Apologies firstly for the long hiatus, it’s been a while since I last posted. Full time staff jobs firstly at The Guardian and now BBC has taken up a lot of my time. Still up for freelance commissions but I have to be more selective on what I work on. There have been many subjects I’ve wanted to write about such as falling back in love with cycling, plans to track race this year and building my first bike up; in my eagerness, I’ve already started taking tape and brake levers off without photographing each stage but now I’ve mentioned it, I’ll talk about each stage over this long term project on this blog. Hoping to find some time to update you all very soon.
Been working on journalistic pieces and was itching to write creatively for the sake of writing. I don’t usually post this kind of stuff on here but it resonates at the moment:
Heat rises and embraces me, reaching inside to clear away frost. Sitting on the thin utilitarian mattress covering the single camping bed, I’m surrounded by unfamiliar gentle patterned walls. Soaking and dripping from the torrid outside, a fan in the ceiling corner recycles furnace blasts, stroking my face and whipping up my hair.
I ran without a thought, getting away from myself and from the sombre cold. Denying my tracing of your lines, grooves and fleshy human cartography. My eyes opened and saw dehydrated papyrus skin and exposed ribs, heaving under thin paleness, disjointed and fractured. Grey blue pooling under delicate splinters and cracks. Strangled under the angled city skyline, cutting away, exposing bones and underdeveloped muscle wrapped in strangely scented beauty.
Lightening bristled and marched on my skin ablaze with dawn awakenings. Beside my misplaced sleep in a bed that felt too small for me, crammed in against an indifferent wall. Tingling possibilities sung by outside birds, gathering in the concrete city. Structures coated with a pearlescent, steely cobalt sky. Hopeful verdant shoots covered with a downy dew, failed to root. I remember concrete pavements as old as time, winding streets heaving with alien histories.
Aged prints with unconquered continents, circling faintly in between my spaces created an arch, knotted my stomach. Hidden full force unleashed without words and emotion, disappointing and flat. Incomplete definition of me tumbled out in broken sentences. Redundant lexis, speechless cocoon, wrapped up in silk pupa. Sirius extinguished from the distance because your hands closed around it. You crushed me and lined everything with a vapour carapace. Finality with an inferred and inarticulate silence meant I needed to leave and never return.
Speaking in tongues, not dialect in this feverish place, means I ascend effortlessly up to a lavish terrace of a soulless glass building. I watch its reflections intensify the sun in makeshift foundations, wood huts and passages littered below, brimming with life. People seek temporary shelter under thin dyed muslin fabrics and paper umbrellas. Anarchic traffic flows, the incessant human buzz can’t be avoided from moneyed lofty heights. Alive veins flow with noise, community, poverty, heat and injustice.
Strolling with ease alongside crowds with fragrant pandan and incense, the sun beats down on dirt tracks. Dust flutters in scorching sunlight, fighting humidity. Sun seeps in diagonals between crammed homes and shops. Intense green vegetation springs up in corners and cracks, enduring and resourceful. People scurry past, busy surviving but don’t meet my gaze. There is no crystalline, glittering water to offer an invocation to their suffering or my pain.
I can’t be reached and came here to melt into humanity. Skipped borders to burn away every trace of myself with a painless cauterisation; to hollow out my borrowed history without a false one to replace it. I took off to see, develop, grow and thrive with love and tenderness. No longer do I hear your leaden footsteps or glance behind looking for you, checking where you are with your alluring, gorgeous shadow. There will be no chance meetings.
Apologies readers, it’s been a couple of months since I’ve blogged. There has been no miring in the depths of non-functioning despair but I’ve been busy in a good way. Work has taken off, getting writing and photography published and cycling a twenty-eight mile commute to get to a fresh newsdesk for freeelance shift work. It hasn’t all been slaving away, so no worries there. Certainly, I’m not looking inside the fridge puzzling about how to make food so I’m moving fowards.
It’s not easy, there are blips with my mood and having to learn about how it manifests every day and watch with vigilance. That is exhausting but I can’t change it. However, I didn’t pop on here to write about my own mental health.
