How change can affect mental health

Today is World Mental Health today and this week is OCD Awareness Week so it seemed a good enough reason to push myself to admit where I’m at with my mental health right now. Not for sympathy or to say ‘I’m sicker than you’ but because telling the truth about the bullies in my head helps me to defeat them and because maybe it might help you to read it.

I’ve just started a new job and moved back to Bristol. In fact what actually happened is that I packed a small suitcase with essentials and took a train to Bristol the weekend before my job started with nowhere to live, unsure of whether I’d be able to handle going back to work again after 9 months being unfit for work, let alone cope with living independently again. The DWP assessment doctor said I was better but hadn’t recovered enough to go back to work, at least not many hours.

Fortunately my boyfriend let me stay with him when my Air bnb turned out to be a bit dodgy. I managed to find a house to move into a week later and my part-time job isn’t tiring me out too much. I cried when I was exhausted from going to house viewings and I cried when I moved into my stark and dirty new room. But my boyfriend was there to give me a hug both times.

I’m halfway into my second week and anorexia is screaming at me with all its might. Anorexia is closely linked to and often involves OCD behaviours. When I saw a counsellor this summer she said I definitely have OCD. I don’t have to flick light switches multiple times or live in fear of my family dying if I don’t do certain routines. And I feel very lucky that I don’t because I know that it must be a living hell for people trapped in routines by extreme fear. I have contamination OCD which plays into my anorexia. It relates to my M.E. and emetophobia (fear of vomiting). I am afraid that either germs or food are going to make me sick/seriously ill. Because of this I worry constantly about what I have touched and whether I washed my hands after touching the thing and did I put my hands next to my face and did I wash my hands before I touched the food and is the food safe to eat etc etc. I am trapped in hand washing and restricted eating and obsessive thoughts by fear.

The new house I have moved into is very dirty. I only moved in because there was no alternative and the people are nice. Every day after work I have spent what little energy I have left cleaning for at least an hour; because I am compelled to through fear. Because I will not stop thinking about it until I know it is clean. The compulsion to move constantly e.g. cleaning, walking, exercising etc is a big part of anorexia because the brain believes it is in famine and is trying to make you migrate to find more food. However for most it disguises itself as a desire to ‘burn calories’. It’s an anxious energy which if prolonged will probably cause an M.E. Crash.

A new workplace presents new hazards. I push doors open in places where I think fewer people will have touched. I press buttons with my knuckles not my fingertips. The toilets are the next floor up: should I get the lift and save energy or climb the stairs and burn it? I have hand sanitizer on my desk. The bus to work is a nightmare for me. I have to have my headphones in and be focussing on the world outside the window to distract myself from all the people coughing and sneezing. I wash or sanitize my hands as soon as I can when I get off the bus and avoid touching things on there if I can.

When it comes to food I worry that the new kitchen equipment I’m using is unclean so I have to wash everything first and I have to disinfect the surfaces. I worry that I haven’t used the new oven correctly and my food isn’t cooked properly. It makes me want to avoid animal products even though the only one I’m eating is fish. I worry that I haven’t cooled my leftovers properly. I let myself get extremely hungry because I forget that I’m expending more energy than I have been so need more. It felt like my stomach was eating itself earlier I was so hungry and I had to force myself to eat.  I know I’m not eating enough but my diet is still restricted so I don’t know what I can be eating to fill the gaps. Ana tells me not to eat too much in case the food I ate earlier makes me sick and so if I don’t eat so much I’ll be less sick. Ana tells me that I’m not thin enough to be taken seriously as anorexic so I should eat less. She points out every girl that is thinner than me as proof that I’m not thin enough to call myself anorexic. She makes me check my stomach in the mirror multiple times a day to see if I can still see my ribs and judge how thin I am.

These behaviours both around cleanliness and food are all massive red flags that I am not ok. My mental health is not ok. I need to do something about this right now. As always I turn to Tabitha Farrar – Adult Eating Disorder Recovery Coach for help. I bought her book but stupidly left it at home. However, re-watching her YouTube videos has helped. She says that you have to make a commitment to eat unrestricted and force feed yourself even if you are crying and shaking because weight restoration and re-wiring your brain is the only way to get better. I still can’t eat unrestricted because of the work I’m doing to repair my gut but I am making a commitment to eat as much of my ‘allowed’ foods as I can and reintroduce foods. I have told my boyfriend so that I can be accountable. I’ve asked him to check I’m eating and for us cook together sometimes especially when I’m reintroducing a new food. No one else can rescue me from the prison that is my mind except me. But a little support, encouragement and ‘keeping an eye out’ goes a long way. I’m hoping that once I’ve settled into my new job and home the thoughts and behaviours will start to subside.

