For medical advice and facts, it is best to speak to your GP or read material by mental health organizations (which I will link to at the end of this post). I am not qualified to administer this and to do so would be extremely irresponsible and so this blog post is more personal.
I was in two minds about posting this as its a little personal but I think the more open people are about mental health the better. Mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed or scared of and yet so often people shy away from the subject for fear of offending someone or saying the wrong thing - which is fair enough and actually shows a certain degree of compassion in itself. It is, though, also important to speak openly about mental health in order to get as much information out there as possible. Misinformation is in abundance and, while ignorance or prejudices may not be entirely the fault of an individual, they can both be avoided by ensuring the opportunity to educate people on mental health issues is taken whenever possible. The easiest way for me to do this is to first give some back story:
I have had mental health 'problems' to varying degrees throughout my life but the way in which they manifest themselves is dependent on my circumstances at that time.
Since I can remember, I had always had the feeling something inside was wired differently. The way I behave in social situations is different to that of everyone around me and the things I enjoy are at odds with the things my friends like to do. This is not to say that I don't have anything in common with anyone - I've usually found I have something in common with everyone, no matter how obscure that interest may be - and I didn't necessarily feel 'weird' or 'different' to anybody else but I did feel slightly estranged. The opportunity to make friends comes easily to me but, for whatever reason, I tend to unknowingly shut people out. This has nothing to do with a fear of rejection or anything like that as whether I'm surrounded by people or completely alone I will cope, it is more a feeling of deeply ingrained differences that make finding enough common ground on which to build a friendship difficult.
There are things that happened during my childhood and early teens that only four people in the world know about which I won't be discussing here but they have had a huge bearing on both 'who I am' (cringe) and how things affect me. Trauma of any kind is a trigger for mental health problems and it is often following these incidents that mental health issues become apparent.
From the ages of about 12 - 14 I was stoned pretty much all the time. This didn't help anything. Weed isn't great for anyone's mentality but I do think that smoking it at such a young age was another factor that made my underlying mental health issues surface at this time.
When I was 14 I begun seeing a Councillor as I hadn't yet been diagnosed as having any mental health issues; initially my parents and teachers just thought I was acting like a dick for the sake of it but thanks to a family history of mental health difficulties, my Dad was able to begin recognizing signs that I wasn't just being an angsty teenager. I wasn't a nasty person but I was confrontational, loud and arrogant. I got into quite a few fights, was destructive, mouthy and there are things I did then that still make me cringe with shame now.
I was predicted A* in all of my GCSE's besides Maths and Physics but I fucked that up: I rarely went to school, either because I was excluded or because I didn't feel like it, I never did any work whatsoever other than in sport and on the rare occasions that I was in school, I often ended up in isolation for the day by the end of the first lesson.
The school I went to was pretty awful and they treated me as if I was some kind of freak. There was one occasion when a man from the Army came in to give an assembly to our year, encouraging people to enlist, and when he asked if anybody had any questions at the end I laid into him. I wasn't rude or obnoxious but I felt that compulsory attendance of an assembly in which a man talks to a load of teenagers about joining the Army was wrong. Plus this guy just struck me as manipulative and self-important. This, coupled with other things, meant I was subsequently banned from all assemblies as well as all extra curricular and off-school premises activities. I was excellent at track and field and had the fastest run time in school but was banned from competing because this was classed as extra curricular and, at times, off-school activity. By this point I just thought, 'fuck this'.
I stopped going to school at the end of year ten. I sat one GCSE but didn't do any coursework and so only managed a 'C'. I still don't regret this decision at all.
When I was sixteen I went to Colchester Institute to study Art, which I enjoyed, but in December 2006 I had the car accident that left me housebound and in a full leg cast for months. Friends came to see me and I went out a few times but it was awkward and so eventually I gave in.
By July 2007 I was out of the cast and had begun physiotherapy which meant I was able to be a lot more sociable. However, towards the end of 2007 I started to change drastically, and unknowingly. I still went out frequently but I would also shut myself away for weeks at a time.
While I was packing my stuff up ready to move a little while ago, I looked through my diaries for that time and some of the things I've written are bizarre.
I began socialising less and less frequently before I decided to quit the Institute in 2008, move to Southend in September of the same year and study at SEEC. I'm still not entirely sure why I chose to do this - I thought it would help my mental state in some way - but three weeks after turning 18 I moved out for the first time. This was a good move for the most part - I met Harry through living in the same student house, I met Julia, I grew up a lot and I started feeling better than I had done for a long time. A couple of months into living in Southend I was hospitalized three times in the course of a month, eventually finding out I had a blood infection and an inflamed lung - this was a long term thing that only surfaced then and my voluntary social exclusion was put down that.
