Shocked By This Benefits News Story? I’m Not.

The fact that 90 people a month die after being found fit for work has shocked a lot of people. It should probably shock me, but after having to rely on benefits for nearly a decade, I’m not surprised. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is determined to force people into work at any cost. They don’t care if vulnerable people suffer, as long as they meet their targets.

The government (who are supposedly elected to serve all citizens) insists that there is no proof of causation — and they are right, but lack of evidence is not the same as there being no link. If nothing else, the strong correlation between deaths and people’s Employment Support Allowance (ESA) being stopped is a cause for concern. The matter needs to be investigated.

The government seem to like picking on the poorest, most vulnerable people in society. As much as I abhor benefits cheats, they cost the country very little compared to the wealthy companies and individuals who avoid and evade paying tax. Punishing all benefits claimants in an attempt to weed out the cheats is an immoral and dangerous policy.

Unfortunately, people who work for the DWP are under so much pressure from their superiors and the government that they can’t afford to be compassionate. Very few of the employees I have dealt with understand mental illness. Some try to empathise, but they can’t get their head around the fact that someone with mental health issues can be “fine” one day and a wreck the next. They assume that recovery from mental illness is linear or simply a matter of time. They believe that if I had a job, I would be miraculously cured — despite my mental health being a key factor in my resigning every job I’ve had.

Even the people who have performed my medical assessments, to ascertain whether I’m still eligible for ESA, have not had qualifications related to mental health care. Yet, over the course of a 20-30 minute appointment, they are expected to determine the extent of my illness. And the Powers That Be would rather believe the results of these snapshot assessments than the testimony of my doctor and psychiatrist.

Two and a half years ago, I was taken off ESA. I won my appeal, but the two months of uncertainty and poverty were awful. My mental health declined further, after several months of progress. I became suicidal for the first time in three years. If I had not won my appeal, I’m sure I would have ended my life.

What other option would I have had? My parents can’t afford to support me indefinitely and my mental health is too poor to withstand working regular hours. The stress of having no money, in addition to my other problems, took its toll on my physical health as well. It reminded me of when I was struggling to hold onto my last job, being threatened with dismissal despite providing doctor’s notes stating that my illness was genuine and my absences necessary.

People on ESA and other benefits need to be empowered, not punished. We need enough money to be able to live, opportunities to develop our skills and support to guide — not force — us back into work. Until the DWP and the government stop caring more about targets than people, there will be more deaths.

Wednesday Recommendation: Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is best known for her book The Happiness Project, which chronicles the year she spent trying to become happier. She followed it with a similar sequel, Happier At Home, which focuses on how changing your home life could make you happier. I love Rubin’s honest, experimental approach: she reads a lot around the subject of happiness and observes what happens when she tries to apply her findings.

Better Than Before is written in a similar vein, but focuses on how we might change our habits. Rubin identifies 4 types of people in regard to how we approach forming habits, although there is overlap between the types: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners and Rebels. She draws on examples from her own life to suggest how different types should adapt their behaviour to make it more conducive to forming habits.

Rubin blogs about these topics — and many more — at gretchenrubin.com.

As someone with mental health problems, I often get too caught up in blaming everything on mental illness. Rubin’s books have been helpful for helping me to improve certain aspects of my life, i.e. what I can control, instead of ignoring the “little” things out of a misguided belief that they won’t make much difference. The little things count: they might not transform your life overnight, but they are an excellent starting point.

Don’t put off tackling your problems until you have solved your biggest problem. In my own case, I don’t know if I will ever be “cured” or even in remission from my mental illnesses; I could waste my whole life waiting for recovery. Working with my mental health issues can be tricky, but it’s better than doing nothing and staying miserable. I want to earn a living from writing and services/areas related to writing, so I’m going for it. My progress is slow and difficult (I need to overcome my anxiety and do more marketing, for a start), but it’s still progress. I’m further ahead than I would be if I waited to be depression-free, anxiety-free and BPD-free.

