I have been in a weird mood over the past 4/5 days, probably because I had the last session of a 6-week self-management course for people with long-term health problems on Friday. In some ways, it’s a relief: the last couple of weeks have been difficult and I had to drag myself to the sessions. I also had to drive an hour each way to attend the sessions, which lasted for 2 and a half hours, so most of Friday was swallowed up and I was left exhausted.
On the other hand, the course has been very helpful. It has underscored the links between mental and physical health; so much of what we covered applies to both, even techniques that seem unrelated to either physical or mental illnesses. We were all given a workbook, which is very useful because it gathers together the various ways of treating or dealing with long-term health problems. I knew most of the information before, but now it’s easy to access when I’m feeling worse — especially as I have highlighted the book! I also plan to write the notes I took during sessions into the book, or at least to attach them to it, for future reference.
The focus of the course was how to be a good self-manager and it emphasised how much control we all have over our lives. None of us asks for health problems, but we can all decide how to deal with our conditions. I might have little control over how I feel when my anxiety and depression are at their worst, but I can put safety nets into place when I feel well which will help me to cope.
I’ve learnt a lot of this over the past couple of years, but the course has revitalised me and I’m determined to do all I can to take care of myself. Some habits have slipped lately, like healthy eating and exercise, despite my knowing that I feel much better when I keep up the habits. The course took an active approach to dealing with health problems, which reminded me that I need to be proactive in managing my life. Nobody else is going to sort out my problems.
Maybe that sounds bleak to you, but it highlights
a). The fact that your problems can be dealt with, if not solved
b). You have the power to regain control of your life
Isn’t that empowering? Sure, you will have to take baby steps — at first, anyway — and there will be times when you feel demotivated and can’t appreciate your progress, but you can control a great deal of what happens in your life.
Often, when you have long-term health problems, you fall into the trap of thinking your life will never change and that it cannot change. But you can change your life. Sometimes it’s too difficult to make any changes and that’s okay, but most of the time it is easier to make changes than it is to cling to self-pity and martyrdom. You will be better off in the long-term, of course, but making changes can have a massive impact in the short-term too. Even small changes help to change your mindset.
Two changes have made a big difference to my quality of life. One is a big change, which happened a month ago, and the other is a small change which I have been trying to do every day for the past couple of years. The big change might not be possible for other people in my situation, but the small change is accessible to everybody.
Change 1: I felt like my credit card debt of just under £6,000 was ruling my life. I was paying several hundred pounds a year in interest and although I regularly made extra payments, it didn’t seem to be going down very quickly. Paying as much as I could off my credit card meant that I was falling behind on paying back my parents what I owed them, which was nearly £7,000. Since the only income I have is ESA, I couldn’t get a loan or a 0% credit card. But, I thought, my parents could.
I did my research and did the sums: if my parents took out a loan to cover my credit card balance and what I already owed them, I could pay all my debts in 5-6 years. Without their help, it would take me 5 years to pay back the credit card alone. I presented my findings to my parents, along with a list of assets they could seize if I fell behind on payments, and they agreed that it made sense. They took out a loan for £13,000 and are, in effect, acting as middlemen so that I owe the bank money at a much lower interest rate than my credit card. It also means my parents are no longer loaning me £7,000 interest free.
I feel much better about my financial situation now: I have mapped a path out of debt and I am in control of my money. I have set up a standing order to my parents, to cover the loan repayment and rent every month. My credit card balance is Nil, which feels pretty awesome. My parents are happier and so am I. My figures are based on my current situation, which I am striving to improve by doing freelance work which can fit around my bad days. I hope to be able to pay back the loan sooner than forecast, but it’s fine if I don’t manage to do that.
Change 2: I try to write down 3 things I am grateful for every day. Sometimes I forget, especially during difficult periods, but it’s easy to return to. If I forget to do it in the evening, I can do it the next morning. Sometimes the things I write down are ‘big’ in terms of my life, such as a good weekend away with my best friends, but most of them are ‘small’ — delicious food, reading a book, listening to my favourite songs, stroking my dog, walking in the woods, sunshine…
You can be grateful for experiences, people, possessions, your senses, plans for the future, memories, etc. Anything you want can be included. If you don’t want to write them down, you can say them aloud, mention them in a prayer or simply think about them. There is always something to be grateful for, no matter how awful your life seems to be at the moment. Some of the things that frustrate me remind me of things I’m grateful for: I don’t like having to live with my parents, but I am extremely grateful for my parents and many of the things they do.
Making changes doesn’t have to be complicated — unless you want it to be
Think about what you would like to change and come up with as many possible choices as possible. Don’t reject anything; crazy ideas are often the best ones! When you have a number of possible solutions (I aim for at least 10), start experimenting. What’s the worst that can happen? Nothing changes, but you have the knowledge that you’ve tried your best. You have taken action, regardless of the result.
Also bear in mind that while some changes can be made very quickly, others will take a long time to fully implement. Focus on the changes you can make towards your bigger goals and track the progress you make. For example, although I may take 6 years to get out of debt, I have made a chart which divides my debt into percentages and I colour in the appropriate percentage every time I make a payment. I may do the same to build up an emergency savings fund. It’s a visual reminder that I am progressing, even when it feels like I’m not.
This is the main message I gained from completing the self-management course: if I want my life to improve, it’s up to me.