First aid kit

My life imploded last year, despite my best efforts to hold it together.

I had a job I loved, but I was barely able to function and couldn’t go to work. I had a man I loved and who loved me and a relationship which could have been wonderful, but I was so ill that I kept fighting it and him. I simply could not allow anyone to love me because I hated myself so much. This self-loathing manifested itself as anger and made us both miserable. I had wonderful friends who offered me support but I was too low to get out of my room and too anxious to be around people. My life wasn’t working because my head wasn’t working.

I had to leave London and go back to Ireland to get well. I did this through a mixture of psychiatric support, medication and counselling. I worked through a lot of hurt I’d been carrying with me for many years and finally let it go. For me, being well means being able to function again. I’m always going to be prone to anxiety but now I’m managing it and it doesn’t control me or stop me living my life.

My biggest fear now that I am well and back in London is that I will get hit by another bout of depression and be sucked back down into that horrible spiral of mental distress. I tend to panic on a bad day and think I’m on the way to another breakdown. Life is inevitably stressful and there is no way of avoiding that.

However, it has occurred to me that there are things I can do to protect myself in preparation for these little blips, so that the feeling passes (which it invariably does). The key is to bandage up my fragile mind so that stress doesn’t damage it.

I thought about something that happened a few weeks ago. There was a weekend when I was physically really ill and had to stay in bed with a really high temperature. At one point on the Saturday, I cried my eyes out because all I wanted was some 7up (the cure to all illnesses as any Irish mammy will tell you) and there was nobody here to get me some. This was my lowest point since I’ve returned to London: I felt utterly alone. However, I genuinely think I wouldn’t have felt so bad if I’d had some “mammy medicine” on hand. So, once I’d recovered, I stocked up on emergency supplies of 7up for the next time I’m sick.

So, stocking up my mental health first aid kit is something I have been working on. Some things are tangible, like the 7up, but other remedies are about how I think and plan my life. Here are some of the most important things I’m working on:

1. Physical strength – being as strong as I can physically is the best thing I have learned to do for my mental health. Being physically ill is terrible for my mental health – too much time to think and ruminate is not good for me. So I’m trying to eat well (plenty of green smoothies), take a lot of vitamins and up the amount of exercise I do.

2. Rest – being tired is a huge trigger for me. Bad days are always a hundred times more tricky if I haven’t slept. I get tired easily and I used to beat myself up about this. However, now I’ve come to accept the fact that sometimes I need a nap to get through a bad day! It’s nothing to be ashamed of and sometimes rest and sleep is the only cure for a low mood or a massive bout of anxiety. Not feeling guilty about this is the key here.

3. Widening my world – depression can shrink your social circle. I spent months alone in my bedroom at my lowest point as I just could not be around people. My world was just me and the thoughts in my head. However, isolation is really not a good cure for a bad day! The first step in my recovery was opening up and letting people back in. Having as many people in my life as I can is hugely important to me; I am well enough now to stand on my two feet but having a support system that I know is there for back up is a huge comfort.

4. Changing my mindset – I’ll let you in a little secret: I’ve never known how to be happy. I didn’t think I deserved happiness so it terrified me – I didn’t know how to relax and allow myself not to worry. Moreover, I assumed I was broken and I would never learn how to be happy. The key word here is learn: I’m slowly figuring out to change this mindset and allow joy into my life. Finding happiness in little things is a wonderful cure for a bad day. The simple act of making myself a cup of tea and reading a good book is a great solution to anxious moments.

5. Self-acceptance – this is the most challenging remedy I have been working on and also the most important. Learning to be compassionate to myself is the kindest thing I can do on a bad day. I have had to put in a lot of hard work to let go of all the self- loathing I have held inside for many years, and accept myself the way I am. This is very difficult for me and I have to work at it every day, but self-acceptance is a big tool to fight depression with. Feeling comfortable with myself is the mental equivalent of wrapping my mind up in bubble wrap to protect it from negative thoughts.

So that’s how I’m handling my mental first aid kit. Mind you, anyone who knows me will have noticed that I am also extremely accident-prone and clumsy… so maybe I should also make a big bubble-wrap coat to protect the rest of me!

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