All that I am, all that I ever was…

I am more than my mental health. I am more than my homelessness. I am more than any one aspect of me. I am Addy. And this is…


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Roadblocks to Recovery: #3. Social Isolation

Over the last eight years, my hope has been on the decline, so it is no surprise to me to find that it has now completely evaporated. What caused this decline in hope began when I lost my social network in 2007, following my breakdown and the subsequent emotional abuse I received. For without people with whom to share our life with, there is little hope left. Hence today’s roadblock to recovery is the isolation I have found myself existing in.

Social Isolation

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There is a difference between loneliness and isolation, just as there’s a difference between isolation and solitude. What I experience is not the serenity of a few hours spent in solitude from the hustle-bustle of contemporary life, what I experience on a daily basis is the soul-crushing state of being completely isolated from the rest of the human world. I have no friends. I have no acquaintances. I have no-one. And over the course of the last eight years, that’s something few people have been able to comprehend.

We live in a world where friendships are common place. Everyone is supposed to have ‘friends’ on Facebook, everyone is supposed to have a cavalcade of followers on Twitter, and everyone is supposed to have one or two people in the real world that they consider friends. People with whom you can catch up with over a beverage or two, people who you can confide in, people with whom you can wile away the hours and validate your own existence. So when someone – such as myself – comes along who has no-one, people react with complete confusion.

Over the years, everyone from support workers, psychiatrists, psychologists and telephone counselors have reacted with disbelief upon being told I have no friends. They were unable to comprehend that some people have no-one they can share life with; that no matter how hard some people try, they just don’t have any friends.

The problem I have making friends stems from the first two roadblocks I have looked at; PTSD and social anxiety disorder. My abuser worked her genetically blessed arse off to convince both myself and the world that I deserved no-one in my life. She deliberately isolated me from my friends through a series of lies and manipulations, she informed me that I was an orphan that no-one could ever love and took great glee in informing me that I should move into a cave where I wouldn’t inflict myself on the world. Her incessant abuse also rendered me unable to trust a living human being – including my parents – and without trust it’s almost impossible to make friends, let alone sexual relationships. Even if it wasn’t for the psychological damage my abuser inflicted on me, making friends has always been something I’ve found difficult to do. Ever since I was but a wee young thing in school, talking to people has been difficult for me. This is why it took so long (five years) to make friends after my arrival in Australia, and why I find it so difficult to forgive my abuser for destroying this social network I’d created.

The other reason that I find making friends so difficult, is the simple reason that I don’t have any friends. It may sound odd, or plain ironic, but the simple fact is it’s easier to make friends when you already have friends than it is to make friends when you don’t have friends. Firstly, you are more likely to meet new people through your existing friends, and secondly, people are far less likely to ask “what’s wrong with you”. For someone who doesn’t have friends is automatically (and wrongly) labelled as being ‘not friend material’ because they must be ‘crazy’, ‘needy’ or ‘just plain damaged’.

I am acutely aware that being so isolated is damaging to both my physical and mental health. A study in 2013 found that people who suffer from social isolation are more likely to die prematurely and it is commonly known that isolation can increase feelings of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. So it isn’t too difficult to realise how being isolated has become such a severe roadblock on my journey to recovery. We all need someone in our lives. Someone we can vent to. Someone we can share with. Someone we can spend time with. To have no-one is painful, debilitating and damned lonely.

The only social contact I have comes from my weekly appointments with my support worker. They last for approximately one hour each. Every single other hour of the week I spend alone; staring at the wall, roaming the streets, trying desperately to work out how I can make friends. It’s debilitating, painful and makes me wonder why I continue with this crazy thing called life.

So what can be done about my isolation? How does one even go about making friends at the tender old age of thirty-six?

Well, firstly, I need to do something about my social anxiety disorder. For as long as this condition retains the control it does over my mind, I am never going to be confident enough to talk to other human beings. There is far too much risk of humiliation and badness if I do.

And, secondly, I need to do something about my PTSD. For as long as this condition retains the control it does over my mind, I am never going to be able to trust other human beings to the point of making and retaining relationships with them. There is far too much risk of pain and chaos if I do.

