Tag Archives: mental health

Running after people

Generally speaking, I won’t fight for attention or for a place in someone’s life. It’s a longstanding policy. I don’t do jealousy (I do envy) so if someone tries to push those buttons with a view to making me compete, I will bow out as fast as I can. I’ve been there a few times, although not recently. In some contexts it makes a lot of sense. Younger me was quite into having strategies for dealing with things and nuance is something I’ve had to learn over the years.

On the whole, if people use rejection as a way to make you try harder, I don’t want to indulge them or play along. Not everyone who might push you away is trying to manipulate you. People do it when they are hurt, or afraid, when they feel guilt ridden and don’t know how to fix things. People push people away to protect them – around both mental and physical illness, around grief and life challenges. Sometimes it’s about being too proud to admit there’s a problem. So when people go quiet, or seem to be ghosting, or even actively push me away I’m no longer so confident about what that means.

I’m not good at rejection. It’s part of why I often prefer to hold really firm lines on this. I don’t want to jump through hoops and be judged not good enough. I’ve done too much of that in the past. I take a lot of persuading to run after someone who appears to be running away from me. They have to be exceptional, and important to me, and I need some reason to think it isn’t just manipulation.

It’s a really exposed thing to do, going after someone who has pushed you away. Most of the time it isn’t worth it, but sometimes it can be a life and death issue. It’s not always easy to tell. Often it can be enough to just keep an open mind and wait to see if the person comes back, and be ok with them if they do. Some people really do need running after, and need perhaps more than it is fair to ask anyone to give. But, life isn’t always fair or reasonable, and sometimes it takes extraordinary effort to get things done.


Crafting for sanity

Things have been tough this week. This year has so far brought experiences that have taken me into the depths of panic and despair. I’ve spent a lot of energy just trying not to be crushed by that. Fighting the panic is exhausting. Trying to fix the things that were causing the panic has been brutal and ineffective. You only have to look at my face to see what a mess I am in. I am going to make a point of showing my face when I’m not ok because I want to challenge the idea that mental illness is invisible illness.

There is patchwork on my lap in this photo. I made six jumpers through the winter. Crafting has always been a coping mechanism for me. The rhythm of it soothes me. If I can take ruined, useless things – as with these dead jeans – and turn them back into something useable, that helps me. I feel better about myself when I make things. If I can use my craft skills to put something attractive into the world, that also helps with the mental health issues. I like upcycling for my friends, too. This jacket will be for Susie and with this jacket made all four of the Ominous Folk will have denim patchwork items.

One of the main reasons I never sell craft work is that this is stuff I do for my mental health. I need to be free to do it on my own terms. Who I make things for is an important part of the process. I can cheer myself up by making things for me. Often what I make is an expression of relationship, and how I feel about the person I’m making something for is part of what makes it a restorative process. A garment like this takes a lot of hours – I don’t count the hours. It is better for my emotional wellbeing to give these pieces away out of love than to find people don’t want to pay a pound an hour for my efforts.

I’ve started on the embroidery part of the process now. It’s a way of making that is inspired by Japanese boro, and it’s something I get a lot of comfort and delight from.


Insufficiency and the fragile mind

It’s fairly easy to tell when you’ve been overloaded. Be it stress, workloads, noise, light, or people, overloading tends to be self announcing. In recent months it has become apparent to me that insufficiency can be just as damaging, but it’s far harder to spot.

How do I tell if I’m not getting enough calories? Or enough potassium? Am I tired because I’m not getting enough sleep, or is that depression caused by an emotional insufficiency? I spent a while being thirsty a lot, not because I needed more water exactly, but because I needed more electrolytes. 

I’m fairly sure at this point that tactile input is a big deal for me, and that I need to do deliberate things to feed my brain information about my body. Lack of body information may well be what’s underpinned my regular and relentless bouts of burnout and mental collapse. 

I think there’s a cultural aspect to all of this. We’re encouraged to be alert to excess, and to be responsible for not having too much of a thing – food and alcohol especially. Being insufficient often has less to do with personal choice – it’s hard to have a good diet if your budget and available shopping options don’t offer you good nutrition. It’s not easy getting good and restorative sleep if there is noise and light pollution you cannot do anything about. Excess is ours to control, insufficiency may well not be.

At the moment, there are a lot of places around the world where mental health is treated as a discreet and personal problem. That tends to focus you on looking for a ‘cure’ in the areas of life you have control over. Mental illness is not a failure of effort, and it makes more sense to look at the things we have less or no control over as likely suspects when our brains stop working properly.


