When Christmas is less full of cheer

I love Christmas, and I love to love Christmas. I love the fact that the entire month of December means Christmas. I love that every house has fairy lights up, and that makes everywhere look more welcoming and homely. I love that the dark is less dark, that we let a little bit of light in at one of the darkest times of the year. I love that it becomes okay to stay in with blankets and watch telly. I love that the TV is 90% reruns of everything that is good in the world.

I also hate the Christmas period. I hate it because it makes my brain phase out a lot, it feels unreal, and it makes me feel like I have to pretend to be happy all of the time.

Having a mental illness can make you feel like an actor. I act most of the time to make everyone else comfortable. I pretend to be excited at the things I know I’m supposed to – I pretend that I can’t wait to go on holiday or that I’m looking forward to going out for dinner. I pretend that I’m okay, I pretend that I’m not drowning inside with the emotions that have all crashed down at once. I pretend that I feel and I pretend that I’m not feeling as much as I am. Having to act at Christmas, when everything is heightened is a really difficult and trying thing to. It’s tiring. It is tiring to have to hold your facade up to the world for a longer period then usual, to people you don’t normally see, in situations you don’t normally have to deal with. It can make Christmas difficult.

Christmas can be difficult when it reminds you of what you’ve lost. The people who can’t be there, the people who for reasons best known to themselves aren’t there through choice. It reminds you of who you used to be, the ways you used to act, the things you used to do that don’t happen. It’s a time of remembering and that can be painful, whether through loss of a person you love or the loss of part of yourself. And that’s okay.

It’s okay that Christmas is difficult, and I am with you every second of this difficult period, and even on Christmas Day when things can be the worst. Do what you can to make it okay, take your time if you need it, have the space to breathe. It will all be okay. You will be okay.

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Nothing is R E A L

I haven’t written in a while, for several reasons, mainly because A) I was writing about other stuff and my brain has a habit of getting obsessed with things and running with them and B) because nothing felt real enough to form sentences about. The whole ‘not real’ thing is something which I carry around with me and have done for a long time now. There’s no clear cut day when I remember waking up and feeling that the world had changed but I can’t remember the last time I woke up and felt that the world was real. So a while. It has a name if what I have described to you sounds crazy (and yes, it really is a lot of the time) – I deal with depersonalisation and derealisation. For me, they both interact and have their tentacles wound around each other so tightly a lot of the time I can’t distinguish which one is worse then the other, and I think that’s true for a lot of people who live with this too. There’s a lot of us out there – around 1.3 million people in the UK, or 2% of the population – about the same percentage of people who have green eyes (so also me).

Depersonalisation/derealisation is a way for your brain to protect itself. I’ve heard it described as a sort of parachute for your brain – it gets itself into a situation where it is panicking, and it is dangerous for it, and it responds by just checking out and removing itself from the situation. Which is great protection because it means that you don’t have to deal with whatever situation you are in, whether that be a car crash or in the stressful situation that you can’t get out of (that might have been happening for a long time). Whatever the actual cause is, DP/DR means that your brain checks out for a bit, and leaves you feeling numb, emotionless, spaced out, or like a robot.

For me, the strength of how spaced out or unreal I’m feeling varies from day to day. Today I woke up and everything felt unreal, as if it was a story I was telling myself in my head, but I could also appreciate that everyone around me bought into the real-ness of it and it felt somewhat believable. A bit. Yesterday it felt like a buzzing in the front of my head just behind my eyes, that everything was a bit too bright and a bit too real, like it was trying too hard to be real that it inadvertently revealed itself. But other days I wake up and I feel like I’m able to peer between the atoms of the world and pull the fabric of space out a little, to peer behind the lines and see what’s actually out there. And then there are the days when I’m a crumbling shell of panic because i’m-not-real-and-you’re-not-real-and-nothing-is-real-and-why-are-we-here-and-if-they-find-out-i-know-it’ll-end-what-happens-if-that-happens and it’s terrifying. That’s the derealisation – the sense that you are disconnected from the world around you. However, depersonalisation is the sense that you are disconnected from self. So, I can look in the mirror and recognise that the face that reflects back is the one that was given to me, but it doesn’t look quite right, the eyes are off, and the shape of the face feels wrong. I can look at my hands and my breath catches because they’re not my hands, the fingers are too long/short/pudgy/skinny, that mole that I used to have has disappeared, and that’s the depersonalisation talking. It can get really bad and it becomes a sense that my thoughts are living in someone else’s head because nothing about the body I’m in feels like mine, that I am some sort of walking machine that thinks. It’s weird, I know.

