Wednesday, 14 December 2016

ALARM BELLS!! MENTAL HEALTH BLOG!! LOOK BUSY AND PRETEND YOU'RE FINE! By Sam Jones

Hello everyone,

Forgive the dramatic heading but I think it's one that most of us can relate to in some degree!

Before I start, I just want to say a huge thank you to the inspirational movement #itaffectsme, the incredible charity 'Mind' and the brave documentary 'Suicide and Me' by Professor Green for making me see that opening up and sharing advice can do so much good and provide encouragement and support to people who feel alone. 

I have seriously thought about describing my battle with anxiety, OCD and depression for a long time but until recently I had been too scared to share my story. Too frightened and concerned with other people's opinions of me. The fact is who the hell wants to talk about mental health? I often find myself whispering about it like its some horrible secret or telling people that 'I'm fine' when the truth is I'm terrified. 

Thankfully, the stigma surrounding mental health is being slowly broken down but, at the end of the day, the biggest killer in the UK for men under the age of 45 is suicide. In the 6000+ British lives lost to suicide each year 75% are men. This alarming statistic is frightening and I want to share with you my experiences of it in the hope of encouraging other men and women to talk too. Please know that this blog is absolutely not a self indulgent cry for attention nor is it simply a negative, cynical moan and a whinge about how unfair life is. If it ever comes across that way I can only apologise wholeheartedly! 

So, I have dealt with anxiety and OCD for the best part of fifteen years but depression has only affected me for about four years now on and off. Lately, I have been fighting my way through a particularly tough time with it. However, on the upside, the feeling of desperation and loneliness it has caused has become the catalyst to write it down, get it off my chest and try and do something positive with it and reach out. Even if it just helps to reassure others that they're not the only ones who are feeling like this too.

The worst thing about mental illness is that it makes me feel totally alone. Even when I am with my friends and family I still feel isolated. I can't wait to get away from everyone and be by myself because I am constantly questioning and judging my every action, my every word and my every thought under the microscope. I set myself an impossible moral code to live by and I am terrified of making mistakes or causing any hurt to anyone. My mind literally feels like a battleground and the noise is so great that I can't listen to people properly and I can't concentrate on what they're saying.

I then feel worse and beat myself up for not giving the people talking to me the attention they deserve. I start to form compulsions to cope with the never ending barrage of intrusive thoughts and self criticism. I then further panic that people are starting to notice these obscure ticks I have created as a coping strategy and I lose my confidence. I can't look at people in the eye. I am so full of tension (the physical pain in my neck and shoulders is intense) and I can't breathe properly. I am hyperventilating and panicking and feel like I am literally just shutting down. I start to withdraw from everyone around me. Even those I love the most. Finally, when I've gotten home and I can be by myself and scrutinise my behaviour and thoughts, I feel even more lonely and I miss those people like crazy. 

As the anxiety worsens the depression creeps in. An overwhelming and deep sadness that I just cannot shift or shake off. It makes me feel completely helpless and worthless. I avoid people and situations and I lose interest in most activities. Even the things I love to do. 

I start to feel like I don't belong anywhere. That I am merely existing. Nothing feels very real. And as I stand there in front of the mirror I see a frightened boy. No self esteem, no confidence. Just this emptiness and defeat. I feel a dark shadow creep down from my head and through my neck and my shoulders and into my body and through the tears I shout at myself I hate you, I fucking hate you.....

So.......haha! HASHTAG AWKWARD!! Now that's me at my very worst and thankfully it is rare that it gets to that state of despair but the last six months have created some truly horrendous experiences and to gloss over them would defeat the point of this blog. 

However, it is not all doom and gloom! I want this to be a space where I can share my thoughts and find some constructive and ultimately positive ways to combat what is a highly destructive and prevalent disorder.

As I said earlier, I have had anxiety for the best part of my life. I can remember as early as 7 becoming very panicked about getting ill or something happening to my family when I was at school. I vividly remember crying in the corridor and pleading with my Mum not to leave me. This episode reached its peak when I eventually managed to convince myself I might have appendicitis and ended up staying overnight in hospital even though I just had a bad stomach!

This initial episode of anxiety only lasted my first term in Junior school and even though it was very distressing at the time I very quickly got over it after my hospital visit and anxiety didn't rear its ugly head again until I was 13. 

