Monday, 20 February 2017

8 things my mental illness has taught me

Mental illness comes with a whole lot of symptoms. But my depression and anxiety have also come with some life lessons. Here are eight of the key things I've learned over the past six years. 

8 things my mental illness has taught me:

1)         Sleep is not over-rated 

·         There were nights when I couldn’t sleep a wink and there were others where no matter how much sleep I got, I couldn’t overcome my tiredness. As a result, I will always try to get my scientifically recommended 8 hours sleep a night. My social life must arrange itself around this. Sentences like this one are not uncommon: ‘No, I will not stay out late tonight because I have to be up at 7am, which means I need to be sleeping by 11pm.’ I value my sleep highly these days. 

2)          Who my friends are

·         Yes, there were people who thought I was ‘attention-seeking’ with my mental illness. Some stopped talking to me, or stopped making an effort with me on my worse days.
·         But then there are the people who accepted me unconditionally. There are the people who stuck with me through the highs and the lows. These are the people who I could be myself around.
·         And I have made new and like-minded friends. These are people who I never would have known if I hadn’t had my mental illness. 

3)          You have to take time for yourself

·         Not all of the time that you spend on your own needs to be spent in self pity and loathing. Now that's an important life lesson I wish I had learned as a teenager. I love chilling out by myself after a long, stressful day. It allows me to practice acts of self care such as going to a bath or working through my adult colouring books. And you know what? It's entirely guilt-free! 

4)          I appreciate the little things

·         My nail varnish didn’t come out lumpy.
·         That person I held the door open for said ‘Thank You’.
·         The sales assistant was friendly.
·         My dog is happy to see me home.
·         When you are feeling down, sometimes every little thing gets to you. If I forgot about my tea and let it go cold, I’d probably shed a few tears. You might think it sounds stupid and childish, but some days it just feels like nothing is going right. And these little things can be the trigger that sets you off. So when the little things do go my way, even when I’m having a crappy day, I now smile to myself and appreciate that even one small, obsolete thing has happened in my favour today.

5)          Everyone’s mental health experience is different

·         Everyone’s journey towards wellness varies – some choose talking therapy, medication, CBT, meditation, mindfulness, or just diet and exercise changes.
·         It’s often a trial and error experience to find what works for you. And just because something works for you, doesn’t mean that it is right for everyone else.

6)         Suicidal thoughts should always be taken seriously.

·         When I first had suicidal thoughts I dismissed them. As time went on and I began to struggle, I reached out to a friend who also dismissed them.  
·         People seem to forget that suicide is 100% preventable. Don’t dismiss mental health problems. Don’t tell somebody that their pain is insignificant. And know how and where to refer someone on for help. When someone finally did take my suicidal thoughts seriously, I finally got the help I needed.

7)          What my passion is

·         My experiences with mental illness lead me to start campaigning around mental health issues, and in turn it has lead to advocacy work. I’ve become more confident; I was brought out of my shell. It’s where I found happiness. And I never would have discovered it if I hadn’t had my own personal experiences with mental illness.

8)          There is help out there. You are never on your own.
·         I felt so alone when I was living with a dark depression. I didn’t think anyone would care if I wasn’t here anymore. Only now looking back can I see just how wrong I was.
·         Sometimes the hardest thing to do is reach out for help, but when you do, and to the right people, you’d be amazed by the help you receive.

Out of the darkness, out of all the bad, there can come some good. These are just a few of the very important lessons I've learned over the years. Do you have any you would add to the list?

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

50 Ways to Yay - Yay or Nay?

Alexi Panos - 50 Ways to Yay!: Transformative Tools for Less Stress, More Presence, and a Whole Lot of Happy

I've just finished reading 50 Ways to Yay by Alexi Panos on my Kindle.

The book is described in its own introduction as “fifty inspired and thought-provoking lessons and exercises to help you break out of the ordinary and jump into the extraordinary.” It's a mix of philosophy, popular psychology and personal development; all brought together to guide you in becoming the person you want to be. Panos combines her own personal anecdotes with real world reflection and knowledge in her 50 life tips.
"There are many secrets to success and happiness out there, but very few people are actually WILLING to apply them to their lives."
When it comes to goal setting and making New Year’s resolutions, this is the book you want beside you as you make your plans. The tips are broad enough to fit anyone at any time in their life - but they are given specificity through Panos' own personal experiences that she weaves throughout. he book is easy to read. Each chapter is short and succinct, and centred around reaffirming one single point. But putting the theory into action is the hardest part, and it’s the part that can actually make a difference to your life.

