mental wellness

The symptoms of mental illness that no one talks about

My illness is invisible, not imaginary

Even though it’s 2020, mental illness is still very misunderstood. Everyone who has low self esteem or feels nervous, has anxiety. Everyone who feels sad sometimes has depression. Everyone who is obsessed with having a neat desk is OCD. And everyone who cannot focus has ADHD. And not all thin women are anorexic.

But to actually suffer with mental illness is not as romantic as movies would have you believe. Every day is hard. Because every day, you are trying to function like a “normal” human being. And people assume that everyone with a mental illness has to look the same way. And that incredibly confident CEO could never suffer with bipolar, right? Although this is not a post about the difficulties of being on the mental illness spectrum. This is about those symptoms that we don’t talk about.

Laziness. Well, actually, perceived laziness. Sometimes people who suffer with mental illness struggle to complete tasks. And while you are motivated to complete tasks, you actually physically cannot for a number of reasons. Fear of failure. Perfectionism. Lack of motivation. Inability to concentrate. Sure, not all laziness is as a result of mental illness, but we need to start digging a little deeper when someone seems to be lazy and unproductive. It isn’t always as a result of lack of effort or desire.

Unemployment. Even though many companies will have mental health and wellness policies these days, and mental illness is starting to have its time in the sun, like wearing green on mental health day in October, when someone is actually suffering, and it’s affecting their work, it’s chalked up to poor performance. Especially in big corporate companies, poor performance is very rarely connected to mental illness. And a lot of the time, if we can give people the support and time to heal from mental illness, as we do with physical illness, we’ll improve productivity in our organisations.

Divorce/Singleness. Mental illness affects relationships. For many years, I suffered with undiagnosed anxiety, and a lot of disagreements between my husband and I were fueled by my negative outlook. I’d always been an optimistic person, and here was one of the closest people to me, telling me that he couldn’t handle my negativity. Now that we know about my anxiety and how it manifests, we are able to manage symptoms, and he is better able to understand me. But for many people, who suffer with mental illness, they struggle to maintain relationships, with romantic partners, but also friendships. We spend a lot of time in a vicious cycle of wanting to be social, but not having the energy to be social as a result of spending all day fighting mental illness to be perceived as a normal/likeable/successful individual.

Unidentified physical illness. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have experienced random physical conditions like carpel tunnel, bowel and bladder issues, and other conditions. And most of these are directly related to their mental illness. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all physical illness are manifestations of mental illness, and even if they are as a result of physical illness, they are serious, and need to be treated as such. But what needs to be done is treat the mental illness and not just ignore it, because, if we do, the physical illness will continue. Also, some physical conditions are caused by the excess of cortisol in our systems as a result of anxiety for example. We need to start viewing  the body holistically. The brain is an organ just like the heart or lungs or liver. And it can get sick just like those other organs.

Lack of confidence. I mention this separately, because a lot of people experience the symptoms of a mental illness, but with people who do not understand, they attribute these symptoms to be part of that person’s character. So we get labelled as aloof, or lazy, negative, aggressive. And if the person feels that this is not true to their character, there is the potential to feel unconfident and insecure in who you are. And if people don’t like you because of symptoms like your negativity, or perceived self-absorption, it can leave you wondering, what is so wrong with me? And then lack of confidence in abilities, because you can never do anything right because of unproductivity as a result of depression for example. Or not doing well at school or work, and wondering what it is about you that is making you so incapable of success, when it could possibly be ADHD that is affecting your work, as an example.

Failure. It goes without saying considering all the above, that people who suffer with mental illness suffer a lot from failure. Perceived failure sometimes as a result of impossible standards. Actual failure as a result of lack of productivity, or poor motivation, absenteeism, missed dealines etc. And that is the challenge, to separate the symptoms from character, and understanding yourself, to know where your symptoms are making you fall short, and what you can manage, and what you can change.

Ultimately, mental illness is an invisible illness, no one knows how much you’re suffering from the outside. They cannot read your thoughts, nor can they see the related emotional stress, or the physical tax mental illness takes on your body. But also, it is not clear how this invisible illness, which a lot of people don’t really understand, and cannot conceive of how it impacts your life, has these other impacts on your life, causing that vicious cycle of having mental illness, struggling, having it impact your life negatively, and thereby creating difficult life experiences which would impact anyone’s emotional stability, let alone someone who is already suffering.

Mental illness is complex. And while having a diagnosis can be liberating, operating in a world that doesn’t understand you and what that diagnosis means is difficult. And then the result of this lack of understanding is these “invisible symptoms” that do not appear on the DSM.

I am very open about my illnesses, and symptoms, and how they impact my life. And my husband has now gained more understanding so he has a better grasp of how my anxiety impacts both me, and our relationship. I have also joined a group at work to support sufferers and carers of mental illness, and my main objective of joining this group is to spread the awareness and understanding of mental illness, and how it impacts the working life of employees. The only way to counter these invisible symptoms that I’ve mentioned here is through knowledge, if you ask me. To have knowledge of ourselves, and our mental illness, but then also for non-sufferers, or carers to have the information to develop their understanding.

mental wellness

Depression: When you feel nothing [interview]

Depression def.: a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. Depression causes feelings of severe despondency and dejection.

