Holding your ACEs

ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) refers to negative experiences children and adolescents go through such as physical abuse, neglect or household dysfunction. Since the original research was done in the late nineties further studies have been conducted showing the negative impact they can have on the adults. Unsurprisingly, for children who go through some really fucked up shit they have some problems as adults. Those with a ‘high score’ (i.e. have experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences) are more likely to suffer from chronic depression, more likely to smoke, more likely to experience sexual assault and attempt suicide, there are a whole range of increased risks which (if you are in the mood for a downer) you can read all about here.

I never really accepted that my childhood was really fucked up, I went to a school where I could hide in plain sight. I was poor but there were poorer kids. Parental separation was really common by the time I got to secondary. A lot of my friends’ parents were alcoholics, used or sold drugs and only a few people outside my immediate family knew my mum would beat us in mad rages, but I knew my friend’s parents did the same sometimes.  Being surrounded by it normalised it, I didn’t know until I was much older that these were not the experiences most children lived through. I also had nice memories from my childhood, summers spent with my cousins at the beach and sleepovers with friends. As an adult, I used these to minimise the darker aspects of my childhood, focusing on what I did have and blocking out what was too difficult to deal with. Blocking the memories didn’t stop me struggling, I just didn’t make the link between them and my poor mental health.

Now as an adult I have found myself in a sector that supports children going through even worse things than I did. It sounds strange but it wasn’t until about 12 months ago that I realised why I might have been drawn to this kind of work. It doesn’t pay well, it is really hard and it is emotionally draining, but I have always wanted to help people. The irony is I didn’t want to help myself, I never looked after myself, I didn’t think I deserved it. Being beaten and threatened scared me into silence and made me believe I was a bad person, who must have done terrible things, to be treated like that. Combined with the neglect and deprivation that I lived through I didn’t have a healthy sense of what I need and deserve.  One of the most detrimental aspects of ACES is that often those who experience them internalise them and they manifest in a lot of self-hatred.

For anyone who hasn’t experienced it, it might be hard to understand why you would hate yourself because someone else violated you. For so long I was ashamed of my upbringing, I didn’t want people to know how poor I had was and the rest of my family didn’t really know how bad it was with my mum. I felt isolated by what I had been through which meant I wasn’t able to reach out to people for the support I needed. I didn’t know what being cared for was. I was too ashamed and shut down to address it even when I found myself in therapy.

My therapist tried and failed to get me to recognise that these experiences had moulded my mental health and perspective as an adult. Being confronted so forcefully and trying to stifle the memories and emotions exacerbated my problems, I internalised the conflict and went back to the coping mechanism I had relied on as a teenager – bulimia. It was after a lot more individual therapy, that I came to family therapy with my brother, where I finally felt safe enough to speak about and accept that the stress of my childhood was not my fault but had real affects for on me now.

But now that I am working to accept and properly process what I went through I feel so much freer. More open to admitting to people how hard it was for me growing up and accepting that I need to deal with it. Different experiences will manifest themselves in different ways but holding your ACEs (whatever they were) with care and compassion can help you manage where you are now. You are still that child, you need to give yourself the love and care you were denied in the past.

So, although I am still very early into this process I have found a few things particularly useful.

  1. Read “The Body Keeps Score”

If you are like me and you love a bit of context for your mental health, then you will love this book. Not only does it outline the physical impact of a huge variety of mental illnesses it also discusses different non-traditional treatment approaches. It was incredibly informative and opened me up to different therapeutic approaches, beyond traditional therapy. Big trigger warning though, it is not an easy read, it has taken me months to finish this book. If it isn’t safe for you then you can also access author Bessel van der Kolk through interviews like this one or message me and we can discuss the treatments without the case studies

  1. Do your research and look into specific therapies

I didn’t address my childhood experiences until I got into family therapy. It was not a purposeful decision, I went into it to find a way to discuss my eating disorder with my brother but the sessions became a space for us to speak about the trauma we had experienced. We had both shut it down in different ways and this was one of the first times we could speak about it in a healthy way. Therapy is sadly still a luxury not everyone can access but doing your research can avoid you ending up with the wrong type.  If you don’t have the means or motivation to get into therapy, then you can find lots of information online on ways to resolve or heal your childhood experiences.

  1. Don’t feel guilty about avoiding/removing toxic people

Whether this is someone from your childhood who you need to shift away from or someone you have met as an adult who triggers you, don’t feel guilty about taking space from them or removing them from your life. My guilt around doing this myself still surfaces, it is natural, but ultimately it is the healthiest choice for me. If I don’t put myself first then who will?

