Storms

The Storm Before the Calm

We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘the calm before the storm’. The eerie silence that often descends before a really big storm hits. It’s a phrase often used in films and literature to convey the moment of peace before the big dramatic upset.

Yet it isn’t always so. With the weather, more often the pressure that builds before a good thunderstorm is stifling. It builds and builds until it explodes in a sky full of electricity and noise.

For me, there is no better analogy for how my head feels when I am caught in a depressive spiral.  The onslaught of thoughts, the self annihilation, the stresses that build to a point where I cannot cope… It’s chaos that escalates to a point where it explodes.

When I’m at that point I can barely function. I stop speaking. I operate on autopilot. I will physically distance myself from people, or I hide. If I do talk it’s disjointed, I struggle for words, I stutter or cannot get a sentence together.

Finding Calm

Sometimes there is only one way to find peace from the tempest in my head.

I self harm.

The flood of chemicals that this action releases into my bloodstream soothes me and restores my balance and I regain control once more.

Since my depression emerged at 15 years old, and in the nearly 25 years since, I have been battling off and on with the storms within my head. I have gone for months, sometimes even years without having to resort to my most drastic measures to find calm. I know that ultimately it’s not a good solution. But sometimes when I’m in the most extreme spirals, it’s the only solution I’ve found that works.

Like everyone, my journey is unique to me. I make choices, both good and bad as to how I deal with my mental health, but the important thing is that I’m still making the decisions. I’m not giving up.

Even if I fall, I pick myself back up because I decided a long time ago that not getting back up wasn’t an option. I’m stubborn like that.

Decisions

Take for example my decision to not go down the medication route. When I was a teenager I was prescribed anti-depressants to help with my depression, but I found I didn’t feel like me, that my own personality was deadened by them. So instead I opted to follow a therapy-only treatment plan. As an adult, I often wonder if this was the best option; I question whether I would still be battling with my demons to this day if I’d opted for a different course of treatment.  But it was my choice and one that I’ve stubbornly stuck to. Yes, it’s sometimes hard when you’re battling with your own mind and I recognise that medication would probably make it easier. I also fully support anyone taking medication, it works for them.

But for me, the tools I got from therapy work 99% of the time. They’ve helped me to support others too, even if it’s just spotting the signs that someone is struggling. By learning to recognise the behaviours and symptoms in myself, it’s helped me when dealing with friends and family who are struggling too.

So while having depression has been exhausting, debilliating and terrible, I also wouldn’t change it. I know that sounds insane, but for all the storms there’s been some pretty significant moments of sunshine. Being involved in this website is a pretty big one.

We’ve been able to make connections with people who are struggling, provide them with much needed support when they need it most. To me that’s a pretty big ray of sunshine.

I guess that’s the point of this post. I suffer from depression, I have gone through more mental storms than I’d care to count. The important thing is I have survived 100% of my bad days and that’s what I want for everyone struggling to do. Survive.

I’d like to leave you with a short quote from one of my favourite movies-The Crow. It’s something I say to myself when it feels like the storm is never ending.

‘It can’t rain all the time’

Good luck to you all, and if the storm is too bad we’ll be here with an umbrella.

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Shamelessly Me

Shamelessly Me

My life is good. I have a loving network of family and friends around me. I love my work. I manage financially. I am fit. I have hobbies. I write. I have a full life. I am healthy. But am I?

This is what my anxiety is about. Health. This is what happens to me. I have a symptom; racing heart, tingling on my tongue, lump on my toe, pain around my ribs. All symptoms that can be attributed to something innocent, but not for me, MY symptoms are serious, probably life threatening.  I then dwell on these symptoms, imagining the worse. As my anxiety increases, unsurprisingly, so do my symptoms. This then becomes the next 4,5,6,7 or 8 days worrying about what’s wrong with me, until the symptoms just disappear, or I give in and go to the GP for reassurance.

In some ways I am lucky with my anxiety (I’m writing this on a good day!!). I manage to function normally, being a Mum, being a partner, working, running the house (though maybe not cleaning, but I can’t blame the anxiety for that!). Anxiety doesn’t stop doing things; I generally don’t let it. I know for some anxiety sufferers that this is a place they’d love to be with their anxiety; I know how debilitating it can be. So for that I feel grateful.

