Changing Tides

It’s the end of summer and everything feels distinctly autumnal. I’m particularly sensitive to this feeling because my mental health usually dips over the winter months, plus there are a couple of major beginnings and endings on the horizon.

Seascape

An Ending

I’m approaching the “end” of my current novel. I have been rewriting it for several months and hope to have it in decent shape within a month. Of course, the “end” will hopefully be the beginning, if I’m fortunate enough to attract an agent. If I’m even luckier and get a publishing deal, there will be a lot of extra work ahead, including more rewriting and editing.

Yet completing the novel means letting go. It means exposing it to readers — potential agents, publishers, competition judges, editors, perhaps people who decide to buy the book (if it gets published). I will have to send it out into the world.

My main concern isn’t receiving criticism of my writing: I’m used to criticism and rejections, which are inevitable for every writer. In fact, I prefer getting constructive criticism rather than a vague “not for us” rejection. I like to know how my writing comes across; how I can improve. I want to get better at writing and critiques are essential if I am to improve.

I suppose I’m worried that the novel might have no potential. That I’m wasting my time trying to write novels. There might be a fear of moving on to the next and trying to apply the lessons I have learnt. What if I can’t improve? What if I never write a publishable novel?

Perhaps the real problem is the uncertainty. If a time traveller from 2020 (or beyond) told me my current novel was terrible and never published, I would just shrug and move on. I would consider it a time-consuming but worthwhile exercise, helping me to learn my craft — like my last attempt at writing a novel. If the time traveller told me it got published and was reasonably well received, I would be ecstatic. I don’t like not knowing.

Ending a major phase of any project makes me feel reflective. I question my goals and achievements. I fence with self-doubt. I worry that I won’t complete the next phase, that things will go wrong or that I’m just not good enough. Mental illness takes these normal feelings and blends them with my symptoms, creating a lot of turmoil. It can be intense, but I can ride it out.

 

 

A Beginning.

I will start my Psychology BSc with the Open University in October. I’m excited, but also nervous — which I suppose is normal. It’s a big commitment, since studying will form a large proportion of my life for the next 5 years, but it’s also incredibly important to me.

I wouldn’t be so nervous if I didn’t care. I’m worried that my mental health will affect my studies because I want to learn as much as I can. I don’t want to put my studies on hold or scrape through by the skin of my teeth. I want to be able to engage with the material and complete assignments to the best of my ability.

I’m especially wary because of past experience. When I did my Film Studies BA, a decline in my mental health in the final year (not helped by also being diagnosed with a serious eye condition which could lead to blindness) meant my grades dropped by 10%. I went from being on course for a 1:1 from the first semester, earning a Dean’s Commendation in my second year, to getting a good-but-disappointing 2:1. I know I should be proud to have done so well when facing tough challenges, but it’s frustrating when my mental health prevents me from doing my best.

I appreciate the irony of worrying about my mental health affecting my degree, when my experience of mental illness has motivated my decision to study Psychology. I’m fed up with repeating the same patterns, battling and working like mad only to fall short in the end. Yes, I do the best I can in my particular circumstances, but that’s not very reassuring when I know I’m capable of more.

I hope studying Psychology will be a fresh start. My mental health is better (in general) than it has been for a long time and I have good coping strategies. Grades and results aren’t as important to me nowadays — instead of setting out to prove something to myself (and/or others who doubt me), I want to use what I learn to help myself and others.

 

Adjusting

I want to change my life, which involves a large degree of uncertainty and a lot of learning to cope with the effects. The changing seasons emphasise how life follows cycles; how natural it is to change direction and evolve. However, accepting — even embracing — the inevitability of change doesn’t make it easy.

When you have mental health issues, it feels like your whole life is filtered through them — determined by them, at the worst points. It’s annoying and frustrating. It can make you feel sad, angry, hopeless. I often wish I had never experienced mental illness.

But… without experiencing mental health problems, I doubt I would have tried to write a novel or studied the subjects I’m truly passionate about at university. I often feel like I’m not living a full life, because mental illness prevents me from doing so many “normal” things, yet many perfectly healthy people lead half-lives and don’t follow their dreams. They limit themselves and don’t set goals or take risks. If I didn’t have mental health issues, I think I may have been one of those people.

