Beware Easy Narratives

If you read about mental health, sooner or later you will come across the Mental Health Cinderella Story. This type of story has a simple narrative: person suffers from mental illness, then finds a magical treatment or coping strategy and recovers, living happily ever after. It masquerades as a positive story about mental health because it supposedly gives hope to people who are suffering, but it can actually make people experiencing mental health problems feel pretty shit.

Grey and pink clouds

The problem with the Mental Health Cinderella Story is its simplicity. We all need to simplify stories about our lives — it’s natural and necessary — but we need to be aware of the effects of simplification and the inherent biases involved.

 

Oversimplification is demotivating, rather than empowering.

Most Mental Health Cinderella Stories are intended to be inspiring, yet they fail. Why? Because they portray the experience as black and white, glossing over the struggles and hardships. They present a certain treatment or coping strategy, such as antidepressants, CBT or walking, as a miracle cure. As soon as the miracle cure is adopted, they make linear progress towards complete recovery.

These stories rarely acknowledge that the treatments or coping strategies used can be difficult for many people with mental health problems to access. They don’t mention that many people experience awful days, weeks and months while using the “miracle cure.” The focus is on the evangelistic promotion of the particular “miracle cure” they have adopted.

Imagine how it feels to read such stories when you are already using the “miracle cure”, plus several other treatments and coping strategies, yet you are still struggling to manage your mental health. 

I’m relatively well, compared to what I have experienced in the past, yet Mental Health Cinderella Stories make me feel like a failure. I find myself wondering what’s wrong with me, that I haven’t made a full recovery when I’m doing exactly what this person recommends? Why do I still experience terrible days, whereas this person doesn’t?

 

The storytelling bias.

The truth is that some people’s experiences of mental health problems do align to the Mental Health Cinderella Story. They struggle, then they find a way to cope which enables them to make a full recovery and, often, never experience mental illness again. Good for them — I certainly don’t want them to suffer for the rest of their lives! The problem is, these types of stories are reported far more frequently and visibly than the messy, complex stories which resemble a lot of people’s experience of mental health issues.

My theory is that many people, especially those who haven’t experienced mental health problems, like to read or hear these stories because they are reassuring. They think, whether consciously or subconsciously, “it’s okay if I become mentally ill, because I can do what this person did and recover quickly by running/eating healthily/having a certain type of therapy.” It’s frightening for them to consider experiences, like mine, in which mental health issues have  massive, long term effects on people’s lives.

Nobody likes to think that they could try their best to improve a situation and still fail. Yet it happens. 

It’s frightening. It terrifies me, having lived through times when I believed everyone around me was cruel for not helping me to die, because I was suffering so much and nothing I did seemed to make a difference. However, ignoring reality isn’t the answer — which is what happens when the media tell certain stories, but not others.

 

Look beyond the sensationalist headlines.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Mental Health Cinderella Story is that they are not always as simple as they are depicted. When you look beyond the clickbait headlines, a more complex story often emerges. Unfortunately, this message gets lost behind the sensationalism and perpetuates the myth of the “miracle cure.”

The stories are edited to fit the Cinderella arc, forcing experiences into discrete shapes and overlooking inconvenient aspects like relapses and factors other than the “miracle cure.” Many of the stories feature people who have resources which put them in a better position to effectively manage their mental health: financial security, supportive partners, understanding employers, access to various leisure groups and support services, etc. They are predominantly white, heterosexual,  middle class, educated people with traditional families. Yet none of these privileges is acknowledged in the Mental Health Cinderella Story, because the emphasis is put on the “miracle cure.”

If you don’t fit the same profile, or don’t have access to similar resources, these stories are more likely to evoke despair than hope. You come to the conclusion that the miracle cure hasn’t worked for you because you aren’t the “right” type of person.

 

Look for the motive.

A lot of Mental Health Cinderella Stories are selling something. Literally. People tell unrealistic versions of their stories because they want you to buy a product or service they are offering.

The product or service varies — I have seen the Mental Health Cinderella Story used to sell cookbooks, therapy sessions, online courses and books — and may not be obvious. For example, people tell their story to urge you to visit their website and then offer goods/services via the website. They claim to provide you with the “miracle cure” that worked for them.