In my head, although on the outside I am functioning well, a lot of the time on the inside it’s a different story.  I obsess. I worry. I spend a lot of time being frightened. I fear the worse. I catastrophise. It’s tiring! I also struggle with the selfishness I perceive that I have; it’s all about me after all!

I do have my ways of coping and helping to alleviate my anxiety.  If I don’t exercise, I feel worse. I think this would be one of my biggest positive step tips to others suffering with stress, anxiety or depression. Get out there and exercise.  A walk, a jog, the gym, a team sport; anything physical that you enjoy. For me it is being outside, running or walking.  My state of mind is totally different after I’ve exercised. Truly, you must try this if you haven’t already.

My other coping strategies are yoga, meditation, practising mindfulness, practising gratitude, writing a bullet journal. I also started blogging about my anxiety in June 2016.  The thing I have realised is that these strategies should become day-to-day activities, just part of normal life.  I think that helps to alleviate the frequency of bouts of anxiety, and keep everything in check.

One of the main reasons I started blogging was to try and help others. When I woke in the middle of the night with an anxiety attack, and couldn’t calm myself down, I’d head for my Ipad and write in “helping anxiety”, “how to get rid of anxiety”, I found that not a lot came up that helped me. I needed something immediate to try, something to ease my panic NOW. So I started writing about the things I have found help me. None of them have “cured” me, but it helps, and I hope by writing my ideas and thoughts that I might help maybe one person to get some relief.

My last piece of advice;

Be gentle with yourself, you are doing the best you can, and that is enough.

Amy BlytheAmy Blythe is the author of Shamelessly Me, blogging her journey with anxiety.  She uses it to help herself, in a cathartic way, to live with the anxiety that she faces but also to help others.  For more information, check out her website!

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Pushing Back the Shadows – A Supporter’s Thoughts

This is a post written by one of our supporters.  We would be quite interested to hear your views on this so please leave a comment, let us know what you think.  Let’s get a discussion going!

Although the symptoms of depression are relatively universal, each person’s experience is different because each person is unique.  To dismiss a professional’s help because your depression is different is not saying that the symptoms are different, but that their manifestation is different in each individual.  This then makes the task of professionals challenging when faced with each person who, quite understandably, are focussed on their own signs of depression.  What works for one may not work for another, but the challenge is to not let personal depression manifestations to simply dismiss something before due consideration.

As I think about this title, “Pushing Back the Shadows”, I initially understood it as pushing back the stigma, the lack of understanding that depression is an illness – like physical illnesses – except there are no “plasters” or “bandages” evident.  It is therefore dependent on the explanation of the depressed individual to a professional to obtain the treatment that works best for that individual.  It is hard enough to explain depression without having to do so when you are already depressed!  Therefore, “Pushing Back the Shadows” gives opportunity for people to share their personal experiences in the hope that someone reading it may have that moment when they recognise themselves in the descriptions.  However, is there not a danger of focussing on depression so much that you become the slave to depression and no longer able to look for the next step?

This leads to another viewpoint on “Pushing Back the Shadows”.  If depression is the shadow, then “Pushing Back the Shadows” can be understood as the battle against depression – pushing the dark cloud of depression to the point where daily life can function.  This takes effort and energy, which Alex has already identified, is not necessarily available, making it difficult.  Those who are surrounding and supporting the person want to fight that battle for them and will encourage them to fight, but the battle is for the person alone – only they can take each step, like a young baby learning to walk.

As one who is permanently on anti-depressants to deal with a life-long medical condition, I can identify that the daily battle to “push back the shadows” is faced by more than people diagnosed with depression.  When getting out of bed and getting dressed for someone with a life-long medical condition is achieved – it would be a reason for celebration, a sense of achievement, a battle won.  But in the great scheme of life, such an achievement is not seen as that great – people get out of bed and dressed every day so what is so special in that.  “Pushing Back the Shadow” is a personal achievement in the privacy of an individual’s life and not one where congratulations will be ringing in the ears.  In the perspective of normal life, each battle won is normal – not news-worthy.  Unfortunately this is a fact that has to be accepted – one person’s health battles are not the centre of the universe so will not be high on the radars of many people’s hectic lifestyles and priorities.

