rTMS for Anorexia Nervosa: The Results Are In

So here we are, a year on from my initial inquiries into the trial and it’s time to tell you the results. It’s been a long time coming.

If you’ve read the previous blogs you’ll know I’ve been very apprehensive about the results and this reveal. In the last blog I stated I thought and hoped I had been in the placebo group because (so far at least) I hadn’t seen or felt any noticeable improvement. I said I felt bruised from all the treatment doors and didn’t want to feel another thud against my face.

I’ve waited awhile to tell you all because I’ve needed time to process it myself. Regardless of result an answer meant finally getting some closure on the previous months but also held sway over what happened next. If it was placebo then I would now be allowed to go through the procedure again, this time for real which would mean making arrangements to fit another month of travel into my life. If it was real then I would have to decide if I wanted to look for treatment elsewhere, whether that meant grudgingly going back to my previous NHS Community Eating Disorder Team,  looking into third sector support or even going to my parents for help with a paid, private therapist.

Drum Roll Please….

So enough already, the results.

I opened the envelope, unfolded the paper and the results were there:

“Real Treatment”

So there we go, it was not, as I’d hoped, the placebo. I had received 17 sessions of actual Repetitive Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation Therapy.

How Do I Feel Now I Know?

I’m feeling Okay about things now to be honest. Initially, yes, I was disappointed. I hadn’t been looking forward to going through the whole thing again but I didn’t and still don’t feel any different.

I’ve been told that you can still sometimes see signs of improvement in the six months after the treatment has ended so I guess there is a chance that something might shift. So far results seem to show that in people that do notice improvement it isn’t a massive thing, you never (and I never expected to) wake up “cured” or a thousand times better. But for some people it seems it does help to slightly shift, adjust, “rewire” almost, parts of the brain and can help pave a clearer path to recovery.

I’ll never know for sure why this seemingly hasn’t worked for me. It could be that I didn’t have enough sessions or a high enough dose, perhaps it only works for specific people, a sub-cohort of people with Anorexia we haven’t identified.

It might well be that my head, my life and my illness are too complex right now. Finding out a family member has Cancer is enough to throw anyone completely and I know my head has been in a very bad place for a very long time now.

Maybe it never stood a chance against my environment.

On taking part in a clinical trial

I will never regret my decision to take part in the trial. That it hasn’t worked is a shame for me personally but when you are part of a trial you are just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. The TIARA study I have been participating in sets out to be the biggest ever RCT of rTMS for Anorexia Nervosa and it feels good to have been part of something so big and groundbreaking.

My data and the data from other participants will be gathered and painstakingly picked over by some of the brightest minds in the country. The results will then be scrutinized by their peers across the world and released to the scientific community and wider world for further examination, discussion and replication.

Given that my condition, Anorexia, has the highest mortality rate of ANY mental illness I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to be part of the race to find better treatment and save lives. We know that 20% of people with Anorexia die prematurely. And even if it doesn’t kill us less than half of us will make a “full recovery”. The odds for Anorexia are worse than some forms of Cancer.

Despite this mental health still receives very little funding in terms of research which is vital if we want to develop new treatments and save lives. To not do so is (to put it bluntly) a seriously false economy when you take into account lost lives, earnings etc. In fact the whole of mental health research spend in the UK per year is just £115 million an average, 22x less than Cancer.

Part of my hope with this series of blogs has been to shine some light on mental health research and show you what it looks like to be a participant in a clinical trial and I hope it has at least been mildly interesting.

From here I’m not sure what I will do.

I am looking into a local charity which provides an Eating Disorder Support Group and I have been re-referred back to the NHS Community Eating Disorder Service (grudgingly but that is a story for another day).

Until then I battle on.

Thank you for reading my story.

Mental Health Research: More Information

If you’re interested in finding out more about mental health research or get involved check out organisations like MQ: Transforming Mental Health, The McPin Foundation and the brilliant blog Mental Elf.

rTMS for Anorexia Nervosa: My Experience (Part 3: The Trial Itself)

Part One: What on Earth am I doing to myself?

Part Two: Making Tough Decisions

A lot of you have been chasing me for Part 3 of this series of blogs. Unfortunately this has been, by far, the hardest piece for me to write – not just because it covers what the trial involved but also because of what happened in my personal life during the course of the trial. So it’s safe to say this isn’t my first attempt to get these thoughts out, the second or even the tenth.

I endeavour to do my best to separate the treatment and my personal life but, as you can imagine, the two bleed heavily into each other so please forgive me in advance.

Clinical Trial: Day One

The first day of the trial was pretty intense and I ended up taking my Dad with me to support me as the first day involved not only an MRI but several assessments as well as my first rTMS session. I probably could have done it myself but physical weakness and anxiety meant it felt safer to have support at hand. I would recommend others take someone with them as it is quite long and can be quite an exhausting experience. Dad was quite chuffed about coming along, especially as he has a background in scientific imaging and is a Kings College London Alumni. As a student he lived just across the road from where I was being treated (which meant he could revisit old haunts including his houses of residence and places him and my Mum used to go when they first met).

We arrived at the IoPP Neuroimaging department after catching a very early train – the staff I must say were absolutely lovely, all of them. After filling out more paperwork I was ushered through to an area where I could remove any and all metal items and store them and my bag in a locker.

Thankfully, to my surprise, there was no voyeuristic hospital dressing gown and I was allowed to wear my own clothes.

The people who operate the MRI were absolutely lovely, I couldn’t fault them. I wasn’t nervous but I was bloody freezing and they put pillows under me and a blanket over me to keep me warm and talked to me throughout the procedure to keep me at ease and make sure I was OK (and warm enough).

Having an MRI scan

The MRI itself was quite an experience – I had previously only witnessed them on TV and as it turns out, watching all eight series of House does not give you a realistic idea of what to expect.. who knew?

