Room 41

March, April, May, June ….. the months I haven’t posted. Not that many miles either. And those I have ridden have been easy ones, mainly off road. And often the same route, the same places. But they are good places, beautiful places. And they have done me a lot of good.

July, August, September …. the months since I started to write this post. Less miles in the countryside, too. Much less.  I have failed to spend time in places that are so good for me. Yes, I may be a creature of habit when it comes to the routes I ride, but no riding in these places is no good at all.

But there is one place I have been pretty regularly over these quiet months that has been good for me. That is room 41 – the place – that seats 12 – where I do some of my most effective work as a Peer Worker. It’s in this room that I deliver Recovery College courses on Building Resilience, Self Esteem and Mindfulness.

 

In many ways it is a finite place. It is the same every time. The same tables, the same chairs. The same whiteboard and flip chart. We – my colleague and I – use the same materials to deliver the courses. Readers in east and west sussex can find out more about a wide range of courses here: https://www.sussexrecoverycollege.org.uk/

We have the same conversations at the beginning of the first session about Group Ground Rules – what I prefer to call ‘What Can We Expect From Each Other?’ We have the same conversation about what confidentiality means. We introduce ourselves.

And then the work begins.

And the same room takes on a different character, a different dimension. And I’m pedalling hard leading the peleton at times, then letting the others take the head wind.

That’s when I’m I’ve been on my bike this past 6 months. In that room, sharing ‘trade secrets’ about how to be better. Since I last wrote we have hired one paid member of the staff and  another 6 trained volunteer peer mentors from the students in these classes. When we discuss confidentiality the conversation goes like this: I ask what suggestions the group has. People will call out ‘confidentiality’. I ask: ‘What do we mean by ‘confidentiality’?’ The response every time is. ‘what is said in the room stays in the room.’ To which I respond, ‘No. Please quote us in full. There are 168 hours in every week. We are together in this room for less than 3 hours per week. What we talk about in this room should be on wheels. Take it outside here into your lives.’

And so I try to take what goes on in room 41 with me everywhere I go. But for now it feels like that door is jammed shut.

 

The Room

It is my room, and yet one room is locked.

The dark has taken root on all four walls.

It is a room  where knots stare out from the wood,

A room that turns it back on the whole house.

 

At night I hear the crickets list their griefs

And let an ancient peace come into me.

Sleep intercepts my prayer, and in the dark

The house turns slowly round its one closed room.

Kevin Hart (1954 – )

 

 

 

 

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Posted in anxiety, Bi Polar Disorder, Cycling, Depression, Mental Health, mental illness, Peer Support, Poetry, Relapse | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Dear Friend ….’

There is a phrase, somewhat unkind, I can’t help feeling: middle – aged men in lycra. I guess I feel as I do since I am one of them. Over the years I have amassed a drawer full of said items. The collection includes tops in Tour de France yellow, in polka dot design and cycle team colours of yesteryear. Naturally, over the years they have come to acquire sentimental value, replete with memories. But it is not of these pieces of lycra I write today. Instead I am focusing on my pair of bicycle bib – tights.

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 ‘What weirdness is this?!’ I hear you cry.

Bear with me. On Thursday 28 October 2010 I came off my bike as I cycled through a gap in a wall meant for pedestrians, up the road from where I live. I have used this short cut countless times as I return home from rides out in the countryside since I moved to the neighbourhood in 2007. Examine the picture closely and you will see a tear at the knee. It’s from that tumble in 2010. A good enough reason to buy a new pair. If not straightaway, then certainly over the intervening years. But I don’t want to replace this pair. They remind  me of what that fall represented. I careered through that narrow gap at 10 miles an hour before taking a tumble onto the tarmac. Someone about to get into his car called out asking if I was alright. I pushed away his concern with that Orwellian phrase in Doublespeak: ‘I’m fine.’ As I sat there, staring at that small tear at my knee, aware that I was still in one piece,  I knew that there was something terribly wrong.

It was the first time that I glimpsed something that I couldn’t quite recognise, much less identify. I wrote a post about it: https://puncturerepairkit.wordpress.com/2010/11/10/tarmac/

In it I claimed that I had immediately recognised the true significance of the fall. Way back then I did realise why I had ridden through that narrow gap far too fast. What I had no idea about was what this realisation would mean for me in the long term. A couple of weeks later I saw a psychiatrist who confirmed that my problem was not uni – polar depression but Bi Polar Disorder 2 with Mixed Symptoms. And so it began (again). It took a few months coming off the medication I had been taking for years and finding an effective replacement.

