The Secret Life of Pets and Mental Illness

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.

Stigma Can Be Devastating

Stigma surrounds our society. It means that something perceived as different is seen as unacceptable and this leads to prejudice. There is stigma around the LGBT community and mental health among many other issues our society deals with. Stigma can be devastating because it isolates people and makes it harder to reach out for help and support. It prevents people from socialising, visiting GP surgeries and can even lead people to suicide. “The effects of stigma and discrimination about a mental health problem can be worse than the mental health problem itself” says Louise Penman from Time To Change.

This is why it is so important that people speak out about mental health in general and people share their experiences of mental illness because we need to get rid of this stigma from our society. Imagine a society where people could discuss their mental health easily and openly rather than keeping it as some deep, dark secret. Wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?

Moving To a New Area

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.

The Importance of Visitors

Being in hospital can be a very lonely and isolating experience. I know this myself having spent the past 18 months in hospital, I haven’t seen my grandparents, aunts and uncles, my goddaughter and most of my friends and most days I really, really miss them. I understand that seeing a loved one so poorly can be heartbreaking and many people don’t know if the person is even up for a visit.

This afternoon was lovely, I saw my ballet teacher, my friends and their four year old son and my parents and not only did it make the afternoon fly by but it brightened up my day. I feel like I am a part of the world around me, like I’m connected to society again and people haven’t forgotten about me.

My message is this: visitors are so important during long inpatient stays. I really miss a lot of people who were in my life 18 months ago and it means the world to see their faces even if it’s only for a few minutes.

So thank you to the people who have visited me and to those of you considering visiting a loved one in hospital, please do. It makes the world of difference.

An Illness Of Isolation

I’m quite isolated right now in terms of friends and relationships, outside the four walls of my home and my mental health team I don’t really have anyone. A lot of people have walked out of my life without argument or negativity, they’ve simply deleted me from their social networks and stopped talking to me and it’s because I have been unwell for a long time.

I know how it looks, I am unemployed, I don’t go out, I don’t appear to do anything. I’m a young adult, all the people I went to school with go out at the weekends and work or study and I do ‘nothing’. I can understand why they wouldn’t want me in their lives. You are only young once, of course they want to go to Zante and go on nights out rather than be friends with someone who spends their life in and out of hospital and can often end up house bound by illness. I know that it can be difficult to understand, people often think it’s a choice or that you’ve given up when going through a relapse but that’s the reality of mental illness, for some people it is a life of relapse and remission. I completely understand that I am not the easy option and I also realise that this is something that a lot of people with mental illness have to deal with.

Understandably I find it upsetting, it makes me sad that I will never know the people I went to school with, the people I spent my childhood with are no longer a part of my life and they probably won’t be. I also feel some family members have distanced themselves. It can be very difficult, I often wonder is it me? Am I a bad person? It’s hard to not have any friends and I often worry that people think badly of me. I worry they think I’m lazy or stupid or attention seeking but this isn’t a game, I live with a severe and enduring mental illness. I may not have a degree like the people I went to school with but catching a bus is an achievement for me. It can be very difficult for people to comprehend.

I try to get involved in the world around me but I find it very difficult and anxiety provoking. My mind goes into overdrive. I find conversation hard because I’ve spent the past 5 years in treatment of some kind whether that be counselling, inpatient, general hospital, day patient or outpatient. I have been out of work and education for 3 years. Anorexia consumes my life at the moment. How do I answer the question, “What have you been up to?” What do I talk about, I have a lot of doubt in my future, I feel a lot of shame about my past and I’m living a very unwell present. Everyone else has spent their day at college or working and I’ve spent mine in group therapy. My world is very different to the other young people around me.

The isolation makes it harder to get out of the illness, I’m scared I will get well, reach a healthy weight and still be alone. It would mean everything to me to have a friend pop over for a cup of tea or to have someone understand that if I’ve left the house to see them or do something with them when anorexia is affecting my eyesight and strength and depression is trying to superglue me to my bed then I’m doing my best. I apologise if the conversation is quite boring but I can only hope that I will find a few people willing to listen and be patient because only by finding friendships am I going to be able to have interesting things to do and talk about.

Maybe if you’re struggling with a friend who has a mental illness try to think about it this way, if they had a broken leg you would help them to get out and about, pick up a crutch if they dropped one, push their wheelchair. You would go to their home and keep them company and wait it out with them until their leg had recovered. Mental illness is like a broken brain and whilst it might take longer than a leg to heal, it does. I know you can’t see it but it’s there and it’s agony. Make your friend’s day, turn up at their house with a movie or take them out to get a coffee. Be patient and wait it out with them. Just by sticking with your friend it’ll help no end. Isolation and loneliness creates more problems.

On Thursday it’s time to talk day, take 5 minutes to talk about mental health with the people around you. Don’t feed into stigma, don’t allow the people around you to become isolated by their illness. Together we can beat mental illness.

Young People Can Be Lonely Too

Often when thinking about loneliness, people think about the elderly. There are schemes set up to support elderly people so that they do not have to be on their own all of the time. People have an awareness and understanding that elderly people are vulnerable to loneliness and will therefore call in for a cup of tea and so on. I remember as a child, my Great Gran lived alone and everybody knew she was lonely and so we would call in and take her out for lunch or bring fish and chips to her house. My extended family would always make sure that she had somewhere to go on Christmas day but on top of the support from family and friends she was part of a social group that would go to bingo or have dinners and so on.

I don’t feel that it is always recognised that young people can be, and are, lonely too. I am 22 years old and I often spend all day, every day on my own. The reason being mental illness.

The loneliness is crushing, painful. It makes me feel as though I’m nothing. Worthless. I am just an existence in a house that nobody knows about. There are times when I don’t notice the loneliness quite so much, maybe I spent the day listening to music or reading or I saw someone from my mental health team and it helped me to feel less alone but there are other days when it’s overwhelming.

I have an older sister who will often go for coffee or to Cardiff with her friends, she might go on a night out or go to a restaurant for someones’ birthday. Those are the times when the loneliness hits me. I let all these opportunities and events pass me by. I can’t go to see my favourite band in concert because I have nobody to go with. There are place I want to go, things I want to do and see but I can’t because I don’t want to go there on my own.

This year I went to a fireworks display for the first time in a years. I went with my Dad because I don’t have any friends my own age that live nearby. It was such a good display, everyone had glow sticks and they were playing songs with a beat and people were dancing in the dark, waving their glow sticks in the air and I was just stood there wishing that I had friends. I wanted to dance, I wanted to have fun but I couldn’t do that on my own.

I haven’t had an invite to a New Year’s party for the past 4 years. The past 4 years I have counted in the New Year alone or I’ve gone to bed and pretended to be asleep whilst silently crying to the sound of the fireworks going off. It always makes me feel so unimportant, so worthless that nobody thought of me, nobody wanted to count the New Year in with me. I absolutely dread that night, it is the worst night for loneliness by far.

I often make a joke at Christmas time that I love having no friends because it’s so cheap. It is only a joke though. How much I wish I could go to a Christmas party or take part in Secret Santa. I would love that. I love celebrating with my parents don’t get me wrong but I am 22 and I would love to do something more age appropriate.

I think it is important to remember that anybody can be lonely. The elderly man that gets on the bus each morning can be lonely but so can the young girl with perfectly straightened hair and fair isle leggings and the young man who always wears his headphones around his neck. This year at Christmas remember that people from all walks of life can be alone, but especially think about those around you that suffer with mental illness and have very few friends. Why not pop in for a cup of tea or invite them to your Christmas party? Lets conquer loneliness.