So I Wrote A Thing For World Mental Health Day

(Trigger warning for self harm.)

Today is World Mental Health Day.

If I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to say. I’m in the middle of the worst depression I’ve ever experienced and I’m very aware that my perspective, my opinions, my hopes are distorted by that. If this was a video, I might just sit and cry. But this day is important so I’m trying to pull myself together and put something out into the world that is (hopefully) positive (and maybe helpful).

This year’s theme is the mental health of young people. When it comes to things like this, I’ve never felt comfortable talking about anyone’s experience but my own. So that’s what I’m going to do. I hope that’s okay with you guys.

My experience at secondary school was a very mixed one. I spent the first three years dealing with some complicated health problems but by the time I reached Years 10 and 11 (ages fifteen and sixteen for those of you who don’t know the education system in England), I felt really settled. I loved learning, particularly English, Maths, History, Psychology, and Philosophy (real shout out to my teachers in all of those subjects). I got real satisfaction from working hard and that was reflected in my grades. I came out of secondary school with not unimpressive grades, especially when you consider I missed most of the first three years. So I felt pretty good about going into Sixth Form (A Levels/ages seventeen and eighteen).

But that was when it all started to unravel. I really, really struggled. I’d gone from completing the work with ease to barely scraping by. I couldn’t understand it: I was trying so hard and it didn’t seem to make any difference. And I couldn’t see it at the time, but my anxiety was getting worse and worse and what I now know to be depression was creeping in. But I didn’t know it was happening so I just kept pushing forwards. I spoke to a couple of people about the high anxiety I was experiencing but each one told me that anxiety is normal and that was the end of the conversation.

It all came to a head when I failed an exam, something that had never happened before. I’d been told I was all set for an A* and I came out with a U. I was absolutely devastated. I know now that our worth as human beings has nothing to do with grades but I was eighteen years old: I had only ever been valued based on my grades. It’s no one person’s fault but that’s how the education system in this country works. It needs changing.

But back to this little story. I don’t remember much after I opened the envelope and saw that U but I ended up in one of the less used college toilets, self harming repeatedly with a broken paperclip. I don’t know how long I was there (long enough that the automatic lights went off and I was plunged into a very appropriate darkness) but at some point, my friends tracked me down and coaxed me out of the stall. I still remember seeing my reflection: my make up all down my face, my hands shaking, and the scratches barely hidden by my long sleeves. One friend took me to a nearby café, bought me a hot chocolate, and just talked to me. And eventually I told her what I’d done. Her kindness and gentleness was so healing, not for the whole problem but for that very difficult day. I will never forget it and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay it.

After that, I dropped out of that course and clawed my way out with two A Levels and an Extended Project, far less than I and everyone had expected of me. I went straight into a music course but had to drop out two days in because my anxiety was so bad that I just couldn’t cope. I spent a year grappling with the anxiety and depression, trying the first of many antidepressants (so many) and trying to retake some of the exams in the hope that I could improve my A Levels (I didn’t end up opening the results of those until after I finished my degree, three years later, but that’s another story). During that year, I tried desperately to get help from the NHS to no avail: my anxiety was so bad that talking to people I didn’t know was practically impossible and they refused to help me if I wouldn’t talk. Eventually we were forced to go private, something that I’m endlessly, endlessly grateful has been possible. And I only managed to get my diagnoses when my university said they weren’t able to help me if I didn’t have an official diagnosis.

It still upsets me to talk about. I asked and asked and asked for help but no one either seemed able or willing to help me. I would not be as twisted up now had that not been the case. The information and support was not available to me, it wasn’t available to my family, and it wasn’t available or deemed important enough (I’m not sure which is worse) to the medical professionals I saw. That has to change. It is not acceptable.

Now that I’ve told my story, I want to include some other important, relevant stuff.

