Two kinds of baggage: travelling with mental illness

Here’s another fun contradiction I’ve come across since living with anxiety and depression: I need to be in control to feel safe, but I’m less capable than ever of being in control.

I’m incapable of delegating tasks related to planning a holiday, because I would just feel out-of-control and useless. I have to do the research, plan the travel, pack the bags. I have to know the timeframes and organise the taxis, buy the guidebook and scan TripAdvisor for bad hotel reviews.

I can’t blame the Welshman for taking advantage of the neurosis-fuelled travel agent living in his house. He lets me organise, and basks in the relaxation of it. When I decide I resent him for his chill, he’s baffled. At what point was he supposed to step in? Did I expect him to navigate my 10,000 open browser windows or speed-read the Lonely Planet guide I’ve already got memorised?

Travelling with mental illness is particularly challenging for a couple of reasons, including:

  • You’re away from your coping mechanisms
  • You’re walking a lot, and likely to get exhausted
  • You have to talk with your travelling companion, even if you’re feeling grumpy or stressed
  • You can get hungry or dehydrated more easily
  • Tourist-confusion and cognitive issues are, in my experience, upsettingly similar and hard to tell apart
  • Maps are super stressful
  • On any holiday, you need to be prepared for some kind of crisis management

That said, you deserve a holiday. You deserve to take a break from familiar triggers and familiar exhaustion. You deserve to eat waffles, swim in the sea and get as pleasantly drunk as your medication will safely allow. I meant what I said a few posts back – you deserve a chance to hit the hard reset button.

Here are my top 5 tips for travelling when you’re anxious or depressed

  1. Talk to your travelling companion ahead of time. Don’t take all the burden on yourself – talk to your companion, and figure out who is handling what. Another thing to tackle in this conversation is long silences. Explain what they likely already know: you’re going to need lots of quiet, lots of breaks, and some extended periods of quiet. Whoever you’re travelling with wants you to be safe and happy – let them help.
  2. ACF: Always Carry Food. I’ve lost track of the number of anxiety attacks that have been cut short by chocolate. If you’re out and about all day, every day, you need to have something on hand to pick up your blood sugar. I suggest wholefood cereal bars. Also, carry water. Don’t let a headache ruin your day when you’ve been working so hard to stay calm.
  3. Treat. Yo. Self. If you’re on a diet, it doesn’t count on holiday. You’re trying to balance enough – don’t try and stay too virtuous on holiday. If you fancy chocolate, eat the chocolate. If you’re craving ice cream, frites et moules (can you tell I just got back from Bruges??) or waffles, go for it. Break up your sightseeing with regular, extended periods of psychological detox-ing in cafes.
  4. Use your hotel room. If you have an accessible hotel room, take advantage of it as a basecamp for your holiday. If you need to come home and nap or watch odd Flemish TV, do that. If you need a shower to feel more human before heading out for dinner, do that too. I’ve never understood travelling companions who see heading back to the hotel as some kind of admittance of defeat – dude, I just need to rest my feet and take off my bra.
  5. Don’t forget the important routines. If you know you’re grumpy without breakfast, make time for it. Take your medication at the same time you always did, taking into account any time differences. If you need evening yoga to detox your brain or can’t get to sleep without listening to a podcast, plan to do those things. You might need to bend the rules, but your routines are important, and you should try to respect them.

It’s hard work, but you absolutely deserve to take a break from the world and have a wander. In the words of Rebecca Sugar: “Why don’t you just let yourself be somewhere different?”

Have fun, and send me some holiday selfies.

With love, always,

Tea.

NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
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Comfort eating: breaking the binge cycle

I feel like I prefix a lot of these posts with similar statements, but here’s the thing: I’m a chronic binge eater, and I probably always will be. It will always be part of my psyche and one of my default coping mechanisms, but it’s not a part of myself I’m proud of. Over my adult life to date, I’ve gone through periods – long periods, in some cases – of eating mindfully and developing a healthy, balance in my diet.

I’ve also been through periods where I’ve crash dieted, or – when I was much younger – starved myself. My relationship with food is complex, but at it’s root is this:

I find food pleasurable.

If it’s raining, and the world feels grey, I’ll eat something sweet and feel better. When I was depressed in university, hunger and misery tended to coincide with a shortcut through a store, and so I’d stock up and binge in bed. There are meals I find emotionally evocative, such as tiramisu or roast new potatoes, and eating them is a way of connecting to a time when I was happy.

If I’m in a good mood, it’s justification to make it better with food. And my issue has always been an inability to handle anything in moderation.

If I buy three brownies, I am perfectly capable of eating all three. If I buy ice cream for the freezer, I’m fully aware of the possibility that I will eat it all in one sitting. If I know there is food in the house and I’m in a mood, I’ll seek it out and eat it, regardless of how ridiculous it is – I’ve eaten dehydrated sundried tomatoes and tins of tuna when I’m miserable.

Eating, for me, is also about boredom. I’ll eat to spice up a dull afternoon, or to get me through something I’m dreading. I’ll eat out of a fear of FOMO, worried that I’ll regret it if I skip desert.

That said, I’m not ignorant of what this mindset is doing to my body. I’ve studied nutrition, I’ve read books. I’ve got qualifications in behavioural psychology and cognitive feedback, and I understand the reasons behind what I do. I have an understanding of human physiology that tells me why I should stop.

A few years ago, I shed two dress sizes just by introducing exercise and cutting my calorie intake. I shed weight quickly, when I focus, like my body is just waiting for an excuse to be its best self.

All of that is hard to remember, though, when I’m in the middle of a bad day and there’s free cake in the office.

The last time I tried to get healthy, I did it because I wanted to look good for my partner, and I know how insane that is. I was in the worst depressive cycle of my life, and that motivation allowed me to feel righteous indignation and wallow in victimhood – it felt like if I was miserable already, I might as well have a good reason for it.

This time round, it’s not about him (who, by the way, is nothing but supportive and adorable, and would never judge me). It’s about me, and a realisation I’ve come to.

I’ve been too narrow in my focus. I’ve been avoiding mindfulness, out of fear that I won’t like what I find when I interrogate my own thoughts, and it’s been the same with food – it’s a crutch I’ve been afraid to give up. Recently, though, I’ve realised that in future years I might come to regret decisions I’m making today.

Someday, I’d like to have kids, and I can imagine 30-year-old pregnant Tea yelling down the Tardis-tubes at me, furious I didn’t do more to spare her the embarrassment of no one being able to tell she’s pregnant until she’s 30 weeks along.

I can imagine 40-year-old Tea, having to juggle life-long chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes with the life I hope she’s living.

I can see 50-year-old Tea, sad that her children have developed negative relationships with food, and unable to advise them because she’d feel like a hypocrite.

So, I’ve been trying a new tactic. I track my calories with an app, but I don’t deny myself anything. If I want carrot cake in the office, I can have a slice – a small slice, so that I have enough calories for a delicious dinner. I never want future-Tea to be mad at present-Tea because I didn’t have the foresight to be mindful and consider, with pleasure, the things I’m putting into my mouth.

I’m trying to walk more, and learn to run again, and it’s been fun, in the most part. I’ve cut out coffee, allowing myself the occasional delicious tea, and once the headaches passed I’ve been feeling much more alert in the afternoons.

Basically, it’s been really hard work, and at the time of writing I’m about a week and a half in. I have rewards planned for myself for every 4 weeks I keep it up, and I’m feeling a lot more in control of my feelings, and taking pleasure in things like green beans and strawberries – things I love, but can’t really taste when my palate is ruined by sugar and coffee.

I don’t have a conclusion to come to. I don’t have a list of advice, because I haven’t found a solution to this, but I know that lots of people feel very alone when it comes to this subject, and it’s really hard not to binge when you’re mentally unwell.

I just wanted you to know that I’ve been there, and I know what you’re going through.

Have courage, and be kind to yourself.

With love, always,

Tea.

NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
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How to have a difficult conversation

Here’s something you don’t expect to happen, when you begin to come to terms with mental illness: you’ll start to see it everywhere. Every friend who complains of sleeplessness, every sibling whose mood-swings are seemingly random, every co-worker whose over-reactions are dramatic and time-consuming.

If you point out someone’s symptoms for any non-psychological disease, the results can be myriad, but unless you’re saying something truly appalling I’ve found most people are delighted to talk about whatever’s the matter. You seem to have a bit of a cold, for example, is a classically British conversation-starter and generally results in one or both parties trading home remedies and/or recommendations for over-the-counter medication like it’s some weird version of a book club.

You haven’t tried DayNurse? Darling, you simply must!

Recently, I’ve tried just coming out and saying it. That’s partly what this blog is, my attempt to alleviate some of my social anxiety by making it very clear what is the matter with me. If I had any other chronic health condition, there are certain things it would excuse. No one expects a diabetic to come on a tour of Cadbury’s, so why should they expect someone with an anxiety disorder to go to the hell-hole that is Oxford Street?

I expected to make people feel uncomfortable, but I think maybe the era of ‘we-don’t-talk-about-Aunty-Tea’s-episodes‘ might be coming to an end, at least in Britain. Most people I’ve spoken to about it are not just sympathetic, but empathetic. They’ve made it clear that while they might not understand exactly what’s happening to me, they know what it feels like to be betrayed by your own thoughts.

There’s this great Brene Brown video about empathy on YouTube that I often send people to when they say they don’t know how to talk about mental health. In it, one character confesses something awful and sad to another. ‘I had a miscarriage,’ she says, and a third character pops their head down and shouts out: ‘At least you know you can have kids!’

Empathy, as the video says, pretty much never begins with the words ‘at least’.

If someone is trying to open up to you about something really difficult, here’s the formula. Listen, until they’re done, and if you don’t know what to say, say: ‘I don’t even know what to say to that’. Don’t pretend you understand because a second cousin had something similar in the 90’s. Then, tell them the key phrase:

‘I’m so glad you felt like you could tell me.’

If you have the resources (emotional, financial, spiritual, whatever it might be) you can add: ‘I’m here if you need anything.’

Some people never hear that, and that thought makes me so sad, so if you’re out there and feel alone: I’m here, if you need anything.

