Mini Self-Care Strategies

We all know the importance of “big” methods of managing mental health, such as medication and exercise, but it’s easy to overlook the impact of “small” coping strategies. Mini self-care strategies typically take little time and effort, but make a significant impact. But because they seem so small, their importance is easy to downplay — you figure skipping them won’t really matter, ignoring the cumulative effect.

Journal

Acknowledging the importance of mini strategies is the first step.

It took me ages to figure out that the gaps in my journal were not only a symptom of my mental health declining, but also a contributing factor. When I write in my journal regularly, I feel better. Even if it’s just a few lines.Now I recognise how journalling helps me manage my mental illness, I know I need to prioritise it.

Observing patterns in your mental health is an effective way of working out which mini strategies work best for you. You can also experiment, trying new strategies and noting changes in your symptoms. Consider the impact of all your activities — even if it seems unlikely they affect your mental health.

 

Find ways of fitting mini strategies into your life.

Some people respond well to putting tasks on their to-do list (or must-do list), or scheduling them in their planner/calendar. Writing it down reminds you that these mini strategies are important and you should make time for them. However, some people can feel pressured by doing this, which may negate the benefits of the strategies.

The best way of making time for mini self-care strategies is to build them into your routine and make them a habit. For example, I write in my journal when I go to bed — it has become part of my routine, just like brushing my teeth. Piggybacking tasks onto established habits is very effective and easy to implement.

 

What counts as a mini self-care strategy?

Anything which makes you feel better in the long term and which can be done in a short amount of time. Note that these tasks could take much longer, if you choose, but it’s possible for them to have an advantageous effect in 5-10 minutes per day. Obviously, this will vary from person to person, but here are some examples:

• Journalling

• Listening to music

• Meditation

• Sketching

• Yoga

• Reading

• Knitting/crocheting

• Texting/calling a friend

• Gardening

 

Remember to do what works for you.

Perhaps your mini self-care strategies seem a little strange — or completely crazy — but it doesn’t matter, as long as they work for you. The crucial issue is developing the self-awareness to observe what works over a number of days or weeks; sometimes it will feel like your mini strategies aren’t helping, especially if your mental health symptoms fluctuate a lot, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t working in the long term. Stick with it and make notes.

Also keep track of how you feel before, during and after activities which you wouldn’t necessarily associate with self-care. I find that spot of decluttering is beneficial, for instance, although I wouldn’t consider tidying an activity I enjoy — at least, not while I’m doing it!

Don’t underestimate the effect of returning to activities you haven’t done for several weeks or months. Many of my self-care tasks were neglected over winter, when physical illness took its toll and caused a deterioration in my mental health, and I was surprised at how effective simple, little activites were in helping me feel better.

As always, there will be some trial and error involved to find what works for you. But once you find effective strategies, they are vital components in your self-care toolkit.

 

The Therapeutic Side of Writing Fiction

I’m always a little wary when someone asks me if I write as a form of therapy. They usually expect a yes or no, but the answer is complex…

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that writing is a substitute for talking therapies or other kinds of mental health treatments. While using any kind of art as therapy can be helpful, I think it’s appropriate as a complementary strategy rather than a complete treatment for mental illness in itself. (Sidebar: in my experience, there is no such thing as a complete treatment, but medication and talking therapies come closest, in my opinion).

Secondly, I write for readers. If I write something just for me, it stays in my journal or folder. If I submit stories, I want other people to read and enjoy them. Regardless of whether a particular story has been therapeutic for me to write, the audience is one of my top considerations. This consideration always affects the story and may prevent it from being as therapeutic as it would be were the readers not taken into account.

With those caveats in mind, my answer is yes. I do write as a form of therapy, but there are also many other reasons why I write.

 

Not all writing is equally therapeutic.

To make things a little less complicated, I’m solely talking about writing fiction and specifically short stories, since they constitute the main body of my work to date. However, the therapeutic value of any given story varies a lot: many of my stories have had no therapeutic value, whereas some have been very helpful as therapy.

Can you tell the difference? I have no idea. I like to think I write to a high standard regardless of whether a story has been therapeutic to write, but that might not be the case! Do the more therapeutic stories have more emotional impact? Again, I can’t tell. I hope all my stories have some emotional impact, though the emotional effects depend on the individual story.

