Delighted with the feedback

Sometimes I am asked why I do what I do.

I do it because it makes a difference to individuals, then to families, then to communities and organisations and through them to our world. I do my little bit to change the world to be a better place.

How do I know I do that?

Because every now and then, someone writes directly to me and says thank you. Like this one:

“Susan, on behalf of XXX we would like to extend our sincere thanks for the excellent training session that you ran for us yesterday. Dealing with mental health is always a sensitive topic. When we are openly discussing, as a group, the challenges that it brings with colleagues who have had their own journeys. Thank you for making the environment safe and inclusive for us all. The feedback has been really positive and we are all committed to launching our Ambassador programme to further support our colleagues across the business.
 Again the MHFA resources are extremely helpful.
Sue, I shall keep in touch and let you know the progress of the team
Again many thanks from us all for an excellent and highly professional day , we all learnt alot.”
And I shall do it over and over again, even if there is no feedback!
I’m  finalist!! Wow look at that!

I’m finalist!! Wow look at that!

I have been quiet for a season as I’ve been busy – learning more about mental health issues, improving my qualifications and gaining more experience. That has resulted in my promotion to National Trainer (one of 50 or so) which means I now train the trainers either to be trainers or to upgrade their skills further. I also work as an Associate Trainer for both the Commercial and Community Teams at MHFA England delivering courses to organisations in various sectors (commercial, third sector and education) and consequently more work. Yes, busy!

That work seems to be making a difference as I have been advised I am one of five finalists in the All Star Marketing Business Awards 2019 in the Influential Business Owner category.

The award’s night is later this year and I’ll let you know how I get on 🙂

Thank you to everyone who attends my courses, letting me influence their life both (at work and personally) and providing their feedback enabling me to continually improve my knowledge and skills.

