Mental Health – A graduate’s journey through school & uni with chronic anxiety (& why writing helps)

 

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Today, I’m excited to be chatting with Chloe from Chloe Chats. Chloe’s a recent graduate who has had a really tough time with chronic anxiety.  I’m interested learning how she navigated the education system and why writing has helped her therapeutically.

 

Hi Chloe, having first met you the day you were born I’m feeling pretty old right now to see how grown up you are but delighted to welcome you onto my blog.

Hi Louise! The time does seem to just fly by – sometimes I can’t believe I’ve already graduated from university.

Firstly, let’s touch upon your anxiety – did anything specifically trigger it?

I’m someone that has had bad anxiety all my life, I can’t even explain why I feel anxious.

I can relate to that. I felt that way before I discovered mindfulness. Now, I’m a huge advocate of mental health and find it both shocking and saddening that according to the NASUWT teaching union, 96% of teachers state they have come into contact with pupils experiencing mental health issues. Did you find your teachers were understanding?

When I was at school I never told anyone about my anxiety, none of my friends or teachers knew about it. I always kept it to myself.

That must have felt like a huge burden?

Yes. I used to feel more anxious because I was worried that people didn’t understand why I wouldn’t talk so much, or why I wouldn’t join in with all the activities. The only reason I didn’t tell anyone was because at the time I didn’t understand it myself, I thought I was ‘weird’ and everyone else was normal. I used to hate myself for not being able to be like everyone else, I would be so annoyed that I couldn’t just join in with a conversation just because I was too anxious.

So at that time you didn’t have any coping techniques in place?

No. I just tried to get through the day. Even though it was only a few years ago there was hardly any information on it, no one really spoke about it like they do now.

Did you have any support?

I was lucky that in secondary school I had a good group of friends that I felt comfortable with, although things went downhill for me when I reached sixth form. I pretty much lost my main group of friends, we all split up and ended up in different form classes and from there I slowly stopped talking to them and if I did meet them at lunch I would just sit there in silence – I can’t even tell you what happened, my anxiety got the better of me.

That must have felt really lonely. The added pressure of GCSE’s and A ’Levels can’t have helped. How did you find that period?

I ended up doing a lot of the exams by myself in a room instead of the main hall with everyone else. I managed to speak to my tutor at the time and I told her how I just couldn’t cope with sitting in the big hall with everyone and so they organised me to take my exams elsewhere. This was super helpful.

Getting through your exams must have been a relief but also brought the pressure of what next?

Yes. When school was coming to an end I panicked a little because I didn’t really know what to do! I ended up going to university where I decided to do a Media and Creative Writing course. Seeing as I enjoyed my Media AS Level so much and I loved to write I thought that was a great option.

That sounds like a positive step?

I thought so but after a week of being at uni I packed up and left – my anxiety was uncontrollable. I struggled to leave my uni room and go into the kitchen to make food because I couldn’t bring myself to bump into my flat mates. I spoke to my mum and she said to do what is best for me, she did try and get me to stay longer because a week is definitely not long enough to get a feel for it. I went home but I didn’t want to feel so defeated. I called up the uni 3 weeks later and asked if I could come back, and thankfully they said yes!! So off I went back to university again – back to my same room and this time around I stuck it out and I’m so glad I did, my flatmates were lovely, I made some great friends and met my boyfriend!

That was such a courageous decision.  Did you feel more in control when you returned?

I did. The friends I made was the biggest thing that helped me. My anxiety seemed to get better but after I left uni it escalated again –and for the first time I had to put my life on hold. My panic attacks grew worse – I had them more often, my heart palpitations were non-stop, I cried a lot, I made myself physically ill because of how run-down I felt. It was at this point that I got stuck in this never-ending loop, I couldn’t see an end to it. I spent loads of time in bed and would barely eat anything, the thought of eating made me feel sick. I went to the doctors, my family looked after me, but I still couldn’t get out of this cycle. I ended up crying in the middle of a restaurant and it was so embarrassing and at that point I just said to myself this has got to stop – I need help. I reached out to my friend who I met at uni – it was handy as she is in the mental health industry. With her help I got to the stage that I felt a little better and I decided that I wanted to help others.

Which brings us to your blog. Why do you find it so beneficial?

