Vera

“I bet you thought you’d gotten rid of me.”

Vera smirks, she perches onto her dusty, tattered thrown. It’s almost as old as I am, because Vera is the name of my anxiety and she’s been with me for as long as I can remember now.

Vera is an elf like creature. She’s tiny and I should be able to fight her, but I can’t and it kills me that she’s so powerful.

Vera is in my brain and in my heart. She’s in my chest and my stomach, my hands, my legs, my eyes. She is wherever she wants to be, and she knows she can take over me.

Vera’s hair is black and matted and her skin is greying. Her clothing is torn and she looks battered after all these years, and all my failed attempts to drown her out. I never succeed.

Vera’s voice is the part that fills me with dread the most. It’s louder than ever now, she demands to be heard. She screams and screams and screams over anything left of the rational thought process I’d tried so hard to build up. She will be heard. She knows how to get to me.

Her voice goes in waves and whirls until it fills my head and I feel it all the way down to my throat, and it’s choking me.

Vera gets angry with me, she’s screaming now. Was I incapable of looking out for myself? How had I let this happen? Why would I put myself in a vulnerable position? She says that now she’s back to protect me, to stop harm from coming my way.

Vera clicks her wicked fingers, her long black fingernails are touching my own and now suddenly, there’s pins and needles. I can’t feel my hands, and then it’s my feet and I’m trapped.

I’m stuck and I can’t get out and I just sit and I listen to Vera punishing me.

I let myself get like this.

This is my fault.

Why hadn’t I been afraid?

Vera asks me what’s wrong. When I won’t tell her, she yells at me. She yells at the top of her lungs and although she’s so small, her roar makes my whole body shake and I can’t stop.

I tell her what’s upset me, begrudgingly. She shakes her head and glares at me with bloodshot eyes, her pupils a sea of blackness into her dark soul. “Your fault,” she shrieks.

Her shrieking brings a tear to my eye, and another one, and another one, and another one, and they won’t stop and it could be hours before they do and that’s the scary part.

Vera wants more answers and she knows she’s got control of me now. She knows I can’t give in and give her the rational answer, even if I want to.

“There’s no point.”

“You can never fix this.”

“It can only go wrong.”

“She hates you. Why shouldn’t she?”

Now she’s clip-clop, clip-clopping on my heart with her spikey leather boots. She’s kicking and she’s thrashing and now she’s down on all fours and I swear this is the time she’s going to give me a heart attack and I’m going to die.

Vera screams that everyone is out to hurt me and that everyone secretly hates me, and I wonder if she knows how much I hate her now.

Vera flutters down towards my lungs and my stomach churns and she smirks at me. She knows that she has me under her spell now, and she’s cackling. She tells me I’m worthless and she asks me a question,

“Why would anyone want to be around you?”

She screams and screams and screams, and she won’t stop and I can’t think and she’s tricked me once again.

She knows she’s the winner; she’s always the winner.

She squeezes my lungs and a heavy black cloud weighs down my chest and my throat closes up and I can’t breathe anymore. I’m hyperventilating now and I can’t make it stop and all I can hear is this screeching inside of my head,

“This is your fault.”

“You’re so stupid.”

“You’re pathetic.”

My ears are ringing and it drowns everything out. The sound of my friend trying to calm me down and the rational thoughts are all washed away with every breath that I struggle to take. I know she’s won, again.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

Then sometimes there’s a thud, and my exhausted body collapses onto the cold, hard floor. Often it feels like the easier route because for a moment my eyes black out, and I can’t hear, and I have peace for just a few moments. Its peace, all the same.

And eventually the short staggered breaths even out, but the tears keep flowing and my body is full of this emptiness.

Now Vera is staring, beady eyed at my hunched over limp, lifeless body and she shakes her head and asks,

“Who wants to deal with an anxious mess like you?”

She turns away and I think that’s the end but somehow, somehow in between my sobs she finds the space to hurt me one last time.

Vera squeezes me tightly, her claws digging into my skin so hard that her words are left like tiny scars on my arm. She says,

“Don’t let this happen again.”

Now I’m alone with my thoughts, and Vera’s words keep swirling through my mind; I know she’s wrong but she always manages to take over me. Vera knows I’m afraid of putting myself into a position where she’ll come back again. She knows I’ll avoid facing my fears.

She knows she’s the winner; she’s always the winner.

