Diffusing pain

It is easy to lose sight of those around us, the thoughts and feelings of a disorder or illness can drive an entire existence. The brain hosts a daily war zone between negativity and attempted rationality. This battle overshadows a perspective outside a tunnel of vision, pushes aside family and friends, believing that they don’t care, that they will never understand, and cannot be allowed to cross a line of danger, into the war that exists internally.

This is something that the individual struggling must become aware of themselves, for there is truly always someone that cares. Even through a swarm of bullies, disrupted families or poor relationships, there is someone. It may be a stranger, it may be a forgotten friend, but do not forget, that although the pain felt may not be identically reflected within another, the pain does diffuse through a society. Onlookers to the destruction that loved ones inflict upon themselves, feel helpless and live their own turmoil, in a world of anxiety, stress and fear that the one they care for is endangered by mental illness.

Recovery is a long process, sometimes unbearable, sometimes it means taking a few steps backwards before leaping ahead, sometimes it involves feeling like recovery is possible, and then falling suddenly, right back into the grips of a mental illness. But recovery isn’t just about regaining a life for oneself, it is regaining a life for everyone around you. My words have no intent to place guilt on someone struggling, because not a single sufferer (or as I prefer to say; recoverer) is to blame. I simply wish to state, that even if one’s suffering only affects one person, their stress will diffuse to the network surrounding that person, which in turn affects their network and so on. A majority of humans by nature, wish to empathise and will consequentially wish to tend to the pioneering pain that the recoverer feels. Mental illness fundamentally affects an individual, but also family, friends and a society through a process of diffusion.

Recovering but not recovered.

So how does it feel to be in that limbo of ‘okay’, but not good? In recovery but not ‘recovered’ from Anorexia Nervosa? When nobody can see the struggle because you look well, yet even when you try to explain it or reach out, people turn away. When a world of restriction turns upside down, it becomes a realization that food tastes good, that recovery is worth it, but one does not know how to accept this. Food has been the perceived enemy for so long, the thing that causes the dreaded weight gain. This limbo of recovery provides sudden clarity, that an eating disorder is not about food, weight and shape, but at the same time it is all about food, weight and shape.

Recovery can occur in a variety of ways, it can include one minute of being adamant that one will lose 5kg, but the next decide to eat well, be ‘strong not skinny’. It can include a sudden gorge on all the foods that one has deprived oneself of for so long. It can include this gorge to bring up so much guilt, that one transitions to a diagnosis of bulimia.

I apologize for a more personally written post, but if one person reads it – I hope to feel some relief to finally share my constant whir of thoughts… I am recovering, not recovered.

Every day, I remember lying in that hospital bed, completely confused as to how I got there, but totally aware of my body sinking into the bed. The smell of paper towels, the smell of fortisip supplements staining my mattress and skin as I tried to hide it, the humiliation of shitting myself because I took too many laxatives. An NG thrust through my nose as I screamed and cried. Friends and family visited and left crying, but all I felt was numb. I could not cry, because I didn’t understand. I hadn’t reached my goal weight, so how could I be ill or underweight? The only comfort I felt, was that my heart rate was at 29bpm, I felt like I’d achieved something, in some sick way that I still don’t understand.

The worst memory is seeing my mums face, when she told me I had a month to live if I didn’t accept treatment. That image will never leave my memory, how much I’d hurt her, knowing now the turmoil I put her through. So I was flown to London to an ED inpatient unit. I now cannot stop thinking, how every other weekend she lost her free time off work, to fly to London and take a train to see me just for a few hours. How she lost weight herself because of stress, and how she had no time for herself, yet all I felt at the time was jealously, that I was in a unit to gain weight and she was free to lose weight. How I still returned home and put her through hell, hid food, deceived her, shouted at her, made myself sick in front of her, sat staring blankly as family members cried when I wouldn’t eat, avoided good hygiene, touching toilets in the hope of catching a vomiting bug, all for what? To lose weight. To somehow achieve the unachievable.

The guilt never fades.

Every day I’m so conscious of my body, noticing every jiggle, all the loss of muscle because my weight goes up and down like a yoyo, muscle is the first to go so I never sustain it… constantly comparing myself, never being thin, but not even looking slim because I’ve lost the muscle. Depression sinks in. I just sit or lie in my bed for hours. Even though my bmi remains on the cusp of healthy – I only see the fat I’ve obtained from lack of activity, so I just look a normal size, leaving everyone oblivious and confused by my distress.

Nearly very night for the past 3 months, I have binged and purged. Purged so violently that my throat has not stopped burning, I have grazes on my knuckles from my desperation, burst blood vessels around my eyes, under my tongue and down my cheeks and neck from the straining to get out every last morsel… my teeth are starting to recede as the acidic vomit has worn down my gums. My fingers are stained with smell as I’ve pawed through my vomit just to make sure I’ve purged everything. Further memories are triggered of going into every food shop in a train station, spending over £50 on food because my friend hadn’t turned up, knowing full well I was going to purge it all in the station toilets.

