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Archive for September, 2011

For better and for worse, I am a busy person. I’m also by nature a hole-filler in that when I see a gap somewhere I think needs filling, I have a tendency to start thinking I need to plug it myself. This trait has helped me achieve some of the things I’m proudest of, from medschool, to the student charity I founded, and the choir I organised and still sing with. At the moment, I’m liasing with the medschool to set up a tutoring scheme between first and second year students who are failing, and fourth and fifth years with a bit of extra time. I’m really excited to see if it works – having found out first hand that the medical school support system is a bit ropey, I want to help make it better. I’m not that great at walking away.

In the last few months, as I’ve started coming out of depression and started feeling like myself again, the consuming apathy of the last year has started to fade, and my drive to fit things in has gone up again. This has in part been amazing – I feel like myself again, I feel useful, I feel as though at the end of the day, I have something to show for it, something to say for it. I’m good, when I’ve got projects and tasks to do. One of the (brilliant) IgNoble prizes this year went to someone who showed that high achievers achiever highly because they ‘procrastinate from an important thing, with another important thing – not a waste of time’. This is ‘very me’.

I’m also aware though of a tendency to overdo things – I’ve always been the person rushing around at twice the speed of everyone else, or so it seems. When I’m struggling in one area, I focus on another part of my life to distract myself and sometimes end up overwhelmed. I’m trying to stay away from that. Sometimes it’s hard to chose what to give time to. I sometimes sort of forget that I’m supposed to believe as a Christian that the world is already saved and that I don’t need to save it myself. If I am focussed on being outward focussed, I have less space to worry about my own issues and upsets. I’m not saying it’s healthy, or that it always works, but it’s who I am.

I think at the moment, I’m going to need some real ‘me time’ to get me through the next few weeks. This is usually my favourite time of year, with the changing leaves and the crisp sunshine. It brings back memories of singing harvest songs as a child, of coming home in the twilight. There’s so much going on right now, from placement stuff, to job applications, and at the moment, some friction with one of my flatmates, that I need some slots of time just to be on my own and think, to be on my own and just to be still and know. I need my long walks by the river and over the hills. I need my stretches away from the noise of the world, just quiet, amongst the trees and the water. At the moment, I’m really feeling that need to be in the peace, just with God, just thinking and asking and listening. If I take on too much, I might lose that, and then, where will I be? I’m finding myself falling into reflection a lot at the moment (makes a change, I know) but I feel I need it. I still need to make sense of last year, I still need to bury some hatchets and throw out some dishwater. Somehow, in counselling, I find this hard to breach.

I guess what I’m aiming for here, is balance and a lesson in making good choices. I’m still deciding about the student leadership thing – not quite as clear a decision as it could be, and I’m already feeling pretty maxed out. I sometimes think us ‘busy bees’ get a raw deal from churches, who paint us with the same tar as followers of other ‘false idols’ – I understand what they mean, but I’d rather feel like I was giving all I could for Jesus, even if it wears me thin, than knowing I could do more. I’d rather be rushed, than be as slowed down as I was last year. I’d rather be working for change, than settling for acceptance of things we all need to change.

On another note, I got to practise sutreing today on REAL SKIN (cadavers are hard to come by)! It’s one of those things that makes me feel ‘properly medical’. I possibly enjoyed it a bit too much. So, reader, if you’re in the North of the UK and have any superficial wounds that need sewing up, I am your girl.

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One year ago today, I finally went to see a doctor about a low mood that hadn’t shifted or improved for several months. One year ago today, I was so tired of trying to fight against something I couldn’t see that I gave in and gave up, and accepted that sometimes you need a medical solution to a medical problem. One year ago today, I picked up my first prescription of antidepressants and felt like the bottom was falling out of my world. One year ago, I thought I’d crossed a line and that those first tablets marked the start of a new phase of recovery. One year ago today, I thought things, at last, would turn a corner.

One year on, and I am more able to evaluate that time. The GP I saw had a brusque manner and made me feel guilty for feeling so awful. He took months to refer me as he seemed to think that my medical student status would somehow magically help me cure myself of depression. He didn’t offer to change my medication when it made me feel dangerously worse, and didn’t really seem to care if I got better or not. When he did refer me, it was with such a bad attitude that I was too scared to go. By the time I’d spent months changing doses on my first medication, I was too terrified to try another. Those small pills I started taking a year ago today, did not help me turn a corner; rather, they very nearly shoved me over a pretty dangerous edge. Those little pills did not mark the start of recovery.

