Expectations: in conversation with my brain…

For context – I’m writing this – after weeks of feeling more depressed than I’ve felt in a long time. Summer is coming to an end and I’m looking ahead to autumn. I have The Proclaimers singing into my headphones, I’ve just finished listening to another episode of “My Dad Wrote A Porno” and I’ve dance-tidied my room to Blowzabella trying to make myself feel more “happy.” I don’t know why I feel this way, and if I did I’m sure I’d try my best to stop it. Depression to me is not being able to physically get out of bed, until the cats miaow loudly in your ear for breakfast, and even then it’s like climbing Mount Everest. You feel lost. You’re physically and emotionally exhausted. You want to talk to friends. You desperately want that interaction, yet you don’t know how to start the conversation you so desperately need. It’s not being able to adequately put into words the thoughts in your head, and for someone whose most recent degree is literally in words, that is a pretty scary prospect. Even since mental health became my job, I should know this stuff, but somehow, when it comes to my own mental health, I don’t. Or at least what I preach to others seems harder, if not impossible.

I’m always rushing about, most of us do, trying to achieve the next big thing, yo-yoing around the country certain I won’t break, looking for another project, planning the next place to visit and searching for an adventure. Two months ago the Mental Health Mates group almost staged an intervention because they saw I was doing too much, so gave me the “burn out” lecture – which to be fair – I needed at the time. Do we really give ourselves adequate time to just think? To not get caught up in life or the expectations of ourselves and others? Do we ever actually have a conversation with our brain? More often than not we don’t have the time to just be. Or if we do, it’s unwanted time and we wish we were doing something else. We’ve all been there. I know we have.

If we harp back 11/12 years, to when I was 18. I felt similarly lost as I do today. Before my 18th birthday, I was terrified of becoming an adult and the expectations this would bring. Most A Level results days bring joy, but mine just brought fear and anger that I should have done better. Why did you spend all of Year 13 so miserable Alice? I didn’t have the answer to that question then, and I don’t have much of an answer now. But I do know that expectations can be damaging, and the hype of becoming an adult and going to university (I wasn’t even moving away) wasn’t anything to fear, but at the time it was everything. When I was at my lowest, I extensively used a text service for young people, where I could text my worries to a youth worker who would listen and respond. This interaction became a lifeline and made A Levels more bearable. I was able to talk to someone, who wasn’t my parents, or a teacher, who seemed to just “get it.” I kept a detailed diary documenting the time,  charting the feelings of a teenager who was convinced she would fail her A Levels and was absolutely terrified about going to university. I was 18, but didn’t want to be, I remember texting one morning “I don’t feel like an adult. I haven’t achieved anything I should by now” And it was on that morning when it was suggested that I should speak to a doctor. The doctor, who then told me that I was too young to be depressed.

“Is the youth worker who told you to come here medically qualified?” She demanded.

A rhetorical question she already knew the answer to. I was stunned into silence, and left the doctors surgery with little, other than an already shaky confidence shattered.

Those words have stuck with me to this day. The days following that doctors visit I felt broken, lost and like I was too much of a burden for just trying to ask for help. I still had the text service though, and sometimes all you need is someone to listen, qualified or not.

What did I think I hadn’t achieved by that age? What did I think I should have done? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m in a similar predicament now. I’m turning 30 in a few months, and as with eighteen year old me, I’m convinced I haven’t done things I should have achieved. This written down sounds utterly ridiculous, because I know, more than I did eleven years ago, that comparisons with others mean little, we’re all on our own path and life certainly isn’t a race or something to win.

As young children, we’re taught to be competitive. The school sports days, that were just ritual humiliation for me, the endless exams or tests and relationships. If you haven’t got a massive circle of friends – certainly more so when you’re younger – I couldn’t give a toss now, you are seen as some kind of failure. When most of your friends are in relationships you constantly feel like you’re third wheeling. And the time exam marks are read out in science, making you feel ridiculed because physics is somehow beyond your brains capabilities. Whether you want these things to be a competition or not. They are.

There is also the opposite to this that, I’ve read referred to as “imposter syndrome,” when you believe things you’ve achieved should never have happened or that you are some kind of fraud. I know when good things have happened to me, because I’ve felt so low in the past, I’ve believed that they happened to the wrong person or that I’m not deserving of good things too. I remember being offered a job, and saying down the phone to the person who had just offered me the job, “are you sure?” as if there had been some kind of terrible mistake and that they meant to ring someone else. There had never been a mistake – I just didn’t believe it could be true – when I was so used to rejections. I once got a 1st for an essay, and was on the brink of asking my tutor to have it remarked, because I was convinced there had been an error and I didn’t want to deprive someone else of their good mark. Eventually I didn’t ask for it to be remarked, and accepted that I had done well and should be bloody proud.

