About Me

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I am a 29 year old woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 and also suffer from general anxiety and panic attacks. I have only been recently diagnosed but have been ill since I was a teenager. I tend to have mixed-manic episodes, hence the name of my blog. I am a regular guest blogger for Black Dog Tribe. I am not a mental health professional. I am just writing from my own experiences with mental illness. If you wish to use any of my blog content please contact me at lababup@gmail.com. Visit me on twitter @lababup

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Losing a piece of me

Every time I become ill again, I lose a little piece of me.

As with many mental illnesses, my symptoms are episodic. I am never completely symptom free but the severity changes all the time. With bipolar disorder, I get episodes of depression and mania interspersed with some relatively normal periods. I still have a lot of problems with anxiety all the time but this can sometimes improve and sometimes get worse again.

The problem with having episodes like this, is that I never know what is going to happen and how my moods and behaviour are going to change. Each time an episode hits me, I’m almost shocked that the same thing could be happening all over again. I shouldn’t be. I know that a bipolar diagnosis is a lifetime diagnosis and many mental illnesses are long-term problems. I should be prepared but I never am. 

I have many memories of how I have been when I'm ill.  I know that I have felt extreme despair, frustration, elation, anxiety and agitation. I remember staying in bed all day and recall some of the strange things I did. Surely this should prepare me to some degree for the next episode. But my mind seems to try to protect itself: the worst memories get buried and the other ones feel like a dream.

Maybe mental illness is not the kind of thing that you could be properly prepared for. It’s such a strange thing to feel like you are losing your mind. There is nothing that can quite describe it. I'm still me when I'm ill but I don’t behave the same or feel the same emotions. I feel out of control and I realise that my behaviour and mood may be affecting how other people see me. I feel so strange that it is hard to believe that I haven’t been drugged sometimes. I don’t know why I feel the way that I do when I am ill, but I know that there is nothing I can do to stop it. How could you ever be prepared for this kind of life altering switch to occur?  

Each time I get ill again something happens to me. First, I suddenly feel jolted back to the times when this has happened before and the memories come rushing back. I realise that it is all happening again and I didn’t even notice the warning signs. Then I feel myself letting go, allowing myself to fall in to misery, anxiety or elation. With this comes a certain acceptance that my life is once again going to change forever and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

Every time this happens I lose a part of myself. One of the biggest changes is to my confidence. It keeps getting knocked back and there is not enough time between my periods of being ill for me to regain back any self-esteem that has been lost. I don’t trust myself to behave properly anymore and, because I socially withdraw when I am ill, I forget how to interact with other people. This has lead to all sorts of social anxiety problems.

Also losing your mind has a huge impact on how you view yourself. Your personality can seem to change. For example, when I get depressed I can become very introverted and hostile. When I am manic I can becomes overly exuberant and over the top. Even though I know my basic personality has remained the same it is hard to match these behaviours to my sense of self. I sometimes end up feeling incredibly self-indulgent and guilty all the time. I feel like I should be able to control myself and go back to the steady self that I imagine I used to be.

As each episode of illness hits me, and my confidence and sense of self are eroded, I feel like I have lost this huge part of who I am. I remember being well as a child. I remember being quiet but sociable, being imaginative but grounded and being relatively happy. I know I must still be the same underneath, but so much has changed. Because of my mental illness, some of who I was seems to have been lost forever.

Monday, 20 April 2015

CBT didn't work for me. Why am I made to feel guilty and ashamed?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the main types of therapy available to those suffering from mental illness. It is supposed to work by changing the way you think and behave in response to external events. You are taught to identify negative thought patterns, weigh up the evidence for these thoughts objectively and come up with more balanced thoughts. By doing this, you are supposed to be able to change the way you feel and behave.

I’ve tried CBT a number of times: twice with two different therapists every week for a year and once in a group for 20 weeks. I definitely think that therapy should be explored and would advise anyone with a mental illness to give it a go. However, with CBT, I found that it didn’t made me feel any better and at times it has actually made me feel worse. I don’t wish to diminish the help it may give to other people, but for myself, I have found it lacking.

When I read about CBT it sounds like it is based on good common sense. Your thoughts, feelings and actions are certainly connected. The idea behind CBT is that by changing one of these (your thoughts) you change the rest. One of the problems I have had with CBT is that my thoughts are so ingrained that they have proved impossible to change. Most thoughts that we have are automatic. We are not always aware of where they come from, they just appear. Changing these is an uphill task. I found it impossible to change these thoughts once they had already ‘lit up’ in my brain. 

CBT teaches you to assess your thoughts and come up with more balanced thoughts. When I did this however, I found that although I could easily come up with the more balanced thoughts, I didn’t really *believe* them. I found myself in the strange situation of having a balanced thought and an ingrained, unbalanced thought fighting with each other in my mind. For me, CBT created a situation where I believed two contradictory things and this caused me quite a lot of stress. The more the negative thought popped up in the brain, the more I punished myself for thinking it and the more stressed I became.

