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.

Reawakening

Spring helps me feel better. The warmer weather and increased hours of daylight encourage me to do things which benefit my mental health, like exercising and spending time outside. Sunlight also has an effect on your hormones, which helps you to sleep better and improves your mood — great for people like me, who struggle with depression and insomnia.

Many of the benefits are psychological.

Spring is a time of hope and reminds you that nature follows cycles. Just as trees and flowers burst back into life, there is a possibility of emerging from mental illness. This emergence may be a complete recovery or, as is more likely in my own experience, a period of relative wellness during which I still battle mental health problems, but can work towards my goals.

For me, mental illness follows these unpredictable cycles. Sometimes I can anticipate shifts in the cycle — such as expecting to feel generally better in the summer months — but often, my symptoms change in ways which have little rhyme or reason.

Dealing with unpredictability is difficult, but learning to roll with it is easier and better in the long run than railing against it.

Mental illness is unfair. Part of the reason why stigma surrounding mental health is so prevalent is that people don’t like to admit that mental illness can be random. They prefer to think it affects only a certain type of person or is consciously caused by sufferers. If you are nentally well, it’s probably more pleasant to believe mental illness only happens to weak people and therefore can’t happen to you. The truth, that mental illness can affect anyone at any time, is difficult to accept.

In fact, the truth is difficult to accept even when you experience mental health problems. I would LOVE to blame my mental illness on something specific I have done, because it would answer the persistent “why me?” question and means I could do something to fix it once and for all. The truth is trickier: I can adopt strategies to actively manage my mental illness, but I can’t control everything.

Sometimes you can do everything “right” and still experience a decline in mental health.

This happened to me at the end of last year. I was exercising regularly, eating healthily, socialising more and going to bed at a reasonable time every night. I was working and volunteering. I had goals. I was practically the poster child for self-managing mental illness, having stopped taking antidepressants in September. Yet my mental health got worse.

There was a clear catalyst, in the form of successive winter viruses which prevented me from doing a lot of my self-care tasks, but the sudden downward spiral in my mental health was unexpected and couldn’t be sufficiently explained by my physical illness. As I’m emerging from this episode, I’m learning to accept it as part of the cycle of my mental illness. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t deserve to get worse — just as I didn’t deserve to get mentally ill in the first place. But it happened.

My instinct is to bemoan the fact that it happened, but it’s unhelpful. It means I focus too much on the negative aspects of my life and prevents me from making progress. Instead, I need to look forward.

 

 

Looking forward means acknowledging the past, working through it while focusing on the future.

One of the reasons I love history is how much it teaches us about the present. We can learn from both the similarities and the differences between the past and present. I have been doing this in counselling over the past couple of months, learning to recognise the patterns I have followed (often without realising) so I can break them. Finding the causes of certain patterns can be helpful, but it’s not necessary — the pattern can be broken without a full understanding of how it developed — simply noticing the pattern is the important part.

So I’m striving to create new, healthy patterns which promote good mental health. Yet I must acknowledge that it might not be enough. I could experience another episode of worse mental health despite developing these patterns.

Because there are no guarantees with mental health, it is vital to do whatever you can, when you can. Work with the cycles of your mental illness, striving towards your goals when you feel relatively well and allowing yourself respite during worse episodes.

Spring is a reawakening for me and heralds, I hope, a period of better mental health. However, if my health declines in future, I hope I can apply what I have learnt. I wish I didn’t suffer from mental illness, but I don’t want to waste time wishing things were different — I want to learn from my experiences and use them to help others. I want to look forward.

 

Be Like a Bluebell

I took this photo because this is the first bluebell I’ve seen this year (a couple of weeks ago – I’ve since seen loads more). I thought I might use it in a blog post about hope or my relief that spring is easing my symptoms a little, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised how perfectly the picture demonstrates something else…

Bluebell
Bluebells are experts at showcasing themselves.

The contrast between their purple flowers (let’s face it – they are more purple than blue!) and green leaves makes them stand out. In the case of this particular bluebell, the surrounding plants are green and it stands out all the more. The colours complement each other and the spread of foliage acts as a backdrop. While a carpet of bluebells is spectacular, one alone can be stunning.

Bluebells also enhance each other, instead of competing, which is why the carpet effect is so spectacular. Being surrounded by other bluebells doesn’t detract from the beauty of a single one, but their beauty is multiplied through togetherness.

I think humans can learn a lot from bluebells.

We need to find ways to showcase ourselves and each other, working together instead of buying into a zero-sum philosophy which dictates that there must be winners and losers. A lot can be gained from a simple change in perspective: instead of criticising everyone and pointing out flaws, what if we actively look for things to praise?

