The Mental Health “Spot The Good Things” Challenge

This week, when I sat down to write my blog post, I was determined to try and make it about something positive. Over the past few weeks I have gone on about drowning kidneys, an exploding appendix and suicide, and there is nothing fun to read about there. Admittedly, this is a blog about mental health so things aren’t going to be all fun and games (except for on Wednesdays when we play snakes and ladders…I say we…it is just me…talking to the green snake on the board…nobody else ever wants to play…not that I mind…*Sobs in a corner whilst rolling dice pathetically*).
Still, I have lovely people reading my blog, and as much as I want to talk about all that deep important stuff, I would like to think that people enjoy reading it a little bit, and enjoyment is seldom found when one is talking about exploding organs.

Therefore, determined to write a chirpier post, I sat down today, opened my laptop, placed my fingers upon the keyboard…and wrote nothing. I so desperately wanted to say something happy, but when you have depression that is quite the challenge, and suddenly, as the word challenge arose in my marbleless brain, I became even more determined to succeed. If there is one thing I love nearly as much as penguins and Helena Bonham Carter, it is a challenge (as long as I win of course), and so it was that an idea came to me for a challenge that I would like to invite you all to join me in today (it is a team challenge so we can all win don’t worry.)

I think one of the most frustrating things about living with depression isn’t just the suffocating sadness and inability to feel positive emotions, it is the fact that those things feel so infinite and you cannot imagine an alternative.
If we knew our suffering was temporary, depression would be an easier ride, get through the storm to reach the nice happy place kind of thing, but depression doesn’t let you think that, it tells you that it is here forever and that because you cannot feel or appreciate good things, those good things do not exist. This, as recently proved by an intense and vigorous lie detector test on the embodiment of depression itself, is a lie.
Just because you have no apples left in the fruit bowl, it does not mean that all the apple trees in the world have perished, and even if those apples are incredibly difficult to find and maybe you can’t even taste them when you find them, they are growing somewhere.

In Harry Potter, the Dementors that guard Azkaban/suck people’s souls out/generally float around in shapeless black sheets that Gok Wan would surely improve by accessorising with a nice belt, make you feel like you will never be happy again, much like depression, and the only way to get them to go away is to whip your wand out and throw animals at them made of good things (J.K.Rowling explains it better but that is the gist). It was this that gave me the idea for this challenge, the challenge being to write a list every day of at least three good things to look at as a reminder that good things do exist when depression is sucking the life out of you.

Now you may be thinking “Katie, this is not an original idea, I have seen people make lists of things that they are grateful for or things that make them happy and it doesn’t work.” Well no, in my opinion those lists often don’t work, but this is not one of those lists.

I myself used to keep a list of three things I was grateful for every day and it has been an activity suggested to me many times over the years in my battle with depression. However, as great as it is to feel grateful about things (and believe me when I say I really am), I found that writing those things down sometimes made me feel worse. For example if you are having a really bad day and then you write that you are grateful to live in a house with running water, you can be pleased about that yet then become frustrated and angry at yourself for being so lucky as to live in such conditions yet STILL not be happy. It is like when people say things like “I know you are sad but just be grateful that you don’t live in North Korea”, and of course I am grateful that I don’t live in North Korea (I hear the weather is terrible), but reminding someone of another person’s pain doesn’t take their pain away and is more likely to make their pain worse by making them feel guilty about complaining.

Similarly, I have struggled with the “three things that made me happy today lists” because when you have depression, a lot of the time you simply CANNOT feel happy, even if you know you should. Someone can give you a hug and you can mentally register that that person is a lovely person who is showing you kindness and that it should make you happy, but the logical identification of “this is good” never reaches the emotional sensors that are being held captive by depression, so you never FEEL that good. You could watch a film that you know is your favourite and feel totally numb, hear a joke that is funny yet be unable to laugh, and writing down things you should feel happy about but don’t is yet another miserable and fairly disheartening activity.

This list involved in this challenge however, is not a list of things that you should be grateful for or that you should feel happy or any other emotion about. It is not subjective or about feelings at all, so you can do it even when you are as numb as an anaesthetised turnip, because you are writing down the things that are objectively good, not to make you feel better, but just to remind you that they can exist.

