Sunday, 17 July 2011


To me, statements like "you're too sensitive" are used by people who want to divert attention from you to themselves because they mostly come from those who lean on me for their troubles but who, spend little or no time at all listening in return.

Then there are others who constantly ask what it is I am thinking or feeling only to protest and launch into criticism if I come up with something they don't like.

Both these things are indicative of the human condition. A vital step forward toward being confident, self assured and in control is to recognize and take ownership of what is ours to think, feel and believe regardless of how others may view us. In essence it is to assert those things as belonging to us but without imposing, expecting or demanding that anyone else should think, feel or believe the same.

By so doing we become independent and claim our identity for exactly what it is, a unique collection of those experiences that define who we really are.

It requires a courage of conviction to stand by everything we express for the moment of that expression. It doesn't mean we can not change our minds for, as we go through life many things can play a part in altering, developing, influencing and shaping our characters. That includes honing our what becomes our ethical values.

Recently I felt hauled over the coals for expressing my feelings and impressions over some new people who have just entered my life. "A lot of preconceived ideas you've got there." was the comment. Absolutely, but I own that I have them because all people do. I think it impossible to avoid accumulating preconceptions no matter how much we may try to to avoid being judgmental. Experiences teach us what we like and dislike; what to trust or mistrust, what is good for us and what is potentially harmful.

Nor can we avoid making those judgments on what our instincts and feelings are telling us. What we can do and, I think it right to do, is take note of those feelings, then take a step back from them to check if they are logical, with or without foundation or 'fair'. What we can not ever hope to do successfully is change what we think and feel, believe or our behaviour to suit others. Already my feelings have changed as I learn more about my these new people, so much so that it's caused me to stop and register what it is I am thinking as well as feeling. I often think feelings come first and thoughts after but to stop register what exactly it is that I am thinking, in my opinion, is a sign that feelings are strong enough to merit a little time spent in that process.

All feelings are transient unless we feed them. To love or hate another requires us to devote time and energy to build upon a simple like or dislike. A maxim I picked up early on in counselling was "we dislike in others what we dislike about ourselves." I dislike others being judgmental of me, even though I am equally judgmental of them as meeting these new people has reminded me.

I am not an inwardly confident person despite, in some circumstances appearing to be outwardly. Too many years of trying to be what others have wanted of me instead of listening to what I have felt was right for me has contributed to that. However, in recent years I have begun to listen and begun to accept that I too have a right to express who I am even at the risk of displaying my frailties, shortcomings and faults. Be I right or wrong about any and all (people and events) I meet or encounter.

I have learnt too that I am a person who is never so rigid and inflexible as to not consider that there can be, and often are, different ways of seeing and interpreting the world around us. Some perspectives may seem more right than others, but the truth is all perspectives are equally valid. 'Equally' is a harder concept to grasp that it might at first appear as, equally means accepting that someone who holds the exact opposite view to yourself is entitled to do so. And they are entitled precisely because of their unique set of experiences and their responses to those experiences.

Concepts of ethically 'right' or morally 'wrong' only start to come into play when we look at what social and cultural code of conduct is acceptable within the wider community in which we live.

An essential ingredient toward being happy is learning to happy in our own skins. Happy with whatever feelings, thoughts, beliefs, opinions and behaviours we collect, shape and claim as our own.

It's important to have the courage to follow what we feel in any given moment, but wise to review those feelings whenever they are are biased in any way at all. That way leads to balance and achieving a balanced view is essential to empowering us all to having control over our lives. Rash responses are (in my opinion) to be avoided. It doesn't mean we shouldn't 'throw caution to the wind' but it does mean we do so with the knowledge that we are doing so which sounds a bit of a paradox but doesn't need to be. By looking at a situation in general as well as from a personal perspective we can choose to 'go for it', but only after that period of reflection which should highlight the pitfall and possible consequences of our actions.

At present I am steeling myself. I am contemplating a major change in my life which would (if events go in my favour) result in my relocating. I have another option of playing safe of avoiding the risks that always come with moving to pastures new in any form. Most of my friends consider me to be rash for even contemplating such an action, for daring to dream such a life change is possible especially as there are no guarantees that it is even possible at this point. In weighing up my options though I have concluded that I am no worse off for trying to effect this change. The worst that can happen is that I stay more or less exactly where I am. When that's the bottom line I figure there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking the chance. Is it really that much of a risk to look at such options more closely? I would argue not.

I'm bearing in mind too that those who believe me to be rash are looking at it from their perspective, not mine as they are not me. They only have partial knowledge of my situation, history, ethics and beliefs as is the case with everyone I know to a greater or lesser degree. Finally though, after a decade of battling with and overcoming mental illness with the larger part of it being battling the stigma and the assumptions that come from it, I have the courage of my convictions to explore, to take ownership for my decisions and live by them.

I don't have any less respect for the opinions of others, in many ways I have more; but what I do have now is the confidence to live my life for what I want from it and to do so in a way that does not negate anyone else's needs including (for the first time), my own. I have learnt that those who truly have my best interests at heart, as well as my happiness will always be supportive. Those that don't have little business being part of my life. So, for as long as you can say you intend, cause and mean no harm to others I would advocate following your own heart and ultimately be true to yourself.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Happiness is not a foreign land

One of the biggest challenges of all to anyone who has suffered long term or even recurring episodes of mental illness is to become receptive to the possibility of joy, happiness or pleasure ever happening in their lives. For some it becomes something that only ever happened in the past and could not possibly happen again. For others they feel they have no knowledge of such things at all.

Both statements are untrue. You have to have some knowledge of the concept of joy for you to be aware that it is not currently a part of your life. If it happened in the past it proves it exists and therefore it can happen again and again and again. However when depression is associated and linked to a loss of someone or something that made you happy it can be a long haul and seem nigh on impossible to let it stand a chance of re-entering your life.

Dwelling on the past and only the past can ruin your chances of happiness both in the here and now and in the future. The loss of a beloved home doesn't mean you can't love another home. It becomes harder of course when dealing with the loss of a loved one, but loved ones who love or loved you would want for your happiness, even a child would and that is the key to moving on. Do so as a memorial to that lost love as well as for yourself.

The other barrier that prevents us from allowing pleasure to even get a look in is the feeling that we don't merit it. The causes behind such feelings are often deep rooted and it is common to feel that we can not enjoy life unless others are happy first. Perhaps they are waiting for you to be happy though? Perhaps the best way to help others is by being positive about looking after yourself as by doing so you stop being a doormat for others to wipe their shoes on and start leading by example and earning respect.

This might seem a harsh statement to make, but no one can help anyone who does not want to be helped and many of us (myself included albeit subconciously) fall into the habit of expecting help. I believe that most people want to be in control of their own lives and do not want things decided for us. Yes, there are occasions when we need help, yes there are occasions when we want to and rightly do help others, but as with just about everything it is a question of balance and of setting boundaries to safeguard our own wellbeing.

And then there are thoughts like "How can I be happy when I know there are others suffering from bullying, torture, cruelty, loneliness and all forms of misery?" Such thoughts I found extremely difficult to move away from until I accepted that I am only one person and therefore can not cure the world of all it's ills, nor indeed can I even cure those closest to me of their pain and suffering. I do what I can, where and when I can and that 'when' is only possible if I am at my best, because not to be could make things worse for the very people I am trying to help. Ultimately the only person we can truly say we are 100% responsible for and control the happiness of, is ourselves.

For me the recovery from mental illness is not and can not be said to complete until I have enjoyed life again. I do not believe we can impart solutions to things we have not found answers to ourselves. I feel there are false advocates of positivity when they have not been positive about themselves. I have been one, all sufferers while they are ill are. I always recommend seeking professional help with regard to mental illness and not to only rely upon laymen or even other sufferers. Professionals are the only ones that have the experience to guide us all the way through to brighter and happier days once we have become clinically ill.

I don't doubt and acknowledge that there are many who have found nothing to help, motivate or inspire them in this blogsite, but I hope some have if only by means of other sources of support.

Here's how I made my first step to welcoming happiness back into my life... I caught myself smiling and began to tell myself not to feel guilty for it and in that moment I burst into tears for the pain I'd gone through. When I was done I smiled some more and soon found my smile helped others to do the same.

It is important to acknowledge our sadness and pain, but just as important (vital for a happy future) to also acknowledge all the things that cheer and soothe us too. It's the combination that makes a person true and complete. We appreciate the good things all the more, are grateful for them once we have left the bad experiences in the past where they belong.

