Mental Health Series: June – Lack of Motivation

This is the sixth in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


Lack of Motivation

Indianola Beach Dock, Washington, USA (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Lack of motivation might not be one of the first things that comes to mind when you think about mental health. Procrastination and the occasional bout of laziness are a normal part of life and we all have days when we simply can’t be bothered to do something, especially if the task is one we don’t enjoy (I’ll take reading a good book over cleaning the bathroom any day). Usually, this behaviour doesn’t cause us too many problems. At some point we convince ourselves to get on with the tasks we’re putting off and are able to move on with our lives.

For those of us who struggle with mental health problems, it’s not as simple as that. Lack of motivation that goes beyond idle procrastination is often a by-product of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. It is a sign that our own minds are sabotaging our efforts and draining us of the mental energy we need to perform even the simplest of tasks.

When this happens, we can find ourselves locked in a self-defeating cycle. We have tasks to get on with that keep increasing in number, which can cause us to feel overwhelmed and anxious about not being able to get everything done. We can feel useless and angry with ourselves for our inability to manage our lives and for letting things get out of control. These feelings increase in severity along with the number of tasks until we reach the point that we don’t know where to begin and have no motivation to try.

Making lists of outstanding tasks can help, but even they can make things worse as they can become a visual representation of our failures if we are unable to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves. They taunt us in their incompleteness and are used by our mental illnesses as manufactured evidence of our weaknesses and lack of will power.

Lack of motivation can also apply to the things we actually want to do. Ironically, I had trouble motivating myself to write this post. I have a lot of competing priorities and big changes happening in my life right now that are quite overwhelming, and some days I feel like I’ll never have time to do everything, so finding the will to sit down and write a coherent post has been quite difficult. The only reason I pushed myself to finish it was because it’s getting very close to the end of June and I want to make sure that I keep my commitment to myself to publish a post every month. As tempting as it was to use my day off to lie down or try to tackle other things on my to-do list, I knew how angry and disappointed with myself I would be if I didn’t get this done.

It can be difficult for people who have not experienced significant issues with motivation to understand why we can’t simply prioritise our tasks and complete them one by one (in other words, “just get on with it”). Of course, we understand that doing this would make us feel better, but knowing that and actually being able to accomplish it are two different things.

To explore this idea further, I want to look at an example of when lack of motivation can have a debilitating impact on our ability to take positive steps forward in our lives – being unable to complete job or university applications. This is a really common problem for people who suffer from mental health issues and is about so much more than procrastination.

Imagine yourself sitting in front of your computer trying to work on a job application. Now imagine there is someone sitting next to you who does nothing but spout a relentless barrage of criticism. They bring up every mistake, every insecurity, every perceived weakness you have, and every reason they think you’re not good enough to get this job. To make matters worse, you can’t escape this person. They follow you wherever you go and refuse to leave your side. You try to ignore them and focus on what you’re doing, but they only get louder and louder until they’re screaming insults in your ear and you can’t focus on anything else.

Could you fill out a job application under those circumstances? Could you even summon the will to try when you know this person will always show up to sabotage you? Could you convince someone to hire you when you feel like you’re not even worth their consideration?

Probably not, and therein lies the problem.

Having a mental illness like depression or anxiety can cause us to feel exactly like this, only it is our own minds providing the constant stream of criticism and self-doubt rather than another person. We are not lazy. We are not putting it off because it’s boring. We are struggling with the very minds we need to carry out this task in the first place, which can make it feel impossible to make any real progress.

So, how can we deal with this?

Getting some help for any underlying mental health conditions is really important, but there are other, smaller things we can do to help become more motivated in the meantime.

I mentioned before that making lists can be counterproductive as they can make us feel like we’ve failed if we don’t manage to accomplish everything we planned to, but that can often be a result of making the lists too long or wide ranging. For lists to be effective at managing everything we need to do, they have to be achievable and suited to how we’re feeling at the time.

There will be some days when even small, seemingly insignificant tasks will require a Herculean effort, and we need to make allowances for that to avoid trying to do too much and feeling like we’ve let ourselves down if we don’t achieve everything we set out to do. If we’re tired or having a particularly challenging day with our mental health, then it makes sense that we’ll find it more difficult to get motivated.

On days like those, it’s important that we try to adjust our expectations of ourselves. For you, maybe doing the laundry is an achievement. If it’s something that you normally don’t manage to do, or do with great difficulty, and you’re able to do it, then that’s an achievement and you should view it as such. Accomplishing a task, no matter how small, gives your self-esteem something to work with in its battle against feelings of worthlessness, so it’s important to acknowledge it.

When I know I have a lot on my plate and I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed, I write a list of absolutely everything I can think of that needs doing, even if it’s not urgent. Then, I break it down into smaller, more manageable lists, making sure to include things that I actually want to do. It’s amazing how trying to catch up on a TV show that I’ve fallen behind on can actually feel overwhelming and turn into a task itself. Sure, it’s not vital to my day-to-day life that I stay well-informed about the lives of fictional characters, but the fact that I don’t feel like I have the time to do that can be very frustrating, so things like that go on my to-do lists as well.

To help combat the part of my mind that tries to make me feel lazy and useless, before I go to bed I make a mental list of everything I’ve achieved that day, down to the smallest task. If I haven’t had a particularly productive day, I try to remind myself that quiet days where I just sleep or watch TV are also important for my wellbeing, as they help me summon the energy to do more the following day.

What I’m aiming for is a balance of productivity and relaxation that allows me to keep on top of things that need to be done, like paying bills and housework, while also making time for things that I really want to do, like spending time with friends or finding out who the hell ‘A’ is on Pretty Little Liars.

This isn’t always easy, and even now I’m struggling with feelings of anger and disappointment with myself that my day off did not go as planned. That said, before I go to bed tonight, I will still be able to list some achievements for the day that will temporarily silence my internal critics, this blog post being one of them.

Fighting a daily battle with mental illness is a full time job. We won’t always get everything done. We won’t always feel up to fulfilling every commitment. We won’t always be able to get out of bed. The thing we have to try to do is accept that this is okay. These jobs don’t give us vacations or benefits, so it’s up to us to manage the workload and take time out when we need to.

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Mental Health Series: April –Anger

This is the fourth in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


Anger

The sun obscured by haze from forest fires, Montana, USA (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Like most emotions, anger exists on a spectrum. It can range from mild annoyance to blinding rage. Sometimes, anger can be a useful emotion. It can motivate us to stand up for ourselves and others, fight for justice and equality, and even help us survive in situations when it provides the strength we need to stay alive.

Anger can also be incredibly destructive, and that’s when it becomes a problem.

It can deceive us into thinking it’s an ally. It can make us feel stronger and more able to withstand the pain and fear that has triggered it, while, in reality, it is making us weaker. Like a drug that makes the user feel indestructible while simultaneously wreaking havoc on their health, anger provides us with a shield against the world while at the same time it saps us of our energy and positivity.

Whether it’s becoming violent, losing our temper with friends and family, or turning to self-destructive coping mechanisms like alcohol or drugs, repressed anger has a way of breaking free from our mental restraints and leaving devastation in its wake.

