Stopping a wobble turning into a nose dive…

I’m having a blip. My mental health is wobbling, between the equilibrium I’d reach and a lower, more self destructive mood. I know this happens. It’s part of my recovery. But knowing that doesn’t make the blips any easier. 

I’m trying to identify what causes these blips. But it’s rarely as simple as one thing. Potential triggers this week:

  • First week back at work after two weeks annual leave.
  • IBS flare up leaving me feel bloated and uncomfortable.
  • Worry about elderly dog who spent Friday at the vets for blood tests.
She’s feeling a bit better on her new meds.
  • Out of my routine with one child away with friends and the other at Granny’s. 
  • Long drive to collect daughter from Yorkshire leaving me very tired.
  • Variois triggering conversations I couldn’t avoid.

And those are just the ones I noticed!

I’m trying to deal with it differently. Keep the wobble from turning into a downward spiral. So yesterday evening instead of hiding myself away when I felt dreadful I let myself cry in front of my partner. Usually I insist “I’m fine” even when I’m clearly not. I cry alone, hiding in another room or after everyone else is asleep. This time I let my partner know how I was feeling, we talked about it. It didn’t stop the negative feelings completely but it muted them a bit. 

This morning I felt lethargic and numb, that washed out emptiness that hits after a real low and leaves me not wanting to do anything. I could happily have moved no further than the sofa all day, and very recently I wouldn’t have. Again I spoke with my partner. 

My plan for today had been to go for a run, but with my mood low being seen in public in running gear just seemed impossible. My paranoia was in overdrive, my anxiety telling me how awful an obese middle aged woman in leggings would look, how I’d be unable to run, how people would laugh.

My alternative was the gym. Leggings aren’t so bad when everyone’s wearing them! But getting up seemed impossible. My partner reminded me how positive having the 5k goal had made me, that I’d feel worse about myself if I skipped a training session, that I could do this. 

And I did. I headed to town, did a couple of messages (including buying cupcakes for tea) and then I went to the gym.

I started slowly, and felt leaden for the first few minutes, but I managed my first ever 5k on the treadmill, running the first 2.5k and then combining running and walking for the rest. It took me 43 minutes, and hopefully I will improve on that in the 4 weeks before the race. I know it will take longer off the treadmill. Mo Farrah could run 3 x 5k in the time it takes me to run one, but he’s a world class professional athlete and I’m a middle aged obese woman who has never run before, so I’m still proud of 43 minutes! 

Proof 🙂
Three short spells of walking is not bad for just over 5k.

This evening I cooked our tea from scratch, so I’ve not yet succumbed to the sofa, but my anxiety tried to turn every tiny error into a crisis. A dropped knife, a missing ingredient, a pan boiling over – all led to panic. Getting out helped, but it’s not a magic fix. I feel better than I did, but still wobbly. I know I need to keep on top of it, I know how easily a blip can become a nose dive. But I also know I have support, and if I take advantage of that support I can start heading back upwards. 

One of those days…

Yesterday I had one of those days. You know the ones. Every door I went through I bashed into the door frame. Every cuppa I made I spilt part of. Every task I undertook seemed to take twice as long as it should due to piffling little errors. One of those days. 

It started with an argument with my son, who was upset I wouldn’t let him microwave an aluminium foil food container.

I couldn’t get a parking space, so parked a ten minute walk from work. So of course a large and heavy parcel I needed to bring home arrived.

Mid morning I discovered my insurance company had mistakenly taken my annual car insurance payment twice. From an account with no overdraft set up. It got sorted out quickly, but felt like a lot of stress and hassle. Particularly when I should have been working. 

And so it carried on. A day of frustrations, bruises and bother.

These days can leave me feeling very negative, as if I’ve achieved nothing all day. It’s easy to remember the things that didn’t go according to plan, rather than the things that did. I’ve been trying to challenge this way of thinking, and over the past couple of months have been keeping a kind of minimalist journal. 

