Thursday, 16 November 2017

When being a mental health activist gets hard

The first year after my diagnosis with depression was hard. I had expected a quick-fix, but it was six months and five different drugs later and I still didn’t want to live. I struggled to get by day-to-day. I continued to withdraw and lost friends. I acted out self-destructively. I felt lost, and what I needed was to find a purpose for my depression.

I found meaning in mental health campaigns and activism. I got involved in local college groups that promoted the message “Talking is a sign of strength.” It was an easy thing to throw my weight behind – talking had literally saved my life. And I never wanted anyone to feel as alone and without help as I had.

We ran awareness campaigns of the supports available to students, hosted talks on eating disorders and CBT and tried to reach those who needed help. We held regular tea and coffee mornings to promote talking. And people would talk. I’d be taken aside to chat to someone vulnerable. To tell them that it’s okay not to feel okay, but sometimes we need help. They’d tell me about their battles, their hardships, their attempts.


And I was ever so grateful, don’t get me wrong. How much I would have loved to have someone listen to me and chat to me about my illness after my diagnosis. I had needed like-minded people with their experiences of mental illness to talk to. And that’s what I’d found through activism.
 But I went home feeling these people’s pain. Often their stories were triggering to me. It brought me back to exactly how I’d felt and how I'd hurt. And when we lost a life, I took that personally. “If only my activism had reached them”, I’d think. “If I’d done more, could I have saved them?”

My activism found a national stage through the Green Ribbon campaign. I was interviewed in national newspapers and on TV. People I didn’t know, people I used to know reached out to me to say they could relate. They’d been through something similar. They had lost a friend to a similar battle.

But then the questions started:
What medication are you on? What brand works for you?
When are you going to stop taking medication? Aren’t you worried you’ll get addicted?
But how serious actually was your depression?
Don't you think you should go back to counselling? 
 
When I left university and entered the workplace, I lost contact with like-minded people. I have always been the youngest person on my team in any place I’ve worked over the past three years. I quickly became aware of how much stigma still exists. I didn’t know how to react to office lunchtime conversations, or even if I should react?
 “There’s definitely something mentally wrong with him.” 
"Terrorists are all mentally ill. There's no other excuse." 
"I always thought depression wasn't real; it's just something in your head."
If I speak up I’ll probably get upset. How will people treat me if I do admit that I have depression?

I started my blog. I started sharing more indepth the daily struggles of depression and anxiety. I joined mental health chats on Twitter and met more like-minded activists through the Internet. But when life got in the way and I started to miss those chats, when I couldn't keep up or commit my time, I lost a lot of support.

You start to become the 'mental health' person in your social groups. Someone uses the word 'mental' or 'depressing' in a conversation and all eyes turn to you to see how you're going to react.

I remember when my boyfriend and I first started dating. We had mutual friends in common and I was fearful that someone may have already told him about my mental illness before I was ready to myself (they did). I was scared he’d find my blog; an open chronicle of seven years of mental illness. I had made myself open and vulnerable by being so public.

It came up on our second date. He told me a friend had already mentioned the blog to him. I looked down at the table and tugged at my sleeves as I explained my mental illness to him. I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. But thanks to my activism, I was forced to.

You make yourself vulnerable when you speak up about your mental health. Some days you get support and feel empowered.

Other times it feels like you’re constantly being attacked. Sometimes even media articles feel like a personal attack. They tell you not to take it personally, but it is personal. After years of relentlessly defending yourself, your own choices, your approach to activism and raising awareness, heck of even defending the fact that mental illness exists, you get exhausted. And I am tired. I am not always strong enough to be 'active'. Some days I have to put my own mental health first.
Some days are turning into most days.

Just like how I had hoped for a quick fix to my own mental illness, I thought there might be a quick fix to the stigma. I thought my activism would change things. But after fighting for so long, most of the time it feels like I haven't changed a thing.