Mental illness is not confined to anxiety and depression

We think we’re destigmatising mental health issues by talking about anxiety and depression more, when we’re really just destigmatising anxiety and depression more, and that’s it.

I can tell you that a lot of people are going to read that sentence and think, “And?” or “What’s she talking about?” You probably thought I messed up what I was trying to say, or maybe you don’t think there’s anything wrong with that sentence. Anxiety and depression are mental health issues, right? Yes, but mental health issues are not confined to anxiety and depression.

You could argue that anxiety and depression are the more talked about illnesses because they’re the most common ones, but we don’t know just how true that is. More often than not, mood disorders that show any signs of depression, such as bipolar disorder, are put down to just that – depression. It can take years for doctors and even patients themselves to realise that there is something more to their problem.

As I said, patients can go undiagnosed for years, because they don’t really know that they have a problem. Personally, I know how that feels. I went until the age of fifteen before realising that there was something wrong with me, that this crippling anxiety I’d been feeling my whole life was not normal. Why didn’t I realise? Well, because nobody ever talked about it. Ten years ago, anxiety was still a taboo. People weren’t sure if it was a real thing, they looked down on people who had it, they didn’t understand it, and they were scared of it. And while I’m so glad that moves have been made to destigmatise anxiety and make my life that little bit easier, I can’t help but think about the people who still have a mental illness that nobody talks about. I can’t help but think about the forgotten side of mental health.

Unfortunately the likes of borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder still have a huge amount of stigma attached to them. People forget that they are a part of the group of mental illnesses, and they know little to nothing about them. Because they know nothing about them, the people who have to live with these illnesses every day are afraid to talk about them. And because they’re afraid to talk, nobody is learning.

When there’s so little information given to us about these illnesses, how are people supposed to recognise that they have a problem in the first place? Would you know the signs of borderline personality disorder if you had them? Most people wouldn’t. Oftentimes, patients are only diagnosed when their illness gets to an advanced stage, and this is what helps make up the negative stigma attached to the illness.

And that’s not the only thing that creates negative portrayals of mental illness. Patricia R. Owen conducted a study on the portrayals of schizophrenia by entertainment media, and in this study of more than 40 movies (released between 1990 and 2010) she discovered that over 80% of characters who were schizophrenic showed violent behaviour, and almost a third displayed suicidal behaviour. This portrayal that people with schizophrenia are dangerous is wrong, and it’s having a detrimental effect on sufferers who are afraid to speak out for fear of having this label slapped on them.

People have a fear of the unknown, but we can help them with that. By speaking out more about the less commonly known mental illnesses, we can break the stigma attached to them and help sufferers feel more at ease when talking about them. We think we’re destigmatising mental health issues by talking about depression and anxiety more, but we need to speak more about mental illness as a whole. We can’t keep leaving certain issues out because we’re afraid of the unknown.

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The February Blues

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I knew February would be a rocky month for me, it has been for the last couple of years. February doesn’t like me, and I despise it just as much, but as low as I feel I’m not letting it get the better of me. I started to notice the changes in myself a few weeks ago. I didn’t feel like going out, I just wanted to sleep all the time, I wasn’t eating properly and I just didn’t feel happy. And that’s scary for me, because I knew just how bad my mental health was capable of getting again. But this time I’m taking control of my own happiness, I’m not letting my mental health deteriorate.

The problem with taking control of your mental health is that a lot of the time, we leave it too late. We fail to recognise the signs that we’re falling down a slippery slope and by the time we realise, it’s too hard to get back up. We feel like we’re stuck in a bottomless hole, and it’s impossible to get out. So many people don’t seek medical help until they’re really bad, which is why it’s so important to help yourself from the get go. This time, I’ve been trying really hard to make myself feel better.

I’ve been leaving the house, even when I really don’t want to. I’m still going to all my lectures, because I know that skipping class makes me anxious and that’s what I want to avoid. When I skip a class, I don’t know what’s going on in the next class, which makes me anxious to go to that one too. It’s easier to just get up off my ass and prevent that happening in the first place. I’m making sure I see my friends, and I’m trying to go out and have as much fun as I normally would. The latter isn’t working out too well at the moment, but hey, I’m working on it, there’s always room for improvement.

