Four Years Later …

Four years ago today, I had a mental health emergency. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of my symptoms, but on the 11th of January 2017, my husband drove me to A&E where I was assessed by a doctor, who decided I should spend the night in hospital. The next day, I was reassessed by the mental health team who decided I was ill enough to need in-patient treatment and found me a place in a nearby mental health hospital, where I spent nearly six weeks. I’m sure you know that places in mental health hospitals are extremely hard to come by, so that should tell you how ill I was.

Four years later, I am doing well. I’m still taking the meds, and, although I have ups and downs, I’ve not experienced anything like the depression and anxiety that necessitated my stay in hospital. Over the course of my recovery, I’ve been supported by lots of people – family, friends, doctors, health care workers, recovery college – all of whom I’m infinitely grateful to. I literally wouldn’t be here without them. And I’ve learned a lot – about mental health, about recovery and about myself – so I thought I’d share some of that today in case it helps anyone else. In no particular order:

  • Don’t ignore low level depression or anxiety. In the long term, they can lead to more serious levels, which in turn can lead to emergencies.
  • It’s not ‘all in your head’. Mental illness can overwhelm the body as much as it overwhelms the brain. Its effects can be both mentally and physically catastrophic.
  • My body and brain aren’t battlegrounds upon which wars for my health are fought. My body and brain respond to gentleness, kindness, patience, love. They need to be nurtured and nourished back to health.
  • Mental illness isn’t necessarily something that can be cured. But wellness is something that can be discovered.
  • Hope is fundamental to recovery. But it is not looking on the bright side or thinking positive. It’s much bigger than that. Hope looks squarely at reality while remaining aware of possibility.
  • When you have no hope, it’s important that those supporting you hold the hope for you, gently nudging you to see what’s possible, while sincerely acknowledging the very dark place you’re in.
  • A sense of agency, of control, is also fundamental to recovery. Having people decide things for you, even little things, can erode what self-worth you have left. Decision-making can feel impossible, but taking small, supported steps toward independence can help.
  • At the right time, opportunities to contribute to the world make the world of difference. They can boost your sense of self-worth and make you feel part of something bigger than yourself. They also provide mental and physical distractions, giving your brain and body respite from the ravages of mental illness.
  • It might not seem like it at the moment, but recovery is possible.

Love and best wishes

Natalie xxx

Mental Health Monday: What Is This Thing Called Recovery? Part Three

Hello, and welcome to another What Is This Thing Called Recovery? post. This week, I want to talk about some more of the recovery themes I’ve embraced over the last year, and how they are playing out in my life on a daily basis. (Catch-up on parts one and two.)

In my last post, I talked about the umbrella themes of Hope, Agency and Opportunity. In this post I’m going to give you a brief run-down of some of their sub-themes and what they mean to me:

Turning Point of Acceptance

One of the Recovery College course facilitators often points out that he thinks this theme should be Turning POINTS of Acceptance, rather than POINT. I completely agree. I think acceptance is an ongoing process, just as recovery is an ongoing process. I’ve had to accept that I was ill, that I needed help, that I needed to go into hospital, that I was ready to come out of hospital, that I could recover, that I could take responsibility for my recovery, that I could live a satisfying and contributory life even within the limitations imposed on me by illness, that sometimes I can’t manage to do everything I want to do in the way I want to do it. Every day, I have to accept that the only certainty we have in life is that uncertainty is part of life!

Valued Identity, Relationships and Roles

Mental illness can deeply undermine a person’s identity. It did for me. Before I began to recover, I frequently questioned what the point of me was. I felt useless and burdensome. Part of my recovery has been examining and rediscovering who I am, who I believe myself to be, and what I can, and should, contribute to the world. I now know that I have to be creative, I have to make things with my hands. I also know that just because I’m able to do something well, doesn’t mean I need to do that something. The Recovery College runs a whole day course on identity which I’ll talk about in my next post, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

Purpose and Active Participation in Life

This theme is sister to Valued Identity, Relationships and Roles. Our sense of purpose and the way we participate in life comes from, and informs, our identity, relationships and roles. Knowing that I need to be creative, and that it’s okay to not do everything I once did, has freed me physically, mentally and emotionally to explore new avenues of expression and contribution. Making and selling cards, telling the story of my recovery, working on design teams … I could never have imagined this two years ago, but it’s where I am and where I want to be. Recovery has made these things possible, and these things are making recovery possible.

Support

Where do I start? There are so many people I want to acknowledge that this paragraph could end up sounding like an Oscar acceptance speech! Obviously, there’s my husband and my children, my mum, sister and brother, my amazing parents-in-law, my best friend, my church family, my online friends, the hospital staff, my GP, my community support worker, the pharmacists, God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit … I’m bound to leave someone out. The point is, I’m not doing this alone. It’s a team effort.

