Monday, 24 April 2017

It's been six years since I was labelled 'depressed'

This month marks six years since my diagnosis with depression. And boy has it been a whirlwind of ups and downs, battles, wins and losses. Many of which have been documented on this here blog.

I've graduated from university. Twice.
I've had three internships, one part-time job, and one full-time permanent job.
I'm on my third cat and also gained two dogs.
I've gone from self-harm to self care.
I've been diagnosed with anxiety.
I've faced stigma in the workplace.
I've faced stigma from my peers.
I've stigmatised myself.
I've turned my mental illness into something positive.
I've been interviewed about my mental illness on national TV and in national newspapers.
I've found a positive and supportive relationship.

As I write this, I feel content.
I am happy with where I am in my life. My job. My home. My relationships.
I am happy with what I can see in my future.
I take two types of medication daily.
I have more good days than bad days.
I've found a balance between self care and my commitments. It's not always perfect, but I get there in the end.

I cringe at the word 'recovery'. It's been six years and I am not recovered. Am I in recovery? Maybe. Maybe not.
My mental illness has been a journey. I'm still on this journey.
But I'm still celebrating. The fact that I am still on this journey is a victory.

It's been six years since I was labelled 'depressed'. I've learned to love this label, and everything that it's brought with it into my life. Both the good and the bad. Here's to the next six.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Sorry you think I’m rude but

I'm sorry you think I’m rude but
  • I was planning out something to say in my head
  • I was feeling self-conscious
  • I was thinking about how I’m socially awkward
  • I was worrying whether you already didn’t like me
  • I didn’t know what to say
  • I find it really hard to talk to strangers
  • I was worrying about whether you’ve found out I’m mentally ill
  • I was wondering if what I just said was stupid
  • I was scared I'd say something stupid
  • I feel safer on my phone than talking to an actual person
  • I had another social interaction earlier today and it did not go well
  • I was remembering that mean thing a girl said to me when I was 10
  • I feel unworthy of anyone’s attention today
  • My chest feels tight and I’m not sure why
  • I feel left out
  • I know everyone’s talking about me
  • I was actually trying not to cry
  • I was afraid I would cry
People with mental illness often come across as rude or standoffish. But really, we’re just paranoid and worried about what you think of us. We can be self-conscious and shy. We can act reclusive because we presume no one likes us. Some of us have social anxiety. Talking to strangers, or even people we know well, can cause us anxiety. And sometimes we try to avoid all social interaction because of that.

Please be patient and don’t judge us just yet. It can take us a while to feel comfortable around new people, and to pluck up the courage to smile and talk to you.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Making friends with anxiety is hard

Making friends when you have anxiety is hard.

You hate meeting new people.
You don't see anyone you meet as 'potential friends'. They're 'potential people to dislike me'.

You worry about what everyone thinks of you all the time.
What will I wear? Will they judge me for this dress? Only like 70% of first impressions are based on your actual appearance, so no pressure.
I know I'm not important enough for people to think about, but they are definitely thinking something negative about me right now.

You hate meeting people who already know each other.
So am I the only one here who doesn't share the these childhood memories? 
How do you even join in with those conversations? 

You overthink everything.
Maybe they're only being nice because they feel sorry for me?
When can we officially call this a friendship? Like, are we friends yet? It's been 30 seconds without incident, so I call this a record.

You try not to give your mental health away.
Did they notice that I scratch myself and keep pulling on my hair?
Someone says 'The weather's been so depressing' and you freeze before questioning whether your opposition to this phrase will reveal your mentally ill state. 

Trying to keep friendships with anxiety is also a challenge.

You can't text them first, it'll only annoy them.
They're busy, you don't want to annoy them. Basically, this friendship is little more than a huge annoyance to the other person. Initiating contact actually terrifies me, so if you could text me first, that'd be great.

Lack of motivation
And other times, texting another person is a huge effort. You put it off, and off, and off until it's four months later and even renewing contact at this stage is embarrassing.

Having a friend is also scary.
You are setting yourself up for direct rejection. They won't show up to brunch and you'll be left there trying to decide if you should just leave or eat something while sitting there alone. Friendship is like handing another person a grenade to throw at you. And it really freaking hurts, trust me.

Am I over-friending this person?
Is there such a thing as being too keen? Are you coming on too strongly by suggesting three potential dates that suit to meet up? It all comes back to overthinking.

WHAT DID THEY MEAN BY THAT MESSAGE?
'See you soon' means they haven't come up with any alternative plans, so do they not want to see me again?
I mean, this might be an overreaction, but I'm pretty sure my friend's style of writing just changed overnight and now they hate me.



