Thursday, 31 March 2016

Embrace Your Past Conclusion

“…once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is even over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” – Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
There has been something empowering about embracing my past this month. While I had worried that looking back and delving in detail into what had beens would be triggering for me, it's had a much more calming and peaceful effect than I ever thought possible.

Since my diagnosis with depression, I have often chosen to ignore my triggers, the effects mental illness had on me, and my history; especially the more painful parts.
Shackled by my past, I could never fully leave it behind while it still clung on to me. I knew I had to delve back in if I was to ever fully make it out.

Over the past four weeks I have explored some of the least discussed aspects of mental illness - self-harm, suicide, and nightmares. And I have come out of the month stronger than I was on February 29th.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

8 Things I Learned By Embracing My Past

It's been a month of coming to terms with who I am and where I came from. This month on The Romeo Project, I've embraced my past and written about my journey with mental illness. It's a topic I feared would be difficult at times, but instead I've come away feeling much better about myself and at ease with my past.

I always find blogging about my journey inspiring. It not only motivates me to explore and share what I learn, but I also teaches me along the way.

Here's the 8 lessons Embrace Your Past has taught me this month:

1) There is a root cause for all your feelings. Even when I say 'I don't know why I'm crying'.

2) My scars are a reminder of my mortality.

3) Everyone has a past. We can choose the narrative of this by focusing on the positive, the negative, or both.

4) It's therapeutic to be able to tell your own story.

5) Monsters suck. Monsters are scary. But monsters can be defeated. Just like the ending of every fairytale.

6) Having Memento Vivi is better than Memento Mori.

7) Reading the journals of a depressive is rather depressing.

8) Our past is often influenced by a history wider than our own personal experiences.



What have you learned from blogging or reading blogs this month?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

My national past


I've been very lucky that the 1916 centenary has fallen during my resolution to Embrace Your Past. And with so many commemorative events taking place in Dublin, I've been embracing them.
I am a former History student after all!

On Easter Monday I attended a number of events, talks and exhibitions to mark the occasion. The city had really come alive. Efforts were made to embody the values of the 1916 proclamation and measure our progress against it.

I began to think about how the rebels had impacted me - how my national past could have shaped who I am. It's an entirely different type of past than that which I had planned to examine this month, but for the week that's in it, I couldn't help myself.

The 1916 Rising has been viewed during the commemorations as a shared history, despite the fact that the majority of us have no personal connection to the rebels involved. But we live in their legacy, and often, we claim their 'heroics' as our own.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

How do we move on from our past?

"You can't have a good story without a good struggle." - '101 Secrets for Your Twenties', Paul Angone
This month I've been embracing my past, with the intention of learning to leave it behind me. The month has enabled me to return to my history, my story, my darkest moments and embrace them as something I don't have to be ashamed of. But how I do I go forward after examining my past?

Does time heal?
The distance between the events and my telling them has made it much easier to embrace some of the topics I've discussed this month - suicide and self-harm in particular.

While my scars are still visible to me, it is because I know where to look. They have faded with the passing of years.

The past only hurts because we give memories the power to hurt us. And we take back that power when we articulate it.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Exploring Madness | Mental Illness in the Past


One of my main fears when it comes to my mental illness is THE ASYLUM. Yes, it deserves to be written in capital letters. And yes, I know that it's not what we call psychiatric wards and hospitals nowadays. But when I think of the word ‘asylum’ I feel fear. It's one of those powerful words that automatically conjures up images....
- Locked away
- Straitjackets
- Dangerous
- Insane
- Deviant
- Moral degenerates
- Incurable
- Mania
- Lobotomy
- Deranged
- Melancholia
Often I find myself stuck in past perceptions of mental illness. It’s a fascinating topic; the treatment of patients, how much changed over a short period of time. But it’s scary when you live with the knowledge that just over 100 years ago, I would have been one of those locked up patients. It sounds silly to find yourself stuck in thoughts about a past you did not experience, but it's something I have found myself thinking about this month. The past continues to shape how mental illness is discussed today.

