Living with an invisible disease

I don’t even know where to start with describing this one so I’m just going to get straight to it. On the face of it when people look at me; no real skin problems, no scars, no chesty coughs, slim build and no real obvious signs of illness. Internally, I feel the complete opposite.

I have had intestinal/stomach related problems for years but I was still a very sporty and athletic individual throughout my educational life (to my final university year). However, it has unfortunately become worse and is now significantly affecting my standard of living and mental wellbeing.

For roughly 2 years I have had severe stomach pain which probably developed through living away from home in a different city while working for a year. As I was living by myself and being the irresponsible young adult I was, I was unable to cook, and as I was always a slim, people would constantly tell me that I was so lucky that I’m skinny; I can eat anything. Being young and naive, I did just that being totally unaware of my food intolerances/sensitivities; the very things that were harming me. I started developing skin problems, brain fog and frequent migraines. My eyesight deteriorated, experienced severe abdominal pain and I lost considerable weight to the point that I was a mere 6 and a half stone. I lost all confidence in myself to the extent it had an impact on my ability to verbally communicate which I feel is still prevalent to this current day.

I knew I had to do something because every part of my body was shutting down. I couldn’t do the things I previously enjoyed like playing football and going out with friends which left me severely depressed and isolated.

My first point of call was to go to the doctors. After explaining my symptoms and showing the doctors the physical proof of my skin problems, I was extremely surprised to be shrugged off. I was already at breaking point, so I went the next day to see another doctor. After arguing continuously and convincing them to take me seriously, (they just thought I was just extremely anxious and stressed) I notified them I’d like to take serious tests like X-rays etc. The doctors decided to do an overall blood test which will flag up antibodies if there is anything wrong with my body. To my disbelief my results came back all clear. I was told I’m perfectly fine and it’s all in my head, I’m just highly anxious and stressed and thus there was no need for an X-ray so instead they simply recommended anti-depressants!

At this point I walked out the surgery and had a major breakdown, my heart broke as I lost all hope of getting better and lost my will to live. I felt like it was all over; I’ve effectively been given a life sentence that no one will understand. To be honest at that point I wished I had cancer instead. At least it was something tangible. A confirmation that something is not quite right.

Thankfully God blessed me with the courage to open up to a colleague who seemed to genuinely care and tried their best to help as they noticed my mental health was deteriorating. Having someone to confide in made me feel better. It felt like letting off a huge load off my back even though they couldn’t stop the problem itself. Anyone going through any physical or mental related problems alone, I would recommend that you do give people you trust a chance. You will likely be surprised how compassionate people can be and on the plus side, talking about your issues can be a godsend for your mental state. I for one can testify to this. As someone who tries to ensure they live without pride or ego, I can admittedly confess that being open is a real challenge for me. However, its ability to help put your problems, and sometimes irrational thoughts into perspective, is priceless.

I did manage to get better thank god, although not in a recommended manner. I firmly believe praying, drinking lots of water and pot luck helped me get better. I returned to University for my final year with a new lease of energy, sense of excitement in life and getting back to doing things I enjoyed but as I had lost significant weight, (particularly with me being quite skinny already wasn’t necessarily a good thing) my housemates and friends were quite worried.

I fell into the same trap and the cycle repeated itself. The same “you need to put on weight”, “eat this and that” persisted and although I fought it for a while, the repetitive comments about my weight dragged me down to the point where I finally caved. The symptoms returned and this time I still haven’t managed to shake it off.

My mental health has again deteriorated. I have lost confidence, I isolate myself and have stopped going to socials. I find myself pulling away from people I build good bonds with but the thing that hurts the most is that I’m afraid people may think I just don’t like them, not knowing it’s me and the high social anxiety levels I face. I feel like I’m losing out on the so called ‘best years of my life’ and I’m scared I will not be able to fulfil my potential. I’m scared I’m going to let my family down, I’m frightened I won’t be able to build close relationships with people and I’m afraid I won’t ever get better this time. I’m stressed about a lot of things but honestly, I can deal with it. What I can’t deal with is my fears becoming a reality and living like this for the rest of my life.

