Mental illness

Taking care of business (and by business, I mean me.)

27 January, 2011

I have been sick in the last few months and it’s been very difficult to manage all the different parts of my life while also taking care of me. A few months ago my anxiety got to a point where it was making me withdraw from the world and it probably would have been a lot worse had Nick not stepped in and gently nudged me in the direction of the local GP. I decided to stop everything and focus on my health, my mental health, for the first time in a long time and I’m still working on it. I think I’ll have to work on it for the rest of my life now that I know that it’s not like a cold and it won’t be something I can get through by grinning and pretending I am normal.

I don’t like doctors because even though they’re supposed to care for us, I’ve never really felt like they care much about me. One of the reasons why my anxiety and sleep problems weren’t addressed sooner was because doctors didn’t pick it up. They wouldn’t let me testify for my body and would assume that I was lying or hysterical or non-compliant. Instead of treating me as an individual human being with a unique body, they would look at my body and refer back to the caricature of the fat body. I don’t need to go into details – you and I, we know all about it. I also have Type 1 diabetes and that adds a layer of complication and frustration around looking after yourself, being sick and going to the doctor to seek help. Many GPs and specialists have treated me like I am a criminal against my body, just for having T1D and being fat. They failed to listen to me or have empathy, and thus they failed me.

So when Nick told me that he thought I needed to get help, I protested. I put it off. I knew I’d be ignored again and again, and that it wasn’t worth the hassle. Yet one day I had a bad anxiety attack and Nick had no choice but to take me to a doctor. One I had never seen before. It doubled my anxiety, made me twitch and sob involuntarily, so by the time I was in the chair in the doctor’s office there was nothing for him to see except my anxiety. I’d been able to hide it for a long time because it was more important to keep up appearances for fear of people thinking I was crazy and treating me poorly because of it. This time I couldn’t. I had internalised our culture’s horrible attitude towards mental illness, kept quiet and tucked my crazy back inside; yet in that chair I felt the full injustice of my years of pretending.

This holiday season hasn’t been much different from any other, yet when people have asked me what I’m up to I haven’t had much to say, not because I haven’t been up to much but because I have been struggling with things that aren’t very difficult for people who don’t have mental illness. It’s dangerous when I tell people I have social anxiety disorder because most of them think that it can be cured by smiling, by lifting your chin up or by quitting your “fucking around” and just getting “back into the swing of things”. Just a PSA: these responses are distressing, offensive and even if well-intentioned, do sweet F.A to help the person you’re talking to. So anyway, I did a lot of creative story telling. Sorry family and friends, if you’re reading, but I just didn’t have the energy to walk people through a day in the life of. I want to help people understand, and that’s why I’m writing this, but I don’t have the spoons to educate you!

I’ve been on a few different meds over the past two months and I haven’t yet found the ones that are right for me. It’s difficult when health conditions intersect; at the moment I’m figuring out which tablets can help me sleep and reduce my anxiety while still giving me the energy to go about my daily life (let alone working life!) without mucking around with my diabetes. It’s hard. Luckily I am now seeing a fantastic doctor, the doctor of my dreams even! (Hi Dr C, if you’re reading this!) I started seeing her based on Nick’s recommendation and instead of rehearsing my concerns and fearing what the doctor is going to say, I’m able to feel like my doctor respects me AND I can have a laugh. Oh my god is it incredible to have a doctor with a similar sense of humour!

So there it is. All laid out and kind of ugly, but that’s what I’ve been up to. I’ve been looking after me. It has meant that I’ve let things go and I’m trying really hard to get things in order – like some necklaces that haven’t been posted, I am so so sorry and they are coming to you soon! I haven’t been answering emails, they have scared me for the last six months and I feel really really horrible about it. There’s this perfect version of me in my head: I’m super organised and on top of everything, super nice and gregarious while standing up for myself too… but I fall short a lot and then I feel wracked with guilt and shame. I want to stop this because I’m sure it’s not nice to have a friend who is more concerned with being perfect and ok than having fun; more importantly I want to feel better in myself.

Giving yourself a treat is often seen as naughty and indulgent but it’s actually very important I’ve found out. For a long time I have worked so hard for other people, oftentimes until I cry, thinking that it’ll get me places. We’re taught that success is about denying yourself in favour of maintaining a killer work ethic – but it really is a killer. I have suffered several lapses in mental health over the past 10 years and each time I blamed myself for not being good enough or hard arsed enough. I never really considered that I might need to treat myself better. In fact, it wasn’t until I read about self care within the fat activism and social justice realm that I realised our cultural narrative around success has been built on a foundation of complete bollocks. Burn out isn’t just a thing for corporate folks, it happens in every sphere of life where you find people working passionately.
A photo of me looking into a bathroom mirror holding a DSLR. I'm wearing a black and white striped long tshirt under a pink pinafore with a white half doily brooch. My hair is now white-ish blond with an undercut and a long top and my sunglasses sit in my hair.
So in the last week I was able to do a few things for myself: I cut my hair (with Nick’s help) and I booked a couple of nights away down the coast. And damn the world if the world doesn’t like it, because I loved it.

