‘What have you got to be depressed about?’

There are some days when I wish I had the type of depression you see in films and on tv. The kind of depression that makes you pale, interesting and oddly attractive. Of course, the upside of ‘film depression’ is that generally you can be cured by the love of your life making everything better again in the course of about an hour… I suppose that would be a much easier process. The reality of depression is perhaps a little more painful and a bit less beautiful.

Depression can also be a whole lot less exciting or dramatic. It can be functioning at a level where, on the outside, you seem pretty much fine. But on the inside, everything is coated in a bit of a sludgy fog. It’s an effort to keep up with appearances and quite exhausting at the same time. Depression can be a bit of an overused term, I remember the idea of people being ‘depressive’ being thrown about carelessly at school… almost as a bit of an insult. There was no understanding or caring of what might be making that person feel low and often it was used to describe a rubbish day rather than an ongoing feeling of hopelessness, loneliness and despair.

Like many mental health problems, there seems to be a stigma associated with depression that makes people think it’s something you can just fix and overcome. If only it were that simple. There’s often no specific reason for depression, it’s not like it can be quickly fixed with a dose of medication. The reality is a lot more complex and varies so much from person to person. The truth is, unless given the opportunity to talk about their feelings, people with depression can go largely unnoticed despite the debilitating nature of their struggles at times.

Depression at University can be such a challenge, especially with deadline stress and the ease of becoming a bit invisible within a crowded student population. Six weeks ago I was involved in a minor car accident; I was fine but my Corsa ended up a little battered. It was a stressful situation that was made worse by difficulties with my insurance company. On a daily basis I was having to battle with unknown people in offices with no personal connection to me, my claim or my car. Day after day I was left feeling more and more hopeless and at times I wanted to just give up. My depression tried to take advantage of my vulnerability and I felt more demotivated to continue to battle as the days went on. When I added the stress of writing assignments and my dissertation; it all felt a little too much. It was far to easy to slip into thought patterns of it all being my fault for just being a generally rubbish human. Of course, that wasn’t really the case but it took a lot of perseverance to push through and get out the other side (thankfully I am almost there with a shiny fixed car as a reward!!).

I hate the misconception that depression has a predictable and easily solved cause. This theme is a major component of The Blurt Foundation’s #WhatYouDontSee campaign which is part of this years depression awareness week. The campaign highlights the unseen aspects of depression, the parts that are hidden behind the mask that people with the condition put on each day. I put together my own collage of pictures for the campaign and as part of #DepressionAwarenessWeek. For me… you often don’t see the moment of complete self doubt, the tears and panics, the time spent fighting to find the motivation to get on with the day or that horrible feeling of loneliness every when you’re surrounded by wonderful people. You definitely don’t see the moment where there’s no parking space at Uni, which results in tears and panic; resulting in the decision that in fact going to a lecture is just an impossible task because of all the stress.

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Depression isn’t something to be ashamed about, it’s something that should be talked about. Perhaps we could all take a moment to offer some support to a friend or family member who we know has struggles. Reminding them they’re loved and not broken or horrible can make such a huge difference!

 

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Your Comments Aren’t Helping Anyone

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This week Joan Bakewell made a sweeping statement that anorexia was a result of society becoming more narcissistic; she later apologised for the distress caused by her ‘reported views’ and of course has been widely criticised; but I’m still left feeling quite angry and frustrated that this kind of information is still finding it’s way into the world. Of course people are entitled to their own views and opinions, but surely you have to be more careful if you’re in a position of power/influence.

Andrew Radford, chief executive of Beat explained the problem with these kind of comments perfectly:

“Eating disorders are something a lot of people have misunderstandings about and they make throw-away comments as if it’s something you choose to have. This sort of comment is not helpful.”

The problem with comments, such as those made by Baroness Bakewell, is that they have the power to reinforce the negative stereotypes that surround eating disorders, as well as other mental health problems. They suggest that these illnesses are the ‘fault’ of the individual rather, creating a bit of a blame culture that really doesn’t aid in recovery. I’ve seen mental health issues related to physical health issues in this way often enough; being told that if I had a broken leg, it would be ok to get it treated… I wouldn’t be expected to just keep running on it. In this way, the mental illness is just that, an illness that people deserve support and help to overcome or manage to live alongside.

