Project HeatherED

Live your happiest, healthiest, and emotionally wealthiest life

Category: Mental Health Matters

The Writer’s Block Post (or why I’m giving my broken brain a break)

Writing is most definitely a skill. You write daily – at least, that’s the intention – and over time you become better at it. Even editing gets easier; the whole process speedier.

Persist with your practise a little longer, and eventually you find your own writing style. Something magical happens and you “sound like” you on the page.

It all sounds so romantic – and it is! When ^this^ happens, it’s the most wonderful feeling! This year I’ve fallen back in love with writing; I’m completely and utterly enamoured of it.

But like anything worth having, writing doesn’t always come easily.

Thus far I’m proud to have published here at least once a week. Oftentimes, I’ve simply shared a story around my weekly gratitudes, but I’ve kept my promise to myself – and you, my readers.

Regular posts have arisen naturally – I’m not holding myself to any publishing schedule. I haven’t needed to do so.

Writing itself makes me happy. It’s when I feel most connected with my “authentic self”; a “woo-woo” way of saying the version of me that feels most myself. Whether here on this blog, behind-the-scenes on my Google Drive, or on a scruffy piece of paper stuffed into my backpack, writing is how I sort through the contents of my mind. It slows down my thinking and brings me a sense of peace.

If that weren’t motivation enough, then there’s you – the reader. Sharing my story has created opportunities for connection that might otherwise have gone amiss. Relationships have grown – or in some cases, been rekindled – as a result of a single moment during which I felt brave enough to share Project HeatherED with the world. A world which, albeit, small, has grown exponentially, thanks to the power of the written word.

Which goes some way to explain my frustration of late at losing my publishing mojo. If you’re following along, you’ll likely be aware that I’m mid-mental meltdown. Held firmly by anxiety, and it’s close companion, depression, I’m not in the best frame of mind for making creative decisions. Writing – at least, writing for eyes other than my own – is its own challenge.

This beloved blog has therefore become something of a struggle. It feels like my broken brain is trying to break my heart, too, by keeping me from what brings me joy. I’m increasingly irritated when words won’t come, which ironically only makes things worse.

Like Keiko cat, I’m chasing my tail and getting nowhere quickly.

So after much internal debate, I’ve decided to give myself a bit of a break. Lift the pressure off. Like I said earlier, I’m not technically committed to regular publishing days or times, but I’m subconsciously setting standards. My perfectionist tendencies don’t need publication schedules to hold me to a habit. Used to writing weekly, my mind makes anything “other” feel like a failure.

Which is why I’m making a conscious decision not to publish here for the next month.
I recognise my need for clear boundaries if my brain is to relax, rest, and recover. Enforcing recovery, in a way, I hope will give me space and time recharge my mental batteries.

To do the actual work of recovery, rather than trying too hard to record the process as it happens.

It’s kind of missing the point, don’t you think?!

At the same time, I’ve literally just gone back to work. Five half-days, to be exact. I’m on “staged return”, which means I’m currently working part-time because my mental health issues leave me physically and emotionally drained. It takes a lot of energy to recover – yet another good reason to take it easy on myself.

And so I’m pressing pause on publishing posts. Just for a moment. I’ll take a few breaths, regroup, and come back better than before. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that, having decided to step back, my brain will step up a gear and find its way back to itself. I hope so. I’m kind of counting on it.

Because I love writing. Truly, I’m head-over-heels with the whole process! Beyond the mental peace writing brings, I’m creating honest, open-hearted connections with like-minded people like you. My world is bigger and brighter as a result.

Anyone who reads this blog will know how much it matters to me. It matters too much for me to ruin its magic by forcing myself to write when words aren’t forthcoming.

Which is why I’m hoping you’ll bear with me whilst I focus on recovering my mental health.

In the meanwhile, subscribe for my email updates by entering your address in the box at the top right of this page. You’ll be the first to know whenever there’s a new post on Project HeatherED. I’d also love you to connect with me over on Facebook.

I’ll be back soon to share more stories!

Heather
x

The Back to the Future Post (or how I’m planning a mentally healthy return to work)

This morning I spoke with my line manager to arrange going back to work from the middle of next week. Just mornings, to start, and – only if they go well – then slowly building back to my usual full-time hours.

Phone calls, I find, are particularly challenging when I’m unwell. I think most people my age and younger feel the same way, though this is amplified when my mental health isn’t tip-top. Today it felt especially hard to speak on the phone. I didn’t know what to say.

When you’re mentally unwell, being asked “how are you?” takes on another level of meaning. Even when you’re physically sick, it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint how exactly you feel at any given moment. You can 10X this for someone with a mental health issue. Honestly, it feels like I have to find something positive to tell the well-meaning inquirer at the other end of the line. I find myself saying something that boils down to “Look! I’m getting better!” I can almost feel the forced smiles. Reassuring others that I’m going to be okay, when I don’t actually know this myself, is scary.

It’s over an hour since we spoke. Whilst I know that my planned return is rationally a good decision, I feel anxious about it.  Not having felt much of anything in the past few weeks, it’s unsettling to suddenly feel familiarly unpleasant sensations. The tightness in my jaw and my chest. I realise I’m not breathing properly – I’ve been holding my breath – so take a few deep lungfuls of air and relax a touch as the oxygen revitalises my brain.

For the first time in a few weeks, I’m overwhelmed. Plans to walk to the shops slowly disintegrate. It feels too much to put away the washing, to bake pretty pastel-coloured cupcakes for my nieces, even to tackle the washing up. I just don’t want to do anything any more. No, thank you.

I don’t like how this feels. I remember that this is what it’s like to have a mental meltdown. I need to stop; be still and see what comes up for me. Wait for my emotional self to catch up with the rational part. Knowing my back-to-work plan is the right thing to do motivates me to take action. I’ve metaphorically opened my mental first-aid kit, tapping into tried-and-tested tools at hand that I hope will help me become better. I’m here writing to you, for one.

