My Beloved Monster And Me

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I have written, deleted and rewritten the opening lines of this post so many times I lost count. I have had a few days of severe anxiety and very little sleep, and as part of my efforts to honestly express what I’m feeling I wanted to write something describing my experiences. Verbalising (or in this case typing!) the reality of these experiences is difficult but helpful. The opening lines of this post proved to be the hardest to write because I kept including the phrase ‘living with mental illness’, and every time I wrote it something in me shrank away in a ball of shame and fear. In spite of my advocacy of openness when it comes to sharing experiences of mental health and mental illness, I sometimes really struggle to live by it myself. I worry about how I will be perceived. I worry about not having ‘a real reason’ to justify my experiences of mental illness, even though I know that mental illness sometimes just is, that it doesn’t always have a reason behind it or a specific trigger. I somehow still feel like I should have a reason. And if I don’t, it’s simply another failure in what my brain tells me is a long list of failures.

But I’m here and I’m trying so here goes.

“Anxiety does not mean you are weak. Anxiety forges you. Living with anxiety, turning up and doing stuff with anxiety, takes a strength most will never know. Have anxiety for two decades and you have lived several lifetimes, and have won many invisible wars.”

– Matt Haig

Matt Haig has a wonderful gift for putting into words things which sometimes feel inexpressible. There is a lot about living with mental illness that feels inexpressible. I am still in the process of learning a) that it’s ok – good, even – to verbalise what bouts of mental ill-health feel like and b) how, exactly, to put those experiences into words. So often, the explanations I find myself giving either feel inadequate or melodramatic. The problem with something like anxiety, though, is that the experience itself is melodramatic. There is no calm reasoning with anxiety. There is no downplaying it. (Not whilst it’s happening anyway.) It is sheer, unadulterated fear and panic. For me, that fear and panic is often without any cause at all or with a tiny trigger that, logically, is inconsequential.

It is, quite frankly, exhausting.

My anxiety often manifests itself in a very physical way, sometimes even before I’ve become aware of any anxious thoughts. I become very cold. I shake and tremble. I can feel adrenaline coursing in my veins. I feel nauseated. My head pounds. My stomach roils. I can’t breathe comfortably. It is a very uncomfortable, very visceral experience that can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks, and at whatever point it finally passes I am completely drained – physically and emotionally. It also doesn’t help that it most often strikes at night and either stops me sleeping restfully or stops me sleeping at all. Sleep deprivation doesn’t help matters.

All the time my body is going haywire with these fear induced symptoms, one of two things happens in my brain. I sometimes experience a profound disconnectedness from the world – derealisation – which feels like a sort of silent scream: as though I am suspended frozen in a bubble of chaos, which is invisible to everyone else so they carry on with life and the world spins as normal but I am drowning. To borrow some more of Matt Haig’s words: “To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.” I find this a particularly useful metaphor because most of the time I am able to continue ‘walking around’ and function as normal, so anyone watching me or interacting with me, outside my nearest and dearest, probably wouldn’t notice anything was wrong. I have always counted myself lucky to be able to do this because I know for many people anxiety and other mental illness can be completely debilitating. Nevertheless, it is a very surreal experience and not a pleasant one.

The other thing that happens in my brain – and this is the one that usually happens when the panic rises at night with no-one around to see – is that I ping-pong between extreme emotional turmoil, where I am overwhelmed by fear and despair, and extreme rationalisation, where I try to logic it all away, convincing myself there’s nothing to fear. Now that second part might not seem all that bad, but I’m starting to think it is actually the most dangerous part of the experience. Because the rationalisations, which start in fact (you’re safe, this problem is not as big as it feels, these feelings will pass etc.) very quickly turn into accusations of inadequacy, and an internal monologue of self-shaming. If anyone else spoke to me in the way I speak to myself in these moments I would consider it an abusive relationship. If I ever heard anyone speaking to my friends or family the way I speak to myself in these moments I would be angrily leaping to their defence to stop such unnecessary and hateful language being directed at them. And yet whilst I know this, I can’t seem to stop. And it becomes a vicious cycle. I panic, I shame myself for feeling things I don’t think I ‘should’ feel, I berate myself for not being able to ‘just pull it together’, and then I panic more because what if it never ends?

That is a dark place to be.

