Category Archives: anxiety

Time to Talk Day 2016

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Time to Talk Day 2016

The ‘Time to Change’ campaign has been instrumental in tackling stigma around mental health and on 4 February, their ‘Time to Talk’ day encourages people to talk openly about mental illness.

I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety for most of my life and I can vouch for the fact that talking about it has helped and probably saved my life.

However, I feel I must issue a warning to people who may be thinking of taking the plunge and doing some talking. You may talk to lots of people before you find anyone that wants to understand. You may talk to people and get a bad reaction, or no reaction at all. You might be starting therapy and you could well get someone great to talk to. Or your therapist may respond with crass, shocking or downright stupid comments.

When you have mental health issues, you already feel low, useless and unworthy so if you talk about your illness and get an unfavourable response, it can make you feel a whole lot worse.

Having said that, you will also find that there are a ton of amazing people out there who do want to understand and try their very best to help. It might take a while and you will have to test the water with friends, family and sources of professional help to weed out the good, bad and useless.

I’m used to discussing mental health now, but it has been a long process of trial and error and a steep learning curve. To anyone thinking of opening up, I have a few tips on what to realistically expect:

1) Stigma around mental health is usually borne out of fear, ignorance and denial. It is everywhere. You could find a complete stranger at the bus stop chatting to you about ‘dangerous schizophrenics’ and also hear a comment like ‘what have you got to be depressed about?’ from your partner. Prepare to be surprised, but don’t let it stop you talking or challenging any negativity which comes along.

2) Lots of people don’t really know what to say when you open up and that’s to be expected as the norm. Be patient, ask if they have any questions or worries. When talking about mental illness let people know why you are telling them. Mention that you do not need advice, suggestions or ‘fixing’, you are just being honest and trying to raise awareness. Ask for specific help if you need it. Sometimes people will want to support you but don’t know how. This could be things like doing shopping, cooking or cleaning if you are struggling or phoning more regularly.

3) Stigma comes in all kinds of interesting packages from unexpected sources. Along with misconceptions and judgements about mental illness you could find yourself ignored, ridiculed and disbelieved by people who are meant to be helping you. For years I was told by doctors and therapists that I wasn’t depressed or anxious. One GP remarked that I was ‘too pretty’ to be depressed. My first CBT appointment was spent desperately trying to convince the therapist of my feelings. He remarked that he had ‘worked with people in hospitals who were too depressed to wipe their own arses’ and as I could wipe my own arse, I was apparently fine. A psychiatrist also told me I would be ‘fine’ because I could articulate my problems very well. I’m not suggesting you become a gibbering unwashed wreck, but watch out for being judged for your presentation and be prepared to challenge it.

4) Some people will really struggle with you opening up, like family, friends and anyone close to you. It may come as a shock that you have disclosed or discussed a mental health issue and they might react badly. Don’t let this make you feel worse. Don’t apologise for how you are but also don’t expect people to understand straight away. Changing attitudes and removing barriers to discussion takes time and effort and not just from you. I think it’s worth pointing out that some people may never understand or be open to trying no matter how much information or time you give them. I think it’s best to just accept this and move on without letting it crush your confidence. For everyone who struggles or reacts badly there will be just as many positive or neutral reactions that you can work with.

5) Timing is everything. A campaign like Time to Talk is a great opportunity to take a leap of faith, as you can use it to bolster your confidence and know that thousands of other people are talking too. They also have a range of information you can give people if the act of physically talking is difficult. But if it’s not your time to talk yet, that’s OK. You have to be ready and if you never want to talk, that is absolutely fine.

Despite the negative pitfalls I’ve mentioned, I feel that talking about mental health is not only worth it, but hugely necessary. Through persevering with opening up, I’ve found the confidence to deal with and challenge any shocking, surprising or negative reactions which may come along. Be prepared, but don’t let it stop you if it’s something you’ve been thinking about doing.

For information, support and resources about the Time to Talk campaign you can visit http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/

This article has also been published in The Huffington Post UK –

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/laura-roche/time-to-talk-day-2016_b_9098444.html

How do you know when to come off anti-depressants?

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Medication can play a vital role in managing mental health issues. I’ve been on an anti-depressant called Dosulepin since December 2009 and at the end of last year, felt stable enough to try to come off it.

However, my GP told me that Dosulepin is one of the hardest anti-depressants to come off. It’s an older, tricyclic version and there aren’t many people still on it. Which begs the question, ‘Why was I put on it in the first place?’ I don’t suppose I’ll ever know; I was at a different practice in 2009 and was in no fit state to question the doctor at the time.

At Christmas I was taking 150mg a day and my GP advised a very slow and gradual reduction by 25mg to start with. Imagine my surprise when I felt like a complete mental raving lunatic within a week. It was so unbearable that I immediately went back up to 150mg.

A few months passed and I decided to have another go at reducing the dose. I dropped by 25mg again and the exact same thing happened. I decided to try and withstand the withdrawal effects and mustered up all my strength and determination. I had two weeks of intense mood swings, feeling unsettled and bad nightmares, but sweated it out as I can be very stubborn and didn’t want to be beaten by a tablet. It was hard to separate the feelings from my sense of ‘myself’ but tried to see it as a purely biochemical response; a change in brain chemistry that was bound to make me unsettled. It didn’t mean I had lost control or slipped back into depression. Things stabilised at the end of the second week and it seemed like my body had become used to the change so I dropped my dose by another 25mg. This immediately made me feel I had been thrown into turmoil again and I noticed that my anxiety, which had never been far away, had now reared its head again with a vengeance.

It’s been two months since the last reduction and although my GP is keen for me to keep dropping the dose, I now don’t feel confident enough to attempt this.
I realised there were a lot of psychological issues coming up that I was confused about. For one, I can’t remember what I was really like before the anti-depressants. I don’t know what I will be getting back to and I don’t know what my ‘normal’ was. I’m not sure if I’m permanently changed now from life experiences and simply being older and I don’t know how I will know when I am ok enough not to need the tablets.