For many years, my feelings of guilt and shame surrounding my eating problems completely paralysed me. I didn’t want people to know what was going on because I was embarrassed and felt that on some level, I wasn’t even ‘good enough’ at being unwell to deserve any support or treatment… I was still too big, too much but also never enough. Guilt and shame surrounding eating disorders is unfortunately a very common issue amongst sufferers. A driving factor of an eating disorder is secrecy… the illness doesn’t want anyone else involved, it’s easier to maintain what’s happening if that person isolates themselves and retreats from the world. And the feelings of shame, blame and guilt aren’t restricted to the sufferer alone, they can be experienced by carers, friends, family members and those around that individual. Perhaps society, rather than being solely responsible for the disorders, is in fact perpetuating the negative feelings around such illnesses. Ultimately… perhaps these unhelpful views and stereotypes can build on the idea that eating disorders should remain unseen, whereas really we should be talking about them more to help reduce the stigma and allow individuals the right environment to be able to feel empowered and seek the support they need to overcome these horrible illnesses.

Part of me feels sorry for Baroness Bakewell, whom I’m sure did not expect this reaction to what she probably thought was a fairly harmless comment. The trouble is, these types of comments represent a bigger problem within society of not tolerating others who have different struggles to those we have experienced. It can be hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you don’t have their lived experiences… but it’s not that hard to find within yourself a little bit of empathy. We’ve all had a time of our lives where we’ve had moments of hopelessness or feelings that perhaps there’s even something wrong with us. Perhaps we could draw on those feelings before we start making sweeping judgemental and unhelpful comments that really have little basis in facts.

Getting My Happiness Back- EDAW 2016

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Today is the final day of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016; a year since I reached my thirtieth week of inpatient treatment and two since I took a leave of absence due to my eating disorder. I wanted to share a bit more of my story.

I think I reached rock bottom when I was put on bed rest. I was an inpatient on an eating disorder unit in a psychiatric hospital and the doctors had decided to remove all my responsibility from me. I was locked out of my bedroom all day meaning I had to stay in communal areas where staff could see me at all times. I wasn’t allowed to move without permission from a member of staff, I couldn’t even go outside. One evening I threw a bit of a strop when a pregnant member of staff wouldn’t let me change my bedding myself. I tried to argue a heavily pregnant woman shouldn’t be doing this for me. Her response summed up my situation perfectly: she was healthy enough to be pregnant and at that point, I wasn’t.

I got sucked into my eating disorder by the illusion of control it provided me, the idea that I could fix everything and make everything right, including myself. My illness had completely isolated me and was risking my life. It’s terrifying to think back to that time, I was so caught up in it’s depths that I didn’t even believe it was a problem, let alone life threatening. I’d been living in a horrible eating disorder bubble with no real social life and horribly dark thoughts. I agreed to a six week admission to a psychiatric hospital, convinced I would be leaving at the end of that time. Eventually, I started to see that I’d be there for the long haul. It ended up being ten months.

If you ask me when I first became unwell, I’m not sure I could pinpoint it exactly. I had never made a conscious decision to have an eating disorder. It was a much more gradual process; yet there came a point where it felt like everything had snowballed and was suddenly completely out of my control. I can remember always wanting to be different; whether it be a thinner, brainier, more popular or a more successful version of me. I never quite felt good enough.

I started at University and came down with the dreaded fresher’s flu, being physically poorly seemed like the final trigger that set me off on a downward spiral. I lost a large amount of weight in my first term and struggled to eat at all, it became easy to restrict my intake and compensate when I did eat. In second year, I went to the doctors with a chest infection and he asked what was being done about my eating disorder. He’d recognised my weight loss and made an accurate guess and knew all the right questions to ask to expose my unhealthy eating habits. I completely broke down and admitted that I was in a really dark place and didn’t know how to get out of it. I was referred to Uni support services, the Community Mental Health Team and the eating disorders team.

