My Mental Health Story

TW: Depression, anxiety, social anxiety, depression, self harm & overdose. I adhere to best practice when writing about mental health so there are no graphic details in the following post.

I’ve been blogging about mental health for over a year now. During that time I’ve shared snippets of my own experiences but I’ve never shared them in full. I didn’t post anything for days 9 and 10 of Blogtober because I was busy writing this. I had intended to share it yesterday, on World Mental Health Day but it didn’t feel right so I held off. WMHD is a fantastic initiative and it was great to see so much conversation around mental health (anything that encourages that is good!) but I think it’s important to remember that mental health is for everyone, every day and not just on Hashtag Holidays. Anyway, here’s my story in full for the first time…

My mental health journey began at five years old. My very first teacher wrote on my school report ‘anxious at times.’ It seemed to set the tone for the next fifteen years.

I don’t remember a lot of my childhood before the age of ten but there are some stand out moments. Some of the best memories are of my first day of school, my first nephew being born and getting a bike from Santa one Christmas. Other memories aren’t so great. I watched as a new neighbour moved in, a girl I wanted to be friends with but was too terrified to speak. We did eventually become friends but that feeling of terror became a familiar one. I often left the classroom to avoid situations that I was afraid of such as reading aloud and after a particularly bad day, my teacher pulled me aside to ask if I was sick because I was spending so much time in the bathroom. I was sick but not in the way she was thinking and I didn’t know how to explain that. When I was eight, an aunt of mine passed away after months of battling cancer. We spent a lot of time at her house while my mam helped care for her. I knew she was ill but I didn’t understand the severity of it and I was shocked when she died. My family was doing their best to protect me from it but you can’t protect anyone from the reality of death. Her passing had a massive impact on me but I didn’t realise quite how much until about eight years later. As a child I constantly worried about ‘something bad’ happening to my parents when I wasn’t there which made being in school or at a friend’s house difficult. I struggled with that a lot more at night time so I’d often get upset and be unable to sleep which had a knock on effect the following day.

I moved house and school when I was nine. At my new school I made friends pretty quickly but I still struggled with the overall situation. By all accounts I was a bright child and I loved learning (I still do, I’m a nerd!) but the classroom environment was a big issue for me. I began to have panic attacks at twelve years old. Everyone, myself included, seemed a bit baffled by that – nobody really knew anything about them or how to handle them. I had no idea what was happening to me and my parents were concerned that there was something physically wrong with me so I had lots of tests done to be sure that I was physically well. I did have asthma but the majority of these attacks weren’t asthma related. In school, when I would have a panic attack my teacher would move me to a table at the back of the classroom where I would sit and sharpen a box of pencils. As a more educated adult I know that they thought that giving something else to focus on might help me but it didn’t. It made me feel more separated from the rest of the class, it further marked me out as different. However, at the time, I didn’t know what I needed and even I had known, I wouldn’t have had the language to explain it.

My first year of secondary school continued in much the same way. I would have a panic attack and be put on the side, sent to the sick bay or excused from class to get some fresh air. By age fourteen and in Second Year, I was really mentally unwell. I was having multiple panic attacks every single day and they were so draining. I wasn’t sleeping well and I’d spend most nights crying because I was dreading the next day so much. I’d spend my mornings vomiting or with diarrhoea brought on by the anxiety I was experiencing. I began to lose weight. I felt like I was losing my mind.

At that point I was invited to join the Rainbows Programme in my school along with attending a thirty minute session with the school counselor once a week. Both the woman running the Rainbows group and that school counselor have had a massive impact on my life. I’m so grateful to have had them. I think of them quite often and wish I had a way to contact them ten years on. Rainbows and the counselling service were great resources. However, I don’t believe either can cope with being the only support available for hundreds of students (more on this in a later post!). In my opinion, as a result of that, warning signs were missed and it’s quite possible that it’s still the case.

