A sonnet for Carrie Mathison

You don’t strike me as the poetry sort
unless, perhaps, it’s straight-laced with liquor.
But there’s an intensity, a flicker
of sideways-sharp awareness in your thoughts
that parallels your mind with metaphor.
How else would you see beyond the concrete
to know what others see as incomplete?
Hyper-everything, pure focus, hardcore
and yet
there’s a harsh vulnerability
that sometimes cuts too deep, a salted knife
in the heart’s open wound. Ability
to see too clearly and not unsee, life
heightened by emotions’ fragility.
You’re an ice-fire paradox of extremes,
nuclear fusion of hyperreal and dreams.

Week review: DBT in practice- ACCEPTS

Last week was pretty rubbish emotion-wise.  I’ve been struggling a lot with feeling overwhelmed and vertigo-y, and it’s been getting worse over the last few weeks.  I’m also coming to the end of my current job and am about to start a new one, which is making me feel really anxious too so quite a lot going on at the moment.

After the losing a close friend, I had a pretty intense emotion crash which resulted in a lot of bingeing/purging and compulsive exercise which I’ve been trying really hard to manage over the last few months (after moving into a shared house and obviously don’t want my new housemate to know about that sort of thing) and I made a conscious decision to use DBT skills at every possible opportunity, not just when I’m feeling desperate or paranoid.  I’ve also decided to focus on one DBT skill a week in a blog post every weekend so this can be my ‘skill of the week’ for last week…

One of the distress tolerance skills I’ve found really useful this week is ACCEPTS.  DBT is full of acronyms which I kind of like because it makes it easier to remember the skills, and this one’s been particularly useful because it’s mainly about managing intense feelings/thoughts even if you can’t totally identify them which has definitely been true for me this week.  A stands for Activities, or doing something you enjoy.  I’ve been posting way more blog posts than people are probably interested in this week but it really has helped as a distraction technique and to try to express or regulate how I’m feeling.  I’ve also started drawing again which I’ve been really lazy about recently and am in the process of rereading the entire Sweet Valley High series which has actually become my go-to distress tolerance technique because it’s accessible via Kindle, easy to read and I ‘know’ the characters so well thanks for obsessive reading and fanfiction as a teenager, and it kind of feels like going home which is an amazing feeling.  I’ve kind of missed some of the characters (Olivia Davidson in particular- I’m avoiding the earthquake books!!) and it’s nice to read about other characters who feel ‘weird’ or like they’re getting things wrong as well as constantly aspiring to be more like Elizabeth Wakefield.  I learned a lot of social skills from SVH and I’m relearning some now, which I might end up blogging about at some point…

C is for Contribute- helping out other people.  I volunteer at Mind which I love, and recently started helping out again.  I love it for so many reasons; partly because I learn a lot from the groups too and from listening to service users, partly because the people who run the groups are awesome and I get a lot from listening to them too, and partly because I like feeling ‘useful’ or that I’m actually doing something constructive.  I’ve been doing voluntary work for nearly 17 years and it’s part of my life that I can’t imagine not doing, and I’ve got more from that than nearly anything else.  It’s amazing for everything from learning skills, acceptance, self esteem to basically anything positive you can think of!

The second C is Comparisons, or comparing where you are now to where you have been in the past.  This is a really useful one because it makes you realise that you have actually achieved stuff even if it feels like you’re constantly messing up.  A few years ago, I couldn’t keep a job and was ‘fully’ bingeing every day whereas now, I’ve had a job for over four months, I’m not living at home any more and the bingeing has reduced massively to low-level a few times a week.  I’ve also managed to be more assertive with relationships that aren’t healthy and am managing paranoid or obsessive thoughts so much better than a few years ago where they would literally take over my brain to the point where I couldn’t think about anything else.  Yes, I’m still feeling rubbish and get paranoid or obsessive on a regular basis but it’s nowhere near as intense and I’m hoping it’ll keep getting gradually less until it’s actually manageable…

E is the big one- Emotions, or more accurately OTHER emotions.  The point of this is to try to ‘displace’ the intense negative emotions with something positive that can distract from the intensity and make it more manageable.  My go-to way to do this is to watch The Big Bang Theory which is one of the only TV shows that is guaranteed to make me laugh and it really does work!  By some amazing coincidence, this week was the finale of season nine and had me in absolute hysterics which was AMAZING for temporarily getting rid of the vertigo and heart-clogging feeling I’ve had a lot over the last couple of weeks.  Won’t give it away for TBBT fans who haven’t seen it but it really is very, very funny!  Sometimes I wish I could watch TBBT several times a day to get the serotonin hit and to help to manage intense negative emotions, but playing scenes in my head does sometimes help (particularly if I pretend that I’m acting as one of the characters) and that’s something that might help other people with similar experiences?

P stand for Push away, or distracting your mind from whatever it is that you’re obsessing about or from negative emotions.  This is where I’ve been using my emotion card (see Opposite Action in action for more about that), and my rule is that I have to try at least two things from there before I can do anything potentially not-helpful.  Sometimes it works and it distracts for long enough for the urges to binge or cut to reduce to a more manageable level, sometimes it doesn’t.  But definitely worth a try!

T is for Thoughts- trying to manage the thoughts or make yourself think about something else.  This is the one I still haven’t managed to do properly so don’t really have much to add about it except that the theory is that by ‘making’ yourself think about something else, it sort of displaces the negative thoughts already there but my problem is that when I’m having obsessive or paranoid thoughts, I genuinely can’t get rid of them or think about anything else so I’m trying to find an alternative strategy…  For me, a couple of things that have helped are to ‘talk back’ to the thoughts like another person- I have a ‘bitch in my head’ who shouts at me a lot and a lot of the thoughts come from her, and I find it really useful to try to respond to her in a more compassionate or rational way, not to criticise her but to accept what she says and listen to her without actually believing her.  It sometimes helps, and the paranoid thoughts in particular are starting to reduce in intensity…

Last one is S: Sensations.  The idea of this is to use sensory stimulation to distract from the emotions, and it’s something I find especially useful because I tend to experience emotions ‘physically’ through vertigo, feeling like I’ve been punched in the stomach or chest, stinging feelings, dissociation, dizziness, feeling vacuum-y etc.  I have a few techniques I use a lot but smell is a big one- I carry smelling salts in my pocket and use them whenever I start to feel zoned out or dizzy and it really does help to ‘bring you back’ quickly and help you feel more ‘real’.  I also burn scented candles a lot to try to calm down, and play music to alter moods (I have a ‘mood stabilisers’ playlist as well as ‘happy/positive’ and ‘feeling rubbish’).  Taking a cold shower also helps if I’m feeling angry or overly hyped, or a hot bath if I’m feeling low or zoned out (careful with having a bath is you’re feeling dissociated, can make you feel worse and be dangerous- only if you’re just a bit ‘zoned’ or ‘unreal’ and not actually out of your body!).  I also use ‘soft’ things a lot and that’s really useful if I’m feeling low, vertigo-y or shaky; somethings wrapping up in a soft blanket and hugging a soft toy really helps to neutralise the vacuum or vertigo feeling.  There are obviously a lot of not-as-helpful sensation strategies which I won’t go into here, and it’s definitely best to use more constructive ones first if you can and see if that helps.  I tend to avoid taste-type ones because of ED issues but a lot of people find drinking hot chocolate good for feeling low or anxious, or eating something strong-tasting if you’re feeling zoned out.

