Hormones and mood

This is a really interesting article about the menstrual cycle and mood. I experience a lot of the same things this woman describes: increased confidence and self esteem in the run up to ovulation; an association between high estrogen levels and high anxiety; decreased body image in the pre menstrual phase. If you feel like shit it can be *so* helpful to know where you are in your cycle. Worth a read x

3:13 AM

It’s 3:13 AM.

I am coming back to this blog after a long period of quiet, in which I posted links to musical performances and poems I liked but rarely my own writing. This is because the relationship I have with it is complex. It is something I have always wanted to exist, but it feels like a stranger created it, out of a seemingly boundless confidence. For weeks I was able to express my innermost thoughts with absolute faith that they were a reflection of how I truly felt at the time, with an absolute conviction in the worth of what I was contributing and the quality of its expression.

This sudden surge of confidence, the sudden spurt of writing about very personal experiences alarmed those closest to me (or the people close to me who could not square this sudden candour with the girl they knew.)  I had a sense that my creativity was suddenly flowering into shape, and the more I allowed it to, the bigger it would become. I lay awake at night for hours on end teeming with ideas; ideas about what I’d read, creative projects that occurred to me, images and resonances. I felt… overwhelmed, different, but also, I have to admit to myself, deeply happy. I rejoiced in feeling articulate, I rejoiced in feeling this surge of creativity, as if the most promising part of myself was suddenly making itself known.

Why? What caused this?

I wrote in detail about my experience with the contraceptive implant. This was the first piece of writing that engendered the blog, and in it I report a state of happiness and enhanced creativity, following a period in which I would cry almost constantly ~ a side effect from the contraceptive implant. I felt returned to my natural happiness, as the artificial hormones affecting my mood were removed from my body, which was gratefully returning to its normal state.

Or so I thought. I could not have known that the feelings of exceptional joy and a persistent creativity that seemed to want to express itself through me would last much longer than I expected, and be accompanied by an intellectual confidence of an extent that I had never before possessed. I remember being feverishly happy, absorbed in my writing and revision for my finals.

But some of the people closest to me were worried. Suddenly I had a huge drive to spend extended periods of time wrapped up in nature, pacing up and down the beach or dancing around in the sun in my local park for hours at a time. I lay awake very late into the night, and I had previously slept all the way through, dependably. I was, they tell me, irritable, rapid of speech, and distracted from my studies (I remember feeling that anything I read was more stimulating than usual; a paragraph of writing could set off a train of thought that would occupy me for hours, in which I would appear to be lost in thought, but certainly not studying, and at this point I had my finals coming up.)

To a certain person in my life who knows a lot about mental health, my behaviour looked an awful lot like a manic episode of someone suffering from bipolar disorder.

I struggle with this, so so much. In my head I was flowering, full of joy, full of love, especially. I felt like I could suddenly see this whole life behind things. Social situations were suddenly weighted with symbolism; I thought I could catch the currents, good and bad, that ran between people; I was hyperempathetic, physically picking up on and feeling the emotions of those around me. In particular, I had ideas about a relationship between sexuality and creativity, as expressed here and here. I began to think of acts of childbirth and sex as creative acts, thinking of the artistically creative and the sexually creative as inextricably linked. I began to think of anxiety/depression and creativity as completely opposed, since in my joy I felt creativity that a few earlier months of stress and worry had temporarily silenced or suppressed. I felt like my own body, newly liberated from progesterone, was flooded with two linked desires: to create and to nurture. It sounds so strange but I felt like my first pieces of writing were as children to me; I couldn’t accept any criticism for them, because they seemed to me simply too honest, too me, too much a part of me to be able to bear correction by another person. I felt a desperate need to look after those around me, which extended for weeks and weeks, bolstered by this hyperempathetic state. It was as if my body, confused, was trying to insist on motherhood, tell me I was ready, and in the absence of things to nurture would nurture pieces of writing into life, nurture everyone around me.

