Health · Personal · thoughts

My body is home

When I was 18, I barely ate. It wasn’t that food was the enemy like it is for so many other girls – and indeed, like it was for me through periods of my early teenagehood. It was more that it took up so much energy to cook and depression had a firm hold on me. I started university with good intentions: I’d cook regularly, I’d join the gym. Instead, I found myself in an endless cycle of lectures, Cup-a-Soup and naps.

Without even trying, I became the thin girl I always wanted to be. The one that I felt pushed into being thin by the rigorous body policing that went on at school. I didn’t even notice how unhealthy I’d become, all that mattered was that I was a size 10. I paraded my thinness around my hometown like a badge of honour in the hope that those who had put me down for being chubby and unfit throughout school would see this new, thin me and feel guilty for all the pain they put me through. I was untouchable.

My relationship with my body image fluctuated endlessly throughout university. Finally giving in to the advice that exercise would be some sort of panacea for my mental health problems, I joined the gym in 3rd year and within two months, ran a 5K to raise money for Health in Mind. I finished it in 32 minutes – not the best by any stretch, but my best. I don’t think it was the exercise itself that improved my mental health per se, but rather the fact that I knew I was challenging myself and smashing little goals every day. The knowledge that I was strong enough to do something incredible like that carried me through the next six months.

And then 4th year hit and everything changed. To put it in perspective, I just wrote that it went wrong, but on reflection, I don’t think it was “wrong” – just different. I comfort ate my way through my dissertation, drank way too much cider as a “reward” for my hard work (okay, I’m just making up excuses now – I drank it because I love it, and it’s still like my kryptonite), and gym time was practically non-existent because my workload was just too exhausting. I piled on so much weight and it wasn’t even until I’d graduated and took a long hard look at my selfie that I realised how much of a sedentary lump I’d become.

But recently, I’ve noticed how totally badass my body has become. I truly think it’s all because of roller derby. You never truly shake off mental illness, even if you’re “recovered” in most aspects of your life, and there’s still this voice in my head telling me that I should lose some weight, get those razor cheekbones back, get back into my size 10 jeans. But then, I look at what I’ve become. Would I trade my strength and newfound muscular thighs and DDs just for cheekbones and a sense of pleasing those that don’t matter? On some days yes, but most of the time…no. Because I’m gradually beginning to embrace this lucrative thing called “self-worth”.

My body is home. It’s strong. It can do so many things. I can skate at top speed for five minutes without getting winded. Other things I can do on skates include jumping, weaving really fast around cones, hitting people, getting hit by people and recovering in seconds…the list goes on. I cycle just under eight miles every day. I can power up hills on my bike without getting off to push like I used to. I can run 5k with barely any walking breaks – I’ve not quite beaten my 32 minute personal best, but I’m down to 35 minutes after not running for two years so I’d say that’s awesome, and even more awesome when you consider it used to take me half a 55-minute PE lesson to do the 1600m at school because I’d be so out of breath. I can hold onto my toes without bending my knees. I can leg press over half my body weight and I’m constantly building on that. I am the queen of squats, if I do say so myself. I’m far from ripped, and I’m carrying a bit of belly, and there are so many days I weigh myself and think “how on earth have I gained weight when I exercises SO MUCH?” (muscle, that’s how). But I know I can do amazing things. I refuse to believe anyone who tells me otherwise.

In the end, it’s not what your body looks like, it’s what it can do. Every day I’m amazed by how far I’ve come and I really hope that by striving to do more and more badass things every day, I’ll finally be able to conquer the demon that tells me that my looks and how others judge me are more important than my own happiness.

Our bodies deserve more than to be war-torn and collateral
Offering this fuckdom as a pathetic means to say,
“I only know how to exist when I am wanted.”

Girls like us are hardly ever wanted, you know
We’re used up and we’re sad and drunk and
Perpetually waiting by the phone for someone to pick up and tell us that we did good
Well, you did good.

I know I am because I said I am.
My body is home.

Mary Lambert

very important
December 2012 vs. May 2017
Health · Personal

This Girl Can…Kind Of

This post is brought to you by Deep Heat! Well, not really, but it ought to be for the amount they’ve saved my ass (literally) this past week.