Admitting that the world isn’t feeling real (or isn’t real because you know, it’s not really) is really difficult, especially when you don’t know how other people are going to react. Mostly, I would bring it up as a joke, throw it in at the end of a sentence filled with sadness and emptiness, a kind of twisted punchline – ‘so yes, i’m going to fail my degree, and my coursework is piling up and everyone hates me, but it’s okay because none of this is real anyway‘. When you throw it in uncaringly, whilst panicking internally, people tend to laugh it off, as if it was just a way for the hurt in the sentence to be ameliorated somehow. Which is what you wanted. Because what happens if you admit to what you’re feeling and they think you’re mad, right?

I think because of that uncertainty as to how people are going to react, coupled with the DP/DR itself, it’s not something that is talked about often, or at all particularly. Fundamentally, it’s difficult to talk about something that you *know* is true because you feel it, so why talk about the world not being real when it isn’t real anyway? Even doctors have trouble recognising DP/DR when patients bring it up, and often skim over it to topics that they feel more comfortable dealing with.

Recently, luckily, people are talking about it. There are articles written about how it feels to like with depersonalisation or derealisation, there are YouTube videos talking about DP/DR and treatments and things that work for them. And no, it’s not an easy fix, and it’s not as acknowledged as other mental health conditions like OCD or bipolar, but with people talking and sharing it becomes less of an unknown.

I’m not going to offer any real tips or things that could help because I spend my days treading water in the universe of unreality hoping that the days when I’m sinking through the panic become less frequent. Part of me kind of appreciates it in a way. I have a brain that checks out, and then gives me the space to imagine terrible and beautiful things. I live in my head more then I live in the world because I know what happens in my head isn’t real, but could be just as real as what is happening in the world.

If anyone wants to watch a brief video (it’s 10:35 minutes long) if nothing I’ve written makes sense to you please please go check out Dodie’s video with Kati Morton – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6iVspBWzZU the descriptions of feelings, and explanations are really really informative and some of the stuff really hits the nail on the head.

 

Finding a Piece of the Map

I’ve been dealing with the suffocating sense of being lost. When your plans for the year change radically it shouldn’t be surprising that you tend to feel out of place or somehow that you fell off the map of life. I feel as if all the cards have been thrown up into the air and I’m still waiting for them to fall. Do I know what I’m doing? Absolutely not. Do I know what I want to be doing? Sort of. Sometimes.

And I think that’s part of the problem. I know, kind of, where I want to get to, where I want to be with no real concept of how to get there. And then again I doubt that idea and think of something else. I feel as if I’m always going to be stuck in the quicksand that is limbo.

I know that I want to create. I want to share stories and I want to help other people to share their stories. I fricking love storytelling, I used to write all the time as a kid, still do when my crippling anxieties over being inadequate let me put pen to paper. I want people to find joy in life. I want to show people that joy can be found in the everyday things. In the mundane and the ordinary. I may not be very good at it, I doubt anyone is going to employ me to do it, but that’s what I want to do.

I may not get there, I don’t even know quite where ‘there’ is, but it’s something to know what I enjoy doing. I may not be good at creating anything, but I can sure as hell give it a go.

