Category Archives: discussion

Mental Health Awareness – we can’t pick and choose

I’m always thinking about mental health. Mental illness has been a significant undercurrent throughout the second half of my life story so far and my experiences have left me deeply fascinated by our noggins, how they work and why often they don’t work in the ways we think they should.

Much of the reason behind this fascination, I think, may be self-preservation. I want to understand my mental health and that of others because I hope that leaves me in the strongest possible position to face whatever may be coming my way. For me the scariest prospect about my mental health has always been that I don’t understand it.

“Why?” is a very popular question for those figuring out how to deal with a mental illness. Whether it be their own or that of someone close to them. To coin the very popular phrase, if only I had a pound for every time I’ve asked myself WHY I’m feeling a certain way or can’t stop thinking certain things.

But of course we ask WHY. To understand WHY is to figure out HOW to make it feel better.

So I also talk openly about my experiences out of a sense of duty. I feel a distinct camaraderie with anyone and everyone when they are discussing their mental health, and I feel proud of them for doing so. Even when I don’t really know them. And I feel it’s my duty to do the same.

Because I’ve come to see that I’m very lucky to have teetered on the edge of breaking down and pulled through. That I had at my disposal, just when I was good and ready to engage in it, a fantastic, free, accessible counsellor who helped me to understand that there’s nothing wrong with me and more importantly, how to cope when I’m thoroughly convinced that there is. How to ride it out. How to learn from it. How to make sure it’s my approach to mental illness, and not the fact that I’ve suffered it, that defines me.

So anyway, I’m always thinking about mental health and about the personal and societal minefield that surrounds it.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2015 is wrapping up today and I’ve been so encouraged by a lot of what I’ve seen over this past week. It’s clear to me that we’ve come so far in our approach and attitude to mental health and I truly think that we can continue a significant way down that long road during my lifetime.

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One thing that has struck me lately though, is the gulf between levels of acceptance across different mental health conditions.

This particular bee found it’s way into my bonnet when I was watching that programme, you know the one, where people who’ve self-identified their cleaning regime in their home as obsessive compulsive, are merrily sent off to take to task the homes of hoarders. Great. But the problem I have is that while the ‘cleaners’ are identified as having obsessive compulsive behaviours, the hoarders largely aren’t. Yes, the events in their lives leading up to them living the way that they are, are touched upon. But there is most often very little understanding or empathy employed. The obsessive compulsive cleaner rocks up and quickly proceeds to tell the obsessive compulsive hoarder that they’re lazy/disgusting/insert generic insult here, and as the dramatic music plays over close-up shots of piles of unnecessary junk taking up the place where the bed should be, we agree. Because that environment is disgusting, and we can’t imagine how anyone could want to live that way..

But let’s stop for a minute and take a look at the hoarder’s situation from a different perspective. Through the open-minded, empathetic eyes with which we observe the ‘cleaner’ explaining the cleaning regime which, in a lot of cases, impacts considerably on their quality of life. The motivations behind their cleaning behaviours are undoubtedly complex beyond measure, as are the hoarding behaviours of their co-star. But if we strip it all back just for a moment and look at both on a very basic level. These are the behaviours of somebody seeking control. If my personal experiences are anything to go by, they’re both scared.

So why are our levels of sensitivity and empathy so different? Why do we nod in stern agreement while the hoarder is forced, with no psychological or emotional support, to throw away things that – no matter how hard it is for us to believe – mean everything to them; whilst we’d (rightly so) be absolutely horrified if the roles were reversed and the hoarder was let loose on the cleaner’s home in muddy wellies then encouraged to tut and tell them they’re too uptight, forcing them to ignore the mess and go about their day, no cleaning allowed!

Breaking the cycle of debilitating obsessions and compulsions is about learning what thoughts and emotions are causing them and how those can be better dealt with. And this applies no matter what those behaviours are. There can be a place for being forced to learn that not carrying out your obsessive compulsive behaviours will not result in the negative repercussions that you’re so terrified of. And sometimes the only way to do that is to have someone not allow you to do them. But that has to go along with the proper emotional and psychological support.

The first behaviours through which my anxieties presented themselves to me were very much based on cleanliness. It involved all sorts of things but centered, as for so many others, on washing my hands excessively. This is what I got used to and thought I understood. So when I managed to curb these behaviours, get my hands to look ‘normal’ again and stopped spending excessive amounts of time in any bathroom I walked into, I thought I had ‘cured’ myself.