The following year I was approaching my fifteenth birthday and I was incredibly mentally ill. One morning, over breakfast, my mam asked if I was feeling depressed. I didn’t fully grasp what that meant, I’d never heard it spoken about in any detail at home or in school but it seemed like saying yes was the right thing to do. My mam was great, she arranged an appointment with my GP right away. I can’t remember the appointment itself but I know that I left with a prescription for Xanax. I took the medication but it didn’t suit me. I was walking around like a zombie, I wasn’t present any more. I was going through my days knowing things were happening and that people were interacting with me but it was as if I was behind a pane of glass where I couldn’t reach anyone. Thankfully, my mam noticed and asked for my medication to be changed. It took switching medications a couple of times for me to find the one that suited me best in terms of side effects but I still didn’t feel as though it was helping.

Life continued in a similar fashion until 2008. By then I’d been self harming in various ways for months. Every night I was crying my heart out on the bathroom floor. Every school morning I was vomiting from the intensity of the anxiety I was experiencing. I went to school but I was rarely in class because of the panic attacks and when I was there I couldn’t keep up with the work because I’d missed so much. I rarely lasted a full day in school. My parents would get a call from the school most days asking if I could go home. At this point they asked if I was missing so much school because I was being bullied but I wasn’t at that time. The next logical conclusion for them was that I was just acting out, being a troublemaker. They were frustrated that I was missing so much school and they tried everything to get me to stay there. They couldn’t see what was going on and I couldn’t tell them. They tried to frighten me in to staying in school by telling me they’d make me change schools, that they’d send me to a boarding school or even send me to live with relatives in England. They were at the end of their tether. The relationship between my parents and I began to suffer. I began to feel angry all the time. I was angry that I was surrounded by all of these adults but none of them could see that I was in serious need of help. I was experiencing angry outbursts over seemingly insignificant things. My mam would ask me to empty the dishwasher and I’d start a full blown shouting match. I couldn’t regulate my responses. I was constantly ready to blow up over anything. I think my family saw that behaviour partly as teenage mood swings and partly as me trying to make life more difficult. I turned that anger inwards and the self harm became worse. ‘Why can’t I just be normal? Look at what I’m doing to my parents. My family hate me. Why do I feel this way? Why can’t anyone else see it? Am I crazy?’. It took me a long time to realise it but I held on to that anger for years. Anger at everyone around me and anger at myself.

I didn’t know how to tell them what was going on with me, I thought it was in my head, that I was abnormal. Neither my teachers or family had the knowledge to realise what was happening. It wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t mine.

Approaching the summer of that third year of secondary school, I attempted to take an overdose but I was interrupted. A goodbye text I had sent to a friend was shown to a member of school staff, my parents were called, I was found and brought to them. They had been told everything. The school principal told me that I would be leaving with immediate effect so that I could get help. I wasn’t sure what came next.

I want to break the narrative here for just a moment to be really clear about something – I am so glad that I was interrupted that day, that my friends told a member of staff what was happening. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to be free of the immense pain and turmoil I was feeling every minute of every day and, in the state I was in, death seemed like the only way to achieve that but it wasn’t the only way. I will always be sorry that my teenage friends had to deal with that. I have apologised and thanked them since but I wish it had never gotten to that point. Those friendships were changed by the events of that day and what followed. I’m no longer in contact with most of those people and I doubt they’ll ever see this but I hope they know that they saved a life that day. Anyway, back to it…

My school let me return after a few weeks under a new set of rules. My parents and I met with the principal who had drawn up a ‘contract’ for me to sign before returning to class. I can’t remember every rule from it but the ones that have stuck in my mind are that I wasn’t to be alone, including going to and from school, going to the bathroom and during lunch. I wasn’t allowed to speak to any student about the events leading up to my ‘break’ from school or anything that took place while I was away. If I was feeling down or struggling again (I was never not struggling, those couple of weeks off school didn’t magically make me better) I wasn’t to discuss it with any student including friends. I signed it like I was supposed to and I stuck to it.

I can 100% understand the need to safeguard other students but that ‘contract’ really affected our relationships. My friends wanted an explanation and I couldn’t give it to them. I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t, they could tell that I was projecting a false persona but I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t risk getting kicked out of school and upsetting my family even more. I became isolated in school, rumours began and bullying started. I’d had quite a large group of friends up to that point but now I found myself with just one who wasn’t in the same year as me. She really kept me going through those times but  not having a friendly face around for most of the day was difficult.

