Winterproofing

I tend to think of the clocks going back as a negative event: winter has always been a difficult time for me, bringing both physical illnesses and a decline in mental health. The past two winters have been particularly awful. Last winter, I was ill for nearly four months solid, with the flu, throat/chest infections and other viruses wreaking havoc. I couldn’t use the coping strategies I had put in place, as even the easiest took too much effort. My depression and anxiety got worse.

Sunrise

This year, I hope things will be different — but last winter has taught me that you can do almost everything “right” and still succumb to illness. 

There has been one benefit to the clocks going back that I haven’t appreciated/experienced in past years: the lighter mornings. Since I get up at 5am nowadays and take the dogs out around 6:10am, the change is obvious. We could walk up the lane again this morning, after being forced to take a different route (with streetlights) for the past few weeks. As you can see in the photo, the sunrise was glorious.

Prioritising Self-Care

While I can’t control everything, I am making sure I stick to my coping strategies and self-care activities. In particular, I am being strict about using my SAD lamp and exercising. I know it probably seems ridiculous to people who don’t understand how important these activities are in managing my mental health, but it’s necessary.

Sure, I feel like I’m being awkward when I tell my friends I can’t go out on the evenings I have gym classes, but I don’t want to risk damaging my mental health. My routine, combined with the physical exercise, helps me stay healthy. When I feel guilty for being so selfish, I remind myself that when I got ill last winter, I couldn’t socialise for weeks — being unavailable a few evenings a week is preferable to being unavailable throughout the winter months.

I’m also being stricter with strategies which I should implement more regularly/frequently than I do at present. Wanting to avoid a repeat of last winter is a great motivator! I’m trying to eat healthy meals, even if I eat junk as well, and making an effort to meditate. I know I could do better, but stressing out about not doing better is counterproductive…

Finding Pleasure in Winter

I have being trying to focus on my strengths and the positive aspects of my life recently, so I’m trying to take the same approach to winter. It can be difficult to appreciate the pleasurable side of the cold, wet and dark months, but it’s not impossible.

Winter creates the perfect atmosphere for reading ghost stories, which I enjoy. It’s also a good backdrop for hot chocolate, warm puddings and spicy curries. Brussels sprouts are in season, which I adore (seriously) and I can watch films or read without feeling I should be outside, enjoying the sunshine.

I like a lot of things about Christmas, too — though it can bring its own challenges. Seeing Christmas lights when walking the dogs, buying presents and listening to cheesy Christmas songs are all fun. It marks the winter solstice, so brings hope that spring will come. The days will get longer again and it feels like I’m progressing with the changing seasons — in theory, anyway! In the meantime, it’s back to ghost stories and hot chocolate.

Facing Down the Fear

I’m terrified of getting ill again. I dread feeling like I did last winter. However, worrying and getting stressed will only increase the likelihood of getting ill.

Instead, I’m attempting a more pragmatic approach. I will do everything I reasonably can to avoid getting ill (hence I got a flu shot last week, for the first time!), but I can’t beat myself up if I get ill. Whatever will be, will be.

It’s the same old story, really: there is no point in worrying about stuff which might or might not happen. Of course, knowledge and practice are different things — especially when you have anxiety…

I refuse to fixate on whether or not I will get ill. In fact, I accept that I probably will get a few viruses and colds. I accept that my depression will become more difficult to manage. But I can focus on what I’m able to do and put contingency plans in place.

Coping with winter is difficult, but I’m not completely powerless. I can choose to accept the possibility of illness while doing my best to keep it at bay. It’s my best chance of staying mentally and physically healthy.

Decluttering

Every so often, I get the urge to declutter. Not just to get rid of a few things, but to completely reassess and overhaul my possessions. I find it cathartic.

Note: Milo is not being recycled as part of my decluttering drive.

Decluttering is both mental and physical.

As you take stock of what you own, you take stock of your life. As you notice which objects are most important to you right now, you realise what is working well in your life – and what isn’t. You find that things which used to feel vital to you no longer matter and you can discard them without regret. Other stuff is hard to get rid of, although you know it’s for the best, because it means giving up a long-held notion of yourself and your life.

Hoarding has a strong psychological aspect; it stands to reason that the same is true for decluttering. In the western world in particular, we are brought up to measure our self-worth through what we own. More stuff = more value. Even when we think this through logically and realise it’s bullshit, this ideology keeps a stranglehold on us.

We can accept that we have far more stuff than we need, yet we cling to it. Even stuff which we know we will never use. Our stuff is something physical which we can point to and say “look, I must be worth something, because I have all this stuff.”

 

But you are valuable regardless of what you own.

