Online

Photo by NeONBRAND @ Unspalsh

This is a very hard subject for me to broach. Its hard for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is because I am going through one of those phases where every thought I have seems contradictory. This is anxiety, I know it is, its my brain not trusting what it tells itself.

Its also hard because I don’t want to offend or say something ‘wrong’. I know that online you are likely to offend someone just by saying hello, but this is a sensitive subject to some, and I feel I should point out from the very start that this is my opinion, based upon my experience. It will not be the same for everyone…

I am someone who spends a fair amount of time online. I always have been, from using dial-up in my brothers’ bedroom to using the internet for work and my own passions (this blog). It was only natural then that when I was first unwell with my mental health and at home a lot of the time, I sought comfort online. I very quickly found a forum for people with mental health issues and on that forum I made friends – some of which I still have nearly a decade later.

The me that sought comfort then feels like a different person to the one writing this, now. I am still me of course – I am still brunette, quiet, sensitive. I am sat in almost the same place, I still have a dog (albeit a different one) nearby. But in many ways, I am not the same person; I have changed, I have had to. I have had to educate myself about my own mental and physical illnesses, I have grown mentally, spiritually and also physically. I have learnt things about myself through therapy, through pain and through heartbreak. I have experienced amazing joy and happiness, but I have also reached points so low that I have questioned whether I would ever surface from the pit of my despair. I have found incredible, amazing friendships and I have lost people who I thought would be in my life forever.

And you will have done similar, I am sure.

Because we are all constantly growing, learning and evolving – even if at times it doesn’t feel like it.

When I was a member of this forum, I like to think I helped people. I am still in touch with someone now who has thanked me very recently for the help I offered – and I was helped too, by others. People who reached out when I was frightened and lonely and daunted by things happening to and around me. For nearly 11 months, back in 2010, I struggled to leave my house – I had agoraphobia, I couldn’t even walk my dog, let alone go to work, so this community formed a little extended safety net of people. My boyfriend (now husband) was amazing, but he didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what was happening, my parents were the same (and also ninety miles away). These people though, they got it, they understood, and that was great and what I needed – I needed to feel understood, less alone and less freaked out. They were, quite literally, a lifeline.

I have found little mental health ‘communities’ in other places online throughout the years. I have spoken to people dealing with their own mental health issues and I have marvelled at how people experiencing anguish so great will help others without a moment’s hesitation. I have had wonderful, expansive conversations that have helped my own recovery and growth and I have watched as friends have recognised issues, sought help, and bloomed. I have talked friends through relapses and confided in them about my own in moments of darkness and struggle. I have felt fortunate to have all of this help, experience and solidarity at my fingertips or at the push of a button and I have felt my heart swell as I watch the bravery of others as they tell their stories, and help, one voice at a time to break down the stigma and confusion surrounding mental health.

But I have also seen the flip side.

Because there will always be one; I have formed a codependent relationship with a man who’s struggles with his own mental health threatened to destroy my own self-worth. I have lost friends because we have been at different stages of recovery, I have cried and grieved over people that I will never have the chance to meet. I have seen how predators can wheedle their way in, gain trust, lie and leave people (including myself) in ruins.  I have seen whole communities turn against one person for having an opinion or saying something out of turn and I have not been in a place strong enough to make a stand for either side. I have watched the steady decline of friends who I have had to accept that I cannot help in any way other than being there, listening and offering brief words of comfort or support. I have found myself being triggered and have had to work out the underlying reasons why and work very hard to heal myself – that one, is still a work in progress.

I have had to also learn the difference between online, and real life – but also, how closely the two are linked.

Yesterday, I had a pretty bad day. It was a bad day for a number of reasons – I was in a lot of physical pain and as a knock-on effect, my depression was simmering and bubbling away. My anxiety was through the roof- as it has been for nearly two weeks now and I was, exhausted. I slept a lot, but in moments of wakefulness I scrolled through Twitter. This… didn’t help.

What happened yesterday on Twitter isn’t the issue here, I think anyone who knows anything about mental health can agree that asking someone about their self-harm scars, is wrong. But what impacted me, more than that – as a survivor of self-harm and as someone who still struggles with that and has scars – was the reaction and subsequent fall out.

There are two terms that are banded around Twitter a lot; ‘Mental Health Community’ and ‘Mental Health Advocate’. Now, I am not saying that either are bad – to be able to access support and companionship online regarding illnesses that are, by their very nature isolating, is wonderful. But it is wonderful only when it works well, when difficult subjects are handled sensitively and when those involved appreciate that every-one is fighting their own battles.

I will not be putting the words ‘Mental Health Advocate’ into my Twitter bio at any point, not because I have anything against advocating for better understanding around all mental health disorders but because I feel I am wholly unqualified to make such a claim about myself. According to a post I saw yesterday, a ‘Mental Health Advocate’ must have an understanding of all mental health conditions – and I am sorry, but I don’t. I rarely understand my own, never mind someone else’s and it would be wrong of me to profess that I do.

Mental illness is not like diabetes, its not like a broken leg. We know about diabetes – we know what causes it, we know the symptoms and we know how to treat it. I know there are complications and its not always as straightforward as that, but it is a case of cause and effect. Same with a broken bone. Mental illness is different, it is vast, it is – even by medical professionals – at times misunderstood and misdiagnosed. I have depression and anxiety but my symptoms can vary massively to someone else that has depression and anxiety. I have an unhealthy relationship with food – but I am neither anorexic nor bulimic, even though I have exhibited symptoms of both. I am a survivor of trauma, and I only found that out about myself within the last six months. I exhibit signs of other mental health disorders, but I have not been diagnosed as having them. I also have a physical illness that has, possibly, been brought on, in part, by stress and trauma.

