Preparing For University With A Mental Health Problem

In a few short days it will be September, aka the month in which all of the leaves turn orange and everyone takes this as a sign that everyone should probably go back to school, or, potentially, to university. What with leaving home, meeting new people and learning to use a frying pan, going to university for the first time is stressful for anyone. With mental health problems however, the experience can be a whole new level of terrifying, and although your chosen institution may provide a handy welcome pack with maps and phone numbers of who to call when the oven explodes, they never seem to offer any advice on how to deal with the whole thing when you are a new student without marbles, a situation I found myself in several years ago.

I think part of the problem is that before people have even stepped onto campus, they have built up an image of what their first year at university is “supposed to be like” and anticipate having to be involved in various situations they may not be comfortable with.
People expect that they will have to drink copious amounts of alcohol, attend wild house parties where somehow everyone ends up naked, make best friends with everyone living in their accommodation, share a kitchen with people who never wash any dishes so that by month three the sink is covered in plates that have rapidly been growing some kind of blue fungus, carry out crazy pranks with their hilarious roommate Colin, get entangled in a passionate one night stand with a mysterious moustachioed stranger, live off kebabs/Pot Noodles/Pizza, experiment with drugs, and capture all hilarious moments on a polaroid camera to place carefully in a scrapbook which will then provide unforgettable memories of the university experience that will forever be heralded as the best three years of your life.
That university image, so often portrayed on social media, is understandably a nightmare concept for various mental health conditions. People with depression and social anxiety may fear attending all these wild parties when they are often unable to get out of bed, let alone party and interact with strangers. People with OCD may struggle with the wild unstructured “anything goes” attitude and questionable hygiene or lack of ritualistic order associated with student living, or people with eating disorders may fear having to drink alcohol and eat pizza to fit in at any social gathering.

Well, if that wild carefree party life described above matches your expectations as to what you think university will be/require you to live up to, I would like to invite you to place those expectations or ideas of things that are “supposed to happen” in a box, and then smash that box with a fairly large mallet. Nay, lets go wild. With a flipping colossal mallet.

Admittedly, my description of what people envisage before they go to university, really is the experience had by some students (bar the bit about hilarious pranks with roommates called Colin…people called Colin don’t tend to like pranks), but it isn’t the experience that you have to have or feel pressure and stress to be involved with. I would love to say that going to university with a mental health problem is easy, and it is true that some people find the new environment beneficial to recovery, but that doesn’t happen for everyone and it is important to acknowledge that so we can deal with it.

Indeed, when you embark on your university journey whilst dealing with a mental health issues, it is likely that it is not going to be straight forward and you may not have the same experience as everyone else. It isn’t pessimistic to think this way, it is realistic, and being aware of potential difficulties from the outset is a far better way to go about things than charging forth unprepared with deluded optimism, pretending you don’t have mental health issues in hopes that they will just go away. Denying them will not make university any easier and not dealing with them could make difficulties you thought wouldn’t be an issue come as quite a shock. The key is to accept early on that you are going to university in perhaps a different situation to most people (after all it isn’t every student that goes to get a degree whilst fighting an unrelenting mental health gremlin), and that is ok, not something to feel ashamed or guilty about.
You don’t have to pressure yourself to live the “expected” university life of gay abandon if that is something you cannot manage right now…

…That said, I am not trying to tell you all to go to university and allow your mental health issues to take over entirely, as whilst you must acknowledge the issues are there, it is good to challenge yourself and try new things. TO AN EXTENT.
University can provide opportunities for millions of new experiences, and though you may not be able to join in with all the things that are on offer, if there is something you would like to try that challenges your mental health problem in a manageable way, (whether that be going to a society, or saying hello to someone in your accommodation), go for it. I know I avoided all challenges in the early weeks by totally isolating myself (aka I lived under my desk for a month covered in a blanket in fear another student might see me through the peephole in my door and want to say hello), and it made things a hell of a lot worse for me in the long run.
Eventually however, I came out from under my desk, and over the three years I managed to go clubbing/ to a party a few times and live with some lovely girls in a shared house. I didn’t want to do any of these things and was terrified for various OCD, anxiety, ED reasons, but on days where I felt a little stronger, I pushed myself to try and join in with others. Of course it was difficult and I can’t say it always went to plan, but by dipping my toe into the waters just outside of my comfort zone occasionally, I managed to have some fun that I would have missed out on had I kept myself locked away in my rituals and bubble of safety.
What I mean then by saying you should challenge yourself to an extent, is to be aware of your difficulties and know when a challenge is manageable and when one is not. It is great to give scary things a go, but do not blindly leap so far out into the waters of your comfort zone that you end up drowning if you are not ready, just because you feel you should/feel pressured to. It is not weak or boring to say no to things everyone else is doing, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Nobody “fails at life” just because they didn’t manage to go to that foam party with UV paint being splattered into the crowd and needed to spend the night curled up under a blanket for a good cry instead.