In my experience, this kind of intense anger can be provoked by situations that fall into three categories: disappointment and frustration with ourselves for mistakes we’ve made; hurt and mistreatment caused by another person (particularly someone we trust); and pain caused by something beyond our (or anyone else’s) control.

The third category is arguably the most difficult to deal with. While we can learn from our own mistakes or confront someone who has wronged us, we have no recourse when life simply goes wrong and there is no one to blame.

When I started thinking about how I would approach this aspect of mental health, two significant periods of my life came to mind: one from when I was a child, and one that I’m currently experiencing.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts in this series, I grew up with a severely autistic younger brother. Completely non-verbal and often violent, it was an incredible challenge for my parents to cope with him. As a result, they inadvertently placed a great deal of responsibility on me at a very young age. My brother’s violent outbursts often came without warning and I was very frightened of him, yet I was frequently left alone with him and expected to keep him amused while my dad was at work and my mum did housework or cooked us dinner.

One day, after so long living in fear, dealing with being bitten, pushed around and forced to follow my brother’s rigid routine at the cost of seeing my friends and having a normal childhood, I couldn’t take it anymore.

He was in the garden driving his toy car in circles around the swing set. It was big enough for him to sit in, and he had already worn a muddy path into the grass from weeks of this repetitive behaviour. I remember vividly standing there staring at him, feeling all my unexpressed anger and fear rising to the surface until I couldn’t focus on anything else. There was a long-handled wooden brush propped up against the side of the house. I grabbed it and waited until the car came closer to me, and then I swung the brush as hard as I could at my brother’s face.

I didn’t really understand why I’d done it, but it became clear to me later on. I wanted my parents to realise that their reliable, helpful and ostensibly strong daughter wasn’t coping the way they thought she was. I wanted them to ask me why I had done something so out of character and give me the opening I desperately needed to express all the fear and anger I was feeling. I wanted them to protect me.

Instead, they reprimanded me for what I’d done, cleaned up the blood from my brother’s nose (which thankfully wasn’t broken), and said no more about it. He went back to driving his car and I was left feeling worse than I had before.

Obviously, lashing out like that was the completely wrong way of trying to deal with my anger, and I still feel terrible that I hurt my brother, but I can forgive myself for that. I was a frightened child acting out of fear and desperation. That said, I wish I had felt able to tell my parents that I was struggling. I never doubted that they loved me and were doing the best they could, but at the time I genuinely believed that they wouldn’t have been able to cope if they knew how I really felt.

I know now that I was wrong and that their marriage actually grew stronger during those difficult years, but as a child I had no understanding of this. All I saw were the negative effects of my brother’s autism. Things like my dad holding his bedroom door closed to protect the rest of us from his uncontrollable violent outbursts. My mum being taken to hospital after he attacked her when she tried to get him to brush his teeth. My parents fighting to stop him from cutting his own ear off with a pair of scissors when he had an ear infection and couldn’t handle the pain.

Children shouldn’t have to see those things and feel frightened in their own home. It’s no wonder that I was angry. Talking about it likely would have made all the difference, and I’ll always wish that I had spoken up.

As an adult who has spent more than her fair share of time with psychologists, I know that talking things through is the best way of dealing with anger, and it’s one of the ways I’m trying to deal with the anger I’m currently feeling. It’s a different kind of anger than I experienced as a child. Not only because I now have the maturity to express it in a healthy way, but because, this time, I have no one to blame. Instead, I have only yet another confirmation of a truth that we all must accept as the cost of living – life isn’t fair.

Last month, my mum was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We lost my granny to cancer last year and my grampa five years before that. They helped raise me and I loved them both so much, and my mum means the world to me, so this news was absolutely devastating. When the oncologist gave us mum’s diagnosis and we walked out of the hospital, it didn’t take long for my tears to dry and angry thoughts to take their place.

Why did this happen? How had the doctors missed it? Why did our family keep getting hit with one blow after another?

Not two months previously, we had been told that mum had beaten breast cancer and that she would likely continue to live a long and healthy life. We had started planning for the future again after months of chemo, surgery and radiotherapy, and I was so angry that the battle we thought we had won was only part of a bigger war that we are going to lose.

In order to be able to talk about it, I have to understand and acknowledge why I’m angry:

I’m angry because my family and I have been through enough hell in our lives already.

I’m angry because the physical pain I deal with every day due to my health problems is making it much harder to deal with the emotional pain.

I’m angry because I won’t have my mum there for me when I get married and have children.

I’m angry because I’m losing the person I love most in the world and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I could easily become consumed with my anger at cancer, at my mum’s doctors for not spotting it earlier, at the universe for this cruel twist of fate – but that won’t change anything. All it will do is taint the time I still have with my mum and rob me of the energy I need to help both of us get through this. I don’t want to let that happen, so I’ve had to figure out how to live with this anger in a way that doesn’t compromise my mental health.

Unsurprisingly, this has involved a lot of talking. My mum and I have always been very close and she believes in having an open and honest relationship, which means we’ve been able to talk frankly about everything from her funeral arrangements to how I’ll cope after she’s gone. That’s been very upsetting at times, but it’s also a huge relief to be able to discuss and work through such a difficult situation together.

One of the hardest aspects of grief can be regret and unanswered questions, so mum and I are ensuring that I’m left with as few of those as possible. We talk even more than we used to, and if a question comes to mind, no matter how trivial, I make sure I ask it – even if it’s just her opinion about the latest reality TV show!

I know there will be times to come when I’ll want to ask mum’s advice and I won’t be able to, so she’s writing me letters in response to questions I think I’ll have in the future. Questions like what advice she would give me if I were pregnant with my first child and what she would like me to tell her grandchildren about her. It’s wonderful to know that I’ll be able to carry those words with me as constant reminders of mum’s support and guidance, even when she’s not here to say them to me herself.

She’s also asked me to try to find something to laugh about every day, which hasn’t been too difficult since this family has always met adversity with laughter. It’s the antithesis of anger and the perfect antidote for the feelings of dread and helplessness that we’re all struggling with.

If I allowed my anger at what’s happening to consume me, I wouldn’t be able to face up to the future and make the most of this quality time with my mum and the rest of our family. It’s time I won’t get back and I know I’ll never forgive myself if I withdraw from the people who love me because I’m too angry to be around them, so I force myself to confront my anger and push through it.

I’ve made a big deal about the importance of talking in this post, so I have to acknowledge that doing so is something that many people, particularly those who struggle with mental health problems, can find incredibly difficult to do. That’s absolutely understandable. When we open ourselves up to others, we become more vulnerable and have to face the fear of being dismissed or ridiculed, but that shouldn’t stop us from reaching out.

Talking about intense and confusing emotions is a skill that can be learned and practised until it becomes easier over time. For years I only wrote about my feelings in private journals and poems, but once I started talking to psychologists and close friends and family, it became a lot easier to express them. As I talked about in last month’s post, I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t learned to do that, which is why I’m encouraging others to do the same.

Since lack of support as a child with a disabled sibling was such a challenge for me growing up, several years ago I set up my own online support group for the siblings of those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome. You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/110123842407656/

There is also a wider support community for siblings of those with disabilities available via SibNet: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SibNet/

Mental Health Series: March -Depression

This is the third in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


Depression

Cloudy skies in Melrose, Scottish Borders (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Depression is a term that is often heard, but not often fully understood.

