Yet another apology post!

Hi guys, just another apology post for not writing much recently! Not been feeling great and been a bit dissociated a lot of the time which hasn’t helped 😦 back to work next week though which I’m REALLY hoping will help…

Got a few blog posts which I’m halfway through writing though so will hopefully post properly again soon. I attempted a run across Scotland which was really tough and had to withdraw partway through so trying to write about that, and been doing a lot of thinking about ED, recovery and what it actually is (kind of following from the post I wrote last year Thoughts about ED recovery but probably more confused by now!) so also trying to make enough sense of it to write about that too.  Fingers crossed I’ll have a proper post written soon and thanks so much to anyone still reading this blog!

Of Mice and Men- thoughts and reflections

Sorry for not keeping up with massively regular blog posts 😦 been feeling v negative and rubbish over the last couple of weeks and haven’t had anything particularly positive to write about, and since this is meant to be a constructive (and honest) recovery blog there didn’t seem much point in writing about feeling horrible and down.  It’s nothing major, just end of term rubbishness and a build up of feeling lonely and negative which I’m definitely working on but taking more time than I’d hoped.

I know this is going to seem like a bit of a random blog post but we’ve been reading Of Mice and Men with Year 9 at school over the last couple of months and I’ve found it really hard to read and talk about with the kids, and it’s got to the point where I feel rubbish for the rest of the day every time I’m in Year 9 English so I wanted to try to think more about it and process it so that next time we do it in class (this time next year), it hopefully won’t be as much of an issue.  Plus I think it’s been adding to the general feeling rubbish recently which I really don’t like so want to try to work out why and how I can manage that better given that it really is just a fictional book!  Quick disclaimer: I am going to talk about the whole book so spoiler alert if you haven’t read it and MASSIVE trigger alert for anyone affected by learning difficulties, autism or emotion regulation issues.

I read it for the first time last year when we studied it in class with the kids.  It’s an easyish story to follow- set in 1930s America, there are two main characters called George and Lennie who work on a ranch to try to save enough money to get their own farm.  George is a sharp, smart man whose ultimate goal is to own his own farm and live off the land and his friend/travelling companion Lennie who has a type of learning disability (it’s never really explained) and who is absolutely, 100% loyal and devoted to George.  George protects Lennie; Lennie would do anything for George.  But Lennie also finds it hard to recognise, manage and control his own emotions which is ultimately what gets him into trouble even though he doesn’t recognise it at the time.  At the end of the book, Lennie gets into so much trouble that he is going to be lynched by the men on the ranch so George shoots him in the back of the head (without him realising) as an act of kindness and to save him from a much more painful death.

When we read it last year, there were lots of bits of the book that got to me- Lennie accidentally killing small animals by petting them too hard (made me feel really guilty), Candy’s dog getting shot because he was old, Lennie being left out because he didn’t have the same ‘urges’ as the other men (they go into town to play cards, drink and pick up women leaving Lennie behind), Lennie hurting Curley without meaning to because Curley provoked him and building up to the end of the book which is genuinely traumatic to read and makes me feel like someone’s physically punched me in the stomach and is twisting my insides into vertigo.  Even though I know what’s coming, it’s still a visceral feeling and makes me shake and my eyes sting, and it’s hard not to cry even though I know I can’t in front of a class of 14 year olds.

In the last couple of scenes, Lennie is approached by Curley’s wife who is a seductive, lonely woman and who invites Lennie to stroke her hair.  Lennie likes soft things and strokes it.  I can’t remember all the details because I avoid reading this part of the book as much as possible (one teacher I work with is amazing and always warns me when we’re reading this part of the book so I can do work somewhere else for that lesson) but basically she shouts at him to stop, Lennie panics and holds tighter, he tries to stop her shouting but she’s trying to get away and he accidentally breaks her neck.  Then he runs and hides in the brush (near the river) because that’s where George told him to hide and wait if he got into trouble.  George hears about what has happened and goes to find Lennie.  He knows that if the men on the ranch find him first, they will rip him to pieces so he makes the decision to shoot Lennie himself in a humane way so that Lennie won’t suffer or even know anything about it.

Last year, the bit that got to me the most was Lennie accidentally killing Curley’s wife- he genuinely didn’t mean to and he was actually trying to AVOID trouble at the time.  He told her repeatedly to leave him alone and that he wasn’t meant to be talking to her but she kept on talking to him, and finally he lost control completely which really, really wasn’t his fault.  It’s hard when you know that a situation isn’t safe and you need to escape but you can’t- it’s a horrible feeling and the more trapped you feel, the worse it gets and something builds up inside you until eventually you ‘snap’ and can’t control it any more, and it really is like an ‘animal’ urge takes over.  I used to get like that a lot when I had more regular meltdowns and it really is horrible- you don’t really remember much about the actual experience but it’s horrible and exhausting.  All I know is that I’m suddenly screaming, sweating massively, crying, pulling my hair out, banging my head against the door/cupboard/floor, biting or scratching myself or ANYTHING to try to get rid of the crazy intense emotion that seems to have taken over completely.

The only way to get rid of it is for the other person to leave you alone completely but that hardly ever happens and it’s genuinely horrible because you can’t speak or express anything coherently, and you know you’re acting totally irrationally but nothing seems to make sense.  Thankfully I don’t experience it much any more but it still happens occasionally and I really, really hate it.  That’s how I’m guessing Lennie felt at the time when he accidentally killed Curley’s wife, and the really horrible thing is that I can imagine how easily it could happen- I’m a 5 foot 4 relatively small woman who’s not that strong but Lennie in the book is described as massive and very strong, so I can see completely how easy it would have been for that to happen if he felt trapped and panicky.  And I also know how horrible and guilty I feel after having a meltdown and that must have been multiplied a million times for Lennie, especially as he’s worried he’s going to lose his only friend who means more to him than absolutely anything else.  So it’s a really, really horrible part of the book to read.

