Progress Report

Kindness-cat-and-bird-150x150

 

Yesterday, I was on Talking Point with Sarah Carey on Newstalk. The talking point was mental health, and I was there in my capacity as an ambassador for See Change.  If you’re interested, you can listen here.

 

The programme was pre-recorded on Friday which, it turns out, is probably just as well because yesterday was a really bad day for me. It started with some bad news on Friday night.  Okay, it was a bit more than ‘bad’. It was so bad that someone  emailed to say they were devastated to hear it. Imagine how I felt?

 

Immediately, I went down the road of

‘It’s because I’m not good enough.’

‘It’s because I’m shit.’

‘It’s because all my ideas are crap.’

‘It’s because I was an idiot to expect that this would work out for me.’

‘It’s because no matter how hard I work, nothing good comes of it.’

‘This is how my life always is. It is shit now. It always was shit. It will always be shit.’

‘I should stop expecting things to get better.’

‘No matter what I do – and I do a lot – my life will never improve.’

‘I would be better off killing myself now.’

‘Wouldn’t I be better off killing myself now? Then this would all end. No more disappointment.’

And so it went for a few hours.

 

Then, I took myself off to bed. Not because I felt sorry for myself, but because it was the safest place for me. I retired. I decided to give myself a day off from problem solving. I decided I didn’t have to sort the entire problem out there and then. I had enough to do just minding myself. I allowed myself to do that.

 

Early (5.30am early!) on Saturday, a really good friend of mine gave me a call. He’s in another time zone and knows I get up early, so it wasn’t unusual. I’d sent him an email the night before – a two-liner to let him know what had happened and he rang to see how I was doing, to offer support and to remind me that I am not alone.

 

He didn’t ask me what I was going to do now, he didn’t ask me what my next strategy was, he didn’t berate me for ever thinking this particular piece of bad news would never come. Instead, he told me ‘I don’t think you realise how successful you already are. I don’t think you give yourself credit for how much you have done – and for how much you continue to do.’

 

Instead of asking what I was going to do for the next five years, he asked what my plans for the rest of the day were. I had planned on going to the Excited conference in Dublin Castle, but had decided not to bother.  In the course of the conversation with my friend, however, I changed my mind again and went to the conference.  My mood dipped, however, and by the time we were on the road, the reality of my situation hit me again and I was overwhelmed. I told myself I’d  stay at the conference for two hours. And managed to stay for five.

 

Back home, I returned to bed. I was exhausted. Drained mentally and emotionally from the bad news and the knocking it had given me. I tweeted that I was retiring and received gentle concerned messages from people. They said they were there for me, and I knew they meant it. I knew I had people who would listen if I needed to talk. At the same time, I was pretty sure that a good night’s sleep would help.

 

And it did. I’ve taken it easy today and – apart from cooking – have done very little. I’ve been a little down, but not suicidal. I’m feeling much better. I’ve changed perspective slightly and seen that I have choices – I always have choices, even if I don’t always immediately see what they are. ‘Hidden in plain sight’ is one of my favourite concepts and often that’s where my answers are .

 

The reason I’ve shared this with you is to make the point that recovery is possible; your mental health doesn’t always have to spiral; doesn’t have to follow the same turbulent path. What always was doesn’t always have to be. I helped myself by realising that there were elements I could control, things I could do to help myself.

 

The first thing I did was be kind to myself. I can’t do much about what other people say to me – but I can absolutely control what I say to myself. So, I stopped with the berating messages in my own head. It helped.

 

I chose the people I shared my bad news and my consequent frame of mind with. I didn’t go looking for people to (metaphorically) beat me up – as I would have previously.

 

I no longer take my woes to people who will reinforce the negative. I used to. For years, there were people in my life who fed me those lines and started those beliefs in me in the first place. They reinforced those beliefs the entire time I was in touch with them and freeing myself from those people has freed me from being told terrible things about myself all the time.

 

So, because I no longer hear those words externally, I don’t have to listen to them internally anymore, either. If I find myself thinking ‘I am worthless’ I question that. I choose whether or not to believe it. Of course, sometimes I will believe it. But I believe it for a shorter period of time.

 

Sometimes, part of deciding whether or not we believe something is to test its validity externally – by asking other people (directly or indirectly) what they think. These days, I surround myself with supportive people (not people who always tell me I’m right, but people who see my value and support my growth).

 

Set-backs, disappointment, fear, worry and heartache will always be a part of life, and I know that. But I’m getting better at dealing with those situations. Not everything is the end of the world. Not everything is the end of my world. I have always been skilled at problem-solving, but I no longer expect myself to have an immediate solution and I am prepared to give myself the down-time I need to feel better without the voice in my head excoriating me for ‘wallowing’.

