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.

 

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.

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.

 

What I Learnt in August

August definitely just came and went and I can’t quite believe that it’s September, the schools are back in and Halloween is basically just around the corner.

  1. Not running anything further than 3 miles for 2 weeks doesn’t mean you lose the ability to run for longer distances. Don’t panic April. All will be well.
  2. Despite the fact that I am still afraid of being stung by a jellyfish I can go in the sea when I can actually see jellyfish and not die. Plus jellyfish are pretty cool and if I had to have a career involving the environment I would quite like to be a jellyfish expert.
  3. Sweet potato and chickpeas do not belong in a pasty.
  4. The Titanic was the first ship in distress to use SOS (they also used CQD which was the more common distress signal at the time). Also, CQD does not mean ‘Come. Quickly: Distress’ or anything similar, it is thought to mean, ‘All stations: distress’. P.S. everyone who I know personally has been told this fact (and the next one soz).
  5. People have been getting tattoos for a very long time (in England definitely since the 1900s) and people have been hating on people getting tattoos for almost as long. Tattoos aren’t a new thing, and people hating on them isn’t a new thing. You do you.
  6. Being friends with people is difficult because sometimes you don’t quite know where you stand. Is it okay if you like them more then they like you? When you’re 5 years old you can straight up ask, “Can I be your (best)friend?” and that’s okay but it doesn’t really work past the age of 7. How do you work out how much your friend actually likes you, like, are they just irritated at the multiple snapchats they periodically get from me? Are they just pretending to be interested in my life? Who knows the answers to friendship past the age of 12?
  7. Being a tourist in your local area is the best thing and everyone should try it once every so often.

Travel Anxiety

I feel like travelling is an ‘in thing’ right now. If you haven’t done it, then someone else you know will have done, and most likely will have posted numerous photos on social media about it. I think it’s incredible that we are able to travel hundreds of miles away in machines that we have made and get to experience new cultures and see sights that generations ago, no one in the family or town would have ever imagined seeing.

However, it does also make me feel incredibly incredibly jealous, and that’s because I have travel anxiety, or at least get so nervous and anxious around travelling and the thought of being somewhere new that I just can’t do it.

There are caveats – I am more than willing to go somewhere with people that I trust (aka my family), I am more comfortable visiting places that are closer to home (aka the UK) and I am more comfortable if I have planned the trip to an inch of its life. I mean, I still get incredibly anxious about going on holiday in the UK with people that I am less comfortable with (aka my friends soz guys) and on going abroad with my family.

I think a lot of what happens in my head is that I don’t like not being in control of things and I don’t like the unknown. I hate the unknown, hence why I’m not a fan of the dark and I’m not a fan of starting new things because I don’t know what will happen or how to be in control. But yeah, being anywhere new or just merely not being in my normal routine gets me all angsty and uncomfortable. And I get to the point where I just won’t do something because of how it makes me feel.

I hate this. There are so many places that I want to do, and that I want to be able to do but right now I just can’t. I want to go to Japan, and NYC, and to Rome and Florence and Venice. I want to go to Edinburgh and the Isle of Skye and London. I find it incredibly difficult to give excuses as to why I haven’t gone to the places that I keep saying I want to go to – the old ‘I’m a student and don’t have much money’ doesn’t really work after using a few dozen times. And just saying that ‘booking this trip is going to make me feel so uncomfortable I’m going to cry multiple times a day even before we go’ isn’t really a good enough excuse (or at least it seems it).

So I kinda just wanted to put it out there that not everyone can travel, and (also) not everyone wants to and not everyone wants to go to the typical student travelling places. It’s all okay, no matter what. However, if you get really bad anxiety over a trip, whether that’s the unknown of the new environment, the method of transport, the lack of control over the new environment and routine, it might be worth your while talking about it. I mean, I can’t really say for sure but I’m hoping that if I come to terms with it all a little bit then I might get more okay with doing new things.