Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Caregivers Need Care Too

By Janet Coburn

Originally published in May 2017 at Bipolar Me.

While there are professional caregivers, family members often provide care and support for those with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

My husband of 35 years is my caregiver. He does a spectacular job – making sure I have my meds, taking me to my appointments, running the errands that I have no spoons to do, keeping the house quiet when I need to sleep, making sure I eat at least one nutritious meal a day.

It’s a lot. And there are things I can give him in return. Things he needs.

Appreciation. When my father was dying of cancer, my mother was his primary caregiver. One day she came to me, wanting me to tell her that she was doing a good job. She knew that she was. She just needed to hear it from someone else, someone who could tell her that her excellent care had been noticed and appreciated.

Appreciation – validation – is the thing that caregivers need most, to replenish themselves, to allow them to keep doing the things that are so vital for their charges. And it’s the easiest to give. When you’re in the depths of depression, it may be difficult to remember to say “thank you,” but it means a lot to your caregiver.

Now I’m mostly out of my depression (usually), and I say “thank you” a dozen times a day. And he always responds, “You’re welcome, friend.”

Alone time. Primary caregiving can be a full-time job. I know that one thing I need in the process of healing is alone time. Dan needs it too. He needs time off, even if that’s just time to retreat to his study and watch a movie or go outside and dig in the garden. I can always reach him if I really need him – for example, if I have a panic attack – via cell phone if nothing else. But, as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty vessel. That’s part of the reason that he’s able to give me so much of what I need.

Couples time. This doesn’t necessarily mean sex. It means time spent together, doing something other than dealing with mood swings and trauma. It’s a little gift we give each other. Sometimes I sit through a movie I don’t really care for, just to give him the gift of snuggling on the couch. He got me color-and-bake ceramic mugs that are great for creativity and distraction. One rainy afternoon we sat together and each colored one side of the mugs.

Life stuff. Dan does most of the chores and tasks of daily living, but I do what I’m able to. I earn money. I pay bills online and do most of the other computing, except what he does for leisure. I help with cooking to the extent I can – sous-chefing, finding recipes, breading or mixing or inventing dressings and sauces, making grocery lists. He can ask me for help too.

Sharing my spoons. When I do find myself with a few spare spoons – a little extra energy occasionally – I try not to be selfish with it. When I have spoons to spend, I like to shower and dress and go out for lunch. But the other day, I showered and dressed and went for a walk in the woods with Dan, something he’s been longing for. My spoons ran out pretty rapidly, but he appreciated that I made the effort and shared one of his delights. It was another gift that cost no money.

In other words, when you have a caregiver, don’t think it’s all one way. Your caregiver needs care too. Small or large, what you are able to give will be appreciated.

About the Author

Janet Coburn is a freelance writer/editor with bipolar disorder, type 2. She is the author of Bipolar Me, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, a through other outlets. Her second book, Bipolar Us, will be published later this year by Eliezer Tristan Publishing.

Janet writes about mental health issues including talk therapy, medication, books, bullying, social aspects, and public policy, but mostly her own experiences with bipolar 2. As she says, “I am not an expert and YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary.”

 

Friday, 8 November 2019

A Few Thoughts on Friendship Whilst Waiting for a Friend

I’m sitting at a table in Newcastle’s City Library. At my side is the library copy of High Tide, Low Tide, the book I wrote with my best friend Fran. I never tire of seeing it on the shelf. It’s a proud moment for any author; second only to not seeing it because someone has taken it out on loan.

I’m waiting for a friend. We’ll meet for coffee and then go for a drink or two; maybe something to eat. We’ll catch up with what’s going on for us. We’ll laugh, share old memories and make new ones. It is at moments like this that I feel most blessed. There were times in the past when I had no one to meet up with. I shared a quote on Facebook yesterday:

I don’t chase after people anymore. If they like spending time with me they will do so. (Barry M. Sherbal)

I posted it as a reminder to myself. Over the past year or so I’ve realised that chasing after people is unhealthy — for them and for me. I’ve done a lot of it in the past and the results have rarely been pretty. Some friendships have survived. Some haven’t. With some the jury’s still out. Letting go of the neediness and insecurity hasn’t been easy for me. In fact it’s been really hard and I’ve put in a lot of work. I am not altogether “there” yet but it has brought peace, and the realisation that in fact yes, I am worthy of having people like me and want to be with me. I don’t have to chase or coerce them into doing so.

I appreciate those who want to be in my life and want me in theirs. These are the relationships I value above all and within which I feel the most valued.

My friend has just messaged to say she’s on her way. Time to return the book to its place on the shelf and head out to meet her.

 

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Chapter and Verse: A Few Thoughts on Poetry, Creativity, and Mental Health

I met up recently with fellow blogger Aimee Wilson and we got talking about poetry and mental health. She showed me the blackout poem she’d created at a writing class run by Northumberland Council.

Watch it
permission
rather
I would
demanded
tolerance was not to be tested
increasingly restricted
reality reliving   particularly happy distracting
not dared to return
approved of
given up hope

Poetry is a new avenue for Aimee but she writes prolifically for her blog I’m NOT Disordered. As she says, “I find writing so beneficial for my mental health.”

We agreed there can be a close relationship between mental health and creativity. I shared with her how Fran had never written or been interested in poetry until she met me in May 2011. At the time, she was highly manic. Our early emails and online chat conversations were full of wordplay and had a free-flowing stream of consciousness quality that I found intoxicating. Sparked by that, and my own poetry which I shared with her, Fran began to write.

She wrote prolifically. Her poems were long; sometimes rambling, often brilliant. She wrote blisteringly of her experiences as a woman living with serious mental and physical illness in a small island community that did not understand her or what she was going through. She posted most of her work on social media. She held a live book reading and went on the radio. We talked of finding her a publisher.

Fran’s mania was eventually reined in by a change of medication, precipitating a winter of crippling depression and suicidality. Her creativity ceased as suddenly as if a switch had been thrown. It took months but eventually she began to re-emerge. The following description is from our book High Tide, Low Tide.

The wild, personal, and passionate poetry which flowed during Fran’s major episode of mania ceased when she fell into depression. Her creative voice was silenced for months. When it returned it was completely transformed. The haiku forms that emerged as she began to climb out from depression were more than descriptions of the island scenery around her. They were Fran’s attempt to find a reason to go on living.

boat on the water
slicing the calm
foaming leftovers..

quiet day
loud heart
stillness..

high tide
low tide
edgeness..

what else is there to do but live life..

These poems were written on Centennial Beach, a short walk from where Fran lived at the time. She would return home, show me her latest poems, and then share them on her social media page. It was her way of reaching outward again. As she said later, “I was trying to save my life, to get out of the house onto Centennial and wait for the haikus to come. That was all I had.”

As her mood stabilised Fran found less of an impulse to write poetry and it’s been a long time since she did so. This saddens me because I loved the insight and wisdom her poems expressed, but they are red flags for mania and her health is more important to me than poetry.

Aimee’s principal diagnosis is borderline personality disorder (BPD) but she could relate Fran’s story to her own mood instability. We agreed it will be interesting to see if she adds poetry to her options for self-expression and self-care.

