Christmas and Mental Illness: Family

My family situation has changed a lot over the past six years. When my parents were together we spent either Christmas Day or Boxing Day at home, and then the other day at my Dad’s parents. The last years of life being this were quite difficult for me because of my anorexia, and I relied quite a lot on my Mum. All year round I tried to manage on my own, but once faced with Christmas dinner and extended family, I needed her. She would stop people trying to force food onto my plate and help me to cope.

When my parents separated we continued to do this, except obviously without my Mum, and then my Dad remarried (to the loveliest person in the world) and so she would go with us; one day at home with Mum and her partner, one day at my Grandparents with Dad and his wife. It was different, and hard in some parts, but it was also nice.

However shortly after Christmas 2015 we stopped having contact with my Dad, and consequently his family. Last year was the first Christmas not going to my Grandparents, it was the first year of going home from university and my sister having her own place, so I stayed at hers, and the first year I was really struggling and under the crisis team where I live now.

When I went home I was experiencing really difficult thoughts, but I was managing them by delaying the idea of acting upon them. I thought “I will see how I feel once I go back to university in January.” I thought we were all managing quite well. On Christmas Eve my sister and I both cried, and Mum cried because we cried, and we worked through it together. We did not really talk about the absence of my Dad because it was too difficult, but we were there for each other.

Then a few days after Christmas my sister and I had an argument like we have never had before. I think everything just got too much for us both, and due to us both having mental health problems we just could not manage it. The argument turned violent on both our parts, which has never happened before and has never happened since. The police were called and we were both taken to A&E; myself because I had broken my big toe and my foot was also badly cut, and my sister because she had hurt her own head after she chucked me out of her house.

Rather than staying at home for another week and getting the coach I had booked back, I booked a coach for the next morning. I came back to university early, with nobody else around. I had all of the medication I had not been taking for the previous three months and on the 30th, I took them all.

I do not remember anything. I woke up on the 1st or the 2nd with a catheter in. I was distraught. I was really distressed about the fact I had no clue what had happened, how I had got there, how I had behaved, and that I had had medical treatment that I was oblivious to. I got up and tried to walk, and my legs kept collapsing and I kept falling to the floor. I wanted to get out of the hospital and yet there was no way I was going very far.

I cannot really remember how I felt. I had been planning it before going home, but then after what happened at home I just… I knew I was going to do it. I came back to university and knew I was going to be alone for the New Year and I felt so, so alone. I have never felt so alone. I think what pushed me from wanting to do it, to doing it, was probably feeling like I had nobody to turn to. Even if I had wanted to seek help, even if I had felt brave enough to, I would not have felt like there was anyone. Not family, not friends and not professionals.

I am really anxious about New Year this year and I feel like I will probably cry a lot.

But, things are different. I am doing better. I pick myself up so quickly from blips. I have really good support. I still have not seen my Dad, but on Christmas Eve I am going to. New Year… I will celebrate it, as hard as it is to feel like doing so at all.

The thing about family when you have mental health problems, and especially when they do too, is that when you are able to support each other (which we do most of the time), it works really well. It can save you, it can keep you going and you can feel like you really are in it together. My sister once told me that I am like oxygen to her and that she probably would not be alive if it was not for me. We call ourselves the three musketeers; me, my sister and my mum.

But the problem is, when something goes wrong, when you are to the point where you are no longer able to support each other for whatever reasons, it can become really difficult. Families generally speaking argue at Christmas (lets be honest). But it gets really magnified. Christmas is such a wonderful time, but when your family has these kind of issues going on, it is also really hard. You try and be positive about it. I always think “OK, so my family situation is different and a bit messy but I am going to enjoy it with the people I do have and despite the mess”, and you try so, so hard to do that.

I am extremely lucky with the family I do have. We have a small Christmas. We do not make it into a big deal. We focus on spending time with each other and finding our own little bits of happiness within it, and I love that. BUT, that does not stop the things that hurt from hurting. You try and ignore those bits, because you want to make the most of what you do have… but sometimes trying to ignore that and push it away is harmful.

And even though I know this, I still know I am going to want to ignore those bits. I am going to be 100% happy, wonderful Natalie and I am not going to let myself get upset. I know I will struggle coming back to where I live. For the first time ever I am not in denial about how difficult I find coming back. But I feel like when I come back this year I have the right support. I will be able to vent a bit, get upset… or whatever else I am feeling.