 

 

Refighting Battles

One of the most frustrating and exhausting aspects of having a long term mental illness is you have to fight the same battles again and again. It’s not like a video game, where you pass a level and never have to retake it. Just because you manage to do something one day doesn’t mean you can cope with it the next.


Winding lane

It’s like Groundhog Day without a clear learning curve.

Symptoms of mental illness can fluctuate a lot. I know I mention this a lot, but it’s one of the core truths that people who haven’t experienced mental health problems find difficult to grasp. Even on a “good” day, you have to battle symptoms. They may not be as intense as they are on “bad” days, but they are still present.

Today, for instance, I went for a walk on my own (well, with my dog) for the first time in a while. I haven’t been walking him in the daytime during the summer because it has been either far too hot or raining. People who aren’t familiar with mental health issues might think I found this easy: it has only been a couple of months since I last went for a walk alone, I walk the route with my parents all the time and my mental health has been gradually improving since spring. I should have no problems, right?

Actually, I felt anxious. It took me several hours to work up to doing it and my mind generated a plethora of excuses and unnecessary worries. I felt better when I started walking, but I was still nervous. I kept thinking something bad might happen, that I would get hit by a car or fall over. I worried about meeting other people and feeling incredibly awkward if they tried to make conversation. I ruminated on whether it was too hot for the dog to be out, because the sun started shining despite the low-ish temperature. I was bombarded by symptoms of anxiety.

I shall reiterate: today is a good day. I enjoyed my walk and managed to break out of my negative thought patterns several times. I felt better for tackling the challenge. The point is, I may always have to cope with my symptoms. There may be a day in the future when I can leave the house without planning in advance and feeling anxious, but I’m not counting on it. I have to refight the battle every time I go out alone.

 

And there are many battles to refight.

Many of the things I do on a daily basis take effort. By writing this blog post, I am battling against anxiety and depression: my mind is filled with thoughts like “Why bother writing? It’ll be terrible no matter how hard you try” and “nobody is going to read it anyway”. I battle through because a). I enjoy blogging and writing about mental health, and b). I know there is a chance that my experiences may help other people to understand mental health problems or, if they are experiencing mental health issues themselves, to feel less alone.

I have to accept that these battles need to be refought over and over. It’s annoying and frustrating. It makes me sad and angry. It’s a real bitch. But the alternative is doing nothing.

Refighting battles is hard, but necessary. Many of the battles seem ridiculous, like motivating myself to eat proper meals instead of crisps, but I have to keep fighting. I know each battle takes me closer to achieving my goals and leading a better life, but it doesn’t feel like that when you are out on the battlefield.

 

Yet every battle you win makes you a little stronger.

I certainly don’t feel stronger every time I get through a mundane challenge, but getting through each battle gives me a little confidence. There are times when I get so distressed that even if I win the battle it doesn’t seem worth it, but these comprise a small percentage of my battles. The learning curve might not be clear, but it’s there — hidden under all the fluctuating symptoms. Every battle won imparts a lesson.

Today’s lesson is this: sometimes it feels pointless to refight the same battles because there is no clear indication of progress, but like a character in a video game, you are gaining experience points. I just hope I level up soon!

Differently Functioning

The term ‘high functioning’ is used to describe people with mental health issues (and other conditions) who appear or behave in a way which is ‘normal.’ This often means holding down a full time job, having stable relationships and being able to carry out mundane tasks, like cooking, shopping, using the phone, travelling on public transport, etc. It can be a useful term, for example when explaining how people whose lives appear successful can be suffering from a mental illness, but it’s very problematic. Especially for those of us who aren’t ‘low functioning’ but can’t be described as ‘high functioning’ and/or whose mental health problems vary over time.

I propose using ‘differently functioning’ to acknowledge the full spectrum of people who experience mental health issues. It’s a more flexible term which avoids many of the assumptions evoked by using evaluative language to define people’s experiences of mental health. It identifies the need to accommodate difference without creating discrete categories which are imposed on people with mental health problems.