Human brains love problem solving. As soon as you make a statement, your brain looks for evidence to support that statement. If you think “I am unlucky”, you can find dozens of examples as evidence. Likewise, if you think “I am lucky”, you will find dozens of examples. Neither is “true” because luck is a matter of perspective. This is why breaking out of negative thinking patterns is so difficult – your brain follows the well-trodden path and seeks evidence to convince you it’s the only path.

Taking a different approach doesn’t come easily, but it’s worth the effort. Seeking positives is empowering – both of yourself and others. When you start focusing on people’s strengths, including your own, opportunities come into view.

I have been trying to focus on my strengths recently, but it’s difficult. Not because I have none (though I certainly believe this at times, that’s just a symptom of my mental illness), but because our society seems so determined to knock people down. There is a constant stream of negativity from the media, social media, the general public, etc.

An article in the current issue of Mslexia, a writing magazine I otherwise love, the lead feature is about the financial difficulties writers face, especially in old age. It brings out the old “don’t give up the day job” advice, which is great for people without mental health problems who have a day job, but demoralising for those of us who are unable to work in the jobs most readily available, which all seem to involve a high degree of interaction with the public (not great for people with social anxiety). While the article goes on to explore a few solutions, I think it would have been much more interesting (and relevant) if it had taken a different approach: how can writers use their skills to earn a living and provide for their future?

I have discovered something interesting from my reading and talking to people: those who advise me to focus on my strengths and what I enjoy are happier and more successful.

I should clarify that I mean happy and successful according to their own terms. Many of us, believe it or not, don’t aspire to be millionaires. Sure, it would be nice, but money just isn’t a priority. If I could earn a living doing the work I love (which doesn’t mean loving every minute or every aspect of it, but loving it overall), I would be satisfied. I don’t need expensive holidays and designer shoes to make me happy (though both are appreciated!); I want to write and help people with mental health problems. Meanwhile, I’m trying to fight through the pessimism and find ways to help me achieve what I want.

I’m trying to focus my attention on what is helpful, instead of being demoralised by negative diatribes which assume everyone is physically and mentally capable of following the conventional path. I keep reminding myself to be like a bluebell, to show myself to my best advantage.

It’s also worth noting that while bluebells showcase themselves, they are not showy. They are modest flowers and all the more beautiful because of it. They don’t need to showboat, boast and seek attention. They quietly do their own thing and let their beauty shine for those who take the time to look. I think we can all learn a lot from bluebells.

Decluttering

Every so often, I get the urge to declutter. Not just to get rid of a few things, but to completely reassess and overhaul my possessions. I find it cathartic.

Note: Milo is not being recycled as part of my decluttering drive.

Decluttering is both mental and physical.

As you take stock of what you own, you take stock of your life. As you notice which objects are most important to you right now, you realise what is working well in your life – and what isn’t. You find that things which used to feel vital to you no longer matter and you can discard them without regret. Other stuff is hard to get rid of, although you know it’s for the best, because it means giving up a long-held notion of yourself and your life.

Hoarding has a strong psychological aspect; it stands to reason that the same is true for decluttering. In the western world in particular, we are brought up to measure our self-worth through what we own. More stuff = more value. Even when we think this through logically and realise it’s bullshit, this ideology keeps a stranglehold on us.

We can accept that we have far more stuff than we need, yet we cling to it. Even stuff which we know we will never use. Our stuff is something physical which we can point to and say “look, I must be worth something, because I have all this stuff.”

 

But you are valuable regardless of what you own.

Stuff doesn’t determine your true value. Many very rich people have lots of stuff but act unethically, harming others; many very poor people dedicate their lives to helping others. Who is worth more?

Of course, I’m not saying that all billionaires are bad and all poor people are good: I’m saying that everyone’s value is separate from what they own and how much money they earn. For every Philip Green who avoids paying a fair rate of tax (legally, though immorally) and conducts dodgy business deals (again, legally but immorally) while lavishing money on himself, there is a Bill Gates who donates substantial amounts of money to charity and uses his wealth to help make the world a better place. I don’t care what their bank accounts say – their actions determine their true worth.

The same is true for you and me: our actions are better measures of our value than our money and possessions.

 

Decluttering is a process – and a learning process.

I have read about extreme examples of decluttering and these examples can be intimidating. You find out that some people can fit all they own into a backpack and compare the idea to your mounds of clutter, which makes it seem like you are fighting a losing battle. But decluttering doesn’t have to be about your quest to become a minimalist.

My own decluttering process has been gradual. I started in earnest three years ago and while I continue to make small improvements regularly, I still have too much stuff. It doesn’t matter – it’s all progress.

