Tag Archives: emotions

My journey through therapy

Over the past few weeks I've been publishing blogs about different types of therapy. I've been very fortunately that the NHS offered me such fantastic opportunities, each therapy helped me understand something new and helped me grow and develop. Every therapy has its pros and cons. If you want therapy on the NHS, depending on the set up in your area, you will need to be referred, either by you GP or via a psychiatrist.

Follow the links to find out more:

Let me know your experiences.

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The ambivalence of eating disorder recovery 

It’s really hard for people who’ve not experienced an eating disorder to understand the pull towards destruction.

Ambivalence…the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings towards the same person, object or actions, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.

When your life’s completely falling apart, you’re not able to hold down and job, you’re losing friends and you’re feeling physically unwell, how could anyone not grab hold of recovery with both hands and run with it?!

If, however, you’ve lost everything else, the only thing you have left becomes your identity and a place of safety. If you feel like your eating disorder is the only thing you have in the whole world, how could you possibly consider letting it go?

Eating disordered behaviour not only becomes habitual but it’s a compulsive addiction.

Weight restoration is a significant part of anorexia recovery and this, for me, was terrifying. Having spent years trying to lose weight, put my body through all sorts to try and obtain the unobtainable skinny body of my dreams, thinking about throwing all that work away is unbearable. All the professionals who claim they have my best interests at heart are trying to make me fat, how could they not understand that’s the one thing I can’t do?!

It feels impossible to understand when you’re told “you have to put on weight before you can engage with therapy”. Once your weight is below a certain level and you’re body is malnourished, your brain is not receiving enough energy to function to do everyday tasks, let alone process and absorbed any new understanding in therapy.

“But I can’t gain weight unless my head is straightened out”… this feels like an obvious plea as multiple professionals are telling you your medicine right now is food. “How am I mean to eta when every fibre of my being is telling me not to eat?”

That is what anorexia does, it takes over every fibre of your being, it infiltrates every cell and permeates every breath you take. It feels like you become anorexia. I didn’t feel like I existed beyond my anorexia therefore doesn’t it make sense that I wouldn’t want to let it go? That’s the impact it has, that’s what it makes you believe, anorexia is your identity, without it you are no one, you do not exist… 

Now, I didn’t want to exist, part if my anorexia was about losing so much weight that I would disappear but there was a tiny part of me hanging onto life. In an odd way, although anorexia was killing me, it was also enabling me to hang onto life. When i stopped and thought about my life and what a mess it was, ending my life was an appealing option but focusing on avoiding food and losing weight gave me a purpose.

The first step towards recovery is putting more faith in the people around you than in the anorexia that’s been with you for many months and helped you cope with all that life throws at you. This is quite a tall order. The leap of faith feels impossible.


As I started making progress towards recovery, it felt like the anorexia fought back, as though, it felt threatened. The voice I heard in my head began shouting louder, it continued to tell me I had to lose weight. How do you keep following the meal plan when day in, day out, you’re being told how fat you are, you’re eating too much, your greedy and you should engage in all behaviours to lose weight?

I had so many questions, if let go of my anorexia, who will I be? What will I do? What else will I think about? It felt like I would be nobody and I would be completely empty but as my recovery journey developed, I learnt who I was and things naturally became part of my life. 

How could I stop weighing myself multiple times per day?…then I wouldn’t know how much I weigh

How could I start eating chocolate?…what if I enjoy it?

How could I eat food if I didn’t know how many calories were in it?…then I wouldn’t know how much to restrict the next day

How could I stop exercising?…how would I know how much food I’d earnt?

I confess, when I was in a full blown eating disorder intense recovery programme, I would engage in searching for the web for hints and tips about how to “stay anorexic”, how to stop the hunger pangs without eating, what foods had the fewest calories, how to exercise when exhausted and on the verge of fainting, it’s all there and it’s down right dangerous.

The ambivalence is unbearable, desperately wanting to recover but also, desperately not wanting to recover. I could see the pain I was causing those around me, I honestly did want to recover so I could live a “normal” life but at the same time, I wanted to lose more weight and cling onto certain aspects of my anorexia.

The lack of energy you have when starving yourself makes the fight even harder. The recovery journey is tough and the tougher it gets the easier it feels just to stay indulging in anorexic behaviour. It gets even scarier when you get to the point when anorexic behaviours arent second nature anymore, what now? I thought, “if I’m not anorexic but I’m not recovered, what am I?”. At this point the feelings of failure are rife. Feeling like a “failed anorexic” is all too common but feeling like you’ve failing at life is also a tough obstacle to overcome. At this point, it feels like there’s no way back but the way forward feels equally impossible.

I did make it though, I did put faith in the professionals, I started listening to my body, when it was hungry I would feed it, when it was tired I let it rest. The signals are mixed at first, hunger pangs are confused with feeling full, tiredness gets confused with a lack of motivation. I found it really hard, I’d spent so long ignoring my body I had a brain-body disconnect so initially trusting the professionals and going through the motions was all I could do. I had to trust that they’d been through this more often than I had! It does help when you hear it from people who’ve actually lived through it, when recovering I found it helpful to speak online to people at various stages of recovery.

For me, therapy was the most important part of my recovery but it couldn’t have engaged fully in it until I was nourishing my brain fully. I tried to kid myself that I could sort my brain out while still starving myself but I was wrong.