Hopefully that makes sense and some of it is useful!  Will try to do a post like this about a different DBT skill every week…

TOO MUCH EMOTION

This is a bit of an unfocussed post so I’ll apologise in advance for that.  I’ve been feeling intense vertigo and stinging in my chest over the last few weeks which are hard to explain properly, and this post is kind of about that and the loss of a close friendship and ways I’ve been trying to deal with it.  A lot of it will be about DBT skills because I’m finding more and more that it’s the only approach I’ve found that really does seem to have any sort of positive effect and at the moment, my life feels like a constant attempt at emotion and occasionally crisis management which is EXHAUSTING and horrible but I’m trying to trust the DBT philosophy that emotions eventually peak and subside and I’m trying to be mindful of that and the way it’s affecting my body and thoughts as well instead of acting instinctively or impulsively to reduce the intensity.  It’s been a bit up and down but I’m still writing blog posts and haven’t totally quit everything so that’s a definite positive!

This scene from ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’ is, for me, one of the most emotional scenes of the whole HP series and one that’s definitely underrated.  It’s from the end of the book after Sirius has died and Harry’s struggling to cope with the loss and with his guilt about Sirius’ death.  In this scene, Dumbledore is annoyingly calm and detached which makes Harry feel even more angry, hurt and alone and when I first read it aged 16, I could completely relate to Harry’s violent urges to hit Dumbledore and smash his things because that intensity of emotion is HORRIBLE especially when it involves feelings of hurt, guilt and loss which are three of the hardest negative emotions to manage even on their own.  Harry’s reaction of ‘I DON’T CARE’ is a completely natural and typical response to being unable to deal with intense and conflicting negative emotions in a situation that you don’t understand and can’t control, but Dumbledore’s reply of “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it” describes exactly how that intensity feels physically.  There’s so much emotional complexity in this scene that goes far deeper than the loss of Sirius- Harry’s feelings of intense hurt and confusion from Dumbledore’s apparent indifference towards him over the year, his guilt in being a part of the situation that killed Sirius, his fear of being completely alone.  It all culminates and builds up inside him in a way that he can’t express or manage, and his experience of intense emotion is something that a lot of people who experience intense, overwhelming or conflicting emotions that they can’t understand or express can relate to.

A while ago, a close friend asked me not to keep contacting her which really, really hurt, and I’ve been finding it increasingly hard to manage my feelings about it.  At first, I felt really upset and cried a lot which was (I think) a typical reaction to the loss of a close friendship, but it started to hurt more intensely as time went by and the urges to contact her again became stronger.  It felt like intense vertigo and like there was a ‘vacuum’ inside me as though someone had sucked out all my organs and gradually that emptiness became filled with a heavy, cement-like feeling which is still there.  I started to feel more zoned out and ‘slowed-down’, and have found it hard to concentrate on anything much over the last few months which hasn’t helped with starting a new job (which, thankfully, I’m nearly at the end of the contract for now).  Then, over the last few weeks, I started to get a stinging feeling in my chest which feels like someone’s opened a wound there and is tipping salt into it, and I keep randomly crying with no real trigger or becoming so exhausted and overwhelmed with the feelings that I fall asleep which is both a massive relief and annoying because I feel zoned out for the rest of the day.

It also hasn’t helped that there’s been a lot of (unrelated) stuff going on recently which has involved a lot of things that remind me strongly of my friend, and that’s made the urges to contact her so strong that they’re sometimes so overwhelming that I’m physically hitting the side of my head to try to get rid of them and last week, I acted on the urge and sent her a message which she didn’t respond to and although it helped to reduce the urge at the time, I felt like the worst person in the world and so guilty about it the next day.  The feelings are so horrible at the moment that I can totally relate to Harry’s ‘I’VE HAD ENOUGH…I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END’ but I know there’s no constructive way to do that apart from the obvious which isn’t an option because of children I’ve worked with and am very close to, and the possible impact that could have on them.  I’ve also had a lot of thoughts recently about distancing from the kids and from the two people I’m currently ‘friends’ with, but I think that could hurt them even more and I don’t want to hurt anyone at all.  So I’m not really left with many options but I REALLY needed to do something because I genuinely can’t deal with it much longer and I’m scared I’ll do something impulsive and stupid to manage the feelings- I’ve kept it at low level bingeing/purging and superficial cutting at the moment (using DBT skills to manage the intensity which I’ll come to later) but I’m a bit worried the bingeing will swing to full-scale bulimia if I’m not careful or I’ll stop eating completely in the hope of getting rid of the emotion completely (see Obsessions for more info about that).

It’s been particularly bad over the last couple of weeks and I’ve been thinking a lot about unfriending my friend on Facebook so that I don’t have her updates on my feed but also so that I can’t act on the urges to keep messaging her (I don’t know her current email or home address and she lives abroad so texting’s out).  It was a really difficult decision for several reasons- I didn’t want to completely lose touch with her because even though she’s hurt me a lot over the last year or so, I still really miss her and the connection we had; I really, really don’t want to hurt or upset her, or make her feel the way I have done over the last few months and I’m not sure I could cope with the guilt if she did; we were friends for nearly 20 years which is a really, really long time and she knows more about me than anyone else ever including mental health professionals I saw for seven years; it’s my fault the friendship broke down because I was too intense/clingy and I really don’t want her to be upset because I’m shit at managing relationships and get paranoid.  But last night, I spoke to an old friend I haven’t seen in nearly ten years but who I was close friends with at school and she pointed out that if my friend had realised the impact asking me not to contact her would have, she wouldn’t have said it the way she did and that shows that the close connection we had’s already broken, and that made so much sense so last night, I unfriended my ex-best friend.

It was genuinely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I feel like such a bitch about it.  I couldn’t stop shaking and spent most of last night fighting urges to email her via her old email address, send her another friend request or try to message her but someone I really trust told me not to email because it would make her more upset so I didn’t contact her but I feel like the worst person in the world and a really, really selfish, bitchy and horrible person for unfriending without an explanation.  I’m feeling less shaky today but still really, really guilty and a bit zoned out.  I HATE my brain and how selfish I am.  I know that now it’s up to her if she wants to contact me and that she knows my email address and phone number so if she wants to, she can but I’m really, really hoping she won’t be feeling upset or hurt that I’ve unfriended her.  It’s not that I don’t like her- I do, but I can’t cope with this sort of feeling any more and I need to do something for self-protection and so that I don’t lose any relationships I currently have.  But I hate myself so much at the moment- I know it’s totally my fault and if I wasn’t so selfish, clingy and paranoid, it wouldn’t have got to that stage in the first place but this happens with nearly every relationship I have and I don’t know how to stop it.  I hate the way my brain (and body) react to situations like this and how intense it is, and I especially hate the intense urges which swing from ‘I need to contact this person NOW’ to needing to binge/vomit or cut to try to force out the guilt and horribleness inside my body.  I HATE MY BRAIN and I hate the way my body reacts physically.

