Lauren

This post was written by Lauren as part of my #MentallyWealthy series for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018. Lauren is 18 months into her recovery from anorexia and shares her experience of the bumpy road of recovery. You can find Lauren on Instagram

Almost two years ago, I found myself in a toilet stall in Malaysia, on the phone to my parents back at home, verbalising for the first time that my mind no longer felt like my own. After a month away from home, the Anorexia that had been controlling me through much of my final school year had grown into spitting, skeletal monster that had wrapped itself around my brain, distorting my perception of everything around me. The relief I felt when I finally said the words out loud was unparalleled, and in the weeks following my return home I felt like progress was being made. I had accepted I had a problem. I was receiving the counselling and nutritional guidance I needed. University still seemed like a sensible goal come October. Surely, the gap from diagnosis to full recovery would be a matter of months?

Unfortunately, this was not the case. I spent large parts of my recovery being told that I was brave for talking about my illness, and that I had overcome the biggest hurdle by accepting that I was unwell. But for several months after my first counselling session, I continued to feel that surge of euphoria when I stepped on the scales and the number dropped. I continued to weigh out my food, count my steps and calories, continued to overexercise. Recovery is not the neat, brief process I had imagined it to be, and accepting I was unwell was not the most difficult part. In fact, it became a new tool for the Anorexia to use; if I had accomplished this step, there was no need to try new foods or gain the weight back. As long as I was talking to people about the fact that I was unwell, I didn’t actually need to do anything to address the problem. I ended up in a bizarre situation where I could openly discuss my plans for recovery whilst edging closer to hospitalisation; I took a twisted pride in my manipulation of the situation, kidding myself that I was fooling those around me into believing I was engaging in recovery even whilst I faded into a bruised and delusional skeleton.

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Recovery is not a smooth process, and it does not take mere months. I took an enforced gap year and when I finally reached university just over a year after my original diagnosis, it was not the experience I had been led expect from friends and the media. How to manage freshers’ week when you can’t bring yourself to drink alcohol for fear of ‘wasted’ calories? How to talk to someone you like when you are internally assessing every physical flaw you possess? How to deal with deadlines when you are too depressed to get out of bed? I made some fantastic friends, have a hugely supportive family and have medication to manage my depression, but first year has been a struggle. I have recently returned to counselling after verging on a relapse during exam season, and have been booked in for a bone density because I have not had a period in over two years. The fantasy of the rapid recovery I had talked about with my parents over the phone in Malaysia is laughable now, but not an uncommon perception. Mental health recovery is not smooth, it is not a journey of self discovery, it is not glamourous. I am still on antidepressants, still obsessed with food, still capable of spending hours at a time in front of a mirror dissecting my body. The body that may not be able to bear children because of what I have put it through, the body that I continue to berate and critique on a daily basis.

Recovery is the best thing I have ever done, but let no one tell you that it is not brutal. It is necessary. It is the only option, but it may take years and it will not be without struggle. Do not be cosseted by the notion that talking is enough; it is crucial, but you have to act on your words. I have to act every day to prevent the monster feeding on my hunger, and it is empowering, exhausting and exhilarating all at once. But it is a battle I am proud of and a battle that is happening in every country, city and home every day. You are more than your illness, more than your recovery and every action you take creates a new identity that is not defined by these things.

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A huge thanks to Lauren for sending me this post. Recovery, as Lauren mentions, is the only option following an Eating Disorder diagnosis, but unlike so many of the stories we hear, it’s not always the smooth road we (or our families) expect. 

If you’d like to get in touch to write for this series please email florabeverley@gmail.com. Please hashtag #MentallyWealthy in any Instagram/twitter posts and spread the word!

