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.

Refighting Battles

One of the most frustrating and exhausting aspects of having a long term mental illness is you have to fight the same battles again and again. It’s not like a video game, where you pass a level and never have to retake it. Just because you manage to do something one day doesn’t mean you can cope with it the next.


Winding lane

It’s like Groundhog Day without a clear learning curve.

Symptoms of mental illness can fluctuate a lot. I know I mention this a lot, but it’s one of the core truths that people who haven’t experienced mental health problems find difficult to grasp. Even on a “good” day, you have to battle symptoms. They may not be as intense as they are on “bad” days, but they are still present.

Today, for instance, I went for a walk on my own (well, with my dog) for the first time in a while. I haven’t been walking him in the daytime during the summer because it has been either far too hot or raining. People who aren’t familiar with mental health issues might think I found this easy: it has only been a couple of months since I last went for a walk alone, I walk the route with my parents all the time and my mental health has been gradually improving since spring. I should have no problems, right?

Actually, I felt anxious. It took me several hours to work up to doing it and my mind generated a plethora of excuses and unnecessary worries. I felt better when I started walking, but I was still nervous. I kept thinking something bad might happen, that I would get hit by a car or fall over. I worried about meeting other people and feeling incredibly awkward if they tried to make conversation. I ruminated on whether it was too hot for the dog to be out, because the sun started shining despite the low-ish temperature. I was bombarded by symptoms of anxiety.

I shall reiterate: today is a good day. I enjoyed my walk and managed to break out of my negative thought patterns several times. I felt better for tackling the challenge. The point is, I may always have to cope with my symptoms. There may be a day in the future when I can leave the house without planning in advance and feeling anxious, but I’m not counting on it. I have to refight the battle every time I go out alone.

 

And there are many battles to refight.

Many of the things I do on a daily basis take effort. By writing this blog post, I am battling against anxiety and depression: my mind is filled with thoughts like “Why bother writing? It’ll be terrible no matter how hard you try” and “nobody is going to read it anyway”. I battle through because a). I enjoy blogging and writing about mental health, and b). I know there is a chance that my experiences may help other people to understand mental health problems or, if they are experiencing mental health issues themselves, to feel less alone.

I have to accept that these battles need to be refought over and over. It’s annoying and frustrating. It makes me sad and angry. It’s a real bitch. But the alternative is doing nothing.

Refighting battles is hard, but necessary. Many of the battles seem ridiculous, like motivating myself to eat proper meals instead of crisps, but I have to keep fighting. I know each battle takes me closer to achieving my goals and leading a better life, but it doesn’t feel like that when you are out on the battlefield.

 

Yet every battle you win makes you a little stronger.

I certainly don’t feel stronger every time I get through a mundane challenge, but getting through each battle gives me a little confidence. There are times when I get so distressed that even if I win the battle it doesn’t seem worth it, but these comprise a small percentage of my battles. The learning curve might not be clear, but it’s there — hidden under all the fluctuating symptoms. Every battle won imparts a lesson.

Today’s lesson is this: sometimes it feels pointless to refight the same battles because there is no clear indication of progress, but like a character in a video game, you are gaining experience points. I just hope I level up soon!

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?

Subdued

I have been feeling subdued and demotivated over the past week. There’s no particular reason; it’s just the nature of depression.

Subdued meerkat

But the nature of depression, even after 15+ years, is frustrating.

I’m sick of it. I know, on a logical level, that the low mood will pass at its own rate. I know I can do all I can to practice self-care and use coping strategies, which will help reduce the impact of my dip in mood. I know this is a challenge I have to deal with, perhaps for the rest of my life, and I just have to do my best to achieve my goals when the cloud lifts a little. Yet knowing all of this doesn’t make life easier.

I feel quite useless when my depression gets worse. I have no energy and can’t work towards my goals — certainly not as much as I can when I feel better.

 

The only option is acceptance.

I can’t change the fact that I struggle with mental illness. I can try to manage it as best I can, but my coping strategies and activities won’t always be enough. And that’s okay.

It has taken me a long time to start thinking of my mental health as an aspect of my overall health, rather than a reflection of my shortcomings. I know plenty of people still regard mental illness as weakness — and I know they are wrong, because it takes incredible strength to keep going when your symptoms prevent you from living life on your own terms.

So I will try not to be so harsh on myself as I carry on through this drop in mood. I will do what I can, when I can — and try not to stress about the slowness of my progress.