Writing is a great coping method for me, it gives me a purpose, it keeps me busy and what I write about has helped others – I get messages from people, comments on my blog posts, and so many tweets from people saying how reading the blog posts has made them feel positive or inspired. I found it also helps to know that you’re not alone.

I honestly don’t know whether I’d have completed my first novel without the support of the WordPress community, let alone published four. Has blogging about something specific given you a sense of connection?

Definitely. I have connected with so many bloggers and it’s been fantastic to make new ‘online’ friends and to be able to talk about these issues with others.

I read your post on ‘How to boost happiness.’

That’s a great example. As I started to write what helps me feel happy it made me realise how much there actually is!

I do a similar exercise in my mindfulness classes. It’s a brave thing sharing personal posts. When I started blogging about my novel writing journey I can remember feeling absolutely terrified and so vulnerable that I was putting myself out there. How did it feel for you and has it got easier?

When I decided to publish my journey of anxiety on my blog I was terrified. I wrote it up in March, but I didn’t publish it till April because the thought of everyone knowing was a scary thought. My parents and boyfriend knew about it and one close friend but that was it. I remember I published it on a Sunday and my boyfriend was there with me and the support was overwhelming – I received so many messages from loved ones, I ended up crying a little. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and it was a positive step for me. The next thing that I was anxious about was going to work the next day because I knew a lot of colleagues had read it from Facebook likes and messages. I thought I’d walk through the door and everyone would just stare at me. However, I walked in and nothing was different, everyone spoke to me like they normally would. One of my colleagues actually came and sat by me and said ‘I just wanted to say, you’re blog post was amazing and well done for sharing it.’ I had a few others message me on our chat system we had who started to tell me that they have experienced similar things – it was great that it got people talking!  

It is! Finally, Chloe, as someone who has also suffered from anxiety I know how beneficial I have found writing, both journaling and blogging, but I also know how completely overwhelming it can feel to begin. What are your top 5 tips.

  • You don’t have to share what you write on a blog or even with anyone else. It could be that you write it up for yourself – it’s such a relief when you get out all your thoughts onto paper (or a computer) that’s been taking up all that space in your mind.
  • If you find that you’re going to bed with worries on your mind I find a great thing to do is to have a notebook by the side of your bed and write down everything that is troubling you. Sometimes writing them out can just lift that weight off your shoulders. I like to write down what is worrying me and then write some solutions next to them. This can help you have a better night’s sleep.
  • If you have a blog yourself, you can always leave posts as drafts until it feels like the right time share it. Sometimes I will have something on my mind that is worrying me and so I will write a blog post on it because it helps to ease my mind but also think that it’ll be a great post for others who might have the same worry. The reason why I would leave them as drafts for a while is because sometimes I just need to get things out of my mind and so I will just type up everything that is running through my mind – sometimes I just go on and on and it doesn’t make much sense!
  • What I have learnt from being a part the blogging community is that there is no pressure when it comes to publishing blog posts. The important thing I’ve learnt about is that you don’t need to look at your stats every day, you might have days where you don’t get as much engagement as you would like but that’s normal. There’s only so much promoting you can do, don’t burn yourself out. I have come across other bloggers where they’ve had weeks off because they’re not in the right headspace and if you find that you’re just writing posts after post just to get views then you should probably stop and think about why you started your blog to begin with.
  • The good thing about blog posts is that you can write about whatever you like, you don’t have to worry so much if readers are going to like it, of course you want your readers to enjoy it but don’t just write about something because you think that it’s popular and will get you a load of views. They’ll be people out there that won’t like your posts so much and they’ll be others that love it and relate to it. You can’t please everyone, but I feel the most important thing is that you enjoy writing it.

Chloe, It’s been such a pleasure chatting to you and thank you for being so open an honest. I’m sure many people will resonate with this post. I look forward to following your blogging journey on Chloe Chats. Good luck.

Thank you!

You can find Chloe’s blog here. Her Facebook page here. And Twitter here.

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Letting go – when a child leaves for Uni – 3 important things I gave my son

 

I still remember it so clearly; the heady joy of discovering I was pregnant; the overwhelm of a love that was almost painful the first time I held my baby.  It seemed unfathomable back then to think of a time I’d be without my children.  First steps, first words. Sticky toddler kisses, teenage uncertainty as they tried to navigate their way in the world and then, later, it was me who was uncertain and afraid as I took my second child to university. The heartbreak as I drove away in a car that was too empty. Too quiet. Back to a house that looked exactly the same but felt somehow different.

