Mini Self-Care Strategies

We all know the importance of “big” methods of managing mental health, such as medication and exercise, but it’s easy to overlook the impact of “small” coping strategies. Mini self-care strategies typically take little time and effort, but make a significant impact. But because they seem so small, their importance is easy to downplay — you figure skipping them won’t really matter, ignoring the cumulative effect.

Journal

Acknowledging the importance of mini strategies is the first step.

It took me ages to figure out that the gaps in my journal were not only a symptom of my mental health declining, but also a contributing factor. When I write in my journal regularly, I feel better. Even if it’s just a few lines.Now I recognise how journalling helps me manage my mental illness, I know I need to prioritise it.

Observing patterns in your mental health is an effective way of working out which mini strategies work best for you. You can also experiment, trying new strategies and noting changes in your symptoms. Consider the impact of all your activities — even if it seems unlikely they affect your mental health.

 

Find ways of fitting mini strategies into your life.

Some people respond well to putting tasks on their to-do list (or must-do list), or scheduling them in their planner/calendar. Writing it down reminds you that these mini strategies are important and you should make time for them. However, some people can feel pressured by doing this, which may negate the benefits of the strategies.

The best way of making time for mini self-care strategies is to build them into your routine and make them a habit. For example, I write in my journal when I go to bed — it has become part of my routine, just like brushing my teeth. Piggybacking tasks onto established habits is very effective and easy to implement.

 

What counts as a mini self-care strategy?

Anything which makes you feel better in the long term and which can be done in a short amount of time. Note that these tasks could take much longer, if you choose, but it’s possible for them to have an advantageous effect in 5-10 minutes per day. Obviously, this will vary from person to person, but here are some examples:

• Journalling

• Listening to music

• Meditation

• Sketching

• Yoga

• Reading

• Knitting/crocheting

• Texting/calling a friend

• Gardening

 

Remember to do what works for you.

Perhaps your mini self-care strategies seem a little strange — or completely crazy — but it doesn’t matter, as long as they work for you. The crucial issue is developing the self-awareness to observe what works over a number of days or weeks; sometimes it will feel like your mini strategies aren’t helping, especially if your mental health symptoms fluctuate a lot, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t working in the long term. Stick with it and make notes.

Also keep track of how you feel before, during and after activities which you wouldn’t necessarily associate with self-care. I find that spot of decluttering is beneficial, for instance, although I wouldn’t consider tidying an activity I enjoy — at least, not while I’m doing it!

Don’t underestimate the effect of returning to activities you haven’t done for several weeks or months. Many of my self-care tasks were neglected over winter, when physical illness took its toll and caused a deterioration in my mental health, and I was surprised at how effective simple, little activites were in helping me feel better.

As always, there will be some trial and error involved to find what works for you. But once you find effective strategies, they are vital components in your self-care toolkit.

 

9 Months After Antidepressants

It’s been about 9 months since I completely stopped taking antidepressants, so I thought I would write an update/ponder on the issue. What follows is a summary of my experience and the issues it has raised.

Pill packets

There has been no dramatic change.

Browsing the internet, you would be forgiven for thinking that people fall into two categories: those who are anti-medication for mental illness and those who advocate taking anything you can get. The impression you get from this divide is that coming off antidepressants after over a decade will have a drastic effect – either you will feel awesome all the time or you will crash back down to the worst manifestations of your mental illness. This did not happen for me.

In fact, not taking antidepressants feels the same as taking antidepressants. I still get bad days, but I also have many good days. Managing my mental illness is a learning curve, but I’m finding and implementing more coping strategies. My hope that I would drop a lot of weight instantly did not (alas!) come to fruition. It turns out my fat has more to do with comfort eating and (lack of) portion control than medication…

Please note that I did not suddenly stop taking antidepressants. I discussed it with my doctor and gradually reduced the dosage over approximately 4 months, regularly meeting with my GP throughout the transition

 

It’s a personal choice, not a political statement.

I don͛t fall into either of the categories mentioned above: I’m neither anti-medication nor fanatical about antidepressants. Like most people, I suspect, I regard antidepressants as a useful tool which should be used to treat mental illness when it is needed and effective. My definition of “need͛” is when mental illness is affecting your ability to function”normally” which will be different for everybody, because it depends on what “normal” means for you. I also advocate using antidepressants in combination with other treatments where possible and appropriate, especially talking therapies.

I have no agenda in choosing to stop taking antidepressants. I decided it was something I would like to try for myself, to see how I coped without them. I’m not urging other people to do the same; nor am I urging them to keep taking medication.

Choosing whether or not to take medication – any medication – at any given time is a personal choice. I don͛t judge people for taking antidepressants, which is partly why I find it difficult to respond when people congratulate me for stopping my medication. A lot of people try to place a moral value on taking or not taking antidepressants, but this is unhelpful and damaging. You are not letting anyone down or doing anything wrong by taking medication. Neither are you letting anyone down or doing anything wrong by choosing not to take it.

You have to do what works for you. For me, that has involved a lot of trial and error in finding the right type of antidepressants and the right dosage at various times in my life. If you (and your doctor) think you might benefit from medication, give it a fair shot – and don’t expect it to work miracles. The media loves to call antidepressants “happy pills” but they rarely have the effect of increasing your mood to that extent, let alone giving you instant happiness in a deep, meaningful way.

You may experience side effects, but you may not. Some people claim that the possible side effects are a strong reason not to take antidepressants, but this disregards the fact that for many people,
side effects are mild and/or temporary – or may not manifest at all. You also need to weigh up the side effects against the benefits of medication, as with medication for physical conditions.

Personally, I believe the side effects I experienced were minimal compared to the improvement in my mental health. In fact, the only major problem I have had with antidepressants is certain types and/or doses not being effective. Seek advice from your doctor, be prepared to experiment and ensure your expectations are realistic.