Since I unfriended her, the vertigo has intensified and it feels like someone’s trying to pull my stomach out through my chest, and the intense stinging is like my heart’s being twisted and ripped out.  It’s horrible and it’s affecting the way I’m feeling in general- it took four attempts at getting dressed this morning to find something I felt OK in to go out the house and my mood’s even lower and more ‘shaky’ than it’s been over the last few weeks.  I’ve slowed right down to present moment and thankfully I don’t have work today, and I’m focussing on getting through each hour at a time.  I still feel like such as bitch though and I really, really want to apologise but DBT interpersonal skills say that you shouldn’t apologise unnecessarily even if it feels like you should.  So that brings me to the first DBT skill I’m going to look at- FAST.

FAST stands for fair, apology, stick to values and truth.  The aim of the skill is to manage interpersonal relationships without compromising your own self esteem or emotional wellbeing, and I think it’s a really useful (as well as really difficult) skill to use.  Being ‘fair’ applies to the other person but also to yourself, and involves being assertive and also listening to the other person.  I’ve tried this already and although I haven’t been as direct as I’d like to have been with her, I’ve been open with her in the past and she knows me well enough to know that I wouldn’t unfriend her in a passive-aggressive way.  It’s self-protection and although I haven’t said that directly, it would probably make things worse if I did.  I genuinely have tried to be as fair as I can.

According to DBT, over-apologising when it’s not completely justified can have a detrimental affect on self esteem and self respect, and make negative emotions worse.  It also points out that by apologising unnecessarily, you negate the effect when you actually do apologise which is something I hadn’t really thought about but is probably true.  I’ve been thinking about the situation a lot and although I still think I should apologise for unfriending her, I can see that by doing that, I’m emphasising my ‘fault’ in the whole situation and that’s not going to be helpful for trying to reduce guilt and get over it.  So I’m trying to be mindful of the guilt and urges to apologise without acting on them which is HARD but I think that if I can manage it, it could be a really positive thing.

Sticking to values means keeping to things that are important to you.  I find the concept of values hard but I know that being fair, direct, accepting, honest and assertive are qualities that I really respect and value in other people so I’d hope that they are values I can try to embody too.  In this situation, I don’t feel like I’ve really stuck to those values but I can’t see any way I could do without actually contacting her and explaining.  I have been accepting of her decision to stop the contact though and I think I’ve been as fair and direct as I can be, so maybe I’m halfway there.  It’s a hard skill though and I think I need to practise it a lot more before I’m able to actually use it properly.

Truthfulness is something that’s really important to me anyway and I think I’ve been as truthful as I can be.  Before we lost contact, I had mentioned to her that I was getting paranoid about people not actually being friends with me or wanting to keep in touch and I’ve always been open and honest with her, so I think she knows enough about how I think and react to know why I’ve acted like this.  If not, I’m h0ping she also knows me well enough to know that I’ll always be honest and truthful in emails so she can email me if she wants.

 I’ve also been using a LOT of the emotion regulation skills to try to deal with the intensity of emotion, both physical and emotional, I’ve been experiencing.  I won’t go into opposite action because I’ve already talked about it a lot in Opposite Action in action- more DBT!, but I’m going to look at other strategies such as seeing emotion as a wave and being mindful of emotions.  Both of these involve trying to distance from the emotion and seeing it as something that happens to you rather than being a part of you which I find really hard to get my head around in relation to emotions but I’ve managed in relation to thoughts via the bitch in my head (Inside my head…), and I’ve been trying to link this to emotions by seeing my emotional state as something that the bitch in my head can hijack and gain access to via a skeleton key she’s got which gives her direct access to my feelings and emotions which she can then use to her advantage.

So for me, a big part of emotion regulation is trying to prevent her from having access to my emotions by accepting what she says without believing it, talking back to her and trying to be more compassionate towards her so she’s not as angry and sometimes that helps but sometimes she gets in before I’ve realised it.  That’s when the DBT emotion regulation skills come in and they’re a lot easier to apply when the emotions are a result of the bitch in my head rather than being an intrinsic part of ‘me’ and how I’m thinking or feeling.  Seeing emotion as a wave is based on the idea that emotions peak and eventually subside so if you try to distract or tolerate the emotion, it will eventually ease off to a more tolerable level.  I have a distress tolerance card which I’ve been relying on a lot recently to try to manage emotions, and it’s something I would recommend to anyone who experiences intense emotions- the idea is that you do at least two things from the card before any unhelpful behaviour and sometimes it does distract for long enough for the emotion to start to subside and (for me) the positive feelings associated with not acting on the emotion are often enough to help it subside completely to a point where I can manage it more easily.  It’s definitely worth making a card if you don’t already have one.  Mine’s colour-coded to make it easier to use when I’ve feeling intense emotion and that can help for some people.

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I’ve also been trying to be mindful of emotions which is really hard but it’s a skill I’m finding increasingly useful the more I practise it.  The basic idea is to observe and be aware of your emotions (even if you can’t identify what they are) and not judge them, and just ‘let’ them rise and fall.  It links to the wave idea and I’ve been trying to imagine emotional intensity rising and falling like waves, and sometimes this is easier than waiting for the wave to peak because it often feels like it won’t!  It’s really hard not to judge emotions though especially guilt or anxiety, and DBT thought and emotion defusion teaches you imagine the thought or judgement like leaves on a stream- recognise and acknowledge them but let them pass without fixating on them and this takes a LOT of practice but I’m starting to find it useful, especially with obsessive thoughts.

Outside of DBT skills, the other thing I find really useful for managing difficult emotions and trying not to act on them is use fictional characters as a sort of ‘channel’ or outlet for that emotion.  I’ve been doing this in various ways ever since I can remember but the most useful ones at the moment are the Sims and through Carrie Mathison from Homeland (I did a post on this a while ago called Learning emotion regulation via Carrie Mathison).  The Sims is a bit of a weird one because it can either be really, really useful or makes things a million times harder so I’m always a bit wary when I use it, but sometimes it can be really useful.  In a situation when I’m missing someone but know that contacting them would be too much, it’s actually really beneficial to ‘talk’ to that person on the Sims because it really does feel like you’re actually communicating with them and it can help you feel less lonely.  At the moment, that’s not a good idea in this particular situation because even seeing her as a Sim makes me feel really upset but what I have found useful on the Sims is creating an ‘ideal’ version of me and levelling up skills and career roles so it feels like I’m actually achieving something and that stimulates the same dopamine release as if you were actually doing something positive.  I know it’s not ‘real’ but as a short-term emotion management technique, it’s pretty useful and doesn’t involve annoying other people.

The other thing I’ve found really useful is rewatching parts of Homeland season five and trying to learn about relationship skills and emotion management from Carrie’s relationship with Saul.  Throughout the first few seasons, Saul is Carrie’s mentor and close friend and she really respects and looks up to him in a way she doesn’t with any other character, and there are several examples where they save each other’s lives or connect with each other on a deeper, more personal level and in season four, Carrie is described as “his child, practically”, and that really is the kind of relationship they have (although much more from Carrie’s perspective; there are also examples where Saul has ‘used’ Carrie to suit his or the agency’s needs).  But in between seasons four and five, Carrie and Saul have had a breakdown of their relationship and are no longer talking.  Carrie finds this difficult to deal with, particularly as Saul’s values seem to be diametrically opposed to her own, and throughout the season she attempts to reconnect with him.  When she is led to believe that Saul is trying to kill her, she describes their relationship as “someone I trusted more than I’ve ever trusted anyone” and there are a lot of examples of this throughout the series and of their mutual trust and respect for each other which, in some places, borders on an almost familial love.

