Guest Blog: Mary-Ann Toop and Creating Concordia’s World

Guest Blog: Mary-Ann Toop and Creating Concordia’s World

When Mary-Ann offered to write a blog I went to meet her and was introduced to the fascinating creations that formed such an important part of her recovery. So much of Mary-Ann’s story resonates strongly with me. She attributes her recovery from severe depression to walking Maisy, morning writing (including affirmations, which I know made a huge difference), counselling and creativity. The blog is long, there is so much we had to leave out (yes!), but it is so worth a read. Her message of recovery is strong.

Introduction

I was absolutely delighted to be invited by Sue to write this guest blog as my own experience of deep depression, which began a few years ago, left me desperately wanting to use my own experience, my personal journey to recovery, to help others.

My Story

Writing with Valentina, a Wood Nymph

Writing with Valentina, a Wood Nymph

I won’t bore you with the causes of my depression since this would take more words that there is space in this blog. Suffice to say that a series of highly stressful events, ill health and bereavement resulted in me sinking into the bottomless black hole that is depression. In the process I lost my career of almost 30 years, my marriage fell apart and I almost lost my daughter to the deadly disease too.

I’m one of the fortunate ones. I didn’t attempt suicide but I thought about it and planned it. Often. I felt useless, worthless and honestly believed that the world would be a better place without me in it.

How I escaped that dark route I’ll never know, but I am still here. What’s more, I’m well, more than well. I’m still very happily married, I still have three amazing adult children and I’ve learned to truly value and enjoy life.

My experience is proof that this deadly disease can be beaten.

I know some of you might be thinking, ah, but I bet she just went through a bad patch and her life is all sorted now. In the last three months I’ve buried my Dad after losing him to Alzheimer’s, organised his funeral and wake all on my own because there was no one else in my family either close enough or well enough to help and of course I’ve been looking after Mum and sorting out Dads legal and financial affairs. In the midst of all that I’ve changed jobs too. So I can honestly say that no, my life is a long way from stress-free.

It often feels as though life continues in its relentless pursuit to find ways to tear me down again, but each time it tries, I just feel stronger for having survived the latest crisis.

What I tried and didn’t try

So what methods did I try to evade the torment that I came to nickname The Ugly Thoughts Gremlin?

When I first became unwell I was also suffering constant chronic pain that was aggravated by working for too many hours in front of a PC. I had already had a disc replacement in my neck and the return of the inescapable nerve pain panicked me. My workplace provided a special chair and IT equipment, but nothing seemed to help. When my spine consultant advised that I was heading for a further double disc replacement my mood plummeted.

I desperately wanted to run away, to escape my chaotic stressful life and the pain for a while, so my GP signed me off work. The initial week, became two, then three, then a month, then two. The pain gradually subsided with regular physical activity but I knew it would return once I was sat back at my PC. I then began to experience extreme anxiety at the very thought of returning to my high-stress job. Before I realised it, I’d been off work for six months. I couldn’t see a way out. So I quit! Then the real problems began.

My GP wanted me to take antidepressants. I was prescribed them but couldn’t bring myself to take them. I already had prior knowledge of the downsides of some of the drugs. Reading the detailed information of my prescribed medication put me off entirely.

I paid for private counselling, but that made me feel worse, not better. Talking about their problems helps some people. For me, it simply bought all my very real problems out into the open, made them more real and even more terrifying than they already were.

My GP referred me to ITalk counselling but the same thing happened. Whilst the young woman was very nice, her responses were very obviously scripted and gave me absolutely no confidence whatsoever.

I thought I’d hit rock bottom when my youngest, my beautiful precious school-aged daughter, was diagnosed with depression too. She’d frequently suffered from severe pains and physical ailments necessitating countless doctor and hospital appointments over a three year period. They had various theories and tried her on numerous prescriptions. It was an old, Doc Martin type GP that realised what was wrong. My daughter’s formal diagnosis came as a real shock. I had been completely unaware that in addition to various physical pains, she was also suffering from hallucinations. These had become so severe and horrific that she was unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t any longer. Bless her, she had of course been trying to protect me, she hadn’t wanted to add to add to my long list of problems. Her diagnosis left me feeling as if I had completely failed her as a mother. I was supposed to recognise when something was wrong with my child, wasn’t I?