Withdrawal symptoms also vary a lot from person to person. I didn͛t notice any, so can’t comment much on withdrawal symptoms in relation to my own experience, but it’s something you must
consider when deciding whether to stop taking antidepressants. I waited until I was sure I could cope with any withdrawal symptoms before coming off medication; I needed to know I was in the frame
of mind where I could recognise them as physiological or neurological effects, rather than personal affronts, and seek help if required. Again, it’s a case of experimenting to see what works for you – you may need to reduce your dosage more slowly in order to reduce and cope with withdrawal symptoms.

 

Antidepressants are an important part of my story.

I don’t think I would be alive without antidepressants. They took the edge off the worst points in my life and got me through. I still had really bad episodes of depression, including times when I was suicidal, but they would have been worse and longer without antidepressants – as I found out when I was in my late teens and came off medication too soon because I felt ashamed that I needed them. That͛s why nobody should try to shame someone for taking antidepressants: not taking them could put their life at risk.

Antidepressants provided me with a useful stepping stone, allowing me access to other ways of managing my mental health. Without them, I would not have been well enough or motivated enough to discover strategies which I now find useful, like exercise and meditation. I would not have been able to access treatments like drama therapy and counselling, which have had a massive impact on my wellbeing.

I have been able to achieve long term goals because I have taken antidepressants. I would not have gotten through university without them or learnt to drive. Even trekking to Machu Picchu last month would not have been possible if I hadn’t taken antidepressants; I could only go out walking alone to train because medication boosted my mood enough to make it a possibility in March last year. I will reap the benefits of antidepressants for the rest of my life, even if I never take them again.

 

Stopping antidepressants is an achievement.

I have recently been able to acknowledge that coming off medication is an achievement: not in itself, but because it͛s a sign that I’m managing my mental health well. This is a marked contrast to the attitude I had in my late teens, when I was first diagnosed with depression and thought I needed to stop taking antidepressants no matter what the cost. Back then, I was preoccupied with trying to convince everyone I was fine and terrified of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Nowadays, I battle that stigma and realise it͛s okay to admit that I need help.

This change of attitude is critical – it means that when my mental health dipped at the end of last year, I sought help. I had the confidence to ask for the type of help I wanted (counselling), without either returning to medication or ruling it out. I also recognised the importance of the strategies which had enabled me to stop taking antidepressants, returning to them as soon as I was able.

My initial response to being congratulated for stopping medication was to be defensive. I thought it meant people were judging me for needing antidepressants. I have come to realise that their congratulations are shorthand for “well done for managing your mental health on your own terms and working hard to get to this point.” It acknowledges my strength throughout my journey, rather than implying I used to be weak.

I was also wary about accepting congratulations because I was afraid I would relapse. I regarded coming off antidepressants as an experiment, rather than a milestone. However, I was believing a fallacy: that people would rescind their congratulations if I returned to medication. Again, I was placing the emphasis on the antidepressants rather than my own frame of mind and efforts to self- manage my mental health. People were congratulating me for reaching a point where I could experiment with not taking medication; even if I take antidepressants again in future, I have still attained the achievement for which I am being congratulated.

 

My experience doesn’t imply judgment of others’ experiences.

I struggled to be proud of coming off medication because I was afraid it would be misconstrued as judgment of both myself and others for taking medication in the first place. That isn’t true. In fact, I believe people should be congratulated for deciding to take antidepressants, as well as deciding not to take them, because asking for and accepting help is difficult.

I’m glad I was able to stop taking antidepressants because it was the right decision for me. It͛s not the right decision for everyone. I’m not under the illusion that it makes me a better person or better at managing my mental health than someone who takes medication. Comparing people in this way is unhelpful and cruel, because mental illness varies from person to person – especially when many of us have been diagnosed with more than one condition. Even when symptoms appear similar, the causes and effective treatments can be vastly different.

 

It’s still early days.

9 months seems like a long time in some ways, but represents only 5% of the time since I was first diagnosed with a mental illness. It͛s less significant when you consider that I was experiencing symptoms for at least 5 years prior to my diagnosis. My mental health has improved over the past couple of months, but I don͛t know what the future will bring – I could deteriorate and need to take antidepressants again. If I do, it won͛t signify failure.

All I can do is wait and see what happens, managing my mental health as well as I can in the meantime.

These 9 months have been challenging, but they have also been revelatory. I have coped better than I thought I could, both with little things like walking on my own and big things like trekking to Machu Picchu. I discovered that I can survive a bad episode without medication. I realised how big an impact physical activity has on my mental health when illness prevented me from exercising. I learnt the importance of small acts of self-care, like eating proper meals and making sure I do things I enjoy.

Most of all, I found that not taking antidepressants is not much different to taking them – for me, at this point in my life. There have been no miracles and no disasters. Just me, living and coping as best I can on my own terms.

Sunshine and Optimism

I love summer — and the effect it has on my mood. The sun has a physiological impact, making your brain produce more serotonin and regulating melatonin levels. This means you feel better and your sleep patterns improve. In addition, sunlight boosts vitamin D levels and vitamin D deficiencies  are strongly associated with depression. Try this article if you would like more information on the benefits of sunshine (and enjoying them safely) — it’s long, but fascinating.

Sunset
I love it when 9:30pm looks like this.

Summer also has a psychological effect.

I have a theory that good weather encourages mindfulness; especially in the UK, where we have to make the most of the sunshine while it lasts! Warm weather and long hours of daylight also make it easier to get outside and participate in activities which improve my mood.

Instead of watching TV or aimlessly browsing the internet, I read or scribble in my writing journal. Or just hang out with my dog. I can enjoy walking either early in the day or late in the evening, rather than rushing to get out while it’s still light and not raining too much. I spend more time meditating and practicing mindfulness.

Perhaps it’s better because it’s fleeting.

Would I enjoy summer so much if it lasted longer? I’m not sure. Perhaps I embrace it so wholeheartedly because I know it will pass too quickly. If we had warm, dry weather for most of the year, would I make such an effort to take advantage of it and participate in activities which benefit my mental health?

Maybe it would be easier to keep doing those activities. To keep getting outside and exercising or reading. Or maybe I would stay inside, watching TV because I know the sun will still be shining in a week, a month, a few months.