Image from https://theprimalyogi.com/2015/11/04/just-write/

To be honest it’s barely even a journal, just a notebook in which I jot down a list of things I’ve achieved each day. The achievements might be small and routine (washed dishes) or big and challenging (went back to work after sick leave) but they all add up to challenge my feelings of uselessness. I write it at bedtime, and I’ve found the focus at the end of the day on what’s gone right has helped my mood. And I have a physical record of achievements that I can look back on when my mood does dip. 

I’ve often struggled to keep going with journalling. And although writing things down can feel therapeutic it can also lead me to dwell on things best let go of, and to decend into spiralling negative thought. But I’m finding this quick listing of achievements is easy to keep up with. If you’re naturally disposed to negativity I’d recommend giving it a go.

– – – – –

A brief public service announcement for parents of small children.

Don’t be tempted to buy the character elastoplasts/Band-Aids. Unless you have exceptionally accident prone children they will grow into sullen teenagers before the packet is finished. Rather than waste them you, like me, will become a grown adult who ends up walking about with Barbie/Peppa Pig/Mr Men plasters on when you’ve had one of those days! 

I’m a grown up, honest!

Returning to work

This week I returned to work after six weeks off sick due to mental health issues. I’ve been here before, but previously it didn’t go well. 

I have a tendency to get myself back to work as soon as I’m well enough to force myself through a day, which leads to me burning out again quite quickly, and needing more sick leave in the long term. It had become a pattern, and was having a negative impact on my health, my work and my employers.
This time feels better (so far.) So what’s changed?

I’ve been more honest this time. Not just with my boss, but also with my colleagues. I know I’m lucky to work somewhere that recognises the impact of mental ill health, where it won’t be held against me or used to guilt trip me. I’ve worked places in the past where any sick leave, physical or mental, was treated as dereliction of duty. So it’s taken me a long time to be able to open up to other people about my mental healh. The first time I was on long term sick I asked my boss not to let other staff members know the reason. I was ashamed of it and wanted to keep it quiet, but that caused speculation among my colleagues and an occasional feeling of treading on egg-shells in their interactions with me which made me anxious. 

So this time my colleagues know I’ve had mental health problems. Everyone welcomed me back, and knowing they know has meant I’ve felt able to acknowledge being up and down. There was an incident this week with a missed deadline which would have had me in tears and panicking a few weeks ago. I was able to say “I can feel myself getting wound up, so I’m going to stop, make a cuppa and come back to it in a few minutes.” My colleagues were really supportive of that, and we got it completely sorted without my anxiety getting the better of me. 

I’ve also been more honest with myself this time. I’ve accepted that returning too soon compounds the problem, tried to limit my worry about how my colleagues are coping without me, and instead looked honestly at how I’m feeling and whether I am fit for work. I’ve allowed myself to do nothing some days, just gradually let myself see what I can manage.

Then there’s been the planning. I like to plan. To quote one of the TV icons of my youth…

… although unlike the A Team I don’t cope well with the unexpected. Unfamiliar places, unknown people and sudden changes of plans unnerve me at the best of times and floor me completely when my mental health is bad. So I plan.
But I have to stop myself over-planning. While having a plan in place eases my anxiety, trying to plan every scenario in minute detail can set me into a spiral of worrying that is incredibly difficult to get out of. Again this trait is worse when my mental health is bad. It’s a balancing act. 

While I was off my boss has been working with me on temporary changes to my role which acknowledge my mental health may take a long time to return to “normal” and limit the pressure on me while that happens. My hours have been reduced and my role changed slightly. I’d rather continue with a job I enjoy in a limited capacity than end up jobless because of my fluctuating mental health. And my employer benefits from my experience and commitment, rather than having to find and train a new worker. Win win.

In addition to these changes we’d agreed a phased return, with a detailed plan for catching up over the first month back. This meant I went into work on Monday knowing exactly what was going to happen, rather than feeling panicked about everything I had to catch up with. That really helped reduce my anxiety.

