Category Archives: Stigma

Stand Tall Little Girl: Hope Virgo- Book Review

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I came across this wonderful book and Inspirational Mental Health book series by new publisher Trigger Press, on Twitter and via a friend of mine who knew Hope. The publisher is part of mental health charity the Shaw Mind Foundation and its book series is about reducing mental health stigma and showcasing inspirational people and stories.

Hope Virgo is a British mental health speaker, author and advocate, a survivor of eating disorder Anorexia nervosa, who continues to break stigma and speak about her recovery and on going battle with anorexia.

‘Stand Tall Little Girl’ is the real story of Hopes journey with anorexia and mental health issues. She talks about her childhood and her first diagnosis and hospitalisation. She describes anorexia as tricking her into thinking it was her best friend and coping mechanism, when it almost killed her. Hopes weight dropped so dangerously low that doctors gave her a week to live- her heart couldn’t take the strain.  At this point she was hospitalised to a specialised unit for year and was able to access treatment to start on the process of being well again.

Hope describes what living on an inpatient ward as a teenager is like and the difficult process of learning to eat and having to eat calorific meals again. She talks about the friends and comrades she made in hospital and the struggle of being in hospital for a year.

She talks about leaving hospital and finding coping mechanisms to live again, about her support network and tentative steps back out into the world, and about going to University and starting to live her life again, whilst still in the shadow of anorexia.

The book is expertly written, with insights from Hopes family about what it was like for them and Hope, when she was unwell and getting better. Each chapter deals with a specific period of time and Hope is very honest about her recovery journey. It is not smooth and she did relapse a few years ago. However, her relapse was better managed as she had developed ways of coping after hospital and most importantly, she asked for help from those around her, recognising she was unwell again.

Hopes story is one of utmost bravery and triumphing against the odds. She is now an advocate, author and speaker for mental health, runs marathons and has a healthy attitude towards food. I loved reading her inspirational, well written and beautiful story.

For more from Hope you can find her on Twitter @HopeVirgo and on the BBC and Good morning Britain on 30th July 2017.   

Bipolar Disorder: Fears and Living with a Chronic Illness

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I have always pledged in my blogs and writing to be as honest as possible- to be authentic- and tell the real story about living with mental health issues.  This blog came about from a Facebook poll and was voted what you wanted to hear about. So, here it is in all its beautiful glory!

Its been a difficult few weeks here with my anxiety disorder (which I will write about another time) and again this just highlights how up and down life with mental health conditions can be.  Recovery is not a smooth process – its always a mix of challenges, happiness, tears, excitement, fear.. mixed with peaks and troughs.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar affective disorder (a mood disorder where you get depressive and manic ‘high’ episodes) as a teenager. The fear at being diagnosed at such a young and delicate age is palpable. You fear everyones reactions and judgement. You fear whether you will be in and out of hospital. You fear whether you will ever be well or whether your medication will hold you. You wonder whether you can pick your life up again or whether you will always be different from your friends and those around you.

I wondered if I would ever go to university, travel, achieve my career dreams, have boyfriends, settle down, live my life again  (I did slowly but it took time and is a constant process). I had no idea what life held in store for me (and at times still don’t!). I am still a work in progress. I had no idea if psychosis would be ever present or if I would carry on feeling suicidal, or if I would spend my life on hospital in patient wards or in countless psychotherapy sessions. Bipolar is chronic because there is no ‘cure’. There are medications to address the chemical imbalance and therapy to help manage life but it cannot be fully eradicated.

I think when you are diagnosed with any chronic illness, you fear with a capital F. You start off by fearing what this means to your life. For me personally, I had to grow up fast. I avoided alcohol and mind altering substances . I made sure I had enough sleep and ate well. I tried to protect myself from negative people- which is hard when you are vulnerable).  I strove for my goals when I was well and relied on my support network when I wasn’t.

I have had to pick myself up countless times. I had years of depression and suicidal thoughts, some at the very time I was completing my Masters Degree. I have had countless anxiety attacks, social anxiety and fears around other people, work anxiety. I have lost my sanity due to a manic episode of illness and had to be medicated, helped and cared for away from home. Even though I am currently well with the Bipolar, the anxiety can take over. I am learning to use Yoga and Meditation to heal my mind and I am doing so much better.