As a teenager, I hated social events. Heck, I hated any sort of interaction with another person. I used to make my sister take my clothes to the checkout so I wouldn't have to face the shopkeeper-induced anxiety.
Every time I left the house I would feel physically sick or have knots in my stomach. Going to school or meeting a friend was hell for me. I used to always have a fear that I would arrive at an event and no one else would be there. It was all a ploy to embarrass me. I'd be left on my own. I presumed most people I knew didn't like me. That I was the victim in some sort of life-long Carrie style prank.

But I'd try to put up a front, at least in school anyway. And I'd still attend every single event, and experience that severe anxiety in the process, just to try and get people to like me.

I'd like to say I've come a long way from those days, but the truth is, I haven't. If anything, I'm more anxious than ever when it comes to people. I'm more reclusive now than I was as a teenager.
 My ability to fake it until I make it has long since evaporated.

I had a major anxiety attack a few weeks ago. I was travelling solo on the train out to meet a friend, to a place I'd never been before. I started profusely sweating. I felt nauseous and faint, and panicky. I seriously contemplated turning back, going home and crawling into bed to cry. Instead, I cried at the train station before forcing myself to board the train and crying some more on a packed carriage. And in the end, I had an amazing time and felt so stupid for having gotten worked up about something that other people do every day.

And that's the thing about anxiety and friends. That what is so simple and comes naturally to other people, we tend to overthink, overreact to, panic and obsess over. Our brains are wired to make these situations difficult. I'd much rather stay shut in my bedroom by myself than bump into someone I know on the street. I hate answering phonecalls, and making phonecalls. And don't get me started about confrontation or I won't be able to sleep for a week.

Making friend with anxiety is hard. So give us some space, a break and take it easy, okay?

Saturday, 25 March 2017

What TV gets wrong about mental illness

Recently I watched an episode of Casualty. As is often the case when I randomly watch a TV show I don't normally watch, it happened to be an episode focusing on mental health. In this case, bipolar disorder. And I was a bit miffed by what I saw. Sure, the end criticised the lack of care available to people. Great, but nothing we didn't know there. And then there were questionable parts too. Like why was the manic character dressed like The Joker? And why did a mental break have to occur in a graveyard to enhance the spookiness? But what I was really bothered by was the fact that healthcare professionals, doctors and nurses, expressed fear when they discovered someone had a mental illness. That the distinction between being a nurse with bipolar disorder and a doctor in a manic state wasn't clearly made. That some of their negative words and the stigmatising connotations that come with them were not challenged.
"You couldn't deliver milk in your state.""You are ill. And I am not giving birth in a graveyard with a mentally unstable nurse.""Get away from me, or I mean it, I will scratch your eyes out.""I guess a crazy, manic nurse is better than no nurse."
And I was left with the image that the people we trust to treat us when we're ill are actually frightened by us. Why would anyone seek help?

I tweeted my frustration at this portrayal of mental illness, and also another storyline in the episode where a staff member couldn't even say the word 'bisexual'. And I was met by a barrage of criticism. Apparently Casualty is so popular that its fans, and actors, are passionate enough to follow the #Casualty hashtag on Twitter on a Saturday night and reply to tweets.

Casualty is not the first show to do a mental health storyline and get it wrong; far from it.
And I am so tired of TV characters being terrified of mental illness, of mental health only being portrayed when there's a 'break', of the godforsaken asylum being used as a huge, scary plot device to incite fear in young people. Watching how the negative comments on Casualty from healthcare professionals were not challenged, while I was in a depressive episode myself and already frustrated by people not understanding my illness, was breaking point.

So here's a list of what TV gets wrong about mental illness

People with mental illness are dangerous
This is probably the most common way mental illness is currently portrayed on TV and movies. Just look at Norman Bates in Bates Motel (the character from Alfred Hitchcock's movie Psycho as a young man). We keep being told Norman is mentally ill, he refuses to get help, and we watch him black out and murder character after character. The body count is high, and the show, now on its fifth season, links the term 'mental illness' with 'killer' in every episode. Mental illness is not something that should be feared or run away from. We are not all dangerous and trying to kill you. At least, no more so than the rest of the general public. In fact, we are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.
Publicity photo for Bates Motel. Just look at Norman's mentally ill stare. 

Blink and you'll miss it diagnosis

We see this a lot. Mental illness is brought up in a show (yay for inclusion) but the storyline lasts maybe just an episode, six episodes, or a season. There is no further explanation or follow-up, and the reality of the ups and downs of recovery are overlooked. Pretty Little Liars' Hanna revealed she had an eating disorder in Season 1. But it apparently went away on its own, once Hanna became skinny and popular, and is only referred to again when people call a slim teenage girl 'fat' in flashbacks. These are missed opportunities to get it right, and show what living with a mental illness is really like.

