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