Rise and shine: tips for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Wasn’t the summer of 2018 just… bloody glorious?

The sun shone relentlessly. The days were long and warm, pregnant with the possibility that football might actually come home. It didn’t, of course, but it was still a magic summer: full of beer gardens and spontaneous moments where I stopped to read a book on a park bench, just to catch a few more hours of that lovely golden light. We stored our coats away, and felt all sophisticated, sleeping with a sheet instead of a duvet. Tres continental.

And my mental health was seriously good – which is hardly surprising, given that every year for as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled intensely with my mood and energy levels being linked to the season and the availability of sunlight. As I’ve written about before, I, like many others, have more than a touch of the old Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Which is a bit of a bitch. Because not only is it exhausting – it’s also inevitable. Every winter, like clockwork, usually starting about mid-October, I turn into a tired slug of a woman, barely able to get out of bed, with no energy for anything other than the bare minimum. Fortunately, after all this time tinkering with my self care, I’ve tried and tested a few treatment options. So, here’s my tips for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) busting…

Using a SAD lamp

When I was doing my Masters, I used to have a Lumie SAD lamp, which you’re meant to sit under for half an hour a day to stave off the blues. Is using a SAD lamp effective? Yes. It is also wildly inconvenient? Erm, kind of. When I lived by myself, it was fine. But I can’t imagine when I’d find the time to do it now. People suggest doing it in bed in the morning, or even at your desk, but it’s such a distracting light – you’d have the whole office swooping down on you asking WTF you’re doing.

Moving to the Southern Hemisphere

The winter before last I avoided the issue entirely by going to the southern hemisphere. The whole ‘not doing winter’ thing is definitely a bit of me. But I don’t actually want to move to Australia, so that’s also not a viable option. 

Exercise for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Last winter, I did shitloads of exercise. In November 2017, I went to the gym 25 times in 30 days. This more or less worked, but it wasn’t sustainable. (If you are someone who thinks going to the gym 25/30 in normal: no.) And the second I stopped living in Virgin Active, the effects went away. So yeah, exercise for SAD does work – but who wants to have to go the gym six days out of seven just to keep their mental health in check? Probably some people, but definitely not me. I’ve got Netflix to watch.

Sleeping incessantly

Nope. Not for grown-ups. Sigh.

Sunrise lamps for SAD

Waking with the sun just feels better – in the summer, I regularly spring out of bed at 5am. So this year, I’ve invested in a Lumie Bodyclock lamp. You know how being woken up from a deep sleep with a shrill alarm feels like getting smacked around the head with a xylophone? Waking up to a soft warm light that arrives slowly over 30 minutes is the exact opposite of that. It’s like how I imagine Disney princesses wake up, being gently nuzzled by a fluffy woodland creature, and the sound of birdsong. So far, I think it’s helping. I feel much more awake in the morning and can actually get up and be productive before the last possible moment. It’s also lovely to feel like I’m waking up at the same time naturally. (Obviously it isn’t natural, but you know what I mean.)

I bought the Bodyclock Shine 300, but to be honest: I could have got a cheaper version. I liked the idea of waking up to sounds, but the sounds are all a bit weird. (Who wants to be roused from their slumber by the noise of goats?)

Any more tips for SAD? Let me know!

Other things help, of course – getting outside in the middle of the day, eating well. My new office helps, too: being up on the seventh floor, there’s plenty of natural light, not to mention the sort of spectacular winter sunsets that can cheer up even the moodiest of days. But I’m always looking for more tips, so if you have any for busting the winter blues, let me know in the comments.

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Are you okay?

One of the cruellest things about mental illness is how worthless it can make you feel. And when you feel that way, it’s very difficult to ask for help – as I wrote about earlier this week. But sometimes, it’s just as hard to offer help – and that’s a serious problem.

Now, I don’t think this comes from a place of cruelty. In my experience, people are mostly kind; we want to care for others where we can. So why do we find it so difficult to offer help to people we think might be struggling with their mental health? Why is it so achingly hard to utter the words: are you okay?

It’s not because we’re selfish – more because we’re awkward, and we don’t want to offend or intrude. All of which is understandable. But it’s also how people end up slipping through the net. Because they’re too afraid to ask for help, and we’re too scared to offer it.

Of course, we can’t blame this entirely on our own bumbling Britishness – it’s also structural. Western society isn’t really geared towards supporting emotionally vulnerable people, given how many of us live apart from our extended families. Likewise, large numbers of people live alone or with housemates found online, and we tend to spend most of our lives with our colleagues, who may or may not know us well.

This means we typically no longer have somebody to keep a close eye on us. Most people don’t even see the same GP from visit to visit, so spotting poor mental health isn’t something we can leave up to medical professionals. We have to take this mantle up ourselves – especially in the case of demographics we know particularly struggle to ask for help, like men.

I don’t tend to write a lot specifically about men’s mental health, because (being a woman, and all that) I don’t feel qualified to speak about it. There are enough voices who can eloquently tell those stories. But I do worry about it – all the time, in fact – especially when I have exchanges like this with my boyfriend:

‘How would you ask for help?’

‘What sort of help?’

‘Mental health help.’

‘… I’d ask you.’

‘Ha. No, but seriously. In general.’

‘Erm… I would probably wait until somebody commented on it. Until somebody asked if I was okay. And then say, maybe, not really…’

That breaks my heart. And I’m sure he’s far from the only person who feels like that. But while I can’t undo years of structurally reinforced gendered nonsense, I can push myself to look out for the men close to me. And so can everyone who is well enough to take on the task.

