Waiting for a magical cure

It’s been a while since I have been able to write. It’s been a while since I was able to do anything, to be honest.

A horrible bout of depression hit in November and it completely knocked me for six. Life has felt quite shaky and uncertain since my marriage ended, and it turns out not having some stability makes everything harder.

Depression can cripple you. It makes the smallest tiny thing into a massive hurdle, and all these little things turn into an overwhelming wall of fear that just cannot be climbed over. That’s what the last two months have felt like. I have spent a lot of time sitting on the couch literally not able to move, and bursting into uncontrollable bouts of tears all the time. All I wanted to do was sleep and I couldn’t focus on anything.

So what to do? I tried firstly to wait it out and hoped it would pass. I was managing to get to work and somehow function (but not much else), so I thought I might be ok after a while. But it gradually became clear that wasn’t working. So I tried some new medication which helped a little, but not much.

Oh, and of course this bout coincided with the festive season, which did not help matters. Feeling low when everyone around you is out partying is horrible. Having to keep making excuses for missing social occasions adds another layer of stress to feeling miserable.

I haven’t felt this low in a few years, so I missed the early warning signs and unfortunately ended up down a big hole and unable to see a way out. I kept waiting for something to happen; something that would “fix me”. I made wild plans in my head, to go away for a while, to do this, to do that…

Nothing worked, of course, because there is no magical cure for depression. It’s the little things that help, and over time they accrue and make life manageable again. When you feel at rock bottom though, you don’t have the patience to wait for the little things. You just keep waiting for the big change, and yet wake up every morning feeling the same way.

So I’m writing this as a little thing that I hope will help. I’ve been taking my medication everyday and I hope that will help too. I’ve reached out to people and admitted that I’ve not been coping so well and asked for help. I’ve taken a little bit of time off work to try and regroup and get my energy back. And I’ve been forcing myself to leave the house, to do little nice things. I know that all these things will help to get this illness back under control again and I will find a way back out. I’m writing this all down to remind myself of that.

There may not be a magical cure for depression, but it can be managed. I’ve done it before and I hope I will be able to do so again soon.

The pursuit of happiness (when you start off anxious)

Anxiety is the Conor McGregor of the emotional world: it will win pretty much every fight, and on the rare occasions it doesn’t, its still got a hell of a lot to say for itself.

So how do you fight back?

Here is an example of the power of anxiety. I spent all last week in the house with the flu, and my body dysmorphia took over to the extent that whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw crooked, yellow teeth. But then I started to recover, the anxiety lifted, and my brain started working properly. So this morning, my teeth looked normal and straight again.

Over the past few months, happiness has been trying to force its way into my brain. It’s not a state in which I feel comfortable. Think about the times you feel happy: hopefully you also have a sense of calm. Well, that’s the exact opposite of what anxiety does to your body. I mostly exist in a tense ball, constantly on guard, and battling my way through life. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for relaxation.

I’m starting to realise that being happy is possible, and not just in some far-off future. I always thought I needed to “be” something different in order to be happy. As in: “if only I looked a certain way, then I could be happy”. Of course, this is another example of my anxieties winning the battle in my brain and telling me I’m not good enough. But I’m discovering that happiness can be attained by letting go a little, and living in the here and now.

It’s difficult though.  My neural pathways need to be retrained to experience life, instead of expecting to struggle through. Anxious people by their very nature feel a need to worry about something, so we distrust feelings of happiness. Common thoughts are: “I don’t deserve to be happy”; “this is all going to go wrong so I probably shouldn’t even try to be happy”; or “I can’t be happy because I have so much to worry about”.

The key step for me has been figuring out that the anxious thoughts in my head are not necessarily true. Sometimes the way to do this is to run with the anxious thought, and think it through to its natural conclusion. So going back to last week, I thought my teeth had changed shape and colour. Umm, is that possible? And even if it was possible, would it be the end of the world? Honestly, would it actually impact on anything else in my life? And of course, it’s no, no, and no again. There you go: a punch in the solar plexus for anxiety! And in fighting back, I have also created some room for other emotions to creep in.

So, welcome to happiness. I can see that I have a lot to be happy about when I think rationally and don’t let the anxiety walk all over me. I’m aware that anxiety may always be a part of my life, but lately I do feel like I’ve worked out how to get it on the ropes. I know I can be happy: I mean, check out the nutella-fuelled delight in the attached photo!

I think I deserve it. Don’t we all?