If, in your journey, you start seeing symptoms of mental illness in the people around you, that’s ok. It might be that you’re just trying to find a way to connect with them, that you’re the kind of person who projects onto other people as a way of getting to know them. It might be that you know that person really well, and you know what they’re going through is out of the ordinary for them. It might be neither, and you’re just getting good at spotting the warning signs.

Here’s the thing: unless you’re a qualified professional, you have no right to a) diagnose someone with a mental illness b) ‘out’ someone as mentally unwell, if they haven’t told you about it.

What you can do is be as open and honest as you feel able to be, and hope that they feel like they can talk to you.

If they do come to you and ask for advice, just be a little careful. For some people, you saying ‘you might be depressed’ will be confirmation of their worst fears and deepest insecurities. For others, it might be a huge weight off their shoulders, letting them know that what they’ve been feeling isn’t some personality flaw.

Take the conversation slowly. Listen more than you speak. Offer resources, if you have any that helped you, and try to honour the vulnerability that comes with a difficult conversation.

I’d recommend brewing a cup of tea.

To everyone who’s opened up to me since I’ve started this journey (including one awesome lady who high-fived me and yelled WHOO, ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION!):

I can see how hard it’s been. I’m so glad you’re beginning to feel better, and that you felt you could tell me. Let me know how you’re getting on – I’ll be sending you some psychic strength.

And with love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, share and comment! Let me know your experiences of having difficult conversations, and how you’ve handled it.

NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

 

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Sick and tired: handling exhaustion and hypersomnia

One of the interesting nuggets of wisdom I’ve picked up in all my mental health research is this: while men tend to be more prone to insomnia when depressed, women can lean more towards hypersomnia. While I really hate lazy gender-based generalisations about health, especially mental health, I think it’s interesting that when people think of depression, it’s often a masculine image they have in their heads.

Some of that is definitely down to how limiting masculinity can be, I imagine, but aside from observing and supporting the experiences of beloved family and friends I can’t speak for the cis-male experience of anxiety and depression. So, in this entry I’ll talk a little about my experiences of how mental illness impacts my energy and sleep patterns, but please bear in mind a) feeling tired does not always equal a diagnosis of depression and b) I’m speaking purely from a place of personal experience.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me describe to you a typical day in my life since my symptoms have gotten worse. I’ll wake up, sore from having slept fitfully. Anything less than 9 hours and I’ll be moody for the rest of the day – I can quite happily sleep for 12 if given the chance. Early in the morning my cognitive function issues are much more pronounced, and I struggle to remember simple, routine tasks or process anything that’s said to me. I get very easily stressed out by any direct conversation in the first hour after waking – I desperately want to be left alone.

I’ll be tired and spacey on my commute, often missing my stop because I’ve completely disengaged from my body. I’m lucky in that by the time I’ve arrived at work, my natural preference to tackle complex tasks in the morning has kicked in, and I work well until very close to the end of the day, when I’m exhausted and headachy, unable to tackle anything more complicated than writing an in-house email.

I cook dinner on autopilot, and then I sit still for hours, tired beyond belief. If I go out to dinner or drinks after work, the socialisation leaves me drained and it takes days for me to re-establish my shaky routine. I crave time on my own like a drug, so tired of preforming my ‘high-functioning adult’ routine that there is no space for other life admin. Most of the time, I’m too tired to consider a shower, too tired to make myself do housework. I cook because in the hour it takes, I lose any energy I could put towards the dishes – these little trades are critical, and I love my partner dearly for helping me to make them. I’m well aware he doesn’t always crave the simple, sauce-in-a-jar dinners I pull together, but we both silently acknowledge that some nights, it’s all I can do to make it round the grocery store and wander home, drained and blurry-brained.

There is a reason for telling you all this, hidden away in my vague sense of embarrassment in my own uselessness. It ties in to an earlier post of mine, discussing how to value your health over your productivity; sometimes, you won’t be able to achieve much, when you’re living with mental illness.

Sometimes, you’ll be too tired to focus. You’ll play games on your phone and procrastinate basic bodily hygiene. You’ll consider rolling from your right side onto your left a huge bloody effort. You’ll leave the house to get ice cream and spend the rest of the day feeling knackered by the energy it took.

There’ll be a voice in your head, telling you it’s laziness. That this is your default setting, and you’ll never amount to anything because of this exhaustion. The voice will tell you that anxiety shouldn’t be so tiring, that life shouldn’t be this hard, that everyone else seems to be getting along fine.

There’s a culture, in life and in work, that tries to make people – particularly, I think, younger people – believe that their worth is tied in to their productivity. The issue I have with this is something I’ve written about before: if you’re moving with ten pound weights strapped to your legs, everything is more effort. Sometimes, it will take every ounce of your energy to do something that, if you were healthy, you could do without a second thought. And that if is important.

I’m not healthy. It took me a long time to come to terms with it, to begin to think of myself as living with a chronic illness and not struggling with some personality flaws (I have those, too, but laziness has never been one of them).

It’s ok if you don’t achieve anything today. It’s ok if you dust your bookshelf, and that’s all you manage to do. It’s ok if you go for a run, then spend the rest of Sunday in your PJs, exhausted by all that adulting. It’s ok if you’re a high-flying professional whose mental health issues are invisible, but you cry in the bathroom twice daily.

If you are taking care of yourself, and listening to your body, and you feel like what you’re doing is the right thing for you? Then you’re doing better than 75% of the general population. Your psychological health, your spirit, are just as important as anything else in your life. I know you’re tired. I know that sometimes you don’t remember what it feels like to have energy, to have swishy shampoo-commercial hair, to not have dishes in the sink.

Try your best, and take care of yourself. In the long run, you’ll be a better employee if you’re not burnt-out, a better partner if you’re not crabby from fatigue, a better son or daughter if you skip a trip to the shops with mum so you have the energy to make it through brunch. Try to find balance, and think about whether all the things you’re anxious about are worth this feeling of sick, aimless discomfort living in your chest.

Let some of them go. Just… let them go.

I love you. Your family loves you, and your friends. We won’t be mad if you need to take care of yourself and can’t make it to town for a coffee this weekend. We know you’ll be good for it, further down the line.

Let me know how you’re getting on.

With love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, share and comment! Have you been struggling with hypersomnia, or insomnia?

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible.

 

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Facing your fear of relapse

So, you’re getting better. It’s been weeks since you last cried in public, you’re managing basic hygiene and you’re feeding yourself. You’re sleeping like an adult, not a colicky baby.

Things are going well. Maybe the medication is working, maybe your recovery is steady and natural (or seasonal, in the always-fun case of Seasonal Affective Disorder), maybe whatever grief or trauma you survived is now well and truly in your rear-view mirror.

If you’re anything like me, now is the time for a new anxiety to rear its ugly head: a full-blown, terror-filled fear of relapse.

The version of yourself from a few weeks ago is still so fresh in your mind you can still feel echoes of their pain. You haven’t had enough time to forget what it feels like to panic, to struggle for breath, to want to hurt yourself just for a moment’s quiet.

Someday, you’ll forget. Not completely, of course, and maybe you won’t even want to – it’s a part of you, now, part of the rich tapestry that makes up your mind and heart. But the human brain is designed to move on from trauma. You can only relive it so many times before it heals over, for the sake of your sanity.

Survivors of war move on. Victims of abuse find love again. People who have been depressed will be happy again. Your mind – your body – is resilient.

But it’s also true that if you’ve been depressed or suffered from an anxiety disorder, chances are you will again at some point. Maybe it’s in your personality or your genome; honestly, it’s not helpful to speculate. It’s more helpful to learn everything you can about it when you’re in the middle of illness, and use that learning so that next time, it doesn’t have the same impact.

I recently heard an author – whose name I forget, let me know in the comments if you know who I’m thinking of! – say that he can never allow himself to forget how capable he is of taking the express elevator to the bargain-basement of mental health.

You have to stay aware of the possibility. It’s an unbelievably hard thing to come to terms with, and you might not be ready. I certainly wasn’t, the first time I went through a serious depression. For years, I dismissed it as something in my past. Something I had under control.

Until it grew, and changed, and suddenly all my coping mechanisms meant exactly squat.

It took me a long time to acknowledge my depression – longer to acknowledge my anxiety, which was new to me. And now that I’m getting better, I’m truly starting to dread its return.

I used to think I would be safe in the summer – now I know that isn’t true, it feels like I could backslide at any time, and all the work I’ve put into my relationship and my mental health will disappear.

So, here’s my advice for facing down your fear of relapse:

Feel the fear, acknowledge what it’s trying to tell you, and move past it. You’re afraid for a good reason, and ignoring that fear of relapse – denying the potential you could get sick again – won’t do you any good. You need to keep up all the coping mechanisms that keep you resilient, like meditation and good sleep patterns, and you also need to keep your support network aware of the risk of relapse.

Just because you’ve been fine for a few weeks doesn’t mean you’ve lost the right to feel crappy. You need to be able to call a hectic day quits, or take a moment to yourself, or cancel plans for a duvet day.

But if you let the fear cripple you, and keep you from doing things you love – travel, for example, or work – that’s not helpful. My suggestion would be to aim to do the thing that scares you, but have an acceptable Plan B.

For example, this weekend the Welshman wanted to go to the Tate Modern.

As I’ve said a few times, the Tate Modern always makes me panic. I don’t know if it’s the scale of the damned thing or some kind of allergy to post-modernism, but I’ve always disliked it. This weekend, though, Welshman deserved a bit of kindness and consideration, so Plan A was my joining him for a sculpture exhibition he wanted to see.

Plan B was my sitting quietly in the Members Room with a cup of tea and my podcasts while he went round on his own.

Plan B was acceptable to both of us, and saved my sanity. It meant I had the energy for the rest of the day, and didn’t bite the poor man’s head off.

It cut me some slack, and as it turned out, for all my supposed successful recovery I desperately needed it.

So be kind to yourself, and try your best not to wallow. Everyone loves you and wants you to get well – thank them for their patience, and take advantage of it if you have to. Someone told me recently that one of the best things you can do for someone you love is to ask them a favour: it gives them a chance to show their love for you.

Let them do you a favour. And let me know how you’re doing.

With love, always,

Tea.

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible
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Losing my religion: coping with identity crises

You might have heard of ‘imposter syndrome’, and if you haven’t, I’m sure you’ve felt it at least once in your life. It’s a sensation that musician and superwoman Amanda Palmer describes as being on the run from police who will, at any moment, knock on your door and demand that you stop faking it. That they’ve been watching you, and they can tell you actually don’t have any idea what you’re doing.

