I Shouldn’t Be Surprised By Lack Of Stigma

This weekend, I went for an eye test at a well-known supermarket. It’s something I’ve been avoiding for months. Partly due to cost, partly due to my struggle to do anything self-care related.

Anyway, this particular supermarket do eye tests for free, so I figured there was nothing to lose, so I finally booked an appointment and got myself down there.

As part of the eye test, they ask you what medications you’re on. This question comes up occasionally… at the dentist, when applying for a driving licence, when visiting a walk-in GP or seeing a new health worker. Whenever the question comes up, it feels like time stops for ten seconds. I can practically hear my heart beating in my ears. I debate whether or not I should disclose the whole list of medications that I’m on.

Being 23 and on a list of medications is hard. When that list contains mental health medications, it can feel really hard.

I worry about people judging me or treating me differently. I worry about how they look at me – sometimes with curiosity, sometimes like I am an alien, sometimes with those overly sympathetic ‘oh poor you’ eyes. I don’t quite know which look of these is worse. I don’t particularly enjoy any of them.

Anyway, during the eye test, he asked me what medications I was on. To begin with I was very vague. I always start with the medications I think they won’t have heard of, just to test the waters. So I did that, which resulted in the question ‘what’s that for?’. At that point, I realised I was going to have to go all-in, so I brought the list up on my phone (I can never remember them all), and gave him the full list of all my medications.

The optician was absolutely fantastic. He was kind. He didn’t treat me any differently at all. He even disclosed a little about his own mental health experiences. He took my medication history into consideration and really listened to me.

I left the appointment and began to think about it. I was just so surprised by his reaction – or rather lack of reaction. I was pleasantly surprised. It’s incredibly rare to meet anyone with no stigma, even in health settings (especially in health settings).

Then I began to think about it more, and actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I shouldn’t expect stigma. I shouldn’t have to worry about listing my medications. Whoever is talking to me, is speaking to exactly the same person both before and after they know that I need a bit of help in order to function.

Mental health medications are there to give a helping hand to those of us whose brains aren’t quite working as they should. I take asthma medications to help my lungs, I take mental health medications to help my brain. It’s no different.

When we have a mental illness, life is hard enough. We already spend our life doing our best to do normal human things, whilst battling a brain determined to kill us. We really don’t need additional problems on top of that. We really don’t need people to treat us differently. To speak to us like we’re stupid. To decide that we’re not worth their time. To look at us like we have three heads.

Occasionally, we might need certain allowances from people – but we will normally tell you if that’s the case! Until that point, just interact with us in the way that you would interact with anyone else.

We shouldn’t be surprised by lack of stigma, it should be normal.

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You Are Succeeding By Surviving

It’s that time of year again where people happily share their incredible uni results, graduation photos are imminent, GCSE and A-Level results are just around the corner, everyone seems to be passing their driving tests, getting new jobs, getting promotions, getting engaged, moving house, and digging wells in African villages, all at the same time.

For some of us, none of these things are true.

Some of us are trying our best to stay alive, and that’s pretty much all we can manage. Many of us have dropped out of university degrees (if we ever got there in the first places). Lots of us have had to put our GCSEs or A-Levels on hold (or if we do manage to sit them, we don’t achieve anything close to our potential). Some of us are unable to drive until our medication settles and/or our health improves. Lots of us aren’t able to hold down a job, or if we can, we’re on reduced hours. If we do have a job, it might be miles away from our dream job – we’re just not well enough to even apply for those kinds of jobs. Many of us struggle to maintain friendships, never mind even attempting a relationship. A lot of us are still living with our parents or other family members, because we need them to help care for us. Many of us can’t travel further than the end of our garden without a panic attack, if we can move ourselves at all.

Being in our late teens/early twenties, we’re expected to be carefree. We often don’t have responsibilities for anyone other than ourselves. We’re expected to spend time having fun, going out, working out who we are and what we enjoy, and generally making the most of life.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes we don’t have that luxury, because we’re simply not well enough. Life can play a cruel hand at times.

It doesn’t mean that we’re not achieving and succeeding, though. Our success might just look a little different to others.