Although I was scared by the depth of emotion I was plunged into, by the lucidity with which I felt I suddenly saw the world, and alarmed in turn by the panic of those around me at my changed behaviour, in a way the most painful thing is how good I know I felt. I loved feeling the emotions of people around me, I felt it made me able to care for them more profoundly. The creative feeling, and the confidence, have since ebbed away, although I sense that they were a magnification of something within me that was already there. How could I be ill, if I felt so happy? If I felt completely in control, how could I have been as utterly, utterly wrong about this as those around me thought at the time?

Was I as ill as those around me thought? Perhaps not. Perhaps some kind of internal rudder was still keeping me safe, looking after me. Yes, I wrote and published a lot of things that I cannot imagine having had the confidence to publish. Yes, sometimes I could not sleep, sometimes the ideas overwhelmed me. The fact that the sweet and exciting feeling that I was finally unravelling and expressing the most promising part of myself could not only be purely down to a wild hormone imbalance within me, but could actually also be interpreted as the symptom of an illness is something I am still puzzling over, and upset and confused by. I suppose it comes down to a fear that once I could not trust that guardian voice inside my head, the voice that looks after me and tells me what to do, tells me how to interpret the world. Without confidence in that voice the world is terrifying.

It has now been months and months since this period, which came after I had the implant taken out in April last year, and lasted until May and perhaps June. Over the months I have developed an ambivalent relationship with this blog. In many ways I have rarely been prouder of anything, especially of the first piece, not only because many people wrote to me and told me they were grateful and it resonated with their experiences, but more because it expressed something I considered important in a way that felt true to me. It was utterly, utterly honest. But the blog symbolises this wild, honest, unabashed creativity that seemed very sudden to those close to me and caused them a lot of worry; this wasn’t so much for the content, but for the fact of its existence, spurred into existence by a physical, hormonal, change. The blog represents an unknown entity within me.

But I am holding onto the fact that I have wanted to write a blog forever, I have in fact written forever. I have diaries that stretch way back; some of the poems and pieces I put up were written before the blog’s inception. I have always written for myself, always loved writing for its ability to control and make sense of the world around me by putting it into words.

It’s 4:13 AM. An hour, an outpouring.

What am I pushing back to? I think fundamentally I want to come back to this, or at least to some form of creativity. I want to know that in a balanced, hormonally normal state I am still creative, I am still healthy, that the satisfaction of writing and sharing my writing with others doesn’t have to be confined to a period of my life that I am to this day mystified, terrified and fascinated by. If by some miracle you’re still here, or you ever have been here, thank you.

***

12/2/18

 

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Depression, anxiety and euphoria: what hormonal contraception did to me

I was always pretty much one of the only women and girls I knew who loved having a period. Well not having it per se, which could be far from ideal, but maybe the fact that it happened; my body had its own cycle, its own silent process of birth and regeneration, like the moon, or a tree. It made me feel like my physical substance was in some fundamental way connected to the world around me. The unfortunate attending possibility was of course, obviously, childbirth. And clearly, when one gets to a certain age, and is lucky enough to have sex sometimes, this becomes a mind-blowing and terrifying possibility. Like many people, the thought of having a baby at 21 fills me first overwhelmingly with bafflement and then, very quickly, with worry. I still sometimes cry when I’m hungry, and if there were two of us crying, what would I do?!

In short, at a certain point when these worries (temporarily) came scarily and rudely to a head I decided I needed to take on the responsibility of preventing pregnancy from happening. Or not even that; it was as much about relieving myself of the anxiety of potential pregnancy as the possibility itself.

So I got the contraceptive implant. This is a matchstick shaped device that sits in your arm and releases progestogen into your bloodstream, preventing you from having a child. (Don’t ask me how, I’m a Classicist.) I was told that I might bleed erratically for a while, but that this would settle down; I was told that I might experience minor mood swings, but that they too would settle down, within a few months. That night I had a dream that I was alone at my home in London when four or five female sixteen year old thieves broke in through the front door and seized everything in sight, in spite of my attempts to empathetically reason with them. With some tentativeness, (again, I’m a Classicist not a psychologist) I was initially and remain tempted to view the symbolism at work here as pointing up anxiety about an intrusion into my place of safety (the home often symbolises the body or the self in dreams) by an alien external force, which I would try and fail to reason with. At the time I dismissed the anxieties the dream was trying to communicate, and my subsequent experience seemed to confirm the impulse to reject it; for quite a long time after the implant was inserted I did feel completely myself, noticing no changes to my mood at all.