A year and a half later everything had taken a more serious turn. My physical health was suffering; I had chronic gastro intestinal problems including gastritis from the stress I was putting my body under. I couldn’t concentrate and had no energy. I was getting the majority of my nutritional intake from disgusting Fortisip supplements, a prescription drink usually given to ill old people who can’t eat. I’d been in hospital overnight after fainting due to dehydration and worrying electrolyte levels. Electrolytes conduct electrical impulses throughout the body and an imbalance can lead to arrhythmias and heart failure. I had gone from worrying a little about my weight, to being totally encompassed mentally and physically with an eating disorder.

It was my eating disorder specialist nurse who suggested inpatient treatment. I truly believed it was an over reaction. She told me if I didn’t accept support now, it may get to a point where the choice wouldn’t be mine, or I’d get so ill I’d be admitted to general hospital. During my assessment I answered a lot of questions about my self-image, eating habits and was weighed. It was decided I should be admitted to the hospital as quickly as possible. I’d managed for such a long time to be a ‘high functioning’ eating disorder suffering. Maintaining a fairly healthy weight at periods and not looking like a stereotypical anorexic. In a way, managing had meant my illness had become very ingrained and I was really in denial about it’s severity. I didn’t think I would be accepted into inpatient treatment.

Thanks to movies like Girl Interrupted, I was expecting a scary asylum full of scary people. The reality was a lot more normal. I received a lot of support, a regular program of meals and group treatment, therapy and a graded approach to returning to the real world. On arrival my bags were searched to remove anything I might use to hurt myself, it seemed unnecessary but made the reality of my situation really sink in.

At first I wasn’t even allowed to go outside without a staff member to escort me. All the control was taken away. I spent a lot of time in the dining room. Everyone had to wait until everyone else finished eating. Then it was time for post-meal support. Sometimes we’d spend hours in the dining room. It was a place of tears and tantrums but also amazing support from the other girls.

I went through the program with staff members initially reminding me when to have a drink, go for meals, portioning out my food and supporting me to eat it. It was a nurturing environment but completely different to anything I had ever experienced. I was very emotional and overwhelmed in the early days of being in hospital, perhaps feeling the emotions I had shut out for so long with my eating disorder. Gradually I worked my way through the program and gained back responsibility, starting with self-portioning and self-catering before being allowed out of the hospital to practice the skills I’d learned in a more realistic setting. Returning to the real world was really challenging. It started with an hour coffee trip once a week. During the first one I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and how fast everything was going.

My eating disorder had a huge impact on my time at university. I stopped socialising and I really struggled to leave the house to attend lectures or go out. My grades slipped and I had to have frequent extensions until I there was no choice but to take a leave of absence. I am so thankful to have had such a supportive group of friends who stuck by me when I was struggling. I also have the most amazing supervisor, community and uni support team who have helped me regain my health and return to uni. I spent about six months back with my family after leaving hospital. Eventually, I moved back to my university town and returned to my course about a month later. I’m now getting to the end of my degree… with my last few taught sessions; a year after my 30th week in hospital and two since I had taken my leave of absence.

It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. I’m by no means recovered but feel I’m going in the right direction. I have my good days and bad days, but I always try to remember that my worst days in recovery are always better than the best days in relapse. There has been so much about being back on campus that, at times, made me want to be back in that dark place. I’m back in the place I felt the most unwell, which in itself can feel like a trigger. The key has been to keep talking about what’s going on for me and use the skills I learnt in hospital to try and make sure I don’t slip back to old coping methods. My experience has enabled me to become a much stronger person despite my struggles, which I am grateful for.

Eating disorders are such horrible illnesses that can affect so many different types of people. You can’t always tell if someone has an eating disorder… in fact weight is just one symptom but isn’t a measure of what’s happening inside someone’s head. If you are worried about your eating or about a friend, then please do seek support and help. You deserve to recover and recovery is so worth it.

Originally written for Campus Society, you can check out Kate’s Huffington Post Blog too!

Another Year Older

The clock is ticking on as I spend my last for hours as a 24 year old. I used to always reach a middle of the night (alcohol induced) birthday related existential crisis. Each year I would be prompted to think about the differences to the year before and undoubtedly be self critical about all the things I hadn’t achieved. I think important dates can have that effect on you. The main focus of my crisis was always that I was still unwell, in the grips of my eating disorder and it made me feel like a bit of a failure, like people around me were moving on with their lives and I was stuck. 

