50 Ways To Celebrate Christmas When You Are In A Psychiatric Unit

Christmas is like Global warming. Whether you believe in it or not, it exists as a concept/event that people talk about. Maybe you have already written your letter to Santa (or to use the Global warming analogy, separated out your recycling for the week), or maybe you hate Christmas trees and are a real life embodiment of Scrooge (I guess in the global warming analogy, equivalent to this would be burying hundreds of plastic carrier bags in the back garden under a fire of perfectly recyclable paper, that you then dance around whilst spraying aerosol cans and cackling manically), either way, no matter what you do, whether you celebrate it or live by it or not, it is a thing and it is not going away.

Christmas is also something that is happening in the very near future, and is a festive period that a portion of the world’s population will be celebrating/experiencing in psychiatric hospitals. Maybe the idea of missing out on properly taking part in the holiday season doesn’t bother you because you are our embodiment of Scrooge (in which case hello, here is a friendly reminder that December does not last forever…also I have a sweetie for you…it is a humbug), but what if you are our Santa Claus worshipping/Christmas loving wannabe elf? What do you do then? How can you get through the Christmas period and celebrate what you consider to be the most wonderful time of the year when all the mince pies and fairy lights are in the outside world, whilst you are stuck on a corridor of mental health nurses, health care assistants and locked doors at every turn? Well my friends, if that is you then what you do is come to this blog (as you have done already, so thanks for that…I would give you a sweetie but I don’t think I have any that you will like…I do have some tinsel though…go wild!), because today I am here to solve that problem and provide you with 50 ways to celebrate this festive season if you are, like I am, spending all or part of it stuck in hospital…