Ask explicit questions of your partners, your male friends, your brothers. Even your fathers. Dads definitely aren’t exempt: my first real experience of ‘seeing’ depression close up was my own father. (PS., I’m definitely NOT saying it’s a woman’s work to do this sort of emotional labour; it’s everybody’s responsibility).

This isn’t the only solution, of course. A colleague recently shared this excellent development from men’s shaving brand, Harry’s, who have commissioned a listening bot called ‘HARR-E’, following research which showed men are 300% more likely to open up to AI than another human. If this can go on to help more men open up, that’s wonderful – and hopefully the same tech can be rolled out to support a wider range of people.

But in a way, the need for such tech reinforces my point: if 50% of the population are more likely to open up to AI than each other, we need to work harder to make people feel comfortable talking about their feelings. Because, as wonderful as AI is, it can’t (yet) rub your back and hold you while you weep. It can’t hold your hand in the GP’s surgery, and it can’t sit with you over a cup of tea while you research finding a counsellor.

So (in honour of World Mental Health Day) if you see someone struggling – or anybody struggling, for that matter: ask. When you ask, they may not want to share. Likewise, when you ask somebody if you can help them, they won’t always be ready or able to accept it. Sometimes, there’s a fine line to draw, where we have to make judgments about whether or not people are well enough to be left alone, if they ask to be. But we have to get better at doing this – not least because, in all likelihood, one day we’ll need it too.

Ways of Offering Help

Not a trained counsellor, obviously, but here are the things I personally think can be helpful:

  • The obvious one: ask, ‘are you okay?’ Then listen, listen, listen. You may receive no answer – but at least you’ve opened the conversation.
  • Many people will also just say ‘yes, fine’, regardless of how they actually feel. If it’s someone you’re close with, sometimes you need to push further. ‘You seem like you’re struggling at the moment – do you want to talk about anything?’ is a good way of phrasing the question that lets people know you do sincerely want to listen.
  • Ask to spend time with people who are struggling. Feel like they’ve withdrawn from you? They may well feel like they’re a burden and poor company, which can lead to self-isolation.
  • Offer to go with someone if they need to see a Doctor or counselling if you can spare the time – going alone can be bloody scary. Having a panic attack on your way to speak to somebody about having panic attacks, and all that.
  • Reassure them that their feelings are valid and they deserve help. Often, people battling with mental illness struggle to remember this.
  • It may be that you’re clued up on what your friend is going through. If not, do some research. Not least because mental health is a valuable thing to know about in life and general. And it may even be the case that your friend hasn’t looked into any resources for getting better, so this could help you to help them.
  • Ask if you can help with practical tasks and life admin. AKA, the stuff that often falls horribly by the wayside when people are ill.
  • Be patient. Be kind. Remember that what you are doing is worth so much more than feeling awkward.

Anybody else got any good suggestions for offering help to people struggling? Let me know in the comments – and in the meantime, have a peaceful week.

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Asking for mental health help

It’s a difficult thing, asking for help.

Whether we don’t understanding something at work or need support with a physical task, I don’t think it’s something any of us like to do. I certainly don’t: I hate the idea of putting anybody out. And that’s just the everyday stuff. Asking for mental health help is harder by far.

But when so much is at stake – lives, in some cases – it’s probably time to start wondering: how can we get better and asking for the help so many of us need?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. Mainly because of Timehop, an app which shows you an ‘on this day’ index of your social media, if you haven’t used it before. For me, Timehop induces 80% fuzzy nostalgia, and 10% horror at my own ignorance/lack of fashion sense.

The other 10% is reserved for the strange, heavy-stomached feeling I get when I realise that this time, three years ago, I was crashing towards a total breakdown. And, I hardly need to add, I had no idea how to deal with this fact. Timehop makes it quite clear that I was regularly fishing for help I didn’t know how to ask for, all while indulging in self-destructive behaviours and withdrawing from the world.

Which is sad to think about. I was eloquent, after all. I was expressive. And I’ve always been a chronic over-sharer. I should have been able to find the words I needed to say. In private, I could: I wrote a great deal at the time about how I was feeling. How I was experiencing a pain by turns sharp and dull, which left me with little appetite for the act of being alive.

But I couldn’t say this yet, not explicitly, not to the people around me, and certainly not to a Doctor. I had been dismissed by medical services (or at least felt like I had) too many times. And surely all my friends hated me by now, with all the misery I was wrapped in? So I withdrew into myself, essentially subtweeting my mental health problems out into the universe.

It’s so obvious, looking back. I was straining for someone to hear words I wasn’t explicitly saying. Fortunately, people did. (You might say I had help forced upon me, which sounds awful, but was exactly what I needed). Things got better. But not everyone is so lucky.

asking for mental health help
Note to self: moody Instagrams are not an effective way to ask for urgent mental health help.

So why don’t we ask for help?

Some of us are afraid of looking weak. Some of us don’t actually feel we have anyone we can ask. But mostly, I think, asking for help with your mental health is awkward. It’s embarrassing and exposing. And it usually means confronting something deep and raw within ourselves – most often, something we’re terrified of exposing to the light.

Worst of all, when we most need to ask for help, our self-esteem is likely at an all-time low. Which makes us all the more susceptible to that poisonous little voice – the one that whispers: you don’t deserve to be helped in the first place.