Weirdly when we read it this time, it was actually the next scene that got to me the most. When Lennie’s waiting in the brush, he starts to hallucinate and the visions he sees and hears are horrible, negative and critical.  It’s like his version of the ‘bitch in my head’ and some of the things they say are almost word for word what the bitch in my head says (and is saying on a pretty much hourly basis atm), and that was really surreal and hard to read.  The line that gets to me the most and that I can’t get out of my head atm is when the giant rabbit that Lennie hallucinates keeps telling him that George is going to leave him.  This is the quote from the book:

“Well, he’s sick of you,” said the rabbit. “He’s gonna beat hell outa you an’ then go away an’ leave you.”

“He won’t,” Lennie cried frantically. “He won’t do nothing like that. I know George. Me an’ him travels together.”

But the rabbit repeated softly over and over, “He gonna leave you, ya crazy bastard. He gonna leave ya all alone. He gonna leave ya, crazy bastard.”

Just typing it makes me cry and I’ve got mega vertigo even thinking about it.  Because it’s so bloody true, and I know it’s not just people with learning disabilities who can relate to that.  I know I’m not the easiest person in the world to be friends with- I’m too intense, clingy, overly sensitive and even though I try not to act on it, people always get fed up with me and I hardly ever manage to keep close friends because of being too ‘much’.  I lost my closest friend a couple of years ago (wrote a few blog posts about it last year- see Friendships and mindfulness and TOO MUCH EMOTION especially) and since then I’ve realised that it’s pretty much impossible to form and keep close friendships because I’m always going to lose them, which is horrible and hard to accept but it’s definitely safer to recognise and try to accept it than keep losing friendships that I’ve accidentally got too attached to.  But even though I can recognise that, it doesn’t stop it hurting and definitely doesn’t stop the paranoia about it which is particularly intense atm because of losing another close relationship a few months ago, and reading Lennie’s hallucinations which basically mirror my own ‘voices’ and paranoia was a bit too intense and surreal, especially as I’m already feeling more vertigo-y and rubbish than I was this time last year.

The other part of the ending of the novel that really got to my both last year and this year is George shooting Lennie.  Last year, it got to me because of the more obvious reason- however ‘kind’ the action is, Lennie is being killed because he is ‘too much’ and can’t manage his own emotions, and I could identify with that way too much.  When I read it for the first time last year, it made me feel rubbish and horrible because of feeling like I wasn’t good enough, people were fed up with me and it would be better for everyone if I didn’t exist and I still had those feelings this year but it was lot more intensified and with the added complexity that reading it a year on, I actually felt almost envious of Lennie and then felt massively guilty and horrible for feeling that.  It’s really hard to explain and I feel really weird and guilty for trying to put it into words, but I do feel very, very jealous that Lennie has a friend as close as George is and who is willing to put his (Lennie’s) needs above his own feelings.  I hadn’t really thought about George’s perspective on it before but we had to discuss it in class and he must have felt massively conflicted and guilty for effectively having to kill his best friend and probably the only genuine human connection he has.  In class, the kids had to come up with what they thought would happen next (George gets his own ranch, George meets a girl and settles with a family, George continues to work at the ranch etc) but my main thought was that George would now be totally alone and probably wouldn’t be able to deal with the guilt and loneliness, and I honestly think he’d probably use the gun on himself.  Which makes the ending of the book doubly sad and horrible to process.

The hardest thoughts I have about the end of the book though are definitely the horrible jealousy about Lennie and George’s relationship, and particularly Lennie’s death.  Because at the moment, I’m totally aware that I’m constantly ‘too much’ for people and the only way that seems to work to manage that (the over-emotion, mood swings and obsessiveness) is through food and weight which annoyingly also seems to end up affecting other people and there genuinely doesn’t seem to be a ‘safe’ solution.  I’m not saying I’d ‘do’ anything about it because that would also be ‘too much’ and affect other people (especially given that I work with kids) but Lennie is lucky in that he has a friend who is able to see the bigger picture and act in a way that is probably the safest and most humane way for him in the long term, and saves him future suffering.  Obviously I know that that isn’t a practical solution but I really hate how it feeds into negative thought spirals that are so hard to manage.

I can rationalise the thoughts and I know it’s not a practical or helpful way to think but it’s been HORRIBLE recently trying to manage this amount and this intensity of negative thoughts about it while we’ve been reading the novel and especially having to watch the film (the ending twice).  There was one lesson where I was feeling particularly rubbish already and genuinely couldn’t hold in crying which was really horrible and embarrassing, but luckily only one student noticed and he didn’t make a big deal out of it.  It’s still really getting to me though and I can’t get the ‘rabbit voice’ out of my head.  It’s pretty much how I feel about relationships in general- I know they’re fluid and not permanent but it’s so hard to actually accept that, and sometimes it seems easier not to get close to people at all because you know they’re going to get fed up with you, but at the same time it’s horrible and lonely when you don’t have any ‘real’ people contact outside of working with kids.  But also better than losing close friendships which is the worst feeling in the world so a bit of a no-win situation!  Which is maybe the point of the book?

Trying to end on a positive: even though I know that friendships often don’t last, it’s something I’m trying really, really hard to work on and awareness definitely a big step towards that. DBT skills are also really, really helpful in managing interpersonal relationships and wrote about that last year in a blog post called Celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare with DBT skills– please read for more info! And will include a list of things I learned from that here because it’s definitely something I need to revisit:

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.

Either way, I’m really, really glad we’ve finished reading it for this year and I don’t need to think about it for another ten months!  Definitely not my favourite book but need to keep reminding myself that it was written in the 1930s and things have changed and improved A LOT since then thankfully…

Trying to make sense of my brain…again!

