Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘friends’

Changing minds

This post is one I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but I’ve finally got round to it today after seeing the #ChangingMinds tag on Twitter. The question posed was what do you wish more people understood about mental illness – so here’s what I wish more of my friends and family understood.

We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. Some of us just aren’t as healthy as others.

1 in 4 people will have a mental illness during their lifetime. It’s that common.

If you ask how I am and I say I’m fine, I’m probably lying. But don’t push it because if I really want you to know I will tell you.

Just because you know someone else with the same diagnosis as me doesn’t mean that I’m capable of the same things. Your friend with anxiety and depression can go to social gatherings; I struggle to.

No, cyclothymia isn’t “pretend bipolar”.

Most people with a mental illness look and act just like everyone else.

Anti-depressants aren’t a bad thing. They can be life-savers, literally. They’re not a magic cure though and it can take time to find the right ones.

The same is true for any kind of psychiatric drug.

Also exercise. Although it can be helpful to some people, it can be detrimental or just unhelpful to others.

People with a mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators.

It can be frightening, fighting for control of your own mind every day.

If I drop off the radar for a while, it’s almost certainly because I’m having a hard time and nothing to do with you.

The same is true if I cancel plans to meet at the last minute.

Some people recover from mental illness. For many it’s a lifelong condition.

Not recovering from a mental illness doesn’t mean you’re not fighting it hard enough, or that you’re wallowing in it. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak either.

Feeling suicidal isn’t weak or selfish. Killing yourself isn’t weak or selfish.

Self-harming, in whatever form it takes, isn’t weak or selfish. It’s a coping mechanism when nothing else can help.

Talking about mental illness and sharing experiences can be really interesting.

If you’re sympathetic to someone with a physical illness, you should be sympathetic to someone with a mental illness. It’s just as painful, often more so.

Some days just getting out of bed or leaving the house is a struggle. That’s not the same as being lazy.

Mental health services are having their funding cut across the board. It’s never been easy to access help, in some cases it’s now nearly impossible.

If you don’t understand something, it’s better to ask than to make assumptions.

I could write many more of these but I won’t – please feel free to add your own though, and please do look at #ChangingMinds. I’d like to leave you with this:

image

(From/by Boggle the Owl).

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My net

Trigger warning: suicide.

For ages now I’ve been pottering along, coping ok with the usual day-to-day stuff and seemingly well thanks to my anti-depressants. Until a few weeks ago, that is. For no discernible reason my mood took a nosedive and I began to have suicidal thoughts for the first time in almost 3 years. I’m not saying that I wanted to kill myself, I didn’t. But thoughts of suicide were continually popping into my head and I found myself dreamily considering ways of ending my life. Needless to say, this terrified me. Which, in a way, was a good sign – when I’ve been truly suicidal these kind of thoughts have been welcome, even comforting. But this time they were intrusive and frightening.

I’m lucky to have a great GP, who managed to squeeze me in at short notice. She listened sympathetically, checking that I felt able to keep myself safe and that I had people I could turn to if that changed. She increased the dosage of my anti-depressants and fired off an urgent referral to the community mental health team (CMHT). Much to my surprise they called me later the same day and offered me an appointment with a mental health nurse the following morning. The appointment went well and the nurse was reassuring. She agreed that I seemed able to keep myself safe despite the suicidal thoughts, and gave me the details of the CMHT helpline in case I started to have difficulties with that. She also referred me back to a psychiatrist for mid-April, just to be on the safe side.

Gradually my mood began to improve, and I went from barely being able to move off the sofa to throwing myself into the housework with an enthusiasm that’s most unlike me! I haven’t had any suicidal thoughts for days now. I’ve seen my GP again and she’s happy that I’m safe and managing far better. For now I’ll continue on the higher dosage of anti-depressants, but if I start to get too high or notice an increase in hypomanic episodes we’ll try lowering it again.