Ironically, it was my deep desire to help my daughter that spurred on my efforts to seek a solution to our problems.

What helped

After some lengthy discussions with my husband, the first thing I did was to encourage my daughter to ‘earn’ a long desired puppy. I created a simple puppy silhouette poster and told her she was to fill it up with her exam revision. From that moment on she never missed another day of school. She studied diligently until her exams, filling every square millimetre of the entire poster in the process. Some of the writing was so tiny it was difficult to discern what it said. Needless to say, she passed all her exams. And she got her much-anticipated puppy. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

 

Maisy

Maisy – isn’t she delightful?
She has been part of the recovery process.

 

Although my daughter became very focused, she was still far from well. I knew I needed to do something about my own condition too so I became all consumed by the need to find an answer and spent days and weeks researching, to better understand our ailment. By the time my daughter actually got to see a specialist child counsellor, I was well informed on the subject.

The counsellor was amazing. Using her advice coupled with my new found knowledge, both of us began to recover. It was slow progress. At the time a lot of blurring of the personal boundaries between us occurred. Our lives became ridiculously close and intertwined neither one of us able to cope without the other. On several occasions, we even mirrored each other’s physical symptoms.

Six months or so after getting our puppy, I began walking other dogs. As a result, I started spending more and more time outdoors with nature. I can’t stress enough how much the rhythmic walking for two hours a day helped my physical and mental health. There is a great deal of truth in the phrase, ‘stop and smell the roses’. As children we instinctively stop and look at things, examining the strange and unusual world we live in. As adults, we are so caught up in our busy lives that we have neither the time nor inclination. Without really realising what I was doing, my dog walking was encouraging me to live in the moment, to practice what is now widely known as mindfulness.

One piece of knowledge, that proved to be a real turning point for me, was discovering more about how our brain works. I already understood about strengthening the neural pathways, that is I understood how each time we learn something it strengthens that particular pathway through the brain. What I hadn’t appreciated was that each time we repeat a negative line of thought it becomes stronger, more ingrained. Therefore depression is also a learned pathway. With that knowledge, I also began to understand that I could retrain my brain. I read about thinking of my thoughts as being clouds that I could learn to observe, without engaging in emotionally, as they passed through my mind. Cloud watching became an obsession, especially when I was out dog walking. It took a lot of practice but eventually, I found I could choose which thoughts I wished to emotionally engage with. It was a revelation!

As a part of my creative journey, I also discovered something called Morning Pages. I had been journaling the last thing at night for some time; often pouring out my hurt and emotions onto paper. I can honestly say this doesn’t help as it fuelled my bad dreams and insomnia. Morning Pages, on the other hand, get everything out of your head before you start the day. This form of journaling is followed immediately by daily affirmations so it helps to put you in the right frame of mind for the day ahead. Shortly after discovering Morning Pages I had a wonderful bonfire of my old poisonous journals. Very therapeutic stuff! I’ve been writing Morning Pages and daily affirmations for over three years now.

A peaceful night’s sleep can be incredibly elusive when suffering from depression, so I went through a stage of using a recorded meditation most nights to help me sleep better. I still practice meditation occasionally, but it’s become more of a creative tool for me these days.

Art

Both my daughter and I are artistic and creative. I had a deep-seated dream of becoming a self-employed creative. My daughter’s art, which was the one subject that didn’t suffer all through her depression and long absences from school, became a focus for further education.

I longed for the formal art education that she was getting and for a while, I felt as though I was living my dreams through her. It was an unhealthy situation. We needed separation from each other. That separation came when she eventually went off to university. It was a huge wrench for us both and for a while it seemed the Ugly Thoughts Gremlin might haunt us both once more.

Little by little, we have re-built our own separate and creative lives. We are still incredibly close, but we encourage each other’s individual creative endeavours.

My creative journey

Six months after leaving my job I began job hunting. Despite my best endeavours, probably not helped by my illness and low self-esteem, the only jobs I succeeded in securing were very part-time, minimum wage positions. In hindsight, although this all but eliminated any pride I had left, I’m not at all sure I could have coped with anything more.