I do remember that I always felt things intensely, always felt anxious  and always struggled with low moods, even without the bereavement that pushed me over the edge and onto anti-depressants.

During the last two months of being on 100mg, I’ve definitely felt different and not in a good way. I’ve settled into feeling generally low and noticing that I’m struggling a lot with my Neutropenia and M.E. My health problems have always been difficult to cope with, but I have a new sense that I’m at the end of my tether with them and can’t take it any more. They are lifelong conditions though, so I need to find a way around this! But do I need to have come off the tablets completely and had a ‘settling in’ to the new brain chemistry period to really know how I am going to deal with things?

The way I’m feeling right now is that I’m having to constantly draw on everything I’ve learned from counselling and CBT in the last five years to keep a grip on my mood. My anxiety can be all-consuming and whether it’s a biochemical withdrawal reaction or not, it is difficult to cope with. It’s knocking my confidence and it’s demoralising that this is how I am without a third of my tablets. After two months, I’m obviously through the turbulent upheaval of the last reduction and this is what I’ve been left with. I’m thinking maybe I’m just one of those people who needs medication and I should not try to reduce the dose further. I don’t have a problem with that, but Dosulepin has some pretty nasty side-effects if you take it long term and if I’m going to be on tablets, I don’t think these are the best choice.

I’m intrigued to know what’s on the other side though and to see if I could cope without them. I’ll never know if I don’t try. I don’t want lack of confidence to stop me trying, but I also don’t want to take risks with my mental health, as its taken most of the last five years to rebuild it.

Ultimately, I want to feel as ok as possible and as though I am coping and I don’t mind taking tablets to achieve this. I don’t want to come of the tablets for the sake of it, or stay on them for the sake of it, but this period is a useful experiment in seeing where the boundaries are between the tablets and my own mind. I’m surprised it’s so hard to reduce the dose and also surprised that a lot of my old ways of feeling have resurfaced so for now, I’ll tread carefully and think long and hard about whether to drop the dose any further.

Has anyone else experienced similar difficulties? How do you know whether you should come of anti-depressants or not?

 

Food and Mood – how to eat well in order to manage depression and anxiety

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Food and Mood – how to eat well in order to manage depression and anxiety

The link between food and mood is well documented and scientifically proven. We all know its important to eat well, but when you suffer with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, it’s even more essential to maintain a good diet. What you do or don’t eat can have a drastic effect on how you feel and can make the difference between improving or worsening your symptoms. Mental health charity MIND report that links have been demonstrated between low levels of Omega 3 oils (found in oily fish) and depression. It’s also been shown that too much caffeine can make anxiety worse.

However, Action on Depression discovered in a survey by the Food and Mood project that of the 200 people who took part, 88% said that changing their diet contributed significantly to improving their mood or mental health.

The trouble is, when you feel down, anxious or unstable, the last thing you care about is how much oily fish you ate that week. You don’t care about eating well, or even eating at all. This isn’t a choice most of the time. It’s the most natural thing in the world to respond to how your body feels and if you over-ride it, you can end up with some unpleasant consequences. I suffered a period of extreme anxiety a few years ago which resulted in me losing 2 stones. People though that I didn’t want to eat, or that I wasn’t ‘trying’ but the reality was that I simply couldn’t swallow because my throat was clenched too tight. My body was paralysed with tension for most of the time. If I forced myself to eat, I would be sick afterwards. Interestingly, when I suffered from mild depression I ate more, but my most severe depression resulted in a nil by mouth situation. I knew that none of these responses were ideal, but it’s hard to over-ride them or even try to care when you are in the thick of it.

As I also suffer from chronic physical health conditions, I had to try and make myself care, if only to stop these illnesses getting worse and adding to the overall amount of problems I eventually needed to overcome.

Rather than putting pressure on myself to shop and then cook wonderful healthy meals when I didn’t feel like it, I decided it would be better to work on damage limitation and being realistic about what I could eat when I was severely anxious.

One thing I took advantage of was that I was more likely to eat if I was with other people. The only problem being that when you feel depressed or anxious, it is a natural impulse to isolate yourself and let your relationships slide. As I have mentioned in one of my previous posts, ‘Depression and Intuition’, I believe the best way to manage depression is to do the exact opposite of what you feel like doing. It’s not always easy to know what you need when you feel down, but I’ve found that isolating myself makes everything a million times worse. So if you feel like you want to isolate yourself, do the opposite and meet people, especially at lunch or other meal times. See if the company, stimulation and smell of food can rouse you a little. It often did with me, even when I was convinced I wouldn’t order anything.

If you are left to your own devices, try to monitor and be aware of what is going in your mouth. It can be a good idea to keep a food diary to record what you eat and see if there is any correlation with your mood. My depressed food choices centred around the sugar, fat and carbohydrate food groups. If I ate, it was usually toast, crisps, chocolate or cakes. Or anything that was lying around the house that took less than 5 seconds to open. I was definitely a ‘comfort’ eater but then the more depressed I felt, the fewer calories passed my lips. When I realised how little I was eating during anxious episodes, I knew I had to take action. The result of my poor eating habits were definitely reflected in my equally poor mental health.

The trick I found was to try and keep a steady flow of nutrients through the body, in an easy and hassle free format. Sometimes this may mean forcing yourself to eat, but it is necessary and worth it. When I started to make changes to my diet I noticed that my mood swings were less frequent, I was less irritable and my anxiety levels were a lot lower.

