A long way back

I used to be like that, it’s not a long way back. You should have seen how they found me…

When I first moved back to London last April, I wrote out these lines from a Walking On Cars song and stuck them beside my bed. They filled me with hope and reminded me how far I’d come.
I’m not writing this blog in London. I’m back at home in Ireland living with my parents and suffering through the type of depression I thought I’d never have to see again. Hope has been pushed into the winter rain by despair. And despair has a nasty habit of filling up your head and leaking out your eyes. I’ve cried more these last few months than I knew I could.
I came home in October intending to stay ten days but I’m still here four months later. I started to feel physically ill last July: I was fainting and in constant pain. The condition was eventually diagnosed as endometriosis and I ended up so weak that I had to give up my new job which I had just started. No job equals no money so I also had to give up my flat. I thought I could move between friends and look for a less stressful job whilst I got my strength back.

But that didn’t happen – it was the worst timing in the world for my body to give up on me. I’d just gotten back together with a wonderful man and I thought we would finally have a proper shot at a fun relationship. One month in I started fainting, and the pressure and stress was just too much, too soon. He pulled away and I panicked and clung onto him for support. My hormones were all over the place and I was moody and difficult. The GP in London put me on the pill to try and help with my pain, but instead it escalated my anxiety to new heights and made me feel like I was losing my mind.

I ended up losing my boyfriend a few days after I got home to Ireland. So there I was with a broken body and a broken heart. Then my mind felt left out and decided it wanted to crack too. I blamed myself for everything, and I’ve been filled with shame since. That’s what really stings: the shame that I’ve ended up back in this position again and so utterly powerless. So I’ve been isolating myself from friends and family and finding it difficult to engage with the support that’s being offered to me. I haven’t been looking after myself.

My addled brain became convinced that was it, game over, you see. That this was my only shot at happiness, at making a life in London work. How will I ever get a job again? What if I have no friends left when I go back? I think of the future and I feel overwhelmed by panic.

But something has clicked in my brain these past few days. I can’t fight a war on so many fronts, so I’ve put my broken heart into a box for now, and I’m putting my faith in the universe and serendipity that maybe one day our time will come. I can’t control somebody else’s feelings. This is one situation where I’m powerless and I have to accept that. I can only concentrate on me.

What I can do though is take back the power over my mind and body and try to make them strong once more. Writing is something that makes me feel good about myself so this blog is a first step out of misery. London, happiness and health all feel a long way away, but I hope I can find my way back.

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!

Four things that have helped me to manage my depression

I saw my psychiatrist a few weeks ago, and she remarked that “I had some of my old spark back”. I had spent the last half an hour with her crying about how ‘stuck’ I feel and how little progress I have made, so I was somewhat surprised to hear this, and queried it. She went on to explain that the deep depression I have been in this year seems to have lifted. And… she’s right, you know.

I’m still highly anxious, and I’ve lost my confidence, but I’m not down a dark hole anymore. So, to celebrate I thought I would make a little list of some of the things that have helped me over the past year. That way I have something to look at the next time I have a bad day – and I hope it can also help anyone else out there who is struggling today. I’ve also used a selfie of me doing a silly face with this blog. My type of anxiety involves body dysmorphia, and until recently I wouldn’t have felt able to put a picture of me out there looking a bit ridiculous. But today it feels fine. So… you’re welcome.

Things that have helped me

* Reading – this is a huge one for me. I am an avid reader and have been since I was a little girl, when I used to get up early so I could read before school! One of the first symptoms of depression I experience is a loss of concentration, so I use reading to help me escape my negative thoughts. To counteract the difficulty in concentrating, I stick to easy reading. Any sort of glossy magazine will do, but I especially like Hello for the photos and the sheer escapism of reading about minor European royalty. Any sort of “interiors” magazine is good for this too – planning my fantasy house is a good way to escape the darker recesses of my brain. But my top tip is to reread books. It’s much easier to concentrate if you have read a book before. I have been through much of my local library at this stage, and rereading fiction has gotten me through long nights of insomnia.