In the other post, I wrote that “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/  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’ve been watching that scene over and over and although it’s made me cry and feel as though my heart’s being ripped several times over, I can see how Carrie needs to completely distance from Saul in order to rebuild emotionally and to protect herself from that intensity of feeling.  I’m guessing she must feel as guilty as I do at the moment, especially when Saul says, “Goddammit Carrie, I need you” and she replies, “And I said, I’m not that person any more”, and it must have been so hard for her to make that decision knowing that it was partly because of her that the friendship broke down and that she’s hurting Saul by cutting him off emotionally, but I think it really was the right decision.  She needs to protect herself and not allow herself to become emotionally vulnerable, and she can’t risk the same friendship break up happening again.  The emotional bond broke when they first became distanced from each other and that would be impossible to rebuild.

I found that really, really useful to think about because Carrie was as close to Saul as I was to my best friend, and they were close for a similar length of time.  Like me and my friend, they were very different people and the friendship was intense but also dependent on mutual communication.  Saul changed and moved on in a very similar way to my friend but Carrie stayed in the same emotionally intense state she’s always been in even if she’s learning to manage it more effectively now, and I think Saul just got to a point where he couldn’t tolerate it any more.  As Carrie grows, both as an officer and as person, she starts to act outside of Saul’s influence or instruction a lot more and doesn’t need his approval as much as she did in the past and Saul’s focussed on his career progression and the agency, so once they’ve split it’s really difficult for them to bond in the same way again.  I think it’s similar with my friend- we’ve both gone in very different directions over the last few years (or, more accurately, she’s moved on and I’ve stayed in the same place) and we don’t have the same sort of mutual connection any more that we had growing up.  It’s really hard to deal with and it really, really hurts but there’s nothing I can do to change that and that’s where the DBT skills come in.

It’s still hurting too much to draw any sort of line under it and I’m feeling like a mess of intense vertigo and stinging pain at the moment, but I’m hoping that I can get to the point that Carrie reached where, although there was a massive part of her that wanted to reconnect with Saul, she realised that it wasn’t possible, ‘real’ or healthy and made the decision to consciously distance herself and move on from it.  I have no idea how this will turn out and if my friend will even realise I’ve unfriended her, but I can’t do anything more and I need to distance from the whole situation.  So I’m going to try not to fixate on it or obsess over possibilities, and I want to eventually move on and accept whatever happens from here…

Obsessions

This picture came up on my Facebook feed this morning and made me smile because it’s pretty much an accurate description of my brain!  I’ve had obsessions ever since I can remember- when I was really little, it was the colour yellow (EVERYTHING had to be yellow and when I started school, I wouldn’t use a pencil unless it was yellow and my mum had to explain to the teacher that I had a fixation on yellow and that it wasn’t an issue but it would be easier for everyone if I was allowed to write with a yellow pencil) then it changed to Button Moon and Maple Town before Play Days and the Sooty Show which I can still remember episodes of vividly now at the age of nearly 30 and occasionally show kids I babysit, and at age 7 the yellow obsession changed to purple which was more socially acceptable at school and also happened to be the colour of the Unicorn Club in Sweet Valley which became a pretty major obsession from the age of 8 and is still there in the background now as is my lifelong merpeople obsession.  Over the last 20 years, my ‘major’ obsessions have ranged from Bad Girls and Disney to languages and fairy tales, David Bowie and Pink Floyd to Narnia and Harry Potter, Formula One and astronomy to Pokemon and the Sims and most of them have carried on in the background mainly as coping mechanisms, occasionally reactivating while my ‘current’ obsession is very much Homeland and Carrie Mathison in particular.

These sorts of obsessive interests are something that’s really changed who I am, how I live my life and the way I look at things in a mostly positive way, and now I think of them as ‘good’ obsessions.  I haven’t always seen them in that way- until I was in my early 20s, I hated my obsessions because they were ‘weird’ and people often commented on the intensity of them.  As a teenager, I tried to write my GCSE English coursework about Bad Girls (which wasn’t allowed), virtually lived on the Bad Girls message board which I’ve recently reactivated, watched Bad Girls DVDs incessantly, took the book with me everywhere, tried to get other people to watch it too…  My mum thought it was ‘wrong’ that I was that obsessed with a TV show and banned me from mentioning it at home, and that made it even harder.  At school, I was obsessed with languages which led to a slight idolisation of my languages teacher and I was told that that, and the fact that all my friends were several years younger than me, was “worrying”.  If I’d been born two years later, I’m pretty sure my Asperger’s diagnosis would have come a lot early than age 19 and maybe I wouldn’t have felt like such a weird obsessive freak but in the late 90s/early 00s, not many people had heard of autism and I had no idea that obsessive interests are one of the key characteristics of autistic people, along with difficulties making friends your own age, needing to stick to routines, ‘latching on’ to specific people, seeming ‘weird’ or not fitting in, getting exhausted or overwhelmed being around people, and basically everything I thought was ‘wrong’ and hated about myself growing up.  Which is one of the reasons I’m so passionate about promoting awareness of autism now!

Now, at the age of nearly 30, I actually really like and appreciate my obsessions and wouldn’t want to lose the ability to hyper-focus on specific topic, have an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything about it, and having the amazing, hyper-excitement of watching/reading about/writing about whatever it happens to be.  Thanks to the internet, I’ve been able to start a Homeland blog which people actually read even though each blog post is obsessively detailed and close to 10 000 words per post.  I’ve since expanded into twitter, instagram, Facebook and email accounts for my Carrie blog and a lot of people seem to think that I’m actually involved with the show or with the character which I’m very definitely not and keep reinforcing that but it’s so nice that people think that level of interest or obsession is a positive thing and so many people have given me lovely feedback and seem to consider me some kind of Homeland expert which is AMAZING.  If the internet had existed the way it does now when I was a teenager, my Bad Girls obsession might have been more acceptable and this sort of connection is one of the main reasons I use the internet so much.

The downside to having an obsessive-type brain is that there are also ‘bad obsessions’ which I hate more than any other aspect of any mental health issues I’ve experienced and which I’m still trying to find strategies to deal with.  These didn’t start to develop until I was in my early teens and I can remember vividly the first time I experienced it at the end of Year 8.  They range from OCD-type thoughts to paranoia and sometimes both, and nearly always involve other people.  My first experience of it was when I was 13 and went to a kids’ club during the summer.  I made ‘friends’ with one of the young leaders who was 19 at the time, and started to really look up to her.  This meant that I started be become hyperaware of everything I did/said and started to get a lot of anxiety about upsetting her or doing something wrong.  I was only in the kids’ club for two weeks but the fixation about wanting her to like me lasted about nearly six months.  I had no idea what it was and really, really hated it as well as being a bit scared of the way my brain was fixating on another person.  It wasn’t a ‘crush’- there were no romantic or sexual feelings, but I ‘needed’ her approval and that really freaked me out because I hadn’t experienced anything like that before.

