Today I saw a picture posted by a guy I used to work with. It was a picture of a motorway bridge and a laminated note next to it saying:
Suicide doesn’t take the pain away. It just passes it to someone else.
🙄 < my own eye roll was much larger than this.
I don’t know the origin of that photo, perhaps it was written by someone who was grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide. I also know the guy that re-posted it, and I’m sure he did it with good intentions. However, it’s a message which isn’t filled with compassion and support.
It’s a message loaded with guilt.
It says ‘I know you want to die, but if you do you’ll make someone else sad, so just keep going. Keep going with your pain, with your depression, with your memories and flashbacks of trauma. Keep living even though your own mind scares you and you don’t feel safe in your own body. Keep going even though you don’t know how you are going to feed yourself and your family. Keep going in your grief. Keep going with the pain that you feel cloaks every waking moment of your day, with the ruminating thoughts that don’t stop, with your diagnosis that you can’t get any tangible help for. Keep going with your guilt, and here is a little more to load on top of that. Keep suffering, but don’t make anyone else sad, ok?‘
Suicide isn’t a conscious choice. Suicide is an option that feels like the only remaining option when the pain of living becomes greater than the pain of dying.
People who contemplate suicide already feel like a burden. They know that people will be upset but their unwell mind will convince them that the sadness other people feel will be temporary and lesser than the upset, frustration and disappointment that they will endure should they continue to live their lives.
There is absolutely zero compassion within those words. There is no hope that in the future things might get better, there is no clue as to where to look for resources that might help. There is no inkling of the fact that if you are contemplating suicide you are very, very far from being alone.
There is just guilt. So, much, guilt.
People who feel like ending their lives and their suffering don’t need to be told things like this. They need to be reminded that the good days will one day come again. That there are people out there who will listen, and that the words that come out of their mouths don’t even have to make any sense. They need to be held – physically and emotionally. They need support, they need friends to sit with them in the silence when their mind is anything but. They need hand holds in the dark when it’s 4am and the tears won’t stop coming. They need governments that recognise how huge the scale of mental ill-health actually is and who are willing to put funding into supporting those who need it. They need financial support and they need appropriate treatment for their unique condition. They need to be reminded that none of this is their fault.
They need compassion, and understanding and for people to listen and begin to recognise just how complex and traumatic even the very thought of suicide is.
Last month, I discovered that June 9th is Empathy Day and today it is trending on Twitter, because we should all harness this inner empathy that we have, right? We should all be more in-tune with each other’s feelings and emotions, especially at the moment, right?
I am also seeing posts on social media about empathic overload, parasympathetic stress, and general exhaustion… and I’m feeling that too.
Being empathic is a funny beast. I believe that we all inherently are, to some level, empathic. But for some of us, especially those of us that fall at the more sensitive end of the spectrum, our levels of empathy can sometimes be a little too much to manage and can sometimes even feel more like a curse than a blessing. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that we need more kindness and understanding going forward, using the word ‘empathy’ as a way to propel us to this point seems a little too far, especially when those of us who are empathic can often feel overwhelmed or burnt out by it.
For a long time, a very long time, I kind of just took my own empathy as something that simply was. I am empathic, just as someone else might be classed as adventurous or studious. It was a personality trait that I had, I couldn’t exactly switch it off and so I just went about my business wearing my empathy on my sleeve. And so often I would feel so tired, I would feel heavy, I would feel sad with no apparent cause, or frustrated, or just very jumbled…
It has only been in the last couple of years that I have understood that I wasn’t only observing what other people around me were feeling and therefore sympathising with them, I was feeling it too, quite literally.
There was a moment when it clicked for me. I walked into a room where two people were having an argument without words. You know the type. There were no raised voices, there was no apparent anger at all, but you could hear it in the tone of voice, the words used… I entered that room and my mood changed, like flicking a switch, and I instantly felt my energy shift. I knew then that this sudden dip in my mood was not because of my own emotions. I had instantly, on walking into that room, absorbed some of the energy from either one or both of those people – and it was not comfortable. I couldn’t stay in there, this feeling did not belong in my body and I did not want it to be there.
After that moment, I began to notice more how my mood would shift around certain people and, perhaps even more importantly, I began to notice the energy of other people and how it impacted me. Most people have a pretty neutral energy I find, it’ll change depending on circumstance of course but on the whole, it makes things very straightforward. However, some people can have very powerful energy – and this isn’t always a good thing. It may all sound a little far fetched at this point, but I have met people before who have had very confusing and chaotic energy, these people are not bad to be around necessarily, but I find that I do become quite tired after spending time with them. I have also met a couple of people that have very dark energy, and these people I do find it hard to spend time around. Around people like this, I usually get a headache and a real heaviness in the back of my head. It will quite often feel like someone has pulled the rug from underneath me and I get the feeling that I would rather be anywhere else. It is not comfortable and it will usually leave me exhausted for days afterward.
I don’t know, at this point, whether this is an empath trait, a thing that most people feel, instinct, or just an off-shoot of being at the more sensitive end of the scale when it comes to my surroundings. But I do feel that how we pick up on and perceive other people’s energies does link into how just being close to or around someone can impact our mood, and to an extent, our own energy.