It is a normal part of the human experience to feel unhappiness, self-doubt and despondency. Feeling these things for short periods at infrequent intervals is not depression – it is life. Depression is so much more than that. It is an all-encompassing, suffocating and debilitating illness that is relentless in its campaign to rob sufferers of their happiness, self-confidence and hope for the future.

The stereotype of depression might involve the image of someone holed up in their house for weeks, sleeping away their days, not showering or eating properly, and generally cutting themselves off from the world. Sometimes, this can be the case, but, more often than not, you would never know someone was suffering from depression unless they told you. Outwardly, they might appear to be perfectly fine. They might turn up to work or school, spend time with friends and family, even continue to pursue hobbies and interests, while all the time their own minds are attempting to sabotage them at every turn.

There is the misconception that depression must have a reason to manifest, like a trauma or personal tragedy, but it doesn’t always work like that. This concept can be very difficult to understand. How can a person just wake up one day and suddenly feel overwhelmed by self-doubt and dejection? Why can’t they just go back to the way they were and ‘snap out of it’?

Let’s look at it another way. Mental illness can be just as debilitating as physical illness, and one should not be taken any less seriously than the other, so imagine for a moment that we’re discussing cancer, and not depression. Sometimes, cancer has an obvious cause, like exposure to asbestos or radiation. Other times, it just appears with no reason or apparent cause. One day, a person is fine and living their life, the next day everything changes and the life they knew is irrevocably altered.

Depression can be exactly like that. Sometimes there is a discernible cause, and sometimes it just appears of its own volition, unwelcome and unexplained, sending a person spinning off their axis into a world that doesn’t make sense anymore.

Like cancer, depression is experienced differently by each individual who suffers from it, and what follows is only my personal experience.

It was 14 years ago that I found myself planning my suicide one night at the age of 15, and, although I am a completely different person now than I was back then, I will never forget what it felt like.

For months prior to that night, I had been suffering from anxiety, OCD and clinical depression, although I didn’t realise how bad things were at the time.

I grew up with a severely autistic brother whose inability to speak and frequent violent outbursts made for a very frightening and isolating environment in which to grow up. In their struggle to cope, my parents inadvertently placed a tremendous burden of responsibility on me that I was far too young to bear. I operated under the misguided belief that if I told them how terrified I was of my brother, how often he attacked me and how much I wished I could just go out and play with my friends, my family would fall apart and it would be my fault.

By the time my brother was moved to a residential care facility where he could have the quality of life he deserved, the damage to mine was already done. I had become terribly withdrawn, fearful and anxious and struggled to relate to my family and friends.

As I got older and had to deal with the onslaught of teenage hormones and the social and academic pressures of high school, I developed severe OCD (described in February’s post) and a deepening depression.

I had trouble forcing myself to get out of bed in the mornings, and I can remember just lying there staring at my alarm clock and wondering what the point of living was. During one of those mornings, my thoughts wove themselves into lines of a poem that described my despondency and disconnection from my sense of self:

Poem

That poem was dated 20th July 2003, just over a month before the night I planned my suicide.

That morning had been pretty normal. I had lain in bed for a while before forcing myself to get up for school, look at the X Files episode chart pinned to the side of my wardrobe (which I had made to determine which episodes I would watch each night that would help get me through the day), then drag myself downstairs for a breakfast I had no appetite for.

My lessons went by as usual, and I was packing up after the end of a double period of Computing Studies. I have no idea what triggered what happened next, but I remember it vividly. As I was pushing my plastic chair back under the desk, I was suddenly hit by a wave of such profound despair and isolation that I felt faint and couldn’t move. The voice of my teacher issuing our next homework assignment faded into white noise and all I was aware of was the absolute certainty that nothing would ever get better and I would always feel this bad.

I wandered through the rest of the day in a daze until I got home. Dispensing with my planned X Files episodes, I put on an episode of my favourite show, Star Trek: Voyager, and sat despondently in front of the screen, a pile of prescription medications on the bed next to me (thanks to my physical health problems, there were plenty of those available).

My mind started to wander.  What would happen if I took them all at once? Would I have time to sneak into my parents’ drinks cabinet and knock back a few bottles as well before they found me?

I took the first few pills. I don’t remember what they were, little pink, innocuous looking things, and just as I was about to reach for more, I heard a powerful and authoritative voice projecting from the television:

‘In command school, they taught us to always remember that manoeuvring a starship is a very delicate process, but over the years, I’ve learned that, sometimes, you just have to punch your way through.’

It was Kate Mulgrew speaking as Captain Kathryn Janeway, and in that moment of sheer hopelessness that line was like a bolt of lightning illuminating a very long and dark night. In this episode, Voyager is trapped in the event horizon of a quantum singularity. Their only escape route is closing fast and the situation looks hopeless. As I continued to watch the scene unfold, Voyager’s struggle suddenly became a metaphor for my own. My hand remained suspended over the pills as I watched Janeway urge her helmsman to ‘keep it together’ as the ship was rocked by turbulence and structural damage.

When Voyager burst triumphantly from the quantum singularity, a surge of hope rushed through me as I began to believe for the first time that maybe I could escape too. I spoke to my parents and within a week my doctor had diagnosed me with clinical depression and OCD, and I began treatment at a centre specialising in adolescent mental health.

During one of my early sessions, the psychologists gave me a questionnaire to fill out so they could better understand how I was feeling. While they were discussing it with me, they asked me which question had been the most difficult to answer. I tried to tell them, but found I couldn’t get the words out, so they laid the questionnaire down on the table in front of me and asked me to point to it instead.

I pointed to ‘Do you think about committing suicide?’ I had answered yes.

That was the first time that I fully realised how ill I was, and I became committed to my recovery. My psychologists helped me to realise that my love of writing was a means by which I could find my way back to myself, and over the months that followed I crafted a path made out of words and metaphors that personified my depression into a force I could fight.

I sent fictional, sword-wielding versions of myself on grand quests to save towns terrorised by monsters who kept them in constant fear. Every time the monsters fell and the towns were freed, I imagined myself freed from the monster of my depression. It took a long time, but that approach is what helped me through, and, eventually, I felled my own, real-life monster.

Over the years, I have felt that monster stir to life again, but I have never let him get to his feet and drag me back to the hell I experienced as a teenager. I use every weapon at my disposal to keep him at bay – writing, my friends and family, my work, my favourite Star Trek episodes – whatever it takes until I feel grounded in the present again.

I’m almost 30 now and my outlook on life is completely different than it was then, but the fact that, at 15 years old with decades of my life in front of me, I genuinely believed things would never get better and I would always feel that kind of despair, is terribly sad and shows the power depression wields over its sufferers.

I was incredibly fortunate to have the support available to help me recover, but not everyone is able to work their way through depression and come out the other side. For some people, the only choice they have is to find a way to integrate their depression into their lives, accept it as part of who they are, and carry on. That takes incredible strength and courage. Ironic, considering that depression makes you feel as though as you are weak and worthless.

One notable example of this is author and mental health advocate Matt Haig. His book, ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’, is an illuminating insight into the mind of someone living with depression. There are also countless blogs, twitter accounts and books/magazines out there that are working towards making mental health a less intimidating and misunderstood subject, and ensuring sufferers know they are not alone.

