Mental Health · University

Suspending my degree for the sake of my mental health saved my life

When I left school and went to college, having done pretty well in my GCSS’s, I was put into a ‘high achievers’ group. We were provided with extra coaching and skills to get into top universities.

Now, to be brutally honest, at this point, aged 16, I had no idea what university even was really. I didn’t know anyone who had been and it was never something I had considered. But suddenly I was being told I should seriously consider applying to Oxford and Cambridge (the two most esteemed universities in the UK).

Something I had never even thought about now seemed like my only option, and I didn’t feel I was able to say no. Everyone was telling me university was the best thing I could ever do, and I’d be a fool not to go.

So I went along with it, listening to the advice my tutors gave me, and applied. Whilst I decided not to apply to OxBridge I applied to some of the top universities in the country. I went on endless campus visits and eventually decided on studying Psychology at the University of Bath.

In 2011 I began my degree, and whilst I enjoyed my first year, in second year, shit got real. After moving in with 3 of my closest friends from halls cracks began to appear in our relationships. Living in such close proximity magnified our differences and we began to drift apart. Endless deadlines also took its toll and I began to significantly struggle with my sleep, getting less than 2 hours most nights.

I’ve blogged before about how this ultimately culminated into a breakdown, where a friend literally had to drive me to the train station, buy me a ticket and force me to go home and get help.

So I did. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and by this point was fully in the grips of anorexia. I began seeing a private counsellor and was put on antidepressants, seeing my GP weekly as I was deemed ‘high risk’.

Summer passed and I was all geared up to return to university and begin my placement year in London. I had put a deposit down for my accommodation and was getting ready to pack up.

I went to see my GP and explained I was due to leave the area and return to uni. He responded “well, I don’t support that.” I was stunned. He told me he felt I was too unstable to move away from my support network and had serious concerns how I would cope living in a completely new area where I didn’t know anyone. He told me if the university required a letter of support from a GP for my return he wouldn’t be able to provide it.

I left, upset and frustrated. What did he know? I was fine. I’d had some counselling, I was on medication, what more did he want?

I saw my counsellor a few days later and explained what he had said. To my horror, she agreed. She felt I wasn’t ready yet. She then asked me a question I’ll never forget…

Would it be the worst thing in the world if you took some time out to look after yourself?”

Yes.

At least, that’s what my instinct told me. For so long university had felt like the be all and end all. Where I was supposed to be.

She told me to go away and think about it for a week. So I did. I spent long nights chatting with my mum, weighing up the pro’s and con’s.

I reached out to my placement co-ordinator, and the placement provider itself, who both agreed it was best I didn’t push myself too far and maybe consider deferring for a year. My department head agreed and before I knew it I’d suspended my studies for one year. It had all happened in just under 2 weeks.

I was crushed. It felt like I’d failed in every sense. The thing that felt like the most important thing in the world to me was being taken from me. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with a year off. University was my identity, my community and my greatest achievement.

I hated watching my friends go off on placements across the world without me. I hated seeing their Facebook posts, showing all the fun they had whilst I sat at home, depressed and confused.

But slowly, I realised it was the single best decision I have ever made.

What I can see now is just how unwell I was. I was paranoid, delusional, severely depressed, suicidal, anorexic and anxious. I couldn’t look after myself at all and certainly couldn’t have lived away from my family at the time.

I firmly believe if I had gone on placement at that stage, I would have attempted to end my life. I would have continued feeling how I did, hundreds of miles from home, alone and depressed. The pressure to ‘succeed’ on placement and to prove my GP and counsellor wrong, to show them that I could do it, that I wouldn’t end up sicker, would have stopped me reaching out for help until it got too much.

Suspending my degree gave me nothing else to do but to get better. I had lost everything (or so it felt) and I had to work to get back to it. I spent a year intensely focused on my goal of returning to my degree.

Or at least, that’s what it did to begin with. As time went on I realised how thankful I was for those people who stopped me going back.  I realised how sick I was, and that if I was to truly recover I needed to prioritise me. I needed to let go of the idea that anything else was more important than my mental health. Not a job, not a degree, not university friends. I had to take care of myself. And slowly, I did just that.

It was the first time in 14/15 years I hadn’t been in full time education, constantly chasing the next mark, meeting the next deadline or emerced in a social group I felt I should be part of.

