CAN STRESS MAKE YOU (K)ILL?

After hearing about the terrible tragedy last Tuesday, when a young pilot flew his plane and the 150 on board into the side of a mountain in France, I wondered why this man, who seemed to have everything going for him – youth, a good job, a home, his own flat – would do such a thing.

We are hearing today that he had taken six months off in 2009 during his training, attributed to stress. If this is true, why were his employers not monitoring him? If a person is susceptible to stress of that severity, necessitating a six month rest at the age of 21, should he not have received mental health checks on a regular basis? Did this happen?

Stress breakdowns are serious. In this country we know from the following statistics from the Health and Safety Executive:

1. The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2013/14 was 487 000 cases (39%) out of a total of 1 241 000 cases for all work-related illnesses.

2. The number of new cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2013/14 was 244 000.

3. The rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, for both total and new cases, have remained broadly flat for more than a decade.

4. The total number of working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 11.3 million in 2013/14, an average of 23 days per case of stress, depression or anxiety.

The industries that reported the highest prevalence rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety (three-year average) were human health and social work, education and public administration and defence.

The occupations that reported the highest prevalence rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety (three-year average) were health professionals (in particular nurses), teaching and educational professionals, and health and social care associate professionals (in particular welfare and housing associate professionals). The complete document can be found at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/

Here is another report I discovered:

The sources of occupational and domestic stress, together with life events and coping strategies, were assessed in terms of their influence on job dissatisfaction, mental health, and performance among a group of 442 commercial airline pilots. It was found that self-perceived poor performance was associated with job-related factors such as fatigue and anxiety about required courses, performance checks, and insufficient flying time, particularly among older pilots. Job dissatisfaction was predicted by lack of career opportunities, poor organizational climate and morale, and lack of autonomy at work, together with some domestic stressors (e.g., family health). Overall mental ill-health was found to be associated with lack of autonomy at work, fatigue, and flying patterns, together with an inability to relax and a lack of social support.

J Occup Med. 1985 Aug;27(8):570-6. Occupational and psychosocial stress among commercial aviation pilots.
Cooper CL, Sloan S.

I have had personal experience of stress causing illness when a member of my family was very unwell with depression after two breakdowns, all associated with stress at work. The mental health services in the UK are soon to be subjected to further financial cuts, making this form of disease less important in the public eye than physical illness. Mental illness of any sort is serious and services to treat or research it, must be properly funded.If not, I think we need to understand that the outcomes can be catastrophic.

The recent ‘fracas’ over at the BBC, when presenter Jeremy Clarkson allegedly hit a producer because the food he’d asked for after a day’s filming was not provided, is a case in point. From my perspective, Clarkson, the talented presenter of the TV programme Top Gear, appears to be suffering from severe work related stress, if not complete burn out.

Social media and every other kind of media screams out the message that we should all be pursuing HAPPINESS as if our lives depended on it. (the irony is not missed by me!) We should all expect to be successful. We should all aspire to dizzy heights of fame. We should never be lonely, old, fat, poor, homeless, unemployed, though we know that thousands of people are. When stories appear in the media about people on benefits, people who are not ‘making it’ I always feel there is an undercurrent of judgement, a sense that it ‘your’ fault, that the underclass is alive and well and crawling around in the gutter and unless they can pull themselves out of it, they can stay there.

The imbalance in our society is destroying us  and has been for years, ever since Margaret Thatcher made that fatuous remark: ‘There is no such thing as society…’  

We need to stop sending out this ghastly message that there is only one way to live and that is through the acquisition of status and money and damn anyone who dares to deny this mantra. We need our elected leaders to focus on creating a society that cares for all and puts humanitarianism first.

 

PEOPLE WHO OVER ARGUE

A scene from the play The Tameness of a Wolf by Lyn Ferrand The play that looks at the way mental illness can impact on a marriage.
A scene from the play
The Tameness of a Wolf by Lyn Ferrand
The play that looks at the way mental illness can impact on a marriage.

Some people argue. There’s no reason for it, they just argue about anything and everything.  The smallest disagreement that most folks would laugh off or resolve in three seconds, turns into an hour-long diatribe, leaving blood pressure high and tempers frayed.

I’ve read that people who argue have low self-esteem. Arguing is a way to hold control. They fight to the bitter end, even if they are wrong. Or they do a sudden u-turn when they finally see you are exhausted and become all sweetness and light, as if nothing has happened, but they won’t admit they are wrong. Never.

If I am wrong about something, and another person argues with me, pointing out clearly my mistake, I accept it. I acknowledge I’ve made that mistake, back down and we can all move on. Later, I take time to reflect on my behaviour and work out why I was wrong, in the hopes that I won’t make the same mistake again. Simple.