It can be extremely difficult to relate to someone with depression if you’ve never experienced it yourself, and you may be at a loss as to how you can help them.

There are no easy answers to that, but never underestimate the power of simply listening. As someone who cares about them, you can provide a supportive and non-judgemental opportunity for them to express whatever difficult emotions and thoughts they are experiencing, without the fear that you will dismiss them or think they’re crazy. There is immense value in that, because it means they can contradict their depression when it tries to tell them that they’re a burden and no one cares about them.

Be an ally in their fight. Pick up a metaphorical sword and stand beside them. Tell them that they matter, that they are valued and that you are always there to listen. Encourage them to pursue any (safe and legal) avenue that makes them feel better, even if it seems strange or trivial.

Above all, remind them of this: where there is life, there is hope, and things can get better. I, and others like me, are proof of that.

 

Mental Health Series: February –OCD

This is the second in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


ocd

Up the Eildon Hills, Melrose, Scottish Borders (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Most of you have probably heard of the term ‘OCD’. I hear it thrown around in casual conversation all the time. It’s often used to describe people who like to clean and keep things neat and tidy, who are very organised, or have a somewhat peculiar personality quirk like needing to keep their ornament collection arranged just so. I hear people remark, “oh, I’m so OCD about that”, when referring to their need to make their bed every morning or have their coffee at exactly 9 a.m. every day.

That’s not OCD. It’s not even close.

I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone who casually uses that phrase is being overtly insensitive or insulting. I’m sure it never even crosses their minds that it might be taken personally by those of us with actual experience of it. Unfortunately, whatever the intent behind it, that statement trivialises the severity of a condition that is so much more than just the desire to keep things neat and tidy.

If only OCD were that simple – or that benign.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness that causes sufferers to experience unbreakable cycles of disturbing and negative thoughts that produce high levels of anxiety, usually accompanied by the compulsion to complete repetitive and sometimes bizarre rituals in order to cope. Often combined with other mental health conditions such as depression and suicidal thoughts, OCD traps sufferers into a pattern of behaviour that can cause them to believe that if they stop performing these rituals, or perform them incorrectly, something terrible will happen.

If you have OCD, it is genuinely possible for you to believe with absolute certainty that your family will die if you don’t check the soles of your shoes exactly 3 times as you walk down the street, and that it will all be your fault.

It can compel you to circle the perimeter of a room and touch objects in a specific sequence before you’re able to sit down.

It can force you to align objects at precisely right angles and get unreasonably angry if one gets knocked out of place.

It can leave you with chapped and dry hands because you feel the uncontrollable need to wash them over and over again to try and rid yourself of non-existent dirt and germs.

It can extend the length of your supermarket trips because you have to reshelve out of place products and straighten up the chewing gum displays.

It can mean that you feel so trapped in a room with closed doors and curtains that you have to repeatedly open and close them to prevent a panic attack.

In case you think these examples are exaggerated for effect, they’re not. Those rituals used to be mine. They are part of the rigid pattern of behaviour I was trapped in for over a year when I was 15 and severely mentally ill.

I recovered a long time ago, which is why I can now see them for what they really were and write about them objectively, but at the time, they formed the bars of a prison that meant I had to have home visits from two psychologists because I couldn’t manage the anxiety and all the rituals that would be required to get me from my living room couch to the treatment centre.

I can still remember how humiliating it was to have to walk around the house and show them all the bizarre and nonsensical rituals I was compelled to perform. They then had me sit on the couch with a piece of paper and a pen. When I felt the urge to perform one of the rituals, touching the mantelpiece with both hands at exactly right angles to the clock, for example, I had to draw a graph of my anxiety levels. When I wasn’t able to stand it any longer, I was allowed to perform the ritual, and then had to record how my anxiety levels dropped, and how quickly they began to rise again.

One of those graphs would have looked like this:

graph

You can see a pattern here. A disturbing thought would enter my mind, triggering my anxiety. That anxiety would continue to build, and, lacking the ability to rationalise my feelings and deal with them, I would be compelled by my OCD to perform a ritual to calm the anxiety. I would experience only a brief reprieve before the anxiety would start building again, like a wave about to break on the shore (or the mantelpiece, in this case).

Eventually, I was able to attend regular sessions at a treatment centre specialising in adolescent mental health, where I was diagnosed with clinical depression and suicidal thoughts alongside the OCD. A challenging triad, to say the least.

With the help of my psychologists, I learned to process my traumatic childhood and address the underlying reasons behind my anxiety. I found that writing came naturally to me, and I personified my OCD into a monster that could be fought by Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style heroines who were really just idealised versions of myself.

The need to perform my rituals fell away over time, until I stopped performing them almost completely. I can definitely still see elements of OCD in the way I behave, particularly in my need to organise and clean, but I can live with those traits and have accepted them as part of who I am.

As I discussed in the first post in this series, I still have an anxiety disorder and I’ve needed further counselling since my original treatment but, over time, I have learned how to channel my anxiety in productive rather than restrictive ways. The mantelpiece that used to attract my hands like a magnet is now, thankfully, just a mantelpiece.

I’ve written about my anxiety several times before, and I freely talk about it, but I never talk about my history with OCD. Maybe it’s because it’s still difficult to admit that I used to walk around performing those bizarre rituals in a desperate attempt to master feelings I couldn’t control. After all, nobody wants to admit things that might make them sound crazy.

The crux of it is, as a society, we don’t talk about mental illness in the same way that we talk about physical illness. If, instead of OCD and compulsive behaviours, I had suffered from debilitating migraines that caused me to throw up a lot, would I still be embarrassed to talk about them? No, because, generally speaking, physical illness doesn’t carry the same stigma as mental illness does. One tends to invite sympathy, while the other invites incredulity. It’s easier to accept that someone is nauseated with migraines than to accept that someone could genuinely believe they would die if they didn’t turn a light switch on and off exactly 7 times before leaving a room.

If you know someone who you suspect is suffering from OCD, the best thing you can do is show them understanding and patience. If you observe them doing something that seems strange or unusual, try not to stare or question them. Be patient, even if their need to check all the doors are locked for the third time in a row is making you late for something. Try to remember that there’s a war waging inside their mind between the knowledge that their rituals make them look crazy and the uncompromising power of the OCD that compels them to perform them anyway. They need to know that they can trust you and that you’ll be there to listen if they feel able to talk about it.

Tempting as it may be, the worst thing you can do is try to prevent them from performing their rituals. That will only serve to heighten their anxiety to unbearable levels and make the situation worse, possibly resulting in a panic attack or an angry outburst. The only way to successfully treat OCD is to address the root cause and develop alternative ways to cope, and that will most likely involve professional help, time, and a lot of patience. But it is possible.

If you’re suffering with OCD yourself, hold on to the fact that you’re not crazy. You just have a more unusual way of coping with your anxiety. OCD, anxiety and depression all feed off each other, and hiding what you’re going through won’t make them go away. Maybe you’re worried that people, even medical professionals, will think you’re crazy and dismiss you out of hand. That’s understandable, but all I can say is that not one of the many doctors and psychologists who have treated me over the years ever judged me for my behaviour or made me doubt my sanity. OCD is a real, diagnosable condition that can be successfully treated.

