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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


£5 note and three £1 coins

The True Cost of the UK Benefit System

Today I want to talk to you about the UK benefits system and how it is letting down the very people it is supposed to help. This isn’t my usual topic of conversation on the blog, so I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt when I say this is a crucial conversation that we all need to be having.

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time, but two things have stopped me. The first is fear of the negative reaction I may bring upon myself for writing this honestly. And the second is that I simply haven’t had the time or energy to do so, because I have been so busy trying to fight for the support we need whilst struggling with severe health issues. But after the week we’ve had, I’m making time to get this written.

what is going on with the uk benefit system?

I’m not even sure where to begin with this, because there are so many things happening within the benefits system at the moment. In fact it would be impossible to cover it all within one single blog post. But for the purposes of giving a short overview of where we find ourselves, here are some key facts and figures:

These are just four quick snapshots of what is happening within the benefit system at the moment, but they give a clear indication that something is terribly wrong. We are letting down children and those with health issues in a truly horrific way, whilst also engendering an attitude of suspicion and bitterness towards those who are on benefits. How have we reached a place where we look down upon those who are most in need, rather than supporting them?

the stigma of benefits

There is no denying it – there is a massive stigma attached to the idea of benefits. The charity Turn2Us published an in depth report about this very stigma, based on an independent Ipsos MORI survey carried out in 2012 and an analysis of media reports between 1995 and 2011. It is a long read, but there are two points that really stood out for me:

  1. Benefit stigma rests heavily on the perception that claimants are “undeserving”, and that claimants appear to be seen as less deserving now than they did 20 years ago.
  2. The media is often blamed for driving this stigma and, whilst there is some evidence of this, it is more important to note that there are specific ways in which this can occur. For instance, whilst the media shares both positive and negative representations of claimants, there is a distinct bias towards the negative view. And whilst negative coverage does not appear to be more prolific than it was in the late 90s, there seems to be more weight added to the “effort” that a claimant makes these days than in previous years.

I found the second of these points really quite profound. In the age of social media, it is easier to balance out the positive and negative views. However it is also far easier to be caught up in the idea that, “you can achieve anything, if only you put your mind to it!”

And it is an admirable sentiment, for sure. But how many of us can truly say that we have never faced a challenge that we simply couldn’t fix on our own? We all have areas we struggle with, times when we fall to our knees and need a helping hand. Whether it’s financial, relational, physical, or emotional, we all have our battles. And yet, because of this ideology that we should be able to cope on our own, we suffer in silence and expect others to do the same.

the benefit system exists for a reason

In 1942, William Beveridge published “Social Insurance and Allied Services” (known as the Beveridge Report), which set the stage for the post-War Welfare State. I’ve recently been rewatching Call The Midwife , and have been struck by the huge difference the Welfare State made in those post-war years and the decades that followed.

Social housing enabled so many families to move out of poverty and into homes that were safe and warm. And the NHS gave families access to healthcare that was free at the point of care. As a family who struggle with multiple health issues, we are constantly grateful for the fact we still have access to see a GP or consultant without worrying about financing such care.

It bothers me greatly that the NHS is being failed so badly by our government, to the point where its future is so uncertain. Just as the high levels of homelessness and families struggling to afford their rent worry me. I find it so difficult to understand how we have found ourselves in this place, where even working families are struggling to survive financially, and those who need support often aren’t able to access it.

we need to change the way we think about the world

And yet there’s a part of me that knows exactly how we got here. Looking back over the past 20 years, which is pretty much my teens and adult life, I can see just how often I was taught to believe it was possible to live a good life by working hard and being “responsible”.

I grew up with the belief that there were enough jobs to go around, and that you could easily keep a roof over your head and food on your table. So imagine my surprise when I graduated from university in 2006, struggled to get a job, and could barely afford rent even in a house share. The financial crisis in 2008, and the austerity measures that have damaged so many in our country have only made things worse. And yet we continue to cling to this idea that if only people tried harder, they would not need support.

Which is why I felt compelled to write our story, to show that those of us seeking support from the benefit system have not only worked unbelievably hard to stay out of a system that is downright cruel, we are also having to deal with the most awful treatment within it.

our story as a family with two disabled parents

Let me start by giving you a basic overview of the situation we currently find ourselves in, and why this is so important to me.

I’m Amanda, a 33 year old graduate and freelancer. My current health diagnoses include: Fibromyalgia; Endometriosis; Joint Hypermobility Syndrome; and Postural Hypotension. I also suffer from chronic migraines that can last for days, IBS, and eczema.