In doing CBT, I was aware of what thoughts were more balanced but it still didn’t change the way I felt or the way I behaved. Perhaps this was due to the cognitive dissonance happening in my brain. Maybe other people are able to hold on to the balanced thought whilst discarding the unbalanced, automatic thought and so their feelings and behaviours change. But for me, this never happened.

One potential problem with CBT is that you don’t know which comes first, the automatic thought or the feeling. CBT seems to be based on the idea that it is the thought which originally causes the feeling which, in turn, causes the behaviour. However, I find that I often feel distressed, depressed or anxious for no good reason and that this then causes me to start having negative thoughts. Changing the thought then won’t necessarily cause a change in the feeling if the causal relation is the other way around. 

One of the difficulties I had with CBT is that I was made to feel guilty for my feelings and behaviours. I kept being told that my unbalanced thoughts were causing my illness and this made me feel ashamed. Thoughts seem like something you should have control over so I was sometimes made to feel like it was my lack of control over my own mind that was leading to my illness. 

It seems to me that it is fairly controversial to say that a certain therapy wasn’t helpful. I found that when I attended CBT, the therapists believed in it so strongly that I wasn’t able to say that I didn’t think it was helping. When I filled in forms before and after therapy that assessed how I was feeling, they made lots of excuses for why I wasn’t feeling better. There was no allowance that CBT may not be effective for everyone.

If you don’t find a certain therapy helpful and express this opinion, you are often treated like you just aren’t trying hard enough. You feel like a failure for not being able to take control of your life and fix your mental health problems. The reality is that I am trying really hard every day. I try and eat healthily, take long baths, go on walks, listen to relaxation CDs and take medications with horrible side effects. I don’t *enjoy* doing any of these things and I am not even sure if any of them are effective but I give them a go because I am told that they work and I want so badly to feel normal. 

CBT may be effective for some people and I am glad that it is available for people to try (although of course many people have to wait months to receive treatment on the NHS and it is often a short course with not enough allocated time). I think that it is good practice to try and become aware of your thoughts and see how they might not be accurate. However, personally as a therapy I found it didn’t help cure my mental illness. In fact I felt guilty and ashamed as a result and was made to feel like I wasn’t trying hard enough. Therapists should always be aware that some therapies don’t suit everyone and that this is no reason to judge someone for not getting better.We are all trying our hardest. No one chooses to be unwell.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Even mental health professionals can display stigmatising attitudes

Lots of people with mental illness experience stigma in their everyday lives. Perhaps your parents think you should be able to pull yourself together and think yourself out of your problem. Perhaps your friends believe that you have control over your illness and could do more to help yourself. If only you would join an exercise class or start eating blueberries or something, everything would get better for you.

I have come to expect these sorts of sentiments from people. Sometimes it comes from a good, albeit misinformed, place. Your loved ones are often just trying to help you with something they don’t understand. This doesn’t make it any easier to hear though when you know that you are trying your hardest and nothing seems to work.
I find myself trying to do the things that people want me to do just so that I can say to them: ‘look I have tried X and I'm doing all I can to try and get better’. Ultimately though, I know that these things won’t magically cure my mental illness. It’s more complex than that. My body has shut down and my behaviours have become strange. A switch has turned off in my brain and it is going to take a lot more than going on a jog to fix things.

Hearing these kinds of things from friends and family is to be expected. Hearing them from professionals though is quite shocking.

I once went to the GP to ask for some diazepam for my anxiety problem. I had been prescribed it by my psychiatrist but I wasn’t seeing him for a while. The GP’s response? ‘You just need to WORK through your anxiety. You shouldn’t rely on medication.’ (tone was very dismissive). I felt like I was being blamed for my illness. If only I would work a little harder, all would be fixed. I was made to feel like I was taking the easy road by taking medication. Of course, if medication is the easy road so be it. I would rather take the easy road and fix the problem than struggle down the path of yoga and raw vegetables alone.*
Maybe you wouldn’t expect a GP to have an in-depth knowledge of mental health problems. However, I would expect that a mental health support worker would have this kind of expertise. I had a very bad experience with my support worker. She forced me to do things I wasn’t ready for, she made me pay for her parking that she claimed back anyway and she asked me to buy her presents on my holiday. What most distressed me though was that she knew that I had bipolar but she didn’t believe it. When she read through my DLA application she was really shocked by the description of some of my behaviours. Her attitude? ‘I have never SEEN you behave like that.’ (strongly accusing tone). Surely as a MH support worker she would be aware that people cover up their problems.

