Being a Human of Scotland #ALLIANCEConf20

Outside of my blog, I have been a featured writer/contributor for some organisations involved in mental health, and overall health and social care. One of which is the Humans of Scotland series for Alliance Scotland. After writing an opinion piece on Pro-Ana content for Alliance, I was contacted to be part of this series to talk about my mental health journey with an eating disorder. Then during the beginning of the lockdown in Scotland, and the UK, I was asked to write another piece about my anxiety and how was being impacted by the restrictions.

Alongside my story were the stories of other people in Scotland who are often the unheard members of society such as unpaid carers, chronic illness, people affected by suicide, people on the autistic spectrum, visual impairments, hearing impairments etc., This series gave a voice to people who were demanding to be heard and are often the ones to suffer when there are slashes to government budgets. There are a wide variety of contributors from all walks of life. It has been so well received that thirty stories were collated last year and put into a book which is available in libraries around Scotland. Scotland’s First Minister even wrote the foreword for it.

Following being part of this series, I contacted by Angela, who is the creator of the Humans of Scotland series, to be part of a Humans of Scotland panel as part of the online Alliance Scotland Conference this week. As with most conferences, and events in general, things have moved and adapted to online. So, I was to be involved in an event for Alliance wherein some stories were read by the contributors and then myself and two other contributors were members of the panel discussion where we discussed our own stories, the impact of COVID on our lives, and how we navigate day to day life. Adding to this, we discussed the power of telling our stories.

The contributors involved were:

  • Celia: an unpaid carer who looks after her son twenty fours a day seven days a week.
  • Gary: the founder of a male suicide prevention support group, Mind the Men.
  • Twimukye: a woman with multiple conditions such as being hard of hearing, diabetes, and Retinitis Pigmentosa
  • Michael: a freelance journalist who lives with a disability.
  • Ryan: an athlete who has a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome.

I was there to represent my story of anxiety and an eating disorder.

It was a completely wonderful and inspiring event for me, and I was so happy to participate. Listening to the stories of these contributors and how they interact with everyday life, how they have had to make accommodations to ‘assimilate’ to a world that has not accommodated to them. It also made me realise that I, perhaps, have not been so accommodating myself, and it has given me things to think about.

And, this is, ultimately, the importance behind this initiative, behind telling these stories. This is why listening to lived experience is essential to building appropriate care and helping everyone. We listened to stories of people who were in financial trouble, because they were unable to work, because their son required full time care. A group that has had to be set up because of the epidemic of male suicide, particularly within Scotland. Myself, who went through years with undiagnosed anxiety, which was lengthened by a dismissive GP, and received no support or treatment for an eating disorder. Lived experience is where we see the downfalls of our society, the failings of our government, our health care, and our social care. By telling our stories, everyday people can hear how we have had to shift our lives to fit in and yet still struggle and suffer, and ultimately the people who can make the changes can actually made a change, instead of quick fixes that don’t cost all that much and actually do nothing.

A lot of the time, decisions are made by organisations, local authorities, and governments, which are incredibly harmful, and this is purely because the individual in which the decision has been made for, is not involved. As a result, the decision does more harm than good. For instance, the recent decision by Public Health England and the British Government to label calories on restaurant food and weigh school children. This initiative was created without even a consultation with individuals with disordered eating patterns and eating disorder diagnoses. And, as you expect, there was immediate outrage when this announced to the public with fears of a rise in eating disorders, which would stretch an already stretched healthcare system, or leave hundreds, maybe thousands without support and care. Yes, it may be easier for the people in charge to make these decisions without having these ridiculous barriers in the way that are the people the decisions affect.

This is why it is highly important the government take our stories into consideration. Engage with our lived experience. It is a great wealth to you, and should result in far greater changes that will pay off in the long run.

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The power of storytelling is expansive. Lived experience demonstrates the great variety in people. But, it brings us together. I have noticed that when I share my experience of mental health that I get people reaching out to me to share their own experiences, with the majority of these wonderful people expressing the same feeling of: I am not alone. That statement in itself shows the real power behind features like Humans of Scotland. It is not uncommon to feel like you are alone in your experience. When you feel that way, it can be lead to social withdrawal, a fear in reaching out for help, and feeling like you are abnormal. If there is trauma, then you can feel more to blame or that you are weird or something is wrong with you. However, hearing the story of another, a similar story, a similar circumstance, then you feel less alone. It doesn’t take away your trauma, or your difficulties, but it lessens the burden on you. I know that when I was unwell I felt like I was going mad. When I began to experience an eating disorder, I felt so incredibly alone and I felt like no one could understand me or help me. However, when I joined Beat, I heard the stories of so many people around me who also had histories of eating disorders and other mental health difficulties and diagnoses. In doing so, I felt so comforted. I felt part of a community. I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel so strange anymore. I didn’t feel so ashamed.

Sharing your experience, when you are ready, can lessen the impact of the difficulty. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. Listening to others lived experiences can be beneficial in your recovery and how you cope. I know that volunteering in support services for Beat and offering what has worked for me in my recovery is very beneficial. If you see that something has worked for someone else then you may be more likely to try it, which is helpful when you are facing a new treatment, or reaching for financial help, or speaking up for injustice for you, or simply trying to disrupt a maladaptive practice you have dealt with. When I wrote a recent post on my experience with sertraline, it reached out to people who have had the same experience, and they were thankful that someone was speaking so frankly about it. In a way, that reduces the stigma. It reduces the shame, and normalises the experiences. And that’s the most important part. Normalising experiences can lead to more people coming forward with their stories thus creating a stronghold of people. No one wants to be the first person to speak up, as it’s an entirely terrifying thing to do. But, when that one person steps forward, it can start a domino effect, and it’s the kind of domino effect that is fantastic and uplifting to see.

There is strength in stories. There’s strength in experiences. Being a Human of Scotland has been fantastic in sharing my own story, but also introduced me to so many unheard and dismissed voices. They are voices of hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland and they should be recognised and they should be heard. It is so wonderful to be a Human of Scotland, and I’m glad to be part of the experience.

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If you would like to watch the full session, you can here.

You can read all the Humans of Scotland stories, including my own stories, here.

Humans of Scotland Logo courtesy of Alliance Scotland’s Humans of Scotland feature.

A Debrief of a Masters: MSc Abnormal and Clinical Psychology

After eight hours of driving through the night, driving through two borders, then a quick meal with a new athletics coach, unpacking the majority of my entire life into a small accommodation halls room, and saying a teary and very anxious goodbye to my parents as they set off for another eight hour car journey to return home, I sat down on my new single bed, turned on a comforting playlist of YouTube videos, and tried to adjust to my next chapter of my journey into a career of clinical psychology. First step was to fall asleep for many, many hours as I was exhausted.

I had moved to Swansea in the south of Wales, a beautiful city on the coast of the country; my room overlooking a nearby beach. I was there to attend the MSc in Abnormal and Clinical Psychology at Swansea University. This was a year long course, and ran from late September to the late September the following years (actually the 1st of October for the end date, but let’s not get pedantic here.) A few things drew me to this course. Originally, I planned to stay in Scotland, and, although I applied to Scottish universities, I didn’t feel settled and fully satisfied with the courses on offer for my intended career. This is not to say they are poor courses, as I have several friends who attended universities like Strathclyde and Glasgow and thoroughly enjoyed their courses. However, I decided to look further afield on findamasters.com, and the first result to pop up was the masters I went on to do.

It was the cheapest masters compared to others I applied to, resulting in my postgraduate loan covering the majority of the cost, leaving me to pay £350 from money I saved. Adding to this, the course was incredibly interesting. I was immediately taken by the modules offered. I knew this was the course for me.

So, one application, some references, and a graduation later, I was enrolled into the Abnormal and Clinical masters. I believe it’s changed its title now to Clinical Psychology and Mental Health, due to the negative connotations and stigma surrounding the word “abnormal.” As it’s taught that mental health difficulties and diagnoses are observed as “normal reactions to abnormal circumstances” rather than the individual being noted as the “abnormal one.” The module names have changed somewhat, as has the module layout e.g. I studied a module called Forensic Psychology, which is now called Investigative Psychology. However, the course content looks to be the same. Generally, I find these changes to be a great sign that they are readily available to adapt to societal shifts within mental health, regarding language, as well as new evidence.

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I had classes Monday and Tuesday and the other days of the week were for coursework and general studying. The classes were full on, and basically these days lasted from 9-6pm. I was very used to one hour lectures during my undergraduate so it was a bit of a shock to see I was about to endure a four hour long lecture for four weeks on Psychopathology and Sexual Offending. However, it’s necessary that the lectures are long, as you have a lot more modules to take on in one semester. They have to squeeze a lot in. Therefore, I did a four hour lecture for four weeks, as it was required that we did twelve hours for this module, whereas I did a two hour Research Methods lecture for six weeks in comparison. Again, this added up to the twelve hours. A masters usually always teaches more modules. In my undergraduate, I did three modules a semester. In my masters, I did six.

