To My Online World, And How You’ve Helped Me Grow

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TW: Suicidal ideation

The period between 2003 – 2013 was a whirlwind of changes for me. The catalyst for these changes came from my online world. A place that held me safely in it’s hands. It was a place without judgement and a community full of compassionate individuals. I could feel the warmth and strength of genuine friendship reverberate around me. I felt like I’d finally found my family.

Where did this vulnerability, this raw honesty come from? The internet was full of the outsiders. Individuals trying to find their people.

In real life I was struggling. I felt like an outcast. I was trying to discover who I was and I felt deeply uncomfortable in myself. I’d never found my ‘tribe’ at school, or even when I started University in 2004. I was constantly called ‘weirdo’, ‘freak’, ‘alien’ during my time at school. I thought University would be a positive change, but I was so very wrong. I found myself surrounded by people I had little in common with. It caused me to modify my behaviour; the way I talked, the music I listened to, the shows I watched, so I could fit in. There was an intense, feverish need to belong. I wrongly thought I was the one that needed to change. That my differences were holding me back. I didn’t have anyone in my life urging me to celebrate them.

University life ended abruptly for me. I didn’t know at the time, but I was struggling with bipolar disorder. For the first term I’d been manic, euphoric and full of an insatiable energy. I fitted in with others in my halls of residence because I was the life of the party. By the next term I was in a downward spiral into depression. I realised the friendships I’d made were based on going out to bars and clubs and my unceasing hyperactivity. I had nothing else in common with them. Feeling alone and desperate, I dropped out.

Going to Uni meant owning my first laptop. At home we’d had a family desktop computer. It was so ancient that my teachers would ask why I was writing essays on a typewriter.  I’d missed out on msn messenger. Having one computer between six people as a teenager meant battling with my brothers’ to use it. Homework would have to come first and then there was my Dad who was also studying for a degree. My best friend lived five minutes away so if I wanted to chat, I’d just go over to hers. Now she’d left for University and I was back at my family home. My deepest connection to someone outside my immediate family had disappeared.  I felt lost without her.

Having my own laptop coincided with me finding my independence. I didn’t discover the online world until I’d dropped out of Uni. I was a huge anime fan and in my search for original Japanese versions I stumbled upon the then humble world of internet forums. These were the days of  hours of constant buffering. An online video could take half an hour or more to buffer enough to make it watchable. Infuriating as it was, it meant my attention was drawn to the forums in the sidebar of these sites. I felt awkward introducing myself to strangers on the internet, but I was bored and wanted to waste some time whilst the wheel of death spun round in front of the video. Greetings started pinging back. I felt a rush of excitement that people were acknowledging me.

I started paying more interest in the content. It wasn’t just people discussing anime. They were talking about their lives, their hopes for the future, their worries and doubts. These were people that were showing a genuine interest in me. Collectively, we were lonely. I had always been made fun of for my passions. I listened to under the radar indie, electronica, house, techno and hip hop music. An eclectic mix that people in my real life just didn’t get. Then I was also a nerd who watched Star Trek and read graphic novels and manga. I played video games and was obsessed with Nintendo and the Zelda games. Now I’d found a group of people that had had the same experiences and liked what I liked. A group that were smart, funny and lovable.

Names didn’t matter in the forums. Your age, gender, ethnicity wasn’t important. What was important was creating meaningful connections and supporting each other. If I’d had a bad day, I’d go straight on the forum to vent my frustration. It didn’t feel like I was shouting into the void. 

The first people I came out as bisexual to were my online friends. The connections we’d forged meant I was comfortable enough to tell them. It was the most vulnerable I’d ever made myself, but I wasn’t afraid. I was met with a pure acceptance. These were no longer just strangers, no longer just people, but my close friends. Coming out online to this small, tightly bounded group made me feel safe and secure. One person in particular was almost deafening in their support. She called herself Mel9000, and we’d grown close. About a week later she made an unusually tentative message. She’d found the courage to tell us all she was gay.

This brings me back to why we felt we could be so open online. These were people that didn’t feel accepted, because of their lifestyle, because of their idiosyncrasies. The internet opened up the world to us; we could find people that we clicked with instantly. Many of us felt socially isolated in real life. Everyone else seemed to connect and create friendships so seamlessly. I could hide who I was and put on an act to fit in, but many of the people I met online either wouldn’t do this, or had no idea how to. I wouldn’t say I was lucky to be able to put up a facade and make real life friends. In fact, it made me feel more alone and isolated. 

