Talking To Anorexia

So I watched Louis Theroux’s ‘Talking to Anorexia’ the other day and have been gathering my thoughts about it since then. I’m not going to lie; it was very difficult to watch.

But I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

Anorexia is the deadliest of all psychiatric illnesses; the average duration of the illness is 8 years and the full recovery rate is thought to be around 40%. 40%. That means that 60% of people either remain chronically ill, or only make a partial recovery and live the rest of their lives with anorexia hanging over their heads. If I talk about it honestly, I don’t think I could put myself in that 40%. Although I left treatment for the last time about 4 years ago now, my eating disorder remains something I am very much aware of. I adore hearing stories and reading blogs about people who would put themselves in that ‘fully recovered’ group, and I aspire to be like them. My eating disorder no longer controls me, and I live my life as anybody else. I am healthy and happy – I am ‘in recovery’. But I cannot imagine waking up every morning and not having to make a conscious choice to choose to stay in recovery, over, and over, and over again. Making this choice gets easier over time, but it’s still one I have to make. It’s all too easy to fall prey to the voice telling you that you’re fat, that missing one meal wont hurt, that purging just this once wont turn into twice or three times.

Ultimately, that’s why I found this documentary so powerful. Yes it was hard to watch; it was triggering at times and upsetting at others, but anorexia is an insidious illness that takes over its host like a parasite and turns them into somebody else. There are guidelines that the media are asked to follow when speaking about the topic of eating disorders. These include not discussing weight or BMI, specific behaviours such as how much somebody is exercising or purging, and using before and after photos. Whilst I completely agree with these guidelines and certainly will adhere to them myself, I do think that by not talking about the extremes of some of the symptoms of anorexia, we are shielding the world from its true horror. We all know what we get up to within the confines of our competitive and sometimes toxic community, but the I think that despite other media coverage, the rest of the world remains blind to some of the harrowing things we put ourselves through. People are dying. We can’t keep pretending this is a disease of vain, pretty white girls with enviable self control.

It was heart breaking hearing about the experiences of the women featured in the documentary; what’s more heart breaking is how many other men and women are sharing these experiences at an ever increasing rate. I sincerely hope that by Louis getting to know the people featured in the documentary so well, there will be people all across the country with a better understanding of the vicious and debilitating nature of anorexia and how hard it is for people to recover – no matter how much we may want to.

If you need any support or want to find out more about eating disorders, please visit the beat website here.

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Pets and Mental Health

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As I write this, my lovely cat is sat on my lap keeping me company. Having pets is so important for my mental health, and animals in general have been shown to be really beneficial to people’s health and wellbeing.

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So to introduce you to my pets, I’ll start with my best mate Panda. He is 7 years old and I’ve had him since he was a baby. His favourite things are marmite, waking me up at 6am and rubbing faces with me. He hates it when people open cans of pop near him. He’s moved house with me 5 times, been around for several life events, and always cheers me up when I need him to. There’s something very clever about pets that I know a lot of people talk about; they are so intuitive and Panda always knows when I’m feeling rubbish. He’s like my little shadow, and I spend 90% of my time at home being confined to my sofa because he has chosen to grace me with his lap-sitting and I do not want to take this privilege for granted. He is my little furry soul mate and even has his own theme song, and I have a little tattoo of a Panda on my ankle for him.

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Now onto my princesses, Luna and Lola bunnies. They are just coming up 3 years old and I’ve also had them since they were tiny. They love bananas, tunnels and each other, and they hate loud noises. While they aren’t as affectionate or cuddly as Panda, watching them jump and run around cheers me up no matter what mood I’m in; there’s very little that a binky can’t cure. I recently built them their very own bespoke hutch based off some designs I saw on Pinterest; they love it and I love having them inside so I can see them all the time. They get to run around the house every day now and go back into their house at night. They are the absolute best of friends and are inseparable.

Aside from having my own pets, I just love animals! One of the best parts of my job – nursing in the community – is visiting people’s houses and getting to meet all their pets! I also had a horse when I was younger and riding is one of the most therapeutic things I’ve ever done, though unfortunately isn’t something I can afford these days. I always tell myself that it’s something I’ll come back to one day.

Don’t get me wrong, my animals don’t cure my mental health problems. But they do give me a purpose, responsibility, and unconditional love – all things that are so important when you’re not feeling so good.

As I’ve already said – I love animals! Furry ones, scaly ones, spiky ones. Do you have any pets that help you with your mental health (and if so, can I see?!)

Happy Halloween!