But why overthink it, when you can enjoy it?

The bottom line is that summer improves my mental health and helps me feel better. I intend to use the benefits to make improvements to my life and mental health while I can.

The Must-Do List

I came across the idea of writing a must-do list in a fun and practical book I read recently, Get Your Shit Together by Sarah Knight. It’s simple: write your to-do list, featuring everything you need or want to do, then prioritise it and choose 2/3 top priority tasks each day to put on a separate must-do list.

Must-do list

How to use the must-do list.

Using the must-do list is simple in theory: you must get these tasks done today, no matter what, before tackling anything else on your to-do list. These are your top priorities.

If you have a clear demarcation between different areas of your life, such as work and home, you can make separate must-do lists for each one. However, be aware that having more than a couple of must-do lists will defeat the object and make the strategy less effective. It may also be a good idea to keep your work must-do (and to-do) list at work, to help maintain focus.

Personally, I combine work and everything else onto a single to-do list, from which I create a single must-do list each day. I work from home and my hours are variable, since I work around my mental health problems, so there is little distinction between my home and work life.

The tasks on the list should be small and specific — even if they are part of a larger project. Split large tasks into smaller ones until you have manageable chunks.

 

The must-do list forces you to focus.

You are faced with your top 2/3 priorities in small, manageable chunks and can ignore everything else on your to-do list. This is why it’s important to make a separate list, so you don’t get distracted by lower priority tasks as you consult your to-do list.

Many of us are guilty of procrastinating through busyness. We convince ourselves we are being productive because we are crossing items off our to-do list, yet high priority tasks are left unfinished while less important ones are completed. You then have the perfect excuse to claim you have no time to complete high priority tasks, because the crossed-off items on your to-do list provide evidence. You can ignore the fact that you wasted hours doing busywork instead of working on a major project.

The must-do list cuts through this bullshit. It makes you hyper-aware of your priorities and splits your goals into small tasks, so you are less likely to feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the important stuff.

 

The must-do list helps you realise you have plenty of time and space to tackle your priorities.

You don’t need to panic about how you can fit in everything on your to-do list, because you are not trying to fit in everything. You only have to fit in your top priorities. This enables you to approach your most important tasks with a clear mind.

You can focus on what is most important to you and accomplish what you want.

 

Must-do lists improve productivity.

Once you complete your top priorities, you can tackle the next ones on your to-do list. By doing this, you are getting ahead and have the security of knowing the most important tasks are done.

Compare this approach to the conventional to-do list: you get distracted by minor tasks which you do because they take little time, not considering how those “insignificant” 10-20 minutes here and there soon add up to hours. This leaves you with inadequate time to tackle the most important tasks, so you fall behind and if you manage to work on your priorities, you are forced to rush. You figure it might be better to leave those tasks, which also tend to be the ones requiring the most energy and concentration, until tomorrow — when you add more items to your to-do list and start the whole process over again, playing catch up and racing without getting anywhere.

The ridiculous thing is, it’s easy to make time for lower priority tasks at the end of the day, whereas doing them first swamps your whole day. The must-do list approach also leaves you in a better frame of mind to tackle those lower priority tasks: you are less stressed and frazzled, because you know you have taken care of your priorities. You feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, which motivates you to complete a few more tasks instead of slumping in front of the TV all evening.

 

Must-do lists may seem counterintuitive, but they work.

I decided to try the approach because my chronic procrastination often meant I did nothing important for days, using my time and energy to complete meaningless tasks which I told myself “needed” to be done. I figured it would be better to get a couple of high priority tasks done, rather than several low priority tasks.

I discovered that writing a must-do list was far more effective than I had anticipated. Not only am I completing high priority tasks, but I’m also getting through many medium and low priority tasks.

Must-do lists have a huge psychological effect, setting you up to succeed. To-do lists, while useful, offer too many pitfalls which could lead to failure. Even when you prioritise to-do lists, you are faced with the distraction of other tasks on the list — a separate must-do list avoids this, while still providing you with the security of a to-do list.

The to-do list is a crucial part of this system, because it collates everything you need to remember. Trying to make must-do lists without the foundation of a to-do list doesn’t work. You can’t prioritise effectively unless you consider everything you need/want to do and trying to remember non-priorities creates a distraction. When you put everything on a to-do list, you don’t need to think about anything but your must-do list.

It’s early days, but I’m very impressed with the must-do list system. I’m more productive than I have been for months and less stressed. Give it a try — you might surprise yourself!

Living Option B

It’s inevitable that our plans go awry sooner or later, but for some of us the changes are so dramatic they throw our life off course.

Machu Picchu
My Option B looks like this. Sometimes.

This week, I read a book called Option B, which is co-written by Sheryl Sandberg. Sheryl is one of the world’s most prominent businesswomen and COO of Facebook. In 2015, her life was turned upside down when her husband, Dave, died suddenly at the age of 47. Option B is about how Sheryl learned to cope. Her cowriter, Adam Grant, is an author and academic with a PhD in organisational psychology. The book combines personal experience with psychological research and suggestions for how social and political changes could support people in difficult situations.

While bereavement is the book’s focal point, it addresses a range of issues and its lessons can be applied to a range of traumatic experiences. I found a lot of ideas to help me manage my mental health and the issues surrounding long term mental illness, but the main message I got from the book is: how do I kick the shit out of Option B?

The concept is simple: Option A would have been wonderful, but it’s not what happened. You are stuck with Option B, so how do you make the best of it?

For me, my Option A would have been a life unaffected by mental illness. Unlike many people, I never really lived this option for any period of time because my mental health problems began when I was a teenager. I have never held a job which wasn’t affected by my mental health. I have never lived independently. I have never met my friends in a pub without fighting anxiety. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself; I know it’s neither attractive nor helpful, but I wish I had gotten to live Option A.

But I got stuck with Option B: long term anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder.