Is it any wonder then that, at the moment especially, there are people who feel completely exhausted and burnt-out, but with no apparent cause? In the first few weeks of this pandemic, I felt like I was just wiped out. I didn’t feel like I could settle to anything, my thoughts felt jumbled and I struggled to make decisions. I was suffering from empathic overload. The whole world was experiencing a form of collective trauma. Suddenly everything that everyone knew – our routines, how we shopped, what we did when we left our homes, our children’s schooling, our jobs – were all thrown up into the air. Overnight we had to adapt, we had to get our shit together so that we could, at the very crux of it, survive. Here in the UK, we saw how this virus was affecting Italy and Spain and we were told that we were a few weeks behind these horrifying death tolls, we knew that this unstoppable force was coming. We watched as people panic bought toilet rolls, as governments who should have been keeping us safe floundered amongst the panic. We worried about older relatives and friends and our jobs and what this all meant long term and we did it all whilst suddenly having to be alone with our thoughts, without the distraction of work and routine.
And then the shocking images of George Floyd being murdered, and the realisation that systematic racism exists even within our own homes. That no-one, even if you consider yourself to not be racist, is truly not racist. To witness and hear what generations of people have been through and to have to hold yourself and your own culture accountable for centuries of pain and hurt and torment and know that what you feel right now does not even compare in the slightest possible way to what millions of people feel every day, is really, really hard.
People are suffering everywhere right now. Watching the news is really hard, even scrolling through social media is hard because you want to be able to help in any small way you can but all you can feel is this pain, that doesn’t even fully belong to you. It is overwhelming, it has a physical effect on our bodies when our cortisol levels raise, and we can find ourselves trapped within the ‘fight or flight’ trauma response – and usually within one of the lesser-known variations of that; freeze.
That, to me, is my definition of empathy and recently I heard it summed up perfectly by Elizabeth Gilbert:
“Empathy is “You’re suffering, and now I’m suffering because you’re suffering.” So now we have two people suffering and nobody who can serve, and nobody who can be of help, and if you knew how your empathetic suffering actually makes you into another patient who needs assistance, you would be more willing to dip into compassion. And what underlies compassion is the virtual courage, the courage to be able to sit with and witness somebody else’s pain without inhabiting it yourself so much that you become another person who is suffering and now, there are no helpers.”
I do not want to be someone that freezes in the face of someone else’s pain, but there have been times throughout my life – including very recently – where that is what I have done. Many times over the past few weeks, I have thought back to this passage of text and this interview in general and tried to face things with compassion, rather than empathy. Because empathy can become so strong that it destabilises us and renders us useless in the face of someone else’s struggles. I do feel pain for others and I do feel very overwhelmed with everything that is going on in the world right now, but I do also have the power to step back from it. I have the power to limit my news intake and I have the power to choose what I read and when I read it.
We so often hear analogies along the lines of ‘you cannot save anyone else unless you put your own breathing apparatus on first’ and (whilst I disagree with the whole notion of ‘saving’ people) this is absolutely true. Because what good is all of this desire to help and be the light within someone else’s darkness, if you are suffering as much as they are to begin with?
It takes courage and it takes strength to hold your own behaviour up to the light and examine it. And I am not saying that empathy is ‘bad’ – I firmly believe that it is a good thing to be able to empathise with someone else and to be able to help them from a place of kinship and understanding. But there does become a point where it can become too much and we can become unstuck. Do it too often and too intensely and you end up exhausted, do it without even realising, repeatedly, and you end up with burnout. Do it with one person within a relationship and you end up on a codependency spiral where you reach the point of only being ok, if they are ok. Like anything – including the good in this life – it is good to keep in check and use in moderation.
She had been able to see it on the horizon now for a while, rising out of the darkness like an ancient monolithic structure. At first it had seemed so far away, too far to imagine ever reaching. Back then it was tiny, and if she didn’t keep her eyes focused upon it, she would lose sight of it. Kind of like pointing out a bird against the backdrop of clouds or an insect going about its business on a hot summer’s day in front of a wall of ivy.
She knew it was important and she knew that she mustn’t lose sight of it for, somehow, it would become her destination. There were deep gorges in the landscape between them though, areas where she could see the dark clouds looming and hills that from this distance looked insurmountable. She wasn’t equipped for this, her small body wasn’t strong enough, her hair would occasionally whip itself across her face, causing her pale skin to sting and the rocks felt rough beneath her feet.
But still, she pushed forwards.
There were other people on the path. People she knew, and people she didn’t. Some of them looked stronger than she did, more confident. They looked like they had made this journey before and were coming back for another stab at it. She wondered why they would… but she soon remembered that it was never a choice.
The days soon turned into weeks, which turned into months and years. She kept on walking, but she became so tired at times that she had to stop for fear of breaking down completely. In those moments she sat on the ground and took deep breaths, her eyes upturned to the sky, for if she focused on her destination too long she would lose sight of it. At times it felt like a mirage, forever shimmering and out of reach. Did any of these other people ever reach it? There were times that she questioned whether it had even existed at all.
