Differently Functioning

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘High/low functioning’ are fixed terms.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

‘High functioning’ is not a good goal.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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! 

Sunshine and Optimism

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

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

Summer also has a psychological effect.

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

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

Perhaps it’s better because it’s fleeting.

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

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

But why overthink it, when you can enjoy it?

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

Living Option B

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

Machu Picchu
My Option B looks like this. Sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Option Bs will keep cropping up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging that you are living Option B can be refreshing.

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

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

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

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.

 

Decluttering

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

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

Decluttering is both mental and physical.

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

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

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

 

But you are valuable regardless of what you own.

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

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

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

 

Decluttering is a process – and a learning process.

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

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

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

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

 

Decluttering makes you consider your priorities.

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

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

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

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

 

Decluttering makes room for opportunity.

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

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

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

Stepping Up and Stepping Back

Mental illness can make things hard to plan.

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

 

 

Being flexible requires some consideration…

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

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

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

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

 

Priorities need boundaries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your ultimate priority should be you.

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

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

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

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

 

It’s not just about mental health.

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

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

 

 

How To Find Value In Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

1. Creativity

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

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

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

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

 

2. Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

 

3. Contribution

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

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

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

 

4. Goals

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

Why I’m Open About My Mental Health

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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