It is really important to try and have someone around who can help you. I could not let many people help me when I was ill with my eating disorder, but I had my Mum and I let her help at Christmas when lots of family were around who thought that the best thing they could do was try force dessert down my throat even when I said “No thank you.”

It is difficult to express to someone any negative feelings you have, especially at Christmas because you do not want to bring the mood down… but it is important to have someone. It could be one family member, or a friend. Just someone. You might never have let them in before, but it could help to tell them even just a little bit; tell them that you might struggle. You never have to tell them everything, you do not have to tell anyone everything, but saying just something might help you. And there are lots of other ways to get support. A lot of mental health services will be shut, but you can make sure you get a bit of support before and after, and there are lots of helplines that will be open.

I have never called a helpline, so I know how much people can feel like that is not what they want to do. But at this time of the year when things can be very hard and other support is more limited, I think it becomes an even more important option for some. I mean, what is the harm in giving it a go?

I think the biggest thing I have learnt is that if you do cry on Christmas Day, as horrible as it feels, as much as you just want to be happy because you feel like you should be, it’s OK. You can actually be sad and cry, and also be happy and enjoy things.

Families are complicated at the best of times. Mental illness is equally complicated and difficult. The two combined at the time of year when it feels like you should be nothing but festive and cheery… it is OK to struggle. There is nothing wrong with it, and I can promise you that you are definitely, a thousand percent, not alone.

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The End Goal is Recovery, Right?

I have stopped using the word ‘recovery’. This means that the sentence ‘I am in recovery’ is no longer going to be coming out of my mouth, which at first seems quite negative. But it is not the same as saying ‘I am not in recovery’ (which I would not say any way, because that would still be using said word).

I first began questioning ‘recovery’ when I found out about ‘Recovery in the Bin‘ on Twitter, although this was some time ago. I agreed mostly with everything they talk about, although maybe not to the same extent that they do.

I’ve done some reading on the recovery narrative, and how it has been taken over by neoliberalism, and places pressure on the patient. It is like you have to be in recovery. You have to be getting better, and it seems a bit… demanding. There are plenty of physical illnesses where patients are not expected to fully recover, and yet the emphasis placed on recovery within mental health seems to demand that you do, that to be fully recovered is the end goal.

We all need end goals… or think we do. That we do X, Y and Z, and then we have achieved the goal and that is done. However, I am beginning to think that there does not need to be an end goal, or at least for me personally; I can only ever speak for myself.

I am not being negative, I am not saying that I will not ever be what many describe as ‘recovered’. I just think maybe I will not, and maybe that is ok. It does not mean I am going to spend my whole life struggling or being a victim, it just means that I have come to an understanding that I might always live with mental illness, and that living with mental illness… well, it is not the end of the world. I can still be happy, still get on with my life and still be me.

The pressure of the recovery narrative is, I think, harmful to me. The pressure some professionals place on recovery is harmful. People can be discharged or excluded from services for not getting better and I do not agree with this. Why can we not support people in managing, even if they stay where they are? And I know the answer to this. If someone is not going to fully recover, they might (MIGHT) always need some degree of support from health services = not exactly cheap or ideal for the NHS. Mental health services are thinking about your discharge as soon as you are in them, their goal is to get you better and get you out.

But what even is ‘better’? I get a bit sick of, and sceptical of, the wonderful recovery stories. I had anorexia, and to some extent you could say I do. I am not fully recovered. It does not control me any more, I am not underweight, I manage my eating to varying extents. I do not need treatment any more. But neither would I make a fantastic magazine story. I am less ‘Woman Had Anorexia, Nearly Dies and Now She Loves Her Body and Eats Whatever She Wants and is Magically Amazing and Living Life to the Full’ and more ‘Woman Had Anorexia, Now Manages it’.

Not such a great headline. Not going to attract much attention aka not what anyone wants to publish, or talk about. It just is not that exciting.

And yet I am happy, fine and content with it.

When you are ‘ill’ people will throw stories at you of people who had Anorexia and now they are better and that becomes your goal (or should, apparently). I just never found any of that very helpful. Hearing from, talking to people who had fully recovered… I just felt like I would have found it more helpful to hear from someone who still struggles, but manages. Someone who is still living with it, but is getting on with their life, and is healthy and happy despite it.

‘Recovery’. ‘Survivor’. ‘Warrior’. These words just do not help me, personally. You hear people describe people who fully recover as being strong. Does that mean those that do not are weak? If you have not made a full recovery, does that make you a failure?