I was finally alone. With very little to fill my time. And it was during this time I truly found myself.

I found my true values, learnt who was truly there for me no matter what, and learnt what I wanted and, perhaps more importantly needed, moving forward. And this allowed me to eventually return to university and finish my degree safely.

I genuinely want anyone who is struggling at university right now to know that suspending your degree, taking some time out to heal and to learn about yourself, is not the end of the world. I know it feels like a failure, but it’s actually a huge success, to prioritise your own wellbeing. It is so much more important that you are healthy and safe. Nothing in the world is more important than this.

Lorna
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borderline personality disorder · Mental Health · Personality Disorders · Psychiatry

How I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder

I get a lot of people asking me how I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder on my social media, and so I figured I’d write a blog about it.

Ive eluded to the process in previous posts but never fully outlined it.

To begin with, shortly after I had a breakdown at university, I went to see my hometown GP and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I received treatment for this over the coming few years and after suspending my degree for a year I returned to university on placement year.

My placement was in a clinic that operated from within a university, and I registered at the campus GP. When registering I asked if they had a GP who specialised in mental health and they did. I booked in to see her and generally saw her once a month for check ups.

During this year I decided I was ready to begin dating, perhaps thinking I was more mentally stable than I actually was. Like many people my age at the time I joined Tinder alongside my housemate.

To begin with, this was just a bit of fun. We both found it hilarious going on dates and coming gone and exchanging horror stories of the disastrous nights we’d had.

Eventually I started dating a few people. But unfortunately, as I’m sure is pretty common in dating, after 4-6 weeks of seeing each other we realised we weren’t suited for one another. No big deal, right?

Not to me.

This happened around 3-4 times during the course of the year. Each time it did, no matter how disinterested in the guy I was, it felt like the end of the world to me. Rejection felt like my heart had been ripped out and run over by a truck. It felt like confirmation I was a worthless person who would never possibly be happy and life was no longer worth living. I became a wreck. Unable to eat, sleep or function. I spent nights crying and self-harming, each time getting gradually more and more severe.

Thankfully, I was able to be really honest with the GP I was seeing and each time I told her about what was going on for me. She listened, and never judged, each time giving me additional support as and when I needed it, be this medication or emergency therapy referrals. She was fab.

She picked up on this pattern, and one day, after another relationship ended and left me suicidal she said

“this doesn’t feel like depression to me. Please don’t panic but I think you might have what’s called Borderline Personality Disorder.”

She explained my symptoms, whilst severe, were more reactive than constant, and that my lows seemed to be linked to a sense of abandonment and low self-worth associated with this.

She informed me she wanted me to be referred for a psychiatric assessment and they could help me find the right step forward.

From here, it’s a bit of a blur. I was in a really bad mental state at the time as a close friend was moving countries, and I had all the emotions associated with abandonment constantly brewing beneath the surface. I was in and out of a dissociated state, frequently going into crisis. I was taking heady medication just to get through each day and really do struggle to remember this time clearly.

I received an appointment for an assessment pretty quickly at the local hospital. I saw what I believe was a mental health nurse first, who took a detailed history and got an idea of what had been happening recently. She was very kind and agreed she felt there was grounds to see a psychiatrist as she too felt I met the criteria for BPD.

A few weeks later I met with a psychiatrist at the same hospital. She had received my history and spoke with me about my current circumstances. I don’t remember this assessment much at all, other than at the end when she told me that she agreed I had Borderline Personality Disorder, and that she would refer me for DBT.

A few weeks later I received a letter outlining the results of my assessment, and there it was, in black and white, my diagnosis.

Unfortunately this is kind of where it ended for me. My placement year came to an end less than a month later, and living between home and university for my final year of university meant I was deemed unable to commit to DBT.  So I continued receiving care from a GP and a community treatment team as and when needed.

I am so thankful to the GP who was able to spot my pattern of behaviour, and recognise it was something other than depression and anxiety. That she got to know me well enough, and made me feel safe enough, to see the full picture.

I seriously wonder if I’d have been at home experiencing similar problems, in a rural area with poorer health services and less educated GPs, would I ever have received a diagnosis, or would I have continued to be told I was just depressed? Would I still even be here? Or would crisis after crisis without appropriate treatment have been the end of me?

It really doesn’t bear thinking about.

