HOLD THAT THOUGHT

One of the numerous problems I experience with my mental health is an extreme form of what is known as the “butterfly mind“, that is, I am easily distracted and my mind flits from one thing to another, never settling on one thing long enough to ever complete anything, always seeking novelty and getting bored long before a job is done.

But in addition to that, one of my mental compulsions (as part of my OCD) is to make sure I process a thought and investigate it to its conclusion, and make sure that I “check” on the thought periodically to make sure I don’t lose the memory of it – because if I do, I will lose something of great importance. It’s sounds completely irrational, and it is. And it’s easy to see from looking at one specific example of my madness, that this is an abnormal way of thinking. But the psychological mechanisms behind this obvious error are more insidious in an everyday context.

I sit down to start a task with great enthusiasm, and then I recall other important things that I also need to do. These tasks might only be small 5-minute jobs, but my mind simultaneously sees them all as equally important, and I find it impossible to prioritise, as pushing one item further back in the queue might lead me to forget exactly how to perform the task. It is a form of paralysis found somewhere on the spectrum between single-mindedness and efficient multi-tasking. I’m completely stuck in a sense of simultaneous inertia and anticipation.

The best chance I have at beating my brain at its own game is to make to-do lists – it helps me in two ways:

1. Even though find it difficult, if I can break my chores down into tasks that are small enough to do in one go. It’s still difficult, but more manageable.

2. I can outsource some of my brain power by adding items to a list as and when they occur. It frees up mental space that I would have used remembering endless lists full of items of paramount importance.

It doesn’t solve all my problems, and it doesn’t turn me into the organised and focused student that I used to be, but it makes my life liveable and more productive than it would be otherwise.

THIS IS NOT AN ANTIDEPRESSANT

Before I thought rationally about my mental health, I bought into the idea that antidepressant medication was bad for you – that it would somehow permanently change my brain and personality, that it was an unwanted intrusion into my person. I eventually went to see my GP when things got too bad for me to bear anymore, and I realised that the medication I was given did alter my mind – to allow me to be the person I was before I got ill. There is a ton of dodgy advice out there pushing the “natural” option, 99% of which is from people with no medical qualifications. There’s a conspirational-level anti-psychiatry movement, whose followers seem fixated on the idea of “mind control”. With so much nonsense being spewed under the guise of advice, it’s no wonder that there are misconceptions about mental health and treatments. And this gem appeared on my Facebook feed earlier this week (I suppose this is the downside of having unlimited information at one’s fingertips); which is just bloody dangerous and irresponsible:

FFS

Fortunately, someone fixed it for them:

 For Real.

And there are plenty of variations on this theme out there. And you know what Google is for, so go discover them yourself! But although this debunking seems like light-hearted fun, the attitudes behind the original post can have very damaging consequences. Pseudoscience kills. We could also do better with science reporting, too. This BBC News article has a valid point to make, but saves the good stuff until after the sensationalistic claims (the “extreme” side-effects described are well-documented and are listed in information leaflets accompanying the medicine.  They are manageable, and should be monitored by a doctor, who may prescribe something that suits the patient better.  I’ve used medications that really didn’t suit me, and so I worked with my doctor to find ones that did.  There’s no one-size-fits-all, and zero-nuance articles just make life more difficult for doctors and patients). Science communication is important, and we have a responsibility to do it properly – else there is little for the unwary to distinguish between actual science and fantasy-holistic-woo-woo.

DIARY OF A SIMPLE MIND

Because I’ve been going back over old posts, to check that they’re formatted correctly (oh yes, there is some spring cleaning going on!), I’ve also re-read a lot of things that I posted over the first two years. It’s interesting looking back, but it was part of a mammoth task that won’t go away (changing my WordPress theme caused me a world of pain – there’d have to be something really special to make me do that again). I noticed that the further back the posts went, the more simplistic they were, and they were more likely to be reblogs of other content.

A part of this is that my writing style has just developed anyway since then (if I’d gone backwards, I’d worry), but when I was mentally healthier I used to be able to trot out opinion pieces like magazines were going out of fashion (turns out they were, hurrah for the Internet!). With the fog brought down by depression, I could actually feel the cognitive decline. It was scary – a part of my OCD is hypochondria, and I believed I had a neurodegenerative illness. But the inability to concentrate, and poor memory, are symptoms of depression, which is a far more likely cause in someone of my age.

And while earlier pieces might not have been that original, or very well constructed; they’re a part of my recovery, and so I will leave them as they are. Maybe I’ll look back on this post two years from now and think this is a load of crap. And here’s hoping – if I can be an even better thinker in future then I’ll be a happier & better person.