I went to see the psychiatrist yesterday

I went to see the psychiatrist yesterday

Written by a lady I respect enormously, this is about the bipolar disorder that affects her. Incredible honesty and understanding, she has asked to remain anonymous.
This note is being written as part of mental health awareness week. It is an article I have contemplated writing for sometime mainly to educate and give non sufferers and insight into what it is like to live with Bipolar Disorder.
Firstly the title, I went to see the psychiatrist yesterday. It is a measure of my change in attitude towards this illness, that I can announce this and not feel I shouldn’t be telling people. This illness is not one I want, not one I can control and certainly not one to be ashamed of. Sad to say some have made me feel as though it is and one by one I rid those people from my life. The reason I am back to see the psychiatrist is whenever mood becomes unstable I get referred back to see a psychiatrist. I was referred back via my GP in February as I told him quite how bad I was feeling. I actually managed to remain quite cool calm and detached as I told him, almost envisaging it was someone else telling him not me. One question he asked me caused that mask to crack I was inconsolable as I told him I had enough of this illness and did not want to live with it anymore. There is no cure, the periods of wellness between episodes seems to be decreasing the older I am and in the last 18months I have becomes very mentally unwell 3 times. This is not a life, it is an existence I plan things look forward start living as I want and bang I am struck down again. I sat crying and saying I have truly had enough. I think that is the quickest the mental health system has ever kicked in big time. Referral and seeing a pysch within 2 days and immediate support from the Community Mental Health team. I washed my hands of them 10 years ago because to be frank they were bloody useless. I will say this time my care has been excellent . Her diagnosis at the moment is depressive episode but I know myself I am well on the road to recovery, when I read my awful mood journal entries for March. I am having very few bad days, and funnily enough one of them is today where I do not feel as well motivated and feel tired…..but hey infinitely better than where I was. This time I have been tried on three new medications, none of which could I tolerate due to side effects. The upshot of all this is I am now on less medication than when I started. The psychiatrist was ready to discharge me yesterday as she said how well I was, it was lovely to see me smiling and joking with her. The thing which stopped her discharging me was my honesty. I said despite feeling well now, deep down I no longer want to live with this illness for this is not what I call a quality of life. She asked me to explain. I said how I had been relatively stable for a number of years then bang 3 horrendous episodes in the space of 18 months. I said I have been ill more in that time than well, I am concerned the nature of the beast is changing and I am finding it more and more difficult to cope with depressive or mixed mood episodes ( I will explain those later). I came out of that psychiatrists office yesterday with something far better than medication, the thing she gave me was hope. For she explained to me that sometimes with BP if you have had a prolonged well spell you can get what is called a cluster of episodes. The fact that I expressed my opinion she decided not to discharge me but to see me again in 3 months to check I am in remission. This is the term used when the illness is non symptomatic, there is no cure the chances are I will become ill again and sometimes this very uncertainty does my head in. I have always been a great planner, a great organiser…..I plan things I look forward to things but the last 18months I have become almost frightened to plan and look forward knowing I could be hit with another episode out of the blue. So damned frustrating for a driven person.
Bipolar disorder (which used to be called manic depression) is a recognised mental illness, which is a mood disorder. Everybody has ups and downs and it is part of life that we all have things which make us happy or sad. With bipolar disorder you experience a change of mood sometimes without any recognisable event to trigger it. These mood changes are sometimes sudden and the mood has to be consistently down or up for longer than 2 weeks to be deemed to be an episode. There are 4 classifications of bipolar disorder. Bipolar type 1 where the individual experiences the full mood range from severe depression up to mania (sometimes with psychosis). Bipolar 2 (which is my official diagnosis) which experiences the severe depression but only naturally elevates to hypomania, cyclothymia which is a type of rapid cycling bipolar ( I think DSM states 4 episodes per year ) there is finally unspecified bipolar where the sufferer has bipolar symptoms but does not fit clearly into one of the three categories. Last time I did a literature search on the disorder there was some debate as to whether seasonal affective disorder (SAD) should be brought under the bipolar umbrella, indeed I can clearly identify a seasonal element to my moods.
Episodes can be classified as depressive, hypomanic/manic or mixed. Psychosis can be experienced by some suffers where they have completely lost touch with reality. I have had what is sometimes called pseudo psychotic features. I have heard voices and I have seen things which I know are not real…..the fact that I am able to distinguish real from non real means it is not true psychosis, still it makes it no more easy to live with.
Before I go on to talk about the illness I want to point out that no two people with bipolar disorder experience exactly the same thing. We may have certain features in common but every individual can have a slight difference. The more I talk with fellow sufferers the more evident this becomes.
So what is depression, generally it is classed as feelings of persistent sadness, low self esteem, loss of interest in things you usually enjoy, lowering of energy levels, alteration of sleeping and eating patterns. Many report loss of appetite in low mood me I have the opposite problem, can’t stop eating. That said early on in this bout I had zero appetite until put on meds which gave me the appetite of several elephants. The eating problem has never been addressed probably where I have not high lighted quite what a problem it is but in low mood I literally have an almost compulsion to eat, I have zero self control and for some reason that craving is sugar. A seasonal weight variation of 2-3 stone is not uncommon for me. It is something I am now trying to address as I have started to talk to a nutritionist with bipolar disorder .
