Another Anna Akana Video I’m Grateful For

In the middle of my recent bout of depression – the worst one I’ve had – at my lowest point, an Anna Akana video appeared in my YouTube subscriptions. It was called ‘the voice’ and it was about her new short film that was being released the next day.

She talks about how, while 2017 was the best year of her life, her depression was also at its worst. There was a voice – that felt like it was in the room with her – telling her to kill herself. And it got to the point where she had a plan for how she was going to go through with it, which is a major red flag.

“I was just so in pain and I just felt like I had nothing and like I was nobody and I wasn’t worth anything at all and I literally… I have this big whiteboard on my wall and I wrote out DO NOT KILL YOURSELF, like all across it. I put it on post it notes and I put it on my bathroom mirror and like… everyday when the voice came and I would be like ‘SHUT THE FUCK UP!’”

While she still struggles with depression, she says she’s out the other side of that particular battle and she credits getting through to all the mental health education that’s out there and all the things you have to do everyday, hoping that they add up. She also made this new short film, pouring everything into it because she needed something to remind herself of why she’s here. It’s about the moments she wanted to die and all the things she had to live for. I would include it in the post but I just really want to focus on this introduction video (but you can find the short film here). Maybe I’ll write a full post about it when I’ve sorted out all my feelings about it.

I am so grateful for this video. Talking about this stuff is so hard and so to have this raw and uncut video where she talks about this experience but also how she got through it was and is so important to me. It’s helped me in this incredibly hard period and so I wanted to share it here.

“Please don’t kill yourself if you’re also suicidal… just don’t do it. There’s a lot… there’s a lot of great things to live for.”

Describing Depression

I love words. I LOVE words. And that’s so viciously ironic for someone living with Autism and mental health problems because they are so difficult to describe, to talk about, to truly put into words. I’ve talked about how much I write and how much I document (this post here) and every now and then I think, “Oh my god, I’ve got it. That’s how it feels.” And then I go to therapy or I talk to a friend or teacher and I go to describe how I’m feeling and I’m just left scrambling. Because these things are so hard to put into words.

Let’s talk about depression specifically. This one seems to have a lot of metaphors attached to it:

  • Living in darkness – With the associations between light and good and happiness and therefore the associations between darkness and bad and sadness, the connection here is obvious. It’s also a metaphor that fits with the feeling lost and directionless and not knowing how to move forward. And living in it implies a terrifying finality.
  • Winston Churchill’s black dog – We can’t know for sure what Winston Churchill’s mental health was like, whether he suffered from mental illness, from depression, but he did describe periods of great despair that he referred to as his ‘black dog,’ that came and went as it pleased. (While I can understand this metaphor, I personally really don’t like it, being the owner of the the gentlest, sweetest black dog and therefore nothing like Churchill’s description.)
  • Having a dark cloud follow you around – Weather metaphors are common in mental health, maybe it’s the all encompassing nature, maybe it’s the lack of control we have over it that makes it a fitting metaphor.
  • Being surrounded by fog – Similar to the weather metaphor, it’s uncontrollable and overwhelming. It blots out the sun, makes good indistinguishable from bad, makes it difficult to make your way forward.
  • JK Rowling’s dementors – Everyone who’s read Harry Potter knows of dementors and the effect they have on people, essentially sucking the happiness, the joy, the life out of people. JK Rowling has talked about how dementors are the embodiment of her depression, not unlike Churchill’s metaphor.

There are more, of course: everyone has their own descriptions (and they can change depending on the particular state of the depression). On which note, I thought I’d throw in a few of my own:

  • Feeling like I’m filling up with water – When I’m deep in depression, I feel like my body is filling up with water and the water level gets higher and higher until it’s reaching my mouth and nose and I start to feel like I’m going to drown in it. And sometimes it feels like something more sinister than water, like ink or oil.
  • Feeling like I’m deep underwater – Sometimes I feel like I’m in it so deep that I can’t even see the surface so I don’t even know, which way to swim. And down there, I feel so alone.
  • Having a black hole in my chest – On a day to day basis, it drags everything in, making it difficult to even know what I’m feeling before it’s gone and on bad days, it’s so strong that it can feel hard to even stand up straight.
  • Feeling like there’s a darkness inside my chest, but deeper than is physically possible for a human body – That’s the only way I can describe this sensation. I understand the dimensions of my ribcage but it feels so much deeper than that, miles deeper. And there’s a darkness there, an ache, like this incredibly deep well of misery.

