When J-Ro Went To Portland…Part 2 (A Sad Southeast Grind Story)

Thursday Night:

Having gotten in around 10.30pm and found where I was staying (the cutest place in the world, the whole upper area of that part of the house was all mine, I set down my bags, had the chats with Stacey and Carlos (aka Starlos) my gracious & very cool AirBnb hosts, and headed for a bar a few blocks down from the house that served food. I was feckin’ STARVIN’ at that stage. Met some very cool folk who were of the tattooed & loud music-loving variety like myself so I wasn’t on my own for long. People are super-friendly here. Also, when you give your usual Irish-style greeting of “How’s it going?”, be advised they WILL answer you and be genuinely surprised at your enquiring as to their mood. Some laugh at the registers in shops, I tell you.

I got straight onto Portland time spending an hour or so at the bar, until I got back around midnight, and fell into a heap on the lovely bed, more comatose than asleep, but it served the purpose. Friday was going to be a strange one.

A Southeast Grind Story

About six minute’s walk from where I’m staying, I found a 24-hour coffee place called Southeast Grind. I walked in off the sidewalk (nobody knows what I’m talking about when I say ‘path’), and straight into pretty much what I had imagined Portland to be in my mind in a single screenshot. It was the kind of place my teenage nineties self could only ever hope for or fantasise about. The closest I’d had back then was Java’s, and as grungy and laid-back as it was, this place makes it look like a capitalist wet dream. This is where all the people come to chill and graze intermittently on healthy snacks and home-made smoothies, and organic everything. Click on the pic below to see their website. Here’s what I wrote about the place while I was there that Friday morning:

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The minute I walk up to the counter I feel like I’ve discovered Mecca. To have a 24-hour coffee place a stone’s throw from my temporary home is damn near perfect for me. It’s full of couches and armchairs with strange people burrowing away on laptops or writing in journals; one guy in zebra-print leggings and hipster glasses is sketching something on a pad in a chair by the window. Swear t’God. All seem happy in their own company, but there doesn’t seem to be that air of ‘leave me the fuck alone’ like you would get in another big city coffee place like Dublin or London. I’ve already witnessed like 3 hugs betweeb friends coming and going since I’ve sat down in the last fifteen minutes. I bet if I looked closely at what people were working on, it’d be a book, or a screenplay, or a blog post…or college work. Wouldn’t want to stereotype too much…

Told the girl behind the counter I’d just flown in from Ireland last night. She was all excited and told me she’d ‘always wanted to visit the UK’. Hmmm. I said ‘Oh lovely. Well Ireland is pretty cool too!’ I’ll let her off this once…

There’s a corkboard by the counter with just one or two pictures stuck on, along with a beautifully handwritten poem placed in the centre of the board. I look closer, and see both pics contain the same person; a happy, floaty-looking willowy blonde girl. There are two bumper sticker-type posts side-by-side flanking the pictures, and I realise that they are for organisations that work to prevent suicide, self-harm and offer support for mental health issues. The poem is dedicated to ‘Alex’, and it dawns on me that the happy-looking blonde willowy girl is, or was, in fact, Alex. I got the impression from the content of the poem and the loving tribute message written and stuck alongside the poem that she used to work here, and was very dearly missed. I don’t know if it’s the jet lag or the enormity of embarking on solo travel saddled with a weirdly-wired brain that’s hit me, but I want to burst into tears with the sadness of it all.

Maybe it’s the wide-open honesty and genuine loss all contained on this simple chalkboard that gets me. Coming from a town that has a massive issue with suicide and mental health issues being improperly addressed by those in high places, it’s almost a relief to see something as visible as this highlighting both the complexity and simplicity of deciding to take one’s life, and the consequences left behind. Being someone who has stood on both sides, and given a lot of brain cells to considering her ‘options’ in the darkest loneliest times of my life, to see it laid out bare in front of me was a jolt of reality. It’s an approach we need badly back home. Those on the ground level of the systems and all the support groups work tirelessly to bring out the monster from under the bed, but it’s not enough. We need to vocalise and visualise suicide, to stop it being a silent word people mutter under their breath when talking about someone who took their own life. The act itself is louder than a thousand drums to those who are immediately affected, so we need to dilute the noise and let people talk about it. 