I don’t have a mental health diagnosis but my writing interests and outputs have changed a lot over the years. A collection of my poetry was published in 2008, but I stopped writing poetry much earlier at the age of twenty-three. Since then I have written only two poems. Ironically, the first arose in response to a period of writer’s block. The second was inspired — triggered, really — by attending my mother’s funeral in 2018.

Wandering
Wondering

How do I feel
What do I feel

Release
Relief

Re birth

Stillness
Silence

Un known
Un homed

Un tethered

Still
Calm

Centred (thank you

— Liverpool, March 26, 2018

Between 2001 and 2005 I wrote articles and short stories in the fantasy genre for Reunion: The Alternative Tolkien Society. Most are still available on the society’s website. In recent years my work has been in the mental health arena; our two books High Tide, Low Tide and No One Is Too Far Away, and our blog.

Do you write poetry or prose, or do you have a different creative outlet? Has your creativity changed over time? Does it follows your moods or aspects of your mental health? We’d love to hear your experiences.

 

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Fibromyalgia and Social Support

By Sarah Blackshaw

In this hectic world, maintaining friendships can be a tricky thing to do. When you have a chronic physical health condition such as fibromyalgia, it can be even harder. I spend a lot of time working with people who struggle with pain and fatigue, and I’ve written this blog post to explain the things that I think are important when accessing social support with a condition like fibromyalgia.

Communication Is Key

The thing I hear most often when talking to people who are struggling with pain and fatigue is that “other people don’t understand.” That’s likely to be due to a combination of factors. As a society, we don’t do a very good job of explaining conditions like fibromyalgia, as we tend to buy into a model of “have something wrong – go to doctor – get fixed – live happily ever after.” That model rarely works any more these days, and instead we have lots of people struggling with chronic physical and mental health conditions that cause distress. On top of that, if the healthcare system isn’t very good at explaining it, how do we expect people suffering with fibromyalgia to explain it – a lot of people barely understand it themselves! Over time, that can lead to feeling as though nobody around you understands, when in fact it’s more likely that it hasn’t been explained to them very well (maybe because it hasn’t been explained to you very well).

When communicating about fibromyalgia and what you might need in the way of social support, there are a couple of things that are particularly important. One is to explain what might be difficult, and one is to explain what you need. For example, “I’ve got fibromyalgia, so we need to change our plans” is a good start, but it doesn’t tell your friends what needs changing specifically or how to do that. Something more like, “because of my fibromyalgia I’m in a lot of pain, so I can’t really spend three hours walking round the shops today. Could we go for a coffee instead?” is specific, explains the symptom you’re struggling with that day, and gives an alternative option. Most people want to help, and will be happy to change a social plan to allow you to attend.

Plan, Prepare, Pace!

These are three things that should be familiar to people with fibromyalgia. Planning and preparing for social events can make it a little bit easier to manage the pain and fatigue that can come with doing social activities. It might be that you need to ease off on some things for a day or two before, or not plan anything too strenuous in the days after a social event. If you’re an introvert like me, that’s also something that you need to take into account – the “social tiredness” that comes with being around people can make fibromyalgia symptoms worse, so make sure you’re aware of how much being around people can take from you as well as give back to you. Above all else, pacing is really important. Changing plans at the last minute is exciting, spontaneous, fun – and probably not a great idea until you’re relatively confident that you can manage the flare-up that might come with it. I’m not saying that you have to stick rigidly to a plan (you can go to a different restaurant if you want to!) but a cinema trip that becomes a night out clubbing probably isn’t going to do your symptoms any favours, and might make you feel like you can’t do “anything” social when in fact that’s not the case. As the old saying goes: fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

There are lots of things that you might not have considered doing when you didn’t have fibromyalgia, that might be really good to get social connection now. Someone I know likes to invite their friends round and asks them to bring a book that they’re reading – then they make a cup of tea and read together in silence. There’s some conversation, but there’s also a sense of “being together,” which is more important than anything else. Changes like these take some getting used to, but most people are willing to do things differently because they care about you.

Don’t Forget Social Media – but Beware of the Pitfalls

Social media can be an incredible tool when you’re struggling with fibromyalgia and still want to be sociable. There are loads of people out there who are also struggling too, and you can chat to someone halfway around the world to provide and receive support (as Martin and Fran have proven time and again). On Twitter, hashtags like #spoonielife and #chronicillness can connect you with like-minded people who have similar physical health conditions, and we know that however much people like to bemoan social media, it’s great for finding friends.

That comes with a caveat though – beware of social media groups keeping you “stuck.” What I mean by that is that even though it can be great to complain when you’re having a bad day, if that’s all you’re seeing on social media it can start to colour your view of the world. You can start to believe that every single person with fibromyalgia experiences it in the same way, and that nobody with pain or fatigue can ever have a social network outside of a computer. Whilst social media is so useful to meet people who understand how you feel, you should all want the best for each other and want to help each other manage your fibromyalgia for the better – that’s true friendship. If there’s a lot of complaining and nothing positive there, maybe it’s not the best place to be.

Learn When to Let Go

This is linked to my last point, but also to “real-life” situations. Most people are kind, loving people who want to help you because they value your friendship. But not all of them. If you’re holding on to friendships with people who don’t understand why you might need to change your plans, or who try to push you past your pain and fatigue tolerance because they want to do something different, they’re not really your friends. Friendships grow and evolve, that’s the joy of them, and if your friends won’t grow and evolve with you then you might have to think about letting them go. That’s not to say that as soon as they do something that feels wrong you need to cut them out of your life! But if you explain why things need to be different and yet you keep having flare-ups after hanging out with them, or you’re left feeling guilty about not being able to “keep up,” maybe they’re not the right friends for you at this point in time. Try dialling back your interaction with them, or even just sticking to messaging them for a while rather than meeting up – then, if you feel ready to, you can see if they’ve changed their understanding.

Hopefully this blog post has helped you to see that you can have a full and active social life with fibromyalgia – it just might need to look a little different to how it looked before. Thanks very much to Martin and Fran for letting me write this post, please let them or me know if you’ve got any other tips for getting social support when you have fibromyalgia.

About the Author

Sarah Blackshaw is a clinical psychologist working with people who have chronic physical health conditions, particularly chronic pain.

She blogs over at www.clinpsychsarah.com/blog, and can also be found on Twitter @academiablues.

 

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Friends in Deed: An Interview with Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes and Martin Baker

I want to tell stories that convey personality and place. I like writing about artists, writers and performers who take risks with their work and are persistent in their passions. I’m curious about their motivations, inspirations and dreams.

— Bob Keyes

Fran and I recently had the pleasure to meet with award-winning arts writer and storyteller Bob Keyes when he interviewed us for the Maine Sunday Telegram. Given the distances involved we held the interview online using Skype. Bob and Fran were in Portland, Maine; I was three thousand miles away in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. The set-up was perfectly in keeping with the international nature of my friendship with Fran and our key message that no one is too far away to be cared for or to care. It was a novelty for Bob, though; he said it was the first time he had interviewed anyone this way.

We talked about how Fran and I first met, how we “do” our international, mutually supportive friendship, and our work in the mental health community including our two books High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder and No One is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship.

