Mental Illness is Not a Weakness

I repeat: mental illness is NOT a weakness. It sounds obvious, right? Yet I believed the opposite for years. I thought having a mental illness meant that I was weak and somehow less of a person than everybody else. I thought I had to work twice as hard as everyone else to counteract this weakness. Of course, putting such pressure on myself made the mental illness worse. It took me a decade to realise that coping with mental health problems has made me stronger.

Mental illness itself isn’t a strength any more than it is a weakness: it is a condition, a disease, not a character trait. However, dealing with the effects of mental illness has forced me to develop a number of desirable skills and character traits. For example, I had to learn to speak up for myself because the alternative was to be abused or neglected. I have become more compassionate because I have been in desperate situations and know how painful it is to be ignored, belittled, insulted, derided or criticised when you are in such a wretched state. I have also learnt to laugh at many aspects of mental illness, because the only other option would give it too much control over my current and future life.

Although it is illegal to discriminate, many employers view people with experience of mental illness as weak. When considering potential employees, they consider mental illness a drawback. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true. When you have battled mental illness – and often continue to battle the symptoms on a daily basis – other challenges pale in comparison. You are persistent and resilient. You have had to become an expert at problem solving. I’d say those are some bloody good traits to have in an employee.

But how can we expect employers’ attitudes to change unless we lead the way? We must stop thinking of mental illness as a weakness. To do so gives it too much power and detracts from our own power and strengths. What has your experience of mental illness taught you? What skills have you been forced to develop as a result of mental illness? Which parts of your personality have been strengthened? How has mental illness affected your values? How has it changed how you treat others? Has it affected the decisions you have made in your life?

See also: The Merits of Mental Illness

Claim Your Power

Every single living thing has power. Including you. The front wall of my home is susceptible to damp, which causes mould to grow. If left unchecked, this mould will cover the wall and start to grow on my books on the shelves which are fixed to that wall. Mould can spread pretty fast across a painted and plastered brick wall, so I assume it will be very efficient at spreading over the pages in my books. The books can’t be scrubbed like the wall, so I would have to throw them away. Mould has the power to destroy all of my favourite books.

That’s a lot of power, considering mould is just a fungus. But wait – mould has more power. Mould can cause allergic reactions and respiratory problems. Some moulds can produce mycotoxins which may lead to neurological problems and can even kill humans. You can’t get much more powerful than that!

You are a far more complex organism, so imagine what potential lies within you. You also have the power to kill people – though I hope you never do – and if you use this power for good, imagine what a difference you could make to the world. You could save lives. You could improve lives. You could teach people new skills, entertain them, help them to achieve their dreams.

Your gut reaction might be to scoff, but why not? If mould has the potential to kill even the most intelligent, strongest, kindest, most talented people on Earth, why shouldn’t every human being have the potential to change the world? Claim your power. It’s yours; you already possess it, so all you need to do is access it. You are far more complex than mould. You have self-awareness. You can make plans. Mould cannot harness its power to do great things, but you can – and you have far more power. Go ahead: claim your power.

10 Ways Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Health

I want to start with a caveat: not everyone with mental health problems can exercise. There are many obstacles, including physical conditions or disabilities, financial concerns and some mental illnesses (like anxiety and depression) making it difficult to leave the house. Neither do I consider exercise a substitute for other treatments – if you use exercise to treat your mental health problems so that you don’t have to take medication or go to therapy, good for you, but don’t assume that everyone else can do the same.

It took me years of antidepressants and talking therapies before I could consider using exercise to help improve my mental health. I recently came across an excellent piece on this subject, written in response to some ignorant comments made by a prominent ex-politician: www.thefementalists.com/2013/05/24/louise-mensch-just-doesnt-seem-to-get-it/

However, I have also read an excellent book called Spark! The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain by Dr John J Ratey, which explains the various benefits exercise has for mental health and cognitive function. I recommend that you read the book, which is informative and fascinating, but here are the advantages of exercise that most appealed to me:

  1. It can help you cope with stress. At the cellular level, exercise is stress. But it “controls the emotional and physical feelings of stress” as it breaks down and builds up neurons (which is similar to how muscles get broken down and rebuilt), making them stronger and more resilient. As a result, the mind and body adapt so that you become better at coping with stress.
  1. Exercise makes us more socially active. I keep espousing the importance of making connections and exercise can help you connect with other people. It boosts confidence and motivation, and often provides opportunities to meet people.
  1. You feel more in control. Exercise gives you a feeling of self-mastery because you initiate the action and therefore experience exercise as a predictable and controllable form of stress. Running has helped my anxiety because it has taught me to control my breathing. When a panic attack begins, I am more able to slow my breathing instead of thinking ‘oh my god, I can’t breathe!’ which helps me calm down.
  1. Exercise boosts your motivation. When you become physically active, you start to see yourself as active in other areas of your life. You begin to see what you can change and how you can reconnect with friends and activities you used to enjoy. You no longer see yourself as a passive recipient of the problems and sufferings heaped upon you.
  1. It distracts you. It’s difficult to pay a lot of attention to negative thoughts when you need to be aware of your movement and surroundings. Exercise – especially exercise which demands a degree of concentration – provides you with respite, taking you out of your harmful thought patterns.
  1. It improves self-esteem. Exercise tackles self-esteem from both a neurochemical and a psychological perspective. When you do something that makes you feel better, like committing to regular exercise, you value yourself more. If you set yourself fitness goals, your self-esteem is boosted when you achieve or surpass them.
  1. It creates a sense of stability. Having a fitness routine gives your life rhythm and provides a good foundation for mental health. For this reason, it is an excellent way to prevent mental health problems. You can increase the sense of stability by sticking to a schedule and exercising with another person or as part of a group.
  1. Exercise increases our cognitive abilities. This is particularly the case for sports which rely heavily on learning and developing skills, but any exercise will improve your ability to learn. Better cognitive function means it’s easier to implement other strategies to improve your mental health, such as CBT techniques.
  1. It gives you focus. Not only can exercise improve your concentration (related to the previous point), but it provides something in your life which you can directly influence. Even if every other aspect of your life is a disaster, you can focus on your fitness. It can provide you with a purpose.
  1. Exercise alters your brain chemistry. Did you think I’d leave this one out? It elevates serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which affect mood. This makes exercise a potent treatment for depression, as well as other mental illnesses – but remember my caveat at the beginning of this post and don’t assume it’s a miracle cure for everyone.

Dealing with Debt and Mental Health

Your mental health can affect your finances and your finances can affect your mental health. The specific effects vary, but common ones include feeling very anxious about financial matters, impulsive spending and losing control of finances during a period of depression. It makes sense when you think about it: if you are depressed, showering and cooking meals become massive challenges – paying bills on time has to take a backseat while you prioritise the bare essentials. Trouble is, you have to face your finances when you start feeling better and if they are a mess, it could make you feel worse again.

The good news is that there are some great resources for people with mental health problems and debt:

  • Money Saving Expert has produced a Mental Health & Debt guide that is supported by several mental health charities. It can be downloaded as a PDF at moneysavingexpert.com/credit-cards/mental-health-guide and contains loads of useful information. There is also a page of tips for people with bipolar, who may be prone to impulsive spending during manic phases. Unfortunately, there is no mention of borderline personality disorder – despite impulsive spending being a symptom of the condition.
  • Mind also have information on mental health and debt, including tools you can use to ascertain whether or not you have a problem at mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/debt-and-mental-health/ and details of where you can go for support. It also has a guide you can download.
  • stepchange.org is a UK debt charity which can help people with debt problems and also has a lot of articles and resources on debt and mental health.

It’s important to get any help and support you need as soon as you can. You can solve your money problems, but the longer you leave it before addressing the problems, the worse your problems will get – and the more impact they will have on your mental health. I know you might feel ashamed or embarrassed, but there are many understanding, supportive people who can help you. Debt is a common problem and there is no shame in admitting you have money problems. In fact, you deserve praise for finding the courage to face your debt.

My mental health has had a huge impact on my finances. I have had to leave jobs because of mental illness and decimated my meagre savings as I waited to receive benefits. Relying on benefits for several years has been difficult; the judgment I face from both government employees and society in general has made my depression and anxiety worse at various points. One of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder that I struggle with is impulsive spending. I took out a credit card to pay for my MA tuition (which was definitely worth it), but also bought a lot of expensive crap in attempts to make myself feel better (definitely not worth it) and ended up with over £6200 on my credit card. I also had a £2000 overdraft, which I have managed to reduce to £0. I also owe my parents several thousand pounds, because they have been forced to support me for most of my adult life.