At some points, she felt a hand slip into her own as she traversed the more difficult boulders and lakes. Sometimes the hand was big and smooth and when she closed her eyes she could see him sitting opposite her in a small, too-warm, room. He asked her questions, difficult ones that had no real answer and would cause the tears to burn behind her eyes and fall heavy into the lakes that were of her own making. On other days, the hand was as familiar as her own, warm and aged from a lifetime of work and love, she looked up and saw the kind eyes of her mother as she planted the seeds that would blossom into the flowers which she longed to see on the other side. On some days the hand was understanding and calming, the one that she held in the quietest moments where the memories jumbled and the tears could no longer fall. In the solitary moments of moving ever forward the hand still held her firm, reassuring her that it would never leave her side, even if the road was longer than they both ever imagined and on other days, the hand was small, and unsure. It gripped her tightly out of fear, and she didn’t want to look down at the child holding it because she knew that her own image would cause her to stay where she stood, paralysed in the thoughts that had brought her to this desolate place.
There were days that the sun would creep out from behind the clouds, where birds would sing in the early morning silence and the lakes would run clear and crisp. She would drink from them then, filling herself with the hope and energy that she needed in order to forge forwards. Sometimes these seasons lasted for mere hours, and sometimes they lasted for weeks on end. She looked forward to these times for it was during the sunlight and birdsong that she was able to move quickly. However the clouds moved quicker still and sometimes the storm was upon her before she could even smell its arrival in the air.
She kept walking, through the storms when the wind bit her cheeks and the rain mixed with her tears. At times she felt that the sky was crying with her and there were days when it couldn’t stop.
But she was drawing ever closer to her destination…
She could see now that it was a door, standing solitary and alone. It seemed so out of place perched upon that mountain top, but she never questioned it. She assumed that others on the path had their own door for she had never seen anyone open the one on her horizon.
There were days where her feet lost their grip upon the slippery rocks and she felt that she would tumble to the ground and have to begin again. She concentrated on the ledges that she passed and reminded herself of words that she had once heard about landing on one of them and resting. She would never have to begin completely again, not now, not after all the trails the path had given her. Her small hands gripped onto whatever they could find and the muscles in her shoulders burnt as she heaved herself upwards and onwards.
When she got to the mountain top she felt something that she had not expected. She felt grief. She turned around and looked at the landscape behind her. The hills that had felt like mountains, the deep lakes that glistened in the late afternoon sun and the forests that had felt so dark and imposing as she had walked through them, haunted by voices of the past. Looking at it all from up here as the wind blew her hair from her face she wondered how it had all felt so desolate, for it was beautiful and she knew that it had been of her own creation. She took a few moments to drink in the sight before her before turning back to the door that had been her destination all along.
The birds sang their now familiar song, and the wind whistled above the landscape that she had come to know as home. She couldn’t explain it but the hands that hand held her own were now bodies around her, holding her firm and not allowing her to run back to the familiarity of what once was. She took a deep breath and reached out her hand to the doorknob…
She didn’t know where she was going now, but she knew she could face whatever it would bring.
She left the Elm trees swaying in the early spring breeze, picking up rocks as she walked. Feeling the smooth, calm, coolness of them as she slipped them into her pockets, one by one.
She was leaving the only home still standing, the only one ravaged by pain, rather than the Germans. How could she hope to recover this time, when once again, everything was beginning to tear at the seams?
Another rock, another weight.
She had left the notes, only two. Her words hadn’t flowed and that’s when she knew.
Another rock, another certainty.
She returned to the Elms, swaying in the summer sunshine.
Finally finding peace as she slept beneath the intertwined trees, which she had once named after each of them.
‘Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O death! The waves broke on the shore’
~ Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Thank you for reading.
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Merriam Webster defines it as ‘the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally’ and It makes it sound so… benign. Like the choice is so easy, that it doesn’t come from a place of torment, pain and questioning.
Suicide is the only option left when every other conceivable idea becomes unbearable. Break that down – every. other. option.
Every single one, anything you can think of to make your life better, every realistic choice or possible decision, even if it seems far fetched. Talking to those you love and who love you, leaving your job, going into hermit mode for a while, selling your house and moving to the other side of the world, volunteering to help those in need, cutting off all of your hair, spending all of your savings on something ridiculous… I mean, if you are thinking of ending everything, these decisions don’t seem so extreme anymore.
But none of them will work. And you know why? Because they are all so overwhelming, they are all too much. Too much to think about, never mind do. Not that it would make a difference anyway – not when your depression doesn’t live in your workplace, or your home, or your hair.
Suicide comes when all other options have been exhausted or seem too overwhelming. It comes when the pain has become too heavy that you cannot carry it any longer. When you are locking yourself away in the bathroom and sobbing your heart out because you have done e v e r y t h i n g ‘right’; you’ve sought the help, taken the pills, gone to the therapy and it is still there. It comes when the pain of living seems worse than the pain of dying.
It isn’t a selfish act, it isn’t ‘attention seeking’, it isn’t something that is done to spite others. It’s not cowardice, it is not shameful to think about, it is not terrifying to talk about.
It is a symptom. A horrible, final symptom of a horrible, debilitating illness.
When suicide hits the headlines, we all talk about it. We all talk about the person, we all say what an awful shame and an awful shock it is. And it is a shock, it is always a shock. It’s a shock because we never think that they would do it – they who ‘didn’t seem depressed’, had spouse/children/a family/money/fame/a nice house/a good job/a bright future… but depression doesn’t live in your nice house. It lives within you, it’s in your mind, in your bones, it pumps its way around your body. It becomes all-consuming, deafening, insurmountable. It becomes something you feel that you need to escape from – but how do you escape from something that lives within you?