This morning, I went for a run. This hasn’t happened since 2009 when I was training for a cycle race (which I didn’t manage to do due to coming down with the dreaded swineflu). Running evangelism isn’t my shtick, I’m a much more effective cyclist than a runner and I doubt this will change, even with considered and planned training. However, I wanted to get the blood pumping, my heart rate rising and push myself with a short burst.
Near where I live, there’s a wonderful common stretching across several green miles like an antidote to urban sprawls. Naturally, I ran past suburban houses towards the softer grass. Sun hitting my back, warming me up, I was suprised about how much easier it was to run, I suppose cycling huge miles has something to do with it. Slicing through the grass brushing against my shins, building up sweat, I run towards the wooded area. This little patch smells earthy from years of autumnal leaves as my trainers strike the woodchip and matured ground; then a clean scent rises, fresh and verdant. Soon, I come through the shaded trees back out into the sun’s heat. The still tall grass separated by well worn paths, waves lazily, touched by a light breeze. I do a small loop in the common and turn round heading home.
It’s something small but changes come from the minute gaining momentum. Whatever those victories are that make you feel alive are worth every waking moment. They make the darker, harder ones tolerable.
Friday Night Rides to the Coast are the stuff of dreams. A throng of cyclists, around eighty to a hundred, swoop up in the night at 11:00pm to Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner, riding at the stroke of midnight down to the coast. These monthly rides happen around the full moon, barring the height of winter. Carried through the night by a combination of endorphins, adrenaline, food at halfway stops and fine company, I have cycled to Burnham on Crouch, Brighton, Southend and other coastal towns starting from the capital.
Nothing beats winding down country lanes in half-light darkness, lit by an overhead moon. Tree shadows dancing off the bright beam of tarmac thrown up by my blinding bike light. I chance upon a stream of distant blinking red lights, hinting at the company of cyclists following this patch of solitary peddling. I drift up the crest of a hill, descending at speed for the momentum to carry me up bumpy land to catch up.
Plenty of rich memories swim up:
Puffs of my breath in the darkness of a cold night, stripping down to my bike bibs in the wintery chill of a tiny toilet, trying not to strike my elbows on the walls, the eerie beauty of dark country lanes, conversations with cyclists to keep myself awake and always the necessity of cake, tea and sandwiches. Watching the sun break through darkness, an orb rising up from the rose orange sky, clearing the clouds to warm and lift me. Another time, coming to the end of a Southend ride; creeping along Leigh on Sea, to be greeted by row upon row of sail less boats with ghostly clanging boat wires hitting their metal poles. Walking up the epic climb of Brighton’s Ditchling; seeing the crystal blue tide wash in at Burnham and the rewards of a huge English breakfast at the end of rides, usually with me falling asleep at 7am at the table.
I love cycling, there was even a time where I was training for a race but that’s another story. However, I may never do these rides again and it’s been a while since my last one. Fond memories makes this a much sharper realisation then I’d like but I’m recognising limitations I’d rather not have.
Writing has stopped for months, it’s been hard and winter and autumn hasn’t been kind. I decided back in December that I wanted this blog to have a stronger news focus as after all, I am a journalist.
However, I was ill, I spent weeks confined to bed, exhausted and unable to get up. Things piled up and I sank deeper under the depths.
At the beginning, I’d be able to drag myself to the very sporadic social gatherings to see friends where I’d put on a bright smile and exist, feeling alone amongst friends whilst inside I felt black, exhausted with myself and empty. Eventually, I stopped seeing anyone, began to tail off contacting friends as the effort was too much. People knew I was severely depressed as I never hide these things but I just drifted further down. There was this post from earlier last year where I’d started to unravel as I’m no stranger to being pinned by heavy, dark emotions.
Another great love of mine is food but I couldn’t face or handle the thinking and processes to make a meal. Staring vacantly, I stood for ages in-front of an open fridge door with less and less food inside and drawing blanks on what to eat or how to make it. If I got out from under the duvet, heating up a tin of beans was the most I could manage. Things reached a head when a friend came round and did my dishes as I sat with a cup of tea he’d made me. I’d be lying if there wasn’t shame in writing that but that was reality.
This depression was different, I felt driven, an irritation brewing to just do. A growing impulse was pushing and pushing and felt increasingly insistent though I had no more energy. Frustrated that I’d ground to a halt, I kept deriding myself for not achieving anything. I’d failed at the simplest task of being a human being.