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Happy Halloween!

I like Halloween although how I celebrate it has changed a lot over the years: from trick or treating in fancy dress, going to clubs in fancy dress, going to house parties in fancy dress, and now carving pumpkins with my boyfriend in my pyjamas (which I love doing by the way). I like to watch Hocus Pocus and Frankenweenie and eat left over Haribo that I saved for myself that didn’t get eaten.

However, one thing I truly hate about this holiday is how so many people use it to negatively portray mental illness. I’m so tired of seeing different variations of the tired old ‘scary serial killer psychopath mental patient’ costume. A few years ago after a social media backlash, Asda and Tesco withdrew their take on these outfits. This was in 2013. It’s 4 years later, and every single year this has presented itself as an issue, and every single year we are having this same argument.

We are not dangerous. People with mental health problems are significantly more likely to be victims of crime than commit it. At what point is this going to end?

I feel incredibly proud to be a tiny part of the change in attitudes towards mental health that so many of us are working so hard for, and in many ways it’s clear that we are making a lot of progress as a society. But at this time of the year, every single year, it becomes clear that we still have a long way to go.

I, for one, will not stop this fight until we don’t have to have this conversation any more, and I’m so grateful to all of you who are joining this fight with me.

Travel and Mental Health

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Today I’ve been thinking a lot about travel. I recently booked a trip with a friend who I met when I worked in the Philippines last year; and I’m planning a holiday with my boyfriend for next year too.

Travel is good for my soul; I love seeing new places, eating new foods and meeting different people. It helps me to unwind and forget about the stresses of home.
However, travelling when you struggle with your mental health can be daunting. One of the things I worry about most, particularly with long distance travel, is jet lag and a lack of sleep. Regular and adequate sleep is one of the most important parts of staying well with mental health, but especially with bipolar disorder. I know for me that changes to my sleep is an early indicator that I could be getting unwell, and can also be the first trigger for a relapse. But I am aware of this, and take all precautions possible to stay in control; sleeping on the plane, trying to reset as quickly as possible, and taking extra medication if I need it. So far this has never presented a problem for me, but it still causes me anxiety knowing that it could. Mental illness can be scary enough at home, let alone somewhere you don’t know and don’t understand. Something I have learned over the years though, is that I should never let my health get in the way of things I want to do, so I try to live by that.

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One thing I have noticed, is that visiting new places is so much more enjoyable since being in recovery from anorexia. Previously I would’ve spent weeks and even months filled with anxiety about what I could and couldn’t eat, and I’d sometimes spend hours wandering around places trying to decide what I could have – often deciding on nothing in the end. Now it is exciting for me; I love getting to experience that part of different cultures – it’s one of my favourite things about visiting new places!

I haven’t been to anywhere near as many places as I’d like especially with university over the last theee years; but I’m slowly checking them off my list. Every year I tell myself I am going to save more money and spend it on experiences not belongings; but I have poor impulse control and find it hard not to shop!

Next year I have booked to go to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and I am booking Bali soon. I also plan to visit Ibiza with my friends, and hopefully a short city break with my boyfriend; we’ve been to Berlin and Paris the last two years and it’s been a lovely little escape from the stresses of life even just for a couple of days.

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We all need a break sometimes, and whether you choose to spend yours snuggled up at home or off exploring, the important thing is that we give ourselves time and space to recharge in whatever way we need to.

#MeToo

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I was considering writing a post about this topic at some point since it came about a few days ago, but wasn’t sure quite what to say. However, today walking to my gym, in my work clothes, in public, I got catcalled. And I’m angry. Really fucking angry.

I consider myself a proud feminist. I understand there are struggles for women all over the world, many of which eclipse this experience; something many people would say is trivial, that I shouldn’t be so sensitive, that I should take it as a compliment.

But it’s not just one catcall. It’s hundreds, that start so young we often can’t even recall when we first became aware of it. It’s being brushed up against and groped on public transport. It’s having to wear shorts under dresses when we go to bars or clubs to protect us from wandering hands. It’s feeling unsafe to walk alone at night and in secluded places. It’s feeling anxious to go for a run because men call out, they stare, they slow their cars down and pull up alongside us. It’s having to text our friends when we get in a taxi, and when we get out, so people know we are safe.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I have never met a single woman who hasn’t shared any of these experiences. I read something recently about a study conducted with both men and women about the worst thing that could happen to them on a first date (I apologise, I can’t remember where I saw this or who it was by). The men said that the worst outcome would be that the woman was fat. The women said being raped.