Jemma

Jemma got in touch with me as she wanted to share what it feels like to have anxiety, and the issues a lot of people have in taking mental health seriously. There’s still a taboo that mental health is something you can just ‘get over’ and Jemma talks about why this is so flawed. You can find Jemma on Instagram

 

I want to be honest with you: for a long time, including before I ever suffered with it myself, I associated the term ‘anxiety’ with weakness. Physical ill health, like chicken pox or a broken leg is something beyond your control, but surely anxious or depressed people can just, like, be more positive and just try – right? Hahaha I wish. Anxiety is often defined as a ‘feeling of worry, nervousness or unease’, or a ‘strong desire or concern to do something or for something to happen.’

To me, anxiety seemed like Piglet from Winnie the Pooh, a small scared and maybe even slightly pathetic creature (no offence to Piglet he is still one of my favourite Winnie the Pooh characters.) Even when I first admitted to myself that I had symptoms of anxiety, this idea of ‘weakness’ still stuck with me, despite discovering for myself that ‘staying positive’ had little to no effect on the tirade of emotions, panic and fear going on in my head almost constantly. It turns out that having a mental illness is something beyond our control just the same as physical illness. Weird hey?I wish it was possible to just connect a wire into my brain and project everything that goes on in there onto some sort of hard-drive that could explain everything better than I can but until that’s invented all anyone really has is their own experiences, so I’ll try to explain mine.

  • Imagine giving a piggy back to a huge gorilla who is screaming in your ear constantly so you can’t move or think properly
  • Imagine that feeling when you’re `at the very top of a roller coaster that’s just started falling, you know, when your stomach feels like it’s going to come up out of your mouth?
  • Imagine a dark cloud just above your head which makes everything around you really harsh and bright, yet also dark and fuzzy at the same time – it makes no sense yet it’s still happening.
  • Imagine you’re trying to untangle a knot which no matter what you do will not loosen and it’s just so frustrating and you feel so useless and stupid for not being able to just undo a simple knot.
  • Imagine feeling constantly guilty and like you’ve forgotten something really important. That you’ve let someone down, but that person is everyone you have ever met and they all just really wish they had never met you.

These feelings were taking over my life constantly but there was no reason why this was happening. My life was good, my friends, family and boyfriend were and still are all amazing yet all I wanted to do was hide in my room in the dark day after day. This made the guilt worse and due to the fact that it was all in my head I felt as though I was making it up and wasn’t strong enough to just get over it.

Despite feeling this way almost constantly, the only time I was ready to tell a lot of my friends about having anxiety was when was I put on anti-depressants. I think this is because it made what was going on with me seem more valid, because how can you deny something that you’re taking pills for? It made it easier for me to talk about because I felt that people would have to take me seriously if a doctor had deemed me ‘serious’ enough to be medication-worthy.

Obviously this is a flawed way of thinking, yet I know I’m not the only person who has thought this way. This is representative of the fact that people generally find it hard to accept the fact that what goes on in our brain and how it can make us feel is just as much out of our control as whether or not you get a cold next week. This is why having the courage to talk about how you feel is so important. Also, having the courage to listen to someone is just as important, and accepting that what they say they are going through is valid, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.

Over time I have found that most people do want to at least try to understand what you’re going through, and it’s never anything to be ashamed of. If someone puts you down for how you feel then that really says more about them than it does about you. Another thing I’ve come to realise is that Piglet isn’t pathetic, he goes through hell every day and still carries on and I think that makes him pretty darn strong. You rock Piglet.

 

Thanks so much to Jemma for sending this in! I think it must be so hard for people to understand something they can’t see, and anxiety is one of those invisible things. Luckily the more people share their stories such as this, the more people will understand!

If you’d like to get in touch to write for this series please email florabeverley@gmail.com. Please hashtag #MentallyWealthy in any Instagram/twitter posts and spread the word!

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Lucy

This post was written by Lucy, who got in touch wanting to share her experience with bipolar. It’s so eloquently written, too! This post was written as part of my #MentallyWealthy series, a series of blog post with the aim of sharing what it’s like to live with a mental health condition and how we cope. You can find Lucy on Instagram

 

For me living with bipolar is about thriving and not just surviving, it’s a condition I have but it doesn’t define me.

