Changing Routines

I have come to realise that daily habits and routines make the most difference to my mental health. Big events have an impact of course, for better or worse, but the accumulative effect of the hundreds of tasks and mini-tasks I perform every day is greater. Which is why a drastic change to my daily routine has led to a recent improvement in my anxiety and depression.

Autumn sunrise

I started getting up at 5am.

Typing that sentence feels weird. I am not a “morning person”. I don’t bounce out of bed full of energy and joy, ready to meet the world. In fact, most of the times I had seen 5am in the past were a result of insomnia and/or staying up late.

I always thought of myself as a night owl; working late at night was normal for me, especially when writing fiction. On a good day, I only hit snooze once or twice when my alarm went off at 8am. If I dragged myself out of bed before 9am, I was doing well.

However, I kept reading that getting up early was a Good Thing. Loads of very successful people credited an early start for making them more productive. I began to wonder if it would work for me.

Then, one Tuesday about 6 weeks ago, I accidentally woke up early. I think it was around 5:45am. I was thirsty, so I decided to get up and go downstairs to have a drink. My brother later said “why didn’t you do what I do and drink water in the bathroom, then go back to bed?” I’m not sure of the answer. I suppose reading about the benefits of an early start made me think “I’m awake now, it’s an opportunity to experiment,” but it was subconscious.

I liked being up early, so I set my alarm for 5:30am the next day, then at 5am a few days later. I have been getting up at 5am since — yes, even on weekends.

 

Getting up early means I start my day with an achievement.

I always felt a bit crap rolling out of bed somewhere between 8am and 9:30am. If I overslept for longer, I felt like more of a failure. I was wasting a large chunk of my day dozing — my sleep quality was generally poor, but hearing my parents and brother leave the house in the mornings disturbed my sleep patterns even more, so I never felt well-rested.

It wasn’t an ideal start to the day and I never felt properly awake until noon. Anxiety and/or depression often cause me to procrastinate, so I would often reach mid afternoon without having done anything constructive. This feels crap, too, so the anxiety and depression would worsen and I’d be lucky to get anything done.

Now, getting up early is an achievement. I feel like I’m embracing the day, instead of hiding away from it until I summon the motivation to get out of bed. My mum and I have recently begun walking the dogs early as well, so that’s another item ticked off the to-do list before 7am. It sets me up for a more productive day.

 

It initiates an upward spiral.

When you have a long term mental illness, a lot tends to depend on momentum. When you are having a good episode and feel better, it’s easier to do more things which can improve your mental health. On the flip side, it’s easy to get into a downward spiral where you feel progressively worse and therefore are less able to do anything, let alone adopt positive coping strategies.

Getting up early helps me to initiate an upward spiral at the start of every day. Achieving this one, tiny goal makes my other goals seem achievable. It means I’m more likely to put on my SAD lamp, meditate, so yoga, write, read… All of those self-care activities which seem simple when you feel well, but are easy to neglect when you feel crap.

It’s important to note that I still don’t bounce out of bed. I don’t press snooze anymore, but it takes some effort to get up. I find it relatively easy only because it’s worth the effort.

I feel awake by 7am nowadays, which means I take less time to wake up, but I’m certainly not energetic and focused at 5am. I try to use the time to plan my day and do those simple self-care activities I mentioned. I think this makes a big difference to my mood, because I used to switch the television on as soon as I got up — often in the hope that it would distract me from symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The first hour after I get up gives me the opportunity to “check in” on how I feel and decide what I want to achieve over the course of the day. If I feel more anxious or depressed, I know I need to cut myself some slack and prioritise self-care. If I feel pretty good, I can prioritise work tasks and medium to long term goals.

 

My routine is still a work in progress.

Getting up at 5am has shaken up my whole routine and helped me make improvements, but it’s very much an experiment and there are areas in which I need to make more effort to change. I’m gradually building better habits, partly motivated by considering who I want to be, but there are many habits I need to tweak, transform or drop altogether.

The biggest change has been my mindset: I feel more ready to face the world. Even if most of the world seems to be asleep when I wake up!

 

The Hard Slog

I try to do something towards one of my goals every day. I split my big goals into small chunks, just as everyone advises and I try to hold myself accountable. But it’s bloody hard to stay motivated sometimes.

Winding lane

Having no clear pathway causes self-doubt.

With some goals, you don’t know what will work for you. You can predict what might work, based on how other people have achieved similar goals, but there is an inherent lack of certainty. This gives rise to self-doubt and a lack of confidence, which makes it difficult to keep focused.

It’s easier when there is a clear structure to follow, such as a course syllabus or training plan. You can try to create your own structure (which I do), but maintaining confidence in an untested plan is challenging.

 

Progress can be excruciatingly slow.

You may have a clear pathway to your goal, but when you are progressing so slowly it feels like you aren’t moving, it’s easy to give up. You think you should be moving faster. Other people are moving faster, you believe, so you are failing compared to them. You try to focus on yourself without comparing the inside of your life to the outside of other people’s, but it’s tough.

The only way to get through this feeling is to ensure you really want to achieve your goals. When you want something badly enough, you can bear more than you realise.

 

A lack of milestones and/or external success can be dispiriting.

I know you shouldn’t rely on external validation, but small successes are great confidence boosters and reassure you that you are on the right path. When it’s been a while since someone has acknowledged your progress, your motivation suffers. When it feels like ages since you last hit a milestone, it’s hard to keep going.

The answer, of course, is to concentrate on the intrinsic rewards of whatever you are doing to work towards your goals. Enjoy the process, the journey. The cynic in me thinks that would be easier if success was guaranteed, but experience tells me this is a good strategy. There are immediate benefits to activities like writing and exercise, for example, though they are steps towards a bigger goal.

 

Usually, the best option is to keep going.

If you are passionate about your goals, the idea of quitting is unbearable. The only option is to keep going. It’s hard work, you feel shit a lot of the time and you often convince yourself you will never achieve anything, but it’s better than giving up.

However, that doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up when you fall short of your hopes and expectations. Working towards a significant goal is worthwhile. It doesn’t matter if your progress is slow or if days pass without taking steps towards your goals. Just keep going.

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.

 

 

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.

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! 

9 Months After Antidepressants

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

Pill packets

There has been no dramatic change.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Antidepressants are an important part of my story.

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

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

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

 

Stopping antidepressants is an achievement.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

It’s still early days.

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

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

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

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

Did It!

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

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

Machu Picchu

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stubbornness got me through.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Realising my dream was awesome.

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

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

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

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