Blogging Collab: Nobody is alone

Today, we have a guest post from the wonderful Dee of The Restless Empire. Dee and I have been working together to bring some much-needed attention to the normality and prevalence of mental health issues. Below is Dee’s piece on her own struggles. You will also find a list of questions to get you thinking about your own journeys. We encourage everyone to have a read and share their stories in the comments or on their own pages using the hashtags below.

If anyone feels they are struggling and can’t cope you can call Lifeline 24/7 on 0800 543 354. Help is always at hand.

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The first time the term depression related directly to me I was a 17-year-old high school student. I didn’t want to go to school, this was more than any normal high school student, I was panicked at the thought of going to school. The corridors felt vast and uncaring, I felt watched and alone. I was probably paranoid. I definitely felt like I wasn’t good enough.

I don’t know what happened to my self-confidence. It up and left well before I was 17. Nobody noticed but for a large portion of high school, whether or not it was cold, I wore my school jersey. My horrid itchy maroon school jumper was like a security blanket.

Impression depression” was all it said on my doctor’s notes and prescription. There wasn’t much decision but it was a difficult conversation nonetheless. In a jovially singsong tone he told me that he was prescribing Prozac “but don’t worry it’s totally safe, you could take the whole box and you won’t overdose… you’ll just feel really unwell”.

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I stuck with my medication for several years, and then decided by myself that I was fine and didn’t need to take it. I bumbled along for years without fluoxetine and moments with it. Between my first prescription when I was 17 and latest prescription at aged 30 I’d flitted between using fluoxetine and not, largely convincing myself that everything was fine.

Driving to work last year, in tears and eating my way through a packet of chocolate biscuits I realised things most definitely weren’t great. I was frightened and panicked about work, I was tired, I was worried and I had worked myself up into a state. I was going to need to have that conversation again; I was going to need to ask for help.

Asking for help, as an adult was much easier, yet at the same time more frightening. I felt I had more to lose if people knew but realised I had more to gain. My doctor was extremely understanding and so were my near and dear. Later when things slid from bad to worse, it was my GP who ordered me to take leave and look after myself. It was my GP who suggested I take stock and look at what’s important and it was my GP who organised for me to see a psychologist and it was my GP who has worked with me to get me to a better place.

Asking for help wasn’t easy.
Living each day nervous, worried, confused and tired also wasn’t easy.
Getting up each morning knowing I was only going to get more panicked wasn’t easy.
In the end asking for help was the easiest solution.

 

Age: 31
Location: Auckland

Day Job: Retail Marketing

Diagnoses: Depression & Anxiety, dialogised age 17.

Game plan: When I feel things are getting the better of me… I try to manage sleep, exercise and surround myself with good friends. 

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Dee
xoxo

 

Dee writes regularly on mental health and all other aspects of life at TheRestlessEmpire.com, a magazine-style blog, encouraging others to write too.



“But have you tried being happy?” Mental illness and social assumptions.

Fuck depression and fuck mental illness. No, really. Excuse my language but that shit is not okay.

I know at least 6 people who are currently struggling with mental illnesses, all involving elements of depression. Some are so bad they’re housebound. Some, like me, carry on like they’re a normal human. Because they are. When you look at the stats it’s hard to see that as anything but the truth: 1 in 5 Kiwi women, and 1 in 8 Kiwi men, will have at least one major depressive episode in their lives (depression.org.nz). When, on average, 17% of the population will struggle with depression alone during their lives it ceases to be an unusual or uncommon disease (Note: these stats do not include bipolar disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and schizophrenia – all illnesses that bring depression-like symptoms – or any other mental illness).

There are many theories on why mental illness is so prevalent in modern society. Some have suggested it’s a product of our high-stress lives. Others have suggested that the only thing that’s changed in modern times is our understanding of it; that mental illness has always been a pervasive issue but was infrequently diagnosed or understood (papers such as this discussing the common problems faced with identification and diagnoses show this clearly). No matter the reasoning, it’s evident that diagnosis of mental illness has, to some, become worryingly common.

