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Tuesday, 27 January 2015

We Need to Talk About Mental Illness: Time to Talk Day - 5th February 2015

February 5th is Time To Change (@timetochange 's #TimeToTalk day), encouraging people to take 5 minutes out of their day to have a conversation about mental health.

It's something that people find hard to talk about, myself included, despite this blog and my media appearances over the last year. There are still large numbers of people to whom mental illness is something to be feared or looked down upon. I've met people who have avoided me after learning that I have depression; I've met people who appeared to think that suffering in this way affected my ability to do my job at all, and who saw it as a red flag, requiring decision making to be taken completely out of my hands. And I've met friends and acquaintances who have not understood and have kindly suggested that I 'pull myself together'. And so on.

When I suffer acute depression episodes one of the things that I find hardest is that I often suffer from feelings of acute defectiveness and failure:

"I'm depressed, there's something intrinsically wrong with me."
"I'm depressed, I will never get better, I have failed as a human being."
"Why can't I just feel better? I'm always lurching back into doom."
"I'm so anxious that I feel physically sick and can't focus on anything; I'm no good and I'll never be able to do anything properly."

In the summer of last year, when I was so ill that I agreed with my psychiatrist that the best course of action was to go into hospital to have more intensive treatment and rest from all the external forces worsening my depression, most particularly the bullying I was experiencing, I had to decide whether to talk about what was happening to me or not. I thought carefully about the people in my life who were my friends, and what would change if they knew that I was depressed. The negative thoughts that I've listed above are completely false in many ways, but I was so depressed and anxious that I needed help to get rid of them. They made me sick with fear that I would lose the friends I so cherish and love, and constantly tearful at the state that I was in,

On the other hand, I didn't want to keep my illness a secret because it was contributing to my illness. I didn't want to accept that it was something to be ashamed of, and something that I should be hiding from other people. Those very perceptions were only exacerbating my illness, because the effort to conceal my true state required something close to the superhuman. The smiles, the jokes, the well turned out woman with styled hair, made up face, with the pretty work dresses and the fabulous shoes (I will never not be wearing fabulous shoes. I'm addicted.) These were my friends and if I had a hope of being better part of that was to be more open about my own illness and how I was feeling. I was afraid of rejection. I was terrified of being seen as a failure and as someone who was damaged. But I wanted to be honest. So I 'came out' from my hiding place and told them.

"Dear friends,

As some of you know I have been having a hard time at work recently with some bullying and difficult people, which has made me very upset. Unfortunately because I also suffer from depression I've now come to the point where I can't cope anymore with working.

I've decided with the help of my superb doctors and counsellor to go into hospital to recover from some of the impacts of this situation. I will probably be in hospital for 1-2 weeks, we think.

I would love to receive text messages or messages of support during this time - and of course, despite its very inconvenient location - you are most welcome (and encouraged by my doctor) to visit. However I won't expect this as I know many of you might find it difficult. 

I hope you understand why I wanted to be honest with this with you and I hope that you can support me.

Sending much love xxx Jessica"

At the time of writing this email, I cried. I cried when my mobile rang a minute or two later with a call from one of my friends ringing in response. I couldn't answer the phone because I was crying, and I cried when I heard the answerphone message sending love and reassurance that my condition didn't affect our friendship at all. And still I cried.

Why did I cry so much? I think it was because I did not believe that my friends would stick by me, someone who was defective and a failure. Who wants to spend time with someone who's so down in the dumps that they have to go into hospital? Who wants to be friends with someone who's been bullied? Doesn't that mean that there's something wrong with me?


Had I not sent the email above I don't think I would have made as much progress in hospital learning that the negative thoughts above were symptoms of my depression and not fact. Had I not told the truth I would have been holding back on my recovery. And when I did tell the truth I realised that I could be myself - illness and all - and I would still have support from those who cared enough about me to understand, or to learn more about what it really means to have a mental illness, and those at work ready and willing to listen - many more people than I expected.

More than this, though, was the aftermath. I have gradually become braver about talking about my condition. I have made myself speak to the press about my experiences as a way of training me to talk to others about my condition and how I need adjustments to help me to deal with it. And I hope that I will continue to get better at talking about mental health, because I am an example of how there is no one-size-fits-all mental illness sufferer. We come in all states, shapes and sizes. 

So, along with other supporters of #timetotalk, on 5th February I will be spending a good part of the day having 'honest conversations' at work about my mental health and about mental health in general. I will be inviting my husband to dinner and talking to him about mental health, something which he has had to learn about through nearly 10 years with me suffering the ups and downs of depression, anxiety, medications of different kinds and their varying side effects. I will be speaking to my family about it through email, phone calls and posts on Facebook, and I will be tweeting @volette to record my thoughts throughout the day.