This is a sort of follow up post to yesterday’s Back to more regular blogging! and I’m going to focus more on food/weight-related issues because that’s basically what I’m trying to work on properly at the moment.  Or at least that’s the aim; the whole idea is absolutely terrifying me and I’m not totally sure how or what exactly I’m trying to change or achieve, so I’m sort of trying to make sense of that too!  I’ve been re-reading older blog posts about similar things (especially 21/05/07: probably the most significant day of my life.  Reflections a decade on… which I wrote ten years to the day after I was last inpatient and I’m still feeling very similar to how I did then) which is definitely helpful to try to formulate some idea of how I’m feeling but my brain is pretty much constant fuzz and confusion all the time at the moment so it’s hard to make any sort of real sense of it.  But blogging is a good way to start!

Another previous post which was useful to re-read is ED relapse warning signs.  I wrote it about a year and a half ago based on a list of yellow/amber/red warning signs of possible ED relapse that I’d written with a psychologist I used to see as an inpatient way back in 2006, and it scared me a bit because I’m starting to show a lot of the signs again which is a definite motivator to try to address it now before it gets too intense.  It’s always hard trying to figure out what ‘relapse’ actually is because I never really fully recovered in the first place but I REALLY don’t want to get back to inpatient point again and even though it would still be a long way off, I also don’t want to lose my job or even risk getting properly ‘ill’ again so I’m trying to use that as a reason to do something about it before it gets to that point.  It’s hard though because although I’m aware things must have changed recently (people have commented on it and I’m definitely more food/weight fixated than I have been in a while), my weight isn’t particularly low compared to how it has been and even though I’m feeling tired and zoned out a lot of the time, I’m not physically ‘ill’ or passing out so it kind of feels like I’m making a big deal out of nothing and just being selfish.  So hard to work it out!

I know I’ve already said it but have got total fuzz brain at the moment and I really need to try to sort it out enough to know what I’m trying to actually do.  I’ve got the bitch in my head pretty much constantly reminding me that I’m just being selfish, I’m a lazy greedy bitch and I just need to get on with it and try not to let people notice but that’s bloody exhausting because the rules keep changing and I’m having to be active and walking ALL THE TIME especially if I’ve binged the night before or not managed to get the right amount of exercise in earlier on in the day.  But it’s doubly hard to think about doing anything else because she starts up more aggressively and it’s really, really hard to ignore or think of anything else.  But I REALLY don’t want to end up inpatient again and I know rationally that that is a possibility however far off, and I also know that the closer you get to that point, the harder it is to change anything so I really do want to do something now to stop that from happening.

It’s really hard when it genuinely doesn’t seem like a big problem at the moment though and even small changes seem really, really scary.  I know my eating patterns aren’t ideal but they never really have been (except briefly just after I was inpatient) and it’s only really since coming off medication that it’s been a more obvious issue because my weight went down a bit.  But it feels so much safer the way it is- obsessions are less intense, it’s easier to rationalise feeling fat/lazy/selfish, I’m constantly a bit zoned out so things don’t get to me as much (although having said that, I had three meltdowns over the weekend including one where I was crying, pulling my hair out and banging my head off the floor so maybe that’s not *totally* accurate), and things seem more manageable than the intense obsessions and mood swings I’d been experiencing.  But at the same time, I’m also not sleeping properly, tired all the time, finding it hard to run properly (and hating it), not really enjoying anything and feeling like I should be exercising all the time even if I’m exhausted which also isn’t great.

A friend who I really trust brought it up last week and said that I really need to make some changes before someone at work says something and so I don’t get to inpatient point again, and she’s not the sort of person who would say things she doesn’t mean.  She’s been really direct and honest about it which really helps to put things into perspective but as soon as I’m on my own and my brain starts up, it gets confusing and overwhelming again and I still have no idea how I feel about it except that it’s bloody scary and I feel stuck and overwhelmed.  The directness really does help though and she’s set me a challenge of swapping low calorie soup for regular soup one night this week which I know doesn’t sound like much but every time I’ve tried so far, it’s sent my brain into overload- didn’t realise how confusing soup could be but after spending nearly 40 minutes in the supermarket trying to work out which one to get.

It was really hard because I ‘need’ the right amount of protein per 100g as well as trying to work out what an equivalent to the soup I’d usually get would be without ‘cheating’ and getting the lowest calorie regular soup which I couldn’t get anyway because it didn’t have enough protein; regular soup cans say they serve two which would mean one serving is less than the low calorie soup I usually get which would defeat the point and be cheating (that caused a ridiculous amount of brain arguing!) and also need it to be an easyish number of calories in the can to work out in a daily amount.  I did finally manage to get a can of soup though which had the ‘right’ amount of protein, counted towards 5 a day, also had a good amount of fibre and was (scarily) almost twice the amount of calories of the soup I usually have without being too much volume which would make me feel too full and risk bingeing straight after, which was a definite achievement!  Haven’t managed to have it yet though :/ I meant to try it over the weekend but had a really stressful few days where nothing really went to plan so going to have it for tea tomorrow night after work.  Really, really nervous but it helps that it’s not *my* choice if that makes sense- it was my friend’s idea and I said I’d try it, and I’m trying really hard to think of it as a ‘rule’ I’ve got to stick to instead of a choice.  Which I know sounds ridiculous but it’s worth a try- every time I’ve tried to make the decisions on my own, I’ve never managed to stick to it and I really do want to make it work this time.

Another ‘rule’ I’ve set for myself is that I need to be doing something creative from 9pm every night- either blogging, drawing, colouring or writing, and I’m really going to try to stick to that too.  Lots of reasons but mainly because it puts a ‘limit’ on the amount of exercise I can do in the evenings- longer evenings has meant a ridiculous amount of walking (or sometimes running) which really isn’t helping and is exhausting, and also because I’ve totally got out of the habit of doing anything creative which isn’t great because creative stuff is a really good way to ‘escape’ my brain for a while and to try to channel it more constructively.  So hoping to stick to that too!  Will see how it goes anyway…

Running your way to body tolerance…

This isn’t a v long or in depth post, sorry- I ran another ultramarathon over the weekend, have only had 3 hours sleep since Friday and ran 74 miles in that time so I’m pretty exhausted atm!  Wanted to write a quick post about this though because I’m realising more and more that it’s probably the biggest positive factor in preventing an ED (re)lapse (can you relapse if you’ve never really recovered fully?) and I wrote an instagram post about it earlier without really thinking about it.


