Crumble

So, I’d like to update you all on my mental health at the moment. I’m going to try to be as vivid and descriptive as possible, because I’m finding it so, so difficult with all this in my head all the time, and I think it will help if I can explain it to someone else so they have an idea of what I’m experiencing on a day-to-day basis. If you get it, then great! If not, then that’s fine- You’ve done me a massive favour by reading this in the first place and giving me a chance to unload all of this. So whatever you make of this post, thank you for taking the time to read it and helping me on my journey to recovery. ((Whatever the hell that is!))

It’s like I’ve been falling apart recently. But not in a really big, dramatic way. I love cakes and sweet things, so let me use a food-related metaphor for this… I think I’ve just been crumbling away, like how shortbread just kind of falls apart when it’s fresh out the oven, and you pick it up with too firm a grip. I didn’t even notice to start with, because at one point, I was really making progress, and my relapse wasn’t something I wanted to acknowledge. So I have been spending the last month or so just powering forwards, with parts of me crumbling away being left behind as I go. But now when I try to think back to what I’ve been doing and how I’ve been feeling, it’s just a big blur.

A couple of weeks ago I had that light bulb moment when I realised something was wrong. Nothing was exciting any more. I got no pleasure from exercise, from food, from reading. Every single time I sat down to do something, or thought forwards to what I had planned for that day/week, I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly the point was. I try to think about it, but the answer continues to evade me. I’m trying to hold onto something that is turning into smoke and drifting away from me and I can’t do anything to stop it. For a while I’ve been able to ignore that this was happening, but it’s been sitting in the back of my mind, just waiting for the moments when I let my guard down. I stop focussing on my job, or on a task that I’ve managed to find to fill my time, and that terrible feeling just creeps up on me.

I can feel it across my whole body. It’s a tangible, physical thing. A horrible, dark fog, dense and all-encompassing descends on me. My brain is filled with hopelessness, and the fog dampens down my thoughts- I can’t process stimuli like normal- the fog pushes its way into all the gaps in my head and gets in the way. It sits behind my eyes, and presses on my tear ducts. I’m constantly on the brink of tears. This massive weight settles into my chest, and my limbs. I want to stop. I want to sit down, or lie down, and never get up again. My tongue is heavy in my mouth, and talking, responding to people is so hard. The weight in my chest gains substance and squeezes tightly.

How does this translate emotions-wise? It varies, to be honest, and I often feel totally contradictory things. I want to stop being, but I also desperately want to carry on. I feel panic, as I struggle to find meaning in anything, in anyone. I am guilty for feeling such deep despair, when I am surrounded by people who love me. I don’t want anyone to hurt because of me, or feel like they are not enough to make me happy. God, I appreciate you all so much. I feel such strong emotions that they tear my psyche apart, but at the same time, I feel so empty. How is it possible to feel both everything and nothing? I exist apart from the world all of a sudden, and I struggle to link my subjective experience of life to the events that are going on around me. Like the strings connecting me to the world have been cut, and I am desperately trying to reconnect them in time… I don’t know where this feeling of haste comes from. I think it’s just that I need to know I will get better. Again, what is ‘better’? What is ‘recovery’? I am hopeless. I don’t even know myself what will make me feel better in those moments where I’m falling apart, so how could anyone else possibly help me?

I can’t think. I can’t process anything. I am crying, and I have this horrible feeling bubbling up inside me, in my chest. It claws its way up my throat and sits in the roof of my mouth. I need to expel it so badly. I don’t think I can even express this enough, how trapped that feeling is and how strong my desire is to rid myself of it. I have cried, loudly, I have punched things and gone running until my legs ache. It won’t go. It just recedes slowly, until finally I can move again and function, and I go about my daily business. I go to work, or I throw myself into something that encompasses my attention, and slowly, with nothing from me to feed it, that fog draws back into a small space in the back of my head. And I always know it’s there, but at least I can breathe again, and I can carry on in a forward motion.