I was under the impression that they were a tad scary and made one particular noise over and over again. As it turns out MRIs make such a wide array of noises it’s almost as though they have their own language – whirring, beeping, buzzing and banging depending on where they are looking in your brain and what they are doing.

For the first part I had a couple of calibration tests followed later on by a fuller set of basic tests. I was surprised at how close I came to falling asleep during the more restful period where I didn’t have to do any tasks (admittedly throughout the whole process but especially this bit) – I had assumed sleep would be impossible in such an environment but apparently it’s quite common. Unfortunately the end was the more active part otherwise I would definitely have had a cheeky nap!

After an hour in the machine I did several basic assessments that looked at my perception of the healthiness and tastiness of various foods and then we were ready for session one.

 

The First rTMS Session – What to expect

The first session was a bit daunting but I was put at ease at every stage of the trial in fact with the absolutely lovely researchers I worked with.

Sessions started with a quick computer task which was essentially watching food videos – for me this actually the worst part of the entire trial! I realise a lot of people with Anorexia LOVE food (believe me you should see my social media feeds during Great British Bake Off). I am indifferent to food at best, repulsed at worst and so even 90 seconds of these videos a day were enough to cause my anxiety to leap and appetite to drop. This was preceded and then followed by some quick measures on how full I felt, how anxious etc.

A calibration test was done for the machines to try and work out where a specific itsy-bitsy part of my brain was (the motor cortex). This is not always an easy task and the researchers explained that it can take many attempts to find it and even then sometimes you just don’t.

This calibration happened on a weekly basis and it was interesting that some weeks it was easy to find and others were like looking for a needle in a neurological haystack!

Check out my beautiful brain!

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This is what I have started referring to as my “brain selfie”!

This test is done to make sure that the “coil” they use to deliver the TMS is positioned correctly – what they are actually looking to stimulate is part of your pre-frontal cortex which is part of the brain that controls mood regulation among other things.

This is what the coil looks like when it is on your head – it’s quite something! Personally I’m not sure this particular fashion trend will take off..

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What does rTMS feel like?

As much as the researchers had tried to explain what it felt like (they had all undergone sessions so had personal experience) it is still a bit different for each person. It also can take a higher “dose” to get the required effect in some patients or even session to session which then further affects variation of experience.

For me I didn’t find the sensation painful, it was probably best described as uncomfortable. With each set of “pulses” sent out there were quite loud clicking noises. As it was on my head I felt something akin to a strong set of vibrations (again not painful). It also made my jaw shake uncontrollably because of these vibrations so I tended to keep my mouth shut (shocking I know!) while the pulses were delivered otherwise I ended up with chattering teeth and I sounded pretty ridiculous!

Side effects of rTMS

Sessions varied in how they left me feeling and the side effects I encountered. The main side effects I experienced were:

  • Headaches
  • Eye strain
  • Nausea

Other people have been known to experience other side effects including:

  • Light headedness – admittedly I did get this but as someone with low blood pressure and other co-morbid conditions this is fairly normal for me so I wasn’t able to work out if this was made worse by the treatment
  • Discomfort on the scalp

There are some more serious side effects but these seem to be very uncommon.

During the earlier sessions I definitely experienced more headaches and eye strain but this lessened over the following sessions, perhaps because my body was becoming more acclimatised? The eye strain also lessened if I wore my glasses straight after the session for a few hours (usually I just wear them for reading).

I also experienced quite high levels of nausea (although no vomiting thankfully). I am very aware that nausea is my body’s go-to reaction to a lot of treatments (mostly previous experiences with medication) so it’s likely I was always going to have a slightly more extreme experience in this regard. I found if I ate something small and very bland (say crackers) a few hours before the nausea would be pretty bad but not unbearable but if I did eat something richer it made me worse. But that’s just me and I would never endorse restriction obviously.

 

Devious Anorexia and Self Sabotage

As I mentioned in part two of this series of blogs, one of my main concerns would be how my Anorexia might try and sabotage me during the trial. I was very aware that this was the most freedom I had been given in over a year and freedom is a dangerous thing when you can’t trust your mind. I wanted so badly to prove that I could handle this level of freedom and this change and be trusted but the voice was so, so strong every hour of every day.

Unfortunately some of my fears were realised although things never got to the point where they jeopardised my place on the trial (e.g. dropping under the minimum weight requirement) and I managed to stay just above water long enough to undergo the whole course of treatment.

On reflection my Anorexia did use the trial as a means to restrict my diet to some extent and vastly increased the amount of exercise I was doing (mostly because of the walk to and from the station and when trains arrived early and I had time to kill). It was also very easy to slip back into the deceit: “have you eaten?” (yes but really no), “did you relax at the coffee shop when you arrived?” (yes but really no I walked for miles), “do you want a lift home from the station?” (yes because I’m exhausted but no because I can’t fight the urge to exercise).

Going through the trial without any external professional support was not good for me. I wish the team I was under had the foresight to realise that and to actually give me what I had been promised – sessions during the treatment to support me. However due to various issues and miscommunication I didn’t get a session until after the treatment was long done which ended up feeling utterly pointless.

Do I feel any better after rTMS?

Unfortunately the simple answer is: no.

I find out in a matter of days whether I was in the real or placebo group and I am desperately hoping it was the latter. Not because I want to spend another month of my life commuting and having my brain zapped (it’s exhausting, expensive and time consuming) but because if it was real it didn’t work (at least it feels that way right now)..and that’s another option crossed off, leaving me with very little, if any, options left for treatment.

HOWEVER this answer comes with an absolutely huge caveat – and that is what happened during the trial in my personal life which undoubtedly had a profound and disastrous impact on my mental health. If it was the real treatment it could well have not worked to it’s full extent because of everything else that was going on. I don’t know.

