I wake up abruptly as you do on days like these. My mouth is almost indescribably dry. Unless of course you take amitriptyline, or any of the other tricyclics – then you’ll know exactly how dry ‘dry’ can be without me having to try to explain. Usually anticholinergic side effects seem a small price to pay for a guaranteed 6+ hours’ sleep each night, but on days like this you could really do without them.Talking of mouths, I have recently acquired a new dentist called Akeela, who has taken over from the amazingly translucent Mr Reuben Fowles whom I was extremely fond of. She wasted no time in having the surgery completely revamped. Gone were Reuben’s ancient broken chair, cork-tiled walls and bizarre posters stuck to the ceiling with faded yellow sellotape of semi-naked biker ladies clad in pink and black leather. She explained to me that dental treatment is so expensive that people deserve to be treated in luxurious surroundings. Luxurious chrome, lime green and purple surroundings – just so they feel they’re really getting their money’s worth. I had to fill a form in with details of my medication so that she could update my records. I never had to tell Reuben about my diagnosis. He was so see-through, so pallid and limp, that I couldn’t quite believe that anything he was capable of doing could possibly hurt me, but Akeela’s teeth are so very, very white, her smile so very, very healthy, that I wasn’t so sure.Akeela smiled an extra-wide smile when I explained about my DID and then very quickly launched her ‘ No More Dry Mouth’ campaign. Whereas Reuben seemed to instinctively sense that my dry mouth wasn’t a priority in my life, Akeela, on the other hand, has made it her mission to sort it out. Every time I see her she tells me off about the dryness thing. She looks at me earnestly and says that she doesn’t know how I can bear it, there are unsightly cracks at the sides of my mouth, lack of moisture leads to more decay, I really must use a mouth spray and moisturise my lips with … Yeah, right.
She doesn’t know me well enough yet to realise that as soon as she begins the dryness lecture I absent myself entirely. So, I’ve got a dry mouth and well, get over it – I have … or maybe strictly speaking I haven’t – but in any case as soon as I leave the dentist’s surgery I banish the whole experience in a split second. The chances of me remembering to buy the mouth-spray aren’t looking good, and even if I did buy it, I’d never remember to use it because sadly I have resigned myself to a less-than-comfortable life in which mouth dryness just isn’t that much of a big deal.
Now before Carolyn sends around the Self-Care Police (and you know how scared I am of the Police) I am able to proudly tell you that this year I have achieved great things in the name of Self-Care. I have put my insalubrious past firmly behind me and delighted all those involved with my mental health with my latest craze …
It had its origins in a conversation I had with my father-in-law, Des, some two years ago, when I first boarded the Insane Train. At the time I was besieged by the most ridiculous thoughts. Out of nowhere came the strongest urges to hurt myself, not seriously, but just enough to make me feel better … I would suddenly be completely overwhelmed by the most intense pain. It came through the ground and worked its way far too quickly through my body in the direction of my throat. Shit … quick … how can I kill it before it kills me? I know, I’ll just get that stick and scrape all the skin off my forearms. Ahhhh … that’s better. Now I can breathe again. Don’t leave home without your scissors because you never know when the next wave of pain’s going to come, and you really don’t want to be caught short. Oh no, not another interview in a small room, how will I cope … that’s a good idea, I’ll rhythmically pierce the skin on my hand with a biro under the table … And so it went on. It didn’t even deserve the title of ‘self-harm’ – it was more like I was playing at it: just a little habit I carried out in secrecy that didn’t hurt anyone (well, except me …) and made me feel so much better.
My wonderful psychiatrist told me not to worry about it – “Self-harm, schmelf- harm,” she said. “Frankly it’s the least of your worries … If it feels good, do it.” Des, on the other hand, who’s a psychologist, had a bizarre suggestion, as they do: the next time the crazy thoughts came, I should grab my trainers and go for a run! And I was supposed to be the person with mental health issues?! Didn’t he realise that if I did that I would split in two from head-to-toe? It was bad enough trying to walk at times: I had this strange robotic walk when I was at my worst which made crossing the road into a hybrid game of Chicken-and-Russian Roulette. Also, how on earth was I to organise this particular coping strategy? You see, the drive to inflict low-key repetitive pain on myself could strike at any moment, at work or at leisure, in company or alone. Was I to carry a small rucksack – maybe even a ‘day-sac’ – at all times, packed with track pants, running bra (essential with my assets) and trainers? Was I to discreetly leave the Conference Room mid-panic, to tracksuit-up, boot-up and hit the road for a crisp 5K? Say, “Sorry, kids, I know you’re really enjoying the film, but we simply must all leave the cinema right now and go for a family run?”
