Sunday, 31 January 2016

Walking on Sunshine by Rachel Kelly

The illness first took hold for me one night, almost two decades ago, when I found myself at the mercy of a terrifying enemy.

The evening started innocently enough. My husband was then a junior banker and still in the office. I was cocooned at home, on maternity leave from my job as a news reporter for The Times, with our young sons. The previous few months had been that mix of wonderful, gruelling chaos particular to young children.

Tentatively, anxiously, though, I had begun to think about returning to work. Surely it was time to get back to normal as the tsunami of sleepless nights seemed to be passing. Wasn’t it?

First, though, the task at hand. I took the boys upstairs for bath time. After a good splash, I lay them on their towels kissing their round tummies, and smiled as I watched them coo back at me.

Then it dawned on me that something wasn’t right. 

My heart started racing.

Somehow, I put the boys to bed. Later that night I couldn’t fall asleep. I even thought I might be having a heart attack. I paced the house, checking and re-checking the children. Each time I returned to bed, my anxiety sent new worries spinning around my head, like a skater carving ever-deeper patterns into a frozen lake.

Morning did not bring relief. Often a little nervous, now my worries expanded, terrifying me.

They were no longer the more quotidian fears of juggling work and home that I had entertained in what now seemed a gentle introduction to the madness. Now I didn’t worry about getting to sleep or being a good wife or mother. Now I imagined that my children would die.

I felt as if there were two of me and my thoughts had been diverted to someone else’s head. Soon, it was as if she were strapped in a plummeting plane. ‘I’m going to crash!’ she screamed, over and over. Every bit of me was in acute, dynamic agony. It felt as if a swarm of wasps were stinging the inside of my skull.

A doctor was called. My mother and husband held me down so I could be sedated. I lost a stone in weight in just a few days. And within three days I had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with clinical depression, an illness I had hitherto known very little about, let alone thought I might be susceptible to.

I recovered, only to have a second breakdown in 2003, a few months after the birth of our twins and began in the middle of a Christmas party I was holding at our west London home. After a few hours of playing the perfect hostess, I walked out, barefoot, to my parents’ home just around the corner, let myself in, and sobbed.

This time, my depression lasted for over a year. The pattern with depression is rather like a watercolour. Each successive episode, like each successive brushstroke, is deeper and darker.

And this was dark. Days merged into nights. There was no getting up and no going to bed, no mealtimes, no dawn or dusk. All signposts of daily life had gone. The only respite was to knock myself out with sedatives.

That was then. Now, a decade later, I dare to describe myself as calm, steady and well. I feel I live a simpler, more grounded life. I have had therapy, and am no longer driven by anxiety and trying to please. Some days I even feel as if I’m walking on sunshine. I feel I have my ‘Black Dog’, as Churchill famously described depression, on a tight leash.

For I finally got the message. I needed to make radical changes in my life and deploy every weapon in my arsenal to manage my tendency to this kind of anxiety-driven depression. I had to stop trying to be everything to everyone.

I have embraced exercise – breaking a sweat is the best antidote to my anxiety -- I use mindfulness, find poetry helpful, am careful to eat ‘happy foods’ like green leafy vegetables and dark chocolate, and use a toolbox of different small, doable, every day strategies.

My work life has changed too: now I run workshops for mental health charities including MIND and Depression Alliance, and like the brilliant itaffectsme campaign, I try and do what I can to reduce the terrible stigma which still surrounds those are mentally unwell.

Next year will mark nearly twenty years since I was first unwell. It seems almost impossible that I am the same woman who stayed up all night. I find myself generally calm and well thanks to my strategies. The story is not over, but my strength has been made a little bit more perfect in weakness – and sometimes I even walk on sunshine.

Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books £9.99 and is available to order on Amazon here. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelKellyNet or visit

Friday, 29 January 2016

Life Happened to My Arm by Anonymous

Just before Christmas, during a drunken, stupid argument with my boyfriend - I grabbed a pair of scissors from the table that I had been using earlier in the day to wrap up presents and I cut myself twice on my arm. I wasn't trying to kill myself, I wasn't trying to make any sort of point, I wasn't trying to be dramatic so he would rescue me. I wasn't thinking at all to be honest.

All I can put it down to the hours, the days I've spent picking apart what exactly happened in my mind at that moment to make me think that was the next step to take - is that for a second I snapped. I had a momentary melt down - a lapse in my usually rational mind.