What I Learnt in October

It felt like the start of autumn, the leaves finally turned orange and yellow and it finally got cold enough to warrant jumpers AND coats and even a scarf on a particularly chilly day. Looking back I appeared to do a lot in October, I applied and got a seasonal job, I applied and didn’t get a fixed term job. I officially suspended my studies for the year from university, I met one of my heroes and listened to her talk science for 2 hours, I ran the fastest I have ever ran 10K and I spent 5 days on holiday. For someone who doesn’t like to be busy I was surprisingly busy.

  1. Running hard is hard.
    • Running at a pace that is uncomfortable but bearable and achievable and not letting yourself slow down and back away from the pain is hard. It’s hard not to pull away. It’s hard to say to yourself that yes, whilst this might be really uncomfortable and difficult and faster then you thought you could run you have got this, you have the legs for this and it will be ok.
    • Because you never know if you give it your best shot you might end up running your fastest 10K yet and completely surprising yourself.
  2. Finding joy in the smallest parts of life is important
    • Being grouchy and unhappy and bored with life is sometimes a choice. As someone who lives with depression I know that it’s not always possible to be a ray of sunshine but you can make a point every single day to find something to be happy about or find beautiful or find joy in. You don’t have to be unhappy with everything all the time.
    • You can find joy in the quiet in a morning with you and the birds before the rest of the world wakes up. You can find joy in the cold air and the smoke rings you breathe out into the cold. You can find joy in learning something new, in seeing a flower bud out. You can find joy in the words you are reading or the music you are listening to. It doesn’t have to be big but finding the joy in what you do is important and beautiful in its own way.
  3. Having your plans change is terrifying.
    • I am not someone who deals well with change. I cling to plans like a limpet, they are my life line and I get serious anxiety about being spontaneous and doing things that I haven’t planned out to the nth degree beforehand.
    • Having your plans change in a massive way (i.e. not doing uni this year) is really scary and it’s okay to be scared and frightened and lost and feel alone and that what you’re doing seems wrong.
    • But, it’s also ok to remember that it was the right decision, and you are doing all the things you are meant to be doing. Taking the steps to continue education can be scary, and taking the steps to gain experience in the meantime, or to recover your health or just to breathe is important and valid and necessary. No one is asking you to do more than you can.
  4. It’s ok to mourn a relationship
    • Even if that relationship has been dead for years. It’s ok feel lonely or unaccomplished or ashamed of how the other person has moved on and you seemingly haven’t. You have achieved more than you think.
    • Life isn’t a race to the end. There will be new relationships and new loves and new heartbreaks and new smiles and tears. There is no time limit on life or love.
    • It’s ok to look back at what once was but don’t forget to look forward to what could be too.

Life after an ED in a World Obsessed with Weight

The world we live in is obsessed with weight. Obsessed with being thin, or having an athletic build, or what everyone is eating, and when they’re eating, and are they losing weight, how did they lose weight, how can I lose weight, how can I look like that. Everything seems to revolve around weight, appearance and more often than not, losing weight and trying to look a certain way. Clearly, not everyone thinks this way but, more often then not, that is the mindset of people that are around us. And it sucks. Being a certain weight does not tell you about the health of that individual. I was unhealthy when I was underweight and I was unhealthy when I was a normal weight. The way I spoke to myself and the way I treated my body was unhealthy and horrible.

Developing an eating disorder was a protection mechanism from all the things that I thought were wrong about me and that I wanted to change. I didn’t like who I was, I thought I was unattractive, I didn’t know how to be a good friend, and the answer that I came up with was to lose weight and somehow that would make me all of the things I wanted to be. Spoiler alert – it didn’t help and I spent months and months of my life neglecting my health, making myself unhappy and unhealthy, and opening a Pandora’s box of problems that I’m still dealing with the consequences of now.

