Happy Birthday! Time to Change!

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It’s my daughter’s birthday today. She came in our bed at half six this morning, cuddled in; had to wait for her older brother to wake up before she could open her presents. Fragments of that day nine years ago float back … the telephone call at work; the drive home and to hospital; Anna standing with her palms flat on the car roof, waiting for another contraction to pass, before risking the slow walk to the maternity unit; clenching teeth; beads of sweat on her brow; tears streaming down my own face when it was over, and we discovered we’d been blessed with a baby girl to go alongside our boy.

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It’s an important day – one of the most important in our family. That’s why, when I was asked to consider a date in March for writing something about mental health, I chose today. When I was younger I considered myself pretty indestructible. Looking back now, I could have died on a number of occasions; mainly through excessive drug and alcohol use, but also by putting myself into dangerous environments. I could quite easily have become more damaged, physically and mentally. These days, I realise life is much more delicately balanced than I would ever have dared imagine.

My daughter is a perfectionist. If something’s not right, she’ll rip it up and start again, or rip it up and storm upstairs, slamming the bedroom door after her. So far, she’s always been popular and a high-achiever; being very successful in all her school subjects, in her swimming lessons and her various dancing classes. She yearns to please teachers. She needs them to like her and praise her. Next year, she moves up to Middle School and things change. There’s less creativity. There’s less warmth. There’s not the same connection between teachers and children. The kids are older and there will be more bullying; more violence; more pressure to look a certain way; act a certain way. There will be plenty of kids she has never met before and she’ll want to fit in. We will cross our fingers and hope she talks to us if anything happens. We do the same with her brother but he rarely tells us anything about his school experience.

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Time to Change is an organisation whose mission is to inspire people to work together to end discrimination surrounding mental health. “Time to Talk!” they announce, because they understand that communication is the life-force that streams through everything; the stories we listen to about others; the stories we tell about others; the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I have friends who have mental health issues. I know people who judge them. I don’t think it’s my place to point out someone else’s mental health issue though – is it? It’s a tricky one. So I offer this advice – an anonymous quote:

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

Life is full of tipping points. All it takes sometimes is a nudge; a wrong turn; an ill-thought or malicious comment. A once seemingly perfect life can split apart due to unforeseen and unalterable circumstances. The news is full of heart-breaking stories. I wonder what would have happened to my children if their Mammy’s cancer had destroyed faster. I still wonder what will happen to them if it comes back. I know it will be my job to cushion the fall as best I can, but I worry if I will be up to the job. I coped last time by getting on with things and by writing it down. They coped because their Mammy explained everything to them. She talked about it and made it all seem quite normal. Interesting then, that in both instances, communication was vital.

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Now there’s a quiet and peaceful house, I will continue on my next book, provisionally titled ‘Swallows and Black Streams.’ It’s a book for all those people who feel suffocated by bureaucracy, smothered in paperwork and instead dream about living a simpler life. For the past few years, it’s been fused to the dream that exists within me; that of making my name as a writer. I sometimes wonder what will happen if I don’t “make it”, after so many years of emotional and physical effort and time. But I put that thought out of my head, because I’m lucky, I can; and it’s not a good thought. But yeah, I know the stats. And yeah, there’s history of mental health issues in my family. But isn’t there with all of us, if we’re honest?

I will also exercise because I know what will happen if I don’t. I’ve been there before. If I don’t exercise I start to get depressed and lethargic. I will drink more alcohol and likely turn back to cigarettes. When I do exercise, I feel mentally more positive. Body and mind.

And then our daughter will come home for her birthday tea and it will be lovely – I hope. She’s growing up, just like her brother. Time goes so fast sometimes. The months just slip on by into years. There will be good times. And there will be hard times. I don’t ask much of them. Be kind to others. Don’t judge them too harshly for you never know what is really happening inside someone else’s head. And it may be ‘time to talk’ but actually, one of the most respectful things you can do for anybody is to listen to them; really listen to them, without jumping in and making comment. If we’re going to help people with their mental health, if we’re going to help our own mental health, then we need to foster an environment where everyone can feel safe to talk about things that can too easily be pushed under the surface.

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