Mental Health Awareness Week Part Two: Relationships

I know Mental Health Awareness Week was a couple of weeks ago now but I don’t think it’s ever a bad time to raise awareness about and acceptance of mental health and mental health issues, and since the official theme this year was relationships I thought I should probably write a post about it!

I chose that particular quote from Carrie Mathison (Homeland character) because I really identify with her as a character in a lot of ways and because a big part of her character development over the five series so far has been her growing realisation that people can’t exist totally independently without any relationships with other people but also that you need to be able to rely on yourself and that relationships aren’t always reliable and you need to be able to adapt and manage that.  Carrie as a character has bipolar disorder and a lot of her difficulties with relationships and boundaries are linked to that (which I’ve written about in another blog post called Learning emotion regulation via Carrie Mathison and in my other, Homeland-focussed blog Carrie Mathison’s Diary).  The two quotes that really get me are when Carrie says in season one “I’m gonna be alone my whole life, aren’t I?” and then this quote, “Maybe I don’t want to be alone my whole fucking life!” which is part of her starting to realise that she really does need relationships with other people.

Relationships are vital for everyone and especially for people experiencing mental health issues who can often become socially isolated or feel alienated from people around them. There are so many different reasons for this from factors relating to others such as fear of judgment, bullying, lack of motivation or energy to be around people or stigma to internal factors like paranoid thoughts, delusions or anxiety and it’s important to recognise that everyone experiences different thoughts and feelings. Statistics from the Mental Health Foundation say that nine out of ten people with mental health issues have experienced stigma about their mental health which is horrible and can be really detrimental to people’s social relationships. Relationships are fundamental to being a human- we really are social animals. I feel a bit ironic writing this- I remember a psychologist I used to over a decade ago repeatedly telling me that and I didn’t believe her; it took until several years of volunteering in teenage self esteem groups through Mind and meeting people as an adult who have genuinely changed my life to realise just how important social relationships are. But we need them to survive and they are essential for mental health.

One way we can tell how important relationships are is by thinking about language and communication- across the world, different cultures have evolved their own ways to communicate but it’s the communication itself that is vital, and not just in humans. Relationships were important in prehistoric times because they allowed people to gather and share food, protect each other, build shelters, find sustenance, reproduce, take care of each other and basically maximise chances of survival and that need is hardwired into the way our brains work (for anyone interested in neuroscience, have a look at how the amygdala and the neocortex are involved in relationships and attachment- it’s really interesting but don’t want to turn this post into a science essay!). I’m not going to go into the psychological, sociological, linguistic or neuroscientific aspects of attachment because that could be several PhDs in itself but wanted to highlight the way in which relationships are essential for human survival.

The main types of relationship I’m going to look at in this post are family relationships, friendships and ‘functional’ relationships. The last one sounds a bit negative but I really don’t mean it to- I just mean relationships with very specific constraints or boundaries but serve a function. Relationships can be positive or negative and you don’t necessarily have to like someone to have a relationship with them and it’s defined by repeated social contact with someone rather than how much you like them. I used to see a psychologist who I didn’t particularly ‘like’ but I saw her every week and although I hated the therapy sessions they were actually useful in a very indirect way so that was a positive functional relationship even though I didn’t like seeing her. I think a lot of young people have similar relationships with teachers! You can also have close or distant relationships depending on how close (emotionally) you feel to someone and that doesn’t depend on physical distance- for years, my best friend lived on the other side of the world but she was still my closest friend because of how much I trusted her and how close we were emotionally whereas I lived in the same house as my brother but I didn’t feel anywhere near as comfortable emotionally around him.

It’s important to have a mix of relationships around you, close and distant, in order to have stable mental health and to feel like you are connected to people around you. Too many close relationships can make you vulnerable or prone to becoming overwhelmed whereas too many distant relationships without closeness can lead to social isolation. It’s a balance and it’s hard to manage, especially for people with mental health issues who can often experience difficulties with boundaries. I’m definitely prone to this- I’ve lost a lot of friendships in the past from being ‘too intense’ or contacting people too much and I find it hard to regulate because when I feel comfortable around someone, I REALLY like them and want to contact them all the time but I’m a lot more aware of it now and am learning to manage it. Last year, my best friend of twenty years asked me not to contact her any more and that was so hard to deal with (and still is) but I’ve learned a lot from that experience. Close relationships are important but it’s even more important not to be reliant on them because you can’t control other people and you seriously never know what might happen in the future.

Family relationships are always a minefield and I don’t want to talk about them too much because I know it can be a sensitive topic for some people but they’re there from the minute a person is born, and are massively influential on a person’s development both in childhood and how it affects you as an adult. I’m lucky to have a fairly massive family- I have thirty cousins, lots of ‘extended cousins’, aunts and uncles, my nan and her ‘man friends’ (one of whom was like my granddad growing up which is why I’ve mentioned them), parents and a brother who (mostly) get on relatively well. Apart from my parents, they mostly live in Glasgow so I don’t see them that often but my family is very, very close and I love spending time with my cousins although I only see them a couple of times a year. One thing I really wish is that I’d grown up in Scotland so I could feel more like a part of a big, close family- my cousins are awesome and I love staying with them but it’s not the same as if I’d actually grown up with them.

I’m also really, really lucky to have a second ‘pseudo family’ who I am really close to and who seem to accept me completely which is probably the thing in my life I’m most grateful for- acceptance means a lot to me, and I’m aware I’m not always the easiest person to be around although I’m trying really hard to work on it. It’s weird but before I met them, I didn’t really think relationships were that important and although I had two close friends, they both lived far away from me and I only saw them once or twice a year. We messaged most days and were still emotionally very close but it was like a ‘virtual’ friendship rather than a ‘real’ one and for me, that was enough and I didn’t think I’d ever really need much more than that. I also had a few, very intense (mostly one-way) friendships where I would ‘latch on’ to a particular person and would become very, very close to them almost to the point of dependency until they inevitably got fed up with me and the intensity of the relationship and asked me not to contact them again. That really, really hurts and I’ve had that experience repeatedly since I was about 13 but I’m a lot more aware of it now and able to talk about it more openly and touch wood it hasn’t happened much over the last few years which is partly because I’m more able to recognise it, partly because of the ‘real’ relationships I’ve started to develop and partly because my current obsession is Homeland’s Carrie Mathison who is a fictional character and therefore incredibly unlikely to reject me. Although that doesn’t stop me from getting paranoid that Homeland producers are going to contact me asking me not to write or talk about Carrie any more because I’m too obsessive!

Anyway, back to the pseudo family relationship… A few years ago, I started to babysit for some kids I’d known from a school I worked in and who I’d got quite close to at school (I have a tendency to get a bit over-attached to kids I work with), and my views on relationships started to change. I’m not completely sure how but I was close to the kids already and babysitting meant that I developed a really nice, apparently two-way close relationship with them which was amazing. I also got on really well with their mum and felt weirdly safe and comfortable around her which doesn’t happen very often around people and I think it all kind of fed into itself so it got to a point where I realised that I felt more safe spending time with them than I did anywhere else and I loved spending time with them. And, weirdly, it really does seem to be a two-way relationship, which is very, very strange in a really nice but slightly unbelievable way.  It also really helps that, because of how the relationship developed, there were clear boundaries and even though it’s more of a friendship/family relationship now, I know their mum would tell me if I crossed any sort of boundary by mistake and that is so important in any relationship because it makes you feel safe and massively reduces anxiety.  I have a similar relationship with my best friend and I know I’m really, really lucky to have that.

Over the last few years, it’s really made me realise that genuine, two-way close relationships are actually incredibly important and that they can change and even save your life without you or them even realising it. I am not a particularly emotional person and I don’t usually like hugs or physical contact of any type but there have been some kids from school who have ‘attached’ themselves to me a bit and wanted hugs or to sit on my knee which I don’t really mind and I’ve found that it’s one of the things that can make me feel ‘connected’ or real even when I’ve been feeling rubbish and zoned out all week. I’m putting it partly down to oxytocin which I’m realising is an absolute lifesaver hormone but also down to the fact that I genuinely love the kids unconditionally. It’s a really weird feeling and it’s not something I’ve ever experienced before, and it scares me quite a lot as well as feeling intensely safe and amazing. It’s scary because of the intensity (‘good’ intensity that’s real and stable, not like the obsessive, volatile fixation I used to experience a lot) and because of the way I would do ANYTHING for the kids.  I seriously have no idea how parents manage it- it’s intense enough when they aren’t your own kids!