Mental hospitals continue to be depicted as old-fashioned, out-of-touch insane asylums in movies and on TV, continuing to reinforce the modern day images of mental illness. (See my post on Asylums at Halloween for more.)

I still have to listen to jokes about padded cells and straitjackets when someone acts in a way deemed to be ‘crazy’, abnormal or different. It makes me uncomfortable. It should make everyone uncomfortable, but instead these perceptions are commonplace.

How mental illness was treated in the past shapes how it is viewed in society today. So I've decided to explore the madness.

Monday, 21 March 2016

What I wish I had known...

Life Lessons

As part of Embrace Your Past month I have been exploring my own history with mental illness. One thing that has stood out for me is how far I’ve come. So much can change in such a short period of time. One of the biggest changes over the past 5 years is how I have learned my own worth and value.
It wasn’t always this way.

And as I look back, there are some things I wish I had known when I was at my lowest. We can’t change the past, but these lessons might help us all in the present.

What I wish I had known... 

- You are never truly alone.

- It’s okay to say ‘no’.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Night Terrors


Everyone has dreams, I know that. But the dreams I'm writing about today, if you could call them that, only come in the midst of depressive episodes. They're something I have experienced over the years, so I decided to explore them in depth during Embrace Your Past month.

Waking up exhausted after many disturbing dreams is a common experience for many depressed people. I've never understood why this happens every time my mental health is at a low, so I've decided to not only do some research into it but also describe what it feels like for others. 

Back in 2012 I wrote this piece on what happens when I go to sleep. I can remember the time vividly. I was afraid to go to bed at night. Nightmares persisted for weeks and I could get no release. Emotionally and physically I was drained. And so I turned to my journal:
My dreams have all turned to nightmares. Every night I am confronted by at least two visions of lives and futures that I do not want. Throughout the day they slowly come back to me, triggered by words, images and sounds. By night time I am filled with fear; Fear of the sketched pieces of a memory I can’t quite put back together. Fear of whats to come when I fall asleep again. What sticks in my mind is the need to escape. I spend the entire night trying to break free from my sleep, to wake up. This is the reason why every time I wake up I am filled with relief. I am aware that I was scared, but I can’t quite recall why. To confront death and destitution every single night in your sleep is exhausting.  I wake up tired. I cannot recall the last time that I slept soundly, feeling safe. I live in fear of my own mind and the places that it takes me when I can’t control my thoughts. I am lost and lonely every time I fall asleep. I can never reach my goal. I can never escape and reach you. The world ends.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

An Honest Look at Self-Harm

If you mention self-harm to people, it's quite probable you'll get the following response:
- attention-seeking
- not serious
- not a real cry for help
- childish
- emo
- only happens in teenagers

**Trigger warning - this post mentions self-harm**

Despite the progress in eradicating stigma around mental illness, albeit slowly, the topic of self-harm hasn't achieved the same openness when it comes to discussion.
Self-harm just isn't taken seriously. There is a stigma attached to committing such a violent act against yourself. It's seen as shameful. And so it is often ignored, even if it is a common pre-indicator of suicide.
Oxford Dictionaries
Self -harm is a coping strategy. It provides short-term release. When it presents as a repetitive action or a routine it becomes especially worrying. It can be a way of gaining a sense of control. More often than not, it is done in secret. It can be easily concealed. And not broadcast to seek attention.
It takes many forms and it can manifest itself as anything from cutting, punching and hitting to binge-drinking and drug use.

I would know. I've been through it.
And because it's such a huge part of my past, I wanted to tell my story as part of my Embracing Your Past month. While I was telling the world in national newspapers and on TV about my mental health, I would not speak about suicide or self-harm. Even when I started my blog, both topics felt off the table for me. I thought it would be too difficult a story to tell - both for me and anyone hearing it. It is difficult to talk about something that can be triggering. It's a side of my past that I have tried to hide away.