Ireland’s Call 

Yesterday I wore a red dress to work to follow others in paying tribute to Anthony Foley, a Munster rugby legend who sadly died at the weekend (red being the Munster colour). I never paid any attention to rugby until I went to college in Limerick – a city that eats, sleeps and breathes the sport – but I’ve been a rugby fan ever since. So I really wanted to join in the tributes yesterday, even though I work in a library in central London where rugby isn’t exactly an everyday topic of conversation.

It also seems like seems a fitting day to write about belonging – and specifically, how I don’t really belong anywhere anymore. I’m Irish and I live in London. Ireland will always be home, yet I can’t imagine myself ever living there again. I love the anonymity of London; nobody really cares who you are and where you come from.

I do find England and the English baffling at times. Cricket is a sport I will never understand; it doesn’t look anywhere near as much fun as rounders, that’s all I’m saying! Marmite and chutney are two other oddities I can’t get my head around. Particularly chutney: you’re putting jam on your curry… why?

Despite all that though, I have grown to love certain aspects of the national character. I admire the Londoner’s ‘blitz spirit’ and stoicism in the face of global terrorism. Londoners get on with their daily lives and refuse to let anything stand in the way, and I find this hugely inspiring. I have also occasionally found myself adopting the  British ‘stiff upper lip’ on days when I feel depressed by making myself get out the door to go to work, where I can hide my inner turmoil for a few hours. Of course, this isn’t always the healthiest approach, but then again it has helped me to hold down a job and function as a human being.

Yet the longer I live in London, the more Irish I find myself becoming. I’ve always been patriotic, but now I’m the girl who puts on Ireland’s Call at parties, and forces everyone to sing ‘shoulder to shoulder’. A few weeks ago I found myself scrolling through Twitter searching for the score in the All Ireland football final, even though I wouldn’t be bothered to watch it if I was at home in Ireland. And I’ve scoured all the supermarkets in my area looking for Barry’s tea – it’s a dark day when my supply has run out and I’m forced to resort to Yorkshire tea instead! Sometimes it’s easier to love your home from a distance, and I certainly get on much better with my family with the Irish Sea between us.

I’ve realised that I love London because you can be whoever you want to be here, and nobody really cares. That can sometimes be lonely, but I have mostly found it empowering. At home in the village I come from I was always that girl who had been raped, and everyone knew me and the man who had raped me. He was somebody I knew, so for years I lived in fear of seeing him or his family. I would always have to scan whatever place I went into to check whether I would be safe there, and that’s exhausting. Happily, I don’t have to carry that burden around with me here. I can just be me – and also I get the benefit of living in one of the most exciting cities in the world.

So that’s me, an Irish girl not living in Ireland but loving it from afar. I guess I’m also someone who has grown to love the British, but who still definitely doesn’t want to be one of them. Like thousands of Irish emigrants before me, no doubt.

Girl on Fire

I’m typing this sitting in bed surrounded by hot water bottles. I am in bits and my whole body hurts.

It’s all been in a good cause though – I ran my first ever sponsored run on Sunday (alongside work colleagues for added pressure). It was a 5k: no big deal for sporty types, but not something I ever thought I would be able to do. I managed it in a respectable time, and even avoided injuring myself (I’m fierce accident-prone) so it’s worth the sore legs and back. I should explain that I am not blessed with a very strong immune system, so I tend to pick up illnesses on a regular basis. Indeed, a kidney infection and a course of antibiotics a few weeks ago threatened to ruin my entire training plan, but thankfully I recovered just in time so it’s now all systems go for Tokyo 2020.

The unusual thing about my kidney infection was that it was the first time I had been properly ill for a long time. It’s not just the mind that is affected  when you suffer from a mental illness. Turns out you can take all the vitamins in the world, go running, or drink green smoothies like they are going out of fashion, but anxiety will find a way of taking its toll.

The mind and body are intrinsically linked. It’s very hard to be physically well if you are feeling mentally ill, and vice versa. In Chinese medicine the kidney is said to be the force of willpower and determination, which is something I’ve had to rely on a lot over the past year, and so maybe it’s not surprising that my kidney threw a tantrum and needed a rest.

Just over two and a half years ago I had my last serious bout of depression. OK, let’s be honest: I had a nervous breakdown. I was so anxious that I couldn’t be left alone, and so I had to go home to Ireland for a few months. During that time my body was worn out from years of worry, and so I suffered from every illness imaginable. All of me was affected, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

To understand why, scrunch your hand up into a fist and squeeze tight. Can you feel the tension in your hand? Now imagine your whole body being squeezed by your mind on a daily basis, and you have some idea of the affect anxiety can have on the body.

