Thursday, 31 May 2018

May’s moments of happiness

One thing that really helps me appreciate the little things and build up my mental health, is taking the time to reflect on the good and the positive. It's why I add one thing to be thankful for to my Gratitude Jar at the end of every day.

In what’s been a stressful month, I want to reflect on the moments that brought me joy over the past four weeks. So here are my May moments of happiness.

The sunshine!

Every time I felt the heat of the sun on my arm was special. We get so little sun in Ireland that 16° Celsius is considered shorts weather. We were blessed in May with a number of sunny spells and warm weekends. And I soaked it up. Thankfully, due to volunteering with the campaign to repeal the 8th, I got to spend a lot of time on those sunny days outside. When I wasn't volunteering, I explored the city in the sun (and saw the amazing overhead umbrellas), or lay out on the grass with a cider and a book.
Getting home for the first time in six weeks

Finally, on May 25th, I got home for the first time in AGES. And it was sunny that weekend which made it extra special. Highlights include:

  • My sister swimming in the lake.
  • Seeing my pets for cuddles. 
  • Meeting our new pet rabbit Billie Pickle. He jumps right up into your lap for cuddles.
  • Family dinner with my gran.
  • Ice cream.
Home truly is where my heart is, and with my weekend work finishing up now, I hope to spending a lot more time there over the summer.

The amazing women I met on the campaign trail to repeal the 8th.
May was one of the most empowering months of my life. I joined the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution in mid-April, and spent as much time as I could spare in May on the campaign trail. More than anything, it is the incredible women I met along the way that will stick with me forever. The strength, the laughs, the solidarity. The random acts of kindness we were blessed with - like donuts and ice-cream, or buying each other bottles of water or lucozade after a long canvass.

Walking Darkness Into Light
It seems like so long ago since me and some of the girls I work with got up at 3am for a 5k walk for suicide prevention. But on Saturday May 12th, that's exactly what we did.  I have always wanted to do Darkness into Light, but over the years I've always ended up working that Saturday. I've also battled with the idea of taking part in it. Would the walk be too emotional for me? Would it stir up old feelings of suicide and self-harm? Am I emotionally ready for this?

Turns out yes I was. While it was deeply moving, how could it not be, it was also inspiring and I proud to walk from darkness into the light with my friends.

Getting my reading mojo back
In March and April I really struggled to find the time and motivation to read. But in May this all changed. Maybe it the books I picked, or the fact that I needed escapism from a cruel and often callous campaign, but I read and read and read. My top pick of the month is the feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid that you didn't know you needed in your life - The Surface Breaks by Irish author Louise O'Neill. During May I also enjoyed Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Girl Before by JP Delaney.

Until next time,

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The mental health toll of the campaign to Repeal the Eighth

Many of you know, May has been a hectic month for me. Ireland held a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment of our constitution. The amendment equated the unborn’s life to that of the mother’s and thereby banning abortion in all circumstances (including rape, incest, women’s healthcare and a fatal foetal abnormalitiy, meaning the foetus will not survive outside the womb) unless her life was in immediate risk. Repealing the eighth amendment is how I spent my month, and I will always look back on the past six weeks with pride, knowing that I did what I could to ensure no more Irish women are denied care and support at home. A YES victory on May 26th didn’t bring me happiness, just relief. Relief that in future, we will care for our women in Ireland without forcing them to travel or to take illegal abortion pills without medical supervision and support.

The campaign took my free time and my money. But it also took a mental toll.

During the past six weeks I was called a slut, a whore, a murderer, a Nazi, as bad as Hitler. I was told to close my legs and then I wouldn’t need an abortion. I was shouted at, publicly prayed for and blessed. I was told my mother would have aborted me.

I had to listen to other women being attacked and torn down both online and offline. I stood beside a mother who had a termination, for a much-wanted pregnancy that would not survive outside the womb, being screamed at and called a murderer. I stood by her as she cried and tried to compose herself before moving on to the next door to knock.

And I listened to debates on national television about whether mental health was a real illness, a legitimate health concern. Elected politicians denied that mental health was real health, said that it has no 'evidence base'. ‘Vague mental health grounds’, 'undefined mental health grounds' was a term thrown around by psychiatrists to tarnish women and cast doubts about their deeply personal decisions. Many such decisions to terminate are made on mental health grounds – but there’s nothing vague about mental illness. These same psychiatrists said risk of suicide shouldn’t be grounds for an abortion just a few years ago.

I learned that stigma still exists around mental health, no matter how many organisations claim it has decreased. It continues to be used as a weapon against young women. A reason not to listen to them. Not to trust them. We have a lot of work to do to eradicate this attitude.

And I contemplated who the eighth amendment would impact me if my mental illness returned during a pregnancy – the medication I would be denied so it wouldn’t harm the foetus, the trauma of being told my baby wouldn’t survive but having to carry it to term, that I would be forced to contemplate suicide before this country would even consider helping me.

And throughout the campaign I felt my own mental health suffer.

Three weeks out from the vote and I became emotional. The names I’d been called finally sunk in and I’d lie on my bed and cry. I couldn’t sleep, and would toss and turn instead repeating arguments or things I should have said in my head. I cried on the phone to my mum as I asked finally worked up the courage to ask her how she was voting.

On other days, I would feel restless and useless if I wasn’t out volunteering, leafleting or canvassing. I’d wish I could do more, help more.

I had to force myself to take a day off from the campaign each week – a self-care day I called it.
Because just like if I’m ever pregnant or a mother someday, if I don’t look after my own mental health (however vague the anti-abortion campaign felt it was) then I can’t help anyone.  So on these days I would go to the gym and cycle out my anger and fear. I would make a healthy dinner and put on a face mask. I would read and avoid the TV debates as much as possible.