I may not be totally happy with my body but now I nourish my brain I’m able to think more objectively about it and see that now, my life is full of all sorts of other things that wouldn’t have had space if I’d not let go of my anorexia.

Is it ok if I feel sorry for myself?

I’m currently laid up recovering from an operation on my ankle.

I’m usually a fairly active person and fiercely independent so being told to keep my foot elevated and be non-weight bearing for 6 weeks is an incredibly challenging prospect.

I’m also contending with thoughts about why my ankle’s in a bad state. 11 years ago, I broke both legs in a suicide attempt. My ankle needed this surgery due to significant cartilage damage, initiated by the original fracture. Initially we hoped the joint could just have a clean out but the surgeon found the cartilage was too badly damaged and extra work was needed. I also don’t know how much damage I’ve done having had anorexia, my body has suffered many years of malnourishment.


I’m finishing it incredibly hard how little I can do for myself. Being fit and relatively healthy does help, I can do a lot standing in one leg but as soon as I need to carry anything anywhere, a drink, food, literally anything, I’m stuck! I’m also (obviously) unable to drive so I’m having to rely on my husband for an awful lot. I’m having to ask for a lot of favours from family and friends, and I’m incredibly grateful to the unquestioning help I’ve received. But I find this really hard, partly because I’m so used to being independent, partly because I feel like no one will want to help, they just feel obliged. I fear spoiling relationships I’ve worked hard to build on a equal level, now I’m asking for help, I wonder if it will ruin the balance and I’ll be seen as ‘the needy one’, a label I’ve fought hard to shake off.

Being off work is hard, I’m missing the change of pace and environment that it offers, I feel useful and needed at work. I’ve been forced into the sick role. I am, of course, keeping up my side of the sick role bargin and I’m making every effort to get better.

I’m putting on a brave face most of the time but the truth is that I’m feeling pretty dejected. I’m not only laid up physically but my independent character is taking a hit.


I’ve written previously about how it’s important to be honest about our feelings as hiding them, putting a lid on them or pretending they’re not there will just make them worse and we end up expressing them in other (normally unhealthy) ways. For example, if I don’t say “I’m feeling pretty rubbish today” to my husband, I more likely to be short tempered and irritable with him which is very unhelpful when I need to ask for so much support.

If I notice I’m feeling sorry for myself, it’s important not to tell myself that’s bad, then I’ll get into a destructive cycle of beating myself up, not helpful for anyone!

If you listen to your honest emotions, they can tell you a lot about what’s going on. For me, right now, my (feeling sorry for myself) emotions are telling me that things are not ok, and there are things I can do to work towards things being ok. Basically:

  1. I need to do things that will ensure I recover as quickly as possible
  2. I need to look after myself and not do things that will jeopardise my recovery
  3. Do as much for myself as I can – I carry things in a backpack so my hands are free to use my crutches
  4. I need to ask for help and support when needed

If I ignored my feelings I could con myself that everything is fine and this may prevent me doing the 4 things I need to do in order to move forward, out of the sick role.


Being honest and keeping the situation in perspective helps me to keep sight of the facts of my situation, things aren’t good right now but this is a temporary position, things will get better. Pretending things are fine can get quite confusing – if things are fine, why aren’t leading a normal life, going to work, cooking dinner, why would I need to ask for help?!

I fear enjoying being looked after as it reminds me of times gone by when mental illness prevented me looking after myself properly. There have been times when I’ve had a total lack of confidence that I was able to look after myself and this perpetuated my illness. I’ve fought hard to break free from this vicious destructive cycle and I’m desperate not to go down that path again.

The thesaurus states that a synonym for “to feel for” is also “to feel compassion”. Whenever something bad happens (to ourselves or another person), it is important to feel compassion, this has a positive effect on the healing process.


It is not, however, ok for me to wallow in self pity! This is not productive, in fact, it can be incredible destructive. Self pity has no purpose, other than to turn our focus inwards. It has a negative impact on recovery as it can actually stop us reacting positively to the situation.

In conclusion, it is ok to feel sorry for ourselves but in listening to this we need to react positively.

 

Restrained or calmed by chemicals or clothing?

TW – trigger warning, images and themes of this blog may cause distress to some people.

Imagine the chemicals in your brain are telling you to behave in certain ways that are either unsafe to you or unsafe to other people…

Imagine you become so unwell, you lose awareness that your thoughts, actions and behaviours are out of character, you lack insight. How would you want to be treated?

The Mental Health Act can be used to detain someone for assessment or treatment of a mental disorder if they or others are at risk.

Mental illness does not discriminate, just because you come from a certain background or have a high flying job or “perfect life”, mental illness can strike anyone at any time.

Image result for mental illness uncontrollable

When I became so unwell I was convinced killing myself was the only solution to my problems, I was behaving in ways that put my life at risk and was detained (under the mental health act) first by police in a cell and then by mental health professionals in hospital.

I was then forced to take medication, have electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and engage with psychotherapy. All these combined with time and a safe place to stay enabled me to find my way out of the black hole and recover enough insight to decide what was best for me to continue my road to full recovery.

Listening to an old podcast of All In The Mind, a BBC radio 4 programme, recently, I was struck by a discussion about strong clothing. Clothing used in the asylums (C.19th) to hold patients and comfort them. The garments were often quilted, very heavy and warm. A similar idea to the straight jacket, the clothing would restrict movement and prevent them from harming themselves, others or their environment.