Instead of quick-fix snacks of chocolate, crisps and cakes, I tried quick-fix healthier options instead such as yoghurt, fruit and nuts. All of which can be opened in less than 5 seconds and do not require cooking. I also bought bags of ready chopped salad and ate them with pre-cooked mackerel fillets. I’d cut off a corner of cheese as a snack, or if I couldn’t be bothered with that I had Babybel miniature cheese, which comes in its own individual portions. I discovered you can buy cooked wholegrain rice in pouches and had this with cooked prawns and microwave vegetables. Wholegrain cereals and muesli were also easy to eat.

Soups were my main depression/anxiety go-to food choice. I would recommend the ones with ring-pulls as finding a tin opener can be just too hard when you feel bad. Soups are comforting, easy to swallow and can be relatively healthy. Some of the ‘Farmer’s market’ style tins have enough ingredients in that they could easily pass as a full meal.

All of these are a good compromise between what you would prefer to eat and what you should actually be eating.

I also found that eating small snacks throughout the day instead of full meals was more achievable and realistic.

I’ve managed to make a habit out of making healthier food choices, to the point where I now feel instantly terrible if I slip up and eat badly. It is worth making a few changes, even if it seems like a big effort.

Does anyone have any other quick and healthy food recommendations? Please share in the comments box below!

Is there anything positive about having a mental illness?

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Is there anything positive about having a mental illness?

Having a mental illness is difficult, challenging and supremely negative in many ways.  It can cause untold stress and ruin or end lives. At first glance it doesn’t seem like there is anything positive that could be gained. When you are living with the awful reality of it, every day can seem like its suffering for sufferings sake.

I can verify from my own struggles with anxiety and depression that both have been dreadful experiences. However, during recovery periods and times of wondering what the point of it all was, I realised there were positive aspects I could take from my difficulties.

The mental health journey is one I would have preferred not to take, but in travelling this road I can’t deny I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve questioned everything and pulled myself apart in therapy in an attempt to understand and help myself better. Its been interesting and fascinating to learn why I am the way I am.  Depression forced me to look at everything in my life that wasn’t working and to get better, I had to make changes.

My problems put me in touch with a part of myself that maybe I wouldn’t have seen had I never struggled in this way. I’ve learnt self-awareness and I’ve begun to question my thoughts, actions and beliefs. Now I know who I am and what drives me, plus I have a wealth of experience in dealing with my demons. Without mental health issues, I may never have got to know myself so well, never made positive changes and never reached the point I’m at now of feeling I’ve evolved through a thousand lifetimes.  I’ve changed and grown to the point where I feel I’m a different person entirely. I’ve certainly had value for money out of my existence on the planet, that’s for sure!

I look around and see people who have stayed pretty much the same their entire lives and  I’m glad that I can see such a process of learning and growth in my life. In spite of the circumstances which caused the illness, I would rather be like this than be someone who never scratched the surface of their existence.

Mental illness has made me search hard for purpose and meaning in life as depression is the absence of both. In order to get through it, I had to find out what the point was, for me. To survive it, I couldn’t coast along and if I ignored these feelings, my depression was made worse.  It’s made me work hard, not only to overcome my problems but to achieve things in life. I’ve found both motivation and ambition through feeling so bad.

The worse I felt, the bigger the personal changes I made to get myself out of it. Depression made me take more risks. When you have felt so bad that you don’t want to live anymore, you don’t have anything to lose. I’ve pushed myself in the direction of all my goals because the worst-case scenario was never as bad as the feelings I’d already felt.

I also think that my problems have given me a compassion and empathy for others that I may not feel so intensely had I never struggled myself. My experiences meant I forged deep connections with others who were struggling and I now have a strong desire to help people understand and work through their difficulties. Without depression and anxiety, I may never have noticed or cared about other people’s problems to the extent that I do.  I may never have found myself in a job I love, supporting young people or found that writing this blog could help me and other people too.

I’ve also learned to live in the moment and appreciate the here and now. It’s not always easy to know when depression and anxiety will strike, how long they will last or how badly they will affect me this time around. These days, if I’m feeling good, I savour and appreciate those times and try my utmost to make the most of them.

We know that the present is all we have , but I don’t think we always hold onto each moment and make a conscious effort to notice and experience it.

I’m more able to appreciate the small moments of joy and hold onto them to remember during the bad times. Having chronic health issues also has further reinforced my ability to be completely present in every well period of my life. It has given me perspective. I don’t need a lot of money, possessions a car or fancy holidays. Today, a bright sunny day and a great piece of cake are enough to bring a smile to my face.

The fact that I’m 42 and I’ve not killed myself from depression has given me confidence to deal with anything else life might throw at me. In the midst of a bad depressive episode, I find it difficult to say anything nice about myself, but now I’m well I can see that I must be strong and determined otherwise I would never have got through it. Having anxiety in particular has given me tenacity; each minute of feeling so awful is stretched out to feel like a lifetime, so I’ve had to learn how to ride it out and develop good coping skills.

To be honest, I was concerned when I started this blog that I wouldn’t find enough positive things to mention. I’m surprised that I can see so much good in such difficult circumstances. I know there isn’t always a point to what happens in life, but I’m glad I’ve found the point of what I’ve been through.

Can anyone else see positive outcomes of having a mental illness?

The Sanctuary

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The Sanctuary

Recently, a new mental health facility called The Sanctuary opened in Manchester, UK. The first of its kind, it offers people struggling with emotional or mental distress a chance to access emergency overnight support without having to endure the trials and tribulations of going to A+E.

All I can say is, about time. Up until its opening on 10th September this year, there were two distinct pathways available to people in the North West requiring immediate mental health intervention. If you had money, you followed a road paved with gold until you ended up at the luxury surroundings of somewhere like The Priory. Or if you were like me, a pauper reliant on the NHS, you headed to your nearest Accident and Emergency department and took your place on the cold metal chairs with the bleeding, screaming and inebriated.