 

We all have mental health and if any little instinct inside you says ‘hey I’m not sure I’m feeling ok right now’ please know that it is ok to speak up, just a little inkling is enough to need help and support even if it’s just making sure you get out for a walk at lunchtime or chat to a friend – chances are they’ve experienced something similar and will be relieved to hear you share.

Calling in the reinforcements

A little over a month ago I wrote about how being on a restricted diet for SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) was making my anorexia ‘flare up’. My mental health has continued to deteriorate in this way which is scary. I am becoming increasingly afraid of food and have become particularly anxious around meat because I am irrationally afraid that something about it will make me ill. I cried over some fish the other day because the packet was already open in the fridge and I was convinced it could be contaminated so I was too afraid to eat it. I have been feeling low and irritable. I’m snapping at my family all the time and it saddens me. At first I felt proud that despite the weight-loss and the returning anorexic thoughts I felt certain that I didn’t want to be thin and eat a restricted diet. I thought I’d beaten Ana. But the longer it continues the harder it is getting to fight it. I can see and feel my ribs and although part of me worries and thinks I don’t want to look like this another part tells me I need to be thinner to justify complaining that I’m not ok. I’m starting to want to hide my body in case people make comments and try to make me eat more. I almost threw away the fish in secret when I was afraid to eat it instead of just being honest about how I felt. Ana is starting to make me want to hide, to lie, to keep secrets, to avoid social situations that involve food and alcohol. My clothes are starting to look too big and I when an extra small is too big I don’t want to tell anyone. When I was anxious after eating chicken I felt agitated and had to go for a walk. That’s Ana making me exercise. It’s really not good. The anxiety is increasing in all elements of my life and I find I’m more afraid than usual about germs, about losing people, about committing to plans.

I’m seeing a counsellor every fortnight and we’ve started talking about these issues. She feels it’s unethical for a nutritionist to put me on this diet and questioned its efficacy. I told the nutritionist how I’ve been feeling and she’s given me some tablets that should kill the bacteria (rather than just starving them) to try and speed up the process. A friend of mine who is also in recovery said that maybe its Ana coming back one last time so I can prove to myself I can beat it. It’s useful in a way to be able to talk to the counsellor about it and how it feels in order to address why it started in the first place so that I have a better chance of beating it. Having the counsellor and close friends to talk to about it means I’m more likely to keep fighting it. This time I know more about anorexia and how it works, I know why I’m feeling this way. This is all helping.

It’s a balancing act between improving my physical health without destroying my mental health. I’m not at the tipping point just yet but I know I’m close. Ultimately, my mental health has to come first. There will be no point in healing my digestive system if I’m shivering in the clutches of anorexia. Whilst I’m not at my tipping point, I’m at the point where I have to admit that this possibility is very real and very frightening. I’m at the point where I need those around me to keep an eye on my behaviours and question me if I’m not eating anything but vegetables. I fight hard every day on my own but now I’m calling in the reinforcements.

The pervasiveness of diet culture

I just listened to the latest Made of Human podcast by comedian Sofie Hagen in which she chats to Megan Jayne Crabbe aka BodiPosiPanda about diet culture, body positivity, privilege and much more. The episode was fantastic, so funny but also informative. I learned a lot about my own privilege and ‘health at every size’. These topics are covered in Megan’s book Body Positive Power which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I searched on my local library’s online catalogue and found no trace of it. I tried just ‘body positivity’ as a search…still no results. I tried feminism and found mostly academic texts. I even tried anorexia and found some self-help guides, academic texts and biographies that looked pretty depressing. Whilst Megan explains her eating disordered past she focuses very much on the positives in the now and encouraging others to accept themselves. I tried other titles I knew to be about body positivity and found two books. I thought I’d try a little experiment and typed in ‘diet’. There were 1083 results. I had been expecting some diet books but over a thousand?!

This is when I got a little angry. The library is a public service providing free education. I looked at the library first for Megan’s book because I’m currently unemployed due to illness and so trying to save the pennies (and no, I’m not ill enough for welfare benefits nor well enough for Jobseekers Allowance…but that’s another rant for another day). I spent a lot of time in the library as a teenager and some of that time was definitely spent looking at diet books to help me lose weight. If the library had more body positivity books on its shelves and a fewer diet books I wonder if that experience would have been different for me. Diet culture is everywhere we look because it makes people money. It’s on billboards, on the covers of magazines, on the TV, on social media. Diet culture has created the myth that it is shameful to look like anything other than ‘slim and toned’. We can’t escape it in these profit making zones but it would be nice to escape it in the public education service of the library. By providing so many diet books and so few body positivity books the library is perpetuating diet culture.

There is so much more to be said on the pervasiveness of diet culture and body shaming and on the media’s obsession with obesity and glorification of disordered eating but I’ll leave it here for today.