I don’t have a problem with people selling stuff — there’s nothing wrong with trying to earn money — but I do have a problem with the overwhelming predominance of the Mental Health Cinderella Story and its unrealistic, narrow portrayal of mental health problems.

When you read these stories, be aware of what the author is trying to sell. Bear in mind that the story rarely (if ever) represents reality.

 

Be responsible when you tell your story.

I encourage everyone who has experienced mental health issues to tell their stories — we need much wider representation of different types of stories, from a much wider range of people. However, when you choose how to present your story, think about the effects it may have on people who are struggling with their mental health. Show them the truth, in all its messy, inconvenient and terrifying glory. Show them that there is hope — but you don’t need a miracle cure to find it.

Realise that the obstacles you have faced, and continue to face, give meaning to your story. Tell people about your challenges: days when your mood plummets for no apparent reason, the pain and isolation you felt (or continue to feel) at various points in your life, panic striking during routine activities, the times when your coping strategies make no difference, people in your life not understanding why you can’t do certain things or why your mental health fluctuates, not being able to do the things you enjoy (or not enjoying the things you do), wasting hours trapped in negative thought patterns, being too scared to leave the house…

Also remember that the challenges make your achievements all the more poignant and inspiring, as much as you would prefer not to be forced to cope with them. Tell people why you are proud of being able to do activities others find easy, after not being able to do them during worse periods of mental illness. Walking the dog on your own is a big deal when you have been unable to do it for ages. You should celebrate these seemingly-small achievements, as well as the big ones.

Most of all, beware of any stories about mental health which have a simple, easy narrative. “Happily ever after” is for fairy tales. You may recover fully from mental illness and you may be happy for the rest of your life, but there will still be problems and challenges. Conversely, you may struggle with your mental health for the rest of your life, but there can still be joy and triumphs amongst the struggle.

Tell your stories and seek out real, complex mental health stories. Try different treatments and coping strategies to discover what works for you and don’t be surprised if their efficacy fluctuates. Don’t place all your hopes on a “miracle cure” which may or may not work. Find real hope — it’s out there, but not in an unrealistic Cinderella story.


 

The Hard Slog

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

Winding lane

Having no clear pathway causes self-doubt.

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

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

 

Progress can be excruciatingly slow.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Usually, the best option is to keep going.

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

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

Spoon Theory

I recently read about a simple and effective way to explain the impact of chronic illness to people who have never experienced long-term health problems: spoon theory. Spoon theory was created by Christine Miserandino as she tried to make her friend understand the debilitating effects of lupus. Her friend struggled to appreciate how everyday activities left Miserandino exhausted. She tried to sympathise with her challenges, but couldn’t empathise – until Miserandino grabbed some spoons as they ate in a diner and developed her theory.

The Basics of Spoon Theory

The original article is well worth a read, but this is the concept: spoons are metaphors for units of energy/ability and people with various chronic conditions, illnesses and disabilities usually have a limited number of spoons each day. When your spoons are “spent”, you are unable to do more activities. Even activities which seem simple to healthy people, like getting dressed or cooking dinner, use up spoons.

This means every daily activity has a trade-off. If you start the day with 12 spoons and use 3 getting dressed, showering and eating breakfast, you have 9 left for the rest of the day. Cooking dinner will use another spoon, ditto getting ready for bed, so that leaves 7 spoons remaining for the middle of the day. If you meet a friend for lunch, that could use 3 spoons, maybe 4, If you want to do a couple of hours of work, that might take 4 spoons. So what do you do?

You want to do both, but if lunch uses 4 spoons, it leaves 3 spoons for work – which means you will have to cut corners. Maybe you will be lucky and lunch will take 3 spoons; but you also might be unlucky and have to negotiate bad traffic on the way to meet your friend, meaning lunch uses 5 spoons. 6 if the traffic is bad on the way back. What do you prioritise? Work or lunch with a friend?

People who haven’t experienced long-term illness will probably think it’s no big deal – surely you can somehow find another spoon so you can do your work? Or do your work tomorrow? But your spoons are always limited. You only have a certain number each day. The number may vary, depending on the intensity of your symptoms, but you can’t magic extra spoons out of thin air. You can decide to postpone activities until tomorrow, but you can’t guarantee how many spoons you will have tomorrow. You may have a good day and start out with 17 spoons. Or you may have a bad day and start with only 5 spoons. How do you plan around that uncertainty?

