Wednesday 28 March 2018

The Most Anguishing Dilemma

The most anguishing dilemma with chronic illness is when you want to stretch yourself to do something you love, but you know it will challenge your health. A part of you hopes all will be well, hopes maybe you’re getting better, hopes this time you can leave your cage behind. So you do the thing. And like clockwork the giant rubber band slaps and snaps and zaps you back further behind than you were before. Going to the doctor doesn’t help. No answers there. Drugs can’t touch it. There is only the quiet endurance of rest for as long as it takes to regain some ground and pray your mind doesn’t go beforehand. And that your friends don’t leave.

Fran Houston


Wednesday 21 March 2018

Return to Normal

By Roiben

Being ill and signed off work is almost par for the course for most long-term conditions. I say this as someone with more than one such condition. I have had more sick days than “average” and have been officially signed off work more than once.

As I write this I have been signed off sick from work since November 2017, with a return to work set for 5 March 2018. I have used my time off to actively work on improving my health and well-being. Specifically, my Mental Health, which is the reason for being signed off.

So, what can someone do to make being signed off sick, and the subsequent return to work, as smooth and successful as possible?

Firstly, I would recommend having a good working relationship with your HR (Human Resources) contact. Try not to see them as the enemy (as some stigma and work cultures can make them seem). Be honest with them – they cannot help you if you do not express your needs and how you are doing.

Once signed off, keep in contact with your work place and with HR. Experience says this needs to be at least weekly and ideally face to face. Going into your work place once a week keeps it familiar and allows you to keep in contact with colleagues. This is vital in my experience. It has allowed me to stay involved and abreast of what is happening in the workplace and ensured I won’t be a “stranger” when I return to work. It also means any changes that take place while you are away from the office or work place will not be a shock to the system upon your return to work.

Plan your return to work with the help of HR. In most cases, as in mine, a gradual phased return in terms of both hours and workload is best. Diving into the deep end or attempting to do all your usual tasks in fewer hours just increases the likelihood that you will end up sick again. I have had this happen, many years ago – before I knew better.

Don’t return before you are ready to. There may be pressure from family or you might feel you need to be busy or useful, but returning too soon can be detrimental. You will know when you are ready and this feeling should be combined with an obvious improvement in your well-being. It’s important that HR, as well as any medical professional that is looking after you, believes you have improved enough to consider a return to work. HR can’t and shouldn’t allow you to return without confirmation from the medical profession that you are now well enough.

A good HR team will also look at ways to assist you, not just in returning to work but in minimizing the chances of needing to be “signed off” again. They can look at reducing stress-factors and any adaptations that may be required to assist you. This may involve liaison with Occupational Health but does not always need to. It very much depends on what systems and policies your work place has.

Throughout the whole process, make sure you know what these policies are. For example, at what point will you be put on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and how much difference there is between this and your normal wage.

Know your rights and read up on what to expect so that there is no added stress in the process. ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, is a good place to start. It offers guidelines in easy to understand language on what should happen. These are guidelines, not law though. For the law, I would suggest looking at the website ( These will not just make the process less of a shock, but arm you with the knowledge of what your rights are, should anything go wrong.

Should the worse happen and you feel things are going wrong, document everything. Keep a record of communications between you and work. Make note of any agreements and decisions. Also, make sure you have a record of any medical and occupational health decisions and opinions. It is good practice to do this anyway. Should you feel you are being treated unfairly these documents can be used to state your case.

Ultimately, the process should be smooth with regular two way communications and any decisions made with your understanding and consent. If that is the case, there will be fewer issues transitioning back to work.

Once back at work, especially on a phased return, maintain regular contact with HR to let them know how you are getting on so they can be on hand should you find it too much — or not enough — at any point. Being back in the office does not make your long-term condition magically disappear, of course, and neither should your connections in HR and discussions with your manager.

I am passionate about raising awareness of disabilities, long term conditions and mental illness within the workplace. I am lucky in that the place I currently work is already on board and working to ensure conditions do not become barriers to employment. I am, however, aware that some workplaces are less on the ball and may need some work to increase their awareness of such conditions and disabilities.

My advice is to start from the outset. State your needs and requirements when you apply and build knowledge and awareness throughout your relationship with your employer. That way, if you are signed off sick there is less of a mountain to climb.

There is no doubt that more needs to be done to improve access to work for people who live with disabilities, mental illness and long term conditions. I would encourage everyone to play their own small part in achieving this, if they can.