Decluttering makes you consider your lifestyle and your ideal lifestyle. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, it feels like you will never marry the two, but as you declutter you will get closer. Decluttering also alters your spending habits as you become more considerate of the possessions you want in your life.

These changes may be gradual and you might not notice them for a long time, but they occur as decluttering changes your way of thinking. Your habits are likely to fluctuate, but there will be an overall improvement. For example, I still overspend sometimes (compulsive spending is a common symptom of borderline personality disorder), but less frequently than I used to and on things which I genuinely want. I no longer buy designer shoes just to cheer myself up or order thirty books from Amazon at a time.

 

Decluttering makes you consider your priorities.

Some of the stuff I have found most difficult to let go is stuff which represents a fantasy I had about myself. For instance, I kept my guitar for far too many years despite never learning to play it properly, because I liked the idea of playing guitar. In reality, it was never a priority. Decluttering forces you to look yourself in the eye and admit that many of the ideas you hold about yourself are untrue.

It’s hard, but when I let go of these untrue ideas about myself, I feel relief. I don’t have to learn to play guitar! I don’t have to live with the embarrassment of owning a musical instrument I can’t play! I no longer feel guilty about owning something I’ve barely used!

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have amped up my decluttering as I emerge from a difficult time in my life. Decluttering can be a way of coping. When I don’t know where to start, I pick a category (often clothes, since they wear out quicker than other possessions and my weight has changed a lot over the years) and get stuck in. Some things obviously need to be discarded, so the decision is easy. Other things I feel more ambivalent about and the decision is difficult, though feeling ambivalent is usually a sign I need to get rid of something, no matter how painful.

In this way, decluttering often mirrors decisions I have to make in life. It teaches me to trust my intuition, even as I cling to things which need to be discarded. It shows me that I can trust myself to make choices without regret.

 

Decluttering makes room for opportunity.

I love reading decluttering books, although I pick and choose what works for me rather than following some guru. I bought Marie Kondo’s second book, Spark Joy, at the weekend and loved reading her anecdotes about how clients’ lives have been changed through decluttering. She says that decluttering makes space for new opportunities, relationships, career changes, lifestyle transformations, etc. I agree – I feel less stressed on average and more focused since I started my decluttering crusade.

I like the analogy of decluttering as weeding your garden, allowing what you want to blossom. If you ignore the weeds, they will choke the flowers and vegetables you want to grow. Likewise, living with possessions which mean little to you and are rarely (or never) used makes it more difficult to enjoy the possessions and activities which mean the most to you.

Decluttering seems like such a small change, yet it can transform your life. I now live in an environment I love, instead of one I hated because it was crammed full of furniture and all kinds of crap – despite it being the exact same room. I can concentrate on achieving my goals and enjoying life when I can, instead of being obsessed with accumulating more stuff and then stressed about how to make a tiny bedroom accommodate that stuff. It costs nothing and is accessible to everyone – give it a try!

Weathering The Storm

Things have been difficult over the past few weeks. I feel guilty for saying that, because there has been a death in my family and here I am talking about how it’s affected my mental health. Part of me thinks I have no right to complain about how I feel when other family members are grieving more. It feels selfish to acknowledge how stressed and anxious I have been when other people have been far more involved in the arrangements. But it’s true: although I’m sad about my grandad dying, I am also stressed, depressed and anxious.

 

Seascape

 

I don’t want to write this post, which is why I know I need to write it. I guess there must be a lot of people in a similar position. The fact is, when you have mental health problems, everything gets filtered through the lens of mental illness. This applies to good things and bad. Achievements and bereavements.

I’m not going to write about my grandad. While many people think I’m very open about my life, because I talk about my mental health with as much honesty and openness as I can muster, I prefer to keep some things private. Personal relationships fall into that category. Sorry if that seems cold or weird, but I’m not comfortable blogging about some things.

However, I will discuss the impact of the past few weeks on my mental health.

The main effect is that I had more to worry about. Again, I’m not comfortable with going into detail, but I stress out about everything at the best of times, so you can imagine how my stress worsens during times which anyone would find stressful. I found it hard to think straight – I can spend hours worrying, not even paying attention to the television because I’m so caught up in my thoughts. This makes it difficult to be productive.

Of course, when I’m less productive than usual, I get stressed and anxious about my lack of productivity. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I can’t help it: my mental health struggles make me feel like I have to constantly prove myself. I have to work ten times harder than someone with good mental health in order to do things they find easy.

Another facet to this issue is that I fear I’m reinforcing negative stereotypes about mental illness when I show weakness. I know I don’t represent everyone with mental health problems, but I’m afraid other people will view me as such. Every time I miss a deadline, I think “I’m unreliable” and I’m terrified other people will think not only that I’m unreliable, but that everyone with a mental illness is unreliable.

