Why Boundaries Are Important When Living With Mental Health Problems

A few weeks ago when I was talking about the fact that I am getting discharged from an inpatient setting on the 20th of February/tomorrow if you are reading this on the day of upload, (handy link to that blog post here: The Pressure To “Get Better” When You Are Struggling With Mental Health Problems), I mentioned that there were going to be a lot of rules and boundaries in place regarding my mental illness that I would have to follow back home.
Seeing as these boundaries were set by my parents you might think I live in a particularly strict household with rules and regulations more often seen in a school rather than a home setting, but actually, I am starting to think that when you are living with mental health problems, it is vital for everyone to set some boundaries.

Thing is, when you have a mental illness bobbing along with you through life, you can guarantee that it is going to do all it can to interfere with any plans you had prepared. Thought you were going out for a night with friends? Surprise! Depression has crossed that out of the calendar and scheduled you in for a good old evening of crying into a pillow and thinking about what a terrible person you are. Decided to spend several hours working on that novel and actually being productive with your life? Nope! Instead OCD would like you to waste those hours antibacterialising various objects in the house that were already clean to begin with. No matter what illness you have, it is obviously going to impact your daily routine, and if left with total freedom, it is likely that it will impact your daily routine more and more as time goes on until you find yourself looking back and wondering how on earth things managed to get so out of control. Now when you are in an inpatient setting this aspect of mental health problems is managed somewhat by the rigid structure of your day to day life on the ward, but on the outside it is a hell of a lot easier to get carried away with your own rigid routines.

The reason for this is that I have started to realise that mental illnesses are much like dinosaurs, and living with them is analogous to being that professor that Richard Attenborough plays in Jurassic Park and it is that analogy (to be fair it has been a while since we settled in for a good old traditional Born without Marbles analogy) that I want to talk about today.

Maybe some of you out there haven’t actually seen Jurassic Park (and if you haven’t you really should, it is fabulous), but basically in Jurassic Park there is this guy called Professor Hammond (that’s the person with mental health problems in this analogy), and he owns this safari park of dinosaurs he created out of some blood that has been hiding inside of a mosquito for several thousand years (in the analogy the park is your brain and the dinosaurs are your mental illnesses, except obviously in the mental health version you did not create your dinosaurs/illnesses, rather they appeared one day and as a result you found yourself as keeper of this prehistoric zoo of insanity).

Having the dinosaurs there is obviously dangerous, so Professor Hammond does all he can to keep that danger to a minimum. In order to keep the visitors safe, he has a whole team of keepers helping him to keep an eye on his dinosaurs (aka psychologists and other mental health professionals), and there are physical boundaries/electrified fences set up all over the island around the dinosaurs to keep them in check. They are still dangerous dinosaurs, but when confined by their boundaries, their level of threat is somewhat controlled.

However in the film, before long, this idiotic man with absolutely no common sense turns off all the electric fences and cages that were housing the dinosaurs, and utter chaos ensues.
Without the fences, the dinosaurs do not remain in their neat little pens, they run amok and cause a hell of a lot of destruction and noise when doing so. That image (aka that of dinosaurs running madly all over the place eating people and crashing into everything), pretty much illustrates the importance of boundaries when living with mental health problems and why I have so many regulations in coming home.

For example, whilst I have been in hospital at my local eating disorder unit, there have been very definite rules set out to govern my behaviour. These rules are numerous and I cannot list them all for fear of boring you all to floods of uncontrollable tears, but as an example they have been things like the fact that if I do not eat my meal, there will be a replacement issued which if not completed will lead to consequences in ward round, or the rule that meal times take place at set points throughout the day with no option to delay that peanut butter sandwich for another five minutes. Meal times are meal times, you eat your meals in meal times, end of discussion.