A couple of weeks later we had a photo shoot with photojournalist Derek Davis. I was visiting our friend Aimee Wilson at the time. Aimee has been interviewed many times here in the UK about her lived experience and her hugely successful mental health blog I’m NOT Disordered. She was delighted for us and fascinated to be involved behind the scenes.

It was a lot of fun pretending to have a regular Skype call with Fran, with Aimee off camera at my end with her cat Emmy and rabbit Pixie (which wasn’t at all distracting, honest!) and Derek moving around Fran’s room to capture her talking to me on her laptop.

It’s fair to say Fran and I were both excited — and a little nervous — as publication day drew nearer. How would the photos come out? What would the title be? Did we cover everything we wanted to? We needn’t have worried!

The article was published in both print and online editions of the Maine Sunday Telegram on October 20, 2019, as “Friends in Deed: Overseas confidants co-write books about being a supportive friend.”

You can read the article in full here.

Among many generous comments, this by Tl Adams stands out for us:

What an excellent article! I think you both are extraordinary. An amazing example of what a true friendship is and should be. As others have commented, you both deserve a lot of attention for how you have helped others, like me, in learning about having a good relationship/friendship with someone who struggles with mental illness. You guys are awesome! I hope this article will be seen all over the world. SO many people need to read it and read your books.

We are grateful to Bob, Derek, and the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram for the opportunity to share something of our lives, our friendship, and our message of hope to a new audience. We hope everyone who reads it feels Bob met his aim to write about people “who take risks with their work and are persistent in their passions.”

 


You can find Bob Keyes on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Derek Davis is showcased at the Portland Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Aimee Wilson blogs at I’m NOT Disordered. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

 

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Old Memories and New: A Stroll down Memory Lane

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.”

― Rumi

I’m on holiday this week at a cottage in the English Lake District I’ve been visiting for decades.

Each evening rain or shine I walk to the village. It’s a mile each way, give or take, but I can be out a couple of hours. I amble. I stop to watch the sheep, rabbits, and birds. And I think.

Over the years I’ve had many folk with me in my thoughts as I’ve walked the single track road to Great Musgrave. So many that long ago I named it Memory Lane. A very few have joined me on phone or video calls. It’s a joy to share special places with those close in heart if not always in miles.

Not all the memories are easy, but they all get to be here. Memory Lane can be a place of healing too. And there’s always room for more. As a friend said to me the other day, it’s good to make new memories. It can help cleanse us, move us forward. Sometimes it’s just nice to layer new memories on old.

So tonight, once again, I will walk the path I know so well. Maybe I’ll meet you there and we’ll make new memories together.

 

How Letting Go Saved my Life

By Maya Kelley

My childhood was not an easy one, despite my mother’s efforts to keep me safe. I grew up in a loving home, was provided with everything I needed, and was exceptionally bright from an early age. Even with being provided the best foundation I could have to excel in life, I turned down a path of self-destruction. I was filled with hatred for myself, mistrust towards others, and a general apathetic outlook towards life.

Early Childhood Trauma

At around the age of seven, I was mauled by my family dog. I slipped and fell, let out a high-pitched scream, and the dog’s prey drive must have kicked in. This incident left me nearly dead, with scars all over my face and neck. I was happy while I was in the hospital; I got to participate in arts and crafts while I recovered with my loved ones around me. Once I went back to school, the kids were not as welcoming. I was bullied for the scars on my face which left me with extremely low self-esteem at a young and impressionable age. I was lacking in self-worth before I even hit my teen years, all because I would not allow myself to process what had happened to me.

As I began to get older, my behavior started to worsen. At about the age of thirteen, I started attending parties with people who were older than me. I fell in love with the way that alcohol and xanax seemed to take away all of my insecurities, even if it was just for the night. The flashbacks from my dog attack would go away, I would forget about my scars, and I finally felt “a part of” when I was surrounded by other people partying.

At a 4th of July party, I binge-drank and took xanax to the point of passing out. The next morning, I was told that an older man took advantage of me while I was blacked out, and in result stole my virginity from me. Finding out that I had been a victim of sexual assault at the age of thirteen only made me want to self-medicate even further. I was too ashamed to talk to my parents about what had happened to me because I blamed myself. I thought that since I allowed myself to become vulnerable, that it was all my own fault. I didn’t stop to consider that I was only thirteen years old and my abuser was in his mid-twenties.

A Downward Spiral

The weekend turned into weekdays, nights turned into mornings, and I was constantly in an altered state. I could not go longer than just a few hours without getting high or drinking. I had developed extreme PTSD and anxiety from my unresolved trauma, which made me feel like I could not live without a substance in my body. In reality, I was just making my symptoms worsen over time and prolonging my road to recovery. Emotionally, I was either withdrawn or completely unhinged; I had no in between. I began to self-mutilate just so that I could feel something other than emptiness.

Eventually, the drugs stopped working. I could not get high anymore, my symptoms were extremely loud, and I wanted to die. I felt like my life wasn’t worth anything. I dropped out of school when I turned sixteen, began to sell drugs or even myself just to get my fix, and I had absolutely no purpose in life; or so I thought. I had allowed my morals to become nonexistent and pushed away all of the people in my life who truly loved me.

Letting Go and Beginning to Recover

When I realized I could not bring myself to take my life, I asked my mom for help. I decided that I had no idea how to fix things on my own and agreed to go to treatment where I would safely be transitioned into a sober individual, while going through trauma therapy. I always thought that therapy was for weak people, but once I finally allowed myself to give it a try, I realized that it actually took a strong person to be able to admit they have a problem and begin to face it. In therapy, I learned how to accept the things that happened to me and to use my experiences to help others heal; giving me a purpose in life that I had craved for so long.

With my newfound sobriety, I began to meet people from all different types of backgrounds who shared the same emotions, thought processes, and ideas as me. I began to feel that sense of being “a part of” that I had not felt since my first time getting high, except this time it felt different because I knew it came from a place of love and authenticity. I began to learn who I really was as a person and also learned how to love myself through the help of fellowship. My problem was control. I needed to learn how to let go of the past and future so that I could be in the present moment, enjoying life to the fullest extent.

Today, I am extremely happy for the first time in my life. I have genuine friendships, intimate relationships that I was never capable of having before, and I do not regret one part of my story; my past has shaped me into the woman I am today, and for that I will be forever grateful.

About the Author

Maya Kelley is a writer for Agape Treatment Center, a drug and mental health rehabilitation center in South Florida. She is passionate about spreading awareness on sexual assault, childhood trauma, and addiction.

 

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Seven Ways You Can Help Fight the Stigma of Mental Illness

By Hailey Parks

Millions of Americans battle mental illness each and every day. Even the people who don’t suffer directly can be affected indirectly by a loved one’s mental illness. However, due to the stigma that often surrounds mental health many people are reluctant to seek the help they desperately need. Despite the wide reach of mental illness, misunderstanding about mental health is widespread as well.

When we break a bone we go to the hospital. When we have a fever or any other physical illness we go to the doctor. Seeking this type of help is not looked down upon. Seeking support for one’s mental health, on the other hand, is often met with stigmatizing language and thinking. Individuals who fail to seek professional help can suffer immensely. Symptoms can get worse, problems can arise within families, friends, and co-workers, and mental illness can negatively impact one’s overall quality of life. Instead of staying quiet about these issues, it is critical to speak up and fight back against the stigma. When someone is struggling with their mental health, it should be normal and acceptable to go see a counselor.