After my post about suicide, I received such lovely comments reaching out to me with hope and kindness, and though it didn’t cure my depression, it served as a reassuring and helpful reminder that that hope and kindness is there. People told me how they or friends and family had been in similar situations but had made it through and though I may not be able to see or believe that possibility for myself right now, it shows that that possibility DOES exist, and for me, that was a very good thing. When I went to sleep that night I still had no apples in my tummy, but I knew that somewhere there was an apple tree growing, and right now, knowing that is enough.

Now, as someone who has been doing this challenge for a week now, I will admit that it is incredibly hard (hence the word challenge) because depression is so good at the whole black and white worldview that “EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE”, and finding good things on some days has taken me hours. Some days I have even written my list and thought screw it I don’t even care about those good things, and a lot of the time you won’t, but again it doesn’t matter if you care or not or even if you hate all those good things, this is not a list about how you feel, this is simply a reminder to the objective factual part of you devoid of any emotions.

Things on this list don’t have to be big at all, you don’t have to win the lottery or suddenly gain the ability to fly, it can be ANYTHING that is objectively good even if it doesn’t affect you.
For example one day I was out shopping and saw that a popular shower gel was half price. I do not buy that shower gel so the half price offer was going to have no impact on my life, but I knew that objectively that offer was good for someone and I liked to think that someone who used that shower gel would come into the shop later, appreciate that good thing and maybe even make more good things by spending the money they saved on a hot chocolate to take home.

Maybe you were so depressed that you weren’t able to leave the house that day, or week or month, maybe you couldn’t even leave your bed, but still the key is to force yourself to think of something good even if you have to kind of make it up or get really creative. Even if you were under a duvet and didn’t see the outside world, you can be pretty sure that the sun rose that day and objectively that is good because somewhere a nice hedgerow enjoyed an afternoon of photosynthesis (unless it rained and was cloudy…which is also good because then the hedge had a drink…).

One day, one of my positives was the fact that after taking one of my medications that is absolutely vile, I only wretched uncontrollably over a bowl four times. Why is that good? Because the previous day I had wretched at least five times, and today I already know that one of my positives is that I did a big sneeze (I flipping love sneezing).
Admittedly a lot of the time during this challenge you are going to feel like you are sieving for gold and only finding dirt which you are then painting to fool yourself is gold and maybe that is true, but I still think it is important because even little bits of dirt painted like gold are somewhat of an argument and challenge to the overriding emotion that EVERYTHING is dirt.

So that is my challenge to you if you struggle with depression or indeed if you are reading this blog at all. If you can think of three things that actually made you feel happy then do that, but if that is a bit of a stretch right now as it is for me, just write three things that are scientifically objectively good, even if you feel absolutely nothing positive about them whatsoever. Then at the end of the week when you are feeling useless and like you have just wasted another seven days staring into the abyss, you will have 21 tiny examples that things DO exist outside of that abyss. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe them now, the main thing is that you see them, acknowledge them and simply know that they are out there. Seeing good things isn’t as good as feeling them, but if seeing is believing, then my dears, we are at least a step along the way.

Thank you so much to everyone who has been sending me endless and wonderful support at this really rough time. You are all of my good things and I hope that this week, this hopefully less morbid post/challenge can partly repay you for all of that kindness and be a little support and help for you too.

Take care everyone x

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How To Make Emotionally Diverse Gingerbread Men

Feeling the pressure to be happy this Christmas? Yeah, turns out Gingerbread men do too, so as a follow up to my post on Monday (Managing Christmas With Depression), here is a video to teach you how to make emotionally diverse gingerbread men who are allowed to feel however they want this festive season. Remember, it is OK not to be OK at Christmas time!

Take care everyone x

Managing Christmas With Depression

In day to day life, I think there is a certain pressure to be happy.
People are always singing about looking on the “bright side of life”, and whenever it is time to celebrate the anniversary of someone’s birth we tunelessly make our way through the all too familiar song that usually comes prior to the blowing out of some candles on a cake, a song that urges the person to feel joy that they are no longer entrapped by the walls of a womb. Even at Easter or New Year the pressure to have a “Happy” time is plastered into the holiday by cards and pictures willing joy at that time of year (this is why I like Lent. There is no pressure to be happy at Lent. Good for you Lent.)
Obviously, this is all makes a lot of sense as people want other people to be happy during celebratory times or indeed all year round. It would be a pretty miserable world if every birthday we received cards that said things like “I hope you have a horrendous day and that everyone forgets to buy you a cake” or “I hope you spend the day wishing you were back in the womb as I have since the day you were born”, and it certainly would make party hats and balloons look a little out of place.
Nevertheless, of all the times we are told to be happy, there is no holiday with a greater pressure for merriment than the month long December festival of Christmas. If you can be happy then that is great, but when you have depression this pressure for jovial smiles and antler hats can be incredibly difficult and is one of the reasons I think people with mental illnesses often find Christmas to be one of the most difficult times of the year.