I consider myself to be very lucky. I have nothing but praise for the NHS, my GP and the CMHT, who saw me so swiftly. DH is my rock, and my wonderful sister and parents are supportive. My dear friend Sutton is a treasure beyond compare and I also have some amazing friends on Twitter who, although we’ve never met, are kind and caring and incredibly supportive (you know who you are!). I am so grateful to all these people; for listening and reassuring, and for being the safety net that stopped my headlong plunge into darkness. I really don’t have the words to express how thankful and humbled I am by their love and support, so I’ll just say this, from the bottom of my heart:

Thank you.

Is it me?

I’ve had mental health issues for as long as I can remember, from compulsive binge-eating and self-harming at the age of 7 to depression which began in my early teens and my current diagnoses of cyclothymia, generalised anxiety disorder and binge-eating disorder. Despite my mental peaks and troughs I’ve always been able to function, hold down a good job and socialise with friends.

Until recently. The birth of my daughter, four and a half years ago, plunged me into a pit from which I’m still struggling to escape. Not because I didn’t want her or love her, but my postnatal depression (PND) was so absolute that it seems to have altered my mental state almost permanently. After a couple of years and several therapies I felt pretty recovered, only to succumb to antenatal depression (AND) while I was pregnant with my son. Unsurprisingly after his birth I was once again plunged into depths of PND. Once that was resolved I was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as having cyclothymia (or rapid cycling bipolar disorder) as well as anxiety issues.

At the time of writing I am fairly functional most days thanks to medication and a heightened awareness of my mood state. I do however really struggle with social situations and talking to strangers, which is utterly ridiculous when you consider that I was in the civil service for 6 years! But for how that’s how it is at the moment. I recently had to describe my social anxiety to a friend:

“Chatting to people at playgroups, in cafes, even the school run can be torture. When I have to speak to someone unfamiliar in a social situation my heartrate increases and my breathing gets shallow. My mouth goes dry and I feel as though my throat is closing up. If I can’t escape then I usually end up having a full-blown panic attack”.

Obviously this causes problems when it comes to having a social life of any kind! In the last year I’ve managed to go out with friends once. Just one time, to a local Thai restaurant, and even then I could only stay for about an hour and a half before getting overwhelmed and having to leave.

My current state seems to be hard for friends to cope with. Over the last few years I seem to have misplaced quite a few peripheral friends but also 2 very dear, loved and trusted friends. These friends knew everything about me, about my struggles with mental illness, and encouraged me to be open with them. But in the end the burden of my problems became too much for them to deal with on top of their own lives, and they disappeared. Now I may be losing another good friend, someone I’ve been friends with for over 20 years, because of my mental ill health.

There are only so many times DH can tell me that these losses are not my fault but theirs, before it starts to ring hollow. If it’s not my fault then why does it keep happening? Maybe I don’t try hard enough – I’ve been told in the past that I wallow in my depression instead of fighting it. Or maybe I’m too truthful, I’ve been told that by being honest about my struggles I’m making others miserable and overwhelmed. I wonder whether it would be the same if I had a long-term physical illness? Would friends still drift away or would they cope? Am I the problem? Am I asking too much of my friends? Am I too needy, too confiding, too overwhelming? Because to be blunt, it’s pretty bloody overwhelming being trapped inside my mind day in and day out. At times the despair (will I ever recover?), the self-loathing (I’m so pathetic!) and the constant self-examination (is that a rational thought or is it my illness talking?) are so overwhelming that I would do almost anything for just a few minutes peace. Even my nights aren’t restful, thanks to frequent and vivid nightmares.

Whatever the reason may be, with a couple of notable exceptions I’ve stopped confiding in friends now, and even with those exceptions I’m careful about what I say and how much I reveal. I have a couple of trusted family members and of course I’m completely honest with DH, but as I explained in my last post he has his own issues to deal with at the moment. My only other real solace is Twitter, where hundreds of people who barely know me are kind and supportive. How odd, that I can be so open with virtual strangers yet have to be so wary around friends.

Kindness

Some days I despair of humanity. We can seem so intolerant, so self-centred, so oblivious to the struggles of others. Today is not one of those days, however. Today is one of the days where I have been utterly overwhelmed by people’s kindness.