In my early 20’s I looked up to someone, who was ten years older than me, and was unwittingly bad for my mental health. She was everything I thought I needed to be, both professionally and as a person. We’ll call her Belinda. “Why can’t I be more like Belinda?” I’d wonder, after another 2am phone conversation, where she disclosed more about her life than she should have, and I thought I was in some kind of exclusive club. I modelled my life on hers, when in reality I was nothing like her. She’d send me messages, and I would feel excited whenever I saw her name pop up on my phone. I didn’t just want to be like her, I basically wanted to be her. I soon realised that she didn’t really want to talk to me, we were never anything that real friends resemble and she was only keeping me around because she felt she had to and so I could essentially be used. It was a lesson. A lesson that taught me how sticky comparison can be and how detrimental to your mental health it can become. I was at one of my lowest points when she was in my life and vowed to keep people around who were only good for my brain in future. So far I seem to have stuck to that. If you’re in it, you’re probably one of them.

Concluding context: I’m now listening to Mamma Mia, I’ve moved from my desk to my bed to write the rest of this, my cat is asleep on the top of my wardrobe, I might start being able to chat to friends again and I’m feeling on the whole a bit happier. I’ve also had time to think and reflect, and have that chat with my brain, that many of us don’t have the time for. Expectations are everywhere. They are less obvious as an adult but they are still there. Social media is the worst enabler of this, making us believe who we should or shouldn’t be, but it is also the best enabler of helping us feel closer to our friends. The latter is definitely important when you’re going through a depressive episode.

Although, I’m still terrified about turning 30, but that’s totally normal right?! If anyone has any advice on the whole “turning 30” thing, I’d happily listen.

Make sure you look after you. And give yourself some time to just be when you don’t feel as “you” as you’d like. There really is a lot to be said for self-care, alongside using others as a sounding board to help you feel better. I’m also certain dips in mood are sometimes in sync amongst close friends, as with women and periods, or maybe that’s just me? Either way, it’s reassuring to know others feel as you do.

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Posted in Mental health | 2 Comments

How are you REALLY?!

A year ago, I was finishing my Masters in Magazine Journalism, unsure where I’d be in a year, who I’d meet and the direction my career would take. Up until then I had retrained three times before the age of 30 (and also failed to get a place on a PGCE, which was a good thing, I could never be a teacher.) I knew I could write, and it was something I could do it well, so journalism seemed like an obvious next step.

Eight months ago after the high of graduation for a third time was over, I set out to apply for jobs – anything that I could do – I went for. In the time before Christmas and New Year, I was writing job applications, while everyone else was planning New Year nights out. I was consumed by my future and probably looking back, pretty depressed. I was terrified of having to sign on again, and avoided that reality as much as I could. I have two MA’s, something that I’m still a little bit embarrassed about broadcasting to the world. I know that in some cases this makes me over qualified, but as always with so many of us, I don’t have the experience to meet the expectations of jobs I am qualified for.

In February this year, I found out that I had been successful in interviews and was offered two part time jobs, I was beside myself with happiness. I thought that things were finally starting to fall into place, that my hard work finally had paid off. “I GOT THE JOB” I exclaimed to friends over text, who were equally as happy as me, knowing what I had worked for and that some milestones are harder to achieve than others. “YES!!!” texted one friend, with the most emojis I’ve ever seen in one message. She shared my joy too.

Last week, that world, where I had a routine and a full diary, crashed around me. I found out, over email that I’d lost one of those jobs, a job that I thought I loved. In an organisation where I thought I was respected and valued. I’m 29, and thankfully I’ve never gone through job loss on this scale before, I’ve been in tricky situations where I’ve left, but I’ve never been told by an employer that they ‘don’t want me anymore.’ It feels like I’m grieving for something that now isn’t there and it hurts.

Recently several people have asked, “how are you?” and like we all do, because we’re polite and don’t want to make conversations all about us, I’ve responded with “I’m fine,” when I know I’m not. People who understand that “I’m fine” is a massive lie, then ask me again, “how are you Alice?” and by the second or third time, I begin to tell them how I’m really feeling. We are conditioned to not cause a fuss, not be a downer on the conversation or the centre of attention. But, if we are to feel better or at least lighten the load, we have to be all of those things. I’m all for writing about bouncy parts of my life “I graduated!” “I did this at uni!” “My cats are awesome!” but sometimes, things aren’t so great and that’s okay too. We are, as a society scared of appearing vulnerable, not being able to cope or being weak, but being able to stand up and say “I don’t think I can deal with this,” is often one of the strongest things you can do. As someone who preaches in my job, about the need for self care, looking after ourselves and talking to others, I am the worst enabler of this. But if I can’t do it, how can the rest of society?