As hard as it gets, as tired as it gets, you try to keep going. You don't want to give up, because there's a fight still ongoing. But boy is it draining. And one day there will a come a day when my own mental health will have to come first.

Until next time,

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you things which might make you happy

I was feeling pretty sad yesterday so I spent €90 on clothes and to be honest, it did help my mood a bit.
See, I was feeling frumpy and full of self-loathing and body hate. I’ve been struggling to come to terms with how easy it is for me to put on weight lately. Yesterday that resulted in spending money on clothes online to make myself feel better.
Capitalism rocks.

And you know what? It worked.

My ‘go to’ when I'm sad is to spend money on THINGS. I don't want experiences; experiences usually involve socialising and when I’m sad that’s the last thing I want to do (yes, I know it’s often the best thing for you but shush.) Instead, I want something to hold in my hand. Heck, if it’s delayed for a few days awaiting delivery I’ll take it. That’s me gaining a few more days where I know something good is going to happen.
It’s best if I can buy these things in person because the instant gratification is sweet. I pay for it, it becomes mine, I feel happy.

Usually, it's a toy like a Pop Funko to add to my collection. Or a book, because God knows you can never have too many books. Or maybe some clothes so I feel better about myself and can at least dress like someone who has confidence.

Last year I had a strong and steady addiction to subscription boxes. It didn't matter what was in the box - make-up courtesy or Glossybox, books from Owlcrate or Fairyloot, nerdy collectibles from Loot Crate - I'd buy myself one as a treat after a tough month. Because I deserved it. But boy are they expensive.

While buying things isn't always sure sign my mood will improve, I swear it does help.

If all else fails, I look up free printables on Pinterest and print THINGS. Paper things are also good things. They make me smile. I add them to my wall and can get enjoyment from them for months.

Also good is when my boyfriend buys me things. He knows this and he uses it well. Like when he collects me from work he always has chocolate in his pocket to make me smile. THIS SHIT WORKS. I forget about my complaints, about why work sucked and why I’m feeling down for a moment and it feels good. Or if I’m down for longer period of time he’ll take me to a bookstore and let me pick out a book.

PS, I swear I’m not trying to use this depression thing to my advantage. I am ACTUALLY down. And yes, I know this is how toddler tantrums work.
But I also know that we are going to be so broke in a few years’ time if this keeps up.
I suppose I’ve been lucky lately that my depression hasn’t persisted. I’ll get one, two, maybe three down days in a row and usually it passes. I become hyper, happy Zoe again. A free printable suffices on these occasions.

Sometimes it persists a bit longer. I have ‘bad’ weeks. These weeks feel like I’m teetering on the brink. One more thing and I fear I’ll be sent over the edge and into a breakdown. Like my past experiences of mental illness and severe depression are hanging over me.

I take any relief I can get. Anything to veer me away for the edge. I spend money so that I can feel good for at least a moment.

And therein lies the problem. Because while it feels good in the moment, it doesn't last and after a while I'm sad and dejected again, with the addition of also feeling crap for having spent money on something I don't technically need.

There are better, more healthy ways to help manage my sadness, I know this. But knowing something isn't right doesn't mean I can stop doing it. I'd rather do something immediate to help improve my mood. And when you have a mental illness, you crave an immediate fix.

I know money can't buy you happiness. But it does buy me things which make me happy, at least for a little while.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Mental illness is not a scapegoat for murder

Yesterday's headlines were written to cause fear.
  • Trump publicly blames mental illness for mass shootings.
  • 'This is a mental health problem': Trump on the Texas shooting
  • Trump’s right, this is a mental health issue
  • Pat Robertson Blames Texas Shooting on Antidepressants

As if it wasn't enough to be petrified of immigrants and Muslims when people of colour commit mass murder, we are also reminded that mental illness is also a cause for fear. 