Earlier today my last pair of jeans (well, the last pair that fit anyway) ripped beyond repair. I tweeted my annoyance at this and almost immediately a friend replied offering to buy me a new pair. My sister contacted me from her holiday in Spain to tell me I could borrow from her if I needed to.

Tonight I was in need of a good moan, having discovered that I have 2 days worth of anti-depressants left and no money spare to pay the £7.85 for the prescription (how I miss living in Wales, land of the mountains, valleys and free prescriptions!). DH is in the middle of reapplying for Jobseekers Allowance but the rules have changed and until I find my passport to prove my identity he cannot claim, so in the meantime I have to pay for prescriptions. I can find the money by cutting back on next week’s food shopping – we have food in the freezer and I’ll have some money coming in next Friday, so it’s not as dire as it could be (I’m especially grateful that I’ve already paid for DD’s school meals for the next fortnight!).

So anyway, I had a good old whinge about this on Twitter. And then sat open-mouthed, then tearful, then properly sobbing as no fewer than 14 people contacted me and offered to send me the money for the prescription. I’ve never met a single one of these people, although I chat with most of them fairly regularly. And yet they all reached out, willing to give money to a stranger, trusting that I was genuine and not trying to con them. Of course I declined the offers; there are ways we can manage and I’m a shamefully proud person. I find it very difficult to accept help. But I was so touched that these wonderful people wanted to help.

I’m not ready sure what the point of this post is, apart from to share my wonder and joy at the kindness shown to me today. It really has lifted me up, made life seem a little brighter. But I would like to ask everyone reading this to perform an act of kindness tomorrow. It doesn’t have to involve money, just do something to make someone else’s life easier or brighter. Believe me, it can make a huge difference to someone’s day and it can really restore your faith in humanity.

Do you love yourself?

My daughter asked me this last night as I was tucking her into bed. We had been talking about family and love and she was earnestly insistent that everyone should love themselves as well as other people. I smiled and replied “Of course I do!” and she went to sleep happy.

I lied, of course. Not a little white one either but a big fat whopper of a lie. Some days I loathe myself to the point of repulsion; some days I merely dislike myself. But I certainly never even come close to loving myself. I just don’t want my children growing up to feel this way about themselves and the longer I can hide my self-loathing from them the better.

So what’s so bad about me? To be honest the reasons are pretty feeble. The first one, always top of the list, is that I am fat. But then I have always hated my body and been convinced that I was fat, even when looking back I can see that I plainly wasn’t. However these days I really am. Measuring in at around a UK size 20 I have rolls and flab and looking at my body fills me with revulsion. For a variety of reasons losing weight isn’t easy for me but the 2 main ones are that exercise is difficult because of my back pain, and that my eating habits are disordered to the point of possibly having an eating disorder (I’ve written about this before). I don’t really believe that though – I’m just greedy and have no willpower. My size is my own fault.

Moving on, another reason I dislike myself is that I am needy. I want others to approve of me and other people’s opinions, even those of strangers, matter to me. That’s why the previous paragraph was so hard to write – I don’t want online friends to know what I look like below the neck, I don’t want them to know how awful I look. I crave friendship (after the events of the last few years I have few real friends left) but I struggle to bond with anyone offline, perhaps for this reason.

There are yet more reasons and I can’t go into them all. But off the top of my head? I despise my inability to cope with normal, everyday life when I used to be highly successful at a complex job. I hate what I’ve become & hate that I seem unable to escape this fate. I loathe my anxiety because I know that I am being irrational. I detest myself for not being as good a mother as I want to be, as I had always assumed I would be. In short I am ashamed of both who I am and what I look like.

And yet…

And yet there are things about myself that I quite like. I am intelligent. I have a great sense of humour. I like my green eyes. I may not be as good a mother as I thought but I’m not a bad one either. I like my breasts (even if they do make buying clothing tricky!). I’m not bad at baking. I am a good friend. I care about people.

So maybe I should try to stop focusing on the negatives and recognise the positives. This may sound easy but it is a daunting prospect – even writing down those few good things took me ages. There’s a constant little voice in the back of my mind criticising and rubbishing and belittling my every attempt at positivity:
“You think you have nice eyes? It’s a shame the rest of you is so hideous”.
“You’re a good friend? That’s easy to say when most of your friends have vanished from your life” and so on.

