caused by that event. In extreme cases I experience periods of exaggeratedly heightened awareness of things moving in my peripheral vision that I can’t keep track of, accompanied by auditory and visual hallucinations. I’m not an expert but it seems likely to me that what the scan revealed may play a role in these episodes. It doesn’t explain why they seem to be triggered by stress, though, so there must be other factors.

Over the years a number of people have remarked that I often have the blinds closed in my office during the day, and that as well as that as well as being varifocals the lenses I wear in my glasses are reaction lenses (i.e. they go dark in bright light). Avoiding bright light in such ways was suggested by an optician some years ago, who suspected I might have some form of retinal damage but couldn’t see anything definitive with the technology available then. It seems he was right!

 

Lucia Joyce

Posted in History, Mental Health with tags , , on June 16, 2020 by telescoper

Lucia Joyce photographed by Berenice Abbott (date c.1925-1930)

On Sunday I listened to a programme on the radio about Lucia Joyce a celebrated dancer who just happened to be James Joyce’s daughter. Lucia was born in Trieste in 1907 and subsequently moved with him to Paris where she made a big impact in the field of modern dance. W.B. Yeats was an admirer and wanted to cast her in one of his `plays for dancers’.

Lucia’s early years were filled with artistic promise but shadows gathered around her and by the the middle of the 1930s she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was eventually taken away in a straitjacket and forcibly detained in a psychiatric clinic. She spent the rest of her life (until her death in 1982) in various institutions. The programme provides a fascinating insight into her creative early years but the latter part is desperately sad. One can’t escape the conclusion she did not deserve to be locked away the way she was (against her will) and the men in her life (her father, brother and very lovers, including Samuel Beckett) share a large part of the responsibility for her decline. Psychiatric institutions have a long history of being used to dispose of `inconvenient’ women.

Anyway, do listen to the programme which you can find here.

Dream Time

Posted in Art, Biographical, Covid-19, Mental Health with tags , , , , , , on May 13, 2020 by telescoper

The Dream (Salvador Dali, 1931)

I know I’m not alone during this strange and unsettling Coronavirus period in having extraordinarily vivid dreams almost every night.

I’m grateful for two things related to this. One is that I’m sleeping much better than usual, with not a trace of the insomnia I’ve experienced in the past during times of stress. The other is that these dreams are very far from being nightmares. Most of them are benign, and some are laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The other day, for example, I had a dream in which Nigel Farage returned from his recent trip to Dover in search of migrants publicity to find his house filled with asylum seekers singing the theme from The Dambusters. There was also a cameo appearance by Nigella Lawson in that dream but I forget the context.

I’ve written about dreams a few times before (e.g. here) and don’t intend to repeat myself here. It does seem to me however that dreams are probably a byproduct of the unconscious brain’s processing of notable recent events and this activity is heightened because the current times are filled with unfamiliar experiences.

I know some people are having far worse nocturnal experiences than me, and I don’t really understand why I’m having a relatively easy ride when my past history suggests I’d be prime candidate for cracking up. Perhaps I’ve had enough practice at dealing with anxiety in the past (not always very satisfactorily)? Perhaps the sense of detachment I’ve experienced over the past few weeks is part of some sort of defence mechanism I’ve acquired?

Anyway, don’t have nightmares!

Exceptional Moods?

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , on April 20, 2020 by telescoper

The other day I came across the following excerpt from The War Of The Worlds by H. G. Wells:

Perhaps I am a man of exceptional moods. I do not know how far my experience is common. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all.

This passage struck me very forcefully because it captures what it feels like to experience depersonalisation disorder. I wrote about my own experiences of this about three years ago.

In my own case the depersonalisation was, I think, a side-effect of medication I took to deal with an anxiety condition that has plagued me off and on for many years.

In recent weeks I have often felt strangely detached in the same way as before, but I haven’t been on medication for nearly three years now so that’s not the cause this time.

Perhaps it is just the social distancing and the general stress caused by the Covid-19 outbreak that is causing it?

If so there is probably quite a number of people out there feeling the same way.do maybe these moods aren’t really exceptional?

Reasons to stay alive

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , , , on September 15, 2019 by telescoper

I saw this message from author Matt Haig on Twitter last weekend and it affected me so much I couldn’t write about it at the time.

