Making Lemonade Blog

  • Samuel Robinson

I wrote before Christmas about how I'd been struggling and mentioned that I'd reached out to my counsellor for support. In our first session, she asked me a few questions to assess where I was at mentally and her response to my answers was that I was suffering with Severe Anxiety and Depression (my play on the word SAD in the title). In fact, I scored 19 out of 20 on her scale for levels of anxiety and depression.


I was anxious about sharing this, for fear of judgement, through feeling ashamed and because it feels so lonely and abnormal when you are in these places. However, I firmly believe that lifting the lid and speaking more openly about these sorts of things is the only way to change that stigma, reduce that shame and normalise that it is ok to not be ok, because ultimately facing and talking about it is one of the best ways for people to start feeling lighter.


So, following 12 weeks of counselling, being a month or so on from those sessions in which my score had come down significantly to 5 out of 20 (only moderate levels of anxiety) and with this being #mentalhealthawareness week, I thought I'd share a bit about what it felt like in this pretty open account, exploring some of what I'd been experiencing from uncharacteristic levels of anger to horrifyingly intrusive thoughts and use this as a reminder to me and others that these feelings can and do pass.


Please note, this article comes with a trigger warning as I do talk about topics related to severe levels of depression and although I wasn't suicidal I also touch on this subject.




Your body keeps the score:


There's actually a book about this that I'm yet to read, but my counsellor had told me about it when I was going through my first bout of therapy. Essentially, whether we are consciously aware or not, the things that cause us anxiety and stress pile up, and your body sends you signals to let us know that we've something boiling up under the surface.


For me these signals are that the quality of my sleep diminishes which for me is followed by chest and inner arm anxiety pains.


The challenge is, that as somebody who had survived for 33 years suppressing any type of emotion that is perceived as negative (sadness, anger etc), I've fallen out of sync with what my body is trying to tell me. So, although I had started to receive these indicators a month or so before I'd realised I was struggling, I couldn't have told you what was on my mind and how to fix it.


My counsellor told me that actually identifying the root cause, isn't always essential to reducing stress and anxiety. That sometimes just by recognising our emotions scaling them to see how strongly we are feeling them, and putting in the appropriate levels of self care can reduce levels of stress and anxiety enough to give you some clarity on the what's going on.


The darkness of intrusive thoughts


I want to start this section with a trigger warning as I'm going to talk about some pretty intense emotions that touch on the topic of suicide.


It's important to understand that in my mind there is a huge difference between being suicidal and having intrusive thoughts about not being here and at no point would I have considered myself suicidal.


During the peak of this emotional overwhelm and the depths of my stress and anxiety, I'd had several intrusive thoughts. I didn't want to not be here and never would I have committed suicide and orphaned Molly, but the level of my stress was so overwhelmingly high that at points when I was struggling with rationalising and prioritising the sheer volume of things in my head, I'd have fleeting thoughts of something extreme. Almost like my brain was trying to shock me so that I'd get out of my head, for example I'd be driving my car, throwing around an incredible amount of internal dialogue and suddenly a thought would occur like driving my car into a tree.


Now, this might sound utterly crazy, but, I believe this is my brains way of protecting me, almost an attempt at snapping you out of it for a moment. Shocking you into not thinking about all of those things that are keeping you inside your head and causing internal conflict. It's almost as if it is a relief from your stress.


Thinking of something so shocking that it's the only thing strong enough to distract you and allow you to step away from the overwhelming volume of things going on in your head at any given moment. Hopefully that explains somewhat why its different, because it's not about not wanting to be here, it's about a relief from stress and a relief from something you can't escape.


Thankfully, I'm through that now and the stresses in my mind have reduced significantly, so I'm in a better place and am working hard on re-building my resilience and coping strategies to avoid things getting this challenged again.


Brain fog and fight or flight switches:


Part of struggling with severe levels of anxiety and depression led to me having a limited capacity for things going on around me. I found myself being in situations where I might be talking to someone, something else is happening in the background and I'm trying to think at the same time and my brain would just give up. The fog would descend and it felt like I needed to escape, it was literally like my brain was refusing to process any more and it wasn't until I physically removed myself from a situation that the fog began to lift and my brain rebooted, allowing me to start thinking again.