I’m telling you this to demonstrate that I no longer feel ashamed of my debt. I am dealing with it and (slowly) paying it back. The process isn’t entirely linear: sometimes I mess up and buy a pair of shoes because I think it will make me happy. Sometimes I buy too many books, kidding myself that £3 or £4 is a negligible amount and won’t add up. Other times, I have unexpected expenses like vet bills or replacing broken items. However, I always go back to reducing my debt instead of increasing it. It’s not easy, but it will be worth it in the end.

Facing your money problems is difficult at the best of times, let alone when you are recovering from mental illness, but it’s easier to do it now than to wait until the problems get worse. You are not alone. There are people who can – and will – help you. Start by following the links I have provided above.

 

See also: 7 Steps to Start Dealing with Debt

5 Ways to Start Embracing Life

  1. Get outside. Nature is life affirming. Wherever you live, head for a patch of nature as often as you can. It might be a park or a beach. A forest or a moor. Fields or gardens. Watch the wildlife, count how many different plants or flowers you can see, breathe the fresh (or fresh-ish) air.

 

  1. Listen to music. It doesn’t matter what music – as long as you like it. Go to a jazz concert or listen to classical radio in your kitchen. Dance to the latest tunes in a nightclub or put on pop classics at home. Music has a great way of making you feel connected to other people, which is why listening to sad music can still be beneficial.

 

  1. Be generous. Give a friend a surprise present. Donate to charity. Volunteer. Teach someone a skill they want to learn. Bake a cake for your neighbour. Everyone has something to give, however little. Giving feels great and makes other people feel great. In the spirit of generosity, give without expecting anything in return. If you do receive thanks or a reciprocal gift, it will be all the sweeter for being unexpected.

 

  1. Write. Okay, I’m biased, but writing is fantastic for helping you to connect with the world because there is always an implied audience. Even if you write a journal and don’t intend to show it to anyone else, the implied audience is your future self. Write anything – a story, a letter, a rant, an email, a text message, an online dating profile, a greetings card, a list, a recipe, a poem… It doesn’t matter if you rip it up straight away. It doesn’t matter if you shut it in a drawer forever. Just write.

 

  1. Cook or bake. Like writing, this involves an implied connection – even if you are cooking for yourself. It also has connotations of nourishment and care; we cook or bake for the people we love. We feed people soup when they are ill. We give people cakes when it’s their birthday. Preparing a meal or snack, no matter how easy or difficult the recipe, reminds us that we are living beings in need of nutrition. It highlights what we have in common with everybody else on Earth.

You Need to Chase Your Dreams

Here’s an open secret: nobody is going to wave a magic wand and make your dreams come true. Your ideal job or partner is not going to be served to you on a silver platter. If you want to achieve your dreams, it’s up to you. You have to make them come true.

It’s not enough to follow your dreams. You can float through life waiting for opportunities to cross your path, but you will have a higher success rate if you chase down the opportunities.

Think about it: chasing opportunities means you will find more opportunities, therefore even if only a tiny percentage of them yield something, you will gain more than you would by waiting around. Furthermore, when you actively pursue opportunities, more people will know about your goals. These people will send more opportunities your way if and when they come across them, multiplying your chances of success.

Nobody is going to put any effort into helping you achieve your dreams unless you do. Why would they help you if you never help yourself? Why would they tell you about the awesome job opening in their firm, when they know you haven’t applied for any of the similar jobs advertised in the newspaper? Why would they set you up with their gorgeous single friend if you haven’t shown any interest in dating? A lot of people are all talk and no action. They say they want to do this and that but never take the first steps, so nobody can take them seriously. When you make an effort to achieve your goals, you prove that you are serious about your dreams.

Who is best placed to make your dreams happen? You.

There are a few success stories about people who achieved their dreams thanks to somebody else working tirelessly on their behalf, but they are outnumbered by stories about people who achieved success because of their own efforts. It makes sense: you know your strengths better than anyone else. You know the sacrifices you are willing to make. You know how much hard work you are prepared to put in. You are the best advocate for yourself – you just need to find the courage to put yourself forward.

