So, give it a go. Grab your 1940’s bathers, a brave friend and shake off that dog. But don’t, unlike me, forget to take off your bra. That goes for you too boys.
Wednesday, 11 October 2017
Having a particularly persistent dog of the black variety, one needs to find certain ways of taming it, of tiring it out, of making it lie still for JUST FIVE MINUTES PLEASE. My trick for taking out my very own anxious black dog- we’ll call her Beryl- is wild swimming. She loves it.
Beryl is hugely preoccupied with the future and absolutely horrendous at making decisions. She becomes completely overwhelmed, drowning in hypotheticals and flooded with panic. Really helpful for getting on in this thing called ‘life’, I hear you cry!
To remedy the bitch, I decided to try wild swimming. I had been working in the Lake District at the most beautiful theatre in the world, aptly named ‘Theatre by the Lake’… you see where I’m going with this. There is a lake. By the theatre. And was encouraged by some regular Wild Swimmers, of the brilliant women variety, to plunge in. And I haven’t looked back since.
Rushing into a body of water somewhere in the country, feeling the cold sensation take over, so that nothing else exists but you and being blooming freezing, is like nothing else on this earth. It is euphoric. So euphoric.
There is a huge sense of achievement in the fact that you’ve actually done it, you have brazenly walked into water that is not in possession of fluorescent lights or chlorine, maybe a spot of algae and a stray perch but not a woggle in sight, and you have SWAM. Or is it swum…
Scientists have proven (don’t ask me which ones but they have) that cold water swimming has an invaluable benefit to your mental health. And I can happily say I concur.
When the world seems too expensive, too expansive, too everything, there is nothing like plunging into freezing cold water and feeling the thoughts quieten with every stroke.
I hate to go philosophical on this, who am I kidding, I will happily paddle in philosophy for the cause, but it makes you feel small. Like there is something far bigger than yourself, which when you are crowded by thoughts and that pesky over anxious dog is jumping at your lap, (BERYL GET DOWN!), it is invaluable. To feel small, to feel a part of something and to be swept away in movement for however long you can stand it, is bliss. Utter bliss.
And for those of us with busy brains, we need to grab those moments of bliss and treasure them. Because let’s face it, dogs like Beryl are KNACKERING, so to be able to knacker HER out for once, feels a bit like you’re in charge again. And from that tiny feeling of being in charge can come relief and release and a little bit of peace.
However, there are hazards to wild swimming. And no, I’m not talking about pneumonia, a big towel and a cuppa afterwards will stave that off. What I’m talking about may only apply to me… On my last outing, into the Brighton sea no less, in my enthusiasm to give Beryl the slip, I ran (not dissimilar to the Hoff in Baywatch) into the surf, splashed about and then, after twenty minutes, gracefully exited the sea. After looking out to the ocean and surveying my conquest, I thought it best to wrap up warm and get changed.
It was then I looked down. In my haste and enthusiasm for the cause, I’d forgotten to take my bra off and my poor Bravissimo cups looked like Medusa’s babies, overflowing with seaweed and weighed down with pebbles. A lesson to us all.
So, give it a go. Grab your 1940’s bathers, a brave friend and shake off that dog. But don’t, unlike me, forget to take off your bra. That goes for you too boys.
Wednesday, 14 December 2016
Forgive the dramatic heading but I think it's one that most of us can relate to in some degree!
Before I start, I just want to say a huge thank you to the inspirational movement #itaffectsme, the incredible charity 'Mind' and the brave documentary 'Suicide and Me' by Professor Green for making me see that opening up and sharing advice can do so much good and provide encouragement and support to people who feel alone.
I have seriously thought about describing my battle with anxiety, OCD and depression for a long time but until recently I had been too scared to share my story. Too frightened and concerned with other people's opinions of me. The fact is who the hell wants to talk about mental health? I often find myself whispering about it like its some horrible secret or telling people that 'I'm fine' when the truth is I'm terrified.