As I write this I wrestle with my own demons. I feel like the colour has gone from my world and the sound has been turned down. Thankfully, I know this is only temporary. I have patches like this but they don’t usually last more than a few days. I have been on SSRIs for anxiety, and the depression it brings, for two years. Prior to taking them my illness, which came on suddenly in my early 20s, was crippling. A coworker once found me locked in my office at work having a full-blown panic attack: I was sitting on the floor, hyperventilating and in floods of tears. And I couldn’t tell them why. My fears weren’t real or founded; the doctors told me my mind had created anxieties to fill the void left by completing my university studies. They said I was so accustomed to living in a high stress state that my body was trying to recreate it.

Those were dark times and I am glad I have moved on from them, not only thanks to medication and professional care but thanks to significant changes in my lifestyle aimed at supporting a healthy mental state. Asking for help wasn’t easy but I am glad I did it. Now, I am someone who can manage my mind through exercise, good food, and meditation and mindfulness. It’s allowing me, with my doctor’s help, to finally begin weaning myself off my medication. I know this makes me fortunate.

With the clarity of mind the last two years have brought my concerns have evolved:  These days I worry not about my mental state but the way society perceives it. We look on physical illnesses with a reverence and gravity that many struggle to attribute to sicknesses of the mind. In my life I have seen people be repeatedly allowed time off for colds, flus and various diseases without fear this will make them seem less capable of doing their jobs. But there is still a hesitancy to speak up about needing time off or care for one’s mental health. There is still a persistent fear that you will either be a) judged a slacker or b) judged weak and unstable. I am not saying this from research but from the experiences of myself and my friends. I feel this about the admissions in this article even as I write them.

From an incredibly young age we are brought up to understand that sick people are limited in their capacities for day-to-day life. But, unless we or someone close to us suffers it, we are not brought up with the same awareness of mental health. You only have to think about some of the questionable advice that’s handed out to those suffering to know this is true. When was the last time someone suggested you just try *not* having a cold? Or a kidney stone? Or cancer? Did they tell you it’s all in your body as if that somehow invalidated it and proved you had the power to overcome it with a quick self-slap? If it doesn’t work for chemical and biological problems of the torso, arms and legs then why would it work for the brain? And yet this is the “advice” many hand out when confronted with the uncomfortable realities of mental illness.

It’s time society started to understand the costs and far-reaching consequences of depression and mental health issues. “[A] new report estimates the global cost of mental illness at nearly $2.5T (two-thirds in indirect costs) in 2010, with a projected increase to over $6T by 2030.” (NIMH) What does that actually mean? Most low-socioeconomic countries have a GDP of less than 1 trillion dollars. That means the total worldwide cost of mental illness by 2030 will be *six times* what the poorest countries currently generate in gross domestic product in a year, comparable and almost equal to cancer care. And most of these costs are not direct medical care; they’re lost income and time, social support expenses and ongoing disability costs.

Take a moment to absorb that information. Cancer, a disease with worldwide recognition as one of the most serious health problems humans face, costs approximately the same long-term as mental illness. And people are still asking those suffering depression to “just be happy”.

It’s time for changes. Education and awareness is probably our best bet. And honesty. I’m done pretending I’m always okay. If admitting that sometimes I’m sick makes me weak then that’s a burden I will have to bear. I can only get better when I acknowledge that I am unwell.

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Please be aware the statements and statistics in this article are strictly informational and are not intended to offer advice or replace instructions provided by your healthcare professional.

If you feel you or anyone you love is suffering from undiagnosed or poorly managed mental illness please seek professional help from your GP or encourage them to see theirs. If at any time you feel you can’t cope you can call Lifeline, or one of their sister organisations, on 0800 543 354.

You are not alone.



Learning to be sick

Recently, I have had the misfortune of being unwell. Very unwell. Not in a chronic or life-threatning sense, thankfully, but still unwell enough for me to have spent the last three weeks in a constant state of pain, discomfort and fatigue. I have a kidney stone. Like I said, not life threatening. With a bit of luck the whole experience will be finished in a fortnight. But, for now, I am ill.

A kidney stone is not a visible illness. There are no physical symptoms that demarcate me. I don’t need aids to walk or see, bandages or plasters; I’m not covered in spots or bruises; I don’t have IV lines attached to me for fluids or medicine. I look healthy. But I am not. I am weak. I am tired. I am sore. I am uncomfortable. All states which are, in themselves, exhausting.

One of my IV fluid bags from my time in hospital.