Everyone feels like an imposter sometimes. I grew up with plenty of identities to chose from: sister, daughter, friend, student, bookworm. Despite all that, there were a couple that never seemed to fit. Growing up overseas, I never felt British – I still don’t, and much as I love the UK and all its neuroses, British people never miss a chance to point out that my accent and language aren’t quite right.

I never felt like I had a right to claim an identity as African, and decided fairly early on to show my love for Namibia and Africa with a kind of respectful, supportive admission of ignorance. I never want to be some post-colonial idiot claiming, a-la The Book of Mormon, that I am Africa – I was a child when I lived there, and there’s a not of nuance to politics and culture I’ll probably never have a claim to.

I still struggle with calling myself a writer, despite the novels under my belt and the fact that every lunch break I sequester myself in a corner of the office to write this blog. I write because, to paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke, to not write was never an option for me.

All of this might be why I dislike, so intensely, labelling myself as any one thing. I dated a woman for a few years, and never felt comfortable describing my sexuality, though I was perfectly content to call myself girlfriend. This was reinforced by the few times I faced perverted reactions (straight men at uni) and expectations of cliched behaviour (weirdly, gay men at uni).

In my work at the moment, I spend a lot of time looking at patient advocacy groups and blogs, and I decided that if I was going to go through a journey of recovering from mental illness (again) I wasn’t going to be quiet about it. That said, I’m still tentative about identifying as mentally ill or anxious – the former makes it sound like I’m barely coping, the latter like I’m flighty or delicate.

There will be times in life when you just outgrow an old skin that felt comfortable, at one time in your life. Maybe moving around so much when I was a child taught me this lesson early, but I’ve never had a problem with the idea that someone can be one thing, and then be another. When I had the concept of transsexuality explained to me as a kid, all I remember thinking was that it must be really beautiful to know exactly who you’re meant to be, and make that happen.

The thing is, I’ve lost a few identities recently that I worked hard to acquire. I’m not really a runner anymore, or a yogini. I’m not the author – working on a laptop full-time makes novel-writing really difficult. Cognitive issues from my anxiety and depression make reading challenging, so bookworm is fading away, and starting from the bottom in a new career has meant that gold-star student isn’t really feasible anymore.

It hurts, losing these parts of myself. It’s sad, and slow, and it makes me question whether I ever had them to begin with.

Some of them, I’ll get back someday, but right now I don’t have the energy to make that my focus. If you hold on to anything too tightly, chances are you’ll just wind up suffering more when it finally leaves, and I can’t handle any more suffering.

Instead, I’m trying something I little bit radical.

I’m trying to let go.

I’m trying to sit with myself, and have that be enough. I don’t owe anyone an explanation, let alone an apology, for the way I am now. Soon, I’ll have the energy and motivation to start on the road to self-improvement, but for now, I’m trying to focus on how grateful I am to have made it through this winter, not on what I’ve had to let go along the way.

There are big identities that are important, and will hurt even more if you have to give them up. Daughter, lover, faithful, religious. Sometimes the vision you have for yourself will need to take a back-burner to the daily task of getting well again.

I wish I had a better solution, a list of 5 things to try, but all I can say is this: I know how difficult it is, and you’re not alone.

Let me know how you’re getting on.

With love, always,

Tea.

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible
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So, you haven’t made any progress. What next?

There’s a culture amongst people my own age (mid-20s, privileged and British) I’ve noticed more and more since I’ve started writing frankly about my mental health. The conversations I’ve been having with readers are some of the most honest and vulnerable I’ve ever had, and readers all seem to have a version of the same response to my writing: relief.

It’s a relief to know that you’re not alone, but more than that, it’s a relief to know that it’s ok to be sick. It’s ok, if you’re struggling, maybe for the first time in your life, just to keep your head above water.

I went through life, until very recently, as though I were playing a video game. I’m the kind of person who never plays through a game twice to try out different endings – if I’ve beaten something once, I have zero interest in going through it all again. I think that’s why I’ve found mental illness so shocking, and so damaging to my sense of self.

Every year when I was a child I Levelled Up, Scott Pilgrim-style. Year 10, achievement unlocked! GCSE’s, passed! A-Levels – congratulations, you’ve unlocked University! University complete, click here to download your diploma!

There were superficial choices to make. Which courses to take, which university to attend, which career to pursue, but the big choices were never really up for debate. It was never a question of if I’d go to university, but where.

The thing is, when you graduate you’re left with no further achievements to unlock. While I was at uni, I defeated the big Boss Level of severe depression and moved on with my life – I wasn’t interested in re-visiting the level, or playing through with a different approach. I went to work, and spent two years in peaceful routine, then decided that the career I was in wasn’t for me.

This decision, starting from almost-the-beginning in a new profession, coincided with the development of an anxiety disorder and the unwelcome return of my depression.

Suddenly, I wasn’t able to do the things I’d ‘unlocked’ in previous years. My ability to run long distance fell apart when my commute got longer, co-habitation with the Welshman meant I’d rather spend time with him than do yoga. All the skill-points I’d amassed slipped away from me, and suddenly it felt like I was playing the game with a broken controller. I could survive, just about, but that was it. There was no more progress to be made.

A wise woman looked me in the eye recently and asked me a brutally perceptive question. I was talking about having a bad day, and how I’d been so worried that people who didn’t know me were off-put or disgusted by my panic attack.

‘What would happen if you didn’t care?’ she asked.

Caring takes energy. It takes emotional and psychological strength to focus on other people, on arbitrary successes and reaching new heights in life, and when those muscles are weakened by mental illness I wasn’t capable of taking care of myself and worrying about my progress at the same time.

Sometimes, you won’t make any progress. Your panic attacks will be consistent, so much so that they begin to get predictable – same time of day, same trigger, same people setting them off. Your depression will be a familiar and unrelenting weight for you to carry around all day.

Here are 5 things to do when you’re not making any progress:

  1. Try not to care. This probably sounds annoyingly over-simplified, and I’d like to make it clear that I know how devastating it is to not make any progress. It makes you weary in a way I cannot put into words to look at how far you’ve come and find that it doesn’t measure up. The thing is, as I said above, caring takes energy you might not have spare right now. Make an effort to focus on things that are good, not things that could be better. As I’ve said before, sometimes just being alive is a huge achievement, and anyone who judges you for letting other things slide probably isn’t worthy of your concern.
  2. Try a little gratitude. It can be really difficult to think of anything to be grateful for when things are grim and you’re not making progress, so my suggestion is to start really small. Start with waking up. Think – or say, out loud – I’m grateful I had a place to sleep last night. Be grateful for breakfast, and your partner being happy to see you. Be grateful for coffee, and the fact that the train was on time, and the fact that there was tea when you got to the office. Be grateful for dogs in the park and the cat you petted on your walk, grateful your work was distracting and your colleagues helpful. When you’re depressed, each second you take to be grateful is a little f*ck you to your mental illness. It’s also a really calming practice when you’re feeling anxious.
  3. Break the pattern. At home, you have all your triggers right in front of you. You know where, when and why you’re likely to have a bad patch, and your bad days feel like part of the routine. If you have the resources, I’d recommend a holiday, even if you can only get away for the weekend. Go somewhere new – exhaust yourself, eat good food, and try your hand at just being somewhere new. If the thought of being away from your coping mechanisms is daunting, talk it through with whoever is coming with you. I once spent a holiday in Amsterdam that was punctuated every day by a 2-hour ‘nap break’ to give my friend time for her anti-anxiety nap routine. She slept, full of apple cake and culture, while the rest of us watched MTV reality shows. If you don’t have the resources for an actual holiday, try to go home. Let your mum take care of you for a bit.
  4. Don’t carry it all. It can be tempting to internalise all the shame and disappointment you feel about your lack of progress, especially if your mental health issues have already put a lot of strain on your close relationships. I’d really advise against it. Reach out to a friend or family member, and book a lazy Sunday – brunch is good, or just having tea and ignoring a Disney movie in favour of catching up. If you have someone who fits this description, I’d recommend a friend who won’t take your illness personally, the way your partner or parents might – someone who will listen and empathise without trying to assign blame. Mental illness is blameless, but it’s really difficult to see it like that if you’re too close to the person suffering. Sit down, and have a cathartic conversation. Tissues and chocolate on tap, please.
  5. Stop punishing yourself. This one’s tricky, because it’s almost symptomatic of depression and anxiety. There’s a little voice in your head, telling you that you’re not good enough, that you’re fat and stupid and you should have made more progress by now. There will be times when you won’t have control of the little voice, but you always have the option of telling it to f*ck off! In the same way that physical self-harm can be grounding, listening to this voice and sitting with that feeling of inadequacy and stress is a form of psychological self-harm that can feel good, like worrying a wobbly tooth or fiddling with a hang-nail. It can become a habit to beat yourself up about things that either aren’t true or are completely out of your control, and neither is helpful. Ask yourself, is this feeling helping? Is it productive? If not, you have no reason to wallow in it. Cut yourself some slack, and try never saying anything to yourself you wouldn’t say to your best friend. No one deserves to feel the way you’re feeling.

I know it’s hard. I know that there can seem like there is no way out, and that you are too tired to keep going.

Put one foot in front of the other. Again. Take a break if you have to, but know that working through mental illness can be like trekking through a blizzard – even if everything looks the same, you’re still making progress, and to sit still and give up won’t help you get out.

Let me know how you’re getting on.

With love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, share and comment! I love to hear from my readers ❤

NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

 

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In praise of public bathrooms.

I’ve always been an introvert, but I’ve not always known that word means. Since before I was able to articulate my need to be alone, I’ve gravitated towards warm, dark places.

I get easily claustrophobic if trapped, but for some reason the idea of choosing my hidey-hole has always appealed to me. In my mind, it’s the difference between forcing a cat into a pet-carrier and leaving a cardboard box out for the cat to investigate.

Even in childhood, the idea of a full day of uninterrupted human contact was a bit overwhelming, and so I learnt to break it up as much as I could. I would go to the library at lunch – far from being antisocial, this was my way of re-charging, so I’d have the energy to enjoy chatting in afternoon classes. I’d lean towards working on my own, because I found group discussions exhausting, and would take any opportunity to read or write on my own in a corner.