I would like to say that in the library’s defence when I went to the doctor as an 18 year old with anorexia they offered me a self-help book on prescription from the library. Therapy would have been better but with that book and the help of a paid-for counsellor I was able to start my recovery.

 

Made of Human podcast: http://mohpod.libsyn.com/97-bodyposipanda-live-maybe-my-body-knew-better-than-slimming-world?tdest_id=483496

BodiPosiPanda: http://www.bodyposipanda.com/ some great early blog posts still on there but more recent ones in her advice column: https://www.the-unedit.com/posts/?tag=Ask+Bodyposipanda

 

How do you deal with a bully?

How do you deal with a bully? You tell people about it and don’t suffer in silence. Anorexia is my bully right now. After being diagnosed with small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) I’ve been on a restricted diet for the past four weeks. This level of restriction is set to continue for another two weeks before I start to be able to reintroduce some foods. Whilst my energy and muscle pain has been improving, I have had days when I’ve been doubled over with pain in my stomach or finding my throat burning or my skin really itchy. Looking at the diet information it acknowledges the potential of food intolerances within the foods that are allowed on the diet that contatin histamine, oxylates and salicytes. These foods can cause the symptoms mentioned above. I’m already struggling mentally with the weight I’ve lost on the diet and its restrictions as well as the fact it makes me eat a lot of meat and fish which I dislike doing. Now I feel like I need to restrict more to stop these horrible symptoms. However I don’t know if this is some I really need to do and is advisable to do, or if it’s Ana playing her tricks again. She’s already got me doubting whether I should eat the white rice the nutritionist has allowed me to have because having no carbohydrates was proving a real struggle.

I don’t want to be as thin as I am now and I’m missing my favourite foods and hating feeling hungry but I’m also starting to feel afraid of food and really negative towards it. My friends will talk about all the foods we’re going to enjoy together once I’ve finished the diet and whilst I started out feeling excited about that, now I feel afraid of how those foods will make me feel and whether it’ll ruin the work I’ve done. The thought of it makes me feel out of control. Again I think that’s Ana trying to get to me. I want to make plans with my friends but I know I’ll struggle to find things I’m ‘allowed’ to eat when we’re out and we can’t share food as they’re mostly vegan and vegetarian and I’ve got to eat all this meat. This makes me worry about social occasions, including whether people will think I’m being difficult or weird.

Yesterday I realised I’d been getting part of the diet wrong by eating too many of the restricted vegetables at once and I cried from frustration and fear that this was going to make the anorexic thoughts in my head worse. Just before writing this blog I cried as I read the foods that might be causing me these extra symptoms as I could feel Ana rubbing her hands in glee about further restriction and ways to make me feel psychologically awful. Right now I feel very confused and conflicted about what to do next and how to deal with all the psychological and physical symptoms I’m having. Spending three months like this is a worry. Hopefully I can get through the next two weeks of the really restrictive diet and then phase two will be easier to cope with.

The intrusive thoughts that come with many mental health conditions are exhausting and confusing to deal with. They make us withdraw, become irritable and struggle to make decisions. Please spare a thought for people dealing with mental health conditions and their silent struggles you can’t see.

Calling

I can’t tell you the exact moment that it happened. Where I was or what I was doing but suddenly everything became clear to me and I now know what my calling is. I’m going to train in holistic/alternative therapies and become a healer. I’ve considered academia but I wouldn’t be helping people and I knew I needed to be useful. I’ve thought about teaching children as I love being around them but I knew I wouldn’t have enough stamina. Various conversations with people both recently and over the years, as well as my own transformative experiences with holistic/alternative therapies, showed me that this was the path I had to take. I’d already been on it for years without realising. For once I don’t feel impatient about getting started. I trust that everything will fall into place at the right time, because everything has been falling into place at the right time until now, even when it felt wrong. I sat in bed holding my new vision in my head and I felt so calm and content.

As soon as my vision became clear everything else started falling into place. The chiropractor who treated me when I lived in Cardiff called me to ask if I wanted to go to a healing day in Bath that weekend. I would have to drive on the motorway to Stroud and stay overnight with her, taking all my weird SIBO diet food with me, then have treatments all day that I would have no idea how I would react to…but I was certain this was a sign and I had to say yes.

I spent the night in a van, sleeping surprisingly deeply surrounded by dogs (they always stick to me like glue), and in the morning we heaved a motorhome across the gorgeous Cotswolds (and down worryingly narrow lanes) to the retreat just outside of Bath. The day consisted of three breathing exercises each followed by three treatments (or entrainments) on the table. It’s a specific type of chiropractic care called Network Spinal Analysis which I found to be highly effective when I was being treated in Cardiff.

