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Let’s Talk About Anxiety and Depression

It’s World Mental Health Day today, and I wanted to take a moment to talk to you about the different ways in which our mental health can suffer. Because none of us are immune to this, no matter how much we may like to think we are. And so it’s important to remember that not being okay is not a sign of weakness, but rather a natural part of human life.

For some people not being okay is something that only happens from time to time. Certain events in their lives such as illness in the family, strained relationships, worries about work, financial insecurity etc can wear down even the most naturally upbeat and positive person. For them, their mental health may recover relatively quickly once the stressful situation is over. Or it may not. But it is very clearly linked to events happening in their lives, whether passing incidents that are soon forgotten or traumas they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

For others, depression and anxiety are constant companions, cropping up throughout their lives without any kind of correlation to specific events. It may even seem that their lives are just one long stream of stressful situation after stressful situation, a pattern they cannot get out of no matter how much they try.

It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

The point I’m trying to make is that there are uncountable reasons why somebody may be struggling with their mental health. But regardless of the cause, mental health issues are hard, and it’s okay to not be okay.

So often we feel the need to hide behind a mask, never showing how we truly feel. I remember working in one environment where I felt discriminated against based on my health and ended up diagnosed with depression. I would get home from work every night, physically and emotionally exhausted, and sob for hours at the thought that it would never get any easier. Yet one of the cleaners at work mentioned how much he loved seeing my bright and cheery smile every day.

It’s often easier to hide behind a smile than to show the cracks, especially when already being treated as “weak” for some other reason (for me it was my battle with Endometriosis at that time). But it’s time we, as a society, began to accept that mental health issues are a normal part of life, so that we can end the stigma and begin to make it easier for people to be okay with not being okay.

Anxiety and Depression Can Show Up In Many Different Ways

Anxiety and depression are no strangers to me. Looking back I can see that I’ve battled with them many times over the years. But nobody ever told me that they could show up in your life in lots of different ways, so it has taken me years to recognise some of these for what they are.

So many times in my life I have thought that I must just be weak and silly, even allowing others to paint me with those brushes too, rather than seeing it for what it was – mental health issues. So I thought I would list some of the ways they have shown up in my life, in case any of these seem familiar to you too. Often the specific details may be different for you, but perhaps the feeling behind them may be the same, so I’ve highlighted the parts you may relate to. I’ve also tried to break them up into several key themes, for ease of viewing:

mental Health Issues Connected to Social anxiety

  • I spent most of my teen years terrified of my own voice. I couldn’t even verbally give our order to the man in the chip shop, even though I saw him every week, instead giving him a piece of paper with it written on. For this same reason I dreaded Drama lessons, for fear of being ridiculed. And when my friend persuaded me to join her church choir, I spent 7 months miming and feeling like a total and utter loser and fraud. And because I was so terrified, I couldn’t even tell the choir master how I felt. Until one day I couldn’t take it anymore and simply didn’t turn up. The anxiety of being there and failing to get over my fear and actually sing was suddenly greater than my fear of letting people down by not going. But I felt so embarrassed that I haven’t been back to that church ever since, and it’s been almost 20 years!
  • Following an incident at primary school, when I suddenly began to feel sick whilst sitting in front of the assembly awaiting to show my work, I developed Emetophobia. It started with a fear of getting sick at school, and so I began to avoid eating at school because I thought that meant I couldn’t get sick. Over time this developed into not wanting to feel full (it didn’t help that feeling full often did make me feel nauseated, thanks to my EDS), and so I began to eat less and less at home too. I dreaded eating out at restaurants, and began to avoid certain high risk foods. Emetophobia controlled so much of my teen years, including forcing me to make excuses to never eat at a friend’s house, and made me feel like an utter fool, because I knew it wasn’t rational but I simply couldn’t change how I felt.  After several years of it not really being an issue, it has unfortunately reared its ugly head in recent years with how often I feel and get sick these days.

Mental Health Issues Connected To physical Illness and Disability

  • Having been a clumsy child, regularly at A&E, due to (at that point undiagnosed) Hypermobility, I became fearful of PE lessons as I simply didn’t trust my body not to hurt or make me fall over and injure myself. And that’s before we even talk about the fact that my legs didn’t seem to work in coordination with each other, and so when others were running ahead of me I’d be lagging behind, wondering why I was so useless at such a seemingly natural thing as running. So I spent years dreading PE lessons and feeling totally inadequate.
  • When I was suffering from Hyperemesis during my pregnancy, I honestly thought I just wasn’t strong enough to deal with “normal pregnancy sickness” for a long time, and allowed doctors, nurses, midwives, and people in general make me feel like I just needed to try harder and everything would be okay. Equally, when I was in labour I didn’t feel confident in expressing how I was feeling, and allowed myself to be dismissed on a couple of occasions when I really shouldn’t have. The first, when I said I really didn’t feel very well and they told me to get some rest without checking me, only to find out later I was actually really sick. The second being when I hit transition and the midwife didn’t believe I was anywhere near that point and dismissed me, only to get a shock when I gave birth a couple of hours later. Essentially I didn’t trust my own experience, because low self-esteem taught me to put others’ opinions above my own.
  • Because of how physically ill I am these days, and how hard it is to plan ahead with anything, I avoid making plans as much as I can. I hate to have to cancel, and so despite desperately wanting to see other people, I do not even think about trying to meet up with anyone. And when I do make plans, usually for things I cannot avoid such as medical appointments, I worry about whether I’ll be well enough for days, even weeks, beforehand.