In short, all experiences are valuable. We learn from the negative ones what we don't like or want in our lives and from the good ones what to look out for in order to work toward and achieve a happier existence.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Response Aware

Much as I would love to, I know I can not change somethings about myself, nor change everything I want to with a wave of a magic wand. Among the 'don't wants' are not wishing to become an automated machine of routine which is quite ironic when one considers how habitual we are all are in our reactions and responses to the world, circumstances and events that affect us.

As we become more conscious of our responses so we start to gain the power of choice over how and what we react to.

It may well be 'natural' to find it aggravating to have someone push in front of you in a queue, when you too are in a hurry, but do you need to spend the day fuming about the incident afterwards? Do you need or want a confrontation with that person when it happens?

The answer sometimes seems to be 'yes' because that person has inadvertently provided you with a vehicle to vent frustration. But the magnitude of that frustration can be routed in something totally unrelated so the poor sod could well find themselves confronted with an angry tirade simply for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place when you're in the wrong mood to put up with it. In that split second, the last straw snaps and so too do you.

By becoming more aware of how we react and why; how we sell, share, represent and introduce ourselves we take the first step toward learning how we can affect the changes we want to to become that 'dream' person we may have always wanted to be and get closer to reaching our full potential. By recognizing the misplacement of our reactions, or why they may have reached intense levels we take the first step toward finding better coping strategies, better outlets and thereby gain more control of our own futures.

Leaving the Victim Mindset
In counselling this week I confessed to having used the fact that I've been mentally ill for sympathy in the past. I also used it as an excuse in my own mind for not having done something well and have fallen foul of feeling hard done by and that the world owed me some form of compensation for the troubles I've had.

Why should it though? The rest of the world is made up of people who have troubles too, some greater than mine, some lesser. It's natural to have feelings of hurt, disappointment and even betrayal but it does not follow that the world is either to blame or that it should make amends in any way.

If a person is diagnosed with cancer it would be unreasonable to blame the world for it, and the same is true of mental illness. Sure there are factors that don't help. Smoking for puts a person at greater risk of cancer and likewise bullying and abuse can be a factor toward becoming mentally ill, but it's not the whole story. There is a susceptiblity, a genetic factor too because if there wasn't there wouldn't be examples of people who do not let these misfortunes take over their lives.

I know of a case of a rape victim who, instead of allowing that event to prevent her from living her life to the full, became more determined than ever to push herself to embrace it. She did so by diminishing the rape to a one off unpleasant physical experience of no greater impact to her than having a tooth out at the dentist. Such can be the power of our own thought processes. Admittedly it is rare for people to be that strong and that determined but we can all help ourselves by becoming defiant about not letting misfortune interrupting what we were doing.

Just as this rape victim turned her anger over her abuse did, so can a cancer sufferer become angry with the illness instead of the world and so too can we over mental illness become angry with the illness for holding us back.

That said, I still believe much could be done to reduce the risk of suffering of any kind through increased awareness. I advocate only looking at causes of suffering as a means toward developing better strategies to deal with it, both for those who suffer in learning how to cope and for the rest of the world to work toward an ethos of prevention and better levels of recovery. I hope and believe psychology will continue to play a bigger and more proactive part to that end.

As for myself, by admitting out loud that I have unwittingly slipped into 'victim mentality' I have taken the first step toward breaking free of it. When I balls up now, I intend to take ownership of it for just being human and fallible and not attributing it to my having been mentally ill. Sure it would be nice to have a lucky break instead of bad luck but the world doesn't owe me one. I could bemoan how unlucky I've been but by looking at it from a different perspective; that of counting my blessings, I soon realize I am lucky.

What has become apparent to me to make my own circumstances less favourable is how I have dwelt on my own mental illness. I have always sought to be respected for my qualities and character on their own merits but by attributing all my shortcomings so frequently to mental illness I have ended up making a rod for my own back. This has resulted in my being seen as a person of vulnerability, weakness and as a person of perpetual illness which is quite the opposite effect to my original intent.

I had got it into my head that my shortcomings could all be down to my having been ill. I thought that being open about my illness I would earn respect. I thought that by advertising the fact that I have learnt coping strategies for my illness that I would be regarded as a strong person, not a weak one.

When I started this blogsite it was very much to fight the stigma over mental health; to come out in the open and not be ashamed of that history. I don't regret doing that at all, indeed I am proud of myself for having the courage to do it given the level of ignorance and prejudice that still exist over mental illness. However I find I have inadvertently ended up being seen and promoting myself as a person of mental illness rather than a person who has been ill and on occasion sometimes still is.

I find now that I have nothing more to add about my own experiences of mental illness and nothing more to add about mental illness in general. So my change of focus is now to promote and display, the larger part of my existence - that of being well. By concentrating on that I not only hope to get recognition and respect for my character in it's own right on it's own merits, but I will also be increasing the probability of maintaining my mental wellbeing.

From hereon in therefore I will take ownership of my faults without mention of mental illness. Those faults are part of my character; no doubt as much a source of endearment to some as a source of irritation to others. To give an example of how I intend to share who I am in the future, instead of saying "Sorry, I forgot because I'm a bit scatty, because I've got a mental health history." I shall simply say "Sorry, I forgot." The reason for my forgetfulness might be simply because I can be scatty, more commonly it is usually down to being busy with other things like so many others are.

The point is I no longer believe it's right to attribute every reaction, response, emotion, thought or opinion I have to mental illness. Nor do I believe the medical professionals or others should. Some behavioural patterns get established when we are ill but in recovery they are put straight. We must guard against using mental ill health an excuse for everything we feel we are lacking in, thinking, feeling or doing when we are well or how can we claim to have an identity beyond the illness or be well?

I've come to realize I have been living in fear for what has already happened. I was most seriously ill back in 1998 and since that time I have spent an enormous amount of time and effort trying to find ways to guard against being so again. The fact is that I spent more time on monitoring my own health than I spent on just living my life. I think it enough to know the signs, to have the coping strategies to hand and noted - why dwell on them unless or until they are needed?

I think it still a wise precaution to run for an assessment anytime I feel I am at risk, a wise precaution to stick to my medication and have it regularly reviewed but that being sorted I don't need to dwell further. I once had a spate of serious kidney infections and yet I don't spend my energies fretting about another, researching all renal functions and monitoring it everyday. So why should I over my mental wellbeing? My life should consist of just living it shouldn't it?

I'm looking forward to the day when I am just 'being' without feeling any need to justify or explain who or what I am to anyone. I am looking forward to a day when I won't be analyzing everything but know it will take practice to reach that point.

It's an irony that in order to recover and gain a new way of thinking, seeing and responding to the world, we need to analyse what we do and how we have been going about things to be able to affect any change at all. It's not surprising that I have got into analytical habits given how passionately and tirelessly I wanted to ensure no recurrence of illness. I hope that with practice I'll be ditching unhelpful habits and will reach a day when such things rarely need raking over to any great extent again.

I confess to feeling scared of a world in which mental illness isn't ever present in my life as it has been. What am I to do with it? Will I fit in? Will I be able to stop or at least reduce being so analytical having been trained to do so (healthcare professionals take note).

I will never forget what it's like to be mentally ill, but if there is such a thing as compensation for it, then surely it lies in embracing and celebrating life whenever and wherever illness, pain and suffering isn't present; be it a minute, an hour, day, month, year or longer. For however long it lasts it is to be treasured, remembered and built upon. If not being analytical is a ridiculous aspiration, then surely it is of at least equal value to focus on what makes us well and happy.

Learning what the ingredients are involved in making us enjoy life has surely got to be a better way forward.

That then is what I intend to do next, confused and shaky as I am for attempting to let go of my intensive self monitoring for signs of illness. Perhaps being well has something to do with just going with the flow and accepting the ups and downs along the way but never letting either take over our lives to inhibit our ability and need to encounter more in order to learn, grow and develop; ever tweaking the definition of what it is to be ourselves at any given moment.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Changing Focus

Finally got some counselling going and now it's begun it made me realize once more that for some things a counsellor is the only person to help. Bad news though as apparently psychotherapy (i.e. more involved types of therapy) are no longer available on the NHS now. I've tried not to get political on here and am not about to but it strikes me this is a backward step for those in more need than I.

A couple of things that have already come out of my first counselling session are my neglect of looking after myself in that I will make the effort when others are involved and for others but allow things to slide when it's just for me. Things like cleaning, eating, sleeping, paying bills and even at times washing are all mundane chores that do not feed my soul so therefore mean little to me. What I'm doing is behaving as a child when in fact I am an adult. One change of focus then is to get the adult side of me to take better care of the child within me. It's not as if I am incapable of looking after myself better, nor that I don't believe in myself for when I'm upbeat all these chores are done without even thinking about them.

