Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Book Review: #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike: When you think everyone hates you & so much more, by Sarah Fader (Author) and Michelle Hammer (Creator)

I have followed Sarah Fader on Twitter for several years, intially through her work with the mental health nonprofit Stigma Fighters, which gives a forum—online and in (to date) three published anthologies—to people’s experiences living with mental illness in all its many forms.

This new book brings the focus in closer, both in terms of the condition being covered—anxiety—and by limiting the descriptions to Twitter’s 140 characters, each with the associated hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike. The book contains 51 pieces by Sarah, each brilliantly illustrated by Michelle Hammer.

Whether we have a diagnosed condition or not, we can all remember times we have been anxious. This book takes the reader in further: to reading and by extension imaging what that “regular” anxiety might be like, racked up 1,000 percent and liable to overwhelm you at any moment.

If like me you have little or no personal experience of anxiety, buy this book. Read it. Tell everyone you know about it. It’s that important. But recognise it is the start, rather than the end, of your journey.

Get on social media and follow the #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike hashtag for many many more examples, from people all over the world. Keep your mind and heart open. You will learn a lot.

This is what countering stigma feels like.

About the Authors

Sarah Fader is the CEO and Founder of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Quartz, Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, HuffPost Live, and Good Day New York. Michelle Hammer is a graphic designer and artist living with paranoid schizophrenia. Her work has been featured on NBC, The Daily Mail, BuzzFeed, Mashable. Shape, A+, HelloGiggles, and Stylist. Her artwork is the most recognized on her signature clothing line Schizophrenic NYC. Michelle designs pieces of art on clothing that represent what mental illness means to her.

#ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike: When you think everyone hates you & so much more is available (print and Kindle) from Amazon.

 

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

BESIEGED: Sometimes I Just Want to Be Left Alone

It’s Saturday morning and as I often am, I’m sitting in my favourite coffee shop, Caffè Nero near the Haymarket in Newcastle. I’ve been coming here regularly since it opened. How many years is that? Before Fran and I began work on our book, for sure, and that’s pushing five years now.

It’s hard to visualise, but this used to be the City Post Office. I’ve stood in line many times—where these tables are now—for postage stamps, or to send packages off all over the world. It looks so different now! And yet, there is a sense of continuity. I may have to go elsewhere these days for my postal services (as I did this morning, to buy stamps and to mail out a copy of our book) but it is here, a large black coffee to hand (“Would you like the extra shot?” “Yes please!”), that I write my letters, cards, and postcards.

Here is also where I meet folk face-to-face. Caffè Nero is my social hub these days. The staff have changed over the years but have always been warm, personable, and supportive of my mental health work and our book. If I am meeting someone in town, here is my first choice of venue, and I have made several new friends from amongst the other regulars here. Last Saturday, a friend I know from elsewhere turned up unexpectedly. We had a great natter, and hope to meet up again soon.

For years, I had no one local to meet up with for a drink and a chat. I recall sitting in a different coffee bar, not far from here, aware that no one I knew was likely to walk in, whether accidentally or by arrangement, to greet me with a smile or a hug and share time with me over a cup of coffee.

Nowadays, I bump into people all the time! Folk I have met here at Caffè Nero, or from the monthly Literary Salon at Bar Loco (which I only learned about last year from a guy I got chatting to at Nero’s) or via Time to Change and Broadacre House. I have opened myself up to the world, and the world has opened to greet me.

But, sometimes, it all gets a bit much. Sometimes I just want to sit here and not be talked to, especially when I am clearly writing. Sometimes it’s nice to be anonymous. To be ignored. Sometimes it’s nice to be gifted a “Hi, nice to see you” without my “Hi” back being taken as an invitation to occupy my space for the next twenty minutes.

So this morning when it happened I kept my head down. Finished the letter I was writing, and kept right on going, lest any pause in my writing signal a willingness to engage. I drafted a new blog piece. This one.

And now that I am no longer besieged I can relax again. Breathe. I guess I need to work my boundaries, but at least something good came of the experience. Now it just needs a title...

 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Mental Health in Social Media, by Rebecca Lombardo

I had my first real taste of social media back in the days of Myspace. I never considered it to be anything of value; I just thought it was something to do for fun. However, it was essentially just a waste of time. In about 2006, when I got my first email invitation to join Facebook, I had no idea that it would be both a blessing and a curse.