I posted this on Instagram a while ago:

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“Ever since I saw @littlepineneedle’s post and the hashtag #seemyinvisible, I’ve been thinking about it and how I could visually represent the things I struggle with. But in the end, I decided just to look at how I’ve been feeling lately. My mental health is a constant balancing act but lately, my depression has been overwhelming. It feels like there’s a black hole in my chest that’s trying to suck everything in and it’s all I can do to stand up straight. Nobody can see it and that only feeds it. It’s been really inspiring to see so many people sharing their stories over the last few days. This is one of the reasons why #mentalhealthawareness is so important: it helps us to feel less alone.” (x)

I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to do with this blog post. I guess, I’m just trying to put this thing into words.


Blog Note: This is the 100th post on this blog, which is amazing. I love this blog dearly and am so proud of it as a project. I don’t know what the future holds but I do know that it probably holds more posts…

I would also like to just put it out there that my mental health – my depression especially – has been… less than great recently. It’s been brutal, more so than I’ve ever experienced and I’m really struggling. The most common advice I get is ‘just take it one day at a time,’ but that’s what I’ve been doing for weeks and nothing’s changing. I feel completely stuck and I don’t know what to do.

My Experiences with Therapy

Going to therapy hasn’t always been easy. I feel so, so lucky to have such an amazing therapist now but I had a lot of difficult experiences before I started seeing her. So I thought I’d share some of those experiences. Maybe they’ll be helpful.

After many, many appointments with my GP, I was finally referred to the local NHS Wellbeing service but the session didn’t go well. At this point in time, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t talk to people I didn’t know. I just couldn’t. Answers to questions would form in my mind but I couldn’t force them up my throat. So I sat there, in tears, while the doctor tried to get my Mum out of the room and told me he ‘wouldn’t’ help me if I didn’t talk. I don’t want to rant but I WAS STRUGGLING WITH A MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEM. I wanted desperately to be able to talk about it but I couldn’t. I don’t remember much about that appointment but I do remember standing in the street afterwards, shaking and crying and screaming and swearing. I couldn’t understand why no one was helping me when there was so clearly something wrong.

My second attempt at therapy was a bit better. I started Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with a really lovely therapist. She was very patient and very open to working around the anxiety that kept me from talking. She was also happy to have my Mum in the room: it helped my anxiety and meant she could provide information. Slowly I started to trust her and started answering questions myself. But it was exhausting, bone achingly exhausting. As hard as we worked, I didn’t feel like we were making any progress and it was too hard to go through that to make no progress. I really liked her and I could tell that she was a really good therapist but the approach wasn’t right for me. I found the format too rigid. In simple terms, CBT is about breaking down your problems and then trying to create change in those areas. I felt, and still do feel, that my problems are too murky for a short stint of CBT. I know now that many of my problems originate from my Autism and the fact that it went undiagnosed for so long but even with that knowledge, the difficult things still feel overwhelmingly huge. I can see CBT being useful for a specific anxiety. For example, we tried to work on my anxiety around making phone calls. But I think the reason it didn’t work is that it wasn’t an isolated problem; it was a piece in a much bigger puzzle. I don’t think you can solve that sort of problem if you don’t know what’s causing it. Plus, being rational about what you’re struggling with in the controlled setting of therapy and being rational when it’s overwhelming you are very different things. CBT sort of assumes that you can still apply the skills you’ve learnt in therapy regardless of how you’re feeling, which can feel impossible, especially if you live with really powerful emotions. But maybe that’s just my perception.