Sometimes success is taking PRN, even if you feel like we are ‘giving in’ by doing so. Sometimes it’s getting to bed by 10pm each night, even if it makes us feel like a granny. Sometimes success is learning how to say ‘no’ to things that hurt us. Sometimes success is forcing down 3 meals and 3 snacks a day, however loud our heads scream. Sometimes success is getting our notifications down to zero. Sometimes, success is taking our meds as prescribed. Sometimes success is dragging ourselves down to the GP even if we feel we don’t deserve it, or we’re wasting their time. Sometimes success is making it into town alone. Sometimes success is letting our family members and carers help us. Sometimes success is navigating the benefits system. Sometimes success is just showing up – whether it be to school, to work, to a class, or somewhere else. Sometimes, success is allowing ourselves to do the things that we enjoy.

Sometimes success is simply doing what’s best for us. It’s taking care of ourselves. It’s continuing to stay alive, whatever is thrown our way.

To all of you who are feeling pretty rubbish at the moment because everyone seems to be succeeding and progressing, and you feel like a sad, stuck, blob… I want to remind you how wonderful you are. Continuing to wake up every day despite all the setbacks you encounter is so brave. It’s so admirable. It’s so incredibly strong. You are succeeding by waking up every day, by showing up, by never ever giving up. You are awesome.

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To Those Of You Who’ve Lost All Hope

Sometimes, life does everything within its power to tear us down. It throws everything it’s got at us. It can be exhausting and can leave us lying there on the floor, with all of the energy drained from our bodies.

Everything becomes black – although black doesn’t seem dark enough, or all-encompassing enough to describe the thick fog that smothers everything and makes it so hard to breathe.

Moving becomes hard. Moving hurts, it really hurts. It’s exhausting and it hurts. Reaching to take a sip of a cup of tea can feel as energy-consuming as going on a 10-mile run. So we don’t.

We can’t face going to bed, because going to bed means waking up, and waking up means doing another day. We can’t see any light. We can’t see any future. We have no hope.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that ‘it gets better’, because it’s probably the last thing you want to hear. It can feel really frustrating when people keep saying that it gets better, because when things are that dark, we can’t see it, and we can’t believe it. It can almost feel like everyone’s just saying it so that they don’t have to talk to us about how crap things are any more. Sometimes we just want to shout ‘when?!’. ‘When is it going to get better? Because it’s been really rubbish for a really long time and I’m tired and I don’t have the strength to fight this anymore’.

When we can no longer carry some hope, we have to let others carry it for us for a little while.

We have to let others carry it for us, until a time when we can pick it back up again.

This can come in the form of colleagues telling us they’re looking forward to us returning to work. It could be a boss reminding us that we have skills and talents. A GP saying ‘see you next week’ or a health care assistant telling us about their weekend. It can be a friend hugging us while we cry and cry, or another friend who spends their Friday evening helping us to write a list of ‘30 reasons to stay alive until Saturday’. It can be a family member inviting us over in a few days time. It can be literally anyone at all who refuses to believe that we might not be able to recover from this.

We need these people to keep believing in us. We need these people who can see us having a future. We need these people who refuse to let us die.

Eventually, in time, we will find glimmers of hope again. We will find cracks of light. We will begin find things to believe in, and our little pile of good things will grow. We might find them in the most unexpected of places – a podcast that speaks to us, the ability to read a page of text, or the joy of being able to taste a cup of tea again. It might take weeks, it might take months, it might even take years, but it will happen.

Until it does happen, until we can carry our own hope again, we have to let others carry it for us.

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Surviving or Thriving? What Helps Me Thrive

The theme of this year’s mental health awareness week, ‘Surviving or Thriving’, has been going round my head ever since I first heard about it a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve been sat here trying to decide on what to write. Do I write a post explaining how hard it can be to survive, at times, let alone thrive?  Do I write about how cuts to mental health services have reached the point where many I know are struggling for the support they need to survive – with thriving being a distant memory and a seemingly impossible dream? Do I talk about the stigma and shame associated with decisions I’ve made, and things I have to do, to give myself a chance at survival in the hope that one day I might thrive?

