Monday, 3 August 2015

I'm not sane but sanity is over-rated (and over-estimated!)

'normal people scare me' my vest says
I chose the name of this blog (Samantha, the sane vegan) with a bit of help from my brother in response to one of the vegan meet ups I went to where I encountered some vegans who were not so sane and perpetuated the stereotype of vegans as being puritanical, extreme and judgemental.  I've been very honest about the fact that I've had episodes of depression and have had hypomania (a lesser form of the full mania of bi polar 1 disorder) so it could be said that I'm not sane.  

Sometimes when going for a doctor's appointment or a therapy session I felt a bit upset and as if I was being labelled as having a problem or that there was something unusual about me.  What I've realised is that a) no one is labelling me, b) mental health issues are far more common than people think and c) it helps me to humble myself  and hopefully others will be able to relate to me.

I prefer to look at my hypomanic and depressive episodes as just another aspect of my individuality, what makes me unique.

I do not wish to undermine the seriousness of how horrific some mental illnesses can be. I'm fortunate to have never suffered to the extent that I was unable to work but it certainly has impacted on my work and studying. My aim is to be more open about my experience of mental illness and how to manage life in the midst of it so that stigma can be reduced and more people can open up. So here's my tale of my most recent episodes of depression and hypomania and what I've taken away from the experience.

Unexplained or hidden causes?

When doing Psychology 'A' level we were taught that depression could either be; a) reactive (depression that occurs as the result of life events) or b) endogenous (that with a physiological basis).  I don't really think it can always be categorised into one or the other and it's usually a mixture of both nature and nurture. I do have a family history of depression and bipolar disorder which makes me genetically susceptible. Lifestyle wise, my depressive or hypomanic episodes have not always occurred following anything particularly significant in my life and I thought it was just totally random and unpredictable like the weather (and therefore outside of my control).  I felt like my depressive episodes were a bit like British winters and every time they came they appeared to last longer and it felt like summer was never going to come.

'it was horrible, they called me 
chicken boy!' Therapy can help
you make peace with your past!
 I've found (though it took me a really long time) that the triggers can be found if you dig a bit deeper and once they are found you have a starting point for addressing the depression and no longer feel powerless to combat it. As we were taught on my course, the key to successfully tackling any illness is to find and treat the root cause, not just the symptoms.

Therapy is not necessarily helpful for everyone but it's helped me to recognise my triggers and helped me become a lot more self-aware.

2013- 2 of my triggers: Stress & Sloth!
When I started my nutrition diploma I was very excited and passionate about it and thought it was one of the best decisions I ever made to go back to studying. My second year, however, was incredibly stressful, with having clinic sessions in addition to all the essays, exams, assignments, seminar homework, personal development portfolio with no break between September and June. Fitting all this in alongside work paired with the pressure to eat well and live a healthy lifestyle that comes with studying for such courses left me truly mentally exhausted. (It's no wonder the drop out rate for my course at the time was 48%!  They have since reduced the workload!)

so true, better to just do something!
When I finally got a break and could do the things I enjoy again I was overwhelmed by feelings of excitement and really enjoyed myself. But the break was too long and by late August/September I'd done all the things I could afford to do, was just working 18 hours and really didn't know what to do with myself the rest of the time. I noticed the depressive symptoms coming back and knew I needed to get busier. I knew there were plenty of things I could do to make myself busier I waited too long to address it and my decision making ability was impaired. I would have a long list of things I could potentially do but I would over-think and end up doing nothing because I couldn't make up my mind and I was too worried about doing the wrong thing.  I know it sounds ridiculous but depression can make you behave and think in ways that are illogical and counter-productive to one's well-being.

Waking up in the morning and having nothing to do can make you feel over the moon after a long period of stress.  At the same time, getting up in the morning and knowing that if you stayed in bed all day it wouldn't matter to anyone whatsoever can also be the most depressing feeling ever.  I ended up losing my confidence and by the time I started back in October I was in an absolute state and crippled with doubts. I was thinking, I can't do this Nutritional therapy thing, what the hell am I doing? it's too hard. what on earth am I going to do with the rest of my life? I'm not good at anything and I can't be a library assistant for the rest of my life, why am I here? I really seriously considered dropping out of the course but something told me to just go along with it and see how it went.

'You're not rubbish, it's the depression talking!'