This writing is deliberately bleak, deliberately questioning – because that is what it feels like. I could tell you that there is help out there, that someone is always listening, that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I could urge you to talk to someone, to seek help and remind you that the good days will come again but you have to be here in order to see them. I could tell you that suicide isn’t, ever, the answer. And all of that would be true.
But that isn’t what it feels like.
There have been points where I have been suicidal, where I have just wanted to escape and switch the thoughts off. I have memories of things that I cannot bear to think about anymore, but that never stop replaying in my mind. I have felt hopeless, unbearably sad, a failure, weak, a letdown. I’ve convinced myself that once they get over their sadness people would be better off without me. But there are always two thoughts that stop me –
Who would find me? My husband, my best friend… I couldn’t leave them with that. With the moments and hours and days after. They would move on eventually, I know that. But I couldn’t bear the thought of them questioning themselves and blaming themselves.
Those moments between cause and effect. When its too late to take it back, when the result is inevitable but the thoughts still come.
I cling onto those reasons, literally for dear life at times.
And I know, things get better. It may be little glimmers of light that dance through leaves on a summer afternoon. It might be my husband’s laugh or my baby nephew’s grip around my finger. Its a hug from my best friend, or the smell of my mum’s kitchen. Hope comes in the wind that makes my hair dance upon the mountain top, or the icy cold water that licks at my feet on the shoreline.
If I was dead, these things would be gone.
And forever is a long time.
So, please do talk. Please do reach out. It’s not easy – my god, I know it’s not easy. No-one expects it to make sense, because these things simply don’t. Stop trying to circle the square and cope with this on your own, please. Find meaning in the small things, find reasons not to in the harsh reality of what would really happen.
Autumn is a magical time of year. Everything turns golden, the heating comes on. People don’t look at you strangely for wearing big chunky boots with your pretty dresses… the best mornings are full of blue sky and steam that rises from inside your lungs when you breathe. You get to smell woodsmoke in the air, cook stews and casseroles to come home to. Leaves crunch under your feet or the mud squishes underneath your wellington boots as you meander through woodlands that smell of damp and earth and allow you to feel completely grounded and at one with nature.
It is also the prelude to December… I was born a week before Christmas and I normally look forward to that special week – full of family and friends, twinkling lights, good music (Smith & Burrows’s Christmas album will always be a favourite), amazing food and of course the presents, although I’ve always been much more of a giver in that respect. It’s wonderful…
Until it isn’t.
Until the tiredness snakes its way into your bones, or the kitchen gets too hot whilst you are cooking what feels like your eleventh thousand Christmas dinner. Your bank account is looking sorry for itself, you’ve forgotten to buy your husbands aunties cat a Christmas present (true story), you need to write a heap of cards for the neighbours or people at work, you need to have dinner with your extended family and you know that the noise of eating, the amount of food, the anxiety around getting it ‘just right’ and the feeling of being too full are all triggers to your own issues with food. Maybe you count on work as a distraction and routine to keep you sane and the thought of an enforced holiday scares you more than you would like to admit. Perhaps you are breaking bread with people that don’t understand your sexuality, maybe you would love to be spending your day with a loved one but can’t because you need to spend it with family who don’t understand. There is alcohol, so – much – alcohol, and that can be incredibly hard for so many reasons. It’s not an easy time. Last year I wrote on another platform about how we can never fully understand how hard Christmas can be for each other and this year I’m feeling the truth of that even more so. It could be the first Christmas without someone, or the last Christmas we know we’ll have someone with us. And it’s merry and jolly and bright because it’s Christmas… but in reality, it’s not at all jolly and bright… it’s hard, and it’s a struggle and that is ok.
It’s ok because it is ok not to be ok. It’s ok to find all of this too much – all of this preparation and buying stuff and thinking about food and making arrangements with people you haven’t spoken to for the last 11 months. It’s alright to go to a quiet place and just sit and do nothing, or to cry, or to scream into a pillow. It’s healthy to get the lead on the dog and whisk him out of the door faster than his paws can touch the ground because you just need to get out and away and breathe the fresh, cool air into your lungs for 10 minutes, by yourself, for yourself.
These few weeks are stressful. They are stressful for people who seem to have everything together and they are stressful for people that let us all know about it when they don’t. Most of us still have to do the everyday stuff – going to work, keeping ourselves healthy, care giving, paying bills, looking after kids – and then we have this big day looming on the horizon which everything has to be perfect for, which we need to be perfect for.
But we don’t. Not really.
Because it’s a day.
Just a day.
Take it hour by hour, remember to breathe. Meditate, go for a walk, sleep. Look after yourself and be considerate to those around you.
I was an anxious child. I think I had experienced little
flashes of it throughout all of my childhood, but it was when I moved up to
senior school that anxiety really got its teeth into me.
I was quiet, and sensitive – and sensitivity hasn’t always
been seen in the most positive of lights. I would feel overwhelmed by noisy and
crowded spaces, I’d like to plan ahead and I was – and still am – an overthinker and a perfectionist. We also
lived in a church building, which in many aspects was wonderful, but it did
make me ‘different’ amongst my peers and it did pose its own challenges with
regards to the overthinking; I’d imagine the building being set alight whilst
we were sleeping or someone getting in to the building during the day and
hiding until my Dad did his nightly checks.
