Monday, 6 November 2017

I'm A Balloon

Hi people!

I did not intend to go this long without posting. I've been planning my wedding (it happened in October) for so long, and I've been so busy with it I haven't had time to write anything. But now I can!

So, after that happy introduction/reunion, I now need to move on to some tough stuff. In this post, I'm going to talk about self-harm, both my own experience of it, some stuff usually reported about it, and also some science behind it. Please don't just close the page because this subject makes you uncomfortable; we really need to talk about this more in our society. However, there may be some people in psychologically dangerous situations right now reading this. If you think this will be too distressing for you, to the point where you think you may actually self-harm, leave this post until later. Do not under any circumstance feel obligated to read this post if you think it will be detrimental to your stability right now. If you think you are in danger of self-harming right now, ring someone you trust, ring an organisation like the Samaritans, ring the emergency services, just do what you have to in order to get help now. I really don't want to be the cause of distress for anyone.

Okay, now that's been said, I can start explaining what self-harm and self-harm impulses are like. As I said in my previous post, many people self-harm for many different reasons. For me, it was to relieve stress. This is where the title of this post comes in: in times of intense anxiety/stress - often a trigger for my depression - I would feel like an over-inflated balloon. An over-inflated balloon with steam coming out of my ears, I would swear blind to you that it was like my skin was being stretched painfully and that it would explode under the pressure. What do you do to relieve the pressure of an over-inflated balloon? You pop it. You let some of the air out through holes. Self-harm doesn't have to involve razors or cutting, despite this being the usual way it is imagined; it can involve anything from razors to glass to acid to fire to your own body parts and much more. My method of self-harm was digging my nails into the back of my hands as if to puncture the skin. I never did puncture the skin, but I still used enough force to leave my hands covered with red crescents that would stay for two days then fade away, as if nothing had happened.

People use self-harm as a way of distracting their brains from mental distress, among other reasons. And here's the sickening truth: it works. Very briefly after each episode I self-harmed - as in, for maximum two seconds after my nails first dug into my hand - I felt relief, like I was actually letting out some of that pressure. You may not realise it, but there is actual evidence that hurting yourself to make yourself happy makes an awkward sort of sense. When your body is hurt in some way, it releases chemicals in order to counteract the pain, called endorphins. You may have heard of them; they are the ones that are released during exercise, during physical intimacy, during moments of genuine enjoyment. They are the "happy hormones". The automatic release of endorphins after you self-harm is exactly why you feel a very brief sense of relief...and the part that you can become dependent on.

That rush of endorphins that relieves the mental distress can become something you can't live without. In times of mental distress, your first thought is to self-harm, and that reliance becomes stronger and stronger until it is your only coping mechanism. And so, I found myself stuck in a vicious cycle where I would feel stressed/anxious, I would want to self-harm, I self-harmed, I felt a brief relief, then I would feel agonising disappointment in myself because I indulged in a behaviour I knew was damaging. And so it feeds into itself.

Now, self-harm is not an addiction; an addiction is something where you cannot control the withdrawal symptoms your body experiences. Self-harm is a chosen behaviour, a coping mechanism. As with all other coping mechanisms, you can replace it with another, healthier coping mechanism. This takes time and effort and, more often than not, times of failure, times where you simply cannot resist that urge. When I admitted to a Christian close friend that I had self-harmed recently, he took my hands in his and stared directly into my eyes. "Your hands are beautiful," he said fervently, "and God made these hands to write, and to play music, and to clap, and to hug people. He didn't make them to hurt themselves." I didn't self-harm once after that encounter. I'm not sure what happened, I'm not sure what other coping mechanism I used instead (probably writing). But any time I had the urge, I remembered what my hands were meant to be used for, and I felt God take my hands in His, cradling them like they were precious diamonds.