Now for the bit they don’t tell you. When severely depressed, which I was in late Feb early March, I become almost non- functional. I slept and slept. I would wake thinking I must get up and that very thought was enough to make me cry. I got so low my target for several days was just to get out of bed. Oh showering is a different matter it isnt that you dont want to remain clean, you are just so tired things you usually do automatically shower gel on shower puff shower on towel at ready absolutely no chance. The concentration span of a squashed gnat. A few times I have showered using Lord knows what not shower gel, as afterwards realised my skin has a strange aroma( possibly shampoo possibly creme cleaner which I had on the side to clean the bath) During severe depression I cut myself off, I am really ill tempered. I get angry and frustrated with my inability to perform the most basic of tasks. I hate people seeing me in a mess and I actual feel the need to be alone to sort things out. Even conversing seems a tremendous effort. My cognitive slowing is such that I can not physically walk or talk fast and my speech was actually slurred when I presented myself to GP in Feb, my energy levels being so low John drove me to the doctors. I also experience a strange left right reversal in low mood and my brain struggles to work out which knob or button operates which ring on my cooker. I experience a great intolerance to noise especially repetitive mechanical noise and screaming babies/children. To get over this I am often found plugged into my MP3 player. I often find I start a job and my mind has gone off on one and I”find myself “ in a different room no recollection of how I got there but very often pacing up and down.
I am now going to be really open honest on several topics which are taboo subjects to many those of suicide and self harm. I have often heard it said suicide is a thoroughly selfish act and to be fair I can see why people think that. I have in my lifetime seriously contemplated it about a dozen times and on one occasion tried, obviously not successfully. It frightens me still how close I came to ending it all just over a year ago while I was having a horrendous mixed mood episode and again earlier this year. I had got as far as planning what I would do and what I would write in individual letters to my family. It is strange I found those letters quite easy to write to son and husband the one I struggled with was my daughter Laura I had the gut feeling it would impact on her more than anyone. The mind can play funny tricks for in that episode I started to google the lethal dose of a particular drug. (not that that was my final method of choice) As clear as anything I heard my daughters voice shout at me just one word “Mum” !! That voice startled me, it was as though it jolted me back from somewhere I did not want to be. The mind plays havoc in depressed mode it played over and over certain horrible things people had said about me which showed me in bad light, I had overwhelming guilt sometimes I knew why sometimes not. My mind almost blew up and distorted certain events, I felt so bad I genuinely believed I was the most evil creature that ever walked this earth. I believed I was wrecking my beautiful family’s lives seeing me a mess them pussy footing around me, I was a burden. Yes I knew my death would upset them but that they would eventually get over I genuinely believed they would be better off with out me. Now turn round and tell me someone committing suicide is selfish…..no they are not, they are merely acting on deluded irrational thought. I know it does not make it right but I do want to try to make people understand suicide is not a selfish act it is a desperate and very sad act, sad that the person felt unable to reach out and realise they could be well again. In suicidal frame of mind I get this feeling I want to escape, mainly from the wretched way I am feeling. Funnily enough last time I felt in that frame of mind I started to contemplate life after death. That horrendous thought then dawned upon me what if I were to commit suicide I died, to find then there was an afterlife in which I was still bipolar. Oh my God mentally I was like a trapped animal I wanted to escape but my only way had been cut off. I felt so angry it felt like I was forced to live this hell and yes I do not use that term lightly because it is my minds hell. I have no control over those intrusive thoughts which plague me. I have not control of negative thought/voices, I feel as though I have no control over anything. At times when I am very unwell I am convinced I am paranoid schizophrenic. I recognise my paranoid thoughts and it is an indicator all is not well. So you may be wondering why I think schizophrenia when unwell. I get this odd thing of two parallel thought trains my own 2 voices arguing opposing viewpoints in my head. One is rational one is not, the danger point comes when I am no longer able to recognise which is irrational. I have discussed this with my psychiatrist and she said no definitely bipolar. As an aside I spent a spell in a psychiatric hospital the first time I had some sort of breakdown (due to taking antidepressants when not diagnosed bipolar) I was invited in as a voluntary patient with the implication if I did not comply it would be enforced, for the psychiatrist saw me in uncontrollable fits of hysterical laughter to sobbing and saying I wanted my life to end in the space of an hour. I remember while in the hospital reading a leaflet on manic depression and thinking oh crumbs some of this is me. I asked a psychiatrist at the time do you think I have manic depression, his answer haunts me still “No Linda I do not, now go and get that intelligent brain of yours working properly else it will play games with you”. I did not understand what he meant at the time and I did not have the opportunity to ask, but I think I know now. I think he knew I was, I think he also realised a mental health diagnosis would devastate me. I think he realised my untamed bipolar mind had served me well giving me my flashes of brilliance while studying for my PhD, I think he knew that that would largely go when medicated…….
Now for the next taboo subject that of self harm. I am not going to lie and say I have never self harmed because in my younger years on a couple of occasions I did, again when severely depressed but when the depression lifted the behaviour stopped. Self harm is often classed as attention seeking behaviour. I will tell you at the time I felt great shame in what I did and went to great lengths never to be found out and certainly not to have any lasting reminder. It is odd I actually felt I was being very deceitful in hiding it. I will tell you exactly what was going through my mind at the time. I was experiencing great mental pain, I do not wish to go into the whys or wherefores and it was by chance that I found that physical pain deadened that mental pain. Whether actually hurting yourself causes endorphin release I dont know. Sorry family if this has shocked it was a long time ago. So do I think self harm is attention seeking no I do not, it is a manifestation of a mental illness.