Twenty years ago, when he was in his twenties, Matt tried to take his own life. He didn’t succeed, but the attempt left him severely ill as he summarises in that tweet. He wrote about his crisis in his book Reasons To Stay Alive, from which I have borrowed the title of this post.

Why did this message affect me so much? It’s largely because the words he uses to describe his condition also exactly describe what I was like seven years ago when I was admitted to an acute ward in a psychiatric hospital. I wasn’t exactly suicidal, just so exhausted that I didn’t really care what happened next. I was however put on a kind of `suicide watch’, the reason for this being that, apparently, even while sedated, I kept trying to pull the tube out of my arm. I was being fed via a drip because I was ‘Nil by Mouth’ by virtue of uncontrollable vomiting. I guess the doctors thought I was trying to sabotage myself, but I wasn’t. Not consciously anyway. I think it was probably just irritating me. In fact I don’t remember doing it at all, but that period is very much a blur altogether. Anyway, I then found myself in physical restraints so I couldn’t move my arms to stop me doing that.

Eventually I was deemed well enough to move to a general ward and shortly after that I was discharged (with follow-up counselling and medication).

Experiences like that – which I sincerely hope none of you reading this ever have to go through – make you feel very isolated because you are lost inside your own head and body. Knowing that other people go through similar things, and not only survive but prosper, helps a lot. You feel a bit less of an outlier. Of course I’ll never appear on stage at the National Theatre, but although the intervening years haven’t exactly been plain sailing, the last seven have brought far more positives than negatives.

It’s hard to explain why Matt’s message had such a resonance. His experience was clearly far worse than mine, but when I was discharged from hospital the doctors made it very clear just how ill I had been, and that if there was any recurrence I should get help as soon as possible. As well as writing about it on this blog, I did a piece for Time to Change Wales, encouraging people to ask for help if they need it.

Anyway, this brings me to the point of this sermon. Yesterday I received this by email:

It’s from Niteline, an organisation whose volunteers offer students free confidential counselling, and it came with a suggestion (which I will follow) that I should share it with students before and after my lectures. I’m not sure how many students will read this blog, but I thought I would share it here too. If it encourages just one person who is struggling to find someone to talk to then it’s worth it.

Health and the Season

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , on August 10, 2019 by telescoper

After I came out as having arthritis a few months ago, I’m sure all both my readers are agog to hear news about the state of my knees. There’s only good news to report, actually. The warmer weather seems to have brought considerable respite. I have not taken any anti-inflammatory medicine for a couple of months now, and have largely dispensed with the walking stick too (at least for the time being). I still get the odd twinge, but nothing compared to what things were like during the winter.

I ended my earlier post about this with this paragraph:

One other thing worth mentioning is that this condition does seem to be highly temperature-dependent. This last week the weather suddenly turned a lot colder and the arthritis definitely got worse. Perhaps in future I could learn to use the colour of my knees as some kind of forecasting method?

Talk to anyone who suffers from arthritis and they will tell you a similar story – it gets worse in cold and/or damp weather. Talk to any medical expert, however, and they will tell you that there’s very little hard evidence about this and what evidence there is suggests that the effect is very weak. See, for example, this paper, which has the following abstract:

It is a common observation that pain and stiffness in patients known to have arthritis get worse in cold and damp weather conditions. The objective of this article is to review the available literature on this subject and to put forward an explanation for this common clinical finding. Literature search revealed twelve relevant articles including laboratory experiments and prospective questionnaire-based human studies. Various investigators have tried to study the effect of cold weather on arthritic symptoms and have suggested different theories. The effect of temperature changes localized to the joints has shown to increase stiffness at lower temperatures and decrease stiffness at higher temperatures. The effect of these changes has been found more pronounced in elderly population with arthritis and patients with advanced disease. The evidence to support this common observation is weak; however some studies have reported a trend towards worsening of pain and stiffness with falling temperature and barometric pressure in arthritic patients.