The logical part of my brain points out that being ill isn’t synonymous with being unreliable, but anxiety persuades me to ignore logic and interpret the symptoms of my mental illness as proof that I’m unreliable, lazy, stupid, a failure, etc.

My counsellor set me homework on Friday and part of the homework is to recognise that my negative thoughts are symptoms of my mental illness, not the truth. It’s easier said than done, but I’m trying! It’s strange how I find it so much easier to dismiss the physical symptoms of mental illness. I can experience gastritis and accept it as a manifestation of anxiety, but I find it difficult to do the same with negative thoughts. When I think “everyone knows you’re worthless and a failure” I don’t immediately recognise it as a symptom – I believe it.

Once you start believing negative thoughts, you give them power and they can spiral out of control.

I have struggled with this spiral of negative thoughts a lot recently. Negative thoughts are my reflexes to external events and since I have trouble challenging them, they turn minor problems into catastrophes. At times, all I can do is cling on and try to weather the storm as my brain produces a torrent of insults, criticisms and accusations.

Living in this state is exhausting and makes problems proliferate. It exacerbates my anxiety and depression, leaving me paralysed by my thoughts. I know I would feel better if I could only do something, but doing anything feels impossible. The simplest things take a gargantuan effort – one morning, I had to give myself a 10 minute pep talk to convince myself to check the time when I woke up!

My counsellor is helping me to realise that I’m still on the right path, despite the obstacles being strewn across the way. I’m still training for my Machu Picchu trek, which is getting scarily close. I’m still writing, albeit less than I’d like. I have to focus on these priorities and trust that I can stay on the right track.

 

The Therapeutic Side of Writing Fiction

I’m always a little wary when someone asks me if I write as a form of therapy. They usually expect a yes or no, but the answer is complex…

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that writing is a substitute for talking therapies or other kinds of mental health treatments. While using any kind of art as therapy can be helpful, I think it’s appropriate as a complementary strategy rather than a complete treatment for mental illness in itself. (Sidebar: in my experience, there is no such thing as a complete treatment, but medication and talking therapies come closest, in my opinion).

Secondly, I write for readers. If I write something just for me, it stays in my journal or folder. If I submit stories, I want other people to read and enjoy them. Regardless of whether a particular story has been therapeutic for me to write, the audience is one of my top considerations. This consideration always affects the story and may prevent it from being as therapeutic as it would be were the readers not taken into account.

With those caveats in mind, my answer is yes. I do write as a form of therapy, but there are also many other reasons why I write.

 

Not all writing is equally therapeutic.

To make things a little less complicated, I’m solely talking about writing fiction and specifically short stories, since they constitute the main body of my work to date. However, the therapeutic value of any given story varies a lot: many of my stories have had no therapeutic value, whereas some have been very helpful as therapy.

Can you tell the difference? I have no idea. I like to think I write to a high standard regardless of whether a story has been therapeutic to write, but that might not be the case! Do the more therapeutic stories have more emotional impact? Again, I can’t tell. I hope all my stories have some emotional impact, though the emotional effects depend on the individual story.

 

The raw material, whether it is inspired by life or not, is transformed.

When people hear “therapeutic” in regards to writing, they automatically think of memoir or autobiographical fiction. They assume that in order to be therapeutic, the story needs to bear a strong resemblance to the writer’s lived experience. Often, the opposite is true.

Amanda Palmer, in her excellent book The Art of Asking, talks about the transformation of life experience into art in terms of putting raw material into a blender. She typically uses a low blender setting when songwriting, such as level 3 on a scale of 1-10. In contrast, her husband (the author Neil Gaiman) uses a very high blender setting — often level 10.

I love this analogy. It’s a simple but effective way of demonstrating how two pieces of art can be equally as personal, but very different in terms of recognising the raw material from the finished work.

For me, the more therapeutic the story, the higher my blender setting. I know what raw material has gone into the story, but other people (even those who know me best) would find it all but impossible to tell.

 

The transformation of raw material is the most cathartic aspect of writing.

While pouring out my emotions in my journal can help me feel a little better, it’s the process of transformation that I find most therapeutic. I suppose it correlates with talking therapy: if you recount your experience to a therapist it usually provides a sense of relief, but venting your feelings is just the first step. The most useful part of therapy is questioning and evaluating. There is more value in learning to reframe your experiences and think about them in different ways. Ditto writing.

Transformation is crucial for the story itself, too. In order to be most effective, you need to select and adapt material (whether from life or another source).

You need to choose a focus for the story, to tease out a plot and create characters (even if they are heavily inspired by life) who serve the story. It doesn’t matter if, as many new writers complain, “that’s not how it happened!” Your task is to find the emotional truth at the core of your story and make it shine.

