'Better' and Me and BPD

It’s been a while since my last post, not because I’ve been lazy or not had anything to say, but because I’ve been busy! Since the start of this year, I’ve started a Diploma in Makeup Artistry and that has taken up a lot of my brain space. It’s been really nice to have something to focus on, and I’m really excited about the opportunities and challenges it’s bringing. I have to remember to not let me brain run away with itself too much, though. I know that I have a tendency to jump into stuff head-first, make myself too busy and then suffer from a serious case of overwhelm. It’s really hard, and I’m doing a lot of work in my last few therapy sessions around setting boundaries for myself, maintaining balance and giving myself permission to switch off and rest.

Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk about today. Today I want to talk about the concept of getting Better when you’ve experienced poor mental heath. Is it possible to get Better? And if so, what does Better look like? Or is it just a myth we tell ourselves we need to aim for when we’re struggling? As always, I will say that my thoughts here just reflect my own experience and my opinions. Everyone is different.

I lost track of the amount of times, when I’ve been really ill over the last two years and expressed the desire to be better, that someone has said to me something along the lines of ‘Better doesn’t exist’ or ‘Maybe you’re aiming for something unachievable’. Now, I know these people have always had my best interests at heart, and what they have been trying to say is that I need to not put pressure on myself to make masses of progress, and to work with where I am at that time, but sometimes it hasn’t been that helpful. It can feel like they’re implying that I can only ever expect to live in a kind of limbo state of emotion, settling for always feeling a bit crap.

For me, Better has always been something I have known I can achieve, because it is something I have experienced. It isn’t about being deliriously happy all the time (to be honest, that sounds bloody exhausting), it’s more about the absence of unpleasant sensations, thoughts and feelings, the successful management of them if they crop up.

For me, Better includes:

  • Not waking at 4am EVERY MORNING with uncontrollable existential panic, unable to get any more sleep, and trying to slow my racing heart.
  • Not crying every hour or so.
  • Being able to engage with the outside world (friends, family, the cat) without withdrawing constantly into my own thoughts.
  • Not cancelling plans because I don’t want my friends to see me not ‘myself’.
  • Enjoying food again. Man, do I love food.
  • Not needing to take diazepam every day to help me control my panic.
  • Laughing.
  • Being able to lose myself in something I enjoy.
  • Recognising irrational thoughts as just thoughts, and not facts.
  • Going easier on myself, allowing time for self-care and space for making mistakes.
  • Speaking to my support network, being honest and asking for help if I need it.
My favourite cartoon about learning to live alongside mental health issues, by Hannah Hillam (find her on Instagram @hannahhillam).

With Borderline Personality Disorder, and with many mental health conditions, I don’t think it’s a case of ever being free of the issue. It’s not like chicken pox where you catch it once, it goes away and you don’t get it again. It’s more like shingles, where it can lie dormant in your system for years and flare up when you’re stressed, run-down or busy. Or, sometimes, for no discernible reason, it just pops up unexpectedly. 

I know now that I have pretty much always lived alongside my BPD tendencies, and I know that I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. This means that in order to live a meaningful life I enjoy, I will always have to make allowances for myself based on what I know about my thought processes and the way my emotions can become dysregulated at times. I know that if I pack too much into my days, try to make everyone happy, and push myself to do too much when I’m run down, the likelihood is I will get ill again. I also know that at times, despite being aware of this, I will still let those things happen, and therefore I will become ill. And I guess at those times I will just have to remember that Better exists, and if I’ve experienced it before, I can experience it again.

Right now, I am feeling Better, which at several points over the last couple of years I did not think I would ever feel again. No, it isn’t a state that I will exist in for the rest of my life, because life isn’t like that – difficult things happen, sadness can engulf any of us at any time, there are just as many downs as there are ups. But for now, I’m going to enjoy where I am. I’m going to luxuriate in sleep, savour all the food I love, lose myself in films and revel in enjoying my makeup course. I’m going to make sure that the people who support me in my dark times know how much I love and appreciate them, and I’m going to work on making memories with those people to carry me through the dark times when they come again.

For now, I’m going to enjoy feeling Better. 

