Removing the Shame In Talking About Mental Health

UntitledI have been very honest about the fact that I am in the middle of a mental health crisis, one that I am finding very difficult to manage. My usual ways of coping just haven’t been helping. A lot of the time I have been so fatigued I haven’t had the energy to do the simplest of self-care actions.

Recently, I saw the hashtag #365daysofselfcare on Twitter and followed the link to the website Blurt. I decided that this is just what I need right now. It will get my focus back onto my self-care. Posting about it each day will help me to rebuild the habit and keep myself accountable.

Its been two weeks now since I started participating in the daily hashtag and it has indeed been very helpful. I am paying much more attention to taking care of myself and making time for self-care every day. There has also been an additional unexpected outcome of posting daily, it has got me talking about my mental health.

This really shouldn’t be a revelation for me, I write and make videos about my mental health all the time. However, when I write or make a video, I do so after the fact. I do talk very openly, but it is done in retrospect. My sharing is delivered in a reflective and measured way.

In contrast, the daily sharing I am doing with the hashtag on my Instagram and Twitter is raw and uncensored. I am sharing what is happening on that day, at that moment. In posting this way, I have often caught myself thinking, “I sound like I am a right state”, worrying what people will think of me. Its been a surprise to notice that I still carry shame around my mental health, despite being so open about it.

Shame and stigma is a corrosive side effect of mental illness. It stops people asking for help and puts them more at risk of harm, isolation and worsening overall health. The shame is senseless, its an illness, what is there to feel shame about? Physical and mental health is part of everyone’s everyday life. We don’t shame someone for having a broken leg and tell them to pull themselves together, do we? We help them, supporting them whilst they heal. The same compassion needs to be extended to those who have mental health problems.

I am so pleased to see so many people and organizations talking openly this week as part of mental health awareness week. This must continue, not just this week but permanently. Living well with and recovering from mental illness, begins with removing the burden of shame.

Advertisements

Coping With Stress When Your Scale Is Already Off-Balance

balance.jpgThis week is Mental Health Awareness Week and this year’s theme is ‘Stress’. Sadly, stress is a common affliction in our fast-paced world and it is something that each of us need to be mindful of. However, when you have existing mental health challenges, being mindful of stress becomes even more critical.

I experience my own mental health as a set of scales which are always off balance. My various challenges and addiction history, mean I own a set of scales which are incorrectly calibrated. It’s almost impossible to get them to level out dead centre. I have learned to be okay with this, and to find ways to get them to balance and stay stable in their offset state. This works as long as my life remains fairly consistent and stress free. However, life is life, unexpected or upsetting events will of course occur. When they do, like many of us with mental health challenges, I’m affected far more by stress than people whose scales are more accurately calibrated.

In experiencing an additional stress, I find I am triggered in all areas. The shock of a stressful event can knock me for six, my physical health begins to suffer, I can start feeling ashamed that I am falling apart where others around me are coping. If I am not careful, this can send me into a spiral and put me at risk of a crisis or relapse.

Over the last few years in my recovery, I have learnt how to better manage a stressful event so that I can look after my mental well-being until the event passes or is resolved. These are some of the things that I find helpful, in order to reduce the impact of the additional stress.

Remind yourself that it is OK to feel whatever you are feeling

Enforce your personal boundaries – clearly state your needs and your limitations

Drop anything from your life that is not important – make things simple

Use your coping strategies to administer self-care to yourself

Contact a friend or support agency for extra help

Evaluate your well-being on a daily basis – it may take a while to re-balance

Stress is often unavoidable but with careful management, it need not compromise our entire well being and we can return to own definition of balance in good time.

The late bloomer. “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.”

InspirationalQuotes3.pngOne of the hardest things for me in recovery from addiction and mental health challenges, and in going through gender transition, is the deep grief felt at the wasted time.

I began my recovery from alcoholism at the age of 37.  Finally, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, I saw clearly how drinking had not served me well at all. I drank since the age of 13, this had stopped me pursuing a career, building a life, making proper relationships and even growing up.  It felt like I had slept my life away. In suddenly seeing how wonderful life could be, I wished so much that I hadn’t waited so long to get sober. If I had addressed it earlier my mental health issues wouldn’t have got as bad as they did. I would have realised I was transgender a lot earlier and I would have had many more years to enjoy this beautiful planet and to make something of my life.