At this point, I do just want to point out that as horrendous as this all sounds, I’m not in a state where you need to be worried about my safety. I feel a bit nervous, as this whole post is a bit dramatic for my tastes, but it serves a purpose for me, so I am going to go ahead with it. I need people to know how hard it is to carry on sometimes. I realise that’s extremely self-indulgent, but I’m willing to accept that if it eases some of the pressure I live with at the moment.

The frustrating thing is that I don’t feel like this even captures the full spectrum of my emotions! I feel so many other things at the same time when I experience what I’ve tried to verbalise above A mini-crisis I think, would be a decent way of describing it. It might last a few minutes, or it might drag on all evening, from the instant I get in the front door from work until I manage to fall asleep many hours later.

I’m not the only one living with mental health problems by a long, long way. And I’m not even the worst off, by even more. I am also writing about my mental health for them Everyone who is suffering from poor mental health and feels totally overwhelmed by it. It can just totally smother you, until the you the world sees is just the bare bones of you, and you are powerless to fight back.

Be kind to people, because you will never know how much they may or may not be suffering at any moment in time. Please understand that it is so hard to fight against your own mind. Imagine it. You second-guess every passing thought, to try to work out whether you are being ‘rational’ or not. You can’t trust your own judgement.

I do everything I can to maintain ‘good mental health’. I exercise, I eat well. I take my medication, I attend therapy. I am still experiencing the same cycles of being ‘fine’ and being ‘unwell’ as I did before. Not in the same way, but that pattern definitely remains. I feel like this blog is my last chance in a way. Can I heal myself through activism? I really hope so.

Thank you for sticking with me! I hope that for those of you that identify with some of the things I’ve written can find comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.

Jess

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Getting “better”

I’ve been thinking for a while that I might finally be getting better. I’ve had both low and high intensity cognitive behavioural therapy in the last 6-12 months, which I really learned a lot about myself from, and which enabled me to control my anxiety a bit better. I also have been pacing myself a lot more with my work, and managed to solve some of the issues that had been bothering me on a day-to-day basis, such as finding a new job to replace my old, stressful one. I managed to up my meds with no significant side effects. I have been exercising just like they tell you to do when you’re depressed. I make myself go out and be around people when the last thing I want to do is be sociable. Actually, I’ve been doing just about everything ‘they’ (doctors, psychologists, mental health professionals) say you should be doing to keep yourself happy. And so, I told myself that I must be getting better, because how could I not be when I’ve exhausted all my options? What else is there left to do if I don’t get better from all that?

But, as you may already suspect from my tone in that last paragraph, I am coming round to the idea now that I might not be as okay as I thought I was. I’ve been trying to fight against that thought for months, because honestly, the idea that I might still need more help, or that I still have some ‘getting better’ to do terrifies me! I feel like I’ve run out of solutions treatment-wise. I go back to my doctor for help, but she just tells me that I need to stop over-thinking things, or that sometimes it’s normal to feel certain ways. Maybe I brought that response on myself however… After all, I did admit that I was concerned that I might be making myself feel depressed, and stopping myself from getting better.

I’ve been seeking treatment for my depression/mental health problems for coming up to 7 years now, give or take a few months. So really, that makes it a chronic condition rather than an acute one. And I think when it comes to mental health problems, whether an illness is chronic or acute makes a world of difference, particularly to the way that the patient perceives themselves and their illness, and how accurately they are able to identify changes in behaviour away from what is ‘normal’.