Lorna
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anorexia · Body Image · Body Positivity · eating disorder · Mental Health

I’m learning to accept that I may never be able to exercise safely

It’s January, and you know what that means! The gyms are full of people who insist this year will be different. It’ll be the year they finally get ‘fit’. The TV is full of adverts for gyms and weight loss programmes and the shops have extensive displays of SlimFast and protein shakes. It truly is the worst time of the year.

I know I’m not alone in struggling with this. So many of us feel inadequate when faced with this constant reminder that smaller bodies are seen as more worthy. But as an anorexia survivor, I find this message especially difficult.

Gym adverts in particular seem to have this weirdly dangerous temptation for me. The same kind of pull I imagine alcoholics feel when they see adverts for vodka. I know it’s bad for me, but I begin to ponder if it was really as bad as I thought it was. Surely I could go back now and it’d be different.

Gyms were completely addictive to me. Don’t get me wrong, I hated the actual exercise. But I loved being able to physically see calories disappearing before me. I loved the numbers on the machines, watching them increase and knowing this meant I was counter-acting what I had eaten that day. I loved telling myself ‘just a few more’, knowing more would never truly feel enough. I loved the thought of gym staff thinking how much I was transforming, how well I was doing and how dedicated I was.

Every now and then I start to kid myself that re-joining a gym is the right thing for me. That this time I’ll be able to control it. That it won’t make me stop eating so as not to put the calories I worked off back on. That it won’t leave me pacing around rooms every time I’m alone just to burn off a few more. That I won’t feel compelled to spend longer and longer there until I’m going multiple times a day.

Even if it weren’t a gym, the results would be the same. I used to walk miles around my village a day, no matter the weather, to ensure my the numbers didn’t begin to creep back up. I purchased an exercise bike and a cross trainer, and pushed myself to spend at least an hour per day on each. But surely this time it won’t be that bad, right?

Deep down I know this isn’t true. 

I know the reality is very different to this.  I know once I begin it will only be a matter of time before I lose control. Before old habits begin creeping back in. Before I end up sick again.

It’s hard to accept this. In a society so obsessed with slimness and fitness, it can be hard to be one of the few people who can’t engage with it. I feel endless shame that I am so inactive and constantly feel a need to justify myself to others. But I know it is safer than engaging with exercise just because I feel I should. I know my health would actually suffer if I engaged in exercise, but I still feel guilty. 

Thankfully, engaging in the Body Positive and Health At Every Size communities means I am slowly learning to accept my reality. To know this is part of my recovery, and is a sign of healing as opposed to being somehow broken. 

Learning how diet-culture has become so unconsciously ingrained to my own brain and into society at large has helped me take the first steps to unlearning it’s toxic message. To find my own way with my body, food and exercise. To accept exercise isn’t necessarily something that is inherently good for everyone. I’m learning to let go of the guilt, and instead be kind to myself for choosing what is best for me.

I don’t know yet if I’ll ever get to a place where I feel able to engage with exercise safely, but if not, I know that’s okay.

Lorna

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Mental Health

Being a mental health trainer – Your questions answered!

Some of you know that since this summer I have been employed as a full-time mental health trainer with a national charity. I asked my beautiful Twitter followers what they wanted to know about the role (as I get asked a lot of questions about it) and here’s what they said…

Please note, all opinions expressed are that of my own, and do not necessarily represent that of the organisations I work for.

* * * * *

How did you get into it? What sort of training did you undergo? @good_shit_daily

To be totally honest, I’m still trying to work this one out. In my last job (an assistant psychologist in a secure forensic psychiatric hospital) I began training new staff on topics like maintaining boundaries with patients, self-harm and reporting incidents. I loved it! I loved the discussions, different opinions, people having those light bulb moments etc.

At the same sort of time I was falling out of love with the role more generally (feel free to read more about why if you wish to here) and was looking for a job where I could make more of a difference. I’d heard about Mental Health First Aid and began to explore this more. I didn’t really want to just do the course, as my previous roles and degree covered a lot of it, so I began thinking what if I could teach it, and use my personal and professional experiences to educate others. I applied to become an instructor, choosing to focus on the Youth Programme as I believe we have to start the conversation around mental health sooner and this is where I felt I could make most impact.