That sort of fixation happened several times when I was a teenager with different people I looked up to (teachers, adults I admired, college tutors, nurses etc) and I had no idea how to manage the feelings.  It was INTENSE- like constant vertigo/anxiety and occasional palpitations if I got too affected by it, and it made me feel so guilty and physically sick.  There wasn’t any sort of physical attraction and I kind of wished there was just so it would ‘fit’ into some sort of category (a ‘crush’ would be so much more acceptable than a weird, intense ‘need you to like me’ sort of thing) but it sort of took over my life when I was a teenager to the point that that person’s approval was the most important thing in the world to me and I would do ANYTHING not to upset them.  Apparently this sort of thing is actually pretty common in people, particularly females, with ASD but since I’d never heard of autism or anything even vaguely related to that when I was a teenager, I was convinced there was something seriously wrong with my brain and that I was a weird freak who would end up as some kind of stalker when I was older.

Because I didn’t understand the obsessive thoughts and feelings, I had no idea how to manage them and they started to manifest more physically- vertigo and nausea, and almost constant shakiness.  I’m still not totally sure how it got to the stage that it did but at the beginning of Year 9, I decided (completely irrationally) that the reason I was getting these thoughts/feelings and the reason I didn’t have many friends was because I’d put on too much weight and developed too early.  I think it might partly have been because the intense obsessive feelings started around the same time I got my first period and I’d put on a lot of weight over that year (which I know now is a biological change due to developing breasts and hips), but I decided to be ‘healthy’ and lose weight in an attempt to get rid of the feelings.  So, at the beginning of Year 9, I stopped eating anything that wasn’t 100% healthy and became slightly obsessive about what I did/didn’t eat.  I can’t remember much from that time except that my mum thought I wasn’t eating enough and when I passed out at school, she made me go the GP who referred me to an eating disorders service but I never went to the appointments and I think people must have forgotten about it.

I didn’t really lose weight at that point even though I’d cut down a lot on my food intake which I can see now was because I was still growing but I thought it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough.  By Year 10, the obsessions had intensified to a point where I genuinely couldn’t deal with it much longer- it was starting to really interfere with my schoolwork and a lot of people at school, including teachers, were commenting on it and I felt like a really, really horrible person.  So I started skipping lunch at school partly because of nausea and vertigo, partly because my friends were all a lot younger than me and had a different time to go into lunch, and partly because I wanted to actually lose weight.  I realised pretty quickly that being hungry ‘overtook’ the vertigo and started to miss breakfast too.  By Year 11, I was going days without eating then being ‘made’ to eat by my mum which would lead to bingeing and vomiting, and I had the amazing realisation that vomiting was the most effective solution I’d found for ‘getting rid’ of the vertigo and nausea because it was physical and ‘forced’ the feelings out of my stomach.  They came back pretty quickly afterwards but during the binge/purge itself, there was a brief escape which I started to get dependent on.  After GCSEs, my mum made me go back to the GP because I’d started to feel dizzy a lot but I didn’t tell her about the vomiting and just said I’d been tired so she did a blood test and told me I was anaemic.  That was OK for my mum so I started to take iron tablets and since I hadn’t really lost weight at all, she didn’t comment on my eating habits.

That cycle carried on for the whole of Year 12 but by the summer, I realised that it wasn’t enough- it was helping to ‘manage’ the obsessive thoughts/feelings and stop them from getting too overwhelming but I really needed to actually get rid of them.  They’d spread to friendships by that point and I’d lost several close friends by being too intense/clingy or getting paranoid that they weren’t talking to me and over-texting, and I was finding it so hard to deal with.  I also had A levels coming up and I hadn’t done as well in my GCSEs and AS levels as I knew I could have done because about 80% of my brain was taken up with obsessive or paranoid thoughts, and I knew I needed to do something about it.  The bingeing was OK but it was only a temporary relief and I’d stopped getting hungry when I missed breakfast and lunch.  So, in Year 13, I decided that I was going to try to ‘take control’ of my body and try to get rid of the vertigo/nausea completely.  I devised a ‘healthy’ plan which involved exercising several hours a day, not eating anything that might trigger a binge (because I was aware that you retain about 70% of the calories from a binge and I knew that might be a reason the vertigo came back), and eating less than 800 calories a day spread out during the day to try to speed up my metabolism.

At first, I still didn’t lose weight and the vertigo/nausea continued but after a couple of months, I noticed that I’d started to get hungry again which again overrode the vertigo.  I got really excited about that and reduced my calories to 500 a day, and finally started to lose weight.  Amazingly once I’d lost just over a stone, the vertigo and obsessive thoughts disappeared completely and I just felt numb and slightly zoned out which was like euphoria compared to the intense vertigo/nausea I’d experienced for the previous few years.  So I kept up the weight loss, reducing calories to 300 a day when I stopped getting hungry again, and by the time I did my A levels my brain was clear again and I could actually focus on revision and getting the work done.  I ended up getting a lot better A level results than I thought I would- big improvement on GCSE and AS levels, and I felt calmer and more ‘acceptable’ than I had done since primary school.  Unfortunately, the weight loss had become an issue physical health-wise and I had to go into treatment as an inpatient in an eating disorder service which kind of took over for the next few years which I won’t go into here because that’s not the point of this blog post.

The really frustrating part of all of it is that I kind of have to choose between ‘bad’ obsessions and ED thoughts and for me, the ED side is actually easier to deal with because I don’t feel like such as weird, horrible freak and it’s more ‘understandable’.  It’s also complicated by the ‘bitch in my head’ (see Inside my head… and Thinking about the Impostor Phenomenon and the Inner Critic) who approves of the ED restriction and exercise (although she hates the bingeing) and criticises me constantly for being such as weak, obsessive freak and giving in to obsessive thoughts and urges while also telling me that people hate or aren’t talking to me which makes my brain feel like it’s jammed and totally contradictory.  She shuts up when I lose enough weight which is another reason that being a low BMI feels safer.  But I know that being severely underweight isn’t a good idea for so many other reasons (osteoporosis, heart problems, impact on kids, people judging you, feeling like you’re genuinely going to die every time you get even a minor cold) and my metabolism seems to have adjusted to a low calorie intake now anyway and I gain weight if I eat more than about 600 calories in a day.

I’d love it if my brain could just have ‘good’ obsessions and never have the horrible, paranoid, vertigo-y obsessive thoughts that have led to losing nearly every close relationship I’ve ever had, but I have no idea how to have one without the other.  Another reason I don’t like being underweight is that I feel dissociated and numb most of the time which means no ‘bad’ obsessions but also no positive ones which wasn’t a problem when I was a teenager and thought the obsessions were weird anyway but now I really rely on them as a way to channel extreme emotions or distract from paranoid thoughts.  It feels like my life’s a constant distraction technique though and I always seem to be trying to manage obsessive thoughts or compulsive urges and intense vertigo or a stinging/choking sensation in my chest, and I don’t know if this is just part of having ASD or if there’s something else I can do to get rid of it.  Am currently trying to access mental health services in a new area in the hope that someone can tell me what it is and how to get rid of it, so am REALLY hoping something will help although having been accessing various services on and off for the last 16 years, I’m not overly optimistic…!