Moving forward, I’m going to be really honest about how I actually feel (sorry friends, not really..), I’m going to actually make time for myself and stick to it and I’m going to accept times when I’m not okay. I have a lot of self awareness, that has improved with age, although I still haven’t quite got the hang of knowing when to stop. A few months ago I wrote about Self-care and now it’s time to start working down that list. I really am grateful I can write this, that I have people to talk to and I have support, because I know there are so many people who don’t. You only have to volunteer at the Samaritans for as little as a week to realise that. I did two years there, and whenever I’m having bad days, I think of the people who used to speak to me at Samaritans, who like me were having a bit of a tough time, but were so grateful to hear a voice at the other end of the phone. A voice who made them the centre of attention, allowed them to be vulnerable and listened. Everything we avoid, is central to calls at Samaritans but it shouldn’t just be reserved for mental health helplines. We should be able to express how we really are everywhere. At work. At uni. With friends. With family. At the shops. It should be as normal as discussing the weather. I always think, if someone comments on how sunny/rainy/snowy it is, they are really avoiding chatting about mental health.

Talk to your mates tonight. Reach out. It’s important.

Cats are also great to chat to if you want to hide from people for a bit…

 

Posted in Mental health | 2 Comments

Fitting in or standing out? SEN, education and inclusion.

I was diagnosed with dyspraxia when I was around eight years old, I had, in theory time to access the right support, time to understand how my brain works, and was lucky, so I’m told, to be diagnosed as a child. I didn’t have to navigate the minefield of adult diagnosis, as many of my friends have, and I knew I was dyspraxic before I went to university.

As a child I was on the SEN register and had a statement for Special Educational Needs, that at the time baffled me. I was deeply embarrassed by these facts and in denial that I even had dyspraxia at all. I didn’t understand why I was different and I found “fitting in” just as challenging as those without a diagnosis. I had a name describing why I was different but I refused to accept or acknowledge this.

I rarely talk about what being categorised as an “SEN” child felt like, partly because I try to block that part of my life out and sometimes I find it too hard to describe. I also realise it is something that should be talked about more, if we are to understand, we have to talk.

Recently I took part in some training at work about autism but it could also be applied to all of neurodiversity. This training focused on looking at “autistic behaviours” and teaching young people to fit in with “social norms.” Is this right? Should we expect people to conform because that’s what everyone else does? Would we expect someone in wheelchair to use the stairs because that’s the norm? We would not. And we shouldn’t think of dyspraxia, dyslexia, autism or any other hidden disability differently. It absolutely isn’t right to make people fit a mould. What does inclusion mean when leading organisations are making assumptions about neurodiversity? Is it really understood what it is like to grow up as an SEN child? So many questions and I don’t have all of the answers.

I remember, when I was about fourteen, being taken out of my favourite lesson of History, to go to the special educational needs coordinators classroom. They had apparently noticed that, at the time, I didn’t have as many friends as my peer group and that I was socially awkward & isolated. I was quiet, pretty withdrawn and trying to make sense of who I was, alongside being a teenager and trying to deal with undiagnosed anxiety. It’s no wonder I didn’t want to talk to people. It was decided, that I needed to develop my social skills, so without discussion with me or my parents, I was taken out of history to meet with another girl in my year, who was also SEN, to do puzzles. Puzzles that were well below my top set English ability. This girl was nice enough, but we didn’t have anything in common, other than both appearing different. We didn’t have the same interests, we weren’t in the same classes and I didn’t relate to her, who the puzzles seemed more geared to. We were both SEN but our needs were so different. A lot of the young people the learning support department worked with, struggled across the board academically, and rightly so needed adequate academic support. I, in comparison, was not an all rounder but I was also academic. I did well in humanities, English and essay based subjects, but struggled with maths, science and anything practical. I couldn’t remember formulas for algebraic equations but could recall German vocab perfectly. This is an experience that is shared by many people with dyspraxia, varying strengths and difficulties within education are common. The SEN department wasn’t used to people like me, despite dyspraxia affecting between 2% and 6% of the population, meaning that there will likely be at least one person with dyspraxia in every school class. In my big 1,500 strong secondary school there would have been hundreds of us. I remember visiting an old primary school teacher, post university, who described me as their “success story” because people like me, who grew up in the 90’s weren’t expected to go to university. This upsets me, although I recognise that university isn’t for everyone, being given the opportunity and expectations is obviously better than the alternative of being written off. It’s always better to have the option, even if, for whatever reason you decide it’s not for you. I was, in a sense written off but because my dyspraxia makes me driven, resilient and determined, I didn’t listen. I do wonder if I wasn’t diagnosed so young and had gone through school being judged on academic performance alone rather than a diagnosis, would the expectations of me have been different?

But I did have a diagnosis, and in the process of getting one saw more medical professionals by age ten than most adults do in their life time. I remember a series of hospital visits and constant testing, not all in relation to the difficulties my dyspraxia presented but also for my nystagmus and hearing loss too. In 1996, an educational psychologist discovered through a rigorous and exhausting testing process, that there were “large differences” between my verbal and performance IQ. Having such a difference in these IQ’s was, according to the educational psychologist, “out of the ordinary” and was estimated to only occur in two out of a thousand children. My verbal and writing skills were assessed to be above average and my perceptual organisation and processing speeds were assessed to be well below average for my age. It was concluded that my “good verbal ability should enable her to succeed in much of her work at school but her non verbal weaknesses will impact on her attainments.” He then goes on to say; “she is likely to need help to make the most of her verbal skills to overcome or bypass such difficulties as they emerge.”