 

When’s the last time you were kind to yourself?

 

Weeding for Mental Health

It’s May. So it’s Mental Health Awareness Month. As a See Change ambassador, I try to make at least one post in the month of May that deals with mental (ill) health. By the skin of my teeth, here is one for 2014.

 

Yesterday, an interview I gave appeared in the Irish Times. Now, it might seem a bit daft, but sometimes I forget that people read the paper. More to the point, I forget that people I know read the paper! Then I’m a bit stunned when they refer to something I’ve said in a piece I’ve written, or been interviewed for. To be honest, reaction to my pieces has always been kind, but the reaction to this piece has been overwhelming.

 

One of my oldest and dearest friends shared it on her FB page and, via that share, I got a slew of messages from people I’d been at school with, people I hardly knew and people I know quite well.  They were all generous, supportive and from the heart.  Three parents spoke to me at the school gates today – with another running up to me as I was stopped at traffic lights – to say they’d read the piece and to share kind comments.

 

So then I got to thinking about friends and how they sustain us.

 

A few years ago, I started to worry about myself. I worried that I was becoming selfish, unkind and harsh. I worried that I was becoming judgmental (a trait I really hate to see in myself) and intolerant. Why? Because I was ending friendships and relationships and I thought it reflected badly on me. In the space of a year, I had managed to turf two people out of my life whom I had regarded as friends. I was uncomfortable with myself. I thought it meant I was A Bad Person.

 

Gradually, it dawned on me that, instead of falling out with them, I was falling in with myself. I was making a stand and saying ‘no more’. I was seeing unacceptable behaviour and calling it for what it was for the first time ever. I was telling people that I could no longer be treated badly and take it. I was saying ‘I deserve better’.  Of course it felt uncomfortable. Doing anything for the first time feels uncomfortable. Especially when it is against all that you have been told is ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘acceptable’.

 

Sometimes, though, you have to put yourself first.

 

Part of that was choosing my friends and not feeling obliged to maintain ties with people who were damaging – or even people who took me for granted.  I was astonished at how much better I felt. Suddenly, I had more energy, I felt better, I had less angst. I was able to follow my dreams without worrying about having my ideas (and, by extension, myself) knocked, ridiculed or torn apart.

 

These days, I surround myself with wonderful people. People who are kind and generous and thoughtful. People who share my fundamental values – even if we come from different backgrounds, religions and generations.  They don’t always agree with me – but they always respect me.

 

Weeding out the people from my life who were toxic, destructive and abusive (even if that abuse was just unkindness and/or taking unfair advantage of me) has been a huge gift to myself. Being around people who think I’m all right has done wonders for my mental health. It wasn’t easy to start with, but – like so many other things – it has become easier with practice.  I’d highly recommend it. 🙂

Mental Health Awareness Month (The Scary Post!)

This month – May – is Mental Health Awareness Month. The initiative is being supported by See Change and there is more information about the campaign on the Green Ribbon website. (Green ribbons being the symbol for the campaign).

It is true that there is more awareness around mental health and mental ill-health and smashing stigma, but there is still a long way to go. Getting people to talk and to listen and to engage with the conversation is just the beginning. It’s a bit like feminism, starting the conversation doesn’t mean the job is done.  It means the job has started.

I hit a bump this week and found myself flooded with all the usual detritus that goes with such bumps.  It’s torrential when it happens and – like a torrent – it overwhelms. I could cry for hours straight. I can go to sleep late and wake up early just to fit in extra crying jags.

My children write me notes to tell me how much they love me in the hope that that can cheer me up. It does. And it doesn’t. It makes me feel better because I feel wrapped up in their love. It makes me feel worse because I don’t think it’s their job to make me feel better. My nearly nine-year old shouldn’t feel she has to spend 20 minutes writing a list of all that is good in the world to try and keep me in it. Because, of course, at the back of my mind is the guilty knowledge that – a few years ago – they came very close to losing me.  I worry that every time I am sad, upset or in tears, they worry that I will turn them into orphans. At those times – and at others, when all is well in my world – I remind them of my promise not to leave them.

They think I don’t notice that one of them has her eye on me at all times – as though they have discussed it with each other and agreed this between themselves. Which, in truth, they probably have. They think I believe them when they say – as they position themselves either side of me at night, like two guardian angels  – that they just want company and to sleep in a bigger bed tonight.

I was in conversation with a very dear friend during this latest bump and he put his finger on it.