Why do they get reduced to 'unimportant' status when depressed then? Quite simply because they seem less vital to me than working through emotions and thoughts that are behind the depression. But such things can become habits that fuel depression itself. I'm reminded of caged birds that pull out their feathers because they are trapped, have no company or interest in life but like the bird, it's not a case of not having an interest, more a case of not having the outlet, the opportunity. And without company why should I bother is often my reasoning during the lows. The answer here is to remember that no one is likely to be interested in me if I am not interested enough to look after myself. It's one thing for them to be interested in what I do, quite another to be interested in me as a person.

As there is no way on this earth that I will ever want someone to come in to pamper me, take charge, set routines for me etc to sort these lapses of mine out, it follows that I must do it. It's still a chore but I have wit enough to turn it into a game to enjoy thereby uniting the adult self with the child.

The other thing that came out in that first session was my continual habit of devoting my time and energies to the wrong people. This is trickier to overcome for me and a bigger knot to unravel. It's not that they are nasty people, quite the reverse but they are not good for me. They do not reciprocate support, contact or interest. They are takers, not givers. The solution seems simple - ditch them, but I've included them in my life for a multitude of reasons including gleaning skills, information and studying behaviour. None of these things though rate as highly to me as emotional support which is what I don't get from them but is what they more often than not get from me.

It's therefore a question of setting my own boundaries better and a question of not having the exceptation of that support in the first place. To put it another way I haven't been heeding my own words in a previous blog as it's not as fair an exchange as I need. But I can be be in control of that to avoid the pitfall of disappointment; feeling let down and hurt.

By doing this I can free up my time to concentrate on things that are important to me, devoting more time to those who are close and do give me emotional support and reserving my energies to devote them to things that matter such as finding regular work, which again I'm going to attempt to turn into a fun game - how many jobs can I apply for in a week that would be fun to do.

I feel I ought to have learnt all these things by now and had them in place and am annoyed that I haven't, or rather haven't properly. I know the answers I need but struggle to adhere to the solutions I've found. Far easier to do so when working and socially 'out there'. All the more important to do when one isn't.

My new focus then is on me, not on others, not on helping others other than by steering them in the direction of sources of support. I hope I don't become uncaring or selfish to the point of ignoring or trampling over others, but for a time at least it needs to be on me to hopefully, once and for all, firmly establish the mindset and habits of a person who has a fullfilling and rewarding life instead of one that dips in and out of it.

I'm starting my listing all my likes and dislikes; all my wants and don't wants, all my dreams, all my good points, all my talents and skills. The rest of the world can focus on my faults if it likes, for myself I've spent more than enough time dwelling on them and besides I've discovered the faults they list are usually mirrors of their own. In short, my intention is to start to value and look after the one person who will always be there for me no matter what - me.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Limboland Acceptance

It's been a real struggle of late trying to define who I am and what that means; where I fit, belong and am 'myself'. My battle with mental illness has been perpetually focussed on becoming well, not being labelled as  mentally ill and not wanting to stay within that section of society because I wanted to be 'normal'. I wanted to return to the world in which I started and be accepted and welcomed back into it as having been 'fixed', 'cured' and most of all 'not a problem' to others.

'Wanted' - past tense. After a couple of weeks of reflection I've realized I no longer belong in 'Normalville', but nor do I fit in with the permanently mentally ill either (I don't think anyone does). I belong in the Limboland inbetween as sometimes I am well and sometimes I am not. Both the severity and longevity of episodes of illness seem to have diminished over the years but, hand on heart I can not say I will not have another episode or that it could not be severe.

This only partially explains why I do not belong in either camp though for when I am ill I do not want to belong there, and when I'm well I don't feel accepted as being well. It's as if once you're 'defined' as having suffered mental illness you are branded for life unless you abandon all those you've known, form new relationships and never mention it.

I've found I can not be silent and believe it to be a denial of basic a human right not to express and share experiences that I have had and having been mentally ill is one of those experiences. In fact, my psychotic breakdown was the single biggest personal experience I have ever had and it change me irrevocably for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways.

Never again have I been complacent about being immune from insanity and I have since become ever watchful of not only my own well-being, but that of others too. I embarked upon a quest, unconsciously at first but latterly with full awareness, to try to find out what safeguards there are and what the essential elements are to make for a contented and happy life regardless of health.

These are things that those who have not suffered mental illness generally do not do because they largely reside in the world of blase complacency that I myself once enjoyed too. In their world they share their life-changing unfortunate experiences too; be it a major operation or illness, a divorce, a loss etc. It should therefore be no different for the mentally ill. I reserve my right to comment on experiences that have effected me but in commenting I have discovered not acceptance but stigma and prejudice along with the assumption that I must still be ill because I keep commenting on mental illness - those who are mentally well have no need to, being the assumption.

My contention is that because mental illness is such a taboo as a subject it needs to be an exception until greater awareness and acceptance is achieved although I own most of my life is not devoted to this cause either. It's an important issue that I remain passionate about but I don't believe it healthy for me to be consumed by any one thing.

In wanting to be accepted as I am I find I too have to be careful not to succumb to knee-jerk reactions myself. In order to achieve acceptance I firstly have to accept myself as I am, for if I can not do that how can I expect others to?

Secondly I have to accept others as they are which means accepting that they will not always understand things about myself as I may them wish to. This does not just mean acceptance about mental illness, but also my political views, my interest in art, pottery; my taste in clothes, food, music, books, films and all the rest. Acceptance is seldom instant and there is mileage in keeping the communication channels open as how else do we each learn about each other?

In campaigning against any stigma it becomes a complicated juggling act between voicing the difficulties in order to educate and create awareness and allowing others to voice their reservations and fears and in accepting where they are at any given point. That way we learn where we might be wrong in what we want as much as where others might be; and it's important to admit it if and when that occurs.

I believe it's a case of listening and challenging prejudice with facts and proofs one at a time as no one likes to find themselves to be a total idiot but are likely to concede errors in judgement if handled this way. They are not idiots anyway and are capable of working things out if they are given the right motivation to want to do so. It is and will remain a gradual process I fear; and one that shouting from the rooftops is not going to effect a positive change. Unlike other campaigns such as raising awareness on gay, black or women's rights, mental illness is one where actions like chaining ourselves to fencing is not going to help.

Last week I attended the Include 2011 conference at the Royal College of Art where designers work on projects to help disability and disadvantaged groups with ideas to increase their ability to function. This is a relatively easy task to embark upon when the disability or disadvantage is a clearly identifiable tangible need such as poverty, blindness or wheelchair access; but what, other than acceptance and opportunities, do the Mentally Ill need by way of assistance to feel and be fully included in society?

In a way we already have acceptance - people accept us as ill but often not as those who can achieve or be well. I am saddened when I hear of people accepting they are permanently mentally ill and that they need support; I don't like it one bit when I have to acknowledge that I do at times. It indicates to me a victim mentality and by accepting the classification of being permanently mentally ill we are all in danger seeing ourselves as helpless victims and playing into the conditioning of the broader society. There are a few exceptions as some people are permanently severely ill, but therein lies the problem - we are all tarred with that brush and it simply isn't the case.

I've found I don't want to be pampered, protected, nursed or 'looked after' by anyone, nor do I wish to perpetually do so for anyone else. Instead my desire is to be empowered to manage things myself as much as I can, and that is the only way in which I want to support others too. The less independent we are the more we run the risk of others controlling our lives, dictating what we can achieve and negating our own potential for doing so. If John Nash (the mathematician in the film 'A Beautiful Mind') had succumbed to just being looked after he would never have returned to lecturing nor won the accolades he merited. He merited them due to his skill in maths, not because of his illness.

I find I am ok with predominantly living in the Limboland between 'Normalville' and 'Madville', visiting both worlds every now and then. I do not reside there alone even though at times I sometimes feel that I do, but that feeling is due to my knowing my own identity and experiences to be unique - everyone's are.

An Exercise and Test
To conclude here's a simple exercise for all fellow sufferer's of mental illness to prove you live in Limboland too: List all the things you are 'normal' at. Capitalizing on what we are 'well' in helps us to become well and stay there longer.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Survivor Guilt

Within 24 hour of my last posting I burst into a flood of tears because I felt such a traitor, because the people who have been with me through my darkest hours have all been mentally ill or been a mental health care professionals, and I realised that if I was happy I wouldn't need or want to be mixing with them anymore. Suddenly I felt very lost and desperately alone and when that happens what is my rule... go back into care. It seems a vicious and perpetual cycle that has no escape.