The week I was released from hospital I came home to a house devoid of food. I needed to do the groceries. It took three days of rest for me to build up the energy to take on the task. An $80 shop, missing half the things I needed, took me an hour and a half. I had to lean on the trolley for support. I had to take constant breaks. I had to walk around the supermarket intoning constantly under my breath, reminding myself how strong I was and how capable I was of finishing the task. I felt like I needed to walk around in public with a sign that announced to people I was sick. I hugged the sides of aisles and footpaths and stopped regularly to check I wasn’t walking into other people’s paths. I shuffled. I changed directions frequently. I was a constant irritation to the people around me and I knew it. But I was doing the best I could. I spent the evening in bed recovering.

I returned to work a week after leaving hospital – a whole week ahead of when my doctors had planned. I was tired of being stuck at home, tired of feeling useless and ineffective, tired of feeling I had to justify my “laziness” to people. I returned on shortened hours at my GP’s orders: If I was stubborn enough to force myself back I was damned well going to make sure I didn’t overdo it.

At work I felt, and still feel, I had to constantly act my illness. I was brought up in a household where sickness didn’t stop you doing daily necessities. I was raised to just get on and do. I go to work, I smile, I laugh, I engage, I work my butt off. I leave at 3 and go home, barely able to walk back from the bus to my house. I don’t sit at my desk and whinge about how unwell I am, tell everyone about all my tests, moan about my pain and discomfort. I share but I don’t indulge. I don’t wallow. And I worry that they think I’m pretending. That I’m milking it. That I don’t really want to be there and I’m using my recent hospitalisation as an ongoing excuse. I worry that if I don’t fake it my colleagues and managers will think I am faking it.

I make plans for my weekend and I cancel half of them last minute. I feel like the biggest pain. I have always disliked people who can’t stick to their commitments. Been infuriated by them, even. I am now one of them. I never know from one hour to the next how I am going to feel. I woke up for work one day so exhausted and sore and uncomfortable that I called in sick. I took my meds and went back to sleep, only to wake up two hours later and text my boss to tell him I would be in by lunch. This is the nature of my illness. I have no control over my body and no way to predict how I will feel. Making plans with me is now an exercise in patience and understanding. I hate myself for it.

People ask me how I am and I wonder if I should tell them the truth. Do they want the truth? I suspect they want to hear how much better I am feeling since they last spoke to me. But it doesn’t work like that. I improved markedly for two weeks on end. And then my stone moved and I took a step backwards. Healing from a kidney stone while it is still inside you isn’t a liner progression; I can’t guarantee that tomorrow in a week’s time I will be healthier than I am today. It depends on too many factors. It depends on too many intangibles. It doesn’t work the way everyone would like it to. Do you explain this to people or do you just say “I’m okay” or “I’m getting there” and hope they’re not really paying attention?

All of these are daily realities for far too many people. Good, caring people. People I wish I could help. But I can’t. They live with chronic pain and chronic illness every day. And every day they deal with the same problems I am going through. Problems intrinsically tied to their diseases and yet in no way symptomatic of them.

Health privilege is a real thing and one you only realise you had once it’s gone. I have lived with autoimmune disease my whole life but never realised how healthy and lucky I was until I became properly ill. Friends have explained to me the constant social effects of their illness. People have blogged about it and created energy-allocation theories to explain the day-to-day impacts. But I couldn’t understand until I had lived it.

I look at the world through different eyes now. I don’t assume that distracted and meandering person in the fruit and vege shop is away with the fairies. Maybe they have a kidney stone too. Maybe they have fibromylagia or ankylosing spondilitis. Maybe they have lupus. Or cancer. Maybe their dog just died. Maybe their child has chronic illness. There are too many reasons they may be behaving the way they are and mine is not to judge them or be frustrated by them. Mine is to be understanding and empathetic, the way I hope others are when they encounter me.

All too often we rush through our daily lives without stopping to think about the stories and journeys of those around us. Perhaps if we did, even just once a day, the world would be a warmer and more compassionate place.



50 Shades of Inappropriate Marketing

Trigger warning: Domestic abuse and partner violence. Be wary of the external links in particular.

50 Shades of Grey. It’s a thing. It’s not going anywhere and we have all accepted this. Recently, due to the release of the film adaptation, the books and characters found themselves in the spotlight again.

