The Human Christmas Cracker

It’s that time of year again, Christmas is just around the corner and whilst there are so many things I love about this holiday – seeing friends and family, giving and receiving (especially receiving) presents and the exceptional selection of festive cheeses – a lot of the time I find this time of year extremely difficult and I spend most of the season feeling like I’m about to snap like a human Christmas cracker. There is a strong social expectation to be happy and jovial throughout the holiday season. The words ‘jolly’, ‘merry’, and ‘happy’ are plastered on every card, every advertisement, pasted on the walls of every corner and when you aren’t feeling happy within yourself it’s tough not to feel like everyone is rubbing their jollity in your stupid, miserable face. At this time of year I feel a whole surge of emotions and questions surfacing, I feel jealous that everyone else seems to be having a good time – why aren’t I? Is there something wrong with me? Then I start to feel guilty for feeling this way – Christmas is a great time of year and I am so fortunate to get to spend it surrounded by family and friends, with cupboards full of delicious treats and heaps of presents. So why do I still feel so sad? Am I ungrateful? Then I just begin to feel broken, like there must be something so fundamentally wrong with me, that my brain must be so utterly fucked that the apparently simple objective of happiness seems completely unattainable.

Christmas also brings with it a whole load of fun social events, work Christmas dos, meeting up with old friends, visiting family – and whilst I do want to do all of these things I find it can be really anxiety inducing. In social situations I often feel nervous and insecure and overthink everything, worrying if I have said the wrong thing, or done something stupid. Naturally, many of these social occasions involve alcohol and lots of it. Alcohol and I have a somewhat rocky relationship beginning from when my mental health was at its worst, I used to drink a lot of alcohol and although I was not dependent on it, I used it as a kind of self-medication to help me escape my own thoughts. Whenever I drink now I think subconsciously I associate the feeling with that time in my life and those thoughts come back to me. Usually when I am drunk I feel good and almost euphoric; like I can do anything, but the next day my mood plunges dramatically. I feel guilt and shame. My hangovers are usually rife with tears and very dark, harmful thoughts. I know my relationship with alcohol is an issue that needs addressing, but I think that’s one for another post.

As I am writing this I still have alcohol in my system from last night so I’m feeling pretty crappy. I am noticing a lot of bad thoughts creeping into my head and I have a pretty much non-existent sense of self-worth. I am sorry this post has been a bit of a downer so I’m going to try my best to end on a positive note. Christmas is a great time of year to show your loved ones you care about them, and for that reason I think it can be a very good thing for your mental health. Although this expectation to be happy around Christmas can be damaging, it also provides a platform on which we can take the opportunity to open up conversations about mental health – ask your loved ones how they really are, tell people how you feel and talk to each other. It is so easy to feel alone when you suffer in silence, so if you are having a hard time please talk about it and if you are not please try and give your loved ones plenty of opportunities to open up. There really is a lot of truth in the phrase ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’.

 

Wishing you all good mental health!

A

I’m Not Okay, and That’s Okay – The Five Reasons I Lie.

I know that I promised this blog post would be about my journey to recovery, but after receiving a text from a close friend, I needed to take some time to reflect – and what better way to do that than letting my feelings splurge out from the ends of my fingertips onto the screen before me in that half-nonsensical-rambling-maniac way they so often do. The text in question was not offensive, infuriating or malicious in any way. In fact it is a text I receive a lot from the people that love me. It is a text that someone in my position longs for, and yet simultaneously dreads. Simply, it read ‘How are you?’

As I send my response (some variation of ‘I’m fine’, ‘not bad’ or ‘I’m okay how are you?’) I find myself brooding over why I always say I am okay, when I’m not okay. So I decided to explore the reasons why I lie when people reach out to me with genuine concern. As a disclaimer, I just want to say – the reason I am writing this is to firstly come to terms with why I have formed this habit in the hope of breaking it and becoming more honest and open with people when I am having a bad day. Also, I’d like to give people an insight into how difficult it can be for someone suffering from a mental illness to just come out and say how they are feeling. Finally, I’d like this post to reach out to those who can relate to this situation – hopefully we can work through this together and come out of the other side saying: “I’m not okay, and that’s okay”.