 

The raw material, whether it is inspired by life or not, is transformed.

When people hear “therapeutic” in regards to writing, they automatically think of memoir or autobiographical fiction. They assume that in order to be therapeutic, the story needs to bear a strong resemblance to the writer’s lived experience. Often, the opposite is true.

Amanda Palmer, in her excellent book The Art of Asking, talks about the transformation of life experience into art in terms of putting raw material into a blender. She typically uses a low blender setting when songwriting, such as level 3 on a scale of 1-10. In contrast, her husband (the author Neil Gaiman) uses a very high blender setting — often level 10.

I love this analogy. It’s a simple but effective way of demonstrating how two pieces of art can be equally as personal, but very different in terms of recognising the raw material from the finished work.

For me, the more therapeutic the story, the higher my blender setting. I know what raw material has gone into the story, but other people (even those who know me best) would find it all but impossible to tell.

 

The transformation of raw material is the most cathartic aspect of writing.

While pouring out my emotions in my journal can help me feel a little better, it’s the process of transformation that I find most therapeutic. I suppose it correlates with talking therapy: if you recount your experience to a therapist it usually provides a sense of relief, but venting your feelings is just the first step. The most useful part of therapy is questioning and evaluating. There is more value in learning to reframe your experiences and think about them in different ways. Ditto writing.

Transformation is crucial for the story itself, too. In order to be most effective, you need to select and adapt material (whether from life or another source).

You need to choose a focus for the story, to tease out a plot and create characters (even if they are heavily inspired by life) who serve the story. It doesn’t matter if, as many new writers complain, “that’s not how it happened!” Your task is to find the emotional truth at the core of your story and make it shine.

 

Writing is a constructive way of using your experiences — which can help you value them.

Many experiences are awful. Writing is one way I can find value in them — it almost gives them a purpose. This provides another way of helping me to reframe those experiences, so the therapeutic effect continues.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the therapeutic effects of writing fiction complement the other ways ai manage my mental health. If you would like to try writing — or any other art — as therapy, go for it. However, my main reasons for writing have nothing to do with my mental health (except indirectly) and when I approach writing fiction, therapy is never foremost in my mind.

15 Ways to Feel More in Control of Your Life

1. List your worries. This is deceptively simple: unidentified worries tend to accumulate, creating stress and anxiety without being challenged. Knowing your specific concerns gives you focus. You might find that you can disregard many of your worries and some may have quick, easy solutions. When you write down your problems, instead of being deafened by them clamouring for your attention, you can separate the genuine ones from the trivial. You can then address them one by one, without worrying (more!) that you are forgetting something.

2. Change your perspective from uncertainty to curiosity. Ask yourself what might happen if you do something, rather than worrying about undesirable outcomes. Your mind will give you dozens of answers without you needing to consciously try to answer the questions – and many of them will be positive or neutral, not the negatives which feeling uncertain makes you focus on.

3. Write a to-do list and so something – not matter how small. While there is evidence that people who do the easiest tasks on their to-do list rarely get around to doing the difficult ones (see Real Focus, from Psychologies magazine), when you are so overwhelmed that you feel paralysed,  doing anything is proof that you have some level of control. You can choose to do something, even if it seems insignificant. It isn’t about getting through your to-do list when you feel out of control of your life: it’s about challenging the notion that you can’t do anything.

4. Make a plan, any plan. You don’t have to carry out the plan right now – or even anytime soon. The important thing is to consider how you will do something, whether it’s taking the holiday of a lifetime or losing weight. Work out the practicalities. If there are things you don’t know, make a note of your questions. Think of where you can research your plan. Making plans shows you that there are possibilities; you don’t have to adhere to your plans, but you know you could.

5. Declutter and then organise your stuff. Regaining (or just gaining!) control of your possessions makes your environment more pleasant and reminds you that you can control some aspects of your life. It’s a tangible step. You have to physically throw out (or recycle, donate, etc.) and rearrange items. For a long time, I resisted the idea that being in tidy surroundings can help you to think more clearly, but then I tried it (the threat of being crushed by towers of books forced my hand somewhat) and found out that it works. Try it – the worst that can happen is that you have a tidier home for a while!

