Are you surrounded by a**holes? Part 1.

First of all I’d like to say a big “Thank you” to the people following my blog, there are 20 of you at the moment (and not all of you are people I know personally) which makes it feel like an even better achievement. I’ll try to keep the content coming and read your blogs also. So thank you random internet people for reading my ramblings!

 

Have you heard of William Gibson? He wrote the cult science fiction book Neuromancer, countless other pieces of fiction and non-fiction and is also responsible for the following fantastic quote: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounding yourself with assholes.”

 

Are you surrounded by assholes? Take my quiz and find out (kidding, no quizzes here my friend!). Gibson’s quote resonates with me when I consider my own struggles with low mood and low self-esteem. When I feel low it’s easier to take things personally. Comments from poorly informed people: “You don’t look bipolar.” Sitting in all day for a package that never shows up. Having to chase after people who haven’t delivered on a promise (psych team, I’m eye balling you here). Comments that because I’m off with depression I should be sitting inside in a dark room instead of (heaven forbid) having a coffee with a friend or daring to visit the supermarket to buy food.

 

When you’re low, these small and rather insignificant events feel like a battle in a raging war. Why is this happening to me? What have I done to be such a terrible person that things never seem to work out? How can I stop being such an idiot so I no longer make mistakes?

 

The negative self talk goes on. The spiral begins and before you know it, you’ve thought your way from an okay 5/10 mood day to a terrible 2/10 day all because sometimes we are surrounded by people who are insensitive, ignorant and sometimes, just plain assholes.

 

So what do we do? Do we keep talking negatively to ourselves? No. No we do not. We recognise the assholes and we put their contribution right where it needs to be: the mental trash can.

 

In part 2 of this article (which I am aiming to release on Sunday only it’s not written yet), I will introduce some concepts around how to manage the assholes and bolster your self-esteem. Until then, please feel free to share your experiences of people acting like assholes in the comments below.

 

(Edit: I nearly wrote share your experience of assholes then realised that actually had an entirely different meaning and may attract a different readership entirely)

First dates: The one with the bipolar girl and the shrink

Ah, dating. Does anyone remember dating? The kind of fun pre-marriage/being over the age of 25 dating. The sort with good food, good booze and late nights. Rigorously planning what to wear/how to do my make-up and yet 9 times out of 10 having a strop when I couldn’t get my eyeliner right or the weather fucked up my choice of footwear.

 

Of course back when I dated (8 years- wow!) I didn’t have a bipolar diagnosis. I did have a depression diagnosis which I could generally keep well hidden with selective participation and the odd gin and tonic. Dating is tough. Dating with anything that makes you less than textbook “normal” is tougher. You can probably imagine my anxiety today at having a second date. It was an afternoon appointment and the weather was rainy making outfit choices hard. Also I need to wear my glasses at the moment as my eye is playing up again. The odds of making a good impression based on looks weren’t in my favour.

 

Still, better show up and make conversation. I tried to run through some subjects I could talk about other than my mental health and my job. Learning Spanish, yoga, books and Mo Salahs’ shoulder all seemed like safe options. True to form, I was too nervous to eat beforehand so by the time I had to leave home I was getting a little hangry.

 

I was early (as always) so I had to hang around looking anxious whilst occasionally squinting at whoever was coming through the doors to see if it was him. The squinting probably made me look demented instead of the thoughtful/intellectual look I hoped for. Then again, I was reading a 2016 copy of What Car magazine that was lying on the table infront of me so really there was only so much I could do to help myself. And why was it so warm? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one sweating while they were waiting.

 

He was slightly late and I was even hangrier by now but managed a good 5 minute chat about the Liverpool/Real Madrid match and then tried to move on to books or yoga. Unfortunately he had other ideas and steered the conversation to asking how I was really feeling at which point I burst into tears (note to future self- always carry a snack in your handbag). Thankfully he had a box of tissues and I settled myself. At the end of the hour, he said he’d write and see me in around 4 weeks which I thought was delightfully quaint and old-fashioned.

 

I really like this guy, he seems like a decent psychiatrist and I think we’ll work well together. But it’s tough. Discussing thoughts and feelings is incredibly difficult when you’re dealing with someone you have only met once before. You try to go in ready to make a decent first impression, a bit more polished than usual and like you are bringing your A-game. Even if really you’ve spent the first part of the day staring into space whilst lying on your bed. You have to be ready to admit how things are really and even to hear advice you don’t really want to hear. A random stranger is shining an incredibly bright torch into the recesses of your mind and what you really want to do is look away. Like any bad date, I left feeling like it was me and not him. Perhaps I’ll never feel normal and maybe I’ll end up alone in a house full of cats whilst I knit and prance about in nice shoes like a modern day Miss Havisham. I comforted myself with a large bar of chocolate, a cup of tea and some online shopping when I got home. It’s at times like this I realise how grateful I am for my husband.

