Project HeatherED

Live your happiest, healthiest, and emotionally wealthiest life

Tag: Mental Health Matters

The New Year Post (or how I’m opting out of Diet Culture in 2019)

You can already feel the momentum building. You can literally see it online. People are pre-planning their New Year’s resolutions, preparing for the clock to strike midnight. For many, this means starting yet another diet. Especially in January, “diet culture” is alive and kicking.

Give it whatever name you wish – wellness program, healthy-eating plan, a holistic lifestyle adjustment – it’s all the same. Collectively, we’re looking forward to a time when things – when we – will change. Somehow, we’ll become better.

In public – often at parties with family and friends – we set forth ambitious annual “health” goals. Secretly, we all add the same silent sentiment:  “…and then I’ll be happy.”  

“ Diet culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”

Diet culture doesn’t just mean “being on a diet,” because you don’t have to follow any sort of official diet to be caught up in the culture of dieting.”

Christy Harrisson of Food Psych podcast.

 

Diet Culture and the Resolution Revolution

Peach Rose Taken By Heather DugganI’m talking about more than weight loss here. Not everyone sets out to slim come January 1st – though many  still make this their top personal goal, year after year. Regardless of what we choose to work on , the intention behind New Year’s resolutions stay the same: 

You must do – or stop doing – something if you want to be accepted; to potentially be seen as “good enough”.

In other words, if you break away from expected norms, you risk rejection. Or its cousins: loneliness, humiliation, and even shame.

This “New Year, New You!” sentiment is almost impossible to avoid.

Case in point: Infinite twixmas Weight Watchers advertisements, punctuate my festive viewing. Notably, it’s been rebranded as “WW: Wellness that Works” to appeal to a modern-day dieter. Heck, they’ve even got Robbie Williams alongside owner, Oprah, for their glossy new promotions.

If I’m honest, it’s tempting, even for a seasoned slimmer like me; one who’s been there, done that, and got the T-shirt in multiple sizes.

Whatever the original outcome, however, all previous attempts at weight loss have brought me back here:

Wondering when – if – I’ll ever feel good enough.

And I’m tired of feeling this way. It’s time to step out of diet culture’s vicious circle. I’m taking a different approach this New Year.

New Year, New Me?

Instead, my focus in 2019 is on how I feel. Specifically,  I’m working on feeling good about myself, irrespective of my current weight or appearance. Contrary to what diet culture tells us. 

And it’s not just me who’s fed-up with the whole Groundhog Day goal-setting routine that comes around every January.  

Mel Wells Author of The Goddess Revolution: Anti-Diet CultureThere’s a growing social movement of people like me looking to create a different relationship with food, fitness, and their bodies. One that’s based around prioritising feeling healthy and happy, rather than what we look like. Amazing, inspirational teachers and leaders are emerging from my peer group. Wonderful women like Laura Thomas PhD, Isabel Foxen-Duke, and Mel Wells are standing up to speak against diet culture, instead espousing Intuitive Eating (IE) and Health at Every Size.

Take Mel, who’s come a long way since “Hollyoaks”. She’s the youngest author with Hay House book publisher of my self-help dreams! She’s also organising the UK’s first Self-Love Summit in 2019. Earlier this week, Laura (who hosts popular podcast “Don’t Salt my Game” ) has been on the cover of “The Times Magazine” promoting her forthcoming IE book.

Even popular glossy women’s magazines are joining the revolution. When I opened my copy of this month’s “Red”, I was delighted to see they’ve cut out the stereotypical diet and exercise articles. The editor openly acknowledges their evolution, from encouraging readers to  “be a better you” to  simply “just be you.”

I think this is awesome! Clearly, I’m not alone in wanting to get off the weight-loss resolution roundabout. To kick diet culture to the curb. But how exactly can we step off? 

