Saturday, 10 January 2015

Locked in

"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage." - Richard Lovelace
I went to see "The Theory of Everything" at the cinema yesterday. My Dad is a keen astronomer and scientist and a life-long admirer of Stephen Hawking and his work. I know a bit about his life and a bit more about his work, so I expected to be inspired by the film. I had no idea it was going to move me the way it did.

I had always respected and admired Hawking as a scientist but Eddie Redmayne's portrayal stirred within me a deep fondness and affection for Stephen the man.

I could write a lengthy review of the film but that's not what this blog is about.

When he was diagnosed, Stephen Hawking was given two years to live. Yet, despite all expectations and odds, he just celebrated his 73rd birthday. Medicine and technology aside what would keep someone with that limited quality of life living and working half a century later?

His body must feel like a prison at times; a cage. Locked inside with only himself for company.

And I can't help thinking, if one was to be locked inside a body for the eternity of life on earth, wouldn't one want a mind as sharp and brilliant and creative as that of Stephen Hawking?

What that man can do with thought alone is staggering. Truly, when you start to consider the scale of his achievements professionally alone, with his physical limitations, it's impossible to grasp the level of intelligence he must possess. To not be able to make notes, scribble ideas, write equations, pace the floor, chat with friends or colleagues, even make a simple cup of tea...

For it demonstrates something else too; a profound ability to direct thought and emotion; the skills of focus, concentration, but also openness, spaciousness and suppleness of mind. Not to mention patience. It's awe-inspiring.

It brings me to my personal battles. I'm not looking to draw loose and insensitive comparisons. What strikes me is what someone with next-to-no physical function has managed to achieve. And what many people with completely healthy physical function consistently fail to achieve.

There are two types of disability or illness if we lazily categorise them: physical and mental.

Of course there are overlaps. For instance, some of my worst periods of anxiety were brought on by a significant head/neck injury which produced distressing neurological symptoms. And healthy brain chemistry is a physiological issue as much as it is a purely mental one. But anxiety disorders, like the OCD from which I suffer, are mental illnesses.

Whilst not literally, anxiety and other forms of mental illness can feel paralysing.

I have spent literally weeks at a time pacing, lying down, sitting, standing with no purpose or direction. Able to move but unable to find a reason to move nor awareness of doing so. I've been so disconnected from myself I've been unable to communicate with my body in a useful, comprehensible way. I've lost months to pointless anxiety; chunks of life 'wasted', months of feeling locked, not inside my body, but inside my mind, and often with not even enough clarity to seek help.

I was shocked, but also not surprised, to read:
"[OCD] can be so debilitating and disabling that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has actually ranked OCD in the top ten of the most disabling illnesses of any kind, in terms of lost earnings and diminished quality of life." OCD UK
In just the same way that a body can become a prison. So too can the mind become like a locked cage.

During the most devastating times of my OCD I have been a prisoner to my mind. It has not been a wonderful tool, nor playground nor canvas in waiting. It has been a dark deadly cell with demons both visible and invisible clawing at every thought and spinning them into madness and obscurity like some evil PR machine.

At times, it has made me question my sanity and wish for death.

And it has made me realise that, without the mind, we are nothing. We really are just shadows of ourselves; shadows that terrify and consume us.

I'm sure that Stephen Hawking must have suffered at some point with acute anxiety and depression as a result of his disease. I don't know that to be true but it seems almost impossible that he would survive the physical assault without a profound psychological fall-out.

In one sense I imagine it is his mind that has saved him. I have glimpsed from his public appearances (and the film) a sense of humour along with his obvious curiosity, determination and objectivity. To be able to think in those ways must be the ideal companion for such an ordeal.

But, conversely, to be locked in with only your thoughts for company, knowing as I do, what terror our thoughts can inflict; knowing what madness they can serve; what hell they can create... without movement and without space; makes me all the more amazed at the man!

It also makes me stupidly grateful for how my body gives form to my thoughts and, through movement, steals me from them. And I am selfishly grateful that, whilst physical illness and disability is sometimes irreversible or without cure, with many mental illnesses we still have the freedom of choice and therefore the possibility of recovery.