I’ve decided against writing about any of those things. Some, I’m not really ready to write about. Others I feel too angry about at the moment to be able to form a coherent sentence. Apart from that, I don’t want this to turn into a ‘woe is me’ scenario.

I thought what I’d do this week, is share some of the things that help me thrive, in the hope that it might help others, too. Some of these things are still very new to me, and the things that help me thrive are forever evolving and changing. I’m also not necessarily thriving at the moment – I’m getting there, I’m trying my best, but it is going to take time. I am determined to get there, though. I’m sick of just surviving, it’s gone on long enough, it’s time I begin to focus on thriving.

 

A Safe Space

I have to have a safe space. For me, that’s my bedroom. I pop on my colour-changing lamp, have low-level music, multiple blankets, and a chance to breathe. It’s a place I can retreat to when the world feels too much, or when I need to cry. It’s a place where my true introvert/hermit self can be released and my brain can stop buzzing so much.

An Amazing GP Surgery

My GP surgery are brilliant. The staff are lovely and go out of their way to help me time after time.

The healthcare assistants are all lovely and make going for appointments feel less like a chore and more like catching up with a friendly person (with the slightly awkward addition of being stabbed with a needle/having sticky pads stuck on you). All of the GPs I’ve seen there have been patient, have given me time, and have made me feel safe and looked after. The GP I see most often knows me as well as anyone, and genuinely cares. She never rushes me, she communicates with me on my level, she listens, and she helps. I trust her implicitly.

Even the chemist (who aren’t associated with the GP, but I’ll pop them in here anyway) are so helpful and lovely. I walk in and they know me, they are kind, they are helpful, they are on top of all my prescriptions and they don’t make me feel like the inconvenience I often think I am.

Appreciating the Little Things

When you’ve had depression for a long time, you lose out on so much of the world. 18362722_1219058218206845_661799652_oEmerging out of it is almost like emerging from a cave where you’ve been sat in the dark eating cold porridge for a number of months. You begin to notice little things that you haven’t seen before, things taste different, too. I try and hold onto the little things – my friend’s cat splatting itself on my lap, bubbles, the taste of Fanta zero fruit twist, etc., and try to use those things to carry me through the less good days/weeks.

Art Journaling

My art journal is one of my favourite things at the moment. It started so small and prescriptive and it’s grown and evolved with me. I now do it daily – sometimes it’s quotes, sometimes it’s feelings, it usually involves paint.

Through doing it, I feel like a communication door has been opened to me. I’ve realised that I haven’t been communicating all that well with my GP (and services more generally) – not because I have18379209_1219056971540303_1448141536_on’t tried or haven’t wanted to, I just haven’t been able to. Some days, now, I sit down in front of a blank page with no clue what to paint or draw and it just sort of happens.

I still don’t feel like I’m communicating fully, I still feel very stuck at times and get very frustrated that I don’t have the words or the ability to express myself (just last week I sat in front of my GP and cried because it can be so lonely and frustrating when you feel locked off from the rest of the world), but it is helping. I take my journal to my GP each week now and we go through it. It’s becoming a really useful communication tool as well as helping me to express myself (and improving my artyfarty skills!).

Back To Basics

Some things I really struggle with when very low/anxious/buzzy, are the very basic ‘looking after yourself’ tasks. The teeth cleaning, hair washing, clothes-putting-on type of tasks. But in order to be the best person I can be, I need to get these basics straightened out a little. When everything feels up in the air and impossible to cope with, I try to wind it back and focus on the basic little tasks, then build up from there.

Being Inspired By People

There are certain people who really inspire me. Some are people I work with in both jobs (both colleagues and students), others are those around me who face battles every day that people know nothing about, and continue to smile and be kind despite it all. There are one or two people in the media who also give me hope. I think it’s really important to have these amazing people to look up to, and to be inspired by. They give me hope. They give me a reason to believe that I might be able to have a future.