That summer of 2014 was a horrible time. I was so anxious that I couldn’t even go in the shower because I would stand there and freak out about the hairs on my arms. So my poor, long-suffering mother had to make the bathroom dark, and then stand in there with me whilst I washed myself. We repeated this performance on a daily basis for the first few weeks of me being at home. Little wonder then that my physical health wasn’t in tip-top condition.

But you know what else happened that summer? I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. At some point, things in my mind clicked into place and I decided I wanted to get better. I haven’t looked back since. It has been a long, hard road but I’ve kept going in the right direction and I’m getting there.

Until then, I had been focusing all of my energy on hating myself, and it was only when I shifted this energy onto getting well that changes started to happen. I decided to use all my willpower for good instead of stubbornly clinging on to my old ways. In order to do this, I had to let go of being a rape victim. This sounds harsh and if anybody else said this to me I would probably punch them. But unfortunately it’s true.

I had spent years being utterly consumed by what had happened to me. I was so angry, and the anger had nowhere to go so it all turned back inwards. My whole world became about this constant hatred of myself and I saw everything through the prism of anxiety. God, it’s boring being anxious all the time though. I missed out on so much. Being physically ill all that summer with illness after illness – and being so anxious that I couldn’t leave the house – was so dull and miserable that I honestly feel like I may have bored myself into realising my life needed to change!

And changing my life is exactly what I did. I came back to London in September 2014 and a few months later got my job in the library where I now work. I still pinch myself that I get to work in such an incredible place, and having this job has given me the confidence to get out there into the world and start living. Life is stressful at times, of course it is, but it’s a lot easier when you’re not sitting at home on the couch counting the hairs on your arms.

I still get tired a lot and need to rest on the couch with my faithful canine friend, but crucially I accept that now, and I don’t beat myself up about not having quite as much energy as other people. I am learning (slowly) to love myself and my body and this means doing everything I can to nourish it.

So friends, if you bump into me on the street and ask me how I am, chances are I will have a sore back or sore throat or something. But, compared to where I was, I’m doing just fine thank you.

In fact, I’ve never been better.

Powerless

September is normally my favourite month. I love autumn and as a kid I always enjoyed going back to school. Yet as this September draws to a close, I realise that that this one has been frankly quite crap, and I feel a bit broken. In this past month, I have been really upset about a mess that I made of a situation. I feel like I have been disproportionately affected by it, but what lies beneath is an uncomfortable truth. So I’m hoping that writing about it will help to make sense of it all.

What happened is that I met someone amazing, went on a few dates, opened up, and then they chose to not want to see me again. To be clear, it’s not the rejection that hurts, it’s my reaction to it. And yes, I do realise it’s ridiculous to be so upset over someone you barely know. And yet…

As additional context, I should mention that this person referenced my anxiety as a reason for not wanting to be with me. Honestly, with hindsight I think it was a well-intentioned (if misguided) attempt to protect me. Nevertheless, at the time I massively overreacted, and then the boy disappeared.

Some women would no doubt brush this off fairly quickly, so why have I been crying in bed every night for the last month?

Firstly, with the benefit of hindsight I probably shouldn’t be going on dates with anybody just yet. I’ve only been single for a few months, and I guess I’m more vulnerable than I thought. But then, when somebody attractive and funny asks you out for a drink, it’s very difficult to say no. So we went out for said drink, and our first date was one of the best first dates I have ever been on. The guy was smart and charming and we talked for hours. Date two was agreed before the night was out and I went off home feeling happy and just a little bit smitten by his lovely eyes.

So the second date followed a few days later, and proceeded to be even better than date one. Again we spoke for hours and opened up to each other about life, love, rugby… all the important things. Date three was agreed, we said goodnight. Then the following day the problems began.

Essentially, I freaked out first because it felt like I was rushing into something too quickly, so we agreed to wait a few weeks until date three. All very sensible and grown-up. And, unfortunately, too good to be true. Because a few days later, I got a long text from the guy saying he didn’t think we could be together and mentioning my anxiety as a reason why I would be better off without him.

