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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World Mental Health Day 2017

10th October 2017 is World Mental Health Day. I started writing this article about 3 hours ago, and it turned into a rant about how awareness isn’t solving the mental ill-health of the population and we need to change the way we treat mental health, stop under funding it and actually give people the help they need and deserve. But just writing about how angry I am about the way mental health provisioning has been chronically underfunded and is insufficient for people’s needs isn’t going to help anyone so I deleted all the anger (apart from that bit there) and wrote about the things that help me with my mental health in the hope that they might help someone else.

 

1. Talk it out 

Mental health and mental wellbeing is something that is almost constantly on my mind considering I have dealt with my own mental ill-health for the past several years. I have very very recently become much more comfortable with talking about my mental health and where I’m at and where I am struggling and what I feel. I have always appreciated the importance of talking to people, sharing your concerns and just getting it off your chest but I have finally really valued and found importance and help in the simple act of just telling someone “I’m struggling with my anxiety today” or “I’m feeling really down today”. Talking has saved me so many times and I am infinitely grateful for the people who take the time to listen to me when I’m struggling, they have helped me more then they know.

Awareness of mental health and the importance of mental wellbeing has skyrocketed with recent campaigns by Time to Change, the Heads Together campaign and their presence at the London Marathon 2017, and the fact that barely a day goes by that mental health is mentioned in the news in some way or another. And this helps. As much as it might feel like it doesn’t, the fact that we are all more able to talk to each other about how we’re feeling and our mental wellbeing helps us all. Being able to just share how you’re feeling helps so so much and it is really underappreciated sometimes as to how helpful it really can be.

 

2. Exercise

I dread to think about the person I would be and where I would be if I didn’t run. Running is the time I get to be quiet, and alone, and to sort out all my thoughts to try and make some sense of them however tangled they might be. Then when you add the sense of achievement and the endorphins you get after you exercise, you realise how much exercise really can positively change your mood. There are days when I wake up and it’s difficult to breathe because everything feels so close and heavy and it’s like I’m wading through deep water up to my chest and I can’t get out. And then I pull on my trainers and go outside. Whether I run or whether I walk to the end of my road and sit on a bench for half an hour it helps. Being outside and moving your body helps. Being inside at the gym, and moving your body helps. Do something. It gives you a moment to step away from your thoughts and to focus on something else and gives you something to be proud of afterwards.

 

3. Go Outside

This is kind of related to the last point but if I’m having a really hard time going outside whether it is for 5 minutes or an hour really can give me a little bit of a boost. Feeling the air on your face, hearing your feet hit the ground, crunch some leaves, squelch in some mud can make the world of a difference. I think it’s a sense of realisation that there is more then what lives in your head. Being outside reduces stress, helps us to relax, improves cognition, including memory and attention span, and reduces symptoms of depression. Even if you can’t get out for long, if you’re having a bad time try and spend sometime outdoors, it is likely to lift your mood and make things feel a little more manageable.

 

4. Write it down 

I have kept a journal for a long long time, since I was about 11 or 12 maybe? So I have become used to turning to writing out my thoughts when something goes well, or when something goes badly, or when I just want to express how I feel and work it all out. But honestly, just getting out what you feel, even if you don’t know why or how to change it really helps. This might help if you’re not comfortable with talking to other people about your mental health or how you’re feeling, because this is for you, it’s to try to untangle those thoughts that just seem to curl and twist around themselves in your head. Try it, honestly, it does work.

 

5. Set Goals

These don’t have to be big goals. Set achievable goals. Try setting goals for today and tomorrow if things seem insurmountable. Some days that might be getting out of bed and remembering to clean your teeth. It might be going to all of your lectures at uni, or spending an hour at the new society meeting that you’re feeling too anxious to go to. It might be going for a walk or a run and being outside. Don’t make a list 50 points long and overwhelm yourself, make it realistic and achievable and break it all down. Finishing those goals, and getting to tick them off the list means that the day wasn’t a failure. Something was achieved and sometimes that’s all you need to make the day better.