Self-Management and Responsibility

I wrote in quite a bit of detail about this topic in my Regaining Control – It’s Up to Me Post, so I’ll encourage you to have a read of that, but in short: I am taking responsibility for my recovery by choosing hope, by living intentionally and mindfully and by getting into and maintaining daily habits that promote wellness. I can’t really go into any more detail here because that’s what this whole blog is about! Just have a rummage through my other posts …

Choice and Information

I don’t think I’d be where I am today without all the information I’ve acquired over the last year or so. Everything I’ve learned about recovery, I’ve learned in hospital workshops, on Recovery College courses, through the wise counsel of family and friends, and through my own research – mainly via TED Talks on YouTube. It’s all this information that has equipped me and allowed me to make informed choices about my care and my recovery.

Individuality and Creativity

I’ve touched on this already, but I think it’s worth saying that recovery is a very individual process. We are all different, so everyone’s recovery nitty gritty is going to be different. What helps in my recovery might not help in yours. Not everyone is going to find purpose, meaningful occupation and a sense of utility through designing and making greetings cards, but I firmly believe that everyone is creative – it’s God-given. It’s just a matter of finding the time, energy, support, materials, inspiration, channels that you need … not a tall order then!

Seriously, though I’ve come to realise that loss of creativity is one of my mental illness early warning signs. About a year before I became really ill, I stopped creating and struggled to write anything. That should have rung alarm bells, but I didn’t know then what I know now. Anyway, my creativity came back slowly. It began in hospital with fine-liners and colouring books, and continued with zentangling and then with card-making and now with writing on this blog, design team work, planning, journaling, bible journaling, scrapbooking and making YouTube videos about it all. As I have recovered, I have become more creative, and as I have become more creative, I have carried on recovering. Creativity isn’t just about arts and crafts, though; it’s about problem solving and health management and work and, well, the whole of life. Creativity is an approach to life.

Spirituality

I’m not going to go into detail about Spirituality here because I’ve got a whole blog post planned on the topic, but I will say that I believe we are all spiritual beings, that there is more to us than flesh, blood and bone, and that we need to nurture this facet of ourselves. My faith has played a big part in my recovery, and I believe that God has been with me throughout. It’s important to me that I don’t dress up my struggles to make them more presentable and palatable to the world. I don’t want to share my stories as if they are complete, all wrapped up in pretty paper and tied with a flashy bow. Recovery stories are messy and difficult to contain, and so are faith stories. My recovery story and my faith story are intertwined and inseparable and require a lot more room to tell properly, so stay tuned!

So that’s it: a whistle-stop tour of some common recovery themes and the part they’re playing in my life. Next week, I’ll be back with a post about mental illness and our sense of self. Until then …

Thanks for reading! xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mental Health Monday: What Is This Thing Called Recovery? Part Two

Hello! and welcome to another Mental Health Monday post! Last week, I shared some of the recovery concepts I’ve embraced over this last year. In this post, I’m going to talk about some of the details and how I’m manifesting recovery in my daily life.

First-up, there are a few posts that have already addressed some of this, so I’ll link them here and you can have a read if you like.

Probably the simplest thing would be to tell you just to rummage through this blog, but I want to try to distill it down for you! This week, I’ll talk about some common recovery themes and add a little detail as I go.

Hope is a central aspect of recovery and, the Recovery Movement goes so far as to say that recovery is probably not possible without it. Hope is what sustains motivation and supports the idea that an individual can live a fulfilling life even with the limitations caused by illness. I find hope in the everyday – in birdsong and blue skies, in the sound of the sea and the smell of fish ‘n’ chips, in the laughter of my loved-ones and the paint in my pallet, in the rising of the sun and the setting of the same. I keep a gratitude log and, every day, I write down a few things I’m grateful for. I surround myself with sights, sounds, smells, sensations, colours, work and people that nourish me, and I remind myself that I’ve made it through difficult times before, and that God is with me. This too shall pass, and I’ll be all the stronger for it.

Agency is another aspect of recovery. It refers to people having a sense of control over their lives and their recovery. It’s about people taking control of their own problems and the service they receive. It is about self-management, self-determination, choice and responsibility. Realising that I could be in the driving seat of my recovery was a big turning point for me. My wellness wasn’t solely in the hands of the medical professionals – I could make decisions for myself and direct my care. This has manifested itself in a number of ways, from telling my doctor and pharmacist that I wanted two months’ supply of medication at a time, rather than one, to feeling okay about resting and not doing things that I know will tire me out thus making me more vulnerable to unhelpful thinking. I don’t go to church every Sunday because sometimes I need to just be on my own and recharge. I don’t often go out in the evening because staying home and journaling is more nourishing and revitalising than going to a connect-group or the pub. If I’ve had a busy day, I write ‘rest day’ in my planner on the following day and then stay home. I say yes when I want to say yes, and no when I want to say no. Having a sense of agency is empowering – it says that I am the expert on me, and I know what I need, and I don’t need to feel guilty about making sure that my needs are met.

