Tuesday, 8 May 2018

A medication-free recovery

It’s time to start coming off my anti-depressants.

For the past seven years I’ve been on some form of medication for my mental illness. For the past six, I’ve been on the same dosage.

But coming off my medication hasn’t been an easy decision to make. In fact, up until recently I was adamant to stay on them eternally – if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. I’ve battled with guilt about giving them up when I’ve always been vocally pro-medication. I’ve battled with a fear that I could end up suicidal again. The last time I tried to come off them I went cold turkey - I just stopped taking them and I suffered from self-harm and suicidal thoughts returned.

But this year is also a year of change for me. I’m moving in with my partner in a month’s time. I’m moving to a different part of the city – and will need to find a new GP as a result. I’m leaving a job and home I’ve loved for the past five years. I want to start working towards my driver's license (a huge mental battle for me over the years).

So why now?

I’ve been happy and coping with my mental health for a long time now. I haven't had a breakdown in years, literally YEARS. Yes, I still feel sad, I have good days and bad days. But I have more good days now, they grow in number every year.

I've also heard some negative about long-term anti-depressant use and the effects this may have on my liver. I haven't researched this one, so it may or may not be true. But it did make me rethink why I'm staying on my medication. Is it a need? Or is it just the fear of what might happen without them?

I also want to take the next step in my recovery. I've always seen recovery as a journey, not a simple solution or a quick-fix. But my recovery has been stuck at one point on the journey for years now without progressing. It's time to keep going.

So I met with my GP, and we discussed my current medication and why I wanted to quit. We also talked about my fears and she made a very valid point.
*side note* Can we take a minute here to acknowledge those amazing doctors who are supportive of mental health issues? Who get it? Those who don’t force anything on you? Those who ask how you're getting on with your medication and what do you want to do ? 
She pointed out that this will not be the same as when I tried to quit six years ago. That I've built up coping skills, knowledge and tools to help me. That I have a support system. That we can manage it slowly and gradually.

And so we put together a plan. We decided that coming off all my medication must be done gradually, and will most likely take a year.

We set a short-term three month and a six-month plan. We'd reduce one medication slowly, and then stop it. And then we'll work on reducing medication number two.

Having a professional support and encourage me on this journey has been a huge help. I don't think I could do it without her. But now I also have to work on building my supports around me.

Today is day five on my lower dosage of medication. It's the start of the next part of my mental health journey.

Until next time,

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Why I Talk So Openly About My Mental Health

This month is Green Ribbon month - where See Change and their supporters encourage people to wear a green ribbon in support of those struggling with their mental health and to help us end the stigma around mental illness.

I've been an ambassador with See Change for about four years now. With See Change's support, I share my mental health story in interviews and in talks.

But for a long time I struggled to find meaning in my mental illness. I had suffered in silence for years.

While I struggled with my mental health throughout secondary school,  I never identified it as ‘I have a mental health problem’. It wasn’t something I was aware of, or even educated in.

My only understanding of mental illness as a teenager was how it was represented and portrayed in the media; asylums and straitjackets. Sinead O'Connor and Britney Spears going 'off the rails'. Being 'depressed' was bad and those people were not fun to be around.

As a result, years of bullying in school went unaddressed. Years of anxiety and sleepless nights were never mentioned. Years of low self-esteem, years of feeling isolated, years of hating myself.

When I moved away from home for college, these feelings escalated. My low moods began to affect me physically. I couldn’t sleep, I lost my appetite, and I started to throw up when I was nervous. Without a support network (friends or family) around me in college, I felt isolated and alone. I felt like I was 'missing out' on the college experience I was supposed to have.

I lost hope that things would ever get better and my thoughts turned to suicide. I didn’t know how to ask to help. I didn't know I was supposed to ask for help. I wasn’t sure anyone would help me.

It took a while for me to realise that what I was going through wasn't normal, I wasn't okay. Eventually, an old friend I got talking to convinced me to see a doctor. A diagnosis gave me relief and comfort. I learned this was an illness and that it was fixable. There was hope.