^YES!!!  I bought these pyjamas literally straight after the run when I was on the way to a B+B, realised I’d forgotten pyjamas and went into Primark to get some.  I was absolutely exhausted, over-emotional and slightly zoned out at the time, and I bought these without really considering what they were like because I liked the unicorn on them and I was post-ultra high and zenlike so nothing really mattered.  It was only later today when I got home from work and looked at them properly that I realised it’s basically a crop top and hot pants!  

I’ve NEVER worn anything like that before but I’ve been feeling kind of ambivalent about my body over the last few days- yes, I hate how it makes me feel and I still feel horrible and uncomfortable all the time especially in the heat but it can run a really, really long way even if I didn’t manage to whole 100 mile event (I stopped at 74 miles because I was starting to feel really ill and my knee was sore).  It’s heavier than I’ve ever been used to and I still feel physically sick if I look in a mirror but without it, I couldn’t run the distances I do which is the most positive part of my life.  Distance running is the best form of mood stabiliser I’ve come across including several different medications I’ve been prescribed over the last few years and I need it to help prevent meltdowns or over-emotion ‘attacks’.  And without the weight, I wouldn’t be able to do that so it’s a bit of a catch 22!  Don’t really have an answer but trying to channel the positivity while wearing the pyjamas… 🦄

Hope24 2017

WOW!!  Ran the incredible Hope24 race last weekend and it was AMAZING ❤ just as awesome as last year (see Hope24: a 24 hour run in Newnham Park, Devon).  It’s a 24 hour race held in Devon and is my absolute favourite running event of all time- it’s got everything: day and night running, awesome scenery, woodland trails, bluebells, friendly and inclusive atmosphere, really well organised, technically challenging running but also suitable for beginner trail runners…basically everything you could want in a running event!  MASSIVE thanks to Danny Slay for organising it 😀

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Started off a bit of an eventful weekend and wasn’t sure I was even going to get to Plymouth!  Had had a bit of a rubbish week last week moodwise- several meltdowns, a pretty major paranoia attack and two panic attacks meaning that I hadn’t slept much at all during the week, and was really looking forward to 24 hours of just running.  I left the house Friday evening to get the train to Birmingham and then to Plymouth, but just as I got to Birmingham Moor Street I realised I’d forgotten to bring medication with me.  Sometimes that’s not a massive problem and I can manage a couple of days without it but given how unpredictable my moods and thoughts had been last week, I was a bit nervous about risking three days without quetiapine in particular.  Luckily I was a bit early into Birmingham and went to a pharmacy to ask for advice; maybe not the best idea because the pharmacist basically told me not to go to Plymouth until I’d gone to a walk in centre to try to get a prescription or A+E to see a mental health liaison if they wouldn’t prescribe antipsychotics without a psychiatric report, but I really didn’t have time to find a walk in centre before the train and I didn’t want to waste A+E time.  So I bought some herbal sedative tablets and some Nytol, and hoped that would do as a temporary measure until Sunday.  Running’s a pretty good mood stabiliser anyway and I was going to be doing A LOT of that in the meantime!

So I finally got to the station and tried to get my tickets via the mobile app but it wouldn’t open.  Don’t have the energy to go into it now and the whole thing seems a bit blurred and surreal because of panic, so am going to copy and paste my FB status from Friday night: “NEVER try to book tickets with Cross Country online!!!  Bought them in advance online because it was so much cheaper than the crazy expensive train fare, and it said I had to download the app to get the ticket in the ‘My tickets’ section.  So I did but the app wouldn’t let me sign in even though I reset the password, deleted and redownloaded it several times and tried two different email addresses.

Then I thought I could use the website to get the ticket texted to my phone but after nine attempts of ‘Sorry, your request cannot be processed. Please try again later’ I decided to go to the ticket office at New Street and ask them.  The first woman I spoke to and showed my phone looked at me like I was stupid (although to be fair, I probably looked ridiculous since I was shaking and trying not to hyperventilate or cry by that point) and said it wasn’t anything to do with her, she worked for Virgin not Cross Country and I had to phone the Cross Country helpline.

By this time it was 40 mins before the train and was starting to panic a bit, and I called the helpline.  The first person I spoke to couldn’t understand anything I said (I couldn’t breathe properly and was stammering) and I felt horrible, and he kept repeating ‘I need to know the best way to help you’ over and over which made me feel worse, and I said sorry and hung up.  Did some ‘breathe box’ exercises and tried again, but the next person couldn’t understand me either and put me on hold before I could try to explain properly.

Was really panicking by then and tried for a third time, but the guy on the phone said he couldn’t do anything and that I just needed to redownload the app.  I tried to explain that I’d done that several times and that it wasn’t working, but he kept saying that he couldn’t help and I had to keep trying with the app, then he put me on hold without warning, and the phone cut out.

Was so so panicky by that point, 15 mins before the train was due and went back to the ticket office.  The woman said she couldn’t help and that I needed to keep calling the helpline, and I was so shaky, hot and dangerously close to crying by then that I just said thanks and went out again.  Then I really did start crying and hyperventilating, and started doing the breathing again and pinging a hair tie on my wrist to try to calm down.
There was a woman standing with a Virgin uniform near the ticket machines and I went over to her, and tried to explain the whole situation which was pretty difficult since I was trying really hard not to cry too much, shaking and couldn’t speak properly.  Luckily she’d seen me going in to the ticket office a few times and on the phone, and she was so so nice and calm which REALLY helped and was so amazing of her.

