We All Have A Story

Every single one of us has a story. We’ve all been on a journey since the day we were born. We all have anecdotes of funny things that have happened. We’ve all had times where less-funny things have happened and life has thrown us a curveball which has changed the direction we’re travelling in.

But when our journey involves mental illness, it can be hard to talk about. Sharing it becomes a struggle. People ask us what we did last weekend and we haven’t got a clue how to answer because last weekend we were struggling to breathe under the weight of depression/in hospital/hiding under a blanket or something. You can’t really answer the question ‘wheat have you been up to lately?’ with ‘trying to survive’.

So our story becomes holey. It contains blanks. Black holes of difficulties, tears, resilience, strength, and courage.

My personal story is 24 and a bit years long. It’s had many ups and downs. It’s had lots of twists and turns. At times it’s been a comedy, there are times when it’s perhaps been more of a tragedy. But it’s mine.IMG_9155

I’ve been very open with some parts of my story (you can’t really hide the fact that your Mum is dying, or that she’s died). But there are other parts of my story that have remained hidden. Bits that I haven’t wanted to admit to myself, never mind anyone else. Bits that I’ve felt ashamed or guilty about. Things that get so messy in my head that I don’t have the worlds to put them down on paper.

Sharing our stories can be incredibly freeing. It can feel like pushing a ten-tonne weight off our chest, standing up and announcing to the world ‘This is me! This is who I am! I’m not going to hide any more!”. But it’s also so hard. It can leave us feeling very vulnerable. In writing them it can bring up a lot of difficult things.

I wasn’t going to share any of my story today, but in seeing all of the #WeAllHaveAStory tweets on Twitter, as part of the #BigBlurtathon, I’ve been inspired to share a little bit of things I’ve previously not shared. So with a deep breath, and a heck of a lot of coffee, here goes!

I’m no stranger to mental illness, or life being a bit of a knob. I’ve had depression since a very young age – something I’ve blogged about once or twice. My Mum was diagnosed with cancer when I was 18, became terminal when I was 20, and died when I was 21 – something I’ve blogged about extensively. I’ve also had an eating disorder for about 12 years. That’s the bit I’ve not written about.

I’ve not written about it because I feel/felt guilty. I feel/felt ashamed of it. I feel/felt like it was my fault, like I was doing it to myself, like I was ungrateful for intentionally starving myself when others have no choice but to starve. Keeping it secret helped the illness to thrive and I needed the illness for a long time. For a long time it kept me alive.

I’ve not been immune from the side effects of this constant attack on my body. But I barely recognised it as anything other than “oh well, this is how life is”. The fact that I was on 20+ medications at times, was at the GP every week, had bloods weekly, never had all my bloods in range, wasn’t allowed to drive far, and wasn’t allowed to exercise or camp (among a million other disadvantages), just didn’t register in my brain as anything at all abnormal for a twenty-something-year-old. People sometimes told me that I’d end up in hospital. But I always replied that I’d had this illness for over ten years and hadn’t ended up in hospital before so it was fine. I remained “functional”.

But this week exactly a year ago, all this changed. I received a call when I was at work asking me to come in for repeat bloods and an ECG. My blood test results were not good. I decided it would be fine but IMG_2972along I popped. On 22nd September, I saw my usual GP and she admitted me to hospital. I was terrified. I’d never been in hospital overnight before. The following 2 weeks involved a total of 10 days in hospital over 3 admissions. I would be discharged and then readmitted a day later. At one point there were less than 24 hours between being discharged and being readmitted (and I was asleep for about 12 hours of that).

I was desperate for help. The nurses on the ward were desperate to get me help. I cried more than I’ve ever done before. Ever. (Including when Mum died). I spoke to various mental health professionals. I had panic attacks in the middle of the night. I had some incredible nurses who I will never forget. One hugged me at about 3am and snuck me a cup of tea (I was on restricted fluids) until I could breathe again. One switched the room she was covering to make sure she was my nurse.

I had some atrocious nurses and doctors. “Professionals” who treated my like a piece of dirt on the bottom of their shoe. Who made snide remarks. Who made me feel like I was undeserving, like I’d chosen to be there, like I’d be less of an inconvenience if I’d hurry up and die. Some of the mental health professionals weren’t much better.