The next thing we tried was Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), recommended by a family member. In the few months between finishing CBT and starting EMDR, my anxiety had sky rocketed so starting a new therapy was really hard. It was so bad that I actually never spoke to the guy I worked with. But despite that, and my difficulty with eye contact, communicating with him was easier than it had been with previous therapists. He was fantastic. He accepted my difficulty speaking and suggested writing on a whiteboard. I considered that and it felt possible so that’s what we did. He asked me questions and I replied, scribbling as fast as I could. It worked. And to take the pressure off, we would spend part of the session on the floor, playing dominoes while he asked me questions. I felt absolutely safe there. It was incredibly strengthening to have someone accept my anxieties as they were, to have someone recognise that I wasn’t just being difficult, that I was genuinely struggling with something really hard. And although it didn’t turn out to be the right thing for me, the sessions are still really important to me. For several months, we worked hard. We tried. I felt supported. And even though I didn’t ever speak, I did once sing for him and he almost cried. That was a pretty big moment.

After that, I didn’t go to therapy for a while. There was a lot of life stuff going on and there just wasn’t the time to find someone new. But I did start seeing a new psychiatrist. He prescribed me Phenelzine (which I’ve previously written about) and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was causing my problems. I guess it was a type of therapy. We went through my history and analysed my emotions, trying to find a diagnosis. The medication helped and we managed the side effects but it still took a long time. When my university said that they couldn’t help unless I had a diagnosis, I pushed for this and in January 2015, I could finally put names to the issues I was struggling with (apart from the Autism diagnosis which came several months later). My psychiatrist recommended Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) so we started looking for another therapist.

My current therapist is the first one we met. I just knew she was right; me and Mum walked out, looked at each other, and said, ‘she’s the one.’ We did meet another one but my mind was made up. And we were right. She’s amazing. I’ve been seeing her for three years now and I’m so grateful to have that safe place. DBT suits me much better. It’s based on CBT but, as the Mind website says, it’s “been adapted to help people who experience emotions very intensely.” They both help with changing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, but DBT also helps you to accept yourself. It’s about a balance between acceptance and change. That really makes sense to me and always has.

In the beginning, I needed my Mum in the room with me and she would answer all the questions. We’d always talked about everything so she knew pretty much all the answers. But over time, I felt more comfortable there. I needed Mum there less and less and eventually I started doing the whole session by myself. Three years later and it’s really, really important to me. It’s a huge part of who I am. It’s not easy; it’s really hard work and I often come home exhausted, sometimes falling asleep on the sofa afterwards. But it’s really satisfying to talk things through, to make connections, to see change happen. I’ve talked about things that I never, ever thought I would talk about and I’ve worked through things I never thought I’d let go of. That’s so huge that I can’t really comprehend it.

So that’s my therapy journey. For me, it’s DBT that works but I’ve seen the others help people too. You need to be ready, you need to find the right approach, and you need to find the right person. It’s not easy but it is worth it.

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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.)

Some Social Media Favourites

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and blog posts about unplugging from technology and practising being present and living in the ‘real world.’ I’m not anti doing this. If you think it’s healthier for you to spend less time on social media and have or are taking the steps to do that, then that’s great. Figuring out ways to take care of yourself is always a positive thing. But I find it so irritating when people act as though social media is the enemy of mental health and self care because it’s just not that simple. It has its flaws, of course, but I think its value to those struggling with difficulties like depression and anxiety and so on (there are obviously more but these are the ones I feel qualified to talk about) can get overlooked. It allows us to connect in the middle of something that is incredibly isolating and that is invaluable. It can be life saving.

These are some of the accounts that bring me joy or help me when I’m struggling…

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Matt Haig – While I did struggle a bit with ‘Reasons To Stay Alive,’ I really respect Matt Haig and love his presence online. His posts range from moving to funny to encouraging. This is one that particularly spoke to me:

Behindthescars_ – I’ve written a post about Behind The Scars, a photography project set up by Sophie Mayanne (you can find that post here). Seeing people be their authentic selves and find new strength is really amazing and inspiring.

JuniperFoxx – As a kid, I LOVED animals and I daydreamed about having a pet fox so I absolutely love this account. It makes my day to see a new photo or video of these gorgeous creatures.

