I had a strange experience a few weeks ago: I was thinking about potential career plans and found myself dismissing many possibilities because “I’m not that type” or “I’m not a people person.” Then something clicked inside my head and I realised that I would have said the same about numerous aspects of my current life. If you had told me 10 or 15 years ago that I would be a vegan who enjoys running, I would have laughed. If you had told me the same thing 8 years ago, when walking for longer than a few minutes was a struggle, I would have thought you were making a cruel joke. Yet there I was, willing to limit my future based on assumptions I make about my current abilities.
The more I contemplated this, the more I realised how often I had made similar statements about:
Things I do now, on a regular basis
Things I have done in the past
Things I consider an integral part of my lifestyle
Things I consider an integral part of my identity
When I started to examine my bald claims about not being a certain type of person, I realised a lot of my assumptions are simply untrue. For example, when I say “I’m not a people person” I’m thinking about the label “people person” in a stereotyped way. To be specific, it conjured images of people who are super-confident in social situations, who are outspoken extroverts who never get intimidated by other people. I was chatting about this with my friend Kat and she said 10 words which made me pause:
“Perhaps your idea of a ‘people person’ needs to change.”
I’m not a complete misanthrope, so I realised I’m probably more of a “people person” than I believe. I started to think about what the term could mean for me, as an individual, in relation to my skills and qualities.
This is the result:
Caring about people’s mental health and helping them to improve it
Listening to people’s experiences and concerns, trying to understand their perspective
Empathising with people in a variety of situations
Communicating with people through writing and blogging
Sharing my own experiences with the hope of inspiring or reassuring people
Learning about other people, cultures, interests and experiences
Spending time with people in small groups or on a one-to-one basis
Expanding my definition is helping me to think about my options in a more complex (and helpful) way, instead of dismissing entire career sectors. I will probably have to work on reducing my social anxiety and learning better verbal communication skills if I choose a career which involves working closely with people, but considering the specific changes I might need to make is more productive than refusing to explore my options because I don’t like parties or crowds.
Looking beyond stereotypes and changing or adapting definitions to suit my own situation is something I have already done, to an extent: I’m a runner, because I run, but I certainly don’t fit the competitive stereotype who enters marathons all the time and sneers at people who don’t run. Entering races on a regular basis isn’t something which interests me at this point in my life (although I keep an open mind to the possibility of that changing) and the only person I compete with is myself. Similarly, people who write should call themselves writers –– regardless of whether they have been published or paid for writing –– because that’s what they do. What we do.
However, just as I find myself saying “I want to be a writer” from time to time, especially when my confidence is low, I suspect I will forget to check my new definitions. It’s difficult to start consciously thinking of myself in different ways, especially when challenging assumptions and labels which have shaped my identity for many years. I think the key is to stop myself when I notice I’m using phrases such as “I’m not the type to do X” or “I’m not an X person” as an excuse not to explore something which piques my interest. Even if I decide the option isn’t for me, I will have made that decision based on solid research, not false assumptions.
In future, I’m going to try not to limit myself –– just as there’s more than one way to be a runner or a writer, there are many ways to be a “people person.” Or anything else I might want to be.
When I created this blog and called it Resurfacing and Rewriting, I thought the name would represent a clear journey: my mental health was improving and I was learning to cope with being well enough to work towards some of my goals, but not well enough to function ‘normally’. I never expected this journey to be linear and was certainly prepared for setbacks, but I didn’t realise that managing my mental health and attempting to chase my dreams would take the form of numerous cycles. These cycles have varied in duration, how difficult they are to endure and their impact on my life.
I’m currently resurfacing after a particularly difficult cycle, which was caused by having very painful gallstones for 15 months. Living in pain takes its toll on your mental health, regardless of whether you have a pre-existing mental health condition. I’m lucky that my pain was temporary, since I had my gallbladder removed just over a month ago, but I struggled to explain the pervasive and unrelenting nature of my pain to other people. I would say ‘I’m in constant pain’ and some people would interpret this as meaning I had frequent episodes of pain, whereas my reality was significant baseline pain 24/7 and frequent episodes of worse pain. I could sometimes distract myself from the pain, but it was always present.
Living with pain is depressing in its truest sense: I lost hope that my situation would improve and lost motivation to try. My feelings of helplessness and suicidal thoughts increased. I socialised less than usual (which is very little), because I found it difficult to focus on other people or having fun when I had my arms clamped around my stomach, trying to ease the pain a little. The only things which seemed to ease my pain were heat pads and lavender oil, which are difficult to use when outside your own home. My anxiety increased, because I had constant nausea and during my worst episodes I would collapse with pain and/or vomit so I was terrified of this happening when I was in public, especially if my mum wasn’t around to help and explain what was happening. I pushed on with my basic exercise routine and Open University studies simply because I knew failure to do so would make my mental health significantly worse.
