Laura Fox

@laurafox11 | contributor
I am a mental health worker with lived experience of mental health problems. I am married and have a daughter. I live in the UK and I write to heal myself and others.
Laura Fox

Yes, Mental Health Professionals Can Get Sick Too

I have been a mental health professional for seven years. I wanted to work in the sector because I have my own experiences of mental health problems. As a mental health patient, I knew I wanted to help people just like me. This sounds very lovely, but it can be a toxic way of thinking. My desire to help people just like me came with a lot of pressure. And I was the one putting pressure on myself. For seven years, I have given my all in the mental health field. And it’s been wonderful. I have seen people at rock bottom recover to the point where they no longer needed my support. But there have been many people I haven’t been able to help, and this has been soul-destroying. I was able to keep my head above water until the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit. The way I was used to working changed overnight. I had to work from home and speak to patients over the phone. It was very difficult to assess how they were really feeling because I couldn’t see them. It was also very difficult to give the standard of treatment I could give them face-to-face. I began to feel my mental health declining. The impact of lockdown started to take its toll on me. I’d recently had a baby and was trying to navigate motherhood in a world that was very scary. I became afraid to go outside on my own. I felt panicky all the time. I was finding I was giving advice to patients about managing anxiety that I wasn’t able to put into practice myself at all. I felt like a hypocrite. And most of all, I felt like a failure. In caring for others, I forget to care for myself. As much as mental health professionals seem to have all the answers, we are only human. And we get sick too. According to a survey by the  British Psychological Society , 46% of psychologists and psychotherapists experience depression . In a survey conducted by  Medical Protection,  it was found that 85% of doctors have experienced some form of mental health issues. The suicide rate amongst medical professionals is  higher than in other occupations , particularly amongst female health care workers. Although mental illness is prevalent in health care professions, it isn’t widely talked about. Despite the fact I work in the mental health sector, I found it very difficult to admit I was struggling. I have observed other colleagues with the same issue and refusing to label what is clearly depression or anxiety and instead call it “stress.” We spend our working life encouraging people to ask for help, so why can’t we do the same for ourselves? In  Depression in Nurses: The Unspoken Epidemic , Lynda Lampert writes: “One of the most prominent reasons for nurses to keep quiet about their mental health is the stigma associated with an ‘unhealthy’ caregiver. Martinez describes it this way: ‘Nurses feel they need to be perfect and healthy at all times. It is just not possible when they are doing so much for someone else. Openly talking about it is the only way to break the cycle, but no one talks about it. When they do talk about it, it takes away stigma and shame.’” Reaching out for help was one of the bravest things I have ever done. I have even more respect for patients who are able to admit they are struggling. I am anxious about how I will be perceived. Will I be seen as unable to cope under pressure? Will I be seen as less reliable and trustworthy? That is a possibility. But it’s important to remember who we are outside of mental health issues. I am hard-working. I am competent. Getting sick doesn’t change my natural personality. And if people can’t see that at first, then that proves why it’s so important that I admitted I was struggling. There is a stigma and it will only be broken if people like me are open and honest. I have been off work for a couple of months and have devoted my time to recovery. Although I have anxieties, I am looking forward to going back to work with a much healthier attitude about my own mental health. I have learned I cannot care for others if I don’t care for myself first. It’s not selfish to make my mental health a priority. If I am the best version of myself, I can give better support to patients. This pandemic is difficult for key workers such as mental health professionals because people are depending on us to support others who are struggling when this new way of life is difficult for us too. It’s very easy to neglect ourselves and forget we have needs when there are so many expectations placed on us. As professionals, we need to remember we are not “other.” Mental illness does not discriminate. It isn’t something that just happens to the people we support. It can happen to anyone. It can happen to us. And it often does. We cannot say we are passionate about reducing mental health stigma when we actively stigmatize ourselves. We need to talk about it and we need to support our fellow professionals to talk about it too. Mental health professionals are not superhuman. And the people who need reminding of that the most are mental health professionals themselves. A version of this article was previously published on Medium.