Image result for strong clothing mental health images 

The guest on the programme went on to talk about a survey they’d carried out with a group of mental health service users, artists, historians and clinicians. They asked whether they would rather be restrained by drugs or by clothing. Apparently everyone said they’d rather be restrained by a garment except one service users who would prefer a padded room and one psychiatrist who said he’d prefer drugs (although it was not clear whether he would prefer to use drugs on his patients or whether he would prefer to be restrained by drugs if he was the patient).

This has had me thinking about how the mental health system has swayed so strongly towards drugs and what I would prefer.

Image result for mental health drugs

There’s no doubt, preventing someone from harming themselves is important, but if there are a number of options, surely we should think carefully about whether different options would suit different people.

Strong clothing came into being as doctors tried to avoid  the “revolting instruments of mechanical coercion” rejected by the “non-restraint” movement of the 1840s and ‘50s. They claimed they were something else entirely. It seems that in the 21st century physical restraint is seen as inhumane, truing instead to chemical restraint.

strait-jacket

Feeling safe is a fundamental human need. When I think about feeling safe, I’m in a familiar environment being held (embraced) by a familiar person. When unwell (physically or mentally) feeling safe becomes even more important. When very unwell, to be with people who can assess and treat you appropriately, it is most often necessary to be in an unfamiliar environment away from people we know and therefore feeling safe in others ways becomes more important.

comforted

Strong clothing, it appears, was used to calm patients and to help them feel held in safety. With the addition of restricting the unwanted harmful behaviour.

But for me, not being able to move is connected to feeling trapped and this is a bad feeling, not a safe feeling. I had nightmares as a child about being in  strait jacket! I have never been trapped anywhere but it’s a deep fear, no idea where it comes from!

I don’t think I would have found this strong clothing comforting.

Safety, while I was in hospital had to come from trusting the professionals around me and from some familiar routines (such as always getting up on time and getting dressed etc). Having visitors was also vital as some familiarity.

Some people see mental health wards as somewhere all the patients are “drugged up on meds”. This is not the case – there are some patients, perhaps suffering highly disturbing mania and delusions making them behave in dangerous ways who are given sedating medication (and it might take a while to get the dose balanced) but not everyone.


I’m not sure what I would have thought about a padded room. It certainly screams “asylum” and conjures up images of someone throwing themselves around in a “frenzy”. Dare I say, I think I would have found that helpful – I like the idea of getting rid of my pent up frustrations and energy. At times (when hearing voices in my head) I would bang my head against the wall, it would help, but I would end up with terrible bruises – surely (although, finding another way to manage my emotions in the long run) banging my head against a padded wall would have been helpful?!

As I gained some insight I knew my thoughts and behaviour were unhelpful but I was still finding it hard to control my actions. I remembering feeling the relief of taking medication that slowed down my racing thought and calmed my tense body. I rarely used it, only as a last resort but I remember the feeling vividly.

Drugs act on the brain, to alter chemicals to change how we feel. Strong clothing acts on the body to prevent harmful behaviour. Psychotherapy works on all 3 areas but it takes a long time!

Image result for thought feelings behaviour cycle

If you were unwell and lacking insight and immediate action was needed to prevent harm, what would you prefer?

Self harm – friend or foe?

(TW) Some people may find the content of this blog upsetting and/or triggering

Self harm is a controversial subject and I’m hoping that being open will break down some of the stigma and misunderstanding.

As a fairly intelligent rational human being, I would frequently step back from my self harm behaviour and think “what the heck am I doing?!”. So, why, when in a highly emotional state did reasoning fly out the window and it become the “only thing that works”?

I think self harm is primarily about 2 things:

  • Transferring emotional/mental pain into physical pain
  • A lack of compassion/respect for yourself

I first discovered self harm as a teen when I found the world an overwhelming place. It was very superficial at first but I learnt that it helped to ease the discomfort I was feeling. I’m not sure what led me to think that it might work and to try it. I can speculate that it was linked to the natural occurrence that when we physically injure ourselves (by accident), after the initial pain, a wave of endorphines bring a sense of calm and an ability to cope with the injury. It therefore makes sense that, to produce that sense of calm and empowerment (to cope with the situation) I turned to harming myself deliberately to achieve the same effect.

Self harm is when someone intentional injures themselves. Examples include cutting, burning, hitting and poisoning. It could also be said that alcohol and drug taking as well as eating disorders bare similarities to self harm. For me, cutting was a release, I did not do it for attention, nor did I do it because I particularly wanted to. At the time it felt like I had no option.

Depression is a sinister illness that ultimately tells you that suicide is a valid option, in fact, an appropriate reaction to the given circumstances. When overwhelmed by the world and overwhelmed by these thoughts and feelings, it’s natural to look for a way out. 1 option is to follow through with a suicidal act, but if part of you is still thinking rationally, another way out is to find a way to relieve these feelings. For me, I genuinely believe, harming myself (without suicidal intent) kept me alive.

Although it kept me alive it actually represented the depths to which my self esteem had sunk. Every time, I knew I was adding to my scars, I knew I was putting myself at risk of infection etc but I cared so little about myself and my body, this was irrelevant. It provided the relief I needed but after the event I would feel guilty and angry. Although, part of me also gained something from the care I needed to give myself.