What are your experiences, and tips for being signed off sick from work? What do you do to raise awareness and ensure your workplace “works” with you, not against you? Please share your experiences in the comments below.


About the Author

You can find Roiben on Twitter (@roiben).


Thursday 15 March 2018

Anxiety is Addictive

By Sarah Fader

In a funny way, anxiety can be addictive. It’s something about that rush, that feeling that you are high on adrenaline even if it’s a negative feeling. You get used to running on anxiety autopilot and you want to keep that ship going.

You are accustomed to panicking; you leave things to the last minute so that you can get that energy rush in order to make it happen faster. That's the weird thing about mental illness, it can work for you instead of against you and it's unpredictable when it will do that. Being aware and talking about what you're dealing with is essential to coping with mental health issues.

Back to anxiety; when I was in college I used to wait until the last minute to do my term papers because I felt like that adrenaline was something that was going to help me. Now I know that it’s not necessarily helpful but actually makes me more anxious and can harm my mental health.

Still, there is this addictive quality to panic. Even though legitimate panic attacks are an awful feeling and we don’t want to feel them if possible, there is something to be said for anxiety being a motivator to achieve things. Anxiety is excess energy and even though it is sometimes extremely unpleasant it can push us the point of completion of tasks.

There are other times when anxiety does not help us get things done but rather furthers your fear of your self and anxiety, to begin with.

I’m trying to catch myself when I am procrastinating doing a task that I don’t want to do. It’s a difficult pattern to break but I know that in the end even with anxiety feeling addictive it’s not worth that pain and anguish I feel when I’m trying so desperately to finish something at the last minute.

So what about you? Do you leave things to the last minute because you’re so used to doing them that way or do you plan and not given to the addictive quality of anxiety? If you do, think about changing this and see if it helps you feel a little bit better.

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.


Wednesday 14 March 2018

An Evening with Author Lucy Nichol

The only normal people you know are the ones you don’t know very well. (Anna Foster)

Last week I attended the launch event for Lucy Nichol’s new book A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, published by Trigger Press, at Waterstones bookshop in my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne.

My first contact with Trigger Press was in August 2017 when I was introduced to Stephanie Cox by author Anne Goodwin. I had met Anne in 2015 at the launch event for her first novel, Sugar and Snails. Stephanie reviews books for her blog Words Are My Craft. I asked if she’d consider reviewing our book, and she said yes! (You can read her fabulously detailed and insightful review here.)

Stephanie is Assistant Copy Editor at Trigger Press which specialises in mental health titles. I began following Trigger Press on Twitter (@trigger_press), as well as some of their authors including Lucy Nichol and Karen Manton. (Karen recently guested here at Gum on My Shoe, sharing her story and talking about her book Searching For Brighter Days: Learning to Manage My Bipolar Brain.)

I learned of Lucy’s book launch back in January on the Waterstones website. The description intrigued me and I booked my ticket.

An Evening with Author Lucy Nichol

Join Radio Newcastle’s Anna Foster in conversation with Lucy Nichol, author of new book A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes: Naming and Shaming Mental Health Stigmas. A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes is a moving and funny account of Lucy Nichol’s journey through mental illness and recovery, told through the lens of mental health stereotypes and reflected in the media of the time. In telling her own story, Lucy has been able to claw herself back from the grips of her anxiety and tackle important issues surrounding mental health as a whole. She is a dedicated writer and mental health campaigner.

I arrived at the venue thirty minutes or so before it was scheduled to start. Lucy hadn’t arrived yet but Anna was sitting at the front. Taking a deep breath I walked over and introduced myself. (Note: Martin simply doesn’t do things like introduce himself to famous BBC radio presenters—except apparently he does now!) Anna is an absolute delight! We talked about my friendship with Fran, our book, social media, and my interview a couple of years ago on the Mentally Sound show for Gravity Radio NE.

The venue was full by the time Caroline from Waterstones kicked things off. Anna explained how she and Lucy had first met several years ago and then talked to Lucy about her experiences with mental illness (anxiety and panic attacks) and stigma, and how she came to write her book.

Lucy comes across as utterly genuine and honest, and has a great sense of humour (and a delightful singing voice!) She read the final chapter from her book and fielded questions from the audience. These included questions on the prevalence of mental illness these days compared to in the past, the importance of self-care, and whether mental illness helps make a person more compassionate.

Lucy said that when she is doing okay her lived experience helps her empathise with others. But when she is not doing well she needs all her focus to deal with what she is going through. I found myself nodding as she was saying this, because it is how Fran is with her own mental health.