In the previous post I wrote about the uphill struggle life has been for me recently. Last week I saw my psychiatrist and he decided that a change of medication was the next step after an increased dose was too much for me to tolerate. A positive move. right, to be looking at different options to restoring my mental health? Not so much, I fear. Last time we agreed that I would increase my dose. It turned out I couldn’t tolerate the side effects (drowsiness.) When I agreed to this increase in the mood stabiliser I have been taking for nearly 6 years it felt like a huge question came and stood in front of me, obscuring the view of anything else. Does this mean a steady increase of the dose with each (inevitable) relapse? Where would it stop?

Well, it has stopped – sort of. I agreed to start coming of one of the tablets I have been taking since 2011 and gradually replacing it with another. It feels like the tablets have simply stopped working, and I have to start over with something else. I can’t help but wonder – if it works at all – how long will it be until it, too, gives up on me?

I’m looking back at my former self and wondering now what I could say to him by way of encouragement.

The author Katherine Mansfield (1888 – 1923) wrote to her earlier self in her journal: ‘Dear friend from my life I write to you in your life …’What words of succour, encouragement and hope can I write to the me that fell off my bike that day? Graphic artist Ellen Forney (1968 – ) who herself suffers from Bi Polar Disorder wrote about her journey of mental health recovery in her graphic memoir ‘Marbles, Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me’. I read it every year. Each reading offers me new jewels of insight into what it means to be, well, me. In the final 3 panels she reflects on her journey, having been talking to her earlier self about how she has come to arrive at her present day self. She is looking in the mirror  brushing her teeth. The thought bubbles read: ‘But I mean, things are good? You’re ok?’ Then: ‘Well I can’t say things are always easy, but they’re good! And yeah … ‘ And the final panel: ‘I’m ok!’

Reading those final panels, I can’t see how it can ever be like that for me for very long.

 

What Happens

It has happened
and it happens now as before
and will continue to happen
if nothing is done against it.

The innocent don’t know a thing about it
because they are too innocent
and the guilty don’t know a thing about it
because they’re too guilty.

The poor don’t take notice
because they’re too poor
and the rich don’t take notice
because they’re too rich.

The stupid shrug their shoulders
because they’re too stupid
and the clever shrug their shoulders
because they’re too clever.

It doesn’t bother the young
because they’re too young
and it doesn’t both the old
because they’re too old.

That’s why nothing is done against it
and that’s why it happened
and happens now as before
and will continue to happen.

Erich Fried (1921 – 1988)

 

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26%

I like to think I live in the Alps, at the summit of the Col du Galibier (2,645 metres). I don’t, but the gradient on the hill that leads to where I live, can feel like that at times. It begins with a steep ‘kick’ at the bottom and includes a couple of ‘blind’ turns as I heave myself towards home. All in all, my best guesstimate is that the average gradient on my homeward hill is around 25%. Before we bought our house back in 2007 I practised riding it. If I couldn’t manage it would mean I would be pretty much strapped in up there relying on 2 buses an hour.

Image result for road sign showing steep gradient

I’m not really complaining. The climb – which I make nearly every day – gives me a sense of achievement every time I ride it. It provides reassurance because it proves to me that I have the resources, physical and mental, that I can ride it, whatever the weather.

Yesterday I donned my lycra for the first time in about 6 months and rode out into the countryside. Rolling hills with some pretty steep climbs, that I have neglected for so long. My legs were anxious, my chest was apprehensive. Would I have to get off and push after all this time? It had been so long that I took a wrong turn on the way back. But I turned round and found the right route. My curiosity emerged once more and I took a short detour along a lane I had passed many time.

I planned to go out again today, but the fog outside my window and inside my head, kept me away. But I have proved to myself that I still have those hills in my legs, even after all this time. I’ll go out again later this week. Maybe after my appointment with my psychiatrist in a few days’ time.

There’s another steep gradient in my life, a mental one.

It’s been over a month now that my mood has slipped down a very steep slope. One of the mood – rater scales on the internet is called Moodscope.com. It’s a way of tracking your moods and identifying triggers that help and hinder how you’re feeling. I first started using it back in the winter of 2010 when my psychiatrist told me that what I suffer from was not unipolar depression, but manic depression. Over the years I have used it, sometimes regularly, every day for months at a time. Or, like now, I’ve gone back to it after about 9 months. Over the past month or so I’ve been monitoring my mood daily and the numbers are not good. I should be floating around the 60 – 80% range. Instead, it’s been the 20 – 40% zone. I’m working reduced hours and still not feeling the benefit.

Maya Angelou’s determination is too much for me right now. All I’m hoping for is that someday soon ‘like air I’ll rise.’