You’d think then, that when a friend asked me for advice
last week regarding his daughter who is experiencing severe anxiety after
moving up to secondary school, I’d be a fountain of experience and knowledge
and be able to give real, practical advice, having lived through it myself… but
instead, I kind of drew a bit of a blank. I empathised of course, I gave some
small words of advice about what could help anyone with anxiety, but it
was only when I went away and thought about it and talked to my friend who
works in mental health about it that I could really come up with some actual,
I think that this is for two reasons, firstly, I experienced all of this anxiety in the mid-nineties. We simply did not have the knowledge or the resources to deal with children’s mental health at this point in time. My experience was very much, go to school and deal with it for 6 hours, 5 days a week. My parents tried their best to help me, but without the resources and the education there for them to access, it was at times both frustrating and agonising. Secondly, I don’t remember whole years of this time period, or rather, I remember a few standout moments from when I was 10 or 11 to when I left school at 16, the rest is very blurry and jumbled up. I was bullied throughout my time at secondary school and this has had a long-lasting effect, even to this day. Just because the memories aren’t there, doesn’t mean the feelings within my body, my reactions to certain things and the way I have learnt to process this – what I now can recognise as complex trauma – aren’t.
So, what would have helped me back then? What advice
did I go back to my friend with and if you have an anxious child – whether there
is bullying involved, or not – how can you help them?
Acknowledge the Anxiety
For so many years people seemed to believe that mental
health issues would magically disappear if they weren’t talked about. That
somehow, if we didn’t acknowledge them and the damage that they cause, that
they would just go away. That talking about them was somehow indulgent and
self-absorbed. I can assure you, none of this is true.
What acknowledging anxiety does, is rather wonderful, for it
helps to take away some of its power. Anxiety thrives on the unknown, it feeds
off of ruminating thoughts. If, as someone with anxiety, you are able to sit
down with someone you trust and talk about what is worrying you then that is
half the battle won, for it gets it out.
Of course, talking can be a pretty big thing in itself when anxiety has dug its claws in. How do we make it make sense? We know that it is rarely rational. That so many people will, and perhaps have, told us ‘not to be so silly’, or have brushed it off, or even laughed at us. The best thing that you can do with someone with anxiety, is just listen. Don’t judge, don’t try and fix it, just listen. Very often, within that safe space of being able to talk about it and have these words heard, we can come to our own conclusions about how to deal with what is happening, or sometimes just giving our thoughts the space to come out means we can hear them logically when they aren’t all clamouring over themselves to be heard. Philippa Perry wrote a wonderful book, which was published earlier this year entitled ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad You Did)’ in it, she talks about how validation is so, so important. That just acknowledging what a child feels can (rather literally) work magic. Instead of brushing what a child is telling you off, a different response could be ‘I understand how that could be upsetting, what do you think would help?’ this then opens up the subject for discussion, whilst also keeping the child in control of their feelings and emotions which will, in turn, enable them to better process these ‘difficult’ feelings as they encounter them again throughout growing up and into adulthood.
Observe How the Anxiety Presents Itself
This will be different from person to person and sometimes
it will manifest in different ways for the same person. Anxiety can make you
feel so restless that you can’t sit still, so fearful that the only way you
feel you can deal with it is to be angry, or so numb and scared that it mutes
you. Dealing with difficult emotions can cause some people to overeat, and it
can cause some people to not eat at all (the lump in your throat? that knot in
your stomach? These are very real feelings.) Anxiety can be as much physical
as it is a mental, illness.
Anxiety may keep itself at bay all weekend and only come to
the surface on a Sunday night. Or, it may be more prevalent on a Saturday when the
week has come to an end and our thoughts start to ruminate. Anxiety sends us
into ‘fight or flight’ – giving us an adrenaline rush which can make us appear
sometimes manic, fidgety or forgetful. It’s also exhausting, sometimes the
safest and most desirable option is to just go to sleep and black it all out.
Anxiety isn’t always a frowning, worried look. It could be
any behaviour that seems out of character or alarming, especially before a big
event. However, for some (like me) just the school environment with its noise, atmosphere
and constant busyness could cause anxiety.
There are some great meditations out there for children (check out Insight Timer, completely free and with a huge library of mediations, music and even stories) but sometimes sitting still could be impossible. If there is restlessness or a huge adrenaline rush – encourage exercise or get outside, go for a run or go into the woods and jump about; scream, cry, pretend to be wild animals! Getting the cortisol out, is good and will help someone with anxiety rebalance themselves and be able to gain some control over their emotions in a calmer, more manageable way.
Encourage the Flow of Words
I have never been a big talker, even in therapy, I have felt
at times that I have talked ‘too much’ after talking for an hour. But still, I
love words, I love reading and I love creating worlds. Encourage your child to
write and then even if they can’t say the most difficult or distressing
thoughts out loud, then they could at least write them down. Writing is an amazing
tool; it allows us to process emotions in a calm way, which no-one else has to
see if we don’t want them to. It also allows us to keep some of these feelings on
paper, so that when we go back and read what we have previously written, we can
see how far we have come.