I’ve done more than a few 6+ hour waits on those chairs, which are screwed to the floor to prevent them being used in a violent attack. During that time, my own distress which I thought had already hit rock bottom, escalated to several layers below it from the trauma of being sat in such an inappropriate environment . Then, when my name was finally called, the humiliation and degradation of trying to explain my complete inability to cope to a disinterested triage nurse nearly finished me off completely. From there I was moved to a private room, which sounds good but it isn’t. It’s completely bare, save for 3 plastic chairs and it’s painted in ‘hospital green’ a shade that is not found anywhere on the Dulux colour chart. There are large sections chipped off for that ‘shabby chic’ feel without the chic. Then anywhere between another 1 and 3 hours later, an on duty psychiatrist or member of the mental health crisis team appears to take down your life story.

At the very point where the visit to A+E has pushed you fully into wanting to end it all, you have to delve into the recesses of your childhood memories and significant mental health events leading up to you being in that green room of doom. Articulating your thoughts in the middle of a mental health crisis is not easy. You are required to think in a straight line when the inside of your head resembles a jumble sale. You have to explain why you have come to A+E in this state and what you would like them to do about it. You have to answer the unanswerable.

At this point you are also desperate for them to be nice and look at you with empathy and concern. Sometimes this happened and I have sobbed with relief at the human connection. But other times I have felt lower than I ever thought possible when I’ve bared my soul to these complete strangers and been left feeling as though I’d been interviewed by a market researcher on the street.

Of course, I understand that they have to follow safeguarding procedures and establish whether I am a risk to myself or others. I know that A+E mental health staff don’t have the time or resources to really offer much in the way of comfort or reassurance, but it adds an extra level of suffering to an already dreadful experience to feel you are on a hospital conveyor belt. If you are not about to do yourself or someone else terrible damage, you are pretty much dischargable within the next hour, with your mental state not that different from when you walked in. Don’t get me wrong, if you are suicidal and can’t see a way past that, A+E is the right place to go. But there is a huge ‘grey area’ of people struggling to manage long-term mental health conditions, who may end up there because there was simply nothing in place to stop their crisis escalating beforehand.

That’s why a place like The Sanctuary is a revelation. It is run by experienced staff and volunteers with personal experience of mental health issues. It provides a range of support including offering a space to talk, managing depression, anxiety and panic attacks and assistance with coping after a crisis has passed. The most crucial fact is that it’s open from 11pm to 9am, so it’s available when most other services are closed and when your problems feel a million times worse.

The second most crucial fact is that there is not an inch of chipped hospital green paint anywhere. On entering the reception area you are instantly soothed by the soft cream and teal colour scheme. There are leather couches, pictures of sunsets and best of all, miniature rocket lava lamps. As Tesco say, ‘every little helps’.

The Sanctuary is based at the Kath Locke Centre, 123 Moss Lane West, Moss Side, Manchester. You can self-refer by calling 0161-637-0808. Health care and other professionals may also refer clients to the service by calling this number. You can also find out more by visiting www.selfhelpservices.org.uk.

If only there were similar facilities available everywhere, but this is an excellent start.

Alcohol and Mental Health

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Alcohol and Mental Health

The link between alcohol and mental health problems is undisputed and long established. A study by charity Alcohol Concern showed that during a 12 month period, there were 72,000 hospital admissions with a diagnosis of mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol. The same study also revealed that 65% of suicides are linked to excessive drinking.

There is some debate over which came first, the alcohol abuse or the mental health issues. However, it has been conclusively proved that heavy drinking can cause neuropsychiatric disorders in people who were not already previously diagnosed and it can exacerbate existing mood swings, anxiety and depression. The problems are intensified in young people and a US study by the same charity showed that 80% of adolescents with alcohol problems also had a psychiatric disorder.

I started drinking at 16 and I also had mental health issues. Both started at about the same time and undoubtedly each made the other worse.

I was the Queen of self-medicating in my early teens and twenties. It was the easiest thing in the world when faced with a tempestuous mental state to dull, alter or obliterate it with a quick drink or ten. I found that after a drink I was fun and confident. My problems floated off into the sunset, with my inhibitions duly following suit.

I’m not sure when I crossed the line from fun party girl into heavy drinker, but it all escalated at University when I suddenly had access to a student loan. Before long, every stub in my cheque book was for Threshers off-license. I was studying Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Sylvia Plath that great alcoholic and mentally ill sector of American literature heavyweights. I felt I was in some pretty cool company. As long as I kept my head away from gas ovens, I thought I could rock through my degree and everything would be just fine and dandy. I sat my finals drunk and came out with my B.A Hons exactly like I’d planned.

Then I drank after graduating because there were no jobs and I was fed up of doing voluntary work and it not leading anywhere. I had to downgrade from vodka to cheap wine due to income restrictions, but there was no way I was stopping.

It will come as no surprise to hear that drinking did not help my problems one little bit. It made them spectacularly worse. Alcohol is a depressant, so drinking it if you already suffer from depression is a ridiculously bad idea. I had terrible hangovers, mood swings and anxiety. The temporary relief and numbness from my feelings was short-lived and they returned with a vengeance when I sobered up the next day. I found that I was needing more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect and it wasn’t fun any more. It was something I needed to get through the day and I was in a mess. I felt lost, useless and unable to cope. The very worst thing was I couldn’t even generate any artistic output from my turmoil. I wasn’t using any of my skills or qualifications and there was no great work of literature bursting forth out of my pain.

Gradually my problems escalated to the point where I was now also self-harming regularly. I’d become used to spending my evenings drinking, self-harming and visiting A+E to get stitches. During one such visit I discovered I’d almost severed a nerve to my hand. It scared the hell out of me and was the wake-up call I needed.

I realised that if I didn’t take action I was going to be an alcoholic forever. I’d lost sight of whether the alcohol or depression was the bigger problem. They had fused together in a terrible co-dependent hybrid. I was frightened and mortified by the damage I was causing myself. I knew I couldn’t cut down or be someone that only has a drink at social events. I’m an all or nothing kind of gal so I decided to summon up all my willpower and desire for change and see if I could give it up for good.