Because you can’t count on anyone else to put you forward. You have to find opportunities. You have to develop the skills and gain the knowledge you need. You have to take action. You have to chase your dreams.

 

Found Treasures

I was struck by this post on the Mslexia blog because the advice given to a new freelance writer is so simple and brilliant — her friend tells her that if she can’t pitch to people that day, she doesn’t have to. She can do other tasks that contribute towards her goals. Anxiety is difficult to deal with at the best of times, so a reminder that everyone has choices can be helpful. Sure, sometimes those choices suck, but you can work out which one sucks the least and choose that one.

 

I found Doll Hospital Journal when I was randomly surfing the internet and I’m bloody glad I did! It’s an “art and literature journal on mental health” which started after a Kickstarter campaign. They published both in print and digitally — you can buy a digital copy of the first issue here. The hard copies have sold out. The pricing policy is pay as you wish, so it’s accessible to as many people as possible, but the recommended price is £5 and it’s a wonderful project so please pay as much as you can afford. I bought my copy yesterday and have only read about half of it, but it’s great value based on what I’ve read so far.

Doll Hospital’s content is varied in both substance and format. There is poetry, drawing, creative writing, articles, photography, etc. covering a variety of mental illnesses, though depression and anxiety are featured most prominently. It contains inspiration, reassurance, raw emotion, motivation, companionship… A multitude of wonders!

 

 

Choose a Fresh Page – Instead of Wishing for a Fresh Start

Everyone sometimes wishes they could start again. I don’t know if it happens more frequently for those of us with mental health problems; I just know it’s easy to blame mental illness for all of the problems in our lives. I have this fantasy where I pack a rucksack, go somewhere far away and start my life over. I will never act on it, because I can’t abandon my dog or desert my parents and friends, but it has a strong appeal.

Yet I know it’s bullshit. I can’t escape myself or my past actions. Any new life I create has to be built on the foundation of what has gone before – and that’s a good thing. Regardless of our experiences (and I refuse to use this blog as an excuse to throw myself pity parties), we have all gained something from our past. Often it’s the knowledge gained as a result of making mistakes. It could be resilience from overcoming obstacles time after time. Or skills we have learnt, whether it’s knowing how to read or being able to play the piano. You might have gained a really good friend or a partner. Or just a kickass pair of shoes. We have all gained something, even if what we have gained seems small and insignificant.

Which is why we should stop wishing we could abandon our past and make a fresh start. Instead, let’s choose a fresh page, a new chapter. Decide what changes you would like to make and create a plan. Standard advice is to start small, but who says you have to? In my experience, bigger changes can be easier because the reward is more of an incentive and helps you face your fears. However you decide to transform your life, take action as soon as you can.

Take action and keep taking action. Fears and anxieties may never go away, but turning your attention elsewhere forces them into the background and when you take actions related to your fears and anxieties, they are reduced. Again, I’m not claiming that it’s easy to face your fears and take action, but remember: Fear and anxiety can only be overcome with action.

Any action counts. One of my successes in overcoming my anxiety this year was taking my dog for a walk on my own. Not only does this action seem tiny to other people, especially as I live in a rural area so going for a walk doesn’t involve negotiating crowds of people, but it’s something I used to do all the time. However, I hadn’t gone for a walk on my own for years. I don’t care what anyone else thinks – the first time I did it, I was elated and for good reason. Your actions may be ‘bigger’ or ‘smaller’ in the eyes of other people, but none of that matters. The only thing that matters is that you take action, any action.

So start a fresh page and do something a little different. Big or small, let me know about it – email hayley@hayleynjones.com or leave a comment below.

The Merits of Mental Illness

Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t wish mental illness on my worst enemy – but experiencing it has given me a few advantages. Hitting rock bottom has made me less afraid of challenging the norm. It has left me more determined to follow my dreams. It forced me to face up to my issues (with the help of a year of drama therapy) and accept that I am a good person with a lot to offer.