[I've said nowhere near enough on the huge subject of self-harm in this post, and there are so many other things I'd like to say in the future. If you have any suggestions you'd like me to talk on specifically, please feel free to leave a comment or message me. If you are interested, here are links to some sources I used for the scientific side to this post:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625678/

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00008/full
http://studentsagainstdepression.org/get-support/check-suicide-and-self-harm/understanding-self-harm/
http://www.lifesigns.org.uk/self-injury-addiction/]

Saturday, 10 June 2017

...Solutions! (Bad Ones)

In my previous post, I explained how problems are compiled; how some have grown from insignificance simply because of lower tolerance to stress etc, how some completely defy logic due to flawed premises, through falsely perceived issues. So if you already have skewed problems and have already used faulty thinking to get there, the solutions are going to be just as harmful, if not more so.

First thing we should note is that, because of this lower tolerance of stress - which encompasses the feeling of things just being "wrong" - you're often more willing to do drastic things just in order to make the feeling go away, and this is often just plain avoidance. The door that gives you a panic attack: don't go out, stay inside all day, all week, all month. That awful piece of work that makes you feel like you can't do anything right: leave it until tomorrow...and the day after (ad nauseam). That supermarket that's the only one around for ten miles but is just too full of people and crowds: starve for a few days before you absolutely have to go.

However, while avoidance in itself is an active process and can be very tiring (something I'll discuss in a later post), there are other ways you solve these problems, ways that actively "rectify" the "problem".

General example: some people use self-harm (another topic I'll discuss later) as a method of control. So their thought process might go something like this: "the problem is that I have no control over the things in my life. The solution is to gain control of the pain my body feels." Something that seems so counter-intuitive, that sometimes they themselves know is awful for them mentally and physically, becomes the saving grace they cling onto in that moment. It becomes the solution, even if just the short-term one.

Personal example with a bit of context: I despite catcalling. I imagine many people who have been catcalled do, but many other women - yes, mainly women - I've spoken to don't seem to have the same physical reaction I do. Sometimes when I've been out and a guy is paying a little too much attention to me to be comfortable, I've had to go to the bathroom so I can dry-heave and/or have a panic attack and/or calm down the acid boiling in my stomach. Even without the mental health difficulties. So when I was suffering and a guy on the street said I looked "sexy" in my skirt, my reaction was explosive.

I saw a problem but not as I see it now (ie catcalling is wrong). My problem was that I was too pretty. Three guesses what my solution was: make myself ugly. That inconsiderate and self-centred man was completely ignorant that his words set off a mental obsession in me, luckily one I never followed through with actions. For three months, I had a persistent fantasy of dragging anything sharp - although my fingernails, broken glass and barbed wire featured heavily - repeatedly across my face. I wanted desperately to rid myself of this problem, and I was prepared to do it in the most violent way possible if needed.

Then, of course, there is the solution to the most common problem that makes itself known that I mentioned in the previous post, the problem of being alive: the solution that people see is to end their lives.

These "solutions" seem to be the only things available to us, and sometimes even seem appealing; I know that, at some points, I wanted my barbed wire solution above any other, because its sheer violence would be a catharsis for the anger I felt at the time. These solutions don't make sense - or make a sick, unhealthy kind of sense - so, as with the problems, using logic and reason to dissuade someone may often not work. This is a part that is painfully difficult for someone caring for a sufferer; how do you stop someone from hurting themselves while not offending their currently fragile self-esteem and/or taking away their autonomy?

Whatever way you find that helps in the case of the particular person you're caring for, please know that your continuing patience and care for them/us means more than they/we will ever be able to express.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Problems...

Depression, along with many other mental disorders, completely messes with cognitive functions. That is, broadly speaking, the thoughts in your head, the logic that you follow.

Take the example of problem-solving. Practically, problem-solving takes two things: a problem and a solution, of varying numbers. I'll tackle solutions in my next post, but in this one I want to show you how problems change when seen through the depression filter.

Simply put, your problems will increase in number and intensity, because things you would never have even considered before will become sometimes debilitating issues. For example, before I had depression, here are a few of my problems: "I have a lot of uni work, and I want a good grade, but I can't be bothered to put in the work"; "I wonder if I have enough money"; "I still have washing up to do, but I don't like doing it". All pretty normal, if lazy, student thoughts, right?