I didn’t tell anyone of my plan initially because that would have involved admitting I was currently drinking a shocking amount. I went cold-turkey and it was hard. But after a couple of weeks of sobriety I put the word about and was amazed at the support I received. I gradually replaced drink and self-harm with counselling sessions, talking to friends and writing. It wasn’t easy. There were a few slip-ups and I had to learn to deal with the full force of my un-medicated feelings. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to go back to drink but I didn’t want to live a life terrified and unable to deal with how I really felt.

Seventeen years later I am still teetotal and having a drink doesn’t even occur to me any more. I’ve also not self-harmed in that time either. Lots of people ask me why I don’t drink and if I’m feeling brave, I’ll share a bit of this story with them.

Giving up alcohol has been one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. I dread to think how bad my life could have been if I hadn’t stopped. Without it I was finally in a position to look at the root causes of my unhappiness and deal with them.

If you can relate to any of this and want to stop drinking, you’re not alone. There is a lot of help and support out there and although it’s difficult to give up, I assure you it’s completely worth it.

You can contact any of the support agencies below for advice and help. Don’t wait until you hit rock bottom like I did.

Alcoholics Anonymous (UK) – 0845 769 7555
Addaction (UK) – National charity that provides services for people affected by drug and alcohol problems – http://www.addaction.org.uk
Drinkline (UK) – 0800 917 8282
Al-Anon – for families and friends of alcoholics –
http://www.al-anonuk.org.uk
MIND – Mental health charity with lots of useful resources and information – http://www.mind.org.uk
Addiction Helper (UK) – 0800 024 1476

The benefits of blogging

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When I first started this blog I had a few objectives in mind, but I had no idea how many positive repercussions there would be from writing it. I knew I wanted to raise awareness of mental health issues, to finally get writing and share it with people and to try and make sense of some of the experiences I’ve been through.

I achieved all of this and so much more. It has been a truly amazing experience akin to lying in a bath of pick ‘n’ mix sweets whilst Diet Coke flows out of the taps.

It wasn’t easy at the start.

For months I struggled with the fact I was writing under my real name. I had terrible anxiety every time I gave the link out to a new person and for while, I debated removing the blog and writing something less personal. I realised I was only comfortable sharing the link with people who I knew we’re guaranteed to support me.

I realised that the only way to get past this was to shove it somewhere that everyone could see it – Facebook. As the great literary and self-help goddess Susan Jeffers says, I needed to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway.’ I knew I would never be able to achieve my goals of reaching out to people unless I got over that fear that someone I knew would read the blog.

It turned out that this was the best possible thing I could have done. Within 20 minutes of the first post appearing on the timeline, I had loads of ‘likes’. After an hour there were 21 likes and a big list of reassuring and positive comments. It did wonders for my confidence and it was lovely to see that so many of my friends took the time to come forward. One friend even manage to support my early posts from her travels to the middle of the Peruvian jungle. It turns out you can get an internet connection there!

What I didn’t expect was that I’d also get numerous private messages and emails, from friends I hadn’t seen for years or from people I’d met briefly and then lost contact with as our lives followed separate paths. It was so moving to get these messages thanking me for being open and sharing my experiences, letting me know that they too had struggled and I’d helped them to feel less alone. It brought people back into my life that connected with me and what I was trying to achieve and I got to know them on a whole other level.

Then there were the numerous lovely and supportive comments from other WordPress users and bloggers. I found out to my delight that the internet was not a dubious place full of nasty trolls determined to swoop and destroy my humble outpourings. Far from it. Worpress has turned out to be a wonderful supportive community of like-minded souls who are more than happy to take time out of their day to read, follow and comment on posts. I’ve found lots of similar people to talk with and some I’ve grown to really care about.

I picked up a couple of blogging awards too after kindly being nominated by one of my WordPress buddies.

Perhaps the most surprising outcome was that people who already knew what I’d been through were letting me know that they now understood me better as a result of the blog. It seemed that putting it in writing gave my experiences an extra level of accessibility and clarity which I somehow was not able to convey otherwise.

The best thing of all is that I’ve successfully inspired a few other people to write and publish their experiences. It has been one of the most amazing feelings to read a wonderful, open and honest piece by a previously private friend and be told that it happened because of me.

The whole blogging experience has done wonders for my confidence. Being able to reveal a less than perfect side of yourself and have that completely accepted is a revelation. I always felt like I had to hide the fact I get depressed and have anxiety, but not anymore. It’s a great feeling to know that I’m ok just the way I am. I feel like a new and improved version of myself with all the latest updates installed.

I’m looking forward to seeing where else the blog will take me. I had no idea how it would transform my life in little over a year, so it’s exciting to think of what might happen in the future. I can highly recommend starting one and if the public disclosure is a problem, start one under a pseudonym. Some of the best ones I’ve read were anonymous; this gives you the freedom to be completely honest and write about things you couldn’t ordinarily mention for fear of repercussions in real life. Either way it’s a win-win situation.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next post!

Dedicated to medicating.

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I’ve had different views towards taking medication over the course of my life. Interestingly, for someone who turned up at the doctor’s surgery at 17 with Depression, I wasn’t offered any sort of chemical relief until I was having a breakdown in my final year of University age 24. This corresponded with an extremely unhelpful consultation I had with a witch-like psychiatrist who I am tempted to name, even though I don’t ordinarily do that for fear of a libel suit. After a ten minute session with witch-features, I came out with a prescription for Prozac and my first sojourn into the world anti-depressants began.

I was hopeful that tablets would help me. At the very least I hoped they would enable me to get to the end of my degree and graduate with my friends.

