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Mental Health

This week is mental health awareness week. Mental health has never been something I’ve ever really thought deeply about, yes, you know you have to “look after your mental health” but what does that really mean? But before I start, I would also like to add in a disclosure here to say that this blog post is based around my experiences and opinions and therefore, if you feel you need help and advise, please go and see your GP or use one of the numbers at the end of the blog. This blog is focussed on mental health linked to my experience of having a long term illness and therefore some of my thoughts and opinions won’t marry up with other people’s mental health problems. Nothing I have written is there to offend or upset anyone.

I suppose mental health is something I’ve considered more since my own has become an issue since becoming ill. I’ve always been a glass half full kinda girl and do try, as much as possible, to focus on the positives.  But sometimes, that just isn’t enough to see you through. Positivity is not a medicine and depression, along with many other mental health issues are not something you can simply snap out of. It’s an illness not a choice.

I started taking anti depressants about a year ago now however, I had been offered them as a “treatment” within the first or second appointment I had when I returned to the UK.

All too often I think that anti depressants are prescribed too easily. Don’t get mad at me, I don’t mean that to be an offensive statement. When prescribed properly they are wonderful however, in my opinion, sometimes, they are used as a quick fix and for me, this is dangerous. There are so many other avenues to explore first but because of lack of money, resourcing and time, those options are often not accessible. Waiting lists to see councillors on the NHS are months and months long…when you need help, advice or just someone to talk to, this just isn’t good enough. GP’s have 10 minutes to see you, assess you, talk to you and give you a course of treatment…prescribing a pill is often easier and quicker than making another appointment to talk or write a referral letter.

My initial approach, which I do still stand by to an extent, was that I didn’t need anti depressants, anyone in my situation would be finding life a little tricky in my situation and I just needed some support. However, as time passed and life didn’t get easier and as the reasoning behind the use of anti depressants in my situation was explained, together, myself, my parents, my doctor and psychologist agreed it was time to give them a go.

This wasn’t a quick fix option, it took months of trying various ones to discover which was my best fit. I had severe reactions to some and others just knocked any kind of emotion out of me which I hated. Eventually I settled on the one that suited me and my body best and even that has it’s side effects. I have been monitored and guided through how and when to take them and know that as and when the time comes when I want to come off them, I have to follow a careful plan to wean myself off. They have helped me greatly, I am more balanced and am able to approach my daily challenges without feeling like an emotional wreck. I have most definitely been very depressed at times and have hidden it well but the team around me, including my CBT therapist, recognised this and suggested them only when it was clear they were the next step.

My point is, they are not a quick fix. In my opinion, they should not be a first option.

I think I have gained a much deeper understanding of mental health and the importance of looking after it through my own experiences. CBT has taught me about unhelpful thinking patterns and how to turn negative and unhelpful thoughts into more rational, level thoughts and this has made a huge difference to me. Being ill has also taught me the true importance of taking a step back, no matter how busy you are, in order to care for yourself. Whether that be having a bath, going for a walk, meditating or writing a journal, doing something for you and only you every day should be at the very top of your daily “to do” list.

There has been so much coverage in the press about mental health recently and that is fab. Talking is what we all need to do more of. The good old saying of, “a problem shared is a problem halved” really is true. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you are feeling low, many people, including myself, don’t want to burden others with these thoughts and that in turn makes everything worse. But if you don’t have enough time with your GP and you’ve got to wait X number of months to see a councillor, then you need to find someone else. It doesn’t matter who, just find someone. Don’t suffer alone because that makes it worse.

And, if you’re like me and you sometimes find it hard to start a conversation, write it down. Write a letter or an e-mail and send it to someone you trust, get those channels of communication flowing. I often find it easier to write a blog post, have my family and friends read it and then that starts up a conversation.