Thankfully, the stigma surrounding mental health is being slowly broken down but, at the end of the day, the biggest killer in the UK for men under the age of 45 is suicide. In the 6000+ British lives lost to suicide each year 75% are men. This alarming statistic is frightening and I want to share with you my experiences of it in the hope of encouraging other men and women to talk too. Please know that this blog is absolutely not a self indulgent cry for attention nor is it simply a negative, cynical moan and a whinge about how unfair life is. If it ever comes across that way I can only apologise wholeheartedly!
So, I have dealt with anxiety and OCD for the best part of fifteen years but depression has only affected me for about four years now on and off. Lately, I have been fighting my way through a particularly tough time with it. However, on the upside, the feeling of desperation and loneliness it has caused has become the catalyst to write it down, get it off my chest and try and do something positive with it and reach out. Even if it just helps to reassure others that they're not the only ones who are feeling like this too.
The worst thing about mental illness is that it makes me feel totally alone. Even when I am with my friends and family I still feel isolated. I can't wait to get away from everyone and be by myself because I am constantly questioning and judging my every action, my every word and my every thought under the microscope. I set myself an impossible moral code to live by and I am terrified of making mistakes or causing any hurt to anyone. My mind literally feels like a battleground and the noise is so great that I can't listen to people properly and I can't concentrate on what they're saying.
I then feel worse and beat myself up for not giving the people talking to me the attention they deserve. I start to form compulsions to cope with the never ending barrage of intrusive thoughts and self criticism. I then further panic that people are starting to notice these obscure ticks I have created as a coping strategy and I lose my confidence. I can't look at people in the eye. I am so full of tension (the physical pain in my neck and shoulders is intense) and I can't breathe properly. I am hyperventilating and panicking and feel like I am literally just shutting down. I start to withdraw from everyone around me. Even those I love the most. Finally, when I've gotten home and I can be by myself and scrutinise my behaviour and thoughts, I feel even more lonely and I miss those people like crazy.
As the anxiety worsens the depression creeps in. An overwhelming and deep sadness that I just cannot shift or shake off. It makes me feel completely helpless and worthless. I avoid people and situations and I lose interest in most activities. Even the things I love to do.
I start to feel like I don't belong anywhere. That I am merely existing. Nothing feels very real. And as I stand there in front of the mirror I see a frightened boy. No self esteem, no confidence. Just this emptiness and defeat. I feel a dark shadow creep down from my head and through my neck and my shoulders and into my body and through the tears I shout at myself I hate you, I fucking hate you.....
So.......haha! HASHTAG AWKWARD!! Now that's me at my very worst and thankfully it is rare that it gets to that state of despair but the last six months have created some truly horrendous experiences and to gloss over them would defeat the point of this blog.
However, it is not all doom and gloom! I want this to be a space where I can share my thoughts and find some constructive and ultimately positive ways to combat what is a highly destructive and prevalent disorder.
As I said earlier, I have had anxiety for the best part of my life. I can remember as early as 7 becoming very panicked about getting ill or something happening to my family when I was at school. I vividly remember crying in the corridor and pleading with my Mum not to leave me. This episode reached its peak when I eventually managed to convince myself I might have appendicitis and ended up staying overnight in hospital even though I just had a bad stomach!
This initial episode of anxiety only lasted my first term in Junior school and even though it was very distressing at the time I very quickly got over it after my hospital visit and anxiety didn't rear its ugly head again until I was 13.
This time the anxiety disorder manifested itself as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or to be more exact 'Pure O'. I'm not too sure about this label though because even though the sufferer doesn't perform any clear physical rituals they still carry out mental compulsions to provide short term relief from their obsessive thoughts. The very nature of Pure O attacks your most important and moralistic beliefs. The thoughts are usually very shocking or violent and the feelings or sensations that accompany the thoughts have literally paralysed me at times to the point that I can't breathe or even move. I think the panic is that if I allow the feeling then that is somehow tantamount to the action that I despise.
I am now 29 and my OCD has taken a variety of themes over the last 15 years but at the core has always been intrusive thoughts. Now I could go into more detail about the panic attacks and the feeling of sheer dread but ultimately I have found that reliving the past is not beneficial for anyone. Sure, it is helpful to learn about the condition, about what makes me susceptible to it and the various spikes or triggers that created the vicious cycle but it isn't going to enable me or anyone else to defeat it.