Since then I've moved house a lot - I moved back to Chelmsford for the summer of 2009 before living in Salisbury for six months before living with Harry for one, Colchester for three months and I have now lived in Brighton for the last two years.
Between the beginning of 2009 and the beginning of 2011 I was more or less fine. I was in the best shape both physically and mentally that I ever have been, my friends were excellent and everything with Harry was good. We weren't living together anymore but were still able to see each other a lot. I also used to get annoyed about absolutely everything and would fly off the
handle at nothing but that changed when I was about 19. I don't know
why, I just became a lot calmer almost overnight. I became of the
mindset that if it isn't going to have a significant bearing on my life
then I don't care enough to fight about it.
I think part of this is down to my relationship with Harry. He is the first person I've ever met that I've gradually been comfortable enough with to trust completely. With other people, both friends and family, it is not that I think they will judge me, hurt me, or betray my trust but that I involuntarily just do not reveal my self to them completely. Harry is without a doubt the greatest person I have ever met and also the coolest - largely because he never makes any conscious to be cool, or to fit in with anything, he's just naturally (and unknowingly) the coolest person I have ever met.
However, in 2011 Harry and I were unable to see much of each other - sometimes we would go months without seeing one another - and I had a lot of other things going on. Individually they weren't necessarily huge ordeals but the amount of things I had to put up with, sort out or worry about, I would defy anyone else to deal with it as well as I did. This gradually started to grind me down: I had a spate of positivity in the early summer last year when I was spending all my time with either Julia or Harry. I applied to college because I'd decided to go to university and felt more optimistic than I had done for a while. Though I've had an extreme low over the last six months, I obtained Distinctions in every unit of every module despite illness and other things which I'm pretty proud of.
I've been lucky enough to have had some amazing friends and (for the most part) a good support network throughout my lifetime and yet I still find it extremely hard to relax enough around someone to trust them completely. I always feel that in any friendship, there's a barrier between me and the other person that I've put up 'against my will' as it were, and no matter how hard I try to 'knock it down', it remains. There are certain things I am comfortable to discuss freely but I'm also an extremely private person.
I think it's important to mention that despite not always being
comfortable in social situations, I am extremely self-confident. I'm not
upset by anything others may say about me because I like myself, I can
function perfectly well on my own and I am aware of my good points
(which I focus on). I think it's kind of weird to assess your own merit
based on what other people think about you - if you didn't do, choose or be something with someone else in mind in the first place then why do you care what they think about it afterwards ?
I also need to be alone quite a lot. As in, sometimes for weeks at a time. The things I enjoy doing are fairly solitary - single person sports, exercising, reading, drawing, writing, knitting, watching films, trying to learn languages, whatever, the list goes on. You get the idea. It's not that I don't want to spend time with friends, it's just that the things I want to be doing at that time are not the things they would like to be doing. I don't like clubs or alcohol or anything anymore. I don't know why this is. I will have phases where I don't drink, go out or do anything 'fun' for months. People often take this as drifting apart but it's not that; it's just that when what is often referred to as 'the black dog' is around, I need to be by myself until I've overcome that. I've had many friendships put under strain because of this and it isn't the fault of anyone, it just happens. In the same way that marriages and 'growing up' can come between friends, so can the needs of mental health issues. Even with all the effort in the world, conflicting schedules and needs can sometimes make maintaining a friendship impossible. Fortunately, I've also had people in my life with whom I've been friends for years.
I have been diagnosed as having hypomania. My behaviours and moods need to be monitored constantly. I will try to explain how it feels as best as I can:
The 'lows' are like a dark figure behind me, on my left side, which looms over me and grows bigger. The figure grows larger the more 'low' I get, and in turn the figure growing larger contributes to the low. It's a fucking difficult thing to overcome. The feeling you get when you are walking home in the dark and you feel as if you're being following - similar to that, but far more intense. When this figure is at its most imposing I feel jumpy, uncomfortable and scared. Not just a little anxious or tense, I feel extremely freaked out.