Immediately after hanging up the phone, I went to take a shower (and yes; I’m aware that this is lazy behaviour at 10.30am, but I have been writing for much of the morning). I find this to be a perfect place to tune into what’s happening in my body and brain. With the sounds of the shower drowning out my self-consciousness, I talk to myself aloud, heart-to-heart. Talking myself down from the metaphorical, anxiety-fuelled ledge, so to speak. Like any conversation with someone I love, I literally ask myself questions out loud – and I answer from the heart.

To anyone else, this talking to myself would look like utter madness. It feels that way to me, too. However I’m learning to care less about what others might think. If anything helps me feel better – closer to a healthier, happier version of myself – then I’ll give it a try. Taking the decision to be completely open about being on sick leave for mental health reasons helps. It feels authentic; to be true to myself and my values. And as far as I know, so far, so good.

This week I’ve sought comfort and companionship from Russell Brand’s book, “Recovery”, on Audible. Logically, I know I’m not alone in experiencing common conditions like anxiety, depression, and disordered eating. In practise I find I need to remind myself over and again that I’m not the first to struggle this way – nor will I be the last – and books like this helps. I recognise myself in their stories – and those of others, who also find themselves in a dark place.

More than ever, I find myself drawn towards self-help and recovery stories. Right now, I need to hear tales of people who’ve come through the other side of mental meltdown. Russell is an extreme example of this.  I accept I’m a little obsessive about this stuff. C finds the whole genre uncomfortable and would rather I read something else: a bit of sci-fi or fantasy, perhaps? However I find I enjoy spending time technically on my own, but via books and podcasts, simultaneously surrounded by people who’ve walked a similar path.

These “non-experts” – “leading learners”, as described by the Fizzle guys – are especially interesting to me. With experiential – rather than academic – expertise, these people successfully manage their minds. A mental mind-field, they’ve dug themselves out of the proverbial dark hole that bit sooner than the rest of us. We keep scrabbling at the sides of said hole, getting a bit of traction, only to find ourselves sliding back.

Ahead on the road to recovery, these Leading Learners choose to turn back and offer us a hand, sharing said experience and strategies which have worked for them. As I tentatively step forward, I hope to become someone who can, in turn, offer this crucial support to someone else, whether in person or virtually, via this blog.  It’s a virtuous circle, I suppose, and one of which I’m striving to be a part.

As a responsible adult, I know it’s important that I return to work. I’ve got a mortgage to pay, a partner to support, and two kitty mouths to feed. Still, I’m scared. Not of the work itself, but of what being in work might do to my fragile state of mind. Taking time out has shown me how imperative it is that I prioritise my mental wellbeing. I’m conscious of not going back too soon and sliding backwards.

Though I’m returning to the same environment – the same job – I don’t want to return to being the same person who left, a shadow of herself a few weeks prior. I’d incrementally become disinterested, despondent, depressed. I recognise this person from previous troubled times and I’m afraid that this version of myself might be back for good.

I still don’t know why I had this mental meltdown. I’m not yet able to pin down exactly what’s not working, other than my mind. It’s a complex knot to unpick, and it’ll take time to unravel. Whilst I’d love to resolve any and all issues immediately – perfectly – first time around, I accept this isn’t how things work. I’m learning to be okay with slowing down, being patient, and creating more balance.

I’m confident that I’ve devised a sensible strategy to get back to some kind of normalcy. As the person who knows me best, I’m taking the lead on my return to work, at a pace I can handle. I know it’s a good plan; I’ve checked with those who love and understand me most. Although I’m trying to cut out reassurance-seeking as part of my recovery, it’s a hard habit to break.

So I’ve made an exception in this case because work matters, not only financially but emotionally, too. It’s an important factor when it comes to self-esteem. I want to feel like I’m contributing; like I’m pulling my weight and making a positive difference. I have to make clear here that paid work isn’t the only way to do this. It’s only one part of the bigger picture when it comes to living a happy, healthy, and emotionally wealthy way of life. Volunteering, creative work (blogging anyone?!), and taking care of those we love are all valuable ways to contribute.

Yet work continues to be an important part, which is why I’m trying so hard to go back to work sooner rather than later. In any case, right now I feel better about my return to work after a liberal application of the Three Ts – hot tea, toast, and telly! Sometimes I find that the best way to take good care of myself is by doing the most simple things.

P.S. I sense that I’m starting to drift off-topic, so if this particular post feels rather disorganised, then that’s most likely because it is. I hope you’ll forgive me – after all, I’m still a bit mental, remember?!

Much love,

Heather x

 

The First-in-a-Fortnight Post (or why I’m struggling to share my experience of a mental meltdown)

As anyone who follows me on Facebook already knows, I’m currently on sick leave for mental health reasons. Though there’s never a simple explanation for these things, in my case, depression and anxiety are once again on the scene.

It’s the first time I’ve ever taken time off work like this. It’s not at all like I expected.

I imagined that if I were to ever “give in” and stay home – and yes, that’s how I’ve thought about it; at least as it applies to myself –  I’d have to be at my very worst.

Emotionally uncontrollable; my life falling apart at the seams; borderline suicidal.

Closer to self-destruction than ever before. More so than even my twenty-something self who found herself standing at the platform’s edge at a Parisian station wanting so badly to put an end to her pain.

You’ll be pleased to hear that nothing so dramatic brought me to this place. I simply found myself overwhelmed and overloaded by everyday life.

Eventually, it’s like my mind simply switched off. Refused to reboot.

Long story short, I tried to carry on as normal. I briefly existed in a zombie-like state, staring at my computer screen. However I couldn’t keep up the pretence of being okay. After a meeting with my manager, we agreed I needed to head home, rest and relaxation to temporarily replace to-do lists.

Turns out that sick leave after a mental meltdown looks rather different from that of any other illness.

Unlike being home with the flu (or, more likely, a cold), being absent from work for mental reasons doesn’t mean you’re housebound. On the contrary, getting out and about is a sign of being en route to recovery. Coffee dates with friends, going to gym classes, taking long walks in the countryside.  In theory, I can do whatever I like, whenever I like, and go wherever I wish. Sounds idyllic!

