Doing too much

These past few weeks (or maybe months, I’m unsure. Time passes so quickly lately), I’ve been doing a lot. I have gone from doing maybe a couple of things a week, to doing something nearly every day. I realise this is nothing compared to having a full time job (and maybe doing things on top of it), but after years of doing not very much at all, for me this is a lot.

All the mental health professionals have told me to ‘do things’, to keep busy. That this will help my mood. And I’ve taken them at their word.

I have a weekly routine. I have one MH appointment a week (CPN, psychologist, and – less regularly – psychiatrist), usually on a Monday or a Tuesday. I volunteer for my church youth group on a Sunday evening, and have recently started volunteering for a charity working with young people on a Wednesday evening. I go to Recreational Therapy at the hospital for art group on a Thursday, and writing group on a Friday. I go for coffee with a friend most Tuesdays. Also, my mum and I are going to the gym two or three times a week. These are my ‘regular’ commitments. Individually arguably very good things to be doing, but collectively verging on just too much.

However, in addition, in the past month or two, I have done four training courses, and attended one conference. I have been to a Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF) symposium (one full day), done induction and child protection training for the charity I’m volunteering for (one half day, and one full day), Scotland’s Mental Health First Aid (SMHFA) Training parts one and two (two full days), and yesterday I did the required face-to-face training for SMHFA-Young People (one full day). Five and a half days may not sound much, but they have come thick and fast, anxiety has been through the roof, and it has taken a huge effort to complete them. And cope with the fallout afterwards.

I have been praised for how much I’m doing and been told I’m looking so much better. But the truth its very different. The truth is coming home and collapsing on the floor for hours, until day turns to night, and I’m sitting in darkness. It is not sleeping, even though I’m physically and mentally exhausted. It is fighting demons, even while busy with ‘good things’. Today, I am done. Those sneaky suicidal thoughts have crept their way into my head again, and I’m struggling to shrug them off.

Luckily, yesterday was my last additional thing, and I have a very good friend coming to visit next week. She is calming, and understanding and the perfect house-guest. In as much as I’m looking forward to anything at the moment, I’m looking forward to that.

In addition, I’m going on a really amazing holiday soon, with some of my favourite people. Depression is telling me that I’m going to ruin it for everyone I’m going with, but I’m trying had not to listen to it. I’m hoping the change of scene and pace will do me some good, and I’ll come home feeling like I’ve had a good break.

 

Words

actions speak louder than words

Too often, actions
are reactions.
Publicly false, unnatural.
Or privately, raw, shameful.

Sometimes it’s not about
bold moves or grand gestures
but small words
whispered in quiet times.

But even when whispered,
some words cut deeply,
escaping painfully,
slashing and slicing their way into being.

So to writing.
Writing what cannot be said,
finding comfort in words
and safety through the control they provide.

the pen is mightier than the sword 

Sleeves

I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve
– never have.

Instead, I keep it closely guarded.
Solitary, hidden.

For years, my sleeves were a hiding place,
not for my heart – but for secret hurts on skin,
written deeply.

But now, wearing what I like,
I hide my hurts next to my heart.
And though I think about them,
I’m trying my best not to feel.

“You don’t LOOK depressed”

FullSizeRender

People make assumptions about what people with mental illnesses look like, all the time. If I asked you to describe a person with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia…you could all probably make a pretty good stab at a stereotypical version.

Have a look at these photos. Can you tell me, in which ones do I look depressed?

IMG_6313

It’s a trick question, of course. In all of these photos I was depressed.

It’s hoped that (the dreaded) awareness campaigns do something to reduce the  stereotypes, but the truth is, I’m not hopeful.

I’m not hopeful, because today, despite telling my CPN (a trained mental health professional), that I was feeling low and having thoughts of suicide, her reaction was “but aren’t you looking well”, “you’re so much more engaged”, “you’re getting out and Doing Things“. And while I recognise that these outside factors play a part in getting better, I refuse to believe you can judge the state of someone’s mental health solely on what they look like/how they act/how much they’re doing.

I am a people pleaser. I put on a face. I am aware that everyone does this to a greater or lesser degree in their lives. But I am a master at it. It’s part of the reason it took mental health services years to offer me the help that I had needed from the start.

The real reason that I’m “looking well” (have lost weight), and am “much more engaged” (talk more and make eye contact) and am able to get out and “do things” (though collapsing in a heap when I get home more often than not), is that they changed my medication. The last medication I was on, I found heavily sedating. I ate loads and put on a lot of weight, and I didn’t have the energy to speak, never mind do things other than attend my appointments.