There are millions of women coming forward with their #MeToo stories, ranging from the everyday experiences we all have, to horrific stories of rape and abuse. But for every one of these incredibly brave women speaking up, there are going to be thousands more than don’t feel safe enough to do this. They should not be considered any less brave. To survive any form of abuse is brave in and of itself, and not sharing that experience doesn’t make it any less so.

I have some conflicting thoughts about the hashtag. I think it’s wonderful that so many people have come together to try and fully convey how often sexual harassment, assault and abuse occurs. But there are inevitably going to be women who find this very distressing, and who feel guilty for not being able to speak out just now.

People don’t report burglary, car crashes, violence, and often get doubted or told they are lying. But this happens time and time again to victims of sexual assault. The statistics are harrowing; so many assaults go unreported, and those that are reported are often withdrawn or don’t have enough evidence to pursue. That’s why overall, I feel that #MeToo has been helpful by drawning attention to just how prevalent an issue this is.

Finally, I’d like to add that I completely understand that sexual assault is not exclusive to women. There are thousands of men who are survivors, and who suffer their own challenges with coping with and disclosing this abuse. However, I do feel that this is a different conversation to be had (although a conversation that absolutely should be had). This is about us, as women, not only having to experience harassment and abuse so frequently, but having these experiences consistently minimised, trivialised, or disbelieved altogether.

This is not acceptable anymore. We have to fight, not just as women, not just as men, but as a society.

This has to stop.

The Mental Health Tag

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I’ve seen this post on a few different blogs now (but firstly on Jenny In Neverland’s lovely blog) and I think it’s so important to get talking about our mental health and our different experiences! So I thought I would do my own post sharing a bit more about myself.

 

What is your mental health issue?

I have bipolar disorder and I’ve previously been diagnosed with depression, anorexia and EDNOS at times when I’ve not quite met the criteria for anorexia.

 

Do you have medication and/or therapy?

I currently take medication but I’m not having any therapy. I’m actually doing really well and was recently discharged from the community mental health team.

 

What therapy/medication have you tried and have any worked for you?

Medication wise I have had a few different antidepressants; some of these were better than others although I never found any particularly helpful.

I’ve also taken a couple of antipsychotics which had unbearable side effects for me. I currently take an antiepileptic as a mood stabiliser which has worked wonders and also has no side effects for me at all.

In terms of therapy, I’ve had CBT more than once and hated it. It just doesn’t work for me. I also had counselling for a number of years. My most recent therapy was CAT, delivered by my eating disorder team. This was definitely the most helpful talking intervention I’ve had.

 

How long have you had problems for?

As long as I can remember. I recall having body image issues from around age 8/9, which developed into an eating disorder by around age 13. I’ve had difficulties with my mood since being a teenager, although more often with low mood than high, so I didn’t get diagnosed as having bipolar disorder for a long time.

 

Do your family/friends know?

I’m not actually sure who does and doesn’t, because it’s rare I explicitly talk to people about it. I am pretty vocal on social media though so I suspect lots of people know.

 

Does this affect your work and daily living?

At times over the last 14/15 years it has massively impacted my daily living. I’ve been behind on education several times due to being in hospital or in therapy and too unwell to participate, meaning I’ve had to take years out of studying.

Even during university following a manic episode I had to have some time off which definitely affected my performance – this was exacerbated even more by struggling with side effects from new medication.

However, currently I don’t feel as though my life is really affected at all, I honestly feel completely stable in my mental health at the moment. The only way in which I would say it impacts me is that I do have a constant underlying anxiety that at some point in the future, I will again be depressed or manic, and that my life will become disrupted by this. Its something I try not to worry too much about – I know it will happen again one day, so I just have to make the most of how I feel now. I do also feel frustrated sometimes at the prospect of having to take medication forever, but taking it is better than the alternative.

 

What makes you feel calm?

My boyfriend, my friends and my pets. Reading, colouring and holidays too!

 

What do you do in crisis?

That’s something I’m still working on I guess, although I did get very good at going to my GP if I felt I needed to. I had an amazing GP who left unfortunately, so I definitely don’t feel as supported there anymore. If I’m honest I don’t think I’m particularly good at managing in a crisis, although with time I’m sure that will improve.

 

What advice would you give to others suffering?

Don’t suffer in silence! Talk to people: your friends, family, GP, therapist – whoever you can. There’s so many support groups online too if you can’t face talking to somebody in person.

Don’t be ashamed. Everybody is fighting a different battle, and yours is just as valid.

