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.)

Surviving Is Better Than Not Surviving

Trigger warning for self harm. Please don’t read this if it’s something that will upset you or trigger you. I only want this to be helpful, never harmful. I also want to add that, while I’m not promoting or endorsing it, I’m never going to say, “Just don’t do it.” It’s just not that simple. My hope is that more openness on this subject will make it easier for people to access support and therefore not feel the need to do it.

It’s been on my to do list to write more about self harm ever since I posted the first piece. It’s one of those things that I will never get tired of talking about, never get tired of raising awareness for. There are so many misconceptions around it. I mean, I get it: there’s something inherently un-understandable about wanting to hurt yourself, unless you’ve gone through it. And even then, it’s massively complicated. Feelings are weird and pain is weird; it’s not surprising that people struggle to make sense of it. But I’d like to think that things will get better, hopefully sooner rather than later.

I was inspired to write this post after watching a YouTube video, ‘Living With Self Harm Scars’ by Claudia Boleyn. I’ve been watching her videos for more than a year now and I particularly love her videos about mental health. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and self harm still aren’t commonly talked about so to find someone describing their experience, both positive and negative, and giving advice is invaluable. And to find someone so thoughtful and eloquent is even better. I really relate to a lot of what she says.

She’d posted a video in which she wore a short sleeve shirt that exposed some scars from self harming and had received several messages about how validating it was to see someone with visible self harm scars, without shame or drama. So, as a response, she’d decided to make a video discussing the importance of living with these types of scars, which I found both interesting and useful, even as someone with ten years of experience with self harm. She put into words so many emotions that I’ve felt but for a long time couldn’t vocalize. Had I had something like this when I was younger, life would’ve been very different.

The video isn’t necessary for the rest of the post to make sense but I really recommend watching it:

(EDIT: The video has now been made private but as I said, it’s not necessary for the rest of the post. I’ll update if this changes.)

Some of the things she says are so true it’s painful.

One of the biggest things about self harm is the release you get from doing it. My emotions get so strong sometimes that I feel like there isn’t space for anything else in my body, in my brain. There isn’t the space for my lungs to expand; I can’t breathe. It almost feels like the emotion is crushing me and the only way to survive is to open up my skin so that it can escape. It’s like a pressure valve. Once I’ve done it, I feel like everything stabilises and I can think more clearly. If there’s a problem, I can deal with it and if there isn’t and it’s just an overload of emotion, I can take care of myself a little better than I could if I hadn’t. As heavy as it sounds, Claudia describes it as ‘a way of not killing herself,’ which is a feeling I can empathise with. I’m sure many others can too. I’m not saying it’s a good thing and I’m not encouraging it. It is NOT a healthy coping mechanism. But that logic isn’t very persuasive when you’re dealing with such overwhelming emotions. Claudia also talks about this: “It’s not good for you in any sense… but it’s something. It felt like doing that at least proved that there was something there… And it just felt like this huge build up of feelings and I had to do something to get rid of it and doing that… was something.” I can completely relate to that and I think that’s a feeling that is often exacerbated by how difficult it is to get a diagnosis because having something is better than having nothing.

In my experience at least, trying to cut myself off cold from the only thing that helps me get through doesn’t help; it just makes the need worse and then there’s potential for me to do more damage. So I do my best to be safe while working on my issues in therapy so that one day, I can stop because I’m okay and not because I’m suppressing the urge. Because if that’s the case, I’ll always come back to it. To quote Claudia: “If you’re a self harmer then I think it’s always in the back of your mind as, like, a coping mechanism… The problem is: it’s always there so you always have to avoid it and avoid triggering it.” To give up self harming is a really big ask, and an even bigger one if you’re trying to do it without support. And if it’s too much for you, or for you to do all at once, that’s okay. I don’t feel ready to stop but one step at a time. The fact that my therapist supports this is a huge deal to me and it’s one of the things that told me that she was the right person. This has greatly lessened the pressure on me and has helped both me and my family to work through it a bit. I used to feel so guilty that I was hurting or upsetting them so I hid it and that was doing it’s own kind of damage. But now that we have a plan, now that we’re moving in a forwards-like direction even if it isn’t always easy, everyone seems to be coping with it better. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to see me in that place but you can’t put that on top of the emotion that makes you want to do it; it will eat you alive. I think the only way forward is to try and talk about it with someone and do what you can to avoid it if possible.