I simply haven't got to the bottom of it to find a solution yet but I am determined to find one and share it with you when I do. In the meantime this song is helping me at the moment.

I have realized that part of my journey has been learning to accept joy into my life at all and it occurred to me that perhaps that's something we, who have suffered the tsunamis of despair all find difficult. So, once I've found the words again I will be sharing a few exercises that have helped me to explore this erstwhile alien concept called 'happiness'. The first of which immediately sprang to mind though so here it is. I don't recall it being taught me, but that's not to say it wasn't.

Your Thank You Card
1. Design the most beautiful card you can - use images that you love... cut them out from magazines, copy and paste them from the web (so long as you don't infringe copyright), draw, paint, scribble or just doodle the emotions in the most beautiful colours you adore. This is a card of self-acknowledgement for all your best qualities - a celebration of you.

2. Write a message inside. Imagine you are receiving the card from someone who sees all your good points, your positive qualities only.

3. Address and sign it to yourself.

Meanwhile I await a further referral for more support from the professionals, who unlike us always have colleagues on board to help them immediately they lose someone or hit on something they find hard to handle. Would our government would invest more in preventative therapies and who knows demand might not exceed supply on emergency, intensive or long-term support measures.

It does help to know that those I love, and those who care about me do want me to suffer and want me to be happy and that even applies to those I have lost and those still suffering. Would I could be the magic wand to help everyone to find their own path to happiness. As ever though, all I can do is share my own journey in the hope it encourages others to set about theirs and to just keep holding on for those times when they need a break from fighting. It does feel woefully pathetic and inadequate at times in respect of what little I can do, but never in spirit. If my will power alone could eradicate suffering then this world would have been free of it decades ago.

Friday, 8 April 2011


Yes I'm still here, alive and kicking. What follows is following due to having a break; time to reflect, time to review all that has been happening in my life recently. It follows because I sought support, medication and all the rest. It follows because I have learnt the warning signs; the triggers, the symptoms and have acting on them early.

I've discovered I am a positive person fighting to get out.
I've discovered I've been hampered in that ambition by circumstance, situations and events but also by my own failure to communicate clearly about what it is I need at times.

I've discovered that I've already learnt many things from the counselling I've had thus far and that all those soul-searching sessions over the decades had added up and are making sense. I've learnt that I can be in control of my own illness even though it will probably throw up set backs, slip ups and glitches. But they are just that.

I've discovered that I'm right not to assume anything (one of the very first lessons I took from counselling); that I can gain and maintain control of my moods if I take the right precautions (like getting medication if they drop for more than 3 days at a time for no reason).

I've discovered I really can choose how I react to others and that relationships that seemed to be broken can be mended; those that seemed hard work can be improved upon and those that are damaging can be ditched and moved on from.

I've discovered that people do sometimes take note, notice and care about me more than I realized or have given them credit for. I've learnt those who care will accept when I need to stop, do nothing, hibernate, go soul-searching and that if I explain to them those needs they reach a better level of understanding of me (albeit eventually in some cases). I've learnt that those who are not interested in accepting me as I am should not be afforded the honour of being accepted or time to be understood themselves.

I've learnt that even loss is not the end of things. One of my followers on here is now no longer with us (I'll not say who), but their picture remains for all time unless relatives change it. That picture is, like they are - ever with me at their best for whenever I need them. None of us wish to be remembered, perceived, judge or defined for our worst moments (times of illness, selfishness, inconsideration or bad temper), so it would be unfair to only remember their struggles when they were not at their best. Instead I've stored up and concentrated on their good moments, their strengths, the things that made them happy.

I've learnt that even the threat of death need not be a precursor to the end of hope. A relative of mine remains seriously ill, but they too have done the wise thing and sought help and have set about making the most of what is possible. Initially they avoided seeking medical help because they were frightened of what the diagnosis would be (denial they call it in counselling terms) - that's no way to go when by seeking the right form of help you can turn things around and still have the chance to cram in pleasurable things to do and see before you go. Isn't that what life should always be about? We will all die at some point, so it makes sense to focus and aim for as much enjoyment as possible beforehand doesn't it?

For a long time now, I've known that work has not been the be all and end all of what life's about. Not working though can lead to a miserable existence of anxiety and stress about how to pay bills, keep a roof over your head and eat, let alone spend money on things you enjoy doing. But, I've learnt that the best things in life really are free - a sunny day always lifts my moods, as does a walk or watching and playing with my cat or having a lovely conversation with anyone. Joking with a stranger in a shop is something that doesn't have a price.

And even when things have seemed incredibly bleak, for it seemed that nothing but trouble and misery was heading my way in every form, from every direction I've discovered that just by holding on things can change for the better.

When I started this blog I did it primarily to put down all I'd learnt that has helped me, so that in times of trouble I had something to cling onto that would always to be there by way of support. I did it publicly because I knew there are millions of people who have had similar problems and I thought it might help them too. There have been times when I've felt so defeated I didn't want to write another word; times when I felt that half the world has been abandoned and forgotten just because they happen to get ill in a particular way; times of rage over the unfairness and cruelty that still exist regardless. But folks, it's no good noticing and wallowing. It is a battleground both internally and externally but that doesn't mean we can't or won't win so long as we keep fighting.

I've also felt (as close friends will testify) a hypocrite and a fraud at times. How easy it is to spout fine words but not live by them yourself. Examples include not having eaten or slept regularly aside from many other signs of self-neglect. I'm still not out of the woods yet on many of them, but at least I'm aware of them and trying to do something about them. I am still fighting.

What I need to do now is go back over everything I've written so far on here and use this blog site as the tool I had originally intended it to be... to help me. I hope it helps others too but as I've realized I need to look after me first and not be a hypocrite.

I've discovered I've learned to recognise when and what help I need and in what form I need it. I've grown and am no longer afraid of admitting to my weaknesses, bad habits and illness which actually makes me a stronger person.

Most of all I've discovered that it's ok to need help as all people do at times and rarely does anyone need help at all times or with all things so there's no need to feel ashamed or guilty anymore. I've learned too that sometimes I am lazy and full of self-pity and that I can respond to people challenging and pushing me to do better when it's in the right form. I'm far more receptive to that one than ever before. And finally I've learned I don't and shouldn't feel guilty or as if I am a traitor on those days (like this one) when I am feeling good and enjoying life. I do still care and always will for those who are suffering, but merit a break from it as much as anyone else. I've put in the work to be able to enjoy days like this too.

When and what I will post next I have no idea. I set out at the start to include fun things to do, so maybe I'll go back to that but only after I've re-read all I've written so far. I used to be afraid of the unknown, now I'm like an explorer - curious and fascinated.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Treatment in the UK

Following on from my last blog I thought it was time I wrote a little bit about what is available in the UK in the 21st century by way of treatment for the mentally ill. The majority of people will come under the care of Community Mental Health Teams (CMHTs). This can be a simple matter of visiting your GP and them prescribing medication or referring you to counselling. For slightly more serious cases you may need to see a psychiatrist who will prescribe the next level or drugs or refer you for other therapies and/or specialist counselling. You might be allocated a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) to help monitor and support you in taking medication and associated services. You might also be allocated a Social Worker to help with the day to day business of things like shopping, finances, housing etc. (the practicalities of living in Britain today).

It is important to note that all the above are done with your own consent. If you are ill and only need this level of support you are not forced to take any treatment at all, although a lot is done to try to persuade you to agree to it for your own safety and well-being.

The only exception to this is when people become so ill that they merit being sectioned to stay in a hospital (or committed as it's known in other countries). I personally loathe the term committed as it has connotations of someone being guilty of a crime, which when you are ill is hardly fair. A thought occurred to me about forced or imposed care e.g. forced injections or medication. This only happens when the sufferer is so ill that the medical professionals consider them to be in danger to themselves. Is it any different then to a person arriving at an Accident and Emergency department after a car crash? Medical teams then don't stop treatment, refuse a blood infusion, pain relief, an operation or decide not to restart your heart in such circumstances. It is given that they will do all they can to keep you alive without your consent. So it is when people are sectioned.

