Archive: May 2018

& what it means to me


I have been following the Instagram account Girlgaze for some time now as they post beautiful photos taken by mostly female photographers. They share plenty of gorgeous work but one post that really captivated my attention was about "radical softness as a weapon", an idea created by an artist called Lora Mathis. Girlgaze explained it as: "Radical softness is the idea that unapologetically sharing your emotions is a political move and a way to combat the societal idea that feelings are a sign of weakness."

Though I'm not sure about the wording exactly ('weapon' in particular sounds too violent to me), the idea that sharing your feelings as a way of fighting the stigma of being "emotional" did strike a cord with me. I've always hated how talking about how you feel, which is great for your mental health and creating healthy relationships, is generally seen as being weak... Whereas staying silent, keeping it all in and retaining a composed facade whilst having an internal break down and staying distant from people is seen as being strong by society?

The more I think about this idea of silent equals strong and vocal equals weak, the more I am convinced it is down to sexist bullshit. Even now, people love to throw around the word "emotional" as an insult, and it is usually associated with women.

It's 2018 now, and we have had thousands of years of evidence that girls are strong as hell, so first we need to completely get rid of this idea that women are weak. Secondly, humans are not robots. We all have emotions, whatever gender we identify as - being open simply varies from person to person.

I've always been fairly open, particularly with my feelings, and despite many small digs about it over the years from people, I'm proud of it. For me, the only time I was hesitant to share my feelings was when I was really depressed, because that negative voice in my head was telling me that I would be annoying people with my feelings. Now that I'm feeling better, I know that if someone does get annoyed by listening to how you feel, then they aren't a good friend and you shouldn't let it affect you. Talking about emotions is better for your health, it's essentially an act of self care.

Rejecting this stigma is something that I've been doing for years without giving it a name. Being emotional is not a bad thing. It is not a feminine trait - everyone has emotions and it varies completely between person to person how naturally open we are, regardless of gender. I think it's important to see the strength in sharing and I for one am going to continue being radically soft.

Talking about my own mental health is pretty damn scary. But I've found in the past that it can also be really rewarding and I love starting conversations with people about mental health and self-care. I talked a while back about being diagnosed with depression two years ago, but in that post, I didn't really talk much about my treatment, which first involved just therapy (CBT in particular) and then, at my therapists recommendation, included taking anti-depressants.

I'll admit that by the time I started my anti-depressants, I was already wary of them and had heard a tonne of horror stories. A lot of my close friends had felt suicidal taking certain medications for depression and anxiety, and had been on them for years. So when my lovely therapist suggested trying medication to support my recovery, my initial reaction was fear. But my best friend, who had been on medication for her mental health for a while, gave me some amazing advice that has stayed with me to this day: "Recovery is like a ladder, and you're at the bottom when you have depression. Sometimes therapy isn't enough to get you all the way up the ladder, sometimes it isn't even enough to get you onto the first rung. The anti-depressions help you onto that rung so that therapy can get you to the top of the ladder." And now, I can say that I completely understand that metaphor. I feel like I'm at the top of the ladder.

I was only on a low dosage of citalopram, of two lovely little pills (perfect for me as I can't swallow big ones) that I took once a day. I was really lucky in that I didn't suffer many bad side effects apart from memory loss and feeling suicidal in the first month or so as my body got used to the medication. I was warned about the initial potential feelings of suicide before taking the drugs though, and I'm really glad that I told my close family and friends about it so they could help me through it. The memory loss didn't affect me much day-to-day, but it definitely affected me during exam season when I found myself struggling to revise and retain information like I never had before.

I kept on with my medication for 15 months though because the positives far outweighed those two negatives. Citalopram allowed me to get my life back. I could finally sleep during the night *and* actually get up in the morning! I had the strength to combat my negative thoughts *and* dress myself everyday. I generally felt less anxious and more positive about my life and where it was headed. I firmly believe that this was due to the combination of CBT and my medication. The doctor who prescribed the citalopram for me advised that I needed to keep taking the pills every day for a year before stopping them, to ensure that my depression was being properly treated. I gave it a little longer than this but ultimately made the decision on my own to stop renewing my monthly prescription just before my final exams for my Masters degree.

I won't pretend it was all butterflies and roses - it was still hard to come off my medication. But I had faith that I could do it. I was three-quarters of the way up my ladder, and I could see that the top was in sight! It felt like the right time for me and I wanted my memory to be better for my exams, so I took the plunge. There were a few times over the next few months when I considered going back onto anti-depressants because I would have some really "down days", as I've come to call them. Days when I go back to swimming in negative thoughts of self-hatred and low confidence in my abilities. But I'm fortunate that these days were few and far between, and I quickly went back to feeling well again.