The personal stuff

Friends, family and readers of this blog will know that life for me and my partner has been very difficult for a long time now. To sum things up far too briefly in the last few years we lost our home and ended up moving back in with my family after 7 years away, we both got made redundant and we lost my partner’s grandfather in September 2016 after a long and bitter battle with Dementia. On top of our existing mental and physical health issues of course.

So as you can imagine things weren’t great. We struggled along on my benefits and the incredible and unconditional love and support of our parents but it was hard.

And then our world came crashing down.

Not long into the trial we discovered that my partner’s father had Cancer. Less than a week later we were told the worst news I have ever heard; it was Stage 4, it had spread, there were no treatment options, it was terminal.

Obviously this was absolutely devastating for absolutely all of us. And a complete shock. We walked around in a daze, we tried to comprehend, we still can’t. I won’t go into too much detail, it’s not my story to tel but I can talk about how it affected me in the immediate aftermath to give you an idea of how much my world was rocked during treatment and how this may have impacted on it’s efficacy.

I cried every day for weeks. Multiple times a day. Even in public (if you know me you know this DOES NOT HAPPEN). I cried five times just on the way to treatment one day when train delays pushed emotions over the edge and ended up literally collapsed, on my knees, hiding behind a pillar outside Blackfriars Station bawling my eyes out. I gave up on trying to hide it. I cried in public toilets, on the train, walking down the street.

Months on, now we find ourselves in the new year and the weeks are flying past I try desperately to work out what’s what – how am I feeling? What is causing it? Do I think the treatment worked? Was I even in the treatment group or did I get the placebo? It feels impossible to untangle.

So I’m sorry because I know this is not a neat story.

I wish I could say “I have struggled for years but after a few sessions I felt great!”. I wish I could be one of those inspirational “sick to picture perfect recovery”, “before and after” features but my life is not and has never been like that.

I will find out imminently whether I had the real or placebo sessions during the trial. I am completely unsure how to feel about this and I must admit a large dose of apprehension. If it was real and I’m no better that feels like yet another door closing on my already badly bruised face and if it was the placebo I have to muster up the motivation and energy to go through the process again, this time for real.

 

So watch this space for the results, honestly it’s going to be as much a surprise to me as it will be to you.

rTMS for Anorexia Nervosa: My Experience (Part 2 – Making tough decisions)

If you need to catch up or refresh your memory you can read Part One here.

In part two of this series of blogs I will be talking about actually getting into the trial and what was going through my mind during what turned out to be quite a long process. I do this partly for selfish reasons – I find writing cathartic, it helps me to make sense of my experiences and quiet my racing mind.

I hope that it might give researchers or anyone working or living with someone with Anorexia or any Eating Disorder, an insight into some of the thoughts that might be going through our minds when we start, or even just consider entering ANY treatment.

Finally I want people weighing up treatment options to know it is OK, in fact it’s normal to have mixed opinions, to feel pulled in different directions and to not only have doubts but to talk about them.

Enrolling in a Clinical Trial

Enrolling in the clinical trial first started with working out if I was eligible to take part in the first place. Research trials often have to have strict criteria otherwise results can be easily skewed. For the TIARA study I had to fill out a number of assessment forms, not unlike the ones you are given entering any mental health service.

There were a lot of questionnaires about my Anorexia, other health conditions and my history of service use as well as the usual demographic questions. On top of this, because part of the study included a number of MRI scans, I had to do a questionnaire to make sure it was safe for me to have the scans (after all it’s a bloody massive magnet so you really want to make sure there isn’t even the smallest fragment of metal in your body).

affinity-mri-closed-mri-scan

MRIs – big scary magnet machines that are surprisingly easy to fall asleep in

My God it’s like dealing with Vogons sometimes and I ended up having to go through the whole process twice in the end to find the absolute exact piece of information needed which ended up being exactly what we’d expected all along anyway. Oh and I paid for the privilege of finding this one piece of information about my own body, fabulous.

Sorry for the (admittedly ever present sarcasm) but when you’re a health tech geek and you know personal Electronic Health Records could be amazing and save so much stress and time it can be a tad frustrating.

vogon

Ok maybe the Vogon reference is a bit much but it’s certainly not a process I wish to repeat any time soon

Thankfully I was eventually given full medical clearance and we were off.

Pre-Treatment Concerns and Musings

Having spent six months attempting to get into the trial and banging my head against various bureaucratic walls along the way I hadn’t really let myself get excited or believe that it would actually happen. At several points I seriously contemplated giving up trying but was spurred on by the knowledge that it was the only way to try this treatment. Or any treatment for that matter as, bizarrely, after being discharged from services I’d been promised that, should I get into the trial, I would be given several outpatient sessions to support me – which didn’t actually materialise until after the trial had ended.

All of a sudden I had less than two weeks until my start date which would be a full on day of assessments, an MRI and my first session of rTMS. The new regime, going from being mostly sedentary for almost a year and hiding from the world – to commuting again every day and the energy it would use up was daunting.

I will hold my hands up to being a pretty damn anxious, highly strung and controlled person. I like to take my time to think about things before rushing in and this was something that it felt like I needed way more time to properly process before I could start. But I pushed myself out of my comfort zone because it felt “now or never” (it actually wasn’t, I could have pushed the start date back to January but after waiting so long I didn’t feel I could any longer) but that’s how much brain works, and I use the term “works” loosely.

I also figured I couldn’t possibly comprehend what I was about to undergo as it was completely unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I had watched as many videos as possible, read information pages, first person accounts.

As Ready As I Could Be

I had a LOT of conflicting thoughts, especially in the last few days before treatment started as is shown by several lengthy journal entries which allowed me to get down some of my fears and hopes.