I’ve been keeping myself really, really busy. I have a tendency to spend my spare time lying in bed, overthinking, but I’m not letting myself do that this time. I have a to-do list on my phone of all the things I should have done over the last week, but let go over my head. I’m currently ticking away at those and the shorter the list gets, the better I feel knowing I’m getting things done. Plus, it gets me out of bed and into the library, doing something productive with my life.

If I could, I’d be working my ass off in the gym at the moment. After walking 22 kilometres in the pouring rain in Amsterdam, I have a chest infection that’s caused me to very nearly cough up a lung about five times now. So yeah, I’m taking a break from the gym until I get better, which isn’t doing much for my mental health at the moment. But next week I’m going to get back into it, because I know it’s the one thing that always makes me feel better.

As with all illnesses, prevention rather than cure is key when it comes to mental health. I know that my anxiety is going to get bad again if I let it, but I’m taking small steps to ensure that doesn’t happen. Just because you’re starting to feel down again, doesn’t mean you’ll spiral into a deep depression once more. Just because you’re feeling anxious, doesn’t mean you’ll be too scared to leave your house in two weeks time. Life is full of ups and downs for everyone, and it’s all about doing the best you can to make yourself feel okay again. Remember that no matter how bad things are, they always get better.

How To Help Someone Having a Panic Attack

Trying to help someone that’s in the middle of having a panic attack can be hard, and I’m sure a lot of the timepanicattack people have no idea what to do. In fact, I’d say it makes a lot of people feel helpless and scared themselves. Earlier this week I had a panic attack, and some of the people around me had never seen one before and weren’t sure what to do to help. I was discussing it with my housemates yesterday and I said, “I think I need to give everyone who comes into contact with me a crash course on dealing with panic attacks.” So here it is, a little guide for everyone on how to help somebody that’s having a panic attack.

  1. Stay calm

I know it’s probably difficult, but the most important thing to do is stay calm. If the person having a panic attack sees everyone around them panicking, they’re going to panic even more because they’re thinking “Oh God, this must be really bad”. Remember that nothing life threatening can result from the panic attack, and they’ll be okay once they’ve calmed down.

  1. Eye contact

Get the person having a panic attack to look you in the eyes, so that they have something to focus their attention on other than the panic. If they break eye contact, firmly but calmly tell them they need to keep looking at you.

  1. Deep breaths

Once the person is able to maintain eye contact with you, start getting them to take deep breaths. This works the best if you breathe in sync with them, inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for another four seconds. They might not be able to breathe properly at first if they’re hyperventilating, but keep breathing in sync with them until their breathing returns to normal.

  1. Don’t panic if they pass out

There’s been a couple of times where I’ve been breathing so quickly that I’ve ended up passing out, which can be really scary for those around you. But just remember that so long as they’re breathing, they have a pulse and they haven’t banged their head on anything they’ll be okay.

  1. Remove them from public places

If they’re in a public place it’s important to remove them from the situation when it’s safe. The last thing the person having the panic attack wants is to draw any more attention to themselves, and with me when people are watching me it makes me feel even worse. It also helps not to overcrowd the person with people trying to help. While it’s great that lots of people want to help and the person panicking is grateful for that, it’s easier to calm down when you’re only listening to what one person is saying to you.

  1. Don’t be patronising

You need to be careful what you’re saying when you’re dealing with somebody having a panic attack, because you could very easily make them worse. Don’t tell them to “stop it” or to “calm down” because believe me, if it was that easy we would. Don’t tell them that they’re overreacting, because they already know that. But it’s something that their body is doing and they have absolutely no control over what was going on. And finally, do not under any circumstances make comments like “She/he’s just looking for attention.” The last thing we want is anybody’s unnecessary attention, and remarks like this are extremely hurtful for a person suffering from anxiety. Mental illness is not something that anyone chooses or wants, and mental health deserves just as much respect as physical health does.

Does Exercise Cure Anxiety?

It’s true what they say, another year older, another year wiser. Over the past year, I’ve experienced some of my worst bouts of anxiety; times where I wouldn’t leave my house for days because I was afraid of all the things that could anxietygo wrong. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever improve. There were a countless number of nights where I’d just cry and cry and cry, I was so afraid I’d be stuck that way forever. But the last four months have been a turning point for me, and thank God because I was like a raging antichrist there for a good while. Since my mental health is something that I’m so open and honest about, I thought I’d share with you how I’ve made these improvements.