Q: How would you define Depression? (in layman’s terms)

A: My definition of depression would be a constant state of hopelessness, where you want to do things,  but you just can’t. You want to get up and be productive, but can’t. You want to be surrounded by people but can’t. Because you don’t want to be a burden, but you can’t help being a burden.

Q: What are the symptoms? (as you know or experience them)

A: Some symptoms I think are answers to questions, like how many days have you not been getting enough sleep? How much energy do you have? Does your work inspire you? Do your friends find you talking really slowly, or really fast? How often do you feel hopeless? Have there been any changes in feelings, appetite, or sex drive.

 Q: How does it feel to have Depression?

A: For me it’s, you really want to do stuff, but you feel that you can’t. It’s not that you don’t have the will power. Some days you just can’t get out of bed. You want to and you shout to yourself in your head to not be lazy, but your body just won’t get out of bed.

There is a disconnect between what you want to do, and what your body tells you that you can do. What you want to do, what you should do, and what you end up doing. You may look at a list of things you want to do, and you try to do some of them, but you just can’t. You just don’t have the motivation, or the physicality to actually do the things. And then that perpetuates the feeling hopelessness and worthlessness because of not doing things, and that you are not good at anything, and it all just gets worse.

And I don’t know why, and it’s not something I want, but I just create a situation where I have things that I want to do, but I just don’t.

For me, I don’t know about it being about being sad. People may view depression as not outgoing or engaging with friends. It’s not sad, it’s a purple haze, and it’s just not good. You could get a call from someone who you really love taking to, but then not want to talk to them so you don’t answer the phone, or you do speak to them, and you just don’t enjoy it, even though you normally enjoy talking to them.

It’s like having an overwhelming sense of misery. It can be sad, but we generally have reasons to be sad. But there isn’t always a reason for feeling depressed. It’s a constant state of being hopeless, overwhelmed, and a disconnect between what you want to do, and what you do do. It’s about knowing that this isn’t normal for me.

I think that it’s important to be honest with yourself and those around you, and put your hand up and say, “I’m not feeling great”.

Q: What are the treatment options for Depression?

A: I think there is obviously the quite clinical way, through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), to reflect with someone else. CBT enables you to be guided through exactly what are the symptoms you are experiencing, and then breaking them down into tasks to address them. To be actioning against the symptoms, which could help alleviate the symptoms. This method is whereby you have an impartial person work through the changes with you. Once you work through it with someone it can be challenging, but I think when you really unpack every step, it has a meaningful impact. It can really benefit you.

Every concern and problem are really overwhelming, but when you pick out simple things to resolve the big and vague emotions you may be feeling, you can focus on these, and then work through them methodically.

Less clinical, is surrounding yourself with friends and family. Make sure you have other people you can confide in. Sometimes, all you need is to share how you are feeling with someone, and you don’t have to be in a formalized therapy situation.

If you have a chemical deficit, or if CBT doesn’t address the core issues, you will need to use medication. For example, if your body is not producing serotonin, SSRIs, might absolutely be something that your body needs. Even with medication though, you need to make sure you’re eating well, drinking well, and exercising, otherwise, you’re not giving yourself a fighting chance.

It’s like with any illness, the medication alone will not resolve the problem, if you do not adjust your lifestyle too. If you had heart disease, you would be on medication, but you’d also need to adjust your eating and drinking habits, to remain healthy. Healing mental illness is the same.

So don’t live in darkness, not eat, or move. Make sure you have a nice place to live and a nice way to live. With good people who support you.

Image source: lifetomake.com

Q: Do you have to take medication if you have Depression?

A: You don’t have to. You might not have to. But you might have to. And someone that’s a trained professional who understands the cause, might say that you need meds. You need to be open to the idea. It’s not a sign of weakness. If you had a vitamin deficiency your doctor would definitely recommend vitamins. No one judges that. If you look at your brain, and if it’s not producing properly, then you’ll need to go the medication route.

We need to accept that your brain is an organ just like the rest of your body. If you had a thyroid problem, it’s a medical issue. Your brain needs attention, just like the rest of your body.

If medication is needed, embrace it, if not then don’t worry about it. Work with a professional. It might be meds that are required, but it might be only therapy that you need.

If you do need meds, don’t just take it, and that’s it, you need to adjust your lifestyle too and make sure you’re in a supportive environment. You may need a combination of therapy and medication. You definitely need other support mechanisms.

And know that you might go through multiple regimes of medication. You might have to go through many brands and dosages. It might take months before your body produces what it needs to work. It might not work at all. It might be a year before you start feeling better. You might even be diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression.

I still want to emphasise that, above all, it’s normal. And it’s not fine, but normal, and you’ll need to explore which options work for you. Not everyone needs medication, but if you do need medication, embrace it, and keep trying.

It can be an agonizing, long journey, but make sure you’re on the journey.

Q: Is it genetic?

A: For me, I think it’s a combination of your environment, genetic factors, or it could just be an accident.

If I look at my family, it’s most likely genetic. A number of my close family members suffer with some form of mental illness. So if I had to look at it surgically, at my family tree pattern, I would say, yes it’s genetic, but some families have no challenges at all, and a person in that family could still have depression.