My family didn’t understand how I could spend hours alone in my room. When in fact, I was surrounded by friendly, supportive people; my online family. Mel and mines relationship had grown. We were speaking to each other privately away from the forums. We realised we both lived in the UK, living a few hundred miles apart. Excitedly we realised we could meet, out in the real world. We met and started a relationship. It felt we already knew each other, we had overshared so much of ourselves online.

The most valuable gifts the internet gave me were of self belief. That being weird was an asset. I could use it to propel my creativity forward into new and exciting places. That there were people that would accept me out there in the real world, I just had to work harder to find them, and I did.

The internet began to change. The forums I’d grown so attached to started petering out. But then, I hadn’t been paying them as much attention. I also changed. I met my now husband through online dating. He sent me a ‘wink.’ I brazenly sent back an essay about myself, with a touch of oversharing thrown in. It obviously worked and we’ve now been together for coming up to ten years. The forums had shown me that the internet could bring individuals together, that otherwise would never have met. As we got to know each other, we realised we’d been living in the same town, and going to the same gigs. I’d been up at the front dancing away, he’d been standing shyly at the back. It felt so strange to realise someone I had such a powerful connection with had over the years been standing just meters away from me at music festivals and at bars. To be in so close a proximity to someone but never speak, only to meet online and fall in love shows the power of the internet.

After over a decade of struggling to understand my constantly extreme mood swings and bizarre behaviour, I was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 and Psychosis. It whipped up an array of emotions for me; of a deep guttural anger, a sense of purest relief and of almost overwhelming fear. This was in 2012. I doubt without the forums I was so attached to I would have survived to receive a diagnosis. I never felt judged for sharing my feelings.

I’m still deeply connected to my online world and the connections I continue to create. There’s been this refocus in my online life in the past three years, to twitter and the mental health community that resides there. Twitter can be an endlessly supportive place, it’s just the way you use it that’s important. I’ve managed to find yet again a group of people who I can rely on, that I can lean on when life gets tough. People will share the most intimate thoughts about their mental health which takes serious guts. Most of the time we’re met with love and support, but every now again a troll finds it’s way through. This for me is the major difference in how the internet used to be. It has harsher edges now and it’s easier to find yourself getting cut. It feels more open and although I embrace the fact that more and more people have access to the internet, it can easily lead to confrontation.

I look at it this way; it’s an opportunity to educate and inform someone who has lived life from an entirely different perspective. Whether they are willing to learn and grow from my experiences that I share online, is entirely up to them. I believe by utilising this perspective the internet could become a better place to be in. We need to relearn that we can’t change people. We certainly can’t force that change by shouting and screaming our opinions at one another. We can use the passion for connection and understanding from that more innocent time on the internet. We are capable of putting our thoughts forward with both passion and kindness. There is growth for more genuine acts of listening and accepting difference. In the mental health community on twitter is where I’m seeing a burgeoning sense of togetherness. I feel like part of a group of like minded people again.

I felt pretty lost after my diagnosis. In fact, I became suicidal. I remember I had been sitting at the table crying for what seemed like hours. The thoughts circling my mind were becoming too painful. With conviction, I walked to the kitchen and opened the drawer where my pill boxes were laid out. Collecting them up I spread the medication over the table. I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and began drinking from it, grimacing as I did so. The tears continued unabated and between sips I cried hysterically whilst staring at the tiny pills.

I was inconsolable. I felt there was no hope for me, that I had to keep fighting when I had no fight left. I was crying so much I could hardly breathe through my sobs. I felt devoid of life. It felt like I was in a haze between life and death, of wanting to die and making it a reality. It didn’t feel like my mind was connected to my body any longer. The world around me felt ethereal, and I in a trance. A trance that could only be broken by ending my life. I wasn’t alone for the rest of the day, with my boyfriend coming home early from work to look after me. I don’t remember much else from that day. The hours morphed into a muddied state of tears and an inescapable dread. The only escape I could find was going to bed, and as I lay there I wondered if dying was like falling asleep, and how I wished that it could be this easy; that I didn’t have to ever wake up from this sleep.

I would never have written this, or admitted it, if it hadn’t been for the support I now have from the community on twitter. It’s different to the support I had on the forums back in the noughties, but it isn’t inferior. The way I spoke about my mental illness back then was full of oversharing, but often with a pinch of sarcasm and self deprecation. I hadn’t grown to accept what I was going through and how much of an impact it was having on my daily life.