A statement for special educational needs meant that I had access to help & support that the original report in 1996 suggested I may need, 25% extra time in exams and annual reviews. Extra time in exams, that carried through to university, ensured I had enough time to process the information and to write everything down. I never had any specific difficulties with handwriting but my writing speed was slower than average. To begin with, I did my exams in a separate room, but I hated this. It made me stand out, and I just wanted to be like everyone else. I eventually sat some exams in the main hall with the rest of my classes, but stayed on after everyone left to continue my exam into extra time. This was disruptive and still didn’t resolve the issue of standing out. My desire to “fit in” at the time, seemed to outweigh the necessity of any support that would help me. In early secondary school days, I was allocated a support assistant who sat next to me in science and geography lessons. A support assistant that I quickly made it clear I didn’t need. She used to interfere with setting up science experiments and would read over my shoulder, which I found off putting. My statement allocated a certain number of hours of support, and instead of exploring what might help me, I was given support I didn’t need or want. Extra tuition in maths from a younger age would have probably been more beneficial. I did eventually get a tutor at GCSE, helping me to literally scrape a C by one mark. My proudest exam grade ever!

Annual reviews took place termly, in primary school without me but in secondary school I was more part of the process. During a review meeting people who were involved in my education, sat around a table and discussed my progress and any support needs going forward, it was also a time when targets were agreed. My targets didn’t change for years, which says a lot about how effective the process was in the early 2000’s. Year after year my annual reviews set the targets, to develop an understanding of non-verbal social interaction, improve fine and gross motor skills including balance and spatial perception and to continue to develop numeracy skills. In my case my parents, educational psychologist, head teacher, head of house, form tutor and special educational needs coordinator were involved in my review meetings. I was then invited in towards the end to give my input and make comments about how I felt school was going for me. As a teenager, this was quite a daunting process, being presented with a table full of professionals, who appeared to be dissecting my abilities and making recommendations for the future. On one occasion when asked who I wanted as an advocate to “fight my corner” I responded with “I’m capable of speaking for myself thank you very much” – a response that was neither expected or understood. I was really saying that I wanted to be listened to, and by year 11, the SEN department appeared to listen to everyone but me, the very person who knows my needs better than anyone. I still giggle now at the assumption that I couldn’t speak for myself and my answer, clearly correcting this.

The juxtaposition of fitting in or standing out is a complicated one, and as my experiences show there isn’t an easy solution. Every teenager I come across, disability or not wants to fit in, and social media makes fitting in even more challenging than in my day when Instagram, snapchat and Facebook didn’t exist or was very primitive. I first started using Facebook and Myspace in 6th form, but it certainly wasn’t a huge part of my life then as it is for young people now. I would hope that schools today are more understanding of inclusion and the need to listen to young people, there is certainly more awareness around differences than when I was at school.

The level of awareness I have now, would have helped in those early days when I didn’t understand myself, but as with most things this is down to time, age and maturity. I’m always in awe when I see teenagers talk openly about their dyspraxia, as I know I wouldn’t have been able to do that at their age. This alone, demonstrates how far we have come. I mentioned earlier that we have to talk to understand, and back in the 90’s/2000’s, I didn’t hear anyone talking about disability or difficulties they had at school, it was very much the elephant in the room. As young people begin to talk more openly, we’ll hopefully develop a culture of young people writing agendas for their review meetings, outlining exactly what will help them, being involved in creating SEN spaces that don’t feel embarrassing for young people to go to and feeling they can fit in, in the same way that they sometimes stand out.

At almost 30, I fit in more now than ever before because I’ve met people who actually understand me. I hope todays young people find this belonging a long time before they reach 30 and that they are able to shape the future of SEN provision in our education system and beyond.

Posted in Dyspraxia, Education, Youth Work | Leave a comment

Self-care: Things I’ve learned when I’m not okay

We often hear self-care bandied around on social media and in the offline world, as something we should all think about and include in our lives. “It’s important to look after yourself” and “Make sure you take time out,” are phrases I’ve heard more often than usual and this has prompted reflection. The internet is full of articles about how we can look after ourselves, advice about diets, exercise and making the most of that all important “me time.” Everyone always seems to have advice to give about what we could do better. But what does this all mean? And how can we really look after our wellbeing?

For me hearing, “Take time off.” and “remember self care”, implies that I need to do the opposite of anything I am currently doing. That somehow, I’ve forgotten that all important walk, regular breaks or simple time away from it all. I’ve found it easier to write about self-care when I’m experiencing the opposite to how I’d like to feel, when I’m exhausted and not doing as well as I could be. I’ve learned more about self-care when I’m not quite okay.

