Posted on October 10, 2018
(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:
WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS:
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.)
Category: about me, anxiety, depression, diagnosis, emotions, medication, mental health, response, school, self harm, tips, treatment, university Tagged: advice, anxiety, depressed, depression, family, friends, health, mental health, mental health awareness, mental health blog, mental health blogger, mental health blogging, mental health in the media, mental illness, mental illness awareness, mental wellness, school, secondary school, self harm, sixth form, sixth form college, tips, wmhd, wmhd18, wmhd2018, world mental health day, world mental health day 18, world mental health day 2018
Posted on September 29, 2018
Have you seen the book where various different celebrities or famous people write letters to their younger selves? Some of them write pages and pages and some of them write a sentence, maybe two. But the majority of them reveal very little about their lives because they believe that the journey to the major events is as important as those major events. I don’t disagree with that but considering my levels of anxiety, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for my younger self to have a little more certainty. Most of my stresses, then and now, are about the future so this would’ve been the perfect thing to calm younger me. Obviously this is a hypothetical exercise since we haven’t actually invented time travel and therefore don’t have to worry about causing a paradox that dramatically alters human history. We’ve all seen enough sci fi to know that that always ends badly.
Ultimately, there’s not much to be gained from wishing you could change the past and while there are things I wish had been different, I don’t think I’d change almost any of the things I had control over: the people, the pursuits, the loves… I’d choose them all over again.
Category: about me, autism, identity, life lessons, school Tagged: 24th birthday, advice, asd, autism, autism in girls, autism in women, autism spectrum disorder, autistic, birthday, exams, fitting in, grades, growing up, lessons learned, life, life lessons, nashville, ramblings, school, secondary school, things i'd tell my younger self
Posted on September 15, 2018
As you guys have probably guessed, I’m a stationary enthusiast and over the years, I’ve gone through many, many notebooks and diaries and planners. I’m pretty picky about the kind of books I like and that’s probably why I’ve never found a planner that really works for me. The layout didn’t work or the writing spaces weren’t big enough and so on. So I was always on the lookout for the right one.
I started looking into bullet journaling after seeing photos and videos of bullet journal ‘spreads’ on social media: pages to track spending, sleep, mood… As well as monthly and weekly logs to keep track of what they were doing. It seemed to be a way of creating a very personal, tailored planner and that appealed to me, although I’m definitely not artistic enough to compete with the ones I’ve seen on Instagram and YouTube. But since it seemed to work for so many people, I thought I’d give it a try.
A lot of thought went into the bullet journal format (the official website is very informative) but in short, it’s a flexible system to “track the past, organise the present, and plan for the future.” Most people seem to use dotted notebooks (like the ones that Leuchtturm make) and dedicate pages to calendars (future log, monthly log, daily log) and trackers (habits, sleep patterns). I’ve found this incredibly helpful so I thought I’d share how I use it. Maybe this would be more easily done in video format but here we are.
At the beginning of the year, I bought a Leuchtturm notebook (dotted, navy blue, A5 – available here) and got to work. I looked at photos on Instagram and watched a tonne of videos on YouTube (AmandaRachLee is my favourite) and that really helped me to figure out what bullet journalling could be for me. I set up the index at the front and created several general spreads, including my new years resolutions, all the birthdays in the year, books to read, and things to watch. Carrying all of this around is so helpful and it has definitely made me more organised. And motivated.
One of my favourite spreads is the one for blog post ideas (and it actually spilled over into a second spread because I ran out of space). I find it so inspiring and motivating to look at. I’ve always been a list maker and I LOVE being able to tick things off a list; I’m always more motivated and productive when I’m working from a list. Having all of these ideas in one place has made blog writing much more efficient.
Many people do a monthly mood tracker but I did one for the whole year because I thought it would be easier to detect any trends in my mood and compare month to month. If I could do it again, there would be less categories. It took a while to figure out how broad each emotion had to be and as someone who feels emotions (and their subtleties) very strongly, it was very easy to create more categories than I necessarily needed. And I think a smaller spectrum of colours would make the whole thing clearer.
I found this particularly helpful when trying to judge my reaction to a medication: I could literally track my mood through each dose increase and assess how helpful it was. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in one side effect or judge it based on the most recent feelings rather than the overall experience. So it was really helpful in regards to that.
Now to the month-to-month, week-to-week stuff.
It’s pretty standard to do a monthly log: a month at a glance of sorts so that you can see everything you’re doing during that period of time.