I may mock, but he had planted a small seed in my traumatised mind. Therapy was all very well, he had explained, but research showed that regular exercise outside in the fresh air was equally important for fixing heads. And to be fair, I was at that stage where anything, anything that might possibly make me feel a little bit more like me was worth considering. And for 20 of my 43 years, running had indeed been a major feature of the real me, an intrinsic part of my identity. I guess I lost running around the time when my identity became less tangible, when the new “I’s” started to say, think and do things that the ‘real’ “I” would never, ever have done. The time when I was confronted with what I had spent all those years literally running away from.
So – surprise, surprise – I initially resisted my father-in-law’s suggestion. Because in my mind I was now a new person who wore new, different clothes, had new very different pastimes, and was far too prone to losing crucial commodities like time and mobility to be capable of running. Especially when dissociative. Thanks to my old friend the Safeguarding Advisor, I have a very visual concept of the process of dissociation. She once sat on my sofa and announced in her inimitably, almost comically callous way, “Right, then, Cathy. I’m going to go now as you’re clearly dissociating all over the carpet …” Since then I have seen dissociation as a vast flood of thick, viscous fluid that pours out of me and threatens to swamp anything or anyone that comes too near, in a snare of horrible stickiness containing my dissolved thought processes. The sort of stuff you don’t want on your carpet. How could anyone possibly hope to run through that and come out the other side in one piece?
Running requires physical fitness and mental toughness in almost equal measures. It doesn’t matter how fit you are, if, at the end of a hard day’s work in November, you can’t persuade yourself that you really want to bypass the kettle and sofa to go out into the cold, dark night to do something difficult that hurts: to inflict low-key repetitive pain on yourself. To achieve this level of self-discipline, runners, particularly long-distance runners, must be ‘together’: robust, resilient, focussed and determined. They need to be in tune with their bodies, to understand how far they can push themselves, to judge when it’s time to stop and take a rest-day.
These are often the sort of qualities that most elude us when we are traumatised, which is why Des’s advice seemed so other-worldly. Since the fateful day the priest knocked on my door, my body had been veering between two states: frozen immobility, to the extent that at times I felt unable to move my limbs at all, and wild, adrenalin-fuelled arousal which I would desperately try to escape through dangerous risk-taking activity. Somewhere in the midst of all this chaos, a connection was severed. I no longer had a direct relationship with my body: it controlled me and made the decisions for me; it drove me and overwhelmed me. I became completely alienated from the body-trap and lived in fear of it. ‘Together’ was the very last adjective you’d use to describe me.
Thankfully this was not an entirely permanent state of affairs. Understanding what the hell was going on with my body helped a lot, but this didn’t come easily. There were many, many “What do you notice is happening inside your body?” conversations to endure. Would I ever manage to answer those maddeningly futile questions? It felt as though my therapist was almost cruelly insisting on speaking a foreign language to me. What had happened to empathy and attunement? Was it not patently obvious that all this introspection made me acutely uncomfortable? Anyway, I thought we were supposed to be doing head stuff, so why the hell did we have to keep on talking about the body that I was waiting to sign the divorce papers for? I’m not sure I ever really arrived at a point where I could give an appropriate response, but one day after therapy, as if by magic, I decided to go for a walk in the hills and it feltwonderful.
A few months later I was at a New Year’s Day family dinner. As is the way on such occasions, it wasn’t long before conversation turned to my in-laws’ favourite subject: obesity. So, as usual, they bigged themselves up (not literally, heaven forbid!) by slating fatties, thus reinforcing their perception of their superiority and invincibility. Once again there was the seamless shift into boasting about which athletic feats of endurance they were going to undertake in 2012 with the goal of proving and displaying their immense worth to other lesser (and fatter) beings. Over time I have developed a range of strategies for coping with this unfortunate behaviour, but this year I felt quite buoyed up by their enthusiasm and announced that in May 2012 I would be joining them in running the Sheffield Half-Marathon. Yes, me: the full-fat, butter-on-your-white-bread spreading me; the tooth-enamel-eroding diet–coke guzzling me; the sprinkling-too-much-salt-on-your chips me; the stone-and-a-bit excess-weight-carrying me; the f***-up; the basket-case, the service-user, the all-time loser; the bad-ass extraordinaire: Cathy Le Roux.
I sat bolt upright, stunned by my own spontaneity. I was lost for words: did I really just say that? In front of all of them? Which part was responsible for that then? In fairness my in-laws, who, despite their nearly unforgivable fattist flaw, are (with only one notable exception) alright really, and get so excited at the prospect of someone seeing the light (and indeed, the ‘lite’) that they are enormously encouraging of the newly-converted. They didn’t even give me the “Yeah right” look. Whilst basking in this positive attention I began to realise what a perfect little trap I had subconsciously constructed for myself. I really do excel in this area. And actually later, on further scrutiny, I decided that maybe the trap wasn’t quite perfect enough, so I decided to go for the belt-and-braces approach and turned the Half-Marathon into a sponsored event from which escape would be unthinkable.