That’s utter bollocks, of course – everybody deserves help. Even if you feel you aren’t worthy of it. Even if, in the state of being unwell, you’ve done bad things. We’re not all good people all of the time, but everybody deserves to feel sound and strong in their mind. And often, that help can only come when we find a way to ask for it. It isn’t easy – but it almost always is the only way for things to get better.

I’ve compiled some resources below that might give you a starting point, if you need it. And I’ve got another post in the works about how to give help, which I’ll hopefully put out on World Mental Health Day this week. But in the meantime, I hope you can believe me when I say: you are worthy of the support you need, even when it feels like you aren’t.

Ways of asking for help with your mental health 

Asking for mental health help: friends and family

  • It’s the cruel trick of mental illness, to make you feel you’re an inconvenience to everyone around you. But, while you may not feel like it, your friends and family want to support you. And while not all of them will be equipped to do this, the likelihood is there is someone in your circle who can, from their own personal experience, give you at least some of the help you need.
  • Can’t speak about it? Write letters, if sitting down and speaking is too difficult. Or, share other media – even somebody else’s words. There are so many accounts of different mental health experiences, available in books and online or even Instagram. You can send these to your loved ones with the simple cover note: ‘this explains how I am feeling’.
  • Sometimes, look in unexpected places. There are people in my life I don’t actually know very well, but they’ve posted something online that suggests they have insight, and I’ve reached out to them on that basis. People have done this to me, too, and I am always delighted to offer any help at all.

Asking for mental health help: Medical help

  • Your Doctor is another obvious place to start, although this can be scary, especially given the brief ten-minute slot you’re likely to be given. In this time, it’s often hard to get your point across honestly – you might forget key bits, freeze up, burst into tears. So, if you think you’re going to struggle to express yourself, write down the key points of what you’re experiencing before you go in.
  • Yes, the Doctor is probably busy. But this doesn’t mean you have to rush in and out. Remember that.
  • Consider taking somebody with you. That might just be for emotional support, but it can also be practically helpful. It’s a sad fact that sometimes, in the NHS, you’ll get a better result if you have someone to fight your corner. But fighting is bloody hard when you’re feeling so fragile. Case in point: I got drastically better results when my lioness of a mother was with me.
  • If you pursue this route, the thorny issue of medication is likely to crop up. It’s a difficult one, and not for everybody. But it can be hugely helpful, and just like there’s no shame in asking for help, there’s no shame in taking medication for your mental health, either.

Asking for mental health help: Talking Therapies

  • Ask for help from a counsellor. A GP can give you a referral to see a counsellor, but you can also refer yourself directly to psychological therapies services. Bear in mind there is often a wait – but if your situation is urgent, i.e. you’re having suicidal thoughts, make this known.
  • In the UK, there is also a wide range of free services for specific issues, like relationship or bereavement counselling. Some, like Relate, even have live chat functions.
  • This is desperately unfair, and I wish it wasn’t true, but it is: private counselling is likely to be faster, more convenient, and more tailored to your needs. So, if you can afford it, it isn’t an indulgence. The BACP therapist director is a good place to start. This also helps to free up strained resources for people that can’t afford this option.
  • In a pinch, a helpline can do it. The NHS have a fairly conclusive list here.
  • I toyed with putting e-counselling in here, because I haven’t had it, so what do I know? But I do see it advertised more and more, so perhaps something to look into.

If anybody else has any wisdom to add to this list, I’d love to hear it. Let me know in the comments, and in the meantime, take care of yourself in the way you deserve to.

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In defence of crying

My name’s Nic, and I’m a crier.

Here’s a list of things I’ve cried at in the last week: the Lloyds advert with the horses on the beach; Bridget Jones’ Baby; an article in the Telegraph; Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion singing The Prayer; a hospital appointment; the Lloyds advert again; and generally feeling a bit tired.

I am capable of crying an ocean of tears, and feeling utterly calm five minutes later.

Am I going through a bad mental health patch? Nope: this year has been the best I’ve felt in my adult life. I’m just one of those people who cries a lot. I cry when I’m happy. I cry when I’m sad. I frequently shed a tear when my pregnant friend sends me a baby bump update. I cry with laughter maybe once a day. I cry when I miss my Dad, or when I’m panicking, or (most annoyingly) when I’m really fucking angry and trying to have a pop at somebody. This usually completely undermines my point, but hey.

Naturally, to save other people from feeling awkward, I try to do this crying in private. As a society, we don’t like tears. I don’t blame people for this – tears aren’t easy to deal with – but I do get quite frustrated when people see it as a sign of weakness. Or worse, attention seeking.

Honestly, the most annoying accusation levelled against people who cry a lot is that they’re doing it for sympathy, or to get out of trouble. Every single time I have ever cried when I’ve been in trouble, it has got me into more trouble. It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. They are not crocodile tears. I would really rather not do it. Believe me: I value the ability to get my point across in a terse conversation, and crying does not help you do that.

All in all, it’s not easy, this lip-wobbling tendency of mine. It’s always been a thing about myself that I would love to change. Again, as my fellow criers will know, some people are really offended by it. But in the last few years, I’ve slowly started to care less.

It probably started when my Dad was dying. And by ‘it’, I mean ‘no longer giving a fuck about my teary ways’. During that time, I lost the ability to care about crying in public. If anything, I did it more – because I didn’t want to cry in front of him, or my pals, given we were all revising for our final year exams at the time.