Tim is my husband. He is 36 and his current diagnoses include: Small Fibre Neuropathy, Fatty Liver, and Depression and Anxiety.

Our son is 6 years old and was recently diagnosed with Autism.

Tim and I are both currently out of work for health reasons. This is not something we chose – we have both tried incredibly hard to stay within work:

  • Over the past 10 years I have worked in numerous positions including: childcare; student support; tourism; PA; volunteer management; sales; and most recently as a freelance copywriter and VA. I even did a short stint as a dinnerlady whilst suffering from Hyperemesis Gravidarum during my pregnancy – if that isn’t a sign of how hard I have tried to work whilst suffering from debilitating symptoms then I don’t know what is!
  • Over the same 10 year period Tim has had 3 different careers – plumber, healthcare assistant, and admin assistant. He left plumbing when the pain in his hands and wrists became too much to continue in that line of work. He retrained as a healthcare assistant and worked in hospitals for almost 5 years before moving into an office based environment. This second career change came about because the shift work began to become too difficult to manage with his developing symptoms of Small Fibre Neuropathy. Unfortunately, despite multiple adjustments made at work, he lost his job last Summer due to the severity of his symptoms and the number of absences he had as a result.

As you can hopefully see from this, Tim and I have worked immeasurably hard over the years to remain in work. In fact, when I had to leave my final place of employment after 6 months of sick leave at the beginning of 2017, I set up my own business (Shortman Media) in an attempt to continue working around my health conditions.

I was determined to avoid having to apply for ESA, and had hoped to build up the business enough to eventually bring Tim on board as well. We knew his days were numbered in traditional employment and I wanted to find a way for us to continue to “pay our own way”. But the reality is that both of us are simply too ill right now to do that.

Since the beginning of 2018 I have barely left the house, other than to occasionally take our son to school. Some days I barely leave my bed, because the pain and fatigue and nausea is so bad. If Tim didn’t bring me food and drink I don’t know what I would do, because on my bad days I cannot cope with the stairs down to the kitchen. Even on good days I often have to go up on all fours because of the pain and instability in my hips and pelvis.

And whilst Tim is faring slightly better than I am, he is still struggling immensely. There are days when he wakes up vomiting from a combination of the pain and anxiety. There are days when the pain is so bad he can barely move, and he regularly cuts and burns himself due to sensory issues with his hands. And there are days when he cannot stop crying because of the awful situation we find ourselves in, and the battle we are facing simply to get the most basic of support.

We are doing our absolute best to support each other and keep our little family safe and emotionally stable throughout one of the hardest periods of our lives, but it is so hard. We are not new to this, we’ve been living with health issues for years. It’s just, right now, we need support to help us to rest, recover, and get back on track. But the very process of trying to get that support is actually making us more sick…

the benefit system is damaging those who are most in need

At present, we are surviving on a combination of ESA (for me), Child Tax Credits, Child Benefits, Housing Benefit, and Council Tax Reduction. Even with the best of budgeting intentions, this isn’t enough to make ends meet. Our rent alone is £540 per month (and due to go up to £555 next month) for a privately rented house that has had two major leaks within two years (I’m talking damage that required a whole new wall and ceiling, leaving us living in damp conditions whilst waiting for repairs!)

Thankfully I was put into the Support Group for ESA. But I was denied PIP last year. I could have taken it to appeal, but I was experiencing migraines that lasted for 10 days at a time, so I simply wasn’t well enough to do that within the month given. I have just reapplied, on the advice of Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), but I thoroughly expect to have to go to appeal. They simply don’t accept how sick I am.

Tim, however, was denied ESA completely as the DWP found him “fit for work”. The decision letter actually states that they do not question that he is ill, but they see no reason why he could not find a job in a “modern office environment with reasonable adjustments.”

Now this, in itself, doesn’t sound that unreasonable, does it? But the fact of the matter is that Tim previously worked in a “modern office environment” and made all sorts of “reasonable adjustments” including specialised equipment and reducing his hours, but it still wasn’t enough to help him keep hold of that job. He was dismissed due to a high level of absence caused by his health conditions.

The DWP knows that he previously worked in an office environment and lost his job for health reasons less than a year ago. So the logic that says he should somehow be able to secure another job and miraculously find an adjustment that he missed in his last workplace is massively flawed. And yet that’s where we find ourselves.

On top of all of this, Tim has had the mobility aspect of PIP which he has been receiving for the past 3 years taken off him, despite the fact he is more ill now than he was 3 years ago when he was first assessed. How does that make sense?