The fear of ending up back in hospital is ever present. The fear of my loved ones having to see me unwell again is palpable. However, my mood stabiliser Lithium Carbonate seems to be holding me well. I no longer feel depressed or manic and my moods are in a ‘normal’ range. I do have certain side effects from medication including weight gain, thirst and having to have heart ECGs or blood tests to check my physical health is ok. This is part of the pay off Bipolar sufferers have for staying mentally well.

There are many uncertain things in my future. Pregnancy could be a difficult time, where I could become ill again and am vulnerable to post natal depression or psychosis. I
will need to be under a consultant specialising in this area.  Life stressors could get too much. However, I prefer to live my life in the NOW, enjoy each day and make the most of each day. I have learnt to be relentlessly positive and with self care and my support network I can get through anything.

There are  still times when I cry and I fear and I live in that fearful place. It is only natural with a condition that flares up at different times- especially in times of hormonal change or life stress. However, I truly believe that by finding positivity and keeping going despite the darkness, I will find the light. My boyfriend, friends and family are wonderful and I couldn’t ask for more support. This is what also gets me through. My belief in God and the Universe, in love and light and good times, will get me there. I will fight to stay well.

Guest post: Bipolar 2- Wading through depression and loss of motivation by Jessica Flores

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This article is about Bipolar 2 disorder, a mood disorder where sufferers can cycle between high and low moods. Jessica writes about her experiences: 

If you have been diagnosed with Bipolar II, you know that it differs from Bipolar I disorder in that you still cycle between high and low, but you never experience complete mania (high mood), which is good. Instead, you get hypomania (a lesser form). Yet, more often than not, you are trying to cope with long periods of substantial depression; which can be more severe and long lasting . Roughly six million people in the United States  and millions around the world, suffer from some form of bipolar disorder, so you aren’t alone.

When I am hypomanic, I find myself excited to go out and have conversations and stay up all night. I want to make friends and craft furniture and redecorate. I end up buying things online for some new life I plan to begin living. It’s why half of my living room has been filled with boxes of mid-century housewares for the last two years. However, I spend most of my time being depressed.

My life often feels like it is happening underwater. Every action I attempt to take exhausts me. Showering daily is impossible. I sleep for half the day and sit in front of the computer to do my job without the energy to move forward or the cognitive wherewithal to make sentences. I don’t have urges to harm myself, but I wonder why I need to keep feeling this way every day. I lose hope for the future- it can be very difficult.

Lately, I have begun to wonder if I am depressed or if I am simply losing motivation.  I feel sluggish. I don’t feel motivated. My house is a wreck. I can’t remember the last time I cleaned the kitchen floor. I thought about getting a maid service last week, but I didn’t want anyone to see my apartment.  Sometimes I have negative self talk and think I am lazy, not depressed.

As it turns out, I am not alone in my thoughts about this. Many people with clinical depression reach a point where they attach negative descriptors to themselves. If people hear they are lazy often enough during depressive episodes, it’s not unusual for them to question whether or not it’s true.

Mute Everyone Out

A depressed person isn’t simply dealing with a lack of motivation, they deal with changes in their sleep patterns, hopelessness, loss of pleasure in things they used to enjoy, changes in weight and/or appetite, and so much more. All of these are potential symptoms of bipolar depression and they can be treated. There are a number of medications that have proven effective in treating Bipolar II and many forms of therapy that are a critical element of a complete treatment plan.

Regardless, that’s a lot to handle all on your own. And what makes it especially difficult is the fact that it’s all being caused in your own mind.

Which is why it’s time to stop thinking of yourself as unmotivated or lazy, and it’s time to stop listening to anyone around you who does. You have a diagnosed medical condition. You are managing as well as you can in the given circumstances. I know it’s hard, but you’re going to need to learn to tell yourself that that’s all there is and you shouldn’t put yourself down for the resulting actions that you choose to take because of your condition. Instead of feeling ashamed, you need to make sure you are getting all of the treatment that you can and learning skills to help you control what you are able to.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. This is your battle. To make sure that you yourself don’t make yourself feel bad for how you spend most of your days. By being proud of who you are and accepting your condition, you close yourself off from any hurtful comments any uninformed person could ever tell you. And it’s important for you to be able to do that. Because you’re not any of the negative things you just said. You’re amazing, capable, and strong. Remember that.

 

Jessica Flores is a wife, mother, writer, and woman diagnosed with bipolar II. She knows that her disorder affects her entire family and she works to lessen the impact as best she can. However, she also gives herself permission to experience changes in mood. Her drastic experience motivates her to blog about it and help others who are experiencing trying times.

