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.

A Big Jump Forward

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Logically, this means that failure doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

So here’s my big jump…

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

Relinquishing Fantasies

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

Sunset

So here are the fantasies I have to relinquish:

I would be a lot slimmer

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

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

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

 

I would be a lot fitter.

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

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

 

My mental health would be a lot better.

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

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

 

I would reach my £1000 fundraising goal.

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

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

 

My career would be going a lot better.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Next Few Steps

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

 

Stepping stones

 

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

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

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

You need faith to take those next few steps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Reawakening

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

Many of the benefits are psychological.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Weathering The Storm

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

 

Seascape

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Walking My Own Trek

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

The Lane aka my main training ground

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

 

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

What walking my own trek means to me:

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

 

Comparing myself to others is stupid.

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

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

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

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

 

My contributions, however small, are valuable.

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

#TeamAmnesty

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Why I’m Open About My Mental Health

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

The Delights of Anxiety — and More Glimmers of Hope

Anxiety sucks. It makes things which you have done many times before, even easy things, very difficult.

Case in point: modern jive classes. It took me two years before I became confident enough to try jive and even then, I met my best friend in the car park so I wouldn’t have to go in alone. Since that first time, however, I have been to lots of classes — several on my own. Yet when I went last night, after 2-3 months of not going, I was extremely anxious.

My hands were shaking so much I could barely get the money out of my purse. Of course, I then felt like an idiot for shaking so I got more anxious and kicked the chair when I was trying to sit down. I felt even more embarrassed and anxious after that…

Thankfully, modern technology saved the day and I focused on my phone to distract myself from the negative thoughts running through my mind. Once the class started, I felt a little better because I had to focus on trying to control the movement of my limbs. After a while, I began to enjoy the class — despite my nerves.

That is a glimmer of hope for me: despite feeling anxious, I had fun.

There have been several glimmers of hope this week, after a tricky weekend. On my walk yesterday (a glimmer of hope in itself, since I hadn’t been walking much lately), I saw more signs that spring is coming. As you can see from the pictures, snowdrops are in abundance and primroses are beginning to bud. There were also lots of daffodils shooting up. These are such little things, but they reassure me that the warmer weather and lighter evenings will come and the difficult times will pass.

 

The trouble with anxiety is there’s no easy path: you can battle it and feel awful as you try to push outside your comfort zone, or you can give up and let it rule your life, sucking every bit of pleasure out until you stay at home every day and do nothing fun.

I have tried the latter in the past and it just made me more miserable, exacerbating my depression. Letting anxiety rule my life is not an option. But that doesn’t make battling it any easier.

I have let anxiety rule me too much in recent months. I have developed a fear of driving, for instance, so have been avoiding it as much as I can. Last night, I drove on my own for the first time in 3 months — a couple of weeks ago, I drove home with my mum in the car, which was the first time I had driven at all in nearly 3 months.

Pushing through the anxiety is not easy, but it’s necessary if I don’t want it to limit my life to a massive extent.

The weird thing is, once I started driving I became less anxious. I had to focus on the road, of course, which introduces an element of mindfulness and takes me out of my head, but I also found it easier than I had been dreading. I had been letting a couple of bad incidents — which weren’t actually that bad, since they involved scraping things at 2mph — outweigh the hundreds of journeys I have made without incident.

 

Today has brought more glimmers of hope, which are helping to lessen my anxiety.

I had a counselling assessment and will now be starting counselling, which is a huge relief. It helped a lot when I had counselling at the beginning of last year and led to many little achievements — including starting the aforementioned modern jive classes! I hope it will have a similar effect this time and help me to build my confidence, control my anxiety, get more motivated and feel less stressed.

I have also had 3 donations for my Machu Picchu challenge. One of the  sponsors is 3 years old, so I suspect her mum (who also donated today) helped, but I’m still counting it as 3! I’m now just £10 away from my initial target of £250 and my ultimate goal of raising £1000 for Amnesty International seems a lot more possible.

I have also had messages of support from a couple of other women who are doing the challenge with me, which has helped to reassure me. They both urged me to focus on what the trip means to me, rather than stressing about whether people will think I have raised enough. I know they’re right — I have wanted to trek to Machu Picchu my whole life and I need to appreciate that, instead of obsessing over what others think.

I feel like I have turned a corner this week: I’m still very anxious and quite depressed, but I am more able to glimpse hope. I might feel stupid for finding things like driving and going to jive class difficult, but at least I did it — that’s got to count for something!