After my surgery, the nausea disappeared straightaway and within a few weeks, my pain levels were lower than the baseline pain I had experienced with gallstones. I haven’t experienced any post-op pain which was equivalent to my worst episodes. The general anaesthetic didn’t affect me as badly as it did when I had eye surgery––rather than feeling as if I had the flu, this time I just felt tired and found it difficult to concentrate on anything for very long. These problems have eased over the past two weeks, so I feel alert and focused enough to get back to studying and writing. In fact, I feel pretty good and sometimes forget my core muscles are still a little sore… until I try to lift something too heavy or twist/reach in a strange way!
In many ways, 2019 feels like a write-off year. I failed to make progress in many of my goals and when I did achieve something, such as passing my Psychology modules, I felt I wasn’t making the most of the opportunity. My mental health declined after two years of improvement (on balance). Each step forward I took seemed to come at a great cost and was quickly reversed. I ended the year feeling battered and beaten, although knowing I would be starting 2020 without a gallbladder was a great source of hope.
So 2020 is about resurfacing and getting back to my priorities.
My goals for this year are mostly the same as last year, since I didn’t achieve them: increase my fitness and strength, reach my goal weight (made more challenging by gaining 25lbs from my lowest recent weight), save more money and complete a novel draft I actually like. These goals are specific and measurable, but I won’t bore you with the details! However, I also have two more nebulous goals… Firstly, I want to enjoy writing again and be guided by what I love to read and write, rather than what I think I should write or what seems more marketable. I have lost my writing mojo and although I completed some short stories last year, writing often felt like a chore and I lost confidence in most before submitting them anywhere. Secondly, I want to have more fun and surprise myself. I have no idea what form this will take, so I’m trying to keep an open mind and find out.
Since I’m recovering from surgery and still struggling with my mental health, I have decided to follow a few strategies when working towards my goals.
1. Reminding myself of my whys.
My core values are creativity, curiosity and compassion, so I try to use them as a compass. I want to write in order to connect with other people and promote empathy towards other people, especially those who experience mental health problems. I want my writing to be entertaining, informative and thought-provoking. I also hope it inspires other people to chase their dreams, especially if they feel held back by mental illness. My Psychology degree feeds my curiosity, but I would also like to use it to help other people––although I’m not yet sure how I will do this––and I hope it informs my blogging.
2. Easing in.
My instinct whenever I feel well enough to work towards my goals is to jump in and try to make up for lost time. This doesn’t work. Partly because it takes its toll on my energy and mental health, so I get ill and have to stop. I’m trying to get better at pacing myself this year, so I’m trying to ease back into working towards my goals where possible (university deadlines aren’t very flexible!) and build up momentum as I get stronger.
3. Seeking joy and inspiration.
This means appreciating the ‘small things’ in my everyday life and reading about people who inspire or motivate me to keep going. I’m trying to focus on the process of working towards my goals, rather than just the results, so I want to place more emphasis on enjoying activities for their own sake.
I hope 2020 will be a year of recovery and growth. While I have always valued health, especially since my worst years of depression and anxiety, my experience of gallstones has highlighted its importance even more––which is why losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle continues to be my top priority, alongside improving my mental health. I’m sure the ‘rewriting’ stage will come at some point, helping me reframe my experiences and view 2019 in a more positive light, but for now I’m resurfacing and coming back to my life.
A few weeks ago, I reached the point where I was sick of feeling lethargic and unmotivated. I felt I was achieving nothing and realised I was missing the one thing which keeps me going, even when I’m struggling with my mental health: enthusiasm.
When I’m at my best, I am full of enthusiasm. It drives other attributes which define who I am at my best, including creativity, determination and curiosity. Unfortunately, a lot of those attributes seem to have slipped away this year.
I have debated over whether to blog about this, because I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or see it as a plea for attention. One of the risks of speaking up about your mental health problems, especially if you have borderline personality disorder, is getting stuck in a Catch 22 situation: you need to be honest and open about your experiences in order to help people understand, yet being open and honest exposes you to accusations of attention seeking and manipulation.
Part of me feels it’s “wrong” to discuss the negative aspects of my illnesses because I’m coping better than many other people. I’m coping better than I did in the past. However, “coping better” still involves numerous days of feeling suicidal. My self-harming and panic attacks have both increased this year. Often, it doesn’t feel like I’m coping at all.
There are a few obvious reasons for this decline in my mental health. I’m dealing with chronic pain from gallstones and sometimes it feels as if this alone has stolen huge chunks of my life. It stops me from fully enjoying fun activities and spending time with friends. I’m also reluctant to book tickets for events I would like to attend, because if my gallstones are playing up it will be a nightmare or if I have a bad episode, I would have to cancel anyway and lose money. In addition, gallstones symptoms interrupt my exercise routine, which is my main mental health management strategy. Missing a couple of workouts might not sound like a big deal to most people, but it’s akin to skipping antidepressants several days in a row – not advisable and potentially dangerous. My mental health gets worse when I’m less active, which means it’s harder to either get back to exercising or use other healthy coping strategies.