Yet this is at odds with the reality, at least in my experience.  

Whilst I’m not technically limited as to what I can do, I’m mentally restricted by how much I feel I can handle. Which isn’t anywhere near as much as I’d like. Effectively burnt out, my brain seems to have gone into hibernation. Physically, I might not be tucked up in bed, but my brain seems to have retreated, metaphorically tucking itself in with a hot water bottle to wait this thing out. 

Like when a computer hasn’t been properly shut down, I feel like I’ve restarted in “safety mode”. Only the most basic programs are running , and even they have limited functionality. Sleep, eat, read, TV, repeat. 

Concentration compromised, I can only focus on one thing at a time. Single-tasking is the order of the day. This I’ve found to be frustratingly slow going. Like most women, I’m a prolific multi-tasker so it’s positively painful to have to relearn this skill – and it is a skill – which isn’t as easy as you’d think.

Even then, my brain refuses to entertain anything complex. This thwarts any ingenious ideas as to how I might maximise my time. Learning anything new (like much-needed skills in web design) falls to the wayside, requiring a depth of thought of which I’m not currently capable. 

Instead I’m forced to stick to the most simplistic, surface-level subjects. Superheroes series are proving to be especially soothing to my tired mind. I can escape into Marvel (always, over DC) movies for a few hours.

Reading about recovery from depressive illness, it turns out I’m unintentionally doing the best thing to give my brain a break:

“The answers are to find any way that you can of keeping your brain just idling, to avoid any challenging activities wherever possible and to do what you have to do in very small chunks. Best of all, be passive. The ideal would be an undiluted diet of Australian soap operas, if you can stomach that sort of thing. They allow you to sit and not ruminate – a sort of mental wallpaper, filling up the space and covering over the cracks.”

Dr Tim CantopherDepressive Illness: The curse of the strong

(2003, p.38)

 

Whilst I’ve zero intention of reviving my interest in “Neighbours” or “Home and Away”, I am partial to a bit of reality TV.  “Made in Chelsea” is currently topping the bill of tolerable TV trash, but other firm favourites include anything “Housewives”, and pretty much everything on TLC (“Say Yes To The Dress”, anyone?!).  This is one time when even C deems reality TV acceptable, though I’m saving him from the very worst of this by indulging during working hours.

On a more serious note,  I’m finding it frustratingly difficult to do the things I love most. Ironically, these are the same things that are most likely to help me heal. Take writing, for example. It’s taken me more than a fortnight to create something I feel comfortable publishing. This is the longest I’ve ever left between blog posts. Not feeling able to put words to my experience hurts more than just about anything when it comes to being mentally unwell. My throat tightens just thinking about it.

So, in an effort to overcome this particularly painful obstacle, I’ve pushed myself to publish this imperfect post today.

To give you an idea as to how challenging this has been, I started to write over a brew that C Kindly made for me before leaving for work. On a Monday morning whilst the rest of the world is working, I’m still sitting on the sofa, typing away on my Mac, unwashed in my PJs.  I finished the first draft around midday – over three hours later! Honestly, it’s taken me most of my day to create something that spans just a thousand words.

As you can tell, it’s frustratingly, painfully, s-l-o-w progress and it certainly isn’t the best piece I’ve ever written. (Those you can find here and here!)

However it’s important to me to write and share this with you. By putting my words into the world again, I’ve achieved something today for which I can feel proud. I’m not back to my best just yet, but I am making moves to counter my mental meltdown. I’m working towards become better, which is ultimately the essence of the recovery process.

In publishing this very post, I’ve taken a tiny step in a positive direction – and Reader: 

I’m grateful to have you with me. 

The Teen Angst Post (or Ten Things I Hate About You, Depression)

By some twist of fate (or perhaps just C’s bad taste in telly), we ended up watching Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema on BBC Four. Now, I’m not a fan of movie review shows. I prefer to make up my own mind about whether or not to watch something. Yet this show caught my attention because it was about the “Coming of Age” movie.

IMG_3333. Ever the emotional dramatist, my teenage self relates so deeply to the characters they portray I can’t help being pulled into their narrative. From those films I grew up watching (like “Clueless“, “The Craft“, and later, “Lost Boys“) to those I discovered and fell madly in love with in later life (most notably, “The Breakfast Club“), I’m stuck on these stories of growing up. They move me in a unique way, stirring emotions and memories long-since forgotten.

 

Like me, it seems like many of the stars in these particular films struggle with their mental health. Tragic tales of teen actors abound, many of whom find themselves in rehab before their twenty-first birthdays . Whilst some successfully recover in later life, some do not. I’m thinking specifically of talented young actors like Corey Haim, Heath Ledger, and Brittany Murphy. Despite their infinite potential, their internal pain far exceeded anything else. It’s uncomfortable to speak about suicide and addiction-related death, even on a mental health blog. However it’s important to acknowledge because their ending could easily have been my own had my life not taken a different turn.

Getting back to why I’m writing this long introduction for such a short post, rediscovering my love of teen films coincides with my own recent depressive episode. Embarassingly, and in the kind of dramatic terms we associate with teenagers (though in my experience, adults are as guilty as teens of this), I’m having a bit of a personal “creative crisis”. The more astute readers may have noticed that I’ve not yet published my weekly TWIG post, which is because I’m finding it hard to write just now.  Staring at my screen, shuffling words, I’m not getting anywhere fast. I’m putting the hours in, and publishing nothing – and it’s frustrating the hell out of me!

This weekend I decided put my writing woes aside and instead, sank into the world of a teenager, Mia, in a film I’d not yet seen. Namely, “Fish Tank” starring the fabulous Fassbender (AKA “Shark Teeth”, at least in my house).

Something clicked.

The wistful, twisted emotional discomfort I felt as I put myself into the shoes of the film’s protagonist did something to unlock my creativity.

I was suddenly and randomly inspired by the heart-wrenching poem at the heart of another fantastic film, “Ten Things I Hate About You“. This movie is a little more of the rom-com, albeit more of a black comedy than most. Still within the realms of teenage angst, it somehow epitomises my relationship with depression, which developed during my teenage years and has become a kind of internal frenemy.