Another time I attended an anxiety and depression group. The woman that ran the group said to us right at the outset: ‘I don’t think that any of you are ill. Mental health problems are down to bad experiences, but you are NOT ill and do NOT need medication.’ Now I am not of the opinion that only medication should be used to treat mental illness. Tools such as relaxation, CBT and mindfulness are all things that may help some people with mental illness. But dismissing the idea that mental illness should be treated with medication is dangerous. Medication helps many people and has been shown to be effective in controlled clinical trials. It is not good practice for a psychologist to dismiss medication just as it is not good practice for a psychiatrist to dismiss psychological treatments. Ultimately  of course it is a patient’s choice what methods of treatment he or she uses.
When a mental health professional says these kinds of things it’s very distressing for the patient. Anyone who has experienced a mental illness knows that they cannot control the illness by will alone. It is not a problem with strength of mind or character. It is not an easy choice to take medication. We have all experienced the side effects and the feeling that you should have been able to control the situation yourself without intervention. The fact that so many professionals have these incorrect assumptions about mental illness is deeply concerning. However, they just reflect the deeply ingrained prejudice of society in general.

A mental health professional has an important relationship with the patient. It is one in which the power dynamic is unequal. The patient is deeply distressed and desperate for help. They are fully reliant on the mental health professional for help. Most professionals are aware of this power imbalance but do everything they can to listen to the patient and advise, not dictate to them possible treatments. However, a significant minority of professionals give poor advice and demonstrate the same prejudices that uninformed members of the public have. This is all the more damaging considering the power imbalance between patient and professional.
Over the past few decades we have come a long way in tackling mental health stigma. This is partly because many professionals have gone out of their way to educate people and remove some of the stigma. I do not wish to negate some of the wonderful work many professionals do. I would not be where I am today without some of the great help I have received. However we must still hold those in power to account. When a professional holds a prejudiced view they need to be challenged, because often it is all the more damaging coming from them than it is coming from your friends and family.
*This is not to dismiss lifestyle changes. My point is that there are many treatments available to us.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Review of 'Being Bipolar' the Channel 4 documentary

I didn’t have high hopes for ‘Being Bipolar’, the latest Channel 4 documentary. I worried that the footage would be upsetting. It is always difficult to see other people struggle with mental illness in such a similar way to yourself. What I was most concerned about was the way that the documentary might portray those with mental illness. The media often don’t portray mental illness in an accurate sensitive way. This documentary was no exception.

It started with the host of the show, a psychotherapist called Phillipa Perry, pointing out that the established belief is that bipolar disorder can be caused by a variety of factors including chemical imbalances, genetics and environment. However, for some reason she started out the programme with the assumption that bipolar is caused solely by life experiences. There is no evidence cited to back up this belief, but it is a belief she holds on to.

She interviewed three different people who have bipolar disorder. She displayed sympathy and kindness to those people but in approaching them with her dogmatic belief, she couldn’t help but undermine them.

She repeatedly asked them if there had been any trauma in their life, to which the answer seemed to be a resounding no. Phillipa Perry saw any negative experience as a complete explanation of why someone developed bipolar disorder. At one point she cited how one of those people interviewed, Paul, had been an only child and then a successful business man later in life. As if this somehow explained away everything.

There are of course certain experiences that everyone has that have been traumatic and these people interviewed will have had these kinds of experiences too. This doesn’t instantly mean that these experiences have caused bipolar disorder to develop. If they have they are likely to be part of a complex picture that includes environmental, genetic and chemical factors. Stressful experiences may trigger episodes, but it seems that some people have a propensity towards the illness to begin with.

Phillipa Perry talked very negatively about medication used to treat bipolar. She declared that people with bipolar disorder were using medications to numb emotions and that this was only a temporary fix. In one fell swoop, she made thousands of people feel ashamed that they rely on medication. Of course, medical professionals generally agree that medication is important in the treatment of bipolar disorder. People take medication because they are desperate to get help and the effectiveness of certain medications are backed by clinical studies. This generally held expert belief didn’t seem to matter to the presenter who pushed psychotherapy as the appropriate treatment. This is not to say that psychotherapy can’t used to treat bipolar. It’s just that this isn’t the only option out there; a range of treatment options should be considered for bipolar disorder.*

I fear that people will watch this documentary and then think that they know everything there is to know about bipolar. I fear that people who don’t know better will judge me for being on medication. I fear that because they have seen people interviewed with the illness, they will think that my experience is exactly the same.

I know that these kinds of programmes are important in raising awareness, but that is not much good if the awareness they are raising is misguided awareness. I hope that people will come away from the documentary with sympathy for those interviewed but remain sceptical about some of the presenter’s opinions. 

*Of course, psychotherapy is barely available within the NHS, Medication is a lot cheaper to provide and so is often the go to for mental illness for this reason too. 

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

How will my friends react to my mental illness?

I wage a constant battle with myself. It all revolves around what my friends will think of me. Should I hide my mental illness from my friends to avoid embarrassment? Or do I drop the mask and allow friends to see me acting abnormally, knowing that some people will be scared and judge me harshly?

Having a mental illness is no fun, but it’s made all the worse by the stigma which surrounds it. We can’t help but be affected by society’s expectations. Everyone cares what other people think of them. The fact is that society judges those with mental illness negatively. 