Without warning, I woke very early after weeks of sleeping all day and felt good and bright and followed my driving impulses. Some of that I want to remain private, I’m all for confessional first person stories but this is not about airing my dirty laundry. Over days, I’d bought a collection of items I didn’t need in a vast spending spree and was convinced I needed all these ‘things’. I’d removed labels, worn clothes, used things and didn’t think my actions had consequences. Ideas and puns spun around my head, lines of songs repeated over and over and I wasn’t sleeping.
What began as productive wellness turned into out of control unpleasantness, ramping up my irritable angst. Unable to stop, my concentration fractured and focus went on the wrong areas; this feeling of immense confidence and connectedness to the world continued to mushroom. After over a week of constant going and doing and being, I crashed into another dark depression as I’d exhausted myself and driven my body over its precipice. At this time, I wrote an anonymous guest blog post on a friend’s blog during December as I felt I couldn’t write as me and followed it up with this post very recently. Charlotte is an award winning mental health blogger and was one of the people I spoke to during this time. Interviewing her last year and hearing her describe being ‘driven from the inside’ sparked warnings. She writes beautifully and with searing honesty about her experiences of bipolar and I recommend you have a read.
After difficulties with the NHS, finally, I was diagnosed at the end of January with Bipolar Affective Disorder where moods go from immense highs to immense lows. After being put on the mood stabiliser Lamotrigine, I began to feel better for the first time in ages. The noise, ideas and thoughts cleared and I could relax. The feelings of unhealthy drive, of having to keep going outside of my will had disappeared. For years I’d been rumbling along with this burning away in the background. I suspected I was bipolar but every time I raised concerns with health professionals, it was swept aside as anxiety or severe depression. After all, the usual statistic is it takes on average over thirteen years to diagnose and a person is misdiagnosed at least once, like I was.
So where do I go from here? I’m not sure. Hiding ill mental health is not what I do but I didn’t write openly at first to protect myself. As I am a journalist and photographer, there is stigma in these highly competitive industries and being ill has already cost me as you can read in my anonymous post. Journalism isn’t just about the journalist, I write in a variety of styles and didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a mental health personal perspective writer, as I have been restricted by past editors to niche areas. My journalism doesn’t appear on this blog much and this has always been a personal writing space but I’d like it to be that and more.
I talk about bipolar and mental health to take small steps in breaking down stigma and shame, including my own. I tweet ‘outed’ myself on 6th February as part of ’Time to Talk’, an initiative to get people talking about mental health. You can read the tweets on my Twitter page, @GraceWongPhoto as I don’t believe in Storifying monologues. Presently, I’m figuring out what is my personality and what are the beginnings of illness and becoming good at recognising when I’m going up. Spotting it and heading it off isn’t easy and to be honest, the highs feel good so it’s counterintuitive to stop, reduce stimulation or force myself to sleep and not go with it. Not being able to trust my own senses and intuition is painful. Trying to stick to a rigid pattern of sleeping by 11:00pm and waking early and needing to be careful of not running on adrenaline. Of course this is why I can’t do a Friday Night Ride anymore. Thankfully medication has removed any emotional effects of depression, though if I have a week of highs, I exhaust myself. I’ve coped with depression over the years by seeing it as an external illness but with bipolar highs, I can’t make that distinction. I am both it and not it at the same time. It’s early days, medication is being increased slowly and it will gradually make sense. I’ll find my power in it and grow as I’m adaptable.
Cross your fingers and toes that one day, I’ll see the sun rise again peddling on my bike, for now back to the writing and that is good enough for now.
Thanks for reading.
The Fitness for work ESA assessment has been confirmed as discriminatory to those with mental health illnesses.
Today, the Work Capability Assessment was upheld at the Court of Appeal as discriminatory to those with mental health problems. Mental health claimants on Employment Support Allowance benefit, a sickness benefit for those out of work, are expected to provide evidence of their condition which can be complicated by the nature of their illness. The ruling stands from May this year that the fitness for work test may hinder these claimants as they could have problems asking for and finding evidence, providing it or understanding the assessment process itself.