* Reaching out – the natural instinct of a depressive is to isolate oneself and hide away. The world is a terrifying place when you are depressed, and interaction with others just seems too hard. I come to hate my phone when I’m depressed and it’s a trial to answer calls or texts. Of course, this is in fact the worst thing to do, as it leaves you all alone and at the mercy of your thoughts. So, reaching out to others is a way out of the prison that depression has placed you in. Texting a friend is a simple way of reminding yourself that you are loved and that you do matter. Texts are often all I can manage, and that’s ok – contact with the outside world is the important thing here. Lately, I have been making plans to see friends, but crucially not making too many plans, to avoid feeling overwhelmed. I would also recommend only seeing people who make you feel good, and who won’t make you feel guilty for your absence. Being ill is nothing to be ashamed of.

* Counselling – I have been going to counselling every week since April and it has helped me hugely. I never want to go, and somedays I would rather do anything than talk about my feelings, but I make myself go every week and it really does help. Talking about what has been going on in my head is difficult, and I know that therapy isn’t for everyone, but it has been a lifeline for me. Speaking to someone impartial enables me to process my feelings and to work through them. I always leave my counselling sessions feeling better.

* Medication – this is another lifeline for me. Anti-depressants have adjusted the chemicals in my brain and brought me back to a point where I can function again. My serotonin levels have risen and helped me to fight off the negativity which I was drowning in. I have also been taking sleeping tablets for the past few months and again, I wouldn’t have managed without them. I can’t sleep when I am depressed and I lie awake worrying. Lack of sleep makes daily life impossible and thus, it’s a vicious circle. Sleeping tablets are obviously not a long-term solution, but I am happy to be taking them for now. Sleeping for a few hours a night instead of no hours goes a long way in helping me to function again.

Climbing out of the hole is only the first step of course. I’m still at home with my family and not working, but my energy is coming back, and that’s crucial to give me the strength to get back into the world.

And that’s what I want – more than anything. I retreated from the world at the start of the year, but now I want to be free to start living again. I know there is happiness out there for me somewhere.

A New Relationship

“The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you can find someone to love the you that you love, well, that’s just fabulous.”

Carrie Bradshaw

Like most women of a certain age, I was obsessed with Sex and the City back in the day. I loved the clothes and the exciting lives they all led in New York… But most of all, I loved Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment. (Ah, how I wish it was possible to live like that writing one newspaper column per week!)

Anyway, the reason I quote Carrie now is that I am painfully aware that I have never managed to achieve a relationship with myself like this, and that has been a significant factor in my struggles with mental illness. And, to illustrate just how differently I view myself, let’s compare Carrie’s words to the following monologue that goes on in my head most days:

“YOU’RE UGLY, YOU’RE DISGUSTING. YOUR LIFE IS A FAILURE. HOW COULD ANYONE LOVE YOU? YOU’RE A WORTHLESS, SPINELESS, USELESS WASTE OF SPACE. YOU’RE A BURDEN AND I HATE YOU”

My Inner Voice

Imagine if someone said that to you. You’d be really upset, right? Well, those are the thoughts that swirl in my mind all day, every day. I’ve never liked myself, and have always compared myself unfavourably to other people. I always felt like the ugly duckling of my friend group. My self-loathing increased dramatically after being raped and it’s spiralled out of control since then. To be more specific, I’ve developed unhealthy coping mechanisms like self-harming.

That’s years and years of being my own worst enemy, of always being harsh on myself and never learning how to be comfortable in my own skin. I’ve tried to look for comfort in relationships, to find someone who could rescue me from myself. But of course, it doesn’t work like that. It is impossible to love somebody else if you don’t love yourself. You end up resenting the other person because you can’t understand why they love you, or even like you.

Loving yourself isn’t about ‘self-care’, bubble baths, or treating yourself to nice clothes. That’s all very nice and to be encouraged, but on a deeper level loving yourself comes down to silencing your inner critic, making healthy choices and looking after yourself. It involves being able to look in the mirror and pick out something good, rather than obsessing over tiny flaws.

The irony is that being kind is something that comes naturally to me, except when it comes to myself. I love looking after other people, yet I find it impossible to look after myself.

So I’ve decided I’m going to give a relationship with myself a go. To be honest, I don’t have a choice anymore. I’ve come to the end of the road this year when it comes to my mental health. I reached rock bottom at the start of the year, and I’ve found myself back at home, living with my family and unable to work or function.