  1. Get a reed diffuser with a Christmas scent like “Winter Spice” or “Gingerbread” to give your room a more Christmassy ambience/make it smell less like industrial strength cleaner, and the pile of tear soaked tissues in the corner.
  2. Buy a pair of antlers and put them on the pet therapy dog.
  3. Impersonate crackers by wandering the corridors shouting “BANG” at random intervals, then proceeding to tell a joke and throw a paper hat and tiny pack of cards at anyone nearby (real crackers are unfortunately NOT allowed in most units because apparently they count as “explosives”…)
  4. Have a Christmas movie night with the other patients (if choosing a film is difficult maybe write down a list of suggestions and pull one from a hat…a Santa hat…obviously.)
  5. Spray fake snow on the windows which are likely to be misted over so that people can’t see in anyway and therefore will not interfere with the ability to see daylight/the clouds if you live in the UK.
  6. Do Christmas shopping online or send everyone a message saying that you can’t buy them a present this year because you are in hospital where shopping opportunities are severely limited.
  7. If allowed foliage, get a Christmas tree for the ward or at least a plastic one.
  8. Again, if allowed, decorate your room excessively to the point that Doctors and nurses comment on it in your notes.
  9. March the corridors with a CD player booming out all of the Christmas songs that the people around you will surely not be sick of hearing quite yet.
  10. Tie string around one of the staff members and then shout “On Donner on Blitzen! Now Prancer and Vixen!”
  11. Run around/walk glacially if on an Eating Disorder ward, asking “Has he been yet?” with frantic excitement.
  12. Set up a fancy dress competition and judge the therapeutic abilities of every staff member by how much effort they put in.
  13. Jingle bells outside everyone’s room each morning to add a festive wake up call to their morning routine.
  14. If you are allowed to cook or have a supported cooking group with an Occupational Therapist, bake mince pies and gingerbread men.
  15. Gather cotton wool balls for blood tests from the clinic and make your very own Santa beard.
  16. Knock on the staff room door and when they open it start carol singing.
  17. Insist that all wheelchairs be referred to as “sleighs”
  18. Insist your bedroom be referred to as “The Grotto”
  19. When visitors message you and ask if you need them to bring anything in for you, phone them back and sing out “BRING US SOME FIGGY PUDDING OH BRING US SOME FIGGY PUDDING”. Put a bit of gusto into it.
  20. Leave mistletoe above all of the doors that only staff are allowed to use in order to create awkward situations between the pharmacist and ward manager.
  21. Write a letter to Santa asking for leave over Christmas or maybe a discharge date if you have been VERY well behaved this year.
  22. Whenever a decision is made or treatment option that you do not agree with is suggested shout “Humbug”.
  23. Play Charades (a really good Christmas game for the days you are too depressed to talk but are physically capable of using mime to portray the literary classic “Little Women”.)
  24. Put glitter on your therapy homework
  25. Make a “gingerbread house” out of care plans.
  26. When you feel a panic attack coming on, get that CD player out and start playing “The Carol Of the Bells” aka the most intense and dramatically stressful song of all time (they use it in Home Alone when things are getting really dangerous and the burglars are on the way).
  27. Yell at the night staff for staying awake through the night and making noise, because at Christmas it is supposed to be that “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse” let alone a mental health nurse doing checks.
  28. Write to the catering department and request sprouts.
  29. Create a tombola to raise money for the ward and leave posters around so that visitors can enter.
  30. Name one member of staff “Rudolph” and then do not let that member of staff play any of your reindeer games.
  31. Gather the patients together and perform your very own nativity
  32. If the ward is full (and let’s face it, with the shortage of inpatient beds across the country it is going to be), make a sign and hang it on the door to let people know there is “no room at the inn”
  33. Make Christmas cards for everyone on the ward.
  34. When you see the cleaner, steal their broom (sounds weird but apparently in Norway it is traditional to hide the brooms to keep all the bad spirits out at Christmas time…seriously google it…and steal those brooms!)
  35. Make your own Christmas drink stall with decorated mugs so that patients don’t miss out on the vital Christmas activity of taking a photo of their gingerbread latte in a Christmas cup to post on Facebook and Instagram.
  36. If a nurse asks to do a heart tracing/ECG refuse because last Christmas you gave someone your heart and “the very next day they gave it away” meaning that this year to save you from tears you have given it “to someone special”.
  37. Set up a secret Santa situation so that everyone gets a little present in December.
  38. Bring three wise men to your ward round. Or some shepherds (sheep optional).
  39. If you need the toilet in the night, pull the emergency alarm and ask staff to escort you through the dark to the bathroom with their star (aka the torch they keep shining through your window).
  40. Tie carrots to every door handle incase one of Santa’s reindeer comes past and gets peckish. EVERY door. Reindeers are unpredictable in terms of location especially at this time of year.
  41. Tamper with the emergency response alarms so that every time staff pull them they play Good King Wenceslas instead of that infuriating beeping noise
  42. Make balls of coal out of papermache and give them to all the staff who have been annoying you recently. Also tell them that they are on the naughty list.
  43. Flood the wet room, freeze it and go ice skating.
  44. If you are on 1:1, take a little drum to the toilet with you and bang it furiously in impersonation of “the little drummer boy” so that staff cannot hear you urinating.
  45. Wrap all objects available in wrapping paper and put bows on everything. It will be incredibly inconvenient and will likely destroy the rainforest but damn will things look lovely.
  46. When you knock on the clinic door for medication every morning have the staff announce the date as they open the door prior to the giving of the meds in order to be a real life mental health version of an advent calendar.
  47. Knock a hole in the wall, wear orange, sit in the hole and flail around a bit next to a sign inviting passers by to roast chestnuts over the “open fire”. Technically you should get planning permission for this one but my advice is to not bother because it will probably be denied and you do not want this opportunity for festive activity ruined…
  48. Ask to be treated for “Low Elf Esteem”
  49. In art therapy make some puppets and re-enact The Muppet’s Christmas Carol.
  50. Rewrite the lyrics to the 12 days of Christmas (Examples of ideas include “four HCAs three bank staff two stress balls and Lorazepam in a pear treeeeeeeeee”.)

So there you have it! 50 ways to celebrate Christmas when you are stuck in a psychiatric unit and are feeling all too far away from the fairy lights, Christmas markets and winter wonderland set ups across the country. As I said last year, when it comes to Christmas there is nothing I or any of us can do to make sure it is definitely a “Merry” occasion, but I do hope at least, that however you feel about Christmas and wherever you are spending it, you get through the festive season in the best possible way with the best possible and safest outcomes for all. If you have a merry time then that is fabulous, but remember, if you are struggling with it, that is ok too. Christmas is a hard time for a lot of us but I will be thinking of you all.