The left is also the side of my brain that causes me anxiety, panic, sometimes fear, delusions, intense sadness, hopelessness and dangerous urges. It is almost a physical feeling - the right side of my is logical, rational, compassionate, articulate, optimistic, enthusiastic and hopeful. When I'm feeling good, the right side (my 'strong' side) is controlling everything. When I'm feeling low, the right side tries to reason with the left side as well as calm and slow my mind down. My mind is at the front of my head. When I'm low, the left side always wins. The right side is pleading with 'me': I can recognize that it is logical and rational and that I should focus on that but I cannot suppress the left side. It is out of my control. Sometimes I feel stronger than it and manage to squash negative thoughts but when I'm low, the left always wins. When I feel as though the left side has overpowered my completely I feel exhausted but also like I need to keep moving around - if I sit still then it will 'catch' me, even though I know that it has already 'caught' me as it is both internal and behind me. At its most intense, the lows destroy everything. I can't function properly. I honestly think I am going to die at times; at other times I can laugh at myself for being so irrational.
This year I also began experiencing migraines with aura and they are linked to the anxiety, highs, lows and behaviours that accompany hypomania. I've experienced migraine with aura twice before in my life - when I was sixteen - and it isn't pleasant. Aura is different for everybody and is a very individual thing but mine goes like this:
My fingers begin going numb and my hands swell up. I begin getting pins and needles in my hands and this works its way up my arms. I then get pins and needles in my gums also, and my lips swell up. I can't speak, only slur, I can't remember anything at all (sometimes not even my own name) and it's fucking terrifying. The first time this happened intensely I thought I was having a stroke. Then I had a panic attack, though at the time I didn't realize it was a panic attack - I'm not at all prone to panic and am usually calm and articulate so it was sort of like a baseball to the side of the head.
After about 60 - 90 minutes, these feelings subside and the headache kicks in. I'm allergic to painkillers so it's not exactly fun, but it's kind of like a storm breaking. The pain and intensity of the headache is a relief from the freaky feelings of aura. I can identify pain and, to an extent, control it. I can't control the aura and that's the scariest thing about it - I have no idea what my body is doing. Once the aura goes away and the headache kicks in I can usually fall asleep after a little while and, though I feel sketchy when I wake up still, I feel better. I'm not as disorientated or anxious.
The migraines, highs, lows, aura, panic, anxiety, all of it comes from nowhere. As I stated above: I wrestle with myself internally constantly. I do not get a break. Now if I drink alcohol it conflicts me so much that I end up feeling paraletic after next to nothing. I sometimes go days without eating because I cannot physically swallow solid food, my throat won't allow it. This isn't as common as the other symptoms but it's still a fucking irritation and the rest of the time I eat so slowly I get bored and give up. Sometimes I take almost an hour to get through half a meal. I'll also go days without sleeping and it's a nightmare trying to function normally when you're tired, hungry and freaking out. Hypomania (as with all other mental health issues) may sound 'fine' but it's fucking difficult and its exhausting.
At first I was embarrassed about telling anybody this. Not because I felt that it was detrimental to me as a person but because I thought the people around me that I cared about would treat me differently. I didn't want pity, judgement or different treatment, I just wanted people to know that I need to do certain things when I'm feeling this way. When you have the flu you rest, you drink water, you do whatever it takes to feel better - which is sort of the same logic as the way I behave with my lows.
I'm not ashamed of having mental health issues and nor should anyone else be. Nobody should ever try and make a person feel small, or lesser than they are, or as if they are a bad person just because they are going through mental health difficulties. If a person stopped doing things they used to enjoy because of anorexia, or cancer, or even a cold, they wouldn't be perceived negatively. The same goes for mental health problems.
Thankfully, the people I've told have all been lovely and I am lucky enough to have not been subjected to the above by the people I have in my life. Sadly this isn't true of many people that have mental health difficulties. Don't shy away from talking about these things - don't try and talk about things you don't understand as if you do understand them but don't avoid the subject altogether. It is a long, difficult, seemingly never ending process but just being able to talk to someone openly makes a world of difference. There are a multitude of incredible charities ready to listen to you if you don't feel there is anyone in your life that you're comfortable talking to, including:
MIND - http://www.mind.org.uk/
Samaritans - http://www.samaritans.org/
Time to Change - http://www.time-to-change.org.uk
It's also important to stress that sometimes you can feel sad for a long time without it being depression, sometimes you can feel like your mind is out of control without it being bipolar. Self diagnosis and glamourizing mental health issues is something I find quite irritating and insulting. Not only does it undermine the seriousness of the condition, it's something that can be near impossible to live with as at times it impairs your ability to perform even the most basic day to day functions.
Mental health is a sensitive and complex thing, and mental health issues come in endless forms. Please make it priority to speak to your GP or other qualified professional if you are worried about your own mental health. And, of course, my email is always open for personal questions or if you just want to talk (without judgement and in completely confidentiality of course):