So far, the positive strategies that I’d found that do seem to have some sort of useful effect are writing (blogging and creative), DBT skills particularly the emotion regulation and distress tolerance, Harry Potter skills (see Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, Part One: HARRY POTTER and Occlumency), some aspects of ACT like being compassionate to or ‘accepting’ the bitch in my head and trying to acknowledge what she says without actually believing it, and seeing the bitch in my head as a separate ‘being’ who isn’t reflective of absolute truth or what is actually going on in my brain.  They don’t always work and some days, nothing seems to work but the thoughts and feelings are definitely less intense than they were when I was a teenager (which is definitely partly due to medication but I don’t think that’s the only reason) and I’m really hoping that I’ll come across a strategy/therapy/model that actually works completely some day…  Any input welcome!!

Why I really need to start running properly again!

Over the last few months, I’ve really got out of the habit of running every day which is something I definitely need to change.  It’s partly because of feeling rubbish and unmotivated and general ‘can’t-be-botheredness’, partly because I’m feeling exhausted and drained all the time, and partly because (to be honest) I’m just really lazy at the moment and it takes enough psyching up to actually go out of my bedroom and go to work let alone go for a run!  But I think that really isn’t helping my mood either and I’m pretty sure it’s a cycle that’s going to keep repeating unless I actually do something about it…

This weekend was the first Ultra Festival organised by an awesome ultra runner called Andy Nuttall, and it was basically a chance for lots of ultra runners to meet, discuss ultrarunning and listen to talks by experienced ultra runners.  I really, really wanted to go and booked tickets but when it came to Friday night and actually driving to Bristol, I got really anxious about it and talked myself out of going because I was scared of camping on my own, the cold and spending a weekend with people I don’t know.  I felt really bad about that yesterday and had a pretty shitty day (see yesterday’s post Opposite Action in action- more DBT!), and decided last night that I would set my alarm for really early this morning and drive down for the day.

When my alarm went off at 6am, I was exhausted and really didn’t want to get up which really isn’t like me (I’m usually awake at 4/5am and NEVER sleep in).  I was so, so close to going back to sleep but I forced myself to get up and have a coffee, reminding myself that I could always go back to bed afterwards.  I spent the next 30 minutes arguing with the slightly paranoid part of my brain which was telling me that it was too far to drive for one day and I’d probably have an accident on the motorway, I’m not a ‘real’ ultra runner anyway and people would wonder why I was there or laugh at me, I’d be totally wiped out for college tomorrow and probably get into trouble for being rubbish at my job…  Then I saw some posts on Facebook about the event and felt really jealous of people there and annoyed with myself, so I took that as an opportunity to make myself get in the car and start driving.  Unfortunately that meant I completely forgot to take water or diet Coke but I rationalised that I could always stop and get some on the way.

The drive down was weirdly OK- no major panics, not much traffic and found the Ultra Festival OK.  When I arrived, I was so, so nervous and really close to driving back home again but then I saw Mimi Anderson who is an amazing, amazing ultra runner who I’ve been following online for the last few years and who is my running inspiration and semi-idol, and I suddenly went all fangirl-y and nervous for a totally different reason.  So I got out the car and kind of hung about watching people because I had no idea where to go.  Then, AMAZINGLY, Mimi came up to me and introduced herself, and she recognised me from Facebook!!  It felt SO WEIRD to be actually talking to someone I really look up to but she was so lovely and showed me where to go, then introduced me to a few people which was so nice of her.  Everyone was lovely and really, really friendly which made it a lot easier although I was still very shaky and terrified.  But I could speak!  Usually when I’m that nervous, my throat seizes up and I can’t say anything but people were so nice and accepting that amazingly that didn’t happen.

The talks were incredible!  There was a really interesting one about the biomechanics of running and running form which I found really useful because I’ve never actually thought about my running form before- I just run.  Then Sarah Morwood did an amazing and really inspirational talk about injury and recovering from that, and how to deal with it.  She gave a lot of really good advice about taking things slowly, focussing on small achievements, finding other outlets like drawing or blogging, and lots of other really useful advice.  I was talking to her afterwards and she is so, so nice and friendly.  She was one of the easiest people to talk to I’ve ever met and was so nice to meet her- thanks Sarah, made the ‘lunch’ part of the day so much less scary!

Then James Adams did an equally interesting talk about his running career and various amazing races he’s done via ten things he’s learned from ultrarunning.  They were all really useful and humourous, and I especially loved the ‘Be More Zebra’ one which (apart from a slightly traumatic photo of a lion attacking a zebra) was really useful not just for running.  He said that zebras are the least stressed animal in the world as they’ve been measured to have the lowest level of cortisol even though they’re constantly in danger of being attacked because they only focus on the present moment and don’t worry about things they can’t control.  That links a lot to DBT mindfulness skills (thought defusion, observing thoughts without fixating on them etc) and is definitely something I really need to work on.  So thanks for the new mantra James, I will definitely try to ‘Be More Zebra’…!

After James’ talk, Mimi gave an incredibly inspirational talk about her INCREDIBLE adventures, world record attempts (and successes) and frankly mind-blowing races she’s done in every condition from Arctic ice roads to the Peruvian jungle.  I came across Mimi’s blog a few years ago and was completely blown away by the incredible events she’s taken part in- the woman is superwoman!!  And she didn’t even start running until she was 36 which is pretty incredible and so inspirational to people like me who really weren’t runners or into sports at all at school.  I’ve used her as inspiration on so many runs before- when my brain starts telling me I’m rubbish, I haven’t looked after my body well enough to do long runs, I’m selfish etc, I think about the amazing things Mimi’s achieved and try to channel at least some of that.  It was so interesting to hear her talk about starting running and how her mindset was ‘if other people can do it, why can’t I?’ which is definitely how I try to think of ultras, and I find it incredible that she managed to run the Marathon des Sables having only run a half marathon before!  AWESOME woman.

The whole day was amazing and really reminded me why I love running, and why I really need to start running properly again- it’s the freedom of it, the amazing feeling of oneness and connection with yourself and with the world around you, the ultrarunning community, the amazingness of pushing your body to its limits AND REALISING YOU CAN.  There were people there who had run multi day events of hundreds of miles, had pushed through any limits, and who were so amazingly inspirational.  And, to paraphrase Mimi, if they can do it why can’t I?  Feeling rubbish really isn’t an excuse and I know that in reality, running would probably make me feel more real and help to get rid of the pretty much constant vertigo and vacuumness that comes with feeling low and not doing enough to get rid of it.  So, I REALLY need to start training for the 100 mile race I’ve signed up for in July… 🙂

Thanks so much Andy for organising it and thanks to everyone who gave talks, and to the people who chatted in between talks- you are all amazing people!!  DEFINITELY coming again next year for the whole thing… 😀

Opposite Action in action- more DBT!

Had a bit of a rubbish day today :/ not for any particular reason, just been feeling rubbish and vertigo-y again and I’ve had a weird feeling in my chest that I can’t seem to shift at the moment- it’s like a stinging mass in my chest and towards the back of my throat, and it feels almost like it’s choking me or making me want to cry all the time but I can’t actually cry.  No idea what it is!  Some days it’s stronger than others and today it’s been particularly bad.

