“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Hemingway once said.
I think in the present day, faced with a blank page, a laptop still counts. I don't want to bleed though. I have severe depression, severe anxiety and recently diagnosed borderline personality disorder. This is a mental health blog and I could tell you about the trauma that as a young child changed my way of thinking to the degree that my thinking is disordered. I could tell you about the suicidality, the dark thoughts, the constant fear and the never feeling good enough that clings to me like a second skin.
But I don't want to talk about the bleeding. I want to talk about the recovery. About what happens when the skin is still knitting together, a bit red and sore and fragile but fighting to keep out infection regardless. I want to talk about being a wife and a mother to two boys who knows what her life should look like but her brain refuses to play ball.
I was once a lawyer, and then after a few years as a full-time mum I ran my own photography studio, a hobby that got out of hand. This was also a symptom of my borderline personality disorder – an underdeveloped sense of self means your passions and interests, even beliefs, can wax and wane, often leading to an unconventional and unstable career path.
I am writing still in the midst of recovery. I may recover from the depression and anxiety which have arisen as a result of my disordered thinking, my recovery from borderline personality disorder is more likely to be recovery in the sense of learning to manage my condition. I need to improve my self-awareness and learn to live a fulfilling life to the best of my abilities. It is also likely to be about realising my limitations, a fact that is admittedly still a bitter pill to someone who was always quite academic, passionate and ambitious.
It was this lack of cognitive functioning that really pushed me over the edge. After a mental health crisis in January 2016 I was referred to a 6 week counselling course and a Wellness Recovery Action Planning (WRAP) course, run by my local council. The thinking was that I felt helpless and hopeless, I had been coping without specialist medical care on just antidepressants. I needed to learn the emotional coping skills that I was sorely lacking and build some resilience.
I needed more than six weeks of counselling and I was referred to Step Four, for twelve to twenty weeks of counselling. In the end there was quite a long wait for this, but in the meantime I attended WRAP and it was a revelation.
On the WRAP course we looked at ways to manage your day to day life with a severe mental health condition. A really important part of the WRAP process is identifying when your mood is low and coming up with strategies to try and elevate your mood. We identified that I liked reading though my cognitive functioning meant I sometimes felt too confused or had too little concentration to manage it, but that baking (mainly bread) also lifted my mood.
It occurred to me whilst waiting for counselling that I could have some sort of enjoyment in my life if I could improve the cognitive functioning. When I asked my GP what advice he could give me, he said none just that sorting the depression would sort out the memory issues.
I was getting more and more desperate. With the help of my husband I started to research how to improve cognitive functioning on the internet. I discovered the role that nutrients can make in boosting brain performance. I researched what types of foods I should eat to help my brain cognitively function. My motivation was purely being able to think rather than beating the depression. I was cooking so I might as well cook things that helped me.
There was a big issue though. I realised I needed the nutrients, but whilst I was managing to feed the kids and ourselves with my husbands help when I was alone during the day I was living on sandwiches or skipping lunches. Too tired to cook or eat on the days when I needed the nutrients the most. So I started small. With smoothies – banana, yogurt, milk and frozen berries all put in a jug and blitzed with a hand blender. Quick to make, quick to drink but also I somehow felt better, clearer after drinking it. I added oats for some slow release energy.
Then I discovered Overnight Oats – five minutes putting ingredients in a bowl before bed (using cup measurements – less maths so therefore less strain on the brain) meant I had breakfast waiting for me when I got up in the morning, too confused to function. If I ate that breakfast, my mood and my ability to function that morning would soon improve so it became an essential part of my routine.
When I started counselling last August the first thing I asked my counsellor for help with was fighting the “brain fog”. She was pleased I had already started looking into what I was eating but went further – three meals a day, no caffeine, no alcohol, no sugar, a strict bedtime and waking schedule and no day time naps. The first two weeks were hell but my desire for clarity of thought was stronger than my desire for any of those things that hitherto I had looked to gain me clarity.
I stuck to that regime for eight months, as I felt stronger adding more brain-friendly food to my diet. Soup, one-pan meals, home made seeded spelt bread – mainly things I could just pop in the oven and forget about but which when I ate them helped give my brain the resources to heal. The act of cooking lifted my mood too – and if I was having a rough day I would go into the kitchen and cook until I felt better. I did begin to feel better. Not perfect. Not necessarily well. But better.
Things still rock me, I don't have total control over my emotions and I have a lot of counselling and work still to come but I am convinced that keeping a close eye on what I am eating and how that might affect my mental health is key to giving me the chance at the best possible outcome.
Jo can be found on her blog at Mental Lentil.