The first session was about acknowledging your pain and that you are stuck. Afterwards I felt a horrible pain in my neck and felt sick. I felt afraid but I sat with it and the pain eased. Afterwards my neck felt better than it had for a long time. The second session was about taking back your power and refusing to be stuck anymore. It involved very powerful fast breathing and shouting affirmations like “I take back my power!” “I deserve more than this!” “Enough now!” We were told to see who or what was keeping us stuck. As if perfectly cued, piano music started playing on the stereo, just like my abusive ex used to play. I saw in my head all the ways he had disempowered me and I screamed the affirmations at the top of my lungs and let go. I also saw how my father’s fears have limited me. I was crying a lot and got straight onto the table for a treatment after the breathing exercise. The chiropractor told me that I hadn’t been supported enough in the past but that was going to change now. I don’t really remember what happened but I was fully sobbing buckets. After my entrainment I lay back down on my yoga mat to recover and ‘Happy’ by Pharrell came on the stereo. This is a significant song for me because when I was living in Cardiff my mum came to visit and we went to a Rock Choir day where we learnt to perform Happy. She said she hadn’t seen me smile like that in so long. I felt alive for the first time in years. When my ex came to collect us at the end of the day he was so shocked to see me smiling that it clearly made him feel uncomfortable. That day had been my first step to regaining my power, because I realised I could create my own happiness. As the song played whilst I lay on my yoga mat I began to laugh and I couldn’t stop. I had seen in my vision that I needed to be nearer to my brother who lives in Guernsey because he has always had such a positive outlook on life. I imagined dancing on the beach with him and our friends to Happy.

The third session is a bit of a blur to me now but I think it was about the emptiness after the discharge of your pain and how from this place of emptiness you can transcend into simply ‘being’. I did the most exercise I’d done in a long time during this breathing exercise and afterwards I sobbed sporadically as my core vibrated with energy for the third time that day. During my last time on the table I lay on my back and felt completely blissful as if I was floating and reached out a hand to touch heaven. We gathered in a circle at the end of the day and sent our love out into the world. I felt calm and sort of numb but not in a bad way. I felt no pain or fear or anything really. The chiropractor who ran the session told me that the things that have happened to me will give me great depth as a healer.

Filled with energy I sang all the way home and slept deeply that night. The next day I spent the day in silence, grounding myself by lying in the garden feeling slightly achy but not exhausted. The following day my friend came to visit and we walked on the hills and all around town and still I felt no pain. Five days have passed and I have not crashed. I’ve started to feel a little tired and sore but nothing a hot bath won’t fix. I’ll need to build up my stamina gradually but at least my muscles are actually working enough to let me do that now. I’m going to be living on my yoga mat!

My muscles have released. My mind is calm and clear. I love myself and trust that life will unfold exactly as it should. I let go of everything, despite my fears, and in return the universe filled me up with so much love and confidence. Now loving from a place of generosity not fear, a true friend has come back into my life bolstering me with love, care and praise. I couldn’t be happier.

 

More on Network Spinal Analysis from the chiropractor who ran the healing day: http://www.myabundantlife.co.uk/network.html

 

New Diagnosis!

As well as finishing my degree yesterday, after seven years, I also got some good news in relation to my health. Under the guidance of the Head of Nutrition at The Optimum Health Clinic, a specialist M.E. clinic that I attended two years ago, I undertook a test on my small intestine. Having M.E. is unusual in that you want test results to come back positive because M.E. is diagnosed as a result of a lack of any positive diagnosis. In other words nothing looks medically wrong with you and yet you’re extremely ill.

This time my test came back positive! Very positive in fact, for a condition called small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). This condition is where bacteria which normally reside in your large intestine have overgrown into the small intestine instead. It is often caused by stomach viruses and food poisoning, which is how my M.E. symptoms started. The condition damage the microvilli which results in malabsorption of nutrients and toxins leaking into the blood stream, which causes M.E. type symptoms of fatigue, pain, inflammation, muscle spasms, nutrient deficiencies, skin problems and digestive problems.

The good news is that this condition is treatable with diet and supplementation. My nutritionist says that she’s confident I’ll start to feel much better within the next month or two which is very exciting. The condition may be eradicated completely and I’ll be able to go back to a normal diet but it may reoccur so I might have to moderate my diet if the symptoms come back. For the first six weeks my diet will be very restrictive, cutting out all carbohydrates and fermentable foods which the bacteria like to digest before I can! So I basically be eating like a caveman and living on meat, fish, nuts, seeds and vegetables. Bone broth will also be a very important part of the treatment in order to repair the lining of the small intestine. After the initial six weeks I’ll be able to add in more things like rice, quinoa, lentils and some fruits.