What Is Stigma?

Stigma consists of misconceptions about a subject that causes a person to view the subject in a negative way. It can cause people to feel shame, judgment, and fear when their struggles are met with stigma. Navigating mental illness can be a confusing and painful endeavor, and stigma makes the entire experience worse. It creates immense challenges for those who are suffering, for example, it can stop a person from reaching out for help and obtaining what they need to feel better.

Stigma can manifest in many ways causing a person to feel rejected and judged by his or her loved ones. Often times, a person who is suffering and begins to share his or her emotions with a loved one who stigmatizes mental health is met with certain language that can feel shameful. Some examples of stigmatizing language include:

“It’s not that bad, you are overreacting.”

“Suck it up, other people have it worse.”

“You’re crazy, that’s just irrational thinking.”

Another way that stigma is sometimes portrayed is through the media. For example:

  • Portraying violence as a normal thing among people with mental illness
  • Making it seem as though suicide is caused by an isolated event such as divorce or job loss
  • Suggesting that people with mental illness must be isolated from society
  • Placing the focus on an individual with mental illness rather than a societal issue

When a person suffering becomes the victim of stigma, he or she may choose to suffer in silence rather than reach out for help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that the delay between onset of symptoms and the time a person receives treatment is eleven years. In addition, 90% of people who die by suicide had previously shown symptoms of mental health. That is a staggering amount of time that people are suffering undiagnosed, and far too many needless lives taken. It’s time to make mental illness a priority.

Fighting the Stigma

Fighting against the stigma starts with each and every individual helping to spread awareness and provoke a shift in the way society views mental illness. Here are seven steps you can take to help fight the stigma and encourage those who are suffering to speak up.

1. Educate yourself
Learning about how mental illness affects the world, communities, families, and individuals is the first step to breaking the stigma. Do some research about mental health and read articles from people who have struggled with it. Learn about people close to you who have been affected by mental illness and gain a level of understanding and compassion for those people.

2. Change your thinking
Mental health is too often addressed after a crisis, such as a school shooting, occurs. Instead, start shifting your focus to preventative methods. With any chronic condition, you want to prevent it before it happens. Mental illness should be treated in the same way.

3. Challenge the myths
Challenge the misconceptions about mental health by taking action. See a therapist yourself, practice self-care, and begin normalizing mental health care among your family and your circle of friends.

4. Educate others
Once you have taken action to learn about mental illness and take care of your own mental health, you can begin to educate others. Share your experiences with them and share the resources that you have found. Use both social media and casual settings to normalize discussions around mental illness and mental health care.

5. Get involved
Reach out to your local organizations that support mental illness. See how you can get involved in your community.

6. Become an advocate
Once you get involved in your local community organizations, you can begin to advocate for policies that promote education, prevention, early intervention of mental health, and better access to mental health care.

7. Keep going
Spreading awareness, being involved, and advocating for your beliefs isn’t a one-time deal. Fighting the stigma of mental health is an on-going effort that will take time and patience. Even if you are defeated, keep going. Keep spreading awareness. Keep shedding light on mental illness.

Fighting the stigma of mental health is crucial to improve the well-being of those who suffer. Even if it doesn’t affect you directly, the issue is far-reaching and devastating. By taking small steps to fight the stigma, you can save lives by encouraging people to seek the help they need. You never know who you might help - and you never know how helping that person might change you.

About the Author

Hailey is a passionate writer who shares her experience with co-occurring depression and substance use disorder to help those who are suffering. She does outreach for PAX Memphis to advocate for better dual-diagnosis healthcare for all.

 

Thursday, 10 October 2019

World Mental Health Day 2019

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. This year’s theme is suicide prevention.

According to WHO [World Health Organisation], more than 800,000 people die by suicide each year, making it the principal cause of death among people fifteen to twenty-nine years old. It is often believed that it is only adults who exhibit suicidal behaviors, but it should be made known that many children and young people engage in this kind of behavior as a result of violence, sexual abuse, bullying and cyberbullying.

— WFMH President Dr Alberto Trimboli

The WHO brings these statistics home with their campaign 40 seconds of action which reminds us that “Every 40 seconds, someone loses their life to suicide.” Read that again. What can we do to help?

To begin with we can follow the official WMHD account on Facebook (@WMHDAY1) and Twitter (@WMHDay). We can follow what people and organisations are doing around the world to mark the occasion on the following social media hashtags and use them ourselves to share relevant content.

  • #WMHD
  • #WorldMentalHealthDay
  • #40seconds

But we need to do more than that. Preventing suicide isn’t a job for professionals alone. It is down to each of us to foster an environment in our private and work lives in which people feel able to talk about what is going on for them and to ask for help without being judged.

It can be scary to reach out to someone who is having a hard time, whether we believe they might be feeling suicidal or not, but if it is scary imagine how much worse it is for the person in need. We can all make a difference and that difference can be literally life-saving. There are some great resources out there which I recommend if you’d like to know more and help contribute to a safer and more compassionate world. Courses I’ve taken myself include the following.

Online

Workshop Training

The power of simply being there for someone cannot be overestimated. I recently attended an event at George Street Social in Newcastle, an alcohol-free bar and café run by the Road to Recovery Trust which offers hope and support to people in recovery from addiction problems. The event Stranger on the Bridge and Other Stories of Friendship and Support presented the personal accounts of people directly affected by suicide, including Jonny Benjamin MBE. Many of us will recall the story of how a passing stranger stopped Jonny from taking his life in 2008:

The Stranger on the Bridge, which was made into a book and a documentary film, tells the story of how, having been recently diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder, Jonny stood on London’s Waterloo Bridge and prepared to take his own life. That was until a stranger walking across the bridge talked Jonny down from the edge.

Jonny was immediately taken to hospital and didn’t see the stranger again, but, with the support of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, he launched the #FindMike campaign, to track the stranger down. The campaign reached over 300 million people worldwide and eventually led to Neil Laybourn — the man who saved Jonny’s life.

Hearing Jonny talk about what happened on the bridge was intensely moving. He spoke of Neil holding space, of his being engaged and “invested.” Above all it was Neil’s positivity and lack of judgement that made the difference, as well as him telling Jonny there was no need to be embarrassed. This stranger’s acceptance, compassion, and simple humanity saved Jonny’s life.

Another speaker was Matthew Smith from the If U Care Share Foundation who spoke movingly about his older brother Daniel who took his life at the age of nineteen and the impact Daniel’s death has had on him to this day. The devastating experience led Daniel’s family to found If U Care Share.

Our aim is to prevent anyone feeling the pain we felt as a family when we lost Daniel. We truly believe that talking can save lives.

— Shirley Smith, If U Care Share founder and Daniel’s mother

I know from personal experience how vital it can be that we feel able to ask for help if we need it, and be present for others. By doing so we contribute to a culture in which we are encouraged to share when we need to, and supported when we do. In the words of a quotation commonly attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

If you are concerned about your own situation or that of friends, family, or colleagues, our resources page lists a range of resources, crisis and support lines.