On May 24th, the day before the vote, I felt physically sick with nerves. The knots in my stomach twisting until I thought I would throw up.

The result on May 26th brought relief. Relief for women and families, but also for me. I am glad that it’s over and we never have to go through that again. Because now I have considerable work to do to build up my resilience again and protect my mental health. And I know countless other campaigners who now have to do the same. Many had to share private and personal stories, traumatic memories, to lend their voice to the campaign and secure a YES vote. A lot of healing needs to take place privately for these families. A lot of public learning and apologizing needs to take place for those of us with a mental illness to feel accepted.

For the past four days I have felt shaky and weak, jumpy at the smallest noise, on the verge of tears. I know that I need to process the past six weeks and make peace with it. And this is my first step.

Until next time,

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

A medication-free recovery

It’s time to start coming off my anti-depressants.

For the past seven years I’ve been on some form of medication for my mental illness. For the past six, I’ve been on the same dosage.

But coming off my medication hasn’t been an easy decision to make. In fact, up until recently I was adamant to stay on them eternally – if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. I’ve battled with guilt about giving them up when I’ve always been vocally pro-medication. I’ve battled with a fear that I could end up suicidal again. The last time I tried to come off them I went cold turkey - I just stopped taking them and I suffered from self-harm and suicidal thoughts returned.

But this year is also a year of change for me. I’m moving in with my partner in a month’s time. I’m moving to a different part of the city – and will need to find a new GP as a result. I’m leaving a job and home I’ve loved for the past five years. I want to start working towards my driver's license (a huge mental battle for me over the years).

So why now?

I’ve been happy and coping with my mental health for a long time now. I haven't had a breakdown in years, literally YEARS. Yes, I still feel sad, I have good days and bad days. But I have more good days now, they grow in number every year.

I've also heard some negative about long-term anti-depressant use and the effects this may have on my liver. I haven't researched this one, so it may or may not be true. But it did make me rethink why I'm staying on my medication. Is it a need? Or is it just the fear of what might happen without them?

I also want to take the next step in my recovery. I've always seen recovery as a journey, not a simple solution or a quick-fix. But my recovery has been stuck at one point on the journey for years now without progressing. It's time to keep going.

So I met with my GP, and we discussed my current medication and why I wanted to quit. We also talked about my fears and she made a very valid point.
*side note* Can we take a minute here to acknowledge those amazing doctors who are supportive of mental health issues? Who get it? Those who don’t force anything on you? Those who ask how you're getting on with your medication and what do you want to do ? 
She pointed out that this will not be the same as when I tried to quit six years ago. That I've built up coping skills, knowledge and tools to help me. That I have a support system. That we can manage it slowly and gradually.

And so we put together a plan. We decided that coming off all my medication must be done gradually, and will most likely take a year.

We set a short-term three month and a six-month plan. We'd reduce one medication slowly, and then stop it. And then we'll work on reducing medication number two.

Having a professional support and encourage me on this journey has been a huge help. I don't think I could do it without her. But now I also have to work on building my supports around me.

Today is day five on my lower dosage of medication. It's the start of the next part of my mental health journey.

Until next time,

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Why I Talk So Openly About My Mental Health

This month is Green Ribbon month - where See Change and their supporters encourage people to wear a green ribbon in support of those struggling with their mental health and to help us end the stigma around mental illness.

I've been an ambassador with See Change for about four years now. With See Change's support, I share my mental health story in interviews and in talks.

But for a long time I struggled to find meaning in my mental illness. I had suffered in silence for years.

While I struggled with my mental health throughout secondary school,  I never identified it as ‘I have a mental health problem’. It wasn’t something I was aware of, or even educated in.

My only understanding of mental illness as a teenager was how it was represented and portrayed in the media; asylums and straitjackets. Sinead O'Connor and Britney Spears going 'off the rails'. Being 'depressed' was bad and those people were not fun to be around.

As a result, years of bullying in school went unaddressed. Years of anxiety and sleepless nights were never mentioned. Years of low self-esteem, years of feeling isolated, years of hating myself.

When I moved away from home for college, these feelings escalated. My low moods began to affect me physically. I couldn’t sleep, I lost my appetite, and I started to throw up when I was nervous. Without a support network (friends or family) around me in college, I felt isolated and alone. I felt like I was 'missing out' on the college experience I was supposed to have.

I lost hope that things would ever get better and my thoughts turned to suicide. I didn’t know how to ask to help. I didn't know I was supposed to ask for help. I wasn’t sure anyone would help me.

It took a while for me to realise that what I was going through wasn't normal, I wasn't okay. Eventually, an old friend I got talking to convinced me to see a doctor. A diagnosis gave me relief and comfort. I learned this was an illness and that it was fixable. There was hope.

Before my diagnosis, and for months afterwards, I felt so alone. I felt like a failure. I'd disappointed those around me, I'd failed to have the ultimate college experience - whatever that was.

Once I started to see glimmers of recovery, I knew I had to turn my mental health into something positive.

I hated the thought of anyone feeling as alone, scared or lost as I was.

I hated the fact that people who were struggling, who needed help, didn’t know how to ask for or where to get support.

So I joined local campaigns to raise awareness of mental health issues and the supports available.

A few years later, when See Change invited me to join them as an Ambassador, I jumped at the opportunity. Together we could reach more people in dire need. I could show others that things do get better, not to give up hope like I had.