Waking up at the age of 37 has made me a late bloomer in every aspect of my life. It is only now, in being sober, that I am able to return to study and make a career for myself. It’s only now, having learnt to identify and sit with the various emotions I feel rather than drinking on them, that I can develop healthy platonic and romantic relationships. Because I have also gone through gender transition, this adds additional new aspects to my life that most folk deal with when they are young.  I have had to rebuild my identity, discover who I am as a man, get to know my new body and discover my sexuality. I am 44 years old now and only just starting out in life. I am a pubescent boy in a man’s body!

With so much being still so new, there is so much I yet need to learn and whilst I am not old by any means, neither am I young. There is so much joy in this newfound life but also so much sadness at wishing this life could have started years ago. Of course, I realise that had things been different, then I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I have skills and qualities, only gained precisely because of the path my life has taken, but still, the grief needs to be acknowledged. It is both valid and understandable. Accepting the loss of time means that I can transform it into a determination to make the most of the time I have now.

Being such a late bloomer may well mean that I can’t do a lot of the things I wish I could. However, I can find other ways to fulfil those dreams, simply by adapting them. For example, I’ve recently accepted that I must shelve my plans to be a therapist. I have too much healing of my own to do first. The motivation underlying that career choice lay in my passion to help people, to make a difference to the world and to people lives.  Instead of giving up that dream, I can search for new ways to fulfil it. Moving instead into writing as a career, using my psychology studies and my personal experiences, mean that I still get to follow my passion and in fact may even make more of a difference by following this new path.

“It’s never too late to be who you might have been”.  It may just mean you need to adapt the way you go about achieving it.

 

I Am A Writer – The Ahhh Moment

 

2018-bright-celebrate-769525.jpgIf you are familiar with me across all my other social media platforms, then you may have noticed some changes happening. I’ve been fiddling about with header images, taglines, personal bio’s and generally spamming your news-feed with all these changes (sorry about that!). Lots of you have been asking, “What’s going on?”

Grab yourself a cup of tea and a biscuit and let me tell you.

I have recently experienced one of those glorious moments where, after months of feeling so utterly terrible, a flash of clarity suddenly appears. I love it when these arrive, it’s like having a thought orgasm, it fills you with a rush of, “Ahhhhhhh!” and, “Oh God!” Suddenly everything is warm and fuzzy, and you are pregnant with ideas.

This has been a long time coming, I have been stuck for months and thanks to this beautiful baby epiphany, the way forward is beginning to make sense.

Since I entered recovery from addiction seven years ago, my life has changed beyond all recognition. Once clean and sober, I was able to look beneath the surface, to the cause of a lifetime of mental health issues. This allowed me to realize I was transgender and to begin gender transition. It also enabled me to learn to better manage my mental health.

This incredible internal change, awoke a passion to pass it on to others. If I could come from such a dark place, then I knew others could too. I wanted to make a difference, to support and inspire people to find their own path to recovery, whatever that might be.

The most logical way to make a living doing this seemed to be by becoming a therapist. I hadn’t been able to work for several years, due to my severe mental health issues. I needed to start slowly, to not jeopardize my recovery. I decided to begin a psychology degree with the Open University. Alongside, I could gain experience by volunteering as a youth worker and support worker. This would allow me the flexibility I needed, to be able to work on my recovery and undergo gender transition.

Around the same time, I decided to create a YouTube channel, to share the process of my gender transition in a video diary. The channel evolved very quickly to include not only my transition but also my recovery from addiction and poor mental health.

Surprisingly, lots of people began to watch my videos and interact with me. People left comments about how inspiring my videos were, and how much difference they made to their lives. Before long, my subscriber count grew into the thousands. I suddenly found myself doing exactly what I hoped to do, to make a difference, to inspire others to find their own courage to change. YouTube became my passion. I have wished so much that I could do it full time as my main career but making a living from being a YouTuber is rare. I also faced the additional issue that pursuing a therapy practice would mean giving up sharing via YouTube. It would not be ethical to have my personal life online for clients to find.

As I get closer to my graduation next year, I find myself incredibly torn about what to do. The career I originally wanted, is what I am already doing via YouTube. It seems ridiculous that I will have to give up doing what I love in order to make a living. But I have to make a living. Over the last couple of years, I have been mulling over options to find a way forward. One idea has been to use my psychology degree to move into research rather than practice, where I will still be able to make a difference. Importantly, I would be able to continue the work I do via YouTube.

