Monday, February 17, 2014

Managing mental illness: Self-care

The last year has been one of the hardest since my first serious mental health breakdown in 2007. I’ve stood way too close to precipice of life and death on more occasions than I think I ever have in my life – particularly midway through last year when I spent five weeks in a psychiatric hospital.

The only reason why I haven't slipped over the edge is my son. Even when the battle seemed too great I just had to think of him – my beautiful five year old boy – and a little voice in the back of my head would tell me to fight on.

It’s been nearly seven years now since I first came truly undone. Over those seven years I have had eight in-patient admissions to psychiatric hospitals, have done three out-patient psycho-educational courses over a 17 month period, had constant therapy with either psychiatrists, psychologists or both, and have read a lot about mental health. Crikey, you'd think I'd be cured by now!

But it is not about finding the cure, it is about managing the condition, and I've learnt a lot along the way about how to keep my head above water, even when I felt the undertow was going to beat me.

Image source

I thought I'd share a few of my survival tips*:

1.      Maintain a good mental health care team

I've been going to the same general practitioners’ centre for seven years. I’ve changed doctors but have maintained my relationship with the surgery over the entire time. If you can find a good GP, stick with them. You don't have to keep telling your story over and over and they can tell when you're not doing well sometimes even before you know it yourself.

I also get all my medications from the one pharmacy. They keep my prescriptions on file and can let me know when I'm due for more. I've built a relationship with a couple of the pharmacists which makes it awesome knowing I've got more people on my team who understand my situation. I went there once during a panic attack when I was out shopping in the city with Noo because that was the closest safe place I could think of. I was supported through the attack while another staff member played with my son – definitely going beyond the usual pharmacy service!

I've had numerous psychiatrists and psychologists over the years. Some I’ve been with for two years or more, some for a very short time. It is critical that you bond with your therapist. You have to trust them with your story and believe that they offer good advice in return. If you feel you've outgrown your therapist or that they have provided all the advice you think they can offer, don't be afraid to move on. They won’t be offended. Your sessions are about YOU. Make sure you control the direction your therapy goes in but be open to new ideas as well. Seeing them regularly (I go once a fortnight) helps with the flow of the therapy.

2.      Family support, if you've got it, is critical – use it yet nurture it

I owe my survival to my family. They support me, especially helping with looking after Noo, but most importantly they listen to me. Especially my mum and my sister. My mum, particularly, has been instrumental in keeping me going over the last year. She lets me go over and over my thoughts and feelings as I try to understand what’s going on in my head. I know it has an incredible strain on her but she never tells me to leave her alone.

3.      Catch up with your best friends and be social to meet new ones

Since my huge lifestyle change from party girl to sole parent my offline social network has diminished. I have a few key girlfriends, most of whom I've known for a very long time. I can go weeks, even months without seeing them, but when we do catch up it is like no time has passed. Maintaining social contact with the world outside my family is sometimes hard for me because I don’t work and I tend to shy away from extending myself outside my comfort zones, especially when I'm unwell. I know, though, that it is good for my mental health if I do get out and connect with people. Meeting people at blogging conferences has been a great way to do this.

4.      Blogging

Blogging has been a real outlet for me. Writing the stories of my past as well as what I’m going through in the present has been really cathartic. For some reason though over this year I've stepped back from my blog. Writing has become a bit of a chore and I’ve become wary of bringing my readers down with the mood my posts.

I am trying to get back into the flow of it now Noo has started big school. Having a project that is all mine that I can work on at my own pace is really healthy for me too. It keeps me busy and using my brain. Even though I don’t work, I can’t just lounge around and read all day or watch TV – that just adds to my feelings of guilt and anxiety. Blogging is like an unpaid job that I am the boss of. The blogging community also provides much needed connection with the outside world and it is a source of support and inspiration.

5.      Pampering

I’m not very high maintenance but I do like to get my nails done every three weeks. I never miss an appointment and have become good friends with the lovely woman who does a great job on them. I love the whole process of deciding on a colour and having someone fuss over me for an hour.

6.      Zoning out

When I can watch the telly, after Noo has gone to bed, I love American shows like Girls, Game of Thrones and House of Cards. I also love going to the movies on my own. Watching the telly is such a great way to sit back and totally forget about my woes. My latest thing is to work on a “paint by numbers” painting at the same time. I started my first one last year and it is totally addictive but relaxing!

Reading fiction is also a great way to zone out but when my anxiety is high I find it very hard to focus. I used to read masses of novels as a way to escape reality but since anxiety has taken over from depression, it is a little harder for me to keep up with.

7.      Mindfulness

I've recently spent a bit of time learning about ‘mindfulness’. I highly recommend anybody, not just those with mental health issues, to look into it. I've been following a great iPhone app called Headspace that takes you through 10 minute mindfulness exercises. I've also listened to Pema Chödrön’s book called Getting Unstuck which made all sorts of sense about the way I can get myself so worked up over things. It also gives practical teachings on how to let go of old shit.