Stuff doesn’t determine your true value. Many very rich people have lots of stuff but act unethically, harming others; many very poor people dedicate their lives to helping others. Who is worth more?

Of course, I’m not saying that all billionaires are bad and all poor people are good: I’m saying that everyone’s value is separate from what they own and how much money they earn. For every Philip Green who avoids paying a fair rate of tax (legally, though immorally) and conducts dodgy business deals (again, legally but immorally) while lavishing money on himself, there is a Bill Gates who donates substantial amounts of money to charity and uses his wealth to help make the world a better place. I don’t care what their bank accounts say – their actions determine their true worth.

The same is true for you and me: our actions are better measures of our value than our money and possessions.

 

Decluttering is a process – and a learning process.

I have read about extreme examples of decluttering and these examples can be intimidating. You find out that some people can fit all they own into a backpack and compare the idea to your mounds of clutter, which makes it seem like you are fighting a losing battle. But decluttering doesn’t have to be about your quest to become a minimalist.

My own decluttering process has been gradual. I started in earnest three years ago and while I continue to make small improvements regularly, I still have too much stuff. It doesn’t matter – it’s all progress.

Decluttering makes you consider your lifestyle and your ideal lifestyle. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, it feels like you will never marry the two, but as you declutter you will get closer. Decluttering also alters your spending habits as you become more considerate of the possessions you want in your life.

These changes may be gradual and you might not notice them for a long time, but they occur as decluttering changes your way of thinking. Your habits are likely to fluctuate, but there will be an overall improvement. For example, I still overspend sometimes (compulsive spending is a common symptom of borderline personality disorder), but less frequently than I used to and on things which I genuinely want. I no longer buy designer shoes just to cheer myself up or order thirty books from Amazon at a time.

 

Decluttering makes you consider your priorities.

Some of the stuff I have found most difficult to let go is stuff which represents a fantasy I had about myself. For instance, I kept my guitar for far too many years despite never learning to play it properly, because I liked the idea of playing guitar. In reality, it was never a priority. Decluttering forces you to look yourself in the eye and admit that many of the ideas you hold about yourself are untrue.

It’s hard, but when I let go of these untrue ideas about myself, I feel relief. I don’t have to learn to play guitar! I don’t have to live with the embarrassment of owning a musical instrument I can’t play! I no longer feel guilty about owning something I’ve barely used!

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have amped up my decluttering as I emerge from a difficult time in my life. Decluttering can be a way of coping. When I don’t know where to start, I pick a category (often clothes, since they wear out quicker than other possessions and my weight has changed a lot over the years) and get stuck in. Some things obviously need to be discarded, so the decision is easy. Other things I feel more ambivalent about and the decision is difficult, though feeling ambivalent is usually a sign I need to get rid of something, no matter how painful.

In this way, decluttering often mirrors decisions I have to make in life. It teaches me to trust my intuition, even as I cling to things which need to be discarded. It shows me that I can trust myself to make choices without regret.

 

Decluttering makes room for opportunity.

I love reading decluttering books, although I pick and choose what works for me rather than following some guru. I bought Marie Kondo’s second book, Spark Joy, at the weekend and loved reading her anecdotes about how clients’ lives have been changed through decluttering. She says that decluttering makes space for new opportunities, relationships, career changes, lifestyle transformations, etc. I agree – I feel less stressed on average and more focused since I started my decluttering crusade.

I like the analogy of decluttering as weeding your garden, allowing what you want to blossom. If you ignore the weeds, they will choke the flowers and vegetables you want to grow. Likewise, living with possessions which mean little to you and are rarely (or never) used makes it more difficult to enjoy the possessions and activities which mean the most to you.

Decluttering seems like such a small change, yet it can transform your life. I now live in an environment I love, instead of one I hated because it was crammed full of furniture and all kinds of crap – despite it being the exact same room. I can concentrate on achieving my goals and enjoying life when I can, instead of being obsessed with accumulating more stuff and then stressed about how to make a tiny bedroom accommodate that stuff. It costs nothing and is accessible to everyone – give it a try!

The Truth About Borderline Personality Disorder

It is difficult to explain borderline personality disorder adequately in a sentence or two, which means it doesn’t get talked about enough. I am guilty of failing to mention I have BPD, despite being open about having anxiety and depression, because it exposes me to ignorant, incorrect comments — sometimes by people who mean well — and people tend not to listen when I try to explain about BPD. So here is a very basic guide to the facts about borderline personality disorder and some of the most common misconceptions.

What is BPD?

Borderline personality disorder, or BPD, is a mental illness. The NHS website describes it as “a disorder of mood and how a person interacts with others.”

