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!

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!

3 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Mental Health

It’s Time to Talk day so instead of advising how to talk about your mental illness or telling you what to never say, I thought I’d do some talking! If everyone knew just these 3 things about mental health, I believe my life and many other people’s lives would be much easier.

1. Everyone has mental health.

A lot of people assume mental health is irrelevant to them because they have never been diagnosed with a mental illness, but this isn’t true. Just as everyone has a level of physical health, everyone has a level of mental health. You don’t need to have mental illness to experience fluctuations in your mental health — in fact, fluctuations are normal.

Given this, everyone should be aware of their mental health. Awareness can help you find ways to feel better when your mood dips and means you can recognise mental health problems much sooner. Recognising and treating mental illness as soon as possible saves a lot of pain.

Part of Resurfacing and Rewriting’s mission is to get people talking about their mental health in the same way they talk about physical health. You don’t need a diagnosis to be part of the conversation.

 

2. Mental illness doesn’t define you.

Nobody is defined by their mental illness. It may alter your perspective on life, but it doesn’t negate the other aspects of your life. During bad episodes, it may feel like your life and personality have been obliterated by mental illness, but it can only hide most aspects of your life — not destroy them.

Mental illness affects people’s identities in different ways, but it doesn’t constitute an identity in itself. In fact, mental illness can have a positive impact on identity — you may see yourself as a survivor and mental health activist. You may become a mental health blogger and hope to help others with mental health problems…

 

3. Mental illness can affect anyone.

People who have never experienced mental health problems love to believe the myths: that mental illness only affects the weak or bad people, that people somehow cause their own mental illnesses, that you can only get mentally ill if it’s already in your family. They love to believe these myths because if they were true, it means mental illness could never happen to them. They think they can stave off mental illness through being strong, good people who take responsibility for themselves. Of course, it’s all bullshit.

Anyone can get mentally ill at any time. Mental health problems don’t discriminate — they affect rich and poor, successful and unsuccessful, pretty and ugly, all ages and ethnicities. Some of these factors may make you more likely to experience mental illness, but mental health problems are prevalent throughout all of society. You can try to avoid mental illness by taking action to promote good mental health, such as exercising regularly and building good relationships, but there are no guarantees. You can do everything “right” and still become mentally ill.

 

If everyone knew just these 3 things about mental health, it would make a big difference. Get talking!

 

 

The Truth About Borderline Personality Disorder

It is difficult to explain borderline personality disorder adequately in a sentence or two, which means it doesn’t get talked about enough. I am guilty of failing to mention I have BPD, despite being open about having anxiety and depression, because it exposes me to ignorant, incorrect comments — sometimes by people who mean well — and people tend not to listen when I try to explain about BPD. So here is a very basic guide to the facts about borderline personality disorder and some of the most common misconceptions.

What is BPD?

Borderline personality disorder, or BPD, is a mental illness. The NHS website describes it as “a disorder of mood and how a person interacts with others.”

There are a range of symptoms associated with BPD, which are often grouped into 4 main areas:

• Emotional instability

• Disturbed patterns of thinking or perception

• Impulsive behaviour

• Intense but unstable relationships with others

It’s important to remember that everyone with BPD is individual and their symptoms manifest in various ways. Some symptoms seem to be opposites, such as promiscuity and withdrawal from relationships, although they may have similar roots and effects — such as avoiding long-term relationships.. For this reason, stereotypes of people with borderline personality disorder are particularly inaccurate and offensive.

 

What are the criteria for diagnosing BPD?

There are broad symptoms of which at least 5 must be present over a long period of time and/or have had an impact on your life in order to receive a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. These include:

• Intense emotions which can change quickly (and often for no apparent reason or reasons which seem trivial)

• Fear of abandonment

• A weak and/or changeable sense of identity

• Impulsive behaviours, such as binge eating, drug taking and mindless overspending

• Suicidal thoughts and/or self-harming

• Difficulty establishing and maintaining stable relationships

• Chronic feelings of emptiness and isolation

• Feeling angry and struggling to control anger

• When very stressed, feeling paranoid, experiencing psychosis and/or feeling dissociated

For a fuller explanation see Mind’s website. Diagnosis can be made only by a mental health professional — in my case, it was a psychiatrist. Diagnosing BPD requires assessment of a complex range of symptoms, so it often takes a long time to be recognised. I was diagnosed when I was 26, for example, despite having displayed the symptoms since my early teens.