Now for the flipside of mood that of hypomania/mania. I am classed as bipolar type 2 so experience hypomania and not usually mania, that said prior to my diagnosis in 2005 I was yet again placed on anti depressants a catalog of errors by GPs and ignoring my husband when he said you do know the psychs at Salisbury did say they felt Lin was bipolar. If a bipolar person is placed on anti depressants without a mood stabiliser, it can cause the mood to elevate too far. I had said I had reservations about taking anti depressants I had taken them once before and they had caused some sort of breakdown and they altered the way I thought, my mind was obsessed with religious thoughts and ideas. Sure enough this started to occur again, I returned to the Drs he doubled the dose, I began not sleeping. My husband came with me to the doctors they gave me another drug. I became worse still unable to get an appoint the doc advised by phone to double the dose of the seconddrug. After 7 night on no sleep I was climbing walls almost literally. I had this obsession with writing down all this weird stuff streaming through my head so fast I could not keep up with it. After one horrendous night mood swinging everywhere I got GP appointment. I had entered some kind of multiphobic state, I was not sure what had really happened, what I had dreamed or what I had imagined. I truly felt I was going mad, I was holding some very strange deluded belief and I have never felt agitation like that. To cut a long story short a psychiatrist appeared at my home and I was immediately sectioned. It was then I was diagnosed bipolar disorder and what I was experiencing a manic episode…damn I wasn’t superwoman and couldnt fly!!! At the time I was ambivalent about my diagnosis as I had never felt that way before I took anti depressants. The psych explined to me the fact I went manic I must be bipolar and when you havent experienced it it is called masked bipolar.
So what are the characteristics, marked rise in energy levels, decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts, delusions. It is said that some bipolars go on mad spending sprees, gamble and get into debt and become sexually promiscuous. I can say I consider myself fortunate for my mood to only naturally elevate to hypomania, in the early stages it is a really rather nice place to be . I have good ideas, I am enthusiatic ambitious and the life and have a cracking sense of humour! The problems start when the mood elevates too far the mind does not switch off. Last time my mood went a bit high I was laid in bed unable to sleep and I spotted the wardrobe, my mind went into automatic pilot making words out of the letters in wardrobe, it was racing out of my control I couldnt stop it.
As I think back I think possibly I had bipolar traits as a child and they were missed. I know I saw things and when I told my mum she said I must have been dreaming but no I know I was awake. Even as a kid I couldnt sleep and have a very vivid memory of my mum getting up at 6am to find me in the kitchen knitting a poodle dog. I had no pattern to work from. How to do the pattern came in my head in the early hours and it was nearly complete when she came downstairs.
I also seem to get an obsession with codes when the mood is high. At one point I had this manic idea that Beethovens 5th symphony was a coded message with each note representing a letter, I spent some time trying to crack that code. One time I had what I thought was a brilliant idea for writing an uncrackable code (err deluded) strangely though every time I hit that higher mood I get another idea how to refine it and maybe one day……
The last thing I can experience in low and high mood are hallucinations both auditory and visual. Many report voices being threatening. Some of the things I have heard are really quite bizarre for instance on one occasion I clearly heard a woman announce the black trousers and tea towel are on the line, on another I clearly heard my older sister shout mind that plate….strange eh? Only once did I ever hear a threatening voice a male voice with a thick Geordie accent telling me to kill myself, my reply to him f*** off you aren’t real. The worst auditory hallucination as far as sleep is concerned is what I call the gunshot/loud metal tray often happens as I am falling asleep wakes me up with a jolt and that is sleep out of the window for another few hours ( I get this one when well too, thinking I was going crazy I googled it, it is called exploding head syndrome)
Visual hallucinations are a very mixed bag sometimes it can be something like a colour being brighter and somehow making it stand forward from where it really is. It is an odd effect which I can not verbally articulate. When my mood is high by brain can see something add 2+2 to make five. I once caught site of a tomato stalk on the side I said omg look at that spider despite someone saying it was a tomato stalk the more I tried to see the stalk the more I could see a spider. The most horrendous hallucinations I have ever had where my brain has superimposed someone I knows face on a complete stranger. That one really did make me lose confidence to communicate with anyone I saw, in case it was not really them. Another horrible hallucination I got just prior to a hospital admission was this black nodding skull with bright red eyes it would suddenly appear on a wall. If I stared hard at it hoping it would go away then look quickly to a different white wall I got the contrast image just as you do if staring at a real image. I got no respite from this one for it got so bad I would even “see” it on the inside of my eyelids as I closed my eyes to sleep. I have also had odd effects reading a newspaper an odd word can appear dark and jump out at me and strange as this may sound it seems like it is trying to give me a message. Also my mind has suddenly picked up on something being said on a radio, which seems to have particular relevance to me. This is not a medicallly recognised term but I call it quasi schizophrenic the radio isnt quite talking to me but heading in that direction.
The last type of episode is called a mixed mood episode. To me these are the worst type for I know with straight depression I get some respite with sleep and rest. Mixed mood is a different kettle of fish. A mixed mood episode is one that has some features of mania and some features of depression. Usually with me I get racing thoughts and delusions which are manic traits but those actual thoughts are depressive in nature. This for me it the mood episode in which I call my myself considerably at risk. The overriding outward appearance is depression but I get little sleep with my mind racing these depressing thoughts and memories. My mood begins to drop very precipitously I can go from feeling quite well to suicidal in a very short time frame. I started this year by bagging up loads of meds that had failed and took them to the chemist for disposal. At that time I was feeling really well and thought right there are enough drugs in there to kill a baby elephant get rid of them while you are well. Daft as though it seemed, I felt I owed it to my family to protect myself as well as I could. It is interesting that as I am emerging from this depressive episode having amassed more drugs, I thought earlier today I owe it to my family but I also owe it to myself. I have much to look forward to do not take an unnecessary risk.
Well I have rambled somewhat and this has probably left you either gobsmacked feeling you really don’t know me at all. I still am unsure whether I am doing a really brave or really stupid thing in writing this article; but it is me, take me or leave me if you decide to leave as a result of reading this adios been nice knowing you, close the door quietly behind. Seriously this is why I always say you have no idea what battles others may be fighting….you now have a very good incite to mine thank you for reading hope you have found it informative.
Book Review:  Looking After Your Mental Health