TALKING ABOUT TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH – THE Q&A (PART 2)

Last time, I posted responses to questions I was asked during the Q&A on the night of my talk “Are We Mental?”.  Today, I’m posting responses to a couple of questions I was sent by email, from someone who was in the audience.  Their initial question was related to Slide 13, the one with the ableist slurs, but our conversation went on to other topics as well:

“Hi, I was at skeptics last night and actually had a question for you but didn’t ask because social anxiety (diagnosed by a medical professional!) and being in a group of mostly strangers don’t mix well. My question is what words/phrases should be used to replace ones such as “mental” or “insane” or any of the others on that slide?”

I try to say things like “wild”, “extraordinary”, “weird”, “odd”, “crappy”, “awful”, “ridiculous”; but sometimes for expediency and/or dramatic effect I do use some of the “forbidden words” 😉 it’s also very difficult to wean yourself off it when you’ve been using those words without any thought for years! You need to be ready to seriously question yourself. I actually had a conversation about this on the way home, re. whether there are certain types of humour that were always inappropriate. One person didn’t see a problem with jokes that demean, another did feel that certain jokes were so beyond the pale that people *should not* find them funny. I side slightly more with the latter (hear me out) because I can see how condoning crappy speech about minorities leads to a culture of “othering”, but I also know that we often find funny the things that are taboo, and we can’t censor people’s thoughts (and it might be harmful to try). A part of me screams “this is such a cop-out”, but I think a lot of the acceptability of words, opinions, jokes, depends on your audience, and how it is said. And what the potential for harm is. It’s so context-dependent that I feel every instance has to be considered on its own merits. This comes back to my final point in the talk: people really need to use their brains, and flex their empathy muscle.

“Hey, thanks. I guess there’s also a point to be made for how a word that has been adopted to describe a mental state or behaviour is associated with that state or behaviour. For example words like retard feel more off limits than words like mad and crazy in my view (of course maybe that’s just my shortcoming) because I think these days people get an image of a person with learning difficulties before an image of “slowness” when they hear retard but mad and crazy perhaps don’t inspire that sort of negative image in the same way (maybe they should and/or maybe it’s worse that they don’t?). And having “mad skillz” at something you’re “crazy good” at is generally intended to be positive – does that help redeem those words or is it harmful in a way similar to cultural appropriation?”

Yeah, I’d agree that some words have evolved in meaning so much that their original meaning doesn’t seem relevant. But context is really important, as you identify above – no-one ever uses the term “retard” as a compliment, right? But having “mad skillz” is a good thing, and to be a little crazy can mean exciting, wild. If you said someone was crazy while describing an unpleasant behaviour that they were doing, the word has different connotations. So perhaps I’d like people to be more aware of what it is they are actually saying.

Regarding cultural appropriation, I feel there’s a fine line to be trodden between appropriation and appreciation, which is almost completely dependent on context. I saw a really interesting local news item from Shropshire about Morris Dancers wearing blackface, which I will blog about next: Let Morris dancers wear black-face make up, say Shropshire Star readers.

Not really the same thing, but it does raise interesting questions about intent and interpretation.  There’s also the matter of people reclaiming a once-oppressive word for themselves: queer, nigger, crip, etc. But even that’s controversial, because of the powerful taboos surrounding that type of language.

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And then we talked about a whole other bunch of stuff with no relevance to my talk – which I’m not going to share here.  But please carry on the conversation in the comments below; I said we need to talk about mental health, so let’s do it!

TALKING ABOUT TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH – THE Q&A (PART 1)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Q&A at our Skeptical Soapbox was as good as each of the talks.  An opportunity for the speaker to think on their feet and demonstrate that they know their stuff.  Here I will share some of the questions I was asked, and my responses:

“You said that we shouldn’t assume that the woman in Tesco’s was still suffering from a mental health problem, and that the cashier was wrong to refuse to serve her.  But how would you know that someone in that position wasn’t mentally ill and/or vulnerable?”

The simple answer is that I wouldn’t. You can’t tell if someone is mentally or physically ill by seeing them in a supermarket queue. But I would consider whether or not I thought it appropriate to say something. The cashier’s heart may have been in the right place; not wishing to take responsibility for the customer coming to harm. However, a person’s agency must be respected. Of course, anyone may end up self-harming or indulging in unhealthy behaviour, but it would probably happen with or without our “permission”. And that’s the key point: the cashier was refusing the customer permission to carry out a normal, adult task. Even if someone is mentally ill, it doesn’t mean they’re mentally incapable. I would suggest that the cashier’s response could have done more harm by dehumanising and infantilising the customer. It’s all about assumptions. Sure, I can’t assume that a person doesn’t have a mental illness, but I’m damn sure that I’m not qualified to diagnose other people’s ailments.

“What if I’m worried about a friend’s mental state; should I say something?”