But once I’ve done those, there are other things I can do:

Thirdly, I could join some local community organisations or social groups, this way I can enjoy my spare time doing something I enjoy doing whilst placing myself in a position to make new friends and connections. Perhaps a photography group or book club would be suitable to begin with.

Fourthly, I can make more of an effort to connect with people online. I find this method of communication less painful than real-world conversation and it could lead to making online friends with the hope of transferring the friendship into real-world contact, depending on where the people live, of course.

Fifthly, well, I honestly can’t think of a fifth option, for making friends basically boils down to getting yourself out there and just meeting people! No amount of counseling or therapy is going to make friends, it’s just something you need to do, regardless of risk. For without risk there is no reward.

Previous installments in ‘Roadblocks to Recovery’:


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Roadblocks to Recovery: #2. Social Anxiety Disorder

To say that being without hope is a strange feeling would be an understatement. To be without hope makes me feel hollow, that something important is missing from my soul. I feel empty. Lost. A little confused. Being without hope is not something I would recommend. It’s painful, disconcerting and altogether mystifying. Yet it’s one of those things that’s easily lost, yet interminably difficult to replace once it’s disappeared from your life.

In this series of posts I am dissecting what is preventing me from navigating further down the road to recovery; all the things that have created roadblocks and zapped the hope from my being. Hopefully, I will be able to shine a light on what I need to do to rekindle hope, and with it, myself.

Social Anxiety Disorder

anxiety

It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.
~ Stephen Fry ~

It’s true that social anxiety disorder has provided me with several positives in life. My love of writing, reading and literature. My love of movies, television and the moving image. Even my love of photography, a gloriously intimate act that can be performed quite beautifully in solitude. But for the most part, social anxiety disorder has been the devil that has destroyed me.

Since it’s onset in my teenage years, it has had a profound effect on my ability to make friends and retain relationships, to the point that I now find myself an isolated individual incapable of even talking to people, let alone making friends with them. Social anxiety disorder was also instrumental in destroying my educational career, affecting my A-level choices, ability to cope with examinations and my return to college in 2007 was also hampered by social anxiety, to the point I lost that course within weeks of returning (although glandular fever and abuse also played a large role in the loss of that particular course, it would be plain wrong to suggest social anxiety had nothing to do with it). Even now, as I contemplate returning to university, I find social anxiety rearing its ugly head as it convinces me I would be unable to perform the course or survive around so many other people. Social anxiety disorder plays havoc with the view that I have of my own body, feeding into preexisting body dysmorphic issues that have plagued me my whole life. It also renders simple, day-to-day activities, almost impossible to perform. For example, going to the supermarket has become a strenuous action that shouldn’t be anywhere near as complicated as it is. I have to go at a certain time of the day (early afternoon, when the supermarket isn’t as busy) and I have to go to specific supermarkets, ones which have self-service checkouts, so I don’t have to make ‘small talk’ with the checkout operators as they scan my food.

Everything in my life is controlled around my social anxiety. From walking down the street to the actions I perform whilst there, everything is ordered so as to keep my anxiety as low as possible; no communicating with people, no socializing under any circumstances, no pushing myself into situations that I deem uncomfortable. Activities that I used to enjoy, that I used to garner so much pleasure from, have become no-go areas; for example, I can no longer go to the cinema due to the number of people present, I can no longer attend munches, which in 2013, were one of my few lifelines of social interaction. Even blogging, an activity I used to relish, has become super-difficult for me to perform. I worry continuously over people judging the words I have written, stress endlessly about commenting, even on my own blog, let alone other peoples and find myself censoring myself for the first time in eight years out of pure stress over what people may think of my output.

Although social anxiety has always played a tremendous role in my life, I’ve found that since my hospitalization earlier this year, it has only become worse. Since coming out of hospital I have been isolating myself more and more, refusing to go out unless I absolutely (unequivocally) need to. I have become, for want of a better word, a recluse. A hermit. Someone who refuses all social interaction due to the worry over panic attack, due to the worry over what other people may think of me, due to the possibility of making a complete and utter fool of myself. I don’t know why being in hospital escalated the symptoms of my abuse. Perhaps it was being forced to share a ward with other individuals. Perhaps it was the control being taken from my life. Perhaps it had nothing to do with hospital, and that’s just become a convenient excuse. All I know is that over the last few months, my social anxiety has been so out of control, so impossible to contend with, that it has become (even more so than it used to be) a serious illness that has a profound (and monumental) debilitating impact on my life.