The reason for this? I’ve taken up roller derby!

sks101

At least, I’ve joined my local league’s new skaters programme. It’ll be a while before I “play” the sport, but you need to learn the skills before you put them into practice. This is true for any sport, but I’d say it’s a potentially steeper learning curve with derby because, you know, other sports usually involve your feet being directly on the ground – not strapped to eight wheels that will slip out from underneath you with astounding speed if you’re not careful.

I’ve never been “sporty”. I was an incredibly unfit teenager and was always picked last in PE. I had major body confidence issues growing up – I always thought of myself as the “fat one” and I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with food. Basically, I resigned myself to never being able to play a sport. I had no interest, because to me, sport equalled being laughed at by peers and patronised by well-meaning PE teachers who only exacerbated my feelings of “otherness”.

But then I discovered roller derby.

I think, like many newcomers to the derby community, I discovered this wonderful sport through Whip It. Drawn to the film by Ellen Page, I foisted it upon all my friends at my 16th birthday “movie and food and chill” session (I am reluctant to call it a party. A party animal I was not. I am not). Fast forward a few years down the line, and I’m an 18-year-old fresher struggling with a brand new depression/anxiety diagnosis. Spur of the moment, I decide to buy a pair of skates.

I think I wore those skates about once; I totally freaked out because OH MY GOD SKATING IS REALLY SCARY AND THE GROUND IS SLIPPY, and then tucked them away in my wardrobe. I have proper derby skates now, but perhaps when I’m home I’ll take my old Rios out for a spin. After all, skates meant for casual recreational skating are built with much stickier wheels than those on derby skates. If I can skate on derby skates, I’m sure those ones will be easy peasy.

Anyway, after three years of obsessing over roller derby and watching YouTube videos and just generally being a bit of a geek, I finally plucked up the courage to go to my first bout a year ago. It was a bit intimidating, because I went alone and I often feel quite awkward and anxious when I don’t have a buddy to tag along with. What awaited me was something even more amazing than I could have ever imagined.

I immediately felt like I was with family. I remember watching one of my local league’s teams skate out and feeling the music and the exciting, fast-paced, witty commentary pulse through me. I think my jaw hung open the entire time, I was just so awed by the whole experience. I actually cried a little bit at just how overwhelmingly positive the atmosphere was. For the first time, I saw athletes who looked just like me. Chubby arms, wobbly tummies, tattoos, visible muscles, crazy leggings, short women, tall women, women of all ethnicities. All of them offered a unique blend of talents, and the crowd went wild for every single one of them.

I’m not religious, but I assume this is how a spiritual awakening feels. I knew I had to get involved. After all, this was a sport for the girls who grew up feeling like the underdog and, at times, the outcast. There was space for everyone – why couldn’t that be me? Unfortunately, this was not a good time for me to start my derby journey. I was a poor, unemployed student, and I had a dissertation to work on. Besides these fairly legitimate excuses, there was also this niggling voice inside my head telling me that I was like Bambi on skates and it would be ludicrous to even try.

In November, I went along to a full-day of derby bouting, and once again I was overcome with this feeling that I had to be doing this sport. Until then I’d told myself “maybe next time…” and “maybe once I’ve taken my skates at home out of the wardrobe and proved to myself that I can actually do it…” but this time, I realised that if I didn’t commit sooner or later, I was just going to keep making wussy excuses and I was never going to learn how to play my favourite sport in the world. I was never going to be able to create that joyous, exhilarating atmosphere for other fans. I registered my interest in Auld Reekie Roller Girls’ Skate Skills programme in December. Unfortunately, life got in the way, as it is wont to do, and I never pursued it further because I just assumed it would be too difficult to fit it around my work rota (see what I mean about creating excuses just because I’m a wuss?).

