Thursday, 28 September 2017

What’s wrong with depending on medication for your mental health?

Have you ever told someone with cancer to stop taking painkillers for their pain?

Or told those who inject themselves with insulin daily for their diabetes to stop? To question what they are putting in their body? To not to become dependent on the drugs?

One of the biggest stigmas that still exists in the context of mental illness is medication. As a society, we’re starting to accept mental health issues more and more. We know the '1 in 4' stats. We know it’s common. We know that young men are at risk of suicide.
We’re okay with people admitting they had a down day, they have depression, anxiety, OCD. We weren't always okay with it, but we're getting there. In fact, we think ‘fair play to you’ for coming forward and speaking publicly about their mental health.

But we’re only okay with it if their mental illness is not being treated with medication. Not being currently treated that is. If you used to be on meds but now you’re off, ‘fair play to you’.
But currently taking meds? Society hasn’t come to terms with this yet.

Non-pharmaceutical treatments are favoured. People want to talk about how exercise saved their lives. How they found recovery through meditation. It’s all about lifestyle changes.
If you just change the way you start your day, you’ll defeat anxiety! 
Exercises releases ‘feel-good’ endorphins, just like meds, but it’s better for you! 
You need to change your diet to improve your mental health.
There is merit in these points. Everyone should exercise, eat well and practice good, healthly mental health techniques regardless of having a mental illness. It’s how we build resilience and help fend off ever developing mental illness in the first place.

But when you have a mental health problem, it’s not that easy.

When I wrote about what it was like to forgot to take your meds after being on them for six years, it started a discussion. I was told 'Don't get dependent'. As if depending on medication that works for you, that helps you is a bad thing.

This wasn't new to me, I'd heard it before. In fact I've been hearing it my whole life, since long before I was diagnosed with a mental illness. I heard it when my doctor insisted I stop taking them so that I didn't get addicted. I heard it in interviews with people in recovery; in editorials and opinions pieces about the danger of pharmaceuticals for mental health. I heard it in comments from friends; 'Are you still on medication?' 'When do you think you'll stop taking it?'

And when I reply 'Yes, I'm still on medication. I don't know if I'll ever stop taking it because it works for me.'

I get asked, 'Oh really? What type of medication are you on?' Or they offer their advice. 'My friend had depression, and she found exercise helped.' 'But have you tried mindfulness?'

In what other health setting do we think it appropriate to grill people on their treatment choice? Or to ask specific questions on what brand of drugs they've bought? Do we question cancer patients on whether they're choosing a holistic cure for their tumour or a scientific one?

I proudly defend my use of medication as a treatment because I didn't have a choice.
I had no motivation to exercise, I had no appetite to eat at all, yet alone healthily, and I didn't know how to recognise, never mind change, negative thought patterns. I needed something that would allow me to live again. I needed something that would keep me alive.

I’d rather be medicated for the rest of my life, dependent on pharmaceuticals to function, than to not be here. And that’s the risk I'd have to take if I ever stopped taking them.

And I am sick of people judging me, looking down on me from their high homeopathic horse.

I get that medication for mental illness differs to medication for physical illness in many ways.
The side-effects differ per person. You can’t look at someone and see how severe their illness is. There’s no physical wound to measure and treat. It’s inside. It’s in your head. There is no consensus on how to treat something you can't see.

The same drugs that worked on one person may not work on another. It could take years of different combinations to find a treatment that works. Some people may never find a combination of pharmaceuticals that work.

But why should we discourage medication when it does work?

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Last week I forgot to take my medication and this is what it felt like

Last Sunday I was staying over at my boyfriend’s house. It’s a regular enough occurrence, regular enough that I instinctively pack my bag without much thought before I go. Except on Sunday my instincts let me down. Coming off a 20-hour shift, I forgot to add my anti-depressants to my bag.

I knew the outcome wouldn’t be good. But I put on a brave face and said “I’ll be fine” every time my boyfriend asked. I went to sleep around 10:30pm, well aware that the next day wasn’t going to be pleasant.

My alarm went off at 7am, and I could barely open my eyes. Four snooze buttons and 20 minutes later, I knew I HAD to get up or I’d be late for work. But when I tried to get up, when I tried to tell myself I had to go and shower, I didn’t want to.

I’m not talking about the ‘I don’t want to get up this morning’ feeling that me and everyone else has every morning as we struggle with our wake-up call. This was a total shutdown of my systems. My legs didn’t want to stretch out of bed and stand up, my eyes didn’t want to open, my body didn’t want to stand under a shower and get wet, my head did not want me to get up.

I had no motivation to move.

I slowly got my bearings. I didn't have a choice. Like following instructions from a manual, I went step by step, following the same routine I do every day.

Get up.



But when I came back to the room after my shower, I just sat on the bed in my towel. 3 minutes passed. I knew I better start moving. 7 minutes passed, and I had one item of clothing on.  I can’t tell you what I was thinking of in that time. I couldn’t have told you just 2 minutes afterwards. But I sat there, spaced out for 10 minutes until I finally started to move. Moving was much opposed by my whole body. It required significant effort.