Similarly there are rules to govern my OCD such as time limits for showers because without this kind of rule, my OCD tends to grab hold of all control over how long I take to shower and run with it a lot faster than I can chase after it (I was never one for athletics in school.)
When I have a time limit however, I have something to aim for, and though my OCD will still be present in my behaviours for the duration of the shower, it is my attempt at controlling it as best I can. If in hospital I weren’t to shower within the allocated time, I would be removed from the shower, so I sort of had to reason with my little OCD dinosaur to get through it. My dinosaur wanted to spend the next three years washing yet the rules meant this was impossible, so we had to work together and compromise. I would shower and do all the rituals I was told to, but only for a certain length of time. Having a time limit obviously didn’t always work and there are times where I still couldn’t stick to it, but like I said, it gave something to aim for and consequently I will still have that shower time limit now that I am heading back home again. Again it is unlikely that I will always be able to keep myself in check, but I know that without any rules in the shower things would be a lot worse than they often are and if I didn’t have a boundary set in place, then I doubt I would ever be able to get out of the shower at all.
I can of course tell my OCD that I have finished washing but OCD will always come back with “just another five minutes”, a request that, when given into, will be repeated every five minutes leaving me stuck in a ritual with no way out. With my rule, I at least have an argument against that. In the shower the OCD still dictates behaviours, but when it is time to leave the shower, I at least have the statement of “time is up and we must leave now to avoid consequences” to come back at any “five more minute” suggestions that should arise.

If you are living with mental health problems then, it is important to have your own rules in place to try and keep track of the interference it causes. You can’t control whether or not you have a disorder, but there are some things you do have control of that can help lessen the impact. Say you have an eating disorder and, as I will be attempting when I get home, you are trying to give yourself enough nutrition.
If you say to your eating disorder “I am going to eat better today”, then it is unlikely that you will achieve much, as “better” is a negotiable, subjective term that you will find yourself debating. Instead, hard and fast rules like “I am going to eat three meals and three snacks today” are more likely to merit results. They won’t necessarily mean you achieve what you want, yet again, like the shower time limit, it gives you something to aim for rather than a wishy washy “I will eat something” or “I will shower quicker” which without specifics don’t really mean anything and give too much control to your illness. I know that especially with eating disorders, giving into little things are a sure fire way of letting them spiral completely.
Whenever I have a bowl of cereal for example, I weigh out exactly the same number of grams each day without question. This is disordered of course, and one day I would like to pour cereal with all the gay abandon of a cereal pouring professional, but I know that if I don’t have a weight from my dietician to stick to, aka a boundary, then my portions will just get smaller and smaller. My eating disorder won’t ask for anything dramatic at first, just little requests like “just one flake less today” or “one gram less”, which doesn’t sound much but if you keep listening to that you will end up a few weeks down the line staring at a solitary rice crispy in the bottom of a bowl wondering where all the others went (and possibly hearing a very quiet pitiful sobbing from the rice crispy as they are very social creatures who, when portioned out individually, often get rather lonely. Rice has feelings too kids.)

You don’t have to make loads of rules and they can be small rules to start off, but no matter what the size it is vital that the rules are there. If you have depression, that sucks and you cannot control the effect depression will have on your mood. What you can control however, is things like taking any medication you have been prescribed or attending any appointments to try and keep it in check. If you have an eating disorder and a meal plan you have been told to stick to, make that meal plan your rule, your boundary that cannot be negotiated. Ok the eating disorder will still be there screaming and it may interfere with your behaviours, but having that meal plan there is a non negotiable that is not up for debate. With OCD rituals put time limits on how long they can take so that a quick five minute tidy doesn’t descend into a five hour mass organisation mission or at least put a limit in place as to how many times you are allowed to do something simply to give you something to aim for.
Like I said, this is not going to cure you of any mental health problems nor is it going to stop them interfering/being dangerous beasts much like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. In or out of a cage, a T-rex is a T-rex (unless it is a bunny in disguise), and you cannot control the existence of that T-rex or its nature/behaviour as a stomping, roaring, chomping scaly thing. What you can do however, is put boundaries in place to try and limit the destruction that dinosaur can cause, to do the best you can to take control of something that otherwise will take lack of rules as a chance to run amok to see what it can get away with, and that is why, as I go home tomorrow, I go with a set of rules and boundaries in place.

