How to walk beside someone with Mental Illness

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It is Mental Health Awareness Week. So I think this is a good quote of the week to choose (because I can’t pick the same one two weeks in a row).

When you are struggling with mental illness, you may not have the energy to lead, and you may not have the capacity to follow. What all of us need is people to just be with us and saying “I’m here, and I acknowledge that what you are going through sucks right now.”

I still follow Zach’s Mom, Laura Sobiech, on facebook and have done ever since I read her book, Fly A Little Higher. I think about the Sobiechs and the Aiffs a lot every May as it marks the anniversaries of the deaths of both Zach and Chris. The same as every Christmas I think of Oliver, and every February now I think of Kylie. Laura works for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund, and together with another Mom who has battled the conniving disease of cancer with their child they published a post today on the CCRF website called “What to say (and what not to say) to a family facing cancer“. It reminded me of a very similar post that Mark Myers wrote on his blog.

I’ve probably said several of the things on that What Not To Say list. And I’m really sorry that I have. Part of it is my overly practical logical side – years studying Health Sciences and spending waaayy too much time in the medical world caused me to learn too much. And makes me go ‘oh thank goodness it’s that type’ or inwardly think ‘there’s little hope here’. I’m trying to be better at filtering my thoughts so they don’t come out my mouth. Because they aren’t helpful.

I have a new hashtag. And it’s this: #cancersucks

However, as a friend is sharing daily tips about what to do/not to do with a friend struggling with mental illness, I realised reading that post, you could probably take that very same advice that Mark, Laura and Mindy have given…and rename the post “What to say (and what not to say) to a person facing mental illness”.

 

So What can you say?

This Sucks.

Don’t try to fix it, or make sense of the situation.

Because #mentalillnesssucks too.

It’s not the same as cancer. But like cancer there is no simple cure. There are many different types. Not every treatment plan works for every person. Sometimes it does result in death. You can think you’ve beaten it, go for years living your life only for it to come back.

I’ve been thinking of you today. 

It meant a lot for someone to send a text (which I could read when I felt able) to let me know they hadn’t forgotten me. Illness is isolating and often lonely.

Don’t ask me to make a decision

One of the things that struck me that both Laura and Mark mention were instead of asking “how can I help?” to offer something specific. I know so many times – when I was ill with CFS and when I’ve struggled on my darkest days with depression. I couldn’t answer that question. I didn’t even know how to help myself, never mind know how others could help me. But when someone text to say “I’m going to the supermarket, do you need anything and I can drop it off?” or “I could come pick you up if you’d like to go to church” (this was a godsend when I had CFS as some days I could barely walk). I could answer that with a yes or no. I could manage that! The same went for making any kind of decisions. I needed them to have a yes or no answer. And I also needed others to understand that if I had made an arrangement sometimes I could wake up and feel too awful.

Understand that I can’t plan how my illness is going to treat me on a day to day basis.

I also appreciated people understanding the nature of the beast I was fighting. One of the frustrations when I had CFS was that my immune system sucked. A simple cold that in the past I would have just carried on with life as usual would have me in bed for weeks. So there were times when my friends would let me know that they (or their kids!) had the sniffles and give me the option not to see them.

They also didn’t bat an eyelid when on good days I managed to get to church and was so exhausted by the effort that I’d have to lie down for most of the service at the back of the room. (Amusingly, I found out in later years that people thought I was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ and that’s why I was lying on the floor!). I was there, and participating as much as I could and that was all that mattered. No big deal was made. Sometimes I sang on the worship team, but I needed a chair to sit. It meant a lot to still be able to do something I loved doing and only once did one of the pastors comment on the chair telling me it wasn’t very godly of me to sing sitting down.

We love you and we’re here for the long haul.

Know that mental illness doesn’t go away overnight. It can stick around for months and years. Usually (hopefully) there’ll be periods where it is better than others. Endurance is needed.

Meals.

When you don’t have time or energy to shop, and don’t feel like eating. A meal that is pretty much ready to go is so helpful. Healthy things (and a few nice treats) that you can snack on are helpful as sometimes if you have no appetite a big meal is hard. But we probably need to eat as it’s going to help make us better (or at least prevent us getting worse).

Encouragement.

Knowing that our lives still make a difference does help. The reason I’ve kept writing all throughout my life’s journey in good times and bad is because of the encouragement of others telling me that somehow I’ve helped/inspired/encouraged them. It gives us fuel for our continued fight.

 

Of course, everyone is different, and you might not agree with all of the above. And perhaps there are things that I’ve missed out. Please feel free as always, to add helpful tips in the comments.

