After trying to hide my behaviours around food, after sneaking around pretending to eat, and “Oh the ice cream tub is empty? How strange. No I haven’t seen it. We have mice right?”; there came a point when I was confronted. For me, the second time around I knew I had an eating disorder due to my past. It wasn’t the first time for me, but even if it is: once it is acknowledged that there is a problem it is OK to be with it and live with it for a while. I say this because an eating disorder is caused by psychological factors, and no matter how much weight is gained, or how much you restrain someone from purging, if the underlying factors are not healed then the eating disorder is not truly healed.
We accepted this fact. We didn’t ignore what was happening. My partner read about eating disorders. She read leaflets and websites. She took it even further because she understood that only so much of what is going on can be explained in a bulleted leaflet written by doctors – so she hit online and read blogs written by people experiencing an eating disorder. This helped her understand the method to my madness and glimpse inside what was really happening, allowing me to explain better what I could, and for her to understand as best as she could. We were honest. I could say, “I’m struggling with this” and it was OK. I could even say, “that restaurant scares me” and we could work on negotiations. Even if I broke down because of the food on my plate in front of me, she made it so that I could say, “It’s the food.” It was accepted and I didn’t have to fabricate a lie that I’d broken my toe, that someone had been nasty or, ‘it’s just that time again…all the time…every day at dinner time…I get bad PMS”.
An eating disorder is a real challenge to overcome. The pathology that underlies the eating disorder runs so deep within the core, becomes so entrenched within the psyche and so consuming that no part of life remains untouched, unscathed, or unaffected. Distortions are skewed. Rationale and abilities to make sense of the world are shaken upside down and all around: it becomes one understanding for you and the rest of the world, and another for us. No, you are not fat at X lb, yet if the same stats are applied to me, they are unacceptable. X lb is a disgrace, for me but not you. I am disgusting, not only to myself but to the whole of humankind. I am shameful, greedy, horrific, but not you. You are fine, perfect, wonderful even. For the sufferer, this existence is accepted not as unhealthy, a lack of wellness, or a distorted pathology, no, this is the cold, hard, rational factualities of our existence and life: skin and bone alone would still be too much.
Therefore, understanding that they are unwell, that something is wrong with them, and it is not that they are a disgrace is a feat. Once this understanding has been gained and the sufferer is ready to start taking the initial steps towards recovery, it is difficult to overcome with support, and far harder alone.
In this series, ‘You Got My Back, Yeah?’, I will explore how, by working together, we orchestrated our joint battle against my eating disorder in a set of 10 key types of support that I found the most useful from those around me for overcoming my eating difficulties: from my partner, my friends and the healthcare professionals I worked with whilst battling my eating disorder. (Click Links)
We all have mental health. We don’t all have a mental illness. we have not all experienced a mental health crisis. Sometimes you hear people talking, especially online, about how they had a crisis and sometimes I wonder if the term “mental health crisis” has become somewhat watered down and overused, much like the term “trauma”. Many now refer to trauma for anything a bit significant and overwhelming. The problem with this is that the reality and severity of trauma and mental health crisis become diluted the more they are overused or, alternatively, used out of context. This is why, although difficult viewing, I was really relieved when I saw ‘Losing It: Our Mental Health Emergency” listed on 4OD.
The show follows patients through a mental health trust in Nottinghamshire and shines a light on the extremes, the harsh, petrifying and heartbreaking reality of a mental health crisis. In episode 1 we met Laura and Briena. Laura was experiencing her first-ever episode of mental ill-health and was detained on Section 2 for post-partum psychosis – her illness nearly cost the lives of her entire family. Laura was super compliant with treatment in order to get better, however, experienced variations in her mood and energy states, which highlighted the subtlety that psychosis can have: the conviction in delusional thoughts, the not wanting to rest and agitation, the deadish eyes in a family photo that in hindsight give Laura a glimpse into how unwell she was, “I don’t particularly like this one behind me because I think you can see in my eyes that I’m still ill”.