I’ve learned the importance of being resilient enough to ignore people’s comments over your own inner voice because at the end of the day it is my life and my body and I’m not comprising my life for anyone else. It doesn’t matter if this disease is invisible to other people or not as serious to them. To me it’s very real and it’s harming my life and my mental state. I have inevitably given up on doctors and am looking at alternative medicine. I’m extremely determined to get myself better (regardless of going through a healing crisis) and I firmly believe I will get my life back. I’m just trying my best to make it sooner rather than later.

At times I still hate being me. I do still get depressed and I still break down sometimes, but I try and remember some of the good things I still have in my life; a family, amazing friends and achievements I’ve managed despite struggling with these issues and other events. I’m still alive and I can’t change the past and years I missed out on, but the future is still here and who knows what that holds. Maybe the pain and frustration of the past will pave the way for a future filled with health and happiness and that’s what I’m focusing my energies on capturing!

Sexual assault

What is sexual assault, some of you may ask? Well, if someone purposefully grabs or touches you in a sexual way that you don’t like, or you’re forced to do something sexual against your will, that’s sexual assault. Basically, anything sexual without consent is sexual assault.

It has been four years since I was sexually assaulted by a stranger, during a night out at university.

Since the night of the incident, nothing has been quite the same.

I was inebriated, as most people are on a Friday night. Leaving the club alone to get some fresh air led to being taken by a stranger, sexually assaulted and left on a random bench to eventually find my way back to safety.

Making my statement with the police and going through a long process of health checks, I was finally let free at midday the next day. Exhausted and emotionally drained, I went home and straight to sleep. After this, I just wanted everything to go back to normal and forget about the whole thing. However, things just aren’t that simple.

I became more and more paranoid, ‘Why is everyone looking at me?’, ‘Do they know what happened?’, ‘Are people talking about it?’. I felt uncomfortable with the way I dressed and looked, judging myself; ‘Do I look slutty?’, ‘Is this dress too revealing?’, ‘Am I wearing too much makeup?’, the list goes on and on. All of these thoughts whizzing through my brain constantly giving me stress and anxiety. Feeling as though it wasn’t safe to leave the house, or show my face because I felt disgusted in myself and worthless. Feeling terrified of being outside at night or going on nights out. I became a social recluse and a completely different person to who I was prior to the event. Self-blame is also true to most victims because if I hadn’t drunk so much, or if I hadn’t gone out that night etc. maybe it wouldn’t have happened.

Common issues that arise in Sexual Assault victims:

  •        Depression
  •        Anxiety
  •        Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  •        Personality disruptions
  •        Triggers

I can assume that like myself, most victims go through all of them.

Fast-forward four years and I still go through many of the same things that I did just days after it happened. I have gotten a lot stronger and overcome many of battles with myself too, but the feeling of depression and anxiety hasn’t completely gone away.

Fortunately, I have great deal of support from the people closest to me and would not be here today if it wasn’t for them. Surrounding yourself with positivity and support is essential to the whole healing process. I cannot stress the importance of talking to people about how you’re feeling, whether it is randomly on online support groups or with friends or family, it can bring you out of that vortex of negativity spiralling in your mind.

There are many experiences that people go through in life. Sexual assault should not be one of them.

We need to talk

So how exactly do you talk about mental health? It’s a tough one – an elephant in the room, if you’ll pardon the pun. But it’s a conversation we need to have.

 

If you ask me how I’m doing, the chances are you’ll get one of three answers:

  1. The “meh”: this means that I’m not feeling great but don’t really want to talk about it. It’ll pass and I’m probably in a mood for no reason.
  2. The “great thanks, how are you?”: this means that I’m in a pretty good mood – the day is going well, I’ve done something interesting and I’ve had the right amount of caffeine so that I can function like a person.
  3. The “I’m not feeling so good”: if you hear this, you know I’m having a bad day and could do with a break, a cup of coffee and a chat.

So that’s great – I’m easy to read. There’s a 3 step guide to evaluating how I’m feeling and how to talk to me. This might not be the case for everyone. In fact, it almost definitely isn’t.

It’s a sad fact that more people would rather avoid talking about mental health than sit down and have an honest and frank discussion about how they’re feeling. But they’ll happily talk about their physical health and fitness – so much so that I’m sick of hearing about the gym. There’s something about this that just doesn’t feel right to me – our mental health and wellbeing is just as important, if not more so, as our physical health.