Opportunity is the third main aspect of recovery. It links recovery with social inclusion and people’s participation in wider society. As a general rule, those of us with mental health issues want to be part of communities: to be valued, to contribute and to have access to the same opportunities as everyone else. I realise that what I wrote about Agency makes me sound like a bit of a recluse, and in many ways I am, and always have been. I’m your classic introvert: likes people but finds interacting with them draining and needs a lot of post-socialising down time to recover. However, there are times when I want to stay home, but know it will do me good to get out, so to maintain a balanced life, I go to church most weeks, I try to get to my husband’s gigs once in a while, I go to parties with the proviso that I might only stay an hour, I meet friends one-to-one or in small groups for coffee and a chat. And I enjoy it! I’m always glad I went. I feel included and part of the world around me.

As far as contributing goes, I’ve cut back. Before I was ill, I was a busy bee. I was heavily involved in church: co-running a monthly craft club, administering the church website, occasional preaching, delivering all-age talks, teaching Sunday school, leading an Alpha Course small group, singing in the music team, co-leading the youth group and running a toddler group, and while all of those things were enjoyable and fulfilling in their own way, my life was very skewed. What with looking after my home and family as well, I didn’t have much time or energy for what figuring out what it was I actually wanted to do with my life, let alone actually doing it. If one good thing came out of my recent episode of mental illness, it’s that it made me stop, drop all my commitments, and take stock. And, very, very slowly, I’ve taken back some of my church-related jobs: I still help with the craft group, I still manage the church website, and I sing, once a month, in the music group. That’s it. It’s a healthy level of contribution for me at the moment. This last year has also given me the time and energy to figure out how I really want to contribute to the wider world. Right now, that’s arting, crafting and making greetings cards – spreading a little joy – creating papercraft projects for a couple of design teams, and sharing about Recovery on my blog, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. I feel as if God, through the gradual unfurling of my creativity and recovery, is slowly unfolding new meaning and purpose in my life.

So that’s where I’m at the moment. I hope you’ve found something helpful here. Next week, I plan to write on some more recovery themes and how they’re playing out in my life.

Thanks for reading! Back soon. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mental Health Monday: What Is This Thing Called Recovery? Part One

What springs to mind when you hear the word recovery? Perhaps it’s that room they wheel you into after you’ve had an operation. Perhaps it’s getting your breath back after you’ve run a race. Perhaps it’s a road rescue truck, towing a conked-out car.

Recovery is one of those things we usually don’t think about until we need to, until we’re ill, exhausted, broken.

When I had post-natal depression in 2005/6, it was all about getting better and getting back to my old self again. I never really considered that there might be more to recovery than that – maybe that’s part of the reason I was so vulnerable to depression this time; I didn’t make any real changes to my life once I was better the first time. But thanks to the mental health unit I was admitted to in 2017, and to The Recovery College, I’ve learned that recovery is about much more than just getting back to the way I was before, and it’s not about being rescued.

What Is This Thing Called Recovery? was the third Recovery College course I attended. As it happens, it was almost a year ago to the day. Over the course of three-ish hours, we dug into the concept of Recovery and what it means with regards to mental illness. We looked at what clinical recovery is – the amelioration of symptoms – and we looked at what personal recovery is, and that’s what I want to focus on in this post: personal recovery.

With illnesses such as depression and anxiety, you might say that someone is clinically recovered when they no longer feel depressed or anxious, but for many people with long term mental health issues, some or all of their symptoms may never go away completely. And even depression and anxiety can linger in lower levels for years. Does that mean that all these people can’t recover or be in recovery? If so, what hope do they have? Well, one of the many turning points in my recovery was realising that personal recovery is not about the the amelioration of symptoms; instead:

A person with mental illness can recover even though the illness is not ‘cured’. Recovery is a way of living a satisfying, hopeful and contributory life even with the limitations caused by illness. Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness.

– Bill Anthony, the father of the Recovery Movement (1993)

When I first heard that, it blew me away, and I knew that my recovery had to be about growing beyond the catastrophic effects of depression and anxiety, about developing new meaning, new purpose, and about living a satisfying, hopeful, contributory life, even though I might still be experiencing the symptoms of depression and anxiety. I realised I didn’t have to wait to be cured or fixed before I could get on with my life – I could start living again right away!

Moving on: one of the actvities we did on the course was to come up with as many words as we could to describe recovery. I jotted them all down in my bullet journal. (Click on the image for a closer look.) See how positive, exciting, hopeful those words are? And they were all suggested by a bunch of people living with mental illness. I think that’s pretty amazing!

Anyhoo … throughout the course, many more quotes about recovery were shared, and you know how I love my quotes, so here are a few more:

 

Recovery is …

… a journey, not a destination.

… about having a satisfying, fulfilling life as defined by the individual.

… not fixing what’s broken; it’s finding wholeness, meaning and purpose.

… a reconnection to self, others, nature and spirit.

… a willingness to forgive, openness to reconciliation, a search for peace.

And here’s the biggie, the one that this blog is all about, the one that’s defining my recovery:

Recovery is not managing illness; it’s discovering wellness.