Who was I then? I was afraid, alone, incapable. I was unable to make good decisions regarding an illness that fragmented my judgement and overshadowed the person I had been. I was on autopilot, still sitting exams, still seeing patients, but not seeing, not really. I was in a haze. I was in a different season, a season of endless winter.

Who am I now? I am still, often, afraid that this depression still lingers, stuck to my shadow. I get frustrated that I am still hemmed in by the fallout from last year – still shackled to inner-city attachments, still tied to constant monitoring and questionning of my mood, still tethered  to counselling. I am the girl who got left behind herself. Sometimes I look at last year and can’t even believe it was me – me, so close to the edge, me, crying desperately, resolutely, endlessly. I can’t believe it was me. It was a year of being so far from who I am, that I feel detached, as though it was just a year of empty space, a year I stepped out of and never found the way back in. I cut myself out of that year and couldn’t patch my way back in.

This year has been the hardest of my life. I’ve learned who my true friends are – which has been both incredibly painful, when people let me down, sometimes pretty impressively, but also incredibly comforting; I’ve got some brilliant friends. They’ve stopped me sinking. I’ve tackled a huge fear and got myself, repeatedly, through a counsellor’s door. I’ve also learned who my God is – that although I often think he leaves me, he never does, that I often think he ignores me, he never does. Although Christians try to act like Jesus on a daily basis (and should), Jesus is more than any of us will ever be. We make mistakes. We injure each other, accidentally and sometimes, deliberately. God does not do this; He binds our wounds.  This is a very fortuitous thing.

I got through this year. Sometimes, I think the only thing we really have to deal with, to get through, is time, unfortunate, as it waits for no man. I am still learning.

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Lessons from John Cage

This last week was rough, as you know. I’ve been a bit of a walking ball of stress for the last few days, and as a result, was aware that my mood has been dropping. Two things happened over the weekend, however, that have helped.

First off, I was walking down the main road on Saturday when I spied the conductor, M, of the concert band I’ve played in for the last five years, at a bus-stop with her (unbelievably cute) little boy. This is the band where I found my feet and first good friends at university. It’s the band I cut my leadership teeth on, as I was its president in my third year. It’s the band I avoided last year, as I was too afraid of being ‘found out’, full as it is, of people who know and care about me. M had heard I’d been ‘ill’ (the story I tend to use is glandular fever, as it explains a slow recovery/low energy/weight loss etc) – and was just so lovely, asking how I’d been, and how I was managing, and then started talking about how she’d had something similar, and then developed anxiety and depression, at the end of her final year at music school, and that it was the mood things that took longest to shift. She asked if I’d had problems – and all I could really say was ‘yes, and it’s been bloody awful’. M is lovely – a little scatter-brained, a little too keen on making us play Starwars medleys EVERY SINGLE YEAR – and after playing under her for son long, babysitting her son and being one of the older students, I know her pretty well. The admission felt safe, which is never has previously. It felt as though for the first time, someone knew what it’s like to be a hundred-miles-per-hour person reduced to a crawl. She also said to me,

‘Char, you play hard at everything – just remember, the harder you play, the harder you’re going to have to rest, before something MAKES you rest.’

That may be the best summary anyone has ever given me, like, ever. She then slightly over-did it by talking about how John Cage’s (AWFUL) 3.44 or whatever it’s called is still music despite being composed SOLELY OF RESTS (NB to the non-aware – it’s NOT). I get her point though. When you play tenor sax (as I do), you need the rests to breathe. There’s only so many bars of semiquavers you can play at breakneck speed before you start wanting to pass out. I need the odd rest, to remember to breathe. It really lifted me, seeing M, as it reminded me that no-one vilifies you for having the odd term out or being ill, which thanks to the attitude of el medical school, is sometimes hard to hang on to. I don’t totally subscribe to thinking my depression was just ‘a need for a big rest’ – but I do agree I’d been running on empty physically, and mentally, and spiritually, for a long time.

I think the other thing might come into my next post. In the meantime, here is John Cage’s ‘masterpiece’, and the first and third movements of one of my favourite pieces of band music, Folk Song Suite by Vaughan Williams. I sang ‘seventeen come sunday’ and ‘folk song from somerset’ as a child so this medley has always been a favourite.