So if you’re feeling down, talk about it. Air your feelings with a friend. Sit down and have a chat over a coffee. But don’t bottle it up.

And what if you see someone else who doesn’t seem to be doing well? Sit down and have a chat. Ask them how they’re doing, offer a friendly conversation. Buy them a cake if they’re the kind of person that isn’t obsessed with the gym.

Sometimes a little attention is all it takes to get someone on the road to feeling better. Sometimes it takes more than that – and that’s okay too. The chances are you’re not going to be able to take someone from feeling like 0% to 100% with some coffee and a cake or a hug. But maybe you’ll take them from 0 to 20%, and that’s always an improvement. And sometimes that’s all you need – for things to get just a little bit better.

My own battle: Recovering from an attack

On a cold and bitter November morning, I was casually going about my normal routine walk, when I was stopped and asked what the time was. I naturally looked down at my watch and answered…until part way through my answer the sudden shock and realisation of being a victim of attack became apparent.

In that precise time it’s difficult to consciously do anything. You do what you can to make the whole process end as soon as possible and get away from the mess. When it’s over and you’re left alone, you regain your surroundings coming to the senses of the shock and reality of what has just happened. But this isn’t even the worst part; what comes in the aftermath really hits you.

Why did they choose me? All for pride? To gain satisfaction? To boost their ego? These were the questions I raised to myself every day for the next couple of years. It took me even longer to get over the paranoia and fear of walking alone. Even when a car use to stop by the driveway I would question who it was, why they have stopped outside my house, how long they would stop for – this was the clear mistrust of other people in the months after the attack. All this upset just for a cheap phone?

Being attacked, feeling defeated at the time, worrying excessively afterwards, and difficulties sleeping meant paranoid fears remained a part of my life comprehensively after the attack. The long term mental trauma outweighed the physical discomfort, that’s for sure.

It takes time – to accept what has happened and to learn to live with it. You are not expected to just accept and move on from what has happened, because ‘life goes on’ – no. Research shows that four out of five victims became more fearful of other people after being mugged? Traditionally, it was thought paranoid thinking was rare in the aftermath of an attack. But that is simply not true.

The bottom line is an incident like this can trigger a range of strong emotions that may be hard to handle and can change over time. The end result is that whatever you’re going through is normal, from shock, loneliness and unhappiness, but in every sense of these elements it helps to open up about them. Confiding in someone you trust, can help the situation, and allow you to move on. All of this needs time.

Post-University Anxiety

Being a first generation immigrant I never had my parents share their stories with me or give me that pep talk about what to expect when I arrive at university. So a lot of what I expected to happen was based off of what I saw in American movies.

What I expected to happen was that I sit in a big lecture theatre and have a lecturer talk at me. On the face of it, this was true, because the first actual thing I did at university after I had done all of my induction was sit in a lecture theatre and have a lecturer talk me. I later realised that there was a lot more to university than just a lecture theatre filled with 200 not so eager students. Before I began university I had it all planned out, everything was so structured, I get As in my GCSEs get As in A-levels, get all my offers on UCAS then go to university. This was all perfect. This was all structured.

The plan was after I finish university I would get a job. In my first year of university I really didn’t pay this ‘job’ much thought. I didn’t think I needed to. It would just be there waiting for me. I have a degree, I have good grades that automatically equated to a good job, a stable job, a job that gave me a regular income.

In my final year at university, I spoke to previous graduates, majority were unemployed because they left their application too late. So, I decided to be organised. I put together a list of all the firms I wanted to apply to, their application open date and close date. I even fell back on my readings and assignments because I understood that applying to jobs was a priority.

I went on all the graduate recruitment pages, signed up my details, sent out my CV and waited… And I waited.

I did all of my Situational Judgment Tests, I passed a few, didn’t pass others, and then I waited.

When it became time to graduate, there was lots of joy and happiness in the air, lots of optimism. We posed for photos, uploaded them to Instagram and had the likes and comments rolling in, but it ignored the reality of what was to come.