She looked at my phone and said she would talk to the train manager and explain that the app wasn’t working, and took me down to the platform.  She was genuinely amazing and talked about her own experiences with trains/buses and how frustrating it can be, and made me feel like I wasn’t a totally weird freak for panicking like that which was so so nice of her. S he spoke to the manager who said it was fine just to use the confirmation on my phone, and I got the train OK. SERIOUSLY relieved and so so grateful to her!!

If anyone knows a woman called Sarah who works for Virgin trains at New Street station, PLEASE tell her how amazing she is and that she deserves a pay rise!!  Seriously don’t know what I’d have done if she hadn’t helped, and she was so amazing, calm and kind even though I probably seemed like a more of a weird, panicky freak than I usually do!  Am so so grateful and going to drop a box of chocolates into the station next time I’m there.”

So I finally got to Plymouth (!) and found the B+B I’d booked.  It was late so the woman had left a key in a plant pot for me which was a relief because I didn’t have to speak to anyone (still jittery), took some Nytol and went to bed.  Found it hard to sleep and I’m not sure if it was because of nerves, anxiety, excitement or lack of quetiapine (or a combination of all of them!) and semi-dozed until it was time to get up.  Then I started to get seriously excited about the run, ate porridge and packed my CRAZY amount of food for the tent:

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Had the usual ironic giggle at the fact that I always have peanut butter during ultras (MONDAY MORNING PEANUTS!!  This won’t mean much to anyone who didn’t happen to be inpatient at WB in the mid-00s, but the apparent normality of a bag of salted peanuts at 10am on a Monday morning before going to the gym is something I don’t think any of us can forget!), and waited outside for a running friend to pick me up and give me a lift to the event (THANK YOU again!).  One of the things I absolutely love about ultras is how incredible the people are- even people you’ve only met one at an event a couple of years previously are like family, and everyone’s so amazing and accepting.  Then I set up the tent with food stores and lots of extra layers (turned out to be essential!!) and wandered round to the start line.  There were a few people I recognised from last year and from other events which was really nice, and started to get really excited about the start.  The atmosphere was incredible 🙂 it’s the most inclusive race ever and people are so lovely, and the supporters are amazing without being overwhelming which is also incredible.

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The first mile was pretty much the same as last year’s course: a ‘gentle’ uphill to the top of a field, although it looped round and up this year instead of straight up which was a nice change and gave your legs more time to adjust.  There were sheep and lambs like last year, and the views from the top of the hill were incredible.  I was lucky to meet up with a woman I got to know during the run last year and who is incredible, and we ran the first couple of laps together which was really nice (thank you!!).  It was so nice to catch up and really didn’t feel like I’d only met her once a year ago, felt like we’d known each other forever!  Made the first couple of laps go past really quickly, and I decided to use the third lap as a ‘photography’ lap because the scenery was so amazing.

After the hill, the course went through a woodland trail with lots of bluebells which was so pretty and my favourite part of the course.  There was a short section where you run through tall trees and it feels surreal and magical, like running through an enchanted wood of some sort.  The path was easy to run on (at that point) and there was a heavy woodland air that you could feel as well as breathe, and the smell of bluebells was incredible.  Could run that part forever!  Then the path opened onto a short stretch across a field and back into the woods, although the second woodland stretch was more ‘busy’ and less magical stillness than the first one.  The trees were smaller and leafier with branches bending down towards to path or overhanging, and it felt like the kind of wood you’d make treehouses or go for long walks in.  It was a bit trickier to run because of roots and rocks but there were bluebells everywhere and it felt like you were really in spring.  So, so pretty!!

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After a mostly downhill wooded trail, the course looped back around a relatively flat pathway before back up onto wooded trail again and spilling down the hill towards the campsite.  I loved the last mile: undulating wooded path along the side of a hill with glimpses of the tents through the trees then running down an open hillside towards the campsite.  Really did feel like coming back home at the end!  After that lap, I made a quick pitstop at my tent (which felt like a sauna and my peanut butter had melted!), ate  few spoonfuls of PB and grabbed a few cereal bars for my water pack.  Refilled water then back out for another lap of awesomeness.

I was feeling pretty amazing by this point: getting into the rhythm of running, loving the scenery, connecting with God and my Granda Sam through bluebells and trees, and best of all the bitch in my head seemed to have taken a nap and was nearly totally silent throughout the whole run!!  The last few races I’ve done, she’s been a bit quieter but still annoyingly there, but for the first time in probably about six months she seemed to have shut up completely and my brain was relatively quiet for the first time in AGES.  It felt AMAZING; I could think more clearly, everything seemed slowed down and manageable, and I felt calm and connected with everything instead of jittery-hyped or detached.  It really was an incredible feeling.  I decided to put Bowie’s Lazarus soundtrack on my iPod (I saw the musical last year and it was the most amazing stage show I’ve ever seen, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense at the time) and ran continuously until the album had finished.  And then amazingly, the meaning of the music started to make sense and it felt like Bowie was actually talking to me through the lyrics and the way the actors sang the words.  Won’t bore readers with too much pseudo-significant Bowie, but some things seemed really important:

  • Your only reality is your own.  You just need to come to peace with your own thoughts and learn to accept them without having to react or act on them.
  • Sometimes the most helpful and influential people in your life only exist in your own head.
  • Judging yourself is so much worse than other people’s judgments.  People are selfish and inevitably caught up in their own lives- any judgment on you is a passing comment whereas self-judgment is a poisonous seed that can control your mind from within.
  • The only true way to escape the reality of life is to fully accept it.  Any attempts to escape or numb it only lead to more suffering.
  • “We can be heroes.  Just for one day.”  The second part of that quote is the most important part: anyone can be a hero in any given moment if you only focus fully on that particular moment and don’t have the pressure of trying to be a ‘hero’ for a lifetime.  The ‘we’ is also important: ANYONE can be a ‘hero’ if they learn to make peace with their own mind in order to escape its control.  And that’s pretty much my mantra for running: accept the run for what it is, try as hard as you can but don’t put pressure on yourself to achieve any particular time/distance, relax into it.  Metaphor for running and for life!