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!

A Big Jump Forward

The other week, I said something in a counselling session that I’ve been thinking about a lot since I said it: “I feel like I have to take a jump off a cliff just to move forward one single step.”
Explore, dream, discover

I’m not sure whether needing to do something “big” in order to make any progress is a good thing. It puts me under a lot of pressure and “big” things are often expensive. However, when the other option is to stay stuck, being able to take that jump off a cliff is vital.

 

Jumping off a cliff requires a lot of motivation and a huge potential reward.

It’s a dangerous situation and failure can be catastrophic. If I hit the metaphorical rocks, my mental health would probably be affected in a very negative way. The same goes for smaller risks, which is why I often find it easier to take bigger risks — when the reward is small, it’s not worth putting my mental health on the line.

I know this is hard for people to get their heads around and I don’t claim to fully understand why I think like this, but I do. If I’m going to take any risk, there needs to be a good reason — preferably several reasons. There needs to be the possibility of achieving a massive goal and/or improving my life significantly. Usually, there also needs to be a push as well as a pull: the idea of never taking this particular risk is worse than trying and failing.

 

Logically, this means that failure doesn’t matter.

If the absolute worst option is to never take the risk, to never try to achieve the goal, then failure is the lesser of two evils. Following the argument through, it also means I shouldn’t be afraid of failure because it’s not the worst outcome.

For me, this is not the case: emotion overpowers logic.

I’m terrified of failure. I’m scared of not living up to my expectations and of disappointing other people. But my biggest fear is never trying to achieve anything worthwhile; giving up on my dreams and settling for a life which will never be fulfilling.

 

I’m hoping my Machu Picchu trek will be a success, but I think I’m beginning to appreciate the fact that I’m trying to achieve an important goal.

Note that I cannot (yet) feel proud of myself — but this acknowledgement is improvement! I talked about letting go of the fantasies surrounding my Machu Picchu challenge in my last post, and of being disappointed not to live up to these fantasies, but I guess they don’t matter as much as my trying to achieve them. I would love it if everything had gone my way, but it didn’t and instead of giving up, I’m still giving it my best shot.

Sidenote: I will be within £180 of my £1000 fundraising goal when I add pledged donations, so this is one fantasy which might come to fruition. If you would like to sponsor me to show your support for my challenge and human rights, please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones You can do so anonymously and/or without publicising the amount. Every pound is appreciated. It would mean a lot to me personally to hit my original target and will help Amnesty International do more of their amazing work.

I can make more sense of my situation when I consider my reactions to a hypothetical third party: I would have more respect for someone who says “I tried to trek to Machu Picchu, but it didn’t work out and I failed” than someone who says “I always wanted to trek to Machu Picchu, but never tried.”

As much as I want to be able to say “I did it!” I would rather be the former hypothetical person than the latter. Anyone can have dreams and goals, but working towards them is what matters — ask any writer who has encountered someone who says “I always wanted to write a novel” and is expected to sympathise!

 

So here’s my big jump…

I fly to Peru tomorrow. I hope I land in open ocean, rather than on the rocks, but I’m glad I’m jumping — whatever happens.

Relinquishing Fantasies

As my Machu Picchu trek looms closer (just over a week away), I have to let go of many hopes, goals and expectations I had regarding the challenge. Trekking to Machu Picchu has been a dream of mine since I can remember and I wanted its realisation to be a focal point, encouraging me to transform my life. In reality, it feels like everything has gone wrong since I signed up for the challenge.

Sunset

So here are the fantasies I have to relinquish:

I would be a lot slimmer

While I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to prioritise weight loss (I have had eating disorders in the past and old habits can set in without much persuading if I’m not careful), I thought I would lose a significant amount of weight through exercising more and eating more healthily to fuel the exercise. I have lost nearly 30lbs, but I had more than double that amount in mind. I’m so overweight that I’m not sure people can tell I’ve lost any weight.

The fantasy me would have been more confident and at ease in her body. She wouldn’t be worrying about whether she would need a seatbelt extender on the plane. She wouldn’t be concerned about people looking at her and thinking she hasn’t worked hard enough to train for the challenge.

Yet I can acknowledge, on a logical level, that clinging onto the 30lb weight loss is pretty good, considering I tend to comfort eat when depressed and my depression took a nosedive over winter. When you are focusing on getting through each day, food can feel like the only thing which gives you pleasure or energy — though the pleasure and energy are fleeting and soon replaced by their opposites. There’s also the strong possibility that if I had lost 60lbs, I would still feel dissatisfied…

 

I would be a lot fitter.