 

Upon rigorous reflection I have concluded there are five main factors that lead me to hide my feelings from even the closest of friends. The list is as follows:

Firstly, I don’t want to be a burden. Nobody wants to be branded as a Negative Nancy who brings everyone down all of the time by talking about their problems. I want people to see me as a fun person that they want to be with rather than a pessimistic bore. I fear that by opening up to people I will make them worry about me, and that this will make them unhappy. Nobody wants to see their friend or partner or child suffer – so sometimes I bury my feelings deep, to be dug up at a more convenient time. Ultimately, I just don’t want to be that anvil in the cartoon that you see hurtling towards you with that comical whistle that you know will inevitably crush us both into the earth.

Secondly, I’m a very insecure person. My depression makes me see a very obscured vision of myself and this can be destructive to my self-esteem. I often feel such an unadulterated hatred towards myself that it obstructs my view of the compassion others show towards me. I begin to think everyone sees me in this way. I begin to think that people don’t really care how I am and that they are simply just asking to keep up with British social niceties. Of course, when I am in a better frame of mind I can see how much my friends and family care about me and I’m extremely grateful to the help and support they give me but unfortunately when I am not well this can become veiled by my own insecurities.

Thirdly, I’m a perfectionist. This is a word that has come up a lot throughout my life in meetings with various psychiatrists, therapists and mental health professionals I have seen over the years. Because of the insecurities I often struggle to present to the world the best possible version of myself I can – and funnily enough this does not include the portrait of a girl who has panic attacks in public and an ugly crying face. I think this perfectionism is a trait that thrives in this age of living life through social media accounts – by default we are programmed to deliberate obsessively over the image of ourselves we choose to show to the world. I also constantly compare myself to others and beat myself up about the fact that I am not handling things as well as I perceive others to be. When I think like this I start to see my depression and anxiety as something that makes me worthless and inferior – and I try my best to hide this.

The fourth reason is that I want to be the one to help! That’s right, it’s that trivial. I just want my friends and family to feel like they can come to me when they are down, and that they have someone to confide in without being a burden to (ironic, I know). I want to be doing things for other people and trying to make them feel better about themselves – and how exactly can I do this if I admit my life feels like the emotional equivalent of standing on a slug barefooted?

Yep, you all saw this last one coming a mile off – the final reason I say I’m okay when I’m not is because of STIGMA. Despite how hard my fellow campaigners at Time To Change and I are trying – there is still a huge sense of shame that comes with admitting that you are not okay mentally. Despite my best efforts to be more open about my mental health, the stigma that surrounds it is still a huge obstacle that I have yet to hurdle over.

So there you have it – the five reasons I lie. I hope some of you have found this useful or that it has at least helped you to gain an insight into my perspective. The final thing I want to leave this post with is some positive advice. Despite all of the insecurities I have outlined in this piece I urge you all to keep on sending those texts! Keep calling your loved ones to check they are okay, and keep on asking if they want to come round for that brew. Although people are not always guaranteed to open up to you about their problems, one thing I can guarantee is that the more you offer your support the more that person will see they are loved, cared for and they are not alone. The more you keep gently offering support and showing concern for their wellbeing the more comfortable they will feel to open up when they are ready to do so. Sometimes asking someone how they are is not just about finding out exactly what is going on in their head but it is more about letting them know that you are there for them, you care and you are not going anywhere.

Wishing you all good mental health!

