Thursday, 29 May 2014

Crafting To Ease The Pain

Two years ago I decided to start crafting. If there is one thing I don't like, it's having too much spare time. I had entire summer to kill, so what better way to keep busy then to get creative?

While I can't claim to be the next Martha Stewart, I do enjoy sitting down and spending an afternoon putting together new decorations for my bedroom, or a hand-made gift for a friend or relative.

As a student I was the same. I needed extra-curricular projects to keep busy, to escape the fact that being on my own or having nothing to do left me alone with my thoughts. And a Depressive's thoughts can be very harmful. Whether it be creating UCD's Before I Die Wall or campaign managing Students' Union election hopefuls, I busied myself with all sorts of projects I was passionate about. At times it did lead me to taking on too much. I burnt out. But I preferred that to hiding under my duvet for days on end. Spare time meant I had to deal with my distorted patterns of thinking: jumping to conclusions, feeling inferior & unworthy, discounting the positives.
'Before I Die...' Wall, UCD

I also think my obsession with keeping busy also comes from how alone I felt in my 1st year of University. I felt that I was missing out on certain aspects of the college experience (See: Where it all began...) . So I threw myself into everything that came my way over the next few years. By my 3rd year I had more than made up for it through committee, society, students' union and peer-mentor involvement.

And when it came to the summer holidays I found myself with a lot of time I needed to fill to stay healthy. I spent a lot of this time reading. I'd immerse myself in stories; fantasies I could be a part of. But I ran through them too quickly. Be that due to escapism, or just plain boredom. I read the first Game of Thrones in just over 24 hours. I needed something other than books.

I'm not blessed with creativity. I couldn't draw a heart until I was in secondary school (I kid you not!). So I did start out very simply, often finding DIY projects under the 'Children' sections of websites. But I took comfort from the pretty things I could create. They were simple, but my mind was focused and my hands were busy. It was a release, albeit temporarily, from my self-defeating thoughts.

Toilet Roll Owls
Pumpkin Carving

Collection of Summer 2013 Crafts
These days I have found that balance I lacked in the past. I still work on countless different projects and keep busy, but I always factor in downtime by myself and with friends/family so that I don't burn out. While my negative thinking will always be a battle, I have lately been able to identify and start to tackle the patterns.

So now I am finished UCD after 4 long but productive years, which leaves me with a lot more time to fill in an assignment-free world. But I am looking forward to being able to spend more time crafting. Not just to fill time from being alone, but because I do really enjoy it.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

UCD Talks

To mark Mental Health May the PleaseTalk Committee in University College Dublin released a video titled UCD Talks. In it, 9 students, including myself, speak about our experiences with mental health and share our stories. They were all touching and gut-wrenchingly honest. I still cannot watch it through without my eyes welling up.

The video received a tremendous amount of positive attention and reactions. Within a weekend we had hit almost 4,000 views.

As Chairperson of the PleaseTalk Committee in UCD I could not have been prouder, both of the brave students involved and the huge reaching impact of the PleaseTalk message; that 'Talking is a sign of strength'.
It wasn't an easy decision for anyone involved to sit down in front of a camera and speak about their journey, their battle, their struggle, each one unique. Even I found it difficult. When it came to the night before the release I had knots in my stomach. But I believe it is needed to put a face on mental illness. The only way we can end the stigma around mental health is to normalize it. To make it a topic that we are able to bring up without fear of discrimination.
I have never thought of myself as 'brave' for sharing my story. Partly, I think that's because I haven't really experienced a lot of stigma personally. Yes, I lost a few friends over my mental health a couple of years ago. But I've had it easy compared to a lot of the stories I've heard. Making this video was a big step for me. My story, my diagnosis would be public and I couldn't ever take it back. Hence the nerves.

But any nerves, any doubts I had about releasing the video were quickly put at ease with the feedback we received. The messages of support and thanks were overwhelming. In fact, they touched me so much that I decided to collect them. Everything from public comments, to tweets, shares and personal messages. I gathered them and I printed them out. Together with some broader messages about the good work that Please Talk UCD does, they make this collage. It's something that I can keep forever, to look at anytime when I'm feeling down. To see the underlying support for what we as a committee achieved this past year brings me hope; hope that there won't always be a stigma around mental illness.  It serves as a reminder of the power of that simple message; 'Talking is a sign of strength'.

You can watch the video here: UCD Talks

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Where it all began...

Wear the Green Ribbon this May and start the conversation about Mental Health
Three years ago as a first year student in University College Dublin I was diagnosed with severe Depression. It had taken me months to discover what was wrong with me and to work up the courage to go seek help.

They tell you that your College years are the best of your life, that this is the pinnacle and it all goes downhill from here. They expect you to go out every night of the week, or at the worst, at least one night per week. They tell you that the friends you make here are the ones you have for life. You must join all the societies and clubs, gain new experiences, try something new.
So why was my college experience so different?

It was September 2010 and I found myself living in Digs (accommodation with a family) and in UCD's largest faculty, with almost 6,000 students studying Arts. But I was positive. I was optimistic that I would love college. I introduced myself to everyone I sat beside on my first day, and wasn't put off by the 500+ seating theatres. I went to the student bar a couple of times, I attended the massive Fresher's Ball on my first week. I even nagged myself my first boyfriend. But as Semester One progressed I couldn't shake off the feeling the something just wasn't right.

I had found it difficult to make a solid group of friends. The Arts degree is so broad, so the people I sat beside in Sociology didn't take my Folklore elective. I had failed to gain a social life. While my 'friends' filled their Facebook newsfeed with pictures documenting their nights out, I sat alone in my room only doing my hair and make-up to take a few selfies.

When I came back to college after the Christmas Break for Semester Two I was a completely different person. I no longer took any pleasure from my course (It was English and History, my two favourite subjects and topics to this day). My appetite left me and I only ate when I forced myself to. The thought of food even turned my stomach most days. My sleeping pattern was a disaster and I felt weak and tired all of the time. To this day I still can't quite put my finger on where it all went wrong. But I can remember on the Sunday that I was moving back up to Dublin I threw up. My body was telling me I was anxious about returning, but I kept trying to convince myself that I loved college.

As the Semester progressed my moods were spiraling out of control. I couldn't feel happiness. I would sit in my lectures and start crying, in fact I stopped going to classes to save myself the embarrassment.

I vividly remember one night in particular when I was leaving college, and I decided to take the long route on my walk home. It was dark and I can just remember being alone with the lights of the city and my thoughts. And my thoughts were not healthy. I wished so badly that I was brave enough to step out in front of a car so my life would stop. I just wanted my feelings to stop.

A while later I got talking to an old friend. We hadn't spoken to each other in months, but something clicked in me and I began to open up to her. I told her how I had been feeling and how it was affecting my life. She revealed that she had recently been diagnosed with Depression and it sounded a lot like what I was going through. I was convinced by her to go to the Doctor and seek help.

She saved my life and she didn't know it. To this day she still doesn't know it. I was diagnosed and the healing process began. The first year was rough, and I had a few 'relapses' into self-neglect and despair. But I began the process of working on myself and I eventually accepted my mental illness not as the one thing that defined me, but as a part of me.