So this leads me on to my second reason for the tears: I think the experience has opened up old wounds. What I perceived (wrongly, it turns out) from his text was that he was using my illness and my past as a reason to not to be with me. This then triggered all of my worst fears about myself.  By the time we spoke, a few hours after he sent the text, I was in a bad place. I had spent the day telling myself that I was damaged goods and nobody would want me ever again. This all came at the end of a turbulent few months and felt like the last straw. My actions that followed were disproportionate. I was really angry with him, and then really upset. I was alone and so took out my frustrations about my life in general on him. So understandably, he ran for the hills.

This was all over a month ago and I have been feeling upset about it ever since. I felt powerless in the whole situation and this is what upset me so much. Not only was I powerless over his actions, but more importantly I was powerless in my reactions to him. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why I hate feeling a loss of control in this way, and why it upsets me so much. The old wounds that I thought had healed are actually still there just under the surface, along with a lot of anger.

A final, uncomfortable truth is that I am still looking for validation from men to make me feel good about myself. I haven’t changed all that much from the shy teenager I once was, needing approval from boys to make me feel as pretty as my friends. I didn’t think I was that girl anymore, so seeing my true colours isn’t pretty. I was unable to deal with rejection in a sensible way and I guess that makes me more immature than I thought. I couldn’t see things from his point of view; I just took the rejection personally and used it as an excuse to beat myself up.  Ouch, ouch, ouch.

Thus September ends, and I don’t want to waste anymore energy being upset over this. Yes, the guy and I had a connection, but the timing was all wrong. Neither one of us behaved brilliantly, but what’s done is done. The end. Time to let it go and stop crying. “Enough now”, as the cute guy in Love Actually says to an undeserving Keira Knightley, “Enough now”.

And so I must move on to more pressing issues, like the other big disappointment of September: finally a new Kings of Leon video, and Nathan is in it for the sum total of five seconds. WTF?!

Is there anybody alive out there?

Meet Bertie, my partner in crime. Bertie and I like to share the papers and a cup of tea of a Sunday morning. Bed should be a place of relaxation, somewhere to unwind, to cuddle, to dream. A place to escape the world and lick your wounds.

Unfortunately, at times my bed becomes somewhere I dread. This happens when I have to share my bed with somebody else; let’s call her Insomnia. There is no point in sugar-coating this: Insomnia is an absolute bitch. She steals your dreams, your joie de vivre, saps you of all your energy, and leaves you with dark circles under your eyes. And there’s the added kicker that you don’t have the energy left to cover them up with concealer!

Lack of sleep makes everything worse. All of the demons that can be tackled during the day come back with a vengeance when it’s 3am and you can’t get to sleep. There is a reason banshees and ghosts only come out at night. I have learned how to manage my anxious tendencies during the day, and these days I’m pretty good at distracting myself, or catching negative thoughts before they spiral out of control. However, these coping skills are ineffective in the middle of the night when I am all alone and the wind is howling (literally or metaphorically). I lose control over my thoughts, my mind runs away with itself, and I lie awake worrying.

In some ways, my mind is a bit like Mario Kart. As kids, my brother and I would spend hours playing the game on our Commodore 64. Kieran would always win because I was absolutely incapable of driving my kart in the right direction. I would either whirr around in a circle, or somehow end up driving backwards on the track. That’s what happens to my thoughts in the middle of the night: they drive off in the wrong direction and I struggle to wrestle back control of the steering wheel.

Some thoughts that currently keep me awake at night include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • What if people reading my blog secretly think I’m a pretentious wanker?
  • Where has he disappeared to and why does it still hurt so much?
  • Why haven’t I done something to try and help the Syrian refugees?
  • How can I be so selfish and worry about myself when the world is going to hell in a handbasket?

Basically, any excuse will do to beat myself up at 3am, and I can usually manage to convince myself that I am to blame for all the negative aspects of my life and the world around me. Cognitive behaviour therapists would point out here that these ways of thinking are cognitive distortions; negative thought patterns that have worn a deep groove on my neural pathways. Of course it’s very easy to see that in the light of day, but rationalisation seems far away when I can’t sleep.

Soooo… Insomnia is a desperately tricky bedfellow to deal with, and if you too suffer from her, then you have my deepest sympathies. I’m certainly not going to pretend I have all the answers, but at least I can tell you what has and hasn’t helped me. I would suggest that the best thing you can do for your sanity in the middle of the night is to put down your phone and STAY OFF THE INTERNET. Mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and the Twitterbox at 3am is a recipe for disaster. Now everyone likes a good nose through random peoples’ Facebook photos (please don’t pretend you haven’t done this: we all have; it’s ok!), but doing it in the middle of the night when you feel half-demented from the lack of sleep isn’t going to make you feel better. Going online with no sleep is a bit like holding a magnifying mirror up to your life: it’s only going to highlight all of your worst insecurities and fears. So please save yourself, and put your phone on to airplane mode before you go to bed. Or, even better, buy an old fashioned alarm clock and leave your phone charging in a different room. You should be decreasing your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels at night, and being without a phone is a good starting point.