Come September, after months of applying I had nothing, nothing to wake up early in the mornings for, nothing to challenge me, nothing to excite me, no regular income. My biggest embarrassment is having to ask my parents for my bus fare. I am left asking myself, what is wrong with me, what have I done wrong, what is this secret to getting a job that I am not in on.

 

Pressure and Expectations

Often success appears as a fleeting, momentary occurrence, present only briefly before my mind moves onto the next thing I have yet to achieve or something else that I’m not doing so well on. It’s never been about pausing and taking the time to enjoy my own victories, however small or large they may be. To me, success is expected, and rather than focussing on where things are going right, often my focus will be on where I’m falling short. There’s always room for improvement.

It’s not the case that this is the result of any external pressure from friends or family, just my own method of driving me towards success.

And it’s utterly incompatible with a concept of self-worth and confidence tied to your own successes.

If you can’t stop to appreciate when you’ve done well, then it goes without saying that there won’t be much increase in your self-confidence even when you succeed. Despite recognising this over the course of many years, I’ve never been able to fully break free of this way of thinking.

Rather than focussing on internal validation, instead my confidence and self-worth has tended focus on external validation and the praise of others. External validation is fantastic for motivation and affirmation in your efforts if its forthcoming, but this isn’t always the case (irrespective of whether or not you deserve it).

If anything, reliance on such a volatile source of motivation is sometimes even worse than the constant self-deprecation I’m used to applying, but it’s so much less mentally tiring than feeling like I’m always falling short because of my own high expectations.

Equally, measuring yourself against others on a constant basis is a sure-fire way to demoralise yourself. I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at something I’ve achieved whether it be academic, sporting or career-based, achievements which were things to be truly proud of, and gone in my head “but it wasn’t as good as what others have done”.

It’s easy enough justify this as a motivation mechanism, a way to push myself onwards and upwards, and it’s so easy to slip into this line of thinking, constantly comparing yourself to your peers.

But sometimes the time needs to be taken to appreciate success in absolute rather than relative terms. Otherwise it can feel like you’re no longer in control of your own self-confidence and over time, the result is a fear of the judgement of others simply because I’ve made it such an important part of how I view myself.

While I’ve never been able to fully put this thought process to rest, I’ve had moments of reprieve by considering a very simple fact: you’re not doing these things for others, you’re doing them for yourself. Yes in some cases success relative to others is the end goal, but equally other times success will be measured against your own benchmarks and objectives.

Similarly external validation and praise should be a supplement to your own confidence in yourself: all the praise in the world from others won’t mean a thing if you don’t believe it.

What others think will always be important to me, but it should never be as important as what I think of myself. With that realisation comes responsibility: it’s my job to define my successes and celebrate them where I think it’s appropriate. Sometimes I’ll probably be too harsh, and sometimes over-zealous, but as long as I take the time to appreciate my own successes, at least I’m in the driver’s seat with a great view of where to aim for next.

Another side of depression

Hi everyone, today’s post is from a friend on their personal experience of depression and anxiety;

I have been dealing with my issues for as long as I can remember.

Depression and anxiety seem so integral to who I am as a person now that I cannot think of a time when they were not there. Even when I was a child I remember every day being such a struggle to get through that I just wanted the days to end. For my life to end. They’re a black shadow that seems to be connected to me at all times. No matter how content I am in life they’re lurking in the back somewhere I just can’t quite see but I know is there. I imagine that for many of you this might be a familiar feeling and like me you are beyond tired of feeling this way. There is a life out there to be enjoyed and you want to be able to truly appreciate it all. You wish to feel better about yourself and by reading this blog you are taking the right steps in the right direction for yourself.

As odd as it may sound you should congratulate yourself on taking these steps. Not only because it helps you keep a positive frame of mind but because just like recovering from a physical issue it is important to keep motivated, something this helps with. It is something my therapist recommended to me to help me cope with my issues. That, regardless of how small or silly it may seem, if I do something positive in my life that is something I should be proud of. It helps to keep me in a positive frame of mind and it is a technique I would recommend. The short version of this: make the most of the little things. Tell yourself every day that you are worth it.

