An open conversation

I feel like I need to start this blog with a little trigger warning as this post deals with topics about mental health, morbid and suicidal thoughts. 

During 2020 and continuing into 2021, there has been a huge emphasis of shining a spotlight onto mental health, and rightly so. 

The pandemic has shone a light onto the impact that many varying factors can have on someone’s mental well-being. I’ve written before about how our brains should be cared for just like we care for other parts of our bodies but that for some reason, if we need to medicate our brains because they’re struggling, there’s a stigma attached and an element of embarrassment and shame.

I have been writing in a separate diary over the past year as an activity to help me with my mental health and until now, haven’t felt strong enough to transfer some of my thoughts and feelings into a blog post. I wasn’t sure if me writing such an open, personal post was the right thing to do, especially as I am still learning to deal with things at the moment. Will it make people pity me, will people think I’m attention seeking, will it grow the stigma that M.E is a “psychological” illness? I guess there is a possibility for all of this but ultimately, I feel like it’s an important post to share, just like I have every other aspect of my life over the past five and a half years. M.E is a physical illness that has a huge impact on mental health; the complete 360 change it has on lives coupled with being under researched and underfunded leaves those with the illness feeling abandoned and alone. People living with M.E often feel afraid to speak openly about the impact it has on mental health and that’s why I, along with my families support, decided to write and post this blog.

A while back, I watched three documentaries on TV, one about Caroline Flack, one by Roman Kemp and then the Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry. As I was watching them, along with the heartbreak I felt for the people featured and their families, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sadness at seeing so many similarities being mirrored back at me.

Lockdown has been tough on everyone, we all have our stories to tell, we all know someone who has suffered. For me, it lead me down a path which was quite frightening. I’ve always been open about the fact I’m on antidepressants. Living with M.E. has had a real impact on my mental health. The lack of understanding and help from the medical professionals has left me feeling like I’m fighting a losing battle and antidepressants helped to level me out. However, during lockdown, those antidepressants started to lose their magic.

The buzz around mental health is that we all need to talk. But how do we start those conversations? If you really are in dire need of help, initiating that conversation feels like the hardest thing on Earth. I can’t tell you how many months I suffered in silence, not knowing how to verbalise how I was feeling to the people I needed to reach out to. Convincing myself that it was futile trying to reach out and talk because ultimately it felt like there were no answers or solutions to my situation. When those thoughts and feelings appear to be that big, reaching out and talking is not easy. 

I ended up on a downward spiral, not realising that my thoughts of feeling lonely, sad and helpless had seamlessly turned into thoughts of, it would be so much better for so many people if I wasn’t here anymore.  And all of a sudden, there I was, in a scenario of finding comfort in the thought that I would be helping those I loved, if my life ended. They wouldn’t have me as a burden anymore, they wouldn’t have to adapt their lives for me, they wouldn’t have to look after me, fill in forms for me, listen to my woes and comfort me. No more frustrating doctors’ appointments, no more researching specialists, no more endless talks about how to help and support me emotionally, financially and physically. I could remove all of that by simply removing myself. 

I was aware that I wasn’t really sending my usual responses to texts from friends, I was definitely quieter in myself and felt like I just needed my own space but equally was pretty good at putting on a smile, trying to keep busy and distract myself. On the face of things, I’m sure I would have appeared fine but underneath there was a deep hatred of myself and my life and I no longer felt like my contribution to life was of any importance.

Luckily, in the week where things were starting to bubble over, I had a CBT session booked in and it all flowed out. I guess, although I have a trusting relationship with my therapist, she’s still someone detached from my life whose job it is to listen to me so I didn’t feel like I was burdening her by offloading. She explained to me that she thought I was experiencing ‘morbid thoughts’ rather than suicidal thoughts because I explained I hadn’t seriously thought or considered how to end my life, more of, if I did die, that was fine in my head. However, there was clearly something urgent that needed attention because the lines between morbid and suicidal thoughts can blur quickly.

Eventually I was referred for a phone assessment (because…Covid!) at a mental health hub which, of course, has a story to it…somehow there is always a story to lighten these situations with me isn’t there? The assessment had endless questions, some leading back to my childhood but the one that ended in me telling the assessor he was talking absolute bollocks was this: he made the link that my brother is almost 7 years younger than me. He explained that in his experience, parents who have a daughter first and have a big age gap between children are often disappointed as they wanted a son. They try and love the daughter as much as possible but in the end, try for another child and if they have a boy, which is what they always wanted, they give all their love and attention to the boy and the first child and daughter gets pushed aside and feels unloved and that’s where a lot of feelings of rejection come from…..YES! THIS IS WHAT A TRAINED PSYCHIATRIST SAID TO ME! I kid you not. The assessor didn’t react kindly when I told him he was speaking absolute bollocks and I’d like to move on to the fact I have a chronic illness and needed some actual help!

Anyway, eventually I’ve ended up on an extra anti-depressant added in top of the one I already take. They help for sure, and I know I am in a much more level place but admittedly I am still struggling. I still find it hard to talk about it, life seems very overwhelming and scary and daunting a lot of the time and I’m still in a position where I struggle with that because there really isn’t a whole lot that can be done to improve that. I also find myself often brimming on the verge of tears which isn’t helpful if you need to talk and explain how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking.

But circling back to the documentaries I mentioned earlier, I watched them and each of them hit home for different reasons. Listening to Carline Flack’s mum, sister and friends was heart-breaking: seeing the impact of her no longer being here showed me that by taking my life, I would eradicate my own pain but leave the ones I love the most with more pain and changing their lives forever and not for good. But hearing how Caroline never reached out and never asked for help…I got that too, having been that low, I can totally see how when life feels that overwhelming, you can only see a few options. The British press cornered Flack into blurring those lines from morbid thoughts to suicidal thoughts to actioning them. And that’s why I felt so sad for Meghan Markle too – how dare online trolls and “celebrities” like Piers Morgan decide that she was ‘making it up’ to get sympathy. This is exactly why there is a stigma and people don’t talk because if we do, we are seen as attention seeking or lying. 