And then, one evening at the start of this month, when I was having a really horrible day, an email found its way into my inbox that said there was a space for me on the programme, should I want it. I immediately burst into tears. I had been growing increasingly frustrated with my lack of work-life balance, mainly due to the fact that my anxiety had gotten so bad that I had shunned any notion of having a social life. I wasn’t doing any clubs or activities outside of work because it just seemed like too much effort. I was convinced I had become a boring person. But derby felt like a lifeline, and I decided to grab it with both hands, an open mind, and my heart on my heavily-padded sleeve.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I’ve completed two weeks of the Skate Skills programme. I’m not a natural skater. I still feel like Bambi, especially when I take those first few strides each training session. But you know what? I think I’m getting the hang of it. I’m slow, but I’m motivated. Nothing feels better than getting home after a training session, having a nice hot bath, and reflecting on how much I’ve accomplished in just two hours. Last week, I was the slowest skater, I fell a LOT (my tailbone still hasn’t forgiven me), and I was so convinced I would never improve that I had to take ten minutes out just to have a good blub and vent to one of my fellow freshies about how stressful I was finding it. I can’t knee tap or glide on one skate yet, and my skull crushing is patchy (note to non-derby readers: this is not literal skull crushing. I know derby is a contact sport, but crushing an opponent’s skull would definitely see you sent to the sin bin. Skull crushing is actually just a way of skating without lifting your feet from the track), but since then, I’ve learnt how to pick up some speed, stop in two different ways, fall safely (i.e. on my knees, not my bum!), and recover quickly from my falls. Nothing feels better than jumping straight up onto my feet to continue skating, to continue pushing myself. If I pass no other minimum skills in this block of Skate Skills, I know at least that I am “recovery queen” (a new derby friend’s words!) and will pass that section!

Another bonus of roller derby is that EVERYONE IS SO DAMN NICE. Our league’s motto is “it’s nice to be nice”, and this definitely shows. Even when I think I’m doing the worst job ever, there’s always someone skating past me saying, “hey, that was really good!” and the coaches are incredibly patient. After all, it feels incredibly unnatural to wear skates when you’re starting out, and they really understand this. On top of this, everyone in derby is encouraged to take part in other ways as well, such as helping at bouts or joining a committee. Yesterday I did the music for a bout and it was great fun – plus everyone commented on how much they enjoyed my playlist! It’s something that a few people suggested I could do again in future, which is really pretty exciting! This community feeling extends beyond just the league – there’s a Facebook group for derby skaters (particularly freshies) worldwide, which has been an incredible source of emotional support and practical advice.

In a way, skating feels a like lot therapy. I can go in there each week the most tense, anxious person in the world, and by the end I feel like someone has given my brain a massage. I find I skate best when I employ some of the skills I learnt in therapy last year. For example, I know how to recover when my confidence takes a knock and I just want to curl up in a ball and cry (my solution is to take a quick break to re-formulate my thoughts, take several deep breaths and some water, then keep going with even more vigour – and that’s fine by the coaches, so even better!). I know that to skate my fastest, I need to go into a semi-meditative state, where I’m not thinking about my actions, I’m just staring ahead with deep focus and letting my body take over.

I’ve so far found that derby has reinforced these lessons from therapy more than anything else in my life has. It’s made me realise how to feels to want to persist, rather than doing something out of obligation to an external party.

Who knows where this new mindfulness technique will take me next?

Health · Miscellaneous · Personal

How I learnt to continue worrying and love the results

Whether or not you suffer from anxiety, I’m sure that almost everyone has experienced that fight-or-flight sensation of an adrenaline rush. It starts as a flurry of butterflies in the stomach, rapidly spreading to your head and infiltrating your thought process. Panic can set in. It’s in that moment you must make a choice which will either further your journey in life or make you miss your connection altogether.

I’m sure every anxiety sufferer will be used to living their life constantly on the edge of this sensation. From a more rational perspective, this nervous response can seem completely unwarranted, but when you’re trapped in the moment, it feels like one wrong move could end the world.

It’s funny how we use the word “suffer” when talking about anxiety. For the most part, that’s what it is. It can absolutely cripple you. But as someone who is on a steady path to recovery, I’ve learnt to embrace my fears and worries. Recovery is beautiful in so many ways, but the best thing about it, I’ve discovered, is that it clears your mind and makes you realise how your thought patterns don’t always reflect reality. Problems that once seemed to consume you can be looked at objectively, assessed, and ideally, overcome. It doesn’t always mean finding solutions, but rather ways of bending the problems to your will. It’s like standing up to your brain. You learn that it’s okay to turn around to that negative committee in your head and say, “hey, you’re not more powerful than I am. I gave you life and one of these days, I will kill you. So, you’d better shape up and do as I say, because I’m coming to get you!”. Embrace this, and it becomes easier to usurp power from the voices and command them, rather than them commanding you.