Last year was a new start I guess, the first birthday of my real recovery beginnings. Perhaps it’s why this year feels a little less crisis filled. In fact, compared to last year, I’ve made huge amounts of progress. I’m living independently, back and work and uni and perhaps this might even be the year I graduate. On the eve of my 20th birthday I was full of expectations and put so much pressure on myself. Perhaps the first part of my 20s didn’t really go exactly as I had imagined; and in some respects have been some of the hardest years of my life. But on the eve of my 25th birthday, I feel like I’m embarking on a new chapter and one that I can do what I want with. It’s a scary thought but such an exciting one. 

Perhaps the key is to recognise the successes, notice the achievements whether they be small or big and hold on to them. Of course being another year older doesn’t really mean a great deal… Maybe it’s more symbolic than anything else. But hey, maybe I can save my next existential birthday crisis for the eve of my 30th birthday, thankfully I’ve still got a few years until that! 

Can I Make Recovery Fit?

The other day I wrote myself a kind of mantra about recovery:

Some days in recovery aren’t easy. Sometimes you might feel like the world is surely about to end, you can’t face getting out of bed and it feels impossibly hard. This is where true recovery is born, where you find the resilience to keep going when it feels hard. Remember that your head may well be selling you the idea of relapse as a positive… like it might make you feel better right now… you even get that kind of homesick feeling for a time when you were poorly. But the reality is that even the way you’re feeling right now, is better than the good days of being unwell. Keep strong and keep fighting!

As a student, recovering from a mental health problem can at times feel like a huge challenge. Or course it’s not restricted to students… it applies to anyone who is doing ‘life stuff’ at the same time whether it’s working, studying, looking after a family… anything that divides your attention. Recovering from any mental health problem can often feel like a full time job that requires a lot of attention, but our reasons to recover are the ‘life stuff’, so we tread this fine line between focusing enough time on each area. I guess it’s that classic plate spinning game; the focus needs to be enough in each area to keep the plates up but actually it’s not the end of the world if occasionally something slips or drops.

I had a couple of flat days recently where I was ok… but finding the extra energy I needed to be up and out of the house early just felt too much. It was a better option to have a quieter and easier start and think about the work I could do from home until I built up my resources again. I felt guilty for missing a couple of bits of contact time and teetered on the edge of beating myself up for being a bit of a failure etc. (all the negativity my brain wanted to feed me!). When I took a step back and thought about it though… it was ok for me to be taking a personal day to boost myself up. The reality was that I worked better, slept better and generally felt better afterwards. It was what I needed and had it been a ‘work’ day, I might have booked it off to allow myself that space to rest my brain.

University can feel a little unwieldy at accommodating mental health at times. The holidays come at their prescribed times, rather than when you might most benefit from a day or two off. Another way to look at it is to think about what you would do if you have a stomach bug! I’m fairly certain you wouldn’t force yourself to attend all of your contact time regardless of what your body was doing? I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t just think you need to ‘man up’ and battle through. You would take a day off to get back to strength and then head back ready to face to world!

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At the weekend I spent a day exploring Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire with one of my loveliest friends. I didn’t do any Uni work that day, but felt refreshed and better able to tackle it because I’d had such a lovely day.

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Taking the personal time to just reset is such a great form of self care, perhaps we should think about it more as a necessary task rather than a luxury. Recovery can fit in with life and it’s totally possible to juggle things so you can focus enough on each, but there will undoubtedly come times when it’s slips for a moment. The balance may not be quite right, but it’s totally ok to take a moment to regroup ready to get to it again!

 

#TimeToTalkDay

Hi, how’s it going? Are you alright? Do you want to talk about it? These questions seem so mundane and run of the mill. But they can make all the difference to someone who is struggling with their mental health.

The stigma associated with mental health problems is horrible, so often I hear people making the comparison to physical health problems and feel invalidated in their own struggles because of the nature of their illness. The reality is that mental health doesn’t need to be a stigmatised idea associated with negativity. We all have minds… and mental health is something we should all work on. A healthy mind is a positive! But there is such an association with problems and conditions, meaning the phrase comes across so differently.