It really is key that people remember the fact that when going to university with a mental health issue, you are ill, and have to put as much time into prioritising care for your mental health as you do for prioritising attempts at socialising or writing essays.
For example, if you have an eating disorder, it is important to make time to eat, follow any prescribed meal plan you have and not let things slip just because you are away from people at home who “know”, so if you miss bits nobody will notice. If you have depression and can’t get out of bed for a few days, take care of yourself and keep yourself safe rather than beating yourself up or feeling guilty about it. Prioritise taking your medication, make time to go to the Doctor, seek out mental health services available to you and take up offers of appointments. Equally, inform lecturers of your issues so that they can support you if you miss a lecture or require essay extensions, as although scary, being honest with staff and the support I received in return was vital for my experience.

Most importantly and the most difficult thing to accept though, is to know when enough is enough. It would be great to go to university with mental health problems and for it all to go swimmingly, but if that doesn’t happen and if you going to university has such a dramatic impact on your mental health that you find yourself becoming increasingly unwell, accept that this might not be the right time for you to be there. Allow yourself to drop out or defer until another year. Maybe in a few years time when you are in a better place you can try again, or maybe university just isn’t right for you, but either way it is fine, not a sign of failure, and no degree is worth sacrificing your health for.

There are a million other things I could probably go into when it comes to university and mental health or more specifics in terms of how to deal with it with specific illnesses, but I have waffled on too long and as a basic overview, I guess this is my advice:
It will be hard, it will be scary (much like an old toffee wearing devil horns), but the most important thing is to just try your best, take care of yourself first and never give yourself a hard time for being unable to live the “typical student” lifestyle.

That said if anyone would like more specific information or tips on managing university with certain illnesses or situations, feel free to comment or message me privately and I will do my best to help. To all those going to university in a few short weeks, good luck, I will be thinking of and supporting all of you. Take care.

University

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Why Gyms Need To Be More Aware Of People With Eating Disorders

Recently, I have noticed that gyms have been popping up all over the place, and it is getting to the point where I would not be surprised if I went down to the bottom of my garden one day to find that a new branch had set one up in my shed between the empty plant pots and the lawn mower. Obviously I understand the benefits of the gym, getting a bit of exercise is important to keep healthy, and it is nice to have a place that allows you to look sweaty and tired whilst exercising without the potential judgement one would receive were you to start doing press ups in the cereal aisle at your local supermarket. The problem is that while gyms advocate health and fitness, there is often far too much emphasis on the idea that both are achieved by losing weight, which of course, it isn’t. For some people maybe, but the generalisation that weight loss will improve your health is a dangerous one, especially for people with eating disorders, and in my opinion it needs to be addressed by gyms immediately.

When I first joined my local gym I was 16 years old and in my preliminary session with a member of staff I stated that my goal was to lose weight. This member of staff then took my height, weight, and calculated my BMI to discover a number that I will not post specifically, but let’s just say it was towards the lower end of healthy. Despite this information, the personal trainer happily agreed to set me up with a meal plan and exercise regime to achieve my weight loss goals, without any debate or suggestion that my intention to “shed the pounds” was unnecessary and actually detrimental in terms of fitness.
A few months after that preliminary session, I was admitted to hospital on an eating disorders program where I stayed for ten months, gaining back all the weight I had lost on the treadmill.