These down days, in the first 8 months after stopping my medication, were almost always while I was on my period. Now I've been having periods for over 10 years now so I know what a normal Sarah period mood is like - grumpy, bitchy and sarcastic as hell. But then there was suddenly an added element of self-pitying, doubting and hating that reminded me of how I felt before I started taking citalopram. I went to the doctors about these strange periods a couple of months before I left on my trip, and they offered me anti-depressants again, but just for my week a month that I was on my period. I decided to think about it and monitor how I felt before jumping straight onto medication again. I realised that though I was more prone to negative thoughts on my period, I wasn't acting on the negative thoughts like when I was depressed and I could still function in my day-to-day activities. I also realised that each period was better than the last one.

6 months into my trip, and my periods are almost back to normal - I'm just a slightly grumpy troll once a month, instead of feeling ill again. I'm really enjoying travelling and feeling stress free. I honestly recommend travelling if you haven't yet had a break from the world of academia and work. By travelling, I don't mean having a schedule, bouncing around quickly from one place to another and feeling stressed by foreign things and having to be somewhere at certain times. Instead, I advise going slowly, without pressures and time constraints and just go with the flow. Not having concrete plans is really freeing, and I think it's allowed my brain to reset. I feel much more able to cope when things go wrong because I have a different attitude, and instead of going straight into panic mode, I can step back and think clearly about what to do to fix it.

It sounds silly to say so bluntly, but I'm also just really happy and content with my life and with myself now. It's not like I ever had a huge eureka moment when I was suddenly better and wasn't depressed anymore, it has been a very gradual process with ups and downs. I can, however, say that I feel more myself than I have since when I was a teenager. I feel pretty great generally. When I look back to just two years ago, I feel almost like a completely different person!

Everyone's recovery journey is different, and I think I've been lucky in that I caught my depression quickly when it got quite bad, and I had lots of people supporting me. I was also lucky to get put on a medication that worked perfectly for me, whereas many have to try different anti-depressants before they find the one that fits them best. I also didn't have too many bad side effects. To be feeling like this two years after feeling at my worst makes me feel so fortunate.

Remember, there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long your tunnel (or your ladder) is.

T.W. Depression, mental health illnesses and self harm.

I was officially diagnosed with depression by my doctor in 2016, which wasn't long ago, despite how much I've changed since then. They said that they thought from my description of how I'd been feeling that I'd already suffered from depression for a couple of years prior to being diagnosed, but for me, 2016 was my breaking point. I finally had to admit to myself that I couldn't function any more and that I desperately needed help to feel like myself again. It's still difficult for me to write about now, but I'm hoping that by sharing it, I can encourage others to seek help and to say that there can be light at the end of the tunnel. As a warning, this probably isn't going to be well structured - I'm just letting my thoughts tumble out as I write. It's therapeutic in a way.

I feel so different now, I've slowly reclaimed myself from the illness and though I'm still discovering myself (lame I know, but necessary), I feel like I'm getting there and I am Sarah again. It's strange to think back to how I felt two years ago... I was sad, deflated, angry at myself (and others who I blamed for pushing me to the edge), and defeatist. I wondered if being depressed was just part of my personality and if I was meant to be this way (spoiler, I wasn't). Part of me fully embraced being sad all the time, as I felt like I deserved it. That I was such an awful person and I deserved to be sad.

I feel very lucky that I had so many amazing people to support me. Even friends who I had pushed away when I was ill, because I couldn't bear to be a burden or because I was half convinced that everyone hated me, rallied round when I shared with them what I'd been going through. That's a life lesson there: people can surprise you with their kindness. I do still firmly believe that if someone is toxic to you though, then you are better keeping them at an arm's length away. Though it is hard, especially if you have depression I think, you have to put your own health first. Blocking out several people who just brought me down helped my recovery immensely, even though it felt super shitty at the time and I was ridden with guilt.

The hardest part about trying to get better was forgiving and loving myself. I still have to try hard some days, even now. I used to punish myself mentally and physically, and now it seems so drastic and I can't even explain WHY I did it. I guess I just hated myself with a passion. My personality, my body, my own brain had turned against me and I needed to hurt. In the end though, I wasn't the one who hurt most from my self harm, it was the people who cared about me who felt it the most.

Even with my brain all confused, I knew it had to stop so I found a way to cope: playing a certain song and singing (badly) to it, having a bit of a cry and letting myself be emotional. It really helped. It was hard but it helped. I guess though that there is no cure all - therapy and my anti-depressants really helped me get to the point where I could figure out how to counter my self harm thoughts. But the process will be different for everybody.

I've had a lot of friends who have suffered with depression and all of our experiences have been completely different, and I'm aware that I'm still pretty ignorant of depression in general and of other mental illnesses. I think the most important thing when discussing mental health is to be open to learning and to being supportive and unselfish. Anything otherwise is just more harmful to someone with a mental health disorder.

To anyone suffering with your own mental illnesses, I just want to say that sharing how I felt and seeking help took me a long time, but it was the best thing I ever did. I know it's hard, and the process of recovery is not a quick or easy one, but you always have people who have your back. Do what is right for you. And if you're already on the path to recovery, I'm proud of ya and sending love your way too!

Brain ramble is done, over and out.
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