A lot of mental illnesses, are a product of environment, like anxiety. Our society is changing, and it has been shown that 25% of girls before the age of 14 have an anxiety disorder. And while young people today are more open about mental illness, this is still not a stat we have seen before. It’s because of the social pressures on social media. We’re in a hyperattentive world. Where the number of followers you have, and the number of likes on a post are important, and it’s resulting in a world focused on instant gratification through visuals, and having the perfect social media life. The success metric in our personal lives is around exposure. We are forced into a mould, to be a certain type of person. And none of it is 100% true. So definitely the environment we live in.

But also, it is as a result of the challenges we experience in our lives. Instances of mental illness, like depression, also occur in relation to the number of wars, colonization etc a society experiences, all problems forced on people by others. PTSD has been known about for thousands of years, in that, during the Crusades, soldiers would still hear clashing of metal long after leaving the environment they were fighting in. This shows that mental health has been documented for thousands of years, in written records. It’s always been a problem, but we’ve never looked at in the right way. Younger people are talking about mental health more these days, we are starting to see more mental health memes. The world is starting to have a more casual relationship with mental health. Children as young as 14 years are talking about it. Sometimes younger.

Overall, mental illness is both genetic, and environmental.

For example, you might get cancer even if you don’t smoke or drink. It could be that it is genetic, but we cannot be sure what the exact cause is.

The brain is complex. Don’t try and put it in a box.

Q: Anything else you would like to add

A: I heard my cousin’s kid of 7 years, tell her mom, “it’s not good for my mental health” and I just think that she has had exposure at such a young age to have the language to express that her mental health is important. Overexposure of stress is not good, and young children are acknowledging this.

We are on the cusp in history where the generation before us denied mental health, and our generation is starting to talk about mental health, and being open about it, and I’m sure the next generation will have normalized it.

Young kids are talking about stress and mental health. We are starting to talk about it in legislative, medical, social society. We are changing the landscape in the ways in which we talk about mental health.

What is important is empowering the frontline, those who are the first people who are going to be managing the symptoms of a mental illness. For them to be able to recognize it as mental illness, and then treat it as such. We need to empower them in the knowledge of the right action to take.

We’re starting to see a lot more openness around mental health, even in societies where it was previously a taboo.

It doesn’t matter who you are, your age, or upbringing –  anyone can suffer unique mental health challenges. From all walks of life. It’s not a failure. There are treatments, and there are things you can do to improve your life.

If you want to, you can change the world. We are ready. We’ve never been more ready. It’s a really beautiful time to talk about mental health.

Just talk. If you’re not having a good day, say so. Just talk.

If you’ve had a bad weekend, don’t lie. Don’t think of a different things to say, to make up a story of a good weekend. Just say how it really is. You’ll negatively impact yourself if you are not honest about your mental health.

Talk about it. Write a blog. Whatever it might be. You’re going to change someone’s’ life. And they’ll change your life. There’s a ripple effect of mental healing.

Be the young girl saying that she doesn’t want to do homework because she’s stressed

Or the 80 year old who is admitting that she is not doing well mentally.

Or members of the LGBQTIA community, and all the mental health issues they struggle with.

Women  are more likely than men to get depressed – One of the reasons is due to the different challenges women experience. But also because men don’t seek mental help.

People in the developing world, where there is no access to treatment. People are exposed to mental health issues but what they see is violence or they are violent. But because they are not treating the illness, there is a vicious cycle of violence and illness and homelessness. In the developed world they have access, and no one knows they have mental health issues.

Look at it as what it is. It’s who we are and what we are and how we talk will create the perception of what mental illness and mental wellness is.

We’ll see the mindset change that we want to see. In 30 years we’ll live in a beautiful world. But until then we have to talk.

Resources available to you, if you are struggling with Depression:

SADAG: http://www.sadag.org/

mental wellness

Schizophrenia: When you’re not sure what is real [interview]

Schizophrenia def.: A long-term mental illness of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.

… and other misconceptions

Q: How would you define Schizophrenia? (in layman’s terms)

A: Schizophrenia is a complex mental illness. The person suffering from it has a distortion of reality and hallucinations to the point that they can talk to themselves.

Q: What are the symptoms? (as you know or experience them) Is it like having multiple personalities?

A: People suffering from Schizophrenia don’t have multiple personalities, they just have a different reality. They build their own world and they cannot differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t.

In many cases they suffer from hallucinations and hear voices. They might even have full conversations with the “people” talking to them or swap from “someone” taking to them and then answering. This is the reason why it might appear as though they have multiple personalities, which isn’t the case. Having said that, due to all that’s going on in their head, they might become very absent and while you think you are having a conversation with them, their mind is somewhere else.

Q: How does it feel to have Schizophrenia? Or to be the carer (family) of someone who has Schizophrenia?

A: I remember it being very challenging and confusing. When I was younger, I couldn’t fully understand what was happening and would sometimes wrongly push the person to “just get better” or “do something to change it”. With the years, I have learnt that it cannot be cured and that the people suffering from it are actually in a lot of despair, which is the reason why in many cases they end up committing suicide to end the suffering.

Q: Are there treatment options for Schizophrenia?

A: There is unfortunately no cure, but medication and therapy are two ways in which to minimize the symptoms.

Q: Do you have to take medication if you have Schizophrenia?