Soothing the troubled mind

Person A: I feel terrible about myself.

Person B: I think you are an excellent person.

Person A: Thank you. I still feel terrible about myself.

Person B: Why do I even bother?

The thing to remember about hurt and wounded people, is that it was seldom one event. People who are depressed, anxious, who have no self esteem and who feel grim about life tend to have gone through a process. However much we want to fix and heal each other, saying one nice thing once won’t restore the brain of someone who has spent years under attack.

Helping someone rebuild themselves means being in it for the long haul. One complement isn’t going to change everything. Over-complimenting can feel weird and uncomfortable. 

The best thing you can do for a person is be affirming. That includes affirming that their responses to their own historical issues are valid and reasonable. Affirm that it’s ok if things are difficult now because of what happened before and be patient while they work on things. Affirm that their choices and decisions are good, whenever you can. Give positive feedback whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Saying things like ‘I understand why it might seem that way to you’ or ‘your response makes sense to me’ can be a good opener if you need to explain that they’re wrong. People can get trapped in perceptions of the world that really harm them and need help getting out of that.

“I can see why this is making you feel bad about yourself, but it was an honest mistake and we all do that.”

“I can see why this makes you uneasy, but this isn’t going to play out the way that other thing did.”

Affirming the other person’s validity as a person, affirming their feelings and reactions can go alongside gently challenging all of that baggage. When we feel valid and safe it’s a lot easier to do the work of healing and moving on from past woundings.


The art of mental hygiene

Humans are malleable. We’re influenced by our environments and by the things we’re exposed to. If we keep seeing something, we become persuaded by it. This is how adverts work. It’s also how misinformation works. We do get a say in what we expose ourselves to, and taking thoughtful control of that is important if we don’t want to be persuaded by problematic input.

Exposure to lies, misinformation, denial of truth, fake news, people calling real news fake news, and so forth acts on our brains in just the same way that gaslighting does. After enough exposure, this stuff will start to impact on your mental health. Either you’ll be persuaded of their reality, or you’ll feel increasingly stressed, anxious, disorientated and confused as you try to hang on to what you know is true.

People who wish to cause harm invariably demand that you hear them out. They tell you that their opinions are valid and deserve your time. They want you to debate them. They tell you to do your own research, by which they mean expose yourself to more of their ideas. At the same time they are entirely closed to everyone else’s ideas, having already decided on the conspiracy theory or propaganda they are invested in. Debating them won’t persuade them of anything, but it does expose you to their toxic thinking, and that is harmful.

A coherent relationship with reality is better for your mental health than being exposed to things that have you second guessing yourself. This has to be balanced against the need to stay flexible and open to new information, because genuine insight advances all the time. Pick your sources, and consider the reason that you’re picking those sources. It can be hard to know who to trust, but a conscious decision about that will do you more good than being buffeted about.

Watch out for people who deal in radical reversals. The people who tell you that other people with an obscene amount of money are able to represent you and that people who are a lot like you are out of touch elites. People who describe kindness and inclusion as though it was a vicious assault on your rights. Famous people using massive platforms to tell you they’ve been cancelled. People who think that cutting their workers’ paychecks and giving themselves a rise at the same time is justice. If the internal logic of someone’s arguments doesn’t hold up, it is as well to keep away from it because that kind of thinking will damage your mental health.

We aren’t always going to get everything right. If in doubt, choose whatever looks kindest. Even if it turns out to be naive, misinformed, overly optimistic or otherwise doomed to fail, you are better off in a kinder environment. It’s better to fail while meaning well than to be pragamatically horrible. It’s better for your mental health to focus on spaces where kindness dominates and people mean well. Anger can be attractive and it can feel powerful but no one can live there. Angry spaces rapidly become exhausting. Anger can be a great short term motivation, but kindness will keep you moving for the long haul.

Your mental health is vital. Speaking as someone who has suffered with mental illness and experienced gaslighting, I know what it costs. Protecting your mental health is essential, and picking the spaces to be in can really make a difference to that.


When traumas collide

This winter, Tom and I have done a lot of very deliberate work on changing our relationship. We both came to this marriage with a lot of history and with triggers – some of which we knew about, and some we didn’t. 