This is probably going to make me sound incredibly selfish (sorry in advance, but I do try to be honest on this blog) but usually most of my relationships are one-way and I’m aware of that, so it ends up being mainly about me contacting them, trying to spend time with them and, to an extent, idealising them so the thought of not being able to contact them at all is absolutely unbearable because I know (deep down) that if I didn’t contact them, they wouldn’t contact me and the relationship would be non-existent. But by that point, I’ve idolised them to an extent where that seem like the worst thing in the world so I need to keep contacting them and trying to keep the ‘relationship’ going even though I know now that they’re not real relationships because they’re not two-way and it’s more like a fixation or imaginary friendship than an actual social relationship.

With the family I babysat for, it’s different I think because they genuinely seem to accept and maybe even like me back, and (I don’t want to jump to conclusions, sound selfish or jinx anything here) I kind of think that if I didn’t contact them for a while, they would probably notice and maybe contact me or at least not forget I exist which isn’t something I’ve felt much in social relationships before. And because of that, there is so much less anxiety and paranoia around the relationship which makes a massive change from nearly every relationship I’ve had in the past. I really, really appreciate that so much and I really do love them in a way I’ve never really experienced before. It scares me that I can feel that intensely but it’s also amazing. And it’s made me realise that genuine relationships really can change your life- the kids are getting older now and are becoming more aware of mental health issues and I really, really don’t want the way I often feel to affect them which is the main reason I’m trying to hard to ‘recover’ or at least manage my thoughts and behaviours to a point where they don’t interfere with my life as much as they have done over the last fifteen years. It’s HARD but I really, really don’t want to affect the kids and I’d rather cut them off completely than risk affecting them negatively although I know that that would also hurt them so it’s a bit of a no-win situation! So I really, really need to learn to manage how I’m feeling…

The relationship with kids has also indirectly saved my life, which is another thing that scares me but not necessarily in a bad way. Since losing a very close friendship last year, I have been experiencing waves of suicidal thoughts that come and go but can sometimes be insistent and intense over several weeks and lead to repeated, vivid dreams of attempting suicide which make me feel weird, selfish and kind of jealous of my dream self and that makes me feel even more selfish and like a really horrible person. But the reason I’d never attempt suicide in real life is because of the impact it would have on the kids and that’s a really scary thing to realise. A few years ago, I didn’t even consider the effect that having a chronic eating disorder was having on my body and there was a part of me that actually wouldn’t have minded if it was severely detrimental because there were times when I would be trying to sleep feeling my heart stop-starting and ‘jumping’ in my chest from electrolyte imbalance or extreme cold and not waking up actually seemed like a better alternative to continuing to feel horrible, guilty, selfish and obsessive but now, the thought of the impact that something like that could have on the kids makes me feel incredibly selfish and guilty but in a ‘productive’ way and I really, really don’t want to hurt the kids. So I really do want to learn to manage my ED and I’m still finding ways to do that…

My relationship with the kids’ mum has also been a massively positive influence on my life and I’m really grateful for that. She lets me spend time at their house, accepts me even though she knows more about me than anyone else apart from my best friend (who I met as an inpatient and have been in psychotherapy groups with so she knows more about me than anyone else probably ever will!), and is genuinely supportive and accepting. She’s an amazing person who I really look up to and she’s a really positive role model in a lot of ways, and I really appreciate the way she’s accepted and put up with me since I first started to babysit for her. And again it’s helped me to realise how important positive relationships are in your life- I feel safer around her and the kids than I do anywhere else and I think it’s mostly because of the acceptance, positive boundaries and honesty in the relationship. Positive and trusting relationships are incredibly important for anyone, and for people experiencing mental health issues of any kind they can be life changing.

Friendships are more complicated and I’m still learning how to make, keep and manage friendship-type relationships.  Since I’ve talked about this so much in previous posts (and probably will again), I won’t go into too much detail again here but I’m really lucky to have at least one close friendship (outside of family/pseudo-family) who is amazing, accepting and so understanding of any sorts of anxiety, paranoia or intense moods which makes such a massive difference because it means I feel ‘safe’ around her and can be totally honest, and I know she would be too.  We met as inpatients so we got to know each other probably too well very quickly, but that’s one of the best and safest bases for a relationship I know.  She is awesome and I am so, so lucky to have her in my life even if I don’t see her that much because we live quite far away from each other.  As well as the Friendships and mindfulness post, I wrote a list of things I’d learned about friendships in another post and I’ll replicate it here because I think it sums up everything I’ve learned about friendships so far and am still learning…

  1. Take every friendship at face value. Don’t overthink it, make assumptions, have unrealistic or idealistic expectations, or make any judgements at all. Try to take the friendship as it comes and use mindfulness or grounding techniques to manage anxiety.
  2. Friendships are fluid and changing. There is no such thing as a ‘best friend’ or ‘forever friendship’, however amazing that would be. Enjoy the relationship when you can but don’t have any expectations that it will last forever. Practise ‘beginner’s mind’ (seeing every experience as the first time you’ve experienced it, without any preconceptions or judgements) and don’t overthink it.
  3. People change and that’s part of life. If a friendship ends, it might not have anything to do with you whatsoever- the other person might have changed or moved on and THAT’S OK. Growth is part of life and people move on at different rates. That doesn’t make it any painful, but taking away the guilt or self-criticism will help you move on from it a lot more easily.
  4. Be open with people. Honesty and openness in relationships is the most important part of a healthy relationship and will reduce anxiety more than almost anything else. Anxiety and particularly paranoia come from uncertainty and thrive in self-doubt or assumptions. If you’ve got a gut reaction to something- check it out. Don’t let it spiral into full-on paranoia or depression because then everything’s skewed through a fog of thoughts and judgements and you’re likely to damage the relationship without realising it. Sounds cliched but if the other person’s worth being friends with, they’ll be honest with you.
  5. TRUST. This is one of the hardest ones for me and there’s different ways it’s relevant to friendships but the some of the key points are to trust that the friendship will still exist even if you’re not constantly contacting the other person, trust that the other person will be honest with you, and trust that the other person really does want to stay friends with you. I find all of these really hard, especially the last one, but they’re so important and I think they get easier the more you do them… It really relates back to the mindfulness idea and I’m trying really, really hard to use that in my current friendships.

The last type of relationship I’m going to discuss is ‘functional’ relationships. By that, I mean relationships that are positive in that they have a beneficial or constructive effect on your life but you don’t necessarily need to ‘like’ the person. Sometimes friendships or family relationships can cross over into this category too but not necessarily. A typical example of this is teachers- when I was at school, I had a teacher who I really didn’t like but who was very strict and boundaried and I felt ‘safe’ in her lessons because I knew what was expected and what I was meant to do. I ended up learning a lot from that relationship about respect and fairness, and it was a constructive relationship in that sense because it had a positive effect on how I felt and behaved and it’s something I’d love to be able to model when I’m working with young people now. Another, more recent example is a psychologist I used to see in an eating disorder service. I didn’t feel massively comfortable with her and I wasn’t a big fan of her approach but I did learn a lot from the sessions even if it didn’t feel like it at the time and again it had a positive, longer term effect on how I felt. Friendships can also be functional such as people you like hanging out with but wouldn’t necessarily want to have in depth discussions with, or conversely people you trust and would go to for advice but wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to spend a lot of time with. Relationships aren’t binary and can merge into different categories but the main differences are whether they’re positive or negative, and how close they are.

Another type of relationship that isn’t mentioned as much as it should be is human-animal bonding which can be just as useful and important as human-human social relationships.  I have had cats since I was in primary school and, growing up especially, this has been a really, really positive impact on my life.  Until recently, pets were the only ‘beings’ I’d ever said “I love you” to, and I get the same oxytocin release from cuddling my cat as I do with kids I babysit or work with.  Oxytocin is a really, really powerful hormone and massively underestimated- it can more powerful than any mood stabiliser, promotes the strongest feeling of acceptance and safety I know, reduces anxiety and depression, and is the best cure for loneliness I’ve ever come across.  This is why pets can be vitally important for people at risk of social isolation and for anyone with or without mental health issues.  I love my cat so much and can’t imagine not having one- to the point where, after my previous cat died and my parents didn’t want to get another one, I waited until they’d gone away for a week before going to cat rescue and adopting one who is now my ‘cat-baby’ and I really, really love her.  It’s amazing how much cuddling her and feeling her purr can affect my mood, and it’s the same tingly-chest feeling I get from hugging the kids.