Having seen the corkboard within one minute of arriving into Southeast Grind for the first time, I found myself missing this girl called Alex, and I had never met her. I never would. Therein lies the vacuum of pain that suicide creates in its aftermath. If she had still been alive, I would probably be writing about the chats I had with the cool friendly blonde girl behind the counter who was loved by everyone there. Instead, all I can do is mention her in this small blog post that not a whole lot of people will read; so even though she’s gone, having succumbed to an illness that I (and countless others around the world) know only too well, I can still help a little in letting my part of the world know that somewhere in Portland Oregon, there was a girl called Alex who used to work in a fantastic coffee house, and everyone loved her. Rest in Peace Alex. Those of us still down in the bunker trying to get out will keep fighting the good fight.

Apologies for the heavy nature of the post, but sometimes you have to face the bad and the good. Tune in next time for the much lighter second half of the day, in which I get over my innate Irish habit of hesitating to approach weird & wonderful people…

Ask J-Ro: It’s Okay To Not Feel Okay – Get Talking!

Hey Jen, I have been really down lately, I have battled depression for a couple of years, but lately I have been lying awake beside my amazing husband thinking he would be better without me. I can’t work up the courage to get help. Some days I feel normal and tell myself I’m fine. Others are bad….

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First of all, thank you for contacting me. It must have been so difficult to write those words down. Suicidal thoughts can be louder than any other thoughts running around your brain, so to sit and put them down in concrete form takes a supreme amount of energy. Well done for reaching out!

Second of all, don’t despair. You will be okay. You’re still here, so you have options. If you think people would be better off without you, I can tell you now quite categorically that you’re wrong. Apart from your immediate family and loved ones who will be devastated and forever changed by such an event in ways you won’t be able to imagine, you have no idea how many other people you have influenced indirectly or connected with who will be affected by you deciding to end your life. So promise yourself that you’ll stick around, and in time you will be very glad you did.

It’s also vitally important to recognise that depression is an illness, and suicidal thoughts are a symptom of that illness, so thoughts are not coming from a place of logic. They’re coming from a brain that is battling with its chemistry & wiring levels, so when you get these feelings of despair and depression, don’t take them into your heart. Tell yourself it’s your brain chemistry, and it will pass. I’ve been there more times than I can count, so trust me on this one. It will pass. It may pop up again, but it will go again. The trick is to be self-aware. And that starts with talking to a professional.

Get the ball rolling with a visit to your GP, but also check out Aware (click here) for some fantastic support ideas. MOST IMPORTANTLY: Talk to your husband, and I can assure you, you will be glad you did, and so will he. You don’t have to do this alone. You would want to help him if the situation was reversed. What’s also fantastic is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, it helps you to train your mind and learn how to cope when you do have bouts of depression. There’s more info on that if you click the link here.

Pieta House (available here) are fantastic as well. Reaching out and saying that you’re not feeling good and you’re having those thoughts is a big step to take, so you should be very proud of yourself. Don’t be afraid to keep taking those steps. You’re going to be okay. You ARE okay. You can always keep coming back here as well with any questions or support you need! Best of luck!

<3

Me And My Shadow – Five Years On

I tend to do lots of thinking. Well, what else is there to do when you live in your head all the time? If you’re sitting in a pool all day you may as well swim a lap or two every now and again. Most of the thoughts are fine and banal. Some are friendly, some are out of my control, some have sent me shooting out of sleep like a cannon in absolute terror, taking me five solid minutes to remember where I am, and another five to believe my mind was telling me the truth. Thankfully the latter isn’t as common as it used to be. I wouldn’t wish that kind of thing on my worst enemy. If you can’t trust your own brain, then hope is a very faraway thing.

But anyway, I digress. It’s been a fucking rollercoaster of fresh hell and insane adventures in mental health the last twenty-five months, not to mind the last five years. To put it mildly, this last half-decade makes Girl, Interrupted look like High School Musical. I spoke about my own experience with depression before in Me And My Shadow (click here to read) almost five years ago (yikes), and I’ve felt for a while that it was worth a revisit, if only for myself.

The reason for posting it publicly is to show that there is never an easy wrapped-up Hollywood ending to these things. I’d like to tell you that I found inner peace, loved the shit out of myself and had amazing life-fulfilling relationships that made me glad to be alive, and came off all meds, and lived blissfully ever after, happy as a laughing baby on YouTube. I’d like to tell you that, but I’d be lying SO FUCKING HARD.

I got worse. A whole lot worse. In every way. I still did the everyday stuff like finishing college and all that, but my soul did everything under massive protest. Most nights I stayed in, relieved to be at home where I could collapse into my dark, sad, yet comfortingly familiar little corner of my world. The thoughts of having to get it together mentally & physically to go out into the night and deal with crowds and bright lights and shoving stupid people stepping on my toes and elbowing me in the head (being short in the club is a fucking curse) was just too much to cope with.