There are two broad options when you are living Option B. You can bemoan the fact that Option A is lost to you and waste your life wishing it were different. Or you can find ways to cope with Option B. Find moments of joy, even if lasting happiness seems impossible. Achieve goals, though simple tasks may seem impossible.

Strange as it sounds, I’m not sure I would have achieved many of my life goals if I weren’t stuck with Option B. I don’t think I would have done a Creative Writing MA or trekked to Machu Picchu. If life had been comfortable for me, I wouldn’t have found the motivation to stretch myself. If I had enjoyed the mundane success of a steady job and “normal” life, I doubt I would have found the courage to face failure in order to fulfil my biggest dreams.

Living Option B often means regarding things from a different perspective.

In the past, I have fallen into the habit of thinking “What can I do? I can’t even walk into a shop on my own.” I set myself up for failure and paralysed my progress by approaching the problem from a position of weakness. I answered my question with what seemed like the only choice: I can’t do anything. I struggle with normal things, let alone “proper” goals.

A more empowering perspective is to think “This is what I want to do – how could I do it?” This is how I try to approach my big goals, the dreams I really want to chase. It engages the part of your brain which wants to solve problems, because it presents a specific dilemma.

Disclaimer: being able to come up with options doesn’t mean any of them are easier. In fact, many are extremely difficult to follow – even when you know they are the best options. However, simply being aware of options is a huge step forward.

When you feel paralysed by anxiety (or any illness, situation or emotion), you are stuck in your current circumstances and can’t see a way out. Thinking about what you want and following potential paths to achieving your goals lets a little light in; it may not throw open a door straight in front of you, but it creates a chink of light which demarcates an exit. You can use that light to negotiate your way out, even if you have to overcome many obstacles to do so.

More Option Bs will keep cropping up.

Even when you are already living Option B, life can toss more shit your way. Problems can often cause other problems, such as long term illness resulting in debt because it limits your ability to earn. Sometimes your situation seems to be improving, then it takes a nosedive. None of this is inevitable, but it happens a lot.

Maintaining a positive attitude when living Option B is bloody difficult, but it makes your life a lot easier.

The book discusses ways to challenge thoughts which are personal, pervasive and permanent. This is based on the work of Martin Seligman, pioneer of positive psychology and a hero of mine. He discovered that people are less able to overcome adversity when they blame themselves (personal), believe everything in their lives will be negatively influenced (pervasive) and believe the results will last forever (permanent). It’s easy to get trapped into this way of thinking, even when you can acknowledge that it’s not helpful.

I’m guilty of being aware of these patterns of thinking, but not being consistent enough in challenging them. I know the theory, but struggle to apply it in practice. The problem with living Option B is that there is a huge source of adversity which does seem personal, pervasive and permanent. Mental illness, in particular, feels like it’s your fault/is punishing you personally, can affect all areas of your life and feels permanent when you have experienced it for many years. How can you challenge something so monolithic?

The answer appears to be: by chipping away at it. The obvious starting point is that nobody is to blame for their mental illness. Sure, maybe certain behaviours, thoughts and coping strategies contribute to the development and progression of mental illness, but nobody chooses it. We all do our best as we battle through and sometimes our ways of coping aren’t the best options, but seem to be the only or easiest options to which we have access at the time. Besides, sometimes people can do everything “right” and still become mentally ill.

We can chip away at pervasiveness and permanence by considering the fluctuations of mental illness. I have bad days, for sure, but I also have good days. My mental health also affects my life in different ways at different times: when my depression recedes, I often find more energy and motivation to exercise or work on my writing. When my anxiety improves, I can get out more, be more sociable and submit more of my work. Again, this chipping away might not seem like much progress, but it’s the chink of light which lets you know there is hope.

Acknowledging that you are living Option B can be refreshing.

It takes the pressure off. You realise comparing your Option B to other people’s Option A is futile. You aren’t constantly chasing after Option A, once you acknowledge that Option A is no longer available. Instead, you can focus on turning Option B into a happy, successful and fulfilling life.

I can’t turn back time and prevent my mental illness. I can’t magically transform myself into someone who managed to move out of her parents’ house in her early 20s and has held down a full time job for 10 years. But I can work on building a satisfying career which will hopefully enable me to earn a living one day. I can strive to achieve my goals and find moments of joy amongst the pain and despair of mental illness. I can learn coping strategies and manage my mental illness so that it causes me less pain and despair. I can chase my dreams and try to inspire other people to see the hope in their lives.

And that, my friends, is what I think the book means when it mentions kicking the shit out of Option B!

Did It!

Last week, I completed a trek through the Lares Valley in Peru, then to Machu Picchu.

It had been a dream of mine for many years – so long that I’m not sure how old I was when I first read or heard about Machu Picchu. It holds a lot of spiritual significance for many people, including myself, though articulating this attraction is difficult. All I know is, since I found out about the “lost” city I have had a strong desire to not only visit it, but to make a sort of pilgrimage.

Machu Picchu

Trekking through the Andes was tougher than I’d anticipated.

I trained as best I could, but there are factors which are difficult to prepare for, like altitude. I got altitude sickness: periods of breathlessness and/or light-headedness, plus a near-constant nausea. I wasn’t affected as badly as some people in my group, but suffering for several days in a row takes its toll.

I was also exhausted, because in addition to the physical challenge, anxiety uses a lot of energy. I’m not used to being around strangers for such a large proportion of the day. I struggle to sleep in unfamiliar places and I wasn’t eating much, because of the nausea. I had hoped the physical exertion would lead to good sleep, but that wasn’t the case – I just got more tired as I kept waking up throughout the night.

Then there was the throat infection… After feeling fine for the acclimatisation trek and the first day of trekking, the second day brought a chesty cough and a general feeling of weakness and lethargy. Our group had its own doctor, Dr Evelyn, who examined me after lunch and pronounced that I had an infection. She prescribed a 3 day course of antibiotics. I felt crap the next day (and needed oxygen over lunch, as my levels had dipped too low) and was still ill as I made my way to Machu Picchu on day 4, adding stomach cramps to my problems.