Once the questions were over, Lucy stayed to sign copies of her book. I had a copy of High Tide, Low Tide for her, which she accepted graciously. (Hope you enjoy it, Lucy!)

All too soon, the event was over and I made my way home, inspired by Lucy’s story and the general spirit of courage and determination to counter the stigma and discrimination that sadly is still all too prevalent. I look forward to reading Lucy’s book and reviewing it.

You can contact Lucy Nichol on Twitter (@LucyENichol). Her book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes: Naming And Shaming Mental Health Stigmas, is available on Amazon and from Trigger Press. You can find Anna Foster on Twitter (@Ladyannafoster) and on the BBC Newcastle radio breakfast show.


Uncertainty Makes Mental Illness Worse

By Sarah Fader

One of the most foundational parts of living with mental illness is structure and routine. This can be applied to a multitude of areas in your life. Whether it's your career, friendships or romantic relationships, things need to feel concrete and defined. When you have a mental illness, having a schedule and routine to follow is imperative.

When things are ambiguous that's when you get into trouble. If you're unsure of what your day is going to look like you might feel anxious or out of sorts. If you are not certain of the boundaries in a romantic relationship, this can make you feel nervous, insecure or even depressed. This is not something that you need to worry about if possible. If there are ways to avoid feeling down or anxious about a relationship or an ambiguous situation at work, then these techniques should help.

There are things that we could obsess about when we don't know the perimeters or the boundaries of a relationship. When you have clarity in any context of your life you will inevitably feel better. This is crucial to someone who lives with a mental illness. Anxiety is exacerbated by "not knowing" and there are so many things in life that we don't know. If it's possible to have transparency in a situation, then, by all means, make that happen!


This is the tough part: ask the other person what's going on. When you are feeling anxious and you don't know where you stand with another person, the best thing to do is not to guess, but to directly ask them. Human beings are powerful creatures, however, we do not read minds. We cannot presume to know what is in someone else's brain. You might be afraid to hear what they have to say, but you can ask that person what they're thinking and how they feel.

When you ask for clarity in a relationship or a situation with murky boundaries, you will feel less anxious when you know what you're dealing with. People, like me, living with mental illness need to be mindful of what energy we bring into our lives. Many of us are sensitive and empathetic and when we are uneasy about something or someone, that takes a toll on our feelings. Being an empathetic person, I want to help others, but if I don't know what's going on, I can't help.

My point is if you can create a life in which you know pretty much what to expect from those around you, do that. Of course, life is unpredictable and there's never a way to know what will happen in a given situation. However, if you allow people into your life who are reliable and honest, you will be able to feel calmer and more secure. What about you? Do you feel comfortable with ambiguity or does uncertainty make you feel more anxious?

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.


Wednesday 7 March 2018

Learning to Manage My Bipolar Disorder

By Karen Manton

First Experience of the Illness

My first experience of Bipolar disorder was at the tender age of seventeen years. I had just commenced my first full time post working for the local authority. I was also in quite a destructive relationship.

The first symptom that I had was insomnia. I was going to bed of an evening but just finding that I was unable to sleep. My mind was racing with thoughts and it was as though no matter how hard I tried I just could not switch my brain off. The first night passed and I was aware that I had not had a wink of sleep. Soon one night turned into more until eventually I had not slept at all in a whole week.

By this time, I was totally past myself. I can recall leaving my home to catch a bus to work and feeling like this very tiny person in a big world. When I arrived at the office I could no longer concentrate. I did not have a clue what I was doing anymore and could simply not focus. My manager was aware that I was very poorly and went to visit my parents to explain just how I was presenting. It was obvious by now that I needed help.

GP Visit

As mam was becoming increasingly concerned she accompanied me on a visit to my GP. I was very angry and upset by this point and all I could do was shout, swear and tell the doctor that I was ‘confused’. This was becoming a very used saying of mine. It was exactly how I felt as I had no idea what was happening to me. The doctor seemed fairly bewildered by what he was witnessing and explained to my mum that I had ‘Anxiety and Depression’ which meant very little to either of us. I left with a prescription for anti-depressants.

The next few months I just stayed at home eating, putting on weight and being very sad. By now I had ended my relationship and taken some sick leave from work. It was to be quite some time before I became well again. In the end I decided to stop the medication and start to socialise which seemed to help.

My First Section

It was to be six years before I had my next episode, January 1992. I was to be sectioned following a phantom pregnancy. I was in hospital for exactly a week.