 

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Attending North Tyneside World Mental Health Day Event 2019

World Mental Health Day celebrates awareness for the global community in an empathetic way, with a unifying voice, helping those feel hopeful by empowering them to take action and to create lasting change.
— World Federation for Mental Health

I was delighted to attend this year’s North Tyneside World Mental Health Day event at Cullercoats Crescent Club in North Shields. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson was there too, representing LEAPS (Listening Ear & Positive Support) which offers practical and emotional support for those who are unwaged. I’d met a couple of the folk from LEAPS previously and was glad to see them again and meet a few more.

You can read Aimee’s post about the event including her top tips on public speaking here.

The first hour or so was devoted to networking, waiting for coffee cups to arrive, and buying tombola and raffle tickets. I wasn’t successful in the raffle but won with all but one of my tombola tickets. That’s four Christmas presents I won’t need to buy!

Aimee introduced me to Sophie from North Tyneside Carers Centre. They run a comprehensive programme of events and workshops for mental health carers. I told Sophie about our book and discussed the possibility of speaking sometime at North Tyneside Carers about my experience as Fran’s carer.

I was wearing an “Ask me about supporting a friend with mental illness” badge. The ink smudged as the day wore on; at one point it read “Ask me about supporting a friend with mentalness.” Aimee and I agreed that mentalness was a pretty good way of expressing it!

Before it smudged, the badge sparked a great conversation with Peter from First Contact Clinical which is a local organisation “[striving] to make a difference to the health and wellbeing of disadvantaged people and communities by enabling healthy behaviour change.”

Other organisations represented at the event included:

As a vegetarian I was delighted to find the buffet included a wide range of meat-free options, with everything clearly labelled. I noticed some people returning for seconds (and even thirds!) which was a fine testament to the catering. After lunch and a live music session from Keytones, the event itself got underway with the North Tyneside Disability Forum (NTDF) choir and a laughter workshop led by Helen Collins.

Helen was followed by a moving presentation by Helping Hands which is a partnership between Connexions North Tyneside and the Phoenix Detached Youth Project. These groups provide mental health and emotional support to young people aged twelve to twenty-five.

Lara from Supporting Stars read three moving poems by local writers, after which it was time for Aimee to give her talk. Almost the entire room was quiet and focused as she shared her lived experience, the success of her blog I’m NOT Disordered, the benefits and pitfalls of social media, and how all of us can play a role in supporting those we care about. The applause Aimee received and the number of people who came to thank her afterwards says a lot about the impact someone speaking plainly and honestly can have. As I told her later, I was a very proud bestie!

Aimee’s talk brought the event to a close but people took the opportunity to hang around for more networking and goodbyes.

As I left, I was invited to choose one of the beautifully decorated Tyneside Rocks, many of which had been painted during the event. The idea is to hide the stones where others can find them. I will have fun finding a suitable place to hide the one I selected — if I can bear to let it go!

 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

How to Spot a Scripted Relationship and What to Do about It

Fran and I were talking the other day about scripted conversations. You know the kind I mean; where you pretty much know what the other person is going to say and how you’ll respond. If pressed, you could probably write the whole thing out in advance.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Scripts help us navigate socially with people we don’t know very well or have no wish to engage deeply. Whether it’s our morning chat with that person we see at the bus stop, the barista in our favourite coffee shop, or water-cooler moments with colleagues, scripts reassure us we are on the same page.

It’s unhealthy, though, when our core friendships and relationships come to rely on scripted conversations and behaviours. That’s what I want to explore in this article. I will focus on essentially benign situations but toxicity and abuse can be scripted too.

Am I in a Scripted Relationship?

If you’re unsure, think ahead to the next time you’re going to meet this person. It might be face-to-face, a phone call, video call, instant messaging, or even by text (SMS) message — however you usually connect. Close your eyes and imagine how the meeting might play out. How did it go last time? The time before? If you can anticipate the topics you’ll discuss and who will say what — maybe even the words and phrases you’ll use — you’re in a scripted relationship.

How Did That Happen?

I don’t believe anyone sets out to live an overly scripted life so how does it happen? What’s the alternative? Unscripted is dynamic, risky, interesting, engaging, fun, exciting — and scary! It takes courage to be honest and open with someone. Putting our needs and emotions into words and allowing the other person to do the same invites challenge and confrontation. How much safer it is to simply not go there; to slip instead into familiar patterns of behaviour and dialogue.

Scripts mean we don’t have to think about what to say. We know what’s coming up and how to respond without ruffling feathers or risking upsetting the other person or exposing ourselves to criticism. There is safety in the familiar.

And let’s be honest, unscripted relationships can be exhausting! Sometimes we simply don’t have the energy to go off script and be open about stuff. In those circumstances, it’s understandable that we turn to a familiar script. One maybe that starts “Hi hunny, I’m home” at the end of a busy day. But if that script runs all the way through to “Goodnight” and picks up again next morning maybe there is cause for concern, especially if the same script plays night after night.

What’s the Problem?

Why should this be a cause for concern? If it’s the cashier at the grocery store or the woman you see at the bus stop you might not be missing out on much. Then again, you’ll never know unless you can set the script aside.

It’s different when it’s someone important to you; a friend, partner, colleague, or family member. Scripts are by definition limiting, predictable, and ultimately boring. Relationships which rely on them tend to become stale and utilitarian. As one friend expressed it to me, “I’ve had relationships like that. They are very... flat.”

The thing is, life does not stand still. We do not stand still. Our feelings, situations, needs, hopes, and fears change. The hallmark qualities of a scripted connection — stability and structure — can mask what is going on beneath the surface, until everything breaks down. And there is no script for that. To remain healthy our relationships must be flexible enough to adapt.

What Can I Do about It?

Ask yourself if you genuinely want to lose your reliance on scripted conversations and behaviours. This is not a trivial question. It takes courage to make changes, especially when other people are involved. If you want to proceed here are a few approaches you might find helpful.

Start with one of the scripts you rely on most. Play it over a few times in your head or even jot it down on paper. There’s no need to throw it away altogether; by definition it is something you are both familiar with. The idea is to adapt or alter it so the conversation is less regimented and closed. You might add in a non-confrontational question or share something uncontroversial you wouldn’t usually share. If it’s feasible suggest meeting somewhere new or at a different time of day. Or connect face-to-face instead of by phone, or vice versa.

One consequence of scripted conversations is that you stop listening. Why would you, when you know what’s coming up? You’ve heard it all before. So whatever else you do to mix things up, pay attention and listen as much as you speak.

Think about other people in your life where things are less scripted. Where and when do you meet? What do you talk about? Do you feel safer and more open with them than with the person in your scripted relationship? Why is that? See if there are things you can bring into the mix. Don’t expect too much to change all at once but persevere.

Have you ever had a scripted friendship or relationship? Were you happy with things as they were? If not, did you manage to change the nature of your connection with this person? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Three Things I Wish People Knew about Loving Someone with Mental Illness

Your journey as friends reminds us that mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about: being there for those we love.
— Bridget Woodhead

Official statistics vary but received wisdom is that one in four adults lives with a mental health condition. Within my social circle the ratio is much higher.

