Tag Archives: self-esteem

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.

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Social Media Cold Turkey – photographic evidence (day 21 – 09/11/2014)

I was out with my family the other night and I got to thinking about something (dangerous, I know).

We were walking around the Sunderland Illuminations at Roker Park and I was taking photos on my phone, mostly of the kids who were all excited and happily posing in front of the displays. Well, 7-year-old Nicole was happily posing, 3-year-old Ethan took a little more convincing and Kenzie, who’s almost 2 – well you just have to catch him on the odd occasion that he stops and stands still.

Anyway, we were wandering around and I was snapping away on my phone, until I realised that I hadn’t really seen any of the displays for myself (as in, not through my camera). I hadn’t really been taking in and enjoying the displays, but instead was more focussed on taking photos so that I could remember (and show others) how much we had enjoyed them! This got me thinking about how much of our time we spend taking photographs when we’re doing something that we enjoy, whether it’s having days out with family or going on nights out with friends.

If something interesting or funny happens and nobody managed to get a picture of it, we’re genuinely disappointed. Or if we’ve taken a load of photos on a day/night out or on holiday and we somehow lose them (lost camera/corrupted memory card/swimming pool incident – I have previous of all of these) it feels like a big part of the experience is lost. It’s as if we don’t trust our memories to keep the information for us to enjoy in the future, we need photos to jog our memories and help us to reminisce.

Which is fine and we’ve always done this to an extent, with lots of embarrassing photos taken on birthdays, at Christmas, at school plays and sports days, and our first day at each school. And nothing was better than getting a disposable camera for your birthday and taking (28?) pointless but awesome photos of you and your friends which would later be blu-tacked to the back of your wardrobe door.

I guess it just feels like now, with good quality cameras on our phones and the ability to immediately share an unlimited amount of photos on social media, taking photos (and especially sharing them, to as many people as possible) has sort of become the focus of our social lives, rather than just a way to remember them. Instead of taking photos that we can look back at on our own or with the small group of people who are in them, we’re using them as a way to prove to others that we have active social lives and lots of friends; that we’re interesting and spend our time doing interesting things.

When we really think about it though, with photos becoming a bigger and bigger element of everything we do, we can’t be surprised that people are becoming more and more (and more) pre-occupied with how they look, at all times. Countless times I’ve heard friends (as well as myself) say that they need to make sure they’re looking their best tonight because such-and-such is coming out – and they always take loads of pictures. But photos aren’t confined to special occasions anymore and it can feel like they’re being taken (and shared) all of the time. Worryingly, a quite natural reaction to this is for us as a society to become more conscious in our day-to-day lives, of how we look.

What I find more worrying though, is that we’re starting to concentrate on this stuff at a much younger age. When I was 10 years old, I’d wake up in the morning and get washed, brush my teeth, pull a brush through my hair and get dressed. Then it was either out to school or off to knock on my friends, in which case we’d spend the day playing on our bikes or climbing trees (they would climb trees, I would usually sit on the bottom branch a few feet up, scared to go any higher); or playing computer games at someone’s house. I realise this sounds like a bit of a “things aren’t like they used to be” lecture, but the point is that 99% of the time, taking photos of us doing whatever we were doing, was the last thing on our minds.

Now, many young girls of the same age are getting up in the morning and whether they’re off to school or to knock on their friends, they have to consider how they look. They feel they have to apply make up to hide what they think is their horrible skin which doesn’t look good on the countless pictures that they and their friends take of each other every day. They have to put proper thought into what they are going to wear and how they’ll do their hair.

I can’t imagine having felt that way at 10 years old and I find it pretty scary – and such a shame – that kids have to now. There are so many other things they could be thinking about – and enjoying – but instead they’re spending most of their time convincing each other that they are in fact, beautiful. Or worse, battling their insecurities about their own looks by insulting each other. What scares me is that, at 9/10/11 years old, children aren’t emotionally developed enough to be dealing with such complex issues and feelings!

Social Media Cold Turkey – how ‘fake’ are we on social media? (day 4 – 23/10/14)

So I read this story about a student who fooled her family and all of her Facebook friends into thinking that she was travelling in Asia for 5 weeks, while actually spending the time hiding out in her apartment in Amsterdam.

What Zilla Van Den Born did was really pretty simple – she photo-shopped travel photos and posted them to social media, Skyped with her parents in front of a backdrop that made her apartment look like a hotel, and sent texts in the middle of the night to make out that she was in a different time zone.

The interesting part though (I thought), is why she did it.

The point she was making was about “how common and easy it is to distort reality” over the internet. She has commented that “everybody knows that pictures of models are manipulated. But we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives” (Zilla Van Den Born quoted in an article on the Huffington Post online).

It could of course be argued that this same deception could have been achieved with more traditional postcards and telephone calls, and that social media wasn’t what allowed this experiment to work. BUT I do think it highlights the way that people use social media day-to-day.

There are a lot of great uses for things like Facebook and Twitter – they allow people to stay in touch easily and regularly across long distances; allow consumers to quickly and effectively share feedback which, especially if it’s negative (and if the company concerned has any sense) will be responded to; more generally allows large groups of like-minded people to communicate far more easily.

BUT the main day-to-day use particularly for Facebook is (usually) to showcase the great things that you have achieved, cool things that you’ve done, particularly attractive selfies that you’ve taken. And I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing, just that it in most cases it’s very highly controlled to show ourselves in the best (most attractive, most interesting, most fun) light.

Of course people do post about negative things too (in fact some people don’t seem to post about much else) but for the most part, our newsfeeds are full of all sorts of great things for us to compare our days to. Friendships and relationships are made to look idyllic; our faces are filtered to the point where they sometimes bare little resemblance to how we actually look; sometimes people seem to care more about how their night out/holiday/trip is portrayed in the obligatory Facebook album, rather than actually enjoying it at the time!

So are we finding ourselves in a situation where we’re seeing only the best parts of others’ lives all over social media, and comparing them to our own lives, which are never that perfect? I know I’ve felt like this before. Of course this depends on self-esteem and insecurity but I believe we all have insecurities to some extent, and when I’m not having a particularly good day or am feeling a bit rubbish about myself, I definitely don’t often find that scrolling down my newsfeed cheers me up!