My biggest fears were as paradoxical as my illness. I was terrified the treatment (and therefore another course of action, some hope, getting some form of routine back, being back “out in the world”) wouldn’t work.

I was equally terrified it would work and my Anorexia would be cured.

Because as horrendous and destructive as this disease is it feels safe, especially when my world hasn’t stopped shaking in some time and I feel like I am continually losing my footing. It is an insidious and disturbing constant in my life and I find it very hard to discern where I end and it begins. Truth be told I’m not exactly sure who I am without it and to face losing it – or at least to begin actively engaging in something that could result in it’s loss – was not easy to deal with.

Cue minor existential crisis

This part, typed into my phone while chain smoking and shivering in the cold, the night before the trial was due to start, stands out in particular:

I’m being handed an incredible opportunity by being able to take part in this trial. Without this study if I wanted this treatment it would cost me up to £10,000 or something ridiculous like that. Not an option when I haven’t been out of my overdraft in seven years. This is my only chance. I’m just so terrified of me (or my Anorexia, whichever one of us it is) sabotaging this. I know I am still reeling from being discharged against my will from mental health services not long ago and finding my feet on my own. Everything is so messed up at the moment too, is this really the time for this fight? I know I’ve been fighting recovery and in perpetual relapse mode. I don’t know if this treatment can work if I don’t want it to. And if that’s the case surely I shouldn’t be so selfish and stop this now, I’ll only screw up their results and then this treatment won’t get approval and people that actually deserve this treatment won’t get it..

If I put my psychology hat on it’s as clear as day looking back – I can see the major catastrophising for a start (I realise objectively obviously I’m not so important that a whole treatment could be made or broken on the results of one participant alone), a lot of black and white thinking (now or never) and a lot of guilt, shame – that I had this opportunity, whether or not I was “worthy” of it.

Of course now looking back I can see objectively that this is classic me behaviour when entering treatment and it’s played out many times before but as ever, it can be bloody difficult to see the woods for the trees when it comes to your own mental health.

When you share a body with this particular disorder for half a lifetime it knows your every weak spot and it does not hesitate to twist the knife when it sees an opportunity.

I had concerns too about how I would manage such a dramatic shift in my daily routine. I was lucky in that the trial was only 1 or 2 trains and only 90 minutes or so door which meant I only had to deal with a maximum of 4 a day (not bad for me!) and my Disabled Rail Card made costs much more manageable. However I still needed to be in London every week day for 18 sessions and an extra day for the final assessments and MRI. A few years ago that would have been nothing for me, I would have laughed at the ease when I was working full time, travelling in peak hours, commuting 4 hours a day on top of volunteering and being a carer. However a year out of work and mostly being told (and often made) to not “over-do it” my stamina has diminished considerably and even a trip a week into London can require days of recovery.

I was very aware that my devious disorder could easily use this as a perfect opportunity to ramp up it’s behaviours and pull my strings like a puppet. I would have opportunity, certainly, to over exercise and reduce my intake. My brain went back and forth trying to work out if my intentions were good, or at the very least “good enough” to do the trial.

In the end I decided to take the risk but make sure that I had back up in the form of peer support, my partner and family as well as calls with my lovely GP. I’m still not sure how well I did on this front, I know I pushed limits at point, tested waters I shouldn’t but overall I managed.

In part three: The part you’re all actually interested in – the treatment itself! Including the procedure itself, the idiosyncrasies and particulars of the trial and a few ridiculous pictures including my brain selfie.

rTMS for Anorexia Nervosa: My Experience (Part 1: What on Earth am I doing to myself?)

During the last part of 2016 I took part in a clinical trial of rTMS for Anorexia Nervosa. Repetitive Trans Magnetic Stimulation is a process used to stimulate certain regions of the brain and has so far shown promising results in both Depression and Anxiety and now has NICE approval for these conditions. The trial I took part in was run by Kings College London and called the TIARA Study (Transcranial magnetic stimulation and Imaging in AnoRexia NervosA).

If you would like to find out more about Anorexia, this particular piece of research, and see the actual procedure being undertaken this is a video produced by the team I worked with:

Brain stimulation may reduce symptoms in Anorexia

— I will also state now to avoid any confusion, as this is a double blind experiment I have no idea whether I was actually receiving the treatment or the placebo and will find out in March when I will post a follow up blog. In the meantime I will be using the word “treatment” regardless–

I want to talk about this for several reasons.

Firstly this is a new and emerging treatment and the RCT (Randomised Control Trial, the Gold Standard in scientific research) I was part of is I believe (at the time of posting) the biggest and most comprehensive ever undertaken of its kind so from a purely academic viewpoint I (and hopefully some of you) find it an interesting experience.

science

Generic Stock Image of Science Man Doing Science Things

Secondly I want to talk about why I went through with this course of action which some might find extreme (I was acutely aware that I was consenting to something being done that could actively change my brain structure which is a lot to wrap your head around, no pun intended). Also why I ended up on this journey and what the trial and the treatment actually entailed so others who may be considering or undergoing rTMS are well informed as I personally couldn’t find many first person experiences before I started (although do look at the Reddit r/rTMS community for a fair few posts relating to Anxiety, Depression and the procedure itself).

When I started writing this blog I had hoped to fit it nicely into one single piece but as I soon realised there was quite a lot of content which fell into obvious sub categories and so this will be the first of a few blogs.

This first blog will focus on making to decision to enroll in a clinical trial for rTMS because it was a very lengthy decision and process and then I will go on to more about what the treatment actually entailed.

I will link through to other articles where I can and give more information at the bottom if necessary but do feel free to ask comments below.