Of the ten people I love and care about most, eight live with a diagnosed mental health condition or have experienced mental health difficulties in recent years. Among my closest friends it’s five out of five, including my best friend Fran.

Here are three things I wish people knew about loving someone who lives with mental illness.

It’s Different for Everyone

My loved ones live with a variety of mental health conditions and symptoms including anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, visual and auditory hallucinations, suicidal thinking, and self-harm. Some live with more than one of these. Several also have physical health conditions to deal with, including chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME), type 1 diabetes, fibromyalgia, hearing loss, visual impairment, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

With such a range of conditions and symptoms things are clearly going to be different for each person affected. What may be less obvious is that a diagnosis (for example bipolar disorder or anxiety) can affect people very differently. It might even affect someone differently at different times.

What this means in practice is that no matter how “aware” you are, no matter what your own lived experience is or how many books and blogs you’ve read (even ours!), no matter how much you care and want to help, if you want to know how things are for your loved one you’re going to have to ask. When you do, respect their right to disclose no more than they want to or feel safe doing. My friends have opened my eyes to things of which I have no direct experience, including bipolar anger, red flags, and living with anxiety.

The important thing is not to make assumptions about what you’re friend or loved one is going through, or what their illness might mean for you both. What matters is the relationship you share, and that is both precious and unique.

Illness Is Not All There Is

If all this seems a bit overwhelming I can offer some reassurance. Each of my friends and loved ones are affected by their diagnoses and symptoms — how could they not be? — but they are not defined by them. This is the central tenet of my friendship with Fran and just about everything we do.

By reading our book you have become part of our personal journey, but as we said at the beginning this is not really about us at all. It is not about bipolar disorder, or even illness. It is about learning to accept one another for who we are. It is about embracing the journey we take together as friends, one step at a time. Be who you are. Do what you can. Embrace the journey.

The same is true of your friend or loved one, so don’t lose sight of the person you know and care about. Your relationship deserves to be as rich and varied and caring and tempestuous, and bring as many moments of joy and tears, learning and challenge and mutual reward as any other. One friend expressed this important message perfectly. Speaking of me and Fran she said, “Your journey as friends reminds us that mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about: being there for those we love.”

It Will Change You

I think some people imagine loving someone with a mental illness means being on call 24/7, helping them through crisis after crisis, and having to put your life on hold at a moment’s notice. I’m there for my friends but where there is a caregiver aspect, as there is with me and Fran, it is in the context of a broader relationship founded on mutuality and caring, not worry or a sense of sacrifice. As Fran said to me once, “I need a Marty. Not a martyr.”

Knowing you’ve made a difference in someone’s life is the best feeling in the world, as I discussed recently with fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson:

It’s not an ego thing (well, not in an unhealthy way) to feel good when you can help someone. I know you know that, Aimee. Your blog posts and your book and social media work help many people. Maybe we could do a joint post, how our work is helpful to others — and ourselves in the process. It’s ok to feel good about that without it being big-headed or feeling we know everything (as if!)

The “and ourselves” bit is important. Engaging openly and honestly with people changes opinions, attitudes, and lives — including your own. As I have written elsewhere, I am a better person for knowing Fran. One of my newest friends expressed it perfectly the other day:

Obviously most people have close friends but I think being close friends with someone who has these inner battles is more intense and in some ways stronger as a friendship because you both put effort in in ways you wouldn’t need to otherwise. I’m not saying other friendships aren’t strong but I think the good times with the friends we have are probably accelerated because of the extra challenges.

Talking of a family member, another friend put it this way:

I have learned so much from him and his illness that he doesn’t even know. Opened my eyes to a whole new world I’ve not known much about, even in my own family. I’ve grown so much in my understanding of mental illness. I love him unconditionally and will always be here for him. I don’t see him as his illness but as a man who is constantly battling a sickness that keeps trying to take over who he really is. He’s the strongest person I know.

I’m going to close with a statement by Angela Theresa from her article Six Things Your Borderline Friend Wants You to Know:

To anyone who is a friend to someone with borderline personality disorder, thank you for being there.

 

Do you love someone with mental illness? Do you live with illness yourself? What would you like your loved ones and the world to know?

 

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Ten Things I Learned about Myself Last Week

It’s been quite a week, one way or another. At times I’ve been as low and despairing as I have in months; at others I’ve felt grounded and whole.

Here are ten things I’ve learned about myself in the process. Maybe some of them will resonate with you too.

1. Things Are Shitty Sometimes

It’s rare for me to feel so low, stressed, or overwhelmed that it interferes with my day-to-day life. Mostly I move through upsets and difficulties fairly smoothly. But sometimes even my tried and tested strategies for making it through bad days fail me.

The best thing I can do then is accept I’m struggling. That’s not easy, because my life is generally stable and secure. I have a home, a family, a job, financial security, amazing friends, and decent health. What is there for me to feel overwhelmed by, anxious or low about? I’m aware of the danger such thinking presents, however. “I’ve no right to be struggling” stops people seeking the help they might need. So yes, my life gets shitty too sometimes.

2. Things Will Shift If You Allow Them To

When you’re in the middle of a bad situation it can seem like you’re stuck there permanently. The lost friendship or relationship is gone for good. The period of difficulty or illness or whatever it might be is never going to end or improve. There”s no hope. What’s the point of even trying to move forward?

When I get to feeling that way it helps to recall times in the past when I felt similarly stuck and remind myself that no situation, good or bad, is permanent. Do whatever you need to hang in there. Change will come all the easier if you’re not holding too tightly to the present situation. As American big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton puts it: “If you just get out of your own way... It is amazing what will come to you.”

3. Sometimes I Need to Put Me First

Friends sometimes ask me if they’re ever a burden. With complete honesty I can say that is NEVER the case. However, there are times when I get triggered or overwhelmed by whatever is going on my life. It’s vital I recognise when that is happening, pay attention to my boundaries, and take whatever steps are necessary to bring myself back to a more secure and stable place. The Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) workshop I took last year helped me understand this and I turn to my own plan when I start to struggle. I have done in recent months and did so again last week.

4. It’s OK to Ask for Help

Reaching out for help is a crucial step on the road back to stability. What that looks like will depend on your needs and the support network you have in place. I’m blessed in having friends I can be honest and open with, but even so it’s hard for me to “fess up” and ask for help. It gets easier with practice though, which is why that first step — which can feel like a huge leap of faith — is so important. I’m proud that I asked for the support I needed, and grateful to those who were there for me.

5. I Can’t Help Everyone All the Time

Sometimes I have to accept that I’m not the right person to help someone I care about, no matter how much I want to. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me or our relationship, it’s just that I can’t offer what they most need. It’s harder when it’s someone I’ve helped in the past, but needs change and on a different occasion they might need support I’m unable to provide.

Maybe I don’t have the relevant skills, knowledge, or experience. Or maybe I’m unavailable or struggling myself so that I need to put all my energy and focus into self-care for a while. And of course this applies to others too. Their ability to help me depends on my needs at that moment and their personal situation.