Lastly, don’t give up. Never believe that things won’t get any better. They can and they do; it’s hard work but you have to keep going. Recovery is so worthwhile in the end.

 

What makes you smile?

People I love, sunshine, my pets, RuPauls Drag Race, cat videos, seeing people be kind to each other.

 

Describe your mental health issue in 3 words:

Tiring, scary, frustrating.

Feel free to do a post of your own! Let’s get sharing about mental health and the different ways it affects everyone.

World Mental Health Day

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World Mental Health Day is upon us again, so I thought that as I spent my evening yesterday in London celebrating 10 years of the Time To Change campaign, I would talk a little bit about how much working for this organisation has changed my life. I joined Time To Change around 3 or 4 years ago after seeing that they were recruiting Champions for their Children and Young People’s team; as you all know young people’s mental health is my particular passion. I didn’t really know quite what this would entail other than that it would involve speaking about my experiences, which was honestly terrifying. When I was younger I wouldn’t say I was particularly open about my mental health to anyone and everyone, but equally I wasn’t entirely secretive. However, as the years passed and I got older, I became more aware of the injustices those with mental illness experience in all areas of life, and I started to lose my voice. Gradually the stigma I was experiencing started to add up, and I felt more and more ashamed.

Sadly, working in mental health care did nothing to relieve these feelings; it actually made them worse. I was struggling with anorexia for many years whilst working in the mental health sector, and the attitudes I observed towards eating disorders from professionals were heart breaking, causing me to retreat further into myself. Although the idea of actually opening up and talking about my experiences was terrifying, that was ultimately what pushed me to do it. Nobody should have to feel afraid or ashamed, and if my talking about my difficulties could make somebody else feel able to too, it felt like the right thing to do.

So I suddenly found myself telling my life story to a room full of strangers, some of whom would go on to become dear friends. I can remember being genuinely terrified, not necessarily of sharing as we were all in the same boat, but of feeling very exposed. In hindsight, I honestly feel as though my life changed from that moment. For a while it felt as though I was living a double life. I started visiting schools to share my story in front of big groups of teachers and students (which was nerve wracking to begin with), but still felt unable to open up to people in my life. Eventually, something began to shift. The feedback that we received after each and every session was so rewarding, and I started to unlearn all the shame I had picked up over the last few years.

I can vividly remember the first time I went public on social media with my mental health. It was during Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I shared a blog post I had written anonymously for the Time To Change website (there’s a link for this under my ‘Guest Blogs’ tab). It was so anxiety provoking; I was particularly concerned about how my colleagues might react because I always have an underlying anxiety that my career will be negatively impacted by my mental health. However, I was so overwhelmed by the positive responses from everybody. It confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing, and I’ve never looked back!

Yesterday evening Jeremy Hunt attended the event to give a speech in his capacity as Health Secretary, and to meet with some of us to talk a little about the campaign. It was a great opportunity to share what we do and why it has been so important to us, although as a nurse it was very conflicting for me to have a civilised sit down conversation with somebody who makes decisions that so negatively affect myself, my colleagues and my patients. However, I was happy to put that to one side and use the opportunity to share my story and try to educate him about the different ways mental illness affects people and why the campaign is so important.

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It was wonderful to have a chance to celebrate yesterday with some of the people I started this journey with, and the rest of the team from Time To Change. They do such incredible work, and to be a part of it is such a privilege. It’s probably the thing I am most proud of in my life; I will talk to anyone and everyone about it! It’s certainly changed my life, and I know other people share this experience.

So I guess my overall message is that we must, must, MUST keep talking about mental health; we must continue to fight for equality until the day we don’t need to fight anymore. Stigma kills. Discrimination kills. People suffer in silence because they are afraid and ashamed – this is just not acceptable in 2017. Whilst it was a privilege and a pleasure to reflect upon all the incredible work we, and other organisations, have put into trying to achieve equality, we must also take this time to recognise how much further we have to go as a society to truly accomplish this.

Please, keep talking about mental health; not just during this World Mental Health Day, but tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until we finally live in a world when people no longer feel ashamed of who they are.

Stress and Destressing

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I was planning on writing a post about stress and how to destress at some point, but honestly it could not come at a more appropriate time than now – I’ve had a killer couple of days! I can solidly confirm that bad things do not stop at three!
It’s no secret that stress is bad for you – we know that it causes all sorts of mental and physical complications. But when you have a mental illness, stress can be the difference between functioning and relapse. It’s so important to be aware of your limits and ways to cope with different stressors in order to stay well.

