Things that stop you dreaming

I struggle with sleep. I have never been able to strike a healthy balance between too much, and too little. Over the years, with the exception of the occasional marathon sleep, I generally haven’t got nearly as much as I’d have liked to. I’ve always thought of this as something that was annoying, but just had to be dealt with. Until recently. Well, I say ‘recently’, but it’s actually been more than four years. I have gone from an average of between four and six hours, to between one and two. I say and average, because very often, I just don’t sleep. Not at all. No matter how tired I am, how much my body is screaming out for sleep, my mind refuses.

Sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture, and I can see why. After a few days of absolutely no sleep, I feel sick, disorientated, overwhelmed. Sometimes, I see things that aren’t there – sometimes I know that they aren’t real, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I am terrified, and sometimes I feel so desperate I’d give anything to make it stop. Anything.

But that does’t mean I actually want to sleep. Because… and this is the difficult part. Here goes…writing this seems a bit silly, but the reason my mind won’t let me sleep is that I have nightmares. Having spoken to other people, I’m pretty sure that these are not ‘normal’ bad dreams. I shout things and lash out in my sleep (I have been told). I wake, terrified, unable to breathe. Occasionally, I can’t move, and I see things in the dark. Sleep is not ‘safe’, so my mind fights with all it’s worth to prevent it from happening. I am fully aware that this may make me sound childish, pathetic, or even like a bit of a drama queen. That some people may think that I should just get over it. Believe me, I wish I could. This is part of my recovery, part of getting better. Something I hope to change.

In the mean time, I remain sleep deprived. And I do what I can to counteract the unpleasant side effects. I try to rest at night, even if I’m not sleeping. I try to limit negative self-talk, and stay calm. I’m working on using relaxation techniques. I try my hardest to reach out to people when things get too much for me to cope with alone. In addition, I have been given medication to help me sleep. Sometimes it works, sometimes it just means that I can’t wake properly from dreaming…which is scary. Very scary. Also, the medication causes a feeling which is very similar to a hangover the day after. It’s not a permanent solution. But it can provide a brief chance for rest, and for that, I’m grateful.


Anxiety vs Confidence

What happens when a confident person becomes ill with anxiety?
I am not a shy person. I am quiet, yes, but I would say that I’m quietly confident. I am not naturally nervous in new situations, and I can talk to anyone. I have lived and worked abroad, and moved and made new friends more times than I care to remember. I can stand in front of large groups, give presentations, talks, you name it – I can do it.

But I have a problem. A problem called anxiety.

Because the truth is that even though the above is who I am, forms a large part of my personality, it’s been almost a year now since I last felt entirely comfortable leaving the flat on my own, and recently it’s been getting worse. Groups of people terrify me and I wouldn’t touch public speaking with a barge-pole!

Anxiety is a constant part of my life just now. On a good day, I can go about my day. I am aware of the undercurrent of quietly-jaw-clenching anxiety, but I can use whatever confidence I can muster to push past to get stuff done. I function. By the end of the day, my teeth ache and my head aches from the constant tension.

On a bad day, it’s not so straight forward. Even considering going out makes my heart feel fluttery. Like a wee bird that would rather be elsewhere. But, again this can usually be pushed through with confidence (sometimes with the help of medication).

It’s when it’s at it’s worst, when I have a panic attack and then definitely I can’t leave the house until I calm myself down enough to start breathing again, when I can’t seem to find any of my own quiet confidence, enough of my own true personality, to push me past the physical and mental symptoms. This is what I resent most.

I just can’t get used to trying to do the things I used to do so easily, and the anxiety saying: ‘no…no way’. I will always resent the fact that anxiety has taken away parts of my personality over the past couple of years. I don’t want to get used to it either. I know It’s going to take a bit of work, but I’d like the old me back, please?

I think that’s why anxiety is such a debilitating illness; it can strike anyone, and strip down all their reserves. So who ever you are, no matter how confident and self assured you may be naturally, you can be well and truly knocked.