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This week did really not get off to the best start – after being fed-up last week over my application scores, there’s been further issues in that my parents may have lost my first degree certificate, which I need to have a scan of in order to get more ‘points’ on it when I apply for my job. I definitely left it at home – there’s no point dragging ‘important’ things from flat to flat as a student. It’s stressing me out quite a bit, and my parents are being fairly difficult about looking for it for me.  I’ve also had a lot of problems with the student loan company as they don’t really understand (or so it seems!) that medical degrees can take six years – queue a lot of being ‘on-hold’, which when I’m spending long days at the hospital with few breaks, doesn’t go down well – it’s taking ages to get sorted so I’m getting really quite nervy about finances. Not fun. Then, I’ve been given a pretty rubbish paediatric placement for Nov-Dec which is a shame as it’s the rotation I’ve most been looking forward to for the last three years. I’m with the community team, which yes, in interesting, but it’s a lot of learning disability stuff, and as I’ve done more than enough summers working in that field to not really need any more time allocated to it, I’m a bit disappointed when I could have been at the children’s hospital doing something that would be more new and interesting. I love volunteering in LD – but I was so looking forward to paeds surgery or paeds neurology. Cue a case of the grumps.

I’m also just quite, well, emotional at the moment. Whether it’s because the last few weeks have, by all accounts, been stressful, but I actually missed not having counselling this week (L was away). Whether it’s just because I’m on week 11 of term already, have been doing lots of long days, and am tired, I’m not sure. I sort of just need to vent somewhere. I’m just a little fragile. Next week will be the one-year marker for me going to the GP’s and officially being put on the mental health bandwagon. Next week marks the start (well, in terms of defining the problem as opposed to running from it) of the long way down. A whole year on, I’m still not back to where I was. Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever get back. Sometimes I think the rest of my life is going to be a mix of falling apart for a time, and then trying to catch up for a time, then repeating. I kind of feel like I’ve missed a boat and will never get back to the pace I was at. I’m feeling so impatient with it. I’m fed up, as always, of depression and its sequelae. I just want to be past it. I have a feeling I’ll be neck and neck with it for a while yet. Major case of hitting head against wall.

I think part of it is that I’ve overdone things a bit in the last week or two. I really love it when people lower down the medschool get in touch and ask if we can meet for a chat to go over things like examination techniques, or what they need to be thinking about for the coming year of their training, but by the same token, I realised that in the last fortnight I’ve spent five evenings and three afternoons meeting people to give them a hand, a soundboard or a shoulder, and it’s worn me down. I love that people see me as approachable, and I really do love teaching – but it’s worn me out. I did too much. So much for pacing.

However, there have been some things today to pick me up. I did the lecture on ‘life as a medic’ to the new first years – all 240 of them – this morning, and despite being pretty nervous about it (I’ve never had such a big audience for so long as I spoke for an hour), it went well. They laughed in the right places, were interactive, and gave me applause at the end. I feel quite proud of myself. I’ve also found out that I’ll be listed as an author on another academic paper, which is brilliant – the supervisor I did my neuroscience project with is brilliant at acknowledging contributors, and it will hopefully really help me in a few years when I apply for training posts. My choir had it’s first social, and lots of new people came, and its first rehearsal, and I really have missed it over the summer.  My student charity has had over two hundred people sign up, and that’s a lot of potential man power. It’s things like this that remind me that I’m still who I am – I may not be quite as accurate as God at the whole ‘I AM THAT I AM’ thing – but I’ve not completely lost myself.

I’m hoping that all the stuff that’s massively stressing me out is going to sort itself out in the next few days and weeks. I’m just a bit fragile at the moment. Let the weak say, I am strong.

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Hand-me-down grace

Do you have older siblings? If so, like me, you probably spent your younger years clothed in their cast-offs, that were too big, too small, too long or too short more often or not. They weren’t your choice or your preference. They didn’t fit you as they should and didn’t have your stamp on them. Someone elses name was in the collar. My big sister went through a major tom-boy phase where she cut off all her hair and wore only items of clothing featuring the ‘teenage mutant hero turtles’.  Four years younger, I was also a kid who spent a childhood up trees and down holes and hanging from bars and falling off fences – but I was happy doing it in dresses, too. I didn’t want her old ‘boy’ stuff. I hated that I only got to wear her clothes. I hated having her old school jumpers and her old jeans. I hated that I wore t shirts for camps I hadn’t been on and places I’d not visited. I hated it.

