Mental Health Awareness Week UK

Today marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week UK. This year’s theme is ‘Surviving or Thriving?’ The idea is to explore why too few of us are thriving with good mental health.

So many things can have a negative impact on our mental wellbeing, which if not dealt with, could lead to a mental health condition developing. Chronic stress, major life events, ill-health, serious injury and grief, are just a few to mention. These can lead to anxiety, depression, mental breakdown, PTSD, eating disorders, self-harm and suicide, so it is important that our mental wellbeing thrives. Good mental health will help us deal with the nasty things life can throw at us.

The stigma surrounding mental health is starting to break down now thanks to regular campaigning by mental health charities and people with high profiles. Although there is still a long way to go, many people in various walks of life are speaking up and talking about their mental health and the things that had a negative impact on them. People also seem willing to take the time and listen to those who need to talk, which is a huge step forward from just a few years ago. All the campaigning is having a positive impact on the public and is breaking down the stigma wall several bricks at a time.

For many years I have been clinging on by my fingernails and just about surviving. I found being open and talking to friends and family about my mental health condition helped me. It seemed to normalise the illness and make it less scary. I thought the more people who understand what I am going through, the more people there are who can support others who are battling similar illnesses.

In recent months, I have gone from ‘surviving’ to ‘thriving’, and I feel so much better than I have done for years. Much of this is down to the excellent care and support I have received from mental health services and mental health charities in my community. The ongoing support and encouragement I have received from family and friends have also played a big part in my journey from surviving to thriving.

Because I have received so much help in the community, I want to give something to others who need help; so one of the ways I feel able to do it is by blogging about my experiences through this website. Other things I am doing include volunteering with mental health charities in my area and taking part in mental health awareness events.

I am getting involved throughout Mental Health Awareness Week by joining in with activities organised by a group I am very lucky to be a member of, called Your Voice in Action (YViA). Being part of YViA has been pivotal in the rebuilding of my confidence. It was a privilege to be asked to build the website for them. I am looking forward to taking part in all the activities we have organised for the coming week. Watch this space for reports on how we got on!

MHAW 2017 Logo

Challenging myself

For a few years now, I have been confined to the house and only went out if I absolutely had to. Lately, though, I have started cycling and going to the gym and have found it has made a difference in how I feel.  Even though I ache the next day, I have noticed that I have a bit more energy than before, so I decided to take on a challenge and visited a climbing wall to do some bouldering and top roping.

Shirley Bouldering 2Oh my goodness, it was SO exhilarating to heave myself to the top of the wall and manage to complete the climb. I am very unfit and overweight so it was indeed a challenge, but I had fun trying out all the different walls.

While climbing, my attention was completely focussed on what I was doing and where I was putting my feet. I had to keep assessing what I could reach and what strength I had to move upwards.  I never noticed my racing mind or troubled thoughts, I never felt the heavy pull of depression.  I felt pleased with myself each time I mastered a new route.

The routes are colour-coded and you have to only use the one colour foot/hand holds.  I was on the black route in this photo.

Once I had mastered the smaller walls, I just had to go for the ultimate challenge and climb the big wall. I think it was 30 feet high. (just a small one apparently!).

This was my chance to really push myself out of my comfort zone and experience the feeling of success. I can’t begin to tell you how good it was for my mental wellbeing. I was on top of the world and the feeling of satisfaction and joy stayed with me all day!

Today, my arms ache and my legs are stiff, but it was totally worth it.  If you are thinking about doing an activity to push yourself, even just a little bit, I totally recommend it – I still feel energised and pleased with myself today!  Go for it 🙂

Me on a climbing wall about 20 feet up
I made it all the way to the top following the green route!



Caffeine Nap

I suffer from extreme daytime sleepiness partly because of a sleep disorder and partly due to my bipolar meds. Because of this, I have trouble staying awake in the afternoons so I tried all sorts; drinking coffee, having naps, getting some fresh air and even had a go at mindfulness, but nothing helped to helped me fight extreme sleepiness. I heard about a caffeine nap so thought I would give it a

The idea is to drink a cup of coffee or caffeine product quickly, then have a nap immediately afterwards. It sounds contradictory, and initially, made no sense to me, but the science behind it proved otherwise.