I know this post is a bit thin on details, but I just wanted to share the concepts I’ve embraced over this last year. In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about how I’m manifesting these concepts in my life.

Thanks for reading! Back soon. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mental Health Monday – Choose Hope

Over the last few Mental Health Mondays, I’ve written a lot about the things I learned on the Recovery College’s Holding the Hope course, so you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d written all there is to write on the subject, but oh no … there’s more! Last year, I also attended a second course on hope. It was the bitesize version of the first, and provided a good refresher of all that I’d already learned plus a few extra helpful ideas. One of the benefits of writing these posts, has been that I’ve gone over what I learned a year ago and reminded myself of all the things I’d forgotten or internalised. Internalising ideas and getting into wellness habits is a good thing, but sometimes I fall out of good habits because I don’t remember why I started doing them in the first place! But that’s a side note – on with today’s post …

I’ve called this post Choose Hope because that’s what I learned to do as a result of going on it. Often, we hear things like: look on the bright side, every cloud has a silver lining, or think positive, and it sounds so simple, but as anyone who’s suffered from depression or anxiety can tell you: simple is not the same as easy. Being positive is a choice, but it can be a very difficult one to make, especially when your brain’s chemistry is on the fritz. But what I’ve learned is that it’s okay to start small, to start with seemingly insignificant things that lift your spirits even the tiniest amount.

Hope can be found in all sorts of places. Hope can sound like birdsong, or a dog’s bark. It can taste like a hot cup of tea or a spicy curry. It can feel like a cool breeze or a warm blanket. Hope can look like a smile or a chink of blue sky. It can smell like freshly cut grass or freshly baked bread.

One of the activities we took part in during the course was to look at our own lives and the things we have achieved, both big and small. Here’s what I wrote:

  • Today I have: hung out the washing.
  • This gives me hope that: I will continue to make progress.
  • This week I have: spent time in my craft shed.
  • This gives me hope that: it’s okay to try things that still make me anxious.
  • This month I have: been on holiday
  • This gives me hope that: I can face and even enjoy the things I was previously scared to do.
  • This year I have: been discharged from hospital.
  • This gives me hope that: help is available and that I am able to accept and respond to it.
  • In my life I have: recovered from post-natal depression.
  • This gives me hope that: I will recover from this episode of depression.

Hope can be found in our achievements, in challenges we’ve overcome. It can also be found in the achievements of others, in stories of courage and perseverance. It can be found in music, movies, books, quotes, stories, games, art …

When I came home from this course, I wrote up my notes in my bullet journal and created a Choose Hope spread where I began to write down all the things that gave me hope at the time. Here’s a picture of it:

Over time, this spread expanded into a whole book which I named my Wellness Toolkit. If you’d like to have a look at how this development took place, I’ve made some videos about it. You can find them on YouTube:

As always, I came away from this Hope course with a bunch of inspiring quotes that I’ve referred to so much I have them engraved on my brain. My favourites are:

Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk it, the road comes into existence – Lin Yutang

The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love and something to hope for – Allan K Chambers

When hope is hungry, everything feeds it – Mignon McLaughlin

That first quote especially has stuck with me because I am so grateful to all the people in my life who not only held the hope for me when I couldn’t hold it for myself, but who also walked my hope into existence alongside me. You know who you are …

Well, it’s late and my ‘wind-down’ alarm has just gone off, so I shall leave it here for today. I hope that you’ve found this series hopeful and helpful. Next week, I’ll be moving on to talk about Recovery and what it means to me.

Thanks for reading! Back soon. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mental Health Monday – Soul Space

It’s been a while since I wrote a Mental Health Monday post! I’ve had a lot on recently – school holidays, design team work, bespoke card-making, spring fayre preparations, overwhelming tiredness – so something had to give, and that something was my blog. Things are a little quieter and more routine now, so I should have the time to write more frequently. That’s the plan anyway …

Today I want to talk about the nitty-gritty of my morning mindfulness, meditation, prayer and reflection habit. It goes something like this:

  • 08:00 wave the kids off to school.
  • 08:05 meditate using the Headspace app.
  • 08:15 pray using the Pray as You Go app.
  • 08:30 reflect using the Simple Abundance book and my journal
  • 08:45 stretches
  • 08:50 shower …

The first thing I want to say is that I don’t really draw a line between mindfulness, mediation, prayer or reflection. It’s all one and the same to me – perhaps different facets of the same jewel. I often start my morning habits with a simple breath prayer such as, ‘Here I am, Lord (in breath) I am here (out breath)’ or ‘You are in me (in breath) I am in you (out breath).’ These prayers not only acknowledge God and invite him into this special time, but they also anchor me in the present moment – my mind is fully engaged in the here and now. It’s not rushing away into my day or ruminating over yesterday. Which brings me to the main aspect, benefit and challenge of mindfulness – being fully present.