Often people think that those with mental illness are responsible for their condition. The idea is that those with mental illness are somehow in control of the course of their illness and can choose whether or not to succumb to it. Often it is thought that those that have mental health problems are weak in some way. Perhaps other people suffer from the same problems in life but are of strong enough mind to overcome their difficulties. On this view, whether or not you suffer from a mental illness is all about choice.

Some people may go a step further and think that mental illness doesn’t even exist. You can’t see a mental illness, only observe behaviour. The behaviour can seem strange and scary. It is easier to believe that someone is just ‘crazy’ (a dehumanising word, setting someone apart from yourself and others) rather than imagine that person to be just like you or me but in intense mental pain. Some may just think that the person is behaving this way because they have let themselves go rather than actually suffering from a medical condition. 

These kinds of thoughts often lead people to the belief that those with mental health problems are a drain on the state. They read about ‘benefit scroungers’ in the newspapers and believe that someone with a mental illness is unworthy of help. At best, they are weak and lazy. At worst, they are faking it for monetary gain. Either way they see you as a drain on ‘the taxpayer’.

I worry that my friends will be thinking these kinds of things about me when I talk about my mental illness. I don’t think most of them will think I am making it up, but perhaps they think I am lazy and a drain on the state. I claim disability living allowance but I don’t tell many people that. I am sure they can guess though. Maybe they look at me buy new things or go on holiday and resent me for it. Who knows what kinds of things people are thinking when they look at me. I shouldn’t care. Mental illness is not about weakness or choice. I should just shrug it off. They are the ones with the problem with their ignorant views. I shouldn’t care, but I do.

I try to navigate the tricky path with how to behave around other people so as to minimise these kinds of negative judgements. I want to be open and show people what my mental illness really is all about. I want to tell people about the way that I feel and why I end up behaving as I do. Most of my friends know that I have a mental illness. However, I always end up trying to hide the behaviours associated with it to avoid people thinking I am scary or weird. If I am depressed, I act cheery. If I am anxious, I act much more calmly that I feel. If I am manic, I try exceptionally hard to quash down my desires to pace around and laugh wildly.

I have ended up in the strange situation of being open in what I say about my mental illness but acting as if nothing is wrong. Of course, in doing all this behaviour modification, people are going to have a hard time believing that I am really ill. I may have saved face but people are going to wonder why I can’t work when I seem capable enough in front of them. 

I know that other people with mental health problems must feel the same way. As well as coping with the illness, we have to deal with the stigma surrounding it. This makes it hard to be completely honest and open with people. However, how are people ever going to understand mental health problems if we all keep quiet about it? It is a tough dilemma because when we are open, we sometimes do get judged negatively by people we think of as friends. We can only hope that real friends will at least try and be compassionate, even if they don’t really understand mental illness. 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

A day in the life of just one person with mental illness #adayinthelifeMH

A Day in the Life (https://dayinthelifemh.org.uk/) is a project which aims to collect the everyday experiences of people who have mental health problems. The project is collecting accounts from mental health sufferers on four particular dates over the year. What follows below is my entry of what happened on Tuesday 10th of February 2015. I hope that you can take more time to read the other entries on the project website, coming soon!

My day starts differently to most days. Due to a combination of depressive symptoms and heavily sedating anti-psychotic medication, I usually manage at least twelve hours sleep. However today I am up at 7.30am. The reason for this early start is that my house is getting surveyed and I am too scared to be around whilst a stranger is there. I have a lot of problems with social anxiety, so interacting with a stranger is extremely hard for me. What will I say? What will they think of me?

My plan for today is more or less the plan for every day: My partner drops me off at my parent’s house to spend the day with them. My Dad works from home and my Mum works part time so I have someone with me all the time. I lost a lot of confidence because of the panic attacks I have been having over the past year. I think everything through over and over and panic that all sorts of things may happen. I feel safe with my family and so I am always with them. I just can’t be on my own anymore.

Today was a day that my Mum was off work so we did a few boring things like go shopping for a washing machine. I had to talk to someone at the shop which filled me with dread but I managed ok. I am hoping that as I keep taking small steps to combat my fears, they will eventually go away. We then went for coffee. I have to say that going for coffee with my Mum is (sadly) one of the highlights of the week. When you live life with a mental illness, the smallest things can really make your day. When I visit a coffee shop I can sit in the corner where no one will notice me and watch what goes on around me. Having a coffee feels a little bit special for some reason.

Later on in the day, I start to get excited for no particular reason. I have bipolar disorder and sometimes my moods go all over the place. On this particular day, I feel high for a few minutes and jump up and down laughing but then I crash back into depression just as quickly. I feel tired, lethargic and useless.

I get picked up by my partner in the evening and I manage to make dinner for once. Cooking can be hard when you don’t have any energy or motivation. Luckily I don’t have to do much. We have crispy duck with pancakes and hoisin sauce. All I have to do is chop the veg and put the duck in the oven. It isn’t good for my weight, which has soared since going on the anti-psychotics, but it is so comforting to eat fatty food that I find it hard to care!