By playing this game that is recovery, I’ve levelled up and acquired the power of control. It’s a great power to have when defeating the boss. Whenever I feel anxious, and like I’m not good enough, I can now turn the situation on its head and say to myself, “what do I need to do to use this to my advantage?”. When I worry I’m not making enough progress with university work, or in my singing or piano, I thrive on this anxious need to be better and work harder, because I know I am capable of more. When things go wrong, I no longer wallow with my negativity and blame myself. I think, “what do I need to do to make sure I don’t lose out here? What do I need to do to gain experience from the situation?”. In small doses, which I have learnt to control myself, the anxiety of perfectionism can be healthy. I’ve made such great improvements in all areas of my life just by using my anxiety as a weapon with which to fight, rather than a monster from which to flee.

I realise it’s all very well for me to say “this is what I did and it really helped, so you should do it too!”, but in reality, recovery doesn’t work that way. Everyone goes through it at their own pace, and everyone has different coping mechanisms. But this is mine. And I really hope that I can help someone by putting it out there.

You are not your illness. You are your personality, your spirit. You are powerful and with perseverance, you are the master of your own mind. You are you. And in the immortal words of Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, “you’re your problem, but you’re also your solution.”

Health · Miscellaneous

Little Christmas Pleasures

Like most people, I love Christmas and always have done. However, last year, it wasn’t so great for me. Having just been diagnosed with depression, it was difficult for me to get into the Christmas spirit – I didn’t enjoy the run up, as I usually do, and the big day itself was even worse. My family stressed me out, I didn’t want to get dressed up (as I usually do) and see people, and I ended up in floods of tears trying to hide away from it all.

This year, I’m feeling better – not completely, but certainly enough to find pleasure in things – and am trying desperately to rekindle that Christmas magic that I knew so well before I was ill. I’ve found that throwing myself into things and getting involved with the festivities has really helped me to push any negativity that I’ve been harbouring to the back of my mind.

I’m not saying that what I’ve done will work for everyone, as we all have different thresholds of what we can and can’t cope with when depressed (especially at a time as hectic as Christmas), but I’ve definitely found all these little activities have lifted my spirits. Here are some things that you might find helpful, as I have.

1. Go ice skating. I went ice skating at the local Christmas market last week and it was great fun! I was apprehensive about it, as I hadn’t skated for about five years, and to make matters worse, it took a while for any of my friends to appear. I thought about taking a rain check, I really did. But in the end, I went ahead anyway and despite fifteen minutes of not wanting to leave the barrier at the edge of the rink, I was soon gliding around and laughing heartily with adrenalin. For me, it was almost impossible to feel sad when I was concentrating so hard on keeping my balance and chasing my friends around the rink!

2. Unleash your inner child. You’re never too old to embrace the art of making paper snowflakes. It’s fun to see how many different designs you can come up with, and they look great – who’d have thought that randomly snipping folded-up paper would be so satisfying? You can stick them up around your home (I’ve got mine on my windows) to liven the place up a bit.

3. Bake some Christmas goodies. Baking is always a great distraction – you can work out your aggression on the batter or dough, measuring out the ingredients and following the recipe keeps your brain engaged and away from grey thinking, and at the end of it, you’ve got some tasty treats which you can proudly say that you made yourself. It’s a win-win situation, really! Christmas allows for lots of lovely flavours, from warming spices to wintery fruit. Yesterday I made gingerbread, using this recipe by Nigella Lawson, and it’s absolutely delicious. I can’t stop eating it…

4. Make yourself a big, warming meal. Chilli con carne is a particular favourite of mine for this purpose – you just cannot beat it on a cold, winter night. Finding the motivation to cook proper meals can be hard when you’re feeling low, but if you cook up a big enough batch when you can manage it, then you can freeze the rest and then you don’t need to worry about preparing meals for the next few days. It’s great to snuggle up with a warming meal and a film.

5. Go carolling. Singing releases endorphins and has been proven to lower feelings of depression, even if only temporarily, so what better time is there to get out there and sing loudly and proudly? Most of the time, carolling is done for charity, so you can seek comfort in the fact that you’re not only making yourself feel better, but also helping others.

6. Try your favourite coffee shop’s Christmas specials. Go to your favourite coffee shop, order yourself a big mug of whatever you fancy (I particularly like the gingerbread latte from Starbucks and the praline latte from Caffè Nero), find a corner where you can see all around you, and just sit with your drink and people watch. I find this always calms me down – I love getting lost in my thoughts about what everyone else’s story is. It can be a great distraction and help you to slow down and notice the smaller pleasures.