Contrast the problems I had while I had depression: "I have a single worksheet to complete for uni, but I genuinely can't find the effort to do it"; "I'm such a loser, I can't even manage my money"; "I know there's that washing up to do, but I feel like a failure for not doing it earlier, so I feel like crying if I even think about it". Other examples include: "I want to go to church, but there will be people there, and I can't deal with people", "it's so loud", and "I have a panic attack if I even think about leaving my room".

Like I said, new things appear in the list. Leaving my room had never been a problem before - I mean, it's just walking, isn't it? - and yet now my bedroom door was the biggest hurdle I would face.

There's an expression: "making a mountain out of a molehill". It meas you're making something, often a challenge, bigger than it actually is, that you're making a big fuss over a minor inconvenience. Well, depression does that, except it's real. Those molehills actually do become mountains. And if the molehills become mountains, the mountains become.... I don't even know the right word. Either way, looking at all of those mountains before you pushes you to your knees before you've even taken a step.

Now the Bible says that humans are completely powerless. Not that we're a bit weak, not that some things are beyond us, but that we're completely powerless. We can do nothing...without God's help (see 1 Samuel 2:9; Psalm 73:26, among others). This really takes a weight off us; we don't need to face those mountains through our own strength, and curse ourselves and our weaknesses when it's difficult. (Because it will be difficult; just because God is the one who gives you the strength to climb doesn't mean it's an easy ride.) When we fail, we don't say, "It's because I'm not strong enough for this". We say, "Maybe God will let me succeed tomorrow, and learn whatever lesson He is teaching me today."

Although, I do need to point out that it's also perfectly normal to have moments of despair and desperation and fits of crying before you can say that second sentence, even if you've been able to say it before. It's not a disappointing sign of weakness if you can't immediately - at each and every hurdle - brush aside and accept you're own weaknesses. It's a sign of humanity.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Where He Is

In my previous post, I gave my personal emotional experience of knowing God within my suffering. But, of course, in order to properly know God, and to test these theories and experiences, is to compare them to the Bible.

The Bible is what Christians call "God-breathed" which means that, although it was written by flawed and sinful human beings, God inspired these authors with what to write, almost like a dictation. So the words of the Bible are trust-worthy and perfect and correct, provided you take the context of the time and location and author into account. Jesus himself is described as the Word of God - the same name we give to the Bible - and so we cannot accept Jesus and reject the Bible; they are one and the same.

So what does the Bible say about where God is in suffering? The answer is simple; right beside you. It's hard to imagine, the Creator of the heavens and the earth holding you in His arms. Many people, including Christians, sometimes (or always) think of God as distant or aloof, either deliberately uncaring about our suffering or that He simply can't understand what we're going through. First, God definitely does care: 1 John 4:8 (read: the first letter of John, chapter 4, verse 8) says "God is love." He is love incarnate and the same verse says whoever knows love knows God, at least to some degree. Second, because God loves, he can understand our pain. Have you ever been so moved by someone else's suffering that you feel their pain on their behalf? Jesus did in His time on earth. Someone who loves feels other people's suffering, and as a God who loves all of Creation, he feels our pain. Keenly.

So, God is love and feels our pain. That doesn't mean He's with me now, does it? True enough. But there's more. In Genesis (Genesis 28:15), the Lord says to Jacob "'I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go'"; Psalm 37:24 reads "though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand"; Psalm 147:3 says "He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds"; and Hebrews 2:18 explains about Jesus "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted [on earth], he is able to help those who are being tempted."

I guess my point here is that, because Jesus lived and because he is also God, at one with the Father our Lord, he knows. He feels everything we do, at the same time we do. When we're curled up in the foetal position and sobbing in psychological agony, He's there sobbing with us, clutching us to Him. As we're having another panic attack when we're even considering going out into public, He knows what it's like to be gasping for breath in fear of something you can't even describe. And as we're coincidentally standing on a bridge over a busy road, He knows that you're thinking about jumping off it. And it breaks His heart.

