Thursday, 16 November 2017

When being a mental health activist gets hard

The first year after my diagnosis with depression was hard. I had expected a quick-fix, but it was six months and five different drugs later and I still didn’t want to live. I struggled to get by day-to-day. I continued to withdraw and lost friends. I acted out self-destructively. I felt lost, and what I needed was to find a purpose for my depression.

I found meaning in mental health campaigns and activism. I got involved in local college groups that promoted the message “Talking is a sign of strength.” It was an easy thing to throw my weight behind – talking had literally saved my life. And I never wanted anyone to feel as alone and without help as I had.

We ran awareness campaigns of the supports available to students, hosted talks on eating disorders and CBT and tried to reach those who needed help. We held regular tea and coffee mornings to promote talking. And people would talk. I’d be taken aside to chat to someone vulnerable. To tell them that it’s okay not to feel okay, but sometimes we need help. They’d tell me about their battles, their hardships, their attempts.

And I was ever so grateful, don’t get me wrong. How much I would have loved to have someone listen to me and chat to me about my illness after my diagnosis. I had needed like-minded people with their experiences of mental illness to talk to. And that’s what I’d found through activism.
 But I went home feeling these people’s pain. Often their stories were triggering to me. It brought me back to exactly how I’d felt and how I'd hurt. And when we lost a life, I took that personally. “If only my activism had reached them”, I’d think. “If I’d done more, could I have saved them?”

My activism found a national stage through the Green Ribbon campaign. I was interviewed in national newspapers and on TV. People I didn’t know, people I used to know reached out to me to say they could relate. They’d been through something similar. They had lost a friend to a similar battle.

But then the questions started:
What medication are you on? What brand works for you?
When are you going to stop taking medication? Aren’t you worried you’ll get addicted?
But how serious actually was your depression?
Don't you think you should go back to counselling? 
When I left university and entered the workplace, I lost contact with like-minded people. I have always been the youngest person on my team in any place I’ve worked over the past three years. I quickly became aware of how much stigma still exists. I didn’t know how to react to office lunchtime conversations, or even if I should react?
 “There’s definitely something mentally wrong with him.” 
"Terrorists are all mentally ill. There's no other excuse." 
"I always thought depression wasn't real; it's just something in your head."
If I speak up I’ll probably get upset. How will people treat me if I do admit that I have depression?

I started my blog. I started sharing more indepth the daily struggles of depression and anxiety. I joined mental health chats on Twitter and met more like-minded activists through the Internet. But when life got in the way and I started to miss those chats, when I couldn't keep up or commit my time, I lost a lot of support.

You start to become the 'mental health' person in your social groups. Someone uses the word 'mental' or 'depressing' in a conversation and all eyes turn to you to see how you're going to react.

I remember when my boyfriend and I first started dating. We had mutual friends in common and I was fearful that someone may have already told him about my mental illness before I was ready to myself (they did). I was scared he’d find my blog; an open chronicle of seven years of mental illness. I had made myself open and vulnerable by being so public.

It came up on our second date. He told me a friend had already mentioned the blog to him. I looked down at the table and tugged at my sleeves as I explained my mental illness to him. I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. But thanks to my activism, I was forced to.

You make yourself vulnerable when you speak up about your mental health. Some days you get support and feel empowered.

Other times it feels like you’re constantly being attacked. Sometimes even media articles feel like a personal attack. They tell you not to take it personally, but it is personal. After years of relentlessly defending yourself, your own choices, your approach to activism and raising awareness, heck of even defending the fact that mental illness exists, you get exhausted. And I am tired. I am not always strong enough to be 'active'. Some days I have to put my own mental health first.
Some days are turning into most days.

Just like how I had hoped for a quick fix to my own mental illness, I thought there might be a quick fix to the stigma. I thought my activism would change things. But after fighting for so long, most of the time it feels like I haven't changed a thing.

As hard as it gets, as tired as it gets, you try to keep going. You don't want to give up, because there's a fight still ongoing. But boy is it draining. And one day there will a come a day when my own mental health will have to come first.

Until next time,

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you things which might make you happy

I was feeling pretty sad yesterday so I spent €90 on clothes and to be honest, it did help my mood a bit.
See, I was feeling frumpy and full of self-loathing and body hate. I’ve been struggling to come to terms with how easy it is for me to put on weight lately. Yesterday that resulted in spending money on clothes online to make myself feel better.
Capitalism rocks.

And you know what? It worked.