I felt somehow different.

A mother bird with an almost empty nest.

It was difficult initially to sift through my feelings. What was real and what was imagined. What thoughts were coming from ego, of which there were many: –

  • Of course he’ll never be as comfortable anywhere else as he is at home.
  • Of course he won’t eat as well now I’m not cooking for him.
  • Of course he’ll never wear clean clothes again.

Except he will. He does. He can.

He’s resilient. Strong. Capable of creating his own home, operating a cooker, a washing machine. Underneath the tangle of irrational fears that I’d never see him again, that our relationship would be irrevocably altered, came a creeping sense of pride.

I’ve brought him up well. He’s smart, funny, resourceful and kind.

Last month I left him at university with three things.

A photo book of his childhood. The cover a reminder that wherever he goes, whatever he does, he has a family who will always have his back. Be there for anything he needs. Who would unquestionably bury a body for him.

 

A story about his hopes and dreams. It’s easy to get swept away. To forget who you are, what you want. What you can achieve if you try. A mother/son chat warning him of the pitfalls of too much partying and not enough work would have been quickly forgotten. Instead, I wrote a story about a boy and his journey through adulthood constructed almost entirely of lyrics and song titles from his favourite band, The Counting Crows. A reminder of what he could be.

 

The last thing I gave him was the wisdom that every student should know. It’s always salt, tequila, lemon. Don’t mess with the order. And always, ALWAYS, drink a pint of water before bed.

These were the things I left him with at university, but he left me with so much more. A heart full of love and a lifetime of memories along with an immense sense of gratitude that the world is wide open to him. The world is lucky to have him.

 

 

 

Images courtesy of Unsplash – Liv Bruce & Fidel Fernando.

Parenting – Swapping Calpol for Vodka

 

It was my birthday over the weekend. I woke to a still house. Silent. First light filtered through a crack in the curtains and shone a spotlight on the empty space at the bottom of the bed where once small children would bounce, clutching handmade cards decorated with indistinguishable drawings.

“Wake up Mummy.”

My heart would be filled with love as I’d eat a breakfast they’d lovingly prepared – “of course smarties taste good with cornflakes”- before unwrapping gifts fashioned from empty yoghurt pots and cardboard toilet roll tubes.

Two of my three children have grown. One has already left home, another due to go to uni in September. 

As I lay there I felt such a fierce longing for simpler times. For sticky marmalade kisses and time that seemed to stretch endlessly. 

Where had their childhood gone?

The day was lovely. I had a fabulous lunch with my whole family and yet still I felt oddly unsettled.

Sometime. Somehow. There’s been a shift in the fabric of my relationship with my older kids and as I watched them leave after dessert, going back to the grown up part of their lives I was not included in, I was inexplicably scared it was all going to unravel. The invisible thread of love that binds me to them might stretch and stretch until one day… would it snap altogether?

And then I got a text – dinner, Mum?

Saturday found us crowded around a table sharing tapas, before heading to a bar and there was another shift in dynamics. A Saturday night drinking cocktails with the people I love most in the world. 

It’s a different stage of parenting, swapping Calpol for vodka. Baby rice for bar snacks, and it wasn’t better, or worse. Just different. And I realised as we hugged at the end of the evening and went our separate ways that the invisible thread is strong enough to span years and miles and oceans and it will always, always remain unbreakable. 

My heart will forever be filled with love.

“Introverts can’t succeed.” (Says who?)

Last night, we had the first parent’s evening at my son’s new secondary school. My son is hardworking, conscientious and worries needlessly about getting into trouble. As with his primary, I was expecting glowing reports praising good grades and excellent behaviour.

I was right. To an extent.

The first teacher we saw reaffirmed how bright he was. How he’s working at a higher level. How well mannered and good natured he is. Kind to his fellow classmates and always considerate of others.

So far so good.

‘But.’ His teacher frowned, and sadly shook his head. ‘There is a big problem.’

My son’s eyes met mine and I saw panic slide across his face.

‘What’s the problem?’ I asked.

A lengthy sigh. ‘He’s quiet.’

‘And?’

‘That’s an issue.’

‘That’s his nature.’