Oh, yes – I forgot to mention that for the first 3 days of trekking, it was pouring with rain. Our clothes got soaked and we couldn’t dry them properly overnight, because we were camping in tents with no source of heat. It was incredibly uncomfortable.

 

Stubbornness got me through.

Call it grit or determination if you like, but I have been told it’s stubbornness throughout my life and I’m now proud to be stubborn. I said I would reach Machu Picchu or die trying and I meant it – as long as I could put one foot in front of the other and drag myself along on my walking poles, I would. There were times when I thought I would collapse and fail in my endeavours, but my exhausted body was powered by my desire to complete the challenge and somehow kept going.

Every time I hit a milestone, I felt elated. Even when the milestone was a rock three feet away. I couldn’t believe I was still walking, still striving towards my goal.

In many ways, the trek was an extension of my training. I had so much shit thrown at me during my preparation for the challenge that a bit more didn’t make any difference. I knew I could fight through depression, physical illness and anxiety, so I fought through exhaustion, physical illness and anxiety.

 

My fellow trekkers expressed admiration for my determination, believing it would have been easy for me to give up – but giving up was never an option.

Giving up would have been more difficult than continuing, because it would mean letting myself down and admitting that I might never achieve any of my dreams. As long as I was able, I would keep going. If I had broken my leg and was physically unable to carry on, I would have to accept that setback. If I had collapsed, ditto. But as long as I had a choice, I wasn’t going to give up.

I want to show people – especially people with mental health problems – that dreams are worth pursuing. Even when it feels like you will never achieve your goals. While Machu Picchu was my destination, the journey taught me a lot: most importantly, that I’m stronger (mentally and physically) than I believe.

I also learnt how valuable it is to have other people supporting me. While they may have had their doubts, they expressed nothing but encouragement. My fellow trekkers were facing their own challenges, yet they always had the time and energy to reassure me. Likewise, the guides and Dr Evelyn went above and beyond their duty to keep me going. I couldn’t have reached Machu Picchu without every single one of them.

 

Realising my dream was awesome.

I hope fulfilling this long-held goal will be a springboard into a happier life, but it’s pretty amazing in itself. The challenge was unlike any other I have attempted, involving facing many fears and anxieties. When I reached the sun gate at Machu Picchu, following a very difficult morning during which my progress was slow, the main emotion I felt was gratitude.

I was thankful to have had the opportunity to follow my dream, although it took a lot of hard work. I was grateful for the sponsorship which raised over £1000 (if you count gift aid) for Amnesty International, supporting human rights. More than anything, I was glad that I was able to complete the challenge and that all the setbacks and problems I faced were overcome.

The Incas appeared to have a strong, pagan sense of spiritualty. They felt a deep connection to Mother Earth. I share this perspective and trekking through the Peruvian landscape reinforced my beliefs. The Andes offered many points of contrast and comparison to more familiar landscapes. Parts of the trek reminded me of Dartmoor, with its granite rocks and rolling river – yet, when I looked up, I saw mountaintops shrouded in cloud. It reminded me that no matter how alien a place seems, there are points of familiarity, whether in nature or people. Everything is connected.

And I’m connected, too. For the first time in years, I feel like I have a place in the world.

A Big Jump Forward

The other week, I said something in a counselling session that I’ve been thinking about a lot since I said it: “I feel like I have to take a jump off a cliff just to move forward one single step.”
Explore, dream, discover

I’m not sure whether needing to do something “big” in order to make any progress is a good thing. It puts me under a lot of pressure and “big” things are often expensive. However, when the other option is to stay stuck, being able to take that jump off a cliff is vital.

 

Jumping off a cliff requires a lot of motivation and a huge potential reward.

It’s a dangerous situation and failure can be catastrophic. If I hit the metaphorical rocks, my mental health would probably be affected in a very negative way. The same goes for smaller risks, which is why I often find it easier to take bigger risks — when the reward is small, it’s not worth putting my mental health on the line.

I know this is hard for people to get their heads around and I don’t claim to fully understand why I think like this, but I do. If I’m going to take any risk, there needs to be a good reason — preferably several reasons. There needs to be the possibility of achieving a massive goal and/or improving my life significantly. Usually, there also needs to be a push as well as a pull: the idea of never taking this particular risk is worse than trying and failing.

 

Logically, this means that failure doesn’t matter.

If the absolute worst option is to never take the risk, to never try to achieve the goal, then failure is the lesser of two evils. Following the argument through, it also means I shouldn’t be afraid of failure because it’s not the worst outcome.

For me, this is not the case: emotion overpowers logic.

I’m terrified of failure. I’m scared of not living up to my expectations and of disappointing other people. But my biggest fear is never trying to achieve anything worthwhile; giving up on my dreams and settling for a life which will never be fulfilling.

 

I’m hoping my Machu Picchu trek will be a success, but I think I’m beginning to appreciate the fact that I’m trying to achieve an important goal.

Note that I cannot (yet) feel proud of myself — but this acknowledgement is improvement! I talked about letting go of the fantasies surrounding my Machu Picchu challenge in my last post, and of being disappointed not to live up to these fantasies, but I guess they don’t matter as much as my trying to achieve them. I would love it if everything had gone my way, but it didn’t and instead of giving up, I’m still giving it my best shot.

Sidenote: I will be within £180 of my £1000 fundraising goal when I add pledged donations, so this is one fantasy which might come to fruition. If you would like to sponsor me to show your support for my challenge and human rights, please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones You can do so anonymously and/or without publicising the amount. Every pound is appreciated. It would mean a lot to me personally to hit my original target and will help Amnesty International do more of their amazing work.

I can make more sense of my situation when I consider my reactions to a hypothetical third party: I would have more respect for someone who says “I tried to trek to Machu Picchu, but it didn’t work out and I failed” than someone who says “I always wanted to trek to Machu Picchu, but never tried.”

As much as I want to be able to say “I did it!” I would rather be the former hypothetical person than the latter. Anyone can have dreams and goals, but working towards them is what matters — ask any writer who has encountered someone who says “I always wanted to write a novel” and is expected to sympathise!