I hope these tips help some of you, but if they don’t, please don’t worry about it too much. Everyone has the right to feel and respond to their own emotions, so if you find that you still can’t feel festive, this does not mean that you never will. Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean that you are obliged to be happy. You just need time and space, so that you can allow yourself to recover in your own time. If you catch yourself feeling sad at Christmas, let yourself be sad at Christmas – those who really care will understand, and those are the same people who you will benefit from being around at Christmas.

Take care everyone!

Health · Personal

The Time Capsule

Today was another very tough day for me. I had a pretty good day yesterday, in comparison – long, deep conversations with friends, a damn good sandwich (simple pleasures, you know!) and then in the evening, I went out for a music society social, which was pretty good as it involved food being cooked for me (yay) and not so many people that I froze up and couldn’t interact properly. In fact, even the evening before was pretty good (despite feeling pretty down the rest of the day) as I went to my first ever poetry slam with one of my good friends from my course and a small group of her friends, who were all really nice.

But today, I just woke up and my heart felt heavy.

On a Saturday, I have an orchestra rehearsal from 10-1, so I need to get up pretty early. Today was no different. However, it was a real struggle to even get myself out of bed. When I finally did, my whole body felt heavy and exhausted and I just couldn’t bring myself to get ready – I sat staring at the mountain of clothes on the end of my bed, ready for the day ahead, but I felt paralysed by total emptiness. Needless to say, I crawled back into bed and read Hyperbole and a Half instead.

It made me feel guilty because I’ve now missed three rehearsals and the concert is in a month. I barely know the repertoire. The worst bit is, even when I do go, I feel lonely. The only bit I actually enjoy is the playing, but even that gets tiring after about an hour and a half. It makes me wonder what the point even is.

It came to me then that life is a lot like a time capsule. You take a box (tin, whatever – it’s metaphorical, so choose your own container!) and cram in all these memories, so that when it’s buried and gone, others can look back and reminisce about the times you had putting together your own little personal gallery of life. And I feel like often, when I push myself into doing things to try and shake myself out of the negativity – by going on nights out or joining new societies, for example – I’m mainly doing them in the hope that some wonderful memories will emerge and I’ll be able to fill my capsule with little trinkets that say, “remember that time when…”, or “I’m so glad I took up swing dancing!”

And often, they do, but there are also times when you struggle to find things to put in the box. This is when the lack of motivation and energy which comes with depression sets in. It’s like someone’s saying, “you never know when you might need to bury this – better get filling it up!” but you’re surrounded by nothing but piles of stones, empty crisp packets and old chewing gum. They’re saying, “why can’t you find anything worth putting in the capsule? I’ve found loads of stuff for mine, you’re just not looking hard enough!” (or “why haven’t you got any mementos from your orchestra? I thought that mattered to you.”) and all you can do is panic because nothing around you seems worthy of memory and oh God what if time is running out and what if people forget my time capsule was ever buried because I never achieved anything notable and…

But sometimes, other people will find something that you managed to overlook. They’ll hold up a glittering sliver of a memory, garnered by dancing or a shared love of a certain band or hearing poetry live or a damn good sandwich or basking in the crisp, October sunshine or even just getting up and looking after yourself when you really didn’t feel like it, and they’ll say “hey, look what I found! Isn’t that cool? Why don’t you put that in the capsule?”

And you smile. And you realise that it’s possible to amass your own collection if you put your mind to it. I don’t feel any better today, really, after my day of chilling out and trying to unwind, but that’s cool too. Perhaps contemplating my own health and letting myself lie around alone for a day is a small step towards things getting better, and stumbling upon a diamond in the rough, a real highlight of my collection – who knows? I’m not feeling particularly hopeful about that one, but I’m willing to be surprised. They don’t need to be big, sparkling, ornate gems of memories – as long as it was an achievement for you, it doesn’t matter whether other people would put it in their own capsule.

Health · Personal

Another ride on the seesaw

Phew, what a hectic month it’s been since starting back at uni last month! Despite only having six or seven hours of contact time per week this semester, I’ve been devoting a lot of my time to self-study and practice (quite rightly so, I guess) so I’ve been feeling exhausted from all the effort I’ve been putting in. The pressure is really on this year, as we need to get into Honours. The overall pass mark for getting into Honours is an achievable 50%, but I’m still keen to do my best so that I have a better chance of being able to choose any modules I like next year without worrying about being “bad” at anything.