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  • Your hairs looks awesome! I love the coral colour on you too. You are very brave to tackle this and put yourself first, I applaud you.

  • Maxie

    Three things.
    1) You are brave and open and that is lovely and a gift to all people who read this struggling with the same thing.
    2) Your hair is cute
    3) The dress is adorable.

  • Kaylin Morrissey

    You are amazing and this is totally amazing. You look fantastic in the picture. I am so happy for you that you are taking time to re-energize yourself! One of my goals this year is to stop justifying myself to others. I am finding it surprisingly difficult!

  • Amanda Baird

    Hey Nat, hope you enjoy your holiday…
    I know what its like to burnout and I agree its not just for corporate jobs. I’ve been told anxiety about a really specific issue can crop up as an avoidance tactic to a really big ‘life’ problem you haven’t addressed – at least it has been that way for me. So I can appreciate how you’ve been feeling the past few months & I also know how good it feels when you finally figure out what ‘it’ is and start the process of giving ‘it’ the forks.
    Your hair looks amazing – keep it this way for a while I love it! xx Manda

  • Guest

    When I was taking Avanza (mirtazapine) I slept 10 to 12 hours a day which is the reason I went off it. When I was awake my depression was definitely improved. I didn’t have an anxiety element at the time though, and one of my depression symptoms is to sleep a lot. Maybe it would be good for you. It also has an antihistamine side effect which was good. Best of luck. P.S. I hope your doctor already told you, but half of the treatment for depression is talk therapy. Sadly many doctors do not tell their patients this.

  • Naomi_Web

    so glad you found a doctor that would look at you as a whole person instead of just reverting to an easy stereotyped diagnosis. there’s this movement called “healthy at every size” which points out that a lot of people have their non-BMI-related issues go unnoticed because doctors don’t look past the obvious and therefore misattribute symptoms to the wrong cause. I remember I did go through a phase of trying to be optimistic and energetic and extroverted and social, but I’m actually a lot happier not putting so much pressure on myself (in fact I’m baffled at how I kept up being what I thought people wanted me to be instead of figuring out how I needed to be). I’m not only comfortable now with not going out on a Saturday night, but I actually prefer it, and I really don’t care how pathetic women’s magazines try to make “staying home alone on a saturday night” out to be.

    The only thing I’m trying to do at the moment is go to sleep before ten and not wake up until after 6am because I’ve now read in two places that that’s when your body produces the highest levels of HGH (human growth hormone) – the thing that helps you feel vital and awake and strong, and that also boosts your metabolism and muscle growth (so that you don’t feel lethargic). (I don’t stress too much about it during the week, and just make sure I take two sleeping tablets around 9pm on Friday and Saturday nights, and try to stay away from coffee in the evenings – so that it doesn’t matter if I oversleep or wake up groggy the next mornings). It’s a bit boring and difficult though, but I’ll see how I go and maybe the benefits will outweigh the entertainment I’m missing out on.

  • Oh man do I understand. Especially the email thing. And the horrendous shame and guilt at ‘letting people down’. I am in a good place right now but I’m always aware that it’s pretty precarious so big *hugs* to you, do what you need to.

  • Thank you for sharing this Natalie. I have been through my fair share of anxiety and burnout, and I admire your candor.

    I so admire the work you do so passionately. Please keep on being you!

  • <3

  • Kaia

    I too have social anxiety, and it’s very hard to get people to understand that when I say “I can’t” or “I’m too tired” it really doesn’t mean that I don’t want to or haven’t slept enough. Physical tiredness I can deal with, mental exhaustion is much more difficult. I’m glad you found a doctor who works for you, I have yet to do that.

  • i love you.

    i’m sitting at my laptop with a long-waiting flu/cold/fever/thing going through my system. i have to go to work tomorrow. i already caused a fuss last week because i didn’t want to travel 7 hours for a 6 hour shift so i’m reluctant to take tomorrow off even though i’d rather sleep.

    even though i’m all about self-care for others (heck that was the last article i wrote for the scavenger last year!!) i find it hard to justify for myself. like physically i can see it, “oh i really need to take care of my aching feet” etc at least you have some sort of visible proof. but with mental illness i often wonder if i’m just lazy. that the emails and job apps paralysing me is just me with no willpower. that i’m juts a lazybum and if i could just BUCK UP my life would be better (I was always miss “if only she applied herself” all through school). if i didn’t succumb to the despair that i see whenever there’s a lot of work to do…

    i see people who are on plans, all sorts of plans and assistance, to help them manage their condition, and many times i feel “hey that would help me too”. except i never feel like i deserve it. like i’m just looking for a way to be lazy. like i’m still walking, talking, working, i’m not ~*totally disabled*~ so what right do i have to appropriate the notion? where do you draw the line? can you ask for help if you’re just being a prissy lazy person? or is that a sign that something’s gone wrong?