I know, it’s a little extreme, but that’s just how we do things. So, it was a done deal – somehow I had to figure out a way of literally pulling myself/selves together and morphing us into a lean, mean running machine by 29th May. No need to panic: I had 5 months to train, and a certainty that I could make myself do anything – you know, that superhuman-powers thing I have. Really, this Half-Marathon malarkey was nothing to sweat about. I would take it all in my stride, if you can pardon the pun. The first tricky decision I had to make was this: was I too fat to run? And if so, should I undertake a short-term crash-diet to shed some less-than-pretty pounds before I bought myself the very necessary new trainers and started my training regime? Or should I just plunge straight in regardless of my floppy flab and hope to lose the weight en route? So I tried and predictably failed at the diet and opted by default to wobbling my weighty way around the streets of my home town.
Motivation was never a problem. You see the “You’re in the Right Place” promise of long-term psychotherapy that I’d been given really was too good to be true, for just 4 weeks later I received another letter from the PTSD team saying, “Dear Mrs Le Roux, we would like to invite you to make an appointment for an initial assessment.” So, there was The Assessment with Ivan the Ponytail Man, The Assessment with the lead of the PTSD team, and now I need another Initial Assessment. How on earth can you have a third Initial Assessment? Could it be a really innovative approach that allocates each separate ‘part’ their own Initial Assessment? Now that really could take some time. I thought I’d better check so I rang up and was told I had to wait another 5 months to get Initial Assessment Number 3. AAARRRRGGGGHHHHH! Third time lucky?
So you see with all the stress and anxiety of losing Sheila twice, coupled with the “You’re Once, Twice, Three times a Fruit-Cake” routine, I had plenty of steam to let off. Thankfully I’d lost my appetite for risk, and was in dire need of a new ‘adaptive’ habit to see me through, so running soon became essential to my emotional survival: a full-blown, rubber-stamped addiction. As addictions go, running has a lot to offer. First and foremost it’s legal. Secondly it’s free (apart from the very necessary new trainers). Thirdly, unlike most addictions, it’s actually good for your physical health. And you only have to tell one psych that you’re running and you become an instant show-case superstar: “Behold my once-criminal and now-running client and adore!”
But there’s another reason why the essentially tedious pastime of long-distance running becomes so gripping. The bad news is that I’m afraid you have to develop a certain amount of stamina before you can fully access this benefit. During that initial period, training can feel like a dis-spiriting slog, but once you can manage longer runs, something quite extraordinary happens. After about 50 minutes, a powerful sense of euphoria kicks in – exactly as if you had taken an amazing new wonder-drug, but enhanced by the fact that you yourself have made this high happen naturally. How clever are you?! But that’s not all. The gentle repetitive rhythm lulls you into a state of deep calm and relaxation. You feel at one with the world, like you could run forever in this semi-trance-like state. So you get a cost-free, intense, on-top-of-the-world high simultaneously combined with an “Everything’s going to be alright, mate” wrapped-up-in-a-blanket, benzodiazepine effect. As I’m sure you can imagine, this is habit-forming to the extent that I soon couldn’t be bothered with runs that took less than 50 minutes. As a result I was running between 35-40 miles per week. Very slowly.
Easter came, bringing with it another family celebration, this time at the house of the ‘one notable exception’. The chocolate-happy, chocolate-crazy children were all outside playing, hopefully burning off all those extra calories so as to avoid the risk of maternal rejection. We were discussing the Half-Marathon when my sister-in-law asked me what time I was aiming for. All eyes fixed on me. Think of a time, Cathy. I know, 2½ hours, that sounded ok. Daphne spluttered her tea and guffawed. “Oh don’t be so ridiculous, Cathy! With all that training you’re doing … Seriously, what time?” The subtle sound of skinny people shuffling uncomfortably in their seats. “No, you don’t understand,” I said. “It’s because of all that training that I may just conceivably, on a good day, be able to run 13.1 miles in 2½ hours. After all, one way or another, I’m carrying quite a lot of baggage.” Everyone was speechless. We fixed her with our power stare and took secret delight in her visible embarrassment.
