Tag Archives: fear

Why we're still struggling to talk about mental illness

We’re making a lot of progress as more people get involved in talking about mental illness but it’s still very difficult for individuals to put their hands up and say “I’m struggling”. I believe fear is at the centre of this and there’s no easy way to break this down but we can do with small steps. 
1. Lack of understand and confusion
When I was first suffering with symptoms, I had no idea what was going on and I had no way of describing my distress – I didn’t know that the tight bundle of thoughts in my head, increased heart rate and tension was anxiety, I had no idea my lack of appetite was caused by an illness, I had no idea that feeling low and having to fake smiles was a sign I was unwell. I was frightened but I had no idea what I was frightened of. I didn’t know anything about mental illness and I had no language to describe it.
We need to raise awareness of signs and symptoms and make talking about our feelings common place, just like we talk about physical problems. More knowledge will make everyone more likely to see if someone gets unwell, and if we’re already talking about, it’ll feel less strange and awkward.
2. Fear of stigma
In general mental illness still has a negative reputation; people perceive the individual as weak or lacking in something. There are many misconceptions, such as thinking that we’re dangerous, unpredictable or unreliable. Some people think it’s our fault we’re ill, that we’ve done something wrong.
The truth is, mental illness does not discriminate, it is not a sign of weakness and we have good and bad characteristics, just like everyone else.
The way I fight this one is to go about my life and when someone least expects it, I let them know a little bit about what I’ve been through – this helps people see me for who I am first, then they realise being mentally ill is just part of me, it does not define me.

3. Fear of discrimination
“What will I miss out on?” is the fear. People worry about all sorts of things if they divulge a mental illness, “will I be able to get a job?”, “Will I lose my job?”, “Will I be able to get the promotion I want/deserve?”, “Will I have fair access to healthcare?”. I have heard stories about people being discriminated against in both work and personal life simply because they happen to have a diagnosis.
Someone’s mental illness should not be used as a excuse to overlook them in anything – it’s important to look at an individual’s characteristics and skills rather than judging them and making assumptions about them based on their diagnostic label. This is not unique t mental illness, there are numerous reasons people will be overlooked or left at the back of the queue – fortunately, the law is on our side. I sometimes feel like I have to work extra hard to prove myself but with perseverance, I hope we can stop discrimination.
4. Normalisation
When I first started having problems, in my teens, I thought it was ‘normal teenage angst’, I thought everyone hated their changing bodies and so I coped with it as best I could. Turns out my intrusive thoughts and anxiety were pathological!
I was trying to explain what went on in my head when I was embroiled in anorexia to a colleague recently (they asked!). I explained about the fear of food, of fat, of calories and of putting on weight. The reaction I got was “don’t all women feel like that?” – this person may have been trying to make me feel better or they may have completely missed my point, that these fears paralysed me and stopped me functioning. No – these feelings are not normal and I had to undergo years of therapy to enable me to eat with strangers or in public.
Sometimes it helps to see symptoms as ‘on the normal spectrum’ but this can prevent people from seeking help if they do not realise what they are experiencing is illness.
It’s important that talking about symptoms is normal but we need to remember the symptoms themselves are part off an illness and need treatment.
5. Wanting to protect other people
When struggling with something, it’s a common human instinct not to want to burden other people with it.
When someone you love is mentally ill, it’s natural to worry about them and want to help, not being able to help/solve the situation can add to the worry! When I’m ill, I do not want people to worry about me, I don’t see the point in someone worrying when there’s not usually anything they can do. It can make a relationship awkward.
Keeping loved ones in the dark does not protect them; people are more likely to worry if they think something is going on but they don’t know what it is. It can help, when telling someone about your illness, to also let them know what they can do. This may be something practical like cooking a meal, to come to appointments or to listen to you, without judgement, criticism or advice, but whatever it is, if someone feels the can be helpful, they are less likely to worry.
6. Guilt and shame
Due to stigma, discrimination and lack of understanding, people feel guilty and shame about being ill. We feel guilty about being ‘a drain on public resources’, we feel ashamed that we’ve relapsed despite therapy, we feel we ‘should’ be better but would anyone say any of this to someone with chronic lung disease or someone or renal dialysis? Of course not!
There is nothing shameful about being mentally ill – it is what it is, an illness, none of us choose to be ill nor are we to blame. We need to have compassion for ourselves, we need to talk to ourselves as we would talk to a close friend who was ill. Once we’re making steps to diminish the (wrongly placed) guilt and shame, we will have more confidence to talk about it.
I know, it can be very difficult to speak out but the current situation with discrimination and stigma will never change if we do not bravely continue to talk about mental illness.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week – Why Wait?

26th February this year is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Beat (the UK’s leading eating disorders charity) are asking Why Wait? So I thought I’d try and answer!
Beat’s research shows:

“On average, 149 weeks pass before those experiencing eating disorder symptoms seek help. That’s almost three years, 37 months or 1,043 days.”