Take care everyone x

HospitalChristmas

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

GoodThings

The Problem With Before And After Photos In Eating Disorder Recovery

A few months ago, towards the end of February, it was Eating Disorders awareness week, so naturally I did as I always do on this occasion and buried my head in the sand for the duration of the week (I also allowed children to use the remaining sand to build sand castles atop my hiding place because I am such a lovely person). This may sound like odd behaviour for someone who is constantly talking about mental health problems like eating disorders in order to raise awareness and for someone who has a strong disliking of sand, but then again odd behaviour is what I am known for. Literally.

The reason that I avoided the internet during that week, and indeed avoid it every year, is that it is a week in which social media is filled with “before and after” pictures, aka photos of someone taken during the depths of their illness, compared to a later photo taken post/during recovery. Don’t get me wrong, these photos certainly have their place and I would be lying if I were to say that I have never been inspired by any of them. Often these pictures will come with an empowering and motivating story of someone’s journey in recovery and triumph over anorexia, and that is brilliant. That is something that should be celebrated, and those stories  are shared throughout the Eating Disorder community to encourage others to fight their illnesses and to give hope to those who doubt recovery is truly possible. I love these stories but it is not the stories of recovery that I have a problem with, rather I have a problem with the “before and after” photos that are often involved in telling the triumphant tale.

Firstly, these images will usually show the person in the depths of their illness as an incredibly underweight individual, with ribs popping out so far all over the place that you could easily use them as a xylophone. Regardless of the inspirational intention with which they were posted, there is always the risk of these pictures going on to be triggers for other sufferers or, dare I say it, “thinspiration” for all those misguided souls who think that anorexia is something to aspire to. They can also make sufferers who are perhaps not as underweight (or who are unable to see themselves as that underweight) consequently see these images and feel that they cannot seek help because they aren’t “thin enough” or “bad enough”, when encouraging people to seek treatment is supposed to be the whole point of a week dedicated to educating and raising awareness of eating disorders. Similarly, in their representation of someone with an eating disorder and someone without, they encourage the myth that eating disorders are about being thin and that eating disorders can be seen, (a myth I have tried to tackle here: Why it is physically impossible to “look anorexic”.)
For people who do not know much about eating disorders and who do not have the time or interest in reading full accounts of recovery journeys, these snapshots may be the only experience they get of someone with an eating disorder, so the risk is that the stigma and lesson of “ill is underweight”, “well is a healthy weight” will be perpetuated without taking into account the far more complex and important internal and mental struggle that is having an eating disorder.

Similarly, as an image to summarise recovery, I feel it is problematic in that the main difference that is visible between the two pictures is weight, which implies that the main difference one goes through is the difference of the number on the scales. It suggests that in recovery, the biggest thing you “gain” is weight, when really weight is probably the smallest of all the things I have seen people gain in recovery. I may not be able to speak as a recovered person myself, but of all the friends I have watched beat their eating disorders into a soggy pulp on the ground that is no longer able to control their lives, the change in their weight has been the least significant change of all. Okay there is a change in weight and perhaps clothes size, but when I see my recovered friends, I do not see the change in their BMI, what strikes me most is the change in their lifestyle and their overall presentation as a person. To me they have not gained weight as much as they have gained themselves. When you are in the depths of your eating disorder, as much as you fool yourself, you cannot maintain a normal life. Your ability to have a job, have normal relationships with people, be happy or even function are seriously compromised, and these things are all aspects of life that can be improved on with recovery. I have seen friends go on to study medicine at university, have romantic relationships, give birth to children, climb mountains (I am talking proper big mountains like Kilimanjaro), and travel the world. They have regained their ability to properly smile, to laugh without having to fake it, and to me seeing all those photos of them skydiving in Australia or getting married and having babies have been far more significant and noticeable changes than what size jeans they wear. It is these aspects of recovery that are the really important reasons that people need to fight and it is these changes in lifestyle that are the really inspiring stories. Yes weight gain is a part of the journey, but what is more important is the places that weight can take you, for example to medical school or up a flipping huge mountain.