I think it’s partly because I wrote a blog post about relationships over the last few days and even though I deliberately avoided talking about the recent loss of a very close friendship, I’ve been thinking about it more again and the horrible, punched-in-the-stomach feelings from that have re-emerged which really hasn’t helped.  I’ve had a really busy and emotionally draining week anyway- I went to stay with my best friend for a few days which was amazing but my energy and motivation levels are a bit non-existent at the moment and it completely wiped me out, then I had a job interview which didn’t go great and I felt completely zoned and exhausted afterwards.  I was meant to go a running festival this weekend but I couldn’t get the energy to actually go and the thought of driving there and camping without knowing anyone made me feel really, really anxious and I somehow managed to convince myself that I would die of hypothermia if I went which is obviously completely irrational but that’s what I thought at the time.  I feel really guilty and stupid for not going, and I think that’s partly why I’m feeling so rubbish today.  HATE being such a wimp sometimes!

Anyway, I decided to consciously use DBT skills today to try to cope with feeling vertigo-y and like my insides were being pulled out, which didn’t completely help but I’ve made it to almost bedtime without any major crises or obsessive messaging either my ex-best friend or current best friend which is definitely a positive!  I’m realising that, at the moment, avoiding unhelpful behaviours is an achievement in itself even if I’m still feeling rubbish or having obsessive thoughts by the end of the day and DBT says that changing behaviours should ultimately affect how you think and feel so I’m trying to keep reminding myself of that at the moment…

FullSizeRender 2.jpgThe first DBT skill I tried was distraction techniques.  I’ve got a ‘coping card’ which has ideas for things to do to manage intense emotions and although I didn’t know exactly what the horrible vertigo-y feeling was, I went with ‘low or zoned out’ and tried some of the ideas…  Cuddling my cat did actually help a bit especially as I haven’t seen her in nearly a week and I think we both had a sudden overload of oxytocin which was really, really nice but unfortunately my cat is really timid and doesn’t like too much attention so she ran off and wouldn’t let me near her after about ten minutes.  Then I had a bit of an energy crash and fell asleep on the sofa which again was good because it switched off from horrible, starting to get paranoid thoughts but when I woke up, I felt really vertigo-y and guilty again and ended up bingeing which made me feel temporarily better (throwing up does actually help with the physical vertigo-y feeling in my stomach) but then I felt even worse afterwards.  So I went on the cross trainer but it was a bit of a compulsive ‘need’ to rather than actually being useful and I felt slightly dissociated and horrible again after that.

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I’d realised by then that the distraction techniques weren’t really enough so I went back home (I’d been at my parents’ house which is one of my binge triggers) and got my DBT book out again.  I’ve found opposite action really useful before so I tried to work through what I was thinking and urges to see if I could make any sense of it.  It was hard because I was still feeling zoned out and out of sync with my body, but I was getting stronger urges to contact my ex-best friend again which I can’t do because she’s specifically asked me not to, and a lot of the feeling rubbish was connected to that.  I realised I hadn’t watched the first few seasons of Bad Girls since we’d ‘broken up’ (friendship-wise) because we used to watch it together and it was a really big part of my teenage years, and there’s a Bad Girls convention this year which I really want to go to but I don’t know if I’ll be able to manage the emotional intensity of it, so I decided to watch season three of Bad Girls which was/is my favourite season to see if it would help.

It was WEIRD.  Mega, mega intense emotions, still vertigo and feeling guilty but the intense feelings I used to get watching Bad Girls (excitement, borderline euphoria, connection) also kicked it and I was literally shaking, heart racing and actually crying while I was watching it.  I started colouring as well to try to calm down a bit but the BG-related emotions were helping to displace the vertigo and watching it really did seem to have been a good thing to do.  I only let myself watch four episodes (I could easily watch the whole season) then forced myself to go for a run to continue with the ‘opposite action’ techniques.  I really, really didn’t feel like running and was forcing my feet to move but I managed six miles and started to feel a bit more ‘real’ which was definitely a good thing.

After the run, I felt OK for about half an hour and talked to my housemate about completely mundane things which was nice and definitely helped to feel more ‘real’.  But the vertigo started to kick in again and I really, really wanted to look at my ex-friend’s FB page and maybe message her, and the thoughts were getting really persistent.  I did half-consider acting on it but I know rationally that that’s probably the worst thing I could do, and I started to feel really shaky and anxious about it.  I did go on her FB page which I know I shouldn’t have done and I felt really guilty.  DBT skills had kind of gone out the window by then and I put Bad Girls back on in an attempt to completely distract.

Acting opposite really didn’t feel possible any more and my brain had turned to obsessive fuzz, and I went back to a coping strategy I’ve used since I was a teenager- playing Sims.  It’s weird but it really does work and I made my Sim hang out with the Sim of my old best friend which I know isn’t the best way to deal with it and move on but it did really help to manage the obsessive urges to contact her because it really does feel like you’re spending time with the other person.  After a while, the urges had calmed down a bit and I felt a lot like when I was a weird, obsessive 14 year old again.  Using the Sims like that is definitely a last resort but it really does work when I’m in an intense, obsessive state and I think it’s more important to manage that it a not-destructive way even if it isn’t massively constructive.  After I came off the Sims, I was still feeling very vertigo-y and like I’d been punched in the stomach, and still had some urges to contact my friend but I wrote a letter to my old university tutor (who I got on really well with) instead and that actually really helped because I miss seeing her and it helped to channel some of the ‘need to contact’ urges.

So, amazingly, I’ve actually managed to make it to bedtime without contacting my friend!  I did message another friend maybe a bit too much as a way of distracting but I don’t think she minded and although I know it’s still something I need to work on, it’s a LOT better than it has been and considering how horrible I’ve felt for most of the day, one binge really isn’t too bad and I’ve eaten at least one ‘real’ meal which is again better than I’ve done before after bingeing.  And I went for a run (even if I didn’t enjoy it), and I haven’t fallen asleep since the relatively short nap this morning so I’m counting it as a positive day even if I’ve been feeling rubbish.  I think it really was triggered by writing about relationships yesterday and need to be more aware of that for next time, especially if I’m already emotionally knackered.  Learning curve!

Bipolar Affective Disorder and the Autism Spectrum: Looking Through the Eyes of Carrie Mathison — Carrie Mathison’s Diary

Obvious disclaimer before I start this blog post: I am not a psychiatrist, and I am not attempting to ‘diagnose’ Carrie with anything apart from obviously recognising the bipolar disorder that we already know she experiences. I’m writing this from an interested perspective and as a way to look more deeply into Carrie’s character. From […]

via Bipolar Affective Disorder and the Autism Spectrum: Looking Through the Eyes of Carrie Mathison — Carrie Mathison’s Diary

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.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, Part One: HARRY POTTER

This was up in the library at college this week and I thought it was AMAZING.  As any regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a massive Harry Potter fan and I think there is so much in the Harry Potter series which is relevant and useful for mental health awareness and management.  So that’s what I’m going to focus this blog post on, and I’m also going to write another post later on in the week about relationships which is the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK.