Laura Fox

Recovery Is Not About Returning to the Person You Used to Be

I experienced my first major mental health episode when I was seventeen years old. Due to years of trauma, I developed depression and anxiety. My anxiety was so severe I became agoraphobic. If that wasn’t enough, the body image issues that had always lurked in the background flared up. I starved myself, over-exercised and obsessed over my appearance. In losing my mind I lost my identity in the process. In a mental health assessment, I was asked what I wanted to gain from treatment. “I want to be who I used to be.” The nurse gently explained that it isn’t possible. I was furious. What was the point of engaging with treatment if it wasn’t going to work? I burst into tears and the assessment had to be stopped. My heart was broken. I started to grieve for the girl I once was. The more I thought of her, the less of her I could remember. Although my life had been very difficult, I had never experienced pain like this. Recovery is a strange word to use in terms of mental health. In any other context, it makes sense. The Oxford English Dictionary defines recovery as: Recovery (from something) the process of becoming well again after an illness or injury. Recovery (in something) the process of improving or becoming stronger again. Recovery (of something) the action or process of getting something back that was lost or stolen. It’s no wonder I thought recovery was about recovering who I once was. I wanted to feel well, and wellness to me meant being the person I used to be. My lack of understanding of mental health recovery meant I was stuck in a rut for a long time. My goal was unattainable. The girl I grieved for didn’t exist anymore. So I got stuck in a rut and made no movement forward in my recovery journey. What is “mental health recovery?” Mental health recovery is split into clinical recovery and personal recovery. “Clinical recovery is an idea that has emerged from the expertise of mental health professionals, and involves getting rid of symptoms, restoring social functioning, in other words ‘getting back to normal’ [Whereas] Personal recovery is an idea that has emerged from the expertise of people with lived experience of mental illness.'”– Mike Slade, 2009 I was deemed “clinically recovered.” I was discharged because my symptoms had reduced and I was no longer suicidal. On paper, I looked like a success. But in reality, I was still suffering and my personal recovery hadn’t even begun. Personal recovery is deeply unique to the individual. It’s about having a quality of life, not just a reduction in symptoms. A widely used definition of personal recovery comes from Anthony (1993): “…a deeply personal, unique process of changing one’s attitudes, values, feelings, goals, skills, and/or roles. It is a way of living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life even within the limitations caused by illness. Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness.” One of the most interesting things about personal recovery is you can still have symptoms of mental illness. At the beginning of my recovery journey, my view of a “recovered person” was someone who was symptom-free, as well as being the person they used to be before the mental illness. Who will I be if I’m not the person I used to be? “If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.” — Gail Sheehy I was terrified of my future. If recovery wasn’t about recovering the person I used to be, then what would happen to me? The truth is people change throughout their lives regardless of mental health problems. You can’t be the same person you were at 18 years old when you are 30 years old. Often, we aren’t the same person we were six months ago. Because that’s the nature of life. It’s full of changes and lessons. So in turn we change as we learn. The Tidal Model of Recovery uses water metaphors to describe how the process of recovery constantly changes. The model is based on the belief that change is inherent in everyone. “It sees the experience of health and illness as a fluid, rather than a stable phenomenon, and life as a journey undertaken on an ocean of experience.” Change doesn’t have to be a negative thing. I would remember the old me by looking at her through rose-tinted glasses. It’s no wonder I grieved for her. I was putting her on a pedestal and minimizing any negatives. In reality, the girl I used to be was naive, fragile and had chronically low self-esteem. She was also amongst people who were bad for her mental health. And truthfully, she was deeply unhappy. She needed to change in order to grow. And she needed to grow in order to be happy. In hindsight, I think what I grieved for was the things I used to be able to do, rather than who I once was. I missed being able to leave the house, enjoy things, have friends and generally have a quality of life. I didn’t need to go back to being the person I used to be in order to have those things. At 28 years old, I still haven’t found the girl I used to be. But that’s OK because the woman I am now is far happier and healthier than the girl I spent so long grieving for. And although she was resistant to the idea of change, if she could see me now I think she would warm to the idea. I can do the things I used to do but with the resilience and self-esteem I never had. And because I have more resilience and higher self-esteem, I am able to do more than the girl I grieved for could ever imagine.

Laura Fox

Talking to Your Children About Your Mental Health Struggles

Mental health problems affect one in four people each year. According to The Mental Health Foundation, 68 percent of women and 57 percent of men with mental health problems are parents. So it’s no surprise many parents struggle with their mental health every day. And it’s no surprise we don’t talk about it. A study in the European Journal of Public Health on families affected by parental mental illness, it was found the main barrier to seeking help was the fear of stigma. The findings show early intervention has a positive impact on the parent and their family. However, the parents in the study seldom asked for help and displayed self-stigmatizing behaviors. Some of the children displayed these behaviors too. Understandably, many parents worry about how their problems will affect their children. The main concern is their children will experience mental health problems themselves. A review of parental mental health and child welfare found that children were twice as likely to develop a psychiatric disorder if one or both of their parents experience mental health problems. So these worries aren’t entirely irrational. As a parent with mental health problems, I worry for my daughter. I was the child of a mother with mental health problems and the reasons for my issues can always be traced back to her. She refused to ask for help or admit there was a problem. This meant her illness got worse and so did my childhood. As the above study in the European Journal of Public Health stated, parents and families benefit from early intervention. This means asking for help and actively working on your own recovery. It doesn’t mean hiding your mental health problems and being in denial. In my research for this article, I could not find a single study that said concealing your problems was helpful. In fact, I found a lot of information suggesting that talking to your children about mental health is important, whether it be yours or your own. Mind.org.uk has a very helpful section on how to talk to your children about your mental health problems. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, children can easily feel ashamed of their parent’s mental health problems due to stigma. It is also common for children to worry about developing the same mental health problems. By having honest conversations with children, it clears up any misconceptions and reduces any fears. My mother’s mental illness was not the reason my childhood was difficult. It was her refusal to talk about it and seek help. Bottling up mental health problems whilst trying to manage the demands of parenthood is a toxic combination. Her example made me fearful of asking for help when I became unwell as a parent. I had no example of accountability, responsibility and recovery. I felt clueless when I developed my own problems as my only point of reference was incredibly unhealthy. I worry about my daughter. She’s twice as likely to experience mental health problems because I have mental health problems. But one in four people experience mental illness, and surely not every single one of those people had parents with mental health problems. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate and it can happen to anyone. So even if I didn’t have mental health problems, it’s still likely that my daughter could experience them at some point in her life. We can’t control what happens to our children. And maybe they will experience mental health problems. But isn’t it better to model recovery by actively working on our mental health, rather than concealing it? Isn’t it better to have honest conversations with our children, rather than teaching them self-stigmatization is the way to cope? I’m not for one second advocating that parents use their children as therapists. That happened to me and it’s extremely inappropriate. But what I am advocating is not pretending we are superhuman. Children don’t need perfect parents. They need good parents. And a parent who seeks help, models recovery and has honest and age-appropriate conversations with their children about mental health is a good parent. If you can do this, you will be the first person your child comes to if they ever struggle with their mental health. They will come to you because you have taught them to be open and honest. They will come to you because you have modeled recovery and taking responsibility for your mental health. They will come to you as you will be the person who understands. Previously published in Mom, Interrupted: A Medium Publication for mothers with mental health problems.