When someone first experiences a ‘depressive episode’, having not ever been clinically depressed before, the changes in their behaviour will be fairly stark and plain to see. Someone might go from being a social butterfly to wanting nothing more than to stay inside the house all day, away from the pressures of being sociable and having to interact with people. Their appetite may either increase or decrease, they may experience sudden weight loss/gain, or they might suddenly find that they either sleep all the time or find it incredibly difficult to sleep at all. It wouldn’t be true to say that everyone can identify a definite change in their personality/behaviour upon encountering a depressive episode, but certainly I think that for the large majority of people, they will be able to complete a questionnaire and provide evidence for a substantial change indicative of depression. For me, I don’t feel like this is the case at all. Maybe to start with I experienced depression in ‘episodes’, where I saw a noticeable change in my motivation, concentration and mood etc. But honesty, nowadays I just feel like I’m consistently not experiencing life like I should be. But it’s been such a long time since before I first encountered depression, I can’t remember what that felt like. Which leads me to wonder: Am I better already, but I’m so used to being depressed that I drag myself back down out of the desire for something familiar? Or am I genuinely still ill? Is my knowledge of psychology hindering my recovery, as I constantly analyse and over-think my cognitions and behaviour?

I suppose the only way to find out is to look at the evidence as objectively as possible, considering these are my own subjective emotions that we’re discussing! Like I mentioned just now, when depression is acute, the difference in mood or behaviour before and after is very severe. You can easily compare the two and know that the low mood you are experiencing is not normal, because your emotions before were so much more positive. However, after 7 years, I sometimes doubt myself. When I’m sitting on the sofa, and I’m trying to motivate myself to get up and do something (such as work on my dissertation or make a phone call), I agonise over whether I can attribute this to my depression, which is known to sap energy and motivation, or if I’m actually just being lazy. How do I tell the difference anymore? When I’m in a class and I’m struggling to concentrate and take in the information that’s being given, is this due to my mental illness too? Experiencing poor concentration is another well-documented symptom of depression (and anxiety, which I have also been dealing with), but maybe I’m just not trying hard enough? I could go on and on like this for all my symptoms… But thinking like this is pretty exhausting, and at the end of it I just want to cry while I wait for someone to come along and just make everything better for me.

To be honest, I’m not sure what I’m getting at here. Really, I think that I must still be unwell. Because the thought that everything might just be my own doing, and that I just need to suck it up and get myself together is devastating. And that can’t be normal. If it’s normal, then I really, really don’t want to be normal at all! I can’t live like that, always doubting myself and trying to deal with the pressure of succeeding and functioning. But equally, the prospect of having to fight my GP for more referrals for therapy is so daunting. I just don’t have the energy to do that. I also don’t particularly want to increase the dose of my medication again. The more drugs I take, the higher the risk of side effects is, and the harder it will be to come off of them eventually. I also have a fear of sinking into apathy, where the only way to get away from my anxiety and depression is to take so many drugs that I feel nothing at all.

I’m so angry that it’s this hard to get help from the NHS for a mental illness. So I haven’t been able to get better from the treatment that they initially provided for me. I also feel like I’m being told that I’m not ill enough to qualify for any more support. So am I being punished for being too ill but also not ill enough at the same time? It’s a worrying thought for me, because I’m certainly not getting better by myself, so the only way to go is down. How sick do I need to be before someone will help? And how can I objectively prove that I am at that point? I can totally see how people with less support from friends and family than I have feel like their options are limited. Desperation can lead people to do very extreme things. All I can say is that I am so, so thankful for my family and friends, and for my extended social circle who I interact with regularly. You guys are my lifeline.

In an ideal world, what I would like is for my GP to refer me to see a mental health professional, who can re-assess my symptoms and make recommendations as to what treatment I should be seeking. I want to know for sure that I have spoken to someone at length about my history of mental illness, and about my current thoughts, feelings and behaviours. I want to be given a correct diagnosis, or at least a more accurate summary of what my difficulties are and where they stem from (the debate about the usefulness of a diagnosis is a totally different ball game), and then what drug treatment and/or talking therapy I might find most useful. People change over 7 years, and I’m no different. I’ve gone from mild depression, to moderate depression, to self-harm and an overdose, to mild depression, to anxiety, and then to anxiety with depression! My mental health, just like my physical health, is in a constant state of flux. I want the care I receive to reflect that.