6. Do something for someone else. When we are feeling overwhelmed and out of control, we tend to be lost inside our own thoughts. This doesn’t mean you are being selfish; it’s just difficult to think about anything else when you are in such a state of mind. Doing something for another person (or animal) forces you outside of your head. You can do anything – donate to charity, perform a random act of kindness, give a friend an impromptu gift, make a special dinner for someone… Anything you like.

7. Face your fears. Disclaimer:  I’m NOT suggesting you do something which endangers yourself or others. I’m saying that if you are afraid of doing something which is relatively safe, doing it is often the only way to prove that you can act in the face of fear. Just do it without expecting a specific result – check your bank balance, ask for a pay rise, talk to a stranger at the bus stop. In most cases, you will be no worse off than if you never tried – only now you know you can feel the fear and do it anyway.

8. Acknowledge that you can’t control everything. Sounds obvious, right? Yet so many of us get stressed about not being able to control everything. Acknowledging that some things are beyond your control paradoxically reminds you that you can control other aspects of your life. Even if you can only control 10% of your life, that’s a lot more than 0% and can make a lot of difference.

9. Instigate an Action Week. Decide to spend a week doing as much as you can to make changes in your life. Other time periods may work well – I like an Action Day, personally – but a week gives you long enough to start seeing effects, without being so long that you burn out and are left exhausted. The idea is to power through what you want to do without overthinking everything. Try that new dance class, complete a project, start online dating… You will surprise yourself with how much you can do when you focus on action rather than second-guessing yourself.

10. Be creative – make something. You can make anything you like and it doesn’t matter how good or bad the result. Concentrate on the processes of creativity: gathering ideas, selecting materials, developing skills, experimenting. You may find you lose yourself in a state of flow, which is amazing. But even if you don’t, you have spent some time making something and turning your thoughts outwards.

11. Learn to work with your natural tendencies, not against them. This requires a certain level of self-awareness, so observe your behaviour for a while beforehand. Do you tend to get up early or go to bed late? Do you prefer to eat two or three large meals a day or lots of snacks? Do you work best alone or with others? When you are aware of your natural tendencies, think about how you can align your lifestyle with them. In many cases, the changes you can or can’t make will be determined by external factors and responsibilities, like needing to get the kids to school and work hours, but even a few small changes can make you feel less like you are constantly fighting against the current.

12. Try prayer and meditation. You don’t need to be religious or spiritual to try prayer and/or meditation – or for them to work. In fact, I believe they are more effective if you don’t have any expectations. Regardless of whether the universe or a deity is receiving your prayers, simply praying helps you to order your thoughts. It can remind you to be grateful for the good things in your life and give you strength during struggles. Meditation can persuade you to step outside your thoughts for a while, giving you fresh perspective on life. Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn has helped me a lot, but there are plenty of other approaches and guided meditations to explore online.

13. Change your scenery. You don’t have to go on an exotic holiday to find different surroundings – look for places close to home which you don’t visit as much as you would like. For me, this is the seaside. For you, it could be a park, forest, café, garden or even a room in your house. Being somewhere other than the places we visit or use regularly can help shift our thinking, allowing us to gain greater perspective and organise our priorities.

14. Talk to a friend. I’m lucky, because I have a few close friends who are absolutely awesome. They listen to me as I obsess over everything and help me to straighten my thoughts. However, you don’t necessarily need a great friend or relative (though if you have them, you should use them!), because an animal or inanimate object can also work well. Why? Because I have noticed that simply verbalising my thoughts helps me to organise them. Without my friends saying a word, I catch myself worrying over stupid, trivial things and undermining my own confidence. Try talking about how you feel – you might be surprised. And if anyone tells you that talking to yourself is crazy, they are wrong. Just maybe do it in private, rather than at the supermarket.

15, See a doctor. I hope this list helps you, but remember to see your GP if you are feeling out of control and overwhelmed. I have been helped by everything on this list, but medication and counselling have also helped immensely. Always get professional help and support whenever you need it.

 

 

 

 

The Myth of Independence

Everyone wants to be independent, right? We want to have the freedom to do what we want without relying on other people. We want to live according to our own goals and values. We tend to think that depending on other people will get in the way of living our lives as we wish. That’s all bullshit: nobody is truly independent.