HeatherED’s Top Three Tips to Counter Diet Culture

Like I’ve said, it’s everywhere we look and near impossible to avoid completely. So here are my ideas for three step-off strategies to steer clear of self-destructive diet chatter:

 

Tip #1: Opt-out of Perfection Propaganda Publications

Magazines, newspapers, books – not to mention online media – all go goal-setting gaga at this time of year. Don’t get me wrong – I adore magazines and subscribe to at least three monthly publications at any one time – , but for this month, it’s a case of if in doubt, opt-out.

Intuitive Eating Book: Anti-Diet CultureThis includes impulse-purchase favourites and sneaky peaks at the Sidebar of Shame. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. We all do it.) A comprehensive knowledge of the cast of Love Island‘s weight fluctuations does not win any prizes. (At least, none you’d actually want to take home.)

I’m literally not buying into any diet-related materials in January. Instead, I’ll channel my curiosity into other, more positive publications. Right now, I’m reading Tribole and Resch’s book on “Intuitive Eating” and I’ve a ton of other texts lined up, including “Health at Every Size”, “The Goddess Revolution, and “Quiet“. 

Tip #2: Get Selective with Social Media.

My reasons for staying on Facebook far outweigh those for getting off. I’ve built deep and meaningful connections online, both with strangers and friends, by being vulnerable and sharing what matters. Which is why I’m unwilling to follow the trend for turning off technology.

Whilst I won’t be going cold-turkey on social, I will be spending less time on Facebook. Mostly, I want to avoid the January junk feed; save my brain from being bombarded with messages around what we “should” be, “must-have”, and “ought” to do.

Thankfully, I’m not on Instagram, otherwise I’d be limiting that, too. These heavily image-focused forums head to new heights when it comes to pushing unrealistic #bodygoals. We know these images are curated to within an inch of their life; artificially staged before being edited to death. Yet we’re still affected by them.  They infiltrate our daily lives, filling our social media feeds (and brains) with bullish*t beliefs.

Realistically, I recognise we can’t control this particular cultural change. However, we can choose how much time and attention we give it.  Namely, less of it than we do already! 

 

Tip #3: Workout (but only if it works for you)

Purple Hydrangea by Heather DugganSeparating how my body feels when I move from how my body looks is my top 2019 fitness goal. 

Resolutions around dieting typically go hand-in-hand with exercise. Many people only workout to control their weight – for a long time this was me ,too. Success measured by calories burnt, we mentally associate fitness with food. 

Interestingly, I first joined the gym for reasons beyond body size. I needed something – anything – to relieve the pain of depression. So desperate, I was willing to try exercise in hopes of feeling a bit better. Amazingly, it worked!

Still, I’m sometimes reluctant to go, which is when I’ll drag myself to the gym. I consistently come out feeling more like myself. When I workout I find my flow; body and mind on the same page. It’s a way of pulling myself back together, so to speak.

When I go back to work, I’ll go back to the gym, despite it being the most popular time of year for new members. Being busy, I’m sure I’ll find myself feeling anxious and angry at times. Yet I plan to push through because I know – from experience – exercise is one of the most helpful things I can do – for my brain and body.

 

One more time, what really matters is…

And that’s my plan to avoid being sucked in by the “wellness” industry this January. Admittedly, it’s not much but it’s a step in a more positive direction than going on another diet.

Nevertheless, I’m still tempted by the promise of weight loss. A voice in my head continues to coax me back:

Just one more diet – one more time – might be the answer to everything…

 

Except that it’s not.

 

I know this, you know this. And still we feel the tug of thinness. 

Rationally, I know the size of my body doesn’t affect my happiness. Some of my darkest moments have been whilst I’ve been objectively in my “best” shape. Yet still I’m drawn to diet culture. As a reasonably intelligent human being, it’s incredibly frustrating. 

I’ve done dieting so long, at times it feels like I don’t know what else to do.

But this is just another thought. It’s hard, but I can change my thoughts.

It’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy 101. And if I can do that – if I can change what I think – then eventually, I can change what I believe, too. 

“We are what we believe we are.” C.S. Lewis

 

Becoming Better

Pink Rose by Heather DugganLiving our best, most beautiful lives has got to be about something more than what we weigh.

Something we can’t measure in inches or kilos; something far more valuable than any number on the scales.

