How I learnt to continue worrying and love the results

Whether or not you suffer from anxiety, I’m sure that almost everyone has experienced that fight-or-flight sensation of an adrenaline rush. It starts as a flurry of butterflies in the stomach, rapidly spreading to your head and infiltrating your thought process. Panic can set in. It’s in that moment you must make a choice which will either further your journey in life or make you miss your connection altogether.

I’m sure every anxiety sufferer will be used to living their life constantly on the edge of this sensation. From a more rational perspective, this nervous response can seem completely unwarranted, but when you’re trapped in the moment, it feels like one wrong move could end the world.

It’s funny how we use the word “suffer” when talking about anxiety. For the most part, that’s what it is. It can absolutely cripple you. But as someone who is on a steady path to recovery, I’ve learnt to embrace my fears and worries. Recovery is beautiful in so many ways, but the best thing about it, I’ve discovered, is that it clears your mind and makes you realise how your thought patterns don’t always reflect reality. Problems that once seemed to consume you can be looked at objectively, assessed, and ideally, overcome. It doesn’t always mean finding solutions, but rather ways of bending the problems to your will. It’s like standing up to your brain. You learn that it’s okay to turn around to that negative committee in your head and say, “hey, you’re not more powerful than I am. I gave you life and one of these days, I will kill you. So, you’d better shape up and do as I say, because I’m coming to get you!”. Embrace this, and it becomes easier to usurp power from the voices and command them, rather than them commanding you.

By playing this game that is recovery, I’ve levelled up and acquired the power of control. It’s a great power to have when defeating the boss. Whenever I feel anxious, and like I’m not good enough, I can now turn the situation on its head and say to myself, “what do I need to do to use this to my advantage?”. When I worry I’m not making enough progress with university work, or in my singing or piano, I thrive on this anxious need to be better and work harder, because I know I am capable of more. When things go wrong, I no longer wallow with my negativity and blame myself. I think, “what do I need to do to make sure I don’t lose out here? What do I need to do to gain experience from the situation?”. In small doses, which I have learnt to control myself, the anxiety of perfectionism can be healthy. I’ve made such great improvements in all areas of my life just by using my anxiety as a weapon with which to fight, rather than a monster from which to flee.

I realise it’s all very well for me to say “this is what I did and it really helped, so you should do it too!”, but in reality, recovery doesn’t work that way. Everyone goes through it at their own pace, and everyone has different coping mechanisms. But this is mine. And I really hope that I can help someone by putting it out there.

You are not your illness. You are your personality, your spirit. You are powerful and with perseverance, you are the master of your own mind. You are you. And in the immortal words of Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, “you’re your problem, but you’re also your solution.”

So this is the New Year!

I can’t quite believe that it’s 2014 already and that my blog turned one year old 11 days ago! Time definitely does fly. I’m also only one view off 5,000, which I realise isn’t a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, but when I started this blog, I really did not expect that some student’s rants about mental health and life and culture would actually attract any interest. So, thank you for sticking with me, and a Happy New Year to you all.

Now, I’m not so keen on the concept of New Year’s resolutions. Part of me says that if I want to change, I will do it at my convenience rather than simply because there is a new number at the end of the year. Part of me says that making up resolutions just because you feel obliged to only means that you’re setting yourself up for failure. The entirety of me says that to make a change in your life, you must really want it and work for it, rather than just making yourself empty promises, which only lead to disappointment.

However, every year, like the hypocrite I am, I find myself writing a whole bunch of resolutions anyway. This year, I think I’ve kept them achievable, as they’re all things I’ve wanted to do for a long time now. The change of year, to me, just acts as a reminder that time is gradually slipping away and that my choices must be acted upon. These are long-term plans to which I’ve simply assigned a starting date – hopefully I won’t need an end date, planned or otherwise. This year, I aim to:

1. Get away from the screen more often. Like a huge number of people in my generation, I am hopelessly addicted to technology. I spend hours and hours on my laptop each day, achieving very little, then when I go to bed, I must check my phone one last time from under the covers. And for what? Certainly not for any real purpose. It may seem fun at the time, but it just leads me to a huge sense of guilt when I look back at the end of the day and realise I’ve done virtually nothing, when I could’ve been doing something much more healthy. Technology is great, of course, but I’m fed up of it sucking me in every day.