The combination of my OCD and depression led me to plan my suicide one night 14 years ago. I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t gotten help, nor would I be building a life I’m proud of. So can you. Just don’t try to do it alone.

 

Mental Health Series: January –Anxiety

When I started this blog 3 years ago, my intention was to post about books, writing and the publishing industry. I have done that, but, over time, I have found myself writing more about mental health. It has been cathartic for me, but also very rewarding. When someone tells me that my posts have helped them to better understand the feelings of someone they care about, or have enabled them to better express their own difficult emotions, it reaffirms my decision to openly discuss my own experiences, no matter how difficult it is.

Rather than continue with my sporadic posts, I’ve decided to channel my thoughts into a series. This will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


anxiety

Petrified Tree in Yellowstone National Park (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Anxiety is an emotion we are all familiar with to some degree or another. Modern life is full of situations with the potential to provoke it. Job interviews, first dates, exams, election results – to name a few.

Anxiety on this level is normal, and will usually pass once the situation that triggered it is over. Having an anxiety disorder is different for two reasons:

1) Our anxiety can be triggered over the smallest, most innocuous situation.

2) It’s with us all the time.

It follows us through every area of our lives as an unwelcome companion that seeks to undermine our self-confidence and force us to question every decision we make, every word we say, and every thought we have. All the time, every day.

Here’s an example of an unremarkable, very common situation that we all experience from time to time: we send a text or an email, and the recipient doesn’t respond for a while.

There are a number of perfectly reasonable explanations for this. The other person could be busy, or have no phone signal or battery power. Maybe they just don’t feel like responding at that particular time. No big deal, right? This isn’t an issue. At least it isn’t if you don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder.

If you do, then the following is an example of how your treacherous mind can escalate this non-issue in less than 60 seconds.

Hmm, it’s been a while since I sent that message.

Checks time the message was sent.

Over 3 hours, actually. Why hasn’t she replied? Is she annoyed with me?

Rereads message for potential clues or accidental causes of offence.

I don’t think she could have misunderstood me. Wait, did I say something wrong the last time we spoke?

Mentally reviews previous conversations.

Well, everything seemed fine. We had a good time and she didn’t seem annoyed. What else could it be?

Checks phone and the time again.

Maybe she’s still at work, that’s why she hasn’t replied. But it’s after 6 p.m., she should be home by now.

Considers all the potential disasters that could have befallen her on the way home.

Oh my God. What if she’s been in an accident? Or been attacked?

Quickly checks her social media pages for evidence that she is, in fact, alive and well.

No new posts for the past 12 hours. Anxiety is turning to panic.

How would I even know if something happened? Would someone tell me? Do her parents have my number?

The phone beeps. She’s replied. “Sorry for the late reply! I got held up at work. Damn meeting ran over again.”

Well, now I feel like an over-dramatic moron. What a waste of time and emotional energy that was.

This is only one example of countless self-sabotaging thought processes that an anxious person can experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s exhausting, debilitating, and a hindrance to our happiness and wellbeing.

So why can’t we just rationalise these thoughts until they disappear? If we know we are prone to over-analysing a situation, why are we not able to reassure ourselves that it’s not as dire as we fear?

Believe me, we’ve tried. We can come up with rational explanations for these situations just as well as you can. The problem is, those explanations get drowned out by the much louder voice of our anxiety. You can’t apply rationality to what is an inherently irrational and emotionally driven thought process. That’s why phrases like “don’t worry, it might never happen,” however accurate and well-intentioned they may be, mean nothing to us. A situation we have experienced could have had a positive outcome 99% of the time, but our anxiety forces us to focus on the 1% of times when it didn’t. A situation only has to go wrong once for us to worry that it will go wrong every single time.

When I first started considering how I was going to explain this concept, I came up with the following analogy. I’ve always used metaphors and analogies to explain and process how I feel, and I find them to be very effective.

Imagine chronic anxiety as a train, speeding along the tracks in the darkness. Imagine a person standing by the tracks (let’s call them ‘Rational Thoughts’). They see the train getting faster, out of control, heading for disaster. Wanting to intervene, Rational Thoughts starts running alongside the train, screaming for it to slow down. But the train is always faster. Always out of reach. Then, suddenly, before their helpless eyes, the train crashes.

That crash is a panic attack.

The kind where the world shrinks to nothing but the terrifying place inside your head. The kind where you find yourself on the floor, hunched over a toilet or a bucket, trying not to vomit, with no idea how you got there, because your adrenal glands are flooding your body with adrenaline, triggering your fight or flight response. But you can’t fight your anxious thoughts. They are intangible and impervious to your efforts to resist them. And you can’t run from them either, because they live where you live – inside your head.

Your heart is beating too fast. Your breaths are coming in short, sharp bursts, like your lungs have forgotten how to function, like they might give up on you any second. The panic escalates when you realise you can’t stop it, and you have no choice but to let the wave pull you under, tossing you around until it crashes on the shore and leaves you weak and gasping for breath.

And the worst thing? The trigger for such an extreme reaction could have been the smallest, seemingly insignificant thing. Like a text not being answered.  Maybe the cause isn’t even discernible. Maybe the train just crashed because it did. Because you have an anxiety disorder, and that’s just how it is.

For anyone reading this who does not suffer from this kind of crippling anxiety, but wants to support someone who does, I can imagine that it might sound like talking to us would be a minefield of potential triggers that could make us feel worse. You might be wondering how you could possibly help.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by wonderfully supportive family, friends and colleagues since I began having mental health problems when I was a child. There have been many examples over the years of when someone has said or done exactly the right thing at the right time, one of which happened last year.

2016 was a really awful year for me and my family, and as a result my anxiety and stress levels were very high. I tried not to let my state of mind affect my work, which is very important to me, but there were days when it was obvious that I wasn’t doing well.

On one of those days, my manager asked me if I was okay. She’s well aware of both my physical and mental health issues, so this wasn’t an unusual question. When I said no, she asked me if I was in pain, or if it was my anxiety that was bothering me. This question simultaneously expressed concern and understanding while also acknowledging that my anxiety was a genuine issue for me. It made me feel supported and comfortable enough to admit if I needed to go home early or take a day off.

When you have any kind of health issue, physical or mental, that’s all you really want.

Acknowledgement, empathy and a willingness to listen.

In the case of anxiety disorders, we don’t expect others to understand the reasons behind our anxious thoughts (we often don’t even understand them ourselves). We’re not expecting others to fix things or come up with magical solutions. We just need some understanding and the security of knowing that if we need to withdraw from a situation because it makes us too anxious, that we won’t be judged or thought any less of. It’s a great injustice that so many sufferers of mental illness are told to just get over it and that it’s all in their heads. Imagine if that were the response to a broken leg or a cancer diagnosis? An illness is an illness no matter what form it takes.

From my perspective, I know my anxiety is my problem and I don’t expect other people to alter their behaviour to accommodate every anxious thought I have. It would be completely unreasonable, for example, for me to expect my friends to drop whatever they were doing to answer my messages immediately.