My partner goes off to an exercise class in the evening, leaving me at home. The evenings are the hardest for me as they are when I get most anxious and am also most likely to have bipolar symptoms. I am practicing being alone for short periods to try and overcome my fear of being alone. I can feel the panic rise in me but I try and distract myself by looking up things obsessively online. I search all sorts of random things just to keep my mind occupied.

I go to sleep with my partner reading next to me. This is the deal we have made. He reads and looks out for me as I drift off to sleep. I feel safer that way with the light on. Luckily sleep doesn’t often elude me because I am zonked out from the anti-psychotics. As much as I hate the way they make me feel numb, I don’t know how I would survive without them. I fall asleep but my last thoughts as I drift away focus around the fear of dying. As hard as life can be, I desperately want to survive. At least for the moment anyway. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

How anxiety ruined my holiday

Holidays have always been an exciting and relaxing experience for me. My mental illness means that holidays have been especially important. I have no job, no children and a very limited social life. It sometimes seems like I have nothing to look forward to. I have nothing to talk about to people because nothing ever happens to me. I thought going away on holiday would fix this.

With this in mind, my partner and I saved money for ages for a holiday. There were a few doubts I had before I  went about how I was going to cope. Although I have had bipolar disorder for many years now, I had always managed to enjoy holidays in the past. However, it has only been relatively recently that I have suffered from a severe anxiety disorder. 

Having an anxiety disorder is in some (only some) ways more disabling for me than bipolar disorder. With bipolar my symptoms are better at some times than others. I can cope with going away on holiday when I feel better. However, severe anxiety seems to have stayed with me continuously for over a year now. I have had trouble breathing, panic attacks and a crushing feeling on my chest almost every day, sometimes all day. What I should have realised is that these symptoms weren’t just going to go away when I went on holiday. In fact, going on a holiday was likely to make them worse. 

I was really nervous about the flight because having panic attacks has meant that I have a fear of confined social spaces. If I have a panic attack, I need to be somewhere where people won’t see me. I need to be able to escape quickly so as not to embarrass myself. Cinemas, buses, supermarkets and other crowded places are all tricky locations for me. A plane is the worst possible place. People are packed on like sardines and there is no place to escape. I was so focused on this fear of the flight that I almost didn’t go. 

I didn’t have a panic attack on the plane. With the help of alcohol and some (very out of date!) diazepam, I managed the journey. However, I had been so focused on my fear of the flight that I hadn’t properly considered how I would cope with the rest of the holiday. We arrived in the city and I was instantly hit with crippling anxiety. 

We were picked up by the guesthouse at the airport. The first thing I had to deal with was the social anxiety. I had to try and make small talk with the lady that fetched us. She was nice enough but I am so unused to talking to strangers that I just couldn’t speak. I could feel the panic rising in me and was worried that she would notice. When we got to our accommodation we had to walk down this hectic alleyway with scooters flying past and I just felt terrified. I used to find this kind of experience exciting but I was just a nervous wreck. 

The roads were mayhem and I was too scared to cross them. The sights and sounds were so unfamiliar and I just felt completely lost. I basically hid in the hotel room for the next few days only popping out for food. When I did I couldn’t eat properly. I am a big fan of eating so this was quite disconcerting! I felt sick and kept feeling my body trembling. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to pass out. I can’t describe properly how I felt because it was so awful that I seem to have partially blocked out the memory of it. All I remember really was how I felt like I was going to die. I just felt this absolute all-encompassing fear. It was how I would imagine feeling if I was hanging off a cliff edge with a rope that was about to break. It seemed like I had only seconds left to live except that the feeling lasted all day. It was relentless. 

It all came to a head after four days where I just broke down and sobbed on the bed. I knew then that I had to go home. Things weren’t going to get better. The unfamiliar surroundings were too much for me to cope with. We had to fork out a load of money to fly home early. 

I felt terrible. My partner was really upset and I knew that I had ruined the holiday for him. This was supposed to be his dream holiday and because of me he was not going to experience it. I feel so guilty. I can’t bring myself to tell my friends about what happened. I know I have to tell them some time because they will ask how my holiday went. I’m not looking forward to the awkward silence or the negative judgements. I know that many of them will say supportive things but I don’t know what they will actually be thinking. Perhaps I am silly to worry about what they will think but I can’t help it. What people think of me means everything to me. It shouldn’t but it does. 

My parents are there to care for me when my partner is at work. I get panicked if I am left on my own so I rely on them to support me. They decided to go away on holiday at the same time as us because they thought they weren’t needed. Now they know I am at home with only my partner to look after me. They are worried and I think they may not be enjoying their holiday anymore. I feel so ashamed that everyone feels like they have to revolve their life around caring for me. 

