As it’s currently Mental Health Awareness week I thought I’d do something a little bit different on the blog today by sharing some of my struggles and strategies.
There’s two distinct but intertwining elements to my mental health issues.
The first element came into my life as a teenager. my periods started, hormones kicked in and with them came raging PMT. Not that I ever acknowledged that was the case. Too embarrassed to even talk about my menstrual cycle I chose to blame my regular mood swings and vile outbursts on the “idiots” I was surrounded by. My family and others close to me suffered terribly as every month I became verbally and even, on occasion, physically abusive, along with being moody as hell and self-loathing. By my 30s I was finally ready to acknowledge that what was going on was actually my stuff, part of chemical switches that occur in my brain as my hormone balance shifts throughout the cycle and now in my late 40s I’m fascinated by how the shift in my hormone shifts as I move through perimenopause into menopause means that new patterns are emerging, but those same depressive feelings are the result.
So that’s my hormones doing their thing, but something else can often be at play in negatively impacting my mental health and that is the situations and circumstances I sometimes find myself in. These mostly centre around romantic relationships and what I now recognise as my inability to retain a sense of myself when I’m in them coupled with a fear of being alone which keeps me in them for far too long, but have also included a period of bullying at work (that introduced to chronic anxiety for the first time too) and a badly timed move to Poland amongst others.
And you may have already worked out that when I’m in a shitty situation and start feeling meh my hormones start to go haywire too exacerbating the issue. This mainly happens because when I start to get depressed I stop doing the things that minimise the impact my hormones have on my mood, namely I eat crap; I don’t exercise; I entertain and even actively encourage negative thoughts and basically do anything and everything to send me spiralling downwards.
I’ll be honest with you, whilst I’ve never thought about committing suicide there have been times when I wished my life would end and I’ve had extended periods of time where even getting out of bed every day was a major challenge and actually getting showered and dressed was beyond my capabilities.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Most of the time now I feel mentally well and when I feel it starting to slip I have a fabulous toolkit of stuff that I use to help me get back on top.
Before I share with you what those tools are though I want to be totally honest with you. I currently take, and have for a long time now, a daily antidepressant – the SSRI, Fluoxetine to be precise.
I started taking them during my infamous divorce which in the end took longer to get through than the length of the marriage itself (18 month marriage versus 2 year divorce in case you were wondering). A long conversation with my doctor convinced me that
- I wouldn’t have the reticence to taking drugs if it were a heart condition we were managing and…
- The level of depression I was experiencing was too severe to climb out of without a little push (this was deep in the not getting dressed and wishing I was dead phase).
After the divorce was settled I slowly came off the tablets whilst at the same time working really hard on improving my physical health and diet. I was at my physical peak, eating in a way designed to boost hormonal health and yet once a month I still sloped down into a pit of despair that made going to work difficult as I often couldn’t stop crying and was exhausted all the time and managing unjustified outbursts towards my nearest and dearest and their aftermath was a daily struggle.
Another conversation with my doctor and we agreed that I’d try going back onto a low dose of the fluoxetine and low and behold, within three months the psycho Sara who jumped out of the closet every month for a week or two was firmly locked away. And that’s why I to this day take SSRIs. Because for me they help. They turn my normal hormonal pattern into a socially acceptable hormonal pattern and allow me to function daily.
At times I have, with the agreement of my doctor, upped my dose temporarily to manage situations when I could feel myself sinking and I also had to switch to a different type of medicine when anxiety struck to stop me chewing my nails to the bone and avoid having a nervous breakdown over my failure to watch everything I’d recorded on the TV!?!?!
But the tablets are only a small part of what keeps me sane, so here’s some of the other stuff I do to help me be ok:
- I talk to people (both professionals in the form of therapy and trusted friends/family). No longer ashamed of my periods or my mental health foibles I recognise that talking about this stuff serves multiple purposes. It helps me reduce the problem to a manageable size rather than being an insurmountable obstacle, it helps me reframe the issue and sometimes even reveals that the problem isn’t there at all.
- I meditate. I have a free app called Insight Timer on my phone and I use it daily (sometimes more than once). Even when I’m sinking into a CBA phase I make sure that I at least put on some meditative music when I turn off the light to go to sleep at night and regularly turn to it during periods of insomnia. For me it helps that this app tracks how many days in a row you meditate for and awards stars (gotta love a star chart) and there’s also a HUGE variety of stuff on there to listen to.
- I eat right. Part of the reason for doing the pickle workshop was because I know how important a healthy gut is to ensuring a healthy brain (something like 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut) and after having strep throat and taking antibiotics to kill the infection my gut needed all the help it could get. The pickles have now all gone and tomorrow sees me starting off a new batch of what will now be a regular feature on my plate along with lots of fresh veggies and fruit – this is the year that, if I don’t discover my Nutribullet at the bottom of a box in my storage unit, I will buy myself a blender and become the smoothie queen of Kampot.
- I laugh. At other people, with other people, at stuff on the internet but more often than not at myself. Life’s too short to take yourself too seriously.
- I employ the mantra of not my circus, not my monkeys and I encourage others to do the same.
- I’m grateful. Grateful for my health, for my beautiful family and friends, for sunshine and rain, for mangoes, coffee, good red wine and gin, for the simple things and a lot more besides.
- I exercise. Not a gym bunny and don’t want to be, but I do have to admit I always feel better when I’ve been for a walk or a bike ride or a swim so it needs to be part of my routine. I also love meditative exercise such as Qi Gong and try to combine some with a bit of stretching when I’m on a mission to be well.
- I listen to music – creating eclectic playlists with quirky names to match my mood or needs and adding to them when I hear a song I love is a favourite of mine. As is listening to radio two while I’m pottering about at home (though obviously not outside as my intolerant neighbour is likely to shout at me if I do).
- I make stuff. Creative stuff makes me very happy and is one of the reasons I am actually really enjoying teaching the tinies at school. Every day we do some kind of craft activity and I think I generally enjoy it as much if not more than the kids do.
- I write. My blog is a way of making sense of what happens in my life and also a way of connecting with the people who read it.
So there you have it, my mental health wrapped up in a blog. It really is ok to not be ok.
BTW, if stress is an issue for you, you might be interested in this article that I wrote a while back and now sits on my allthingssaraperry.co.uk site: Address your Stress