Guest Blog: Mary-Ann Toop and Creating Concordia’s World

When Mary-Ann offered to write a blog I went to meet her and was introduced to the fascinating creations that formed such an important part of her recovery. So much of Mary-Ann’s story resonates strongly with me. She attributes her recovery from severe depression to walking Maisy, morning writing (including affirmations, which I know made a huge difference), counselling and creativity. The blog is long, there is so much we had to leave out (yes!), but it is so worth a read. Her message of recovery is strong.

Introduction

I was absolutely delighted to be invited by Sue to write this guest blog as my own experience of deep depression, which began a few years ago, left me desperately wanting to use my own experience, my personal journey to recovery, to help others.

My Story

Writing with Valentina, a Wood Nymph

Writing with Valentina, a Wood Nymph

I won’t bore you with the causes of my depression since this would take more words that there is space in this blog. Suffice to say that a series of highly stressful events, ill health and bereavement resulted in me sinking into the bottomless black hole that is depression. In the process I lost my career of almost 30 years, my marriage fell apart and I almost lost my daughter to the deadly disease too.

I’m one of the fortunate ones. I didn’t attempt suicide but I thought about it and planned it. Often. I felt useless, worthless and honestly believed that the world would be a better place without me in it.

How I escaped that dark route I’ll never know, but I am still here. What’s more, I’m well, more than well. I’m still very happily married, I still have three amazing adult children and I’ve learned to truly value and enjoy life.

My experience is proof that this deadly disease can be beaten.

I know some of you might be thinking, ah, but I bet she just went through a bad patch and her life is all sorted now. In the last three months I’ve buried my Dad after losing him to Alzheimer’s, organised his funeral and wake all on my own because there was no one else in my family either close enough or well enough to help and of course I’ve been looking after Mum and sorting out Dads legal and financial affairs. In the midst of all that I’ve changed jobs too. So I can honestly say that no, my life is a long way from stress-free.

It often feels as though life continues in its relentless pursuit to find ways to tear me down again, but each time it tries, I just feel stronger for having survived the latest crisis.

What I tried and didn’t try

So what methods did I try to evade the torment that I came to nickname The Ugly Thoughts Gremlin?

When I first became unwell I was also suffering constant chronic pain that was aggravated by working for too many hours in front of a PC. I had already had a disc replacement in my neck and the return of the inescapable nerve pain panicked me. My workplace provided a special chair and IT equipment, but nothing seemed to help. When my spine consultant advised that I was heading for a further double disc replacement my mood plummeted.

I desperately wanted to run away, to escape my chaotic stressful life and the pain for a while, so my GP signed me off work. The initial week, became two, then three, then a month, then two. The pain gradually subsided with regular physical activity but I knew it would return once I was sat back at my PC. I then began to experience extreme anxiety at the very thought of returning to my high-stress job. Before I realised it, I’d been off work for six months. I couldn’t see a way out. So I quit! Then the real problems began.

My GP wanted me to take antidepressants. I was prescribed them but couldn’t bring myself to take them. I already had prior knowledge of the downsides of some of the drugs. Reading the detailed information of my prescribed medication put me off entirely.

I paid for private counselling, but that made me feel worse, not better. Talking about their problems helps some people. For me, it simply bought all my very real problems out into the open, made them more real and even more terrifying than they already were.

My GP referred me to ITalk counselling but the same thing happened. Whilst the young woman was very nice, her responses were very obviously scripted and gave me absolutely no confidence whatsoever.

I thought I’d hit rock bottom when my youngest, my beautiful precious school-aged daughter, was diagnosed with depression too. She’d frequently suffered from severe pains and physical ailments necessitating countless doctor and hospital appointments over a three year period. They had various theories and tried her on numerous prescriptions. It was an old, Doc Martin type GP that realised what was wrong. My daughter’s formal diagnosis came as a real shock. I had been completely unaware that in addition to various physical pains, she was also suffering from hallucinations. These had become so severe and horrific that she was unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t any longer. Bless her, she had of course been trying to protect me, she hadn’t wanted to add to add to my long list of problems. Her diagnosis left me feeling as if I had completely failed her as a mother. I was supposed to recognise when something was wrong with my child, wasn’t I?

Ironically, it was my deep desire to help my daughter that spurred on my efforts to seek a solution to our problems.

What helped

After some lengthy discussions with my husband, the first thing I did was to encourage my daughter to ‘earn’ a long desired puppy. I created a simple puppy silhouette poster and told her she was to fill it up with her exam revision. From that moment on she never missed another day of school. She studied diligently until her exams, filling every square millimetre of the entire poster in the process. Some of the writing was so tiny it was difficult to discern what it said. Needless to say, she passed all her exams. And she got her much-anticipated puppy. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

 

Maisy

Maisy – isn’t she delightful?
She has been part of the recovery process.

 

Although my daughter became very focused, she was still far from well. I knew I needed to do something about my own condition too so I became all consumed by the need to find an answer and spent days and weeks researching, to better understand our ailment. By the time my daughter actually got to see a specialist child counsellor, I was well informed on the subject.