 

‘High functioning’ implies a binary position – and a hierarchy.

When people use the term ‘high functioning’, it is usually in contrast to ‘low functioning’ individuals. They don’t talk about the people who fall between these two definitions. This means that people with mental health problems who don’t meet the criteria for either definition are ignored or shoved into whichever category someone else decides is the best fit. Their specific needs are not considered.

Describing individuals as high/low functioning also suggests that their value as a person is either high or low. The implication is that ‘high functioning’ people contribute to society, whereas ‘low functioning’ people are a burden on society. You might not intend to create these assumptions when you use the terms, but that’s the effect of the language you are using.

 

‘High/low functioning’ are terms which invite judgement.

There are expectations built into the descriptions: ‘high functioning’ people should be able to cope with anything, whereas ‘low functioning’ people can’t be expected to cope with anything. You are either under pressure to meet society’s definition of ‘normal’ (which is variable in itself) or devalued as ‘subnormal’. You are judged by the terms themselves, then you are judged if you fail to meet the expectations evoked by these terms.

Unfortunately, the UK benefits system is based on these terms under different guises: ‘fit for work’ and ‘not fit for work.’ Little to no consideration is given to people who can cope with some types of work but not others, or people whose ability to cope varies. This exposes vulnerable people to judgement from the general public: if you are declared ‘not fit for work’ and someone sees you on a rare good day, enjoying a meal out with friends, you are labelled a scrounger. Even if you have to ask your friends to go to the bar on your behalf, because anxiety prevents you from speaking to the bartender.

These definitions and the associated judgements help nobody. They perpetuate ignorance of mental health issues and prevent people from seeking help and support.

I have been on both sides at various times in my life and neither is easy. When I was ‘low functioning’ I felt like a lost cause and any improvement made me feel like a fraud, because it deviated from people’s perceptions. I felt guilty for having a good day. When I was ‘high functioning’ I felt like I constantly needed to prove myself and anything less than perfection was a failure. I felt guilty for not being able to do things – anything, even things most people find difficult – and was crumbling below the surface.

Describing people as ‘high/low functioning’ in a medical context may be useful, but it’s still limiting. Using these descriptions in daily life is damaging.

 

‘High/low functioning’ are fixed terms.

Defining people as ‘high/low functioning’ implies permanence. There is no obvious route from one category to the other – particularly from the undesirable (low functioning) to the supposedly desirable (high functioning). It takes away hope for people whose mental health prevents them from functioning ‘normally’ – and hope is a rare commodity for many people who have mental health issues – while failing to provide a safety net for ‘high functioning’ people, because if they fail to meet expectations (their own and/or other people’s) they are condemned to the ‘low functioning’ category, since there are no other options available.

You are either consigned to a category which (according to some people) defines you for the rest of your life, or your individual requirements are permanently ignored as people try to shoehorn you into a category.

 

‘Differently functioning’ offers an alternative, more realistic and flexible viewpoint.

Mental health is variable – regardless of whether you have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Everyone has good days, bad days and days which are inbetween. This is often exacerbated when you have mental health problems, as your symptoms can vary a lot and these symptoms affect other aspects of your life – and other symptoms. This means your ability to perform certain tasks can vary a lot.

To complicate matters, your ability to cope with different activities may vary over different periods of time, ranging from years to hours. You can fluctuate between the categories of ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ on a short-term and/or long-term basis.

For example, I couldn’t take my dog for a walk on my own for over a decade, but now I can – except when my anxiety is worse than usual. Before March last year, I couldn’t go for a walk alone even on good days. Just to emphasise the illogical nature of mental illness, I could walk on my own in specific circumstances during that time, such as when going to lectures at university. Other times, I couldn’t leave the house – alone or with other people.

People who haven’t experienced mental health problems find this difficult to understand (and so do I, sometimes!), because they are stuck in a black-and-white mindset which dictates that if a person is ‘well’ they can do anything, while if they are ‘ill’ they can do nothing. Even when paying lip service to the notion that everyone has good and bad days, some people don’t understand how dramatically one’s abilities and coping mechanisms can vary. They can’t see why people with mental health problems can’t force themselves to undertake these activities all the time.

