How I Survived Lockdown

c5912582950c0186a1fc30b74387836cI found out yesterday that I will be returning to work on Monday (15th June), after 13 weeks of isolationa/shielding. I started shielding a week before I was medically told that I needed to and I was incredibly lucky that my employers were understanding – I think being honest about my health from the start helped. But they didn’t complain or make me feel bad, in fact they went out of their way to reassure me that things would be okay and that it wasn’t causing huge issues. Despite that, I felt incredibly guilty for leaving them in the lurch. I was also bloody angry that yet again, my health was dictating what I could and could not do.

Rewind to this time two years ago, I wasn’t working, due to my worsening health. I was very isolated and rarely left the house, unless it was for medical appointments. I can’t deny that part of my anger stemmed from the fact that I had spend over two years effectively in isolation due to being so poorly that I couldn’t properly partake in society, and now I was facing months of yet again being stuck at home, unable to work, unable to see friends and family and losing my independence that I had worked so hard to regain. 

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That said, I have coped remarkably well with isolation. I think that living with chronic and mental illnesses kind of prepare you for not being part of society for long periods of time. When you have a chronic illnesses, the chances are that you spend weeks/months/years at home, often unable to leave your bed. The world carries on, outside your windows, but you aren’t part of it. Whilst I had moments of feeling a bit penned in, lockdown didn’t really bother me that much because it was a lifestyle that I was used to. Having mental illnesses also prepared me, in part, for the madness that is covid-19. I have anxiety and can easily catastrophise about the world ending and going through endless what ifs. On so many occasions, I have convinced myself that the absolute worst was going to happen, so when the world imploded and shut down, it wasn’t actually as bad as I had built it up to be in my mind. Every day I panic about the people I love dying, and suddenly that became a very real threat. But that threat felt normal for me, so whilst other people were panicking about loved ones getting ill and dying, I basically sat back and thought “this is my normal, this is okay.” Having an excuse to be anxious and not being viewed like I was being dramatic or overreacting was quite a nice break. I felt like saying “welcome to my daily life. Exhausting right?” I wasn’t having to constantly explain my irrational thoughts, because suddenly they weren’t irrational. 

That said, I did make a conscious effort to try and look after myself during lockdown. Mentally, things were a bit wobbly towards the beginning (nothing to do with covid) and I quickly realised that it was unlikely that I would get any additional support because, put simply, it wasn’t there any more, as everything had shut down. It was a bit of a sink or swim moment, and I had spent so much time sinking, that I figured that trying to swim was worth a try. 

So how did I survive lockdown without relapsing and becoming very unwell?

Sticking to a routining has been really important. I’m not going to pretend that I was up and dressed by 8am every single morning, like I would if I was at work. That would be a lie. But I have tried to wake up by 10ish (unless I felt ill) and then get up. I could happily live in pyjamas but I made sure that I could dressed every day because I will admit, I mentally feel better if I have made the effort to look presentable. I tend to put aside some time every day to exercise in some form, do some of the endless medical and adult admin that seems to have accumulated over the past few months and I have done a lot of reading. I kept meaning to write down all the books that I have read during lockdown because it’s a pretty impressive selection. Even though I haven’t been able to go out-out, I have spent time in the garden and actually developed a bit of a tan. I know, mad. 

On the days when the weather hasn’t been so good, or when my body has been rebelling, Netflix has been fantastic, as has Amazon Prime. I have had the time to discover so many new series over the past few months, including Dead to Me, The Good Fight, Alex Rider, Chernobyl and Little Fires Everywhere. 

Weirdly, during lockdown, I have felt more connected than I have done in ages. I am so grateful to my friends who have been at the end of a video call a couple of times every week. Even though no one has been doing anything particularly exciting, just spending time in their company has been really nice and it’s left me feeling a lot closer to them. I also have send more letters and happy post to friends, because receiving something other than a bill or medical letter makes a change from the norm.

Being kind to myself has been really important. We are living in unprecedented times so doing little things to try and keep myself happy, sane and healthy has been a priority. This ranges from using a hair mask once a week to try and save my hair when I can’t see my hairdresser, to making a conscious effort to try and eat well. I’ve tried to exercise most days and have also been doing sudoko and other brain training games. I don’t for one moment that it will improve my brain skills or intelligence, but I want to keep mentally active, as well as physically active.

As life slowly begins to return back to normal, spare a thought for those people whose life won’t be drastically changing and will instead be remaining at home and isolated from their friends, family and society. Millions and millions or people are silently missing, please don’t forget them.

Dear 18 Year Old Self

Dear Laura,

You are eighteen and it should be the most exciting time of your life. Unfortunately, right now, you are finding life hard. You are in chronic pain and you don’t know why and you’re spending a lot of time in and out of hospital. But you’re going to get through it and it will make you even stronger (we love a cliche). You think that your A Levels are going to destroy you. Spoiler: they don’t. You won’t enjoy them, you might even cry during them but you’re going to get through them and you’re going to go to university and start the best three years of your life.

Don’t take life for granted and don’t waste time on the wrong people. You will meet the wrong people and part of life is learning lessons from the bad times. Don’t hold on to anger, resentment or jealousy because it will take over. Try not to put your self last, even though doing the opposite seems completely unnatural to you. The things that bother you now will not bother you in the future, trust me on that one!

Hold your good friends tight. The friends you value now won’t necessarily be in your life in the future, but know your self worth and know that it is okay to move on. Laugh and cry with your friends, stay up late and drink bottles of wine. Don’t pressure yourself into going clubbing because it really isn’t as great as people make out.