My ‘go to’ when I'm sad is to spend money on THINGS. I don't want experiences; experiences usually involve socialising and when I’m sad that’s the last thing I want to do (yes, I know it’s often the best thing for you but shush.) Instead, I want something to hold in my hand. Heck, if it’s delayed for a few days awaiting delivery I’ll take it. That’s me gaining a few more days where I know something good is going to happen.
It’s best if I can buy these things in person because the instant gratification is sweet. I pay for it, it becomes mine, I feel happy.

Usually, it's a toy like a Pop Funko to add to my collection. Or a book, because God knows you can never have too many books. Or maybe some clothes so I feel better about myself and can at least dress like someone who has confidence.

Last year I had a strong and steady addiction to subscription boxes. It didn't matter what was in the box - make-up courtesy or Glossybox, books from Owlcrate or Fairyloot, nerdy collectibles from Loot Crate - I'd buy myself one as a treat after a tough month. Because I deserved it. But boy are they expensive.

While buying things isn't always sure sign my mood will improve, I swear it does help.

If all else fails, I look up free printables on Pinterest and print THINGS. Paper things are also good things. They make me smile. I add them to my wall and can get enjoyment from them for months.

Also good is when my boyfriend buys me things. He knows this and he uses it well. Like when he collects me from work he always has chocolate in his pocket to make me smile. THIS SHIT WORKS. I forget about my complaints, about why work sucked and why I’m feeling down for a moment and it feels good. Or if I’m down for longer period of time he’ll take me to a bookstore and let me pick out a book.

PS, I swear I’m not trying to use this depression thing to my advantage. I am ACTUALLY down. And yes, I know this is how toddler tantrums work.
But I also know that we are going to be so broke in a few years’ time if this keeps up.
I suppose I’ve been lucky lately that my depression hasn’t persisted. I’ll get one, two, maybe three down days in a row and usually it passes. I become hyper, happy Zoe again. A free printable suffices on these occasions.

Sometimes it persists a bit longer. I have ‘bad’ weeks. These weeks feel like I’m teetering on the brink. One more thing and I fear I’ll be sent over the edge and into a breakdown. Like my past experiences of mental illness and severe depression are hanging over me.

I take any relief I can get. Anything to veer me away for the edge. I spend money so that I can feel good for at least a moment.

And therein lies the problem. Because while it feels good in the moment, it doesn't last and after a while I'm sad and dejected again, with the addition of also feeling crap for having spent money on something I don't technically need.

There are better, more healthy ways to help manage my sadness, I know this. But knowing something isn't right doesn't mean I can stop doing it. I'd rather do something immediate to help improve my mood. And when you have a mental illness, you crave an immediate fix.

I know money can't buy you happiness. But it does buy me things which make me happy, at least for a little while.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Mental illness is not a scapegoat for murder

Yesterday's headlines were written to cause fear.
  • Trump publicly blames mental illness for mass shootings.
  • 'This is a mental health problem': Trump on the Texas shooting
  • Trump’s right, this is a mental health issue
  • Pat Robertson Blames Texas Shooting on Antidepressants

As if it wasn't enough to be petrified of immigrants and Muslims when people of colour commit mass murder, we are also reminded that mental illness is also a cause for fear. 

What we've learned from US shootings and attacks over the past few years is that the colour of the attacker's skin is important in deciding the causative factor and motivation. As soon as perpetrator of the Texas church shooting was named, mental illness was identified as the sole cause and reason for the mass shooting.
“I think that mental health is your problem here. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, but this isn’t a gun situation.” - Donald Trump
The man has a history of domestic abuse, but as of yet there's been no proven history of mental health problems.

But once again, mental illness has been used as a scapegoat for murder. White men are not responsible for their crimes, an illness they may or not even have is. And as such, they cannot be held responsible for their actions in the same way people of colour are.

1 in 4 of us are currently experiencing a mental illness. 4 in 4 of us have mental health.
Are we all to be feared? Might we all be potential murderers? I am mentally ill, is my illness to blame for everything I do?

Studies have proven that people with mental health illnesses are no more likely to be violent than the general population. We are far more likely to harm ourselves than others.
People in every country have mental health problems, but yet no other country experiences mass shootings to the extent that America does.

Trump and his supporters are demonizing those suffering with mental health problems. We have becomes just another vulnerable group for them to attack and fear.

Trump's comments yesterday prove we are nowhere close to ending the stigma around mental illness. We have a long, long way to go.