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Yet, I suppose the key to any health battle – whether it is mental or physical – starts with understanding.  What are you dealing with?  Unfortunately “Google” will give you loads of information from professional and “wacky” sources.  Unfortunately this is the first search we make in seeking to understand.  But, as academia will remind you – check your sources – anyone can write anything and post it on the internet.  As Alex quite rightly states, this blog is not from a professional basis, but from a personal experience and a desire to help others – it is not of great academic worth but simply an insight – “Pushing Back the Shadows” of understanding.

In seeking to understand, the medical profession have access to tried and tested resources and will happily point you in the direction you need to understand what you are dealing with.  The libraries in the UK are also a great untapped resource that can help as well without the cost of purchasing a book.  However, if you find one that helps you could always invest in your own copy.

When you begin to understand what you are dealing with, you have already achieved the first battle to “Pushing Back the Shadow.”  The first battle, yes, but each day will continue to be a challenge which, like learning a new skill, will get easier over time and practice.

As a supporter, it is never easy to “say the right thing” or “give help at the appropriate time”, especially when you do not see the person every day to be able to gauge where they are on their challenge.  It can also be hurtful when your support is denigrated by a comment or reaction that bears no resemblance to the last contact you had with that individual.  However, “Pushing Back the Shadows” I believe takes understanding, where this blog is only one resource – not the ultimate resource; and takes that desire of the individual and their supporters to want to push against the shadow of depression rather than remaining trapped by it.  It is not a smooth path, but one that has many pitfalls and obstacles to be overcome.  BUT you don’t have to achieve release all at once – it is simply just one step (one day) at a time. This is what each professional and supporter will be encouraging you to do – take the next step – it’s not as big as “the shadow” would try to convince you. They are on your side, even when they say what you don’t want to hear.  They are trying to help you win today’s battle and take the next step to “Push Back the Shadows”.  

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How to Help Friends and Family

There are times in our lives when we are called upon to do things that we never imagined. It is during these times that we find out just how strong we are.

That time for me came when my son fell into a deep depression and began to self-harm. Parenting can be difficult enough if your child is healthy, but if they have a mental illness it can be life altering.

When my children were young I read parenting books; the ones that explained how to train your child to sleep through the night and offered strategies for dealing with temper tantrums. When my children entered adolescents, I studied parenting books that demonstrated how to talk so they would listen and how to cope with angry outbursts while staying calm and maintaining my sanity. When my son suffered from severe depression and starting self-harming, I couldn’t find parenting books that provided me with skills, practical information, and therapeutic tools to help him. I felt frustrated, alone, and helpless.

It took a lot of time and effort to find the right course to help my son, and along the way I was able to help myself and others.

So, how can you help friends and family who are living with a mental health disorder?

Know the signs and symptoms

Knowing the warning signs for mental illness can help you to be a better parent and friend. There are multiple signs such as: excessive worrying or fear, feeling excessively sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks, extreme mood changes, prolonged irritability or anger, changes in sleep and eating habits, extreme difficulty concentrating, reckless behavior, and trying to harm or kill oneself. [i]  This is not a comprehensive list and some of these might be subtle, but knowing this information could be the difference between life and death. 

Set clear boundaries

Setting clear guidelines, rules or limits with friends and family can keep you from becoming overwhelmed. Make sure that you take time out for yourself. Be aware of enabling or repeatedly “rescuing” him or her, this can lead to a codependent relationship.  When my son was experiencing depression, I did everything for him because I wanted him to feel better and this over-protective parenting led to an unhealthy relationship. During that time, I often felt helpless and without a choice. After speaking with a counselor, I realized that my bond with my son was no longer safe or healthy for me. I slowly let him handle decisions for himself, allowing him to feel pride in what he did, and then I could validate and praise him. Over several months our relationship changed from an enabling one to a nurturing one.