So, when I first ventured into the Twitter arena, I was completely lost. I didn’t understand 75% of what I was looking at, and hashtags were just tic-tac-toe boards in my experience. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew that you could see tweets from famous people from time to time, and I found that to be rather fascinating, so I stuck with it.

All these years later, social media has become my preferred method of communication. I enjoy checking my various pages and keeping up with what my friends are doing. There are times when I rely on those people to help keep me sane. Have there been negative experiences? Too many to count. If you’re not face to face, humor or sarcasm can be taken as rude behavior; which can launch you into a war of words with your friends looking on like they’re watching a tennis match.

Even with the pitfalls, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a valuable tool that has the potential to catapult you onto the computer screens of hundreds of thousands of people. I won’t lie, when I was new to Twitter and reaching out to others for help with promoting my book, it felt like a clique; and I didn’t belong. I sensed early on that there were mean girls (and guys) that didn’t have any desire to assist you in any way.

However, I was persistent, and I kept posting and eventually started to connect with people. People that today I am proud to call my friends. On the negative side, people are trolling social media searching for a weak spot that they can exploit. I’ve had downright scary interactions with people that made me second guess everything I stood for. But, that’s what the bullies are hoping for, and I refuse to let them win.

The camaraderie felt within the mental health community on Twitter is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We’re a community - you might say we’re a family. We protect our own, and we lift each other up. I’ve seen it first-hand. Sure, there’s a little competition, but we’re all on the same team and ultimately have the same goal. To finally end the stigma of mental illness.

But, there’s something important that you must remember about social media. If you’re ever in a situation where you’re in so much pain, you’re having thoughts of hurting yourself, don’t go on Twitter looking for help. The worst feeling in the world is pouring your heart out and for whatever reason, nobody answers at that moment. You may not garner the attention you had anticipated, not because you aren’t important, but because we’re all working through our own issues. We’re wrapped up in our lives and our causes, and maybe we just didn’t see your post.

That will only leave you feeling more lost and hopeless. Believe me, I’ve been there. Your best bet is to talk to someone you trust face to face, like family, a friend, a therapist. Take it from me, it makes life a lot easier when you don’t rely on social media to the degree that it becomes life or death. Always remember, everyone is fighting their own battle every single day. Perhaps they’re just not stable enough themselves to offer you encouragement or advice. We’re all doing the best we can with what we have to work with.

That being said, don’t be afraid to tweet about your feelings, or a great movie you saw, or something exciting you have planned for the weekend. If you’ve selected the right group of friends, they will be there for you and both Twitter and Facebook will have their own rewards. Just try to keep in mind that you need to disconnect now and then. Don’t have your phone out at dinner, at the movies, in the car on the way to the movies. It’s not only obsessive, but it’s downright annoying.

Connecting with like-minded people has its benefits. I can’t say enough about it. Of course, you’re going to run into people who are nothing like you and some may be quite menacing. That’s what the lovely little feature called BLOCK is for, and thank God for that! Social media has the potential to be a fun and interesting experience if you learn the protocol first and try hard not to take anything personally. If someone has an issue with you, that’s their problem, not yours.

About the Author

I’m 44 years old and have been happily married for nearly 16 years. I enjoy reading, writing, music, watching movies and sports. I live in Michigan with my husband and our cats. At age 19, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I have struggled with mental illness in many forms for more than 20 years.

I’m a published author, bipolar blogger, and a mental health advocate. I am thrilled to have been selected to write for the Huffington Post and The Mighty. I just published an updated version of my book, It’s Not Your Journey, which is available on Amazon.com. Currently, my husband and I host a podcast called Voices for Change 2.0 on Saturday mornings at 11am EST.

Website: www.rebeccalombardo.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/bekalombardo
Facebook: www.facebook.com/notyourjourney
Podcast: www.voices-for-change.net
Amazon: It’s Not Your Journey

 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Walking Home from the Store (Old Friends)

I am walking home from Tescos. It’s a little after 6 pm. I go to the store two or three evenings a week for groceries, or treats. Most times I would be pressing home, to be back in time for my Skype call with Fran at 7 pm. Not this evening, though.

We’ve not fallen out or anything like that, it’s just she’s out with friends all day today while she’s having work done on her apartment. We have chatted on and off. The last time was about half an hour ago.

Fran: Things are going well but I am exhausted. Horizontal day tomorrow.
Marty: I’m at Tescos
Fran: 1.45 movie
Marty: Ooo what movie?
Fran: My Cousin Rachel
Marty: I will have to look it up. With J?
Fran: Yes
Marty: Cool

We met up on Skype last night at 7 pm. We went through her checklist to make sure all the preparations were done, and she carried the laptop round the apartment so I could see the progress she’s made. We usually have another call later but didn’t last night, because there was still a lot for her to do.