One thing that I love about bullet journalling is that you can refine your style and system as you go, to make it more useful to you. I went through several different layouts before I found the one that really works for me, at the moment at least. And you can be as creative as you want or feel capable of being. I’m not very artistic – in the drawing/painting sense of the word – but it’s been fun (and oddly empowering) to try my hand at something I don’t usually do.
Again, it took me a while to find a weekly set up that I liked. But I really like the one I’m using at the moment. It’s simple and quick to fill out and not overwhelming to look at.
The official bullet journalling style involves a system of categorising all the information (tasks, events, appointments, etc), checking off tasks, ‘migrating’ them to a later date… Personally I found it overcomplicated and just not necessary. I know that there are people who like it, people who don’t, and people who have either simplified the official key or created their own version. But this is what’s great about this whole format: you can tailor it to what you need.
And lastly, I’ve recently started using trackers as part of my monthly set up. I kept the list of tracked things short so that it was actually doable and I ended up finding it really useful. Having that list of things written down made it easier to remember to do them and to build the habit. And as I said, I love ticking things off a list so the idea of filling in the boxes at the end of the day was really motivating.
So I hope this was interesting. If any of you guys use bullet journalling or any other system for organising your life, let me know what works for you!
Category: life lessons, school, tips, university, writing Tagged: advice, blogger, blogging, bujo, bullet journal, bullet journalling, habit tracker, habits, journal, journalling, learning, lessons learned, life, organisation, school, sleep log, trying something new, watercolor, watercolour
Posted on February 24, 2018
I have experienced anxiety dreams, in one form or another, for most of my life. I don’t know very much about the science behind dreaming but as I understand it, we tend to have anxiety dreams when we’re trying to cope with stressful stuff, or they are our brain’s way of telling us that we need to deal with something. Some of the common ones include losing something important, finding yourself naked in public, being chased, and scenarios involving the end of the world. I have had all of these at one point or another so I thought I’d write down the ones that stick out most in my mind and put them out into the world. Maybe some of you guys can relate.
The first anxiety dream I remember having was about being trapped in a car. The car was sitting at the top of a hill, on a street I knew well, and then it suddenly began to roll down towards the busy main road. I was stuck inside, panicking and unable to make it stop. I always woke up before I reached the bottom but I can still feeling that suffocating fear. I think these started when I was about five or six and I had them many times for several years. Then, when I was a teenager, they changed slightly. Instead of being stuck in a moving car, I was suddenly expected to drive somewhere without knowing how, without ever having had a lesson. I don’t know why but the expectation that I could was definitely there. I would get in the car and attempt to drive and while I was initially successful, it was just a matter of time before something went wrong. This is apparently a very common anxiety dream, which isn’t surprising given that most of us hate feeling out of control.
My most common recurring dream is one where my teeth start falling out. There are a couple of different variations of this: sometimes my teeth just become wobbly and slowly fall out one by one, and sometimes they just disintegrate in my mouth and I’m spitting out fragments of enamel. They’re incredibly vivid and I’m always convinced that they’re real. I wake up breathless and disorientated. I have no idea where this one comes from or whether it means anything. I don’t subscribe to the theory that when you dream, specific things have specific meanings, but it seems pretty likely that feeling out of control in a dream links to feeling out of control in some part of your life. I still don’t know what teeth are supposed to represent though.
There’s another one that I’ve only started having recently. I’m walking into college, heading to a Maths lesson when I remember that I haven’t been to a Maths lesson in months and therefore will be expected to hand in months of late homework which I do not have. I could just not go but the exams are getting ever closer and I need to learn it all. My anxiety is just starting to spiral when I wake up and it takes me a while to untangle myself from it. If I were going to guess the meaning, I’d say it had something to do with my fear of falling behind and not being good enough. And getting into trouble. But that’s not a big leap to make.
I don’t know how anxiety dreams fit in to the picture when you live with an anxiety disorder, when you live with significant levels of anxiety every single day. Does it mean that the level of anxiety necessary to trigger the dreams is just higher? Maybe every dream we have is an anxiety dream but we only remember a fraction of them… I don’t know what the answers are. But I thought I’d put my experience out there and see if anyone relates to it. If any of you have had anxiety dreams, I’d love to hear how similar or different they are to mine.