 

 

Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Mental Health

  1. We all have mental health. Just as we all have a state of physical health, we have a state of mental health. You might be lucky enough to never have to think about it, because your mental health has been good all your life, but you ought to be aware of your mental health.
  2. Anyone can become mentally ill. As with physical health there are various risk factors, but the bottom line is that nobody is immune. If you are aware of your mental health and discuss it regularly with friends and family, you will be better equipped to realise if/when your mental health is in decline and to take action.
  3. You will get more support if you need it — and can give more support to others. When mental health problems are shrouded with secrecy, it’s difficult for sufferers to get help and support. On the other hand, if everybody talks about mental health in the same way physical health gets discussed openly, it is easier for people with mental illness to express their thoughts and emotions. Instead of suffering in silence and feeling alone, we could connect with other people.
  4. There is nothing shameful about mental illness, but not discussing it implies otherwise. Secrets always have connotations of shame. Even if you are not ashamed of your mental health problems, refusing to talk about them creates a wall of silence that makes it harder for everyone to discuss mental illness — even when they want to talk about their experiences. Talking about mental health doesn’t mean you have to expose every symptom and facet of yourself; just as you can talk about your physical health without going into the details, you can talk about mental health in as much (or as little) detail as you wish.
  5. It’s the only way to end the stigma. To stop people with mental health problems feeling ashamednd isolated, we all need to talk about mental health. To stop prejudice against people with mental illness, we all need to talk about it.  To educate people and break down their ignorance about mental health, everybody needs to talk about mental health.

You Have Today

Today is my dog’s second birthday. It’s bittersweet, because as I mentioned in this post my last dog died the day before her tenth birthday. Birthdays, like New Year’s Eve, also remind me that life is fleeting and none of us know how much time we will be given. We can plan for the future, but there are no guarantees. All we have is today.

With this in mind, there are two vital components to getting as much as you can out of this one day you have been given:

  1. Gain as much pleasure as you can from today
  2. Take action towards achieving your long-term goals

The specific tasks you undertake will depend on your current situation. When you are depressed, it’s hard to find any pleasure in life so you may only get 30 seconds of pleasure from stroking a pet or smelling a rose. That’s great — it’s pleasure you may not have otherwised gained. If you have anxiety, taking action towards your goals may involve simply finding out whether there is an online course available in the subject you wish to study. That’s an important step and it doesn’t matter if someone else would have applied for the course straight away whereas you feel too anxious to take such a step; you are basing your actions on your own specific situation.

These teo components, pleasure and action, sound simple but simple isn’t synonymous with easy. You may need to remind yourself of them every day, perhaps by keeping a note stuck next to your mirror or setting an alarm on your phone. Procrastinating does nobody any favours. If you defer all tasks until you are in a different situation or feel better, you may spend all your life waiting.

For me, the nature and scope of tasks relating to pleasure and action can vary on a day to day basis. On my good days, I might aim to draft a short story or submit a few pieces of writing; other days, my sole aim could be to just read a page pf a book. Obviously I want to progress over the long-term, but I have to adjust my intentions every day. Today is all I have: my current mood, my current situation, my current life. All you have is today, so make the most of it.

Learning to Play Big

This post is dedicated to Kathryn Bond, one of the most awesome women I know.

A couple of months ago, I read Playing Big: A practical guide for brilliant women like you by Tara Mohr and was inspired. The book calls on women to stop limiting themselves, to stop believing  the crap society tells you about knowing your place and to chase your dreams. Women tend to “play small” in their careers and personal projects. They regard hugely successful women with awe, wishing they were like her, instead of realising that they — and you — are that woman.

There is no “success” gene or magic elixir. There is nothing fundamentally different about the women who achieve great goals; all women have such potential. The difference is, ultra-successful women have seized opportunities ities, persisted in the face of criticism and aimed high. When they have been discouraged and their confidence has failed them, they keep going. Mohr calls upon all of us to keep going and to support others in their endeavours.

Read Mohr’s 10 Rules for Brilliant Women for an introduction to how to play big.

Another woman who is no stranger to playing big, Mayim Bialik, launched a website last week: GrokNation.com. For anyone who doesn’t know, Bialik plays Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, was the eponymous Blossom in a former life and got a PhD in Neuroscience in between. in addition, she has published books on two of her passions: veganism and holistic parenting.

I have enjoyed reading her posts on GrokNation so far — it’s refreshing to read open, honest viewpoints on a range of issues, especially from someone in the public eye. I don’t share all of Bialik’s views, but I admire her integrity and intelligence. I was also delighted to read (in a reply to a reader’s comment) that she plans to write about mental health.