It’s a beautiful evening here. Sunny, but (mercifully!) much cooler than it has been lately. I hate the heat! Can’t move. Can’t think. This is lovely though. The shopping bags are heavy but I’m not in a rush. I relax into the moment.

How am I feeling?

I feel proud of Fran, for having got everything done for when the workers arrived today. It has been a huge challenge. The physical side of things, for sure; clearing and packing things away so they won’t get damaged. Exertion can easily trip Fran into a fatigue crash. It’s a little early to be sure but I’m hoping we have avoided that. Then there’s the mental and emotional stress, and the disruption to her—and our—routines. In some ways, that’s even more of a challenge to Fran’s wellbeing and stability than the physical side of things.

What else?

I feel free, in having the evening to myself—and a little guilty for feeling that! It’s rare for us not to be meeting at all. I don’t know what I will do with my time! Feels like I should (one of my most hated words!) do something special, something particular, rather than let the opportunity simply pass through my fingers. Then again, I don’t have to do anything as such. Relaxing counts.

I cross the Metro train line. Turn right at the Community Centre. It’s nice enough to take the short cut across the playing field.

Guilt slides into envy. I am envious of the friends who get to spend time with Fran today, especially the friend who will accompany her to the movies. We watch films and tv dramas together on Skype or Netflix but—three thousand miles apart—we can’t go to the cinema for real.

Observing all this is interesting! We don’t label thoughts and feelings as “good” or “bad” (those labels carry a moral weight that is mostly inappropriate). We feel what we feel, and thoughts come as they will. “Healthy” / “unhealthy” we use sometimes. “Positive” / “negative.” I choose not to label my pride, guilt, and envy, however. They are old friends. They are all welcome here.

I stop for a moment. Rearrange the bags of shopping. Move on again.

What’s that poem about visitors to the house? Ah yes.

The Guest House, by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I am smiling now. Once upon a time, Fran being out all day like this—being busy, having other people to be with—would have triggered stronger emotions. Fear. Abandonment. Jealousy. I have grown since then. We have grown. We understand each other better. Codependency also is an old friend.

What else?

I am proud of me and Fran. We have worked well together this past week. I helped her plan the work and chart her progress through it. I have kept her company while she worked, listened to her grumbling about it, and encouraged her when she needed it. I am aware of—and at ease with—the things I could not help with, being on the other side of the Atlantic. I couldn’t fetch things, lift things, or be out all day today with Fran while the work is going on. I’m grateful there are other friends who are able—and willing—to be there for Fran in the ways I cannot be. Gratitude is the antidote to codependency.

Not too far now. I am crossing the playing field. Local kids playing football.

I have an idea for my evening. I am going to write a blog post—this one—about how I have been feeling and processing this experience. Later I may start the Prevent training course a friend recommended to me recently. Or maybe an early night.

Tomorrow Fran is going to be pretty shattered. As she said earlier, she will need a “horizontal day.” A rest day. We will meet up on webcam, I’m sure. We will talk, share our experiences of today. Her day out. The movie. My day. My evening. My feelings—and this piece of writing they inspired. I will likely read some more from the novel we are reading together (James Hayman’s The Girl on the Bridge). Maybe we will watch some television. Doc Martin. Or Poirot.

That’s what old friends do.

 

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Anxiety is my Wingman … I Think, by Sarah Fader

I’ve had chronic anxiety since I was 15, but my symptoms (in small ways) started earlier. As a child I was quite nervous about being away from my mother. She was my safety blanket, and I wanted to be with her all the time. I still (at 37) have a close relationship with my mom, and I value her opinion so much. She is my person that I talk to when I feel down. My mom is an integral part of my support system, and I love her dearly.

But back to anxiety, which is the theme of this post. I find anxiety to be both exhilarating and debilitating. At my high positive points, I feel like I can do anything. Anxiety gives me energy, and combined with mania, I find myself writing a ton of articles, and working on several projects at once. It’s those points where I feel like anxiety is on my side. There are other points where (after the crash of manic energy) I feel low and defeated. It’s like a balloon that runs out of helium. I don’t feel like I can anymore, I’m the little engine that could NOT. That’s no fun for me, and I want to curl up in a ball and die; that’s a hyperbole, actually, I don’t want to die, but I just want relief from those overwhelming feelings of dread. It’s difficult to function when my filter is full, or my plate is empty.

