I submitted my final assignments for the Open University modules I’m studying this year well before the deadlines and I’m going to explain why I don’t consider this a Good Thing. The last two assignments are End of Module Assessments (EMAs) which are supposed to be analogous to exams, so there are no deadline extensions. Since my mental health is unpredictable and my current physical health even more so, I had to make contingency plans in case my mental health plummeted or I had bad gallstone attacks in the weeks before the deadline. It’s a coping strategy I wish I didn’t have to implement, but I have learnt that this degree of flexibility is necessary for me.
Preparing to be thrown off course by my mental health is an integral part of goal setting. In this case, I had to get ahead when I felt well and finish the previous two assignments, with deadlines in April, as soon as possible so I could focus on the EMAs. It was pretty intense, but ensured I had several weeks to work on the EMAs. Do I really need several weeks’ leeway? Absolutely. My health can easily become a huge issue without warning. My mental health can go into freefall and the scariest aspect is, sometimes several weeks wouldn’t have been enough leeway.
I was lucky this time around. My mental health has taken a downturn recently, but I could work around it.
What does “working around” my mental health mean?
Put simply, it means doing whatever I can, whenever I can. It’s how I live my life. Some days I can function like any other person and be very productive; some days I am unable to do anything other than slump on the couch, my mind whirring but producing nothing. Most days are a mixture.
Living with mental health problems is difficult, so I have had to devise coping strategies which work for me and help me to be more productive. These include:
Identifying my priorities at any given time. When mental illness limits the number of hours I have available to work (or do anything else), I need to know the best way to spend those hours.
Being super-organised. Depression and anxiety affect my memory, so I write everything down. I need to know my goals and break them down into tasks. I put these tasks on my to-do list, which is divided into high, medium and low priority tasks for each week. I also have a future to-do list, for tasks I can’t or don’t want to complete at the moment.
Being flexible. Because my mental health is unpredictable, scheduling tasks on specific days doesn’t work very well for me, so I try to avoid it unless it’s absolutely necessary. I sometimes allocate tasks to certain days, but I don’t beat myself up if I can’t stick to this plan.
I wish I didn’t have to use these coping strategies. I would love to be able to plan to work on my EMAs for a few weeks before the deadline, like most other people, but no possibility of an extension means I need to prepare for ill health.
This also applies to all other aspects of my life.
I’m sure some ignorant people assume I can do non-work tasks without making contingency plans and these are probably the same people who think mental illness is just an excuse to avoid work, but my mental health affects all aspects of my life. I have had to cancel countless enjoyable activities. For every night out I’ve had with friends, there were five I had to cancel at the last minute and hundreds I never planned because I knew I couldn’t handle it. When my mental health dips, I struggle to do anything, including leisure activities I can do at home, alone. During these periods, I can’t even read or concentrate on watching a film.
I used to feel incredibly ashamed of being forced to live this way. Many friends slipped away because they didn’t understand why I couldn’t go out like a “normal” person and often struggled to leave the house at all. They got bored with hanging out at each other’s homes when anxiety prevented me from going to the cinema or a café. However, as I get older, I’m learning to accept that this is the way it has to be. For now, at least. If so-called friends can’t accept my mental health problems, they can thank their lucky stars they’re not in the same situation and fuck off.
I wouldn’t have chosen this life of constant contingency planning, but I’m learning to make the best of it.
I’m getting better at controlling the things I can and letting go of whatever I can’t control. Better, but nowhere near perfect! I still get frustrated with myself, the universe and life in general, but I keep working towards my goals. My aim is simple: improvement. My life probably won’t change completely anytime soon, but most days are bearable and I’m proud of the goals I’ve achieved.
I can’t celebrate submitting my EMAs early, because I wish I didn’t have to rely so heavily on contingency plans, but I’m proud that I submitted them. Two years of my part-time Psychology BSc down, three (hopefully) to go!
The clocks going forward is always welcome to me, because the improvement in my mood is almost immediate. Everything shifts. It doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days and my depression doesn’t get cured miraculously, but I’m a little less depressed and it’s a little easier to cope. I feel less overwhelmed.
The brighter evenings make it easier to use some coping strategies which I find helpful, including spending more time outside and exercising outside. I can organise my day so that I can make time to walk or run in the evening. The change to BST is a powerful reminder that spring is here and summer is coming: things will change and get better. When my days are (generally) brighter and warmer, focusing on the positive aspects of my life becomes more natural to me.
Summer will also bring the end of my second year studying for a Psychology BSc part time with the Open University. I have three assignments left to complete for my two modules. It has been a difficult academic year, because the first half coincided with my gallstones making themselves known. Before I got diagnosed, I found it incredibly hard to cope. Until the past month, I was constantly trying to catch up on the work I had neglected when I was ill, falling behind on one module as I struggled to meet an assignment deadline for the other. I wish I had managed to enjoy studying more, as I find the subject fascinating and a lot of the material resonated with me.
Thankfully, my gallstones are a lot quieter at the moment, although I dread another bad attack. I still have the baseline pain and nausea, but I have found ways to cope. A friend recommended rubbing lavender oil on my stomach, because it’s anti-spasmodic, and that has been more effective than anything else I have tried (thanks, Su!). I also rely heavily on heat pads and find that intermittent fasting (eating during an 8 hour window) helps a lot. I still get moderate attacks, but not severe ones like I was getting from October to January, which left me writhing on the floor in agony. I’m hoping this will continue until June, because my end-of-module assignments are due at the end of May…
I’m also coping better because I’m exercising more, although there is some circularity in that it’s easier for me to exercise more when I feel better! I have been running again, which is brilliant for both my mental health and the gallstones. Although it’s difficult to ignore the gallstones pain, especially as it likes to affect my back and the tops of my hips (the iliotibial band), the endorphins kick in after 10-15 minutes and are an effective painkiller. I get a psychological boost from exercising, as well, because it helps me feel fit and strong. Knowing I’m getting stronger physically helps me feel as if I’m getting stronger mentally.