Our mental health can be affected by so many varying factors: stress, work, grief, loss, illness…the list goes on. There is no one size fits all solution. But what I can say is,  I have a lot of people in my immediate circle of friends and family who have had to deal with or are dealing with huge, life changing situations and they are still standing. Just about. And that’s because they’ve talked. They’ve not been forced to talk but they’ve talked when they’ve felt ready and more importantly they have been told that there are plenty of us ready and waiting to listen.

So much emphasis is placed on the person with the mental health issue but it’s important to remember that every single one of us needs to be aware too. All it takes is a simple, “how are you?” or “I’m thinking of you,” or “fancy a chat?” or “I’m here when you’re ready.” We all need to know who our “people” are. Sometimes we assume that people just know this, but occasionally, when you’re feeling that low and lonely, you just need to hear it or read it. Sometimes, it’s easier if someone reaches out to you rather than the other way around.

I’ve written about loneliness before. It can be all consuming. I would never have thought I could be lonely, I have so many wonderful friends and my family is incredible. I live with my parents yet some days, it feels like it’s just me. Just me, alone, with no hair and a life that doesn’t resemble anything that I recognise. So when my phone pings with a text just saying, “hey, how are you doing today?” it opens up a line of communication, a line to the outside world that allows me to participate. Allows me to be honest. Allows me to feel less alone.

Mental health is not linear. I cannot plot how I am going to feel from one hour to the next let alone day to day. But I also ensure that I keep in touch with the rest of the world too. I am not the only one with problems and issues. I am not the only one that can have a bad day. My bad days should not be given any more or any less importance in comparison to other peoples. Everything is relative. Even well people have crappy days where they need to vent and talk. We are all important.

But regardless of these good, bad and ugly days, what I do know, is that the world keeps turning. Days turn into nights that turn into new days. We have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was reading about loss and grief the other day and I read something that made an awful lot of sense to me. It said that when you experience loss or grief, that doesn’t go away. It doesn’t ease with time. You carry that loss and grief with you every single day but what does happen, is life starts to grow around it. You build memories and store happiness around that loss so that it becomes more bearable.  And I think that’s the important part – life.

So, if you don’t do anything else this evening, I would ask you to do two things:

  1. Text someone you haven’t heard from in a  while, or pick up the phone and give them a call. Ask how they are. Have a laugh and share a story about your day. Be present.
  2. Do something for you. The crossword, a sudoko, have a bath or read a chapter of your book. You are important.

And also, if you do know someone or if it’s you that needs some support, here are some places where you can find it:

The Samaritans UK (for everyone) 116 123

The Silver Line (for older/elderly people) 0800 4 70 80 90

Childline (for children and young people under 19) 0800 1111

Papyrus (for people under 35) 0800 068 41 41

Or visit http://www.mind.org.uk for many useful resources, support and help.

Happy Tuesday everyone.

 

#hairlesshannah

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Lessons & goals

I turn 32 tomorrow so I thought I would document my lesson learned from my 31st year.

This month marks a year since starting CBT. I was so apprehensive, cautious and dubious about starting because I’d read so many controversial things about it. And there lies lesson number one: don’t judge things based on others opinions. For me, I fell on my feet with my therapist, she is the best. Her knowledge of ME and her approach to how CBT is used is amazing. There is no pressure, major target setting or trying to push me. It’s been more about helping me learn how to cope, helping me deal with how hard it’s been on my mental state and gradually helping me to build in activity, manage my sleep and focus on the good.

Lesson two: social media has so many more positives than negatives. I have made some truly wonderful friendships online this year through Instagram. All of whom live with ME or other chronic illnesses. It’s a comfort to talk to people who truly get it, share our days, struggles, highs and lows but also have people to turn to, to ask questions.  Social media is often shown in such a negative light but for me it has mainly given me positives. That online network is a life saver for so many and I love the way it makes you feel less alone in times when it feels like you are.