Unfortunately, for a period, for me, self harm became a habit. Instead of considering what options I had, I would turn to it like an old friend. It had worked in the past, why would I not continue?! It gave me what I needed, it relieved the pressure in my head, gave me a way to express myself. But, although a friend in the short term, ultimately, longer term it is not a helpful way to deal with feelings.

Self harm is often a way to manage our emotions on our own. Few people who self harm reach out for help and it is certainly not a way to deliberately manipulate or gain attention. The way out of self harm is to realise we are not alone. Other people can help us to manage the distress we’re feeling.

I had to learn that it was ok to feel bad. Anxiety and anger are acceptable, distress is bearable and instead of punishing myself I needed to be kind to myself. This took a long time, and I “gave up” self harm a number of times. Because self harm works as a coping technique, I was lured back many times. I’ve spent many hours distracting myself with numerous activities, desperately trying not to self harm. There is no one technique I’d advocate but overall most important factors are:

  • Express emotional pain more helpfully – sometimes this involves expressing it to either privately or to someone else, either verbally or written down. Using words is important but sometimes just venting it is important, maybe through exercise (moderate) or art, for example.
  • Learning self compassion is key. I have always known it’s right to be kind, caring sympathetic and show sensitivity to other people but I had to learn to treat myself in the same way. This does not mean I now love myself in an arrogant way, I just respect myself and believe I do not need to punish myself for being human.

I know it is hard to watch a loved one self harm, I am saddened when I hear someone uses self harm as a coping technique. But I understand how and why people do it. However, I am proof that there is a way out.

I am very sad to have so many scars but they represent a very difficult time in my life that has made me the person I am today.

For more information or if you need to talk to someone, please contact:

Or contact your GP and support team. Please do not suffer in silence.

9 truths #WeDoAct

WEDAD

2nd June 2016 is the first World Eating Disorders Action Day. “They” have put together “9 truths about eating disorders” so I thought I’d share my reflections on each of them:

  1. Many people with eating disorders look healthy, yet may be extremely ill – this prevents people getting the help they need for a variety of reasons. I looked “normal” so I didn’t think people would believe me if I said how much I struggled with food or how little I ate. I also struggled to be around people who did look ill as I didn’t think I belonged there or deserved help as I wasn’t “ill enough”. This misconception needs to be broken down in order for people to receive the help they need.
  2. Families are not to blame and can be the patients’ and providers’ best allies in treatment – I know my family have found it hard but they have stuck by me through all sorts of mess. Some people are not as fortunate as me. Sometimes guilt can be an unhelpful barrier to working through the difficulties.
  3. An eating disorder diagnosis is a health crisis that disrupts personal and family functioning – when I first asked for help as a teenager I did not receive a diagnosis, maybe it would have been helpful to have addressed it square on at that point. By the time I did receive a diagnosis my functioning was already disrupted but I was in denial as to how unwell I’d become and it didn’t seem real
  4. Eating disorders are not choices but serious biologically influenced illnesses  in truth, at times, I perpetuated my eating disorder by making the wrong choices but I was not being deliberately awkward or manipulative; my mind was sick. Some people get caught up in the “pro-ana/mia” influences but no-one chooses to be caught in the swirling hell that is a true eating disorder.
  5. Eating disorders affect people of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, body shapes and weights, sexual orientations and socio-economic statuses – I was one of typical ones at onset a female teenager but I’ve met males and females of all ages from the UK and abroad. All affected differently, all requiring unique understanding but all struggling with the same basic issues – eating disorders do not discriminate.
  6. Eating disorders carry an increased risk of both suicide and medical complications – alongside a diagnosis of depression my life has been at serious risk of ending a number of times. Even in recovery I continue to have to come to terms with the long term medical complications.
  7. Genes and environment play important roles in the development of eating disorders – it has been shown that a genetic predisposition may be present but as with all illnesses, how the individual interacts with their environment will play an important role. Some people say stick thin models are a bad influence, others say constant “diet talk” is unhelpful. I think talking from a young age about how to look after our mental/emotional well-being and how to be compassionate to ourselves and others is vital – whether buzz words such as “body confidence” are used or not, just raising the issues so it can be talked about openly will break down the taboo and stigma.
  8. Genes alone do not predict who will develop eating disorders – there may be no hard and fast way of predicting eating disorders but this does not mean they cannot be prevented. Raising awareness and education will enable people of all ages to spot early signs and seek help before developing a full-blown eating disorder.
  9. Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Early detection and intervention are possibleI did not receive the early help required and only received the right help after years within mental health services but this does not need to be everyone’s story. I am proof that even over rocky road, recovery is possible.

Resources:

World Eating Disorders Day

B-eat

Anorexia and Bulimia Care

Me, my mental health and God

I’m not one for putting my faith out there too often but in Mental Health Awareness Week with a theme of relationships, for me my relationships with God is one that I cannot miss out.

I think it’s fair to say my mental health has been rather rocky. So has my relationship with God. I was brought up a practising Christian and this has remained constant but as the chemistry within my brain has a pronounced impact on my physical health, so too has it impacted my spiritual health.

For many years, unconsciously, I placed my relationship with food and the troubles I had with my mental health at the centre of my life. Obviously things have been a lot more complicated than that but this meant I was very self centred. It is hard to admit this. Although I had God in my life, I wouldn’t turn to him for help, it was hard to imagine how he could possibly help. I often felt (despite having much support around me) that I had to fight the mental torture on my own.