A: Schizophrenia tends to be for life and yes, medication is needed. Unfortunately, the process to find the right mediation isn’t an easy one and patients have to go through trial and error until the right one and dosage are found. This process is challenging as the person might see their symptoms worsening for a bit of time.

Q: Are you able to keep a job if you have Schizophrenia?

A: I guess it depends on the level of the illness. In many instances the distortion of the reality or hallucinations are such that keeping a normal job isn’t possible. It will also depend on whether the person suffering from it is going though a bad period.

Q: Is it genetic?

A: To date there is no clarity as to why Schizophrenia happens. It’s known that there is a genetic component to it but that isn’t the only one. Environmental and altered brain chemistry play a big role too.

Q: Anything else you would like to add

A: As humans, we tend to be scared of the unfamiliar, therefore, it’s incredibly important that people talk about mental illness openly. There is nothing to be embarrassed about and only when people talk about it, will the topic be normalised.

mental wellness

Anxiety: when you feel everything [interview]

Anxiety def.: A chronic condition characterized by an excessive and persistent sense of apprehension, with physical symptoms

Q: How would you define Anxiety? (in layman’s terms)

A: Anxiety is constantly fearing the worst, and worrying about everything. Having anxiety is like being fearful of everything, from people, to dying and everything inbetween. It’s being nervous all the time, and not knowing why, just fearing and feeling stressed about every situation you go into. It’s black and white thinking, catastrophizing, being negative, feeling irritable, impatient. It’s the need to be busy all the time, to constantly be making lists, and always feeling like a failure. It’s feeling insecure, doubt, feeling like you’re never enough. It’s feeling overwhelmed, but scared to ask for help. And it also manifests physically so there are a number of physical symptoms, like problems with your gut, sweating, headaches, carpal tunnel. And yes, a lot of people may feel nervous about speaking in front of a group of people, or going to a party alone, or fearing losing their loved ones, but it’s when these concerns start affecting your life in a negative way, and become so overwhelming and overarching, that you are no longer living your life optimally, that you need to seek help. Also, there are different types of anxiety. I have Generalised Anxiety disorder, with a propensity towards social anxiety. But you could suffer with panic attacks, have a phobia, only have social anxiety. There’s also adjustment anxiety (which is what happens with major life changes).

Q: What are the symptoms? (as you know or experience them)

A: Anxiety can manifest with thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and physically. For me, I experience feelings of self-doubt, I get overwhelmed quite easily. I struggle to build relationships with people because I fear that they are going to abandon me so a lot of the time I don’t put effort into relationships, or I push people away. I suffer with insomnia. I fear both the future and the past. I beat myself up for things that I said 5 years ago, or even, 5 minutes ago. Everything I say and do is wrong. I am terrible at decision-making because I’m fearful of the outcome of every decision I make. I procrastinate because I’m scared of doing things the wrong way. I get easily distracted by stimuli, and then struggle to concentrate. I suffer with headaches, and problems with my gut, and excessive sweating. I say inappropriate things to people that make me nervous, or people in authority, or I say nothing at all, and then beat myself up about it. I have very negative thought patterns, always expecting the worst. I never want to admit that I am happy, because I am fearful that the feeling will be taken away. Depending on the type of anxiety, it manifests in different ways, and then it would have different symptoms. Some people experience mostly physical symptoms, like tight chest, difficulty breathing.

Q: How does it feel to have Anxiety?

A: Having anxiety for me, feels like I have too many train tracks running in my mind at any given time, and it never stops. A friend gave me the analogy of having 1000 internet tabs open, and they are all flashing at the same time. A million thoughts constantly running through my head, fears, things I should say, things I said, things I need to do, analyzing my environment, things I should be doing, things I should be saying, everything that I am, everything that I’m not. Having anxiety is like always having that feeling of nervousness before an interview, or speaking to a big crowd of people. And it’s like being afraid all the time. And like always being busy. Always having things to do. All the time. It’s like being on, always. There is no rest, no off switch, because then I convince myself I’ve forgotten something. I always feel like I’ve failed. I’m fearful of trying new things and then I feel like a failure because I’m not living my best life. It’s like always being in fight or flight mode.

Q: What are the treatment options for Anxiety?

A: For me, I’m in talk therapy, and I use medication to treat my anxiety. I know people who use mindfulness and meditation to treat their anxiety. Depending on the type of anxiety disorder, CBT (behavioural therapy) can work. My personal opinion is that it’s important to find the root cause of the anxiety. Mine is quite complex, so I’ve been in therapy for a number of years, and we’re still uncovering things. For some people a few sessions of CBT helps them develop practical steps to manage their anxiety.

Q: Do you have to take medication if you have Anxiety?

A: Not everyone requires medication. For me, the medication helps slow down the train tracks so that I can find a space to breathe, and concentrate on one thought process at a time. The decision on whether or not to use medication should be made with your therapist/psychiatrist though. Everyone is different. And some people are able to combat their anxiety with only talk therapy or CBT, or mindfulness techniques. Some of us might have to be on medication for most of our lives.

Q: Is it genetic?