Book Review:  Looking After Your Mental Health

This is the sort of book that I wish had been around when my children were younger. Looking After Your Mental Health is a great “how to” book for every young person. It is also the book every parent needs to start some of those difficult conversations.

The authors James & Stowell review almost every issue that has an impact on the mental health of young people. Written in “their” language, the chapters are short, the font is easy to read, and it is loaded in graphics and pictures. You don’t have to start at the beginning and progress through – just dip in and out as you see something that catches your eye or a topic of interest.

“Looking after Your Mental Health” starts at the beginning with “What is mental health?” A good question. We must talk about mental health more in general, but in particular with our children. Back in February 2016 the Independent published an article about the teenage mental health crisis and noted that the rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70% in the past 25 years.  It also cited a Girl Guides attitudes survey that found that mental health was one of the most pressing concerns, with 62% of those surveyed knowing a girl their age who has struggled with mental health problems.

Looking After Your Mental Health

Looking After Your Mental Health by Alice James& Louie Stowell

Chapters include subjects that have a huge impact on our young people – what happens in the minds, their bodies, and their feelings as they grow up. It talks about friends (and includes bullying), family (and all the different meanings that has today), sex and romance, the internet (and cyberbullying), difficult times and mental health problems. It touches on the actual mental health problems of depression and anxiety and touches on eating disorders (not a mental health problem, but a behaviour covering emotional pain). Of course, it includes some sound suggestions about finding help – talking to those closest to you for starters and a range of really useful and practical suggestions in its “Try This” sections. The glossary of terms in the back is useful to understand some of the jargon.

It does not cover a lot of actual mental health conditions (there is no mention of OCD, PTSD, acute stress disorder, phobias, psychosis, or self-harm (eating disorders’ sibling). There is no mention of contraception and safe sex (but it does talk about the emotional side of sex and saying “No”); nor of sexually transmitted diseases which may make it easier for children at the lower end of the recommended age range (9 – 18) to cope with. It does not mention the overlaying of mental health issues occurring with other conditions such as ADHD, Autism or chronic illnesses. But in not mentioning these it creates space for further discussion around the dinner table with the family.

I believe “Looking after Your Mental Health” is a really useful starter book with sound advice for some of the issues affecting our young people today. It is published by Usborne Books, so is available from your local friendly Usborne rep. If you don’t have one then please contact mine – Tracy Hickson – here.