The positive side of all this was having spare time for the first time since childhood.

I spent hours immersed in creative sewing activities, dreaming of finding the elusive something that I would be able to turn into a creative business venture.

A lack of entitlement to student finance meant I wasn’t able to return to formal education to study art. So instead I put myself through my own home-based education. I had always sewn from a very young age, so spent hours and hours researching and trying out different sewing techniques. When I became fed up with creating my own versions of other people’s designs I challenged myself to create something entirely unique for 30 consecutive days. This proved to be a real turning point and I became more confident and adventurous in my experiments, vowing to always create my own unique work from then on. I began to make and sell a few items, but nothing I did really seemed to make sense. I was still searching.

Then about eighteen months ago, I attended a one day workshop by a mixed media artist I greatly admire, purely for fun. I became captivated by the single fantasy character I had begun creating that day. I grasped at strange clues as to who she was and where she came from. She haunted me until I completed her and christened her Minima.

Minima and Concordia

Minima and Concordia

One day, as I practised a meditation, I discovered a beautiful peaceful place in my head and realised she belonged there. Little by little that strange other world became more complete and detailed in my head and dreams. I found myself creating companions (such as the dragon Concordia) for my first born and devised stories about them in my head. I started to write them down. I created a website and joined a writing group.

Strange as it might seem, I don’t see this as a business venture. My creative adventure is exactly that. I seem to be driven to see what I might discover next, hidden away in my creative brain. My current ambition is to finish writing my fantasy fiction book and to illustrate it with images of my 3D mixed media characters.

My creative endeavours are perhaps somewhat different from the norm, but one thing’s for sure, I don’t just feel normal, I feel good. I’m in a good place and have been for some time. I intend to stay that way!

Mary-Ann can be emailed at maryanntoop@gmail.com or via Concordia’s website – www.concordiasworld.com where you will also find her blog (a great read!).

She is also on Facebook & Instagram and her book Minima’s Story will follow soon.

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Book Review: Becoming Resilient – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to Transform Your Life

Book Review: Becoming Resilient – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to Transform Your Life

By Nimmi Hutnik (2017) Harper Element, India.

We have all heard about resilience, haven’t we? It is a fashionable word in both management speak and therapy circles. But the questions need to be asked – What is it, do I actually need it and if so how do I get more? In writing Becoming Resilient, these are the questions that Nimmi Hutnik answers with depression and anxiety as a foundation for self-treatment with cognitive behaviour therapy. Furthermore, she enables us to recognise and build our resilience to reduce the likelihood of the return of anxiety and depression enabling us to cope better going forward.

The book starts with clear explanations of what anxiety and depression are in Part One. It is possible to evaluate if you are clinically depressed and the severity of your depression from the questionnaires included. You will also be able to identify if you are suffering from anxiety, if it is an anxiety disorder and also which one – she describes seven anxiety disorders, split between danger disorders and coping disorders.

In Part Two Nimmi explains the principles of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and illustrates them clearly with practical examples we can all relate to. She then details how to apply CBT as self-therapy to treat your own depression or anxiety. To benefit fully Nimmi reminds us the exercises need to be done well and practised regularly.

In Part Three, the book turns to sitting still (mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy), bouncing back (resilience) and springing forward (flourishing) to go beyond anxiety and depression. This part is a practical journey of discovery; you are given the means to take back the power, regain control and get yourself back on course. It is very important for the reader to realise that there is life beyond anxiety and depression, to the life we yearn for and that life is abundant, flourishing and obtainable.

Becoming Resilient by Nimmi Hutnik

Becoming resilient – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to Change Your Life by Nimmi Hutnik

Becoming Resilient is very practical. The explanations of depression and anxiety are clear and thorough; the language is easily understood and self-treatment using CBT is simply described in a logical progression. Once you have addressed your depression and/or anxiety you are able to take steps through transformation to a resilient and flourishing life.

Nimmi sums her book up by saying:

“This book is for ordinary people like you and me who suffer slightly elevated amounts of depression and anxiety, and other difficult emotions such as anger, jealousy, panic, shame and guilt. It will enable you to learn to deal with difficult moods, manage stress better and improve your relationships … it will enable you to develop an ability to become resilient, to flourish and to develop in a positive direction.”