It is holding me back. It is preventing me from living. It is sucking the hope from my being on a daily basis. It is destroying what belief I have left.

So what can be done? What possible avenues can I explore to try to fix this particular, debilitating aspect of my mental health? Well:

Firstly, there is talk therapy. I have spent very little time in my life talking about social anxiety. Psychiatrists have been uninterested in this aspect of my mental health, preferring to focus on the (perceived) more serious illness that is bipolar affective disorder. Psychologists, equally, have ignored this part of my illness. Instead choosing to focus on my moods and blaming my ineptitude (and lack of effort) for my isolation and inability to communicate and/or make friends. What I need, more than anything, is a psychologist who understands what social anxiety is, how it impacts on someone’s life and the damage that it can cause if left unchecked. I’m hoping that the psychologist I am planning to see will have this understanding, but only time will tell on that.

Secondly, there is exposure therapy. Of all my readings on social anxiety disorder, this form of therapy seems to have a particularly positive effect. For those not in the know, exposure therapy is when someone is slowly exposed to the source of their anxiety and/or trauma in the hope it will lessen the impact and help the individual cope with what is causing the pain. In the sense of my social anxiety, this means exposing myself to situations where other people are present, where I am forced to socialize and communicate with strangers, in the hope it will lessen the control social anxiety has on my life. Perhaps this means attending psychosocial rehabilitation groups again, perhaps it means forcing myself to go to the cinema (under controlled circumstances), perhaps it means just going to the supermarket during the busiest time of the day. Whatever I decide, exposure therapy could work.

Thirdly, there is CBT and DBT, which I’ve heard can work wonders for people with anxiety disorders. As I have attempted to self-teach myself these practices, to little or no effect, I feel that I need to work through these treatments with another individual – perhaps a psychologist – who understands them better than I.

Fourthly, there is simply being more kind to myself. I am immensely hard on myself in all walks and manners of life. In fact, it would be fair to say that I hold everything I do up to intense scrutiny. From the blog posts I publish, through to the meals I cook, and the speed in which I walk, everything is criticized, analyzed and torn apart by my perfection seeking mind. I need to learn to be kinder to myself, to understand that not everything I do needs to be perfect, that nothing anyone does is ever perfect. I need to find a way to look at my body with acceptance rather than revulsion; I need to find a way to blog without tearing myself apart; I need to find a way to act without criticizing myself into oblivion. I need to be kinder to myself; for if you can’t accept yourself, how can you expect anyone else to accept you? If you can’t love yourself, then other people cannot love you. It’s as simple as that.

Fifthly, there is seeking advice from people who are either living with their own battles with social anxiety, or those people who have successfully managed to control the impact it has on their life. But for that I need to get past my own insecurities over commenting and emailing and teach myself, once again, how to communicate with strangers. For the knowledge of other people is often the greatest knowledge of all – or at least, that’s what I’m led to believe.

Sixthly, well, I can’t think of a sixthly at this time, so these five goals will have to suffice for now.

Whatever happens with my attempt to manage social anxiety disorder, I know that I will not be able to live the life I deserve (see, starting to be kind to myself already) until I have learnt to control my anxiety. It is, without question, one of the biggest (and most severe) roadblocks on my recovery journey – and one I need to tackle quickly and definitively.

Previous installments in ‘Roadblocks to Recovery’:


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Day 17: If you could get rid of your mental illness(es)…would you?

The 30 Days of Mental Illness Awareness Challenge continues, with:
Day 17: If you could get rid of your mental illness(es), would you?

If I could rid myself of the scourge of Social Anxiety Disorder, I would. I despise the ever-present feelings of worthlessness, the constant feelings of inadequacy and the omnipresent hopelessness. I am tired of experiencing anxiety attacks from merely walking down the street or being crippled by panic attacks because a shop assistant looks in my direction and says ‘hello’. I abhor everything about this illness and the damage it has caused to my life.