I’ve heard people talk about Bipolar Disorder like a coffee filter that is filled with the grounds from coffee. When the filter is full, I can’t take on anything in life and I just want to sleep. I want to be curled up in my blanket. During those moments I can’t access the energy associated with anxiety, my wingman. I long for the times when I can do anything, or at least I feel like I can.

I refer to anxiety as my wingman, because it’s a trusted companion. You’ve heard people talk about the devil you know? Well, that’s anxiety for me. I rely on it to push me forward. Anxiety is my biggest cheerleader when I use it “right.” And that’s what I’m trying to do in my life. I want anxiety to be my best friend, rather than my worst enemy. There’s no need for anxiety to be a nemesis. It can be used for good.

Now, I want to ask you, how do you view anxiety? Is a good friend or a terrible enemy? If you have resentment toward your anxiety, perhaps you can shift that relationship. Maybe anxiety can push you forward and help you accomplish tasks. I’m trying to see the positive attributes of anxious energy so that I don’t get caught up and overwhelmed in its grasp. I believe you can do this too. In the comments section, please tell me a time where anxiety helped you. I know you can do it!

About the Author

Sarah Fader is the CEO and Founder of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Quartz, Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, HuffPost Live, and Good Day New York.

Sarah is a native New Yorker who enjoys naps, talking to strangers, and caring for her two small humans and two average-sized cats. Like six million other Americans, Sarah lives with panic disorder. Through Stigma Fighters, Sarah hopes to change the world, one mental health stigma at a time. You can find Sarah at www.sarahfader.com.

 

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

How to Handle Anger Creatively in a Supportive Relationship

If you avoid conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside yourself.—Cheryl Richardson

In the first of a new series of Question & Answer posts, Anna asks: “Do you and Fran ever get angry with each other? How do you deal with that?” Quoted passages are excerpted from our book.

In any relationship worthy of the name there will be times when one person or the other becomes irritated, frustrated, or even furiously angry. It’s important not to imagine or pretend otherwise, or hide from it when it happens. My six year friendship with Fran has transformed my relationship with anger. I am no longer afraid. It’s not that anger is a good thing in itself, but when it turns up we acknowledge it, and are honest about what is happening.

One of the most important lessons I have learned is that it is okay to get things wrong sometimes; for me to become irritated, frustrated, or angry at Fran; or for her to feel that way about me. In a relationship founded on trust and honesty, we feel safe expressing how we feel. If we allow the experience to flow without resisting it, we can emerge on the other side: still friends, cleansed, and perhaps a little wiser.

In the early stages of our friendship, I found Fran’s manic intensity exciting, but I was shocked at the frustration and anger she stirred up in me. Fran valued the emotional energy and encouraged—sometimes goaded—its expression: “Let your anger flow through you furiously, thoroughly, until it’s totally spent. It’s beautiful.” This was a revelation to me. I had spent my entire adult life trying not to become angry or upset anyone.

Irritations, grumbles, and disagreements crop up all the time, of course. They are part and parcel of life itself. Real flare ups are much rarer, but trust me we do get mad with each other sometimes! The anger is not always directed at each other. Sometimes it is triggered by other people, situations or things. We get to deal with that too.

We were talking one evening, a few months into our friendship, when I mentioned something apparently innocuous. Within moments, Fran was sobbing and furious. She hung up on me. It was the first time she had done so, other than occasionally as a joke. I had no idea what to do. I called back several times, but she failed to answer. I e-mailed her and said I was here when or if she wanted me.

I thought about how I was feeling. I was angry. Not with Fran, but with myself for having said what I did. I had not intended to hurt her, of course, nor could I reasonably have anticipated what my words would trigger. I was also concerned about her, although I trusted her to handle things, however she needed to, and to get back to me when she was ready.

As my feelings settled, I was left with a sense of calm. Something very intense had happened, but it was okay. More than that, it was important. I called Fran an hour or so later, and this time she picked up. We talked through what had happened, grateful to each other for the experience. Out of the apparent mess we had learned something new about each other and our friendship.

The source of Fran’s anger is often frustration: at her situation, at the realities of a life lived with illness, or at other people—me included—who she feels are not paying attention or taking her concerns seriously. A few times we’ve been on a call together and suddenly Fran has been crying and screaming at me that I didn’t get it: that I could never understand what she’s going through.