The book is designed to help you focus on the little things that make a big difference. Panos herself explains in the opening; “I made this book as fun and easy to digest as I could, so that you can actually TAKE ACTION and experience the results that you’re truly after.”

She likes Caps Lock. A lot. Like, nearly every sentence has to have at least one word in All Caps to reaffirm her point. As a writer, I always find All Caps jarring. It's the type of shouty tone we associate with Trump tweets rather than a self-help book.
"Every time we use the words "I AM" we are sending instructions to our body and mind to think, feel, and act a certain way."
In order to make the most of the book, you really need to be reading it with your journal next to you. Each chapter (or tip) ends with a Mission and Reflection to help you to apply the tip to your own life and start taking steps towards achieving your goals. But I must admit, I didn't use it in that way. While it is unique in offering Panos' own personal insight, it read more like the wise teachings of the Dalai Lama at times, and not in a way that suggests Panos is the next Dalai Lama. The tips offered were not new, it was filled with age-old wisdom passed off as her own thoughts like the below:
“Those who are happy with nothing are happy with everything.”
If you haven't read many other self-help books and want to dip your toe in the water, then this book is for you. If however, like me, this is your 25th self-help book in a year, its content is probably not worth your investment.


Find out more about Alexi Panos here.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

5 Good Things This Week

Today I am reflecting on the good things from the past seven days, and showing gratitude for what the universe has sent my way. With mental illness, its important to acknowledge that good days still occur and that the little things often play a huge role in our mental health.

5 Good Things:

1) Spent time designing and updating my bullet journal because being organised and feeling on top of things makes me happy.

2) Work was super busy on Thursday BUT I had an absolutely amazing day in the office anyway, and felt so proud of myself by the end of the day for staying on top of and managing everything that was thrown my way.

3) Went to a bookstore and lost a lot of time wandering around, discovering new books and picking out all the ones I'd love to own some day.

4) I cooked! And not just one meal. I made a healthy salmon stir fry, I made scrambled eggs and kale, I made a mean bolognese. Cooking calms me (even in a hot kitchen), and I love eating something I've prepared from scratch. Here's to more home cooked meals!!

5) I had a very chill day off on Saturday. I grabbed coffee with the boyfriend, had lunch in front of the rugby, and curled up in bed with a book and my favourite TV shows. It was the perfect way to spend my only day off in the week.

What were your 5 Good Things of the week?

Monday, 6 February 2017

Nothing Tastes As Good: the mental health take on eating disorders

Have I told you how much I love Young Adult fiction? Even better, is Irish YA, and even better again, Irish YA which tackles mental health.

How could I resist Claire Hennessy's Nothing Tastes as Good?

Nothing Tastes as Good was released last year and has already been shortlisted and nominated for a number of literary awards.

Annabel, is sent as a spirit guide to former classmate Julia. The only problem? Julia is fat, and Annabel detests fat. Acting as her inner voice, Annabel urges Julia to assert control over what she eats; a voice that caused Annabel's own demise.

Set in Ireland, the book details Julia's journey through her final year of school and Annabel's journey to get one final moment with her family. *This review contains some spoilers*

The characters were likeable. Who doesn't want a loyal and loving friend like Maria? Or a charming but genuinely nice guy like Gavin? And watching Julia grow throughout the novel made my heart swell with pride. And even Annabel. I found it hard to like Annabel at first. I felt sorry for her, yes. But I also hated helplessly watching as she tried to influence what Julia did with her own body. The part where Annabel finally realises the impact her death has had on her sister was incredibly moving, and it won me over completely to her character.
While the supernatural, otherworldly-ness of Anabel's 'ghost' can feel a bit jarring in an otherwise relateable school setting, the book has a great sense of humour and an honest, unpretty look at eating disorders.

"I don’t want to just be some cautionary tale." - Annabel

In many ways, this is a cautionary tale. Hennessy's accurate, and rare, portrayal of the mental health side of eating disorders speaks volumes about the power of the voice inside a teenage girl's head.

Annabel's guiding voice is the voice of pop culture and society telling us that being slim is beautiful. We consume images of skinny women daily; it's only natural for young women to assume that skinny is what is beautiful. And how easy it is to make young people feel like they're not good enough, pretty enough, thin enough.

