Category Archives: All posts

Signs of change and coping with cheese – how my eating disorder recovery looks now

vd9j4ghMental health problems have a way of taking over. I’m lucky enough never to have been hospitalised or signed off work. Life has always stumbled on. But moods and behaviours creep in and twist their tendrils around daily life. They trick you into thinking they’re normal, into nourishing them. It’s not until they start to suffocate and strangle even the simplest of things that you recognise their power. And then it’s too late for an easy fix.

This year I’ve started the long process of hacking away at the thicket and pulling up roots that go incredibly deep. It hasn’t been easy. But now I’ve made some space it’s much easier to see what a tangle I was in.

Eating new food

I recently turned 33 and enjoyed a breakfast made for me by Alex without having to purge it through exercise.The day before my birthday last year I was panicking over choosing something nice (and therefore different) for my birthday breakfast. I cried outside the bread shop. I ended up with toast and even then it was a tricky day.

Letting go of control in the kitchen

I no longer have to have control in the kitchen. I’ll eat something made for me by someone else – even if I didn’t see whether they used butter or check how much oil they added.

Reaquainting myself with cheese

I had cheese on toast for the first time in two years last week (cheese has been a scary food for years).
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Recovery is long, messy, uncomfortable and emotional – but i’ll keep trying (and talking)

Glad to have an eating disorder?

I'm not linking... but you can Google...

I’m not linking… but you can Google…

Apparently Liz Jones is glad she has an eating disorder. In her latest piece for the Mail, she tells us that recovery is so hard that it’s easier not to try. She’s lived with an eating disorder for so long that she’d rather take refuge in behaviours that feel safe than deal with the messy and fluctuating business of balanced eating.

She’s lived with an eating disorder for so long that she’d rather take refuge in behaviours that feel safe than deal with the messy and fluctuating business of balanced eating.

Yes, recovery is bloody hard work

She’s certainly right about that.

If you’ve lived with a restrictive eating disorder then gaining weight is quite literally your biggest fear. Recovery means choosing to face it and having the courage to live with it every day. It can be weeks, months or years before it stops being scary and difficult at least some of the time.

Food isn’t just nourishment. It’s both punishment and reward. It’s at once the scariest and the most important thing. Recovery means learning to manage this complex twist of emotions at least three times a day. Forever. It means dealing with other people’s opinions and comments on your changing body.

You’ve probably developed tests and checks to make sure your body is ‘right’ – restricting or purging until you ‘pass’. Recovery means ‘failing’ those tests without spiralling into self-doubt and recrimination. Hundreds of times a day.
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Unwanted pregnancy far outweighs any side effects of contraception? How dare you say it’s that simple!

Women on hormonal contraception are more likely to be treated for depression

fullsizerender-1Recent research has shown that women taking hormonal contraception are more likely to be treated for depression. And we already know that those with pre-existing depression may have their symptoms worsened by the pill.

Tell us something we don’t know.

I’ve avoided hormonal contraception completely since a devastating experience in my teens. Mood changes are the top reason why people discontinue using the pill.

But some of the responses to this research have made me pretty angry. I’ve been trying to make sense of why for the last couple of days. Maybe this is really obvious stuff. But maybe it needs to be said again and again until people start to listen.

Unwanted pregnancy far outweighs ALL side effects?

The worst comment I‘ve seen is “avoiding an unwanted pregnancy far outweighs all the other side effects that could occur from a contraceptive”. That’s the sort of thing someone who hasn’t experienced depression might say. I wonder if an equally debilitating (and potentially life threatening) physical health problem would be treated so casually.

I was prescribed the combined pill in my teens with no guidance, no discussion of side effects and without being offered alternative options (I wrote about it in an old blog post here).

The causes of mental health problems are complex and under-researched – but I’ve always felt that the six months of desperation, confusion and trauma I suffered before realising the pill was to blame was the start of long term problems with depression and anxiety. I still occasionally have nightmares where I’m trapped in that time and those feelings.

I had an abortion in my twenties. Unwanted pregnancy can be awful (and can be associated with an increased risk of mental health problems too). But the mental health consequences of getting medication like hormonal contraception wrong can also be devastating – and can last a very long time.

When I posted these thoughts online, others immediately agreed – “Yes, yes, yes! I’ve had both an unwanted pregnancy and a termination and long-term mental health problems aggravated/caused by the pill. And it wasn’t the first one that was more traumatic and terrifying”.