I had visions of myself feeling fit, strong and invincible. I threw myself into a new exercise routine, walking and going to gym classes. Then I got ill, physically and mentally. Winter viruses stopped me training for almost 4 months, giving me a constant viral chest infection which obviously couldn’t be treated with antibiotics. This took its toll on my mental health, since exercise was my main strategy for managing my anxiety and depression since I stopped taking medication in September.

I have managed to resume walking — even walking on my own, which I hadn’t done for over a decade until last March — but I’m too scared to go back to gym classes. I’m embarrassed to admit this and I don’t know why I’m so scared, but anxiety isn’t a rational illness. I have no idea whether I can complete the trek, but I hope I can. I wish I was stronger and fitter, but getting through the past 6 months has taught me that I’m mentally strong, so hopefully my grit and determination will get me through.

 

My mental health would be a lot better.

When I signed up for the challenge, I was enjoying a period of relatively good mental health and believed I was on an upward trajectory. I thought I had control of my mental illness and would continue to improve. This did not happen.

Instead, my mental health deteriorated over winter and I’m still struggling with anxiety and depression. It doesn’t seem fair, hut maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be: I talk about encouraging other people with mental health problems to chase their dreams, so here I am, tackling an enormous challenge when a large part of me feels like hiding away and sobbing in a corner.

 

I would reach my £1000 fundraising goal.

A quick glance at my fundraising page will show you that I haven’t reached my target. I have been pledged a couple more donations, so will have raised over £700 for Amnesty International and maybe I will hit £750, but I can’t and don’t expect more than that. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because I appreciate every single donation and have been touched by people’s generosity. I have received sponsorship from people I have never met offline and from people who don’t have a lot of money to spare. Thank you to everyone for supporting me and human rights.

I’m disappointed because I haven’t been able to do a lot of the things I had planned to raise funds. I knew I wouldn’t be able to organise big events, thanks to my mental health (which is one of several reasons for my self-funding my challenge), but mental illness has prevented me from doing things I thought I would be able to cope with. I had hoped to do a better job.

 

My career would be going a lot better.

I also believed I would be in a better situation with my work by now. While there have been a couple of wonderful developments, like volunteering at The Project, I’m struggling. The job with a CV writing company, which I thought I could rely on for regular income alongside my other writing endeavours, turned out to have a very lax attitude towards paying me — I was paid months late, after sending emails threatening legal action. Maybe I would have bounced back better if my depression and anxiety hadn’t gotten worse, but they did. It’s all a bit of a disaster.

It’s hard to accept this situation because my expectations were not high. I just wanted to feel like I had a little more direction and a little more money in my pocket. Instead, my debt has increased and I’m afraid my Machu Picchu challenge will turn out to be a giant waste of time and money.

 

Relinquishing fantasies is difficult because it involves facing up to harsh realities, which have been influenced by both forces outside of my control and my own failings. I look back and wonder what I could, would or should have done differently. I wonder whether I’m just stupid for attempting the challenge.
But there is one fantasy I cling to, which I hope will become reality:

My Machu Picchu challenge will be a springboard into a better life.

I hope the challenge will teach me a lot about myself and provide me with guidance. I think it could have a fantastic effect on my confidence and motivation. Training has reminded me of how much better I feel when I’m fitter and I want to lead a more active lifestyle from now on. I have realised that I’m resilient and can apply the lessons I have learnt from pursuing this goal, despite the disappointments and setbacks, to achieving other goals.

Preparing for the trek has also shown me that many people support me in this quest; I want to show them that their support is appreciated and (hopefully) deserved. 

Acknowledging Difference and Mental Health

It’s great that mental health issues are getting a lot of publicity at the moment, thanks to the Heads Together campaign and its royal endorsement. It’s also wonderful to hear Prince Harry talking openly about his mental health problems following his mother’s death. All of this is positive and deserves to be celebrated. However, we also need to hear the stories about people who struggle with mental illness and aren’t famous. Stories told by people whose mental health prevents them from going outside, let alone running a marathon.