Recovering from an eating disorder was almost worse than living in the eating disorder. Having to go against not only what my head was telling me, but what everyone around me seemed to be saying and doing was so difficult, it was more of a battle than I expected. Recovery is not going to be rainbows and butterflies, it’s tears and heartbreak and set-backs and discoveries and triumphs and lows. It’s fighting a battle that most of the time you don’t know why you’re doing it or whether it’s worth it. You go to therapy and you listen to your doctor and you go through the steps and if you could do it in a bubble it would be so much easier. Because you leave the therapy room and the doctors office, and you walk into the shops down the magazine aisle, and every page is screaming ‘How to Lose Weight in 4 Easy Steps’ or ’50 Ways to a Sexier Body’ or ‘Release Fat Fast’ or ‘Ways to Get Your Bikini Body’. And you are reminded that everything you are doing is the exact opposite of what society wants you to be doing.

I’m talking from the perspective of being in recovery from anorexia, or restrictive EDNOS, but the principle is literally the same with eating disorders such as bulimia or BED. Nowhere when you look in the supermarkets are people saying ‘this is what I eat to be healthy’, ‘this is what I do to love who I am without losing weight‘, or ‘I run to see how strong my body is without wanting to change how I look‘. The concept of balance is not one that has really filtered through properly. Like sure, we all know that you should live in balance, eat all your veggies, but also have chocolate and biscuits whenever you feel like not when you have ‘earned’ them (because really, how do you earn food anyway?). But it doesn’t tend to be something you see in the media as much. It’s something I had to learn the long, hard, and convoluted way over the best part of three years. I know that there are people saying this, and there are people who are honestly and truly living a life that doesn’t revolve around weight and appearance, but when you are bombarded daily with health adverts, and articles about losing weight, and reminded that x, y, and z are fundamentally and always bad for you, they’re really hard to find.

I carry my eating disorder with me. It has shaped who I am and how I deal with situations. It has given me a perspective on life that without it I don’t know whether I would have. It has shown me that the things you do to yourself can be so much worse then the things people do to you. It lives in my head. It is mostly quiet. It whispers to me on a daily basis about things it would rather I be doing. It latches on and gets louder when things are stressful, or when I’m poorly, or when circumstances change and make me more vulnerable than usual. I don’t know whether it will ever really go away. I’m willing to bet that there comes a day when I don’t hear it. Not just I don’t listen, where I don’t even hear its voice whisper out from the dark corner of my brain it’s been banished to. What I am most grateful that my eating disorder gave to me is that I am acutely aware of how we speak about our weight and our bodies. I know how I want to speak about mine, and how I want my friends and family to speak about theirs. Your body is not you. You are not your body and you are not your weight. Being healthy, and being strong and being appreciative and in awe of what your body can do is so important. We need to shift the focus from weight towards health. Weight is not the sole indicator of health. Health looks differently on everyone. Find the joy in movement, find the love for yourself and your body to fuel it properly and appreciate what it can do and what you are able to do because of it.

Maybe I would have always developed an eating disorder, maybe I’m too much of a perfectionist, with highly nervous tendencies and a predisposition to want to control the unknown. But I do know that if I had been surrounded by messages preaching that health is not a cookie cutter image and that weight is not the defining feature of health and importance in life then getting better and working through recovery would have been easier and less foreign, and less of a battle with what seemed like every single person on the planet. We need to change the way we define health. Health does not equal weight. There is so much we need to do and it starts with the way we talk to ourselves.

What I Learnt In September

This is almost as late as it could possibly be but September was pretty darn busy for me and I finally have the time to really sit and go through the stuff that happened this September.