That said, I know from my own experiences of being section back in 1998 that once in hospital consent is still sought first. It was pointed out to me that if I refused medication the medical team could force it on me but they left me time to come round to the idea of accepting that medication. How long they would have waited for me to agree I don't frankly know. It was a bit of a fait accompli but I'm glad that they gave me that time nonetheless. I did need the medication then and still need milder medication to this day because unfortunately my brain doesn't tick quite right without them. It is no different to me to a diabetic needing to take insulin to correct a lack of a chemical that nature/genetics has inadvertently missed giving them.

The interesting thing about that is that it is widely considered that you are ill if you take medication on a regular basis even though the drug you are taking maybe a corrective one for a deficiency your body has e.g. thyroxine (which I also have to take). The truth is you can be well with the medication and are likely to be ill without it, just as a diabetic would be. It's another example of how public and indeed medical perception needs to change to become in line with what is actually happening.

A word about thyroids.... Very approximately until about 30 years ago, under and over active thyroids cause people no end of trouble with their moods and behaviour. Sadly there are still some GPs who are unaware that the corrective measure of thyroxine can totally cure this as too many people that get diagnosed with depression when in fact it is a thyroid gland malfunction that it actually the root of the problem. So if you experience lows, make sure you get your thyroid function checked out first and the solution is incredible simple.

The book listing the number of conditions (DSM-IV - Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - 4th Edition) is about an inch thick. The list of medication is just as long. This is good news for sufferers as it means there are a myriad of options to try. It means that it is now largely recognised that everyone is different and that their metabolisms will respond to different things. Gone are the days of every sufferer being subjected to the same brutal and drastic measures of the 1950s (lobotomies, Electric Shock Treatment or insulin shock treatments). Gone too are the days of 30 years ago whereby merely suppressing symptoms and not addressing the root cause for the malady was common practice. For example GPs will not (or should not) prescribe Valium for more than three days at a time as it is now recognized that it can become addictive. Tranquilizers, like all other forms of medication for the mentally ill (e.g. antidepressants and mood stabilizers) come in a variety of forms so that the sufferer only has to find the one that works for them.

Other Treatments
Top of the list is the myriad of forms of counselling e.g. Gestalt, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) Cognitive Analytical Therapy, to name but three. Again the idea is to marry the treatment with the individual sufferer and not to go the route of one form of treatment cures all.

Additional to these are Art, Drama and Sport therapies which can help build confidence, self worth and self-esteem. They have also proved effective in helping people to reintegrate and socialize with mainstream society. Cooking, Gardening and social clubs and activities such as day trips are useful in this way too along with courses to help build up skills for work such as wood and metal work, computer and photography classes.

The main supplier of all these services tends to be the National Health Service here in the UK, but not for all services. You'd be extremely lucky if you were able to access Art, Drama and Sports therapies outside of hospital so these are more commonly offered by mental health charities such as MIND as activities rather than as therapies.

All these elements are essential to cover the 25% of the population who become ill under the extremely varied conditions under the mental illness banner. There is just one problem. Demand exceeds supply and funding is woefully behind where it should be given just how many people are effected and become ill. This is not only true of the NHS and it's services but also true of all the mental health charities, social services, research and associated services.

The brain is the most complex organ in the body without a doubt. So far it is thought we only understand a tenth of how it functions. Aside from automatically controlling other organs it defines who we are. It seems therefore bizarre to me that it continues to be such a low priority when it comes to finding cures and treatments when it hits a problem, for as I've already pointed out in previous postings - no one is immune from that no matter how much they may wish to kid themselves otherwise.

When we look back now over the history of Mental Health Care we can clearly see it has come a long way in the last century. I am hopeful it will continue to make great strides in the future and indeed within my own lifetime, but it does require more dialogue with sufferers and more funding to develop and refine treatments further. I like to think the most brutal and barbaric treatments are firmly a thing of the past and would like to thank all those responsible and participating in reshaping treatments so that they are indeed more humane than of yore. There have been decades dedicated work from thousands of people to get us this far. For me the biggest challenge, and the one that's gumming up further development is to eradicate the stigma. If we can ditch that one, change people's mindsets on what can be done then perhaps all else will fall into place.

PS: I'm off for a meds change myself now, so may not be blogging quite so often. This was never intended to be a site whereby I shared my experience of being ill. It has always been my intent to to write about the issues that prevent recovery and more to the point what works for me. The reason I'm going for more help is not because I have gone back to merely surviving life - I'm still very much living it - but because recent pressures have put me at risk of becoming ill again. My moods have been darker recently and that's a trigger for me to take action. Therefore I am taking the precaution and preventative measure of getting the help I know I need early on to avoid a prolonged or intense episode emerging. That is what the ideal for long term sufferers means... we learn to manage our own health so that we stay well.

Remember, none of us are ever obliged to share anything of ourselves with anyone and I am no exception. I'll be back with whatever hints and tips I come across once I have got myself back as myself. I have spent too much time being well to ever want to risk being ill again. Or to put it another way... I need a bit of 'me' time to recover from recent events.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Understanding terms

One of the most alarming things I've heard in my journey through the Mental Health Care system is that it is both 'normal' and 'healthy' not to want to associate with people with mental health problems. Certainly I can quite see how it can seem odd for people to choose to mix with the ill of any description, but such comments do not help overcome the stigma of those of us who are or have been mentally ill.

I found this question posted on Stephen Fry's site: 'Would you employ someone with a mental illness?' Here's another "Would you knowingly choose to marry a person with a mental illness?

Before I give my own answers I'll explain why I think such questions ought to be asked.

They both challenge the person to think of what the term 'mental illness' actually means. Most people will immediately think of dramatic and severe symptoms when asked to define mental illness. 'Behaving oddly' isn't usually sufficient to encapsulate what people's thoughts and feelings are over what such a term means to them.

This 'public' perception of severe cases is common because of sheer ignorance and has been largely promoted by the media albeit unintentionally. On the news we don't hear of success stories of sufferers who, despite their illness, reach heights of astonishing achievements; there isn't a equivalent of the Para Olympics for the mentally ill. What we hear of are the murders.

FACT: Only 3% of all murders in the UK are committed by the mentally ill. That leaves 97% of murders being committed by the 'sane'.

There's an obvious argument here to define all criminals as insane or mentally unwell, after all the one thing they all have in common is that they have been guilty of 'anti-social behaviour' of some kind. I'm personally against such a move as that would only serve to further increase the prejudice against the vast majority of the mentally ill who are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. It strikes me right away though that terminology and classification needs revision.

The Arts too have played their part to unwittingly add to the prejudice and fear of the uneducated. Ironic as the intent has generally been to highlight the plight of the mentally ill and educate people. As I mentioned in a previous posting, until the film 'A Beautiful Mind' came out there was no true life story of a person living day to day with an illness, learning to manage their condition and being a success that I'm aware of. However, it's only one film and it isn't up to date with regard to treatments that are available in the here and now in the 21st century and the enormous strides mental health care has made.

How many films about mental illness show patients receiving ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy), lobotomies or insulin injections can you name? Yet all these treatments have been on the decrease since the 1950s. In this country you'd have to beg for a lobotomy and even then you're unlikely to get one. ECT is done with the consent of the patient more often than not and I've not personally heard of anyone other than a diabetic receiving insulin injections. Yet it remains embedded in the public psyche that such treatments are still standard practice and commonplace.

It's also in their perception that success for the mentally ill is something that only artistic people ever achieve and that they can never be well or even manage their condition. I've even heard one person comment that only the deeply disturbed can produce great literature, art, sculpture and music. Films and documentaries about artists such as Vincent Van Gogh or Tchaikovsky demonstrate extreme states and neither have a happy ending for the individual.  I'm frankly not surprised that people throughout the ages have turned to art in order to express themselves in such an unforgiving and judgemental world when it some to mental illness.

Mostly the majority of people who suffer from a mental illness do so once and get better. The majority of sufferers display none of the obvious symptoms that most people associate with madness and out of those who do suffer from those conditions the majority can and do learn to manage and control them themselves with mental health care. Finally, and I'm not sorry to disappoint the sensationalists, the majority of treatments available and most commonly used do not involve those already mentioned and it is standard practice in this country these days to agree a course of treatment with the patient whenever and wherever possible.

I wish people would, of their own volition cease to be ignorant and get informed; ceased to assume and just asked.

I promised my answers and here they are. I would (and have) employed people who have been mentally ill based on their ability to do the job required. I also had to refuse work to someone who was mentally ill because they were too ill and they needed to regain control of their illness. I did however leave the door open for them to return at a later date.