Writing this post really reminds me of a verse from David Bowie’s song ‘Five Years‘ which is written about alienation of society and the whole song is based around the idea that the world will end in five years.  He sings “And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people, And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people, I never thought I’d need so many people.”  This line really gets to me because I can completely relate to how that feels, and ten years ago I’d never have thought I’d have the sort of social relationships I have now, or how much I would appreciate and ‘need’ them.  The Ziggy Stardust album is written about an alien rock star and Bowie inhabited Ziggy as a character while writing and performing in the early 1970s, and that means that the lyrics and concepts are intense and real, and a lot of the songs are written about alienation, fragmentisation and the way in which people are dissociated from each other.  Bowie’s albums nearly always deal with this idea, and a lot of his exploration seems to be about characters feeling alienated in some way and how destructive or dangerous this can be.

For people with mental health issues, relationships are particularly important because they can reduce the risk of social isolation or exclusion, which can exacerbate existing issues such as depression or paranoia. It’s a lot more complicated in practice because many mental illnesses can lead to a person self-isolating because of lack of motivation or energy to go and meet people, anxiety about being around people, paranoid thoughts or any combination of factors and also because there is still a lot of stigma about mental health issues and some people are judgmental or just scared of it which again leads to people experiencing mental health issues to become isolated or lonely. But positive relationships can be as beneficial for people with mental health issues as medication or therapy if not more beneficial and it’s so important to raise awareness and understanding of mental health as a spectrum, how to accept and support someone experiencing mental health issues, and the importance of developing and maintaining positive relationships.

Hope24: a 24 hour run in Newnham Park, Devon

Last weekend, I took part in an amazing ultrarunning event called Hope24 which was an event to raise money for a charity called Hope for Children, organised by an awesome man called Danny Slay.  WOW.  It was seriously the best organised and friendliest running event I’ve ever taken part in- the marshals were AMAZING, the route was clearly marked and easy to follow, the scenery was incredible, the tent area was accessible, everyone was super-friendly…  Such an awesome event!!  It was the most technically difficult event I’ve run so far- five miles laps with lots of steep hills (up and downhill, including one HORRIBLE incline that felt more like climbing than walk/running between miles 2 and 3!), uneven ground and the obvious darkness at night but it was so, so worth it for the scenery.  Bluebells, woodland, tall trees, morning mist, sunset and sunrise, stream, sheep and lambs, horses…it was like running in a magical fairyland!  AMAZING.

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Before the race started, I was really, really nervous and seriously thinking about pulling out.  I’ve not been feeling great recently after a friendship break up (which I’ve talked about a lot in other posts so won’t go into detail now) and not had a lot of motivation to run, so my ‘training’ had been sort of non-existent and I hadn’t run much more than a few miles in months and even that’s been a struggle so I knew that physically I wasn’t anywhere near as prepared as I should be.  But I’ve already pulled out of the London marathon this year (anxiety about crowds and being in London as well as ‘can’t-be-botheredness’) and I usually love ultras, and a friend mentioned a few weeks ago that running another one might help to get back into running again so I decided to go through with it based on the reasoning that it’s an ultra, not a marathon, and there’s no pressure to run any distance at all so you can stop after one lap if you want to.  So, having travelled to Devon and bought a RIDICULOUS amount of food (which brought back horrible memories of teenage binges and I nearly had a panic attack at the supermarket checkout), I didn’t really have much choice except to run…

I got there Saturday morning and set up my tent close to the start line so I wouldn’t lose it in the middle of the night (I was on my own with no support crew, so the likelihood of getting completely confused mid-ultra was pretty high) and walked around the campsite until the race briefing.  Right before an ultra is always the most horrible bit- the nerves kick in, you feel sick, there are SO MANY PEOPLE (although minimal compared to a road race), everyone seems to much fitter and more prepared than you…  The bitch in my head started up, reminding me that I’m lazy for not preparing, I’m way too fat to take part in any athletic events, people must think I’m delusional for even entering, I’m not good enough to be there and a million other things to make me feel even more nervous than I already did so I tried to ‘ground’ myself in the moment, counting the amount of people around, listening to voices, race announcements, cars and dogs, really focussing on smelling and tasting the coffee I was drinking for energy, squeezing marathon foot and my angel stones.  It helped a bit and the pre-race nerves started to overtake feeling guilty and paranoid, and I put on a Harry Potter audiobook to distract which really helped.  Then it was the (thankfully short) race briefing and, at midday, the race finally started.

The first couple of laps went surprisingly well- I felt OK physically, had my ‘mood stabiliser’ Spotify playlist on my ipod which has everything from Alanis Morissette and Disney to Pink Floyd and Green Day, the weather was nice and not too hot, and people spread out pretty quickly so there weren’t too many people running any given part of the course.  The course itself was awesome- there was a bit of a long hill at the start but the views from the top of the field were incredible and a beautiful run through woodland with bluebells (bluebells remind me of my Granda Sam who loved them, and I always try to channel his enthusiasm- he was one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever met, loved dancing and kids and was just generally awesome, which definitely helped).  Then there was a steep downhill through more trees towards a stream then up a mega steep hill, down briefly through more trees and up towards the field again, awesome path running through the field with sheep and horses then back down towards the campsite, out into the woods again with another, less steep uphill and along a flattish path through trees to a field leading back to the campsite again.  Wow!!  Some seriously incredible scenery and I found that I actually really enjoyed the first few laps which was pretty amazing because I haven’t enjoyed a run in nearly six months.  So I’m definitely going to keep hold of that…

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Laps four and five were pretty uneventful- I met some awesome people including a lovely man I ran/walked with for a while without actually finding out his name who gave me some really good advice about managing anxiety around crowds and several people whose life stories and jobs seem way more interesting than mine!  Then, after running nearly six hours, I took a short ‘break’ to have a coffee and some peanut butter (I’d been a bit rubbish at fuelling up to then and had basically survived on Haribo) before setting off again.  It was definitely getting harder by that point- my legs had started to seize up a bit and my right knee (which I’ve injured in the past) was starting to twinge so I slowed down and started to walk a lot more of the laps than I had done up to then.  I switched back to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and tried to relax into it but it was so hard to get motivated and every part of my body wanted to stop.  I’d told myself I wasn’t going to have a proper ‘break’ until 10 laps (50 miles) in, but at about 10pm I was ready to quit and getting serious urges to fall off the high paths which scared me a bit so I decided to have a break, get some porridge and try to figure out what to do.

It was dark by this point which really didn’t help and it was getting cold so I put on some extra layers and ate the porridge which helped a bit.  I was a bit scared about running in the dark but there were people crossing the start line at regular intervals so I kept reminding myself that there would be people all around the route.  I really, really wanted to just quit and go to sleep and the bitch in my head was yelling at me that I was simultaneously too rubbish to complete the run and that I was lazy for wanting to quit so my head was like a whirling mess of confusion, so I put Harry Potter back on and forced myself to go back out.  The next couple of laps were- I hate running in the dark anyway and was scared of falling so I kept slowing to a walk but just after midnight, the ultrarunning paranoia and hallucinations kicked in (which is pretty usual for me mid-ultra) and I was convinced I could see Death Eaters hiding behind trees and that someone was going to kill me.  I got really freaked out and ran more than I probably should have but every time someone came up behind me with a head torch which added extra shadows, it was so scary and a lot of the time I was sure I could see someone next to me although logically I knew it was just my shadow from the headtorch.  Not nice!  And looking back, I don’t think listening to the end of OotP was a good idea running through woods in the middle of the night which is creepy enough anyway so I put on some Disney instead and tried to channel that.

But then my ipod cut out so I had a couple of laps in complete silence which really wasn’t ideal.  I did some stargazing which was pretty awesome- I couldn’t find Orion which panicked me more than it should have (especially since, thinking about it rationally, it’s nearly summer and Orion is a winter constellation so it’s much more likely it’s not visible in May rather than I’ve really annoyed God somehow and that’s why I can’t see Orion which is definitely mid-ultra paranoia!), but I saw the Plough, Cassiopeia and the Pole Star which did help to ground me a bit.  I love looking at the stars because wherever you are, the stars are always constant and that feels safe.  Orion’s my favourite because he was the first constellation I ever learned to recognise and I used to talk to him when I was little, and I still feel safe whenever I can see him in the sky.  Running through an open field under a clear sky of stars with minimal light pollution is pretty incredible and I turned off my headtorch so I feel like I was running through space.