Before my diagnosis, and for months afterwards, I felt so alone. I felt like a failure. I'd disappointed those around me, I'd failed to have the ultimate college experience - whatever that was.

Once I started to see glimmers of recovery, I knew I had to turn my mental health into something positive.

I hated the thought of anyone feeling as alone, scared or lost as I was.

I hated the fact that people who were struggling, who needed help, didn’t know how to ask for or where to get support.

So I joined local campaigns to raise awareness of mental health issues and the supports available.

A few years later, when See Change invited me to join them as an Ambassador, I jumped at the opportunity. Together we could reach more people in dire need. I could show others that things do get better, not to give up hope like I had.

And every time I spoke, someone I didn’t know or who I had lost touch with over the years, would approach me and say ‘me too’. ‘I’ve been there’. ‘Thank you’.

So I would keep going. And I started this blog because I knew I had more to share. I had my whole journey to share. I had stigma to challenge and day-to-day struggles to document.

It’s been 7 years since my diagnosis. And I can’t stop talking about my mental health. It pours out of me.

Because over the years I've learned what was never taught to me in school -
Mental illness is normal; it isn’t something to be ashamed of.
I want to change the way we view, discuss and represent mental illness so that no one ever has to feel as alone as I did.

Find out more about the Green Ribbon campaign taking place all this month at SeeChange.ie.

Monday, 30 April 2018

The 8th amendment is a mental health issue

Tomorrow, I'll begin work on a mental health awareness campaign for another year. The aim is to wear a symbol of support and hope; show a willingness to talk about mental health and end the stigma around mental illness. But this May the message could easily be lost amongst terms like '1 in 5', 'My Body My Choice' and 'Repeal the 8th'.

You see May is also about another huge issue in Ireland – Repealing the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution to allow for legislation to be brought forward for access to abortion. At the moment, a woman in Ireland can only access an abortion if there medical practitioners agree that their is an immediate risk to her health. As a result, roughly 9 women travel from Ireland to the UK for an abortion EVERY DAY, and another 3 women order pills online each day.

Both issues will be competing for national attention during the month of May. But to me both issues are inextricably linked.

You cannot support a woman’s mental health by forcing her to travel abroad for help and support.

You are not protecting a woman’s mental health by forcing her to take abortion pills alone, in secret.

Support for mental health includes promoting a person’s autonomy. Allowing them to make the decisions they need to make for both their physical and mental health with help, care and support. You hear a lot about self care in the field of mental health, but by restricting a person’s choices, you’re not supporting them.

By forcing someone to remain pregnant against their will, you’re detrimentally damaging their mental health and causing emotional distress. By calling them criminals, you’re chipping away at their mind and sense of self.

If you are someone who is already struggling with a mental illness, the 8th amendment means your only option is to keep the baby, or seek illegal help. At a time when your number one focus should be looking after yourself and recovering, you now have the added pressure of pregnancy with no choices or other options freely available.

The lack of safe and accessible abortion has been linked to increased risk of suicide. By denying them a choice, girls and women can feel left without options or without hope.
  • PS. There is no correlation between abortion and increased mental health problems.
  • Research stating abortion damages a person’s mental health or causes mental illness has been proven to be unfounded and inaccurate.
  • Research actually proves no link between having an abortion and developing mental health difficulties. (Source
  • This one’s been fact checked by enough journos thanks very much. 
Keeping the 8th means forcing women to try to access the care and support they need in secret and in fear. For those who can afford to travel, it comes with a huge price tag - one that could take weeks of saving to get to, or growing debt to repay after. Debt is a well-known contributor to mental health problems.
From Chris Noone
Keeping the 8th means forcing women to carry a fatal foetal abnormality to term, despite the heartache and severe mental toll it entails to know your baby isn’t going to survive. These are much wanted babies, but rather than allowing women to try again, they're forced to stay pregnant.