As a writer I self promote; as a freelancer its essential. I’m older now and the way I use the internet has evolved as I’ve matured. I have more of a foothold, a stronger online presence. I’m fiercely open, loud and proud about my experiences of mental illness and being bisexual. There’s no more anonymity from me. I’ve found that’s a positive step. The forums I found such a connection with may have disappeared, but they gave me the confidence to stand up for the vulnerable, embrace the weird and fight against discrimination. I truly believe these online communities forged the way towards creating a generation more open to difference than ever before.

Falling Through The Gap

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I’ve lived with mental illness for more than half my life. Even so, it’s only been in the past few years where I’ve felt able to talk openly about bipolar, psychosis and bulimia.

It’s everyones responsibility to help people like me find their voice. We shouldn’t have to feel brave for speaking up, we must simply feel able to, without fear of judgement.

Through my blog, I’ve hoped to be a small part of that change. To create a safe place where the difficult, often uncomfortable conversations can be had. Speaking about my experiences of psychosis has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, but in the end one of the most rewarding and freeing.

Even though I’m open and encourage others to be, there is a big problem. There’s a lack of support from mental health services. So many people are tirelessly working towards greater understanding of mental illnesses. We are doing our job, but the services are just not available. The government aren’t doing their job in making sure everyone that needs a hospital bed can get one. That everyone who needs therapy can receive it when they need it. Services are reactionary; people fall into crisis before they can get help. People who are suicidal are being turned away.

I’m immensely lucky to have a partner, family and friends who support me unconditionally. My partner and parents have been there when services have let me down. I talk about one such experience I had with mental health crisis care Without them, I would have fallen through the gap in services and with no safety net would’ve been in a desperate situation. There are people out there that don’t have that safety net. They don’t have a support network like I do. This is where services should come in, but at the moment they don’t.

It feels pretty hopeless right now, but there are things you can do. Write to your local MP about your concerns. Support or get involved with charities such as MIND that are trying hard to push through new and updated legislation. When the time comes, vote in the local and general elections, for a party that will support the NHS and mental health services in particular.

The Problem With “I’m Fine!” When Really We’re Not

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We all do it. We say this even when we’re not ok. Someone casually asks,

“Hey, how are you?” and we say,

“I’m fine!” and that’s it.

Why do we do this?

To be polite. We don’t want to make the other person feel awkward or embarrassed. Sometimes it’s something people ask how you are as an ice breaker, to get a conversation moving. We believe they aren’t really expecting a detailed response, because they have an ulterior motive for talking to us.

It’s a knee jerk reaction. We say it without even thinking. We’ve said it hundreds of times before and now it’s become second nature. Even if we want to say no, I’m not fine, we’ve said it already and feel like we can’t backtrack.

We feel rushed. Life often feels like it’s rushing by, and our days feel full to the brim. It’s the same with our conversations. Everyone is in such a hurry to get to their point, to say what needs to be said, they don’t stop and take time to really talk. But most importantly, we don’t always feel like we will be listened to.

We’re conditioned to say it. Everyone reacts the same way to the same question. It’s almost seen as improper to reply in any other way. We’ve grown up hearing it. Our parents said it as we were growing up. Our friends say it. Our colleagues say it. We overhear it in public. Because we’ve heard it again and again, by so many different people, there seems like there’s no other reply to make.

All of these reasons are there for one reason only. The F word; Fear

We fear what someone will think if we’re honest. We’re worried about the reaction we’ll get. The stigma attached to feeling unwell mentally means we hide our true feelings. We’re scared that the person who asked the question will not take us seriously, will judge us, will think we’re weak, or simply not care. In that split second these thoughts circle our minds and we answer how we always do.

I don’t want people to feel guilty for saying “I’m fine.” I don’t want mentally unwell people to feel the weight of having to change their behaviour. It’s up to both sides to change the course of the conversation.

Asking how someone is isn’t a simple question. No one is just ‘fine.’ So we shouldn’t expect that answer and should answer that question honestly and openly. I’ve spoken on the blog about self honesty before, which is part of what we need to do to be honest with others.

“Actually I’m not ok.”

“Honestly I’m struggling at the moment.”

“Life’s tough right now.”