All this might seem a sad state of affairs, as though we can’t rely on anyone to be there for us all the time, or rely on ourselves to be there for others. This is true (to pretend otherwise is unrealistic and unhealthy) but if we can face it with compassion the realisation can be deeply empowering. That’s why it’s important to have more than one person in your support network. There are four or five people I trust to be there for me. At any given time some may be unavailable or unable to offer the support I need, but I trust them to tell me if that’s the case.

6. Paying Attention Pays Dividends

There is a line in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

Give people what they need. Not what you need to give them.

This hit home hard recently when I failed to pay attention to what one of my friends needed. Instead of listening to what she asked me to do I took it upon myself to decide what was best. At another time it might have been no more than a minor annoyance to my friend. On this occasion, however, it was deeply unhelpful and hurtful.

And that’s the point. We can’t know when paying attention really matters, so make it your default approach. My friend and I have repaired the damage. We’ve talked it over and are closer for the experience. I’ve already used what I learned to help someone else who was struggling with a similar situation. I’m sad, though, that my friend had to pay the price of my learning something I ought to have known already.

7. Trust Is the Antidote to Fear

Some people wear worry as a badge of honour or as a sign of their commitment — “I’ve been so worried about you!” — but I know how toxic it can be. I learned this with Fran years ago. Don’t worry about me, care about me is the central message of our book High Tide, Low Tide and the foundation of our relationship. The key distinction is that worry is based on fear whereas caring is based on trust. I sometimes lose sight of this, however, as I wrote to a friend recently:

You’ve been so poorly lately and had so much going on for you that at times I have slipped into worry. The stressy, unhealthy worry energy that’s hard to avoid even though I know it doesn’t help anyone. Not you. Not me.

The antidote to fear is trust, and I’ve relearned that this week. I acknowledged what had happened and let go of my need to control things I had no business imagining I could control. I trusted that my friend is doing everything she can to be as well and safe as possible, and that the rest of her support team are there for her. And I renewed my trust in myself, to be the friend she needs me to be. No less, no more.

8. My Mood Is Dependent on My Relationships

A friend recently sent me an article by Angela Theresa titled Six Things Your Borderline Friend Wants You to Know. I was surprised how much of the piece rang true for me; especially the fear of abandonment, the need for validation, and the emotional intensity:

If you are my friend, I am loyal to you. You are beautiful to me. Your accomplishments are poetry. I think you’re fucking amazing. And you’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

My intensity has caused me issues in the past. I’m usually too much for people (or not enough, if I have been overcompensating for my tendency to excess). The downside is that I hurt deeply too, but I’m working with that. I still get it wrong more often than I like to admit but I have a small group of close friends with whom I feel safe and able to be myself. I am more grateful to — and for — them than I can ever say.

9. I’m (Still) Not Perfect

At work and outside it, I strive to improve myself. I read. I take courses and attend workshops. I talk with people. I listen. I’ve certainly learned a lot in the past week or so. And yet, I am still not perfect. (Sorry to disillusion you, Fran!) I make mistakes. Only last night a friend pointed out that I wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying. Rather than listening I was leaping in with suggestions and potential “fixes.” She was right to call me out on it and I am grateful to her for doing so.

10. Honesty Can Be Breathtakingly Beautiful

I write a lot about “honesty and openness.” To me these are essential components of any friendship or relationship. I’m not 100% full-on, in-your-face, open with everyone all the time, of course. That would be overwhelming and is what Brené Brown calls floodlighting.

I do, however, aim to be honest with everyone. As I wrote on social media precisely one year ago, “If you can be honest about what you need, that’s a real relationship right there.”

The past week has been characterised by honesty. I was honest with myself and others about the fact I was struggling and needed support. Friends were honest about how they were feeling, including letting me know when I’d contributed to their distress. (Thank you — how else am I to learn?) I was able to hear what was being said and take responsibility for my mistakes and my share of any misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Best of all, I’ve been honest with friends about how important they are to me, and heard how important I am to them. It’s not a sign of insecurity to value such moments. They can be breathtakingly beautiful. As I told one friend the other day, “I’m glad we can be honest with each other like this. It doesn’t happen with everyone and it’s lovely.”

 

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Black Garbage Bags

By Julie A. Fast

I lived in Japan for years in the early 90s. I remember being so down that I would go out on the roof of the gaijin (foreigner) house where I lived just to be in the sun and the fresh air. My friend Maggie would come sit with me and try to help — but how could she help when I had NO idea what was happening to me? I knew she experienced depression and anxiety, but the other side of the story was missing when I talked to her.

  • The wildness that would come before my super down mood swings.
  • Sex with strangers that ALWAYS ended badly in big hotel rooms where I would black out after a night of partying.
  • Enormous creative surges and work ability followed by a body that could hardly get out of bed.

I felt possessed by my out of control behavior and swore I would stop it each time, but then it would happen again and again.

I was also seeing and hearing things that were not there, but didn’t know this was not part of the regular human experience.

I do remember asking What is wrong with me? over and over again. I never had answers.

When I first moved to the house, I rented a tatami mat room that included a futon, book shelves and a closet. I heard from the other women that the former renter was picked up by her parents and taken back to Australia the week before I showed up. When I walked into her room I saw that the windows were covered with black garbage bags. The room was incredibly warm and there were books all over the place. It felt crazy to me. We talked about her as though she was a ghost. I never met her but I knew that something must have been wrong in her life to lead to the black garbage bags and her parents having to take her away. Was she keeping something out or trying to keep something inside? It all felt really crazy to me and a bit scary and spooky!

The black garbage bags represented being out of control to me, and yet I also had a story about black garbage bags that was equally bizarre. I didn’t make the connection because as often happens with mental illness I could see it in others but lacked insight into seeing it in myself.

When in college the year before I moved to Japan, I parked my car quite far from campus and had to walk on a Seattle trail in the woods to get to my classes. I have very clear memories of being freaked out on rainy or dark days on that trail. One day I looked to my right and saw a black garbage bag and could just tell there was a body in the bag.

I could SEE the body.
I could feel the body.
I heard a voice that said, ‘You need to call the police! You have witnessed a murder!’

I experienced this with all of my being. It freaked me out and I turned away. When I looked back, it was perfectly obvious that it was a bag of leaves. On other days, I would see a leaf that looked like a severed hand and when I looked away in fear and looked back it was once again obvious it was just a leaf. I didn’t tell anyone about this, not even my therapist. I assumed it happened to everyone.

It’s incredible to me now that the story of the young woman who put garbage bags on her windows and my own black garbage bag experiences didn’t lead to any kind of self-awareness. She was crazy. I was depressed. It wasn’t the same thing.

For the next four years in Japan I would be high on the world and then so down I couldn’t function. I had a fabulous job in Tokyo that allowed me to really use my brain — and then the brain that could be so amazing would just SHUT DOWN. And I would end up back on my futon crying or going out on the roof to lay in the sun. It made no sense, but not for one minute did I think of myself as mentally ill. After out of control behavior that led to deep shame I kept asking for help from very uneducated therapists who would try to get me to figure out why I made such poor decisions.

I once told a therapist about waking up with a strange man in a hotel room. I explained that this was SO out of character and shocking to me that I needed help. She said, “Maybe you need to address the lack of Christian values in your life.”