Before, I used to believe the bullies who told me I wasn’t good enough. People who picked on me just to make themselves feel better. So-called friends who undermined my confidence and made me feel stupid, disgusting and ashamed. Looking back, do you know what I notice? All of these people lived mediocre lives. They followed the ‘rules’ about fitting in and never stepping out of line. They belittled anyone who tried to do better, anyone who had bigger goals, because it was easier than challenging their own view of the world.

I now realise that most of the people who were horrible to me must have been miserable. I don’t know why they took it out on me – I turned inward and blamed myself for my misery. Maybe they were jealous of dreamers with ambition. Perhaps they were just nasty and spiteful. My experience of mental illness has taught me to ignore these people and to pity them. It has also demonstrated that I can hurt myself worse than anybody else can: at the worst points of my depression, I hated myself and punished myself for being someone I hated. Getting past that has made me feel all but invincible!

The other merits of mental illness are less dramatic, but almost as influential. Being unable to concentrate enough to read when I was depressed meant I watched a lot of DVDs, which reminded me of how much I love film and led to a BA in Film Studies. Being too anxious to leave the house for months at a time taught me who my friends were (i.e. those who made the effort to keep in touch) and made me value them more than ever before. Living at home when I went to university, because I needed the support of my family, enabled me to buy my own car and learn to drive. I loved that car, even though it was a bit of an old banger and, after a few years, had a leak that covered the floor with an inch of water every time it rained…

The point is, you can find silver linings in your darkest moments, as long as you look hard enough. You might be sceptical – I know I would have been if I’d read a post like this eight or nine years ago – but I promise it’s true. However, it’s not easy. It’s not so much using the lemons life gives you to make lemonade, but about using the shit life throws at you to fertilise the seeds you sow in order to grow a better future.

Have you identified any advantages in your experience of mental illness or other suffering? Please comment and let us know.

 

You may also be interested in: Mental Illness is Not a Weakness

Edit Your Life

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most writing is rewriting. At least, most good writing is rewriting. Even if all of the ingredients are present in the first draft, it is the rewriting and editing that ensures the writing flows and the sentences sing. You may think that the best writers don’t need to rewrite, that it comes naturally to them, but the opposite tends to be true. If you don’t believe me, google ‘first drafts by famous writers.’ You will find hundreds of examples of first drafts by people like George Orwell and Charles Dickens, scrawled with copious notes and corrections. The best writers are rewriters, taking time to craft their work to perfection.

Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard, but I see a lot of parallels between writing and life. You can’t – and shouldn’t – expect to get everything right first time. Implementing changes is not a sign of failure or weakness, but an integral part of the process. We have to keep learning and developing if we are to reach anywhere near our full potential. We have to be aware of what can be improved and improve it through trial and error.

 

Wrangling the Characters

The most important editing we can do is deciding who we want to be the most influential characters in our lives. We can do this by paying more attention to the people who treat us with love and respect, who build us up instead of knocking us down. We can choose not to dwell on the bullies and critics, but on friends and mentors. I don’t mean to sound flippant – it takes a lot of work to come to terms with the pain we have suffered and to stop letting the people who inflicted that pain have such an impact on our lives. But you can do it; even if nobody in your life has ever shown you kindness, you can pay attention to role models you have never met and take inspiration from their actions.

 

Twisting the Plot

You can transform the plot of your life by setting and achieving goals. Again, I don’t mean to imply that this is easy and it’s likely that you will make mistakes along the way, but that’s all part of the process. By learning what doesn’t work, you get closer to discovering what does work. Okay, so you can’t change what has already happened, but you can reframe the past and learn from your experiences. In order to have a happy ending, you need to overcome obstacles.

 

Picking a Setting

You can move away, of course, but you can also change the setting of your life without changing your home. You just need to reinterpret the world around you. Cities like Paris, New York and London have been the settings for numerous stories – romances, comedies, thrillers and tragedies. The main difference between the cities’ portrayals in different genres is down to how the author interprets and fictionalises the city. If you look for crime and suffering, you can find it anywhere. If you look for love and kindness, you can find it anywhere. You cultivate what you choose.

 

The Ending

You won’t have complete control over your ending, but when you live a life full of love, generosity, integrity, creativity and/or whatever else you value, every possible ending will contain those values and be bittersweet. On the other hand, if you refuse to search for the beauty and goodness in life, your ending will just be bitter. It’s your choice: accept a crappy first draft or edit your life.