I hate myself every day. Not just for looking the way I do, but for not being strong enough to recover, for having 5 years of my life taken from me and ruled by thoughts and calculations of calories, weight, shape and body.

For what I’ve put my mum through.

I have remained a healthy weight for a large percentage of this time, yet these times have been the worst – because everyone thinks you’re over it, that you’ve come out the other side, but it’s just a hidden demon. A dirty secret that nobody wants to hear, because loving food is normal, but having a life ruled by it’s dictatorship is not. A life where the number on the scale or the reflection in the mirror each morning, is what defines whether a day is good or bad.

Each day, my thoughts are about food, weight, calories and how I look. I wander around food shops the majority of the days, just to look at food I wish I could eat, trying to tell myself I can do it but if I do, I know full well I will throw it up. In the eyes of the unknowing, I am healthy, I look like a normal 20 year old. Yet I cannot concentrate, unless it’s about what I have eaten or what I will eat that day. I cannot shift the memories, I cannot let go. Oh I so want to let go, if only my eating disorder would let me go.

So you think you’re special?

It’s within human nature to want to stand out. Even through the need to fit in, there emerges a desire to have some personal quality or achievement that is special, above all those around you. After reflecting on a difficult couple of weeks, I come to the same conclusion I have before, time and time again. One overriding barrier to my own recovery is this need to excel or stand out somewhere or somehow. Society puts pressure on every young person and adult to talk about qualities of themselves, to talk in a way that puts them above the rest. But what if you have never found that thing that puts you ahead?

Being average in intelligence, average in personality, average in socialising, average in looks, average in sports, average in arts, average in drama, average but never outstanding. The list of mediocre qualities never ends. So perhaps this sense of never being good enough is the weight that forever causes doubt in the ability to recover, to find oneself, to feel confident to face demons. Yet mental illness is debilitating, scary, and just as fatal as any physical illness, so why would I, or anyone want to hold onto it?

I think too often, that an eating disorder is the only thing that makes me different to anyone else, even as weight restored – somehow I want it to be ‘my thing’, to the extent I almost self-sabotage my recovery, so I don’t lose the safety net of my identity. It can be the same for depression, having changed my nature and outlook so much, that I fall back on it as ‘who I am’, in comfort of a fear that I am not enough to be ‘me’. Perhaps mental health and talking about it is all I have to offer? But one should not forget; mental illness is not unique, it is not special, in fact it’s one of the most prominent and common factors in society. The reality is, there will always be someone better than us at something, one cannot strive for perfection, but instead can strive for progress. Our lives aren’t meant to look like anyone else’s, our journey is our own and that journey in itself, with all it’s paths, obstacles and goals is what truly makes us unique.

For so long, I have hidden behind my diagnoses, identifying myself by their name and not my own. I think it’s time to change.

Alone or Lonely?

In depression, there is a limit when it comes to convincing yourself that you’re isolated because you like being alone, being left alone is all you want. All you need to carry on is your own company and being alone is always preferable. The need to be alone leads to a constant insistence to push away those around you, push away the very people who are openly offering to help you and to lend a listening ear. Yet, all the while there is a persisting fear of loneliness. So why do we insist on pushing others away? When it’s inevitable that we’ll return home to an overwhelming sense of loneliness, further sinking us into depression, believing we have nobody to support us, forgetting that it was in fact us that rejected and ignored those whom tried to reach out to us in the first place.

Depression is a selfish illness, a self-centred world of dark and negative thoughts, emotions and behaviours, all leading to perpetual sense of being lost, lonely and hopeless. There is no room for anyone else because the mind is clouded by this self-focused cycle. It’s not to say that being alone is always a bad thing, we all need to time to ourselves, it can be refreshing and it’s healthy. But just like it does with everything, depression exaggerates this need to be alone. A swarm of fear is created, that one will be made to face the real world, a belief that one simply doesn’t have the energy to engage with others or leave the safety of being under a duvet. All of which are methods of faulty thinking, but very real and unavoidable concepts for the sufferer. This response is reflected in many from a young age- in the face of difficulty the response is to hide away, to suppress emotions in fear of making things worse, or to act out through aggression or other behaviours to separate oneself. This mechanism to shut others out should be challenged across all of society, both in the well and unwell.

The evidence shows that by having more social connections and networks, a happy life is much more likely, whilst being alone and without social contact can lead to lonely, unhappy lives with a much shorter life expectancy. If you have a friend with depression or whom appear withdrawn, don’t be disheartened if they are not in contact. Reach out to them, persist with it and offer kindness not rejection, visit them if you can – we visit and encourage the physically ill, it should be no different for the mentally ill. They are the ones who need contact but are too afraid or unknowing of how to reach out.

And if you’re the one in the thick of depression; don’t give up, make a change and try to face the world, face your demons, face everyday life and allow yourself to express your opinions and feelings, both to yourself and to others. Avoid shutting others out, being honest about your true feelings can go a long way to helping you and others understand. The need for some time alone is not something to be ashamed of, and those who are true friends will understand if you say that’s what you need. Set yourself goals to get in touch with others little by little, you can still have time alone without being lonely.