Believe in yourself! Know your own worth and what you can offer. Don’t be silenced by people who are louder and more confident than you. Try not to compared yourself to other people, everyone is walking their own path and there’s no point comparing your step one to their step five. You’ll get there, in your own way.

Learn how to be independent. Don’t rely on other people for your survival, be happy on your own and be happy with other people.

Dating the wrong people is not a mistake, but staying with them, because you feel that you have to, is. Be your own person and don’t change because a man wants you to. You will make mistakes, in relationships, in life, with decisions but you will learn from those mistakes. Mistakes are okay. Self talk, problem solve and don’t regret what went wrong. It went wrong for a reason.

Asking for help is okay. There will always be people there who are willing to help you. This is your time to learn, but that doesn’t have to be done alone. There isn’t an age limit on success, now is the time to explore, live your life, make decisions (good and bad) and don’t beat yourself up if it goes wrong.

Make memories. Take photos.

Stand up for yourself.

Risk it.

Find and enjoy whatever it is that makes you happy.

Respect yourself and respect others.

Save money and don’t spend all your student loan in one go when you get to university. You’ll be thankful for this when you’re not poor and hungry.

Your mum is [nearly always] right. She will tell you things that you don’t want to hear and she will nag you until the point that you want to explode but she does it because she loves you and cares for you. Never forget that and try and listen to what she says, she is the person that loves you the most and will not turn her back on you.

Also, always drink some water before bed after a night out. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.

You’ve got this,

Laura x

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Emily McDowell

 

 

Volunteers’ Week 2020

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The first week of June marks Volunteers’ Week across the UK, a week to say thank you to volunteers for giving up their time and celebrating work which is done by volunteers. I have been volunteering off and since since I was 15 and I personally think that it is one of the most rewarding things that you can do. You’re able to contribute time and skills to help people, often who are vulnerable, as well as gaining new experiences and opportunities, whilst making a huge difference. Not only that, but at some of the toughest times in my life, I have been able to hold on to the fact that I volunteer: it has given me a purpose and something to focus on when everything seemed impossible hard and has also forced me to think about something other than my wonky body or spiralling mental health. Put simply, I genuinely think that volunteering has saved my life.

As a teenager, I volunteered with Barnardo’s, a children’s charity, before being offered a paid position as a play and support worker. It gave me an escape from the reality of exams, applying to university and instead gave me confidence, new friendships and an escape. It was really tough at times, I was working with disabled children and young people, frequently people who were the same age as me and I was having to do intimate personal care, amongst other things. I very quickly learnt the importance of dignity and putting aside disability and treating service users like “normal” people. Most of my friends worked in retail, but I knew that retail wasn’t the job that I wanted to do. I would go to work and be having to restrain children for their own safety, if they became violent, I would have handfuls of my hair pulled out, I was urinated on and had sperm wiped in my hair (I wish I was joking) and I was dealing with medications and tube feeding and complex health conditions like it was nothing. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life, other than being really interested in working with people and this job was my first paddling into the world of supporting young people with additional needs and I loved it.

I stayed in this, now paid, role for six years, working around university and living 200 miles away and gave as many hours as was possible in holidays. It’s only now that I look back, ten years on, do I realise how vital this volunteering position was. When I started, I was deep in the grief process, after losing a friend to suicide. I was struggling with my own health and being bumped around different hospital departments to try and figure out what was happening and I was unhappy at school due to the pressure of exams. My confidence was low but I was welcomed with open arms by a fantastic team of people: little did I know that my initial enquiry about volunteering would see the dark clouds above me start to fade away and bring new light into my life. Not only had I made a difference to people’s lives, I had also made lots of new friends and built my own confidence as well.

Fast forward to September 2018 and I started volunteering with Girl Guiding. In January 2018 I had been offered my dream job, working in children’s social care, but my declining physical health meant that I had to turn it down and instead forge a life on universal credit because I was too ill to work. I sent an enquiry to Girl Guiding to see if there was any volunteering that I could do. Initially this was purely because I was thinking about my CV and was forward planning for when I would be returning to work. The atmosphere in Girl Guiding has made it one of the best places I’ve worked. Everyone is awesome, and I don’t say that lightly.  Everybody goes into Girl Guiding with their own story and reasons for volunteering but one thing is certain, you cannot beat the passion and positivity from everyone you meet. The two hours when I was helping to run a Rainbow group (five to seven year old girls) quickly became the highlight of my week. It gave me my smile back when I felt very lost and without a purpose.

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Girl Guiding Killamarsh

My health deteriorated further over 2019 and I had a few months away from volunteering when I was in hospital. I remember being so anxious about returning and potentially having to face difficult questions. But yet again, I was welcomed with open arms and unwavering support. I didn’t face any stigma or discrimination, maybe because the other leaders had their own stuff to contend with too, I don’t know. It makes such a difference working with people who have a shared understanding, there was a mutual respect that we all had stuff going on in our private lives and sometimes we talked about it whilst always focusing on making the sessions as fun as possible for the girls. The diversity of the role means that even if you’re having a bad week, there is still a role for you. You can be sat dealing with the admin side of running a group or be actively playing with the girls and having fun with them.

Without a doubt, choosing to start volunteering as a teenager was one of the best decisions that I could have made. Continuing to volunteer throughout my twenties proved to me such a strong protective factor in my life that I now can’t imagine my life without volunteering in some respect. So whilst volunteers’ week is about saying thank you to volunteers, it seems only right to say “thank you” to all the people who saw the potential in me and allowed me to volunteer in the first place. You’ve made my life better because of it.

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.