When people talk to me about my mindfulness practice, they often ask: do you have to empty your mind? My answer is no; the clue’s in the name … it’s mindFULLness. Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment, letting our thoughts go and simply being. I know … easier said than done, right? Our brains are programmed to think; they’re programmed to figure out how to overcome challenges and threats – perceived and real. It’s our survival instinct. And our thinking brains do not shut off just because we live in a relatively safe environment. In fact, our brains will take any challenge and try to figure out how to deal with it, no matter how minor. Maybe your co-worker has commandeered your desk while you’ve been on annual leave. Maybe one of the kids in your child’s class has headlice. Maybe your local supermarket has run out of bread. Our brains see all these things as threats and try to think of solutions in the same way they would if you’d just spotted a sabre-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes. OK, your reaction might not be as extreme, but if you’re suffering from anxiety or stress it might well be. Your brain might not be able to tell the difference between a sabre-toothed tiger and a co-worker, and you’ll experience your Flight or Fight response as if they presented the same level of danger. At the height of my anxiety, my brain was like a game of Whack-A-Mole. Threatening thoughts would pop up in my head, and I’d try to bash them back down, but as soon as I got rid of one, another would pop up … over and over and over again. I just couldn’t stop them, and they grew and grew and grew until they were all-consuming. But it wasn’t just in my mind. Thanks to adrenaline and cortisol, it was in my body too. Imagine the stress and the strain and the wear and tear of living in code-red-high-alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week for months on end. Anyhoo …

Now, however, when threatening thoughts pop into my head, my response is much calmer. I acknowledge them for what they are – just thoughts – and let them go, like leaves floating away on a stream, or clouds floating across the sky. As my husband says: you can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair. (He’s very wise!) As well as letting thoughts go, I also turn my attention toward whatever it is I am doing: cooking, painting, walking, breathing. I feel, taste, smell, hear, see. I fill my senses, and therefore my mind, with the present moment. And all this I do without judgment. I don’t label the thoughts as good or bad, and I don’t criticise myself for having them. My mind wanders. That’s what minds do – forever on the lookout for danger and opportunity. It has taken months of practice to be able to be mindful in this way. Thanks to the Headspace app, just ten minutes of practice a day for over a year now has started to hone my mind. Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better you get.

I almost always do my Headspace meditation before using the Pray as You Go app because it prepares me, settles and opens me for a focused time with God, just listening to his music, his story, dwelling in his love. As my mind inevitably wanders during this time, I remember to gently, and without judgment, return to prayer, to allow my mind to be filled by what I hear – not thinking, wrestling, studying, rationalising, struggling or striving, just being still and knowing and not rushing away in thought or in action.

I’m reminded of a verse from the Bible: Acts 17:28.

For in him we live and move and have our being.

After the day’s PaYG prayer, when I’m ready, I move on to the daily reading from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Joy and Comfort. This is a kind of doorway into the rest of my day, a time to read, reflect, re-engage my thinking brain. I’m very much enjoying the challenge of this book. Some days, I find myself nodding in agreement. Some days, I find myself holding the polar opposite view. Some days, I find myself amazed at how the author seems to be writing my life! Everyday, I find something to chew on, to mull over, to note down in my morning journal and take with me into the day.

Reading this back, it sounds a bit as if I think I’ve found the secret to never being depressed or anxious again. I haven’t, and I know I haven’t. I’m still a Work In Progress as much as the next person. I think what I’ve found, though, is both a tool, and more than a tool. My time in the morning, is my Soul Space. As an artist primes her canvas for the paint to come, I prime my soul for the day to come. This ordinary, sacred time is to my life, what primer is to paint – the same but different. My Soul Space trains me and hones me and reminds me that everything in my life and every moment of my life is spiritual and sacred. My Soul Space is a reminder that God is always with us, and it is God with me. My Soul Space is a time of alignment and refinement as well as stillness and silence. It is both preparation for and part of my walk with God.

To finish, I’d like to leave you with this thought from Brother Lawrence (1614 – 1691):

I have abandoned all particular forms of devotion, all prayer techniques. My only prayer practice is attention. I carry on a habitual, silent, and secret conversation with God that fills me with overwhelming joy.

There is nothing new under the sun …

Thanks for reading! Back soon. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mental Health Monday: Holding the Hope – Part Three

Hello and welcome! In my last Mental Health Monday post, I finished by saying how I think the knowledge and skills I’ve gained over the last year have made me stronger, more resilient and less vulnerable to mental illness, and I said that in this post, I’d pick that apart a bit and talk in more concrete terms about how this knowledge and these skills manifest in my day-to-day life. So that’s what I’m going to do!