A: From what I’ve read, and the psycho-education that I’ve done with my therapist, you do have a predisposition to get anxiety. If you suffer childhood trauma, the chances of getting anxiety are pretty high, even if your parents don’t suffer. There is also a theory I’ve been reading a lot about, on generational trauma, and just like many illnesses pass down through the generations, so does trauma, in the wiring of our brains, and our neurochemicals. But what I love about this theory is that they are proving that yes, trauma is transferred from one generation to the next, but so is healing. So even if you have a predisposition, or you are suffering from generational trauma, you can be the one to start passing down generational healing.

Q: Anything else you would like to add

A: Living with anxiety is hard. It’s like feeling everything all of the time. But it’s not a life sentence. You can get help, and with treatment, you can be healed. It is possible to recover. It’s not immediate, but healing is possible. I feel like I’m proof of that. I am definitely not the same person I was a year ago. And I definitely feel like I’m passing down generational healing in my family.

mental wellness

A Letter to our Loved Ones

(From the perspective of someone with Depression and Anxiety)

Dear Loved One/Carer,

I’m hoping this letter can help you understand what I go through daily.

Some days are good days. And on these days, I’m able to get out of bed, go to the gym, socialize. Do all the things. I don’ t know when these days will happen or how long they’ll be around.

Then there are the bad days. When I sometimes can’t get out of bed. I am unable to wash my hair, or have the energy to brush my teeth even. On these days, the list of things is sometimes longer. Anxiety tells me to do all the things. I have 5 different lists running through my mind. My rational mind knows I’m setting myself up for failure. But anxiety says it must be done, so I write lists. Depression on these days, tells me that I cannot do anything on that list. I have no energy. I’ll never get it done. It’s all impossible. What is the point of living? To do the things anxiety says. To what end depression says. So nothing gets done. I’m overwhelmed and in despair. And depleted and exhausted from doing nothing.

And if you find this hard, and confusing, imagine what it’s like not knowing how you’ll wake up in the morning. Sometimes, I go to bed with energy, planning out my day, setting up my gym clothes. Only to wake up, physically unable to get out of bed. That is depression.

Or I plan to run before my  gym class. Because anxiety tells me that I have to do everything and be good at everything and lose weight and everything. And then I wake up late and I hate myself because all I got to do was the class. Anxiety has told me that I’ve failed.

What I need on the bad days is for you to sit with me. Not fix me, not solve the problems caused by anxiety and depression. Just be there. Just listen if I want to talk, or hold me if I need to cry.

On the good days, we can do all the things around the house, the grocery shopping, everything. All of the things. I have the energy and capacity on the good days.

Sometimes we’ll plan like tomorrow is a good day, but it doesn’t turn out that way. Then, we need to change our plans. Like if you plan to do the washing and you wake up and it’s raining. Change your plans. Not never do washing again.

Most importantly, I need you to try and understand my diagnosis. I can help you, but I need you to be open to hearing me talk about it. Sometimes sharing links to blogs, or websites that articulate how I am feeling is easier for me, and also it helps to normalize what I’m going through so that you understand my illness as an illness. I might not be ready to share everything directly related to me and my particular experience, but it’ll come, as I learn to trust.

Also important though, is that this is not only about me. You are you, with your own needs. Do not be afraid to express these. No relationship is going to function without both people sharing their needs, and having their needs met.

I know it’s hard living with me. Trust me, it’s hard for me to live with me too.

For both of us, it’s important that we support each other on this journey. It may be my recovery journey, but as I grow and change, you’ll be there along the way. As I learn about boundaries, we may test each other, but this is part of relationship building. The more I understand myself, and where I start and my diagnosis ends, the better I can help you understand the same.

I want you to know that I love you, and I appreciate you, even though it doesn’t always seem like it. Thank you for still being in my life. And thank you for being on my journey of recovery with me.

Love,

Your Loved One,  who suffers with mental illness

*           *          *

Practical steps –  Adapted from “The Depression Project”

We need people to sit and listen to us without judgement or criticism. You may have thoughts and opinions on what we’re going through, it may seem irrational to you, the solution may seem obvious. Trust me, it’s probably obvious to our rational minds too. But our rational minds are clouded by our illness. Help us centre, and clarify our thoughts, help us rationalize what we are going through, guide our thinking. Do not tell us we are irrational, or that we aren’t feeling what we say we’re feeling.  

Check in with us, if we would like to do something. It is sometimes positive for us to go out for a walk, go for coffee, the movies. Something that will recharge us. And also it will help to get out of the space that we are in, the space that is causing difficulty.

Sometimes we are feeling too weighed down to do anything, maybe we would like something to comfort us. Maybe we just need a hug, something to drink or eat. In these situations, sometimes the smallest act of kindness can do the world of good.

If we are in a really dark space, and none of these are working, ask if we want you to sit with us, or if we want to be alone. If we want you to sit with us, that’s all we actually need. Just be there. It’ll help us to not feel alone, even though we are not ready to talk about anything. If we need you to leave, it’s not about you, we need the space to recharge, and deal with what is going on at this point in time.