The day I was healthy and had been discharged, I went back to the gym, not with the intention of losing this time, merely “toning” my new healthy body, but soon enough it became an obsession again and I was there all the time exercising until I was about to pass out. One morning I went to the gym at 6am, the moment they opened. By 9am I had been admitted to hospital again due to my eating disorder and exercise addiction, which combined had made me rather underweight and not “fit” in any sense of the word (unless your sense of the word fit is that it means “to be a weak, dizzy mess on the brink of collapse”, in which case I was REALLY fit). A mere three days before that day, I had been approached by a personal trainer who offered to work with me and help me to lose weight.
Annoyingly, this being a blog post constructed of words rather than expressions displayed on my spectacular visage, you can’t physically see me right now, but as you read that last sentence, please just picture me throwing my hands up in despair and shaking my head at the ridiculousness of that situation.

Now, I understand that personal responsibility for one’s self and one’s actions is important. After all, gyms cannot be asked to dictate the lives of their members, weigh them upon entry, demand they get off the treadmill if they didn’t finish their bran flakes that morning, and cook them a hearty balanced stew for dinner each night (although I would not be adverse to any of these ideas), but when an eating disorder really takes over someone’s mind, that person can have no control, be unable to take responsibility for their own safety, and need people to step in. In part, this is because they may not realise that they are even ill, denial and distorted perceptions being a massive issue in people with eating disorders. The other and in my opinion bigger issue that can result in a lack of control over one’s behaviour however, is the feeling of a lack of permission to look after oneself.

Every time I went to the gym I was terrified and certainly didn’t want to be there at all. I had been told multiple times by doctors, my eating disorder service, nurses in A&E, that I could have a heart attack at any moment, but not going simply wasn’t an option. My head told me I wasn’t allowed to make that decision.
If I pleaded with the eating disorder that I was scared and couldn’t go to the gym, it would scream so relentlessly that I felt I had no choice but to give in, and I would end up on that treadmill whether I wanted to be or not.
Furthermore, the fact that I was continually let into the gym despite being so underweight almost supported the voice of the eating disorder. I had doctors telling me I was physically unwell and looked awful, but when I went to the gym and started rowing on one of those damn machines that is nothing like a real boat experience whatsoever (6 years at that gym and I didn’t see a single duckling), nobody batted an eyelid, so I assumed the doctors were lying and that I must look fine. If I was clearly “so underweight”, then why on earth would a gym let me in and offer me a personal trainer to lose more flab than I had already? Surely this meant they thought I was overweight too? Not saying anything to people who are clearly unwell is one thing, but asking if they want help in making themselves even more unwell in the interest of “fitness” just to make money is a whole new kettle of fish, a very dangerous hot kettle with sharks in it who are able to withstand shockingly high temperatures.
What’s worse is that my experience is by no means unusual or a sign that I clearly had a bad gym, as it is something that happens to loads of people in loads of gyms all across the country.

Now again, I am not asking gyms to approach skinny people in the gym, catch them with a giant net and fling them violently out of the window. Such a code of practice would be futile due to the important fact I have stated in previous posts, that not everyone who is skinny has an eating disorder and not everyone with an eating disorder is skinny. Indeed, someone could be severely unwell, on the brink of death or a heart attack and look a healthy weight or overweight. What I am asking for, is personal trainers and other staff to be made more aware of people with eating disorders, and how to support or help them when they are in a destructive relationship with the gym. They need to be able to spot various symptoms or unusual behaviours, be trained to have a grasp of eating disorders and exercise addictions, or be aware of someone’s motivations in losing weight if there are signs of any underhand eating disorder suspiciousness going on.
At the very least, if they measure someone and know someone is already a healthy weight or underweight, they shouldn’t give them a weight loss meal plan or ask if they want to pay you to help them shed the non existent rolls of fat they are complaining about just to make some cash in the name of “fitness”. When someone has an eating disorder, such suggestions are more like offers to assist in suicide for the price of £20 an hour. BARGAIN.

I know that it is a massive pain to say gyms have to spend extra money on funding training, especially when it may be that such training may be irrelevant for the majority of the time when it comes to healthy members.
Nevertheless, I would still say that it is less of a pain to be aware of sufferers and deal with them whilst having slightly lower profits, than to have to deal with a law suit and a hell of a lot of guilt when someone who clearly shouldn’t be exercising dies on one of the treadmills. I may not be a personal trainer, but that certainly doesn’t sound like fitness to me.