My daily life goes something like this:

  • wake up no later than 07:30
  • 07:30 eat breakfast, drink coffee, take medication
  • 08:00 pray and meditate in bed in my jim-jams.
  • 08:30 shower and dress
  • 09:00 do something: work, coffee with friends, shopping, chores, go for a walk etc
  • 12:00 eat lunch and watch a bit of TV
  • 12:30 do something: work, coffee with friends, shopping, chores, go for a walk etc
  • 14:30/15:00 greet kids and chat about their day for a bit
  • 15:30 do something: work, coffee with friends, shopping, chores etc
  • 17:30 cook dinner
  • 18:30 eat dinner with family
  • 19:00 do something: planning, journaling, watching TV, chores, go for a walk etc
  • 21:00 start winding down
  • 21:30 take medication and have night time chats with kids
  • 22:00 get into bed, meditate, pray, use lavender essential oil, do relaxation exercises, sleep

During the school holidays and on weekends, some of these things move about a bit, but I always take my meds, I always wake up no later than 07:30, I always pray and meditate, I always use lavender and do relaxation exercises and I always make sure I’m in bed by 23:00, preferably 22:00. These routines and habits are a big part of what keeps me well and have been developed over the course of the last year.

It goes without saying that it’s important to take my medication every day even though it makes me tired and hungry. I know it is bolstering all the hard work I have done. Getting a decent night’s sleep is crucial to my mental health too. One of my early warning signs for depression is a disturbed sleep pattern. If I don’t get enough sleep, my resilience to stress decreases and my sleep gets even worse, and thus begins a vicious cycle. To help avoid getting into that cycle, I don’t nap in the day unless I am totally exhausted, and I keep my evenings quiet and relaxed. Using lavender as my soothing scent and doing progressive muscle relation exercises at bedtime, sends signals to my brain and body that it is time for sleep, and I’m usually out by the time I’ve snuggled under the duvet! I generally sleep well at the moment, but I have crazy vivid dreams and often wake up in the night in a cold sweat, but I seem to be able to drift off again afterward. Knowing that a good night’s sleep is fundamental to my recovery means that if my sleep goes downhill, I’ll be banging on my doctor’s door for early intervention!

After sleeping well, comes starting the day right. I keep it slow. I know I’m lucky to be able to do so, and I’m very grateful for that. I eat breakfast with the kids and see them off to school before going back to bed for half an hour of prayer, meditation and reflection. To help me with this, I use two apps: Headspace and Pray as You Go. Headspace has been instrumental in training my brain to let go of thoughts, and Pray as You Go is a beautiful daily podcast based on a passage from the Bible and includes music and gentle reflection. Recently, I’ve added Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach to my meditation time. It was a gift from my lovely friend Helen, and is giving me a framework for thinking about gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, joy and abundance. This half-an-hour is the time when I am still with God. I don’t pray for things or about things, I just show up, open up and listen for that still, small voice of calm.

Other useful habits that have emerged over the last year include: taking vitamin supplements and Omega-3 oils everyday, making sure I drink at least five drinks a day (otherwise I get extra-tired and headachey), taking breaks from my work (I have an alarm set on my phone so that I remember to eat lunch.), being creative everyday and going for a short walk everyday (Truth be told, I don’t always manage this!). All these practical things contribute to my wellness and resilience and make me stronger.

As well as all this, every month I review the Nine Pillars of a Balanced Life to make sure my life is balanced and not skew-whiff. I look at my level of contribution, the way I spend my leisure, the exercise I take (or don’t take), the things I do and time I spend with family, friends and especially my husband. I look at how much time I spend working, how much ‘me time’ I have and what I do with it. I look at what I’m doing to grow as a person, what new things I’m learning. And if something is under or over-represented, I try to redress the balance to reduce potential stress and resentment.

A big and positive change for me this year has been starting my own business making and selling cards and being chosen to serve of two design teams. Before falling ill, I was a bit rudderless and I’m sure this contributed to my mental fragility. The kids are older now and were starting not to need me to be so hands on, so I didn’t feel I had much of a purpose, but now I have my business (which is still very small, but who knows where it will go?) and regularly sharing the story of my recovery journey, I now feel a sense of purpose and passion again, and this is what gets me out of bed in the morning, especially on the days when I wake up feeling as if I’m made of lead.

Well, this has turned into another long post, so I will leave it there for today. Next week, I’ll talk in more detail about the benefits I’ve experienced from practicing mindfulness and meditation. And I want to talk about the areas of my life that still need plenty of work!

Thanks for reading! Bye for now. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

(Image Source: Pixabay)

Mental Health Monday: Holding the Hope – Part Two

In last week’s Mental Health Monday post, I began sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned about hope and its role in recovery, and I said that this week, I’d write about the cycles of hope and hopelessness. So, here goes …

Both hope and hopelessness can be viewed as cycles, or maybe spirals would be a better illustration. Hope can help us spiral upward, whereas hopelessness is a downward spiral.

Let’s look at hope first: when we have a sense of hope, we believe that change is possible, and this leads us to take responsibility for setting goals and for asking for support when we need it. As a consequence, we learn that we have a measure of control over our lives; we develop a sense of agency and feel empowered. Hope becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – positive change occurs, which in turn gives us an even greater sense of hope. We spiral upward.

Now, let’s look at hopelessness: when we lose hope, we believe that things are hopeless, that change isn’t possible. As a consequence, we abdicate responsibility and learn to be helpless. Hopelessness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – nothing changes, or maybe things actually get worse. Our negative beliefs about ourselves and about our situations are reinforced and we become more hopeless. We spiral downward.