Usually when people talk about triggering, it goes like this: There is a person with a trauma history who encounters something that evokes that trauma. They are then thrown back into that history, like a soldier thrown back into the trenches by the sound of an explosion. Once you’re back in the trenches, everything you experience seems to be part of that scenario, and the original terror takes over.

When the trauma involves relationships, and when both of you have triggers, it’s entirely possible for both parties to set each other off. One person’s trauma response can become the other person’s trigger. Historical coping mechanisms can also be a big issue in all of this. If you have one person with a freeze response to panic, and one person whose emotional abuse history includes being totally ignored as punishment, that can be a messy combination.

It’s taken us a long time to get to the point of being able to talk about what happens when historical experiences collide like this. When it happens, we’re effectively functioning in two totally separate realities, not making sense to each other, unable to help each other and often adding to each other’s distress. It’s been messy at times. It’s taken work to get to the point of being able to pick it open and make changes.

One thing we’ve found that helps is to flag up problems as fast as possible. Tom tends to freeze around panic, and that intersects with what his ADHD brain does when he’s not coping. However, if he can tell me that he’s having processing issues, I don’t then take it personally, and we’re better able to work things through. 

I tend to make things worse because, thanks to my history, I act from the expectation that basic needs won’t be met and that in asking for small things I will be asking for too much. This creates the impression that the help I need would be impossibly difficult to achieve – an easy thing to persuade someone of if they’re used to being put under pressure to deliver impossible things. This means I don’t get the help, reinforcing my feeling that I don’t deserve to have my basic needs met and thus making me less able to ask for help. It’s really easy to get stuck in vicious circles like this.

I’ve learned to push back against my panic to ask clearly for what I need. Often it’s things like needing to be talked to so that I’m not simply trapped inside my own head with my escalating panic. You can see how well that works with Tom’s tendency to freeze when panicking…

Mental health problems aren’t solitary, personal issues. We didn’t get into this on our own. Much of where we are both struggling has everything to do with what happens around other people and in the context of relationships. Healing as a single-person project has never really worked. However, working together to support each other, deal with difficulties and find strategies for coping, is proving really effective.


The spiral nature of humans

We tend to think of cause and effect as linear. A thing happens (or fails to happen) and this has consequences, which in turn can create other consequences. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking doesn’t help much when it comes to human minds and bodies.

A lot of what goes on with us has a spiral quality to it. Many of our body systems – perhaps all of them, I’m no expert – involve feedback loops. The more I read about hormones and body chemistry, the more I appreciate not only that those loops exist, but that we don’t really know enough about them. Have a look at serotonin in the body if you want to poke about in a good example of this.

It means that looking for a root cause doesn’t always make sense. We ask what causes mental health problems, or diabetes, or obesity, as though we could deal with the cause and that would sort things out. Bodies get into habits – we have habitual pathways in our brain, and habitual responses to stimuli. Hypervigilance is what happens when your body is in the habit of being afraid all the time. It may have been caused by a specific experience, but you can’t uncause it in a simple way. Being stressed because of hyper-vigilance will keep you locked into the stress that is fueling the hyper-vigilance.

When things are cyclical, that can mean that changing any point in the cycle will change the cycle as a whole. So sometimes it’s not about finding the root cause, but finding the point in the process that you can do something about. This in turn means getting to know the system, the cycle, the feedback loops because if you don’t know what’s going on, you won’t find a place you can change things.

I’m tired all the time, my body is sore and stiff. If all I do is rest – which is all I want to do, I lose further muscle strength and stamina. If I move too much I will become even more exhausted, sore and stiff which maintains the problems, not solving them. To change things I have to spot the points where I can take small actions that won’t simply create bigger problems. I’ve found that tackling problems in my thinking, trying to change my emotional landscape, and dealing with other health issues all works in roughly the same way. There aren’t any simple answers that break the cycles without potentially causing other problems. It’s a delicate process, but sometimes there are options. Those options aren’t always obvious, and are less so if you’re taking a linear cause and effect approach to looking for them.


Work as a coping mechanism

I’ve always turned to work as a way of coping. That can mean paid work, volunteering, housework or making things. It’s something I can put between me and the teeth, and the teeth are very sharp and have been with me my whole life.

The theory is that if I can make enough, do enough, be good enough then I can stay out of the teeth. It doesn’t work, and I know it doesn’t work, but I’ve never found anything that does. The problem with working as a coping mechanism is that it can add to the exhaustion and make things worse. I’d be better off with some sense of worth that doesn’t depend on doing stuff, or being validated for doing stuff but I’ve never figured out how to have that. Self help articles and books are all about increasing your self esteem, not how to start from scratch.

