It’s not like climbing a mountain

A lot of the time when I am trying to get through a really tough time with depression and anxiety I will describe it to someone as ‘like climbing a mountain.’ It’s one way to try and get across to someone else just how difficult and impossible surviving feels. Well, I’ve now climbed a mountain and I can tell you that suffering from depression and anxiety is nothing like it.

Two weeks ago I climbed to the peak of Jebel Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains. It is the highest peak in North Africa at over 4,000m. I was terrified about it from the moment I got to the airport to fly out to Morocco. However at the airport I met the other 9 people that would be going with me. Even though climbing the mountain made my lungs hurt and my legs so tired they shook, those people helped me every step of the way. When I was scared climbing down they showed me where it was safe to step and held my hand. When I wanted to give up they set the pace walking in front of me. When I was tired they told me I was doing a good job and that I could do it.

Anxiety and depression are different. They’re lonely. The worst days I have are when I am alone. A lot of people don’t understand that depression strips you of all your motivation, good and bad. This week has been tough as I have had no motivation. When I wake up I feel like I haven’t slept but I know I have to go to work. However the fear of getting fired, losing my income, and therefore my flat, doesn’t kick in. I feel nothing. There are also lots of things I really want to achieve, but there is this force holding me down and making me impotent. I know I’m not just being lazy because the guilt from not doing things is crippling.

When I go to see psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health nurses they often ask me what my ideal treatment would look like and up until now I haven’t really known what to tell them. Now though I really think the best support to keep me living my life as normally as possible would be the help of other people like on the mountian. When I can’t cope in the morning someone coming in and making me breakfast and a cup of tea and laying my clothes out would be amazingly useful. Someone telling me I’m doing really well just for taking the little steps of getting out of bed and brushing my teeth. Unfortunately I don’t think community care for mental health will have the investment to allow this kind of thing any time soon. Hopefully this might give some people an idea of how they can help friends or relatives who might be struggling.

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Community Mental Health Heroes: Homeless people evicted from a squat

Street collections are not known for being the most fun to do. For every person who stops about 100 walk passed you averting their eyes (a couple even walked into me). Whilst collecting money for Mind the mental health charity last Saturday a man walked past me carrying a duvet. When he saw us he shook his head and took a few steps back. He made a few noises and I honestly couldn’t tell if he was going to shout at us or not. He pointed at a collection tin and said, ‘You couldn’t have picked a better charity. They do so much for us.’ He emptied his pocket. There was a mint and £1.03. That was all he had. He ate the mint and put three pence in the collection tin, ‘I’m homeless, I need the pound.’ His squat had been evicted earlier that day. Three police cars and two fire engines had turned up to do it. Sure enough we met a few more people carting their possessions down the street, unsure of where they were going. A girl put 50p in my tin apologising that it was all she had as she was homeless. Another man had nothing to give but he stopped to shake our hands explaining that Mind meant a lot to him. These people had so little but they were willing to give what they had to help others dealing with the horror of mental health problems.

 

I can’t imagine what it is like to be truly homeless but I know at any time we are only a few unfortunate events away from finding ourselves in that position. In my first year out of university the only work I could find was unpaid and I had to live away from my parents to take it up. I was thrown out of my boyfriend’s house and spent a few weeks sleeping on the floors of kind friends. A happy and functional working life does not always go hand in hand with mental health problems. After a few very poorly months I am once again living on the kindness of my boyfriend as I have no money. If I didn’t have him I would be on couches again. Not only that mental illness and self harm including substance abuse go hand in hand. I know what it is like to rely on alcohol and pills to cope. I am lucky and have had support to make sure this hasn’t got out of hand.

 

Homeless people are over twice as likely to suffer from common mental health problems as the general population and are 4-15 times more likely to suffer with psychosis. Crisis say that, ‘In many instances mental health problems played a significant part in the circumstances which caused those persons to lose their accommodation. The mental health problem may then be exacerbated by the stresses associated with being homeless, which in turn will make it even harder for that person to achieve stability in their housing.’