I don’t have quite the same experience as Claudia does. That’s fine. Every response to self harm is a valid response. However you feel about it is okay; it’s your struggle. She talks about feeling annoyed and upset about having self harmed and wishes she hadn’t done it whereas I’m not (yet?) in that place. She talks about how it releases all that feeling but then you wake up the next day and feel like you’ve let yourself down. But, while that is quite a negative response, the way she talks to herself is very positive: “I’m just taking it as a stepping stone and saying, ‘Okay, you took a step backwards but you can take five hundred more steps forward. It’s fine.’” She talks about having a certain pride about them because they’re proof that she got through a really tough time. She can look at them and feel compassion and forgiveness for the version of herself in those moments: “It’s a part of me and it’s a part of my past and that’s okay. And I wouldn’t erase it and in a way, I wouldn’t want to because I’ve learned so much going forward.”

For me, self harm is usually a survival strategy. It’s getting through a moment that I feel like I can’t possibly get through. Maybe it’s the worst possible way to get through it but it’s better than not. So when I look at the mark the next day, or the next month, or the next year, I remember that moment: I remember getting through. I remember feeling like I can’t survive another second and then I remember the calm afterwards. I remember that I did what I had to do to survive. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of that – or proud of the scars – but I’m certainly not ashamed of it. Maybe one day I’ll find something that gives me that feeling without doing any damage to myself. How wild and glorious would that be?! But that’s the end goal, not the next step.

My other use for self harm is to mark a traumatic event. I think one of the hardest things about struggling with your mental health is the fact that people often can’t see what you’re going through and I needed it to be seen. I felt so traumatised by the strength of the emotions and by the meltdowns and I just couldn’t process that without a physical, identifiable injury to associate it with. Again, I’m not saying that this is a good method of coping but it was all I had at the time. Now, I have other things to try. I haven’t yet found anything that works but what’s important is that I’m trying, even if I don’t want to sometimes. This is a whole other issue that I do want to talk about at some point: to someone who hasn’t ever self harmed, the idea of not wanting to stop doing something that is so bad for you is weird, but is a feeling that is often associated with self harm. That feeling can be very isolating because many people don’t understand it, and many more react badly to begin with. And feeling misunderstood can really exacerbate the feelings that lead a person to self harming. I think that discussing self harm and learning about it can only help with that. There will be people who say that bringing awareness to it will encourage people to self harm and while that may be true to a certain extent, the amount of people it could help would massively outnumber that.

People do ask about the scars. I’ve personally never had an unkind response to them; it’s usually just awkward. Even if someone doesn’t actually bring them up, I see them notice and it can get really uncomfortable because no one knows how to handle it. Claudia mentions being embarrassed about people seeing them and talks about how she has tried in the past to cover them up. Sometimes that’s just easier. It’s so complicated and it’s hard when people don’t get it or jump to conclusions. There’s the typical, “You’re asking for attention,” which has always frustrated me no end. I’m not sure when asking for attention became such a negative thing. Of course, there will always be people who abuse the compassion of others, but I would hope that our first reaction would still always be to try and help. If someone is asking for attention in some way, they probably need it, even if the reason why isn’t immediately apparent. I never tried particularly hard to hide what I was doing because I think that, subconsciously, I wanted someone to draw attention to it and see what I was going through. But at the same time I didn’t feel able to talk about it.

Sometimes people see the scars and assume that you’re ‘showing them off’ when you don’t cover them up, which is weird to me. I’m not sure why you’d want to ‘show off’ or ‘flaunt’ the evidence of a moment where you’d gotten so low that you had to physically take it out on your body. When you think about the lengths people go to to hide their scars – wearing long sleeves in a heat wave, making endless excuses as to why you can’t go swimming, hiding them with make up or bracelets or tattoos, spending every second thinking about your scars and how you’re going to make sure that no one sees them – it’s clearly not a straightforward issue. And as Claudia says, it’s not showing off; it’s a form of body positivity, of learning to be comfortable in your skin, regardless of what that skin looks like. That is a hard thing; it’s something that should be supported, not torn down.

