Self-care

TW: Depression, Mental Illness

 

N.B.: Before I go on, I think it’s important that I address an issue that has recently come to light with me writing these blog entries, and it has to do with the effect they might have on my close friends and family. I realised that friends and family members may read these entries and find out things they didn’t know, or maybe just hear things phrased in a very candid way, and then they might go on to feel guilty somehow, like they should have known how I was feeling. Or maybe that they should have been there more, or been more supportive. To incite these kinds of feelings is not what I intend to do with my blog entries! Please understand that I have always felt fully supported and loved by my friends and family. And I’m so sorry if I write anything that is upsetting or shocking, but I am doing this for me, as a kind of therapeutic release, and also to try and encourage more open and honest conversations about mental health. It is not about placing blame on anyone for not doing enough! In fact, I don’t think there’s anything more that could have been done. When you are in the middle of a depressive episode- and I’m sure those of you who have personal experience of this will back me up here- one of the hardest things to do is pick up the phone and ask for help. It’s not even because I don’t think I will be supported, it’s just that it takes so much energy to do this, and all of my energy at the time is centred on my internal feelings. This probably deserves a whole entry to itself, but I just wanted to make it known before I go on that I blame no-one for my mental illness, and do not feel let down or unloved by anyone close to me in my life. If you read something you’re unhappy with, please let me know. I’ll be happy to talk about it.

Now, onwards!

Self-Care

This week has been hard. Like, really hard. But I’ve definitely learned a lot from it, and something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is self-care.

For me, self-care is essentially the opposite of self-harm, and the absence of it is even a form of self-harm. If you google it, the following definition is given:

“In terms of health maintenance, self-care is any activity of an individual, family, or community, with the intention of improving or restoring health, or treating or preventing disease.”

So what immediately springs to mind are things like washing, eating, drinking, sleeping, taking medicine, exercise etc. etc… And those are absolutely activities which come under the umbrella of ‘self-care’. But it also includes other behaviours that many people do instinctively, like resting when you are ill, and forgiving yourself when you make a mistake, or when something doesn’t go to plan. For a long time, and even now still, self-care has been extremely difficult for me. It is something that comes up in near enough every counselling session I attend, and I feel like it’s at the root of most of my mental health issues.

Somewhere along the line when I was growing up, I got it into my head that I wasn’t good enough. That it was crucial for me to identify as a ‘Good Person’, and for other people to be able to see me as such. I formulated a set of rules and guidelines in my head, as to what constituted a ‘Good Person’, and what I needed to do to be one. Overwhelmingly, this meant I had to put other people before myself at all times. I thought as myself as a martyr, as much as I hate to admit it- I associate this label with self-righteousness for some reason, and this is not a quality a ‘Good Person’ should have.

Self-care was not on my mental checklist for being a ‘Good Person’.

And so for years and years, I overworked myself. I suppressed my own feelings when I thought it might cause people upset. I went out of my way to accommodate for other people’s wishes. And when I made a mistake, I did not forgive myself. I assimilated all the guilt, and all the blame, and I used it as a reason why I was not worthy of self-care. I didn’t feel like I deserved forgiveness, or kindness, or any form of leniency. And unfortunately, this belief became very deeply ingrained in my self-image, and it is something I still struggle with from time to time.

But this week, I have made a conscious effort to be kind to myself, because I haven’t had a great time of it. I went for an interview on Thursday but didn’t get the job, and I instinctively sunk into a dark place where I wasn’t good enough, and that it was all my fault because I should have been working harder. On top of this, I somehow misplaced my passport during a recent house move, but didn’t realise until this week… With two holidays planned in the next 7 days. Too late to get a new one for the first trip planned, and cutting it very close for the other! It had been my intention to use these holidays as a time to indulge in massive amounts of self-care, after working so hard on my MSc dissertation, and for my three part time jobs, where I seemed to be doing work of some sort every day of the week. But in an instant, my plans fell apart. I felt total despair, and cried on and off for days. Then there was the guilt, born from my feeling of having let people down…

It was an awful cocktail of emotions. I was very angry, both at myself and at the world for being so NOT FAIR. I finally decided I might be worthy of some time off work, relaxing with my friends and family, only to have it taken away from me at the last minute. Nothing would ever be okay again.

Except, it will. And thankfully, my loving boyfriend took the time to remind me of this. He looked after me, and sat with me when I was bawling my eyes out- Messy crying, not Hollywood crying (lots of snot). On Friday morning, I woke up with the whole day to myself. I had been dreading it, thinking I would sink further and further into this horrible dark feeling, and then end up damaging myself somehow because I struggle to process and deal with my emotions so often. But to my surprise, I felt much more at peace than I thought possible. I felt tired and ill, and emotionally drained, but suddenly I felt like I might actually be able to deal with life again. I suddenly had the strength to think “This is really shit. But I can get over it. Things will be better”.