I dream of being confident, of showing the world who I am, of being able to banter and enjoy conversations without fearing that the person before me is judging every minute detail of my life, physical appearance and mental state. I hate that this illness prevents me from showcasing my awesomeness to the world and abhor the loneliness that has filled my life because of it.

Yes, without question, I would rid myself of Social Anxiety Disorder if I could.

The same would go for PTSD and the ever-present nightmares, flashbacks and re-visitations that this illness causes.

But my Bipolar…well, that’s a different story that has already been told:

Regardless of the pain, devastation, confusion and chaos that bipolar has inflicted on my life, it is still a part of who I am, and I part of it. We are one, my bipolar and I. Removing it would be like removing my eyes, my hands, my fingers or toes. It would be like erasing memories from my mind, eradicating my passions or expunging my innate playful kinkiness. I would still be breathing, still be walking and roaming the earth a living human being, but I wouldn’t be me.

~ from ‘Try Looking At It Through My Eyes: A Great Big Magical Button!


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Day 01: What are your mental illness(es)?

To commemorate Mental Health Month, I have decided to undertake the 30 Days of Mental Illness Awareness Blog Challenge, as conceived by Marci on her blog Marci, Mental Health & More. Although headway has most certainly been made in mental health awareness over the last six years, we still have an awful long way to go before mental illness is accepted as freely as physical illness. So feel free to join in with the challenge and help raise awareness of mental illness! :)

Day 1: What is/are your mental illness(es)? Explain it a little.

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Image (c) Toby Allen | Source: zestydoesthings

One of the most frustrating things a psychiatrist ever said to me was that “it wasn’t possible to suffer from multiple diagnoses” because “how [was he] supposed to know what to treat?”

I vehemently disagree with this opinion, not just because my diagnosis is three-fold, but because you can suffer from (and be treated for) multiple physical illnesses at the same time (e.g. bronchitis, diabetes, asthma) so why not mental illnesses?

My diagnoses are Bipolar Affective Disorder (Type 1), PTSD and Social Anxiety Disorder.

From reading that list, many people would assume that Bipolar (given its one of the ‘big mental illnesses’) would be the one that causes me the most distress. It isn’t a pleasant experience having your moods oscillate from the highs of mania to the crippling lows of suicidal depression, nor is it pleasant being discriminated against because people have lesser understanding of this condition than other mental illnesses, such as depression. But for me, the one that causes the most problems, the one I would happily take a ‘magic pill’ to eradicate, is social anxiety disorder.

This condition has destroyed my life in ways even I struggle to comprehend, and yet, because of opinions similar to those of the psychiatrist I quoted above, it is the mental illness I’ve received the least amount of help to manage.

Most see the words bipolar affective disorder and decide this is the only issue that needs treating. They don’t see the damage that social anxiety has caused; the inability to connect to people, the frequent (and debilitating) panic attacks, the frustration of self-imposed isolation because I cannot venture outside in fear of what people may say (or think) about me.

Couple this with my PTSD, and the inherent distrust of humanity that has resulted from the traumatic incidents that caused this condition, it makes ‘living’ feel almost impossible to achieve. Instead, the combination of my three illnesses forces me to ‘survive’ or, at best, ‘exist’.

This is why opinions such as the one dictated to me by that psychiatrist frustrate me so. Is it so difficult to understand that someone can and does suffer from multiple mental illnesses? That these illnesses interact with each other; feeding into each other to double or triple the pain that someone is in?

And is it so difficult to just treat the person rather than focus on the label(s) that have been branded onto his or her head?

Related Articles:


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Try Looking At It Through My Eyes – Day 06: The Support Group

This is the sixth day in my sporadic interpretation of the “Try Looking At It Through My Eyes” challenge devised by Bold Kevin over on Voices of Glass.

Today, the prompt asks us “If you could start a support group specific to your mental illness what would it do, what activities, what purpose etc and what would you call it?”

So, my response was to create a fictional newsletter (and I stress the word fictional) for a support group aimed at people who suffer from social anxiety disorder.