‘We have some big personalities and frankly some disruptive students. He needs to speak up and make himself heard.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you never get anywhere in life being an introvert, do you? If you want to succeed you have to learn to shout loudly.’

Umm. I’m an introvert and seem to have done quite well thank you, as has his father.

This set the pattern for the rest of the evening. Out of 11 teachers, 5 told him he had to be louder. More confident. Be something that he isn’t, because of course when you’re shy and insular someone telling you to be loud and confident is exactly what you (don’t) need.

Outside, in the car, I told my rather forlorn twelve year old that I was immensely proud of him. He has been predicted A’ grades in almost every subject and his behaviour is exemplary. But more important than all of that, I told him that I loved him completely exactly the way he is and that he should never, ever feel that being quiet and introverted is a character flaw. Indeed if he follows his dream career path of becoming an author being insular will serve him well. After all, who’s ever heard of an extroverted writer?

My school visit – Lessons from Jack Black

There’s a fabulous scene in School of Rock where Jack Black, masquerading as a teacher, gets asked about his methods. Straight-faced he quotes ‘The Greatest Love of All’ lyrics, written by Linda Creed & recorded by Whitney Houston ‘I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.’ Anyone who has seen the movie will know Jack’s reasons for teaching are intrinsically selfish at first but ultimately he inspires the kids with his passion for music.

Encouraging creativity in schools is so important. Sometimes I feel it can get a little lost amongst the league tables, the desire for academic excellence, the immense pressure on both teachers and children to produce results that exceed target levels. The younger generation, teenagers in particular, often get a bad press. My sons and their friends are polite, friendly, with a passion for politics and the environment that would put many adults to shame.

School visits are something I am doing more and more of. Not for marketing, my psychological thrillers are entirely unsuitable for children and I never take any to sell, or sign, but to share my experience of life inside and outside of education. I still remember that moment nearly thirty years ago when I sat in front of the careers advisor, palms prickling with nerves, stomach churning as I said out loud the thing I had never dared say before. ‘I want to be a writer.’ I still feel the crushing disappointment when she dismissed my dream with words that hit like bullets. ‘That’s not a career. You can’t earn a living from it. Go and work in an office.’ I often wonder if my school had focused a little more on creativity how different my career path might have been. How, if an author had visited and said ‘Yes, you absolutely can make a living writing. I’m doing it,’ whether I wouldn’t have given up quite so easily.

The last thing I want to do is make it seem is that the children’s dream careers are easily achievable but I want to impart that with hard work, determination and positivity there is nothing you can’t at least try to do and to encourage them to never lose that passion for the things we love, because as adults we often do. The things we enjoyed when we were young, cast as frivolous and time wasting, buried under a mountainous pile of routine, bills and domestic drudgery.

Write, paint, draw, sing, mould with clay. Never lose sight of who you are or what you love. The average life span is 4,000 weeks. Make the most of your precious time.

If just one child during tough times, remembers my visit, recalling how once a disabled mother, with limited education, came to their school and said ‘Yes, you can. Don’t give up,’ they might end up paying it forward one day. Encouragement, kindness and love are free to give and easily shared.

 

50 Happy Things 2018: Bloggers Unite to Flood the Internet with Gratitude

 

Hurrah! It’s one of my favourite times of year again – the annual ‘Bloggers flood the internet with gratitude’ co-ordinated by the fabulous Dawn from Tales from the Motherland. If you haven’t joined in before it’s super easy. Set a timer and write a list of things that you have felt grateful for this past year. Full instructions are below. Here’s mine!

 