Money and Mental Health

So it has been a while!  After a few weeks of beating myself up for not being productive enough I decided to take a break to focus on studying and working. With the pressure of coursework and regular work I had to put some things on the back burner.

I struggled a lot trying to maintain healthy routines for myself and avoid relapsing, with so little down time outside of work and studying it was hard to practice regular self-care. It has only been a week or so and I am trying to be patient with myself while I try to get back into a routine of self-care and healthy coping strategies. I haven’t relapsed, which I am very proud of, but am conscious that I need to get into a better routine to maintain my mental health.

Although, I wasn’t posting regularly I found a lot of inspiration from people around me. This time of year, post-Christmas, tax returns, winter weather etc means most people have been feeling pretty broke and pretty low, and most of my conversations with friends have been about how crap they feel.

A few weeks ago, walking round Brixton with my friend, she told me about a friend she wanted to introduce me too. “He has been really depressed recently but he just got funding to do a big theatre tour so he is doing much better! … I actually said to him – do you think you were really depressed or just poor?”

It might seem flippant to chalk depression down to not having money but as an environmental factor it has a pretty big influence. It’s well known poor people have poorer mental health outcomes (do a quick google search and you’ll see the outcomes for children and adults living in poverty are pretty grim!). Although, I did already know that being poor and depressed could be linked something about my friend’s comment really hit me.

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I’ve said before that the absolute worst my mental health has been coincided with the poorest I have ever been.  2015 was terrible and to be honest 2016 wasn’t a million miles better but I was out of the financial skip I had been in.  A week after Christmas I was reminded of this when I went to go see Hamilton, for the third time in 2018.  When I first heard of the show in 2015 I fell in love immediately! But I couldn’t afford to buy the album. I listened to the songs out of order on youtube, dreaming of seeing it in real life. As I left the show with my friends at the end of 2018 I thought back on that year, would I have believed three years later I would not only have the money to see Hamilton but see it 3 times?

Is that the most significant change that has happened to me since 2015? No

Is being able to go to the theatre the key to improving mental health? Not at all, a few weeks later I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed!

But for me that moment reminded me that not having money is limiting not just in terms of your opportunities but also your aspirations. If this coincides with other stress or mental health dips, then it can become a toxic mix and navigating your way out of it isn’t easy.  Making more money or paying off a substantial debt won’t happen overnight but recognising that having less financially will affect your mental health could help you to work out small ways to counter it. Winning the lottery or living on a diet of boiled lentils aren’t realistic or  practical solutions.

Financial deprivation has a real impact on your optimism about life and you need to apply realistic solutions to manage your money and allow yourself to feel better.

Stop telling yourself you should have more money

One of the most depressing thoughts is that you are the only one who is out of control or has no money. Everyone else is going on wonderful holidays or buying houses and cars and you’re sat wondering how you are going to afford to travel to work next week.

Telling yourself you should have saved more two years ago or you shouldn’t have bought such and such a thing three weeks ago isn’t going to help. Feeling guilty or angry about it won’t motivate you to change your behaviour. Tell yourself it is a problem you are capable of solving, that managing the stress, deprivation and frustration all this time is a sign of your resilience not weakness or recklessness.

Come up with a realistic strategy

Recognising that having a crappy paying job, living in an expensive place or having huge debt (or all three!) is important. Deciding you won’t go out for the next six months or will only eat cornflakes for a month is unlikely and won’t make you feel beter. Depriving yourself when you are already feeling deprived won’t improve your well-being.

Clearly define what the problem is, are you spending too much in rent? Is your debt repayment costing too much? Is there somewhere you can make a saving?

Identify clear areas where you can make changes and set dates to review it. Tell people you are doing it so they can support you with it.

Do research on websites like Money Saving Expert to find out if you could change your debt repayments, find deals on food and utilities and blogs on financial literacy. When you know better you do better.

Find cheap thrills

Saving money doesn’t mean you have to give up on treats for yourself. Some things are expensive, going on holiday for example, but it is possible to find cheaper alternatives. Save for your holiday and check or cheap alternatives for when you are there. Get rid of your gym membership and join a running club or do yoga online.  If you go out with your friends don’t drink so it is less expensive.

Don’t deprive yourself of the things that make you feel good, just adapt them to fit into the budget you have not the one you want. Be grateful for what you do have and don’t tell yourself you need something else to make yourself better or more valuable.