Since I started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks in my early teens, I always considered “what can I do to make it better?” This included ways I could calm down, relax and make how I was feeling less dominating. It was hard when I didn’t have the language to describe wellbeing, how my self-care should look or indeed anxiety. I always used music to make me feel better, as many people do. Folk music became a way to deal with my mental health, a massive part of me that at the time I didn’t understand.

Several years down the line I feel well versed with anxiety, my brain makes more sense to the extent that I could write a book on it and I feel better equipped to deal with the bad days. But sometimes, despite understanding myself more, self care is always a work in progress and something I’m constantly trying to get right.

I’m four months into starting two new jobs, and despite the joy these new roles give me, I underestimated how exhausted the transition would make me feel. My diary over the next few weeks, just has work after work commitment written in it, and this is unhealthy for anyone, mental illness or not. We all need a break and sometimes it takes moments when you spend the day in tears, to realise you can’t go on constantly working without anything in between.

I’m starting to realise that time off doesn’t mean I need to be doing something or exploring far away lands on holiday (although that would be nice.) It can simply mean doing nothing all day or having a lie in.

So how, in the next few months can I make this self care situation look better?

Rests and early nights

When I don’t get a good nights sleep, I’m physically exhausted but it also effects me mentally too. If I’m already anxious, it heightens this and makes me appear more dyspraxic. My coordination goes down hill when I’m tired and I’m probably no fun to be around.  Power naps are also brilliant for when things are getting too much. They need to feature more in all of our lives.

Long baths

Sometimes a long bath is the best thing to relax you. When I’m feeling particularly anxious or exhausted, time away in the bath helps me to get to sleep and to feel calm.

Actually arranging to see friends and sticking to plans

Anxiety can often mean, looking forward to seeing friends but having to cancel at the last minute. Then dealing with the guilt that follows. I once spent the hours before I was due to catch a train to a friends party in tears and then the actual train journey dealing with an anxiety attack. It wasn’t great but at least the party was fun. Since work got busy, I’ve unintentionally forgotten that other people are around and would like to see me too, if I actually make time. It’s harder, as most of my friends are a fair distance away and it takes weeks of planning and comparing diaries to actually meet up, but sometimes all I need is a mate. Cats are great but they aren’t the best conversationalists in the world. Unless they’re hungry, they’ll talk for England then.

Music

From a young age I’ve used music as a coping mechanism, something that I could always turn to when things became difficult. It’s still there but not in my life as much as I would like. I discovered folk music when I was 12, after joining the school ceilidh band, and since then fell in love with the tunes I could learn on fiddle and the friends I could make. I found a world that accepted me and to date, is probably one of the most inclusive environments I have ever known. Anyone, no matter your age, experience or ability can join in a session and are made to feel welcome, it’s easy to feel valued and part of something. When I was at school and I had a bad day, I would practice a tune we’d learned at ceilidh band rehearsals. It helped to forget about things and for a moment focus entirely on the music. In recent years music has featured less in my life. I should play fiddle more.

Cat cuddles 

Cats are brilliant for their calming effects on anxiety. They can see me at my worst and still be there the next day.

Walks in the countryside

I love getting out in nature and exploring (as long as there are no cows or geese.) Walks are brilliant for mental health, especially if you can share them with other people. I’ve really valued going to my local Mental Health Mates walks for the last year and a half.

Allocate strict working hours

Working three jobs and occassionally volunteering has resulted in too many email accounts for one person, and subsequently I’ve found myself replying to emails when I shouldn’t be or at odd times of the day. We’re probably all guilty of this, especially if we work from home or aren’t in an office with clear working hours. Allocating times to stick to certain email accounts and work, has helped to prioritise my time and to not worry about not getting back to someone straight away. Setting alarms for the start and end of “email time” on my phone is also helpful. I’ve realised that I can’t have my “work head” on all of the time, nor should anyone expect me too.

Pace yourself

I’m probably the worst at doing the opposite of this. I’m the kind of person who likes to be busy, I’m at my happiest when I’ve got a full diary and feel a sense of failure when I haven’t. Consequently I’ve found big adjustments harder to deal with than they should be, leaving school, graduating from uni and finishing my MA last year. I went from constantly having a purpose to having free time, and my brain didn’t quite know how to process it. I felt low, that I should be doing something and pretty lost. Throwing myself into applying for jobs seemed the logical step, and after a few setbacks I ended up with the full diary I’d longed to have again. I’ve realised, that I can’t be busy all of the time, no one can and sometimes I just need to pace myself and slow down. My job involves a lot of travelling, so one strategy has been to get an earlier train, so I’m not rushing around and to give me time to sit in a coffee shop, and just be, if I need to. Similarly blocking weekends out to just read a good book or trying to not fit too much into a day, helps. I’ve realised that contacting a friend, to explain I need to go home early to sleep, isn’t a bad thing. It never was. Its called trying to not do it all and learning when my body needs to stop. I’ve also realised that it’s okay to say no. I know I can’t do too much without feeling exhausted and drained, and saying no is a way to give myself clarity about what I can take on.