Seriously, the pressure is everywhere, both from fellow humans and even foods that pop up in the bakery aisle at the supermarket, grinning at you from their cellophane packets like it is the easiest thing in the world (yes gingerbread men. I am talking about you. Smug bastards…On another note can someone please tell me why gingerbread men have buttons…as far as I can see they are naked little creatures and without clothes I cannot see the necessity for holding those non existent garments together with bright Smartie buttons…are their clothes invisible? In which case why can I see their buttons…or is the gingerbread man actually a biscuit version of a normal man in a gingerbread suit of which the buttons are a part…Oh my goodness I bet that is it…the outside of a gingerbread man is actually a costume to disguise the nature of the fact we are all eating standard biscuit men instead of these fictional gingerbread creatures…we have all been lied to…TRUST NOBODY THIS FESTIVE SEASON).

There is even pressure to laugh at meal times what with the compulsory paper hats and jokes fluttering from the folds of exploding crackers, although I do have to admit, I rather like the prizes you get in crackers. I swear every box contains at least one cracker with a bag of marbles in, which is odd considering nobody plays marbles these days…suffice it to say I have not won a stash myself yet (I do however have a life time supply of tiny playing cards and mini screwdrivers.)
Nevertheless, all this forced joy makes it seem as if people see December as a time we can all put aside our difficulties for the month just so we don’t ruin carol singing around the tree, or setting fire to a Christmas pudding with our miserable faces in the background of every photograph.

Indeed the difficulty of Christmas with mental health problems is evidenced by the fact that suicide rates go up around this time of year. I don’t know why exactly this is, but if I had to hazard a guess I would say that it is this pressure to be happy that is the cause.
Having depression and admitting to having spent three days crying into a pillow is hard all year round, but at least all year round it is more acceptable. At Christmas any sign of negativity is immediately rebuked with the instruction “cheer up! It is Christmas”, as if a bit of tinsel and a few fairy lights should be enough to cure any depression. You can’t even cancel plans at Christmas if you are too unwell or anxious to leave the house, without being charged with the accusation that you are a “party pooper” (when really it is your mental illness that has been doing all the pooping on the party rather than something you have decided to do for laughs).

At Christmas then, the pressure to be happy means that people feel more unable to talk about the negative things going on for fear of bringing everyone down. Every time you are greeted by a family member you haven’t seen in a while for one of the annual gatherings they will ask things like “how have you been?”, a difficult topic to discuss when “Pretty suicidal and this is the first time I have got out of my duvet fort all week” is not deemed an acceptable answer. For this reason, many people feel the need to lie about how they truly feel and have to grit their teeth, lying about how they are “not too bad” whilst simultaneously having to swallow the lonely truth that they wish they could reach out to someone with for comfort rather than suffer in silence, and If there is one thing guaranteed to make a mental health problem worse, it is suffering in silence. Maybe suicide rates go up then not just because of the stress and debt as postulated in the papers, but because this pressure to be happy leaves people more ashamed than usual and unable to ask for help.

Perhaps another reason as to the rise in number of those who feel there is no escape from their pain other than to end their existence, is that everyone else in the world always looks especially happy. Of course there is a good chance that they aren’t happy and we are all hiding the truth behind toothy grins together, but seeing everyone around you feeling something and being caught up in a merriment your brain will not allow, can make you feel just as lonely and isolated as the inability to speak out honestly.

Obviously I am not criticising the general population for being happy at Christmas, nor am I blaming the rise in suicide rates on the smiley faces of ginger spiced baked goods (those would be some pretty powerful biscuits), but I guess I just want people to know that if it were possible for the mentally ill to set aside our aching emptiness of depression for the festive period, every sufferer would do just that. When we are miserable at Christmas it is not because we haven’t got into the Christmas spirit or because we want to ruin cutting the Christmas cake. I personally wish I could buck up and ensure my family have a “happy Christmas” but I can’t, and it is hard to feel guilty about it every year.