However, I did feel that for people who are struggling with their own food issues, whether an eating disorder or something else, Annabel's realisation that it was her food obsession that killed her comes too late in the text. There is no questioning of Annabel's voice in Julia's head, Julia goes along with it, and readers are meant to know that it's unhealthy and wrong themselves.

I myself found this side of the text particularly difficult to read in January. Like many people, January was the month I pledged to finally get my body in shape. I wanted to eat better. I set myself the goal of exercising every single day. I have a bikini body to attain by my summer holidays after all.
But sometimes I would hear Annabel's voice in my head. Saying exercise more. Eat less.
Do you really need to eat cheese and crackers before bed? The answer is always 'yes' but Annabel's voice made me feel bad for making this choice.

For anyone with a history of eating disorders, or any mental illness, the book can be a difficult read. It's so eerily accurate that Annabel's voice doesn't always stop when you put the book down. But if you love YA for how it tackles the issues more 'grown-up' books are too scared to address, then you'll this.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Let's stop blaming Trump's policies on mental illness

You can't blame Trump's policies on mental illness just because you don't understand where they've come from.

Okay, let's start with the obvious. Donald Trump is a "bad" dude. Let's all agree that he's a racist, misogynist, prejudiced and privileged man. Okay? Ok.

But does that make him mentally ill?

Well, according to a number of psychiatrists who have been keen to get their names out there, it does.

Criticism of Donald Trump has been veering towards slurs about his mental health for the past week. "He must be mentally ill" to have come up with such policies as the Immigration Ban. The media has been quick to jump on these psychiatrists who claim they have found a diagnosis to fit Trump (side note: let's not even get into why such a diagnosis is unethical and fundamentally flawed). I've also seen a large number of tweets and Facebook posts absolving Trump of responsibility for his actions and blaming it on an illness they suppose he has without any diagnosistic proof.

I have a problem with this. Mental illness is not an excuse for racism, or other bigoted views.
Mental illness diverts blame from a grown man onto a real, serious and life-threatening illness that affects millions of people. Using it in this way is only serving to restigmatise mental illness as something only the 'crazy' other has, rather than something 1 in 4 of us live with on a daily basis.
Mental illness is being used as a weapon against Trump. How can he be a fit President if he's mentally ill? I refuse to accept the label of mental illness as an insult.
Mental illness does not explain how millions of Americans, and others, have flocked to Donald and pledged their support for the way he is governing. Are they all mentally ill? Or just misinformed? 
Citing mental illness dismisses the prevalence of racist, Islamaphobic beliefs.
Mental illness ignores how the far right have gained a lot of popular support. And if we ignore it, how can we learn to stop it?
"In every generation, there are quite firm rules on how to behave when you are crazy." - Ian Hacking 
Here's the thing. 'Mental illness' has been used as an excuse for views that defy the 'norm' for hundreds (if not more) years. During the feminist movement, critics were quick to throw mental health labels at protesters too because they challenged the established society. And now, Trump too is challenging the progress towards a fair, just and equal society that has been made over the last few decades. And once again, 'mental illness' has been used to justify a belief system the rest of us cannot fathom.

The reality is that right-wing rhetoric has been growing for the past number of years all across the globe. The Christian right wing have been on the rise for years in America. Trump's policies have all been born out of that.
Trump was born in 1946.  He was brought up before the 1960's Civil Rights movement. Where black people had to use separate drinking fountains. Where the KKK were still very much active. The last lynching of a black man took place in 1955. He woke up one day suddenly an equal to these same people he had lived with as inferiors. Racism is not a sudden, and new concept to him.
Abortion laws have been rolled back to restrict access to abortion in Southern states for the past number of years. Alabama, for example, only had 3 clinics left at the time of the making of the Trapped documentary last year. Trump's pro-life stance is the natural evolution of such policies.
'Lad culture' has been normalising sexual harassment and rape culture for years; Trump's views on sexual assault are frankly not that surprising.
And he's narcissistic? I challenge you to point out one business CEO who doesn't display some narcissistic qualities. Again, this is not proof of a mental illness.
It's proof that he possess views and qualities based on his upbringing and who he is a person.

Trump may have a mental illness. He also may not. Does it matter? Why do we feel the need to slap labels on something just because we don't understand it? And why do we assume that those who are intolerant must have a mental illness when in fact they are just bigots?