A tongue-in-cheek nod to the aforementioned poem, I’ve penned the following ode to depression:

My Ten Things I Hate About You, Depression

I hate the way you shut me up. Quite literally – my tongue feels swollen to twice its size and I’m unable to speak without slurring my words.

I hate the way you slow me down. I crawl through the days, zombie-like, whenever you’re around. My legs leaden, I drag myself along, going through the motions.

I hate the way you steal my mind. Frustratingly, you make me forget my words. You leave me hanging mid-sentence, embarrassed; you make me look stupid.

I hate the way you make me numb. In trying to keep me safe, you shut me off from any kind of emotion. Even – or perhaps especially – the good ones, which only makes things harder for me.

I hate the way you steal my sparkle. I don’t feel like laughing when you’re around. You drain the fun out of me. You steal my sunshine.

I hate the way you make me selfish. I care so deeply about others, and yet with you, my attention is entirely consumed. There’s no room for anyone else; just you and me. You’re an emotionally abusive partner. You’re my frenemy.

I hate the way you make me cry. And it’s never about anything in particular. Sometimes, at the end of a movie when I’ve spent the past two hours living someone else’s life, I don’t want to come back to mine. So I cry.

I hate the way you isolate me. You make me lie to friends and family when you convince me to cancel plans last-minute. To keep me “safe”, but from whom? You encourage me to push away the people I need and love most. You make me afraid to try to make new friends.I hate the way you make me lonely.

I hate the way you make me disappear. I’m a ghost hovering on the edges of my own life when you’re around. I float on the edge of my own existence. Like watching my life unfold from behind soundproof glass. Sometimes, it feels like I’m screaming and no one can hear

But mostly, I hate the way I don’t really hate you.

Instead, you make me hate myself.

We’re tied so closely together, you and I. I can’t quite trust myself when it comes to knowing how much of what I think is me is actually you, and how much of what I think is you is actually me. So I assume the worst of us both.

Reading this back to myself aloud, it has a certain kind of power. A strength that’s simultaneously sad, but also truthful. It feels like an authentic account of depression and I. The opposite of a love letter, I suppose.

There’s even something strangely satisfying about being able to capture something intangible – like depression, which is really just a state of mind – and pin it down in words. It reminds me of the Victorian butterflies on my living room wall, pinned and frozen in time. Beautiful, in a macabre kind of way.

BugBox

Writing on Depression is my Emotional Entomology

Perhaps I’m invoking my perpetual moody teenager in this piece. You know, the sixteen year-old goth who comes out whenever I’m in the company of my parents for too long. She’s definitely in here somewhere. After all, my Mum’s literally only just stopped buying me gifts in varying shades of black (seriously).

Still, I think I’ve nailed how insidious my experience of this particular form mental illness can be: taking me over, throwing a tantrum inside my mind, causing chaos in my internal world.

Thankfully, I’m starting to feel the fog lift. Depression comes and goes, I find, and it’s often only a matter of time before it comes to pass. Though it hurts like a b*tch in the meanwhile.

In a way, it’s because of this cyclical nature that it feels even more important to acknowledge how my present state of mind massively impacts upon on who I am and how I navigate the world in any given moment.

Think of it like the grown-up version of going through puberty. An adult adolescence of sorts; an eternal version of the emotional turmoil you feel as a teenager. It’s invisible, embarrassingly uncomfortable, and affects absolutely every part of my life experience to date.

 

The Twentieth TWIG Post (or making a mental health confessional this week)

So, I have a confession to make before I get into my gratitudes.

My mental health isn’t in the best shape at the moment.

IMG_3431I’ve been able to tell for few weeks now that I’ve been sinking a little. Some signs I’ve picked up on include:

  • No motivation to get into the gym. Something pretty standard for most people, but not for me. I’ve described it as my “happy place” on many an occasion since I found it helpful for my mental health. It’s therefore ironic that the first thing to go the moment I’m a little low is my drive to work out.
  • Disproportionate tiredness. Not only do I feel super sleepy, nearly falling asleep on the bus on my way home, but my body feels physically heavy. It’s a cliche but it I’m getting the whole “walking through treacle” thing as I drag myself leaden-like about my daily life.
  • Irrational irritability. C might argue that I’m always a bit annoyed (or is that annoying?!), but I’m especially ready for a fight just now. Even if only in my head.
  • More frequent negative thoughts. I can tell in conversations I’m a bit more moody; more likely to bitch and moan over otherwise insignificant issues.
  • Getting especially teary when watching movies. Okay, so I’m a cryer when it comes to watching telly and am likely to burst into tears at the sight of a small animal or human in crises. However I’ve noticed I’ve a particular propensity to water-works of late, which given my medication suppresses my emotions in that regard, says there’s something up.
  • Inability to focus. I’m not great at paying attention at the best of times, but I’m especially scatter-brained just now. My least refined communication skill – listening  – is proving to be an extra effort.
  • A generally “noisier” brain. Prior to taking mental health meds, there was a permanent undertone of chatter murmuring away in the background of my brain. Since then, it’s been much more library-like. Yet recently I’ve heard a few rebel voices in there, piping up without my permission.

Honestly, it sucks. I hate feeling this way.

Frustratingly, my mental health isn’t entirely within my control. Sometimes depression rears its ugly head. If I’m particularly unlucky, it brings anxiety along with it and they work together to make me miserable.

What’s more, mental illness affects not only me but those around me. Even when I mostly keep to myself, the people closest to me usually sense there’s something wrong. Their sadness at my suffering only makes things worse, adding guilt to the emotional mix.

IMG_3447Yet I am genuinely grateful to be able to share this with you. I don’t want to bring you down, but I do want to be unapologetically honest here. Besides, I can’t be bothered to cover things up. It’s taking what little energy I have left not to beat myself up for my broken brain.