I can certainly recommend it as a first stop, self-help manual for anxiety and depression – just remember to do the exercises well, practice them regularly and become resilient.

The book can be obtained here.

We must talk about mental health more

We must talk about mental health more

I received some sad news last night – the death of a bright, talented young man deeply affected by depression.

This morning I am sitting at my computer; there is a To-Do List with several items on it to my left, in my current notebook. The relevant papers are around me and on the work table behind me for the things on that list. Yet, I am distracted; distracted by that sad news. It is the sort of news that motivates me to do what I do, and to do more of it – to teach people mental health first aid – enough to make a difference to lives and communities. We must talk about mental health more. #changeonething

One way people are talking about mental health more is clearly demonstrated by the railways working in conjunction with the Samaritans. They have made a brilliant short film about the importance of talking to people, if in doubt, talk to them. They have a Small Talk Saves Lives campaign and it really does. They have calculated that for every completed suicide, six are prevented (yes, SIX!). It can be as simple as engaging with them and talking about the weather. You can make a difference. The 90-second film is available to view here.

We all have mental health. Some of us have good mental health and some of us are affected by mental ill-health. There is no health without mental health. We must talk about mental health more. Small talk saves lives.

Borrowing directly from the Samaritans website:

Signs someone may need help

  • Looking distant, withdrawn or upset

  • Standing alone or in an isolated spot

  • Staying on the platform for long periods of time/failing to catch trains that stop

Someone looking out of place or a feeling that ‘something isn’t quite right’. If you feel that way about someone, trust your instincts and try to help.

Approaching someone in need

We know that when a person is suicidal having someone to talk to them and listen to them, and showing that they are not alone, can encourage them to seek support. There is no evidence that talking to someone who could be at risk will ‘make things worse’.

A little small talk can be all it takes to interrupt someone’s suicidal thoughts and help start them on a journey to recovery. If you think that someone might need help, trust your instincts and strike up a conversation, with a comment about the weather for example. Life-saving questions used by rail staff to help people have included:

  • Do you need any help?

  • What’s your name?

  • It’s a warm evening isn’t it?

  • What train are you going to get?

So strike up a conversation if you feel comfortable and it’s safe to do so. Or tell a member of staff or call 999. Your involvement could help save someone’s live.

Tram by Michele Piacquadio

Waiting for a train – you too can use small talk and save a life.

One of the ways I make a difference is by having the Samaritans phone number on my mobile – I can contact them with a few quick keystrokes for someone if needed. That number is 116123. Why not add it to your phone right now?

There is a lot more information on the Samaritans website.

 

Why not take a look. You too could save someone’s life.

 

Art as Therapy – a local example with Donna McGhie and Powertex

Art as Therapy – a local example with Donna McGhie and Powertex

Several years ago I had the privilege of meeting Donna McGhie at a business networking meeting. We are kindred spirits in many ways. Whilst I talk about mental health, teaching the language, knowledge and sufficient skills to address mental health issues on a first aid basis, Donna is very practical running workshops releasing our creativity and giving us some much-needed downtime or breathing space.

Donna writes –

It is often said that people can “lose themselves in art.” I disagree with this. I strongly believe the opposite is true. In my experience, we ‘find ourselves in art.’ I am a self- employed artist and I run Powertex® fabric sculpting workshops which are suitable for all ages and abilities.

Without fail, after almost every workshop, someone takes the time to come up to me and tell me how therapeutic they have found it to be. Often though, it is someone who is genuinely surprised at how much they have gained from simply taking a few hours out, just for themselves. More than once people have become overcome with emotion in a positive and cathartic way. Sometimes, these are people with a diagnosed mental illness and are well aware of the benefits engaging with creativity can have for their well-being. At times like these, I feel really honoured to have played a part in this release.