With regard to marrying someone who is mentally ill, I initially found the question harder to answer because I found I didn't want to be a full-time carer. I didn't want a repeat of living with someone as severely ill as my mother was. My perception was based on that but also coloured by the broader mindset that I have grown up  with - that of prejudice against and fear of madness. However, I then realized that by feeling that I then had no right to expect anyone to take me on board to marry me as I too have been mentally ill. 'But I'm not that difficult to get on with' I thought, 'I'm at less risk when I have someone to share my life with.' Yet I knew too that many people would find my lows a burden.

My answer is, if they are right for you and you are right for them then marry because (as I keep saying) the illness is not the person.

A Final Question
Is it abnormal and unhealthy to want to associate with someone who has some other form or illness or impediment? What if they are paraplegic, blind, deaf, have a stomach ulcer, cancer, a heart condition or simply have the flu? If the answer is 'no' it's not abnormal or unhealthy in these scenarios to mix with the ill then surely it is high time it isn't when it comes to mental illness. 

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Suppositious Fears

Aside from depression, high up in the ratings of forms of mental illness are anxiety, stress and phobias. I'm not sure if they can be separated from depression or vice versa (will leave you to ponder that one). At the root of all of these is fear.

In order to become fearful we imagine and are not dealing in facts. "Really, but what about when you've been through a traumatic event?" I've heard some say. Even when fear is based on a horrendous past experience it is our imagination that is carrying that memory forward into the here and now. Fears are more commonly be based on the unknown though..

Recently I've been experiencing ups and downs due to just such fears. I'm thinking of moving house to another part of the country. To me it makes sense as a means of establishing a lifestyle I've always dreamed of and this might be my only chance of making it happen, but then the demon fears started. What if there are no jobs there? What if the people are horrible? What if it doesn't have the outlets I enjoy doing. A location in the countryside may be great, but if it doesn't come with other things is it worth it? What if I find I get stuck in limbo between moving out of my current home and not able to move into a new one?

Added to which there are fears about a family member who has been extremely ill. Fears of plummeting into a recurring depression at the thought of losing another family member along with fears for them.

In both cases I need to deal in facts, not assumptions. One of the thoughts I have about moving is that it could allow me to become a carer for any family member if they become terminally ill, but before I can leap ahead with that one I need facts about their illness and not least to know if they would want me to be their carer. It's an anxious time but there is no point crossing bridges before we come to them, because by worrying and making assumptions we often find we put ourselves through hell for no reason. I certainly have as close friends and family will testify.

This applies to all our worries and fears. We are all prone to worrying; it seems to be part and parcel of being human. We can find ourselves worrying about our job security, or finding a job or the stress of an increased workload when others have been made redundant and their work has to be taken on by those who remain. We could be worrying about our personal relationships, what others think about us, how we come across or how others that we care for are behaving.

There is nothing wrong in asking and by doing so we get a better idea of where we stand and consequently become better equipped to plan ahead based on what we know rather than what we are guessing at.

I've never been one to fear going out, but I've met many who have been; sometimes due to fear of others and sometimes due to fear of what might happen. To understand fear, we have to acknowledge when it is out of proportion and gone way beyond 'normal limits' of just understandable and natural anxiety. It would be less 'normal' not to be anxious when confronted with major life changing events or decisions regardless of whether they are self inflicted or not.

The first step toward confronting fear is to acknowledge that it is there. Listing facts and compiling evidence to counter that fear will start to make in roads, but I acknowledge it can be a long hard battle to get things back in proportion and is especially difficult if there is a traumatic event associated with that fear. As with all forms of mental illness we have to want to overcome the illness above all else. We have to try to visualize a day and a life without these impediments that can so cruelly hold us back.

Not only do I advocate not crossing bridges before I come to them, but I also recommend seeing things in terms of a journey divided up into manageable stages. For example I have now resolved that if the results state that we have another terminal illness in my family then and only then will I start to think about 'how long' and 'what can be done' to minimize suffering while increasing quality of life for as long as possible according to that person's wishes.

The prospect of death does highlight the need in all of us capitalize on what is good and precious to us in the here and now and for the future. How sad it is that we waste so much of our lives in worrying about what might never happen. For me that has become a major key to combating fear for by focusing on what is still good, pleasurable and possible I regain hope and that fear diminishes to a more manageable size. That, if you like, no matter what, I can still enjoy the sunshine of a spring day and flowers coming into bloom.

I consider myself lucky to have learnt that and blessed that I am determined and tenacious enough not to let fears become barriers to all I want to achieve for long. My dearest hope is that others become as determined in fighting their demons too.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Recent thinking on Mental Illness

Recent thinking among the boffins in mental health circles is running along the lines of everyone being mentally ill. What they are suggesting now is that we are all a potential car crash waiting to happen with regard to becoming ill. All it would take is a trigger to start it all off. Or to put it another way, apparently we're all crazy, it's just a question of degrees.

Gone are the days whereby it's a simple case of nature versus nurture. The thinking is that, as genetics and environmental influences can never be separated both can be the foundation stones for someone becoming ill, but neither on it's own may trigger it. They are just two of a myriad of factors that have to be in place in the right order to act as the catalysts to illness.

This is born out by the evidence of many case studies. Mental illness may run in your family, but rather like diabetes it can skip generations so even when there is a strong genetic element it is not a fait accompli that you or your children will ever get ill. If you've been brought up with a family member who has a permanent condition of mental illness it is more likely that your own behaviour will be shaped by those experiences to make it more likely for you to suffer illness yourself.

A person from different genetic stock  with no evidence of mental illness suddenly having to live with a severe form of mental illness in a loved one is likely to experience bouts of stress, anxiety and depression, so it's become unwise just to assume that genetics are the only factor in play when people are blood relatives.

Likewise, environment or circumstances into which we are born do not in themselves mean that we will become ill. Some people brought up in a disturbed setting can follow suit but many don't. In short there is no one answer and no one way to predict who will become ill and who won't.

Everyday potential for illness
If we have a passion or interest in anything at all, some boffins now say, then we are probably suffering from some form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This includes passion for our jobs; our hobbies like sport such as keep fit, football, working out at a gym, walking, cycling etc; creative activities like art, theatre and music and even everyday interests like shopping. So long as those passions and interests remain containable we are considered well. It is when they become all consuming to the point of interfering with our ability to function in other things that adverse effects may occur.

Added to which, as human beings we are all prone to every day stresses, worries and anxieties. We might have concerns about our jobs, our health, our finances, our homes or our relationships which are all perfectly 'normal', or average. However no one can predict what events might transpire to exacerbate normal stresses, worries and anxieties into some form of illness. For example, we can not assume any of us will not experience redundancy, a house fire or becoming a victim of crime.

Given this, suddenly we come to realize that there is no such thing as immunity from mental illness and that it really does come down to a bit of a lottery as to who becomes ill and what may trigger it. You may be a person that can cope with losing a job, but are one who is more susceptible to becoming mentally ill over the breakup or loss of a loved one. Hence we can look at the statistics in a slightly different way and say that 25% of the population become mentally ill because they were unlucky in the events and circumstances that came their way and that 75% of the demographic were lucky because nothing that could have triggered illness happened during the course of their lives.

However bereavement is, in my opinion, a form of depression and as none of us are immune from losing a loved one, (indeed we except our parents to predecease us), we can and should expect to be pretty miserable at such a loss at some point. In that period of adjustment known as bereavement it would be unusual for people to feel like doing cartwheels and throwing a party and to continue their interests in normal life in the same way.  Even people who experience relief over an aggressor dying can experience symptoms of bereavement including guilt and shame over their relief.

80% of us can expect to experience bereavement at some point in our lives (not everyone will) and that state is a painful and distressing one often to the point of making us introspective and miserable. A mind that is distressed and/or miserable for more than a couple of weeks is considered to be a depressed one and therefore can be considered to be ill. In the light of this the stats should read that 80% will experience mental illness in some form.

It is also common for people to experience a sense of loss akin to many symptoms of bereavement when they lose partners through divorce, or lose their jobs or home. Depression is classified as a form of mental illness and one of the most common at that. Along with stress and anxiety millions of people each year go to their doctors for help with it. How is it then that stigma over mental illness still exists?

In correspondence with a psychologist in Australia I was shocked and appalled to learn that in third world countries people do not become psychotic from being left on their own while dealing with a bereavement, because in third world countries retain their sense of community and care for each other at such times. I don't know if the statement is true or not, but to me even the thought that it might be constitutes a damming indictment on the entire developed world.