I feel I must keep talking about mental health to try to help myself accept myself as I am, styled or dishevelled, weeping and weary or well. And I want to try to help others understand the complexities of these illnesses and the impacts that they may have on sufferers, from the personal perspective I can offer. I would love you to join in with this conversation and spare 5 minutes on 5th February have a conversation about mental health. Whether you're a sufferer, know someone who is, or know nothing about it at all, it's so important that we keep the conversation going. Taking the time to talk will make a difference. Perhaps more than you know. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Head Clutching Headlines: Let's Change the Picture

One of the many other people (I think of them as friends, though they don't know me, nor I them, and we've never met except on Twitter) who tweet about mental health (their own and in general), @sectioned_, recently posted about the phenomenon of the #'headclutcher' photograph that so often accompanies mental health news. You've seen them before: a picture of a woman or man looking down and holding their head in their hands. This is often the image that is printed alongside such articles if the subject is mental health in general, rather than a specific issue such as having an eating disorder (cue photos of scales or magazines with size zero models on their pages) or self-harming (cue photos of scarred arms).

This man must be depressed. He can't do anything, in fact, because his hands are glued to his face.

I was recently profiled in an article about the January Blues and luckily they used a picture of someone staring out of a window rather than clutching their head. But still, I don't gaze out of windows all day, every day. And if you're my employer reading this, then, seriously, I don't do that all day, every day. Because I am working and getting on with things! The only time I look out of the window is to confirm that, yes, it is still January, still cold, still dark, still damp, and that it would be much better to stay inside where it's nice and cosy.

Window gazing. You can read the article on the January blues here.

I have been feeling very up and down recently, but I have not once held my head in my hands over the last couple of weeks. I may have stayed in bed watching The Good Wife (which is very good, by the way. They should consider renaming it The Good Good Wife), I may have gone to the shops without makeup because I couldn't be bothered to make any effort to look good, or I may have travelled to a lunch with friends made up and looking smart and just about as un-depressed as any image of me could seem.

The Good wife. It's really good. And what a poker face.

Appearances are deceptive though. I felt dreadfully ill recently when I went and met friends, and barely made it through the afternoon with the constant taste of metal and nausea that anxiety brings, coupled with the terrible lurch in my stomach of dread of being discovered or not discovered in my wretched state of un-wellness. I think all I want when I feel depressed is to not want to feel depressed. It's boring for one thing, but on the other hand, as @_sectioned and others have put it, once people know I'm depressed I don't know what to do with myself in their company.

Another headclutcher. And he doesn't have any furniture either. How awful.

People try to make helpful suggestions about getting exercise and looking after myself - and these are all the right things to be doing. However, at my lowest ebb I just cannot take any advice because I'm already having enough problems breathing in and out and not favouring the thought that if I didn't wake up tomorrow that would be a lot better than if I did and had to endure another day of this interminable sadness and despondency.

"Why the mustard, why?"

The problem worsens in company where there is a need to make some sort of decision about how to be seen. I remember Alastair Campbell, again, recalling a colleague who told him something like "You're always laughing, you can't be depressed" or near enough. Gladly, Baroness Jolly (you've got to laugh at this, really, haven't you?) recently debated on behalf of the government on the issue mental health. But Parliament couldn't quite resist the opportunity to post its news alongside the above picture of a man who, in my opinion, is merely clutching his head to get away from the dreadful taste of whomever decided mustard was a good colour scheme for a room. And then Baroness went on her way back to being a character from the Mister Men.

Little Miss Baroness Jolly

If we apply this to other life experiences rather than illnesses, and, again I turn to the Good Wife, but you can choose your own example, what are people supposed to look like in a certain state? A woman whose husband has been unfaithful to her but has to stand in the public eye supporting him. What is that supposed to look like? Is she supposed to look stern / serious but well turned out? I suppose so. And I suppose that when she does the trash magazines will have headlines that call her 'Brave' and 'Putting on a Brave Face' whereas when she's taking the bins out and can't be bothered to change out of her pyjamas and slippers, or put makeup on she's 'Struggling' or 'In Crisis'.

"Pammy Loses It" versus "Pammy Gets New Tits"

So, what, does that mean that when I feel like laughing I should suppress it, and when I feel like crying I should be sure to go out into the world so everyone can see the tears running down my face? I don't think that's going to get me any promotions at work, but it's also not realistic. I am not crying all the time. (And when I am, no one sees me apart from my husband, because there's a part of my subconscious which radically co-opts every ounce of adrenaline within me to not cry in front of other people when I'm really feeling at my very worst.) I'm probably not smiling all the time, but who is, apart from clowns with painted faces (whom we all know are scary to most people!). What I am doing, as I've said before, is just going through the motions.