Due to mental health difficulties which hamper the process from filling out the form for the benefit, through to problems with people being unable to describe their condition because of shame, stigma or lack of insight, the assessor may not get a full picture of the disability or their ability to work and claims could be rejected on this limited view according to the court ruling. The process of completing the questionnaire and undergoing the interviews were mentioned as causing those with mental health problems disproportionate stress when compared with claimants suffering from other disabilities.
Across the UK, mental health sufferers and campaigners are celebrating this success. Those who have gone through the Work Capability Assessment under Employment Support Allowance, testing their fitness for work have had their feelings of the unfair process confirmed in law.
Charlotte Walker, 39 was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder twenty years ago, where moods swing from extremes of mania to severe depression. She had eight symptom free years but in July 2010, her mental health worsened because of a pressurised managerial role. Describing the mania, Charlotte said: “I was seeing pseudo hallucinations with centipedes, worms, ladders, brightly coloured beads and kaleidoscopic fragments, I wasn’t sleeping. There were snatches of music in my head and the same phrase looping over and over. I couldn’t think of ways to stop it and felt that I would probably have to kill myself.”
Charlotte went to seven back-to-work meetings before accepting her employer’s decision in April 2012 that she was unable to return, so she left her post. Within three months of her psychiatrist, GP and occupational health concluding she was too ill for work, Charlotte attended a Work Capability Assessment accompanied by her partner, after applying for Employment Support Allowance and was found fit for work, scoring no points.
The face to face Work Capability Assessment carried out by Atos, the company employed by the Department for Work and Pensions, measures physical and mental health conditions affecting a person’s ability to complete daily tasks, such as dressing themselves and cooking. Atos log criteria on a computer during assessment and the Department for Work and Pensions makes decisions with this information. The process was designed to look at an individual’s functional ability, looking at what he or she can do rather than what he or she cannot do. The higher the points scored, the more limited the person was in capability for work. The intention was this should provide a focussed assessment looking at the unique needs of the individual. Fifteen points are needed to remain on Employment Support Allowance and people scoring fewer points are deemed fit to work and cannot claim the benefit, which is where Charlotte found herself.
She said: “During the assessment, they didn’t understand my health and kept asking me about a typical day when I don’t have a typical day. I took a lot documents but they didn’t want to see them. They wouldn’t let us take notes and accused us of being aggressive for wanting to know the full name and qualification of the person assessing me. I was crying all the time.” Charlotte felt “there was no way she could win” as her condition varied on a daily basis.
A DWP spokesperson wasn’t able to comment on individual cases but said: “Employment and Support Allowance assesses someone’s capacity for work and looks at what a person can do because we know conditions affect people in different ways.
“Since 2010 we have improved the Work Capability Assessment. As a result the percentage of people getting long term unconditional support has more than doubled in two years, everyone has the right to appeal if they disagree with the outcome.”
Charlotte appealed and after a year, a tribunal ruled in her favour. She then stopped her Employment Support Allowance as she couldn’t go through more assessments.
Jenny Townsend, 37, suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her second child. She is also diagnosed with back pain, sciatica, anxiety and endometriosis. In August 2010, she felt suicidal, lacked motivation and didn’t bathe much. During maternity leave, she was made redundant. Meanwhile, Jenny and her husband were worried that her son had brain damage. Her GP prescribed antidepressants and she started to claim Employment Support Allowance. After her Work Capability Assessment, she was deemed fit for work and she appealed with assistance from a charity.
She said: “I was shocked when I had my assessment, it was like an interrogation. They never looked at me when they asked questions and were serious and cold. They asked how I’d got there and asked if I had walked from the bus stop, that information was used against me. I was astounded at the report that I got when I appealed. It said I was able to communicate, was clean, dressed well, tidy and clear speaking.
“They didn’t address my illness as they were looking for someone who could walk and talk, therefore they could work.”
Jenny came off Employment Support Allowance despite still suffering from depression. She had a second assessment but her contributory ESA had ended so she completely cancelled the claim as she didn’t want to go through the assessment again.
Services have seen an impact on people going through assessments. Vocation Matters in Lambeth provides vocational support for people with mental health problems. They have had to turn people away because of demand. Shaun Williams, the manager, said they had to attend work capability assessments, which is outside their normal casework. Mr Williams foresees further problems when people will be affected in 2015 as benefit changes are rolled out across the country. He said: “It makes people feel bad and they question, do I really feel these things? It screws people’s belief in themselves and people are railroaded through the system.”