A

University and my Mental Health

Before I begin the disjointed warblings of my second blog post I’d like to thank everyone for their feedback on my first ever post! I cannot even begin to describe how overwhelming it was to receive such fierce support from my amazing friends. I was genuinely terrified to post that first blog – especially as it came from such a place of loneliness and self-doubt. The relentless encouragement people gave me has made me feel so much less isolated and gave me an overpowering sense of hope, not just for the improvement of my own mental health, but for the attitudes of people towards mental health in general – and I mean that with deep sincerity.

My brain has been tick-tocking long and hard trying to decide what my second blog post should be about and I have decided to begin by writing about where my most recent decline in mental health has stemmed from. Obviously there were many factors that contributed, but in this post I’d like to concentrate on the one which I thought had the biggest affect on me: University. Last academic year was set to be my final year at University – I had always enjoyed my work and as a literature student I got to choose the majority of what I studied and nothing thrilled me more than sinking my teeth into a gritty Early Modern drama or an embittered epic poem. In my first two years at University I loved the work I did – I attended every lecture, devoured every book and delighted in the concocting of obscure interpretations of texts. I once wrote a whole essay on the significance of the hymen in renaissance drama, and I even wrote a piece on the character of Lady Macbeth and her relationship with the menstrual cycle (no I did not attribute her murderous rampage to PMT!). These whacky ideas served me well, I was proud of the results I was getting and most importantly I was content with the work I produced.

When third year began the stress levels hit new highs, and this was not unusual – all of my friends were facing the same challenges and everyone was finding the work load demanding. For me, I found third year to be shrouded in toxicity with little life/work balance. The fixation with work for many students like me became an unhealthy obsession and this is exactly the kind of environment in which mental illnesses thrive. It is no wonder that mental health problems are so common among university students. All anyone ever talked about was their Uni work, there was no switching off from it. In my head it became the be-all and end-all of my existence and soon I stopped looking after my health and it made me very ill.

After a careless comment from a lecturer that I had had always looked up to academically until fairly recently, that my achievement of a 2:1 in my first assignment of third year was not good enough and that they were ‘disappointed’ and ‘would have expected better’ from me, my mental health started to spiral out of control. My mood disorder seemed to cling to these words and prospered in their negativity. My already low self-esteem gave way to unadulterated self-loathing and I began to equate all of my self-worth with the results I got in my academic work. If my work wasn’t good enough then was I good enough?

It got to a point where I was so afraid of failing, disappointing my family and falling behind my peers, that my body physically wouldn’t let me keep going. Every time I opened my dissertation file on my laptop extreme anxiety would escalate into a panic attack; my heart would start palpitating to the point where I was worried it would give out on me, my whole body would shake, my stomach convulse and tears would flood from my eyes. This was of course not helped by the fact that these panic attacks were, more often than not, in public spaces. They often occurred in the library or some other university building where handfuls of students would be staring at me – some with genuine concern and some with derision. This would happen to me at least once or twice a day. I felt like I was completely losing my mind – and in front of an audience no less! I no longer felt in control of my body or my emotions and I would spend a lot of my time refusing to leave the safety and isolation of my bedroom.

Finally, with only a few months to go before finishing University for good, I made a decision that I will always stand by – the decision to take a leave of absence from my studies. This was a scary decision to have to make and was not made any easier by the constant comments from my peers, friends, lecturers and family who all felt in necessary to point out that it was ‘such a shame’ that I was dropping out so close to the end of my studies. As if I didn’t feel enough of a hopeless failure! Although the suggestions that I ‘just keep trying’ made me feel small and angry – (could people not see how hard I had been trying already?!) I realize that this came from the lack of understanding of mental health that is so deeply embedded in our society – the British mantra of ‘keep calm and carry on’ still, apparently, reigns true. Unfortunately this popular way of thinking did not change how broken I felt inside. I have resolved not to blame people for thinking this way – it is a fault that lies with society and should not be seen as a reflection on any individual. Instead I hope that by writing this blog as honestly as I can I will be able to give people an insight into what it is like living with a mental illness because if you haven’t faced one yourself it’s not easy to understand – and that is okay. But for these people I will say this – please try and educate yourselves more on the subject because one day it could be you or your loved ones that are affected and having a better understanding of mental health will make it that little bit easier to cope.