It finally feels like I’m moving forward again, after a hard winter. I’m making progress towards my goals, even if it’s slower than I would like, and things are beginning to change.
I have spent four months in”maintenance mode” and I’m sick of it. While it was necessary to cope with the pain of my gallstones, especially for the three months when I didn’t know what was wrong, I felt as if my life was on hold and my mental health was suffering. The gallstones seem to have calmed down: I still have the baseline pain and constant nausea, but I’m learning to handle it and the really bad episodes have become less frequent. Combined with the frustration of feeling stuck, I decided it’s time to refocus on my goals.
Top of my list is getting back to losing weight. It feels strange to admit, because I struggled with an eating disorder for many years, but the past few months have taught me that health is valuable and shouldn’t be taken for granted. I already knew that, but life has a way of re-teaching the lessons we need to learn and in this instance, the lesson was about physical health. I want to lose weight primarily to reduce my risk of heart disease and diabetes. My dad has both of these conditions and recently had a heart attack and double bypass. I don’t want that to be in my future, so I’m trying to avoid it by taking control of the factors I can influence: being a healthy weight, staying fit and eating well.
Exercising is also a priority, mainly because it’s the most effective way of managing my mental health. My doctor has encouraged me to stay as active as I can, because it will help me recover faster when I have surgery to remove my gallbladder. Knowing I can exercise without causing damage is a huge relief, especially after exercising caution when I didn’t know what was wrong, and I feel better when I exercise more often. My anxiety is easier to control and I feel less depressed. I also feel better physically, in a way which is hard to describe: generally fitter and stronger. Like I can handle anything that comes my way.
I’m slowly beginning to piece my life back together and have begun challenging myself a little… One of my mini-goals for this year is to be more confident when driving and I recently drove on my own for the first time in approximately two years. It feels strange to admit, because I passed my test nearly nine and a half years ago, but driving became a source of anxiety for me and it was easier to avoid it than to suffer. And that’s okay. I may feel a bit ridiculous for being unable to drive for such a long period, but I think it’s something I needed to do.
The past four months have been a reminder to take care of myself and switch to “maintenance mode” when I need to, but they have also taught me not to let problems stand in my way. It might be a while before my gallstones get sorted out, so it’s another burden I have to carry, but I’m pretty damn strong. I can take the weight and keep pushing onwards and upwards.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about goals, which are both a key strategy in managing my mental health and a source of frustration, anxiety, disappointment and other feelings which contribute to my mental health problems. On balance, working towards my goals (and achieving some of them) has a positive influence on my life. They give me a sense of purpose and fulfilment. However, this year has been a little strange, because one of my goals is becoming very visible to other people: I want to lose a lot of weight and have lost almost 5 stone.
Announcing my goals is something I find very awkward, even when it’s necessary. For example, fundraising for charity was an integral part of my trek to Machu Picchu last year and telling people about my goal put a lot of pressure on me. On the other hand, being open also enabled people to give me a lot of support and encouragement, which helped me achieve my goal.
Odd as it sounds, one of the few advantages of severe mental illness is that nobody has any expectations of/for you. During my worst points, I felt my life was such a huge disappointment and burden to people that I couldn’t disappoint them any more than I was already disappointing them. Having a shower or cooking a meal was a massive achievement; I had no other goals.
So having goals is a positive sign. I am trying to live a better life and working towards my goals indicates that I have some degree of hope (if not confidence) of achieving them. However, there is a shadow side: I’m terrified of disappointment and every failure along the way is a reminder that I have let down my family, friends and myself.
But people don’t always see the failures.
People complimenting me on my weight loss is great, especially since I can’t see the difference as clearly myself, but it has made me think a lot about how my experiences differ from what people see. It has also made me realise there are parallels with other goals and aspects of my life, which are less obvious because I can’t measure them in the same way that I can track my weight and clothes size.
My weight loss has become more visible over the past few months, so people see I’m now a size 14 instead of 18. They didn’t notice the first few months of this year, when I started eating less/more healthily but couldn’t see the results. People don’t see the weeks when I lose no weight, despite following my eating and exercise plan. They don’t see me getting frustrated and discouraged because the effort doesn’t seem to be paying off.
Likewise, people view my mental health from the outside. They only see me on my good days, because I can’t leave home on my bad days. My anxiety may seem much better, particularly as I get used to specific situations (gym classes, writing group), yet I still get panic attacks. I’m still too scared to drive or into a shop alone. There are days when I spend hours worrying about everything from whether my dog seems a little “down” to if I will ever repay my debt or move out of my parents’ house.
The outside only shows part of the picture. Yes, I have lost weight and my mental health is generally better nowadays, but neither has been as straightforward as it seems. My progress hasn’t been linear — and my mental health can be very erratic — but it looks linear to other people, who don’t see the effort, frustration and frequent disappointments.
The changes started a long time ago and it has been a rocky road.
While I consciously choose to work towards my goals at particular times, my ability to do so is often rooted in changes I made long before setting them. At my highest weight, during the final year of my BA in 2010-11, I was a size 26 and have no idea what I weighed except it was definitely over 20 stone. Yet I had already begun to make the mental changes which are helping me to lose weight this year: when I decided to go to university, I decided I was worth the effort. I was worth the expense. I was worth the risk of failure, embarrassment and disappointment.