The Asylum
Yep, despite modern psychiatry having moved away from not only the word 'asylum', but the very image of confining people with a mental illness, it continues to be used as a trope on TV. Missed it?Look no further than the entire Season 2 of American Horror Story set in an insane asylum (but it at least challenged stigma by portraying a whole cast of characters with mental illness and suggesting hallucinations of aliens and demonic possessions as actually real). Not to mention teen shows like Teen Wolf and Pretty Little Liars where the asylums are somewhere were the bad characters are locked up without any actual diagnoses. But sure, let's keep showing 12-25 years old that we contain bad people in a mental hospital.

Just having a story line about mental health doesn't end the stigma
Other shows, like Degrassi which received a lots of criticism for its portrayal, think its enough to just have a storyline about mental health. As if mentioning the word schizophrenia will somehow remove the stigma. And they expect, and often receive, praise for it. OMG a mental health storyline is o progressive, well done TV. Having a character with a mental illness, or one that attends therapy isn't a good thing if its not done right. You have to challenge perceptions. You have to use your opportunity and your stage to tackle the image of mental illness. You can call your show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in mockery of the 'ex who isn't good with rejection' trope, but when you then decide your main character does have mental illness issues thanks to childhood trauma, it's a bit of an insult. You might want to think of a rename for Season 3.

Healthcare professionals don't understand
I get that this is a true reflection of many people's experiences. You seek help for your mental health only to find healthcare professionals do not understand mental illness and are not be supportive.
(Photo: National Alliance on Mental Illness) 
BUT how does this help people who need help? It discourages them from telling people, people who should know better, about their illness or seeking treatment for it. Sorry Casualty, but saying "I guess a crazy, manic nurse is better than no nurse" does not instill confidence that you will look after me when I'm mentally ill.

Turning your Halloween episode into a mental illness stereotype
Thankfully, this is rare. But you will find some shows, and some events in your area, that think its okay to mock mental illness at Halloween. Look no further than Modern Family, the sitcom based around a regular American family, the Dunphys.  The Dunphy family's opinions on mental health, however, aren’t so modern. Their 2015 Halloween episode thought it was a good idea to turn their house into a mock insane asylum. Full of outdated terminology and decades old movie stereotypes, the show was insulting and enraging. But maybe I'm just too sensitive, yeah? Must be my mental illness....

Last weekend I was called easily offended and too politically correct for being angry at how mental illness was portrayed on TV.
Suicide remains one of the most common causes of death in young people. Stigma is alive and well. There is no need to perpetrate it further. It stops people asking for help, getting treatment, and tells them that there are no relapses in recovery.
Is it too much to ask that TV shows portray my illness and other people's illness in a realistic, sensitive, and forward thinking way? Stop saying we're dangerous. Stop pretending this is 1900 and we're all locked up in an asylum. Stop refusing to challenge stereotypes.

But let me also say, you CAN get it right. Thanks you This is Us, Jessica Jones, and you know what? These are actually the only two I can recall. How's that for TVs problem with mental health.

Friday, 17 March 2017

I hate national holidays and big occasions.

It's St Patrick's Day and I'm really depressed. I hate days like today. I hate national holidays and big occasions. I don't like New Years; I've never had a good New Years Eve. Christmas always feels anti-climatic. They never live up to the build-up or hype.

I hate these days where people are expected to act a certain way. Right now, as an Irish person, I should be in the streets watching a green parade pass me by; in a pub listening to trad music or Ed Sheeran's new album; with green, white and gold painted on my face.

Instead I'm wrapped in my favourite blanket, fighting back the tears. I'm not sure what to do. Maybe watch some Netflix, read a book - but my heart's not in it. My heart's hollow.

I hate the pressure that comes with occasions like today. I hate the knowledge that everyone else, or at least what feels like everyone else, is out having fun. That the people I know are probably in the pub. I hate the fact that I'm not doing what's considered normal.

I'm feeling emotional and down. I'm feeling unwanted and unloved. My head is filled with thoughts of why I'm a terrible person. Replaying all the embarrassing things I did or said over the past week; the occasions where I said the wrong thing or overreacted. I wish I was more likable. I wish that I could like myself.

And in back of all these thoughts and fear is that I'm inadequate. How I'm not doing what's expected of me this St Patrick's Day. I can't even be a normal person, or do what normal people do. I feel like a failure.
On days like today my depression usually wins. I don't know how to fight back; how to pause my thoughts for long enough to have a chance of fighting back. So I sit in my favourite blanket as it takes over me, submitting to the strength of mental illness and allowing it this one victory.

Monday, 13 March 2017

No Tears Before Breakfast

I used to have a rule for my depression.