Friends, family, and other amazing people

I’m lucky to have people around me who listen to me, craft with me, sit with me, drink 18362525_1219058251540175_808148908_otea with me, hug me, build me up and basically allow me to keep going. They allow me to cry, to laugh, to dream, to create and to believe. They prompt glimmers of ‘okay’, glimmers of ‘maybe I can have a future’ and glimmers of hope. They come in many forms of human and are all amazing; I don’t know where I’d be without them.

Medication

I am on a lot of medication for various things – much more than I’d like to be. However, without it, at the moment, I can’t function. It’s not an easy thing to accept, but it’s something I’ve had to accept because without it, I am an uncommunicative shell of a person who struggles to walk/talk/sleep/move/be. It’s not the best – it puts certain limits on my life and sometimes I want to throw it across the room, but in order to be the person I’m trying to be, at least for the time being, I have to take my meds. It’s non-negotiable.

Nature

I’ve always loved nature for walks, bike rides and photos. I’ve never been a gardening lover, mainly because I’m useless at it! Lately, I’ve done a bit of gardening and really enjoyed feeling the mud, making friends with worms, and connecting back in with the world around me. I’ve felt very claustrophobic lately because for a few reasons, I’m unable to walk much or cycle or run, but I’ve been working out other ways to get my nature fix. Even things like pootling down to the local garden centre and watching the fish have really helped. I think nature can show us the beauty that the world has to offer, and put our problems in perspective a little bit.

Setting Boundaries

This is not something I’m good at, but it’s something I’m working on. I’ve always gone out 18378736_1219058221540178_1775681610_oof my way to do things for others, which is fine, until it reaches the point where it’s at the detriment to my own wellbeing.

Setting boundaries, for me, involves things like not replying to emails/social media the minute they arrive (whatever time of day that might be!), but turning my phone on silent, having a break from it, and setting time aside to replying to things instead. It’s things like saying no to meeting up with someone/someone coming over, if actually I’m really tired and need an early night, or have jobs to do, or need some peopleless time.

It’s really hard (and can often make me feel like crap in the short term), but I think it’s a really important thing to do and hopefully will begin to get a little easier as time goes ok.

Sleep Routine

I’ve said it before, but sleep routine, and sleep hygiene are so important. Our bodies get confused if we start going to bed at 9pm one night and 1am the next. They also get confused if we wake up at a vastly different time each day. Having similar sleep/wake times every day (including the weekends!) helps our bodies to know what’s going on and allows us to sleep better.

Taking Time Out

Never has taking time out felt more relevant than recently. I keep getting very ‘peopled out’, to the point where the noise of my breathing can make me cry because it hurts so much. In a world that expects immediate replies and a permanent connection to the internet, taking time out is so important. I turn my phone on silent, switch off, and just have time to wind-down and re-group. It’s something absolutely necessary to enable to be my best self at work, and in other areas of my life.

Trying To Work Out What *I* Want

I have spent so much of my life trying to be the person I thought everyone wanted me to be. I’ve chosen the subjects I’ve studied based on that, I’ve applied for jobs and 18362714_1219058268206840_1456699480_ovolunteering based on that, I’ve based clothing choices, music choices, hair choices… pretty much everything, based on that. And it’s not made me happy, in fact it’s made me pretty miserable.

Lately, I’ve been slowly coming to the realisation that I can’t live that way anymore. It’s killing me. So, I have to start working out what *I* want, and following that as best I can. It’s not easy ay all, and it has and will upset people, but it’s essential I try to keep at it, or I’m never going to be happy.

I’m lucky to have some wonderful people around me who are helping me work out who I am and what I want (I might write a bit more about this at a later date), and it’s going to be a slow process, but I will get there. I have to.

Work

I am in an incredibly lucky position to have two jobs which I love.

One is with the NHS, connecting people who’ve experienced mental illness to educational opportunities anywhere in York. We’re linked with Converge, who provide creative courses for people who’ve experienced mental illness. It’s an incredible job, my colleagues such a lovely bunch of people, and I’m constantly inspired by the people we work with. It’s such a forward-facing job, and we’re just constantly building each other up, which is a welcome relief from a world which seems to delight in tearing people down. I also get to use paint as part of my job sometimes – and you can never go wrong when covered in paint.