At 18, when I had a place at another university in a different subject, I made a different decision. My self-esteem was nonexistent and I didn’t think I was worth the cost. I wasn’t worth the hard work.
I went through a lot of pain and despair before I started to build a little self-esteem. I took antidepressants and had counselling. I tried to help myself, but I failed a lot of the time.
Along the way, I tried to cheat my way to self-esteem by losing weight, going from a size 18 to a 12 in a few months. (Sidenote: sacrificing muscle tissue for a lower number on the scale is a stupid thing to do and takes ages to repair). I half starved myself, binged because I was hungry and then punished myself by eating even less. Over and over. I thought I would like myself if I could fit into a size 12, but I was wrong.
Eventually, I got sick of my life. I was 23 and my mental health had improved a little, but I hated everything about my life apart from my dog. One of my best friends was working in Spain at this time and had invited me to stay with her for a low cost holiday. I hadn’t been away since a family holiday when I was 17 and I love sunshine, so I was tempted. I had enough money for flights, food and spending. I was running out of excuses — except the usual one of having crippling anxiety. But I was sick of that excuse, too. I booked my flights and knew I would have to go through with it, even if I failed.
Looking back, I think that was the start of believing I was worth anything. I was sick of staying inside the house and missed my friend, but I also wanted to be the type of person who could travel somewhere. Someone who wouldn’t be fazed by going on a plane alone (and for the first time, to boot!).
That holiday changed my life because I realised I could do more than I anticipated. I could travel by plane without having a panic attack. I could wander around Valencia alone. I could even speak a few phrases of Spanish, including “I miss my dog!” I loved the holiday and it was well worth the costs. It opened up the possibility that I could do more. By the time I got home, I had decided I would try to get a place at university the next year.
I hedged my bets a little, going to my local university to minimise expenses and ensure I had some support at home, but I was trying to achieve something I had once thought was impossible. I believed I had missed my chance of going to university, but I was proving myself wrong.
My graduation was one of the happiest days of my life. So many people point to photos of themselves at their highest weight and say how miserable they felt, but I was happier than I had ever been. I was still struggling a lot and my weight is an indication of that, because I have always had a tendency to comfort eat, but I had finally gotten a degree. I was disappointed to have missed out on a First after my grades dropped in the final year, thanks to the stress of being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and an eye condition which can lead to blindness in a single month, but a 2:1 was better than no degree. Besides, I already had a place on the Creative Writing MA course and was focusing on the next goal!
I became concerned about my physical health, which had taken a backseat for a long time. My fitness was atrocious and my habit of buying crisps and chocolate bars at the university shop had to stop now I didn’t have a student loan to finance the habit. I was too scared to walk outside alone, so I bought a treadmill (which is how I know I was over 20 stone, because I had to take weight limits into account when choosing one) and started walking. By the end of summer, I had dropped to a size 22.
I can pinpoint my current attitude to that summer: I started focusing on fitness and weight loss as a path to better health. The journey since then has been up and down, but although my weight has fluctuated a little, I haven’t gained a dress size since that time. I was finally making lifestyle changes — and for the right reasons.
I know I have come a long way, but it doesn’t always feel like it.
Part of the reason why I set myself a lot of goals is because so much of my life seems to stagnate; working towards goals reminds me that I’m making progress. I think this is especially important because monitoring my mental health is difficult.
Many aspects of mental health are intangible and while some symptoms improve, others regress. For instance, my anxiety and depression are generally much better than in my final two years at university, yet I drove 50 mile round trips to lectures four times a week and the most I have driven this year is a few 7 mile trips with my mum beside me. Having goals stops me from fixating on what I can’t do, switching the focus to what I can and might be able to do.
I achieved one of my key goals for this year at the weekend: I ran a half marathon. It has been a useful goal because, in addition to improving my fitness, running teaches me a lot about life. My main goal was to complete the half marathon, which meant I had to learn to pace myself. However, I also wanted to finish within 3 hours if I could, which meant pushing myself. It was difficult to balance these approaches during the race, but my mum and I made it in 2:59:51. Yep, a whole nine seconds to spare!
Knowing when to pace myself and when to push myself is one of the most challenging aspects of any goal. Part of the challenge is to appreciate how far I have come while focusing on where I want to be. It’s difficult not to get frustrated about how far away the end goal is, especially when working on something which will take months or years ro achieve. I find myself comparing my experiences to other people’s achievements — which is a fallacy, because as I pointed out at the start of this marathon post (pun intended), the outside doesn’t reflect the true experience.
Playing the long game, you have two choices: keep going or give up.
As with running long distances, working towards long term goals involves a lot of different factors. You need to develop a strategy and assess your energy levels to know when to push and when to pace yourself. You need to train and learn from your mistakes.
Gradually, you learn what works best for you and realise there is no point comparing yourself to other people. No matter how fast the other runners are, the only person you are really competing with is yourself. I suspect this is true even for elite athletes, who want to break their personal bests as well as beating the competition, but it’s especially true for those of us who just want to do our best and finish the race.
An advantage of playing the long game is that there’s always another race, another chance to make strides towards your goal. You might not manage it in the same way or time frame as you planned, but every experience teaches you something which will help you (eventually) achieve your goal.
The alternative is to quit, which guarantees you will never achieve what you want.
Achieving my goals is never pretty or easy. I often feel the universe is testing me or taking the piss — especially when my glasses broke 40 minutes before the start of the half marathon, meaning I had to run half blind — yet these additional challenges are what make my experiences unique.
I know I can run 13.1 miles without being able to see anything more than colourful blurriness and the three feet of ground in front of me. I can complete a four day trek while contending with altitude sickness, multiple panic attacks and a throat infection. On a more mundane level, I can write and study around the symptoms of my mental health issues. I can force myself to do a gym class straight after having a panic attack. I can make healthy choices most of the time, even if part of me still wants to munch crisps and chocolate.