Happy World Mental Health Day (and a rant about mental health in the workplace)

Happy World Mental Health Day 2017. I’m slightly grumpy as I wrote a nice long post then my internet broke, also I’m still receiving random parcels following a hypomanic episode last week which almost certainly means a very large credit card bill! Seriously, WTF did I even order?!

 

Anyway, moving swiftly on, the theme for World Mental Health Day 2017 is mental health in the workplace. A sensible choice given that $1 trillion is lost every year from the economy due to mental illness. I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty poor treatment at work due to my mental health (ex-manager who told me I just “needed to pull myself out of it”, I’m looking at you).  I’ve also had some wonderful employers and colleagues who’ve done kind things like invite me in for coffee (just so I don’t feel excluded from the team, no work related chat allowed), sent me cards and helped me with a gradual return to work rather than going all in and risking relapse.

 

Working full time in a demanding job isn’t always great for my mental health and there’s certainly frustration on my part that I can’t put in as many hours as my colleagues (I try to take a lunch break each day- even just 10 minutes and try and leave work within 20 minutes of my official finish time). Yes there are times when I go home and straight to bed, or avoid opening my emails because anxiety girl decides there is bound to be a message from my boss telling me I messed something up/forgot to attend a meeting/am fired, despite no evidence of any of these things!

 

Like physical illness, mental illness reduces my resilience so I have to take it easy to avoid the merry go round of getting better vs. burning out again. For me, work by far outweighs staying at home, I need the human interaction, I need to challenge my brain, I need the structure of being somewhere for 9 hours a day otherwise I’d get lost in a sea of spending my days in pyjamas and probably drinking endless cups of tea (who am I kidding, I DO drink endless cups of tea).

 

One thing is for sure, opening up to my colleagues about my mental health problems has largely been a positive experience. Sometimes people will tell me their own experiences, or offer me words of support. What helps most for me is when people ask me how they should respond to my mental health issues rather than avoiding the subject during conversation. It lets me joke about it (not always politically correct but I don’t mind calling myself crazy, the problem is when words are used with a negative implication), or when someone asks if I’m tired, allowing me to own up and say “Yeah, shit nights sleep as my anxiety is bad” makes a huge different because putting up a front is tough work.

 

So here’s to happy, fulfilled, healthy work! Keep talking and take care of each other.

 

 

5-things to do when you’re struggling with your mental health

Having hit rock bottom (with a splat) several times in my life, I’ve built up an awareness of what does and doesn’t help my symptoms.  Now, before I share this list, I’m want to say: this stuff isn’t rocket science but in the middle of a mental health crisis getting out of bed is hard, let alone anything else. It’s also easy to dismiss small changes and activities that stuff that psychs/nurses/relatives tell us will help.

During one particularly bad call to my crisis team I remember being told to slow down and start breathing deeply. I wanted to scream down the phone:”Breathe?! WTF do you mean breathe?! Of course I’m bl**dy well breathing, I’d be dead if I wasn’t. I’m calling you because I feel like I want to die and the best advice you can give me is breathe?!”

As it was, I did the breathing exercise like I was told and after a couple of attempts felt much better. I still remember the name of the nurse who took my call, her nagging me to breathe made a world of difference. I’m not going to say if you get your breathing right your mental health problems will vanish, we all know it’s not like that.

So without further rambling, I give to you my list of 5 things to do when you’re struggling with your mental health:

1. Write it down: I’ve journaled for about 15 years now, my journal provides a safe space for me to vent but it also helps me track my mood and look for patterns in my behaviour. It also means I get to splurge on stationary (particularly stuff that’s shiny….I love shiny!). If you’re struggling to open up to loved ones or professionals about your feelings, show them your journal instead.

 

2. Exercise (at the right time and with the right type of activity): I do not enjoy sweating. I don’t like lycra. You won’t find me in the gym. BUT I love how I feel when those happy chemicals are floating around after an hour of dancing. There’s plenty of research about the benefits of exercise to help regulate our sleep patterns, reduce our stress and increase our energy levels. The key is finding what works for you, I don’t run anywhere but I love yoga and cycling. On the days that feels like too much, a 20 minute walk is enough to give me a boost. A word of caution- time your exercise well, during a particularly highly strung phase, my evening exercise class gave me such a buzz I was awake until well after 1am. The Royal College of Psychiatrists have a nice leaflet about exercise and its’ impact on mental health here.

 

3. Avoid excess alcohol: Yep you feel more relaxed after that first drink. Maybe you’re drinking a few drinks to get you off to sleep each night. But remember: alcohol is a depressant. It wipes out that happy chemical serotonin (which is also the chemical many antidepressants work on). So not only are you making yourself more depressed, you’re also making it more likely that your antidepressants won’t have the full effect. Drinking to excess also puts you at risk of making poor judgements calls by decreasing your inhibitions.