I actually started a little hashtag a few months back #truthfultuesday where people who live with hidden illnesses can be one and honest about their days. We often hide away the truth of our days from social media as many of us like to keep social media a positive place but I thought it was important to also be honest about the reality of living with our illnesses. It has been so lovely to read about people’s daily lives – the good, the bad and the ugly and raise awareness through this hash tag. I hope people will continue to use it, especially this month as it’s ME awareness month.

Lesson three: I am more stubborn than I realised! On reflection I have noticed a pattern running through my life. I don’t give in easily. If I see or experience injustice, I can’t simply push it to one side, I have to try to find a way of turning a negative into a positive, to ensure others don’t experience what I have. This year it seems it’s been about  my GP. I know my energy would be better spent on focusing on treatments and unexplored options but first I need to do my best to ensure she knows the damage she and other ignorant GPs cause to those living with hidden illnesses. I am also aware that I need to learn to experience such things and be able to move on without the fight. That’s a goal for my 32nd year!

Lesson four: despite what the quotes say, sometimes it’s okay to just have a crap day and not be able to find any positives! As long as those crap days don’t turn into crap weeks and months then you’re allowed to just have bad days. I still firmly believe in trying to find positives in each day, I use my Dawn French diary as a place to write down 3 good things in every day and sometimes that’s really tough. But then I think – I have a roof over my head, I have wonderful friends and family and there’s always a good home cooked dinner!

And then I find myself thinking about the year ahead and I’ve made some little goals for myself.

Goal one: learn to start conversations to talk about how I am feeling when I’m not having a good day. I can open a lap top and easily write a blog post but for some reason I struggle big time to start a conversation to get things off my chest. No matter how much I know it will help me, it’s something I find really hard, like I’m afraid if the tears that will fall but that’s stupid so, this year I will try harder.

Goal two: continue to focus on my CBT targets and mental health and focus on the small steps forward rather than the steps backwards.

Goal three: Reduce my time catastrophising and mind reading. These are two thinking patterns that have been uncovered through CBT that I do A LOT! If something happens i tend to catastrophise, think of all the worst possible outcomes, rather than taking a step back and being slightly more rational about things. I also mind read a lot.  I guess what people might be thinking about me, what they might be saying behind my back…and where does that get me? Nowhere. It’s a pointless thing to do so I am going to try to eradicate that and if I’m worried, I will talk and ask questions and move on.

Goal four: plan and book in more fun things to do. I am now so frightened of pushing myself and doing things slightly out of routine that I have just simply stopped doing them. Regardless of what hand you’re dealt, you really do only get one shot at life so I am going to do some more fun things this year. Yes, I will pay for it, yes I will be in pain but then..maybe I won’t be. I’ll never know if I don’t try right?! I’ll aim for one bigger thing/event every couple of months and see how I go, with things in place to help and many days of good pacing surrounding it…no guilt here for telling you what I do, that’s something else I’m going to stop doing. If people look at me doing such things and judge me and doubt me, they aren’t worth my time. Out of my circle they go!

So that’s four lessons and four goals – I had more but I’ve run out of steam and the screen is hurting my eyes sooo self-care is kicking in! I hope you all had lovely bank holidays and have a fab rest of the week.

Happy Tuesday.

#hairlesshannah

 

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An open letter to my GP

You have been my GP for over 25 years, you know me and my family well and have been there since the start of my illness in October 2015.

We haven’t had the smoothest relationship since my diagnosis of alopecia and ME/CFS, at one point you even rang me up to apologise about your conduct and approach to my condition. You apologised and promised that you would use my case as a learning curve so that any other patient that presented with my symptoms would not be treated the way I was.

After this, I didn’t see your for a while as I was seeing specialists and have been having CBT with the most wonderful, caring and understanding therapist I could have wished for. But, in seven sessions, my NHS input will finish and if I want to continue with CBT, which I do, I will have to pay for it privately. But, myself and my family also felt, in a way, that it’s the NHS washing their hands of me, abandoning me, because they don’t know enough about ME. So, that is why today, myself and my mum came back to you.