Once I’d got back into the trees, I started to feel bit creeped out again and without music or audiobooks to distract, I decided to try Occlumency again (sensory grounding really didn’t seem like the best idea given that it was the environment I was in that was freaking me out).  I’d been running close to 14 hours by this point and my brain was a bit fuzzy which weirdly helped with trying to detach from emotion and stop the bitch in my head from being able to access my thoughts and feelings.  It felt very surreal but genuinely did help, and I think that the concept of Legilimency/Occlumency (the idea of someone trying to penetrate and alter your thoughts and emotions) is really, really powerful and can be relevant to so many mental health issues.  I started to think of the bitch in my head as Voldemort trying to alter Harry’s thoughts and emotions, and that was really helpful because in the Potterverse, there’s an actual technique you can use to manage that AND IT SORT OF HELPS!  That was one of the main things I realised during the run and, for me, it’s so important.  Definitely going to keep up practising Occlumency and I’m going to explore the link between that and the bitch in my head a lot more because I found it really, really helpful.

I finally got back to the campsite around 3am and decided to take another break.  I was FREEZING by that point- the temperature had dropped massively thanks to the clear skies and there was condensation inside my tent, so I wrapped up in my sleeping bag and fleecy blanket and tried to stop shivering.  It didn’t work so I put on three more long-sleeved tops and two pairs of gloves (four of my fingers were white and so were my feet), and curled up as small as I could to try to get some body heat.  It was SO COLD; my whole body was shaking and my teeth were chattering audibly.  My chest hurt and I could feel my heart painfully with every beat, and it felt like my bones were made of ice.  I genuinely thought I was going to die of hypothermia (more mid-ultra overreaction!) and it was so, so hard to motivate myself to actually going back out there.  Even though I was freezing in the tent, it was even colder outside and I was scared I’d collapse or die but I forced myself (literally- it was like forcing every muscle to move individually) to get moving and back out on the course.  I wore five tops, a puffa jacket and both pairs of gloves, and told myself I could walk the next lap because I felt too cold to move.  So, so hard to get going again but probably the best idea- staying in the tent would have been dangerous cold-wise, and moving did help to get my circulation moving at least a little bit.

Thankfully around 5am, it was getting light enough not to need a headtorch and that really, really helped.  There’s something about running through the night and the sun coming up which makes you feel surreal and connected with the world around you in a way I’ve never experienced any other time, and suddenly you realise that you’ve done the hardest part of the run and all that’s left is to just finish.  My ipod and phone were both dead by this point which was frustrating because I wanted to take photos of the sunrise, and the AMAZING marshall at the first hill (the awesome guy with the pink/purple beard called Kevin) was chatting to me when I passed and offered to charge my phone for me so I could take photos- SO NICE of him!  He was seriously awesome throughout the whole event and deserves a million thank yous for how enthusiastic, nice and just generally amazing he was.  I walked most of that lap, partly because I was still freezing and shivering and partly because I was totally bloody knackered by then, and I met an amazing woman called Vicky who I walked a lot of that lap with.  She was so nice and friendly, and was the lead woman at that point which was pretty amazing!  Was so nice to meet and chat to her, and really helped my motivation to not just quit after 50ish miles.

After that lap, I started running a bit again and picked up my now-charged phone from Kevin, and took lots of photos of the sunrise which was pretty incredible.  The light was amazing, it was starting to warm up and I was feeling a lot more real and alive than I had done over the previous 6-8 hours, and I started to realise that I might actually make it to midday without collapsing or quitting which felt almost achievable.  I put Harry Potter back on and thankfully the battle at the Ministry was almost over and I had the really emotional scene between Harry and Dumbledore at the end to listen to for the next couple of laps.  It’s a pretty emotional bit anyway but I was crying by the end of the book, partly because of Harry’s guilt and loss, partly from Dumbledore’s amazing strength given his own family history which he didn’t tell Harry and his real affection for Harry himself, and partly because the lambs had woken up and were leaping around in the sunlight, and the horrible realisation of why I’m vegetarian suddenly hit me in an intense wave of guilt.  Ultrarunning over-emotion!

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At about 9am, I took a quick break to have some more coffee and porridge before starting up again.  I was getting really tired and sore by this point, and the hill from hell really felt like it was killing my legs every time I attempted it so I took it really slowly and tried to enjoy the course.  I was chatting to a few more amazing people over the next couple of hours, some of whom had managed a mind-blowing amount of miles, and there was another amazing marshall near the bottom of the bluebell trail who put on rock music and was awesome and encouraging.  All the marshals and organisers were so nice!!  Made such a massive difference to the run.

The last couple of laps were HARD.  The sun had come up properly and it was getting hot which made it really hard to run, especially when all your muscles are so sore already.  I realised that I’d already covered 70 miles which was way more than I thought I would so slowed right down, took lots of photos and tried to enjoy the last lap.  It was painful, especially the horrible hill from hell, but worth it to finish on 78 miles which is weirdly only two miles less than the 24 hour run I took part in last year and which was much, much easier terrain.  Crossing the finish line at just gone 12.30pm was pretty amazing and everyone was so enthusiastic and encouraging even though most people had been awake and/or running for over a full day and night by then.  WOW.  Seriously amazing atmosphere!!

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I was pretty zoned out afterwards and didn’t really process it properly until later, but WOW.  It was an incredible event and thank you so much to everyone who organised and helped with it- you are all amazing people!!!  I found out afterwards that I’d somehow come 6th out of 76 female solo runners and I seriously have no idea how that happened but felt amazing, especially considering how hard I found the run and how unprepared I was.  But I learned so, so much over the course of the 24 hours which I’ve been trying to distil into some sort of coherent thoughts…

  1. The human body is amazing.  Seriously, it’s incredible what your body is capable of.  I don’t have the healthiest diet or lifestyle in any way whatsoever and I definitely haven’t looked after my body as much as I should have in the past, but it’s still capable of running 78 miles of hills without *touch wood* any major consequences.  Yes, I’m sore and tired and my ankle’s bruised and swollen, but that’s sort of expected after an ultra.  It’s AMAZING how resilient and strong your body actually is.
  2. Following on from #1, in some ways I’m glad my body isn’t smaller any more.  I don’t really know how to phrase this and what I just wrote isn’t technically true (I would LOVE to be a much smaller size but I know it’s not healthy or practical), but what I’m trying to say is that there are aspects of being a higher weight that mean that I can do things that wouldn’t be possible at a lower weight and ultrarunning is definitely one of them.  When I was underweight, I couldn’t run more than a few minutes at a time without going really dizzy or passing out and now I can run 24 hours.  That’s a really big achievement for me and definitely something I want to keep reminding myself of.
  3. People are incredible.  Having met some seriously amazing people during Hope24, runners, marshals and supporters, I know that there are so many incredible, encouraging and NICE people in the world and you just need to talk to people to find them.  And you can learn so much from people just by listening to them.
  4. The bitch in my head is bloody stubborn but sometimes she can be useful.  This was the first ultra she hasn’t shut up during and that was really hard at first, especially when she was yelling totally contradictory things about being too rubbish to carry on but that I’d be selfish or lazy to give up.  In the end, I learned to filter what she was saying without even realising it and used her skewed encouragement to keep going without getting affected by what she was actually saying.  That was HARD and it only really happened because I was practising Occlumency and thinking of her as Voldemort but it was probably the main reason I didn’t quit during the night.  And again that’s a skill I’m going to try to keep practising and hopefully it’ll work again even if it’s not mid-ultra…
  5. God is all around even if it doesn’t feel like it.  One of the things I love most about ultrarunning is the feeling of connecting with God, in the sunlight and stars, through  the trees and wildlife, and in the stillness of woodland air.  It didn’t happen as much as it usually does this time but there were a few moments when I could genuinely feel that I was breathing God in and that I was connected with Them through photosynthesis and respiration.  I have a slightly spiritual concept of God in that I believe that They are in everything as energy (energy can’t be created or destroyed, energy pre-existed the Big Bang, energy is a life force) and whether that’s actually divine or just a created concept, I can FEEL it and that’s what matters.  To quote Dumbledore (who is also an aspect of God to me), “Of course this is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” and that’s how I see my concept of God- whether it’s objectively real or not, it’s real to me and I can feel it and connect to it which helps me to feel safe, and that’s what’s important for me.
  6. Food is essential and when you’ve been running long enough, you NEED it whatever the bitch in your head says.  It’s amazing how good even food you’d never usually eat tastes 14 hours into a run- I was eating Haribo and peanut butter (together) at 2am which felt like the most amazing thing I’d ever tasted and the tuna salad I had after I finished was like magic angel food.  There were several times during the run where I felt dizzy, dissociated and nauseous and food was the last thing I wanted but after forcing myself to eat a banana or a cereal bar, it was like someone had fed me a reviving potion and suddenly I felt real again.  It’s like magic.
  7. You are capable of so much more than you think.  I didn’t think I’d even manage two laps let alone fifteen, and there is no way I thought I would have run 78 miles.  It still doesn’t seem possible.  But if you break it down and think of one lap at a time, focus on the present moment and don’t think about possible challenges or difficulties- just deal with whatever’s happening at the time, you’ll achieve so much without even realising it.
  8. Ultrarunning is a mental sport.  I don’t mean that in the (annoying) way a lot of people have said to me over the last couple of days (“are you mental?”, “you’re crazy”, “that’s insane” etc) which really, really gets to me because I don’t like the ‘normal v insane’ definitions because everyone’s different and mental health is a spectrum of illness and wellness anyway; I mean mental as in it’s more to do with your thinking and attitude than your physical strength.  Obviously you need to be relatively fit and healthy to run long distances but post-marathon, it’s more about attitude than fitness.  Your physical training stops around 30ish miles for most people and more than that’s about endurance and mental attitude.  If you can run 30 miles, you can run 100.  ANYTHING is possible.  I hadn’t run more than six miles at a time in about six months but I still managed to complete 24 hours relatively comfortably.
  9. Use challenges to your advantage.  I mean both physical and mental by this- use hills as a chance to walk for a bit and let your legs recover, and use negative thoughts or derogatory voices as motivation.  The second part is definitely easier mid-ultra when your brain’s fuzzy anyway and nothing really makes sense, but it’s a really useful skill I’m going to try to get my head around.  It fits with my attempts to make friends with the bitch in my head and it’s definitely something I need to keep working on…
  10. Connect with nature/higher power.  Yes, this is a DBT skill (which amazingly I’ve managed to avoid mentioning so far in this post!) and it’s a really, really useful one.  The idea behind it in DBT is that by connecting with something greater than yourself, it can promote a feeling of safety or calm and it’s a bit of a controversial skill because a lot of people don’t like the idea of God/religion.  It doesn’t have to be a deity though and for me, one of the most effective forms is looking at the stars.  I find it really hard to put into words but it really did help during the nighttime part of the ultra when I turned my headtorch off any really connected with the stars.  A few years ago, I wrote it as part of a story and I’ll finish with because I think I’ve probably bored anyone who’s read the whole post with enough…