The counsellor was amazing. Using her advice coupled with my new found knowledge, both of us began to recover. It was slow progress. At the time a lot of blurring of the personal boundaries between us occurred. Our lives became ridiculously close and intertwined neither one of us able to cope without the other. On several occasions, we even mirrored each other’s physical symptoms.

Six months or so after getting our puppy, I began walking other dogs. As a result, I started spending more and more time outdoors with nature. I can’t stress enough how much the rhythmic walking for two hours a day helped my physical and mental health. There is a great deal of truth in the phrase, ‘stop and smell the roses’. As children we instinctively stop and look at things, examining the strange and unusual world we live in. As adults, we are so caught up in our busy lives that we have neither the time nor inclination. Without really realising what I was doing, my dog walking was encouraging me to live in the moment, to practice what is now widely known as mindfulness.

One piece of knowledge, that proved to be a real turning point for me, was discovering more about how our brain works. I already understood about strengthening the neural pathways, that is I understood how each time we learn something it strengthens that particular pathway through the brain. What I hadn’t appreciated was that each time we repeat a negative line of thought it becomes stronger, more ingrained. Therefore depression is also a learned pathway. With that knowledge, I also began to understand that I could retrain my brain. I read about thinking of my thoughts as being clouds that I could learn to observe, without engaging in emotionally, as they passed through my mind. Cloud watching became an obsession, especially when I was out dog walking. It took a lot of practice but eventually, I found I could choose which thoughts I wished to emotionally engage with. It was a revelation!

As a part of my creative journey, I also discovered something called Morning Pages. I had been journaling the last thing at night for some time; often pouring out my hurt and emotions onto paper. I can honestly say this doesn’t help as it fuelled my bad dreams and insomnia. Morning Pages, on the other hand, get everything out of your head before you start the day. This form of journaling is followed immediately by daily affirmations so it helps to put you in the right frame of mind for the day ahead. Shortly after discovering Morning Pages I had a wonderful bonfire of my old poisonous journals. Very therapeutic stuff! I’ve been writing Morning Pages and daily affirmations for over three years now.

A peaceful night’s sleep can be incredibly elusive when suffering from depression, so I went through a stage of using a recorded meditation most nights to help me sleep better. I still practice meditation occasionally, but it’s become more of a creative tool for me these days.

Art

Both my daughter and I are artistic and creative. I had a deep-seated dream of becoming a self-employed creative. My daughter’s art, which was the one subject that didn’t suffer all through her depression and long absences from school, became a focus for further education.

I longed for the formal art education that she was getting and for a while, I felt as though I was living my dreams through her. It was an unhealthy situation. We needed separation from each other. That separation came when she eventually went off to university. It was a huge wrench for us both and for a while it seemed the Ugly Thoughts Gremlin might haunt us both once more.

Little by little, we have re-built our own separate and creative lives. We are still incredibly close, but we encourage each other’s individual creative endeavours.

My creative journey

Six months after leaving my job I began job hunting. Despite my best endeavours, probably not helped by my illness and low self-esteem, the only jobs I succeeded in securing were very part-time, minimum wage positions. In hindsight, although this all but eliminated any pride I had left, I’m not at all sure I could have coped with anything more.

The positive side of all this was having spare time for the first time since childhood.

I spent hours immersed in creative sewing activities, dreaming of finding the elusive something that I would be able to turn into a creative business venture.

A lack of entitlement to student finance meant I wasn’t able to return to formal education to study art. So instead I put myself through my own home-based education. I had always sewn from a very young age, so spent hours and hours researching and trying out different sewing techniques. When I became fed up with creating my own versions of other people’s designs I challenged myself to create something entirely unique for 30 consecutive days. This proved to be a real turning point and I became more confident and adventurous in my experiments, vowing to always create my own unique work from then on. I began to make and sell a few items, but nothing I did really seemed to make sense. I was still searching.

Then about eighteen months ago, I attended a one day workshop by a mixed media artist I greatly admire, purely for fun. I became captivated by the single fantasy character I had begun creating that day. I grasped at strange clues as to who she was and where she came from. She haunted me until I completed her and christened her Minima.

Minima and Concordia

Minima and Concordia

One day, as I practised a meditation, I discovered a beautiful peaceful place in my head and realised she belonged there. Little by little that strange other world became more complete and detailed in my head and dreams. I found myself creating companions (such as the dragon Concordia) for my first born and devised stories about them in my head. I started to write them down. I created a website and joined a writing group.

Strange as it might seem, I don’t see this as a business venture. My creative adventure is exactly that. I seem to be driven to see what I might discover next, hidden away in my creative brain. My current ambition is to finish writing my fantasy fiction book and to illustrate it with images of my 3D mixed media characters.

My creative endeavours are perhaps somewhat different from the norm, but one thing’s for sure, I don’t just feel normal, I feel good. I’m in a good place and have been for some time. I intend to stay that way!

Mary-Ann can be emailed at maryanntoop@gmail.com or via Concordia’s website – www.concordiasworld.com where you will also find her blog (a great read!).

She is also on Facebook & Instagram and her book Minima’s Story will follow soon.

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