There is a lot of pressure on all of us nowadays to act a certain way, to think a certain way, to look a certain way. If we don’t naturally slot into the various boxes that society, predominantly social media, expect us to, we find ourselves in danger of losing who we are as we try to gain access to a box. Metaphorically we end up squeezing uncomfortably into someone else’s ill-fitting shoes simply to fit in. Sadly, the pressure to fit in is starting at a younger and younger age and schools now have to work to improve things by becoming educated about mental health issues and engaging with counsellors and inclusion workers.

Donna McGhie

Donna McGhie – the artistic and creative force behind the Powertex workshops – art as therapy

 

Art and creativity are safe ways of kicking off those too tight shoes and dancing barefoot in the woods if that is your thing. I have honestly been surprised by some of the feedback I get from my workshops:

‘I suffer from a lack of confidence.  Donna’s workshops give me an amazing sense of accomplishment.  I leave them feeling incredibly pleased with myself.  Not only have I met some lovely people, I have tangible and lasting proof I am, in fact, quite artistic. It really does my confidence a world of good.’  S, Southampton.

 

If you would like to know more about what Donna does go to her website here or contact her directly by email on donna.mcghie@sky.com

Oh Wow What a Week – lessons in learning to respond not react

Oh Wow What a Week – lessons in learning to respond not react

The past seven days or so have been rather busy and somewhat draining. There is good stuff and not so good stuff.

The good stuff revolves around signing an associate trainer agreement with an organisation to deliver the courses I am accredited to do, on their behalf – the sort of work I enjoy. There is also more work being booked into the diary and some red hot prospects in discussion. These give me that cosy warm glow of accomplishment and satisfaction. With the not so good stuff, hang on a moment; let’s call a spade a spade. The bad stuff has been diverse and I told the universe (karma if you will) that I must be doing something right due to the flack I was taking!!

Yes, even I get flack and have to deal with it. So what flack? How have I dealt with it? How do I feel about it? Each issue has made me stop and think, and wonder how to respond. I have written elsewhere about responding to challenge rather than reacting against it. This week I have responded well – taking time to make considered decisions and take appropriate action. For once (yeah!), I have responded, not reacted, not fired from the hip and gaffed it, having to eat humble pie afterwards! So what am I patting myself on the back for? It is kind of hard to detail without divulging identities, which I wish to keep hidden in order to protect the innocent and the guilty. That said, the basic lessons are there and those I’ll share. And yes, some of the details have had to be fudged a bit for privacy (sorry)!

One of the groups I am an administrator is a social group. One of the lovely members posted an advert for a particular type of event in a particular type of venue. I loved the idea of the event, it personally appealed to me, and I am wondering if my diary will let me include it, so I was happy to approve the post. More importantly, that post fitted the group ethos. A few days later one of the members attacked the event in the venue, dogmatically quoting higher authority as to why it was wrong for that event to occur in that venue. Initially, I was somewhat gobsmacked that this type of fundamentalism was happening in my community; but then, going back 20 or so years I might have done the same thing (I have, I hope learned a thing or two in the intervening time!). The comments were verging on the personal in terms of their criticism and judgement.

But how was I going to deal with it? I know of other groups that would have simply barred the criticiser, for not conforming to the group’s aims, goals and accepted behaviour; but I wanted to be inclusive. To me barring the person would have been just as unacceptable as the posts I was seeing and I learnt growing up that two wrongs do not make a right. So my actions, in short, were to let the advert stand, delete all the comments (both the supportive and the judgemental ones) and block future commenting on that post so it could not re-start. I added a note that the social group was that – a social group, there were other, more suitable forums, for “that type” of discussion, but this group was not one of them. Via a direct message an apology was given to the event advertiser, telling them what I had done and asking if they were happy with that (they were, thank you). I then decided to wait a few days to see what transpired, if anything new. To my mind, an apology was due from the person to the advertiser, a common courtesy.

I can note that no apology will be given as the person causing the problem has left the social group. We could read all sorts of things into that, but we should not as it would be speculation based on our personal subjectivity and life experience. If they ever read this blog and recognise themselves – I bear you no malice and sincerely wish you well.

