30 before 30 – An Update!

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A few years ago, in 2016 to be exact, I wrote a blog post about 30 things I wanted to do before the age of 30. I am now two and a half years away from the big three-oh (OHMYGOD) so I decided to look back on those goals and do an update.

1) Complete a masters degree.

I have applied for a masters degree and if all goes to plan, I should have finished by the age of 31, so I’m counting that as in process.

2) Work in a role which supports young people with mental illnesses.

Done, since leaving university, all my jobs have been supporting young people with social and emotional needs in some capacity and it continues to be my plan for the future.

3) Travel the world.

This hasn’t been so successful. I have traveled in the past four years but nowhere near as much as I was hoping. As I became more unwell, my priorities changed and I realised that as much as I want to explore new places, I also like being near an English speaking hospital or somewhere with a good healthcare system. I’ve realised that owning my own house is also higher up on the list of priorities so when I’m able to save money, it goes towards that.

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Copenhagen, Denmark 2016

4) See the Northern Lights.

See above. Although I do plan on going to Iceland one day because I think it is a beautiful country. Maybe when Rona has stopped ruining everyone’s lives.

5) Marry.

I am literally the most single person you could find. I am happily a cat lady and not sure how my cat would cope if I started sharing a bed with someone else. That said, I would like to marry and probably have children, just right now that’s not something I’m focusing on. If it happens, that’s great but equally, I’m not actively looking for Mr Right.

6) Have children (hopefully).

As above. I wrote a blog post recently, about frequently asked questioned that people with EDS get asked and I touched on the baby and child thing in that. In short, yes, I would like children, but I have to consider the risks to myself, but more importantly my child. EDS complicates things a bit. I’ve said more about the whole thing here.

7) Have my own house.

Twenty-three year old me was very naive about the cost of Adult Life. I’m in the process of saving and am considering selling a kidney to fund a deposit. Joking, joking. I like to torment myself by looking at Right Move and to admire all the houses that I can’t afford (aka so all the houses) but I really hope that by thirty, I will be in a better financial position to be able to afford my own little abode.

8) Be financially stable.

To be fair, I would say that I am fairly financially stable. I was on universal credit for two years and it really taught me about the importance of budgeting, although even before that, I was pretty good with money. I don’t take money for granted and I love the feeling of satisfaction when I’m able to buy something that I have saved a long time for. Right now, I’d much rather save money than spend it, however that doesn’t include buying books or anything from the Body Shop.

9) Sing on a West-End stage.

As if I’d ever really have the confidence!

10) Sky dive.

I plan on doing this, as soon as it is possible! As I’ve said in other posts, I spent over six months as a psychiatric day patient in 2019 and I really want to give back to the day hospital to say thank you. The building is old and the interiors are more than a little run down and I would love to be able to contribute to a more cosy atmosphere, making it feel even more like a safe place. Watch this space!

11) Bungee jump.

I think I was being a bit over-optimistic here. This would probably break me.

12) Complete a half marathon

Really, Laura?! I have no desire to do this.

13) Complete a triathlon.

I haven’t completely ruled this one out. I found out that there is a Superhero Triathlon which is specifically for people with disabilities and I think I’d to complete it.

14) Raise £1000 for Blue Skye Thinking.

I raised just over £500, so I’m happy with that.

15) Write a book.

Ahhh I don’t know about this one. So many people have said that I should write a book and there’s part of me that would like to, but the thought of it also fills me with so much anxiety.

16) Publish an article for Huffington Post.

Done! And I have also had articles published on The Mighty.

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17) Meet some of the people who I have met online and thank them in person for all they have done for me.

This list is ever growing but I have been able to meet so many people, who I originally met online, including trekking up to Scotland and meeting friends there.

18) Cuddle an orangutan.

I’d love to do this, but I’m more aware about conservation and actually, cuddling orangutans isn’t good for them.

19) Complete the North Wales zip wire.

I’m still desperate to do this.

20) Teach young people to not be ashamed of who they are.

I’d like to say that I try and do this in day to day life, it’s something I’m really passionate about and I will forever be people’s biggest cheerleader.

21) Become and MP and fight for what I believe in.

No and right now this is not part of any plans. I am interested in politics but I’m more comfortable contacting my current local MP and having a rant on twitter.

22) Learn basic Polish.

This hasn’t happened, but I have self taught myself British Sign Language and Makaton/Sign Supported English.