Among the problems associated with studying such effects is the issue of how to measure `pain’ in a reliable way. It may be in the winter people are generally less upbeat about their health which may affect the way they self-report the state of their arthritis. And even if one could measure the level of pain objectively, there are obvious confounding factors: people are generally more active during the summer months, for example, which may help ease joint pain. And what aspect of the weather really matters: temperature, humidity or atmospheric pressure? These tend to be correlated in complicated ways.

All I can say is that the last couple of months have been far better for me. Whether that is because of some direct causative influence of the weather or not I can’t say.

While I am on about health and the time of year, I’ll comment on another personal matter. Seven years ago I was suffering some serious mental health problems, which resulted in me being for some time on an acute ward in a psychiatric institution. That happened in July 2012. I’ve dreaded the arrival of July every year since because it reminds me of that very bad period in my life and I worry that might bring on something similar again. This year, though, has been much better. I can’t attribute this entirely to my move here to Ireland, but the change of scene has undoubtedly contributed.

As a final comment I’ll just say that 31st July was the third anniversary of my leaving Sussex (in 2016) to return to Cardiff on a three-year part-time contract back. I was planning to take early retirement when that expired, but things seem to have turned out rather differently. Things have a habit of doing that. Then again, if life were predictable it would be very dull. Anyway, it was very nice to meet up with quite a few former colleagues from Cardiff during recent week off, including at their summer barbecue at Llandaff. It seems quite a few will be spending the next week or so marking repeat resit examinations, so let me take this opportunity to wish them all the very best!

Sleep Hygiene

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , on March 2, 2019 by telescoper

This afternoon I remembered a discussion I had with a few friends last week about insomnia and I thought I’d comment a bit on it here. This topic has come up before, e.g. here, but I’m very happy to say that sleeplessness is not a problem I’ve had recently (apart from once or twice when I’ve had a fever, but that’s different).

When I was struggling to come to terms with insomnia, much of the advice from NHS doctors and psychiatrists concerned sleep hygiene. This does not mean having a shower before you go to bed. It’s a collection of behavioural modifications designed to ensure you get a full night’s sleep every night. Here’s an example of the sort of things:

Received wisdom is that this actually works in most cases. I am, however, bound to say that it didn’t work at all for me. During the worst of my brushes with insomnia I was considered such an intractable case that I was passed around a collection of consultants who, despite their best intentions, didn’t really help either.

Then I had an appointment with a doctor who was refreshingly honest. She said that if insomnia is a result of anxiety or depression then making strict rules about how long you should sleep and what you should do to comply with them can easily make the anxiety worse and hence perpetuate the insomnia. She went on to explain that the practice of sleeping eight hours per night is a relatively recent one. In pre-industrial societies periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night were considered quite normal. Literature from the Victorian period in England, for example, describes how in some communities people would get up in the middle of the night – and even visit their neighbours for tea – before returning home and going back to bed for their `second sleep’. There’s an article in a recent edition of the Irish Times that describes this and cites studies that appear to show that two periods of 3-4 hours each is in some sense more natural than 6-8 hours in one chunk.

So the advice given to me when all else had failed was not to attempt to impose rules on myself but simply not to get stressed if I found I woke up at 3am and couldn’t immediately get back to sleep. Get up if you want to, she said. Relax. Listen to some music. Make a cup of tea. Iron a shirt for the morning. Then go back to bed, but only when you start to feel sleepy again. I’ve done that many many times over the last few years, without feeling anxious about it, although I have to say that nowadays I more often get a solid six to seven hours.

Since I only observe one or two of the list of ten steps to sleep hygiene given above I must be a dirty sleeper, but I much prefer that than being trapped into a cycle of insomnia and anxiety. My advice is sleep the way you can, and don’t worry if it’s not what others think should be the norm.

Come to think of it, that goes for many other things in life.

P.S. If they want us academics to obey rule number 2, why do seminars always go on for an hour?

P. P. S. Anxiety isn’t always the reason for lack of sleep. Sometimes it’s this:

World Mental Health Day

Posted in Maynooth, Mental Health with tags on October 10, 2018 by telescoper

image

Today is World Mental Health Day 2018, so I’m going to treat myself to lunch in the splendid surroundings of Pugin Hall and then take a walk around the campus in the autumn sunshine. That is all.

UPDATE: That was nice. It’s actually rather warm today – 20°C – and St Joseph’s Square is looking very bonny.