Get away

This feels harder achieve, mainly owing to the fact that a holiday on my own sounds more terrifying than fun. A taxi driver recently asking if I’m going on a holiday is a conversation reserved for a select few, and not taxi drivers. Seemingly innocent questions can often lead to awkward answers, giving away more information than you’re willing to share or shutting down the conversation abruptly. I’ve found this can happen a lot with mental health or dyspraxia. But it’s important for wellbeing to at least try and get away, to find a change of scene and to switch off for a bit. Even if this just means visiting a friend for the weekend.

Although, self-care alone isn’t going to make anxiety or depression go away, It can help. A combination of therapy, medication, self-care and support from those around you are often useful tools to positive wellbeing. It’s always the combination that’s key. Recently, after filling in a wellbeing action plan, I realised the value of support from people around you – when they recognise when you need time away, or a hug or sometimes a phone call – can be just as valuable (if not more) as practicing self-care yourself. Self awareness takes time, and I’m by no means there yet, but I have found starting to articulate my mental health needs to others to be one of the most empowering things I’ve learned this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Mental health | 1 Comment

The power of sharing

Last week I spent six days at a residential campaign training. I was surrounded by people from across the world, from different causes and backgrounds, to explore what makes a successful campaign and to learn from our varied experiences.

I was there as part of a mental health campaign, bringing together those with lived experiences of mental illness to support young people to share their story and to tackle stigma. A stigma that often prevents many people from seeking help. Throughout the training we talked, we listened, we were questionned, we were made to think and we shared. It’s this focus on sharing, that made me think more than any of the other content that was covered.

From the first meal, sitting down with people who I’d only just met, I mostly listened. I heard stories of campaigns I knew little about, I felt their passion and eventually I began to explain why I was there. When I started to talk about my mental health, people listened and then began to open up to me about their own mental health experiences too. And this was powerful.

We often view life through a lens as we see it, spent in a bubble, with no real understanding of what goes on outside our world, other than what we see on the news, read on social media or hear from friends and family.  Until one day, when you sit down with people who have been there and hear their story. The saying “walk a mile in their shoes” stuck with me throughout the week because I know we can’t, we can’t live other peoples experiences, but we can listen and create a platform to share. Its hard for most people to really know what it’s like to be dyspraxic or how lonely mental illness can feel, unless of course you have been there yourself. Similarly I can’t begin to understand what it’s like to flee persecution in your country or to feel threatened because of your identity. We can learn so much from one another. It is often successful campaigns that bring to our attention issues beyond our world and the causes important to others. Some of these campaigns make us realise that we are affected too, encouraging more people to share their stories. In the days when I didn’t talk about my mental health or dyspraxia, I would read. Sometimes it was self help books, that I mostly found overwhelming and disheartening when I realised they didn’t help at all, but sometimes it was articles written by people who had been there too. It was these articles that really resonated and spoke to me.

The week reminded me of my time in India, when aged 21 I got on a plane to spend  three months with 47 people I’d only just met. We lived on a camp in the middle of the Thar desert, and had ample opportunity to share why we’d decided to spend such a long time, miles away from home. We also learned more from the locals than you can ever read. The stories of the market traders, tuc tuc drivers, shop owners, school teachers and street children will always stay with me. I often wonder how one particular tuc tuc driver is doing, where he is now and if he is still driving tourists around Jaisalmer. I realise I will never know, unless I go back to find those people who I met eight years ago. Their stories will have changed so much with time. We described living on camp in the middle of the desert as a bubble, even likened to Eastenders or a reality TV show. You couldn’t escape people knowing things about you and we began to forget what the outside world felt, smelt and sounded like. I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock when leaving India and returning home. There is certainly something to say about how an experience as profound as that can affect your mental health, both good and bad. Maybe I’ll write about it one day. Similarly, I didn’t prepare myself for how I would feel on leaving campaign bootcamp. As someone who naturally ruminates over everything, I have probably reflected on all that is possible, in the week I’ve been home.

Two weeks ago I shared my story in a secondary school, I told the young people in assembly of the times when it felt impossible for me to share. When I was consumed with feelings of fear about admitting that I really wasn’t okay. The young people responded with a round of applause at the end, something I didn’t want or expect. An applause that I hope encouraged at least one other person in that hall to stand up and say they have a mental illness too. Whether it is tomorrow or ten years time. I really hope they do. I want young people to be able to talk about the thoughts in their head, that are often easier to write down than express verbally. During times when I was ill, writing and language was a massive comfort to me. It became my safety blanket and I realised that I could at least share with myself those feelings, if no one else would read it.