As you can probably tell, the tone of this post feels different to others I’ve written. I’ve worked hard to train myself to pursue a positive perspective on life. For the most part, this strategy has been successful. Yet becoming better is not a linear process. As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m a perfectly imperfect human being. I don’t have all the answers to becoming mentally fit and healthy, but I am working on it and I can promise to share the results of my experimentations here with you.

So, yeah. I’m having a sh*tty few weeks. And I’m still here, with a long list of reasons to be thankful.

This Week I’m Grateful for:

Another whole day to myself. Being fortunate enough to have more annual leave than my partner, C, I’ve spaced random days off throughout the Summer. After I heard about this idea of operating from different styles of thinking, I read a little more on the Fizzle blog about what it means to be in “CEO” versus “worker bee” mode. This meant I could declare a “CEO Monday”; devoting my day to the kind of “big picture” thinking most of us normally skirt over in the course of everyday life.

A timely reminder about a helpful way of Getting Things Done (GTD). Intrigued by the CEO-worker bee dichotomy, I took an online productivity course. I know: “work about work” – the basic premise of productivity –  doesn’t exactly sound thrilling.

Yet it’s something I’m surprisingly grateful that I spent a few hours of my hard-earned leave doing. I’d recently given up on GTD; a productivity management system proposed by David Allen in the early 2000s. It started to feel more work than the work I was meant to be doing itself. Learning from this course, the creators made it far less complex, more flexible, and easier to implement. It inspired me to tweak it for myself. Just because something didn’t work for me in one way, doesn’t mean it can’t work for me in another.

IMG_3425Treating myself to ice cream. A small – but not insignificant -development, one of the “quirks” of my eating disorder has been not allowing myself to eat particular foods when alone. In spite of being in recovery for many years now, I’m still sometimes plagued by food fears. In this case, I’m afraid of opening Pandora’s box and binging my way back to obesity.

Recognising this irrational thought-process, I keep working on becoming better. Turns out this includes buying myself ice cream even though there was no one else around to join in with me. It’s kind of like the whole “If a tree falls in a forest…” thing; if I eat ice cream by myself, does it mean I’m destined for an unhealthy future?

So when I left my local cafe last Monday on a scorcher of a day, I bought a scoop of Bakewell tart-flavoured ice cream (in a waffle cone, of course – none of that soggy wafer nonsense). I sat on a bench outside, listening to my podcast, and enjoyed every short-lived lick. De-licious! Admittedly, I do still feel a wave of guilt wash over me around this food stuff. I’m not sure if that feeling will ever go away entirely. However being able to do these things  – even just sometimes – feels like a win.

Good questions. They lead to good answers, after all. Over the past week I asked women within various Facebook groups a few questions about working whilst managing their mental health. Within moments, I was inundated with replies and within twenty-four hours I had over fifty replies. I’ve been wondering how I can use my experiences and interests to actually make a difference, and this boosted my confidence in my idea no end!

On a similar theme, I’m chuffed that my questions have appeared twice in recent newsletters, giving me a little confidence boost. It’s proof that I’m asking interesting questions that provoke conversation with other entrepreneurs,  too, which feels good. I’m finding my place in this community and it’s lovely to feel like I belong.

C being a total hero – so much so, I think he deserves his own TWIGlet list:

  • Awesome partner that he is, C took charge in the kitchen when my mental energies weren’t up to it. Having taken it upon himself to do the weekly supermarket shop, C came home with several exciting dishes planned, including this new concoction: Fish goujon tacos. Neither of us have had fish tacos before, but being fans of the ol’ classic fish finger sandwich it made sense to give the Mexican version a go. He’d even gone so far as to lovingly prepare his own salsa for us! They were yummy.
  • C has been a bit of a hero when it comes to meal planning of late. He made us dinner more than once so that I’d be able to get other things done. For example, responding to all the Facebook messages I received. Knowing how much these connections mean to me, he quietly played chef without comment, where he’d otherwise have been tempted to chastise me for spending too much time on the Internet.
  • Last Wednesday C drove out of his way to give me a lift home after work. I’d mentioned that I was feeling off that afternoon, and the next thing I know, there he was. It was a hot day, and it turned out that C just wanted to be kind to me! C even affectionately called me “wifey” as I got into the passenger seat, complimenting me on my sundress. He’s got a real talent for giving me an emotional lift.
  • C being willing to sacrifice TV time to make me happy. As we get closer to the “Love Island” final, he’s been so good about watching it real-time that I’d almost assume he liked watching the show himself…  Sitting through two hours of ITV2 catch-up sounds really trite, however it means so much to have a partner who is so kind and considerate of my needs – however bonkers –  when I’m feeling low.

IMG_3445Attending my first Fizzle Office Hours. Beforehand I wasn’t entirely sure how this would differ from the usual group coaching. It was more of a quick-fire session, by the end of which I’d made four pages of notes and learnings, so it was an hour well-spent.

An awesome annual appraisal. It was worth investing time and energy to writing-up all I’d achieved over the past year at work. A productive conversation with my line manager helped me better understand myself. It confirmed I lack confidence in being perceived as an “expert”, even after seven years in my job.  Emotionally, I don’t connect with the confidence this experience ought to provide.

Though technically negative, this self-knowledge is actually a positive revelation. Coming away from my meeting, I felt hopeful and optimistic. I’ve ideas for strategies to start to challenging this self-depreciating self-image, and good people around to support me in becoming better.

Rain – and lots of it. We’ve had buckets of the stuff after what’s felt like a desert these past few months. Opening our patio doors and being able to smell the deliciously fresh atmosphere has been a real joy for C and I. I love the sound of thunder and lightning; stormy weather somehow brings a sense of cosy comfort.

Making new friends when you’re thirty-something. After sharing with you the story of my sudden gym-phobia… and the conversation I had with my colleague that convinced me it was okay to take it easy on myself,  To be frank, social anxiety is a b*tch. I’m grateful this only really kicked in for me in adulthood. It’s made making – and keeping – friends hard work, which sometimes really gets me.

Still nervous, I met my colleague, M, for coffee and a catch-up as planned. Rather than a quick half-hour meeting, it was over an hour later before we headed back to our respective offices. We still had tons to talk about, and I’m so thankful she was brave enough to invite me out. Next time it’s my turn.