Once she is well, she reflects on the experience and she really hit home. Having come out of a crisis and hospital admission, “we will never be the same people as we were before that day because of what I tried to do but it doesn’t make me feel any better by crying over it…I still regret it and I still live with the guilt” Reflecting she recalls how the realisation of how unwell you’ve been once you’ve recovered from an episode can be harder than being ill, “it’s mad how when you’re ill you don’t realise how serious it is, and then when you come out of it, it hits you even harder …it’s crazy how much… its just kind of come back”.
We are also introduced to Briena, an 11-year-old with deeply disturbing suicidal and intrusive thoughts. She sometimes struggles to articulate herself and has panic attacks so severe she looks to be in real agony. It’s heartbreaking and painful to watch. You can’t even imagine how her parents feel watching their daughter in so much pain and being essentially helpless.
The world of mental health has changed dramatically in the last decade, heck it has changed beyond recognition and even in the last 5 years everything just keeps changing. This can make navigating the system and services out there difficult. It can be more difficult when more people ask for help, because all of our campaigning has worked in de-stigmatising mental illness and mental health difficulties. Unfortunately, the system isn’t prepared for this influx of pleas for help, and so it is, in the words of my social worker yesterday, “they’re changing the system to be more streamlined, so people come in and go out very quickly in order to deal with the influx of need”. I’m sceptical; this sounds like a false economy, where people go in to the system at crisis point and come out just as quickly without the longer term input and support that helps people to get and stay well, “gone are the days when we could support someone for years, we just can’t now. We’re really looking at months”
With this new system I haven’t had a care coordinator allocated to me and I’m one of 70 in my team to have a named professional. This is apparently the worst it has ever been. I have now been told that I won’t be allocated someone new and will instead be discharged because I haven’t had a crisis for a while and although I still need medication adjustments and tweaks about twice a year, I am quite frankly not a priority. I understand this, and in hindsight despite being petrified for the future, I am so grateful I got unwell before Tory policies came into effect because a lot of the treatment and support I’ve had, the very treatment and support that has helped me to get to this point of relative stability and resilience is no longer available. So even though we have reduced the stigma of being open about mental health, and in asking for help we still have a lot more work to do in order to make sure the help and support is available to people who need it.
This is no longer a battle. This is a war. People have lost their lives, and more people will – and that’s just not acceptable. No one should be left alone to end it because the support isn’t there. I think the place to make the biggest impact is perhaps to contribute towards the charity sector who are plugging a lot of gaps as best they can – and maybe people of power with a real ability to influence legislation and funding, or perhaps help set up practical services beyond signposting to the Samaritans or an online chat forum would be good. There’s a lot of talking and celebrity endorsement going on, but for the people on the ground without privilege, where are they going to turn when they can’t get the help they need from the NHS? For as well intentioned as it has been , we have perhaps missed the mark in the context of this political fuckery we are currently in.
Losing It is a great documentary opening the doors to providing a platform for people in crisis talk about what they’re going through, but without real action and funding, it seems you have to nearly die or kill someone to get help – and if you ask me, that’s just too risky a system. I don’t have the answers, I’m just a bit petrified for my own situation and for those who have it much worse than me any time from 2017 and into the foreseeable future. We’re talking, but the conversation is bleak.
January is well and truly underway halfway point of peak wintriness (definitely!). With lengthier stints of creepy darkness consuming our hours, it’s a very natural feeling to want to hibernate a bit. I think the bears have the right idea with this one. Unfortunately, we are not bears and the world does not stop for 6 months a year for us to hibernate; the show must push on.
Winter would not be complete without a mention of our aptly named friend, SAD. SAD is actually an acronym for ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, which is characterised by depression that occurs recurrently and seasonally, most often during winter months. A small number of people do experience symptoms during summer months, however. There are a few contributors to the development of SAD, including affected circadian rhythms (a pattern of rhythms and motions that control and affect our sleep/wake cycles), reduced sunlight exposure meaning a reduced exposure to Vitamin D, and therefore absorption. Vitamin D, particularly D3 is very important for mood maintenance and overall happiness. It is now recommended that everyone takes a supplement during the winter months because as the winter progresses in the northern hemisphere most people become deficient of this vital and unique micronutrient and hormone precursor.