My mentor, Emylia Hall, is another amazing woman. She has written her third novel, The Sea Between Us, which will be published in paperback on 27th August and is already available on Kindle. It’s a love story with a difference — the protagonist finds fulfilment in herself, through surfing, family relationships and art, becoming a whole person in her own right. Whether or not she gets the guy who seems to be her destiny is another aspect to her life, not its raison d’être. 

Emylia’s first two novels, The Book of Summers and A Heart Bent Out of Shape are also fabulous. They also tackle issues of identity as young women learn about themselves and their place in the world, which is one of my interests — probably because identity struggles are a common element of Borderline Personality Disorder. I think it’s a topic that doesn’t get discussed enough, particularly when you consider that women are in a strange position, experiencing a lot of inequality and prejudice despite not being a minority group in any society (bar a few religious enclaves).

Emylia is also an incredibly supportive mentor. I was selected as her mentee after I applied to the mentorship she was offering through the WoMentoring Project, which links aspiring female writers to mentors who are established in their fields. It’s all done on a voluntary basis, which means people of limited means (like myself) have access to mentorships. Emylia has continued to encourage and advise me, long after my initial mentorship ended, for which I am incredibly grateful.

I’m trying to play big and struggling, but reading about other women who are defining success on their own terms and striving towards their goals keeps me motivated. The women I know who do amazing things every day, like working with children with challenging conditions like autism while raising a toddler and being an awesome friend, also inspire me.

Don’t Neglect the Small Stuff

I should take my own advice more often and maybe re-read 10 Simple Ways to Start Taking Care of Yourself every few days. Self-care is important for all health, including mentsl health. It’s easier to cope when you are  eating healthily, exercising, sleeping well, etc. so it makes sense to do all you can to work towards achieving consistent healthy habits. Doing this takes a lot of effort. It’s easy to take your eye off the ball and realise that bad habits have crept back into your lifestyle — which is what has happened to me.

I was so focused on reaching my CampNaNoWriMo word target that I ignored almost everything else. Things had been going well for a few months, so I thought I could let the basics take care of themselves. I was wrong. It would be a small problem if I noticed straightaway and took action, but the habits eroded gradually and I didn’t consider the situation as a big deal; I thought I’d get around to sorting out my diet and sleep patterns sometime in the future. After all, I was busy catching up on the stuff I had neglected during CampNaNoWriMo (including this blog) and needed to focus on my career, my finances, my friendships…

But my motivation  was low and I was feeling more lethargic than I had been for ages. I started to notice more symptoms of depression slipping back into my life. Call me crazy, but I didn’t make the link straightaway. I blamed my low mood on being in debt, not progressing fast enough in my career and the buzz of CampNaNoWriMo ebbing away. It’s only in the past two days that I have realised the biggest contributors to my present state of mind are staying awake too late and stuffing myself with junk food.

I’m rectifying the situation, but I wish I had realised sooner. I suppose that’s a key characteristic of depression: you blame yourself for things beyond your control and don’t think that small stuff can help you feel a lot better. I’m trying not to beat myself up about it; at least I’m aware of what was wrong and can start tackling the real problems. I also noticed sooner than I might have done, so why be hard on myself for taking a month to address the issue when it might have taken several months?

My first course of action is to go to bed at a sensible time (and certainly before midnight) and eat a healthy breakfast. It doesn’t matter if I can’t fall asleep straight away or if I eat too many biscuits throughout the day, as long as I follow those simple steps. Once those become easier, I will add more steps — choosing healthier snacks, going to bed even earlier, building a sleep routine, cutting down on processed food, doing more exercise, etc. The key is to start, not to try to do everything at once.

I decided to share all of this in the hope that it will help other people. Recovering from mental illness — or learning to cope better with mental health conditions — is challenging. You can fly along for a while improving at a rapid speed, then sink into one of your worst episodes. You can make big improvements with tiny changes and tiny improvements with big changes. The important thing is to do whatever you can right now, even if it’s just opening the window to let in some fresh air.

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 7: Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You by Richard O’Connor tackles depression with a skills-based approach. It explains how depression teaches people to develop certain skills, such as procrastination and negative thinking, which perpetuate depression. These skills enhance and reinforce each other, so that the coping mechanisms of a person with depression appear to form a tangled mass. It can be difficult to know where to begin to improve the situation, so the sufferer feels overwhelmed and is often left feeling unable to do anything.

However, O’Connor points out that if these depression-perpetuating skills form a tangled ball of string, it can be picked apart by starting anywhere. The key is to develop skills which improve depression, either challenging the skills which perpetuate depression and/or bypassing them. It doesn’t matter which skills you decide to develop first, as long as you work on at least one of the skills which will help you emerge from the tangled mass.