If you are being knocked down by anxiety (whether you’re confident or not!), and you’re not sure how to get back up, here are some great places to get advice:

NHS Choices
eLament – Lanarkshire Mental Health
Mind – Anxiety

The cost of anxiety

It is ‘normal’ (who even knows what normal is, nowadays?) to experience anxiety sometimes. An obvious example of this is when a person is in danger. The body uses symptoms of anxiety, such as super-fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest tightness and shaking to provoke a ‘fight or flight’ response to the dangerous thing.
But I’m not talking about that anxiety. I’m talking about Anxiety with a capital A. I’m talking about Anxiety Disorders. And that type of anxiety is, quite simply, a bitch – intense, and, at times, debilitating.

Everyday activities should not provoke anxiety. However, here are some things that make me anxious:

using public transport
walking outside
people looking at me
shops in general
being late
being early
using the telephone
having to make conversation

…and it’s not just ‘listable’ things that make me anxious. I can wake up anxious, or be in the middle of doing something when anxiety strikes, seemingly from nowhere.

Anxiety is cruel, because it takes away pieces of you until you can barely recognise yourself. I used to be a very confident person. For example, I moved to Spain and lived there by myself. Now I struggle to get out of my front door. I used to have a very active social life. Now I very rarely see anyone outside of my family, because I can’t manage to get myself there/don’t trust myself not to have a panic attack when faced with making conversation. When I do push myself to do things outside of my (increasingly small) comfort zone, I end up exhausted and unable to do even the most basic things, sometimes for a day or more.

Anxiety has cost me my life outside my small bubble. I’d like my life back, please?


Running to stand still

When I first became depressed, on a friend’s advice, I started running. I had never been a runner. At school, when we did cross-country, I always avoided it like the plague. But, having nothing to lose at this point, I downloaded a ‘Couch to 5k’ app onto my phone and out I went. And I ran/walked for half an hour. It was hard!!

Over time though, it got easier. And being outside doing something physical was not only good for my head, but as I began to build on how long I could run for, I felt a sense of achievement that I really, really needed at the time.

This first ’bout’ of running culminated in me running a 10k around Glasgow, and then running 5 miles around the Olympic grounds, before running on the Olympic track in London. I was pretty proud of myself.

Unfortunately, after that, everything started to go a bit wrong, both in terms of running and in terms of the rest of my life. This is because I began to really struggle to go outside by myself. The anxiety I’d been feeling at a low level for over a year took over my life completely, and I was stuck.

I have really struggled to cope with my anxiety. From what I can tell, anxiety is not logical, and seems to strike indiscriminately. However, recently I have begun to challenge it. Just last week, I went into Glasgow by myself – twice. Small things, maybe, but huge achievements for me.

So…it’s time to get back out running. On the 5th of June, I’m going to run another 10k, this time for SAMH. If you have the means, and would like to sponsor me, please go to my page at JustGiving.

‘Last times’

This post is about stopping self harm, so it does make mention of it. There are no details, and what I have to say may even be helpful, but please be safe.

I’ve been thinking lately about ‘last times’.
In my life, I have had more than my fair share of ‘last times’. When my self harm had moved from coping strategy to (extremely) bad habit, I tried to stop. A lot. I’d tell myself that this would be the ‘last time’. That I was never, ever, ever going to hurt myself, ever again. Two days later, the resolve would be gone, and I would be craving the feeling of release that it gave me. So I’d hurt myself. And feel even more of a failure than I had to begin with.

It wasn’t until I changed the way I thought about stopping, that I managed to actually stop habitually self harming. From idea of the ‘last time’, I moved away, and began thinking more in terms of ‘not now’. Eventually I could think ‘not today’. And if you can get through one day, why not another? It was always a struggle, and the feeling never went away completely, but I have managed to change the way I behave when it comes to self harm. 

Unfortunately, I still have some times when I find it incredibly difficult not to hurt myself, when I walk a very fine line between releasing emotion and being destructive. When I have to go back to ‘not now’ for a while. But I think the good thing for me is, by thinking ‘not now’, and ‘not today’, I don’t have a last time, not as such. So there’s no pressure. It’s an ongoing project. I’m an ongoing project. We all are.

It’s good to talk?