Making the decision to try rTMS

Unfortunately I’ve been ill for a very long time now, in fact it’s almost 14 years (half my life) since I first received a diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa. As much as I try and be an open book when it comes to the majority of my mental health issues Anorexia has always been something I have felt deeply uncomfortable discussing. Part of this comes from embarrassment as I feel like a painful stereotype; white, middle class, female, high achieving, perfectionist. I tick a lot of boxes.

And as someone who considers themselves a feminist it is difficult to reconcile what I say and feel about other women to the brutal and inhumane torture and taunting I subject myself and my body to, it makes me feel like a fraud although I know objectively this is not an uncommon feeling. I also feel it’s something still often seen as a vain condition that smacks of privilege (the amount of times I’ve had the idea of children in Africa starving thrown in my face as though I didn’t already know or feel guilty enough already). And as much as people say things like “well you don’t look Depressed”, for example, I don’t think any other mental health condition leads so frequently to people looking you up and down and making a snap judgment on whether you are actually ill enough to qualify for the diagnosis in their eyes.

Top tip: not everyone with Anorexia is skin and bones or wheelchair bound and frankly our society is so effed when it comes to female beauty standards I am regularly complimented on my appearance despite being dangerously underweight and seriously ill. Please don’t forget: Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

However especially over the last 18 months I have started talking more about this particular condition, in part because I didn’t have a choice; my supposedly secretive coping mechanism, my invisible illness was now in fact highly visible and undeniable.

Then there is a little part of me that does it because quite frankly I don’t have the energy to care so much about what people think. As my therapist once said to me, “don’t be alone with shame”, if I keep letting it fester it just feeds the disorder.

screenshot_20160720-184327-01

I am highly treatment resistant which probably stems from a number of things, most namely the fact I have a number of co-morbidities such as Depression, OCD and Anxiety which can all feed off and into my Anorexia.Add to that a lot of turmoil in recent years and you have a big problem. I have spent the majority of the last 14 years of my life, since diagnosis, in and out of treatment. Somehow (and this always seems to shock people who know the breadth and depth of my illness) I have always managed to worm my way out of hospital admissions but I have seen just about every outpatient professional under the sun and tried over 20 medications, multiple types of therapy, mindfulness, peer support, yoga, tai chi, acupuncture..the list feels endless. Although I have learned something new, something about myself or found a previously unknown skill or tool from every intervention I have tried I am still ill. In fact this past 12 months has seen me reach and breach my previous rock bottom and left me absolutely desperate.

So desperation is obviously, on it’s own, a bad starting point when attempting to make a major decision about one’s health but I want to stress that this is not a decision I undertook lightly by any stretch of the imagination.

I have been keenly following news of TMS in the mental health community for several years now as it has been shown to have promising results in Depression and Anxiety. I looked into it but realised that, as at the time it was not approved by NICE (it now is for some conditions but not Eating Disorders although hopefully this will change if the evidence base is positive), it would be prohibitively expensive. I also tried to get onto several earlier clinical trials but didn’t meet the stringent criteria.

Finally, through Beat’s fantastic research participation page I found the TIARA study and then started on the process of being assessed for eligibility.

When I first started seriously considering trying rTMS I was under the care of a Community Eating Disorder team and I spent a long time discussing with both my therapist and psychiatrist, what doing the treatment would mean and they helped me work through some of the decision making process. In the end I decided that it was ultimately worth trying as I was making some progress in treatment but it was slow and not being reflected in my weight or physical health.

Unfortunately by the time I got into the trial and the start date approached I had been discharged from services as mentioned in my previous blog post and so I found myself in the somewhat daunting position of starting the trial without my usual professional back up to guide me through what would be quite an intense three weeks of 18 sessions at The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience.

 

In part two: The unexpectedly long and arduous process of enrolling in a clinical trial including such rants as “why is it so difficult to get hold of your own medical records” and “I wish my brain could deal with things logically instead of throwing a massive hissy fit”.

 

What a year of unemployment has done to my mental health

It has been almost a year now since I found myself unemployed and unable to work due to illness. A lot has happened in that time, my world has been turned on it’s head and I have been left feeling emotionally bruised and battered. I’m not sure I can say with honesty that I recognise the person I see in the mirror all that much these days.

When my job ended (one month and one day before Christmas, a blow that felt particularly callous) I said I had chosen to leave for health reasons. This was not the case, in fact I was made redundant without any severance pay as the beautiful, brave social enterprise I worked for was  dismantled around me and then closed down.

However at the time I wasn’t able to say that, it wasn’t until months later in February I was able to tell people I had not left voluntarily. A hard thing to keep to oneself especially when you’ve spent over a decade in therapy learning and being encouraged to reach out for support when you need it-and I did need support badly. Even now I can’t really go into details. What I can say is that in the run up to the end the company had been whittled down to just myself and my boss and we worked ourselves to the bone under unbearable pressure to try and save what he had built, the literally award winning work we did supporting people with mental health problems.

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A beautiful but bittersweet night at the Tech4Good Awards 2015 knowing it would be the last award we would ever win

Slipping and then free falling down the rabbit hole

I had already begun deteriorating earlier in the year as the pressure mounted which manifested in deepening anxiety, depression and as my Anorexia worsened I did literally begin to work myself to not much more than bones.

When the job ended I was devastated but I also saw it as a rare opportunity while I had the safety net of my parents roof over my head, to “work on myself”, “devote myself to recovery” and “give myself a break for the first time in years”. Noble goals.

I think the biggest thing I have learnt about myself this year is that I am naive and I have definitely learnt that the hard and painful way.

I naively thought I had lost enough and things were as bad as they were going to get. After all the previous year I had been forced to move out of the lovely little flat I rented with my partner, back in with my family due to a torturous neighbour situation which ended in police intervention. I had lost my home and independence, now my job, income and health. It couldn’t get worse right? Fool.