There’s obviously a lot more to talk about when it comes to self harm but this is already a lot longer than I’d originally intended it to be! This is something that makes me really emotional and fired up so I could probably write a book on it. It’s so important to talk about and talk about openly and honestly. I wish I’d found someone writing about it or recording YouTube videos about it when I’d started struggling with all the things I talk about on this blog. Had I, and the people around me, had more knowledge and awareness about all of this stuff, my ‘mental health journey’ would’ve been very different.

Backwards Binoculars

Over the years, I’ve had periods of feeling really far away. It often overlaps with my bouts of depression but sometimes it creeps in out of nowhere and I feel completely lost, untethered from everything around me. It fades in and out like a fog, sometimes with no warning and often there’s nothing I can do to dissipate it or avoid it. It can be really scary, especially when it first started to happen, but at the same time, it’s like I can’t really feel that fear or any of my emotions. I’ve described it in different ways but they all describe the same feeling: feeling completely disconnected from myself. But I thought I’d include a few of those descriptions because they give more of a sense of how it feels:

  • It’s like looking backwards through binoculars so everything seems really far away when it’s actually close. Sometimes I can almost see the black tunnels that would be the inside of the binoculars. This is the way I usually describe it; I think it fits the best.
  • I feel like I’m five miles back inside my head. I can’t reach anything or anyone and it feels like no one can hear me, the real me.
  • It’s like watching everything happen and feeling like it would continue as normal if I wasn’t there, almost like people wouldn’t notice if I disappeared. They’ll keep talking, leaving spaces for me and responding to what I would’ve said if I was there.
  • Similarly, it can feel like I’m invisible, like people will look right through me.
  • It feels like I’m stuck behind glass, like there’s glass between me and everybody else. I am physically separated from everyone. This is another one of my ‘favourite’ ways to describe it.
  • A variation of that is feeling like I’m wrapped in cling film: separated from everyone but also trapped. It makes me feel like I can’t breathe.
  • I feel disconnected from my life, my body, like I’m in control but it’s not mine. I’m moving my limbs but they feel oddly numb, thick and heavy and clumsy.
  • One of my earliest memories of this feeling is feeling like I was out of sync with everyone else. That’s a very lonely and uncomfortable feeling.
  • Sometimes it feels like I’m underwater. It’s like I’m surrounded by something other than air and there’s more resistance when I try to move.
  • The most recent description is that I feel like I’m sleepwalking and can’t wake up. This one overlaps with how I feel when I’m really depressed so it’s not the most reliable analogy, if that makes sense. It fits both.

To be completely honest, I’m not sure what causes it, given the overlap of the different mental health problems I struggle with. This is something I have a lot of anxiety about, not being able to pinpoint where individual problems come from. Everything’s connected to everything else. Everything influences everything. But from my own reading, it seems to be common in depression and in Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s often a coping mechanism for stress or overwhelming emotions. The Mind website has a great page about this. My experiences line up best with the description of ‘Depersonalisation’.

I still haven’t found anything that does much to help it but there are a few things that give me a few seconds of relief, of connection. Usually, it’s about tapping into my senses. That seems to bring me back to the world a little bit. So things like opening windows, sitting in the sun, touching leaves or flowers, stroking a pet, having a cold shower or holding something cold… they don’t fix it but they do have a positive effect. Even if it’s tiny, they do create small positive spikes in my mood. They’re like stars in a suffocatingly dark sky. With this, it’s more about getting through it than trying to fix it. It’s about creating one moment after another to carry you through to the other side.

I want to add that I’ve also used self harm to ‘wake myself up’ from this. I’m not advocating it; it’s dangerous and damaging and really difficult to get free of. But if nothing else, I’m honest and it has helped. When I’m in a really bad place, I don’t want to hear that I shouldn’t do it because it feels like the only thing that helps but when it’s not quite so bad, I try really hard to find other ways to cope. I try the things I’ve listed or I try to distract myself. I don’t want to get too far from the point of the post so I’ll come back to this in another post but I felt like I had to include it here.