 

6. Accept that there are things that you might not be able to do

Now this one does suck a little bit. But if you’re struggling with your mental health there will be things that you can’t do, or if you try it will be detrimental to you. And that’s more than okay. There is absolutely nothing wrong with not doing something. There is nothing wrong with putting yourself and your health before social engagements or extra responsibilities at work or extra responsibilities at school. Health comes first.

 

7. Wear something that makes you feel good 

Yes this means wearing your pyjamas if being comfortable is what you need. And yes this means putting on your sharpest outfit if you have to leave the house. Put on whatever armour you need. If that is a suit and tie do it, if it’s your comfiest tracksuit bottoms and well-washed t-shirt do it. Just being in what you’re okay in just makes everything else a little bit easier.

 

8. Listen to music

This, almost above anything is potentially the one thing that I jump to when I am not doing okay. Music helps me to feel something, especially when I am not feeling anything at all. Music can also help interrupt the constant stream of negative words running through your head. Make a playlist of all the songs that get you fighting, the ones that make you want to pull on a pair of boots and a leather jacket. Make a playlist of all the songs that make you cry, the quiet ones and the sad ones. Listen to them when you need to. If that’s playing in the car on the way to school or work to give yourself the courage to know that you can do it. Or whether that’s playing them late at night when your thoughts are too loud and you can’t sleep. Whatever helps you do it. Music is one things that really can help.

 

9. Ask for help

I know the other points on this list have been things you can do but if things aren’t changing and your mental ill-health is affecting your relationships, work or school then you might benefit from seeing your doctor and asking for some help. There is no shame in asking for help and there are multiple avenues that you can explore with the doctor, whether that is medication or talking therapies or online therapy. It is not a one-size-fits-all type of thing. It might take several tries before something works and that’s okay. You always deserve to get the help you need.

 

10. Add it to your bank of bad days

This is something I have unashamedly stolen from ‘Reasons to Stay Alive‘ by Matt Haig which is a great book that everyone should read, go read it. Here is an excerpt from the chapter ‘The Bank of Bad Days‘ –

“Bad days come in degrees. They are not equally bad. And the really bad ones, though horrible to live through, are useful for later. You store them up. A bank of bad days… … So if you are having another bad day you can say, Well this feels bad, but there have been worse.”

This has helped me immeasurably and it’s something that my best friend says to me each time I cry-text her when I’m having a bad day. Each day you get through you have survived and you learned something. Every bad day teaches you how to get through the next one. There’s the day you had a panic attack after seeing one of your now favourite films at the cinema. There’s the day that you went into college and came home after one lesson. There’s the day you couldn’t bear to leave your room and the day you wanted it all to end and the day you sat and cried. Each and every one of the bad days teaches you that you can do this. 

I hope that anyone who has had the endurance to read all the way to the end has found something here that helps. Having a mental illness, or mental ill-health is and has never been anything to be ashamed of, no matter what anyone, including yourself, might say. I believe in you. You got this.

 

I am the 1 in 4

I’m really tired of the ‘us and then’ mentality that some people have regarding mental health. Usually, the ‘them’ are people with a mental illness or who are in mental distress. After recent trips to A & E to visit a relative, I have had to listen to this kind of damaging opinion being thrown about (usually about other people in the hospital) and it has made me annoyed enough that I thought I would shout into the void about it. And if I’m being honest it might not even flow properly because I wrote this at like 11pm last night and I am still annoyed.

I think what irritates me the most about this mentality is because it really doesn’t mean anything. These people are drawing an arbitrary line in the sand and saying that everyone on the other side are ‘crazy’ and ‘dangerous’ and ‘not okay’. And I have several issues with that.

