Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Mental Health and Compassion

The topic of mental health is a vast and complex one. I couldn’t possibly hope to touch on every aspect, or cover all the different methods we can use to work on and improve our mental health. But I was listening to a podcast the other day - How to Fail by Elizabeth Day - an interview with a young man called Jonny Benjamin. He had experienced a variety of mental health issues, and at his lowest point was about to attempt suicide by jumping off Waterloo Bridge when a stranger noticed his distress and quite literally talked him off the ledge. I found his story incredibly moving, not necessarily the things that had happened to him, but the open and honest way he talked about something that must have been so difficult to talk about. It made me realise that perhaps it was time to talk about my experiences and share my story, both to help break the taboo that still exists surrounding mental health, and also to help me heal and move on. 

You never know where life will take you - it could be recording a podcast in your van studio!

In 2013, I was living on a small island in Indonesia teaching SCUBA diving, and I had a mental breakdown. Those words get bandied about a lot, but taken literally that’s exactly how it felt at the time - my mind broke away from reality and I spiralled downwards into a new, very frightening world created by my mind. Looking back, there were a few key elements happening at the time. First, I was feeling very anxious about my future - I was leaving the island, I had vague travel plans and a not-very-stable relationship. I had no idea what I was doing with my life, and it was freaking me out. Secondly, I felt very isolated. I didn’t feel like I had any close friends, I was far away from family and home and feeling very alone. And finally, I was struggling to sleep. The previous year I had woken up with a strange man sitting on my bed - he had propped open my window, climbed in and had been there for who knows how long. It obviously terrified me, and being in a fragile mental state meant anxiety about that incident began to surface again. 

My memories from this time are strange - I can remember a lot of things, how I felt and what I was doing, but I lost all sense of time, so it’s hard to know how long it all went on for. But I think it was really bad for a couple of weeks. In the beginning it wasn’t scary or unpleasant. In fact I felt quite free, able to do things I normally wouldn’t, and I just floated around enjoying myself. But the longer I didn’t sleep the more fractured my mind was becoming, and eventually I felt like I was hallucinating. I was making strange connections, feeling like I was in control of things, like the weather. When it rained I felt like either I was making it rain because I was sad, or that I was imagining the rain. And it was this path of feeling like I was imagining everything that my mind ran down. 

At the worst point, I thought I was imagining everyone around me - all my friends, students and customers, people I had met who weren’t on the island. I even thought that I had never actually become a dive instructor and that my entire life on the island was a complete fantasy. I became increasingly paranoid, and more and more trapped in my own head, because it’s very difficult to ask someone if the person you’ve just been talking to is real or not! There’s no way to broach that particular issue without sounding like you think it’s a possibility, and I was very afraid of people thinking I was “crazy”. 

Eventually I left the island - friends packed my bags, and someone took me on the boat to Bali. I had no idea what was going on, I was just doing what I was told by this point because I was so exhausted and scared. We went to a fancy resort where I was told my mum was coming to meet me, and I completely freaked out - this must be serious if my mum was coming all the way to Bali. When she arrived I remember feeling so frightened but also so relieved because finally here was a person I knew, even through all the delusions, was real. 

Before I knew it we were on the plane back to the UK, and the moment I arrived in Heathrow I knew everything was real again, and I snapped back to reality. I stopped the constant questioning of everything I was seeing around me, and although I still felt fragile, my mind felt like it was back. And since then I’ve never experienced anything like that time. 

What I remember most are the emotions I felt at the time. Most of all, I was scared and frightened about what was going on. I knew something was wrong, but I was also really embarrassed and didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it. Afterwards, I felt even more embarrassed and ashamed - friends on the island had contacted my family, my boyfriends in the UK and been talking to them to try and figure out what to do, and I had no idea. When I found out I was mortified. I also felt incredibly guilty about what I had put my family through, what it had cost my mum to come to Bali to get me, how worried everyone had been about me. And most of all I felt totally alone. At the time I walled myself up in paranoia and delusion, and afterwards I just wanted to pretend it had never happened. I wouldn’t talk to anyone, professional or friend, about it, because every time I thought about it, all these negative emotions would come flooding back. So I pushed it down and tried to forget. 

For the next couple of years I flailed. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t feel able to do anything, but I didn’t want what had happened to hold me back. I made some pretty poor decisions in that time - buying a crappy van, running off to live on a sailboat - but everything I tried to do just fell apart because I just wasn’t mentally strong enough to cope. 

Then, in 2015, I went to Canada and everything changed. I found two things that over time have brought me back to myself. 