I also spent a lot of time in bathroom stalls.

There is something deeply serene about sitting in complete silence in your own little booth, thinking about nothing in particular and just taking a blessed break from real life. There are many – many – public bathrooms I would never consider sitting in for any length of time, but there are also some very pleasant ones hidden about the place. Bathrooms in Indian restaurants with black tiles and soft music.

Bathrooms on the top floor of bookshops that have doors from floor-to-ceiling, allowing you to get over a panic attack in peace and quiet.

Bathrooms in fancy hotels, where you can take ten minutes away from a conference and sit in floral-scented calm.

Bathrooms with free sewing kits and handtowels instead of paper towels, bathrooms with their own little sinks, bathrooms abandoned in the middle of nowhere on the beach which are impeccably clean and smell of the sea.

Bathrooms with big mirrors where you can inspect your own face, and imagine you’re on the Truman Show.

Bathrooms let you put a locked door between yourself and whatever has upset you, something you’re rarely able to do in the rest of life. They also have great acoustics for singing the Hercules soundtrack at full-volume.

When pretty much everything about modern life has the potential to screw with your peace of mind and send you into a dangerous spiral of stress and over-stimulation, bathrooms are an oasis of alone-time. They let you take a mindful moment, take a breath, and mentally prepare yourself for the outside world. When dealing with social anxiety,  sometimes the only thing that gets me through a long group interaction like a birthday dinner is the ability to take five minutes to myself and re-acquaint myself with normal.

Everyone has their different coping mechanisms, and my point is this: if you have something, no matter how ridiculous, that gets you through a difficult day? Use it. Enjoy it. Hoard cereal bars in your handbags, watch videos of parrots dancing, Play Pokemon, chew pen-lids.

Part of being mindful is taking pleasure in little things that allow you to turn your attention inwards. I always told my siblings growing up that if you can imagine the worst case scenario, and it’s still something you can live with, but the best case scenario is excellent? You should always do that. Re-building my calm in a bathroom for fifteen minutes is excellent. The worst case scenario is I have to use a heavy-handed innuendo to imply my time in the bathroom was both timely and productive. This is embarrassing, but also never leads to any follow-up questions.

Let me know how you grounding yourself when you’re out and about. I’d love to hear it.

With love, always,

Tea.

NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
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The blame game: handling guilt

There are two kinds of guilt I’ve experienced a lot lately. The first is my own, deeply personal and totally irrational. I feel guilty for cancelling plans, guilty for catching the flu, guilty for my panic attacks and guilty for mistakes I make when stressed and struggling with cognitive tasks and memory.

The second is a bit more complicated, because it’s not mine. It’s the guilt that my partner, my friends and my family feel.

I don’t know the degree to which they feel it, because I’m not in their heads, but I see it clear as day when it flickers across their faces. Guilt that ranges in severity from ‘oh, drat, I forgot she probably doesn’t want to talk about how she’s feeling’* to ‘oh, double-drat, I’ve just said the wrong thing and now she’s weeping like a hungry, angry baby’.

I’m going to separate this post into two, because believe it or not, I’ve been on both sides of this fence. Someone I love dearly – I’m going to call her Cake, because she’s sweet and everyone gets annoyed if I show up to parties without her – has been through, and is still going through, a long battle with her mental health. Part one is for all you anxious, depressed people, fighting with your feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

Part two is for you to give to the people who love you, and who you know feel guilty about what you’re going through, though you know – and they do, deep down – that none of this is their fault.

Part One: Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Part of the stigma that surrounds mental illness is the idea that somewhere along the lines, someone must have screwed you up. Mental illness is irrational by its very nature, and people like to shove sufferers into neat little boxes. As with most human-boxing, it’s unhelpful at best and deeply harmful at worst. No one likes to be reduced down to one fact about themselves, be it their nationality, sexuality or favourite sports team.

In the case of mental illness, there tends to be a desire to assign blame. The blame is on your parents, your abuser, fashion magazines, pop culture… the list is endless, and some of those might absolutely be amongst your personal battles, that is undisputed. The issue is that this culture of blame plays right into your anxiety’s wheelhouse.

If you’re not feeling well, it’s your fault for not eating well or exercising enough.

If your partner is annoyed, you must be a terrible person.

If someone seems disinterested, you must be uninteresting.

At its worse, you might start to blame yourself for your mental illness to the point where you can’t see a way out, because after all, how are you supposed to help your mind heal when you’re the thing that’s gone bad?

So here’s what I suggest, and it’s not terribly revolutionary but it’s fairly effective:

If you feel guilt, acknowledge it. Then do your best Professor McGonnegal impression and tell your brain, emphatically, that’s enough. I see your point, brain *rolls eyes at camera*. Your guilt is coming from an unhelpful, idiotic place, and it’s trying its best to bully you into feeling even worse.

Like all bullies, it won’t stand up to being laughed at.

In the end, it all comes down to something I say, over and over. Never say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to your best friend. If the thought crossing your mind is terrible, guilt-ridden and mean, don’t gratify it with your interest and focus. Imagine yourself in the playground, shoving your anxiety away from your cowering friend and telling it to get lost.

It has no right being there. There are some things in life you should feel guilty about, but being sick isn’t one of them, and it can seriously hinder your progress. Don’t give it the satisfaction.

Good luck, and let me know how you get on.

Part Two: Love in a Time of Sorrow

When Cake was sick, none of us knew how to handle it. I’d had depression before, some of her friends had, but her anxiety disorder was something different. It was messy, and loud, and it didn’t respond to the same stimulus that depression responded to.

When I was depressed, I was withdrawn and quiet, needing to be left alone. When Cake was anxious, she needed company, and to be distracted.

I had a lot of free time the year she got sick, for various reasons, and I took it upon myself to take care of her. I drove her to the stationary store for posterboard, to the pet shop to look at bunnies, to the cinema five times a week. She never seemed to panic in the car, or in the cinema, so that’s where we spent a lot of our time. I monologued at her, I cleaned her room while she lay in a cocoon of YouTube and M&S biscuits. Some days, the only thing she felt like eating was a salt beef sandwich from the supermarket, so I would buy them on my way back from university and keep a store of them.

I’m a mother hen by nature, so I enjoyed having someone rely on me so thoroughly. I liked the feeling of being needed, I liked spending time with her and bonding, I liked being the one who knew just what to do when she was struggling. I focused on her, and when all of my strategies failed, I felt irrationally guilty.

Intellectually, I knew there was no real reason for her panic attacks or her bad days, they just came and went, but my own neuroses wouldn’t let me see it like that. I constantly felt like I should be doing more, should be working harder. I felt like I should be able to keep her safe.

Basically, I veered a little bit too far into the ‘mother’ part of mother-hen, and though I don’t regret a moment of it, my point is this: you’re doing everything you can. You’re learning about your loved one’s illness, you’re developing coping mechanisms.

You are not to blame. You are not the cause, even if you are the focus.

Stay kind, both to your loved one and to yourself, because misery loves company and it’s too easy to miss signs of depression in yourself when you’re caring for someone else.

As long as you keep talking to each other, it will be fine. I promise. So much of looking after someone with a mental illness is just in showing up – just being there, when their brain is trying to drive everyone away.

Good luck, and let me know how both of you are doing. Cake, if you’re reading this – I love you, and we totally need to go pet more bunnies soon. That was amazing.

With love, always,

Tea.

*(n.b: I think this blog is a pretty decent indication that I like talking about how I’m feeling, I think it starts interesting conversations)

NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
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Hitting the hard reset button

I’ve watched every episode of The IT Crowd at least three times, and there are still occasions when someone will come to me with a problem and I feel like an automated machine, clicking over a reel of tape and saying, in bored tones: Have you tried turning it off and on again?

Here’s the thing about the human brain that you are somehow not taught to manage at school: a huge part of your brain is off-limits from your conscious mind. There’s the bit that floods your body with pleasure and, when sick, makes you feel depressed and helpless. There’s the bit that developed to save monkey ancestors from lions, which freaks out when faced with situations that it perceives to be dangerous and gives you no say in the matter – I usually refer to that bit as your ‘lizard brain’.

My lizard brain is the reason there is one Sainsbury’s in south London I can’t walk through without having a meltdown. It’s the reason I can’t watch My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, listen to Bridge Over Troubled Waters or handle the noise of car alarms going off. My lizard brain is the reason I hate choker necklaces and the Tate Modern.

It is irrational in a lot of ways, but it’s pretty simple in others. The reason I have predictable reactions when any of those stimuli come up is because I’ve reacted badly to them before, and my subconscious has stamped each of them with an enormous DO NOT WANT.

My issue is that as I progress further along this mental health journey, more and more places, people and things are going to make me panic. I can’t control when panic attacks are going to happen, and that means they could pop up at literally any time, ruining some important aspect of my life because Lizard Brain now associates it with bad. In the past few weeks, my subconscious has added throw pillows, drying dishes and laptop bags to its hotlist, and I’m generally pretty attached to all of those things, so something needs to give.

I can’t let it get to the stage where work makes me panic (no judgement, though, I know it’s impossible for it not to for a lot of people). I need to be able to commute, and go grocery shopping, and make my doctor’s appointments.

My solution is one lifted straight out of The IT Crowd and is a particular favourite of my Welshman: I try turning my brain off, then on again.

My method of choice is simply going home. By home, I mean my parents’ house, about an hour out of London. I grew up a British expatriate overseas, and ‘home’ was always a blurry concept for me, but my parents have been where they are now for over ten years and I finally feel as though I have roots. The older I get, in fact, the more that the idea of moving out of the city and into their hometown, where I know the culture and the best bridle paths, is appealing.

I go home, usually after a hard week at work. I get picked up by my dad, who will be playing something jazzy or avant-garde on his iPod and will use the 10-minute drive from the station to bring me up to speed on the price of cassava in Nigeria or the current state of the cat’s health. I’ll stand in the kitchen and listen to all the news I’ve missed, have new additions to the house pointed out to me.

I’ll be fed, and offered every beverage known to humankind, and will sleep in ironed bedsheets. The cat will be indifferent to my return. My mother will get misty-eyed. I’ll play my dad’s guitar, take a shower that gives my hair that not-London-water shine, and peacefully mediate the bizarre arguments my parents get into.