Taking on a very restrictive diet is always a worry for me because of my history of eating disorders. I am concerned about losing weight and getting obsessive but I have the support of my nutritionist and my counsellor if I start to have any problems. I haven’t had any eating disordered thoughts for a good few months so I am feeling more confident that I’d be able to tackle any issues that arise. Whilst it will be a boring couple of months on this diet, when you’ve been ill for over a decade you’re ready to do anything that might help. My nutritionist also informed me that in her work with people with anorexia she has found that the majority of them have a digestive problem like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) which has been an important factor in their illness. Why would you eat if you get pain and bloating every time you do? SIBO is a relatively new condition and it is now believed to account for 70% of IBS symptoms. Problems with the gut have also been proven to cause mental health problems, due to malabsorption of important nutrients and toxins in the bloodstream.

Tonight I will eat my last piece of chocolates and then spend the summer fixing my tummy with this new diet, whilst removing all stresses and just doing things that make me feel good. When I came home at the end of March I said I’d give myself six months, until my birthday, to really rest and recover. A fortnight ago I had begun to think that recovery would be impossible, certainly by September, but with this new diagnosis and my improved mental health I’m confident that I’ll be ready to take on the next stage of my life come my 27th birthday. With a first-class degree to boot 😉

 

Things that help

Yesterday’s post was a bit deep and dark, and that’s ok as it’s a very real part of being unwell, but today I thought I’d share the more positive things that I do to try and help myself feel better and I’ll put some links at the end about some of the things I mention.