Laura Fox

Why I Had Body Dysmorphic Disorder Since Childhood

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Many have heard of it. Most have little understanding of the condition beyond “a person with BDD worries about how they look.” Even the description of body dysmorphic disorder on the  NHS  website describes it as “a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance.” But I wouldn’t call the feeling worry. Worry is bearable. Worry is temporary. I’m an anxious person and I worry all the time time, so I know this is not in the same league as worrying. I was two years old the first time I felt I didn’t belong in the skin I was in. I have always had very fine hair. At 2 years old, I still didn’t have a full head of hair. I remember playing with a little girl called Emma who lived in one of the flats nearby. I remember admiring her full head of hair. It was thick and blonde and her mummy could get in in a ponytail. I pulled at my hair, thinking it would make it grow as long as Emma’s. Why me? How and why did a 2-year-old girl have such thoughts? There is a multitude of reasons as to why someone may develop BDD. The mental health charity  Mind  lists the following as potential causes: abuse or bullying low self-esteem fear of being alone or isolated perfectionism or competing with others genetics depression , anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder ( OCD) . Perfectionism and competing with others: check. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a perfectionist. I have always been very socially aware and constantly comparing myself to others. I am extremely hard on myself, to the point where you could call it a little sadistic. Abuse or bullying: check. I was abused by my family and bullied at school. My most painful memories are being humiliated for how I looked. Low self-esteem: check. With a predisposition toward being a perfectionist, the bullying and abuse caused me to have low self-esteem. Depression , anxiety or OCD : two checks here. I have had depression and anxiety for most of my life. Genetics: check. There is a history of mental health problems on my mother’s side. Fear of being alone or isolated: check. I have always felt like I am not enough and one day people will leave me. Because I believe I am hideous, I feel I have to work harder to be an exemplary person. I can’t rely on my looks to carry me through life. What is a typical day like? Every day is different. Sometimes, I have good days. The thoughts of being disgusting and hideous are background noise and don’t hold me back. Sometimes, I have OK days. I will change my outfit several times in the morning and feel anxious about being seen by others. But I can force myself to carry on. And then I have bad days. I want to scratch my skin off. I want to remove the parts of me I hate. It feels like there is no possibility of ever being happy in this body. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. I feel forced to live with it. Sometimes, bad days can become bad weeks. BDD isn’t about vanity for me. Sure, I am preoccupied with how I look. I assume everyone thinks I’m ugly. I ask my husband for constant reassurance. I can see how people would think I am vain. But even if I was perfect, I would still hate myself. Because this isn’t really about how I look. On my wedding day, I looked nice. My dress was lovely. My hair suited me. My makeup looked pretty. But when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t compute how all that made me look nice. All the components that made up the look felt separate from me. I was still Laura. I was still hideous. And this is why I feel a sense of unexplained loss. I’m aware that other people have insecurities and low self-esteem, but they have the capacity to feel attractive, whether it’s a new haircut, a flattering outfit or feeling desired by their partner. I don’t have that capacity. I never have. And when I’m going through a rough time, I grieve for what I never got the chance to experience and most likely will never get the chance to experience in the future. What helps my BDD ? I prefer conversations to not be about how I look. An innocent comment will easily become twisted in my head and I will obsess over that feature. Once someone said I have athletic shoulders. They are being complimentary about how fit and healthy I looked, but that’s not what I heard. I computed it as, “your shoulders are too broad and everyone notices.” Compliments that are more general are better received, such as “your dress suits you.” Because I don’t feel like I own my body, it helps me to take ownership of it whenever I can. I wear quirky clothes and like to experiment with fashion. I am looking into getting tattoos so I can have beautiful artwork on the parts of me that cause distress. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been extremely helpful in teaching me techniques to manage my thoughts. It also enabled me to understand where my thoughts come from so I can start to heal from past trauma . I cannot cope with being told “looks don’t matter” and “other people have ‘disfigurements.’” I can’t help the way I am. I am doing my best. Comments like this are intended to give me some perspective. But my brain doesn’t work like that so I end up feeling ashamed. What helps me is validation and being given the space to feel and heal. I make sure my social media feeds are filled with body positivity. Reading a comment from someone who is body shaming, even if it’s not directed at me, really damages my recovery. I recommend following Megan Crabbe, Stacey Solomon, Alok Menon, Kelvin Davis, HerBodyCan, CurvesnCurlsUK, and Anti Diet Riot Club on Instagram. Finding happiness. I truly believe happiness is possible. I believe I can feel happy even though I don’t feel pretty. One of the  principles of recovery  is hope, and by believing I will find happiness, I have hope. My biggest motivation is my daughter. I know all too well how previous generations can cause damage before you’ve even had a chance to experience life properly. I don’t want to continue the generational curse of adults commenting on children’s bodies. I will never say she’s too this or not enough of that. I will refer to her body in a loving way so I can fill her with self-compassion. And if I say these loving words enough out loud, maybe I will hear them too. A version of this article was previously published on Medium.