Coincidentally, that is also why mental health problems are like dinosaurs and why it is vital to have boundaries when living with them in your head/prehistoric safari park. Rules may be broken, but having certain rules in place at home does often help me to manage typically unmanageable situations a little better. If you have been in hospital, take hospital rules back home when you are discharged so that the illness doesn’t have the total freedom to reinvade, and if you haven’t been in hospital then maybe come up with some rules with friends and family who are willing to support you in your battle for sanity. Remember, a dinosaur is always going to be a wild destructive interference, but with boundaries, that destruction can at least be controlled as much as possible…I hope…

Take care everyone x


The Difficulty Of Knowing What Counts As “A Behaviour” When You Have An Eating Disorder

How do you tell the difference between an elephant and a letterbox? You check to see which one has a trunk and which one is filled with neatly addressed handwritten letters that will soon be lost in the abyss that is “the postal service”.
How can you tell the difference between a brand new slipper and a boomerang? You throw it to see which one comes back and smacks you in the face.
So far so good (apart from the fact you may have just been smacked in the face with a boomerang or lost a perfectly good slipper), but now for the third question:
How do you tell the difference between the genuine preferences of someone with an eating disorder and the disordered behaviours of someone with an eating disorder? The answer? With extreme difficulty…if at all.

When you are on an eating disorder unit, the food aspect of things/what you can and cannot do with food, is a lot more regimented and controlled by sets of rules than it is in normal life.
Rules will vary depending on what hospital ward or inpatient unit you have been admitted to, but as a general list of examples these rules will be things like “no eating cereal with tea spoons”, “no breaking food up into tiny pieces”, “no sleeves at the dinner table”, “you must scrape the plate that you are eating from clean to complete the meal”, “only X number of minutes to eat your meal” and “no inserting parsnips into the nostrils of the person sitting next to you” (pretty sure that last one is also relevant in real life actually but I am not quite sure…my mother was never very clear when it came to table manners.)
These rules are often frustrating and can seem a bit harsh but they exist because often an eating disorder controls how a person eats and behaves around food, as well as how much or little of it they eat, so part of treatment during recovery involves tackling those food behaviours as well as things like the amount of food someone might be eating. Like I said it can be annoying, but it makes sense. Take the “you must scrape your plate to complete a meal” thing. It may seem over the top (and is a rule that will destroy the lovely willow pattern adorning all of your best crockery), but were it not for rules like that in hospital, there is the risk of people arguing that they have finished their meal when really all they have done is smear it across the good china.

With behaviours like that, I think it is easy to tell the difference between them and genuine food preferences as I don’t think I know any people without eating disorders who “prefer” trying to mash a lasagne into oblivion rather than consuming it.
There are however, a lot of actions people do where it is far harder to tell if the person is making a genuine choice or following a behaviour, and in these situations it is less like trying to distinguish an elephant from a letter box, and more like trying to tell the difference between an elephant, a tea pot and a vacuum cleaner (if you line all three up together you have to admit they do look rather similar…trunks, nozzles and spouts are easily confused…I learnt that the hard way…and broke a teapot).

For example at the hospital I am in at the moment, there are certain rules regarding condiments such as “only two pepper/ketchup/vinegar/mayonnaise/brown sauce etc sachets per meal”. The logic behind this is that some people with eating disorders tend to totally cover their food with a certain condiment in order to make it all taste the same/spoil the food and make it taste horrible as a punishment etc.
Then again, as well as people who use pepper to burn the roof of their mouths off by using it excessively, there are people who use what looks like an excessive amount of pepper simply because they like it. Every time my Dad eats a meal he uses so much pepper that even people scuba diving at the bottom of the Atlantic start sneezing because he likes the spice, and I have a friend who uses what may look like a lot of salt because she has been brought up using that amount and things taste wrong without it. Neither of these people have eating disorders, but they would still struggle living by the rules that are in place to help someone in recovery from a disorder. I guess you could say that the way you tell the difference is to see which came first, the food preference or the disorder, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Eating disorders are sneaky, they slip into your life gradually without you really noticing, so it is rare for someone to be able to pin point the day they officially became unwell.

What if my Dad, who currently does not have an eating disorder, developed one in years to come and had to go into hospital? Or my friend who likes a lot of salt? They might, quite rightly, argue that their preferences existed years before their illnesses began and they may be right but the thing is, in hospital, that doesn’t really matter and this is where it gets frustrating. Once you are tarnished with the Eating Disorder brush, suddenly people assume that EVERYTHING you do around food is because of that disorder and they rarely give in or believe you even when you are expressing a genuine dislike. It can be really annoying when you know that your love of toast that is not particularly well cooked is because you like soft as opposed to crisp bread, yet when you are consistently told that everything you do is disordered, sometimes you can start to doubt and be unable to tell the difference between your own choices yourself (aka the is it an elephant, teapot or a vacuum cleaner situation).