I have also been writing. After being told by many people that I should write a book, I finally began putting my memoir together. I hoped that perhaps having a book published may be a chance for a career break of some kind, allowing me to make a living from YouTube.

However, nothing is happening in any of the above-mentioned areas. I have looked at a few post-degree research options and as yet do not feel inspired. I have several thousand words of a memoir but just cannot seem to put them together properly. I haven’t progressed any further towards paid work, my mental health and transition surgeries keep preventing me from doing so.

My mental health is currently a rather big issue. Unsurprisingly, as the last 12 months have been challenging on many levels. I am beginning to realize though, that this current mental health crisis could actually be a blessing in disguise. It has awoken me to some truths which, as is the nature of sudden truths, I can’t believe I didn’t realize before. The counsellor I am seeing pointed out to me that, in the grand scheme of things, seven years is not a very long time. I’ve put this huge goal on myself to get clean and sober, mentally well, fully transitioned and qualified as a practicing therapist in those seven years. It’s a bit of a big ask, isn’t it!

Looking at this in a new light, I now realize why I still haven’t managed to progress from voluntary work into paid work. Seven years is not long enough to develop the mental and emotional stability needed to practice. I need longer. However, I’m 44 now. If I keep waiting to be well enough to practice, I’ll be retired before I embark! I’ve been doing a lot of honest reflection, and as much as it hurts to do this, it’s time to say out loud that I am not able to pursue a career as a therapist.

In addition to my counsellor’s comments, a few other chance events helped me to suddenly see the light. A friend sent me a link to a writing competition, calling for submissions on the theme of pride. At the time I saw it more of a way to motivate myself to write, as I was struggling with my memoir writing.  Having not written a fictional short story for a number of years, I sought out a book to help me. I picked up, The Easy Way to Write Short Stories That Sell’ by Rob Parnell. It turned out to not only be a book about short story writing but also about how to get yourself into the mindset of a writer. Importantly, this book made me realize that I could actually make a living from writing.

Having really enjoyed the mindset exercises to develop oneself as a writer, I looked for a similar book. I found, You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One)’ by Jeff Goins. This book is fantastic and has changed everything for me. The part which particularly resonated was about building a platform. Thanks to this book, for the first time, I can see how my YouTube channel and my writing can work together.

I feel like someone has just turned on a light and I can finally see a way forward. The reason I have been repeatedly declaring I am writing yet not making progress is not that I wasn’t sincere. I really did mean it, every time I said it. The trouble is I’ve been viewing writing and creating videos as a means to an end rather than the goal itself. It felt like a big dream and I should just wake up, sort myself out and get a real job, as I’m not going to make it as a writer and creator. You see the issue wasn’t that I didn’t mean it but rather that I didn’t believe it.

Isn’t it strange that when things make sense its so obvious that we feel silly even saying it because it is so obvious!

So, what has changed? Well, everything really. I am shelving the therapist path. I shall still finish my degree, I love the topic of psychology but for now, my path lies elsewhere. Now I’ve said that out loud I can fully concentrate on writing. The wonderful thing is that I can start now. I don’t have to wait to be well, writing can be worked around my mental health needs. I realize now that I can make a huge difference, not only with my memoir but also with short stories around the themes I am passionate about, change, recovery, gender, and sexuality. I’m pursuing all different kinds of writing and I am excited. My YouTube channel now feels like it has a proper place and purpose. I’m also seeing a fresh start for this WordPress site of mine too, once stagnant, now it can contain my writing process and progress, to supplement my YouTube updates.

This is why you have been seeing so many changes in all my social media platforms. I’ve been refocusing them, away from support work and towards writing and creating, streamlining them and tying them all together. At last, it feels like I have a direction.

I am a writer. I am a writer. I AM A WRITER. (Thank you Jeff).

I am incredibly excited to share this next phase of development with you all!

Much love and light

Finn

 

 

World Mental Health Day 2017

This year’s World Mental Health Day has the theme ‘in the workplace’. I am not in paid employment at the moment but I feel this theme is still very relevant to me.