Treadmill

Unveiling The Secrets Of Life As A Mental Health Nurse

As you are probably all aware, this blog is a blog about mental health.
If you weren’t aware and thought this was actually a blog offering gardening tips, then I am sorry to disappoint you, but I really have no advice to offer in that department so you may want to look elsewhere for tips. All I know is that you should water your plants…but not too much…and plants need sunlight…but then some like to be in cool dark cupboards…yeah like I said I really am not qualified or experienced as a gardener…ANYWAY, browsing the titles of my current collection of posts I have noticed that most of them are aimed at people with mental health problems, but what about a post centred around the people who spend their lives trying to treat those without marbles? How do they feel about working with the mentally ill? What do they like about the job and which parts make them wish they had steered clear of the anxious and the depressed inhabitants of this godforsaken planet, to pursue a career in fish mongering instead? What makes them dream of swapping therapy for cod and medication side effects for a nice piece of haddock? What advice do they have for people thinking about becoming a mental health professional and how does one go about following that dream? If the mentally ill are plants, who are the gardeners providing enough warmth for seed germination and growth? (Please note I just used the word germination…that is a gardening term…maybe I am more qualified in that department than I realised). Well, if you have wanted to know the answers to any of these questions and even if you haven’t, I am here today to give them to you anyway in a hard hitting interview with a real, qualified mental health nurse working on the ward in which I currently reside. Prepare yourself for the secrets of the mental health professionals, the story behind the shift work and a very confused nurse wondering what on earth I am talking about…

LIGHTS GO UP.

[The nurse and I are seated in blue chairs in a place known as “the quiet room”. The conversation begins whilst the sound of the cleaner mopping slops rhythmically in the background]

Me: Hello Nurse Gertrude Potatobucket, thank you so much for joining me today for this interview.

Gertrude Potatobucket: What interview? Who is Gertrude Potatobucket?

Me: This interview. I want to know about the life of a mental health nurse for an article on my blog. Also you are Gertrude Potatobucket for the duration of this interaction because I am hiding your real name in the interest of confidentiality, so you can be brutally honest as nobody will know your true identity.

GP: I will agree to the interview but can’t I pick another name? Why does it have to be Gertrude Potatobucket? That sounds ridiculous.

Me: I will have you know it is not at all ridiculous but is an underused name that deserves more recognition, so no, you cannot pick an alternative. Anyway, I’m supposed to be the one asking questions here so please just accept your new identity and lets get to the good stuff.

GP: Katie I really think…

Me: [In a loud and interrupting manner] QUESTION ONE. WHAT DOES BEING A MENTAL HEALTH NURSE ENTAIL?

GP: [Sighs…there is a long pause during which the sound of mopping appears to increase in volume until Nurse Potatobucket realises that she is going to take part in an interview whether she likes it or not and gets on with answering the question at hand]. The role of a mental health nurse is different depending on what kind of service you are working for but in terms of my responsibilities on this Eating Disorder Unit, I am in charge of co-ordinating health care assistants on shift, running support groups, working with patients in 1:1 sessions, supporting them at meal times and I am in charge of handing out any medication prescribed by Doctors or psychiatrists.

Me: What a busy bee you are! I can almost hear you buzzing, your face is practically aglow with black and yellow stripes. So tell me Gertrude, how did you earn such responsibility? How does one go about becoming a mental health nurse? What training is required?

GP: To be a mental health nurse you need to have at least 5 GCSE’s including maths, English and Science and then go to university for three years to study mental health nursing. You don’t have to go to university to work in mental health though. If someone wanted to be a Health Care Assistant they would need to have something called a care certificate, but it is possible to get a job as an HCA without any official training. If someone has experience in mental health and does a good interview for a job, they may be offered a position and then have the opportunity to do the care certificate whilst working.

Me: Well to qualify alone sounds like a lot of fun but how about the job itself? What would you say is the best thing about being a mental health nurse?

GP: Supporting people and helping them to make positive changes in their lives.

Me: How nice. I don’t want to paint a misleadingly fluffy picture about the job though so tell me, what is the worst thing about being a mental health nurse?

GP: You see some really sad and upsetting stuff. Also shift work can be difficult as you never have a fixed schedule or routine and can be working at day or night depending on your rota. That said I know that “Bertha Potatonose” likes shift work as it enables her to be flexible when looking after her children, so it is different for everyone. Oh God I have just used her real name, can you cut that bit out?

Me: No need, I will simply hide her identity by replacing her real name with Bertha Potatonose.