I spent most of my alone time listening to sad music and faffing about online. I could be the life and soul of the Facebook party from the comfort of a Onesie while wearing a hair turban with sections of my face smothered in Sudocrem. It’s a good front for those of us who are mentally terrorised by the outside world. It has its drawbacks too, in that if you’re good enough with words and you REALLY don’t want anyone to see how bad you are, nobody will be any wiser. Remember: your fingers don’t get sad; you can still type happy words while crying your eyes out.

So on went this life of mine, with the usual ups and downs while I more or less navigated my way through various crises and hurdles that are microscopic looking back, but at the time seemed like I was at the foot of Everest. That was all fine, and doable, and that too did pass..but then in 2013 my mom died, and my heart and brain broke one after the other, never to be fully healed again.

It’s a strange old thing, grief. I spent the first year without Mam simply on auto-pilot on the outside, working in schools, trying to get some sort of new life together and find a place to live in town and being ‘grand’, all the while holding on to the soothing effects of various meds for dear life for fear I would collapse into a pile of tiny shards of glass if I didn’t have them. There were times I couldn’t allow myself to even take a deep breath in the classroom, in case I would break into sobs because the pain in my chest was too much. But life marched on yet again, and I eventually found some semblance of stability, which is precisely the point at which my brain joined in the fun of completely fucking me over for another twelve months.

I won’t dwell on the many adventures that me and my mind went on together, lest this piece become some sort of self-indulgent Depression Porn, which is not the purpose of this piece (you can wait for The Book for that!). Suffice it to say that when your own brain is your enemy, the world is a very frightening, lonely place. I repeated a lot of bad habits I thought I had left behind years ago. I was back self-harming, both physically and in being careless and not looking after myself, and various other bits and bobs that didn’t help. All this led to an intervention of sorts by some very caring friends who I hadn’t managed to fool, and they scooped me up and got me first into A&E, then into a day psychiatric unit. The rest is a better, albeit staggered, slightly more stable mental history.

I’ve left volumes out, because I will be writing about it in more detail in another long-term project; but also because the nitty-gritty isn’t pertinent to the piece. I guess by looking back at the original piece from 2010 compared to now, I’m showing the world that things aren’t always linear. Particularly when it comes to mental health issues. There’s no such thing as an “I lived happily ever after!” finely tuned ending when it comes to the battle for your sanity. But you know what? That’s totally okay. It is what it is. That ‘One Day At A Time’ stuff works for depression and anxiety as well as addictions. They’re all pits that can pull you back in with the slightest little knock-back. I went eight years without cutting myself, then fell off the wagon during a particularly dangerous black time last year. Afterwards, I was so angry at having broken the promise I made all those years ago, but all I could do was reset the numbers and start again. One day at a time? One minute at a time if you have to. Fuck it, whatever it takes to keep you on this earth a bit longer to give yourself a chance.

It’s when things stop going okay after you think you’ve gotten it all under control that can cause a lot of despair in people. They feel like they’ve failed. But look, shit happens. Whether maintaining good mental health, or recovering from mental health issues, these things are a constantly evolving (and devolving) process. People love loose ends to be tied up all clearly explained and resolved in 30 minutes with commercial breaks, but that’s just fiction. The only thing that marches on consistently, not giving a fuck about where you’re at in life, is time. So let that do the straight-line thing, cos nothing else in life or the state of your mental health is going to behave that way.

So take comfort. If you’re falling down just when you think you’re doing okay, you’re actually still doing okay. It’s just a bump. I swear on all the Gods that people believe in, and on all the laws of nature. You know how I know? Because I’m still here, and so are you, reading this and getting a headache, for which I apologise. Time has passed since you felt a hell of a lot worse, so you’ve got an advantage straight away. That’s how I judge my progress with this Shadow of mine. If I compared how I am now to how I was when I wrote the original post, there’s actually very little progress made. But fill in the space between with all that happened in my life (none of which is unique to me, we all grieve), then I realise how lucky I am that I’m still above ground. So onwards I march. I really hope you do too. But don’t do it alone. I had a treasure-trove of people around me, and that’s the only reason I’m able to sit and type this in any coherent form. Pretend you’re a friend asking you for help – would you be annoyed and tell them to feck off? Speaking from experience, it is incredibly profound and liberating to actually say the words “I’m not okay.” The dynamic that they set off can be, quite literally, life-saving. Get it done.

Oh, and one more thing: FUCK HOLLYWOOD HAPPY ENDINGS.