Even for those of us who aren’t experiencing SAD right now, January is still a bit of a funny month. The festive shenanigans are over, which can be a relief. For others, this means there’s nothing to look forward to for a while (debatable). Perhaps something terrible happened at Christmas because usually in someone’s life something terrible happens at Christmas (not an official statistical fact). To top it off, January hosts Blue Monday – an idea that the third Monday in January is the bluest of them all, and although I very much disagree with the sentiment that you can feel depressed for a day or a week only, the fact that the idea of Blue Monday took off indicates that January is just a bit of a shit time of year – which is kind of funny considering we start it off with the biggest bang of all the months; while being the number one most hated month (a very quick and brief google search confirms this if that’s the level of evidence we’re accepting now).
With all of this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to think of some ways to cope this January if you are feeling a bit off keel. Maybe you’re skint and want a holiday – Oh HI THERE!?! Maybe you’re feeling a bit crappy because Christmas happened and that can be a bit shit for a lot of people. Maybe you’re feeling fat but that crazy restrictive diet you started and swore would change your life hasn’t lived up to your hopes, or you didn’t stick to it (I don’t blame ya!) and the thought that having a specific quantification of your gravitational force on Earth is maybe, just maybe, not the answer to all your problems (spoiler alert, this is almost guaranteed!!) And maybe you can’t put your finger on a reason, and that’s OK too! So without further ado, I present to you the catchiest list title ever…
Things Maybe, perhaps, Worth a try This January if and when You Feel a Bit Shit
(also recommended for when it’s not January and these are not January specific suggestions – you can do them any time of year, any place, where ever and whenever you want) Exercise
Even just getting out for a walk in the park, preferably during daylight hours if you can, will help; fresh air, trees, and a punch of nature. If you’re in the countryside, then go submerge yourself in real nature for a stroll instead of the man-made catastrophes we love in London so much. Eat your fruit and veg
This isn’t the same as dieting, but eating a varied and colourful diet can really make sure you’re getting all those vitamins and minerals that play a vital role in maintaining your well-being. Also, the fibre and whatnot will help your gut microbiome be healthy – which is super important for maintaining your mood and mental wellbeing. Speaking of gut health.
Take a probiotic if you can
Look for one that is general all-rounder, or perhaps more specific to what you might need. I’m currently taking one for my immune system because *cough cough splutter* need I say more?
Connect with people
See your friends. Have a real conversation and turn off the box a little bit. Netflix does not count as hanging out with a friend or partner. If real-life people contact is a bit difficult, go to the park and pet people’s dogs. Dogs love it, usually. You love it, don’t you?
Let yourself rest
I get it, January is prime life overhauling time. You want to train for a spring marathon, you want to lose weight, you want to work towards that promotion – and go for it if you really want to – but don’t forget to rest. There’s no use pushing for goals and burning yourself out in the process because you are more likely to either fail or achieve your goals injured, battered and unable to really enjoy the glory of your hard work and suffering. Chill with a cup of tea, have a bath, read a book, watch some TV.And remember, if you’re marathon training – you really really do need more sleep in order for your body to recover from training and lay down the training gains in muscle reparation. Thisall happens mostly when you’re asleep. Early bedtime calling your name? Yeah same, I love an early bedtime!
Be Balanced in your approach
Even if you are wanting to lose weight or change your diet completely, a piece of cake won’t ruin everything. Whatever your goals, we need to move away from the all-or-nothing mentality. Have a piece of cake if you really want it, a cake can be a perfectly fine and healthy complement to our lives. Believe it or not, there are situations where eating a piece of cake is a sign of healthier behaviour – moderation is your mentor!