I then retired from work due to ill health after repeated episodes of stress. I struggled to concentrate in the office and would find that I just could not cope with any pressure.

I had felt extremely frightened after being sectioned. It was an horrific ordeal and had left me feeing very vulnerable.

Further Episodes, Further Sections

Sadly, I was still not given any diagnosis, so I had no idea that I had a mental illness. Because of this I was continuing to have episodes of extreme highs and very debilitating lows. Each episode would always start in the same way with a lack of sleep. I would then completely lose my mind. My imagination would just run away with me. I would think that I was Jesus reincarnated and that I was immortal. This was just so frightening to everyone around me. It would result in further hospital sections.

For some reason the episodes began to happen every two years. Something would happen in my life, maybe a bereavement but it would my reaction to the that that would trigger the illness.

Unfortunately, this was to happen in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2002 and yet each time the medical team could not give the diagnosis that was so desperately needed. It would just follow the same pattern of becoming ill, seeking help, commencing medication then stopping medication. This was such a sad and distressing time in my life. I began to feel that I would never become well again!

At Last a Diagnosis

I was to finally receive my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder in 2002. Thankfully for me a new psychiatrist had come aboard. At last someone was prepared to listen to me and to make some sense of what was happening to me. When I was feeling a little better I had prepared some questions to ask my consultant. As strange as this may sound I was delighted when he told me what was wrong with me. I could finally embrace this illness and do what was needed not only to become well again but this time to remain well.

I was determined that this time I would never darken the doors of the mental hospital again. I wanted to learn how to manage this illness and I would do whatever I could not to let it beat me again.

My new consultant and his team were just amazing. He knew the secret to me remaining well was to stay on the medication. This had made me well and therefore it was vital that I stuck with it.

Following my discharge from hospital I remained under the care of my consultant and do so to this day. I feel this is my safety net.

I have remained on my medication as a few years ago we attempted to stop the tablets, but I had a wobble with my illness and this worried me that I may have had to go back into hospital. Thankfully, because of the fast action of the consultant he prescribed the medication needed and I remained at home and made a speedy recovery.

A few years ago, I embarked on twenty-two weeks of cognitive analytical therapy which provided great benefits to me. This taught me how to reflect on my life without it causing me to feel distressed.

From then on, I made the decision it was simply not worth the risk to me becoming ill again. After all what does it matter if I need to take tablets. The important thing is they give my quality of life.

Searching for Brighter Days; Learning to Manage My Bipolar Brain

It has been an extremely difficult journey for me in learning to manage my illness. I have suffered a great deal with Bipolar. It has meant that I have recently had to leave yet another office job due to stress.

I then decided it was time I should write my life story as I have certainly lived a life. I set about this last year and was delighted to have my book published in September by Trigger Press, the publicist for the Shaw Mind Foundation. They decided that my book belonged in their ‘Inspirational Series’.

In my book I describe my very difficult childhood and then how I enter adulthood under the shadow of the mental illness. However, I also share how I became well and have managed to remain that way. I talk about my search for those ‘brighter days’.

About the Author

Karen Manton was born in Grangetown, Middlesbrough in the North East of England. From leaving school she worked for the local authority. Having suffered from Bipolar Disorder from the age of 17 Karen retired at a very young age on ill health. She later returned to work in Social Care but after suffering further ill health resigned from her post. She then decided to write her life story, Searching For Brighter Days: Learning to Manage My Bipolar Brain. The book has been published by Trigger Press part of the Shaw Mind Foundation. Karen is now a Mental Health Ambassador for the foundation and will be continuing to work alongside them.

You can contact Karen through her Facebook page, where she shares helpful information about Bipolar Disorder.

Her book Searching For Brighter Days: Learning to Manage My Bipolar Brain is available on Amazon and from her publisher, Trigger Press.


Sunday 4 March 2018

Welcoming Myself Home

When I am depressed I yawn a lot. It’s as if I can’t take a breath or don’t want to. I sleep a lot and can’t wake up. And it takes forever to do one task if it indeed gets done. I just spent a month in Mexico where I pushed all my thoughts aside and intensely lived in the moment. Many things were wonderful, some not so much. Living alongside bipolar is not an easy thing to do especially when traveling. Coming home I began unravelling and everything stopped. I was really sick in body and mind. I second guessed everything. The only thing I hung onto was that I was really proud of myself to do such an amazing thing. There are those who don’t understand. I try to stay away from them. Understanding friends I cling to for they help me integrate in a healthy way. I continue to welcome myself home.