In the immediate aftermath of the job loss there was a genuine grief, not just for what I had lost but for my colleagues too, the business itself, the way of life which was difficult but something I relished. Commuting daily into London, helping people, travelling all over the country..

I thought that some time off (planning to get back to work in the new year) would give me perspective but instead I fell into the oldest trap my mental illness lays, I fell too deep into my own head. Without structure or an incentive to fuel myself the Anorexia did not waver, instead it grew and I shrunk. I chased a number, a grotesque and arbitrary figure that has been stuck in my head for over 12 years and I didn’t just reach it I went lower and it terrified me but I could not stop even when my own heart was threatening to quit on me.

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This, if you can believe it, is the more “discreet” ECG which I wore for a week at one point 

It terrified the people around me too. When I’m ill it feels like I’m under water, I can’t concentrate properly on what people are saying because everything sounds distorted and I feel a strange numbness – only reinforced by being so cold I am often physically numbed. Yet it still feels like a needle being stuck into your heart when friends see you and burst into tears, or when you realise your boyfriend is scared of holding you too tight and breaking you. I could see objectively so clearly the absolute destruction my eating disorder was doing but it still felt like the only sane reaction to my insane brain in my suddenly upside down, stripped back, broken world. Suddenly I found my whole life given over to battling the illness, believe me it didn’t happen like it does in films with a spiritual retreat and sudden Eureka moment but with brute force. At one point I was having five appointments a week – group therapy, individual therapy, check ins with the GP, blood tests and ECGs. I saw psychologists, psychiatrists, dietitians, nurses, you name it, I tried it. I was asked on multiple occasions by clinicians if I thought I needed to go into hospital. A stupid question to ask a perfectionist, people pleasing Anorexic. Especially when consenting meant a bed in the “nearest” unit which is 400 miles from home (a shocking situation in itself). I couldn’t leave my partner, my family and friends, my whole support network and go to another country for months on end – how could I say yes to that regardless of how ill or far gone even I could see I was?

In January 2014 I did something I never usually do; I made a resolution, that I would not put myself through the hell of another winter with Anorexia. If you’ve had this condition you know winter is torture, your whole body feels cold every minute of every day, unable to generate any of it’s own heat you sit on radiators until your clothes melt without you noticing, Raynaud’s becomes so bad you wash your hands until water you don’t realise is scalding your skin. It is a season of wearing three layers of leggings and tights under your trousers and still shivering. In January 2015 I did not make that same resolution but I still hoped there would not be another. In January 2016 I made no such resolution, there seemed no point.

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By far the worst year ever for Raynaud’s – I’ve literally only had about two weeks respite even with a good summer

I ended up in A&E until 3am because of re-feeding syndrome, I self harmed properly for the first time in six years, so much time down the drain in one motion. Suddenly I couldn’t deal with phone calls any more, I couldn’t deal with people or being outside if I didn’t have to, I was endlessly broke, my world shrunk to the four walls around me and bland, badly lit waiting rooms as I cancelled every plan I made and withdrew further and further. My only respite were the moments of happiness I had with my family and partner who have bent over backwards and broken themselves to fix me this past year. That and a wonderful group of people I met through group therapy who I have thankfully stayed in contact with and meet up with for peer support (which for us involves a lot of coffee and much needed ranting).

At some point I ended up applying for benefits, something I had pretty always managed to avoid. Despite being eligible in the past through pride I did not apply despite my Dad repeatedly pointing out he had paid taxes for over forty years so that if anyone, especially his own flesh and blood, needed support, it would be there. Seeing no other option I applied and jumped through the hoops, seemingly endless loops put in front of me by the DWP. There is a blog in the works about that experience.

Sometimes I find myself wondering if I can put a cost on the emotional pain, the stress and anxiety that they have put me through and if I did would it add up to more than the meager sum I receive in pounds sterling? I cannot count the number of panic attacks I have endured, the volume of tears of frustration spilt. As someone who is very ill the benefits system seems geared to heighten any pre-existing anxiety or paranoia you may already have. The threatening brown envelopes, arbitrary demands and the ever looming fear that your only means of survival could be stripped away at any point wears you down. In the three weeks that I waited for a face to face assessment I lost half the weight I had managed to gain in the previous six months and the assessment itself left me unable to leave the house for weeks and knocking back Valium just to get out of bed. In the latest saga I now owe £700 I most definitely do not have because of an admin error. This year has felt like one disaster after another.

Over the last few months the outside support has dried up and I am increasingly facing these endless hurdles I face with only my exhausted family to help. Group therapy ended, I saw that one coming at least and could prepare myself. Then I found out I was almost at my allocated number of therapy sessions. When I started with this service I was told I wouldn’t be discharged until my BMI reached a certain target which, although terrifying, was healthy, I was told therapy could be extended if necessary. It wasn’t. Despite my weight not changing and being dangerously low, sub-emaciated for over a year and still the weight where hospital had previously been recommended, despite behaviours popping up like a deadly game of whack-a-mole, despite my failing health and my desperate plea for help I was discharged back to my GP. Now I find myself with 10 minutes every few weeks if I can get an appointment. I have lost my outlet, my safe space and I have been discharged back to primary care sicker than when I entered services.

In a desperately cruel twist of fate just as my therapy was ending and I was trying to process that loss my partner’s grandfather passed away. Grief careered into our lives like a bulldozer with no one at the wheels, ripping through my partner and his family and all I could do was watch helplessly and try and do what I could to ease the raw pain. Futile. I told everyone involved in my care that I was deeply unsafe and at my most vulnerable, that I didn’t know how or why I was meant to cope with all this without help. I was told by clinicians I “would probably get worse after discharge” but “it’s okay, you can always be re-referred”. I’m not sure I would want to go back now though, it feels like that window has closed, I feel more damned to this disease than ever.