Over the next eighteen months I made a couple of new friends and I became close to one of the girls I’d been friends with previously but understandably she felt caught in the middle. I was still having issues with those former friends. I would find thinly veiled comments about me online, they would whisper, point and laugh while sitting behind me in classes or while walking the corridors at lunch. One of them wrote me a very scathing letter telling me she never wanted anything to do with me again and had someone else deliver it to me which led to a screaming match in the middle of a hallway during lunch – not ideal!

Things weren’t great outside of school either, my dad had a heart attack, a relative had died which brought up some of the feelings I hadn’t dealt with years before and my mam was diagnosed with cancer. I was seeing CAMHS and on medication but the meds didn’t seem to agree with me and seeing different doctors at the CAMHS sessions meant I couldn’t build a rapport with anyone. My sessions weren’t frequent enough or long enough for me to feel any benefit from them so even if I did get to see the same doctor for a couple of sessions it didn’t make a difference.

Eventually, it all became too much and after a heart to heart with my mam, I made the decision to leave school in December 2009, six months before I was due to sit my final exams. I left because I knew that if I continued on I would end up at crisis point again. It was the right decision but it didn’t lessen the heartache of seeing my friends prepare for their exams and college. I began to feel alone again because I was missing all the ‘in jokes’ and conversations happening at school.

The following six years were tumultuous. I started jobs and courses because I felt like I should but I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t cope and I ended up leaving all of them. The panic disorder didn’t have so much of a grip on me but the social anxiety was worse. I couldn’t get a bus or taxi on my own, I couldn’t interact with retail staff, I couldn’t make a phone call, some days I couldn’t leave the house at all. I switched from CAMHS to adult mental health services where I would often be waiting an hour past my appointment time just to see a another doctor that I’d never met before. They would run through their  checklist –

  • In the past month have you had any thoughts of killing yourself?
  • In the past month have you engaged in any self harming behaviour?
  • Have you been sleeping well?
  • Have you been eating well?
  • Are you currently a risk to yourself or anyone around you?
  • Have you been taking your medication?

Then I would be given my next appointment date and sent on my way. It wasn’t the doctor’s fault that they couldn’t give me or their other patients more time. They were overstretched and struggling to meet the demand of so many cases.

Labels don’t work for everyone but, for me, the one benefit of attending HSE mental health services was getting formal diagnoses of Depression, Panic Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. Having that information allowed me to find a community of others who were experiencing the same thing I was, which meant I felt less alone. I realised just how many people went through what I did. I found peer support. Most importantly, I was able to educate myself which is exactly what I did. That’s when ‘recovery’ (more on this in a later post!) started for me, even though I didn’t realise it at the time.

In 2015 I decided to return to education as an adult and over the next eighteen months I gained three qualifications and secured a place on a bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t entirely well during that time. I never managed to do a presentation and I missed a lot of Tuesday classes because I found that day particularly difficult to cope with but I did manage to finish all three courses and I left with great results.

The results weren’t the best part of the course though, the people were. I’d always joked that I hated people to cover up the fact that I found it difficult to interact with more than one person at a time but those people changed that for me. They embraced my quirks, they supported me and they made me laugh every day (they even made me laugh about those Tuesdays!). Most days I looked forward to going to school because I knew they would be there. They probably don’t know the impact they had but I don’t think I’d have gotten through that year and a half without them.

I began my degree and I was really enjoying it but I had to leave it after a few months because of a problem with my hip. It derailed me somewhat and I began to struggle again. I felt like I was letting people down. I applied for and got a job hoping it would ease some of the guilt I was feeling but I couldn’t cope and I quickly left. I realised that if I was to be well again I had to go back to basics and figure out what would get me well and help me stay that way.

The past year and a half has been good. Sure, there are still some bad weeks but they’re never as bad as they once were and if I was to get to that crisis point again I know I have an action plan to get help. The problem with my hip hasn’t been resolved yet but physiotherapy has made it more manageable. I’ve been able to return to education part time where I’m studying Mental Health in the Community. I have this blog that enables me to interact with so many passionate and inspiring mental health bloggers and advocates every single day. I have a wonderful partner, friends and family who do their absolute best to understand and support me when I’m not doing so well. There might still be times when I struggle, in fact I’m sure there will be, but now I can see how good life can be, I know that I am capable of so much, I have hope and that changes everything.