23) Thank every single person who has made a difference to my life.

I probably haven’t thanked every single person, but I do make a point of thanking people regularly.

24) Go to a festival and not spend the entire time grossed out by the toilets.

Let’s be realistic here, I can’t think of anything worse than festival toilets. I’ve gone to festivals on a day ticket and that’s enough for me.

25) Visit all of the the seven wonders of the world.

See above for why travel is complicated.

26) Live for a week without internet, TV, phones etc

I haven’t done a week, but I have spent a long weekend away from social media/TV/my phone, when I was visiting a therapeutic farm and living in a therapeutic community. I was not a fan.

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Kent, England

27) Go to Wimbledon men’s final

Maybe one day.

28) Leave a note for a stranger in a public place.

I’m not sure if I’ve done this or not, but if I have, I’d like to do it again.

29) Learn how to take a compliment 

I’m getting there, slowly. It still makes me feel uncomfortable and like I want to hide under a stone but there has been progress.

30) Fall in love, deeply, properly and unequivocally.

I have fallen in love but not romantically. There’s plenty of time.

Living with OCD during COVID-19

Guest-post-for-Ranking-improvementThis month’s guest post is coming to you by Emma. Emma lives by the sea in the south of England, with her hamster, Manuka, and has a (verging on unhealthy) obsession with plants. She also has a diagnosis of OCD and has kindly offered to talk about how she has been coping with OCD during a global pandemic. You can find Emma on instagram or over on Youtube, where she talks about her love of plants, veganism, and wellbeing.  

A note on OCD: OCD is often broken down into different subcategories, and occasionally abbreviated for ease. For example, Relationship OCD (ROCD), Harm OCD (HOCD) are two very common themes. 

Hey there, my name is Emma! I have long been best friends with Laura, almost since primary school(!), I am 26 and have a long history of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety and depression. To give you a little background, my OCD comes and goes with periods of stress, hormonal changes and alcohol consumption. I am lucky in that I can have prolonged periods of complete relief from OCD, which is not the case for everyone. I also suffer almost exclusively from what is known as Pure-O OCD, where the person will have little to no visible compulsions (the name originates as it was once thought this was a purely obsessive disorder based around intrusive thoughts, when in reality the compulsions take place within the mind of the sufferer).

COVID-19 lockdown has presented many challenges to everyone, regardless of pre-existing mental health issues, but I think there is a particular challenge faced by OCD sufferers. To summarise in brief: the most clinically effective treatment for OCD is Exposure Response-Prevention (ERP) Therapy. With OCD, the more the person engages with their rituals, compulsions and obsessions, the more the brain begins to believe the fear and threat is rational and real. During ERP Therapy, the OCD sufferer is gradually exposed to their fear and must resist the compulsions they face, and sit with the anxiety of resisting those compulsions. While this ‘undoing’ process is traumatic, it’s an incredibly effective method of re-training the brain to understand there is no threat involved and there is no way to avoid the threat through compulsive behaviour. With this in mind, recovery for someone who suffers from a Contamination OCD theme would involve exposing themselves to the perceived contamination and not carrying out compulsions like washing hands, avoiding physical contact, cleaning beyond rational requirement, etc. However, exposing themselves to the object of the contamination fear (COVID-19/other contractable disease) and resisting these compulsions during the COVID-19 pandemic would actually go against the World Health Organisation, government and health authority advice. The fear of the OCD sufferer suddenly becomes a very real, very tangible threat, so it’s easy to see why OCD sufferers are being subjected to a particularly hard time at the moment.

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As for my personal experience – I seem to be going through peaks and troughs of anxiety. When coronavirus first started hitting the news, it coincided with a small change in my antidepressants and I had several days of paranoia about my being contaminated with coronavirus and that I was going to be responsible for the death of all my loved ones. My compulsion was to confess to them all that I may have been exposed, and wash my hands (which, had I indulged it, would have lead to washing my arms, washing my body, washing my clothes and everything in my home). Thankfully after a few days, things settled down and I used many of my old coping strategies from therapy to get myself back on track.

Then, I met up with my mum, who is technically high risk, and had about two weeks of paranoia that she was going to die imminently and it would all be my fault, coupled with anxiety. My compulsions this time were ‘neutralising’ the thoughts with other thoughts, and confession.