Monday, 30 January 2017

I Just Want Back In Your Head

Why I practice Mindfulness

While I never fully embraced mindfulness in Tony Bates’ book ‘Coming through Depression’, it is something I’ve tried to practice since. I attended a workshop on it in college and I found it to be really useful. Last year, while at a volunteer workshop I rediscovered Mindfulness.
Through a simple deep breathing exercise, I immediately felt more relaxed, calmer, and my fears had left me. I swore that I'd keep it up in times of stress. While I can reflect a year on from this workshop that I haven't quite managed that, mindfulness is something I know that I should return to. And what better way to ensure I do that than through a blog post?

What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an ancient Buddhist tradition – It's said to be up to 6,000 years old.
The focus is on your present physical state. It teaches you to be aware of yourself, right now, as you are. That means no worrying about what you've done in the past, or what you will do in the future. 
The Mental Health Foundation give this kind of cheesy definition: 'To be aware of your negative thoughts and judgements and to let go of them, open yourself to new feelings, positive ones.'
I can hear you yelling 'hippie bullshit' from behind your screens, but hear me out first.
Being aware of negative thought and judgements is also a huge part of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and people aren't as quick to discard that. And positive feelings can't be a bad thing in any context, can they?

Mindfulness does get a bad rep due to images like the one above - the idea of meditation and lots of humming.
And sometimes it's easier to describe what mindfulness is, by explaining what it isn't. It isn't a religion. It isn't meditation.
But it is more than possible to be 'aware' without sitting cross legged while burning your incense (But if that's what helps you reach mindfulness, that's okay too). 
Today, mindfulness is recognised by counsellors and therapists as a form of CBT.

Living In the Moment
A lot of counsellors like to go on about ‘the present’. The ‘here and now’. And while it’s easy to dismiss this as waffle, it actually has a lot of truth in it. This is a huge aspect of the practice of mindfulness. 
There is no point in living in the past; you cannot change it.
There is no point living in the future; you don’t know what will happen.
Living in the present is truly the only way to find happiness.
It sounded a little bit ‘hippie’ to me at first. But when you think about it, it does make a lot of sense.
Mindfulness teaches self-awareness in this way - recognising what's going on now, right at this moment in time. So if you're feeling particularly emotional, don't bottle it up or try to hide it. Embrace your sadness, let it out and reflect on why you're currently feeling this way.
Mindfulness also refers to consciously noticing when your mind wanders. If we're to really to live in the moment, you should be focused on the present, and not the million and one other things that fight for the forefront of your mind.

Benefits of Mindfulness:

  • Used to treat physical and mental illnesses.
  • Fights Depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anxiety.
  • Helps to regulate emotions.
  • Improves performance.
  • Lowers levels of stress.
  • Used to treat chronic pain e.g. arthritis.
Basically there are so many benefits, it is impossible to list them all.

Stay tuned for a very simple and easy mindfulness breathing technique over the next week that can help with stress and anxiety.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

I HATE Blue Monday

And probably not for the reasons you think.

It’s the same every year. The most depressing day of the year comes around on the third or fourth Monday in January, and the media feed you story after story about how to fend off the dreaded Blue Monday.

Well I have news for you.

Depression is not a day of the year.

It is a real illness – ILLNESS.

A disease or period of sickness affecting the body or mind.

Stop using 'depressing' as an adjective to describe your feelings. It’s not a feeling.

Feelings are not dictated by a date. 

Stop pretending a scientific formula found this date to be the 'most depressing of the year'.

It trivialises mental health issues. You’re saying that my mental illness amounts to a crappy day at work. You’re saying that the illness I battled for years to overcome just lasts you 24 hours. You're saying that my 'sad' feelings on every other day of the year are not as valid or socially acceptable as they are on this day. 

There is a difference between feeling sadness, and being depressed.

If you have a crappy day where you feel sad and hopeless, on any day of the year, I’m sorry. I know it sucks. I know it can leave you unmotivated, exhausted, and exacerbated. But it is not depression. There is a clinical and medical difference between sadness and depression.

Blue Monday does nothing to address the reality of mental illness or the stigma that continues to be attached to it. It popularizes a 'depressing' feeling, but not the reality of living daily with and battling against a mental illness.

I would much rather see a discussion about how January can often trigger mental health difficulties, particularly in those with a history of mental illness. Not some bullshit bandwagon based on pseudo-science.