Unfortunately, it’s all getting a bit too much already and I can feel myself falling. I’m slipping back down that slope which I’ve been forcing myself to pedal up all summer. I’ve found myself questioning what I’m doing with my life and whether it’s all worth it, I’ve lost interest in socialising and can’t bring myself to go out in the evenings (leading to a lot of cancelled plans), and I feel tired almost constantly – even after sleeping for 11 hours (which, yes, has happened).

I can’t remember if I mentioned, but after my major glitch with withdrawal, I started back on 10mg of citalopram in August. Anyway, that’s by-the-by. I went back to my doctor yesterday  and told her how much worse I’d been feeling, so I went back up 20mg. At first, I was apprehensive about going back up a dose, because there’s still a negative voice in my head saying “you’re just not trying hard enough, you’re lazy, you’re not really depressed, stop making excuses for being an antisocial blob”, which is especially prominent these days considering some nights, I can find the strength to go out with friends. I told her that maybe I just wasn’t trying hard enough, considering some nights I can manage it, but she reassured me with some wise words which have stuck with me: “maybe when you go out, you’re putting your ‘brave face’ on,  but how you feel when you don’t go out is a true reflection of how you really feel.”

And I think it’s true. I can go so long pretending everything’s fine, everything’s getting better, and then I get home, where I can be alone, and I snap. I feel completely drained from just keeping that smile on my face when I don’t feel like it inside.

I’m scared that soon, I will crash and burn. I just want to be happy and sociable and get good grades, is that really too much to juggle?

One of my close friends told me today that she’s been given a screening questionnaire for depression, anxiety and stress, because she’s been having problems with being tired and not being able to sleep. She’s also having a blood test to check for thyroid, anaemia and diabetes, in case it’s that, but she said that she hopes it’s not that and that it’s a mental thing. I’ve never realised how difficult it is to say to a friend, “no, you don’t understand – controlling a physical illness is so much easier than controlling a mental illness”. Because mental illness is so much harder to control. No matter how many pills you put into your body, there are always going to be days when you feel inexplicably awful about yourself. Unlike many physical illnesses, it’s not a case of “keep taking the meds, know how to control your body and you’ll barely even notice you are ill at all.” And that’s what makes it so much harder.

I guess I’m just scared that I can’t be there for her. How can I tell someone else that everything will get better and that life is always worth living when I struggle to believe it myself?

Health · News

This is what a “mental patient” looks like

Yesterday, Asda hit the headlines in the UK after it was revealed that they had been selling a Halloween costume under the shockingly offensive, albeist moniker of “mental patient”. The costume, which features a blood-splattered straitjacket, misshapen face with unruly hair and meat cleaver, was subject to huge backlash from mental health sufferers, charities and campaigners (quite rightly so) and was soon recalled.

Asda’s “mental patient” costume

Tesco also came under fire for a similar costume, a lurid orange boiler suit with the words “psycho ward” (the costume’s name) emblazoned on the chest and back with accompanying jaw restraint. Suggested accessories to this get-up included a machete and blood-stained knife. Following the backlash Asda received, Tesco also removed this costume.

Tesco’s “psycho ward” costume

Despite the fact that both companies removed the offending items from their shelves and released public statements of apology, you have to wonder – who on earth gave them the go-ahead in the first place? In my opinion, it’s not so much the costumes themselves that are the problem, it’s the names they’ve been given and the negative connotations about mental illness which they propagate. We see these sorts of stock characters in horror films all the time. It’s clear that Asda and Tesco simply wanted to emulate our favourite horror villains, but in an attempt to avoid copyright decided to give the costumes more generic names.

And what word instills fear in your average person more than the word…”psycho”?! *gasp*

Why is it that that word has become such a ready synonym for words which, in reality, have completely different meanings? “Evil?” “Psycho”. “Homocidal?” “Psycho”. “Criminal?” “Psycho”. You get the picture. As I’m sure most people are aware, the prefix “psycho-” simply means relating to the brain and its inner workings. So why is there still this common misconception that “psycho” connotes these horribly negative, terrifying personality traits?

Fighting back against the stigma spread by the costumes, mental health charities took to social media to ask their supporters to speak up and speak out. Time to Change, a mental health campaign based in England and run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, asked their followers who suffer from mental illness to submit pictures of their own “mental patient” costumes. The response was overwhelming, as the hashtag #mentalpatient buzzed with activity, and the responses were (take or leave more trivial details) all the same – normal people, in normal clothes, posing for a camera.