Of course I work in the real world, so already my plan has notes and edits, things that need slotting in. When I’m not too anxious, as now, this feels like necessary flexibility, rather than impossible demands. 

So I had a good first week. There were a couple of wobbles but I was able to identify and address them before they grew, with the support of my colleagues. Certainly I coped with things this week which would have had me in bits a few weeks ago. That success has increased my confidence, I feel like I was a useful part of the team, and I’m looking forward to doing more next week. I can see how my mental health has improved over the last few weeks, and I can acknowledge that I did that! I recognised the self care I needed, I let myself rest, I knew I was unwell and gave myself permission to get better. 

I still feel partly broken, but now I feel like I’m holding the glue and carrying out the repairs rather than just crying in the shards. 

Image – sculpture repair in progress from 
www.lakesidepottery.com

The magical garden

Its still magic, even if you know how its done.

Terry Prachett.

I am not a natural gardener, in much the same way that a brick doesn’t naturally float. My postage stamp garden is largely overgrown, and any attempt at house plants, no matter how easy to care for, leads to death. 

But I so want to be a good gardener. I have wonderful memories of my grandparents gardens. The front garden was flowers, beautiful roses and cheerful marigolds. I remember helping my grandad collect marigold seeds, labelling envelopes in my skittery childish handwriting. The back garden was fruit and veg, an abundance which was shared with friends, family and neighbours at harvest time. My gran made jam and chutney. We had home grown veg with all meals.

I don’t have green fingers, I don’t understand soil or know when you should prune things.  I struggle to find time to put in the work needed to turn my garden into something beautiful and productive. And then I feel bad about myself, its such a visible sign of not managing. 

Yesterday I sat in the garden for an hour with my book. Although I’ve been off work a few weeks now I’ve spent almost all my time in the house, shut in and safe while I recover. And I’d forgotten how relaxing the sunshine can be. 

I didn’t get much of my book read. There were some sort of fledgling birds playing in the garden, landing on the tall dock plants I’d been beating myself up for not removing, and diving down to squabble over bugs and slugs in the grass below. I watched in fascination. I realised I was smiling.

There is a thin strip of the garden, alongside the fence to next door, which I have forced some order into. As I was sitting in the garden I spotted something there that made my heart leap.

Peas! I want to grow more things we can eat than just the herbs. This year I bought some pea plants (still feels like cheating not to grow from seed – sorry grandad!) I’ve had problems with previous attempts, usually slug or snail related! I was so happy to see these ones are working. 

There is something magical about plants turning into food. I know it’s science, not magic, but I’m still amazed and overjoyed when it works. So I checked a few other of my long suffering plants. 

Tiny pepper, my first ever.

Hidden straw berries.

First ever gooseberries.

I had forgotten, in this long period of anxiety and depression, how good it felt to sit in the garden, to feel the sunshine, watch the bids who prefer my messy garden to all the neighbouring lawns and patios, and connect with nature. I’m determined not to shut myself up in the house any more. And making me feel that positive really is miraculous.

Baking Cookies to Declutter!

After a bad week last week I’m trying to get myself into gear and move forward this week. I’m going to do things, even if they’re only little things. I’m picturing it as the first positive pebbles which will hopefully begin an avalanche of positivity (possibly not the best metaphor, what with the crushing and all, but it’ll do for now.)

One of the things that makes me anxious and guilty is the amount of clutter in my house. I struggle to get rid of anything, have raised two kids who also struggle to get rid of anything and chosen a partner who, guess what? Yep, struggles to get rid of anything. I constantly want to do something about this, but don’t know where to start. I read blogs and articles, and I would be happy if my house looked like the ‘before’ picture, never mind the ‘after’ one. I spend ages doing things that seem to make little difference, and then I give up. 