If your child doesn’t like the idea of writing about
themselves, encourage them to create a character. This character could be based
on them and have the same fears, but this character may also find ways to
overcome these fears. Or, it may just be a really good insight into your childs
mind (if they are happy with you reading it). Writing may also serve as a
precursor to talking about it, if we become comfortable with the language used then
we are more likely to slowly become comfortable with talking about it.
Allow Your Child to Be in Control
This can be hard – so often we, as adults, just want to
swoop in and make everything better. But anxiety can sometimes make you feel
like you have no control, and we need to retain what we do have. A good
example of this would be coming up with a plan of what your child thinks may
help when their anxiety is getting worse or when it is at its peak.
You could use a 1 – 100 scale, or even various emoticons, eg 😊 all the way along to ☹ but at each point allow your child to have input as to what it feels like and what may help stop it escalating. For example, at a level 50, they may find that they are fidgety and unable to focus, but getting some fresh air and going outside may help calm them. Or at a 100 (with 100 being peak anxiety) they may be able to tell you in advance what will help, so that you can be better equipped to help them when communication is hard, or even impossible.
It’s not foolproof and sometimes it can be very hard to remember or acknowledge what we felt whilst experiencing a panic attack or complete numbness, but sitting with your child and helping them work through these stages (even if you have to adapt them as time progresses) and allowing them to make the final decision over what steps you take will help them feel they have control over what can feel like a terrifying situation. It will also give them tools that will help later in life when it comes to dealing with difficult emotions.
Be Kind to Yourself
Having a child with anxiety isn’t your fault, it doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong and it doesn’t make you a bad parent. No-one expects you to have all the answers, its ok (and perfectly normal!) to feel angry and upset at the situations that mental illness puts us into, and just because at times you may feel helpless it does not mean that you are.
However, you do need to look after yourself. Supporting
someone with anxiety can be exhausting – we all absorb energy and we all, at different
levels, empathise. At times, I think we have all wished that we could bear
someone else’s pain for them – but, we can’t. What we can do though, is make
sure that we are strong enough to help them carry the burden of it, and that
includes keeping ourselves healthy.
Never be afraid to get help from your local GP. Just because you go there presenting with a mental health issue, it doesn’t mean that they will go for medication as a first (or only) resort. There are various therapies available and, if you can, its usually wise to let the school know of the situation aswell. Very often they have procedures in place to help children suffering with emotional or mental health issues.
There are also usually support groups available for carers
and those who have children who are struggling with anxiety, along with other
mental health conditions. Your GP or local mental health unit will have
information about these.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it’s worth
noting that I am not a mental heath professional. I have lived with anxiety for
the majority of my life, and whilst I have learnt of things that do help, these
can take years! If you have any other suggestions regarding what may help,
please do let me know in the comments ❤
I should probably make one thing clear before I get into this post, I am not against positivity – not in the slightest. I believe that positivity is wonderful and can aid recovery, can undoubtedly make life more pleasurable and of course can make us more enjoyable people to be around. Despite the depression, I even think of myself as a generally positive person – my thoughts in this post aren’t about positivity per se, they are more about how positivity can sometimes feel forced, and pushed upon us…
Because I think we have all reached that point at times where positivity is really, really hard to muster. A bad day, week, month, year… an amalgamation of events, a mental or physical illness, instances of inequality or discrimination. But still, we have this message pushed upon us by social media especially that we should be positive – because its ‘healthy’.
But… what if its not always the healthy option? What if our
constant drive to put this positive front out to the rest of the world is
actually damaging our wellness and our growth? We’ve all scrolled through Facebook,
Instagram and Twitter looking at everyone else’s highlight reel, we’ve all come
away feeling that little bit sadder, that little bit less accomplished.
I came across a post during my scrolling on Facebook this morning which was a quote taken from Rachel Hollis’s bestselling book ‘Girl, Wash Your Face’
Now… my problem isn’t with Rachel Hollis, or her book. I
haven’t read it so it would be unfair of me to pass any form of judgement on
it. My problem is with the quote – a quote, which apparently comes near the end
of the book and is taken (perhaps) out of context.
If you are reading this quote in the book, then you are someone who has chosen to read what Rachel has to say. You have been given time to grasp the approach of the book, you are perhaps already a fan of Rachel Hollis – maybe from this book itself, or perhaps you heard of her through her event planning company, lifestyle website, or the media company she runs with her husband. Maybe you’ve read one of her novels, own either of her cookbooks, been to one of her conferences or even attended one of her ‘getaway weekends’. The Rachel Hollis brand is huge and she evidently has a massive following of people that know who she is, what she stands for and also her approach to ‘wellness’.
However, if like me, you had to Google her…. then the quote is out of context. What this quote says, to someone unfamiliar with her tough love approach, is pull yourself together girl, stop dwelling on the past. Be positive, love yourself…
And this is something that I cannot get on board with.
Sure, that message is positive; it screams positivity and motivation. But what it doesn’t address is why these ‘positive’ things are not happening in the first place.
Lets break it down a little and see why reading a quote like this out of context can be so problematic…
‘Girl…’ – I get the impression that her target audience is middle class women, usually mothers. But can we take a moment to recognise that men also suffer with the issues that she is trying to address?