I suppose I had my ‘epiphany moment’ in early 2010 when I found myself in A&E at midnight in an incredibly distressed state with strong suicidal thoughts. The doctor on call said something incredibly profound to me…”just remember that you are braver than you believe and stronger than you seem”.  Little did I know he was quoting Winnie the Pooh to me until years later, but I credit that doctor with saving my life.

I was subsequently diagnosed with type I Bipolar Disorder, and upon reflection it had probably appeared in my early teens but it took over fifteen years to diagnose.  Once I had the diagnosis, I engrossed myself with learning as much as possible about the condition and how I could tackle it, as I believed it to be something I could “beat”.  I now know differently, I can’t beat a chemical imbalance in my brain and instead I embrace it.

To me, my condition is often a rollercoaster and one I have learned to, dare I say it, enjoy, which may seem slightly odd when one reads the pessimistic and gloomy views often associated with bipolar.  Yes, I am on daily medication to take away the extremes of the manic and depressive states but I have to say that now I have come to terms with it, I wouldn’t change it for the world.  My manic episodes have led me to travel and live in some incredible countries along the way, and I feel like I have lived. Bipolar can sometimes be a cruel mistress, but also one to embrace.  I feel so much more, and experiences take on a whole new dimension for me.  I can smell the fresh scent of a peony and it lights up my soul; on the flip side I can also put the best fake smile on known to man and hide the pain I feel inside. Would I trade the highs so I wouldn’t have to experience the lows?  Not in a million years.  The lows can be crippling and indeed terrifying, but now I have changed how I think about bipolar, it makes me feel alive as I am actually feeling something.  Often with the depressive state, I used to feel empty, numb and worthless but now I know I can turn a corner and soon it will be ok again.

Developing an early warning strategy to deal with the onset of a high or a low episode was key for me and I was fortunate to take part in the early trial of a monitoring programme (True Colours) run by a team in Oxford. Diet and exercise has been absolutely instrumental for me, even if some days I couldn’t walk further than the garden gate as I couldn’t bear to face the world.  At that time, I lived in a cottage in an incredibly rural spot with no neighbours so I’d have more chance of conversing with a deer than a person, but that’s how debilitating it was.  I have to credit my rather amazing husband with his endless research into the effects of diet and exercise on mental health, as it was something that wasn’t really talked about 8 years ago, it was medication or bust.  He noticed how much better I was if I had a diet consisting of lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, a consistent sleeping and waking routine, how I felt after I took our dogs for a long walk across the fields and even when he coaxed me into trail running (I am not a natural athlete, I can assure you). Sometimes I still need that reminder and even a bit of tough love when I’m heading on a downward path and I tell him that I’m struggling – he gives me a hug and then tells me to put my trainers on and that whilst I probably hate him at that precise moment in time, I’ll thank him later.  He’s usually right.

In October last year, I switched to an organic, whole food, plant based diet for a multitude of reasons, but the main focus for me was to see how it affected my mental health and it was incredibly positive.  Caffeine can trigger a manic episode for me, so out went my Diet Coke obsession and my ability to drink a phenomenal amount of tea in a day.  I also ditched alcohol as I noticed that had a negative effect on my mood.  I joined a gym to keep my exercise going through the winter as running round country lanes at 6am in the pitch dark can be slightly lethal, even when lit up like a Christmas tree.  I mix up my routine with HIIT sessions, weight training, yoga and my favourite still has to be going for a run in the great outdoors.  I’m following the ‘One You Couch to 5k’ plan again, and Sarah Millican keeps me going.

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Why did I ask Flora if I could write about bipolar? Well, largely because I finally want to speak out about it – I’m tired of having a condition I felt ashamed of for years and dealing with the social stigma surrounding it can be a minefield for everyone involved and quite frankly, it is exhausting.  I wanted to highlight the fact that it is not all doom and gloom, bipolar can be life changing and not actually for all the wrong reasons.  It has taken me a while to get to this point, but now I can embrace it and actually enjoy it.  Being able to truly understand my condition and thus subsequently manage it, is rather empowering. It has certainly been a journey so far, and it is a life I wouldn’t swap for anything.

