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.

Perspective is everything

After being pulled back to my writing after a short hiatus, I have just re read my last few blog entries with a pang of sadness. My last post was a hugely positive post about hospitals and how for me they are a place of hope and to be honest, right now I feel very differently. My recent hospital experiences have been anything but positive and to be frank, have at times bordered on being traumatic.

The last 6 weeks have been incredibly difficult, both emotionally and physically. I unfortunately did not have the surgery I was expecting to have and in fact have had to return to hospital a second time after it was apparent that something had gone awry after the first surgery. This means it has turned out to not be the final surgery in my surgical transition after all and this has been and continues to be, overwhelmingly  difficult to come to terms with. This hasn’t been helped by poor hospital care and lack of communication from my consultant as to what exactly has gone wrong and how its been corrected. I am fully aware that this journey is a difficult one with bumps in the road and set backs on route but strength to deal with that comes, partly at least, by being able to trust those whose hands you are in the care of. To top it all off my best friend suddenly died, he was found in his bed, appearing to have died in his sleep and we still have no answers as to why.

All this has left me rather lacking in the ability to feel very positive about anything at all and reading my last post now is a strange experience considering how different I feel. I want to get back to that place but I am just not there yet. However, on re reading that post, it strikes me that its less about my views on hospitals but is more accurately about perspective and in fact a fair few of my writing pieces are. This is a fact that has just struck me but does not surprise me at all.

The reason for this is because I have undergone a huge change in perspective which happened to me quite suddenly beginning in the August of 2010.  I personally see it as an awakening, and as someone who leads a spiritual life I do in fact see it as a spiritual awaking. The trouble is that this conjures up a lot of eye brow raising for people who don’t have the same leanings so I stick with the term change in perspective because they really are, at least as I see them, one and the same. This perspective change was such a shift in how I viewed myself, the world and my response to it, that despite it being 6 years now since this happened, it still astounds me daily just how different I am. This is then why it’s not surprising that most of my writing is centred around this concept, even if it’s not explicit.

Re reading my last blog entries and being reminded of the importance of this perspective change, has made me realise that it is not positivity I need to concentrate on, or worry about, or try to conjure up. Positivity or negativity is the outcome of perspective and this fact has just this second dawned on me.

To attempt to explain, I am someone who talks a lot about positive thinking, but I always qualify it by saying that positive thinking isn’t about sticking a false smile on your face and pretending everything is OK when it isn’t. I always say that positive thinking is about acknowledging the difficulty you are facing, allowing yourself to feel it, whilst at the same time focusing on what you can do about it, even if all you can do at the time is accept that the difficulty is there. In this way, you are presenting yourself with a choice, to fall solidly on the side of the difficulty, allow yourself to sink into the negative feelings of life being bad and it all being hopeless, or to fall on the side of, as in the example above, having to just accept the difficulty is how it is at this moment. Accepting in this way is active not passive and so presents a more positive approach. This choice of two options is perspective, you are giving yourself a different option from which to choose and in doing so, by deciding your perspective, this then has the potential to lead to the outcome of either negativity of positivity.

I believe you can always choose your perspective, but of course you first need to be aware of different views, to then have different perspectives to choose from. My initial perspective change was one I still cannot fully explain, it came to me as a result of engaging with a 12-step recovery program. I have a feeling it was in connecting to a deeper, unconscious aspect to myself, (which again for fear of alienating some readers I am going to attribute to finding a spiritual connection to a Higher Power) that paved the way. The perspective changes since have then snowballed due to actively working on my self – development and self-awareness and purposely seeking out different ways of relating to my emotions, to people and to the world.

Life is one of many ups and downs, happiness and hardship come and go and we cannot choose which one we get at any time. However, we can choose how we respond to each of these when they arrive which in turn then determines how we feel. The fact is that now I can choose my perspective and do so often, which is what has helped me to deal with difficulty, respond to events rather than react and to keep a largely positive way of living. With everything that has happened recently I think I forgot this fact, or maybe I chose to forget as I felt a bit sorry for myself and wanted a bit of wallowing time. I am not going to berate myself about that as it has been such a tough time and so is not surprising. Either way, it is time to stop worrying about my lack of positivity and instead concentrate on where my perspective lies.

This whole situation, in terms of my surgical transition journey, requires an active seeking out of different perspectives so that I have some to choose between. I think its likely that I had become so blinkered by my excitement at being so close to the finish line that I’d forgotten other less favourable outcomes were possible. And of course, although I wouldn’t want to choose the less favourable outcomes, accepting their existence is vital in approaching this surgery as it is an incredibly complex surgery with multiple potential risks and problems.

Initially in my surgery journey I was focusing on one stage at a time, I purposefully didn’t look ahead to the final surgical result as I knew that was too much of a leap ahead being that this surgery can take a few years to complete and would ultimately make the journey feel too daunting. I think this is a useful perspective to return to after all these recent complications with my surgery. My perspective choices now are that I can either look at it that my surgical journey was almost finished and I’m now a few steps backwards and needing extra surgery before my final stage, which is unbearably painful. Or I can choose to hold in mind that of course the ultimate goal is to be finished but right now I’m working towards a correction of the currently presenting issue so that the final surgery can be completed in a manner that will ensure good long term functioning. By choosing the second of these perspectives, It means I can find a way to see this recent surgery, and the extra unexpected one I will now need in a couple of months’ time, as positive ones as they are step forward in correcting the issues I currently have.

Even today I am seeing the benefits of remembering the value and power in choosing ones’ perspective, I have felt more at peace with all that has happened and have also surprisingly found things I feel positive about. I know that all this doesn’t mean I am now suddenly going to be OK, I have had a succession of high stress events, my mental and physical health have suffered, I will have to make a lot of changes to my plans and dreams for this year and its going to take some time to recover from all this but that’s where the balance I spoke about earlier comes into play. I am not trying to pretend everything is OK, I am not trying to force the positivity, I instead am working to accept that this is where I am right now and then look at small ways I can begin to choose a different perspective in order to be able to allow the positivity to return in its own good time