What made it worse was that people confused us so much, as we were both academic girls in a non-academic school, with brown hair and a tendency to be picked on, who both played the clarinet, both were involved in Girl Guiding, etc etc, ad infinitum. I went through school as ‘bigsister’sname-nowaitwhat’syourname?’.  Her name was written on my school reports and in the labels of my uniform. Looking back, my teenage years were a mess of a long-played identity crisis- she drowned me out. Even now, I often define myself as what she is not, rather than what I am. When my families problems kicked off, I was left muddling through, and made the mistake of defining myself on circumstance, not substance. Through all my counselling, it’s become clearer that I chose the wrong things to define myself with, when I’m able to at all. One of the things that most awes me about God is that He is who He says He is; I am that I am. If I asked you, ‘who do you say you are’, would your answer be the same today as it was ten years ago, and will be ten years in the future? Unlike God, e change, we grow, we alter, we question. God is not someone who has ever had an identity crisis.

When it comes to my faith, sometimes I kind of feel as though the grace set aside for me is just grace that someone else first in line didn’t use – that I’m a left-over Christian standing at the back of the queue, waiting to see if someone else before me has some scraps I can scavange to save my soul. It doesn’t feel like it fits me and my issues and my anxiety and my doubtful nature. It feels as though it should be worn by someone clean and sure and spotless. It makes me feel as though I’m wearing a robe that’s so long I trip over the hem, or a hood that falls down over my eyes so that I cannot see – and item woven for someone else that I somehow stumbled on and inspite of all my hoping, all my longing, still marks me as an outsider, without an invitation, standing in the dark at the back amongst the brooms. As a late comer to faith, often I make the mistake of thinking that God will only get to me after he’s dealt with everyone else – that my prayers haven’t racked up enough church-time to be taken seriously, that until I can list the books of the Bible forwards, backwards, and upside down, I’m stuck on hold.  My hand-me-down attitude to grace is hard to shake.

However, sometimes I remember, again, that the grace God gives me has been reserved for me since the beginning; it’s not second hand, or second best, it’s not handed down or man-handled, it’s not too big or too small or too long – it’s just the right size, the right fit, and would not match anyone elses need the way it matches mine. This reminds me that even when I’m feeling small and vulnerable, more hedgehog than eagle, God has me written in his book (an address book? I think so) and in his story. His Goldilocks grace gives me a firmer place to stand and the courage to stand there. This is one of the reasons I hate it when people talk about the ‘unchurched’ – because they might not be destined to stay that way, and God has their grace cut out and on hold, until they get there. We’re all born ‘unchurched’ at the end of the day. Our grace is enough.

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Serendipitous opportunities

First of all – I’ve calmed down a little since yesterday. I’m still a bit miserable and bitter, but at the end of the day, I’m only human and sometimes I need to have a strop. This is where I have my strops because this is where I’m honest. Onwards and upwards, eh?

Something a little unexpected happened this week. I met the student worker from my church for a chat as we’ve never really had a chance to get to know each other and he suggested meeting up after I emailed to ask if he knew of anyone who’s not found their feet at church, who’d be interested in being in a girls’ Bible study me and a friend were planning to start. The upshot was that he’s wanting to re-organise the student side of things a bit to include a return to more traditional ‘small groups’ after the church moved away from that model a year ago to focus on more missionally orientated groups. These student pods will have about 12 in each, with two leaders, who will, well, lead stuff and arrange everything, including prayer triplets and Bible studies every fortnight. The leaders will then have a monthly meetup with one of the married couples at church, where the husband is an elder  (and a doctor) and the wife is generally very involved too, too make sure they’re supported etc. I’ve been asked if I’d like to lead a group.