And every time I spoke, someone I didn’t know or who I had lost touch with over the years, would approach me and say ‘me too’. ‘I’ve been there’. ‘Thank you’.

So I would keep going. And I started this blog because I knew I had more to share. I had my whole journey to share. I had stigma to challenge and day-to-day struggles to document.

It’s been 7 years since my diagnosis. And I can’t stop talking about my mental health. It pours out of me.

Because over the years I've learned what was never taught to me in school -
Mental illness is normal; it isn’t something to be ashamed of.
I want to change the way we view, discuss and represent mental illness so that no one ever has to feel as alone as I did.

Find out more about the Green Ribbon campaign taking place all this month at

Monday, 30 April 2018

The 8th amendment is a mental health issue

Tomorrow, I'll begin work on a mental health awareness campaign for another year. The aim is to wear a symbol of support and hope; show a willingness to talk about mental health and end the stigma around mental illness. But this May the message could easily be lost amongst terms like '1 in 5', 'My Body My Choice' and 'Repeal the 8th'.

You see May is also about another huge issue in Ireland – Repealing the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution to allow for legislation to be brought forward for access to abortion. At the moment, a woman in Ireland can only access an abortion if there medical practitioners agree that their is an immediate risk to her health. As a result, roughly 9 women travel from Ireland to the UK for an abortion EVERY DAY, and another 3 women order pills online each day.

Both issues will be competing for national attention during the month of May. But to me both issues are inextricably linked.

You cannot support a woman’s mental health by forcing her to travel abroad for help and support.

You are not protecting a woman’s mental health by forcing her to take abortion pills alone, in secret.

Support for mental health includes promoting a person’s autonomy. Allowing them to make the decisions they need to make for both their physical and mental health with help, care and support. You hear a lot about self care in the field of mental health, but by restricting a person’s choices, you’re not supporting them.

By forcing someone to remain pregnant against their will, you’re detrimentally damaging their mental health and causing emotional distress. By calling them criminals, you’re chipping away at their mind and sense of self.

If you are someone who is already struggling with a mental illness, the 8th amendment means your only option is to keep the baby, or seek illegal help. At a time when your number one focus should be looking after yourself and recovering, you now have the added pressure of pregnancy with no choices or other options freely available.

The lack of safe and accessible abortion has been linked to increased risk of suicide. By denying them a choice, girls and women can feel left without options or without hope.
  • PS. There is no correlation between abortion and increased mental health problems.
  • Research stating abortion damages a person’s mental health or causes mental illness has been proven to be unfounded and inaccurate.
  • Research actually proves no link between having an abortion and developing mental health difficulties. (Source
  • This one’s been fact checked by enough journos thanks very much. 
Keeping the 8th means forcing women to try to access the care and support they need in secret and in fear. For those who can afford to travel, it comes with a huge price tag - one that could take weeks of saving to get to, or growing debt to repay after. Debt is a well-known contributor to mental health problems.
From Chris Noone
Keeping the 8th means forcing women to carry a fatal foetal abnormality to term, despite the heartache and severe mental toll it entails to know your baby isn’t going to survive. These are much wanted babies, but rather than allowing women to try again, they're forced to stay pregnant.

Keeping the 8th means forcing rape victims to carry the product of their rape for nine months. Pro-lifers call this ‘healing’, I call it traumatic mental torture.

Keeping the 8th means forcing a woman to remain pregnant unless a number of medical professionals agree that her life is at immediate risk (e.g. when a woman is about to take her own life). Keeping the 8th often means forcing a woman to suicide.

Abortion is a reality for Irish women – it’s happening both on our shores and abroad. But keeping it illegal means that you don’t value a woman’s physical or mental health. It means that you're denying her proper and safe medical supervision, aftercare and support. It means you’d rather see a woman suffer than make a decision you don't personally agree with.

But because she suffers in silence, you can pretend that it’s not happening. You can pretend that you don’t know a woman this has affected. That her forced pregnancy ‘helped her’. That she's okay now. That there are no mental effects of this. But she aches and she hurts.

Beibhinn Farrell, a psychotherapist, says this all much better than I ever could in her post 11 reasons why saving the 8th does not protect women or babies based on scientific facts.

The referendum on repealing the 8th amendment is taking place on 25 May. Make sure you're eligible to vote by 8 May at Check the Register.

Find out more about the campaign to repeal the 8th from Together for Yes.

Find out more about how the 8th amendment affects mental health from Psychologists for Choice.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

What I've been up to

I haven't visited my blog once in the past six weeks. There's been zero blog posts, few updates on Twitter and, to be honest, no motivation whatsoever to lay any thoughts down in writing. After a January & February full of blogging inspiration, my motivation died a quick and painful death on 1st March.

I haven't had the energy to write. Or the head space to think about writing. No ideas popped into my head. There was no advice or tips I wanted to share. I was just trying to get by, and daily life took over.

And yesterday, while pottering around my desk and doing some tidying up, I decided to write and share what's been going on in my head over the past six weeks.

*Here's the thing about blogging and running your own little part of the Internet. It's fun and therapeutic and you meet incredible like-minded people, but it can also bring stress and a sense of responsibility. My silence over the past six weeks made me feel like a failure at times, and I criticised myself harshly for not being able to write. I felt guilty for running out of meaningful things to say when it comes to mental health. But, I also know that it's MY little part of the Internet. I should be able to write and take breaks, and come back refreshed, when I want, without any sense of guilt. It should be okay to step away if that's what you need at any time. So while I want to fill you in on what's been happening over the past few weeks, I also know that I will no doubt dip in and out of the blog in future. This has never been a full-time gig for me; I've gained nothing from my writing other than clearing my head and gaining your support in response. So thank you, but please be patient with me.*  

So here's an update on what I've been up to for the past six weeks: 

Trapped for four days in intense Storm Emma.
There's a lot to say for fresh air, space and sunshine for your mental health. Being trapped with 25 kids for four days was a new experience, and at times suffocating. During the storm I needed a break away from people to clear my head, and so started my gradual shift away from social media and the blog. It was a much needed time out. But when the storm ended, I found I still needed space.