There are many reasons why people self-harm. For me, it became a way of  externally displaying my internal pain.

Self-harm stops the internal pain momentarily. It's replaced by the physical pain, allowing you to focus on the here and now. I found it could finally pause those thoughts that consumed me for months. But the internal pain and the thoughts return. And so you self-harm again, and again, and again. It's a vicious cycle.

I was immediately struck by Lucy's story in the Guardian on her self-harm. She summarised perfectly why self-harm is so common in people with mental health difficulties.
“When you keep all your problems in, it feels like you’re screaming inside,” Lucy says. “But when you cut or burn yourself, the pain is more physical. You feel like you’re releasing that scream.”
I self-harmed over a period of years. And just as these occurred in a many forms, they were also triggered by a multitude of reasons.

At one period in my life - it was because I wanted someone to notice the scars and to ask if I was okay. It was a cry for help.
At another - it was because I thought I was worthless and I deserved it.
At another - it was because I liked the pain.
At another - it was to stop feeling and thinking.
At another - I just wanted to feel something.
And another - it was because I wanted to die.

Self-harm is as much a part of my mental health story as my insomnia or my weight loss. Hiding it away doesn't mean it didn't happen - it means that I was not ready to accept it as part of my story. Nor was I ready to move on.

I still find it difficult to speak about self-harm. I am ashamed that I deliberately and intentionally hurt myself. Repetitively. I wish I had known my self-worth. I wish I had been strong enough to resist the urge. I wish I didn't have scars. As I wrote on Monday, my mortality has been tried and tested.

But I don't want to continue to live in shame for my actions. I don't want self-harm to be a 'no-go areas' for me. It is a part of my story, and it is a part of my story that needs to be told to eradicate the stigma.

If you, or someone you know, needs help you can find support at my Getting Help page.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Memento Mori

I've been drawn to Memento Mori lately. It's a phrase that's almost romantic, even though the subject is much grimmer than anything love has to offer. Gretchen Rubin examined Memento Mori in her book 'The Happiness Project' and so I felt inspired to do something similar.

A Memento Mori is a keepsake reminder that we are all mortal. 
Dante's 'Inferno'
Oxford Dictionaries defines the phrase as such;
"an object serving as a warning or reminder of death, such as a skull."
in Latin - 'remember (that you have) to die'.


But where does one turn to find their own memento?

As it's rather macabre, I thought reading about the dead would help me feel inspired. I turned to Dante's 'Inferno' to learn about the circles of hell. It didn't help. Reading about the gruesome torture of sinners isn't nearly as inspiring as one might think.

My Journals
So I turned to my own journals. From 2008 to 2012 I kept journals where I wrote lines, poems, paragraphs, lyrics that helped me to deal with the external and internal struggles I faced. These too, at times, are often macabre. Every pain, every hurt, every moment of self-hatred is conveyed in writing. It's troublesome to read the sombre tone of the writings. I truly was someone without hope. I was someone who recorded their wish for death in writing.

My journals got me thinking some more about Memento Mori.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Monsters

In 'Monsters of the Sea', Richard Ellis writes, “To qualify as a proper monster, the creature has to be large and mysterious, but it also has to pose some sort of a threat.”

Depression has often been represented and portrayed as a monster. The unknown. The other.
It's all consuming, and yet reserves a sense of mystery with so much about mental illness remaining unknown. It's also hard to escape the argument that it represents a threat; not only to happiness, normality, but to life as well.

Source
Winston Churchill's 'Black Dog' continues to be used as a metaphor for the terrors of depression. It follows you around, stands in your way, drags you down. Recently, Roddy's Doyle's 'Brilliant' borrowed the metaphor of the mysterious black dog in the context of an Irish children's story.

