Back to basics 

Back to basics 

Yesterday I wrote about how the last couple of months have been pretty grim. I’ve been functioning day to day, but barely, and have found myself plagued by intrusive thoughts and occasional ‘suicidal ideation’ as the shrinks would call it. Scary stuff when you’re a stay at home mum to two small children.

But, oddly, the return of such terrifying thoughts has been enough of a kick up the arse to get me to take my mental health seriously again. So today I’m going to share a few of the ways I’ve gone back to basics with self care and it seems to be (s…l…o…w…l…y) helping to lift the cloud.

  1. I visited my GP. I didn’t tell him about my suicidal thoughts. This was probably a mistake, but I didn’t feel strong enough (I’d never met him before for one thing). I have a therapist I see regularly who is aware of them, so I’m not trying to deal with them alone. Instead I talked to him about the physical symptoms I’m experiencing. My weight has plummeted leaving me with an ‘underweight’ BMI for the first time in my life, and while I do struggle to eat in a balanced way, I don’t feel the weight loss is warranted. I’ve previously had thyroid problems, which can cause mental health symptoms like anxiety. Malnutrition, more specifically certain mineral and vitamin deficiencies, can also completely mess with your mind. So I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t trying to battle my mental health alone when actually, there might be a physical cause and hopefully, solution. I’ve a blood test booked and should know more in a week or two.
  2. I let people in. When I feel really low I just want to hide. I feel ashamed of my feelings, and don’t want comforting or sympathy. But that just compounds the problem, and drives me further into my own head. So I’ve made a considered effort to accept invitations and reconnect with friends and family. Small things like a long walk and trip to the pub with my dad, a visit from my godmother, a play date with my best friend and her children. And I’ve talked about how I’m feeling, and received kind words and advice (useful or otherwise, it was well meant). And I’ve listened to how they are, and connected with something outside of myself.
  3. Planned my days. This is so important for me, especially on those days where my eldest isn’t at nursery and I’m alone with the kids all day (my partner works 12 hour shifts and leaves before the girls are up and gets home after they’re in bed). I write down a schedule for the next day each evening. I don’t have times, just an order of play. I stick it to the kitchen cupboard and me and my eldest discuss it over dinner, and I take ideas from her (would she like to do some painting? Baking? Exploring?). Then the next day I know where I am and so does she. It helps me to avoid getting stuck in a mind-trap of ‘Oh my god there’s so much to do I don’t know where to start’ which so often leads me to feel useless and overwhelmed. And avoids her being stuck in front of the TV for hours because she knows that there are other fun activities planned.
  4. Simplify my culinary expectations. As you’ll know if you’ve read my blog previously, I have a particularly shitty phobia (cibophobia) which makes cooking and eating really stressful and difficult. I know I’ve got to eat, I really want to eat, and I really enjoy cooking when I’m well. But when I’m unwell, like now, I invariably freak out while cooking and more often than not don’t end up eating what I’ve prepared. This is costly and depressing. I realised that far too often I expect too much of myself and decide that I will try to cook like I used to (complicated recipes with lots of ingredients). This leaves me wide open to being blindsided by insidious doubts. So I found a few cookery books with bare-bones recipes, using very few ingredients (sometimes as few as three!) and have been cooking exclusively from these.   It’s really made a difference and the food has been surprisingly delicious! And I’ve tried to keep my fridge full of good snacking food I can grab when I notice my blood sugar dipping.
  5. I claimed my benefits entitlements. Money is very tight. My partner works 30plus hours a week, and has just begun a higher education course in the hopes of progressing his career. I was feeling intense pressure to find work (I was made redundant just before the birth of my second daughter) although I’d no idea where I could find local work that paid enough to offset childcare costs. I was so exhausted (am exhausted) and just couldn’t imagine having the energy to work on top of everything else I’m doing (or failing to do) right now. My therapist told me straight: ‘You are ill, you shouldn’t be trying to find a job right now, you should be convalescing’. So I bit the bullet and put in a claim for ESA. Hopefully it will start coming through in a few weeks and just take a bit of the pressure off while I continue to focus on getting on a more even keel.