Anyway, Bowie aside…!!  It started to rain towards the end of that lap so I put on my first layer of waterproof, ate a cereal bar and carried on.  Unfortunately the rain got gradually heavier until by the time it was dark enough to need head torches, it was pretty much impossible to see properly and I was on my fourth layer of waterproofs.  That lap was genuinely terrifying :/ I could hardly see at all (my headtorch isn’t brilliantly strong to start off with but my glasses were covered with rain so really hard to see through, and it was very, very muddy).  The first part of the lap wasn’t too bad going across the field, but going into the woods was very, very muddy and hard to navigate.  I was slipping all over the place and trying not to fall by grabbing onto tree branches, and tiptoe/climbing rather than even walking!  It was so, so scary on my own, and started to panic which really didn’t help because I was genuinely convinced I was going to die of saturation, hypothermia or falling in mud.

Then halfway through the lap (and thankfully before the main downhill part of the route), I met a running friend who had walking poles and a VERY strong headtorch, and asked if I could stick with him for the rest of the route.  He was amazing and basically let me walk right behind him so I could see where he’d put his feet, and pointed out any roots or rocks with his poles.  Made such a massive difference and felt so much safer with someone else there.  I was starting to have a bit of an ethical dilemma about what to do: I REALLY didn’t feel safe carrying on with that amount of mud and poor visibility but I felt too guilty to stop until it got light, and I knew that if I took a break, I’d never get going again.  I was feeling really trapped and stuck, and still wasn’t sure what to do by the end of the lap but thankfully when we got back to the campsite, the race had been postponed because of the conditions.  I had genuinely never been so relieved in my life and felt like crying with relief!

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They said they were going to reassess in an hour, so I went back to my tent which was SOAKED- the inside was about as wet as outside with rain and condensation and I was FREEZING.  I couldn’t stay inside the tent any longer so I took my blanket and hot water bottle to where the friend who’d given me a lift had a gazebo and a FIRE with other runners from his running club.  I sat as close to the fire as I physically could in an attempt to warm up, and made some porridge which tasted amazing.  Then we found out that the race organiser had made the very difficult decision to postpone the race until it was light (5am) and would be safer for running.  It must have been a very, very difficult decision to make but absolutely the right one.  Most people went back to tents (or home if they were local) to get some sleep, but my tent was so wet and cold that even being in it felt like I was going to die of hypothermia and I couldn’t stop shivering so I went back to the main marquee.

Got chatting to some amazing people in the marquee including the race organiser’s partner who was INCREDIBLE.  She was lovely and so friendly, and we work in similar jobs so had a really nice chat about that (and I ranted a bit about fidget spinners which had been driving me up the wall all week at school!).  I was so so cold and she let me sit in front of the heater, then gave me a buff and said I could curl up on a mat in the marquee which was so so nice of her and amazing; I had my blanket so curled up like a hamster with the hot water bottle and the buff made such a massive difference to the amount of heat I must have been losing from my head.  Thank you so much!!!  Stayed there till the race restarted, then went back to my tent to drop off the blanket.

It was so, so hard to motivate to start up again because it was still freezing and wet, but I put on my hoodie (which was still damp but had been in front of the heater so not too bad), got a coffee and decided to walk a lap to see how I felt.  After a mile or so, I felt a lot better and started to get back into the running again.  Early morning is my absolute favourite time of day and the sky was so clear that you’d hardly believe the weather from the night before.  It was still very muddy and slippery (although I only fell over once!), but a lot better now you could see properly.  Running through the tall tree woods with early morning mist felt like a newborn Narnia, and the stillness was incredible.  The damp in the greener woods made it feel like the world was coming back to life, and you could hear birds tweeting and lambs bleating.  Seriously amazing feeling!  Felt so ‘real’ and connected.

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The hardest part about the enforced break was that the cold and damp had made my muscles seize up a bit, and one of my knees was a bit ‘creaky’.  It got better as the morning went on though, and soon it felt almost summer-like hot as the sun came out properly.  My body doesn’t deal particularly well with temperature extremes and coming up to midday, I was starting to feel a bit ill with hands and feel still freezing numb but my body starting to overheat, but I’m not sure how much of that was linked to two days off quetiapine (I’d had similar symptoms when I stopped taking it last year) so I took some paracetamol and Nytol, and that helped a bit.  The buff was amazing and really helped to stop my head from overheating!  Definitely going to use it again next ultra…

The last couple of laps were hard because by then, I was totally exhausted and feeling the effects of no sleep and the damp cold.  But I was also feeling amazing; my brain was still quiet, I hadn’t had any obsessive or paranoid thoughts for nearly 24 hours and I was feeling calm and connected.  I even managed to finish on 13 laps which would usually be an absolute NO for me (12 or 14; odd numbers are unlucky and 13 is about as bad as it can get) which meant that ironically I came 13th place out of 148 female solo runners which I was MASSIVELY happy with.  Feeling a bit edgy about the 13 laps now though and thinking it as 65 miles doesn’t help either because it’s still an odd number and it’s 13 x 5, but at the time I had the horrible thought that I shouldn’t finish on 13 and needed to push for 14 but amazingly it wasn’t a big deal and didn’t bother me that much, which was amazing in itself.  Although if I lose a friend or really upset someone this week without realising it, that will be why…  Need to be super careful and I am being; have taken my usual anti-paranoia precautions on social media so I *touch wood* shouldn’t do anything stupid or impulsive.  Still can’t believe I ran 13 laps!!  Also really cool because last year I ran 16 in 24 hours and we lost 6 1/2 hours this year because the race was postponed, so actually ran ‘more’ in the time than I did last year!  MEGA achievement for so many reasons 🙂

