Tag Archives: eating disorders

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.


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?

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.

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.