I take great comfort in music, it's one of the biggest...things in my life. I honestly can't tell you how much it moves me sometimes. So, naturally, some hymns/songs we sing in church really struck a chord with me at my worst time. I'll probably do a whole other post on some songs that have really helped me. There's a whole song by Casting Crowns called "Praise You In This Storm" on the subject of praising God while in pain, and it's wonderful. The lyrics are beautiful.

But some specific lines from other songs really helped me. The first are from a song called "Rejoice (Come and Stand Before Your Maker)": "All our sickness, all our sorrows // Jesus carried up the hill. // He has walked this path before us, // He is walking with us still; // Turning tragedy to triumph, // Turning agony to praise, // There is blessing in the battle // So take heart and stand amazed." The second set are from "From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable": "Yes, He walked my road and He felt my pain // Joys and sorrows that I know so well // Yet His righteous steps give me hope again // I will follow my Immanuel."

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Where Were You?

Hey, guys! I hadn't meant for it to have gone this long before I updated. Sorry!

So, this post is going to address a rather tough question, but using only personal experiences; where was/is God when you're suffering? This post is just going to talk about my experience, so this will obviously not apply to everyone, and is not grounded in literature from the Bible at all. For a more Bible-centred approach to this topic, wait for my next post.

Well, in answer to the question about where God was when I was suffering...I have no idea. It might have been because of the Malignant Sunglasses (from the previous post) or it might have been because I was a new Christian so had never suffered while having faith, or a combination of them both. But, when I was at my lower points, I basically forgot that God was there. I didn't pray specifically for Him to make this pain go away, I just wished it would. I didn't, at first, even question why He was doing this to me - a very wrong question, the error of which will be discussed in a future post - because it just...was. I felt like this, and there was no reason for it. There was no one to blame.

I can't remember the specific point I forgot Him. I just sort of drifted. It didn't help that I wasn't into the habit of praying or reading my Bible regularly. But I tried to consider Him as much in my life as I could, as a new Christian. But, as the darkness crept in and thickened, my thoughts changed to what I should do, how I should help myself, what earthly action could I take to get better.

So I put my trust and my effort into counselling, into Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (a highly effective treatment for mental conditions, by the way), eventually into anti-depressants to help get me stable again. But then, after months, one particularly horrible night where I was crying in psychological agony, I prayed. I prayed and begged God to take away this pain, just to let me sleep if nothing else. And the pain went away. I was too relieved to think anything of it.

Then, as I was sleeping, I had a dream I still remember now. I'm almost certain this was God speaking to me because of the theme within it, the characters and backstory of the situation in it, and the fact that I had not seen this film for at least 18 months. For those of you who do not know The Chronicles of Narnia book series by CS Lewis, I'll give you the relevant details; four human siblings stumble upon another fantastical world, where they have to wage wars against tyrants. The perceived saviour of this world - based off Jesus Christ, Himself, no less - is a lion named Aslan. My dream reflected a scene from the film adaptation of Prince Caspian, where the youngest sibling, replaced by me in my dream, talks with Aslan.

Previously in the story, as the war had progressed, Aslan had yet to show himself and help, so most in the army decided to take matters into their own hands, with disastrous consequences. Everyone but the youngest sibling had given up on Aslan appearing and saving them. Then, when she goes out to search for Aslan as the final battle had begun, she found him, and was overjoyed. What I heard myself say in my dream was paraphrased from her lines in the film.

I said: "I knew you were there! All this time I knew you were there. The darkness wouldn't let me believe it though."

Aslan/God replied: "And why would that stop you from coming to me, dear one?"

It was one of the most profound nights of my life, the sheer joy of which I still carry today. As I write this now, my heart is leaping. God wasn't disappointed that I had forgotten about Him. He was just waiting for me to come back. Waiting for me to come back so He could call me "dear one" again.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Malignant Sunglasses

For those of you who, for whatever reason, don't know the meaning of the saying "seeing through rose-tinted glasses", I'll explain it; it means seeing the good in everything, but to a fault. It's not a fancy way of describing an optimist. If you're looking through rose-tinted glasses, you're seeing good that is false, that isn't even there, and obscuring and ignoring the bad things.