So, what solutions can we find to help us through these dark times and what can we start to look forward to in the future....
Firstly, it is clear that people with anxiety disorders possess wonderful imaginations, creative intellect and a huge emotional capacity. As an actor myself, I have always found it easy to naturally engage in my feelings and emotions. When applying this to my craft it is brilliant but when I become bored and the anxiety disorder creeps back into my life it can become very destructive. I need to, therefore, learn how to discipline my emotions and to know when it is helpful to engage and when it really isn't helpful at all!
Here are my 3 absolutes that I have learnt so far:
1. Control - Illusion
2. Fear (False Evidence Appearing Real) - Illusion
3. Choice - Real
Some of the activities I have found useful are:
- Running! I cannot recommend this enough. It has helped me to differentiate between serious pain and what is just simply pain. When I'm running many times my mind will tell me that I'm hurting or to stop but the goal of finishing the race or achieving a PB is too strong and I find the mental toughness to carry on. As the awesome orator Eric Thomas said 'At the end of your feelings is nothing. But at the end of every principle is a promise.' I have ran a couple of half marathons in the last year for Mind charity too and knowing what the donations raised were going towards was really inspiriting. Also the endorphins are highly infectious!
- Boxing! I have recently restarted going to Total Boxer Gym. The craft actively engages your mind in the present and it very clearly physicalises the mental battle you are going through. It is also really fun to workout in a group and support and encourage others when they are really being pushed. Again, it is a brilliant release of endorphins.
- Headspace! This app on my phone is fantastic. Only ten minutes a day and it really helps you to engage in the present.
- To stop reliving bad episodes of anxiety. I have a tendency to to be my own worst enemy and replay moments in my life when I could have acted better over and over again.
- Not accommodating your anxiety. Anxiety is not determined by Geography.
- Taking responsibility. I am very blessed with two unbelievably patient and caring parents who listen to my problems and offer sound advice but sometimes I need to learn to take on the responsibility of getting better myself because although daunting at first it is empowering in the end.
- Counselling and therapy. I personally found the service that 'Mind' provides to be extremely helpful. Talking to someone impartial who has no preconceptions of who you are is very liberating.
- To have the courage to be open about how you're feeling will lead you to meet others who understand and have experienced mental illness too whether it be personally or they have provided support to others in the past. As my best mate said the other day "You know Sam, it's like that advert 'It's good to talk'."
- Setting yourself goals and being patient and kind to yourself. Resist the temptation to scrutinise your behaviour and beat yourself up. Everyone makes mistakes so change your negative inner dialogue with positive affirmations. For example if you have a fear of drowning then swimming out of your depth is probably very frightening. This fear could grow until you can't even talk about swimming or water without feeling a sense of panic. An ignorant person would tell you "What are you worrying about. Just jump in and you'll be fine." But instead one day you might decide 'I'm going to go to the leisure centre and sit by the pool.' Then a week later you might decide 'I'm going to swim in the shallow end.' Eventually after being patient and celebrating these huge achievements you will swim in the deep end again. Celebrate your achievements however small they may seem. You're great and you need to tell yourself that and believe it!
- Simple acts of kindness and gratitude to others.
If you have managed to make it this far thank you so much for taking your time to read what I wanted to share with you. This year has been one of immense highs and lows. Lately, it has been very low and turbulent but by still having faith in myself, counting my blessings and having the incredible support of my family and friends I am looking forward to 2017, improving my self belief and acquiring peace of mind. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas full of love and light and remember that you are never alone! Talk, talk, talk!!
Happy Christmas and here's to an awesome 2017!!
Saturday, 22 October 2016
‘There is no way of saying this; your life must be hell on earth…’
That was the first line of the results for a ‘Custom Anxiety Profile’ I did online.
Friggin hell, what a way to make someone have an anxiety attack about anxiety! I came across Rachel Ramos’ site recoveryformula.com during my research for my solo show SURPRISE! about Anxiety and was curious to know how a computer could ‘measure’ my levels.