And to Mark, Laura and Mindy – thank you for sharing your tips on what to say (and not to say) to families battling cancer. Though I wish you’d never had to endure watching your children go through all that they did with cancer and cancer treatments, I am thankful that you were willing to share what you learned so that hopefully I (and others) can be a better friend to those going through similar circumstances.

Friendship, social media & mental health…

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There are lots of people who say that friendship can’t be built over social media. I really beg to differ. I began blogging this time 9 years ago. I had just returned back from Australia, started going to a new church in a part of my home city that had looked down on me as a teen and was getting over a pretty catastrophic relationship. Oh yeah, and I was about to discover that I couldn’t do the same job I’d spent the last year doing without going back to university.

However, back then I was barely 23 and had time on my side. As much as there was a huge amount change and upheaval that year I really had very few doubts that I was exactly where I was meant to be.

On the other hand, I was questioning a lot of things and trying to work out what I was meant to be doing.

That’s where blogging came in.

To be honest blogging was just a cathartic way of processing my thoughts. I’m an extrovert by nature so I’m always thinking out loud (just ask my friends, colleagues and family…). I never expected to find community in it. But I did.

People started to follow my day to day life (which boggles my mind, it’s not like I’m interesting) but also as I began to share some of my life story and on days where I was questioning my life and faith, I discovered that others were out there saying ‘Me too! I thought I was the only one‘.

The community has shrunk somewhat, as a lot of those original friends have stopped blogging and I really miss their writing. Thankfully there are a core few that I’ve stayed in touch with through twitter and facebook, and several that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person. Three of them even travelled to Edinburgh to stay with me because they were determined that I was to celebrate turning 30.

The two years since – well they’ve kinda sucked. Every time I start to think things are getting better, it feels like the universe says “HA! That’s what you think!”. It’s made me feel like a failure. I feel incredibly lonely as gradually a whole chunk of my close friends have moved away, and money has been so tight and public transport so expensive (another shout out to the government for privatising rail services…). Social media is the worst for letting you know how much fun your friends are having without you. Or any time they are in town and didn’t let you know so you could spend some time with them.

However, back to the benefits of social media. Two of these ‘online friends’ have over the years shared with me when I have shared with them (and the rest of cyberspace) about things relating to mental health, crisis, grief and loss. One of them has started sending me messages letting me know how she is thinking of me and praying for me. Another sent me a card this weekend letting me know she was there for me if I wanted her to be. I haven’t been able to properly respond in the way I want to, because right now every day is tough and talking about it makes me start crying. When people ask me ‘How’s university going?‘ or ‘So what are you going to do about [insert some kind of big life thing like employment or landlord responsibilities]?’ I can literally feel my blood pressure shoot up and want to scream, yell, burst into tears and feel like I’m going to throw up. So many nights I go to bed with a plan of how I’m going conquer the world regardless of all the crap thrown at me and what a failure everyone may think I am. And so many mornings I wake up and just can’t get out of bed or the house because the thought of facing it alone is just so depressing.

So, all a bit more than any of you needed to know. today I planned on sending an assertive e-mail, making a chart for Guides, reading some books, writing an essay, going into town to run an errand and all I actually accomplished was putting some clothes in the washing machine and  hanging them up to dry.

I share that just in case you’re also looking at the facebooks, instagrams and twitter of all the people who went on dates, family parties, sat in cafes, went on trips, ran marathons and feeling even worse about yourself as a result. Maybe you didn’t even manage to remember to get the clothes out of the washing machine (something that happens to me often, I’ve also found myself going to get loads of laundry out the machine that I’d already hung up because I have no memory of doing it). Well. Take heart sister/brother..

…You are not the only one.

To Write Love On Her Arm, My Arms and His Arms…

In 2008, there was a movement on social media to spend a day with the word ‘love’ written on your arm. I participated. It was to raise awareness of a charity started in USA called To Write Love On Her Arms.

Their mission?

To Write Love on Her Arms is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.

Love arm

I can’t actually remember when I first discovered TWLOHA. They began the year I graduated university, and those five years of undergraduate study were not all about getting a degree. It was a rollercoaster that included radically changing my religious beliefs and being baptised. It included a change in career path. Being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and (sort of) endometriosis. But also myself and several of my friends going through the most horrific battles with a variety of eating disorders and mental illnesses.