 

Writing is a constructive way of using your experiences — which can help you value them.

Many experiences are awful. Writing is one way I can find value in them — it almost gives them a purpose. This provides another way of helping me to reframe those experiences, so the therapeutic effect continues.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the therapeutic effects of writing fiction complement the other ways ai manage my mental health. If you would like to try writing — or any other art — as therapy, go for it. However, my main reasons for writing have nothing to do with my mental health (except indirectly) and when I approach writing fiction, therapy is never foremost in my mind.

Walking My Own Trek

The past 4 months have been a constant struggle, thanks to a succession of viruses (all of which affected my chest) and an increase in my mental health problems. Stressing about my Machu Picchu trek didn’t help – especially as I was unable to do much in the way of fundraising or training – but thankfully two of my fellow trekkers got in touch with me via Facebook and offered support. Something these amazing women both reiterated was the importance of focusing on what the challenge means to me, what I’m accomplishing and my own progress.

The Lane aka my main training ground

Trying to do this is a challenge in itself! It’s bloody hard when everyone else seems to be doing so much better than me – raising more money, training more and generally being excellent Machu Picchu trekkers. It’s hard not to get discouraged when I see someone else in my group has raised thousands of pounds, even when I know that they are not self-funding and therefore need to meet a large minimum amount. It’s difficult to feel motivated when I’m so depressed and anxious that getting out of bed is a challenge.

 

Now I’m feeling better, I have been able to follow my fellow trekkers’ advice and here are my conclusions…

What walking my own trek means to me:

  1. Focusing on the personal meaning the challenge has for me
  2. Recognising my progress and what I have achieved
  3. Not comparing myself to others
  4. Accepting my particular problems, challenges and setbacks
  5. Appreciating the experience and doing my best

 

Comparing myself to others is stupid.

I have mental health problems. I can’t change that fact. I can’t even control my symptoms, though I am getting better at managing them to some degree. When I signed up for the challenge, I knew I would be lucky to hit my £1000 fundraising target, because depression and anxiety prevent me from doing the traditional fundraising activities which raise lots of money. I knew I might experience a relapse, though I hoped otherwise, which would interfere with training.

Knowing these things doesn’t make them easier to deal with, but I need to acknowledge that I have a big disadvantage compared to people who are mentally healthy.

Sure, I didn’t expect to get physically ill for so long, but it happened. I can’t change it, so I need to deal with it as well as I can. This means getting back to exercising when I’m able – this week, I have been walking again and re=establishing a foundation for my training. I hope to increase the amount and duration of walking as soon as I can and go back to gym classes once I stop coughing up phlegm.

I’m able to gain a little more perspective when I compare my current situation to the past. Ten years ago, I was experiencing my worst episode of depression and barely left the house. When I graduated from university nearly 6 years ago, I was a size 26 and so unfit that walking for a few minutes was painful. I’m now slimmer (though by no means slim, at size 18) and go walking alone – which a year ago, I hadn’t been able to do for around 12 years. Given all this, it’s stupid to compare myself to people who haven’t experienced my struggles.

 

My contributions, however small, are valuable.

I have raised £355 to date, which I consider a substantial amount of money. Especially since I don’t know many people, let alone wealthy people! I also know that many of the people who have sponsored me so far have made sacrifices so that they could give me as much as they can afford, so I really appreciate their contributions. Thank you to all of them for supporting me and a great cause.

#TeamAmnesty

As I’m self-funding, I have no official target to meet and every penny I raise goes to Amnesty International, so I shouldn’t feel like I’m letting anyone down if I fail to hit my £1000 target. Part of me thinks “my place on the challenge could have been taken by someone who could raise thousands,” but it’s equally probable that my place could have been taken by someone who would raise less than me. Besides, the challenge could not take place without a minimum number of trekkers; so if nothing else, my mere presence on the trek has contributed towards it going ahead.

I also hope my doing the challenge and talking about it (whether in person, on social media or by blogging) is raising awareness for both human rights and mental health issues.

I want to show everyone that mental illness needn’t prevent you from following your dreams. Sure, it can force you to put your dreams on hold and/or tackle them in an unconventional way, but it’s possible to achieve your goals. Actually, I’m not sure whether I would feel so motivated to follow my dreams if I hadn’t experienced the misery of mental illness.

 

Walking my own trek applies to life, as well as this challenge.

I know that trekking to Machu Picchu will teach me a lot, but the learning has already started. The challenges I am facing as I prepare are reminding me that I need to stop worrying about how I measure up. I have to enjoy experiences as they come and try not to take it to heart when things go wrong. My life has been affected by mental illness to a massive degree and I cannot change that, so I need to work with the material I have been given and use what I’ve learnt as I work towards my goals.