    sigh…*hugs hugs*

  • I really REALLY think preventative care is just as important as getting help when you’re in trouble. Wait, maybe it’s even more important! So, I think it’s absolutely vital you think about caring for yourself when you come upon a care plan for another person, perhaps, and think “gee that might help me too.” We are pretty much taught to tough it out and I don’t think it does anyone any good, it makes us feel like we have to silence ourselves… that just breaks my heart.

    The “x would do so well if only they applied themselves” ideology is really hard to escape… we’re told that we only use 10% of our brains (which is crap!) and that we have all this limitless potential. You and I know that is so untrue. There are lots of factors that limit us and we do our best within our circumstances. And that is a brave and exhausting thing. It should be celebrated! Now if only I could unpick all my learned self criticism and celebrate?!

    At any rate, right now, I hope you can trust yourself to do good by you, and that your flu thing passes quickly.

  • I hope you can find a doctor to help you! It really makes things a lot more manageable when someone is on your team.

  • Yes, HAES! It has helped me so much! It’s why I am vegetarian now and go to the gym wearing tights :D

    Sleeping is a huge issue for me, and it definitely makes sense that all that good stuff you’re supposed to be brewing while you’re asleep goes wonky and you feel wonky too. I feel wonky right now!

  • Avanza is exactly the medication I’ve been on for the past month! Unfortunately though, as I discussed with my doctor today, it has been making my blood sugar levels out of control. It’s been helpful in getting me to sleep (thanks antihistamine!) but it’s not going to work for me in the long run without serious diabetes complications, and that’s really disappointing.

    I think the fact that I have lovely little chats with my doctor has helped me so much!! It really makes a difference.

  • That’s an excellent goal. I think I might adopt it.

  • Gwen

    Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    You know, I’m happy when I see new posts/articles from writers I like. It gives me something to enjoy over breakfast or lunch or dinner, when I’m surfing the net for reading material (and ignoring the stack of magazines on the kitchen table. Oops). But I’m not totally crushed if there isn’t a new post. I get bummed periodically about not getting to read Kate Harding on a regular basis anymore, but I can always find something else to read. I realize getting a blog to sustainability requires regular posting and if you disappear for any reason people will stop coming, and for people who have a sense of responsibility to their readers not being reliable can cause stress and fear of losing readership.

    But really, it’s a big internet out there, and however much adoration and support commenters can give, we can find something else to amuse ourselves with if we have to. ESPECIALLY when there’s life stuff going on that has to take priority over a bunch of semianonymous folk on the internet. Which is by way of saying, I have work ethic issues myself but don’t let anyone give you grief about seeing to your health first and foremost. The interwebz will still be here when you can come back. And we’ll be happy to see you again.

    And PS “It’s dangerous when I tell people I have social anxiety disorder because most of them think that it can be cured by smiling, by lifting your chin up or by quitting your “fucking around” and just getting “back into the swing of things”.” – fucking WORD on that. Grrr.

  • Anonymous

    Ugh, I just lost all of my comment.
    Well, I’ll keep it shorter this time. Thank you for sharing this vulnerable piece of you. I can indetify in so many levels with your story. I hope one day to get where you are. Where I tell it all like it is.
    I’ve learned that it takes baby steps and to not push myself too hard. Once again thank you. It touches me more than you can imagine.

  • i’ve got nothing but love for you.

    here’s to taking care of business in 2011.

    also, i want to play that taking care of business song.

  • Elizabeth

    I am so glad you found a doctor that is lovely and helpful, and that you are taking care of yourself. ♥

  • Natalie – thank you for sharing. I follow your tumblr so I knew a little of what you were going through.

    I’ve gone through a fair share of bouts with anti depressants and panic attacks and finding the right medicine, etc. One song I found uplifting (not sure why) was Of Montreal’s “Heimdal’s gate like a promethean curse”, because it helped me remember that I can’t always get better on my own, sometimes medicine is necessary. Also, it is whimsical and fun sounding.

    And don’t worry about responding to the email I sent you about a commissioned piece! Self care is more important, please please don’t stress about getting back to me.