What else has happened? Ah yes, I was nearly assaulted by a gobby mouthed seven year old in public. Goodness gracious me! Do you remember those days when you are walking somewhere with your children and one of them has a total meltdown; the terrible two’s that can become terrible three’s and foul four’s? I heard the commotion and stopped to people watch. My heart melted for the mom trying to assuage a toddler (the middle child) having a tantrum, rolling on the pavement and screaming loudly whilst an older child was fuelling the fire and yelling at mom to get a move on – it appeared to me that this one was playing up, demanding attention, trying to distract Mom from the heaving fireball writhing on the ground. In a buggy safely strapped in, sat the little one, bless them, oblivious to the chaos ensuing behind. Mom did what all moms do in this situation – picked up the wriggling screamer, grabbed the buggy handle and walked on… for about 3 steps. For her efforts, the middle child in her arms hit her several times in the face, wriggled like an eel and had to put down for their own safety. A few moments later mom picked this one up again (still screaming) and progressed a few more steps before the elder child took a running swipe at them, missed and almost ended up in the road (thank goodness there were no cars). Jo Public was either staring or embarrassed and walked on by. Those with children of a similar age range were no doubt thinking “And there but by the grace of God go I!”

At this point, I couldn’t help it. Mom needed another pair of hands. If someone pushed the buggy, that gave her two hands to calm the middle child down and perhaps the older child would be happier as peace would have been restored and progress towards home would have been made. So I walked over. Without going into detail the older child screamed at me, threatening to hit me (not once but twice). They very loudly didn’t care that mom needed help; I just had to go away. Realising I was might be making matters worse I apologised to Mom and left, getting out of the line of sight by heading off down a cut-through.

I have no idea how that debacle turned out. I can only imagine what I would have done in that situation and tears are included. Could I have done better? Been more effective? Certainly. The older child may have believed they were protecting Mom from a stranger and I can understand that, but violence, actual or threatened has not, does not and never will make things better. I have said before that if we ever have world war three it will decide what is left, and not who is right. And where and from whom did the older child learn that behaviour? My mind boggles. Mom, if you ever read this and would like a cup of tea – contact me. At the very least I would like to give you a hug, a few moments of downtime and commiserate that raising children can be b****y difficult at times. Been there, done that, and we survive to tell the tales!

The third contentious issue concerned a blog post I wrote. Well, sort of wrote. I quoted from someone else’s post as I thought the post was a good one. Being a fair individual and liking to give credit where it is due I cited the original author, as one should. It did not take long before comments and personal messages started being received about fraud, lies and a variety of falsehoods revolving around that other author. Looking at it logically, it sounded initially like some people had revenge and retribution as their agenda. That is how the messages came across. I looked at the words I was quoting in my article, in their own right they were good, very good and I had quoted from a good post. If the author had done a crime and done the time then that was okay by me.

It took a persistent phone caller – you know the ones you play telephone hopscotch with. They call and you are driving so cannot answer. You call them and it goes to voicemail. They call you back and you are in a meeting and cannot take their call. You call them and again it goes to voicemail, and you begin to wonder if it is a joke or one of “those” phone calls – you know the type, PPI, telemarketing or similar. The persistent caller and I did eventually speak. The short version is this. Despite the post being a good one, it is possible that the fraud, lies and falsehoods may be continuing. I, therefore decided, for the greater good, to take my blog down. If someone was to follow up the original author and any difficulties ensued, I would be mortified! That said I shall in time write another version of that article using my own experience. And in the interim, there is a person on social media I shall be keeping a distant eye on!

Photo by Rich Jones

Why this picture? Because it is a good picture and I am sharing good things! Photo by Rich Jones on Unsplash

Ending on a good note – there are other good things that have happened in the past week too. I received my tax calculations back from the accountant; there is less tax due than I thought. Looking forward to next week I will take a train heading north and add a seventh course to my portfolio of mental health awareness and first aid courses.  Have a good one. Week, that is 🙂

 

GUEST BLOG: Seasonal Affective Disorder by Helen Dennett

GUEST BLOG: Seasonal Affective Disorder by Helen Dennett

Helen’s story is one of triumph over challenge. She has worked a lot out for herself with very little outside support; she knows what does and does not work for herself. Her story is one we can all benefit from – What can we do to help ourselves?