This is a difficult question to answer; it depends on so many variables, many of which will be unique to your friend and the relationship you have with them. But broadly speaking, you need to judge the situation carefully to decide if you should say something, and how to say it. It’s pretty safe to advise that you should be discreet about it, however you choose to phrase it. It might be a good idea to arrange a day out, or a coffee, or something, with your friend – don’t make your questioning the focus of the day, but also make sure that you will have the time and space available to sit down and chat. Perhaps mention that you’re worried about something in their behaviour, and ask if they’ve spoken about it with anyone else.

Your friend’s reaction could be anything from relief, to fear, to defensiveness, so you’re really just going to have to do the best you can based on your own judgement.  Hopefully if you’ve handles it ok thus far, you’ll be able to work through it.  Your friend might need advice and support, and the best thing you can do is stand by them while they’re dealing with whatever issues they have.  Talk with them, stay in touch, invite them round for a cuppa, let them know that you understand what they’re going through.  And if you don’t understand, educate yourself.  The Mind website is an excellent source of information for people with mental health problems, those who are close to them, and anyone who wants to learn about mental health.

Things to NOT do:

Don’t try to diagnose them.  Talking about symptoms and what they might indicate is ok, but there is a line between suggesting that they may wish to consult a doctor, and deciding that you are the doctor.  Even if you are a qualified psychiatrist, (you will know that) there are serious ethical implications for offering your opinion on the mental health of friends and strangers.

Don’t gossip about it behind your friend’s back.  Even talking about it with close mutual friends with a view to looking at ways to help can backfire.  Your friend is the one with the (potential) problem.  They need to be at the heart of this conversation.  Interventions are a great way to alienate people and ruin friendships – no-one wants to be “surprised” by everyone sticking their oar into their private life.

Don’t avoid them.  They might be really difficult to deal with as a result of their illness; they really cannot help this.  From the outside, your friend might seem lazy, rude, aloof, anti-social, but if you were to experience their life you would come to realise that sometimes “being a bit flaky” is the best they can muster right now.  They are going to need the support of a good group of friends – their behaviour is likely to isolate them (through no fault of their own), and if you can help keep some semblance of normality and stability in their life, you are doing them a huge service.

Don’t smother them, but don’t just “leave them to it” either.  If you’re repeatedly checking if they’re “OK”, or doing things on their behalf because you’re worried they’re “incapable”, you are going to come across as condescending with no respect for their autonomy.  Again, mentally ill ≠ mentally incapable.  There are going to be times when your friend just needs a break, though.  Offering to perform specific tasks like cooking dinner one evening, or helping them tidy their house, not only helps them to keep on top of managing their life, but shows that there are people they can rely on, even when things get really bad.  And who doesn’t relish the opportunity to put their feet up and forget their troubles?

“The racist woman on the tram: obviously her behaviour was objectionable, but she just seemed out of control – like it would be reasonable to assume that she is mentally ill.  What do you think about that?”

The problem is the perception of associating mental illness with being out of control. There are many reasons why someone might behave like that, and yet our go-to explanation is “mental illness”. It might look like she has a mental illness; maybe she does. But she doesn’t need a bunch of strangers providing a running commentary on her behaviour and thought processes. Sometimes we are right in our armchair diagnoses. But sometimes it’s just better to keep one’s mouth shut. It’s worth returning to Slide 4, the one that states “There is no mental illness in DSM V or ICD 10 Ch 5 that lists racist abuse as a behavioural characteristic. Period. It does not happen.” – the author of this post goes on to say:

“My point is this: yes, a mental problem can lower inhibitions so that a person’s attitudes will inevitably be expressed at least verbally but also in their more general behaviour.  For that to happen, though, those attitudes must already be there to be expressed.

The other stuff is actually immaterial: what is relevant here is her attitudes and what allows them to be expressed so candidly.  With or without any mental illness, those attitudes are already there.”

And so, she might be out of control, she might well have a mental illness.  But that’s not what’s important here; we don’t need to invoke mental illness to condemn this woman’s actions.  What if she was irritable due to having a sprained ankle, and she launched the same tirade?  We wouldn’t link her behaviour to the physical injury, would we?

“Do you think the culture of scrutinising ‘benefit scroungers’ is contributing to the trend in people ‘diagnosing’ other people’s mental disorders?”

It’s definitely a contributing factor, but also related to this culture of Diagnosis By Internet is the fact that we are more aware these days of mental health conditions among the general population. It’s great that the average person has a better understanding than they did even ten or twenty years ago, but there’s a long way to go, and it neatly illustrates the point that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Back to the original question: is it the strivers vs. skivers mentality that’s fuelling this particular fire? Well, yes. The focus on whether a recipient of disability benefits ‘deserves’ it or not has been perpetuated by the media and the government, so that we end up with stories like this, this, and this. People expect to see evidence of hardship or disability. If you have an invisible illness, the options seem to be:

a) assume the person is lying;

b) find some physical evidence of their disability to make it easier to process.

I often find myself caught in a loop of over-explaining and apologising for taking up people’s time, because I’ve learned to make my struggles identifiable if I want any allowances made for me.  That’s another assumption about mental health that needs to be thrown out – that one must be struggling 24/7, with visible indication of said struggles, in order for people to consider one’s needs.

