How Physical Health Problems Can Trigger Mental Health Problems

Last week I talked about a recent incident where my mental health, more specifically my eating disorder’s obsession with drinking a lot of water, had a detrimental affect on my physical health and in a hilarious twist of fate and example of bizarre symmetry (and by hilarious I mean literally the most unamusing thing to happen ever), this week I am talking about how the opposite can also be true, and how physical health conditions can end up triggering or making a pre existing mental health problem worse.

So when we last left off, I had explained how I had been admitted to hospital for water intoxication and was being treated for this problem via a strict fluid restriction plan to get all of my electrolytes back to acceptable levels (it is at times like this when I wish I had one of those “previously on” video clips that they show before episodes of various TV dramas…I should really look into that…ooh and a theme tune! I do love a good theme tune!)
Now, after a few days, the fluid restriction, whilst being incredibly annoying for me, seemed to be working, and my sodium levels kept improving until they were back to normal. Really, that should be the end of the story, the problem was solved so I should have been packing my bags and making my merry way home, but alas the story did not end there and developed into what I like to think of as an epic novel of utter ridiculousness.

You see whilst my sodium levels were improving, I wasn’t feeling any better which didn’t make much sense. I had been admitted for a problem that was being successfully treated yet bizarrely, as the days went on, I became more unwell with a pain in my stomach. The doctors couldn’t really make sense of this and before long I was in so much pain that I couldn’t stand or lift my head off the pillow and was in need of all the morphine I could get. A few tests were run but no answers were revealed so a surgeon was sent to have a look at me.

After thumping me in the abdomen with an iron mallet a few times (she said she was only going to “press gently” but trust me from the pain I am pretty sure that woman had a mallet and a vendetta against my stomach region), it was concluded that I might have a swollen appendix. I was told that normally the surgeons would book me in for an operation to whip it out just incase, however due to my already poor physical health from my eating disorder, they wanted to avoid taking me to theatre (alas the operating one and not the version where you get to watch The Sound of Music on stage whilst eating a little pot of ice cream with a spoon that is basically just a mini plank of wood with no resemblance to a spoon whatsoever), because they weren’t sure I would survive an anaesthetic.

Thus it was decided that they would only operate if they were absolutely certain that such a thing was necessary and therefore some more tests were scheduled to try and clear up what was going on. The problem with this was that by leaving time for tests, we were also leaving time for things to go downhill which they did fairly rapidly. Again the surgeon visited and again an operation was suggested but also feared so I was sent to yet another test in the form of a CT scan where I was basically shoved in and out of a tube a few times whilst doctors took photos of my insides (I really hope that my organs put on their best clothes and posed nicely for the occasion…it isn’t every day someone wants to photograph your intestines).

After the CT scan was complete it was around 1am and I was finally allowed to have some more morphine and attempt a snooze, whilst my sister, who had been sitting beside my bed for the past few days, went home. That was until 4am when another surgeon woke me up, to tell me that the scan had shown that things were rather serious and I was scheduled for emergency surgery immediately, my sister being called back in by the nurses having only just left. The next little bit of time is somewhat of a blur but from what I remember I was pumped with anaesthetic and taken to theatre (again, the operating one. I didn’t get so much as a lick of ice cream and I saw no children dancing in curtains. Livid.)
I was so knocked out that it was about 24 hours before I woke up from the procedure, dazed and confused with a tube coming out of my stomach and leading to a bag of some unidentified liquid.

It was then that I was informed that my appendix, in being left for so long, had ended up exploding. (The surgeon told me that I shouldn’t say that it “exploded” because in technical terms you should say that it “ruptured” but damn it I went through a hell of a lot of pain and nonsense because of what happened so if I want to say that my appendix literally exploded like a firework on the 5th of November then I will jolly well do so!)
Consequently my body had been filled with poison, hence the tube and bag scenario coming out of my stomach after the appendix had been removed, to drain the poison out (the poison being the funny liquid in that bag.)

Since then the job has basically been to free my body of poison, recover from the surgery and try to build my body back up after its internal beating, a job that isn’t going too well at the moment because this whole physical health problem extravaganza has triggered the life out of my mental health problems, more specifically my eating disorder.

Admittedly I haven’t been doing particularly well for a while now, but I have been clinging on to some sense of stability by rigidly carrying out the same routine meal plan via some form of repetitive autopilot action. Unfortunately, this event has utterly destroyed my autopilot “just do what you did yesterday” routine.