I don’t always feel like carrying on, but I keep going because it’s the only way I have a chance of getting what I want. Challenging myself is the only way of discovering my capabilities. The long game is a massive commitment, but the potential rewards outweigh the sacrifices.
One of the most challenging aspects of my mental health struggles has been overcoming my belief that my life was meaningless and therefore had no value. It became a self-perpetuating cycle: mental illness made me believe my life had no meaning and prevented me from doing anything which would give it meaning, which became evidence that my life was destined to be meaningless. I never realised I had the ability to create meaning in my life as it was, even during the worst times.
Choose your own path.
The first realisation was an obvious one: people create meaningful lives in different ways. Sometimes they focus on one aspect, such as having children or a specific career path. Many people create meaning “on the side” through art or charity work. There is no standard method of creating meaning, although there are many well-trodden paths.
Think about what you want — if I could grant all your wishes right now, what would your life look like? Choose what works for you: the values you prioritise, activities you enjoy, the goals you most want to achieve.
Creating meaning is about the process, not results, so don’t worry about whether you will be able to accomplish everything. Be open to changing direction as you learn more about yourself. At this stage, you are just beginning to explore how you find and create meaning.
Create a meaningful narrative.
Storytelling is a fantastic way of creating meaning and making sense of your life. What narrative do you want to tell? What do you want to rewrite or edit? You get to decide. You can’t change your past, but you can choose the stories you tell about it.
Forming a clear narrative from the chaos of life is empowering. You can use your story to guide your decisions and create meaning. For example, I decided the story I want to tell is about using my suffering to connect with others through my writing, whether blogging or fiction. Along the way, I want to support, encourage and inspire other people who have mental health issues.
Think about the stories other people tell about their own lives, especially those who have overcome adversity and create positive outcomes. Do any of them resonate with you? Again, don’t stress about whether you can live up to the ending you want. Your story will change many times, even if the core narrative remains the same, often in amazing and unforeseen ways.
The mosaic approach.
If you are struggling to find a narrative thread, try thinking of your life as a mosaic: you can create meaning from discrete activities and relationships, without needing to tie it all together. For instance, you may enjoy running and create meaning by occasionally fundraising when you participate in longer races. Maybe you volunteer for your church and find meaning in helping meet others’ spiritual needs (as well as your own). Perhaps you are an infrequent traveller and find meaning in exploring new cultures when you are able to get away. You could do all of these or a combination of different things.
There doesn’t need to be a single, overarching meaning across all aspects of your life. Yes, some people seem to have it, but you don’t need to. In fact, there might already be a predominant meaning which you haven’t yet identified, or perhaps never will. Your life isn’t a business proposal: you don’t need to reduce it to an elevator pitch.
Make it personal.
Creating meaning is extremely individual. You don’t need to do anything “Important” or “Selfless”. If you don’t follow your own values and preferences, you will find it very difficult to create a life which is meaningful to you. Copying other people won’t work.
You don’t need to save the world to live a meaningful life. You can create meaning in small, precious ways: crafting a beautiful piece of furniture, growing roses, reading to your child.
Mine your past and present.
Where can you already find meaning in your life? Everyone can find meaning, so “nowhere” is not a valid answer. Do you create stuff? Cook for your family? Blog? Study? Spend time with people you love? Look after a pet? Read? Walk outside? You can find meaning in all of these activities.
Check your definition of “meaning” — remember, you don’t need to save the world — and think about how other people and yourself benefit from what you do/have done. Small acts of kindness, chatting with someone, hobbies you enjoy… these have a positive impact in themselves, but can also cause a ripple effect.
Simple tasks can have meaningful outcomes which emerge much later. For example, I started spending a lot of time watching films during the worst phases of depression (well, second worst — I did nothing during the very worst points), which reignited my love of film and eventually led to a Film Studies BA. Going to university helped my confidence a lot and I would be living a very different (worse) life without it. I stayed on to study for a Creative Writing MA and continue to pursue a career in writing fiction. I didn’t know any of this when I first started watching more films and 12 years later, I think I’m only beginning to recognise its impact.
Mining your life for meaning can be slow and you may have to chip away for ages before you find a vein of gold, but it’s invaluable. Time spent searching for meaning and experimenting with ways of creating meaning is never wasted.
Consider alternative perspectives.
Ask other people about what gives their life meaning. What makes them smile? What makes their lives a little easier? You might be surprised by their answers.
How can you look at your life in different ways? For example, if you work in a supermarket and don’t find the work interesting or enjoyable (I’ve been there!), there are several perspectives which demonstrate how it can be meaningful. Perhaps the money you earn supports your family or allows you to pursue your goals. You might be the only person some people talk to all week, therefore your work helps them feel less lonely. You are developing customer service skills which will serve you well in a future job or starting your own business. The hours might enable you to spend more time with your children or pets. Maybe you take pride in doing the best job you can, for its own sake, which increases your confidence and self-esteem.
There are advantages to most situations, even if they are outweighed by the negative aspects, and they can be used to create meaning. Experiencing mental health problems is horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I have learnt many lessons from the pain and challenges. I would never go as far as to say mental illness has made my life better, but it has led to positive outcomes.
Creating meaning is an ongoing process.
Life is ever-changing, so our ways of interpreting it need to continually adapt. We may discover something which we thought would be meaningful turns out not to be. Often, we can be surprised by where we find meaning. Sometimes meaning emerges only with hindsight. As I said, creating meaning is more about the process than results.