There will be some posts coming up looking at youth mental health in Ireland, initiatives currently taking place and some questions about what happens next.

This was very long for one blog post so if you’ve managed to stick it out to this point, thank you.

If you need help or advice you can find a list of charities and organisations here.

Hope is…

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hope as ‘A feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.’

But hope is so much more than that…

Hope is sunshine on a crisp morning,

it’s watching my nephews and niece learn something new,

it’s listening to my favourite songs,

it is watching Great British Bake Off with my mam.

Hope is a bunch of fresh flowers,

a nice smelling candle,

car journeys with my dad,

watching Marvel movies,

my dog resting his head on my lap.

Hope is a good cup of coffee,

having my family together for birthdays,

the smell of a new book,

laughing at a stupid joke my boyfriend told me,

a nice email, tweet or comment.

Hope is yellow,

it’s crunchy leaves in Autumn,

a walk in the park,

peanut butter cups,

waking up at 3am and knowing I still have hours left to sleep.

Hope is being grateful for both the big things and the small ones.

Hope is knowing that there will be more of them.

Hope is believing that bad days won’t last forever.

Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all..._

What does hope look like for you? Share it with me below! 

For help, advice and information click here.

This month I’m grateful for… (August)

Practicing gratitude has a multitude of benefits, from improving optimism and happiness to helping people feel less lonely.* Personally, I feel more positive when I practice gratitude. Every week I try to think of a couple of things that I am genuinely grateful for. This stops me from getting too focused on the things that maybe didn’t go right that week.

I thought I’d share a couple of the things I’ve been grateful for in August.

  1.  Having such a tight knit family in difficult times. None of us are great at answering our phones and nothing is exempt from having a joke made out of it but my family are always there when it matters.
  2. My friend Aoife for encouraging me to keep going after my goals and for always being there to share in the happiness when they work out or to offer support when they don’t.
  3. Getting tickets to see Panic! at the Disco in Manchester next year – shoutout to Ian for this one! Going to gigs is one of my absolute favourite things to do and I was really disappointed to see that Panic! didn’t include an Irish date on their Pray For The Wicked tour but I’m delighted that I’ll get to see them anyway.prayforthewickedtour
  4. The return of cooler weather. I couldn’t cope with that hot weather at all! I’m just not made for heat. I think I was the only person in the country who cursed the heatwave every morning! I love cooler days, cozy evenings, the leaves turning and even the lashing rain.
  5. The arrival of A/W fashion and homeware. If it’s not already clear, I’m an A/W baby, it’s my favourite time of year and seeing all of the new stock like boots, hats, scarves, throws, cushions and candles arriving in store is so exciting!
  6. Getting shortlisted in the Irish Blog Awards in the category of Blog Post – Personal Blog for my ‘I Own It’ post. Blog-Awards-2018-Alebrije-MPU_Short-List
  7. Getting accepted by UCC to study Mental Health in the Community. I’m happy beyond words to have the chance to study something I’m so passionate about.

*https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good

Join in! What things were you grateful for in August? Let me know below!

So you got your exam results…

It’s Leaving Cert results day in Ireland today. By now, the students have their results. Some will be delighted, others will be devastated. The media will celebrate those who received ‘top marks’, they’ll churn out statistics – almost a third of students sat the higher level maths paper and 90% of those received bonus points for scoring over 40% in their exam.

It’s easy to make a Very Big Deal out of these results; many students have worked hard, they have achieved the grades they hoped for and that really is great. However, there are others who worked just as hard and didn’t see it come to fruition. Of course, it’s also all subjective – one student could see 300 points as being fantastic while another sees that as a failure.