The anxiety and depression doesn’t help. The anxiety makes me worry and feel guilty about the house, but the depression drains any energy to tackle it. A never ending spiral of:

LACK OF ENERGY > GUILT > WORRY > MISERY > LACK OF ENERGY > GUILT >>> ad infinitum

I’m putting the breaks on that. I’m going to try and celebrate the little successes, rather than dwelling on the outstanding failures. This is going contrary to my normal pattern of thinking, and is going to take practice. But I managed to make changes in how I act to improve my physical health, so I’m sure I can make changes to how I think to improve my mental health.

So. Baby steps. 

As a result of struggling to throw anything away my fridge has multiple almost empty jars. You know the ones – too much food to comfortably throw away, too little to do anything with. Wasting food was a big no when I was growing up, and I’ve held that belief with me. 

So rather than throw all these jars away I decided today is the day I’m going to use them, or some of them at least. I found this recipe for Chocolate Raspberry Thumbprint Cookies and decided that would do nicely. 

The first thing you’ll notice looking at the finished cookies on that website is that they are beautiful, delicate things, carefully shaped and crafted. I baked them with my teenage son and our approach was a little more… let’s say rustic, rather than cack-handed, shall we? Baking helps my son practice fine motor skills, which are difficult for him due to his undiagnosed genetic condition and severe dyspraxia. So we went big and bold rather than small and delicate! 

At first the dough was far too dry, and I ended up adding the egg white as well as the yolk. This still made delicious biscuits. 

We used up the dregs of five jars of jams, chocolate spread and curds, so that’s five less jars cluttering the fridge. 

Unfortunately they are now cluttering my bench until I can pass them on to a jam-making friend, but still, it’s progress. 

Baby steps! 


Zigzagging

I’ve been quiet here lately, and that’s reflective of my life in general at the moment. I’m closing in and shutting down. It started as a way to recover, avoiding the things that trigger my anxiety in the hope of getting to a settled state.

It doesn’t seem to be working. 

I’m zigzagging between hyper-anxious, depressed and numb, with a very occasional happy few hours. And throughout it all I’m overanalyzing, trying desperately to work out how I can improve. 

There are so many chicken and egg moments that I just can’t unravel. I feel like if I could I could fix myself. And that adds to the feeling of uselessness and worthlessness – I can’t do anything, not even look after myself. 

Am I avoiding social situations because they make me anxious, or am I getting more anxious in social situations because I’m avoiding most of them? Am I isolated because I’m depressed or depressed because I’m isolated? Am I better off at home until I’m partially recovered, or would work distract me from my anxious mind? And so on.

Because of the impact of my mental health on my work, and vice versa, I’ve agreed with my employer to reduce my hours when I go back. This is necessary, it will be good for me, and I’m incredibly grateful to have a supportive employer. But it has financial implications which I feel horrendously guilty about. I feel like I’m inflicting problems on my whole family because I can’t cope with everyday life. It reinforces that sense of uselessness, of being a burden, incapable. 

It’s been hard to find positives this last week. 

Something happened on Tuesday that sent me right back to a traumatic event that happened nine years ago. I don’t want to write the details, that would set me off all over again. Suffice to say it’s one if those horrendously shitty things that real life can throw at people, it had a massive effect on me at the time, and took a long time to get over. And sometimes things put me right back in that moment, as if it was happening now. I never know it’s coming, and it always sets me a long way back. Although I tell myself I just need a quiet day to get over it I think it lingers, and explains why the remainder of the week was so difficult. 

I need to hold on to the few happy hours. They’re fleeting, but they’re happening. That’s an improvement. It feels like a failure because they can end so suddenly, with me hurtling into an anxiety attack, but in fact feeling positive for any time at all is an improvement. 