 

Spoon Theory and Mental Illness

Spoon theory is useful in explaining how mental health issues can limit your life. It’s reductive, but that’s the point – it’s a way of simplifying the complexities of long-term health problems so they are easier to understand. I think of my spoons in terms of both energy and ability because anxiety and depression affect these factors, which also merge in the form of mental/emotional energy.

To explain what I mean, it’s easiest to use the spoon analogy. When I cook and eat dinner alone, it uses 1 spoon. If I invite a friend to my house, it takes 2 spoons because of the added anxiety using more energy. If my friend takes me to a familiar pub for dinner, it will take 3 or 4 spoons – more if it’s busy. If we go to an unfamiliar location, it uses at least 6 spoons. If we are joined by someone I have only met a couple of times, it uses an extra spoon. If someone I have never met is invited, it takes 2 extra spoons. If we are in a small group, a couple of extra spoons are needed; a large group takes 4 or more extra spoons.

So if a friend invites me to dinner in an unfamiliar location and invites a big group of people, including a few who I don’t know very well, it would require at least 12 spoons.

Let’s say I have 12 spoons on an average day. Can I go out to this dinner? No. Because I don’t have enough spoons to get ready, let alone travel to the restaurant and carry out my normal everyday activities. On a good day, I probably have 20 spoons. I can go to the dinner and probably cope, but it will limit the rest of my daily activities.

The problem is, when a friend invites me to such an event, I don’t know how many spoons I will have on that particular day. I can accept the invitation and hope for a good day, but the odds are against me. If I accept the invitation and it turns out to be a bad day, with only 6 spoons, I will have to cancel.

 

Can You Ever Use Spoons You Don’t Have?

What if I get invited to a very special event, like a wedding? Can I still go, even if I don’t have enough spoons? Yes – at a huge cost. I have pressured myself to go through with plans when I haven’t had enough spoons and it always has dire consequences. The best case scenario is it leaves me with a very limited number of spoons for the next few weeks. However, it usually leads to my experiencing worse symptoms – panic attacks, self-harm, harmful thoughts – which affect my mental health for weeks, sometimes months, afterwards.

When you try to use spoons you don’t have, it’s like spending money you don’t have and can’t pay back straightaway: you get charged interest and the amount owed increases rapidly. It’s very stressful and seldom worth the price paid in the end.

For this reason, I avoid accepting invitations to events which would use a lot of spoons. I hate having to cancel plans, because it makes me feel like a crappy, unreliable friend. I know I’m ill and can’t completely control my symptoms, but it still feels awful. The exceptions are special events, like weddings and christenings, which I would try to attend at all costs.

People struggle to understand how “borrowing” spoons takes its toll. They see me push myself to undertake challenges, so they think I can always push myself without ill effects. They see me act (vaguely) normally at a party for a few hours, but they don’t see me burnt out and suffering for the following week.

Sometimes it’s worth the price to try to “borrow” spoons, but it risks a great deal. I have to weigh up how bad I’d feel about missing an event or not undertaking a challenge against the probable effects.

 

Can You “Buy” Extra Spoons?

While you can’t magic spoons out of thin air on any given day, you can prioritise activities which will (hopefully) give you more spoons in future. Exercise helps me gain extra spoons, for instance, but I can’t determine when I receive the extra spoons. Going for a walk today (2 spoons) may give me an extra 3 spoons tomorrow, or an extra 5 spoons next week. But it might not.

Mental health management involves a lot of trial and error, as does spoon management. Broadly speaking, activities which improve your health and give meaning to your life will give you extra spoons in the long-term. But prioritising these activities can be difficult, because they require spending spoons which might be better spent on activities which give you pleasure and have other beneficial effects in the short-term. Choosing to prioritise activities for long-term effects is like investing money: you know it’s the sensible option in most cases, but buying something you can have and use right now is more appealing!

 

Spoon Theory Going Forward

I have only started considering my mental health problems in terms of spoon theory, but I think it’s already helpful. It can help me explain the reality of my daily life to people who haven’t experienced long-term health problems. It also enables me to view my difficulties with more compassion. When I’m unable to do something – especially something which seems easy – it’s not my fault for being useless: it’s just because I don’t have enough spoons today.

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!