The obvious link between the Harry Potter series and mental health issues is the one most people know about- Dementors being a sort of metaphor for depression.  This is something J.K. Rowling has said herself, and it’s probably the idea that most people reading Harry Potter can relate to because even people who haven’t experienced clinical depression can relate to feeling low, sad or numb.  When I first read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban aged 12, the Dementor on the train terrified me and I couldn’t listen to that part of the audiobook going to sleep because it really freaked me out and I would see Dementors behind the curtains in my bedroom or hovering by the ceiling.  Lupin describes them to Harry as “among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself- soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”  This is very close to how a lot of people experience depression- soulless, numb, drained, only able to think of negative thoughts and experiences…

At the time when I first read about Dementors, it scared me how close that was to how I sometimes felt and was weirdly comforting that Harry experienced something very similar when a lot of his classmates weren’t as affected by them and the idea of a Patronus (a charm to fight Dementors) fascinated me.  It’s only recently that I’ve started to actually use the Patronus idea after seeing a psychologist last year who suggested using imagery to respond to the bitch in my head, and I’m finding that the concept of a Patronus (focussing intensely on a positive feeling or memory and trying to channel that against negative thoughts and feelings) is actually kind of useful, especially when I link it to Occlumency which I’m going to talk about later on in this post.  I didn’t really know what depression was when I first read PoA but I could relate to it intensely and I think that the recognition of Dementors and Patronuses really helped prevent it from becoming too overwhelming when I was a teenager.

There are so many other concepts in Harry Potter that could be relevant to and potentially useful for mental health issues.  One of the main ones for me is Occlumency- the ability to close your mind to external penetration of thoughts or emotions.  I don’t hear voices or experience thought insertion or anything that someone with psychosis could experience on a daily basis but I do have a ‘bitch in my head’ who criticises me, shouts and makes me feel guilty all the time and I’ve found it really useful to think of it in a similar way to how Voldemort alters Harry’s thoughts and feelings.  I’ve been practising Occlumency- trying to clear my mind of thoughts and emotions before going to sleep at night, and it makes it easier to try not the let the bitch have full access to my thoughts and feelings during the day.  It’s really hard and often she gets in before I’ve even had time to try to prevent her, but focussing on Occlumency and really imagining my mind closing to her influence and stopping her from accessing emotions has started to be helpful in reducing how affected I feel by what she’s saying.  I think that, like with Voldemort, I can’t stop her from trying to access my mind but I can try to make my mind more resistant to penetration and that’s the whole idea of Occlumency.

As a teenager, I really identified with Luna Lovegood as a character.  When I first ‘met’ her in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I was 16 and having a lot of social issues at school- I didn’t fit in with my year group, most of my friends were several years younger than me, I was a bit ‘weird’…  Discovering Luna was amazing because it was like meeting myself in a book, and I really identified with so much of her ‘weirdness’ and social awkwardness.  I also loved how she didn’t seem affected by what other people thought of her and really wanted to be more like that.  There are a few moments especially which really get to me.  When her things have been taken near the end of OotP and she says “I think I’ll just go down and have some pudding and wait for it all to turn up – it always does in the end”, it makes me feel really weird and guilty because she’s so used to people taking  her things that she’s not even upset about it any more.

The quote that really, really gets to me is when she says to Harry, “I enjoyed the meetings, too. It was like having friends.”  I can totally relate to that- one of the reasons I worked with kids so much as a teenager was because it made me feel like I had friends, and when we see Luna’s bedroom in Deathly Hallows the description made me cry the first time I read it: “Luna had decorated her bedroom ceiling with five beautifully painted faces: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Neville. They were not moving as the portraits at Hogwarts moved, but there was a certain magic about them all the same: Harry thought they breathed. What appeared to be fine golden chains wove around the pictures, linking them together, but after examining them for a minute or so, Harry realised that the chains were actually one word, repeated a thousand times in golden ink: friends … friends … friends …”  Friends are so important to Luna and people don’t realise that about her.  When Harry invites her to Slughorn’s party as his friend, her reaction of “Oh, no, I’d love to go with you as friends!  Nobody’s ever asked me to a party before, as a friend!” really shows how much it means to her.  She’s the nicest and kindest character in the whole series but people tend to miss that because she’s a bit ‘different’ and doesn’t try to fit in.  I’m sure a lot of pre-teens/teenagers have related to and learned from her as a character, growing up.

There’s a lot in Harry Potter about identity too, which I’m not going to go into too much detail about because it could be a dissertation in itself (and was, actually, during my undergrad year…).  There are different aspects of identity- self identity, perceived identity, social identity, physical identity and so many more, and they’re almost all referenced in some way in the Harry Potter series.  I think the most relevant aspects to mental health are the ideas of split identity- Voldemort’s Horcruxes and how it relates to Harry, and Harry’s self identity.  I don’t want to write too much about this because I’ve never experienced full dissociation or alters but I think that the idea of Voldemort splitting his soul into seven pieces is significant for someone experiencing dissociative identity disorder, especially in the context of part of that soul being a part of Harry.  The whole idea really scares me and I was terrified of reading DH at night for years, but the idea of a part of a person’s soul being in another person really is terrifying.  Voldemort’s influence in Harry’s thoughts could work as a metaphor for psychosis (thought insertion, thought disorder, hallucinations, delusional beliefs…) and the whole idea is so scary.  But I also think that ‘externalising’ psychoses as something like Voldemort trying to infiltrate thoughts and feelings could actually be helpful in trying to manage it.  Obviously I have no idea since I have never *touch wood* experienced psychosis but it’s definitely helped me to manage obsessive or paranoid thoughts, and reduce the influence from the bitch in my head.

Paranoia is also a prominent theme in the later Harry Potter books, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who found this weirdly reassuring given the parallel rise of paranoia in the world in general after 9/11 which also happened to be the year that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released and Voldemort finally returned.  Coincidence but (to me, aged 14 anyway) a really, really scary one.  Alastor Moody is the classic example in Harry Potter of someone who’s overly aware of attackers but most of the characters experience paranoia to some extent, particularly after the battle in the Department of Mysteries.  The part that’s more important to me though is Harry’s own paranoia about Dumbledore in OotP.  He’s worried about Dumbledore ignoring him and when he isn’t chosen as Prefect, that reinforces his growing paranoia that Dumbledore isn’t talking to him.  This fear grows throughout the book, and he fixates on it as he worries and gets more and more upset.  As someone who’s often fixated on the idea that someone isn’t talking to me, I could totally relate to this and it was so comforting to know that it wasn’t just me.  The Dumbledore says to Harry near the end of the book (about Kreacher) that “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike”, he could have been talking about his own relationship with Harry and it’s one of the lines in the series that I can identify with most.

The last idea I’m going to talk about here is obsessive thoughts and how they are experienced and managed in Harry Potter.  Voldemort is obsessed with living forever and achieving absolute power, and Harry experiences this with his fixation on the Department of Mysteries in OotP.  The way that Snape teaches Harry to deal with this is Occlumency, which I’ve already talked about and is equally relevant to obsessive thoughts.  Snape himself is still obsessed with Lily Potter decades on and the intense emotion and thoughts be feels in relation to her affect everything from how he interacts with Harry to his role in the Order of the Phoenix.  In Deathly Hallows, wearing the Horcrux necklace causes the wearer to become obsessed with thinking about things that make them feel vulnerable or angry, and it nearly leads to the end of Harry and Ron’s friendship before the Horcrux is finally destroyed.  In Philosopher’s Stone, Harry becomes obsessed with the Mirror of Erised before Dumbledore reminds him that “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” which is another quote that I’ve found really, really useful to remember when I’m experiencing obsessive thoughts or fixations.

There is so much in Harry Potter which is relevant to mental health issues and I’m sure I’ll talk about it again in later posts!  If anyone has any suggestions or feedback, please email me at rainbowsandrecovery@gmail.com 🙂

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.