Did you know that those with the most common chronic health conditions, are 2-3 times more likely to have mental health problems? The prevalence of mental ill health is most prominent in those on low income, young adults 18-34, females or those living alone. Mental Health awareness week 2017 is here and I want to write about how I do more than just exist, despite the adversity I face because of my chronic illnesses. I hope that by sharing my experiences; I can help you recognise the steps you could take to improve your mental health, whilst dealing with chronic illness. I want to help all of you take steps: TO THRIVE AND NOT JUST SURVIVE. Learn more about the message from the Mental Health Foundation.
What daily steps could you take to make life more positive? What strategies can you use during flare ups or difficult times? How can you feel confident that you have the toolkit to thrive? I will share some of my experiences and strategies that I use to thrive, despite constant high level pain, which leaves me in bed about 90% of the time. If you’d like to know more about my illnesses (Migraine and IIH-a rare brain disease that mimics the symptoms of a brain tumour) then please read this.
Before you read any further, I want you to make a choice. Which path do you want to choose-a) ignore your feelings, taking no responsibility for your emotional wellbeing; b) wallow in self pity, moaning about life; or c) take steps to make the best out of a bad situation? If you choose a or b, then I suggest you won’t gain from reading any further. If you chose c, then I will do my best to help. There are many ways to deal with mental health problems; this blog is purely my own opinion. Please seek medical attention if you are self harming or having suicidal thoughts. There are no quick fixes here, but in order to move forward then you will probably need to seek some form of professional help; if you haven’t already.
SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP
I have had counselling prior to becoming ill, after we nearly lost our second baby at birth. Because of this, when the magnitude of my current situation hit me; I was quicker to react and smart enough to know that I needed help. Living with chronic illness means that you usually grieve for the old you. Therefore, it is likely that you will need some form of professional support; such as counselling or CBT. Chronic illness also impacts on everybody whose lives are affected; particularly close family. If is now 4 years since I was diagnosed with IIH, but I continue to actively seek help. Most recently, we felt that our family would benefit from group therapy. This time my husband was the brave one and sought help. At the time, I didn’t realise how hard he found it to reach out, but a few sessions in and we are all feeling the benefits.
Steps to improve your mental health
My first question for you is what do you love to do? What do you spend most of your time doing or thinking about? (Keeping it clean and legal of course). I love to make others happy, particularly my husband and children; but, I’ve always felt the need to go beyond that. Before I had to give up work I was an Early Years teacher. My passion was making those children smile as they learnt. To see the children run out to their parents at the end of the day, bubbling with chatter about what we had been doing; was my life’s purpose! When I had to stop teaching, I felt utterly lost. So, one day I I realised I needed a new purpose. I decided to use the skills I had learnt during a silversmithing course and my love for writing. I decided that, despite my constant pain, I had to make the decision to make the best of an awful situation. I now write this blog and poetry for myself and others and I run my own jewellery and accessories business Paprika Jewellery & Accessories. So, if you’ve read to here, you’ve probably made that decision too. Take your time to think carefully about what makes you happy. It may take time, but hopefully you’ll find a renewed sense of purpose. You can do what you love, despite being ill.
This was my first step along the long and winding path, towards thriving with chronic illness. At first, I felt guilty about crafting, when I was off sick from work. However, it actually distracts me from the pain and I soon learnt that my social workers and GP understood how important it was for my mental wellbeing. So, don’t be put off by feelings of guilt or by feeling overwhelmed. It doesn’t have to be a big thing and you don’t have to make it more than a hobby. You could take up photography or journaling. Ask yourself this: wouldn’t it be nice to do so much more than just coping with your illness?
HOW TO COPE DURING DIFFICULT TIMES
I want to be clear that I am not saying that everything will be a bed of roses. There are going to be dark times; that is expected and it’s ok to take time out, to do whatever you need to do, to get through those days. When I’m low, I talk. I talk to my amazing friends, both local and online. Online support groups are a great resource, but they do need to be chosen carefully; some have a negative atmosphere, which could do more harm than good. It may take time to find the right one(s). I have made amazing friends in my carefully selected support groups, others who get it. I also benefit from a group for women who want to live a worry free life, which has helped develop my toolkit immensely. All the groups I’m active in, have a positive and empathetic ethos. It’s taken time to find the right groups and the right people. I have left groups which don’t fit what I’m looking for (that in itself changes), so it is a case of trial and error. In very dark periods, I reach out to my GP. Acknowledging that you’re finding things tough, can, on its own, help you out from under that dark cloud.
THE TOOLKIT TO THRIVE
I set myself a goal at the beginning of the year and break it into manageable steps. I keep a Pinterest board to help me to revisit it. I also use a diary and in erasable pe, I write 1 or 2 goals a day. If I can’t do them, then they can be rubbed out, so there is no feeling of failure. I also ensure that I think about or write at least 2 positives from my day; usually on the positive post in my Conscious Crafties community; which I set up and is now posted daily by a rota of lovely members. I also try to meditate or use relaxation methods each day These are the main tools I use, but you will find your own.
I want to properly introduce you to the biggest influence on my emotional wellbeing-my husband and best friend; Joel.
Joel is my main carer and I am so proud of him, as he is now the face of Carers for Lloyds Banking Group and a co-chair for the Family Matters strategy across the whole bank. This week he told our story and how my illness impacts on our family’s mental health. In the article, Joel talks how he has retrained his brain to help himself, me and our boys; look after our emotional wellbeing. He writes about the simple act of ncouraging me to recognise my daily achievements; even if it’s just managing a shower. He also talks of how he helps himself and our boys (11 and 13) assert a positive outlook, by asking them on the way to school: “what are you looking forward to and what are you hoping to get done today?” He also wrote about our use of a positive jar, which you can find more about here.
Our story is helping people and inspiring others, clearly seen in the comments about the article. Here are just a few quotes from his co-worker, after reading the posts.
“I like the idea of a positive jar and will try this at home. I have a 14 year old daughter struggling with anxiety issues at the moment….I hope this idea will help her.”
“Your positivity is really inspiring and some very practical advice.”
“What an amazing family you all are. I really like how you acknowledge the realistic things.”
As well as ideas mentioned above, we use the wide-ranging toolkit that I gathered in my teaching career; Joel brings extensive managment and leadership skills and our boys bring their astoundingly mature points of view and striking honesty about what they see. We ensure that there is no blame put on me about our situation, (inevitably I still feel guilty-but hey, I didn’t say we’d cracked it). We also make time for a monthly family meeting and a monthly afternoon tea.
In conclusion, I know that I am lucky to have a wonderful family to keep me positive, however, there is always support for you somewhere. So, start your positive mindset today by thinking about what makes you happy. If you use visualisation techniques then this would be a great way to spend a good amount of time to think this through. Emotional wellbeing is often overlooked by all of us. For those of us with chronic illnesses it is even more important to try and work on building resilience, flexibility and resourcefulness. Please write in the comments if you find any of this particularly helpful or you would like more information on something specific. I am always happy to help, but please bear in mind that I may take longer to respond if I am having a flare or taking some time out.