There are a range of symptoms associated with BPD, which are often grouped into 4 main areas:

• Emotional instability

• Disturbed patterns of thinking or perception

• Impulsive behaviour

• Intense but unstable relationships with others

It’s important to remember that everyone with BPD is individual and their symptoms manifest in various ways. Some symptoms seem to be opposites, such as promiscuity and withdrawal from relationships, although they may have similar roots and effects — such as avoiding long-term relationships.. For this reason, stereotypes of people with borderline personality disorder are particularly inaccurate and offensive.

 

What are the criteria for diagnosing BPD?

There are broad symptoms of which at least 5 must be present over a long period of time and/or have had an impact on your life in order to receive a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. These include:

• Intense emotions which can change quickly (and often for no apparent reason or reasons which seem trivial)

• Fear of abandonment

• A weak and/or changeable sense of identity

• Impulsive behaviours, such as binge eating, drug taking and mindless overspending

• Suicidal thoughts and/or self-harming

• Difficulty establishing and maintaining stable relationships

• Chronic feelings of emptiness and isolation

• Feeling angry and struggling to control anger

• When very stressed, feeling paranoid, experiencing psychosis and/or feeling dissociated

For a fuller explanation see Mind’s website. Diagnosis can be made only by a mental health professional — in my case, it was a psychiatrist. Diagnosing BPD requires assessment of a complex range of symptoms, so it often takes a long time to be recognised. I was diagnosed when I was 26, for example, despite having displayed the symptoms since my early teens.

 

Does having BPD mean there’s something wrong with your personality?

No. Borderline personality disorder doesn’t refer to character or traits which we think of as constituting someone’s personality. Neither is BPD a personality type, such as those indicated by the Myers-Briggs test (I’m an INFP on that, in case you were wondering!). The term “personality disorder” refers to a pattern of thinking, feeling and behaviour. The  connotations of “personality disorder” are unhelpful when people don’t realise what the term means, but this can be countered with education and information.

Some symptoms of BPD may be thought of as personality traits, such as impulsiveness, but it isn’t necessarily the case that people with BPD are naturally impulsive. You can be impulsive when your BPD symptoms are worse, but the opposite when your symptoms are under control. In this instance, impulsiveness is a behavioural symptom rather than an innate tendency.

Most aspects of people’s character or what we describe as personality are not affected by BPD, though symptoms may overshadow them. Even during my worst episodes of mental illness, my underlying personality remains the same.

 

Can BPD be treated?

Absolutely. Depending on the symptoms exhibited by an individual, there are a range of treatments which can be helpful in managing borderline personality disorder. These include medication, such as antidepressants, and talking therapies.

Dialectical behaviour therapy is noted for being particularly effective and was developed in order to treat BPD. Personally, I have found drama therapy and counselling very useful. I also use CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) techniques to cope with some of my symptoms.

There are many self-help strategies which can help. For example, I have found exercise and meditation very useful. I have learnt what works best for me over the years (and continue to learn). Lots of self-care strategies which are used for other mental illnesses are useful for people with BPD, so it’s worth doing some general research around mental health management to find ideas.

As with mental health problems in general, finding treatments which work for you is often a case of trial and error. Different treatments may work better at different times, depending on your symptoms and situation. This means it’s important not to dismiss possible solutions which didn’t work for you in the past.

 

Busting myths about BPD.

The amount of ignorance and misinformation concerning borderline personality disorder is a constant source of frustration. I have written previously about how annoying I find it when people call it a “terrible label” rather than a mental illness, which perpetuates these myths.

Here are some more common myths:

People with BPD are manipulative. Some symptoms of BPD may come across as manipulative, but that doesn’t mean they are intentionally manipulative behaviours. Even when someone’s behaviour is intentional, it’s still a symptom and they didn’t ask to have BPD — nobody would — so set boundaries and offer empathy rather than judgment.

People with BPD are a nightmare to live with. There is a degree of truth in this myth, because anyone can be a nightmare to live with sometimes — but this doesn’t mean all people with BPD are difficult to live with all of the time. Many people with BPD are good partners, parents, children and housemates. Lots of us have qualities which make us delightful to live with most of the time.

All of us have bad days, regardless of whether we have been diagnosed with a mental illness, yet people with BPD get accused of being “nightmares” with more vehemence and less compassion than is shown towards most people. It’s a stigma which doesn’t seem to be shifting as much as the stigma surrounding other mental health issues.

If someone with BPD is exhibiting severe symptoms, they need help and support, not condemnation. Other people’s failure to deal with symptoms effectively can also exacerbate the situation, creating a “nightmare” situation which is not the fault of the person with BPD. It’s especially concerning that this attitude seems to blame people with BPD for their own illness, as if we want to suffer from an often painful and debilitating condition.