Not that it's easy. If it were easy, OCD wouldn't affect 1.2% of the population. Mental health requires discipline and gentleness in equal measure; focus and curiosity. Thank goodness these are traits - skills - that can be acquired through proper training and practice.

I come day by day to my meditation and mindfulness and I feel the space inside my brain grow, I feel the boundaries fall and the gates open... in this way, healing has been and continues to be possible.

As a wise man once famously said:
"Where there is life, there is hope." - Stephen Hawking
With love x

Thursday, 18 December 2014

To blog or not to blog

I haven't blogged in a while.

I was on a roll. Blogging 2-3 times a week. I was enjoying it - discovering new and creative ways to express my mental health issues and revelations.

Then I had a particularly down day and I blogged about that too.

I had a message from a friend about that blog post. And suddenly it all felt rather too visible and rather too open and painful and I couldn't bear to open the page and write again.

The message itself was positive and supportive, but it made me feel kinda naked. And it made me feel as though I'm over-sharing here. Not that my honesty is a problem, but more that I shouldn't expect friends to there for me on this level with this much interest in this much detail.

And now I'm not sure where I stand with my blog any more. I'm not sure how I feel about the sharing of this. What is it for?

The blog was never about telling my friends and family what is going on with me. It was never planned as an open diary. And it's not a call for action or a cry for help or a demand for change.

It was, and is, simply me being honest and open about the painful and sometimes debilitating life of anxiety and depression. It was so hard to come clean. It's been so hard to open up. Honesty is not my strong suit. There is so much shame involved in mental health disorders. I guess I just hoped that, if I was honest about mine, perhaps one more person would find the courage to get help, or scream and shout, or at least mutter about theirs.

Only now I feel shame about the blogging itself. Perhaps its self-indulgent. Perhaps it's attention-seeking.

Truth is, I don't write this for my friends. They either know what's going on with me or they don't and that's just how it is. I don't need people to know as a matter of course. My issues are not who I am, they're just something I'm dealing with.

Some of my friends know about my problems but are too busy or otherwise unable to help and that's fine too. I don't publicise this blog except on rare occasions when I feel a particularly post is pertinent to a topical event or particular person or group.

To be honest, I just forget that anyone reads it. And that's fine by me.

Why not write a diary? Well, if I was writing simply for myself I wouldn't try and form thoughts into coherence. I would just waffle. So, whilst this is sometimes a simple stream of consciousness (posh talk for waffling), it is designed for the outside world and not just inside my head.

So, should I carry on blogging or not?

If there's one thing I've learnt. Nothing I've ever done through running, hiding and pretending, couldn't be done much better through staying, showing and sharing!

Well, the honesty is good for me. And the only comments I've had have been positive ones. I've got closer friends as a result. And the day after I write a blog I tend to wake up feeling cleaner, fresher and more ready to face the day. It's as if I've taken the demons out for a little walkies and they're ready to snuggle down by my feet while I work for a few hours.

With love x

Sunday, 9 November 2014

And the Oscar goes to...

The hardest thing about mental illness is that it's invisible. 

On the outside, there's no blood, no gaping wounds, no bruises...

On the inside, it's just as damaging.

But it's hard to show people the pain, the confusion, the exhaustion, the terror.

On the outside I look fine. On the inside I feel like crap.

This is good in some ways. It's useful for getting on with life, which is healing in itself. But it makes it hard to get help. It makes it hard to get people to take me seriously when I'm struggling. 

I've become fantastically adept at acting like a normal person. I can do and say all the 'right' things and act like I'm perfectly well and normal and productive and even happy.

And sometimes I am all those things.

Other times I'm falling apart, strand by strand, and I desperately need someone to help me before I unravel completely. 

This week I am continuing my search for a new therapist. 

Let's hope I can get him or her to see behind the act.

With love x
 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

MOVE!

My stress response could rival a fast car. Forget 0 to 60 mph in 5 seconds, I can go from calm to stressed out of my skull instantaneously!