So I did a lot of sobbing in various places, primarily the Nottingham-Birmingham train line. Thankfully, being British, almost everyone left me alone to get on with it, barring the occasional ill-advised ‘cheer up love, it’ll be better in the morning!’ comment. (Terminal cancer: very rarely better in the morning, as it goes).

Through this, I learnt to realise that my tears weren’t the end of the world. Often, they were the only thing that allowed me to feel a bit better. Little wonder: crying releases stress hormones and reduces tension – a 2008 study found crying improved the mood of 90% of subjects.

Now, I’m often grateful for a little cry, and I refuse to see it as a weakness. Like still waters after a storm, a big bluster of emotion helps me give way to calm. Crying means I’m able to go from being in a remarkably shit mood to feeling absolutely dandy in under 20 minutes. A quick sob and I can be back about my day, bright-eyed and as cheerful and a lark.

Honestly, it’s a shame more people can’t take advantage of the magic of tears. Men especially. It genuinely makes me very sad that men find it so hard to let themselves cry. Nearly every boyfriend I’ve ever had has screwed up his face and turned away, rather than let me see their tears.

As someone who has literally cried to an EE sales assistant, I say: tears are fine! Embarrassment is literally the worst thing that can result! Men, believe me, you are allowed to cry (and, if you’re friends with me, positively encouraged to). It can make you feel so, so much better. And unlike other things that make me feel better, like exercise, I can do crying in bed. Ideal.

So yep – the older I get, the less embarrassed I am about being a crier. And I think it’s time that we stopped stigmatising tears so much. Because yes, I probably am an overly emotional person – but I’m also compassionate and empathetic and fiercely loving. These things go hand in hand, I can’t help but feel.

Best of all? I will never, never be made to feel awkward by somebody else’s tears. So if you need a shoulder to cry on, come on over. Just make sure I don’t catch sight of that bloody Lloyds Bank advert, or I’ll be joining you.

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5 things I’ve read this week that brought me joy

Content. Whether it’s books, articles, tweets or even a WhatsApp thread, most of us love to consume it. But the sad reality is that nowadays, we get an awful lot of negative content pushed to us from all angles. Which is definitely not good for our collective mental health. So here’s 5 things I’ve read this week that have brought a smile to my face.

Notes on a nervous planet, Matt Haig

I’ve written about Haig before in 4 books for a bad day. I regularly recommend Reasons To Stay Alive because it delivers exactly what it promises on the tin. I read it at a point in my life when I actually was suicidal, so it’s little wonder it holds such a place in my heart. Notes on a Nervous Planet is less emotionally loaded (or maybe I am?) but, just like RTSA, it’s wise, whimsical, thoughtful and earnest. If you struggle to consume content when your mental health is bad, as I do, it’s also extremely digestible, with short chapters and lists dotted throughout. Give it a go, and even if reading it doesn’t make you smile, following the tips within it will almost certainly help to give your frazzled mind a break.

Normal People, Sally Rooney

I’ve been in a definite non-fiction mood over the last year. Normal People bucked the trend: I gobbled it up in 24 hours, and it’s been so long since I did that with fiction that this fact alone made me happy. Rooney’s been described as the voice of my generation, something I resist on principle – but she certainly put into words ideas that I’ve been desperately trying to formulate for years, with no success.

As a novel, Normal People will make you think deeply about love, anxiety, self-esteem, the male psyche, millennial woes, the timeless concerns of being a pair of star crossed lovers. The two main characters are perfectly realised and the plot is engaging. I didn’t like all of the stylistic decisions, but ultimately, I thought it was an excellent read. Rooney is painfully on-the-nose about topics I’m very interested in, like privilege: ‘Suddenly he can spend an afternoon in Vienna looking at Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, and it’s hot outside, and if he wants he can buy himself a cheap cold glass of beer afterwards. It’s like something he assumed was just a painted backdrop all his life has revealed itself to be real: foreign cities are real, and famous artworks, and underground railway systems, and remnants of the Berlin Wall. That’s money, the substance that makes the world real.’ I kept wanting to read bits of Normal People aloud to people around me, because Rooney so frequently encapsulated ideas I have tried and failed to express a thousand times. All in: a book that made me sad and joyful all at once. Go and read it.

It’s decorative gourd season, motherfuckers, McSweeney’s

And in a complete 180 on the previous entry – an article that made me cry actual tears of laughter. (Which is always a good thing to do for your mental health.)

So, one of my absolute favourite things about my new job is that, by dint of being a team of writers, we are also a team of avid content consumers, and we’re always sharing articles with each other. Some are serious. Some are profound. Others are batshit insane, like this post about autumn from McSweeney’s. Not everybody’s sense of humour, but definitely mine. Content like this is just such a joyful antithesis to the seriousness of life. So, strap yourself in and enjoy the timely reminder – as the leaves start to drift from the tree – that: ‘It’s fall, fuckfaces’.

AI saves lives, The Good News Network

I think it’s important to seek out content that is purely good, instead of relentlessly depressing. I’m a technology copywriter, so I spend a lot of time reading articles about AI. Many of which intrigue me, some of which depress me, and virtually none of which actually make me smile. This one did. An AI system in China was able to correctly predict that patients in a vegetative coma state would wake up within 12 months. This was in contrast to the actual Doctors, who gave the patients such low survival scores, the families were legally allowed to take them off life support. Good save, AI! Best of all, in reading it, I found the ‘Good News Network’, which is exactly what we all need, given 95% of what we read is about the world going to shit.