The anxieties at the root of those behaviours though, have gone on to present themselves in many different ways in the last decade and when I finally sought the dreaded ‘professional help’ last year and commenced cognitive behavioural therapy, we focussed on the root anxieties and I realised how closely linked all of my supposedly different experiences were.

I’ve been the obsessive compulsive cleaner but I’ve also struggled with compulsive eating and believe me, that one’s a much harder sell to others when you’re trying to make them understand; and to yourself when you’re trying not to feel ashamed. After all, being clean – socially accepted. Being greedy – not so much.

So that’s what’s been bugging me lately on the subject of mental health awareness, but I’m so encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 7 days that I’m confident we can close the gap between our understanding and acceptance of various mental health conditions through stopping and asking WHY.

Does that person that you’re watching on TV want to live that way, in a pile of their own filth; dangerously overweight; dangerously underweight; with no time to do anything but try to satisfy heir need to clean; drinking a bottle of vodka every day. Of course they don’t. So instead of judging the behaviours, let’s stop and wonder WHY the individual feels like they have to carry on doing them.

An afterthought…

I don’t imagine that I’m coming from some place of divine transcendence here and am exempt from having preconceptions, I just try to recognise and confront them as much as I can. After all, while writing this I repeatedly had to go back and change ‘his’ or ‘her’ to ‘their’ because I kept unwittingly assuming the genders of the imaginary ‘cleaner’ and ‘hoarder’. The obsessive compulsive cleaner I saw in my head was a woman, and the obsessive compulsive hoarder – a man.

I don’t know why?

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On Why I’ll Never Stop being a Chatterbox

One night this week while having a few cocktails with some work friends, to say farewell to someone who is moving on to pastures new, I got possibly the best compliment I could ever ask for. One of the girls told me that since meeting and getting to know me, she feels a lot more comfortable with talking about mental health.

It was said in such an unassuming, casual way and I think that’s partly why it meant so much. I’m not one to easily accept compliments at face value (I doubt myself way too much to do the easily) and after all we had enjoyed considerably more 2-4-1 cocktails than had originally been intended. But I knew that this was said genuinely, mainly because it was clear after she saw my reaction that she hadn’t a clue it was going to mean as much to me as it does.

Now I want to stress that this was a work friend I haven’t known for all that long and whose knowledge of my life and experiences is comprised only of what I have posted on this blog since I started it before Christmas, and a few mental health-related conversations here and there at work. Natural, unobtrusive, day-to-day conversations about mental health and mental illness. This is not someone who I have dramatically opened up my heart and soul to and sat sharing experiences with for hours on end.

This is not someone who has come to me with problems that they wanted to talk about, or who is having a hard time with their own mental health, as far as I know. Any discussion that we have had about these issues has been just that, basically just every day chat.

So being a chatterbox can be a good thing – take that teachers of Blyth!

As you’ll know if you follow this blog or have basically ever met me in the last 5 years or so, I think that being open about my own experiences with mental illness is the best gift that I can give back to all of the people who have supported me through them – whether by telling me about their’s, talking to me about mine, or just not running a mile when they’ve realised I am about as far as it gets from this mythical ‘normal’ person people are always banging on about. I am what could be described as ‘aggressively’ open about my experiences and I’m fully aware that I’ve made people feel uncomfortable on occasion with my openness. After all unfortunately, the stiff upper lip is not yet dead .

I know as well as anyone that having the courage to ask that friend who doesn’t quite seem themselves lately if there is anything they want to talk about, then listening while they tell you about the ‘weird’ things happening in their head lately and not running a mile, is important. Spending some time reading up on OCD or anorexia or post-natal depression or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or bulimia or anxiety disorders because you’re worried about someone close to you, so that you can understand what they may be going through and how you can offer them the best support, is crucial.

But what is at the very root of fighting the stigma around mental illness, in my eyes, and what has the power to allow all of these types of support to become more widely available for everyone and even become ingrained in the way that we think about each other and about our health; really is just being willing to chat about it. It’s about not going awkwardly silent if it is inadvertently brought up in a conversation with your workmates. It’s about not ignoring that it may be a factor in whatever it is that you happen to be chatting about, because you don’t want to ‘bring the mood down.’

It would seem that we don’t need to have personal experiences of mental illness and/or to share those experiences with the world, in order to make a contribution to the opening up of discourse around mental health, we just need to allow it to be a topic of everyday, ‘normal’ conversation.