I love the stars.  There’s something amazing about looking at an endless expanse of everything and nothing, something impossible to fully comprehend.  It alters your perspective somehow, fear mixed with awe in equal amounts and suddenly everything fits.  It’s the rush of infinity, the realization of your insignificance and contingence in the shifting universe around you.  A sense of vertigo in nature as the sky stretches endlessly into the vacuum of space and the vast ocean depths echo below.  It’s strange how sometimes the more alone you are, the less lonely you feel.  Floating in the ocean with the stars for company, there’s a sense of cosmic belonging, a sort of oneness.

Learning emotion regulation via Carrie Mathison

Quick disclaimer: I am a massive Homeland fan.  I love the show and have a website and blog dedicated to it (Carrie Mathison’s Diary), and I’m particularly fascinated by Carrie Mathison as a character.  For people who have never watched Homeland, she’s a CIA intelligence officer with bipolar affective disorder and this is an integral part of her character and how she reacts to situations both at work and in her personal life.

There are lots of different aspects of Carrie’s character which are useful and interesting to look at in the context on managing mental health issues such as her obsessive tendencies, difficulties with empathy, extreme mood swings, medication management and so many others which I might write about in later posts, but the most beneficial one for me is her emotion regulation skills, or lack of.  Carrie’s character has changed a lot from season one to season five (the most recent season) and she’s learned a lot of new and helpful coping strategies to manage her illness as well as becoming more aware of her own thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and it’s useful to look at this in the wider context of managing emotions in everyday life.

Throughout season one, Carrie is aware of her bipolar disorder but attempts to manage it through medication obtained from her psychiatrist sister and without disclosing it to the CIA because she would lose her security clearance.  Her emotions are intense and unstable which is clear from the first episode where we see her on a night out, coming home to change, wash and take her medication before arriving late at work for a briefing meeting.  She’s volatile and intense and seems to live in a state of almost constant hypomania, fixating on her ‘work’ as she sees it and obsessing about the possibility of Nicholas Brody working for Abu Nazir, who has been the subject of her intense fixation for several years.  She appears to be constantly on edge and hyped, working fast and intensely and impatient with other who do not see things her way.  This culminates in a full-blown manic episode near the end of season one where she ends up in hospital after an explosion without her medication which triggers her mania.

Carrie is unable to manage her mood and emotions effectively throughout the first few seasons of Homeland and this leads her to losing her job at the CIA, attempting suicide after being rejected by them once again and finally being reinstated after her obsessive theories are proved to be true.  It’s hard to watch as you see her trying desperately to contain her emotions, listening to jazz music and breathing deeply, taking her clandestine medication (clozapine) but it’s so hard for her to manage on her own and she ends up in hospital again which was partly a result of CIA intervention to use her as ‘bait’ but also taking advantage of her mood and emotional difficulties.  The benefit to this is that she finally starts to take regular, prescribed medication (lithium, a mood stabiliser) and this does seem to help her to manage her extreme moods more effectively.  There is a brief period when Carrie stops taking her medication to manage it herself through meditation and exercise but this does not work fully and she returns to taking the medication.

From the first few seasons, we learn with Carrie the importance of understanding your own experience and symptoms, and ways to manage them to minimise their interference with your daily life or work.  Carrie realises gradually that by taking her medication every day, sticking to as much of a sleep and healthy eating routine as she can, having a ‘higher power’ (meditation or God), and taking time to destress through listening to music or running, she can learn to stabilise her moods as much as possible and so that they don’t interfere with either her personal life or her work at the CIA.  There’s a conflict with her in that she believes that the medication ‘dulls’ her judgement and prevents her from working as effectively as she could do but she also realises that on balance, it is more beneficial for her work and for her mental health long term. Bipolar affective disorder is a lifelong condition that needs careful management, and Carrie recognises this.

Season four is an interesting season in relation to Carrie because although she’s taking her medication regularly, she’s based in a volatile environment in Pakistan as station chief which triggers the return of some of her difficulties with mood regulation.  There’s a brief time when she uses sexual inhibition as a way to persuade an asset (a young man called Aayan) to cooperate with her operation which shows again how she can have difficulties with empathy, boundaries and not fixating on the ‘mission’, and later that season her medication is tampered with resulting in full-blown mania and psychosis.  It’s a very intense and volatile time, and this has an impact on Carrie’s mental health as she swings from hypomanic fixation on her role in the mission, intense emotions as she becomes over-attached to Aayan and he is subsequently killed, her ethical conflict about completing her mission to kill Haqqani which would also kill Saul, and her emotional outbursts of anger, frustration and loss.  By the end of the season, she’s back in USA and trying to readjust to a more stable life and by the time season five begins, she’s managed to find a routine that works for her and keeps her moods stable.

In season five, we see a massive change in Carrie’s emotional state.  She’s living in Berlin, bringing up her daughter (a result of her intense relationship with Nicholas Brody in the first three seasons) and in a seemingly long-term relationship with a man called Jonas.  She’s taking her medication regularly, attending church, taking Frannie to nursery and working for a security company called the During Foundation.  She appears to have good insight into her illness and how to manage it, and her moods are more stable than we’ve ever seen them.  But, in typical Carrie style, this doesn’t last and soon she’s off her medication which results in intense mania and psychosis with extreme paranoia and hallucinations.  She learns from this quickly though and is taking her medication by the next episode although by then, she’s already involved in a complicated series of events which I’m not going to go into detail about here- see my Homeland blog if you’re interested!  Season five is hard to watch because Carrie is so painfully aware of her illness and how it can affect her, and although that’s vital in keeping her emotions under control, it’s also hard seeing her trying to have a ‘normal’ life and relationship which she’s never managed before.  There are some really positive changes- her reversion to Catholicism and repeated praying, taking her medication regularly, trying to be a good mother, doing deep breathing when she gets worked up or praying, trying not to act on impulses.  All of this is significant because it shows how her awareness of and commitment to managing her moods really does help with emotion regulation and she is a much more stable and resilient person than we’ve seen in previous seasons.