“What do you think is the solution to better educating the public about this topic?”

This may seem a surprising answer, but the tabloid press and soap operas are the best place to start conversations. These media have a far greater reach than science communicators, or possibly any other broadcaster. But specifically, they are accessible to an audience that skeptics are very rarely able to capture. The mass media is great for raising awareness of controversial topics like HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse, etc. Seeing something on the TV or in the newspapers generates conversations, which is the first step to achieving wider understanding. As intellectuals, we may scoff at soaps and The Sun, but those are the outlets we need to target to communicate with those who will derive the most benefit. We might spend hours on YouTube watching science documentaries, but the average citizen does not.

 

There were more questions, too many for one blog post, and I also can’t remember all of them.  But I was asked some further questions by email, which I will respond to in my next post.

SELFIE QUEEN

Some of you may know that I’ve been struggling with my mental health recently.  One slightly more visible sign of this is when I fail to look after my appearance properly.  When I felt like my true self, I dressed up, wore make-up, and always, always, painted my nails.  But recently it has seemed like an effort to even get in the shower in the morning.  The days spent in my pyjamas, without washing or brushing my teeth, were signs of an underlying malaise. Yesterday, I went shopping for make-up and accessories, and I had a little bit of an experiment with groovy eye makeup.

And another thing that makes me feel great, and also is a sign of me feeling great, is taking a ton of #selfies!  The chattering classes may look down on this medium, but I think it’s an underrated art form.  I take them when I’m feeling strange, feeling happy, in new and exciting places I’ve discovered, when I’ve achieved something, when I’ve had a tattoo or piercing, and just whenever the hell I want, really.

I went a bit OTT with todays selfie sesh, but look at how fabulous I am!

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I love Stargazer’s products, they’re super-bright and they really stand out. And they’re not just lippy & eyeliner, they do everything from hair paint to body glitter (more pics to follow).  I love to flaunt it, and I’m making the most of this period of high self-esteem.  Bring on the bling!

CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE (PART ONE)

In which the fear of revealing my fear of Fear Itself is greater than the fear of Fear Itself.

[CN: abuse, mental health, brain injury, detailed explanation of why I’m probably so screwed up]

I find it helpful to hear the experiences of those who are different to me; I think it gives us all an opportunity to understand why some people get a rougher deal than others, or why common tropes turn out the way they just do.  Here’s some memories from my childhood, which wasn’t a terribly happy one.  I wrote this post a long time ago, but felt uneasy about publishing it.  However, I know that others may gain something from it – in that it’s not shameful to talk about a difficult past, or that your family might still love you while not acting in your best interests.  And maybe it will prevent us making the same mistakes with future generations.  It contains some very personal memories, and some potentially identifying information.  So I held back on hitting “publish” for a long time due to fear of criticism, fear of people “helping” me by getting involved, and of course, the fear that was instilled in me by the details below.  But a part of my recovery is in taking chances, and pushing myself just that little bit more.  And facing up to difficult situations instead of hiding from them.  One of my biggest fears is of allowing myself to be vulnerable.  So, with a deep breath, here goes…

From some of my other posts recently, you may have noticed that I’ve been really sick.  And it’s with a set of illnesses that I found it difficult to talk about, which sets the scene for this post.  See, I minimised my problems and felt like I did not have permission to be unwell.

I grew up in a very conservative (i.e. totally oppressive and batshit insane) household, I got bullied at school, and witnessed those who were somehow “defective” (that is, not a complete clone of your typical cool kid) getting even worse treatment, and I picked up some harmful beliefs and behaviours as a result.

When you’re living in a bubble, you don’t realise what things are like outside of it. The wider world was not as dangerous and unforgiving as I had been conditioned to believe, and I was actually shocked when people in positions of power not only accepted that I was terribly unwell and frightened, but they seemed to care about me getting better.

Mental health issues already attract a stigma, and this was something that was reinforced at home. “Losing one’s marbles” – a secret code for dementia or any illness involving delusions or loss of cognitive ability – was the worst possible thing that could happen. And it was not to be sympathised with: it was to be kept hidden and never, ever, spoken about.

My caregivers were secretive generally, and had a fear of authority.  Not in the healthy, questioning, sense, but in a paranoid “the state is out to get us” sort of way.  Looking back, I know it must have been difficult for them living in a crap area with no prospects of improvement.  One of the adults in my family was working-class, and intelligent yet unskilled. The other came from a better-off family, but was less capable intellectually.  And so they were primed for manual work.  When they were growing up, these jobs were seen as respectable, although low-paying (but enough to live on). But in the early 80s, these jobs were valued less and became more scarce as our economy moved toward service-oriented jobs.  They could only survive through dependence on the state, which has its curses as well as blessings.