When you’re asking how someone is, really mean it. Sit down with them, over a drink or a meal so they feel that you’re present in the conversation. Build up to it. Don’t just blurt out “How are you?” If you’ve noticed a change in them recently start with that.

“I’ve noticed you’ve been quieter recently”

“I’ve been a bit worried about you”

“I thought it would be good to have a catch up.”

Time To Change are running a simple yet powerful campaign encouraging people to ask twice. Asking someone how they are and if they respond with they’re ok, ask them again. It shows you actually want to have a meaningful conversation with them. You’re not rushing them, you’re not waiting for your turn to speak.

Have that conversation, be honest and frank about how you’re feeling. For both sides it will make a difference.

 

 

 

 

Writing Is My Therapy

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Writing has always been an important part of my life. I remember filling notebook after notebook with reams of ideas and stories as a kid. Writing was my escape. As I got older I continued to write and it became a release from the depression that had suddenly manifested into my life. I even decided to go to University to study creative writing.

As an adult, I’ve had many struggles with mental illness. The symptoms of bipolar ran my life and my attempts to control the highs and lows were in vain.

I began to write, but this time, it began as a journal. I’d never kept a diary before. I just started to write, and soon everything was laid out. How much I’d been struggling, how guilty, helpless and ashamed I felt. It helped me immensely. I felt a release to see all these thoughts that I’d bottled up committed to paper.

Writing became my own private therapy.

I’ve had therapy, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) a couple of times. The first time round it really helped. I went to the sessions to help me deal with panic attacks. I learnt some important techniques and a new way of thinking about the experience. I use them to help me deal with nighttime panic attacks . The panic attacks subsided afterwards, and now I very rarely have one, maybe only once a year.

My second experience of CBT was not so positive. It wasn’t long after I’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was offered group therapy and wanting to know more about the condition, and share experiences with others, I said yes. The course didn’t help. It was basic, and didn’t teach me anything new about the condition. There was never any time to share our experiences. I still felt alone.

I continued to write, but now I wanted to share what I’d written. I started a blog, this blog. Although now I don’t always write about my personal experiences, writing still helps me.

It gives me focus and a sense of purpose when I’m depressed. It helps me to stay calm and concentrate when I’m manic. It drowns out the voices and helps me process the experience when I’m psychotic.

I’m not in therapy at moment. A lack of therapeutic styles on offer from the NHS means I’d have to seek private therapy. I can’t afford to do that, so my option is talking therapies; that didn’t go well last time

So for now writing will have to be my therapy. I’m sort of ok with that. I’m annoyed that I can’t access actual therapy, but at least I’ve found something in my life that helps me.

 

Where to Start Talking About Mental Health

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Starting the conversation about mental health can feel overwhelming; but it doesn’t have to be. Someone struggling may need the smallest gesture to pull them through. You have  the tools to save someone’s life, even if you don’t realise it. Here are a few things that you can do to help someone in your life.

  • Ask someone how they’re doing. Simple right? If you have an inkling something isn’t right, really ask them if they’re ok, like you mean it. Like you’re not hoping and wishing for a simple “I’m fine.”
  • Ring or message someone you haven’t heard from for awhile. It could mean they’re  struggling and have isolated themselves. Knowing that someone is thinking of them could be what starts them talking.
  • Listen. So they’ve started talking to you, what do you do now? Listen attentively. Repeat back key phrases and sum up what they’ve told you in your own words. It will show that you’ve heard and understood.
  • Share. Maybe you or someone else in your life has gone through a difficult time? Share that experience so they feel less alone.
  • What can you do to help practically? Maybe they want someone to go with them to a doctors appointment. Maybe they want help cleaning their place or help making a meal.
  • You don’t need to fix them. Someone feeling like they’re in a desperate place doesn’t need to be told to “Take a bath.” “Go for a run.” or “Drink some camomile tea.” We as human beings want to fix problems and sometimes we can’t fix them completely.   If you’re not a medical professional then being there, talking to them and listening are the best things you can do.

