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)

How I stop the sh*t from hitting the fan (a.k.a) relapse prevention.

Relapse. Feels like a dirty word. A personal failure that happens when you thought you had your shit together. Statistically, it’s more likely than not that you will relapse at some point in time.  Depressing thought but all is not lost, here’s a little more about how I stop the shit from hitting the fan.

 

Use a (free) sleep and mood tracker:  There are many free trackers for logging mood and sleep patterns. Stepping on sleep problems early (for example being strict with bed times, using a short course of sleep medication as recommended by your doctor) can avert a full blown crisis. Secondly, having information about thoughts and feelings leading up to mood changes can help identify subtle negative thought patterns which can be challenged using techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy to reduce their impact on mood.

 

I know my triggers: Extreme stress, too much alcohol, poor sleep. Day to day I cope with stressful events pretty well. We all have stress in our lives and living completely stress free can potentially hamper our creativity (anyone who has waited until a few days before an important deadline to start a project will know what I mean). I’m talking about major stressors. I can trace pretty much all of my depressive episodes back to specific life events (giving birth, a 2 week bout of being in bed with flu, grief). As for alcohol, if I have a few nights of 2 or 3 drinks each night it makes me depressed and anxious. Even at Christmas I try to moderate my alcohol intake as much as possible as the fun never seems to be worth the drop that happens afterwards.

 

Use healthy coping mechanisms: When you know what your triggers are you can utilise positive coping mechanisms to balance them out. I like to exercise, especially when I’m stressed. Out goes the negative energy and in come happy chemicals**. I also like to knit (the focus of making sure I don’t mess it up takes my mind off everything else), keep a journal and read. Find something you enjoy and deploy it often!

**This has backfired once during the early phase of a hypomanic episode. I did my usual zumba class and stayed awake until 1am that night. Lights, latin music and jumping around are not good for the overstimulated mind.

 

Accept that not every bad day or different emotion means that a relapse is going to happen: If you have kids, do you remember when they were born and you were obsessed with their toilet habits? Have they pooped today? What colour was it? What does green poo mean anyway? If they haven’t pooped should we talk to the doctor Before you had kids did you give any thought to other peoples bowel habits? Probably not. This is my way of saying that when we focus on one small thing we can become bogged down and miss the bigger picture. When I’ve one bad day (tired, hormonal, bad day at work), I often decide a relapse is coming. I’m on that downward spiral, I haven’t noticed and there’s nothing I can do. Then I wake up the next day, laugh that I had a bit of a shitty day yesterday and go about my business. One bad day does not make a relapse. Feeling elated because you had a great time with your family at the weekend does not mean hypomania is coming. Recognising and accepting the contrast between different thoughts and feelings can be hard if you’re prone to over-analysing but it’s important to know that everyone (regardless of mental illness) goes through a spectrum of emotions.

 

If the shit does hit the fan, remember that you’ve done this before. You can handle this. You can follow your plan to the letter but there’s no foolproof way of avoiding relapse.  It’s going to take some time and effort but you can and will get through. Scale down your expectations, if showering and brushing your teeth is the only goal you can achieve then that’s okay. Lean on your support network and be kind to yourself. Slowly and steadily things will be rebuilt.

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.

The chicken and the egg: Fatigue and mental ill health

I’m full of the cold (again!), hubby has a chest infection and the little person isn’t well either. I’m so, so tired. Yesterday I had a nap and guess what- I’m still tired. I’m taking some pretty sedating medication but come on, I feel like I’m 62 not 32. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve put my kid to bed and woken up beside her several hours later still fully dressed, make-up smeared on my face and contact lenses still in. I’ve had enough.

 

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, at any given time, 20% (1 in 5) of us feel unusually tired. Think of how many people you know, that’s a LOT of tiredness.

 

Tiredness (or fatigue) is a common symptom of depression however there are multiple other causes of tiredness including physical problems such as anaemia, coeliac disease and thyroid disorders. You can find more information about physical causes of tiredness here. Around two-thirds of people who see a GP for tiredness have an underlying physical or mental health disorder which may be contributing to their symptoms.

 

It’s impossible to break the cycle of constant tiredness without reflecting about how and when the tiredness started. When I try to pinpoint what came first, the depression or the tiredness it seems like a chicken and egg situation: my depression makes me tired and being constantly tired makes me feel depressed.  My tiredness (and that of many others) is likely due to several factors: work, stress, sedating medication, looking after small children and underlying depression.