Laura Greenway – Laura is an incredible artist and I feel very lucky to call her a friend. She makes beautiful, thought provoking pieces to raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental illness. I love pretty much everything she makes but this one is a particular favourite and I was so sad not to experience it first hand:

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Really really hard to get a good photo of this, it’s more of a piece that you need to see in person, but today I installed my newest piece of work entitled ‘Baggage’ as part of my current residency at THAT Gallery Basingstoke! A little different from my usual, this piece employs the audience as the performer, encouraging you to walk amongst the 80 tags that hang from the ceiling and be surrounded by my own thoughts. The piece explores intrusive thoughts, and features a variety of day to day intrusions that I suffer with. A huge thank you to my amazing art team @mattglenart and @corvidaecrochet who helped for the best part of 4 and a half hours to install this piece. #art #artist #artwork #contemporaryperformance #fineart #modernart #contemporaryart #conceptualart #performanceart #mentalhealthart #mentalillness #mentalhealthawareness #anxiety #intrusivethoughts #automaticwriting #textart #writing #contemporaryartist #ocd #liveart #installationart #artistresidency #thatgallery #basingstoke

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Petroom – While this account isn’t at all deep or meaningful, it makes me smile and even laugh on a daily basis. Sometimes we need thoughtful advice or inspiring messages and sometimes we need cute animals with funny captions.

YOUTUBE

Anna Akana – I’ve talked about Anna’s videos before (here and here) but I had to include her in this post. Her videos are beautifully crafted and incredibly succinct in their messages, many of them about mental health with real, usable advice. I also love her sense of humour and the short skits where she plays all the characters.

DudeBabe – Lauren is one of my favourite people on YouTube at the moment. Her videos are raw and honest and she posts almost every day, about her life and her experiences with an eating disorder. Food is a daily struggle for me so I find her videos really helpful but mostly I’m just really inspired by her openness.

This video is my favourite: it gives me hope that, one day maybe, I can have this sort of positive, freeing experience with my mental health.

(EDIT: I wrote this blog post before Claire Wineland died and although that doesn’t change whether or not I’d include her in this list, it added a weight to this post that I never expected when I started writing it. And what I wrote about her, it was true then and it’s true now. I just wanted (and needed) to acknowledge all of this.)

Claire Wineland – I’ve talked about Claire before (here) and introduced her channel (here) but I couldn’t not include her on this list of helpful and inspiring social media accounts. She speaks so eloquently about some really tough stuff and she always inspires me to be a better person, to be a positive force in the world.

Lucy Moon – Lucy is a vlogger and makes all kinds of videos, from fashion and make up to food to chats about therapy (that is a particularly good video). She also does an ongoing series of videos called 168 Hours, where she documents a week in one video. I find all of her videos really calming to watch. There’s something very reassuring about the way she talks.

TrichJournal – I’ve talked about Rebecca before (here) but I still want to include her account here. Having someone talk so eloquently and thoughtfully about hair pulling, about a disorder that is so rarely talked about, was incredibly validating and strengthening and helped me to stop pulling the first time. Plus I find her voice so calming. I’m linking her Trichotillomania channel here but I also love her ‘main’ channel, where she talks about lots of different stuff, including mental health, hoarding, make up, her cats… Many, many things.

Claudia Boleyn – I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos about BPD and Claudia’s are my favourite by miles. I’ve talked about her videos before (here) and there are others that deserve their own posts because she describes it all so, so well. She’s thoughtful and eloquent and her videos mean so much to me: for the first time, I didn’t feel alone in this.

Haley Pham – I found Haley through her dance videos. I absolutely adore her dancing; I find it so calming. If I could have her dance for one of my music videos, I absolutely would. One day maybe. She’s also completely hilarious.

This post was deceptively hard to write. When writing about other people and their work, I get really anxious that I’m not doing a good enough job, if that makes sense. I love all of these people and want to reflect all the good they do – I’m scared I’ll do them a disservice. So I hope I did an okay job and that you guys have enjoyed this. Are there any social media accounts you think I should check out?

Tomorrow, I’m heading back to my university for an event about social media and mental health, which I’m really excited to be a part of. Maybe I’ll write a blog post about it…

Getting A Diagnosis – The Mental Illness Edition

This is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while but it’s such a big topic that I was very daunted by just how much I needed to include. I’d open a word document, stare at it for ten minutes, and then switch to something else. You’ll see what I mean. Getting a diagnosis is a complicated and emotional process that is so different for everyone but I had no idea how difficult it would be when we started pursuing it. So I thought I’d write out my experience just to put out into the world one version of the story. Maybe yours is similar, maybe it’s different. Hopefully you’ll get something out of it either way. And if you’re trying to get one, maybe this will give you some idea of the hurdles. I don’t want to scare anyone off; it was a brutal experience but it was absolutely life changing and life saving, both for my mental health and for who I am as a person.