What we've learned from US shootings and attacks over the past few years is that the colour of the attacker's skin is important in deciding the causative factor and motivation. As soon as perpetrator of the Texas church shooting was named, mental illness was identified as the sole cause and reason for the mass shooting.
“I think that mental health is your problem here. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, but this isn’t a gun situation.” - Donald Trump
The man has a history of domestic abuse, but as of yet there's been no proven history of mental health problems.

But once again, mental illness has been used as a scapegoat for murder. White men are not responsible for their crimes, an illness they may or not even have is. And as such, they cannot be held responsible for their actions in the same way people of colour are.

1 in 4 of us are currently experiencing a mental illness. 4 in 4 of us have mental health.
Are we all to be feared? Might we all be potential murderers? I am mentally ill, is my illness to blame for everything I do?

Studies have proven that people with mental health illnesses are no more likely to be violent than the general population. We are far more likely to harm ourselves than others.
People in every country have mental health problems, but yet no other country experiences mass shootings to the extent that America does.

Trump and his supporters are demonizing those suffering with mental health problems. We have becomes just another vulnerable group for them to attack and fear.

Trump's comments yesterday prove we are nowhere close to ending the stigma around mental illness. We have a long, long way to go.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Book review: The Flawed Ones

The Flawed Ones - A Story of Mental Illness, Addiction and Love by Jay Chirino

Jay Chirino has experienced depression and anxiety since childhood. His mental illness lead to self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. All of this is openly and honestly admitted in the opening lines of the introduction to his new book The Flawed Ones. The introduction is strong, and relays Chirino's struggles, his motivation behind the book, and the admission that he is still on meds for his mental health. (Thank God someone is admitting it!)
"...a few months back, someone asked me what I wanted most when I was going through my depression, and after thinking about it for a while, I figured it out. What I am trying to accomplish with this story is to help you see that you are not alone."
However, the book isn't a memoir. Instead it draws on Chirino's real life experiences with mental illness, addiction and the psych ward, blending fiction with his lived reality.

Following admission for a 72-hour psychiatric hold, Jay experiences life on the psych ward and the many characters that call it home.

The book deals with not only the expected themes of mental illness, stigma, and addiction, but also with religion, perception, love and failures of the healthcare system.

Its strongest points are when Jay is in conversation with his psychiatrist. He relates what it's like being in a depressive episode, telling the story of his mental illness and where it came from. Clearly, these are pieces that come from Jay's real experience, rather than a semi-fictional account. This is not a memoir, but I often wished it was. Chirino's real-life story is the most intriguing part of the book. There's an honesty to the words in these parts that is lacking elsewhere; even if his memories to his psychiatrist are full of more flowery embellishments than most people would ever share verbally.

The blend of fiction and reality wasn't always seamless. Characters were overly described, rather than revealed. The constant commenting on women's appearance comes across as seedy rather than what-I-hope-was-the-intended subtle. But its strengths lie in the honesty of mental illness and addiction and the hope of recovery.

The book is due to be published on 1 November 2017.

Find out more:

Website: http://www.theflawedones.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theflawedones
Twitter: https://twitter.com/theflawedones
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35893903-the-flawed-ones---a-story-of-mental-illness-addiction-and-love

*Disclaimer* This book was given to me in return for a review, however the review is entirely my own opinion. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

What’s left to say?

I’ve beaten my mental illness to death. Or at least, I’ve beaten talking about my mental illness to death.

Today is World Mental Health Day, and I’ve found myself with nothing left to say.

I have depression and anxiety. I've had them ever since I can remember, but was formally diagnosed six years ago. Ever since, I've tried to use my diagnoses for good through campaigning, blogging, and raising awareness and money.

But how many times can I repeat my mental health story? How many times must I say that it’s okay to not be okay? That it does get better? That recovery isn’t always possible? That medication doesn’t have to be bad?

I’ve been saying it offline and online for the past six years and it feels like it’s all been for nothing, because what’s changed?

I’m frustrated at the lack of progress in mental illness in this country.