I struggled with having to rely on my parents. I have had mental health problems throughout my adult life, so I’ve depended on them for practical and financial support for thirteen years. I had to leave three jobs because of mental illness; despite providing doctor’s notes explaining my absences, my employers seemed to regard the absences with suspicion and instead of supporting me, put me under more pressure so I ended up resigning. I have paid my parents “rent” to cover some of the grocery and utilities I use since I left college at eighteen, but my finances have been irregular for long periods so my parents have lent me a lot of money. I would not be able to live alone because the benefits I receive barely cover the living expenses I have now, which are minimal.

I also rely on my parents to pick up my antidepressant prescription. I could probably do this myself nowadays, but in the past I have been too scared to leave the house – let alone go into a pharmacy and talk to strangers. My mum also makes sure I eat a proper dinner most of the time, which sounds trivial but makes a big difference when I’m too depressed to cook for myself. My parents accompany me to appointments when needed and make phone calls on my behalf when I’m too anxious to do it myself.

As you can tell, my life is far from independent. I rely on state benefits and my parents just to survive. I rely on the NHS to provide me with treatment for my mental illness – treatment which has helped me to become a little more independent. I have learnt not to feel guilty about being a burden; at least, most of the time – it’s one of my major insecurities during periods of depression and/or anxiety. I have also observed something interesting: I have never met a wholly independent person.

All UK residents are entitled to NHS treatment which is free at the point of service. We rely on our employers to pay us on time and follow workplace laws which protect us. We depend on the police force to prevent crime and convict criminals. We expect supermarkets to sell us good quality food. Even if we consider ourselves to be someone who will never claim benefits (hey, I used to be one of you!), the welfare state still provides a safety net. Whether you like it or not, you are not self-sufficient.

On a personal level, most of us depend on family and/or friends for many things. Moreover, many of us like helping others and enjoy being asked to help out a friend or relative (within reason, of course!) – yet we balk at the idea of asking for help ourselves. I also find it fascinating how some forms of dependence are accepted, while others are criticised by many people. Apparently, living with my parents at 31 is shameful, but if I had kids and relied on them for free childcare nobody would bat an eyelid. Going to an appointment with your mother is viewed as a bit weird, whereas going with a partner is completely normal.

Being so dependent has opened my eyes to the hypocrisy surrounding the idea of “independence”. The major difference between those who think they are independent and the rest of us, is that we are aware of how we depend on others. A lot of people are simply unaware of their own privilege, like the middle class white male who gets a good job because he was recommended by a friend of a friend but is convinced he was the best candidate. Independence is an illusion. Once we give up this illusion, society will be more empathetic and compassionate towards those who need support – in particular, elderly people, people with disabilities and people with mental health problems. When we accept that nobody is wholly independent, we empower everybody to set and achieve their own goals in life, without worrying about how others may judge them.

After all, nobody is going to tell Stephen Hawking “yeah, you might be one of the most successful physicists of our time, but your achievements don’t count because you depend on other people to fulfil your basic physical needs” – so why do so many people think it’s acceptable to ignore some people’s achievements simply because we can’t be as independent as others?

You Are Not Normal!

This week, I read a charming book called What The **** Is Normal? by Francesca Martinez, who faces multiple challenges because she has a terrifying condition: she is a comedian. Oh, and she happens to have Cerebral Palsy but prefers to refer to herself as “wobbly”. Francesca points out that nobody is normal and having a disability — including mental illness — just means you do things differently. We all have different abilities, strengths and skills — so why do we define some people by what they can’t do and not others?

Francesca’s book is awesome and should be read by everyone (especially politicians, in my opinion), but I found it very interesting from the perspective of someone with mental health problems. Francesca and other people with physical disabilities spend their lives being told what they can’t do, often erroneously; myself and others with mental illness spend our lives being told, erroneously, that we can do things. We can “pull ourselves together” and “snap out of it”. My conclusion is that people should mind their own bloody business!

We should also stop labelling each other. You may have noticed that I don’t use terms like “depressives”, instead refering to “people with depression”. I do this because language is powerful and nobody should be indentified by a medical condition. Of course, medical conditions can be part of your identity — I have talked about the merits of mental illness — but it should never be the whole.

I think Francesca is fucking amazing and her message, delivered with the force of her hilarious humour, is vital: you are not normal. Nobody is. So why waste energy bewailing the fact? Whether you have a physical or mental condition that affects how you live, there are far more important things to worry about thatn how “normal” you are.