The recovery narrative, while it can be inspiring and motivating, also can be damaging. It can also be taken on by mental health services in a way that is detrimental to patients, puts extreme pressure on them due to the expectations involved, and is heavily linked to the discharge of said patients. Get them in, recovered, and out.

Borderline Personality Disorder was not an NHS priority many years ago. Help did not really have to be provided, because people believed it was a disorder nobody could recover from, and if you cannot get better, why treat it? And then the paper was published… ‘Personality Disorder: No Longer a Diagnosis of Exclusion’ because people realised actually, you can get better. And that was fabulous that it was now a bigger priority and not a death sentence and yet at the exact same time… why does an illness need to be something that can be gotten rid of, why does someone need to be able to fully recover, in order to deserve help? We sure as hell do not treat physical illness like that.

And you know, things can get bettER. Some people do describe themselves as fully recovered, and one day that might happen for me. It just is not my priority any more. Aiming for ‘recovery’ helped me a lot because it felt like if I was not getting better, I was getting worse and I dreamt of being one day, finally ‘recovered’. It gave me hope, or that is what I thought.

But because life has not worked out the way that said dream was supposed to go, and I have not fully recovered… the narrative of recovery, that goal, became unhelpful. We can live with mental illness without that being a negative thing. We do not have to ‘beat it’ to be strong, successful or happy. If we do feel like we reach a place where we are fully better, fabulous. I am not knocking that or saying it is not possible.

But if we end up living our lives with some degree of mental illness, that probably fluctuates over time… becoming sometimes worse, sometimes better… I just think that is OK and the more I think about it, the stronger my distaste of that word, ‘recovery’, becomes.

I am Natalie. I have mental health problems and I am not fully recovered. I might never be fully recovered. It does not mean in ten years time I cannot be in a relationship or having kids, or finally having my dream career. I do not need to be fully recovered and symptom free in order to have, or to deserve those things. I do not need need to sit in front of an employer and be able to say ‘I had mental health problems’ and I do not need to be totally fine to manage a relationship or not scare off potential partners. I do not need to be mental illness free to be a good parent and I do not need to reach some end goal of a full recovery to look back on my life and be proud of it.

Christmas and Mental Illness: Anorexia Nervosa

Christmas is just two weeks away, which does not sound that long. I can bet that those living with Anorexia Nervosa have been thinking about the festivities and food for weeks, if not months.

I do not do that any more. The only conversations I have so far held around  the combination of food and Christmas include:

Mum: I’ve got a turkey

Me: Is it big?

Mum: Yes

Me: But I mean is it huge? Is it big enough for me? Because you know I love turkey.

and:

Mum: (some sort of talk about money and presents etc.)

Me: As long as you have a huge turkey, 20 kilos of Brussels sprouts and a tub of both Celebrations and Miniature Heroes, I don’t care.

These are not the kind of conversations we would have been having years ago.

I have to say, Christmas always seemed to fall in with being around the time of year where I was actively trying to “beat” my eating disorder, at least in the latter years. Yet even so, it was always a terrifying time of year. I would be planning it way in advance; what I would eat, how I could eat less prior to the days surrounding Christmas to compensate for eating extra and how I was going to manage other peoples attempts at making me eat more.

I remember agonising over it, even when well into recovery. I would decide to push myself to have one dessert over the Christmas period, and then argue with myself about when this would be. Would I have it at home with my Mum? Or at my Grandparents? If I could only have dessert once, I was desperate to pick the right day, the right meal, the right dessert. And should I pick the dessert I want? Or should I pick the one that my eating disorder would berate me least for? I would flick between “F**k this I am eating whatever the hell I want” to “Ok, maybe this year I will just have a little bit of dinner and next year I will have whatever I want.”

During the earlier years of my eating disorder I remember making sure I was sat next to my Mum at the table of my Grandparents, clinging to her side, needing her to help me battle off different family members trying to force extra food my way.

I remember hovering around the kitchen when my Mum was cooking our home Christmas dinner, cooking vegetables differently for me, and keeping an eye on that bottle of oil she was so freely splashing all over the place. I was a control freak… but gradually over the years I have backed off more and more. My Mum has gained her place in the kitchen back, and no longer has to worry about me parading in and having a fit over what she is doing. I know she loves it, and I love letting her.

I enjoy Christmas dinner now, and no longer do the difficulties surrounding food take over the whole thing. I now get to enjoy watching TV, Christmas movies, sharing, opening presents, giving presents, pulling silly faces, and going for a nice walk because I want to (not because I need to burn calories), or not going for a walk because my pyjamas and the warmth are much more inviting.