 

So here’s my big jump…

I fly to Peru tomorrow. I hope I land in open ocean, rather than on the rocks, but I’m glad I’m jumping — whatever happens.

Relinquishing Fantasies

As my Machu Picchu trek looms closer (just over a week away), I have to let go of many hopes, goals and expectations I had regarding the challenge. Trekking to Machu Picchu has been a dream of mine since I can remember and I wanted its realisation to be a focal point, encouraging me to transform my life. In reality, it feels like everything has gone wrong since I signed up for the challenge.

Sunset

So here are the fantasies I have to relinquish:

I would be a lot slimmer

While I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to prioritise weight loss (I have had eating disorders in the past and old habits can set in without much persuading if I’m not careful), I thought I would lose a significant amount of weight through exercising more and eating more healthily to fuel the exercise. I have lost nearly 30lbs, but I had more than double that amount in mind. I’m so overweight that I’m not sure people can tell I’ve lost any weight.

The fantasy me would have been more confident and at ease in her body. She wouldn’t be worrying about whether she would need a seatbelt extender on the plane. She wouldn’t be concerned about people looking at her and thinking she hasn’t worked hard enough to train for the challenge.

Yet I can acknowledge, on a logical level, that clinging onto the 30lb weight loss is pretty good, considering I tend to comfort eat when depressed and my depression took a nosedive over winter. When you are focusing on getting through each day, food can feel like the only thing which gives you pleasure or energy — though the pleasure and energy are fleeting and soon replaced by their opposites. There’s also the strong possibility that if I had lost 60lbs, I would still feel dissatisfied…

 

I would be a lot fitter.

I had visions of myself feeling fit, strong and invincible. I threw myself into a new exercise routine, walking and going to gym classes. Then I got ill, physically and mentally. Winter viruses stopped me training for almost 4 months, giving me a constant viral chest infection which obviously couldn’t be treated with antibiotics. This took its toll on my mental health, since exercise was my main strategy for managing my anxiety and depression since I stopped taking medication in September.

I have managed to resume walking — even walking on my own, which I hadn’t done for over a decade until last March — but I’m too scared to go back to gym classes. I’m embarrassed to admit this and I don’t know why I’m so scared, but anxiety isn’t a rational illness. I have no idea whether I can complete the trek, but I hope I can. I wish I was stronger and fitter, but getting through the past 6 months has taught me that I’m mentally strong, so hopefully my grit and determination will get me through.

 

My mental health would be a lot better.

When I signed up for the challenge, I was enjoying a period of relatively good mental health and believed I was on an upward trajectory. I thought I had control of my mental illness and would continue to improve. This did not happen.

Instead, my mental health deteriorated over winter and I’m still struggling with anxiety and depression. It doesn’t seem fair, hut maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be: I talk about encouraging other people with mental health problems to chase their dreams, so here I am, tackling an enormous challenge when a large part of me feels like hiding away and sobbing in a corner.

 

I would reach my £1000 fundraising goal.

A quick glance at my fundraising page will show you that I haven’t reached my target. I have been pledged a couple more donations, so will have raised over £700 for Amnesty International and maybe I will hit £750, but I can’t and don’t expect more than that. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because I appreciate every single donation and have been touched by people’s generosity. I have received sponsorship from people I have never met offline and from people who don’t have a lot of money to spare. Thank you to everyone for supporting me and human rights.

I’m disappointed because I haven’t been able to do a lot of the things I had planned to raise funds. I knew I wouldn’t be able to organise big events, thanks to my mental health (which is one of several reasons for my self-funding my challenge), but mental illness has prevented me from doing things I thought I would be able to cope with. I had hoped to do a better job.

 

My career would be going a lot better.

I also believed I would be in a better situation with my work by now. While there have been a couple of wonderful developments, like volunteering at The Project, I’m struggling. The job with a CV writing company, which I thought I could rely on for regular income alongside my other writing endeavours, turned out to have a very lax attitude towards paying me — I was paid months late, after sending emails threatening legal action. Maybe I would have bounced back better if my depression and anxiety hadn’t gotten worse, but they did. It’s all a bit of a disaster.

It’s hard to accept this situation because my expectations were not high. I just wanted to feel like I had a little more direction and a little more money in my pocket. Instead, my debt has increased and I’m afraid my Machu Picchu challenge will turn out to be a giant waste of time and money.

 

Relinquishing fantasies is difficult because it involves facing up to harsh realities, which have been influenced by both forces outside of my control and my own failings. I look back and wonder what I could, would or should have done differently. I wonder whether I’m just stupid for attempting the challenge.
But there is one fantasy I cling to, which I hope will become reality:

My Machu Picchu challenge will be a springboard into a better life.

I hope the challenge will teach me a lot about myself and provide me with guidance. I think it could have a fantastic effect on my confidence and motivation. Training has reminded me of how much better I feel when I’m fitter and I want to lead a more active lifestyle from now on. I have realised that I’m resilient and can apply the lessons I have learnt from pursuing this goal, despite the disappointments and setbacks, to achieving other goals.

Preparing for the trek has also shown me that many people support me in this quest; I want to show them that their support is appreciated and (hopefully) deserved. 

The Next Few Steps

I did a 10 mile hike on Dartmoor at the weekend, training for my Machu Picchu trek. It rained and a lot of it was over tough terrain, so it was hard going. The fact that I am a little paranoid about getting injured and not being able to complete my challenge didn’t help, as I was extra-cautious and therefore slow. Towards the end, I was miserable and starting to feel overwhelmed — not by the Dartmoor hike, but by the looming threat of not being able to complete my Machu Picchu challenge. The only thing which got me through was focusing on the next few steps.

 

Stepping stones

 

Focusing on the next few steps is vital for any difficult time.

I realised as I was trudging along that I need to do this more often: to get myself through the next few steps towards my goal, rather than worrying about the bigger picture. It might not stop the anxiety, but it reduces it and makes it more manageable. Instead of being anxious about EVERYTHING in my life, I can only be anxious about not completing the next few steps.