Services are badly under-funded and under-staffed. People on waiting lists can’t wait any longer.
I still hide my mental illness in work.
Celebrities are still mocked for their breakdowns.
TV continues to perpetuate the stigma around mental illness with unfair and untrue representation.
Halloween events still run ‘insane asylums’.
We justify acts of terror on mental illness.

It feels like we take a step forward only to take another one back.
So what’s left for me, or anyone, to say?

I know that there’s no immediate fix to the stigma, the lack of resources and support, or to my own mental health battles. But keeping up this fight is exhausting. I want the battle to be over. I want to be able to tell people when I'm having a bad day without fearing they'll think less of me or treat me differently. I want to be able to socialise and have conversations without having to discourage someone from describing their mood as ‘depressing’ or having to explain why a mental illness doesn't make someone 'dangerous' after every mass murder.

I want there to be nothing left to say when it comes to mental health because we all accept, acknowledge and support it.


Thursday, 28 September 2017

What’s wrong with depending on medication for your mental health?

Have you ever told someone with cancer to stop taking painkillers for their pain?

Or told those who inject themselves with insulin daily for their diabetes to stop? To question what they are putting in their body? To not to become dependent on the drugs?

One of the biggest stigmas that still exists in the context of mental illness is medication. As a society, we’re starting to accept mental health issues more and more. We know the '1 in 4' stats. We know it’s common. We know that young men are at risk of suicide.
We’re okay with people admitting they had a down day, they have depression, anxiety, OCD. We weren't always okay with it, but we're getting there. In fact, we think ‘fair play to you’ for coming forward and speaking publicly about their mental health.

But we’re only okay with it if their mental illness is not being treated with medication. Not being currently treated that is. If you used to be on meds but now you’re off, ‘fair play to you’.
But currently taking meds? Society hasn’t come to terms with this yet.

Non-pharmaceutical treatments are favoured. People want to talk about how exercise saved their lives. How they found recovery through meditation. It’s all about lifestyle changes.
If you just change the way you start your day, you’ll defeat anxiety! 
Exercises releases ‘feel-good’ endorphins, just like meds, but it’s better for you! 
You need to change your diet to improve your mental health.
There is merit in these points. Everyone should exercise, eat well and practice good, healthly mental health techniques regardless of having a mental illness. It’s how we build resilience and help fend off ever developing mental illness in the first place.

But when you have a mental health problem, it’s not that easy.

When I wrote about what it was like to forgot to take your meds after being on them for six years, it started a discussion. I was told 'Don't get dependent'. As if depending on medication that works for you, that helps you is a bad thing.

This wasn't new to me, I'd heard it before. In fact I've been hearing it my whole life, since long before I was diagnosed with a mental illness. I heard it when my doctor insisted I stop taking them so that I didn't get addicted. I heard it in interviews with people in recovery; in editorials and opinions pieces about the danger of pharmaceuticals for mental health. I heard it in comments from friends; 'Are you still on medication?' 'When do you think you'll stop taking it?'

And when I reply 'Yes, I'm still on medication. I don't know if I'll ever stop taking it because it works for me.'

I get asked, 'Oh really? What type of medication are you on?' Or they offer their advice. 'My friend had depression, and she found exercise helped.' 'But have you tried mindfulness?'

In what other health setting do we think it appropriate to grill people on their treatment choice? Or to ask specific questions on what brand of drugs they've bought? Do we question cancer patients on whether they're choosing a holistic cure for their tumour or a scientific one?

I proudly defend my use of medication as a treatment because I didn't have a choice.
I had no motivation to exercise, I had no appetite to eat at all, yet alone healthily, and I didn't know how to recognise, never mind change, negative thought patterns. I needed something that would allow me to live again. I needed something that would keep me alive.

I’d rather be medicated for the rest of my life, dependent on pharmaceuticals to function, than to not be here. And that’s the risk I'd have to take if I ever stopped taking them.

