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.”


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!


Wednesday 4 September 2019

My Journey Through Mental Illness, Addiction, and Recovery

By Kailey Fitzgerald

Growing up, I always felt like I didn’t fit in; I felt like I was a little off when compared to my peers. I had this terrible and seemingly constant feeling in the pit of my stomach when I would try to talk to other kids, and a ringing voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough. When I would accomplish something, I would find the reasons that it didn’t amount to anything and head down on a path of self-destruction.

Everything appeared perfect from the outside, but from the inside, I was absolutely falling apart. I managed to maintain until I was around twelve years old. I started to have violent emotional outbursts that I couldn’t seem to control, and it began to affect my relationship with my mom. She noticed that I wasn’t behaving normally and decided to send me to a psychiatrist. At first, when I was diagnosed with Intermittent explosive disorder and social anxiety I thought my whole life was over. I was only twelve years old and society had led me to believe that having any sort of mental disorder meant I was clinically insane; I was ashamed.

The medication my psychiatrist had prescribed me seemed to only make me worse, I began having suicidal thoughts and had socially withdrawn completely. My relationship with my mother was almost nonexistent and she was distraught. My explosive episodes were even more frequent, tearing apart any friendship or relationship I had left. I felt helpless because I didn’t want to respond to people in such anger, but I literally had no tools to control myself. My hopelessness led me to drugs. I began hanging out with an older crowd and attending highschool parties in order to find any substance available to calm the voices in my head.

For a while, the drugs helped me — or so I thought. To my friends and family, I seemed to be doing well. No one had any idea that I was drinking, smoking weed, and taking Xanax in order to attempt to quiet my anxiety and control my violent emotional outbursts. What I didn’t realize was that every time I took in a substance I was just covering up my issues and letting them fester over time, and as if that wasn’t enough, I was developing a drug addiction.

My addiction led me down an even darker path; abusive men, withdrawals, violence, and incomprehensible demoralization all became my new normal. I watched myself become a shell of a person and all the while, I couldn’t care enough to save myself. Eventually, I grew such a tolerance to the drugs I was using that they weren’t getting me high anymore. When I wasn’t high, I wasn’t numb, and all of my emotions came back with a vengeance. I spiraled so far out of control that I finally couldn’t take it anymore, and I FINALLY asked my mom for help.

Considering half of my family were members of Alcoholics Anonymous, they knew exactly what I needed. My mom enrolled me into a dual-diagnosis treatment center, which helped me learn to cope with the mental disorders I was suffering from and allowed me to overcome my addiction safely. I have found a life that allows me to not feel ashamed of my mental illnesses or my history of drug addiction. Going to treatment gave me the tools I needed to live my life peacefully, provided me with a group of friends who have gone through similar things as me, and has given me the strength to continue fighting when my mental illness may creep back up.

About the Author

Kailey Fitzgerald is a writer in recovery from PTSD, Anxiety, IED, and drug addiction. She is passionate about spreading the word and breaking stigmas regarding mental illness and addiction. She writes for The Discovery House, a treatment center in California.