Even well-respected leaders in the wellness industry are beginning to buy into the idea that we’re more than our weight. Joe Wicks, the so-called “Body Coach”,  for example, calls the scales the “Sad Step” – and for good reasons!  

What I understand as “becoming better” is evolving.  Focusing on what truly matters, rather than what I’m led to believe is important. Breaking the rules of diet culture by making life about more than what we eat. 

 

I’m getting back to recovery basics in 2019. More than ten years in, I’ve hear the same messages over and again:

“It’s never been true, not anywhere at any time, that the value of a soul, of a human spirit, is dependent on a number on a scale.”

Geneen Roth

Somehow these words washed over me before. I’ve never really taken them in – at least, not to heart. I always hoped diet culture would deliver in the end. I figure it’s about time I listened – body, mind, and soul. 

Self-worth comes from more than what we look like or what size jeans we wear.

I’ve got more important things to think about in 2019. And so have you.

 

The Twenty-Third TWIG Post (or how I’m learning that new love grows – even through loss)

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.”

Sigmund Freud

An hour and a half. This week K broke her lifetime record for the “Longest Time Ever Sitting on a Human’s Knee”.  I was so delighted by this change in behaviour, I had to immediately share the photographic evidence on my Facebook page.

You see, both my feline friends have never been what you’d call “lap cats”.  Likely taken from their mother too soon, they never seemed to grasp how to be cats in that way. Surprisingly, this bothers my partner, C, more than I. Used to his role as perma-cushion for our previous pet, I’ve heard him refer to D and K as somewhat of “a disappointment”!

Still.

 

Dave enjoying the garden

D, in particular, became the heart of our home. This, despite him stomping around the place, shouting his kitty head off like a tiny military dictator. A plus-sized personality in a pint-sized cat. D’s very existence on this planet could brighten my darkest days. C and I both couldn’t love him more.

Which is why, when we unexpectedly lost D a few weeks back, it hurt so much.

My beloved baby, D never took to sitting on knees; a crying shame given how he was the most ridiculously cuddle-worthy cat! I know I’m biased, but he was breathtakingly beautiful. His fur felt almost unreal, it was so soft. That cat came covered in a perfectly plush, fluffy layer of inky-black down. Perhaps if he could have learnt to relax long enough to sit still, maybe – eventually – he’d have made an awesome lap cat one day. I guess we’ll never know.

Aside from the occasional perch-in-passing, K has never been a knee cat either. Since losing D, however, K has definitely changed.

Siblings adopted together, they’d never really been apart so we weren’t sure how K might react to losing D. Though when he disappeared for a few days when they were younger, she became suspiciously happy. Whilst C and I sobbed in the streets as we stuck our “lost cat” posters to lampposts, K came along with us, prancing and dancing around our ankles!

In a strange twist of fate, without D, K is starting to come out of her shell. She’s much noisier, for example, her vocal prowess expanding to nearly fill the space D left behind. No longer having to share space, she seems more relaxed, sprawling across the carpet rather than scrunched in a ball. Most irritating – but super cute – K now meows to be let in via the patio doors rather than use her specially installed, unfeasibly expensive cat flap.

Keiko Bean

She’s essentially becoming Queen of the House. “Queen B”, I call her (for Bean – Keiko-Bean. Yes, I’ve become one of those nutters who have a million nicknames for my pets).

Coming home with a cold the other day, I was just about to make a brew and settle down for an afternoon of “Made in Chelsea” (we’re now onto Season 11, FYI) when I was joined on the sofa by K. I felt nervous about making her nervous and scaring her off so I tried not to move.

However as we both began to relax, K did a cat-version of man-spreading, rolling around as she made herself comfy. She even woke up mid-way through her marathon nap to have a bath – on me – before falling back asleep!

Reluctantly breaking the magic of the moment, an hour-and-a-half later – desperate for the loo and a brew by now – I gently moved my cat from my knee.