2. Create more. This is kind of related to the last one. I have a real passion for creating things, in all shapes and forms. It’s who I am. It’s how I grew up and what courses through my body. However, because of my slight addiction to my laptop, I rarely pursue my creative whims anymore. As I step away from the screen, I will instead step towards a notebook and pen, my art journal (another recent hobby I’ve picked up), a cake tin. Anything that results in something I can look back on and feel proud of bringing into existence with my own bare hands is a winner for me.

3. Get into Honours. Not so much a resolution as much as just something I need to do for my degree. Graduating after three years with an ordinary degree isn’t the end of the world, but I would feel so disappointed in myself if I didn’t make it onto Honours and get to stay for another year. I work so hard, and I hope my work will pay off, but there’s always that niggling voice inside my head saying “you need to really strive for this! Don’t just assume that you’ll do well – you need to make sure you do!”. The prerequisite for Honours is 50% or above for overall marks in second year, which I’m already achieving, but in my opinion, learning is not something to be lackadaisical about so I’ll still keep pushing myself.

4. Stop wasting money on unhealthy snacks. This is a real downfall of mine. I have this habit whereby if I’m walking past a shop or café that sells chocolate/cake/pastries/cookies/coffee with lots of cream and syrup, I will feel an overwhelming urge to make a pit stop. Even if I’m not hungry, even if I have no real craving to give into, I find myself scouring the aisles for something to snack on, because “why not?”. Well, I’ll tell you why not: because it’s a waste of money and there’s no need for it. I’ll allow myself to buy healthy snacks if I need them, but otherwise, that money could be put to much better use.

5. Explore new places. I originally wrote this resolution with the idea of all these glamorous travels in my head, but in reality, I don’t think that’s likely. I’m hopefully going to go to Cambodia next year, so that’s something to save up for, and I’d much rather save up for that trip than waste the money going places which are less of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, just because I probably can’t afford to go abroad this year, doesn’t mean I can’t explore. There are whole pockets of Edinburgh I still need to explore (I’ve never even been up Arthur’s Seat!), not to mention the rest of Scotland (and indeed, the UK as a whole) that lies practically on my doorstep. Time to broaden that experience!

6. Do things that scare me more often. Too often, I am held back by a lack of confidence and my horrible ability to turn absolutely anything into a “what if?” disaster scenario. I need to stop worrying as much and throw myself into things. If it turns out badly, then I can be scared because of past experience rather than misinformed preconceptions. If it turns out well? Well, even better. From introducing myself to new people, to applying for things which challenge me, to telling people how I really feel about them, I hope to be able to say that I’ve done them all by the end of the year and have learnt from experience.

What are your New Year’s resolutions?

Little Christmas Pleasures

Like most people, I love Christmas and always have done. However, last year, it wasn’t so great for me. Having just been diagnosed with depression, it was difficult for me to get into the Christmas spirit – I didn’t enjoy the run up, as I usually do, and the big day itself was even worse. My family stressed me out, I didn’t want to get dressed up (as I usually do) and see people, and I ended up in floods of tears trying to hide away from it all.

This year, I’m feeling better – not completely, but certainly enough to find pleasure in things – and am trying desperately to rekindle that Christmas magic that I knew so well before I was ill. I’ve found that throwing myself into things and getting involved with the festivities has really helped me to push any negativity that I’ve been harbouring to the back of my mind.

I’m not saying that what I’ve done will work for everyone, as we all have different thresholds of what we can and can’t cope with when depressed (especially at a time as hectic as Christmas), but I’ve definitely found all these little activities have lifted my spirits. Here are some things that you might find helpful, as I have.

1. Go ice skating. I went ice skating at the local Christmas market last week and it was great fun! I was apprehensive about it, as I hadn’t skated for about five years, and to make matters worse, it took a while for any of my friends to appear. I thought about taking a rain check, I really did. But in the end, I went ahead anyway and despite fifteen minutes of not wanting to leave the barrier at the edge of the rink, I was soon gliding around and laughing heartily with adrenalin. For me, it was almost impossible to feel sad when I was concentrating so hard on keeping my balance and chasing my friends around the rink!