Before the high levels of stress that I've experienced over the last few years, this wasn't something that had ever happened, infact I usually had the patience of a Saint and could deal with/ carry most any number of things going on around me at any given time.


I'm still experiencing this from time to time now, albeit far less frequently and I hope that eventually my ability to stay switched on despite how much is going on around me will return to normal levels at some point.


Another opportunity to grow:


Needless to say, I've developed a practical understanding of the things I can do to support if I begin to feel overwhelmed again.


So much of that overwhelm was driven by two main factors,


1. Going back to my coping strategy of old of internalising and supressing emotion rather than sharing and expressing it.

2. And, not feeling as though I was doing a good enough job for Molly, myself, my new partner Jess, my family, Lauren's family and just at life in general.


On top of that I'd compounded these feelings by being unprepared for Mollys birthday and Christmas, so was barrating myself because I felt as though I was letting her down. So in the space of a month November > December I'd had so many triggering activities (Lauren's memorial being ready, Molly's birthday, Christmas, Molly's first nativity play and so on) and with that piled on top of the overwhelming feelings I was already struggling with, it was all too much to cope with, especially when dealing with all of those things internally rather than blogging and talking like I had done before.


So in a practical sense, by being better prepared with key dates and certain things that I know are coming I'll be able to stop them from adding to the load in the future. Also, by staying open and being comfortable with exposing my vulnerability, I'll not be internalising such strong emotional experiences.


Aside from the more practical learnings, I also used this experience as an opportunity to grow as a person, I decided to continue with my therapy for 12 weeks rather than just to ride the severe wave of emotion and attempt to fix (or at least start to fix) some personal challenges, which, for those that don't know me well, it'd perhaps be hard to imagine that I'd struggle with, such incredibly low levels of self esteem and self worth, an unhealthy need to be a people pleaser and as a result an enormous amount of friction and discomfort that I live with whenever I choose to put myself first. All of which have improved significantly following my 12 weeks of counselling.


I feel as though by re-building myself in the right way, in a way that is sensitive to my own needs, and by being kinder to myself, it will help and is already helping with my resilience and reducing the impact of anxiety and depression on me as I continue to find my way.


Being nearly a 6 months since these feelings of overwhelm were at their strongest and reflecting on them, I am trying to continually add to my understanding that feelings are temporary, that there's always a sunshine after the darkness and that, just like that the nights turn to days and tomorrow always comes and it might just be tomorrow that I feel lighter.


Grief isn't just being sad, for me it has been an exhausting run of ups, downs and waves of emotion that are ever changing and do seem to be happening much less frequently as I continue to grow my life and learn to live alongside grief. It's also fair to say that I my old coping strategies and suppressing emotion served me well for 33 years, but grief has been a bit to much for those coping strategies. This assault of emotional waves has leant on the most challenging parts of my character and in doing so has pushed me in to moments of severe anxiety and depression.


However, in all of that difficulty, it has also pushed me into rediscovering, rebuilding and hopefully reprogramming some of the self detrimental parts of my personality and whilst those dark times are like nothing I've ever felt before, if I can learn to understand myself better, if I can grow as a person and if I can continue show Molly that no matter what life throws at you, there's always a way through it, then it's not all bad.


I'd even like to start introducing this idea of post traumatic growth, where in a world that I cannot change what I have been through, that it is possible that out of that darkness I can be inspired to be a better version of me, to be happier for me and to achieve more than I might have otherwise achieved had I not been through this. Almost like those stories of a pheonix from the ashes or Japanese Kintsugi.


Thankfully I am in a good place now, grief and bereavement have tested my coping strategies, reduced my tolerance for stress and even though at the point I am sharing about here I was 15 months post loss, had started a happy relationship with my new partner Jess and had grown around my grief signicantly in lots of ways, it still found ways to impact me in ways that were more than just being sad.

Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey!