Don’t Dwell on Other People’s Negativity

Sometimes I’m convinced that some people exist only to make everyone else miserable. To bring us all down when we feel a little better than usual. To rip apart our dreams. Of course, the reality is that these people are unhappy and haven’t learnt to deal with their emotions in constructive ways. They criticise, insult, drain, deride and belittle other people in misguided attempts to express or assuage their own negative emotions. It’s useful to regard them with empathy – not so that you can steer them onto a different path (only they can do that for themselves), but so that you can decide how to handle these people and their negativity.

First, don’t expect them to change. Change is possible, but it’s not inevitable and you have to deal with certainties, i.e. their current behaviour.

Secondly, you must prioritise your own health – which includes your mental health. You do not have to be someone’s scapegoat or whipping boy. You do not have to accept another person’s bad behaviour.

With these points in mind, determine how big an impact certain negative people have on your own wellbeing. Decide whether or not you would like to change the situation – would you be content for things to continue as they are? If not, think about how you could change the situation.

In some cases, cutting all contact with someone is the best solution. If a so-called friend or family member continuously treats you like shit, they are not worth your love and attention. You deserve to be treated with respect, at the very least. It may take some planning to cut contact with certain people, for example, anyone you live or work with, but if you can’t cope with their behaviour it will be worth the additional short term hassle. It is also helpful to discuss your decision with other people, whether close friends and relatives or a mental health professional.

A less drastic alternative is to cut down on the amount of contact you have with the person in question. If they demand to know why you no longer phone them every week or spend hours listening to them whinge and moan, simply explain that spending a lot of time with them is having a negative impact on your own health. Don’t attack them and try to be specific, for example: “when you complain about your work, I feel drained and dejected because I can’t work at the moment and wish I had work problems. I know it’s not your fault, but it isn’t mine either and I don’t want to spend time with you when it leaves me feeling bad.” Keep the focus on the behaviours which impact you, not the person themselves. You can reassess your decision at regular intervals, so that if the person does change in the future, you can spend more time with them without it leaving you feeling worse.

Another option is to change the way you spend time with negative people. If meeting in a café usually involves your companion ranting about their relationship, try meeting up for a dance class or to go to the cinema. You can still chat beforehand and afterwards (and even during, if the activity allows), but because the time is broken up to make room for the activity there is little opportunity for a prolonged monologue. A change of scenery can change people’s behaviour even if you can still chat throughout – going for a walk, for example, may be more conducive to positive, two-sided conversations. Plus you can speed up if your companion starts moaning, so that they are too short of breath to rant!

You can also refuse to engage in someone’s negativity. This takes a little practice to build up your confidence in doing it, but it’s very effective. When the negative person starts complaining, say “I’m sorry, but I have a no-negativity policy. If you would like to find solutions to your problems, I’d be delighted to help but I can’t be a sounding board because it affects my mood and wellbeing.” If they criticise you, say “I disagree, because…” and give evidence for your opinion. For example, “You might think I’m lazy, but I disagree because I work hard in the office and I’m studying in my spare time.” If their criticism is true, acknowledge it and move on. If they continue to criticise you, say “I’m aware of your feelings. There’s no need to repeat them.” If they respond negatively, walk away.

Walking away is a great strategy because it removes you from the situation, which prevents you from feeling worse, and gives you space to clear your mind and assess the situation from a more objective perspective. If you have nowhere else to go, lock yourself in a toilet cubicle until you feel more equipped to deal with the situation. Negative people often criticise this strategy as “running away” but it’s actually a way of facing the reality of the situation. If you stay and let someone’s negativity bring you down, you are not in a position to determine the truth of what they are saying. Your viewpoint will be skewed by your now-negative thoughts and emotions. If you were in physical danger, you would have no qualms about walking away – why should it be any different when your mental health is endangered?

Finally, try not to give negative people your headspace. Their criticisms and insults are their opinions. Even if there’s some truth in their words, dwelling on them is unhelpful. Pick apart their words and look for evidence of whether there is any truth in them. If there is not, there is no value in dwelling on the words. If there is some truth and it bothers you, think of constructive solutions. Other people’s negativity is theirs – never let it become yours.