  1. My children – I made humans – actual humans! They always make me laugh/smile/my heart swell with pride.
  2. My sister – she’s my hero for many reasons.
  3. My husband – often the one who holds everything together while I write ‘just one more page…’. 
  4. My mum – I wouldn’t be here without her. 
  5. My family – It may be getting smaller but they take up a large space in my heart.
  6. My friends – I value them dearly. 
  7. My puppy – he may currently be chewing his way through EVERYTHING but he lifts my day – always. 
  8. My cat – whoever said cats don’t love has never met our affectionate ball of fur. 
  9. The NHS – it’s helped me literally get back on my feet.
  10. A mattress – a sufferer of chronic pain I value a soft place to lay.
  11. A home – a place I can just be.
  12. My garden – I love the outdoors.
  13. Nature – The world is so beautiful if we just stop and pause.
  14. Mindfulness – my practice enables me to appreciate the here and now.
  15. Food – a luxury I never take for granted.
  16. Words – I adore the English language.
  17. Stories – I’m making a career making stuff up – a dream come true.
  18. Water – we turn on taps and voila – we’re incredibly lucky.
  19. Fresh air – I live near the countryside and it’s lovely to just breathe.
  20. Bloggers – such a supportive community.
  21. Charity – we can all do something.
  22. The animal kingdom – It’s humbling observing them in their natural habitat.
  23. Education – my son is off to uni this year & I’m so excited for his future.
  24. Chocolate – Heavenly.
  25. Readers – I love meeting and hearing from those who read my novels.
  26. My publishers who reach an audience with my books. 
  27. My literary agent who has guided me this past year.
  28. Music – I play piano (badly) and love going to gigs.
  29. Creativity – Art, music, writing – it’s all so inspiring.
  30. A dining table. Nothing makes me happier than sharing a good meal with my family.
  31. My gratitude journal – the last thing I write before I go to sleep.
  32. Kindness – no act is too small.
  33. A smile from a stranger often makes my day.
  34. Literary festivals – a chance to hang out with other writers and readers & I spoke at my first events this year. 
  35. Books – my favourite pastime – always.
  36. Wine – a luxury at the end of the day.
  37. Flowers – Watching bees buzz lazily around the borders.
  38. Colour – makes everything seem a little brighter.
  39. Photos – I still print mine out and stick in an album.
  40. A car – not being too mobile I’d be lost without mine.
  41. Stationery – Nothing cheers me up like a notebook.
  42. Cake – baking is therapeutic.
  43. A hug – human contact has the power to heal.
  44. Medicine – I’m incredibly grateful for the advances we have made.
  45. Random acts of kindness.
  46. Memories – Making new ones every day.
  47. Laughter
  48. Time – the greatest gift of all.
  49. Electricity
  50. Mistakes – I’ve learned & grown & I’ll make them again!

Gratitude is so important. Here you can read how and why I keep a gratitude journal every day.

To join in with ’50 things’ set a timer for 15 minutes. Once you start the timer, start your list. The goal is to write things that make you happy, or things you feel grateful for. Don’t think too hard; just write what comes to mind in the time allotted. If you use the numbered mode and just type what comes to mind, it’s easy. When the timer’s done stop writing; finish whatever sentence you’re on. If you haven’t written 50 things, don’t worry. If you have more than 50 things great; you can’t feel too happy or too grateful! Add the photos, links, instructions, etc after you finish the list––the timer doesn’t matter for getting these details down; it applies to the list only. Add your link here.

 

The one thing I loathe about Christmas has taught me this…

There are rolls of sparkly wrapping paper stacked in the corner of my bedroom, a bag of silver bows, shiny red tags. Today, the first of the gifts I ordered from Amazon arrived and I had a fleeting thought I should wrap up the presents as I buy them, before dismissing it instantly. It’s my least favourite job. There’s never enough room cramped around the table and my back screams with pain if I’m hunched on the floor. No matter how careful I am, I can never, ever, locate the end of the Sellotape and making anything beyond a square shape look enticing is far outside my very limited capabilities.

With a sinking feeling, I totted up the amount of presents I’ve yet to buy, calculating the amount I’ll have to wrap, until a slow and sickening dawning crept over me.

Yet again, there will be less under the tree than last year.

The children are older, two of them adults now, and the enormous pile of plastic, noisy, toys we used to accumulate are long gone. Instead, a sleek gift-wrapped gadget or two will replace all the smaller, cheaper presents, they’d shake and sniff, hazarding wild guesses before excitedly tearing off the paper to see if they were right.

It’s not only my growing family responsible for diminishing the pile of presents under our tree, there’s the inevitable, heart-wrenching loss we’ve experienced. One less person to buy for. One empty space at our dining table. One less cracker to pull. And suddenly having lots to wrap doesn’t feel like the worst thing, having nothing to wrap does.

Tonight I shall pour a glass of red wine before sliding off the plastic coating from my rolls of paper and think how grateful I am to still have people I love to buy gifts for, and the money to buy them, and you never know, my most loathed job, might just become my favourite.