The following few months are still a blur. I was trying to get myself stable again. I was trying to follow a meal plan and a fluid plan. I wasn’t doing a great job, but I was trying. There were things I was doing which I didn’t think others would realise were me ‘getting around the system’. There were things I was doing which I didn’t realise were anorexia not me.

In January I was admitted again. The staff on the ward remembered me. I was lucky to largely have brilliant staff this time, on both of the wards I was on. Staff who went out of their way to find food I ‘could’ eat. I had an incredible pair of mental health professionals this time, too. I was still terrified. I remember at one point telling the mental health team that the meds the ward were giving me were coating my insides and contaminating me. This wasn’t psychosis – it’s what happens when your body doesn’t have what it needs.

Unfortunately, things continued to deteriorate. I was of the opinion that I had solved all the issues I was having in a very logical way. My GP did try to explain that crawling around my house was not a solution to fainting whenever I stood up, and that actually giving myself some food/fluid might be a better plan. I didn’t agree.IMG_0344

Looking back on it, I could have died. I was so poorly. Apparently I wasn’t making any sense. I was days away from permanent kidney damage. I had to stop going to my GP surgery for bloods twice a week because I wasn’t well enough, and had to go to the mental health place instead. I was admitted straight from there on my last general admission.

I was absolutely terrified. Not of dying, like you might think. But of the things that they were attaching to my drip. Of the fear associated with having things in my body. It didn’t register that I was, yet again, attached to a permanent heart monitor or that, yet again, I was the youngest patient in the room by about 50 years. I was terrified and trapped and the only reason I didn’t pull everything off/out and run home, was because I knew I’d get sectioned. The only time I was even remotely scared for my health was when all of my muscles seized up and I couldn’t move and struggled to talk.

Again, I had a mix of staff. There are some staff who I am forever indebted to. Who showed me pictures of their cat and spoke to me like a human. Staff who came back at the end of their shift to wheel me down to the gift shop to buy puzzle books. An amazing mental health worker who told me that I was “scared but motivated, and that’s the best place to be when going inpatient”. That got me through my first few weeks on the ED unit. There were also some horrendous staff. There are things from all of my general admissions that at some point I need to work through and process, because I still occasionally have nightmares about them.

You would think, given all of this, that I might have realised that friends and family might realise something was up, but I didn’t. I was largely convinced that I looked normal and that I was an excellent secret-keeper. I wasn’t.

A week later I was admitted to an eating disorder unit. It was the hardest 6 months of my life. I’ve gained 75% of my weight again. I’ve cried (a lot!). I’ve panicked. I’ve felt hopeless. I’ve eaten things I hadn’t eaten in years and years. I’ve sat with the most uncomfortable of uncomfortable feelings. I’ve talked. I’ve opened up. I’ve worked so unbelievably hard. I’ve developed a (real!) laugh. I’ve found hope. I’ve found some moments of peace. I’ve found my fight. I’ve found my sparkle. I’ve found my will to live.

My story is messy. It’s hard to read. It’s hard to remember. There’s a lot I don’t remember. It’s a bit of a disaster zone at times.

IMG_1342It’s the story of a girl who was lost. A girl who wasn’t remotely interested in being alive. A girl who thought that life couldn’t change. A girl who thought it was as good as it was going to get. A girl who was destroying herself to cope with a world that felt un-cope-able-with. A girl who didn’t believe in recovery.

But it’s also a story of a girl who didn’t get home until almost 1am last night after a meal out with colleagues in which she laughed for about 4 hours straight. It’s the story of a girl who went camping over summer for the first time in years. It’s the story of a girl who spontaneously decided to go to Whitby one day because she wanted to see the sea. It’s the story of a girl who jumped from rock to rock at Brimham Rocks a few weeks ago. It’s the story of a girl who went out, got tipsy, and danced for hours a few weeks ago. It’s the story of a girl who jumped in her car and drove 4-5 hours to Bristol because she wanted to see her cousin and his family. It’s the story of a girl who is now a sister, a friend, a daughter, a cat-mother, a granddaughter, a niece, a colleague, and a fighter.

It’s the story of a girl who now believes in recovery.

I hope that however hard my story is to read, that it’s one of hope. I hope that it shows others that life doesn’t have to be this way. That there is a chance (however small) that things can get better.