I completed my training for that at the beginning of this year. This involves a 7 day course spread over 6 weeks, followed by two co-deliveries. From there I’ve freelanced, gong into schools and youth centres teaching those working with young people how to support their mental health and then was then fortunate enough to stumble across my current role.

Full-time trainer jobs with regular pay are incredibly rare, and I’m aware I’m incredibly lucky to have one with such a well-known organisation. I was signed up to notifications from Indeed, LinkedIn and Charity Job and this was how I found my role. The application process was fairly standard but the interview involved delivering a short training session, reflecting on it and then answering more generalised interview questions.

The rest, as they say, is history.

What’s been the most challenging part? @good_shit_daily

For me, its been my own judgements really. I’ve been in the field of mental health for nearly a decade and have experienced mental health issues since I was a child. It’s easy to forget that for a lot of people in the sessions I offer it is the first time they’ve even thought about mental health. They come with all the stigma and prejudice that the general public have, and I have to remind myself they don’t mean to, it’s just all they’ve ever known. I can find myself getting quite annoyed or deflated when people keep using stigmatising language and have to work hard on reminding myself that’s exactly why I’m there, to challenge it.

When people have crossed the line, some with seriously inappropriate jokes, I find challenging those hard. It’s hard to reprimand one person without it having a huge impact on the feel of the session. Unfortunately this has happened more times than I anticipated and I’ve had to find ways of doing it appropriately. It can feel a bit school-teachery but these people are at work, and need to behave professionally and respectfully, especially when we’re talking about people’s lived experience of an illness.

I also find the feedback forms at the end of the day really hard – 20 of them could say I’m the best human alive but if one is slightly indifferent, or heaven forbid negative, I take it really personally and let it cloud the whole day. But I’m slowly learning you can’t win ’em all.

What do they teach you so that you can switch off and help your own mental health? Like coping mechanisms that sort of thing? @office_monkey

I haven’t really had any formal ‘teaching’ to become a trainer, it just kind of naturally evolved. The MHFA training is quite brief (only 7 days) and is primarily focused on learning the course so this didn’t really address self-care.

For myself, one of the keys has been recognising I’m in the right place in terms of my recovery. I have reasonable insight, a good support network and generally manage okay with the right meds and support. I wouldn’t have been in a position to do the job a few years back when I had much more active symptoms on a regular basis. You hear some shocking things when engaging with the public on mental health and you need to not be able to take that personally or get defensive.

My line manager is fab, as is my whole team, we’ve all done the on the ground training and so have all come across similar difficulties so we really call on one another if we need support. We have a WhatsApp group – it can be lonely when you’re out on the road training so being able to kind of contact your colleagues informally is really helpful, especially if a course is difficult – they can provide reassurance/advice or just a good meme to brighten your day.

For me l’ve found accepting stigma really hard. Comments people make can get to me – if you follow me on Twitter you might have seen a lady once said I shouldn’t have shared my own experience, I should have pretended they were someone else’s. I’ve had to learn to be really honest and seek support when things like this happen or it eats away at you.

How much do you draw on your own experiences when you train people? @cbutterwick

This is a tricky one as it changes a lot. I usually disclose that my motivation for doing the job is personal experience of mental illness. Sometimes I then never reference it again. Other days, I’m much more open and will elaborate on diagnoses as we move through the day and give clear examples from my own life. It really depends on the group. I also draw on stories from my clinical career – sharing some of my former patients experiences. I think that’s really important as they’re very much a voiceless community.

With training however, unlike some of the campaigning work I do, it’s really not about you and your lived experience – it’s about the wider issue. If I think something in my life might help make a point or increase understanding, I might share it – sometimes I say ‘I have a friend who…’ even if it’s my experience. I’m very aware of not turning my courses into a lived experience piece as that really isn’t what they’re paying for, and it’s not all that helpful.

The only major exception is Youth Mental Health First Aid, as I work with MHFA England on the grounds that I am a person with lived experience of severe mental illness from a young age. I had some really awful experiences with teaching staff at my school and I share those and the impact they had a lot more to make a point on how damaging getting things wrong can be.

Generally, I just check in with how I’m feeling that day. I’ve had a couple of people say I shouldn’t share my experiences, because it made them uncomfortable, so I just think if I do say this, am I prepared for a potential negative response. Some days I am, and I’m very assured that that is their stigma, not mine, but other days I wouldn’t be able to so I share less.

