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.

 

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Gratitude. The most valuable gift l own

This year has without doubt been one of my most challenging, marked with incredible highs and lows and so much profound change.

The beginning of the year started with a devastating backwards step in the surgical part of mygender transition journey,causing my dysphoria to sky rocket and my mental health to plummet.

I did not expect to surface from all that until my surgical issues had been fixed but to my great surprise l met someone who was to heal me of both present and past dysphoria and catapult me forwards into a journey of exciting sexual awakening and sexual exploring.

Now, approaching the end of the year l am facing the prospect of losing my mum. Whether that’s losing her to the numerous complex medical issues the hospital just can’t manage to solve, or losing her to the emerging vascular dementia which is causing so much confusion and disorientation. Either way, my mum is rapidly disappearing.

On top if this I received a date for surgery to finally sort out the issues that began at the beginning at the year. It was such poor timing and l wasn’t sure l could manage it mentally or physically with all that’s going on with mum. However, l am glad l decided to go ahead as the surgery was apparently a very simple and successful fix.

If l was to pin down the one thing that has enabled me to get through this incredibly rocky year it would be gratitude. My ability to be grateful is the most effective tool in my mental health tool kit and l consider my ability to be grateful in any situation to be the greatest gift l own.

Gratitude is such a magical gift, akin to alchemy it can turn the most awful situation into one of hope, promise and possibility. By simply switching ones view away from what’s lacking or missing towards even the smallest thing you can find to be grateful for, you can turn sadness into joy.

Once you start noticing those small things to be grateful for, it sets off a snowball effect and before you know it sadness and difficulty is made much more bearable By the warm blanket of gratitude you find yourself enveloped by.

Gratitude is an action induced feeling, you cant sit around and wait to feel grateful you have to put the work in and actively decide you want to be grateful and look for things to be grateful for. Once you start this practice you will strengthen your gratitude muscle and find it starts to become automatic.

Don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. Sit and write a list of ten things you are grateful for and notice how your whole sense of self shifts into feeling lighter and your face softens into a smile.

I am so grateful for the ability to practice gratitude. Such a magical gift indeed.

The world works in mysterious ways

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I haven’t written here for some time.  My last post here was about deciding to begin to walk the South West coastal path, I have not made a lot of progress on that, in fact lets not beat around the bush here, I have not made any progress whatsoever!

My lack of writing , specifically about my coastal path adventures, stands as evidence as to how much life can suddenly change. At my last time of writing , on the back of my gender confirmation surgery going wrong, I was in the worst mental health place I had been for a while. My anxiety was so high that going outside was a challenge that took me two days to work up to and a week to recover from. I needed solitude, finding people to be just too much to cope with. I  couldn’t handle people being close to this body of mine which had returned to feeling like it was wrapped in barbwire and if I moved too suddenly or someone moved against me I would be cut to ribbons.

I desperately needed to balance looking after myself with also gently pushing myself to not sink into depths of isolation. I decided that challenging myself to a regular walk would help to accomplish this aim and would likely also help me to have a feeling of achievement.

Then, out of the blue, I met a woman who was to completely change how I felt in every way possible and would suddenly catapult me forwards in life, meaning that finding the time to do a coastal walk would turn out to be impossible!

Thanks to this wonderful woman, I have had a complete sexual paradigm shift. Despite my body still not working in the way that I hope it will one day in the not too distant future, I no longer feel the dysphoria I felt just a couple of months ago, My body feels freer than I ever thought it was possible to feel, especially considering its current “unfinished” state. This wonderful woman and I are no longer in a relationship, but the healing and growth that she ignited continues to blossom and I will be forever grateful for her.

My point in this post, as well as noting my lack of coastal walks, is to reflect on the wonderfully mysterious way that life works. Had I not had the awful surgery experience, I would likely have not been open to this sexual and relational epiphany that’s happened. Its hard when times are tough to not label things as good and bad but developments like this are proof that things are not good or bad, they simply just are. Trusting this means in the midst of a difficult experience, such as the one I had for the first half of this year,  the faith and knowledge that it will open up again and make sense , helps me to keep on travelling on.

When my new and exciting sexual world stops spinning so fast, I still plan to find the time to do these coastal walks, its just that now I shall do them with a rather large spring in my step and a incredibly wide smile on my face.