People with BPD are bad people. Not at all: they have a mental illness. Being mentally ill doesn’t make you a bad person (though it may feel like you are during bad episodes, especially when you are exposed to unsympathetic attitudes). This is stating the obvious, yet it’s shocking how many people forget and prefer to characterise people with BPD as merely bad people who are being difficult on purpose. This is never the case.

 

How you can support someone with BPD.

Make an effort to understand. Don’t make assumptions about the behaviour of someone with BPD. Read about the condition and the experiences of people with borderline personality disorder. Ignore the damaging comments people without BPD write on social media, which tell you more about their authors’ ignorance and lack of compassion than BPD.

Listen. Be there for them. Let them express their feelings without cutting them off or making assumptions about how they feel. If it’s hard to listen, remember it’s even harder to experience. If you want clarification, ask questions. Let them know you care — it might be simple, but it means a lot.

Provide practical help. BPD can be debilitating, especially since anxiety and depression are common co-morbidities. People with BPD might need someone to collect their prescriptions or prepare proper meals. It varies from person to person and between different times. If you are unsure of how to help, just ask at regular intervals and make it clear they are not being a burden.

Never blame someone with BPD for their own problems. Many symptoms of BPD are self-sabotaging behaviours, but that doesn’t mean they are intentional or that the person exhibiting these behaviours can control them 100%. Pointing out that some problems have been caused or exacerbated by these behaviours is usually unhelpful — people with BPD can recognise their self-sabotage and often beat themselves up about it without external admonition.

I know it’s frustrating to see someone make their situation worse, but blame doesn’t help. If you want to help someone with BPD control their symptoms and take responsibility for their actions, offer emotional support instead.

Support, don’t push. Everyone learns to manage mental illness at their own pace and different treatments or strategies work for different people, and at different times. If you find out about something which could help someone with BPD, mention it to them and let them know you will help them access the treatment, but don’t pressure them into trying it out.

 

If you remember nothing else from this post, please remember this: borderline personality disorder is an illness and people with BPD deserve support and compassion, not judgement and stereotyping.

Self-Intervention is Part of Self-Care

Knowing when you need extra help is a crucial part of self-care, although it can be difficult.

Learning to recognise when a worsening of symptoms becomes a need for extra help and support is vital for long-term mental health management. However, it can also feel like admitting failure. When your symptoms have improved, a decline in your mental health can feel like it’s your fault — that you have done something wrong which has caused your symptoms to get worse.

Everything feels darker and you are trapped into the “old” pattern of mental illness you thought you had come through.

The logical part of your mind knows this is wrong and nobody is to blame for their mental health problems, but the messed-up parts of your mind constantly tell you the same old myths: it’s your fault, you fucked up, you are doomed to be miserable forever.

 

You may try to ignore the situation, but it’s important to get help sooner rather than later.

I speak from experience. Over the past 3/4 months, my mental health has declined. This came after a fantastic summer during which I did things that were previously impossible for me (going to jive classes, for example) and felt well enough to stop taking medication after over a decade.

I came up with excuses for not going to my GP: I was stressed out because major renovations had turned my home (and life) upside down. I felt more depressed because I had been hit with one virus after another. These excuses were true, but my assumption that things would go back to normal when the workmen left and I regained my physical health were not.

I wasn’t coping and by delaying getting help, I suffered more and my mental health got worse.

I finally went to my GP on Monday. He is referring me to an organisation which offers counselling, which I believe will be most beneficial for me right now. I told him I would prefer not to go back on antidepressants at the moment, but I would never rule them out as a possible treatment. He was brilliant and accepted my insight into my own mental health — I had been a little wary of feeling pressured to take medication again without trying counselling on its own first, but that turned out not to be an issue.

If you aren’t so lucky and your GP pressures you to try a course of treatment which you feel isn’t right for you, remember you are entitled to a second opinion. However, it’s also worth examining your reluctance to follow the suggested course of treatment — some people resist medication, for instance, because they believe myths perpetuated by the media. Do some research, always asking whether your sources have an agenda which is at odds to your wellbeing, and make an informed decision.

 

Self-intervention, like self-care, is different for everyone.

For me, self-intervention was about recognising that I needed professional help and would benefit from counselling, which I hope I will receive. For other people, it might mean enlisting the support of family or friends, altering their lifestyle or adopting more self-care strategies. It could mean something entirely different, which I might not consider.

It’s about recognising when your mental health has dipped enough that you need extra strategies in place to prevent it from getting worse.

