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.

Advertisements

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.

Why I’m not watching To The Bone

As a result of who I follow on Twitter, my feed has been flooded with comments, reviews and criticisms about To The Bone, from people who have and who haven’t watched it. I’m writing this as an explanation of why I won’t be watching it, and hopefully, make anyone else who is feeling guilty about not watching feel better.

For anyone who doesn’t know, To The Bone is a new Netflix film that was released on Friday 14th July. It is about a 20 year old women who has anorexia and enters an inpatient residential program. Without going and googling the rest of the storyline this is as much as I know for sure. I have read enough articles about this film to have a brief idea, but I’m not sure on the specifics.

I’m not going to be watching To The Bone for a number of reasons. Primarily, I don’t particularly want to watch something that is going to make me doubt my recovery. I don’t need to prod and poke at this thing that feels very fragile and is very new. Honestly, I just don’t want to do something that is going to make me worse about myself. I mean, I’m being responsible and doing some good old self care over here. And I want to make it clear that if watching anything is going to make you feel terrible about yourself, and damage your mental health in any way whatsoever, please don’t watch the thing and definitely don’t feel guilty for putting your mental health first.

I am tired of eating disorders being portrayed in the media as some facet and representation of anorexia. Most people who have an eating disorder don’t have anorexia (or even bulimia). Most people struggle with a combination of behaviours and thoughts and most are diagnosed with OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder) which replaced EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), which people might be more familiar with. And a lot of people who have had anorexia or bulimia may transition into another type of eating disorder which in itself can be extremely distressing and disconcerting.

I think the reason most representations of eating disorders are of anorexia, or at least involve an underweight white teenage girl is that we seem to be obsessed with being thin. We are constantly striving for an appearance that is skinny and often, unrealistic and unhealthy. I see this in the children who are wearing activity trackers like Fitbits. These 8, 10, 12 year olds are wearing this watch that is constantly monitoring their steps, and giving them a best estimate of how much energy they have used that day. I just think that is the saddest thing. To be told by merely being given one of these, that your activity level and energy used is imperative, and by extension, that how much you weigh is one of the most important things about you. Also side note – anecdotally, it does seem that most of the kids I see wearing these trackers are girls, just saying, reinforcing unhealthy and plain ridiculous ideas about appearance and weight for girls.

I appreciate that people, many people, have this experience of an eating disorder. Hell, I did. I know the appeal and the feeling and experiences of starving yourself to death. And I understand why people are insistent on showing this to other people. Little by little, they make it a problem that people understand and so, reducing stigma (hopefully). What strikes me so often is that these accounts often give the impression that finding help is straightforward and easy. It really really isn’t. If you live in the UK, you will know how underfunded the NHS is. Unfortunately that also impacts mental health provisioning. For too many people, they are turned away from secondary care due to not fitting into a stringent criteria that only those who have physically deteriorated the most will fit into (for Adult Mental Health, CAMHS is a different story). This basically excludes hundreds and hundreds of people from treatment that they desperately need. So many people will fall between the cracks and be denied help unless they meet these strict criteria. Which inevitably leads to people deteriorating because they have been effectively told they are not unwell enough to deserve help. Which is stupid, dangerous and so frustrating. No matter what, if you are struggling with your eating and your thoughts around your eating, weight, appearance or self worth you are always worthy of help.

I just feel like maybe there needs to be a little bit of representation of the other manifestations of an eating disorder, and how life with an eating disorder is. Why don’t people who aren’t white shown with an eating disorder? Where are the men and boys who have an eating disorder? What about the older people? The people who binge and purge, the people who just binge or the people who over exercise compulsively? Just showing restrictive eating disorders in the media just perpetuates this myth that most people have anorexia, and the others aren’t as serious or as prevalent. It’s ridiculous and damaging. Maybe if people saw these other eating disorders represented in films and books they might understand that not everyone suffers in the same way. It might also lead some people to understand that their behaviours can be dangerous and life threatening. Because all eating disorders are, no matter how prettily they are packaged up. They are all life threatening through both damage to the body and risk of suicide.

I haven’t watched To The Bone, so I don’t know how accurate its portrayal of anorexia really is. From what I’ve heard there are both good parts and bad parts but overall it demonstrates how damaging an eating disorder can be to both the sufferer and their family. I just know that I’m not going to watch it, and no one should feel that they should have to, no matter what.

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