My group chats

Our phones get a bad rep. And rightly so, in many instances: scrolling endlessly through the gram isn’t good for any of our mental health. But there’s one thing my phone does to improve my mental health, and that’s facilitate group chats. Honestly: all hail the group chat. (Sounds sad? Well, I moved to London by myself a year and a half ago, so excuse me for needing the human interaction.)

I have group chats for my best friends from uni, groups chats for ex-colleagues turned friends, group chats with family members – and they’re just bloody great. We go through ebbs and flows of activity but I always know they’re there as a little source of comfort and lols if I need it. If you are in a group chat with me: know that I value it very much indeed.

Time for your recommendations

Have a read yourself (although not number 4, obviously) and let me know in the comments what you’ve read recently that’s brought you some joy. The more (and sillier) the merrier!

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Suicide: the great mental health taboo

Globally, every 40 seconds, a person ends their life through suicide.

In the UK, 6,213 people killed themselves last year. The suicide rate for young women is at an all time high. Men are three times as likely to take their lives than women. Hanging is the most common method. More children are thinking about suicide than ever before.

Does this make you feel uncomfortable?

It makes me feel uncomfortable. Even as I write this, I keep looking away from the screen. Suicide is a thing we still don’t like to talk about, unless a celebrity takes their life. I understand why. It’s too uncomfortable and too loaded. It forces us to confront something too painful to bear.

I suppose if you’ve never been suicidal, or even close, it seems an unfathomable act. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to talk about. Although it might be something to do with the fact that ‘self-murder’ was only decriminalised 50 years ago, and the very act of suicide – even admitting to feeling suicidal – is bound up in shame.

Don’t get me wrong: we’ve come a long way on the mental health conversation front. Tell somebody you have anxiety or depression, and you’re more likely than ever before to receive a compassionate response, or even the empathy of shared experience.

But suicide is a different beast. Tell somebody you’re suicidal and watch the air freeze between you, like ice across a windowpane.

It’s the great mental health taboo. We do not know how to talk about it. Even I – somebody who literally runs a blog about mental health – feel myself dancing around the word. And I should really know better. I’ve been there, after all.

I was 22. On paper, I had everything going for me. I was young and high achieving, well-loved and financially secure. But I was also in the grips of a deep mental health crisis. I felt unreal, as if I were viewing the world through gauze. I had lost the ability to connect with the world around me. You probably wouldn’t have thought it to look at me. I have pictures of myself, graduating from my Masters, where I look positively suffused with joy. But most of the time I felt nothing at all, apart from the moments when I wept uncontrollably, until my chest hurt and I couldn’t breathe for gasping.

Everything that makes life worth living had slipped out of reach. Everything felt insurmountable. I was so tired. No wonder: it’s physically exhausting, to feel so very hopeless.

One day, the thought slipped into my head: I wish I could go to sleep tonight and not wake up. It didn’t go away. Over the next few weeks, I worried away at the thought; where could I do it, how could I do it? The idea followed me around; in the bath, as the tram approached the platform. What a relief it would be, not to feel at all.

The only thing that stayed my hand was the thought of my mum and sister, bereaved twice in 24 months. Not to mention the friends who relentlessly stuck to me. In the end, the people I loved dragged me back from the edge. They made me talk, breaking down mountains into hills I could imagine scaling.

Talking saved my life. But too many people don’t have anybody to talk with. In fact, too many people will never let their feelings slip at all. The thought, the urge, will remain unspoken. Until it’s acted upon. Until it’s too late.

We have to talk. It’s a hard conversation from all angles, I know. Admitting you are suicidal is exposing the rawest part of yourself. Talking about it still smarts now: I don’t want people to see me differently, to see me as unstable, when actually I’ve never been happier or more content. It feels like a dream I had a long time ago – one I can only remember because I wrote it down upon waking.

It’s hard for those left behind. Because it’s not an acceptable topic of conversation, people who have lost loved ones to suicide are forced to hide their grief, to blunt its awkward edges in conversation, for the sake of avoiding the discomfort of others.

And it’s hard to respond to. Sitting and looking into the eyes of somebody telling you they do not want to be here is painful and uncomfortable and heartbreakingly sad. ‘I hate to think of you feeling like that,’ people say, eyes shifting into the middle distance. ‘I can’t bear the thought.’

But what should we choose? The discomfort of the conversation or the event itself?

It’s difficult. But here’s some places to start: we have to start the conversation and keep having it, relentlessly, even when it hurts, until everybody who even has a whisper of that voice in their head feels like they can talk about it. We have to write explicit mental health provision into our workplace conversations and HR handbooks. We have to banish the word ‘commit’, with its implications of criminality. We have to educate ourselves on the signs of somebody having suicidal thoughts, and be brave enough to reach out when we see them. We have to listen.

We can’t save everyone. But we can sit down and talk, refusing to flinch, asking the difficult questions. It might make no difference. It might make all the difference in the world.

I’m publishing this the day before World Suicide Prevention Day. If you are worried that somebody you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out. There are some resources below, or if you want somebody to talk to, drop me a message. 

Resources

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Why most things (probably) won’t make you happy

Sometimes, when I’m having a bout of anxiety (or a full blown panic attack), I close my eyes and imagine myself in an almost empty room.

Nowadays, this is the calmest situation I can think of, other than being by the sea or halfway up a mountain. A space without clutter, without objects.