The first thing is that I want to link you to Hannah Jane Parkinson’s recent article in The Guardian. She makes the very important distinction between mental health and mental illness. And this is where, I think, physical health and mental health are most comparable: your mental health is something you take care of (or don’t) everyday, by eating and sleeping well, exercising, talking through your emotions, and so on. Mental illnesses, similarly to physical illnesses, can be caused by not taking care of your mental health but there can also be genetic factors, environmental factors, and just hard stuff going on in your life.

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Talk – Talk through your feelings with someone you trust.
  • Keep a journal – This way you can air your thoughts and feelings in private.
  • Keep in contact with friends – It’s really easy to get busy and fall out of touch but spending time with people you love and feeling connected to other people is so important.
  • Exercise – This doesn’t mean every or any kind of exercise will help. On a personal level some types of exercise can potentially hurt your mental health. You just need to find the one that does help and then it will really help. I always recommend swimming because it’s non-weightbearing and therefore causes less strain on your body when you’re potentially already struggling with physical symptoms, like fatigue.
  • Eat well/drink sensibly – Everything we put into our bodies affects our minds.
  • Be mindful of your commitments – Yes, social interaction can be really helpful but if you’re taking on too much, it will take more from you than it gives you. And then you won’t be able to cope as well with whatever else is thrown at you.
  • Ask for help if you start to feel mentally and emotionally overwhelmed – Fortunately it’s starting to become easier to access support and counselling but even if it’s a struggle, it is a struggle worth going through.
  • Spend time with animals – It’s scientifically proven that being with animals is good for your health!

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS:

  • Work with a medical professional/therapist that respects and understands what you’re struggling with – Finding one can be the mission of a lifetime but having that presence in your life whose sole purpose is to help you through your struggles is incredible.
  • Medication – If you’re prescribed medication, take it diligently.
  • Try to keep track of your triggers – Knowing what they are doesn’t always prevent them from sending you into a complete spiral but even one spiral avoided is progress.
  • Create a support system – This isn’t something you can necessarily do without help but, over time and with the help of people who care about you, building a circle of trusted people who will support you through whatever it is you’re going through is so special and helpful.
  • Take time off if you need it – This is one I think we all struggle with. It’s a learning curve for a lot of us but it is important and can prevent small problems from becoming big problems.
  • Find a stress reliever – Whether it’s reading, or watching every episode of your favourite TV show, or doing something artsy like watercolouring, taking a break from all the stuff in your head is well worth doing.
  • Create a safe space for yourself – Living with a mental illness is exhausting and so having somewhere where you can just exist without thinking or masking is so important.

And of course, there is overlap between these two lists.

Where we go from here, I’m not sure. The information about mental health and mental illness is spreading and spreading and more and more people are speaking up. Now we need the right systems to support it: doctors, treatment, government officials who advocate for positive change. For now, that’s all I know. For now, I’m just trying to manage one day at a time.

(And a gentle reminder, my debut single, ‘Invisible,’ which I wrote about my experiences with my mental health is available on iTunes and Spotify and all those places and all proceeds go to Young Minds, a charity that supports young people in their mental health.)

When Things Get Really Bad

Since I last posted on here, literally all I’ve done is survive.

After putting up last week’s post, I went to therapy, which just about wrecked me. It was really hard going. I don’t want to get too into what we talked about and what I’m currently struggling with because I’m really struggling with it and I’m still figuring out how to put all of it into words. But I think the gist of it is important to include: I’m struggling with ‘feeling’ autistic, like I’m never going to be able to function the same way as everyone else. I don’t know how to cope with a thought like that. And that has really triggered my depression, in a massive way. I feel like I say this every time, but it feels like the worst place I’ve ever been; but maybe I say it every time because each time takes more out of me.

It looks so small and simple when I write it out like that. But in reality it’s powerful enough to overwhelm everything.

I left therapy feeling absolutely drained. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day, get through the week to the next session. But somehow I did, one minute at a time. This week has been about survival because sometimes that’s all you can manage – I feel like I’m standing on the very edge of the black hole that is my depression and it’s taking all of my focus to not get pulled in. So while I feel like I’ve achieved nothing, I’ve actually achieved everything. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself.