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MASSIVE thanks to all the organisers and marshals for such an incredible event, and to all the awesome people I met over the weekend and who were so amazing and supportive.  THANK YOU ALL and can’t wait till next year!!! 😀

ED stereotypes

“Skinny”. “Wants to lose weight”. “Is a teenager”.  This came up on my FB feed the other day via Beating Eating Disorders and really shows the way too many stereotypes and misconceptions about EDs.  An ED is a ‘voice’ or compulsion in your head that twists your thoughts and has direct access to your feelings (physical and emotional), and constantly argues and criticises you about anything from food and body image to how you live your life and self image.  It’s a mental illness, not just physical symptoms or behaviours and DEFINITELY not a lifestyle choice.  So wanted to use this post to challenge some of the stereotypes listed here, relating to personal experience…

Not everyone with an eating disorder: is skinny.  This is the single biggest misconception about eating disorders!  About 10% of people experiencing an ED have anorexia nervosa (characterised by low body weight) which leaves 90% of people with mild to severe eating issues who may not be underweight and can often be overweight.  Eating disorders are mental illnesses, not diets or lifestyle choices.  It’s so important to break this myth because it leads to people (often professionals too) ‘discounting’ someone with an eating disorder as ‘not ill enough’ because they are not underweight and then it’s harder to access support, and often people at ‘normal’ weights are just as ill and suffering as people at very low weights.  When I was a much lower weight, I actually ate more than I do now, more regularly and didn’t purge or over-exercise because I felt much calmer and more in control than I do now where the ED thoughts are ten times stronger and I feel a lot more anxious, out of control and hating myself to the point where I seriously think about just stopping eating altogether to take back some sense of control on a regular basis but know that if I do, I pass out easily and it’s not helpful for anyone.  HATE it!  Wish the bitch in my head would just shut up and go away.  She’s a lot quieter and less abusive when I’m actually underweight… :/

Not everyone with an eating disorder: goes to hospital.  Another really important myth to break!  Although some people with EDs do have to have inpatient admissions, the majority of people don’t and it tends to be only very ‘severe’ EDs with physical health complications like extremely low weight (usually less than BMI 14) leading to heart issues, osteoporosis or other organ issues, significant health complications from bingeing or purging, or other comorbid acute mental health issues which would lead to hospitalisation so most people with eating disorders are either not accepted into services because of lack of funding or availability, or treated on an outpatient basis.  Having been on both sides (several inpatient admissions, outpatient treatment in three different services), I can pretty confidently say that from my experience anyway, it’s often a LOT harder as an outpatient because it’s totally up to you to challenge the ED thoughts and behaviours.  It’s also a lot easier to relapse and the ED thoughts are stronger and more intense.  It’s impossible to judge a person’s experience on their situation or medical history.

Not everyone with an eating disorder: gets diagnosed.  In a similar vein to the last point, diagnosis often only happens when people actually seek help or their illness has a severe physical effect which leads to a diagnosis.  For me, I was only diagnosed at age 18 having had an ED for 5 years by then and it was from being admitted as an inpatient due to extreme low weight and associated physical health problems.  A lot of people have long term EDs which are chronic and life-limiting but don’t lead to hospitalisation and therefore might go undiagnosed.

Not everyone with an eating disorder: is anorexic.  As I’ve already mentioned, only about 10% of people with an eating disorder have anorexia nervosa.  That’s NINETY PER CENT of sufferers with other types of ED which are often just as dangerous, life limiting and severe as anorexia or even more.

Not everyone with an eating disorder: goes to therapy.  I’ve basically already covered this talking about diagnosis and treatment, but if someone doesn’t recognise that they are ill and it isn’t picked up medically, then they’re unlikely to access therapy even if they are extremely ill.  It’s also incredibly hard to access NHS therapy with long waiting lists, and most people can’t afford private.

Not everyone with an eating disorder: exercises.  EDs are complex mental illnesses, not lifestyle choices or just behaviours.  Some people with an ED (particularly bulimia) will exercise compulsively, some won’t.  Just like some people binge/purge, others restrict, some have a combination.  From a personal perspective, I never exercised at a low weight because it made me black out and meant that I HAD to eat something whereas it was a lot easier just to not eat (my friend and I used to joke that we were ‘lazy anorexics’) whereas now at a much higher weight, I *have* to exercise every day and it can sometimes swing into over-exercise or compulsion.  It’s different for everyone!

Not everyone with an eating disorder: makes themselves sick.  Like I’ve already said, EDs aren’t defined by behaviours.  Some people with an eating disorder make themselves sick, some don’t.  Sometimes people will have phases of different behaviours and it’s not necessarily predictable.  There’s a misconception that all people with bulimia purge- they don’t necessarily, and some people will counteract a binge with exercise or severe restriction instead.  It’s a behaviour that’s common in a lot of people with EDs but definitely not everyone.

Not everyone with an eating disorder: doesn’t eat.  Another BIG myth to break!  Nearly everyone with an eating disorder DOES eat; they just might not feel comfortable eating in front of people, or only eat certain foods, or at certain times, or any combination.  Just because you see someone eating ‘normally’, it doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing a constant brain battle with ED thoughts or urges.  Never judge by outside appearances!

Not everyone with an eating disorder: is female.  Another massive stereotype that can mean that males with EDs are less likely to try to access support.  About 10% of people with diagnosed anorexia or bulimia are male but this might be partly due to lack of support for men or social expectations.  It’s also has because a lot of people with eating disorders are undiagnosed or don’t access services so it’s likely to be more than that, and it’s also likely that EDs in men present differently to EDs in women so are less likely to be recognised or diagnosed.  Complicated issue!