I know that before my admission to hospital, I was stuck in a downward spiral of hopelessness. I’d been hopeful when I’d first gone to my doctor, but that hope had been eroded by repeated set-backs. I wouldn’t say that I’d totally abdicated responsibility for my life, but I knew I’d reached the end of my own resources and needed serious help. Looking back, I realise that asking for that ‘serious help’ and agreeing to hospital admission was an act of hope. I guess that’s were I first started the long, slow spiral back up. Getting my medication right was a big part of the beginning of my recovery, as was knowing that I was in a safe place while the doctors tinkered with it, but another big part was the attitude of the health care support workers there. They were all convinced I’d get better and helped me to feel that I had some degree of control over my life, even in a mental hospital, even if it was only choosing what I wanted to eat, or whether to go to workshops or not, or what day to do my laundry. It was tiny things like these that kept me afloat, kept me moving. And then once I came out of hospital, my community support worker was relentlessly positive about my future, even when I hit a couple of bumps in the road. There was also the Recovery College – a whole organisation built on the premise of hope, that recovery is possible and probable – which gave me the knowledge and language I needed to take back full responsibility for my life. And through it all were my friends and family, holding the hope for me when I couldn’t hold it for myself.

So what’s to stop me flipping back into the downward spiral of hopelessness the next time I hit a bump in the road? Well, I think the knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the last year has definitely made me stronger and more resilient. I know from first hand experience that it’s possible to return from rock-bottom, and from where I am now, I can look down into the darkness that once engulfed me and not be afraid. I might slip a bit once in a while, but I’m now equipped with improved skills and much better climbing gear than before. Plus I’ve come to recognise that I’m in a team of fellow climbers who are all willing to offer each other a leg-up when we need one.

Sorry if that climbing metaphor sounds a bit vague, neat or even twee! Next week, I’ll pick it apart a bit and talk in more concrete terms about how it manifests in my day-to-day life. See you then?

Thanks for reading! xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

(Image Source: Pixabay)

Mental Health Monday: Holding the Hope – Part One

Holding the Hope is the name of the second Recovery College course I went on last year, but instead of it being a half-day course, it lasted a whole day. I confess: I was a bit apprehensive about going – I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stay awake for the whole thing as I was still in the foggy-head-eyes-propped-open-with-toothpicks stage of recovery – but I did make it all the way through. One of the great things about Recovery College is that the courses are led by two people: one with professional experience of mental illness, and one with lived experience, so there’s always at least one facilitator who knows, first-hand, exactly how taxing just being in a room with other people can be. They make sure there are always plenty of breaks in which you can catch your breath.

Until taking this course, I’d never really thought about the role that hope plays in recovery from mental illness. The first activity we did was to think of something we enjoyed doing or that was meaningful to us. We then identified what it was about this thing that made us feel good, and what it was that enabled us to do it. This led us to thinking about hope … what is hope? If you click on the image above, you’ll be able to read some of the definitions we came up with. I particularly like the quote at the bottom as it acknowledges the difficulties we face:

Hope advises us to look squarely at the realities that confront us while remaining aware of the possibilities.

As we were talking about hope, one of the students asked a question: how is it that someone can lose hope to such an extent that they want to end their own life? This got me thinking because that was exactly what had happened to me. After a few moments, I answered her … I said something like this: when I had post-natal depression, back in 2005/6, I went to the doctor, received a few visits from a health visitor, spent six months on anti-depressants and gradually got better with only a few minor ups and downs along the way. This time when I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I thought things would go pretty much the same way, but they didn’t. Every time my doctor upped my dose of antidepressant, my anxiety got worse, and as my anxiety got worse, I lost a little more hope, and eventually I became so detached from reality that I ended up in hospital because it wasn’t safe for me to be anywhere else. My loss of hope didn’t happen overnight; it was a slow, gradual erosion to nothing.

Other students nodded. They understood. I’d found my tribe; it was good to be among people who just got it. I think that’s when I actually felt that first spark of hope.

The rest of the course consisted of activities aimed at helping us further explore the concept of hope. We thought about what hope felt like, looked like, smelled like, tasted like, sounded like. For some of us it was coffee with friends. For others it was spring flowers. For others still is was sunrises, the dawn chorus, butterflies, the sound of the sea. We all managed to think of things that lifted our spirits and gave us that sense of positive expectation, of optimism, of perseverance – things we could write on slips of paper and put in a Hope Bank; a box or jar we could dip into when we needed a dose of hope. Next, we talked about what a hopeful person is like and about the differences between hope and hopelessness. I’m going to write about the cycles of hope and hopelessness next week as they deserve a post of their own.

I came away from this course with a new understanding of hope and how it could help me recover. Last April, about six weeks after leaving hospital, was exactly the right time for me to start thinking about hope and to start looking for hopeful things in my life. Recovering from the catastrophic effects of severe mental illness isn’t as simple as ‘looking on the bright side’ or ‘staying positive’, but building into my daily routine activities that give me hope, and regularly reminding myself of the things I find hopeful has had a profound impact on me.