This way we can help to show everyone that it is an everyday, ‘normal’ issue and help to banish the “I’m a freak” belief system that can make mental illnesses even more difficult to deal with.

Time to Talk – my 5 minutes

I had a rubbish morning at work today.

Over the last week or so my head has been pretty busy. I described it to my driving instructor the other day as feeling like my brain is a washing machine with two drums, one in front of the other. One is furiously spinning clockwise on the highest setting and the other’s doing the same, except it’s going round the other way. The thoughts/worries/concerns/whatever you want to call them, are at times inseparable from each other and just sort of buzz around in there, while I try to ignore them. Until one particularly persistent one escapes from the tumbling masses and sticks temporarily to the back of the glass door, demanding that I stress about it.

When my head is like this, trying to relax is pretty much futile. Watching TV or listening to music usually involves hitting pause every now and then because my internal monologue has been disrupted and I become worried that I’ve lost track of what I was worrying about. So I track back through the path of worries that lead up to the forgotten worry until I remember what it was and manage to convince myself it doesn’t need worrying about. As for reading? Let’s just say it’s a lot more difficult than it used to be. But then I suppose it is for most people. Growing up means you have things to think about and demands on your time. I doubt many adults can sit and read for 2 or 3 hours without getting distracted, like I used to as a kid. I definitely miss switching off and getting lost in a book. That’s a lot more rare these days.

Anyway when my head’s behaving in this fashion, the noticeable result is that it’s pretty hard to focus and concentrate, or to remember things. It came up in conversation when my instructor was asking me how I can be so intelligent (his words, and only shared here because it helps make the point, not because I’m an insufferably arrogant tool – I promise I’m not) and yet so ditzy and forgetful.

Well the answer’s pretty simple. Sometimes my head feels so busy with all of the completely pointless day-to-day crap that I worry about, that it actually feels like there physically isn’t room for anything new. When my head is at its worst, concentration isn’t an easy thing to achieve.

So yeah, concentration was doing its very best to allude me at work today. I was working on something that required a certain degree of brain engagement and for the first hour or so of the morning it just was not happening. Things quickly deteriorated as I allowed my mind to wander in the direction of a couple of things I needed to do when I got home.

Now I’ve had years of experience in trying to figure out how this head of mine ticks, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. Some days my brain allows me to go merrily about my business, content to work away in the background doing all the amazing things it does, reminding me to breath and blink and how to put one foot in front of the other. Other days, or sometimes even just for an hour or 2 out of a day, it becomes a wee bit more attention seeking. It fires a constant barrage of worries at me that make it a lot more difficult than I feel like it should be, to concentrate or to relax, to achieve things which require me to think about them – such as writing posts for this blog – or to switch off and enjoy hanging out with friends or family, or watching a movie.

As I said I have learned a lot of lessons about myself over the last 10+ years. One of the major silver linings that I have taken from having experienced OCD, anxiety disorders and depression, is that I know myself and what makes me happy, so much better than I would imagine most people do in their early- (OK then mid-) 20s. That doesn’t mean that
I think I understand myself completely, of course I don’t and I don’t think anyone ever really does. But I’ve pulled through from some pretty dark places and I’ve learned lessons I’ll never forget about what I need in my life – and what I don’t. For me it’s about being around my family; not ignoring the little things because I’m too busy hating the fact that I’m not perfect; and reminding myself that it’s OK to be an individual. And talking, all of the time.

Today, to address how I was feeling I took 10 minutes out and wrote down a to-do list. I hated doing it because it meant having to face up to the racing thoughts that I had been doing my best to ignore for an hour before hand. But I knew that it would help, so eventually I faced up and did it. And it did help, although I didn’t stop stressing all together and I’m still convinced now that I missed something really important.

Today has been a busy-brain day and I knew early this morning that it was going to be. I don’t have complete control over the times when my brain decides to act like this and I probably never will. But I did what I could and it allowed me to get on with the work that I needed to do. It allowed me to get on with my day and to leave work in the end in a pretty good mood, after having an afternoon that was a lot better than my morning.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well today is Time to Talk Day, and Time to Change along with other organizations are encouraging everyone to take 5 minutes out of their day to talk about mental health. It’s part of a much bigger campaign to end mental health stigma through open and honest conversation.

So this was my five minutes.

I think the Time to Talk initiative is fantastic and it’s amazingly positive for the campaign to end stigma around mental health issues, so I will be logging my 5 minutes on the Time to Change website.