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.)

Autistic and Afraid of the Dentist

The title says it all, really.

As a kid, I was always really anxious about going to the dentist. I mean, it’s a person poking around inside your mouth with sharp instruments and criticising you while you’re completely unable to respond, clench your teeth, or even swallow. If that isn’t a nightmare, I don’t know what is. It was always a traumatic experience that ended in tears. So – of course – I needed braces and in order to get braces, I had to have dental surgery to remove two teeth and attach a little chain to another to gradually pull it into it’s correct place. That was attached to the braces, which was already a painful experience in itself. It’s also worth pointing out that during that surgery, another tooth was damaged and I’ve had trouble with it ever since. I’d stress about the next appointment for months and every check up was a distressing, exhausting ordeal. So, with all of that, I was pretty anti-dentist.

The Autism diagnosis changed things: people started to understand why it was such a big deal for me and new options became available. At the time, I’d been seeing a friend of my Mum’s who was a dentist and going to her practice, just to try and get used to the whole thing. But, as she worked privately, it really wasn’t a long-term plan and I was dreading the moment we’d have to find a new person and start all over again. But when we told her about the diagnosis, she told us about a specialist dental clinic, one that deals with all sorts of disabilities, and said that she would refer me.

Going to this place was an entirely different experience for me. The dentist and dental nurse were absolutely lovely and I’ve had the two of them ever since the first appointment. It never feels rushed and in that first appointment, we spent most of it talking, some about my dental history but mostly about me: my music, my pets, and so on. I almost forgot that I was at the dentist. At the end, she spent about a minute looking at my teeth (with only the mirror and nothing pointy) and then we were done. It had been okay; I could relax.

Over the following appointments, we took baby steps. She introduced me to all the instruments and let me touch them so I knew what they’d feel like. Then she’d use them on my teeth, one by one, explaining what she was doing and giving me lots of opportunities to stop. It was such a big deal to have people listen to my anxieties and take me seriously. I was and I am so grateful to them.

It’s been slow going with many freak outs along the way. The need for a filling threw a spanner in the works because I really wasn’t ready for all of that. But the crisis was averted when they referred me for a general anaesthetic – just as well as I ended up needing a tooth removed. Obviously, general anaesthetics aren’t a long-term solution to dentist anxiety but given the progress I’d been making, we all decided that it was the right choice. And once that was over, we got back on track.

I’ve been going there for two and a half years now and my appointment last week was definitely a milestone. I let the dentist clean and polish all of my teeth all in one go; no breaks, no anaesthesia, no nothing. It was all me. That is HUGE! I haven’t been able to do that in years and apart from the three-hour nap I needed afterwards, I feel pretty good about it. It wasn’t fun but my anxiety didn’t get to an unmanageable level and I got through it; I’m really proud of that. Really, really proud.

There’s a long way left to go but it actually feels like, one day, I’ll get to a place where I can go to the dentist and have a filling and it not be that big of a deal. Imagine that?! What a thought! I am so, so grateful to my dentist and dental nurse for taking such good care of me.

Anyway, I just wanted to make this post because I know that there are a lot of people – with Autism, with mental health problems – who really struggle with going to the dentist in the same way I do, and this route isn’t a well known one. But there are options other than just forcing yourself to go. So, if the dentist is a problem for you, please talk to your dentist, your doctor, and consult google. It shouldn’t be so hard and it doesn’t have to be.

When Anxiety Is The Only Thing On The Menu

I know I touched on issues with food already this week but I thought I’d go into a little more detail so those of you who don’t experience this difficulty can get a glimpse into what it’s like. Food is a massive problem for me; it’s a daily cause of stress. Where am I going to be? Will there be food I can eat? If not, can I bring my own food? Can I get away with not eating or will people notice and point it out? It’s a constant loop and that is exhausting.

As I said in a recent post, I’m incredibly sensitive to the flavour of food; add even the smallest sprinkling of pepper to a meal and I can’t eat it. It overwhelms me and I just cannot eat it. Forget spicy food entirely. So I can only eat the simplest things: plain rice or pasta, unadorned chicken or fish, and so on. I practically live on fruit and vegetables. When there are lots of different flavours, I get overloaded. I can’t describe it better than I did in my sensory sensitivity post: “It’s like throwing a load of different coloured paints together: you don’t see all the different colours, you just get one new colour and it often isn’t a nice one.”

I’m also very sensitive to texture; there are very few things that don’t trigger my gag reflex. I’m sure all of you have experienced that at one time or another so you can imagine how desperate I am to avoid it. I remember a particularly bad experience with tofu; I’m actually shuddering just thinking about it. I have a similar problem with wet foods touching dry foods. It triggers the same response. So while my family – who are all fairly adventurous when it comes to food, at least from my point of view – flip through a library of cookbooks, I eat simple meals with ingredients that I can separate and I eat them over and over again.

Honestly, I don’t mind that. It’s safe. It’s comforting. It’s the pressure to eat ‘like a normal person’ that’s stressful. Going to restaurants and eating in public is a major anxiety: it’s very rare that there’s something on the menu that I feel able to eat and asking for something simple feels impossible. I find asking for anything difficult and drawing attention to this issue is something I try to avoid if at all possible.

As a child, I was labelled a picky eater and strongly encouraged to try different food. I know that my family and friends were just trying to help me: they were trying to prepare me for a world that would expect me to eat complicated food. But instead of it getting easier, it got harder. So eventually we reached this uneasy stalemate. But getting a diagnosis made a massive difference: it gave people an explanation, made them realise that it was something I couldn’t help. It took the pressure off in a big way. But as important as that is, it hasn’t fixed my problems with food. And as much as I struggle with it physically and struggle to get the right nutrition, it also has a big impact on my mental health.

People make assumptions when they hear how little I can eat. They think I’m being picky or deliberately difficult and see me as an inconvenience. I know that it’s not my fault and that it’s a valid reason to struggle but I find it incredibly embarrassing that I can’t eat like everyone else. I feel like it keeps me from really becoming an adult, especially when so much socialising revolves around the consumption of food and drink. It feels like a weakness; it’s something I’m ashamed of, which definitely feeds into both my body image issues and my depression, as well as my anxiety. When I get really low, as in dangerously low, food becomes even harder and I just lose the will to eat all together.

I vividly remember being about ten years old and reading a magazine article about a girl who had to have intravenous nutrition for medical reasons and I found myself wishing I could have the same, wishing I could not eat because it would be so much easier. And I still relate to that. I would give anything to be in control of this, rather than it have control of me. I wish I could choose what to eat, rather than navigate around the things I can’t. I wish I could eat according to my beliefs instead of having to worry about whether I’m getting enough protein or calcium or whatever (I would love to be a vegan, or even a vegetarian, and often feel guilty that I’m not but health wise, it’s ill advised when there’s already so little that I can eat). I wish I didn’t have to be afraid of blowing a sensory fuse, of getting completely overloaded, which can trigger a meltdown. I wish I could enjoy food. But I can’t and I’m scared I never will.