Keep experimenting. Ask other people how they create meaning. Google it. Read for inspiration — start with Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which is impossible to recommend highly enough. Don’t judge yourself for finding meaning in stuff which other people deem superficial or unimportant. Avoid pressuring yourself to find all the answers straightaway. Don’t compare your path to other people’s, especially if their values differ from yours.
Start small. You are already doing many meaningful things every day, even if it’s just getting through the day.
I had a strange experience last week. Back in January/February, I booked an Arvon course called Editing Fiction. My plan was to use the opportunity to finish my novel and start submitting it to agents. The course was last week and it was amazing — I learnt a lot and felt inspired. However, by the end of the week, I had decided to abandon my novel.
To say I hadn’t expected this outcome would be an understatement. One of my 2018 goals was to get The Novel up to a decent standard, making it the best I could. I was persuaded to read the opening chapter to my writing group and got encouraging feedback. I had redrafted it 4 times since I wrote the first draft 3/4 years ago. I was sure that working on this novel was what I should be doing.
And that was the problem. I was no longer enthusiastic about The Novel. Had fallen out of love with it.
The realisation came during a tutorial with one of my favourite writers. I went in babbling about not knowing whether I should be prioritising The Novel and feeling like an utter idiot. Luckily, the tutor is an excellent teacher and reader of humans: she saw something I hadn’t yet realised. She recounted her experience of writing a novel and losing it when her laptop was stolen. After the initial shock, she was relieved.
She asked me how I would feel if the same happened to me. My answer? Free.
The Novel isn’t right for me. Not at the moment, anyway. As the course tutor pointed out, if it had been right for me to keep working on it, I would have been offended and defensive when she suggested I quit. Instead, I was delighted to receive permission to stop.
I have thought a lot about permission in relation to writing. Like many other writers, I struggle with confidence and the paradox of assuming my work isn’t good enough and being arrogant enough to want people to read my stories. However, I had never considered seeking permission not to write — to abandon something in which I have invested a lot of time, effort and even (thanks to an online course on plot) money.
I don’t think twice about casting aside short stories that aren’t working for me, but The Novel felt different. I have never written a novel which is good enough to publish; perhaps I thought I had to prove myself. A lot of the writing advice I came across said to keep going, to finish projects, so I felt obliged to continue. To keep redrafting, even when I was no longer motivated.
Quitting feeds into a lot of my fears and negative beliefs: that I’m a failure, lazy, simply not good enough. Yet what is the point of pursuing a goal which I no longer want to achieve?
The tutor reassured me that I hadn’t wasted my time on The Novel. It’s an experience which has improved my writing and will help me to clarify my goals as a writer. I have learnt a lot through writing it, from the fact that spending 3/4 years on a project probably means I’m not lazy, to the Writers HQ course which developed my plotting skills. I’m not upset about giving up on it; I’m happier, lighter.
Although it’s early days, I believe that I will learn a lot from putting The Novel aside. It has made me wonder what else I’m clinging to in my life.
The strangest part of this experience has been finding evidence that I knew — unconsciously — I should abandon The Novel before it was pointed out to me. In my lists of current goals, I have not prioritised The Novel. I was reluctant to show the other course tutor, an editor, my synopsis because I thought it was crap, which I now translate as knowing I didn’t believe in it, since it would have been sensible to ask her how to make the synopsis less crap. In my tutorial with the editor, she asked me questions about The Novel which I hadn’t considered. Why hadn’t I considered them? Because I didn’t care.
Other people on my course talked about their projects with enthusiasm, but I didn’t enjoy talking about The Novel. I was too ashamed to show it to the writer I admire — instead of my first chapter, I submitted a short story which I actually quite like.
With hindsight, it is clear I shouldn’t be working on The Novel. Yet I ignored the signs for months.
Again, it makes me wonder what else I’m overlooking. I am trying to trust my intuition, but I get swayed by what I “should” be doing. I “should” finish The Novel. I “should” focus on The Novel because its premise is commercial. I “should” be better at promoting myself and my work.
When I act on my intuition, the outcome is usually good. I can’t think of a time when I have regretted following my intuition; just loads of times I wish I had, but didn’t.
Forget what I “should” do. That’s the main lesson I took from the Arvon course. I can’t waste time and energy trying to be a different kind of writer, a different kind of person.
I’m not sure why I fight against my intuition so much — or why I fail to see the signs which point me towards what I really want. I think I’m getting better at recognising what I need to do, but this experience has taught me that I’m far more likely to listen to people I admire than to myself. It’s something I need to change.
Another issue which was mentioned in my tutorial is confidence. The self-doubt will never go away, says the writer whose books I buy as soon as I can (in print, no less). And it can be a good thing, because the best writers are those who are continually trying to improve, not the ones who believe their work is perfect.
Again, this is something I kind of knew, but it was reassuring to hear from one of my favourite writers. If I wait to feel confident before doing anything, especially writing/submitting stories, it won’t happen. I need to take action despite lacking confidence, to make it a habit.
When I take action towards goals which are important to me, I feel energised. Even if I was exhausted and demotivated before doing anything. I stopped feeling energised by The Novel long ago. I just needed someone else to give me the message.
Progress in anything is often slow and nonlinear, but these qualities are exacerbated when you have mental health problems. In particular, anxiety and depression can create conflicting symptoms: it feels like I’m progressing too slowly and have the urge to rush into everything, yet it’s difficult to find the energy and feel motivated, plus many activities are too challenging. It feels like being torn in different directions.
I have been feeling this way a lot over the past few months. So much of my time has been lost to mental illness that I feel frustrated when it steals more time from me. I’m glad and grateful that nowadays these increments of time can be (usually) measured in hours, days and weeks — in the past, they were most commonly measured in months and years — but it’s still stolen time. Time I can never get back.