Fast forward to lockdown being announced – I actually had much more apprehension about being alone for prolonged periods than anything else, as this is a known trigger for me. On the other hand though, I did feel more prepared for the fears presented by COVID-19 than most. My brain knows how to survive a barrage of negativity and fear narratives – it’s not a new scenario to me. Thankfully, I actually went for the first 7 weeks of lockdown without any major symptoms of OCD, despite some anxiety and low mood, mood swings etc. It took until the announcement of some lockdown measures being relaxed for me to start to feel OCD creeping back in. However, I was able to totally restrict my time spent around other people, my exposure, my safety etc. as I live alone. In OCD world that’s ideal! All our OCD brains really want is to control every perceived risk to the nth degree, with the belief that this will somehow keep ourselves and/or our loved ones safe. As the lockdown measures were relaxed, we had news that we could start to see one person at a social distance of 2 metres. I am blessed and so grateful to have people in my life who love me and want to see me, but following this announcement I had an influx of people wanting to meet up, which amounted to a very big change in a very tiny space of time. This sent my generalised anxiety a bit haywire for a few days. After a week, I met up with one of my closest friends for a socially distanced chat. The chat itself was really lovely, heartwarming and felt good to see one of my beloved humans again. However the next day, I had a panic attack following a run, and my brain became overwhelmed with every little thing that might have contaminated me by meeting with this friend, and how my contamination was going to end up killing my loved ones. It seems sort of funny in a way when reading my intrusive thoughts back, because they look so silly when not experienced as part of your threat-response. My contamination OCD thoughts have subsided somewhat since then, but it’s had the unfortunate effect of triggering an episode of ROCD, which I am currently trying to get a grip on.

So what is it like living with OCD during lockdown? For me, it’s not been an un-liveable hell, as I had slightly worried it might be. However it has certainly triggered a significant decline in my mental health, for which I am slightly reluctant to be going back to my therapist for help with. Reluctant only because we said our final goodbyes just 3  months ago (sod’s law!!). I am pretty lucky, as my fellow OCD sufferers go – I know a lot of people have suffered a very traumatic couple of months. There is reduced availability of therapists (although many are now thankfully doing remote sessions), and avoiding compulsions has become almost impossible where doing so would be against formal government advice.

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From my perspective, the more people understand OCD the better the chance of OCD sufferers having a chance at recovery. The sad reality is most people still mistake OCD for a preference of tidiness and order, when the reality is very different. The one thing I would change? I would love it if people stopped using OCD as a criticism, or a self reflection of a tidiness or pernickety behaviour. There is a huge stigma around OCD and anything we can do to reduce that should be done. OCD should be referenced only when talking about the mental health issue, which is severe and debilitating for most.

I’m Doing Okay

I feel really uneasy publicly saying that I’m okay and that things are going well. Not because I need validation around being ill, but because I am a little bit scared that somehow talking about things being okay will jinx the situation and things will start going very wrong. But I can’t live my life in fear and actually, for the first time in a very long time, I am happy, content and enjoying life. Obviously the whole corona-coaster thing is problematic and it throws up issues, but as I said in my post about dealing with lockdown and mental health, I am coping amazingly well.

So what has changed?

A few weeks ago, things were not this good. The exact opposite in fact. As it happened, the referral into the mental health team, that was suggested, was refused and the additional meds that I was put on didn’t work for me, and I think that this is the best thing that could have happened. I decided to take control of my own life and to stop coasting through, depending on other people. It came down to mind over matter, although I want to make things very clear at this point, that I do not think that this is a clearcut “cure”, not for me or for anyone else. My problems haven’t magically disappeared, but I made the choice to start addressing things, instead of self destructing and living in a mindset where I had given up.

I know and accept that I still need help, but I want to be in control of that help and to get support in a way that I find is beneficial for me. My experiences with the community mental health team were poor, I would leave appointments feeling worse than when I entered, I was made to feel like I wasn’t sick enough to receive help, despite being very unwell and I felt that I wasn’t in control of my own life or choices. I’m still engaging with therapy but for the first time ever, I am viewing it very differently. I have been having therapy in varying forms for years and years and had always just accepted that I would have therapy for life and that was that. But now, without setting myself a time limit, there are certain things that I know that I need to work on, and more importantly, I feel ready to work on. It’s not going to be an overnight thing, it is still probably going to take years of work but I’m not going to just tread water and not move forward.