I also hope that my story shows what a difference good professionals can make (and that it prompts those professionals with prejudices about eating disorders to have another think). I wouldn’t be here without some incredible professionals who didn’t give up on me. But more importantly, without the most unbelievably amazing friends and family a girl could ever ask for. I wouldn’t be here right now without some amazing nurses and doctors, some amazingly lovely fellow patients on all of the wards I’ve been on, and my friends and family.

This is just one chapter in my story. There is so much more to come. It’s not always going to be easy. I’m not ‘fixed’. I’m not ‘cured’. I’m still on 10+ medications, under the mental health team, and have regular bloods and weight checks, and have to do things daily to keep myself afloat. But I’m excited for the future, now.

I’ve chosen to own my story and I’m excited to find out what happens next.

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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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Art Journaling

A few months ago, I started art journaling. I now journal most days, and I absolutely love it.

I’ve decided that one of my new life goals is to be one of those people who always has some paint somewhere on their body/hair/clothes. I do it for myself, not others but I’ve started to post some of my pages on 04.jpgInstagram, and sometimes also share them on Twitter and Project 365. People often thank me for sharing them, comment that they can relate, tell me I’ve inspired them to start journaling and share their journal pages with me. I absolutely love hearing from all of these people, it’s wonderful. I’ve shared it with my GP, and other health professionals a few times, which I’ve found to be really useful because sometimes I struggle to communicate with words, so paint can help. The response I’ve received, coupled with the amount I felt it was helping, but also challenging me, and some great sessions doing it alongside a friend, have inspired me to keep going.

Quite a number of people have asked me how they could start art journaling. I am by no means an expert on the subject (I make it up as I go along to be honest), but I thought I’d attempt to write some tips on how you could get started, and to answer some of the questions that people have asked me, so here goes…

What is art journaling?

According to Wikepedia, art journaling is ‘a daily journal kept by artists, often containing both words and sketches, and occasionally including mixed media elements such as collages.’. I wouldn’t really say I was an artist… to me art journaling is expressing myself in a vaguely arty way, in the form of a book, so I suppose the whole concept of ‘keeping a vaguely arty journal’ is open to interpretation, and up to you to make it what you want it to be.

The Book

However you decide to journal, you’re going to need to start with a book in some form. For17270804_1159074677538533_1120881872_n some this could be a lined notebook, or a book with black or coloured pages, others might like to do an altered book. You’ll also need to decide what size you want it to be, and what sort of binding. I personally use an artist sketchbook because the pages are a bit thicker, and I tend to use a lot of paint/glue/things, mine is A5 because I felt like I’d get overwhelmed with anything bigger, and smaller would be too fiddly, and mine is casebound but if I was buying a new one I think I’d get a spiralbound one because it’s exploding a little at this point.

Equipment

05.jpgOnce you’ve got a book, you need some things to help you fill it. I’m a big fan of paint – it features on most of my pages. I personally use acrylics, but I’m not really bothered about brand or anything like that. Sometimes I add water to it, sometimes I use it in a thicker form, I often paint over other things. You don’t need to use acrylics, though, you could use poster paint (which is usually cheaper) or any other paints that take your fancy.

A printer can be useful to print your own photos, or letters, or anything else you fancy popping in. Magazines can be good for those sort of things as well – free campus newspapers are a good start, or I often use the Aldi specialbuy magazines. You can always pick up gossip magazines pretty cheaply (or if you’re feeling brave enough to ask, you might be able to inherit some from a doctor’s surgery).

Wallpaper can be great for different textures and patterns. I’ve never actually bought any, I just collect samples from B&Q, Wilkos, Homebase, and The Range.

27.JPGIn terms of a hierarchy of journal needs, I’d put some form of marker/pen near to the top. This can be sharpies or felt tips… anything you fancy writing with. I started with some glittery gel pens which I picked up from Morrisons which are good because they wrote over paint. As time’s gone one, I’ve picked up sharpies in different colours and thicknesses, some metallic markers, and a white pen.

You’re likely to need some sort of glue – pritt stick for paper things, PVA for tissue paper, cocktail sticks, or bits of sponge, and bostik if you need something a bit more hardcore for sticking bits of CD or things like that. I also have Mod Podge, but I’m still a little undecided on whether I’m a modpodge fan or not.

You might like to use some other art things like chalk, pastels, pencils, colouring pencils, ink, graphite pencils, watercolour pencils, or anything else you might associate with ‘art’, but they’re not essential, it just depends on the sort of thing you want to create.