And then watching the Roman Kemp documentary, that made me start to think about writing a blog because he spoke about the importance of sharing our stories and experiences because we need to end the stigma. We need to openly talk about the places mental health can take us and by sharing our experiences, we may just help someone else in that situation.

I know what I am writing here seems very bleak and worrying and it is, but I think it is also key for you to know that sometimes, people who are on anti-depressants can have days and weeks or months and years when we are okay! We don’t always want or need to talk about our situation (s) and sometimes distraction and pretending things are okay is the best way to be because sometimes faking it until you make it is the best way forward. I can be my own worst enemy and not openly ask for help or initiate conversations and struggle alone but equally sometimes I am perfectly fine.

Deciding to post this blog now seemed like the right time as I’m approaching my 35th birthday. There have been times in the last year when I genuinely didn’t think I’d be seeing this birthday and equally didn’t want to. Times when I found comfort in the fact that I may not have to go through another milestone whilst feeling so sad about all the things I haven’t experienced and may never get to. However, I am now starting to see my 35th birthday as a milestone I will be reaching and I will be experiencing with all the people I love and who love me. Yes, I am still carrying so much sorrow and pain attached to so many things that I can’t really go into but the difference is, I can acknowledge these feelings but still want to exist. I struggle so badly with not knowing how on Earth I get to move through all of this but then, who does? I am so very lucky in so many ways and this birthday is one to celebrate and one to acknowledge.

M.E is a tricky illness on so many levels and I guess lockdown has impacted me in the sense that I will often offload to my friends or my brother when it naturally comes up in conversation. I couldn’t or didn’t feel comfortable doing this during lockdown via Skype or Zoom, over the phone or text, those types of conversations, I felt, needed to be in person. Being single with M.E means I also don’t have that partner to share with, to confide in and lean on and that’s tough too. Now, don’t get me wrong, as I’m sure I mention in almost every blog post, my parents are the greatest but having this conversation to their faces, as my parents, the thought alone of sharing how dark my thoughts were, was too upsetting because I knew how it would impact them and make them feel. Especially in lockdown when they themselves couldn’t escape the house, talk to their friends or have the release of swimming and golf to use to deal with the “home/daughter” situation! And at this point, I’ll say it again, talking about mental health is not easy. Starting that conversation is not easy. Dealing with the outcomes of those conversations is not easy. And I still don’t know the best way forward or how to appropriately deal with matters of the brain.

I suppose the reason I’m writing this blog is for a few reasons. One, if you don’t feel like you can reach out and talk to anyone, sometimes writing down how you feel helps or reading other people’s experiences let you know you aren’t alone. Two, there is help and support out there. Medication can and does help if you’re on the right dose. I’m not ashamed to be on them but equally I struggle with the idea that it’s medication that keeps me buoyant and that if I wasn’t on it, my depression would be all consuming and that makes me sad. Three, there might not be solutions to your problems but finding a way to somehow share and talk, it does help and it does lighten the load.

And now, although things still seem quite heavy and never ending, I try to focus on the reasons why I am here and what I contribute to people’s lives in a positive way rather than convincing myself of the alternative. The mind is such a powerful beast, it’s so scary how it can persuade you that your friends think you’re boring and not worthy of their time, how you’d be better off dead than alive because you’d free people of the stress and strain of their relationship with you. But then I am also realising what a beautiful thing your mind can be with the right nourishment, being kind is so important, not just to other people but to yourself. And I guess that’s what I find hardest, learning to like the person I am and the life I lead with M.E, learning to be kind to myself and not mentally bullying myself if I can’t do what I set out to on any given day. With M.E there are many things that my mind wants and can do but that my body simply can’t and that mis-match is a daily battle.

I don’t have all the answers, I still very much feel like I’m slap bang in the middle of my mental health “issues” and it’s a daily slog to keep myself balanced. Coming out of lockdown feels a hell of a lot tougher than it felt going into it, my life was already on a type of lockdown but coming out and seeing people starting to return to a certain degree of normal, that’s tough. It’s like being left behind or not included in a massive party that everyone else is enjoying. And of course, there are some wonderful elements to lockdown easing, being able to have garden visitors again is just wonderful. But, as always, for us spoonies, it’s the reintroduction of pacing. Pacing that we haven’t had to do for the past year. I always knew human interaction wore me out more than most activities; active listening, the hubbub of lots of people talking – it’s the sensory overload that does it for me. 

So now, it’s about having to think carefully about what I do within a week, if I have visitors, I need days either side to rest and I may need longer than that. Having to spend time thinking about how to balance seeing people which lifts my spirits with taking on orders, I simply can’t do it all. And then there’s going out. The anxiety I feel about that is high. Partly because I have only left the house 9 times in a year so the outside would feels quite daunting but also because going out uses up a whole different set of spoons. Getting up, dressed, out, travelling, considering if I can actually be outside because of my facial pain and the sun/wind etc. Activity time whilst I’m out, travelling back and then getting home. The idea of having a change of scenery and being elsewhere is utterly wonderful, the reality is vastly different.

They’re considerations that all greatly impact my mental health. Knowing that seeing people and going out will be a positive and lovely thing to do but equally knowing that the planning and anxiety surrounding and potential fallout from it, well, it’s exhausting. It’s a continuous circle of thoughts that I haven’t missed one bit. But, it’s another hurdle to jump and one that will be taken in slow, steady stages and that’s ok. At my own pace, in my own time, I’ll get there.

If you feel you are struggling and need to talk to someone detached, here are some organisations and numbers you can use. Please use them and please know you’re worthy of that help.

Mind: 0300 123 3393 or text 86463

The Samaritans:  116 123

CALM: 0800 58 58 58

Young Minds Parents helpline: 0808 802 55 44

Hannah x

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Dear body,

Dear body,

You’ve been with me since my first day on Earth and will be with me until my last. You’ve survived bumps and bruises, coughs and colds, chicken pox and shingles. However, I increasingly feel at war with you.