There was a defining night that came 40 days after I was baptised. A friend called me after work to ask if she would come to my flat. I had other friends on their way round who were coming for dinner at my house, but I said yes. She sat at my kitchen table with a cup of tea, and began to talk about how much she was struggling. To this day I don’t know what made me say it but I remember saying “Look, the only way nobody can help you is if you are dead“. It turned out that just before she had come to my flat she had swallowed 64 painkillers. Needless to say, my friends didn’t come round for dinner as instead, an ambulance came and I spent an evening in A&E. It would, as it turned out, be the first of many nights I spent in that A&E waiting room with various friends over the years to come.

Jamie’s friend Renee had ‘F***  Up’ etched on her arm with razor blades. I don’t know what implement one of my friends used, but she had ‘B**CH’ written on her arm one night when I came to the locked down ward of the hospital to bring her some of my clothes so she had something to change into. The words ‘To Write Love On Her Arms’ mean a lot because of that memory and emotion when I noticed what my friend had written on her own arm. That’s exactly what I wanted in that moment – for my friend to know how much she was loved and worth.

The truth is for five years of my own life, my body was often covered in wounds on my arms and stomach from my own long fingernails, from screwdrivers and knives. It was the only way I knew to cope with the hate and anger and confusion. And it’s a habit that’s addictive. It’s been 12 years but I haven’t forgotten. And I still have my battles with depression. It runs in my family. Winter has always been  a given, but since being made redundant two years ago, it’s been an all the time thing. There are days when I can’t get out of bed, my brain just doesn’t function and I wish that my life on earth would just end so I didn’t have to exist, battle and cope anymore.

But I remember what it was like to have people you love try to kill themselves, to scrape hate on their limbs, to starve themselves, to purge themselves, to panic, to seem like they were just empty shells incapable of living, to believe they were aliens or that nurses were secret agents trying to kidnap or kill them, to find your friend on a bench in the street telling you the voices were telling her she needed to walk out in front of a car.

Truth is, the last two years have been increasingly lonely, felt increasingly hopeless and it is easier to believe that you are hated and disliked rather than loved. It is easier to believe that the world would be better without you, than you have anything of value to add to it.

So when I came home from my friend’s wedding, I switched on the live stream of the 10th anniversary celebration in Orlando after I’d taken off my make up and exchanged a dress and heels for pyjamas and blankets. Some of my friends were there in person and I’m trying (and failing) not to be jealous about that! 🙂

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We will be the hopeful. We will remind people they are loved. We will use art to tell the stories that inspire and encourage. And we will fight for more help to be available.

Thank you Jamie and co. for starting the movement. How I wish it wasn’t needed.

But it is.

 

 

Eating well and living well on a budget…

The church I attend is home to an organisation called Christians Against Poverty. They do all kinds of helpful stuff to help people get out of debt and stay in the black. Recently one of the CAP volunteers posted on one of our church facebook groups saying they were doing an event to talk about living well and eating well requesting some ‘expertise’.I’m gutted I can’t go to the event. For those of you who don’t know, I have a degree in Health Promotion. Despite having done no science at high school, I found myself headed to the medical school to do a Bachelor of Health Sciences from my third year of a Master of Arts in Geography after spending a lot of time doing cooking on a budget and health education workshops with young people in my first paid Community Education job. It has been a while though, so don’t ask me which Vitamins and Minerals are in which foods when I’m not near my old textbooks!

I’ve written a few guest posts for the Postgraduate Search website which included one on helping your money go further as a student, and I also did a guest post for my friend Caroline on her ‘Have a Whole Foods Holiday’ series she did a few years ago. Given that I’ve spent the last year trying to make my redundancy pay and teenage savings last as long as possible while finishing my postgraduate degree, I have had to get more creative and find some ways of living without the disposable income I once enjoyed (by disposable income I mean I could pay my rent, bills, run my small car and go out to the pub once a week with my friends. I may also have bought a new pair of shoes or a nice top once every few months). I struggle with depression and the thing that can often set me off in a downward spiral of never ending duvet days without showering is not eating well, not getting exercise, not having opportunity to socialise with friends and not having my brain engaged. So I wanted to share some of what I’ve found that has helped me stay sane and (relatively*) healthy.

Eating Well

Eating well on a budget and not going completely insane eating the same meal for days on end when you are single is a challenge. Add some annoying food intolerances/allergies to that and well…yeah. It’s a recipe for food becoming something you put off because you simply can’t face having to eat it again.

I have three main tips that I’ve found helpful…

1. Use your freezer and your plastic tub collection.

Buying in bulk is often cheaper. I’d also take advantage of deals – as long as it was on a product I use regularly and would keep – when I saw them. However, buying in bulk could mean you end up eating the same meal every day for a week when you are single. The way to take advantage of the bulk buying bargain without being sickened of the sight of the same meal over and over is to cook in bulk…then deposit it into portion sized containers and freeze them!