Something I have recently explored with a counsellor is that my reflex responses at times of high anxiety or panic are either to fight it or try and suppress it (hence the ping-ponging). Neither of these responses is helpful and, in fact, seem to make things worse. The counsellor suggested instead that I try accepting the state and presence of anxiety and sit with it. To acknowledge the feelings and give myself permission to feel them. I know, in my heart of hearts, that this is the step I need to take. That reaching a point of acceptance will be, at the very least, helpful in moving forward. But it is so hard to do. How do you sit with and accept something that every fibre of your being rebels against? Something that feels so wholly uncomfortable, even painful? It’s the anxiety dilemma all over again: when I’m anxious I know that I’m safe but don’t feel that I’m safe and I don’t know how to get from A to B; I know in order to deal with this I need to accept it but I don’t know how to accept it.

It has been a really long journey to get to the place that I’m at now. It’s been twelve years since someone first put a name to what I was living with. I don’t even know how many years I’d been experiencing it before that. Years of anxiety and panic attacks, medication and various counsellors, meditation and mindfulness programmes, some of which has helped, some of which hasn’t. I have to keep reminding myself that I have come a long way. I would never have been able to speak (and write) so openly about these experiences when they first started. One of the things that has helped me most on this journey so far is hearing about other people’s experiences. Knowing I’m not alone in them helps massively. So that’s why I’m sharing my own. Even though it’s uncomfortable to do so. A bit at a time, I’m trying to turn my story from one of despair at the hands of a beast I can’t control to one of hope and acceptance. A tale of my beloved monster and me.

Whatever your own experiences of mental illness and wherever you are in your journey, keep going. It’s tough but you’re really not alone, however much it feels like it.

 

If you’re unsure how or who to ask for help the resources and websites below might be a good place to start. Take care of yourselves and each other, lovely people. 💛

ECBC Manchester – https://ecbcmanchester.com

The Blurt Foundation – https://www.blurtitout.org

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

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When It Comes Crawling

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Why does it come crawling

As the day fades into night

To push away

And sap the joy

Of moments barely past?

I’m supposed to sit and be with it

To accept and see and name

But all I really

Want to do

Is scream please go away.

I know the balance of my life

Is far outweighed with good

From all the love

And all the hope

So I can’t help but feel I should

Be able to dispel this fear

With nothing more than breath

But when it comes

And crawls again

I shrink

And cower

And cry

All of those frustrated tears

Because willing it away

Is not enough

It’s still a part

Of what makes me

And the hardest thing

I’m yet to do

Is simply let it be.

But tomorrow is another day

And bring it rain or shine

This creepy crawly

Haunting thing

Won’t stop this life of mine.

Being Emotionally Honest

This week was Mental Health Awareness Week and all week I’ve been wanting and meaning to write something to share with you, my lovely readers. But I’ve had a funny mental health week and have just not quite been in the right frame of mind. I’ve felt edgy, restless and anxious, as if something is bubbling just under my surface. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.

When anxiety starts to prickle like this, I try to acknowledge the feeling. In the past, I used to work hard to ignore it, or would make myself feel guilty about it, which only made things worse. It has taken a surprising amount of effort to reach a point where I can allow myself to just feel what I feel, without judgement. Like much else in life, there always seem to be ‘should’s and ‘must’s crowding in, making me feel bad about my feelings, wants and needs. But by acknowledging the truth of what I’m feeling, without trying to tell myself I should feel something different, I’m far more able to deal with those emotions. This is true of more than just anxiety.

Emotions are human. And as humans we experience a full spectrum. It’s no good trying to repress what might be seen as ‘negative’ emotions. If you feel angry, be angry; if you feel resentful, be resentful; if you feel sad, be sad. These aren’t necessarily pleasant things to feel but feel them we do. If, when one of these emotions crops up, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be angry, or we should be grateful, or we have no right to be sad, we are denying some of the truth of ourselves. And the real truth is that you can’t force an emotion away. You can pretend. You can try to bury it in falsehood. But that emotion will still be there and, if you let it, it will fester.

Like a festering wound, a festering emotion can make you very ill indeed. You have to let the ‘bad’ stuff out if you ever want to heal. One of the things that I used to worry about a lot was how my emotions might make other people feel. When something or someone made me angry, I didn’t want to be angry with them in case it upset them, especially if that person was someone I loved, who loved me, and who I knew probably didn’t mean to make me angry. When something or someone made me resentful, I didn’t want to behave resentfully towards them, and when something or someone (or often nothing) made me sad, I didn’t want to show that sadness because I thought my privileged life meant I had no right to be sad. But by being so focused on what other people might feel in response I put myself in some really dark and painful places. And the thing is, allowing yourself to feel what you feel isn’t about rubbing it in someone’s face. You don’t have to take the festering wound and smear it on the person who accidentally gave you a paper cut, or whose success distracted you from what you were doing so you accidentally gave yourself one.

