On/Off Course

The most frustrating thing about trying to achieve goals, especially when you have mental health problems, is the inevitable drifting off course. Life throws obstacles in your path and you have to work your way around them or wait until you can pass. When this happens, it’s difficult to know whether you are still heading in the right direction.

 

Off course

It’s easy to lose sight of the path.

When you are working towards long-term goals, the single steps in between now and reaching your goal seem insignificant. You know, on a logical level, that every step is important, but they don’t feel important when you are taking them. You feel like you’re constantly walking and getting nowhere.

It’s easier to stop walking.

This isn’t always a conscious decision: your path can get so littered with obstacles and distractions that you don’t know which way to turn. You start wondering whether all of these challenges mean you’re not meant to follow this path, that you should choose a different goal.

 

You need to look for compasses.

Just as you can look to the sun and landmarks to check your position when hiking, you need to look for signs you are on the right path when working towards your goal. Instead of using an actual compass, you have to use symbolic compasses like your values and passions to check your direction.

I know that sounds a little mystical and perhaps a bit woo-woo, but I refuse to apologise for having a hippie streak!

Knowing your compasses helps a lot. There are questionnaires you can take to determine your core values, but in my experience most people are aware of what they prioritise (or would like to prioritise) in their lives. My personal values include creativity and self-expression, having a strong sense of social responsibility and being compassionate. Manifestations of these core values have been present throughout my life, from writing stories based heavily on Enid Blyton books as a child and taking part in sponsored walks, to writing, blogging and volunteering for a mental health charity today.

Look at your own life and consider what has brought you the most happiness, satisfaction and meaning.

 

When you have found your compasses, you need to check them.

I find this difficult. I forget to check my compasses on a daily basis, allowing myself to get distracted by whatever life throws at me and being reactive instead of proactive. One of the ways counselling is helping me at the moment is by giving me the opportunity to stand back and check my compasses, reassuring me that I’m on the right path and travelling in the right direction.

I think I’m getting better though — I recognise the simple activities which calm me, bring me pleasure and allow me to take stock. Meditation, yoga, walking, running and journaling all fall into this category. I also know which activities bring the most value to my life, such as volunteering and blogging about mental health. The more I focus on these activities, the happier (and more confident) I feel about my life and my goals.

There are no maps for living (unless you create your own, but that’s a different blog post!), but there are compasses — we all have them and can use them to plot our course. What are your compasses?

Subdued

I have been feeling subdued and demotivated over the past week. There’s no particular reason; it’s just the nature of depression.

Subdued meerkat

But the nature of depression, even after 15+ years, is frustrating.

I’m sick of it. I know, on a logical level, that the low mood will pass at its own rate. I know I can do all I can to practice self-care and use coping strategies, which will help reduce the impact of my dip in mood. I know this is a challenge I have to deal with, perhaps for the rest of my life, and I just have to do my best to achieve my goals when the cloud lifts a little. Yet knowing all of this doesn’t make life easier.

I feel quite useless when my depression gets worse. I have no energy and can’t work towards my goals — certainly not as much as I can when I feel better.

 

The only option is acceptance.

I can’t change the fact that I struggle with mental illness. I can try to manage it as best I can, but my coping strategies and activities won’t always be enough. And that’s okay.

It has taken me a long time to start thinking of my mental health as an aspect of my overall health, rather than a reflection of my shortcomings. I know plenty of people still regard mental illness as weakness — and I know they are wrong, because it takes incredible strength to keep going when your symptoms prevent you from living life on your own terms.

So I will try not to be so harsh on myself as I carry on through this drop in mood. I will do what I can, when I can — and try not to stress about the slowness of my progress.

What If You Don’t Have a Dream?

Last week, someone called James left an interesting comment on my post You Need to Chase Your Dreams, asking what if you don’t have any dreams? I wrote an extensive reply, which you can read by scrolling down to the comments section at the bottom of the post, but the question lingered in my mind. What if you don’t have any dreams?

Apple blossom and sky

This post is inspired by James’s comment and the thoughts his question generated. I hope you find it helpful.