Who are we-page-001 Who are we-page-002(1)

– Click either image to enlarge –

~◊~

If you’ve missed any of the previous posts in this challenge, you can read them here:

| Day 01 | Day 02 | Day 03 | Day 04 |
| Day 05 |


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Day #1: Mi Diagnoses

Over the next twelve days I will be undertaking the “Try Looking At It Through My Eyes” challenge, as devised by Bold Kevin on his blog Voices of Glass.

Normally, the challenges I undertake on this blog are rather shallow little things centered around favourite movies, books and superficial celebrity crushes. This challenge, in keeping with my (and Audrey’s) desire to move this blog ‘back to basics’, has been designed by and for people dealing with mental health issues.

Hopefully it will be as entertaining and enlightening as it will be challenging! :)

~◊~

Day One – “She” (Or if you are male “He”)
Write a short story about someone who has just been diagnosed with your mental illness/condition and who is the age you were when you were diagnosed.  What happened, what were they expecting, what are their feelings etc?

DSM

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; in case you weren’t aware, I’m not exactly its staunchest supporter! :p

Only day one and I’m already risking a trip to the headmaster’s office for flagrantly flouting the rules. The thing is, no matter how much I love writing fiction, I’m incapable of doing it at the moment due to excuses ranging from fluctuating moods, a downtrodden soul, various forms of exhaustion and a general lack of focus that’s currently affecting every facet of my life.

So, I will tell you the tale(s) of moments in my life when I was diagnosed with various illnesses and the wide-range of emotions that affected me on each of those occasions. Given the vast number of times I have visited psychiatrists/doctors/psychologists since my early twenties, I have chosen to look at only the first time I was diagnosed with various illness(es) and conditions rather than all the times I was re-diagnosed with the same illnesses.

Beginning with the very first time I discussed my mental health with a doctor, which was also the first time I’d discussed it with anyone, way back at the end of the millennium.

April 2000: Depression and Social Anxiety Disorder… (22)

After eight years of on/off self-harm, suicidal ideation, the onset of hearing voices and more fluctuations between mania, depression and self-destructive behavior than a champion stick shaker could shake a stick at, I found myself in a doctor’s office discussing these aspects of my life for the very first time.

I told him the stories behind some of my scars; I shared with him the moments I’d wanted to end my life; I opened up about years of depressed, melancholic thoughts; I admitted to being pathologically incapable of talking to people and of being someone who no-one is capable of loving or liking.

After listening intently, occasionally interrupting my sporadic rambles with pertinent questions, he leaned back in his chair and wrote a prescription for Prozac, believing me to be showing all the symptoms of depression and social anxiety disorder. Although he didn’t categorically proclaim this diagnosis – I’ve noticed over the years very few medical practitioners will tell their client flat-out what their diagnosis is, psychiatrists especially – he referred me to a psychologist and we began weekly appointments.

As I walked around the Ness Islands on that overcast weekday afternoon, my mind wasn’t focused on the disorders he’d mentioned, nor on the medication he had prescribed. All that fear, confusion and uncertainty would consume me soon enough. On that afternoon I felt only relief for finally talking to someone about all the pain and torment that had been festering inside me for nearly a decade.

It is a relief I have never forgotten, nor felt the like of since.

March 2007: Breakdown… (28)

The only things I can recall about this diagnosis (given my state of mind at the time) are:

1) It happened in Port Fairy.
2) Being prescribed more medication than I’d ever taken before.
and
3) The constant, all-consuming confusion over why (given what was happening at the time) was I not hospitalized?

November 2007: Bipolar… (28)

Following years of erratic behaviour, psychosis, deep depressions, multiple suicide attempts, vicious self-harm and more pain than anyone should have to endure in their lifetime, a psychiatrist in Melbourne diagnosed me Bipolar Type 1.

At the time I was about to venture to Tasmania (a dream destination since my arrival in Australia) to explore the genital isle of Australia. However, following the diagnosis I was thrust into a downward spiral of confusion, anger, pain, despair, depression and the sudden realisation that my life’s dreams would never eventuate. I could forget friends, relationships and being a father. In fact, I could forget about being someone ever again.