No tears before breakfast

Those four little words got me through some really tough mornings. One of the hardest parts of being in a depressive episode is trying to get out of bed in the morning. You have no motivation to get up. You are still groggy and tired from your meds and the nightmares. The day can only get worse from here.

No tears before breakfast

It sounds silly, but I would repeat this rule as a mantra on my worse days. If I woke up anxious about the day ahead, feeling physically sick and emotionally drained, on the verge of tears, I would say those four little words over and over.

No tears before breakfast

I would repeat the rule.
Even though depression doesn’t live by any rules. It doesn’t go away when you tell it to, and it sure as hell doesn’t let your day get any better when you try to tell yourself that it can.

But having this rule helped. If if managed to get through my breakfast without tears, my logic was that it didn't matter when or how often you cry after that. If I managed to get through breakfast before shedding any tears, the day didn't feel that bad after all.

You see, sometimes you just need to convince yourself, even if only for a moment, that there is hope. That things can get better.
And hey, if you managed to get through breakfast this morning without any tears, then this day is not as bad as the days when you were at your worst.

No tears before breakfast

For months, I woke up with my alarm and began getting ready for work. I seemed normal, doing what normal people did. Those non-depressed people. But I was grinding my teeth as I repeated this mantra. Fighting back the tears, fighting to appear normal and make it out the door to face the day. Some days, those four little words got me through the day.

I’m not saying this was a healthy way to manage my mental health. I didn't acknowledge my emotions, and I didn't accept the fact that things are not okay. That I was not okay.

But sometimes a mantra helps. Sometimes the act of repetition helps. And sometimes we need to find a way of carrying on. And no tears before breakfast was my way.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

What next? A blogging crisis


2017 started with a blogging identity crisis. After my year-long self-improvement project in 2016, I was left thinking ‘what next?’

It’s fair to say my goals for the blog changed last year. At some point, I stopped caring about turning my project’s research into a book. Or getting free products, making an income, or even writing a book. Success became redefined as something I was achieving offline rather than in or through my online life.

When I started my blog, it never occurred to me that turning it into a business was possible. But attending talks, conferences, and receiving goodie bags changed that. It became a possibility. It was other people’s reality.

Last October I attended the Irish Blogger Conf in The Marker Hotel. It was brimmed full of speakers who have made it. Bloggers with their own product lines, who travel the world for free, who make a million dollars a year.

And in my head all I could think was "I don't want that. This isn't for me".

I don’t care about Instagram themes. If you have an Insta theme, great. But I won’t notice it.
I don’t want a product line. What does a mental health themed product line even look like? Some sort of squeezable stress ball perhaps? A t-shirt emboldened with ‘This is what mental really looks like’? A memoir about growing up ‘different’?

Rather than leave me inspired, the Conference snuffed out my spark for blogging.
I hit a crossroads.

I realised that I don't want to be a full-time blogger. I don't want to make a career out of my experience of mental health.

So what was the point of stressing about my blog? Of putting time and money into something when I don’t have the enviable life goal of making a living from my thoughts? Why do I create a strict schedule and feel guilty when I fail to live up to it?

What was next for my blog?

When the Romeo Project finished at the end of 2016, I took a break. I gave myself time to decide on my blog’s future, but it was safe to say I had spent the previous two months writing half-heartedly and without inspiration.

From January, posts trickled out. But not by plan. I wrote when I felt compelled to write. When I had no other choice but to put my thoughts to paper.

When the media failed to call out Blue Monday, I wrote.
When so-called mental health professionals ditched ethics to label Donald Trump ‘insane’, I wrote.
When I was sick of hearing people throwing around the word ‘mental’ like some sort of metaphor for unusual, I wrote.

And somewhere between my thoughts and the keyboard and seeing my words appear onscreen, I remembered why I started my blog.

Maybe there doesn't need to an end goal or a money-making aspect at all. Maybe blogging doesn't have to be anything of the sort.
Maybe it's about the lethargy of writing, the therapeutic aspect of releasing, revealing and sharing.
Maybe it’s about having a space where I feel safe to say the things I can’t talk about offline.

Maybe it’s about giving a voice to those who feel the same way I do. Who’ve been rendered silent by society’s stigma.

I've been too focused on what other people do with their blogs or what they're in it for. I thought that wanting to be a full-time blogger was what I was supposed to want. But that's not for me.

I write because I've always written. Because I always will. Because I need an outlet, an expression. I write because I’m scared and angry. I write because I need therapy and I don’t have the time or the money to see a counsellor.

It's okay to write for no other purpose than because you WANT to. That's what I do. And that's what I will continue to do without a schedule or a plan or an aim.

For me, blogging is a hobby. It's where I vent and share, but also where I choose to spend my time. But more than all of that, it's good for my mental health. And that means I'm here to stay.