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.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Blog: How art and craft helped my mental health by Lynne Miles

Guest Blog: How art and craft helped my mental health by Lynne Miles

Lynne is a dear friend whom I know from “another life,” when we grew up in Southern Africa. Through Facebook, we reconnected and have discovered we have more in common now than ever before. Lynne has agreed to write a guest blog for me, and I am very grateful.

I have enjoyed undertaking various forms of craft for many years and know that it takes me to my “happy place.” What I did not realize, until more recently, was the therapeutic value of undertaking creative pursuits – or, indeed, how much I would need to value the benefit of craft for my own well-being.

About 7 or 8 years ago, after an intense period of work stress, long hours, and other life changes I started “malfunctioning.” I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue and began a long journey of learning how to rest. The fatigue associated with adrenal fatigue cannot be “pushed through.” I had to stop, but for an active person like me, it was very hard!

My adrenal fatigue did slowly get better (they also discovered I had been suffering from hyperthyroidism and successful surgery eliminated that problem). However since then every time I felt pressured or stressed the symptoms of fatigue would return, or I would feel like I was coming down with a cold, and sometimes I would just feel so overwhelmed I would want to hide! As a people loving person, this was very strange for me. I was tested for adrenal fatigue (negative), hyperparathyroidism (negative), hormonal levels (still only perimenopausal) and even depression (some markers but nothing conclusive).

That eventually lead me to consult a wonderful Clinical Psychologist, Rochelle Masters, who worked with me and eventually gave a diagnosis of Somatoform Symptom Distress Disorder. Simply explained, stress triggers my brain to send out instructions to my body which displays real symptoms of illness but without the presence of the physical malfunctions that would usually result in those symptoms.

So I am now on a very long journey learning how to manage this condition and slowly train my brain to respond correctly. An early strategy was to learn “mindfulness” – “a technique in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them.” I did try working with a great app called “Headspace” which takes you through guided mindfulness activities. The starting ones that I tried involved sitting quietly and becoming aware of everything around you right where you were: your breathing, the noises you could hear, the colors and shapes you could see in the things around you and so on. I confess that I didn’t get very far and I was amazed at how HARD it was to do for just 10 minutes!! I needed something to focus on in order to stop my mind galloping around and just sitting wasn’t working for me!

That is where Zentangle or doodling came in for me. I told my Psychologist about it and how I didn’t notice time going by when I was drawing and that I felt really relaxed when I did it. She was intrigued and did some research. Turns out Zentangle is a known mindfulness activity!

I have since read an article by the psychologist, Gloria Martinez Ayala, who was talking about coloring and stated: “When coloring, we activate different areas of our two cerebral hemispheres. The action involves both logic, by which we color forms, and creativity when mixing and matching colors. This incorporates the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in vision and fine motor skills [coordination necessary to make small, precise movements]. The relaxation that it provides lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of our brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress.”

It has been my experience that all forms of craft have the same effect as they all involve some form of logic in the design of what we are doing, and of course the vision and fine motor skills we use as we create. I still dabble with crochet and cross-stitch, occasionally some beadwork, and even do a little coloring from time to time. My primary creativity at the moment though, centers around doodle drawing (zentangle) and papercraft. In each of these I am able to fully focus on the moment and time “ceases to exist” for a little while enabling me to switch off and give my mind and emotions a rest. I always feel more relaxed and alert, calm and energized after spending time at my craft table. Even my husband recognizes the signs when my brain is not coping with life around me and gently suggest I sit and craft a while – it has a recognizable effect!

Since including my craft activities as a firm strategy to help me relax and be ready to face the world, rather than something that previously was a “nice to do if I get time”, I have been able to cope with the work activities I have had to pick up again and slowly start involving myself with people outside my family group.

Creativity takes many forms – for me, it is these crafty pursuits, for my mum, it is spending a day creating in the kitchen, for others it is gardening or singing. I would strongly encourage everyone who struggles with stress, depression or any other form of mental illness to try creativity as a coping strategy. Find your particular creative fit and manage your mental health – you will be so glad you did – I am!

  Lynne and Terry, her man for a lifetime

#depression, #creativity, #mindfulness