2. Unleash your inner child. You’re never too old to embrace the art of making paper snowflakes. It’s fun to see how many different designs you can come up with, and they look great – who’d have thought that randomly snipping folded-up paper would be so satisfying? You can stick them up around your home (I’ve got mine on my windows) to liven the place up a bit.

3. Bake some Christmas goodies. Baking is always a great distraction – you can work out your aggression on the batter or dough, measuring out the ingredients and following the recipe keeps your brain engaged and away from grey thinking, and at the end of it, you’ve got some tasty treats which you can proudly say that you made yourself. It’s a win-win situation, really! Christmas allows for lots of lovely flavours, from warming spices to wintery fruit. Yesterday I made gingerbread, using this recipe by Nigella Lawson, and it’s absolutely delicious. I can’t stop eating it…

4. Make yourself a big, warming meal. Chilli con carne is a particular favourite of mine for this purpose – you just cannot beat it on a cold, winter night. Finding the motivation to cook proper meals can be hard when you’re feeling low, but if you cook up a big enough batch when you can manage it, then you can freeze the rest and then you don’t need to worry about preparing meals for the next few days. It’s great to snuggle up with a warming meal and a film.

5. Go carolling. Singing releases endorphins and has been proven to lower feelings of depression, even if only temporarily, so what better time is there to get out there and sing loudly and proudly? Most of the time, carolling is done for charity, so you can seek comfort in the fact that you’re not only making yourself feel better, but also helping others.

6. Try your favourite coffee shop’s Christmas specials. Go to your favourite coffee shop, order yourself a big mug of whatever you fancy (I particularly like the gingerbread latte from Starbucks and the praline latte from Caffè Nero), find a corner where you can see all around you, and just sit with your drink and people watch. I find this always calms me down – I love getting lost in my thoughts about what everyone else’s story is. It can be a great distraction and help you to slow down and notice the smaller pleasures.

I hope these tips help some of you, but if they don’t, please don’t worry about it too much. Everyone has the right to feel and respond to their own emotions, so if you find that you still can’t feel festive, this does not mean that you never will. Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean that you are obliged to be happy. You just need time and space, so that you can allow yourself to recover in your own time. If you catch yourself feeling sad at Christmas, let yourself be sad at Christmas – those who really care will understand, and those are the same people who you will benefit from being around at Christmas.

Take care everyone!

Lessons from NaNoWriMo

Ever since I was a young child, I have been fascinated with writing. I remember being about seven years old and elaborately planning and writing my first “novel”: an autobiographical novel from the point of view of a girl called Lizzie-Anna. I obsessively plotted out every aspect of her life – the fictional land in which she lived, her family, her friends, her first crush, her school. I drew out pictures of her with her friends, wrote lists of all the classes that her school would offer, and drafted maps of the her home country. It was such an escape for me. As the years passed, I continued writing and creating stories. More often than not, they were rip-offs of Jacqueline Wilson novels but with the names changed.

Then for some reason…I stopped.

I don’t know if it was because I started high school and my life got more hectic, but suddenly these characters and stories stayed in my head until I was given a task appropriate to my ideas – a creative writing essay, for example. My love for telling stories was still there, and I loved seeing the words weave sentences in front of my very eyes. It was almost like my characters had taken on lives of their own and were just sitting in my head, waiting for the chance to jump out onto paper.

In 2008 or so, I learnt about NaNoWriMo, in which writers (mainly amateurs) from all over the world take on the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel over the course of November. As Maya Angelou once said, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”, and NaNo embraces this idea by encouraging everyone who’s ever wanted to write a novel to just get it all out of their system, the focus being on quantity of words rather than quality. The idea really appealed to me, but sounded daunting, so I didn’t make my first attempt at the challenge until 2009. I failed. So, I tried again in 2011. I managed to reach around 26,000 words in total, but again, I failed. It didn’t really matter to me though, because I knew I had tried my best under those circumstances (i.e. being in the middle of my Standard Grades and then my Advanced Highers) and it was just nice to get those words out again.

Last year I missed NaNoWriMo, having just started uni, and more to the point, having just been diagnosed with depression. Writing anything seemed like a chore back then. However, this year, despite still not being a picture of mental health, I decided to give it a go. I have hardly any contact time at uni this semester, so it seemed ideal – I would be able to cram in a good hour or two of writing per day. My ideas started coming to me in September and I wrote them all down, eager to get started.