Keeping the 8th means forcing rape victims to carry the product of their rape for nine months. Pro-lifers call this ‘healing’, I call it traumatic mental torture.

Keeping the 8th means forcing a woman to remain pregnant unless a number of medical professionals agree that her life is at immediate risk (e.g. when a woman is about to take her own life). Keeping the 8th often means forcing a woman to suicide.

Abortion is a reality for Irish women – it’s happening both on our shores and abroad. But keeping it illegal means that you don’t value a woman’s physical or mental health. It means that you're denying her proper and safe medical supervision, aftercare and support. It means you’d rather see a woman suffer than make a decision you don't personally agree with.

But because she suffers in silence, you can pretend that it’s not happening. You can pretend that you don’t know a woman this has affected. That her forced pregnancy ‘helped her’. That she's okay now. That there are no mental effects of this. But she aches and she hurts.

Beibhinn Farrell, a psychotherapist, says this all much better than I ever could in her post 11 reasons why saving the 8th does not protect women or babies based on scientific facts.

The referendum on repealing the 8th amendment is taking place on 25 May. Make sure you're eligible to vote by 8 May at Check the Register.

Find out more about the campaign to repeal the 8th from Together for Yes.

Find out more about how the 8th amendment affects mental health from Psychologists for Choice.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

What I've been up to

I haven't visited my blog once in the past six weeks. There's been zero blog posts, few updates on Twitter and, to be honest, no motivation whatsoever to lay any thoughts down in writing. After a January & February full of blogging inspiration, my motivation died a quick and painful death on 1st March.

I haven't had the energy to write. Or the head space to think about writing. No ideas popped into my head. There was no advice or tips I wanted to share. I was just trying to get by, and daily life took over.

And yesterday, while pottering around my desk and doing some tidying up, I decided to write and share what's been going on in my head over the past six weeks.

*Here's the thing about blogging and running your own little part of the Internet. It's fun and therapeutic and you meet incredible like-minded people, but it can also bring stress and a sense of responsibility. My silence over the past six weeks made me feel like a failure at times, and I criticised myself harshly for not being able to write. I felt guilty for running out of meaningful things to say when it comes to mental health. But, I also know that it's MY little part of the Internet. I should be able to write and take breaks, and come back refreshed, when I want, without any sense of guilt. It should be okay to step away if that's what you need at any time. So while I want to fill you in on what's been happening over the past few weeks, I also know that I will no doubt dip in and out of the blog in future. This has never been a full-time gig for me; I've gained nothing from my writing other than clearing my head and gaining your support in response. So thank you, but please be patient with me.*  

So here's an update on what I've been up to for the past six weeks: 

Trapped for four days in intense Storm Emma.
There's a lot to say for fresh air, space and sunshine for your mental health. Being trapped with 25 kids for four days was a new experience, and at times suffocating. During the storm I needed a break away from people to clear my head, and so started my gradual shift away from social media and the blog. It was a much needed time out. But when the storm ended, I found I still needed space.

Avoided Social Media
Lately, social media, but particularly Twitter, has been difficult for me to use. The trolls got to me and I found myself suffocating beneath their vile. Whether it's vulgar discussions about rape trials, or cruel comments about murderous women who want an abortion, I couldn't take it anymore. My mental health was taking a hit.So I took a step back and stopped logging into the app. And it was good for the soul. Instead, I exercised, caught up on TV shows, and read loads of books. I had me time, and I'm so grateful for the space staying off social media gave my head.

Started tracking my mental health
On 1st April, I decided to start keeping track of my moods and feelings on a daily basis. I'd been promising myself for months that I would start doing this, but the time finally felt right. I found this fab template on Pinterest and printed out a couple of copies for the next few months.
At the end of every day I would colour in a segment of the circle with the colour that matched how I'd felt that day. The results surprised me. I'd expected a lot more sadness; partially because that's still how I see myself -- 'Sad Zoe'. The number of days where I was feeling content or happy, and just generally not tired/sick or sad without reason, made me realise that the time is right to start talking to my doctor about coming off my medication.