I have had mental health issues since as far back as I can remember. My official diagnosis started in 1993 when l was sectioned after a suicide attempt.  At that time I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Not that l needed a label to tell me this but this label allowed me access to the mental health system, support and various modalities of treatment

In the years since then, my mental health became steadily worse. Unfortunately, the main way I dealt with my depression and anxiety was to numb it with food restriction, alcohol and drugs. Doing this also allowed me to keep working. If I was numb then l could blot out the anxiety and exhaustion that being around people caused and cope with the sickening feeling of nameless dread I experienced on a daily basis.

Not surprisingly, living life like this was not manageable and soon, not only was l caught using cannabis and being drunk at work, but also being numb just was not masking the low mood and anxiety like it used to. I then moved from being, in the loosest possible term, a ‘functioning person with mental health issues’ to being completely non-functioning. My anxiety was at astronomical levels, to the point where I was constantly rocking and l had picked up self-harming as another futile coping tool.

No longer functioning, my life began to shut down. My University faculty department suggested I take some time out of my University degree studies which I wasn’t managing at all. I approached my local GP for some support and was officially signed off from work. Later that year, I was admitted to a full time 18-month non-residential treatment at a therapeutic community in which I stayed for 23 months including assessment phase. There I was diagnosed with various personality disorders, to add to my already existing diagnosis

Although the therapeutic community addressed my drinking and using, it wasn’t enough to stop me completely. For the entire time, except the last month of therapy, I was free from using cannabis but I was still drinking alcohol. The communities approach to alcohol misuse was to use controlled drinking methods rather than abstinence and this allowed me to continue to drink and lie about the amount I was drinking. Once I finished the 18-month program in the April of 2010, l went out for a drink to celebrate and that party lasted 4 months.

Waking from a particularly wild night in early August 2010, for some reason I found myself for the first time really wanting off of the hamster wheel of it all. A series of chance events led me into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous where for the first time I was able to admit I was an alcoholic, stop drinking one day at a time and begin to take responsibility for my recovery and my life.  Not only am l now 7 years clean and sober but l am also managing my various mental health issues in healthy ways and am able to move forward in my life, despite them often making things more challenging

And this is where I return to how this year’s World Mental Health Days theme applies to me. I am still unable to return to paid work, although l am so much better than l was l am still unable to stay consistently well enough to withdraw from benefits into paid employment. On top of my mental health issues, I am also undergoing gender transition which currently involves a lot of medical treatment and surgery recovery. This in turn has an impact on my mental health and l have to be so careful to make sure I’m being balanced and taking care of myself. If l don’t stay self-aware and vigilant about my recovery and my mental health, I risk relapse and if that happens l could lose all. mental health progress I have made.

The worry and shame of being on benefits affects me every single day. I live in dread of the constant reassessment forms and medical assessments which are done by people who have never met me and make an assumption based on a small snapshot of my life. It’s an exhausting and humiliating process that you never get a break from for more than a few months at a time and always negatively effects my mental health.  As anyone with mental health issues knows, the benefit system, including the back to work team, are not clued up about how having long standing mental health diagnosis effects trying to find and keep employment. This means that many people with mental health issues fall into two categories. The first are those forced back into work due to inadequate mental health assessments deeming them fit for work by the benefits team. The second are those who are awarded benefit and then get stuck on it because they are too scared to move forward into work for fear that if they do and they find it negatively effects their mental health, they will then lose their benefits.

I am trying to develop a career for myself that allows me the flexibility I need to make my own income. I’m not lazy, l don’t want to be on sickness benefits, l am hard working, and driven but the current general pattern of work that employers ask for just do not suit my mental health needs. I need to be able to evaluate where i am on a daily basis and set my own hours according to my level of mental well being. I need to be able to simplify things when times are tough or take time off when my mental health is feeling too fragile. I have to put my mental health first or nothing else is possible. The way we work in our society does not allow for this flexibility in employment.

Surely there must be a better way. Can the benefit system and employers work together to provide a system whereby a person with long standing re occurring mental health issues, can be supported into work with flexible hours and the option to withdraw at times where their mental health is too severe without losing their money? This would be so fantastic and would also help in recovery as the self-esteem generated from managing to be productive and achieve something is so good for one’s mental health. Additionally, knowing that in times of need, some down time can be taken without fearing looking money, would also remove the shame or worry of having mental health issues and encourage better self-management. Until something like this is created, those attempting to make the transition from benefits to work will be failed by the system time and time again causing a cycle of constant relapse, shame and stigma.