Anxiety

Well, I’ve been having some down days recently, so I think it’s time I try and get some of those feelings onto paper! Or, onto a computer screen…

One of my biggest challenges to overcome recently has been my anxiety. It kind of crept up on me, because I started off with symptoms of depression, and so I kept focussing on that and attributing any issues I was having at the time to depression. To be honest, it never occurred to me that there might be something else going on. The first time I heard anything about it was when I went to my GP to have a medical record printed off for me, and while I was reading through it I noticed a new diagnosis listed on there- Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), with depression.

Suddenly, everything made a lot more sense, and although I know there are many who argue against diagnoses, I found it really helpful to have two separate names for my two separate symptoms. It helped me change my way of interpreting my behaviours and thoughts, and it also allowed me to explore and express my anxiety in more detail and depth. Saying that, there is frequently an overlap between the two, and I notice that they often go hand in hand! In my case, I think a fair few of my ‘anxieties’ developed as a way for me to combat the lethargy and despair that I now associate with depression. It was, and to an extent still is, a way for me to cope with depression, and although it was effective in the short term, it has only led to more difficulties in the long term!

I want to try and explain to you how my anxiety affects me on a daily basis, and I think the easiest way for me to do this is probably to break it down into sub-headings of some sort… I’m sorry if this doesn’t make a lot of sense by the way. I promise it often doesn’t make sense to me either!

I find it really hard to relax

I associate relaxing with not working hard enough, and so on my days off, after I’ve slept in, or when I’m taking a lunch break, I feel incredibly guilty. I’m still not 100% sure why I feel the need to work really hard all the time, and needless to say this compulsion has been the subject of many a therapy session! It’s been a joint effort between myself and my therapist to deduce that I seem to have absorbed the expectations placed on people by society and the media to be a ‘good person’. Somehow, I feel like I need to work myself to the point of exhaustion to prove that I’m a good person, which is frustrating, as I certainly don’t define other people as good or bad based on this criteria.

So, I generally always feel on edge, unless I’m in a space where there is a very clear expectation of what I should be doing rather than working- Such as when I went on holiday (although this was still difficult at times), or when I go to my Krav class.

I feel anxiety physically as well as psychologically

It’s that ‘butterflies in your stomach’ feeling, but all the time, x 10. Sometimes x 20.

For a while I had some really nasty physical symptoms, before I realised what was going on and started trying to express my feelings outwardly instead of bottling it all up. I had awful stomach cramps, and mild nausea on and off like, all the time. I developed this weird twitch in my right eye, which would pop up in times of particular stress, and I experienced a horrible twinge across the front of my head (/brain?) too. Then my diet wasn’t great, very on/off eating, so I felt tired all the time and couldn’t concentrate. My sleeping patterns were very disturbed too- Despite being exhausted I find it very difficult to fall asleep at times!

I think sometimes, because anxiety is classed as a ‘psychological’ illness, people forget about the fact that your brain and your body are very much linked. Your mental state can have a profound effect on your physical health, which is yet ANOTHER reason why mental and physical healthcare should be treated equally, by the way. 😉

I feel like I need to apologise all the time

So, I worry a lot, about a lot of different things, and this manifests itself in many ways. For the most part, I keep my worrying private (as unhealthy as it is), but saying ‘sorry’ all the time is something that other people can definitely notice.

There are a few reasons for this, the main one being that I have low self-esteem (to some extent), and so I get pretty convinced that I always do things wrong, and that people probably don’t like me very much. Frustratingly, it’s one of the most resilient ‘maladaptive thoughts’ that I have, so even though I know in my heart of hearts that my friends and family love me, I just can’t shake the fear that I’ll do something wrong and they’ll all leave, or that they don’t really like me at all. It’s like there’s a little voice questioning everything all the time. “They were acting a bit off the last time you said hi. Are you sure they still like you?” Or, my favourite: “You forgot to do something for them that one time, so they probably hate you now.”