It’s ironic that the right-wing, tabloid media praises some people for sharing their experiences of mental illness while, at the same time, castigating people with mental illness who claim benefits. If poor mental health prevents you from getting work, you can expect to be scrutinised – by the general public, as well as the media. When you go to a pub for the first time in several months, some people view it as proof that you are a scrounger who is playing the system; as though you choose to resign yourself to the poverty and humiliation of surviving on benefits, rather than getting a job which would give you some money and dignity. There is still a lot of ignorance surrounding mental health and we need to pay attention to the full spectrum of experiences.

Part of the problem is the reporting bias in mental health.

Some stories about mental health are more clickworthy than others. People like to read about a celebrity who goes off the rails, but they aren’t interested in ordinary people who spend their days lost in a fog of depression. There’s less spectacle involved. It’s bloody boring. Spectacle is also a factor in how different mental illnesses are represented – often in stereotypical, unrealistic ways. Soap characters with mental illness, for instance, tend to have public meltdowns and melodramatic plotlines. The majority of people with mental health problems don’t get sectioned or use violence against other people, but I guess showing reality is too banal: it involves a lot of sitting around as your thoughts play out an invisible battle royale.

The media also like stories of people overcoming their mental illness, but for some of us, recovery seems unlikely and active management is a more pertinent goal. In my own experience, for example, mental illness is chronic and fluctuates: bad episodes are punctuated by good episodes. My goal is to change the balance, so that good episodes are punctuated by bad episodes. Again, it’s wonderful to hear stories from people who have completely recovered from mental illness, but we also need stories from people who might never recover. I suppose that’s one of the aims of my blog – to show what life is like when you’re negotiating it with long-term mental health problems.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the reporting bias is that mental illness makes you think nobody wants to hear your story.

Depression and anxiety, in particular, generate a plethora of negative thoughts which convince you that you are worthless, useless, subhuman. You can’t ignore these thoughts, so you start to believe them and eventually, they seem to be part of you, an undeniable truth. Given this, it’s not surprising that many of us struggle to confide in friends and family, let alone broadcast our experiences to the world. Nobody should be ashamed to have mental health problems, but when they have a stranglehold on you, it’s almost inevitable that you feel shame.

There are also a lot of issues with political correctness which affect how stories about mental health are told – and whether they are told at all. For example, I once submitted a blog post to a mental health campaign about how when I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I felt relief because it explained my symptoms. After asking me to rewrite the post several times, with little guidance on what she was looking for, the person who contacted me said it wasn’t the kind of story they wanted to use, because other people don’t have the same experience. In my view, that’s exactly why such stories should be published – because there is no single experience of mental illness and assumptions need to be challenged.

If we are afraid to express ourselves – or to give platforms to others so they can express themselves – in case a differing viewpoint or experience causes offence, or challenges common perceptions, then the campaigns for mental health are doomed to be ineffective. We need to hear about a range of experiences. We need to hear provocative stories. Otherwise the debate is stymied before it has even gathered pace.

We need to stop censoring and invalidating our experiences of mental health problems.

Another facet of the reporting bias, especially self-reporting, is fear. People are afraid to talk freely and honestly about their mental health experiences. A lot of this fear is fear of being judged and discriminated against, which creates a vicious circle because discrimination won’t end unless we can discuss mental health issues without fear of being judged.

I was afraid to talk about my mental illness when I was younger, especially when I was employed. I thought people would view it as a weakness and use it as ammunition. Unfortunately, some people did. But when I started talking more, something amazing happened: other people told me they had similar experiences. I felt less isolated and more supported.

Since I have been blogging, some people have commented that I’m courageous for speaking out. I usually dismiss these comments, since I feel I don’t have anything to lose – I’m self-employed now and have reached the stage where I’m sick of being ashamed of my mental illness, so will tell anyone willing to listen. However, I have been considering the possibility that these people are right and it does take courage to speak out in any way you can. Perhaps by dismissing such compliments, I’m negating both my own courage and the courage of others who blog, vlog, talk and write about their mental health.

So yes, speaking out takes courage, but I believe the alternative is worse: a world in which people with mental illness are afraid to discuss the issues they face. A world where people experiencing mental health problems feel alone and unworthy of help and support.

Through sharing a wider range of stories about mental health, we move further away from that world.

Some people still inhabit the world I mentioned, where they consider their mental health problems taboo. When they see and hear stories about experiences of mental illness which are vastly different from their own, they feel more isolated. The majority of mental health stories in mainstream media feature people who have access to resources which others are denied: money, strong support networks, advocates. While these resources can’t counterbalance the pain of mental illness, they do make it easier to cope.