This past week I have had to fill in his ESA appeal form and the mandatory reconsideration form for his PIP because the whole thing was too stressful for him. And when I say stressful, I mean I am seriously worried about his mental health and he’s due to see the GP again tomorrow.

Now here is where it gets hard for me, because in order to show you how damaging this system is, I have to share some of the darkest moments of our life. You see, over the past 3 years, Tim has had a couple of suicidal episodes. Twice I have had to try my absolute hardest to talk him down from the most harrowing place, trying to somehow get through to him that the world would not be better off without him. Because that’s honestly how he feels. There was also a time when he walked out of the house and I had absolutely no idea whether he was going to come back or not.

This is the level of depression and anxiety that he lives with, and yet despite being told this on numerous occasions the DWP seem to believe that he only suffers from “mild depression” and that finding him “fit for work” won’t have any serious implication to his health. To that I respond bullshit. There is no other way of saying it. If you can listen to a couple share experiences of suicidal episodes and then find that person to only be suffering from “mild” depression, then there is something deeply wrong with the system!

The DWP makes arbitrary decisions based on a flawed system

If you’ve never had to apply for either ESA or PIP then you probably have no idea how the system even works. So I want to give you a little bit of background. I’m going to focus specifically on PIP for this, but the ESA system has many similarities.

To start with, you have to call a number to start your claim. This is hugely terrifying for some people, and the process hasn’t even begun yet.

Then, you get sent a ridiculously long booklet you have to fill in (for PIP it is 15 questions) and you only have a few weeks to do it in. For people who are struggling healthwise, this is a mammoth task that is both exhausting and dehumanising.

The next step is a face-to-face assessment. This is carried out by someone with previous healthcare experience, but is basically a case of someone asking you a series of questions and typing the information that they feel is relevant onto a laptop.

But here’s the shocking part – the person who carries out the assessment and actually sees you in person is not the person who makes the decision regarding your claim. That is carried out by a “decision maker”, who may have absolutely no medical training whatsoever, and who has never met you.

the points based system fails to capture a range of conditions

The worst part of it all is that the system is set up to try and ensure as few people as possible are eligible for support. Just a cursory glance at the PIP descriptors shows how hard it is to qualify for even the most basic support (which requires you to score at least 8 points in either the daily living or mobility section).

Even though the DWP’s own guidance now states that these activities needs to be done reliably and to an acceptable standard, this is still open to huge interpretation. From what I have read, the term “reliably” should cover people like us who can do the activities, but doing so causes immense pain or fatigue, or takes us more than twice as long as somebody else. But my experience is that this isn’t always the case…

For instance, both my own refusal last year and Tim’s this year have stated that we do certain things (such as going to church and doing the school run) as proof that we are okay. Yet we have made it clear time and again that we have to rest for hours after the school run, and that doing so is incredibly painful.

We’ve also had our medications used against us. According to the DWP, I can’t possibly be in as much pain as I say I am because I do not take prescription painkillers that a lot of people with my conditions do. Except I told them I don’t take them as they make me too sick, and my Rheumatologist advised me not to take them. Tim received the same message, that he could only possibly be in “moderate pain”, despite taking the maximum doses of Pregablin and Tramadol, and having had to stop taking Amitriptyline and Oromorph due to side effects.

mental health is treated in the most appalling way

When it comes to the mental health side of things it gets even worse. The DWP seems to have absolutely no understanding of mental health, nor the severe impact that the system causes to those who are already suffering.

As I mentioned above, Tim is considered by them to have only “mild depression”, despite previous suicidal episodes and severe distress at present. This is because he was able to talk to the assessor and because he is only on a mild dose of antidepressants (again, because of negative side effects). I find this the most shocking of all, I think, and certainly the most distressing. Because I am the one trying to console my husband as he despairs at the state we are in and how much it feels like the world is against us.

I am actually generally a very positive person, I have my own periods of despair but my faith and natural optimism get me through most things. But even I am struggling mentally and emotionally with the burden we are facing right now, and the stigma that comes with the position we find ourselves in.

Nobody wants to be reliant on benefits. Nobody wants to have to spend every day worrying about how they’ll make ends meet and whether they’ll ever feel well again. And nobody ever wants to be treated like a second class citizen (which is putting it nicely).