Laura Fox

Help for Postpartum Depression During the Coronavirus Outbreak

I am in recovery from postpartum depression . I also experienced antenatal depression during the third trimester of my pregnancy. It has been a long and difficult road, but I am coming out the other side. But now, life has thrown a huge curveball. The coronavirus ( COVID-19 ) pandemic has brought back all of the fears I had that were deemed irrational. The main one being that my daughter is going to die. During my third trimester, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes . This negatively impacted my already fragile mental health . My birth was categorized as high risk. Although uncommon, babies of mothers with gestational diabetes and face complications during labor. The one that frightened me most was  shoulder dystocia . Gestational diabetes often means the baby is larger than average. This raises the risk of their shoulders getting stuck in the birth canal during delivery. I was convinced my baby was going to die during labor. I kept these feelings to myself as I felt a pressure to pretend to be happy. I was having a baby. I was lucky. I needed to be more grateful. But my baby didn’t die. I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and there were no complications during delivery. We were kept in the hospital a little longer so we could both be monitored due to diabetes and being on antidepressants. The ward was noisy at night so even if I wanted to sleep, it wouldn’t have happened. But what kept me awake was wondering when my luck would run out. I didn’t feel relieved that she was alive. I felt like there was something new to worry about. I was scared she would die in her sleep. The root of my fears is that I have experienced a lot of loss in my life. So, I was afraid I would lose the best thing that had ever happened to me too. With therapy and increases in my medication, I was able to challenge these thoughts. Soon, I was finding enjoyment in motherhood. But now the thought challenging techniques aren’t working. Whereas my previous worries about her dying had no evidence, these worries do. People are dying from COVID-19 . Although children generally have a  milder form  of the virus, there has been a death recently. It has been reported that a child under 18 has died from the virus in Los Angeles. The rational part of my mind knows my daughter catching the virus is unlikely. I am isolating her and doing the hygiene practices. She is not immunocompromised. The evidence suggests she will be fine. But I have anxiety , and my anxiety only needs a tiny shred of evidence to feed it. There’s a small possibility she could die. It’s small, but it’s there. And that’s what’s so hard to shake off. The goal of getting rid of these thoughts is unrealistic. They will always be there. And in a lot of ways, they are understandable. Mothers worry about their children all the time. And I bet I’m not the only mother with these anxieties. Although my previous strategies no longer work, there are things I am doing that are proving helpful. 1. Sharing how I feel. The biggest mistake I made when I had antenatal and postpartum depression was trying to hide it. This exacerbated my symptoms and left me feeling lost and alone. Sharing my worries helps to normalize these feelings. It’s all too easy to medicalize every feeling I have as depression or anxiety. But I have found that other parents, some without mental illness , are equally as anxious as I am. 2. Being kind to my negative thoughts. This sounds bizarre, but it is effective. Trying to push away these thoughts does no good. They get louder and louder until I feel overpowered. Acknowledging these thoughts and empathizing with them feels weird. I don’t like these thoughts. I don’t want to listen to them. But what happens when we don’t listen to people who are desperate to tell us something? They get frustrated. They make a fuss. And my negative thoughts do just that. My thoughts are trying to protect me. By acknowledging them with, “Thank you. I know you’re trying to help, but I don’t need to worry about that so much. My daughter is OK. I’m doing everything right,” they become more manageable. This is in no way a cure. I still have these thoughts, but by not pushing them away, I can turn the volume down in my mind so more rational thoughts can be heard. 3. Engaging in hobbies. It’s all-too-easy to lose myself in a crisis. In order to get through this, I need to maintain a sense of identity. As a mother, it can be difficult to find time for myself. But I am at home all of the time with my family. This means my husband can share the childcare so I get time to listen to an audiobook, write, watch a video on YouTube or just relax. 4. Reminding myself I am not alone. A lot of people are struggling with their mental health right now . The fear of catching the virus, having to social distance and self-isolate will be exacerbating people’s symptoms. By coming together and sharing experiences, we remind each other we are not alone. I have found it especially helpful to speak to other parents with mental health problems. Watching how they are getting through this difficult time inspires me. After giving birth to my daughter I felt incredibly lonely , but my choices made me lonely. I am choosing to stay connected with others. I am choosing to support and be supported. I am choosing hope. Concerned about coronavirus? Stay safe using the tips from these articles: Which Face Masks Prevent Against Coronavirus? How Is the New Coronavirus Treated? How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer What You Should Know About Social Distancing During COVID-19 8 Soaps You Can Use to Help Prevent the Spread of Illness 10 Face Masks People With Chronic Illness Recommend A version of this article was previously published on Medium.