Thankfully I am in recovery now, my panic and anxiety have improved drastically compared to a few months ago with thanks to regular sessions of cognitive behavior therapy and medication. I am still working on getting better and I still find it incredibly difficult to do my university work but I’m hoping to graduate maybe in the summertime if I can and if not, you know – I don’t think I care! There so much more important things in life than a university degree and I am determined to keep working on getting better so I can start enjoying my life again and focus on what really matters. My self worth does not equal my academic merits and I am determined not to continue thinking in this harmful way.

In a blog post coming soon I will be writing in greater detail about my ongoing recovery this time round, so if you are interested please keep reading!

Wishing you all good mental health!

A

Howay man, get happy!

Hello everyone and welcome to my brand new blog: Howay Man Get Happy!

Happiness is a rather abstract term, it is difficult for me to pin down exactly what it means. For many people happiness is circumstantial, it is determined by having close friends and a family that loves you, being successful and in a good financial situation – I think we can all agree that these are things that most of us desire in life. However, I find myself at a point where I have amazing and supportive friends, a family that loves me, an incredible partner who is simultaneously my best friend, I have enough money for luxuries and a roof over my head and yet I am still not ‘happy’. As you can imagine this can be frustrating to say the least, and at times it takes all of my willpower not to throw myself down on the floor, like a bratty child in Asda who has just been denied sweets by a health-conscious parent, and shout “IT’S NOT FAIR, IT’S NOT FAIR!” So in this respect the title of my blog ‘Howay Man Get Happy’ is meant ironically – because for some people it’s just not that simple. Now I have come to a time in life where I understand my illness better: like it or not it is a part of me. I accept that it is there and that’s okay – but I will not let it control me or define who I am.

I have been mulling over the idea of starting a blog about my experiences with mental health for a few years now and I thought it was about time I bite the bullet and begin writing. I have suffered from a depressive disorder since childhood, to put it simply that means sometimes I get sad for no reason and I often suffer from long episodes of depression where I find it difficult to be happy. I believe there is a chemical imbalance in my brain that makes it difficult for me to feel happiness. I am sensitive and some things affect me emotionally more than they might affect other people. However, this doesn’t mean I can’t be happy. I am a cheerful person in my natural state and on my good days I am a complete optimist – although this can sometimes be clouded by my illness. Earlier this year I found my mental health deteriorating once again, which I admit has been pretty scary, and with the introduction to my new friends Mr. Panic Attack and Mrs. Generalised Anxiety the road to recovery has been as difficult as ever. I am hoping that through writing this blog I will be able to connect more with my own emotions and share the ups and downs of my quest to mental wellness. I am going to try and be as frank and honest about my experiences as I can be, so things might get a bit gritty at times but I’d love for you all to stick around for the ride.

My illness comes with no physical symptoms – I have no disfigured limbs, no facial swelling, no overbearing putrid odor – so people don’t always notice when I am not well. This is perhaps one of the reasons mental health problems are often swept under the rug. The shame and stigma attached to mental health can be detrimental to the recovery of individuals and destructive in our society. 1 in 4 people suffer from a mental health problem every year and yet the majority of us know nothing about it. It is not taught in schools, it is not regularly monitored in young people and it is not talked about openly among friends and colleagues. The more we talk about mental health, the less we will regard it as a taboo subject and the less scary it will seem. The more we talk the more people will feel comfortable seeking help for their problems at earlier stages. The more we talk the more we will prevent mental illnesses from escalating to become a major risk to people’s mental and physical wellbeing. So that is the other main reason for me starting this blog – I want to be one of the many people who are starting conversations about mental health, breaking down the taboos and smashing the stigma to smithereens.

Wishing you all good mental health!

A