Oh yes, that is an exact quote. How could I know what was going on with me if the ‘professionals’ who were supposedly trained to help people with depression were this ignorant? This level of ignorance of serious mental illness is still present today. We don’t know what’s happening with us and when we finally do tell a therapist or general doctor what happened we need them to have answers. Often they don’t.

I often wonder what would have happened if I told the therapists in Japan, “I see dead bodies in garbage bags and leaves that look like severed hands.” When I finally did tell this to a psychiatrist in 1995, along with all of my out of control sexual behavior, work problems and deep, suicidal depression, I was told, “You have bipolar disorder with a lot of psychosis.” My official diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder. (This means I have bipolar disorder and a psychotic disorder.)

The garbage bag with the body and the leaves/severed hands were visual hallucinations. The voice that said I had to call the cops as I witnessed a murder was an auditory hallucination. The paranoia I felt all through college and often during my time in Japan was a delusion. The out of control sexual behavior was mania and the sadness that led me to sit in the sun was simply depression.

Between the ages of eighteen and thirty-one I saw at least twenty health care professionals and asked for help. Not one asked me the right questions. I hope that the woman from Australia got the help she needed once her parents got her home.

We are the sisters of the black garbage bags.

I’m sharing this story to shine a light on how and why people with serious mental illness like me can see mental illness in others and not for a minute recognize the same behavior in ourselves. The woman with the garbage bags was obviously sick. I didn’t feel sick in the way I observed her being sick. I was just confused about my behavior. And yet our symptoms were the same.

Everything — and I do mean everything — was explained by a correct mental health diagnosis. This diagnosis gave me insight. Insight is something we can grow in ourselves once a diagnosis gives us a direction for care.

I still have hallucinations and delusions. I have an illness! But I live with it now and I am no longer scared. We can learn to manage symptoms. Now if I see a black garbage bag and a body that isn’t there I know I am sick and I get help. The fear is gone.

About the Author

Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder and Get it Done When You’re Depressed. She lived with a partner for ten years who has bipolar one. They met in a Tokyo bar and neither knew they had bipolar. You can find more about her work at www.JulieFast.com and www.BipolarHappens.com.

 

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Ten Ways to Turn a Bad Day Around

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a bad day. It’s natural, I would even say healthy, for our mood to fluctuate in response to whatever is going on around us. On the other hand, no one wants to stay stuck in a rut.

Here are ten techniques I use when I’m having a rough day. Several of them feature in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP).

It’s worth saying these are not fixes or solutions for anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions although they might form part of a person’s wellness toolbox. They help me weather the ups and downs of life and I offer them on that basis.

1. Go for a Walk

I’ve written elsewhere about how important walking is to my wellbeing. It’s my go-to strategy when things are getting me down. Walking allows me to acknowledge whatever feelings are present for me, experience them, and then let them go. I sometimes use the “hot coals” technique I learned from Fran. I close my hand at my chest, taking hold of whatever feeling I wish to release. I extend my hand to the side and open it, palm down as I walk on. As silly as it might sound, it works. Try it next time you are feeling stuck.

2. Talk with a Friend

I’m fortunate to have a small number of friends I can turn to if I need to share what’s going on for me. I don’t find it easy to be vulnerable but with these few people I feel safe enough to be myself, knowing they will listen without judgement. There are few personal skills more important and healthy than the art of listening.

3. Write It Out

Writing features prominently in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). Apart from our two books and my blogging I’ve kept a daily journal since I was fourteen years old. For most of that time I wrote my diary each evening for the previous day. More recently I’ve started capturing my thoughts in the morning and at various times throughout the day. This means my diary is more of an in-the-moment account of how I’m feeling than an historic account of “how I felt yesterday.” Although journaling is an important part of my wellness regime I occasionally find myself trapped in an unhealthy cycle of introspection. To break the pattern I might challenge myself not to write any more about a certain person or situation until something specific changes.

4. Distract Yourself

Distraction is a core strategy of Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT); others are self-soothing, improving the moment, and pros and cons. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson has written extensively about distraction in a DBT context on her blog I’m NOT Disordered. According to Aimee,

Distraction can include writing and other creative activities, reading, beauty treatments, really anything that can take your attention away from what is bothering you. It is important not to overuse this or it can become avoidance.

I find distraction techniques help when I’m feeling stuck or overwhelmed, especially if other approaches aren’t working. Recently I’ve distracted myself by listening to the BBC News channel when I’m at work or at home in the evening. I can understand that for many people the barrage of world affairs might be upsetting or triggering but it stops me obsessing about things that are troubling me. Music can have a similar effect although I’m careful what I choose to listen to in case it exacerbates how I’m feeling rather than providing relief.

5. Escape for a Bit

Escape is similar to distraction except that the intention is to consciously set the difficult situation aside and find comfort and solace elsewhere for a while. Movies and television shows work well for me, especially when Fran and I watch DVDs or Netflix together online. For an hour or two we can put everything on hold and immerse ourselves in whatever we are watching. This doesn’t fix things but it allows time for my emotions and thoughts to settle and for fresh ideas to emerge. Taking a break from social media can have the same effect.

6. Reward Yourself

I’ve written elsewhere how important it is to recognise and celebrate our successes. That said, when I’m low or upset it’s hard to believe I’m worthy of reward because my default is to blame myself for whatever’s gone wrong. My friend Jen reminded me that no matter what’s happening I can take responsibility and reward myself for that.

What about playdates, Marty? Do you have playdates with yourself? Take yourself to a movie, or to dinner, or to a good bookstore?

This doesn’t work too well if my underlying mood is very low; rather than celebrate I’m likely to spend the time brooding. But if I’ve begun to shift things using some of the other techniques, treating myself can help move me forward.

7. Find Solid Ground

When I’m overwhelmed it can be hard to find a stable point of reference. Paying attention to my day-to-day routine helps but it’s not always enough to get me to a place where I feel grounded and secure. When other techniques fail I sometimes attempt to “jolt myself” back to a time or place when I felt more stable. Music from a particular period in my life can work, as can looking through old photographs or reading my journal from years ago. The aim is to get my feet under me again and then return to the present to face whatever is going on from that place of stability and safety.

8. Change Something

Changing even one small aspect of your situation can affect how you feel. When I’m low or stressed I take less interest in my appearance. Sorting out a nice shirt and my favourite tweed jacket in the morning can be all it takes to shift my mood in a positive direction. Get out of the house if you’ve been stuck inside. Try a different café or even a different table at your regular place. Drive or walk an alternate route to work or to the store. Talk to someone other than the people you usually turn to.

9. Accept How It Is

Despite having all the techniques at your fingertips, sometimes nothing can turn the day around. Processing, talking, escaping, distracting, rewarding — they all take time, energy, and focus and sometimes you just can’t. All you can do is accept you’re having a rubbish day and handle it as safely as you can. Cry, scream, grumble, isolate — whatever it takes to get you through. The very act of “giving up” can help shift your mood. It may not, but it’s worth a try.

10. Go to Bed!

If you’ve made it to the evening — or even the middle of the afternoon — and things are still looking grim, sometimes the best option is to turn your back on the rest of the day and turn in. Tomorrow is a new day and maybe things will look different in the morning.

I’ve shared some of the techniques I use to turn the day around. What works for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and ideas!