Tag Archives: children

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.

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Kids say the Harshest Things

So I’m living back in my family home since finishing Uni last Summer.

At 24 and a half, I’m definitely feeling the pressure – though from nobody but myself (and possibly a teeny bit from my little sister who wants my bedroom) – to progress my life in at least some fashion since achieving the ‘walked off the edge of a cliff’ experience of graduating over 6 months ago now; but for the moment I really do love living here.

Of course there are the obvious perks like once again being able to give Mam a ring on the way home from work on a cold, grey winter night and get her to stick the bath on. Not to mention the distinct and very well appreciated lack of rent payments to be made (though of course I do pay my way) and the fact that there is no utterly incompetent and/or criminally negligent landlord in the equation to get my blood boiling to unhealthy temperatures.

But the best thing about living at home is definitely that I get to see my nieces and nephews loads, and properly watch them grow up. Of course I have to admit that this is me in a good mood talking – this house is a rather chaotic, manic and at times shouty one and that’s not always fun. But it’s always been that way and for the vast majotity of the time I love it!

So today I got up – like most Saturdays – when I decided that I couldn’t roll over, sandwich my head between two pillows and ignore the racket from downstairs any longer. It sounded like my completely amazing if sometimes a tad (quite a lot) shouty Mam was having a whale of a time with the 8, 3 and 2 year olds and it was after 10am (which meant I’d had a 4-hour lie in compared to most week days) so I wasn’t too much like a bear with a sore head as I went downstairs.

The two older cherubs (little brother and his big sister) were sitting in the armchair in the corner having a rare moment of peacefully playing a game together (this is a pretty big deal) on big sister’s iPad. After a few minutes of chatting to Mam while they played and I made us both a cuppa, I was mercilessly ganged up on in what has to have been the funniest verbal attack that’s ever occurred without a quick-witted comedian and an ill-fated heckler being involved. I’m not even sure how or why it started but here in ascending order for your comedic enjoyment, are the best of the insults that were hurled at me over the 5 minutes that followed:

  1. “Stupid face, you smell like poo” – some pretty standard 3 year old material
  2. “Aunty Lauren you’ve got a bum-head on your face” – erm… unique
  3. “Yeah, you’ve got a bum on your face… you’ve got cheeks…so bum cheeks” – ahh, outwitted by 8 year old logic!
  4. “That’s cos you’re old… in fact I think you already know that…” – insightful…
  5. “You’re so spotty… you’re like Mr Tumble’s spotty bag…” – that’s right, this one’s my personal favourite, I’m a spotty bag. Spotty. Bag.

Needless to say I would have been left reeling from this creative tyrade – if I wasn’t completely used to it. And if it wasn’t so hilarious. And if it wasnt followed very closely by this from 3 year old Ethan – “Aunty Lauren, I just love you!”

So yeah, that was the first 15 minutes of my Saturday. You’re jealous right? I would be!

P.s. this one wasn’t aimed at me but there’s no way I could leave it out. A few minutes later Nicole the 8 year old piped up with this absolute gem! She informs me that she heard it in a Taylor Swift song but coming out of the mouth of an 8 year old to describe her younger brother and cousin, I think it’s found its perfect place in the world – “Aren’t Ethan and Kenzie a nightmare wrapped up in a daydream?”

I’m still laughing now!

Actually I’m Worrying a lot about Washing my Hands Lately, I Wonder what that’s about?

I’m of the very strong opinion that mental health needs to be talked about openly if we are to continue progressing beyond our current position on how we understand, cope with and support people through mental illness.

First things first, there are two thoughts that I anticipate those words may have inspired in you:

1) who would have thought that Lauren would have a strong opinion? (this one only applies if you’re as partial to a nice bit of sarcasm, as I am)
2) Well, there’s a heavy first sentence

To the first one – don’t worry about it, I haven’t gotten to 24 without realising that I’m a bit of a gobshite! The second one is more or less the reason I wanted to write this post, in an attempt to articulate and share my view on why that first sentence is in fact not heavy, intense or brooding at all. Why the fact that mental health is still not an everyday topic of discussion – but still a very niche one which can bring with it hushed tones, apprehension and awkwardness – shows that we still have a long way to go towards really understanding it.

