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

7. Visitors and Biscuits (Hospital and Me and BPD)

I was very lucky – there wasn’t a day on Stanage when I didn’t have visitors. My husband, my parents and my in-laws (Val and Dave) all took it in turns to come and visit me. I think they communicated between themselves and came up with a bit of a rota, which was very sweet. What baffles me is how they managed to do that without me organising it for them. It was almost like they didn’t need me to hold everything together, after all! As someone who had put enormous pressure on myself to keep everything going whilst being ill, the fact that I could step back, let all the spinning plates drop, and THE WORLD CARRIED ON TURNING, was a bit of a revelation. 

Despite having daily visiting hours between 4pm and 8pm, the ward wasn’t exactly set up for one to receive visitors. The dining room had lots of tables and chairs but people would constantly be coming in to make cups of tea, or just wandering round, so privacy wasn’t easy to achieve. The communal area had various sofas, but again you’d have to share your visitor with other patients and support workers, and once again privacy was not high on the agenda. So I tended to take my visitors to my room, with two of us sitting on the little bed and one on the lumpy chair, all drinking tea out of whatever plastic mugs I could swipe from the kitchen. (I actually ended up hoarding one of these sought-after mugs, keeping it on the top of my wardrobe ready for the countless cups of tea I drank every day in there.)

It’s not an understatement to say that my little team of visitors kept me going. They all reminded of the life waiting for me when I came out, they brought me gossip and news and, most importantly, they brought me BISCUITS. Tom’s dad took great pride in bringing me boxes of the Really Good Cooperative cookies. My appetite wasn’t great while I was in there (anxiety tends to make food seem like such an effort), and I often only picked at the meals, but by the evenings I had usually calmed down and enjoyed tucking into my biscuit stash before bed. 

If they were fazed by the fact they were visiting me on a psychiatric ward, they never showed it. They took it all in their stride and happily chatted away to me about how everyone was doing, what I’d been up to and what birds they’d spotted (that last one was my dad). I know how absolutely shit it must have been coming to see me in that place, not to mention a complete pain because Sheffield is a bit of a nightmare to navigate, especially in the late afternoon/evening, but they always greeted me with big smiles and bigger hugs.

Tom, Mum, Dad, Val and Dave – I will never be able to thank you enough for the visits, the smiles, the hugs, the gossip and the biscuits. You kept me sane…ish.

Sarah x

6. Pumpkin Carving! (Hospital and Me and BPD)

I’m not sure how, but I managed to reach the age of 31 without ever carving a pumpkin for Halloween. 2018 was the year this would all change.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that one of the main things I found useful while I was on Stanage ward was the amount of occupational therapy on offer. If you’re not sure what that means, it’s basically activities designed to help improve mental wellbeing by keeping busy, completing a task, learning a new skill or being creative. One of the occupational therapists was called Jo, and she was a lovely, kind woman with excellent eye make up, who organised a lot of the daily OT activities. These were often seasonal – hence the pumpkin carving.

Nine times out of ten, when it came to OT, I never ever wanted to take part. I was unconvinced that doing some colouring in or hacking up an autumnal vegetable could improve my mood, and I thought the whole thing would make me feel like a bit of a tit, to be honest. But I had a lot of friends and family (hello, Val) who were adamant that getting involved with activities would help me. I wanted to be able to text them and say I’d tried, so I dragged myself along despite how I felt, often with tears pouring down my face.

On Halloween, Jo had organised for us to carve some pumpkins in the dining room, using tools designed for this exact purpose (who knew they even existed??), so I flopped into a seat and watched her demonstrate how to do it. And in spite of myself, my interest and creativity were piqued. So I carved the damn pumpkin. It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t right good, but it was the first one I’d ever done and I by the time I was finished I was strangely proud of it. Plus, using a miniature saw to carve a grotesque face was unsurprisingly cathartic. Our finished pumpkins were displayed in the dining room for the other patients to ‘admire’.

The result of my pumpkin carving OT session!

I think this was the first time during my stay that I’d actually allowed myself to enjoy an activity, and to feel proud of myself for my attempts. I started to realise that maybe OT wasn’t just an airy fairy babyish thing, but could be a useful tool for helping me to start feeling better.

Sarah x

5. Other patients (Hospital and Me and BPD)

As I said in my introduction to this series, I won’t be discussing any of the other patients on Stanage Ward in detail, or by name, but obviously it would be weird to not mention this aspect of my time there. Looking back, I can’t remember exactly how many us there were at the time. I think between 15 and 25 at once, although this was constantly changing.