Talking. I’ve resisted it for a long time. In the past, I’ve begun, and then lost my nerve – lost myself – and been unwilling to continue. I was going to say…unable, but that doesn’t feel true. I think the distinction is important. In the past I have made the conscious decision to stop talking, or, more often, not to begin at all. The longer I didn’t talk, the more it felt like the right thing. If I didn’t talk, no one knew what a terrible person I was. If I didn’t talk, the only person who had to hurt was me. And, in the end, wasn’t that what I deserved?

But it wasn’t. Very slowly, tentatively, I’m coming round to that idea. The idea that I can talk, and that I don’t have to feel bad or guilty for doing it. I don’t need to punish myself anymore.

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and tell my small self that it would be a good idea to talk. My 18 and 20 year old selves could have done with similar advice. I wish I’d been braver. Shouted louder. Made sure I was heard. Because I really needed to be. But the reality of the situation is that I can’t change what happened in the past. I can, however, change what’s happening right now. And I can give myself the chance of a different future.

Talking about painful things is, well, painful. Mentally…and physically. The act of remembering, of telling, of being honest, losing any detachment I’ve managed to maintain all these years, scares me to the point of utter panic. However, I am assured that talking is what I need to do in order to get better. So I’m doing my best to do that.

Self harm saved my life

*This post shouldn’t be triggering, but if you are currently struggling with self harm, please make sure you are safe before reading.

I am hesitant to post this. Please be keep in mind that I am speaking from my own experience of this subject – I in no way intend to speak for anyone else. I’m aware that it may be controversial. Feel free to comment with disagreements, but please remember to always be kind. 

Self harm is definitely not a healthy coping strategy, but it’s not illegal, doesn’t hurt anyone else, and it saved my life.

We all have ways of coping. Some are healthy, some aren’t. Some people exercise, some meditate, some people talk to friends and family. But other people (especially, but not limited to, those experiencing mental health issues), turn to drugs (both legal and illegal), alcohol, violence, restricting or purging food, and also to self harm.

Everybody’s experience of self harm is different. People cut, hit or burn themselves. Some people take smaller overdoses (something which can be really dangerous, and definitely not to be recommended!). I harmed myself in other ways, but cutting myself is what helped me the most. When I deliberately cut myself, it didn’t actually hurt. To be honest, it felt good. I often wished I didn’t know how good it felt, because that’s what made it so difficult to stop. It was a release. When I was overwhelmed, cutting focused my mind. Quietened everything down. Sometimes it was like taking a deep breath after holding it until your lungs feel like they’re going to burst. And sometimes it was like a small sigh of relief. To this day, it’s the only thing that I know is guaranteed to make me feel better instantly.

I don’t know when I started self harming. I can’t remember. As a child, overwhelming feelings very often led to me hurting myself in some small way. It made me feel better, more in control. When I was a teen, this escalated as I became more depressed, and by the time I was 18 I was cutting myself almost every night.

For me, when I was younger, I self harmed the way I did a lot of things – impulsively. However, as the years have passed, my relationship with hurting myself has changed. Self harm is something I can choose to do, or not. (And this is something that MH professionals seem to be unable to grasp. Levels and severity of self harm are not directly proportional to mental pain.)

So, I have ‘chosen’ not to self harm anymore. I’m aware that I’m very lucky that I am able to choose – the nature of their illness means that some people are simply unable to do this (this, by the way, does not mean that they’re not trying hard enough, or that they’re more ‘mental’ than me, or…anything really. How and why people self harm is a hugely personal thing.).

I’m often asked: do I regret self harming? I mean, I have lots of scars on my body as a reminder, and still have to be careful how I dress in order to cover them in certain situations. The answer, though, is no. I don’t regret it. You see, self harm saved my life. I cannot overstate this point – it saved my life. At a time when I was really suffering mentally, and was hugely impulsive, I know for certain that self harm prevented me from making a serious attempt on my life. And for that, I’m grateful to it.

A short word on trauma

What’s happened to you will inevitably inform and change the person you will become, but it shouldn’t define you. The past is something that none of us can escape from. It can’t be changed; there are no time machines.

Bad things happen, and we need to find a way to deal with them the best we can. Running from the past doesn’t work – it’s important to accept both the good and the bad. Good things should make you happy. And it’s ok to feel sad about the bad things. The problem comes if that sadness threatens to consume you, if something that happened years ago is still a fresh hurt because you never got the opportunity to confront it and deal with it.