I feel the need to clarify that I’m not suggesting people have terminations instead of taking the pill – but that I need to do this at all just shows how reductive the discourse on this topic tends to be.
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A letter to Incognito about OCD

Hey Incognito,

screenshot-2016-09-18-11-38-21You probably haven’t thought it through – and I’m sure you don’t mean to cause offence – but I wanted to highlight some of the problems with your OCD Hand Sanitizer product and the accompanying text.

OCD is an incredibly debilitating mental health problem. So much so that the World Health Organisation ranks it in the top 10 disabling illnesses (both mental and physical) in terms of lost earnings and diminished quality of life. Yet it remains one of the most misunderstood and trivialised of conditions.

I’m so OCD” or “I’m a bit OCD about that” has become shorthand for “I like things to be clean” or “I like things in the right order”. Comedians joke about it. We’ve all seen a picture on social media of some slightly misaligned objects with the caption ‘This is sending my OCD crazy’. Products like this perpetuate those myths.

Jokes and misunderstandings trivialise OCD

OCD gives people constant negative, repetitive and intrusive thoughts, combined with an ongoing feeling of doubt or danger. These are the obsessions. Compulsions develop to try and quell the thought or quieten the anxiety. They can be things like repeatedly checking a door is locked, repeating a phrase over and over again in your head, checking how your body feels, cleaning or repeatedly asking for reassurance. The relief caused by completing a compulsion is usually short lived and before long the anxiety and mental discomfort caused by the obsessions and doubts rises again.

You can get stuck in an exhausting cycle of rituals and often choose to avoid places or people that may trigger their obsessions. Your day to day life is disrupted and relationships may be strained to breaking point.

Intrusive thoughts can be graphic, violent or scary. You may be very ashamed of these thoughts and spend a long time checking whether they might still be there and how you feel about them  (for example ‘am I still appropriately upset by them?’). You may feel the thoughts mean there is something ‘wrong’ with you as a person – and don’t feel able talk about them or ask for help for a long time.

Every time someone says “I’m a little bit OCD” , shares an OCD joke on social media or sells a product that makes light of it, they add to the impression that OCD is trivial – even a bit comical. This makes it much harder for people to seek help or even open up to their friends and family – and for research and support services to get their share of limited funding.

Imagine if you had to explain to friends and family what cancer really was, how it affected you and that it wasn’t an amusing or comical condition. Imagine how isolating it would be if they still didn’t really understand or made conscious or unconscious judgements about what it ‘really’ was based on jokes and viral pictures on social media. Imagine if shops sold joke ‘cancer hats’ which you could put over your own hair to look as if you were having chemotherapy.

Misinformation stops sufferers seeking help

It already takes an average of over 10 years for people with OCD to seek help. Often that’s because they don’t realise that they have a recognisable condition with potential treatment options. If you’ve always been led to believe that OCD is just a quirky approach to being clean and organised then you might not realise that the intrusive thoughts or crippling doubts you’re constantly fighting are also OCD.

Language is a powerful thing – even small everyday comments, ‘funny’ product descriptions and cheeky ‘likes’. Let’s use it to learn more, to support others and to fight stigma and misunderstanding rather than perpetuate it.

Please consider reading a little more about OCD and removing this product from your shelves.

Thank you,

Clare

The next step in recovery – letting go of clothes that don’t fit

Too small

img_3546I’m selling some of my favourite clothes. Some of them are definitely too small. I bought them when I was at my lowest weight last year. Fitting into a smaller size was an unhealthy but irresistible boost to a fragile self esteem that had narrowed to focus only on my weight and ability to exercise to exhaustion.  They hang in my wardrobe now and remind me, daring me to go back there. It would only take some long runs and a few weeks of restriction. They are better off living with someone who is naturally a smaller size.

Close fitting

Some of them still just about fit. They’ve always been close fitting, that’s just their style. As a result they are often barely worn – rejected because my muddled mind translates their constant pressure on my skin as a sign of being too big.

But now I’m working to reduce my exercise without restricting my food. My body is softer and larger. Getting dressed is one of the most difficult times. Tight and restrictive clothes risk triggering an avalanche of recrimination, irritation and anger. Yesterday I threw a banana at the wall. It’s funny now but at the time I was so angry at my mind for telling me I had to choose fruit over toast until I had run (on a day when I wasn’t supposed to be running at all).

My favourite clothes are a tangible reminder of change that doesn’t always feel welcome. I’m trying to learn to like a softer, curvier frame but it’s hard. I’m scared of losing control.  I’m fighting to stay away from unhealthy patterns of thought that started carving deep grooves in my mind when I went on my first diet aged 9. It will always be much more comfortable to let go and slide back into them than to resist and live day in and out in a body that feels heavy and uncomfortable.