Laura Fox

COVID-19: Staying Home When You Have a History of Agoraphobia

I developed agoraphobia at the age of 18 after a series of traumatic events. Over the next couple of years, I clawed my way back to being able to leave the house. Eventually, I was able to live a “normal” life, but I could never become complacent. For me, agoraphobia never truly goes away. Like with all mental health conditions, recovery is an ongoing process. I am almost 30 years old and my agoraphobia can still be triggered. If I am unable to leave the house due to a sickness bug, for example, a lot of my symptoms come back. When I try to leave the house after I’ve recovered, it’s extremely difficult. Having a baby brought back some symptoms of agoraphobia. I didn’t want to leave the house with my daughter. I had no confidence in my ability to take care of her inside my house, let alone outside of it. What if she poops through her clothes and there’s nowhere to change her? What if she starts crying and I can’t stop her and everyone around me thinks I’m a rubbish mom? Despite all of the convenient excuses to not leave the house a baby brings, I found the strength to go out. And most days we are out and about. I take her shopping, to cafes, swimming, baby groups, the library — you name it. Not only does it benefit her development, but it also benefits my mental health. The more I go out, the further away from agoraphobia I am. But my world has come crashing down since the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the baby groups have stopped. The leisure center and the library have closed. Cafes will only serve you if you take out. Even if I didn’t respect social distancing, there’s nowhere for me to go anyway. I’m an anxious person. The thought of my family become infected worries me. So the thought of going out really worries me. What if I catch it and pass it onto my husband and daughter? What if I infect a vulnerable person? Going out for essential things has become difficult. If I got to pick up formula for my daughter or my prescription from the pharmacy, I can’t wait to get back home. The longing to shut all the doors and hide away is reminiscent of the feelings I had when I was agoraphobic. But just like when I had my daughter, I will find the strength to beat this and not give in to my urges to shut myself away from the world. With advice from the government going against all the ways I typically cope, it’s difficult. Difficult, but not impossible. Social Distancing Does Not Mean Never Leaving the House The U.K. Government has provided guidance on social distancing. Along with leaving the house for essential things, it also stipulates that you can “go for a walk or exercise outdoors if you stay more than 2 metres from others.” I have been walking around my local area twice a day. The streets are pretty empty, but if I do see someone approaching I cross the road. I am doing the “Couch to 5K plan” and go running three times a week. I have been practicing social distancing whilst doing this. And I pick times to go out when I know most people will be at home, such as early in the morning or late in the evening. I Can Take Advantage of My Garden Lockdown has recently been announced in the U.K., so going out for walks multiple times a day isn’t possible. This threw me a little but I am adapting to the change. The weather in the U.K. is currently bright and sunny so it’s the perfect time to be in the garden. Over the past few days, I have tidied the garden so my daughter can play outside. This afternoon we sat on the decking together and enjoyed the sunshine. I plan to order some seeds online so we can plant flowers together. Not only is it a good opportunity for some fresh air, but it also gives us something we can do together. We have had to give up a lot of our activities so finding new ones is important. Social Distance Does Not Mean Lack of Social Connection We are lucky to be living in a time filled with technology. Although we cannot see people face to face, there’s plenty of ways to stay connected. I’m part of Facebook groups that spread positivity to keep us going through these difficult times. I use messenger to stay in contact with friends and family. Yesterday, I video called my nephew who I miss very much. Although we have to keep our physical distance, it’s OK to smile at strangers and say hi. When I was picking up supplies from the supermarket, I chatted with the cashier. She thanked me for being so kind to her as she had been putting up with threats and insults from customers all day. Do not underestimate the power of small gestures. Simply sending a meme to a friend or smiling at someone in the street could make someone’s day. And honestly, it makes me feel good too. Even though I have limited opportunities to practice social skills, these small things mean I won’t become completely unskilled like when I had agoraphobia. I Can Tell People How I Am Feeling Sharing my anxieties with people is much healthier than keeping them in. And it gives them an opportunity to open up too. It’s easy to feel lonely during this time. If we all keep our feelings hidden, we will feel even more alone. Being honest and vulnerable it necessary right now. Mental Health Services are operating over the telephone now. I still have weekly appointments with my CBT therapist, just not face to face. Instead of putting on a brave face, I am making an effort to use our time to be truly brave and share my worries. Making a Conscious Effort to See What Time at Home Brings Rather Than What It Takes Away I am a pessimist. The glass is always half empty. It’s been all too easy for me to see staying at home in purely a negative light. And it’s no wonder. There’s a pandemic and the last time I hardly went out was during an episode of severe mental illness. But my husband is working from home. He works far away so we don’t get to spend as much time together as we would like. Now we are together all of the time. If he wasn’t here, I’d be alone all day with a baby worrying about COVID-19. I get to spend lots of time with my daughter. Going out every day was good, but a lot of our routine was filled with preparing for things. And every parent knows that leaving the house requires so much planning. Now we have that time to play and relax together. I have time to spend on my hobbies. I’m listening to audiobooks and writing a lot. Having my husband at home and nothing to rush out of the house for, I have more time to myself. As a mother, I really need that time. Remembering That It Won’t Last Forever There will come a time when this is all a memory. I have a habit of thinking that bad times will never end. It truly feels like it will last forever, especially when I don’t know when the endpoint is. But remembering that it will end and things will be normal again is important. Another useful thing to remember is that I have endured worse. And I have got through it. So the evidence suggests that I can get through this. Sure, I’ll have blips in my mental health along the way. But that isn’t the same as relapse. And it certainly doesn’t mean I will become agoraphobic again. And when I finally make it out of this, I will be so much more grateful for the things I took for granted. Concerned about coronavirus? Stay safe using the tips from these articles: Which Face Masks Prevent Against Coronavirus? How Is the New Coronavirus Treated? How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer What You Should Know About Social Distancing During COVID-19 8 Soaps You Can Use to Help Prevent the Spread of Illness 10 Face Masks People With Chronic Illness Recommend This post originally appeared on Medium.