And so they were unemployed since before my birth, over 3 decades ago.  Being in this situation, your options are limited, and you worry about things that never cross a wealthier person’s mind.  I don’t know how much of this perception is real or imagined, but there seemed to be a shadow hanging over the family of Social Services getting involved (with hindsight, they really should have been), and so I was admonished for revealing anything about our home life to anyone (even friends and neighbours).  Often, my caregivers struggled through situations where they could have asked for assistance.  For example, I was eligible for free school meals, but my caregivers insisted on making me a packed lunch, perhaps out of pride, or a sense we weren’t entitled to handouts.

It was ridiculous. I wasn’t allowed friends round to the house, in case they told their parents how scruffy it was. It took three years of pestering for me to be allowed to join the Brownies, lest I reveal anything suspect to Brown Owl, for her to pass on to the secretive and dangerous Powers That Be. I was not to talk about how things were to any of my teachers, and so when one of them asked me, out of genuine concern, if everything was OK at home, I lied and said “yes”.

A neighbour mentioned that they had received some help from Social Services regarding their rebellious son, and was singing the council’s praises. But my caregivers were unconvinced. One of them advised her to be cautious: “don’t let them get involved; they’ll take your children away”. But not even ordinary people were to be trusted – my caregivers obsessed over me being abducted or abused by a stranger, and so they kept me indoors all day until I was fourteen (they also walked me to school until this time, which explains part of the bullying). I was told not to talk to “strange people”, lest I be kidnapped, murdered, or both.

But then, if I was naughty (which was a lot of the time, seeing as everything was forbidden), one of the responsible adults in my life told me that they’d have me “taken away” – a threat which stayed with me well into my adult years.

I’m not sure where these beliefs came from, but there was an epidemic of sensationalist and nonsensical scaremongering in the popular press at the time, from ritualistic satanic abuse, to video nasties, to “stranger danger”.  My caregivers bought into all of this, unable to see that the danger from keeping a child isolated and ignorant was far greater than the spectres they tried to “protect” them from.

Add to the mix a little bit of religion.  The controlling, evangelical, fundamentalist type.  One member of my family stopped going to church in the mid-80s, because the new vicar wasn’t pious enough.  The weird thing was that all of this happened in a C of E community; you know, the nice, inoffensive, coffee morning types.  Well something else was at play.  The community was extremely isolated, and impoverished.  The churches had a tight grip on their flock, who in many cases couldn’t see a life outside of the community.  It wasn’t that the Church itself created this poisonous combination, but many of the strange ideas voiced in Church, RE lessons and in the home, combined with severe isolation, were a perfect recipe for frightening the uneducated masses into submission.

The main way my caregivers exercised this control was by filtering out any material deemed offensive, blasphemous or controversial from my life.  I don’t think they actually referred to a list of “Unsuitable Material For Good Christian Children” but anything discussing youth culture or adult themes (you know, the coming-of-age stuff like Stand By Me or Judy Blume novels) was not allowed in the home.  I once brought home a book containing a humorous retelling of the Genesis story, for the purpose of satirising relationships between the sexes (pretty highbrow stuff for an 11-year-old), and my caregivers were livid as fuck because this was a blasphemous text mocking the Bible.

But there was a loophole.  I wasn’t allowed to watch the same programmes as my friends, to listen to popular music, or access any written material deemed inappropriate or insufficiently Christian – in the home.

Although my caregivers kept me on a short leash (a metaphorical one, it wasn’t that bad); during the times when I was away from home (basically when I was at school), I was able to access a wealth of informative and exciting material.  I wasn’t allowed to live a normal teenage life, or to experience the things that many of my friends did, but I was able to learn about life and growing up from books, films, magazines and playground gossip.  And I deceived my family incredibly skilfully.  I learnt which topics I should omit from descriptions of my day, what subjects and particular words were off-limits, and how to get exactly what I wanted while convincing my caregivers that I was the pure, innocent child they imagined me to be (Pro Parenting Tip: if you don’t trust your kids, you’ll teach them to become untrustworthy.  And really, really good liars).

And so, I lived a double life.  Inside my brain, there was the real me: learning about life and understanding the things that adults wanted to shield me from.  And then there was my public persona: quiet, meek (as I was instructed to be), innocent, secretive, and obedient (by ordinary standards).

In my GCSE year, I became seriously ill (like, I could have died sort of ill), and the disease was fortunately caught in enough time to allow me to carry on living, and luckily, to only have a few life-limiting after-effects.  My family didn’t know if I would live or die, and there was a reasonable chance that I could have been brain-damaged to the extent that I would be permanently mentally disabled.  And, as my caregivers had a strong history of, they immediately went into doomsday mode.  Their overprotective grip became even tighter.  Following surgery, I made not-quite-a-full-recovery, but my cognitive abilities seemed unaffected (although I did panic a little when I was unable to do differential equations in my head 3 days after the op – talk about a first world problem).  My caregivers kept me out of school for months afterwards, telling teachers and friends that I was too tired / unwell to leave the home.  This came to an end when my school got a phone call from the hospital, asking how I was getting on.  But my family would still make things up, like telling doctors I was too tired to walk to the shops (completely untrue, but it meant they could keep me indoors out of harm’s way).

