Building a life worth living is a big part of DBT and it’s something I haven’t worked on much or even thought about until recently. I’ve been unwell for well over a decade and have been in hospital for a year and a half. I’ve never been a mentally well adult and have not been able to function at a normal level since school. For these reasons I have always found it very difficult to think of a life outside of my illness and in some ways that can hold me back in recovery. However just weeks before I’m due to go to a specialist unit which can help me I have an idea of how life will look when I come out of hospital.
I know I won’t come home fully recovered and jumping with the joys of spring but I imagine I’ll be able to function. I want to attend outpatient appointments with my mental health team but alongside that I want to work in a bakery, go to ballet classes, help out with the younger ballet classes and prepare and cook my own meals and snacks from scratch. I could then channel my obsession with food down a productive and enjoyable route whilst still enjoying dance and exercise at a sensible level.
If I can maintain that lifestyle for a while then the next step will be learning to drive and getting a place of my own even if that’s renting a studio flat. Then the next step, and the one I’m most excited about will be becoming a mother. I’ve already decided for very personal reasons that I want to be single so I will go to a clinic and use a sperm donor to conceive.
I think it is good to go to this new unit with an image of what I want my life to look like when I come home. So this is me thinking of building a life worth living.
Living with a mental illness is horrible, it comes with really tough times, a lot of emotions and nasty side effects from both medication and talking therapies. By this I mean the pain of opening up your whole life to a therapist or the nausea and sedation from your new pills. Throughout my battle with mental illness my dog, Candy, has eased my distress no end.
When I was well enough to live at home being greeted by Candy’s wagging tail means the world. I am someone and I am wanted. When she cuddles into me whilst I cry it makes me feel less alone. Those difficult, dark hours through the night were made better by the dog I had sleeping beside me on my bed. I have stroked her under the chin and told her that I’m sorry when I’ve attempted to take my life and seeing her with her tail tucked in tells me she understands. Pets get it, perhaps more than humans do.
I have really missed being around animals since coming into hospital in 2015. It’s a real shame that animals aren’t allowed on the ward and therapy dogs don’t visit. I think it’d really help anyone in hospital regardless of whether they are there for a physical or mental health condition.
The other night my mental health team allowed me to do something special. I was allowed down to the entrance in a wheelchair to meet my parents and Candy. She was so excited to see me and she cuddled into me in my wheelchair and I instantly felt relaxed. My stresses and worries from the day disappeared slightly. I became mindful. All I was thinking about was the beautiful animal on my lap. I was 100% focused on stroking her coarse fur and running my fingers over her smooth ears. For me animals are magic. Pets bring humour, happiness, unconditional love and companionship and I dread to think of my life without Candy in it.
Three years ago my family and I packed our bags and moved from Northamptonshire to Wales. It was terrifying. I was dreading the move because it meant leaving everything that was familiar behind. Whilst my care had been rather rubbish back home, it was what I knew and leaving that scared me. Knowing I’d never see that receptionist’s face again upset me. I had my special place, the middle of a field where I’d often be the only person for miles and leaving that was hard. Everything was going to be new and whilst new can be exciting, it can also be stressful and lonely.
I remember trying to find the GP surgery for an emergency appointment, we walked up and down the same streets several times, walking complete circles of the block just to end up where we began and all alone time was ticking. We were going to be late, and being late sends my anxiety soaring.
I didn’t know anyone other than my mum and dad. I find it hard to put myself out there but I went to a local young people’s centre in the hope of finding friendship and I did but that doesn’t take away how utterly terrifying it was to walk into that centre for the first time. Definitely going to a local group or class helps when moving to a new area. It is so important not to become isolated as this often is not good for mental health. Volunteering is also another way to get to know people and the area you have moved too. Social media was so important to me in the first days, weeks and even months after my move. I was able to keep in touch with friends and family back home as well as emailing and phoning my old counsellor who’s support was pure gold dust. She probably didn’t realise just how much I needed her voice and reassurance then. Mind also run an online community called Elefriends and this could be a good way to connect to people and feel supported.
This world book day why not check out the book ‘Dear Stranger’. All profits from the sales of these books goes to the mental health charity Mind.