I instantly regretted it, it was absolutely terrifying and awful for both my other half and myself - he was hurt, shocked, worried and angry. I really do have a happy life and although I have struggled with my mental health at times over the years and I have a bit of anxiety sometimes as many of us do - I've not had proper depression since I was in my teens. I've certainly not done anything like that for a very long time. I am very pleased to report that after lots of big chats with my other half and a good few appointment with a therapists - I'm back to doing ok again. Phew. Brilliant. 

Unfortunately though my arm isn't as ready to forgive and move on as my boyfriend was and so for the time being at least I have an angry red scar sitting about 2/3rds of the way up my forearm, reminding me and anyone who cares to look of how sad and desperate I felt in that moment. For the first few weeks after it happened I kept it firmly under a plaster and long sleeved top - then it started being an attention seeker, getting all red and rashy and demanding air. 

So I had to take off the plaster and resort to plan b of slathering it with all manners of "scar treatment" lotions and potions - turns out I'm allergic to just about all of them. So for the past few weeks, much to my great joy it's just been sitting there naked, healing at a slower pace than an Adele album.

Not being someone who bares the scars of self harm and struggles with it regularly - this world is new to me. I am so paranoid. I feel like everybody sees it and everybody knows. I feel like I might as well be walking around massive sign saying "BASKET CASE" - I feel like to any one who cares to gawk for long enough at me that I am at best careless with my Christmas wrapping, at worst - a dangerous depressive psychopath who shouldn't be trusted with anything or anyone. 

Of course I've lied to everyone, I told my Mum I burnt myself on the kettle, I told my friends I slipped while cutting my hair, I told. I was in a job interview the other day and one of the people on the panel asked me outright "what happened to your arm ?" I went bright red and said loudly "OH GOOOD I AM THE WORST COOK - DONT EVER READ AND CHOP, I LOOK LIKE A BLOODY MAD SELF HARMER DONT I ? FUCKS SAKE." I wanted the ground to swallow me. 

I don't think I feel shame because of what I did anymore. I'm gutted yes, but it happened. It happened because I was sad, drunk and I wanted to stop the hurting. That doesn't make me a terrible person. I learned from it and I'm trying my best to make sure it doesn't happen again. I'm being kind to myself. I think I feel shame because of what I feel everyone else thinks about me. I think I feel shame because I've had to lie. Because I felt like if I had told that interviewer the truth they wouldn't have given me the job. Because I feel even my very best friends would feel weird around me if I told them the truth, these the same girls who have held my hair and cooed assurances while I spewed in the toilet and cried after a post break-up vodka binge. Because that form of self harm is somehow ok. But this isn't. This isn't pretty or fun. 

Something I have realised - what I really want to say, when people say "What happened to your arm ?" Is this; "Life. Life happened to my arm." I want that to be an acceptable thing to say. I don't want people to recoil away, I don't want them to feel scared, I don't want them to try and fix me. I just want people to know and be accepting of the fact that sometimes people can feel fucking sad and out of control. More people than we think. Sometimes it's just for a second and sometimes it's a daily battle for life. But that doesn't define those people. It doesn't mean that it's all they are and all you should see them as. 

I know mental health issues are shit and sad. I know self harm isn't pretty. None of us like it. None of us want it to be in our conversations, in our lives or affecting those we love. But here's the thing guys - I am much less likely to feel all the shitty things I felt in that moment that led me to self harm if you just let me be honest. If it's not a big scary shameful secret. Even if I do it again, I am less likely to sink into a depression if I can find others who have experienced it and we can find strength in each other. 

The only way any of this can happen is if we take the stigma and the fear away. If you have a friend who you think may be struggling with self harm - my advice would be that if they want to talk, sit and listen to them. Don't push - don't tell them you think their lying if they want to blame it on the cats nails, but if they do find the bravery to admit the truth - just listen. Be there, ask if there is anything you can do that will help to support them, respect their answer - and then treat them exactly like you always have. Don't be afraid of them. This is how we change things. #itaffectsme


Selfie+post-it+donation+share= #itaffectsme
Text SUPPORT to 70660 to donate £3 to Mind

I wanted to tell the truth. And not the truth in a confessional, sit me in a box and say three hail Mary’s kind of way, although a Hail Mary from time to time does help I’ve found, but simply in a let’s talk about this because it’s important kind of way.