My other job is working for Blurt writing their blogs. Again, my colleagues are so lovely and kind. I learn new things about depression with every blog I write, and I’m beginning to enjoy the process of learning and discovering new things again – something I haven’t felt since my teens when the education system squished that curiosity and joy out of me in the name of achieving good grades.

 

So there’s a very disorganised bundle of things which help me thrive. Who help me to become the best person I can be. I’d love to hear the things which help others thrive – I feel like through sharing these things, we can give each other ideas of things to try and help each other to keep on thriving, rather than just surviving.

Grief Is Not A Mental Illness

At the moment, thanks to the work of Heads Together, there are a lot of people talking about both mental illness and grief.

It’s great – it’s so important to talk about these things. Both can come with a huge amount of stigma, and by talking about it we can help to reduce that stigma, and to remind people that it’s okay not to be okay.

However, one thing that I’m seeing time and time again, is people writing about mental illness and grief as if they are the same thing. I’m not entirely sure why this is – I think it might be because the royals unveiled their mental health campaign whilst also talking about their Mum’s death, and the counselling they had for their grief.

I don’t know the ins and out of the royal’s mental health, and I don’t know whether they have had a diagnosed mental illness, but, what I do know is that grief and mental illness are not the same thing.

Grief is something that will happen to nearly everyone at some point in their lives. It can bring a range of emotions that you’ve never felt pre-grief. It can be distressing, it can cause upset, tearfulness and low mood… but it’s normal to feel that way. It’s normal to miss someone who was a big part of your life. It’s normal to cry. To an extent, it’s normal for it to affect your eating and sleeping habits, at least for a little while.

It can reach the point where you feel you need counselling to give you the space you need to talk about it, and to help you learn how to deal with the emotions it brings up, and that is absolutely okay, but even at that point, it’s not necessarily a mental illness.

Grief could trigger mental ill-health. It can contribute to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, especially if you’re already predisposed to them, but it is not, in itself, a mental illness.

Mental illness affects one in four of the population at some point in their life. Mental illness is when the feelings and emotions that we have go out of the spectrum of ‘normal’. If we have a diagnosed mental illness and then go through grief, it could exacerbate the pre-existing illness, but the grief itself isn’t an illness.

It is important to talk about mental health and mental illness and to encourage people to seek help when and if they need it. However, it’s also important to understand that it’s okay to feel. Feeling sad or upset in response to difficult life events – included, but not limited to grief – is absolutely normal.

It’s important to be open with each other when we are struggling, and to reach out for help. It’s important not to squish it down, ignore it, and pretend it’s not happening, because it’s likely to just blow up at some point. It’s important to go to your GP if we feel as though you’re struggling with mental illness. But it’s also important to remember that feeling is normal, feeling is okay. It’s normal to feel sad, upset or low at times, especially if someone close to use has died.

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Reacquainting Myself With Life

It’s no secret that I’ve recently been through a pretty horrible depression relapse. In all honesty, I can’t remember a lot of it. Apart from a few hours, I have a memory blank of a couple of months. I’ve been talking about it with my flatmate recently, reflecting on the past few months, and things really weren’t great. At the worst of it, I was struggling to talk, or move. My body just shut down.

I’ve been working hard, with the help of some wonderful people, and some new medication, to pull myself out of it.

Over the past few weeks (or maybe months, my concept of time is still a little squiffy) I’ve been very slowly participating in life again. It started very small – a trip down the stairs in the block of flats I live in, a visit to the GP, meeting up with a friend for an hour, but it’s grown, slowly, and I’m beginning to be able to do more things.

This week I went back to work. I haven’t been able to go to work since the end of November. I’m going back very slowly, with a huge amount of help and support from my job and colleagues, and started on just a couple of hours a week. It’s so lovely to be back – it’s great to be back in a routine. It’s amazing to feel useful and productive again. It’s wonderful to begin to feel a little like a person, rather than a shell, a list of symptoms, or a problem to be solved.