Having had a powerful spiritual experience as seen in “When my mind broke my body” it occurred to me that since my mental, physical and spiritual health are interlinked and can influence each other negatively, surely, they could influence each other positively too?!

Through research, I came across Helena Wilkinson leading a day on Insight to Eating Disorders at Waverley Abbey – this lead to me attending her week long retreat on Overcoming Eating Disorders at Nicholaston House. With trepidation, thinking I wasn’t actually “ill enough” to be attending I went and it literally changed my life. It was explained that by putting God at the centre of our lives freedom from the all consuming eating disorder could be found.

nicholaston chapel

I found myself in the beautiful circular chapel, on my own, and was overcome by a compulsion to lie flat on the floor – no idea why, but I just had to do it. Looking directly at the ceiling, the simple structure, like the spokes of a wheel demonstrated  to me how simple it was to place God at the centre. This was not going to eradicate my illness but it would be displaced into one of the areas away from the centre.

God’s made himself known in other parts of my life too. Steve wasn’t looking for a divorcee my age who wasn’t sure about children and yet my profile on Christian Connection kept being offered as a possibility. We believe God really knew what he was doing when he brought us together and yet we didn’t ask him to! I also see God in the people around me. Sometimes it’s been a small gesture but it can touch me in a really special way.

When I’ve felt distant from God, I’ve found the parable of the lost sheep helpful. Even if I’m feeling abandoned and disorientated, I know the Good Shepherd will be out searching for me. The idea of God may be intangible so, for me, visual cues are important. I see God in nature etc and during my last hospital stay I put up pictures up to remind me.

lost sheep

You don’t have to be ill to know God. I don’t just turn to God in times of need, I know he carries me when I’m weak but he also celebrates with me when I’m singing and dancing.

It’s natural but how do we communicate it?

jim rohn communication

It is part of the human condition to need to feel loved/wanted/accepted. How we communicate this with each other is more complicated than you would think.

When mental illness clouds our mind, it affects the way we think, feel and behave. It permeates every aspect of life especially relationships.

I’m not just talking about intimate relationships. What happens when one half of a friendship/relationship struggles to know what they’re thinking and feeling? Although we may know (on an intellectual level) that’re we’re loved, actually communicating it to each other is important. We all give and receive love in completely different ways and while one person may think they’re communicating love brilliantly, the message just may not be getting through.

Words of Affirmation – this is where simply using words is best. Not just “I love you” but also “you look beautiful”, “I’m glad you’re in my life”, “I’ve had a good time with you today” are all ways of appreciating the other person.

Acts of Service – where doing is important. It may be tasks around the house such as cooking, cleaning or shopping. Or it may be watching/listening out for what the other person needs, when they shiver, offer them a jumper or a blanket. For some people these things come incredibly naturally, for others, it will need to be a conscious effort.

Physical Gifts – giving and receiving gifts for some people is the ultimate communication of love, whether it’s a few wild flowers picked from the garden or an unexpected new car, often the size isn’t important, it’s the gesture that matters.

Quality Time – easily forgotten as a form of communication. It’s not usually important what’s happening at the time but it’s the quality that matters. For Steve and I, putting our phones/iPads/laptops to one side is the key.

Physical Touch – while sex may be important in an intimate relationship, a touch on the arm, a hug or a peck on the check may be important parts of all relationships.

Trying to communicate with someone who is mental unwell can be very difficult; words may fall on deaf ears, acts of service go unnoticed, gifts ungratefully received and touch may be unbearable. It can also be very difficult to spend time with someone who is unwell. When unwell, the distorted thoughts and feelings lead to behaving out of character and rejecting any thoughtful gestures.

broken-communication-300x282

It’s important to remember there is still a person underneath (no matter how buried in illness). They still have the same fundamental needs – try to think about what they usually like. Try to ask the person what they need/want – this can be very tricky as within the gloom it’s very difficult to know. But if they say “I fancy a cup of coffee”, that’s a start, or if they say “I don’t want to talk”, perhaps say “do you mind if I just sit with you, we don’t have to talk” – at least then the silence isn’t awkward, it is the presence that is communicating “I care”.

When in hospital, my Mum cleaning my flat, taking my washing and a gift of contraband Pepsi Max went a long way to helping me feel loved. Quality time is a really hard one, I really appreciated visitors during my hospital stays but I would get incredibly tired and didn’t really want to talk, I had a friend who would bring a simple game to play, that was ideal! Cards and texts also meant a lot to me when I was most unwell. The odd arm around my shoulders from a nurse would also help me feel that they cared.

As the ill person, emotions and feelings can be very confusing. When I was overwhelmed with the thoughts that those around me would genuinely be better off without me, I thought the best way to communicate my love for them would be to remove myself from the world. When less unwell I had to remember that these people were hurting too and I wanted to make an effort to show them love and be grateful for them sticking by me. When low on money (as most ill people are) I would try to make gifts for people instead. Abstract love may be difficult but sticking to the facts can help. If someone’s visited, no matter how hard it had been, saying “thank you for coming” is important; if I found the words “thank you” were too hard, I would write a text.

For either the perspective of the ill person or those around them, communicating love can be very difficult but with a bit of insight as to what’s needed it is possible. It may be necessary to say “I need to hear that you love me”, an immediate response maybe “I love you” but what’s really important is follow this up with the love language that works for that person.