I wasn’t always like this. But more and more, I’m mindful that ‘stuff’ (and shopping, AKA the act of acquiring it) does very little to make me happy. If anything, it actively makes me feel worse.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a minimalist or a committed experientialist. I’m not even particularly tidy. (I can imagine my Mum and boyfriend reading this and huffing, ‘HA! Sounds like news to me!’).

And I’m not judging anyone for buying things. I like things! I like objects that are beautiful and functional. I do a little wriggle with delight every time I sit on my balcony furniture, and my coffee table is a source of endless pleasure. I feel immediately becalmed by turning on my bedside lamps, which scatter light across the room like stars on a night sky. My friend Polly has a kitchen table made out of her childhood bed that genuinely makes my stomach contract slightly with lust.

But these are things that serve a purpose; they make a home a comfortable place to live in. I feel the same about clothes, shoes and bags: I’m still furiously in love with my four-year-old Barbour jacket and the multitude of pockets it offers. But nearly every dress I’ve ever bought has at some point made me feel shit about myself. Hmm.

As a result, I’ve started to read a hell of a lot about how I can make myself happier and less anxious by whittling down the amount of unnecessary crap I either keep in my flat or lust after online. This is important for your mental health on two fronts. One, clutter is stressful. The more clutter, the more mess.

Two, our need to keep buying things… well, it usually means something, doesn’t it? When we buy things, the sad reality is that we’re often trying to be somebody, or impress somebody, or plug a gap. But in reality, we’d probably get a lot more joy out of life if we stopped spending £200 a month in Topshop and spent the money enjoying activities with our loved ones, seeing new places, and building memories.

So what am I doing about it? I’ve started to unsubscribe from newsletters and direct mailers from brands I once loved. (Sorry, did anyone else think GDPR was going to do that for us?!). I’ve started to donate or throw things away if they’re sat in a cupboard or ‘tidied away’ somewhere.

Finally, I’m forcing myself to research before I buy, and only buy on a needs basis, like the rucksack I replaced recently. Most importantly, I’ve begun to question and interrogate my purchase. If you’re interested, here are the questions I’ve been asking myself to discover if an object is really going to bring me happiness, or if my money could be better spent elsewhere (e.g. weekend breaks to Europe).

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Does having it cause you stress?

‘Things’ should be beautiful, or useful, or both. But the things you own shouldn’t cause you stress. If all you’re ever doing with something is finding new ways to store it out of site, get rid of it. Likewise, if you own something that makes you feel bad about yourself (like, half of my wardrobe), get it down a charity shop pronto.

Even if you like it, do you actually need it?

I picked up some beautiful coasters yesterday, tootling home down Blackstock Road. And when I say ‘picked up’, I mean ‘picked out the four I wanted to buy’. But then I realised that we already have beautiful coasters. Like, more coasters than we could actually use, unless we both decided to drink three brews simultaneously. Or had four guests around. Sometimes, just because you like something, doesn’t mean you need it – especially if it’s just adding to an existing pile of clutter.

Do you need to pay that much money for it?

Will the expensive version of something really make you happy? This isn’t a snide question – I prefer slightly more expensive bedding, for example, because it generally feels nicer on my skin. T-shirts, however: no. I do not need to pay £100 for something I’m going to spill ketchup on. Get out of Selfridges and put it down.

Jeans are another good example of this. You can buy high quality, stylish, fashionable jeans for £50-100. (My thighs rub through anything cheaper). Is a £300 pair genuinely going to make you any happier?

Basically, before you buy something, ask if you’re really getting a level of value that’s proportionate to the extra spend. Because all of that ‘extra spend’, over the course of a year, could pay for an amazing holiday or the adult learning course you’ve always fancied to build your dream career. Just saying.

Are you buying this for the person you are or the person you want to be?

I can’t tell you how many pair of high-heeled shoes I bought as a teenager/young adult. I don’t like heels. I don’t like walking in heels. I don’t feel happy in heels. They’re deeply uncomfortable, and you can’t dance properly in them. And I definitely wouldn’t want to have sex with anybody who doesn’t fancy me in trainers, so I can’t even argue I wanted my legs to look thinner.

So why did I keep buying pairs of heels? I have no idea. I think I want to be the sort of woman that can and does walk in heels. Baffling. In short: you can’t buy your way into being a different sort of person. And you won’t find happiness by trying.

Do you love actually love it, or do you think it says something about you?

Very like the above. This is a hard and uncomfortable question to ask yourself. I have been guilty of it on so many occasions. And have, over the years, probably wasted £1403493024932 in Urban Outfitters as a result.

It’s not easy, and it’s a work in process – I’ve been trying to get up the energy to tackle my wardrobe with all of this in mind. But it is worth it – because every draw I clear and every penny I save from not buying crap needlessly is helping me on my way to a slightly saner, happier life. Which sounds like a good direction of travel to me.

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(This plant, this copper pot, and this Bowie print all make me happy every time I look at them. As does the chap in lurking behind).

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Recovering from anxiety: a work in progress

Are you ever really recovered from a mental health problem like anxiety?

I’d be interested to hear what everyone else thinks about recovery from anxiety? Once upon a time, I would have liked to think it was. I was quite young when I first seriously started to acknowledge that my brain wasn’t working like it should. My only frame of reference for illness was all the other ailments I’d had in my life – like swine flu (no, really) or a kidney infection. Horrible, but ultimately surmountable.

After all, my anxiety did ‘go away’, at various point. And if we’re judging ‘recovery’ from the baseline of ‘being suicidal’, then you could argue I’ve been recovered for well over three years.