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  • Samuel Robinson

I was incredibly moved and saddened to hear of devastating news that Tom Parker had passed away, another young soul that had to leave us too soon and it made me think about my time since becoming a young widow. I met both Kelsey and Tom a long while ago when I worked for a shopping centre in Bromley and they both had businesses that they were promoting in our space. But that's as much as I know them outside of the public eye and this blog isn't a loose attempt at a claim to fame, it's a heartfelt reflective letter to someone (anyone) entering the world of young widowhood. It's a letter that contains the things I would have told myself in those torturous days immediately post bereavement.


I remember well and have written about how at the beginning I only really found comfort in the conversations I'd had with a new friend who'd also recently been widowed and although this is addressed to Kelsey, it is for anyone that finds themselves in this position. I hope it offers a beacon of light, hope and comfort in a similar way to how those conversations helped me at the start of my widowed life. So here it goes...

Dear Kelsey,


Before I get into talking about why I'm randomly writing you a letter, I wanted to let you know that I am so sorry for the loss that you and your beautiful babies have suffered.


I met both yourself and Tom some time ago when I worked in the marketing team for a local shopping centre and you were using our space to promote each of your businesses. But, that's not why I'm writing to you, now we have something much more significant in common.


About 20 months ago I too became a young widow and solo parent to my beautiful daughter Molly after losing my wife Lauren to breast cancer at the age of 31 and I wanted to write and share with you some things that I have learnt along the way, things that I hope, in a time when you'll no doubt feel like your world has ended, will offer you some light, some hope and a very small amount of comfort.


But before I get into it, please know that we are all very different, our experiences of life and loss are different, so, all of us respond different to such significant levels of grief and emotion, this is me giving you my take, but please only take from it the things that feel relevant.


Firstly I want you to know that you'll be ok...

From what I've seen the world is rallying around you and you will have as much support as you need, so lean on that support as much as you can and don't feel an ounce of guilt for doing so. But it's not just support that means you'll be ok, but also because although it doesn't feel like it at times, we are all strong and it is only when that strength is tested that we realise just how strong we are. I'll share a bit more at the end about where I'm at now and how I know and can say that 'you'll be ok'.


At first just after Lauren died I wanted the world to stop, in fact I wanted it to rewind but the world keeps moving and actually what I came to realise was that despite this being something I found difficult, it was actually the thing that kept me going too, especially with children because they have their routines and structures that mean you have to go on. I found a purpose by focusing on Molly and understanding how I could best support her through her grief, there are some amazing charities that can work with you in this space (Winstons Wish, Child Bereavment UK and Grief Encounter).


Widow brain is a real thing, we get confused, forgetful and I found that I lost all ability to think about the future immediately, so much so that I couldn't even think about dinner for each day, so I chose not to, I broke my days down into hours and just did what I needed to do in the next hour to survive. No doubt there'll be a lot of practical things that you have to focus on too in terms of arrangements, all of which are difficult because each one is a harsh reminder of what you've lost. I gave myself a goal of at least one piece of loss admin per day and the truth is there are still things 20 months on that I need to sort, but, by breaking it down in to smaller chunks and setting myself that target it seemed a little more manageable. I found that if I ever needed some respite from the emotion, overwhelm and worrying about what ifs? Then I'd focus on the things I could control, I'd say can to myself 'Can I control it?' If not, I'd write or think of a list of things I can control and focus on them.


The next thing I wanted to share with you is that you are not alone. Now I don't mean that in the physical sense and I've no doubt that you've a tonne of family and friends around you helping, supporting and wanting to see you through this initial stage of bereavement. But if you're feelings are anything like mine were, then all of the practical support in the world didn't stop me from feeling alone and isolated, and although I was grateful for the support offered by those around me, they didn't 'get it'. How could they? They'd never woken up one day and lost the person that was stitched in to the fabric of their existence, the person that you'd built your life with and around. But, it was at this time I'd struck up a friendship with a chap named Ben who'd lost his partner four months earlier. Although this didn't reduce the severity of emotion I was feeling, I really felt a sense of hope from our conversations. There was me struggling to get through each hour but I had Ben 4 months ahead of me and still going with his little boy, it helped me to see that I could be ok. It was this friendship that inspired me to join the charity Widowed and Young, it's a community of people that have lost their partner under the age of 51 and there's a small sub group called WAVY (widowed and very young) who've lost their partner under the age of 35. Now, WAY can be pretty intense at first and it's not for everybody. Because it's a safe place for people to share their emotions with others who in someway might be able to understand, there's some pretty tough reads at times, however, what I witnessed was that for everyone struggling there was a large number of people willing and able to support and offer hope. I don't so much lean on WAY now but advocate them massively especially for those in the early stages of young widowhood and know that they are there should I need to lean on them more in the future.