Firstly, let’s start with a few things that I’m not saying.

I’m not saying that I think everyone should have deep, soul-searching conversations about their childhood and the continuing effects it has had on their adjustment to adult life, on a weekly basis (can of worms, right)? I’m not saying that every person should finish reading this article, immediately call up and refer themselves for their chosen type of therapy or counselling, as this is the only way to avoid an inevitable nervous breakdown at some point in the future. Nor am I saying that you should start describing to strangers on the bus how you’re feeling and seeking their advice on what it all means.

What I do want is to live in a world where people can feel comfortable to sit at work and say things along the lines of, “I’m feeling really anxious today” to their close colleagues (with whom they are comfortable sharing family, relationship and probably sexual events, experiences of so called ‘physical’ illness and who knows what else) – and no-one will think they’re weird; for feeling that way nor for sharing the information.

I think it should be socially acceptable for anyone, when asked by a friend or close aquaintance “how are you?” to answer not just with either “I’m fine thanks” or “well I’ve got a bit of a cold/the kids have got me worn out/I’ve got loads on at work”; but also with “I’m feeling quite down” or maybe even “actually I’m worrying a lot about washing my hands lately, I wonder what that’s about.”

OK, that last one sounds like a bit of a weird thing to come out with, right?

But why?

It seems obvious to me that this kind of natural, everyday conversation is the only thing that can help us to truly tackle the stigma that still haunts this part of us. If we are truly listening to organisations like the Mental Health Foundation, Mind, Rethink and Time to Change, who all do fantastic work and are undoubtedly instigating progress, then we know that every single person will be affected by either their own or a loved one’s mental illness in their lifetime. Of course they will. The mind is such a complex element of us. How can we expect it to function perfectly all of the time? Isn’t that like expecting to get through your whole life never suffering from any ‘physical’ ailment – not a single cold, sickness bug or broken bone?  So why are teenagers who show signs of suffering from OCD, eating disorders, depression or anxiety, still the ‘weird kids’? Why are anxiety and depression still made so much harder to deal with for so many people, by the fear of judgement?

Of course I know that there are physical illnesses and conditions which also still carry a lot of stigma and I believe that the same applies to them.

If truly open conversation about these issues could become the norm; it would allow the next generation to grow up hearing all the time that they aren’t the only ones ever to feel this way or that. Just as importantly, they’d also be learning from day one that if they recognise signs of mental health problems in their friends or classmates (a situation with which they will undoubtedly be faced at some point), that child or teenager (or colleague at work) does not have to immediately become somebody to stay away from.

Such an incredibly large amount of my own experiences with mental illness – with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and eating disorders – has been about loneliness, about hating the way that I felt because I was convinced I was the only one who had ever felt that way. For me it has been a vicious cycle of feeling rejected and the resulting low self-esteem in my early teenage years; through searching for ways to control the world around me by subjecting myself to regimes of cleanliness (then later dieting which bordered on starvation all the way through to compulsive over-eating); then the resulting ‘realisation’ that I was in fact a freak and that the rejection I felt from others was justified – re-enter the ever-decreasing self-esteem. Growing up immersed in the flourishing popularity of social media and heightening reverence for celebrity culture, two things that so often revolve around cutting and pasting your life and experiences to showcase only the very best of you for others to compare themselves to, can only be making things more difficult for those with low or impressionable, susceptible self-esteem (so the vast majority of teenagers).

So to add to the list of things that I’m not trying to do with this entry – I’m not trivialising mental illness and the dark, terrible places to which it can take people. I am not trying to pretend that talking will ‘make it all go away’ because the likes of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia and schizophrenia are all in people’s heads and if they would only talk they would be all better. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have some experience with some types of mental illness and I know intimately my own story of mental health. But I’m well aware that there is 1000% more that I know nothing about and that every type of mental illness and every person who lives with it is completely different.

