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,