In times of desperation I have also taken sleeping tablets prescribed for me by my doctor, but I have an uneasy relationship with these types of pills. Firstly, they have the potential to be addictive (unlike anti-depressant medication) in that their efficacy wears off over time, so you may end up taking quite a high dose in order to get the same effect they first had. Secondly, I am very little and this type of medication has a potent effect on me. I have taken a sleeping tablet before, been knocked out for an hour or so, and then woken up and sleep-walked around the house having entire conversations with people, none of which I remember the following morning. Finally – and this is probably the main reason I tend to avoid this type of medication – I usually wake up feeling really ill and hungover, so it’s just not worth it for the few hours sleep the tablet might give me. On a side note here, using alcohol to make you sleep probably isn’t a brilliant idea either, as it just knocks you out and you also wake up feeling horrible.

I have also found it helpful to manage the insomnia with techniques that doctors annoyingly insist on calling ‘sleep hygiene’. (Useful concept; stupid phrase!) This includes avoiding too much caffeine after 5pm. So I’ll stick to decaf coffee in the evening, but personally I think decaf tea is an abomination, so I just drink less Barry’s at night and have chamomile or some other worthy type of herbal tea instead. Next, it helps to go to bed feeling as relaxed as possible, so try to finish up work an hour or two before sleep if you can so that you can unwind. Having a bath can help, or reading something non-taxing. I also find magnesium supplements helpful: I use a powdered version which I take before I go to bed. Magnesium helps to relax the muscles (so don’t take too much…) and helps your body to unwind. Basically I have found if I try to do all these things, and go to bed not feeling too anxious or stressed, then I have some chance at getting a few hours of quality sleep, but if I go to bed anxious, then the chances are the Mario Kart will come out for a 3am joyride.

Excuse me wheeling out a tired cliché to finish; after all, I’m a tired girl. I love the poem “This too shall pass” by Helen Steiner Rice, and these lines have always comforted me:

…darkness will fade with the morning

And that this will pass away, too.

And it’s true that no matter how dark a night I have, things really do always look better in the morning, even if I don’t! So hang on in there and this too shall pass.

 

 

 

 

 

Your love will be safe with me 

It finally dawned on me earlier this year while watching an episode of Peaky Blinders. I was increasingly intrigued by the love story between the characters of Tommy and Grace: it had become a sort of symbol of everything missing in my own relationship. I realised that despite our best efforts, Josh and I were not in love anymore and we would never be again. We had been together for seven years and married for three. Somewhere along the way we had fallen out of love and become best friends, and that’s just not enough to sustain a lifetime together. We both knew it, which meant that admitting it to each other almost felt like a relief.

So began the process of untangling the life we had made together and figuring out a way forward for both of us. Thus far we have managed to negotiate a tricky path well and without rancour. I am loathe to use the phrase “conscious uncoupling” (not least because Josh despises Coldplay), but that is what we have tried to do. And, I’m happy to say, it really does work.

We have a dog and we have tried to make sure he spends time with both of us so he doesn’t feel too much upheaval. Dogs (like most of us) take comfort from routine, so he has stayed in the flat with Josh and I have moved out. Even in the process of getting a divorce, we have tried very hard to remain a family, and we both hope we can have that for as long as possible. My family lives in Ireland so it’s nice to have some family here in London that I can rely on.

And thus I find myself single. Not alone, but not in a relationship anymore. It’s a big adjustment and has been at times incredibly lonely, but still, I am enjoying my new life. Being independent is a challenge, but also liberating. It has led me to do some serious thinking about relationships and dating and what may lie ahead. Dating is not something I am good at. The actual dates are fun, of course: who doesn’t like dolling themselves up and going  out for an evening with somebody you find attractive? It’s the part in between the dates that I struggle with. I hate all the rules; the endless games that you supposedly have to play. And yet, being myself and not playing by these “rules” doesn’t seem to work so well for me either (see previous heart-shaped potato post for more detail). So honestly, I have no idea how to go about dating again. Or even, frankly, whether I can be bothered just now.