But I am going to try to drown out that little voice and attempt to like myself a bit more. I would hate to see the sadness and disappointment on my daughter’s face if she ever learned how I really feel about myself so I need to change that. I need to learn to like myself despite my faults and flaws instead of focusing on them to the detriment of everything else.

It seems an impossible task but I have to try.

Verdict: guilty

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are here today to consider the case against Sam Candour. The charges are as follows:

1) That she often lets down friends because she cannot face leaving the flat or seeing people – this makes her feel guilty.

2) That sometimes she really doesn’t want to play with the children – this makes her feel guilty.

3) That she struggles with anxiety and finds it hard to talk to people offline, which is beginning to impact on her daughter’s social life – this makes her feel guilty.

4) That she isn’t the kind of mother she wants to be – this makes her feel guilty.

5) That she has a flat far more cluttered than it should be but rarely has the energy to tidy – this makes her feel guilty.

6) That her anxiety makes it impossible to work at the moment, meaning that money is very tight while her husband is unemployed – this makes her feel guilty.

7) That she is rarely unable to cope with any kind of stress without binging – this makes her feel guilty.

8) That her husband always has to pick up the parenting slack when she is too depressed, tired or overwhelmed to cope as a partnership – this makes her feel guilty.

9) That her children deserve a far better mother but won’t get one – this makes her feel guilty.

10) That she fights against the stigma surrounding mental illness but nonetheless feels that her own illness is a sign of weakness and a character flaw – this makes her feel guilty.

Evidence to support and prove these charges is contained both within the defendant’s own chaotic mind and her blog. The defendant has chosen to enter the only plea possible under the circumstances.

Sam Candour is GUILTY.

(This post was written as a contribution to a blog hop about guilt, hosted by PremMeditations).

Lost: me, myself and I

Last night I told DH that if I could have 3 wishes the first would be to get rid of my mental health problems (or “lose the crazy” as I actually put it). DH shook his head and said “But then you wouldn’t be you!” and this has got me thinking. In a way he’s right, my mental health issues are a part of who I am. I’m gradually stumbling along the path to accepting that this is nothing to be ashamed of, that I am not weak but just not as healthy mentally as the majority. I have already accepted that it’s likely I will need some kind of medication for the rest of my life and that’s ok.

But my mental health is far worse now than when DH and I met 11 years ago. Back then I was already anxious and had suffered from bouts of depression for almost a decade, but I was confident. I was good at socialising, I had a wide circle of friends and a bright future ahead of me. I even went to live in a city where I didn’t know a single person in order to study for my Masters degree.

But now? I only have a small circle of friends and have withdrawn from most people from my old life because we have nothing in common these days. They’re successful, confident people while I’m an impoverished failure. I rarely socialise and if I do it’s via the children, taking them to friends’ houses to play. I am not confident in how I look, I care far more deeply about what people think of me than I ever used to and to be honest I barely recognise myself.

I don’t know who I am any more but I’m certainly not the same person that DH fell in love with 11 years ago. I feel like a shadow of that woman, a pale imitation. I’m good at putting on my mask and seeming confident, I’m good at forcing myself to chat to people I don’t know well – but inside I’m curled in a ball, trembling, counting down the moments until I can escape and get home to safety.

11 years ago I knew who I was; today I’m not so sure. I am a mother and a wife, a daughter and a sister, but I have lost my central identity. I exist on the periphery, orbiting my family’s lives like a lonely hydrogen electron. There is nothing in my current life that is interesting or sets me apart from the masses; there is nothing that I can point to and say “Look, this is who I am, what I do, this is what is important about me”.

In fact the only place where I feel even remotely like my former self is online. There I can hide behind a pseudonym, safe in the knowledge that no-one can actually see me and confident because I don’t have to speak to anyone face-to-face. I can chat to anyone about anything and I can be utterly honest in a way that I shrink from in everyday life. Talking to strangers online I begin to hear echoes of my former self. It’s like gazing into a fairground mirror – the reflection may be distorted but it’s still just about recognisable.

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