I had a dream this week, a nightmare, in which I was wearing a mask. I dreamt I was attacked by a dog which went for the mask, and that feels like where I am – the mask is slipping. I’ve worked hard to keep my smile on in public, I always say “I’m fine”, I don’t want people to worry, or feel sorry for me. Even to my GP I sometimes say ” I’m struggling a bit” when I actually feel like I’m hanging on by my fingertips, brittle and broken. My GP, to her credit, sees through this. I don’t feel like I deserve help, I should be able to fix this myself. But the mask is slipping, I can’t keep the smile on, even in front of my family who I always try to shield from the worst of me. 

Perhaps this is a sign that I should be more honest? Admit I can’t fix it myself. Ask for help. But I don’t know what would help. 

I do know people care. Knowing that helps. 

A surprise delivery made me smile. 

Dancing without Drinking.

For many years I went out several times a week, dancing and drinking til the early hours. I’m not claiming any especial dancing skill, it was more rocking out than rhythmic, with pogoing and headbanging as required. So not particularly aesthetic, but still movement and exercise. Its no coincidence that I was at my thinnest then. 

But life happened. First work that required getting up early in the morning, then children limiting my ability to get out. But on the rare occasions I did get out I still liked to dance and drink. 

Then I had to give up alcohol. This was due to the various medicines I have to take, not any moral opinion on the evils of drink. But I went from being a typical British occasional binge drinker to tee total. And it was quite a shock to the system. Not least because the majority of my social life revolved around drinking. 

It’s not a lot of fun being the only sober one among a mass of drunken people. Especially if you struggle with anxiety. I found I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself because I felt responsible for everyone’s safety, like I had to be constantly alert because I was the only one who wasn’t drinking. 

I also lost my confidence. Sober I was well aware that I was now a fat, middle aged woman, and who wants to see a fat, middle aged woman leaping about when they’re out for a good night? 

It’s that wierd depression contradiction of feeling worthless and useless, and at the same time self-centered enough to be assuming you’re the most important person there, the one everyone is looking at and judging. 

I became paranoid that people would judge me if I danced, if I relaxed. I was hyper alert whenever I was out. My anxious brain never let up… Why does that person have their phone out? Are they taking my picture? What if they make me into some body-shaming meme? Why are those people laughing? It must be at me. How can I make myself less visible? 

For several years now I’ve gone out less and less often. People have stopped even inviting me to the boozy nights out I used to enjoy. I miss it, but I feel I can’t risk the anxiety such a night brings on. 

However over the last couple of year my partner and I have started going to gigs. We still don’t get out often, but its rekindling a love of live music I thought I’d buried in the 1990s, along with my student ID and dreadlocks.

Last night we went to the gorgeous Wylam Brewery to see the London African Gospel Choir perform Paul Simon’s Graceland. It’s one of my most loved albums and I’d bought tickets on the spur of the moment when they first went on sale, not realising that by the time the gig took place I’d be in the middle of a real battle with my anxiety. I wondered over the last week if I’d be able to go.

Wylam Brewery, a gorgeous venue.

We walked across the town moor to Wylam Brewery, which is now housed in the Palace of Arts in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park rather than in Wylam. Walking rather than driving or getting the bus is a useful way for me to manage my anxiety, the extra time travelling helps me get my head in order. 

I did have some moments of anxiety over the course of the evening, mainly when alone if my partner had gone to the bar or wherever, but I was able to keep it under control. The music was fabulous. And I danced all night, for the first time since giving up alcohol. I shut out worries about how I looked or what people would think and I enjoyed the music and relaxed. I sang at the top of my voice, I cheered and whooped, and I kept on dancing.

Since I started my efforts to get healthier my stamina has definitely improved. We went to see the Levellers a few months ago and I could only dance for the odd song, not all the way through. Dancercise has honed my rhythm and taught me new moves, not that I was doing a full on lindy hop or Charleston!

I don’t know why I was able to relax last night when it’s been so difficult other times. I dont know what let me ignore my anxious brain. My mood at the moment is still zigzagging all over the place, so it was probably equally likely that I didn’t make it at all. But I’m determined to make the most of the up moments when I have them.

It was a wonderful night.