On days like today it’s so important to stay grounded. There are so many options and opportunities out there. Not everyone is made for college. Some people will go straight to work or an apprenticeship, some might take some time out to figure out what they want to do and that’s perfectly okay.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind today:

  • If you didn’t get the results you had hoped for don’t panic! There are so many PLC courses that only take one year and can be used as an entry path to a degree the following year if you still want to go down that route. Level 5 courses get a bad rep but I think they’re brilliant – you get to find out if what you had planned on studying is really right for you without the massive financial burden and time commitment of a degree. Saving money and having more free time – what’s bad about that?!
  • Will these results really matter in fifty years? It’s unlikely! That’s not to minimise the effort and time you might have put in, but to remind you that if it didn’t go your way it’s not the end if the world. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of people I know who didn’t get the results or the course they had initially hoped for but who are still happy and successful at what they do. If in doubt, take a look at some famous people who are widely considered to have ‘failed’ school/college but who have still achieved so much: Ellen DeGeneres, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah, Lady GaGa, Tom Hanks, Coco Chanel, Steve Jobs and more!
  • While it’s worth recognising that these results are the culmination of many years of hard work for a lot of people, it’s still important to remember that they don’t have to define the rest of your life. Ultimately, it’s just a piece of paper with a bunch of letters and numbers on. It doesn’t represent who you are as a person. There are many qualities that are far more important than those results – being passionate about something, showing kindness to others, treating people with respect etc.
  • Lastly, go out and celebrate! No matter what results you got you should still celebrate the end of this chapter of your life and the beginning of a new one. Take some time out to relax, go out with friends, do something with your family, whatever celebrating means to you!

On a personal note – I left school in 2009, four months in to sixth year. Since then I’ve earned three qualifications, been accepted on to a degree course, I’ve learned a ton of skills, met new people, seen some other countries, gotten a dog, created a blog & a whole lot more and guess what? None of that depended on having ‘good’ Leaving Cert results!

If you need support today, contact the NCPpp Helpline for free on 1800265165 to speak to a qualified guidance counsellor or check out their website for more information and advice. Spunout.ie also has an education section that is FULL of really great posts, and I’d definitely recommend checking that out if you need some down to earth, practical and easy to follow advice.

As always, if you need any general advice and information click here.

Best Apps For Dealing With Anxiety

The apps I find most helpful for dealing with anxiety.

Headspace

headspace
Source: headspace.com

Headspace is an app that provides short daily guided meditations. The app is free to download from the App Store and the Play Store. They offer a free Basics Pack, this provides you with all the essential tools you need to begin meditating in an easy listening, accessible way. If you want to access the full range of features you’ll have to pay a subscription, one month is $12.95 and one year works out at $7.99 per month – not a lot if you really will use it daily! Other packs on offer are geared towards helping you sleep, reducing stress, improving self esteem and more. You can also track all of your progress (data nerds rejoice!) I’ve been using Headspace before bed for a few months and I can definitely see the benefit of it. When I use it I sleep better, I’m calmer and as a result, more focused the following day.  I always thought I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to meditate but Headspace has changed my outlook.

I love hue

i love hue
Source: i-love-hue.com

I love hue is  described as ‘a gentle journey into colour and perception.’ It’s a visual game based on arranging tiles into colour spectrums. There is a ridiculous amount of levels in this game and they increase in difficulty as you play so you won’t get bored. It is so aesthetically pleasing and great for quieting the mind. I find this app great for when I’m feeling anxious! Free from both the App Store & The Play Store

Amazon Kindle

Amazon_Kindle_Fire_logo.svg

Available through a kindle reader, the amazon tablet or the smartphone app for free though you pay for most books. I’m a massive book nerd (check out 5 Books That Changed My Life here!) but I don’t have a whole lot of extra income to spend on books so this app is brilliant for me! Classic books are generally free, new books are slightly cheaper than print versions and Kindle Unlimited gives you access to hundreds of books every month for a flat fee of €7.99pm. I still buy physical copies of books but sometimes the Kindle is way easier. Travel can make me anxious but having a book to hand allows me to concentrate on something other than my racing thoughts, I also use it to read in bed because it’s easier to hold than a print book!

 

Green Ribbon Campaign

Tuesday, May 1st marked the beginning of the See Change Green Ribbon campaign.

The Green Ribbon campaign is all about starting a conversation about mental health and stomping out stigma.

Collins Dictionary describes stigma as follows – ‘If something has a stigma attached to it, people think it is something to be ashamed of.’  Historically this has been the case with mental health and mental illness but thankfully people like those at See Change are working hard to change this! The Green Ribbon campaign is urging people to talk to change minds about mental health one conversation at a time.