The main thing that’s helped improve my anxiety is exercise. If you have anxiety you’re probably rolling your eyes and sighing right now, and I don’t blame you. Every time I went to see my doctor about my anxiety I was advised to do more exercise, and every time I heard that I wanted to scream at him that I didn’t have time and it wouldn’t work anyways. Low and behold, every time I was told this I’d head off on a walk, and after no immediate anxiety relief, I’d give up. That was that, exercise did
n’t help and it was back to the drawing board.

And I was right, exercise doesnanxiety3’t really work as a once off cure, but if you’re willing to stick to it you’ll definitely see results. I’ve gone from doing no exercise at all, to going to the gym three times a week, and by doing that I’ve gone from having three panic attacks a week to having three panic attacks a month, if even. For me, exercise is a preventative measure for my anxiety. If I go more than three days without going to the gym, I’ll start to feel my anxiety creeping up on me again.

With me, when I have nothing to do I get anxious. I get anxious that I should be doing something, and in the space of about ten minutes I’m panicking about all the things I have to do. Exercising helps to fill these gaps in the evenings, or mornings, or even between classes when I have some spare time. I’m one of those people who just has to be kept busy, and exercise fits perfectly for this.anxiety4

One of the biggest excuses I had before when it came to exercising was that I had no time to do it. And now, I still have no time to do it. I have college, and assignments, and studying, and trying to keep up blogging, and maintaining the social life of a college student, and everything else going on in my life at the moment. But I make time, because I have to. Every Tuesday I start college at 12 o’clock, but I’m always up at 8am to go to the gym. You have the same amount of hours in the day as everyone else, you just have to make good use of them. Prioritise, try to go to sleep an hour earlier and get up an hour before you usually would. anxiety2

So if you’re at your wits end with anxiety like I was, go back to the basics. I know that exercising won’t help everyone, but after experiencing the huge improvement in my mental health I’d be wrong not to promote it. Go to a Pilates class twice a week, start running, dancing, whatever it is that you think you’ll enjoy the most. When a doctor tells you to exercise it can be difficult to listen when you’re thinking, “You have no idea what this is like”. But this is something that really, really helped me and I’ll never go back to not exercising again.

I’ll Be Okay

September has finally hit us, and it’s back to college for everyone. Excited? Of course you are, sure we all are. Most of us have spent the whole summer working, half way across the country from the people we can now call our second family. The thought of getting back to the craziness of college life is something that puts a smile on all of our faces. But for me, college life brings other things with it. It should feel like it’s all fun and games, but it doesn’t.

The last few nights, I’ve ended up crying myself to sleep. Why? The “A” word of course. Back with a bang is my anxiety, riled up and ready to try and ruin college for me again. What am I worried about? Pretty much everything, if I’m honest. But I’ve decided that I’m not going to let one little thing ruin college for me again. Last semester, I let myself get so bad that I was barely leaving my room. But this time, I’ll be okay.

I was going to write a blog post about why anxiety is ruining my life, and whine and complain and cry and whatever else. But I’ve decided to make this into a more positive post, on why things are going to be so much better this year. I’m putting pen to paper here about why my worries are irrational, which will be a big help in just getting it all out of my head. It’s a new semester, a different semester, and I have the power to make the most of it.

Last semester, I felt really, mh1really alone. I spent a lot of time in my room by myself, and it was hard to find the energy to go out and see my friends. This year, I’m living with my friends, and with the constant laughter and music blaring, there’s no possible way I could feel alone. When I feel like shit, all I have to do is take a couple of steps and I’m in one of their rooms, and things will immediately feel a little better. And my other friends? Conveniently we’re all in the same neighbourhood, so nobody’s more than a five minute walk away.

My major worry for this semester is that I’ll gain back all the weight that I’ve lost. It took absolutely ages and it’s only now that I’m starting to feel okay again, and I don’t want to mess it all up. But now that I live in a house where the kitchen isn’t covered in mould, I can actually cook. That means no more takeaways, and with the gym less than a ten minute walk away, I’d be an idiot to give up my exercising routine. Also the fact that college is a trek of a walk from my house probably won’t allow for much weight gain either. The Chinese across from our house could be a bit of a problem though.

Because I’ve made some really good friends, I don’t have to worry about having panic attacks when I go out. They’re not the kind of people that would leave me outside, alone, in the rain.. And although I feel like such an inconvenience when I have to go home, I know they won’t end up hating me for it. They know it’s not something I can control, and just knowing that makes me a little less anxious when I go out, because I know that they understand.