GP: What is it with you using the word potato in fake surnames?…

Me: [Even louder and more interrupting than the first time the interviewee started to question the interviewer] QUESTION FIVE: HOW DOES BEING A MENTAL HEALTH NURSE AFFECT YOUR DAILY LIFE AND WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO WANTED TO BE A MENTAL HEALTH NURSE?

GP: [Sighs. Despair at the situation is visible. The cleaner is still mopping in background]. First off I would advise someone to get some life experience or experience as an HCA. Secondly I would say that in terms of daily life you really need to learn to leave work at work and look out for your own wellbeing at home. You can’t look after someone else unless you have first looked after yourself.

Me: Does this mean there any people then that you would advise to avoid looking into being a mental health nurse? Are there any people you feel would be particularly unsuited to the role?

GP: No. It can be a difficult job but anyone can be a mental health nurse. Different people bring different life experiences, skills and character to the job and I think that is important. Mental illnesses don’t all fit into a neat box and neither do the people who are able to be great Mental Health Nurses.

Me: Inspiring. Truly inspiring.
Now Ms Potatobucket, I know that the people at home often worry when speaking to a mental health professional in candid honesty about their condition that they will be thought of as “crazy” or “weird”. Answer me honestly, do mental health nurses ever judge patients regarding what they say in a session?

GP: No, there is never any judgement. All I feel towards people talking about their difficulties is empathy and I want to show compassion towards the difficult time they are having in life.

Me: Well that is a relief. I am sure we will all rest easier in our beds tonight knowing that we can spill our inner most thoughts without fear of being thought to be “weird”. In addition to worries like that, a lot of people in treatment out there may also be struggling at the moment and feeling like things will never get better. Do you think recovery from a mental illness is ever really possible?

GP: Definitely. All mental health nurses hold the hope and belief that the people they are treating can get to a better place. I think everyone is capable of building the strength and determination not to let their mental health problem rule them forever, and in learning skills they can gain confidence they may not have had initially in fighting their issues.

Me: Fascinating stuff Gertrude. Truly fascinating. Now finally. The question everyone at home has been waiting for and the most important piece of information in all of this. Tell me, has being a mental health nurse in any way altered the opinion you hold with regard to penguins?

GP: What does that have to do with working in mental health?

Me: [Incandescent with rage at being asked a third question during the interview] MS POTATOBUCKET

GP: Oh for goodness sake ok, yes, being a mental health nurse has given me a new found appreciation for penguins.

Me: Aha! Just as I expected! Gosh! Looking at my watch it appears we are all out of time! Thank you so much for answering these questions Nurse Potatobucket. Your honesty and words will touch millions. On behalf of all my readers please know that we are eternally grateful.

GP: Can I go now?

Me: Absolutely

[Interview ends. The sound of mopping in the background has stopped. Upon leaving the room the cleaner is nowhere to be found and only a mop lies in the corridor. The cleaner has not been seen since…]

FADE TO BLACK

Well there you have it! The hard nitty gritty truth about what it is like to work as a Mental Health nurse, how to become one, and how such a career can affect one’s opinion on monochrome birds who refuse to comply with society’s expectations and use their wings to fly. I really hope that this helped people out there either if they are thinking about becoming a Mental Health Professional or those in treatment worrying about what carers in an inpatient setting may be thinking. It appears there is no judgement when it comes to working with the marble-less hoards and no matter how it feels at the time, it seems there is always hope and the potential to recover.
Now if you don’t mind me I am going to abandon my job as journalist for the day and turn to a little detective work. I really am getting worried about the case of the mysteriously disappearing cleaner that took place during this interview…any witness statements would be appreciated in the comments.

I will speak to you all next Monday, take care x

 

Gertrude Edited

Delayed Maturity In People With Mental Health Problems

In a few weeks time, my parents are flying to Malaysia for a fortnight’s holiday whilst I stay in my slightly less exotic summer holiday home of the English psychiatric unit (note I say only say slightly less exotic. Malaysia may have rainforests and tropical climates but I will have you know we have pineapple juice in the fridge here as a breakfast beverage option). The prospect of two weeks without my Mum and Dad here is terrifying. As a 24 year old I feel I should be past such anxiety when separated from my parents, but I can’t help it. In terms of maturity, I am ridiculously behind other people my age, in terms of development into an adult (whatever the hell that is).
Rationally, I suppose most people would miss their parents whilst they go galavanting off around the world and I know nobody feels prepared for becoming an adult. A lot of my friends for example are a rather taken aback with things like moving out or paying electricity bills, and like me often very much feel like retreating into a blanket fort to watch a Disney film. That said, because of all this mental health nonsense, I feel I am so extremely behind that it is as if I am in a giant swimming pool with all the other people my age, and that I am the only one who still has arm bands on. Heck I am not even in the pool with them, I am sitting in a paddling pool on the outside, splashing about and wondering how on earth these people are performing the front crawl with such ease.