Location Location Location

One thing I’ve learnt, which retrospectively I should have realised earlier, is that a mental health condition doesn’t disappear or improve by simply moving location. Whether it be moving house, going abroad, starting University, a new job or living with different people. A mental illness is firmly manifested within the mind and body of an affected individual.

Taking someone out of a triggering or stressful situation from a temporary spell of anguish, is definitely a helpful action to take within that moment. However avoidance of a problem or assumptions that by moving around, the problem will disappear, is unreasonable and flawed. A temporary relief can be felt, surrounding oneself with new people and environments can influence a different self-reflection and world view, but ultimately the sly ways of a mental illness will not be fooled by a new setting.

Triggers, factors or causes of mental illness may lie within a given location, but that also doesn’t mean that ridding of such a place will provide a permanent cure. In reality, if the root of illness lies within a location, then everywhere you ‘run’ to will hold direct or indirect reminders of that place. Without dealing with real issues embedded within, the problem will reoccur and perhaps, with an almighty bite.

Christmas cheer & tears, chaos & calories

Christmas is upon us, a day known for merriment, family, laughter and food. It marks a special occasion not only for religion but for bringing a society together, where our charitable inclinations increase and acts of kindness are abundant. However, behind all this, there is a hidden world, where the idea of Christmas can represent an occasion of fear, anxiety and ambivalence. For those with autism, the lead up to Christmas can be a bizarre concept; for not everyday is Christmas so why are we decorating, advertising and exciting ourselves? For those with social anxiety, the idea of a room full of people, shops swarmed with the last minute purchasers can initiate the physical and emotional feelings of panic. Depression has leached the enjoyment out of life, and that doesn’t change for this one day out of 365. Christmas may evoke feelings and memories of pain, loss or abuse, everyone has an individual story to tell and it cannot be assumed that this festive season is jolly for all.

The intense focus on food is particularly challenging for one with an eating disorder, the fear of family members piling calories onto your plate, adding up to what is no longer a serving of nourishment or pleasure, but a numerical, quantitative pile of anxiety. Eager family members laughing around the table, looking expectantly for satisfied faces and yet the disordered response is a tentative one, avoiding complimenting the food due to an infestation of guilt that one could simply allow or accept that they can enjoy this nutritional necessity. The whole day becomes a nightmare of thoughts- resulting in tears, binges, purges, restrictions, anxiety and self-doubt, to a point that the very acceptance of presents becomes a guilt-driven activity. After the mechanical action of eating, the anxiety doesn’t dampen easily, the day will hold fears of having eaten too much, gaining weight, continuing to eat uncontrollably and results in a day lost in a world of clouded vision, an unintentional, self-centred bubble of worry and rumination.

Even if someone is struggling, people can be helped to find enjoyment from Christmas. If you have a loved one who is struggling in any way with this holiday- talk to them before the day. Put a plan in place. Whether it be discussing the meal with them, choosing certain foods, firming a safe place they can go if it’s overwhelming and reassuring them that it’s ok to need to ‘escape’ the family laughter and loud jokes. Make sure that person knows who they can talk to on the day, make sure they feel safe, that they know they are cared for and that even if they just show their face for a short while, they deserve to enjoy Christmas. Whatever an individual likes about Christmas, get them to focus on that and even if it’s just for a moment. Christmas holds some universal enjoyment, and please remember if someone is withdrawn at Christmas time due to mental illness, it is never their fault.

A prozac nation

Fluoxetine, Citalopram, Venlafaxine, Mirtazapine, Bupropion, Olanzapine, Sertraline, Lamictal… An endless list of old and new medications designed to dampen and cover up symptoms of depression, anxiety and in combination with other drugs for multiple disorders. A society constantly growing a reliance on synthetic pills to function through the day, yet is this really the right route to take? Surely more acts of compassion and talking therapy should be top of the list, yet a trip to the GP for symptoms of a mental illness almost certainly ends in a little slip of paper that will lead to the possibility of a lifetime of prescription drugs.

One cannot deny the necessity for some to have a chemical ‘pick me up’, even for myself having been on and off medication for years and trying a variety of brands and types; I have again, returned to what is perhaps a safety net of biological treatment. However treatment should not be about prescribing a cocktail of drugs and releasing individuals into society, in many cases there is nothing more empowering and motivating then simply having someone to offload to, to be responded to with genuine care and concern for your needs and welfare and ultimately feel that you are not alone and that there is validity in your emotions.

Having experienced a sense of being restrained by a ‘chemical straight jacket’ when dosed up to the point of blurry vision, sleeping through days and having the inability to form a sentence, I feel that this method should never be the first point of call when treating someone so vulnerable or at risk. The unfortunate truth is that the first point of call for many GPs is to prescribe an antidepressant which can strip someone entirely of their identity and sense of self.