Bad things happen. Really bad things. It’s a struggle not to blame yourself, especially as the victim of an assault or other traumatic experience that was outwith your control. You can’t help but think…what if? What if I hadn’t gone/worn that/kept quiet? But there are no time machines. The ‘what ifs’ will continue to torture you if you let them. And that’s not something you deserve.

Space to ‘just be’

“I feel as if I wanted to be quite alone by myself”
Bobbie, in ‘The Railway Children’

When I have periods of being unwell, I don’t want to do anything. I want to be away from everything, everyone. I want to be alone.

I recognise that an important part of getting better is engaging, doing things, being active. But I also think that the importance of doing nothing, or giving yourself time and space to ‘just be’, can’t be underestimated. This is hard to see sometimes though. Especially when it seems like everything is demanding your time.

During this last bout of depression, I lost myself. I stopped having opinions, I refused to even acknowledge my feelings. Instead of listening to myself, slowing down, taking a break, I tried to do what everyone else wanted, and pushed myself until I couldn’t keep going. Physically and mentally exhausted, I wanted everything to stop, and instead of saying no to people, relieving the pressure a bit and allowing me space to rest, I felt like my only option was to make everything stop by ending my life. This is a scary place to be, and one that’s difficult to navigate your way out of.

It’s difficult to say no. In our personal lives, we don’t want to let down the people we care about. At work, we want to be seen as capable, reliable, and hardworking – ‘team players’. So saying no, that we don’t want to do something, or that we can’t or don’t have the capacity, is difficult. But it is important. I’m realising more and more that feeling able to say no is essential when it comes to my own mental health. I’m not saying that we should refuse to do anything we don’t fancy – compromise is a really big part of relationships – but setting limits, and sticking to them, means that you’re not sacrificing your own health and wellbeing in order to keep others happy.

A while ago, I was talking to a friend about this. She said that, very often, when someone asks her to do something, instead of saying yes immediately, she asks for time to think about it. I think we all need that time, sometimes, but we are afraid to ask for it. Maybe it’s time to be brave though. What’s the worst that could happen? The world will not end, people will not hate you. And the best? You get time out, to ‘just be’. And that is a very good thing.

Recovery stories – turning points

If you have read as many recovery stories as I have, you begin to notice a pattern:
1. Someone struggles with mental illness, sometimes for many years.
2. They reach breaking point.
3. Something happens, and things begin to get better.

Sometimes the thing that happens is something amazing, or extreme. But very often, it’s just a small thing, the significance of which would be lost on almost anyone else. People talk of kind words, small gestures, noticing things/people who were there all along, moments of clarity.

For these people, things don’t suddenly and miraculously get better. But gradually, with work, the person manages to claw their way out of the hole. They may not always feel fantastic, but they hold on to the knowledge that that they will never fall as far down as they have before.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and I’ve realised that I’ve been waiting for that ‘something’ to happen to me. And that I project my own longing for that feeling onto my experiences. So, something bright and good happens, and I think ‘That’s it, nothing will ever be as bad as it has been, and I will get better.’. Instead of enjoying the moment for what it is, welcome respite from dark thoughts, I put pressure on it to be a turning point.

Unfortunately, for me, that feeling always fades. Sometimes I manage to keep hold of it for a few days, and I really start to think, maybe I can do this. But then when it fades, all I’m left with is disappointment, on top of the low that I find myself in the middle of.

And that makes me feel guilty – I must not be trying hard enough; other people can take these moments and hold them tight. They may feel bad in the future, but they don’t slip back to their worst. Slowly but surely, they recover. They don’t go back to how things were before they became ill, but they find a new way of being, often borne from that hope that stays with them. I’m really happy for these people (and obviously a bit jealous!). After struggling so much, it must feel so good to have that near constant hope.

But what about me and the many other people for whom hope is fleeting and unreliable? I’m realising that it is important to take heart from good times, but not to assume that they’re going to save you. Because, in all likelihood, they won’t. That’s not to say that there is no hope – far from it. But just because you aren’t blessed with that moment of clarity, doesn’t mean things won’t get better. If we stop waiting for a turning point maybe we can make some real, and lasting, progress. We can save ourselves.