 

Find out more here:

 

http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/Mental%20health%20literature%20review.pdf

 

http://www.nhsconfed.org/~/media/confederation/files/publications/documents/mental_health_homelessness.pdf

 

http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/housing/#.V18PXRVJnIU

A Life Threatening Condition

Recently I have started a new job. I am feeling useful and productive and the structure to my days has left my mental health a lot more stable and positive than it has been in a good while. It is only now I am feeling better that I can truly consider the question that crept into my mind yesterday – What if my mental illness leads to my death?

 

Mental Health Research UK say that mental illness lowers life expectancy by an average of 20 years. This is the same effect as smoking and more of an effect than obesity. Even if I live to an age where I die of natural causes, a life struggling with poor mental health could lead to an early death. I have developed many physical symptoms from the stress of being ill from joint and muscle pain to stomach problems. I take medication that in the long term could have a detrimental effect on my vital organs and cause physical illnesses such as diabetes.

 

However the obvious reason that mental illness can be life threatening is suicide. Over 6,000 people die from suicide in the UK every year and our medical services are strained and no where near equipped to deal with the amount of people having suicidal thoughts. This year I have come to terms with my own mortality. It is true that no one knows when they are going to die, but as someone who has quite intense suicidal thoughts and intent for extended periods of time, I know that my life is in danger on a regular basis. I celebrate getting to each birthday as a genuine achievement. I make the most of time spent with friends and family I do not see on a regular basis as I know it would be naïve to assume that I will definitely be seeing them again.

 

Another danger is mental illnesses that include symptoms such as mania. This can cause the sufferer to feel invulnerable and therefore potentially put themselves in harms way. Conditions with psychosis can cause visual and auditory hallucinations that can affect people’s grasp on reality and therefore cause them to do something dangerous to themselves.

 

I do feel that the life threatening nature of mental illness is something that as a society we are not aware of and do not discuss enough. Partly this might be because there is no solidity to it. If someone has a cancer diagnosis for example they could be given a percentage chance of survival. This gives weight and gravitas to the danger it presents. With mental health there is no such luxury. No professional can tell me the likelihood of my condition leading to my death. They still haven’t quite decided what my condition is.

 

In my recent induction to my new job I was given a talk on end of life care. How we should all make decisions now about how we wanted to be treated if we are dying and what we want to happen after we are dead. We were all tasked with going away and watching The Bucket List. This seems really sensible to me. As I said, I have come to terms with the fragility of my own life. One of the things I really want to do is raise awareness of the life threatening nature of mental illness. Until we do this suicide will remain the biggest killer of men under 50 and people with mental health problems will continue to die young.

 

It is something we need to talk about.

Online Diary: After the storm

I’ve had another day where I’ve been this calm in the last month but I knew it was the eye of the storm, I didn’t trust it. This one, I think, might signal the end. A month and a day ago I thought I might write a blog on my experience of managing my mental health and being in a musical theatre show. A month ago I went into a mental health crisis. I don’t want to write about that, it’s currently too raw and close to the surface. It’s all very blurry any way, mental illness messes with the memory. I do want to talk about what happens now.

Now I have the joy of looking around at all the smashed pieces of the picture that makes up my life and trying to put them back together. Some pieces are hidden in dusty corners and forgotten, they were dropped when I got ill and now I need to see if they are still there. Some pieces are smashed from the force of the storm: relationships I have pushed and strained, opportunities I have wasted or squandered. Some of these pieces have been smashed before multiple times on similar occasions. They are often unrecognisable and warped. I need to work out what I can do to them, if anything to get them to fit back in the frame.

I have been through this process hundreds of times before, though this storm has been particularly long and unforgiving. My life has been sellotaped, superglued and duct taped. It’s never easy. It involves mourning time that I feel like I’ve lost and wasted. There is frustration that I have so much work to do to get back to ‘normal’ and that I have to do it alongside all the daily tasks that don’t disappear to give me time to catch up. I am worn out by the cyclical nature of it all and I am worried about how it makes me appear to the outside world: unreliable, inconsistent, high-maintenance, trouble.