This feeling of being behind my peers in terms of growing up used to worry me a lot, but “delayed mental ageing” or “stunted development” is very common in people with mental health problems. I have no idea why exactly this is, but if I were to guess I would say it was because when you are riddled with an illness of the mind, you kind of step out of the world and get lost/trapped inside of your head. Your neuroses and anxieties become your universe, they consume your entire being in terms of thoughts and behaviour, and it is very easy to forget that there is any other planet out there at all.
With things like OCD, your world is your rituals, every action requiring such concentration and focus that you have no senses spare to be receptive to anything else. When you are depressed you are too busy trying to motivate yourself to keep breathing to have time for real life stuff, and then there are eating disorders where your entire universe is food. No wonder then that people often describe people with severe mental health problems as “totally out of it”. Sometimes, they really are holidaying on the outward planet of insanity with whatever anxieties that involves, and in being this way they miss a lot of what is really happening in the real world, not because they are self obsessed, but because they are not there.

This wouldn’t be as big an issue as it is, and it wouldn’t potentially “stunt” or delay development and maturity at all if the world would just stop spinning whilst us marble-less creatures were otherwise engaged. If the world waited, people could just get better and pick up their lives and development from where they left off before the insanity creatures whisked them away, but that is the problem. The world doesn’t stop turning (sometimes Earth can be so inconsiderate). Even if you are living on a different planet, time in the real world still passes, so when you try to recover and return to normality it can be quite a shock to the system.
This shock is a really difficult thing to explain to people who haven’t experienced it, so in classic Born without Marbles style I am going to try to make some sense of it via some kind of analogy. The analogy? That coming back into the real world after being trapped in a mental illness is sort of like the feeling you get when you watch a TV program for several months, miss a few years, then try to pick it up again only to be baffled and confused as to what on earth is going on.

In this analogy, sane people have been watching a daily television show, lets call it “The Life and Times of Percy The Penguin”, a soap opera style show about a community of penguins living in the Arctic (think Coronation Street with more waddling). The sane people have never missed an episode, so they have seen the story grow over the years, and learnt things about the world that have changed and enhanced their lives. Each episode actually helps people develop in life.
Now, the person with mental health problems starts off watching this program too, but then, just in the middle of an episode in which Percy is getting married to his childhood sweetheart Patricia, the mental illness kicks in and whisks them to a world where there are no televisions. Whilst they have the illness they are trapped in this other world, anxious, alone, repeating rituals, hearing voices and experiencing a whole other load of things that most people never do. Despite their absence however, in the real world, the television show continues on without them.
Say they are then stuck in this mental world for a decade but then finally break free, back to reality. One may assume that they can join back in watching the program, understanding life in exactly the same way as everyone else, fitting in just like before, but unfortunately that is not the case.
They turn on the TV and are immediately confused by the image that confronts them on the screen. Where the hell is Patricia they wonder? Why does Percy have a wooden flipper? Who is this Polly he is married too? Why are Percy and Polly crouching in a bunker looking terrified and why have all the other penguins in the village been replaced by seals? It makes no sense.
To everyone else the answers are obvious. By staying in the real world they never missed an episode and have grown up over the years alongside the program, their understanding and knowledge continuing to grow as the program progressed. They are all well aware of the fact that in “The Life and Times of Percy the Penguin”, Patricia actually turned out to be an evil seal in disguise who ripped Percy’s fin off in the middle of their wedding, resulting in the rather splinter ridden replacement. They all saw every other penguin in the village reveal themselves to be evil seals working for Patricia, with the only real penguin other than Percy in the area being a hidden gem named Polly, who Percy then fell in love with, married, and is now hiding in an ice cave with planning how on earth the pair will overcome the wrath of Patricia the dictator and her fin flapping minions. The mentally ill person can try and catch up, scrabble around for any video tapes or use Google to find out all the things they have missed, but it isn’t the same. The lessons learnt over the missed years and development in everyone that the program inspired, happened in a time that cannot be retrieved, leaving the mentally ill person understandably behind and immature in comparison.