Avoided Social Media
Lately, social media, but particularly Twitter, has been difficult for me to use. The trolls got to me and I found myself suffocating beneath their vile. Whether it's vulgar discussions about rape trials, or cruel comments about murderous women who want an abortion, I couldn't take it anymore. My mental health was taking a hit.So I took a step back and stopped logging into the app. And it was good for the soul. Instead, I exercised, caught up on TV shows, and read loads of books. I had me time, and I'm so grateful for the space staying off social media gave my head.

Started tracking my mental health
On 1st April, I decided to start keeping track of my moods and feelings on a daily basis. I'd been promising myself for months that I would start doing this, but the time finally felt right. I found this fab template on Pinterest and printed out a couple of copies for the next few months.
At the end of every day I would colour in a segment of the circle with the colour that matched how I'd felt that day. The results surprised me. I'd expected a lot more sadness; partially because that's still how I see myself -- 'Sad Zoe'. The number of days where I was feeling content or happy, and just generally not tired/sick or sad without reason, made me realise that the time is right to start talking to my doctor about coming off my medication.

Talked about abortion a lot
Ireland's upcoming referendum to remove the 8th amendment from our constitution has been the only thing I've been able to talk about since the date was set. The 8th amendment equates the life of the unborn to that of the mother's, restricting access to abortion in Ireland under any circumstance, unless a woman can be proven to be suicidal. As a result, abortion in Ireland has been exported abroad, primarily to England, or imported in the form of illegal abortion pills. This referendum is our chance to finally repeal such a discriminatory law, and its injustice is all I've been able to talk about to friends, family and coworkers. This must obviously make me a bore, but I've decided to put my money and my time where my mouth is. I've donated to the campaign, bought from the shop, and have signed up to start volunteering and canvassing to secure a YES vote on May 25th.

Been on holiday to Malaga 
And amidst all of this, I took a four day holiday to Malaga. It was an incredible city break with sunshine and castles and the beach in a city I didn't know. I spent time exploring and just soaking up the atmosphere, eating tapas and drinking ridiculously cheap wine. Perhaps this is the break I needed to spark my writing?

Until next time, and hopefully it won't be so long,

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

My February mental health victories

February has come to an end. It was a month of highs and lows, and my mental health took a few hits along the way. There were days I didn't want to get out of bed, days where I canceled plans, and days where I had to push through a mental block and felt the better for doing it. But today I want to look back on my month and celebrate the little things that went right - my mental health victories.

I went to a Step class
In my February mental health plan I said I wanted to try new classes at my gym. So I was brave, and on the very first day of the month I went to my first ever Step class. It was so much fun, and a super tough workout. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make it back for a second one, but I can't wait to go back and step in March!

Gratitude Jar
I also set myself the challenge of filling a gratitude jar of things to be grateful for every single day of the month. And I did it! I have 28 reasons to be thankful this month, and each gratitude is a memory to look back on as well.

Got outside
Popular advice for helping your mental health. I'm really bad at taking this advice, but I did manage to grab some fresh air. I had the most amazing snow day at home with my pets. This was all the more special as it had been six weeks since I'd been home to see my family. I had another beautiful snow day in Dublin (there was a lot of snow in February)

I kept up my writing
After neglecting my blog last year and almost giving up, I was a bit worried January's blog enthusiasm would be short lived. But I kept writing and, even better, I keep coming up with ideas for future blog posts. Blogging regularly has been a real source of pride for me this month, so thank you all for caring enough about what I say to make this hobby worthwhile.

This month I have enjoyed channeling my creative side by making the time to collage. I've always loved scrapbooking and making collages, so I love that I've rediscovered this hobby. One of my creations from this month was an autumnal themed page below.

Until next time and next month,

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Positive thinking won't cure your depression

"Also, I was in possession of a positive outlook, which is just a trick whereby you convince yourself that the desolution of your world is a phase in your personal growth. The weird thing is it works." - Sam Lipsyte 'The Fun Parts'
I've just finished another self-help book that promises to hold the keys to findings happiness. And it got me thinking.

One of the most annoying and frequent things you hear when you have depression and anxiety is “Don’t be so negative.” Or maybe you hear “look on the Brightside.”

I get it; I’m not the most optimistic person on the planet. I don’t gush about making the most of all opportunities or finding the one good thing in a shitty situation. And I never will. I consider myself more of a realist if I’m honest.

Now I don’t know about you, but despite being told to be more positive on countless occasions and trying not to think that the worst may happen, I’m still depressed and anxious.

You see, I think positive thinking is overrated. It’s lauded as the saviour to mental health problems, when in reality it’s more like slapping a mentally ill person across the face with the false promise of the happiness they could have had if their brain was wired differently.

Positive thinking will not cure your mental illness. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its benefits.

I did fall victim to the self-help cult of positivity. I thought that if I read enough books on the subject I would absorb at least a little bit of optimism and happiness. I can’t say I didn’t learn anything, but I certainly didn’t learn how to stop being depressed.