By using the term ‘differently functioning’, we can acknowledge the variable nature of mental illness. This provides a starting point for enabling people to cope with mental health problems – whether they are the one experiencing mental health issues or a caregiver, partner, friend, employer, teacher, etc. of someone with mental health problems.

 

‘Differently functioning’ is an inclusive term and values people for their abilities.

It’s genuinely descriptive, rather than judgemental. There are no implied expectations. You don’t feel as though your value as a person is being evaluated when people use the term and you aren’t forced into a category which doesn’t reflect your reality. People with mental health problems can feel ostracised if we don’t measure up to what society considers ‘normal’, which is emphasised when people insist on defining others as high/low functioning. In contrast, everyone is ‘differently functioning’, but these differences often need more consideration when someone has a mental health issue.

The specific differences may not make sense to a lot of people. For instance, anxiety often prevents me from using public transport and driving – but I find driving easier. I can drive at a level of anxiety which would stop me from getting on a train. Most people find this difficult to understand, because driving is more dangerous and involves a higher level of skill and responsibility than being a train passenger. However, I experience social anxiety as well as general anxiety, which makes interacting with people – especially strangers – very difficult. I’d much rather drive than interact with people I don’t know.

My example may seem arbitrary, but it underlines the fact that being differently functional often means you can do some tasks which people consider hard, but are unable to perform some tasks which people think are easy. For instance, I can write essays well, but can’t make phone calls most of the time. In fact, I would rather write ten essays than make one phone call! I’m aware of how ridiculous this sounds, but it’s the way it is – for me.

Your abilities may also depend on other factors, such as location and who else is involved. For example, I’m now able to go to the hairdresser on my own (which wasn’t the case a few years ago), but I can only go to my regular salon and it’s much easier if the hairdresser is one who has cut my hair before. I can do far more when accompanied by my mum than I can alone, or even with a friend, such as talk to shop assistants and go to gym classes. Yet all of this is variable – I went to a gym class on my own when my mum was on holiday, though it was much harder and less enjoyable, but I can’t rely on my anxiety to be low enough for me to go alone every week.

Thinking of yourself and other people as differently functioning is more positive than using the high/low dichotomy. It places an emphasis on what you can do, rather than what you are currently unable to do.

 

Thinking in terms of ‘differently functioning’ opens up more possibilities.

Along with emphasising your abilities, thinking of yourself as ‘differently functioning’ encourages a growth mindset which highlights the importance of developing your skills. Improvement is possible. You start to value yourself and what you can do. Instead of fostering fear and despair, it creates hope.

I started to think of myself as ‘differently functioning’ last year. I was fed up with feeling stuck between ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ because that is how our society views people with mental illness. I’m not well enough to do everything which most people take for granted, but neither am I ill enough to do nothing and be satisfied. I have to find a way to negotiate life to the best of my abilities – especially when those abilities fluctuate.

Thinking of myself as differently functioning has helped me to focus on my strengths, rather than berating myself for not being able to do simple tasks, like talking on the phone and shopping alone. I’m pushing myself to improve my skills and gain confidence. I’m managing my mental health better. Perhaps I will meet the criteria for people to consider me ‘high functioning’ one day, but it doesn’t matter to me – as long as I know I’m doing my best, working hard to achieve my goals and contributing to society.

 

‘High functioning’ is not a good goal.

The trouble is, ‘high functioning’ gets presented to people with mental health problems as a goal. Even when people who use the term are trying to make a valid point, such as how mental illness makes it difficult to cope even when your life looks great from the outside, this is the subtext: lots of people with mental health problems can work, get married, have kids, go on holiday, buy homes, etc. so if your mental health has prevented you from doing any (or all) of these things, you are a failure. You can’t blame your mental health, so it must be your own fault.