 

Something that resonated with me was the concept of an activity roller-coaster. Going from intense, full on activity during the week to low activity at the weekend causes increased fatigue because you’ve put all your eggs in one basket then have nothing left at the end of the week leading to burnout. Whilst it’s only natural to want to push yourself and do more, trying to self-insure against the bad day that might come tomorrow by cramming in as much activity today creates unhealthy patterns. When the bad day inevitably comes, we blame our illness and start a cycle of negativity by thinking of all the things we aren’t doing today but should be (see, there’s that should word again).

 

So what is the answer? Are we doomed to live in a cycle of energy abundance followed by crashing lows of energy depletion? I sure hope not.  Careful planning of what activities to do on what day (seeing free time as time to be free, not time to do more housework), tweaking my medication regime (I’m slowly weaning off the sedating drugs**) and appreciating the need for rest even if I feel fine are my strategies to tackle the tiredness. That and the occasional bar of chocolate!

 

Got any tips for fighting tiredness? Please feel free to comment below.

 

** remember, adjusting your meds should only be done as part of an agreement between  you and the clinicians treating you.

Resolutions in reverse: 5 small things for a happier, healthier 2018.

Happy New Year! You’ve survived Christmas, eaten your body weight in chocolate (well done- that’s an achievement) and drank more alcohol in the last month than in the other 11 months of the year combined. What better way to kick ourselves when we’re down than by making a long list of resolutions to change our lives for the better.

Thanks, but no. Not me. I’m so sick of making resolutions which see me either deprive myself (chocolate, looking at you…), rob me of my already stretched time (gym three times a week, nah, I’ll slob in my PJs after work instead) or are frankly unrealistic (declutter my entire house by January 31st…only if I divorce).

Instead of promises that’ll be forgotten by February 1st, this year I’m going to do 5 small things to help me feel happier and healthier. Tip: don’t do them all at once, you’re destined to fail that way! Choose one small thing you feel will make the most difference and start there.

5 small things for a happier, healthier 2018:

  1. Just add (2 cups of) water. I love tea, I drink gallons of it. On a work day my body is at least 75% tea. What I don’t love is dehydration: headaches, tiredness, poor concentration and dry skin. I’m not giving up tea but I’m adding in a glass of water first thing in the morning and one herbal tea after my evening meal. Bonus points for putting the glass of water beside your bed the night before so you don’t have to get of bed to fetch it in the morning. Rehydrate first thing, avoid headache later.
  2. Sort your outfit the night before. Morning. My least favourite time of day. Why didn’t I iron that top last night? Where are my work shoes? H lo reduce the morning rush by laying your outfit out the night before. Clothes, shoes, underwear, EVERYTHING! Looking like you’ve got your s**t together by arriving at work smart and polished: priceless.
  3. Pack a snack. If like me you get a food mood when you haven’t eaten for a few hours, it’s worth always having a snack in your bag. Low blood sugar is linked to anxiety and increases the chance of you having a panic attack. It’s hard to grab a healthy snack from the corner shop so instead take on me with you. Rice cakes, fruit, nuts, you name it. Pack it and bring on the smug!
  4. Take 15 minutes to do something you enjoy EVERY SINGLE DAY! I know, you’re cold/tired/bored/sad/busy and can’t possibly fit anything else in. Making time to do something you enjoy resets you mentally and boosts your self esteem. Here’s the best bit, it doesn’t NEED to be healthy. Wanna spend 15 minutes drinking tea and eating biscuits? Do it! Fancy a 15 minute phone call to your bestie while drinking a small glass of wine? Go for it! How about 15 minutes to read a chapter of that really trashy novel whilst wearing your PJs? Nice! Do something for you every single day. Not only will you enjoy it at the time, you’ll also have something to look forward too when your day isn’t going so well. And of course if you DO decide to do something healthy for 15 minutes (power walk, meditate, eat an entire bowl of fruit) I won’t judge you.
  5. Say no. Small, powerful, a complete sentence. “No” might well be the most underused word in the English language. Unless you have toddlers of course. That small word can make a big difference to your life if you tend to take on too much and end up overstretched. I do, especially at work. “Can you just…?”  Or “While I’m here…” No. No, no, no and no again. I’m an adult and I’m responsible for my emotional and physical wellbeing. If I’m already stressed and doing one extra thing is going to make my day even worse then I’m gonna say no. And maybe if you start saying no to some stuff it frees up time to say yes to stuff you actually WANT to do!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my resolutions in reverse. Like I said earlier I don’t believe we should kick ourselves when we’re down so choosing the darkest, coldest and poorest month of the year to launch into a programme of reinvention is never going to work. Like the story, the tortoise wins every time.