I know that 90% of the time my anxiety is lying to me. It’s taken a lot of work over many years, but I have gotten to the point where my anxious thoughts are mostly just background noise. They’re there all the time, but I have coping mechanisms to stop the train from crashing. They don’t always work, and sometimes my anxiety gets the better of me and can turn even positive situations into nerve-wracking ordeals, but I keep going. I’ve even found ways of using it to my advantage in my job (you can read about how in an earlier post here).

Every time something good happens and my anxiety is proven wrong, I add that memory to my arsenal of weapons to use against it in the future (writing these memories down is a good way of doing this). When a situation makes me anxious and threatens to overpower me, I mentally list all the times I’ve been in a similar situation in the past that had positive outcomes. This calms me down and gets me to the point where I can move forward and deal with the situation.

For those of you who suffer from anxiety; you are not alone. There are people in your life who care about you and want to help, but might not know how. If you can’t talk about your emotions directly, ask them to read this post, or a book with a character you identify with, or maybe even a quote from one of the many inspirational mental health writers out there, like Matt Haig.

Anxiety likes to make you think you’re weak and a burden to others. That’s another lie. It takes a great deal of strength to fight with your own mind on a daily basis and still get out of bed every day. Don’t ever forget that, and don’t ever stop fighting.

A Battle on Four Fronts – Grief, Pain, Anxiety and Illness

At this moment, there are countless people across the world struggling with mental health problems, living with physical illnesses and disabilities, dealing with the grief of losing someone they loved, and living daily with the fear of losing someone else. At the same time, there are people facing all four of these struggles at once. I wish I wasn’t one of them.

This year:

My mother, the person I love most in the world, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

My granny, who helped raise me and was more like a mother than a grandmother, died of leukaemia only 5 months after her diagnosis.

My own health, which has gotten steadily worse over the last 14 years, threw me another curveball and added more medication, hospital visits and potential surgery to my already long list.

My mental health, which I have struggled with since I was a child growing up with a violent autistic brother, has made every day a fight between extreme anxiety and crippling despondency.

These events have been overwhelming and frightening, but they have also taught me very valuable lessons.

When I was receiving treatment for my mental illnesses as a teenager, I discovered that writing was the key to my recovery. During my final session, my psychologist asked if he could keep some of my poems to help other patients. That helped me realise that writing about my experiences could help others.

I want to do that again. I want to make all this mean something.

When I think about what I would say to someone struggling with the same things I am, the following comes to mind.

Grief is not linear or logical.

It will strike at unexpected moments. One of mine was when I walked up the front steps to my house for the first time after granny died. It suddenly hit me that I would never take her arm to help her climb those steps again when she came to visit. I cried for almost an hour.

Guilt and grief tend to go hand in hand, and there may be times when you feel guilty for NOT crying. I didn’t cry at my granny’s funeral. Instead, I stood up and recited a poem I had written for her. Afterwards, a number of people expressed their admiration of how I had kept my composure, to which I hastily replied that I was sure to be an emotional wreck later that day. At the time, I worried that my apparent lack of emotion would lead them to assume that I wasn’t feeling my granny’s loss as deeply as I was.

I realise now that there was no need to justify my way of dealing with things. Grief is a process unique to the individual, and comparing yourself to others is both unhealthy and counterproductive. Do what you need to do, not what you think you should do.

You don’t have to feel guilty for not handling a loved one’s illness as well as they are.

Watching someone you love dealing with an illness is often harder than going through it yourself. My mum has been telling me for years how hard it is for her to watch me in pain every day, and now I know how she feels.

She is handling her cancer with grace, strength and determination and I’m incredibly proud of her. One of the things I admire most is her ability to focus on one stage of her treatment at a time, without wasting her energy on worrying about the future.

I simply cannot do that. For me, her cancer presents a minefield of anxiety, fear and endless terrifying questions. What if she reacts badly to the next chemo drug? What if she doesn’t wake up from the surgery? What if she gets an infection? What if the cancer comes back one day? What if I lose her like I lost granny?

When I’m having a really bad day and the endless cycle of questions pushes me into a panic attack or makes me so despondent that I just sit and watch reruns of Star Trek, I always find myself apologising to her. I feel like I’m letting her down if I’m not constantly upbeat and pushing aside my own problems to help her deal with hers. So what if my stomach hurts so much I can’t stand up straight? My mum has cancer, my problems are nothing compared to that, right? Wrong.

Just because I’m not the one with cancer, doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to be struggling, too. The effects of illness and injury are felt by more than just the person suffering from them. They ripple out and touch everyone who loves them.

You are not weak if you are not coping and your loved one is.

You are not selfish if you are ill or in pain yourself.

Your fears and struggles are just as valid as theirs.

Be honest and keep talking. You can get through it together.

Anxiety doesn’t always have to be a handicap.

I would be lying if I said that I wouldn’t banish my anxiety disorder if could. Of course I would. It can be incredibly debilitating, isolating and frustrating, but that doesn’t mean that all that anxious energy can’t be redirected towards something positive.

Your mind insists on running at 100 miles an hour, analysing in microscopic detail every facet and nuance of your life? Fine. Make it work for you. That over-analytical way you have of looking at the world? It doesn’t have to be a handicap. Even a quick glance at job advertisements will tell you that the ability to be organised and analytical are highly sought after traits by employers. Your mind can conjure up worst case scenarios at impressive speeds? That means you have the ability to anticipate problems and head them off before they happen. Another very useful trait.

If you’re anything like me, your anxiety will drive you to organise everything, with ease and accuracy, because that is the way your mind attempts to bring order to the chaotic state it exists in. I have become renowned at work for my lists and spreadsheets, and there’s nothing I like more than being given free rein to get stuck into organising a new project. My work gives me focus and allows me to channel my anxiety into something productive.

I’ve written more about this in a previous post, which you can find here.

Wanting to move forward and actually being able to are two different things.

One of the worst things about mental illness and grief is that, while you desperately want things to get better, you have been robbed of the motivation and confidence to make any positive changes. It can make you feel pathetic and weak. It’s amazing how things like filling out a job application or making that long-overdue trip to the bank can seem like climbing Mount Everest, (never mind things like trying to buy a house – my current Everest).

At the moment, the only time I feel truly productive and useful is when I’m at work. My job gives me achievable goals and a daily sense of accomplishment, not to mention a great social atmosphere (laughter is the eternal panacea).

Those feelings are vital and we all need them. If you can’t find them at work, look at the other areas of your life. Are you creative? Enjoy being in the garden or the kitchen? Volunteering your time to help others? There are a great number of ways you can give yourself the opportunity to feel accomplished and productive, and it’s important to keep trying until you do. Your mind will have more trouble fixating on negative thoughts if you’re busy arranging a flower bed or perfecting a new recipe.

That being said…

The days when you do next to nothing are not wasted days.

Those days when you can’t muster the will to leave the house or do much more than stare at the television are your mind’s way of telling you that it needs a break. That’s perfectly reasonable, especially considering the energy it takes to generate a constant stream of anxious thoughts, process grief or cope with depression. The mind can only take so much.

My granny’s leukaemia entered its final stage in the same week as my mum ended up in hospital after a bad reaction to her first round of chemo. I couldn’t sleep. I felt sick with grief and anxiety. My physical pain levels shot up to the point that I had to check with my doctor if it was safe to increase my dose of painkillers to the level I needed just to get through the day.