So my solution for this is to apologise incessantly, at the slightest mishap, or sometimes just when I’m not sure if I’ve done something wrong, just in case. It makes me feel less anxious to apologise, and it’s very uncomfortable for me when I try and stop, inducing massive amounts of guilt and self-deprecation.

I’m not scared of meeting new people, but I worry about social interactions a lot

This is very much linked to my about point regarding saying ‘sorry’ for everything. Meeting new people is something I’ve always really enjoyed. The ‘me’ without anxiety loves making new friends and meeting new people, but to my utmost frustration, I now suffer a lot for it. I worry about what new people think of me in the same way in which I worry about people I already know deciding they don’t like me for some unknown slight. I also don’t feel like I’m a particularly likeable or interesting person, but that’s a whole different issue! (Or is it?)

Sometimes I get scared out of the blue for no reason at all

This is the part of my anxiety that I understand the least. Thanks to lots of therapy and a psychology degree, I can see quite clearly what thought patterns are causing me trouble, despite the fact that I still find it difficult to combat them. But sometimes, I will be happily going about my day, when suddenly this wave of panic comes over me. It’s not a panic attack- I know what they feel like- but I will suddenly become aware that my body is displaying all the physical symptoms of anxiety. I get butterflies in my stomach, my heart rate goes up, I start shaking. And I also feel really on edge. I’m still trying to work out which comes first, the physical feelings or the psychological feelings, but in any case It can be really exhausting to deal with!

There’s no obvious cause, which sometimes triggers even more anxiety- “Why am I feeling worried? What’s wrong with me?”- And so I generally just have to go about my day feeling super-tense and uncomfortable.

‘Nervous energy’ has taken on a whole new meaning to me

Following on nicely from my previous point, whenever I feel anxious, whether it’s for no good reason at all, or obviously triggered by a stressful situation, I take on a huge amount of ‘nervous energy’. From what I can tell, this is a fairly normal reaction to stress. I remember when I used to do a lot of acting, I would get very fidgety right before I went on stage, as would most of the rest of the cast! However, with me, nervous energy is becoming something which hinders my day to day functioning. It stops me concentrating on work, as my mind flits about from one thing to another, constantly worrying about everything at once. I can almost feel it physically in my hands and arms, in my legs and feet, and in my shoulders and upper back. I can’t sit down for too long as that feeling will build up in my legs until it’s so uncomfortable that I need to get up and pace. Sometimes the energy will transform into frustration, and I start feeling very aggressive and angry. If I’m having a particularly bad day, I end up in tears on the floor punching the nearest thing to me.

So, it’s not so much just ‘nerves’. It’s a horrible uncomfortable itching feeling that will at best just stop me from working productively, and at worst will debilitate me for a time and sometimes lead to me inadvertently hurting myself when I lash out. It depends on how resilient I’m feeling on the day, and what the days leading up to it have been like. I suppose the nervous energy must build up as I experience the things listed above which cause me anxiety, and then culminate in me expelling it all in whatever way I can. It doesn’t always happen like that, as there are coping mechanisms which I can use to defuse the situation. But, despite my training in such coping skills, it can be very hard to implement them yourself when you need them.

 

I hope that this post helps with your understanding of anxiety, or offers you an alternative account of what anxiety feels like if you suffer from it yourself. Most probably, if you have anxiety and are reading this, then you’ll recognise a lot of the feelings I describe. I’d also like to point out at this time that you can have anxiety and not experience it like I do, or like anyone else does for that matter! Similar to when you catch a cold, you can experience some symptoms but not others, and still be classified as having ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’. If you have any concerns about your mental health, please visit one of the websites listed below for help and advice. You know yourself best- If something doesn’t feel right, please go speak to your GP or another healthcare professional, or even just someone you trust!

 

Thank you for reading. 🙂

 

Mind: http://www.mind.org.uk/

Time to Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/

Rethink Mental Illness: http://www.rethink.org/

Mental Health Foundation: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/

Samaritans: http://www.samaritans.org/