Taking Control

I’m currently recovering from a terrible episode of gallstones pain — well, it was a few of my worst episodes strung together over a few days and the first really bad episodes I have had since February, so a shock to the system. To clarify what I mean by “bad”, it involves me writhing on the floor in agony. The day after the last bad episode, my pain was still intense enough that I couldn’t bear to move unless it was absolutely essential. However, the most frustrating part of the experience was that it’s my own fault.


Okay, I didn’t ask to have gallstones and it’s not my fault that the current NHS waiting lists are ridiculous, thanks to the government penalising consultants for working overtime, so I haven’t had my gallbladder out. Maybe I wouldn’t have developed gallstones if I had stayed a healthy weight all my life, but overeating was how I dealt with my mental illnesses and one of the few coping strategies which was accessible to me during the years when I was scared of leaving the house alone. However, my recent painful episode could have been avoided if I had paid more attention to what was happening.

Since mid-May, I have relaxed my diet. I still want to lose another 20-30lbs, but a few other things took priority and stress took over during the final 2 months of my temporary job. I wasn’t eating a huge amount, but I was eating crap: more refined sugar and processed foods, fewer vegetables. I should have listened to my body as my gallstones became “noisier” but I pushed on, focusing on work and eating junk to deal with the stress (old habits die hard). 

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and I realised that not only was I experiencing the worst episodes of gallstones pain I’ve had in a while, but my mood had plummeted. I needed to take control of my health.

I also had a minor epiphany: when my gallstones pain and mental health were better than they had been in ages, in March and April, I had been following a diet which limited processed foods and cut out sugar. I was also eating a lot less wheat. Feeling desperate, I decided to go back to basics and cut out junk food, processed food, wheat and refined sugar as much as I could. The worst that could happen, I figured, was that it would make no difference to the pain and I would get better nutrition.

Thankfully, my change of diet was very effective. Within 4 days, I felt well enough to return to kettlebells class (taking it easy). Within a week, I was no longer taking painkillers. After 10 days, I no longer needed to constantly use heat pads and lavender oil to reduce the pain. In addition, my mood improved — which could be due to the psychological effects of feeling a little more in control, as well as the change in nutrition. Nothing miraculous has happened, but I’m back to baseline gallstone pain levels and my depression has eased enough for me to feel a little more human.

In addition to diet, I think my experience was impacted by other factors. When my temporary job ended in July and I found out I had passed my Open University modules, there was an easing of pressure. I was no longer pushing myself to keep going through pain, stress, anxiety and depression at any cost. I could stop. But when I stopped, I felt drained — especially emotionally. I’m pleased to have completed my work project and OU modules, but neither went according to plan and I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to maximise my opportunities or enjoy them a little more. Now I could stop, I had to process all of these emotions.

Needing a lot of recovery time is something I have learnt to accept in theory, but it’s frustrating. It typically takes me a few days to recuperate from a day out, which most people find relaxing in itself, so I suppose I should have expected a period of lethargy when the challenges of studying and working drew to a close. Trouble is, I want to keep going! I feel as if I have wasted most of my life because mental illness has had such disabling effects over the years, so I think I should push on as much as possible when I feel able to do more. Perhaps the gallstones pain was a blessing, because it has reminded me to put my health (physical and mental) first and foremost.

So what does taking control mean for me?

Prioritising self-care is essential. I’m sticking with my dietary changes, since I feel so much better in such a short time, and I want to improve my fitness. Yesterday, I had a run on the treadmill for the first time in 3/4 weeks and realised how much I have missed its mood-boosting effects, so I want to work on running farther at my new, faster pace (I have been working on speed this year, after focusing on distance for last year’s half marathon). Taking the time to practice yoga and meditation is also a habit I want to establish over the summer.

The other side of self-care is about putting myself in a better position to achieve my goals. I’m not entirely sure what that will involve, because the first step is to reflect on my progress and decide what’s important to me right now. A summer reset, if you like, before I start my next OU modules in October. 

Paradoxically, a huge part of taking control is accepting that I can’t control everything. As the mental health literature reiterates, you can’t control what happens to you — but you can control your response. I had hoped this year would propel me towards a better future, but instead of feeling confident about building on my knowledge, skills and experiences, I feel beaten up. I hope that taking plenty of time to rest and work on my health over the next month will help me feel stronger.