The only thing I have figured out is what I do want in a future relationship. What matters more than anything else to me is kindness. If and when I choose to give my heart away again, I would dearly love for it to be safe and to be cherished. (‘Your love will be / Safe with me’: my favourite line in my favourite Bon Iver song.) Surely that’s all anyone wants? Real life can be mundane, and sometimes miserable, but being with the right person can make it worth pushing on through. Someone to share your life with; to melt your heart just by smiling. So at the risk of sounding like an incurable romantic (which I am), I’m going to hold out for that, even if it means being alone for now.

That’s my manifesto for love. I have no idea how to go about it, mind you. But at least I know what I want.

The sound of music

Sadly (for some, anyway), this is not a whole post dedicated to the Von Trapp Family. Rather, it contains musings on the joy of music, and how great a tool it can be for managing periods of anxiety.

I must be honest and say that reading has and always will be my favourite way to spend my spare time. I read voraciously and my favourite part of every week is the Sunday papers. I love reading the newspaper so much that I don’t allow myself to open it until after 6pm; it just feels wrong to experience the joy before then. Yes, I have self-imposed rules to control the fun. Form an orderly queue, gentlemen.

However, in the midst of great anxiety I cannot read. This may be familiar to some of you: one of the first symptoms of a bout of depression/anxiety can be a loss of concentration. I always recognise a bad patch is on the way when I lose the ability to concentrate on reading. The anxious thoughts become so persistent that I cannot read more than half a page. The past few months have been quite turbulent, and I haven’t read a book for about two months now. I have found music to be an absolute godsend during this difficult time. On particularly bad days the thing that gets me through is knowing I can get into bed at night, pull the covers over me, plug in my headphones and shut out the world.

Apologies in advance for a paragraph of fan-girling, but it may help to explain that, having been a teenager during the nineties Britpop era, I’ve long-since been a wannabe rock chick. My brother and I loved the Stone Roses and (thanks to a BBC Wales signal pilfered from our neighbours in Ireland) I also had a deep appreciation of many Welsh bands. My love for the Manic Street Preachers should probably have been an early warning sign for the years of introspection that lay ahead! My musical tastes evolved at university into a love of anything with guitars, and particularly Irish bands. One of my happiest memories of undergrad life was seeing The Frames (amazing Irish band) play during Freshers Week. I have since seen them play on many occasions over the years with my lovely cousin Laura, and these memories are some of the happiest I have.

Anyway, the point is that as a music-lover, I’ve learnt how to use it as a tool to manage anxiety. I once dated a wildly unsuitable drummer who passed on the following tip to me. Before I met him, I never really paid attention to the component parts of a piece of music, but he taught me to listen out for the rhythm of the drumming from the very beginning of a song. And I’m here to tell you it works: if you are feeling anxious or agitated, turn on a piece of music and listen out only for the drums. Allow yourself to concentrate on the rhythm, blocking out everything else. Your mind may drift and the anxieties will crowd back in, but keep pushing them out and pull yourself back to the beat of the drums. By the end of the song you should feel less anxious, and if not, try another one and then another until you feel calmer.

I guess this is the same as trying to use meditation to quieten your mind, but personally I have never been able to master meditation as my mind won’t stop chattering to me when I try. However, the drumming trick always works for me.  I feel duty-bound to warn you that this technique may leave you with a grá for drummers. Then again, there are worse problems in life than having an enormous crush on Nathan Followill…

More generally, music can be incredibly uplifting and a brilliant way to motivate yourself. I rather shamefully have a playlist on my phone called ‘Let’s go!’ (thanks to Andy Murray for that phrase) which is very heavy on the independent woman vibe. (My flatmate is less fond of this playlist). Containing lots of Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson and Rihanna, it’s great for creating a strong woman vibe in your head when deep down you actually feel like a scared little girl. And herein lies the magic of music: it can help you to escape your head and become anyone you want to be. You can dance around your bedroom and pretend to be a pop star and have some fun for a few minutes! There is a serious lack of fun involved in being a depressive, so seize every opportunity you can to get away from your thoughts and enjoy yourself. It may only be a few minutes, and it may be when you’re alone in your flat, but sometimes that can be enough to get you through the day or night.

And that’s what it’s all about: getting through. Keep getting through those dark days and long nights. The dawn will come and you will be glad you stuck around to see it. I know I am.

 

 

The green waiting room

Let me start with a disclaimer. This article was tough to write and is not easy to read so I’ve mismatched it with a very happy picture of myself not looking back in anger at all my experiences of the mental health system in Ireland and in London.