 

4. Use technology to help, not hinder your recovery.  I love the internet. I love being able to research, read the news and access support groups at the same time as stalking people I know on social media. I also like to go on pinterest and make boards about tattoos I will never have the guts to get and recipes I will never actually make. Social media can bring out the worst in us: never ending comparisons about people we haven’t seen since school (Wow, she looks so happy, her family are gorgeous, I’m so jealous of that car etc) or reading too much into situations (two of my friends went for coffee?! Why wasn’t I invited?! I’ve obviously upset them and they don’t want to be friends with me.)  Lets not forget the sleep destroying effects of blue light emitted from phones and tablets. At its’ worst tech leaves us overstimulated and anxious. Can’t take a break? Force yourself to let a loved one change your passwords for a week- the temptation is gone. Or make a firm decision to put the tech down an hour before bed so that blue light doesn’t impact on your sleep.

 

5. Do something to occupy your mind. Distraction is a useful tool and yet one that we struggle to use. When I’m low, an hour can feel like a week and I don’t always see the value of doing something to take my mind off things, I’d rather sit in my pyjamas and stare into space. Do something to take your mind off things: read a book, do some colouring in (I’ve got a swear word colouring book that I love, intricately colouring the worse Asshole with pencils always amuses me), walk, knit, paint your nails, do some puzzles, download a free mindfulness app and try one of the exercises. Even if you set a timer and do it for 10 minutes, just DO it. You’ll feel proud that you have and often when the timer goes off you’ll carry on with your activity. I love to read but when I’m a bit manic I can’t focus on the words so instead I like to bake cakes. When I’m down I watch Youtube videos of baby animals, also a good way of keeping little people amused if you have them.

 

What small things do you do to help look after yourself when you’re struggling with your mental health? What baby animals would you watch on YouTube (panda’s are my fave). Let me know by commenting or e-mail. Pictures of sparkly stationary are always welcome too!

 

Depression and communication: Say what you mean and mean what you say.

 

Communication is one of the toughest barriers I’ve had to deal with during my illness. When I’m having an episode I find it incredibly hard to communicate how I feel in a way that doesn’t involve (a) crying hysterically/hyperventilating/ruining my mascara or (b) sounding like a petulant teenager: “It’s so unfair, I spend my life waiting for the next episode”.

I’ve also been on the other side trying to support friends who are experiencing mental health problems. You’d think my insider experience would help me communicate better but there are so many times when I feel like I’ve lodged my foot well and truly in my mouth.

Here are my top tips for communicating about mental health:

  1. Reach out and accept you may not get the response that you want. Sharing the problem and telling someone that you are feeling low period is nerve wracking. Choose wisely. If there’s someone who has supported you before then reach out to them again. Remember though, you don’t need to tell everyone in the pub what’s bothering you. Although you might feel like you’re wearing a badge with “I’m Depressed” in neon lights, people are generally too wrapped up in their own lives to think “Wow, she looks shit, clearly she’s depressed.” Accept that if you text a friend who is depressed, right now they might not be able to face texting you back. Yes, sending a simple text is outwith the capability of someone experiencing a serious episode of mental illness. (And don’t even get me started on the anxiety of answering the phone….)
  2. Empathise but don’t make it all about you. Don’t let empathy become competitive misery. Trying to out-do each other about who has been most depressed is not going to help anyone. I don’t pretend to understand what every anxious or depressed person is thinking or feeling. Sure, I relate to what they are going through but hearing about my 15 years of mental illness isn’t going to make them feel any better.
  3. Ask yourself if it’s a helpful thing to say and if it isn’t, don’t say it! A colleague once told me that people in our workplace were complaining I was off sick again. Did I immediately get my shit together and return to work that very day? No I did not. Instead I sat in my car in the car park of the coffee shop, cried and felt like a huge failure. It hurt that people I spent 8 hours a day with and counted as friends were talking about me behind my back. I even contemplated telling my workmates my diagnosis so they would believe I really was unwell.  My colleague didn’t mean to make me feel bad, but it would’ve been much easier if she hadn’t said anything. Then I’d have been blissfully unaware that some people are arseholes.
  4. Ask the person what they want. They might want to talk about their feelings. Others might want to talk about trivial things like the weather to take the spotlight off their feelings. Sometimes you just want everyone to go away for a few hours so you can lie on the sofa and stare into space. And that’s okay. It’s also okay to ask your loved one what they would prefer. Do they want to talk about how they feel today? If they don’t feel like talking, is text message an easier way to communicate. I’ve had some of my most supportive conversations in silence by the medium of text.
  5. Keep the sarcasm in check. Ah sarcasm, my second language. Sometimes I am so sarcastic people don’t know whether I’m kidding or not. Here’s a tip: Sarcasm is not helpful in a crisis. Sarcastically telling me I should just get on with killing myself is not helpful. The humor will be lost on me in that particular moment. Follow my lead. If I’m not being my usual sarcastic self then the chances are I won’t appreciate your sarcasm either.

Hope my list has proved helpful! Do you have any advice about how to communicate with someone experiencing mental illness? What do you find helpful when you talk to loved ones about your illness? I look forward to hearing from you.