So I thought I’d write down what I do when I’m in this place, where the only thing I can do is survive:

Each day, I get up at seven and go to the gym to swim for thirty minutes. I always want to do more but through trial and error (usually error), I’ve found that this is the amount I can do and still kind of function. If I push on, I end up falling asleep during the day and screwing up my sleeping pattern or I end up in a place where everything makes me cry. So I’m trying to be sensible and build it up slowly.

I get home and head for the living room. I curl up on the sofa, turn on the TV and continue the rewatch of whatever TV show I’m watching (currently The Mentalist). I’m not really watching; it’s more about having familiar, comforting background noise so that the scary thoughts can’t get in. Then I find something that will distract me from all the overwhelmingly difficult things. The activities that work best for me are playing piano and printing, cutting, and sticking pictures from Tumblr into notebooks. And sometimes reading a book works, if I have the concentration to actually read.

And I use those things to get me through the day. I spend time with the animals in my house. I’m lucky enough to have a Mum who works from home so that I can have someone with me when I need to have someone with me. I try to eat well.

And then I go to bed not too late and start all over again.

It’s a hard thing to get my head around and I’m aware that I’m very hard on myself. Because even though I genuinely believe that sometimes all you can do is survive, I find myself getting desperately upset that I’m ‘not doing anything.’ I feel like I’m not trying hard enough – in my mental health, in my music, in my life – and that I should ‘push through it.’ And it’s so hard to think that when I feel so overwhelmed by my depression.

And, outside all of that stuff, someone I care about is in hospital and no one really knows what the outcome is going to be. So I’m trying to manage all the anxiety around that too but it’s like trying to stand on ground that’s constantly shifting.

I think that, if I keep writing, I’m going to end up going in circles: ‘it’s okay to focus on surviving’ to ‘I should be trying harder’ and back to ‘it’s okay to focus on surviving’ and round and round and round. So I’m going to stop here. But regardless of all my anxieties and negative thoughts, I know that it’s okay to focus on surviving. And I hope you know that too.

Mental Health and Medication Update

I’m struggling. And I’m struggling to write this post.

Medication wise, I’m taking Amitriptyline for my depression and Pregaballin for my anxiety. The Amitriptyline has definitely helped with the physical symptoms of my depression: my concentration is better, I can think more clearly, and my appetite has returned. But as the depression pulled back, my anxiety returned in full force. It was so bad that I had to have something playing – music, audiobook, TV show – and playing loud so that I couldn’t think and therefore the anxiety couldn’t take hold, if that makes sense. I started to hate the evenings and going to bed because as the busy-ness that filled the day faded, my anxiety got stronger and stronger. Hence the Pregaballin. I’ve tolerated these medications pretty well. The thing I’ve noticed most is that I constantly have a dry mouth so I’m drinking ridiculous amounts of water every day. But that was something I needed to improve anyway and I’ve had far worse side effects.

For a while, everything was pretty good. I had some really good days, the kind I haven’t had for a really long time. That was really special. But the anxiety and depression – the depression especially – have crept back in and it’s a struggle to even get out of bed. I was starting to think that Amitriptyline might be the right medication but now I’m not sure. I can summon enough energy for the odd social interaction or professional opportunity but I’m really, really struggling with my energy. It doesn’t help that all day, every day something inside of me is screaming at me to crawl under my duvet and sleep for the rest of my life. I feel invisible and useless and miserable. Just living feels overwhelming.

My perception of time has completely flipped. Up until recently, time felt like it was moving really quickly, like I’d sit down to write a blog post and the whole day would be gone even though I’d barely written more than a few sentences. Everything seemed to take so much time. But now a day seems to last a week. When I’m having a good day, that’s great; I can achieve so much. But on a bad day – and I’m having quite a few of those – it’s overwhelming: I have to actively survive that long. So much happens, so many emotional ups and downs. It’s exhausting.