Holidays should be a time when people with mental health problems get to relax. We deserve some time to try and heal and rejuvenate. I try and tell myself this but it is hard taking my own advice. I thought that I was undeserving of a holiday and this latest incident has made this feeling even stronger. I can’t even appreciate a holiday. Loads of people would love to go away to somewhere but don’t have the money needed to go. I feel so guilty. Why can’t I enjoy things like everyone else?

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Mental health, sex drive and mood

I have always wanted to talk about my mental health and it’s relation to sex but I have had some misgivings. I am pretty much anonymous on my blog and on twitter but three people from real life know who I am. This makes it hard to talk about something so personal. In addition, you never know if you are going to stay anonymous forever. One day I may decide to shake off anonymity and I don’t want to feel like I would be embarrassing myself.

On the other hand, here I am about to talk about my sex life. After all, what’s the point in mental health blogging if I’m not open and honest about how my mental illness affects me?

When my partner and I were first together, like most couples, we had a great sex life. It was probably too good. I was high on life and felt all connected to nature. Obviously in hindsight, I was hypomanic. Yes, I was in a great new relationship but I felt overly optimistic and excitable. Everything felt so intense and beautiful. When you are in such a good mood, sex feels so much better.

What followed in our relationship were periods of lots of great sex interspersed with periods of no sex at all. My partner would find this difficult and thought it meant that I didn’t love him. Sometimes I worried about that too. I thought that if I didn’t want sex anymore, maybe I didn’t find him attractive. This made me question our whole relationship. The reality though was that my mental illness was getting in the way.

It was when I was depressed that I lost all my sex drive. I felt too tired, too weary of life. Everything was dark and miserable. I felt like my energy was being drained away from me. I couldn’t be bothered to dress, to wash, to face the world. Faced with these feelings, why would I have been interested in sex? I was desolate and you need to have some kind of life in you to have pleasurable sex. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t interested in having sex with my partner. I wasn’t interested in men at all. I didn’t even look at other men. My sex drive was non-existent.

I didn’t have sex when I was depressed and I had sex all the time when I felt high. However there was a tipping point I reached when I became so manic that my sex life was interrupted. When I got too manic, my behaviour became bizarre. If I tried to initiate sex with my partner he would not oblige. He told me later that he felt scared by my behaviour. I was laughing too wildly, eyes bulging, stare unflinching. Sometimes it was hard for him because he missed the intimacy gained through sex but he didn’t want to take advantage of me.

I am at a point now that I have started to gain an intense interest in sex again. This has come along with an improved mood. The increase in sexual activity has really brought my partner and I closer together. It is lovely to feel that deep connection again. However I am scared of what this means for my illness. I want to believe that this is just normal and that it means that I am not depressed anymore. However, I fear that it could be a manic episode coming on. I feel like my thoughts are going quite fast and I seem to be laughing too easily, perhaps inappropriately sometimes.

Sex is something many people in relationships have fairly regularly and consistently. It is hard for both my partner and I to have such an erratic sexual routine. Mental illness (and medications used to treat mental illness) can really take its toll on sex drive and therefore can take its toll on relationships. I think that it’s important to talk to your partner and try and explain that it’s not to do with them, it’s to do with the illness. If they love you they should hopefully be understanding.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Mental illness and my lost life in academia

I was never someone who had career ambitions really. In fact, when I was at school, I didn’t really even really consider what kind of job I would have in the future. However, there was one thing I knew: I wanted to learn everything I could about how the world worked. I was motivated by the dream of understanding the world. And I have to admit, I was also partially motivated by the feelings I got by being good at academic subjects. I wanted to do well in exams and feel like I had achieved something.  

As I worked through my degree, the drive to do well in the subjects I was interested in was overwhelming. I am a shy person and most people didn’t really believe in me. I can come across as not very serious and a bit distracted at times so I certainly don’t appear like someone who would be good at something academic. I wanted to prove people wrong and show them that first impressions are misleading. I started my PhD with a feeling of excitement. I had found something I could be recognised for. My self-esteem became tied up with this recognition.

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and generalised anxiety disorder, my world changed. Suddenly I was incapable of working on my PhD. My brain was overwhelmed with energy and I was highly agitated. I was experiencing a bipolar mixed state and my anxiety levels were sky high. I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t read and I couldn’t write either. That was 3 years ago. I have never recovered.

My ambition to finish my PhD now looks increasingly unlikely. This realisation has been devastating to me. My self-esteem has been tied up with what I can achieve academically and suddenly this has been taken away from me. My whole sense of self has become eroded. Now I am totally adrift and don’t know what to do with myself. 

Each day has been filled with nothingness. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how I have spent the last few years. There have been many dog walks and also a lot of sitting. There have been trips to the shops for shoe laces and other such exciting objects. There has been a lot of tea and coffee drinking. When you don’t have any routine in your days you fill them with strange beverage drinking customs. I have developed a schedule of drinking times and have a multitude of options for different occasions. This is how I survive through the days.