Make up.


Almost ready to leave, I turned to my boyfriend and said “I don’t feel right today.”

It’s difficult to explain what not feeling ‘right’ means. But I knew this feeling, I was familiar with it. It put me right back into the shoes I wore seven years ago. I didn’t feel like me.

The world looked different when I left the house that morning. Not metaphorically different, literally. It was like I couldn’t see clearly. It was hazy, blurry. My sight wasn't focused.

I had an overarching, ingrained feeling that something bad was going to happen. A feeling of impending doom. I was anxious and scared.

And my head. Oh good God, my head. I could feel the pressure pushing between my brain and my skull. Or was it the noise? At some point the pressure turned into noise. I couldn’t think clearly.

The rest of my day continued in the same vein. I watched the clock move ever so slowly to 5pm, just waiting til I could go home, take my tablets and get into bed.

Missing my medication shook me for the whole week. I found myself chasing that sleep I missed every night afterwards. It's been even harder to shake the anxiety and the not feeling like me.

Something similar happened on my family holiday back in July. Rather than packing my two types of medication, I brought only the one kind (and double of it). The whole week I took twice my usual dose of this medication, completely missing the other medication. I didn't even realise what I'd done until the day I arrived back home.
I hadn't been able to explain my low moods, mood swings and general feeling of unease all holiday until then - it finally all made sense.

Despite what these two recent occasions might suggest, I don't make a habit of forgetting to take my medication. It's usually very rare - missing one type of medication on two nights out of 365 say. But it has huge effects. It shows me how much I need my meds to sleep, concentrate and just function in my everyday life.

On these rare occasions, I'm only a mere shadow of myself. Without my medication, I'm not me.

Monday, 25 September 2017

I accidentally went to a weight class and now I lift weights. And other stories from my summer.

My summer mental health journey

It's been a weird few months, but it's been a few months I haven't managed to capture on the blog. Whether because my priorities shifted or my writing motivated faltered, I just haven't been sharing my mental health journey over the past four months. And I want to share it, because it's been a transformative summer and I'm so proud.

So to sum it all up, here's what I did this summer:

Did weights for the first time and now I'm addicted
I bit the bullet and bought membership to my local gym over the summer - the fear of wearing a bikini on my holidays spurred me on to finally commit to regular exercise. I started attending one of the free classes in the gym. It was called the 'Burn and tone' class. There was no description other than the name, so I presumed this would be some sort of Zumba-esque cardio + squats. Nope. I turn up and everyone is bringing weight, kettlebells and steps over to their floor space. Trying to act normal, I just copied everyone else.

And so began my first experience with weights. While I felt physically sick and struggled to walk home at the end of the class, I didn't give up. I started attending the gym just to do weights by myself.

I'd love to tell you that I lost weight and my body confidence improved. It didn't quite happen like that. My weight has stayed pretty much the same (muscle weighs more than fat, so there's solace in that). But I did start to feel better about myself. I love the sense of strength and control I had while leg pressing 120kg. I felt strong and capable and empowered.

I learned that weights are not just for male bodybuilders (even though they are intimidating when you're in the gym). And weights also work wonders for your mental health. I'm okay with my body, there's work to do, but I'm proud of my progress so far.

Due to a move I had to give up my gym membership and find a new one, so I haven't been weightlifting in almost a month now. But I've no intention of stopping, just pausing until I find somewhere else to work my muscles!

Tried to eat healthy
Attending the gym has also been accompanied by trying to eat healthy. I must admit though, I am a firm believer in not dieting and never restricting yourself to treats. But at least my main meals are pretty healthy, right?
I've been eating a lot of salads as well as cooking new meals like turkey rashers, courgette pasta, and an egg fried stir fry. I felt like Nigella Lawson, but in her early days where she was still prone to a mini disaster or two, and without the finger-licking baking.

However, my eating habits are starting to fall out of sync again (I'm blaming my break from the gym for this). While I still eat well for lunch and dinner, I keep going for 10pm toast or cereal or chocolate. It's like I know I've done well during the rest of day, so I'm allowed to keep snacking come bedtime.

Promised to delete my blog 34 times
I've been writing on this blog for over four years now, and for the past four months, I couldn't decide what was the best thing to do for my mental health. Should I give up? I'd have more free time, and less stress about numbers and views. Should I give it my all again? Fully commit and post every few days? Or should I carry on halfheartedly?

I'll be honest with you all, writing about your own mental health publicly is hard. I've deleted my blog's Facebook page for this very reason. And my motivation for writing has been waning. There are so many mental health bloggers out there now, and they're so much better than me. They write well, write often, and know how to promote their blogs and build a huge following. That last bit is the part I struggle with the most. Engagement.

Since I stopped blogging often and promoting as much on social media, my engagement has fallen a huge amount. Less and less people are visiting my site, sharing my posts and giving me their feedback.
All summer I criticised myself for failing. Why wasn't I writing like everyone else? Why wasn't I joining Twitter chats or talking about my meds online?  Working two jobs, I don't have time to take beautiful staged photos accompanying every post. Schedules and planners just sound like pressure to me.