My first day back in clinic in my last year was in November. I was so crippled with anxiety I couldn't sleep the night before and on the way there I was fantasising about being involved in an accident (not one that would kill me) or something so I didn't have to do it. Many times before I've felt nervous prior to doing something but then once started I've been ok. This time I didn't feel ok at all. I was stuttering whilst talking and I just felt like it was such a disaster. I came out and was saying 'oh my goodness, that was the worst consultation ever. I'm so embarrassed, please apologise to the client for me'. To my complete surprise, the students observing me and tutor didn't think it was a disaster at all and had many positive things to say. I found it impossible to believe them though.

My first assignment was also a serious struggle. I felt like I didn't understand it at all and would wake up with a feeling of dread and just want it to disappear and really resented my course for making me so stressed and miserable around Christmas time! I was convinced what I was writing was nonsense but I just handed in what I'd done and hoped for the best thinking, 'I've most probably failed but maybe by some stroke of luck I can scrape 40% and pass'.  When the marks were out I couldn't bear to look but when I did I was very surprised to see 68%!  Which just goes to show although whilst in a depressive episode I might feel like I've completely lost my mind and that I'm totally useless at everything but this is not so!

when you first finish a course you
feel like this!
By late January I got my enthusiasm for the course back and felt more confident in my ability to get through the last year.  It wasn't easy at all but in June I finished, passed with merit and felt on top of the world, full of excitement about my career ahead of me, never thinking that the depression would come back again.
I'm on top of the world!
Sadly it did, and it came back worse than ever. 
Autumn 2014 - Post-University Depression 
(this should become a recognised medical condition!)

I started feeling a bit low around mid August, when I felt as if I should be getting on with my nutrition business, but I didn't really know how to address it, so all I did was procrastinate.  Every time I would think about the sheer number of things to do to start a Nutritional therapy business I would just feel completely overwhelmed and panic.  People would say to me to break it down and just take it step by step which I tried, but it didn't stop me from being overwhelmed by it and every time I tried to think of business ideas my mind just went blank.

I should have been feeling great at my graduation in September and I saw that the majority of graduates hadn't started their business and weren't sure exactly what they were doing. But I didn't feel proud, I would just look at all the people who had already started their business or got a distinction rather than a merit and just think 'there's nothing special about me I'm just a part time library assistant who lives with her parents at the age of 30, what a loser'.

It got into a bit of a downward spiral and by around November I reached the anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure in usually enjoyable things) phase. My favourite vegan foods didn't taste nice and I didn't have the motivation to cook, bake or eat properly at all so I began to binge eat on extremely unhealthy foods including non-vegan cakes, other baked goods and chocolates.  (Yes, for a long while I was neither sane nor vegan, which was why I didn't write on this blog for a while!)  My favourite music sounded horrible and I didn't want to listen to any music. I didn't want to watch TV series or films because I would just compare myself to the characters and dwell on how inferior I was in comparison to them, the same went for going on facebook. My brain fog (many do experience this during depressive episodes) was so bad, I couldn't read for pleasure.  Exercise didn't give me the same buzz either. It got to the stage where the only thing I found pleasure in was over-eating and sleeping. Most of the things mentioned in wouldn't have worked. I felt like I didn't care about anything (animals, ethical living, the environment, my appearance or my health) and kept asking my siblings how they would describe me to someone else because I didn't know who I was any more.

I decided, however to count my blessings. Whilst I certainly wasn't where I wanted to be in life, I had a job, I was living in a safe and comfortable environment, I didn't have any financial burdens which meant I could at least afford my only source of comfort (food) when I needed it, I had (and still have) a good relationship with my parents and siblings.  And whilst many depression sufferers experience insomnia, I experienced hypersomnia, (excessive sleeping) so I was glad I at least had sleep as some escape from how I was feeling.

This didn't mean I wasn't entitling myself to feel negative or that I was punishing myself for how I felt, but I just realised I was very lucky in some ways and that I didn't have any problems that weren't fixable, and I had no reason to give up.

I was fortunate to have a very good GP who first referred me for the Guided Self Help therapy.  It was actually me who came back and suggested I probably should take medication because I felt I needed it. I was given a 2 week trial of fluoxetine (better known as Prozac) but it made me feel nauseous.  I had a further assessment and was prescribed escitalopram and instructed to take it for 6 months.


Around early to mid January I started feeling more like my usual self, all the depressive symptoms had lessened and my cravings for junk food were significantly reduced.  By the end of January I found myself waking up at 4 or 5 am (having gone to bed at midnight) full of energy and excitement. My state didn't feel like just an absence of depression, I felt sort of 'high' and how I would imagine illegal drugs make one feel despite only consuming caffeine in the form of green tea and dark chocolate and minimal sugar and alcohol.  I decided to stop taking my medication and go to my GP to see if he thought I had bipolar disorder or seasonal affective disorder, as I had seen similar patterns with my mood previously.