* * *

Being related to someone with mental illness, or being in a friendship or relationship with someone who suffers with mental illness, can be really hard. It’s confusing, and you never know what to expect. What we need though is for you to be there, even in those difficult moments. Know that we are trying, and that we need your support and empathy. And most of all, and I cannot say this enough, is that we appreciate your presence in our lives, even though we don’t always have the words, or means to say so.

mental wellness

The Sum of all Parts

So one thing that I’ve learnt in the past two years that I’ve spent on my healing journey, is the importance of holistic treatment. I used to be scared of medication because I was fearful of it fundamentally changing who I am. I believed in talk therapy, because I felt that my problems weren’t that big. I didn’t realise how seriously my anxiety was impacting my marriage because I didn’t realise how ingrained it was with who I am. And also, I thought things like moms groups were lame, and also I don’t like interacting with “moms”, where all we have in common is the fact that we are moms. And worst of all, I thought clinics were like a scene out of “Girl, Interrupted”, and when you talk about your stay in one, you should always whisper the word “clinic”, out of shame.

And then, these humans found their way into my life. And my head. And they have all shaped my journey to recovery in important and valuable ways.

DISCLAIMER: I realise that I am quite privileged in that I have access to all these healthcare professionals, but if you can get holistic treatment, it is so important and helpful to your overall journey. But what is most important is getting the help you need.

The woman who saved my life

My Therapist. About two years ago, my son was born with two holes in his heart, and then I was retrenched, and lucky enough to find another job, but still I felt like I needed support. I happened upon a Facebook ad for a moms group, and when that fell apart, I contacted the facilitator to see if she would see me individually. She unfortunately couldn’t see me until December, and I felt like I needed to see someone before then. So she suggested a colleague of hers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I remember sitting down in that first session and saying to my therapist, that I’m here for what she called “champagne problems” on her blog. Those things that make us feel bad, but aren’t quite clinical. We started with me sharing what led me to therapy: a complicated pregnancy, a son with a heart condition, a retrenchment. In our next session we went through my history: family structure, childhood, issues I deal with.

We had an immediate rapport, we were able to joke, while talking about serious things. We have a shared love of books and words. And she understood me. For the first time I felt like someone was seeing me. I felt validated.

We are still working through my stuff, because it turned out that it wasn’t just “champagne problems”, and the fact that I thought that they were speaks to all the stuff that I have to work through.

The woman who saved my mind

After seeing my therapist for a few months, she suggested that I see a psychiatrist for medication to help with my anxiety. I was a bit nervous to go the medication route, I really believed that all I needed was talk therapy. I didn’t want to mess with my brain chemicals. What if the person I’ve always been changes?

The truth about medication, from my experience, is that it lifts the fog of depression, and slows down those train tracks of anxiety for example. It gives me the space to actually work through all the stuff from talk therapy. It helps me to have a better handle on my day-to-day functioning.

My psychiatrist is great, and she is particularly skilled with managing women’s issues. Also, when I started with her, I was still breastfeeding, so she prescribed medication that I could take while breastfeeding.

I’ve been through a couple of brands, and a mix of dosages, but I think we’ve found something that suits me for the time being. Every time we up my dosage or change brands, I have to try it out for a month and then go back to her to check in if it’s working. If it’s not, then I need to try something else. I’ve had some bad medication experiences, but in the end, I’m supportive of the medication route, if it’s necessary.

It doesn’t change who you fundamentally are. And also, being that I’m in this process would it so bad if the person I’ve always been changes?

The woman who saved my marriage

Having two kids really changes a marriage. Having two under two is like a wrecking ball to a marriage. And our marriage was already under strain due to my husband working shifts. From my side, I felt depleted, and distant from my husband. I felt like he took me for granted and completely disrespected me.

We had been in marriage counselling in our first year of marriage, and she had helped us navigate our marriage, and the changes it brought to our lives. I didn’t want to go back to her because I felt like she favoured my husband, and with my whole self-renewal process that I was undergoing, I couldn’t be in a room where I didn’t feel as heard as he was.

So we tried out someone else. We saw him for 3 months. And while he was well-revered, with many years of experience, I felt like he didn’t change anything in our marriage. I also felt as though he preferred my husband to me.

And that is when my therapist suggested the psychologist that my husband and I are currently seeing. She is helping us communicate properly. She’s teaching us about communication styles, and how our emotions work at a neurological level. We’ve learnt what is hampering our communication with each other. And she gives us homework to make sure that we practice what we discuss, and that this process is dynamic and not held in the room with her only.

The women who help me re-parent myself

Parenting is not easy, no matter if you have one kid or many. Girls or boys. Babies or adult children. Parenting is hard. And confusing. And you never feel like you’re doing anything right. One day your kid is eating carrots. The next day she hates them. Parenting is hard.

My therapist introduced me to “Mindful Mamas”, which is a group facilitated by a therapist, and through which we are guided through healing stories. We are also taught about the Conscious Parenting movement, which we can then try and apply in our lives.

The main tenets which I have gauged from this process is to treat my children like tiny humans, with their own thoughts and emotions. Discipline is no longer about getting them to do what I believe is right, but rather guiding them through life.

I have learned to review my own agenda, and what it is that I want out of the situation, and how it is perceived by them, and what they want out of a situation. All kids want to do is enjoy life, and play. And this is valuable for anyone. I have learnt so much from them about mindfulness. Yes, we need to get done and go to work and school.  But is it really going to harm us if we sit for a few minutes to build a lego house? And in reality, it’s not. In fact, it heals us more than it harms us.