Then, as the clock flicked to midnight on the 1st of November, I got writing. And damn, it felt good.

I’ve felt over the past few months that my relationship with words has become more and more profound. They seem to be the only things that have the power to hold me in complete rapture. It’s almost like a spiritual relationship. I go to poetry slams, I write observational poetry in my head as I go about my everyday business, I quote Plath and, well, I write novels.

We’re not even halfway through the month and already I’ve written over 29,000 words. I’ve found it an incredibly liberating experience. Whereas in the past, NaNoWriMo was just something I had to fit in around everything else I enjoyed doing in life, this time around, it has been my release. I’ve really been struggling recently with the whole “loss of pleasure in things that you usually enjoy” aspect of depression, but being able to write every day gives me the chance to escape my own banal life and get lost in the fictional world that I made up. It’s the most wonderful escapism I’ve ever experienced. The fact that I’ve toted up a huge word count is another reason I’ve kept going – it’s so rewarding to see the thousands rack up each day, as you get closer and closer to that elusive 50,000. The more words you write, the more words you want to write. Progress inspires motivation.

Another amazing aspect I’ve discovered during this year’s NaNo is the social aspect of it. In previous years, I didn’t know anyone who was taking the challenge as well and being of school age, I didn’t really fancy trying to find “grown ups”, who I didn’t know, to go and write with. This year, I’ve completely thrown myself into socialising with other writers. It was nerve-wracking at first (read: I almost had a panic attack before going to my first write-in and when I did make it, I huddled myself away in a corner with merely more than a hello. Anxiety disorders can be very cruel sometimes), but I persevered. Although I was shy at my first write-in, it made me feel so good, knowing that I’d made the effort and that other people were going through exactly the same stresses as I was. I persevered, and went to my second write-in today, making more of an effort to socialise. It really paid off and I had some good laughs, as well as sprints with other writers. It’s been amazing to find such a supportive community. Despite the seemingly competitive nature of NaNo, it’s actually the complete opposite and you can guarantee that if you’re struggling, there will be somebody willing to cheer you on. It makes me so proud to know that I managed to say a great big “hell no!” to my depression and anxiety and throw myself in there, for better or for worse. For better, as it has turned out.

This year’s NaNoWriMo has been fantastic so far and I’ve gained so much from it – a renewed passion for words, and even more importantly, a better sense of belonging.

My spiced toffee apple cake – a temptingly autumnal treat!

apple cake

On Wednesday I woke up and once again, just knew it was going to be a bad day. This seems to be happening more and more frequently – at least I’ve got another review with the doc next Friday. Not quite sure what more can be done for me though – I’m just stuck in an insufferable cycle of sleeping, trying to study, and crying, and I can’t see any way out.  Thankfully, baking always provides good respite, and feeling inspired by my precious baby Frances winning GBBO the night before (she was my favourite from the start, so I was more than a little ecstatic…), I set off on a quest to recreate autumn in baked form.

I used this cupcake recipe from Baked Perfection as a basic guide, but as always, I just couldn’t stick to it exactly – that’s boring! When I bake, I enjoy experimenting to really make something my own. Maybe it’s because I’m so compliant in every other aspect of my life so baking is my chance to go a bit wild. Vive la cake revolution, and all. Anyway, here’s my take on it:

Ingredients

Cake:

380g plain flour, sieved
4 heaped teaspoons of baking powder
3 heaped teaspoons cinnamon
A generous pinch of salt
One chai tea bag (I used a vanilla chai tea bag by Pukka – ripped open, of course, as it’s the spices and tea leaves inside that you want)
200g golden caster sugar
200g unrefined demerara sugar
4 eggs
A generous splash of vanilla essence
250ml vegetable oil (I used scales though rather than a jug, so if you do that, it’s 200g)
3 apples, grated (I used quite bitter ones as the buttercream is so sweet)
A generous splash of milk (I didn’t actually measure it, oops. Just keep adding it until the batter is a smooth, dropping consistency!)