I think looking back, monstrous is the best description I can give of my depression. It terrified and controlled me. It was everywhere and all I could see. It was dark and deep and I couldn't get out. There was no escape.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

My Past

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.” - Margaret Atwood, ‘Maddaddam’ 
My past is a happy childhood, a difficult adolescence, and a resilient adulthood. As part of Embrace your Past month, I have to acknowledge what has come before.

As Margaret Atwood points out, one possess many stories. The real story, the lies, the perception of a true story... This month, I'm examining what my story is. If we can possess numerous stories, how do which one is the true one? And how do I tell my story in a way that's honest and all-encompassing?

When I think about my story, this is what needs telling:

At 14 I first self-harmed.
At 17 I took ‘sick’ days off school when I was too down to attend.
I struggled to study for my exams.
At 18 I tried to take my own life.
I was diagnosed with depression.
I started taking anti-depressants.
At 19 my medication dosage was upped.
I started weekly counselling sessions.
I began self-harming again.
At 20 I thought I was going to die.
At 21 I returned to counselling for a month.
At 22 I felt my self-harm ideation return.
At 23 I felt terrified that I was crazy and would be sectioned.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Controlling your narrative


A large part of my Embrace Your Past resolution is about coming to terms with my own story. For me, that means being able to tell my own story in my own words.

'Building Blocks for Strengthening Your Life'
Richard Flint asks a series of questions in his book, 'Building Blocks for Strengthening Your Life' about controlling your narrative.
- Do you blame others for the struggle you have in your life?
- Have you given others the right to make decisions for you?

Blogging is probably one of the best forms of self expression. That's how I view my blog posts anyway; as extensions of me. It's probably the first time I've felt in control of my own story.

You see, I have a history of letting others define me.

It can be as simple as letting others talk over you. I've been very guilty of that over the years. I am the quiet voice in the background that people miss, asked to repeat my point or whether I said something.
Sometimes the labels others give you can stick; emo, ugly, crazy, bitch, slut.
Sometimes you let other people's opinions define you; through bitching, gossiping and rumours.

My story wasn't always mine. I relied on the opinions of others and determined my own worth based on their assumptions. If I felt liked and respected by my peers, I liked and respected myself.

On top of this, I have often found myself physically unable to speak or say words. There have been many times over the years where words would not come out, and instead they were replaced by a tightness in my chest. My breathing would become strained. I would feel panicked. I would be asked a question, normally a personal one about my moods and even though I knew the answer and I knew what I should say, I physically wasn't able to say it.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Cause and Effect

Embrace your past is, strangely enough, all about exploring your past. And I believe that you can’t fully move on until you address the past.

This is where cause and effect comes in.
There is no one cause for my depression. The facets behind it are multiple. But by utilising the principles of cause and effect, I can identify what triggers certain episodes of my depression.

In ‘Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life’, Stephen Hayes and Spencer Smith talk about how we must leave our old path of avoidance and control, and move down a new path of acceptance and commitment. It’s how we can create the road map to a happier life.
So today I’m going to stop avoiding my mental illness and accept what can cause my depressive episodes.

Every effect, or end result, must have an associated cause that triggered or led to it.
To understand the root cause, we must first look at the effect and start to trace it back.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Why I'm Embracing my Past

Resolution 3: Embrace Your Past
“Addressing the impact of critical life events is often simpler than we imagine. This frees up emotional space that allows us to move on in life.”- Richard Gilpin, ‘Mindfulness for Black Dogs and Blue Days’
To fully accept who I am, to fully move on, I need to accept what has come before.
Admitting where you have come from and being able to address and speak about the things that were once triggering, but have since lost their power over you, is a step forward.

In ‘How to Stop worrying and Start Living’, Dale Carnegie asks the question, Do you embitter the present by regretting things that are in the past? My answer is yes. I have always clung to moments of shame and regret that trap me in the past; the fear that I will never overcome my mental illness, that I might lose the battle.