So here I find myself, a year on. I always used to half joke that if I ever stopped (running from education to one job after another, always commuting, travelling, rushing, trying to save the world) I wouldn’t know how to start back up. It’s not so funny now.

The much wished for, dreamed of recovery seems further away than ever, my weight at rock bottom, my health precarious and no light that I can see anywhere in this tunnel. Although I am told otherwise I feel useless and a burden. The system does a lot to back up your paranoia and to push your self esteem down further. The endless “scrounger” rhetoric gets through even the thickest skin. All the logic I have at my disposal, my knowledge that I am too ill to work, that I have worked, have contributed, always paid taxes, fizzles and disappears in the face of brown envelopes and the culture of fear the Department of Work and Pensions perpetuates.

I know I will get back on my feet, I am, despite all of this, one of the lucky ones as I have a family that supports me, a roof over my head, a partner, friends (those I haven’t managed to push away) including a wonderful group of girls I see most weeks for moral support. What is hard is not knowing when this will come, when life will start getting better. I feel like I haven’t been able to catch a break this year, positives slipping through my fingers like sand or just out of reach. If the word desperate has come up a lot in this post it’s because I am desperate, for change, for a glimmer of hope, for a break or turn of fortunes. I know I am not this shell of a person, I know I have so much to give and all I want is to go back to work and the real world and be well.

A little bit of me and Buddy in The Times

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Phil Robinson for a piece in The Times around mental health apps and my own experience of working for and using Buddy in my own treatment. Here is a short extract from the piece – you can find the full article linked to at the bottom of the post.

Phil Robinson,

I was staying at a five-star hotel in Greece when I broke down. I couldn’t move or speak; I wept for no reason. So I was flown home, diagnosed with depression and sent to a private psychiatric hospital, where therapists began rebuilding my mind.

For weeks, with groups of almost broken, funny, and desperate humans, I attempted to learn the tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I didn’t want to be stuck in a room with a bunch of people who had, like me, flunked life, but it saved me. Beyond anything that was said in that room, I was sure that I wasn’t alone.

For people suffering from depression today, access to therapy is no longer a foregone conclusion. But whatever your problem — paranoia, body dysmorphia, BPD, OCD, PTSD — there’s probably an app for it. And this month, the health and life sciences minister George Freeman launched a £650,000 innovation prize to promote the creation of a new generation of mental health software.

So far there are 26 apps (11 are free) recommended by the NHS as part of a drive to automate healthcare, relieve waiting lists for talking therapies and reduce the £100 billion that it spends on treating mental health patients every year.

One, called Buddy, has been used by 12 NHS trusts and has been used by more than 17,000 people. An SMS and browser-based diary and communication tool, it’s designed to be used in conjunction with seeing a therapist, says Kat Cormack, who is Client Director of Buddy but also uses it “in my own treatment”.

I get a daily text from Buddy,” she says. “‘Hi Kat, Buddy here, how are you doing? Rate your day from 1 to 5 and tell us how you feel!’” As well as rating her state of mind, she can add notes. “It’s connected to my clinician, so I can tell her things that I might not be able to say looking her in the eye. I can confess my darkest secrets.

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By analysing the data, a clinician can monitor a patient’s progress or use it to aid diagnosis. She cites a woman whose long-term depression was revealed to be hormonal after her Buddy data was found to correlate with information from another app tracking her menstrual cycle. “She changed her medication and is now free of depression for the first time in decades.” 

When I was being treated for depression in the Nineties, I saw my therapist once a week, my psychiatrist once a month. I can see that apps present an opportunity to collect evidence to hasten recovery, yet the ability of most apps to deliver a quality service to vulnerable people remains questionable.

Away from the NHS’s recommended apps page, there are thousands of apps dealing with every condition. In most cases their publishers are as obscure as the evidence of their clinical efficacy. At one end of the spectrum you have apps such as MoodKit, the product of the experience of two respected doctors; at the other you have apps such as Fukitol, which is named after a Robin Williams joke.

The industry is still in its infancy and evidence from clinical evaluation trials is scarce. However, in 2013, a study of Viary, a Swedish app for depression, found that 73.5 per cent of patients who used the app were no longer considered depressed after eight weeks and needed half as many therapy sessions as those who engaged in therapy without it.

The result offers a glimpse of why these apps have been seized on as the holy grail of mental healthcare: promoted as a form of triage, they enable health services to push users to take responsibility for themselves and to cut face-to-face therapy.

Cormack is aware that digital tools such as hers are used by people who are frantic for NHS counselling but have not received it.

 The waiting list for an assessment can be up to a year. That’s why people are using apps — they are either a stopgap when you are on a waiting list, or if the NHS has told you that you don’t meet their criteria. People get desperate. We are losing lots of low-cost counselling services because they can’t survive in this financial landscape

When I was at my lowest, between 1998 and 2002, it was always possible to see a counsellor at my local surgery. In 2015, a GP refers people like me to IAPT, an acronym for the suspiciously titled “Improving Access to Psychological Therapies”. It’s a stepped care program that begins with an assessment by phone from a “psychological wellbeing therapist”. Those assessed to have a condition that is interfering moderately with their lives are given a computerised CBT course to complete at home.

If this magic bullet fails, they are given self-help options, or signed up to a 100-person psychoeducation class (like speed awareness courses for people with depression). If you still stubbornly fail to regain your mojo, you can join a year-long waiting list for talking therapies, during which time you can use one of the many apps. The hope throughout this process is that patients simply disappear from the waiting lists as cured, or over the worst of it.

Therapy via healthcare app might seem like treatment purgatory, but anecdotal evidence from practitioners suggests that apps for depression and anxiety work particularly well with certain sectors of the population, such as the military and teenagers, who are notoriously reluctant to talk about emotions.

This is just an extract, the full piece on The Times website (subscription service).