After the weekend, I’ll go back to the city, and my mind will be that little bit clearer.

Of course, it’s not always practical to up-wheels and run away, nor always advisable. Sometimes, you have to stay and see things through.

In those situations, my hard-reset button will be something smaller. Leaving the room, for starters, or going outside for a bit. Washing my face, going to get a coffee, having a full day on the sofa.

I’ll try turning it off, then on again. If that doesn’t work, I can try something else. It’s a learning process, trying to figure out what will help, when and to what extent.

The knack is to keep trying, and not to get discouraged when your schemes for self-improvement don’t work. As I’ve said before, what you’re doing is hard. Cut yourself some slack, take a deep breath, and let me know how you’re getting on.

With love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, comment and share – I’d love to hear from you ❤

NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
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5 study tips for students with depression and anxiety

Hi there everyone – yet another not-so-fun topic, but I’m hoping this will be helpful for a few of you out there. As I said in my last post (which you can read here), exams suck.

They suck even harder if you’re in a really bad place, and they certainly won’t let you reschedule until you’re feeling better.

The cherry on top of this sundae of awful is this: exams tend to coincide with times in your life when you’ll be more susceptible to mental illness. They come along when you’re a teenager, and everything is overstimulating and terrifying and your brain is literally rebuilding itself every day.

They come along when you’re in university, and you have the added pressure of living in what is essentially a trial-run of adulthood. It is hard to adult. You have to buy bin bags.

So I’m not going to repeat my advice to take it easy on yourself, but seriously, please try. You will look back on this time and be utterly amazed you didn’t lose your sweet mind. I’m convinced that there is something at work in teen minds, similar to in the minds of new mothers, that helps them forget the pain and stress as soon as it’s over. If there wasn’t, no one would ever go to university.

Here are my top 5 tips for studying with anxiety and depression

  1. Know your symptoms, and work with them. If you have either depression or anxiety, chances are you’ll be experiencing some cognitive symptoms. You might not have noticed, but certainly for me these include: short-term memory loss, confusion, disorientation and difficulty concentrating. These all get much worse if I’m in the middle or on the edge of an anxiety attack. Cognitive issues are really scary, really intense and can make you feel like a dangerous idiot at times, but they’re truly out of your control and – say it with me – they’re temporary. This too shall pass. In the interim, you need to get the people in your life clued up about how best to help you out. For me, I need everyone to know that if they talk while looking away from me, at best I get confused and don’t know what they’re saying, and at worst my social anxiety makes me freak out. I need my line manager to know that I’m struggling with short-term memory loss. I need my boyfriend to know that sometimes my brain glitches and I don’t hear what he’s said. Develop coping mechanisms, plan for your brain to freak out, and don’t be scared of it when it happens. Chances are, you just need a break somewhere quiet. You’re allowed to ask for that.
  2. Snack like nobody’s watching. I know I said this in the last post about exams, but it bears repeating. Your adrenaline reflex is set off by anxiety, and it’s the fight-or-flight response. To activate it, your body literally shuts off all unnecessary processes, including digestion – the idea is that if your life is in danger, you won’t be eating for a while. This, however, works both ways: if you eat or drink, it signals to your body that there is nothing to be afraid of. It can’t be that bad – you have chocolate! Keep a steady supply of (non-caffeinated, if you can stand it) hot drinks to hand, as the heat will help your animal brain calm down, too. Also, if you’re feeling virtuous, it’s worth remembering that healthy eating helps your body have the energy and resources needed to keep you steady. I’m talking whole grains, veggies, and lean protein. Have a hard-boiled egg and a biscuit.
  3. Protect your safe spaces. Places have a way of bringing back memories and anxiety in a really intense way, and when you’re studying, you can’t afford to let the places you feel focused and calm be polluted. If you always feel sleepy if you study in your bedroom, go to the library. If your friends always make noise – or, worse, bring drama – in the library, go to a coffee shop. If you find somewhere you can focus, hold on to it, and treat it as a sacred space with sacred acts to get you in the right headspace. You always get a tea from the Starbucks on the way, for example. You always listen to Vivaldi. You always bring a blanket scarf and tuck it over your knees. Remember that for a little while, this is all about you – you can afford to be a little selfish. What you’re doing is hard. There’ll be plenty of time to be sociable when you have the resources again.
  4. Teach someone. I have found no better way to revise than to get your notes down to a single side of A4, then try to teach them to someone else by expanding all your short-hand and crib-notes into full format. My old technique – which was a little mad, but very effective – was to literally memorise a long list of names that I associated with key facts, just before the exam. Then I would go in, write them down on scrap paper, and promptly forget them, referring back and forth to the scrap if I needed them. If your friends are nice, quiet, respectful people who know your habits and what you’re going through, it’s really nice to have some accountability. The people in your study room can see if you’ve spent twenty minutes in the bathroom playing a game on your phone. They can see if you’ve been out for coffee three times this morning. Make use of their presence, and soak up their energy and knowledge.
  5. If you need special consideration, take it. One of my big regrets is not taking special consideration in my 2nd year of university. I was depressed and grieving, and though I thought I could do it on my own if anyone had been really paying attention they would have seen how much I was struggling. If you are going through a new diagnosis, a bereavement, a bad break-up… it’s worth asking for special consideration. The worst they can say is no. The best case scenario? You get to take some of the pressure off.

In conclusion: be kind to yourself, and take it slow, for the race is long and in the end it’s only against yourself.

Let me know how you’re getting on.

With love, always,

Tea.

NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
Featured post

How to handle exam anxiety

So, let me prefix this with two facts:

  1. My exam days are – thank jeebus – behind me
  2. My mother is a GCSE and A-Level biology teacher, so I know this time of year is hard, and she’s told me her students are suffering (for non-UK readers, these are exams for 16-18 year-olds and they suck)

With that out of the way, let me share with you the single best bit of advice I was given when I was doing my A-Levels:

You need to accept that this time of your life is going to be really unpleasant, and figure out how you’re going to handle it.

I know that a lot of people in your life will try to diminish the pain, the exhaustion, the levels of done you’ll reach during your exams. I don’t want to do that – I want you to know that if you’re suffering, it’s not OK.

It’s not OK that this system exists, that’s making you sick with worry.

It’s not OK that you’re expected to memorise, like a parrot, facts you’ll never need or use.

It’s not OK, the way that some people will try to measure your worth by the outcome of a few summers when you’re at your most psychologically vulnerable and your life is in the biggest upheaval it will ever go through.

You do not deserve to suffer. If exams are giving you panic attacks, if they’re making you depressed, or if you were already those things and you can’t face the prospect of exams, you’re not alone. I see you. I remember how hard it is.

So here’s the first, deeply radical thing I’m going to propose, and it’s straight from my idol, Amanda Palmer:

Just because your grades are bad, it doesn’t mean you’re failing.

There are other ways to succeed, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to hurt any less to struggle, and that’s the awful truth about this time in your life: it’s a dry run for all the crap you’re going to have to handle in the rest of your time on this earth.

If you let it, exam time is a baptism of fire into the world of adulthood, and that’s one of the reasons why it drives me crazy when adults dismiss exam fear and blindly praise people who do brilliantly. People who rock exams are valid, but it’s just as valid to have a brain that works in a completely different way. My darling Cake (so called, if you recall, because she’s so sweet and people get annoyed if I show up without her) struggled with exams in a big way, and it made me miserable to see how it affected her self-worth.

She is brilliant. She’s articulate and her skill with people, her sheer charm, is a weapon that god forbid she ever decides to use for evil. She’s witty and informed and she knows so much – there was just a disconnect between her and the exam board.

Which, I’m beginning to think, is a good way to be. They’re not interested in your creativity. They’re not interested in your wellbeing, those exam people.

So, exams are a dry-run for adulthood. They teach you how to live through extreme boredom, how to pay attention to things that don’t interest you, how to stick to a routine and accept discomfort and exhaustion.

Exams suck. If you accept this fact, and lean into it, you’ll save yourself a world of disappointment. There’ll be times when you can’t watch Netflix or go out for drinks (or whatever the underage legal equivalent is – milkshakes??). There’ll be times when you won’t be able to see your girl/boyfriend, or your friends. Times when you’ll have to spend a weekend – in Summer – indoors and focusing on unbearably dry revision notes.

You’ll come out of it stronger. But if you’re terrified of exams, revision is the easy part.

Here are my top 5 tips for handling exam anxiety:

  1. Be prepared. This might feel like a really annoying place to start, but the simple fact is you’ll feel much more nervous if you’re not ready for an exam. Figure out what revision techniques actually work, and do it with this method: Revise for half an hour, on a single topic, then explain it to a rubber duck. Other animal-shaped objects would work, but the rubber duck is a tool used by coders to figure out where the holes are in their programme. You’ll understand a topic properly if you’re able to digest it, re-phrase it, and teach it to someone else. My tool of choice is to write out my notes, then section-by-section reduce them to a single word or phrase, usually one I’d forget otherwise. So, for example, photosynthesis might become chlorophyll – from that, I have to expand it to a summary of the whole process, then back down again. I use flashcards for this, and talk to myself like a lunatic. Don’t waste time on techniques that don’t work – if it doesn’t pass the rubber duck test, you’ve only lost half an hour. Try again, same topic, different revision method.
  2. Sleep. Everyone will be telling you this, but I literally can’t emphasise it enough. Sleep, every chance you get. Go to bed early. If you need to cram, do it reaaaally early in the morning – it’s very quiet, you’re safe to drink coffee, and by the time the exam gets there you’ve been awake and studying for a few hours straight. If you have a day off, schedule sleep breaks into your revision to give your brain a chance to turn short-term memory into long-term. Do not stay up all night – it’ll kill your ability to think on your feet, and will make you feel like your whole face is made of cotton wool and regret.
  3. Eat. Snack. Snacking helps you think (maybe? It helps me think!) so prepare to be snacky. Carry almonds, cereal bars, and money for frappes. Carry polos and chewing gum and paracetamol. Be prepared to be in the library/revision chamber of your choice for the long haul. If you like to study with friends, say you’ll order a pizza if all of you work until lunchtime. It’s hard to panic when you’re eating – your fight-or-flight reflex literally struggles to work – so plan to eat Malteasers or something just before the exam when everyone else is freaking out.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you had a bad exam – on to the next one. Nothing that happens during this time is indicative of your worth as a human – it’s literally just a sign of how well you memorise. If you love iced coffees, get iced coffees. If you love Indian, persuade your parents/friends to order extra garlic naan. Listen to music that keeps you calm (I’d recommend Jean-Yves Thibauldet’s Price & Prejudice). Take frequent breaks to go outside and breathe in the fresh air. Buy new highlighters. You are getting through this, and whatever awaits you on the other side, I can promise you that this time in your life will not define you.
  5. Don’t feed the bad wolf. There’s an old parable, which goes like this: a grandfather tells his grandchild “There are two wolves inside of us, good and bad. The good wolf represents hope, love and positivity. The bad wolf is fear, panic and cruelty.” The child responds: “But which wolf wins?” The grandfather replies: “The one you feed.” If you’re feeling depressed, try not to wallow. Don’t listen to Morrissey after dark. Steer clear of depressing shows, movies, music… anything that could be a trigger. You’ve got enough on your plate without adding to it. Take a hiatus from stressful situations – avoid the mall, public transport, whatever stresses you out and is humanly possible to avoid. And if it all gets too much, go to your local charity shop, buy something porcelain and then go outside and smash it. You will feel 100% better, I promise you.