I know, as I slowly sort myself out, that crisis will come again. It may be a month or two, it may be tomorrow. So why pick myself up at all? Well, to a certain extent I don’t feel like I have choice, but there must be part of me that thinks that the picture, as wonky and misshapen as it now is, deserves to be on display.

Online Diary: Friendship is rare

When I was 18 my mum was very clear with me that my going away to university was a privilege and not a given. I made sure to appreciate that I was lucky enough to meet and make friends with a diverse range of people from all over the world over the next three years who I never would have got the chance to meet had I stayed in the rural area I grew up. With today’s modern day technology I am able to keep in contact with these people allowing for a much bigger social circle than my parents could’ve dreamt of. On Facebook at one point I had over 400 friends and having lived in two cities and a rural town I have definitely got a lot of acquaintances now.

In the three and a half years since I left university, some of the close friendships I had made at school and university have definitely fallen by the wayside. Some of this was to be expected of course. Having moved just over a year ago to Brighton over four hours travelling time from both my parent’s home and Nottingham where I went to university, I have lost the luxury of close proximity to a lot of my friends. However, I do strongly believe that I have lost some old friends and a great deal of potential new ones due to my mental illness.

It’s a very sad fact that if you use a mental health service you have a one in three chance of losing contact with friends (source Time to Talk campaign). I completely understand the reasons behind this. Firstly I am not able to be sociable as much as I would like. I have missed enough reunions and get togethers to not be surprised when I am no longer invited. I understand why former friends are often very vague when I suggest plans to meet up. Unfortunately not only can I not manage meeting up if I am unwell, there are activities that I just really struggle with. Going out or staying up late is hard for me as I have to take medications at a certain time which make me drowsy. I can’t drink much anymore either due to this medication. I can’t manage spontaneous overnights as I need to make sure I have all the right medication on me and this very same medication drains my bank account of over £100 a year that could be used on travel to meet up with friends. Incidentally that bank account is not very healthy to begin with as I can only work part time as I need at least a day a week free for medical appointments and treatment.

So face to face meetings are not always possible but there’s still phone calls, emails, instant messenger and letters, right? Except long distant relationships are also very hard to maintain with a mental illness. Over a cup of coffee in a café it’s fairly easy to have a catch up and talk about banal things for a while before you drift into the more heavy topics of conversation. Over the internet or phone it’s not necessarily so easy to do. Most conversations start with a simple, ‘How are you?’ however for someone with a mental illness this isn’t necessarily simple to answer. In my opinion you have three options, lie, deflect or tell the truth. I now tend to go for options 1 or 2 because in my experience if you answer truthfully about how bad things are a lot of people just stop asking. It takes a hell of a lot of patience and endurance to be my friend because although people want to be there for me in a crisis it’s pretty difficult to maintain when that crisis is on going for an extended period of time.

The few hardy souls who still invite me to things, answer my messages and the one or two who call me or send letters and cards are wonderful and kind people. I am extremely grateful and proud to be able to call them friends. As Jack Black once sang, ‘friendship is rare,’ and it’s precious enough that I will cling on for as long as I can. I will always endeavour to do my best by these people but hopefully this will help to explain why sometimes it is hard for me to do my bit. As far as tips go, to anyone who is friends with someone with a mental health condition I would suggest the following:

-Be tenacious. They might have turned down your last 9 invites to do things but they sure as hell will appreciate the 10th.

-Don’t be afraid to bring up your own issues and problems. I know it makes me feel a hell of a lot better when I feel like I am helping people and friendships need to be two sided.

-The answer to, ‘how are you?’ can sometimes be scary but please still ask. You don’t have to solve the problems you just need to provide an empathetic ear.

Online Diary: There’s more to mental illness than symptoms

There are some obvious things that are hard about having a mental health condition. The constant sense of foreboding, getting angry at the slightest thing and feeling like there is nothing in the world that can make me happy are hard enough. However on top of the symptoms there are many other levels on which my life is made more difficult.