Similarly, if you yourself are a sufferer and struggling with the need to be merry and bright this winter, I wanted to write this post to let you know that not being happy and able to throw caution and anxiety into the wind so you can enjoy yourself, doesn’t mean you are a bad person nor does it mean that you are alone. As you sit there grinning at the dinner table holding back tears you know rationally have no right to be there, as lonely as it feels, you are not alone. If you are struggling please do not feel such a pressure to be silent that things end up getting worse. More people need to speak about living with depression as Christmas if the problem is ever going to be solved, so admitting that you need help is not a sign of weakness or shame. Instead it is admitting that things are not as simple as checking the date on the calendar to see how happy you should be for the day, and that depression is not easily solved by a bit of festive ribbon.

If you are reading this with or without mental health problems I of course wish you a fabulous Christmas, but then again do not feel any pressure. Maybe this year is just about having an “alright” Christmas or simply getting through Christmas at all, and it is a bucket full of “have an OK Christmas” wishes that I am sending to you now. However you feel, it is ok, you have every right to feel it, and you are certainly not alone. Take care everyone. x

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A Message To All The People Out There Who Are “Pro-Ana”

Before I get on with the main bulk of this post I just want to preface it by clearly stating the fact that eating disorders are not a choice and are horrible illnesses that barge into and take people’s lives without those people having a chance to stop the aforementioned barging. However, as involuntary as eating disorders are, there are some people out there who for some reason see them as a glamorous and desirable life choice/thing to aspire to. It is to THESE people and not all involuntary sufferers out there, to whom I address this post. All clear? Cool, let’s get on with it…

In life, there are many types of people that I do not understand. For example, I do not understand people who eat a piece of Christmas cake and leave the icing/marzipan behind (THAT IS THE BEST PART WITHOUT THAT IT IS JUST RAISINS), neither do I understand the people planning to vote for Donald Trump in the upcoming election. Possibly the most confusing people to me however, are those who frequent “pro anorexia” websites online (yeah. That’s right. They confuse me even more than Donald Trump supporters. At least Donald Trump has floppy hair you can laugh at when he is spouting bile. Anorexia has no floppy hair and therefore no room for visual comedy). If you didn’t know already, pro-anorexia websites are basically as horrendously sick and disturbing as they sound. Having avoided them like the plague myself, I cannot provide an in depth image as to what they show, but from what I gather it is pretty much a lot of pictures of skeletal bodies that people stare at in order to inspire them to achieve the beauty of collarbones that make you look like you have swallowed a coat hanger. There also may be forums where people can discuss diet tips, encourage each other not to eat and who generally see anorexia as something that is desirable, that they want to have (hence the ‘pro’ in the name).

Now I am not one to tell people what to do. When I do not understand someone’s life choices I am not going to stand in their way and insist they change their deepest desires. Though I do not understand people who leave the icing and marzipan from the top of Christmas cakes (or indeed people who choose to eat Christmas cake when the other option is chocolate log…there is no decision there…obviously it is chocolate log every time), I have never spied an icing abandoner, approached them in outrage and chased them down the street waving the forgotten almond paste and fondant. This is because although I do not understand this behaviour, I trust that they have tried icing before and following the full experience and all the knowledge available, they know that cake without icing is really what they want.
When it comes to people who want eating disorders however, I simply cannot allow myself to sit back and let them make these life “choices”, as in my eyes the only person who would ever make such a decision as to get an eating disorder would be a poor uninformed soul who doesn’t really know what they are getting into. For this reason then, today I thought I would just write a little post to all those people who want eating disorders, in order for them to realise what life with an eating disorder really is like. Basically I am enlarging the font of the little set of “terms and conditions” that accompany the joy of being thin and not eating, so that people can be sure it is what they want. So to all people who want to have an eating disorder, that is cool, but before you go ahead and seek one out, here are a few things that I want you all to know:

1. Eating Disorders are not great for your physical health: Not eating is great and all but it is important to be aware that not eating is potentially fatal and is the reason that eating disorders are the number one killers in terms of mental health problems. Even if you don’t die they will definitely wreck your body, so before investing in an eating disorder you may want to say goodbye to your health first, as lord knows you wont be seeing it for a while. For one thing your hair is going to fall out in clumps, your skin is going to become dry and pale and you will probably have bags under your eyes so big that you can fit a week’s food shop in them (no more paying 5p for a carrier from Tesco for you! Bargain!). You are also going to be freezing cold all the time no matter what the weather, so in preparation you may want to purchase forty to fifty hot water bottles, blankets and thick thermal fleecy undergarments (sexy). This does have the benefit of making you a good pastry chef (as all bake off fans will know, cold hands are essential to a good apple pie), but on the down side you won’t be able to eat that pastry without agonising guilt afterwards… Also you may want to buy a wheel chair or walking stick as eating disorders love to screw with your bones (picture anorexia as a dog having a good old gnaw on your elbow until most of the bone has chipped away, leaving an osteoporosis filled powder). Oh yeah, and if you want kids anorexia will probably render you infertile too, but hey, who cares! You will save a tonne on child care and you get to be thin right? Wrong…