Laura Fox

Why You Should Check In on Your 'Happy' Friends With Depression

I have experienced anxiety and depression for the majority of my life. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I felt “normal” or “well.” I also can’t remember a time when people haven’t responded in the following ways when I disclose I have mental health problems: “No way!” “I would never have guessed!” “But you seem OK?” “You don’t look like you’re ill.” I’ve also experienced people questioning the validity of my mental health problems, even health care professionals. I went to my GP last year for a health problem unrelated to my mental illness . She was looking at my notes and noticed I am on antidepressants. She said we needed to look at whether I even needed to be on medication. She looked at me quizzically and I knew what she was thinking. “You don’t behave like an ill person.” “You don’t seem depressed.” “You’re too chatty and friendly to have anxiety .” I don’t know what “looking” or “behaving” like an ill person is supposed to mean, but I guess what people are saying is that I do not match the stereotype in their minds of what an ill person is supposed to be like. That says a lot about what the stigma around mental illness has done to people’s perceptions of what it means to be mentally ill. I regularly see a picture shared on social media saying “check on your happy friends.” In the picture, there are famous celebrities who have died by suicide. What these celebrities have in common is that they didn’t seem depressed or look like they were ill. I have found that a lot of people who share that picture are quick to question the validity of someone’s mental health problems. They understand that hypothetically someone can seem OK but not be OK. But, when met with these people in real life, all that understanding seems to disappear. Their “happy” friends can’t be suicidal when they smile so much. I am one of those happy friends. I have always been one of those happy friends. And let it be known I am not faking being ill. I am faking being well. I can fool people so much that they don’t believe anything is wrong with me. I’ve been fooling people for a very long time and I am very good at it. As a child, I was psychologically abused by my parents. I am very open about this as an adult and many people who knew me as a child are shocked that this was happening. My grandfather was a very cruel and abusive man. He hurt me a lot when I was a child. When I was at his house, I used to play in the street with the other children. Some years later, he was exposed as a child abuser. It was public knowledge that he was sent to prison. The children I played with are now adults who couldn’t believe this had been happening right under their noses. I had even fooled their parents who were in greater disbelief. I struggled with anxiety as a teenager. I was being bullied, which led to panic attacks and low self-esteem. Nobody knew of my secret struggles. I maintained a large friendship group and high grades, so when I finally spoke to teachers about the bullying, they found it all rather bizarre. I seemed fine. In fact, I was doing well. I had fooled them so much that they didn’t believe me. This theme has continued into adulthood. The more I am struggling, the more I appear to be thriving. I am struggling with postpartum depression after the birth of my daughter, but I go out nearly every day, I go running a couple of times a week, she is well looked after and we have a very close bond. I seem like I am coping well and on the outside, I am. But inside, I am a mess. I even managed to fool my husband with this one. Usually, he sees through my act and will be the only person to ask: “What’s wrong, love?” But he had no idea how much I was suffering. It seemed like I had it all under control. And that’s what I wanted him to think. But my perfect façade unraveled when I exploded over something very minor and threatened to get in the car and leave. The solution seems simple: Just tell people the truth. Stop putting on an act. But, it’s not that simple at all. Happy friends have built an identity around being the happy one. I know I have built an identity around being the one who doesn’t bother people with her problems but helps them with theirs instead. Happy friends spend a long time receiving love and approval for fulfilling their social role. Letting that go isn’t easy. Who are we if we’re not the happy friend? So, check on your happy friends. We will still try to fool you into thinking everything is fine, of course, but secretly we will be grateful that someone thinks we are more than just “the happy friend.” A version of this article was previously published on Medium.