Are you self-employed or do you work for someone? What qualifications do you need? @pjshaw192 & @JessicaXDiamond

When I began with MHFA, I freelanced for a few months, on a self-employed basis. Now I work for a national charity in a standard full-time contract. As I’ve said these are incredibly rare and I feel genuinely blessed to have managed to secure one, as freelancing is really hard work!

I personally don’t have any formal training qualifications aside from MHFA Instructor training. But even that wasn’t required, most of my colleagues are not MHFA Instructors. We all come from different backgrounds from therapists to teachers, cooperates etc. The only real experience needed was experience of delivering training (ideally related to mental health/wellbeing in some way).

What’s a question you get that you didn’t expect to? @pigletish

Oh gosh, so many. The worst was when I was with an individual sharing their lived experience of mental illness and he was asked if he had “caught” his illness off someone. I was so confused and shocked but thankfully he handled it like a pro.

The humour people use – although not directly questions – has also been pretty shocking too. People making [quite graphic] jokes about suicide, using language inappropriately etc. has been really surprising. It really brings home how far we have to go with things. Knowing how to respond to that hasn’t been easy.

Because a lot of the work we do is in workplaces we get asked a lot about people faking mental illness to take sick days. That was weird to begin with but you develop a sort of rehearsed answer as you get asked it so much. Similarly we get people asking if GP’s overprescribe antidepressants and why ‘everyone’ is on them ‘these days’. People often say they don’t ‘believe’ in medication for mental illnesses which is a weird one – would they say they don’t believe in medication for cancer or diabetes?

People often have a lot of questions around Schizophrenia, as they hold so many misconceptions around it. Things like is it a split personality, are these people dangerous etc. But I quite like this, as I want those to be challenged. I had one course who kept saying “non-violent/violent Schizophrenia” and no matter how much I explained there’s no such thing and generally individuals living with Schizophrenia aren’t violent they kept doing it. That was exhausting!

What skills do you need to do the job? @pjshaw192

Practically, there’s a lot to think about if you want to get into training. Things like coping with being away from home a lot (on average I sleep in hotels 2-3 nights per week), having to cope with trains and getting to and from venues alone, being alone most of the time. I love it – it’s like I’m paid to have an adventure – but at times it can feel pretty bleak, especially when getting on you 30th train of the week and still having 2 hours ’til you get home.

In terms of delivering training an ability to think on your feet is important, as you get asked all sorts of weird and wonderful questions. Also an ability to feel confident is challenging/disagreeing with opinions – this is really hard but so important, otherwise delegates almost end up leading the session.

Obviously time management is key, we generally run 7 hour courses, and squeezing it all in, especially with big, talkative groups is hard work. It can feel a bit awkward to cut people off and turn the focus back to the session but it’s something you have to do.

How do you manage those who think mental illness is a choice? @rediscovering.zhang

To be totally honest, this is one of the easier battles to win. The trick is to stay calm and highlight the medical model – would someone say cancer is a choice? Or diabetes? Probably not, so why say mental illness is a choice. Would anyone really ever choose to be in psychological distress? You kind of rationalise them out of that view. It’s hard to stay calm, but if you follow a logical argument they can’t really come back at you. There will always be people though who, no matter what you say, they won’t change their opinion, and accepting that is hard.

Do you find it triggering for you in anyway? If so, how do you cope with that? @yana.org.uk

Some days, absolutely. I find people disclosing their own struggles hard, especially if it’s a lot of people in one day. It can feel totally overwhelming to have strangers bare their souls to you. I’ve heard some pretty harrowing stories, which I never would have anticipated, and they can really sit with you.

I also find the Black Dog video very triggering if I connect with it. It’s such a powerful representation of one of the darkest places I have been. If I were to watch it the 2-3 times a week I played it I’d be a wreck on the floor. I have to tune it out – usually by going on my phone.

On Youth Mental Health First Aid there is a section on eating disorders, which I find really hard. That really is the sickest I have ever been, and going back there feels intense. But I also feel full of passion to ensure people understand what eating disorders are, and most importantly what they are not. You also have to read out a lengthy suicide note on that course, and doing that always feels incredibly hard, as I’ve written one myself in the past.

As I’ve said, stigma also gets to me a lot.