The theory is that it takes around 20 minutes for the effects of caffeine to kick in and the recommended time for a power-nap is 20 minutes. Combining the two together means the caffeine is just kicking in at the point of awakening from the nap. The caffeine cancels the groggy feeling often felt when waking. It also prevents us from napping too long, making us feel even worse.

I decided to give it a go. It took a bit to get used to as I would tend to fall deeply asleep for an hour or more and the caffeine wasn’t enough to wake me. I found the best way to deal with it, was to set the alarm for 25 minutes. This allowed me a bit of time to fall asleep and also time for a brief nap to happen.


I did find myself still groggy upon awakening, though, so I made the coffee stronger. I also stood up and walked around then made myself busy immediately after the nap to get the blood flowing again rather than just sitting for a while. This helped tremendously and I felt refreshed and awake again.

I have been doing the caffeine nap for a while now, and I find I am more alert for hours after the nap and survive until bedtime without needing another nap.

For people who also suffer from extreme sleepiness, it is worth trying.

Painting for Mental Wellbeing

Living with a serious illness sucks, but I have to make the most of it. I am too unwell to work, at least for the foreseeable future anyway; never say never, though. Filling my time, therefore, can be a challenge. I need to try and keep my brain occupied, but have to battle fatigue and concentration problems.

I have taken up painting as a new hobby, but as I can’t afford, or have room for canvas and paints in my tiny little home, I have taken up digital painting on the laptop using Corel Painter 2016. It’s not cheap, but boy, was it worth the money. I am sure I would have spent the equivalent in paints and canvas over time.

What a fantastic piece of software! It has hundreds of brush types in dozens of different mediums. It has taken me months of experimenting to get the hang of it. If you are interested in taking up digital painting, I cannot recommend it enough. Tip – they have regular sales with significant discounts – buy it then!

It is filling a large hole in my time; I spend most of the morning painting. For someone who finds it hard to concentrate on things like books and tv programmes, it is unbelievable how much I can do. On those long sleepless nights, painting is also perfect for relaxing me and taking away the anxiety of not being able to sleep. Charlie Profile Pic 2nd attempt

The feeling of satisfaction when my creation is complete is worth the effort. It has done wonders for my confidence and mental wellbeing. Although I a loving painting landscapes from reference photos, one of my biggest achievements was painting a picture of my cat, Charlie. There is a photo of him on my ‘About’ page for comparison.

If you are thinking about it, go for it! Here are a couple of my landscape efforts:

Sunset River and Trees_bak

Sea View Bushes

Medication Withdrawal

One-two, buckle my shoe …

Thump, slam, crash. Scream out loud. There it goes again, and again, yet again.

Three-four, knock at the door … scream out loud.

The knocking is inside my head, in the space between the front of my skull and between my ears. It is there that the pinball machine resides.

The metal ball-bearing is rattling around inside my skull. Each time the ball-bearing strikes, it generates an electric shock. It is a mild shock, not life-threatening, or indeed life-ending; just mild. Like the sound coming from the dripping of a tap … just mild, not deafening.

Every little electric shock makes my body jerk, just a little, not wildly. Thump, slam, crash. One-two, buckle my shoe. Scream.

Optic nerves are shrinking. Every time I move my eyes, a hissing sound rushes through my ears, and a searing pain shoots through the nerves from my eyes into the bowels of my brain. This excites the ball-bearing, and it crashes around wildly … sting, sizzle, fizz goes the electric shocks. Over and over again. Scream.

Every time I move my head, even just a little, my eyes hurt and my ears hiss … Three-four, knock at the door. Scream.

Like the persistent dripping of a tap – every single drip increases in intensity. The pinball machine moves to the next level. Lips tingle and guts wrench. Every last molecule is ripped from my gut. Feet can only shuffle, and my head hangs limply.

My doctor took me off Venlafaxine; it’s a week without any antidepressant, and my body is starting to experience the horror of discontinuation syndrome.

There it goes again, and again, yet again. Scream.
Mild, yet so intense.

The Cruel Lie – You Just Need to be Strong

Mental illness is just that – it is an illness. Just as a physical illness makes you ill, mental illness does too. Illness is no stroll in the park for anyone, no matter who they are or what they are dealing with.