I’m going to be addressing this primarily from the point the point of view of having recovered from anorexia but some, if not all, of this will apply to other eating disorders too.
People with no experience of eating disorders would be puzzled by the delay in seeking and engaging in treatment but having been deeply entrenched in one for many years, I know recovery from an eating disorder involves a lot of ambivalent feelings.
The most prominent reason for waiting to recover is fear – saying ‘yes’ to treatment means saying ‘yes’ to change, saying ‘yes’ to stepping out of your comfort zone and most feared (when it comes to anorexia) saying ‘yes’ to weight gain.
Denial is also a problem, delusional beliefs about weight, shape, body shape and the extent of the problem lie square in the way of stepping up to getting help. Interestingly, I found, that even when my delusional beliefs were challenged, and I started to see and understand that my beliefs may not be entirely accurate, it was fear, again, that made me hold onto my inaccurate beliefs.
Some people hold on incredibly tightly to their delusional beliefs, no matter how gently or ferociously it’s challenged, there’s no budging it.
Fear and anxiety are helpful emotions – they tell us when something is dangerous, when something should be avoided. I’d be pretty grateful for the fear if I was being chased by a lion, my fear would be accompanied by a rush of adrenaline that would help pump blood to my muscles and help me run faster.
The fear of recovery from an eating disorder is pretty much on this level. Imagine everyday, feeling this fear, it’s not surprising that denial feels like a friend. Every time I was challenged about my weight, my restricted diet or my weight controlling behaviours, this fear and denial kicked in. It felt like I was being chased by a lion I was never going to be able to outrun, the fear was immense but accompanied by feels of hopelessness.
Fear of gaining weight is incredibly powerful – it’s a genuine belief that if you engage with professionals they’ll make you balloon to 100 stone, if you already think you’re overweight, it makes absolutely no sense that you should have to put on more weight…!
So, it’s pretty clear, there are some good reasons not to recover but now I’ll address some reasons why recovery could be a good idea, right now.
When I was struggling, I was advised to step back and look at your life as objectively as I could, as if looking at a friend.
Is there anything you’d change?
Do you want the daily fear to decrease?
Would you like to socialise more?
Do you want to feel less anxious?
Do you want people to stop worrying about you?
Would you like to stop thinking about food all the time?
Would you like to be able to find clothes that fit?
Do you want to go on holiday and just eat what you want?
Would you prefer not to be chained to the bathroom scales?
Do you want to enjoy exercise rather than flog yourself through it?
Would you prefer to be less deceptive and secretive?
Do you want to be free from the number on the weighing scales dictating your mood?
Do you want to try new foods?
Would you prefer to enjoy your food rather than fear it?
Do you want to stop feeling faint?
Do you want to eat your favourite food without fear of a binge?
Do you want to be free from numbers?
Do you want to satisfy your hunger rather than ignore it?
Even if it’s just one of these things, just think about it… Don’t immediately think – “but putting on weight/recovery” won’t do that for me, don’t worry about that right now. Just think, what you’re doing at the moment isn’t working, is it?!
The definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
Perhaps now is the time to try something new?
Recovery gave me all of this, and more!
If you’re watching a loved one battling an eating disorder, whether they’re in denial or fearful, perhaps direct them towards this blog, this maybe the first step for them to start the conversation about recovery.
I’m not offering all the answers, I’m just suggesting, recovery is there for the taking, but it has to be an active choice, the only thing that’s going to work is to find professional help and engage with it.
When in treatment I was advised to read a book called ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ – I was very angry that I was being advised to read this book and I’m sorry to say I read the blurb and went no further. Every single day I felt fear (fear of going out, fear of being seen, fear of eating, I was afraid of everything) and I got on with my day anyway, I never let anything stop me. I was offended that this therapist didn’t have the first clue that I was ‘doing it anyway’ every single minute of every single day.
I haven’t read the book so I can’t be certain what it was about but I’ll hazard a guess that it would have challenged my way of getting through, the only way I could manage was to deny my fear. Yes, I was fearful of everything but I feared feeling that fear fully as I thought it would halt me in my tracks. I’m someone who pushes through regardless. If I’m worried about something, I don’t put it off, in fact, I’d rather get on with it, soon rather than later, I hate having worry gnawing away at me. I never avoid anything…except my feelings!
Maybe the book would have taught me that fear is ok (something I’ve grown to learn anyway) you don’t have to ignore or deny it, you can accept it, appreciate it, get to know and understand it…and then ‘do it anyway’!
Maybe we could all learn from this – if there’s something we’re fearful of, the fear is telling us to beware but it’s also giving us the energy to fight. As an eating disorder sufferer, when I worked out how to use that energy to fight, that was a big step towards recovery.