Mental Health Issues Connected To Work & Education

  • Despite being very sick for a fair bit of my university education, including being diagnosed with Endometriosis and prescribed some really strong hormonal tablets for my time in Russia (which totally messed with my head), I always framed my experience as, “I blagged my way through that and don’t deserve to feel proud“, rather than seeing that I’d gained a good degree whilst being very poorly.
  • When working in a role I eventually realised I was ill-prepared for and totally overwhelmed by, I allowed myself to be framed as “not coping well enough” because I believed that was true. My anxiety left me unable to eat, sleep, or function in any reasonable way, and I lost the ability to stand back and look at what I had achieved, because all I could see was the one part I needed help with. And because the work had impacted my mental health so severely, I left feeling utterly traumatised and still struggle with feelings of both failure and having being failed.

These are just some of the ways in which anxiety has shown its ugly head in my life over the years. There are several more. As I say, these are very specific examples from my own life, but I hope that by sharing them it will help to shine some light on how many different ways anxiety and depression can affect our lives. It isn’t as simple as being sad or blue, although that can be a part of it for some people.

There’s more I would like to say, but I simply cannot look at my screen any longer. And in the interests of self-care, I am going to end this post here and leave you with the links to some resources you might find helpful. Please remember that is it okay to not be okay, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept it as something you simply have to put up with. There is so much support out there, and it is time we ended the stigma around mental illness, so that everyone feels able to reach out and say, “hey, actually, I’m not okay,” and receive the care and support they deserve. So please, if you’re struggling today, reach out to somebody. 

Mind – The Mental Health Charity

Samaritans – Call 116 123 (in the UK) to talk to someone for free

Time To Change – Let’s End Mental Health Discrimination

The Mighty – Making Health About People

 

The Reality of Life as a Spoonie - The Family Patch

The Reality of Life as a Spoonie

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, I’m sure you know by now that my health has never been great. And if you’ve followed me on instagram lately, you will likely have noticed a big “healing” theme to my posts. But the truth is, I am more sick that I have ever been in my life right now and it has been really hard for me to accept that life as a spoonie really sucks sometimes.

The Reality of Life as a Spoonie - The Family Patch

I first came across the term “spoonie” in my early twenties, around the time of my Endometriosis diagnosis. And it felt like such a relief to realise there was an explanation for all I was feeling. I had struggled to keep up with people for years, spent most of my University evenings staying in and getting an early night whilst my friends went clubbing, and would sleep for hours during the holidays to “recoup” from late nights and early mornings studying and finishing a multitude of assignments (language degrees tend to be pretty heavily weighted in the coursework department!)

Of course, you don’t get as many weeks’ holiday to rest once you move into the world of work, and adding in a commute meant that my mid-twenties taught me a lot about my limits as a Spoonie and that sometimes you just have to make sacrifices. By the time we started trying for a baby I thought I knew my limits and how to honour them. How wrong I was!

The past 5 years have been filled with events and experiences that have pushed me beyond my limits in a way I could never have imagined. Hyperemesis during pregnancy (with anaemia, Obstetric Cholestasis, and an unstable pelvis to boot) meant that I started my life as a parent physically beaten and emotionally exhausted. Sleep deprivation, which continued for years with our Little Man, who still at almost 5 years of age only sleeps around 9-10 hours a night and wakes regularly in the night too, affected my ability to rest and recover.

Returning to work, to help make ends meet and pay off our debt, meant that I had less time than ever before and suddenly had to split myself between work and home life. This became increasingly difficult when I moved into a homeworking role, one where my passion for the cause blinded me to the dangers of being “on the front line”, meeting people’s needs when those needs were intrinsically linked to my own personal trauma. And on top of all that, my husband was diagnosed with Small Fibre Neuropathy, meaning he lives in immense daily pain and, as he struggles to come to terms with his diagnosis, his emotional and mental health has taken a real beating.