Embrace it, nourish yourself, thrive in the experiences life throws at you, seek out adventure in everyday life and don’t just survive as you are worth so much more.

 

I love Lucy’s positive outlook on her condition. I, too, have developed a quasi ‘thankfulness’ for my depressive episodes, because they made me the person I am today, and whilst neither of us would probably wish these ‘disorders’ on others, there’s no reason not to accept and even celebrate the positives they can give us. Thanks so much to Lucy for sharing this with me. 

If you’d like to get in touch to write for this series please email florabeverley@gmail.com. Please hashtag #MentallyWealthy in any Instagram/twitter posts and spread the word!

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Rose W

This article was written by Rose W as part of a series to raise awareness of mental health issues and break down the stigma that surrounds them. Rose started to suffer from depression and anxiety whilst at university, and shares her top tips for coping. You can find her on Instagram.

I thought I understood mental illness and I thought I was too strong to ever be affected by it. I was wrong. Throughout my teenage years, I watched as some of my closest friends battled various mental illnesses and eating disorders. I was determined to help them and support them for however long it took and I will never regret that. Being so close to mental illness growing up, I thought I had a pretty complete understanding of it by the time I went to university, but going into my second year, things started to change. I want to explain my experiences of poor mental health at university so that more people can recognise when to get help for themselves or their friends. Too many people suffer alone and it can have devastating effects.

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Around August 2016, I started to feel disconnected from my life. Things that would normally make me happy, such as seeing my friends, would make me feel tense and uncomfortable. Everything felt wrong and I convinced myself I just needed to get back to uni and everything would be fine. However, when I returned to uni in September, nothing changed. The more I struggled to feel happy, the more upset I became with myself. I would wake up convinced that something was seriously wrong. My heart rate was constantly elevated, breathing was hard, my skin felt wrong and I wanted to cry all the time. Despite watching my friends struggle with mental illness in the past, I didn’t recognise it in myself. I couldn’t focus on my work without feeling sick, I would sit with my friends and smile whilst feeling nothing but sadness. The longer it went on, the more I just wanted to sit in my room alone. Acting like I was happy was exhausting and I didn’t know how to tell my friends how hard it was to be around them. By the time I went home for Christmas, I was having panic attacks so severe I would throw up. Luckily my family saw instantly that something was wrong and took me to the doctors where I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depression.

Through my experience with mental illness, I have struggled the most with maintaining friendships and my studies. So here are my tips for making the most of your university experience whilst fighting your mental illness:

  1. Talk to someone. That is so much easier said than done and there are still times when I cannot face having to talk to people but I promise you, it helps. Explaining to your friends and family how you are suffering will be a weight off your shoulders. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to people you know, try reaching out to a therapist and access the mental health services at your university. Fighting mental illness with the support of friends is so much easier. I’ve been so lucky to be surrounded by a fun and supportive group of people, and whether or not they have been conscious of it, they have all made my battle easier.
  2. Plan out your studies and give yourself time to relax. Getting too behind on your work will probably cause greater anxiety. Try to do as much as you can but if you find yourself unable to focus, then breathe and walk away. Work is important, but it is not more important than your mental health.
  3. Tell your university. They may be able to offer additional help, or at the very least, grant extensions on assignments. Often at least one of your professors will be more than understanding and having a member of staff willing to support you and speak to your other tutors will make your life easier.
  4. See the doctors. Having an official diagnosis helped me so much. I was able to learn more about my specific mental illness and how to start on the road to recovery. If the doctors suggest using medication, take it and do not be ashamed. You wouldn’t tell someone who needs glasses that their eyes could see perfectly fine without them, so if your brain needs some extra help to balance out, take it.
  5. Remember you are still worthy. You might feel like you are a burden, and that no one wants to be around you, but you’re wrong. Good friends will understand that for now, you’re struggling and they won’t leave you. Even if you are battling yourself, and find yourself hard to love, others will still love you. I met my boyfriend four months after being diagnosed and I was open with him about my mental illness. Almost a year later we are still together and going strong.