For those that don't know me, I do have Anxiety and my life isn’t hell on earth. I’ve seen a therapist since I was 17 and it’s mostly manageable. However, to summarise it on paper as almost a school report (I asked my therapist to help with this and she reluctantly agreed!) it would probably be written as:
‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder with sub types of Social, Anticipation and Death anxiety.’
And now you’re possibly wondering, like Rachel Ramos, how I live my life - what with the fear of big social situations, the general unknown and, of course, dying? And I manage just fine, some of the time.
My therapist and I are working through the potential ‘triggers’ of my anxiety and these can manifest in many ways. Often hilarious and daft - like fear of projectile vomiting in social situations - and other times they can be pretty sad and painful.
However, I wouldn’t say my life is hell on earth. I have brilliant family and friends around me who love me; I have a good home and (some) money in my bank; I have passions and interests; and most importantly the love for Jeff Goldblum and Meridan Peanut Butter.
But then there are times when I feel awful and often end up having a panic attack for one reason or another (social situations, the fear of making the wrong decision). These are the times when I’ve wanted to be able to understand why I am the way I am, why my mind/brain does what it does and if I’ll always be this way.
How can I live my life more fully when I often feel half the person I really am?
I’ve always been interested in Mental Health and Mental Illness and I’ve been able to talk about it openly. As we know, the dialogue within society about Mental Health has been incredibly prevalent over the last 5 years, which is brilliant. Now this generally will cover the two biggies of Depression and OCD as the most common, although Anxiety as a subject and even just word is often thrown around a lot. What I have come to realise is that for both OCD and Depression, there are relatively clear cut levels of recommended management (I’m in no way saying these 100% work - but medical professionals have the go-to first steps to try this out).
Bit of an overview for those not in the know: For OCD there is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) where the patient is taught how to retrain their brain. Their structures of thinking are looked at in a mechanical cognitive way so they have tips and advice on how to implement this next time they become obsessive. For Depression, as well as therapies, you are also often given medication - usually SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake) to re-balance the chemicals in your brain. For Anxiety though there isn’t a clear cut first route. How can medical professionals try to cure what is often seen as just extreme levels of worrying?
When you’re having a consultation for CBT you’re emailed a Core Form which basically measures your mental health within a numbers range. As you can imagine, this was something I struggled to do for my Anxieties.
‘Well, today I feel a Level 4 about wetting myself in public but a Level 7 about thinking that everyone around me is going to die’
(FYI, these are totally true, especially the latter as an example of the Death anxiety I experience. If we have plans to meet up, and you’re more than 10 minutes late, I’ve already assumed your dead, grieved for you and planning how I’ll live life now you’re gone.)
During my research I literally Googled ‘What is Anxiety?’ and, in short, one hundred and six million pages are there to tell you their version. It is so general and unclear, and there are so many explanations that when I first began to research this I got so overwhelmed I had to have a lie down.
First of all, there are many sub types of Anxiety and most of the websites on the first two pages of my Google search would announce ‘These are the most common types’. They would generally range from:
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Post traumatic stress Disorder
And extras include:
- Death anxiety
- Anticipation anxiety
- Panic disorder with agoraphobia
- Panic disorder without agoraphobia
- Agoraphobia without a history of panic disorders
- Specific phobia
- Acute stress disorder
- Anxiety disorder due to a general medical disorder
- Substance induced anxiety disorder
- Anxiety disorder not otherwise specified
Also don’t forget I’m Jewish and apparently we invented Anxiety so I’m going to throw in ‘Third Generation Holocaust Disorder’ for good measure.
Now, let’s do a test.
So let’s take Generalised Anxiety Disorder as an example. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM for short) is the standard classification of mental disorders and offers a common language and criteria for mental health professionals. Their definition of Generalised Anxiety Disorder comes in 5 points. Make a note if you have ever felt the following:
- edgyness or restlessness
- tiring more easily
- impaired concentration or feeling as though the mind goes blank
- irritability (which may or may not be observable by others)
- increased muscle aches or soreness
- difficult sleeping (due to trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, restless at night or unsatisfying sleep.
Really general right? Now read over these again, but I want you to take into consideration the world we live in at the moment: Brexit, the refugee crisis, soaring house prices and Theresa May as our PM.
Would you now say that most, if not all, feel pretty relevant right now?