I met a real range of people while I was in there, and learned a lot about different mental illnesses and the way they impact people. Most of the people there had been ‘sectioned’ which means their admission had been mandatory under the Mental Health Act. Unlike voluntary patients like myself, they were subject to strict rules about if and when they were allowed to leave the ward at all, and their time in hospital could be extended at any time, despite what their own wishes were. Whilst it would have been foolish of me to discharge myself, I could have done if I’d chosen to, and as long as I spoke to a member of staff who did a risk assessment before I left the ward, I could do so pretty much whenever I asked during the day, as long as someone was with me. 

The people I met were all so different, although many of them were grouped under similar diagnoses. Paranoid schizophrenia, personality disorder, eating disorder, severe depression, dementia. As a society we find these kinds of labels scary and often assume that those they are attached to are also scary or ‘other’, but everyone I met was just a person who wasn’t very well. Some were a lot more unwell than others, some would need to be on medication or under care for the rest of their lives to help manage their illnesses. Stanage is an acute ward, which means that most patients are sort of passing through on their way to the next stage of their treatment or care. Whilst a handful of patients were there for the entirety of my 18 days, most came and went within a week or so, either to another more specialised ward, to the next stage of their ‘step-down’ back into the community, or to their own home.

Some spent their days shut in their rooms, only leaving to venture to the outside space to smoke , but most like me sat in the communal areas, chatting to support workers and each other, and we all had to eat together in the dining room. I met some amazing, brave and inspiring people on Stanage. Some wrote poetry, some drew amazing pictures, others were kind enough to comfort me during my meltdowns despite how they were feeling. At times, the way some behaved was a bit scary, but none of it was ever directed towards me, and was usually based on some way they felt they were being unfairly treated. Which would make anyone angry, I think.

Sometimes I wonder where they all are and how they’re doing. You can’t help but grow close to people in that situation, and I did swap numbers with some of them before I left, but I’m not really in touch with anyone from Stanage now. I think when you’re coping with your own mental ill health, it can sometimes be hard to stay connected with others who are in their own dark place. 

I’m grateful for everything those people taught me about life, humanity and mental health. I wish as a society we weren’t so scared to see those with mental illnesses as people who deserve just as much love, respect and care as everyone else.

Sarah x

4. Wedding Anniversary (Hospital and Me and BPD)

***Trigger warning: explicit references to self harm***

What better way to spend your first wedding anniversary than on a psychiatric ward where your husband can only visit for a little while in the evening and the staff check on you every hour?

Three days after I was admitted was one year since our wedding day. I don’t think I’ve ever felt lower. That morning, in my ward room on my own, I used a sharpened pencil crayon to cut my arm and thigh repeatedly. I screamed and I cried. It was just so fucking unfair. A year before had been the happiest day of my life, and now here I was being the worst wife in the world, having trapped Tom into a marriage with a mad woman. Or at least that was what my very poorly brain was telling me. It wasn’t an amazing start to the day. I remember one of the scariest nurses telling me off (fair enough) and telling me that I needed to see my marriage as a reason to keep going, not a sign that I had failed. She was scary, but she was right.

On the ward we had a team of staff who organised occupational therapy sessions for us (more on these sessions in a later post), and on one of the first few days I was there we were making cards. Yes, the cliché is true – arts and crafts were deployed freely for us as a way of de-stressing and helping us be creative. Wait until you see the bowl I made in pottery… but I digress. 

The amazing work of art I made for Tom in OT.

I decided to face the fact that I was spending our anniversary apart from Tom, and made him a card. I drew, glued and bejazzled the shit out of it, with tears pouring down my face the whole time. It is possibly the tackiest thing I have ever made, and yet when I gave it to him he was thrilled, and that evening he sent me a photo of it in situ in our lounge. Bless his heart. He brought me a card into the ward (NOT homemade, what a slacker) and I put it up on top of my wardrobe so that I’d see it every day.

I’ve written previously about how supportive Tom is, and how he made sure I was as okay as possibly in hospital. He never made me feel guilty about being away from him, and a few days after our anniversary he picked me up from the ward and took me out on leave for the evening, to one of our favourite Sheffield restaurants.

As first anniversaries go, it wasn’t a conventional one, but it was ours, and it reflected what was going on in our marriage at the time. 

Tonight we’re going out for a meal to celebrate our second anniversary, and I won’t have a nurse checking me every hour. At least I hope I won’t, because that’d be weird.

Sarah x