2. Eating Disorders do not make you thin: This disclaimer is a tricky one but allow me to explain. Basically there seems to be this idea that when you have an eating disorder attacking your mind, this will be physically evident in a lot of weight loss. For one thing, not all eating disorders involve weight loss, and for another thing even if they do, you will not be able to appreciate it. Sure you will be able to get on the scales and see the numbers go down but when you look at the reflection in the mirror it is likely you will not see that weight loss at all. Interestingly, when you don’t eat enough and become underweight, self perception becomes more and more distorted, so you may even see yourself as having gained when really the opposite is true. Its just a fun little game eating disorders like to play (the jokers!), so if wanting an eating disorder to “look thin” then maybe look elsewhere in terms of life goals and ambitions as looking thin is not a package deal with an eating disorder. The physical complications mentioned above are a package deal no matter what though, so no worries there.

3. Eating Disorders do not make you happy: Much like the myth that eating disorders make you thin, there is the idea that they will make you happy (probably because there is the association that being thin makes you happy but the happiness idea remains nonetheless). Yeah, if you want an eating disorder because you think it will make you happier, once again I would advise you to reconsider, as being undernourished is actually a way to encourage our good friend depression to join the party rather than the desired eternal bliss. Often anxiety will pop round too, so again be aware that those two delights are part of the package deal. You will often note that in these pictures on ‘thinspiration’ websites there will often be “models” without a face (primarily the images show thigh gaps and rib cages), and the reason for this is because were consumers to see the full image, the whole thing wouldn’t look so appealing. After all it is a lot more difficult to sell the idea of how beautiful a hipbone is when the owner of said bone is crying and waiting for the pain inside to end.

4. Eating disorders will mess up your social life: Aside from the effects eating disorders will have on your body and mood, it is also important to note that they affect your social life, and by “affect” I mean utterly destroy it until you are left all alone. You can have the best friends in the world but ultimately with all the “catch ups over drinks” and “dinner reservations” you will constantly find yourself avoiding them as you cannot join in with any activity whatsoever. You may be thinking “Ok I will ruin pizza night but I can still go out to play mini golf with friends”. That is a really nice thought, yet alas this will get ruined as well. Even if an activity is not revolving around food, you will still not want to go either because you have exercises to do or because you are too miserable, anxious/hate yourself and are too self conscious to socialise.

5. Eating disorders will/are likely to cause some issues in the workplace: Much like socialising with friends, working or holding down a job will also become impossible with an eating disorder, even if your job is not food related. Again we have the classics of depression and anxiety making it hard to leave the house, as well as the required sick days for your battered physique (you may pick up virus’ and illnesses a lot easier than most people due to damaged immune system, so stock up on the cough syrup). Bigger than that however will be the issue of concentration. Yeah…with an eating disorder your ability to function mentally will spiral away faster than water down a plug hole (especially water down the plug hole in your bath remember as all your hair will have fallen out and blocked the pipes with soggy wodges of entangled strands). Ahh, nothing says “living the life” like a Saturday night spent in the house pulling hair bundles the size of kittens from your drain (top tip: if you put goggly eyes on those bundles they look even more like kittens. They are adorable. Great Christmas presents too and December is coming! Get malting!). With mental functioning at an all time low then, it is likely you will lose any job you do have and money problems will likely follow as well as our old pals who love to join money problems for a party, depression and anxiety!

So that is only five of the terms and conditions important to be aware of when wanting an eating disorder (there are millions, trust me), but I think that for now I have made my point/ helped potential eating disorder investors to be a little more aware of what they are desiring/encouraging when scrolling through those pro anorexia websites. Like I said, I am not one to tell anyone what to do so if these points don’t diminish the glamour of the thigh gap photos, then go ahead and have fun. I just want you to know what you are getting yourself into so you can make an informed decision. There are people out there who want eating disorders, but I doubt they would find the unwelcome surprises that come with them as appealing.

Take care everyone x

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