However I thought something was a bit weird when, five weeks later, I was sitting in my room waiting for my parents to arrive so they could take me out to lunch for my 21st birthday, listening to music and writing my diary (as one does) and little by little I was seized with emotion. My mum and dad loved me so much that they were coming to see me on my birthday! Even though I’m bad at tidying my room and I always always leave the lights on and occassionally I am rude! I felt the force of their love and the gratitude took physical root in my body; I dissolved into tears, and wrote them a letter thanking them for bringing me into the world. I was crying but it was a wonderful feeling. The more I wrote, the more I broke down into tears. When they arrived, they were touched but bemused. On some level, I do tentatively sense that I am more emotional than your average Joe, but it’s not like I cry every time they come round. I do often feel this way for a couple of days before my period starts though – aha! I thought. My period is coming despite the implant.

Only the feeling did not stop. But it did stop being cathartic, no longer representing a much-needed release, but over the next few days identifying itself as sadness, as worry, as anxiety, as fear, not as gratitude. The familiar PMS-feeling – endurable for its transience, even welcome sometimes as it was part of my body’s reassuring cycle – just would not go away. It lasted for about three weeks. In those three weeks I would cry pretty much every day, at no provocation or at the slightest provocation (the bare fact that I don’t currently hold a gym membership being the most laughable of my perceived crosses to bear.) For the first week I was okay; I clung on to the knowledge that underneath all the noise, I was happy; but it became harder and harder to persuade myself that I was crying every day for no reason at all. I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on all the faults and worries in my life and it took all my energy to separate the emotion I felt from the reality I knew was safe and happy. I worried that there were only so many times the people closest to me would be able to hold me while I cried without being able to do anything because the emotion came from a small plastic rod and not from any problems they could support me while I solved. Emotions are contagious. The most insecure part of me worriedly whispered that there would come a time when they would run out of the love or energy to be close to me. They had their own shit to deal with. I resented myself for even feeling like I needed looking after at all.

After a particularly bad episode involving one ‘seen’ Facebook messenger notification, two hours of physically uncontrollable sobbing, and an essay I could not write because crying was taking up all of my time, I decided to have the implant taken out. I called my GP, tentatively telling her I felt like what I was experiencing was ‘a bit of a mental health emergency’, and expecting her to give me an appointment in the next couple of days. I was told that as I had had sex in the last two weeks there was a risk of pregnancy if it was taken out, so I would have to wait another two weeks for any existing sperm to bugger off. Hearing this, my eyes filled (yes, you guessed it!) with tears. It seemed like the end of the world. As it turned out, due to the risk of pregnancy the only way my doctor would allow me to have it taken out quickly was if I allowed them to first fit my womb with the (blissfully hormone free) copper coil, which is immediately effective as contraception, and then have the implant taken out. I accepted this advice, and although the memory of having the coil placed inside my womb and the ensuing last day of being bed ridden with tears pouring down my face has been promptly filed away by my subconscious into the file titled ‘REPRESSED THINGS’, it is a choice I am proud I made. Three days after having the implant removed the clouds have cleared and I am happy again, with all the other great benefits that come with being happy: I am more self- confident, more creative, take a great deal of pleasure in my alone time, studying is a joy rather than a struggle, I am more lucid, more compassionate, the list goes on. I am so grateful for all these things. I am so grateful that it is gone.