  • Getting good quality sleep: this is something I really struggle with at times, I have periods of finding it hard to fall asleep and having very light sleep where I wake up a lot but I’ve been trying to switch off my devices at 9pm, have a sleepy herbal tea, journal, read self help books sometimes and listen to a relaxation recording. After a few weeks I’m definitely seeing an improvement and getting a solid 6 hours sleep, sometimes longer, which is so great and is helping me feel better.
  • Journaling: I write a diary at the end of every day to empty my head of thoughts.
  • Gratitude journal: I write at least 5 things in a journal at the end of each day that I’m grateful for. This reminds me that there are still lots of positive things in my life. It might be that I heard from a friend or I had a yummy hot chocolate.
  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT): this is a self-help tool where you tap on certain points on your face and body whilst talking about your feelings/emotions in order to release them. It sounds very strange but it helps me to process my feelings really well. I go from anger to tears to laughing in the space of a few minutes sometimes!
  • Writing letters I’ll never send: If the journaling and tapping isn’t enough to get all the feelings out then I write letters. If there’s a load of stuff I want to say to someone but I can’t because I’m not able to talk to them at the moment for whatever reason, or the things I feel inside are too big to communicate appropriately I write letters. Sometimes after a lot of editing I might send that person a letter if I feel it’s appropriate, but mostly they’re just for me.
  • Stopping unhelpful thoughts: sometimes thoughts are really unhelpful and they just need to stop. Emotions need to be processed but thoughts can be analysed. Is the thought helpful? What is going to happen if I keep thinking like this? Is there a better way to think that would be more helpful? And always praise yourself for helping yourself. You deserve praise (I give myself a hug and tell myself I’m doing really well…sometimes that makes me cry but that’s ok)
  • Eating a healthy diet but not getting obsessive: I follow some healthy eating guidelines for people who have M.E. which avoids some foods that I have some intolerances to, but everything in moderation – I do eat bites of other people’s pizza sometimes…! At the moment I’m focussing on getting lots of protein for my muscles and eating more so I can gain weight. I love getting a medjool date, cracking it in half and filling it with almond butter – it’s sticky and delicious, like a truffle! Yum.
  • Going to counselling: this is something that I always find helpful even if it brings up things that are uncomfortable. It’s an important part of my healing process but it is hard so I always try to counter it with some comfort afterwards. This week after counselling I ate chocolate whilst watching Friends.
  • Getting medical help: since beginning this relapse at the end of last summer I have been seeking medical help and taking medication for pain relief. My GP has referred me to the M.E. specialist at Bristol but the appointment is not until July. I received a mental health assessment and they were going to offer me therapy but I had to move home to my parents, that’s why I’ve taken up counselling here. They gave me the crisis line number and they were generally fantastic. If you’re struggling with your mental health in any way, please have a chat with your GP and have a look at the Mind website. I’ve also gone back to a private M.E. specialist nutritionist who is running tests and giving me supplements to help with my symptoms.
  • Using a crutch: much to my dismay I’ve had to give in and get a crutch. I was being stubborn about it because I worry it’ll make things worse but actually it’ll enable me to do a bit more on days when I feel a little unsteady on my feet. I should probably try to see a physio too because my left leg has suddenly become way shorter than my right! What I’m saying is that it’s ok to need a medical aid or medication and is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Meditation: I am not very good at this but the important thing is to just keep having a go. I listen to Linda Hall meditations on YouTube. She has ones with different lengths and themes. There’s a really nice one when you visualise building a nest surrounded by all your favourite people and things. Every afternoon around 4pm and go to bed for a bit and listen to one to chill out. Relaxing is very important in recovery but often very hard to achieve!
  • Warm bath: add in some Epsom salts for muscle aches, essential oils and a relaxation recording. Lovely. A morning bath is a great luxury/what I have to do when I’m having a really bad day because I can’t do much else! But I pretend its luxury, like a posh lady at a day spa!
  • Getting creative: I’ve been doing a pottery class over the past few weeks to get me out the house and do something different. Going on the wheel turned out to be too physically demanding but sitting and concentrating on forming a pot with my hands is such a great mindfulness practice and very calming. I’m going to start drawing again too, as the close concentration helps silence the unhelpful thoughts and can be a way to express things.
  • Talking to a friend: getting your feelings out, talking about nice things other than being ill or being able to support someone else like they support you can all help. However sometimes this can be a bit too much and I have to let my friends know that I can’t meet up with them or listen to their problems because I haven’t got enough energy. It’s hard letting people down but a true friend understands.
  • Singing: when I’m well enough to drive you can be certain that I am belting out some Aretha Franklin at the top of my lungs completely off key. No one can hear me so I don’t care. I probably look very weird to other drivers though! I sing in the kitchen a lot too. Singing is a joyous release of energy when you’ve got some to spare.
  • Crying and screaming: not dissimilar to my singing (hahaha) but properly letting out tears is so important. I never used to do the screaming thing as I’ve never been one for shouting and screaming but I’ve found myself wanting to scream into a pillow sometimes and it does help.
  • Yoga: at the moment I’m too ill to do a proper yoga routine but just some really gentle stretching and breathing helps to prevent further stiffening of the muscles and joints. Yoga, my bed and M.E. on YouTube is a great place for very gentle, short routines you can do in bed.
  • Laughing: it just makes everything better. That’s why sometimes it’s worth using up some energy to go see some friends that you know will make you laugh. I watch a lot of comedy too. People have cured themselves of serious illnesses through laughter; it really is the best medicine.
  • Happy TV: I don’t watch the news anymore or gritty dramas because I feel things so deeply that it’s not helpful for me. Instead I watch happy, ‘safe’ shows like Bobs Burgers or Star Trek or something nostalgic like Gilmore Girls or an old musical like Singing in the Rain.
  • Nature: whether I can only look at indoor plants, sit in the garden or going for a short walk, looking at nature helps. I can’t really explain it; I guess it’s the mindfulness of looking at a flower really closely or listening to birdsong or feeling the breeze. Some fresh air and moving your body a little helps too.
  • Warming things: comfy clothes, hot water bottles, heat up neck pillows and toys, dressing gowns, onesies, blankets, scarves, hats, hot drinks etc. All just makes me feel better. I’m always giving my friends presents that are warming and comforting and they do the same for me! Hugs are also wonderful, we all need more please!
  • Little reminders: I stick post-it notes around my mirror with positive statements and reminders so that I see them every day
  • Make yourself smile: How often do you look in the mirror and frown? I try to smile at myself now as much as I can – even pull silly faces at myself! Forcing yourself to smile releases happy chemicals just like laughter and hugs do.
  • Listen to your instincts: if something feels wrong, stop doing it. Whether that’s a physical activity or something you’re watching, social media or being in a particular situation. Stop pushing for something if it feels wrong and instead go do one of the things above that’s positive instead. If you feel like drawing, then draw! If you feel like eating, then eat! If you feel like just going to bed that’s ok too! Your body is there to protect you, listen to it and have a dialogue with it – it’s the most important and long-lasting relationship you’ll ever have.

I hope some of these suggestions have been helpful. ‘Self-care’ can get a bit of negative press for being commoditised or self-indulgent but that’s rubbish. Self-care is just about looking after yourself because if you feel better you’ll make others feel better too so it’s really not selfish. Plus the things I’ve mentioned above really don’t cost much money either and plenty of them are free! Check in with yourself and do something helpful for yourself this Mental Health Awareness Week.