I don’t know what to do. But I’m in regular contact with my psychiatrist and my therapist; I’m trying to stick to my routine (swimming first thing in the morning, scheduled time for music practice, and so on); I’m talking it all through with my Mum. I guess I’m just muddling through.

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Taking A Self Care Day

Within an hour or so of waking up, I knew I needed a self care day.

I’d started the day at the gym, swimming in the outdoor pool. It felt good to do but by the time I got out, I was feeling really anxious and fragile. I thought about it and talked to my Mum and decided that I needed a day to look after myself. I needed a little break from life, from all the big, hard stuff.

It was never going to be a particularly busy day. I had planned to do a couple of things in town but there was nothing urgent and I felt really low on social energy. Sometimes it’s worth pushing through, worth practicing opposite action, but sometimes it just makes more sense to focus your energies elsewhere. So I cancelled that stuff and headed home.

On my way, I popped into the supermarket and bought some treats for myself. I’ve been pretty good about eating healthily recently, which I’m really proud of given my issues with food. But we all need unhealthy stuff sometimes and that day was one of those days. I also bought some new notebooks, which always cheers me up.

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Once I was home, I headed to the living room and drew the curtains. I’ve never had white curtains before but I absolutely love it: you can draw the curtains and shut out the world but there’s still good natural light. It’s a little bubble in which I feel safe. I changed into my favourite T-shirt, put on a Harry Potter film for background noise, and got to work on the emails I’ve been avoiding. I was avoiding them because they were stressful but ignoring them only created more stress so I needed to address that. I just needed the right environment – a calm environment – to feel able to do that. And I felt SO much better afterwards. I also got caught up with my diary and my photo albums, both of which are my self care staples.

Another thing I was really worried about was my cat. She was spayed not that long ago and I just had this anxiety that the wound wasn’t healing properly. My Mum was taking our dog to the vet so I asked her to take Lucy with her. I have serious anxiety about going to the vet (probably from when we had to have my previous cat put down) which does need addressing but that wasn’t going to happen in a day and I didn’t want Lucy to suffer because of it. The vet checked her out and gave her a clean bill of health, much to my relief.

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It’s also a really good time to try and practice good habits, healthy habits. I’m trying to build several things into my daily routine (not that I really have a daily routine), including drinking the recommended amount of water, practicing my instruments, and making sure I do something creative. Without a day to stop and take stock of my life, it’s easy to get into a really frenetic cycle that just gets faster and faster until I inevitably crash. So, for me, it’s important to stop.

So there you have it. This is what I do in a self care day. Obviously it’s different each time because of what’s happening in my life but, for me, a self care day involves several things:

  • Calming my environment
  • Addressing anxieties
  • Assessing my routine and my habits
  • Feeling safe and comfortable

Sometimes that means curling up in bed with my cats and my favourite TV show and sometimes it’s replying to all my emails and so on that have built up. Sometimes it’s like an aesthetic instagram post with fluffy socks and candles and sometimes it’s ugly with tears and frustration. We all do it differently and we all do it differently each time. Self care is a very small title for a very big idea.

An Introduction to Amitriptyline

I have now been taking Amitriptyline for about six weeks so it’s probably time to take a step back and get some perspective. I usually look at it week by week but this time, that doesn’t really make sense. The effects (and side effects) have been fairly consistent…

I’ve been feeling overly emotional ever since I stopped taking the Venlafaxine and that hasn’t changed with the addition of Amitriptyline. Everything makes me cry, from difficult decisions to TV storylines. And sometimes I cry for no reason at all. After twelve months of feeling incredibly disconnected from my emotions, it’s pretty overwhelming. I’ve described it as similar to turning an old tap: it’s nothing, nothing, nothing and then suddenly, it’s spilling everywhere and I’m emoting all over the place. It feels very extreme and I don’t seem to be able to control it.