The surge in some of my symptoms is partly due to challenging myself in ways to which I’m not accustomed (understatement!). I completed an 8 month temporary job for a local youth mental health organisation which involved situations I find very difficult due to anxiety. While I’m proud to have stuck at it, there were many times when I thought they had made a mistake in hiring me and I felt I wasn’t good enough. I had hoped it would be a confidence-building challenge which could encourage me to seek more opportunities, but it led to a lot of self-doubt instead.
Finally, my Open University degree is going well, but while I’m pleased with my module results for the 2018/19 academic year, I wish I had been less stressed and more able to enjoy the process. Which is why, as my next modules are about to start, I want to recapture my enthusiasm.
Searching for motivation
Once I identified enthusiasm as something which would be beneficial, I turned to Google and typed “How to be more enthusiastic.” The search resulted in a lot of websites which churned out the same advice (this one is good but typical). As with a lot of wellbeing and self-improvement advice, some of it was very obvious but difficult to actually implement, especially if you have mental health problems. I know it’s important to sleep and eat well, for example, but depression and anxiety messes with both my sleeping and eating patterns.
However, one of the obvious options is exercise and I realised the importance of increasing my physical activity before my mood plummets further and makes it all but impossible. Exercise also helps me sleep better. Goal 1 of Project Enthusiasm was born: move more.
Moving more is easy in theory, but harder in practice. I was already sticking to my gym classes and walking the dogs at least 2 miles a day, but this isn’t enough to improve my mental health beyond the basic “get out of bed but zone out in from of the TV most of the day” level. To get the full benefits of exercise, I need to run at least 2/3 times a week. Running works for me in a way which other types of exercise simply don’t – I can slip into a kind of mindful meditation once I get into the rhythm of a run and focus on nothing but my current experience. Being free from the constant negative self-talk is a relief in itself, but then the serotonin increases after 15 minutes or so and I notice a shift in my mood.
So I have gotten back to running over the past couple of weeks and it’s working. No miracles have been wrought, but I’m a little less depressed and a little more motivated. Some of the runs have been very hard, but I force myself to start and each time I want to stop, I tell myself to try and run for 1 more minute. Often, this is every minute of the run. I have run slower than planned some sessions, but I have hit my mileage targets and these small achievements give me some confidence.
Note: I would never run through pain. When I tell myself to push through, it’s pushing through discomfort and while some of this discomfort is physical, it’s mostly mental. It’s a cliché to say people rarely regret a run (or different workout), but it’s true for me: I gain a sense of achievement from sticking to my plan and as someone who spent 20 years not being able to run far, I get a kick out of knowing I can keep going for a certain distance.
The other strategy for mustering enthusiasm which resonated with me is to explore whatever you find interesting. To cultivate a sense of curiosity. For me, studying psychology and writing fiction are important, yet I have been feeling disconnected from both of them. Finishing last year’s psychology modules was so stressful that I lost touch with my love of learning the subject; completing the assignments was a bigger priority than exploring topics. Writing got pushed aside as my health problems ate up bigger chunks of my time, although perhaps I’m also experiencing a lingering disappointment or grief over my last novel attempt not working out as I had hoped.
Reading is the most accessible inroad (for me) to reconnecting with both fiction and psychology, so I made it more of a priority. I cut down on watching TV and forced myself to pick up a book, despite my mental health affecting my concentration. As with exercising, I felt a sense of “use it or lose it” because while I love reading and learning, I was unable to read when my mental illness was at its worst. I feel guilty for saying this, since I’m a writer, but when you’re depressed and anxious, it’s far easier to switch on the TV or play games than to read – even while you are able to do so. However, once I started reading more (in both frequency of reading sessions and duration), it became easier to concentrate.
I chose to focus on reading because I didn’t want to pressure myself to write a certain number of words, but I’m easing back into writing mote. Again, nothing miraculous has occurred and I haven’t completed a novel in two weeks, but I’m a little more productive. Immersing myself in stories has brought some inspiration.
Similarly, getting a head start on my OU module materials has reminded me of why I decided to do a Psychology BSc. The subject is fascinating and I want to apply my knowledge to my own life, as well as (hopefully) using it to help others in the future. My career plans are still fuzzy, but I would like to improve people’s understanding of mental health and empower people who have mental health problems to achieve their own goals. I guess I’m reconnecting with my sense of purpose.
I’m two and a half weeks into Project Enthusiasm and I say this tentatively, but…there have been definite improvements. While I will probably never be the type of person who bounces out of bed excited to see what the day brings, I’m trying to act in more enthusiastic ways. For the most part, this means forcing myself to start a run or a book chapter – once I get going, momentum (or stubbornness!) usually gets me through. My mood isn’t fantastic, but I feel less wretched and excited to get stuck into the new academic year. I even found the motivation to blog!
I’m also trying to emphasise the positive aspects of my life, because it hasn’t been all doom and gloom this year. The best change is the fact that I’m typing this while sitting on my new bed, in my new, bigger bedroom – one of many advantages caused by my brother moving out! I feel very lucky to be studying psychology and despite the ridiculous bloating (thanks to my gallstones), I’m maintaining a weight which is the closest I’ve been to a healthy BMI for many years. Sure, I wish things were better, but at least I feel like I’m heading in the right direction.
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.