Toffee buttercream:

50g butter
100g unrefined demerara sugar
A splash of vanilla essence
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 apple, grated
A pinch of salt
Milk (again, I didn’t measure it…what was that I was saying about using baking to rebel? Roughly 3 tablespoons, I think)
150g icing sugar, sifted

Method

1. Preheat oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4, and line two sandwich tins with greaseproof paper.

2. Mix all the dried ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

3. Make a well in the middle and break eggs into it. Beat into mixture one egg at a time.

4. Add vegetable oil and vanilla essence. Beat thoroughly (a good electric whisk comes in handy!).

5. Add in milk. Before adding the milk, it will be a thick-ish dough – whisking in the milk thoroughly makes it into the smooth batter that it need to be.

5. Mix in grated apples.

6. Distribute between the two tins and bake for about 25 minutes (you might need to cover them with tin foil to prevent the top burning while the inside is undercooked – or maybe that’s just my awful oven).

7. To make the buttercream, melt the butter and sugar in a saucepan over a low heat.

8. Add cinnamon, salt, vanilla essence and grated apple and bring to the boil, stirring all the time.

9. One boiling, remove from heat and add the milk.

10. Heat it again, until it has reached boiling point once more. Once it’s been boiling for about 2 minutes, take it off the heat. Leave it to cool for 20-25 minutes, until it’s lukewarm.

11. Sieve in the icing sugar and mix in. I found this didn’t really make a “buttercream”, as such, more a sticky, runny, toffee icing. But it works really well at that consistency, as the cake soaks up some of the moisture and makes the middle really gooey and yummy!

12. Once both the cake and the buttercream have cooled, spread the buttercream in the middle  and sandwich the cakes together. Job done!

This cake tastes particularly good after a day or two – I had a slice as soon as it was done, and I thought it was a bit on the sweet side, but leaving it for a while so that the buttercream can absorb into the cake really makes it extra special. As proof, I took it into my project week class today to share in the break, and it went down a treat – I had comments from friends telling me that I should drop out of uni and open a bakery instead! It made perfect fuel for a gruelling three-hour fugue-writing session. :)

Let me know what you think!

The Time Capsule

Today was another very tough day for me. I had a pretty good day yesterday, in comparison – long, deep conversations with friends, a damn good sandwich (simple pleasures, you know!) and then in the evening, I went out for a music society social, which was pretty good as it involved food being cooked for me (yay) and not so many people that I froze up and couldn’t interact properly. In fact, even the evening before was pretty good (despite feeling pretty down the rest of the day) as I went to my first ever poetry slam with one of my good friends from my course and a small group of her friends, who were all really nice.

But today, I just woke up and my heart felt heavy.

On a Saturday, I have an orchestra rehearsal from 10-1, so I need to get up pretty early. Today was no different. However, it was a real struggle to even get myself out of bed. When I finally did, my whole body felt heavy and exhausted and I just couldn’t bring myself to get ready – I sat staring at the mountain of clothes on the end of my bed, ready for the day ahead, but I felt paralysed by total emptiness. Needless to say, I crawled back into bed and read Hyperbole and a Half instead.

It made me feel guilty because I’ve now missed three rehearsals and the concert is in a month. I barely know the repertoire. The worst bit is, even when I do go, I feel lonely. The only bit I actually enjoy is the playing, but even that gets tiring after about an hour and a half. It makes me wonder what the point even is.

It came to me then that life is a lot like a time capsule. You take a box (tin, whatever – it’s metaphorical, so choose your own container!) and cram in all these memories, so that when it’s buried and gone, others can look back and reminisce about the times you had putting together your own little personal gallery of life. And I feel like often, when I push myself into doing things to try and shake myself out of the negativity – by going on nights out or joining new societies, for example – I’m mainly doing them in the hope that some wonderful memories will emerge and I’ll be able to fill my capsule with little trinkets that say, “remember that time when…”, or “I’m so glad I took up swing dancing!”

And often, they do, but there are also times when you struggle to find things to put in the box. This is when the lack of motivation and energy which comes with depression sets in. It’s like someone’s saying, “you never know when you might need to bury this – better get filling it up!” but you’re surrounded by nothing but piles of stones, empty crisp packets and old chewing gum. They’re saying, “why can’t you find anything worth putting in the capsule? I’ve found loads of stuff for mine, you’re just not looking hard enough!” (or “why haven’t you got any mementos from your orchestra? I thought that mattered to you.”) and all you can do is panic because nothing around you seems worthy of memory and oh God what if time is running out and what if people forget my time capsule was ever buried because I never achieved anything notable and…

But sometimes, other people will find something that you managed to overlook. They’ll hold up a glittering sliver of a memory, garnered by dancing or a shared love of a certain band or hearing poetry live or a damn good sandwich or basking in the crisp, October sunshine or even just getting up and looking after yourself when you really didn’t feel like it, and they’ll say “hey, look what I found! Isn’t that cool? Why don’t you put that in the capsule?”