I’m going to split this into two posts because although they’re linked, the processes for getting the mental health diagnoses and getting the ASD diagnosis were very different for me. I don’t know if that’s the same for everyone. This post will be about getting the mental health diagnoses.

My mental health problems became very acute when I failed an exam at sixth form in March 2013. I was eighteen and it was the first time that had happened. There’s a lot of stuff behind why that was the breaking point but I’ll talk about that in a different post. Otherwise we’ll be here forever; I’m already splitting this post in half. I hadn’t been oblivious to my mental health up until that point but I hadn’t recognised the signs for what they were; my knowledge of mental health had been pretty limited. But I’d always felt like there was something wrong with me (I now know that it’s different rather than wrong but that’s how it felt and sometimes still does feel) and I know that my depression and anxiety had been building up to that moment, that critical incident.

After that, I started seeing a psychiatrist that a family member had recommended (my GP had been unhelpful at best and distressing at worse). He diagnosed me with Clinical Depression and gave me an anti-depressant called Paroxetine to try. I don’t have enough experience to judge whether he was a good psychiatrist or not but I don’t remember feeling particularly supported by him. I only saw him a few times before I switched to a psychiatrist closer to where I lived. The Paroxetine made me incredibly sleepy; it was like they put me into a waking sleep that I still don’t feel I’ve really woken up from. I switched to Sertraline but that was even worse: I felt like a zombie and that was so upsetting that I (unwisely) stopped taking it cold turkey. That was a Bad Move, such a bad one that I still capitalise the first letter of each word. For a while I was very dissociated and then my anxiety came back, even stronger than it had been before. So I was a bit put off by medication but the diagnosis was helpful and I started going to CBT.

That ended up not being the right thing for me and the energy it took was just too much so I quit, not forever necessarily but I needed a break and we wanted to explore some of the other options. I tried several other things over the next year before deciding to try medication again. Both that first psychiatrist and the CBT consultant had been private but I couldn’t get the NHS to help me. I have to say here that I have so much (SO MUCH) respect for the NHS. It has saved the lives of several of my friends and I will defend it to the death but I don’t feel it has yet got it right when it comes to mental health. In my case, my anxiety was so bad that I found it incredibly difficult to talk to people I didn’t know. My Mum would explain the situation but we were repeatedly told that if I wouldn’t talk they couldn’t help. That was very distressing. Logistically I understand that it’s more difficult to communicate if a person can’t talk but that’s not an excuse to refuse care. The not talking was a result of my anxiety, which falls under their job description. They should’ve helped me. They should’ve at least tried. But they didn’t and I was struggling so much that we were forced to go private. I am endlessly, endlessly grateful that my family have been able to make that possible. It has, without a doubt, saved my life.

We found a new psychiatrist in the summer of 2014 and after such a horrible year, I was determined to make it work. I walked into his office, sat down, and started talking. I still don’t know how I did that. I was just as anxious as I had been before but I guess that’s desperation for you. Maybe it was my survival instinct. Anyway. My psychiatrist has since told me that he couldn’t believe I had such bad social anxiety because I had been so articulate and direct. Again, I’m putting that down to desperation (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ability to mimic ‘normal’ behaviour – something that many girls with autism have learnt to do – came into play here too). But as I told him more, he started to understand where I was coming from and what I was dealing with. He put me on Phenelzine, which made a massive difference (I’ve written more about that here) and we continued our sessions so that he could get as much information as possible.

I wanted him to give me a diagnosis. I wanted a name for the thing (or things) that had so much power over me. I wanted to know what was really me and what was this indistinct, suffocating black shadow. I thought he’d have me do a load of diagnostic tests and questionnaires and then give me his findings but it felt more like therapy, but with a focus on my past experiences (rather than strategies to move forward). He didn’t seem in a hurry to find the answers and I didn’t know how to fast track the process. Eventually we got the deadline I wanted: my university said they couldn’t help me until they had an official diagnosis. But again, it wasn’t how I’d expected it to be and again, it was incredibly slow. Throw in that I’d just started university (which came with new people, new classes, and commuting into London) and I was under a lot of stress, as you can probably imagine. How I didn’t have more autistic meltdowns, I have no idea.