I’m also not saying that opening up and talking is easy. But I believe that it should be easier, and that it could become a lot easier, if it was more of a ‘done thing’. What I am saying is that in my own experience – which is all that I am able to pass comment on – opening up and talking about the way I’m feeling and the things I’m thinking has been the only thing that has ever made any real difference. That’s partly because it’s freeing to say things out loud and it can be helpful to hear another person’s perspective, and because yes, things often do sound a lot different when you get them out of your head and say them out loud. A lot of what helped me to conquer my 50-a-day hand-washing habit was that when I did finally begin to talk – often just telling a family member why I was feeling the need to wash my hands at that particular time – 9 times out of 10 it made a lot less sense to me when I heard it spoken out loud; so slowly I managed to differentiate again between when it was necessary and when it wasn’t.

But mostly talking has helped because at every turn, every time I have finally opened up about something that I thought made me an irreparable freak, whether it be to a family member, a friend or a cognitive behavioural therapist  – I have learned almost instantly that I am not the only person to have ever felt that way.

I’ve learned (well I’m learning) that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that I will never be a totally level-headed, emotionally well-rounded person (pssst, that’s mostly because these mythical creatures don’t actually exist) and if I’d known that 12 years ago, like actually believed it, I honestly believe that things could have been a lot different.

One time sticks in my mind when I had a conversation with a colleague at work about obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. I don’t remember how we got onto the subject but it was just an everyday natural conversation – no hushed voices, no feeling that we were confiding in each other to the exclusion of all others because they just wouldn’t understand. Just a conversation about some shared experiences. It felt good, as it always does, to talk openly about my experiences without any shame, without feeling like I had to keep anything back because it would make my colleagues want to avoid me. And once again I found out that someone I respect has had similar experiences to me. But because (as I alluded to earlier) I still bear absolutely no resemblance to a level-headed person, I worried later on that I had shared too much.

It reminded me of another time a few months ago when I gave a presentation to a teaching development conference at Uni. I was presenting the work I’d done for a module about self reflection and development and I had planned to skip over the part that I had written about my experiences with OCD. When it was written it was only intended to be seen by my tutor and one or two other examiners. Although I didn’t have a problem with sharing it as such (I wasn’t embarrassed about the experiences any more) I was for some reason, embarrassed about the fact that I had written about it in my work. I think I was worried that it would seem like I was attention-seeking, or just that people would think I was weird for ‘over-sharing’. But for whatever reason, when I was up there, I decided to talk about it after all. So I spoke very briefly about why that was included and how it had benefitted my work. As I had predicted, I felt like I had definitely over-shared. This was a room mainly full of strangers after all, and what was the actual likelihood that my supposedly heroic honesty would have any sort of positive consequence for anyone in that room? Basically I felt a bit silly.

But a few days after the conversation at work that I mentioned earlier, another colleague mentioned that they were going through a rough time with anxiety and panic attacks. They weren’t sure about sharing this and I’m pretty sure they only did so because they had to explain why they had been having days off. However when they did, the original colleague mentioned that we had been talking about our experiences with similar things a couple of days before and the three of us disussed our experiences again. I realised then that by talking about our experiences a few days before, we had opened up the chance for someone who was going through something that could be very lonely, to see that they were actually going through something totally natural, and very common. 

Mental illness affects 1 in 4 people in the UK in any given year, and 1 in 10 children have a mental health problem at any one time according to the Mental Health Foundation; so mental health needs to be considered by everyone. What we need to understand is that everybody has mental health, in just the same way as everyone has physical health; and if we really realise that, we can continue to reduce the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. It’s undeniable that we’ve come a long way and that this stigma results in far less harsh treatment now (at least in this country) than it has done historically.

But I think the next step is realising that actually, mental health is a part of our physical health, there shouldn’t really be a distinction. After all, is the brain not a part of our body?

So yes, I am what you could call “aggressively open” about my experiences with mental illness. Maybe people sometimes feel uncomfortable with how open I can be. Like I said I’m still learning to trust myself. My (very) fragile self-esteem and anxiety means that I question pretty much everything I do and say. So sometimes I wonder if I’ve done the right thing when I open my huge mouth. But its so important to me that my Niece and Nephews, Goddaughter and anyone else whether its a loved one or a complete stranger – should they ever experience any of the things I’ve talked about here – know that they are not a freak, that thousands of people before them have been in their shoes, and that they won’t be rejected for being unwell.