The weeks training concluded with a session exploring sharing your personal story, appropriately bringing together the thoughts that had been buzzing around in my head from our first meal. Why do we share? Who does it help? What are the difficulties? How can we share? Does it even help campaigning? we pondered. I talked about the power I felt when I share, the feelings of unity and knowing you can empower those around you. I trained as a journalist last year because I was fascinated by the stories of others and I knew how powerful words can be. Last week has affirmed how true this is. Through language we can explain our story, educate where necessary and listen when our friends, colleagues and family are ready to share too.

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Speaking to those who are sitting where I used to be…

This week I was invited back to my old school to talk about mental health in assemblies as part of Mental Health Awareness week. I was honoured to be given this opportunity but also terrified, school hadn’t always been a happy place for me. The night before I asked myself, “what exactly have I agreed to do?” and woke up asking the same question. I arrived at school this morning and the main hall was set up for exams, my mind raced back to some 10/12 years earlier when I was sitting in that main hall, ploughing through my GCSE’S and A levels. I gave three assemblies to different year groups, talking about my own experiences and making my former tutor cry as a result. Her words at the end: “I would have never imagined you standing up there, doing this when you were at school,” have stuck with me all day. I’m proud to have been able to speak to the young people who are sitting where I used to be. I thought I’d share what I told those young people:

The rest of this assembly is going to be a bit more personal, but I hope more profound and meaningful.

I’m going to start by telling you that this absolutely terrifies me. Mental health is all about talking about how we feel, so I’m going to tell you how I feel. I would have never believed, when I was a student here, that I’d be back in this main hall giving an assembly and discussing my feelings on top. So yes, I’m terrified but very proud to be here and honoured to be kicking off Mental Health Awareness Week.

I left Whickham just over ten years ago now (which is pretty scary!) While I was sitting in this building, learning about Shakespeare in English, practicing my violin in Music and trying to get my head around algebra in Maths, I was also dealing with uncontrollable feelings of anxiety. I never did get the algebra, but I did eventually start to understand that it is okay to talk about the thoughts in my head. I began to realise that it was perfectly normal not to feel okay, and that I was part of a 1 in 4.

It all started when I was 12, in year 8, during a PE lesson. It was a nice summers day and we were outside playing netball. I started to feel hot, at first I put it down to the weather but it felt like it was more than just this. I couldn’t vocalise to anyone how I felt, and this made the feelings worse. I felt faint. I thought I was going to throw up. I needed to sit down before I fell over. I just didn’t want to be around people or in a game of netball at all. I managed to get away from the game and the PE lesson, after comments from my teacher saying that “I was walking funny.” No one ever asked if I was okay, when I was in the middle of what I now recognise as an anxiety attack. At the time, I was a scared 12 year old girl who just wanted to run away from it all. I walked back to the changing room, turned off all the lights and lay down on the floor in the dark. I felt alone, worried and I couldn’t talk about how I was feeling because no one gave me the tools to know how. Eventually teachers noticed that I was missing from PE, and the school nurse came to find me. She took me through the school to her office. As I walked along the corridor, I didn’t say a word, I was still feeling the post anxiety brain fog when you feel disconnected from the environment around you. I was overwhelmed by these feelings and my eyes started to fill with tears. Holding back tears, I asked for a glass of water and on her return she handed me the glass of water, and a leaflet about bullying. There was no mention of mental health and that what I could be feeling was anxiety. That day I spent the whole of lunchtime crying in the toilets, I didn’t know what to do.

As I got older the anxiety stayed with me. I’d be scared to go to school and tried to isolate myself from everyone around me. I adopted my own methods of self-care, I played the violin to distract myself from my anxious thoughts and wrote down how I was feeling in a diary at the end of each day. I came to school hoping that I wouldn’t be picked on to answer a question in maths and that we wouldn’t be made to do group work again in History. Getting something wrong, and everyone laughing filled me with dread.

In 6th form, the stress of exams and the feelings of what am I meant to do with my life? resurfaced. But this time it was slightly different, the fear of having to leave school and go to university took over. I developed anxiety and depression, but still as best I could, kept it hidden. I didn’t talk. No one had any idea. Eventually my feelings started to affect my school work, so I ended up talking to my youth worker, the first person to mention the words “Mental Health” to me. She encouraged me to ring the Samaritans and kept me talking when I felt low. So, I spent much of year 12 and 13, standing outside the school gates, during lunchtimes, breaks, and frees talking to whoever happened to be at the other end of the phone. No one had any idea this was going on or that I felt so lost with my thoughts. I then opened up to my history teacher, who dealt with my personal statement anxiety and sat with me while I explained how I was feeling on bad days. Filling in a UCAS application form, when your brain is telling you you’re awful and that you won’t get anywhere anyway, is a mountain to climb that few understood.

Eventually I did go and see a doctor, and several years later accessed talking therapy and a prescription for anti-depressants.