However, while it sounds intense to have so much more to learn, this is where it has its advantages in the same breath. A masters really allows you to examine and focus further in the parts of your previous education that has interested you. Obviously, I was very interested in the clinical psychology aspect of my undergraduate. For me, in particular, this course provided a closer and clearer examination of my future intended career. It not only strengthened knowledge I had on areas like mood disorders, but introduced me to topics I was not so familiar with such as third-wave therapies, extending past the standard Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, psychopathology, and Applied Behavioural Analysis. This broadened my perspective and enhanced my knowledge in aspects of mental health and therapeutic practices, which I have been able to adapt to my current job and voluntary roles.

However, please note that masters are not the same as clinical doctorates. It is a more theoretical based degree rather than being hands on. Although, I did get the opportunity to take up an unpaid placement, which gave me experience in therapeutic practice and being in a clinical psychology environment.

Masters are also not British Psychological Society accredited generally.

Most masters aren’t intended to be a place where you can continually practice your skills like in a . A lot of masters are for research. Some are “taught” like mine. Therefore, it wasn’t so much a hands-on experience, but more learning about the processes, structures, and details of different mental health diagnoses and treatments, as well as fields that an individual can go into within clinical psychology, e.g. Forensic/Investigative Psychology. Even so, alongside the placements we would apply for, we were provided opportunities to “practice” our skills with other students. Within the Psychotherapy module, we were often involved in role-play tasks, splitting off into pairs or groups to employ what skills. It allowed us to practice active listening, open question formats, and generally empathy skills. It gave us the opportunity to work on these soft skills that are often vital, but can be missed, within therapeutic practices. Although these opportunities weren’t involving particular demographics, it was helpful for us to have that chance to practice.

Our classes could sometimes be big in size, but generally masters classes are smaller than most undergraduate classes. Therefore, we would have discussions and debates within the modules, which was commonplace. This sounds overwhelming if you aren’t used to discussions and debates, especially having been involved in larger undergraduate classes. But, usually they are forgiving places that allow you to learn and give your different opinions or experiences of whatever topic the discussion is about. You are encouraged to participate, but not pressured. I always tried to participate as I felt I could learn this way, plus it kept me and it kept other students engaged. It’s much better than being lectured at for three hours that’s for sure.

While you acquire a great deal of hard skills during the course, a masters can teach and develop important aforementioned soft skills. During this course, you were expected to be independent and have the initiative in dealing with your work, moving forward with your research projects, grabbing the opportunities. Often, postgraduate courses can leave you with a ‘sink or swim’ feeling. You are given more responsibility. You are supported, yes, but your hand is not held. Personally, it developed and expanded my soft skills e.g. organisation skills, etiquette etc., Organising your workload is very important in every job you will come across, particularly within psychology posts. If I did not learn how to organise my workload, I wouldn’t have a job, and I wouldn’t have made it through the masters. Soft skills are the skills that can set you apart from other people. Within your class, you may begin to see the differences in those who haven’t got a handle of these soft skills, particularly when it comes to any placements or volunteer work you take part in. Unfortunately, this is when you begin to see that grades don’t mean everything but experience does, which is often not taught to many people who reach university, both postgraduate and undergraduate.

Adding to this observation, if you don’t take the time to soak up the opportunity to develop and employ such skills, you may find your masters is even more intense than it needs to be. As someone with anxiety that is heavily revolved around a fear of failure, and then overreaching and attempting to overachieve to compensate, I did find the masters exhausting. I was in the library or in front of a computer for hours every day. It seems like a lot of work, and that’s because it is. Which is why I am glad I took a break before I made my first application to my clinical doctorate. Overall, I felt that my organisation skills kept me pushing through. As did the friendship group I made as we were all equally as stressed and used humour to cope through it!

You have to be organised.

There were a few times I let things slip and I paid the price. Sometimes you will be working to a deadline and you are literally working to that deadline, so it can mean you are working constantly and consistently. It felt like a full time job, except you were also working weekends. I tried to keep up with additional or required reading, which I found to be beneficial in being prepared for the lectures or in better understanding the materials in general. Yes, you get more opportunity to work in smaller classes, but there is a lot for lecturers to get through in a short period of time, so they may not be able to go over the same stuff bit by bit, and they may have to skip through some materials to get to the meat of the lecture.

However, this is where organisational skills and an ability to self-care come into play too. At times, I can admit I did work to an excess, but I tried to treat my days like, as I said, a full time job. When I finished my classes for the day I went home and switched off for the day. If I needed to work at the weekend, I would go training in the morning or have a long lie and then head in for a couple hours. I felt it was those couple hours that benefitted my studies. I knew that studying excessively wasn’t always smart. Something I learned following studying for hours upon end during high school and at the start of my undergraduate career. A masters does require that extra push but you learn to take care of yourself a bit more even if sometimes it gets forgotten. Which is did happen quite a few times for me!

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What I appreciated the most during my time at Swansea was support I received from my academic mentor and my dissertation supervisor. I had turned in an essay for my Psychopathy and Sexual Disorders, and received an average mark, which left me feeling disheartened as I was concerned this would be a running theme throughout my masters. I was not the best at essays, and never understood how to write them properly. At that point, I thought ‘no, I have to sort this out. It didn’t get sorted at undergraduate. I didn’t understand what my tutor there meant, so I’m going to speak to my academic mentor and get this sorted.’ I met with my mentor, Jeremy, and he briefly read through my essay, before providing the clearest advice I have ever received when it came to an essay. If you could look into my brain, you could probably see a neurological version of a jigsaw puzzle finally getting its last piece. He ran through some examples with me, rewrote out the information, and engaged fully in helping me how to write an essay. I then wrote two essays for my Psychosis module and my Eating Disorder module, and I received much higher grades, with the essays reflecting that I had indeed taken on Jeremy’s advice. I think I actually wrote him a thank you email I was so thrilled.

Following on from this, we were required to complete a dissertation during the summer, which was our third semester. We began to work on this research from the first semester, as we met our potential supervisors in a meet-and-greet style event where they explained research topics they had in mind, as well as their general research interests. Obviously, I jumped (not literally) on the ones involving child and adolescent mental health, and eating disorders. After some further meetings with the lecturers and researchers, we were asked to select our topic five supervisors, and I was given Rachael Hunter, who became my dissertation supervisor for the year. And basically a mentor (even if she doesn’t know that.) Again, I felt entirely supported by Rachael, as I did with Jeremy, and felt she was excited to work with me with a novel dissertation idea. This made me excited to work with her, as I felt appreciated and encouraged. Consequently, I produced a piece I was very proud of: a qualitative piece on eating disorder stereotypes and their impact on non-stereotypical individuals. In fact, I was so proud of it I was nervous to let it go as it felt like my baby.

The masters course allowed me to really expand on my research interests and explore new research methods I hadn’t done before. As the classes can be smaller sometimes, you get a greater opportunity to talk with your supervisor and your lecturers, and it helps when you already have some understanding of psychology from your undergraduate. A masters research project is a great place to improve your research skills, and look further into a research topic you might be interested. Not everyone got that opportunity in my masters, or in masters in general, but it depends on the supervisor.

It is definitely advantageous to have a masters. It gives you an edge in the already competitive market that is psychology. It can effectively bide you time to gain further skills. Within courses like this, particularly in psychology, you can also develop good connections as I did, and, in doing so, get incredible support.However, a masters can shape you, and I believe it provides the time for you to acquire knowledge, refine that knowledge and mature further.

Methods For Mental Health: Sertraline

In February of this year, I was prescribed 50mg of sertraline for severe anxiety that I have had for over a decade of my life, beginning in my early teens. I watched my GP create the prescription, attaching it to my medical records on the computer. He handed over the peach slip, and just like that, after a telephone consultation in the morning followed by said GP appointment, I was finally receiving specific treatment for my anxiety. I felt an immediate sense of relief, yet a heavy weight on my shoulders remained. I had a torrent of questions running through my head. I had never been on any anti-depressants, or any medication for my mental health. Would my anxiety go away completely? Having lived with it so long, it has become an integral part of my identity, what would I be like without it? Would I become numb? Would I become some super-version of myself?

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I’ve been on sertraline for 6 months now. Not much has changed. My anxiety is still there. It didn’t go away. I remain to get anxiety attacks. Dissociative experiences are still present at the end of my attacks, or any feelings of anxiety. I still get nauseous. But it’s not as bad. Sertraline does not take away your anxiety, but it does take ‘the edge‘ off. That’s why you need to undertake therapy alongside medication, because medication alone may not take away the mental health difficulty entirely. After all, many mental health difficulties and diagnoses are the result of something happening to you. My anxiety comes after years of trauma, emotional abuse from a previous relationship, bullying from an old flatmate, and several other things. A lot of this is still to be worked on when I attend therapy, which I am currently seeking out.

However, this post is about my experience on the mental health medication, sertraline.