The challenge has to be to eradicate the stigma to increase the chances of people feeling OK about seeking help when they need it. The stigma alone can prevent people seeking help and result in the problems escalating in their severity and becoming long-term. That said the statistics show that people rarely have more than one episode of serious illness in their lives. I wonder how many remain ill because recovery can be incomplete or prevented due to the stigma.

By being supportive of those around us, by allowing them to talk, by encouraging them to go for help early I vehemently believe we can jointly make significant inroads into reducing the severity and longevity of many forms of mental illness. To that end I feel we need to encourage people to get informed and no longer be ignorant about the subject, to deal in facts and not in assumptions because even a staunchly prejudiced person may find they could be the next person to become ill.

I don't advocate going on a crusade and turning into a raison d'etre (reason for being), but I do suggest that we become more aware and correct people in their assumptions as and when it's appropriate and when there are openings. After all there is a sharp difference between being dedicated and being obsessive. Obviously this blog is concerned with the subject, elsewhere I do other things and I recommend you do the same.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Is Depression Your God?

I was told once that depression was my God by a so-called Christian group which I didn't consider a very compassionate, nor a Christian thing to do. What I was trying to tell them at the time, (because they asked me to), was about my life in which depression has featured. (Thankfully not all Christian groups are like that one).

A couple of things worth flagging up here...
1. Depression by it's very nature is a debilitating condition. The sufferer cannot 'snap out of it'. If they could they wouldn't be depressed. As I've mentioned before, when people are depressed they tend to become totally absorbed with and consumed by negativity sometimes to the point of nothing else existing.

When people are like this, if they talk (and often they try their best never to do so), they do so because they are looking for help. Their troubles are in the present and haven't been resolved and those troubles can have a very understandable cause such as a death, job loss, stress at work or over a loved one's well-being. These are things that any of us could encounter in our lives at any point. As much as anything depressed people need to talk as part of the solution seeking process.

2. There's a sharp distinction between someone sharing something about their past and something they are still experiencing. Recalling memories of depression I see as the equivalent of another person recalling a divorce they've been through or a rotten job they've had or even recounting happy memories of a fabulous holiday. Why shouldn't someone who has been depressed pretend it hasn't happened? Why should they deny it or hide it? Is that not part of the reason why the stigma over mental illnesses prevails? How can people become less ignorant unless sufferers share what it's really like?

There is a difference of course between wearing a past trauma on your sleeve and just talking about it when it crops up as relevant to a conversation or when asked. Using it as a source of sympathetic attention to get what we want is not, in my view, what it's about. What we really need is acknowledgement for those experiences not sympathy.

When I came out of hospital I was extremely sensitive to any reference to mental illness. I started being offended by the language people used; words like "nutter", "fruitcake", "psycho", "mental" and "bonkers" all made me cringe because for the first time in my life I knew I could and (in some instances) was being seen as a sub-class of human being, one that wasn't welcome, was never going to be accepted and therefore a reject and one which these words were hurtfully being applied to.

From there I began to look for signs of stigma whereas I perhaps would have done better to look for places and people where it doesn't exist and stuck to them like glue. The maxim 'we find what we look for' really does hold true. There are instances where I have been wrong about people simply because those individuals haven't known what words to use in their efforts to try and understand.

Then again people use potentially harmful language because they are afraid of the subject, don't want to look at it in case they find they too could become ill. I use the word 'potentially' because it is up to us to not let it harm us, to let it float over our heads. "Easier said than done" I hear you cry and yes, you're right. But just as bigots are dismissive of what they don't like and are afraid of, why should not we be dismissive of what we don't like too?

I confess that on occasion I've applied words like "nutter" to myself in defiance of those who seek to look down on me. I know isn't always a popular tactic with other sufferers, but I do it to show the would-be bullies of this world that I am unafraid and to reclaim the language. As a consequence I don't care what people call me anymore. This way of fighting the stigma really has to be a personal choice of how or indeed whether we confront it head on or not. Much depends on our confidence levels and our personalities. Be true to yourselves on this is what I recommend and don't ever feel you have to follow my, or anyone else's example.

Over here in the UK positive action is being taken to fight the stigma in a campaign called Time to Change It is currently trying to encourage sufferers of mental illness of whatever kind to speak out about their experiences. It's an attempt to give us an opportunity to have our say, to give us a voice. People will always have the choice of whether or not they make assumptions or deal in facts, on whether they remain ignorant or get informed. The campaign also highlights many of the unfairnesses that are prevalent in mainstream society concerning how sufferers are regarded and responded to.

Yep, I've signed up to it, but... I think it important to remember that mental illness is only one aspect of our experiences and who we are. Undoubtedly it has been an influential part of the development of our characters, but it is not the only factor nor the sum total of our existence. From my own experience of working with MIND I am constantly reminded of how normal, average, sensible, considerate and compassionate people can be even when ill.

To become well we capitalize on what is working ok while acknowledging what's not. To only focus on what isn't working in my opinion only serves to perpetuate and escalate the problem. Yes, we need to address whatever it is that makes us unwell, but by also looking at what is still fine, what we enjoy and like we soon come to realize that the illness is not all consuming and nor is it an absolute of who we are. As with everything there needs to be a balance for us to reach our goal of wellness.

Sadly a perception remains that if we talk about our illness then we are ill and that depression is our God. The truth is that by not talking we jeopardize our chances of recovery and part of that process includes integrating back into mainstream society.

Folks, I'm glad to say not everyone is prejudiced so look out for them. Their numbers are growing because of campaigns like Time to Change, and at long last it's happening - people are gradually beginning to twig that we wholeheartedly deserve our place in the world too and that our bouts of illness are just that and nothing to be ashamed of.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Perils of Success

There is a particular reason why I've chosen to write what follows. I'm petrified but also excited about the possibility of my achieving something I've longed to do. Petrified for fear of what it may lead to if I'm successful and excited because of that longing to achieve. Of course all my efforts may come to nothing too.

It probably sounds bizarre to many but I fear success because I fear being put on a pedestal; for others to have too high an expectation of me. It stems from people in my past expecting me to have a magic wand to cure their ills or to carry them to a brighter future. Quite simply I can not do that. No one can.

If we look at the world of celebrity as an example of what can happen, one of the first things that occurs to me is how many get into difficulties due to the expectations of their followers and fans. People latch on to them because they want the recipe for success.

The celebrity has become famous for something they have done or do, but it is only one element; one facet of their being. Many end up having breakdowns, turning to drugs, alcohol or with maladaptive behavioural problems because relationships can get seen as things to avoid instead of embrace. They start thinking of others only wanting contact with them to help with finances, help them with their career etc with nothing in return.

While I would like acknowledgement for some task I've performed well, I never want to be worshipped for it.

Expectations can soon turn to demands of "MORE MORE MORE" which can lead to pressure, stress and burnout if the person feels they need their own 'me time'. Just because a singer comes up with one great song, does it follow that they MUST always do as well with others?

When we think of the world of business the same scenario can emerge. In essence the successful person has to feel at ease with what they are doing and strike a balance between the source of success and their sources of stability which include relationships, hobbies and all things that are separate from that one talent, skill, or aptitude that has given rise to that success. People need to rest from their good works and need to ensure there is that balance.

It can be a very fuzzy fine line between dedication and obsession, between welcome adulation and disturbing and distressing demands imposed on by ourselves or by others. Without a balance there is a risk of people crashing or plummeting; of abandonment of the the very things that in the beginning made them happy and made them successful. It isn't something that is unique to the world of the famous either; doctors, managers, scientists, engineers; people from all walks of life can be susceptible to this pitfall.

How often have we seen the media berate a person for their work or behaviour deteriorating when the demands of the public and the media have not been continually met or satisfied? They root for them on the way up but are often scathing and feel betrayed if they ever disappoint. It's not a fair or nice thing to do to anyone. So yes, I fear excesses of success.

My solution
I am human, and therefore will err, will disappoint, will say 'enough, no more', will do things which are good for me and walk away from anything that I am uncomfortable with or find potentially harmful. Most of all I will reject ever being hoisted onto a pedestal as I see it as one of the loneliest places to be placed. I refuse to go there, but will continue to do what gives me pleasure for as long as it does so; welcome acknowledgement if it pleases others but never let it control or govern my life. We all have a choice in how much or how little we push ourselves or let others do so. We have a choice in how we respond to that too.

In a conversation this week I explained that if ever I was asked for my autograph I'd be tempted to say "what's wrong with yours?" We all have the potential for success, but it's wise to temper it with our most basic needs as human beings and never let go of that.