Just writing this post this morning has helped to remind me to keep all this up, that such simple steps have made a big difference almost overnight. I still feel like crap – but slightly more hopeful crap.

The dangers of ‘self-help’

The dangers of ‘self-help’

I don’t tend to go in for self-help books. My preference is to read up on things from the point of view of the professional; the therapist, doctor or academic. Even when I was an out-patient in a psychiatric hospital, attending twice-daily group therapy sessions for months on end, it took me a good fortnight to realise that I was just as ill as everyone else in the room (I had been sitting their feeling like an ethnographer, not a fellow-patient). This tendency to pretend I’m the expert rather than the sufferer is, I’m sure, excellent evidence of ‘intellectualisation’. Ho hum…

My partner, on the other hand, has purchased many well known self-help titles over the years. He invariably fails to read them, but they sit there on the bookcase. Over the last year I’ve flicked through a few of them, but this week I read one through cover to cover in 24 hours (no small feat when you’ve a toddler and a baby hanging off you). This book grabbed me. It’s over twenty years old and has a terrible cover, but by the end of the preface it had already spoken some truth to me and I was eager to read more.

I won’t name the book, but it’s one which usefully breaks down patterns of thoughts and behaviours into several types, suggests route causes (usually from childhood), typical manifestations and issues each one might cause, and explains how someone afflicted by these might overcome them. These include cognitive exercises, behavioural experiments, inner-child work and flash cards. 

I’m sure the authors intended the book to be one which spurs the reader into action, inspired by the possibility of change and the feeling of empowerment which comes with doing better for yourself. 

By the time I had read the last page, I pretty much collapsed into a heap of despair.

I could see elements of myself and my own issues in nearly every one of the types described. I had been reminded of previous traumas, personal failures, and current self-defeating behaviours. I’d experienced flashbacks to painful childhood memories. I was filled with anger, sadness and an overwhelming sense that I was doomed to be stuck in a perpetual cycle of fucking up. I felt physically ill. I had no idea what on earth to do with all these feelings that were threatening to completely drown me.

I am lucky that I am receiving therapy, however my therapist is on holiday for the next two weeks. I’ve done my best to talk through some of what I’ve felt able to share with my partner, who is always an empathetic listener (he was a fellow patient in those group therapy sessions many moons ago). I’ve made plans to sit my parents down and lay out some of the memories that have floated up to perhaps achieve some kind of *shudder* ‘closure’. But I’m still left feeling intensely vulnerable and even more dispirited than I was before I picked up that book.

So I guess this is a caution. Be aware that, even the best intended books, or blogs, or podcasts or whatever, can come just too close to home when you’re already in the grip of the big black dog. Be sure to brace yourself for the potential repercussions. Try to have your support network there around you already. Because I know that if I didn’t have my partner and my beautiful girls with me, if this was ten years ago, that book would have had me straight down the local off-licence for a box of wine and I would be in the middle of a major self-pity-wine-crisps-and-Marlboro-soaked-binge. 

Five things that actually help when you’re feeling like shit

Five things that actually help when you’re feeling like shit

If you’ve ever suffered from any form of mental illness, chances are you’ve spent an awful lot of time stuck in your own head trying to figure out how on earth you can get back to feeling in any way human. You go over and over all the advice you’ve ever received. Maybe some well meaning friend or family member has made an ‘easy-as-pie’ suggestion like ‘Try yoga!’. Maybe your doctor has, while simultaneously handing over a prescription and mumbling something not-suitably-apologetic about therapy waiting lists, suggested that you might like to take up running. Maybe you’ve come across an Instagram account where someone impossibly shiny has insisted that they’ve cured their mental health problem purely with kale.

So I’m jotting down five things that have actually made a difference to me on a very small, day-to-day basis. None of these work miracles. None of these will ‘cure’ you. But they will make your day a bit more bearable, a bit more real, and hopefully, slowly and steadily make it through until this particular episode starts to subside a little.