The good news is that I’m doing everything I can to improve my mental health. I’m going to counselling, I take medication and I’m putting in all the hard work… yet I now realise none of it will make a difference if I can’t learn to follow Carrie Bradshaw’s advice and develop a relationship with myself. So I need to learn to at least like myself, at least a little. I might not ever learn to love myself as much as New York’s most improbably well-paid columnist, but I might be able to develop a kinder inner voice.

Running to stand still

I feel like I have spent the past year running. The problem is: I’ve been going round in circles.

It’s now the end of June, and I’ve been fighting my current bout of depression since last year. This time it has brought me to my knees and I’ve found myself back at home, living with my family in Cork, having had to give up my job and my life in London. (I say life, but in reality, life had shrunk to the point where I was confined to my room, barely able to function.) Coming home for some support was a last-ditch effort to find a way to get well.

Unfortunately, this has been the pattern of my life for the last number of years. I get well for a while, try to live my own life, and yet somehow it all comes crashing down and I have to come back home again. Here is the thing: I have been dealing with mental illness since my early twenties, and I always thought someday it would go away; that I would wake up one day and be happy. I thought moving to London would make it better: starting a new life, getting married, having a job I loved. And yet… none of it lasted. These things did help for a while, but the anxiety and depression were always lurking beneath the surface, waiting to pounce. That happiness never became the norm and here is the reason why: I hate myself.

Deep down, I blame myself for being raped, and I think I am disgusting. These are the sentiments that have defined most of my life and there is no running away from that. Everything I feel stems from this. I don’t think I deserve to be happy, I can’t accept myself the way I am, and I am consistently my own worst enemy. The inner voices in my head are always telling me I’m not good enough. I thought I had dealt with the rape and the trauma years ago but I’ve come to realise that isn’t the case. Getting divorced last year seems to have brought all the old feelings of shame and loathing to the surface.

Running home hasn’t made these feelings go away, but it has forced me to reflect on what’s going on in my head. I’m tired of running; tired of trying to escape myself. It’s not possible, of course. I have to learn how to like me as I am, and work out how to feel compassion for myself.

For now, that involves taking my medication and continuing with counselling. It doesn’t always feel like I’m getting that far, but at least I’m standing still and taking stock. That’s the only way I’ll create the space to change the conversation inside my own head.

 

Radio Star…

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to speak on the radio about my blog and my experience of anxiety. An old school friend of mine who works in the Irish media contacted me to ask if I was interested in talking to PJ Coogan from The Opinion Line on Cork’s 96FM  to take part in a segment on panic attacks. This all came about following a video posted online by an Irish actress called Rachel Sarah Murphy, entitled ‘ Panic attack on a Train’. The video went viral,  and the production team at the Opinion Line decided to raise awareness of the issue.

I got a message asking me if I was interested at half past two on a Tuesday afternoon, and the interview took place the following morning. I told friends and family in Cork and elsewhere to listen out for me, and as the interview approached, I sat at my kitchen table in my pyjamas, already shaking with nerves. And then, just as I was waiting to go on air, the phone line went dead! All I could think of was the humiliation of my Auntie Mary waiting to hear me at home, PJ announcing my name, and me not being there…

Of course, these people are professionals, so they called me back and soon it was all systems go. PJ immediately put me at ease and we talked about my experiences of mental illness and my methods of coping. We also touched on panic attacks, and how to help somebody who might be suffering from depression and anxiety. My favourite part of the chat was talking about the very Irish phrase of ‘cop yourself on’, and how to deal with unhelpful advice from others. I felt completely overwhelmed after the interview, and it has taken me until today to listen back to it and feel able to share it here. Speaking about mental health can be difficult, but ultimately I find it very rewarding, so I’ve decided to share the interview here in the hope that it will help others.