And then as I was recovering, I had to cope with the expectations of others that I wasn’t quite “right”, and that I shouldn’t push myself too hard, or strive for the things I needed, not just wanted, to make my life complete.  Everyone treated me like an invalid or mentally incompetent person.  Mental illness has a stigma, but I got a taste of what to expect by having a physiological brain problem in advance of my mental health difficulties.  The treatment of brain injuries and diseases has come a long way (although we still know relatively little about the brain and mind) in the last 50 years, but myths still persist.  I heard the unflattering and harmful phrase “she could have been a vegetable” uttered by people who cared about me, so imagine what those who didn’t know me were thinking.

I spent the remainder of my teenage years trying to be a normal adolescent, hiding the truth from my family, and desperately trying to be accepted by the outside world.

But I escaped all of this, at the first possible opportunity.  I secured a place at a good university, packed my bags and left just two months after my 18th birthday.  Freedom at last.  And I had no idea of how to use this new-found freedom.  Responsibilities were not a concept I was familiar with, having been molly-coddled up until this point, and to say I went off the rails is a massive understatement.  Being in the structured environment of school, I was academically brilliant and was able to direct my mental efforts precisely towards whatever problem needed solving.  Without these boundaries, my life was in complete chaos.  I had no idea how to handle it.  Living alone for the first time after being institutionalised as much as domesticated, I struggled to hold my life together.  At this point I was just about able to care for myself, but I felt stupid asking how things were done (that I’d never even had to think of before), and I became very withdrawn and did the bare minimum necessary to survive.  I spent a lot of time in my room, and things like going to the supermarket, or doing my laundry, were fraught with stress, as not only would I have to interact with strange people, but I would have to pretend to be a normal adult, performing tasks with ease, like any 18-year-old should be able to.

Any suggestion of social incompetence was viewed by me as a serious personal failing, and so I kept my problems hidden, never spoke up, and missed a lot of opportunities. But I did take up a lot of opportunities that I regret now. Not so much because of the actual things I did, but because I was wasting time, acting like a total knob and doing myself a great disservice by trying to fit in when I wasn’t able to and didn’t really want to. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll were my chosen vices, in that order of preference. I did the whole of my teenage years in the first six months of University – with predictable effects. I was failing at uni, unable to complete work that a year earlier I would have found easy, and I was sodding miserable, because I was living an unhealthy and unfulfilling lifestyle, but saw no other way of doing things. And I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. That had been drummed into me from an early age.

Looking back, I probably was depressed for most of my time at university.  I knew that help was available, but I didn’t want to take up the offer, in case it meant dire consequences for me in some imagined way.  I had a single counselling appointment at the insistence of my tutors, in which I didn’t talk about what was actually getting me down, I just attributed my struggles to an overall sense of malaise (which I did have, but there was so much more to it).

I struggled through uni, doing it all for myself, carrying the burden I felt was mine to bear, and scraped a 2:1.  I had done it, but I was directionless and miserable.  Maybe a part of me thought that this is what all graduates experience.   I secured myself a good job, and embarked upon my career as an engineer.  I actually did alright for the first couple of years, although I didn’t feel like I was stretched at all.  This was really frustrating, and I found myself questioning if this career path was really right for me.  I since realised that this was a part of the culture at the time, and things have improved a lot since then (even though only a little over a decade has passed).

But I hadn’t gotten over my vulnerabilities and inability to do “adult” properly, and so I was an easy target for those wishing to exploit me.  I had been brought up to expect shoddy treatment from others, and I was a complete doormat.  Even when I knew that people were lying to me or screwing me over, I just let them – I felt powerless to do anything else.

But then I got a boyfriend!  He was gorgeous, thought the same way as I did, was responsible, and respected.  On paper, a great catch.  But in my naivety, I didn’t stop to consider the reasons why an older, married man might be so interested in an awkward 22-year-old who thought they knew everything there is to know about life.  I’ll write about the subsequent relationship abuse another time, but the relevant point for this post is that he knew exactly what my insecurities were, and how to use them against me.  Put-downs, gaslighting, telling me I was “too smart for my own good”, but also a “silly little girl”.  My body was dirty and smelly, and he wouldn’t go out in public with me if I dared to dress the way I wanted to.  I was lazy, uncaring, and non-maternal.  And because he could see the physical manifestations of my inner turmoil, he would tell me that he was going to have me sectioned.  Another reason to keep my mouth shut.