Ideally, this will lead to an improvement of symptoms, but the initial reason for self-intervention is to stop the situation declining further. The signs that you have reached this point vary depending on your recent mental health history and self-knowledge. Symptoms which may not concern one person, may be very worrying to another.

For example, I wasn’t concerned by a slight increase in my depression, because I know it gets worse in winter. However, while my low mood was normal for me, the increase in anxiety to the point where I was having panic attacks more often is a red flag. For someone else, the increase in depression could be a red flag whereas if they were already regularly experiencing panic attacks (as I did in the past), an increase in their frequency might be considered a small change.

Knowing your red flags is important in managing your mental health.

If you don’t have a high level of self-knowledge and self-awareness, keeping a record of your symptoms is helpful. I try to do this when my mental health problems get worse because whereas I normally have a high degree of self-awareness, this gets skewed by anxiety and depression: I tend to think things are fine until they get so bad I can’t deny it any longer. By keeping notes on my mental health, I could have noticed the worsening of symptoms before things got so bad.

Like so many things related to mental health, this is easier said than done, but keeping even a rudimentary record of symptoms can be useful.

 

Self-intervention is needed because many mental health symptoms aren’t noticed by other people.

There are plenty of reasons why other people might not recognise your symptoms worsening:

A lot of symptoms are internal. Negative thinking, headaches, low mood, etc. aren’t always apparent on the outside, especially if they are not expressed.

It can be difficult to distinguish when an already-present symptom is getting worse. If someone knows you experience a specific symptom, such as feeling nervous around other people, they may think all signs of this are normal for you and can’t tell when it’s worse or better.

Nobody is with you 100% of the time. Many symptoms are most apparent when you are alone and many may not seem concerning when glimpsed by someone who doesn’t realise how frequent they are. Under-eating or over-eating, for example, are often secretive behaviours and might not worry people who only see you displaying the behaviour over a limited period of time, such as your working hours. They don’t know whether this continues when you get home, or whether these behaviours are balanced out by other ones.

People might not know if something is a symptom of mental illness. There is a lot of ignorance around mental health and some symptoms might seem unconcerning to people who consider them merely quirks. Some symptoms might be considered normal by some people, such as dismissing a persistently low mood as pessimism or chronic under-eating as a low appetite.

Even if other people do realise your mental health is deteriorating, they might not know how to tell you.

They may assume you already realise or that you would feel uncomfortable if they brought it up. They might tell themselves it’s none of their business or that you might get better without their intervention. These assumptions may or may not be correct — the point is that you cannot rely on someone else to recognise your red flags and tell you to get help.

This means you have to make an effort to recognise your own red flags early, so that you can take action and get the help you need.

 

It’s better to plan self-intervention before it’s needed.

When you are relatively well, it’s the best time to make decisions abot what to do if your mental health declines. Don’t wait until worsening symptoms cloud your judgement.

I wish I had a clear plan in place. It would have made things easier and enabled me to get help sooner.

I had some vague ideas about what it would take for me to go back to my GP, but nothing written down. There was no list I could refer to, which would probably have convinced me to see the doctor when my symptoms got worse, rather than a few months later. This is something I plan to change.

While so much of self-managing your mental health is about focusing on positive change, having contingency plans is essential. If you have close friends and family members you trust, you can ask them to help. For example, you may ask them to flag up when you are displaying certain symptoms, such as withdrawing from social events. You can also indicate the kinds of treatment you would prefer in various situations, so they can help you get the treatment which is best for you.

I wish my mental health had continued its upward trajectory, but it hasn’t and self-intervention was necessary to prevent my health from deteriorating further. It’s a potent reminder that mental illness is not linear and for many of us, self-care involves preparing for episodes of worse mental health — perhaps for the rest of our lives. 

Don’t Label Me by Calling My Diagnosis a Label

When I scroll through the comments on Facebook posts about mental illness in general and borderline personality disorder in particular, there will invariably be at least one remark along the lines of “that’s a terrible label to have to live with.” Even if the subject of the post hasn’t expressed any concerns regarding their diagnosis, some random stranger claims that this diagnosis is a label.

In doing so, they are the ones labelling the person living with borderline personality disorder or other mental illnesses.

I have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and while I understand that some people feel their diagnosis is a label, I have never viewed my diagnosis as anything other than an acknowledgement that my symptoms fit the criteria for a specific medical condition. If you have been diagnosed with BPD (or any other mental illness) and regard it as a label, that’s your prerogative. However, you do not have the right to claim that my diagnosis is a label. Only I get to decide whether that is the case.

 

You might think you are helping by calling a mental illness diagnosis a label, but you are not.