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

 

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

 

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

 

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

 

 

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Paramedic

It was the summer of 2001. I was riding the 60 mile route from London to Brighton, on the south coast, for the first time. I had started cycling, as an adult at least, the previous summer (a fund – raiser for my children’s primary school.)This would be the longest distance I had ridden by a long, long way. I had been diagnosed with depression 4 months earlier and had spent much of the intervening period signed off work and in the care of my psychiatrist, G.P., family and friends. My preparation for the event had consisted of a couple of rides with my friend Ivan who would be joining me, up and down the rolling hills north of my home.

I remember the beginning of the ride, the peleton snaking through the south London suburbs early that sunny Sunday afternoon, before the group thinned out.

Nine miles into the ride I was picking up speed as I swept down a slope. Too late I saw the yellow – clad marshals signalling a left turn at the bottom of the hill. Instead of slowing down, passing the turning and going back, I steered my bike left, made the turn at speed, and came off my bike, landing on the tarmac by a grass verge. A St John’s ambulance paramedic was soon by my side and found me clutching my left arm. He inspected it and declared that since I had not broken the skin I was safe to ride on.

Gingerly I eased my way back on my bike and saw my friend waiting for me at the top of the hill. He had not seen what happened, and being the much fitter one, was waiting for me to catch up.

My left arm was so painful it was all I could do but hold the handlebars. I couldn’t change gear and cycled the remaining 51 miles of that hilly route without moving the chain onto the smallest cog (most useful for tackling the numerous climbs that made up much of the remainder of the route.)

I cycled on because the paramedic told me I could.

On arriving at the seafront not far from home, I dismounted in front of the 3 generations of my family who had come to see me finish and lay flat on my back. By now my left arm was so sore I had to ask for one of them to remove my cycling gloves.

After an uncomfortable night my wife took me to the Accident & Emergency department of our local hospital and the doctor I saw confirmed that I had broken the radius bone at my elbow.

Image result for radial bone fracture

I was my very own hero. I had cycled 51 miles with a broken arm! I have shared that story numerous times over the years, including in the archives of this blog. If cycling has saved my life – as I have claimed from the very first sentence of the first post back in the summer of 2010 – then far from making a mistake, that paramedic gave me the gift of rising: rising far beyond what I thought I could ever achieve. His mistake helped to save my life.

I took part in the ride 12 times in the next 13 years. As I reached double figures the ride became a kind of time trial as I tried to better my performance year on year. It was time to look for other cycling challenges.

In my role as a peer worker, I too have been that paramedic.

Once, I told my story of my recovery to a peer I was supporting in the early stages of his recovery. He had a history of suicide attempts dating back over a decade. Telling my story is something I do all the time in supporting people both individually, and in groups. I’ve been at it for a while.

The next time we met what he said  left me as breathless as I was at the end of that ride all those years ago. He told me that what I had described to him of my own experiences on the road to recovery had – quite literally – saved his life. He described how, only days earlier, having said goodnight to his teenage son, he had gone downstairs to his kitchen, had taken the largest knife he could find, lay down on the sofa in his living room and put the blade to his neck. He told me in a voice as steady as the steel on his skin, that it was remembering what I had described of how I cope with my persistent feelings of hopelessness and despair, that had stayed his hand.

There are times when even I have to steady myself. So I excused myself and headed for the toilet where I spent a few minutes controlling my breathing while resting my forehead against the wall repeating over and over again, ‘I saved his life? I saved his life! I saved his life?’ trying to convince myself of what he had just told me.

I composed myself and headed back out into the crowded café. At the end of our time together, as we emerged onto the street, I stopped him before he headed off and told him: ‘I didn’t save your life, G—, you did.’

 

As the Mist leaves No Scar

As the mist leaves no scar

On the dark green hill,

So my body leaves no scar

On you, nor ever will.

 

When wind and hawk encounter,

What remains to keep?

So you and I encounter,

Then turn, then fall asleep.

 

As many nights endure

Without a moon or star,

So will we endure

When one is gone and far.

Leonard Cohen (1934 – 2016)

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Not

Not writing. Not cycling. Nor a sorrowful face full of tears. Nor a  shuddering heart. Nor any shaking shoulders.

In fact, nothing much at all.

What is this vacancy? Whose are these slumbering eyes that guide me? Whose billowing arms far out at sea? Whose laggard legs calling me across this pebble shore?

This not what I signed up for. This was not in the small print. I did not agree to this. I did not give my consent. I did not say what you say I said.

Or did I?

I was born against my will, I breathe against my will. My heart beats and my blood moves against my will. I sleep against my will. I wake up, gasping for air.