So, as you can imagine, by the time we reached the end of 2014 I was completely and utterly spent. I remember crying as I walked the long route to nursery to collect Little Man, because I didn’t know how I was going to take another step. I remember being so terrified that I was losing my mind when I became obsessed with what was happening at work and I couldn’t eat or sleep as the anxiety made me so ill. And I remember praying for an answer, knowing that I had given it my all (and more) and I just could not go on any longer…

Of course, I was made redundant at the beginning of 2015, and things began to pick up. I felt well again, I had energy, I was sleeping and cooking and eating and enjoying life. Heck, when we finally moved back to my hometown I started two new jobs, working far more hours than I had initially contracted for, and spent almost every weekend busily attending conferences, visiting family, and having a great time. I thought that was it, that I’d survived the burnout of the past few years, and things were finally on the up!

Except, now I know better. That initial sense of relief that came with making positive changes in my life, was short-lived. No Spoonie can run themselves dry, borrowing not only days’ but weeks’, months’, even years’ worth of spoons without repaying it at some point. And yet still I tried to ignore it. The latter part of 2015 was overshadowed by three-day migraines, daily nausea, awful cramps, all of which I assumed were symptoms related to my Endometriosis. I ended the year with surgery and new meds that had helped previously and I thought 2016 would be okay. But it wasn’t.

I began this year experiencing extreme fatigue that seemed to last for days, especially after a week at work when my shifts all fell on consecutive days. I also began to suffer from joint pain again, as my left hip kept trying to “pop out” without warning, day after day. So I saw the doctor, thinking it was my Hypermobility. Except this time the word “autoimmune disorder” was mentioned and I was referred to a Rheumatologist. Since then I have had another GP, a consultant, and a physiotherapist all mention various autoimmune disorders to me, and I am awaiting screening for Lupus as various things in my blood report suggest it as a possibility. And I finally have to accept that after all I’ve been through, all my body has endured, this is perhaps inevitable – if you don’t respect the spoons you have, things are gonna get worse!

And I look back over the past few years and wonder why I was so determined to ignore that. It’s not that I didn’t know it, because I’ve always known it. My mum was diagnosed with ME when I was in my teens, so I have known about autoimmune disorders for most of my life. I also knew that there is often a crossover of these conditions, where someone like me with Endometriosis (for example) could have a higher risk of developing an autoimmune disorder. It’s one of the reasons why I finally decided I could never have another baby – my body did not recover as well as many of the other Hyperemesis mums seemed to, and I’d watched a dear friend go on to be diagnosed with Lupus following her own Hyperemesis pregnancy. I just didn’t want to risk that. No, I knew about the risk, I just chose to ignore it.

Perhaps that is unfair. The reality is that I had very little choice – my baby needed caring for, my husband needed support in coming to terms with his diagnosis, and the debt needed paying off. Whilst in hindsight I may have made different decisions (for instance, we paid off our debt much quicker with me in a part-time role than we did when I was working full-time!) I can’t go back and change it now. All I can do is learn from it and move forwards.

The reality of life as a spoonie is really clear to me right now. I am so sick that I do not have good days, not really. A good day to me is one in which I can get out of bed, eat without feeling too sick, play with my child a little bit, and maybe put a load of laundry in so that we have some clean clothes. On days like that I have to remind myself to limit what I do, that whilst my house is a mess and I’d love to take my son to the park and enjoy the sun, if I do so I will regret it tomorrow. Because my bad days are really bad. On a bad day I can barely move – I just do not have any energy – and I run a fever, feel dizzy and sick, and struggle to even concentrate on the smallest of tasks like reading a book or sending an email. And I want to avoid those bad days as much as I can.

I know there is no quick fix to this. I know that I ran on borrowed energy for far too long, and that I have to repay that debt with exactly the same amount of care and patience as we paid off our financial ones. But it is hard, so hard! There are days when I feel like a terrible mother, because all Little Man hears all day is, “I’m sorry, mummy feels too poorly to do that.” There are days when I feel like a terrible wife, because TJ is also struggling and I simply cannot do anything to help him out any more, I have to look after myself first. And there are days when I feel like the world’s worst friend, because I’ve not been in touch with anyone for weeks (not even on Facebook) and my mum has to call me to tell me a friend has announced her much wanted pregnancy so I don’t miss it entirely. But that’s the reality of life as a Spoonie, especially when you’ve run out of spoons.

I’m hopeful that as and when I embrace this life of a Spoonie, really accept that this is how things must be and that the sacrifices I make are for a better future, that things will get better. I know many people who have been where I am and have then gone on to manage their condition better over time. I know it is possible to come back from this, and that is what is keeping me going right now. But the only way to do that is to listen to my body, honour its desperate need for rest, and do whatever it takes to begin to heal. I mentioned to someone recently that I know if I am ever to heal, I need to make BIG change in my life. And that’s the reality of life as a Spoonie.

Tell me, if you’re a Spoonie, what does life as a Spoonie look like for you?