Mental Illness is Not a Weakness

I repeat: mental illness is NOT a weakness. It sounds obvious, right? Yet I believed the opposite for years. I thought having a mental illness meant that I was weak and somehow less of a person than everybody else. I thought I had to work twice as hard as everyone else to counteract this weakness. Of course, putting such pressure on myself made the mental illness worse. It took me a decade to realise that coping with mental health problems has made me stronger.

Mental illness itself isn’t a strength any more than it is a weakness: it is a condition, a disease, not a character trait. However, dealing with the effects of mental illness has forced me to develop a number of desirable skills and character traits. For example, I had to learn to speak up for myself because the alternative was to be abused or neglected. I have become more compassionate because I have been in desperate situations and know how painful it is to be ignored, belittled, insulted, derided or criticised when you are in such a wretched state. I have also learnt to laugh at many aspects of mental illness, because the only other option would give it too much control over my current and future life.

Although it is illegal to discriminate, many employers view people with experience of mental illness as weak. When considering potential employees, they consider mental illness a drawback. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true. When you have battled mental illness – and often continue to battle the symptoms on a daily basis – other challenges pale in comparison. You are persistent and resilient. You have had to become an expert at problem solving. I’d say those are some bloody good traits to have in an employee.

But how can we expect employers’ attitudes to change unless we lead the way? We must stop thinking of mental illness as a weakness. To do so gives it too much power and detracts from our own power and strengths. What has your experience of mental illness taught you? What skills have you been forced to develop as a result of mental illness? Which parts of your personality have been strengthened? How has mental illness affected your values? How has it changed how you treat others? Has it affected the decisions you have made in your life?

See also: The Merits of Mental Illness

Choose a Fresh Page – Instead of Wishing for a Fresh Start

Everyone sometimes wishes they could start again. I don’t know if it happens more frequently for those of us with mental health problems; I just know it’s easy to blame mental illness for all of the problems in our lives. I have this fantasy where I pack a rucksack, go somewhere far away and start my life over. I will never act on it, because I can’t abandon my dog or desert my parents and friends, but it has a strong appeal.

Yet I know it’s bullshit. I can’t escape myself or my past actions. Any new life I create has to be built on the foundation of what has gone before – and that’s a good thing. Regardless of our experiences (and I refuse to use this blog as an excuse to throw myself pity parties), we have all gained something from our past. Often it’s the knowledge gained as a result of making mistakes. It could be resilience from overcoming obstacles time after time. Or skills we have learnt, whether it’s knowing how to read or being able to play the piano. You might have gained a really good friend or a partner. Or just a kickass pair of shoes. We have all gained something, even if what we have gained seems small and insignificant.

Which is why we should stop wishing we could abandon our past and make a fresh start. Instead, let’s choose a fresh page, a new chapter. Decide what changes you would like to make and create a plan. Standard advice is to start small, but who says you have to? In my experience, bigger changes can be easier because the reward is more of an incentive and helps you face your fears. However you decide to transform your life, take action as soon as you can.

Take action and keep taking action. Fears and anxieties may never go away, but turning your attention elsewhere forces them into the background and when you take actions related to your fears and anxieties, they are reduced. Again, I’m not claiming that it’s easy to face your fears and take action, but remember: Fear and anxiety can only be overcome with action.

Any action counts. One of my successes in overcoming my anxiety this year was taking my dog for a walk on my own. Not only does this action seem tiny to other people, especially as I live in a rural area so going for a walk doesn’t involve negotiating crowds of people, but it’s something I used to do all the time. However, I hadn’t gone for a walk on my own for years. I don’t care what anyone else thinks – the first time I did it, I was elated and for good reason. Your actions may be ‘bigger’ or ‘smaller’ in the eyes of other people, but none of that matters. The only thing that matters is that you take action, any action.

So start a fresh page and do something a little different. Big or small, let me know about it – email hayley@hayleynjones.com or leave a comment below.

The Merits of Mental Illness

Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t wish mental illness on my worst enemy – but experiencing it has given me a few advantages. Hitting rock bottom has made me less afraid of challenging the norm. It has left me more determined to follow my dreams. It forced me to face up to my issues (with the help of a year of drama therapy) and accept that I am a good person with a lot to offer.