Dealing with anxiety is often like that: you break it down by segmenting your anxiety and focusing on one segment at a time. This strategy can work well, as it stops you from having a total meltdown, but it presents its own challenges. When the next few steps go wrong, it feels like everything has gone wrong and your whole life is a disaster. That’s why it’s difficult for me to deal with last minute changes in plans. However, most of the time, I get through those steps — imperfectly and inefficiently, but somehow.

You need faith to take those next few steps.

Taking any action requires faith — or at least hope — that you can complete it and there’s a possibility of the next steps going well. There are no guarantees.

I have prepared for my Machu Picchu trek as well as I could, given the circumstances. I wish I hadn’t lost training time to physical and mental illness, but that’s how it worked out. I wish I could have raised more money, but I knew it would be a challenge even before my anxiety and depression got worse. C’est la vie. And if/when I finish the trek, it will be all the more sweeter for knowing what I have been through.

Of course, some elements of the trek are almost impossible to prepare for. I have no idea how I will cope at altitude, for instance, which can reduce the fittest people into crawling, panting wretches. I can’t align my training walks with the walking I will have to do on the trek, because the incline and terrain will be different to anything I have access to in Devon. Nor do I know how my pace matches up to my fellow trekkers — I may be alone at the back of the pack, scurrying to reach the campsite before dark.

But the point is to challenge myself, physically and mentally.

I have never thought the Machu Picchu trek would be easy. Maybe I come across as nonchalant to some people (since I have had a few patronising comments, from people who have never done a similar challenge…), but inside, I am panicking and overwhelmed. I’m doing this because it’s NOT easy. Because I want to learn abot my capabilities and hopefully prove to myself that I can achieve something big.

I’m pushing myself on purpose. I need to keep reminding myself of that fact. It would be easier not to do the trek — to not try. It would be easier to stay at home lost in despair, never trying to fight my way through mental illness, but what kind of life is that? Not one I want to live.

Watching the Mind Over Marathon programme has helped me. One of the runners had to pull out because his anxiety was too intense to cope, but he overcame his anxiety enough to support the rest of the team. A couple of the runners couldn’t start the marathon due to injury and although they were upset, the others (and the trainers and presenter) reminded them that the challenge wasn’t really about completing the marathon: it was about pushing their limits and learning to overcome their mental health problems, one step at a time.

So I’m trying to remember that wisdom as my departure date rushes closer: even if I cannot complete the trek, it doesn’t negate my achievements. I would be devastated, for sure, but it wouldn’t undo all my hard work. I’m still fitter than I have ever been in my adult life. I’m still 2 stone lighter and a little further along the path to a healthier life.

I still fought through my depression and anxiety enough to set a huge goal and follow it through to the endgame.

I want everything to go according to plan and to complete my Machu Picchu trek without any major problems  but I can’t waste time worrying about it right now. At the moment, I just need to focus on the next few steps.

 

 

Acknowledging Difference and Mental Health

It’s great that mental health issues are getting a lot of publicity at the moment, thanks to the Heads Together campaign and its royal endorsement. It’s also wonderful to hear Prince Harry talking openly about his mental health problems following his mother’s death. All of this is positive and deserves to be celebrated. However, we also need to hear the stories about people who struggle with mental illness and aren’t famous. Stories told by people whose mental health prevents them from going outside, let alone running a marathon.

It’s ironic that the right-wing, tabloid media praises some people for sharing their experiences of mental illness while, at the same time, castigating people with mental illness who claim benefits. If poor mental health prevents you from getting work, you can expect to be scrutinised – by the general public, as well as the media. When you go to a pub for the first time in several months, some people view it as proof that you are a scrounger who is playing the system; as though you choose to resign yourself to the poverty and humiliation of surviving on benefits, rather than getting a job which would give you some money and dignity. There is still a lot of ignorance surrounding mental health and we need to pay attention to the full spectrum of experiences.

Part of the problem is the reporting bias in mental health.

Some stories about mental health are more clickworthy than others. People like to read about a celebrity who goes off the rails, but they aren’t interested in ordinary people who spend their days lost in a fog of depression. There’s less spectacle involved. It’s bloody boring. Spectacle is also a factor in how different mental illnesses are represented – often in stereotypical, unrealistic ways. Soap characters with mental illness, for instance, tend to have public meltdowns and melodramatic plotlines. The majority of people with mental health problems don’t get sectioned or use violence against other people, but I guess showing reality is too banal: it involves a lot of sitting around as your thoughts play out an invisible battle royale.

The media also like stories of people overcoming their mental illness, but for some of us, recovery seems unlikely and active management is a more pertinent goal. In my own experience, for example, mental illness is chronic and fluctuates: bad episodes are punctuated by good episodes. My goal is to change the balance, so that good episodes are punctuated by bad episodes. Again, it’s wonderful to hear stories from people who have completely recovered from mental illness, but we also need stories from people who might never recover. I suppose that’s one of the aims of my blog – to show what life is like when you’re negotiating it with long-term mental health problems.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the reporting bias is that mental illness makes you think nobody wants to hear your story.

Depression and anxiety, in particular, generate a plethora of negative thoughts which convince you that you are worthless, useless, subhuman. You can’t ignore these thoughts, so you start to believe them and eventually, they seem to be part of you, an undeniable truth. Given this, it’s not surprising that many of us struggle to confide in friends and family, let alone broadcast our experiences to the world. Nobody should be ashamed to have mental health problems, but when they have a stranglehold on you, it’s almost inevitable that you feel shame.

There are also a lot of issues with political correctness which affect how stories about mental health are told – and whether they are told at all. For example, I once submitted a blog post to a mental health campaign about how when I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I felt relief because it explained my symptoms. After asking me to rewrite the post several times, with little guidance on what she was looking for, the person who contacted me said it wasn’t the kind of story they wanted to use, because other people don’t have the same experience. In my view, that’s exactly why such stories should be published – because there is no single experience of mental illness and assumptions need to be challenged.