Mental illness is not a homogenous experience and adhering to a high/low functioning dichotomy ignores both the range and intensity of symptoms. It also ignores the complexity of individual situations. Some people have highly supportive employers, for example, who allow them to work flexibly and take time off when needed without sending them on a guilt trip when they return to work. Some people have supportive families who help them cope. Some people have the security of large financial resources. Some people have all of these advantages and more; others have none. When being ‘high functioning’ is presented as a goal, allowances are not made for people who lack these resources and the implication is the same – if you don’t reach this goal, it’s your own fault.

 

‘Differently functioning’ abandons the myth of the ultimate goal.

I advocate thinking in terms of ‘differently functioning’ because there is no ultimate goal: people are free to choose their own goals and don’t have to worry about not measuring up to the ideal.

Except the high functioning ideal isn’t necessarily an ideal. ‘High functioning’ often refers to people who are struggling with mental illness while maintaining a façade, rather than managing their mental health and achieving their goals. They may be considered successful, but they are neither happy nor healthy. This has more disturbing implications when it’s portrayed as an ideal: it doesn’t matter if you are suffering, as long as you bear the hallmarks of success.

I followed this philosophy for a long time. I thought having a job was more important than being healthy, so I stayed in jobs which damaged my mental health. I believed exam results were more important than being happy, so I focused on studying as I grew more miserable. My coping mechanisms were destructive: self-harm, alternately bingeing and starving myself, cutting myself off from friends.

Nowadays, I’m trying to follow a different philosophy: managing my mental health and achieving my goals without sacrificing one for the other. I may never be able to work in a conventional full time job, but I hope I can build a successful career through unconventional work. Perhaps I will struggle with my mental health all my life, but I’m determined to cope as well as I can and pursue my interests whenever I can.

I’m functioning in a different way to ‘normal’ people, but I’m still functioning.

The Waiting Game

Ever noticed how most of us play destructive games which prevent us from achieving our goals and living the life we want? The waiting game is a classic example. We want to do something, but we tell ourselves we won’t do it or start working towards it until we are less stressed/thinner/richer/more experienced. We wait for a better time.

Blue owl timer
His name is Owen. Owen The Owl.

Except the better time never comes.

We keep making excuses. When we have some time we could use to pursue our goals, we decide to wait until we have more time. When we have enough money to make a start, we decide it’s better to wait until we have enough money to finish. When we feel a little more confident, we tell ourselves it’s better to wait until we feel very confident.

Are we really waiting for a magical time when everything in our lives is perfect? Judging from our behaviour, yes. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true,

I’m an expert at the waiting game. Having mental health issues creates a whole new level of excuses: I’ll wait until my anxiety is better, until I go at least 2 weeks without a bad day, until I’m less dissatisfied with life. And yes, I am aware that waiting until you are less dissatisfied with your life before you make changes is utter nonsense!

 

The answer is to stop playing.

All versions of the waiting game are destructive. You trick yourself into thinking you are making things easier/better, but you are only preventing yourself from achieving what you want. There will never be a “better” time. Life will always throw obstacles your way, no matter how well you prepare or how carefully you plan your timing.

Mental illness is unpredictable, so I have learnt this lesson over and over again: what seems like a “better” time can quickly change and what seems like a “worse” time can become better within an instant.

You can’t predict the obstacles you will face, but you can plan for them – to a degree.

There is an important distinction between achieving your goal and working towards it: the latter is about laying the groundwork, preparing to the best of your ability so your chances of success are optimal. This can include learning or honing skills, saving money, improving fitness, networking…anything which is pertinent to your goal. Note: preparing to the best of your ability does not mean over-preparing, using research and learning new skills as an excuse not to take action. You need to strike a balance.

 

Putting your life on hold doesn’t work.

Believe me, I tried for years. It made all of my problems worse, especially my mental health. You need to do what you can, when you can. You need to chase your dreams because the life you want is not going to land in your lap.

Working towards your goals will look different for everyone, depending on individual circumstances and your personal goals. How you work towards your goals will also vary over time, especially if you have mental health problems. Sometimes working towards my goals involves very small steps which seem trivial to other people, such as going for a walk on my own or putting £10 in my savings account. Sometimes my long-term goals have to take a backseat while I prioritise my immediate mental health. It can be frustrating when that happens, but it’s part of achieving my goals while managing my mental health problems.