People usually talk about life as a journey. I’ve always thought of it as a boat ride. Generally we bob along getting from A to B as well as we can, occasionally there are periods of flat calm where not much happens, and hopefully, less often, there is the odd big storm which tosses us up and down, hiding the sunshine behind huge dark clouds that we can’t see beyond…until one day they clear and we continue on to the next port in our journey. My boat has put up with so much that I think I must be sailing in a great big transatlantic cruise ship! One day maybe I’ll tell you the whole story, but for now, I want to focus on just one of those big storms.

I’m 39 years old and I think I must be a hedgehog! I’ve always been the same…during the winter months, I want to hibernate, and I become prickly, very prickly, if I am made to go out into the cold. Lots of people hate winter, of course, there’s not too much to like really…Christmas, Halloween and Bonfire night perhaps, but it’s dark, cold, wet, and dreary. I wonder if it’s possible to be allergic to Winter?!? I don’t think I’ll ever like winter, but I can cope with it the same as most people…but that wasn’t always the case.

Let me go back to Sept 2002. My dad died suddenly. I found him, where he’d been for several days, alone. I had 2 young children (3 ½ and 18 months), so I had to get on with things for them. Dad and my Mum had divorced a few years earlier, but they were still friends, so I had to be strong for her too. She had a complete breakdown in the months that followed. My brother had lost his mum 11 years previously and now his dad too, so I had to be strong for him, after all, life goes on and falling to pieces wasn’t going to change anything, was it?

My husband had been telling me he thought something was ‘wrong’ for a while after our daughter was born, but I couldn’t see it. Then, just after the first anniversary of losing Dad, he came home after a night out, when he sat on the bed he misjudged where he sat; landing half on me. A red mist descended and before I knew it I was sitting on his chest with my hands around his throat!! The realisation of what was going on occurred within seconds and I was mortified. I realised then that there was something wrong…I was worried I might do something to one of the children. The next morning I went to see my GP.

I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I was asked to answer some questions. My answers were all given a value, if they totalled to 15+ I was clinically depressed…mine that day was 25. The GP thought it might be delayed post-natal depression, or perhaps related to Dad. I was given anti-depressants and told to come back in a few weeks. Six weeks later I discovered I was pregnant and told to stop taking the medication immediately. Pregnancy hormones seemed to balance me out again, for a while, and my baby boy was born in July 2004. Initially, I didn’t have any signs of depression, but in September 2005 I crashed again…and here started a pattern that would continue for the next 10 years.

Over the next few years, I would find myself back at the surgery in tears every September. I assumed this was normal, but hated feeling low all the way through to March/April, when I would quite quickly begin to feel better again. A locum GP suggested that perhaps I was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD); although she didn’t give me much hope of getting a proper diagnosis or any help for it. I’d have to return at the same time every year with the exact same symptoms which cleared up at the same time the following year, only to return again a few months later. Even IF I got that diagnosis I could opt to take tablets or maybe buy myself a SAD lamp which may or may not help a tiny bit, I could try counselling, but it probably wouldn’t make much difference… Or I could think about moving abroad; apparently, this wouldn’t be available on the NHS!

By the end of 2013, I was convinced that SAD was what I have. I could feel my mood dipping and began to recognise when I’d been tossed completely overboard off my cruise ship. Some days kicking hard enough to simply keep my head above water was exhausting. There were days when I thought that my family would be better off without me, I constantly looked in the local paper at places I could move to so they didn’t have to live with me. My children, especially my oldest son, took the brunt of my mood swings. I’d snap at them for simply asking a question, as children do. I’d overreact at some minor thing such as a spilt drink and find myself wanting to lash out at them. Whilst I never went that far, at my lowest point, I understand how people snap and end up seriously hurting, or even killing their children. I didn’t like the idea of medication, I’d been given tablets for the second time in 2005 but they made me hallucinate so I stopped taking them.  Instead, I started looking at other areas of my life.

I had worked for several years from home, as a childminder, and during this time my weight had crept up. It was very easy to snack on the little one’s leftovers all day as well as share a ‘treat’ with my children after school, eat big portions of the meals I made for my family, then enjoy another ‘treat’ in the evening in front of the telly. When we bought a Wii games console for the children I decided to get the Wii Fit board as well, and I started using that a little and trying to cut back on the treats. I stopped getting such dramatic highs and lows in the day, which had come from my blood sugar spiking and crashing. This helped me lose a little weight too, and I noticed that I felt more positive in general because of that. It’s amazing what a difference a compliment or two can make to someone.