Sarah x

2019 and Me and BPD

*Trigger warning – some reference to self harm*

Hello! And Happy New Year! Sorry for my absence over the last couple of months, but it was definitely necessary to give myself some space and time to consolidate the progress I’ve made recently. I have a habit, when I’m feeling good and doing well, to get a bit carried away and try to do too much. So *maybe* attempting to blog every day during the anniversary of my hospital stay was a step (or nineteen) too far. Basically I overloaded myself and blew a bit of a fuse at the start of November, so I took a step back, concentrated on what had worked before, and gave myself a break. I have a lot more posts from that series that I’ve already written, and I will definitely continue to post them at some point, but not right now. I really appreciated all the positive feedback from everyone, and all the kind words, so thank you! And thank you if you’re reading this now.

Anyway, with all the new year chat going on at the moment, I thought I’d do a summary of what I feel were my biggest achievements of 2019, and how they relate to my BPD.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Before I continue, I need to say that 2019 not was just about these achievements. There were devastating lows, visits to A&E, incidents of self harm and crippling depression. It was not an easy year. But I want to focus on what went well, and this is my blog, so that’s what I’m going to do.

My top ten achievements/good moments of 2019 (in no particular order):

  1. Recognising that the job I was in was not good for my mental health, no matter how much I loved it (and I really did), and making the hard decision to resign.
  2. Holidays with Tom to Scarborough (February), Cyprus (June) and Berlin (October). And feeling better and more like myself on each one.
  3. Being a rainbow bridesmaid for one of my best friend’s at her vow renewal in May. My mental health was very rocky at that point, but I am proud of myself for showing up for her.
  4. Celebrating the marriages of two amazing couples, and laughing, dancing and partying at each one.
  5. Finding a psychologist and a form of therapy that finally fitted well with me, and helped me to take back control of my mental health. It’s one step in what I know will be a life-long journey (there’s no destination point with it, it will always be a process I am in), but I’m so happy to have taken it.
  6. I decided that I wanted to embark on a completely new training and career path, and secured a place on a Diploma in Makeup Artistry that I start this week, and will be working on for most of 2020. I’ve also completed a qualification in Defined Brows, and will be completing one soon in lashes. I’m a huge advocate of these small things as big parts of self care, and I am excited that I may be able to bring these things to others who could benefit from a bit of pampering.
  7. I completed my Good Reads challenge of reading 50 books in 2019, by reading 55. It made me track what I was reading, and gave me a manageable target for something that I really enjoy.
  8. I worked on my occupational therapy activities – I ran 286km in 2019, started going swimming again, and I knitted myself a sweater and crocheted a baby blanket for a friend.
  9. Spending lots of time with both our families, and celebrating the birth of our gorgeous little nephew, Jack (AKA Jack-Jack Attack), in February.
  10. Getting to see and catch up with a lot of friends, often with their children, and make lovely new memories. 

I’m not a massive fan of new year’s resolutions, but I do like to set intentions, and have a vague idea of the direction I want to go in. I’m not going to share my 2020 vision (oh come on, that was nearly the title of this post, you got off lightly) here now, but I have some ideas, and I am very excited about what this year will bring.

But. If the last two years have taught me anything it’s that life really IS what happens when you’re busy making other plans. So my advice to myself, and maybe to you reading this, is taken from on of my favourite films, ‘Dan in Real Life’: Plan, to be surprised.

Sarah x

12. Exercise (Hospital and Me and BPD)

It’s another occupational therapy post, everyone! I actually wasn’t expecting to write so much about OT, I think this blogging challenge has helped me view my time on Stanage more clearly, and sort through what were the most important parts of it for me. Turns out, OT was a big one. And it’s unsurprising that since I came out of hospital, these are the kinds of activities that have continued to help me feel better. I guess even writing these posts is a type of occupational therapy, as it’s keeping me busy and I find it quite therapeutic to write about everything that’s happened. In my free time at the moment I also enjoy crochet, knitting, drawing and painting. Hang on, that sounds like the rubbish ‘about me’ bit of a dating profile. Or a CV.

Anyway, some of the best OT activities on Stanage were the ones based around exercise, perhaps because there was something like this pretty much every day. There were two gym sessions a week, on Monday and Thursday, where we could leave the locked ward to go down to the OT gym. It was pretty basic but had everything to keep you busy for an hour or so’s workout. Treadmill, stationary bike, rowing machine (one of my favourites) (yes, really), and various assisted weight machines. 

The occupational therapists who supported us there were amazing too. Like Terry in the pottery sessions, they were encouraging without forcing us to do anything we didn’t feel comfortable with. They helped us develop exercise plans, set realistic goals and try new things. I remember having a really good chat with one of them about parkrun (see my other blog, Running For My Life, about my love of running), what our best times were, and which were our favourite courses to run in Sheffield. Like the creative OT activities, this was another thing that tapped into my sense of self and reminded me that I was more than just my mental ill health.