Posted on February 3, 2018
Sometimes I wonder about what it would be like if I could go back to secondary school and to sixth form but with everything I know now. Obviously it would help with the lessons and exams but what I’ve learned about myself would’ve completely changed my experience of school. I’m such a different person at twenty-three than I was at sixteen or eighteen (as I would hope we all are). Throw in the ups and downs of my mental health and I’d say I’ve learned a lot in those years. I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a while now so I thought I’d write down some of these thoughts and compile them here:
On Choosing Subjects To Study – I am fascinated by what my life would look like if I’d known I was Autistic, if I’d known about my mental health challenges, and this is a good example of that. Because of the identity issues that often come with BPD, choosing the subjects to study at sixth form was distressing. How was I supposed to know what I wanted to study when I didn’t know who I wanted to be, who I was even? I want to write about identity a lot more but it’s such a big subject that I haven’t managed to tackle it yet. I promise I will. In this case, I knew I liked Psychology and I knew I liked Maths but I wasn’t sure what to pick for the final two options so I did what I always do when faced with a question about myself that I don’t know how to answer: I filled the empty space with real people and fictional characters that I liked and admired, people that embodied the things I wanted to be. That was how I ended up choosing History and Physics. I don’t regret those choices but now that I know that that happens, I approach things differently.
On Standing Up For Myself – I was fortunate not to go through any extended periods of bullying during my school years. There were a couple of incidents but they never went on for very long; they either got bored of me ignoring them or I pushed back which made them stop. But I had several teachers who didn’t behave particularly well: shouting at the class, humiliating us, telling us we were stupid, etc. Back then, I just kept my head down; I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. I was terrified of getting in trouble and standing up to an authority figure was something I just didn’t know how to do. I was just trying to get through it; I didn’t know that I didn’t deserve to be treated like that, that I could push back against it. Were I in that situation now, I wouldn’t let someone treat me that way, let alone anyone else. If it wasn’t abusive, it was a downright unacceptable way to treat the children they were responsible for.
On Trying To Fit In – When I was younger, especially in my early teenage years, I would look at the girls in my classes and in my year group and wish that I could be one of them. They were all so pretty and seemed to have everything and had been friends all their lives. I’d missed a lot of school due to illness and there was some hard stuff going on at home and my one good friend had just moved to the US. I felt very alone. I wanted to belong somewhere. I went on to find some amazing friends – many of whom I’m still friends with now – but the feeling of belonging is a hard one and one that I guess I’m still learning how to handle. But if I was going to secondary school all over again, that isn’t something I’d worry about. I think that the need to belong isn’t so urgent when you feel like you belong to yourself. I’m not all the way there yet, but further down that road than I was at sixteen.
On Blending In – It wasn’t until I looked back that I realised I was trying to be invisible. I didn’t put my hand up when I knew the answer, I hated any activity that required me to be at the front of the class, and I did everything I could to avoid drawing attention to myself. Even the way I sat – hunched over, trying to make myself smaller – reflected that. And yet I was desperate not to be forgotten. Apparently teenage me was an oxymoron. But no, I get it: I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t want people to know me, or remember me, as something I wasn’t. And worse case scenario, I embarrass myself and that be what people associate with me forever. But as I started to know myself, this behaviour started to change. Finding something that I loved and something that made me feel like I was where I was supposed to be, i.e. songwriting, really helped with that too. In a way, finding that gave me permission to exist, to take up space, and that gave me confidence. These days, I can look at myself and feel so unsure about everything but all I have to do is look back to know how far I’ve come.
The last couple of weeks have been hard, mental health and medication wise, but I’m hopeful that that will start to ease and then I can spend more time and energy on here. Thank you, as always, for reading.
Category: anxiety, bpd, identity, mental health, school Tagged: a level, a levels, as levels, belonging, blending in, bpd, bullying, college, confidence, fitting in, growing up, high school, hindsight, identity, learning, looking back, personal growth, school, secondary school, self, self confidence, sixth form, teacher, teachers, what if
Posted on November 5, 2017
I did it. I graduated.
The last three years have been a whirlwind. As I said in my Instagram post on Thursday, “my degree was an endless mix of inspiring, exhausting, frustrating, ridiculous, exciting, stressful, and joyful.” That’s the short version. The long version is very long. I dealt with a lot of grief and disappointment. I struggled with my mental health, discovered I was Autistic, and started to untangle all the threads that come from that. And that’s outside of university. At uni, I wrote hundreds of songs, met some amazing people, got the opportunity to go to Nashville, and ultimately, became a better songwriter. There were classes I loved and classes I hated. It was a constant battle to keep the lid on my anxiety and sometimes I failed. But I wouldn’t change it. My experience is coloured massively by how good my third and last year was. There were moments where I hated it, where it made me incredibly anxious, where I had meltdowns so bad I thought I’d never recover. There were moments I thought I’d never get through, that I couldn’t do what I was being asked to do. But somehow I did. Somehow I’m here, with a first and two graduation ceremonies under my belt.