The skills needed to overcome depression can seem simple and easy, but O’Connor takes into account the difficulty of taking positive action when you are suffering from depression and guides the reader through each of the skills. He is never patronising nor does he obfuscate the information with jargon and theory. Instead, neuroscientific and psychological explanations are used to illuminate the points O’Connor makes and provide practical advice.

A variety of skills are presented in Undoing Depression, including developing willpower, getting in touch with your emotions and making plans. There are skills relating to every aspect of life: thinking, relationships, work, physical health, recreation, etc. and plenty of guidance on how to implement changes in your life. Like depression-perpetuating skills, these depression-combatting skills can reinforce each other. As soon as you start developing a couple of skills, you are creating a network which will help you recover from depression.

However, don’t be fooled – O’Connor acknowledges the difficulties involved in overcoming depression. The book contains a lot of information on medication and different types of therapy, which may be used in conjunction with a skills-based approach. Improvement is emphasised throughout: there are no false promises of overnight recovery. Developing new skills is difficult, there’s no sugar-coating that fact, but it is possible and a necessary proponent of recovering from depression.

As much as I value the practical advice in Undoing Depression, the biggest difference it has made to me, personally, is to my perspective. I can see how many of the thoughts and behaviours associated with depression are both symptoms and causes. I understand the importance of unpicking the habits which contribute to depression. I realise it is vital to be proactive, even if I am only able to take tiny steps.

I have read many books about depression and this has been the most useful by far. It has helped me gain a greater understanding of my mental health in general and depression in particular, as well as offering realistic, practical advice. It has empowered me.

 

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

Knowing Your Limits

I have taken an unplanned but intentional break from this blog over the past two weeks, because I was focusing on reaching my CampNaNoWriMo target of 70,000 words. I wanted to keep posting throughout the month of CampNaNoWriMo and certainly the first week of August, but my plans went awry. The main problem was that writing like crazy in the last week and a half of CampNaNoWriMo, following a two week slump, left me exhausted. Mental illness often makes people prone to fatigue, but my energy levels had been a little better lately so I didn’t consider how exhausting it would be to strive towards an ambitious short-term goal.

I resisted at first, but soon realised that I couldn’t carry on as I had planned: something had to give. Since Resurfacing and Rewriting is a long-term project and I want to maintain a high quality, it was appropriate to put it on hold. It was a difficult decision, but I knew it was the right one — focusing on CampNaNoWriMo allowed me to reach my target of 70,000 words in one month, which was an important goal for me.

Reassessing your plans and goals is essential for optimal mental health. Circumstances change, actions have unforeseen effects and priorities fluctuate. Instead of struggling to stick to your original intentions, it makes sense to step back and decide what to change. The trouble is, this can often feel like failure; we tend to measure success against our original goals.

When you have mental health problems, this can bring up a multitude of issues — will I ever be able to achieve what I want? Am I just useless? — which can negatively affect your self-esteem and anxiety. I have struggled with this a lot, though I’m getting better at seeing the bigger picture and realising that setbacks are not failures. Part of managing your mentsl health (whether or not you have a mental illness) is knowing your limits and slowing down when you see signs that you are approaching your limits.

This is easier said than done, of course! I probably should have slowed down at least a week before I revised my goals. My sleep pattern had been disrupted (more than usual, I mean: I’m prone to insomnia) and I was eating erratically. I was worried about not living up to my own expectations. I felt more stressed than I had for several weeks. However, the important thing is I stepped back and reassessed my plans before I actually hit my limit.

People often don’t give themselves credit for developing the skill of reassessing their goals. While it can sometimes feel like a cop-out, revising your plans can, conversely, enable you to be more productive and successful. Relieving the pressure provides space to explore your options and seize opportunities you might otherwise have overlooked. Instead of stubbornly slogging on and failing to reach your goals and/or harming your health, you can adapt to your current situation.

Sometimes goals aren’t worth the price you have to pay. Striving towards goals which cause more harm than good is worse than not having any goals. Don’t be afraid to be flexible when working towards your goals. Life is never 100% predictable. Reassess your goals at regular intervals and decide whether they need to be put on hold, prioritised or dropped altogether. Changing your plans isn’t weak: knowing your limits is a strength.