It can also be draining to be there for someone struggling, so it’s important to look after yourself so you can be there for them. If you’re extremely worried about someone, it’s important you encourage them to find help. You can encourage them to ring their mental health team if they have one, make a doctor’s appointment, or go to A&E. There are also a number of helplines they can ring if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

UK Helplines 

Samaritans: 116 123

Mind Charity: 0300 123 3393

Anxiety UK: 03444 775 774

CALMzone: 0800 58 58 58

charitynopanic: 0844 967 4848

CharitySANE: 0300 304 7000

Papyrus: 0800 068 4141

Rethink: 0300 5000 927

The Problem With The Term ‘Mental Health’

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I’ve lost my connection to the term ‘Mental Health.’ It means different things to different people, and that’s a problem. I consider myself a mental health blogger, but I’m thinking of changing that. To be honest I’m a mental illness blogger. I’ll explain why.

For some people, myself included, mental health refers to mental illness. It’s a term we use to write about our illnesses, to explain and engage with others about what we go through day to day. For others, mental health covers everything to do with the way we think and act. People proclaim,

“We all have mental health!” Which is true, and I have no problem with people discussing their individual experiences. My problem is that vital voices are being drowned out. ‘Mental Health’ has become this huge umbrella of different meanings. The ideas that are more accessible and easier to digest for the general public will undoubtedly receive more attention.

It feels that mental health is becoming more and more synonymous with wellbeing, mindfulness and self care. Again, all great if you struggle occasionally with the stresses of life or have mild mental illness. It’s not for everyone and it certainly isn’t a magic cure. I’m growing more and more concerned that these subjects will shift the idea of what mental illness is, and trivialise it. I don’t need to read anymore articles about mindfulness, I get it, I know what it’s about. I don’t want people to start preaching to me about how if I practised self care and had a hot bubble bath with some aromatherapy candles, I could break out of a manic episode. No, what would do that is a review of my medication and the support of my psychiatrist.

We need voices that talk about bipolar, psychosis, personality disorders and schizophrenia. Voices that have the right platform and are listened to, because these aren’t easy subjects to open up about. It feels terrifying to begin, the real fear of being judged and ridiculed, stigmatised for something you have very little control over. By using the term mental health, these important discussions are being lumped in with articles about adult colouring books and how to meditate. Self help articles in my opinion should not be compared with articles educating about severe mental illness. There is a vast difference in the two.

As an example I recently had a conversation with a friend of a friend. He asked about blogging and I replied that I was a mental health blogger. He instantly started talking to me about how he is sometimes anxious whilst travelling and how he’s managed it through thinking positively. That’s great and I was genuinely pleased for him. When I started talking about what I blog about and how I’ve recently started a series about psychosis I could see his eyes widen. He quickly changed the subject. This is the problem. Anything beyond being anxious on the train was too much for him to handle. By his response, that was what he was expecting and it was because I used the term ‘mental health.’ If I’d said I wrote about mental illness, I think his expectations would have been different.

We need conversations about the underfunding of mental health services in the NHS and to create that link to the general public of why so many people are struggling and ending their lives. We need conversations about how those with severe mental illness are not all dangerous, but are more likely to be the victims of crime. We need conversations about how poverty, housing, being an ethnic minority or part of the LGBT community can have a negative impact on mental health.

Maybe it’s time for a new term, or a shift in how people use them. If you’re writing about general well being, say that. If you’re writing about mental illness, then say that too. Don’t jumble up the two, it’s causing more harm than good.

When Speaking About Mental Health, Language Matters

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Why does language matter? What is the difference between describing someone as ‘Is Bipolar’ or ‘Has Bipolar’?

Firstly, language is a powerful tool of expression. We tell stories with language and these stories conjure up images and ideas in the listener. We can impact the way people think or perceive the world around them with the language we use. Language can change people’s opinions of others and more importantly when it comes to mental health, themselves.

When we say someone ‘is’ their mental health diagnosis people immediately jump to their preconceived notion of the illness. They see what their experience of it is; what they have heard and seen in the media. It causes us to stereotype without really realising that’s what we’re doing. When someone says to me I ‘am’ bipolar it makes me feel that this diagnosis defines me. That my personality and the essence of what makes me who I am has been dwindled down to a mental illness. All that I am is bipolar, and this is all anyone ever sees. It impacts my self esteem in a significant way. It is limiting and dehumanising. It takes away our individuality to be spoken about in this way. Although I believe labels are important and a tool to receive treatment and provides answers to behaviours, being seen as just a label can be damaging.

When you say that someone ‘has’ a mental illness it has a completely different impact. I feel like I can be seen as a person and individual. It shows to me that the person understands mental illness and how it affects me. They understand that I might be struggling and need support.