Over three years ago, when my depression first started to ease and I could smile and laugh and feel happiness again, I decided to start reading every self-help book I could get my hands on. I wanted this feeling to last, I wanted my mental illness to stay in ‘recovery’, not to be a daily struggle. So I read and tried to put what I read into practice.

I focused on building resilience. How to make myself stronger in the face of depression and anxiety. I was forging armour for the next time I had to go into battle with my mind.

I learned that I have negative thinking patterns, and spiralling thoughts. And I learned how to challenge negative intrusive thoughts. This is important and a huge skill. But self-help books are all too rarely written from the perspective of someone who has a mental illness. 

And often these skills fail you when you need them most.

When my depression returned to smother me, when I curled up in bed with a self-inflicted migraine and dreaded the next day - telling myself to 'think positively’ didn’t help. When I felt anxious and scratched myself enough to break the skin on my arms, I couldn’t challenge those negative thoughts. When I felt the weight of my mental illness on my shoulders, I felt guilty for not being the positive, happy person those self-help books were supposed to make me.

But yesterday when I was sitting in the canteen in work and thought, “Everyone here must hate me” I could challenge that thought and rationalise how illogical that EVERYONE hates me. Maybe one or two don’t like me, but they probably don’t care enough to hate me.

Positive thinking is something we should be doing every day - not only as a last resort. It’s one of the many coping skills you learn on the path to recovery. But we also should think twice about shoving positivity down the throats of people with mental illness. It’s not always helpful, and can cause more harm than good.

Until next time,

Monday, 19 February 2018

Are We Happy Yet? Another self-help book promising the keys to happiness

Are We Happy Yet? 8 Keys to a Joyful Life

I've just finished reading Are We Happy Yet? by Lisa Gypes Kamen, yet another self-help book that I thought could teach me the magic skill of rewiring my brain for happiness.

I had high hopes for Are We Happy Yet?. Gypes Kamen reveals early on in the book that she's had her own mental health battles. Self-help books from the perspective of someone who has battled depression are all too rare. I thought that finally, I had found a book written with mental illness and depression in mind. Finally a book that didn't say I should just think positively and think happy thoughts to be happy.
“As a reformed depressed person, I did not wander into my happy place. There was a personal evolution to my happiness revolution.”
The fact that she says 'reformed depressed person' should have been my warning sign that I was wrong.

While Gypes Kamen said she wanted to debunk the annoying yellow "smiley face" notion of happiness, the book does go there.

Apparently there are eight keys to living a joyful life. Who knew that I just had to do eight things to find happiness! In fact some of the tips contained within the eight keys are quite thought provoking. I particularly found the emphasis on not holding grudges and learning not to complain useful, because I am a serial complainer. It made me think about how I can improve my constant need to complain and whine.

But the book also delivers cheesy self-help jargon like - "Happy people are resilient people", or how you should choose to thrive rather than mainly survive.

I liked that the book was full of practical tools like journaling and writing prompts. Early on you're asked to define your happiness factor - you natural level of happiness - through 65 questions. Similar quizzes are evident throughout the book, but how these can be considered in anyway scientific isn't clear. Readers are also encouraged to build a happiness toolkit, another practical and useful activity.

What I didn't like however, was the notion that you can cultivate happiness by playing happy music (because listening to happy music apparently makes it impossible to feel sad).

If you haven't read a lot of self-help books and want to dip your toe in, Are We Happy Yet? might be for you. It references lots of other books and authors, and the level of topics in there is like multiple self-help books rolled into one.

Are We Happy Yet? got me thinking about happiness in my own life.
Am I doing enough of what makes me happy? And what am I looking for when I read these self-help books promising happiness? But I can't say I feel happier having read it.

Until next time,

**I requested to review Are We Happy Yet? from Netgalley.**   

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Why it's okay to put yourself first

Do you ever feel guilty about putting yourself first?

Growing up as kids, we're always told from parents and teachers not to be selfish and to put others before yourself. And it's a great tool to be taught - it helps us make friends and learn about friendship on the playground.

But when you struggle with your mental health, sometimes it's good to be selfish. Sometimes we have to be selfish. And what we've been taught as kids can make us feel guilty and ashamed of this.
Ever made up an excuse to cancel plans with a friend because you didn't feel up for it? 
Or wanted to give up on your to-do plans and just crawl into bed after a day in work or college? 
Or tried to avoid your housemates after a tough day because you don't have the energy for small talk? 
Or felt like you had to lie to your work colleagues when they ask what you did at the weekend, rather than admit to the time you spent doing nothing by yourself?
And if you're like me, you probably felt like a bad person, a weak person and incredibly guilty.

Sometimes I just need a 'me night'. A night away from work, from friends and my partner. A night off from the gym and with nothing on my to-do list. I try to make sure I have at least one night like this a week. And when that evening comes around I do whatever I feel like doing. Whether it's curling up with a cup of tea and Netflix, colouring in or crafting, heading straight for bed at 7pm or maybe spending a few hours stuck in a book. It helps me to recover and rest after a long day. It ensures I can face tomorrow.

On bad weeks when I'm low and struggling with my mental health, sometimes I need two nights. And that's just midweek. I also crave one a night like this on weekends too.

And yes, I have had to cancel plans with friends to get this 'me time'. Usually with the flimsiest of excuses of working late or not feeling well, and then I've felt inadequate when I respond to my work colleagues questions with 'oh, nothing much'.

Sometimes I have to withdraw to look after my mental health. If it prevents me from burning out or breaking down, why should I feel guilty or flawed for that?

Self care is more than making a cup of tea or running a bath.
Often it’s broken down to these small acts. And while small acts are important, self care is so much more than that.