This is a bit weird as obviously it’s about a hundred miles from anything ‘church related’ I’ve done so far, and more than the small group I’d planned, and could see myself managing. On the other hand, I’ve not had any ‘input’ from someone mature at church for over a year, and have a feeling that this is something I need – I get lost and confused and waylaid, and could do with someone further on who knows me, and cares enough to signpost the way. As I come further and further out of depression, I’m going to need some guidance from someone I trust. This could be a good way of getting that. I’m also a much better speaker on ‘paper’ (electronic or otherwise) than out loud, so leading a group of students would push me to extend my faith in a way I’ve not really cracked yet. I know I get the words out here, but in public, I am, as always, more of a hedgehog for Jesus than an eagle. I know that I can do the leadership side, practically – I’m a good organiser, and good at looking out for people – but am not quite so sure about how good I will be about being honest about where I am with God, as, afterall, the last time I was that honest with someone from church ended in disaster. I still sometimes fall into a trap of not quite believing that my skills are relevant to church either – that it’s some holy place where only other people have a right to serve, and that I’ll never be good enough to lead anything with a Christian tag to it, because I’m not holy enough, or good enough, or clean enough. It’s going to need me to wipe that slate clean, leave my unease behind, and focus on being a good follower of Christ who can help other people follow too. Tall order? Pass me the stepladder.

I don’t really know what to do – as a fifth year, I’m pretty busy, but on the other hand, this could be a way of really deepening my faith and getting back into the community after feeling pretty forced out, after the dreadful encounter last year. It kind of has that ‘oooch’ feeling of knowing that God has put this in my path for a reason. It has that kind of niggle that it’s too well timed to be down to chance. It just fits too many spaces in my life, right now. I’m off to Nepal anyway, in January, so it would only be short term, which also makes me want to accept.

Thoughts, anyone?

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Tethered.

It’s been a pretty rough week. Generally, I try not to mull things over too much and dwell on the uncertainties brought by last year – but this week, I am, hands-up, being a bit self-indulgent and letting myself be upset and emotional about a few things. I’m tired of ‘looking on the bright side’ and ‘being grateful’ and ‘not dwelling on things I can’t change’. This week, I’m waving a white flag to disappointment, just for a little while.

The reason for this is that I start my application for my first doctoring job next month. Without explaining the ridiculously complicated and oh-so-pointless system in depth, we get a score out of 100 which is broken into a mark on where we rank in our year academically, plus a mark from answering various questions aiming to show that we won’t stab patients or steal from the hospital etc. Based on your score, you then find out which area of the country you’ve been allocated to, and from there, which group of placements you can apply for. Popular areas, and popular jobs, therefore need a higher score.

I found out this week that after spending five years achieving in the top 15% (roughly), last year knocked my marks off enough that my ranking dropped enough to lost me points. Every point counts. Literally. I’m feeling a bit self-pitying to be honest. I’ve worked so hard from day one – and one bad year has reduced the chance of getting a job I really want to do. Small sad man playing small, sad violin, you know where I am.

There is however another way to get a foundation doctor’s job, which is what I’d always intended on doing. The ‘academic foundation’ jobs are for people who want to do clinical research and who are academically sound. You get a much better choice of jobs, time for research, and are always in professorial units, which are usually the best ones in the hospitals. After being ill and having my research project take more wrong turns than a blind person navigating, I couldn’t really apply anymore – I had too much on my plate thanks to a hefty dose of depression. Something had to go. It was upsetting enough at the time letting it go, after so long thinking that it would be the path I would be on. A bitter change of plans.

Today is the day a lot of my friends found out whether they’d got academic jobs, or not. Some of the are excellent students. Others, I realistically was working either on a par, or above them, easily, till last year. Looking at the successes, I think it’s fair to say that I’d have stood a relatively good chance of getting one too, had I applied. I’m jealous. There is no other word for it. Between scoring lower on the academic ranking, and feeling annoyed that the academic jobs are out of my reach, I’m grumpy. Depression sucks. It really does.

I know it’s ugly, I know it’s wrong, but sometimes, sometimes I get so bloody fed up of all of this. I’m fed up of finding excuses every single week to a different consultant as to why I need time off. I’m fed up of having to constantly evaluate myself and my performance and measure it against a scale, and find myself wanting. I’m in mourning that not only did I lose last year to it, it’s still impacting me now. It’s changed my future. It’s still got me, tethered. I know that ‘poor little me-ing’ does no one any favours – but today, I’m upset and annoyed. Today, I’m just wishing that depression never happened to me. Today, I’m just wishing it would bugger off and let me be. I’m sick of struggling to breathe against it. I’m sick of living with it. I just want it gone. I just want to move on.

Magic bullets, this way please!

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