If you’re feeling really radical, maybe try a new sport: Rugby England are currently doing their Inner Warrior Campaign for womens rugby, or maybe there’s a sport club near you offering try-out sessions to have a go and have some fun? Rugby is great fun (I may be slightly biased but, if you’re feeling brave enough give it a try! YOLO and faces can be restructured by plastic surgeons really well now so that’s not an excuse!)
I hope these are some helpful ideas. If you’re really struggling and think you might actually be depressed or suffering way more than what you think you should be, then book an appointment with your GP and talk to them about how you’re feeling. They can assess you a little bit and figure out what the right steps might be for you.
If I asked you to walk home in the rain, how would you respond? Would you tell me to open my eyes; it’s raining, duh? Or maybe you might feed us both an excuse that you don’t have your umbrella and it’ll ruin your hair? What if I told you that sometimes taking the uncomfortable option can help you grow? Now I know you’re not a thirsty plant, but hear me out! Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is essential for developing resilience, a “Fuck It” attitude and for finding out what you are really made of. Most of the time, these uncomfortable situations that we frantically avoid aren’t all that bad, such as walking home in the rain. Sometimes they may even be a source of joy, imagine that! Walking home in the piss wet rain could be a highlight of your day? Maybe you think I’m full of shit. Maybe I am, but let’s ignore that for a moment because there is one person who we owe it to to do the things that make us feel uncomfortable – and that is ourselves.
Every day I see people that inspire me to push myself, whether it’s that they have something that I want *ahem a Marathon Majors 6-Star Medal cough* or they’re holding the first copies of their newly published book – I’m jealous, so shoot me! I just want to smell crisp new pages covered in my words! What lies between where I am now, and where I want to be is very simple and very painful: a whole lotta growth.
Make yourself do unpleasant things so as to gain the upper hand of your soul – W.E.B. Du Bois
This is where owing it to yourself to get comfortable being uncomfortable comes into its own. Do you remember any of your teenaged growth spurts? Those HURT! Growth is uncomfortable, and of course, it takes effort to grow, relentlessly unforgiving and continuous effort. You owe it to yourself to challenge yourself and get comfortable being uncomfortable. By becoming comfortable with discomfort we learn how much we can push ourselves, we realize and learn our limits, and that our resilience reaches beyond our own imaginations.
The option to stay exactly where we are is always there. When we have had enough we can always stop and decide if we like it just as it is. Maybe you do, or maybe it’s just easier to stop, for a long time self-harming was more comfortable than facing the rawness of my psychology and mind, learning to eat was more uncomfortable than starving myself and there came a point when being unwell becomes more comfortable than undertaking the journey to becoming well because being unwell was all I knew- I soon learned that growth happens in the most treacherous and uncomfortable of waters, as the adage and many a meme go. It’s true. That shit is scary and itchy ants-in-your-pants uncomfortable. The best teacher and arena I have found in persevering through discomfort has been exercising, without it, I doubt I would have recovered as much as I have.
Sometimes when you’re covering a large distance in one go, hi there marathon, or hiking and climbing up a mountainside (Tryffan, we have unfinished business), it is uncomfortable. It is hard. In each task, by putting one foot in front of another, a very simple yet vastly symbolic act, the finish goal will eventually appear. In continuing to show up for yourself through the challenge and continuing to push on through the burning quads, aching knees, jarring concrete and absolute monotony that can be associated with covering distance, you get there and all of a sudden the intense and immense gratitude, pride, sense of accomplishment that you feel makes it all completely 100% worth it. You don’t forget the pain, this isn’t childbirth, it just all becomes worth it.