The Anxiety Wheel: Lifes Voyage

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It has been a while- about a month since I have written about everything going on. This is because between the moments where I feel full of health and happy, I have been experiencing morning panic attacks at times again and I just didn’t have the energy to process it and write about it.

I have had morning anxiety for a long time, where I wake feeling overwhelmed and fearful about the day and I have had lots of therapy to try and help combat it. The only thing that seems to work for me a the moment is resilience and picking myself back up- but its not easy. After the adrenaline stops, I often feel embarrassed that I couldnt do a desired activity and I don’t want to let others down also. Its a catch 22.

I am doing a bit better this week but last week was tough. When I have breakthroughs, moments where I can socialise or go to work- then its excellent because it gives me confidence to continue.

Here is a diary entry I wrote in Starbucks the other day to make sense of the ups and downs of what I term the ‘Anxiety Wheel’:

In the past week and a half, I have been experiencing an increase in my levels of anxiety. It reminds me of a metaphor- that of running around a hamster wheel. Let me explain.

Sometimes it feels like I’m treading, treading, treading, trying to keep the wheel of life turning. Trying with all my might to function at a ‘normal’ pace. There are days when I can enjoy the running and everything feels enjoyable and exciting. There are days when I can take my feet off the hamster wheel and rest.

Yet, sometimes in my rest times, I can be overwhelmed by the anxious thoughts of lifes spinning wheel. It all feels too much and then I freeze, I hide, I go into fight or flight. I metaphorically hide and sleep in my safe cage, before I pick up the courage to turn lifes wheel again.

Today I am taking back control of my life and spinning the wheel slowly and cautiously before I get back into the full groove again. Picking myself up after panic attacks is not at all easy,. However, with support, resilience and inner strength, I can do this. I will feel safe and comfortable.’

Shame and Psychosis article for Time to Change

My latest article for Time to Change, a campaign in the UK aiming to end mental health discrimination. (name has been changed)

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Three years ago last month, my mind lost touch with reality in a very rapid turn of events that culminated in an acute manic episode of bipolar affective disorder. Having been diagnosed with bipolar in 2004, I had not experienced any mania or hypomania (a lesser manic state) in ten years, although I had fallen into a suicidal depression just six months earlier. So when my brain fell into full blown psychosis – with delusions and grandiose thoughts, fearful thoughts about loved ones and being in danger and a complete change in rational perception – it ripped apart the fabric of my life and all I knew. I am writing this to explain what psychosis is really like.

I was just 25 and although I had experienced a mixed state which left me hospitalised at 16 (and had experienced some psychosis then), this was by far the most challenging, lengthy and painful bout of mania and psychosis that I had experienced. I began to believe that my step father was behind why I was in hospital and wouldn‘t let him see me, I thought that the doctors and nurses were a gang holding me hostage. I was fearful of everything, talking and singing to myself, unable to sit still and became quite agitated at times with the staff and patients, which is completely out of character for me. I simply didn’t know what was real or unreal and I was so frightened of the staff and others while my brain was in this state. Eventually, I recovered after about two months of being given anti-psychotic medication and tranquilisers to help me rest (often I was pacing around due to agitation/ mania), in combination with individual and group therapies. I left hospital after three months.

I rarely talk about my psychotic state, which led me to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. This is due to shame: I was ashamed of myself even though it wasn’t my fault – rather down to faulty brain chemistry and my medication that had stopped working. There is still a huge amount of stigma about psychosis and anything that makes you lose your sanity. My psychosis is part of my bipolar illness and happened completely out of the blue. My mood stabiliser hadn’t been holding me for some time but no one could have predicted quite how rapid my descent into psychosis and illness could have been (it took only a number of days and escalated at a weekend, leaving me to be admitted via A&E, which proved traumatising).

The shame of losing your mind is great and also acting out of character shatters your self-esteem. When I left hospital, I sunk into a depression due to the shame of how I acted in hospital and how my brain and its chemistry could go so catastrophically wrong. Kindness goes a long way when you are feeling ashamed. If you have a friend or family member struggling with this – be calm, show kindness, and show up for them. They need your support at what is an incredibly painful time. Let the person with feelings of shame about their illness know that they are human, that they are an important friend to you, and stand by them.