We accept that you won’t have all the answers or know everything about ME. As a teacher,  I never knew all the answers but if that was the case, I would research, refer and call specialists so that I could help and support the parents and children in their darkest hours of need to the best of my ability. I would never do what you did to me today.

Today, you sat in front of me and my mum and said that you had no time but that I had all the time on my hands to research, make phone calls, request tests and go privately.

Let that sink in for a minute. You have no time for me.

Now, let me ask you to digest this. Yes, I have time. But it is not my choice, it is not a holiday. I have a chronic, hidden illness that has robbed me and continues to rob me of my life. Myself and my parents have researched, spent money, done everything we can. Every test and specialist I have seen has been as a result of our suggestions to you. But today, we came to you because we needed help and support. We have hit a wall and needed suggestions of people, places, trials or just a simple offer of, “let me see what I can find out and I’ll get back to you.” Instead, you quite simply said you have no time.

Social media has given me a wealth of knowledge about my condition. I’ve heard about countless heartbreaking stories of suicide from patients who have received no help or support, who have simply been left to hope and deal with the cards they’ve been dealt. I’ve read of people no longer having the strength or support networks around them to keep fighting so just live with this illness, not having much of a life. I have never given up hope, yes, I’ve had my dark days, but I’ve always had the hope and belief that doctors and specialists would also not want a 31-year-old woman to just accept this is her life. But today, you changed this. Today, you knocked me down and I felt bereft.

At no point today did you show any empathy or understanding. You commented on my weight several times and yes, I know it is an issue – partly due to the ME, partly because of the drugs I’m on and partly because it’s been an issue for a while. You offered no suggestions of help or support, you asked if I was pushing myself to exercise, suggesting GET – by doing this you further emphasised your lack of knowledge of ME and your lack of bedside manner.

I ask, if you will, just for a minute to put yourself in my shoes and think, could you live like it for a day? Not just with the physical and hidden symptoms but with the loss of work, social life, income, and independence. And then consider how you’d feel after living that way for two and a half years.

I will pick myself up again, my family and friends will make sure of that. And we will keep on fighting. But as my dad said, we now know the NHS has abandoned us and we will have to go forward privately. You have no idea of how that feels, and I hope you nor anyone you know and love ever has to, because believe me, it is a horrendous prospect. It’s lonely and scary, it’s worrying and frustrating.

I would assume that like teachers, you have training each year to update your knowledge. May I suggest that you put forward ME/CFS as an area for all doctors at the practice to learn about, because the thought of another member of our community leaving their appointment feeling like I did today, leaves me heartbroken.

Yours sincerely,

Hannah

Tasty Thursday – apple turnovers

Dad and I were inspired by Bake Off last week and decided to have a go at making some apple turnovers/apple puffs. We did cheat a little by buying some pre made puff pastry but…it’s easier and if you can, why wouldn’t you?!

You will need: (makes 8)

  • 500g puff pastry – we used Jus Roll
  • 5 large Bramley apples
  • 85g caster sugar
  • granulated sugar for sprinkling
  • juice of half a lemon
  • 1 pinch cinnamon
  • 1 pinch nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon milk

Method:

  1. Preheat your oven to 190 or Gas mark 5 and grease two baking trays.
  2. On a floured surface or pastry board, roll out your pastry to 5mm thickness and cut into 15cm squares and place onto baking paper.
  3. Peel, core and finely chop your apples and add into a saucepan over a medium heat along with half your caster sugar and all the cinnamon and nutmeg.
  4. Cook for 10-12 minutes until the apples begin to soften.
  5. Remove from heat and mash and add in the remaining sugar.
  6. Pop back onto the heat, bring to the boil and stir for 5-8 minutes until space thickens.
  7. Divide the mixture evenly on one half of  the squares, leaving a gap around the edge for folding. We found we did have some apple left over.
  8. Fold the pastry over the create a triangular pouch and seal the edges using a fork.
  9. Score a small steam hole on the top of each, brush with milk and sprinkle some granulated sugar on top.
  10. Place onto baking trays. We found this bit tricky as the pastry was now soggy so we kept them on their baking paper rather than trying to move them!
  11. Place in the oven for around 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.
  12. Serve hot or cold.