You’re already awesome and you don’t need any amount of money

or fancy looking pillows to prove that!

Self-Care on a Budget

At one of the lowest points in my mental health I was also really poor. I could barely afford to pay my rent every month, I’d take loans from friends to cover the difference, I would search my room for change to pay the bus to get to work. I had very little and the little I did have went on coping mechanisms which didn’t help me overcome the deep depression I was in.

I didn’t see it at the time but the deprivation I was experiencing in terms of my finances was having a big impact on my ability to feel deserving of self-care. Deprivation comes in many forms; love, food, finances, opportunity. Not having what you need or want, especially from a young age, can have a really negative impact on your outlook and ability to look after yourself. The deprivation I experienced as a child made me believe I didn’t deserve good things. I wasn’t good enough to deserve love or comfort or to achieve. Everything I had was always tainted.  But not believing I deserved those things didn’t stop me needing them. Psychologically everyone needs to be comforted and loved, by others, and by themselves. But having no money was a real barrier to getting the things I needed, my negative coping mechanism worked to silence my needs and desires but strengthened my feelings of worthlessness.

It would take years for me to allow myself to have good things. When I did “treat myself” I always punished myself later or felt hugely guilty for spending what I had on something frivolous. As frustrating as it is to hear when you are at your lowest, it takes time, it takes repetition, you need to remind yourself that no matter how terrible you think you are – you deserve to be loved and comforted.

Finding those comforting things is much harder when you have no money because you have to think creatively as to how to do it and when you’re depressed your creativity isn’t all that high! But remember continuing to beat yourself up and avoid the things that will make you happy doesn’t help it just perpetuates it! You feel awful, you can’t afford to do anything nice, you feel worse, you beat yourself up for not having saved/being able to get a better paid job/ being able to get over it, it’s a pretty shitty place to be.

The first and easiest (but scariest) self-care on a budget tip is… tell someone.

I was always telling people I had no money, they knew I lived in a nasty cheap flat but they didn’t know I was having panic attacks. They didn’t realise I was feeling so wretched that I was suicidal.

Self-care is about looking after yourself and a key step in looking after yourself is letting other people know you are struggling to do it alone. It isn’t easy to tell people you know and you might want to call a helpline like the Samaritans or your GP. Whether you call a stranger, your parent or your doctor, tell yourself this is you looking after yourself. This is self-care, it might not feel like a treat and it won’t change how you feel immediately but it is a really important step.

I still hate talking to my doctor about my mental health but I know after all the therapy and opportunities to try new more positive coping mechanisms it’s an important part of self-care. As is telling people. I didn’t want people to know because I didn’t want to be pitied but really I deprived the people who loved me the chance to do something nice for me which could have helped me.

Do something silly

Being depressed really, really sucks. Your self-esteem is non-existent and being around people, at least for me, made me so anxious I felt exhausted after it. Depression and anxiety have a physical effect on you, it affects your nervous system, your muscles tense up and your immune system takes a hit too!

When you’re in a real crisis going to the gym, jogging or even just walking round the park can be too much. So just find a way to move your body which makes you smile, dance to a song that you like, try doing a forward roll again, do finger painting! Just consciously use your body in a way that makes you happy. Whether for five minutes or fifty just move around, you don’t have to leave your room. Just move around and if your confident and have the space maybe find a youtube video.

If you have an idea of something to cheer you up try and add it into your routine, dance for five minutes while brushing your teeth? It will help to ease the stress in your body which will have a knock-on effect on your mood.

Have a look here for inspiration and here for more info on joyful movement

Allow yourself to have nice things

 I always told myself I couldn’t afford nice clothes or to go out anywhere so I felt trapped. I told myself it was shallow to want to spend money on gigs or clothes or a haircut but really I wasn’t allowing myself to do the things I enjoyed. Yes if you have no money you can’t go wild and buy everything you want all the time but that doesn’t mean you can’t go meet a friend and have a coffee and some cake. Budget for it and do it, you’ll feel better for not having to feel guilty and doing something nice with someone else.

For some more info on deprivation and psychology check out these podcasts for a little inspiration

https://christyharrison.com/foodpsych/4/how-to-stop-pursuing-weight-loss-with-ijeoma-oluo

https://player.fm/series/series-2372201/dr-robin-smith-the-truth-about-being-emotionally-full

If you have any tips for self-care on a budget then let me know! Always looking for new ways to look after myself!