My frustration might be due to my experience of losing so much time during my teens and twenties, when most of my peers were achieving amazing things, changing their lives and having fun. I may never reach the milestones of adulthood which the majority of people consider “normal”, like living independently and supporting myself without relying on state benefits, so it feels like everyone has overtaken me. I feel a deep need to prove myself, to demonstrate that my goals are worthwhile and I can make a valuable contribution to the world.
I constantly worry I am failing at life. I tend to dismiss my achievements, because it feels ridiculous to be proud of them when I struggle with tasks that most people find easy. I pressure myself to reach high standards because I hope it can atone for my failures, which include relying on my parents and finding driving a huge challenge nearly 9 years after I passed my test. If I could choose to exchange my achievements for being able to do everyday tasks, like shopping on my own and holding down a full time job, I think I would. Other people, I suspect, would find me more acceptable.
Lately, I have been in a reflective mood. I think it’s because I had to wait several weeks for my results from my first Psychology module. In the event, I got an overall score of 95 and surpassed my expectations, but I was anxious about failing because it would effectively terminate my pursuit of the degree. I managed to almost convince myself I had messed up my final assignment so much that I had failed the module. As frustrating as it was to waste yet more time worrying for no reason, my anxiety sometimes gives me insights: studying Psychology is very important to me.
While it should be obvious that I’m not choosing to accumulate more student loan debt for no reason, I think part of me worried about my reasons for pursuing a Psychology BSc. I have no career path mapped out. No way of knowing how my mental health will affect my life when I complete the qualification. However, I do feel a strong desire to improve my understanding of psychology and mental health so that I can help others. Perhaps I will do this through my writing; perhaps it will be via research or something else. I don’t know the route I will take, but I have clarified my first steps and am heading in the right direction.
The experience has highlighted a few truths:
1. There will always be waiting periods in my life, whether it’s waiting to hear about results or taking action in the face of excruciatingly slow progress
2. My mental health issues might mean I have more waiting periods than the average person
3. The only way to deal with waiting periods is to accept them
Acceptance is bloody hard.
Acceptance. It’s a simple concept, but difficult to practice. My instinct is to get upset: “why should I accept chronic mental illness when other people don’t experience it at all or for shorter periods?” And no, reminding myself that other people experience more severe mental illness for longer periods doesn’t help. Yet acceptance is the only way forward, because fighting against mental health problems doesn’t work — you have to take a collaborative approach, working within your constraints while pushing for progress.
Unfortunately, accepting my mental health issues can be difficult for other people. Many friends have dropped away because they couldn’t understand my symptoms, or why my symptoms differ from their own experiences of mental health problems. I know I’m better off without these “friends” but it’s still painful. Society in general doesn’t seem to accept mental illness. Even when people express understanding for “high functioning” people who have mental health issues, they are quick to judge those of us whose ability to work is affected. Stigma still prevails: people assume you are lazy if you need to rely on benefits, many express sympathy while acting in unsympathetic ways and judge you based on how you appear on your good days, without considering how they might be outweighed by bad days.
It’s difficult to accept your own situation when other people send negative messages. Even common assumptions can be hurtful for those of us who don’t fit the “norm” and these assumptions seem to increase as I get older. People assume a woman in her mid 30s should have her own home, be in a serious relationship, work full time, want or have children, socialise at least a few times a week, etc. I don’t fit the pattern and probably never will.
Yet everything boils down to the same old truth: improving my situation requires acceptance.
Learning to be patient.
I know comparing myself to others is ridiculous. Everyone’s situation, experiences and challenges are unique to themselves. All I can do is work on my own goals, try to improve my mental health and hope it all works out in the end. Oh, and I should probably try to enjoy my life along the way!
Maybe that’s the key to self-care, achieving goals, managing mental health and life in general: to aim for progress, not perfection, and have fun whenever you can.
Setting deadlines for myself isn’t always healthy, although they can sometimes help me to feel motivated. Sure, I would love to turn my life around in an instant, but that’s not realistic. I need to hold on to the positive aspects of my life, especially when they are overshadowed by the negatives, and see what happens.
I haven’t posted for a while because I have been going through a bad patch. The trouble with mental health problems is they can convince you that nothing you do will have an effect. There’s no point in writing a blog post, you think, because it will be crap, nobody will read it and it won’t help anyone. So you convince yourself it’s best not to do anything, which is easy since you don’t feel like doing anything. Nothing changes, of course, because you’re not taking action. You just feel worse and worse.
It’s frustrating when I feel this way, because downward spirals are hard to escape. I tell myself I’m waiting until I feel better before I work towards my goals, but not working towards my goals usually makes me feel worse.
I’m finding things particularly difficult right now, because even when I have been working towards a goal on a regular basis, my progress seems very slow. Losing weight, for instance, is once of my priorities for this year. I have a lot to lose, so I hoped the first half would drop off quickly. It didn’t, but that was okay when I was losing weight at a steady pace. Then it stopped. For no apparent reason. I don’t think I’m a particularly stupid person, so I knew that plateaus are to be expected and I would lose more weight if I stuck to my plan, but it’s hard not to have an emotional reaction. While I knew I should lose weight again, because I was sticking to my diet and exercise plan, part of me was screaming “you are failing, you are useless, you are hopeless.”
My plateau didn’t last for very long (about a month), but I realised it reflected my attitude towards many of my goals. I find it difficult to keep going when I don’t see results.
I recently read a book called Drive by Daniel H Pink, which highlights the importance of intrinsic motivation. I nodded along, recognising that focusing on external rewards is not conducive to motivation, but I also admit that I put too much emphasis on recognition. I feel insecure sometimes and need a gold star to boost my confidence. It feels pathetic to admit this, but tangible results keep me motivated and when they are absent, or not good enough (in my own opinion), I find it hard to stay the course. I start doubting myself.