‘Don’t be scared,’ he entreated me down the wobbly line from his part of Asia. ‘You’re not on your own.’

I was scared. I hadn’t realised that until he pointed it out to me. From ten thousand miles away, he could hear my fear when I – who was feeling it – didn’t even realise it was there.

I can’t speak for everyone who has an episode of mental ill-health, but here’s what it’s like for me:

I just don’t feel like I deserve to live. I feel like I’m a burden on humanity. I am an offense. Feeling like this about yourself is scary.

I offend myself. I do not know how to redeem myself in my own eyes and this, too, is scary.
I feel like I can no longer go on like this – yet I have no solution. Feeling like I don’t have the solution to a problem scares me (I always have a solution!).
The stress takes a physical toll – I have been hospitalised on more than one occasion with migraines born of stress. My neck, shoulders and upper-back feel they are made of steel.
I feel like I’m fighting a war – that I have been fighting a war for more years than I can number and that, while I have won a couple of battles, I am losing the war.
I feel scarred and battle weary, which is scary.
I can’t stop crying. Not even in public. I feel as though, by losing that amount of control over myself, I have no dignity. Feeling as though you have no dignity is scary.
I look like shit and I don’t care. It scares me that I don’t care.
I feel as if I have no anchor. Feeling like you are blowing in the wind is scary.
Failure is the biggest, most overwhelming feeling when I’m like this. Failing at life, failing at being ‘normal’. Feeling like you are failing is scary.
Feeling like the world has no use for you is scary.
Feeling like the world would be better off without you is scary.
Feeling like your whole existence has no value, no meaning and no importance is scary. Because if those things are true of you, then you have no right to exist.  And the alternative can be equal parts attractive and scary.
Feeling that everyone knows the secret to life – except you – is scary.
Feeling that you’ll never be good enough to be told the secret is scary.
Feeling that, somehow, you deserve this is scary. (Even when you know that’s not how Karma works.)
Feeling that you can’t even speak – can’t even advocate – for yourself is scary.  Especially if you like to tell yourself that you’re ‘normally’ reasonably articulate.
Wondering if this is your new normal is scary.
Wondering if you will ever be able to manipulate your brain into cohesion again is scary.
Wondering if this is the time that will prove unbearable is scary.
But scariest of all is when it stops feeling scary. When there is no feeling. When you rummage around inside yourself to figure out the name of what you’re feeling; and you come up with nothing. Because that is how you’re feeling. You are feeling nothingness. There is no word in the English language to describe the emptiness.
I’ll be wearing my green ribbon this month to invite people to start the conversation. Don’t be scared to engage in that conversation with me.

Mental Health Awareness Week

Fair play to Newstalk for undertaking a week of programmes and events to highlight Mental Health. The first of these programmes was aired this morning, and featured the wonderful Caroline McGuigan from Suicide or Survive, as well as two parents who had each lost a child to suicide.

It was heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure to hear their stories and I felt privileged that they chose to share their tales with us. Their bravery was apparent.

In Ireland, tackling a mental health problem is still fraught with difficulty – not least the stigma that attaches to the subject of mental ill-health.  Time and again, those of us who have suffered with mental health have spoken of how physical ailments are more socially ‘acceptable’; of how, if one had a broken arm or a broken leg, or the influenza, people would have no difficulty enquiring after your health and your progress. Mental health difficulties, though, are treated differently.

This stigma can also prevent people seeking help. It can be hard to ask for help when you feel that you will be judged for feeling low, or sad or suicidal.

Think, for a second, how you react to people who reveal they have, or have had,  a difficulty with their mental health. Is it a negative, positive or neutral reaction?  Upon what do you base it? Is it based on something you have heard? Something unsubstantiated? Your own experiences or the experiences of someone close to you?

See Change and Suicide or Survive are doing all they can to change the stigma associated with mental ill health in Ireland. It’s up to the rest of us to do our bit as well.

See Change

This morning, See Change launched its Make A Ripple radio campaign. The campaign sees 22 real people tell (part of) their real stories. These awareness-raising ads were recorded and produced without scripts and without music or intros by the wonderful, generous, inspiring Evelyn McClafferty.

I was honoured when I was asked to be part of the campaign, which aims to raise awareness and smash the stigma surrounding mental ill health in Ireland. I was delighted when I was asked to speak at the launch. This is what I had to say:

“I became involved with this campaign because I believe that the more people speak out about their mental health, the more people will speak out about their mental health.