Paranoia can play a role. If Fran is convinced everyone is against her or hates her, I mention it to her as a potential red flag for illness. (Fran will sometimes notice it first, and share it with me so we are both aware.) But of course not all her rage is symptomatic. The world is neither fair nor pretty. All of us feel frustrated, angry and fearful from time to time. Those who live with mental illness also face stigma, ignorance and discrimination. These challenges are very real, and far more prevalent than many of us “well ones” recognise.

I get frustrated too. I get frustrated that, being 3,000 miles away, I am unable to help Fran as much as I would if we lived closer. I get frustrated if my attempts to help are clumsy or ill-fitted to her needs. And sometimes I get frustrated for no good reason at all.

I am clearer about my boundaries these days, but early in our friendship I felt I was letting Fran down if I could not do what she asked straightaway. We had been friends for about three months when things came to a head. I had helped her throughout the day and evening, but had turned my computer off and was about to go to bed. The description of what happened next comes from my diary, written the following day.

I was feeling overwhelmed about a lot of things, mostly nothing to do with Fran, but I was OK until she called after I turned the computer off and asked me to edit something to post online about wanting a ride to the Bob Dylan concert. I said I was going to bed and would do it in the morning. Fran said OK, but in a way that sounded like she was disappointed. All of a sudden I was furious at her! I hung up and turned my phone off so she couldn’t call me back. I put the computer back on and did the edit she wanted, and then e-mailed it to her. “Here you go, best I can manage. It’s twenty past midnight. I will edit the other things you wanted tomorrow. Night.”

I had no intention of talking to her again that night, but I turned my phone back on after a while, and saw she had sent me the most ridiculous cartoon video of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” All my tension and anger dissolved in an instant! Not just the stuff about Fran, but the rest of it too. I called her and we had a huge laugh about it! I learned three lessons that night. First, it is important to respect my needs as much as I respect Fran’s. The editing was not urgent; I was tired and needed sleep. Second, I have choices. I might have chosen to do the work gracefully to get it out of the way, or leave it until morning. Having a tantrum about it was also a choice. Third, I learned that extreme emotions can be cleansing. Fran defused my outburst with humour, simultaneously releasing the rest of my pent-up frustrations. As I wrote to Fran later, “I needed to get mad at you. Thank you.”

Fran often notices a shift in my mood and asks me about it before it can spill over into anger, but sometimes there is little or no warning. A couple of months ago we were talking together on webcam. Suddenly, I was more furious than I can ever recall being in my life. I was yelling at her, swearing at her, raging at her. I can still recall the fury. I can taste it. I have no recollection now of what triggered my outburst, but I know we stayed on our call. Fran waited for me to calm down. We talked it through. I could ask Fran to remind me what it was about. Perhaps I will. But the point is we can experience moments of even extreme anger, process them, and move on.

How do we do that? First and foremost we are honest and open with each other. We are not proud of our anger but neither are we ashamed. We do not take it as a personal affront or as a threat to our relationship. We talk as soon as possible, looking “under the bonnet” at what might actually have been going on. It can be a very cleansing experience, and allows us to move forward without feeling guilty or nursing bruised egos.

When I began writing this post I joked to Fran that I had enough material already so there was no need for us to get mad at each other for a while. A few days later, something happened. It no more than a minor misalignment, but it could easily have escalated if we had not been open to exploring what was happening. We were on our regular early evening call (early evening for me, early afternoon for Fran due to the time difference). Fran talked for a while about her day, how she had made a few phone calls and got movement on some things she’s been dealing with lately. When it seemed we’d talked that through, I shared what had been going on for me. I read her a new book review we’d received, and told her about an invitation I’d received to attend a mental health event later in the year.

I could tell Fran wasn’t paying attention, and as soon as I stopped speaking she took the conversation back to what she’d been talking about earlier. I let it go but I felt aggrieved. I’d have liked some acknowledgement of what I’d shared. I was also irritated by some of what Fran was saying about other people and events, as though everything and everyone was against her.

After talking for a few minutes Fran paused. She’d noticed my shift in mood. She acknowledged she was being unreasonable. She knew I was excited about my news, but couldn’t focus on that because she was so worried about what was going on for her. She was also concerned her bipolar might be kicking in again. I realised I’d not picked up on just how concerned she was about everything. Although “tired and grumpy” she had seemed to have things in hand.

It didn’t take long to talk it through. No more than a couple of minutes. Before we ended our call I told her: “I’m proud of how we do this stuff, Fran. You get to say how it is for you. I get to say how it is for me. And we get over ourselves and move on.”