The worst thing about the effect the implant had on me (which for the uninitiated contains the same hormones as the ‘mini’ or progestogen-only contraceptive pill) was that I risked becoming my own worst enemy. Increasingly I felt that I was no longer able to trust my own thoughts and feelings. Were my emotional reaction to things and corresponding behavioural responses rational? Every time an event made me cripplingly, cripplingly sad the sadness was accompanied by a quiet suspicion that I was blowing everything out of proportion. I was left with the alternatives of swallowing my feelings, which had served me badly in the past, or communicating them to the people I loved and risking scaring or overwhelming them. In my opinion, things get dangerous when you become alienated from the sad, scared, angry parts of yourself, because exasperated and exhausted you reject them, unable to give them your love, attention, and acceptance. I am incredibly lucky to know myself well enough to always have been able to hold on to the fact that the feelings weren’t mine, to have had this happen to me during a period of my life that I am positive I am happy, because during a tougher patch it would have been much harder to distinguish the ‘real’ sadness from the ‘synthetic’ sadness.

Because so many women use hormonal contraception and a large proportion of those women don’t suffer such debilitating side effects it is easy to feel like you are making a massive fuss about nothing, to assume that other women feel the same way as you do in their heads but you are too weak to deal with it, especially when the tone of every healthcare professional you speak to on the phone is coloured with skepticism even when the words themselves aren’t. If this sounds like you, have faith in your conviction that you aren’t making a big fuss about nothing, and if hormonal contraception is making you sad, don’t feel embarrassed or weak in making the decision to come off it. My doctor (who, for the record, is lovely and whom I don’t really blame) told me to wait six months for the side effects to subside. Six months – especially when those six months coincide with an already impossibly volatile Cambridge term – is a very, very long time. The burden of responsibility for contraception is, for now, entirely placed on women. I could wax lyrical about how fucking unfair this is, but instead I will say: it will be okay, you have every right to stop and put your mental health first, and the amount of time you choose to wait before implementing any decision to do so is entirely for you to determine, and not for anyone else.

an elegy on loss

***

She wakes early, showers; plans her day. Granola, with berries. Tea. There is a lot to do. A lot for her brain to do. It’s oppressive. She works for ten minutes, lies on the bed. It shouldn’t be this hard. It shouldn’t be this hard. To escape she seizes the much-loved novel, escapes to Italy, a different time, a similar heart. Her mind is struggling to impose order on things; she hears the kindly voice that lulls her to sleep, tells her it’s okay, if she’s sad she can work tomorrow, it’ll pass, I promise, I promise it will pass. Her brain needs rest, anyway. Better to fall into the warm embrace of sleep. Sleep seems to her a respite. She hears another voice: the voice says that something inside her is broken, fundamentally, and it always has been, and she will never overcome it, because of it she is just too …. for this world. The voice taunts her for lying still. You don’t love your work, someone else would love it more than you, enjoy it, you’re supposed to be enjoying it, why aren’t you enjoying it, you’re an ungrateful brat. You have everything but you can’t see it. It’s not enough for you. You will fall behind and fail. No one will love you for who you are. There is something about you. Something broken, unattractive. Repellant. Fat, actually. You treat your body with no respect, no love.

How can I love myself when you’re whispering evil things to me all the time? How can I create anything when you cripple my attempts by laughing at them? It’s not your fault, says a third voice. It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose to be born, much less to be born like this, with this paralysing desire for love. You can’t change your nature. Everything has already happened. You’re a mound of cells. Wired to have babies and be lumbered with them, struggling to love them, no power over what they become, not really.

Come on. You’re better than this, you have a fine mind, an acute sensitivity to things, feelings, people, you write sensitively, you’re eyes are a gift to the world. You’re healthy and strong and robust. You have endured so much. It hasn’t been fair. You’ve done the best you can. All your decisions make perfect sense. You are a wonderfully supportive friend and sister. You have got here, you were smart enough to get here, you can do this, it’s fine that you didn’t feel up to it today, there are people who have never betrayed you. There will be someone who makes it all worthwhile, who sees your acute vulnerability and comes to know you and also to learn how unbelievably easy it is to make you ecstatically happy, and that will be the most fulfilling thing in the world for him, and he will value your mind and the depth of your love more than anything else in his life. It’s a dark world. Full of mystery and horror. People are the threads that shine us through. The things we can hold on to through whatever chance might throw at us. There are a lot of people depending on you. I – I love you more than anything. We’ve come so far. Lived, fully. You are a relentless force. There is so much more to live for. It will be a thousand times more than what you felt when he was a possibility, when some part of you always doubted it. And even more so with him. Your mind and body sense this, they are waiting, they know it is what you were made for. But there is no point in compromise, you know it will only bring you grief. These weeks and months being single are hard. You’re not built for them. But that doesn’t mean they’re a waste. They’re part of the big picture, they set up the contrasts, the dark moments are the shadow, there are still wonderful bright moments of light. How brilliant that the best is yet to come. All that can be done during this period is to do your best on a daily basis. Look after yourself. As best you can. You’re in the best position anyone could wish to be. But it’s also okay if you can’t feel that always. Taking things for granted is part of the human condition. I love you.