They did, but Prozac turned me into even more of a nutter than I already was. Within 2 weeks I was having manic phases and rampant insomnia. I couldn’t relax even for a second and had to burn off my restlessness by going for dawn perambulations around the council estates of Huyton. The only good thing that came out of this phase was the sudden completion of my 10,000 word dissertation over the course of one weekend.

After a few more weeks of mental mania I decided I couldn’t cope with the new fast-forward style me and threw the Prozac in the bin. I didn’t attend any further appointments with witch-face as I didn’t trust her to prescribe anything remotely appropriate.

My second adventure in anti-depressant land happened when I was 26. I had moved house and got a different GP; under his recommendation I decided to try a course of Amitryptiline. I was gutted when the same reaction happened and I became restless, agitated and uncontrollably manic within weeks. I was now living by a park, so my restless ramblings were conducted in more picturesque surroundings, but the mental mayhem was the same. Again, these tablets were lashed in the bin.

I was starting to think that medication just wasn’t for me, but a third dalliance with Depression when I was 28 caused me to reconsider. I’d just been diagnosed with Neutropenia (rare blood disorder-see previous posts) and was finding life to be very trying and incomprehensibly shit. After being hospitalised for a week and tested for Leukaemia, HIV, Hepatitis B and C before the diagnosis of Neutropenia was arrived at, I asked to see the hospital shrink as I wasn’t sure there would be any person left to treat if my feelings escalated. I explained all about the bad reactions to Prozac and Amitryptiline and the psychiatrist listened very carefully and deduced that the other 2 practitioners clearly hadn’t listened to how bad my anxiety was. He thought giving those drugs to someone with extreme anxiety was very bad judgement and highly unprofessional. He prescribed a course of Dosulepin, an older tricyclic anti-depressant which had sedative properties.

It took about six weeks to kick in, but it proved to be a very welcome addition to my life. I found the will to carry on living and felt able to deal with all the medical drama. I stayed on it for the next eight years and five of those were the best years of my life.

I decided to come off it in my early thirties. I’d managed to get a secure full-time job and everything was just peachy. I stayed alright for a good few years but then the untimely death of my father once again knocked my brain settings out of whack. For a while I didn’t notice I had deviated so far off my axis. As the slide towards Depression was so gradual, I’d got used to feeling bad and started thinking it was normal to feel absolutely fucking terrible. By the time I arrived at my GP’s surgery a gibbering quivering shadow of my former self, I was so far gone that it took many months for the Dosulepin to re-acquaint itself with my neurotransmitters.

I am still on it to this day. I have fought with many new doctors, psychiatrists and other medical personnel to stay with Dosulepin as it’s apparently not a recommended drug any more. There are newer, ‘better’ anti-depressants on the market with less side-effects. Dosulepin worked so well for me in the past that I don’t see the point of taking the risk of changing. Especially when I have tried and failed to enjoy the company of both Prozac and Amitryptiline.

It’s difficult to question the authority of doctors, especially when you are feeling vulnerable and your head is wrecked with Depression. But doing so got me off two anti-depressants which clearly made me worse. It also helped me to find one which did actually suit me.

I have to attend a medication review every few months with my GP and they still keep suggesting I change to a newer anti-depressant. Recently I was asked to consider coming off anti-depressants altogether but I’m not doing that either. If I had my way I would stay on Dosulepin for life. It clearly fills in the blanks in my brain chemistry and I will deal with the long-term side-effects if and when they arrive.

I’m not someone who has a problem being on medication for Depression. I take injections for my Neutropenia and the principle is exactly the same. Medication isn’t the only thing that made me feel better, but it has made a massive contribution which cannot be underestimated.

“Fail to plan and you plan to fail” – coping strategies for when life turns nasty.

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One of the most reliable things about life is that you can count on it to fuck you over at some point. Whether that is through difficult life events, relationships or circumstances, it is rare to sail through to old age completely unscathed.

I’ve employed various coping mechanisms over the years to deal with depression, anxiety, long-term health problems and a variety of other difficult things that came my way. Some of them were good and some were very bad indeed. Before I received proper therapy and support and got to know myself inside out, my coping strategies included heavy drinking, over-eating, self-harm, exuberant credit fuelled shopping sprees and hanging out with people who were as fucked up as I was, or worse. I’ve always had an invisible sign on my head saying ‘Come meet me!’ that only the seriously messed up could read.

It’s taken me the best part of 25 years to rid myself of all this destruction and find more helpful and less damaging ways to cope with life and the problems I’ve faced.

I’m proud of the fact that I haven’t carried out any of the above unhelpful methods of coping for many many years. These days, I am sober and eat healthily, the credit cards have been banished and my friends are either completely normal (whatever that is) or of a pretty similar level of battiness to how I am now.

Although I am on a stable footing at the moment, I’ve learnt that I must always have coping strategies hard-wired into my brain. Staying on top of mental and physical health problems requires vigilence, discipline and self-awareness. It’s not a very relaxing life, but it’s one I feel in control of.

Perhaps the most important factor in coping is your belief system and attitude. I’ve always believed things would get better, even when they were fucking terrible. No matter how improbable it seemed, I knew that if I didn’t believe this I would be doomed. Having this belief opens you up to things which may help and improve your situation. If you don’t believe things will get better, you dismiss or don’t even notice anything good that comes your way. Running closely alongside this belief is to categorically believe there will always be SOMETHING that you can do to improve your situation, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem. After noticing I am still alive and prospering after many years of hell, it is now part of my coping hard-wiring to believe that I will get through any future shit that comes my way.

Another important coping strategy is fine-tuned self-awareness. I’ve learnt to recognise all my own signs of stress, depression and being overwhelmed. It’s been very important to me in coping with problems to recognise when I am NOT coping.

If I feel I am not coping, I have learned by trial and error that certain actions will always help. Talking about it to someone I am close with can often stop any problems dead in their tracks. Learning that some people are better than others to talk to has been a key development in my life. As was letting go of the expectation that certain people ‘should’ be there for me. I wish I’d known 20 years ago to just give up if people don’t offer their time, attention and support freely.