Speaking to a psychologist last week with regards to the Research and Development of my show he explained that there is an ongoing struggle to understand Anxiety. The dominant thinking is to understand it as a Disease i.e. comparable to physical disease in that it can be modified by using medication, has identifiable causes and pattern of difficulties, but there is no clear cause of sequence with Anxiety; it doesn’t respond to medical intervention well (the drugs have side effects and are not useful) as unlike Depression, it isn’t down to a chemical imbalance.
It’s causes are often to do with events in the world that threaten danger so are understandable. Also, it is generally linked to the relationship to the Amygdala which is the ‘Fight’ or ‘Flight’ mode in our brain - the part that decides whether we should press the PANIC button.
So…perhaps there is a need for an alternative way of thinking about Anxiety?
It is so complex and general and so often experienced and manifested in hundreds of different forms, does it all just come down to personal, everyday suffering on a variety of different levels? If Anxiety in its basic form is just ‘worry about the world’ then how would we be without it?
Is it just another way of saying that we’re just not coping?
Also, if we were able to fully define it as clearly as that, find an actual cure, would everyone just go around not caring about anything?
Wikipedia’s Definition of Anxiety is 'a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.’
Isn’t that just life?
Monday, 19 September 2016
I have spent a large portion of my life being anxious.
When I was a child, I would get worried sick when my father was late coming home from work or my mother didn’t pick up her phone when I called her more than once.
As I grew older, my worries became more centred around who I was and what I could achieve: Was I good enough? Could I achieve all the things that I wanted to? No matter how many times I would ace an exam, I just couldn’t seem to shake these feelings (amongst others…).
Throughout my undergraduate and master’s degrees, I remained convinced that I was the worst person in my class and that someone would finally realise that having me in the course was a mistake, an oversight: How had they confused my application with the other one from that other student? How was I even in this university? I would get so worried about exams and my performance that I would lose all perspective and forget all the wonderful things that were going on around me.
A few years ago, I started having anxiety attacks: the thought of travelling by underground (which I had to do every day) or plane would fill me with terror. For a year, my bag was packed with natural herbs to help me relax and my Spotify was filled with playlists that would help to focus on my breathing. More than once, when hyperventilating on a train stuck between two stations, I was forced to blurt out to the person sitting next to me: “I am so sorry, would you mind having a conversation with me? I am having an anxiety attack and need to be distracted.”
I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a very open family where I was encouraged to speak very frankly about my fears and anxiety. My mother is a psychotherapist and the result was that I got the support that I needed, both within my family and outside it. My anxiety was not clinical (i.e., I did not need drugs) and I have been able to live a normal life with it — a lot of people do. However, having someone to talk to about how uncomfortable it felt, and as a result of that, learning exercises and tricks to deal with my anxiety, which has hugely improved my quality of life.
I would be lying if I said that I am now completely careless and worry-free, but I can definitely say that I am now able to recognise and (sometimes) refrain from going down a spiral of negative thinking. Most importantly, underground and plane travel are now a completely fine experience during which I no longer have to focus on my breathing and spot the one person in the carriage who is most likely to help me if I drop on the floor and stop breathing (which, by the way, has never happened…).
However, getting support was not always easy. As I started working intense hours, it became harder and harder to stick to my psychotherapy sessions.
For starters, they were expensive. Given that I was choosing to do this and that it wasn’t prescribed by a GP, I had to pay out of pocket, which is a hard thing to do when you are a young professional trying to cover rent and stay afloat in London. Secondly, I often found it difficult to find time between my long hours at work and my daily commute. Lastly, I felt embarrassed; beyond my close circle of friends, I didn’t want to tell people that I was anxious. What would they think?
As I navigated my way through these issues and anxiety in general, I learned that I was not alone. So many people around me opened up about their anxiety attacks once I opened up about mine, and I learned that the feeling of “being in the wrong place” was a common one (impostor syndrome anyone?).
However, I was an exception in terms of the help that I had received. While I managed to overcome the hurdles to get help, many people were not able to get around the time, money and stigma elements that separate us from our mental well-being.