 

#JusJoJan Daily Prompt – Jan 3rd – ‘Warning’

This post takes part in Linda’s Just Jot It Jan 

jjj-2017

I, and others that know me, used to joke that I should come with a warning label. I thought this was an amusing and lovingly assigned description of my character but in truth it was because I was a complete pain in the neck and at the end of my drinking days there was nothing amusing about me at all.

Today I am unrecognisable as that person, when people describe me now; ‘warning’ is the last label I would be assigned. People remark on my calm nature, yes I can be very excitable and hyper, the new born child in me is very evident, but I am a person in control of myself and a person you can trust yourself to be safe around. I still find this an astonishing change in just six short years of mental health and addiction recovery.

In order to develop this calmer nature, I have had to create a robust and sensitive early warning system, an inner lighthouse to alert me when a storm is arriving or when the sea may threaten to thrash me towards the jagged rocks of mental illness. I have had to become acutely aware of the various things that threaten my wellness and very good at noticing the early warning signs and to this affect, the inner lighthouse will change from shades of yellow through to amber and red depending on the threat of the situation

The last month or so I have been inundated with warning signs, my inner lighthouse had been brightly lit  as a solid amber, but due to Christmas obligations, I haven’t had much choice other than to just ride the waves as safely as I can with mindfulness. However, today the lighthouse switched on to full red warning alert as I attended my medical assessment for my sickness benefit.

Attending these assessments, as anyone who’s had them will attest, is never easy, but then add being transgender into the mix and the whole thing turns into a cringe making, anger inducing mess. I sat there bewildered as the assessor first got confused that I was a man about to change to living as a woman. After correcting him and after he had picked his jaw back up from the desk he then remarked that I made for, “a very convincing transition” and that he, “had seen other people who were not as convincing and I must be very pleased”, He went on to then ask me if I would like to be referred to as he.

Wow, warning light on full flashing red mode, sirens, bells, whistles, the whole shebang.

I’ll be honest, I wanted to sob, I wanted to just fall on the floor in a heap, curl up into the foetal position and let my whole body convulse with reckless emotional abandon, but I can’t cry, I just don’t, it doesn’t come out and I am not one to indulge in dramatic emotional displays, at least I am not today but six years ago I may well have done.  I’ve had enough at the moment, Christmas has been incredibly tough being my first one single after a really messy breakup, add to the mix having to sit with a total stranger and explain my entire mental health history, my entire addiction history and then intimate details of my dysphoria and gender transition, all crammed into less than 40mins, to someone that had the tact and sensitivity of an array of hedgehogs.

However, the painfully crafted warning system served me well, one of the skills I have learnt in recovery is knowing which battles to pick and this one just wasn’t worth it. I spend a lot of my time educating people and this chap needed it but today had to be about first things first, my mental health, and so I  took a deep breath, answered as politely as I could and just got through it.

Thank goodness for my inner lighthouse and its warning signs, for lighting the way so that I can choose the path of least resistance and just make sure I kept myself safe. Now though,i t’s time to drop anchor, hunker down for a while and wait for the storm to pass.

#JusJoJan Daily Prompt – Jan 2nd – Time

 

This post takes part in Linda’s Just Jot It Jan

jjj-2017

The word ‘time’ conjures up so many thoughts and emotions for me. Most significantly with the phrase “one day at a time”, which is a mantra I live by, given to me by my twelve step recovery program. Time is also a bitter sweet experience for me, I have wasted so much of it in my life, hiding from the world and from myself and I always wished it away. Now, with a sudden and dramatic shift in perspective since beginning recovery 6 years ago, there is suddenly not enough time.  Time has changed from being a slow lumbering painful enemy to a precious fleeting dancing fairy. I dance with it daily, living on the edge of sadness for the time lost, but turning my focus away from that so as not to waste any more of it exquisiteness.

As a transman going through transition, which takes an extraordinary amount of time, dancing with the time fairy in this way has been a challenge. Transition is a time of painful waiting, for appointments, for psychiatric approvals, for hormones, for surgery, for recovery, for my body to change and for my inner and outer social worlds to adapt. This means I have to work very hard to balance my view and my use of time, it’s too valuable to want to rush through having already wasted so much, but at the same time I am just so eager for the physical transition part of my life to be over so that I can simply get on with my life as the man I have always known myself to be.

I now mark in time the next ten days, when, on the 13th of January, I will have the final stage of my surgery and I will no longer be a slave to time but instead a dancing partner.