This morning I woke up naturally somewhere around 6:45/7am. I was super sleepy and not really conscious. The only thought I had was that I slightly needed the toilet. The rest of my mind was covered in a duvet of softness, warmth and peace.

I suppose I should pause a moment and give thanks for that in itself. When my anxiety was really chronic, I used to wake up scared or stressed, as if I'd been running from monsters in my sleep or solving life's unanswerable questions. So to wake up peaceful is progress, I must remember that.

Anyway, back to today's story...

I climbed out of bed and sleepily wandered to the bathroom, relieved my bladder and sleepily wandered back. I barely opened my eyes and did the whole thing in soft focus, feeling my way to door handles and trusting habit above thought.

Then I climbed back into my gorgeously comfortable and cosy bed and did something I spent the rest of the day trying to get over!

I reached for my phone. It was a split second decision. I knew I shouldn't but I convinced myself it was 'just to check for messages'. But as soon as it was in my hand, the minutes ticked past and sleep - and peace - was soon over.

Within the space of a few minutes I had checked all my texts, phone calls, emails and my Facebook. I re-read some old messages and deleted the spam.

And, without even really realising it, I was stressed. Not a little stressed, not worried, just physically tense. I felt like shit.

And then I felt so sad. I felt like I'd robbed myself of something really precious.

For the first time I could really see the timeline from my peaceful awakening to this stressed state, and my phone's role as perpetrator. I had destroyed the sanctity of my own mind. I awoke with a sense of innocence, purity, a clean blank canvas. I wasn't aware of any thoughts and those that were present were more like whispers or murmurings. I wasn't aware of any feelings except softness, fluidity, ease.

I was open. And I abused that fact by pouring needless information into my brain. I didn't use any filters, I just downloaded the contents of my many inboxes into my passive mind and broke it. It wasn't the messages, they were all boring generic things. Nothing specific had happened to make me stressed. It was simply information overload.

By the time I was really aware of the stress it had taken me over - there was no going back. I felt really upset and anxious, realising I couldn't just go back to sleep. So I did what I currently know best: I meditated. I got out my headspace app and I lay back and listened to the next 15 minute meditation. It calmed me a little but not a lot. My mind felt a little clearer and softer but my body was still super tense.

For some reason I just knew what I needed to so.

The aggravation, the energy of it, was coursing through my veins and pumping my body full of stress hormones. And I needed to release them. Lying still and meditating was only going to allow me to watch them as they run rampant, it wasn't going to get rid of them.

I needed to move.

I wrestled with the idea for only about 5 minutes and decided that there was no way I was taking this feeling into the rest of my day.

I went for a run.

I was cold - much colder than I expected - and my body was really not ready for a run, but it was the most beautiful morning. The sky was a rich blue and the sun was not far above the horizon. There was a thick mist on the ground and everything shone in the dewy sunlight. It was magical.

I only ran for about half an hour and I must admit it felt pretty horrible, physically, but mentally it was exactly what I needed. It shook me out of my state. The stress got pounded into the pavement, sweated out of my skin and panted out of my lungs.

By the time I got home I felt relaxed again. True, the peacefulness I woke up with was still long gone, but I felt positive about the rest of my day. It was still only 8am and I had the whole day ahead of me and a run behind me.

Looking back I feel a sense of victory for my morning exercise and also a sense of pride for making a good decision in a bad state. I take this as a very good sign of my improving mental health.

But there was still a sense of sadness, of loss for that beautiful innocent girl who awoke into a sunshine dewy world and was trampled over before she was even conscious.

So, tonight as I go to sleep, I have put my phone on silent in its little bag that hangs on my door and I'm quite excited to go to sleep so I can wake up into that blissful dreaminess in the morning.

For now, I'll chalk it up to more hard-earned experience, and be grateful that there is always another morning.

Good night world.

With love x

Sunday, 2 November 2014

My mental diet

I've spent a lot of time researching and experimenting with my food to get it about right for me to feel well.

Lately I've become more aware that I need to be careful with my mental diet: what I take in through my eyes and ears.