  1. You cannot do something that is wrong for you
    • Deciding to change degrees and suspend studies for a year has to have been simultaneously one of the hardest and easiest decisions I have ever made. It was easy because I knew it was wrong but hard because I felt like a disappointment (and that’s a story for a different post)
    • But I learnt that it is okay to put yourself and your needs first. There is nothing to be gained from enduring something that is not right for you, and that makes you hate your life.
  2. Mental illness is like a whack-a-mole
    • It can feel as if you have everything under control and then suddenly the floor is pulled from under your feet and everything is upside down again. When that happens it is so hard to find solid ground again.
    • Things sort themselves out in the end, and going to the doctors and asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of.
  3. Jealousy is a natural part of the human existence
    • I learnt that people are so ashamed of feeling jealous of other people. And I understand why, but I don’t understand why we need to attach shame to this feeling that is so natural.
    • It’s okay to be jealous of people. What’s not okay is to act differently, or negatively towards other people because of your own feelings.
  4. Joy can always be found
    • I am trying to be so much more present in my life and to find the joy in what I do. Because you can find it in so many things that are simple and ordinary.
    • One of my runs was the best run in such a long time purely because I found so much joy in what I was doing. I was grateful that I was able to be outside, and in the cold and feeling everything. I was grateful for my legs that were able to carry me four miles up and down muddy hills and I was grateful that I was able to feel these things.

September was a combination of stress, tears, and a major change in what I thought my life was going to be like. The ship was tilting in the seas, and yes, it did almost run aground but we have it upright and whilst everything isn’t plain sailing October has already been a month of learning.

Being Lonely Vs Being Alone

Since I moved back home after graduation I have been dealing with feeling lonely, and being alone. I have moved from a city where 99% of my friends lived, and no one was ever more than a 15 minute walk away to a town where 1% of my people live and I don’t know how to connect to them again properly. I have become more used to being alone, but have also felt so very very lonely. These are vastly different feelings for me. The first definition of lonely I found was this – ‘affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone’. However, the first definition I found for alone was this – ‘having no one else present; on one’s own’. Being alone and being lonely are two very different things.

Being alone is something that I used to revel in. For a long time I preferred to be alone to being with other people. Being alone is not bad in and of itself. Being alone can be calming, and rejuvenating. I run to be alone a lot of the time, and to spend time working things through, making decisions and running through arguments in my head. For me, it is so important to spend the time and recharge my batteries. My introvert shows when I don’t have the time to be alone and be able to recharge my ‘social battery’.

Being lonely on the other hand can be really damaging. You can feel lonely surrounded by people at a party, and you can feel lonely when you are on your own in your house. Being lonely is not the absence of other people. It is something that affects you regardless of who you are physically with and where you are. Loneliness is a sense of not belonging, of rejection and of emptiness. Whether real or imagined, loneliness is a sense that the people around you aren’t there, a sense that you are on your own. Loneliness is an emptiness in the pit of your stomach, a heavy sinking feeling of isolation. Being lonely is something that is increasing in prevalence, particularly among older people. 30% of Americans say that they experience loneliness at a given time. Being lonely impacts on your health, and studies have shown that people who are lonely heal less well and slower than those who aren’t lonely.

When you think about it, humans aren’t really built to be lonely. We are social creatures. We survived through our social bonds and the ability to have social ties allowed us to build and create. There is a theory that our brains are physically hardwired to be social. The neocortex is larger in humans when compared to primates of a similar size. This is the part of the brain that is thought to be involved in higher social cognition, so emotional regulation, empathy, language, and the ability to understand the feelings of others. If we have a larger part of the brain that deals with the mechanisms of being social it suggests that we are kind of designed to be social.

Loneliness is a difficult emotion to work through. I’m having trouble recognising that it is okay to feel this way, and that it is okay to reach out and ask a friend for a chat. I listen to music that makes me feel like I’m connecting to the feelings that we all experience as humans. I connect to other people in some way. There is nothing shameful in feeling lonely, it’s a natural part of life. Every person is an island but it is in the bridges that we use to connect us to other people that we become less alone.

Loneliness is not inevitable. Check in with your friends and family. Tell them you love them. Give them a hug, send them a text. Be there for them whether using technology or physically. Be there for your people.