My own "mental patient" costume
My own “mental patient” costume

A real “mental patient” walks the streets in Topshop jeans, Primark jumpers, shoes from everywhere from ShoeZone to Manolo Blahnik. Heck, we could already have bought elements of our own “mental patient” costumes from Asda and Tesco. We may or may not wear make-up. We may or may not bear tattoos, or piercings, or daring hair cuts. We go to the supermarket, to university, take the bus, take the train, ride bikes around town. Funny how when I say “we”, I could be referring to any demographic of the population, isn’t it? Because you know what – sufferers of mental health problems are just the same as anyone else. We’re not suddenly more likely to commit heinous crimes, to be locked up in the creepy, austere facilities of slasher films that these costumes would imply, wielding weapons in an attempt to break free. For the most part, the only things we want dead are our inner demons – those nagging voices of insecurity we try to silence with chemicals, counselling and therapy.

To say this is disgusting is an understatment, Asda and Tesco – please, learn from your mistakes, listen to the voices of your millions of customers who suffer from mental health problems, and next time hopefully you’ll be challenging the stigma rather than encouraging it.

Health · Personal

Citalopram Withdrawal: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Trigger warning: self-harm

As most of you are probably aware, I have been on citalopram since the end of November last year. Now, as the standard course of SSRI treatment lasts around 6 months and things were starting to get better for me, my doctor and I decided it was time to try to get off the pills. I was keen to be medication-free – I was looking forward to be able to feel true happiness again, happiness not a product of chemicals artificially added to my buzzing brain.

About a week ago, a couple of months after starting my weaning process, I was finally citalopram-free. It felt great to be able to say that I was no longer on medication, and I was so proud of myself. However, the doctors don’t warn you about how much being med-free can shake you up.

I’ve been suffering all the classic symptoms of SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome – dizziness, brain zaps (also known as “brain shivers”, which I think is a much more accurate term personally – they don’t hurt, but rather feel like someone is shaking your brain, sending shivers through your head and all over your body), tiredness, low mood, anxiety, irritability, panic attacks and shivers…it’s truly horrific. Yesterday I was even so overcome with sadness and self-hatred that I ended up hurting myself for the first time in half a year. I was so angry and disappointed in myself that I ended up having the biggest breakdown I’ve ever had, not even being able to breathe from hysteria. I didn’t even mean to do it, but when I get into a state like that, my brain goes into auto-pilot and suddenly I find myself with sharp implement in hand, with no recollection of actually making a decision to cause myself harm. It’s like I lose control.

The scary thing about being off citalopram is that I feel worse than I ever did before, and closer to breaking point than I did before I started on medication. I can’t tell whether this is normal, or whether I’m spiralling downwards again. I guess that’s the worst part of battling mental illness – if you’ve been okay for a long time but suddenly feel bad again, it becomes difficult to discern between a relapse and simply a “bad day”.

I want so desperately to stay off the pills, to be able to say that I’m fine and recovering, but I’m scared that these aren’t just withdrawal symptoms and that I really can’t survive without them. I think I need to go to a doctor and discuss it, because I have no idea what’s going on in my head and what reckless thing my brain might make me do next.

Health · Personal

Breaking the glass of the bell jar

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

Today, after six sessions spread out over the past four months or so, I finished counselling. I feel quite sad about it because I had grown rather attached to my counsellor and she really seemed to understand me, but deep down, I feel something very different from sadness: I feel freedom, relief. I feel like my whole perspective on life has shifted and like I’m not afraid to face my battles head-on, asking for help and comfort from friends as and when I need it. I feel like I have served my time and now I am free to move on. I can breathe deeply and reflect, take time to look after myself and realise that nobody judges me as harshly as I do. Who knows what the future might hold? For all I know, I might spiral downwards again and find myself lost without counselling, but it’s a risk I needed to take at some point or other.

Most importantly, I don’t feel alone anymore.

My counsellor always talked about how pleased she was with my progress and how she’d seen me “flourish”, and I would have to agree, so I thought I would share with you what aspects of my personality and thinking patterns have developed and improved.