Carrie’s attempts to manage her moods mirror a lot of skills used in DBT.  One of the key emotion regulation skills in DBT is called PLEASE, which stands for treat Physical iLlness, Eat healthily, Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs, keep a regular Sleep pattern and Exercise.  In the first few seasons, we see Carrie frequently neglecting to sleep or eat properly, drinking large quantities of alcohol, self-medicating and only focussing on work but by season five, she’s sober, taking her prescribed medication every day, sleeping and eating apparently regularly (as much as her work permits), taking time to take care of herself and running as exercise.  And those skills are useful for anyone, regardless of mood disorder or not.  Carrie also appears to have a lot more awareness of her own emotions and acceptance of them which helps her to recognise and manage them more effectively instead of acting impulsively.

Another DBT skill is ‘connecting to your higher power’ as a way to ‘improve the moment’ and manage intense emotions.  Carrie has reverted to Catholicism in season five and this appears to be a major part of her life- we see her in church taking communion and praying when she’s feeling overwhelmed or desperate whereas a few seasons previously, she’d have been downing pills with a bottle of wine or making herself sexually available to men.  Carrie’s style of prayer fits with the DBT idea of radical acceptance- accepting the moment as it is without judgement and accepting distress or emotions without acting on it.  This is such a massive shift for Carrie and shows how far she’s come since season one, and the same skills are relevant for anyone to try.  Higher power doesn’t need to be God- it can be nature, spiritual, feeling connected…anything that takes you out of yourself.  For me, it’s long distance running or looking up at the stars- you’re insignificant in the best way and nothing really matters.

The other part of Carrie’s character development that really got to me was her relationship with Saul Berenson.  From the beginning, Saul was her mentor and friend which was consistent throughout the series- for Carrie, possibly the only consistent thing and it’s always Saul who Carrie would go to for help, advice or reassurance.  Saul was also self-focussed though and in season three, he began to take advantage of Carrie’s vulnerability by using her bipolar disorder as a way to gain a valuable asset.  But in season four, we see again how Carrie’s more than his protégée- as Haqqani said last season, she’s “his daughter, practically” and they’ve both been there for each other in so many crisis situations. Even though Saul has used Carrie (or allowed her to be used) in so many horrible ways- sending authority figures after her in season one, going to Beirut in season two, being admitted to a psychiatric ward in season three- he’s also supported and guided her throughout her career and it’s always been Saul she’s gone to in crisis.

In season four, it was Carrie who talked Saul through being targeted and recaptured, and Carrie who talked him down at the prisoner exchange. Carrie said several times, even after their relationship broke down, that she trusts Saul more than she’s ever trusted anyone. We still don’t know exactly why they aren’t really talking but it doesn’t really matter- the connection is still, and always will be, there. There are so many examples in Homeland of how close and mutually reliant there are- Carrie asking for Saul’s advice in season one, Saul telling Carrie she’s “the strongest person I know” in season three, Carrie urging Saul to trust her in season four, Saul visiting Carrie in hospital in season one, Saul watching over Carrie when she was depressed and unwell, Saul’s hurt when he found out that Carrie had concealed her bipolar from him… We don’t find out in Homeland what could have happened to make them split so intensely but I think from a self-protection perspective, Carrie couldn’t allow herself to become so emotionally vulnerable again which is why, when Saul tried to make up with her, she wouldn’t let him, telling him, “I’m not that person any more.”

When I first saw this, it genuinely made me cry but I really do accept why Carrie made that decision- she needs to protect herself and she’s come so far since season one.  I wrote a post yesterday about friendships (Friendships and mindfulness) and this really links to the same idea.  Sometimes it’s really hard but you need to move on and accept that sometimes even very close, long term relationships end.  People change and you can’t do anything about that.  It’s horrible, genuinely feels like you’re being punched repeatedly in the stomach and your chest is being ripped open but staying attached to the person that someone used to be isn’t helpful for either person.  Carrie made what is for her the right decision, and Saul needed to accept that. It’s not going to be easy for either of them and there is an intense part of me that really, really wanted them to make it up but I know that wouldn’t have been possible and that one of them would have had to change and compromise themselves which wouldn’t be the basis for a healthy relationship. Saul helped Carrie to grow and develop as a person and she provided him with emotional support and trust when he needed it, but they both changed and it was time for them to move on.

I think this is maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned from Carrie Mathison- that people change and move on and that’s OK, it isn’t your fault, people need different people at different stages in their lives and that’s normal because people change at different rates.  It’s OK to be upset or to miss the friendship but it’s also important to accept the change and move on from it.  Carrie was given the opportunity to reinstate the friendship but she chose not to, not because she doesn’t still love or value Saul but because she needs to protect herself from that amount of hurt again, and both she and Saul have changed and moved on.  Their relationship would never have been the same and it wouldn’t be healthy for either of them to try to recreate that.  Being mindful of your emotions and learning to regulate them is so important, and I think Carrie can teach some really valuable lessons about techniques and practical applications of emotion regulation skills.

Friendships and mindfulness

I really, really wish I could believe this!  This quote came up on my Facebook feed recently and it got me thinking again about how DBT skills (particularly mindfulness) can relate to and be helpful for managing friendships and social relationships.  I find friendships particularly difficult, both the practical aspects like actually meeting people and making friends as well as the confusingness of boundaries, knowing what is a friendship and what isn’t, managing paranoia or intense feelings of guilt about social interactions, and keeping a friendship in a healthy way.  Some of the interpersonal skills from DBT have been really, really useful for this (particularly DEARMAN which I’m going to talk about in more detail in another post) but also, surprisingly, some of the mindfulness skills.  To be completely honest, mindfulness is the aspect of DBT which I find hardest and often miss out, partly because it’s more abstract and not as ‘practical’ or logical as the other components (distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal skills) and partly because it’s genuinely HARD and takes a lot of practice to actually have any effect at all.  But recently I started to fill in a DBT diary every day which has a checklist of skills from every component of DBT so I’ve been reading more about the mindfulness skills, and one in particular really got to me and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  I would never have thought to look at friendships in this way but it really makes sense- here’s the extract from the book (‘The Dialectical Behavior Diary’, Matthew McKay and Jeffrey C. Wood):

I can really, really relate to this!  Even though I’ve done a lot of work on black-and-white thinking over the last fifteen years, in therapy and trying to apply it to life situations, I still find it really difficult not to think of everything in extremes.  This is especially true in friendships and I know I tend to either over-idolise people and think they’re amazing in every possible way or think that they hate me, aren’t talking to me or don’t trust me, and there’s very rarely anything in the middle.  I’m not as bad with it as when I was a teenager (when nearly everyone I knew fell into one of the two categories and I was in a state of constant paranoia about upsetting people) but it’s still something I find hard to balance.

There are so many useful points in this extract and I’m going to look at them one at a time.  The first one is the main point of the section- the idea of beginner’s mind.  Beginner’s mind is where you try to look at a situation or interaction as though you’ve never experienced it before and that counts both for the actual situation and for the people involved.  So there are no judgements, preconceptions or anxieties about it at all- it just IS.  This is really hard to get your head around (at least for me!) but it basically means that you don’t have any expectations at all about how the situation might go (I did another post on this recently- see Celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare with DBT skills…) and in theory this should reduce any anxiety around it, stop you from acting according to emotions or judgements, and minimise negative interactions that could come from anxiety or paranoia.  I really like this concept but it’s so hard to do in practice!

The next part which I find particularly useful is how this concept links to black-and-white thinking.  The part about best friends really, really got to me and I can relate to it so much, and hadn’t thought about it in that way at all but it makes so much sense.  I recently lost a very close friendship and I’ve found it really, really hard to deal with.  It happened in December and it’s now May but the intense feelings of guilt and hurt, the inner ‘vacuum’ as though someone’s punched me in the stomach and sucked out my insides, obsessive thoughts about wanting to contact her or get back in touch, and the bitch in my head telling me constantly that it’s completely my fault, I’m horrible and obsessive, and that I don’t deserve any friends haven’t eased off at all and sometimes even seem to be getting stronger.  I’ve tried distress tolerance skills to manage them which work temporarily but after a few months, it’s starting to feel like I’m just ‘existing’ and that there’s not really any point because my default state is paranoia and I don’t have the energy or motivation to keep fighting it, so I really need to try a different approach.

I think that one of the reasons the loss of the friendship hit me so hard was because I genuinely thought that the friendship could never break and that we’d be best friends forever.  We’d been friends for 19 years which is a really, really long time and although we didn’t see each other much in person (she lived a long way away from me), we texted and emailed regularly and she’d always be the person I’d message in a crisis or if I had any particularly exciting news that I wanted to share.  I think that’s the part I miss most- being able to message ANY TIME about basically anything without it seeing weird or inappropriate and I still get urges to text her about something on an almost daily basis then have to cope with the fact that I can’t, and the hurt hits all over again just as intensely (if not more) than it did the first time.