Making my first-ever home-made nachos. Memories of “Bungalows and Bears‘” nachos playing on my mind, I decided to experiment with cutting up and baking our leftover corn tortillas. With cheese, salsa, guac, and jalapeños, it made for a deliciously crispy,chewy light Friday-night meal.

Being there for my nephew’s first birthday party. Okay, so he’s too young to understand the significance of the occasion. He was mainly grumpy; overwhelmed by us overly affectionate adults. Honestly, it’s highly unlikely he’ll have any memories of the event at all. Still, I’m grateful I could be there – for him and for my sister – after having difficult family relationships in the sort-of recent past. It means a lot – to them and to me.

Speaking of which, I’m thankful for birthday cake. In fact, any cake, really. As anyone who follows the blog will know by now, home-made cake is my most favourite food of all-time. Luckily I had the common sense (read: shame) to pass on the gorgeous-looking garden centre blueberry cake prior to baby G’s party. My brother-in-law had baked deliciously moist chocolate cupcakes, each covered in a generous swirl of buttercream frosting. I ate two.

IMG_3441Relaxing in a clean and tidy home. Pulling together as a team, C and I worked hard to get our house in shape  this Sunday. It’s mentally soothing to live in a clean, calm environment. The external organisation does something to my brain, creating a sense of calm.

Finally, I’m grateful to have spent my Sunday afternoon on the sofa with C to watch a movie. Admittedly, “Dunkirk” wasn’t my choice of film, but I got sucked into the story, sobbing my way through to the end. Finding it especially hard to focus of late, it felt good to be able to concentrate because it’s lovely to connect with C over a bowl of popcorn and a healthy cry.

Until next week.

x

My ProjectHeatherED Manifesto Post (or why I believe mental health matters and my motivations behind this blog)

Last night I went to bed listening to Simon Sinek‘s “Start With Why” on Audible.  He quite literally spoke to me and rather than winding down for sleep, I stayed up past midnight writing this post.

It’s inspired me to create this manifesto; a manifesto being defined as “a public declaration of policy and aims.”

By openly sharing my “why” I hope to make clear to you, dear reader, what it is about mental health that really matters to me. Why I feel so passionately about Project HeatherED, and what’s kept me consistently publishing these past six months.

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Why Becoming Better is the Heart of Project HeatherED 

A Mental Health Manifesto

I believe we are more than our mental health.

I believe as human beings we are inherently worthy.

Our value is no more tied to our physical bodies than it is to our state of mind.

Instead, I believe that what matters most is our emotional intelligence. Being Open-minded and open-hearted, if we’re willing to learn – to improve, expand, and grow – then there’s always hope of becoming better.

I believe that it’s important to explore ways we can become happier; to maximise our mental wellness.

I believe we deserve better than a mediocre mental existence.

I believe that our dreams are not determined by any diagnosis.

We can have anxiety and be amazing.

We can feel depressed and, deep down, still dream of a happier future.

We can fight to control our our dangerous desires – be they food or fitness, drugs or drink – and also fight to feel truly free.

I believe a healthy mind is linked to having a healthy body, but that doesn’t always look how we’d expect.

I believe that a perfect body is one in which we feel at home.

I believe we can learn to feel truly beautiful; to become comfortable in our skin, to overcome our mental, physical, and emotional barriers to having a positive body image.

I believe that we can overcome our fears of being judged by others.

I believe that by daring to be fully ourselves – by being vulnerable – we can become better at self-acceptance.

I believe it’s possible to get to where what we think matters, first and foremost; where what others think doesn’t matter so much after all.

I believe in self-determination; in making informed choices.

I believe that we can choose to take control and manage our mental wellness.

I believe that how we manage our mental health is a personal decision; that we deserve respect, whatever we decide.

I believe that medication can play an important role in helping us feel better.

I also believe in taking responsibility for our own recovery; for our happiness.

I believe we each have our own definition of success. Knowing what we want, we can then design our own blueprint for the life we wish to lead.

I believe we choose the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, our lives and the world we live in. We have the ability to rewrite it at any moment, making it better, brighter, and more beautiful.

I believe that we can help each other to become more.

I believe that by working together, we grow in confidence, increase our emotional fitness, and our psychological resilience.

As we learn more about ourselves and how our minds work, I believe we’re becoming better, each and every day.

This statement is a work-in-progress. Still, as of this moment, I’ve given it my best shot. I think it goes some way to explain why I’m driven to contribute to the conversation around mental health.

My manifesto is also a declaration of how I strive to live my own life; how I aim to value myself and others. I do so imperfectly, of course. I regularly fall short of my own ambitious standards and that’s okay.

I, too, am a work-in-progress. My manifesto makes room for mistakes. I hope it explains why I’m driven to invest so much time and energy in this project, and why it matters so much to me.

As I’ve already said, I truly believe we can become better.

 

The Confidence 101 Post (or what we can do right now to build self-belief)

Having  self-confidence has to be one of the most – if not the most – commonly-cited challenges to living our best lives. Courses and classes abound on the subject, yet it continues to be an issue for even the smartest, most successful among us.

Inevitably, it’s harder still to believe in ourselves when we’ve got mental health issues. On top of the usual challenges that thrown at us in the course of the average day, we’ve got bonus bullsh*t echoing around in our heads.

I mean, we only need look at this dictionary definition of self-confidence to see where our problems begin if we’re also conscious of managing our mental health:IMG_3231

Self-confidence: “[a] feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgement

Sounds great – an ideal state of being  – but feeling self-confident is the complete opposite experience of anyone who’s ever contended with depression and anxiety. For me, when I’m in the former mindset, I search the recesses of my mind to find proof-positive of my failings. In the latter, I can’t even think about the future without feeling utterly petrified.

Whichever way I turn I’m mentally tying myself up in knots, setting into motion a vicious cycle of self-criticism and doubt, chipping away at what little confidence I had in the first place.

I’ve been musing on this and here’s my two-penneth, for what it’s worth.