The exercise was difficult but left me feeling on a high. It was an unusual feeling for me and I wanted to find out how to make it last. A friend suggested taking Vitamin D as I was always jollier in the summer. I noticed a difference after just a few weeks of taking it, and after researching how little Vitamin D we Brits actually get in winter compared to what we need, I decided I would take extra during the winter months too. As these things started to make me feel better, the crash in September became less. By 2013 I was back in a ‘proper job’ and being forced to be out of the house and around people also made a massive difference. Slowly I came to see that all these things together helped ease my symptoms. For the first time, I was controlling the SAD, not it controlling me. I can’t describe to you how that feels…for someone who is a total control freak in every other aspect of life, getting it back in my mental health has been like I imagine winning the lottery would feel. Now I can see just how bad things were and as cliched as it may sound, I realise that there really was a physically heavy feeling on my head and shoulders, and when that lifted it was as though all the colours in the world suddenly became brighter again.

My daughter called me out on the amount of exercise I wasn’t doing in 2015. Being aware of this with a by then 14-year-old girl watching me, I made a conscious effort to get moving again. Over the next 18 months I lost over 3 stone, and to my own surprise, found that actually I really enjoy exercising! Now I recognise how those endorphins help keep me on top of the depression and I also notice how my mood will fall if I go several days without doing something active. I’ve gone from someone who could easily sit and not move for 8 or 10 hours a day to someone that can barely sit still for an hour at a time unless I’m really engrossed in what I’m doing! Winter 2016 was the first one since 2005 that I have barely registered any lowering of my mood. The colours stayed bright, the clouds stayed mostly away. I’m still not a fan of winter, but I think this hedgehog may be losing her prickles!

In 2017 I did a lot of courses, qualifying as a fitness instructor, personal trainer and Sports and Exercise Nutritionist. I feel good. I’m still a work in progress and I think I will always be susceptible to highs and lows, but for now the cruise I’m on is full of music, laughter, dancing and adventure. I want to help other women to put themselves first and to use exercise and diet to improve both their physical and mental wellbeing.

Have I found a happy ending…am I ‘cured’? I don’t think so…I don’t think that will ever be the case. I do think this is something that I, and sadly, my family and friends, will have to live with. The one thing now though is that I have ways of dealing with myself when I feel that familiar darkening of the clouds and the waves becoming a little choppier. As long as I am able to recognise that and stay on top of things I’m positive I’ll be OK. If I’m not, I’ll head back to the GP and think again. I’d never rule out medication totally…after all I’d think nothing of reaching for paracetamol if I had a headache or following a specialists recommendation if I had a serious illness. Depression, of any sort, is simply an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain, so if at some point I need help rebalancing them, I’ll be sure to ask for and take the help.

Helen Dennett of You First Fitness

Helen Dennett of You First Fitness

To go to Helen’s website for nutrition and exercise advice and support click here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hidden Wounds

Hidden Wounds

A couple of years ago my local community was rocked by an incident. It is neither my right nor my intention to comment on that incident. Suffice it to say that it had a much greater impact on two people who are much loved and respected by the majority of our community. The impact eventually lead them to bravely reaching out for help. Their wounds were hidden wounds. The ones we can’t see. Written on their minds and in their hearts in indelible ink. These are the sort of wounds we don’t talk about. They may cause a shadow in our eyes or the dulling of our face in conversation. They also cause a heaviness of heart, a drooping of the shoulders and a blunted will that is unable to do every day anything.

Lou says:

“Help for Heroes gave me my Dad back.”

When Louise became worried about her dad’s mental health, it started to affect her own wellbeing. She got in touch with our Hidden Wounds team, and it’s brought their family back together.

Lou and Norman share part of their story here.

If you have hidden wounds be encouraged, there is hope, there is help, you do need to ask for it. The Help for Heroes Hidden Wounds service can be contacted here.