A lot of people are ignorant of the issues surrounding access to resources, because it’s rarely brought to their attention. I’m guilty of taking some of my own resources for granted, such as the security of living with my parents and the practical support they give me. I’m also guilty of being jealous of resources other people have which I have never had, such as a partner and money for private therapy. Even something as simple as transport is a major issue concerning mental health: learning to drive made a huge difference to my life, because it gave me access to treatments and I could visit my friends more. My anxiety prevents me from using public transport more than it prevents me from driving, so I would not have managed my mental health so well without being able to drive.

These issues need to be addressed more in mainstream media, so that we can provide more opportunities and access to a greater range of resources for people with mental health problems. We need to hear more stories from people with limited resources, so that others in similar situations don’t feel ignored.

Raising awareness of these issues will also prevent people from making well-meaning, or ignorant, but hurtful comments to people with mental illness. For example, people’s reactions when they learn I live with my parents: they joke about me being too old and too comfortable with the perks. The reality is, I can’t afford to move out because I have relied on benefits for years and when I have been in work, the jobs paid low wages and/or were part time. I also doubt I could cope with living alone, as much as I desire it, especially during bad episodes.

When I was on antidepressants, I relied on my mum to get my prescription for me. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to access medication. She also makes sure I eat when I’m depressed and hides the painkillers when I feel suicidal. Frankly, I dread to think what state I’d be in if I lived independently. I didn’t choose to have mental health problems, so it’s a bit difficult to nod along when someone tells me I could live in a flat share or to laugh when someone suggests the real reason I haven’t moved out is because I “have it too good.” If situations like mine were represented in the media more often, perhaps I wouldn’t be patronised or forced to explain myself when someone thinks they have the right to know why a woman in her 30s lives with her parents.

Raising awareness of issues surrounding mental health and humanising them through sharing individuals’ experiences would promote compassion and empathy.

A massive problem with reports on benefits is that they are either faceless or portray stereotypes. When benefits cuts are announced, news stories are illustrated with people who appear mentally and physically healthy, usually with multiple kids, who talk confidently and are coerced into making a comment which implies they are scroungers with no intention of supporting themselves. The bias is shocking, but not as shocking as the fact that many people don’t recognise it as bias.

A large proportion of the public believes what they are told by The Sun and The Daily Mail. They don’t realise that some people exist who don’t fit these stereotypes – people who battle against their mental illness and still can’t function, people who would love to work but can’t find a job offering the flexibility needed to work around fluctuations in their mental health, people who claim benefits not because it’s easier than working (hah!) but because they have no other choice. Acknowledging their existence could make a huge difference in itself. We need to tell these people’s stories.

People might acknowledge that mental illness affects people from all walks of life, but they don’t consider what this means. It means that people from poor backgrounds struggle to get adequate treatment via the NHS. It means that when someone’s benefits are stopped without warning, because someone unqualified in mental health has looked at a form and decided their illness doesn’t count as a disability, they can’t afford to eat or pay rent. It means that mental health problems can cause other problems, such as unemployment and isolation, creating a downward spiral which feels impossible to escape.

Perhaps if we told everyone about these experiences, as well as the more positive ones, people with mental health problems would be treated better – by both the government and the general public. There would be greater understanding and more kindness.

I want rich and successful people to tell their mental health stories, but I don’t want them to overshadow what the majority experience.

I want to show that mental illness need not prevent you from achieving your goals, but I also want to tell you that it’s okay if it does – it’s not your fault. Unfortunately, the effect of publicising stories from people who are either born into privilege or have achieved privilege through their career is that other experiences are excluded. This exclusion gives space for incorrect assumptions to arise: that if money doesn’t prevent mental illness, then poverty isn’t an issue which affects mental health and people who say their mental illness stops them from accomplishing goals are just making excuses. We need to address these assumptions by showing that they are untrue.

We need to make the invisible stories more visible. We need to acknowledge that while people with mental health problems can achieve great things, like running marathons and building incredibly successful careers, sometimes getting out of bed or taking a shower are huge achievements. We have started the conversation – now let’s broaden it and explore everyone’s experiences.

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.

 

Stepping Up and Stepping Back

Mental illness can make things hard to plan.

You can never be sure whether a certain date will be a good day or a bad day. You don’t know whether this week will be difficult or relatively easy. Given this unpredictability, learning to be flexible is a key skill.