Sertraline is an SSRI: a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Serotonin is the ‘feel good’ hormone. It’s the hormone that essentially is the positive influence on your sleep, mood and emotion, which is why people who have depression, anxiety, OCD, etc., experience irregularities in their mood, their sleep patterns, and their emotion. We sleep too little or too much. We experience intense sadness. Motivation can disappear out the window. Everything we do becomes magnified and catastrophised. Regarding the serotonin that exists in my brain, it doesn’t get processed properly. A ‘normal’ brain would produce serotonin, do its job by passing on a message such as “get a decent amount of sleep” or “you are happy here in this current situation and should be”, and then it is reabsorbed in a process called ‘reuptake’ back into the brain. My brain doesn’t have enough serotonin in the first place so there isn’t enough to carry messages and what gets reabsorbed is very scarce already.

When someone like me takes an SSRI, the serotonin that gets ready to be reabsorbed is ‘inhibited’ or in other words, it’s blocked from going any further. So, it’s basically locked out and it’s given the chance to build up its forces, and then get a chance to carry these messages that it couldn’t beforehand. It takes me back to a baseline, and gets me back to normal.

A lot of people may think that medication like SSRIs, namely sertraline, are ‘happy pills’ and they take away our poor mental health. However, this isn’t the case. As I mentioned, it assists us in getting to the same level as the rest of the public. Then, that’s when the psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy comes into play.

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I was prescribed a low dosage of sertraline, which is a common practice, as GPs need to understand how your body interacts with the medication. It is better to start low and go up than it is to let your body try to adjust to a high dose. Because, let me tell you: sertraline is not fun to adapt to.

I began my course for that month the next day, as I had a driving lesson on the day it was prescribed and I didn’t want to experience any side effects during a lesson. Thank goodness I didn’t in retrospect, because that first day on sertraline was an experience.

I woke up as normal, took the first dose, and then got on with my day at work. I ate my porridge, and felt nothing as of yet. I got on the train. Nothing. Made my way to my first house. Nothing. Got on the bus to the office for my team meeting. Nothing. I don’t know what I was quite looking for. My GP had said to me that I didn’t know what it was like to not be anxious, when I told him I’ve struggled with the anxiety for years upon years. Therefore, you could say that I didn’t know what I could be like without anxiety.

It wasn’t until my team meeting started that it hit me. And, oh my God, did it hit me. It felt like someone had poured ten cups of coffee and a bag of sherbet sugar down my throat and then injected more into my veins. I felt high. I probably was high. I was buzzed. My whole body shook so much so that I felt unwell. My hands, which already had a shake to them, were going mad. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I was over excitable. And I spoke at an incredible pace. I interrupted people, and had something to say to everything. I was also very loud.

This was fantastic for my anxiety. Especially an anxiety which is particularly triggered by social interactions and thinking I am a loud, annoying and rude person. The anxious part of my brain screamed at this sudden new burst of sertraline-induced energy to just shut up and stop being annoying.

Meeting over. I got on the bus to my next person. Cue one of the biggest anxiety attacks I’ve ever taken. My head drowned with worries that everyone thought I was disrespectful, horrible, rude, and mean. I’ve taken some pretty bad anxiety attacks in my time, but this was one of a kind. I could feel it in my entire being. I remember thinking there is just no way I can cope on this medication. Maybe I’m untreatable. Maybe my body and my mind is going literally insane! Maybe I’m better with anxiety, because I don’t like this version of me.

Eventually, that feeling began to dull as the day went on. But I was still unfocused, feeling shaky, and didn’t feel like I was in my own body. It would ebb and flow. I was exhausted when I got home and couldn’t train on the track as I felt strange, so I had a small meal, and lay down upstairs until I was ready to go to bed.

This intensely shaky, out of body experience continued for two or three weeks. I could sense when the sertraline was about to hit. A few hours after taking the medication, I was buzzed. I’ve never taken a drug in my life, but I’m sure that’s what it feels like to be on cocaine. It’s no lie that I didn’t feel entirely like myself for a good while. My appetite disappeared throughout the day. I was able to eat my breakfast, but when the sertraline really took effect I couldn’t eat my midmorning snack or my lunch, but come dinner I wolfed it down. I really had to force myself to eat my lunch, as without food I then felt dizzy. Caffeine was absolutely hellish, which was frustrating as I love a Greggs cappuccino. Oh, and every time I yawned, my whole body buzzed and shook and shivered like I had a strange fever or I was trying to burst out my own skin. Which I wouldn’t have minded so much if it wasn’t for the fact I couldn’t stop yawning. I literally had to prepare myself for the oncoming intense sensation about to course through my body when I could feel a yawn coming on.

Once I started experiencing side effects, I messaged a relative, as I knew they had experience of anti-depressants. They were on a separate one to what I was prescribed. However, they confirmed that what I was experiencing was normal. They even related to the strange yawning sensation and the unfortunate continuous need to yawn. This is thought to be rare, but has been seen across many other SSRIs such as fluoxetine and citalopram. So, I made a joke out of it later on an Instagram story, and I had a slew of messages from people I knew saying they had the same experiences, and affirming that it would take a few days, maybe even a few weeks for your body to adjust.

That felt comforting. I didn’t feel alone, and I didn’t feel like I was about to die on this medication. I felt normal.

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It’s important to know that taking an anti-depressant, or even any other medication intended for mental health, is a big adjustment to your body. My brain has been struggling to produce enough serotonin for many years, and then all of a sudden I’m ingesting something that aims to stop my body depleting my resources of serotonin and causing more of it to stick around in my brain chemistry instead of being reabsorbed. That’s a big thing for a brain like mine to get used to. Eventually, your body as a whole gets used to it, and stops going into a state of freaking out after a few weeks. Trust me.

The first few weeks on a medication like sertraline are horrible, and it really shows you how powerful the medication is. If you require a higher dosage, your body may experience a similar reaction, but it does pass. Then your body will begin to make a climb up towards the baseline you should be at to carry out a healthy lifestyle. My anxiety is certainly not gone, by any stretch of the imagination. And I still experience a strange dizzy sensation that I describe as someone grabbing my head and swinging it like a conquer on a string. Others have described it as a brain wiggle. I still leave conversations thinking I’m annoying and blame myself for a lot of stuff and worry over every little interaction. But it’s less so. I think I’m more confident. Or maybe I’m more relaxed. I’m able to go to sleep at a good time now and often can’t stay up late. Sure, I sometimes experience brain fog and still sleep in late when I can. I have heard people experience a numbness, which I haven’t experienced myself. Generally, I feel the same but better. I am still me. Something I didn’t want to truly lose.

The rest will be supported through therapy. Your medication will not erase any trauma, or the triggers behind your mental health. It won’t completely stop your reaction and your coping mechanisms. It settles you down and offers you a helping hand. It can control some of your worst symptoms, and it can help to improve some of your body’s attempts to decrease your physical health.

For all I know, I may need adjustments on my medication. I could go up, I could go down, I could change the type of anti-depressant, I could come off them altogether. But I feel safer on them. I feel somewhat happier in myself.

Medication is not something to be sneered at. It’s not something to call someone weak over. Trust me, try a couple weeks on sertraline and you’ll realise it takes some perseverance and toughness to be on it.

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This is my experience on the anti-depressant sertraline. It is not an attempt to scare you off taking any type of anti-depressant, but rather an attempt to normalise the initial physical and psychological reactions you may have in your first weeks in adjusting to it. There are many different types of anti-depressants and other types of mental health medications like anti-psychotics. Each person is different and not every experience may be the same whether they are on the same medication as me or not.

Mental Health Literature: A Review of “Untamed”

Following my post that gave a snippet into my life with anxiety, I was contacted through Twitter from my supervisor from my masters dissertation with a book recommendation. If you haven’t read the post, it focused on the trepidations within anxiety, which cause you to feel you are doing everything wrong. So, Rachael felt I would enjoy Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, as the feelings, thoughts and emotions I had been struggling with was a common theme throughout the book. Come pay day, I ordered it and there it sat very impatiently waiting for me to finish The Man In The High Castle by Phillip K. Dick. Literally, you wouldn’t believe how many times I walked past my bookshelf and Untamed’s gorgeously colourful cover caught my eye, begging me to read it.

After a week or two, I finished my previous book and could finally take Untamed out from its place on the shelf. Five days later, it was completed. I couldn’t quite believe how addictive the book was, which is ironic once you read some of the topics within the books. Within the first night, I powered through sixty pages like it was nothing. Another night, I kept trying to put the book down and would find myself reading another page, and another page, and then another chapter, and then just one more chapter.

Untamed is a book, wherein the author Glennon Doyle reflects on her life throughout childhood through to her forties and how her perception of her life shifts towards a more realistic, settled and positive light. It isn’t necessarily a ‘mental health’ book like my previous post on Seconds to Snap, but I found many elements within this book which I related to in my journey within mental health.