It’s not news to anyone that 50 Shades is widely believed to depict an incredibly unhealthy, even abusive, relationship. Although claims have been made that the book simply depicts BDSM, and not emotional abuse, many beg to differ.

I’m not here to wade in on the arguments about the content and themes of the books and movie. That has been done by others more eloquent than me and in a better place to judge, as depicted in the links above. What I am concerned about is that businesses are trying to tap into the 50 Shades hysteria as a marketing tool while ignoring the problematic messages it sends their customers.

Domestic violence is a big problem in New Zealand. The NZ Women’s Refuge estimates that they help a woman in an abusive relationship every 6 minutes via their phone line alone. One in three Kiwi women will experience partner abuse at some point in their lives and fourteen women will be killed this year alone by a member of their own family. The statistics are horrifying and the realities for many Kiwi women are inescapable. I, and many others I know, have been abused by people we have trusted during our lives. The effects are long lasting and hugely damaging.

Given the public backlash to 50 Shades, whether you agree with the assessments or not, it seems unfathomable that any brand not directly involved with the movie or books would align themselves with its image. And yet that is exactly what at least one Kiwi brand has done this week. A well-meaning but ultimately ill-thought out marketing campaign was launched encouraging women to treat themselves well. It was front-run by a fake social media account pretending to be Christian Grey.

You don’t have to have read the books or have seen the movie to see the problems that inherently come from conflating Christian Grey’s public image with the treatment of women. Whether you are a fan of the series, whether you agree with the varying assessments of the abuse depicted, it doesn’t make sense for any brand to align themselves with such a polarising and potentially damaging phenomenon. Reputation is key in the world we live in; to market using such a divisive tool opens you up for a multitude of reputational and communication problems. And to make matters worse, the marketing ploy was integrated with an online dating application.

Putting aside that the campaign will have breached the terms of use of both Facebook and the dating application involved, it raises the issue of correlating online dating with abusive partners in a world already concerned about the ease with which dating apps can be turned into hunting grounds for abusive individuals.

Given all of these factors it staggers me that the campaign made it off the ground. Surely someone in the team at some point stopped and asked if it was really such a good idea?

The brand involved was contacted by several people via social media but maintained that their intent was to flip the paradigm on its head. It remains to be seen whether the campaign will be pulled; either way, it seems Kiwi women, and men, aren’t done pushing back on the inherent sexism and poor thought that creeps into our mass marketing.

 

Edit: At the time of writing this the brand concerned had taken their social media account offline. It’s my view that by removing themselves from the conversation they have failed to address the serious concerns their consumers have about their marketing campaign. Hopefully they will be back and better prepared for the discussions in the coming weeks.



Happiness

Happiness is defined, universally, as the state of being happy. It is synonymous with contentment, pleasure and satisfaction. To most people it is a passing emotion, indistinct in the long-term from anger, sadness and confusion: something entirely at the mercy of the world at large. This is not how I define happiness.

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Happiness is a way of living, a religion. It is the active pursuit, on a regular basis, of things that make one smile, laugh, pause, feel warm and fuzzy or generally content. It is prioritising moments of simple pleasure above other commitments. It is making time purely for the gratification of oneself each and every day.

My mother always taught me to look for the little things that make you smile. This was her tried and true way of working against, and keeping at bay, the circling dogs. Her pleasures were small: exercise achieved, a meal well made). Sometimes they were so small they seemed insignificant, like a pretty flower or a bird playing in the sun. No matter what they were, they always made her smile and reminded her of the light that surround the darkness.

Recently, I have found life overwhelming. Christmas is expensive, work has been tiring, and the lives of several people I care deeply about have suffered some rather cumbersome complications. Each night I wind down by having a shower, a moment of pleasure in itself, then listening to music in the dark. I light a candle, play on my phone, read a book, or simply lie in bed absorbing the melodies. This simple nightly routine eases my stress and provides a feeling of warmth and contentment. There is safety and respite each day in the knowledge that my shower and bedroom are waiting for me at home no matter how tense my day may be. In those moments, the world melts away and I am and alone and happy. Equally as gratifying is the unadulterated joy exhibited by my dogs when presented with a new toy. So this year, I prioritised gifts for them over other things for me. Their pleasure will more than compensate for my sacrifices. And later, when I am sad, I will be able to remember their joy and it will make me smile. And I will remember that life is never as awful as it can feel.