Half of me wants to celebrate and thank you for being as strong as you are. Regardless of what life throws at you, you face it every day, you don’t give up on me. You are the vessel that is carrying me through every day of living with a chronic illness. When I’ve had enough and want to throw the towel in, you don’t let me.

However, body, I feel betrayed by you. Why have you failed me so badly? I get that you had to do something to stop me from imploding, to force me to stop and rest. But four years later you still aren’t allowing me to restart the life I was loving living. I’ve done everything I can to show you I totally understand that I need to treat you with more respect. I’ve learnt that my mind is just as important to care for as my bones and muscles. I’ve taken onboard every piece of advice, kindly noted every strategy and suggestion and tried to remain upbeat and positive in order to take steps forward.

Yet, no matter how many steps forward I take, I enjoy myself that little bit too much and you punish me. Or at least that’s what feels like. You plunge me into depths that feel impossible to surface from and I have to admit, I am running out of patience, strength, hope and optimism. How long will you keep this up? I honestly can’t see when you will, and that cripples me. You must see and feel how you are defeating me? What have I got to do to let you allow me to come out of this never ending tornado?

I am so tired of fighting for you, body. I need something back. I need you to start letting me have prolonged periods of “normality” because right now I feel like you’ve plugged me in somewhere and sucked out all of my joy and hope and left me with hatred and frustration. I can usually kick start myself after a few days and go onto auto pilot of being positive and glass half full but this round in the ring has left me empty. It feels like you are winning. You’ve let me keep my hair this time round which I am so grateful for but I find myself resenting it too because people think I am better without realising that I am probably having to fight harder than I have done in a long time to stay above water.

I’ve done my best not to embarrass you; I don’t complain about the pain and fatigue, I very rarely honestly answer the question, “how are you?’ in order to not become the person people avoid because I’m moaning and ‘seeking attention’. In fact, 80% of the time I have become quite the master at masking the daily pain and presenting the illusion that I’ve had a glorious sleep and am rejuvenated. I don’t give in to the frustration of how much I love having my hair back but how devastatingly hard it can be to have to use my energy on drying it with a heavy hairdryer in the morning. What. More. Do. You. Want?

Not only are you overwhelming me with fatigue and pain but you are targeting my mind with a full on nuclear attack. I wake every day with a feeling of darkness and dread. A feeling that I just don’t want this anymore. I want to live and engage in life, I know that I have so much to live for but I just don’t want this life. I didn’t choose this life. I didn’t imagine this life. The thought of living this life without an end point is excruiciating.

However, regardless of this hourly battle, I am still trying to be kind to you because you’re mine. You’re my body and I can’t exchange you or trade you for new parts. I’m feeding and watering you, I’m bathing you and doing my new autogenic training exercises with you to make you live in the present and feel at peace. I’m trying to find good in every day and still endeavour to be kind to those around me. I’m trying to speak more kindly to myself and to you without putting you down, beating you up and berating you for every little thing you put me through. I’m working through every strategy in my toolbox to see which one you’ll be happy with to allow me up and out of this horrendous flare up. But, sadly, you’re clearly not happy enough with my homework and consistently leave the comment, ‘must try harder.’

So, I shall try harder. I will figure out somehow, how to navigate this new hurdle and do what I can to persuade you that I will pace myself better, take more care and love you for what you are and not make you feel bad by wishing you weren’t doing this to me. I am learning to try and accept you for what you are. My body.

If you could just meet me half way, that would be great.

Yours Sincerely,

#hairyhannah

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Planning for new adventures

It’s taken me a while to sit down and write this, rightly or wrongly for fear of judgement from people, well, strangers mostly.

April is just around the corner and marks three and a half years since I’ve been home. Funnily enough, that doesn’t faze me, time will pass no matter what I do and today, it’s something that doesn’t bother me – tomorrow could be another story. I still harbour many feelings about what I haven’t done or been able to do since becoming ill and very near the top is the loss of travelling. I loved to travel and living in Dubai enabled that love. But in three and a half years I’ve had exactly 5 nights away from my own home and bedroom and they were all over two years ago.

The thought of not being in my safe place, surrounded by the things I need for any eventuality, scares me. Extreme but true. When I’m at home, in my own space, I feel relaxed and safe and comfortable in the knowledge that whatever my mind and body needs, I know where to get it. But this year, I set myself the goal of changing that, of taking the next step forward in evolving my life as I now know it.

As always, mum has been by my side and made this happen far earlier than I planned and took the decision away from me – which in all honesty was probably the best way to do it! So, next week, for two nights, mum and I are having a little road trip back to Wales. It’s home from home really as it’s where mum was born and raised – Wales is in my blood! So, it’ll be familiar and “safe.” There’s no flights involved or tiring expeditions planned but still it’s the unknown and I am nervous. Then, my friend Nik has persuaded me to take it one step further and in May is driving me to stay in France for two nights! Yes – abroad people, ABROAD!

The knowledge and skills I’ve gained through CBT is standing me in good stead as I am able to rationalise my thoughts now and stop myself from catastrophising.  So over the last few days when I’ve been worrying, I started to write a list of all the positives that will work for both mini breaks that are planned:

  • I’m with mum/Nik
  • They knows me and my M.E inside out
  • We are driving there
  • I can put everything I need/might need in the car
  • It’s only two nights
  • It’ll be fun
  • It’ll be good to get some sea air
  • It’ll be good for me to be in a different space
  • It’ll give me something positive to look back on
  • It’s an adventure

I know I’m not alone in the worry side of things. Living with M.E has changed my life beyond recognition and there are so many things I can’t do but there are also so many things I CAN now do with careful planning and pacing. But that doesn’t stop the nagging in my mind about the judgement from others – if she can go away for a few nights, why can’t she get a proper job? If she can go away, she must be better. If she can go away, she must be lying about her illness.