Know how to make symptoms better

There are many ways to help with the symptoms of mental illness. These range from traditional (cognitive behavioral, group, and medication) to non-traditional (art, pet, meditation, music, and movement) therapies and everything in between. The most important thing to remember is to choose a positive method.  My son chose self-harm to help with his suicidal thoughts and depression. The self-harm worked in the moment, but it did not make symptoms better, in fact, in the long run, it made things worse.  The earlier someone living with a mental health condition seeks treatment the better the chance of recovery.  Include your friend or family member in your plans, help them stay positive, and encourage them to follow their treatment plan.

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Talk about it

Not only is it important for treatment that someone who lives with a mental illness talks to others about it, it is equally important that friends and caregivers talk too.  Parents, caretakers, siblings, and friends want to discuss the mental illness in their lives. They want to know that others are going through similar difficulties; they want to know that they are not alone. If those who are directly living through the mental illness of a loved one would be willing to talk about it, then maybe those who are physically experiencing it would be inspired to seek the help they need. If we take away the shame that goes with discussing mental illness and understand that it is an illness like any other, we open a door to real progress and improvement for mental health care.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. It’s scary, I know I kept the secret of my son’s mental illness hidden from just about everyone in my life. Why? Fear, shame, and embarrassment, all words surrounding stigma. Looking back now, I wonder why I was so afraid. Since I have “come out” about my son’s mental illness everyone I know has been supportive and encouraging, but such is not the case for many. I remain in the lucky few. It wasn’t easy for me to discuss my son’s illness. There were many awkward conversations, but the more I talked about mental health, the more comfortable I became and the more people I found who understood, empathized or were going through a similar situation. And these individuals wanted to talk about it openly and honestly. They wanted information, guidance, or just someone to listen.

Remember to validate

Validation is one of the most important elements to learn before helping anyone.

As humans, we want to “fix” problems. Often the best thing to do in a situation is to validate feelings, not diminish them. Validation does not mean you agree with someone else’s choice or even their feelings, instead it’s telling them that it is okay to have these feelings and that you still care about them. This will help your friend or family member feel seen, heard, and accepted and to know that what they say matters and is understood. Everyone deserves to be accepted without judgment.

Help to reduce stigma and take action

Each and every one of us has the power to help eliminate the misunderstanding, lack of acceptance, and the stigma surrounding mental health conditions. [ii]

Share links to resources on social media. Don’t stereotype or label others. Use people first language. Wear a mental health awareness bracelet-this can be a great conversation starter. Become a volunteer and a mental health advocate.

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This is nobody’s fault

There is a propensity in society to blame people for their mental illness, as if they had a choice in the matter. We also tend to blame the parents for the “faults” of their children.

 You wouldn’t want this for yourself, your child or another family member. Do not blame yourself or anyone else. Mental illness is just an illness of the brain. It is just like any other physical illness. Mental illness is no one’s fault.

 

The daily energy spent on helping someone who lives with a mental illness is enormous. Don’t give up hope, savor the good times. If you are struggling and drained of energy and life-force you can’t help anyone else. It is impossible to do it all yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help in your community.

It takes a village…. The time-honored African proverb speaks of the importance of community. Some say it originated from the Nigerian Igbo culture and proverb Ora na azu nwa, which means, it takes the community/village to raise a child. [iii]

So, use your village or community and get the help you need and deserve.

[i] https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Know-the-Warning-Signs

[ii] https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-Programs/NAMI-Ending-the-Silence

[iii] http://www.coseealaska.net/files/alaska/Ittakesavillage.pdf

 

Theresa Larsen graduated from Florida State University with a degree in elementary education and a minor in psychology. She taught school in England, Wales, and the United States for over twelve years. She is a trained presenter and coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s “Ending the Silence”-a mental health awareness program for youth. She is also a writer and her writing credits include a Welsh children’s book, an educational article published in the Cardiff Advisory Service for Education, parenting and mental health articles published on Yahoo,  PsychCentral, The Mighty, The Stigma Fighters Anthology Volume 2, and her award-winning memoir, Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother.  

Learn more about Theresa at http://www.theresalarsen.com/

Cutting the Soul at Amazon  https://www.amazon.com/Cutting-Soul-journey-illness-teenager/dp/1502933101/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496436594&sr=8-1&keywords=cutting+the+soul

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Safety Zone

Discovering one of your closest friends has a mental illness is no easy piece of news. I was horrified. So much had changed.