I’m currently waiting for the final result of my first Psychology BSc module (I’m studying part time with the Open University) and it’s torture. My first 3 assignments got 95 apiece, so I would have to mess up in epic style to fail the module on the fourth assignment, which seems unlikely. But, again, while I realise this on a logical level, the part of me which is entangled with my mental health issues keeps shouting about how I’m stupid and must be an idiot to expect anything good to come of studying.
However, I was forced to take action in spite of these negative thoughts. I needed to enrol on my modules for the next academic year and apply for my student loan. I had to ignore the voice telling me I was jinxing myself, because the alternative would be to wait another year before continuing my studies. If I do that each year I complete a module, I would take 10 years to complete the degree, instead of the anticipated 5 years. Obviously, that would be ridiculous, so I did what I needed to do.
Taking action is almost always an act of faith. You have to trust that your actions will make a difference.
Keeping faith is especially difficult when you are working towards a big goal. I do my best to split big goals into smaller ones, acknowledging and celebrating small successes, but some goals are so big that you have to wait ages (so it seems) for even tiny signs of progress. The answer isn’t easy, but it’s essential: you need to focus on the process, not results.
Focusing on the process requires faith and patience. It’s about building the habits which will determine long term success. In short, it’s a long, hard slog.
I was googling “how to stay motivated during weight loss” earlier today and was reminded of something I already knew: motivation follows action. If you wait to feel motivated before taking action, you could be waiting forever. Time is always passing, whether you take action or not. What will you regret not doing 6 months, a year or several years from today?
So that’s why I’m forcing myself to keep going. It’s hard to make short term sacrifices without getting results, but my future self will thank me. I would rather turn down cake today than get diabetes in a few years. I would rather get stuck into studying this year than regret not seizing my opportunity 10 years down the line. I want to create healthy habits which will lead to my ideal life, or at least a better life than the one I’m living.
There’s a comment which writers often hear that has become a bit of a joke: “I would like to write a novel” — or its variant “I wish I had time to write a novel” — often accompanied by a wistful expression. The implication is that writing a novel is something people only do if they are privileged enough to have time and few other concerns, but this simply isn’t true. Thousands of novels have been written in segments of time snatched from busy days. If writing a novel (or doing anything else) is a priority for you, you can find a way to achieve it. The difference between people who say “I want to write a novel” but never do it and people who write novels is not a lack of time.
We all have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and you can choose how it’s spent. It always passes, whatever you do.
Remembering this is, for me, a work in progress. I waste a lot of time; mental illness wastes a lot of time. But when I am well enough to take action, I try to force myself to take action. Waiting for results is frustrating, but waiting for motivation is a massive waste of time.
I will keep slogging, trying to achieve my goals, because not doing anything guarantees failure. It won’t be easy and I doubt I will ever learn to become patient all the time, but it’s necessary if I want to improve my life. Right now, it’s challenging. Maybe next week, month or year I will feel more motivated and gain more results. Either way, I plan to keep going.
A year ago today, I started a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu. It was the biggest and most difficult challenge I have voluntarily undertaken, but also one of the best. While it didn’t immediately transform my life, as I had hoped, it has changed me in ways I’m just beginning to realise. The greatest effect is cutting through my excuses. I completed a major life goal, despite struggling with my mental health. Why shouldn’t I achieve more goals?
In this spirit. I set myself a lot of goals this year. Some are boring and mundane (adding to savings, submitting more short stories), but a few are more exciting. One of them was to complete a tandem skydive from 15,000 feet.
As you can probably guess from the photo, I did the skydive yesterday — which happened to be my birthday.
Last year, I spent my birthday doing an acclimatisation trek in Peru and being serenaded in a restaurant with the world’s longest version of Happy Birthday. I was surrounded by a wonderful group of people who have become my friends, but I was thousands of miles from home and had woken up very early, sobbing because I was scared I was making a huge mistake. I was worried I wasn’t capable of achieving any of my dreams, including walking miles up very high mountains.
My birthday this year was very different: I was at home and spent the day with my parents. However, I also wanted it to be as memorable as last year, so I scheduled the skydive and hoped for good weather.
Although the skydive was on a much smaller scale than Machu Picchu, it involved a lot of preparation. My first task was to get under the 210lb weight limit (the website says you can jump if you are heavier, but you have to tell them in advance and pay a surplus, so I wanted to avoid that), which was a big commitment since I started the year at 244lbs. I weighed in at 201.5lb yesterday morning and a few pounds heavier in my clothes and trainers when I got to the airfield, which was a relief!
I also needed to have my doctor sign a medical form to state that I was allowed to jump, because I have received treatment for mental health problems within the past 2 years and have a history of self-harm. I had an appointment a couple of weeks ago and my GP declared that I was at no extra risk compared to any fit, healthy person.
I understand the reasons for needing my GP to sign the form, but it feels disempowering to be told that I can’t sign my own medical form. I know my own mind very well precisely because I have mental health issues. Managing my mental health effectively involves monitoring my mood and motivation for doing certain activities. Far from being a form of self-harm or method to boost fragile self-esteem, the skydive was my way of celebrating my achievements and rewarding myself for getting through the almost constant struggles.
Because I still struggle. Every small achievement, from walking the dog on my own to completing an assignment, involves facing my anxiety, depression and BPD and managing my current symptoms.