What truly helped me in those dark days was the attitude of my psychiatrist in hospital and in the day recovery unit I attended after. Despite being psychotic and unwell in hospital and quite agitated at times, my doctor persevered to get me on the right medication and put up with my changing moods. She knew that if I took anti-psychotics and then agreed to go on lithium carbonate (the main mood stabilising medication for bipolar disorder) that I would recover – even if it took me months to get there. It was a slow recovery but I got there in time. Her patience, perseverance and kindness saved me from a very acute episode of illness. Similarly, the psychiatrist and all the staff at the Day Recovery Unit helped me in my down days starting on lithium and having regular blood tests, recovering from being very unwell and they treated me like a human being, when I had felt so ashamed.

If it wasn’t for the Doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and other staff who looked after me  and helped build me back up, I wouldn’t be here today.

There is no need to feel ashamed, although you may do.

Although I still find it hard to talk about my descent into a psychotic state – I am so grateful to the NHS for all the help I was given and have been well for some time. I hope this article helps others in a similar position – you are not alone and don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed.

https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/blog/there-should-be-no-shame-experiencing-psychosis

Mental Health, Social Media and Relationships: Reality vs the Edit

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This post has been inspired by a few experiences that have happened to me in my life- regarding relationships with others- be they a friend or otherwise and social media.

I am a self confessed social media lover and addict. I love its ease, I use it as a way to store memories to look back on- photos, places I have been. A kind of virtual diary. I use it to keep in touch with friends, acquaintances who I would never normally see as they are in different countries or regions- and to keep in touch with friends I see regularly. I am always on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (though not Snapchat- showing my age) and I truly love being online. Most of the time.

The difficult part about having bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder/ social anxiety is that it is not easily visible. Equally, on social media we always tend to present an edited version of ourselves- the good side. The positive side. The places we’ve been and the friends we’ve seen, those close to us. My Facebook profile, when I can achieve things, shows me smiling and being out and about. However, this has the potential to upset people if I have had to cancel arrangements due to anxiety.

The main refrain is often ‘But you were able to do it then- so why can’t you do it now?’.   How come the next day you could go out for dinner (I saw it on your Facebook)?

I understand this reaction. I do post a lot to celebrate achievements to myself and keep memories- happy memories for when I do become unwell again (which I hope won’t be for a long time). Social anxiety means that I want to look back on and remember the good times, the happy times.

The tough part is that relationships can become strained if one overly posts on social media. So its a complete dichotomy.

Do I post my life and enjoy the times I am able to socialise and go out without anxiety? Or do I edit what I upload so as not to hurt feelings of people I have had to cancel due to anxiety attacks? Ultimately- do I take my memories offline and into a private journal or on Instagram rather than Facebook?

All of this has been going through my head. Mental illness is not as straight forward to others as a broken leg. I don’t wear a sign saying I am bipolar or a bandage round my head.

I may look like I am having the time of my life…. but one may not see that:

Yesterday I could have had a panic attack which meant I couldn’t leave the house as I felt overwhelmed and embarrassed, and totally drained from the adrenaline. I got out to socialise now because a family member drove me somewhere as a form of exposure therapy to lessen my anxiety.

OR this scenario…..

My anxiety took over and I felt so frightened I was hyperventilating, crying and beating myself up emotionally, for not being able to see a friend. Because yes, we don’t want to have this and we care deeply about our friends feelings.

OR this scenario….

I have heard you talking negatively about me to someone else because I had to cancel an arrangement. Yet, I have anxiety about travel and socialising and sometimes feel overwhelmed. You know this, yet will still be upset- which I have to take into account.

So no, I am not really having the time of my life all the time. Friends are my priority but equally optimum health and managing day by day is to me hugely important.

I will try my very best not to let you down. If I hurt you through my social anxiety, it is never intentional.

I have learnt the hard way the pitfalls of social media with mental health issues. The large part is that we don’t want to talk about how depressed or anxious or panicked we are on Facebook. So it gets hidden and misunderstandings happen.

I hope one day it comes into the light, through my blog and when I can be more open.

Guest post by Karen: Being a Mental Health Professional with Anxiety, my Recovery

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Working in an outpatients’ mental health service in the NHS I was well-placed to recognise the signs and symptoms of a mental health problem. I have seen most ends of the spectrum from working in a secure men’s forensic unit, treating people experiencing psychosis in a clinic and in their homes, to treating outpatients with mild to moderate depression and anxiety. Yet none of this prepared me for my own mental health crisis that crept up on me suddenly and unexpectedly last year.