One of the hardest things I found was actually getting around to thinking that I should work on my issues. This is something that others I have spoken to have found difficult. Their issues are so developed and they are so consumed by them that they think they are hopeless and worthless. That there is no point. They have no motivation to get better because they do not believe that they deserve anything better. I know I feel this way and it was so hard to even conceive the idea to get help. I remember for me the turning point was being drunk again and sleeping outside at 5 in the morning again in the middle of London. I had places to stay but I deliberately made myself sleep outside. Why? Because I wasn’t worth a home or any form of comfort. Why was I drunk? Because it made me feel good. It was at this stage that I had my revelation. That I finally turned around and said that this was enough. I was punishing myself and making myself suffer so much that I was tired of it. This coupled with friends telling me it had to stop meant that I had finally hit breaking point.

You may look at what I have written here and think that you’re lower or that you’re worse than I am. You may have had similar experiences to my own of feeling like you have hit the bottom but are still doing the same thing and so feel bad reading this. Like you have failed. I know because it’s something I did when trying to get better. I would read things like this and think “oh well they’re doing better, why aren’t I?” If that is the case then all I can say is that you have not failed. That you are still trying even now in ways you do not realise. Each day you go through is an achievement and testament to your perseverance. I know taking that first step is so hard that to many it seems impossible. But you owe it to yourself to try and to keep going at it no matter how many times it hurts or how taxing it is. You deserve a good life and living your days in contentment.

My advice to you based on my experience is two things. One is to have a support network. It has been invaluable to me to have positive influences in my life and people who can support me when I regress. If you’re sitting there thinking that you do not have one, chances are you do. It’s just working up the courage to tell those who love you. They won’t judge and if they do, they are not worth your precious time. If you’re still convinced you don’t then I would encourage you to seek professional help. Go to mental health classes or go to a therapist. These have both proved essential to my mental health. I cannot truly stress how useful and vital they are. I honestly feel everyone should have their own therapist.

The second piece of advice is that it’s never too late to start working on yourself and for things to change. You do not have to hit the bottom to start moving up. You can do it at anytime and for those who feel like they are at the bottom, as hard as it may sound, you can still work on yourself. It doesn’t have to be today, it doesn’t have to be immediate and rapid. As long as you try each day to help yourself, to feel better about yourself then you will find one day you are more content. However if you slip, then that is fine too. We are not perfect and it is not helpful to yourself to beat yourself up so much over things. We all have down days and times when we are not at our best. So it is perfectly reasonable to say to yourself that you are feeling this way because funnily enough having that kind of acceptance makes it easier to then get back to self-improvement.

I remember one technique my therapist used to do with me was just to question every negative thought I had. To basically keep asking why; sort of like that annoying child who is trying to outsmart you. The thing was, much like with the child, you eventually run out of things to say and realise the negative thoughts are not coming out of anywhere useful or realistic. Another useful thing that they said to me was that whatever happened in the past happened the way it did. I am aware this sounds like Rafiki from the Lion King but for me it has been a huge help in accepting my life and working on it. There are things I massively regret doing and feel guilty about. Yet if I const go over them I will never get better. I do have control over my present and what I choose to do in it and so I can use that to better myself.

I’ll leave you now with some final thoughts. One of the biggest lies I have been told is what the norm is and how alone I am in my issues. I have never yet met someone who does not have some kind of problem, issue or some form of mental health issue. I would like to meet the person who invented what “normal” is in society and show them what they have done to so many people. You are not alone in your struggles and there are always people willing to help. You just have to look for them.

The journey towards feeling better about yourself is a long one but it’s still one worth doing. I have been doing mine for over 20 years and whilst I am not exactly where I would like to be I am living a better life than I could have conceived having even 5 years ago. It does get better. I promise you that but it takes effort from you. Words like this can only do so much, so use this as motivation to help yourself and do it for yourself. Find out works for you. The advice I give here is based off my own life and experiences. Just because it works for me doesn’t mean that it’s gospel for you. Take whatever solution works for you and use it. No matter how silly it may seem to others. If dancing in the street helps you feel good then go for it. Do whatever makes you feel better and feels like an improvement to your day and life in general. Just do not do what I used to and look for the solutions at 5 in the morning in the gutter face down in a dodgy kebab. The kebab alone will make you feel bad enough.