I am at war with myself.

There are so many military metaphors. My grandparents, my parents, my uncles, my aunt – they all survived wars. My grandfathers fought in one on opposing sides. And I, who would fail any medical, who has never so much as handled a gun, or a grenade, I am fighting myself.

In my role as a Peer Worker, supporting others to cope with enduring mental health problems I pride myself in being the stretcher bearer in the picture. Helping to carry the burden. holding the hope for others when there is none they can see.

I cite it often as a key part of what keeps me well (enough) to live. I boast of my ‘spare capacity’ to reach out to others to support them in their personal journey of recovery. I support ex-servicemen who carry with them the horrors of active service that we coyly disguise with the acronym PTSD. I put myself on their battlefields of unfamiliar streets, house searches and shouting at children who do not know how to respond.

My ears are leaking blood from all the places I have never been. The Eastern Front, 1914. Kristallnacht, November 9 – 10 1938, Theresienstadt and Baranowicze 1942.

Image result for first world war stretcher party

Is that me on the stretcher or is that me on the bicycle?

Futility

Move him into the sun—

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields half-sown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

 

Think how it wakes the seeds—

Woke once the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides

Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)

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Because

I am writing this not from my usual perch in the Northern Hemisphere during yet another mild winter when the main weather – related problem for the earnest early morning cyclist is shielding his eyes from the blazing sun on the way to work three mornings a week. At least that is how I left it last week when I left for a fortnight of sunshine in the Southern Hemisphere.

But no cycling.

South Africa’s roads are too dangerous for pedals, drop handlebars and an aerodynamic position in the saddle. Sensible.

And before that, back home, up north? The roads are not too dangerous, the weather not so brutal.

But no cycling.

Well, hardly any. Seldom into double figures in a day. Commuting miles ( 3 to the station and back.) Visiting my parents ( a 6 mile round trip.) And there’s always a reason why.

Because in June the depression was back. Four weeks off work. I went back as much out of frustration at not feeling better than anything else – it was not such a severe relapse. I increased my medication, but not my miles. The accusing sun shone week after week.

Because in July the sun was still shining but I was visiting my parents, spending time with them, running errands, as diligent middle aged offspring do, right?

Because by the time August arrived it was just not a thing I was doing. There was always something more important to spend my time on. Like staring into space. Or poring over my regrets, sorting them into alphabetical order. Not getting things done.

Because in September I was overseas (for a fortnight.)

Because in October there were the Jewish Holidays (for 8 days .)

Because in November my bicycle was in need of repair; but I kept doing the short miles, ignoring the broken spokes and the worn down brake pads. Both good reasons not to ride out into the countryside in the late autumn sunshine.

Because in December, it’s, well, December. Who rides in December – only serious cyclists, right? Serious cyclists.

I was one of those once.

Image result for faber poetry diary 2016

There’s always a reason. And then, one day, I realised that there wasn’t a reason. Which made it easier to sit on the sofa, watch cookery competitions on TV, and look surprised when I realise what time it is and I had meant to do …. what exactly?

And then, on another unremarkable day I remembered that there wasn’t a reason why I wasn’t cycling the good miles. I scrolled through the channels and watched things I had watched before.

Finally, I rode the couple of miles to the bike shop. The spokes and brake pads were replaced. At last, nothing to stop me pedalling north into the countryside.

Nothing to stop me but myself.

The fear that it had been too long. Not a fitness thing (in fact I had  managed to lose 2kgs since I stopped drinking alcohol Monday to Friday.) The fear was that it just wouldn’t be the same. That cycling would have become merely a good way to exercise, like joining a Spinning Class at thee gym, and nothing more.

Likewise, over these past 6 months I stopped writing this blog. Eventually I started reposting editions from the archives. That replaced actually writing about what was happening. Well, not happening to be more precise. The same fear grew restless, that I wouldn’t be able to write anything new. Reposting felt like freewheeling. Pleasant, but not for so long. Not for weeks, moths, on end.

 

Because

My father and my mother never quarrelled.

They were united in a kind of love

As daily as the Sydney Morning Herald,

Rather than like the eagle or the dove.

 

I never saw them casually touch,

Or show a moment’s joy in one another.

Why should this matter to me now so much?

I think it bore more hardly on my mother,

 

Who had more generous feelings to express.

My father had dammed up his Irish blood

Against all drinking praying fecklessness,

And stiffened into stone and creaking wood.

 

His lips would make a switching sound, as though

Spontaneous impulse must be kept at bay.

That it was mainly weakness I see now,

But then my feelings curled back in dismay.