If you’re not used to speaking about mental health it can be daunting but as See Change say ‘You don’t have to be an expert to talk about mental health.’ If you pick up a free Green Ribbon you’ll see some tips on the back of the packet:

  • Talk, but listen too.
  • Keep in touch, remind them you care
  • Be patient
  • don’t just talk about mental health, talk about other things too. 

see-change-green-ribbon

I’d like to share my own Green Ribbon story with you.

I began experiencing mental health difficulties as a child. Eventually I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder and Depression*. My mam was supportive in that she went to my appointments with me and she would sit with me if I was upset but conversation around mental health didn’t really happen, everything was a bit hush-hush.

Now, I know that she thought she was protecting me. My mam feared that by speaking out about my own experiences I would be bullied. She also found mental health difficult to talk about because of the stigma attached to it that she experienced growing up – talking about mental health difficulties just wasn’t something that was done.

Then, one day she came home with a green ribbon on her coat. That little ribbon changed so much. It opened up conversation between us, it allowed us to talk about things we had never spoken about before yet desperately needed to. It wasn’t always easy and sometimes there were tears involved but it was so, so worth it.

Now, every year we not only make a point of getting green ribbons to wear ourselves but also one or two extra for anyone who we cross paths with who is interested. As I mentioned in a previous post we now speak about our mental health in the same way we speak about our physical health. Saying “I’m struggling today, I need to take some time out.” is no different than saying “I have a migraine, I need to go lie down for a while”. That little green ribbon changed a whole lot and I’ll be forever grateful for it.

 

If you’d like to get involved you’ll find Green Ribbons in all Boots stores and Irish Rail stations nationwide free of charge.  There are loads of other ways to support the campaign too – to find out more visit the See Change site, visit them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram

You can join the conversation using #greenribbonirl and take part in #TimeToTalk Day on May 4th across social media.

 

*Not everyone experiencing a mental health difficulty will be diagnosed with a mental illness.

For help, advice and information click here.

How I Care For Myself In Crisis

Crisis situations aren’t very common for me these days but once upon a time this was a regular occurrence. The most important thing I learned during that time is that I need a plan, I need to know what to do when crisis does strike. These are the things I do to try get back to myself during those times.

Tell someone – when shit has hit the fan, when Anxiety Brain is in control the worst thing I can do is keep it to myself. Sometimes, having someone who can think logically in that moment, on my side is enough and even when it’s not at least someone knows and can keep an eye on me.

Listen to something that calms me down – I like music whether I’m in crisis or not and I listen to music every day but there are particular songs that are helpful when I’m in crisis. A lot of these are from the record Vessel by Twenty One Pilots such as Trees, Holding on to You and Car Radio.

stepphhsays-holding-on-to-you-twenty-one-pilots

Remind myself that I will be back in control eventually – If I am in crisis Anxiety Brain is in control, not me. There are several phrases I repeat to myself to remind myself that I will be in control again: ‘This feeling won’t last forever’, ‘I own this’, etc. After all, no matter how bad it’s gotten in the past I made it through, I am proof that it will end eventually.

Attempt to watch tv or read a book – Something light and fluffy here, no horrors or thrillers. This is an attempt at distraction. I might read the same page twelve times or watch an entire show without being very aware of what just happened in it but it doesn’t matter. The goal here is to get out of my head for a bit, to break the cycle of unhelpful thoughts. 

Tell someone! – This is important enough to be stated twice. For me this really is the best thing I can do and if I can’t find someone I can speak to IRL then I’ll head online to find a friend or a community to talk to and help me feel less alone. As far as the internet goes, I’ve found Reddit, Instagram and Twitter to be the best places to find support and like minded people at any time of the day or night but be careful with the amount of personal information you share!

What not to do:

For me there are a couple of things that definitely don’t help when I’m in crisis – not telling someone, being entirely alone, forcing myself to do something that is causing me major anxiety at that particular moment, drinking alcohol, staying up all night. For me, these things will make my anxiety worse and it’s just as important to be able to recognise that, as it is to be able to recognise the things that help.

How do you deal with crisis? Do you have any tips or things that are best avoided? Let me know!

Need help? Want information? Click here