The belief that there should be a way to jump these hoops is what motivated me to start YourMind, a place where people with non-clinical anxiety and depression can get cheap help, both in the form of therapy sessions and in the form of exercises and tools.
If you are interested in hearing more about this, please feel free to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message in the comment section below.
Thursday, 2 June 2016
Last April I climbed up onto the roof of my house and threw myself off into a greenhouse fracturing my spine in five places and breaking my ribs. Four days earlier I had my baby daughter, Oona, two months prematurely. I now know that I was suffering from a rare mental illness called post-partum psychosis. It hits one in a thousand women and makes you lose all judgement. I'm one of the lucky ones. Other women have lost their lives or killed their children during an episode. I had no history of mental health problems. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Or a greenhouse.
I was able to discharge myself from hospital before my episode despite showing signs of psychosis. I'd stalked the corridors in the post natal ward shouting "I'm psychotic." An overworked and tired looking doctor saw me and told me I needed sleep. The nurses lost my notes on the day I left hospital. By the Saturday when the incident happened I hadn't slept in four days. I slipped through the net. I'm not planning on sueing the hospital, I don't hold a grudge against the staff, but I do have personal experience of the mental health system and I've seen first hand how appallingly over stretched the staff are.
There are things about the incident that I can now laugh at: the fact that the old peoples' home whose greenhouse I destroyed were having a fete that day, that I was bare chested, that I brandished a garden fork and leapt over a barb wired fence like a banshee. But at the time, and for many months after, I was living in a nightmare.
After spending a week and a half on a trauma ward I was sent home (I wasn't ready) and looked after under the care of the home team (woefully inconsistent) and my amazing friends and family. I couldn't even say the word psychosis. I certainly wasn't facing up to what had happened. A week later I was back in hospital, having had another episode, albeit less dramatic than the first. I was sent to a women only psychiatric unit and I was scared. I had more episodes. I wet the bed. I thought the staff were making a documentary about my life, I thought my sub conscious was telling me what to do. All of my own deep seated predudices about mental health patients came out. I remember, during one of my episodes, shouting at the other patients that they were all mad (I was probably the most acute case on the ward and in fact the other women were there for different reasons: domestic violence, anxiety, OCD.)
The staff tried their best but never had any time to really talk to me about my fears. I only had one session with a mental health nurse. However, by the time I left the ward, I'd realised that I too had mental health problems, I'd ventured out to the day room, I'd sung with the other women on the ward, danced with the patients and, by the end of my time there, I felt a real sense of cameraderee and, dare I say it, sisterhood. I was also grateful that throughout my time there I'd been allowed to continue visiting my daughter in the premature ward.
After my week and a half on the psychiatric unit, I was admitted to a Mother and Baby unit-I was lucky. If I'd been living in Belfast where my mum lives or Stroud where my dad is, there would be no provision for me. If you suffer from post partum psychosis in Northern Ireland or Gloucester, you are on your own. I was recovering well and making the most of the occupational therapy (art, gardening, cooking) as well as the talking therapy that was provided and invaluable. All the time I was visiting my darling daughter on the premature ward.
Oona joined me two weeks later and, in what seemed like a sick joke, the depression that often follows post partum psychosis, kicked in the following day and knocked me sideways. It was harder to deal with than the psychosis, because it was me, but an empty shell of who I am. I couldn't hold my daughter, I couldn't smile, I couldn't sleep. I was anxious all the time. It took weeks for the meds to kick in and they were the longest weeks of my life. In the end a little book on Mindfulness that my husband gave me rescued me. One anxious morning I decided to fold some clothes mindfully and the process brought me down from my anxiety and allowed a relationship with Oona to start to flourish again.
I had two months in the Mother and Baby unit before being allowed home with Oona. On getting home, it felt like my recovery had only just begun-I felt very isolated having not met any mums during NCT, and I felt like my story was so different and would put off other mums. Children's centres were a lifeline for me and I was lucky that my husband was around to share the load (I'm devastated for other mums that so many children's centres are now being closed thanks to our current thoughtless government) Slowly I began to make a few friends, some of whom I've told my story to and whom I'm extremely grateful to. The more I talked, the more people came out of the woodwork with their own stories of battles with mental health problems. I was lucky to be referred to a mindfulness course and a group for other women who were struggling with motherhood. We regularly meet up and have become firm friends.