Now, I know those who know me, know the truth. I know that’s what’s important and I know that’s what matters. The problem is, M.E is still such a disbelieved diagnosis with people thinking it’s a lazy persons illness. And for that reason, I always feel like I have to justify what I do. It’s a constant battle because people don’t see behind the scenes, behind social media. They don’t see the daily problems. The work and effort it takes to show up and do things. I recognise this is something I need toward on because it’s my issue – people probably couldn’t give two hoots about what I am or am not doing!

So, my question is – for anyone reading this with M.E or any other chronic illness, what hints and tips can you give me for travelling but also for dealing with the judgement…it would be so appreciated!

I will let you know how we get on next week and if I come up with any nuggets of advice that I feel might help anyone else, I’ll let you know.

But for now, I’m off to write my packing list so my brain fog doesn’t make me forget anything of importance….

Have a wonderful week,

#hairlesshannah

A little M.E update

It’s been quite a while since I sat down to write a blog post yet here I am again, using writing as my therapy of choice.

I guess I felt compelled to write today after spending several hours yesterday with mum and dad at an Action For M.E conference. We went along hoping to find out more about what research is being done, to network and to get some useful, practical advice. I think all three of us would say we’re glad we went although it wasn’t easy.

I’ve been struggling recently with my illness, I suppose because I’ve been ill for so long now, people almost forget that I am ill. Let me expand on that a little. A lot of this is my problem, my insecurities, but I have started to feel like I need to justify things that I do. I am wary that I feel like some people are judging me for STILL not working yet being able to do other things. I guess one thing has never changed, people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. The careful planning that goes into pacing myself, the constant pain and sensitivities. The fatigue. The constant, wading through treacle, un-refreshing sleep, fatigue. Yes I smile and yes I can now wear make up but NO that does not equal me getting better. I am not. Yes, I am starting to do much more than I could before but that is simply down to the fact that I can manage my symptoms, most of the time. If I didn’t do this, I would not be able to do anything.

For example, I have had to cancel the few lovely things I had in my diary for the next few days to simply rest and sleep. Not go outside, not communicate with anyone, just recharge my batteries by doing the least stimulating things I can in order to re-charge. My body also likes to show me in other ways that it needs to rest, my symptoms get worse but also for me, I get skin flare ups – my right eyelid is red raw and painful with eczema underneath. I don’t always talk about these periods of time, because I usually plan in one or two days like this anyway to avoid major flare ups – but people don’t see or hear about those.

So, going along yesterday to hear people talking about something that myself and my family live with on a daily basis was, in many ways, a comfort. Truly heartbreaking to hear of people telling their stories of how their GP’s treated them like mine have me but comforting to know that I am not the only one. Frustrating to hear that the benefits system is failing so many who are in desperate need but comforting to know our battle isn’t a lone case. Encouraging to hear that the charities medium and long-term plans are to get the World Health Organisation to sit up, take note and help us by funding more research but devastating to know that short-term, all we can do is try to persuade our GPs to simply take the time to understand what living with M.E is like.

But amongst all of that, we met Alice Kelp. We didn’t make it up to the conference in time to hear her whole talk because, well, I couldn’t get up to London that early. But, we caught the end of her talk and it was inspiring. Alice is now 24 but cannot remember the year of her life from age 14-15 when she was almost comatosed, bed bound with M.E. I must admit, because we only caught the end of her speech where she was talking about what she does now and how she is proud of having M.E, I did think, god, this is not for me, plus – HOW did you go from being that bad to being able to talk about your life now?

But, I sat with Alice and her mum whilst we had some lunch and it all became clear. She was nervous to share her story, she didn’t want people to assume her story was only one of positivity because it isn’t. There was no lightning bolt occasion that she could pin down to explain how or when she began to feel better, her body just gradually got stronger. It’s like the M.E just burnt itself out. She had to go down a year at school and fight hard to get her teachers and friends to believe that she wasn’t just attention seeking. She lost 4 stone in weight and became anorexic because she became intolerant to different foods and felt nauseous. She had to learn to walk again because she lost all the muscle tone in her legs. Her mum had to give up work and be her full-time carer and be by her side because, for a while, she was suicidal. This is what M.E can be like. But, luckily for Alice, she found a pediatrician who listened and wanted to learn and research and help and gave her that lifeline that she needed. He believed in her and believed she deserved his time and help.

Like me, she’d tried everything; acupuncture, reflexology, saw a chiropractor, various herbal remedies, pacing, CBT. But, ultimately, none of that worked to cure her. She has never been cured, she is not better. Yes, she now has a job and she has recently moved in to her own property but she has to live carefully. She paces everything she does carefully, she knows she needs 9-10 hours sleep a night otherwise she can’t work, she knows she has to pick and choose what social events she attends and has to plan in rest. She is protective of her illness but isn’t ashamed of it and certainly won’t apologise for it. She gave me hope. Hope that one day I will be able to achieve the things that she has – work, home, travel.

It was also refreshing to hear her stance on CBT. Like me, she doesn’t want it removed from the NICE guidelines. The wording needs to be changed yes, because it is NOT a cure, it is a management tool to help you deal with how M.E impacts your life. Of course, it all depends on the therapist you get and how much they understand M.E but if we removed CBT from the NICE guidelines, what is going to replace it? At the moment, nothing. So, GPs wouldn’t have to refer us or give any further help because the  guidelines wouldn’t force them to. At no point have I ever claimed that CBT is making me better or curing me and nor has my therapist. What is has done is help me deal with the depression that has come as a result of living with M.E and the changes it’s had on my life and my families. It’s taught me how to change my thought patterns to encourage me to try to find the positives and it’s helped me pace myself properly in order to get that joy back in my life.

Alice works for Notts County Football Club who employed her knowing about her M.E and help her work alongside having a chronic illness. So much so, that they helped her produce a one minute film with the team to explain to people what M.E is because in September, the players wore shirts with ‘Action for M.E’ on the front.