And you smile. And you realise that it’s possible to amass your own collection if you put your mind to it. I don’t feel any better today, really, after my day of chilling out and trying to unwind, but that’s cool too. Perhaps contemplating my own health and letting myself lie around alone for a day is a small step towards things getting better, and stumbling upon a diamond in the rough, a real highlight of my collection – who knows? I’m not feeling particularly hopeful about that one, but I’m willing to be surprised. They don’t need to be big, sparkling, ornate gems of memories – as long as it was an achievement for you, it doesn’t matter whether other people would put it in their own capsule.

Another ride on the seesaw

Phew, what a hectic month it’s been since starting back at uni last month! Despite only having six or seven hours of contact time per week this semester, I’ve been devoting a lot of my time to self-study and practice (quite rightly so, I guess) so I’ve been feeling exhausted from all the effort I’ve been putting in. The pressure is really on this year, as we need to get into Honours. The overall pass mark for getting into Honours is an achievable 50%, but I’m still keen to do my best so that I have a better chance of being able to choose any modules I like next year without worrying about being “bad” at anything.

Unfortunately, it’s all getting a bit too much already and I can feel myself falling. I’m slipping back down that slope which I’ve been forcing myself to pedal up all summer. I’ve found myself questioning what I’m doing with my life and whether it’s all worth it, I’ve lost interest in socialising and can’t bring myself to go out in the evenings (leading to a lot of cancelled plans), and I feel tired almost constantly – even after sleeping for 11 hours (which, yes, has happened).

I can’t remember if I mentioned, but after my major glitch with withdrawal, I started back on 10mg of citalopram in August. Anyway, that’s by-the-by. I went back to my doctor yesterday  and told her how much worse I’d been feeling, so I went back up 20mg. At first, I was apprehensive about going back up a dose, because there’s still a negative voice in my head saying “you’re just not trying hard enough, you’re lazy, you’re not really depressed, stop making excuses for being an antisocial blob”, which is especially prominent these days considering some nights, I can find the strength to go out with friends. I told her that maybe I just wasn’t trying hard enough, considering some nights I can manage it, but she reassured me with some wise words which have stuck with me: “maybe when you go out, you’re putting your ‘brave face’ on,  but how you feel when you don’t go out is a true reflection of how you really feel.”

And I think it’s true. I can go so long pretending everything’s fine, everything’s getting better, and then I get home, where I can be alone, and I snap. I feel completely drained from just keeping that smile on my face when I don’t feel like it inside.

I’m scared that soon, I will crash and burn. I just want to be happy and sociable and get good grades, is that really too much to juggle?

One of my close friends told me today that she’s been given a screening questionnaire for depression, anxiety and stress, because she’s been having problems with being tired and not being able to sleep. She’s also having a blood test to check for thyroid, anaemia and diabetes, in case it’s that, but she said that she hopes it’s not that and that it’s a mental thing. I’ve never realised how difficult it is to say to a friend, “no, you don’t understand – controlling a physical illness is so much easier than controlling a mental illness”. Because mental illness is so much harder to control. No matter how many pills you put into your body, there are always going to be days when you feel inexplicably awful about yourself. Unlike many physical illnesses, it’s not a case of “keep taking the meds, know how to control your body and you’ll barely even notice you are ill at all.” And that’s what makes it so much harder.

I guess I’m just scared that I can’t be there for her. How can I tell someone else that everything will get better and that life is always worth living when I struggle to believe it myself?

This is what a “mental patient” looks like

Yesterday, Asda hit the headlines in the UK after it was revealed that they had been selling a Halloween costume under the shockingly offensive, albeist moniker of “mental patient”. The costume, which features a blood-splattered straitjacket, misshapen face with unruly hair and meat cleaver, was subject to huge backlash from mental health sufferers, charities and campaigners (quite rightly so) and was soon recalled.