I have experienced anxiety in my life on many occasions before. I developed a fear of panicking and losing control going on the tube and was starting to avoid taking tubes and trains and places I felt I could not escape from easily. Later on I realised this was panic and agoraphobia and since I was considering dropping out of my Masters degree because it involved travelling long routes by tube, I knew I had to get some help. I had a course of CBT privately using graded exposure therapy which I had to get on board with and be committed to, and was incredibly effective for me. My CBT therapist was a real lifeline for me and we had an effective rapport which really helped.

I have since moved out of London and abroad. In September last year I started a number of new part-time teaching roles (not in mental health) in my relatively new European city. I was really worried about my ability to speak the language and to be able to communicate if there was a problem. In fact, I had pretty much spent my entire summer holiday dreading, worrying and catastrophising about all the things that could go wrong, and didn’t really tell anyone exactly how I was feeling.

I started in one of my jobs and it seemed to be going just fine the first week. I did experience a lot of worry after each class and before the next one. I was really concerned about how other people would perceive and judge me, particularly as I was not yet fluent in the language and could not understand 100%. I continued to be anxious about how other people thought I was doing my job for the next few days and had consistently negative thoughts that would not go away which were concerning as they seemed to upset me more and more. I remember that on the last day of that first week, I had been introduced to my new colleague, a really lovely lady who seemed really helpful. She was really experienced and obviously had a lot of knowledge and I started to feel inadequate in that moment. That was the moment everything spiralled out of control.

I went home and over the weekend I experienced constant racing thoughts of things going wrong and worst case scenarios. My husband and I were watching TV in the evening and I just could not focus on anything as my mind was racing so much. What surprised me the most was how physically I felt the anxiety this time and how different it was to any anxiety I had before this. I felt hot and cold every few minutes, had the sweats and could not sleep for days. I could not seem to regulate my emotions and rationalise them. I retreated to bed to warm up and calm down and called my mum for moral support. I lost my appetite and could physically not put anything in my mouth apart from forcing some sugar down me.

This pattern continued the closer it came to Monday. I found it really hard to get out of bed – I was heavy, anxious and tired due to lack of sleep. It was hard to sit up straight and I forced myself to have breakfast. I have never felt before the way I felt that day. I was inconsolably crying, paralysed with terror, and curled up on the sofa. I called in sick to work and spent the best part of the entire day on the phone to my parents who flew out the next day to be with me. All of this was entirely alien to my husband. He knew I worked in mental health but I guess I never realised that he totally didn’t understand what I did and what mental health looks like. He had no idea what was going on with me and had to learn how to support me.

I am really lucky to have found a supportive and really competent GP when it comes to managing mental health. I wanted to be put on a course of medication as I know that medication is a key part of the treatment equation and the SSRIs I am on have helped tremendously. My GP also gave me a temporary course of benzodiazepine very closely monitored by her to help me with the initial stage of going to work, coping with the anxiety and helping me sleep initially.

All in all, this was a really acute depressive/anxious episode and I did go back to work the following week with a LOT of positive self-talk, support from husband and family, and a chill pill. My recovery was gradual and I guess I realised that we are all vulnerable at one time or another. My parents have both experienced anxiety and depression over their lives and I know that having a depressive episode makes it more likely that we will experience further episodes.

Recovery means making your mind your priority and this is what I’ve tried to do. I have regular follow-ups with the GP every few weeks as I’m still taking medication. I am concerned about how coming off the medication might affect me but I have a good relationship with my doctor and trust that she will manage that process with me in the next few months. When I’m feeling anxious and restless I know I need to up my exercise to channel my adrenaline elsewhere. I try to facetime friends and family more often and say what I’m feeling more. My friends have been so supportive and didn’t judge or change their behaviour towards me when I told them- I found it really hard to tell them though. Having a good night’s sleep helps too- going to bed and waking up at regular times. I have also found Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) self- help reading to be extremely helpful too and highly recommend “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris- a refreshingly easy way of managing difficult emotions and learning to live with them.

The biggest piece of advice I can give anyone who is struggling with negative thoughts, depression, anxiety, stress, is to tell the people closest to you what helps you. Sometimes it’s the fact that our family’s, partners, friends don’t know what helps or what to say which causes more stress or potential conflict. Tell them what you would like them to do or say to you when you are feeling a certain way. I told my husband that every time I start to feel anxious, inadequate and catastrophising about my work, to remind me of how much enjoyment I have had at work and the positive things I say when I get home from work.

I don’t believe that a cardiologist should have experienced a heart attack to make them more capable of treating a patient effectively, but as a Mental Health Professional, I do have that bit more compassion and understanding of the vulnerability that we all have, no matter which chair you are sitting in.