‘Get ahold of your life’ – how? Is it easy? It that something that people who don’t have a job because of a mental health condition can do? Is that something that someone who is being discriminated against because of their sexuality, race or gender can do? Is it something that a single working mum (or dad) can do when every penny goes on shelter and putting food in their childrens mouths? Is it something an addict can do? Or someone with a physical health condition? Or someone who is grieving? How about uh…. Someone who is processing trauma? Someone who has major anxiety and cannot go outside? Get ahold of your life – five words that are very easy to type, but that have different meanings, difficulties, connotations and shame attached to them, for so many people.
‘Stop medicating’ – I am giving her the benefit of the doubt here, I’m presuming she means ‘self-medicating’ rather than actual medication. But still, coming from a woman who wrote in her bestselling book that she would use vodka and Xanax to deal with stress when she was going through the fostering process, you’d think she’d perhaps have a little more compassion for people that do resort to coping mechanisms to get through. Two words, but they don’t delve into the complexities of addiction, they don’t offer any forgiveness for how we try and cope with our pain. They don’t encapsulate how hard it is to stop behaviours that have helped us in the past and that can be very easy to fall back to, even when we are ‘recovered’.
‘Stop hiding out, stop being afraid, stop giving away pieces of yourself’ – these are good snippets of advice, but they are delivered in such a simplistic way that they lose all meaning. Its safe to hide, especially if you have experienced trauma or discrimination – hiding becomes a learned and subconscious behaviour to some – including myself. And how could you contemplate just telling someone to ‘stop being afraid’? Fears and phobias are bad enough but if we are talking about being afraid of putting ourselves out there, of being seen, or taking huge steps forward and managing our own recovery – then that becomes something else entirely. As for giving away pieces of ourselves – sometimes that comes down to self-worth, to co-dependency, to being abused and to having to, because that’s how we have learnt to survive.
‘Stop saying you can’t do it. Stop the negative self-talk’ – So this part, is perhaps the only part that I do agree with. We are all so hard on ourselves and we do need to learn to talk to ourselves more gently, to be more forgiving to ourselves and to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, and – in fact – no-one is. Unfortunately, the compassion that we need to offer onto ourselves in order to begin to do this, is not really offered within this context.
‘Stop abusing your body’ – So, this is a very interesting one. I haven’t read Rachels book, but in preparation for this post I have read about Rachel and I have read snippets in order to gleam some sort of idea about the message she is trying to promote. This is a quote from her book:
“Humans were not made to be out of shape and severely overweight. You can choose to continue to abuse your body because it’s all you know […] but please stop making excuses for the why’s”
It is also worth noting at this point, that Rachel Hollis does have posts on her Instagram about loving your body and your worth isn’t dependant on your appearance – which is wonderful and is a very important message. But unfortunately, she seems to be completely disregarding the fact that millions of people suffer with mental health issues which are directly linked to food. Some people undereat, some people overeat and some people do both – and these are all valid reasons for emotional distress. Anorexia is an abuse upon our bodies yes, but it is not a choice, it is not an excuse, it is a deep rooted and traumatising illness – and the same applies to binge eating and bulimia. Also, if we take it away from food for a moment and move onto exercise then can we at least recognise that the ability, time and often money to do so is a privilege not afforded to all.
‘Stop putting if off for tomorrow or Monday or next year’ – if you are tired, if you are unwell, if you are recovering then sometimes you need to put things off. Sure, don’t put them off forever, don’t put them off to the point of never doing them – but again, it comes down to kindness. It comes down to recognising that something might just be a bit too much of a hurdle today, but tomorrow it might be easier. It is a difficult one, because sometimes we do need to do that hard stuff in order to move forward – but do it with kindness, do it whilst recognising your own limits and whilst also rewarding yourself for how far you’ve come! And that distance will be different for everyone – on some days getting out of bed and showered may seem like a hundred-mile trek, but recognise the power it took to do it, and forgive yourself if today you just can’t.
‘Stop crying about what happened…’ – No, don’t stop crying about what happened. This is perhaps the worst command in this entire list. Its ok to cry about what happened, its healthy to cry about what happened. Tears are healthy, addressing past issues and traumas and learning how to deal with them so that we can move on, is healthy. Never feel ashamed for crying, never feel ashamed for what happened to you and never feel ashamed for talking about it. We need to open up these places of safety, we need to get better at discovering why we sometimes do the things we do and why we react the way that we do to certain things. Brushing things under the carpet, painting on a mask of wellness and positivity and moving forwards is not going to help us find the root causes and is not going to help us address the issues that we need to move on from. Confide in friends you feel safe with, go to the therapy if you are able, take the medication if it helps makes things more bearable and cry when you need to cry – but please don’t ever feel ashamed or embarrassed to do so because you cannot skip these parts, you cannot ignore the past.
‘…and take control of what happens next’ The same rhetoric as ‘get ahold of your life’. We do have to take responsibility for ourselves at times, but it is important to recognise that these decisions can come much easier for some than for others. If you are being discriminated against, if you are poor, if you live in a rural community and don’t have good transport links, if you are in an abusive relationship, if you don’t have adequate healthcare or are on a long and never ending waiting list for help – then you can recognise that need to take responsibility as much as you want, but you cannot control what happens next.
The ‘tough love’ approach may work for some. It certainly
work’s for Rachel’s devoted audience – but it doesn’t work for all. For some,
it will feel judgemental, it will feel unkind and it will reinforce the belief
that they have in themselves that they are not trying hard enough and that they
are to blame – when so often, this isn’t the case.
