The books that changed my life (And my mental health!)

I’ve been slacking a bit with my blog lately. Actually, I’ve been slacking in many aspects of my life as my energy levels are pretty low at the moment.

 

Moving swiftly on, you probably know that World Book Day is soon to be upon us (at least you’re probably thinking of what sort of character costumes you can dress your kids in for school with minimal money and effort!). I like to think of reading as my first love and I fully believe that if new book smell was a perfume, it’d be a best seller. So what better was to honour the day than by sharing with you the 5 books that have changed my life (and my mental health)?

 

  1. Counselling for Toads (Robert de Board): The classic childhood tale “The Wind In The Willows” is brought to life by author Robert de Board as we follow Toads’ journey through depressive illness and his therapeutic journey with a counsellor. This book is a staple on the reading list for many counselling courses (but designed for people like me with no knowledge of psychoanalysis) and was recommended to me by a close friend.  To call it a self-help booklet doesn’t do it justice and the concepts of transactional analysis explored in the book are insightful and at times, unnerving when you apply them to your own inner workings. I’ve scribbled pencil notes in the margins of my copy and referred to it many times. A short read that delivers food for thought.
  2. Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy): Hardy is like marmite thanks to his long descriptive paragraphs, you’ll either love him or hate him. Far from the Madding Crowd isn’t as dark as Hardy’s other novels but follows his ongoing themes of love, tragedy and farming set in the fictional county of Wessex. I read it in 3 days and it’s one of the few books I’ve read since. Hardy was visionary in his portrayal of strong female lead characters (oh and if I have another girl, I might consider calling her Bathsheba).
  3. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies (Rob Willson and Rena Branch): There’s a huge wealth of evidence behind the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for treating a wide variety of mental health issues- from anxiety to anger. This book provides a toolkit which introduces the concepts of CBT and helps the reader work through various activities to challenge negative modes of thinking. I found the sections helping you to identify the causes you really care about very helpful when wandering out of that intense period of parenting that is the toddler years.
  4. The Total Money Makeover (Dave Ramsey): Save for emergencies, pay off your debt and have enough cash to give generously to the people and causes you care about. Ramsey’s approach to financial management uses a 7 step approach he calls the “Baby Steps” and has kick started my journey to responsible financial management (including getting rid of all my credit cards so I can’t spend recklessly during a hypomanic spree!). Look him up on YouTube to hear some of his epic rants or check out his website.
  5. The White Queen (Phillipa Gregory): Coming from Scotland, my knowledge of English history is incredibly limited. Gregory’s Tudor Court novels awakened a strong interest in history for me and shone light on the original strong women who tried to control their own destinies in a male dominated world. I’ve since read many (non-fiction) books on Tudor history and feel incredibly lucky to live close to many of the locations referenced by Gregory in her novels.

Which books would be in your top 5 life-changing reads? Have you read any of the books I’ve listed above? Please feel free to comment below.

Disclaimer: There are way more than 5 books that have changed my life but I assume you don’t have all night to read my thoughts about them!

 

 

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.

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?!

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.

The long wait to access mental health services

After eight long weeks I have an appointment to see a member of the psychiatry team. Not a psychiatrist. I appreciate that I have an appointment and many are still waiting. On the other hand, I already know this appointment is not right for me. Even the very helpful community psychiatric nurse (CPN) who called me yesterday to inform me of the appointment (in two weeks time) admitted that the person I really need to see is a psychiatrist but services are so stretched that the CPNs are now the “gatekeepers” for services in my area.
I have nothing against CPNs, but right now, I don’t want a CPN. As my GP says, I need a diagnosis and a treatment plan- the person to deliver that is a psychiatrist. I have to jump through hoops to get to the person I really need. Whilst I’m willing to do this, I also feel guilty that I’m taking an appointment at the expense of someone else on the waiting list who would benefit from seeing a CPN.
Not only do I want to feel better (because lets face it, wishing you weren’t here anymore every day isn’t much fun) but I want (need) to function better. I’m sat here at home earning statutory sick pay, I’m burning through my savings just to pay for the essentials. I need to get back to work, I need to earn to support my family. The stress from worrying about how long I will be waiting to get a diagnosis and treatment plan and what I will do if (when) I run out of money makes my depression worse. It’s like spending weeks of your life in a waiting room.
The government has committed to addressing the historic funding inequalities in the mental health sector, my question is this: Where are we going to find the staff to deliver these services? A recent report by NHS Providers stated that less than a third were confident that workforce planning would deliver the numbers of clinical staff required to provide services. It doesn’t matter how much money you pump into the system if you can get the nursing and medical staff to deliver on the vision.
We need to push mental health funding to the forefront of health care. I’d even go as far to say that we need to put mental health above physical health in our focus. Two or three years of increased investment does not undo decades of historic under-funding. We see countless charity events in the mainstream media for physical health illnesses, look at the support leading cancer charities achieve. I don’t remember the last time I saw publicity for a mental health charity on prime-time TV advertisements. It’s time for change- are you with me?

Today’s achievements: Crisps and a blog post

I’ve been thinking about starting this blog for a long time now. I mean, I’d have started it a lot sooner if I hadn’t been so, erm, depressed.  Right now, I’m mid-bout of major depression. I can’t work, heck, some days I can’t even get out of bed.

I’m taking the medication and, above all, waiting.  Some days the wait is easy, I get up, take my daughter to school and maybe have a cuppa with some friends. On these days I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain! Other days, the wait feels never ending. I don’t get up, or I get up and it takes 3 hours to have a shower. I get out of the shower, sit on my bed and cry for an hour.

There’s the brain fog. Forgetting the PIN for my bank card (the same pin I’ve had for 6 years), turning up for an appointment to discover that not only have you got the time wrong, you’re there on the wrong day. Driving the long way round town because you forget where you’re going and take the wrong turn round the one way system (don’t get me started on the one way system!)

I’d spent most of the afternoon in bed eating crisps (ready salted in case you want to know). No motivation to do anything. The hours were dragging, I was making a list of why it was pointless to get out of bed. I had to do something. I didn’t want to text a friend, there wasn’t much to say: “Hey, still depressed and still tired.” I started to think about how many other people in the world felt the same way as I do now. Probably a few, probably more than we know, probably there are people googling depression right now. Maybe they want to know they aren’t alone. And that’s when crazedandconfused was born!

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