Self care is doing what helps your mental health, what makes you feel better and what allows you to get through another day. Sometimes all you need is a cup of tea. Maybe a chat with a friend. But other times, you need to withdraw and take the time to rebuild your defenses. So say no, take a night off and allow yourself the time and space to heal.

Self care is putting yourself first. You know better than anyone what you need to improve your mental health. It will differ from moment to moment and day to day, but do what your mental health needs. If it's canceling plans or hiding out in your bedroom for a bit, do it. And don't feel guilty or like you're failing as a person for it. It's not selfish to prioritise your mental health over tasks, social events or other people's expectations.

But self care is also making sure that putting yourself first doesn't mean you make a habit of isolating yourself. While I need my one night a week for me, I also know that seeing friends or having a chat with housemates boosts my mood on other days. I don't want to become isolated and cut-off, so I try to find a balance.

It's okay to take time out for you. It's okay to put yourself first, to withdraw for a bit and come back healthier and better able to face the next day.

You matter, so make you and your mental health a priority.

Until next time,

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Love yourself this Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and I’m here to say DO NOT LET IT GET YOU DOWN. Whether you are single, broken hearted, or waiting for a match on Tinder, don't let a day about grand romantic gestures and loving another human dictate your self-worth.

Instead, show some love to yourself this Valentine's Day.

One thing I learned during my two years of singledom was that I'd never have a healthy relationship unless I loved myself first, rather than allowing another person's love define me. I had built my mental health around relationships and male approval. In school I felt like a failure for not having kissed a boy, and then for not having a boyfriend, and then for not having sex. When I finally got male attention, I dived straight in.

I had two break ups in my late teens, both leading to breakdowns resulting in self-harm and suicide attempts. While I had depression before and during these relationships, being with someone was the only thing keeping me alive. I had thought my mental illness made me unlovable. And so I felt worthless without a partner because I hadn’t yet learned to love myself.

Three years later and two years of being single and I learned that I was never going to have a truly happy, healthy relationship without learning to like myself when I didn't have a partner around. Over those years I invested time and energy in self-care and building self-esteem. When I finally met someone new, it was because I felt ready to invite someone else into my life. Although I knew I'd still need a lot of self-care and me-time.

Now here I am — 25, in a healthy relationship and happy.

So this Valentine's Day why not work on self-love rather than validation from another person?
Take the time to re-build yourself, feel empowered and loved.

It's time to get cheesy and love yourself.

Here's some of my suggestions for treating yourself this Valentine's Day.

Write yourself a letter
You know how your parents (or grandparents if you're younger than me...) used to write each other love letters when they were courting? Well I think it's adorable and a lost art. Write yourself a love letter this Valentines full of self-praise, encouragement and compliments. Because you are awesome and you deserve to be told so.

Buy yourself a bouquet of flowers
One summer's day a few years ago as I walked past a flower stall on the street, I realised I had always wanted someone to by me flowers. But so far, no one ever had. So I decided to buy myself a sun flower and it felt so good to have a beautiful flower to take home and display. Make a splurge and treat yourself to the bouquet of flowers you've always wanted.

Jar of why you love you
Need a pick-me-up? Why not make a jar of positive reasons you love yourself to look at on your bad days? I washed out and decoupaged an old jam jar (and made it look suitably cheesy), and printed and cut out strips of paper saying 'I love you because....'. Write down as many reasons you love yourself for you (your eyes, how you cope under pressure etc.) that it takes to fill up the jar. And you'll always have them when the going gets tough.

Pamper session
I'm talking fresh sheets on your bed, a bubble bath, face masks, do your nails. Whatever it is that makes you feel more confident in how you look, do it. Body positivity affects mental health, and cultivating a healthy body image is so important. Treat yourself and do what makes you feel good and comfortable in you.

Create a self-care box
A self-care box can be anything you want it to be. All you need is a box, and all the things that bring you comfort and make you feel better. My self-care box contains a journal, some of my favourite herbal teas, a packet of nerds, hot chocolate, a small colouring book and a letter to my future self to read on hard days. Not only is it cute and pretty, but it’s just a relief to know you have a safe place to turn when you’re feeling down. See more on creating a self care box here.

Get an early night
Sleep is underrated. You deserve the best, so get into bed early and catch up on your rest. 

Until next time,

Monday, 5 February 2018

Hey, guess what? I’m still depressed!

I know that I'm always smiling in my Instagram photos. And that all my recent blog posts have been focused on mental health improvements and victories.

But hey, guess what? I’m still depressed!

Depression isn't the mask you show the world. The reality of living with a mental illness isn't even always evident on a mental health blog.

Being depressed doesn’t mean I’m sad all the time.
It doesn’t mean I cry myself to sleep, or that I can’t sleep. I take medication that makes me hungry and makes me sleep.

This is what depression looks like

Being depressed means that for no logical reason, I still wake up sad, lacking hope and motivation and feeling like a failure.
It means that my natural level of happiness is lower than the average person. 
That I still doubt and hate myself.
That one small comment or act can send me in a thought spiral until I'm convinced the world hates me.
That I can't pick myself back up when life knocks me down.
That I need a lot of alone time to be able to function.
That my thoughts and feelings can make me physically ill.
That I can go through entire days and weeks in a trance without registering what's going on around me.
That sometimes I live on autopilot with thinking, feeling or experiencing.
That I smile with my mouth but not with my eyes; while inside I feel self-conscious, judged, stupid, inferior.
That I feel worthless.
That I feel like I don't deserve happiness.
That I can be in a crowded room, filled with people I know, and still feel utterly alone.
That some days I can't feel anything.