But having said that, I am thinking more clearly. Up until very recently, I’ve been struggling to think, to write, to engage at all. I’m not sure I can really explain it: it’s so deeply rooted in feelings rather than words. It’s not really measurable. It’s kind of like trying to run through water: it takes so much energy to achieve so little. And once you get out of the water, moving is so easy and it’s such a relief. I’m so relieved to be able to think again. I don’t feel like I’m back to normal (and I’m still struggling in the songwriting department) but the fact that I can even write this out is a big deal.

One weird consequence of changing medications is that I want to eat all the time. I really hadn’t expected that. When I stopped taking the Venlafaxine, I was eating about one meal a day: I didn’t have much will to eat and the medication made me incredibly nauseous. And now, the urge to eat is there at all times. There have been days where I haven’t been able to concentrate because all I can think about is food. It’s causing me a lot of anxiety: firstly, because it’s a pretty extreme change (and I am NOT good with change) and secondly, because eating doesn’t satisfy the urge. I eat and it’s still there. It’s so frustrating. I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

My depression hasn’t lifted (yet?) but it has definitely shifted and in the reshuffle, my anxiety has come back in full force. I’m anxious all the time. Before, it felt like I was too disconnected from everything to really feel any anxiety but now, it’s almost overwhelming. I feel like I’m constantly running from it, filling my day with distractions to keep it at bay. But then, at night, it takes over. It’s made me anxious about going to bed and there have been more than a few occasions where I’ve accidentally stayed up all night in my attempts to distract myself. The anxieties themselves aren’t new but usually I’d only have to deal with them one at a time whereas now it’s like they’re all present all the time. It’s exhausting and scary and draining.

So it’s neither a miracle nor a disaster. And it’s better than the Venlafaxine. Other than that, I don’t know. I’m feeling very overwhelmed at the moment.

When You Don’t Want To Feel Better

I have now been clinically depressed for thirteen months. I’ve been living with depression a lot longer than that but, in May of last year, everything spiralled and I was diagnosed with clinical depression for the second time. So I know my depression pretty well now and there are a few differences between those two states. One is the presence of hope: while living with depression, it’s a constant battle between my depression and the hope that things will change and get better. But sometimes that hope just disappears and the depression takes over. That’s when things start to get really bad. Another difference is the ability to cope; when my depression is particularly bad, I feel completely overwhelmed on a daily basis and devastated on a weekly one. I feel like one more impact and I’ll never recover.

I’ve been in what feels like the lowest place I’ve ever been for the past month. I wish I could describe it but I don’t know if I can; I don’t know if there are words that accurately capture that feeling. It’s like that feeling after you’ve had blood taken, after they’ve pulled the needle out, and your arm hurts in a way you’ve never really felt before but it’s everywhere. It’s like you’re drowning inside your own body. It’s like having a black hole in your chest that’s sucking everything in, leaving you aching and empty. It’s like all of those things and none of them at the same time.

But recently there’s been a slight shift. It’s so slight that saying ‘I feel better,’ feels like a gross over exaggeration and fills me with anxiety. But it is there and that’s really frightening to me. I’ve spent weeks feeling like I’m suffocating, like I can’t possibly survive feeling like this for another minute, but now that that’s not the case, I’m honestly terrified. As miserable as the depression is, ‘better’ is unknown. And scary. As much as I wanted to feel anything else, being depressed is somehow safe and… comforting is the wrong word, but hopefully you know what I mean. It’s clear. I know where the edges are, how it feels. In some ways, being depressed is easier because it’s familiar. I know it sounds weird but it’s like nothing can hurt me because everything hurts already. So, if I step out of that, it opens me up to really feeling hurt again and that is really, really scary.

But what if I’m not ready? Being depressed takes up so much space within me. What if I’m not ready to process everything that I’d have to if that space wasn’t being monopolised by the depression, if it was being filled with more life than I’ve had up until now? That’s overwhelming. I feel so raw and so fragile. What if I’m not strong enough? What if something happens and suddenly I’m crashing down even lower than before? I’m not sure I could survive that. I feel like a fractured windowpane that will shatter if it takes one more hit.