Does this sound easy? It’s not. It’s simple in theory, but continually working towards your goals is hard work. You will probably struggle with confidence, procrastination and self-doubt at many points. There will be days when you think it’s not worth trying to achieve any goals.

So why continue? Because the alternative is worse. Living an aimless life, reacting to all the crap the universe throws at you, is harder than being proactive and trying to create a better life. It leads only to misery.

 

Not waiting doesn’t mean being impulsive.

I emphasise working towards your goals because it involves a great degree of thought and taking responsibility for your actions. Picking arbitrary goals which mean nothing to you personally is pointless. Risking your future happiness by getting into debt without careful consideration in order to achieve a goal isn’t a good idea. Not discussing your goals with your partner (if you have one) is selfish and stupid. Working towards your goals means you figure out as much as you can, gathering support and avoiding potential pitfalls.

As I write this, it occurs to me that most worthwhile goals cannot be achieved through a single act of impulsivity. Even if you sign up for something on an impulse, you still need to follow through. Anyone can enter a marathon, but if you want to complete it, you need to train.

However, setting a goal into motion on what seems like an impulse can be driven by your intuition. Decisions based on gut feelings are often the best ones, because they have a strong connection to your core values and passions. Your actions may seem impulsive, but set you on a path towards what you really want.

 

Trusting your intuition is a learning process.

I have acted against my intuition many times, choosing the “safe” or “sensible” option – and I have regretted it every time. Conversely, when I trust my instincts – even when I think I must be crazy – I make the best decisions of my life.

I still experience self-doubt when I trust my intuition, but underlying those layers of doubt is an unassailable feeling that I’m doing the right thing for me. I know I’m meant to do whatever I have chosen. My decision may have unexpected consequences, but I’m certain I’m on the right path.

When I act on impulse, on the other hand, I have an underlying feeling of dread, shame or guilt. I know, deep down, that I’m making the wrong decision and letting myself down. I get this feeling when I buy junk food or expensive shoes I don’t need. I also experience it when I make excuses for not working towards my goals and seizing opportunities.

We usually associate impulsive, thoughtless decisions with irresponsible actions, but they can also result in avoiding action.

Every time you make an excuse not to take the next step towards your goal, you are acting on impulse. When you procrastinate instead of being proactive, you are acting on impulse. When you choose television or browsing the internet (guilty!) over working towards your goals, you are acting on impulse.

Your intuition, however, will indicate the best course – which is unlikely to be watching television for hours on end.

 

Defeat the waiting game with your intuition.

What does your ideal life look like? I can’t promise you will achieve it, but you can definitely work towards incorporating elements of it into your actual life. You know, deep down, what you need to do.

What grabs your attention when you are chatting to people or browsing online? What makes you think “I wish I could do that”? Who do you envy or admire? Where would you like to live? How would you like to fill your days? What are your passions?

Finding the answers to these questions is an adventure in itself – especially as they may change over time. Look inside yourself and ask what feels right for you.

Again, I’m not saying you can get everything you want. All of us will have to compromise at some point, because our resources (time, money, skills) are limited. You might not get what you want – but you can certainly get closer to it.

Another version of the waiting game is thinking in black and white terms: “if I can’t guarantee I will get everything I want, I won’t try to do anything.” You deny yourself success because you are afraid of uncertainty; you prefer the certainty of remaining where you are now, even if you are unhappy and dissatisfied with your life. I used to think like that, wanting things to be perfect and viewing anything less as inadequate, but it’s no way to live. Perfectionism is soul-destroying and stops you from doing the things which would make you happier, if not completely happy.

Trusting your intuition and moving towards the life you want is bloody difficult, but I believe it’s worth the effort. My life is far from perfect (laughably so, in fact), yet I am happier than I have ever been. I’m working towards my goals and – regardless of the outcome – that feels good.

Striding Forward

I have a confession: a few months ago, I enrolled on a Psychology BSc with the Open University. I didn’t tell many people because I wasn’t sure whether I’d get a student loan, which is the only way I can afford the course. Today, I learnt that I will receive a student loan and will be able to study.