Glennon, herself, has recovered from an addiction to substances such as alcohol and drugs, as well as bulimia. She also is diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety to which she is medicated for these conditions. She has some tough experiences within her childhood and within her first marriage. Now, married to the ex-soccer player, Abby Wambach, she has a different outlook on her mental health and wellbeing, particularly her coping mechanisms. I was recommended this book, because I’ve been reflecting introspectively on my mental health and wellbeing since I was eighteen or nineteen, after many years of poor mental health being a mainstay within my life. However, as evidenced by that post which triggered Untamed’s recommendation, I am able to be introspective, but I am not quite able to be as introspective and reflective as Glennon achieves during the book.

Interestingly, I noticed that I disagreed with the way she expressed some instances in her life. I encountered what I would describe as a cognitive dissonance whether that was a way she interacted with her child who wanted to play soccer (Abby changes her opinion, however) or there were ways she dealt with anxiety that I didn’t agree with. However, as I got towards the end of the book, she mentioned that, now she is in her forties she sees things differently, and life and the interactions within it have moulded how she sees her life. As she goes through her journey throughout the course of the book, the reader observes Glennon figure out new and more adaptive ways to react and recognise when she reacts according to her maladaptive yet instinctive mechanisms.

I, in my mid-twenties, although aware of my mental health journey and trauma, am still reliant on less than perfect, and often damaging coping mechanisms. While my eating disorder is not wholly one of the coping mechanisms anymore, I still harbour the bad thoughts and I let them take over and play into other parts of my life. I am still trying to figure out that part of my life. Therefore, the experience of reading this book is different to someone who is a few years older than me than it is to me. I enjoyed the cognitive dissonance I encountered when I read something I didn’t agree with immediately. As I went on, I learned that the cognitive dissonance was likely a case of: I am not quite at that part of my reflections, or: I am not Glennon and Glennon is not me. She is very understanding throughout the book that we have our similarities as humans so often do, but we are different.

Untamed often features contradictions. Initially, this irritated me, because I felt Glennon was saying one thing is right and then she would fall back on something she said was wrong, something she didn’t agree with and saw as less healthy in others and in her past-self. It was a common theme in parenting her eldest daughter. However, the cleverness of these contradictions is that you see how the human brain works in real time (or the time it takes to write a chapter and then make edits.) Glennon brilliantly lets you into her insight, wherein she jumps back and forth, changing her opinion, falling back onto old mechanisms, realising new ways of thinking were not as great as she believed them to be. She reflects and summarises, and sometimes tackles similar subjects with chapters in between to give a different view on how she coped with a situation at this age in her life.

This, I believe, is the real essence behind being ‘untamed’, citing the title of the book.

When you are deemed as someone who has a good grasp on your mental health, it can be hard to be vulnerable. You’ve spent so much of your life being exposed and being vulnerable that people now think you are able to climb upwards. You’ve achieved half the battle of openness and honesty. You’re in therapy, maybe, you’re medicated, and you’re about to have some insight in your mental health, so people develop this well-meaning but false idea that you are invincible to any further stressors and upsets. Glennon brilliantly deals with this throughout the book, as she fights with her tamed side, her destructive side, which may come from trying to regain control of her untamed side, and then her untamed side that she wants to be at forefront often. However, she understands in herself that it can be hard to uncage yourself and be free to explore your untamed side. She is so transparent within her journey. Something we need more of, because we need to end this falsehood that the minute we are aware of what triggers our mental health that it’ll go away.

Generally, I found this book to be real and relatable. Yes, at times, I was reading things she had said in conversation, and thought “no way, would I say this to my mum or my friends in normal day-to-day conversation.” But, it was the things I would think upon on reflection, or it would be what I wanted to say or should have said. Things I would say in moments of deeper conversation. I always appreciate whenever I read or hear the stories of others who experience similar things to myself. It makes you feel less alone, and it makes you feel like you can always experience an up no matter how many downs there are.

Untamed is chock full of advice, and while there are some things you can put into practice such as her Reset Buttons vs. Easy Buttons (something I am going to put into practice), there are more moments which involve you reflecting and normalising the way you are being made to feel due to your environment. That ability in itself is very powerful. Once you normalise your reactions and gain the ability to dissect them then you can begin to make progress in developing an insight in your mental health and wellbeing. It is not the cure. I don’t believe there is a cure, to be honest, but it is a way to cope and a way to learn.

I highly recommend this book. I adored it.

Learning to unlearn, learning how to become untamed – it’s a process. I am a different stage in my life than Glennon Doyle is so I know I may think differently to some of the things she discusses, but, all the same, it is fun to become untamed.

Let Them Be Heard

Disclaimer: I am a white Scottish woman and this post comes from a white, Scottish, female perspective therefore I do not speak for people of colour. This is my attempt to use my privilege to highlight the injustices within mental health awareness. This post mainly deals with people who are black whether this is Caribean American, black-British, African American, South African, Caribbean, Nigerian etc., It touches on many different things, as there is a lot I learned about online. Some topics are discussed more in detail than others.

Over the years, my attitude towards Mental Health Awareness Weeks, Months and Days has changed. Recently, I have found myself more conflicted with such hashtags and campaigns. While I speak about my story with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideation… and gradually opening up different doors that lead to different avenues of my mental health journey, I am aware of the lazy attitude we all adopt in that we post about this hashtag when it’s ‘hot’ and then don’t really speak about mental health again. Politicians, royalty, celebrities; they adopt this hashtag when its popular and beneficial to their popularity. I read, listen and watch as MPs and PMs, MSPs and FMs talk about how good it is to talk about your mental health and raise awareness for mental health for this week, or day, or month. There’s lots of talk, but little to no action. And, this is the issue with mental health awareness events. There is too much talk, and not enough action. It can be used as a cover up for lack of real movement and progress within the mental health support framework. Awareness weeks can be a way for the people who can make systemic change to act like they are.

So, for a while, I wasn’t sure if it was there any real value in mental health awareness events. I felt conflicted when I took part in them. Was I screaming into the void? I would see numerous tweets and other social media posts denouncing Mental Health Awareness events. What is the point in these days? They mean nothing. It’s like sticking a novelty yellow smiley face plaster on a bullet wound. People were asking for it to be eradicated. People felt stories had been heard enough. Enough talking, time for action.

However, this concept of “enough talking” didn’t always sit right with me. The idea of: you’ve heard our stories, wasn’t something that felt appropriate somewhere at the heart of it. It felt absolute. It felt excluding. It felt finite. I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t until I was participating in a livestream for the National Lottery Community Fund, that I found the words to describe how I was feeling. Or rather, I heard it on the other side of the camera. A Muslim woman who represented Glasgow Association for Mental Health (GAMH) said that she believed mental health awareness events were still needed for people like her. She believed that people who said mental health awareness was not needed were people whose stories were heard all over the world and were the typical cases. I knew that looking at her, she looking back at me, that I was one of the people.

That’s when it hit me squarely in the face. That feeling of discomfort was clear. People who say we should move on are perhaps unaware that it is only their stories that have been heard. We have opened the stage to men, but we have not opened the discussion to all men. The stories from mental health that we do not hear are from the groups that are currently out protesting their right to not be killed in the street, protesting their right to not be demonised, to not be ignored. Right now, they are being ignored within the mental health community.

The people we are ignoring are people of colour.

Yes, your story has been heard. Of course, it’s been heard. The cold hard fact is that white people, namely white people with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety (hi, that’s me), are the ones that are heard. And once they feel they have been heard enough then they want to move on and not think twice about passing the mic on, or sharing the stage altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, action is important. Action should be advocated. But action does not just mean legislation, expanding services. Action means expanding research. Action means listening to marginalised voices. Action means learning. Action and awareness should go hand in hand.

Unfortunately, they don’t, which is the reason why mental health campaigners are frustrated with the weak words of the people who can make systemic change. Even then, these people will only hide behind the comfort of white stories, because they are the ones that are pushed out there. We have discomfort when we discuss mental health, but we’re beginning to get used to the discomfort. Now, we’re in the comfort zone, we share our typical stories.

This is where we get trapped. This is where we begin to think we’ve solved mental health awareness. This is when we think we’ve covered all the bases. This is when we start to ignore the people who have yet to speak out.

Your story has been heard, yes, but their story has not.

In hearing the woman from GAMH tell me that she, as a Muslim woman, did not feel heard, I realised we still need mental health awareness events. I remember nodding so much at this statement that my neck ached, and this has stuck with me to this day. In her words, she still faced stigma with the Muslim community, and she did not see anyone within mental health campaigning who she could relate to. Anyone who was at the forefront of the campaign, anyway. Anyone who had the light shone on them the way people like me would.

It has been shown that there is a level of stigma that remains at a higher degree in communities under the BIPOC and BAME labels. Often their mental health does not get talked about, because for some cultures it carries a stigma of weakness. They are taught not to ask for help. There is a common thread of toxic masculinity within black culture, which prevents men reaching out. Black women have to grow up quicker and feel as though they can’t be seen as weak. Scientific racism and psychological racism used mental illness as a way to keep slaves under bondage, as they were “psychologically unfit for freedom.” Mental health becomes vilified when it is diagnoses within ethnic minorities with research in America changing its perception of schizophrenia as a docile mental illness to an aggressive and dangerous mental illness – when black men and women began to get diagnosed, perhaps mis-diagnosed. Mental health does not get acknowledged within BIPOC and BAME communities for reasons that range from cultural stigma to colonial racism.