Rachel Hollis has very successfully built a brand – and the brand is her. But to my knowledge, she doesn’t hold a medical degree, she does not have a background in mental health and before she founded Chic Events with her husband, her working life was spent at Miramax Studios. Rachel doesn’t know, or understand your individual pain, or your trauma. Her message is that of positivity and motivation and that is wonderful – unfortunately her message becomes skewed when her words are taken out of context and are read by people who haven’t bought into the lifestyle brand that she has created. If you cannot do the things you see in a quote all about positivity, that doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you have failed, and it doesn’t mean that your inability to do so is your fault.
It is ok to not be positive, it is ok to be sad or angry, or
to feel pain, or to still be in the process of recovery. You do not need to
brush yourself off and get on with it just because it’s the done thing, you are
allowed to feel your feelings and to talk and cry and revisit the past in order
to find ways of making your future bright. We do not all need to be shining
beacons of positivity all the time – and we do not need to know where we are
going or how we are going to get there.
Last year, on World Mental Health Day, I was in the process of coming off of an anti-depressant that I had been on for eight years. I remember I woke up and scrolled through Facebook – the significance of the day dawning on me. The insightful and hopeful posts about talking, and sharing, and not giving in lighting up my screen. But I wasn’t a part of that, I didn’t have any hope or insight.
I posted something, a small paragraph about kindness and how
it important it is – especially when it comes to giving it to ourselves and
then I probably went back to sleep, or went and led in a hot bath, or cried… I
don’t really remember.
This morning… I realised it was World Mental Health Day, again, as I was scrolling through Twitter in bed this morning. A lot has happened in the last year; I have had a course of Cognitive Analytical Therapy, I went back onto the medication I was trying to come off of, I’ve been able to put a name and a reason to some of my pain. I’ve stood up for myself, I quit a job that was making me miserable, I gained a new baby nephew, I lost my wonderful Great Aunt – and, I started this blog.
As a mental health blogger, there should be something insightful
coming from my pages today, right? Yeah… probably. I thought about it all
morning, I thought about it when I was exercising, when I was hanging the washing
on the line. I thought about it whilst scrolling through Twitter and whilst in
the shower. Nothing came to me, nothing but pressure.
But maybe that was because there are no beautiful and insightful
words that will help when you are in the midst’s of depression, or feeling the
effects of long-lasting and complex trauma. Maybe it’s because – like I found
last year – if you are in that place, you can read them, but you can’t feel
When you are in that place, hope doesn’t apply because
depression will snuff out any glimmer of hope before it can really shine. That’s
what depression does. You begin to feel disconnected from it all, like you
are not worthy of these words or this kindness, because that’s what
depression does. You feel that you cannot go to any of those people who
assure you that their door is open or they are willing to listen because you’d
feel like a burden, or too sad, or guilty, or shameful… because that’s what
Depression is ugly, and dark. Its corrosive, sticky and toxic.
Its complex, its deep rooted, it latches onto other mental and physical
illnesses and makes them 10x worse, and 100x harder to fight. But it is also
familiar. It lives within us and so it is at times scarily, and comfortingly
familiar. Its twisted, its conniving… its not something we can sit here and
write pretty words and breezy platitudes about. It’s a killer.
It can kill anyone, it’s not fussy. On the lunchtime news
today I watched Lorraine Denman, the mother of the Team GB snowboarder Ellie
Soutter talk about her daughters suicide last year. Ellie was 18, she was beautiful,
talented, had a loving family and an amazingly bright future ahead of her – she
showed no signs of being depressed, she was out with friends the night before….
Depression doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care about
hope, it doesn’t care about wealth, beauty, love or gender. It will latch on to
anything remotely positive and twist it, swamp it with its darkness and its
ugliness. It will take your words away, it will convince you that you are too
much, too sad, too boring, too unworthy to get help or speak to those you love –
and that love you – about what you are feeling. It will jumble your thoughts so
that even if you could speak, you wouldn’t know how to make any of it make
sense. It will make you so tired of fighting, so tired of having it within you
that you will do anything to stop it.
But it doesn’t need to make sense. If you are able to talk
to someone, it doesn’t need to come out in any order, it doesn’t have to come
out well-described, or calmly, or like beautiful prose. It just needs to
One thing that is important to remember, which I struggle to
remember, is that when you do confide in someone – be it a friend, family member,
spouse, boss, doctor… anyone – they are not in the same emotional space as you.
They are not feeling what you are feeling. They may have their own mental
health issues – but, if you are anything like me, it is always easier to hold
someone else’s pain than it is your own. I have depression (amongst other
things) but I would never want any of my friends to feel that they could not
come to me, because I would much rather sit with them in their pain, than sit next
to their hospital bed or their coffin.
So… this World Mental Health Day, lets still all vow to be there for each other, but lets also vow to stop treating Depression, PTSD, BPD, Anxiety, Addiction,Eating Disorders and the rest with platitudes. People don’t just suffer on one day, or one week, of the year. They aren’t just suffering when you see them ‘looking sad’, or when they are crying. People can be in emotional pain, even when they are smiling, even when they are holding down a job, or socialising, or recovering. They can still be suicidal when they are tipped to be an Olympic athlete with a bright future and the whole world ahead of them.