It takes a conscious effort but I will now (most of the time) deal with those emotions in one of two ways: I will acknowledge it out loud or in writing, just to myself; or if it’s really eating at me, I will speak to a friend or family member who is outside the situation and, as honestly as I can, explain what I’m feeling. These acknowledgements are usually prefaced with lots of ‘I know I’m really lucky to have X, Y and Z, BUT…’ or ‘I feel like I’m being a bitch/ungrateful/overreacting, BUT…’. With the effort of being honest about my feelings, to someone else in particular, comes the need to qualify that I know I speak from a place of privilege. The process at the moment is still partly one if seeking approval for what I’m feeling, which I hope to move beyond eventually. But this has been a huge step forward for me because I used to keep everything I considered vaguely negative bottled up inside. I would not allow myself to be imperfect in my emotions. I would not allow myself to be human.

What I have found is that once I have acknowledged whatever it is out loud, I either feel better immediately and am able to move on, or it gets me to a place where I can then address the person/situation with a greater degree of honesty and clarity. My feelings will usually have subsided to a point where I can express them in what feels like a reasonable and healthy way. It’s a work in progress and sometimes it still takes me a while to realise I’m letting something fester, but I can feel the difference this has made to my emotional life.

I’m also getting much better at self-care and making time every most days to check in with myself and have a moment of honesty. Some of my favourite ways to do this are by reading, listening to a podcast, taking photographs, writing and journaling. Here’s what that looks like currently:

Reading:

The Self Care Project by Jayne Hardy

Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Circe by Madeline Millar

(I know, I know, four books at once seems a lot. I always tend to have a lot of books on the go because I’m such a mood reader!)

Listening To:

The Happy Place

The Guilty Feminist

Harry Potter and The Sacred Text

The Quibbler

Made of Human

Photographing:

Books

Nature

My dog!

Writing:

Poetry

Blog posts

A young adult fantasy novel…

Journaling:

Quotes

Doodles

Tracking sleep, mood, steps

Daily gratitude

This Mental Health Awareness Week, and beyond, I encourage you to be emotionally honest with yourself, make the time for self care, and help continue the conversation about mental health, whether online, with friends and family, or even with strangers.

What do you think is important for maintaining mental health?

There is Help and Hope

I have started writing this post several times and don’t quite know how to say what I want to say. I have heard and seen too many stories of people struggling with their mental health and not being able to find a way out; too many stories of people for whom the only escape they could see was through taking their own life. My heart breaks and bleeds for these people and their families and friends. I want to help. I’m not sure how. So for now I just want to say if you are suffering you need not suffer alone. If you are hurting there are people who want to try and help you heal. If you are struggling to see any light in the dark, please, please, call out and let someone – anyone, friend or family or stranger or professional – try to help light your way. Even if you feel totally alone, know that there are people who care.

Please don’t suffer in silence. Let in help. Let in hope.

If you’re unsure how or who to ask for help the resources and websites below might be a good place to start. Take care of yourselves and each other, lovely people. 💛

The Blurt Foundation – https://www.blurtitout.org

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

It’s #TimeToTalk Continuing The Conversation

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This is the final post in my 24-posts-in-24-hours series for #TimeToTalk day. Thank you so much to all of you who have popped by to read, like, share and comment; it means a lot to see so many people engaging with this important issue.

#TimeToTalk day is a great opportunity to open up conversations, to draw attention to mental health, and to break down some of the stigma that makes it so difficult to talk honestly. Chances are we will all be affected by mental health issues at some point in our lives, whether they be our own mental health struggles or those of the people close to us, so these are important conversations and ones that could make all the difference to so many people.

It is vital that we make space for open dialogue, not just on #TimeToTalk day but every day. Remember: it’s the little things that can make all the difference; it’s always the right time to start a conversation; no-one is defined by their mental health, but it can have a huge impact on how they live and feel day-to-day; there is always light to be found, even if we can’t find it right now; no-one needs a reason to feel what they feel; we are all beautiful chaos; it’s ok not to be ok; if we speak openly and listen authentically, we can change the world.

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I urge you to continue this conversation beyond today, beyond reading and liking and sharing. I ask you to reach out to the people around you, whether to seek help or offer it. These conversations change lives. And we could all do with knowing we are not alone.