I came away from this course with a bunch of quotes which I wrote down in my bullet journal and now know off by heart because I’ve referred to them so much:

A hopeful person surrounds herself with people, colour, sounds and work that nourish her.

Hope shines brightest in our darkest moments.

Hope is the small lump of coal that starts the fire burning again – even the smallest belief that we can get better can fuel the recovery process.

Hope shines brightest in our darkest moments.

Nearly a year on from attending this course, I’m still holding the hope. I watch the sunrise and the sunset with the confident expectation that as time passes, I will continue to recover. I see the daffodils in nextdoor’s garden standing tall again now that the snow has melted and smile as I think about how I am no longer cowed by depression. I watch the starlings nesting in the eaves of our roof and know that although each day brings new challenges, it also brings new joys, new blessings, and new opportunities. And everyday, I surround myself with people, colour, sounds and work that nourish me.

As I said above, next week I’m going to write about the cycles of hope and despair and after that there are a few more things I’d like to share, so please do come back for more posts on hope. In the mean time, I wish you every blessing.

Thanks for reading! Catch you soon. xxx

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mental Health Monday: Regaining Control

It’s just over a year ago now that I was discharged from hospital, having spent nearly six weeks being treated for severe depression, and it’s almost a year ago that I attended my first Recovery College course: Regaining Control – It’s Up to Me. I remember feeling like a zombie as I walked into the room and found an empty seat at the table, wary of the other people already there – my life was still a foggy haze, and I had no real idea how to get out of it – but by the end of the two-and-a-half hour session, I had a sense that I could regain control of my life and start moving in a vaguely forward direction.

My recovery has been a long, gradual and mostly gentle process. It started in hospital, where, for the most part, I felt my views were listened to and my wishes, respected. The psychologists were particularly empowering as they took the time to chat to me about all that was on offer in hospital, and left the decision about what to go to, completely up to me. Since leaving hospital,  I’ve continued to be encouraged and supported by health care professionals (especially my Community Support Worker) and friends and family alike, and as a result, and as I’ve learned more and more about mental health, mental illness and recovery, I’ve moved from being in the passenger seat to being in the driving seat of my recovery. I guess I’m one of the mental health care system’s success stories!

The ‘Regaining Control – It’s Up to Me’ course was a great one to start my Recovery College journey on. We explored how taking personal responsibility can contribute to not only recovery, but also to staying well. We looked at how it can be the first step toward achieving personal freedom and regaining control of our lives. For me, the severe depression and anxiety I was experiencing before I was admitted into hospital was triggered (in part) by a lack of control in a certain area of my life, and, as the illness took hold, everything in my life, and especially in my mind and body, felt as if it were spinning out of control. It seemed to me that I was trapped in a never-ending downward spiral of fear. Fear bred more fear bred more fear bred more fear …

I couldn’t have started my recovery without my admission to hospital – I needed to be somewhere safe while the doctors figured out how best to help me – but once I was out of hospital and had started attending Recovery College courses, I started taking back control of my life, started making decisions for myself, started doing things again that I’d had to stop doing before. The fear didn’t go away completely (It still hasn’t, if I’m honest.) but I feel I have a form of control over my life, not a tight control – that was part of the problem before – but a kind of light control as if I’m holding it in the palm of my hand rather than clutching it in a death grip!

One of the quotes from the Regaining Control course that’s stuck with me is:

Accept personal responsibility; achieve personal freedom.

I love that. I’ve realised that although the medical profession can facilitate my recovery, it’s up to me to implement the changes I need to make. I have to accept responsibility and do what needs to be done. Putting this into practice by keeping up with my wellness habits, is one way I’ve taken personal responsibility and am achieving personal freedom. The things I do everyday are helping to keep me well and are making me more resilient. I am not dependent on others for my recovery. I am in control of my actions – no one else can live my life for me.

Another quote that’s stuck with me is:

Responsibility is the ability to choose your response.

I can choose how I respond to challenges and triggers now. I don’t have to react or over-react; I can respond appropriately. That sounds simple, but simple does not mean easy. Responding appropriately is something I’m going to have to work on for a long time to come, but I am choosing to work on it – that’s me taking personal responsibility and choosing freedom over fear.

As well as the concepts of responsibility and control, we explored things that we should take responsibility for and things that we shouldn’t take responsibility for – but I’ll save that for another post as this one is getting long!

To finish, I’ll leave you with a few more quotes from this course, as they do a great job of summing up the journey I’m on.

The price of control of one’s life is personal responsibility.

You are the expert on yourself. You are best placed to know what you want and need.

You will get more out of life and your recovery if you take personal responsibility for your wellness.

Your life is going to happen anyway … wouldn’t you rather have the major say in it?

Thanks for reading! Wishing you every blessing. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

(Image source: Pixabay)