A branch of this coping mechanism is to never isolate myself if going through a tough time. I have a tendency to get right in my own head, over-analyse things and feel very intensely overloaded indeed when I am alone. I know that to maintain my current and future sanity I must police how much time I spend sans company. I also know now that I cope with life best when I am not living on my own. I’ve tried it 3 times, even though I vowed after the first time never to do it again. All 3 times I did it, I was completely unable to deal with what life threw at me. I think I felt I ‘should’ be able to conquer it, but it’s just not for me. It brings out my absolute worst self and you should all hit me around the head with a wet fish if you ever hear me planning to do it again. Maybe for other people, a break from the world is exactly what’s needed and living on your own suits you. The important thing is to know yourself and your needs and listen to them.

Another favourite coping strategy is acceptance coupled with being realistic. Don’t get me wrong, by acceptance I don’t mean settling back and not doing anything about your situation. I’m a firm believer in taking postive action and making changes if you can. I’m talking about accepting things that you can’t really change, like other people or a lifelong health problem. It’s taken me a long time to learn, but I’ve realised that you can waste a whole lot of energy fighting things instead of working within the boundaries of what you have been dealt. It’s about accepting when you have changed everything you possibly can and being realistic about the world, life and your situation.

There are so many other things I’ve found useful and helpful that I could carry on indefinitely. The coping mechanisms I’ve mentioned above are top of the list but there are many others such as keeping a routine, eating well, writing and having a bar of soap from Lush in the bathroom at all times.

It’s all about taking responsibility and being honest with yourself, identifying what helps and what doesn’t. What works for someone else might not work for you. I’ve been advised numerous times to do Yoga and meditation for example, but they don’t help me. I end up thinking about all kinds of bad stuff or composing shopping lists in my head when I’m meant to be focusing on my breathing. I can’t switch off this way and find it more relaxing to put funky music on and have a dance. Work out your own way of coping and pull on your resources when times get tough. You can’t stop shit happening but you don’t have to be at the mercy of how you feel.

Trigger happy.

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If you are suffering from long-term mental health problems, you will probably find that any episode is preceded by some sort of trigger. Identifying your own triggers can be a useful skill in avoiding or minimising the severity of an episode. It can take time to work out what sets you off, or makes you feel worse. But self-awareness can be the most valuable tool at your disposal when managing your condition or dealing with an oncoming crisis.

It’s not selfish to spend time working out what makes you feel bad. It’s taking responsibility for yourself and your mental well-being. Sometimes the triggers may be obvious, or it may seem there is no particular cause for the way you feel. I’ve found that if you look hard you might find triggers so subtle, your mind didn’t acknowledge them at the time.

Therapy can help you work out what triggers your moods and behaviour, but long waiting lists and limited sessions could mean you only scratch the surface. It can only be as successful as the honesty and self-awareness you bring to the sessions anyway. It can be useful to do some self-analysis before your first appointment and have a list of ideas about why you may be feeling the way you do.

Triggers can also change over time. The things that trigger me to feel anxious or depressed now are not the same as when I was younger. I am relatively well at the moment, or ‘sub-clinical’ as the medical profession would say. This has given me an excellent platform to be able to look back over various periods of past depression and anxiety to work out what may have set them off. In doing so, I hope I can learn from them and possibly avoid any severe episodes in future. I don’t see this as ‘dwelling on the past’ or not being able to move on; it’s more of an evaluation of my experiences and self-protection insurance policy.

Everyone will have different triggers, but in the spirit of honesty and sharing, I’m going to list some of mine and show how identifying them has led to me being able to make some drastic positive changes to my life.

The main trigger to my most recent bout of depression and anxiety was my Dad dying suddenly, 5 years ago. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that this caused me a lot of problems; it was a massive shock to the system and it was normal to be struggling as a result.

What I hadn’t accounted for was the aftershocks and complete inability to function which followed. His death set off a chain reaction of problems and although I sought medical help, I don’t feel that I received the right support. It’s only now, five years away from this that I can look at it rationally and think that all my symptoms seemed to match up with post-traumatic stress disorder. I really wish that one of the millions of doctors I saw at the time had diagnosed this correctly.

The practical upshot of this was that I lost all ability to control my moods and function normally. I was hideously depressed and suffering from severe anxiety and flashbacks, whilst simultaneously trying to keep my job and appear ‘normal’.

Thoughts, situations, people and events which I would normaly be able to deal with were triggering horrendous lows and anxious meltdowns. I was a wreck for years.

I’ve had to learn almost how to ‘re-wire’ my brain so that I could function again and experience some sort of joy out of life.

Part of this was the natural process of getting over my Dad’s death, but most of it was identifying the numerous triggers which were causing the aftershocks and meltdowns. It was difficult, especially when I felt that I was constantly on one of those death-defying rollercoaster rides. The main triggers are listed below:-

1) Anything connected with death. Of course, death is all around us so I’ve had to learn to cope with the idea of death as a part of life. I’ve accepted that I will always be over-sensitive to anything death related and be aware that it is a major trigger. For this reason, I avoid any funerals that it is not strictly necessary for me to attend. I don’t visit my Dad’s grave and I don’t mark the anniversary of his death. I turn over the TV if there are any references to dying or death and I don’t allow myself to ruminate about it. I tell myself that although death is traumatic, I will be able to get through it if anyone else dies because I’ve survived this experience. Really I could do with everyone staying alive for at least 5 years to give me a break from it. People, please try your best!