Whatever happens, I will try to remind myself I am making progress — even when it feels so slow that it might not count. I spent too long living life on pause when my mental health was at its worst, so I’m not going to let the gallstones do the same.

Some of Your Pain is Your Fault

You know you are not to blame for your mental health problems. Mental illness is not caused by bad karma or bad decisions. However, some of the pain caused by your mental health issues is your fault. You were/are complicit in your own pain. And you have to learn to forgive yourself.

Here are some things you might have done to cause yourself pain:

  • Avoided getting help for your mental health problems.
  • Pretended you were fine, when you were suffering.
  • Ignored phone calls and messages from friends because you were too scared or sad or numb or angry or jealous or ashamed or whatever to face them.
  • Overeaten in attempts to block out your emotions.
  • Starved yourself in attempts to block out your emotions or achieve perfection.
  • Neglected your studies because it was easier to procrastinate than face the possibility that you could do your best and still fail to live up to your (or someone else’s) expectations.
  • Walked away from jobs because you didn’t have the strength to fight your corner.
  • Slept with people you regret sleeping with.
  • Shut yourself off from relationships or even the opportunity to date people.
  • Cut yourself because it gave you temporary relief.
  • Stayed at home when you might have enjoyed going out.
  • Used drugs or alcohol in attempts to make yourself feel better.
  • Lashed out at someone you love because you were angry or in pain.

You can probably think of dozens of your own examples. The indelible fact is that you have caused some of your pain.

Another fact is that you deserve to be forgiven. You must forgive yourself. By not forgiving yourself, you are prolonging your pain. Forgiving yourself allows you to move on. It helps you to avoid pain in the future. It teaches you that you don’t have to accept the pain that you cause yourself. Some pain in life is inevitable – we get ill, we lose jobs, loved ones die – but you can choose to avoid causing yourself pain.

You will not be 100% successful. You will slip up and cause yourself pain on some occasions. When that happens, you need to forgive yourself again and move on. It’s hard to face up to your own complicity in your pain, but it’s something you must do in order to get past the pain.

Depending on your personal situation, you may need professional help in order to do this; avoiding getting help is one of the most common ways those of us with mental health problems cause ourselves pain. Reach out to anyone you can – your doctor, a therapist, a friend, a family member, a charity, a helpline. Just reach out. Read back through the bullet points and observe how all of the ways we cause ourselves pain are the opposite of reaching out. They are about avoiding genuine connections with our emotions and with other people. The antidote to pain is connection.

WTF Does Resurfacing and Rewriting Mean?

Resurfacing and Rewriting? What do those verbs have in common? They define the processes of recovering from mental illness: striving to get out of the depths of despair and reassessing your life. Reconnecting with the world and reclaiming your story. Because your life is a story and you can change it; you can create a new story.

Stories are not set in stone. They are retold and adapted. They are expanded and edited. Years of mental illness (anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder) convinced me that my story was a tragedy. I thought I would die before I turned 30 and I believed that I would never achieve anything. Guess what? I turned 31 last month and I have done many things that I thought were impossible for me – learning to drive, earning a degree, getting a short story published.

I don’t want to over-simplify my continuing recovery. It has taken me years of medication and talking therapies to get to the point where I can help myself. However, a major part of the recovery process is learning about the power of the stories you tell about yourself. You can’t change your past, but you can edit it. You can choose to pay more attention to some parts of your story than others. You can pick the main characters, who will have the most influence on your future. You have to decide what you want your story to be – and then start to create your story.

Hence Resurfacing and Rewriting. I want this blog to inspire and encourage you to own your story. To show you that you are not alone; that recovery from mental illness is neither linear nor logical, but it can be fun and fulfilling. I want to help break down the stigma which still surrounds mental health issues and rewrite the story, telling everyone that people with mental illnesses are valuable and should be valued. Most of all, I want to prove that recovery is possible. I have no idea if I will succeed and I’m terrified, but I want my story to be about a woman who overcomes mental illness and learns to be happy. And who kicks some arse along the way!