Not everyone with an eating disorder: calorie counts.  Some people with an eating disorder aren’t even aware of calories- it’s a mental illness that takes so many different forms.  Again, some people with EDs will calorie count and for a lot of people particularly with anorexia, it’s a big part of their internal brain battle but for other people, it’s fear of certain foods or loss of control that’s the main issue.  I keep saying it but everyone’s different!  I’ve always calorie counted but for me, it’s more of an autistic trait I think because I also ‘need’ to know how many protein and fibre grams there are in foods I eat, and I often find it hard to know what’s an ‘ED’ trait and what’s autism.  Sometimes I really wish diagnoses didn’t exist!

Not everyone with an eating disorder: only eats healthy foods.  See previous points!!

Not everyone with an eating disorder: has fear foods.  Again, this is important to remember because although a lot of people with an ED will have ‘fear foods’ or avoid certain food types, not all people do and for many people it’s the loss of control over eating which causes the most anxiety rather than the actual foods themselves.

Not everyone with an eating disorder: wants to lose weight.  I could go on about this one for hours!  There’s a reason that it’s called an EATING disorder rather than a weight disorder which is something totally different.  EDs are mental illnesses and although they can often have an impact on weight, they don’t necessarily.  Even people with anorexia nervosa, which is characterised by extreme low weight, might not actually ‘set out’ to lose weight when the illness takes hold.  My first diagnosis was anorexia and I was very underweight but the weight loss hadn’t been the main driving force of the illness- it was the sense of calm and ‘control’ (I hate saying that; it’s so classic textbook!) over emotions to the point of detachment which was what I wanted to achieve.  Even now, more than 16 years after I first developed an eating disorder, I’d take the calm detachment over weight loss any day.  For some people, losing weight is the focus; for others, it’s something else entirely.  Don’t judge by misconceptions!!

Not everyone with an eating disorder: is obsessed with being skinny.  See previous point!

Not everyone with an eating disorder: cries in front of food.  Like with the ‘fear foods’ point, people experience anxiety about a massive variety of aspects relating to food or eating and not just specific foods.  Some people with EDs will swallow food without registering it as a coping mechanism (I’ve been guilty of that in the past) whereas others can’t bring themselves to chew.  Again, everyone is different!

Not everyone with an eating disorder: is a teenager.  Oh God, yes!!  EDs do not discriminate across age ranges and there are so many different experiences of eating disorders that present completely separately.  My ED is different now from when I was a teenager and people with chronic EDs are often in their 30s, 40s, 50s or 60s, and worryingly there’s an increase in older adults developing eating disorders.  Don’t believe the media hype!

Anyway, I’m exhausted and emotionally drained from writing this so hope at least some of it makes sense!  Will shut up now… :p

Thoughts about ED recovery

I read an article online this morning that really got to me, and wanted to share it on here too with a few of my thoughts.  Really, really important when thinking about eating disorders!

Here’s a link to the article: Eating Disorder Recovery.  The part that got me was the quote “The problem in the medical community is that the ‘set point’ weight may not match the person’s ‘ideal weight’ based on their BMI. A person’s weight at their set point may be considered overweight or even obese…People have a lot of misconceptions about what it looks like to have an eating disorder and what it looks like to be in recovery from an eating disorder. The general assumption is that people who have eating disorders are visibly, dangerously skinny, and when they recover they return to a ‘normal weight’, whatever that means. This assumption is true for some people, but wildly untrue for others. There are thousands of women across the country suffering from eating disorders who don’t ‘look like’ they’re suffering from an eating disorder. There are thousands of women across the country who have recovered from eating disorders that inhabit bodies of all shapes and sizes, including bodies classified as ‘fat’ by our society. My story fits both these scenarios.”

I cried when I read the article because I can really, really relate to what it says. When I was an inpatient the second time (the only time I stayed for close to the full programme), my weight went up at nearly twice the rate of anyone else there even though I was on a reduced portion size and it didn’t stop when I got to ‘target weight’. Once you’re at target, you’re meant to start a three month stabilisation programme but because I was still panicking about the weight gain and feeling so out of control, I wasn’t allowed to start it for originally four weeks which was then extended by another four weeks. After another extension, I made the decision that I wanted to start stabilisation anyway but by then, I’d already started to relapse and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t eat even a small amount of ‘normal’ food without my weight going way above target and even the high end of the target weight band. This was ten years ago and I’m still struggling with it now, and it’s something that ED services really need to be more aware of. Some people have different ‘set points’ and metabolisms, and they really need to take that into account and have more of a focus on acceptance and psychoeducation about that rather than specific ‘target weights’ or judging people by their BMI.

I still hate my body but I’ve accepted that unless I want to stop eating or exercising completely, I can’t change it and that makes me feel frustrated and inadequate but there’s not much I can do about it.  The bitch in my head tells me that it’s because I’m naturally lazy and selfish and my body reflects that, and maybe that’s true.  I don’t know but I know that distance running is such a massive part of my life now and one of the few things that genuinely makes me feel ‘real’ and like an OK person that I’m not willing to give that up, and I need fuel to be able to run every day.  That doesn’t mean I don’t still restrict and skip meals- I do, but my body genuinely doesn’t seem to need a lot of food to stay alive and if it starts to impact on my running, I’ll eat more.  In an ultra, I eat several times the amount I usually would in a day and a lot more variety of foods, and the bitch in my head shuts up for that space of time which is another reason I love running ultras so much- the freedom from constant criticism and rules is incredible.  I have no idea what’s going to happen in the future but I think as long as I’m still running and doing things that make me feel ‘real’, I’m going with a quote from the incredible David Bowie who said that “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”  That’s my attitude to my body and running at the moment, and much as I feel selfish and horrible in the body I have, it means I can run over 24 hours at a time and that’s a pretty amazing feeling.

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 🙂

Thinking about the Impostor Phenomenon and the Inner Critic

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

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

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

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

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

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