My eating disorder was never about food, and Christmas is not really about food neither. And yet food dominates both of those things. You feel guilty for letting food ruin Christmas when you know that it should be so much more than that, and yet the fear and anxiety takes over. More people are around than usual, extended family see you for the first time in a while, and their reaction to the fact you have lost two and a half stone is to keep passing you chocolates, offer you another plate of turkey and sit dessert in front of you even when you have politely declined and your mother has given them the look of death.

You have to deal with the usual guilt of life with an eating disorder, combined with the guilt of making Christmas harder for the rest of the people around you. You feel guilty that how Christmas is affecting you, means that you are behaving differently, which upsets others. You feel guilty that you cannot tuck into your Grandma’s usual Christmas trifle that for 14 years was the highlight of your Christmas. Your Grandma walking in with it, her prize trifle, prize only because you have always loved it so much… and you feel this dreadful sense of guilt, of letting her down, because this year rather than jumping out of your seat for the first serving like you always have, you put your head down and hope nobody looks your way.

I am so glad that I am where I am with my history of Anorexia. I do not claim to be fully and magically “recovered”, and I struggle still on a daily basis. That being said, Christmas does not terrify me. In fact, Christmas is now a time for me to really stick two fingers up at Anorexia and say “you don’t have me any more.” Any guilt I feel, I can fight, strongly. If any disordered thoughts pop up, I hear them for a second and shake my head. “No thank you, you are not welcome here” and then I pop an extra chocolate in my gob for good measure.

But this is not the case for everyone. I wish I could be there with anyone who struggles with their eating disorder over the festive period. I know how hard it is, I truly do. I know how much you long for the year when you do not have this intense anxiety and fear overwhelming you and taking away all the happiness of Christmas from you.

But I can also tell you it will not always be this way. I have watched myself find the Christmas period easier and easier over the last ten years since I was diagnosed with Anorexia. I never thought I would get where I am today, but here I am. I used to think I would be the one who never gets “better”, but none of us are exceptions; we can all get to this place. I hope that in another ten years time, I am even further into life without Anorexia than I am now, and that it can get even better still. Sometimes I doubt that, but then, I doubted I could get where I am now too. Life is full of surprises.

It happens in baby steps, like most things. I hated the initial years in recovery where I pushed myself, but “pushing myself” was still very limiting. I pushed myself to have one chocolate out of the tin. I pushed myself to have one form of potato. And it was SO frustrating. I wanted to just stop caring. I wanted to have mashed potato and roast potatoes, half the tin of chocolates, and dessert twice if I so pleased. I spent so much time agonising over all of my fears and selecting THE one I would decide to challenge, while wishing I could challenge them all.

Even when I was “in recovery” (I hate that word), and even now as I am, I can only push myself so far. But I promise you, year by year, what you can manage grows.¬†And more than anything else, as the eating disorder slowly loosens its grip, you slowly gain back all of the things you so desperately wish you could focus on, rather than letting food dominate the whole period.

I know the guilt for wanting Christmas to be over, purely because of your fear of food, is horrible. I know it gnaws away at you. You think that you are “bad” because rather than looking forward to time with family, giving gifts, and doing all of the festive things Christmas involves…all you can focus on is food, how to avoid it, and how long it is till it is all over.

Do not feel guilty. I know that is easy for me to say, but you are not a “bad” person for the way your eating disorder takes over everything. You are a strong person for taking each step you take, however big or small. And sometimes you are strong even when you cannot take any steps at all. None of this is your fault, and you are never alone. And nothing is permanent.

Honestly, I wish I could go back to 15 year old Natalie and shake her. Tell her that everything her eating disorder is telling her is lies. I want to scream at her “you are living on a bed of lies.” No, eating extra for a few days is not going to do anything, and no, even if it did make you gain a couple of pounds, it does not matter. Yes, you deserve to enjoy food. I want to hug her and tell her that one day she is going to look back on where she is and see the strength she had within her just to survive.

You are strong for surviving. Christmas might involve arguments, and tears, and anxiety. It will be difficult, frustrating and exhausting. But none of this takes away from the strong person that I know is within you.

And I truly hope that at least once, you laugh without thinking, and that if you need someone to talk to, you are not afraid to reach out. Christmas can be lonely, but you are not alone in feeling that way. We are all here.