Friends and family have asked me what they can do to help and if I’m honest, I don’t really know. It can be hard to think about that when I’m just trying to get through it. But I do want to help them help me. At some point, I will write more about this, but I do find it really helpful when the people around me let me set the pace and decide what I can and can’t manage. Sometimes a push is helpful but in this situation, it isn’t. A sense of control grounds me a little bit. Plus, there are some things that are just really hard to manage when you feel like you can’t connect to your emotions. For example, I find it really hard to write songs and be creative when I feel so disconnected from everything. So being able to (and feeling safe to) adapt my activities does help. And talking. Talking it through, figuring out solutions, letting off steam. That really helps.

Behind The Scars

A little while ago, I discovered Sophie Mayanne’s Behind The Scars photography project. I was scrolling through Instagram, probably procrastinating, when I saw a photo of a young woman unashamedly showing off her scars. I was intrigued by the story behind that post – while I’ve never been actively told to hide my own scars, it often feels like I’m expected to cover them up. This is particularly true of self harm scars, I think. As I said, I’ve never had someone specifically tell me to hide them but I still feel that there is an expectation that I should, either because I should be ashamed of them or because they might upset people. I protest this and so does Behind The Scars. This ever-growing collection of photos allows people to show their scars and tell the stories behind them. I don’t think I can describe it better than Sophie herself does: “Behind The Scars is a celebration of beauty, of flaws, of battles won and obstacles overcome. It is about survival, living beyond that and capturing the memories. It is a truly honest depiction of how our history, shown through these scars, does not define us but compels us.”

I was instantly a fan and applied to take part. It took a bit of planning and rearranging but come the day of the shoot, I arrived with only a little anxiety. I’ve had photos taken before, for my music projects, but they’ve always been taken by people I already know. So I was a bit nervous about that. I had also been nervous about my difficulty with eye contact (thank you for that, ASD) but Sophie was very reassuring and put that fear to bed very quickly.

The shoot itself was a very positive experience and made much easier by the presence of a little dog, Carla. Animals always put me at ease (to the point where both my cat and my dog frequently accompany me to therapy sessions) so that was a lovely surprise and did make me feel less anxious. Anyway. I had expected to feel very self-conscious but I didn’t. In fact, I felt strangely in control and comfortable in my body and that is something I’m really grateful for, grateful to this project for. And even though I often get very anxious about not knowing how to do something, I didn’t feel that as strongly as I sometimes do: Sophie was great, telling me where to stand and what she wanted me to do. I never felt judged and if a particular pose felt unnatural, we were on to the next one straight away. And suddenly we were done.

The other part of the project involves writing a little bit about your scars or your experience of having scars. I thought a lot about what I wanted to say and eventually, I came up with this:

“I’ve struggled with self harm on and off for about eight years but it’s gotten worse as my mental health has worsened. The compulsion, for me, is two fold. Because of my Autism, I feel emotions really strongly and when it gets completely overwhelming, the only thing that helps is self harming, like all the emotions can escape. It’s like my version of a pressure valve. I also do it when something very upsetting happens, like I’m trying to represent that distress in a tangible way and show that it’s changed me. I think a lot of people don’t understand it and almost don’t want to because it’s a hard thing to think about but I think the only way to help someone who is self harming is to try and understand it. I didn’t talk about it for a long time because I didn’t have the words but then I realised how much it would’ve meant to my younger self to know that other people were struggling with the same things. So it’s time to find the words.”

My lasting impression of Behind the Scars, and of Sophie, is sincerity, and personally, I can’t give it higher praise than that. It’s been a couple of weeks now since the shoot and I love the photos. They look like me. I know that sounds odd, but how many photos have you seen of yourself that just don’t look like you? But these do. These photos look like me.

“If these images help us to think differently about scarring, and for those that “wear” these scars, to look differently at not only the imperfections, but the individuality these marks might engender, then for me, I would deem the project a success.” – Sophie Mayanne

A massive thank you to Sophie for taking these photos and for the Behind the Scars project as a whole. You can see more of the photos from the project here and here and, if you’d like to help her get Behind the Scars to New York, you can find the Kickstarter here.