Mental Health Adventures: Confessions of a Dermatillomaniac

I’m writing this post on the back of a very shitty sleepless night, borne by a downward spiral of anxiety from somewhere deep within the pit of my brain. I’ve had a rough couple of weeks dealing with what for me is one of the biggest, and most visible, symptoms of my anxiety disorder.

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I’m 37 in less than 2 months, and I’ve got a new addiction that up until recently would have been meant for the confines of a Kindergarten or a Junior Infants class of a weekday morning. I’m addicted to colouring books. More specifically, colouring books made especially for grown-ups. I’ve called them Adult Colouring Books, but that just conjures up images of pages upon pages of boob, fanny and willy drawings, or outlines of a page or ten from Kama Sutra; although, I’m sure somebody’s thought of that already. Nothing new under the sun and all that… *goes searching on Amazon*

I may have been a bit trigger-happy with the 'click to buy' button.

I may have been a bit trigger-happy with the ‘click to buy’ button. Click the pic to see more on my Instagram!

So why is there such a fascination with Grown-Up Colouring books now? Well from my uneducated lay-person standpoint, it seems to be a branch coming out of the Mindfulness movement – giving people a chance to be ‘in the present’ (feckin’ hippies I know, but it works) and calm the mind, giving it focus and having a moment or two of time to yourself doing something pleasurable and visually stimulating in the process. A little bit of Occupational Therapy for the price of a colouring book and some markers.

From the Completely Calming Colouring Book 2 - Love. Click on the pic to head to Amazon and buy it.

From the Completely Calming Colouring Book 2 – Love. Click on the pic to head to Amazon and buy it.

Years ago in the midst of a very dark patch, I was in town and I got a notion that I wanted to colour in. It seemed that my love of stationery was a gateway drug to it; but there wasn’t anything in the way of a wide assortment of books to choose from. Either that or I just didn’t have the wherewithal to go looking for it online. So into Michael Guineys I went, bought a jumbo kids’ colouring book and a packet of markers all for under a fiver, and headed home all excited to stick my head into a bit of childhood regression; anything to alleviate the ball of twine-sized anxiety in my stomach that nothing would shake.

Stationery is Sexy AF

Stationery is Sexy AF

It didn’t last long, mostly because there’s only so many giant cartoon dogs you can colour in before you get bored. You’re engaged in a childlike activity, but that doesn’t mean you need child-centred content. This year I started to properly discover more advanced books with detailed patterns and shapes, repetitive geometrics, paisley-style prints, mandalas, and detailed cartoons of the most beautiful things in the world. I’d seen one or two books in the senior classrooms of the schools I’d taught in, given to kids who would finish work faster than the others and needed to keep themselves occupied with something a bit more challenging, and I was SO JEALOUS. So imagine my delight when I saw how huge the range of colouring books had become for overgrown kids like me.

Click on the pic to head over to my Instagram and get some colour ideas!

Click on the pic to head over to my Instagram and get some colour ideas!

So if you think it’s something you’d like to try out, I can’t recommend it enough. For so many reasons. I suffer from Dermatillomania, which is basically a compulsive skin-picking disorder, and has been the bane of my life ever since I developed my fine motor skills. At its simplest, it’s anxiety-based, and left unchecked, causes huge pain and discomfort and scarring. It’s like a mild unconscious form of self-harm, so the doc tells me. When anxious, I’ll tear at the skin on my body, face, hands, to the point where my fingers are so sore from having pulled hangnails (imaginary or otherwise) that they leave infections and swelling behind, and I’m left disfigured, bleeding and in pain. So when the chance to get stuck into something that would otherwise occupy my hands, I pounced on it like it was the last Krispy Kreme on earth. It’s the artistic equivalent of a stress ball for me, and what it saves me in disfigurement and low self-esteem cannot be measured.

It's called The Hipster Coloring Book, but don't let the title put you off. It's SO MUCH FUN. (click pic to buy on Amazon)

It’s called The Hipster Coloring Book, but don’t let the title put you off. It’s SO MUCH FUN. (click pic to buy on Amazon)

I really think you should give it a go. You don’t have to be a Salvador Dali type, there’s designs and pics out there to suit everyone. If you think a book of complicated mandalas might add to your stress levels, then there are others with simple yet adorable pics and lettering you can sweep a marker or pencil across with delight. Click on any of the pics to find the books pictured here on Amazon, or to go to my Instagram to see what manner of a colour scheme I’m chucking down on to a page.