Asda’s “mental patient” costume

Tesco also came under fire for a similar costume, a lurid orange boiler suit with the words “psycho ward” (the costume’s name) emblazoned on the chest and back with accompanying jaw restraint. Suggested accessories to this get-up included a machete and blood-stained knife. Following the backlash Asda received, Tesco also removed this costume.

Tesco’s “psycho ward” costume

Despite the fact that both companies removed the offending items from their shelves and released public statements of apology, you have to wonder – who on earth gave them the go-ahead in the first place? In my opinion, it’s not so much the costumes themselves that are the problem, it’s the names they’ve been given and the negative connotations about mental illness which they propagate. We see these sorts of stock characters in horror films all the time. It’s clear that Asda and Tesco simply wanted to emulate our favourite horror villains, but in an attempt to avoid copyright decided to give the costumes more generic names.

And what word instills fear in your average person more than the word…”psycho”?! *gasp*

Why is it that that word has become such a ready synonym for words which, in reality, have completely different meanings? “Evil?” “Psycho”. “Homocidal?” “Psycho”. “Criminal?” “Psycho”. You get the picture. As I’m sure most people are aware, the prefix “psycho-” simply means relating to the brain and its inner workings. So why is there still this common misconception that “psycho” connotes these horribly negative, terrifying personality traits?

Fighting back against the stigma spread by the costumes, mental health charities took to social media to ask their supporters to speak up and speak out. Time to Change, a mental health campaign based in England and run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, asked their followers who suffer from mental illness to submit pictures of their own “mental patient” costumes. The response was overwhelming, as the hashtag #mentalpatient buzzed with activity, and the responses were (take or leave more trivial details) all the same – normal people, in normal clothes, posing for a camera.

My own "mental patient" costume

My own “mental patient” costume

A real “mental patient” walks the streets in Topshop jeans, Primark jumpers, shoes from everywhere from ShoeZone to Manolo Blahnik. Heck, we could already have bought elements of our own “mental patient” costumes from Asda and Tesco. We may or may not wear make-up. We may or may not bear tattoos, or piercings, or daring hair cuts. We go to the supermarket, to university, take the bus, take the train, ride bikes around town. Funny how when I say “we”, I could be referring to any demographic of the population, isn’t it? Because you know what – sufferers of mental health problems are just the same as anyone else. We’re not suddenly more likely to commit heinous crimes, to be locked up in the creepy, austere facilities of slasher films that these costumes would imply, wielding weapons in an attempt to break free. For the most part, the only things we want dead are our inner demons – those nagging voices of insecurity we try to silence with chemicals, counselling and therapy.

To say this is disgusting is an understatment, Asda and Tesco – please, learn from your mistakes, listen to the voices of your millions of customers who suffer from mental health problems, and next time hopefully you’ll be challenging the stigma rather than encouraging it.

Dropping the “F”-bomb

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a few simple words spill out my friend’s mouth which I never thought I would be too shocked to hear yet by which I was completely taken aback. Those words?

“I’m not a feminist.”

Each word, innocuous on its own, combining to form a definitive sentence with a surprising sting at its core.

I pride myself on my ability to accept the opinions of others, but feminism is an issue close to my heart and as such, I found this revelation from one of my closest friends slightly unpalatable.

“Why?!”, another friend and I gasped, in horror.

“I don’t understand why it’s still an issue – women are pretty damn equal with men now!”

Stop. Stop right there. This is exactly why progress in society’s attitude is slow and requires constant pressure for any change to take effect. There is not only one taboo “F word” – “feminism” is still seen as a dirty word by many people, who are under the impression that the feminist movement is all about hating men and fighting – often very rudely and aggressively, in the mind of those who believe these stereotypes – for equal pay, the vote etc. So these issues may be resolved, or at least almost resolved, in our developed world, but let’s get some perspective here.