I think when you have an eating disorder, eating your meals is kind of like a recovering alcoholic avoiding the pub.
If you force yourself to eat the same meal plan every day, you get into a sort of rhythm, a rather bumpy and unpleasant rhythm that you can’t lead a good conga to, but a rhythm all the same. Missing one meal however is like an alcoholic downing one mouthful of vodka after a few months sober and then suddenly finding it impossible to stop.

Knowing that missing one meal will always make the next one harder is the reason that I fight so hard to complete my meal plan even on the bad days because I know that not doing so will make it harder for me in the long run, but in this whole “my organs are exploding” situation, missing a meal wasn’t something I had any control over.
For the first day of the hospital admission, eating was mentally impossible because I was in a different place with different foods. This problem was somewhat solved when family and friends hauled bags upon bags of my safe foods to my bedside, but by that point I was physically in too much pain to lift my head let alone grab a spoon to chomp down on some cornflakes. During all of these pain days I was also constantly being wheeled in and out of various tests that doctors were telling me I wasn’t allowed to eat before, and incase I was going to need emergency surgery after some of these tests, my stomach also had to be kept empty on the off chance that people would be whipping the scalpels out (apparently it is significantly harder to operate when one has just demolished a peanut butter sandwich…or any kind of sandwich…not that there is any other sandwich worth mentioning).

Post surgery I was finally allowed and encouraged to eat to regain my strength and I genuinely tried, but again there were hurdles. Firstly the combination of anaesthetic/poison/million medications made me extremely nauseas, and I was being sick multiple times a day. My taste buds had also suddenly gone haywire and for some reason I could not tolerate sweet foods which for someone who always picks sweet over savoury and who lives off sweet things like porridge and cereal, this was somewhat of a problem. Even the flavour in toothpaste made me throw up (all over my toothbrush I might add…suffice it to say my breath was not minty fresh), and shock of all shocks, I started to be repulsed by peanut butter. Me. Repulsed by peanut butter aka the food that was previously the holiest substance on earth? Who am I? I think I am going through some kind of identity crisis. You might as well start calling me Malcolm.

Therefore I was trying to find new foods that I could both mentally and physically tolerate, family and friends bringing in new groceries every day (including my parents who had had to cut their holiday short and catch an emergency flight back to the UK with fears that they might not get “back in time”…safe to say their relaxing trip to Malaysia was somewhat of a disaster this year..).

Excitingly, a new safe food that I could physically and mentally tolerate was discovered in the form of mashed potato, but by this point it had been so long since I had eaten properly even that was a struggle. I felt sick at every meal time and I could never be sure why. On one hand it could have been the “genuinely physically ill with poison and anaesthetic” sick that I shouldn’t have forced myself to fight as nothing I ate would be kept down anyway, or it could have been the simply sick with anxiety and fear of food sick that I really should have been challenging to prevent it getting any worse. Sometimes food would arrive and I would feel so ill that I wouldn’t risk a mouthful only for the food to be taken away, the sickness to go and me to realise that all that nausea had been anxiety as apposed to anything related to physical complications.

After multiple meetings with my eating disorder services who visited me a lot on the medical ward, it was decided that I would be discharged home incase eating became easier there due to familiar surroundings. Armed with a ridiculous amount of mashed potato, I really tried but a few days in found that I was struggling to swallow. Again I assumed this must be that whole “throat closing up with anxiety” thing, so I persevered, but then after finding some weird white nonsense all over my tongue and throat and a trip to the doctor, it was discovered that life had thrown yet another curve ball and in my weakened post surgery state, had given me tonsillitis and oral thrush, conditions that make swallowing rather difficult and would therefore interfere with anyone’s ability to eat…Oral thrush? I didn’t even know that was a thing? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH MY BODY.

Now I am three weeks post surgery (happy no appendix anniversary to me!) and in positive news, the nausea from anaesthetic and poison is practically gone. Having started another lot of antibiotics and some weird throat drops I have also regained the ability to swallow but after so many physical preventions to eating, I am now mentally more terrified than ever at the prospect. I have been to my eating disorder unit and the scales say that I have lost weight yet somehow I feel bigger.
Doctors are telling me that I have to get back to my old meal plan immediately so that we can add new things in to regain all that I have lost but it feels impossible. I cannot comprehend how the hell I was managing to eat before, despite the fact I was doing it only a few weeks ago, because now such an ability has become alien and frightening. I am tied up in a bundle of fear over food, throwing up, weight gain, trying to eat whilst being laid up in bed unable to carry out my usual exercise routines and consequently recovery from surgery isn’t going very well because I don’t have the energy to recover. Both the physical affects and mental health problems are feeding off each other like my body is an all you can eat buffet, and ironically the one person not getting fed in this situation is me. I have been on the edge of collapse for months now, clinging to the edge of stability with all the strength I can muster, but this has thrown me. I have fallen off the cliff. I am spiralling.