It’s easier if I don’t risk it, if I say goodbye to those clothes and that time and look forward.

Letting go

I can’t afford to buy a whole new wardrobe but I’ve bought a few larger sizes, baggier clothes. They help me forget the discomfort and move my focus to all the other brilliant things in my life – work, family and friends I love.

In the past the fact I KNEW they were a bigger size would ruin this comfort. That disordered inner voice would keep reminding me that wearing a larger size meant I’d failed. That I wasn’t in control. Ridiculously I would rather be uncomfortable and sad in clothes too tight than admit I am bigger and be happier in clothes that fit. But this time I’m determined to make real change – for my mind, for my body and for the hope of conceiving.

In her brilliant memoir of anorexia and bulimia The Time in Between, Nancy Tucker writes about a pair of shorts…

“One of the most painful things about this period is The Shorts. I have a pair of denim shorts whose label bears the glorious declaration ‘Age 6-7’ and they become one of The Voice’s favourite instruments of torture…. eventually it is a panting struggle to pull them on and when I take them off I have crusty sores on my skin where the denim has rubbed me raw. I don’t know whether it is because I need reassurance that my body is still acceptably small or because the pain of wearing them serves a hair shirt, self flagellation purpose, but from the time I hit my lowest weight to three, four, five months afterwards, The Voice insists I wear these shorts every day”.

Her anorexia was far far worse than any disordered eating I have experienced. But her words show the incredible power that the warped voice of eating disorders can give to clothes and clothes sizes. After 23 years of letting buttons, zips and waistbands rule my life, it’s time to start letting that go.

 

Writing a blog about your mental health – why and how?

Blogging about my mental health

A few weeks ago had an internet date. Of sorts. Not a romantic first date (thank goodness) but a face-to-face meeting with someone I met online. Someone like me in lots of ways. Someone who could be a friend.

We knew a lot about each other’s vulnerabilities and fears before we set eyes on each other. And that made things much easier. The conversation could get right to the good stuff. We could be open and honest. We chatted about medication, work, diagnoses, panic attacks, weddings and how our dogs help with our mental health. Not really first date fodder.

social anxiety blogIt’s all down to our blogs. Claire writes WE’Re AlL mAd HeRe about social anxiety (she’s also been asked to write a book about anxiety based on her blog – wow). She got in touch a few months ago and suggested lunch. I’m so glad she did. Meeting inspiring new people is just one of the things that blogging has done for me.

I’ve had a number of  readers get in touch with me recently about starting a mental health blog – overcoming those demons of uncertainty that whisper ‘what’s the point, who cares what I have to say?’

I know the feeling – I have it about writing fiction. But I thought I’d share a little about what blogging has done for me – and a few things that helped me get started.
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What I’d tell my 2015 self about dieting, body positivity and accepting medication

One year on...

One year on…

Yesterday we celebrated our first wedding anniversary. Our wedding was a magical day but, in the two years since we got engaged, life has taken some unexpected turns.

My mental and physical health has taken quite a bashing.  I’m not fully recovered – and I’m working hard to challenge and change thought patterns and reactions that have been deeply ingrained for many years. But I’m gaining more perspective with each month that takes me further from the trickiest of times.

So what would I tell the Clare who said ‘yes’ under that tree on Hampstead Heath in 2015.

You can’t control a wedding diet – change the dress, not yourself

I thought I would be able to diet just enough to feel comfortable in a gently corseted dress – and then stop afterwards. But my disordered eating lurked much closer below the surface than I realised. It wasn’t long before my eating, exercise and emotions got horribly tangled. I thought I would never go back there but I slid into militant calorie counting, restriction and purging through exercise with the excuse that it was ‘just for the wedding’. The dress was too big, I spent our honeymoon struggling to find a manageable balance and it took my periods stopping to shock me into making a change.

You need medication – and that’s fine

“You were so proud of yourself,” my mother in law said. And I was. I had been fighting my medication for years, trying to cut down and come off. Stopping was the hardest thing I’d ever done.

And when I finally fought through the initial withdrawal symptoms I thought things would get easier. Instead they got harder. More chest pain. More tears, panic and anger. Suicidal thoughts. More running. More fighting my body. It took three months to realise I couldn’t do it. That nothing was worth the destruction those months had wreaked on my body, our health and our relationship.
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We need to talk about mental health and trying to conceive #takeoffthetape

Find out more about Mind's campaign here: http://www.mind.org.uk/get-involved/take-off-the-tape/

Find out more about Mind’s campaign here: http://www.mind.org.uk/get-involved/take-off-the-tape/

Mind has been asking people to #TakeOffTheTape and share something that makes them anxious. Something they haven’t spoken about before.