In a strange twist of fate, it feels as if K senses my sadness and is seeking to befriend me. Maybe K misses her friend, too, which is why she’s gravitating towards me. Even if she does prefer life as an only cat to sharing her home with an annoying little brother! C has noticed the change in her, too, as she’s become more comfortable in my company.

We’re getting to know each other, which is kind of beautiful, in its own weird way. My heart is broken, yet it’s also expanding; making more room so I can love K more.

Though I’m over-the-moon to become closer with K, I have to admit – it’s rather bittersweet. It’s like with D gone, he’s created space for our connection to flourish. As our love blossoms and grows, I’m even more achingly aware of what we’ve lost.

I miss D; my shadow, my friend.

Keiko and Dave

“What greater gift than the love of a cat?”

Charles Dickens

I have to remind myself that the pain of loss isn’t lessened by love. Loving K doesn’t mean I love D any less. It’s not possible. Instead, love soothes; it salves. It helps our hearts heal more quickly.

We’re a smaller family now – C, K, and I – but we’re stronger, too. A tighter crew.

And maybe – just maybe – one day, in the not too distant future, C will cave – and let us have a dog! 😉

Though I’m still drowning in a sea of snotty, teary tissues, I’m becoming better. I’m back to work and I’m here, writing again. Glad to get back to being grateful and sharing my week’s thanks.

This Week I’m Grateful for:

*Having a great conversation kick-start my working week. I’m not one for small talk, but this past Monday I stopped on my way into work to greet my colleague, J. Twenty minutes later I was surprised to find myself still talking.

Technically, it was “big” talk. We covered topics from side-hustling, building our online skills, and mental wellbeing and learnt we’ve much in common. I’m glad I stopped to make time to talk; I went into my office feeling happier and less alone.

*Making new friends – who also love Vietnamese bahn mi! This week I found myself genuinely looking forward to lunch at my favourite cafe with a (relatively) new friend. Having social anxiety, I typically dread in-person meet-ups. Therefore actually wanting to go out for lunch is a hugely positive sign that my mental health is on the mend.

*Building my braves by increasing my working hours. Much of my anxiety ties into feeling trapped. After a few hours at my desk, I definitely notice myself having a classic “flight or fight” response; an impulse to escape.

There’s nothing to be afraid of at work; I know this to be true. Yet rational thinking doesn’t eliminate anxious feelings. So rather than fight with myself, I’m practising acting in spite of contradictory emotions. It’s certainly not easy, but it is possible and I am progressing. By Friday I’d worked up to two-thirds of my regular hours which, given my recent anxiety levels, feels like a noteworthy achievement.

*Coming up with ideas for C’s birthday presents, currently hidden at home and ready for wrapping. It’s a massive relief to be prepared early. There’s something incredibly anxiety-provoking about gifting. Honestly, I hate buying gifts. The whole process – thinking of an ingenious idea and executing it – is frankly exhausting and doesn’t come naturally to me. Some people have a natural gift for, well, gifts, whereas others find themselves agonizing over whether it’s okay to just give gift cards. Now I’ve done my shopping, I can now relax and actually enjoy the occasion.

*Losing myself in a good film. Visiting the Curzon to watch “Venom” this weekend reminded me how much I love the feeling of sinking into a story so completely that I disappear. Movies can give me temporary relief from living in the chaos of my own mental mind.

Ironically, I turned to a film about an impulse-driven alien – “Venom” – that makes its home inside Tom Hardy’s head. In a weird way, I could relate to him living with a voice within that simultaneously saves and destroys; a dark side that serves some greater purpose.

*Positive comments from readers. Admittedly, I’m someone who needs reassurance and encouragement to keep going with my creative endeavours.  Hence why it meant so much to receive a Facebook comment recently from someone who’d been binge-reading my previous posts.

Similar to myself, this reader had also taken time off work for mental health reasons. They said it felt like finding a friend; reading my words helped them feel less alone. This is exactly what I hoped my blog might do: my words create a spark of something that resonates with someone else. It worked!

I’m therefore extremely grateful for this particular reader whose kind words inspired me to publish this post. I’m not yet entirely back to my best self, but I’m catching a glimpse of her and I’m beginning to get back by blogging mojo.