This is starting to sound like a top tips letter but truthfully these are the things that I experienced and what I found helped me to get through.


So next up is to make sure you express yourself, don't lock up any of the emotion you feel in a mental jail. Find your own ways to let things out, I did this through starting my blog and having nearly 6 months of counselling and then recently had to re-learn it because although it had been what had gotten me through, I stopped expressing myself, stopped talking, blogging and sharing and this led to a severe breakdown in my mental health.


Now this was a big thing for me, but, understanding that it is ok to be vulnerable, that in fact being comfortable with your vulnerability is probably the strongest show of strength, and knowing that there is more power in vulnerability than there is in just putting on a brave face. For me, being a stereotypical man, and someone that has always felt like they had to be positive, 'strong' and ok in every situation, not only was this level of vulnerability difficult to get to but when I truly allowed myself to be open it was also incredibly liberating.


Something that I found most difficult and am still working on is to be kind to yourself. It's really easy to will yourself to heal, to be better, to get on with everything and to do more to 'get over it'. But the truth is that you'll never 'get over it'. People mean well when they tell you 'time is a healer', but the truth is that time gives you space to adjust and grow. It's when we start to grow our lives that we get tripped up less often by our grief and its very important to know that there is no timeline, benchmarks or deadlines on when this should be, you will feel ready to add building blocks to your life when the time is right for you and not when other people have or when others suggest you should. I found that Tonkins Model of Grief was the best way to describe how it actually works and I sit here now having built my life around my grief in many ways, I still trip over from time to time but if you have support plans in place around key dates and try not to be hard on yourself when you do trip up, then you'll start to realise that you can get through it all.


I could write to you for hours about everything I've learnt about life, grief, parenthood and myself in the last 20 months and I'm still learning now but I'll save the rest for another time.


I've reached a stage now where I'm finding purpose and re-discovering me, it's not always easy, it comes with it's challenges and I might write to you again when I've learnt a little more. But, I am genuinely happy, I've started a business which allows me to still achieve my career aspirations whilst being in control of my work/life balance and prioritising Molly. I'm in a new relationship with a wonderful woman called Jess, who I see as my future and am excited to keep growing with. I am no longer just surviving, I am living and in fact with the knowledge of loss that I now have, I am living with much more of a zest for life and experience. After all, those that we have lost young, especially in the way that we have, didn't get the choice, so I feel as though it is important to respect that loss by choosing life, living, loving and making the most of what we are blessed to have.


You'll reach that stage and it may not be a business, or a relationship or anything similar to me, but you'll rediscover you and your purpose and from such horrendous feelings can come feelings of empowerment, strength and growth. I truly believe that although losing Lauren shattered and broke me it has allowed me to rebuild myself as a better version of me. A really nice reference to this is 'Kintsugi', I'll let you Google that one.


Anyway, that side of things will be completely irrelevant to you at the moment, just as it was to me, whilst you just try to survive each day, but I truly hope that for you or anyone reading this letter that it offers you a small amount of hope.


Hope is what we all tend to live off of, everything we do today is in the hope of a better tomorrow and losing your partner destroys all hope, but this is me trying to show you that it can come back, that maybe in writing this I can be a little beacon of light at the end of a dark tunnel and that you know that you are not alone.


Again, I am so sorry that we have such a heart breaking loss in common. Please take care of yourself and your little ones and trust that you are strong enough to get through.


Yours sincerely,


Sam


Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey!