Except, except. I’ve never been that bad again, granted – but anxiety has always found ways to creep back in. Which seems pretty bloody unfair – surely after all the counselling, and the sertraline, and the soul-searching/life-changing, I could just enjoy being better?

Sadly not. While I don’t love the ‘mental illness is like a broken leg’ analogy, I have realised that for me, anxiety is a bit like asthma; I have an active part to play in managing it, and probably will do for the rest of my life. My asthma got a hell of a lot better once I quit smoking (shock). It got worse again when I moved into a mouldy damp basement flat in North London. It got better when I got fit(ish).

My actions impact my health. It’s not fair that I have dodgy lungs, but bemoaning that fact won’t change the truth.

It follows logically, then, that anxiety might not be something I can recover from entirely – but it is something I can manage. I’m starting to think there’s a sort of happiness to be found in accepting this. Because accepting it means accepting a lifelong management approach.

And when I manage my health effectively, I can wake up and spring out of bed in the morning, going about my life with nary a worried thought in my head.

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Turns out some downward dogs don’t cancel out 6 cocktails… but we can only try. 

Managing anxiety: my 5 must-dos

  1. Get outside regularly, even if it’s cold.
  2. Limit my alcohol intake, even though I love booze.
  3. Sleep enough, even when people laugh at me for being a Granny.
  4. Exercise enough, even though I hate it, and would rather be on the sofa watching Mad Men.
  5. Listen to Headspace every night – I’m not going to call in meditating because I usually fall asleep four minutes in, but I’ve trained my mind to associate it with relaxing, and it seems to work.

It’s taken me a surprisingly long time to work out what this list should look like. And then I wasted more time ignoring it, because I love drinking, and late nights doing wild things with friends, and not exercising. But I hate being anxious more, and if this active management is what it takes to keep it at bay, I guess I better suck it up. Is it fair? No. But you can’t change that, so there’s not a lot of point in worrying about it any more.

Because for me, recovery isn’t an endpoint. It’s getting up every day, facing your demons, taking care of yourself, and remembering that you deserve to be happy.

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Keeping anxiety at bay: a 4 step mini-guide

  1. Over the course of a week, spend time noting down what makes you anxious. Even if you suffer from a general sense of dread, there’s usually triggers – whether that’s alcohol, lack of sleep, a social interaction, or something else. (PS., if you can, share this process with someone: staring down the barrel of what makes you feel bad can be quite triggering, but I do think it’s a necessary part of changing your life for the better.)
  2. Pick the one that seems most manageable to deal with and write down how it makes you feel and why it’s a part of your life.
  3. If it’s something you can stop doing, like drinking, try cutting it for two weeks and see if you feel an improvement. My advice is to only cut one thing at a time – don’t give up smoking, drinking and sugar in the same week; it’s a recipe for rebounding. (Also, don’t give up sugar: pudding is great).
  4. If it’s something you can confront, like a social interaction, get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Rip the plaster off! 90% of anxiety for me is thinking about the thing – the thing itself is rarely that bad.

What do you think – is recovery an endpoint or an ongoing process? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and let me know if you have any good tips for keeping anxiety at bay!

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Your beautiful state of mind

Do you ever read a quote and realise you’ve committed it to memory, without every trying?

In a book I read this week, a young would-be musician is in anguish, wondering whether composing is his true calling. Leon asks Marek – his hero, a Czech composer who has withdrawn his music from performance in the Reich – whether or not he really has talent.

‘No one else can tell you that.’

‘But how does one know if it’s worth going on? I don’t know whether I have any true creativity or –’

‘Good God, Leon, why do you always turn back on yourself? If you feel the need to write music, or play it, then do so, but believe me your creativity is of no interest to anyone. Write something – then it’s there. If it’s what you wanted to write, if it exists, then leave it. If it doesn’t, throw it away. Your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant.’

It stuck with me, that last line. At first, I thought: oof, little harsh, Marek. But it’s true. Your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant. More importantly, I think there’s a lesson in happiness there – at least for anybody who considers themselves a creative.

And this lesson was crystallised even further on Friday night, as I pottered round the Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate, one of my favourite spots in London. Don’t get me wrong, our friend Pablo had all sorts of issues, but looking at the work he created in a single year, it’s fairly obvious he felt the need to create and did so frantically. (PS., go to this exhibition if you can).

It’s a funny, lovely thing – the urge to make something. Whether it’s music or art or poetry, novels or installations or photographs. I think it usually arrives quite young, although certainly people discover creative skills later in life. It can be a source of great joy, or even a tool for improving your mental health. I almost never feel happier than when I sit back from something I’ve written and think, yes.

But the older I get, the more I seen how unhappy it can make people, too. Creativity can become a cage, particularly when we reach adulthood and start to feel like we haven’t lived up to our potential. Obviously, very few people get to make a living from the pure form of their talent. When I was a little girl, I would have told you I wanted to be an author. (Spoiler: I’m not. And I now know most authors have other jobs).

And I used to feel bad about not making that happen (or at least, not making it happen yet). If I were a Proper Writer, wouldn’t I be doing it? Wouldn’t I be writing the book idea I’ve always toyed with?

Perhaps. But the reality is, who cares? Why on earth would I let that affect my happiness? There’s no point beating yourself up about not doing something, if the reason you’re meant to do it in the first place is love.