That is how I feel right now, and considering I first got ill when I was 11, I feel that mentally I am still that age, not even a teenager, yet in recovery everyone is trying to force me into this world of the 24 year old. It is terrifying. “Getting better” from any mental illness is quite a challenge as it is, but getting better AND trying to cram 13 years worth of growing up into a couple of months is a bit much to ask. I am just not ready to be 24 yet, I haven’t had all the years leading up to it to prepare myself and I haven’t learnt the lessons you are supposed to learn alongside friends who are going through the same thing, friends who are now rather far ahead of me.
Whilst all the other people at school were leaving the beanie babies behind, hitting puberty, getting hormones and falling into relationships, I was too busy calculating the calories in an apple to join in with all the developing. When they were learning to drive, I was off counting the number of times I had washed my hands, and when they began to move out of their family homes I didn’t notice because I was too upset or anxious to come out from under a blanket.

I feel silly and embarrassed by these things, but at the same time I want to talk about them openly so that more people can understand and fewer people have to feel ashamed. It is easy to judge someone for living in their parents’ house past the age most people have moved out, but I think it is important for people to be aware of the fact that this whole stunted development thing is a real issue and yet another complex reason to add to the list of what makes recovery from any form of insanity such a scary, and difficult process. Maybe one day if I “get better”, spend long enough in the real world, then I won’t feel so alienated and distant from friends my age living adult lives. Maybe one day I will understand the friends I have who are considering getting a mortgage (what the hell is that?), whilst I consider which starter Pokemon to pick (Squirtle every time), and maybe one day I will have the answers as to how to sort your life out when your mental age feels so disconnected and underdeveloped compared to everyone else. I certainly hope so, and as soon as I find those answers, I will be sure to let any of you others out there who are struggling with this issue know exactly what they are. Until then, I guess I will just have to keep my arm bands on as it were. Force myself out of the paddling pool, keep jumping in the deep end where the other 24 year olds are, splash around a bit and hope to God there are some good life guards or at least a rubber ring floating around.

Stunted

Why Friendship Is Important When Battling A Mental Health Problem

A few months ago I read a quote stating that when “I” became “we”, mental illness became mental wellness. Now at the time I will admit I thought that statement was a nice thing to write on the wall of a psychiatric unit (as in properly artistically written as a message, purposely placed there by the authorities rather than some crazed crayon scrawl of a patient with too much time and too many crayons), but other than that I didn’t believe the statement very much. It felt like one of those things that is all well and good to say like “the sun will come out tomorrow” and other similarly cheesy phrases sung by red headed orphans who have no experience, knowledge or authority in weather forecasting to make any such predictions, but I have to say that over the past few weeks, I have realised that this quote is actually pretty accurate. Okay, it is not flawless, but there is a lot more truth in it than the words of a deluded 10 year old who thinks no outfit is complete without a smile, a very inappropriate thing to wear to a relative’s funeral.

I think I can say on behalf of many, that having a mental health problem is very lonely.
For one thing there is the actual physical distance created by mental illness. Maybe your difficulties restrict your ability to take part in life so you lose touch with friends leading “normal” lives and end up pretty isolated. Maybe you have to take time off work to go into hospital or to have treatment which separates you from the community in which you may have played a part. Maybe you fall out with acquaintances who cannot understand why you can’t “just be normal” when “it’s all in your head” and there is “nothing physically wrong with you”, but the biggest distance is the unseen emotional distance that nobody really talks about. When you are so trapped in thoughts spiralling around in your head, you feel as if you are a million miles away from people who may be sat right beside you, simply because you can’t relate to them in anyway. You watch them laugh, eat or open a door without washing their hands afterwards, you wonder how they do it, and you feel like a lesser underdeveloped species. Furthermore there are the thoughts that come with mental health problems, the low self esteem, feelings that everyone must hate you, the shame and inability to be honest with people incase they think you are crazy, and general emotional detachment from reality.