It means that I live in fear of the depression winning.

I'm not doing better than you. I'm not a pinnacle of mental health recovery. Don't let my smiles and positivity fool you. I try to keep my content positive by sharing what helps my mental health in the hope that it will help others who are struggling.

I'm still struggling too. I still have bad days, hard days, horrible days. I'm still depressed. I'm still battling, living with and surviving my depression.

Until next time,

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Debunking the mental health myths

As a mental health activist, I'm aware that there are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to mental health. For one, we all have mental health (whether good or bad), and mental health should not be synonymous with mental illness. So when I finished a new book all about psychology myths, I knew I'd have to talk about it.

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein debunks what a lot of us actually believe about human behaviour and mental illness.

Psychological myths can be dangerous. What people think is true about mental illness can perpetuate the stigma and cause harm. And this is the bread and butter of this book - challenging stereotypes that exist thanks to misleading popular culture. Whether its news stories in the media, or what we consume in books and films, what we consume shapes how we think and feel about an issue.

For example, one stigmatising myth that keeps popping up in the media these days is that people with mental illness are dangerous. Whether it's terrorists, murderers, or even President of America, Donald Trump - lately the media is reinforcing the idea that mental illness is dangerous and is used as a justification for heinous crimes (Yes I did say heinous crimes like I was doing the Law & Order voiceover).
Myths like "most mentally ill people are dangerous" are debunked with science, evidence and facts.
And the book tackles this one, because there is no evidence that someone with a mental illness is more dangerous than someone without one. And people with a mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of, rather than the perpetrators, of violence. Yet the media coverage virtually guarantees that many people will think “violence” whenever they hear “mental illness” (Ruscio, 2000). And now I have sources and quotes aplenty for every time I have this argument on Twitter. (Which is a lot.)

That's not the only myth the book tackles - there are 50 of them after all. The media has also shaped, and mislead, public opinion about ECT (electric convulsive therapy) and schizophrenia.
"The misleading stereotype of schizophrenics as persons who act like two completely different people on different occasions has become ingrained in modern culture."
It also lists 10 sources of psychological myths, such as where they come from and why they exist, so that you can bust them yourself.

My favourite thing about the book was that all the self-help nonsense that has sold millions of books and that I've been buying into for years is debunked with clinical trials and research. It definitely helped me to unlearn old habits of thinking. For example, dismissing the 5 stages of grief, or challenging the validity of IQ tests. The book also details the harm these beliefs can lead to - like if we all just dismiss teenager's mood swings as 'normal', it may stop them from seeking and receiving the help and support they may need.

If you have an interest in stigma or even in the science and evidence behind popular beliefs, this book is a good read. It's also filled with puns, which always makes science a bit more fun!

Until next time,

Thursday, 1 February 2018

How I'm looking after my mental health this February

Rather than large, unrealistic New Year's Resolutions, I like to break down my plans for happiness and mental health into realistic sizes that I can work on each month. 

My January 2018 was a good mental health month because I had a plan in place, habits to track and goals to achieve. So for February I'm doing the same.

This month I want to build on what I achieved in January. I'm working on my self-confidence, journaling, bettering myself in work and staying motivated.

Mental Health tracking.
As previously discussed on the blog, I'm thinking about coming off my anti-depressants this year, I need to start tracking my mental health. Whether its low moods, or days when I feel ecstatic, I need to become more aware of my good and bad days. 

Find something to be grateful for everyday.
I started a gratitude jar last month, but it was a sporadic place to put things I felt grateful for when I remembered to. But I want more that that. For February I want to find something to add to my gratitude jar every day. 

Try new gym classes.
All of January I went to the same gym class, all be it on different days. But it's time to shake things up. I want to keep motivation up so it's time to be brave and try new classes. My gym has so many classes to offer, but I like familiarity so I always attend the one I know. 

Keep writing.
After a year of turmoil with the blog (where I felt uninspired and contemplated giving up), I suddenly, and somehow re-found my blogging spark in January. I hadn't intended to start writing. But once I started, I couldn't stop. And I don't want to stop. There is something therapeutic about writing  and something calming about the structure and routine it brings to my life. I've really missed this sense of achievement. I also want to keep writing offline too like in my 52 Lists Project.

Eat better.
I'm sick of eating junk food and then feeling guilty about it. So I decided to donate (to some very willing kids) all of my bags of popcorn, chocolates and biscuits I had in my room. I'm not about to give up all my favourite foods - Galaxy chocolate is still allowed in as big a quantity as I want, I still have some packs of jellies, and I will always consider McDonalds as the first option when I wanna grab some takeaway. This is about getting rid of the junk food I don't even like, the stuff I just eat for the sake of eating. I'm talking a bag of sweet popcorn, Crunchie bars and KitKats, all that stuff in my biscuit tin I've been working my way through for the past few months. And I feel great for having gotten rid of it. 

Professional life.
I want to keep building my confidence in the workplace and in my professional life this month. To this end I've submitted a training plan for February so that I can increase my skills and feel confident and comfortable, and in control, in my day-to-day job. I also want to update my CV. It's been over a year since I last had to submit a CV, and I've learnt and achieved a lot since then - so it's time to revise.  

Be creative.
Whether it's taking pretty blog pictures, or making cards or collages, I loved making time to create in January. But I want more of that. I want more nights dedicated to scrapbooking, and to have more than two collages to show for a whole month. I find cutting and gluing and sticking and creating so relaxing and calming for me. It keeps me busy and my mind quiet. I also want to keep creating content for my blog; be it photos or original new posts. 