 

Does having BPD mean there’s something wrong with your personality?

No. Borderline personality disorder doesn’t refer to character or traits which we think of as constituting someone’s personality. Neither is BPD a personality type, such as those indicated by the Myers-Briggs test (I’m an INFP on that, in case you were wondering!). The term “personality disorder” refers to a pattern of thinking, feeling and behaviour. The  connotations of “personality disorder” are unhelpful when people don’t realise what the term means, but this can be countered with education and information.

Some symptoms of BPD may be thought of as personality traits, such as impulsiveness, but it isn’t necessarily the case that people with BPD are naturally impulsive. You can be impulsive when your BPD symptoms are worse, but the opposite when your symptoms are under control. In this instance, impulsiveness is a behavioural symptom rather than an innate tendency.

Most aspects of people’s character or what we describe as personality are not affected by BPD, though symptoms may overshadow them. Even during my worst episodes of mental illness, my underlying personality remains the same.

 

Can BPD be treated?

Absolutely. Depending on the symptoms exhibited by an individual, there are a range of treatments which can be helpful in managing borderline personality disorder. These include medication, such as antidepressants, and talking therapies.

Dialectical behaviour therapy is noted for being particularly effective and was developed in order to treat BPD. Personally, I have found drama therapy and counselling very useful. I also use CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) techniques to cope with some of my symptoms.

There are many self-help strategies which can help. For example, I have found exercise and meditation very useful. I have learnt what works best for me over the years (and continue to learn). Lots of self-care strategies which are used for other mental illnesses are useful for people with BPD, so it’s worth doing some general research around mental health management to find ideas.

As with mental health problems in general, finding treatments which work for you is often a case of trial and error. Different treatments may work better at different times, depending on your symptoms and situation. This means it’s important not to dismiss possible solutions which didn’t work for you in the past.

 

Busting myths about BPD.

The amount of ignorance and misinformation concerning borderline personality disorder is a constant source of frustration. I have written previously about how annoying I find it when people call it a “terrible label” rather than a mental illness, which perpetuates these myths.

Here are some more common myths:

People with BPD are manipulative. Some symptoms of BPD may come across as manipulative, but that doesn’t mean they are intentionally manipulative behaviours. Even when someone’s behaviour is intentional, it’s still a symptom and they didn’t ask to have BPD — nobody would — so set boundaries and offer empathy rather than judgment.

People with BPD are a nightmare to live with. There is a degree of truth in this myth, because anyone can be a nightmare to live with sometimes — but this doesn’t mean all people with BPD are difficult to live with all of the time. Many people with BPD are good partners, parents, children and housemates. Lots of us have qualities which make us delightful to live with most of the time.

All of us have bad days, regardless of whether we have been diagnosed with a mental illness, yet people with BPD get accused of being “nightmares” with more vehemence and less compassion than is shown towards most people. It’s a stigma which doesn’t seem to be shifting as much as the stigma surrounding other mental health issues.

If someone with BPD is exhibiting severe symptoms, they need help and support, not condemnation. Other people’s failure to deal with symptoms effectively can also exacerbate the situation, creating a “nightmare” situation which is not the fault of the person with BPD. It’s especially concerning that this attitude seems to blame people with BPD for their own illness, as if we want to suffer from an often painful and debilitating condition.

People with BPD are bad people. Not at all: they have a mental illness. Being mentally ill doesn’t make you a bad person (though it may feel like you are during bad episodes, especially when you are exposed to unsympathetic attitudes). This is stating the obvious, yet it’s shocking how many people forget and prefer to characterise people with BPD as merely bad people who are being difficult on purpose. This is never the case.

 

How you can support someone with BPD.

Make an effort to understand. Don’t make assumptions about the behaviour of someone with BPD. Read about the condition and the experiences of people with borderline personality disorder. Ignore the damaging comments people without BPD write on social media, which tell you more about their authors’ ignorance and lack of compassion than BPD.

Listen. Be there for them. Let them express their feelings without cutting them off or making assumptions about how they feel. If it’s hard to listen, remember it’s even harder to experience. If you want clarification, ask questions. Let them know you care — it might be simple, but it means a lot.