My symptoms are less apparent to other people nowadays; partly because they have lessened in intensity, but mostly because I am much better at managing them. I was anxious yesterday, for example, but didn’t appear more nervous than anyone about to be hurled out of a plane for the first time. I was focusing on controlling my breathing and being mindful, rather than listening to my worries and letting them escalate — though, truth be told, my anxiety disorder is concentrated on the possibility of humiliation rather than harm or death, so I was more worried about doing the wrong thing or puking!
In addition to being a celebration and reward, skydiving was also a reminder that I need to take chances in order to experience fun and excitement. I need to leap forward, despite being anxious and having other obstacles in my way. I may never “recover” from my mental health problems, but I can manage them alongside achieving goals and chasing my dreams.
I think the main difference between my life now and the episodes during which I was trapped by my mental illness, is that my fears have shifted. I am more afraid of not trying to achieve my goals than the potential for humiliation. I’m more scared of spending the rest of my life confined to the house than chasing my dreams. I’m still fearful of failure and rejection, but my greatest fear is living without trying to create a better life for myself.
Which is another change: I believe I’m worth the effort.
I used to hate myself and thought I deserved nothing, but that has gradually changed over the past 10 years and the change has accelerated since I trekked to Machu Picchu. It started with asking for help when I needed it and investing in myself, going to university after thinking I had “missed out” on the opportunity. Then I realised I could contribute to the world, through volunteering and using my skills to help local charities/organisations. Most of all, I gave myself permission to dream again, to consider the possibility of a different life.
Along the way, I have met more people who believe in me. I have had small successes which confirm that I’m worthy of support and investment, contribute a lot and can achieve things I once considered impossible for me.
Sure, my life looks very different to how I expected and what I would have chosen, but you work with what you’ve got. I still struggle, but the truly awesome days I enjoy make the weeks and months of struggles less important than the triumphs. When I look back on my Machu Picchu trek, I don’t dwell on the panic attacks, throat infection, rain and altitude sickness: I remember arriving at the Sun Gate with my fellow trekkers, achieving our goal.
I have been finding things difficult lately, which feels strange to admit because my life is, in general, better than it has been for years. While I still have bad days (and some really awful days), my typical daily mood has been turned up a few notches.
This means I can (usually) practice basic self-care without huge effort, such as going for a walk and cooking healthy meals instead of grabbing junk food. Other tasks are harder to accomplish, like finding the confidence to submit my short stories and attending appointments on my own. It seems my “set point” of mood and ability has increased.
An improved set point is, of course, a Good Thing. I have no idea whether I will ever recover completely from my mental illnesses, but this improvement is an encouraging sign. It gives me hope.
Life is also easier to bear, because my bad days are less intense than they were at the end of last year. Feeling lethargic, unmotivated and low in mood isn’t great, but it’s preferable to being suicidal and self-harming on a daily basis. It might take a huge effort to get out of bed, but I can do it. That’s progress.
But there is a darker side to an increased set point and the hope it brings: I feel more pressure to do better.
A conversation I had last week highlighted this issue. I was asked if I had had a good week and I replied that it was neither good nor bad. Nothing terrible had happened, but nothing particularly good had occurred. I felt as if I hadn’t achieved anything. I was then asked about my week in more detail. I can’t remember my precise response,but it was something along the lines of “oh yeah, I walked the dog and went to gym classes, did some writing, studied… the usual.”
Not so long ago, these things were not “usual” for me. Even a year ago, I was not going to gym classes or studying. Longer ago, I couldn’t walk the dog (let alone on my own!) or sustain any kind of regular writing practice. I realised that I wasn’t giving myself credit for how far I have come and that I expect more of myself.
Expecting more of yourself can be empowering. It has motivated me to challenge myself. The possibility that I can manage my mental health well enough to prevent it from limiting my life encourages me to dream, to plan, to take action.
On the other hand, expecting more of yourself can bring disappointment. Failure is inevitable in life, but raising your hopes enough to expect the odd success can make constant failure harder to handle. In many ways, it was easier when I expected nothing good to happen to me.
Accepting The Positive
Perhaps the problem is a disconnect between accepting myself as I am and wanting more for myself. Maybe, on some level, I still consider those things a paradox. It’s a kind of superstition: if I accept myself as is, I might be jinxing the possibility of a better life.
Paradox or not, in my experience, acceptance is usually necessary before I can change things for the better. When you are fighting against your current situation, it’s difficult to achieve anything. Once you accept where you are, you can create a map and move forward.
I tend to think of acceptance as admitting and owning the negative aspects of my life. A lot of the work I did in counselling last year was about accepting my mental health issues, plus the problems that have been directly or indirectly caused by them (finances, work, relying on my parents, etc). I might not like having mental health problems, or the effects, but I need to accept them as part of my life.
However, thinking about my recent weeks has made me wonder whether I am making enough effort to accept the positive aspects of my life. I suppose my default is to think of my achievements and successes as anomalies; brief, glorious moments rising out of the dross of my everyday life. I rarely acknowledge them, especially if I consider them to be small and insignificant.
Yet the small things are important. Vital, in fact.
During my worst episodes, I couldn’t enjoy the very activities I now consider “small”. I didn’t read much, because I couldn’t concentrate. Ditto watching films. If someone did something nice for me, or even if the weather was good, I would get upset because I believed I didn’t deserve anything good. Back then, if you had told me that I would be where I am now, I would have scoffed because it seemed impossible.
I need to be more mindful about the good things in my life right now, as well as being hopeful that I can achieve things I currently think of as impossible. A few years ago, I would never have dismissed the past few weeks as “neither good nor bad” — I would have considered them to be fabulous, amazing, wonderful! Instead of letting my new set point skew my reality, making me dismissive of the positive aspects of my life, I should celebrate reaching this new version of “normal”.
Maybe this is how recovery will work for me, increasing my set point until mental illness is no longer a controlling shareholder in my life.