If you insist on referring to a medical diagnosis as a label when there are people who have been diagnosed with the condition who don’t accept this interpretation, you are belittling their experience. It implies that you don’t believe they have a real illness and that their mental health problems are therefore their own fault.

Defining a mental illness as a label reinforces the divide in attitudes towards mental health and physical health. Few people would refer to a diagnosis of a physical illness as a label; it is just as ridiculous and insulting to refer to a mental illness as a label. By referring to mental illnesses as labels, you are perpetuating the stigma surrounding mental health.

 

When you call a diagnosis a label, it suggests that the illness is somehow invalid.

You may have your own complex, political reasons for thinking a certain diagnosis is a label, but most people who hear you refer to mental illnesses as labels will not be aware of them. They will interpret your opinion at face value and assume you mean that certain mental illnesses are not real. This is very damaging.

 

When people start to think of mental illnesses as labels, they overlook the suffering experienced by people who have mental illnesses.

With personality disorders in particular, they assume that people who have been diagnosed are merely eccentric or unconventional and are labelled as having a personality disorder in order to single them out. They think the diagnosis means that people with personality disorders are being told that their personality is flawed. This is not the case: diagnosis of personality disorders, like any medical diagnosis, is based on the presentation of specific symptoms.

These symptoms are frequently distressing and cause pain. They are not aspects of an eccentric personality. Referring to personality disorders as labels ignores the pain and distress caused by the symptoms.

 

Personality disorders are widely misunderstood – and referring to the diagnosis of a personality disorder as a label propagates this misunderstanding.

I am ashamed to say that I avoid mentioning my diagnosis of borderline personality disorder when I first meet people, though I talk openly about anxiety and depression. The reasons for my uncharacteristic taciturnity are that borderline personality disorder is difficult to explain in a few minutes and the name conjures up a lot of assumptions, misinformation and prejudice. Including the notion that it is a label rather than an actual medical condition.

I have had people make comments along the lines of “well, we all have different personalities” which demonstrate that they believe my mental illness is some type of personality definition, in much the same way as the results of the Briggs-Myers test (I’m an INFP, by the way). The name borderline personality disorder doesn’t help, but the lack of awareness is exacerbated by people referring to it as a label on social media.

 

Whether you consider your diagnosis a label is up to you – but mine is not.

What makes me angry is that I wouldn’t have to put up with this crap if borderline personality disorder was a physical illness. There may be a few crackpots who refer to diabetes and cancer as labels, but people pay less attention to them. The stigma surrounding mental health means that those who refer to mental illnesses as labels get an unjustified amount of attention; people are less likely to disregard them because thinking of mental illnesses as labels feeds into old prejudices about mental health.

Regardless of whether you intend to reinforce the myths that mental illnesses aren’t real and people should just get on with it, that is the effect you create when you refer to a mental health diagnosis as a label.

Of course, if you consider your mental health diagnosis a label, you have every right to voice your opinion. But that doesn’t mean everyone who has been diagnosed with the same condition considers it a label. When people tell me my mental illnesses are labels (which happens with anxiety and depression, though less often than with borderline personality disorder), it is disrespectful and potentially harmful.

Being told my illnesses are labels reminds me of myself pre-diagnosis, when I felt isolated and thought I was a freak; when I thought my illnesses were signs of some inner flaw. Diagnosis helped me move past that. You might feel labelled by your diagnosis, but I felt acknowledged. People were finally listening to me and I was reassured that I was suffering from mental health problems, rather than being some kind of mutant. It gave me hope that I could manage my mental health and perhaps recover. When you refer to my conditions as labels, you threaten that hope and reassurance.

 

Maybe diagnosis was a negative experience for you, but for many of us it is a positive step. By calling all diagnoses of a particular mental illness labelling, you negate our experience and silence us.

Don’t project your issues onto me or anyone else with mental health problems. Don’t assume that everyone’s experience is similar to yours and that everyone regards their diagnoses in the same way. Also be aware of the effects of referring to mental illnesses as labels: every time I read a comment like “that’s a terrible label to live with” I think “yes, because of people like you belittling my experience and perpetuating prejudice.”

Please don’t call my diagnosis a label – for me, it’s not.

 

 

 

Getting Thrown Off-Kilter

I can have strong emotional reactions to things — it’s a symptom of borderline personality disorder. It means that if I get some bad news, it’s hard to bounce back and something trivial can send me into a downward spiral if I don’t take steps to intervene. It’s difficult to deal with, but I’m getting better at self-managing. However, sometimes I react to something which I didn’t expect to have such an impact…

For the past week and a half, we have been having the kitchen renovated. It’s a major overhaul which involves knocking down a supporting wall, repositioning the sink and replacing the flooring throughout the downstairs rooms in our home. There is a lot of dust, noise and clutter (most of the kitchen is in boxes on the living room floor), but it’s only for a few weeks so I thought I’d cope well. My parents are taking time off work, so I have minimal contact with the workmen (who are perfectly nice chaps, but my anxiety doesn’t really take that into account) and can carry on with my normal routine.