I am absolutely exhausted, though! Getting to work requires rather a lot of steps – working out what time to take my medication on an evening, in order to sleep properly and get up on a morning (this one is a bit of a work in progress), washing my hair, putting on some make-up, finding some acceptable clothes (preferably ones not covered in paint… though I did discover some blue acrylic on my skirt yesterday, oops), remembering everything I need to take with me, working out my food for the day, getting out of the flat, getting into the car, finding somewhere to park… all of these things before even getting into the office. They might sound like insignificant, fairly everyday activities, but depression makes everything more hard work. It makes everything take a more-than-would-be-usual amount of energy, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it also depletes your energy, so even before you do anything you’re already working with a reduced energy reserve. All in all, things that are ‘everyday’ to the average joe, can become a real challenge when depression gets involved.

Today is being spent in my PJs, doing the things I did to do from the comfort of a big blanket and some daytime TV. I am completely worn out.

I find myself getting frustrated. I want to be better. I want to be able to do things. I want to be able to work full time, to see my friends and family, and to keep up with my hobbies. I want to be active and productive. I want to be able to drive here, there, and everywhere. I want to be able to volunteer again. I want to be the person I have been in the past.

The reality is, though, I can’t do that. My body isn’t well enough, my mind isn’t well enough, and there’s little I can do about that other than keep trying to manage what I can.

I’m slowly poking my head out of a big, black, hole. I’m slowly trying to do things again. But I’m not ‘well’. I’m better than I was but I’m not ‘better’.

I have an illness, and I am trying to accept that (for now, at least), I have to work within the limitations of that illness. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to do more of the things that I want to do, but it’s going to take time. For now, I will keep trying to do the little things, keep working on recovery, and keep trying to reacquaint myself with life, bit by bit.

What Does Stigma Feel Like?

Can you remember in primary school and you did a project on ‘people who help us’? I can. I remember cutting and sticking smiling pictures of smiling police people, happy fire crew and kind-faced nurses. I remember colouring a surgeon in green and a doctor in blue. I remember displays on the classroom wall. We were taught which people would help us with what. We were taught that there would always be someone to help us if something bad happened.

At 22, I’ve discovered that isn’t necessarily the case.

Imagine feeling scared. Imagine feeling alone. Imagine feeling completely worn out by a medical condition which is doing it’s very best to kill you. Imagine feeling guilty for visiting the doctors, but doing your best to go to all of your appointments nevertheless. Imagine being passed from one professional to another – none of them wanting to take responsibility for your care.

Imagine arriving seeing a new professional, and being treated like a person, like a real human being (much to your surprise), only for them to find out that you have a particular health condition, and abandon you.

Imagine leaving appointments, feeling even more exhausted than when you went in, and completely and utterly let down. Imagine sitting in the car on the way home and not knowing whether to feel sad, scared, disbelief, angry, or just resigned to the fact that nobody will help you.

Nobody will help you because they blame your physical health on your mental health, your mental health on your physical health, and blame you for getting ill in the first place.

Nobody will help you because grief services won’t deal with mental illness, mental health services won’t work with grief, and physical health services won’t touch either of them, so you end up back at your GP – a tired and stretched GP doing their best to try and hold everything together.

Stigma feels horrible. It’s an immense feeling of shame. You want the ground to swallow you up.

We didn’t choose to become unwell. Myself, and my friends didn’t just sit there one day and think ‘hmmm, I’d quite like to have this condition, that sounds like fun’. We don’t want to be ill. We feel guilty for the amount of NHS time we take up.

We don’t need anyone to make us feel any worse.

There are some fantastic health professionals working for our NHS, but where do you turn when nobody will help you? Where do you go when the people who are paid to help you, don’t?

Stigma is defined as ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person’. Discrimination is defined as ‘treating a person or particular group of people differently, especially in a worse way’.

I’m writing to let you know that the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health conditions, is alive and well.

People with mental health conditions aren’t bad people. They aren’t second-class citizens. They’re not trying to drain NHS resources. They would much rather be meeting a friend for coffee than attending another appointment. They need kindness, compassion, and some understanding. They need treating like people, just like anyone else.

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