Tonight was the second time in a week that I've ended up watching something on TV - albeit unwittingly - about someone with mental illness. I don't mean a documentary, I mean a drama, which is entirely different. And, yet again, I've come away from it feeling very off-kilter and needing to regain my own emotional and mental equilibrium.

I need to be more careful what I feed my brain with.

Earlier today I went for a long walk in the forest with my housemate. It was the best medicine. We talked about this and that but mostly wandered about, jumping over boggy ground, getting slightly lost, a bit drizzled on, and breathing in fresh air and beautiful scenery.

Sitting on the sofa afterwards watching a Homeland episode, with large parts taking part in a psychiatric ward and the other half with a man being held captive, was not good medicine for my brain.

I wonder if 'well' people find these things affect themselves as strongly as they do me. Or is it that I'm pretty fragile right now and little things are enough to tip me the wrong way. I guess that means little things could be enough to tip me the right way too?

With love x

Thursday, 30 October 2014

OCD and the Law of Attraction

I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on why I believe the Law of Attraction is really dangerous for people with OCD.

The Law of Attraction (LOA) has been everywhere lately. People tend to have a Marmite-type reaction to it; they either love it or hate it. They either view it as their missing self-help messiah or a money-grabbing crook.

Personally, I think it has great merit. But I think it's dangerous for people with OCD.

There's enormous value in being deliberate about what you put out into the world. Your expectations about people and events do hugely influence your subsequent experience. If you turn up with a smile on your face, people are likely to smile back. If you are the resident grumpy-guts, people are likely to avoid you, pity you or confront you. It's old news really: you get back what you put in.

Behaviour is what affects things. We all know this, right? But the LOA doesn't centre its teaching around behaviour. It should. Those who use it effectively know that the inspired action is the significant thing. Go into whatever you want with a bit of heart and you'll get somewhere.

Unfortunately, The LOA emphasis is too often placed on the thoughts ('thoughts become things'). Think only about what you want and only do the things that make you feel good.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking positive thinking or visualisation. But healthy-minded people know when to stop thinking and start acting. They know to make the vision board of pretty wishful images, and when to put it down and go out cycling, apply for the job and get on with life. And they know that sometimes you have to do something that scares you to get over it and make progress.

I can't speak for other OCD sufferers, but my rumination OCD (over-thinking, over-worrying, over-analysing) is a terrible bed-fellow for the LOA.

The trouble is that, as an OCD sufferer, controlling my thoughts and avoiding negative emotions is a route to hell, plain and simple. I'm just coming back from there and I don't want to go again!

I used to believe that if I thought about something long enough, I could change it; if I plan something well enough, I can control it; if I analyse something enough, I can perfect make sense of it. This is bullshit. I'm discovering this day by day. All my thoughts do is create more thoughts. Those thoughts go round and round and lead me nowhere but mental paralysis.

The LOA tells me that my thoughts create real-life things. As an OCD-sufferer, this says to me that my worrying about hurting myself or someone else will lead me to actually do those things. This leads to avoidance and more worry, stimulating the belief that I may do something harmful and I should control/avoid my thoughts and certain people, places, objects and activities even more strictly.

This goes completely against the psychiatric treatment of OCD. Therapists teach sufferers to face the negative thoughts, encourage them even. This helps us test the theory that these thoughts produce negative outcomes, which of course they don't; they're just thoughts.

Taken a step further, my OCD could lead me to believe that unconnected events are my fault because I thought about them. This is another symptom which could be perpetuated by the LOA.

Now, I understand very well that what good LOA advocates are trying to share is that your emotions will attract things to you. And this is true. But avoiding emotions is also dangerous. Suppressed emotions cause all sorts of problems. Avoiding my anxiety took me from not driving one time all the way to not being able to travel on any mode of transport and being scared even of lifts and escalators for a year!

The LOA seems like it says we should avoid negative emotions. But treatment for anxiety says the opposite. My therapist taught me to feel any anxiety that arises until it subsides. In this way I could test the theory that being scared was something to be scared of - that bad things would happen as a result of my fear. The truth is that anxiety doesn't produce anything; it's just anxiety.