So, what I am asking, is that you take a minute to watch that video – go to YouTube and search ‘Notts County action for M.E’ and then perhaps help out with  Christmas appeal. One of the facts you’ll hear is that since 2012, the government has invested only £2 per year per patient into M.E research, that’s less that a match day programme. That fact in itself feels like a punch to the stomach – for me, that means that since I’ve been ill, only £6 has been spent on research to help find a cure.

So, from noon on Tuesday 27th November until noon on Tuesday 4th December, any donations made to Action for M.E will be doubled. As a family, we would far more appreciate a tiny donation to this than a Christmas card this year because it will help so many people living with M.E to get the research that we so desperately need.

You can donate now at: http://www.actionforme.org.uk/BigGive2018

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M.E is a hidden, life changing illness that impacts not only the person with the illness but those they are closest to. Like so many hidden illnesses, remember that just because someone shows up, smiles and looks ‘well,’ that can be disguising what’s going on underneath.

#hairlesshannah

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Afflicted

According to the dictionary, the definition of an enabler is:

a person or thing that makes something possible. A person who encourages or enables negative or self-destructive behaviour in another.

afflicted

Some of you may or may not have heard about or seen the new Netflix series, Afflicted. It is a series that follows seven people living with chronic illnesses or as they put it, afflictions.  Before I watched, I had already seen many people tweeting and blogging about the series, it seemed that the chronic illness community were not happy at all. So, like with all of these things, I felt I needed to watch before passing judgement or comment.

I managed to watch one episode and decided not to watch any more. I flicked through the second and third episodes but found it upsetting and stressful. As with any of these series, the film makers had clearly got their angle and that was all they wanted to follow. It appeared that they wanted to portray these people as mentally ill. Without directly poking fun at them, that’s how it came across..dismissing autoimmune, neurological illness and just simply labelling these people as crazy.

For me, it was damaging. There is enough disbelief out there about these curious illness that people, including doctors, don’t believe in and this series was adding fuel to the fire. They focussed a lot on what homeopathic treatments the subjects had turned to, making them look hippy and alternative.

They failed to say that they were under specialists and had tried anything and everything to try to find help and a cure. They missed the point that these people were turning to alternative therapies because no one out there is putting money into science to find cures and treatments and even causes for these illnesses. They failed to emphasise the point that these people, like all chronic illness sufferers are desperate. They will try anything to see if it has an impact, no matter how small on their symptoms. It’s interesting to read able-bodied, ignorant people writing about this.

The programme touched on the point that some of the subjects were turning down expensive treatments that were lacking in foundation or evidence. Again, failing to tell people the actual cost and not pointing out – how would these people afford them? So, as so perfectly put by @gnomesChainey on Twitter: “Able-bodied people: They’re turning down expensive treatments! Don’t they want to get well? Also able-bodied people: Why would they pay so much money for unproven treatments? It’e like they don’t care about science at all!”

The emphasis was about the mental side of the illnesses. Why aren’t these people on anti depressants? Well, most of them were. That doesn’t make them crazy. That doesn’t ,mean the illness is in their heads. It means that the illness has affected them so badly that it’s impacting on their mental health too. If you were trapped in your body or your bedroom, if you were being told by medical professionals there’s nothing more that can be done for you, you too would probably suffer and need some help and anti depressants are an option.

There was a line in the series that hit me like a truck: “You can be deluded that you are sick. You can believe that you’re sick when in fact you’re not sick.”

And then, people who know nothing about chronic illness, have started being keyboard warriors and accusing the carers of these people of being enablers. They’ve watched the programme and seen parents, husbands, wives and friends caring for these people and decided that they aren’t caring for these people, they are enabling them. Not helping them get better, enabling them to continue to think they’re ill when they’re not.

Wow.

Now, I know first hand what this is like. Early on in my illness I had someone feel like they had the authority to email my mum and tell her that both she and my dad were not giving me the help I needed. That they needed to give me a kick up the backside and encourage me to get on with things. They weren’t helping me get better. If I hadn’t experienced this, I wouldn’t have believed it. How do people have the audacity to pass judgement? To have the guts to tell people what they are and aren’t doing the right by their child!

People forget that when you live with a ling term illness, we get good at lying. We get good at covering our pain. My pain threshold is pretty high now, I can mask the constant pain and I can act like I’ve got energy when it feels like I’m wading through treacle. My parents are not enablers. Believe me, if you knew my parents you’d know that they would be the first people to “give me a kick up the backside” if they thought I was being lazy.

My parents are quite the opposite. They enable me. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am now. They support  and push me in the kindest, gentlest ways. They get me to appointments, they see me when I’m struggling and need help, they lend me an arm to hold onto when walking hurts, they give me their shoulder when I need to cry.

I would also like to point out that the majority of chronic illness sufferers that I know, including myself, are our own enablers. We do not want to be ill. We do not want to be relying on others financially, emotionally and physically. We don’t want to be on benefits and out of work. We don’t want to avoid social events, holidays, alcohol, sunshine, work etc etc etc. We are so tuned into our bodies that we notice the slightest change be that an improvements or new ailment.

At times, my parents will tell me to stop. That doesn’t make them enablers. They live with me, they see me at my best, my worst and my ugliest. So they know that I try, every single day to achieve things. But also can see me wilting when I’ve done too much and know what the fall out could be, so, to stop that happening, they will sat, do you think you’ve done enough for today? Maybe you should go and have a lay down? Why don’t you sit down and do a bit more later? This is not enabling behaviour, it’s love and support at the highest degree.

My parents at retirement age had not planned for their 30 something daughter to be living back at home, to be caring for her, supporting her financially. That was not in their plan. So therefore, I highly doubt they would enable to me continue to be like this forever…think about it, it’s just the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. No one would want to live my life or live the life my parents have at the moment. And I’m not saying they would change it because they wouldn’t have it any other way than being there for me in my time of need, but we only manage to deal with it because we live in hope that one day we can go back onto the right paths and live are normal lives again.