I couldn’t just do nothing. I spent hours searching the internet, looking for anything that might explain my experience. I examined diagnostic criteria and read medical papers; I scrolled through forums and took diagnostic tests. I’ve read a lot about the back and forth on self diagnosis (something I definitely want to discuss in more depth at some point) but for me, I needed a professional diagnosis, both to get the help I needed and to validate how much I’d struggled. Grouping my symptoms together and trying the strategies advised for whatever label fitted that group wasn’t going to be enough. So I used those test results as a starting point. Eventually I came across Borderline Personality Disorder and more specifically, the ‘quiet’ presentation of BPD. This means that they have many of the same symptoms (including mood swings, problems with self worth, unstable identity, and difficulties with relationships) but rather than ‘acting out’, they ‘act in’: they direct their negative emotions inwards, hiding them rather than projecting them onto others. Many struggle with issues around self hatred and self harm. If they lie or manipulate, it’s to protect themselves from perceived abandonment and they may avoid or distance themselves in relationships because they don’t want to be abandoned or because they feel they don’t deserve those connections. The ‘quiet’ presentation made a lot of sense to me because while I struggled with many of the problems associated with BPD, I rarely lash out so this felt like something to explore.

So, buoyed by momentum that discovery had given me, I took it to my psychiatrist. And he shut me down straight away. He said that I didn’t fit the criteria and moved on to something else. I didn’t understand: I was struggling with so many symptoms associated with BPD, almost all of them when you factor in the ‘quiet’ presentation. I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t worth, at the very least, a little bit more discussion. And at the end of the session, he said that he thought we’d done all we could do. I was devastated. And incredulous: we hadn’t achieved anything. If that was it, I was back to square one. Or minus one after everything the process had taken from me.

That session sent me into the worst place I’d been and after a particularly horrific meltdown, I spent several days in a fragile, barely responsive state. But once I recovered from that a bit, I got to work. I went back through my research and symptom by symptom, anecdote by anecdote, I wrote down everything I related to, everything I’d experienced, anything that could be relevant. It wasn’t that I was certain it was BPD, it was that I was certain it was something. This seemed as good an explanation as any and my psychiatrist wasn’t offering anything better.

When I was done, the document was seventeen pages. I’m pretty sure it was longer than my dissertation for university. And then we went back. I presented him with all my research and something very surprising happened. I’d hoped he’d accept it as something to explore and not only did he do that, he admitted he’d been wrong and apologised for dismissing it. Even now, that feels like a very important moment. In my experience, medical professionals aren’t naturally inclined to apologising, let alone admitting to being in the wrong. And I’d been ignored for a long time. When it came to my health, physical and mental, doctors had always looked at the most obvious option and then, when that didn’t fit, they’d just shrugged their shoulders and brushed me off. So this was a big deal.

And at the end of that session, I had my diagnosis. Or more accurately, my diagnoses. He pulled together everything he’d learned about me and diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder, Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Depression, and OCD. It was a very strange experience. Momentous and anti-climactic at the same time. I felt light enough to float away but so exhausted and heavy that I wasn’t sure I could get out of my chair. I felt like I might burst into tears at any moment but I had this weird, hysterical urge to laugh. I felt invincible and incredibly fragile at the same time. Very strange.

Finally getting names for the monsters I’d been struggling with was incredibly validating. It was real. I wasn’t ‘crazy’ or ‘over dramatic’ or ‘too sensitive.’ It also made it real to everyone else. And although part of me was steadfast that something was wrong, I had started to doubt myself, having been dismissed by so many people. I was constantly fighting against falling into a well of despair, of fear that this was just going to be how life was for me. But the diagnosis confirmed that they were problems and most problems have solutions of some sort.

The diagnosis enabled me to get the support I needed at university and gave us some idea of what kind of talking therapy might help. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is recommended for people with BPD and that’s what I’m still doing, about three years later.

(I have no relevant photos for this post so here are a couple from around that time.)

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.