 

 

We found it relatively easy to do although there was some leakage but they tasted really good! Let me know or send photos if you have a go!

 

Hope you’re all enjoying the sunshine!

#hairlesshannah

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What would you do if you were cured tomorrow?

Recently I replied to a tweet from @TomKindlon who posed the question: “What would you do if you were cured tomorrow?”

I answered quite quickly with the things that immediately sprung to mind, but I must admit, that question lingered with me and the more I’ve thought about it, the more things I’ve added to that list. It’s a hard one to contemplate because in reality, I am not going to wake up tomorrow cured. I am still ill, it is still on going, there is still no cure and the road ahead is still a long, frustrating, upsetting one. However, as with a good book or film, escapism from reality can be a release and I found it nice to dream for a while. So I thought I’d share with you my imagined “day in the life” if I woke up cured. (I’m also assuming that covers alopecia too and I’d have glorious locks again!)

I’d wake up in my own house/flat that I own because I can work full time again. I have a long shower where I’d use a hot oil treatment in my hair and luxuriate in shampoos and conditioners and revel in the fact I wouldn’t need a rest after my shower or at any point in my day until the evening! I’d style my hair, carefully apply make up, look at myself in the mirror and think, yes, today is a good day! I’d be able to choose a decent outfit because I would no longer be on tablets that caused weight gain and I’d be able to exercise because I don’t have pain or fatigue anymore to hold me back.

I’d then complete normal jobs around the house before jumping in my car, cranking up the radio and driving to meet friends for lunch…somewhere busy and social and with a beer garden so we can sit in the sun (Yes, I’m imagining Summer!) because I’m not longer sensitive to weather and I will tan and not burn!

I would then go to a travel agents and book a looooong, exciting holiday to places I can explore, meet new people and make memories. I won’t be worrying about money or being frivolous because I now cherish life, it’s not a rehearsal so work hard play hard has much more meaning. Following this I pop to the book shop to buy a real book because I can read again and I go home to sit in the sun, with a Kopperburg cider and read my book…it’s bliss.

As I sit in the garden, I don’t feel fatigued, I’m not worried about the brightness or the words blurring on the page. I don’t have to think about pacing or consider the guilt I feel for things I can’t do or contribute to because I am now able to contribute to society again. I can teach but also know that I don’t live to work. My health, family and friends are my priority and I will never again let work rule the roost. I reflect on how lucky I am to be surrounded by the people I have in my life, how they never gave up on me and how I know they never will.

I then go upstairs to have a bath because I recognise the importance of self care and quiet time. But also because I know that tonight I am hosting a party where everyone is coming round to eat, drink, play games and have a good time. Everything is organised and I’m not even thinking about the tidy up because I can manage it! I am grateful to be well, to be able to function as a normal human being and live a normal life doing all the things I love to do and after a brilliant music filled evening of taking silly photographs and laughing so hard your sides hurt, I climb into bed feeling exhausted. But good exhausted. Exhaustion that will be alleviated by the sleep I’m going to get.  It won’t take me hours to get to sleep and I won’t wake up a gazillion times because of pain, I will dream and wake up to another day.

One day….

#hairlesshannah

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Pet therapy

If you’d have told me this time last year that I would find pet therapy a huge help, I would have laughed in your face. We have never had pets because mum and I both have asthma and long-haired animals always used to make our breathing worse. However, last summer, mum and dad decided to sign up with a company called Barking Mad – quite appropriate for us! I categorically told them that that was their decision and the dogs would be their responsibility!!  I was very apprehensive about the idea. In case you don’t know, Barking Mad is a company that is an alternative to kennels when families go on holiday. “Host” families don’t incur any costs, in fact you get paid a small fee, the dog arrives with bedding, food, toys: everything it will need for its stay and then are collected when their holiday is finished!