Before, I used to believe the bullies who told me I wasn’t good enough. People who picked on me just to make themselves feel better. So-called friends who undermined my confidence and made me feel stupid, disgusting and ashamed. Looking back, do you know what I notice? All of these people lived mediocre lives. They followed the ‘rules’ about fitting in and never stepping out of line. They belittled anyone who tried to do better, anyone who had bigger goals, because it was easier than challenging their own view of the world.

I now realise that most of the people who were horrible to me must have been miserable. I don’t know why they took it out on me – I turned inward and blamed myself for my misery. Maybe they were jealous of dreamers with ambition. Perhaps they were just nasty and spiteful. My experience of mental illness has taught me to ignore these people and to pity them. It has also demonstrated that I can hurt myself worse than anybody else can: at the worst points of my depression, I hated myself and punished myself for being someone I hated. Getting past that has made me feel all but invincible!

The other merits of mental illness are less dramatic, but almost as influential. Being unable to concentrate enough to read when I was depressed meant I watched a lot of DVDs, which reminded me of how much I love film and led to a BA in Film Studies. Being too anxious to leave the house for months at a time taught me who my friends were (i.e. those who made the effort to keep in touch) and made me value them more than ever before. Living at home when I went to university, because I needed the support of my family, enabled me to buy my own car and learn to drive. I loved that car, even though it was a bit of an old banger and, after a few years, had a leak that covered the floor with an inch of water every time it rained…

The point is, you can find silver linings in your darkest moments, as long as you look hard enough. You might be sceptical – I know I would have been if I’d read a post like this eight or nine years ago – but I promise it’s true. However, it’s not easy. It’s not so much using the lemons life gives you to make lemonade, but about using the shit life throws at you to fertilise the seeds you sow in order to grow a better future.

Have you identified any advantages in your experience of mental illness or other suffering? Please comment and let us know.

 

You may also be interested in: Mental Illness is Not a Weakness

Edit Your Life

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most writing is rewriting. At least, most good writing is rewriting. Even if all of the ingredients are present in the first draft, it is the rewriting and editing that ensures the writing flows and the sentences sing. You may think that the best writers don’t need to rewrite, that it comes naturally to them, but the opposite tends to be true. If you don’t believe me, google ‘first drafts by famous writers.’ You will find hundreds of examples of first drafts by people like George Orwell and Charles Dickens, scrawled with copious notes and corrections. The best writers are rewriters, taking time to craft their work to perfection.

Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard, but I see a lot of parallels between writing and life. You can’t – and shouldn’t – expect to get everything right first time. Implementing changes is not a sign of failure or weakness, but an integral part of the process. We have to keep learning and developing if we are to reach anywhere near our full potential. We have to be aware of what can be improved and improve it through trial and error.

 

Wrangling the Characters

The most important editing we can do is deciding who we want to be the most influential characters in our lives. We can do this by paying more attention to the people who treat us with love and respect, who build us up instead of knocking us down. We can choose not to dwell on the bullies and critics, but on friends and mentors. I don’t mean to sound flippant – it takes a lot of work to come to terms with the pain we have suffered and to stop letting the people who inflicted that pain have such an impact on our lives. But you can do it; even if nobody in your life has ever shown you kindness, you can pay attention to role models you have never met and take inspiration from their actions.

 

Twisting the Plot

You can transform the plot of your life by setting and achieving goals. Again, I don’t mean to imply that this is easy and it’s likely that you will make mistakes along the way, but that’s all part of the process. By learning what doesn’t work, you get closer to discovering what does work. Okay, so you can’t change what has already happened, but you can reframe the past and learn from your experiences. In order to have a happy ending, you need to overcome obstacles.

 

Picking a Setting

You can move away, of course, but you can also change the setting of your life without changing your home. You just need to reinterpret the world around you. Cities like Paris, New York and London have been the settings for numerous stories – romances, comedies, thrillers and tragedies. The main difference between the cities’ portrayals in different genres is down to how the author interprets and fictionalises the city. If you look for crime and suffering, you can find it anywhere. If you look for love and kindness, you can find it anywhere. You cultivate what you choose.

 

The Ending

You won’t have complete control over your ending, but when you live a life full of love, generosity, integrity, creativity and/or whatever else you value, every possible ending will contain those values and be bittersweet. On the other hand, if you refuse to search for the beauty and goodness in life, your ending will just be bitter. It’s your choice: accept a crappy first draft or edit your life.