Firstly, how on earth can you assume that you are never going to be in mental distress or experience mental illness? 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem each year (Mind, 2017) and it is estimated that 1 in 6 people will experience a mental health problem in any given week (Mental Health Foundation, 2017). Over a lifetime, 20.6 in 100 people will experience suicidal thoughts and 7.3 in 100 people will self harm (Mind, 2017). I’m going to relate this to other statistics because sometimes numbers on their own seem meaningless. 1 in 11 children have asthma in the UK (Asthma UK, 2017). Less than 1 in 5 people are smokers (ASH, 2017). Less people have asthma then are likely to experience a mental health problem and yet asthmatics aren’t told that they are not like the rest of the population and are not seen as ‘other’.

I think the thing I’m trying to say is that there is no way to know that you won’t struggle with your mental health at some point. It can happen and there’s no real way of saying whether it will or won’t. Another thing to point out is that mental health and mental ill-health fluctuates. It may be that one day you draw the line and I’m on the side with you, and the other people who decided that having a mental illness makes you ‘other’, and on another day I might be on the other side of the line as an outcast.

By making this divide you are stigmatising thousands of millions of people by effectively saying, ‘you’re broken and we don’t want you around’. It’s a bit like the ‘not in my back yard’ mindset with wind turbines. When I was at school, the company that owned the building next door wanted to make it into a secure mental health unit, primarily to treat eating disorders, when the nearest inpatient unit was in the next county. That was in 2011. I was 11 years old and didn’t really pay much attention, but I knew that a lot of the parents weren’t happy about this plan because these patients would be ‘crazy’ and ‘needed to be locked up’. I was 11 years old and hearing these things. Roll on 5 years time when I’m developing an eating disorder, it makes things a little difficult to try and tell people what you are experiencing. This is what makes it so difficult to talk about – if you know that people are going to view you as someone who they are frightened of, or who they don’t want around, you aren’t going to express that you are struggling.

How do you divide people up like that though? Earlier I wrote that mental health fluctuates, but our ability to hide it also fluctuates. The ability to blend into everyone else, everyone with stable mental health, does not equal the severity of what you are dealing with. You can be suicidal and still make it into work. You can be having multiple panic attacks a day and still make it into school. You can be hallucinating and still go out with your friends. It isn’t a cut and dry issue. On the other hand, you may be experiencing these things and not be able to go to work, school or out to town. And that’s okay.

However, if you can hide what you are dealing with enough that people aren’t aware of it, it can lead people to say ‘well you’re not like them‘. Who is them?  Is the ‘them’ the people who live with voices or who have to carry out compulsions in order to quiet the obsessive thoughts? They are us. We are all the 1 in 4 because who knows which 1 in 4 it will be? If you are going to shut them out then I’m walking right out with them. This divide is pointless and damaging. There really isn’t that much difference between us all, I promise you.

It just makes me really cross that people automatically assume mentally ill means dangerous. Sure, you can have a mental illness and be dangerous and violent. Just as someone can be dangerous and violent and not have a mental illness. People who have a mental illness are more likely to be a victim of crime then commit crime – those who have a serious mental health problem are 10 time more likely to be a victim of crime than the general population (Mental Health.gov, 2017). Don’t paint everyone with the same brush.

People who are experiencing mental distress or who live with mental illness aren’t necessarily dangerous (just as someone who is mentally stable isn’t necessarily not dangerous). We aren’t broken, our brains just don’t work like the average human brain. We might need medication to make it work in a way that we can deal with, and that’s okay. We might not need medication or it might not work in the right way for us or it might take several attempts to find the right one. And that’s okay too. I am in awe of everyone who carries on with their problems, mental health related or not because life isn’t easy. And people making such ridiculous divides between us doesn’t make life any easier. There is no us and them. We are all the 1 in 4. And maybe if we didn’t make such divides it would make talking about it easier by accepting that this is a human experience that we might all experience at one point in our lifetimes.

References

http://ash.org.uk/category/information-and-resources/fact-sheets/

https://www.asthma.org.uk/about/media/facts-and-statistics/

https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/myths-facts/index.html

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-uk-and-worldwide

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/#.WWCwvYjyvIU