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.

Thank you for reading 🙂 If you have enjoyed this writing, please feel free to come and join me on my following social network pages to see my new posts and daily musings:

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Image credit: Dominik Vanyi @ Unsplash

Codependency was a word that I never fully grasped; it was something I never fully understood and something that – even now – I struggle to spell!

And yet, I was it, I was it to the letter. If anyone wanted an example of what a co-dependant person looked like, they could just bring me forward, with my phone firmly planted within my hand and my attention off elsewhere, and show me off as a good and fine specimen of someone who has fallen into that trap…

I hadn’t become this way intentionally of course, I hadn’t even become this way consciously, but I had become it all the same. It had happened over years, namely with one person, but there are little glimpses and tell-tale signs with others too. However, with this one person it was powerful, it was overwhelming and it was becoming very, very damaging.

This was a person who I had never met and who I had no real intention of meeting. He was a man who I had met online years ago, our conversations had started out regarding a shared interest in mental health and we had formed a friendship of sorts. Sometimes it is easier to talk about the hard stuff with someone if you don’t have to look them in the eye… and so, we gradually opened up to each other. He told me things that he had (allegedly) not told anyone else and I listened and advised the best that I could. When I suffered dips in my mental health, I turned not only to my husband and closest friends, but also to him. He always replied, always acknowledged my feelings… and then always reciprocated with his own.  

This isn’t a writing about how a friendship turned sour though, far from it. We don’t talk now, after a very difficult conversation we decided to have some time apart and whilst I admire him in many ways and still sometimes feel like I have lost a huge pillar of strength within my life, I also know that he has to address his own problems before we could ever hope to build a healthy relationship.

I also know that I need to address mine.

Because co-dependency doesn’t just spring up from nowhere. I became co-dependent because I had a need for something, something that was lacking and something that even now I struggle to identify. My over whelming desire within this friendship, was to fix; I wanted to make everything better, I could see the damage that was being done by my friends behaviours, but I could also see the things that would help him and I could see such potential – if only he would listen!

But he was listening, wasn’t he? We would have these long conversations; we would talk our way round the same situations day, after day, after day. He would ask me ‘What do I do?’ and I would reply with logic and compassion. I harnessed everything that I had learnt in therapy, everything that I had read about mental health and addiction. I would read articles online to try and improve my knowledge of the specific things he was struggling with. I would talk to my best friend – a qualified mental health nurse – and relay information, I would find song lyrics that resonated with his struggles and send him the music so he didn’t feel so alone. I would speak to him first thing in the morning and last thing at night, I would engage in behaviour that was damaging to my own mental health, in order to prevent him from either a) getting what he needed in that moment from someone who was potentially dangerous for his mental health or b) hurting someone else. But this was friendship, right? This was helping him, surely?

No, and no.

I remember very clearly the moment that it all clicked. It was on a day off, so I had been at home by myself all day and, yes, talking to him via text for a good part of it. I was feeling pretty tired – this was at the end of last year, so very much still combating my own medication withdrawal and Fibromyalgia symptoms. I ran a bath, loaded up Insight Timer and I saw a talk on the homepage by Michelle Chalfant about codependency…

I led in the bath and listened to her describe the behaviour I had been exhibiting, for years. Not just ‘oh, that kind of applies’ but every, single, item on that list I could identify and relate back to something I had done. I realised that I was not ok, if he was not ok – and he, was never ok.

It was like my empathy with this man had gone into overdrive, I wanted so desperately to make everything better for him that I had completely neglected myself in the process. He hadn’t specifically asked me to, he hadn’t directly put this stipulation on our friendship that I must behave in this way or he would leave – but I kind of felt that way all the same. I am learning the reasons now why I did that, I am working through my own feelings and my own motives for that behaviour – but it’s not easy.

We carried on talking for a while after that, but something had shifted. Truthfully, I was scared, I was scared to let him go because if I didn’t have him to ‘help’, then what would my purpose be? I was also very scared that actually, he wouldn’t care. That he would just say ‘ok then’ and go and I would end up with the weight of rejection upon my shoulders. I was also scared that all of this, all of these conversations, all of this kindness, this empathy, this care that I had willingly and freely given over months and years would be for nothing.

I was scared that it made me selfish.

Co-dependency is complex. My motives for my behaviour came from a number of different places – from the need to be heard, to my need for validation and also my natural desire to help and to empathise. The times that he would say ‘yes, this makes sense’ were the glimmers of light and the behaviour he continued to exhibit that went against that very same piece of advice, extinguished those sparks. But he would learn from that for next time, right? So I kept on, persevered and tried to be a good friend. In the end it just exacerbated those ingrained feelings and beliefs of being unheard, but to me, that was familiar and so it was ‘safe’. It was known behaviour so it was comforting even though it stung like ripping off a sticking plaster each and every time. I found that I couldn’t trust him, and yet I confided in him still. I found that I got angry with him, but it felt more like being angry at a child. I found that I was sinking into his problems whilst my own screamed at me from the surface…

Letting him go would also mean I didn’t have a distraction from my own problems anymore.

Eventually, it was my decision to end contact with him. It wasn’t pre-meditated, it wasn’t a thought out ‘I am going to have this conversation and it will be resolved by X, Y and Z’. It was a row – it was an insensitive comment made by him about my husband on a day when I was feeling depressed and in pain and having to brave it out at work. It was the argument that ensued and this voice that bubbled up inside me and screamed ‘this is not ok!’.  I had been ignoring this voice, my own voice that said repeatedly, for months, ‘I am done…’ but I should have listened to her; my inner child may be small and gentle but I was doing her no favours by not hearing her – eventually she screamed, a scream of pain, a scream of frustration and a scream so powerful that my decision was made in that instant. I was done.

Afterwards, it felt worse than any romantic break up that I had ever endured. I spoke to friends about it; I spoke to my husband and my therapist about it. I meditated on it, I questioned what I had done, and I checked his social media profiles to see if he was ok… but I didn’t go back.

One thing I noticed in those first couple of weeks was how much time I had! I wasn’t tied to my phone anymore. I also noticed that my confidence improved – I wasn’t hiding behind someone else’s problems. Yeah, sure, this meant all of my problems came to the surface but I could own them now. I tried to turn some of that care and affection back onto myself – and some days I manage it, some days I don’t, but at least I am trying. It’s something that will take months, if not years because it isn’t straightforward and this type of behaviour has roots that are buried deep.

I still miss him. I still wonder how he is, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I am learning the importance of boundaries and the importance of true friendship. I am learning to listen to the voice of my inner child because she knew what was up before I had even registered it. I am learning to forgive – both him and myself and I am learning that we cannot, ever fix someone else.

We can love them, we can support them, we can validate their feelings and we can send them all the articles and song lyrics in the world.

But we cannot fix them, for that is a path they must walk alone.