The Cardio Wall in the OT gym.

My favourite part of the gym was a piece of equipment called the Cardio Wall, a bank of flashing lights which you punched with spherical handheld weights. You could program the wall for different timed sequences that tested your speed and reflexes. Next to the wall was a white board where we could write our best scores for each sequence, encouraging us to beat each other and our own previous times. It was a great incentive and I’d love to have another go on one. Ideally one not in a psychiatric ward gym, though.

I still find getting active useful for my recovery and think it will always be a key part of how I maintain my mental health.

Sarah x 

11. Homesickness (Hospital and Me and BPD)

Man, did I miss home during those 18 days. 

Although, bizarrely, I think one of the things that helped me begin to feel better while I was on Stanage was the distance it gave me from my everyday life. While I had been ill I’d really struggled to feel any connection to things that used to mean so much to me, including Tom, our cat Stella, and our lovely little house. I was constantly trying to force ‘normal’ feelings for these things, which left me feeling frustrated, defeated and exhausted. 

Being away from home and my life gave me space to just focus on myself, and meant that I wasn’t constantly ‘testing’ out my feelings and thoughts. I think it meant that I took that pressure off myself, and gradually the good feelings started to come back naturally. I also spent a lot of time speaking to support workers, nurses and other patients about my life outside the ward, and I think doing that helped remind me how lucky I was to have such a lovely life to return to, and how it was all still there, just waiting for me to come back.

Unfortunately this meant that I got really homesick at times, and I regularly texted Tom and my mum asking if I could come home yet. Knowing that while I was in my little room on my own in the evenings, Tom and Stella were in our comfy lounge without me made me really sad, but also determined to get home to them. Obviously I’m glad that I listened to the advice and guidance of the professionals and didn’t discharge myself early, but it was incredibly hard.

She clearly missed me as much as I missed her.

I remember the first time I went home for the evening. Stella sat in the middle of the rug in the lounge glaring at me, clearly asking where the hell I’d been. I’d missed that haughty look so much, it broke my heart to go back to the ward again at the end of the evening.

By the time I left Stanage, I was desperate to sleep in my own bed, cook and eat a meal with Tom, and cuddle up with him and Stella at night. The homesickness helped me get back in touch with those little things that mean the most to me, and I was ready to return to my life at the end of my hospital stay.

Sarah x  

10. Messages of support (Hospital and Me and BPD)

I had five steady visitors who supported me while I was on Stanage,  but another level of support I also had was a constant stream of messages from friends. 

I didn’t say anything on Facebook about the fact I was an on a psychiatric ward, as I felt that maybe I’d be judged quite harshly on there. I was more open on Instagram, and whilst I didn’t post loads about why I was there or what it was like, I did say where I was. From this, and from word spreading between my friends, I started to get lots of messages coming in.

Two friends (Michelle and Jonathan) live quite nearby the ward, and were in touch regularly offering to bring me cake and chocolate (sorry I never took you up on this, guys), others sent little gifts in the post for Tom to bring in, and some responded regularly to the stories I posted on Instagram, sending love after particularly bad nights, or when I was feeling really hopeless.

My sister, Lynne, sent me loads of photos and updates about my niece, Emma. Seeing their faces in photos made me smile and cry in equal measure!

One of the photos Marie sent me while I was on the ward.

One person stands out in my memory more than any other during that time. My friend Marie texted me every single day I was in there, about anything and everything. She’d ask how I was but also report on what crazy things her kids were doing, or how things were at work. She also sent me excellent photos like this selfie. She’s an absolute legend. And now she’ll never let me forget I’ve said that.

It meant the world to me that people didn’t back off when they heard where I was. I guess it would have been easy to sort of think ‘Oh I don’t know what to say’ and therefore just avoid contacting me altogether, so the fact that so many people reached out really kept me going and helped me to feel like I was still a person, just a poorly one.

That lack of judgement for anyone with a mental health problem means more than you’ll ever know. Thanks, guys.

Sarah x

9. Pottery class (Hospital and Me and BPD)

I promised more arts and crafts content… and here it is! Pottery!