Breaking Convention: My first Psychedelics conference

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This weekend I attended something quite unlike my usual conferences, as many of you will know I am something of a veteran of the conference scene – in particular health (especially mental health), social care, youth work and technology. As much as I love being part of this scene I do often find that:

1) I have a fairly good understanding of a lot of the sessions, workshops and talks already

2) When I present at these conferences I often find myself facing a room full of faces I already know, who have heard me give the talk or something similar before – preaching to the converted.

So I decided to shake things up a bit and attend a very different conference: Breaking Convention 2015.

Breaking Convention is a multidisciplinary conference on psychedelic consciousness, featuring more than 130 presenters from around the world and attended by around 800 delegates from an equally dizzying array of countries.

Look at all these happy faces!

Look at all these happy faces!

I actually first found out about BC through a school friend, Dave King, who is one of the co-founders of the organisation. I have been following some of his incredible, groundbreaking work over the last few years but this was the first year I could 1) manage and 2) afford to attend the actual event – and I’m so glad I did!

Other than the Breaking Convention talks I really didn’t know what to expect and I was a bit anxious as it was one of the few times in my life I’ve been to a conference where I’ve only known one other person. Thankfully my suspicion that it would be a wonderfully open and welcoming conference was confirmed on day 1 and by day 3 I had made several friends from across the world and had some incredible, meaningful conversations on a huge range of topics: from mental health to human rights and so much more.

Days 1 and 2

On the first few days I mainly went to talks about clinical applications and research into Psychedelics as this is something I know a bit about but wanted to know more – especially some of the more cutting edge international work that is being done in countries with far less restrictive laws than the UK. I will make a list underneath of all the talks I attended that I thought were particularly interesting or had the most profound effect on me.

You will also be able to Breaking Convention videos when they are uploaded over the coming weeks.

I also may have found a new look for myself – this is what happens when you play “I can fit more through my tunnel than thou” with strangers at strange conferences..

Flower Power

Flower Power

The final day

As day three was the last one I decided I would not only try and attend as many sessions as possible but also to go to sessions which I knew nothing about so I ended up learning about some completely new ideas and research.

The show stealing presentation was of course given by Professor David Nutt who is something of a personal hero of mine. His talk was titled “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater: How irrational drug laws are hampering medical research” and left us with a sobering picture not just of how hard it is currently in the UK to conduct research in this field but also just how dangerous and stupid the New Psychoactive Substances Bill is. You can Professor Nutt twitter for more updates on his work and campaigning and I also recommend his book Drugs Without The Hot Air.

Obviously this was a major highlight of the weekend for me:

David Nutt tweet

What did I learn about?

Over the three days of the conference I didn’t manage to attend as many talks and workshops as I had hoped due to anxiety and fatigue but I still managed to attend all the talks listed below, videos of all talks will be available on the Breaking Convention videos soon.

– Synesthesia and Psychedelics
– Concepts of Psychedelic drugs as therapeutic agents
– The discovery of the Endocannabinoid system and it’s importancy for treatment with Cannabis
– Ketamine for Depression: A pill for all pains?
– An fMRI investigation into the acute effects of MDMA administration in chronic, treatment resistant PTSD
– A mixed method investigation of Ayahuasca ceremonies as a candidate therapy for Bipolar Disorder and Cyclothymia
– Your Human Rights to use Psychedelics
– Dealing with powerful, difficult, emotionally intense experiences in the context of Psycholytic Therapy
– Psychonauts going Psychonuts
– Criminals and Researchers: Perspectives on the necessity of underground research
– Psychedelic Therapy: Notes from the underground
– The real secret of magic: Burroughs, McKenna, and the syntactical nature of reality
– On “Object manipulators”, Psychedelic festivals and the contemporary youth sociopolitical participation
– Entheogens and the emerging Internet of Everything
– Sacred medicine for a secular culture: How to make spiritual experience accessible
– The Psychedelic Shadow

I also had a chance to try out the Discovery Dome. This was an odd, inflatable igloo of sorts which inside was filled with pillows and blankets and projected incredible visualisations and played beautiful music. I had a chance to try out the dome on both the second and third days and saw different “shows” and had a very different reaction to each.

There was also a wealth of beautiful art littering the conference, many workshops and a lot of afterparties and music that I sadly missed in order to pace myself but I have heard were wonderful.

Closing ceremony 

Breaking Convention Blessing

Because I paced myself I did manage to stay until the end of the last day and attend the closing ceremony which was unlike anything I have ever experienced as we were lucky enough to gather to meet Mara’akame Paritemai, a renowned and well respected medicine man and healer who closed the conference with a blessing.

Conclusions

I consider myself so lucky to have had the chance to attend Breaking Convention 2015, I met so many incredible people doing groundbreaking work, I felt so welcomed and comfortable and I learnt a lot along the way.

The venue itself, the University of Greenwich was gorgeous and we were very lucky with the weather for the majority of the weekend:

No filter, it genuinely is this beautiful!

No filter, it genuinely is this beautiful!

I would definitely recommend the conference to anyone that has an interest in Psychedelics, Mental Health, Wellbeing, Drug Reform or just a general curiosity in any of the above.

The only things I’d like to see next year is a bigger presence on social media – although we had 800 attendees we need many more people to join the Scientific Drug Research cause. Also as much as it is an academic conference and that should remain the focus I would love to hear from more of the study participants – the actual users of Psychedelics who can talk about their own experiences.

I also found that parts of the conference brought up a lot of emotions for me, mostly anger at our ridiculous government and it’s continued wilful ignorance and dismissal of scientific evidence and my own sadness that I have used Mental Health services for 12 years, tried over 20 psychiatric medications most with awful side effects and yet something that could really help me would make me a criminal.

But that’s for another post..