I feel like a little like I’m being dragged into ‘better’ regardless of how I actually feel. I do feel better physically: the brain fog has receded significantly, I don’t feel so numb, to the world and my own emotions, and so on. I’ve even had flashes of future plans, like going to the gym and learning how to bake something new; I haven’t had thoughts like that in a long time. But despite all of that, I don’t feel better mentally so it’s confusing and overwhelming and stressful. I know that that kind of change takes time, conscious processing, and most likely therapy, but that’s hard to remember when I’m feeling so overwhelmed by anxiety.

And part of that anxiety is this suffocating feeling that something bad is about to happen. This is something I’ve struggled with for years (it’s on my list to write about) and although I know it’s completely irrational, it doesn’t feel that way when I’m in it. It feels completely logical. A good thing happened and so a bad thing must happen to balance it out. I dared to want more than I already had and so the universe must punish me for it. When I write it out, I can see how ridiculous it is but it’s how I FEEL. It’s like the instinct that you’re in danger: it’s that strong. You can’t just ignore it. I want to write more about this in the future because it’s important and complicated and distressing.

This is all really overwhelming and scary. And it’s really confusing to suddenly feel like I don’t want to get into a better space after desperately wanting it for so long. It’s really weird when your physical emotions and your mental emotions don’t match, if that makes any sense. I don’t really feel like I understand it so I end up feeling like I don’t want to tell other people because they might assume that it’s as simple as feeling better and therefore expect more from me, more than I’m capable or feel capable of giving. This is a learning curve and I seem to be moving through it very quickly but also very slowly. It’s a mess. I’m a mess. Thank you for sticking with me through this very ramble-y description of it.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2018

(Blog Note: I was hoping to post this yesterday but I just had to take a break from everything so it’s a day late. Sorry!)


As many of you will be aware, this last week, 14th to 20th May, was Mental Health Awareness Week and although I fully intended to have a series of mental health related posts ready to go up, life conspired against me to make that impossible. A big part of that was putting my first single out (available hereeeeeee!) so I’m not complaining but it has been stressful and taking up a lot of my brain. So my posts have been a bit all over the place – I’m working on that, I promise. But I did want to acknowledge this week because it is important.

I have seen so many social media posts this week where people have shared their stories and struggles with mental health and I’ve been blown away by each one. Sharing this stuff is such a big deal and I’m in awe of everyone who chooses to do so. This sort of stuff can make you feel like the world is shrinking around you but feeling understood opens it back up; it’s incredibly healing. I didn’t know how much I needed it until I found it. In my experience, talking about all of this has gotten easier, over time and with ‘practice,’ but it’s still hard. I still find myself hitting an invisible wall, choking on the air in my lungs, knowing that everything might change if I say the words out loud. It’s happened before. But I know that that’s the fear talking. And most of the time, I know better than the fear.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I live with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, Social Anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, although I wouldn’t blame you for losing track. My posts tend to jump around a lot, between different experiences and different diagnoses. Plus, things can change over time. Over the last twelve months, I’ve struggled particularly with the OCD, the anxiety, and the depression – the depression most of all. This time last year I was in a really bad place and one of the consequences of that was the decision to change my medication; it wasn’t the right thing for me anymore. Since then, I’ve been trying to find a new one without much luck; the side effects have been a rollercoaster ride and most of the time, I’m too numb to really feel any of my emotions. True, I’ve had very few meltdowns but, if meltdowns are the price of feeling things and therefore feeling like I’m actually alive, I will take them. So I’m not done with the medication search. Not yet.

I guess I’m surviving. I’m getting through. Hopefully, by next year, it will be more than that.

This week might have been about speaking out but that doesn’t mean it’s the only course of action that requires courage. Simply living with mental illness requires courage and as long as you are doing what you need to do to be safe and happy (or what will get you there), that’s all that matters.