Sorry if this posting is a bit cryptic in places but I have decided not to reveal my personal dilemma yet because I'm simply not ready to in any detail.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Visions of opportunity

Vision Boards
Recently I produced a Vision Board for what I'd like to achieve artistically. The areas I excluded were writing and creative workshops. I like to write novels and plays and I'd like to deliver all manner of creative workshops all of which I've started but I've a long way to go. In the meantime I need the balance of regular work to be able to do these things so that I can afford materials for the materials for artworks but still have the time to do them. Striking a balance between work and private interests is important.

So I'm currently working on to producing a Vision Board for the broader picture of where I want to be in the future to include what sort of home, the type of social life and personal relationships I'd like to develop and the sort of career I want to aim for etc. Vision Boards are a way to focus our ideas, dreams and ambitions.

Rather like the Mindmaps we can scribble our thoughts down to help give us focus, the only difference is that they tend to involve gather pictures as a visual reference. The concept behind both is for them to bring to the front our our minds what is of most importance to our well-being. Vision Boards though, are specifically a starting point for what we ultimately want to achieve. By sticking them on a wall we can then set about devising the journey that could take us there. There is nothing to stop us deleting one target and replacing it with another at any point, and most will evolve that way as and when different things interest and inspire us.

So now we have the end goals on the wall to remind us of where we want to go, it becomes a question of how to achieve it. Quite simply for 99% of the population it involves taking things one step of the time. Vision Boards can become a means by which we assess the merit of taking something on e.g. if I was a person interested in a career involving cars I could sit down a list of the possible jobs that were connected with cars. The list might look like this:

  • Mechanic
  • Car Designer
  • HGV driver
  • Sales Rep
  • JCB, Forklift or cherry picker operative
  • Tank mechanic
  • Racing driver
  • Toy maker
  • Administrator or Manager
  • Photographer etc.

Determining on where my interest in cars is would help me to decide where to start and it would help me to aim for roles which provided the next opportunity toward that ultimate goal. This may alter due to the experience I gain. Then I'd look at the skills and experience I have and which I have enjoyed using the most and compare the two lists noting where the gaps are so that I could look for courses and experiences to fill them.

For each area of my life I would do the same. It's slightly trickier when it comes to a place to live or close relationships, but even there the exercise highlights what to be looking out for.

Aspirations are important to have as it provides us with a direction to head in. They need to be tempered with reality though as to where we are now and what opportunities are about, but without them I believe we are all in danger of stagnation and depression.

Finding Opportunities
In a training course I went on last year I tried out a new game to highlight opportunities to help increase people's motivation for finding them. I took a balloon and the idea was for the group to keep it from touching the ground and to see how long they could keep it up in the air. We counted the number of touches before it fell to the ground - 56!

The second time I said the balloon represented 'opportunity'. Like the balloon, opportunity doesn't stay in the same place, we can miss it, we can let it burst or fall. The score was 79 this time! For the second game though I told one person they could only touch the balloon if it came their way and they were not to move from the spot they were standing on. I told another person they could only touch the balloon if it was above shoulder height. Understandably they didn't get to touch the balloon nearly so often as the others in the group.

Both these people represented limiting the our possibilities. By only looking at possibilities of becoming a racing driver I would be missing other opportunities of working with cars; opportunities that could later lead to my becoming a racing driver. I would be preventing realizing my own dreams.

The point being, we need to move in the right circles to increase the chances of the right opportunities coming our way, we need to keep our eyes and options open to all possibilities if we are to stand a chance of fulfilling our dreams.

Good luck in achieving your goals and keep your eyes open as there are possibilities out there.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Selfish Angry Wolves

A Native American Parable

A grandfather to his grandson said,

"I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart.

One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one.

The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one."

The grandson asked him,

"Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?"

The grandfather answered,

"The one I feed."

Just as there are pitfalls in being too selfless so there are pitfalls from being too selfish, and what strikes me about both is what they have in common – loneliness - and both selflessness and selfishness can become habitual.

Selflessness often is a symptom of a person feeling undeserving. Selfishness often stems from a person feeling hard done by; feelings that the world owes them for some hurt or injustice that person feels (rightly or wrongly) has been done to them.

Selfishness can manifest itself through greed, through lack of consideration of others, through criticisms of others, bullying, dismissal, lack of response to others among many other things. In my experience it is common for it to go hand in hand with an inner anger, which if allowed to fester and escalate becomes outward aggression. And to me anger is usually triggered by a fear of something. It's a defence, a barrier and alienates others from caring or getting close to cause them more harm. The usual argument for people who are selfish is that others don't care about them so they just go for what they want and sod what others think or feel.

This is where not being responsible for how others react can be used in a negative way. As outlined previously we are not responsible for the reactions of others, but it doesn't follow we have the right to railroad over other people’s needs or sensitivities. We don't. When we suffer depression though it can be exactly what happens.

If we want others to care about us, we simply cannot expect them to do so if we are not prepared to consider them.

When crashing headlong into psychosis I remember just how self obsessed and downright selfish I was. I wasn't interested in other people's lives; their feelings, their problems - I was wholly consumed with my own. There was nothing else happening in the world but pain and hurt descending on me.

I wanted, and did, lash out at everyone despite efforts from people to be supportive. But to me the form of the help was all wrong and damaging; try as I might I could not explain how or why, which just fuelled my frustration and anger. Paradoxically my fear was that I would be alone, that others would only ever hurt me.

Looking back, I now realize that the thing I needed the most was acknowledgement of my pain in losing my father. I needed others to sit and listen to me talk about him instead of trying to distract me from my thoughts about him. To some extent I still feel justified for feeling hurt by others for them not doing that; it costs so little to listen and means so much, but then I didn't make it easy for them to do so either.

On top of this I lost my job and was having all sorts of financial and practical difficulties too. It really did seem that the world was; if not out to get me, then at least not there for me anymore. I felt alone and didn't like it. I felt punished for being bereaved. I felt as if I was still being expected to go on as usual as if nothing bad had happened as people still wanted my support. I felt angry and totally justified in being selfish.

Depression of this kind is debilitating. Self awareness of our behaviour goes out the window. The ability to step out of our own shoes and see things from someone else's perspective becomes lost. Depression in this respect is a form of selfish indulgence.

Eventually because of my unquenchable anger, I alienated everyone and my thoughts became increasingly disturbed and distorted. I became psychotic and got the help I needed to untie a lot of deep rooted knots. One of the things that made my bereavement more complicated was some of the distressing and disturbing things that were hinted at about my Dad. Although far from perfect I'd always thought he was generally ok; a bit thoughtless but not a malicious man. My dilemma was what to believe of him and how to reconcile the conflicting impressions of him that were going round. Too late to talk to him direct and find out.

In some ways it was unreasonable for me to expect or demand others to be able to be of support as it was beyond their own experience and they didn't know what to say or do for the best.

Only after I was released from sectioning did I get the counselling and acknowledgement of my distress that I had needed for so long. I resolved to settle on what felt fair and right for me to believe of my Dad, and had to ignore what others felt. I also learned to respect that others had the right to hold an entirely different opinion as their relationship was different and he may well have hurt and damaged them. I reclaimed my compassion for others and found I hadn't lost my empathy; it merely got confused for a while.

In truth we are all selfish at times and need to be to work through difficulties; unravel emotional upsets; sort out practical problems. The best way to do so is to inform others that that is what we need to do at that time. When selfishness becomes habitual, aggressive, a symptom of bitterness and anger we need to seek help to get to the reasons behind it to put them to rest. If we don't, we risk being alone, ill and perpetually miserable. No amount of material goods or money will compensate us, no amount of point scoring over others, bullying, belittling or dismissal of milder temperaments will help.

I doubt that any habitually selfish people are reading this blog, but just in case... A wise person once told me that when we criticize others we are also being critical of an aspect of ourselves that we don't like and don't want to admit to.

I believe that in truth everyone wants acknowledgement for their good side, not their bad and, I believe we all want to feel acknowledged, accepted and loved despite our faults. That doesn't come from being malicious, vindictive or cruel.

All emotions should be transient. All behaviours should be down to choice. All thoughts should be part of a plan of action toward happiness. The balance between selflessness and selfishness is a tricky one and neither should be allowed to take control of our lives. Both are extremes to be avoided. The balance is hard to find and nigh on impossible whenever we dwell and brood. The answer to this requires a lot of self work, and a lot of self-awareness and the courage to be honest about our own faults.

To be happy though it’s best not to feed the angry wolf.