Let’s start with medication. I have been on and off medication since 2012 and even now, almost exactly 5 years since I first went to see the doctor about my mental health, I am still working with professionals to try and find the right dosage and types of medication to alleviate my symptoms. I have taken medications in the past that have made me nauseous, have palpitations, aged my eyes by 20 years in the space of a month and even some that have perverted my sense of taste. Even now when I have finally found three medications that seem to have stabilised my condition, there are down sides in terms of side effects. I have very low blood pressure from one medication which leaves me feeling dizzy, another has a strong sedative effect making it hard for me to get up in time for work and the third increases my appetite which has led to me gaining a stone and a half.

Having a mental health condition has also had a huge impact on my ability to live an independent life. A huge factor in this is my inability to work full time. At first I cut down to part time simply because I could not cope with full time work. It was exacerbating my anxiety and depression and I simply could not maintain consistency and quality in my work. In the last year I have continued working part time to allow time for hospital and doctor’s appointments, therapy and classes to keep my health under control. Working part time has restricted my income and made me more reliant on my partner, who I have also had to rely on to manage the household chores, cook and provide emotional support. Sometimes this can cause immense frustration and I feel the major choices in my life have been driven by necessity rather than desire.

I also have to monitor my day to day activities and plan my life to a greater degree than someone without a mental health condition. Things such as staying up late, drinking alcohol and having lots of busy days can have a huge detrimental effect on my mental health. In my teenage years and when I was at university this was very hard as I watched my peers indulging in their ability to be carefree and reckless and paid a hefty price whenever I tried to join in. For example I can’t even decide on a whim to stay over somewhere as I need to make sure I have adequate supplies of medication, plan to have regular mealtimes and ensure I get at least 8 hours sleep.

All these things make it very difficult to forget for more than a few hours that I have a mental health problem. Learning to cope has made me mature before I would have wished to and I definitely feel older than 24. I know that following the rules I have established for myself over the last five years will keep me healthy and functioning but sometimes they take a lot of the fun and spontaneity out of life. The constantly battle for me is to learn to make the best out of what I have.

My mental health hero: My manager

It’s been three months since I last wrote. In that time I lost my therapist as he felt therapy was causing me to be a danger to myself, fought through the mental health system to get new medication, and whilst all this was going on, started a new job.

I have been struggling with my mental health my whole working life and it has always been difficult. In the two unpaid internships I have undertaken since leaving university I have had very accommodating line managers who have let me have time off whilst I got used to new medication. However I was giving my time freely which is very different to paid work.

In my first full time paid job I was warned 3 months in that I might not make it past my probation if I didn’t find a way to deal with my crippling anxiety around driving alone at night in the dark. There was no suggestion of reasonable adjustments and my anxiety that I might lose my job made everything worse.

After this I tried going part time so I could access mental health services in my spare time. However my new employers took the opposite approach and ignored me completely. I worked from home with no company and eventually the lack of support meant I could not longer cope.

So in October when I started a new part time job with a disability charity I was understandably scared. Before I had even started my line manager suggested that I write a crib sheet for my colleagues explaining my condition and how they could help me. In this sheet I mentioned that I suffe from paranoia about failing at work and struggle when receiving criticism. The fact that my colleagues know this means they give me lots of reassurance at work and can frame feedback positively. I feel very liberated that I don’t need to hide my struggles at work anymore.

Just before the Christmas break my line manager pulled me into a meeting. She told me that the team had noticed that I was on my phone a lot during work hours. I thought I was getting in trouble and my mind instantly compared the situation to getting in trouble at my first job, sending me into a spiral of anxiety. Before I could reply my line manager asked me if I felt my phone was a safety blanket for my anxiety. I was amazed that she had the thought through the situation enough to realise this. She brought up reasonable adjustments and we decided to split my lunch break up so that I could take time in the morning and afternoon to check my phone if I felt the need. Her help has allowed me to stop a very damaging habit that perpetuated my anxiety.

I still have a lot of anxiety around work and it takes constant effort to stay in employment. However my manager has made everything a lot more comfortable for me. Being in work is really good for me. It keeps me distracted, makes me feel useful and allows me to be independent. I wish that more workplaces were aware of mental health issues and how they can support their employees.

If you suffer from anxiety and would like more support in the workplace you can contact Anxiety UK at partnerships@anxietyuk.org.uk.