There’s still so much I need to learn about mindfulness and I also need to dedicate more time to actually practicing it.

If you've been reading my blog for a while you'll know I've suffered mental illness throughout most of my life. I know it is something that I will never be cured of, so self-care is survival. Medications and/or talk therapy alone aren't enough. Eating well and exercise are also important and are areas that I need to dedicate more time to.

I believe taking a holistic approach to mental health management is the best way to having a fulfilling life, armed with the tools to battle the bad times, as well as allowing the insight to acknowledge and embrace the great times.

What do you do to look after yourself?


*I am not a mental health care professional. These are my personal experiences and opinions. If you do think you need help with depression and/or anxiety, please seek help from a professional or call Lifeline 13 11 14.

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Jeanie said...

Great post.

I really self-monitor a lot better these days - take note when I feel depression's tentacles trying to get hold, take a step back.

I also read great stuff for the spirit and mind first thing in the morning - it makes the day much better.

I am trying to also incorporate a bit more exercise - only morning walk at the moment (first one this year today) but it is a start.

I try not to beat myself up for perceived failure.

SarahD@SnippetsandSpirits said...

This is really great realistic advice Vanessa. Thank you for putting it together. I am new in this guilt anxiety ridden PND world and I am trying to understand it all. These tips help me realise there are things I can do. So thank you for sharing.

Vanessa Connor said...

Excellent post. Self-care is really vital for everyone and these are great tips. I've tried to get the hang of this mindfulness thing and haven't been successful. I feel like it would really help me with panic attacks if I could just 'get it'. I'll look into that book. Thanks for the tips. xo said...

I agree, self-care is vital for everyone. Mindfulness takes a while and I definitely need to practice it more to get the most out of it. It's like physical exercise, you kind of have to keep at it to get better at it, from what I can gather. When I have used the Headspace app at the start of a panic attack, I've found it has helped me reduce the length and strength of the attack. I just I need to practice it when I'm not in a panicked state so it can help with the everyday anxiety. Thanks for the comment. V. said...

Thanks Lisa. This post has been in the pipelines for a while. I'm definitely feeling much better but still struggling with anxiety. At least the black dog seems to disappeared for a while though. V. said...

Hi Sarah. Anxiety is so hard, especially with PND. The guilt of trying to look after yourself as well as a little one can be overwhelming. Ned and I spent three weeks in hospital when I had postpartum thyroid disease that made me so anxious I thought the world was going to end at any moment. I've never felt more helpless and hopeless than I did then during his first year. The only thing that got me through then was knowing it would pass. I don't know how I knew, but I did and it did. Good luck to you. I hope you see the end of it soon too. V. said...

Thanks Jeanie. They are great things you are doing to keep your mood in check. My shrink asked me if I could get "hard core into exercise". He really thinks I need to get my natural high happening! Walking is a great start. I must get off my butt and do the same! V.

Josie A said...

Great list. Finding a way to capture and remember your self worth is important I find.
A few years ago I was horribly bullied at work. While not the same degree if mental illness you are talking about, a situation like that can mess with your mind and it really made me doubt my abilities and feel terrible about my whole life.
Anyway I went on holidays and being out of the situation gave me some perspective and let me see it was her not me. One day I woke up feeling great and went shopping where I bought this ring. It sounds silly but when I got back to work I used to lock myself in the toilet and stare at the ring. For some reason staring at this cheap piece of glass helped me remember the clarity I'd had on the day when I'd bought it. So small but so helpful. Small things like a picture of your kids helps remind you of the value your presence on earth brings to others.
PS I did eventually get a better job

Emma Fahy Davis said...

"Self-care is survival." I love this, and I need to remind myself of it more often. I've used mindfulness techniques to deal with OCD over the years, it's definitely worth while learning if you have the opportunity.

Glenda Bishop said...

Exercise and nutrition are also a really important part of the self-care needed for managing mental illness effectively. Exercise helps to burn up excess adrenaline and it alters the threshold for stress that is likely to trigger problems. Also, stretching exercises like yoga loosen up the muscles and this can help to destress too. Finally, exercise can have a meditative effect because it takes you away from your problems and makes you concentrate on what you are doing instead, again decreasing stress levels. Nutrition is also very important, particularly eating wholefoods such as fruits and vegetables, but also avoiding sugary and fatty processed foods too. More evidence is currently being obtained by nutrition scientists about the role of good nutrition (and also bad nutrition) in mental health status. So the healthier you eat, the better off you will be.

Mrs Clair Awesome said...

This is an excellent post :) I haven't been having treatment for as long as you, but can absolutely concur that continuity of care is key. I feel so totally safe with my current GP and psychologist, without that I wouldn't be as far ahead as I am today. Wonderful story/outcome about your pharmacists. That's so lovely.

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