If we are afraid to express ourselves – or to give platforms to others so they can express themselves – in case a differing viewpoint or experience causes offence, or challenges common perceptions, then the campaigns for mental health are doomed to be ineffective. We need to hear about a range of experiences. We need to hear provocative stories. Otherwise the debate is stymied before it has even gathered pace.

We need to stop censoring and invalidating our experiences of mental health problems.

Another facet of the reporting bias, especially self-reporting, is fear. People are afraid to talk freely and honestly about their mental health experiences. A lot of this fear is fear of being judged and discriminated against, which creates a vicious circle because discrimination won’t end unless we can discuss mental health issues without fear of being judged.

I was afraid to talk about my mental illness when I was younger, especially when I was employed. I thought people would view it as a weakness and use it as ammunition. Unfortunately, some people did. But when I started talking more, something amazing happened: other people told me they had similar experiences. I felt less isolated and more supported.

Since I have been blogging, some people have commented that I’m courageous for speaking out. I usually dismiss these comments, since I feel I don’t have anything to lose – I’m self-employed now and have reached the stage where I’m sick of being ashamed of my mental illness, so will tell anyone willing to listen. However, I have been considering the possibility that these people are right and it does take courage to speak out in any way you can. Perhaps by dismissing such compliments, I’m negating both my own courage and the courage of others who blog, vlog, talk and write about their mental health.

So yes, speaking out takes courage, but I believe the alternative is worse: a world in which people with mental illness are afraid to discuss the issues they face. A world where people experiencing mental health problems feel alone and unworthy of help and support.

Through sharing a wider range of stories about mental health, we move further away from that world.

Some people still inhabit the world I mentioned, where they consider their mental health problems taboo. When they see and hear stories about experiences of mental illness which are vastly different from their own, they feel more isolated. The majority of mental health stories in mainstream media feature people who have access to resources which others are denied: money, strong support networks, advocates. While these resources can’t counterbalance the pain of mental illness, they do make it easier to cope.

A lot of people are ignorant of the issues surrounding access to resources, because it’s rarely brought to their attention. I’m guilty of taking some of my own resources for granted, such as the security of living with my parents and the practical support they give me. I’m also guilty of being jealous of resources other people have which I have never had, such as a partner and money for private therapy. Even something as simple as transport is a major issue concerning mental health: learning to drive made a huge difference to my life, because it gave me access to treatments and I could visit my friends more. My anxiety prevents me from using public transport more than it prevents me from driving, so I would not have managed my mental health so well without being able to drive.

These issues need to be addressed more in mainstream media, so that we can provide more opportunities and access to a greater range of resources for people with mental health problems. We need to hear more stories from people with limited resources, so that others in similar situations don’t feel ignored.

Raising awareness of these issues will also prevent people from making well-meaning, or ignorant, but hurtful comments to people with mental illness. For example, people’s reactions when they learn I live with my parents: they joke about me being too old and too comfortable with the perks. The reality is, I can’t afford to move out because I have relied on benefits for years and when I have been in work, the jobs paid low wages and/or were part time. I also doubt I could cope with living alone, as much as I desire it, especially during bad episodes.

When I was on antidepressants, I relied on my mum to get my prescription for me. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to access medication. She also makes sure I eat when I’m depressed and hides the painkillers when I feel suicidal. Frankly, I dread to think what state I’d be in if I lived independently. I didn’t choose to have mental health problems, so it’s a bit difficult to nod along when someone tells me I could live in a flat share or to laugh when someone suggests the real reason I haven’t moved out is because I “have it too good.” If situations like mine were represented in the media more often, perhaps I wouldn’t be patronised or forced to explain myself when someone thinks they have the right to know why a woman in her 30s lives with her parents.

Raising awareness of issues surrounding mental health and humanising them through sharing individuals’ experiences would promote compassion and empathy.

A massive problem with reports on benefits is that they are either faceless or portray stereotypes. When benefits cuts are announced, news stories are illustrated with people who appear mentally and physically healthy, usually with multiple kids, who talk confidently and are coerced into making a comment which implies they are scroungers with no intention of supporting themselves. The bias is shocking, but not as shocking as the fact that many people don’t recognise it as bias.

A large proportion of the public believes what they are told by The Sun and The Daily Mail. They don’t realise that some people exist who don’t fit these stereotypes – people who battle against their mental illness and still can’t function, people who would love to work but can’t find a job offering the flexibility needed to work around fluctuations in their mental health, people who claim benefits not because it’s easier than working (hah!) but because they have no other choice. Acknowledging their existence could make a huge difference in itself. We need to tell these people’s stories.

People might acknowledge that mental illness affects people from all walks of life, but they don’t consider what this means. It means that people from poor backgrounds struggle to get adequate treatment via the NHS. It means that when someone’s benefits are stopped without warning, because someone unqualified in mental health has looked at a form and decided their illness doesn’t count as a disability, they can’t afford to eat or pay rent. It means that mental health problems can cause other problems, such as unemployment and isolation, creating a downward spiral which feels impossible to escape.

Perhaps if we told everyone about these experiences, as well as the more positive ones, people with mental health problems would be treated better – by both the government and the general public. There would be greater understanding and more kindness.

I want rich and successful people to tell their mental health stories, but I don’t want them to overshadow what the majority experience.

I want to show that mental illness need not prevent you from achieving your goals, but I also want to tell you that it’s okay if it does – it’s not your fault. Unfortunately, the effect of publicising stories from people who are either born into privilege or have achieved privilege through their career is that other experiences are excluded. This exclusion gives space for incorrect assumptions to arise: that if money doesn’t prevent mental illness, then poverty isn’t an issue which affects mental health and people who say their mental illness stops them from accomplishing goals are just making excuses. We need to address these assumptions by showing that they are untrue.

We need to make the invisible stories more visible. We need to acknowledge that while people with mental health problems can achieve great things, like running marathons and building incredibly successful careers, sometimes getting out of bed or taking a shower are huge achievements. We have started the conversation – now let’s broaden it and explore everyone’s experiences.