Click on the “play” button below to have a listen, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

I don’t need to punish myself

Summer is almost over and I’m looking forward to the leaves falling from the trees and having an excuse to buy a new pair of autumn boots. I’ve written before about how I find summer to be the most difficult part of the year. Bright sunshine tends to make me panic and gouge holes in my face. That’s an odd sentence, I know; so let me walk you through how it happens…

I was raped when I was younger, and subsequently developed an obsession with hair. I associate hair with being dirty and have a compulsive need to be hair free. If I have no hair, then I’m clean you see? And being clean means I’m ok and not dirty. Writing this down is making me feel sad: it’s pretty clear to rational-writing-me that this hair removal ritual is because deep down I still blame myself for being raped.

I’m 36 years old and I was raped when I was 21. That’s a hell of a long time to punish myself for something that wasn’t my fault, but it’s a hard habit to shake off. I didn’t tell anybody about the rape until a few months after the event, and by then I had turned all my pain and anger inward. I started self-harming and my campaign of hate against myself had begun.

This has taken many different forms over the years: the aforementioned self- harming, an inability to look after myself properly, and the compulsion to be hair free and ‘clean’. The need to free myself of ‘dirt’ has probably caused me the most distress over the years. I’m not sure I could count up the hours lost in my magnifying mirror, trying to pluck out tiny hairs; first with tweezers, and then if that doesn’t work, with a needle, to get the tiny ones out from my pores. This is obviously a battle I am destined to lose, as we all have tiny hairs all over our bodies which are not going to enjoy being ‘gone at’ with a needle. So I emerge from this daily battle covered in red marks: self-harm 1 – me 0.

I’ve tried numerous times over the years to try to curb these compulsions. I’ve thrown away countless magnifying mirrors, yet I always buy a new one. My natural instinct when I have a bad day is to blame the fact that I am ‘disgusting’. So, to combat this, I’m trying a new tactic of putting little signs up all over my room like the one at the top of this blog: mantras to help bring some positivity into my head.

I have one more tactic which I am going to try today. I am going to write a paragraph to myself, and to anyone else who might need to hear this. It doesn’t matter who raped you, what you were wearing, or whether you had been drinking. Rape is not your fault. The rapist is the only person to blame; the only person who made that choice. There is nothing you could have done to deserve that. And if you haven’t done anything wrong, then you don’t need to be punished, do you?

So with that in mind, I am going to try and set down my weapons of war, and I urge you to do the same. Of all the relationships I’ve ever had, the one with myself is the most destructive. But the good news is that we’re working hard to resolve our issues.

Lean on me 

Today is world health day and the theme this year is depression. As someone who suffers from depression I find it really heartening to see so much discussion on social media encouraging people to talk about mental illness.

I have spent this week on crutches due to a silly accident, and the thought occurred to me that friends and family can be a crutch for those who are in mental distress. So what can you do to help someone is suffering?  Here are a few tips.

My own experience has taught me that talking can really help to alleviate the pain. One of the worst aspects of going through a bout of depression is feeling alone and detached from the world around you. So if you think somebody is depressed, reach out to them: send them a text, pick up the phone or call round to see them. Even a five minute interaction can help to brighten someone’s day. I’m lucky to have friends who have done this for me and whose love and support has helped me enormously. As recently as January, I had to take some time off work due to a bad bout of depression. During this period two work friends texted me every single day just to say hi – and to keep me up-to-date on work gossip! This kept my spirits up even when I was at a low ebb.

When depression hits, something as simple as leaving the house can seem impossible. So don’t judge your friend because they don’t want to go out, or if they constantly cancel social engagements. Instead of giving up on your friend, keep reaching out and try to offer your company in a non-scary way. For example, offer to pop round for a cup of tea or suggest a walk in the park. Little things like this can make a big difference and help to build up confidence.

The world becomes a daunting place for someone who is depressed. Someone offering a hand to hold to take those first baby steps back can really help. A few years ago, when my depression was at its worst, I had to go home to Cork to live with my family for a few months as I couldn’t cope on my own. My friends came and sat with me on the couch, and when I got a little bit better they took me out for tea and then brought me home again. It’s hard to overstate how much these little trips helped me on my road to recovery.

So that’s a few simple ways you can help somebody in your life who is suffering from depression. Or, if you are the person who is suffering, then I would encourage you to reach out to those who love you. Lean on people around you and you will find they want to help you through this.

Let’s keep talking about depression – it’s the best way to fight it.