Talked about abortion a lot
Ireland's upcoming referendum to remove the 8th amendment from our constitution has been the only thing I've been able to talk about since the date was set. The 8th amendment equates the life of the unborn to that of the mother's, restricting access to abortion in Ireland under any circumstance, unless a woman can be proven to be suicidal. As a result, abortion in Ireland has been exported abroad, primarily to England, or imported in the form of illegal abortion pills. This referendum is our chance to finally repeal such a discriminatory law, and its injustice is all I've been able to talk about to friends, family and coworkers. This must obviously make me a bore, but I've decided to put my money and my time where my mouth is. I've donated to the campaign, bought from the shop, and have signed up to start volunteering and canvassing to secure a YES vote on May 25th.

Been on holiday to Malaga 
And amidst all of this, I took a four day holiday to Malaga. It was an incredible city break with sunshine and castles and the beach in a city I didn't know. I spent time exploring and just soaking up the atmosphere, eating tapas and drinking ridiculously cheap wine. Perhaps this is the break I needed to spark my writing?

Until next time, and hopefully it won't be so long,

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

My February mental health victories

February has come to an end. It was a month of highs and lows, and my mental health took a few hits along the way. There were days I didn't want to get out of bed, days where I canceled plans, and days where I had to push through a mental block and felt the better for doing it. But today I want to look back on my month and celebrate the little things that went right - my mental health victories.

I went to a Step class
In my February mental health plan I said I wanted to try new classes at my gym. So I was brave, and on the very first day of the month I went to my first ever Step class. It was so much fun, and a super tough workout. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make it back for a second one, but I can't wait to go back and step in March!

Gratitude Jar
I also set myself the challenge of filling a gratitude jar of things to be grateful for every single day of the month. And I did it! I have 28 reasons to be thankful this month, and each gratitude is a memory to look back on as well.

Got outside
Popular advice for helping your mental health. I'm really bad at taking this advice, but I did manage to grab some fresh air. I had the most amazing snow day at home with my pets. This was all the more special as it had been six weeks since I'd been home to see my family. I had another beautiful snow day in Dublin (there was a lot of snow in February)

I kept up my writing
After neglecting my blog last year and almost giving up, I was a bit worried January's blog enthusiasm would be short lived. But I kept writing and, even better, I keep coming up with ideas for future blog posts. Blogging regularly has been a real source of pride for me this month, so thank you all for caring enough about what I say to make this hobby worthwhile.

This month I have enjoyed channeling my creative side by making the time to collage. I've always loved scrapbooking and making collages, so I love that I've rediscovered this hobby. One of my creations from this month was an autumnal themed page below.

Until next time and next month,

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Positive thinking won't cure your depression

"Also, I was in possession of a positive outlook, which is just a trick whereby you convince yourself that the desolution of your world is a phase in your personal growth. The weird thing is it works." - Sam Lipsyte 'The Fun Parts'
I've just finished another self-help book that promises to hold the keys to findings happiness. And it got me thinking.

One of the most annoying and frequent things you hear when you have depression and anxiety is “Don’t be so negative.” Or maybe you hear “look on the Brightside.”

I get it; I’m not the most optimistic person on the planet. I don’t gush about making the most of all opportunities or finding the one good thing in a shitty situation. And I never will. I consider myself more of a realist if I’m honest.

Now I don’t know about you, but despite being told to be more positive on countless occasions and trying not to think that the worst may happen, I’m still depressed and anxious.

You see, I think positive thinking is overrated. It’s lauded as the saviour to mental health problems, when in reality it’s more like slapping a mentally ill person across the face with the false promise of the happiness they could have had if their brain was wired differently.

Positive thinking will not cure your mental illness. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its benefits.