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This week I reached out to my counsellor to book a block of sessions, having not had them for 7 or 8 months. It would seem that I have been reverting to type and that I'd stopped doing the things that had helped me to move forward previously, I've stopped talking, I've stopped writing (hence this blog), I've closed up, avoided situations and emotions that have felt challenging and it has heightened my awareness that progression in a post bereavement grief journey isn't linear.

In an ideal world the further we move away from a point of impact, in my case Lauren's death, the less it should influence us and to the outside world this may have appeared to be the case for me. But the reality is somewhat different.


I've written and spoken before about Tonkin's model of grief and how contrary to popular belief the size of your pain doesn't change or heal over time, that over time you just manage to build a bigger life around it, meaning that you don't experience the pain as frequently. However, when you do experience those grief related emotions, they hurt the same as they did at first and drag you back to the middle of the grief pool, treading water just to keep yourself afloat.


This model is the most accurate way I've found to explain my experiences of grief and bereavement. However, more recently I've been reverting to my typical pre-bereavement coping strategies and have been sub-consciously choosing not to feel or deal with the pain when it arrives. Allowing for it to build up like a rhythm beat of pressure without realising it was happening and moving further away from all of the things that had helped me to keep moving forward until now.


Allowing this to happen has in turn having a negative effect on my relationships, significantly reduced my patience, challenged my concentration span and ultimately led to me feeling like I'm not really doing very well in any aspect of my life at the moment. I have to caveat this with the fact that I am my own worse critic and so am generally much harsher on myself than others would be of me. However, as I sit and write this blog, I am not ok, I'm struggling with getting out of bed in the mornings, I'm not sleeping, I'm finding it difficult to get out of my head and process a significant flurry of emotions that have poured out in a concentrated attack on my ability to be my usual positive and upbeat self.


In itself this realisation has been surprising because at what feels like just a click of the fingers, I've gone from feeling like I was the master of my domain to realising, again, that we really have very little control over life, the directions it chooses to take us and our feelings. But, in the learning it has made me realise that progress isn't a guaranteed upward trend and that actually sometimes we take what feels like a backward momentum that actually builds our resilience and propels us on to take another set of steps away from the point of impact.

Much like the picture above, in a perfect world, we would move along the line of progress in a continual and very smooth journey toward our goal, or in my case re-building my life post bereavement. However, the reality is different and regardless of the fact that things feel heavier than they have for a while, that I'm clearly struggling with the weight of my emotions and that I've not dealt with this wave of strong feelings particularly well, I'm trying to remind myself that it's ok for that to happen. That actually Rome wasn't built in a day and that we can feel our grief, experience set backs and feel as though we're going backwards, but it doesn't mean that we haven't made any progress or that we won't continue to make progress.


Obviously I love and miss Lauren and that'll never go away, but I accept the reality of the situation, I have done for quite some time and although I need to be more open with these emotions, so much of what triggers me nowadays is related to Molly. Being the amazing little girl that she is, she continues to excel and thrive in a life that has been unfairly unkind to her and every little achievement, bit of praise from the her teachers, positive bit of feedback from friends, family and often passers by, creates the most of extreme dualities in me of pride and pain.


Unlike the picture above there is no finish line, I'll dip into the grief pool regularly for the rest of my life and the reality of the situation is that I cannot run away from the pain that I feel and, even though it has gotten me through 33 years of life so far, to the point where I don't even realise I'm doing it, I'm not able to shelve it or hide from it. I need to learn how to feel this pain and not run away from the things that trigger it, whilst re-building my life in the best way that I can, knowing that pain for what has been lost and happiness for what is to come are not mutually exclusive and can (and must) be experienced at the same time.


The overwhelming levels of stress, anxiety and emotion that I'm experiencing at the moment, has me feeling a real sense of escapism and is something that I'm still learning how to manage. The mental health struggles that I experience are something that I've only realised I battle with in the last 2 years and actually as a stereotypical man that likes to shoulder the responsibility of everybody elses feelings and stay strong, being this vulnerable is something that takes a lot for me to do. But one thing I have learnt is that talking, sharing, supporting and being vulnerable is what helped me at the start of this journey and is something that I need to get back to doing.

Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey!

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