This is where I think the mindfulness idea is really, really useful- one of the reasons it hurt so much was because of the ‘expectations’ from how I saw the friendship.  She was my ‘best friend’ and I thought we’d ‘always’ be friends, and we would ‘never’ fall out or lose touch.  It really was a black-and-white perspective and I think that’s something that made the friendship break up really hard to deal with.  In the Shakespeare post, I talked about putting people on a pedestal and how that means it hurts more if something happens to knock them off the pedestal and the same idea applies here.  It’s really important to realise that people are people and no one’s perfect, and that sometimes friends change and move on and that’s OK, and part of life.  It’s not realistic to see any relationship as ‘perfect’ or faultless, and disagreeing is part of any social relationship.  It’s important because it shows you that you can disagree on something and still be friends, which helps to reduce unrealistic expectations about the friendship.  It’s hard because, for me anyway, there’s a big part of me that thinks that I’m lucky that person wants to spend time with me in the first place but that’s not a healthy relationship.

I like the concept of beginner’s mind in relation to friendships because it takes away anxiety/paranoia about how a friendship ‘is’ or what the other person’s thinking.  It’s impossible to be paranoid about upsetting someone or what they think of you when you’re taking the friendship as it comes, treating every interaction like a new encounter and trying not to fixate on the friendship when you’re not actually interacting with that friend.  It’s really, really hard and you can’t ‘stop’ yourself from thinking about it, but another DBT skill which can be helpful with this is the ‘leaves on a stream’ thought defusion exercise (also a mindfulness skill) where you acknowledge thoughts but don’t fixate on them, and visualise them like leaves floating down a stream- you’re aware of them but not focussing on them.  By trying to get rid of thoughts, especially obsessive thoughts, you actually reinforce them so this is a really useful skills to practise although, like nearly all the mindfulness skills, it takes a lot of practice to actually have an effect.

This whole idea reminds me of a Harry Potter quote from Prisoner of Azkaban where Sirius says to Harry, “Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.  We’ve all got both light and dark inside us.  What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”  Even though I’ve read the book over and over since it was released in 1998, this quote still really gets to me and can still make me cry.  And it’s so true- no one’s perfect and it’s important not to expect people to be.  People have different perspectives and grow and change, and sometimes that means that a friendship can break down not because of anyone’s fault, just because of natural growth and change.  In the book, Sirius was betrayed by Peter Pettigrew who he had considered a friend but who had chosen to act on his ‘dark side’.  I think talking about Snape would need several posts to itself but the whole concept of friendship, love and change is prevalent throughout the Harry Potter books and it’s really helpful to look at it sometimes.  I love Luna’s quote “I liked the DA meetings.  It was like having friends” and for Luna, people accepting her and spending time with her is enough to count as friendship.  She doesn’t fixate on the relationships and genuinely does have a ‘beginner’s mind’ approach to friendships, and that really seems to work for her and she ends up with several ‘real’ friends which means more to her than it does to any other character (the linked pictures in her bedroom still make me feel emotional).

I’m going to finish by reposting the list of things I’ve realised recently about friendships from the Shakespeare post.  Hopefully some of this has made sense!

  1. Take every friendship at face value. Don’t overthink it, make assumptions, have unrealistic or idealistic expectations, or make any judgements at all. Try to take the friendship as it comes and use mindfulness or grounding techniques to manage anxiety.
  2. Friendships are fluid and changing. There is no such thing as a ‘best friend’ or ‘forever friendship’, however amazing that would be. Enjoy the relationship when you can but don’t have any expectations that it will last forever. Practise ‘beginner’s mind’ (seeing every experience as the first time you’ve experienced it, without any preconceptions or judgements) and don’t overthink it.
  3. People change and that’s part of life. If a friendship ends, it might not have anything to do with you whatsoever- the other person might have changed or moved on and THAT’S OK. Growth is part of life and people move on at different rates. That doesn’t make it any painful, but taking away the guilt or self-criticism will help you move on from it a lot more easily.
  4. Be open with people. Honesty and openness in relationships is the most important part of a healthy relationship and will reduce anxiety more than almost anything else. Anxiety and particularly paranoia come from uncertainty and thrive in self-doubt or assumptions. If you’ve got a gut reaction to something- check it out. Don’t let it spiral into full-on paranoia or depression because then everything’s skewed through a fog of thoughts and judgements and you’re likely to damage the relationship without realising it. Sounds cliched but if the other person’s worth being friends with, they’ll be honest with you.
  5. TRUST. This is one of the hardest ones for me and there’s different ways it’s relevant to friendships but the some of the key points are to trust that the friendship will still exist even if you’re not constantly contacting the other person, trust that the other person will be honest with you, and trust that the other person really does want to stay friends with you. I find all of these really hard, especially the last one, but they’re so important and I think they get easier the more you do them… It really relates back to the mindfulness idea and I’m trying really, really hard to use that in my current friendships.

 

Thinking about the Impostor Phenomenon and the Inner Critic

A friend sent me a link to a Radio 4 programme today called ‘The Impostors’ Survival Guide’ which was a radio programme about ‘impostor syndrome’,  the feeling of being a fraud.  Impostor syndrome is the feeling of inadequacy or that you’re somehow just ‘faking it’ despite being successful at whatever it is you’re doing, and that one day someone’s going to find you out.  As they point out in the programme, it’s fairly common and most, if not all, people have experienced the feeling at some point in their lives.

In the programme, they used the impostor phenomenon almost interchangeably with the ‘inner critic’ which I found really interesting because of the way I’ve been trying to externalise critical thoughts recently and identify the ‘bitch in my head’ (see previous posts, particularly Inside my head…).  To me, the impostor phenomenon is separate to the inner critic- I see the bitch in my head as a bully who’s trying to make me feel bad by criticising me, manipulating my thoughts and emotions, imposing strict ‘rules’ to apparently protect me and making me feel guilty ALL THE TIME whereas the impostor syndrome seems to be more of a ‘delusional’ (not in the psychotic sense) belief that you are not good enough or that you don’t deserve the position you’re in, or your achievements.  It’s more of a generalised feeling I think or an insistent belief rather than a specific ‘voice’ which is how the inner critic feels to me.  I could be wrong though- everyone’s experience is different!  I found that I could only partially relate to the radio programme because all the people mentioned genuinely are successful or good at what they do but feel like a fraud or that they’re just “winging it” whereas I KNOW that I’m not successful and that I fail probably ten times more than I actually complete or succeed at anything and my only real ‘strength’ is that I’m relatively resilient and don’t easily give up or stop trying.  So I relate a lot more to the inner bully concept who’s definitely taken residence in my head and I’m trying to learn to acknowledge, accept, talk down and (hopefully, in the probably distant future) befriend at the moment…

I also found it really interesting how they linked the concept of the impostor phenomenon to perfectionism which is a separate issue but often crosses over.  In the programme, they defined two types of perfectionism- ‘normal’ perfectionism where people set high standards but feel pride or pleasure when they meet them or ‘maladaptive’ perfectionism where people also set high standards but don’t seem to get any sense of accomplishment or pride from reaching them and it’s the ‘maladaptive’ perfectionists who are most susceptible to the impostor phenomenon.  They go on to explain that the issue isn’t the perfectionism itself, it’s the “belief that they can do everything perfectly” and they talk about the feeling of shame that both perfectionists and people experiencing the impostor phenomenon feel when they see themselves as failing at something.  I found this really interesting- I tend to feel any intense negative feeling as ‘guilt’ but I’ve realised over the last couple of years that sometimes what I think is guilt is actually a form of empathy and it’s not impossible that guilt at failing at something could actually be shame (which I’ve always seen as the same thing but apparently they’re not?).  I’m not a perfectionist at all but I do experience guilt (or shame) very intensely when I don’t get something right, which is a lot of the time!  So maybe there’s a link in there somewhere…

The final part of the programme talked about how to manage the feelings of being a fraud and the bit I found most interesting was that they said that feelings are always the last thing to change, and that you have to change your thoughts (even if you don’t believe them) to be able to change how you feel.  I find challenging thoughts incredibly difficult, partly because I find it hard to accept something I don’t believe and partly because the bitch in my head is constantly reinforcing them, but I know the concept of thoughts triggering emotions is very powerful and can be really helpful for a lot of people.  I’m trying to find a way around it at the moment by reconceptualising the bitch in my head (aka inner critic) and seeing her as an external ‘person’ to try to accept that what she’s saying might not be totally accurate, and it’s the same concept in a different form.  I found the idea that emotions are the last thing to change weirdly reassuring because it’s intense emotions that I find hard to manage and maybe not always being able to deal with them directly isn’t a ‘failure’ and maybe working on/with the bitch in my head and how I react to or deal with what she says might eventually affect how I’m feeling.