Initially, I tried to cope by burying myself in work. I only accepted how much I was struggling when I realised that I couldn’t even do that anymore. That was incredibly hard to admit to, not just because my anxiety used the opportunity to make me feel like a failure, but because I am not a person who feels comfortable walking away from her responsibilities.

Reluctantly, I went on compassionate leave until after granny’s funeral. In hindsight, I can see how absolutely necessary that was, and I will always be grateful for the incredible support I received from my colleagues (and continue to receive).

Needing a break does not make you weak or unreliable. On the contrary, being able to admit that you need one is a strength in itself, and you should never feel guilty for it. Neither should you feel guilty that your biggest accomplishment for the day was getting out of bed. When your own mind is trying to sabotage everything you do, a small achievement is still an achievement.


For those of you who believe there is no hope in your future, that you are weak and worthless and the world would be better off without you – I understand that. I’ve had those thoughts and I’ll never forget them. But I would urge you to remember this:

If you jump off that bridge, or swallow those pills, or use that razor – there are no more possibilities. No more chances for the extraordinary and unexpected twists of fate to change your circumstances and the way you feel. A single moment of random serendipity changed mine 13 years ago, and I’m still here because of it (you can read about that here).

My granny knew about my mental and physical health problems, and one of the last things she said to me was ‘thank you for being everything that you are.’ She didn’t see me as weak. She was proud of me just the way I am. She said her life had been a journey, and I will carry her words with me for the rest of mine.

If you had told me a year ago that all these things were going to happen, I would have bet every penny I had that they would have sent me spiralling back into the cycle of clinical depression, severe OCD and suicidal thoughts that defined my teenage years.

That hasn’t happened. I am still here.

Anxiety and Editing – The Perfect Combination

Editing Marks

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but a few things have happened this week that have made me decide to write it now.

Some background before I get to the main point.

I grew up with a severely autistic brother, whose violent outbursts and unpredictable behaviour made my childhood home a frightening and dangerous place to be. He’s my only sibling and I’m the eldest, and my parents unwittingly placed a great burden of responsibility on me that I was too young to bear. I became fearful, withdrawn and terrified of telling my parents how I felt because I thought they couldn’t cope. I wanted to be the strong one, because, from where I was standing at 11 years old and ignorant of the strength of my parents’ marriage, I believed that if I showed any weakness, my family would fall apart.

A few years later, after my brother had been moved to a specialist residential care facility, I developed health problems. It’s a complicated story but, in a nutshell, an undiagnosed autoimmune disease left me with permanent damage to my digestive system and significant problems with my nervous system. When it all began the physical pain only added to the emotional pain and eventually it all got too much. I became depressed, horribly anxious, and, eventually, suicidal.

I got the treatment I needed, and, 13 years later, I’m a completely different person than I was then. My physical health has gotten worse, but my mental health has improved enormously. Unfortunately, although I have beaten back the depression and suicidal thoughts, I still have an anxiety disorder.

Because of this, I worried for years that, despite my academic achievements and ambition, I would never find a profession that would suit me. Then I found publishing, specifically, editing.

To my great surprise, this turned out to be the perfect job for someone with an anxious mind.

I work as a Publishing Quality Controller, and my main responsibility is to ensure that our books are as consistent and error-free as possible before they go to print. I LOVE my job, and I have found that it has allowed me to turn my anxiety into an asset.

It sharpens my focus and causes me to hone in on errors by instinct as well as by skill and experience. I’ll run my eyes over a page and think, something is wrong here, and I won’t stop until I find and correct it (or grudgingly convince myself to leave it alone if necessary – some authors are very stubborn!). It also makes me highly organised, and I use spreadsheets, checklists, folders and a ridiculous number of post-it notes to make sure nothing is missed or forgotten.

I don’t have a very laidback attitude when it comes to my work. When I send a top priority job to our typesetters, I’m slightly on edge until they acknowledge receipt of it. When an important deadline is unexpectedly brought forward, I’ll work as much overtime as it takes so that I don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of getting it done on time. My anxiety has a hard time letting me cut corners, even if I know the readers would likely never notice the errors I don’t fix. I know they’re there, and that’s all the motivation I need to keep working.

I have been known to be in bed about to fall asleep, suddenly remember a detail about a book I’m working on, then get up again and write it on one of my ever-present post-it note pads so that I can follow it up the next day. Crazy? Maybe. But it means that I don’t have to worry about it and I can get to sleep. The same goes for checking my emails out of office hours. I’m a ‘forewarned is forearmed’ kind of person, and if having knowledge of a new job the night before means I can hit the ground running the next morning, then I’m happy to keep an eye on them.

To a lot of people, this way of doing things might seem very unhealthy, but it works for me, and has the added benefit of taking my mind off the physical pain I deal with every day.

I am incredibly fortunate to work in a very supportive and sociable environment with seriously awesome colleagues, and I have the best manager I could possibly ask for. So many people face stigma in the workplace because of their mental health issues, and, while I don’t go about discussing mine at work, it doesn’t bother me that there’s a chance a few of my colleagues might read this. I trust them not to judge me for it or look at me any differently, and that’s a rare gift that I’m very grateful for.

Earlier this week, I had an upsetting conversation with someone close to me, and while I lay awake that night unable to sleep for worrying about it, all I wanted was for it to be morning so that I could go to work and plough my nervous energy into something worthwhile that would focus my mind and help me feel better. It worked, and that day I managed to send a series of 5 books to our typesetters and beat the deadline I had set for myself.

Sure, having an anxiety disorder means that I spend a lot of time worrying about small things (or what other people might consider to be small things), and even things that never actually happen. My anxious mind can conjure up the worst case scenario from any situation faster than my rational mind can stop it. That’s hard sometimes, but it also allows me to anticipate potential problems at work and head them off before they jeopardise the quality or deadline of a book.

After being treated by 5 psychologists in 15 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that my state of mind as it is now may be as good as it’s going to get. Rather than being upset by that, I’ve finally reached the point where I’ve accepted it. There are times that it still gets the better of me, but those times get less and less as the years go by, and, for the most part, I am able to control it enough to allow me to live the life I want to.

Rather than fighting with my anxiety and trying to change the person it has led me to become, I’m using it to my advantage. I haven’t figured out yet how that’s going to work in other areas of my life (where it still tends to cause problems), but I’ve certainly figured out how to use it to make me the best Publishing Quality Controller I can be.

I would never have wished to go through the things I have and to have been left with this anxiety, but it’s a part of me now, and it doesn’t have to be a weakness. For me, it has become a strength, and I think, if he could be, my brother would be proud of me for that.

8 Ways Reading Can Help With Depression and Anxiety

Me glaring at monsterWe all perceive depression and anxiety in different ways. Maybe for you they are dark clouds obscuring the sun; maybe they are demons who follow you in your dreams and promise to haunt you for the rest of your life; maybe they are monsters who pop up everywhere and look like they were drawn by a 10-year-old, like the one that I made for this post (I apologise for my mediocre artistic skills, words are more my game).

Whatever they feel like to you, it can be difficult to find anything that offers some relief and breaks the cycle of negative thoughts. Since this blog is mostly about books, I wanted to write a post about how reading helps me on the difficult days, and how I hope it might help you.