Arguers almost never do this. They seem hell-bent on fighting to the death. It may be crystal clear they are in the wrong, but they will argue so persistently, that you start to believe black is white and white is black. You are left speechless, crushed and have that sense that you are confronting an immovable force that cannot be stopped. It leaves you defeated, and knowing instinctively, that you are being controlled.

Argument ‘pushers’ can make life very difficult for you. I have experienced being around  people like this and I know that when I have tried to have a conversation with them about a problem, they have either remained silent, responding in sentences of no more than five words, or have created a conflict situation that inevitably turns into an argument, even about the most silly and trivial things.

I have come to the conclusion that these people are narcissistic, wrapped-up in themselves and find it very difficult to see how the way they act impacts on others. They have little or no insight and when they are crossed, they feel very threatened. They tend to blame others, the situation or you. They lack the ability to take responsibility for their own behaviour.

So, how do you deal with a person like this, especially if you are around them all day in the workplace or at home? You have to change, for they are unlikely to. Their behaviour could be as the result of a personality disorder exacerbated by a bad childhood, where there were few boundaries. Mothers who are depressed, absent fathers, constant rows, neglect and abuse of any kind can all lead to an intransigent argumentative personality.

We can’t choose our parents, it’s the luck of the drawer but we can look at how we were raised and see what impact that has had on our behaviour in adulthood. Making connections is important. Often, there is a ‘penny-drop’ moment, when we see how our childhood experiences have affected us and then, form strategies to help us move away from behaviour that is harmful not only to others, but to ourselves. It sometimes takes talking therapy.

My way of dealing with argumentative types is to modify the way I respond. It’s tough to do. You feel as if you are colluding. If you have a strong sense of justice, you want to stand up for yourself and the points you are making.  You can see that you are being driven to agree with something that you think is fundamentally wrong. My advice is don’t. Just let go. Let the person arguing have their way. Walk away. It’s not worth the hassle to stay and argue until you give in, exhausted. They will win, whether you like it or not.

I looked at how extreme forms of arguing can destroy relationships in my work as a writer and theatre director. In my play The Tameness of a Wolf, the main character Danny is becoming ill with an episode of schizophrenia. His wife has no experience of this condition and initially sees his behaviour as a series of unresolved and abusive arguments. She fights back but the arguments get increasingly violent. She tries hard to get help for her husband, but the lack of services finds them left without the appropriate support.

It’s important for people working in the field to receive continuing funding, so that mental illness is recognised and treated early.

REMEMBERING MUM

My Mum, aged sixteen
My Mum, aged sixteen

Yesterday was Mother’s Day in the UK.

My mother died in 1996. She was born in 1900, survived the Influenza pandemic in 1918, married at 23 – an Italian who became a jazz musician in the 30’s and 40’s, lived through two world wars, gave birth to five children, lost two toddlers – one to whooping-cough and one in an accident, lost her husband when she was just 52 and in her 80’s, lost her eldest daughter to illness.

I think of my mother often and her life. She lived through so much unhappiness yet she always seemed buoyant, full of life, with immeasurable energy.  It’s the little things I remember. She never went anywhere without a packet of Handy Andy tissues in her bag. That bag also held a sachet of fruit drops, her favourite sweets, several pencils and pens, writing pads for me to doodle on when we visited relatives who wanted her absolute attention, a powder compact with hardly any compressed powder in it – she’d used the same one for years and two or three bunches of keys; what did they open?

My mother had a thing about washing your hands. Whenever we’d been out, the first thing we did when we got home was wash hands. Not just a perfunctory wash, but a serious, get between the fingers with the soap wash. She also panicked about toilet seats. As a child, I was NEVER allowed to sit on a public toilet seat. I had to hold on to her hands and hover my bottom over the bowl, do the deed and get out of the cubicle asap. Hand washing in public toilets had to be super thorough.

My mother never talked to me about periods or sex, even when I discovered a used sanitary towel on the floor of the loo,  either she or my sister, fifteen years my senior, had forgotten to dispose of. The offending article was described as a wound dressing.

My mother was kind and affectionate, patient, nervous, easily hurt,  often sad after my father died and I never doubted her love for me. She wouldn’t say much about her own childhood, but I knew her parents were immigrants, leaving Italy, their home country in the late eighteen hundreds, looking for a better life in London. The diaspora saw thousands of Italians leave a country ravaged by war and poverty, settling in the USA, the UK and Australia.