I still struggle through parenting, but, as a conscious parent in training, I feel like I’m building valuable connections with my children, and validating them, by seeing them for where they are. And hopefully through all of this, I am building a secure attachment, and building confident children, with a healthy sense of self.

Special Acknowledgements

Friendamily

My friends. Who are always by my side. The people who will stand up for me when the world is against me. But will also stand up against me to steer me in the right direction.  

Cuckoos

I recently spent a few weeks in a psychiatric clinic. And I met a group of awesome people. We spent many nights giggling and talking. For the first time a group of people just got me, and could support me in ways I have never been supported before. They held me together when I was falling apart. And they are part of my journey to recovery.

Liefie

(actually that’s his nickname for me) I’ve mentioned him before. And about how our marriage was falling apart. But he has truly been so supportive. When things were really bad, and he was scared out of his mind, he was able to give me the space to heal. And then opened himself up to learning about me and my struggles, and what I need from my partner. He finally read all those blog posts I shared with him.

Wildlings

My kids. They are lively and energetic. And mothering is draining sometimes (most times). But when I walk in that door, and they run towards me shouting “Mommy!” all is forgotten. And on the bad days, all I need is a hug from them, to get perspective. And to remember two of the reasons I’m living for.

So there it is, your support can come from the strangest of places. And if you are in a dark place, you may not realise that you have anyone at all. A lot of the time, despite having all of these people in my life, I feel really lonely, and like I have no one. But that is part of my journey. Learning to lean on those around me for support, and about boundaries and who to trust.

But if there is no one that you do find comfort in, I hope you find comfort in this blog, to know that there is this quirky chick, with some issues, who wants to be there for you.

Resources:

http://thebeautifulmind.co.za/ OR https://www.facebook.com/clinicalpsychologistfairuzgaibie/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1950822965156283/

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The Mental Health Starter Kit

From Left to Right: Positive affirmation; medication; hydration; relaxation; more medication

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a mother of two. What I did not mention is that I’m a mother of two children, under 4, who are 20 months apart. That is enough to make anyone go a little crazy. And then to top it off, my second pregnancy was complicated, and then my son had heart complications, and then the cherry on top was me getting retrenched while on maternity leave, on the anniversary of my father-in-law’s death. More on that in a later post.

And did I mention that I had been suffering, undiagnosed, for at least the last 30 years? I started on the road to recovery roughly 2 years ago, so I thought I’d start with a post on mental health.

Words of Affirmation

Now, here, I’m not talking about platitudes, or those messages you leave on your mirror to motivate you as you start your day. What I’m talking about are those words that speak deep into your soul. For all my life, I have struggled with issues of inadequacy and feelings of not being good enough. I need to remember that I am capable, and that I do not need to hold myself to anyone’s standards but my own. And also to remember why I started. My word of affirmation is tattooed on my arm, “Powerful beyond measure”, from the Marianne Williamson poem:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson

Self-care

Hydrate. Eat your vegetables. Get a massage. Stay in bed all day. Get up and shower. Read. Watch a movie. Whatever is healing for you. We need to find ways in which to look after ourselves, and there is no one-size-fits-all.

Some days, self-care is about getting up and doing the things. And then other days, it’s staying in bed because facing the world is harmful. But the most important thing is that we take time out to look after ourselves. And heal. Whatever that looks like.

Be Mindful

What was your left hand doing while your right hand was brushing your teeth this morning? Not many of us can answer this. Because we are very rarely living in the moment. By the time we start getting ready for work in the mornings, we are already prepping for our 9am meeting in our heads. Mindfulness is something I am trying to practice, particularly with my kids. To be honest, I’m learning from them to live in the moment, while I try to parent consciously (also something I will chat about in a later post).

Something helpful that I was recently guided through, was paying attention to your body when you feel an emotion. Even if it’s a positive emotion, it just means that we are being more present. Once we can acknowledge our thoughts, our emotions and our physical reactions, we can start thinking about how to react, and what we need to do before we feel overwhelmed by the emotion.

I’ve got a squishy toy in my desk drawer, for when I feel tension, or stress, or the need to emotionally eat. And it helps me release the anger, or stress in a different way, if I’m not able to take a walk, or scream or exercise. All methods I use to manage difficult emotions.

In the moment, when you start feeling overwhelmed, try a grounding exercise. Look for 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. What a grounding exercise helps you to do is to be take the focus off the emotion and focus outside of yourself.

And if you can, dance it out.

Medidate

Linked to mindfulness, is spending some time in meditation. I struggle to sleep, and I started using a meditation app, to meditate just before I went to sleep in the evenings. Just spending 5-10 minutes focusing on my breathing, did wonders for my insomnia. I managed to fall asleep quite quickly, and I have also been managing to stay asleep throughout the night.

What is also helpful, although I am the first to admit that I haven’t been able to, is to try and get a meditation in, in the morning, either before you get out of bed, or before you leave the house. Whichever is more stress provoking. And also, before you go into the office, spend 2 minutes in your care, focusing on your breathing.