There are women being stoned to death in the Middle East for driving, for choosing their own romantic partners. There are women, frequently from central and eastern Europe, dancing provocatively and being leered at in Amsterdam, forced into making a living from their bodies as a result of trafficking, yet being seen as some cheap, tourist gimmick. There are young girls in war-torn states who must risk their lives just trying to better their quality of life and prospects by going to school. There are women, worldwide, having words of hate rammed down their throats, telling them they were to blame for their sexual assault, whether it be because of their clothing, alcohol consumption or simply because they were being friendly towards men.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Feminism isn’t some local coup which can easily be solved by allowing women the power to tick a box on a sheet, or to collect a fatter paycheck than once was possible. It’s much bigger than that. It’s a global issue which we all – men and women alike – must push for every day. The fact that we still have songs like ‘Blurred Lines’ highlights this. Catchy as it may be (and I will confess that yes, even I have downloaded it), how is it possible that such morally ambiguous songs are still the norm in pop culture? It’s not just in music: films, sports, websites, you name it – there’s still an overwhelming attitude that females exist for the sole purpose of pleasing males. On the flip side of the coin, there are films targeted at women which celebrate being powerful and sexy and having men wrapped around one’s little finger (Sex and the City, I’m looking at you!), but let’s be honest – while these films are empowering and often enjoyable, they often err on the side of portraying women as being somehow better than men. Again, this isn’t what feminism is about. It’s about us all being equal and gender being removed from the equation.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need feminism, but the reality is, the world is not some middle-class, white-washed, first-world town.

It’s a beautiful yet tainted minefield of inequality. We can only tackle the issues if we’re willing to remove the cotton wool from over our eyes, or, if necessary, have it ripped off to reveal the harsh reality that lies before us.

Do’s and don’ts of starting university: from one fresher to the next

I can barely believe how fast the past year has flown by – it seems like just yesterday I was settling into my new Edinburgh home, saying tearful goodbyes to my family, being thrown together with a hotchpotch of new friends and navigating the intricacies of a whole new education system. I don’t quite feel old and responsible enough to be starting second year in a matter of weeks! Nevertheless, I do have some words of wisdom to share with those of you about to start your university journey…

Do try to get as involved as possible in freshers’ week. If you’re moving into halls, then great – you’ll already be provided with a group of people with whom you can go out and explore your new home. Admittedly, it will probably be drunken exploration, but if you’re not a regular party-goer, fear not! There are hundreds of events on in freshers’ week, meaning there really is something for everyone to get stuck into.

Don’t worry if you don’t necessarily get along with the people you hang around with in fresher’s week, as the chances are, you probably won’t see much of them afterwards. It’s a slightly different scenario if they live in your halls, but even some of the guys from my halls that I went out with during freshers’ didn’t get anything more than a vague smile of recognition for the rest of the year. The best friends you will make will be the ones who you have to go out of your way to find and with whom you share interests. Which leads me onto my next point…

Do join a society! In my experience, this is the best way to make friends – all my best friends at university are in the music society, and I feel blessed to have found them because they’ve always been there for me, not to mention that we have the greatest nights out! It can be awkward approaching new people when you know nothing about them, but at least a society means you have a common interest. Most societies involve teamwork of some kind as well – from singing the same part in a choir, to dancing in partners, to holding each others’ hair back after one too many glasses of cheap white wine (!) – so you’ll get to know people really well, very quickly.

Don’t leave the studying til last minute. Sorry to nag, but really, it’s wise to brush up on your notes little and often, rather than go to a lecture then forget about it until a matter of days before the exam. It’s stressful and your memory doesn’t work as well when put under pressure as well. I speak from experience. While I still passed (hooray for the 40% pass mark), I really wish I’d started earlier in the year. This year, I’m going to be more organised!

Do remember to register with a doctor. Most universities have a health centre, and it’s good idea to get in there and register within the first week to avoid disappointment – it really is first come, first served. Even if you’re a hardy type who never gets ill, I can guarantee that “freshers’ flu” (caused by the new environment and an influx of new people) will hit you at some point and if things really take a turn for the worse, it’s good to know you have somewhere to go. Starting university can also shake up your mental health – as I learnt the hard way – and if you start to feel like things aren’t going right, it’s crucial that you have a doctor on your side as your first port of call.

And finally…

Don’t forget to be yourself! Cheesy, I know, and I apologise, but this is really the best thing you can do. School can often inhibit your personality, but once you’re at university, nobody cares how weird and wonderful you are because there will almost always be some who is just that little bit more of an oddball! And you know what? Even that “oddball” can find friends for life and thrive. So just go for it and forget about those who held you back before!

Good luck!