Tag Archives: mental health

Healing and progress

Often, healing isn’t a linear process, and this is perhaps especially true around mental health. It can be unsettling, to hit something that feels like a relapse. It can be hard to tell, when you’re in the middle of a process, whether you’re still overall heading the right way, or have taken a turn for the worse.

It helps a lot having professional insight for this sort of thing. That’s not available to many of us struggling with long term mental health challenges. Figuring out what anything means can therefore be an uncomfortably solitary activity.

It’s certainly true that with bodily healing, things can feel a lot worse before they start to feel better. Building strength, surfacing from sickness and healing wounds can all involve periods of time when things feel worse than they did at the beginning. I know to watch for this with flu – the point at which I usually feel most awful is the point at which I’m starting to get better. 

I find it helps on the mental health front not to assume that any given setback is a sign of disaster. Although of course anxiety makes that a challenging thing to hang on to! However, I’ve been around the various stunts my brain can pull a number of times now, and that helps. Sometimes breakdowns and breakthroughs are impossible to tell apart when I’m in the middle of them. And nose-dives aren’t forever. Even the really awful ones, and the ones that have been slow declines over extended periods of time. I’m still here, and some kind of getting up again has thus far always been possible.

Not everything can be recovered from. This is as true of long term physical illness as it is of mental health problems. Not everyone gets better, many things cannot be fixed. Our very able-oriented society can be rather too focused on the idea of healing as a journey to full recovery and this isn’t always helpful. It can be more useful to think of healing as being about as much wellness as you can achieve. You can be working on healing while in practice simply managing not to get any worse. You can heal, and relapse, and heal and relapse over and over.

It’s always good to seek the best outcomes you can – but what that even means is really individual. A person doesn’t have to expect to be completely fixed for it to be worth them seeking healing. Whatever recovery can be managed is worth having, even if it’s only temporary.

It’s also good to consider our expectations around other people’s health, and to make sure that the assumption of total recovery as end goal isn’t informing what we do. A person can waste a lot of time and energy chasing total recovery when that effort would have been better invested in management and making the best of things. 

Under-stimulation and insufficiency

Some unmet needs are really easy to spot, especially if you are used to having them met. For the person who normally eats well, hunger is self announcing. For the person who has always eaten a poverty diet, malnutrition seems normal. Often when we’re thinking about our own needs all we have to measure things against is our own experience and if that’s always been lacking, we may have no idea what sufficiency would look like or how far from it we are.

Being under-stimulated is hard to spot. Especially if, like me, you don’t really know what you’d be like if you were operating in optimal conditions. One of the things I’m exploring at the moment is the possibility that under-stimulation is having a serious impact on my mental health. 

I’ve known for some years that I need a considerable amount of brain stimulation in order to feel ok. I need ideas, challenges, and things that stretch me. I can keep myself functional on this front by engaging with the right content and actively seeking ideas. I do better when I have people to interact with who challenge me and make demands that I have to stretch to respond to. I’m finding a lot of what I need there in my creative family and I feel I’ve got that in hand. I’m not convinced I’m at an optimal level yet, but I’m working on it.

I’m also confident at this point that I’m a high maintenance person emotionally. I need a great deal of emotional intensity in my life, while also needing to avoid drama. I can meet some of that emotional need through my creative life. I find I need multiple deeply involved emotional relationships in order to function at all. (As an aside for people who don’t know my circumstances, I’m married to one of my creative collaborators.) I think at this point I understand broadly speaking what I need to function, and I haven’t figured out what an optimal state would look like.

My current guess is that where I’m falling down is on the body stuff. I suspect I’m just not getting enough body feedback most of the time and that this is a major contributor to my not functioning. Being ill has limited what I can do with my body in the last few years and that’s clearly a contributing factor. I also tend to dissociate when I’m stressed and I expect that’s making everything worse.

We tend to think of mental health as being entirely separate from body stuff, as though these are two entirely different systems. When body stuff does make it into the mental health conversation, it’s mostly about just getting the basics right – food, exercise and avoiding addiction. I’ve not seen much at all about getting beyond that and exploring what your body might need and how that impacts on mental health too.

Having come to the conclusion that I’m a really high maintenance person in all other regards, I suspect it’s just as true of the physical side of myself. I need to reclaim the things that I used to do – walking and dancing especially – that give me the body feedback I need. Ideally I need to get back to being able to swim, moving in water has always been good for my mental health. I’m considering my options.

Seeking wellness

This is more of a checking in sort of blog post, because there’s so much going on for me emotionally that I don’t have space to think about anything else. I usually try and process my feelings into something useful before I write about them, but that’s not how today is going to work.

I talk about mental health issues a lot, because that form of ill health looms very large in my life. So much of this comes down to my sense of self and the amount of self hatred I carry. I didn’t come to that on my own. For reasons, I depend a lot on external validation, and if the feedback I’m relying on gives me the feeling that I’m awful and a failure, I’m in trouble.

This might sound like a rather too obvious thing to write, but it has finally occurred to me that I get a vote in all of this. I can pick the people who do external validation for me. I don’t have to assume that the most critical voices are the fairest or the most accurate. I don’t have to continue struggling with the versions of me that I’ve been offered by the people who liked me least or thought least of me. I don’t have to keep taking that inside.

There are people in my life who reflect back versions of me that I like. There are spaces where I can be a person I rather like being. The impact on my mental health of being able to do that is huge. I struggle with feeling good enough, but not all the time, not in all contexts.

It is really difficult to feel good about yourself if you are in spaces that undermine your confidence. Even a person with good self esteem will be ground down if they spend enough time in a shitty workplace, or an abusive relationship. No one is immune to this. If you start out better resourced, you’ll be able to hold out for longer, but any of us can be crushed given enough pressure and time. Avoiding that is something best handled in teams.

Brains, illness and resilience

Mental illness is in no small part a loss of control over your own thought processes. However, the degree to which simply regaining control of your thoughts it the ‘cure’ for this is one I think could stand questioning. So much of what we do at the moment to help with ‘mental health’ starts from the assumption that the thoughts are irrational and are the problem to be fixed.

Like a lot of ill people, my struggles with mental illness have everything to do with my experiences. I didn’t get here on my own. I am afraid of finding myself in situations akin to situations I have already been in. Some of my coping mechanisms are a bit dysfunctional.

I know there’s a school of thought that goes in for the idea that the answer to distress is to teach people how to be more resilient. The right mental attitude will get you though! The trouble with this is that as an approach it denies that other people have agency too. The only person who has to change here is the one being hurt, while everyone else can blithely get on with whatever they were doing.

Getting control of your distressed thoughts can indeed make it more possible to cope. It can also be a process of learning to be responsible for what’s being done to you, rather than demanding change. When the focus is on controlling your own mind, there’s little encouragement to look at what might be changed so you don’t have to be in this mess in the first place.

Sometimes what’s most helpful is to have the time and space to sit with the distress. Get to know it, find out what it’s made of and why it’s happening. It’s better not to have to train yourself out of your own innate responses. Sometimes, it is possible to simply ask for help and have that help manifest. I know from experience that changes in the world to solve the problems causing the distress get a lot more done than me trying to be more resilient.

There’s a lot we can do to help each other with all of this even if we don’t know exactly what someone else is up against. Tell people that you care about them and value them. Tell them that they matter, that what they do is good and valued. Tell people that you need them, appreciate them and respect them. Encourage, uplift, and praise the people around you every chance you get. There’s a different kind of resilience that comes from all of this, one that doesn’t depend on having to push constantly against our own distress. It’s easier to have resilience when you are supported, rather than trying to make resilience in face of desperation.

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.