Failing was a big fear for me last semester. It was hard to motivate myself to do anything, and I felt like there was nothing that I enjoyed anymore. Making myself go to lectures was tough, but if I passed last semester with flying colours, I’m pretty sure I can do anything. My interest in writing is back, and the fact that three out of four of my housemates are in the same course as me means we can drag each other along to lectures. Or convince each other not to go, depends on the day I guess.

I’m not letting my mental health prevent me from enjoying college this year, and acknowledging my fears and realising that they’re irrational was the first step in doing that. This year is different in so many ways, and now is my chance to change things. I’m going to focus on the positives rather than the negatives, and make the best out of my time in UL. I’ll be okay.

If you liked this blog post, make sure you vote for me as “Best Youth Blog” in the Irish Blog Awards here

Helping a Loved One With a Mental Illness

Dealing with a mental illness can be tough. Learning to accept it as a part of your life can be a struggle, and sometimes it seems like a constant uphill battle. But something that makes it that little bit easier, is having friends and family who try to understand, and do everything in their power to help you feel better. While it can be hard to fully understand what your loved one is going through when you’re not going through it yourself, there are lots of things you can do to aid their recovery. It’s the little things that count, and here are some simple tips that could make a huge difference.

Accept that they have an illness. Don’t patronise them by telling them “it’s just a phase” or that they’ll “get over it”, especially after they’ve had a medical professional diagnose them with a mental illness. While you may have thought it was nothing before, you now have proof that there really is something wrong, and all you can do now is accept it. More often than not, people are afraid to talk about their mental illness for fear of rejection from their friends and family. Show them that not everybody is like that, be that person that they can trust and confide in. They know that if they had a physical illness, acceptance wouldn’t be a problem, but show them that you’ll accept them no matter what the problem is.

Research and educate yourself on the illness. Whether it’s something more common like depression, or something you’re less familiar with like borderline personality disorder, make it your aim to learn about the illness. When a person is first diagnosed with an illness, it can be tiring and stressful telling people the same thing and answering the same questions over and over again. If you show that you have an understanding of an illness, it will make it easier for your loved one to open up to you. For example, if they’ve just been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and are having panic attacks, all it takes is for you to ask “And what happens when you’re having a panic attack? I read that they can cause shortness of breath and shaking” for the sufferer to think, “Yes! Somebody understands!” It might seem small, but it’s one less thing for them to explain to you. Knowing that you’ve made an effort to learn about the illness will help them to open up to you more.

Ask how you can help. Instead of just presuming that you know what to do from whatever research you’ve done, ask them if there’s any way that you can help. Of course you can incorporate what you’ve learned into this, but there might be something more specific and personal that helps your loved one out. After all, everyone is unique and we all deal with things differently. Just a simple text saying, “You looked a little down today. Is there anything I could do to help?” is showing them that you’re aware of what they’re going through and that you care.

Listen to them. Sometimes when your mental illness, whatever it is, has taken its toll on you and you’re having a bad day, all you need is somebody to talk to. What your loved one needs right now is a listener, not somebody who’ll butt in every five minutes with “Yeah that happened to me before but…” or “It’ll be fine as long as you…” Your friend or family member is in a state of distress, and you can’t be of any help to them unless you hear the full extent of how they’re feeling. Let them get everything off their chest, and then you can offer them your advice.mh6

Encourage them to try new treatment methods. Getting better can be a very slow and gradual process, and from herbal remedies to hypnotherapy it can all seem a bit much. If the medication they’re on isn’t working, encourage them to go back to their doctor to see if they can switch it up. Different medication works for different peo
ple, and sometimes it can take a while to find the one that’s best suited to you. Don’t let them give up, and keep reminding them that they will eventually find something that makes them feel better.

If you know someone with a mental illness, then I really hope this post has helped you see how you can help. If you have a mental illness yourself and your friends and family are struggling to understand, show them this. Whether you plonk the laptop in front of them on the kitchen table or just send them a link on Facebook, the chances are they’ll read it, and hopefully learn a thing or two.

Choose your words wisely. If you want to be a good friend, don’t say things like “cheer up” or “there’s people out there who have it worse”. Chances are, your loved one has heard this all a million times before, but does it help? No. If anything, saying something like this to a person with a mental illness will drive them further and further away from you, it will be clear to them that you don’t understand what they’re going through.