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.

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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 shortage of NHS General Practitioners – How this compromises the health of those who have complex medical histories.

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Having a complex medical history makes a visit to the doctor incredibly difficult. The constant explaining is exhausting, and it gets in the way of addressing the actual problem itself. This is a dangerous state of affairs which puts people at risk. The answer to this is to have a regular General Practitioner who you see every time and who knows your medical history well.

However, becoming registered and managing to book an appointment with a regular GP, appears to be so much harder than it once was. I remember growing up with a family GP, who both of my parents saw and then who I saw in turn. I wonder, does this even happen anymore? Recently, on moving to Eastbourne, I have registered with a new medical surgery. Since doing so, I have been having so many issues in booking an appointment and in managing to see the same GP. After posting about my frustrations on my twitter account, it seems I am not alone. Understaffing at surgeries, lack of available GP’s and the inability to see the same GP consistently, seem to be common issues.

I dread seeing a GP. Being transgender, I’m often faced with the problem of the “Trans broken arm syndrome”. This is where whatever symptom you present with, the doctor somehow magically links it to your being trans. I have lost count of how many times I have sat in a GP’s office, with a complaint which has nothing to do with my gender transition, and they then spend the entirety of my allotted ten-minute appointment time asking questions about why I am taking testosterone. They sit there, glued to their screen, brow furrowed, clearly not hearing a word I am saying. I then must explain I was assigned female at birth, I am transgender, I have undergone gender transition, blah blah blah. You would think that being medical professionals, they would be exempt from problematic responses but no. I have had more than a handful of GP’s make comments such as, “You really can’t tell,” or, “Which way are you going?” and most recently, “Oh, so originally you were a female”. By the time this humiliating exchange is over, so is my appointment. I either don’t get an accurate diagnosis or I am so demoralised I simply can’t sit there any longer.

Additionally, my mental health issues mean that I require regular monitoring from a GP. I am currently in the middle of a serious flare up of depression and anxiety, this means I often need medication reviews and fit notes for claiming benefits. My mental health history is complex and every time I see a new doctor, I must explain all of this first. Inevitably, this gets tangled up with my gender transition medical history. I again then find myself using up my ten minutes explaining my history, rather than my current presenting issue. Whilst both of these factors can, of course, impact my mental and physical health, a GP who doesn’t know me is often too quick to just assign my presenting issue to one of them, without looking deeper into the issue. These reasons are why it is so important for me to be able to see the same doctor every time, I can then get all of this over with the first time I see a new GP. From then on, appointments can be kept to the point of why I am there, and I can feel like a patient rather than a medical fascination.

I was lucky in Devon that my local GP surgery wasn’t too busy. I could get an appointment fairly easily and could see the same GP each time. This means that I managed to avoid the above issues and had great support from my regular GP. This has not been the same for my medical surgery in Eastbourne. I rarely manage to see the GP I am assigned, seeing random doctors each time I visit. This means I am back to facing the same issues again and it has been very stressful and frustrating. For the last six months, I have been seriously mentally and physically unwell. I know my mental health challenges inside out, I knew that the way my moods have been presenting are unlike any mental health flare up I have had before. I have said this every time I have visited a GP. However, I do not feel any of the GP’s I saw actually heard me. Instead, they focused on my gender transition or attributed my symptoms to my mental health issues. My anti-depressants have been increased at most visits, despite my stressing that the increases haven’t helped and that I feel that something else is going on.

A couple of months ago, on discussing a strange symptom of numbness and pins and needles in my hand, I had a breakthrough with one of the GP’s I saw. He diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome and explained that it could be a symptom of an underlying cause. He referred me to another GP at the surgery for treatment and for blood tests. This felt like amazing progress. However, the specialist GP I was booked to see went off sick. The receptionist rang me to cancel the appointment and to tell me that there was nobody else who could do it. My name would be put on a list and I would be contacted. Unfortunately, this is when issues at my medical surgery became even worse. The problems then escalated from not being able to see the same GP, to not being able to see a GP at all.

Due to severe staff sickness issues, all bookings ahead of time were cancelled. Instead, to see a doctor, you are asked to telephone in the morning at 8am or in the afternoon at 2pm, to be seen that day. This is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it is remarkably like the yearly race to the post to get Glastonbury Festival tickets. You constantly hit refresh and by the time you get through all the tickets have gone. I’ve even tried using two phones. I’ve spent many a morning sat with my mobile in one hand and my landline in the other. Both speakers echoing the words, “Sorry, all our receptionists are busy, please hold and we will answer as soon as we can.” This is frustrating for anyone of course, but when you are a person who relies on regular GP interaction to stay well, it is an absolute nightmare.

Over the last two months since then, I have had to fight to see a GP, to have the blood request initiated and to then have the blood test itself. Having had the test, now there was the unnecessarily complicated procedure of obtaining the results. I became so frustrated with the constant failure to get an appointment that I gave up. I am so exhausted and low all the time, waking up at 7.30 and hitting redial until finally my call is answered forty minutes later to be told, “Sorry all appointments are gone,” was just making me feel worse. I decided that things must be okay with the results. If there was anything which needed to be addressed surely, I would get a call, or my notes would say something to alert a receptionist when I called?

On a more recent and desperate visit to the medical surgery, I asked the receptionist if it was instead possible to print out my blood test results. The receptionist looked on her computer notes and said, “You need to see a doctor”. I tell you it was all I could do not to fall on the floor in a fit of hysteria! Gathering myself together I felt relief, on the request from an actual GP to see me, I expected this would by-pass the staffing issues and I’d be prioritised for an appointment. Shockingly no, the receptionist apologised and said I needed to just keep trying at 8am and 2pm.