Except that I can’t carry on with my normal routine.

I am incredibly stressed. I can’t concentrate on anything or relax. My sleep patterns are worse than they have been for almost a year. I’m finding it hard to think straight. It probably doesn’t help that I have caught a cold, which is combining with the dust to make my chest hurt.

I was prepared for all of the upheaval, but my reaction has surprised me. It has made me realise how valuable it can be to have a stable home life and some kind of regular routine.

It feels like I have been knocked off-kilter and I can’t pinpoint exactly why. After all, I’m still spending most of my day as I usually do (writing, reading and watching television — though not necessarily in that order!) and am alone most of the time, albeit with people in the next room. I’m still wrangling the dogs and answering emails. Not much has changed in terms of myself.

But my environment has changed. Simple tasks like letting the dogs out or grabbing lunch have become more complicated, because I have to check that the garden gate is closed and that neither I nor the pets are getting in the way. I also have to put a lot of effort into finding food, crockery and cutlery. I suppose my stress is down to no longer being able to do the little things I usually take for granted.

The problem is that I cannot change the upheaval and I cannot hide from it. When my anxiety increases, home is usually my sanctuary. I can hide away a little until I feel strong enough to deal with whatever is causing the anxiety. But now my home is causing the stress and anxiety! I can’t avoid it, because going outside causes even more anxiety. I can’t ignore it, because the whole house has been invaded by mess and noise and dust. Lots of dust.

I’m trying to frame this situation as resilience training or some kind of exposure therapy. As uncomfortable as I am, this is not a oermanent state. It will pass.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of my worst episodes of mental illness: I can only wait it out because I am unable to fight against the situation. The main difference is that when my mental health is at its worst, I can’t believe that the situation will pass even when I know it’s true. My mental health is good enough at the moment that I have hope, faith and trust that this is temporary.

Of course, it helps that any renovation is, by nature, temporary. Yet so is illness — even chronic conditions have ebbs and flows. 

So I find myself wondering how my reaction would be different if my mental health were worse. I think I would be more stressed and I would see my reaction as proof that I’m doomed to a terrible life (remember that downward spiral I mentioned at the beginning of this post?) and nothing will ever go smoothly for me. I would ruminate on everything in my life which is less than brilliant, i.e. most of it! I would get lost inside my negative thought patterns and be unable to do anything productive.

Which makes my current stress a good sign, in a funny way. It means I feel well enough to acknowledge the exterior cause without berating myself for my reaction. I also tend towards anxiety when I’m well enough to feel motivated to do things — when I’m at my worst, I tend towards depression and that tends to obliterate everything else.

So facing such a challenging situation has highlighted what is going well in my life. Trouble is, that knowledge doesn’t make me feel less thrown off-kilter!

 

Accepting Your Emotions

Mental illness can bombard you with a lot of emotions. Many of them are understandable; a lot don’t seem to make any sense. People will be more empathetic in regard to some of your emotions than others. You will find some emotions easier to deal with than others. Some emotions can cause other emotions, such as when you feel irritated and then feel guilty for feeling irritated. It’s important to acknowledge all of your emotions and their effects.

You have the right to feel however you feel. Anyone who tells you otherwise may mean well, but they are not being helpful. You cannot control your emotions; you can only control how you express them. When people say “you’ve got to control your temper” they don’t mean that you should repress your anger, or deny its expression: they mean that you need to learn how to express your anger in safe, constructive ways. When I first read Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers, it was a revelation. She pointed out that feeling fear is inevitable, but you can choose how to act in the face of fear. It made me realise that everybody feels fear – many to the same extent as I do – and that I didn’t need to remain paralysed by my fear.

Accepting my fear allowed me to start tackling my anxiety problems. It’s not a linear process and it’s not easy, but I’m now aware of a new possibility: that I can cope with my anxiety even if it doesn’t go away, that I can take action towards achieving my goals even if the anxiety is still present. In short, it helped me to accept my anxiety.

Accepting your emotions is a vital step in learning how to deal with them. Sometimes it will be more difficult to accept your emotions, such as when you feel sad on a happy occasion and don’t know why, but it will get easier with practice. Start by simply observing how you feel. I have found it useful to do this with an app called Moodtrack, but you might prefer to keep an “emotions journal” either digitally or on paper.