So taking this ideology into a bigger playing field is the next step, and they don’t always have to be huge strides of progress that are acquired during an activity for it to be worth it, next time it’s raining, which if you’re in London is probably tomorrow lets be honest, walk for a bit in the rain even though you don’t want to go out in it. Go for that walk in the cold. Take your shoes off, feel the ground and the cold iciness of a wintery puddle submerge your toes. Practice different types of discomfort, physical, emotional, mental: turn the heating down to below comfortable for a day, have a cold shower, go for a run up a hill. This is the reality. Life isn’t always sweet, it’s mostly pretty grim. In practise, you empower yourself to manage situations when you lack control over a situation. Sit in the overwhelm and when exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations, go ahead and nurture yourself as well. Self-soothe yourself through the discomfort, learn how to do this for yourself. Figure out whether it’s a mantra that you repeat in your head, a texture that you feel, a particular way of fidgeting your fingers that is soothing. This is great practice for self-soothing in situations that are uncomfortable where you have no control over being able to escape them, i.e. depression, anxiety, that presentation in front of your colleagues, public speaking, a race, a challenge, commuting on an overpacked tube at rush hour. It doesn’t mean you always succeed, just that you will succeed more than when you couldn’t tolerate any discomfort.
For anyone who knows me well, they know that September/October is a hard time of year and has been throughout the past decade. For a long time the underlying cause was assumed to be situational stress, with something always assumed to have been bothering me: an argument with my other half; studying was difficult; work was stressful; my routine had been disrupted; this had happened and that had happened, historically speaking, like an anniversary of shite; it rained too much or it was too sunny. To be frank there’s always someone in your life that is doing your head in a bit, and in the UK there’s always always the weather, regardless of how good or bad said weather patterns are being, no matter the time of day, week or year, there is always an angle to take from which you can blame the weather for life’s woes.
This ‘something must be going on’ approach is understandable; when things go awry with your mood and mental state it seems that the most logical first step is to try and pinpoint a cause, and from there you can theoretically hatch a plan. The thing is, there is always something external to blame whether or not there is validity or truth in the reason. For ten years we’ve been fine-comb picking my life apart to figure what it is that has set me off this time. After about a decade, a pattern has emerged. I am always looking for an explanation in september and october. The chicken or the egg, the mood or the thoughts, the cognitive or the behavoural?
Now we have pinned it on the changing seasons: autumn saddens, and spring quite literally springs. I have tried to go on as if to not expect the wobble. I have tried to distract myself out of the habitual mood change with hoildays, festivals and exciting events to look forward to, just in case it was a subconscious pattern. I have tried ignoring it just in case I was placebo affecting it into effect, and I have tried to go on as if everything is just as fine and stable as it was mid-August. None of this has worked.
A breakdown in Berlin, a meltdown in Morocco, a face like a slapped arse, and difficulties in not to lashing out ensued from getting into confrontations with mates and strangers alike, particularly on public transport, inextricably blaming everyone but me for being so goddamn unreasonable. I mean sometimes they are but my patience is tissue paper thin right now, so instead of not rising to the occasion or ignoring something annoying, I snap, crackle and pop.
The difference between now and a decade ago is that I have a decades’ worth of experience up my sleeve at managing these episodes, it that CV worthy? I feel like managing this is a transferable skill? At least these episodes are no longer scary for me because they are in fact incredibly familar. I recognise and feel familiar with the feelings and the irrational thoughts of “I should just kill myself” – spoiler alert, I shouldn’t. The intrusive thoughts of just pushing, shoving or tripping people up for having the audacity to be near me in the street street are just that, intrusive thoughts. I can choose to act on them with varying degrees of self control – and if I’m really struggling to control them then I just stay close to home. I take it easy. I grab coffee and reply ever more inconsistently to my phone. I watch shit TV and let myself be. Sometimes I’ll fall into mentally beating myself up for being so useless and lazy, and then I remember that this is in fact why I am studying part-time, this is in fact why I get the financial aid that I do and this is in fact a much better option than pushing on even more so, only to absolutely lose my fucking shit completely. Top tip: prevention is always better than cure, or picking up the pieces.