Do you set monthly goals? Or do you have new things you want to try to improve your mental health this month? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time,

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Why January was a good mental health month

As January comes to a close, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the first four weeks of 2018.

And it was a good one. My mental health is in a great place. I feel strong and prepared and ready for the year ahead. My January goals gave me focus and helped me to take small steps towards improving my mental health, and in turn my life.

Here's why January was a good mental health month:

I started going to the gym (again!). We all know that exercise has proven benefits for your mental health, but it's hard to keep the motivation up. This month I didn't pressurize myself. If I got to the gym once a week, that was a victory. And I'd encourage myself to do some squats or ab workouts before bed, just so I could say I did something most days. Rather than feeling guilty about not exercising enough, I focused on doing a little bit whenever I could. I also made sure I went to a class I liked, not one I felt I had to go to, with an instructor I liked. It's a change in attitude to see exercise not as something I had to do, but as something I wanted to.

Time with friends. After realising I was isolating myself and finding socialising hard, I made more of an effort to text friends regularly. Instead of letting weeks pass between contact, I'd message them and see how they are getting on. And I'd record my efforts in a daily tracker to make sure I didn't go more than a day without reaching out to someone. I also got to see an old friend I hadn't seen in nine months, and it was so much fun - like we'd never been apart at all. Definitely a boost to my social confidence.

But I also wasn't afraid to say no. Rather than feeling compelled to accept every social invite, I also said no when I needed to and put myself first.

Drinking enough water. I also kept a daily log of how much water I was drinking. While I'm good at sipping away when I'm in work, I usually neglect my water intake on weekends when I don't have my bottle of water in front of me. Staying hydrated definitely keeps my mind clear and helps me get through each day.

Cooked for myself. I love cooking, but between two jobs I usually don't get a lot of time for it. So instead I started to do meal prep on weekends and freeze dinners and lunches for the week. Always find a way to make room for the things you love in life.

Gratitude jar. Everyone should keep a gratitude jar or journal. Recording reasons to be thankful and gracious is humbling, and always reminds me why I should keep going. This month gratitude extended to friends, hugs, the most amazing homemade gin, and my two-year anniversary with my boyfriend.

Building my confidence in work. I've a rough few months in my work life, with my confidence in the office hitting a low just before Christmas. I wanted to tackle this in 2018, so I started a list. (You may have noticed I love lists and trackers). I kept a record of compliments, comments and positive achievements that happened all month. Reading back over the list reminds me that I am capable, and I am good enough. Don't let self-doubt get you down.

I wasn't afraid to treat myself. January can often be a tough month, and with that in mind, I decided to generously treat myself when I needed a pick-me-up. Whether it was a hot chocolate on a cold, stormy night, a new nail varnish, or a new desk organiser just because, I didn't sacrifice treats just because I had a savings goal this month. Remember that self care also means spending a bit of money on yourself sometimes.

 How was your January? Did you find that your January goals helped your mental health this month?

Until next time,

Sunday, 28 January 2018

I don't know whether I should come off my antidepressants or not

One of the most common topics on my blog is medication.
I often find myself writing about anti-depressants and defending their use. No one questions the use of medication for physical illness with the same vehemence they do for mental illness. This remains one area where stigma remains strong.

I'm proud to take anti-depressants for my mental illness. I'm not ashamed. And I've always been open about it.

But it's been 7 years, and at some point my health would be better served without medication. There are some long-term side effects from using anti-depressants, such as blood disorders and liver damage.

So after 7 years, I'm starting to wonder if the time to stop is now?

It's been two years since I've had a breakdown. Yes, my mental health has been poor on occasions since, but everyone's mental health takes hits and dips. I haven't felt helpless, hopeless or had thoughts of suicide for over two years.

After a seven-year struggle, I now have more good days than bad. I've developed coping skills. I've found strategies that help, and I know what I should be doing for good mental health, even if I don't always do it.

But the thought of quitting is scary.

I've been on my current dosage of medication for about six years now, seven years since I started taking anti-depressants. What will happen when I change the chemicals in my brain?

I've also only been with my current doctor (GP) for just over a year now. It took me a long time to find someone who was and who I trusted. But my GP doesn't know my full mental health history. She wasn't there for the bad times. How can she advise on what's right for me if I have only ever been in a good place when I've been her patient? I know that you should never go 'cold turkey' off antidepressants on your own, without the support of a healthcare professional. But is this the right person to support me now?

And how do you know when the right time is right?
One of the joys of depression is that it could reoccur at any time. Quitting means balancing the risk of relapse. And there is nothing scarier than the thought I could end up in the horrifying pit of darkness that was me at my worst. 

I also worry about whether I'll be seen as a hypocrite for deciding to quit. I've been so vocal about taking medication for my mental illness, that stopping taking them looks like I don't support their use.

Articles I found online about stopping anti-depressants call the decision a 'personal choice'. But this is not something I can decide on my own. I will need the full support of my friends and family, but especially my partner if I'm to get through this. I could need time off work, time to recover (again), time to go back to therapy. Coming off medication is a slow process which takes time, as this advice from Dean Burnett writing in the Guardian says:
"Take it slow, get help and advice, do it gradually and carefully. It’s not like ripping off a bandage or plaster, one sharp shock and it’s all over. It’s more like slamming your brakes on while in the fast lane of the motorway: it may be safe in other scenarios, but you’re currently in a situation where that’s extremely hazardous."
It's like facing the great unknown. I could sink or I could swim. But I guess you never know until you try?

Until next time,