There is still a huge discrepency between how we use language for physical and  mental illness. Whereas physical illness sufferers are seen as fighters, those with mental illnesses are seen as weak. If you have a physical illness such as the flu (I’m not talking about chronic illness here, which is often stigmatised just as much as mental illness) you’re often seen as blameless, it’s ‘just one of those things.’ With mental illness you’re seen as a failure and ‘you could be doing more to help yourself.’ Mental illnesses are biological, we have a genetic susceptibility and they are often coupled with environmental factors. It isn’t a weakness or failure on our part, but the misuse of language continues to contribute to the stigma.

It’s important that we use language delicately and with care when discussing mental illness. Think about how much impact your words have and how they can shape a person’s self worth.

I Gave Up Alcohol For My Mental Health

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My last psychiatry appointment was a tough one – I was told with certainty that I should, no, needed to give up alcohol. My response was a hopeful one, surely half a bottle of wine on a Saturday night was alright? The answer was a definitive no, even that amount of alcohol was far too much. We agreed that I should go sober, and I agreed reticently. I left feeling dejected, grumpy and silently cursing my psychiatrist. Although I felt fed up, I had known before my appointment that this change needed to happen.

Why go sober? 

My psychiatrist explained that alcohol reduces the effectiveness of many medications. Alcohol is a depressant, and pretty much cancels out the work my mental health medication does. In other words, I might as well not bother taking my medication every time I drink. If I have three days in a row of drinking, then that’s three days without medication. For me that can cause the beginning of withdrawal symptoms, that feel like having the flu. Or, more seriously, it can cause a bipolar episode of severe depression or mania.

The mental and physical effects

After a heavy weekend, or a number of days in a row of a ‘few’ drinks in the evening to help me unwind and relax I start feeling the negative effects of alcohol. I’ve noticed a correlation between heavy drinking and heart palpitations, that often leads to a full blown panic attack. Panic attacks are a debilitating and exhausting experience, and I’ll feel drained for days afterwards. Another experience I’ve had after drinking is psychosis. Earlier this year I drank heavily over my birthday weekend and at the end of it began to hear voices. I wrote about the experience in this post, My Hearing Voices Journal Alcohol free, I wouldn’t have gone through these experiences, and would have stayed mentally well and stable.

How I did it

I literally just stopped! Seriously though, it’s been tough, especially on nights out and at family celebrations. I’ve been drinking since I was fourteen, so to just suddenly go completely sober was a massive challenge. I was open about it with everyone, and my partner, family and friends have all been extremely supportive. I reached out to the twitter community and was given heaps of advice and tips on non alcoholic drinks so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out on nights out. Soda and lime cordial has been my saviour when I’m out at a bar, along with flavoured sparkling water when I’m having a night in. It’s taken a terrific amount of self determination and will power, but I knew it was something I had to do for my mental health.

How I’m feeling now

Two months later and I feel fantastic! I’m clear headed, have more energy and haven’t had any palpitations or panic attacks. I’ve been stable and haven’t experienced psychosis or any depressive or manic episodes. I feel physically healthier and I’ve lost weight. I know my medications are working as they should be now, and that’s given me the impetus to stay sober.

I may have left my psychiatric appointment with a feeling of dread and wondering how the hell I was going to go sober, but I’m so glad I stuck with my decision.

How I Learnt to Deal With Nighttime Panic Attacks

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I wake up with an intense nausea that floods my system. Running to the bathroom I’m convinced I’m going to be sick, but I’m not. Then comes the pain. It stabs at my chest and upper back to the point I can hardly breathe. I went to bed feeling relaxed and contented, but now I’m pacing the house, my heart pounding terrified I’m having a heart attack. The reality of panic attacks is the physical pain that cuts through you in great swathes. Having a panic attack at nighttime is very different to having one during the day. At night everything feels more intense, the atmosphere changes to one that is ethereal and other worldly. People that you count on to talk you through the experience are asleep and unavailable. You feel alone and desperate and not sure if you can get through the night. I’ve learnt some techniques to help me cope over the years, that have quelled the panic attack before it becomes too difficult to manage.

Thinking Logically

I know this is a panic attack. I know it’s painful but it won’t kill me. Twice I have been taken to hospital by ambulance because of the unrelenting pain I was in. Twice I’ve spent hours having multiple tests to find what was wrong, for everything to come back clear. What I know now is that although I have found myself in a great deal of pain, it won’t turn into anything sinister. I will talk myself through the situation by repeatedly telling myself this. I have to say it with conviction, to convince myself it will be okay.