1. Check your definition of “dream”.

I use the word “dream” when I talk about my most significant goals in life. These goals aren’t necessarily “big” or extraordinary. Some of them are very mundane — to the extent that other people take them for granted, considering them all but inevitable. For me, these types of dreams include living independently. For others, they encompass marriage, children, a steady job, etc.

The significance of your dreams might not be apparent to other people; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you prioritise what you most want from life, whatever that happens to be.

 

2. Consider the impact of your mental health at any given time.

My dreams take a backseat during particularly bad episodes of mental illness — to the extent that they almost don’t exist. If this is the case for you, focus on anything you can do right now: big life dreams can wait until you can manage your mental health better. Sometimes coping with mental illness is just about trying to get through the day.

However, don’t let your mental health become an excuse for not following your dreams. I know my mental health will be a huge factor in whether or not I can achieve some of my dreams, but I also know I can’t let “what ifs” stop me trying to achieve them. My philosophy is to do what I can, when I can .

 

3. Don’t limit yourself.

Consider the impossible. Seriously. What would you do if there were no limits? How would you spend your days?

When you come up with answers, figure out how you might achieve them — or something similar. You might want to win the lottery so you can spend all day reading or gardening or taking pictures of trains. Okay, winning the lottery is out of your control (once you buy a ticket, anyway), but can you find ways to include more of your favourite activities in your life right now? Are there career paths you can follow so you can earn a living doing what you love? Can you create your own career path?

The creativity and problem-solving involved in chasing your dreams is all part of the fun. It’s a valuable learning process and in addition to preparing for the realisation of your dreams, brings a lot of satisfaction and pleasure in itself. And the crazier your dream, the more complex — and fun — this process will be!

 

4. It’s okay to be content with your life as it is.

If you are happy, there is no need to seek out experiences and achievements you don’t want. We don’t have to spend our time setting goals and chasing dreams. I personally like setting and achieving goals, but acknowledge that not everyone is like me. If there is nothing you want to change about your life, that’s truly wonderful — enjoy it.

 

5. Consider ways to add value to your life and other peoples’ lives.

If you have no other dreams, make this your goal — whether on a small scale or a big one. Perform small acts of kindness, volunteer for chairty, participate in a fundraising challenge. Make the world a better place.

Running Again

I set a goal at the beginning of this month: to run regularly and be able to run for 30 minutes straight by the end of the month. I planned it all out, loosely basing my plan on a couch to 5k programme I had followed before. I was supposed to be able to run for 30 minutes on 30th July. Today, 17th July, I thought I would just start running on the treadmill and see how long I could go for — I figured I could do 10 minutes without a walking break, maybe 15. I did 30 minutes.

Running shoes

I hit my goal in half the time.

I believed my running plan would push me, that I would have to work hard to run for 30 minutes by the end of the month. If you had told me it would take 2 weeks, I wouldn’t have believed you. I might even have said it was impossible — certainly without pushing myself to dangerous levels and collapsing at the end of 30 minutes.

In reality, I was pretty comfortable throughout. There were a couple of moments where I had to put in more effort to keep going, but I was nowhere near my limit. I felt like I could keep going.

 

It makes more sense in retrospect.

I walk a lot. I do kettlebell classes twice a week. I’m neither unfit nor inactive. I suppose, with hindsight, there was no reason why I couldn’t run for 30 minutes. Yet I didn’t believe I could do it — I only attempted it as an experiment. The experiment just lasted longer than I expected!

A couple of other points also indicated reasons for my success: I have run before and I run very slowly. I’m not learning to run, like I was 3-4 years ago. I’m returning to running after plantar fasciitis forced a 2 year break, which I extended by several months because I was afraid of getting injured again before trekking to Machu Picchu. I know from experience how to run through uncomfortable phases and control my breathing.

Note: exercise is fantastic for your mental health, but when you have anxiety, as soon as you start getting out of breath your brain thinks you are panicking — and then starts finding reasons for you to panic. I found this very challenging when I started running and it still happens sometimes, despite my being able to recognise what is happening.

 

I’m thrilled about hitting my goal — especially as it means I can work towards more goals.