Provide practical help. BPD can be debilitating, especially since anxiety and depression are common co-morbidities. People with BPD might need someone to collect their prescriptions or prepare proper meals. It varies from person to person and between different times. If you are unsure of how to help, just ask at regular intervals and make it clear they are not being a burden.

Never blame someone with BPD for their own problems. Many symptoms of BPD are self-sabotaging behaviours, but that doesn’t mean they are intentional or that the person exhibiting these behaviours can control them 100%. Pointing out that some problems have been caused or exacerbated by these behaviours is usually unhelpful — people with BPD can recognise their self-sabotage and often beat themselves up about it without external admonition.

I know it’s frustrating to see someone make their situation worse, but blame doesn’t help. If you want to help someone with BPD control their symptoms and take responsibility for their actions, offer emotional support instead.

Support, don’t push. Everyone learns to manage mental illness at their own pace and different treatments or strategies work for different people, and at different times. If you find out about something which could help someone with BPD, mention it to them and let them know you will help them access the treatment, but don’t pressure them into trying it out.

 

If you remember nothing else from this post, please remember this: borderline personality disorder is an illness and people with BPD deserve support and compassion, not judgement and stereotyping.

This Too Shall Pass

Fluctuations in mental health are normal; fluctuations in mental illness are also normal, but knowing this doesn’t make it easier to bear.

The only solace I can find during worse episodes, is that everything ends. Good times and bad times are transient. Though it might feel otherwise, repeating “this too shall pass” helps me get through.

The origins of “this too shall pass” are murky, but one of the most popular versions is a fable told by Attar of Nishapur, a Persian poet, who said a great king commissioned a ring which had the power to make him happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. The ring was simply inscribed “this too shall pass.”

 

While comforting during periods of depression, “this too shall pass” can also remind us to be mindful and find value in the present — whatever our mental state.

Acknowledging that periods of joy are transient reminds us of the importance of appreciating them whilst they are happening. I take issue with the notion mentioned in many fables that “this too shall pass” makes people sad when they are happy: I believe it intensifies the joy felt in the moment.

When you realise the happiness you feel right now will end, it makes you aware of the meaning that moment has in the context of your whole life. It adds poignancy, which does have a tinge of sadness, but it emphasises the significance of happy times and what makes them happy.

It encourages you to think more deeply about how those joyful times are created: the relationships between you and anyone sharing the happy moment, the activity contributing to the joy, how your state of mind is enhanced by your current thoughts and attitudes, etc. This self-knowledge can help you create more joyful moments in future.

 

Ultimately, “this too shall pass” is about hope.

Hope that sadness will end. Hope that there will be more happy moments in future. Hope that finding value and meaning in your life will make the suffering worthwhile.

Its simple reminder of the transience of life opens up the possibility of different emotions and experiences. 

This is especially powerful during depression, when it feels like there is no hope. You might not believe the episode will end, but repeating the phrase “this too shall pass” can provide comfort because you know — logically, on some deep and hidden level of your mind — it’s true.

It also serves as a reminder to consider what gives your life purpose, meaning and value. Depression makes you feel like your life has no purpose, meaning and value, so it’s important to think about this during better episodes — you can make a list or vision board to look at during worse periods, which opens up the possibility that your life is worthwhile when you are feeling worthless.

I often find that I only recognise the power of “this too shall pass” in hindsight. In the depths of depression, I feel like an idiot for repeating it to myself (in my head, usually, but sometimes aloud). I think it’s stupid to even remind myself of the phrase. Yet the episodes of depression shift and change. They become less intense or end altogether. And each time they do, their transcience gives “this too shall pass” more power.

The beauty of “this too shall pass” is its simplicity and truth. It’s undeniable. Even when mental illness is obliterating your life, repeating the phrase offers the possibility of comfort, reassurance and hope. It’s always worth trying. 

 

Light in the Gloom

This photo sums up how my depression feels at present:

I took it a couple of nights ago, when I was walking along a seafront so obscured by fog that I couldn’t see the sea. It was a strange feeling, being able to hear and smell it without the familiar sight. The streetlight did little more than cast some colour into the gloom.

My level of depression at the moment is affecting me enough that I feel like my life is in shadow, but I can see some light — even if all it illuminates is fog.

That probably sounds pessimistic if you haven’t experienced mental health problems, but it’s actually hopeful. There is light.