Mind:

https://www.mind.org.uk/

EFT:

https://www.emofree.com/eft-tutorial/tapping-basics/how-to-do-eft.html

Linda Hall meditations:

https://www.youtube.com/user/AudioMeditation

Yoga, my bed and M.E.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCC47A3U78rX6Ln7jCng8tvw

 

 

Sitting with myself

I’m a few weeks into a course of counselling because I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety. Every week we peel away another layer to reveal things about myself that I really don’t want to look at. Like how as a child being ill or hurt seemed like my only way to get attention and care so I just carried on doing this. Did I manifest M.E. subconsciously? I believe that your body is only ever trying to protect you, perhaps my body thought I needed this horrible illness in order to get what I needed: care. When M.E. wasn’t enough to get the care I needed and people carried on hurting me, my body created another illness: anorexia, even more deadly than the first one. I felt a desperate need to physically show people how much I was hurting inside. Being ill in some way is how I get care but it’s also how I get revenge. A little voice in my brain tells me to stop eating or get ill or hurt myself whenever someone hurts me in the hope that they’ll feel guilty and make things ok again. I realise that this is not rational and absolutely not ok and I fight the voice, but it’s what my body/mind has been doing in a messed up attempt to protect me for years.

At this level, I’m acting as a victim, as someone that bad things happen to who needs care and attention but deeper than this, at the core of everything, is a belief that I am not good enough as I am. I am not deserving of love and attention as I am. At this level, the ill health and the bad things that happen to me are a form of self harm, of punishment. I make myself ill, I hurt myself on purpose, I do things that prevent me from getting better, I put myself in harmful situations or don’t leave them when I should, I self-sabotage, I do things I don’t want to do. I do this because I have very low self esteem. I do this because I don’t think I’m ok as I am. I do this because I don’t know who I am if I’m not ill or a victim.

The counsellor watches me as I cry over these realisations. I feel awful about manipulating the people I love, I didn’t realise I was doing it; I did it out of a fear of abandonment and desperate need for care but that’s not an excuse for my behaviour. I want to apologise to everyone. I want to hide under a duvet. I’m terrified of rejection. The false walls I have been building around me for years have been pulled down and now I feel vulnerable and exposed. The motivation behind every action I’ve ever taken has been to please other people, to keep them in my life, to have them care about me and ultimately to want me around. To be healthier my motivation has to be what I want, or more accurately, what I need. I need to find out who I really am without these masks and devices. I was supposed to spend the summer doing things for myself, no work, just getting healthy and indulging myself, working out what I want to do next. What do I do? I apply for a job in the city I had to leave a few months ago, due to illness, partly so I could feel useful and independent again and partly in the hope that I could be closer to someone I love again. Because he made me feel ok and safe more than anyone else has. I made another person and another task the focus again (though in my defence it is a good job). “That’s interesting” says the counsellor, “you always have to be attached to someone or some task. You can’t just sit with yourself”. She reminded me that this person chose not to be with me because he needed to put himself first, that he told me he couldn’t be what I needed, that he needed find himself and that I need to respect that. I felt awful again. I wanted to apologise to this person, for not hearing him before, for being so caught up in my needs that I hadn’t respected his. He was so strong and brave for standing up for his needs. But I know that contacting him even to apologise is not respecting his wishes. Low self-esteem and guilt hit as well as the fear of letting go. I know that I need to let go of this person, of other people that I have unhealthy attachments to, of the version of myself I have created out of fear. I’m terrified because I feel like when I let go of all of these things there will be nothing left and when that happens I’ll get even more depressed and I won’t get out of bed or worse. I feel like I need to grieve but I’m avoiding it. When I’ve peeled off all the layers and let go of all the attachments there’s just nothing left because my low self-esteem won’t let me see the good attributes I have, just as I am.

When I was about 7 years old I drew a picture of a vase with flowers in and wrote across the top of the page: “I want to be an artist”. I keep a photo of myself at that age by my mirror with a post-it note that says “look after yourself” as if my inner child is reminding me to look after both of us. Pretty much the only way I can look after myself is to pretend I’m looking after a child instead. I’d never deny a child food if they were hungry or let them hurt themselves on purpose or ignore their cries. So my inner child’s ambition to be an artist is about all I’ve got to go on at the moment in terms of working out who I am. Low self-esteem stopped me drawing years ago when it decided I wasn’t good enough. But I found some old drawings that I think are good and stuck them on my wall to remind me that I can draw. I’ve been attending a pottery class because I loved clay as a child and I’ve been feeling compelled to draw for the first time in a long time. My counsellor tells me that my creative side is far more likeable than my controlling side, I get that. She says that I come alive when I talk about art and working with children. I’ve always been a little afraid of my creative side, or perhaps I actually feel ashamed of it because it’s big and loud and messy and has received negative reactions at times.

Sitting with myself is going to be a struggle but maybe sitting and drawing might be a way to start.

Neopolitan Dreams

There is a song I have been listening to ever since I got diagnosed with M.E. 10 years ago. It’s a cheerful song called Neopolitan Dreams by Lisa Mitchell and I use it to remind me that the struggles I’m going through are all part of a process that needs to happen. These things are happening for a reason and I have to let them wash over me and try and soak up the useful lessons they’re providing. It reminds me that I can choose what I focus on. I can calm my thoughts and focus on my dreams. I do not have to let the ‘little thieves’ of depression, anxiety and their cronies affect me. It reminds me to let people go and that I can be okay on my own. Although I have no clue as to when and if I will get better I can still live a worthwhile life. I will be okay.