I’d like to leave you with another TED talk, which I found moving and comforting, as it seems, to me, to be a perfect example of the love that lies at the heart of humanity.

What a beautiful thought: “when they could have asked for anything, they all asked for health, happiness, and love”. Let’s do our utmost to give these things to each other. Let’s remember that it’s always #TimeToTalk.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Recommended Resources – Pacifica

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Pacifica was introduced to me by a friend and it’s a great tool for tracking and monitoring mood and mental health. You can set goals for health, track whether there are any patterns or triggers for fluctuations in your mood, and collect images and thoughts of positive things from throughout your day. There are also built in meditations and reflections for your to access and, on of my favourite parts, community forums where people are engaging in conversations, all over the world, about mental health. There is so much support out there and people are sharing not only personal experiences but are sharing all sorts of interests and passions.

Pacifica can be accessed through an app or web browser and the basic package is free to use but you can also pay to access more content. It might not be for everyone but it’s certainly worth a try and tracking ups and downs can be useful if you are working out the best way to manage your mental health. I encourage you to give it a go.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Breathing

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I’d like to take a moment to share with you a short and simple breathing exercise which I have found incredibly helpful. We hear often about the importance of breathing and noticing our breath in strategies for dealing with anxiety or panic attacks, but it’s not always clear what exactly that means and we (read I) often make the mistake of thinking that because we breathe all the time this is something we can just ‘do’ without much thought or practise. In reality, for breathing to be helpful in situations of stress or anxiety, it’s more likely to be effective if you’ve practised. A lot. In times of calm. By practising at times when you don’t feel stressed or anxious, you train your body to know the breathing patterns and (I suspect) create an unconscious association with these breathing patterns and a sense of calm.

 

So here it is:

Breathe in slowly for the 5 counts

Hold the breath for two counts

Release the breath slowly for 5 counts

Hold for 2 counts

Repeat

 

Super simple and can be practised anywhere. Try to fill and empty your lungs on each inhalation and exhalation and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. And practise. Often.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Emotional Courage

I’ve recently taken to listening to TED talks on my evening walks with our puppy and there’s one that struck me as particularly relevant to the idea of being emotionally honest with both ourselves and others. One that speaks to the importance of conversation and authenticity in maintaining and protecting our mental health, and dealing with mental illness.

Susan David’s “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” is a powerful call to move away from “rigid responses to our emotions” and to acknowledge the legitimacy of all emotions, rather than labelling them ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and suppressing the ones we don’t believe are inherently valuable. She speaks of how “The World Health Organization tells us that depression is now the single leading cause of disability globally” and how “being positive has become a new form of moral correctness”. This is simply unsustainable.

I encourage you to watch/listen to her talk:

 

I love her closing message: “In seeing yourself you are able to see others too.” I think this is so important and so true to the message of #TimeToTalk because it’s not only about opening up honest conversations with others but about being honest and authentic with ourselves as well. If we were all willing and able to do this, imagine what a change we could work in the world.

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If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk, Now

It’s easy to be too busy

Or say

It’s not the right time

To worry that you’ll make it worse

So you accept their fumbled

“Fine.”

It’s hard to find the moment

For hearing truth

And depth

But really we’re just finding excuses

To keep ourselves

Deaf

To all the pain that gathers

When people can’t speak

Truth

And have to keep it bottled up

For fear of hurting

You

But what happens when you leave it?

When you let the silence

Grow?

What if their pain is your pain too

But not asking means

You’ll never

Know?

So let’s all breathe together

Hold hands and take

A dive

Into conversation

With neighbours

Strangers

Friends

And lovers

Because

Now

Is The Time.

  • JH

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Recommended Reads – Anxiety Journal

This is just a quick little recommendation, as I’ve only just come across it myself but thought it still seemed worth a share.

The Anxiety Journal is actually something my lovely husband found and suggested to me, and I’m so glad he did. It is another beautifully presented book, very simply formatted, with lots of white space, which makes it a lovely, calming book to flick through.

It provides a combination of insightful quotes, thoughtful reflections and exercises, and simple illustrations. I have found it the perfect book to end the day with. Just before bed I can sit and open it to any page and use what’s printed there to help me take stock, reflect on the day, and deal with any anxiety or panic that may have built up. Combined with a scented candle, a warm drink, and some quiet music, it makes for a lovely bedtime routine.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.