Depression is a little different, we don't want to delve deeper into depression and encourage these feelings per se. This is a state of mind that needs kicking up the ass and sent packing. A deeper discussion for another day. But when it comes to mental health, I think perhaps it's like fevers and colds and we can apply this basic rule: "Feed the anxiety, starve the depression."

As a last thought, I don't think this warning applies only to OCD sufferers or only to those who worry for a living. A happy, wishful thinker given the LOA teaching in the wrong way can spend hours, days or weeks of their life sitting around imagining the future in finite detail. Then if they take no action they can end up getting terribly depressed when nothing actually happens or changes.

It's time to stop thinking and start dancing around like a crazy person to Prodigy... oh, that might just be me!

With love x

Some of this wisdom has come from reading the seminal book on OCD "Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder" by David Veale and Rob Willson. My therapist recommended it to me and it is brilliant - and they explain this stuff much better than I do!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Side effects

I've just finished watching a feature film called 'Side Effects' about mental health and it totally freaked me out.

As a result, I'm now trying to reconstruct a rational, healthy - happy even! - headspace.

The film was obviously quite close to home but watching it also just felt like me at my worst...

The plot was full of lies and confusion and false assumptions. The longer it went on the harder it was to work out who was crazy, who was dangerous and who was lying.

I have felt like this many times... like I couldn't work out what was real and what was me seeing the worst of things and believing it to be pervasive truth. I hate to use the words paranoid or delusion because it sounds really severe and I worry that someone will turn up at my door and put me in a mental hospital. But there have been a couple of specific times when I'm not sure if I can get the facts straight on something that has just happened.

Being severely depressed and anxious, for me, can feel a bit like being permanently semi-conscious. Aside from the lack of energy and focus, it also means I feel I can't be quite sure whether I'm awake or asleep; imagining or remembering; real or made-up. It's quite terrifying.

My therapist Linda once reassured me that anxiety and psychosis (being crazy) are not related in medical terms. She explained that however scared I felt, it wasn't possible to go crazy from this state of mind. But sometimes I feel so lost I feel I must be crazy. When people speak to me and I can't make sense of it; or when I feel so hopeless and I can't find a way out of it; or someone is offering me happiness in the simplest form and I don't even have the energy or inclination to take it... what's not crazy about that?

But sitting here, I feel supremely grateful for my mental health. Yes, I'm unwell at times, but I'm not crazy. I know myself well enough to see that I am unwell. Which means, I don't believe the anxiety to be real. I know it's just chemicals, just faulty imaginings, just grief in a complex form working its way out, just me dealing with stress in my life in a wonky way.

Meditation has really helped with that. I have learnt to become the 'watcher'. I've learnt to see that I am not my thoughts, I am not my feelings. I am something beyond all that which is constant, calm, pure, safe.

It's a daily practice I still struggle to motivate myself to do, despite it's miraculous benefits. It's my salvation; but it often feels like craziness. I think the thoughts, I feel the feelings and often I believe they're me. I get confused and believe I am crazy rather than watching craziness at work. It's hard sometimes to see myself that way... to see the phantoms and the delusions and the pain and just watch it and not get involved. It's hard to not try and solve it. It's hard not to be that person and try and fix her. When I stop and meditate it sometimes feels like I'm descending into madness. I suddenly become acutely aware of my mental illness and it's terrifying, overwhelming.

But more and more I'm remembering to just watch. Then the crazy stuff becomes the background noise and the me becomes foreground - I become real. Meditation brings me back to my non-crazy self and seeing the distinction means I can start - no, continue - to let the healing happen.

The whole film pivoted on the use of medical drugs and their side effects. Something I'm increasingly happy I never took despite being offered many times. Meditation, instead, is my salvation.

Meditation, awareness, mindfulness is not a quick-fix drug, it's better than that. It means 'simply' letting craziness be and then watching it fall away and health resume its natural position. And what's more, there's no profit in it for the pharmaceutical giants and there are no ill side effects.

Lately, the best meditation tool I have found is an app called Headspace. It's pretty much the antar mouna practice I've discussed in my blog before. I can't recommend this highly enough - it's changing my life a little at a time every single day.

With love x