My academic life had become a huge part of who I am. Mental illness has taken that away from me. I was wrong to let academic achievement define who I was but it was so easy to when I had such a vague sense of self to begin with. Everyone wants to be recognised for something. My mistake was getting too carried away with what people thought of me and letting it rule my life.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Navigating public spaces

I managed to achieve something this weekend: I went to the pub with my partner in the evening. I usually feel pretty safe with him, but I don’t feel safe in public spaces. They are too unpredictable and people can interact with you at any time. Also, I always fear that I may have a panic attack in public. It would be so embarrassing and I would have nowhere to escape to. 

The thing about public spaces is that they are not always as scary as they seem. Despite my fear, I am on some level aware of this. People usually ignore you and you can just get on with things without being ridiculed or judged. Panic attacks can happen but it isn’t something to be worried about every second of the day.
The trouble is that occasionally something horrible happens in a public space and it makes you realise just how vulnerable you really are.

I was sitting down in the pub, twiddling my thumbs whilst my partner went to buy more drinks. I was keeping myself busy by chewing on my straw and poking the ice cubes with it. I was looking around the room and noticed a table of really beefy, rowdy men. I overheard some pretty horrible and graphic conversation about their preferred body parts on a woman. One of them then noticed me and started the following conversation:

Man: ‘You liked listening to that didn’t you.’ [laughter. Group of men turn round to stare]
Me: ‘I may have overheard a bit’ [nervous laughter, elbows on table in front of me]  
‘Haha, look she’s covering up her tits. Doesn’t want us to look at them. Come on show us what you’ve got’ [Laughter all round the table]

I am not sure where the conversation ran exactly after that. I was so nervous at being spoken to in that way. They continued on with their 'flirtatious banter’ and said a number of crude things about me which made me extremely uncomfortable. They wanted me to join them at their table despite the fact that I said I was with someone. At one point, one of them came over and put his hands on the table, looming over me. I felt very intimidated.

I should have responded but I am ashamed to say that I was too scared. The thing is, I don’t think they were keen to take no for an answer. I don’t think what they were doing was even about flirting. I think that they were enjoying intimidating a woman. They loved every second of seeing a woman on her own, vulnerable and placid. This was all about power rather than any kind of flirtatious connection. This was about looking good to other men and displaying dominance.

As someone with a mental health problem, I feel vulnerable to this kind of attack; I may not have coped as well as someone without a mental health problem with a social interaction. However, any woman would have felt intimidated. No, it is not complimentary to a woman to tell her she is attractive in whatever rude way you like. Women are allowed to exist in public spaces and should be able to do so without being forced to engage with strangers in this kind of way. I was trapped in a place where I should have been allowed to sit in peace. They knew I was trapped and they took advantage of this.
I go through the days hanging out with family and friends who all care about me and don’t intimidate or judge me. Sometimes you forget about the fact that you are vulnerable to attack by other people. I have noticed casual sexism all around but I forgot that, for many people out there, women are to be aggressively kept in their place.
As for what all this means for my mental health, let’s just say that I won’t feel so safe walking around in public spaces anymore. I have seen how quickly someone can spot your vulnerability and exploit it.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Mental illness, unemployment and my eroded self-confidence

My sister has just been offered a new job. I am really pleased for her, really I am. It’s just that this has brought home all sorts of emotions about how unfulfilled and unhappy my life has become. I have been crushed under the weight of having a mental illness and it is showing few signs of improvement.

I have been struggling with anxiety for years but it is only in the last six months that the anxiety has become severe and I have been diagnosed with general anxiety and panic disorder. I never realised how awful having an anxiety disorder could be. It can cause such unbearable physical sensations. Often I feel like someone has wrapped their hands around my throat and is choking me; I can’t breathe and my lungs are collapsing. I feel like I am going to die all the time. I wake up in the middle of the night and bolt upright, gasping for breath.

These physical sensations are horrible and it leads to me avoiding doing anything which may trigger it further. I avoid going out to see friends because I get anxious socialising. I don’t go anywhere without my partner or a family member in case I have a panic attack. I won’t go to the cinema or travel on public transport because they are enclosed spaces where I won’t be able to escape.

Having this level of anxiety makes it impossible to work. I was studying for a PhD but I haven’t been able to study for over a year now. I don’t know if I will ever be able to go back. I was brought up in a very education focused family and they see study as really important. They were really proud when I was working for my PhD. Now I have lost that, I feel adrift. I haven’t got anything to focus on or anything to feel proud of.

You can’t help but compare yourself to those around you, particularly a sibling that has grown up in the same environment as you but has managed to achieve a whole lot more. I compare myself to others all the time. I know that this is a path to anxiety and unhappiness but I can’t seem to stop myself. I tell others to be kind to themselves and see the positives but I don’t extend this same reasoning to myself.

Not many people realise how important something like work or study is to your feeling of self-worth. Most people work all their lives and don’t particularly enjoy it. Many people really hate their jobs and have an awful time in the workplace. Work isn’t often that pleasurable but the alternative isn’t that great either. In the society we live in, your worth is often determined by your work. This is obviously wrong. People are worthy because of who they are, not what they do. Even though I know this intellectually, emotionally I still feel tied down to the idea that I am worthless because I don’t work or study.