You go and I’ll be okay
I can dream the rest away
It’s just a little touch of fate, it’ll be okay
It sure takes its precious time, but it’s got rights and so have I

I turn my head up to the sky
I focus one thought at a time
I do not let the little thieves under my tightly buttoned sleeve
It couldn’t be a longer time, I feel like I am walking blind
I have no arrival time
There are no legible signs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RowAc-H3EM

 

Attachment and Loss

Recently I’ve lost a lot of things. I lost my job, my independence, someone I love, two wisdom teeth and subsequently some weight. My health has deteriorated both physically and mentally and there have been times when I’ve lost my grip on reality. In less than two months I will no longer be a student and society would label me as single, unemployed and living with my parents.

I didn’t want any of these things to happen but they needed to. I needed to stop pushing myself to do a job I physically couldn’t do. I needed to lose my independence because I couldn’t cope on my own anymore. I needed to stop fighting for love that isn’t reciprocated. I needed to lose those wisdom teeth (although I could have done without the subsequent infection and weight loss). I needed to become unwell so I could wake up and realise that I’m not ok and that I needed to change what I was doing, even though I really didn’t want to.

Now that everything has fallen away and all I have to do is focus on finishing my degree and my health I can start to build my life back up again from scratch. This time my foundation will be my health, until that is better nothing else is being added in. I always try to be ‘normal’, to have a job, a relationship, a home but I lose these things over and over again because my health is not good enough to sustain them.

I read a blog post about attachment and the writer quoted The Buddha: “The root of suffering is attachment” as well as Yoda: “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose” which seem to be good sentiments to try to live by. When you form your identity around your attachments – your job, your car, your relationship status – when you lose them you feel you are losing a part of yourself, but as human beings we have everything we need to be happy within ourselves.

When it comes to relationships, attachment is often confused with love. Attachment is about fear and dependency which comes from not feeling complete in yourself and feeling you need another person to be whole. Love without attachment is about feeling whole by yourself and giving the surplus love you have without needing anything in return.

The relationships I’ve been in have always been based around some form of dependency. My own ill health means that occasionally I’ve struggled to look after myself and people have often wanted to help me without necessarily being asked but then they ultimately begin to resent my illness. My first adult relationship was a very unhealthy one but I didn’t leave for a long time because I was scared: of him but also of being alone because he convinced me that no one else would want me and that I should be grateful that he put up with me and my illness. Most of my relationships have involved co-dependency when I end up giving the other person a lot of support too because they don’t feel ok on their own. Many people, myself included, look to a relationship (or just sex) as a way to escape from themselves. Focussing on someone else means you don’t have to think about your problems, you get a high from feeling wanted and a sense of satisfaction, but ultimately you realise it’s not making you feel good. You blame the other person, convinced that they’re just not right for you, and go straight back into your search for someone else. The other person is not the problem, or at least not the only problem, your relationship with yourself is what needs attention. The happiness you gain from outside yourself is ephemeral, it will never fill the emptiness you feel inside; that hole needs to be filled by you. Once you feel content within yourself and you meet someone who also feels content within themselves, then you can begin to love without attachment from a place of generosity not a place of need.

I described it to my friend as being a cake or an ice cream sundae which is great on its own and a relationship is just the cherry on the top. She’s a teacher and she tells her teenage students this and they love it. Apparently they think I’m some sort of legend without ever meeting me which I find funny but I’m glad they’re hearing this now. I wish I’d known about it ten years ago!

The cherry can be all sorts of things, not just a relationship. Even without a job, or my health, or anything I am still worthy. I am still a yummy ice cream sundae just for being me. On a very dark day I asked a loved one what was the point in me being alive when I can’t do anything useful. But I’ve finally understood that I don’t need to earn the right to be alive, I was given life and I’m allowed to keep it. Now that I have lost most of the things that formed my identity, I find that I am still loved by my friends and family, I am still getting up in the morning and getting through each day. I grieve my losses and sometimes it’s hard but mostly I feel relieved. Of course I want to have a relationship, a job, a home and independence again but right now they’re not what I need. And I’ve finally accepted that.

I am also so grateful. I am grateful that I can be sheltered and supported by my family until I’m back on my feet. I am grateful that I can get the professional help I need. I am grateful that I have friends who want to talk to me and spend time with me. I am grateful that I’m still here. The hole that my losses have made is being filled with gratitude and I feel that’s probably a good place to start.

 

The blog post about attachment I read can be found here: https://uk.lush.com/article/losing-attachment-way-real-happiness