When I went to my GP I described my behaviour and feelings. I was expecting to be diagnosed with bi polar disorder, given that I'd gone from one extreme to the other in such a short space of time. The best way I could describe it was like the feeling of an overexcited child at Christmas.  My favourite foods and drinks tasted amazing, music sounded better, I would be overwhelmed by the beauty of scenery, my nephews and niece looked cuter, colours would look more distinct. I would get fits of the giggles and struggle not to burst out laughing whilst walking down the street. My mind would be racing and instead of having no business ideas I had so many I couldn't switch off.
anyone remember the film American Beauty?
 Although I've had hypomania I have
yet to be overwhelmed by the beauty of a plastic bag

Hypomania does not mean that one feels happy all the time, it's more like an obsession with engaging in hedonistic activities and an intolerance of displeasure. It can result in serious irritability and impatience.    Although being overwhelmed by positive emotion is certainly more pleasant than being overwhelmed by negativity, it's still uncomfortable. In a hypomanic episode I feel overstimulated and overexcited about everything, I really resent my job for taking up my time up and stopping me from doing the things I enjoy (whereas in a depressive episode my job is one of the few things keeping me going).  At work I get over excited by all the interesting books I see and take out several but then I don't read them because I'm too restless and can't sit still. I can't watch films either because I have too much energy. I end up spending too much money because I get overexcited about everything I see and then end up getting frustrated for having to wait so long for the next pay day.  I have lots of pent up energy and get really frustrated if  I can't release it. I can even remember being jealous of people saying they were tired!

Although hypomania has its disadvantages, it can be quite a pleasant feeling. I think my hypomanic episodes are the reason I've never had any interest whatsoever in taking illegal drugs,  I see my ability to feel high naturally as a blessing. I become more creative and my brain is a lot more sharp and I'm sure my hypomanic phases helped give me the energy to fit my studying in with work and are responsible for some of my good marks.

Depressive episodes are certainly unpleasant but for me, the fact that I went for the therapy meant that I'm left with useful mind tools for when I see it recurring and I can empathise with and help others.
think I'm the 3rd one from the left
at the moment!

My doctor mentioned (but didn't diagnose me with) a milder form of bi polar disorder called cyclothymia. Some people find labels helpful, others don't. Personally, I feel that we are all prone to fluctuations in mood as we go through ups and downs and transitions in life, (who feels 'neutral' all the time?) I think that being a HSP or 'empath' as I've talked about in my blog: http://samanthathesanevegan.blogspot. just means they are more pronounced in me.  It can make life a bit more challenging to deal with but as you become more self-aware, you can learn to manage better and stop your condition from over-ruling your life.

If you have or think you might have a diagnosable mental health condition, don't be afraid to seek support from your GP, mental health organisations or read some mental health blogs. But remember there is nothing wrong with or 'freaky' about you and having a mental health condition does not make you not inferior.

You are not alone :)


  1. Really insightful about how mental illness can affect your life so much. I also found mornings with depression especially hard, there's a heaviness and expectation to them and it feels like you can't face the day, whether you get up or not.

    I think it's really important identifying triggers to your mental health issues, like you have: stress and inactivity. It can help you to at least see the depressive episode coming so that it doesn't hit you as hard or unexpectedly. But that when it hits, it feels like there's nothing that can be done to lift it. Some people don't understand just how big the mental fog of depression is and they underestimate how hard and impossible even simple tasks are.

    I'm surprised Fluoxetine made you nauseous, I'm on the highest dose and I don't feel that at all - although I've been feeling nauseous since taking Lamotrigine. It just illustrates that anti-depressants have such a unique effect on each person and the importance of trial and error in finding the right one - IF that's the course someone wants to take in treating their depression.

    Your experience with your poor mental health and binge eating on cakes and chocolate shows that it's so easy to slip with having the 'perfect' or 'good enough' diet. It shows that you understand that it is natural and understandable that there may be personal issues which could drastically affect people's diets and their ability to eat healthy foods. Your background in psychology and your sensitivity also shows you have the aptitude to help people identify any underlying problems that may be affecting the way they eat and to help them get through it.

    1. thank you for reading and for your input :). Yes I like to speak about my experiences so that I can help people who can relate. I think people put health professionals on a pedestal and think that they don't experience any difficulties themselves but this is not the case at all and that is the message I want to get across. It can be easier to empathise with others when you've been through something yourself

  2. Thank you for sharing this, I feel I learn a lot about my own struggles through how you explain your experience. And love your sense of humour! Xx

    1. Thank you, I am glad there is at least someone out there who 'gets' me and can relate!