I did fall victim to the self-help cult of positivity. I thought that if I read enough books on the subject I would absorb at least a little bit of optimism and happiness. I can’t say I didn’t learn anything, but I certainly didn’t learn how to stop being depressed.

Over three years ago, when my depression first started to ease and I could smile and laugh and feel happiness again, I decided to start reading every self-help book I could get my hands on. I wanted this feeling to last, I wanted my mental illness to stay in ‘recovery’, not to be a daily struggle. So I read and tried to put what I read into practice.

I focused on building resilience. How to make myself stronger in the face of depression and anxiety. I was forging armour for the next time I had to go into battle with my mind.

I learned that I have negative thinking patterns, and spiralling thoughts. And I learned how to challenge negative intrusive thoughts. This is important and a huge skill. But self-help books are all too rarely written from the perspective of someone who has a mental illness. 

And often these skills fail you when you need them most.

When my depression returned to smother me, when I curled up in bed with a self-inflicted migraine and dreaded the next day - telling myself to 'think positively’ didn’t help. When I felt anxious and scratched myself enough to break the skin on my arms, I couldn’t challenge those negative thoughts. When I felt the weight of my mental illness on my shoulders, I felt guilty for not being the positive, happy person those self-help books were supposed to make me.

But yesterday when I was sitting in the canteen in work and thought, “Everyone here must hate me” I could challenge that thought and rationalise how illogical that EVERYONE hates me. Maybe one or two don’t like me, but they probably don’t care enough to hate me.

Positive thinking is something we should be doing every day - not only as a last resort. It’s one of the many coping skills you learn on the path to recovery. But we also should think twice about shoving positivity down the throats of people with mental illness. It’s not always helpful, and can cause more harm than good.

Until next time,

Monday, 19 February 2018

Are We Happy Yet? Another self-help book promising the keys to happiness

Are We Happy Yet? 8 Keys to a Joyful Life

I've just finished reading Are We Happy Yet? by Lisa Gypes Kamen, yet another self-help book that I thought could teach me the magic skill of rewiring my brain for happiness.

I had high hopes for Are We Happy Yet?. Gypes Kamen reveals early on in the book that she's had her own mental health battles. Self-help books from the perspective of someone who has battled depression are all too rare. I thought that finally, I had found a book written with mental illness and depression in mind. Finally a book that didn't say I should just think positively and think happy thoughts to be happy.
“As a reformed depressed person, I did not wander into my happy place. There was a personal evolution to my happiness revolution.”
The fact that she says 'reformed depressed person' should have been my warning sign that I was wrong.

While Gypes Kamen said she wanted to debunk the annoying yellow "smiley face" notion of happiness, the book does go there.

Apparently there are eight keys to living a joyful life. Who knew that I just had to do eight things to find happiness! In fact some of the tips contained within the eight keys are quite thought provoking. I particularly found the emphasis on not holding grudges and learning not to complain useful, because I am a serial complainer. It made me think about how I can improve my constant need to complain and whine.

But the book also delivers cheesy self-help jargon like - "Happy people are resilient people", or how you should choose to thrive rather than mainly survive.

I liked that the book was full of practical tools like journaling and writing prompts. Early on you're asked to define your happiness factor - you natural level of happiness - through 65 questions. Similar quizzes are evident throughout the book, but how these can be considered in anyway scientific isn't clear. Readers are also encouraged to build a happiness toolkit, another practical and useful activity.

What I didn't like however, was the notion that you can cultivate happiness by playing happy music (because listening to happy music apparently makes it impossible to feel sad).

If you haven't read a lot of self-help books and want to dip your toe in, Are We Happy Yet? might be for you. It references lots of other books and authors, and the level of topics in there is like multiple self-help books rolled into one.

Are We Happy Yet? got me thinking about happiness in my own life.
Am I doing enough of what makes me happy? And what am I looking for when I read these self-help books promising happiness? But I can't say I feel happier having read it.

Until next time,

**I requested to review Are We Happy Yet? from Netgalley.**