The reluctance to step forward with lived experience is a factor in the predominantly homogenous demographic within mental health research. Homogenous is not used in a good way either here. The WEIRD (Western/White, Educated, Industralised, Rich, Democratic) phenomena is a demographic that makes up the majority of studies out there. Unfortunately, this breeds more WEIRD participants and more WEIRD studies. As a result, people who fall outside of the WEIRD demographic experience an exclusion, and they don’t participate in these studies, because they are falsely taught these problems just don’t affect people like me. If all they see is white people, if all they see is western people, if all they see is richer people, then they believe that mental health only affects this demographic.

The findings of research with WEIRD participants then go on to formulate new therapies and new criteria for mental illness. Each mental illness becomes westernised, particularly in its trigger. An example of this is a study in which college students are given a diary entry of a young girl with some being told she was black, some told she was white, and some told she was Hispanic. The entry described eating disorder behaviour and they were asked to diagnose her behaviour. If she was white, she was more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Additionally, eating disorders carry strong ideology in what purges look like, what body image ideals are sought after. Purging methods and body image is found to be different in ethnic minorities.

Overall mental illness is deeply rooted in western terminology. Some western ideals may consider non-western (or culture-bound syndromes) mental illnesses as ‘crazy’ or ‘fake’ or ‘this is just some weird witchcraft, shaman-type crap.’ No offence to witches. For instance, the cultural endemic psychiatric illness known as Wendigo Psychosis. Although this diagnosis is now considered rare and thought to be myth, people may brush this off as an excuse to gloss over brutally violent and savage crimes. When in reality, this could be a mental illness exemplifying itself through culture. When in western-reality, people who have psychotic episodes have been violent to themselves as well as others out of pure fear from the terrifying thing that is psychosis. As mentioned above, psychosis, particularly schizophrenia, an already heavily stigmatised diagnosis, becomes even more vilified when it’s attached to black people, especially black men. Often, traumatic events can lead to psychosis being triggered; one in which is solitary confinement within incarceration (see Kalief Browder).

Additionally, there is not a great deal of understanding or an attempt to understand the differing levels of trauma within communities of colour. Different cultures, races, and ethnicities have shown symptoms of transgenerational trauma from black slavery to indigenous clearances and genocide to Holocaust survivors. Many of them are in a state of survival mode, because they have known their families and communities to suffer horrendously. This can lead to anxiety, shame, eating disorders, attachment disorders, emotional neediness, PTSD etc., It can lead to parents becoming authoritarian and over-protective of their children because they don’t want their children and their children’ children to suffer the same fate. This can also go the other way with parents being the overly-protected ones.

This is not helped by the dismissal of the people who were the oppressors when this trauma first formulated. Statements like “slavery happened a long time ago“, “you’re not in the camps now“, “look at the rights you have!” This leads to generations being forced to relive their trauma, while being made to believe that their stories do not matter, that their trauma does not matter, that it does not exist. When they are told that mental health awareness is not needed while they haven’t been given the chance to speak, they may feel like their story does not deserve the spotlight. My story is not something people will be interested in. The stories that matter have been told, and this world does not think my story doesn’t matter. Maybe my mental health doesn’t matter.

They are also made to relive this trauma and they don’t get a real chance to heal. For example, PTSD can only begin its healing process when the climate feels safe. Effectively, your trauma should be in the past. But for many it is not. Look at what is happening in America right now. You tell me how African Americans are meant to heal when they see their people being part of a mass incarceration, their votes are being suppressed, black people are being killed in the streets, in their homes, jogging… They live with this trauma from the days of slavery, the days of Jim Crow, the days of segregation. They are not allowed to heal. They don’t receive the appropriate help to heal. They must be strong in the face of adversity. This adds to the numerous amounts of stigma within different communities of colour and mental health.

You watch on the news as they discuss the rising levels of BIPOC/BAME youth in prison for something that has stemmed from an untreated and ignored mental health difficulty or illness. This only worsens as their sentence continues RE: Kalief Browder. They become stuck in cycles of trauma. They are not allowed to tell their story because they may carry a different culture. A culture that is different to many white people who, if they don’t relate, will not listen.

Mental health action and awareness needs to take place, and it needs to be intersectional. It cannot just rely on the research out there right now. That very WEIRD research. There is a lot to unpack, and I have touched base on it, and I have actually began to learn a lot around mental health and communities of colour. It’s time we shared the stage and allowed the spotlight on marginalised communities within the mental health community.

Yes, your story has been heard. But, now it’s time for their story to be heard.

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If you want more information in how you can donate or help in the Black Lives Matter movement then click the link here.

If you are someone who identifies as BIPOC, BAME, or POC, and would like to share your story of your mental health journey or experiences, then please don’t hesitate to message me and I will happily share your story here with your consent.

Five Years Later

I finally got some paint and began to refurbish my room. This meant a lot of looking through bags of old university things and other miscellanous items, and deciding if I should keep them. Yes, I did give the Marie Kondo if it sparks joy approach, and it turns out a lot of the stuff I kept for years did not spark joy. Anyway, I discovered a bag full of Beat materials, and amongst the materials was a certificate from my induction training. I’m not great with dates, and I tend to generalise how long I’ve been a part of organisations, groups etc., However, this certificate brought to my attention that I have been ambassador for Beat for five years, as of today. Wow!

Although I had known of Beat for years before, I didn’t become an ambassador until I was just a few months shy of being twenty years old. It was actually a customer in the restaurant I worked in that told me about the Beat ambassador programme, as he discussed my studies at university, and my intended career in mental health and clinical psychology. A few days later I googled Beat and noticed they had openings for the Young Ambassador programme. I sent away an application, and within a few weeks I received an email from Sara, the participation officer, who informed me of the training dates available. Come the 13th of June, I was welcomed into a training room in Edinburgh and within the day I was inducted as a young ambassador for Beat.

Over the years, the charity has changed its branding, and the Young Ambassador programme has now become the Ambassador programme, with many of the young ambassadors reaching the age of twenty-five (the last year of the Young Ambassador programme) and requesting to stay on. Things have changed, but the message and objective of the ambassadors has remained the same. Recovery from eating disorders is possible.

Throughout my experience, as an ambassador, the opportunities to spread this message has been limitless. My first opportunity to do so was for a group of women involved in Apex Scotland where I talked about my journey with orthorexia and anorexia. After this, I spoke at schools, in hospitals, eating disorder units, universities… I spoke to nurses, teachers, dietetic students, people in recovery from eating disorders, Childline operators… My message maneuvred through small crowds to bigger crowds. My voice found it’s way onto the radio, on TV broadcasts, livestreams, in news articles. Within my role, I have worked both on my own and with fellow ambassadors. I have connected with people in support groups, using my experience as someone in recovery from an eating disorder to offer advice and hope in reaching said recovery. My role has allowed me to speak about my experience with an illness that dominated my late teens and become an example of recovery, having people come on that journey with me and explore what happens after the fact. All the ins and outs, ups and downs.

However, this experience has done so much more than I thought it would.

I knew I had experienced eating disorders, and I had a sense of what the eating disorders were. But, I didn’t think I was unwell enough to talk about, because I didn’t go to hospital. I hadn’t received psychological therapy. I didn’t look like the typical version of someone like an eating disorder, such as the ones glorified and exploited by TV and media. When I joined, I still held this concept in my head, but as I continued on as an ambassador I began to understand my eating disorders, and that my story was actually quite similar yet so unique to others. I found a commonality with the people I worked alongside. I felt a validation in what I had gone through. I discovered so many stories, and so many build-ups to eating disorder developments, and how they were maintained. I learned how eating disorders manifested in so many.

Being an ambassador has allowed me to understand and explore the space in which one has an eating disorder. I truly understand my mental health far better than I did when I was a scared and angry teenager. I have been given back my voice. I always knew that I had one. It was a loud voice, and it was quick in its cadence, but I was always frightened to really talk without anxiety and self-hatred bearing me down. I’ve gained a perspective and I’ve become okay with learning and expanding what my story is, finding little bits of my story that slot in ways I didn’t think they would before. This role has allowed me to, not only spread a recovery-focused and, often more concise, message, but I have the ability to talk about what is important in my journey; what makes me different and what makes me the same as others.