I have developed lots of different ways to manage when things start to get on top of me. Creativity is probably the biggest one for me – I like to colour, cross stitch, sew, bake, all sorts of different things! I have a box full of different activities; it’s a great outlet for me and having so many different things in one place makes it easy to find something relaxing.

Another thing I find really helpful is exercise. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with exercise. At times, when struggling with an eating disorder, I’ve not always used exercise in a healthy way and I’ve worked out to the point of obsession. Alternatively, when my depression has been at it’s worst, I can barely move from my bed let alone do any activity. At the moment, I have struck a good balance. I try to go to the gym 3-4 days a week; I can’t say I always enjoy it necessarily, and sometimes I do have to force myself to go, but I always feel better afterwards. It’s one of the only things I can guarantee will lift my mood.

Sometimes a bit of self-care goes a long way too, especially when you aren’t feeling so good about yourself. Having a nice bath and painting my nails makes me feel instantly relaxed, and it has the added benefit of making me feel good about myself.

Finally, sometimes there’s just nothing you can do to feel better at that time, and that’s just the way it is. When that happens, my answer is sleep. I don’t advocate avoidance through sleeping, but sometimes you just need to write the day off, call it a night and start over again.

Unfortunately, I’ve tried a few different things over the last couple of days but more stress keeps piling up! So for me, I’m going to have a glass of wine, go to bed, and hope that tomorrow everything starts to feel a little bit better.

I Survived!

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I survived my first week as a nurse!
I’m exhausted and my brain is completely fried, but I’ve honestly loved every minute so far. I’m in exactly the job I want to be in; helping young people in mental health crisis. I know that I can do this and I’m confident I can do a good job, but trying to wrap my head around all the paperwork is tricky and there is so much to learn.
I feel about 3% like I know what I am doing by the end of this week, but I feel like I’m never going to stop asking questions and will drive everybody up the wall, including myself! But I’m really lucky, I know almost everybody in my team already, both from my days under CAMHS and my time working in CAMHS, and they are all so supportive. In truth, those I know from my days under CAMHS are who inspired me to be a nurse, and it’s a strange but amazing feeling that we are now colleagues. In some ways I feel like I’ve worked there for ages already; I’ve been made so welcome and everybody has been so, so helpful.
I’m not going to lie, I’m still terrified. At the moment I’m shadowing people and being talked through what I’m doing, and fortunately I feel happy to ask questions and everybody seems happy to answer them! However, soon I am going to be out on my own, making decisions independently and being accountable for them.

But for now, I can take solace in the fact that I have survived my first week intact, I worked damn hard to get here, and I am trying my absolute hardest to be the best that I can be. Now I am going to sit down with Netflix and a glass of wine and reward myself with a nice early night, so that I’m ready to do this all over again on Monday.

Celebrations!

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It’s been a week of celebrations for me. I received my final classification from university and can confirm I am graduating with a first class honours degree. It’s been a hard slog to achieve; I am a naturally academic person and fortunately I do enjoy some aspects of studying such as writing, but even with these added advantages it took huge amounts of work to get to this point. I always knew from when I started the course that I wanted to graduate with a first; I have always been a perfectionist and I put myself under enormous pressure to be the best I can be. Although I am incredibly proud that I have managed to achieve my goal, I can say in hindsight that my desire to be successful during the last three years has been at the detriment of my mental health, and there have been times where I have found the stress overwhelming. The older I get, the more insight I have into these elements of my personality; I’m hoping that this self-awareness will mean I can give myself a bit of a break in the future. Nobody can be perfect all the time, right?
So, to celebrate I have spent the week around people I love and people who love me, and I feel overwhelmed with how lucky I am to be surrounded by so many wonderful people. I spent three beautiful days in Paris with my boyfriend; we visited so many different sights and it was lovely to spend proper time together after me being so busy with work and placement over the last few months. I had a lovely lunch with a group of my oldest friends, and I spent two days in Swanage glamping with some other friends. I’ve never been to Swanage before but it was so beautiful and the weather was amazing! I’ve been given so many thoughtful and wonderful gifts to celebrate and I’m so grateful for having all these people in my life. It’s so important to be surrounded by people that care about you, and I certainly feel that this week.
Was it worth all the stress and the tears and the anxiety to leave with a first? I would say yes, although others that have had to put up with my neuroticism over the last three years may disagree with that statement! I also received my PIN today which means this is really happening, and that next week I start my job as an actual, real life nurse.