So… the green waiting room: sounds like the title of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, right?Although my journey through the mental health medical system has at times felt like I am stuck in the plot of a novel, the green waiting room in question refers to the ‘soothing’ colour that psychiatric units like to paint their waiting rooms. I have found myself in many of these waiting rooms over the years and somehow the green has never quite been soothing enough.

I wish I could say this is the only problem with our mental health services. I have experienced the system both in Ireland (where it’s overseen by the HSE) and here in England (where services are run by the NHS). There are clearly some differences but they both operate a similar model, in which your first point of contact with the system is usually your GP, who will then refer you to services available in your area. In times of distress (more of which later, you’ll be glad to know!), I have once or twice ended up in the A&E department of my local hospital who have then referred me on to mental health units, but generally the route into local services will start with your doctor. (Of course this relates to support provided free as part of a national health system; private clinics can have different arrangements.)

I feel very thankful to be able to say that I haven’t needed any contact with mental health services for over two years now; my primary care all comes from my amazing GP. Emma is the name of this wonderful woman. She is based in Cork and I go home every six weeks or so to check in with her. I could write a whole book about how supportive and wonderful Emma has been; suffice to say I am very lucky to have her and I am very grateful for her support. You may be thinking that it’s a bit weird that I live in London and my GP is in Ireland. It is indeed strange, but through trial and error I have found that this system works for me. I am registered with my local NHS doctor and I go there for most medical issues that crop up, but for issues with my head I go to Emma.

I have found the NHS to be incredible at treating issues of physical health. For example, I burnt myself quite badly a few years ago by accidentally spilling boiling hot tea all over my lap. The care I received from the NHS was exemplary. Unfortunately, that contrasts starkly with my experience of mental health support here, which has been mostly terrible. GPs seem to have their hands tied by the system, and they simply don’t have the time that is needed to deal with issues. Appointments are strictly for ten minutes maximum, and this is (unsurprisingly) not long enough to open up to a GP you don’t know if you are feeling distressed.

The pressure that this system puts on GPs can lead to some becoming quite brusque and losing their bedside manner. To illustrate this, let me tell you about the ‘Smarties’ incident. This happened not long after I moved to London, about five years ago. I had registered with the nearest surgery to the flat I shared with my then-partner. I ran out of my medication whilst having a very low patch and was so anxious that I couldn’t physically leave the flat to get to the doctor. Josh (being the lovely man he is) rang the doctor to try to get my prescription. The GP’s response to him (and I quote verbatim)  was: ‘If Sinéad wants the smarties, she has to come and get them herself’. Yes, this really happened. This is just one very extreme example of my experience in trying to access primary care services for mental health in this country.

So what happens after you get referred on to mental health services? At my very sickest back in Ireland, when I was suicidal and self-harming almost everyday, I ended up in hospital a few times. This happened in the following way. My GP, who I saw regularly, realised I needed more urgent care than she could give and on several occasions referred me to the nearest mental health service. Being an acute case, this basically consisted of writing me a letter and sending me into the hospital. There I would wait in the aforementioned green waiting room (I say room; more of a small airless cubicle) in the psychiatric unit of the hospital, to be seen by the doctor on call. The doctor spoke to me, assessed my state of mind, and either admitted me to the unit if they had a bed, or (if the unit was full) sent me home on a high dose of some sort of medication. I would then be seen by a psychiatrist (or one of his team) a few days later in an out-patient clinic.

My experiences of needing acute care were so distressing that I am unsure of how to start unpicking them. Firstly, let me say again that doctors working in acute services, like GPs, are for the most part dedicated and fantastic, but they are crippled by a lack of funding. There is a huge problem in Ireland and Britain in getting the right services to the right people. Basically, the option to assess a patient and then match them to the service that they need is not available. The patient has to take whatever is available in their area at any given time, and this is determined by funding and sometimes by sheer luck. The patient’s needs are not the determining factor in what care they receive and I feel they really should be.

Patients may also have to travel hundreds of miles in order to access mental health services. And when they get there, they may be cared for in psychiatric units that cover all illnesses, even if this proves to be highly unsuitable. In my case, I was a young girl in my early twenties who had been raped and was in severe distress. I was treated in a unit with alcoholics, drug addicts and people suffering from schizophrenia. Clearly all of us had an equal right to be there, but my main memory of my time in hospital was being too scared to sleep at night, hearing patients screaming and shouting at the poor over-worked nurses. I think any therapeutic benefits of being in hospital for me were lost in the sheer terror of such an environment.