Thanks to all those reading this. I look forward to writing more soon.

H x

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 Worst Summer Ever Post (or my experience of living with acute anxiety)

Two years ago I experienced the worst bout of anxiety in my life. It started with my (not unreasonably) becoming upset at what I later learnt were massive, allergic reactions to flea bites which appeared all over my body. Thanks to an unfortunate combination of humid weather that Summer, and Frontline’s failure to work in an area overpopulated by cats, not only was I in physical pain but I was also hurting mentally.

IMG_3018Much like my body, my mind itched and burned. I felt like there was always something irritating me; prickling just under the surface. As I scratched my brain trying to figure out what was causing these hideous hives, I tied myself in knots with worry. It wasn’t long before this grew into a series of regular panic attacks. I recognised them from their occasional appearance during my university years, only this time the anxiety was on a whole, new, nasty level. Not only did I feel sh*t, but I then developed obsessive tendencies which made my anxiety all the worse.

OCD for me was an incessant need to check and re-check, assure and reassure, and then start again because I couldn’t trust my own judgement.

It was unlike anything I’d been through before. I was permanently tired, it was so mentally draining.

As is often the case with mental illness, mornings especially became nightmarish. Waking up already dreading the day, the first words to run through my head -before I’d even really opened my eyes – were “oh God…” At the time I couldn’t imagine not feeling that way at the start of the day. Frequently C would have to coax me to the car, me frantic, late getting out of the front door.

Simultaneously crying and trying desperately to keep my mascara from running (“waterproof”, my arse!), I’d drag myself out of his car and into the office. It hurts my heart to say it now, but C would sometimes have to literally push me out of the car door so he could get to his work.  I know for a fact he felt terrible about it. It was a hellish time for us both. For me, worse still than how I felt was knowing the effect I was having on the man I love, and yet feeling utterly hopeless about being able to stop it.

Once in the office I wasn’t much better. At least, not until the day got going and I was able to imitate some semblance of normalcy. For the best part of a year I couldn’t speak first thing for at least a half hour. It took time to choke out even simple words like “hello”. “How are you?” would send me into meltdown. Some days I cried for an hour before I opened an email.

I mistakenly believed that I had to push myself to keep going in. No matter how much it hurt – both myself and those around me – I felt pressured to keep showing up. Like many people who are mentally unwell, I was afraid of what other people might think were I to “give in” and take time out. Buying into the rumours, I was terrified that being signed off for “mental health reasons” would somehow blacklist me as a hopeless case.  I had a sinking feeling that, if I were to stay home from work, I might never go back.

IMG_3032It took a long time for me to recover from this particular episode. From the bites alone, my skin took a few months to start to heal. The house took us at least a month of exhausting, repetitive, after-work cleaning routines to get it back to normal. My mind took months to feel something like my own again. I was prescribed anti-anxiety tablets to be taken three times a day for several months to restore my “fight or flight” response back to something resembling a regular reaction to stress.

Unfortunately, it’s only in retrospect that I can see just how unwell I had been. In my last round of therapy with a rather special NHS therapist I finally understood what happened. I’ve since been able to articulate to C what I felt at the time; he regretfully says he should have seen it coming – especially as he’d through similar experiences with a previous partner.

However it isn’t so easy – mental illness is cruel that way. From the outside you seem to be alright much of the time, and yet you’re incapable of decision-making. I’d be processing millions of pounds worth of payments at work, and would break down over whether to have cheese with my beans on toast.

What I hope he now knows – and indeed anyone else going through something similar – is that it’s almost impossible to see a mental breakdown coming until it’s well and truly here. It’s an incremental process whereby those closest to us are also often unable to see it happening. Still, it’s important to remind him – and others – of the role they played in my becoming better. Testing their patience and kindness often, I look back and feel lucky, knowing so many lovely people genuinely care for me.