I love running. I never thought I would say that, but my previous experience of running was at school, when I felt crap for being so slow compared to my classmates and had never heard of a sports bra. Not pleasant, considering I have been at least a D cup since I was about 14/15! Nowadays, I only compete against myself and having a treadmill at home means I don’t get embarrassed about people seeing me bouncing and puffing.

Running is one of the most effective ways in which I can manage my mental health. In addition to the hormonal effects of exercise, I go into a meditative state when I run. My mind is completely focused on running, so there’s no room for negative thoughts.

I also like how easy it is to measure running goals. I can focus on distance, time or even speed. I can see and feel my progress. It’s a stark contrast to many of my other goals in life.

So what shall I do now I have achieved my running goal for July? Get working on August’s goals, of course! 

Mental Health and the Cult of Busyness

People seem to like being busy nowadays. If work doesn’t take up enough of their time, they schedule leisure and side projects with alarming rigidity. Even children have their “free” time segmented into extracurricular classes, clubs, groups and playdates. They then complain that they never have enough time – except it’s not complaining, because they detail their many activities in such a way that it’s showing off. Claiming “I don’t have the time” has become shorthand for “Look how busy and important I am.”


The implication is that if you don’t fill your days with a list of tasks longer than all of your limbs combined, you don’t matter. You’re not important. So where does that leave those of us with mental health problems?

I can’t schedule every minute of my day because I don’t know how my mental health will affect me on any given day. The best I can do is work around my mental illness. I can spend hours “doing nothing” – not out of choice, but because anxiety and depression paralyse me. I get trapped in negative thinking patterns and it drains my energy.
I would prefer to be able to fill my day to the brim, but I don’t think that’s particularly healthy. It places a lot of pressure on people, especially when things don’t go according to plan (which is inevitable at some point). If I try to live like this (and I have, in the past), I go into meltdown. My mental illness gets worse and I lose sight of what is truly important. Unfortunately, many people live like this without questioning its effects, because busyness has become the norm.

Busyness seems to be embedded in our culture. Whereas in past centuries people worked long hours to put food on the table, many people nowadays work to get more – more gadgets, more exotic holidays, more expensive cars, bigger houses. The problem is that a lot of this stuff is meaningless. It doesn’t make people happier and has a negative impact on their mental health. Is it a coincidence that mental illness appears to have increased as society has amassed more money and consumer goods?

Perhaps the cult of busyness wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t involve so much judgment.

People constantly judge how others spend their time. I know someone who when asked by a colleague whether she was doing overtime on a particular day, said no because she had things to do and was told “well, we all have things to do.” Yes, but it happened to be this person’s birthday – and her father had died suddenly 10 days before. I suggested she should have pointed this out, since funeral arrangements are pretty big priorities, but why should she? Nobody should have to justify how they spend their time.

Yet everyone seems to be clamouring to justify how they decide to spend their own time. How many times have you heard someone rattle off a list of reasons when asked whether they are doing something or attending an event? We feel obliged to explain ourselves when all that’s needed is a simple “no”.

We might feel the need to explain ourselves because other people are so judgmental. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me “I don’t have time to read” when they actually meant “I don’t consider reading a priority”, suggesting that I spend my time frivolously because I have always made time to read. Because reading isn’t important to them, they judge me for reading; they assume I don’t do anything else important, because their fuzzy logic dictates that anyone doing important things doesn’t have time to read. Actually, reading is essential for me because I am a writer. I also consider it vital for cultivating and maintaining good mental health. I think that’s pretty damned important. But why should I have to explain that reading is not just a hobby for me, but an integral part of my career and mental healthcare?

 

A major problem with the cult of busyness is its assumption of uniformity. It assumes we are all alike and have similar priorities which we address in similar ways. Mental health issues are not considered.

Mental illness has forced me to carve out my own path. I can’t fit the mould created by the cult of busyness. And people’s proselytization of the cult of busyness makes me feel worse, implying that I’m inadequate or unimportant. That because I don’t schedule every moment of my life, I don’t matter.