I do a lot of meditation with my therapist, and in the mom’s group that I’m a part of, but outside of these, I have a meditation app. At the moment, I’m using Headspace, but there are plenty available in your app store. You can find one that works for you

Medicate

Sometimes, you just have to. (under the guidance of a licensed medical professional of course)

I will admit that I was very hesitant when my therapist first suggested using medication, but now that I’ve found the right medication, at the right dosage, it’s changed my life. For me, the medication, helps stabilize my mood so that I can face everyday life. And then I see a therapist to help me deal with everything else. Medication can fix today’s mood, but it cannot fix the past. How I see it, it brings my mood to a functioning level, just like everybody else, so that I’m better positioned to deal with life stressors.  It doesn’t mean I float about and never experience stress or anger, or sadness. It just means that these very normal emotions don’t debilitate me, like before.

Some tips from my journey. While a GP and a psychiatrist can both prescribe medication, my preference is a psychiatrist, because it’s their area of specialty. And they will be able to assess why the medication is not working, or maybe it is working and the real reason you’re feeling down is PMS (it’s happened to me), or other such things. And also, if you have a good one, they won’t just look at the diagnostic criteria, they will look at you holistically, and consult with you on how you are feeling, what is happening in your life etc etc. Generally because they spend their entire day working with mental illness, I feel like they are more equipped for when you bring your concerns to them.

Also, you may be wondering how it works. And that is what most people worry about, is that taking psychiatric medicine messes with your brain chemistry and who are you. So I am not equipped, to explain it, and also I am not a qualified medical professional so cannot be dispensing medical advice, or explanations. What I will explain here is how it happens from the patient side.

Once you are diagnosed, your psychiatrist will prescribe medication that she/he feels is right for you based on a variety of factors. For example, when I started medication, I was still breastfeeding, so that had to be taken into account. And that medication is the only medication I am on, so I didn’t have to worry about interactions with other medication. You will start taking your meds, but you won’t necessarily feel a change for at least 4 weeks. Which is why you will need to go back and meet with your psychiatrist. If it works –  great, then you will stay on those meds for a period, determined by your psychiatrist. And so it will go. Sometimes, you’ll be fine for months, and then it won’t work, or something will happen and you need to adjust your meds, but your psychiatrist will keep a close eye on you, and also, if you do feel changes that are concerning, contact your doctor. On one type of meds that I was on, I felt numb, which is kind of a feeling I was struggling with, as part of depression, so that was defs not working for me.

And a final note on treatment, I am currently seeing both a psychologist and a psychiatrist, for an holistic treatment. Together they deal with all my stuff both inside and out. Like I said before, medication helps stabilize your mood to “normal” levels, and then a psychologist will help you with other factors which lead to you seeking help.

Talk

You may be one of those lucky people with a large support group, but if you are not, there is a host of therapists out there. You may need to search for a while to find one that you have rapport with. I went through 3 before I found The One. Also, if you are lucky enough to have friends and family who are good at dispensing advice and providing support, that’s great, but sometimes professional help is what you really need, particularly if there is trauma or mental illness involved.

One last note on my starter kit, my disclaimer on the above is that I am by no means a mental health professional, these have been my experiences, and you may have completely different experiences. What I will urge you to do though, is if you are feeling big emotions, that are overwhelming, or are causing you to not be able to manage your everyday life, seek help. You do not need to suffer alone.

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What does it all mean?

I was born Leila (pronounced LIE-LAH) Gardner on the Thursday the 12th of April 1984, by Caesar, on a date chosen by my mother, so that I wasn’t born on Friday the 13th. And while it may sound like an overshare, there is a lot to be said of your birth experience and how it impacts the rest of your life. If you believe in the weird sciences. And I tend to flip flop between the weird sciences and the actual sciences. Just like my name is spelt like LAY-LAH, and pronounced like LIE-LAH.

Just like my name, I am complicated. And generally don’t fit into the boxes. I can be a lot for some people. And it’s taken me 30 some years to realise that that’s ok. I hope you’re all still reading, because I’m just getting started.

To describe myself, in one word, I would say: quirky. And I hope that this blog will give you some insight into my quirky world.

A world which I inhabit with my husband and two kids. My birth family is spread around the world, but I have a big family of inlaws who mostly live within 5kms of me. We like each other at least. And then there is my friendamily, made up of people that share my brand of crazy.

By day, I am a marketing “professional”. And that’s all I’d like to say about that.

By night, I’m everything else. I do a little ballet because I enjoy dance and I wanted to do contemporary, but it clashed with my son’s swimming. Hashtag momlife. I do a bit of writing. Not this blog only, but I’m writing a screen play and a novel. The plans/outlines of which mock me every day as they are above my dressing table. And then I try and fit in some running and some swimming and other fitness type things.

I used to consider myself a triathlete, but now the only tri sports I do are feeding my kids, bathing them and getting them ready for bed.

Also, I bring this up, because it’s a part of me, although I don’t allow it to define me is that I suffer with Anxiety, Depression and ADHD. And I hope I can share some insights of living with the triad of mental illness and my journey towards mental health. So while I am on this journey, of mental health, motherhood and other things, I hope I can share my life with you and maybe you’ll laugh, maybe you’ll cry, because you’re laughing so much. And maybe you’ll just think I’m weird but carry on reading anyway. But hopefully I’ll make you feel ok, and maybe I’ll inspire some of you. To do what, I dunno. But if you feel good then my work here is done.