Even so, I wish I’d had the wherewithal to be able to see that I needed help sooner. Specifically, I needed someone to help me to allow myself the time, space, and patience to recover. I dug my heels in and insisted I kept going “as normal”, despite being anything but. Well-meaning colleagues tried to persuade me to take time out, but I couldn’t hear it. Sadly, in my anxious state of mind I wasn’t able to differentiate between a suggestion and a recommendation. I felt blinkered to anything other than what was most obvious.

 

It took longer than necessary for me to recover, but I did recover and I’m here telling you this tale in the hopes I can help someone else become better, too.

To give this story it’s sort-of happy ending, I’d like to share some of the lessons anxiety had to teach. Despite the darkness around this particular life phase, there are still several positive take-aways I’d like to share. Thankfully, there always are.

Regular readers of this blog may have been a bit thrown by the tone of this piece. If so, I hope this will bring you back on board. As you know, my becoming better sees me looking for gratitudes in just about every area of life. As such, I’ve come up with the following:

IMG_3037The best of things I learnt from the worst of times

#1 Never give up. If you look around you’ll see that us humans are capable of awesome achievements. Whilst mental illness undoubtedly sucks a**, it’s possible to come out of this period of time. Not only this, but it’s true that our struggles shape who we become and the influence we go on to have in the world. Had I not had such a sh*tty time with anxiety, I’d not be writing this blog, which brings such happiness and joy to my life today.

#2 Trust in the inherent goodness of people. Given half a chance, most will do their best to be kind and supportive. You just have to give them a chance, forgiving the stupid mistakes we all make as we fumble through the mental health minefield. My mind told me that people were only being nice to me because they felt they “had” to do so. Yet my mind wasn’t well, and so why was I listening to it?! Instead, I could have taken others by their word, accepted their help, and felt grateful, rather than guilty.

#3  If you can’t make a decision, then don’t. Ask for help. Like I said, when you’re mentally unwell – however that may look for you – it’s only rational to place your trust in those whom you believe to be more emotionally stable than yourself just now.  The pressure to choose often threw me off, proving the last straw in a day filled with last straws. If you’ve got people you love and trust around you, then let them love you and trust them to help you choose what’s in your best interests for now.

#4 Act. I implore anyone in the kind of mindset I was in to take action and do something – anything – other than stand still, and to do it as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter how small the action to begin with – small is good; it’s a great start. Just don’t let it go on without trying to change the situation, and if you can’t see how, then ask for help. It’s everywhere if you’re looking for it – so look!

#6 Take your health seriously. No matter how much you love your job, your family, your home, it’s no good if you’re falling apart. Before you can truly live, you need to make sure you’re at your mentally most fit, and doing that might mean taking time out from regular living. Whether it’s a visit to the doctor, regular therapy, a holiday, or being signed off sick for a while, it’s worth considering all available options and leaning on whatever help you can get to decide what’s best.

#7 Also, consider how much you’re willing to tell your employer about what’s going on for you. Despite having my manager present during times I was falling apart, I’ve never formally gone “on the record” with my own mental illness. I feel embarrassed admitting to it, but I’m still nervous as to what the implications may be. However I’ve known people who’ve sworn by it as having helped them to get back into work after some tough times.

#8 Finally, a practical tip: Always go for the prescription flea treatment and buy from the vets. Seriously. It’s worth the extra money and effort it takes to go pick it up every few months. We spent weeks – months! – spraying the house with Indorex and vacuuming like crazy people (literally) to get rid. Whilst it did the trick in the end, it was exhausting. Add this to the pain of being bitten, fear of sleep, and shame at being covered in ugly blisters, coming home from work to clean the house top-to-bottom over and again was truly testing.

So that was my most terrible Summer. Pretty sh*t, if I say so myself. What’s most sad to me is that C and I spent that time together, and yet apart, lost in our own minds. Changing the past isn’t an option, and in truth, I don’t actually regret it having happened this way. What I learnt that anxious Summer ultimately played an important role in my becoming better. In time, I hope I can use my experiences to help others live happier, healthier, and emotionally wealthier lives, too. Or at the very least to remember not to scrimp on their pets’ flea treatments.

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