Mountain pathI’m delighted – I have wanted to study Psychology for a while, but didn’t think I would ever be able to do so. I found out by accident that I could be eligible for a part time student loan in some STEM subjects (I already have a student loan from my Film Studies BA) and hardly dared to believe my application would be accepted. The plan is to complete the degree over the next 5 years, which is a slightly scary prospect but preferable to waiting even longer!

I hope to use my studies to help other people with mental health problems to achieve their goals and create a better life. I’m not sure exactly how I will do this, but having a formal education in Psychology will provide me with opportunities I would not otherwise have. I also intend to use what I learn to improve this blog and (hopefully) inspire people through my writing.

I feel like I’m on the right path and striding forward, towards whatever the future will bring. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going, but I’m following my passions.

Lessons from Machu Picchu

It’s just over 2 months since I completed my trek to Machu Picchu and I’ve only begun processing the experience. It still feels a little unreal, like a bizarre dream – only one which everyone knows about! I have been trying to make sense of it all and some lessons have emerged…

Machu Picchu view
  1. You get to decide what your goals are, but not how you achieve them.

If you had told me what I would have to battle in order to reach Machu Picchu, I doubt I would have tackled the challenge. I faced physical illness, a decline in my mental health and bereavement – and that was during the preparation. The trek itself brought the joys of constant rain, altitude sickness, a throat infection and panic attacks. It was worth it in the end, but I wouldn’t have chosen to go through any of those additional challenges.

I thought my toughest difficulties would be improving my physical fitness and social anxiety. These were factors in making the trek one of the biggest challenges of my life, but they were overshadowed by the ones mentioned above. Everyone knows that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans (which is a phrase I always hear as John Lennon sings it, though I know he probably wasn’t the first to say it), but sometimes life throws so much crap at you that you think there must be a sadistic god somewhere, having a laugh as he hurls misfortunes your way.

Yet I still achieved my goal. I achieved it because I wanted it more than almost anything else in my life.

You get to define what you want out of life and the only way you will get what you want is by defining it; goals give you a target, something to drive towards. You don’t get to dictate exactly how you get what you want, because there will always be obstacles flung in your path, but you can try one way and change course when needed. As long as you keep trying, there is a chance you will get there in the end.

 

Peru mountain home
  1. Your limits are further away than you realise.

I felt like I was being pushed to my limit many times during both the trek itself and my preparations. On the last day of the trek, getting derailed every few minutes by panic attacks as I climbed the 3000 (apparently) steps to the Sun Gate, I thought I would never get there. I stumbled along, feeling utterly wretched. Yet I didn’t reach my limit – I wasn’t even as close as I’d felt at the time.

I was walking. Very slowly, but I was upright. If I had been close to my limit, I would have been crawling. And yes, I would have crawled before I quit.

I was stronger than I realised, though I felt weak. I think this is something I need to apply to the rest of my life, especially during worse episodes of mental illness. I think most people would be surprised at what they can achieve – if only they would set themselves bigger goals. Myself included.

 

  1. Most people want you to succeed.

Sure, there are some nasty, petty people in this world who take pleasure in other people’s failures and miseries, but the majority want others to do well. I have received a lot of support, encouragement and congratulations over the past year – some of it from unexpected sources. People like seeing others achieve their goals; especially when doing so helps others.

This makes a lot of sense: people are in a better position to help others when they are successful. By supporting others in achieving their goals, you might be helping yourself (and others) in the long run. Unfortunately, some people have a win-lose mentality, whereby they see someone else’s success as their own failure. This is nonsense in most circumstances, when people are not competing directly for a limited reward, but it’s an attitude to which some people cling. They view life as an individual race, not a team game.

Seeing others succeed can also inspire and motivate you. From the moment I signed up for the trek, I hoped that my experience would inspire other people – especially those with mental health problems – to follow their dreams. I have since found out that at least one person has done so as a result of seeing me achieve my goal, which makes every single moment of struggle and despair well worth the effort.

 

Winay Wayna ruins
  1. You can help yourself and others – there’s no need to choose.