When I was nineteen I suffered from horrendous OCD, intrusive thoughts inside my head telling me that if I didn’t do or say or think certain things then those that I loved would die and that it would all be my fault. Since that first attack, I have suffered on and off from anxiety, depression, panic attacks and more OCD than you could sink a battle ship with, though I wouldn’t recommend trying unless you were wearing armbands and a helmet. 

It has affected my family, my life and my relationships. I say I “have suffered from” not as a victim but as a strong, confident young woman who never understood mental illness until she had it and suffered.

You wouldn’t know it if you met me as for those of you who do know me will know, I have an abrasively perky disposition, a positive outlook on life and a love of all things rude (noises/words/sounds).

I say “have suffered from” because it is suffering, it is crippling and it is exhausting.  I had seen it in family when I was growing up, but I never truly understood it until it felt like my own brain was attacking me.

Because that is what mental illness feels like, it feels like your brain, the thing inside of you which up until now you completely associated with your sense of identity and self, is on fire and on the attack and will not rest until you are flattened. It feels like someone has placed a blanket of lead over your head that no matter how hard you try you cannot (unlike Taylor Swift) shake it off. 

What is so hard about mental illness is that, unlike when you have broken your leg and you can clearly see all the “broken” bits, when your brain is broken it is so difficult to distinguish between what is you, your personality and what is the illness. This is one of the many reasons mental health is such a taboo subject and people feel uncomfortable talking about it because they don’t want to be thought of as crazy. What they do need to be thought of as is ill, unwell and poorly, all the same words that you would use for a cold or a gripey tummy.

When your mental health isn’t working properly or at its best, the same as if you broke your leg, it needs fixing and resetting. Many mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances or over-activity in the brain, others from traumatic experiences and some completely out of the blue.

The hardest thing about mental illness is pretending that you’re ok, it’s exhausting putting on a smile that doesn’t quite reach your eyes when all your body and mind is screaming for you to do is lie down, cry and not get up. 

You can’t pull yourself together because at that moment in time you don’t have the strength or cognitive ability to do so. You try to be ok and to seem fine because you don’t want anyone to worry, you don’t want to be a burden to your family and friends.

The kindest thing my best friend said to me when I was ill was, “You don’t need to pretend in front of me, take it ten seconds at a time”. Because that is all you can do, get through that first ten seconds and then another and then another and cling on. Because you will get through it. It is, although it may not feel like it at the time, temporary. Like all illnesses, it will get worse, better, worse, better, worse but things will change, it will pass and you will heal with time and help. 

And the best thing you can do is to talk about it, which is why I am writing this and why I created #itaffectsme. I am asking you all to take a selfie with a post-it note on your head, that says #itaffectsme, upload it to social media, donate to Mind and then share, share, share!

#itaffectsme is simply the statement that at some point in all our lives we have seen or known mental illness in ourselves or others and have been affected or moved by it.

And the selfie is to stop people having the need to hide, or be embarrassed by it, to show a united front and to express the universality of these illnesses. Mental illness has no prejudices about who it affects, so we should have no prejudices about it.

People are scared to talk about it and we need to change that. We tiptoe around the subject because we don’t know what to say or how to react but the best thing you can do is SAY THAT, say I don’t know, be ignorant and let someone tell you how they feel instead of guessing. Say ‘how are you?’ and actually mean it.

I want our children to grow up in a world where they are unafraid to ask to speak out and ask for help, which is why I am joining the campaign and signing the petition to get mental health education taught in schools. To make education a priority and to end stigma with knowledge.

The best thing I did when I was ill was to seek help, taking active steps immediately made my brain shift from a position of destruction to one of creation. I went to my GP, I went to a counsellor and finally I received cognitive behavioural therapy, all three together combined have been a life saver. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely fixed (none of us are) and I know it is something I will always battle with but when you have an army of troops on your side you can win. I’m not sure how my doctor, therapist, family and friends would feel about being called a troop but tough titty I'm afraid that’s what they are.

Mental illness is so so so so common, all of us will experience it at some point in our lives whether for ourselves or through a loved one. Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson have all suffered and spoken out about it, they are the tip of the iceberg. What we need to do is get educated and we need to talk because that is where true happiness and hope comes from: talking, communication and connection. Don’t hide and don’t let someone else hide.

Life is too short, too precious not to talk, not to tell the truth. So please, do it. #itaffectsme