And that is me, just one person. I struggle to understand my own behaviours and reactions to things – that is why I go to therapy, that is why I spend a lot of time working on myself and trying to recognise what is me and what is my illness.

I can empathise with other survivors of trauma, with people who also struggle with food. I can go to group therapy alongside people who have also fallen under the same diagnosis, but I can still exhibit wildly different symptoms from them. I can listen and understand and learn, I can help to validate someone’s feelings and offer them comfort – but I am not a medical professional and I am not immune to being hurt or affected by someone elses actions. I can understand that mental illness – whatever the ‘label’ can make any of us act in a way that is out of character or in a way which we later come to regret, because I have been there and done those things myself.

But putting that title upon yourself – ‘advocate’ – is pressure. I have seen posts by people asking others what they believe a good advocate is, what they need to do in order to earn that title, and honestly, I would tell them not to worry about earning it in the first place. If you are here, if you are fighting mental illness and still waking up each day, if you are sharing your stories and helping others with their recovery – and even if you are not, even if you are just working on yourself and growing and learning each day, then you don’t need an additional title to validate your worth.

It is not up to me to tell others how to behave online and it is not up to me to say what is right and what is wrong, but yesterday was incredibly eye-opening. I have unfollowed a lot of accounts and I do not believe that anyone had any malicious intent, but for me, dealing with my own mental health, seeing the posts and the comments that were being posted by ‘advocates’ made me really question the value of that self-imposed title. I have no doubt that there are wonderful people who advocate every day on Twitter, or any other social media platform – with or without that title. But, I would always exercise caution, and advise that others do the same, because online isn’t the same as real life, but the fall-out from it all can be life-alteringly real.

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Squad

Image Credit: Tatiana Vavrikova @ Pexels

This writing came about last year as part of a Blurt* picture challenge. I decided to create writings instead of pictures throughout the month and ‘Squad’ was one of the prompts…

Squad is I think the first one of these challenges that I’m left drawing a blank on. It’s not a word that really enters my vocabulary. I know loosely what it means of course and my husband plays with his ‘squad’ on Pubg… but as a subject matter for me to write about….? I enlisted Google on my quest…

Crew, posse, gang: an informal group of individuals with a common identity and a sense of solidarity. The term is a bit flashy and is more likely to be heard in hip-hop lyrics than in spoken conversation.

Well, I don’t listen to hip hop, so no wonder I am a little in the dark on this…

I do have a sense of solidarity though, with two women who have grown to be my best friends.

Friendship has always been a tricky one. Our childhood years are so formative in the way we view the world around us and the relationships we form within it – and given that I spent so many of those years being bullied by a group of girls who would be your friend in first period and your worst enemy by lunch…my idea of ‘healthy’ friendships became a little skewed.

It also affected my ability to trust, especially other girls. I remember in one therapy session, a good few years ago, my therapist quite rightly pointed out that the people I chose to confide in, were always men. And why wouldn’t they be? Women (in a friendship capacity) up until that point in my life had ways been the ones to cause the most damage.

(The men I was choosing weren’t that great either if we’re being honest, but that’s another writing.)

But then one morning in the Dr’s surgery, there was a woman with a young baby. We started talking… that young baby is now 9 and if I ever have children I would want them to be just like him. The woman is one of my closest friends, she has been my rock, just as I hope at times I have been hers. She has intelligence and compassion by the bucketload and she helps me see things clearly when my own mind is playing tricks. We’ve been to Dublin, to London and to Wales and I trust her with my life. We’ve laughed and cried and despaired together; she was my maid of honour, along with her daughter as my bridesmaid when I got married, I’ve decorated her house and she’s the only person I trust to look after my highly-strung pooch. She’s an absolute star…

She makes my ‘squad’

Not long after meeting her, my husband pointed out a framed picture on his Facebook feed. It was of a pencil drawing of two characterful dolls ‘Falmouth Dolls’ – a girl he knew from way back in school was selling it. I loved it and arranged to pick it up. That girl is now my other best friend. Amazingly strong, beautiful, wise and talented… she is the embodiment of magic and I don’t know where I would be without her (and her two wonderful girls). I introduced her to my friend above when I was planning my wedding and I just sat back and watched as two of the most important people in my life bonded over so much. She read at my wedding and helped the day run so smoothly. She reminds me when I need to pause and practice self-care and I do the same for her. She has taught me so much and I have come to think of her as a guiding beacon of light, especially over the last few months. Sometimes our texts to each other are short little check-ins, reminding each other to breathe – other times they are essays that span pages. She has restored my faith in humanity on many an occasion and I can see us still texting (or whatever the crazy futuristic equivalent is) every day when we are 90…

She makes my ‘squad’

I am so blessed to have two such wonderful people in my life and this writing is a good reminder to myself that I am worthy of the friendship that these wonderful women bring and that I am a better person for knowing both of them. I’m not sure I am 100% comfortable in referring to them as my ‘squad’, I like to just think of them as my friends.

Something that I once questioned would ever exist at all.

*Blurt is a charity that ‘works to increase the understanding of depression, from the perspective of those who have actually experienced it’. They are a wonderful resource and collaborate with schools, medical practitioners and employers to help reduce the stigma and create awareness and understanding of depression. Check them out @ http://www.blurtitout.org or @theblurtfoundation on Instagram @Blurt alerts on Twitter or @Blurtitout on Facebook

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