Why didn’t I leave?  A number of reasons.  I was deluded in thinking that having a house and two children at such a young age was a really mature thing that I shouldn’t throw away.  I thought I loved him in spite of his faults.  I was frightened that I would be unable to cope on my own (as evidenced by my earlier forays into single life).  I thought that no-one would believe me (this did happen, as he’d isolated me from my friends, and was a complete charmer where authority figures were concerned), or that it wasn’t really abuse, or that I was actually the abuser.  Or that I’d imagined the whole thing.  So I couldn’t tell anyone about that, lest I did get locked up, either in prison or a psychiatric ward.

I did eventually escape that relationship, but my life crumbled.  I’m still suffering the effects now, and I’ve only just summoned the courage to confront my demons.  There are 10 years of my life that are missing, and I mourn for them.  I could have done so much more with my life, and he stole ten precious years from me.

I tried to piece my life back together, holding down jobs that I was more than qualified for, but couldn’t cope with due to my head being full of anxiety and delusions.  I moved around a lot as a result, and I sometimes I was physically incapable of even getting myself out of bed, let alone washed, dressed and functioning.  I couldn’t look after my home properly, and my ex used this as justification for preventing me from seeing my children.  What I really needed was support, but I was scared to ask for it – what if Social Services deemed me a bad mother and took my kids away?  I did reach out to some of my friends, but many of them believed the tripe my ex was spouting about me, and the others didn’t want to get involved.  So the little help I did try to get was denied to me – why should I bother asking again?

Four years after I left that relationship, I’d recovered to a point where I was able to hold down a permanent job, and it looked like a way of getting my life back on track.  Things went great for the first two years, but then I experienced a personal tragedy, and all that shit I’d been holding in exploded out in a glorious fountain of neurotic diarrhoea.  I couldn’t get to work on time, I was unable to concentrate or even care about what I was doing, and my OCD and paranoia skyrocketed to the point I was afraid to leave the house, yet also afraid to remain in it.  This time my prison was inside my head, and the key to unlock it was alien to me.  I struggled on for a couple of months, before my employer got so annoyed with my unreliability that I was on my final warning and about to lose my job.  Desperate measures were needed, and I did the first thing that came to mind: consult a solicitor.  This wasn’t the most appropriate route, as I have since discovered that my company is committed to employee welfare and diversity, but it was all I could think of at the time.  They advised me to tell HR about my mental health problems, because if they knew about them, they could be punished for discriminating against me.  So, still on the defensive, I did just that.  As with other employers in the past, I expected them to not take it seriously, and find a way to force me out the door using the just-barely-legal means available to them.  But no! They did the right thing; they had a proper assessment done, and referred me for private treatment by a psychiatrist.  Not only did they want to keep me on, and pay for me to get better, but they cared and treated me in a non-judgemental way.  They provided an environment for me to speak openly about my problems, and while it was terrifying and bloody difficult, it was an important first step that I wish I had taken 20 years ago.

They don’t know my full story (neither do my care providers – yet), but I’m feeling safe in revealing my troubling past and mental woes bit-by-bit, knowing that it won’t be held against me or used to control me.  And that it’s not actually that unusual to experience things like this, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of.  I’m not going to get those missing years back, but I do know that with support, the next ten years can be better, and I can resume almost-normal service.

Sometimes we just need to get something off our chest.  Talking about a problem might not solve it – but it can give you some perspective.  Desperate times can lead to desperate thoughts – and if you’re struggling, the Samaritans are there 24 hours a day.  It’s free to call them on 116123, or you can email jo@samaritans.org if you find it easier to get your words down in print.

JUST ENOUGH, AND NOT TOO MUCH

Being a relentless perfectionist (I have severe OCD), I often struggle to embark on a big task.  This is quite a common problem in academia, with many an essay being composed in the 48 hours before a deadline.  However, I see a mountain to climb where others see a grassy hill with lambs skipping and rainbows overhead.  When this happens, two immediate thoughts spring to mind:

  1. I could do this task with my eyes shut, and I’ll do an amazing job!
  2. If I don’t do it all in one go, and perfectly, it’s a failure.

This is not a good mindset for actually getting stuff done.  It’s like procrastination on crack – I ruminate about the task, feel rooted by the inertia, worry that I haven’t done anything, find it impossible to make a start, feel it’s pointless to try, then panic and repeat.

Sometimes the things that “normal” people take for granted are much tougher for those with a mental illness. I’m still the same person that I was before I got ill, and I’m still just as intelligent and capable, but my illness is like a big weight dragging my mind down, and imposing conditions that I cannot meet. A friend gave me some advice (which my psychiatrist thought was sensible), to forget (ok, that bit’s impossible) about crossing items off my to-do list, but to consider it an achievement if I can do something towards a task.