…And on that jolly note, that is pretty much my explanation of how a physical illness can go on to affect/cause/trigger a relapse in a pre existing mental illness. As with a lot of my blog posts, it hasn’t been a particular barrel of laughs as far as topics go, but it is the honest truth, and as always, that is what I am determined to put out there in terms of raising awareness of mental health problems.
Now after all this typing, I think I am very much in need of a nap and then maybe I will give some more mashed potato another go. Eating food is the last thing I want to do right now and my stomach is already full from terror, but I promise, I really am trying.

Take care everyone x

AppendixExplode

Why Baby Steps Are More Important Than New Year’s Resolutions In Mental Health Recovery

There are two kinds of people in this world, those who like and make New Year’s resolutions, and those who think that New Year’s resolutions are pointless and should actually be renamed as “things you try to do all year but give up on by February”. I myself however, am somewhat in the middle of these two kinds of people (much like I am on the whole Marmite debate. I don’t love it, nor do I hate it. I am truly indifferent…WHAT DOES THIS MEAN).
I actually like the idea behind New Year’s resolutions. I think it is good to see the new year as a chance to improve on whatever happened in the previous one, see it as a fresh start and a clean slate without all the baggage you have dragged around for the past twelve months. That said, I have not made a New Year’s resolution myself since 2010, and that is because I feel that when people make these promises to change, they are far too ambitious and unattainable. They set themselves tasks like “fly to the moon” or “play tennis at Wimbledon” when they haven’t yet thought to apply to astronaut school or pick up a racket. Back in 2010 I made three new years resolutions, those being:

  1. Be happy all the time
  2. No anorexia
  3. No OCD

As midnight approached I felt a surge of excitement. The moment that clock chimed (lets pretend we still live in a time where it is common to have a grandfather clock that chimes..it is a nicer image than me staring at the digital numbers on my phone waiting for 23:59 to become 00:00), my life was going to change, I was determined, and I had made a promise to myself that 2011 was going to be better. Then it happened. The clock struck midnight, and suddenly my carriage that had brought me to the party turned into a pumpkin and I lost a glass slipper!…Wait..no sorry…got mixed up in the life of someone else a little…no, what actually happened was the clock struck midnight and I felt a weight fall from my shoulders (much like a glass slipper was slipping from the sole of a future princess…)

Finally 2011 was here and I was recovered, I never had to do an OCD ritual again, I could eat and I would be smiling for the rest of my life. Looking back I can’t believe I was so deluded, but the first thing I did in 2011 was to run to the bathroom to wash my hands once, just to prove that I was in control again and could stop easily after one squirt of soap. But I didn’t stop. After the squirt had been collected in to my hands my thoughts immediately burst in and I found myself rubbing my hands together vigorously with the same urgency as I had done in 2010. I became incredibly stuck, thoughts flying so rapidly that before I knew it a significant amount of time had passed, over 100 squirts of soap had been used and the only thing I could see through the tears of despair and frustration was a basin full of bubbles. As I went back downstairs to join the others still milling around drinking champagne and watching the odd late firework banging about in the distance, I felt totally defeated. I had failed. I hadn’t even kept my resolution for 24 hours before engaging in the behaviours I told myself I was finished with, and my hopes for change fizzled out like an old sparkler. Granted I was being a bit dramatic by seeing the whole year as ruined and giving up because of one ritual, but logically because of the strict boundaries of “No” OCD, I had in essence failed, so what was the point carrying on? Clearly recovery was impossible.
It is only now looking back that I realise that the problem with my resolution and the reason I had “failed” was entirely the wording and dramatic nature of the resolution I had made. I didn’t set myself a manageable goal of trying to reduce the amount of time in the shower over the course of the year or anything reasonable, a goal that would focus on steady progress with potential slip ups yet still a continuous effort to push forward. Instead I had set myself the impossible task of transforming from a person who had been dominated by mental health problems for the last 7 years to a “normal person” in less than 7 seconds, which is pretty much like someone setting the goal of “flying to the moon” without realising all the steps it takes to get to that point.