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Olive and Frank

I’ve also learnt what works for me and what doesn’t. My choice has been to engage with services such as Mind and other local charities, and dip in and out when I need support. I’m not pinned in and it isn’t time limited. Plus, the wellbeing workers who I have met before, are all good eggs and genuinely care and want what is best.

Most importantly, I am making plans for the future. I’m using my time off work sensibly and working on continuing professional development, as well as undertaking various online courses to improve my CV in the long run. I’m really excited to say that I have applied for a masters degree in social work and I’m currently going through the agonising wait in hearing back from the university. I am making plans around moving out and setting myself goals in achieving that.

It’s crucial to say, I am not naive. I don’t think that I am magically better. There are still things that I am struggling with, a lot, but I am accepting those things and being honest about them. My physical health is still problematic and causes its own limitations and that is always going to be something that I have to work around. I’m also not kidding myself into thinking that my mood and ability to cope will not, ever, fluctuate again. But I kind of feel more prepared for that. Small steps. That’s all anyone will ever ask for.

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How to Talk to Someone With Depression

Depression can really change how a person thinks and perceives information. It can cause friction between friends and family members and often lead to a person feeling even more isolated. Depression is a mental illness that can affect anyone. It is not something that you can simply snap out of or a sign of weakness.

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Mental Health Foundation

Below are some ideas around talking to someone with depression and questions that might be helpful.

Ask if they have had anything to eat or drink. If not, suggest having a glass of water and have something to eat if they can manage it. Talk about healthy and quick options, to avoid carb-loading which is likely to only give a quick burst of energy. Foods that are rich in protein are good. The thought of cooking for yourself when you are deep in depression can be too much to even consider, so offer support in buying healthy and nutritious ready meals that can be shoved in the freezer and cooked easily.

At the risk of sounding like someone from a crisis team, asking someone if they have had a bath or shower when they are feeling awful is sometimes an idea, providing the person is able to keep themselves safe in doing so. Self care is terminology which is thrown around by crisis teams very readily, but there’s no denying the fact that feeling clean is going to make you feel slightly better about yourself than being unclean. I get it, I really do, the energy and effort involved in having a bath or washing my hair means that it’s the last thing I want to do when I am depressed, but I try to remind myself that I deserve to be clean and I deserve to look after myself.

Again, at the risk of sounding like I am regurgitating snippets from the crisis team, encouraging someone to stretch their legs and move from their bed or the sofa is a way of showing that you care. I am not for one moment suggesting that you need to be walking miles in the picturesque countryside or be running a half marathon, but a quick walk around your immediate local area is enough to get those endorphins zipping around. Gentle exercise in the home is an option if you can’t face leaving the house, you can find lots of simple home exercise routines on Youtube, if you can’t face watching a highly positive and energetic fitness blogger and the NHS has home workout videos which are easy to access and follow.

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A big part of depression is shutting yourself away from people and not engaging with friends and family. This is definitely something that I do and I am fortunate to have a really support group of people around me, to check in with me and talk rubbish to distract me from the mess inside my head. Encouraging people to talk can be with friends or it could be with a medical professional. Ask if they have had any medical input and find out when the next planned contact will be. You can work out if you should be encouraging them to make contact with a professional sooner, or, if it can wait, suggest writing things down, to share next time there is contact. Don’t be afraid to offer physical contact, like hugs, but know that this doesn’t suit everyone. Whilst I love a good hug or cuddle, I know that for some people, this is their idea of hell, so knowing what works for the individual person is important. Pets are also a value source of companionship and support.

Ask if they have had any changes in medication and if they are taking their medication are prescribed. New medication can really mess with your head, especially in the early days when withdrawal is a risk and side effects of new drugs are more prevalent. Make sure that they are safe, as some medications increase suicidal thoughts and ideation and then wait it out with them. If things don’t improve after a few weeks, suggest contacting their GP.

If you don’t know what to say, just say that: tell your friend that you are there for them. As a humans, we want to immediately have the answers and be able to solve every single problem that we are faced with but sometimes, that isn’t possible. Let them know that you’ll be there, don’t accuse, threaten, blame, or make light or joke about how they might be feeling. Reminding a person that you care is one of the most important things that you can do. Knowing that you’ve got someone holding you up and fighting the beast alongside you is less isolating and is a reminder that you matter.

It’s worth remembering that what works for one person might not work for another. Asking how you can help and if there is anything in particular that would be useful is another way of showing that you care. Not everyone is open to the offer of help, not everyone knows what help they need and what you think is helpful and what they think is helpful could be two very different things.