I know that realistically it is untrue that leaving a task unfinished is a Bad Thing. But I need to convince my brain of this. My strategy is to say that even if I can’t find a way of breaking a task down into smaller packages, I’ll just do 30 minutes of it and then take a break. This is the principle of the Pomodoro Technique, a thing I learnt about at Uni, and that one of my work buddies also uses. It’s also important to look back over what I have achieved and reflect on the fact that I did actually do something with my day.

One way of doing this is by composing a Gratitude Diary, although I have modified the concept slightly.  At bedtime, I take a moment to write down what I have achieved in the day (because I’m grateful that I was able to function) but I also use the next page to plan out my tasks for the following day.  It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive list (in fact, it shouldn’t be, because if I tried to note every single thing that needed doing, I’d overstretch myself and defeat the point of making a daily list).

And writing this post was one of my bitesize tasks.  Twenty minutes of doing something I love but struggle to begin.  And now it’s finished and I feel pretty good.  This one’s going in the diary.

SCIENCE LADY RUNS THE MANCHESTER 10K FOR MIND

Hey y’all!  I’m catching up on posts and what-not, but while I’m working on that, I can post something quickly right now; to promote my fundraising for Mind.

Here’s the link to my Virgin Money Giving page, with more info about what I’m doing, and details of crazy challenges I’m taking part in in addition to the run, to act as an incentive for donations.  I will, of course, be posting my exploits online…. http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/kat-among-the-pigeons

Also, here is some more info on the Great Manchester Run.  It’s an annual 10K event, and this year it takes place on Sunday 22nd May. You can run for charity, by yourself, with your colleagues, and there’s stuff for people of all ages.  Oh, and it’s on the telly!  http://www.greatrun.org/great-manchester-run

And, of course, Mind do a lot of important, useful, and relevant work.  Maybe you don’t know much about them, which is understandable if you’ve never been affected by mental health problems (good for you, and long may it continue).  But I can’t think of any good reason to not support their work.  Check out their website: http://www.mind.org.uk/

And in case you’re not all that bothered about clicking on my sponsorship plea link, check out the weird stuff I’ve promised to do at each funding milestone, and see if you still feel that way:

  • When I raise £100, I will dye my hair bright purple.
  • When I reach £250, I will wear this purple dragon onesie for the whole week after the event: Zicac Unisex Adult Anime Cosplay Costumes Onesie Children and Adult Pajamas Pyjamas Sleepwear Nightclothes Cosplay Gift For Hallowmas (Adult Height 160-169cm(63″-66.5″), Purple Dragon)
  • At £500, we’re doing seriously well.  If I raise this much, I will wear my pants outside my trousers, and a cape, for every day since the target is reached until the day of the run.
  • For £1000 in donations, I will bake or buy a cake to be shared among my donors and their friends every day for the two weeks following the target being met.
  • £1500 would be amazing!  If we can do that, I will eat only purple food for a month (this includes dyeing regular food purple, so I won’t end up malnourished!).
  • If I reach £2000, not only will I be seriously pleased and astonished, but I will also bestow the honour on you of designing a tattoo that I promise to get tattooed somewhere on my body!  When the £2000 target is reached, I will open a competition for you to submit your designs, and I will put all the entries on this website and let you (and anyone else who’s looking) vote on the preferred image!

Exciting, huh?  So if you want to see a tattoo competition (and photos of the outcome!) on my website, you’d better be generous!

SLEEP – PART 2

At the moment, I am having really bad problems with my sleep. I go to bed tired, but my brain is having absolutely none of that. I lie awake with thoughts, sometimes of worry, sometimes of excitement, and sometimes of inspiration. And they will not shut up! And the cruel irony is that I seem to need more sleep than most people, and yet I still have to struggle out of bed early in the morning (yeah, it’s a struggle). My body clock seems staggered by about 3 hours from the norm (or from what I would like), but in reality I can’t even remember what normal is. I’ve not had a proper sleep routine for over a decade and I spend most of my waking hours fighting the urge to nod off for, oh, just a quick nap.

Which is another thing that doesn’t exist in my world: a quick nap.  Once I finally do get to sleep, it’s for the long haul.  It’s all or nothing with my sleep.

The thing with sleep problems is that they have to be tackled at the source.  Mine stem from a thyroid disorder and mental illness, for which I do receive treatment.  But both are lifelong and difficult conditions, and I’m sort-of-just-about-managing them, but they can be too much sometimes.  And my sleep is one of those things that is more broken than others.

So when things have really slipped, I try to reset the clock by popping a sleeping pill.  But this isn’t a sustainable solution, for a few reasons:

  1.  It gets you off to sleep this time, but it doesn’t solve the long-term sleep issues.
  2.  They can be addictive, so it’s not a good idea to rely on them.
  3.  Doctors know that they are addictive, and so will only prescribe a very small number at a time.  So it’s impossible to rely on them.

So for me, it’s really a last resort, to restore normality for a short while.  But maybe there’s no such thing.

More on sleep in SLEEP – PART 3