Thursdays on our occupational therapy timetable meant chucking some clay around and generally making a mess. As per, I did not want to go to this class. I still hadn’t learned my lesson from the pumpkin carving, and I refused to believe that something as simple as kneading clay could help me feel better. I think I ended up going out of boredom more than anything else. If you don’t engage with the ward activities it can be a pretty dull experience.

The Michael Carlisle Centre (where Stanage ward is) has an occupational therapy suite of rooms, including a pottery studio, an art room, a gym and a space for exercise classes. I think they also have a kitchen but I didn’t go to those classes. I love cooking and somehow I felt that doing this on the ward would make me feel even sadder about being there. Weird how brains work.

Anyway, the first Thursday I was there I trotted along to the pottery class, which was run by a really lovely guy called Terry. He didn’t talk down to me and the other patients (a mixture of people from the Stanage and Burbage wards), but just encouraged us to be as creative as possible and to engage at whatever level we felt comfortable. I pretty quickly decided that I was going to make a bowl, using one of the many moulds in the studio. Terry showed me how to roll out my clay to the right thickness, how to lay it into the mould, and how to trim the edges. It was a bit like doing the pastry on a pie.

Then I got to be creative with mini moulds of leaves and flowers to decorate. One of the other patients had done a lovely design the week before and I used hers to get some inspiration/slightly copied her. Once again, like with the pumpkins, I was drawn in by the activity and enjoyed the feeling of creating something. I am quite a naturally creative person, so I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise that pottery helped me feel a bit better.

My masterpiece after the first pottery session.

The next week I was a much keener participant and was looking forward to applying the glaze to my bowl, which would then be fired in the kiln to make it all lovely and shiny. I got into the autumn spirit and used lots of seasonal colours. I remember sending the photo to my family and posting it on Instagram. I was really proud.

After I’d applied the glaze.

That bowl now sits on our hearth in the lounge, and whenever I see it I still feel a spark of pride.

Sarah x  

8. The therapeutic power of WiFi and boxsets (Hospital and Me and BPD)

Maybe this seems a frivolous post after the intensity of some of the things I have written about (I think we all found my pumpkin carving shenanigans particularly gruelling), but I would not have coped during my stay on Stanage without my iPad, the ward WiFi and various TV streaming apps. I’ve talked in previous posts about the role that TV and film plays in my self-care and general mental wellbeing, and on the ward it was no different. Much like my visitors, tv shows helped me remember that there was life outside the double-locked doors, where people did not check on you every hour, and where every week celebrities waltzed with professional dancers for the public’s votes. 

I was thrilled when I found out I could get WiFi on the ward. My iPad, my phone and my Kindle were all essential in helping me feel connected and I felt a lot more settled once I knew they were all online. Maybe that seems sad to some people, but that little rainbow of WiFi at the top of my iPad screen meant the world to me.

Watching last year’s Bake Off final in my room on Stanage.

I actually had a complete meltdown about halfway through my time there, when I returned from an evening at home with Tom to find that the internet was down and nothing was connecting. I had got used to watching boxsets on my iPad before bed every night (whilst eating the biscuits mentioned in yesterday’s post) and it really helped to relax me. When I realised that on this particular evening I could not do this, I freaked out completely. It took a long time for Tom and the support worker on duty to calm me down. I genuinely did not know how I was going to cope without being able to escape into my screen before trying to sleep. Obviously I calmed down eventually and the internet was restored the next day, but this demonstrates how much I relied on these little routines while I was in there. (And still do.)

Netflix didn’t work on the WiFi. I’m not sure if it was just too much for the NHS WiFi, or if my iPad was already trying to tell me that it was nearing the end of its life (it was), but my go-to for streaming was not available. Because of this I ended up watching a lot of 4OD (Channel 4 catch up tv) and BBC iPlayer. The amount of boxsets on 4OD is actually really impressive, and I found myself watching a lot of comedy I hadn’t seen before. Drifters (basically a female version of The Inbetweeners) was surprisingly good, if incredibly revolting, and the absolute best thing I discovered was a series called Friday Night Dinner. Please, if you get chance, watch this. It’s so simple, so effective and so bloody funny. At a time when I couldn’t have cosy nights in with my family, I loved watching TV where that was all they did. It was really comforting, and really entertaining. Also, they’re currently filming a new series of it, which is very exciting.

TV shows provide us with so many things, and during my hospital stay they distracted me, gave me an evening routine, and made me laugh until I cried the good kind of tears. 

Never underestimate the power of good WiFi and the right apps.

Sarah x