And I hope completing the Machu Picchu challenge is just the beginning.

 

Note: if you would like to sponsor me and support Amnesty International, please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones Every penny counts and gets me further towards my goal. Thank you.

Stepping Up and Stepping Back

Mental illness can make things hard to plan.

You can never be sure whether a certain date will be a good day or a bad day. You don’t know whether this week will be difficult or relatively easy. Given this unpredictability, learning to be flexible is a key skill.

 

 

Being flexible requires some consideration…

The most obvious consideration is deciding your priorities: defining which aspects of your life are most important to you and keeping the order in mind. There might be times when you are too ill to tackle even your most important and basic needs, but much of mental illness isn’t so extreme — bad days may severely limit what you can do, but you can still do something. The trouble is, without clear priorities, it’s easy to waste the little energy you have on tasks which aren’t important.

When we complete trivial tasks but neglect our priorities, our tendency is often to blame ourselves — which can make mental health problems (and symptoms) worse.

I often fall into the trap of completing low priority tasks first. I tell myself that they will ease me into the important stuff, helping me avoid procrastination. This might work for some people, but when your mental health fluctuates, you can’t depend on being able to do the important tasks later.

You might feel drained later and simply won’t have the energy to do more. Or the depression could take over and you won’t  have the motivation or ability to do anything, let alone something important.  Or you could get lost in an anxiety whirlwind, stressing out and worrying so much that you can’t think straight. There are a million reasons, depending on the symptoms you personally experience, why “later” might not be an option.

 

Priorities need boundaries.

In order to prioritise effectively, you need to put boundaries in place. These can be flexible, but you need to be aware of them — and make other people aware, when relevant. Prioritising is pointless if you can be easily swayed by someone begging you to do an unimportant task. You need to make it clear that you have priorities and while everyone’s time is limited to 24 hours a day, mental illness steals time from you.

Setting and maintaining boundaries can be difficult, but it is necessary.

Boundaries help us to cultivate good mental health and to manage better during episodes of poor mental health. Given this, it’s a good idea to ensure you put boundaries in place at any time — the sooner, the better.

I recently had to set boundaries with someone for whom I do volunteer work. It was difficult for me to broach the subject, but I wanted to make it clear that I couldn’t prioritise them. I could commit to a few hours of work a week and would be willing to do more if/when I’m able, but my priorities are my mental health, writing work for which there’s a chance of earning money, blogging, training and preparing for my Machu Picchu trek and my other volunteer role, which is more closely related to my passions and career plans since it’s a mental health charity.

I felt awkward bringing it up, but this volunteer role has never been formal and I have never promised to do a certain number of hours. I still want to help, but not at the expense of my priorities. I feel better for having explained this, because I wanted to ensure that the expectations of those involved didn’t exceed what I could offer. I also didn’t want to feel pressured to put in more hours than I could commit to, because that would make my mental health problems worse. In fact, setting boundaries benefits everyone, because if my mental health declined a lot, I wouldn’t be able to do anything at all.

You might come across people who don’t respect your boundaries, but don’t be deterred by them: you set and maintain your own boundaries. They might try to push at them or knock them down, but you are in control. 

Your ultimate priority should be you.

You can’t help anyone or achieve your own goals unless you put yourself and your mental health first. Ensuring you are managing your mental health as best you can means that you will be able to do more than if you don’t prioritise it. In the list I made above of my own priorities, my mental health comes first. Why? Simply because I cannot do anything else on the list unless my mental health problems are under a certain level of control.

Knowing when to step up and when to step back can be complicated, but your main consideration should be how your actions will affect your mental health.

Again, this often requires flexibility. For example, sometimes I feel so anxious that going for a walk would make me feel worse. Going outside can make me feel panicky and I’m constantly on edge when my anxiety is bad, so I wouldn’t enjoy the walk. Most of the time, going for a walk makes me feel better, even if I’m experiencing some anxiety, because being outside and getting exercise improves my mood, plus I get a sense of achievement from doing it. The trick is to recognise when my anxiety levels make the activity shift from “helpful” to “detrimental”.

The same goes for any task or activity. Mental health problems can be complex and it’s all very well to make a list of what helps you feel better, but sometimes those things can make you feel worse. It depends on your symptoms and circumstances. Be aware of how you are affected by different activities at different times and adjust your boundaries and priorities accordingly.

 

It’s not just about mental health.

I refer to mental health because it’s the main focus of my blog, but everything I have said applies to physical health, too. In fact, my mental health and physical health are so intertwined that I tend to consider them together. For instance, prioritising my mental health means prioritising exercise — which improves my physical health.