Her words stung me more than she will ever know, but they were useful nonetheless, as they brought with them the realisation that I couldn’t do this race alone. I needed an ally who ‘gets it’, a fellow DID person, preferably one with a dry-mouth. For how could someone as well-adjusted and just downright smug as Daphne ever understand the dilemma I faced on the eve of 29 May 2012? High mid-20s temperatures were forecast for the morning of the Race: runners had been warned about the risk of dehydration. My regular dose of amitriptyline means that I exist day-to-day in a permanent state of dehydration. I knew that if I were to overcome my anxiety about the enormous challenge of the next day, I would need to take a zopiclone pill, something that I do very occasionally. The main side-effect of zopiclone is – you guessed it – dry mouth / dehydration, together with an unpleasant metallic taste that makes you want to drink all the time. So, I had a choice: sleep (albeit poor-quality sleeping – tablet sleep, but hey, I can live with that) or extreme dehydration on Race Day.
On waking abruptly on Race Day, I was instantly aware of the dry-mouth issue and the difficulties it would cause me when running. But it didn’t matter because I knew that the person I had selected to support me was at that very moment on her way to the Don Valley Stadium, having got up at 5.45 am to get there on time. And that very special person knows all about dry mouths, all about psych drugs, all about losing a therapist, all about my criminal past, all about having no contact with birth-family, all about addictions, all about low self-esteem, and, most importantly of all, all about the determination to live life to the full in spite of it all. In short, Fifi understands exactly what a minor miracle it is that I would be running the race at all, no matter how bloody long it may take.
There is a photograph of the two of us immediately before the start, taken by my mother-in-law. I am wearing my START T-shirt, possibly the least flattering garment I have ever put on. We both look enormous and we are both laughing hysterically. I’m just about to walk to the ‘2+ hours’ section’ – where I will thankfully see others like myself, whose only ambition was to avoid getting caught by the ‘3 hour’ Sweeper Bus – when my sister-in-law approaches me and asks me again what time I think I might complete the course in. The sun is blazing at 8.45 am. I would later learn that 1,500 of the 7,000 runners failed to show up to the Race at all. I smiled and said I wasn’t sure, and noticed that she looked a little crestfallen. Could it be that she was in some way envious of my insouciance …
I started off slowly (no surprises there then) and savoured the atmosphere through the spectator-packed city centre. I stopped to take a drink at every single available station. I waved at the people I knew along the way, held my hand out for their children to ‘tag’, feeling energised by being part of such an emotionally-charged event, such a demonstration of human endurance. I looked around at all the different runners toughing it out for the charities that matter to them most and was overcome with tearful pride that I was there wearing my T-shirt for START. I was still smiling at the ‘Half-Way There’ sign, my eyes stinging from the salty mix of sweat and tears and sun-cream, all the time thinking, “This is amazing, I want to do it again.”
Things got harder at mile 9 when we left the crowds of spectators and went off into the deserted streets of the old industrial quarter. I glanced at my watch and saw that 2 hours had already passed. I felt my spirits sink as I struggled in the intense heat. I was so thirsty, my clothes heavy with perspiration. I remember repeating a familiar mantra in my head: “You’re doing okay. You’re still here. One foot in front of another. That’s all you have to do. One foot in front of the other.” It’s the mantra I use to keep myself functioning on my very worst days …
By mile 11 I was using every trick in the book to keep myself going, from “Think of the money you’ve raised” to “If you finish this Race you can eat whatever you want for a week.” By mile 12 I had promised myself that I would never have to run again ever if I didn’t feel like it. My boys ran the last half-mile alongside me in the stadium, shouting, “Come on, Mum. You’re so slow!” I passed Daphne, who said a half-hearted, “Well done, Cathy”. I was so focussed on making it to the Finish Line that I forgot to look at my time on the giant clock. I picked up my goody-bag, gave my medal to my daughter and scanned the spectator stands for Fifi.
I collapsed exhausted in the seat next to her. She had brought an obscene quantity of inappropriate food which she had given to my children (and Daphne’s!!) So much in fact that there was plenty left and we sat happily munching away until we were chucked out. We were the last people to leave the stadium that day, probably because I had decided that since no further movement was absolutely necessary I was going nowhere fast! My lasting memory of the day was of Fifi and I stumbling around the deserted Don Valley, our combined sense of direction letting us down again as we tried to find her car.
My time was 2 hours 39 minutes, my sense of achievement immeasurable. In spite of my dry-mouth, I had run 13.1 miles in the blistering heat and raised £500 for START. Equally important, and in some ways equally harrowing, had been my mission to find sponsors. I had worn my START T-shirt in several school playgrounds, at work, at my sons’ football matches, and in my neighbourhood, and, as I collared people for sponsorship, I’d had many conversations about Dissociative Disorders and raised awareness of the issues we face. Not an easy thing to do, but then when have you ever known me shy away from a challenge?