 

***

A.R.A

February 2016

On social media and self esteem

IMG_3707I have had a lot of thoughts lately on the negative effect of social media on our self esteem. Like it or not, things that should not mean much in the grand scheme of things like Facebook and Twitter do have a pivotal effect on the way we think about ourselves. At the end of the day however, all social media is is an unfathomably superficial representation of our place in the world and our relationships with other things and other people that tells but a fraction of the story.

 

Perhaps the worst side-effect of social media is its propensity to undermine our relationships. So today I want to talk about a psychological phenomenon called ‘Projective Identification’, its negative effects, and the potential of social media to exacerbate it.

 

Projective identification is a mechanism that both makes and ruins friendships and relationships. The best way to illustrate what this it is is to give an example.

 

Say Person A smiles at person B across a room. They may have mutual friends; each know who there other is, and there is a mutual desire to get to know each other better. Later that day, Person A likes, say, Person B’s Instagram photo; Person B is happy, and this interaction confirms to both their desire to grow more acquainted with each other.

 

On the flipside, say Person B has begun to feel unsure of Person A’s feelings towards them. Perhaps she hasn’t texted him in a while, or didn’t ‘like’ his most recent profile picture. This hurts Person B, and he project the hurt he feels onto Person A; he feels pain, is it not natural to assume that she wants him to feel it, that she feels as ambivalent towards him as he feels towards her?

 

Ambivalence, exacerbated perhaps by personal insecurity x or y, can then turn to mistrust, and eventually to outright dislike. As you can imagine, this cooling of relations is part of that human instinct of self-preservation. Nobody wants to feel pain; romanticising sadness and anger will always get us into trouble. But it breaks friendships, and it breaks relationships. It is worsened by the level of interconnectivity we have today; every new Instagram post you make constitutes an opportunity for one of your friends not to ‘like’ your public activity.

 

And it works both ways. Sometimes, the last thing we want to see is the highlight reel of other people’s lives. Social media allows people to be selective about the side of themselves they wish to present, and it’s all too easy to be bitter about the achievements of people you kind of know.

 

I consider deleting Facebook perhaps twice a day. There is simply too much anxiety in the act of putting yourself out there in front of your friends, your distant family, and everyone you ever met at a party.

 

But like any anxiety, this can be fought by not dwelling too much on the symbolism behind it, and choosing not to doubt your friends. Confidence is a choice. I dare you to try spending a day without social media. Or at least Facebook. Instagram and tumblr are marginally better for the soul. SMS still works, believe it or not. Use it. Throw your iPhone into the Cam, even. Sometimes I think the thing I’m most nostalgic about is playing Snake on my mum’s Nokia.

Why Cambridge third year is bad for the soul

Hello friends,

Apologies for my recent silence! Exam term has gotten real. I start on the 28th May and time is beginning to run past me rather than crawl past me. In the meantime Varsity (Cambridge’s student newspaper) published an article I wrote entitled ‘why Cambridge third year is bad for the soul’ last week which you can read here. It’s about how existential anxiety can cause your creativity to shut down in times of extreme stress, e.g. during your finals. I wrote it in April so it’s strange to have it belatedly out in the world, but I hope you enjoy. The photos are both my own.

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Grantchester Meadows, June 2016