Within hours I was in love with the first dog we had and then every dog that followed, bar one, become dogs that I fell in love with! I can’t explain it but I just feel so much calmer and more relaxed when they’re around. Stroking them and getting that unconditional love helps in a way that drugs and medication can’t. They are a distraction from the normal daily routine, they are fun and loving and I just love it when we have one to stay. The bit I didn’t account for is when they have to go home! It is SO tough to say goodbye but luckily we’ve had several returnees which is lovely because you know then and they remember you.

 

It is proven that having a pet lowers blood pressure, but more interestingly for me, they can cause endorphins to be released which are chemicals in the body that help to suppress our pain response. I can’t say I noticed a huge difference in my pain levels but they do distract me and take my mind away from the pain and discomfort which is good enough for me.

Each dog has been amazing for us as a family. Dad can often be found down on the floor playing with them regardless of the problems with his knees, depending on the dog, he is walking thousands of steps a day, mum has walked them and we are all noticeably calmer and happier when they’re around. It’s lovely. They bring big laughs as well that wouldn’t happen had they not been with us – for example, the night mum thought she was going to sit on our stool but actually fell into the dog’s bed and couldn’t get up because she was laughing so much! Lots of people have asked why we don’t just get our own dog but quite simply, they are a tie. Mum and dad are retired and want to go on holiday or have days out and having a dog means you have to plan around them and right now just isn’t the right time so Barking Mad suits them/us perfectly. But..I’m sure that one day they might get their own…I hope so anyway!

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Hope you all have a lovely weekend,

#hairlesshannah

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Tasty Tuesday: Red Velvet Valentine Cupcakes

Yes, you read it right…today is the return of Tasty Tuesday and it’s a Valentines special at that!! I may have mentioned my love for Cupcake Jemma before but I’ve finally got my hands on the cupcake book she’s done with Jamie Oliver and it’s fab! After some contemplation I decided to go with her red velvet cake recipe and not only make them into cupcakes, but use a tin mum and dad got me that makes heart-shaped miniature cakes!

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The only thing I would change is the amount of red food gel I used to make it a more vibrant red but other than that – they are yummy!

You will need:

For the cake (makes 24):

  • 235g self-raising flour
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 270g unsalted butter, softened
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon red food colour gel
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar

For the butter cream icing:

  • 250g butter
  • 500g icing sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

If you prefer cream cheese icing:

  • 150g unsalted butter, softened
  • 240g cream cheese
  • 840g icing sugar

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Method:

  1. Pre heat your oven to 170fan/375F/gas 5.
  2. Line cupcake tin or any other tin you’d like – TIP OF THE DAY, if you’re using a tin like the heart one above that doesn’t use liners, use a cake release spray. It works so much better than using the normal greasing method and the cakes fall out when baked – it’s one of my must have items.
  3. Sift the dry ingredients (apart from the bicarb) and 3/4 teaspoon of fine sea salt into a mixing bowl.
  4. Add the butter and eggs and beat for 60 seconds.
  5. In a separate bowl mix the buttermilk, vanilla extract and red food colouring and then add to the cake mix and beat for another minute.
  6. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and give it one more mix.
  7. In a cup, mix the bicarb with the vinegar – as soon as you do this it will start to fizz. Work quickly and add the fizzing mixture into the cake batter and combine.
  8. Fill you cases and bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
  9. Leave to cool and transfer to a wire rack.

 

For both icing options, sift the icing sugar and combine all ingredients, keep mixing until you get your desired colour. The longer you mix, the whiter your icing will become.

 

Finish off with sprinkles or any decoration of your choice and enjoy!

Happy Valentines you lovely lot!

#hairlesshannah