Try not to judge your emotions – just acknowledge them and note any factors that might be affecting your emotions. These could be external, such as a friend getting a new job when you are unemployed, or internal, like feeling exhausted because you didn’t sleep last night. You may begin to see patterns almost immediately, or it might take several weeks (or even months) before you can analyse your emotions and figure out the most common triggers. Again, don’t judge. Your patterns and triggers are unique. Having unusual reactions to certain things does not make your emotions less valid – nor does it make you a bad person.

Once you accept your emotions and their causes, you can begin to develop coping strategies. You may need professional help to do this (I was lucky enough to receive a year of drama therapy, which was amazing), so get help and support if you need it. Dealing with mental health issues is difficult and there is no shame in seeing a therapist, psychiatrist or counsellor. Even if you are not mentally ill, you may benefit from seeing a mental health professional or life coach. After all, if you had a physical injury you would see a physiotherapist without shame – you don’t have to cope on your own.

You might be surprised by which emotions you find hardest to accept. Often, these can be positive emotions like joy, excitement and contentment. I found it difficult to accept feeling happy, for example, when I was depressed. I would feel happy for a couple of hours when I was with my friends, then sink into a deep depression. I thought that I didn’t have the right to be happy and the brief happiness made the depression harder to bear because it proved that I was capable of feeling better. I repressed these happy periods a lot, because the contrast with how I felt the majority of the time was so painful. It was years before I learnt how to enjoy the happy periods amidst the sadness, frustration, fear, anger and numbness I felt over 90% of the time – but I got there in the end.

You can learn to accept all of your emotions, even ones which might feel dangerous or taboo. It can be a long, laborious and scary process, but it’s worth the effort.

Dealing with Debt and Mental Health

Your mental health can affect your finances and your finances can affect your mental health. The specific effects vary, but common ones include feeling very anxious about financial matters, impulsive spending and losing control of finances during a period of depression. It makes sense when you think about it: if you are depressed, showering and cooking meals become massive challenges – paying bills on time has to take a backseat while you prioritise the bare essentials. Trouble is, you have to face your finances when you start feeling better and if they are a mess, it could make you feel worse again.

The good news is that there are some great resources for people with mental health problems and debt:

  • Money Saving Expert has produced a Mental Health & Debt guide that is supported by several mental health charities. It can be downloaded as a PDF at moneysavingexpert.com/credit-cards/mental-health-guide and contains loads of useful information. There is also a page of tips for people with bipolar, who may be prone to impulsive spending during manic phases. Unfortunately, there is no mention of borderline personality disorder – despite impulsive spending being a symptom of the condition.
  • Mind also have information on mental health and debt, including tools you can use to ascertain whether or not you have a problem at mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/debt-and-mental-health/ and details of where you can go for support. It also has a guide you can download.
  • stepchange.org is a UK debt charity which can help people with debt problems and also has a lot of articles and resources on debt and mental health.

It’s important to get any help and support you need as soon as you can. You can solve your money problems, but the longer you leave it before addressing the problems, the worse your problems will get – and the more impact they will have on your mental health. I know you might feel ashamed or embarrassed, but there are many understanding, supportive people who can help you. Debt is a common problem and there is no shame in admitting you have money problems. In fact, you deserve praise for finding the courage to face your debt.

My mental health has had a huge impact on my finances. I have had to leave jobs because of mental illness and decimated my meagre savings as I waited to receive benefits. Relying on benefits for several years has been difficult; the judgment I face from both government employees and society in general has made my depression and anxiety worse at various points. One of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder that I struggle with is impulsive spending. I took out a credit card to pay for my MA tuition (which was definitely worth it), but also bought a lot of expensive crap in attempts to make myself feel better (definitely not worth it) and ended up with over £6200 on my credit card. I also had a £2000 overdraft, which I have managed to reduce to £0. I also owe my parents several thousand pounds, because they have been forced to support me for most of my adult life.

I’m telling you this to demonstrate that I no longer feel ashamed of my debt. I am dealing with it and (slowly) paying it back. The process isn’t entirely linear: sometimes I mess up and buy a pair of shoes because I think it will make me happy. Sometimes I buy too many books, kidding myself that £3 or £4 is a negligible amount and won’t add up. Other times, I have unexpected expenses like vet bills or replacing broken items. However, I always go back to reducing my debt instead of increasing it. It’s not easy, but it will be worth it in the end.

Facing your money problems is difficult at the best of times, let alone when you are recovering from mental illness, but it’s easier to do it now than to wait until the problems get worse. You are not alone. There are people who can – and will – help you. Start by following the links I have provided above.

 

See also: 7 Steps to Start Dealing with Debt