Depression is like that, but the complete opposite. When you're having an episode, there are no good things in your life, everything is a negative, and those things are are already negative become disastrous.

I'll give you an example, but first I'll provide two pieces of context. First piece of context, which may seem irrelevant for the moment: I love cats. I always have, and I want one when I have my own house. Less than two years ago, I was considering getting a cat for my shared house. Second piece of context: until fairly recently, my relationship with my parents was very strained, due to the simple fact that I was growing up, and we didn't see eye-to-eye on issues that were important to me. They were, and sometimes still are, a big source of stress.

After a particularly awful Skype with my parents - that I hadn't wanted - I was crying with my boyfriend comforting me, and a long and beautiful Facebook message from my closest friend open on the screen in front of me. And I turned to my boyfriend, the man I was in love with and who was in love with me, and said these words:

"I want a cat because I want there to be one creature in this world that isn't disappointed with me."

Do you see my point? I was almost surrounded by people who really didn't think I was a failure, and yet I was convinced that the whole world was disappointed with my existence. Depression is so good at completely blinding you to the truth, twisting and warping the good to non-existence and the bad to skyscraper-proportions. It doesn't listen to reason; no matter how many times you tell someone "it's really not that bad", it just won't convince them. So basically, if someone with depression is telling you that their world is ending in some way that you just can't understand, don't tell them to "snap out of it" or try and convince them with logic that they're overreacting. Just be there for them, see if you can make them aware or remind them that depression will make things ten times worse than they really are, but accept that the episode is happening, that there's nothing you can do about it, and wait the storm out together.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Sabotaged Pacifism

Here's a fundamental part of me: I hate conflict. I always have. I hate it so much, it makes me so uncomfortable, that when I see/hear conflict, even if only as a friendly argument, I have to try not to physically retch. After a childhood of watching two family members frequently use anger in a purely destructive manner, I have always tried to avoid feeling angry. I thought it was a bad emotion. It's not; it's a gift from God that is used to initiate change - if we're angry about something we want to change it - but that's a whole different post.

If you think you have no control over your emotions in general, depression takes that to a whole new level. It introduces you to emotions you didn't even know existed, that you'd heard about but never felt before, at levels you didn't even think was possible. Of course, most people just think that means a really low mood, being really, really sad.

That's the tip of the iceberg.

Remember how I said in my previous post that I have a child-like joy in the world in general? Well, let me now tell you that sometimes I could have easily gone into my favourite nerd-shop and left a bombsite. I'm talking windows smashed, tables snapped in two (don't know I would have done that - I'm pretty weak! - but I would have found a way), everything off the shelves and damaged in some way, the hooks they hung from on the floor and bent, all types of paper shredded by my own hands.... I would have wrecked the place, had I been given half the chance. The cherry on top of this was the reason for this massive overreaction; there was none. There usually isn't one. Your emotions can just pop up, at staggering intensity, following none of the patterns you may or may not have observed in yourself pre-depression.

There's one small consolation though; there's a reason for this lack of reason. Depression is caused by, amongst other things, a biochemical imbalance in the body. There are a lot of chemicals that have ridiculously long names that your body has to regulate very accurately and carefully in order to be "normal". It's pretty amazing to be able to do that in the first place. But studies have shown that these carefully monitored and controlled levels of biochemicals are really far off where they need to be in someone with depression.

For any sceptics out there who don't believe that mental health disorders are the same as physical disorders, chemical imbalances are found in many if not all medical conditions. Stroke and assorted difficulties? Chemical imbalances. Parkinson's? Chemical imbalances. Autism? Chemical imbalances. Mental health disorders and "physical" disorders are exactly as debilitating as each other. So the point here is that it's not a trick of your mind. You're not just being weak and pathetic, you are ill. You have as much to be ashamed of as if you had a broken leg instead. You just need time and resources to be able to heal.