I suspect the trick is to have a sense of self and self worth rooted in who you are, not what you do. It’s just that I’ve never felt intrinsically good enough. It’s hard to imagine feeling good enough without having to be useful, helpful or productive. I’m also no sort of ornament.

It also doesn’t help that every single thing I might do to try and keep myself out of the teeth depends on confidence. The worse things are, the harder it is to believe that I can do anything to offset it. The more in pain I am the less able I am to feel or appreciate any wins I might achieve.

It’s not a good way to be. But here we are, and I can still write blog posts,so there’s something.


Health crisis, mental health crisis

I’ve been seeing a lot of comments from medical professionals all around the world – that they can’t cope emotionally or psychologically with what’s being demanded of them.

We forget at our peril that humans are finite creatures. No one can work all the hours there are, indefinitely, without consequences. We’ve asked our doctors and nurses to hold the front line against a disease that kills, and that is more likely to kill you if you get a high exposure to it. Many of them have died. We’ve asked them to work without the proper protective equipment – especially in the UK. Also in the UK we’ve declined to pay them properly so that nurses can end up at food banks.

People become mentally ill when too much is asked of them for too long. Even people who expect their jobs to involve death and distress can only handle a finite amount of that. 

Exhaustion, burn out, overwhelming fear, and unbearable pressure can have an array of impacts on a person. It becomes harder to make yourself move or to act. Decision making becomes harder, even impossible. Every situation becomes overwhelming and impossible. Clearly it’s not possible to keep doing a job where you need to think quickly and act decisively to save lives if you can barely function. And yet that’s exactly what we’re expecting people to do.

At the beginning of the pandemic we were talking about slowing the curve, because there are only so many beds and ventilators out there, and if we have too fast a spread we’ll overload the system and people will die. If we overload people, that also matters.

All too often,mental health is treated either as a luxury, or as a problem for people who are just weak to begin with. Everyone has a breaking point. There is only so much stress, pressure, misery and exhaustion that any one human can take. We’re approaching the two year mark with covid and it’s amazing really that so many people in the medical profession have held up for so long in face of all this.

But they can’t do it forever. 

We need to recognise the humanity of our medical professionals, and that we have asked too much, and we need to do what we can not to end up in hospital. We’re all in this together, we are all impacted by each other’s individual choices, but we’re asking one group of people to bear the brunt of the consequences. And then, ill and unvaccinated, the most selfish amongst us show at the hospital expecting to be helped by the very people they’ve accused of genocide, sometimes while shouting abuse and demanding miracles. 

I don’t have any large scale answers to this, but as individuals we can at least try not to be part of the problem, and to be kind to the people we hope will save our lives.


Punching the Inner Nazis

I’m never going to punch an actual Nazi. I’m not strong enough, or violent enough. I like to imagine that if it came to it, I would put myself bodily in the way, but that’s about all I can do.

My inner Nazi is a whole other issue. It’s taken a while to recognise and acknowledge him, but there he is, inside my head and sorely in need of punching. In recent weeks I’ve realised that I’m not the only person with an inner Nazi, and that those other ones urgently need punching too.

The inner Nazi says that your right to live is conditional on being good enough, doing enough, being  useful, productive… I wouldn’t measure anyone else by those standards because while I live with the inner Nazi, I am not a Nazi myself. I don’t think anyone’s right to life has anything to do with anything except their being alive in the first place. My only exception is me.

I watch friends with mental health problems beating themselves up for not being good enough, useful enough, not earning enough money. As though these things are the measure of a person. As though worth could be something other than intrinsic. The right to live is not something we should feel we have to earn.

I’ve found that identifying him as my inner Nazi has helped me shout him down when he kicks off. I feel more confident about coming back with the kind of verbal abuse I think that kind of outlook merits. I will punch the inner Nazi until he shuts up. I will punch him down every time he surfaces inside my head. I will keep punching him until he dies, because it’s the right thing to do in this context, and I will get out there and see what I can do to help with the punching of other inner Nazis.

And if you find you’ve got an inner Nazi who does impact on how you view and treat other people, definitely punch that one as well. Destroying bigotry, hate, oppression and intolerance is something we have to do within ourselves, and that calls for self-scrutiny and a willingness to evict anything that isn’t part of who we want to be.