This is all familiar now. When it happens I have the confidence to manage it and that it will pass. It always passes. It is never like this forever. All I need to do is call my CPN and tell her. She is arranging zopiclone for me at tomorrows meeting from a single phone call today. It’s predictable and routine. I reflect to figure out the root cause and I’m not particularly confused. I’ve got through it for my entire life, and I know that with time it will settle and pass, if I do the right things to help myself. I know what helps and what really realy does not help. So if you’re struggling with the mood shifts that are so frequently triggered at this time of year for anyone with a mood disorder, hear me out. It passes. IT ALWAYS PASSES. Sometimes it takes a really long time, and sometimes it doesn’t. Look after yourself, take your meds, and get them looked at if you can if you’re struggling an unreasonable amount.
Give alcohol a miss and sleep is a priority. Solitude in times of feeling short fused is OK and seeing people when you’re feeling alright is a necessity for our sanity. It’s OK to watch shit TV. Doing small things helps, and not having major comitments also helps. Balance. Balance. Balance and perseverence. You’ve got this, I’ve got this, we’ve got this.
N.B. Fuck that ending was cheesy!!!!! Grab a cracker.
As I sit here in my favourite alcove on campus, watching over the trees as the squirrels dance over the grass at the edge of campus, I realise that I have just two years left at uni. This seems like most of the course to a lot of people but I’ve been studying part time which means my degree will take a total of five years to complete. I’m in no rush.
Going into my first lesson of the year ahead, I walk in without worry and sit in the middle of the lecture theatre. I know what is going on just intermittently as we delve into the complexities of metabolic pathways and that’s ok. I’m more chill about no understanding everything the first time you’re introduced to it. I’m not panicked by not having the end seat on a row. I’m not concerned that people are saying about me, if they’re even saying anything at all. I’m not wishing the world woud swallow me up whole and make everything disappear or that I could immediately teleport home.
The anxiety I used to face at the start of the year, when all the freshers turn up in their hundreds and cram along the corridors to queue for lectures is no longer the major challenge that it was when I started uni in 2016. I’m pretty much at ease with myself and the situation at hand. I’m at ease sitting in a lecture theatre, I’m at ease walking around the corridors and I’m at ease finally with being in the uni environment. My anxiety has downgraded from high octane fright night levels of panic to meh!
No longer do I find myself dodging and flirting my way around campus crevices, hiding in empty rooms because the study room full of students is overwhelming. No longer do I longingly stare at the train tracks as each train that isn’t mine passes me by, wondering if I should just get it over and done with. Still, I experience The September Issues but I’m sure as hell not suicidal in any way nor do I feel paranoid, fearful or desperate to feel nothing instead of the everything that overwhelms me.
I’m a loner on campus but not a loner in life, and this gives me an extra confidence within myself. My confidence has grown so much over the last couple of years that I am very much a different person to when I started here and I still have two years to go. I no longer need weekly welfare meetings, or fitness to study meetings with the Head of College. I’m quite excited to see what I will grow into by the time graduation comes around for me.
Overall, I’ve only had one or two admissions since starting my course and I’ve got stronger and stronger with each successive year. I’ve learned the course content, alongside learning to manage more demanding workloads and how to function despite a shitty ass mood episode. I’ve managed to get myself into my lesson despite how much I’ve hated being awake or going out that day. My resilience has improved and now my life is no longer dictated entirely by my emotional state alone. I imagine that I probably still have a relatively severe case of resting bitch face, and you know what, who cares?! I’m functioning at a higher level than I ever have since the summer of 2011.
Attending uni part time has been absolutely paramount in my getting better at managing life, alongside my therapeutic input and medication alterations. It has taught me to push through when I can, to open up and be honest about needing to rest when I need, and that I can do something with my life outside of the mental health system. I have learned to play a team sport, which has an impact beyond my university life. When my anxiety makes a comeback, instead of isolating and hiding, I’m like a legendary slayer from Final Fantasy, slaying that beast, gain some XP and continue on my way. I’m surpassing levels I never thought I’d get the opportunity to entertain, and as I sit here in my favourite alcove on campus, I am proud, excited for the future and so absolutely fucking grateful for the health care and education system we have here in the UK for helping me get to this place.