On a similar note, my other issue is that I feel before and after photos simplify the process of recovery. In one picture you probably have someone who is underweight and either looking miserable or faking a smile out of dead eyes, and in the other you have someone who has gained weight and perhaps, is beaming at you with genuine joy. This then makes recovery very straight forward, “Being underweight make you unhappy and thus gaining weight will make you happy”. It automatically assumes that the happiness comes as the weight increases, without highlighting the far more complicated journey in getting that weight to be there.

It is hard to explain exactly what I mean, but it is like looking at a picture of someone standing in a field looking miserable, and then another photo of them smiling in the same field but with the addition of an ice cream. At face value then, you can look at these pictures and think “well a person was sad because they didn’t have an ice cream but then they got an ice cream and they were happy” , simple. What the picture will not tell you however, is how that ice cream got there. Little would you know that the person had not simply walked up to the nearest ice cream van, asked for a 99p Mr Whippy and walked away smiling, just as the person in recovery had not simply gained some weight, and in turn, a smile (side note did you know that they don’t even do 99p Mr Whippys anymore? They are now at least £1.50! How do those ice cream men still have the nerve to play jolly tunes as they patrol the streets for customers now that they are basically performing daylight robbery rather than offering a merry treat. You can play Greensleeves all you want but that doesn’t change the fact you are making me re-mortgage the house to buy myself an ice cream. SHAME ON YOU ICE CREAM MEN. SHAME ON YOU.)

Anyway, what the picture doesn’t show is that to acquire their ice cream they were forced to go on a perilous test of their endurance, that pushed them to the limits of mental and physical strength. To get that ice cream in the picture, that person had in fact had to walk across continents and cross oceans to America, the largest producer of almonds in 2014 I will have you know, and then had to hand pick hundreds of almonds ready to blend into a creamy milk worthy of a tasty frozen dessert (this person was lactose intolerant so almond milk was the milk required for the job.)
Then, exhausted from months of trekking, nut picking and milk making, that person had to swim across even more oceans into the freezing cold pole of the Arctic where they stirred their almond milk with a wooden spoon atop a large glacier that acted as a natural freezer for their ice cream churning process. Even when the ice cream was made it didn’t get any easier as they had to then wrestle with a penguin who had cheekily tried to steal the ice cream (I don’t blame him to be honest. I would steal ice cream if all I had ever eaten was raw fish), and then they had to get the ice cream all the way back to that field in their country of origin, back through the hot climate of almond fields in America, without the creation melting. Clearly that is a far more character building excursion to get to that point of “person with ice cream in a field” than the picture initially suggests, and I didn’t even tell you the 5 month side trip it took to make the cone in which the ice cream was to rest (it would take too long to tell you fully but as a brief summary it involved a very angry rhino and a lot of waffles).
The person worked hard to get to the point where they were standing in that field with that ice cream, and all that hard work is eradicated, as it is in recovery journeys, when all you see is a simple before and after shot.

Obviously I am not saying we should stop people from sharing their recovery stories and indeed, if you have recovered from an eating disorder, then I am OVERWHELMINGLY proud and impressed by your determination and strength. If you were here with me now rather than wherever you are reading this, I would give you so many rounds of applause that my hands would fall off and I would be left clapping stumpy wrists to show appreciation of your achievement. What I am saying is that maybe, more often we should be celebrating and telling these stories without the underweight photos that go with them. A story is still a great story without pictures. Hell, look at Harry Potter, that story changed and continues to change generations of people, it has grown theme parks and movie franchises, careers and other astonishing things, all from a pile of words cobbled together with no images at all (For the purpose of this post can we please just pretend that the illustrated versions that are currently in production don’t exist.) Still, even when pictures are added to the Harry Potter books, it will still be the words that are doing all the talking.

So that is why I have a problem with before and after photos when it comes to eating disorder recovery, not because I don’t like inspirational stories or don’t want people to celebrate their achievements, but because those pictures don’t really do anything but diminish and reduce the value and greatness of what has been achieved. As a snapshot ok, a picture may say a thousand words, but a recovery journey is made up of millions of them.

Take care everyone x

BeforeAndAfter