Discover your love language here. It’s important, not only to know how you give and receive love but how those around you give and receive love. If I’m running around doing acts of service because I express my love in that way, there’s no point in me doing any of it if my other half doesn’t know I’m expressing my love in this way and that I’d find it amazing to receive love in this way. Remember, even if you do not usually communicate love in a particular way, if you put yourself out and the other person feels love from it, that’s what matters!

Remember our love language can change so do the test often, the results may not be the answer to everything but if it sparks up conversation with those you want to communicate with, that’s great!

5 love languages

How do you marry someone with a mental health diagnosis?

meant to meet

Dating is tricky, but add the complication of mental illness and it’s even harder! On the road to recovery, while considering dating etc I’d decided I did not want my illness to be part of my future relationships but I also thought that dating and entering into a relationship couldn’t necessarily wait until I was fully recovered. During my recovery I dabbled in on-line dating, it was fun but nothing much to report until I met Steve.

On our first date, an informal drink at a pub, Steve and I agreed to go on a second date, out for a meal. I was desperate to look normal. One big problem – I’d not been out or eaten with anyone but my family for years. I fought with myself because I wanted to challenge myself so, in trepidation (I really liked this guy) I wrote a carefully worded email entitled “In hope I won’t put you off” and explained I’d struggled with anorexia, although most of it was behind me, I have a few hurdles to overcome. I wanted to “be normal” but asked if we could dial it down and if he could pick a restaurant where I could have a salad. That way the actually eating wouldn’t be as tough and I’d just have to tackle the eating out with a relative stranger aspect!

How Steve reacted to this email and therefore our future was in his hands:

How did you feel when you received the email? “It was a mixture of feelings. On one hand, there was the “poor girl, she’s been through so much” reaction. There was the feeling of shock, “could I handle this? How ill is she now? How to I treat/behave around someone with these conditions that I know NOTHING about (especially the anorexia)?”. Then there was the, “stuff it, I can’t be arsed” thoughts (these lasted about 2 seconds). Then, there is the fact that all relationships, especially romantic ones need a lot of hard work and graft (of which I was no stranger to, considering a previous relationship I had been in) and I was prepared to do it, because we had a right giggle on our first date (my fault!)”

“So going forward, I thought I would try and support her, by helping her take baby steps in facing challenges. I think I compared it to a marathon runner, they don’t start by running a marathon, they’d just fail, they start by running around the block. So we changed the plan. I said I’d cook some nibbles at my house and we could watch a film (hoping to take the pressure off the eating side of things). (I cremated the bruschetta, though I still think it was her fault….she kissed me whilst they were cooking!)”

I was used to taking baby steps, hence why I’d suggested a low key restaurant but Steve seemed to instinctively know that even smaller baby steps would help! I’m glad he still agreed we could eat since I didn’t want my old behaviours (of avoiding eating with people) to impact a new relationship.

What resources did you use to react to the email? “Firstly, the reason (in my mind) we didn’t have food at the first date, and only a couple of drinks, was because I was en route to visit my best friend, Tom and his family. I had no idea, she hadn’t suggested food for her own reasons. How stupid did I feel now?!”

“I was with Tom when I received the email and mentioned it to him and his wife. They didn’t really know anything about either depression or anorexia but we bounced a few ideas over together. Other than that, maybe due to the taboo of mental health, I Googled it and came up quite frankly, blank. There was a forum, where I registered and asked the question “how does one cope in this situation?”. They were as good as they could be, ramming home the idea that each situation/diagnosis was as unique as the person who has it. Totally! They also said how good it was I wanted to be with, and help this girl, I’d just met, and not in a patronising way. (The way I saw it, wouldn’t all people do this? It’s just human to want to help the person you like/frankly, want to impress)”

Not everyone is like this – many people would be put off by something they don’t understand. Steve genuinely has no idea how amazing he’s been at helping me (a relative stranger as I was then) through so much.

Why did you not run a mile? “On our first date we had a giggle together. She was (is!) also cute, and seemed keen to go one a second date with li’l ol’ ugly me. I’m not afraid of hard work, and in hind sight those first few months (arguably are the hardest of any relationship) I had lots of emotions ranging the full spectrum, but we grew through it, and learned to communicate early on. Pen and paper worked best for us, I think it started with a letter posted under the toilet door. This set, in my mind, a brilliant foundation for our relationship (if you want to know more, comment below and I’ll elaborate – it’s not anything dodgy!)”

When most distressed I’ve always struggled to talk, I don’t know why, there’s some sort of block. Steve and I realised we could write to each other – might sound odd but it worked 🙂

So, moving on, Steve and I decided we’d give a relationship a bash, this turned into marriage. We’ve dealt with a few issues relating to my health:

What’s been the hardest thing about being in  relationship with someone with a history of depression and anorexia? “Other than eating 2 entire pizzas in Italy in one sitting because she got stressed out in a restaurant?! It’s the helplessness I feel when she’s upset. We started very early on going to her therapist together, something she was keen for me to do. This obviously involved a lot of emotions, and I will never forget one of the very first ones where afterwards we sat in the corridor, her crying inconsolably in my arms for over an hour. I am a man, we are famed for wanting to fix everything, and although I’ve learnt I can’t fix everything I still want to. I’m working on it, but when I can’t do it, I feel helpless, useless, a failure. That’s the hardest thing.”