If you want to do more mixed media type things, it can be good to pick up random bits and bobs. I use a17092837_1151419201637414_765826869_o lot of found objects like sponges, cut up CDs, cocktail sticks or toilet roll – I just collect them when I find them and keep them in my ‘box of stuff’. I have other things in there that I’ve bought specifically, too, like ice lolly sticks, tissue paper, and string. Personally, I also love polyfiller – it’s not made specifically for art purposes, it’s for fixing hole in walls among other things, but it’s really good for creating different textures.

Another thing you might want to buy is some form of plastic sheet (if you’re like me and tend to journal on the floor…). I just picked up a kid’s party tablecloth from the 05.jpgsupermarket for a couple of pounds which does the job and makes it easier to clean up.

If you don’t feel like using a lot of stuff, or getting much out, then that’s okay, too! Do a sketch page, draw something and colour it in, print a few pictures and write something over them. I love messy journaling, but I know lots of others don’t, and that’s absolutely okay.

Where to buy stuff

A lot of people art put off starting a journal because of cost, but it really, really doesn’t need to be expensive. Personally, I do own a fair amount of artycrafty stuff, but I’ve been collecting it for about ten years. You really, really do not need to break the bank. You also don’t need to go out and 10.jpgbuy everything all at once, I tend to just pick up little bits as and when I feel like it (or as and when I have money…), and have built up my collection that way.

The Works is good for cheaper art bits. They also often have mixed media bits for a pretty good price.

As well as having wallpaper samples, The Range do a lot of art bits, normally at a pretty decent price.

Supermarkets often have a stationary/kids craft section now and I often find things there, whether it be pens/markers, or fun things to stick in. They also often sell glue and string.

Poundland sometimes do acrylic paint and often do washi tape or other things you can stick on.

WH Smith do a lot of traditional art things, sketch books, and some children’s art things which are sometimes cheaper and can often be quite fun.17236856_1159084200870914_1478726121_o.jpg

Hobbycraft is heaven in craft form. They don’t tend to do things quite as cheaply as The Range or The Works but they have some wonderful and exciting things which you can treat yourself to.

B&Q sell polyfiller, and have wallpaper samples. They also have lots of paint chips which you could use for the names or the colours.

I live in York, so I’m lucky that we have a lot of local independent shops. But there may well be some in your area so it can be good to have a potter. They often have owners who will chat to you and offer advice and tips, they might even know of local art/craft groups you could go to which can be great for meeting others and finding inspiration.

Inspiration

I am constantly inspired by those around me. There are some fantastic art journals on Instagram and Tumblr. Some of us have started using the tag #journalthefeels, but there are loads of other tags out there that people are using such as #artjournal, #arttherapy and 16990766_1147368452042489_1259755976_o.jpg#journalpages.

Whenever I find a quote or lyric that I relate to, I copy and paste it into a word document. It’s an ongoing thing, about four pages long now – others might write them in a book or something, I just find a word document easier because I can delete them when I’ve done them. I tend to find the quotes/lyrics on the usual social media sites (pinterest, tumblr etc.), through books that I read, or through songs that pop up on the radio or my Spotify discover.

Pinterest has a lot of journal prompts, too, if you’re struggling for ideas.

Top Tips

As I said before, I’m by no means an expert on all of this, but I’ve come up with a few top tips which are hopefully helpful:

  • Let your book evolve with you. When I started, my book was a bit more ‘formal’. The front page is my safety plan and there are other pages in there like ‘Coping With Flashbacks’, but as time’s gone on I’ve done it in a much ‘looser’ way. I don’t tend to do specifically therapy-type pages and just go with how I feel in07.jpgstead, because I find it works better for me. Others will be different though and will prefer the more ‘formal’ type of approach. You might start your book one way and then move in a different direction and that’s okay! Let it grow with you.
  • Do it for you, first and foremost. We spend so much of our lives trying to please other people, or trying to do what we think others want us to do. If you start posting photos of your work online, especially, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying to do pages you think others would like to see, or ones you think will get you the most ‘likes’. It can also feel like once you’ve started posting, you have to post every page. You don’t. This book it yours, not anyone else’s. Hate paint? Don’t use it. Not a fan of quotes? Don’t use them. Want to just paint a page black? Go for it. It’s your book.
  • Just start. Staring at a blank page or a blank book is super hard. If you’re anything like me, a white page invokes fear and ‘argh’ feelings. Get rid of the white, even if you don’t know what you want to put on the page.
  • Everyone is creative, and you’re not bad at art. So what if your school art teacher never gave you a decent mark? Who cares if the arty mess that you make on a page doesn’t fit your traditional perception of ‘art’? If you enjoy it then it doesn’t matter. If you find it to be a helpful way of expressing yourself, who cares what it looks like? I personally don’t believe that there is a single person on this planet who ‘has no creativity’, it’s just that everyone’s creativity looks different.
  • It’s never going to be perfect, so don’t even try to make it that way. I really, really struggle with this and it challenges me daily. I can always see ways I could improve things, or just think things are rubbish, but perfection is an impossible goal, so there’s no point even attempting it.