1) A rapid heartrate and racing thoughts are common effects of anxiety. Reading can help slow these down. Well written prose and poetry have a natural rhythm that can lull your thoughts and breathing into slowing down without you even noticing.

2) An interesting story will pull you in and help you to push your difficult thoughts and feelings aside. Even a short break from them can be mentally and emotionally rejuvenating and give you much needed strength to get through the day.

3) Books contain some seriously awesome weird and wonderful things dreamed up by the impressive imaginations of their writers – hidden magical worlds, futuristic realities, fascinating fictional cultures and characters. The human mind is a powerful thing; powerful enough to fight back against depression and anxiety.

My bookworm is not afraid of the monster.

My bookworm is not afraid of the monster.

4) Depression and anxiety can make you feel very alone and like no one understands you. Given the wealth of characters found in books, you’re bound to find some who are just like you who you can relate to. Reading about their struggles can help you better understand your own and give you ideas about how to cope.

5) Can’t find the words to explain your feelings to others? Find a book with a character who is going through the same thing and ask your friends or family to read it, or just pick out some quotes which speak to your feelings. I would recommend It’s Kind of a Funny Story (fiction) by Ned Vizzini and Reasons to Stay Alive (non-fiction) by Matt Haig. There are loads of others out there and you can find great lists on sites like Goodreads.

6) Books can be a great way of connecting with other people, whether online or in person. Depression and anxiety can make it very difficult to talk to others, but discussing a book you both enjoyed can provide a safe and interesting conversation topic.

7) Reading can inspire you to write yourself, which can be very therapeutic. You don’t have to let anyone else read it, but letting your thoughts flow from your mind into the outside world can really help to put them into perspective.

And finally …

8) Reading connects you to the world beyond the confines of your own mind. That’s where the hope is. Books can beat monsters (and squash their cardboard representations).

Monster squashed in book

Borders Book Festival Part 2 – Matt Haig

Festival Sign 2

This is the second post I’m writing about the Borders Book Festival which took place last weekend (11th – 14th June) in Melrose, Scotland. You can find my first post about the talk I attended by author Kirsty Logan here.

On Sunday night I attended a talk by Matt Haig about his latest book Reasons to Stay Alive. This post took me longer to write than I thought it would – partly because I haven’t had a lot of time this week and partly because the subject of the talk is difficult for me to discuss.

Reasons to Stay Alive is a candid and emotional account of Matt Haig’s struggle with the ‘black dog’ of depression and anxiety. If you’ve read one of my previous blog posts, you’ll know I’ve struggled with this myself and would likely not be here today if it hadn’t been for a particularly serendipitous moment 12 years ago involving Star Trek: Voyager and the wonderful Kate Mulgrew. Over the years I have found ways of reading and talking about depression without having it trigger a response within myself (I have plenty of other triggers to make up for those), but somehow listening to Matt talk about his experiences in person made me feel … something. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what that something was.

Matt Haig Talk

Firstly, the setting, though very nice, threw me off and felt incongruous with the nature of the event. All the round tables with red velvet chairs, white table cloths and flower centre pieces made me feel like I was at a formal dinner rather than a book festival event (the set up for Kirsty’s event was completely different).

But then, why shouldn’t depression be discussed in an open, bright, well decorated public forum? Keeping it hidden away only serves to fuel the stigma and feed into the idea that depression is the unique affliction of those with so-called ‘troubled pasts’ and ‘hard lives’. The truth is depression can hit anyone, at any time, for no discernible reason. Of course, sometimes the reasons are painfully obvious, as they were with me, but like any illness depression doesn’t necessarily need a reason to strike – it can just appear one day and change your life without your permission.

While I was listening to Matt speak very honestly and bravely about his own experiences, I found myself analysing the way he was talking and the reactions of the other audience members. This, of course, being easier than analysing my own reactions and the subsequent avoidance easily justified by the fact that I knew I would be writing about the event for this blog.

I noticed two main things: Matt talks very fast when he’s discussing depression, and he skilfully uses humour to get his point across.

I certainly didn’t have trouble following what he was saying, and it didn’t look like anyone else was either, so it wasn’t a problem, just something I noticed. Matt talked about how his depression, coupled with anxiety, made his thoughts race and everything feel like it was moving very fast. In his own words:

‘It’s like a fast-forward depression — you’re having a lot of racing thoughts. It was never boring, it was horrendous but it wasn’t that slow, flat plane which you think of as the archetypal case of depression.’ (I couldn’t remember his exact words from the event, so I found this quote in an interview he did here).

I found myself wondering if he talked so fast in order to try and keep up with the pace of his thoughts. I often wonder that about myself, too, especially when I’m walking anywhere. I have no concept of a leisurely stroll and, as I have been told countless times by friends and family who try in vain to catch my attention when they pass me in the street (this even happened once today), I’m always ‘charging off’ somewhere like I’m on a mission and seem to be completely in my own head.

They’re absolutely right. I rarely ever notice what’s going on around me when I’m out running errands, heading to an appointment, etc. I notice enough not to bump into things or get run over by a car, but that’s about it. My thoughts never stop and the anxiety that I still struggle with on a daily basis is always lingering in the side lines even when I am not consciously aware of having anything to actually be anxious about. I think maybe my feet move so fast because I’m trying to keep up with my own thoughts. Sometimes I can’t stand to be still, and being on the move helps me feel better, like pacing when I’m feeling particularly anxious. Seriously, my footprints should be visible in my carpet by now.

I’m rambling now. Back to Matt.

The second thing I noticed was his use of humour, both in the talk and in the book itself. He got a lot of laughs from the audience and therefore made depression feel like a more approachable and less intimidating subject for people either not familiar with it or not sure how to engage with the topic. My favourite part was when he described himself as an ‘agoraphobic, neurotic weirdo’, which he said isn’t great for many professions but could sit right at the top of a CV (resumé) for a writer! Good thing he’s a fantastic writer then!

After the event I went to get my book signed. While I was walking towards the signing tent (okay, striding, my thoughts were hurrying my feet along pretty fast by this point), I was thinking that I would mention to Matt about my own depression and near suicide attempt, about how I wrote myself out of my depression and how inspirational I thought he was. But when I got to the signing tent all those thoughts coalesced into … not a lot. He asked for my name and I made some comment about how I don’t like my full name (I’m Jo, not Joanne, dammit!) and he mentioned that he’s not too fond of Matthew either. I thanked him for signing my book and wandered away, instantly feeling annoyed with myself for missing an opportunity.

Reasons to Stay Alive - signed

Had there not been other people in line behind me (or if I hadn’t been very aware of a former school classmate’s mother standing nearby), things might have been different. Or not. I don’t know, but maybe this explains why I’ve turned what was supposed to be a write up of the event into a post that probably would have been better off in my journal rather than here. Oh well.

Depression should be spoken about – it needs to be – and for that reason I’m going to ignore the part of my brain that’s telling me to delete this post and start over, and hit the publish button instead.

‘Be brave. Be strong. Breathe, and keep going. You will thank yourself later.’ – Reasons to Stay Alive

Thank you to Matt for writing this book, and thank you to everyone who has read this post.