And then, I did something even more incredible. I took care of myself.

I felt ill and tired, so I let myself relax on the sofa. I didn’t force myself out for a run, or sit down and write more of my dissertation. I still felt that urge to do something, but every time I managed to justify my time to myself. I deserved this. This was fine. I was worth looking after. I will inevitably make mistakes, as will everyone else, but I will only do myself harm by refusing to forgive myself.

I guess I just needed someone to remind me of that. I can’t thank my boyfriend enough for his time and attention and understanding.

As it happens, I might just scrape that second holiday after all…Fingers crossed. 🙂

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It has to begin somewhere!

Trigger warning: Self-harm, depression, anxiety.

 

Hello. My name is Jess, and I have a mental illness.

 

Obviously there’s more to me than my diagnosis- anxiety and depression, by the way- but sometimes I feel like it’s so all-encompassing, and that it totally dictates my life. This is why I want to start a blog and share my story with you. I feel like it might help me to reclaim the parts of me that should be defining me, like my values and my goals, rather than letting my mental illness take that all away from me. Part of my problem is that I will ruminate over things for hours and days and weeks, but I want to use this blog as a way to externalise my musings and experiences. I hope that as well as being therapeutic for me, this blog can also teach other people about what it’s like to live with a mental illness, and even also help other people in a similar situation to not feel so alone. I want to start by telling you about my journey in general, and then I hope to be able to discuss some of my thoughts and feelings in future posts with more depth to them.

The first time I can remember being depressed is back when I was in Secondary School. I must have been 14, give or take a year? It just kind of crept in, like when it starts getting dark in the evening, and at first, you don’t really notice it, but then all of a sudden it is pitch black. Something I’ve discussed with mental health professionals and therapists over the years is what I think triggered it, but the simple answer is I can’t really be sure. I’m told it can just happen for no reason at all, but this isn’t very common at all. The favoured theory is that when my relationship with my biological father broke down, I internalised a lot of guilt and responsibility about it and that this was then expressed through depressive symptoms. When I was younger, I very much disliked this theory, and was adamant that I had done the right thing and wasn’t missing him at all, and to an extent this is true. I don’t really feel any attachment to my biological Dad. I certainly didn’t miss out on having a father figure in my life, as my Stepdad was so supportive and loving that I actually feel uncomfortable calling him my ‘stepdad’, as I don’t think of him in that way. So let’s just call him my Dad. But I suppose that I’ve always been quite aware of the way my actions impact upon others, and I was made very aware on several occasions that my biological father and his family thought I was making a mistake, and was being unduly harsh. Being that I was very young at the time, I suppose they initially chose to blame my Mum, but now that I’m an adult and still haven’t reconnected I’m sure there can be no doubt in their minds as to who is responsible for the lack of contact.

In any case, I can certainly see how the guilt and uncertainty during this time would have made me very upset. But what I can’t explain is why this nestled in my mind and has remained there ever since. What’s more, it’s not even the same illness that it used to be. I think this is something that people often don’t realise about mental illness- It’s not a fixed condition, and as the individual grows and learns and develops, so the condition will change with them. Think of it as something very fluid, rather than being a concrete illness. I very much fit the ‘Depression’ symptomology when I was in school. I cried a lot for no reason, I felt angry and upset and this was intensified by me bottling it up after being told I was just hormonal. I discovered the practice of self-harm when a friend started doing it, and after that I dabbled with cutting and scratching and hair pulling as a way to manage my emotions. By this time, I was seeing a school counsellor, but this was a very transient thing and I didn’t ‘click’ very well with the therapist, so it was largely ineffective. I suffered from “mild depressive episodes” for a while (this is how the doctors refer to it on paper), but after a few turbulent experiences, all very standard occurrences for teenagers, my depression intensified and I went to a doctor, begging for help.

I was referred to the Children and Adolescents Mental Health Service (CAMHS), where I was prescribed fluoxetine- more commonly known as Prozac- and a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). My CBT counsellor was a lovely woman, and definitely helped me gain some insight into my condition, which did wonders for me in the long run. However, the medication didn’t agree with me at all. You may be aware of the fact that some antidepressants are dangerous for under 25s to take (I was 17 at the time), as for some reason or another, they can induce thoughts of self-harm and suicide. I can’t remember whether my self-harm increased, but one morning before school I took an overdose of antihistamines. The overdose itself obviously had its own side-effects, such as dizziness and blurred vision, and hallucinations, but it unfortunately also interacted with my fluoxetine. I for some reason didn’t believe the drug would have any effect, and went into school as usual. By the time I arrived in my common room, I could barely walk and was finding it difficult to focus on anything or speak properly. Thankfully, I then panicked in a massive way and told a friend what I had done, and was taken to hospital. No lasting effects, except for an overwhelming sense of guilt when I think about what I put my loved ones through. I’m eternally grateful to them all for supporting me through it though, and for being so wonderfully understanding.