The first graduation was for UEL, The University of East London. My school, The Institute of Contemporary Musical Performance, is a specialist music college and while it operates independently, it’s officially part of UEL. So we were invited to one of their graduation ceremonies. My Mum and my Granny came to this one. It was very formal – it was caps and gowns. That was something I was looking forward to and something I was very let down by. I’d thought it would be fun but it became a very stressful experience. Maybe it didn’t fit properly, maybe that’s just how it is but my cape kept sliding back and strangling me and my cap kept falling off my head. It took seven bobby pins to keep it on my head. As someone who struggles with sensory stuff, which includes the way clothes feel, that was really hard and really ratcheted up my anxiety. Fortunately, spending time with my friends, messing around and laughing, helped to keep it at a bearable level.
The ceremony itself was a bit strange. Because I only went to UEL once, it kind of felt like I was intruding, like I didn’t belong there. All the talk of the ‘UEL community’ made me feel a bit disconnected from the whole thing but the speakers were very good. I’d like to share something Geoff Thompson, the chair of the governors, said in his speech: “You are strong. Don’t ever, ever forget that you are strong… Never, never, never, never, never, NEVER give up on your dreams. It is not an option. It is not a choice.” You know, that was just what I needed to hear, just as I’m leaving university and heading out into an uncertain world. It was inspiring. It was empowering.
And all of a sudden, we were lining up to walk across the stage to shake the chancellor’s hand. It was weird: I had tunnel vision. No one could have applauded me as I walked across the stage and I wouldn’t have noticed. I was completely focussed on walking towards the chancellor, shaking his hand, and walking down the steps. It’s funny how something that you usually don’t have to think about – like walking – suddenly seems to take a lot of effort. But I did it, I got back to my seat, and I cheered for my friends. We threw our caps and then it was over. Graduation one was done. I’d thought I’d stay for a drink with my coursemates but after all the anxiety, I was completely exhausted. So I (eagerly) returned my gown and headed home.
The second graduation was a couple of days later and much more fun. This was just our school so it felt a lot more personal. Even though I don’t have many friends outside my course, I recognised a lot of faces from the other courses and we’d all shared the same space. We’re all connected by that. We didn’t have to wear gowns but it was still formal. Everybody looked gorgeous; it was really fun to see everyone dressed up. All four of my parents came to this one, which was amazing. I’ve never had all of them at a school thing before so that made me very happy. I was positively giddy.
I really enjoyed the ceremony. The head of each course made a speech and then presented each of their students with the scroll. My favourite speech came from my programme leader, Jonathan. It was thoughtful and warm and inspiring. He even gave this blog a shout out, along with two other projects my friends have worked on. It was a very special moment. Another special moment was watching one of my best friends receive her scroll while her own song played. That was awesome.
And suddenly, it was my turn and I was walking across the stage, giving Jonathan a hug, and accepting my scroll. We posed for the photo and then I was moving again. I was a bit more aware of what was going on this time. The UEL one was a good rehearsal in that regard. There wasn’t an opportunity to thank my parents so I made the best of what I had. I located them in the crowd and did this:
It was important to me to do that.
Everyone received their scrolls and then we gathered for the reception. It was lovely to celebrate with everyone, to catch up, to introduce my parents to all these people who have played such an important part of my life in the last three years.
And that was graduation. The only other thing to add is that, to celebrate, we headed out for drinks. It was my first experience being in a club and my first experience drinking cocktails, neither of which I would say I enjoyed but it felt very empowering to try those new things and not feel trapped by my anxiety. Major thanks to my friends for looking after me and making it such a positive experience.
I will write more about my experience at university at some point but it’s a pretty big task. I need to go through my diaries and pull together some stuff before I can write an accurate account of that time but I will manage it at some point. It was a crucial time in my life. It’s a big part of who I am.
Posted on October 28, 2017
I was looking back through the blog and I realised that you guys are getting all these big things in my life without really knowing much about me. I struggle with all things identity (which is a big thing for people with BPD) but I’m trying. I’m trying to figure myself out. I know little things, like favourite films and TV shows or whatever, but when it comes to who I am as a person, I feel very unsure. I’ll write more about that at some point but, for the moment, here are some of the little things:
So now you know a bit more about me. Hopefully this gives a little context to all the other stuff I post.
Hey! I’m Lauren Alex Hooper. Welcome to my little blog! I write about living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as a number of mental health issues. I’m also a singer-songwriter so I’ll probably write a bit about that too.
My first single, ‘Invisible,’ is now available on iTunes and Spotify, with all proceeds going to Young Minds.