The Unwanted Christmas Gift

No, it’s not socks, you’re going to have to read on.

Here I was, sitting in a small consultation room whilst the psych took notes. It had taken 4 months just to get this “emergency” appointment and like many much-anticipated events there was relief that finally it was happening.

The psych eyed me from her chair, a petite woman who spoke calmly and quietly. She seemed nice. Still, I was terrified of her. I hadn’t actually met her before today’s appointment which added to my awkwardness. Thankfully, she “had already read all the notes” sparing me some of the gory details.

I only had two questions: what is wrong with me? how are we going to fix it?

“You have bipolar disorder.” It wasn’t unexpected but I still burst into tears. It had taken a year to get this diagnosis, lots of watching and waiting for me to become ill again so the psych team could see my symptoms first hand and decide what the hell was wrong with me.

It was a chain of out of character behaviours and events that led to bipolar first being mentioned. I’d felt like I was “flying”, over my depression and making up for lost time. Yeah I got over excited at times but thought of it as a good spell away from the crushing lows of a major depressive episode.

My husband would say I was “on one” when the early exercise sessions, overcommitting myself at work, not eating and sleeping for only a couple of hours at night happened. I’d spend more than usual (including buying a box of Emma Bridgewater mugs in what may be the most middle-class hypo manic episode ever), be louder, drink more and flirt more than usual (my normal social anxiety would be replaced with a ride or die party girl). Hypomanic me was fun. More confident, more creative, more productive than ordinary me.

Of course, there was a flip side. I’d burn myself out to the point of exhaustion then end up in bed for a week after pushing myself to the limit mentally and physically. The first hypomanic week felt great but as it rolled on I’d get anxious, paranoid and demanding, afraid of my excess energy and that I would end up doing something stupid like buying the Mercedes I’d been eyeing up for ages. For the most part, I was able to curb my behaviour at times, surrendering my credit cards to my long-suffering hubby and taking the pills the GP prescribed to make sure I got a few hours of rest at night. During the times I couldn’t curb my behaviour, the feelings of shame and guilt about my actions and behaviours added to the inevitable low after the fall, fuelling a negative cycle of hate and depression.

What a shitty Christmas gift I thought. Although we knew what it was, it wasn’t so easy to decide what we were going to do about it. The goal (apparently), is to avoid hypomania for as long as possible. The more episodes of hypomania, the worse the prognosis that things could progress to a full blown manic episode. Right now, I think bipolar could be the gift that keeps on giving and not necessarily in a good way.

Christmas a.k.a how to relapse in 24 hours

What are your plans for Boxing Day? Roll out of bed to eat leftover Quality Street whilst watching a boxed set? Hitting the sales for some bargains that maybe you don’t really need?

I’ve decided to blog today because I need to talk about how one day of excess can trigger a serious mental health relapse. Every year I think “It’s just one day, I’ve got this, I don’t need to stick to the rules.”

So instead of sticking to a routine, eating well, moderating my alcohol intake and doing some exercise, the day tends to unfold like this:

Get up at ungodly hour with excited child and slight headache after having too many gin and tonics the night before.

Skip breakfast, crack open a bottle of something bubbly around lunch time.  Extra points for drinking in ridiculously hot kitchen prepping lunch so dehydrate quicker.

Eat huge Christmas dinner, washed down with more fizz and some wine too. Screw sleep pattern by having  ridiculously long nap in the middle of the bloody day.

Get up in the early evening, not hungry but squeeze in some Quality Street/leftover roast potatoes/cheese and biscuits. Put a film on, crack open some gin, get tipsy and chattier than usual and reward self with another few drinks, go to bed at ridiculously small hours of the morning, sleep badly because you have heartburn and slept too long during the day.

Bonus points for: making a mental list of ways you’ve messed up previous Christmases/missing relatives who are no longer with is/looking at social media and berating self because everyone else seems to have their shit together.

So although I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with my family, eating gorgeous food and sampling some of the amazing gins I was gifted, today I need to be a little more responsible and manage myself better. That means eating regularly, not drinking today, going for a gentle walk and remembering that one day doesn’t have to start a downward trajectory.

Can someone remind me of this post on December 24th next year?!

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.