I have always felt a responsibility to my friends. This was by choice, although I doubt I could sleep if I didn’t; it was my duty as his close friend to help him through it and I felt guilty for not noticing his illness. I came to understand that he hid it as best he could but it didn’t stop all the guilt of somehow missing the horror one of your closest friends was going through.

Worried sick was an understatement. I suddenly realised that the chirpy, fun-loving “adopted brother” I could joke with was battling his mind for happiness and primary functions and felt like he was failing. I knew about people with depression, and had somebody else very close to me years back who suffered (let’s call him Jo), but I knew early on Jo suffered with depression and took on this close friendship already planning to help him. I was not prepared for Alex’s revelation and I felt lost with how to help him. Just letting him get on with it and coming to me when he needed was not something I was willing to do – I wanted to actively help, I just didn’t know how. Telling someone with a mental illness, “It’ll be okay! I genuinely believe you’ll get better!” doesn’t always cut it as they may be incapable of trusting you. It’s not something that comes down to a bond of friendship. They’re trapped in a mind that won’t let them believe they’ll get through it. Try convincing someone they can walk through a brick wall. I needed to find some other way of supporting him. So, what did I do?

People going through depression often feel worthless and like they’re a burden on their friends. They won’t see what you see in them and will believe they’re wasting your time. They don’t feel safe.

My initial advice was to seek help from his GP. This was no state of living and I admitted that I thought it was bad enough that he may well need medication. If functioning properly was proving impossible or too hard, medicine may regulate his life for him.

I found that reminding him periodically that I loved him and would always stand by him gave him some relief. Talking to him every day if I could let him know that he wasn’t alone, even if he felt alone. When something reminded me of him, I’d message him so he knew he was in my thoughts. That helped him. He had a safe friendship. Knowing he was in someone’s thoughts without having to message them to assert his presence was good for him. I would suggest meeting up in town or coming over to my flat for gaming or a movie. All these things just sounded like a regular thing that you would do with your friends, but here’s the difference: someone who doesn’t suffer from this mental illness is fine not talking for a week, a month, or longer, but someone with depression won’t feel that safety net – to them, they’re of no significance, so why would they expect a message or to reach out to you? Sometimes they will, don’t get me wrong, but if you want to support that person you need to make the effort because you know they are worth it. Go and remind them. Don’t give them more chance to question it. They may not be in the right state of mind to go out, or cancel last minute because they can’t bring themselves to move or just want to hide. Tell them no it’s okay! They can’t bring themselves to go with your plan, so they probably feel even worse for letting you down. Tell them it’s okay. It’s about them and you can see them another time. Reassuring them it’s okay to hide away is just as important as making the effort to talk and meet up. Give them that safety net.

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Blades. Cutting can be a key coping mechanism for someone with a mental health illness. Some have done it for attention but sometimes it’s their only outlet. One of the most important things I ever did, and I can’t stress this enough, was reassure him that I was never disappointed or annoyed with him for self-harming. I understood that he had needed to do it, even if he was disappointed in himself, and I was there to help him prevent it or to talk to if he had already done it. It can be incredibly hard not to tell someone off for it when you care about them so much, but that can install an aversion in them to telling you rather than seeking your comfort or company. I trusted him that if he did it, he was left with no other choice in his mind and I wanted him to feel safe when talking to me.

You may not know how to help your friend or loved one with depression, but my advice is just ask them. One of the best things can be to ask them how you can help them. I had Alex telling me how a couple of people tried to help and they had it all wrong. I could see why they did what they did, but he told me why it was no use so he didn’t bother going back to them. You may feel nervous about asking them what they need but they probably feel even more nervous turning to you because they don’t think they’re worth the hassle.

A few questions such as, “What do you feel?” and “How can I help you?” could go a long way to someone getting the support they need.

It’s all about their safety zone. Make sure you’re doing right by them and take your time to talk to them.

If you are interested in reading more of Ara’s work, check out her blog at http://nest-of-the-robin.blogspot.co.uk/ or get in touch with her on her Facebook page.

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Become a PatronDisclaimer: I am not an expert, nor am I medically qualified.  This blog is based on my personal experiences only.  Always seek medical advice in the first instance.