I managed to adapt a recipe for vegetarian chilli that was a godsend during my first year at university. My first couple of weeks at uni I really struggled as most of the foods on campus were pre-made and had stuff I couldn’t eat in them. Leaving my house at 7.45 a.m. and not getting home until 7 p.m. (or later if I needed to study or something happened with the trains) took it’s toll. I would feel physically sick by the time I got home – and some of it was from hunger. My wonderful friend Kathy suggested buying a food flask, and this £10 investment paid back its value! Once every six weeks, I would make a huge pot of chilli. I would defrost a portion overnight, heat it up and boil some rice to go with it and spoon it into my food flask and that was my lunch every day at uni. It was wonderful to  have a proper hot meal. I’d also pack a ton of snacks – a flask of water that could be refilled if needed, nuts, celery sticks, fruit and some chocolate banana teabread. The teabread I also made in a batch and cut it into portions and froze it. It was always defrosted by lunchtime if I took it out before going to uni in the morning. The snacks would help keep me going during class or when I was starving on the train home – and stopped me using expensive vending machines or the train snack trolley.

Another great meal to take for lunch was soups. Again, I’d make a big batch and freeze it in portions to take with me to work. Lasagne, Meatballs and Fruit crumble are other things I’ve made and decanted into smaller containers to be frozen.

2. Plan your meals

You need to get organised for this. And I tried to have things overlap. For example if I was making chilli, I’d often have half a jar of tomato passata leftover. This with some spinach and pasta would be my dinner or lunch for the next two days. I also had celery leftover when I made my veggie chilli. Celery sticks would be my choice of snack to use them up.

Make your shopping list up accordingly, and be disciplined in sticking to what is on your list and ignoring all the marketing strategies they have to make you buy stuff you don’t actually need in the shops!

3. Eat seasonally

One of the best ways to get lots of fruit and vegetables in you without breaking your purse strings is to eat seasonally. I confess, as a lass who grew up in the middle of a city and has never had a garden to keep I had no clue about where food comes from. It was only when I bought a recipe book from Innocent Smoothies that I learned about seasonal foods – they had a great calendar type chart that I use all the time now. There’s also a really helpful website called Eat Seasonally that will help you too. Not only does it taste better when it’s in season, it’s also way cheaper. You’ll also find that if it’s produced closer to home it’s cheaper too. A punnet of strawberries will be half the price in Scotland in July compared to March!

Staples in my cupboard and fridge:

Pasta

Basmati Rice

Egg noodles

Unsalted butter or a soya spread

Milk

Chilli powder, cinnamon, italian herb seasoning, reduced sodium salt, peppercorns

Balsamic Vinegar

Olive Oil

Light Soy Sauce

Cornflour

Self Raising Flour

Plain Flour

Baking powder

Eggs

Tea bags

Growing parsley, rosemary, coriander and basil in their little plant pots (when I haven’t killed them)

Porridge Oatmeal

…and then whatever ingredients you need for your meals – spinach, broccoli, milk, bananas, apples, beef, chicken, carrots, peppers, sweetcorn, potatoes…?

Some of my favourite regular meals & snacks

-Carrot and sweet potato soup

-Tomato and basil soup

-Toast with Scrambled egg and salad

-Vegetarian chilli

-Pasta with tomato sauce, spinach and mozzarella

-Turkey meatballs in a tomato sauce

-Chicken and broccoli bake

-Baked Sweet Potato with salad and a filling

-Grilled fish with boiled potatoes and broccoli

-Cheesey spinach macaroni

-Stir fry vegetables with soy sauce

-Vegetarian Lasagne

-Apple porridge

-Chocolate banana teabread

-Cous cous with leftover vegetables

-Olives

-Celery sticks

-Apple slices

-Bagel with sliced banana

-Sugarsnap peas or mangetout

-Pumpkin and sunflower seeds

-Fruit Crumble

Living Well

If you are really not sporty like me, the living well part is quite difficult on a budget. Pretty much every sport I’ve liked costs money to do – whether it’s dance classes, rock climbing or surfing. That’s not much help with you don’t have spare cash to buy/rent equipment or pay for the classes. Or a gym membership. Even swimming was too expensive, especially if I was on my own. Not only did I have to pay the price of swimming pool access but I needed contact lenses or special prescription goggles so I could find my way from the changing rooms to the water and back.