And, that’s what being able to express your lived experience does. It not only opens up the eyes of others, but it opens up your own. It’s remarkable the power behind the ability to share your story. People have begun to rely on the experience and knowledge behind ambassadors, as our stories are key in helping others understand what it’s like to have an eating disorder. My role has allowed me to teach so many people and to inspire so many people. I don’t like to say I’m inspiring. I don’t think I am, but I feel I can leave a good mark on the world with my work. I never in my life thought I would be interviewed by radio stations, featured in health and social care articles, have a small segment on ITV Borders, be interviewed by newspapers and the National Lottery Community Fund. I have been able to carry out research in eating disorders while at university through my work at Beat, because their resources are simply incredible and so helpful. I have been able to share my story to so many different audiences who all want to listen. I spent so much of my life wanting people to listen to me and retain what I was saying, not brush me off, not look passed me. I feel Beat has given me that opportunity. Who knew any of this would happen?

Moreover, it has helped me to maintain a level of recovery; one, in which makes me feel strong and generally content in coping within myself. I have been able to understand not only my illness, but what recovery means to me. We have this idea that recovery is dichotomous and that we are either recovered or not recovered, but in reality, it should be considered ‘in recovery’, almost like a continuum. I have been given a platform to reflect and maintain my recovery. It’s like I am being held accountable, and I know being in a good state of recovery carries a lot of weight behind it, so to speak.

Beat has provided so much for me. It has kept me on a good path. I have seen eating disorder awareness and support grow over these five years. I’ve seen opportunities to speak about eating disorder recovery go from very little to thick and fast. Eating disorders now get frequently spoken about in Scottish Parliament. Beat has now expanded to a team in Wales, which I was so grateful to be a part of when I lived there. I have felt so inspired with how Beat has impacted the public’s view of eating disorders, and how they have impacted my own view of my eating disorders. I have met so many amazing, amazing people. I’ve got to work with fantastic, inspiring individuals, and I have now found somewhat of a comfort in my voice and my being.

Here’s to another five years.

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This week has been Volunteers Week, which celebrates all volunteers. Please donate to charities like Beat who are in need of funding during the Covid-19 crisis. If you would like more information about Beat and how to donate, then check out the website here.

The Relapse

Disclaimer: this post details eating disorders and the behaviours that surround it and may be particularly graphic. Therefore if you feel you may be triggered by this then either avoid this post or view at your own discretion. I also speak about purging behaviours such as vomiting, therefore people who have emetophobia or an adversion to vomiting then please avoid or view at your own discretion.

The hunger didn’t feel like hunger anymore. I lay in bed all day in an effort to avoid eating, or invitations to eat. Come nighttime, I made my way downstairs, feeling slightly disorientated, and ordered fast food; an order that vastly outweighed how much I’d eaten, or not eaten, all day. I devoured as much as I could, and went upstairs shortly afterwards, lying in bed again with a bloated distended stomach. As the food began to digest, I quickly picked up a pen, one without a cartridge, and made my way to the bathroom. I gave it a wipe to sanitise it. I turned on the taps. Then, I purged. Eventually, I made a strangled choking noise, my throat burning, and my eyes stinging, so I panicked, let go of the pen and stopped forcing myself to vomit. Woozy, lightheaded, but rushing with adrenaline, I stood and propped myself up to look at my reflection in the small mirror in the bathroom. Behind me, I could see the makings of a shadowy figure. I darted my eyes away, recognising the figure but daring not to look further. I inspected a familiar sight in the the mirror. Bloodshot eyes. A running nose. A swollen face. The figure stood closer, and I felt myself being pulled into her grasp. I forgot how powerful she could be.

Days followed, and I began to fall back into a routine that I thought I had long since banished to the back of my mind. I missed meals, and vomited every night after dinner. I went to the gym and to the track without eating anything, pleased at the fact I did not pass out, and got through the workout in one piece. Despite the fact that every time I let go of a weight I thought I was going to crash headfirst into the mirrors. But, still, I could hear a familiar voice in my head, convincing me that I could continue to act this way. I felt a sense of control I had not felt in a long time coming back to me. I knew I had fallen back into my eating disorder. I felt both Herculean and weak. She told me it would get easier like it did last time, and I could do it properly this time. She reminded me of all the times I failed, in her eyes, to adhere to the eating disorder, and this time I knew better so I could do better.

I could do better.

However, she filled me with dread this time around, not comfort. The anxiety didn’t go away, as I thought it would. The negative thoughts and emotions remained, still. Something didn’t feel right. She didn’t feel the same as when I was fifteen. There was some part of me so completely disappointed in that I had returned to my eating disorder. It was a part I had with me last time, but this time it was stronger. She filled me with false promises, telling me that I would get back to those euphoric feelings and moments when I was teenager. I just had to work a little harder this time around. I had to do better. I had to catch up.

One evening came, and I had brought out a wooden coffee stirrer that I took from Costa, thinking it was a better tool to use to really reach the back of throat. I went to my room, waited until my mum was asleep, and then made my nightly trip to the bathroom. I leaned over the bathroom, seeing the shadowy, looming figure leaned over me, watching as I knelt over the cold toilet bowl, and jammed the stick stick down my throat, triggering my gag reflex after a few moments of me begging it to do so. I vomited, until I began to panic again, as I started to uncontrollably vomit. It hurt me so much. The acid burned and I choked slightly. The figure bent further over me, and I felt her touch my back. But, her comforting touch was no longer warm. In fact, ice cold and it made me flinch. I no longer recognised her warmth.

I placed the coffee stirrer by his knees and got up to sit on the toilet. And, there she stood. My eating disorder faced me. I faced my eating disorder. This was the first time I had ever looked her in the face, in her deep, hypnotising eyes. And, she was not as frightening as I imagined. Now looking at her, she shrunk to my height. She was small. She didn’t have the power to stand over me. She fell to her knees, as though weakened by my observing of her. She created this concept in my head of a terrifyingly beautiful and dark creature; one, in which that would protect me, yet I was scared to look her in the face. As long as I didn’t confront her, as long as I didn’t look at her, I was promised happiness and sanctuary. But, now seeing her for what she was, she didn’t appear to be able to promise me anything, let alone make it happen. I could see her for what she truly was for the first time since I first developed an eating disorder. I recognised the falsehoods of her promises. I knew that my instinct, in which I believed that things were not as I believed they were beforehand, was correct.

She was no longer a person, but a horrible and devastating attempt to control me. All the feelings and thoughts I experienced when I was unwell, and during my second relapse, were now coming upon me as untrue. I was never in control. I could never have control. Not when the control belonged to the eating disorder. Getting to see the eating disorder for what it was, while the acidity of my purging stung still, and my eyes were bleary, my ears ringing and blocked, it was interesting, it was eye-opening. Almost like an epiphany. The low mood, the low self esteem, the anger, the anxiety, the insecurity, the suicidal thoughts; they always remained when I was unwell. The relapse taught me that. Restricting my eating, attempting to get back on track with purges, it solved nothing. It did nothing. I still felt the same. Actually, I felt worse than I did before.

She couldn’t terrify me any longer. Because I acknowledged her, she couldn’t hold me down. As I returned to normalcy, a state of recovery, I saw brief glimpses of her out the corner of my eye, particularly if I doubted eating something or I purged. And, each time, I caught her. I would look her straight in the eye, and she would shrink again.

I didn’t belong to her anymore.

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If you need support, and are affected by this piece, then please contact Beat for further support and advice. If you would like more information and advice about emetophobia, then please read this article.

The Anxiety of Being Productive

During this lockdown, have you seen this tweet copied and pasted onto your timeline from a variety of pseudo-life coaches?

How has it made you feel? Annoyed? Frustrated? Guilty? Like you’re not doing enough? A failure?

Me too.

At the time I’m writing this the UK is now going into our sixth week of lockdown. However, many of us already were working from home, furloughed or made redundant altogether weeks before. As a result, we are being faced with more time than we know what to do with. This is when we begin to feel like spare parts. Then, we feel we need to do more than 110% to prove we are working when we are at home. Adding to this, the motivation gurus creep out the woodwork and begin to guilt us with the concept of “you’re wasting this gift we’ve been given of time.” For some of us, we then feel the need to do a million and one things in order to squeeze this lockdown dry of its apparent advantages.

One avenue people might not consider is the impact of productivity pressure on peoples’ anxieties, particularly those who are ‘clinically anxious‘ i.e. have received some form of a diagnosis or experience overwhelming anxiety within their daily life. I am one of these people, and the constant pressure of feeling like I am not doing enough is one of my many anxieties.

My brain is constantly going at 100mph. Even before lockdown, my brain would be at least three steps ahead of whatever I was currently trying to do. If I try to be spontaneous, my brain becomes a blur and I jump from not fully formed task to not fully formed task. Whether I was doing my undergraduate, my masters, or my current job, I would always be trying to cram in the next thing. If I wasn’t filling up every moment, I felt like I was a failure. Which would bring on my depression. So, I would either burn out and experience anxiety exhaustion, or my self-esteem would plummet and I would be depressed.

Within this lockdown, I do have slightly more time on my hands. I train at home now. I mostly work from home. I am at home. However, I still work a full time job and I still train five times a week. This is the new normal for many of us but it doesn’t stop social media and mainstream media pushing the idea that we should be jumping on this so-called gift of time. There breeds this guilt from motivation gurus that we are lazy and wasting our resources and this precious opportunity. Privileged people are laying it on thick with the message of the lockdown being a blessing.