I thought I would use the opportunity to write about something that’s hardly spoken about at all.

I’m finding it incredibly hard to balance trying to conceive with managing my mental health.

We don’t talk about this. We don’t even talk about the first twelve weeks of pregnancy much (as I’m well aware from my work with the Miscarriage Association). Trying to conceive often happens in almost complete secrecy. I didn’t realise how it would interact with my fluctuating mental health and I wasn’t prepared.

It’s taken a while to get to this stage. The doctor who removed my coil last year strongly implied that it would be best to continue with my efforts to come off my Citalopram. She moved me to Sertraline (it’s considered safer in pregnancy) and told me to try and reduce my dose completely over the next month.

Coming off medication

In fact it took me three more months. I’ve been trying to come off anti depressants for a while anyway (after a muddled fifteen year relationship with them) and trying to conceive gave me the strength to make it through a hideous withdrawal period. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. Alex didn’t have much fun either. I’ve written about it here.

I’m more vulnerable to hormonal changes now. I still have very dark times when everything seems hopeless and I can’t see a way through the next ten minutes let alone the rest of my life. Difficult images and ideas jostle with an endless repetition of fears and doubts. Sometimes the same phrase over and over again. They whisper just below the surface of my consciousness. They’re loud enough to wear me down and shrink my focus to a single point of constant worry – but not quite conscious enough for me to recognise what’s happening in a way that helps me stop.

One these days I’m separated from the world by thick glass that bounces every negative thought straight back at me, infinitely magnified. My attention is forced inwards but my mind is everywhere but present, infecting all it can with worst case scenarios. I can’t look up and out, can’t see the variety of the world and my place in it, can’t take a long deep breath. My chest physically hurts and I feel constantly sick with the fight or flight chemicals flooding my poisoned body as it tries to deal with the powerful threat of my mind.

The inevitable uncertainty and lack of control

These times are getting further apart and each one adds detail to our understanding of the best way to manage them. But trying to conceive has made my anxiety worse. It’s given it another peg to hang its hat on. Issues with eating and body image are often about control (with an emphasis on control over your body) – and anxiety hates uncertainty. But trying to conceive is a very uncertain time. What my body does – and doesn’t do – isn’t completely under my control.

I was managing my mental health to the extent I felt I was in a position to come off medication – in order to do something that has made the problem worse again. The irony isn’t lost on me – although on bad days it just makes me  want to cry.
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Standing up to stigma – why I blog about work, projects & my mental health in one place

Pressing pause

Linked in

Should my LinkedIn link to my blogs too?

Every time I go to press ‘publish’ on a tricky post exploring my mental health I pause for a moment. The way my blog has developed means that my personal struggles and successes sit alongside blogs about my work and details of my skills, training and experience.

Should I keep them separate? Will employers reject me if they read that I took Citalopram for 15 years or that I use exercise to manage my anxiety?

I know stigma and discrimination around mental health in the workplace exists. I spent 2014 time to changeproviding evidence based reports on mental health policies and support in a number of organisations across a range of sectors for the Time To Change Organisational Healthcheck programme. Tom Oxley writes a good piece about how the programme worked on pages 10 and 11 of this newsletter.

I spoke to people in every workplace who said that they wouldn’t tell their manager if they were experiencing a mental health problem. Many said they would lie about taking time off.

”I’d probably say I had a migraine or something”

Those who had been honest about taking time off for a mental health problem said they felt that now they had more to prove.

Unfortunately in some cases I could understand why. Some managers said they felt people with mental health problems couldn’t ‘cope’. Others saw investment in employees’ mental and physical health as a burden rather than something that makes moral and business sense.

”You’ve got to be careful or people will just take advantage, start using ‘depression’ as an excuse.”

”We need people on top form to do this job – if you’re depressed you just won’t be able to cope.”

1 in 6 employees are currently dealing with a mental health problem. Like colds, flu, delayed trains, bereavement and accidents it’s always going to be part of a workforce. It’s how employers deal with it that counts.

My mental health is part of what makes me. It’s part of what makes a life – and in many cases it’s part of what makes me good at the work I do.

Pressing publish – every time

In the run up to Time To Change’s Time To Talk Day on Thursday I thought I’d share some of the reasons why I press publish on those tricky posts every time.

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