This has become incredible long, but hopefully it’s readable and helpful. I absolutely love seeing other people’s journals and hearing their ideas, so if you journal too, or this has inspired you to start – please share it with me if you feel up to it!

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Learning toAccept ‘Okay’

We live in a society of extremes. Our media constantly reports the best of humanity and, more often, the worst of humanity (they sort of have to, I don’t imagine anyone would read ‘man went to work and nothing happened’). The adverts that surround us tell his how to be ‘skinnier’, ‘more toned’, ‘more muscular’, ‘smarter’, basically ‘better’.

Well before we’re able to make decisions for ourselves, life is insidiously turned into a sort of Hunger Games, pitting young people against each other for the benefit of the wider world – and it works in stages. As toddlers, we are pitted against our peers to see who can walk first, talk first, count first. If you pass that stage well enough, then school becomes your new battleground, where we are told to be the ‘best’, to achieve the ‘best grades’, to win every sports match, basically to be at the top in everything we do. Do well enough there, and leaving school and moving into a job becomes the next battleground – targets and challenges are thrown at you from every angle, with competition manifesting itself in salary, houses, cars, anything tangible that people can use to compare themselves to one another.

We push ourselves, try to squeeze more than we can fit into each hour of every day, we run on empty and burn ourselves out. We lose ourselves, our very dreams, in the quest to ‘be the best’. And ultimately, what for? Someone will always be better, faster, smarter, stronger (unless you really are at the top, but so few people ever get there that most people will have to settle somewhere along the line). If we do achieve or succeed, the pressure only mounts. We have to look up and down at the same time, beating anyone who tries to take our place whilst simultaneously trying to reach higher and overtake the person in front. It’s exhausting, and it’s not healthy.

There’s something incredibly freeing about learning to accept ‘okay’. Following Mum’s death there have been lots of ups and downs. It can often feel like everything is crap and nothing is ever going to get better. There have been weeks when I have felt incredibly low, and at times like that, I don’t want to feel ‘good’ or ‘great’, I literally just want to feel ‘okay’. It’s not normal for anyone to feel ‘great’ all the time or even ‘good’ all the time (whatever adverts might tell us!). Sometimes feeling okay, and being at peace with that, can be such a relief.

When it comes to other aspects of life, as much as it is admirable to constantly strive to be better, sometimes it’s necessary to accept ‘okay’. You didn’t get all of your jobs for the day done, but it’s okay because there’s tomorrow. Your room is a little messier than you’d like, but it’s okay because you’ve had a busy week and you’re tired. You don’t feel like cooking tonight, but it’s okay because ready meals, takeaways and toast exist, and you’ve had a busy day. These are really basic examples, but it’s the start of a new ‘okay’ mindset.

Of course, in some aspects of your life you will want to strive for better than okay, and that’s okay too! If you have a big exam coming up, of course you will try to get the best grade you possibly can. When going for a promotion, of course you will want to put your all into it. When it’s your child’s birthday party, of course you will want to make it as memorable as possible (in a good way!). But equally, when you do put your all into everything and you don’t achieve what you’d hoped, it’s not the end of the world; it really isn’t.

Adding ‘okay’ to your vocabulary is so vital in today’s society when there is pressure from every angle. When you’re expected to do unpaid overtime, have a ‘perfect’ house, a ‘perfect’ body and a ‘perfect’ social life all at the same time (which, by the way, is entirely unrealistic). You are okay. You really are okay. And most of the time, so am I.

Featured: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/naomibarrow/self-esteem-being-okay_b_9826172.html