It doesn’t help when I read all the ‘scrounger’ headlines in the news. People who don’t work are vilified by the media. If you are disabled, unemployed or elderly you are often seen as a burden on everyone else. These people are viewed as a drain on the ‘the taxpayer’. The idea that you are only worth something if you work is shoved down our throats all the time. Even though I realise that this is obviously wrong and unfair, I still feel the weight of society’s expectations and I suffer with guilt and shame because of it.

It is strange because I would never ever think of anyone else as less worthy for not being able to work. If someone was in my position, I would tell them how it is not their fault that they are ill. I would tell them that mental or physical illness can strike anyone and it is only right and fair that we support those people in any way we can. Everyone deserves understanding and compassion.

There are many other things in life that aren’t to do with work that give our lives meaning. Our relationships with people are important and are what we should be focusing on. Just because I don’t work doesn’t mean that my life has no meaning or purpose. I just have to keep telling myself that and reminding myself that I am just as good as everyone else and I am lucky to have many good relationships in my life.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Is mental illness really so different from physical illness?

I have struggled for many years with mental illness. Although the symptoms can be horrible, often the worst part is the fact that other people judge you for having a mental health condition. Sometimes I feel like it is something that I should be able to control and other people often share this sentiment. We have all heard of phrases such as ‘pull yourself together', 'get a grip' and ‘it’s all in the mind, you can fight it’. 

I think that at least some of the stigma surrounding mental illness comes from viewing it as distinctly different from physical illness; what goes on in the mind is seen to be separate from what goes on in the body. In this case, illnesses like cancer and diabetes are strictly physical and illnesses like anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder are strictly mental.

This kind of thinking may lead to stigma in two ways. First, if mental illness is viewed as something which is all in the mind, people see it as less tangible and view it as somehow less real than physical illness. Of course, anyone who has suffered from mental illness has experienced just how real and painful these conditions can be. 

Second, the view that mental illness is distinctly different from physical illness may lead to the view that mental illness is within a person’s control. If it is ‘all in the mind’, the idea is that we can change how we are thinking and feeling; unlike physical illness, we have a choice whether or not to succumb to mental illness. Of course if we have a choice, this is like saying that it is our fault for being ill: choice leads to blame.

I think that there is something wrong with this way of viewing mental illness as distinctly different to physical illness. All human activity is psycho-physical. The body and the mind are interwoven and linked; they affect each other. In which case, there is no sharp divide between mental and physical illness. 

It is clear that our mental health is affected by our physical health. For example, when we are in pain from a physical injury or illness, our mood, energy levels and feelings of anxiety are all affected. Alternatively, if we do something pleasurable with our bodies like exercise (pleasurable for some, though not for me!) or have sex, our mood is lifted and we experience feelings of well-being.

Physical illnesses such as cancer and diabetes may affect our moods and therefore impinge upon our mental health. What about mental illnesses? Many of those who suffer with mental illness will realise that mental health conditions affect the body in many ways. I have had experience with general anxiety disorder, panic disorder and bipolar disorder. Like many others, my experience of these conditions is both mental and physical.

This is most obvious when I have a panic attack. My whole body goes on high alert, I have a huge adrenalin rush and I feel all the bodily symptoms of this surge in tension: my breathing becomes shallow, my chest becomes tight, I feel nauseous, I feel faint, I shake, I get hot and start to sweat and I feel weak at the knees. A panic attack is a thoroughly physical experience. 

Like anxiety, depression is also experienced both physically and mentally. When I am ill, my whole body feels exhausted, drained and heavy. Sometimes my vision goes strange and everything looks dulled. My appetite changes and I get digestive problems too. My body longs for sleep and I have the urge to hibernate. Opposite to depression is mania. When I am manic my body speeds up. I feel shaky, energetic and full of beans. My body is alert and ready to go. 

I think it should be clear that mental illness, like any other illness, is experienced both mentally and physically. Therefore there is no sharp divide between mental illness and physical illness. Like I said before, all human activity is psycho-physical. Acknowledging this may go some way in removing the idea that we have a choice about whether or not we succumb to mental illness.

An illness is something that goes wrong with the body, which includes the brain of course. Both mental and physical illness should be considered to be on a par with each other. They both affect the body and mind and lead to great pain.  We have no more choice over whether we suffer with mental illness than we do with physical illness. There are always things we can do to try and cope with and manage illness, like exercise, diet and therapy. However, we can’t just snap our fingers and make ourselves well again. 

Of course all this should have been obvious from the start. Who would choose to have a mental illness? Why would someone decide that they will continue on suffering? Surely if it was as simple as pulling oneself together or getting a grip, then the millions of people suffering around the world would be cured by now. No one would choose to experience the painful mental and physical symptoms of these illnesses rather than trying whatever they can to get well again.