I hate that my issues impact Steve, I’d rather manage my stuff on my own and prevent it affecting other people but that’s just not feasible! Letting Steve in (to my head) has been so important to our relationship.

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What’s your worst fear and how do you manage it? “The unknown. Frances has had multiple hospital admissions, and some very intense treatment in the past for her illness(es). I’ve not seen her at her worst in this aspect. I’ve seen little dips here and there, but never hospitalisation. I treat every new expression of emotion with suspicion, is she getting ill again? If she is, how will I manage it, what if we have a child (the grand plan) and she gets ill and goes into hospital. How will I cope with that? As Frances will tell you, I am GREAT, the world’s best, at worrying. I worry about everything. To deal with this, I have to simply ignore it. There are no answers. She may not ever get ill again (woohoo!) but she may. I can’t fix it, so I beat it down and ignore that fear, and will have to cross that bridge when we, IF, we get there.”

If Steve’s concerned, he tells me. I’m honest and mostly try to reassure him. For me, I know how hideous being ill is so I’m not afraid of the unknown, I’m afraid of the known! We are doing everything we can to avoid me getting ill again, we talk about everything. If it does happen, I know we will tackle it together.

When considering to marry Frances, did you consider her mental illness? “Yes, when I started thinking about marriage I thought about Frances being ill, being vegetarian and the fact she’d have to put up with my farting in the middle of the night (seriously, I feel sorry for the girl on this one!). I just saw her illness as another thing that needs to be thought about.”

Have you had doubts about marrying Frances? “If I hadn’t, I’d argue I wasn’t human, or honest with myself. The first few months after marriage I felt trapped. Why? Who knows. Truth be told, having lived together for a year before hand, the only thing that had changed was having a piece of paper saying we were married. That was it. So I knew it was just me being irrational. I did some research as to why I’d be feeling like this and apparently it’s very common. So I thought I’d just move on.”

“If you asked me if I’d had doubts due to Frances’ mental health? Not once. It can be a challenge at times, it can be a fear, it can be a pain in the backside. But not a doubt. It has shaped Frances into the woman she is and the woman I love.”

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How will you cope if Frances relapses? “As I’ve said before. I’ve no idea. I have our friends, my family, Frances’ family (who’ve been there before) that I can glean comfort, wisdom and strength from. I have my motorbike that always helps clear my head when I need it to. We have 2 cats who never fail to make us laugh. I know Frances has been to hospital before and has always been discharged so there’s always a light. She is a survivor, not a statistic. She doesn’t want to be ill. All of these things I can hang on to.”

“My biggest fear is about how Frances will feel about me. I will do the only thing I know how to. Be myself. But if she’s that unwell, will she still be able to look me in the face and say “I love you”? If ever she can’t say that due to the numbness of depression, then I will struggle. But I have made sacred promises to Frances, and I am a stubborn ass, and she will break her promises to me before I do (but I know she won’t, because she’s even more stubborn  than I!!)”

I know I will always love Steve but he’s right – mental illness messes with your emotions so there’s no way of knowing (if I get ill) how I will feel or what I will think. If the illness takes over, I hope he can remember that it’s not me. He has my promise that I will fight to recover and I will never break the vows I made before God.

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What advice would you give anyone in a relationship with someone with a mental illness? “Have ‘you’ time often. I go down the pub most Fridays with my friend Phil, or play xBox with/without my friend. I talk to them about things I’ve found hard. Whether it’s been that Frances hasn’t eaten because she’s feeling fat or she’s come home from work in tears every night (thankfully a new job solved this!). I’ve spoken about it all. I’ve expressed my fears, I’ve not bottled it up.”

“THE bit of advice. The bit that works for mental health, physiological health, relationships, even cooking. Communication! Talk to each other. The “you” time lets you unwind from the stress of things. But doesn’t sort it. Why do you think you are fat even though you fit into clothes I thought small enough to give to a child? Communication isn’t just about the listening, its about the talking too, and about the working through things together. As a junior software engineer, I had the phrase “root cause” rammed into my head, over and over again when bug fixing. Something is wrong, don’t worry about what is broken, worry about what has broken it. (E.g. Bike engine not getting any petrol, you don’t put petrol in the engine, you trace the fuel lines all the way back to the empty fuel tank). Maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t need fixing and just needs to be expressed and WE have to learn how we can enable that expression in an appropriate way. If it can be fixed, often, the only way to figure out how to fix something, is to approach it from a different point of view.  How do you find those points of view? Explore it, with each other, with friends, with professionals, with family, and see what you come up with.”

Final word? “If, like me 3 years ago, you have come across this blog/interview looking of help and advice and/or answers to a new relationship with someone who’s just dropped this bombshell on you (and yes, it is  bombshell the first time of the 20 or 30 times you’ll read that email) ask yourself this. Why are you entering this relationship? It’s hard work. Take the usual hard work of a relationship, and add more into it. I count myself lucky, I entered into the relationship knowing about these illnesses. I’ve had friends who have had these illnesses thrust upon them after marriage. Some are still going strong, some have ended the relationship. It effects everything. Whether it be the knowing what to do about taking meds abroad, or the phone numbers of the CMHT in your phone. To knowing how to comfort this person when they are in tears for seemingly no reason. Everything will change, and your way of thinking will change too, be prepare to get offended by Halloween costume names that normally you wouldn’t think twice about! BUT, and its a huge but, if you stick at it, learn to identify the help your significant other needs, the help you need from both them and the people around you. You build the strongest foundations for the relationship. I love Frances, through and through, and whilst I have had nightmares about what might happen in the future, I wouldn’t change a thing about her. Except maybe persuade her to eat meat, oh and let me have a dog :P”

How does light and colour affect us?