Going to end with a DBT skill which I think is relevant to this- opposite action, which is where you act in a way that’s directly opposed to the behaviour you naturally want to use in response to an emotion, such as putting on upbeat music and dancing when you feel sad instead of hiding under a blanket or talking slowly and calmly when you’re angry instead of shouting or hitting things.  The opposite action for guilt and shame could be to stand tall, talk openly to people, speak in a strong and calm voice instead of hiding or avoiding the situation and I think this is really relevant to the impostor phenomenon.  The concept behind opposite action is that by acting on urges, you make them stronger and more intense but by acting opposite, you help to regulate them and maybe even neutralise them and I think this could work too with the feelings of inadequacy or being a fraud that are associated with the impostor syndrome.  Opposite action takes a while to get used to but it really can help!  From someone who’s just spent half an hour dancing around their bedroom to Disney after experiencing the usual 7pm mood crash… :p

[Link to the radio programme if anyone’s interested- The Impostors’ Survival Guide]

Celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare with DBT skills…

Seeing as I live in the Midlands, it was pretty much impossible to miss the celebrations of 400 years of Shakespeare’s legacy, particularly as I was working in Stratford this afternoon.  I did an English degree and was particularly interested in Shakespeare at one point (although via science fiction- long story) but I haven’t had much exposure to his work recently.  I was googling quotes that might be interesting to share, and this one really got to me.  I know my mind’s a bit DBT-focussed at the moment but this quote (which is actually a paraphrase of a quote from ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’) really does seem to link to some of the mindfulness and interpersonal skills from my DBT workbook.

One of the aspects of mindfulness in DBT which I’ve been working on really hard recently is mindfulness in relation to friendships.  The basic concept is that a lot of people who experience rigid or ‘black-and-white’ thinking can often extend this to areas of their lives like social relationships and this can be damaging not only for the relationship itself but for the person’s emotionally wellbeing.  The example given in the book is thinking of your best friend as someone who would never hurt you or let you down.  This puts a person into an idealistic perspective which isn’t real or feasible in every day life meaning that if that person does upset you (which is pretty much inevitable at some point in any relationship), it really, really hurts to an unbearable extent and often the friendship is lost.  The idea is to try to be ‘mindful’ of your friendships- take them at face value and don’t put unrealistic or extreme expectations on them, and try to look at it non-judgmentally.

It works both ways- you try not to have rigid views on what the friendship ‘should’ be and at the same time, you don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions about what the other person might be thinking.  You take every interaction as it comes and try to stay in that moment instead of overthinking or judging what might or might not be happening, and don’t have any expectations about it.  In theory, the anxiety and/or paranoia about the friendship should subside which minimises the possibility of a negative reaction from the other person and the actual impact of a negative interaction should also be reduced because there are no unrealistic or ‘pedestal’-like expectations towards the other person.  The cliche about ‘the higher the pedestal, the further there is to fall’ really is true, and it’s taken me nearly 30 years to realise that.

I can relate to this a lot at the moment because I recently lost a very close friend who, for nearly 20 years, I saw as my ‘best friend’ and often referred to her as someone who would never hurt or judge me.  Just before Christmas, she ended the close friendship which really, really hurt and it’s taken a long time to come to terms with.  I think in part this was because I genuinely thought we’d be friends forever and that we would never have any sort of disagreement (on reflection, this is partly because I always avoid any sort of conflict which I know now isn’t healthy in any relationship), and it really was was one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with.  I had her up on the highest pedestal possible and the force of the hurt almost crushed me- figuratively, but it’s the closest I’ve come to totally giving up for nearly ten years.  I feel like my insides have been sucked out and I’m left with a vertigo-y vacuum, and I still feel like I’m running on autopilot a lot of the time.  BUT the most important key to surviving it (literally) is to accept and learn from it, and that’s where DBT comes in.  So, things I’m learning…

  1. Take every friendship at face value.  Don’t overthink it, make assumptions, have unrealistic or idealistic expectations, or make any judgements at all.  Try to take the friendship as it comes and use mindfulness or grounding techniques to manage anxiety.
  2. Friendships are fluid and changing.  There is no such thing as a ‘best friend’ or ‘forever friendship’, however amazing that would be.  Enjoy the relationship when you can but don’t have any expectations that it will last forever.  Practise ‘beginner’s mind’ (seeing every experience as the first time you’ve experienced it, without any preconceptions or judgements) and don’t overthink it.
  3. People change and that’s part of life.  If a friendship ends, it might not have anything to do with you whatsoever- the other person might have changed or moved on and THAT’S OK.  Growth is part of life and people move on at different rates.  That doesn’t make it any painful, but taking away the guilt or self-criticism will help you move on from it a lot more easily.
  4. Be open with people.  Honesty and openness in relationships is the most important part of a healthy relationship and will reduce anxiety more than almost anything else.  Anxiety and particularly paranoia come from uncertainty and thrive in self-doubt or assumptions.  If you’ve got a gut reaction to something- check it out.  Don’t let it spiral into full-on paranoia or depression because then everything’s skewed through a fog of thoughts and judgements and you’re likely to damage the relationship without realising it.  Sounds cliched but if the other person’s worth being friends with, they’ll be honest with you.
  5. TRUST.  This is one of the hardest ones for me and there’s different ways it’s relevant to friendships but the some of the key points are to trust that the friendship will still exist even if you’re not constantly contacting the other person, trust that the other person will be honest with you, and trust that the other person really does want to stay friends with you.  I find all of these really hard, especially the last one, but they’re so important and I think they get easier the more you do them…  It really relates back to the mindfulness idea and I’m trying really, really hard to use that in my current friendships.

Not sure how much of that makes sense but hoping it’s useful anyway!  Thank you Shakespeare for helping me link DBT skills to real life 🙂

Friday night DBT recap…

Been an OKish week, nothing major and a definite improvement on last week which was a mess of paranoia and anxiety.  Still had a lot of paranoid thoughts but I’ve been trying really hard to ‘externalise’ them and remember that it’s the bitch in my head talking, not ‘reality’ or absolute truth.  It’s been hard and sometimes I’ve let her in without realising but there have been a couple of times where I’ve actually managed to talk her down and it hasn’t ended up in a full-on paranoia attack which is a massive, massive change for me.  Going to definitely kept trying!

There’s a definite correlation between how many DBT skills I’ve used each day and my overall mood which is interesting and shows how changes really can add up.  Some skills are easier than others- I don’t drink alcohol or take drugs anyway so that one’s not exactly hard to stick to and I’ve been practising mindfulness techniques for a few years now so that’s been relatively easy to incorporate most days, but some of the emotion regulation skills like watching and naming emotions or not acting on them are a lot harder.  I’ve managed most of the skills at least once during the week which is a good start, just need to work on being more consistent…

The two skills I haven’t managed at all so far are ‘dealt with physical pain’ and ‘ate in a balanced way’.  I’m not overly surprised at the eating one and I think that’s going to be a work in progress but I really should have managed the ‘physical pain’ one, and that’s going to be my next target.  I don’t have massive issues with pain (*touch wood*) but I have had a lot of dental issues recently that are causing a lot of stress and anxiety and I’ve been avoiding dealing with it instead of actually getting it sorted so it’s turned into an infection that I can’t seem to get rid of.  Got to have two more fillings next month…  So I think the main target for next week is to consciously take care of my teeth and not just rely on co-codamol to get rid of the pain!

Thursday was actually a pretty good day, not for any reason in particular but just because I didn’t have any major mood drops or paranoia attacks and the bitch in my head stayed relatively quiet so the thoughts and anxiety were a lot more manageable than they have been in a while.  Today wasn’t great- it was like she’d had a day off so decided to come back in full force today and it took a lot of effort and externalising not to believe everything she was screaming at me and to manage the intense anxiety and guilt it caused but have made it almost to bedtime without any major repercussions which I’m taking as a big positive.  Mood isn’t great and I just want to hide under a blanket with a hot water bottle but I’m going with ‘opposite action’ and playing a feelgood playlist on spotify and cleaning my bedroom to distract and try to generate even a tiny bit of positive feeling so I don’t go to bed feeling horrible which is likely to end up in not-nice dreams.  Happy weekend everyone!