I don’t know how else to say this, but this lockdown isn’t a blessing. It’s the current solution to a deadly virus which has wiped out more than a quarter of a million of us, and infected over four million.

This guilt and shame is being forced down our throats.

You know, you really should be getting on with that novel. But, make sure you bake that bread first. What about the thirteen books you’re ignoring? You’re only through one chapter of them? But, it’s been an hour, you should be through at least seven books by now. And don’t get me started on that shed you haven’t built yet!

We’re loading our brains with a high volume of tasks, with the false idea that we actually have so much more time. And, even if we don’t have the time, we’re still being pressured into thinking we do. I’ve been surrounded by posts on social media of people smashing through their daily tasks and then heaping a whole lot more work on top of what they have finished and smashing through that too. As I scroll through my different social media feeds, drinking in this information, my anxiety is ramping itself up for a monumental freak out. I can feel the fear of failure stamping its feet, ready to charge, and knock me out with guilt and panic attacks. Just a feeling I love…

During this lockdown, I have become so busy, because it’s how I feel I should be right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love being busy. It keep me distracted, and I like doing things, but I know in myself that my anxiety can run me into the ground with how busy it wants me to be. If I sleep in a bit later than planned, I immediately think I’ve ruined the day and that I have no time to do anything. Instead of just forgiving myself, and picking up the day from there, and agreeing that if I don’t get everything done then I have the next day to do it. I have been talking about how busy I am to a couple of my friends, which I agree is not particularly sensitive of me. In reality, I am not busy because I am on my A-game, but I am trying to be busy because the pressures within the media have wreaked havoc on my anxiety and convinced me that I have time to do a lot. And, I mean, time to do too much.

Anxiety can manifest intense feeling of failure in that if you are not doing what the people you regard as successful and normal are doing then you might as well not be doing anything at all. So, to get rid of those feelings you will do more than you should and can do just to make yourself feel even slightly better. Sometimes we can become so anxious that we end up avoiding things altogether in an attempt to suppress the triggers to our anxiety, which just leads to us feeling more anxious because we are not being as productive as the successful people. We can become so anxious that our brains just shut down in panic, because we immediately expect that we’re not going to live up to the expectations placed upon us by these people we deem as being more successful.

Recently, I had a day off from work, and I planned to get ahead in a few things, after I had a long lie. I had a charity quiz coming up that I needed to prepare questions for. I was participating in a Q&A for an online support group. I wanted to finish my book that still had 150 pages remaining until the end. I was going to bake some bread. And make some soup. I then decided I needed to tidy up my room and the bathroom. I then decided that I needed to write a blog post. I kept adding things onto my list, but in no real order or with any sense of priority. It was just a list. Therefore, my mind descended into an anxiety blur and I began to panic that I had no time to do anything, so I tried to do everything at once. All while taking a panic attack. Any time I sat down to do one thing and pour my concentration and focus into it I would find my anxiety niggling away at the back of my brain telling me I wasn’t being productive enough because I had other stuff to do. My anxiety would make me feel low and useless because I hadn’t ticked everything off my list already. As a result, I began to experience a rush of panic and confusion because I didn’t know what to do, or where to start. My list, which wasn’t a proper list, was disintegrating in front of my mind’s eye and I could no longer think straight. I felt like lying down under my duvet and waiting for the day to pass. One of my favourite maladaptive pastimes.

My issue with the motivation gurus is their inability to consider the lack of time and resources people have, and the current surroundings i.e. the global pandemic. Adding to this, the information or advice provided is so vague, and leaves you to try to figure out how to fit in writing a novel around looking after four children, or, in my case, a full time job, mental health campaigning and volunteering, and training for a sport. As a result, this vague advice leaves people with anxiety trying to fill in the blanks, and usually not so appropriately. Sometimes, we don’t even attempt to fill in the blanks. Just do it becomes our motto, but we’re less Nike, and more “I’ve no idea what I’m doing but I should have done it by now!” My anxiety can make me very impatient. I like to plan, but I like to get going, and I like to have things completed, so I get frustrated if something is taking me longer than planned, or I have not been able to do it immediately. Purely for the fact that everyone seems to know what to do, so why can’t I?! Sometimes, we become too engrossed with planning because we are too stressed and worried to actually advance because we’re worried that we’ve gone the wrong way about it. I can work well off my initiative, but my anxiety can make me doubt myself often, and I find I am not confident in what I do, particularly when undergoing an anxiety attack or anxious state, so I begin to worry about moving on to the next step in case I am exposed as a failure, and never trusted again.

A brief side note: this is the first time I’ve written about my anxiety and, oh my God, how have I not erupted more often? I am exhausted even thinking about it!

A motivation guru, or these people who want to guilt trip you into thinking you’re unproductive and thus a failure, don’t actually care if you become productive. They care about engagement and that’s it. The busier you are, the more successful they think they are in spreading their ‘message’. They want you to figure out how to do everything all by yourself. Yes, you are in charge of your own journey, but you are not expected to enter clueless and blind-sighted into a situation someone forced you into. We’re undergoing a global pandemic, which is set to see a massive domino effect. People have enough on their plates. They might be trying to find a new job. Or they might have to pick up an extra job. They might be buying groceries or running errands for vulnerable people. They might be looking after their children who are at home from school. They might be also trying to cope with the unfortunate reality of a loved one in hospital in critical or serious condition from Covid-19.

We are trying to survive. We are trying to keep ourselves distracted from the absolute horror and surreality of what is going on. Day to day, I am so overwhelmed by everything. Yet, I am forcing myself to be productive, which sounds like a good thing, but isn’t necessarily, because I am not getting the best results. This only exhausts me more because I feel like a failure with the outcome of my tasks, and then I go in and in and in and in again with the same outcome every time. We don’t need to be doing life-changing things right now. What we’re currently going through is life-changing enough. Focus on what you enjoy. Don’t think you need to be doing three million things at once in order to feel productive according to the standards of someone else with a Twitter account. If you are actually spending your time learning how to knit, or reading all the books you have wanted to read, trying to write a novel… then go for it.

Spend your time on things you are currently doing but don’t become absorbed in this pretence of I have to be productive every waking minute in order to show I am using my lockdown time effectively.

The lockdown wasn’t put in place for you to be productive. The lockdown was put in place, because people are dying and our healthcare systems are become increasingly overwhelmed.

As long as you enjoy what you are doing, and even if you are doing ‘only’ one thing, then go ahead. Rock that one thing as best as you can. Take your time. We have some extra time, but we don’t need to fill it to the brim.

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If you are experiencing poor mental health, please seek further advice from the following sites.

Beat

Clear Your Head Scotland

Mind

Rethink Mental Illness

Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH)

Samaritans

Young Minds

Emulating Others’ Lives

“Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so that he could copy from example.” 

Like most people, I’m absolutely engrossed and obsessed with Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Yes, I saw the TV show first before the book, which I am currently reading. However, I came across this line early in the story, and it’s relevancy sunk so far into my skin right into my bones. I find that this line describes the turmoil I very regularly experience with anxiety.

I’ve mentioned my anxiety on this blog, but I’ve never actually expanded into what it’s like. You all know my experiences with suicidal ideation and eating disorders, but not necessarily my life with anxiety. I am high-functioning, but I am very chronic, having had anxiety for more than a decade of my life. I remember being a very worried and stressed child, with my anxiety displaying in the form of cold sweats, very strong irritability, and dizziness. This was very prominent when I felt I was about to be set up for a failure, or I had done something wrong even if it was miniscule. I am a perfectionist, and I was a perfectionist all throughout my education, so if I did something wrong whether it was objectively wrong or wrong to me, so I think I spent a large amount of my time as a child in cold sweats, panicking and crying. When you are a child with anxiety, your anxiety can be much more physical in its manifestations i.e. you can’t communicate in the same way you would as an adult, and the intense feelings of an anxiety attack can be physically overwhelming and, thus, frightening as a child.

My anxiety mainly revolves around the fear that I am going to be a failure and I am actually a bad person. I constantly fight with myself over whether this is true and my friends are just lying to me or I am actually a generally good person with anxiety that makes me think I am a bad person. As a result, I am constantly analysing every little interaction I have made with things in my life. It doesn’t even need to be an interaction with a person. In fact, I over analyse my training, my competitions, my work tasks, my university choices… anything that can be analysed. If you see me on the bus staring out the window, I am likely berating myself very harshly for something I did, completely blowing it out of proportion. My anxiety makes me think everything I do is inappropriate and that nobody acts the way I do and I am ridiculous and don’t know how to be a ‘normal person.’

This is why I found myself relating to this quote from Normal People. From a young age, my anxiety has made me feel like I was bizarre and didn’t know how to conduct myself. I had a deep seated fear that I was failing at being a good and normal person. I desperately wanted to see how others behaved and what their lives were like so I could copy them and get rid of my anxiety of being a failure. I lacked a consistent and strong personality growing up because, while I was outgoing and like to perform in lots of theatre and musical theatre, I was frightened to generally be my own person, so I often tried to emulate others and be like them so I didn’t have to be myself. Because my anxiety made me constantly worry about being myself. My anxiety made me not like myself. I was so wrapped up in how to conduct my life like someone else.