Follow me on Instagram - Click the pic!

Follow me on Instagram – Click the pic!

Pen, pencil, or ink?

You all know the usual suspects to get hold of in any bookshop or stationery (yum) shop; Crayola, Sharpie, Faber-Castell and all those are obviously perfect to kick off your colouring habit. I got a 24-pack of brilliant Crayola markers in Heatons for under €8 (with a free blank sketchbook thank you vey much!) to start me off. I’m a markers girl myself, being a cartoon lover until the day I die, but there are some amazing colouring pencils out there if you take a bit of time to wander around art supply shops and see which ones you like.

If you want to pimp out your colouring experience, Staedtler Fine Tips are the mutt’s nuts altogether. Having explored the wonderland website of artist Johanna Basford (click the pic below to see her work), I decided to splurge on the Staedtler so when I decided to take on intricately detailed drawings and patterns, I could keep my perfectionist side at bay by staying inside the lines. Her books are an absolute treasure. They’re next on my list. Click the pic below to be taken to her website and have your mind blown.

Click on the pic to head over to Johanna's website to see all her books and the pens she swears by.

Click on the pic to head over to Johanna’s website to see all her books and the pens she swears by.

There you have it, a short and (hopefully) useful guide to get you started on the road to regression. There really is nothing like taking a bit of time to yourself and indulging in a pastime that makes you feel like a happy kid again. It’s also a lot more socially acceptable than, say, firebombing your workplace or quitting your job in spectacular Jerry Maguire-style fashion following an epiphany / nervous breakdown. Be nice to yourself; make a bucket of tea or grab a class of wine, curl up on a comfy couch with your pencil case and book of choice and GET COLOURING IN. You won’t regret it. I promise.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw

Me And My Shadow – Five Years On

I tend to do lots of thinking. Well, what else is there to do when you live in your head all the time? If you’re sitting in a pool all day you may as well swim a lap or two every now and again. Most of the thoughts are fine and banal. Some are friendly, some are out of my control, some have sent me shooting out of sleep like a cannon in absolute terror, taking me five solid minutes to remember where I am, and another five to believe my mind was telling me the truth. Thankfully the latter isn’t as common as it used to be. I wouldn’t wish that kind of thing on my worst enemy. If you can’t trust your own brain, then hope is a very faraway thing.

But anyway, I digress. It’s been a fucking rollercoaster of fresh hell and insane adventures in mental health the last twenty-five months, not to mind the last five years. To put it mildly, this last half-decade makes Girl, Interrupted look like High School Musical. I spoke about my own experience with depression before in Me And My Shadow (click here to read) almost five years ago (yikes), and I’ve felt for a while that it was worth a revisit, if only for myself.

The reason for posting it publicly is to show that there is never an easy wrapped-up Hollywood ending to these things. I’d like to tell you that I found inner peace, loved the shit out of myself and had amazing life-fulfilling relationships that made me glad to be alive, and came off all meds, and lived blissfully ever after, happy as a laughing baby on YouTube. I’d like to tell you that, but I’d be lying SO FUCKING HARD.

I got worse. A whole lot worse. In every way. I still did the everyday stuff like finishing college and all that, but my soul did everything under massive protest. Most nights I stayed in, relieved to be at home where I could collapse into my dark, sad, yet comfortingly familiar little corner of my world. The thoughts of having to get it together mentally & physically to go out into the night and deal with crowds and bright lights and shoving stupid people stepping on my toes and elbowing me in the head (being short in the club is a fucking curse) was just too much to cope with.

I spent most of my alone time listening to sad music and faffing about online. I could be the life and soul of the Facebook party from the comfort of a Onesie while wearing a hair turban with sections of my face smothered in Sudocrem. It’s a good front for those of us who are mentally terrorised by the outside world. It has its drawbacks too, in that if you’re good enough with words and you REALLY don’t want anyone to see how bad you are, nobody will be any wiser. Remember: your fingers don’t get sad; you can still type happy words while crying your eyes out.