For anyone watching their friend suffer, please tell them you care. It seems simple, but when your own mind is betraying you, it is hard to see that people around you want to help. Today, please take the time to reach out to your friends, especially men, who suffer alone disproportionately. Do not let your friends suffer in silence. It’s time we ended the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Thanks so much to Rose for sending me this post. Mental health issues can affect anyone, regardless of their knowledge of the issues themselves. Being self-aware is the first step towards acceptance and recovery, and there is no shame in getting help from others. I really like these tips for managing a mental health problem whilst at uni, a time when a lot of us suffer. 

If you’d like to get in touch to write for this series please email florabeverley@gmail.com. Please hashtag #MentallyWealthy in any Instagram/twitter posts and spread the word!

Abi

This blog post was written by Abi as part of a series to raise awareness of mental health issues. Abi has anxiety and has suffered from various eating disorders and writes about why we need to start thinking of mental illness as similarly serious as physical ailments. You can find Abi on Instagram

I just want you to take a minute and think about someone you know, a friend or a family member who’s been physically hurt – maybe a broken leg or a sports injury – where you could visually see them in pain. Now imagine being that individual suffering, but suffering in silence – on the outside you may be smiling, but on the inside everything is shutting down.

The reality of mental health vs physical health is that they are just as important as one another. However mental health is overlooked due to the absence of physical symptoms. As a sufferer myself of anxiety, eating disorders and perfectionism, my mental health hit such a low that I couldn’t see a day I would smile again, laugh again or simply be happy in my own skin. Just because I may be smiling on the outside, it doesn’t mean the voices, rules and overpowering anxious thoughts aren’t crippling me from within. Just because I can’t put a plaster on it, or a doctor can’t visibly see my pain, it doesn’t mean I don’t lie in bed at night planning my meals, planning new rules, listening to this so called best friend in my head over-ruling my life, giving me the illusion of control but slowly taking everything, including control, away.

Apart from rambling on and explaining my personal journey – one which I am still travelling through today, the messages I want to get out of this are as follows…
  •  You, yes you, the person reading this. You are worthy. Worthy of help, worthy of happiness and worthy of everything you desire.
  • A problem shared is a problem halved – talking is the best medicine for mental health. You may not be able to put a plaster on it or stitch up the wound – but the more you talk, off-load and express your thoughts, the lighter, more at ease and less anxious you will feel.
  •  I like to describe my journey through anxiety, eating disorders and perfectionism like physiotherapy. It hurts, but the issue will only get better if you are persistent and battle through the pain. Ignore the voices, scrap the rules and ask for help.
  •  Finally, remember. It’s okay not to be okay.
Let’s break the stigma and all call out. Mental health is so important – never be afraid, because one day mental health will be just and important as physical health.
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Thank you to Abi for sending me this post. It’s so important to remember that just because your illness isn’t visible, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Slowly I think the tides are changing, but it takes brave people like Abi talking about their struggles to really make the change. 

If you’d like to get in touch to write for this series please email florabeverley@gmail.com. Please hashtag #MentallyWealthy in any Instagram/twitter posts and spread the word!

MHAW

Sabrine

This blog post was written by Sabrine Elouali as part of a series to raise awareness of mental health issues. Sabrine has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anorexia and writes about how this has affected her life. You can find Sabrine on Instagram

 

Be honest. Have you ever said you’re “so OCD” about something? Or perhaps that seeing a messy room triggers your OCD? If you stopped and sat down with a piece of paper, could you actually write a description of what OCD is? I can guarantee that pretty much 100% of people, if asked, wouldn’t be able to. In dedication to Mental Health Awareness Week, I am here to share my experience with OCD and how this mental illness has and continues to affect my life.

OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is categorised as an anxiety disorder, so sits amongst Generalised Anxiety and Phobias. The name of the illness itself is quite self explanatory. The sufferer has obsessions, which are patterns of overthinking and worries that can surround a multitude of topics. The most common that are identified when diagnosing OCD are: Contamination (fear of germs/dirt), Harm (fear you are a danger to yourself or others) and Checking (fear of unlikely disaster based on perceived negligence to your surroundings) But there are many other single forms as well, and more often than not, these categories tend to overlap, with individuals experiencing more than one single obsession. The sufferer then also has compulsions. This is a far more broad area of the illness, and is hard to summarise the main compulsions that are participated in. But the majority centre around repetition, so repeating certain behaviours/actions/compulsions in order to relieve anxiety. Some examples include: Repetitive hand washing, Repetitive asking for reassurance and Repetitive locking/unlocking of doors. Again, this is very brief and compulsions can spread to tens if not hundreds of different behaviours that cause the sufferer to become stuck.

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I thought it was important to share what OCD actually is before I shared my story with it. I have with Anorexia and OCD, both of which started fairly close to each other, but my Eating Disorder preceding my OCD by around 3-4 months. To have co-morbid diagnoses like these are common, but not often talked about. I am still struggling with my Mental Health 7 years on from initial identification. It is not an easy thing to treat, and comes with immense challenges and difficulties. I’ve had hospital admissions for both of my illnesses in the past, and I’ve also had community treatment. Currently, I am technically under adult services in my community, but am not receiving therapy due to its ineffectiveness and am waiting on a private OCD specialist hospital referral.

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So how does OCD affect my life? In all honesty, I think a better question would be how doesn’t it. My OCD consists of intrusive thoughts and images that are focused on a fear I have. This fear is an extremely terrifying and anxiety provoking thing for me and so I don’t feel comfortable sharing what it is. However, I will still try to be as detailed as I can. As well as the constant ruminations in my mind, I exhibit repetitive compulsions. Anything for me can become a ritual/behaviour. Walking up the stairs so steps are repeated up and down, turning a light on and off, touching a door handle and not being able to let go.

These are just a few that I do daily, and so it is easy to see why I am pretty much housebound and cannot go out to do simple routine tasks that would be required in a normal life. Besides the external struggles that my OCD presents me with, we have to remember it’s a mental illness, and my internal mental struggles are just as difficult, if not a lot harder than the outward compulsions people can see. Constantly having thoughts and images flashing and replaying in my head all day of my fears. Like watching a horror movie that just doesn’t end. You watch it again, knowing what to expect, but still end up just as scared as the last time. Unbearable anxiety and living on edge all the time. Fighting to convince yourself of the logic you know is real but being deceived by the irrationality of OCD. Knowing that nothing will happen if you don’t repeat a wash/check etc. but feeling so engulfed in your thoughts and fears that you question what is real.

I suppose the next question would be, if I can’t do normal things, what can I do? Unfortunately I lost a part time job I had for two years that I enjoyed due to my OCD struggles. After a final managers meeting with 2 senior staff members and a gruelling 45 minute waiting time for a decision, it was concluded that “there was nothing more they could do” as it is “a business”. As much as I kind of knew that answer was coming, I cried in front of them as I handed over my locker key and staff discount card. It was a hard day, and was a big catalyst to my illness deteriorating further. As well as that, because my OCD is so severe, I’ve missed out on university. I’ve thought about the possibility of distance learning but the degrees are so limited in choice, and I’d rather not spend energy and time on something I’m not truly passionate about. At this point, I’m not sure what I’ll do career wise. My love of poetry and writing in general has me keen on blogging or journalism of some kind. But my connection to mental health draws me to want to work in services with people like me. I’m hoping I’ll find a way to do a mix of both as that’s where I think my heart lies.

Thank you to Sabrine for sending me this post. It is easy to see how OCD can so drastically affect your life, and talking about it will make people more aware of the realities of living with a mental illness. If you suffer too, know that you are not alone. 

If you’d like to get in touch to write for this series please email florabeverley@gmail.com. Please hashtag #MentallyWealthy in any Instagram/twitter posts and spread the word!