I just waited for the next mistake I would make, because I knew it was going to happen. There was a mistake in everything I did. My anxiety created these mistakes out of thin air. I would smile at someone and immediately my anxiety would jump on this interaction and say “why did you smile that way? Why did you not say hello to? God, you’re so shy. Everyone thinks you’re weird!!!” However, if I didn’t smile, my anxiety would also jump on this interaction: “why did you not smile? Why can’t you even look at someone? Everyone thinks you’re weird!!!” My every interaction is calculated carefully in my head. I struggle to be spontaneous. I avoid interactions, or preemptively think what I’m doing is stupid, because I am so anxious that I will do something wrong or someone will think I am stupid or bad or unlikeable. Having anxiety makes me think I am unlikable. And, even in that statement, I think about how it’s actually not my anxiety and I am just unlikeable.

I often don’t understand why people are friends with me. Or why people dated me. My anxiety goes into overdrive with its analysis of my regular, daily situations, trying to find all the ways in which it went wrong. Because, anxiety never points out the right. It’s always the wrong, and the wrong is the most dominating thing within my thinking.

Anxiety is really, really exhausting. You never feel like you are doing anything right. Even when you’ve perfectly orchestrated things within your life, you’ll always find something. Your anxiety can often imagine these things, but they feel so very real and you begin to replace your actual memory with the anxiety memory.

My anxiety is just so crippling and horrible that I can find myself taking a panic attack in Tesco because I think I am doing the wrong thing going out to get my weekly food shop, because the government says we are in lockdown, and, although I haven’t been any further than my back garden steps, I feel like I shouldn’t be outside in case I am breaking the law and spreading the virus. Then, if I don’t go out, then I feel I am being unbearably useless.

In my mind, I am never doing the right thing.

I can lie in bed and think and think and think and think and think and think. And, before I know it, it’s 4am and I am beating myself up for not being asleep sooner, even though it was my anxiety’s fault in the first place. I’ll drink three coffees because I like the taste and then it’ll obviously kickstart my anxiety and my anxiety immediately jumps into: nobody else does this, nobody else is this stupid, you don’t know how to look after yourself, you’re not going to be anything. And just like that I’ve catastrophised me drinking a 3rd Kenco instant cappuccino.

I would like to know how others live to see if I am doing the right thing, but even if I could and then adapt my life accordingly, my anxiety would hound me still.

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I am going to send this out into the world as untouched as possible, as the idea hit me when I read that line in Normal People, and I thought I would explore a large part of my mental health that I don’t often talk about within my mental health journey on my blog and mental health campaigning. So, there we go. It’s a start.

Mental Health Literature: A Review of “Seconds To Snap”

Just over a year ago, I attended and spoke at a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Taskforce as part of their lived experience panel. This is where I met Scottish author Tina McGuff, and learned about her book: Seconds To Snap. A native Dundonian, she is a mental health campaigner who spreads awareness of mental health diagnoses such as anorexia nervosa and psychosis, and has featured on Lorraine and Jeremy Vine. I knew from the moment I met I had to buy her book.

Unfortunately, I have just bought the book due to a lack of money and having only recently kicked back into gear my love for reading. Better late than never, I guess? But that’s beside the point.

Seconds to Snap is a detailed description of Tina’s experience with mental illness after exposure to a suddenly very traumatic childhood, which resulted in a development of anorexia nervosa followed by stays in the psychiatric unit of Ninewells hospital in Dundee. She takes you through the moment her poor mental health was set off into action and the downward spiral into mental illness.

Now, I mentioned that I have only recently got back into reading properly. It’s been a slow process. It took me nine months to finish Nuremberg Diary. It took me three months to finish Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And, it took me four months to finish Dune. I was getting ready for another couple of months of reading. This turned out not to be the case. I finished this book in two days. This was a miracle. The minute I opened to the first page I was genuinely hooked. I get so easily distracted, and nowadays I struggle to read if someone is watching TV or talking in the background, but with this book I was shut off to the world, gripped by every word.

Seconds To Snap was just so real. It broke my heart when Tina began to experience her life falling down around her, and I was begging her to stay in the psychiatric units and to drink her Build Up drinks. I was cheering her on when she began to willingly restore her weight. I wanted to hold her when she had setbacks. I was enthralled by every part of her journey, because of how real it was. She didn’t paint this picture of recovery being linear. It didn’t all just happen at once and then, boom!, she was in the hospital on her to normality. No, in fact, her mental health difficulties slowly mounted up and up and up and she sunk further down and down and down.

Reading the book made me experience feelings of hopelessness and sorrow and I was pleading someone to just help her. But that’s what made her story, and the way she told it so compelling, because that’s the reality of mental health when it becomes poor. Yes, sometimes it can happen suddenly. But usually it’s the little adjustments or missteps in someone’s life that we miss. A missed meal here. An extra run there. A few days of being tired. An altercation brushed off as teenage hormones. But, then, the way someone has been feeling and behaving based on these feelings just becomes that person’s new normal. Eventually the person’s way of life is seen as “she’s always acted this way.”

I think this book is a very valuable piece of mental health literature because it highlights how things can so easily build up yet go unnoticed. People don’t realise the ways in which trauma can impact someone’s life, especially if that person is a child who has take the brunt of the trauma. There is insight given into how it’s not just one type of trauma that can trigger a mental health difficulty and it’s not always the same mental health diagnosis or difficulty that is produced. This is shown by Tina’s development of anorexia nervosa and then psychosis induced by anxiety. She brilliantly explores the confusing entanglement of co-morbidities, especially those which feature in anorexia nervosa, and how these can ebb and flow throughout the process of eating disorder development, recovery and relapse. It is a very well put together yet raw piece of work; one in which allows the reader to hear the reality of poor mental health as unfiltered as possible. Many shows, films, and books commonly romanticise illnesses, leaving out all the messy details within mental health in particular.

I noticed as I read the book I felt a large pit open up in my stomach. I felt a level of shame and discomfort with every word concerning her eating disorder. The discomfort I felt reading these portions of the book was because I was being reminded by what I did during my eating disorder. There were many things I could relate to. The reliance on diet drinks. I drank a lot of them during my eating disorder. The dangerous diets she followed to lose weight dramatically to satisfy her eating disorder. I did this. I drank common weight-loss products that were similar to the ones she used. Crash diets. Diets meant for patients in hospitals. What she did, I did.

I felt ashamed reading her words, because I felt exposed. I remembered the shame I felt when I spoke about my eating disorder for the first time. Eating disorders spark such strong feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment as we know what we are doing is considered bizarre, abnormal and plain wrong. We know it’s dangerous what we’re doing, and we know people wouldn’t react well if we told them. We don’t want to feel those negative feelings so we often spare the details of our eating disorder or don’t tell anyone even after we’ve recovered. Yet, for Tina to put down exactly what happened, every little dark detail, the details often glossed over in the movies in favour for the so-called pretty, fragile side of eating disorders.

We need to see the harsh reality of eating disorders. The side that shows all those dark, distressing and negative emotions that emerge during an eating disorder. Reading her words made me reflect on what I did, and how terrible my eating disorder was and the behaviours that were involved. It reminded me just how much harm I put my body through. It reminded just how powerful an eating disorder is in making you think that, despite all these horrific things, there is nothing truly bad about what you are doing. I grimaced several times when she went into detail about her purging, her restrictions, the way the eating disorder clouded her judgement. But, at the heart of it, I grimaced as the person on the outside looking in, but, during the time I was unwell, I remember how much my judgement was clouded. My eating disorder made me think all of the restrictions and purges were positives and were part of my journey to being the best person I could be. Or the best anorexic in the world, as Tina says.

This book is a heartfelt window into the world of someone who has anorexia and other mental health difficulties and diagnoses. It highlights the shame and embarrassment an individual feels when they go through and also reflect on their eating disorder. These feelings should be taken into consideration when discussing eating disorders with someone who has personal experience as they may have these feelings, which can make it harder for them to be honest. They feel they are going to be in trouble or treated like a horrible and wasteful person. I was reminded of those thoughts and feelings when I read Seconds To Snap. It made me realise just how crucial it is to challenge these feelings and take special care in dealing with them. If you want to understand an eating disorder; if you want to understand trauma and its negative effects, then read this book. If you want to see that your way of thinking, as someone with an eating disorder, is common within others; if you want to know that you are not alone; if you want to know that you can recover and have a happy life without your eating disorder, then read Seconds To Snap.

I feel really privileged to know Tina and she’s a fantastic woman who fights tirelessly in mental health and a real role model for recovery.

You can purchase Tina McGuff’s book, Seconds To Snap here.

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If you are affected by an eating disorder and want further advice and support, please visit Beat.