What we need is to build a base level of self-belief that’ll carry us through those days when we’re just wrecked with worry. From my experience, mental health doesn’t deteriorate overnight; it creeps up, worming its way insidiously into my mind until I’m no longer certain of what’s me, and what’s it working through me.

Hence I’m proposing we pursue a slowly-slowly-catchy-monkey approach to creating genuine confidence.

I’ve come up with a plan, people! Let me explain.

My theory is that if we embed a few healthy habits into our regular routine, we’ll become more resilient and better able to handle situations where our confidence is challenged. We’ll be building our emotional strength and will have that “bounce-back-ability” to overcome whatever barriers to self-belief are put in our way.

So here’s a few simple strategies that have helped me to become more confident and start to reverse the spin on the vicious cycle of poor self-esteem. I hope they’ll do the same for you, too.

HeatherED’s Three Things to Start Building Self-Belief

#1: Make decisions up-front.

IMG_3396In my experience I’ve found that my confidence grows the more I experience success. Hence this first strategy is all about creating enough head space for us to learn how to handle moments of self-doubt. As is the case with taking good care of our bodies, it requires time and energy to establish a healthy emotional fitness regime.

Our brains are literal thinking machines.  We humans do a lot of this thinking malarky. Adults apparently make around 35,000 decisions each day, and the more decisions we have to make, the quicker we reach what’s called “decision fatigue”; explained in the New York Times as “the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making.” It seems even thinking about thinking’s pretty exhausting.

This got me thinking: how can we free our minds from minutiae that doesn’t matter? I suggest that we front-load our decision-making. How, exactly? Well, by making as many choices in advance as possible, minimising how often we need make choices, and reducing repeat decision-making. This way we’re saving time and energy that we can instead invest in the more important stuff of life.

Ways I’ve reduced decision fatigue include pre-planning packed lunches, advance booking gym classes, and sticking to my morning routine. I find that when I’m mentally “wobbly” my conviction in my own capability wavers and I become stuck in indecision.

Sometimes, when we’re in this mentally dubious place, dithering over daft decisions, then it makes most sense just to rip off the plaster and choose something – anything – and move on. Ironically, it’s only in the choosing that we can get out of a sticky spot and move forward.  In life there’s often no “right” decision. By not deciding,  we’re just wasting what little energy we do have on stuff that really doesn’t matter.

#2: Get grateful.

If you’re reading this then you likely already know how I feel about gratitude. Read any of my TWIG (“This Week I’m Grateful”) posts and you’ll soon get the picture. IMG_3239

Starting a daily gratitude practice sounds cheesy, I know. For anyone uncomfortable with the idea of navel-gazing, this is going to be a bit of a hard-sell. However I cannot state strongly enough the positive impact this one strategy has had on improving my own confidence. 

As a result of getting grateful – actively looking for all those things I already have to be thankful for, and consciously stating this for myself – I’m happier, healthier, and emotionally more fulfilled. It’s not magic; it’s simply self-awareness and showing appreciation for what I have, in the here-and-now.

Self-awareness and self-esteem are intrinsically linked, so this is where a regular gratitude practise can help build confidence. The better we know ourselves, the more compassion we’re likely to find for ourselves when we fall upon hard times.

How you go about this can be tailored to the individual. I started by writing lists in my journal – in classic self-help style, jotting down three things I felt thankful for about that day. Gratitude made its way into my Tony Robbins’-inspired priming ritual on the walk to work, becoming a habitual practice. These days, anyone who follows me on Facebook (hint, hint!) gets to see me share my daily gratitudes.

However you choose to do it, the more you find to be grateful for, the more confident you’ll likely feel. It has cumulative impact, lifting mood incrementally. As we see ourselves living happier lives, we rack up the positive achievements which ultimately boosts our self-belief.

#3 Be a copy-cat.

When my mental health isn’t in its finest shape, I can’t trust myself to know which way is up, let alone feel confident enough to make important decisions. Rather than forcing myself to try, if all else fails then I’ll turn instead to someone I do trust and instead copy them.

If in doubt, I role model it out!

(Ack! So cheesy I made myself cringe!)

I’ve followed this “fake it ’till you make it” strategy for building self-belief before, particularly in recovery from disordered eating. I lost touch with what “normal” eating even looked like, so I’d watch those around me and quite literally copy them.

The “someone” we choose to imitate matters a lot with this strategy. It’s got to be a trusted friend, partner, or family member. Someone whose judgement you believe to be reasonable, rational, and whose approach to life is generally balanced and healthy, particularly in relation to whatever issue we’re looking to address.

IMG_3395Looking around me to see whose attitude to food most resembled that I wished to have myself, I chose to emulate my little sister, C. That Summer, if she was having baked potato with beans and cheese for dinner, then so would I. If it was okay for her to say yes to an ice cream on a day out, then I accepted it might be okay for me, too. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in my case it meant more than that. It was a way of becoming better and building confidence in myself and my body again.

Deferring to someone else in this way is a short-term strategy to self-confidence. Still, in my experience it’s been really helpful to pull myself out of a mental rut. I might have heard the playground taunt of “copy-cat, copy-cat, sitting on the doormat” in the back of my mind, but it helped right my path and restored at least some of my self-belief around food.

And that’s it. In sum, we can become more confident by applying the following simple strategies:

  1. Make decisions up-front.
  2. Get grateful.
  3. Be a copy-cat.

Having practiced this stuff, I know it works for me but there’s always more to learn. I’m looking to grow in this area, too, so I’d love to hear from you:

What helps you become better at building self-confidence?

What are some of your strategies for strengthening self-belief? 

Share your thoughts with me in the comments.

The Medication and Me Post (or why medicine is part of my toolkit for mental fitness)

Okay, so…

PinkYellowRose_090718This is a potentially difficult subject to discuss. It’s one I’ve been thinking about posting on for some time but held back, unsure as to whether it’s helpful or counterproductive to share my views. Unsure, I’ll leave it with you to make up your own mind as to whether my opinion on this subject is of interest. As such, I promise not to take offense if you choose to skip this post!