This time the anxiety disorder manifested itself as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or to be more exact 'Pure O'. I'm not too sure about this label though because even though the sufferer doesn't perform any clear physical rituals they still carry out mental compulsions to provide short term relief from their obsessive thoughts. The very nature of Pure O attacks your most important and moralistic beliefs. The thoughts are usually very shocking or violent and the feelings or sensations that accompany the thoughts have literally paralysed me at times to the point that I can't breathe or even move. I think the panic is that if I allow the feeling then that is somehow tantamount to the action that I despise.  

I am now 29 and my OCD has taken a variety of themes over the last 15 years but at the core has always been intrusive thoughts. Now I could go into more detail about the panic attacks and the feeling of sheer dread but ultimately I have found that reliving the past is not beneficial for anyone. Sure, it is helpful to learn about the condition, about what makes me susceptible to it and the various spikes or triggers that created the vicious cycle but it isn't going to enable me or anyone else to defeat it. 

So, what solutions can we find to help us through these dark times and what can we start to look forward to in the future....

Firstly, it is clear that people with anxiety disorders possess wonderful imaginations, creative intellect and a huge emotional capacity. As an actor myself, I have always found it easy to naturally engage in my feelings and emotions. When applying this to my craft it is brilliant but when I become bored and the anxiety disorder creeps back into my life it can become very destructive. I need to, therefore, learn how to discipline my emotions and to know when it is helpful to engage and when it really isn't helpful at all! 

Here are my 3 absolutes that I have learnt so far:
1. Control - Illusion
2. Fear (False Evidence Appearing Real) - Illusion
3. Choice - Real
Some of the activities I have found useful are:

  1. Running! I cannot recommend this enough. It has helped me to differentiate between serious pain and what is just simply pain. When I'm running many times my mind will tell me that I'm hurting or to stop but the goal of finishing the race or achieving a PB is too strong and I find the mental toughness to carry on. As the awesome orator Eric Thomas said 'At the end of your feelings is nothing. But at the end of every principle is a promise.' I have ran a couple of half marathons in the last year for Mind charity too and knowing what the donations raised were going towards was really inspiriting. Also the endorphins are highly infectious! 
  2. Boxing! I have recently restarted going to Total Boxer Gym. The craft actively engages your mind in the present and it very clearly physicalises the mental battle you are going through. It is also really fun to workout in a group and support and encourage others when they are really being pushed. Again, it is a brilliant release of endorphins.
  3. Headspace! This app on my phone is fantastic. Only ten minutes a day and it really helps you to engage in the present. 
  4. To stop reliving bad episodes of anxiety. I have a tendency to to be my own worst enemy and replay moments in my life when I could have acted better over and over again. 
  5. Not accommodating your anxiety. Anxiety is not determined by Geography.
  6. Taking responsibility. I am very blessed with two unbelievably patient and caring parents who listen to my problems and offer sound advice but sometimes I need to learn to take on the responsibility of getting better myself because although daunting at first it is empowering in the end.
  7. Counselling and therapy. I personally found the service that 'Mind' provides to be extremely helpful. Talking to someone impartial who has no preconceptions of who you are is very liberating.
  8. To have the courage to be open about how you're feeling will lead you to meet others who understand and have experienced mental illness too whether it be personally or they have provided support to others in the past. As my best mate said the other day "You know Sam, it's like that advert 'It's good to talk'." 
  9. Setting yourself goals and being patient and kind to yourself. Resist the temptation to scrutinise your behaviour and beat yourself up. Everyone makes mistakes so change your negative inner dialogue with positive affirmations. For example if you have a fear of drowning then swimming out of your depth is probably very frightening. This fear could grow until you can't even talk about swimming or water without feeling a sense of panic. An ignorant person would tell you "What are you worrying about. Just jump in and you'll be fine." But instead one day you might decide 'I'm going to go to the leisure centre and sit by the pool.' Then a week later you might decide 'I'm going to swim in the shallow end.' Eventually after being patient and celebrating these huge achievements you will swim in the deep end again. Celebrate your achievements however small they may seem. You're great and you need to tell yourself that and believe it! 
  10. Simple acts of kindness and gratitude to others.
If you have managed to make it this far thank you so much for taking your time to read what I wanted to share with you. This year has been one of immense highs and lows. Lately, it has been very low and turbulent but by still having faith in myself, counting my blessings and having the incredible support of my family and friends I am looking forward to 2017, improving my self belief and acquiring peace of mind. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas full of love and light and remember that you are never alone! Talk, talk, talk!! 

Happy Christmas and here's to an awesome 2017!! 

Big love,
Sam


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