 1. I have realised that it’s okay to share my worries with other people. I don’t always have to appear strong, and there’s no need for my concerns that I’m burdening my friends with my problems. It wouldn’t be a real friendship if I couldn’t share these sorts of things with them. Before I started counselling, I felt very isolated and I was scared to share anything because I thought it would make me appear weak. I suffered silently, wrapped up in my own lonely little bubble. From now on, I will continue trying to open up to my friends more, because when you care for each other so much, there’s no room left for judgement or negativity.

2. I’ve been able to deal with coursework better. Last semester, when my depression was at its worst, I struggled to find the motivation to do anything and so I would need extensions. Even with these extensions, I would feel immense pressure because I had to force myself into doing work at the last minute, beating myself up inside because I thought I had wasted my time. Now, I plan my studying the week ahead and I’m usually able to stick to this. Also, because I’ve changed my direction and now want to focus on music education rather than performance, I don’t feel the need to be some singing superstar. In fact, I don’t feel the need to be a “superstar” at anything anymore. I’ve realised that as long I put in the effort, the results don’t really matter at this stage. I’m still learning and if I’m passing and getting by without any major problems, then that’s good enough for me.

3. I shouldn’t have any qualms about getting myself out of bad situations which are totally within my control e.g. quitting my piano lessons. It’s so important to nourish our own emotional health, rather than fall victim to emotional instability by trying to please people who don’t really matter and who aren’t good for you.

4. I’m more open to leading a diverse, fun lifestyle rather than being too concentrated on one thing, to the detriment of who I really am (i.e. singing). I don’t always have to have a fixed plan for the future and be upset at anything that gets in the way. In the end, it doesn’t really matter where we end up in life, it’s all about the moments which got us there. I’d rather have a easy-going life filled with the little pleasures and complete little goals which make me smile, rather than striving for a goal of total perfection in one area which causes me to miss out on being young and enjoying myself.

5. I don’t feel the need to compare myself to anyone anymore. They’re doing their thing, I’m doing mine, and that’s good enough for me. For the first time in years (no exaggeration!) I can genuinely feel happiness for other people who achieve things of which I dreamed up until recently. Resentment only causes further negativity. I’ve spent so much of my life chasing others down their own paths, but I’ve finally forged my own and I’m more than happy to amble along it rather than running and stumbling trying to catch up with others.

I only hope I can keep this mentality if things go sour again, which no doubt they will at some point. Depression doesn’t just go away – it resurfaces when you least expect it to, but I’m so proud of myself for finally realising what I need to do to tackle it head-on. My pathway in life is now sign-posted “recovery”.

I’ll conclude with sharing my top two recovery songs with you:

Health · Personal

Depersonalisation: A New Experience

Apologies for lack of posts yesterday, I didn’t really have anything to write about and on top of that I wasn’t feeling particularly well.

This morning I had a very unsettling experience and I still don’t know what caused it (whether it was just because of my depression and/or anxiety, or whether it was because I upped my dose of citalopram yesterday, or whether it was because my sleep was quite disrupted last night…who knows?). This experience? Depersonalisation.

I’m very interested in psychology, so I had read about dissociative states before – depersonalisation, derealisation, fugue states and what have you. Luckily this meant I was aware of what I was going through, so it maybe calmed my nerves a bit (but not much – I still felt very panicky).

It was like I was seeing everything in a totally new way (for example, everything looked so much sharper and more vivid, but at times it went the opposite way and everything looked somehow distorted), and I was drifting, an observer. I haven’t been high but it’s what I imagine being high on some sort of hallucinogenic feels like. I could interact with my surroundings but it felt like I didn’t really exist. I actually felt like I was in a video game and I was navigating my way through different levels. Getting ready in the flat was one level, and then when I stepped outside I felt like I was observing my “character” try to navigate a new scenario. It was kind of scary crossing roads because I actually had to try to force myself out of this state and think, “you don’t have unlimited lives – be careful!”.

Even when I was in my lecture, I felt like I was an observer from the outside. It felt so surreal when the lecturer started directing questions at me and he responded to my answers – there was this heightened sense of existence and I remember thinking to myself, “wow, other people can see me and interact with me?”. At this point the ‘video game’ feeling had passed and it was more of a ‘TV’ feeling – like I was observing and following what was going on but I wasn’t actually involved.

It was definitely the most surreal experience I’ve ever had and I found it really quite distressing, especially since it lasted a good five hours or so.

Has anyone else ever had this happen to them?