We’re told to make sure we put boundaries up – to make sure we take our breaks, leaving the venue if possible, to allow ourselves time to refresh. Also if a course is becoming more like a therapy session than a training course we’ll turn it back, being respectful to what people have shared but highlighting the boundaries of the session – it’s not group therapy, we’re not trained counsellors and we shouldn’t be treated as one.

We’re also encouraged to use TOIL (time owed) on the mornings following training sessions. I usually take the morning off ’til 11am to catch up on sleep after travelling home and to decompress. My supervisor is always on hand to chat about anything and I can be really honest with her – if I just need to vent about a difficult session it’s totally fine, which is great.

What’s been the highlights? @pjshaw192

There’s been a lot! Any time someone stays behind to thank me, and shares something really personal, it blows my mind. I’ve had two ladies disclose really difficult life situations who told me the session had made them realise they need to take care of their mental health, and I found that incredible and really emotional. At times, the training can feel like going through the motions, especially when we deliver the same 6-8 courses over and over, but when you realise you’re having a real impact on people’s lives it’s incredible.

I also love when people who admit to being quite ignorant to mental health have lightbulb moments and suddenly understand it a bit more. They’re the ones who need the training the most and so to watch their attitude change over a few hours is really special.

I also did one course that was all male and that will really stick with me. They were proper working class labourers, a tiny rooms of around 20-25 men, and they got so involved. I could barely get a word in edgeways. It was amazing! I was worried they’d scoff me out the room but they loved it. No one had ever given them a chance to talk about their mental health before and they really needed it. That was a really special day, although I was completed exhausted afterwards!

I hope you found this interesting or helpful! If there is anything else you want to know feel free to drop me a message.

Lorna

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anorexia · eating disorder

Displaying the exercise required to burn off food will not only risk my recovery, it will limit my independence.

I’m sure those of you living in the UK saw in the news this week that a piece of research, published by Loughborough University, recommended that foods now be labelled with the amount of exercise required to burn it off. Rightly so, this has been criticised for the damage this would cause to our relationship with food, which is already skewed.

The idea behind this ridiculous suggestion is to help curb obesity. The issue with that is the obesity issue isn’t going to be fixed by this. People know what food is nutritious and what food is not, yet we still have high obesity rates. We like to see obesity as this choice to eat shit and be lazy, that’ll be fixed with making it more obvious that this is ‘bad’. But for so many obese people it is far more complex than that. Food is so tied to our emotional and psychological well-being, and often eating disorders (which we mustn’t forget includes Binge Eating Disorder), are an outward manifestation of inward emotional distress.

We in the UK, and many Western societies, have such a damaged relationship with food already. We label foods as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘clean’ or ‘junk’. Food is no longer viewed as fuel or nutrition and is now intrinsically tied to our emotions as it has long been used as both reward and punishment. We’re born knowing what and how to eat, then spend the rest of our lives suppressing these most basic urges, only to punish ourselves when we then give in. 

Aside from being a useless strategy for tackling obesity, this proposed system puts people like me in danger. As a recovered anorexic, its hard enough having calorie content of every single food plastered across the nation. From McDonald’s menus to fruit packaging, we have become obsessed with seeing food as numbers.

It’s hard enough navigating menu’s and shopping aisles being bombarded with red and green labels, all the while trying to maintain a healthy relationship with food. But I am able to do this as, for me, calorie content is still a somewhat arbitrary figure.


I know how many we ‘should’ eat per day, how many I used to ‘allow’ myself, but other than that I don’t fully understand what a calorie is, or how it relates to the body all that much. So making this figure less arbitrary, showing me exactly what it means in how much time I need to spend ‘earning’ or ‘punishing’ myself for ‘indulging’ in this food shatters the illusion. Having it there in black and white would fully activate my inner anorexic once more.

And more than anything in the world I want her to remain silent. To do this, I know I would need to avoid these labels. It would limit my capacity to go to shops and buy food independently, something I have to do when travelling for my job (2-3 days per week minimum). I wouldn’t be as able to prepare food knowing each time I got something out of the fridge staring back at me would be a reminder I needed to earn this meal. I would become more dependent on those around me to manage food, to avoid relapsing to the darkest place I have ever been.

This isn’t hyperbole. I would be psychologically triggered by this means of packaging (for those of you rolling your eyes at that a psychological trigger is not the same as just not liking something or being offended by it) and engaging with it would risk the recovery I have worked so hard to achieve. 