Nobody said this would be easy, loves, but I was there, and I promise you this: this too shall pass.

Take care of yourself, and let me know how you get on.

With love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, share and comment! Is there someone in your life studying for exams?

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible.
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Expectations are resentments waiting to happen

I was listening to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text on the Victoria Line, a podcast that was suggested by a good friend of mine who knows a) how much I love Harry Potter b) that I’ve been having a hard time with my mental health recently. The podcast is really beautiful; the concept, to those of your who don’t know, is that they read HP as though it’s a sacred text, and use it to draw spiritual conclusions such as how we can handle fear and live more mindfully.

The episode I was listening to focused on the theme of expectation, and one of the hosts mentioned an Anne Lamott quote: “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”

This resonated with me on a few levels. The first is the conversation I seem to be having, over and over, with my twenty-something friends lately, about their feelings of anxiety and stress. Many of my friends feel like there is something else they should be doing. They measure themselves against each other, celebrities, siblings, parents. After university ended, it’s as though they decided in the absence of any official quizzes or exams to test their progress they were just going to assume, from here on out, that they’re making bad decisions that will inevitably ruin their lives.

I feel that stress a lot. I changed careers in December, after two years in the workforce, and though it’s hardly the proverbial quarter-life crisis the fact remains that it provides ample food for my anxiety.

Am I working hard enough? I’ll ask myself, if I take an hour for lunch. Does everyone hate me? When will I be promoted? Should I know more by now? How can I progress when I can’t bear networking events?

I have a lot of expectations of myself, and recently – as my mental illness has forced me to acknowledge how damaged my psychological defences really are – I’ve realised that expectations aren’t helping me. It’s fine to have goals, but these aren’t goals. I have an internalised overbearing parent (whom I know is imaginary, because my own parents are soft, fluffy kittens who are baffled, saddened and endlessly patient in the face of my mental illness). It doesn’t matter if these expectations are realistic or not, right now they are not helpful. They just stress me out and make me resent myself for failing to have the energy to achieve them.

That said, I expect a few things with resolute, optimistic faith, and I think those expectations are helpful. I expect that someday, I’ll feel better. I expect I’ll get engaged, sometime soon, and will have the huge pleasure of putting my Pinterest boards to good use and looking at wedding magazines with my baby sister. I expect myself to write, every day, and run, whenever I can fit it into my schedule.

The knack is, I think, in avoiding that resentment. If (touch wood!) I don’t feel better, that’s not a reason to punish myself or spiral – it’s another insight into my illness, and something to take to my doctor. If my relationship goes through a rocky patch, I can’t resent my outbursts or my partner’s reactions – it happens to everyone, and I know we’re strong enough to work with each other and find a solution. If I don’t feel like writing or running, I can have a bit of self-empathy and accept that sometimes, I need to put my mental health first and my productivity second.

It’s not an easy practice, but that’s why they call it practice. You keep trying, and every time you fail it’s a chance to adjust your approach. It can be painful and intense to keep yourself open to change, particularly when you’re mentally unwell and you just want to cling to the expectations, of yourself and of the future, that have served you well in the past.

I know it’s hard, but I’m right there with you, and I have faith in us both.

With love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, share and comment! What expectations have you been struggling with lately?

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible.
Featured post

Exercising with depression: mind versus body

I’d like to flag upfront that this is something that is very much still a work in progress for me. My body, pale and solid, was very clearly designed by generations of Celtic ancestry to prepare me for a) childbirth and b) farm work.

As neither are currently in the cards for me, my default setting in terms of physical activity is fairly akin to a large house-cat. Given free reign, I would sleep for twelve hours a day and lounge for a further 11.5, leaving myself a good half an hour to devote to walking to and from the kitchen.

Looking back, my image of myself as a kind of anti-athlete stems from being the only ten-year-old on the playground with rapidly-expanding, thoroughly unwieldy boobs. I have a vivid memory of the first time I realised those bad girls would need strapping down if I was to continue dashing about the place.

It doesn’t help that at around the same time I moved from Africa to the UK, effectively plunging me into a Lindsay-Lohan-in-Mean-Girls-esque culture crisis. I did not understand the rules of netball. Or rounders. My skill at baseball and a vicious, Afrikaans version of contact-rugby meant nothing. When faced with the prospect of voluntarily donning maroon bloomers to take part in field hockey, I gracefully bowed out of the whole system, doffing my hat and saying: “Have at it, ladies, but this is not my cup of tea.”

Since then, my relationship with exercise has been on-again, off-again. Like a lot of size 14 teenage girls, I was firmly convinced that my life would begin when I lost weight, but I never enjoyed dieting or exercise enough to maintain a consistent effort. As a naturally depressive personality, I valued the brief patches of joy brought by laziness and food far more than I valued some prospective future of rock-hard abs.

In short, I thought I had enough things making me miserable without adding ‘failure to get fit’ to my list.

Then, in the summer of my Master’s degree, something shifted a little. A perfect storm of motivating factors came into play. For one thing, I had a lot of free time, having quit my barista job to focus on my thesis over the summer. For another, a member of my family was quite mentally unwell, and I had the sudden urge to find coping mechanisms of my own before winter returned, bringing with it the inevitable depression and mood-swings.

I had eight weeks to kill, exactly, before starting a new job in London. I’d read a book, which had helpfully told me that people are often dishonest with themselves about what they want, and I had decided that what I wanted was this:

I wanted to be a runner.

I wanted to be the sort of person who laced up trainers, pulled on a parka, and went for a run.

I wanted that freedom, that time to myself, that feeling of achievement.

I wanted to set myself goals and actually see something come from them.

So, I set out with a couch-to-5k programme. Everything became focused, in my mind, on my goal. My weight put pressure on my joints, so I was motivated to eat clean and shed some pounds. I did yoga for flexibility, kettlebells for strength.

I kept going. The next February, I ran a half marathon. In London, my commute was 15 minutes, so I could run twice during the week for an hour each and still sleep enough, still make it to work on time. I shed two dress sizes and felt brilliant.

This year, that changed. I moved in with my Welshman, which took my commute from 15 minutes in one direction to 70, effectively swallowing the two hours I might have spent doing yoga and going for a run. Work became unrewarding and stressful, and home life was a steep learning curve that required more of my focus and energy than it had when we lived apart.

I stopped running. Stopped exercising completely, after a few stop-and-start attempts to find an alternative. There was no gym near my work or home I could use, no practical solution I could find.

I gained weight, and fell into the worst depression of my life.

I do think the two are related. Exercise had become so fundamental to my health that its loss was difficult for my brain and body to compensate for. That said, every time a loved one suggested I would feel better if I took up running again, I felt like crying.

I can’t, I wanted to scream. It takes all my energy to wake up, go to work and come home. I need my sleep. Do you have any idea how tired I am, all the time?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, on a sunny Sunday (winter running is miserable and daunting if you’re not used to it, not to mention dark) I started another couch-to-5k. It was humbling to start again from the beginning, but it also felt like a radical act of self-love.

Hey, I said to myself, this is an achievement. On its own, this is an achievement.

A wise woman suggested that I reward myself if I managed to run three times a week, but also reward myself if I didn’t, because self-flagellation was part of the reason I had lost my motivation in the first place.

It’s early days, still. But there are ducklings in the park, and dogs, and I listen to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and reflect on my life. I take it, quite literally, one step at a time, and I try to listen to my body.

I spare a lot of empathy for other people, and don’t save a lot for myself. I’m trying to be kinder, to ignore the cruel voices in my head, and for me this act of taking half an hour for myself three times a week is an act of kindness.

The journey is long, but the first step is getting out the door.

With love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, share and comment! How do you balance exercise with relaxation?

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible
Featured post

Make it work: balancing anxiety with a high-pressure career

You all know by now how much I hate generalisations about mental health – if you don’t, go back and read my post Creativity and chaos – but there’s one that I’m seeing as a repeated pattern, over and over again, in my network of friends and family.

The pattern has two distinctive markings, and when they appear together they seem to add up to a tendency to struggle with mental health. Of course, if you have both of these and you’re feeling fine, that’s amazing and I’m pleased for you.

The two things I’ve noticed are these: a pattern of high achievement, and a habit of placing deep importance on the thoughts and feelings of other people.

I went to a good school, objectively. I spent my teens in Kent, where we still use an antique, elitist system known as ‘grammar schools’, that select pupils based on an exam they take at the age of 11. This way, they’re able to weed out all of the ‘stupid’ kids, and ensure their funding by achieving consistently high results from the creme de la creme of the surrounding 12-18 year-old population.

The reason I’m sharing all of this is to give you a little bit of context about the kind of kids I grew up with. They’re brilliant, my girls, incredibly high-achievers. Then, at uni, I expanded my network with more brilliant people: biologists and chemists, plurilingual and multi-talented.

I went to summer camps, worked part-time jobs, and then worked in a few graduate-nurturing jobs. The long and the short of it is, I know a lot a really wonderful, clever people, and it seems like I  am not alone in suffering from poor mental health now that we’ve all moved, in drips and drabs, into the workforce.