I guess what I’m trying to get across here is linked to a lesson I always do on the first day of the school year with my children in class. I get them to squirt out a whole tube of toothpaste and then try to get every last morsel back in using a toothpick. Obviously it can’t be done but they have great fun trying. And then I tell them, the toothpaste is the words we speak. Once those words come out of our mouths it’s impossible to take them back. They can cause unknown hurt and damage to people.

Afflicted is out there now. People living with chronic illness, especially the people featured, have had untold damage done to them. They are experiencing trolling and cruel words from people who have zero clue. One participant tweeted: “ We hoped that with it might come investment in research to find biomarkers and better treatments. We never fathomed that we were participating in a project that would instead expose us and our communities to further ridicule and disbelief.”

It’s also given people who have no understanding, a programme to watch for entertainment and laugh and jibe and make fun of people who actually need love and understanding.

The wonderful Jennifer Brea who spent five years making the film Unrest about her life living with M.E. has been fighting our corner on Twitter since Afflicted came out. She is a hero in my eyes. In response to a tweet someone put out about enabling people with chronic illness, Jennifer replied: “ Many people with severe chronic illness, if not “enabled/supported” by loved ones, would simply become homeless or commit suicide.”

And I’ll leave it there. She says it all in that one tweet.

#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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Health Update Time

The time has come to publish a blog that I’ve been writing gradually over the last three or so weeks. If you’ve been with my blog since the beginning you will know that writing has been an outlet for my emotions and has proven to be very therapeutic. However, it also lays me bare and it can be quite daunting knowing that my life is out there for the world and his wife to access and judge. That’s why I haven’t pressed publish on this post until now because it’s been a tricky few weeks and my writing is quite raw, but, it is my way of communicating so it seemed silly to write it and not share. I have no idea why but I find opening up verbally to the people I love really difficult. Not because they won’t listen, support and comfort, simply because I find it hard to put into words sometimes – odd when I can write without difficulty right?!

I’ll start from the beginning. A couple of Fridays ago Dad and I went to London to see Lumiere London. It’s something I’ve always wanted to go and see and take photos of and this year I felt strong enough to go and see some parts of it.  I cannot explain how wonderful those few hours in London were. Although cold, London was still. No wind, rain, it was at night so no sun…I was able to walk outside without intense pain on my head and face for the first time in well over a year and it felt liberating. So much so that I ignored all the other symptoms as they began to creep up – knees piercing, muscles contracting, headache niggling and fatigue enveloping me with each step. But I didn’t want it to end, I wanted a normal night and to enjoy the moment, a day or two pay back would be worth it for this moment.

 

Nah. My body was not happy with me. Saturday lulled me into a false sense of security as I woke up feeling not too dissimilar to when I over do things but by Saturday night I was in a world of pain and this continued day after day for almost nine days. This is often the case with ME, post exertion malaise will often only properly kick in until 24 hours after the activity. With this pay back came a world of grey and I couldn’t shift it. I couldn’t really focus on anything other than the pins and needles, the joint and muscle pain, the fatigue on top of fatigue and simply how low I felt. I was well aware that I wasn’t really talking to anyone, friends or mum and dad and I know how frustrating, irritating and annoying that must have been to live with but I couldn’t face it any other way. By talking I would cry and crying is exhausting and I literally didn’t have the space to exacerbate the hell I was experiencing. I wanted to be alone, in silence and darkness and to hibernate until it passed.

But for me, the hardest thing was a new symptom. Rage. Anger. I am not an angry person but honestly, I wanted to smash things. Break, punch, scream…I was so angry. Angry at myself because I hadn’t paced myself: I’d ignored all my CBT “training” and my body turned round and basically punished me for being so stupid. Then came the anger because I am done with this life I’m living in. For others I guess it’s easy to think I am doing well – I still smile, I’ve had a book published and I make cards and pom poms which is an improvement. I agree with that. BUT, and it’s a big but…I live every day at a level people take sick days for and when I push myself, what I experience is something most can’t contemplate because it’s hidden and it’s misunderstood. That place that I live in day-to-day is lonely and frustrating. I am not better, I am not well.

I did have a CBT session thankfully in which I cried…a lot…she knew something was up. And as always, she was fantastic at convincing me that I need to focus on the positive that I had such a lovely time in London and not to allow it to put me off doing it again because I need to throw caution to the wind sometimes and live. She explained it that if she, as a runner, suddenly went from running a mile and thinking she was doing well so went and ran a marathon the next day, her body would make her pay and that’s the equivalent of what I had done. And I get that, but as I said to her, what I did in London that night was a fraction of what I’d have done in my previous life and it just seems so cruel and unfair that this far down the line I still can’t.

I’m angry that the life I lead now when I have a good day, is like the couple of days after you recover from flu and think – phew I feel a bit more human today. We did laugh though when at one point she said – just tell me all the things you’re angry about, which I did and then added, “I hate that I’m making f**cking pom poms and I am capable of so much more!” It just sounded so juvenile and ungrateful that it jolted me a little. I love making crafts but I can’t make it into something I’d love to because I don’t have the brain or body capacity to, so when you break it down, I make pom poms when I used to teach and make a difference and I just feel like my brain and body is rotting and isn’t good for much.

It’s so hard accepting that you are experiencing a hellish few weeks but that when you feel “better” you will simply be back at the level that most people couldn’t cope with. I have forgotten what it feels like to wake up and feel refreshed from sleep, to have a day without pain, to wear make up or have hair, just to feel nice. It’s not a pleasant place to be and it’s a daily battle to keep taking steps forward and bury the negatives and focus on the positives.