I dealt with the diagnosis the only way I knew how to at the time: I drank numerous alcoholic beverages, had fiery conversations with Meadhbh – who encouraged both self-harm and suicide – and turned to my recently established blog to rant about my emotions and try to understand what was happening to me. Entire days were lost to Googling “Bipolar” whilst reading whatever book I could find on manic depression in order to gain some form of understanding about what was happening to me.

It would be years before I had a firm understanding of my illness and have never forgiven that psychiatrist for destroying my only real chance of visiting Tasmania; an island I have yet to visit and now, due to the poverty and isolation in which I dwell, probably never will.

February 2008: Bipolar (again), Social Anxiety Disorder (again) and PTSD… (29)

After returning to the UK, I took advantage of a (relatively) stable period in my moods to integrate into the country’s mental health system. Following several appointments with a mental health team I was referred to Abergavenny Psychiatric Hospital where I was seen by a clinical psychiatrist.

Weeks later, I received the multiple diagnosis of Bipolar Type 1, (severe) social anxiety disorder and – due to the trauma of the abuse I’d received in 2007 – Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. All I can remember feeling at the time was exhaustion, given I was still trying to deal with the debilitating physical effects of Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome and anger, given I was only nine months from my 30th birthday and needed to have my life sorted out by the time the clock ticked over to that date.

These diagnoses (and the resulting medication) would make such stabilisation almost impossible!

December 2011: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with you…” (33)

Following years of unsupported/unmedicated erratic behaviour, mood swings, self-harm, black-outs, psychosis, nightmares, dissociation and homelessness, I was referred to a Mental Health crisis team. It was through my association with this team that I would now prefer to die a slow, painful, self-inflicted death than be involved with any mental health service in the future.

The first person to see me declared after a half-hour session that “there were no mental health problems going on” and that was that.

The second person to see me, following a near two-hour session that explored my life in intricate, intimate detail, reconfirmed my earlier diagnosis of Bipolar Type 1, (severe) social anxiety disorder and PTSD. He immediately began me on a course of medication (lithium) alongside antidepressants and antipsychotics with follow-up blood tests and appointments; all of which I attended.

The third person to see me, after the previous psychiatrist left, told me within fifteen seconds of meeting him that multiple diagnoses of mental illness were “impossible”, justifying this by stating, “what am I supposed to treat?” and from there it was all downhill. My childhood was free of major illnesses, accidents and wasn’t “traumatic enough” to cause mental health problems. What had happened with my sister was instantly discarded because, when I was twelve years old, I should have understood the complexities of her anorexia nervosa and thus any reaction to what was happening to her (and how she treated me) was entirely my fault. Everything that had occurred in my life from 2000 onwards (multiple suicide attempts, self-harm, abuse, manic episodes, depressive episodes, mood swings, PTSD, breakdown etc.) were classified as “unimportant” and his final diagnosis (as he leant back in his chair with a Cheshire Cat sized grin on his face) was that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me, that I had been “play acting mental illness in order to get out of homelessness” and there was “no medication that could help me”. Thus causing him to immediately cessate the lithium I was taking.

Within weeks I was a gambling alcoholic lost in an ocean of self-medicating, self-harming, psychotic behaviour that ultimately prompted a suicide attempt. But true to my word, I have never once returned to a psychiatrist and/or mental health team and (probably) never will again; regardless of how bad things become in the future.


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How much does social anxiety affect your life?

SocialAnxietyDisorder

Many moons ago I was perusing the interwebs looking for new and exciting ways to tackle my social anxiety disorder when I came across a test created by Dr. Michael R. Liebowitz, a psychiatrist and researcher. The test itself is decidedly simple. It asks you to rate how you feel in terms of ‘fear of’ and ‘avoidance of’ twenty-four different social situations. From this, the test determines how much social anxiety disorder plays a part in your life.

The scoring scale is:

55-65 – Moderate social phobia
65-80 – Marked social phobia
80-95 – Severe social phobia
95+ – Very severe social phobia

I scored 144 which is (unsurprisingly) very severe social phobia.

How about you?

~ YOU CAN TAKE THE LIEBOWITZ SOCIAL ANXIETY SCALE TEST HERE ~