But it seems like there’s an additional element to what a lot of us are going through, and it has to do with a lot of the adjectives I’ve used in the last few paragraphs. Words like wonderfulcleverbrilliant. Words that high-achievers are used to hearing, as they go from exam to exam, university to graduation. We level-up through our lives, beating every boss level, and then suddenly we find ourselves in our mid-twenties, with no big achievement to celebrate and no big milestone to work towards.

People used to describe us with those words. And now that we’re adults, and we’re not working for anyone’s approval but our own, we are lost, and stressed, and sick. People make a lot of fun of millennials (a word I hate, by the way) for our constant need for praise. No one ever thinks about what it feels like to be used to praise, and then have it taken away.

It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot at work. I’m not ashamed to say that I was praised a lot as a kid – I earned it, I dealt with an awful lot of crap and when I achieved something, I deserved the rush of endorphins that came with a win. Now, in the workforce, no one is invested in my success. No one gives me a cookie for doing my job.

I don’t expect one, either, I’m keen to reassure you. I do good work. Sometimes, I do exceptional work, and I’m praised for that. I’m rewarded well for what I do.

But it’s hard, when the world is screaming at you to find your bliss, and your commute is long, and your colleagues are co-workers, not friends. Personally, I’ve been trying to accept what I cannot control and change, gradually, the things that I can. I’m trying to make friends with my colleagues, now I’ve been in my new job for a while. I’m trying to find parts of central London I find soothing and lovely, so that commuting into the city feels better. I’m trying to remind myself of how bored I was at my last position, and how much I appreciate the stimulation of this new role, even if it is sometimes stressful.

It’s really difficult not to care what people think of you, especially if you have anxiety. Your brain is wired like the ape you used to be, thousands of years ago – you’re designed to care about your reputation, and to stay strong for the sake of the tribe. Anxiety amplifies this, as your animal brain freaks out at misinterpreted facial and verbal cues.

I’d be lying if I said I have the answer, but as I said to a good friend of mine recently, sometimes you don’t need to know what you’ll do with the rest of your life. Sometimes, it’s ok to look at your life and ask yourself: ‘What, in this moment, is lacking?

Chances are, in any given moment, the answer will be this: nothing.

If your long-term goals are stressing you out and making you sick, put them aside. Find one small, easily changeable thing in your life, and work at it. Take a 5-minute break every afternoon and go outside. If you manage to do it every day, reward yourself. If you don’t manage it, reward yourself.

Because in the end, punishing yourself won’t do you any good. All anyone can do is try their best.

I believe in you. I’m proud of you.

Breathe, and take care of yourself.

With love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, share and comment! How has your mental health impacted the way you work? ❤ 

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible
Featured post

Panic and public transport

Sometimes, you’ll have somewhere you’ve got to be. Work, school, social engagement, protesting against the current state of the world, emergency trip to Ikea for a new rug.

Public transport is a mental illness logistical nightmare. There is loud ambient noise. It is visually overstimulating. There are myriad strangers, all of whom are both potential threats (to the idiot savant that is your animal brain) and judgemental members of society (to your bitchy, socially-conscious brain). It causes headaches and nausea, both of which can be easily confused with or cause anxiety symptoms, and you are trapped, something that every part of the anxious mind wants to avoid.

Add to that the stress of having to work out travel routes, organise connections, get off at the right stop, and remember all your bags, and it’s a miracle anyone with even a smattering of anxiety ever leaves the damned house.

But let’s say you’ve managed to drum up the energy and moxie to get on a bus/train/boat/plane. Congratulations! It is going to be both boring and uncomfortable, unless you live in the Swiss Alps and everything is endlessly, ridiculously pretty to look at.

Here are my top 5 tips for surviving public transport without a panic attack:

  1. Earplugs. My particular favourites are these, Pluggerz, which are designed for Roadies in that they block out overwhelming and damaging noise but allow you to still hear conversations and – if you’re using them at a concert – music. I often use them at work, actually, because it downs out ambient and annoying noise, protecting me from headaches, but lets me hear if a colleague calls my name. On the Underground, they produce a blissful semi-silence that allows you to read in peace.
  2. Alternatively, podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts. This is partly because I’m an auditory learner, something I developed after years of language classes, and I learn best when listening to something. It’s also partly because I get nauseous really easily nowadays, and it’s a good alternative to reading. Plus, it lets me avoid panicking by playing a puzzle-game while listening, effectively using all of my attention and keeping my lizard-brain away from useless, aimless nerves. For long journeys, I either lean towards comedy, or I’ll listen to something long and interesting like This American Life or The TED Radio Hour. Block out the world, listen to the dulcet tones of Ira Glass or Roman Mars, and tune back into reality when you reach your destination.
  3. Play games. It’s not a novel suggestion to say you should try playing Candy Crush to avoid your own thoughts, but there’s actually a fair amount of science backing it up. The theory is that visuospatial cognitive tasks, like playing Tetris, reduces the brain’s ability to generate mental images, such as trauma flashbacks (Holmes et al., 2009). Whatever the logic, I’ve found that occupying my brain with games always calms me down. My personal favourite, shared with Frank Underwood in House of Cards, is Monument Valley, a gorgeous game with very soothing music.
  4. Breathe. A commute, when you’re not distracted by anything pressing and you have some time on your hands, is a great opportunity to meditate. There are some brilliant free meditation apps – try a few and pick your favourite! – or else just wearing headphones and listening to nothing is a good way to avoid conversation and turn your attention inwards. Take stock of how you’re feeling. Think about nothing at all, or if that’s too challenging, think about everything that’s happened since you woke up that you’re thankful for. Coffee, cuddles, seeing a cute cat on the street – there’ll be something to be grateful for. Breathe, and feel a little better.
  5. Take a break. Honestly, most things feel like life-and-death when you’re dealing with mental illness, but some things can wait. You can be ten minutes late to almost everything. If you’re really, really panicking – no judgement, I have been that person – I’d recommend getting off the train and waiting for the next one. The change of scenery will help reassure your animal brain that you’ve moved away from whatever threat it perceived, and the fact that you’re not moving will give your body a chance to re-calibrate.

The truth is, you’re going to have some days when it’s really difficult to handle public transport. It might get to the point where you need to talk about working from home a little more, if that’s an option, or you might need to take some sick leave. It’s a very personal journey, and if it’s a trigger for you, it can be ridiculously hard to cope with the overstimulation of busy public spaces, let alone underground ones. That move. And screech. And stink.

Be gentle with yourself, and develop coping mechanisms. Find things that calm you, that you enjoy. Only let yourself listen to your favourite audiobook during the worst part of your commute. Try something, anything, to change it up, because it doesn’t really matter if everyone on the train is coping just fine and you’re… well, you’re not.

I’ve cried in public so much at this point I’m pretty uninterested in what everyone on the Tube thinks of my puffy eyes and red face, but you might not be there yet – the key is to try to think of yourself, and your own health, first.

In the words of Mary Schmich, the race is long, and in the end it’s only with yourself.

Breathe. Take care of yourself.

With love, always,

Tea.

Please feel free to like, share and comment! I’d love to hear what public transport is like in your city, and what your rituals are for making your commute as smooth as possible.

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible
Featured post

Just make a decision: handling executive function issues

I’ve said this a lot, over the journey so far of writing this blog, but I can only really speak for myself. It’s true that a few people very close to me have dealt with mental illness – some of them, far worse than my own experience, and with humbling grace and optimism – but I don’t actually know if my experiences are ‘normal’.

Whatever ‘normal’ is. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been normal in my whole damned life.

So something I’ve noticed, lately, is that when I’m having a bad day, I will be unable to make decisions. It’s a vicious cycle: if I’m not feeling well, my mind in chaos and my stomach churning, I’ll be totally incapable of making even simple choices. If I’m feeling fine, but I’m somewhere that tends to stress me out – the Tube, for example – and someone asks me to make a choice, it will send me spiralling.

Often, it will be something really simple that flummoxes me, and it’s terribly embarrassing. I won’t be able to pick a restaurant for dinner, and it’ll give me a panic attack. I’ll be asked a question, and fear of saying the wrong thing will make me cry. My brain will glitch, midway through a sentence, and I’ll say something garbled that is misinterpreted, and now whomever I’m speaking to is angry with me.

To be a grown woman crying in public because someone asked you if you wanted Italian or sushi is a bizarre feeling. I sincerely hope you never feel it.

It’s tied in, I think, with my anxiety over annoying or upsetting the people around me. I moved to the UK as a teenager, and I’ve never quite gotten over that sensation of being a stressed-out little girl who just does not understand the social nuance of everyone going on around her. I’m terrified, nowadays, of being annoying. I don’t want to make the wrong choice, so I don’t stand up for myself. I don’t say I want sushi – I pretty much always want sushi – because I’m afraid, irrationally, that my best friend since school will decide to abandon me, so determined is she that we have pizza.

Something Tumblr suggested to me, that I’m keen to try, is this: person A (the neurotypical, or at least not actively panicking person in the group) will say, “Here are 5 restaurants I’d be happy to go to for lunch”.

Person B (tear-stained, emotional wreck after accidentally hearing a sad song on Shuffle-mode): “There are two of those I’d prefer, number 1 and number 3.”

Person A: “Great, let’s do 1, then!”

The knack is this: if you’re dealing with an anxious wreck of a person, who is struggling to make decisions due to the soup of neurochemicals that makes up their brain, try and find ways to take the pressure off. Telling them it’s irrational DOES NOT HELP. They’ll be fully aware, I assure you.

Rather, make it into a game. Make it so that the social pressure is as light as possible – make it so that whatever decision they make, they know they won’t upset you, won’t ruin the day. When at all possible, plan things in advance and have a back-up plan with different elements, so you won’t be disappointed if they can’t do option A.

A great example is this: the other weekend, my Welshman wanted to go to the British Museum. He loves it there – I love it there.

The issue was, London is on high alert for terrorism, and they were doing bag-checks outside the building. This, combined with the time of year and the good weather, meant that the street outside the museum was packed, and the queue for the back-check was loud and chaotic.

I took one look at it and knew I was completely incapable of joining that queue and avoiding a panic attack.