So they have changed my medication, and I have gone back to ‘presenting’ how I did when this all began. I am told I come across as “bright, articulate and insightful”, while I crumble inside and my mind makes dangerous plans that I have more motivation for, now that I’m not ‘drugged up’.

But if a professional can’t see this, then how can we ever hope the general public to be able to understand?

For Mum

my child, I knew you well
each time you fell
I was there
showing you care
– scraped knees
became my expertise.

but as you grew
you withdrew.
and I knew
something was wrong
– not what was going on
because you didn’t tell.
but it was that smell
antiseptic in your room
which had become a tomb.
and I realised,
though you tried to hide
you took care
not to lay bare
the hurts you were making
punishments for him taking
something from you.
not that I knew
that then
how could I, when
you didn’t tell me?

so I pretended not to see
I gave you space,
let you take things at your own pace
and you sought help
but said it felt
not right
the fight
was leaving you
and you were leaving too.

you moved
as if you had something to prove.
I thought a fresh start would be good
but as soon as you could
you set out to destroy yourself
and I felt powerless to help.
nights of drinks and hurts
and more long sleeved shirts.

I often think
that maybe if I’d seen the link,
if I’d been the one
pushing for things to be done
life would have been different
not all bent
out of shape
and stuck together with sticky tape.

but, as you say, you weren’t ready
– needed to be steady
to be braver
not to waver
over whether you could accept
the help that was kept
just out of reach
until each
little thing fell into place.

now, when I see your face
I see hope there.
and I’m showing you care
once more
as you mend your core.

Scotland’s Mental Health First Aid week 2

For last week’s post, click here.

So. Another week of SMHFA training. This week we covered some mental illnesses: depression, anxiety, and psychosis.

Again, I have experience of all three of these things, so was able to contribute to the discussion. Again, I was thanked for my contributions at the end.

However, in the Australian video material, there was a massive focus on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which I found difficult. CBT seems to be the ‘first line’ in talking therapies here in the UK (and you’re hugely lucky if there’s a ‘second line’ at all).

I had CBT when I was 20. I had six one hour sessions, and was then sent away to get on with ‘putting the theory into practice’, with no follow-up. Needless to say, I failed to do so. I was great at the cognitive (thinking) part of it, could come up with the ‘right’ solutions to all of my problems by imagining what I would say to another person in my position, but because I didn’t believe it to be true for myself, I was rubbish at the behaviour bit. And that’s the bit that really matters.

I am lucky, in that I now see a psychologist who uses aspects of different types of therapies with me (yes, including  (limited) CBT at appropriate times), but not everyone is so lucky. For some people, CBT is it. It either works for you, or it doesn’t, but that’s all there is on offer. And to see it being held up as some sort of ‘answer to all mental illnesses’ was hard to watch.

That aside, I really enjoyed the SMHFA course. Although I didn’t learn as much as some others may have, due to my lived experience of mental ill health, I still think it was a worthwhile thing to do, and would recommend it to others.

So, what next? I’m thinking of signing up for the Scotland’s Mental Health First Aid – Young People (SMHFA-YP) course some time soon, as I think it would be really useful in my voluntary work with young people. Watch this space!

Cold

it’s cold outside,
she opens the windows wide,
letting in the bitter wind
– it helps her to feel something.

these days, she doesn’t feel much,
so out of touch
with reality.
numbness has crept into every corner,
so she feels like a foreigner
in her increasingly small body.

there was a time when she felt everything,
emotions crashing like waves upon a shore
until she couldn’t take it anymore.
it was terrible, and beautiful
all at once.

she hated it at the time
– though she pretended she was fine.
it pummelled her small fluttery-bird heart
until it was ready to fly away.
found it increasingly impossible to stay.
it was painful, raw
she would have given anything
to make it stop
(and she nearly did).

but now, feelings hid
from her,
she sees the beauty in emotion
– longs to feel it again
but how is beyond her ken.

so she opens the windows wide,
hoping the cold will penetrate inside.

Mental pain

“That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”
John Green

Everyone, at some point in their lives, experiences mental pain – whether it be as a young child, or as an adult. This could be due to mental illness, abuse, bereavement, relationship breakdowns or any number of other factors. But we all have it in common, eventually. I’d even say that it’s an important part of life. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, as I go on a journey of exploring my own pain with my psychologist.

I think, as a society, we generally try to minimise our pain. Someone has always suffered something worse than you, so you should just be able to get on with life. But pain is not a competition. Someone else’s experiences do not invalidate your own pain.