Laura Fox

Social Media Helped My Mental Health When I Couldn't Leave the House

I was 17 when I developed agoraphobia . Slowly my world became smaller and smaller until it consisted of just my house. I lost my friends, hobbies and a sense of self. All I had was the internet. Without it, I would have been closed off from the world. I had no friends to chat with about current events, so the internet was how I stayed up to date with the outside world. I couldn’t join a group to do my hobbies or be in a classroom to study. Fortunately, I was able to do these things through the internet. But what helped to keep me human was social media. When you are cut off from the outside world, it’s easy to lose basic skills. We take for granted how much socialization allows us to practice these skills every day. With the current obsession of having a new year’s resolution to cut out social media, I feel compelled to talk about how I wouldn’t be here without sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Of course, there is a dark side to social media and it  can negatively impact one’s mental health.  And, it’s important not to use it as a crutch. I was actively working on my agoraphobia instead of using social media as an avoidance tactic. I can happily say that I haven’t been agoraphobic for 10 years. Social media is given a hard time and so are people who use it regularly. It’s almost as if people think there is something superior about not spending much time on Facebook. Sure, there is a relationship between excessive  social media use and poor mental health . But for people like myself, using social media has saved my mental health . 1. It allowed me to have a social life. Agoraphobia meant I lost a lot of friendships. I was too young to understand it myself, so it was no surprise that my friends couldn’t understand it either. All they knew what that I constantly said no to things. They must have thought I no longer wanted to be part of the friendship group. Social media meant I could keep in contact with friends. Being able to message them and keep up to date with what they were doing made me feel less left out. To this day, I still remain in contact with people I was unable to see again in person. Because that contact wasn’t broken, it was much easier for me to start seeing people again when I recovered from my agoraphobia. 2. I have made lifelong friends. Not only was I able to remain in contact with friends, but I was also able to make new ones thanks to social media. It gave me access to people with similar values and interests. I found it difficult to meet like-minded people in real life and often felt alone. Social media changed that and I am still friends with these people today. 3. I found mental health support groups. Accessing any sort of support group in my community was impossible with my agoraphobia. Even if I was able to leave the house, such groups were few and far between. But social media allowed me to become part of supportive communities. I joined mental health support groups and for the first time in my life. I was able to talk to people who were just like me. Although I am no longer agoraphobic, I still find these groups beneficial for my mental health. I am recovering from postpartum depression and have found support groups on Facebook to be very comforting. I even found one that ran sessions in my local area. Without social media, I would have no knowledge of a group that is pretty much on my doorstep. 4. It was an outlet to express myself. When you have a mental illness, it’s easy to lose your identity. I was becoming a person with agoraphobia and nothing more. Part of my recovery was rediscovering my identity and social media helped me to do that. Simple things like sharing links to music I like or uploading pictures of my artwork gave me back my sense of self. And supportive comments from online friends motivated me to continue with hobbies instead of cutting myself off from anything enjoyable. 5. Using it today means I can still have social connections whilst adjusting to motherhood Being a new mom has been lonely at times. Some days I can’t get out of the house or have an adult conversation. It’s difficult to meet up with friends or do anything for myself. Social media has been helpful in ensuring I am not cut off from my previous life. I am still able to connect with friends and we can keep up to date with each other’s lives. Being able to stay connected to colleagues has made me feel less anxious about returning to work. Sometimes, being able to log into one of my social media accounts has stopped me from struggling when I’m having days when I can’t get anything done. If used in a healthy way, social media can be beneficial for mental health . I believe I would not have conquered my agoraphobia without it and would have had a much harder time adjusting to “normal” life again. I have used it to be open about my postpartum depression and I would not have been able to do that in real life. The support I have received has contributed so much to my recovery. Whether it be a message from a fellow mother letting me know they understand or a nice comment on a picture I’ve uploaded of me and my daughter making it out of the house. If anything is used in an unhealthy way, it will negatively impact a person’s mental health. But not everyone is using things like social media as a crutch. The next time you feel an impulse to judge how open someone is on social media or how much they seem to enjoy using it, bear in mind that it might be helping them and a supportive comment from yourself could help them even more. A version of this article was previously published on Medium.