I mean – I did warn you that this post is a brain dump of everything I’ve been feeling, it does seem over the top and desperate but I guess that is the truth of it at the moment. ME isn’t a straight path. You take a few steps forward and then from nowhere you are flung ten steps backwards. Being in such a dark place is scary which is why I am grateful for the antidepressants at the moment because I know I need them. It’s children’s mental health week this week and now, having lived with an illness that’s so hidden and misunderstood makes it so much more important to spread awareness for these types of illnesses because they can so easily be missed, misunderstood and belittled.

Thankfully, with the help of some puppy love, brownies and time, I am just about out the other side of the pay back from that Friday three weeks ago and I will now continue with my targets and pacing and claw back some of the steps I’ve taken backwards.

puppy

Remember, be kind to everyone you see. You never know what they’re dealing with.

Happy Thursday.

#hairlesshannah

 

My spoonie survival kit!

One of the questions I am often asked is what things help me on a day-to-day basis, things that ease the symptoms of ME. Obviously this will differ from person to person but I thought some might find it interesting or helpful to see what helps me, so here is my ultimate list for my spoonie survival kit!

What I always carry in my bag

I have never been one to pack light, even in my days pre ME! In the sixth form I was awarded the medal for being ‘mummy’ as I could pretty much always provide what anyone needed, from a tissue to a paracetamol, polo to a nail file! You will very rarely see me with a small bag as it just simply wouldn’t cut the mustard (where does that saying come from?!) in order to accommodate my needs!

  1. My polarised sunglasses. These were an expensive purchase when I lived in Dubai but my goodness have they been a life saver since being diagnosed. My light sensitivity is really bad and the difference between wearing normal sunglasses and my polarised ones has been incredible.
  2. Ear plugs. As I’ve mentioned before, noise sensitivity has also remained a real issue for me. As soon as I go somewhere that is more crowded I need these bad boys to keep my head from exploding. At home we can monitor and adjust the noise level but that’s not so easy if I venture out for a meal or to walk around a shop!
  3. Polos and rescue remedy. These two have featured in my bag essentials for a while now. Since suffering with panic attacks, these two things are my go to life lines. Bach’s rescue remedy I find really calming and helpful and as for polos, I’m not overly sure apart from a previous CBT therapist explained it may be because I can focus on a different sense which distracts me from my anxiety – who knows, all I’m bothered about is that they help when my anxiety rises!
  4. My little medication purse. One of my anxieties is that I could be somewhere and not have the thing I need to make me feel better so I have a medication bag! The essentials are: travel sickness pills, Imodium, paracetamol, Paramol, anti-histamine, inhaler, antiseptic hand gel, hand cream and throat sweets.
  5. Bottle of water. One of the side effects of some of the drugs I’m on is a very dry mouth but also, water is always good incase I need to take tablets or have a hot flush!
  6. Eye drops. Since losing my eyelashes I’ve noticed that my eyes are more susceptible to getting dry, itchy and getting dust etc in them. Eye drops are just a useful things to have at hand for those irritating moments.

 

At home survival essentials

  1. Electric blanket. Honestly, this bad boy is slowly becoming my new best friend! I haven’t had it on during the Summer but popped it back on my bed about three weeks ago and oh my, I had forgotten the benefits it provides. The difference in my restless and painful legs is definitely aided by this hot piece of material and I have found that the sleep I do manage to get seems to be of a better quality.
  2. My pregnancy pillow! Again, it provides me and my painful limbs with the much-needed support they crave. I am so much more comfortable lying down with this wrapped around me – who needs a man eh?!
  3. My diary. I’ve kept a diary every day since I was 11 but it really has been an essential for me as it’s a way of venting every day and getting my emotions out. I still find talking tough so this is my way of getting my thoughts and feelings out of my system before I go to sleep. Again, this helps me to go to bed with all those heavy thoughts weighing me down.
  4. Bath range! I love me a bath! Any Lush bath bomb will suffice but I absolutely adore the Marks and Spencers Sleep range. A friend got me them for my birthday – all lavender based, not overpowering, just right. A shower gel, foot cream, hand cream, body lotion and pillow spray, all amazing products although I am also partial to the Lush cream called Sleepy. There’s been a lot of press around lately about how it’s a miracle cure for insomnia…it hasn’t done that for me at all but I do love the smell and it definitely is a calming scent.
  5. Dimmer lights and subtitles! Yep, I am a granny…these link to light and noise sensitivity but there are always options to make life bearable.

 

So there you have it, my list of goodies that I use everyday to help me – if you have any to add to it, please comment and let me know.

Hope you’re having a lovely week,

#hairlesshannah

Introducing Sunshine Makes & Bakes

I am very excited to finally be able to let you in on something I’ve been working on! If this is your first time reading my blog, let me fill you in on my story so far.

My name is Hannah, 31 years old and I have both ME/CFS and alopecia. I was living and working in Dubai as a primary teacher when I became ill and had to fly home. I have moved back in with my parents and for two years have been totally dependant on them financially, emotionally and physically. Alopecia has robbed me of my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes and ME has robbed me of my independence, confidence as well as many other aspects of my life.

Before becoming ill I had no idea about the ‘spoonie’ community however, now I would class myself as a fully fledged spoonie. So let me explain; a spoonie is someone with a chronic illness. You start the day with a certain amount of spoons and as your day progresses and you do activities, you use up your spoons until you have none left or are in negative numbers! Spoons are often not refundable by sleep, sleep is often unrefreshing so pacing becomes the best option which is a hard lesson to learn.

spoon-theory

One of the things I have found the toughest is my lack of independence and relying on my parents to support me financially. So, a few months ago a little idea came to mind – maybe I could use my spoons to my advantage and set up a little business that I could control. I love to bake and I love to be creative and one of my sayings since getting ill has been, make your own sunshine. And so that is when Sunshine Makes and Bakes was born.

sunshine m and bs

Behind the scenes I have slowly, at my own pace, set up a little studio at home and begun to make crafts and bake cakes to sell and so far it’s been a revelation. It’s given me back some independence and given me a purpose again. I am in control so if I don’t have enough spoons, I don’t have to make or bake that day and if I am having an okay day, I can spend fifteen minutes, half an hour or even an hour working on my products. There’s no pressure of letting people down, it’s like a hobby that I control.