And this is important. For years, I thought about those people worse off than myself. I pushed my pain down, plodded on, coping as best as I could. I didn’t allow myself to fully feel it. But what I didn’t know, is that pain means something is wrong. And when something is wrong, it is important to deal with it. Whether that be by talking to a friend, or by seeking more professional help.

The pain we experience in our lives is, in my experience, unlikely to ever go away completely. But by giving yourself permission to fully feel the pain you’re experiencing, and by talking about it with someone you trust, you can take some of the power away from it.

I’m not saying it’s easy to deal with. Talking brings up all sorts of unpleasant emotions. But it also allows you to let those emotions out, in a safe environment. And that, I think is a very good thing.

Scotland’s Mental Health First Aid week 1

On Saturday, I started a course in Scotland’s Mental Health First Aid (SMHFA). It was a course that had been requested by a local food bank, and there were extra places, so I was asked by the people running it if I wanted to attend.

The concept of the Mental Health First Aid course was first developed in Australia, and as such, much of the material is Australian.

It’s delivered in two sessions, the second being next week. This week, we covered: attitudes to mental health, listening skills, suicide, self harm, alcohol and drugs and ‘recovery’.

The premise of SMHFA is ALGEE – Ask about suicide, Listen non-judgementally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage the person to get appropriate help, Encourage self-help strategies.

You are not a professional, and no one is expecting you to have all the answers (but through the training, we got some of them!). It is exactly like physical first aid – you are just the first person to respond. The person may just need to talk things through, or may need more immediate professional help.

I tend to live in a ‘mental health bubble’. Most of my friends online and in real life have personal experience of mental ill health. So some of the things people didn’t know really surprised me, and that felt odd. They were all aware of anti-stigma campaigns, but had taken away a message about anxiety and depression (what I call the more ‘palatable’ mental illnesses – because anxiety seems like an extension of worry and depression an extension of sadness, which is patently untrue – these are life threatening illnesses, which are far more complex!), and none of the ‘nitty gritty’ stuff we covered.

We talked about how some people think self harm is ‘attention seeking’ (and the stigma surrounding that phrase – needing attention doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you human). And I told them how I hid my self harm (with varying degrees of success) for years. But that the last thing I wanted was attention. And about how it saved my life.

We also spoke about how most people who go on to attempt/complete suicide have mentioned it to someone beforehand, even just in a joking way. That talking about suicide doesn’t mean that you won’t do it, as some people (even mental health professionals) seem to think.

We talked about the link between alcohol and drugs and mental health. I don’t drink now, but when I was younger, I definitely used alcohol to self medicate. We talked about how illegal drugs can induce mental illness. Something I have some experience of from my time in hospital.

And, lastly, we looked at the idea of ‘recovery’, a word that usually makes me shudder. Very often recovery is seen as getting back to ‘your old self’. But, just as all of our experiences in life inevitably change us, so does mental illness. It’s just not realistic. And very often mental illnesses are chronic. So, instead, we thought about the idea of being ‘in recovery’, of it being a journey, not a destination.

Going into a situation for the first time in a long while where I didn’t know anyone was both terrifying and oddly liberating. Having had personal or second hand experience of all of these issues, I was able to contribute fully. I was especially open about my own struggles with self harm and suicidal ideation. And people appreciated it – I was thanked by multiple people at the end of the day. Was told that I had enhanced their understanding of the issues. I can’t say that I learned too much myself, except that people really don’t know about this stuff!

Trigger Warnings

I want to preface this with saying that although I wrote this, I use trigger warnings for common triggers online, and respect other people’s triggers when they tell me. What I’m trying to say is that often triggers can’t be predicted, and in real life, we have no such warnings. I hope that comes across.

life doesn’t come with trigger warnings

Alan Kurdi
a wee Syrian boy lying dead on the beach.
the photo went viral online
was on newspaper covers across the world.
it was a distressing image
enough to trigger
but yet, there were no trigger warnings.
– just his tiny, bloated body
for all to see.

life doesn’t come with trigger warnings

tiny things can trigger
– seemingly innocuous things
a song, a smell, a colour, a taste
a touch on the shoulder.
even ‘soothing’ things can trigger
– baths, beds, hugging and being held.
when everything is a possible trigger,
how can we possibly know what our words or actions will do?

life doesn’t come with trigger warnings

so why should art?
some things are obvious
– graphic violence, sexual abuse, suicide.
things which upset most people
and trigger many.
warning for these things is only right.
but where do we stop?
when do we go from being sensitive
to ‘overcautious’, ‘overprotective’?

because still, life doesn’t come with trigger warnings.