This focus on obesity alienates and minimises the experiences of an equally at risk group of those suffering from the multiple complexities of eating disorders (including those suffering from Binge Eating Disorder, who are often obese as a result of their condition). 


I firmly believe the only solution to any weight/eating crisis, be that an obesity ‘epidemic’ or the wealth of people suffering from eating disorders is to accept that we, as a nation, have lost our way with food. And this certainly isn’t the route back.

Lorna

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anorexia · borderline personality disorder · eating disorder

How my BPD & unstable self worth fuelled my anorexia

Recently I tweeted that I had a bit of a realisation about one of the key motivations fuelling my eating disorder.

I was attempting to explain how my anorexia worked to my boyfriend one night – he met me just as I began recovering and has therefore never seen me seriously unwell in this way. The conversation led into discussion of the pressures women face to be thin, and how comments and stigma from others can lead people to risk their health for this goal.

My boyfriend is naturally slim and acknowledged having a sort of ‘thin priveledge’ where he’s never had to feel the shame that comes with other people looking at his weight negatively.

I wasn’t so lucky. As I teenager, I was bigger than my peers. Again, I try to be responsible when discussing eating disorders so won’t reference sizes but I had a fair amount of puppy fat. I was at times ridiculed, and certainly my appearance (spots, bad hair and being chubby) meant I was never in with the popular kids. Boys didn’t fancy me and I often felt self-conscious.

When I turned 17/18 I suddenly lost weight. To this day I still don’t know why. It just happened. I was actively trying to. I got a lot of compliments but I didn’t think much of it.

When I went to university, I really began to struggle with my mental health. I wasn’t sleeping well, I felt pressure to be someone I wasn’t and I began to experience anxiety and depression. As my university was a sporting uni, I joined a gym. All my friends were doing it and it just felt like I had to. I’ve already blogged about how this spiralled so I won’t do so again, but I rapidly lost more weight.

When I returned home to my summer job I got a lot of compliments. I also found around this time, living the life of this new person, this thin, attractive, socialable girl, meant I was popular for the first time ever. I had a big group of friends, guys started showing interest in me when I went out, and I was getting endless social invites.

Looking back now, I can see this was a symptom of my personality disorder. I was seeking validation for my existence externally. Internally I still felt like the fat ugly duckling, and felt like I was completely worthless, so I used social situations to allow me some peace from this.

I unconsciously associated my social status and the brief periods of self-worth I had with my weight. People were so ‘proud’ of me, and kept telling me I had done ‘amazing’. In my head, I assumed if they thought so highly of me when I was thin, they’d think the opposite if I regained weight. And that terrified me.

As someone who grew up with a stereotypical Jeckyll and Hyde father, I grew up believing my worth had to be earnt. I wasn’t inherently worthy of being on this earth, loved and respected, my worth came from how others saw me. If my dad was nice to me, I was a good daughter and a good person, if he was mad at me and abusive, I’d earnt that to.

This stuck. I’ve always got my sense of who I am and how worthy I am from other people. At school I enjoyed drama for a period because I got instant feedback that I was ‘good’. This then moved in to academic achievement and getting into one of the top universities in the country. These achievements provided me with a sense off worth because they made others ‘proud’ of me. I never felt it. I never felt proud of anything I achieved. But knowing others were was enough.

So, my realisation was how interlinked my BPD and anorexia are. My self worth is inherently unstable as it comes from everyone but me. I’m incredibly sensitive to others moods and blame myself for how everyone else behaves or feels.

Anorexia was, for me, a means to keep myself in a socially acceptable group. A group where I was able to be validated, even at a superficial level, and be made to feel like I was somehow ‘good enough’. My association with being larger and being poorly treated, and what this made me believe about myself, led to a phobia of weight gain. I feared how others would judge me, ridicule me, assume I was a bad person. And I just couldn’t bare that.

All off this was on an unconscious level, I had no idea this was an issue, and it’s taken years to come into consciousness.

To me it also seems uncoincidental that my anorexia began to loosen its grip as I was diagnosed with BPD. As I finally received a diagnosis that made sense. Had a doctor who showed me compassion and understanding. As things finally began to click. Shortly after this, in my early days of recovery, I met my boyfriend. A man who understands me, who helps build me up and feel more stable in who I am. Who has pushed me to see my worth even when no one else can.