 

 

Being flexible requires some consideration…

The most obvious consideration is deciding your priorities: defining which aspects of your life are most important to you and keeping the order in mind. There might be times when you are too ill to tackle even your most important and basic needs, but much of mental illness isn’t so extreme — bad days may severely limit what you can do, but you can still do something. The trouble is, without clear priorities, it’s easy to waste the little energy you have on tasks which aren’t important.

When we complete trivial tasks but neglect our priorities, our tendency is often to blame ourselves — which can make mental health problems (and symptoms) worse.

I often fall into the trap of completing low priority tasks first. I tell myself that they will ease me into the important stuff, helping me avoid procrastination. This might work for some people, but when your mental health fluctuates, you can’t depend on being able to do the important tasks later.

You might feel drained later and simply won’t have the energy to do more. Or the depression could take over and you won’t  have the motivation or ability to do anything, let alone something important.  Or you could get lost in an anxiety whirlwind, stressing out and worrying so much that you can’t think straight. There are a million reasons, depending on the symptoms you personally experience, why “later” might not be an option.

 

Priorities need boundaries.

In order to prioritise effectively, you need to put boundaries in place. These can be flexible, but you need to be aware of them — and make other people aware, when relevant. Prioritising is pointless if you can be easily swayed by someone begging you to do an unimportant task. You need to make it clear that you have priorities and while everyone’s time is limited to 24 hours a day, mental illness steals time from you.

Setting and maintaining boundaries can be difficult, but it is necessary.

Boundaries help us to cultivate good mental health and to manage better during episodes of poor mental health. Given this, it’s a good idea to ensure you put boundaries in place at any time — the sooner, the better.

I recently had to set boundaries with someone for whom I do volunteer work. It was difficult for me to broach the subject, but I wanted to make it clear that I couldn’t prioritise them. I could commit to a few hours of work a week and would be willing to do more if/when I’m able, but my priorities are my mental health, writing work for which there’s a chance of earning money, blogging, training and preparing for my Machu Picchu trek and my other volunteer role, which is more closely related to my passions and career plans since it’s a mental health charity.

I felt awkward bringing it up, but this volunteer role has never been formal and I have never promised to do a certain number of hours. I still want to help, but not at the expense of my priorities. I feel better for having explained this, because I wanted to ensure that the expectations of those involved didn’t exceed what I could offer. I also didn’t want to feel pressured to put in more hours than I could commit to, because that would make my mental health problems worse. In fact, setting boundaries benefits everyone, because if my mental health declined a lot, I wouldn’t be able to do anything at all.

You might come across people who don’t respect your boundaries, but don’t be deterred by them: you set and maintain your own boundaries. They might try to push at them or knock them down, but you are in control. 

Your ultimate priority should be you.

You can’t help anyone or achieve your own goals unless you put yourself and your mental health first. Ensuring you are managing your mental health as best you can means that you will be able to do more than if you don’t prioritise it. In the list I made above of my own priorities, my mental health comes first. Why? Simply because I cannot do anything else on the list unless my mental health problems are under a certain level of control.

Knowing when to step up and when to step back can be complicated, but your main consideration should be how your actions will affect your mental health.

Again, this often requires flexibility. For example, sometimes I feel so anxious that going for a walk would make me feel worse. Going outside can make me feel panicky and I’m constantly on edge when my anxiety is bad, so I wouldn’t enjoy the walk. Most of the time, going for a walk makes me feel better, even if I’m experiencing some anxiety, because being outside and getting exercise improves my mood, plus I get a sense of achievement from doing it. The trick is to recognise when my anxiety levels make the activity shift from “helpful” to “detrimental”.

The same goes for any task or activity. Mental health problems can be complex and it’s all very well to make a list of what helps you feel better, but sometimes those things can make you feel worse. It depends on your symptoms and circumstances. Be aware of how you are affected by different activities at different times and adjust your boundaries and priorities accordingly.

 

It’s not just about mental health.

I refer to mental health because it’s the main focus of my blog, but everything I have said applies to physical health, too. In fact, my mental health and physical health are so intertwined that I tend to consider them together. For instance, prioritising my mental health means prioritising exercise — which improves my physical health.

The basics of cultivating good mental health and good physical health are the same: eating healthily, exercising, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, etc. Keep this in mind when deciding on your priorities and setting boundaries — a strong foundation of healthy habits helps you to do everything else more efficiently and effectively.