The first was yoga. My friend took me to a class, and to begin with I had reservations. I didn’t want the thoughts and feelings I’d worked to hard to push down to resurface. So I thought I’d just focus on the physical aspect, do some stretches and get in shape. But yoga doesn’t work like that - whether you resist it or not, it gets to your mind as much as your muscles. Yoga has grounded me and introduced me to mindfulness and meditation so now I feel solid and strong, mentally and physically.

Getting my yoga on in Canada

The second was finding a purpose. I travelled around Canada volunteering at various farms and projects, and one community where I helped to build and Earthship. I learnt about communal living, alternative lifestyles, permaculture, natural building, bees! I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life, and everything I’ve done since has been a move towards the kind of life I want to build. It’s given me something to aim for, a reason to move forward. 

Six years on, and I am in a much better place. But something Jonny Benjamin mentioned in his interview made me realise there’s still some way to go. He talked about one of the tools he uses, Compassion Focused Therapy, and when I heard the word compassion I realised that’s what is missing for me. When memories of my breakdown surface, I still feel strong feelings of shame and guilt, even all these years later. And it’s not just my breakdown. I am incredibly hard on myself and beat myself up for a lot of things - I am always trying to be perfect and have a real fear of failure. I think that a lot of people with substance abuse and addiction issues often feel shame and guilt because of things they’ve said or done. Compassion could be the way to move on. 

Paul Gilbert, who developed CFT, writes on his website that “the essence of compassion is a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living beings, coupled with a wish and an effort to relieve it.” After a bit of googling around I found Dr Kristin Neff, who has a lot of youtube videos about self-compassion, and a website full of useful information. She writes “instead of mercilessly judging and criticising yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings. After all, whoever said you were supposed to be perfect?” Without realising, I had been absorbing a message of self-compassion with every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race I watch, as at the end Mama Ru says “if you can’t love yourself, how in the heeeeell are you gonna love somebody else?” You can definitely get an amen for that Mama!

There are three elements to self-compassion:

Self-kindness vs self-judgement
This means choosing to be warm and understanding when we suffer or fail, not beating ourselves up or ignoring our pain. 

Common humanity vs isolation
This means recognising that human nature is to fail, make mistakes, fall short and encounter frustrations. We are not the only one who suffer or fail, and recognising that means we can put our own experiences into perspective and connect to people.

Mindfulness vs over-identification
Mindfulness is the balanced approach to negative emotions. We don’t want to ignore or suppress them, nor do we want to identify with them and feel like they mean we are bad people. We can just notice that they are happening, acknowledge them and feel compassion, but not get swept away by them. 

Being kind to ourselves is not something that comes easily - it takes work and practice, especially if you’re used to giving yourself a hard time. But here are some tips to help get you started:

Treat yourself as you would a child
Listen to the voice you use to talk to yourself, and ask, would you talk to a child or a friends that way? If a child came to you and was suffering or felt they had failed, you would respond with support, love, kindness and encouragement, so practice doing the same to yourself.

Realise that your inner voice developed for a reason - at some point in your life you needed its protection or motivation. But now it’s time to thank it for everything it has done for you, and let it go because you don’t need it any more. The more you practice mindfulness and meditation the better you become at noticing that voice, your thoughts and feelings, and letting them pass without judgement.

Connect with people
One of the best ways to get out of your head is to volunteer - offering your services to people for free is a great way to interrupt that self-involved script we all run about our pain and suffering. It puts problems in perspective, connects you with people and makes you realise you have something to offer. Another option is limiting your time on social media and increasing your face-to-face human interactions. Social media can be so damaging because it presents a heavily curated, perfect view of people’s lives, which leaves you feeling like you’re the only one who ever has a bad day. Get out and see real people instead.

Choose forgiveness
It takes a concerted effort, but decide to choose to forgive yourself. Remember that people make mistakes, they fail and are not perfect. Instead of beating yourself up for things you cannot change, forgive yourself and move forward, making better more positive choices in the future.

Find a purpose
Having a reason to get up, something that you are passionate about and that drives you will help you realise that there’s so much more to you than the things that have happened. You have something to give to the world, and striving for that will help you to move on from things that can make you feel stuck in your past. 

Whatever this means for you - for me it’s tea, a good book, petting a cat, walking in nature, a Drag Race marathon! Take some time to rest, give yourself a break and remember, this too shall pass. 

Who could be sad when snuggling something as adorable as this?

Phew! So this is a mammoth blog post. Thanks for sticking with me to the end, and for allowing me to write about something that I still find a challenge to think about. I hope that by sharing my story I’ve helped to show that there’s nothing shameful about mental health issues, and how important it is that we create an atmosphere of understanding and compassion around them so we can all start to heal. 


If you can relate to what you've just read, let's continue the conversation! Sharing stories is one of our most powerful tools, so leave a comment below, check out the FREEDOM junkies' facebook page, or join our group.

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