The basics of cultivating good mental health and good physical health are the same: eating healthily, exercising, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, etc. Keep this in mind when deciding on your priorities and setting boundaries — a strong foundation of healthy habits helps you to do everything else more efficiently and effectively.

 

 

How To Find Value In Your Life

When you have mental health problems, there are times when it feels like your life has no value whatsoever.

Negative thoughts undermine you every time you think of something in your life which might be worth something, anything. You convince yourself that anything you have achieved is meaningless. When you consider things you might do, your negative mindset dismisses them as either worthless or unachievable.

This post is a tool which can hopefully remind you that:

1. There are aspects of your life which are valuable, to both you and other people

2. You can incorporate more valuable activities into your life if you wish

If you are experiencing a bad episode of mental illness, your mind will probably rail against every suggestion and come up with excuses for not acknowledging the value in your life. Try not to be discouraged and recognise it as a symptom of your mental health problems, not a reflection of you as a person.

Every life has value. Even people who have done terrible things have aspects of their life which are valuable, which have affected others in a positive way. It doesn’t mean the valuable parts of their lives atone for the crimes and atrocities they have committed, but it means that everyone has the power to choose to cultivate those parts of their lives which are most valuable. If everyone focused on the value in their lives and other people’s lives, the world would be a kinder, more compassionate place.

There are many ways in which people find value in their lives. Here is a brief outline of 4 key areas:

 

1. Creativity

Creating anything is valuable, especially if it comes from the heart. Creativity can take many different forms, from making practical objects like furniture and tools to producing lighthearted sketch shows which entertain people. The intended effects of what you create can be likewise various: you may write an essay to challenge political thought, take a photograph to evoke emotion or cook dinner so your family can enjoy a tasty, satisfying meal. All of these effects are valuable, adding meaning and pleasure to people’s lives.

You should celebrate improving and developing your skills, of course, but it’s best to focus on expressing yourself — not on judging or criticising the results. Take pleasure in what you create.

You probably already do creative activities in your life, even if you don’t consider them as “proper” creative activities. People often dismiss things they find easy or have done for a long time. They might disregard drawing, for example, as just doodling. They might knit or sew, but think of these things as practical means to an end, rather than a creative pursuit. Think about how you are creative in your life — perhaps you style your hair or apply makeup in a certain way, grow herbs on a windowsill or make greetings cards for friends.

What you create doesn’t have to be professional standard to be valuable. Remember, the value is in the process more than the outcome. Consider how it makes you feel, as well as how your creativity makes other people feel. Being creative can help cultivate a sense of wellbeing, especially as it makes you feel useful. By their definition, all creative activities leave you with something to show for your time, which is a reminder that your time itself is valuable.

 

2. Relationships

Your life is valuable to everyone with whom you have a personal relationship. The problem with the word “relationship” is that it has become synonymous with “romantic relationship” so can make those of us who are single, or people in dissatisfactory romantic relationships, feel our lives have no value when people talk about the importance of relationships. Consider your relationships in a more inclusive sense: family relationships, friendships, relationships with colleagues and acquaintances, etc. You touch people’s lives in a variety of ways.

Think about how the people in your life have given you value: they might have given you different kinds of support or just made you laugh during a tough day. Think about what you have done for them — even if you feel like a burden most of the time, there are always little things which you have done for others. 

Remember that pets count, too. My relationship with my dog provides me with a lot of value, because I can’t deny that he loves me. During a bad episode, I can argue ad nauseum that my friends and family don’t really care and would be better off without me (though I know that’s not really true), but my dog demonstrates every day that he is besotted with me. I’m the most important person in his life and he would be devastated if I died. Sure, I think that’s pretty damned pathetic when my mental health problems are bad, but it’s better than nothing — it’s something to cling on to.

Trouble is, we tend to dismiss relationships which don’t fit our vision of perfect relationships: if they aren’t wonderful 100% of the time, we don’t think of them as valuable when we’re feeling low. The reality is that no relationship fits the Hollywood versions we have been sold. You might wish your life resembled your favourite film or sitcom, but the fact that it isn’t similar doesn’t mean your relationships are less valuable.

Think about all the connections you have, to people you know well and those you see only occasionally. Your life has value because it impacts so many people, even in small ways.

 

3. Contribution

We can contribute to other people’s lives in a variety of ways, all of which are valuable. It follows on from relationships, because simply providing love and companionship is a great way to contribute to others. Acts of kindness (whether random or not) can also make a big difference. It can be challenging to find ways to demonstrate kindness when you have mental health problems, but it’s still possible — buying a friend a small surprise gift or baking a cake, for instance, are great ways of brightening someone’s day.