Admittedly, I have always struggled with people telling me to “take things steady” and “take baby steps” when it comes to recovery. I am a very black and white person, either I am better or I am not, “baby steps” and little goals like “exercise for five minutes less per day” do not help me. I want total freedom from this mental health cage, not just the same cage with an ocean view.
However, my attitude to all this recently underwent a bit of refurbishment when I was glancing through pictures on Facebook and stumbled across a photograph that I posted online in 2014 to commemorate the fact that I had graduated from university, and for the first time, as I looked at the picture, taking “baby steps” made some sense.

babysteps
As you can see this picture is a comparison shot between little 4 year old me on my first day of school, and 22 year old me graduating from university after a rocky 18 years bumbling through the education system (I look pretty happy in that picture but that was because my mum took it before I found out I wasn’t allowed to keep the funny hat and gown. That was a major disappointment. The only thing I got out of that day was a piece of paper saying I had a theology degree. Who the hell wants that? I didn’t go to university to be educated, I went for the damn hat!)

Looking at these pictures it is very black and white. In one I have a degree (and a marvellous hat), and in the other, I have no degree (and no hat. 4 year old Katie had a hard life). That said, though there is a stark difference in achievement between those two pictures, it isn’t because I made a grand resolution at the age of 4 that changed my life in a second. When I was 4, the thought of getting a degree one day had not entered my mind.
Imagine if someone went back in time now, found little 4 year old me and said “go and get a degree in theology this year”. I would probably have cried (and asked what the hell theology was). When I was 4 there was no way I could just go off and get a degree. I had birthday parties to plan for my teddy bears, letters to write to Santa and hopscotch competitions to attend! I couldn’t tie my shoes yet let alone write essays on Saint Thomas Aquinas or Augustine of Hippo (genuine name…Hippo…it has been years but I am still amused), so setting that goal for me at age four would have been overly ambitious and basically would have set me up to fail.
Had this time travelling person told me to go to school that day however instead of getting a degree right then and there, I would have probably looked at them, nodded and then got on with it. When doing so I wouldn’t have realised that me turning up for a morning of finger painting was actually the first part of my journey to that oh so lovely yet tragically temporary hat (and a degree I am now stuck with forever), but it was. Without achieving all those little steps in-between, the sports days, the story books and the words of wisdom over the years, I would never have got that degree (actually maybe cancel the sports day bit..I don’t think they were particularly important…).

My 2010 new years resolutions to totally recover in the blink of an eye then, were basically the equivalent of me telling 4 year old Katie to go and get a degree before the little tike had learned to read, and it is in realising this that I can see the value in making new years resolutions, as long as they are the baby steps to get you to your goal rather than a leap to success that no Olympic long jumper could make even with a springboard.
If you want to set yourself a resolution for 2017, make a resolution that you can do over time, that allows for mistakes and gradual progress rather than instantaneous results. If you want to recover completely from OCD, make your goal to try and reduced the number of times you get caught in rituals over the course of the year. If you want to recover from depression don’t set the goal of being happy all the time, simply think about the things that could one day make you happy and go out trying to achieve them, even if that goal is just phoning up to enquire about a course. It is the same with progress in eating disorder behaviours as well as any other mental health condition, and though admittedly it takes a lot longer than the midnight miracle method I wished for in 2010, I think it is the only way to make it through this journey.

My hope in life is that one day I will be able to take a picture as someone who is no longer struggling with mental illness and to see it alongside that 4 year old me as a sign of how far I have come in ways other than education, and working towards that is my goal for the next twelve months. 2017 is not going to be “my year”, the year I change, recover totally and get a brand new life, but it is another year in which I will continue my 2016 resolution of doing all I can, listening to professionals, talking and attending all appointments, to one day make that massive goal of recovery. Taking my medication this morning has not made me better, but hopefully it is a baby step along the way.

Happy New Year everyone x

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Mind Media Awards 2016

Have you ever wanted to know what it is like to go to the Mind Media Awards? Yes? Well today is your lucky day!…Actually it isn’t…I wanted it to be…and I tried to film my experience there to share with you all…but I didn’t do a very good job…so…this isn’t a great advert is it…damn it just watch the video…