Welshman, to his eternal credit, came up with a plan B. He took me to a nearby teashop. We had a fancy silver needle green tea, a slice of ridiculous hipster cake, and bought some books.

I avoided the attack for a little longer, and managed not to embarrass him or myself.

I suppose my point is this: your brain is complicated, and if you’re going through mental illness, your brain is quite literally sick. Some of that will manifest as emotional imbalance, and some of it as practical processing issues, like a computer running a virus scan. Your brain is trying to heal itself, and you need to lay off the pressure while it does its work.

Sushi or pizza, you’ll still be out at lunch with your friend and having a good time. Take a deep breath. Let it out.

Take care of yourself, and make good decisions, when you can.

With love, always,

Tea.

Please like, comment and share! I love hearing from you all – when was the last time you struggled to make a decision and it stressed you out?

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible

 

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Handling irrational anger

Ok, so first let me prefix this by saying that I’m not an angry person. I’m of Scottish heritage, and I’ve got red hair, so I’d be lying if I didn’t say my default reaction to a lot of situations – particularly in the city – is blind fury.

Some French tourist shoved me in Soho? Il va mourir. Some woman walks directly into me because she’s texting in a busy train station? Queue passive-aggressive excuuuusssee me!

The thing is, I burn hot, but I burn fast. I have terrible short-term memory, and oftentimes am left about half an hour later saying something along the lines of: ‘I have no idea why I’m mad, but I know you deserve it.‘ The vast majority of the time, despite my resting bitch-face, my factory setting is serene. I like things to be quiet, and I like to be left alone, and most of the time I pootle through life absent-mindedly thinking about Harry Potter.

Seriously, though. Are all wizards and witches homeschooled until they’re 11?

Harry Potter aside, anxiety and depression have changed that, for me. My fuse, never the longest to begin with, is now the sort of length you find on decidedly dodgy Value Brand fireworks. My emotional state has always been closely tied to the seasons, my depression seasonal and predictable, but this year it’s been far more intense than it’s ever been before, and the anxiety is completely new. Before, I would spend a day sad. Uncomplicatedly sad, sitting still and lonely, reading Sylvia Plath and writing uninspired poetry about grey skies.

For the past few months, it’s been different. Some days I can feel the panic attack creeping up, slow and awful, waiting for anything to set it off. Nothing will snap me out of it until it crests, and I spend fifteen minutes screaming, crying and feeling like I want to die. Since starting medication, it’s more likely to be quick and dirty – a single random word, a unintentionally cruel facial expression – will have me in helpless tears.

Learning more about my symptoms has been invaluable, and recently I’ve discovered that I’ve been having tiny, unnoticed panic attacks, which I thought were legitimate reactions, not chemically-induced mood-swings. And the most common one is anger.

The thing is, I don’t have an intrinsic hatred for French tourists. I don’t automatically dislike people who text and walk – I do it, sometimes, when I’m distracted. What I thought were reasonable reactions were just my mind’s attempt to channel a blind, animalistic panic at being caught in a public, loud place with myriad unidentified dangers. I’m terrified and uncomfortable, so I bark like a small dog, hopeful it will scare off the hoover.

It’s a steep learning curve for me, but I have been learning to deal with irrational anger.

Here are some top tips, straight from the shouting, red-faced woman’s mouth:

  1. Take a deep breath before you say something regrettable. Ok, so this one I’m still struggling with, but as my poor, desperate Welshman keeps trying to tell me: You never know what people are thinking, especially in the city. The chances that you shout at someone for being inconsiderate and they, rather than thanking you for alerting them to their civil disobedience, just deck you one are fairly high. Take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out. Sometimes, you’re only 5 deep breaths away from feeling fine. Unless you’re like Black Widow or something, in which case go forth and be a vigilante of public decorum. God speed.
  2. Go somewhere else. If you’ve had a panic attack before, you’ll know the desperate need to leave. It’s your animal brain saying, perfectly logically, that you shout get out of the place that’s full of scary things. The same is true if you’re irrationally angry. In public or at work I’d seriously recommend finding a bathroom with a lock. Turn your phone onto airplane mode and write an angry text. Then delete your text, return phone to normal mode, and leave the bathroom feeling like a new, carefree version of yourself.
  3. Get wet. Splash your face with some water, if water isn’t a trigger for you (seriously, not judging, there was an incident with a kayak a few years ago I’m still haunted by.) Have a cup of tea. Drink some cold water. Hydrate! Dehydration might be giving you a headache, which won’t be helping your mood. Also, leaving the desk to get a drink is a perfectly good reason to escape your infuriating colleague. Double win! Baths or showers are also awesome if you can drum up the motivation to get into them, and are helpful in covering any cursing or angry-crying you feel the need to do.
  4. Listen to really angry music. Or baby music. So my angry music of choice is a lady called Emilie Autumn (I’d recommend ‘Fight Like A Girl‘). Listen to something thrash-y, and think angry thoughts if you have to. Alternatively, if you’re on the verge of panicking in a public place (especially the office) baby-sleep music can be super helpful to drown out the noise and get your head into a different space. There are some great tracks on Spotify, or else look up meditation music on YouTube. Keep some on your phone for emergencies. Seriously, it can be the difference between crying in an exhibition of Soviet artwork and making it round the room without having a meltdown! (I know this is super specific, but just trust me.)
  5. Go look for a dog. This is particularly good if you have a park near your office. I might be alone in this, but I can’t be mad if I’m looking at a dog being happy. Or a dog running about. Basically, dogs are the cure for everything and we don’t deserve them. If you don’t have access to a dog, this video is a good alternative. Watch now, thank me later.

Finally, you need to let the people around you know what’s happening. To someone outside your head, your moodswings and anger are inexplicable and frightening, and they don’t deserve to be shouted at, no matter how sick you’re feeling. If you find yourself getting angry at work a lot, and you trust your manager, let them know you’re struggling with anxiety and it makes you snappy. Let your family know, if you feel safe doing so. Get your partner prepared for some rocky seas, and let them know when chocolate may be necessary. I’m sure you’ll have at least one friend who’s suffered with something similar – ask them for advice.

You’re valuable, and you’re loved, and they’ll stick with you through this. That said, it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself, and try not to hurt anyone when you’re in pain. Give it your best shot. Let me know how you’re getting on.

With love, always,

Tea.

Remember to like, comment and share! I really love hearing from you all ❤

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible.

 

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Anxiety Etiquette For Beginners

There’s an image most people have in their head of anxiety. It’s of someone – a woman, probably – breathing into a paper bag, crying, over-reacting to some ladylike stimulus. Like a mouse, or a dirty word. Her reactions are over-the-top, inexplicable to anyone outside her own head. I do pant, sometimes, gasp for breath and consider trying to ask for a paper bag. It’s not in my top five symptoms, though, if anyone’s keeping track.

My attacks aren’t neat, discrete units – there’s no clear beginning, middle or end. Sometimes, an attack will come to a head and I’ll realise that reactions I’ve had for the past few hours – reactions I thought were 100% reasonable – were a result of an imbalance in my brain chemistry.

I don’t set out to snap at the people I love, who were just trying to organise the towels or figure out if I want desert. I don’t plan to wind up standing in the middle of an art gallery, headphones blasting Vivaldi, right on the verge of terrified tears because a lady with a baby pushed me out of the way. In case anyone was passing through Green Park station a few weeks ago, silently judging a spectacled man who was clearly struggling with his weeping girlfriend’s nonsense, please don’t judge my Welshman too harshly.

This first post isn’t really about me, though. It’s about my family, my Welshman, my co-workers. The people around me who are baffled/saddened/irritated by the chronic illness I’m working through. It’s impossibly hard, dealing with your own mental health and all the ridiculous crap your brain throws at you, but it might be really intense, frustrating and miserable to watch someone you’re close to going through it.

Here’s the first thing to know: depression and anxiety are not taking the place of your loved one. At one point, my Welshman turned to me and said: ‘you’re not you when you’re like this.’ I replied: ‘it’s me. It’s me, and I’m suffering.’

Depressed people need space, often. Anxious people should not be left alone or judged. It’s a hard balance to strike, and it’s hard to figure out what someone needs when they might not know themselves. When you first start to deal with depression and anxiety, you might not realise either of those words apply to you. Their symptoms are insidious, and often don’t seem important to you or anyone watching you – so what, you don’t want to leave the house much anymore? You sometimes forget to wash your hair for a ridiculously long time? Join the club!

Even once you’ve worked out what’s happening to you, new symptoms can take you by surprise. I, for example, recently realised that my inability to form coherent sentences when I’m stressed is a form of panic attack.

I can only speak for myself, but here are 5 things I wish everyone dealing with a panic attack would try and do:

  1. Listen to what I’m saying. It might be nonsense, or it might come from somewhere deep and meaningful inside of me, but honestly, I don’t need you to work out which it is. I just need you to listen, when I’m ready to speak, and don’t judge me.
  2. Be patient. It might take a while. Settle in, breathe deeply, and try not to lose your patience. I know it’s hard. I know it can be boring. But if I’ve asked you to stay, know I need you, desperately, and I’m so grateful you’ve decided to keep me company.
  3. It’s embarrassing. I know it is. I’m the one weeping in public, totally unable to breathe or think of anything but the nonsensical pain and fear. The best thing you can do is get me somewhere safe, somewhere quiet, and act as though you don’t give a damn what anyone thinks.
  4. Feed me! I won’t want to eat, won’t be able to think of food, but it’s really hard to panic and eat at the same time. Peppermint tea and chocolate will help calm me down, if I’m not too far gone.
  5. Learn about what’s happening to me. I’ve always suffered from depression, but this – this anxiety, these mood swings – this is new. I don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t recognise all my symptoms, or know what I need. If you want me to get better, I need your help.

And that’s the last thing I want to say. It’s unbelievably hard, impossibly humbling, to look someone in the eye and tell them that you can’t do this on your own. That what’s happening to you is too much for you to bear without help. If you’re suffering, right now, it might be that none of this is new information, but the past few months have been an incredibly steep learning curve for me and the people I love, and I wanted to tell you that you’re not alone.

I’m here. I’ll listen, if you want to speak. I may never know you, may never meet you, but we’re cut from the same messy, beautiful cloth.

With love, always,

Tea First, Panic Later.

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible.
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