I fear for the mental health of my husband right now. I fear that a day will come when it will all become just too much. And I feel guilty that there is absolutely nothing I can do to help him, because I’m too ill to fight the way we need to just to access the most basic of support. And nobody should ever have to feel guilty for needing support.

so let’s change the conversation, let’s support those in need…

If any of what I have written above has moved you in any way, please consider sharing this post with your friends and family. Let’s get the conversation started about the true cost of the benefit system in our country.

Let’s tackle the ongoing narrative that benefit fraud is a big problem and the current system is fair, because it isn’t. This brilliant article from The Huffington Post is a few years old now, but it is a great overview of how small benefit fraud is compared to other things such as tax fraud. It also shows how benefit fraud costs us less than 1% of the total cost of benefits and pensions. How have we blown it so out of proportion?

Well, a lot of it is due to the constant obsession with eliminating the budget deficit, which is actually harming our country. I’m not going to go into this in detail now, as there are people who understand it and can explain it far better than I can. To get you started, check out this brilliant article by The Guardian.

I feel like there is so much more I could say, but all I really wanted to do was to get the conversation started. My husband and I are currently in the heart of battle with this cruel system, and I won’t stop fighting until those in need start to get the support they deserve. Because it’s not just about us as individuals, it’s about us as a society. And I, for one, hope to build a kinder society for my child to grow up in!

help and support for claiming benefits

If you’re trying to access benefits, or want to know what help you may be able to access, please try some of the following places:

Citizens Advice
Benefits and Work

Time To Talk Day

Well, it's snuck up on me and I haven't really planned much for today, but I couldn't let the day go by without writing at least a quick blog post.

You see, today is Time to Talk Day - an opportunity to talk to people about mental health, to debunk the myths, to be open and honest, to end the discrimination. And that is something we should ALL be talking about!

I'm sure you know me by now – I am a chronic over-sharer and have been very honest about my own and my husband's battles with low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. So what I'd like to do is share some of my most honest posts with you today, the ones which really go to the depth of that despair and come back out again.

But first I'd like to put a few short points across, things which I have learned along our journey with depression and anxiety:

  • Mental health issues can affect anyone, at any point in their life. 
  • You can become completely debilitated by a mental health issue, whether in just one area of your life or every area of it. And it can often creep up on you seemingly out of nowhere.
  • It can be incredibly terrifying to admit to someone you are struggling – the stigma can feel too hard to bear. And yet there should be no stigma at all!
  • Some people will always try and beat you when you are down (I know from experience, having trusted someone only to have it backfire and lead me to resign from a job I loved due to sneaky discrimination and underhanded bullying). 
  • But for all those who would beat you, there are far more who would support you if only they knew how to do so – this is why honesty is so important.
  • It can be incredibly hard for people to understand what you are going through and why you act (and react) in certain ways. Some people will never understand, but true friends will try to understand, and those are the friends you will love forever.
  • You will lose some friends… and that is truly awful. But you will gain many more in completely unexpected places. 
  • None of this is your fault. Guilt can eat away at you, and fear will try to make you let it eat away the very last bits of strength you have. But if you're lucky, you'll have people by your side to help you through those darkest hours. 
  • There is always someone to turn to – but finding them can be the hardest thing in the world when you aren't thinking straight. And this is why, even if you've never suffered from any mental health issue, compassion and understanding is crucial to helping those who need you. 
  • Nobody is isolated from mental health issues – even those you think are confident and happy could be falling apart inside (again, I have survived long days smiling and greeting customers, only to spend the night crying in despair before plastering on my smile and doing it all again the next day)
  • Once you have faced mental health issues and you have survived (and by survived I truly mean simply placing one step in front of the other and continuing because that can be the hardest thing of all) you will find an inner strength you never knew you had. 
  • Mental health issues threaten to destroy all your hold dear, all your hopes and dreams… but sometimes, just sometimes, what you actually get is so much better in the end. But in those moments of despair being told this is not very helpful at all – sometimes you just have to ride the wave and start afresh in the morning!
  • Some people will battle mental health issues their entire life, others will have "blips" but each and every one needs support. And that is why it is time to talk.

And now, here are some of my more honest posts from the past. They all have aspects of the mental health issues and battles I have been dealing with, though none of them really focus on them completely. And I think that is really significant, because very rarely do we see these things as completely separate from the areas of our lives they are affecting (or being affected by). You don't have to read any of them, but if you want to they are there (oldest first). 

I Hope You Dance

Pregnancy: Your Thoughts…

Why I Write: And a Tribute to my Cousin

Emotional Fallout

Learning to love who I am

The Hardest Decision

We're Getting There…

Realisations and The Beginnings of Acceptance