It's been an internal struggle for some time now, but I've finally accepted that I'm different. I'm never going to be doing brand collaborations or winning awards for my writing. But I need this space for myself. For my own mental health. For my good and bad days. I've finally renewed my blog domain to keep it going for at least another year.

I went on holidays and the world didn't collapse
I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. There's not a day goes by where I don't feel a bigger responsibility than I can handle. Whether it's in work, at home, with my friends or family, I just feel responsible for everything that goes wrong. I always feel like my whole world would collapse if I ever took a break.

However, I did go on holiday for 10 whole days, the longest holiday I've ever had. My boyfriend and I went to Lisbon, leaving my two jobs and responsibilities behind.

Yes, there were many times throughout the break where I felt extremely guilty for being away. I felt horrible for leaving my work colleagues behind with my shifts and my tasks to cover. I struggled with the ball of guilt in the bottom of my stomach.

But I've also never enjoyed a break more. I needed that respite from responsibility. I came back chilled and relaxed and with my work/life balance in perspective (I'd very much been getting this balance wrong). My world didn't collapse without me. I came back and everything was how it should be. I'm allowed to take a holiday, who knew?

Until next time,

Monday, 11 September 2017

Why are we still okay with ‘haunted’ asylums at Halloween?

It’s that time of the year again. I love autumn leaves, autumn colours, pumpkin spice lattes. I love Halloween. What I don’t love, is the constant use of Halloween to reaffirm the stigma around mental illness.

I’ve written about it before. But at this time every year, another event, another TV show, another movie, uses former lunatic asylums and mentally ill patients as a trope.

The Nightmare Realm, who run ‘haunted house’-type experiences in Ireland, are adding some new elements to their popular scarefest this year in Dublin. One such addition is a haunted asylum. 

It’s all a bit of fun. I’m overreacting right? I mean, there are scary doctors involved with inhumane treatments, not just scary patients!

The problem is that there still remains a stigma around mental health. People with mental illness are still seen as and treated as second class citizens. Mental illness changes how our friends, family, and workplace see us. We lose friends, we lose our jobs, we lose custody of our children.
Many people struggling with their mental health are still to afraid to seek help. They hide it because they don't want to lose any of these things. They don't to be seen as weak, helpless, pathetic. They don't want to be seen as scary, dangerous or unstable. But the asylum continues to reaffirm the image that we're dangerous, threatening and savage.

Despite modern psychiatry having moved away from not only the word 'asylum', but the very idea of confining people with a mental illness, horror loves to reuse and rehash it for cheap thrills.

It's a widely popular theme and it's directed into our homes on an almost weekly basis. From Supernatural to American Horror Story - it's all over TV. The local ‘asylum’ is commonly used in Pretty Little Liars and Teen Wolf to add an element horror. Even Modern Family have gone there, receiving backlash for their homemade asylum episode, full of insensitive jokes about mental health:
“Sexy people go crazy too. Read a People magazine.”
“She spent six months in a cuckoo farm in Nevada… She gets mad when I say that. It was in Utah.”
As a teenager, lacking any sort of mental health education in school, I thought asylums still existed. I thought that sad, mad and bad people were all locked up. I was scared of those people. They weren't like 'us'. When I started to struggle with my own mental health, I worried that I too would be locked up if I told anyone. I didn't want to end up in an asylum.

Don’t get me wrong. Asylums were horrific, horrible and terrifying places. Patients were not treated with dignity, in fact many were not ‘treated’ at all. Bedlam or Bethlem Royal Hospital, the most infamous such institution, is best known for how it publicly displayed the interned ‘lunatics’. Like animals at a zoo, people would visit and walk by the cages either pointing and laughing, or jumping in fright at what they saw.

But haven’t we moved past that? Haven’t we all accepted how wrong and immoral it was for mentally unwell people to be publicly displayed for entertainment and horror? So why do we keep returning to asylums at Halloween?

The Nightmare Realm, like many other similar events around not only the country, but the world, would like to reaffirm that stigma. They want to show you how the patients ‘live’. And considering some of the images they use in their promotion, I can guarantee you it’s not going to be an accurate, fair depiction.
Source: The Nightmare Realm
The straitjacket is a nice touch.

Is it too much to ask for a Halloween where people with a mental illness are treated as PEOPLE, not jokes?

We are already stigmatised on a daily basis. People are scared of us. Your straitjackets, gurneys and shackles reaffirm people's incorrect beliefs of us. Your inhumane treatment tells people that we are less than human. That we are so less than human we can be experimented on, laughed at, poked and prodded for your own pleasure.

Running an asylum for Halloween is not and should never be acceptable. It perpetuates the stigma around mental health. Asylums scare people into not seeking help, because no one wants to end up like that. It creates an us vs them. And like anyone else, even I want to be on the 'us' side.

I am not less than human. I deserve better than to be represented by the image of a straitjacket in an asylum.