Donating to charity is also a fabulous way of contributing to society. You can donate money, items or time. You can adapt your contribution to suit your current circumstances, so you can do more as your mental health improves and hold back during bad episodes. Most organisations are grateful for anything you can give and will understand that you need to prioritise your health.

Volunteering can be especially rewarding when it concerns an issue which is important to you. I recently started volunteering for The Project, which is a local organisation which supports young people with mental health problems and their families. I have volunteered for other organisations and found the work valuable, but striving to help young people who are in similar situations to ones I have experienced is more meaningful. I hope I can help to spare them some of the pain I went through, long before The Project existed, which gives my life a greater sense of purpose and value.

 

4. Goals

Pursuing goals can be a great source of value and meaning — as long as you reasons for selecting your goals are your own. Doing something because you think you should or because lots of other people do it isn’t as valuable. I have recently been reminded to focus on my personal reasons for undertaking my Machu Picchu charity challenge, which had fallen by the wayside as I freaked out about fundraising and not measuring up to other people’s expectations. We all have to run our own race. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing, not least because they haven’t faced the same challenges as we have, so the real value comes from focusing on doing our best for our own reasons.

Setting goals and working towards them cultivates a sense of purpose. It reminds us that we are moving and making progress, even when we feel like we are stagnating. 

We may also inspire others by pursuing our goals, which adds value to their lives as well as our own. You may have noted that I have said “pursuing goals” instead of “achieving goals” throughout this section: the achieving doesn’t matter as much as the pursuing. Striving towards goals gives your life meaning, regardless of the outcome. The results simply don’t matter as much as the pursuit, because it’s the work and preparation which provides value.

Your goals can be anything, as long as they stretch you a little and aren’t so overwhelming that you give up. They don’t need to be grand or important — you don’t even need to tell anyone else about them, though the support can help. For several years, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read Ulysses by James Joyce. It gave me something to work towards during some very difficult times and I enjoyed pursuing the goal, though it probably sounds silly to other people. You know what you like, so pick goals which you will enjoy working towards.

 

Make a list of what gives your life value — right now.

If you are feeling low, doing this can remind you of how much you have in your life. If you are feeling good, keep the list to look at during bad episodes and/or think of ways you could add more value to your life.

Just remember that your life does have value, meaning and purpose — even when it feels otherwise.

 

 

Why I’m Open About My Mental Health

Mental health is being talked about more nowadays, but I suppose I am more open about my mental health problems than the average person.

Acknowledging this is strange to me, because I don’t feel like I am revealing a great deal. Even when I write personal posts, like A Shift in Perspective and The Delights of Anxiety, I am being very selective about the information I share. While I try not to censor myself, I don’t want to reveal some personal information or all the gory details, especially when it relates to other people in my life instead of just me.

My main reason for being so open about my experience of mental illness is to help reduce the stigma. While I don’t judge anyone who prefers to keep their mental health problems private, I felt that I was being hypocritical in complaining about the stigma surrounding mental health without doing my bit to help reduce it.

 

People have said I’m brave for talking about my mental illness, but I don’t feel brave.

Talking about my mental health problems can be difficult, but not compared to staying silent. It’s easier to be honest about my struggles than to pretend I’m fine, which is an approach I tried for years. In some ways, I feel I didn’t have a choice but to express myself, because not talking made me feel isolated and caused more pain.

I have also been privileged to have other people tell me they have experienced mental health problems, which reassures me that speaking out is right for me. It means a lot to have people say they are glad I talk about my mental health openly. If my blogging and talking about mental health helps anyone feel a little less alone, it’s worth the risk.

 

I know some people will judge me and use my openness against me, given half the chance.

There is still a lot of ignorance in the world. I know some people would read my blog and conclude that I am weak or lazy. They will use my blog as an excuse not to employ me. They might avoid establishing a relationship with me because I have revealed so much about my mental health. Maybe my openness will make many other things more difficult for me, though my instinct says I wouldn’t want to deal with anyone who judges other people because they have an illness.

I suppose my attitude is influenced by being unable to stand up for myself in the past. My mental health problems have led to me resigning from every job I have had, partly because I didn’t have the confidence or strength to argue my case when employers treated me unfairly. I’m determined not to let myself be undermined in the same way again — which is partly why I’m a freelance writer!

 

I also hope talking about my mental health will encourage others to talk about mental health.

I want everyone to talk about mental health in the same way we talk about physical health. It doesn’t mean that we all have to reveal everything about our experiences as soon as we meet someone (I certainly don’t greet people by saying “Hi, I’m Hayley and I have anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, keratocconus and a long history of ear infections”!), but it should mean that we can talk about our mental health without shame — if and when we choose.

If being open about my mental health problems makes it easier for anyone to start a conversation about mental health, I will have accomplished something good. That is all any of us can hope for!