Must-do list

So here is my plea to everyone, whether or not you subscribe to the cult of busyness:

1. Please don’t ask other people to justify how they spend their time.

It’s none of your business. People are free to select their own priorities and organise their lives accordingly. They might be dealing with problems which make it difficult to live what you consider to be a conventional life. They might just have different goals and interests, which means they value activities which you consider worthless and vice versa. It doesn’t matter why they spend their time differently to how you spend yours – they don’t owe you an explanation.

2. Don’t judge how others spend their time.

What seems unimportant to you might be essential for them. You don’t know whether particular activities are coping strategies or simple pleasures in an otherwise difficult life. Many activities have varying purposes and levels of importance in different contexts. For example: cooking can be a decadent hobby for one person, a way to feed their family nutritious food for another and the means of earning a living for another person. Unless you fully understand someone’s situation (which might not be possible, even if you are close), you are in no position to judge how they live.

3. Stop using the phrase “I don’t have the time”.

It’s an excuse, not a reason, and implies judgement of people who choose to make time for whatever you claim not to have the time to do. Everyone has the same amount of time: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Be honest and say “that’s not a priority for me at the moment” or, better still, stop trying to explain your choices. If someone invites you somewhere and you don’t want to go or have a prior engagement, say so briefly: “no, thank you” or “I’m already booked, but perhaps another time”. If someone asks you if you do something, just say yes or no. If they don’t ask and are just talking about an activity they enjoy, say nothing.

4. Stop showing off about being busy – especially through pseudo-complaints.

Some of us would love to be able to maintain your packed schedule. A successful career and vibrant social life? Yes, please! What you consider chores, others might consider to be components of a dream life. Next time you complain about having to ferry your kids around and clean the house, think about the people who would love to have children and their own home but are prevented from having them by circumstance.

5. Don’t make unsolicited comments about how other people spend their time.

I have a neighbour who thinks it’s amusing to say “all right for some!” when he sees other people sitting in their gardens. Regardless of whether they are also looking after children or have been at work all day. His thought process appears to be “they are relaxing and I am not, therefore I need to point out that I am busy”. I’m sure there is no malicious intent, but the implication, once again, is that he is more important than anyone who is not working or running errands.

Purple scream

This follows on from not judging how other people spend their time; you don’t know whether they have been relaxing all day or are snatching a quick break between tasks. Either way, it doesn’t matter. How they spend their time doesn’t affect you. The “all right for some” comment seems innocuous, but it can be hurtful and harmful. Someone (cough, my mum, cough) says it when she sees me watching TV, which makes me feel annoyed if I have spent most of the day working and upset if my mental health has prevented me from working. As a rule of thumb, don’t comment on how someone spends their time unless it has a direct impact on you – and be sensitive, because you never know what problems they are hiding.

6. Stop creating more work for yourself.

Most people are constantly busy through choice, not necessity. The trouble is, many convince themselves that the opposite is true. Your house will not fall down or turn into a hovel if you vacuum once a week, instead of every other day. If your evening classes have become chores which don’t contribute to your wellbeing or other priorities, they are not worth the sacrifice. Make work emails wait until morning if they are not urgent, instead of frantically answering them at midnight. Busywork can be as much of a time-suck as watching TV for hours – it yields similar results, with none of the pleasure.

7. Consider opting out.

A lot of people who buy into the cult of busyness seem to be stressed and unhappy. If this is the case for you, why not stop? You might be surprised to learn that you can cope with working fewer hours, even if it means only having one holiday a year or going without the latest iPhone, and be happier for doing so. You could discover you have more fun if you just hang out with your partner, instead of scheduling daytrips and dates every weekend. If you are already stressed and unhappy, what have you got to lose?

8. Finally, think about your mental health – and other people’s.

It’s frustrating when people make assumptions about what I can/can’t do, based on their own experiences and/or perceptions of me on good days. There are days when I can out-busy anyone, when I feel motivated, productive and full of energy. But they are few and far between. My mental health problems don’t let me act like a fully paid up member of the cult of busyness.

And that might be a good thing. While some people thrive under pressure (myself included), nobody benefits from constant stress with no respite. Even if you are coping well, consider how your lifestyle might affect your health in future – especially your mental health.