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.

Advertisements

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.

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!

 

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?