Tag Archives: mental health

Crafting for survival

It’s widely recognised that crafting is good for your mental health. Doing simple things with your hands can be really soothing. There’s a meme floating about out there about how it answers an existential crisis because you get in there and eventually you have a sock! It’s a simple way to be powerful and to make changes which helps a person maintain their sense of being someone who can change things. Being able to make stuff you can use is incredibly empowering.

I recently saw a suggestion online that we might have evolved for craft. The willingness to sit around patiently making things must have had huge survival impact on our ancestors. Be that making storage vessels for food and water, making clothes to keep warm in the winter, making tools, or any other day to day items, having them would result in a more viable human.

Perhaps on some level, our bodies know that crafting keeps you safe. Crafting is how we get everyone through the winter. So we are soothed by the process of making.

As an enthusiastic crafter I am enchanted by the idea that how we are as humans might have things to do with evolving to feel good about making stuff.


How to try harder

The normal thing to do is to frame mental illness as something the person is going to recover from by making more effort.

Practice self care. Practice mindfulness. Practice gratitude. Challenge yourself to overcome your anxieties with a supportive CBT booklet. Talk to a therapist to get a plan in place for how you are going to do better. You know the drill.

No one is going to sit your abusive or neglectful family members down and explain to them what they should be doing to stop messing you up. No one is going to write a letter to your boss about how your toxic workplace is destroying you. The odds are that if you’ve suffered trauma, you’ve experienced nothing that was restorative. The odds of even experiencing any kind of justice around that are always slim.

It would be possible, through the medium of politics, to end the brutal toll that poverty and insecurity takes on people’s mental health. These are all situations that could be changed. Poverty is manufactured and is a deliberate aspect of capitalism. It isn’t natural, or necessary or unavoidable, but it does keep that system in place. Take away the massive stress caused by financial insecurity, work pressure, fear of losing your home and not being able to afford decent food, and a lot of mental illness would ease and disappear pretty quickly. Stress makes people sick.

From first hand experience, there is an extra layer of distress that comes from being made personally responsible for sorting out things you didn’t cause and can’t fix. There’s a weight to it, this a tough burden to shoulder on top of everything else. To have to try harder to be well and functional when something is gnawing on your guts, is a harsh thing to face. Your suffering is added to when there is no one willing to help you deal with the thing that is, metaphorically speaking, eating your innards in a slow and painful way. It doesn’t help to be told that you’d probably feel better if you could take a more positive approach to the thing that is destroying you.

Of course there’s no way of turning yourself into a happy and well person when the causes of your suffering are real and ongoing. Instead, you get to feel like a failure for not managing that impossible task. You get to feel like it’s your fault. I don’t think this is an accident. Misery makes it harder to push back and make change. The more of us there are feeling responsible, and useless and full of despair, the harder many of us will try to keep jumping through the unreachable hoops, and in so doing, continuing to be part of this toxic way of life.

If you are in more pain than you can bear it is probably because you are being asked to bear an inhuman load.


Asking for help

A great deal of mental health advice out there encourages people who are suffering to ask for help. This fails to recognise all of the things depression and anxiety do that make it difficult to ask for help. Here are some lists, I doubt I’ve covered everything.

Anxiety makes you feel like you’re making a fuss and there’s no reason for anyone to take you seriously. You are afraid that people may be annoyed with you, or react in other ways that make things worse. You think it may be obvious to them that this is all your fault and you are desperately afraid that everything happening is both entirely your fault and wholly your responsibility. You are afraid people will hate you and push you away. You are afraid you will hurt and harm people who already have more than enough problems of their own, you are afraid you are being unreasonable.

Depression tells you that you don’t deserve help. You don’t deserve love, or care, or support or kindness. Everything going wrong for you is going wrong because it is exactly what you deserve, so why should anyone want to help you fix that? They almost certainly have much more important things that they need to be doing instead. Other people are in far more trouble than you and are far more deserving of help. Other problems are far more serious than your problems. Depression will have you believing the people who tell you that you should just snap out of it, try harder, stop the self pity. Depression will persuade you that it really is all your fault for not trying harder and that it would be totally reasonable if everyone hated you for your failures.

Asking for help is easier if you don’t have a history of being bullied or abused. Ask for help in those circumstances and you’re putting weapons into the hands of the people who mean you harm. It’s also easier to ask for help if you don’t have a history of being ignored, shamed, or humiliated, if you haven’t had your issues minimised, and if you’ve not been told off and emotionally punished for making a fuss. 

Thankfully we’re starting to establish that mental illness isn’t primarily a chemical imbalance issue. Mental illness is a consequence of trauma, stress, and abuse. It’s the fallout from gaslighting, poverty, insecurity and living in fear. The help that most people need is the help that deals with these issues and the legacies they leave. It’s also hard to ask for help when you know from experience that all you will be offered to deal with your gaping wound is a packet of sticking plasters.

If you can manage it, don’t wait for people to ask you for help. Offer it. Making helping people part of how you go through a day. A little kindness, patience and generosity can make a lot of odds, especially when no one has asked you to do that for them.


The language of mental illness

I notice that I feel more comfortable writing ‘mental health problems’ than ‘mental illness’ because the second option seems so much more loaded. The words we use to talk about mental illness are problematic, too. Anxiety and depression are words that really don’t convey the life destroying nature of being overwhelmed by those things.

Years ago, a doctor gave me a questionnaire that talked about being anxious and fearful. I wasn’t those things – I was overwhelmed by terror on a daily basis and unable to function as a consequence and I could not express the severity of my situation in the terms the survey offered. I was then given a CBT handbook to help me manage those small fears that will go away if only you push back against them. Only I was terrified, all the time, thanks to the genuinely threatening things that were going on in my life.

Depression, as a term does not convey the state of being so weighted down that you no longer know how to move. It does not express the experience of being so numb that you no longer seem like a proper person on the inside. Depression does not convey the utter despair and hopelessness that sometimes kills people. Talking about the fatigue that comes with depression does not express what it’s like to be so overwhelmed that even the idea of trying to do something is unbearably exhausting. 

‘Triggering’ is a word that has been sorely abused by people deliberately minimising how trauma impacts on people. Triggering as a word is not adequate to express the horror and loss of control of finding that your mind has been thrown back into reliving traumatic experiences from your history. The word ‘trauma’ alone does not do enough to convey to untraumatised people what that kind of experience this means. And I don’t want to expand on that because not triggering the traumatised folk is a consideration alongside wanting to educate those who don’t really get it.

‘Personality disorder’ is an awful term that has stigma hard wired into it. It’s also a really problematic area of diagnosis – it’s just a label, it doesn’t represent anything that can be measured. How do you tell between these ‘disorders’ and perfectly reasonable trauma responses? How do you tell between trauma in undiagnosed neurodivergent adults, and ‘personality disorders’? This is an area where the problematic language represents a lot of problematic thinking. If this isn’t familiar territory, have a look at the ‘symptoms’ for schizophrenia https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/schizophrenia/symptoms/ and consider how many of those might be caused by trauma and by real threats that are assumed not to exist. What happens to an abused teen whose parents frame their behaviour as delusional? 

Often, the official language to describe conditions comes from an unaffected observer, not the people having the experience. This isn’t a neutral process, and the stigma against mental illness and neurodivergence is massive and longstanding. And please, if we’re going to label murderers as being mentally ill, could we at least have a specific label for that illness rather than making it seem like mentally ill people are dangerous to those around them. We’re not. Most of us are far more likely to harm ourselves than anyone else.


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.