So on went this life of mine, with the usual ups and downs while I more or less navigated my way through various crises and hurdles that are microscopic looking back, but at the time seemed like I was at the foot of Everest. That was all fine, and doable, and that too did pass..but then in 2013 my mom died, and my heart and brain broke one after the other, never to be fully healed again.

It’s a strange old thing, grief. I spent the first year without Mam simply on auto-pilot on the outside, working in schools, trying to get some sort of new life together and find a place to live in town and being ‘grand’, all the while holding on to the soothing effects of various meds for dear life for fear I would collapse into a pile of tiny shards of glass if I didn’t have them. There were times I couldn’t allow myself to even take a deep breath in the classroom, in case I would break into sobs because the pain in my chest was too much. But life marched on yet again, and I eventually found some semblance of stability, which is precisely the point at which my brain joined in the fun of completely fucking me over for another twelve months.

I won’t dwell on the many adventures that me and my mind went on together, lest this piece become some sort of self-indulgent Depression Porn, which is not the purpose of this piece (you can wait for The Book for that!). Suffice it to say that when your own brain is your enemy, the world is a very frightening, lonely place. I repeated a lot of bad habits I thought I had left behind years ago. I was back self-harming, both physically and in being careless and not looking after myself, and various other bits and bobs that didn’t help. All this led to an intervention of sorts by some very caring friends who I hadn’t managed to fool, and they scooped me up and got me first into A&E, then into a day psychiatric unit. The rest is a better, albeit staggered, slightly more stable mental history.

I’ve left volumes out, because I will be writing about it in more detail in another long-term project; but also because the nitty-gritty isn’t pertinent to the piece. I guess by looking back at the original piece from 2010 compared to now, I’m showing the world that things aren’t always linear. Particularly when it comes to mental health issues. There’s no such thing as an “I lived happily ever after!” finely tuned ending when it comes to the battle for your sanity. But you know what? That’s totally okay. It is what it is. That ‘One Day At A Time’ stuff works for depression and anxiety as well as addictions. They’re all pits that can pull you back in with the slightest little knock-back. I went eight years without cutting myself, then fell off the wagon during a particularly dangerous black time last year. Afterwards, I was so angry at having broken the promise I made all those years ago, but all I could do was reset the numbers and start again. One day at a time? One minute at a time if you have to. Fuck it, whatever it takes to keep you on this earth a bit longer to give yourself a chance.

It’s when things stop going okay after you think you’ve gotten it all under control that can cause a lot of despair in people. They feel like they’ve failed. But look, shit happens. Whether maintaining good mental health, or recovering from mental health issues, these things are a constantly evolving (and devolving) process. People love loose ends to be tied up all clearly explained and resolved in 30 minutes with commercial breaks, but that’s just fiction. The only thing that marches on consistently, not giving a fuck about where you’re at in life, is time. So let that do the straight-line thing, cos nothing else in life or the state of your mental health is going to behave that way.

So take comfort. If you’re falling down just when you think you’re doing okay, you’re actually still doing okay. It’s just a bump. I swear on all the Gods that people believe in, and on all the laws of nature. You know how I know? Because I’m still here, and so are you, reading this and getting a headache, for which I apologise. Time has passed since you felt a hell of a lot worse, so you’ve got an advantage straight away. That’s how I judge my progress with this Shadow of mine. If I compared how I am now to how I was when I wrote the original post, there’s actually very little progress made. But fill in the space between with all that happened in my life (none of which is unique to me, we all grieve), then I realise how lucky I am that I’m still above ground. So onwards I march. I really hope you do too. But don’t do it alone. I had a treasure-trove of people around me, and that’s the only reason I’m able to sit and type this in any coherent form. Pretend you’re a friend asking you for help – would you be annoyed and tell them to feck off? Speaking from experience, it is incredibly profound and liberating to actually say the words “I’m not okay.” The dynamic that they set off can be, quite literally, life-saving. Get it done.

Oh, and one more thing: FUCK HOLLYWOOD HAPPY ENDINGS.