  • graybird (Jessica Gray)

    i can’t even put into words how appreciative i am of you posting this. seriously, I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s like you’ve hit on so many points that I have a hard time putting into words with my own social anxiety and depression. It’s one of the most difficult things for me to accept about myself, and the hardest things for people i know to understand. so really, just.. thank you, for making me remember that i’m not the only person in the world who struggles with this. :)

  • mary

    hi natalie,
    i’ve been reading your blog for only a short while, and while i’m not usually one to comment on blogs a lot i just want to tell you thank you for sharing! i got diagnosed with bipolar disorder about a year ago and right now i am working so hard on just accepting it.
    a couple of days ago, i found this video on youtube, and i’ve been watching it every day since and i want to share it with everyone. here’s to coming out! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thp4KhiXe0s (please don’t think i am spamming you… the video is not mine and i really just want to share it!)

  • Stephania

    Thanks for this wonderful blog natalie. I know that you have probably had a lot of anxiety baring all like you have. Its a very tough thing to do, especially if you’ve been trying to keep up appearances that you’re fine! I did that for a very long time before my anxiety cumbled me to a heap and I couldnt even leave a room in my house because it was so crippling. I then went to my doc who actually treats the biochemical cause of mental illness – rather than just try to fix the symptoms with drugs. Sure I took an anti-anxiety to releive my body initially, but now that he has fixed the biochemical causes of my anxiety, I am on no drugs at all and I’m feeling so much more naturally calm now WITHOUT having to talk my way through it. Please check out this doc, he is into wholistic therapies as well, but he’s very much into diagnosing and fixing the underlying biochemical imbalance of mental illness. It’s an eyeopener when you realise what chemically is going on in your body. A book that explains pretty much all of what i’m talking about is called “drepression free natrually” by Joan Matthews Larson.
    http://www.drmikewoodbridge.com is my doc. Keep searching and looking for answers so you can get long lasting non-zombie-ing results. (ok I know non-zombie-ing isnt a word, but you get the idea) :)

  • First off, I love love love love LOVE your hair!
    And secondly I love you for posting this and it made me tear up a little bit reading it. I’m so happy that you have the doctor of your dreams now… I’m so scared of doctors after the way they bullied me through my teens but you’ve inspired me enough that I think I will be brave enough to find one the next time something isn’t quite right. Thank you!

  • Skye

    Hey Natalie,
    Reading this blog makes me realise that the stuff i feel & go through sometimes is not just something wrong with me and other people go through similar things. Cudos to you for having the strength for sharing it with everyone, as I too find it hard to share what I am experiencing and this has been happening for many years with me and a lot of people do not even realise as I was always good at “hiding” it away.

    Hope you find something that will help you with your anxiety, etc and that you may be your happy, cheery and wonderful self in no time at all.

  • I’ve been there, it takes time to work through it and find your balance. Getting help is a big step and once you realize it is helping, it makes it much easier and makes everything brighter. I wish you all the best!

  • Anonymous

    Looking after one’s mental health is bloody hard work. I am so pleased you posted this for the world to read, so many blogs are people writing about their successes and achievements only (although personally I think getting out of bed in the morning with depression is a massive achievement) and it is so great to see someone telling it the way it is for many of us. Mental illness is not something ‘over there’, for many of us, it’s our reality.

  • Emily

    Without pretending to be the Devil’s avocado…Doctors are made of human – a marvelous but fickle substance.

    I’m a doctor, and I wanted to make the comment that I really do care about every person I look after.

    I’m not the right doctor for everyone, and I’d far prefer if people either let me know how they like things, or try someone else if they found me lacking. In a manner similiar to how I engage with plumbers and mechanics I suppose, except health is so much more than a car or pipes that carry poo. Medicine is rewarding, however exhausting on physical, emotional and social levels (not that this excuses rude or unprofessional behaviour).

    I find a lot of fuss and pain is avoided by inviting in assertion, and checking the plan (85 times if necessary). The consumer movement/recovery paradigm people say these things more eloquently than me.

  • Thank you for sharing this. I have anxiety as well and a general distrust of people (I have trouble believing that people care truly), and yesterday was a particularly down day, so it was good to hear about how you deal with taking care of yourself — it’s something that I often find very hard to do.

  • sizeoftheocean

    Your hair looks fantastic!

    Also, <3 <3 <3

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  • Anonymous

    “…yet when people have asked me what I’m up to I haven’t had much to say, not because I haven’t been up to much but because I have been struggling with things that aren’t very difficult for people who don’t have mental illness.”

    THANK YOU. You’ve captured what I’ve had such a hard time explaining.

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  • Thank you so much for sharing all of this so fluently. You’re amazing and beautiful.

  • Arun

    Very Hardworker from a middle class family in Chennai India..100%pure hearted. Looking for future. Ready to do any business which can shine my career.. I ready to takecare of someones business.Iam sorry I am not in a position to invest even a single rupee :(.. Please help. Reply to vista_arun@aol.com