Book Review:  Looking After Your Mental Health by Alice James & Louie Stowell, 2018, Usborne, London. ISBN

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: Mental Health Aspects of Autism and Asperger Syndrome

BOOK REVIEW: Mental Health Aspects of Autism and Asperger Syndrome

By Mohammad Ghaziuddin (2005) Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Leaping in at the deep end is something I do occasionally. Recently I committed to doing what I do – deliver mental health awareness and first aid courses; this time to the staff and support workers at a residential college specialising in teaching young people (16+) affected by Asperger syndrome and high functioning autism.

Now, I have to admit, my knowledge of Pervasive Developmental Disorders including the autistic spectrum, was brief, from work I did years ago with people affected by ADHD. Back then I saw almost every condition including ADHD due to the generally inadequate support of childhood conditions where I was living. So knowing I needed to brush up my knowledge I asked my LinkedIn network for recommendations of specialists I could approach for advice on the overlap of mental health conditions and pervasive developmental disorders (PDD’s). Following a couple of recommendations, I bought a copy of Ghaziuddin’s book. Quite frankly, for the layperson/psychotherapist and possibly as an introduction to the subject for trainee psychologists/psychiatrists, I think this book is brilliant.

The main focus is autism, but once you understand autism the other PDD’s fall into place by exception and their uniquely different traits. For example, people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome are generally communicative with a “normal” or higher IQ; those with autism are non-communicative and can have a low IQ; those with high functioning autism are also non-communicative and have a normal or high IQ.

Mental Health Aspects of Autism & Asperger Syndrome

Mental Health Aspects of Autism & Asperger Syndrome by Mohammad Ghaziuddin

For each PDD he explains what it is, it’s historical background and prevalence, causes, clinical features, diagnosis, conditions it may be confused with (and why) and what treatments/therapies or interventions are applicable. Each chapter has an extensive reference list for further study.

There follows a chapter on medical conditions in autism, something I had not previously thought about, but which make a significant impact on an affected individual and their family when combined with PDD’s. Such medical conditions include mental retardation and seizures (or forms of epilepsy) and a whole range of specific conditions including gene disorders (Fragile X and Down syndrome) and disorders caused by viruses (cytomegalovirus, herpes, etc).

Next Ghaziuddin covers general psychiatric disorders that occur in people affected by PDD’s. He writes “All psychiatric disorders cause distress, and affect the life of the individual in a negative way.”  At this point, I was gaining an understanding of just how complicated PDD’s can be with multiple conditions affecting an individual (the PDD, the medical and the psychiatric).  He has an insightful diagram in this section that shows how the comorbidities overlap each other.  This explains why no two cases present the same and why treatment programmes must be individualised to address the individual’s particular needs. It also explains why getting a diagnosis can be challenging and why treatment may be a complicated matter posing the question of what to treat first (and why). We must also remember that no individual is alone; there are a family and a community of people around each one that may need support too.

Useful case studies are included with many of the explanations of the conditions throughout the book which help the reader gain understanding of them. A whole chapter addresses ADHD and PDD. Further chapters are dedicated to depression and mood disorders; anxiety disorders; Schizophrenia and psychotic disorders; tic disorders and Tourette syndrome and “other” psychiatric disorders.

The issue of violence is addressed late in the book but we are challenged to think about the definition of violence (should it include verbal threats or just behaviour resulting in a criminal conviction?). The role of the media and the perceptions it fosters are another issue – are people with PDD more likely to be the offenders or the victims of violence? The assessment and treatment of violent behaviour need to be handled carefully. Think about how frustrating it must be to be unable to communicate what your needs are and to not have them met?

The final chapter is a long-term view – the task ahead.  Ghaziuddin quite rightly points out that “Carrying a diagnosis of autism and Asperger syndrome does not confer immunity against other medical or psychiatric disorders.” Whilst research into the mental health conditions affecting people with PDD’s is in its infancy and the need for early diagnosis and treatment is important, getting that diagnosis and treatment is another challenge complicated further where there are overlapping conditions. Hovering in the background is the family of the affected person and the attendant discrimination applied against any mental health disorder in the media and often by the community at large. The need to disseminate facts not fantasy about PDD’s and all mental health conditions will be one small change in making society more supportive of all such conditions.

You can order your own copy of this book here.

 

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.