In the last few years, I have cancelled plans with friends because I was too anxious to leave the house, had an anxiety attack on a train and waited three hours at a station miles away from home before I felt okay to travel again and I have convinced myself many times that no one can possibly like me or want to spend any time with me. Now I work for Time to Change, because I don’t want young people to go through what I went through. I want you all to know that it’s okay to talk if you’re having a hard time. I’m sure there are many teachers in this room who will listen.

We shouldn’t be scared of talking about mental health, we all have good days and bad – but it’s when we stop talking, the good and the bad can develop into mental illness. I hope this small snapshot into my life at Whickham has shown you what talking can do. It is often down to that supportive teacher or friend who takes the time to listen.

 

 

 

 

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Remembering to stop

This month, and I might even go as far as saying year, has been the busiest I’ve ever known it to be. I’ve felt exhausted and have had moments when I literally don’t want to see anyone. And that’s saying something, considering I was doing a Masters in Magazine Journalism last year. Journalism school is definitely a different kind of exhaustion.

For years I’ve been the worst at not being able to evenly space things out, I don’t understand how people manage to have a life full of enough, but not too much all at once. I’ve always done absolutely-everything-all-at-the same-time or absolutely nothing, and as a result get depressed, and feel that there should be more in my world than four walls. So, I then try to make everything happen and eventually burn out, because there is suddenly too much for my brain to process. I’ve never found the “just right” recipe. I know it’s there somewhere, because some people have managed to do just enough without being overloaded. Or so they want you to believe.

At the beginning of this year, money was running out, my energy was non-existent, I was missing friends that don’t live around the corner and I felt that good things could only possibly happen to other people. I had the prolonged post university feelings of “what now?” I generally, often have all of the feelings one person can possibly have at the same time, and as past experiences have shown, this is difficult for some people to keep up with, but this time it felt different. My answer to these feelings is normally “do something big” “go away” “Do something you’ve never done before.” This was probably why, aged 21, I went to India for three months, with 47 people I didn’t know. I was seeking adventure, or possibly to numb the nothingness I felt post university. It turned out to be the best decision of my life, and I speak of those times with fond memories often, but at nearly 29 I couldn’t just run away from it all, half way across the world again. I realised that I had to face realities. Doing big, random things isn’t always great for your mental health.

I sat down, and began to make a list. In the middle I wrote “what would make me happy?” and noted down work, friends, things to do, as answers to this question. I was at a crossroads, one answer to my current nothingness was to move 300 miles away for a job, to a town I’d never been to before but nearer to a few friends or to stay here, build my career, learn to drive and be more financially able to visit long distance friends. I eventually chose the second of those two options. It didn’t make sense to force myself to deal with everything in my life changing.

When applying for jobs this time around, I kept the question “what will make me happy” in my mind, and this possibly helped get me here. I’m coming up to being in both new jobs for a month now, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been but knackered. I also now have a driving instructor, and this will inevitably take a good portion of my time and money. In April, I’ve travelled to London for meetings, came away from youth sessions genuinely feeling that I’d done something great with the young people, my baby sister turned 19 (how I don’t know, I’m sure I was only pushing her around in her pram yesterday…) and volunteered to lead ice breakers at a conference again in June. I’m also very much aware that being knackered all of the time isn’t great for my brain, or anyone else’s for that matter. No-one wants to deal with an exhausted Alice.

We are conditioned to expect that by a certain age this will happen, I’ll achieve that or my life will look like this. For various mental health related reasons my life hasn’t looked like it should and I’ve been very conscious of this until as recent as last month. Hence the attempting to do it all mentality, and then breaking before I’ve made anything of what I was trying to do. I’m still doing it all, but this time I’ve remembered to stop. At a recent meeting we were asked “What are you going to do tonight for self care” A question I’ve always struggled to answer myself, but here I was in a group of people I’d only just met, about to explain my strategies to look after myself and my brain. I talked about my cats and sleep, two important things that help when I’ve had a particularly difficult day. The other day I recognised that I needed to go for a walk after work and I’ve been going to bed no later than eleven for the past few months. I’m slowly learning that to do it all, you have to take some time out for yourself too – and – touch wood, I’m doing well so far. Honesty is also a brill tool, I’m so much better at explaining to friends that – no I don’t want to see them – and that it’s not anything to do with them, I just don’t want to see anyone. You’ll find that the good eggs amongst the crowd, will respect that. And the best eggs won’t stop trying to contact you.

Hopefully once my routine with work/driving lessons/deciding the volunteering I can do without breaking has settled down, I’ll be able to see lots of you for proper catch ups.

I’m the happiest I’ve been in a while, and this is totally down to supportive people saying lovely things, realising that my life will look very different to other peoples and that it is absolutely okay to stop, so my body and brain can have time to recover. I feel so wise saying all of that, and I’m not even 30 yet…

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