Nearly a year later, I only just feel like I've recovered from the trauma of what happened. My relationship with Oona was affected by the depression and it's taken me a long time to accept that I don't feel the love flowing all of the time but that's ok. On a good day, I feel like what happened to me was a gift. It's made me appreciate the moment much more, it's made me love and appreciate my family more deeply, empathise with others who have had mental health problems, and the meditation I now do has brought a peacefulness to my life that I didn't have before. Ultimately, it's taught me that the most important thing in life is love.
Tuesday, 31 May 2016
I have had mental health issues throughout my life. I was diagnosed with OCD as a child, an eating disorder during my teens and battled anxiety. I began taking antidepressants at fifteen years old and have now been on them for 12 years. I never felt as though I was affected that much by my problems, I simply lived around them.
When I became a parent I took to it like a duck to water, despite having a horrendous pregnancy and labour. I felt as though I was going somewhere, then everything changed.
Upon moving areas and doctors surgeries I was falsely diagnosed as having a heart condition known as long QT interval. My new GP believed that my antidepressants were causing the problem and took me off them cold turkey... after 10 years of being on them non stop at that time. The withdrawals started after 3 days and within a week I had to be put back on them. The only way I can describe it is that when you see people having heroin withdrawals on films... it looks quite mild compared to antidepressant withdrawals.
After a few weeks of messing about with the dosage my GP then changed my antidepressants over to a different kind. The first few months were hell. My mum had to retire early as she had to care for both me and my son, who was two at the time. A huge rift was caused in my relationship with my mother as she loved her career with the NHS and lost the majority of her pension after retiring early. She now lives on less that I received in benefits.
A year later I had another ECG and was diagnosed with long QT interval again. My new antidepressants were reduced to half of the lowest therapeutic dose and I experienced unpleasant withdrawals but nowhere near as bad as it was going cold turkey. I saw a Cardiologist a few months later who informed me that both ECG'S were read wrong by two doctors at my GP surgery. There was nothing wrong with my heart and if they bothered to fax my results to the Cardiologist he would have told them on the same day that there was nothing to worry about.
A month later I became unwell. I had flu, tonsillitis and a chest infection all at once. I was given antibiotics I'd never taken before and almost overnight I changed.
I became paranoid, delusional and suddenly had OCD, although it was different compared to when I was a child.
After a few months I became suicidal and was referred to the home crisis team. My antidepressant dosage was increased which got rid of the paranoia but the OCD remained as strong as ever. They increased it again... still no change.
Eventually my mum couldn't cope and threw me out whilst keeping my son with her. I spent a few days as a voluntary inpatient but was discharged after seeing a psychiatrist. I was homeless for 3 months with very little support from various organisations. There was simply no resources.
At my worst I parked up and wrote a letter to whoever would find me. When it got to the point where I wrote about my son I cracked and drove myself to the mental health ward. I took the letter and told them I needed help. The nurse looked at my letter for one second and then said "Don't go making threats, if you were going to kill yourself you would have done it already." She sent me away with some sheets on depression and I then returned to my secluded spot in the car and slit my wrist.
The only reason that I'm still alive is that the cheap razor blade snapped and got lodged in my wrist. The pain was so intense that it brought me to my senses. I had a panic attack, screamed, swore and cried then took the blade out of my wrist. I bled all over my jeans but I knew I hadn't hit an artery so I tied up my wrist with some old wet wipes, sat there for a while before changing my jeans and buying some bandages.
I was referred to a DBT group ran by my local mental health team 6 months later but I have trouble attending. I've lost all faith in the mental health service and believe that the only person I can rely on is myself.
In my experience over years of problems there is barely any help available on the NHS. In my borough there is just one Psychologist available with a 2 year waiting list for CBT. During that time most patients will have either deteriorated and taken matters in to their own hands.
I have learned that mental health is like a black hole that is easy to get sucked into but very hard to get out of, especially on your own. The only way I manage to cope on a daily basis is by trying to see the bigger picture, rather than focusing on the here and now.