My Grandmother in 1898
My Grandmother in 1898

I knew my grandmother, her mother, had come from a good family and was born in a tiny village near Parma in the north of Italy. My grandfather lived in Paris, during the Belle Epoch, hobnobbing with the likes of the painter Toulouse Lautrec and generally living the high life. They met in London, married in 1899 and had five children, my mother being the eldest.

I don’t think Mum had a particularly good relationship with her mother, who must have been pretty busy with five babies coming one after another. Miraculously for the time, they all survived, but my mother was sent back to Italy at the age of two, to be raised by her maternal grandparents for a couple of years. Perhaps that’s why she said she didn’t know what the word ‘mother’ meant?

There is so much I don’t know about my mother. I was the youngest of her five children with an age gap of nineteen years between me and my elder brother, her firstborn. I know she suffered prejudice and ridicule after the second war. The Italians were persona non grata then, many incarcerated in camps in the UK during the war, others keeping a low profile, laughed at for their accents, their food, their customs. Before I was born, my father moved the family to the suburbs of London, hoping life would be more tolerable there, and it was. He became naturalised in 1935 and as he was what today would be described as a minor celebrity, leading his own jazz band in London venues such as The Cafe Royal and Quaglino’s Restaurant, our neighbours tolerated us, and even, at times were willing to come to dinner and taste that strange food called spaghetti.

My mother refused to teach me to speak Italian properly. The language was spoken in private by her and my father, but English was the language we spoke in public. She wanted us to be English in thought, word and deed. I didn’t visit Italy until I was 14. Now, I don’t feel resentful about this, but there were times in my life when I did. I wanted to find my roots and tell people that I may have been born in England but my blood was Italian. Today, I love this country and wouldn’t want to be anything else but British through and through. But I still feel a deep affinity for Italy and when I am there it feels like home.

My mother turned her back on Italy. The memories of her experiences too painful to acknowledge. She loved England and everything English. She was, at times critical of Italy, especially Mussolini. She hated the Fascists and it was the only time I heard her use speech that was vitriolic, when she talked about Il Duce. She loved Radio 4 and introduced me to the Afternoon Play as soon as I could listen quietly. She loved books, in particular poetry books leading her to scrape the money together to enable to me have elocution lessons for years, at least till I was sixteen. Those lessons gave me a love of literature and poetry and I’m eternally grateful to her for that.

My mother was an intelligent woman. The sort of woman who would have gone to university and obtained a first in Literature if she’d lived today. She used to tell me how her father would chastise her and one of her sisters for reading under the bedclothes by candle light, telling her books were rubbish and she would burn the house down and murder them all. She told me how important the written word was, how words were mightier than the sword. I have never forgotten that.

Mum, with me and Dad.
Mum, with me and Dad.

She had tough times and good times, like we all do as we travel through life. Towards the end, when she was in her nineties, living in her own small flat near London with her eldest son and his family keeping an eye on her, I would visit when I could. I was raising my own children and we lived almost three hundred miles away. As I reached the start of my own middle-age, I realised how much she meant to me, and that I hadn’t always been the best of daughters. I hadn’t seen her life, past and present, as real. I hadn’t listened enough, understood just what her life had been like, hadn’t appreciated her history, the experiences she’d had, the horrors and glories she’d lived through. I’d been too wrapped up in my own stuff, as all children are.

If I could turn the clock back, I’d have taken a forensic interest in my mother’s life, examining it as a historian, for it merited that sort of attention.

BACK AGAIN!

It's where I really want to be...
It’s where I really want to be…

I have been away from my blog for some time and it’s good to be back. The reason for my absence in my third novel, a devil of a book to write. As I consider myself a new author, I have put huge amounts of pressure on myself to GET BETTER. This the my third attempt at getting some of it right…

I have also been trying to create an archive of my past work. I’m at the time in my life where I want to collate everything and give myself a pat on the back for trying to do it all and at times, failing miserably. But when I am gone, I want one or two people to say, at least she tried.

This new book has taken me to new imaginings, different landscapes, places of the heart and spirit I could never have dreamed I would want to visit. It’s an adventure and I’m loving every minute. Only a third of the way through, I have practiced the Zen art of discipline – God, it hurts!  Every morning, I face a three hour minimum writing slog and even if the ice caps melt or an enemy drops bombs on me, I WILL WRITE.  In the distance, every day, I see the perfect sentence, the beautiful paragraph. These are my daily goals, not to mention sticking to the plot, making the characters grow into real people and counting the words. It’s a tall order and one I will praise myself when I get to the final page. (If I don’t, no one else will.)

In the meantime, I’m back to writing my blogs, knitting jumpers, making cakes, walking the dog and occasionally talking to my man, who is used to this mad woman flitting past him like a ghost every day. What a star he is!

Please do watch this space for news of my book. Thanks. x

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