SWG is an artist who lives with mental health issues.

Over the past 30 years I have discovered and tested different strategies to manage my MHIs, this site is a way to share my insights. I’m not a trained mental health practitioner but have the lived experience as a service user, have done lots of reading, reflecting, therapy, groupwork and courses in therapy and art.

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Overwhelm

People who have experienced trauma and/or long term exposure to abuses of power especially in childhood have been in situations where they have been out of control, powerless or overwhelmed by others or events. Afterwards, whether days or years, everyday events that seem minor can threaten to overwhelm us.

Everyone is different; for me being in an unfamiliar group; having a lot of conversations or lots of conversations happening simultaneously; being obligated into social situations; a long to-do list; unexpected and sudden changes; loud noises; travelling fast; disagreements; humiliation; forceful people; too much physical exertion or fatigue; holidays can all lead to overwhelm and the need to withdraw.

I turn off my phone, don’t answer the door, need silence, can’t think, get over emotional, feel wiped out, cold, anxious and dissociate. The need to recover can take weeks depending on the level of overwhelm.

On the surface some events do not seem to be “too much” but my underlying trigger is an abuse of power. This could be on a very subtle level but my subconscious parts are hyper vigilant to any potential threats. For example, recently, I met up with a new friend for a cup of tea but they talked non stop and were very critical of others, within 30 minutes I felt trapped, dizzy and exhausted. I made my excuses and left and will not develop the friendship. I wished I’d stayed home and finished gardening.

I have learnt the hard way but slowly I have come to know my triggers and how to prevent and exit situations. It’s still a work in progress and I regularly find myself in situations where I have to reinforce boundaries with others who want more than I can give and sometimes it’s just easier not to have social interactions as it takes so much energy having to say no, explain or work on asserting my needs for safety.

And even knowing all of this stuff, it’s still difficult and it’s so tiring when it happens again and again so I have to be really careful all the time.

This is what I have learnt:

  1. To let go of the people with whom I feel drained, exhausted or who refuse to accept that I cannot be who they want me to be. Even family.
  2. To ask my friends and family to make prior arrangements to visit and to not just show up.
  3. To negotiate an end time when I’m with others and leave after that agreed point. Open-ended arrangements just fill me with anxiety, for example a friend came to stay ‘for a few days’ recently, I found myself being really uptight and angsty until we agreed when they would leave.
  4. Before I agree to do something I ask for clarification to make sure that I can fulfil the request and not let others down. I ask for time to make a decision. If I feel pressured I say “No”. I know that other peoples’ crises belong to them and that it isn’t my responsibility to rescue them if it’s going to make me ill. They usually find someone else to help them.
  5. To limit daily walks to an hour and a half & only do 3 hour walks when I can spend the following day in recovery. Learning to manage my inner dictator that took me on manic marathon walks is a life long task.
  6. To be very careful who I walk with. Walking is rejuvenating but can be the opposite with someone with whom I do not feel comfortable.
  7. To plan a days rest after travelling to recuperate.
  8. To trust my initial reactions when I am in unfamiliar situations and to leave as soon as possible at the first sign of others being dominant, unkind, overbearing, sarcastic, intrusive, loud, insensitive, aggressive.
  9. Holidays are difficult unless I go alone and have really quiet accommodation or have negotiated time out from those I have gone away with.
  10. Social gatherings are a challenge so I try to limit attending. Otherwise I usually prepare by having a stock answer when someone says “What do you do?”
  11. If I have a lot of things to do I make sure I space them out over a long period with chunks of time to rest. I start planning for Christmas from September 1st.
  12. Rushing is a sure fire way to get overwhelmed. Planning ahead and good time management is crucial.
  13. Lots of background conversations or noise stop me from hearing others so have to meet in quiet places.
  14. Lots of conversations with different people in a short space of time leaves me frazzled and for days I go over each conversation. This is where quiet time or time out alone in nature is crucial.
  15. I love dancing so go out later when an event has “got going” so that I can get straight on the dance floor and avoid social engagement.
  16. Artificial ways of increasing energy like caffeine or chocolate are just ways of putting off the resting process and when it finally hits takes longer and is usually accompanied by deeper levels of exhaustion and headache. Even decaffeinated coffee is out.
  17. Internal meetings (I.e. with all my alters) and consensus decision making is the way forward to making better decisions.
  18. Meditation and mindfulness help to have a sense of spaciousness, it’s easier to meditate outside in summer. Mantra chanting does help to relieve anxiety if I catch it early before it takes me over and becomes a panic attack.
  19. Eating non processed nutritious food regularly helps to reduce anxiety and overwhelm.
  20. Engaging in textiles, painting and writing are all ways to move through a creative process which gives me a sense of achievement and control.
  21. Worry drains me so getting good support regularly is essential. I have weekly therapy.
  22. One of the main ways to counteract overwhelm is to sleep and then to walk in wild places where no one goes. It’s in these places I connect with something greater.
  23. Relationships are difficult, I need space. Friendships are my go to.
  24. My energy is in limited supply and no matter how great I feel today or how exciting an idea is my energy will run out quicker than my enthusiasm and even though this is a bummer it is how it is.
  25. I never rely on others to get me home, I always have an exit strategy, a map or up to date travel timetable.

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Kindness

Acts of kindness have been shown to increase our self esteem by creating a sense of belonging, they reduce our sense of isolation by building bonds with others. We are social beings but modern life can leave us feeling alone and the increasing dependence on social media can sometimes promote the idea that everyone has a wonderful life when we’re not feeling good about ourselves.


Mental health issues can change the way we think, when I’m in a difficult place I just can’t engage with others, the tendency is to become reclusive and protect myself from a world that seems too overwhelming. I tried to volunteer for the National Trust but even though it was only a few hours a week, it was still too much. I felt ashamed and my self esteem took a huge nose dive. It took me ages to feel ok again because not only was I coping with depression I was also wrestling with the internalised shame of having mental health issues and feeling a failure when I’d done some volunteering which was “supposed”to help me improve.

When I disclosed I had to leave because of my illness one of the well meaning workers asked “But doesn’t it make you feel better when you get here?” It was difficult to explain especially as I knew that my symptoms were going to get worse and soon I wouldn’t even be able to get there and even if I did I wouldn’t have the energy to “pass” i.e. pretend to be ok. It’s hard for others who’ve never had serious MHIs to understand what it’s like and that their logical arguments just don’t help. Empathy and compassion do. They do not understand that our sense of overwhelm comes from a deep sense of feeling bad and a huge fear that we’re both unacceptable and that at any moment something terrible will happen.

It’s also hard for us to make sense and communicate what goes on inside to others in coherent ways. A lot of the time I can’t make sense of what’s going on inside myself never mind communicate it.

Here’s a short video about CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

https://youtu.be/qOibW5LXt3w

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Individuation and therapy.

Over a period of 7 years my therapist helped me to become aware of, to accept the existence of and how to attend to inner parts with care and sensitivity. I continue to do this but it is a lifetime’s learning journey and sometimes certain parts of me (alters) take the lead and operate unilaterally, however, on the whole, my way of making decisions is radically different from before therapy. Back then it was hugely chaotic.

Right now I have a new therapist who was trained by my previous therapist who retired in 2020. This is good as there is continuity, however there is the inevitable comparison and the process of grieving for my previous therapist. Since working with the new therapist there has been a pandemic, the death of my mother and my youngest child leaving home. A lot of changes.


I’ve been working on 2 levels of individuation, i.e. the separating from my old therapist who I felt was like a father and the process between myself and my daughter.

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