I think of my son, he is my main focus for getting better. I don't know if I will ever be "normal" but I know that I have to try, for him. Not many people will feel as though they have a reason to get better, as sometimes it is so hard to see beyond it. But we have to try. Never stop trying.
Saturday, 7 May 2016
It was always my greatest hope that my first real written account of my mental health journey, would be one full of hope and encouragement for those newly or currently suffering. Like many of us who have struggled with mental health issues, if I could choose to gain only one thing from my experience, it would be to help just one person and offer them a refuge. A sanctuary. A tribe. A big, bold rallying cry of "Me tooooooooo!!!" until they no longer felt alone or ashamed. To reassure them that no, they are not crazy and yes, the sun will shine again and that there's nothing that they could do or tell me that would make me judge them in any way. My illnesses have made me think, say and do some pretty extreme things over the years so I will not think you're weird, just that you're hurting and afraid. And are tired. Oh so tired.
Whilst I'm pretty open about my mental health issues, I don't think I've ever written my diagnoses down in one go, so *deep breath* here goes: since suffering a breakdown in 2008, I have been diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalised anxiety disorder. I have endured panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and self-harm. I also experience social anxiety and have traits of borderline personality disorder as a result of living for years with unresolved trauma. So as you can imagine, sometimes it gets messy. I've been hospitalised and made attempts on my life. I've also experienced euphoria and the overwhelming agitation that resides at the other end of the spectrum.
But what that doesn't tell you is that I'm also a well-meaning vegetarian with a penchant for Alan Partridge, Tolkien and old skool jungle. It may be my mental health "CV" that shouts the loudest, but I am also a devoted mother, partner, sister and friend. I trained and worked as an actress and am now the slightly frazzled person you'll see tearing up the road on the school run (time-keeping has never been my forte!) before agonising over which ready meal/duvet set/pair of pants to buy (decision-making also not a strength!) and then rushing home to belt out Les Mis, at full volume. At times I am over-whelmed by my diagnoses but with patience, professional help and A LOT of support from friends and family, I am able to find my way back to me and feel happy, once again, to be alive.
To anyone who is suffering and needs to hear this right now, I am so sorry this is happening to you. It is horrendous and unfair. You are not weak, or deeply flawed, you are UNWELL. It is beyond your control, you did not choose it or encourage it but rather you have been worn down by the weeks, months maybe years of trying to fight off a cruel and relentless illness. But I promise you that there will come a day when you will slowly start to feel that vice like grip around your chest begin to fade. That twenty tonne weight you are dragging around with you will gradually begin to dissolve and your mind will stop punishing you, 24/7. One day, you will be able to sleep soundly again. I promise.
Take each day, minute by minute, hour by hour and if something feels too much, do not beat yourself up. Lower the expectations you place on yourself and be as kind to you as you would be to a friend. Try to count your victories, no matter how small. There are days when just brushing your teeth is a massive achievement. And as much as you can, reach out to others, particularly those with shared experience. That was one of the greatest helps for me. Lean on those who offer to carry you, you would do the same for them, if you could.
It will not be without setbacks. I'm writing this feeling pretty floored by a recent nasty bipolar episode, having had almost a year of relative "stability" for me. So I'm angry at my brain and feeling exhausted from the gauntlet my mood has just run. But I know I need to try to remember how far I'd come in the months before this wobble and, too, need to hear my own message of hope:
"You've been here before and recovered with time. You can do it again."
It's always so easy to say that to other people but the hard part is believing it yourself. I'm trying to learn the art of self-compassion (any tips would be gratefully received!) and release myself of the guilt I feel about the 'burden' I place on everyone else. My amazing mum recently said to me, "If you think this is hard living with you, I couldn't go on, living without you. I do it because I love you." I know I feel unworthy of this love and ultimately need to work on loving myself. And on that note, if it's an option, get yourself into therapy. It can be tough-going but will arm you with coping skills you may one day need.
So it's time for me to put my money where my mouth is and reach out to this wonderful community, that is growing day by day. If we can reach out to each other, we can use our collective voice to shatter the stigma and obliterate the shame.
With love and understanding ...
"Me too. Me too".