Getting Out of Bed

Lying in the dark in bed during a panic attack is the worst possible thing I could do. The pain is all the more intense as I lie there, with nothing else to distract my mind. All the worst scenarios run through my head and all I achieve is making myself more and more anxious. I force myself to get up, go into another room and turn the light on. I force myself to have a drink of water and to do something, anything, rather than staying in bed worrying.

Therapy

I had CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy) to manage my panic attacks, and to understand why I was having them so frequently. Therapy helped me to realise that I wasn’t dealing with stressors in my life, and that my worries and anxieties were manifesting as panic attacks. I learnt to face what was causing me stress in a situation and to deal with it there and then. Panic attacks for me often occurred after a stressful event. Once my body and mind were relaxed again, like going to bed on a Friday night after a difficult week, I would wake up in the middle of the night with a panic attack. It became vital to realise when I was going through a stressful time, so when that stress had disappeared I wouldn’t end up having yet another nighttime panic attack. I was taught breathing techniques to calm myself, which I still use today

Distraction

If thinking logically doesn’t work on its own and I’m up and out of bed, I’ll try and distract my mind. It might be watching a favourite tv show, something light and entertaining that I’ve seen before. I might sketch or get out a colouring book, that keeps my hands busy and forces me to focus. I love to play video games so I might turn on the console and try and figure out that Zelda puzzle that’s been bugging me. If I occupy my mind effectively and for long enough, I won’t even realise the pain and panic has gone.

Using these techniques has cut down the amount of nighttime panic attacks I have drastically; I haven’t had a serious one in a year and a half. What I’ve leant in therapy often preempts an attack completely. Changing the way I manage stressful situations and work through them has had a significant positive impact on my life.

We Need to Stop Apologising for Being Ill

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This is something I find myself doing often. I have lived with mental illness for over a decade and I still find myself uttering that one word; sorry. Sorry I let you down. Sorry I couldn’t make it. Sorry for being ill.

An example of this is my partner and I recently went on holiday. Due to a mix up, I was left without one of my medications, and in the end went for three days without it. Including the withdrawal symptoms I was experiencing, I also started to feel very low and tearful. We didn’t leave our lodge for two days because I was convinced I would break down or have a panic attack. The one thing I kept saying again and again was sorry. I felt I’d ruined our holiday and it was all my fault.

When it comes to my mental health It’s so ingrained in me to apologise that I do it without really noticing. I find myself saying it before I’ve realised what I’ve said, and what it implies. Apologising implies it’s your fault. Mental illness is not your fault, it isn’t anyone’s fault for being ill. We are blameless. We didn’t cause ourselves to be ill, and we certainly didn’t ask for it.

So why do we do it? I think the stigma that lives in our society is mostly to blame. Mental illness by many is seen as a sign of weakness.

The ‘just snap out of it’ and ‘cheer up’ brigade often think this way. We’re told by them we need to be stronger and to just get on with life.

By others it’s a character flaw. There is something wrong in how we think and live and that it can be easily fixed. We’re lazy, so exercising regularly and working hard will cure all our problems. If we’re constantly being told we’re weak, flawed and lazy, no wonder we’re always apologising.

Another major reason we find ourselves apologising is guilt. We often find ourselves feeling guilty for a multitude of reasons. Our room or our house is a mess, we can’t get out of bed, we cancel plans with family and friends. But is this guilt an ordinary part of mental health problems, or does the pressure of being happy and normal cause it? I think maybe the guilt is always there, but the demands put on us by society exacerbate this feeling.

Back to the holiday I took with my partner. I kept saying sorry. Through tears and sobs I was still apologising. However, my partner would say to me, until it finally made sense,

“Don’t apologise, you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m not angry or upset, you can’t help being ill.”

That’s the key to all of this; to surround yourself with accepting individuals. Keep hold of those friends that understand and really mean it when they tell you it’s ok. Ignore  those that demean your mental illness and cut them out of your life if necessary. Educate the rest.

It can feel very lonely living with a mental illness. We want others to love us and not to frighten them away. We fear that we have made them angry or upset. So we say sorry, hoping they will stay.

We need to show ourselves some compassion and to truly believe that we are not at fault for being ill. We shouldn’t apologise even if some people think we should. Even if we don’t always realise it, to go through what we do everyday, we are far stronger then them.