It’s what I love about blogging, and bloggers, for that matter – it strikes me as an activity that is highly motivated by enjoyment, not a desire to be perceived in a particular way.

img_8801If you want to make something, make it. If you don’t, know that you might one day, but it really doesn’t matter right now. But don’t let it make you bitter. And don’t blame it on your life.

Because if what you’re clinging on to is just an idea of yourself as somebody who produces art, and you create just to conform to that sense of self, you’re not likely to find much happiness.

Worst yet, I think it can be a recipe for bad art. Sometimes it results in… too much artist in the art. It should be an insight or an expression, not a way of reflecting how you want the world to see you.

Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t stick with it. It’s part of getting better: painting every day, practising your instrument. Brilliant art doesn’t come without effort; by all accounts, writing a book can be a slow, tortuous effort.

But I think most of us would be happier if we followed Marek’s advice: if you want to create, create. If it’s no good, never mind. But just bear in mind that your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant. And there’s no small amount of peace to be found in coming to terms with that fact.

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The quote is from Eva Ibbotson’s beautiful book, Songs for the Summer. I read her books as a child, and still love them as an adult. 

The longest love I’ll ever know

All sorts of crap gets written about sisters.

Much of it is cliché. We don’t drink wine together, or post sister memes on each other’s Facebook walls. If you hurt me, she will not come after you with a bat.

If anything, any violence in our relationship is reserved exclusively for each other. After approximately 48 hours in each other’s company, we start to snipe and bitch. I’ve never been as vile to anybody in my entire life as I have been to her, with relatively little provocation.

And, like almost all younger siblings I know, I can be disparaging of her. Fortunately, she’s stoical enough not too react too much. And, hey: she can serve it out too.

I never felt less cool as a kid than when she appraised me, coldly, flicking her glancing up and down over my not-quite-there outfit, my sloppy drunkness, my childish tears.

Plus, she was a hot teenager, and I had a lot of male friends. If you have been in this situation (second only to having a hot Mum) you will feel my pain.

All in all, as kids, we annoyed each other. We had baths together for many years, shared a bed on hundreds of occasions, pinching and kicking and irritating. She once convinced me that a paedophile was somebody who weed on children. I once physically shoved her in the tumble dryer. (She’s quite small, mind).

Sometimes, I think she comes into my room and waltzes out, leaving the door open… just to spite me.

And yet. She’s the only person I can answer the phone to by shrieking ‘Jessica, no!’ and gain total, immediate comprehension. Humming a bar of ‘Cats the musical’ is enough to launch a 40 minute long kitchen dance production.

We once spent an entire Christmas hiding a Satsuma in each others bags/scarves/shoes, to the point where I tried to pull out my purse to pay for an eyebrow tint and came out with a handle of tiny, squished orange.

Ultimately: I love her, fundamentally and deeply. She is mine to criticise and defend, to bitch at and love bomb. I criticise her and make sarcastic comments, but if you were to join me I would turn that same, sharp tongue on you.

She is my sister. My sibling. And a sibling is, with any luck, the longest love any of us will ever know.

Are we alike? Not really. She is reserved where I am open, polished and chic where I am scrappy, analytical to my emotional. She was a natural athlete – a ballerina, a member of teams, somebody who wore a bib with a number on.

I hated teams, and sweating, and long-limbed girls in pleated skirts braying towards me on the hockey pitch. I write for a living; she’s dyslexic. She pronounces bath like it’s got an R in it. I do not. 

Even physically, we’re miles apart: fair and dark, tanned and pale. Somehow, despite being shorter than me, she has longer legs. This seems unfair, but I’m learning to live with it. (She’s also got bigger boobs, but small tits are in now, so I’m over that, too.)

(“But there’s something…” people say, screwing up their brows as they consider us, “Something in the shape of your face. Something in the mannerisms.” Well, go figure: 25 years and a shared gene pool has to count for something.)

She is tough and brave and determined. I endlessly admire her capacity for grit, for survival, wrapped as it is in a small, blonde and neatly manicured package. This is incidental, but she is also beautiful; I know without seeing that she will make a beautiful bride, a beautiful wife.

That’s why I’m writing, you see: to congratulate her, to honour her. She’s getting married. (Can words be an engagement present, Sophie, or is that cheating?)

She has a date, a venue, and a fiancé. She has, in me, a Maid of Honour. Most of all, she has love: the sort of love that we can and should hold up as an example. A model to aspire to.

Like me, he isn’t very much like her. He’s loud, talkative, hyperactive. He comes from a clan, full of noise and love and bustle. I suppose you could call him the brother I never particularly wanted but am now delighted to have. When the ripples of Dad’s death closed shut, he was left within the circle, and I can’t imagine life (or her) without him.  

To look at them together is to see what love should be like. It’s wonderful, and I’m so honoured to be part of their day.

So here’s to them. Here’s to love: the perfecting blending of two things which were fine by themselves, but are somehow more complete together. As I often do, I reach for the words, and find Julian Barnes has beaten me to them:

“You put together two people who have not been together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a faire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed.’

The world is certainly changed for us. It’s a strange thing, being a younger sibling. You’re always reaching, always trailing in their shadow. I can remember vividly thinking that whatever she did was the last word in cool – a Sienna Miller boho skirt, skinny jeans, dolly shoes.

I hated it as a child, but now I know a shadow is a cool, comfortable place to be. You can watch them strike out ahead and test the water.

And now she’s off again, the promise glinting on her finger. All that trailing along behind her – turns out it was practice, all along.

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