How about timings and things like time limits on eating disorder wards? Admittedly they are necessary to avoid still working on Monday’s bowl of cereal at Sunday dinner time (rather soggy cereal I would imagine), but in addition to timings perhaps being affected by disordered thoughts or behaviours, people naturally have varying eating speeds. I certainly know that in my household my Dad will always finish his dinner a good 10-15 minutes before my mum for the simple reason that he has a bigger mouth and more violent set of gnashers (not abnormally large I might add…like he is still a handsome chap and isn’t frequently being mistaken for a shark who needs to be sent back to the aquarium…just clarifying…love you Dad.)

The main rule/“behaviour” that got me thinking about this topic however, the rule I have seen come up in every single one of my admissions to an eating disorder unit and the rule that is carved in a stone tablet and worshipped on a mountain guarded by holy cherubim:

“Thou shalt not dunk biscuits”.

Some of you reading this, who have never heard of such a rule, may be a little shocked, stunned and perhaps distressed to hear that there are people all over the country being forced to eat rich teas that have never actually taken a dip in a real mug of the beverage after which they are named (I know, it is upsetting but we can get through it).
Again, as with all hospital rules there is a reason behind it, that being that people sometimes submerge and drown their biscuits rather than dabbling in a quick dunk and then smear the soggy remains around the inside of their mugs or leave them in sorrowful abandoned mush mountains at the very bottom.

The issue though, comes when you are someone who wants to safely and appropriately dunk their biscuit, yet are prevented by the rule that may not be relevant to you. Of course rules have to apply to everyone on the ward to make them fair, but that is what is annoying, i.e. having an eating disorder and then having EVERYTHING you do with food put down to your disorder when maybe you have just grown up liking a lot of ketchup on your curly fries, or genuinely prefer the texture of a cookie that has had a quick swim in a mug of hot chocolate. Dunking biscuits CAN be a disordered behaviour, but it isn’t always.

Just imagine if the world had to live by eating disorder ward rules with the act of dunking a biscuit being classed as a disordered/unhealthy behaviour and thus banned for all. How would any of us ever eat an Oreo? The dunking aspect to those delights is even in the damn advert! They literally explain how to eat them on the packet! First you twist it, then you lick it, then YOU DUNK IT. If that bit was deleted from the process the country would grind to a halt and living rooms across the world would be filled with poor distressed people holding opened licked Oreos and crying out in agony “WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?” Think of the number of teeth that would be broken on undunked ginger nuts!

You could maybe be a generous dictator and say that only people who appropriately dunk their biscuits are permitted to do so (something I have asked for on multiple previous admissions), but how can you tell if someone is dunking appropriately? What if someone is genuinely dunking for the resulting soggy biscuit end goal but is such a poor judge of the strength of their chosen biscuit that they get the timings wrong and remove their Custard cream or Bourbon from their brew not to find a perfectly melted vanilla or chocolate cream centre but instead a blank space, an empty half in which biscuit perfection had existed seconds before it was too late and the perfection turned into a sinking disappointment of heartbreak, sorrow and missed opportunities.
Should biscuit dunking be classed as an eating disorder behaviour just because it can sometimes be used as one or can it just be a preference?

Overall then it is clearly very difficult to tell the difference between an eating disorder behaviour and a genuine food preference, especially when you yourself have the eating disorder. I guess when it comes to people who have no issues with food the answer is obvious…until that person is unfortunate enough to develop the disorder and we are caught in the whole confusing “which came first the soggy biscuit or the mental health problem?” dilemma which has plagued scientists for years (scientists who I feel are doing valuable work but are also perhaps taking advantage of their right to order in free biscuits from the big companies under the guise of “research purposes”….)
Of course there will always be ways to figure out the disordered act from the genuine preference but it isn’t always as clear cut as the elephant and the letter box example and sometimes even knowing your own reasons for doing things can get you into a confused muddle of soggy biscuit yourself.

Take care everyone x