“Don’t Tell me what to do!!”

For a long time now I have found myself getting very frustrated by some people’s massive overuse of the term ‘political correctness’.

Now this is not because I feel that a situation in which my kids could grow up not being allowed to keep long-lived British traditions such as having Christmas parties and plays at school, is fair and just. It isn’t because I don’t recognise that there are still many taboos in our society which need to be broken down, and that getting around entrenched stiff-upper-lip-syndrome is an essential part of making cultural progress with issues around, for example drug use, mental illness, abortion, homelessness, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy… the list goes on and on. It isn’t because I am a wily politician who is terrified of voters thinking about and discussing real issues which may lead them to question my carefully cratfed election strategy, and consider voting for a ‘revolutionary’, ‘new,’ party such as Ukip. (The fact that a vote for Ukip is in my view the exact opposite of a vote for change or a protest against the establishment, is a topic for another day).

The point is, I don’t like being told how it is ‘correct’ for me to think, feel or behave, any more than the next person.

But what I also hate is to see people rolling out the old cliche that something is “just political correctness gone mad”, along with a big sneer, as a barrier to conversation and debate. What I hate is when that cliche is thrown into the mix as an excuse to refuse to discuss the way in which we do things, our attitudes, or really anything that means anything.

Today I was reading a post on Facebook where a guy was asking parents to consider signing their childrens’ more extravagant Christmas presents from Mum and Dad, and signing a more modest collection of them as being from Santa Clause. The idea behind this was that the children of parents who are less wealthy (or less willing to amass huge amounts of debt) can be left wondering why Santa thinks they’ve been naughtier than Jack down the street who got 2 new consoles, 26 games, an iPad and a whole new wardrobe for Christmas.

The idea is that splitting the credit between Santa and the parents shows children that their Christmas presents are determined by the wealth of the family rather than by who Santa likes the most or by how well each child has behaved (which, lets face it, tends to have very little effect these days, on how much stuff they get).

Now of course, there are many arguments before and against this. I can totally see the point that many parents work very hard to provide chair-fulls of gifts for their kids at Christmas, and don’t see why they should have to spoil the magic by admitting they’re not all from Santa. I can also see the argument that the only important thing is to teach your children to appreciate whatever it is that they get, and not compare it to what other’s have received. I know that’s how my brothers and sisters and I were brought up and we continue to be very none-materialistic people and appreciate anything that is given to us or done for us.

Another comment that had me nodding as I read, was from a parent who wholeheartedly agreed with the post and elaborated that she thought it was extremely important that children grow up from day one knowing the value of money and that nice things don’t just appear out of nowhere because they are owed to you, because its Christmas.

I could see the points of people who pointed out that we all have a responsibility to society and its other families, and the happiness and welfare of their children as well as just our own.

The post and its comments made a really interesting read and there were so many varied opinions that I can’t honestly pretend I know how I will approach this when the time comes that I have my own family. But I really enjoyed reading the discussion and thinking about the points that were made.

I also saw a blog about much the same subject but discussing the impact of posting photos of mountains of gifts on social media, if you have time give it a read and check out the comments, people obviousy feel very strongly about this issue.

The only comment that angered me to read was on the first post and it basically ranted about how this is just another example of ridiculous political correctness, and “them” trying to tell us what to do.

No. No it isn’t. It is simply a heartfelt post written (from my perception) with the intention of encouraging parents to think about something a little differently. It was intended to start a discussion and it did just that.

So why is it that some people are so terrified of that? Why are they so quick to become intensely defensive of themselves and the way they live their lives? Why are some people so closed to debate?

As I said above, I don’t like being told by our government how to think, feel and behave, just like everyone else. But I also hate being told just that, by people on the internet. I hate reading memes and posts on Facebook which agressively proclaim to rally against ‘political correctness’ and encourage individual opinion, yet include words along the lines of “re-post this if you have the guts”.

Is this not also trying to tell me how I should think, and shaming me for having an opinion which does not comply?

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that there is nothing wrong with questioning the way that we do things as individuals and as a society, and that crying “political correctness” every time someone tries to do that, probably says more about you, than the person you’re yelling it at.