Dear Stranger is a collection of inspirational, honest and heartfelt letters from authors, bloggers and mind ambassadors to an imagined stranger. Insightful and uplifting, ‘Dear Stranger’ is a humbling glimpse into different interpretations of happiness, and how despite sometimes seeming unobtainable happiness can, in the smallest of ways, become an achievable goal.
Letters included in ‘Dear Stranger’ are written by a variety of people including myself, Fiona Phillips, Matt Haig, Caitlin Moran and Richard Branson.
Getting better terrifies me. I have struggled with eating since I was 5 but officially anorexia was diagnosed a decade ago. I’ve spent the past 6 years in and out of hospital. I’ve only lived in Wales for 3 years and I have spent nearly all of that time in one hospital or another.
I am the girl who brings her own food to people’s dinner parties. As my extended family tuck into an Indian takeaway, I shiver over a bowl of soya porridge. As my grandparents enjoy their Sunday roast, I nibble on raw peppers, carrots and cherry tomatoes. That is what has become expected of me. I don’t just have anorexia, I am anorexia.
Hospital has become my home. Everyone knows I’m in hospital and I am used to being here. I’m used to living in this little bubble away from the real world. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to go to the supermarket, or the cinema, or anywhere for that matter. I’m used to spending all my time with nurses and support workers instead of friends and family. I think nothing of having two people watching me whilst I go to the toilet or shower or sleep or do anything. This has become my life. Whilst other people my age go out on a Friday night, I lay in bed with a member of staff on each arm. This is the norm for me. This is my life.
I have become my mental illness. It has become my identity. People follow me on twitter and instagram because I’m ill and my whole accounts centre around my illness. My blog and it’s successes are because of my mental illness. My media work, my speeches…they have all been about my mental illness and that is what I have become known for, for being mentally ill.
So how am I supposed to get better? I don’t know who I am without all of this. I don’t even know if it’s possible to be without all of this. Will I ever wake up and be glad I’m alive? Will I ever tuck in to an Indian takeaway with my extended family and not want to kill myself with guilt afterwards? Will I ever go out with friends on a Friday night? Or have conversations that aren’t about illness or recovery? Who will I be if I get better and this is no longer who I am? I’m scared I’ll become a nobody but I’m even more scared that it isn’t possible. That I am a mental illness and I will always be a mental illness.
A huge part of getting better for me is about building a life worth living. I used to be pretty much house bound. I would spend days on end inside my home and being outside in the fresh air was a novelty. I had no friends, no hobbies, there really was nothing to my life other than my illness and for that reason I had no motivation to be alive let alone commit to getting better. Having a mere existence was not a small chunk of my life, it was years and years of loneliness, isolation and nothingness. It was not something I ever envisaged changing but it did.
I can honestly say that this year I have lived more than I ever have before. I am still unwell but I am building a life worth living and it all happened on the day I appeared on BBC Breakfast and fell back in love with life again. That day I realised that I was more than an illness and that I do have talents. I began to participate in life more and grasp the opportunities I wanted rather than allowing my illness to make excuses and keep me locked away in my home.
For a very long time I wanted to die and I truly believed that was all that was left for me but I cannot explain how grateful I am now for those people that saved my life when I didn’t have the capacity to save myself. I found myself writing my life plan the other day. I used to be so scared of growing up but now it is written in black and white. I know where I want to live, the type of house I want, the career I am aiming for and I want children and a dog called Toast.
Building a life worth living used to be a difficult concept because I tried to live my life to please certain people but it wasn’t through love, it was through fear. We are given one life and a lesson I have learnt recently is that life is about what you make it and it is not selfish to do the things that you want to do, that is healthy. I know that a life worth living does not mean that mental illness magically disappears because unfortunately the two do not correlate. However, mental illness tends to steal a lot of things from it’s victim and acts like a blindfold so whilst building a life worth living is not a cure, it can certainly help to take those parts of your life back that the illness stole. Building a life worth living gives me hope, excitement and enjoyment and it builds up positive experiences that I never imagined that I would have, even just going to a nail bar with a friend. Now I have a reason to fight the suicidal thoughts my illness throws at me because I know who I am and I know that I want to be alive.