So that was medication out for me. I completed my course of CBT and began to feel better. I turned 18, completed my a-levels, and went to university. I met my boyfriend in the summer before I went to uni and actually ended up going to the one he attended due to me missing out on the grades I needed for my first choice. I wouldn’t change a thing though! Everything was going brilliantly. But then the depression crept back in again, and by the time my first semester at uni had come to a close I was very much struggling with those same symptoms as the ones that I had when I was in school. I cried a lot, and I started self-harming again. I was panicky from time to time with no apparent trigger, and I felt like life had no meaning, and held little enjoyment for me. Eventually, I was put on another antidepressant under the condition that I would keep a very close eye on my thoughts and mood. This worked for a while… Like, maybe a couple of years. And then I got a bit worse again, and went back to see a GP again, and switched my medication, and was put in touch with LIFT, a local NHS provision which aims to provide psychological therapies to people with a mental illness.

By this time, I had developed the anxiety part of my diagnosis too. I think that, in an effort to get away from my melancholy, I filled my life with responsibilities and activities to make sure I wouldn’t get caught with nothing to do but think about my feelings. First I took on a part-time job, then another, then another… I started volunteering too, and decided to embark on a massive fundraising challenge. So I ended up in a very different but equally destructive cycle where I was busy 90% of the time, working or attending uni or exercising while still trying to maintain my relationship with my boyfriend and make time for my friends and family. It was exhausting, and burned myself out on more than one occasion, ending up bedridden for a few days at a time while my body tried to make repairs and refuel. I started worrying all the time about the things I had to do, and the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as stomach cramps and nausea, made themselves known too. I felt on edge all the time, and found it hard to relax in my spare time. Really, this should still be in the present tense to some extent as I’m not totally rid of my preoccupation with work, but this is the area in which I feel I’ve made the most progress. I can attribute this to the therapist from a counselling service in Bristol called Off the Record, who I was put in touch with through the LIFT service.

The hardest thing about talking therapies is the fact that not only do you have to get the type of therapy right, but you also have to be able to bond with your counsellor. They are someone you need to be able to trust and get along with to some extent, and this is something that, before Jon, I never really had. From day one I felt like he just ‘got’ me, and was so accepting of all my feelings that I pretty much just cried with relief. After a total of 16 sessions, with two more to go, I finally feel able to engage in more self-care (like relaxing, and eating/sleeping properly), and have broken that burnout cycle, though I haven’t shaken the anxiety 100%. I have more insight into my thoughts and feelings, and this has had such a positive impact on my life. I am challenging my self-harming habits a bit more, and despite having the occasional relapse, on the whole this behaviour has reduced dramatically.

I suppose the reason I’ve decided to start writing about my mental health is due to my counselling with Jon. I realised that more than anything, just having an outlet where I can express myself is massively helpful, and relieves some of the emotional pressure which builds up as a result of my day-to-day life. Seeing as the root of a lot of my problems is that I don’t seem to be able to deal with these pressures in the way that a mentally healthy person might, and so turn to coping mechanisms such as self-injury to process my emotions, it makes a lot of sense to start blogging. This way I’m externalising my thoughts still, but not in a way which is realistically very unhealthy, even if I’m not doing any lasting damage to myself (apart from the scarring which I’ve acquired over the years).

I’d been having a very good couple of months actually, but over the past week I’ve been slipping back into some of the melancholy that I’m unfortunately so familiar with. Last night was a bit of an eye-opener for me, as I had a very sudden and unexpected ‘emotional explosion’, almost. I cried, and screamed, and hit the walls and the floor, and then took myself out for a walk, during which I’m sure I looked disconcertingly unsettled and upset. I don’t want to experience these feelings anymore. It’s been such a long time, and I’m tired. I don’t want to be subject to my depression or anxiety anymore. I want to give myself a chance to heal, and I hope that through writing, I am able to utilise the information I’ve gained during my recent therapy sessions and improve my mental health.

 

I haven’t even started to discuss my mental health in the depth that I want, and need, to, so please expect to hear more from me about particular aspects of my story in the future- depending on my work and university commitments of course. Thank you so much for reading this, and I hope it has helped you as much as it has helped me!

 

Jess