A website has now been created and I am ready to go live! I will be posting UK wide but if you’d rather collect and avoid postage fees that fine too. Obviously for cake orders it will be collection only. To ensure I am pacing myself I ask for 10 days notice on orders so I can ensure my health remains the priority. I am SO excited to share my wares with you and hope you might like what you see enough to make a little order!

There are many different items available – greetings cards, photographic cards using my own photos, framed and unframed button and scrabble art, magnets, magnetic pegs, Christmas card sets and gift tags and a wide range of baked, scrummy goods! I am happy to personalise orders – crafts and bakes –  and to talk through ideas you may have about products to ensure you get the most sunshine from every order you place. As they say – if you don’t ask you will never know!

You will notice that there isn’t a shopping cart on the website, all orders need to be placed via the contact page. Just let me know what it is you’ve seen that you’d like or something you like that you’d like to personalise and I will then send you an invoice before getting to work on your purchase. The website is best viewed on an iPhone or from your computer, it isn’t fully compatible with iPads yet.

 

So, here’s the link, go get some sunshine in your life!

http://www.sunshinemakesandbakes.co.uk

I am also on social media:

Twitter: @sunshinemandbs

Instagram: @sunshinemakesandbakes

Facebook: @sunshinemakesandbakes

So get following, get liking, get sharing and possibly even get ordering!  Spreading awareness about chronic illness is so important for me and anything you can do to help with this is always much appreciated.

But finally and most importantly, thank you so much for your continued support and well wishes, it keeps me going from day-to-day.

#hairlesshannah

Worry less, smile more

.Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was an off switch for all our worries? If you’re like me you will love a good quote and many a good quote base themselves around being positive, living your life to the full, worrying less and smiling more. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how much we try to convince ourselves of this, worries just can’t be magicked away that easily.

One of my targets from CBT has been to write in a worry diary every night, 3-4 hours before sleep, the aim being to oust the worries from my mind, write down steps I can take to begin to overcome them, close the book and hopefully that’s expelled them or at least calmed them from my mind for the night to come. I get the concept, I really do, but in some ways I’ve found that all this has done is emphasise my worries.

Now, I have always been a worrier, it’s been a long running family joke for as long as I can remember. I get it from my Grandma although I stand my ground on the fact that there is no- one in the world who worried more than she did! I do recognise this trait in myself and I do believe I have got better with age. However, although I have got better, I will now totally contradict myself and say in a way I have got worse because although I don’t worry about as much, the things I do worry about, I worry about BIG time. I definitely over think more and sometimes my worries are totally and utterly ridiculous and I will find myself researching how I would survive in a falling lift situation!

As we get older we become so much more susceptible and sensitive to the world around us. It astounds me when I see children running, playing, socialising fearlessly, not worrying about falling or hurting themselves, worrying whether someone is being mean or isn’t who they say they are – when does this change and why? I had the same upbringing as my brother yet he doesn’t worry to the same extent as I do – so is it a gender thing? Is it nature or nurture? I don’t know.

The worries I live with on a daily basis now are obviously different to those I had a few years back – the money worries I used to think I had were nothing compared to those I have now! But worry is all relative. My money worries are no more or less important than anyone else’s because they will be just as stressful depending on different scenarios. Those with children or new homes or a broken boiler or a flat tyre or a lost wallet – all worthy causes for worry. But referring to my earlier CBT task, the worries I found myself writing down daily didn’t seem to have any next step scenarios. They all had more long-term outcomes so seeing them written down in black and white over and over every day  oddly enough made me worry more! Oh Hannah Green! So long story short I’ve stopped writing my daily worry diary until I can ask some questions about how I can approach it differently…I don’t want to fail my targets…yes, I turned up to my last session feeling like a naughty school girl because I’d not met all my targets and honestly, at the age of 31 I felt so bad, like a detention was waiting for me! My lovely therapist laughed at me when I told her and just said that was my problem, I worry about things I shouldn’t worry about….but honestly, that’s me and I know that has to change in order for a healthier mindset.

Worry can be irrational – I mean, my biggest fear, well one of them, is bears. Not teddy bears but the kind that can run, swim, climb trees…you ain’t getting away from one of those bastads if you disturb its cubs – have you even see The Revenant?! Yet I have learnt that trying to squash someones worries isn’t helpful, you may be trying to help them, goodness knows I’m sure I’ve done it so many times but the best way to help is to just listen, offer a hug and tissues to wipe the inevitable tears and then throw in a good old quote for good measure – finishing with a laugh always helps!

Worry is something that will never be extinct in our world. New fears and worries occur every minute of every day for people and sometimes they’ll be worries they’d never dreamt of. Watching the news over the past few months and witnessing the horror of the various terror attacks across the world but mainly in London and Manchester, in places and situations so close to my heart, it’s unthinkable how many people will have been affected by the atrocities. So many of the survivors, the emergency services, news crews and witnesses will be now living with the effects for days, months and years to come. They will be experiencing worries and fears that hadn’t entered their minds before, yet for some they will now be devouring their existence. However, when I’ve read reports and watched interviews I am amazed, encouraged and proud to see how many of them approach these fears by fighting, not taking flight. Facing their fears head on and getting back to their daily lives – going to concerts, returning to Borough Market, walking over London’s bridges.

This is not how everyone will respond to fear and worry, fight and flight are both two very valid responses – I’ve done both at varying points in my life and neither were wrong choices. What I mean is, the human race is amazing. We support each other in the choices we make and help each other take steps forward to reach our end goals, worry will always be there in one form or another yet it won’t beat us. It won’t beat me.

And now comes the toughest part of this blog – what worry quote to end on, there are just too many good ones to choose from hahaha!

 

Have a fab week fellow worriers…or should that be warriors?!

#hairlesshannah