Finally, after a couple more weeks of trying, I managed to see a GP last Friday. It was another one I hadn’t seen before. Luckily, I did not find myself having to explain my entire medical history, likely because my medical issue was at last clear. The GP informed me that I have hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid. Alongside this, I also have low vitamin D and high cholesterol which are apparently side effects of Hypothyroidism. An underactive thyroid causes a myriad of symptoms, two of which are extreme fatigue and depression. This could very well explain why my low mood has been so bad for the last six months and why I’ve felt so utterly exhausted.

This is the reason why it is vital that those of us with complex medical issues assert ourselves. It is all too easy in a ten-minute snapshot, especially with an unfamiliar GP whose focus is on our past rather than the present, to miss an important health concern. I am aware that the NHS is under a ton of strain and there is a general lack of NHS GP’s.  However, there must be a solution to this in the meantime. GP’s do most certainly need more training around healthcare for transgender individuals . I also think this is the same for patients who have mental health diagnosis, as the same problem exists of seeing the condition rather than the patient. It may also help to develop new guidelines for people with conditions that require constant monitoring, to be prioritised and to have an allocated doctor so that there is consistency in diagnosis and treatment. In the meantime, those of us with unusual or complex medical histories, need to be persistent with our GP surgeries. We must make sure we strongly advocate for ourselves to be seen and heard so that we can get the treatment we need to stay well.

Day 3 of #365daysofselfcare

This Blog is part of the #365daysofselfcare challenge

2018-05-03_00.38.03-01Today can best be described as a, ‘wading through treacle’ day.

I had a  counselling this morning. It helped to share how I’m feeling and to vent my frustrations at my additional health issues. Having someone to talk to is so vital.

I felt quite lost once back home and very frustrated with myself. I did lots of gentle talking to myself  and reminding myself that my feelings were both understandable and valid.

I managed to find some motivation later in the afternoon and made a video for my channel. I also made nutrient packed salad despite the temptation to buy junk.

However, I wasn’t mindful of the time and sat editing my video until almost 1am. I tried not to get cross with myself and just set the morning alarm for a couple of hours later.

I decided it would be helpful to take a little more time to wind down before getting into bed, so I made myself a hot chocolate and sat in bed reading a chapter of a book before turning of the light and settling down at 1.45am

Tomorrow is a new day.

 

 

The 365 Days Of Self-Care Challenge

self care by finnThe last couple of weeks have been good mental health weeks for me. In realising the need to let go of some old ideas and refocus my direction, I have felt a welcome awakening of hope and possibility. I have really enjoyed feeling motivated and driven, a feeling that has been greatly lacking for several months now.

However, over this bank holiday weekend, I feel my mood has lowered somewhat. I have been finding it hard to get out of bed again. After making huge strides in getting my comfort eating under control, I have reverted to using Ben and Jerry’s as a mood lifter. The salad has gone brown in my fridge and the tomatoes have withered.

I find it extremely hard not to overthink things when a mood change happens. Being in a dark place is incredibly painful and when the light returns and warms my skin, I want to grab hold of it and never let it go again. When it inevitably does, the sadness of it leaving, in turn, adds another layer to the low mood. I begin to worry about how long the sun will be gone for and what I can do to get it back. My head churns over the question, “Am I going to feel like I did last week again or was that a one-off fluke?”.

When a shift in mood happens, I serve myself much better by just accepting that it is how it is. It may just be a low couple of days, it may just be because I’m tired. It may be because our British weather is as bipolar as my mood. Last week we had the ‘Beauty from the West’ and I was on the beach with my shirt off. This week we have the ‘Beast from the East’ and I am wearing the entire contents of my wardrobe whilst hiding indoors from the torrential rain.

Adapting to my mood is the most useful thing I can do rather than worry about it. After all, that is the entire reason as to why I have reorganised my life. Rather than my life having to come to a halt every time I cycle into a low phase, I am building a life that works around whatever mood I am in.

The most useful tool in any mental health tool kit is self-care. Adapting our self-care to how our moods present is vital. I know this, but when a low mood hits, all ideas of self-care go out of the window and I have to use every effort to make myself grab that tool kit, find something, and use it. Conversely, when I am on the upswing of a mood, I can forget that I need to still use self-care because I feel okay.

Self-care is vital for everyone but even more so for those of us who struggle with our mental health. Regardless of our mood, we must always make time every day for it. Some days, self-care is simply a promise to ourselves not to beat ourselves up when we simply can’t get out of bed. Other days it’s making sure we stop working at a sensible time in the day and reward ourselves with a warm bath or put our feet up with a film.

I need self-care more than ever now if I am going to venture into a new business of writing for a living. I need to make sure it stays being the positive thing that I intend it to be, not another reason to put pressure on myself and beat myself up when I’m not feeling on top form.

I noticed the hashtag #365daysofselfcare on twitter and felt intrigued. Researching its origins led me to a website called ‘Blurt’ who describe themselves as a ‘A social enterprise dedicated to helping those affected by depression’. On their website, there is a self-care starter kit which is available for free download and it contains a wealth of wonderful self-care information. The idea is to make self-care a daily habit and they encourage people to share each day of their self-care journeys using the hashtag #365ofselfcare on their social media platforms.

This is such a fantastic idea, it will keep me accountable and serve to remind me to practice self-care every day. It also means I can connect with other people across social media who are also on this journey. Connecting with people with similar experiences is another vital tool in any mental health toolkit.

I would love you to join me over on Twitter and Instagram with this! Tell me about your own journey with self-care, how do you find it? What works for you?

Keep on keeping on my friends!

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