The original May ruling said the Department for Work and Pensions must do more to ensure evidence about a person’s illness is collected and taken into account and adjustments must be made to the process, as the current Work Capability Assessment puts some groups at a substantial disadvantage.
Jayne Linney, 51, has long-term diagnoses of fibromyalgia, Sjorgens syndrome, cervical spondyltitus, spinal cord damage, nerve related incontinence, depression and migraines. She built a thirty-year career in community work, adult education and counselling but said: “My health took it away from me.” Her claim for Employment Support Allowance began in May 2011 after severe work stress nearly led to her being sectioned. Jayne described her experiences of Atos assessing her three times for Employment Support Allowance, saying: “It’s unwelcoming, it’s an inhuman process, like a sheep or cow going to cattle market, you’re not a person. “You’re guilty and have to prove you’re ill. The assessment takes no notice of your consultants or GP. You know the person knows nothing about your condition, they could be a physio.”
An Atos spokesperson said: “We do not make decisions on individuals’ entitlement to benefit: we carry out Work Capability Assessments in line with policy and guidelines laid down by the government.
“All our doctors, nurses and physiotherapists are registered with their professional body and have at least three years post registration experience.”
Jayne fought an online campaign to record her assessment but finds repeated assessments draining. With new legislation affecting her housing benefit alongside the assessments she said: “It’s never ending. You’re never free from it, that’s the worst part. “I don’t know how or if I will cope. I’ve got a cupboard full of drugs and Oramorph. I’m aware that suicide is an option that is always around the corner. Sometimes you look at what’s going to happen, it might be the best way out.
“When you can’t participate in the world, what is the point?”
In a joint statement Mind, the National Autistic Society and Rethink Mental Illness said:
“The judges in the original ruling independently confirmed what our members and supporters have been saying for years – the system is unfair for some of the most vulnerable people in our society and is failing the very people it is meant to be supporting.
“In light of today’s ruling it would be irresponsible for the DWP to carry on using these flawed assessments as they are.”
The final judgement is expected next year unless the Department for Work and Pensions wishes to appeal the decision through the Supreme Court.
It’s been quiet on the blog front and I must apologise for that, I’ve been a rather busy bee!
Just wanted to check-in after my honest confessional post back in the spring. I am alive and doing well, aced the NCTJ course and now am busy with a few projects and exciting opportunities.
There’s a few blog posts brewing in the blogosphere but until then hold tight!
Brené Brown’s TED talks on courage, shame, connection and vulnerability are incredibly inspirational, and were one of the factors behind my previous blog post. I came across the second one very recently and felt it was important to share it with those of you who haven’t seen them.
Mental health struggles don’t need to be hidden and by putting it out there, it opens up a space to talk, share and connect.
Enjoy, it’s well worth the forty minutes of your time.
It’s the end of three weeks on the NCTJ course and it has been a period of intensity and growth so far. I’ve become obsessed with pens that will apparently shave off miliseconds from my teeline shorthand. I figured that anything that makes the scrawl of my usual handwriting look neater is A Very Good Thing!
But moving away from pen geekery, the course is teaching me to be an ethical, well informed writer. The focus is on letting the facts speak, concise accuracy and having an in-depth understanding of media law and how the country works. This and much more is crammed into eighteen industrious weeks.
Shorthand is fast becoming my closest friend. I love the logic behind the theory and relish the day when I get faster and eventually reach the gold standard of 100 words per minute. I’ve promised myself that after the course when I’ve got to 100wpm (with the habit and discipline of two hours of daily shorthand practice), I will resume learning traditional Chinese characters.
I’ve met some great people on the course so far and have been really interested in finding out about the varied backgrounds that everyone has come from.
In less than a month, I have learnt a vast amount. I can’t imagine how it will feel after eighteen weeks!
This coming Monday, I start a fast track NCTJ course to boost the written journalistic side of my work. The plan is to complement the photography and to become a stronger writer. It’s eighteen weeks in length and is knowledge and practice heavy. The anticipated workload is going to be intense to put it lightly, with projected 60 hour weeks!
So, I’m hoping to still be able to have time for some musings on here but you will have to forgive me if I disappear for a few weeks at a time.