Following on from my previous lesson, achieving your own goals can help others – even if the link isn’t apparent. I thought of my goal of trekking to Machu Picchu as inherently selfish, despite the fact that I was self-funding and raising money for Amnesty International, because I wanted first and foremost to do it for myself. I hoped to inspire others, but my main motivation was to prove to myself that I could realise a long-held dream.

I think this was symptomatic of my own version of the win-lose mentality. While my “winning” didn’t necessitate another person’s loss, I thought of the trek as an individual pursuit. In reality, it was a team game.

The obvious teammates were my fellow trekkers, guides and our group’s doctor, without whom I wouldn’t have reached my goal. We cheered each other on through the most miserable moments, when we were cold and soaked through, denied even a decent view by fog/low cloud.

Everyone’s support was incredible. There were so many kindnesses. My roommate lent me fresh socks and carried my bag and walking poles up the monkey steps near the end of the trek. Team B (who know who they are!), kept my spirits up when I wanted to collapse on the bloody mountain and stay there. My success is their success.

However, I also had a great support team at home. My parents lent me money, enabling the whole challenge. My dad drove me to Heathrow and back (partly as my birthday present, to be fair), so I wouldn’t have to deal with the added stress of coping with public transport. My mum walked miles – literally – up hills to help me train. My friends kept encouraging me through the darkest moments, when I didn’t know whether I could carry on living, let alone training. Again, my success is their success.

I also realised that everyone I just mentioned (and more besides) took pleasure in my success. Just as I am glad when my friends and family achieve their goals. There might not have been an obvious or direct link which benefits others, but that doesn’t mean others didn’t benefit in some small way.

In fact, assuming your goals don’t cause direct harm to others, I would go so far as to say that achieving your goals always benefits other people – if only because you are showing them it’s possible.

 

Machu Picchu view
  1. Every step is significant, though most of them feel insignificant.

As long as you are moving forward, you are getting closer to your goal. It might not feel like you are progressing fast enough, or like you are progressing at all, but taking any action is a vital step. Again, this is something I need to apply to my life in general – I often feel frustrated because I’m not achieving my goals as quickly as I’d like. Of course, if your goal involves walking to a destination, there is a clear path (or at least direction) which will lead you there. For less tangible goals, you need to keep faith that you will reach your destination as long as you keep taking action.

When I was trekking to Machu Picchu, the majority of my steps felt insignificant. Having a clear path and destination, not to mention guides, didn’t stop my mental battles from hindering my progress. Blind faith didn’t keep me going – stubbornness did.

You have to apply the same determination to working towards your goals, regardless of how insignificant each step seems. The only other option is giving up, which is the one sure way to failure. I think individual steps will always tend to feel insignificant and it’s only in hindsight that you can see how fully they contribute to achieving your goals. It’s part of the challenge, to keep taking action when it feels pointless.

 

As I said, I’m still processing everything.

These are the initial lessons I have learnt, but I feel like the challenge has changed me in ways that I’m yet to notice or appreciate. The changes aren’t exactly what I expected either – sure, I have more confidence and am determined to achieve more goals, but I am still dealing with anxiety and depression so they get in the way. I wasn’t anticipating a dramatic transformation, but part of me is disappointed that I didn’t get one.

I guess the main change is that I trust my intuition more. My instinct told me that trekking to Machu Picchu would be one of the best decisions I have ever made (as much as I dreaded it might turn out to be the worst) and I believe that’s true. It was an incredible experience. Trusting my intuition more has also brought me closer to my core values, making me think more deeply about how I want to live my life.

I guess I have to wait and see what the long-term effects of my Machu Picchu challenge will be. Perhaps the dramatic transformation will manifest in the future…

On/Off Course

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

 

Off course

It’s easy to lose sight of the path.

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

It’s easier to stop walking.

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

 

You need to look for compasses.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Subdued

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

Subdued meerkat

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

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

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

 

The only option is acceptance.

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

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

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

What If You Don’t Have a Dream?

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

Apple blossom and sky

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

1. Check your definition of “dream”.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

3. Don’t limit yourself.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Running Again

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

Running shoes

I hit my goal in half the time.

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

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

 

It makes more sense in retrospect.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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