I participated in a Time to Change survey on whether people think #headclutcher images are helpful in presenting mental health sufferers accurately. You can probably guess what I thought. Read more about what they're doing here.

"Not only am I depressed, I'm stuck in a yoga pose I can't get out of. Sob."

But I'm not clutching my head. How would I be typing this blog or going to work, washing my face, eating, dressing, if I had to do that all day? Really. I'm not clutching my head. I'm just feeling rubbish. Or not. You can't tell. No one can. And maybe I don't want you to know anyway.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Kale Me, We Need to Talk. Diets Suck.

I breathed a lighter sigh on Friday morning than on Monday because I lost two pounds last week. Well, to be honest it was six pounds lighter than the scales read on Monday, but I think I must have inadvertently swallowed some lead with my Rice Krispies on Monday morning, because - I am delighted to say - I woke up on Wednesday and weighed myself to found that I was already 4 pounds lighter than I had thought at the beginning of the week. Phew. My clothing options are ever so slightly wider then, at the end of the week, as my waist is narrower than it was, thank goodness. Still, I intend to stick to my guns and keep up the eating plan. And that plan is soup and kale and more kale, soup, with a bit of chocolate every day to make sure I stay sane.

Yeah. A friend who tells you the truth about dieting. And makes you fart. Some friend.

After yule log + cheese + roast potatoes + beef etc.etc. consumed over Christmas it was a shock to my system to return to a sparser diet, but not as unpleasant as it could have been. I have started to make deliberately healthy choices which provide fewer additives and nutrients to fill me up. And I haven't given up the sweet things: a half Twirl and a sliver of Extremely Chocolatey Sponge Roll (henceforth to be known as ECSR) from beloved M&S are on my menu of choice.

Now you're talking. YUM.

I wonder whether what I've always suspected is true, and whether there really are more calories in foods in the USA. While I was there I ate mostly a diet of egg white omelettes from the hotel kitchen (with a low fat oil spray used instead of a ladleful of butter to cook it!) and Chicken noodle soup or a Subway flat bread 6-inch sandwich for lunch. Admittedly I did sometimes eat burgers, or half a burger if I was not that hungry, for dinner. But this wasn't an everyday thing, and yet I gained weight over my two years in the states and found it very easy to shift when back in the UK and on a diet.

It's supposed to contain fewer than 300 cals but I never lost weight on the Subway diet.

I was exceptionally unmotivated last year because my depression was so severe in December and January. By February things had improved by the introduction of medication and regular CBT sessions. And then I made myself go on a boot camp for 4 days. These four days happened to occur after the dreadful floods which deluged the UK, and getting there at all was quite the challenge.

Fun times at Bootcamp in 2014 walking and running through this.

They were also most amusing because of the presence of a task master Russian √©migr√© cracking her whip with her skinny little arms at us fatties to "Move eet" faster on our walks through flooded fields and near-hurricane strength windy beaches in the south of England. We were fed hot water and lemon at 7.30am, followed by our 2 hour walk, then breakfast of an apple, a juice or a carrot. Lavish.

NOTE: This is 4 times the portion size of my bootcamp. We were allowed one carrot. One.

Following this was an aerobics class for 2 hours (which often made me feel a bit light headed, having consumed about 5 calories since the start of the day. No wonder I lost weight!) and then lunch. Of mostly cabbage. I have to say I would recommend this type of thing only for people who are more sedate and don't want to do much exercise. And then a spa treatment or more walking, dinner of hot cabbage, and then more exercise. And then bed. It was essentially a Starvation Stay in a nice hotel, where you didn't eat but got to spend loads of money on the experience anyway, only to spend even more in the afternoon on spa treatments to take your mind off the fact that you've only eaten an 1/8th of an Able and Cole delivery box over the last 2 days.

Oh please go away.

I've never found dieting at all easy, because I am definitely in my head too much where food is concerned. I have serious and lengthy dialogues with myself saying "If I'm not really fat then I can eat that pasta", but then... "If I am serious about losing weight I can't, even if I don't really need to." And so and so on it goes.

M&S Soups. Tasty and filling and not boring. Yes!

 I'm currently enjoying Marks and Spencer spinach and quinoa and its borlotti bean and kale soups, for the most important reason: that I can actually taste the soup! Since my head trauma my sense of smell has almost gone, and this has also somewhat affected my taste buds. However, the prevalence of kale, which I almost spelled with a capital 'K', such is its (attributed) importance in the world of today's dieters and healthy eating, is a bit off-putting after a while. Not least because I don't want to pass wind as often as I draw breath. But it is quite tasty, and combined with other foods it is nice to know one is eating something healthy. And allows me to eat the ECSR. Every day. Thank goodness for small mercies. Even if that's the only small thing in my diet.