When I first developed the start of an eating disorder and associated mental health problems, I was ashamed. I felt like there was something wrong with me and above all that I wasn’t really that unwell at all. I functioned for a long time, but being high functioning didn’t remove the mental torment I was putting myself through. I tried, for a long time, to do it on my own. Ashamed of being ‘too fat’ to have a problem, the kind of thinking that was keeping me unwell anyway.

It was such a relief to reach a point where I was able to be more open and honest about what was going on for me. Having kept it inside for so long had compounded some of the negative beliefs that really underpinned my illness and I was essentially maintaining it through trying to just be ok for everyone all of the time. The first conversations were most definitely the hardest, heck it’s still difficult at times. I suppose, until you’ve practiced talking about your mental health, it’s going to feel uncomfortable and you’re going to make mistakes or not receive the kind of reaction that you were wanting/hoping for/anticipating. But gradually it’s got easier over time, for me and those around me.

 

My top tips for starting a conversation about mental health are: 

  • Anticipate it feeling a little awkward or uncomfortable at first, this feeling will pass
  • Be patient, understand that both of you may be feeling worried or concerned
  • Ask questions, but with the understanding that they don’t all have to be answered
  • Let the other person tell you how you can help them, put the ball in their court
  • Don’t judge or make assumptions… your experiences will be different to other peoples, it’s ok to use your understandings to help… but remember they aren’t the only way of viewing a situation

 

There is absolutely no shame in struggling or finding it hard to be open and ask for help. There’s equally no shame in not knowing how to approach and support someone who is battling with their mental health conditions. The key is to try and communicate as best as you can. Give people opportunity to support you, or opportunity to talk about how they are actually feeling. Try not to give up because that conversation doesn’t immediately go well. I hope, one day, to live in a world where it’s ok to talk about mental health in a really open and comfortable way. Let’s start these conversations together and perhaps we can work towards that kind of world!

 

I’ll Wait Until Tomorrow

Recovery seems to frequently be thwarted by the ‘do it tomorrow’s. It’s easy to get into a rut of thinking that you can put off the challenge and making changes for another day. I guess it’s like a lot of things in life where we just allow ourselves one last day of perhaps doing the wrong thing with the ideals of making new change in the near future. The problem with putting it off until tomorrow, especially when it comes to mental health recovery, is that tomorrow may well never come. Often, the longer you leave it, the more challenging it can be to actually make the changes you need to move on from your illness.

Of course it’s not as simple as ‘just getting on with it’ and this type of thinking can be equally paralysing. There needs to be a fine balance of motivation but not too much pressure, but equally enough momentum to keep you going. Often getting started really is the worst part, once you are on the right track, things can get a lot more manageable.

In life, we often put off the scariest things because we don’t feel ready to challenge them. In my experience of recovering from an eating disorder, this was all too often the case. I wouldn’t want to start my new meal plan or give up my eating disorder behaviours for fear of what might happen. In a way, once I had committed to change my eating disorder would be vulnerable. For a very long time this stopped me from started to make the recovery focused decisions I needed to get back on track with life. Change is terrifying and when you add in anxiety or low mood, or the pesky voice of an eating disorder belittling you and making you doubt the decisions you are making; of course staying right where you are, in the familiar, is more appealing.

The trouble with comfort zones is they can often give an illusion of comfort but are in fact more damaging than helpful. Just because something feels easier and more manageable doesn’t mean it’s the right place for you to be. The benefit of them is that gradually you can extend the comfort zone, getting used to each few steps, eventually expanding it to be more encompassing of the world.

The-3-Cs-Of-LifeThis quote was a favourite whilst I was an inpatient and as cheesy as it is, it really does sum up this idea perfectly in my opinion! Unless you can make a commitment to making the choices that will lead you towards your recovered life, and continue to keep making those choices each time the decision arises, you can’t make a lasting change.

Taking scary challenges in a step-by-step way can be really helpful. I’m a big fan of lists and sticker charts and I find it really helpful to look at a problem and break it down in a way that is gradually achievable but doesn’t cause me too much stress along the way. I know if I become too overwhelmed, I’m likely to either give up or keep putting off the next steps until tomorrow.