I’m hopefully that this new understanding of what fuelled my anorexia will help prevent relapses, or at least help me reocery faster if they ever occur. On those days where that anorexic voice gets louder and louder I have an idea where to look to find her roots. And I know to comfort her, to remind her of her worth and help her to feel safe. And hopefully, this will be sufficient to quieten her.

Lorna

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Mental Health

Mindfulness doesn’t work for me – don’t tell me I just need to try harder

Over recent years we have seen a boom in the push for mindfulness. The practice, derived from Buddist teachings, encourages individuals to focus on the present moment, and remove all judgement from thoughts, instead allowing them to pass by.

I first came across mindfulness in my second year at university studying psychology. This was 2012, and mindfulness was largely unheard of at the time. Me and my tutor group were called into a meeting where we were informed of our topic for an upcoming experimental assessment – the effect of mindfulness on symptoms of depression and anxiety. During the meeting, my tutor had us complete a 10-15 minute mindful body scan. I vividly remember the 7 of us being crammed into his tiny office (seriously it was the size of a shoebox), eyes closed, and feeling a panic attack brewing. Not wanting to make a scene I sat through it, feeling as if my heart was beating out of my chest, internally screaming for it to end.

What my tutor had failed to warn us about was the fact that in those who have experienced trauma, mindfulness can trigger intense psychological distress.

This set me and and mindfulness off to a bad start. It made me fearful and I began avoiding it for a long time.

When I began my placement year I was put on a research study on Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, directly assessing the impact of a 6 week course for those with recurrent depression. As part of this role I was asked to participate in a course myself before beginning my research. Despite my apprehensions, this was a slightly more pleasant experience. Whilst I still found practicing mindfulness difficult, I developed strategies to simply get through the tasks. To focus my mind elsewhere. When I did try and engage, I felt the same panic and distress I previously felt.

Over the years I have tried mindfulness more times than I can count. I kept being told I needed to try harder. That it was a skill I needed to develop. I’ve even committed to doing it every day for weeks on end. Each time resulting in the same distress with an added frustration that the problem was somehow me.

The issue for me is that mindfulness forces me to be alone in my own mind. And that terrifies me to my core. I’ve previously written about how I can’t sleep in silence, and I almost always have a TV or radio on throughout the day.

Even writing that I’m sure some of you are reading that judgementally. Thinking I should face the distress, that it isn’t ‘healthy’ to be how I am. And maybe you’re right. But for me distress isn’t something I can face alone. Having BPD means psychological distress is incredibly dangerous for me and puts me at significant risk of harm. So please excuse me for choosing not to engage in a practice that might trigger this. When I do face my triggers, it’s within the safety of a therapeutic interaction or with my closest loved ones.

I’m concerned that the recent hype surrounding mindfulness not only isolates an entire population (i.e. for those it doesn’t work for) but it also conviniently draws attention away from other therapeutic techniques. Whilst I completely accept mindfulness is a useful tool, it isn’t a therapy for mental illness. Yet I keep hearing more and more of people being told their mental illness will disappear if they just try harder to use mindfulness – particularly those facing anxiety disorders. This simply isn’t true.

Mindfulness is a symptom-focused approach, similar to CBT. And whilst there is a stack of research suggesting its benefits, ask anyone who has been through CBT or tried mindfulness, they can only help so much. Symptom focused approaches ignore the underlying causes of mental illness in an individual, and whilst offering a band-aid in the form of some basic relaxation skills, they offer limited long term solutions.

I believe we have paid too much attention to mindfulness, as we once did to CBT, as we long for a simple solution to mental illness. One we can find through an app, fit into our commute and do without years of intense therapy. But the truth is mental illness is far messier and complex than this, and pretending its not won’t help.

Proponents of mindfulness also have a ‘get out of jail free card’ when it ultimately fails to provide long-term relief to psychological distress. It was the patients fault. They didn’t try hard enough. Didn’t commit. Didn’t keep going when it got hard. In reality, the patient may simply have reached their plateau. Mindfulness helped as much as it ever could, and can do no more. And that isn’t their fault.

So my plea to you is to accept that mindfulness simply doesn’t work for some people, or some conditions. Please don’t start telling people they need to try harder, or try a new app, or be more committed. Because for some of us, it doesn’t work. And we don’t need to be made to feel like a failure.

Lorna

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