Even if you can’t relate to a person’s problems or they seem insignificant, don’t belittle how they are feeling. Try to resist solutions that might seem simple to you. Most importantly, don’t make judgements on how they are feeling. Everyone’s feelings are valid and we all react in differing ways to situations. That doesn’t make us wrong, weak or defective, it makes us human.

Lockdown and Mental Health

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Staying indoors has become the norm in the UK, with the country adapting to life in lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak. The government imposed the lockdown on the evening of Monday 23th March, meaning that we couldn’t leave our houses, except for permitted times such as one outing for daily exercise and essential travel, like going to work if you’re a key worker and going to medical appointments. The way of life in the UK changed very quickly, we couldn’t (and still can’t, at the time of writing this) visit the houses of friends or family, use leisure facilities, visit attractions, gather in large groups spend time outdoors, unless it was for exercise.

Whilst lockdown in the UK hasn’t been as strict as in other countries, it has been completely different to life as we usually know it. As someone who thrives on routine and structure, suddenly not being able to work despite being a key worker, see my friends and extended family or use a leisure centre was incredibly difficult and I know that I’m not alone in feeling like that. I started isolating before it was enforced, due to underlying health conditions and I am now on week ten of isolation/lockdown and whilst it was hard towards the beginning, I am getting used to this being my normal. Sometimes it feels like a bit of a slap in the face, after spending over two years out of work and effectively very isolated because of my health, to now being forced into isolation again, when my physical health is pretty good and I was back in a working environment.

We are now at a point where lockdown restrictions are easing but it is going to take a long time before we are back to normal. Social distancing is set to last months and restrictions could be put back in place if cases start to peak again.

So how am I staying sane?

I didn’t cause COVID-19 and I can’t take it away. As much as I joke about my frustration about it being caused by someone eating an undercooked bat, there is so much more to it being a global pandemic than that and it’s can’t be simplified. I like to be able to control every single aspect of my life and going through lockdown has taught me that sometimes, I can’t be in control and that I need to just go with the flow. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back to work, I don’t know when medical appointments will resume and return to normality, I don’t know when I will next be able to hug my friends, but everyone is in the same position. I could make myself unwell, stressing over things that I can’t change, or I can accept it and deal with things as they come along. No one can easily fix the situation we are in, sure people can stay home, wash their hands, social distance, use common sense and not go round licking lamp posts but that isn’t going to change things over night. Life will be very different for everyone as a result of COVID-19 and we will need to adjust to that new normal.

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My support system changed rapidly as infection rates spiked. I still have therapy but it’s over Skype and I still speak to my GP but it’s on the phone. As lonely as isolation can be, I know that the support is still there, just in a different format. I’m not having any physio which is hard and I’m not seeing my support worker, as the service she is attached to has temporarily closed. I’m not going to lie, some days are hell: I get angry and I’m probably not a very nice person to be around. Some times I am an anxious mess. Other times, I plod along, doing what I can to make the days easier and taking little steps to keep my brain occupied. Asking for help is not selfish, it is normal to be finding life hard to deal with right now, so we need to show ourselves a little kindness and compassion. And if someone is in a bad mood and is more snappy than usual, or cries over something stupid, don’t take it personally. Give them a virtual hug and remind them that they’re not alone.

One of the biggest things that I’ve come to realise is that I need to be realistic. Like I said above, some days I feel like I can take on the world, other days, I would happily stay in bed and tell everyone (but mainly BoJo) to fuck off. Reading has been the one thing that I’ve been able to fall back on during lockdown, I can happily spend day after day reading, but I accept that shutting myself away in a fictional world isn’t always what is best for me. Or my eyes. That said, I do have days when I’m not in the mood to read and I’ll be honest, initially, I would beat myself up for that, as though reading a book in a day was the marker of success. Trying to stick to some form of routine has been hard, but as much as possible, I make sure I’m up at the same time every day, I do some exercise, read, talk to friends, do some of the endless adult or medical admin and go to bed at a sensible time. I keep my room as just somewhere to sleep and make sure I spend daytimes in other rooms of the house, or the garden, to try and vary my environment as much as possible.

I’m not saying for one moment that I have completely got this whole lockdown thing sorted. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll probably be fed up because I want to go swimming and because I can’t see my friends, but actually, I’m doing okay. This isn’t forever.