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A photo recently went around Facebook about stating that some areas in Scotland and Japan switched to blue street lights at night and saw a decrease in crime and suicide rates. If it’s that simple, this surely needs to be looked into…!

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In Glasgow some street lighting has been altered for aesthetic reasons and some anecdotal reports indicated a reduction in crime. The research in Japan involved 71 railway stations and the blue LEDs appeared to reduce suicides by 84%. However, an article published later indicated the apparent reduction in suicide rate could have been misleading as there were additional details such as position and timing that was not taken into account. The claim is therefore unproven since in neither case was it possible to explain the mechanism by the which the lighting could work or find a definitive causal link.

However, I know that lighting and seasons affect mood so I thought I’d look into this a little further…

Light and mood

A study published in Ergonomics considered 988 people across 4 countries to determine whether mood of people who work indoors was affected by seasons and proximity to a window. The mood of people far north of the equator changed significantly depending on the season, which did not occur in people closer to the equator. The effect the amount of light had on mood appeared to be related to the individual experience (rather than objective measurement of luminescence). Mood was lowest when lighting was experienced as “much too dark”, mood was best when lighting was experienced as optimum, however, mood decreased again once lighting was too bright.

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In my experience some people like bright light and will turn an artificial light on early in the evening even when light from a window, in my opinion, is sufficient. I can feel overwhelmed and over-stimulated in a bright office. This is tricky to manage since most of us work in teams, if not in offices holding large numbers of people – lighting (and therefore mood) would be optimum for one person but not for another. If you work at home and/or alone personalised lighting should be thoughtfully considered.

Seasonal affective disorder

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Looking further into seasonal differences, the existence of Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is evidence itself that people are affected by the seasons. SAD is a recurrent major depressive disorder beginning in the autumn and continuing through winter. A study has shown that SAD is more prevalent the further away from the equator people live. This could be due to a number of factors including light, specific weathers, temperature or perhaps culture. Successful treatments include medication, indicating chemicals in the brain such as serotonin are affected and psychotherapeutic approaches provide people with ways to work through negative thought and behaviour patterns as well as alternative ways of problem solving etc. However, the most highly promoted and successful treatment is light therapy. The use of light boxes emitting the full colour spectrum, similar in composition to sunlight have been found consistently to show significant improvements in symptoms. In Scandinavian countries research into light rooms (indirect and evenly distributed) has been carried out and has proven benefits. Insufficient vitamin D is also linked to depression and can be due to low dietary intake but particularly due to a lack of sunlight since we absorb it through the skin. Light therapy can also be of use in re-setting the circadian rhythm (via the impact light has on melatonin production) in people with sleep disorders, people working shifts or to quickly correct jet lag.

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Colour and mood

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A study published in Genetic Psychology revealed that people respond differently to colours, finding bright colours eliciting more positive emotions while darker colours were associated with emotions perceived as negative. A similar study with children as subjects had the same outcomes, the brighter colours being, primarily pink, blue and red, and dark colours were brown black and grey. These studies also found that females had a greater emotional response than males. These responses make sense when considering the seasons. Winter is naturally more dull with grey overcast clouds literally darkening our world while Spring sees the emergence of daffodils and bluebells, naturally brightened by sunshine the clouds gradually part to reveal.

Biological affects of light and colour

So what effects does light have on the body? When light strikes the retina they are converted into electrical impulses, these pass to the hypothalamus which regulates the autonomic nervous system (e.g. breathing and heart rate) and other functions such as sleep (circadian rhythm), sexual functions, appetite and metabolism. Light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum so it is no wonder that inside the brain different colours will produce different responses!

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It has been found that warm colours, such as reds, oranges and yellows increase heart rate, arousal and are associated with excitement – for some this excitement may be anger or irritability, for others, cheerfulness and joy. Yellow has also been found to trigger the release of serotonin (the “feel good” neurotransmitter lacking in the synapses of people with depression). While cool colours, such as blues and purples have been found to have more of a calming affect, decreasing heart rate, breathing rate and lowering blood pressure. Sometimes this could be perceived as a good thing, at other times people may feel drowsy or sluggish.

Other influences

Some colours will simply be preferred by different people depending on their experiences (for example a particular blue of a certain logo distresses me due to the experience I had working for that company) . There are also cultural influences, for example purple has become a symbol of royalty, simply because when dying of fabrics was first available, purple dye was expensive. Green is often viewed as lucky, in, for example, in Irish culture it is the colour of the 4 leaf clover etc.

Unfortunately it is not simply a case of surrounding ourselves with a particular colour in order to feel a particular way. There are many other factors impacting our emotional state and thus our susceptibility to the influence of the colours. Mental illness and the process of arriving at suicidal thoughts, feeling and actions are is complicated and thus, blue lights at suicide hotspots is unlikely to significantly impact an individual’s actions. I have been fascinated by the amount of research there has been into light, colour and it’s impact on our health and mood. Sunlight, in particular is vital for our overall health. Individuals may find specific colours useful – for more info follow the links or just give it a “Google”!

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