It’s worth seeing if there are any groups in your local area running a walking club (there are several groups in Edinburgh who meet up to do walks along the Railway Path, Corstorphine Hill, Blackford Hill and so on that costs nothing). You may even find some folks getting together in a local park to play football or do keep fit. Find your local community centre and go in – have a look on the noticeboard and see what opportunities and groups you didn’t know about.

If you have a device that plays podcasts (like a phone or mp3 player), you’ve got a good sports bra and a pair of trainers then the NHS Couch to 5k podcast comes recommended by several of my other unsporty friends. I did download it and then realised that I just hate running!

I did however, really find myself getting energised doing Pilates. I went to a class for a while when I had a local authority gym membership, but couldn’t afford to keep it up. Instead I went to TK Maxx and got a pilates mat (which was about £8) and a DVD off amazon called Pilates for Dummies that cost me about £4. Every week my friend and I got together in my house to do that Pilates DVD together. Not only did we feel great (if a little sore at times) but it was a lovely cheap social activity that we kept up for a year. It cost nothing after our initial £12 investment!

I’m also a huge fan of walking. Sometimes I’d get a bus to hang out with a friend and then walk back home. Sometimes I’d meet up with a friend and we’d walk along Silverknowes and Cramond, or walk around the Old Town, up Arthur Seat, along the Union Canal or Water of Leith Walkway…I didn’t even need a sports bra for that!

Keep your brain engaged

Books are one thing I don’t think I could live without. I’ve been kept afloat with numerous generous book tokens from friends at birthdays and Christmas, and I won’t lie – in the last year I’ve at least twice gone a week barely eating because I’ve spent my food budget on books. So if you’re a book addict like me, joining the local library is a must so you don’t have to buy them (you do however, have to remember to take them back on time…something I was terrible at doing because I often take months to finish a book because I like to have about 6 on the go at the same time).

The other thing I found really helpful was to go out. Going out was tough when I had no money. Sometimes I didn’t have enough money for a bus fare. When I did, I loved to go and take advantage of the free stuff in Edinburgh. A trip to the Botanic Gardens. A trip to the National Art Gallery. The Fruitmarket Gallery. The City Art Centre. Sitting in Princes Street Gardens people watching. The Museum of Scotland. The Museum of Childhood. The Writers’ Museum. The Museum of Edinburgh.

We are truly blessed with all this culture on our doorstep, and when I have a job again, I will do my best to give donations to these places so they can coninue staying open for free. These city centre locations I frequented on days when I was pounding the pavements handing in my CVs to any business with a ‘Staff Vacancies’ sign (and anyone else that would take them). A walk through the Grassmarket and down to one of the art galleries was a needed cheer up after every visit to the Job Centre for my weekly interrogation.

One week I found myself with an extra bit of cash and I bought a ukulele for £21 and started teaching myself songs with chord tabs and YouTube videos I found on the internet. It was just something to keep me sane during hours and hours of job searching and applications…because when there’s only the TV, social media (which is just a way to stir up the green monster of envy when you see all your friends eating in restaurants, buying a new fancy outfit, going to pubs and enjoying sunshiney holidays!) your brain gets bored and dulled…and that would sometimes push me close to the edge of the depression pit. Whenever I could I’d save up money to meet up with a friend for coffee (I’d get the cheapest thing on the menu – but hey I was going ‘out’) or go to the cinema for the Filmhouse Friday matinee (£4 concession) or Cheap Tuesday at the Vue (half price tickets). Sometimes it was as simple as organising a fun night in with a friend – bringing our own snacks and watching a DVD we already had or a film that was on the telly. And did I mention that many libraries have DVDs and even CDs of music you can borrow too?

Maybe for you, you might like playing guitar, writing poetry, painting, crafting, sketching. Whatever it is, make some time to do it.

Those last things may seem really daft because they aren’t about staying physically active. But I found that doing something fun, and experiencing some kind of art and culture inspired me. I don’t know what it is but it just reminded me that I’m a human being with the potential for ideas and creativity. For me, the arts and culture activities were just as important as eating well and doing physical exercise for keeping me emotionally and mentally well.

Anyway, for any single people trying to stick to a budget, and/or working out how to stay sane while you’re in between jobs…I hope this helps you. It isn’t easy, and in our materialistic, voyeuristic, expensive western culture it is hard to stay positive and live well. However, it is important that we do. We all have something to give in this world, and staying as healthy as we can is going to benefit ourselves and others.

Good luck, and feel free to share your own ‘Eating and living well’ tips!