Laura Fox

What No One Told Me About Mental Illness Recovery

I remember the day I entered adult mental health services. I remember the exact date: Dec. 23, 2010. I remember that I was 19 years old, and I was secretly proud that I was wearing a top that was aged 14 to 15 from the kids’ section in New Look. “They might think I’m mad, but at least they couldn’t say I was fat,” I told myself. I had encountered other services as a child, but this was the first time I had contact with the adult community mental health team. I had been referred to the adult service because I had been looking for ways to try to end my life and somehow, I was an adult now. But I didn’t feel like an adult, and as I was talking to the nurse about recovery, I couldn’t help but think of it in terms of “when I grow up I will be/feel/do…” When I “grew up” I was very disappointed that recovery was not like that at all, and I grieved for the life I had dreamed for myself. We never talk about recovery. We talk about the process of getting there, but we never talk about what happens when you are there. How can you tell if you’re there yet? What happens when you get there? How do you stay there? What I am going to talk about is very much my own experiences, and I do not speak on behalf of everyone who has experienced mental illness. I have been through a lot to gain this knowledge, and I hope I can help anyone reading this to avoid expecting so much more of themselves than they would expect from someone else in recovery. Here are the unrealistic expectations I had of myself and recovery when I “grew up,” and what I have learned so far. 1. I need to change my personality, so I can stop being mentally ill. I genuinely believed that the reason I was mentally ill was due to my “horrible personality.” I was certain that if I had been born less sensitive and more outgoing then I would have never become unwell. The truth is that mental illness does not discriminate, and I could still have become unwell if I had been thicker skinned and full of confidence. My shyness and sensitivity have actually held the key to my recovery, along with the rest of my personality traits. A huge part of recovery is having your own identity outside of your mental illness. You are not a diagnosis or your symptoms. A diagnosis and a set of symptoms may be a big part of your life, but it doesn’t have to be a big part of you. Getting in touch with who I am is still something I am working on, but I have learned that denying who I am is something that keeps me unwell. 2. I will know when I am recovered. I thought that recovery was a definite point in someone’s life, like getting to the top of a mountain. I was very disappointed to find out that no such point existed, and that recovery is an ongoing journey. If you think about it, nobody is fully “well,” whether it be physically or mentally. Nobody knows it all or gets to a point where there is nothing left to learn. Recovery is no different. Life is full of peaks and dips for people who do not have mental health issues, so having peaks and dips in your own life shows you are normal. This was very difficult for me to grasp, as I would never have put my name and the word “normal” in the same sentence. Now I am “grown up,” I realize that reaching the top of the mountain would have been disappointing in itself. What’s the point if that would be the best it ever gets? Because recovery is a journey and not a destination, it means bigger and better things can happen and that your life isn’t limited to one place. 3. Recovery means I will be the person I used to be. I found myself wanting to be a totally different person, but at the same time, I wanted to get back to the person I used to be. I grieved for the girl I once was, and if I am honest, there are times when I still do. This is perfectly normal, but it is so hard to deal with and very difficult to explain to people. What I have realized is that without mental illness, I would still not be the person I used to be. People change all the time and it is a part of life. I have met people from the past on several occasions and noticed that they had changed a lot over the years. Some change is necessary for recovery, such as changing your coping strategies, so they are healthier. You are still you; just a different version of you, and you and that version can still be great. Mental illness does make the change feel harsher and out of your control, which is why I think it was harder for me to deal with. I felt I had changed at a much quicker pace than I was comfortable with, and it took time to adjust. In some ways, I was looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses as the present was so horrible, and the only thing I had to compare with was the past. The past was awful too, and is what contributed to my mental health problems, but somehow it seemed like the better option. What I wanted was to be able to do the things I used to do, such as leave the house and form friendships, rather than be the person I once was. 4. People will like me more. There is no correlation between mental illness and people liking you. However, there is a correlation between learning to like yourself more and having more positive relationships. I had assumed that by “curing” myself I would be more loveable and that all the people from my life that had shown me unkindness would be able to learn to love me. When I realized that moving forward in my recovery meant leaving some people behind, it really came as a shock. The only thing I can liken it to is when you are winded, and it feels like you’ll never breathe normally again. It’s a very difficult lesson to learn, but you will learn to breathe again. A lot of my relationships were based on me having low self-esteem and the entire set up being unequal. As I moved forward, I realized I was an equal and this did not sit well with some people. If someone cannot celebrate your success, then that says a lot about them. Their departure just makes room for people who will see you as an equal and value your friendship. 5. Recovery means I won’t become unwell again. You will have bad days. Sometimes they will be weeks or even longer. I have found that this is dependent on what is happening in my life. We can easily panic that we are relapsing when our reactions are very human. It can be helpful to ask: “ If my friend was going through this, would they feel stress?” Often, I find that the answer is yes. Sometimes we do become unwell, and that is OK. It happens to the best of us. But now you have valuable life experience from the previous relapses. Have faith that you know more than you realize. I had a relapse in 2015 and sought help a lot quicker. In 2016, I was heading for relapse and I got help before it developed into anything more. I had a baby in July of this year and spotted the signs of postpartum depression. I contacted the perinatal mental health team and asked for more support. I would not have understood the importance of seeking help as soon as possible if it weren’t for my previous experiences. We can’t control how mental illness makes us feel and when it will strike, but we have some control over what we do about it. 6. I can’t do certain things in case they make me ill again. It is very easy to fall into this trap, and while it’s important to pace yourself, it’s equally as important to challenge yourself, too. I remember thinking “I’ll do that when I’m more confident,” and putting things off and avoiding anything that might make me feel anxious. Soon I found that if I waited to feel confident it would never happen because confidence comes from doing things. The more you do something, the more desensitized you become to it. This can be anything from leaving the house to trying something new. It’s important not to push yourself too much, but breaking things down into manageable chunks is very good for you. I still have to do this now even though to an outside observer it would seem like I live a “normal” life and have no mental health struggles. 7. Other people are doing better than me. People only ever show you what they want you to see. Someone may seem like they’re fine, but both you and I know that it’s easy to hide what’s really going on. A lot of people think I’m fine and have no problems, but that is not the case. We cannot possibly have any idea what sort of battle people are experiencing inside, so comparing yourself to others is unwise as you don’t know the full facts. 8. If I relapse, it means I have “failed.” No, no and no. It is not your fault. You have not failed. It does not cancel out any progress you have made. During my last relapse in 2015, I felt like a failure and was intent on ending my own life. I have come out of that relapse a stronger and wiser person. I recognize the early signs of me becoming unwell, so I can prevent relapse. I have learned from my previous relapses that I must tell someone as soon as possible. If I had not experienced relapse, I would not know this. Relapse was not a waste of time. I thought it was at first, and I was conscious of the time I had lost. I may have lost time, but I have gained a new understanding of my symptoms and triggers. This understanding is what keeps me well. 9. I will never be able to stay well. This false belief was the biggest obstacle in my recovery. What was the point in getting better if it wouldn’t last? My expectations of being well were that it had to be perfect 100 percent of the time. I know now that bad patches happen to anyone and it always passes. It doesn’t necessarily mean I have relapsed, but if I do relapse it’s not a failure, and that will pass too. Wellness is individual to the person, and I have learned that my wellness means having control over my recovery. This means understanding how to spot the early signs of me becoming unwell and what I need to do if I become unwell. It also means understanding what keeps me well and engaging in good habits as part of self-care. Who knew that when I “grew up” I would be a flawed human being with symptoms of mental illness? Who knew that I could find happiness in this imperfection and that I would one day be thankful that recovery didn’t meet my unrealistic expectations?