The thing about mental illness, though, is it carries a sting in the tail. People seem to think that if someone has a mental illness, it is as a result of some kind of weakness. Physical illness is unfortunate, but mental illness seems to be perceived around the world as of their own making, and therefore they must be weak to have ended up ill in the first place, and weak for being trapped in the illness.

It’s just not true! New discoveries are being made every month that reveal the functions within the brain, that when not working properly, results in a mental illness developing. Strength and weakness have nothing to do with it.

Living with any serious illness takes strength and courage just to get by and function on a basic level each day. Mental illness is no different, except that it comes with an additional sting in the tail – it makes you physically ill too. Nausea, exhaustion, fatigue, IBS, muscular pain, joint pain, headaches. Weight, blood pressure and blood sugar are affected too. Then there is the impact on sleep… everyone experiences different problems, so the list is endless.

When someone is in the throws of an episode, the image of them sat in in their pyjamas unable to get washed and dressed because of the debilitating mental illness, is easy to scorn. It is so easy to think they must be weak just to sit there, staring at the wall in torment. It is easy to think that they just need to be told to pull it together and be strong, and they will be able to get up and function normally again.

The truth is; they just burned up their last bit of strength to push themselves out of bed when their brain and body were screaming at them not to. There is not an ounce of energy left in the system, and no reserves in the tank – that got burned up yesterday. Washing, dressing, eating, functioning, coping and working are all physically and mentally out of the question.

Distress And SufferingThe brain and body are all burned up, and they can do nothing but exist in an empty shell and sit with the torment they are experiencing. They will use inner strength to exist from minute to minute and hour to hour. As soon as they have some energy again, believe me, they will push themselves hard just to manage basic functions. That is the way it is in an episode of mental illness. It is cruel, severe and robs people of the opportunity to engage in the world around them.

It might take days, weeks or months for recovery to start. All they have left is their courage and the memories of what they used to be able to achieve in a typical day.

So, someone with a mental illness who is crying in pain and screaming in distress is not being weak; they are dying inside because they have no strength left.

Telling them to ‘you just need to be strong, and you will get through it’, is hurting them even more.

Dealing with Survivor Guilt

Every year, around this time of the year, ‘survivor guilt’ rears its ugly head and fills mine with torment. Survivor guilt is classified as a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. The repetitive thought that fills my waking moments and disturbs my sleep is: “Why did I live when other people who died were only a few feet away from me?” The impact of this is the development of anxiety and then depression. I served in the British Armed Forces, and my traumatic experience was during my military service.

It’s not just service personnel who are vulnerable to survivor guilt; anyone who experiences any traumatic situation can be. The traumatic situation can be anything from surviving a collision in a vehicle or public transport, terrorism events, through to the death of a sibling or losing a partner or someone close to suicide. There is a strong link between people dying of cancer and a surviving family member experiencing survivor guilt. The situations are wide and varied, but the common denominator is having shared a traumatic experience where a person or people have died, but you have not.

Survivor guilt is painful. It in itself can be traumatic. It can cause anxiety, depression and insomnia. In the very worst of situations, it can lead to suicide. It is classified as a mental condition and can be part of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I find it difficult at this time of year as it is the anniversary of the traumatic event and two weeks later, it is Remembrance Day in the UK. On this day, I take time out to remember those who died in that event and I honour their lives. But, I spend the latter part of October, and most of November/December enveloped in that guilt again. It doesn’t ever go away; the switch just dims throughout the other months of the year.

I get hit with the depression caused by the impact of the clock change on my circadian rhythm disorder, and the depression of survivor guilt. It is a miserable time of the year for many, but it is the absolute worst time of the year for me. I find it very hard to get enthusiastic about Christmas which is a shame for my family. The circumstances often trigger bipolar episodes, but I have made it through every winter, and each year I get a little stronger thanks to psychological intervention. It was expensive but worth every penny. Maybe one year I will be able to wear my poppy with pride and not feel guilty at the same time.

If you think you might be suffering from survivor guilt, I would recommend seeing a counsellor or psychologist as a good starting place. In serious cases, seeing a psychiatrist may be advisable, as the symptoms may be part of the larger diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

There is no shame, or need to feel weak if suffering from survivor guilt; it is a real and serious condition that requires treatment. I am living testimony that treatment does work.


Photo:  Can Stock Photos