Of course, these are just of my personal experiences of mental health services and the problems as I see them. Clearly both the HSE and the NHS are facing serious challenges when it comes to mental health. Both systems are trying to move away from a hospital model towards providing care for patients in the community and in patients’ homes. The NHS is heavily pushing  a strategy called Improved Access to Psychological Therapies, and tries to get patients into this programme within six weeks of referral. These are all improvements, but we need to keep talking about mental health and pushing it onto the public agenda. If we make enough noise, those in power will have to sit up and take notice of what we are saying.

To finish up, my thoughts are still about waiting rooms. My clearest and most distressing memories of that time in my life are all about that waiting room. Sitting in a tiny cubicle of a psychiatric unit waiting to be assessed by a doctor was so distressing. Tiny changes to these waiting rooms could make the experience a little bit easier for patients. For what it’s worth, I think it would help for patients and ex-patients to be included in hospital task forces, so that they could highlight the small things that would make a big difference. Surely those who need the services should be consulted about them? The future of mental health policy is so important for all of us as a society. To improve our systems we need to start at the ground level and include patients’ opinions as much as possible. This is the way forward: the way to get the right services to the right people.

The art of kindness

Have you been anywhere nice on your holidays?

I was speaking to a friend the other day about planning a weekend somewhere by myself. Money is tight at the moment but if I save carefully then I could manage a few nights away. I’ve never been on holiday by myself, much as I’ve always loved the idea. And I’ve just copped on that the only thing stopping me is my ingrained sense of guilt at the thought of treating myself.

That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? Being kind to yourself is so difficult! Most people find it easy to be kind to others, but being nice to yourself can actually be quite a battle. Us Irish might describe somebody who was thinking of going on a holiday by themselves as being ‘fierce fond of themselves’! I’m very proud of my nationality but unfortunately the Irish psyche does consist of a lot of the old guilt. Add into this a depressive’s natural lack of self-worth and you can see why I might think it’s a massive self-indulgence to go away by myself.

A number of counsellors I have seen over the years have spoken to me about the practise of ‘self-soothing’. (Any moms out there will recognise this one!) Basically, self soothing involves finding a strategy to calm yourself down when you feel anxious, so you deal with the anxiety yourself before it takes over. I’m guessing for mothers it involves things like letting babies cry a tiny bit in the hope they will calm themselves before you pick them up? Anyway, self-soothing is a form of being kind to yourself. That may sound easy enough, but the problem is that when you are feeling anxious and panicked, all rational thinking goes out the window. In the middle of a bout of anxiety I hate myself, so why would I deserve kindness?

Thankfully I’m not anxious all the time these days, and herein lies the key. When I feel calm and logical I try to practice the art of kindness, in the hopes that soon my brain will remember it when the anxiety floods in. Our brains contain neural pathways, along which information travels. These get used to certain ways of thinking, and a part of managing my illness has been trying to retrain them. An example of this is my anxiety about facial hair. When it’s really bright and sunny outside, my immediate response is to go and check in the mirror for dark hairs on my face. So in my mind the brightness has triggered an anxiety, the anxiety has travelled along a neural pathway to my automatic response, which is to look in the mirror and check for hairs. This response is unhealthy as it doesn’t actually calm my anxiety; it makes it worse. I haven’t dealt with the initial anxiety here at all, I have just acted on it. The ‘kind’ thing to do in this situation would be to distract myself from that immediate impulse by doing something else and waiting for the anxiety to pass. This is the way to retrain those neural pathways.

Obviously it’s not easy, or I would have mastered the technique years ago! Learning to manage an illness like anxiety requires a lot of hard work and dedication. Making the decision to love yourself is difficult, but it’s worth it. Have a think about all the things that make you happy and try to do something every day, however small, that is just for you. It could be as simple as cooking yourself a healthy dinner, going outside for ten minutes of fresh air, or going for a pedicure. Nurturing yourself is all part of being healthy, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. Like anything, practise makes perfect, and this is why I have been trying to be kind to myself as much as I can.

I haven’t booked that holiday yet but I have been allowing myself to eat Nutella on a regular basis (my favourite treat!), and I have booked myself on a creative writing evening course for the autumn. This class felt like a huge indulgence and I am worried the other people in the class will laugh at me, but I am going to give it a go. Writing makes me feel calmer, and therefore being kind to myself by doing something I enjoy can only be a good thing.