2) Being tired. Unfortunately, I am tired all the time as I have M.E. I’ve found that this can disturb all my carefully rewired brain settings in an instant. When I’m tired, I have a lot less control over my moods. My brain likes to gravitate towards topics I’d rather not think about. Thoughts, images and feelings come into my head in a random and disjointed way and it makes me feel confused and out of control. There is a level of extreme tiredness that I have only experienced since I got M.E which is similar to feeling drunk. This is a bad and not enjoyable drunk sensation that makes me feel like throwing up. Once it has gone this far, I have about half an hour to get to bed otherwise an extreme anxiety episode will follow that can go on for 12 hours or more. Now I’ve identified the damage that tiredness can cause, I prioritise rest, relaxation and sleep. As soon as my trigger radar picks up progressive tiredness, I act quickly to avoid my moods worsening. If I find myself stuck in the ‘drunk zone’ whilst travelling or in a situation where I can’t go straight to bed, I tell myself that the thoughts, feelings and mood I am experiencing are tiredness related and not a real reflection of how things are.

3) Being asleep. I know this seems crazy because I need a lot of sleep to cope with my M.E and mental health problems as detailed above. But sleep and especially dreaming seem to totally mess with my head. Again, it seems to disturb all the rational re-programming I’ve done in the day and my brain sees it as a chance to go on a frenzied free-for-all. The dreams I have are bizarre, disturbing and downright fucking insane. I had one last week where a man came and removed my brain and cut it into 50 pieces. He laid them all out in rows of 10 and then started eating it, piece by piece. I felt that ‘I’ was in a piece of brain in the back row, but when he ate a chunk, I could feel pain in all the pieces. Luckily my partner heard me making weird noises and woke me up. It makes me so mad that I have to dream shit like this. I don’t watch horror films or anything remotely disturbing. It’s all a product of my own inscrutable head. I thought my brain was supposed to be on MY side? I wish I could dream about kittens and fields of flowers. I deal with this by forcing myself to get up and on with my day. My normal routine seems to rebalance the order of things and I try not to dwell on these stupid night terrors.

3) Feeling alone or lonely. This is a trigger I’ve had all my life, although it has picked up it’s intensity since my Dad died. It’s an interesting one because I do love my own company and need a lot of time to do my own thing. Plus,I have a partner, family and friends I can talk to along with numerous Facebook pals and support groups I belong to. So it’s been tricky getting to the bottom of how and why feeling lonely is a big issue. I think it’s roots are in my teenage years, when due to extreme shyness and lack of social skills, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. Some of it comes from years of not being able to talk about my depression and anxiety; from feeling like I couldn’t be myself with people or that I had to hide my problems. I think some of it is also due to spending excessive amounts of time at home alone with Neutropenia related illness. I’ve realised that as soon as I start feeling ill, it automatically triggers the lonely feelings because I don’t know how much time I’m going to spend cut off from the world. As soon as I feel a sense of loneliness coming on, I force myself to interact with people. I remind myself of all the support I have around me and I put the TV and computer on if I’m stuck at home ill. Seeing humans on telly and chatting on Facebook is sometimes enough to get me through if I am going through a tough time.

4) Being surrounded by people all the time. I know, I’m a mass of contradictions! This can send me mental just as much as too much me-time. It manifests itself as extreme irritation and claustrophobia. I’m still working on getting the balance right between company and solitude. But I’ve realised there is nothing wrong with taking time out for a solitary walk if on a group holiday, or taking lunch alone if work is busy and frenetic.

5) Being bored. I get bored very easily and it is an absolute recipe for disaster. My mind will instantly wander onto all kinds of unsuitable topics and mental mayhem will ensue. Popular choices include the meaning of life, the nature of reality and why are we here? As I’ve spent most of my life pondering these weighty issues and not arrived at any conclusions, I’m not allowed to think about them anymore. I realised that all the great thinkers, philosophers and scientists had already spent years on these topics and not arrived at any answers, so what’s the point in me wrecking my own head over it all? If I get bored and these thoughts come into my head I tell myself to stop it. I remind myself that life is for living and go and do something less stupid instead.

6) Music and background noise. This one took me a while to pick up on as it is what I’d call a subtle trigger. I realised I can feel suddenly depressed or extremely agitated if there is a moving soundtrack on TV or a sad song playing on the radio or in a cafe. Anything in a minor key can set me off, even if the music is technically beautiful. In the past I loved this kind of music, but post Dad’s death, it triggers extreme mood swings. Ditto any repetitive noise, such as roadworks,traffic, phones ringing and the fan in our bathroom. I can’t avoid all of these things but being aware of their effect is very useful.

7) Changes in routine. I know this may seem an odd one for someone who is easily bored, but I function best these days when everything is more or less the same. I’ve always been a creature of habit but this has now been taken to the next level, like everything else. I think it’s again due to the shock of my Dad going. He was literally here one minute and gone the next. My subconscious has obviously decided that everything now must be more or less predictable to offset this. Work days are now bizarrely, the times when I feel most stable. The whole day follows a set routine and structure wheras being off on holiday, or going away does not. I’m annoyed that it’s now ‘fun’ things that cause me massive problems and mood swings. I used to love being off work and could quite happily mill around for the whole summer break. I still like it, but I’ve learned I have to implement a different routine and can’t float around at leisure. If I let the days go by, I end up feeling lost, disconnected, anxious and adrift. Going on overnight trips or holidays has become fraught with difficulty as the transition brings on severe anxiety. It doesn’t matter how much I’m looking forward to it, I can’t avoid being up all night with anxiety before I go. The first night on arrival is usually fucked too, as I adjust to a new routine. I’d never let it stop me, but it’s a fucking pain in the arse and very debilitating. I tell myself I’ll be fine when I get there and will enjoy it because this is always true. I never want to become one of those people who is ruled by their anxiety. So what if you arrive on holiday or to stay with someone looking a bit mental? It’s better than not arriving at all.

These are the main triggers that I’m dealing with right now. There are more, but I don’t want this post to resemble the length of War and Peace. I’m delighted to find that writing about triggers hasn’t triggered anything nasty, so this is a plus point! Why not have a go at writing a list of your own?