The stigma attached to mental ill-health allows ill-informed people to continue to say ill-informed, unkind, untrue, unhelpful things about mental ill-health. The only way to exorcise stigma is to educate it out of people. The only way to do that is to challenge it. The only way to do that is to speak out and refuse to be silent. To tell the truth.

My truth is that I have post traumatic stress disorder. I have PTSD because I was sexually abused from the time I was two until I was an adult.  The people who brutalised my body also traumatised my mind. How could they not? Body and mind are two halves of the same whole; they are indivisible and inextricably linked. Yet, discussing physical health is so much more ‘acceptable’ than discussing mental health.

I have a condition – a disorder – that is incurable. There is no cure for PTSD – there is no pill that will take the edge off it. When I was hospitalised two years ago, the consultant psychiatrist I was under told me as much. ‘Medicine can’t help you,’ he told me candidly. ‘We cannot help you here.’

He was right, the best I can do is be grateful for the fact that it’s not as bad as it was. Because, truly, it has been awful. There were days, many days, when my first thought upon waking was ‘Oh no! I’ve woken up again.’ There were days – years, in fact, where I retreated so far inside myself that I wasn’t sure I could ever be found.

PTSD meant I lost the ability to recognise my own instinct – let alone follow it. As you can imagine, that got me into some hairy situations. PTSD has seen me suicidal, believing that I truly was the worst person on the face of the planet; believing that the world, including my children – especially my children – would be better off without me.

PTSD left me terrified of the world and everyone in it. It left me believing the worst of myself. It saw me acting in ways that were not in my own best interests.

My symptoms were compounded by my attempts to conceal them from the world of “normal” people. (Yeah right! Who’s normal? Hands up here, all the normal people!) The relief I found when I stopped doing that was phenomenal. Suddenly, the energy that I’d been spending on concealing how I was, on playing the game, was freed up. I felt lighter – I felt like myself, even though it wasn’t easy. Especially not in the beginning.

It meant staying away from people who fed my negative views of myself., and who had a vested interest in keeping me stuck. It meant being honest when people asked me how I was. I’m not always ‘grand’! Sometimes I’m only ‘okay’. Sometimes I’m pretty low. Sometimes I’m barely hanging on. But I accept that.

My mental health is part of who I am, but it does not define me any more than having green eyes or unfashionably large feet or tattoos define me. I’m not stigmatized because of my eyes, or my feet or even my tattoos. So I no longer accept stigmatization because I have PTSD.

I’m not naive enough to think that my rejection of it will erase stigmatization. It won’t be wiped out at the end of this campaign fortnight. I know it’a a long journey and we’re just setting off. I know that people will still talk. I know people will still be unkind. I know some people will still call me cracked. But that’s okay, because every time someone calls me ‘cracked’, I remember what Groucho Marks had to say on the subject:

‘Blessed are the cracked,’ he said, ‘because they let in the light.’

So I thank God for all the cracked people. Long may we continue to let in the light. Long may we continue to shine.’  “

The stigma attached to mental ill-health can compound the difficulty of the initial problem.  Speak out about mental health, get help for mental illness the same way you would for physical illness. Don’t suffer in silence.

Mind Yourself

My girls were three minutes late for school this morning. It was my fault entirely;  I had them out late last night – at  The Sugar Club, a nightclub in Dublin. Even though it was a school night, I made the decision to bring them because I thought the event was important enough for my duaghters to witness it first-hand. The event in question was the launch of See Change‘s Make A Ripple campaign.

Make A Ripple is the joint effort of 45 individual bodies concerned with mental health. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness about mental health, mental ill-health and to remove the stigma associated with mental health difficulties. Two very brave women – Barbara Brennan and Caroline McGuigan –  spoke about their own experiences with mental health problems and their brushes with suicide.

Mental health is as much a part of who people are as their physical health – in fact, the two are inextricably linked. I felt it was important for my children – aged 7 and 9 – to be at an event where mental health and difficulties with mental health were spoken about openly and without shame. At their ages, I wanted my children to be aware of that. I wanted them to know that if they ever had a difficulty that they could speak about it – and that by keeping it to themselves they would be making it worse.

We spoke about mental health on the drive home. My girls understood what Barbara and Caroline  had meant when they spoke about their difficulties. They understood that it  was important to talk about pain and difficulty – whether that pain was physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.

Coming away from the launch last night, I had a very strong feeling that mental health awareness needs to be taught in primary schools across Ireland. If we are going to remove the stigma associated with mental (ill)health and see a decrease in the number of suicides and attempted-suicides in this country, then we need to start with children as young as five and six.  Those children are our future, we need to make sure theirs is a bright one.