I know, I know. But my blog, my stories. Back to my lettuce now. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A Fat Lot of Good: January Drear and Diets

I made the catastrophic mistake of weighing myself on Monday. First day back at work and I added to that joy with a painful arm and a horrific number on the scale. And as the writer of this blog, dear reader, I choose to abstain from printing it here. Just know that I'm currently limited to a wardrobe selection of pyjama bottoms that have no elastic left in them, and a reindeer onesie I am supposed to put away after today according to Twelfth night traditions. Oh and some leggings. I am a wearer of leggings now. And giant sweaters.

Yes it's been a stellar week so far. I'm officially on a diet and I know that ahead of me I have weeks of it to come if I have a hope of shifting all the stuffing I have oh so casually stuffed myself with. And I'm delighted that the gabapentin I'm taking as well as the other pain medication and the antidepressants are such a tonic to this diet, for their potential to make people like me, who are, quite frankly, depressed enough without their help, thanks, able to help us to gain weight. It's an overused word, I know, but, frankly, and not without my classic British sarcasm: awesome. And now we add to it the fact I mentioned in my last blog: that another operation on my elbow is needed, meaning more time without being able to swim (it's not the right kind of physio) and only walking as the exercise option. Or cleaning. And let's face it, I'm not writing a blog about being a domestic goddess here. The house is tidy because I'm living mostly in bed.

So, "We get it," I hear you cry. "You're unhappy. It's January. Get over it. (Whatever the 'it' is you wanna focus on. Just get over it. Already." And okay, I should.) But really, this is the best time of year to embrace being miserable. We're all at it. I can scarcely rouse myself from my bed to turn on my laptop in the morning without my eyes moistening at the thought of work. They stayed like that all day today. Moist. Moist when I ate my Rice Krispies (being carefully calculated as part of my get-thinner-even-though-you're-on-weight-gain-meds diet by myFitnessPal). Moist as I went for my lunchtime walk listening to Hard Times (depressing month cause for depressing literature) and moist throughout the rest of the day. Moist now.

Ugh Pills. This is what mealtimes feel like.

Why is January so hard when I can hardly tolerate Christmas and find New Year's Eve stressful too? I would have thought I'd be happy to have it over with. Perhaps it's all those additives and the hangover (both booze and booze-free) from the partaking that has left me in this sorry state. But it is a pretty sorry state. Thankfully, everyone else is miserable too, or so it seems. If August is the silly season for news, January is the dreary destination for deadly dieting and depressingly downcast outlooks. People are giving up or cutting back on the booze (me too), cutting the calories (me too) and getting on the treadmill again (not me too, worse luck). I spent most of yesterday wondering how much of my medication I could forgo for the sake of my figure (I'm an idiot. My arm hurt a lot today.)

Now I'm just saying roll on April. Which is the cruellest month, but by which time I'm hoping I won't need some kind of fat sucking device for my normal jeans to fit, and my darned elbow should be screwed firmly together and actually behaving itself. (I'm giving my body my sternest teacher-like stare.)

The only odd thing I can say amidst this depression is that I can read the most sad and haunting things at my bleakest moments, because it's not the sadness or the despair which is the worst time, it's the feeling that this will never end, and since it may never end, and there's a numbness, why not try poking myself with something really tragic. At twenty one I watched The Ice Storm in such a state. It was the perfect film to get over with while so morose. Today I am going to read a new book on depression, and think about last year when I was travelling back to New York to erase my life there. Unfortunately I think the real life element of the latter is too close to actual trauma, so I will look for fictionalised versions instead. Safer. Distant.

Not an answer to the question: "What's a happy film we can watch?"

I did talk about New York though, and being lonely there while I lived there, recently, so if you want to join me in embarking on exploration of a topic that's important, though not perhaps one to get out with the Christmas crackers or happy birthday music, you can listen to me talking at about 22 minutes in about loneliness on Five Live. They put it on at 00:00 on Boxing Day. I.e. in the small hours when we were all stuffed with turkey, it was already time to stop being cheery (or fake cheery) and start being dreary.

What I think we need is a #joinin for January. In fact that's it: #joininjanuary. Who can come up with the most sardonic tweet for jaundiced January? I challenge you, reader, to join me and cheer me up by telling me that your tape measure doesn't go round your waist either, and that you've got your old step out from behind the wardrobe / from the greenhouse where you were using it as a shelf for pot plants. If you've managed to slice open your finger as my friend Lucy has whilst being middle class using a mandolin (it's a dangerous way to live, the middle class life) or similar, then #joininjanuary. And by the way, I'm still eating a few nice things on my diet hoping not to fall off the wagon before the pounds fall off first. So thanks, Marks and Spencer, for keeping your Extremely Chocolately Roll in stock. I may only have a sliver, but it's enough to make my eyes water. In a good way.