Medication, and the whole concept of medicating for mental health reasons, is a hugely controversial subject. Scientific evidence exists to support both sides of the argument; namely, those who believe medication “works” in terms of making improvements to mental health issues and those who don’t believe it’s a medical issue in the first place.

Yet despite the plethora of research, there’s nothing concrete to say which perspective on medication and mental health is “right”. Are those in favour of medicating for mental illness correct? Can we treat a broken brain – objectively-speaking a bodily organ much like anything else – with modern medicine? Or should we reconsider our Western obsession with finding chemical solutions to what might be considered a natural (albeit an uncomfortable) feature of the human condition? Not being a scientist, I can’t say.

Given that lived experiences of mental illness vary so much between individuals, it’s hard to prescribe solutions that’ll work universally. Hence the issue of medication becomes incredibly subjective – to the degree that even medical professionals aren’t best keen to take on the responsibility of whether to medicate or not on their patients’ behalf.
“It’s entirely up to you”, say most doctors before printing and signing any prescription, “whether to try medication or to wait for talking therapies, or both.” Respected medical bodies, such as the NHS on their web pages and in the media, generally suggests a combination is more likely to be effective. Yet even they don’t stand confidently on either side of pro-or-anti-medication the fence.
Ironically then, the decision around whether or not to “pop a happy pill” is often placed in the hands of those very same people whose minds are causing them issues in the first place. In the name of “patient care and autonomy”, we’re asked to choose a path for our own recovery at a time when many of us feel unable to trust our own judgement around simple things, like what to eat for breakfast. It’s no surprise then, that decisions made around medicating mental illness often prove ineffective and it takes a long time to get to where something works.
WildFlowers_090718For me, it took me over ten years to even try medication. Though once prescribed something years back, I took one tablet, got scared, and threw away the package.  Prior to my more recent foray into medical intervention, I’ve tried most other readily available therapies for my broken brain, with varying degrees of success.
In brief:
  • I’ve seen almost as many different therapists as I have fingers to count,
  • I’ve read a mini library’s worth of self-help books, magazines, and websites,
  • I’ve attended support groups, as well as trying to create my own mini peer support meet-ups,
  • I’ve tried online courses,
  • I’ve bought meditation apps,
  • I’ve written pages and pages in my journals,
  • and of course, there’s the good ol’ methods of ignoring and indulging my afflictions.
Why wait so long to try a pill, then? A reasonable question to ask, but I’d seen and heard of people whose mental health deteriorated as a result of taking pills.

I was afraid. I couldn’t bear the idea of it being any more painful inside my mind than it already was.

Emotionally, I was already such a mess. Dragging myself through my days, I was at least getting by, albeit so miserably sometimes I wondered how long I’d be able to stand it. I didn’t believe I could cope if medication made me worse, whereas I’d coped thus far. I hedged my bets with the devil I knew, so to speak.
PurplePansy_090718Fear held me back from medication. Yet in the end love helped me move forward and give it a try. I realised it was never about medication alone. The right combination of people, circumstances, and my own increasingly positive, rational mindset came together to make medication a manageable method of mediating my mental fitness.
An incredible CBT therapist helped me find the inner strength to decide what was right for myself – based only on my experience and my feelings. A fantastic doctor spoke of medication in such rational, and yet positive terms, he made it easy for me to trust that I stood as good a chance as anyone that it might work. My ever-patient partner, C, stood by, nervously waiting to see what repercussions there might be, but choosing to overcome his fears around mental health meds, standing by me nonetheless.
As it happens medication turned out to be my missing puzzle piece. Taking a mild dose of Prozac helps me feel like a better version of myself: a happier, more positive, and generally more peaceful kind of Heather.
The endless chatter inside my mind was turned right down almost instantly. The exhausting, rebel-rousing thoughts that led me to behave in self-destructive ways stopped bothering me quite so often. At long last, I had the mental space to regain the energies I needed become better. After years of working on recovery, reading self-help, dedicated to self-development, and making positive change, the marvels of modern medicine seemed to bring all the pieces together into a coherent picture of a perfectly imperfect person.
As expected, medication isn’t a guaranteed cure-all in the case of our minds. Our brains being such complex organisms it makes sense that chemical conditioning alone will only do so much. It’s almost impossible to understand how our minds definitively work, even for the most intelligent among us.
What’s more, I’m fortunate that the medicine’s side effects are minor for me. Most people have to try several different tablets before something has enough of a benefit to outweigh any potential problems they might cause. My first fortnight felt a little disorientating at times as I got used to the internal quiet. Then the excitement – sheer exhilaration – of living without the “black dog” hanging over me, as Churchill put it, was such that I became hyperactive.
PurpleHydrangea_090718I still get moments of giddiness now and again, but after years of depression it’s rather a relief to know I can feel such joy. After all, this could be my “real” personality without the shadow of mental illness looming large – who knows?! Other than this, I’m relatively restless, toe-tapping and sometimes kicking C in my sleep (or so he says), but all things taken into consideration I’d settle for these minor irritations over perpetual gloom, doom, and self-hatred any day.
My experiences lead me to lean towards the camp of those in support of trying medication for mental illness. Provided it’s taken under suitable medical supervision, and the person has appropriate emotional support in place, I’d certainly give it some serious consideration. It worked so well for me that for a while after first starting my pills, I felt sad because I wished I’d tried it much, much sooner.
Yet discussing this with C at the time helped me to appreciate how medication will always be a bit of a gamble. It’s rather like the “chicken or egg” dilemma, in that I’ll never know whether my becoming better was down to the pills in and of themselves. It’s likely to be a combination of timing, mindset, chemical alchemy, and the blood, sweat, and tears I poured into my recovery those ten years prior.
Having build up my own mental fitness over many years no doubt added to my arsenal of weapons against my mental demons.  And still I sometimes wonder whether I’d be writing at all had it not been for the tiny green-and-yellow capsules that sit on my bedside table.
FluroPinkRose_090718
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Let me know in the comments or over on my Facebook page.

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