And I am sick of people judging me, looking down on me from their high homeopathic horse.

I get that medication for mental illness differs to medication for physical illness in many ways.
The side-effects differ per person. You can’t look at someone and see how severe their illness is. There’s no physical wound to measure and treat. It’s inside. It’s in your head. There is no consensus on how to treat something you can't see.

The same drugs that worked on one person may not work on another. It could take years of different combinations to find a treatment that works. Some people may never find a combination of pharmaceuticals that work.

But why should we discourage medication when it does work?


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Last week I forgot to take my medication and this is what it felt like

Last Sunday I was staying over at my boyfriend’s house. It’s a regular enough occurrence, regular enough that I instinctively pack my bag without much thought before I go. Except on Sunday my instincts let me down. Coming off a 20-hour shift, I forgot to add my anti-depressants to my bag.

I knew the outcome wouldn’t be good. But I put on a brave face and said “I’ll be fine” every time my boyfriend asked. I went to sleep around 10:30pm, well aware that the next day wasn’t going to be pleasant.

My alarm went off at 7am, and I could barely open my eyes. Four snooze buttons and 20 minutes later, I knew I HAD to get up or I’d be late for work. But when I tried to get up, when I tried to tell myself I had to go and shower, I didn’t want to.

I’m not talking about the ‘I don’t want to get up this morning’ feeling that me and everyone else has every morning as we struggle with our wake-up call. This was a total shutdown of my systems. My legs didn’t want to stretch out of bed and stand up, my eyes didn’t want to open, my body didn’t want to stand under a shower and get wet, my head did not want me to get up.

I had no motivation to move.

I slowly got my bearings. I didn't have a choice. Like following instructions from a manual, I went step by step, following the same routine I do every day.

Get up.

Shower.

Dress.

But when I came back to the room after my shower, I just sat on the bed in my towel. 3 minutes passed. I knew I better start moving. 7 minutes passed, and I had one item of clothing on.  I can’t tell you what I was thinking of in that time. I couldn’t have told you just 2 minutes afterwards. But I sat there, spaced out for 10 minutes until I finally started to move. Moving was much opposed by my whole body. It required significant effort.

Hair.

Make up.

Breakfast.

Almost ready to leave, I turned to my boyfriend and said “I don’t feel right today.”

It’s difficult to explain what not feeling ‘right’ means. But I knew this feeling, I was familiar with it. It put me right back into the shoes I wore seven years ago. I didn’t feel like me.

The world looked different when I left the house that morning. Not metaphorically different, literally. It was like I couldn’t see clearly. It was hazy, blurry. My sight wasn't focused.

I had an overarching, ingrained feeling that something bad was going to happen. A feeling of impending doom. I was anxious and scared.

And my head. Oh good God, my head. I could feel the pressure pushing between my brain and my skull. Or was it the noise? At some point the pressure turned into noise. I couldn’t think clearly.

The rest of my day continued in the same vein. I watched the clock move ever so slowly to 5pm, just waiting til I could go home, take my tablets and get into bed.

Missing my medication shook me for the whole week. I found myself chasing that sleep I missed every night afterwards. It's been even harder to shake the anxiety and the not feeling like me.

Something similar happened on my family holiday back in July. Rather than packing my two types of medication, I brought only the one kind (and double of it). The whole week I took twice my usual dose of this medication, completely missing the other medication. I didn't even realise what I'd done until the day I arrived back home.
I hadn't been able to explain my low moods, mood swings and general feeling of unease all holiday until then - it finally all made sense.

Despite what these two recent occasions might suggest, I don't make a habit of forgetting to take my medication. It's usually very rare - missing one type of medication on two nights out of 365 say. But it has huge effects. It shows me how much I need my meds to sleep, concentrate and just function in my everyday life.

On these rare occasions, I'm only a mere shadow of myself. Without my medication, I'm not me.