Tuesday, 16 May 2017

State of Mind: a reflection and update for Mental Health Awareness Week



Since it's mental health awareness week this week (well, last week, now), and after a thought-provoking evening with the Share Your Story community in Brighton on Wednesday, thought I'd reflect a bit on my state of mind, and how things have changed in the last couple of years - or, since I wrote quite a bit about depression and my journey of starting to take medication, which was actually five years ago. Jeez.

One of the talks on Wednesday was a particularly powerful reminder about the limited nature of words and the damaging (as well as positive) potential of diagnoses. Five years ago, being able to call what I was going through "Depression" was very helpful. At the same time, I know I'd experienced similar thoughts and feelings at other times in my life without calling it that, and currently I don't know if I would use the same language. Similarly, someone else talking about depression may actually be describing something very very different. Just think it's good to bear that in mind, especially when we talk about mental health. 

So, where to start?

Medication

I'm not taking any mediation (Citalopram) at the moment. I haven't for over a year. Maybe two. I'm not sure. I've thought about re-starting several times, when I felt like I couldn't really cope with life, but decided against it as I explore other factors that might affect how I feel. Or should I say how I think? What does mental health even mean? In my experience I don't think I can separate thoughts from emotions - both can be powerful, overwhelming, sometimes scary and sometimes barely existent.

I'm not against medication, wouldn't rule out taking it again in future, it definitely made the lows less low, but at the moment I'm up for carrying on without it.

The Pill

I stopped taking the (contraceptive - Cilest) pill around two years ago. I don't know if the fact I did feel particularly down once I started taking it - at the same time I got married - is connected or coincidence. But I feel like anything that's affecting hormones is a bit of a risk, and I wanted to see how I felt without adding any unknown quantities to my body. Also it was making me bleed when I shouldn't, so that felt like a good reason to stop too.

It took over a year for my period to return, and longer than that to recognise any form of regularity. Something I'm trying to do at the moment is just be more aware of where I'm at in it, and recognise that certain times in the cycle I do feel differently (eg irrationably irritable!) - and to be OK with that! Conversations with a new friend have encouraged me not to see it as a "curse", but to embrace the changes and to listen to my body more and what it wants.

Which leads me on nicely to...

Food and exercise

I had a couple of sessions with a nutritionist, and I'm learning to be more conscious of what I eat and how it might affect me. In particular they pointed out how some foods can add to levels of anxiety. I've cut down on caffeine, alcohol, dairy and apparently having more magnesium is helpful so I'm trying to eat more green veg and seeds!

As I've mentioned before, a big part of the last few months has been about reconnecting with my body, and I think that's a massive factor in how I feel. It's kind of silly how exercise can become the last priority on my list, and often gets squeezed out by other things when life gets busy - but that's exactly when I need to be outside, moving, etc. I've done quite a lot of swimming and yoga over the past few months, and some walking, cycling and dancing. Hoping to increase the amount of dancing!!

Therapy & making changes

I have considered counselling so many times in life but it never seems to happen for one reason or another. In the summer I finally had a session with a family friend who's a life coach / psychotherapist - which my parents arranged after seeing me really not coping very well with life. By the time I saw her I'd already decided to make some big changes, like leaving my job and moving back to Brighton to find a calmer and more creative space to be.

But we had a really helpful conversation - about stress and guilt and the conscience and pathways in the brain and how these interact. She suggested that what I had experience in the past may have been a "secondary depression", caused by a build up of cortisol, released along with adrenalin when stressed. The issue was (and still often is) that I can have a huge, out of proportion reaction, to something quite small - which releases as much adrenalin (and cortisol) as if I was facing a life and death situation! It's usually when I've made a mistake and upset someone, except sometimes the mistake isn't even mine and often I'm imagining the extent to which someone might be annoyed/angry/upset. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to pieces (which usually looks like crying, re-running it thousands of times in my brain, sweating, tensing up, etc) over an email, a 'look', one harsh word. It's not a fun way to exist when the reality is that no matter how hard you try, sometimes you'll get things wrong or someone will misunderstand you or you'll forget something... essentially you'll be human! This connects with the idea of a 'harsh conscience' which is making moral judgement calls all over the place, about your own and other people's behaviour, when often it's not a case of right or wrong, black or white. My word for this year was to be KIND because I know I can have these crazy expectations of myself and the people around me - which inevitably leads to disappointment.

Another helpful part of our conversation was recognising that the time I'd spent commuting while living in Hatfield and London really was detrimental to my mental health - I thought I was just being lame in finding it so challenging, but actually sitting for three or so hours a day having negative thoughts running over and over in your head with not enough energy to stop them really wasn't helpful! It was just digging those grooves deeper in my brain.

I'm now listening to some more talks by her which go deeper into the impact of perfectionism and living in an 'imperfect world'. I relate to so many of the stories she tells. Once I'm done I might organise some sessions with someone to get some support in moving forwards with this new understanding. It all makes sense to me (I appreciate this way of looking at the world might not be helpful to other people!) but actually living it out, seeing if I can actually change some of these thought pathways, is a different thing!

One day at a TIME

I know there'll always be some elements of stress in life so I'm hoping this year I'll continue to learn how to deal with it in a healthier way. One of thing things I'm most appreciating about this season is the extra time I have in my days to be able to pause, not rush, tune in to what my body and mind and feelings are trying to communicate. I don't feel like I'm just on head-down-survival-mode which was what the last few years often felt like.

But life will probably change again soon, as it tends to do. We'll move (eventually), I'll need to work more hours, I'll need to decide what the next steps are following my Fringe Show (which is going well! And I'm so glad I'm doing it!!). But I guess I can worry (or not) about all that as and when it happens, and keep trying to take one day at a time.

It's cliche but it's a journey for sure, I don't think any of us are in a fixed state. What I might have written yesterday might be different to what I'll write today. It's pretty hard to pin things down. It's especially hard for me at the moment to put into words some of the deeper questions and doubts I have about life and meaning and spirituality in general - which I am sure impact on my mental health. Because it's right in the fabric of who I am and how and what I do and when that fabric seems like it might be unravelling, it's scary. But I'm trusting there'll be time and space to explore that too, one day.

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Today, having revisited this several times over the last week and now aware that it's no longer Mental Health Awareness week(!), I'm wondering if I should have written this totally differently - maybe in a more poetic or letter-to-myself type way, and it's making me feel stressed and cross with myself, which is ironic. Because that's the point, there isn't one way to tell the story. There isn't a right and wrong here. I could delete all this and start again, but not sure that that's helpful either! Haha. So maybe I'll try be kind and not try to write some kind of summary paragraph and just hit publish and let it go, and keep living! :-)

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PS I've not been blogging loads recently, but you can read mini-blogs and life updates on my Instagram

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PPS Just to illustrate the point about not being in a fixed state, I wrote another post about the rest of today

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