Both these physical and emotional distances can make you feel like you are the only person in the world who thinks the way you do, and this in turn contributes to the overwhelming sensation of being alone. Don’t get me wrong, being alone is nice sometimes, but when you are feeling alone and trying to battle a mental illness that is hitting you on the head with a mallet every five minutes, it can make your individual feeble attempts to fight against it weak and futile in comparison to its all controlling power. What you need is an army to help you, people on your side to support you in battle, in short, you need to call in the troops to face your demons with you, troops who will preferably bring a large number of rather large mallets with them. For this reason, friendship, community and kindness should never be ignored as ways of treating any disorder, for they are pretty much as important as all the therapy and psychiatric drugs in the world.

I guess my attitude to all this has changed fairly recently and has been during my time in hospital. When you are stuck in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar people, anyone is going to feel alone, and that in turn made me feel pretty alone with my problems. Fighting them felt futile and every second pointless. It was like I was a tortoise lying upside down on my back waving my legs around, unable to roll back over, yet being asked to wrestle with a lion, a crocodile, three tigers, and a bear who had somehow developed the use of opposable thumbs and managed to get his hands on an armoured tank complete with canon. As I lay there flailing pathetically, I couldn’t help but think “why bother trying to fight this? I can’t stand on my feet let alone battle a pack of vicious animals with the use of military style transport and machinery”. However, I then received a sudden onslaught of kindness both from friends, family and strangers, and it made me wonder whether or not there might actually be a point in giving it my best shot.
When people feel emotions caused by kindness shown by other people, they tend to say things like that they were “touched” and “moved”, but to say that is to vastly underestimate what I felt. Indeed I was so touched I was practically black and blue all over with the force of it, and so moved that one morning I actually found myself several thousand miles away in the sahara desert, where it took staff on the ward a very long time to find me again (they say they the reason for the delay in locating me was a dodgy sat nav but I am suspicious that they got distracted by the abundance of sand and started building castles…nurses love sand castles). I felt like a gigantic boob with the worlds strongest wonderbra supporting me, and though I never imagined anything positive ever coming from feeling like a boob, here I was proved wrong.

Knowing I had all these people supporting me made me feel empowered and suddenly trying to wrestle all those animals seemed a lot less daunting. I had back-up, and if I joined forces with them then my beasts could be overcome. Furthermore, actually engaging in the battle suddenly seemed worthwhile. When flailing on my back (remember the analogy, I am a tortoise here), not only did I see the fight as impossible, but I saw it as something that didn’t matter because I didn’t care what happened to me. I didn’t care if the lion ripped off my head or the bear flattened me to a pancake in his armoured vehicle. To be honest, when I was admitted, I just wanted for it all to be over. With the support I received though, I realised that it wasn’t just my vote that counted in all of this, it wasn’t just a case of me not wanting to fight and that being the end of it. For some bizarre reason, a lot of other people did think it mattered. They did care, and they did want me to win the fight. There were people who didn’t want to see me torn to pieces, there were people rooting for me, people who wanted me around, so when it came to facing a challenge, lunch for example, I couldn’t help but think “Even if I don’t care and don’t want to do this right now, there are a lot of people who do care, and I am not going to let them down, so for now I will do it for them”.

The confirmation in the quote that when “I” becomes “we”, illness becomes wellness and the important message I want to get across here then, is that when it comes to fighting mental health issues, knowing you are not alone in your recovery can be as important as any other aspect of treatment. If you don’t have mental health problems yourself but know someone who does and you want to help but don’t know what to do, helping them doesn’t have to be as hard as you may think. You don’t need to study all the psychology books in the library to try and understand what they are going through. You don’t have to move in with them, rally them each morning with an inspirational speech and skip encouragingly beside them throughout the day. Trust me, just letting a friend know that you are there for them if they need, that you care about their battle and other simple acts of kindness will do more for them than you will ever know.
Alternatively, if you yourself are sitting there reading this and you have mental health problems, feel that nobody understands, are unable to talk to friends and family in real life about your struggles and feel completely alone, know that this is not the case. I may not know you personally, but I can assure you that I care about your battle and I am more than happy to support you in it. When you know you are not alone you gain power, and that is what I want to give to you. I want you all to know that I am one your side, and that I have three tanks with canons so big that those bears and lions don’t stand a chance. If simply knowing that is enough then great, but if you still feel alone and ever want someone who understands, email or message me. I may not give the best advice and hearing from a stranger may not be what you want right now, but if you need a hand to hold in this darkness, I am more than happy to lend you all mine.

Take care everyone.

Tortoise