Oh and they’re all free, because I’m fucking poor.

Go outside

An oldy but a goody. Staring at the same four walls is not good for you. Even a short walk in the driving rain, sleet, or snow, will do something to reset your system a bit and perhaps even help temporarily break the cycle of negative thoughts you might have found yourself in that day. It helps to reconnect you to the world. It helps to get your blood pumping (even if, like me, that might also be the onset of a panic attack). Try to focus on what you see around you and not your own issues for fifteen minutes, but honestly, even if you remain a self-hating zombie for the entire walk around the block, it will have still done some good.

Eat something tasty

Anything you enjoy. Ice-cream or chocolate if you like. Even better if you enjoy a nice healthy salad but its nutritional value is not important. When we’re depressed we actually forget what it feels like to feel enjoyment and happiness. A well made cup of tea and a really good cake, if you’re paying attention, can help you experience a little contentment on an otherwise shitty day.

Turn your phone off and stay off the internet

At the time of writing, the world really sucks. Trump. Brexit. The refugee crisis. Syria. Global warming. These are all fucking terrifying and real and make us feel helpless and overwhelmed and scared and angry (well they do me). Equally, trawling through reams and reams of happy-happy-joy-joy photos of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and random strangers on social media, or engaging in a completely unwinnable Facebook argument with your racist Uncle Bob are not things that are going to leave you feeling any better about yourself. I am by no means saying disengage entirely: the problems in the world today need concerned and engaged people if we’re going to go any way to solving them, and having good social connections can help us feel well. But sometimes you need to shut off from that for your own sanity. Schedule a little time for you to check what you need to, but otherwise, keep it switched off. So finish this article and then go away please.

Find a real person to talk to

This can be a big ask on a bad day. But a little, pleasant social interaction can be enough to get you through. I’m a natural introvert, and even when I’m healthy I need a lot of time alone and find interactions with more than a handful of people at a time really tough going. But half an hour colouring with my daughter and listening to her gibber away, even on a really awful day, lifts my spirits. Or a phone call to my sister. Or listening to my partner get really excited about some new record he’s bought. I don’t have to talk, just listening can be nice. If you live alone it can be very easy to go for days and even weeks without any meaningful interaction with another human being (I know, I had a few major depressive episodes when I lived alone in my early twenties). Talk about the weather with the friendly guy at the corner shop. If you’re not able to do that, and I know sometimes that would feel impossibly scary, call one of the many helplines managed by volunteers for just this. The Samaritans are available 24/7. The idea is to hear a friendly human voice, not to fix any of your problems.

Get something done

When I first started experiencing major depressive episodes, I would often lay on my bed at night and write what I would come to call my ‘Mother Theresa Lists’. I would try to convince myself that tomorrow was a new day, that I would wake up and take up marathon running, quit drinking and smoking, tidy my house, volunteer with the elderly, etc. The end of the following day, none of those things would have come close to having been accomplished and I would feel even more shit. When I eventually started therapy, I was gently advised to maybe think smaller (y’think?). It was OK to have a list that consisted of ‘Wake up, shower, brush teeth, eat something’. I wasn’t always managing those things. But if felt good to tick them off when I did. So think of one, small thing, that you need to do today, write it down, do it, and tick it off. It could be taking the dog for a walk, or doing the washing up, or putting a load of laundry on (drying and sorting the laundry can wait for another day, and don’t get me started on ironing). And always put ‘Wake up’ at the beginning of your list because chances are, you’ll manage it and even if you do nothing else, you can at least put one tick!

The aim here is to get through today, and not worry to much about yesterday or tomorrow. I have no medical or psychological training – I’m just someone who has been there. If you’re struggling and you haven’t already, please do see your doctor – mental illness is a real thing and there is help out there, although you do sometimes have to work hard to get it. In the meantime, I hope these tips go some way to helping you get back to feeling like you. It will happen some day.