 

Small things can pit the memory like a cyst:

Having seen other fathers greet their sons,

I put my childish face up to be kissed

After an absence. The rebuff still stuns

 

My blood. The poor man’s curt embarrassment

At such a delicate proffer of affection

Cut like a saw. But home the lesson went:

My tenderness thenceforth escaped detection.

 

My mother sang Because, and Annie Laurie,

White Wings, and other songs; her voice was sweet.

I never gave enough, and I am sorry;

But we were all closed in the same defeat.

 

People do what they can; they were good people,

They cared for us and loved us. Once they stood

Tall in my childhood as the school, the steeple.

How can I judge without ingratitude?

 

Judgment is simply trying to reject

A part of what we are because it hurts.

The living cannot call the dead collect:

They won’t accept the charge, and it reverts.

 

It’s my own judgment day that I draw near,

Descending in the past, without a clue,

Down to that central deadness: the despair

Older than any hope I ever knew.

 

James McAuley (1917 – 1976)

 

 

 

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Penguins in the Dark

This is an edition from 2013

I mainly ride on the road.  I haven’t been out on my Mountain Bike for quite some time.  There are different skills involved in riding off – road, for sure.  And, yes, I am much, much less experienced riding off – road, but there’s another – ideological – reason that I ride a Touring bike.  Riding amongst the traffic – and sometimes dozy pedestrians – means that I am at the heart of society, part of the life of the place. I hold the road, communicate with drivers, acknowledge others, and they acknowledge me, my place in the world, their world.

One of the symptoms I find most difficult is the sheer speed at which my anger flares. There is nothing unusual about this.  Anger management courses abound in the treatment of disorders like mine, believe me.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t get angry with good reason.

I got pretty angry recently, as a matter of fact.  With good reason.  Yet another car driver was lecturing me  – finger wagging included – on the well-worn theme of How Dangerous Cyclists Are.  Don’t worry, dear reader, I barely so much as missed a beat, as I was told (yet again) how dangerous cyclists are.

Let’s crunch some numbers. According to The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in the United Kingdom (sorry to all my readers across the globe, but to include international statistics here is beyond the scope of this particular post.  I will return to what happens elsewhere in a future post). 107 cyclists were killed and 3,085 were seriously injured. These men, women and children were all hit by motor vehicles.  Virtually every single one of these people were hit by vehicles driven by people who failed to have additional (optional) mirrors fitted. Most were killed or injured at road junctions.

How many drivers are killed by cyclists in the United Kingdom every year? I hear you ask. I know of two cases in 2011.  Both were deadly cases of physical violence on the part of cyclists against motorists. I knew one of the victims.  His name was Tony Magdi.

You can see what I’m driving at.

People like me are pilloried twice over.  Once for being cyclists, out amongst the traffic, and then again for being – well, mad.  Sorry, that’s a technical term, I meant mentally ill.  That’s better…because we’re ill, aren’t we?  Infectious.  It runs in families, you can catch it by, by…..being a man born and raised in the United Kingdom of Afro – Caribbean descent.  Just check out the in – patient statistics for men diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia in hospitals here.

Or by being a gay man. Oh no, that’s an out – dated, discredited view…isn’t it?

But I digress. What’s all this about penguins?

The other night I was cycling home – lit up like a Christmas tree, I might add – when in the light of the headlamps of the car wheezing up the hill behind me I saw two King Penguins waddling along the pavement ahead of me.

A moment later I saw them for what they really were: litter bins. I smiled to myself as I passed the traffic island, and swung left to allow the car behind me to overtake.

We can all think we see things that turn out to be, well, rubbish.

We’re not all Stephen Fry or Spike Milligan.  Some of us – even the suicidally depressed among us – are just trying to stay alive.

Epithalamium

You’re beeswax and I’m bird shit
. I’m mostly harmless. You’re irrational.
If I’m iniquity then you’re theft.
One of us is supercalifragilistic.
If I’m the most insane disgusting filth
you’re hardly curiosa.
You’re bubble wrap to my fingertips.
You’re winter sleep and I’m the bee dance.
And I am menthol and you are eggshell.
When you’re atrocious I am Spellcheck.
You’re the yen. I’m the Nepalese pound.
If I’m homesteading you’re radical chic.
I’m carpet shock and you’re the rail.
I’m Memory Foam Day on Price-Drop TV
and you’re the Lord of Misrule who shrieks
when I surface in goggles through duckweed,
and I am Trafalgar, and you’re Waterloo, 
and frequently it seems to me that I am you,
and you are me. If I’m the rising incantation
you’re the charm, or I am, or you are.
Nick Laird (1975 – )
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